Zeke and Mark lived together.
I didn’t know they lived together when I agreed to hang out, but I guess I was expecting Zeke to just… be there anyway. And he was there, lounging on the sofa watching TV, phone in hand while he snacked on a bag of chips. It was hard to tell what show was playing; he kept the volume low.
I got a good look at him, now. Better than when we were only lit by the moon and headlights. His long locs were pulled up into a bun, though a few framed his face. He had a short fade in school, so it was different seeing him now. He was a bit taller, I think, and he curled up on the couch to fit. He wasn’t as tall as Mark. When he shifted to eat, I noticed his nails were painted pink. He’d changed. Different. I wished the town had been frozen in time like my bedroom. Mark liked the change, though, since he looked at Zeke as if the world didn’t exist. He put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a rub, breaking him from his trance, then turned back to me. I felt like I was invading an intimate moment. Like I should hide my face and look away. Mark cleared his throat.
We all stared awkwardly at each other for a moment. Mark looked between us. Zeke looked between us, chip halfway to his mouth. He quickly shoved it back in the bag and tossed it aside. He grinned and stood. I think he was smiling at me, but I didn’t smile back, though he didn’t seem to mind.
“Welcome home,” Zeke said.
Mark smiled again. “Are there any leftovers? Or should I cook?”
“You should cook,” he sat up slowly, stretching while he did so, and rolled up the bag. “We have stuff for stir fry, if you’re up for it.”
“Sure. Faust, you can wait here if you want,” Mark said, motioning for Zeke to follow him to the kitchen. “Or you can cut vegetables. I hate doing it. Zeke hates doing it.
“Please say you don’t hate doing it,” Zeke chimed in.
“I don’t hate doing it.”
It would be awkward in their living room alone, anyway, so I trailed after.
The kitchen was nice. It had everything you could want in a kitchen: oven, cabinets, stovetop, more cabinets, fridge, counter space. It was bigger than my sister’s kitchen, but not bigger than my husband’s, not that we used it. Mark fished vegetables out of the fridge. They were still fresh. Zeke sat at the kitchen table, chin resting on his hand. He watched Mark with an intense gaze, as if he wanted to know every movement of making stir fry, little smile on his face. Enthralled.
I watched because I needed instruction on what to cut. Mark simply passed me vegetables, board, a knife. He turned away to rinse rice, then put it in the cooker.
I felt eyes on me as I cut. Zeke’s eyes had left Mark, coming to a rest on me. My hands shook, knife unsteady. Was he going to say something? My technique had never been great. My husband never expected me to cook, so it hadn’t improved. I managed to cut carrots with his gaze burning the back of my skull. Sweat slid down my neck, my back. My hands.
Mark said something to him, but I couldn’t hear. I kept my head down, cut an onion. I cried. Then some peppers. Heard someone open a can of something. I glanced over, saw Zeke’s eyes still on my back. He looked me up and down. What was he looking at? There was something strange about me, I was sure of it. I looked weird. Was acting weird. Of course I was acting weird. I hadn’t seen them since high school.
My grip on the knife tightened. Too much, I guess. I brought the blade down, through a brilliant red bell pepper. I swallowed, glanced at Zeke again. He wasn’t looking at me and I wondered if I imagined it. When I looked back down, there was blood all over the cutting board from some stupid little cut. Some dumb little mistake. I hissed, then brought my finger to my mouth.
“Oh, shit, are you okay?” Mark said, abandoning staring at rice to rush to my side. He tugged my hand towards him, looking it over. “How bad is it? Hey, Zeke, can you grab a bandage?”
Zeke bolted up and out of the room while Mark fretted some more. It was strange. I pulled my back and rubbed it, smearing blood, then stuck it in the sink to rinse.
“It’s not so bad… I’ll be fine,” I said, holding it up. “See? Better.” Blood spilled again, running down my arm. “...”
“You sure…?” Mark looked unconvinced. I would’ve thought the same.
Zeke reappeared with a small blue pouch in hand. He unzipped it, handed off a bandage, then apologized. “Sorry, we only have flower patterned ones. Because Mark thought it would make me feel better to wear.”
“They’re cute! It boosts the spirit!” Mark insisted. “See, Faust, it’ll be fine!”
“Thanks…” I said, accepting Zeke’s offer. I dried off my finger, then put the bandage on. It… did make me feel a little better. I mustered up a smile. “He’s right. It’s cute. Why don’t you like them?”
“They don’t come in red,” Zeke pouted. “Red flowers have always been my favorite. It’s just a little disappointing, y’know? Like, they could’ve been perfect.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Well, next time I see a red bandage I’ll get you that. Geez.”
“Great! It’ll hide the blood!” Zeke grinned, then peered at the peppers on the cutting board. He dumped poor things into the sink, then grabbed the bowl of other veggies. “This is probably enough. Go ahead and sit down, Faust. Don’t want you getting hurt again.”
I couldn’t tell what he meant by that. It sounded like a joke. But it also sounded like he cared too much about something so small. Concern he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t a big deal… I sat down anyway, since I didn’t want to cause any more problems. If I cooked anything, I’d surely burn myself, or light something on fire or something stupid like that.
I slumped in one of the chairs, then put my head down. My body felt heavy, exhausted even though I’d slept all day. It was times like these that my husband would lecture me for sleeping too much. I had a feeling there was some truth to that, because I felt like shit. I could barely keep my eyes open. Everything hurt, but mostly my face. Mark and Zeke were careful their eyes never lingered too long on my face. They’d trail over the rest of my body, trying to avoid staring at that.
The sizzle of food brought me back to the present.
I raised my head and was greeted by Mark and Zeke huddled by the stove, talking quietly to each other while Mark stirred everything together. They laughed, shoulders brushing. Mark slapped Zeke on the back, throwing him off for a moment, but he recovered and snickered. Mark tossed the veggies around. They crackled.
I glanced away just as Mark looked over. “Are you good over there?” he asked.
I nodded. He settled down in the chair opposite me.
“Food’ll be done soon!” Zeke chimed in. “Thanks for helping out, Faust.”
I tried to give him a reassuring smile. I don’t know if what I did could really be considered helping. He talked to me just like he used to. Both of them did. It almost felt like I’d been transported back in time, where we were all kids shooting the shit and fooling around. Doing dumb stuff, getting hurt, but we’d all laugh it off and everything would be fine again. No consequences.
But there were consequences now. Expectations for an adult to be a certain way. Expectations I was never meeting. My mind drifted back to my sister as Zeke set a trivet on the table, gracefully placing the food on top. She would be mad about a lot of things tonight. My hand hurt thinking about it. The switch on the rice cooker clicked to warm; it was done. Mark grinned and got up to get it himself. Zeke plopped himself down with plates, handed one out to me. How mad would Beck be about my hand? I couldn’t even do dinner right.
I swallowed, chewed my lip, and avoided making eye contact for most of the meal. The food was good. Despite hating prep, Mark was a good cook. The seasoning was gentle, but flavorful. There wasn’t experimentation in it. Not tonight. But it was nice. I never knew he could cook, because he never did in high school.
Somehow it tasted like home.
My husband never did this sort of thing.
We ate in silence for a long time, the only sound was chewing and the sharp scraping of utensils on ceramic. I thought it would be awkward, but it wasn’t really. I preferred it to small talk. Every so often I looked up and they were smiling at me. It felt like they meant it.
Zeke broke the silence, “So, Faust, what have you been up to? I heard you went to the city.”
I wished he’d said something about himself. “Yeah…” I managed as I scooted the fork across the plate, drowning my voice.
“That’s so cool,” Mark put in. “I never pegged you as a city guy. Remember once he said he was gonna move by the pond?”
“So nobody would bug him!” Zeke laughed. “Yeah. Do you like the city? It seems… overwhelming.” He brushed a loc back from his face.
My fork scraped loudly. “Sometimes. It’s OK.”
We fell into silence again, this time more awkward than the last. My answers hung in the air. They didn’t know how to continue around my lack of enthusiasm.
Eventually, Mark spoke again. “We missed you, dude,” he smiled. “I know the city is kinda far, but you gotta come around! Fishing just isn’t the same…”
“I know! I heard you got married,” Zeke added, motioning to the expensive ring on my hand. “You gonna introduce him or what? He can tag along if he’s interested.”
“No!” I snapped, my fork grinding to a halt. “He… doesn’t like that sort of thing. He’s busy.”
“Right…” Mark said. “Sorry. You don’t have to do anything.”
“We were just curious! Sorry if it’s a sore spot,” Zeke added. “We’re… here for you, if you need it.”
His smile was too sweet. Like he knew what was up with my face he avoided looking at.
I chewed my lip again, then set my utensils down. They looked between each other, but I glanced away and stood, bringing my plate to the sink. I rinsed it, my hands shaking.
My husband would hate it here. It was too quiet for him. Too small. Too close. There weren’t belligerent people on the sidewalk, no bustle of honking cars, no gridlock, no brightly lit corridors, no obnoxious advertising, nothing. There was nothing for him here. The only thing here for me was gossip and everyone in my business.
I wished they’d talked about themselves. I should have asked, but I was standing over their sink now, staring into it, my back to them, my hands gripping the edge, and it would be weird to continue conversation like that.
“I work at the flower shop,” Zeke offered. “With Roselin. You know, our old English teacher. She quit to pursue gardening.”
“It’s very sweet. You should see him in the little uniform. Cutest thing ever,” Mark said.
“Hey! I like the pink apron. It looks good with my undertones. And it’s practical!”
“I didn’t say it didn’t!” Mark replied. “It’s cute. It suits you.”
I turned around slowly. They weren’t staring at me this time. Mark glanced over, though, and looked apologetic. Or maybe it was pity. At least he wasn’t asking questions.
“Cool,” I said. “Do you like it?”
“Yeah, totally!” Zeke turned, grinning. “I always loved helping my mom in the garden. There’s nothing better than the feeling of dirt under your nails.”
“That’s debatable,” Mark said. “There are literally so many things better and that feeling is horrible. You should be ashamed.”
I slowly settled back into the empty chair. “I agree.”
“See? Faust thinks so too. You weirdo,” Mark continued to tease. Zeke rolled his eyes.
“You do construction. Does that not happen?” he said.
“No, because I wear gloves like a sensible person.”
I cracked a smile. They really were best friends.
The conversation continued to steer in the direction of discussing their work. They didn’t ask me about what I did in the city. I wouldn’t have answered anyway, since I hadn’t quit my job when I left; I wondered if they’d care that I disappeared. Mark and Zeke continued on about their lives and I continued to try not to think about mine.
From the conversation I gathered some things had changed. Some people left, but some people stayed. Old Roselin did flowers now, like they said. The other teachers were the same. Lindsay, miss popular, stuck around. So did her boyfriend. They were often a topic, because they were still together and still hosting most of the parties. Jared only hosted a few now; he had a kid. I couldn’t imagine him being a father. His girlfriend was from upstate.
I thought about what they’d look like. The same, but older. Just a bit. Like Mark. Like Zeke. Maybe I’d recognize them if I saw them. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe they’d recognize me. I hoped not, because I didn’t want them to approach me and ask where I’d been. They’d all moved on and were living their lives. I didn’t need to be involved. I didn’t want them to see what I’d become. My eye hurt.
Dinner came to an end when Zeke cleared the table. Mark told me he wanted to hang out again, that we should all go down to the pond. Go fishing one day. They had time in a couple days. I didn’t give him an answer, just shrugging. I don’t think I remembered how to fish.
A text cuts Mark off before he could ask anything else. It was my sister, questioning why I was out so late and when I’d be home. We had something to talk about, she said. Don’t be late, she said. I needed to come home now and address this properly, she said. Stop avoiding, stop fooling around, stop being a child. You’re a grown ass man, so act like it.
I told her I was leaving. Be home soon.
She didn’t respond back.
Mark and Zeke looked sad to see me go. They kept saying they wanted to hang out again. I felt like I was intruding on a life I wasn’t involved in. So I just said goodbye, denied Mark’s offer to drive, and walked the mile home.
The night was calm. Quiet. One car drove past me. It was a reminder the city was far behind me. The stars hung above, much more brilliant than the city’s ever were, though not as bright as in the mountains. Sometimes a tree obscured my view. It was different than when a skyscraper did. A gentle breeze rattled the leaves and messed up my hair. I smoothed it down as I walked. The rhythmic scrape of my shoes on pavement was soothing.
When I got home, Beck was waiting for me. She stood in front of the door, arms folded over her chest, frown deep on her face.
“Faust. Talk. Now.”