Amanda snapped the lid off the green Tupperware container in her lap and plucked a strawberry from the top, licking it once before popping it into her mouth. She looked over at me from the passenger seat and smiled.
“Want one, Ben?” she asked, motioning at the container with sticky fingers. I kept my eyes on the road but reached over and tenderly squeezed her bare knee.
“No thanks, hon.”
She replaced the lid and licked her fingers. She took a deep breath and adjusted the vents so that the stream of cool air was blowing directly on her forehead, where beads of sweat had gathered below her hairline. Thick strands of damp, dark hair clung to her temples and above her ears. “I sure hope Jake likes coconut,” she said, peering down at the bowl in her lap.
“I think he does.” I had no idea, but I didn’t want her to worry. I reached over and squeezed her knee again, this time turning to meet her eyes. “Everything will go just fine.”
She nodded. “Do you know if his roommate’s going to be there, too?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s just us.”
I picked up the scrap of paper from the dashboard and double-checked the address.
Though Jake had lived there for nearly nine months, it was the first time I’d visited. I hated feeling like such a stranger, such an outsider. I suppose I could have stopped by before, without an invitation, like I always used to do, but something about it didn’t feel quite right anymore. Lately, most of our increasingly infrequent communication was by phone, or by e-mail if he’d remembered to pay the Internet bill that month, and it was almost always out of necessity. Last month, he e-mailed me with a legal question. The month before, I called him to double-check the dates of an upcoming music festival. Interactions were brief and to the point, and I preferred it that way. It assured that we’d always have something to talk about.
I turned left into the small parking lot next to his apartment building. From the outside, the five-story brown building was plain and somewhat run-down, not unlike the one Amanda and I had been sharing for the previous year and a half. When I first told Jake that Amanda and I were moving in together, he snickered and scarcely raised his eyes from the issue of Rolling Stone he was reading. He pointed out that our moving day was months away and wondered how I could be so sure that we’d still be together. He had long believed that people weren’t meant to spend their entire lives dedicated to one person, that the very notion was ridiculous. It was a view we’d shared until I met Amanda. Seven months ago, when I saw Jake at Pete’s Pita Palace and told him that she and I were engaged, he chewed on his thumbnail a bit before looking up at me, and, with a shrug, responded, “Oh.”
His response stung, but not much. After nearly seven years of friendship, it was what I had come to expect from him. Jake had never been one to hide his feelings, and for some time I considered it one of his more admirable qualities. I coveted his ability to question others’ assertions, my own included, and I saw his opinionated personality as a much-needed challenge to myself rather than a character flaw in Jake. Lately, though, he had become palpably hostile. It seemed as though he were looking for conflict instead of looking for answers.
Amanda turned towards me as I shut off the ignition. Her dark blue eyes smiled, but I could recognize a slight tinge of uneasiness. I leaned over and kissed her lips softly. “Well, here we go. Hope the food’s good.”
She folded the sun visor back against the tan roof of the car and opened the door, clutching the fruit salad tightly against her body with one arm. As we climbed the stairs towards his apartment, I grasped her free hand in my own. I knocked twice on the door of apartment 1B and, for an instant, feared that I’d written down the wrong number. My palms began to sweat as I heard a faint rustling behind the door, followed by a heavy turn of the lock and sloppy unfastening of the chain. Jake opened the door and smiled, the kind of smile in which his lips turn up at the corners but his mouth stays shut. He was wearing a green t-shirt with a torn chest pocket and brown cargo shorts, and his shaggy light-brown hair appeared as though it hadn’t been combed, much less washed, since I’d last seen him.
“Hey, Ben,” he greeted me. “Hey, Amanda. How’s it goin’?”
“Good,” we replied in unison, and laughed.
“I made fruit salad to have with dinner. I sure hope you like coconut, because I put some in.” Amanda held out the bowl to him.
“I like coconut, but you didn’t have to bring anything. I didn’t bring anything when I came to your house for dinner.” He paused, then relaxed his furrowed brow and repeated the closed-mouth smile. “Thanks, though.”
We took off our shoes and stood awkwardly by the door, realizing as we searched for a place to put them that Jake had his on. Neither of us knew whether to keep them off and shove them into the corner, or, after surveying the layer of grime covering the both the vinyl floor and the mottled-blue carpet, put them back to avoid soiling our socks. With a quick glance at each other, we decided to leave our shoes off, hoping not to draw out the moment longer than we had already.
“So what’s up?” Jake asked as he walked through the living room towards the kitchen, signaling with his arm for us to follow. We followed him, pausing to take a look at the living room.
“Cool painting.” Amanda walked across the room to get a closer look at the artwork hanging by the window. It appeared to be an oil painting; large, abstract brown lines juxtaposed with scattered yellow and green circular splotches. “Where’d you get it?”
“Garage sale,” Jake replied. “Actually, my sister bought it for me. She said she thought it would match the room.”
It matched quite well. It flattered the washed-out brown couch in the corner that stood underneath the painting, and the tan recliner opposite the couch was cloaked in a pale green fleece blanket that, while it didn’t match perfectly with the color in the painting, complemented the splotches and completed the space. A handsome oak coffee table in the center of the room, aligned with the television in front of it, was strewn with magazines, and a brimming green glass ashtray teetered precariously on the edge.
I walked into the kitchen, unnecessarily guiding Amanda with a hand on her lower back. We stood next to the table—a small, folding card table pushed into the corner next the refrigerator. Our kitchen was small, but Jake’s was even smaller. There was hardly room for the three of us; we stood clumsily, pressing ourselves against the chairs, painfully aware of the space each arm and leg occupied.
The air was thick with the aroma of garlic and onions and a hearty, smoky scent that I didn’t recognize, though it spoke to my stomach, and my stomach rumbled in reply. Jake was stirring a tall metal stockpot with a wooden spoon. “I made vegetable stew,” he said proudly. “Found a recipe on the Internet.”
“Sounds great.” I remarked, and Amanda nodded earnestly. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Nah, I don’t think so. I got it.” He opened the cupboard above his head and grabbed an unlabeled bottle of seasoning. He shook a generous amount into the stew, then turned to us. “So what have you guys been up to lately?”
He spoke to us both at the same time, looking from me to Amanda and back to me again with each word. I went first. “I’ve just been so busy lately finishing everything up. I had my last class on Wednesday and my final exams are coming up next week. I have to study all weekend long. It’ll be pretty miserable.” I paused and breathed in deeply. Jake smirked. I ignored him and continued. “And after that, I’ll have to study for the bar exam. I can’t wait ‘til I’m through with it all.”
Jake stared blankly at the spice bottle and nodded almost undetectably. I don’t even know why he asked what I’d been up to. He knew what I’d been up to, and he knew he wouldn’t approve of my answer. He had made that clear the first time we discussed our post-undergrad plans three years ago. He announced that he had found a position as an assistant manager at the Barnes and Noble across town, and I affirmed my plans to apply to law school. He replied with an “Ohh,” stretching it over three or four syllables and raising his voice an octave. He went on to congratulate me on my prospective marriage to corporate America, and though I heatedly informed him I had no such intentions and that my moral compass would remain right on track, he nodded and squinted in a manner I’d come to understand meant he was through listening. I left shortly after, abandoning my unfinished can of Molsen. We dropped acid together three days later, tacitly setting aside our differences in favor of more important pursuits.
“Want to smoke a bowl before dinner?” Jake covered the stew with a lid and set the spoon on the counter.
“Sure,” I replied, and Amanda seconded my response. After the way Jake reacted to my answer, Amanda’s answer—that she had been toiling away as a gofer at a local magazine publisher—was futile. I was grateful for Jake’s suggestion—anything to switch the focus and bring us back to some common ground. We followed him into the living room.
Jake retrieved a glass piece and a plastic bag from a box underneath the couch and sat down in the chair, leaving the couch for Amanda and me. Amanda folded her legs beneath her and settled in near the end and I sat down in the middle, hoping Jake would notice the symbolic space I had left between us. Jake used a remote control to turn on the stereo. I wondered what he would choose; our musical tastes weren’t always aligned. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew soon filled the air, the soft, erratic rhythm steadily building in tension.
As Jake carefully pinched off bits of green and arranged them in the bowl, I cleared my throat and decided to try again, maybe get him talking this time. “So what have you been up to, Jake?”
“The usual. Work and stuff. I’m thinking of taking a vacation.” He didn’t look up as he continued packing.
“Oh? You mean like time off from work?” Amanda asked.
“No. To France. I want to travel. I went there once with my parents when I was younger, but I want to see it again. I told my dad and he said they’d probably help me out.”
France. I’d never left the country, save a handful of trips to Canada, and neither had Amanda. “Wow, how nice of them. That’ll sure be fun.” I tried as best I could to hide any resentment that may have been spilling over into my voice.
“Yeah.” He finished and looked up. “I mean, they keep saying they aren’t going to do stuff like that anymore, but the other day my mom said she’d help me out with rent until the end of the summer, since I’m only working part-time and all.”
I nodded, unsure how to respond. The distance between us was as large as if he were already in France. I owed over sixty thousand dollars in student loans, and Amanda worked full-time to make enough money for rent and groceries. I watched her lips purse and knew from experience that she was trying hard not to let her thoughts escape her mouth.
Jake picked up the pipe, lit it, and inhaled deeply, waiting a few seconds before exhaling. He passed it to me and I did the same. It had been over a month since I last smoked, and I stifled a cough. I passed to Amanda and looked at Jake. “Have you been dating anyone since…what was that girl’s name? Karen?”
“Krystal, and no, not really. I’m totally over her, but she comes into the store every once in a while and tries to talk to me. It’s really fucking annoying. I don’t know what she wants me to say to her.”
“Maybe she needs closure. Did you tell her that the relationship is definitely over?” Amanda blew a stream of smoke towards the open window.
“More or less.”
We sat in silence, smoking, absorbing the music, basking in the thick, unsympathetic silence. It hadn’t always been like this. Our friendship had been effortless; silence had been innocent, rather a relief. Jake was the first person in my dorm to talk to me freshman year. The day after I moved in, he stopped me on the way to the bathroom and asked if I wanted help him find someone to buy us beer. He looked me in the eye when he spoke, smiling widely as though we were old friends, and I instantly felt at ease. By the time we managed to find some beer, we already had made plans together for the upcoming weekend. Even when Amanda first entered the picture— appearing two years later at a party of a mutual friend, smiling at me from across the room until Jake persuaded me to go talk to her—she was a welcome addition to our company. She easily merged with my and Jake’s group of often fluctuating friends, spending countless nights drinking, smoking, and otherwise freely experimenting with whatever we had managed to get our hands on.
Little passed but time. My relationship with Amanda flourished, and instead of spending every weekend hopping from party to party with Jake, we started to value more subdued ways of unwinding. While his social life flourished, I struggled for words to explain my growing lack of interest in the scene. Weekly revelries with Jake quickly turned biweekly, then erratic. He dropped by my apartment on occasion, and Amanda or I would invite him over from time to time, but something intangible had fallen out of line, and I didn’t have the slightest idea how to put it back in place.
Jake examined the bowl, then tapped it over the ashtray and set it on the table. He pick up the crumpled plastic bag, then, as if he had changed his mind, set it down again and leaned back in the chair, stretching his arms over his head. “So…dinner?”
My stoned body felt hazy and heavy and reluctant to move, though my stomach, now wrenching with hunger, was a persuasive force.
“I’m starving,” Amanda said as she straightened out her legs to slowly stand up.
“Me too.” I rose to my feet and followed them into the kitchen.
Jake set out three plastic bowls and a handful of mismatched spoons and knives. He took the lid off the pot, set a loaf of bread on the table, and sliced it into large, awkward pieces, instructing us to help ourselves. I went first, ladling the thick, steaming broth into my bowl, carefully balancing my bread on the rim. Amanda followed my lead. Jake put his bread in the bowl first, then covered it with stew, sloshing mushy carrots and potatoes onto the counter. “I’ll get that later,” he assured us, setting his overflowing bowl on the table and brushing aside the piles of papers and crumbs that covered it.
The food was quite good. We were gratefully preoccupied with the meal, leaving little need for conversation aside from the occasional request to past the pepper or the salt or the bread. At one point Amanda asked him for a napkin, and Jake looked at her for a moment with a puzzled expression before replying, “Oh…uh…I think we’re out.”
When the last of the soup had been sopped up by crusts of bread, and fingers wiped clean by shirtsleeves, Amanda leaned back in the chair and rubbed her belly. “That was really great, Jake.”
“Not as good as what you made for me, with the home-baked bread and all.” The words were complimentary but his tone had an edge, vague and impossible to pinpoint.
“Sure it is. It’s better. I really love the stew.” She stabbed a cherry with her fork.
“Thanks for bringing the fruit salad,” Jake said flatly.
We piled our dishes in the sink and returned to the living room, following Jake’s lead. Now that what we had come for was finished, I was clueless as to how to proceed. I couldn’t decide if he wanted us to leave, or, if we did leave right away, whether it would be rude. When he came to our apartment for dinner, we’d smoked and watched TV and offered him a beer, but now he didn’t turn on the TV or offer us a beer, and we had already smoked. I looked to Amanda for help, but she returned my quizzical stare with a nearly identical one. We sat down on the couch and Jake reclaimed his seat on the chair.
“So what did you do today? Did you spend any time outside? The weather was awesome.” Jake addressed us both.
This time Amanda went first. “No, I wanted to, but I was pretty busy all day—laundry, cleaning, a few errands—I had to mail a package at the post office. Ben has been studying non-stop so I’m trying to keep the apartment in one piece.” She smiled at me when she said that, and though it was true, it was the last thing Jake needed to hear.
“Ohh,” he said knowingly. “And you, Ben?”
“I studied pretty much all day. Took a break to pack up a few things.”
Jake shook his head. “Such a great day. Too bad you couldn’t manage to fit in some time outdoors. I walked around in the sun all afternoon, it was so nice.”
Silence. Amanda reached down and picked up The New Yorker from the coffee table, leafing through it mindlessly; it could have easily been upside-down and she probably wouldn’t have noticed. Jake stared at her for a moment, expressionless, then turned and asked me, “So when are you guys moving again?”
“August, probably. After I graduate, we’ll be able to get over there and look at houses more often. We won’t start planning our wedding until then either. The five-hour drive has been hard to do while I’ve been in school.”
“So you’re still planning on buying a house, are you?” he asked snidely. We had been through this before, and I wasn’t about to get into it again.
“Yes, we are,” I snapped, making clear with my tone that I had no plans of discussing it further.
Amanda tossed the magazine back onto the table. “What are you doing this weekend, Jake? Any plans?”
He nodded. “Tomorrow I’m going to a music festival. Actually, it’s the one we went to last year together, the one with all the local folk musicians.”
Amanda nodded, too. “Yeah, I remember that. That was a lot of fun. Who are you going with?”
“Some friends from work.”
“Yeah. What about you? Any crazy plans? Oh wait, you don’t do anything crazy anymore.” Jake laughed loudly.
I tossed a pillow at Jake. He dodged it and watched it go sailing into the hallway behind him. He jumped up, snatched it off the ground, and flung it back at me. Amanda stuck her foot in the air and stopped it mid-flight, causing it to fall first on the table, then onto the floor. “Ha!” She squealed. Jake reached and grabbed the pillow and nailed her in the back as she curled into a defensive ball. It was time.
“Well,” I slowly stood up and stretched my arms over my head. “I guess we’d better get going. Past our bedtime,” I teased.
“OK.” Jake stood up. “Hey, would you mind giving me a ride over to Dan and Rob’s?” Dan and Rob were Jake’s and my friends who lived a few blocks away from me and Amanda. Jake and I used to hang out with them nearly every weekend in undergrad, but lately, despite now living so close by, I rarely even saw them.
“Sure,” I replied.
It was nearly nine o’clock and the sun was melting into the trees over the hill at the top of the road. The air had cooled considerably and a light breeze tickled the leaves of the surrounding trees. We crossed the street climbed into the car; Amanda offered the front seat to Jake but he insisted he didn’t mind the back. We sat in silence for most of the short drive, one of us filling the space with the occasional observation: a new building was being built downtown, a new record shop was moving into the old Subway location, and it appeared as though they were installing a new merry-go-round in the park across from the hospital. When Amanda joked that she wanted to play on it before we moved, Jake rolled his eyes.
When I pulled up to the curb in front of Dan and Rob’s rental house, they were sitting on the porch with their legs propped up on the railing, sipping Milwaukee’s Best and smoking cigarettes. I waved at them from the car window. Dan flashed a hand and Rob nodded, then leaned over his legs to pick something from between his toes. I turned around and faced Jake.
“Well, thanks again for dinner. It was great.”
Amanda turned around, too, and nodded. “Yeah, thanks again, Jake.”
“No problem. Thanks for the ride,” he replied, opening the car door.
I struggled to think of something more to say, but nothing seemed right. See you later? Talk to you soon? We should do it again sometime? Did I even want to? Did he? Nothing. “Well…bye.”
“Bye, guys.” He climbed out and slammed the door. He walked up the porch, his back to us, as I pulled away from the curb. Amanda stared out the window towards their house until I turned left onto the main road, then she turned to me and smiled. “I love you,” she told me.
“I love you so much,” I replied, and squeezed her knee.
The next morning, I sat at the counter and sipped my coffee, watching Amanda leaf through the Saturday morning paper on the kitchen table. The sun beamed in from the small window above her head, casting a narrow ribbon of light on her bare foot and the blue carpet beside it. She looked up and studied me for a few moments, then ran a hand through her messy hair and asked, “So what did you think of dinner?”
Neither of us had said a word yet about the previous evening. It didn’t seem to me that there was much to say, or a good way of saying it.
“I liked the stew,” I remarked.
Amanda rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
I stared down and stirred my coffee, clinking the spoon back and forth against the ceramic mug. I didn’t know how to express something that I didn’t even quite understand myself. Finally, after a long while, I gave her a half-smile and said, “The times they are a-changin’, that’s for sure.”
She laughed at my allusion, but immediately furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes slightly, as if reflecting on what I had said. “Do you think we’ll invite him to our wedding? Do you think he’d even want to come?”
I hadn’t thought about it at all, but as soon as she asked, I already knew what my answer would be. “No…no, I guess I don’t think that we will.” I paused. “I don’t think he’s all that interested.”
“I really don’t care either way,” Amanda assured me. “It’s completely up to you, hon, you know.”
I knew, but it didn’t change anything.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED