Mike entered the coffee shop with an effervescence he hadn’t felt in a long time – for an entire three months. He scanned the patrons of the shop, separating the singles from the girlfriends from the couples, a practice that was second nature. He instinctively homed in on the lonely ones. Counted them wherever he went. They were his tribe. Unfortunately, the only singles he usually counted in most rooms was himself.
But not today. Not for two whole months. He entered the coffee shop by himself but he was a spoken-for man, and he couldn’t wait to tell his roommate just how spoken for he was.
Mike spotted him at the end of the busy coffee bar, at the smallest table where baristas whipped by every two minutes. Mike had just gotten use to seeing Tony in his EMT uniform. Now Mike had to re-adjust, all over again to seeing Tony in a shirt and tie, a shirt with a collar, on a regular basis. Having known Tony since freshman year of college, Mike had always known Tony to be a devout jeans and T-shirt guy. So the visual contradiction was mildly disorienting, every time.
The small table was tucked into a notch in the wall, giving it the look and feel of a booth. Claustrophobic.
Despite their close proximity, Tony didn’t seem to notice him either. He was rapt in his latest project. Rapt a measure too deeply Mike thought. Yes, he would definitely have to do something about that. Before Mike came close enough to catch Tony’s eye, his roommate’s phone rang. Mike eased into the last empty chair at the bar with his back to Tony’s nook, knowing exactly what the call was probably about.
“Hello? You saw what?”
Mike began grinning, savoring the priceless sound of helplessness in Tony’s voice. It killed Tony to not be able to fix anything and everything.
“Sorry, the vacancy is filled. Sure, thanks.” Mike watched Tony thumb at his keypad and frown at the cell. His strange expression of curiosity and resolve spurred a loud chuckle, finally making Tony aware of his presence.
“Did you put an ad on Craigslist?” Tony demanded confused.
He stared at Mike with such earnest, with those beautiful clear brown eyes. Mike had to remind himself he wasn’t taken by them anymore. He waltzed to the table, fitting himself into the nook barely big enough for the two. “You can’t afford this place without a roommate.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “I don’t need a roommate.”
“He’s giving me keys tonight.” Mike beamed. He watched Tony look up with controlled surprise, as if he were expecting it, but not really. He should have been. Mike had been warning Tony for exactly two months that this was coming. Lance was the first guy in a long time that made Mike forget his attraction to Tony, almost.
“I forbid you to go,” Tony answered, returning to his writing.
“Forbid me?” Mike feigned shock. “You’re not my mother.”
“Guess again.” Retorted, returning to his project. Tony’s lack of engagement was taking all the fun out of this for Mike. So he decided to abandon the levity and get what he wanted from Tony. Well, maybe not. That ship had sailed. But Mike could at least get Tony to agree with him, just this once.
“Lance is the one.”
“He’s a tool,” Tony bit back. “I don’t care how many times he can make you cum in an hour.”
“I never should have told you that.”
“Didn’t have to. Mother knows everything.”
Mike watched the smirk blossom on Tony’s lips and fought it’s disarming power. “I’m not that easily whipped you know.”
“Yes you are.”
“He’s got all sorts of other great qualities.”
“No he doesn’t.”
“You’re never happy for me.”
Tony set his pen down, giving Mike his full attention. “Dude, I’m super happy you’re getting laid properly. But don’t ask me to lie and say this p… person, is good for anything more than that.”
Mike didn’t remember stretching his arm across the back of the booth, so the feel of Tony’s shoulder under his thumb was a small delight. It was so 80s, so Some Kinda Wonderful. He was the outsider tomboy drummer completely in love with the beautiful boy next door. But he decided a few years back, after a painfully misguide kiss at a Halloween party, that he would settle for a rich, sometimes sticky, more or less steady friendship with Tony; just to be close to the one he loved. Only Mike was way too far outside the nerd curve to be anywhere near as cool as Mary Stuart Masterson.
He knew his curly brown comedy hair and crooked nose made him the King of Average White Guys. And Tony, well, lots of people wanted Tony – guys and girls alike. Mike knew his friendship with Tony was more than most of them would ever have.
Mike suddenly felt the excess roll of guts sitting atop each other and he instantly straightened in his seat, stricken with a paranoid certainty that everyone in the café could see it. He refocused on Tony, who had returned to his Everest of manila folders.
“How many jobs do they have you doing?” he demanded.
“Just one but…”
“Going the extra marathon again? Jeez Tony…”
“Look.” Mike watched Tony scoot closer to the table, happy that he had an audience. “Douglas High School. They used their annex for expecting teenaged moms. It was a high school, a day care and a vocational program all wrapped in one. Graduated hundreds of girls; three in five even make it to college.”
“I know it’s a great program,” Mike answered, happy it was his turn to use a tone of complacency. “But what does that have to do with your new job?”
“Classes are coming in all this week for their pre-natal check-ups.”
Mike frowned. “Sooo, what does that have to do with your new job?”
“The enrollment limit is so low. They only take ten girls a year.”
“You’re really gonna make me ask three times?”
“I was looking for a way to expand the program.”
“Because we need to.”
“Maybe we could look for corporate matching funds or something.”
“What are you doing?”
“This is not your job. Your job is to wait until a doctor pages you so you can assess the risk level of potentially dangerous conditions, public or domestic, for incoming patients. That’s your job. No more, no less. I don’t understand why you feel the need to take all this on.”
“The chief of staff wants us to be hands on and involved with the community,” Tony insisted. “we’ve gotta get them to trust us.”
“Then let him hire a community outreach coordinator.”
“I don’t mind.”
Tony…” Mike paused, deciding if he should bring it up; he decided he couldn’t open an old wound that refused to heal in the first place. “I know staying busy helps, but you’re gonna run yourself into the ground just trying to avoid thinking about it.”
Tony stared at him, a deer in headlights. They both knew what Mike was talking about. They both knew he was right.
Mike watched Tony forfeit his chance at denials. He leaned in, trying to see Tony’s face. “Why don’t you call him?”
“That wouldn’t be a good idea right now,” Tony said, as if reading from a cue card.
“It’s been six months.”
“He’s in recovery,” Tony mumbled. “I can’t do anything to mess that up. Contact has to be on his terms.”
“Did his sponsor tell you that?”
“Yeah. And that’s what they said at Al-Anon too.”
Tony sat back in the booth, resting his head against Mike’s arm, letting it roll against his shoulder.
Mike fought the urge to close his arms around Tony, to capture more of his closeness. This moment was about their friendship. Don’t ruin it!
“I see him in the halls sometimes at St. Agnes,” Tony said sadly. “He just turns and walks in the other direction.”
“So he needs more time. So do you, even if you won’t admit it.”
“Really? When’s the last time you hit the books for the MCATs?”
“When’s the last time you looked for a university position?”
“I have three classes that actually seem enthusiastic about applied biology. They’ve renewed my faith community college. For the moment. And don’t change the subject. When?”
“I’ll get to it.”
“You know sabotaging yourself won’t change anything,” Mike chided. “You have to stop punishing yourself.”
“No Mike. I should punish myself.”
Mike heard the pain and insistence in Tony’s voice. He was averting his eyes so Mike couldn’t see; still ashamed, determined to take full responsibility for what had happened six months ago. It was another contradiction he grappled with lately. Tony was always the one to patch up his battered emotions. Tony was the strong one, the confident one. Yet this irony role reversal persisted for months now. Mike wasn’t sure if he was any good at eh role of the comforter. But moment-to-moment, in moments like this, he would figure it out.
Mike took a folder and perused its contents. “You know, grant writing, corporate sponsorship, all that stuff is a full time job. Maybe, instead of trying to become great at something overnight, you could find someone who already does it and have them volunteer their time.”
“That’s a good idea,” Tony confessed. His fatigue was slowly surfacing. Mike found it deeply endearing.
He scratched at Tony’s scalp affectionately. “Ha. Looks like mother doesn’t know everything after all.”
NEXT CHAPTER: Chapter 8: Heidi