Authors: R. Cooper
.” Judith sighed dramatically and loudly, in a perfect imitation of their mother, which meant long on guilt and short on any obvious signs of affection. Vincent rolled his eyes in understanding even though his sister wouldn’t see it through the phone. He’d refused to call their mother for that very reason, but Judith always felt the need to try to have a good relationship with her for the sake of the kids. Why, Vincent had never really understood considering their mother did nothing but pick on the boys for perceived failings.
“That’s what she said to me when I told her I wasn’t going to bring the kids out there for the holidays if she couldn’t behave herself. As though Thanksgiving gives her the right to force us to listen to her poison. I swear she always calls me during the big holidays just to add to my stress.” Judith was winding down now. He could tell because the two of them had shared many, many similar conversations over the years.
Vincent took the opportunity to move his phone to his other ear and finally get out of his car. His sister had called while he’d been pulling into the apartment complex lot, and he’d stayed in his car to talk to her because there had been a family gathered out in front of the complex packing suitcases and bags into their car in preparation for a trip. Vincent didn’t recognize them from his part of the building, but that didn’t mean they didn’t live there, and there wasn’t anything more awkward than encountering people who knew him and assumed he knew them when he had no idea who they were. Although once he’d seen someone from his high school in a mall and no matter where he ducked, he’d run into them over and over again. Neither of them had known what to say to each other the first place, and by the end they had gone from stiltedly smiling at each other in acknowledgement to pretending not to see each other.
“Vin, you there? You know you don’t have to take her call if she calls you. You shouldn’t spend your holiday with someone who will make you miserable.”
Vincent stopped with his hand on the hood of his car, then frowned. “Why would I be spending Thanksgiving with Mom?” he wondered aloud, and didn’t like how quiet Judith got.
“So… you know how I told you James might have to work? Well, he does. Yeah, it sucks,” Judith added, when Vincent made an unhappy sound on James’s behalf. “There’s more money in it, but it still sucks. But we decided, with his hours and everything, I might as well take the boys to his parents’ house to have Thanksgiving there.” She paused when Vincent made another noise. Vincent glanced around in case any of his neighbors had heard him making a weird, growly sound of disappointment. They already thought he was strange enough. He hurried on to the collection of mailboxes for his side of the complex and dug out his mailbox key.
“You are welcome there,” Judith continued, raising her voice as if she wanted to be heard over Vincent’s inner panic. “Of course you are. You know you are. They like you, Vin. I know this is short notice, and you would already have had to get up early-early to drive up to see me, and this would add time to that. But you can come up here the night before if you want. It’s still a lot of driving. But you are welcome to come.”
A hushed footfall behind him distracted Vincent from responding that her husband’s parents, while friendly and polite, expected him to talk about things like sports, and thinking of things to say to them left him more exhausted than when he tried to jog. He turned and immediately made eye contact with his neighbor from down the hall. The guy from 223 had one hand on his bike as he walked up, and he smiled at Vincent before he stopped to dig around his backpack for the key to his own mailbox.
His mailbox was by Vincent’s. Vincent spent a moment wondering if he should move faster to get out of his way, or slower so he wouldn’t look like he was running from him, then silently cursed when an abortive, jerky motion led to him dropping leaflets and bills to the ground and slamming his mailbox closed.
“Vincent, you aren’t speaking.” Judith was getting even louder. The short, open hall for the mailboxes was empty except for the two of them, so the man from 223 was going to hear her every word. “Vincent, I need to know you’re okay. I want to see you, you know that. The boys want to see you too. They think you’re the best because you let them watch
Night of the Living Dead
on Halloween—and thank you for that, by the way. Despite the nightmares, they both have zombie fever now.”
Vincent scraped his mail off the floor and glanced back as he straightened. The guy from 223 slid him a careful look as he smoothly opened his own mailbox. It wasn’t often Vincent was close enough to his neighbor to see his eyes up close, but they were magnificent. All of him was, but his eyes were something special, at least to Vincent. It wasn’t the color, although they were a deep, warm shade of brown that made him think of blanket forts and toasted marshmallows. What Vincent found especially appealing about them was the expression in them, the suggestion at the corners that indicated their owner was always ready to smile.
The man was probably laughing at Vincent, but if he was, at least he tried to hide it. Vincent quickly dropped his gaze to the soft outline of his belly beneath his plaid, button-down dress shirt, which he had optimistically bought because the sales girls told him it brought out the green in his hazel eyes. Now he realized he probably had the appearance of a flushed lumberjack. No, not even that. He probably looked like a chubby chipmunk. He tried not to think about the man from 223’s rolled-up pant leg and how it revealed hard muscle from all the bike riding he did. There was a healthy glow to the man’s dark brown skin, a tantalizing hint of perspiration although the man wasn’t breathing hard. His arms were bare, as they usually were unless he cycled home in the freezing cold or the rain, and he still had on his smock from the florist where he worked. If Vincent were closer, he’d able to smell the scent of flowers that clung to him.
“It’s not a big deal,” Vincent said at least, trying to simultaneously keep his voice low and be firm enough to interrupt Judith before her guilt took over and she ended up driving down here. They both knew Vincent wasn’t going to make a crazy long drive just to spend a few awkward hours at her in-laws. They also both knew that he had nowhere else to go unless it was to their mother’s—which wasn’t happening, for his mental well-being—or to their aunt and uncles, where he would be the overweight, perpetually single, gay cousin who couldn’t make conversation and who wrote books none of them knew how to talk about. “I’ll just stay home for the holiday. It’s fine. I’ll get some work done.”
Vincent’s life was so, so sad. He hurried on, hoping against hope that the man from 223 wouldn’t follow and hear every pathetic word, but as he walked the edge of the small yard of winding paths and shady trees to the back stairs, he heard the clicking spin of the bike’s wheels as the other man walked behind him, leading his bike rather than speeding through the courtyard the way ruder people did.
“Work?” He had to pull the phone from his ear at how Judith yelled. “Vincent, promise me right now you aren’t going to end up eating pumpkin ice cream and drinking.”
“I promise,” Vincent promised dutifully. Maybe he could buy a pie instead of a carton of ice cream, even if pumpkin pie ice cream was only available this time of year and utterly delicious. “Quit making it sound so awful,” he added a moment later, for the sake of his pride. “You’d kill to relax on my couch with me with wine and ice cream.”
“But not on Thanksgiving, Vin!” Judith huffed. “Hey,” she went on, drawing out the word, and Vincent stopped on the stairs while all kinds of alarm bells rang in his head.
“What about Taylor?” she suggested brightly. “I know you claim you two are friends, but, come on….”
Vincent slid a hand under his glasses to scrub at his eyes. A polite throat clearing behind him reminded him that he was blocking the stairs, and he dashed up the rest of the way, huffing and puffing a bit and fully aware he was now red-faced and obviously embarrassed. He kept himself busy searching for his door key instead of looking up to see any pity in his neighbor’s face or to stare at the muscles in the guy from 223’s arms as he hefted his bike up the stairs. Pretty and slender, the man had the kind of muscle tone that came from regular, everyday exercise instead of a gym. Vincent felt like a big, fuzzy teddy bear around him, not that he thought someone like that was interested in any bears, cuddly or otherwise.
friends,” he corrected his sister after too long of a pause, and had to clear his throat to do it. “But he’s probably doing something with Wes’s family. You know, his
?” Apparently it was Vincent’s day to be reminded of exactly how alone he was in the world. He loved the holidays. Now he really was going to eat an entire pie and drink.
At the top of the stairs he turned and noticed that the guy from 223 was taking his time passing him to get to his own door. Vincent isolated his door key at last, then promptly sent it and his mail once again tumbling to the floor. Why wasn’t he drunk right now was the question.
“Look, I have to go. I’ll call you on the day, okay? Tell James hi and tell the boys that,” Vincent whispered the rest in the spookiest voice he could manage, “I’m coming to get them!”
“I hate you and I love you!” Only his sister could manage being that annoyed and protective at the same time. She made a kissing sound because Vincent wasn’t close enough for her to grab him and embarrass him with a kiss to the cheek. “You had better call me.”
“I love you too,” Vincent told her stiffly in return, conscious of his audience all over again when he straightened and saw the man from 223 smiling at him. Judith hung up with an offended harrumph and Vincent took too long to remember he could now put his phone away.
Of course, without his phone, he had no shield from moments like these. This was like every moment of forced conversation with a neighbor you didn’t know but wanted to stay on good terms with, combined with Vincent’s usual inability to speak around anyone he was attracted to.
It wasn’t this guy’s fault that Vincent was kind of half in love with how he always smelled like flowers and the polite, thoughtful way he moved through the complex, sure in where he was going, but keeping an eye out for others too.
Vincent was going to turn into that creepy, staring guy any second now. He was going to have to face his neighbor’s cheekbones, and the line of his shoulders, and the black, curled, soft-looking halo of his natural hair, and then his throat would lock. Words would vanish from his vocabulary.
The hallway was shady despite the early afternoon sun, but not shady enough to hide Vincent’s flushed skin. He decided to end it all as quickly as he could. “Hey,” he greeted the other man simply, after licking his lips and considering maybe adding a nod of acknowledgement. He could pretend his handsome neighbor hadn’t heard him on the phone just now, laying out every detail of his lonely life.
“Hey,” the guy from 223 greeted in him in return, his smile growing wide enough to make Vincent’s heart beat faster. Before Vincent could make his escape, the guy spoke again. “Any plans for the holiday?” he asked, and put his bike down while he waited for the answer.
Vincent froze. “You heard me?” He was too tense for the question to come out properly, and it made him sound rude and wooden. Despite that, he was fully prepared to pretend none of it had ever happened and to let his friendly, attractive, perfect neighbor go inside to his apartment, where he and his roommate could discuss Vincent and laugh about what a loser he was. But now the smile was slowly slipping from the man’s face.
“I mean, yes,” Vincent corrected himself, and scratched at his short beard. “I was making plans. Are you… that is to say, will you have to work? More and more people are working now. On Thanksgiving, I mean. When they shouldn’t have to.”
At least no one else was around to witness this. Vincent tensed with the urge bolt inside his apartment and clutched his key tighter.
The guy from 223 lifted his eyebrows, but what was left of his smile stayed in place. “Soon it won’t be any kind of holiday for anyone,” he agreed slowly, and inclined his head toward Vincent. He had a voice like hot tea with sugar. “But then, considering what happened after the first Thanksgiving, maybe we should have picked a different reason to make into a national day to eat too much and avoid our families.”
Vincent let out a small, surprised cough. “That could be every day,” he remarked, then lowered his head when the other man laughed. His cheeks were hot and he wasn’t entirely sure what his face was doing. He’d never expected he’d make the other man laugh.
He tried to think of how to make it happen again, but when he looked up and found he was being watched expectantly, his every thought stuttered to a stop and he reverted to the panic mode always lurking in the back of his mind, waiting for a chance to take over.
He swallowed, suddenly dry-mouthed, and flipped through his keys to hide any shaking in his hands. Then he bobbed his head in farewell and fled, there was no other word, to his door. Thankfully, he didn’t drop anything else and he had the right key, so he didn’t make any worse of an impression than the one he’d already left.
“See you around!” he called out without turning around, and quickly closed the door behind him before he could say anything else stupid. “See you around?” he repeated to himself in disbelief, and thumped his forehead against the door. All that did was push his glasses into his face and send more of his messy, mousy hair over his eyes, so he moved away to wallow in self-loathing some place where it wouldn’t damage his frames.