All Steven knew about Jay’s situation was that Jay’s text had said, “You free? I’m fucking mess. Flans 5:30. Know you’re not busy.”
Steven got the text around four and, as Jay guessed, wasn’t busy, except he had promised his mom he’d drive out and get her car washed. She hated how dirty it got in winter, even though she rarely drove it. It just sat on the side of the road—not even in her garage because that was full of junk she “had to go through one day” but probably never would get around to. He promised to take it to the wash for her, seeing as how she hated driving in the sludge. But he had to call and cancel when he got Jay’s text.
“Later, Mom,” he told her. “Don’t worry. I’ll do it later this week after work, like Wednesday. Don’t worry.”
And he also promised to do her oil change, her fluids, and get the interior cleaned because she smoked in the car and it stunk. She couldn’t smoke in the house because of Steven’s father’s allergies. Outside was too cold.
What was wrong with Jay? It probably had to do with women. Jay always had issues with women—with women he had, women he didn’t have, women he wanted, all of them. Even his mother was an issue. The original issue. Steven’s mom asked for help from time to time, but Jay’s mom was much worse, a nightmare. Called him when she was hysterical, drunk, demanding money he didn’t have. Though, Jay hadn’t talked about his mom—”Lethal Lisa” they called her—in months. Maybe she had finally disappeared from his life.
Steven drove up to Flannigan’s and kept driving around the block to find parking. The bar was new, had opened when they finished putting 93 underground, which opened up this area for parks and pedestrians. It was a popular restaurant, probably a chain. It didn’t have great food, but it always had games on, screens visible from every chair.
Mostly, though, it was close to Jay’s apartment Jay always wanted to meet there, Steven didn’t have a choice. Jay said there were only gay bars and cocktail clubs where Steven lived, which was kind of true. Crossing town was OK—but a pain in the ass in this weather. Worse was finding parking. Most spaces were covered with snow so old it had dried out, refrozen, and turned to thick, dense glacier ice, slow to melt and impossible to move.
The bar was huge inside, covered in TVs. They had knocked out two floors and put in thick steel pylons—mostly unnecessary because they had kept the pillars as well, Steven had experience in construction so he knew these things. It was bright and warm, and the girl who greeted him at the door and seated him was cute. He gave her a half smile. Jay was already there. He even had food in front of him, though it was untouched.
“You couldn’t wait?” Steven took off his coat and sat across the table, laughing slightly. “Dick move.” Then, to the hostess who was handing him a menu, “Thanks, just a burger, too, rare. And whatever he’s having.” Steven pointed to Jay’s beer, the hostess nodded and passed the order to the waitress who had been heading to the table to take Steven’s order.
“Sorry. Been here forever. Got hungry.” Jay’s face was long and saggy, the skin looked dark around his normally humorous eyes. He hadn’t touched his burger. He was taking quick looks around the place, frenzied looks, like an alert animal. In between, he’d gulp his beer.
“Didn’t you have to work today?” Steven asked quietly.
Jay shook his head and took another drink. “Called in sick. Couldn’t do it. Was home playing all afternoon until I couldn’t take it. Decided to come see you.”
“You mean, until you decided to ask me to come see you.”
Jay almost smiled.
“So…, what’s up?” Jay clearly wasn’t going to confide what was going on, he wanted to be asked.
Jay stabbed his fries, mushing them open until the white, frothy insides spilled out. He raised the fork high and dramatically dropped it. It clanged on the plate, bits of ketchup splattered on the wood table. Then Jay leaned back and kicked one of the table legs. He grinned as Steven steadied the beer bottles.
“I’ll tell you, you will not believe it…” Jay sighed deeply and looked at the drops of red that were seeping between the wood fibers one by one. Steven reached and dabbed the ketchup stain, but it just bled further. The mess bothered him, he covered it up with his napkin. Then he sat back, looked at his friend’s face, and waited.
Jay smiled broadly, showing his back teeth and upper gums. He said, using a bit of theatrical rhythm, “There’s another man.”
“Another man? What are you talking about?”
“Liz. Another man.” Jay grabbed the edge of the table and gave it a quick, violent shake until his water spilled and his fork slid off his plate. He grunted deep in his throat, and excitement crept into his eyes.
“Wait, what? Liz does? How’d you know?”
Jay nodded, still grinning, and began to flick his fork with his nail until it moved. Steven leaned in, steadying the table with one hand. “Jay, what’s up? What happened? She tell you that? What she say?”
“She’s got someone else. Some other man.” Jay enunciated the words and leaned forward as if to throw them in his friend’s face. His eyes were penetrating, angry.
Steven sat back and exhaled. He felt sorry, sure, but also, something else… “Jay, what’s going on? What happened?” he asked in a low, calm voice.
“I don’t know!” Jay threw up his chin and arms in a quick movement.
The children at a small table in the booth behind them were standing, pounding on the soft leather. There were balloons over the table. One of the kids was dressed in a Bruins jersey.
A balloon hit Jay in the back of his head, and he turned around and snarled, “I fucking hate hockey” and popped the balloon with his fork. They ignored him or didn’t hear him and kept jumping. The mothers were a table away, drinking electric-blue cocktails and dipping celery into wings sauce.
Steven pulled Jay’s attention back to the conversation “Hey, man, Jay. Jay. What happened?”
“I don’t know. We met up Wednesday, that’s our day. It’s the only day I can see her, but I was working on that. I wanted to change that, make it Friday too, you know. Anyway, I was about to tell her that….”
Steven nodded. Jay had been pretty happy lately, as happy as someone like Jay could get. Liz was a good thing for him. How it would turn out was unclear from the beginning, but Steven would be lying if he said this surprised him. How do you trust someone who is cheating on her husband with you? Not that Jay was that trustworthy either. Jesus.
Jay opened his mouth and gulped his beer. When he finished, he slammed it down on the table and whipped his mouth with his sleeve. “I knew something was off. I just knew. So I asked her. ‘What’s up? What’s going on?’” His hands were moving wildly. Steven moved the bottle of beer to the other side of the table.
“And what did she say?”
“She said there was a goddamn other man—I told you that!” Jay kicked the table leg again, and this time, the ketchup fell onto the floor. As it bounced, it spilled a large red mess. The birthday party stopped talking to look at it, like kids do when grown-ups make a mess. And a busboy came over quickly with a few rags. Steven nodded at him and indicated a thank-you with his eyes.
Jay just kept talking. “She said, ‘I’m in love with someone else.’ Someone else. Casually. Like she was telling me she didn’t like the wine. What a bitch.”
“She’s not a bitch.” Jay ignored him, but Steven continued, “We’re out of beer. I’m going up to the bar.”
“Call the waitress, she’s here somewhere.” Jay turned in his chair and waved at someone dressed in black across the restaurant. “Shit, service sucks.”
“I’m just going to the bar. I have to piss anyway.” Steven stood up and walked quickly away from the table. The bartender was older, probably in her late thirties, but she was tall and pretty, her arms were lean and looked like she worked out. She walked over, wiping her hands on her pants.
“You alright, honey? What can I get you?”
“Hey, two more.” Steven put the empty bottles on the bar and leaned on it, looking at the screens above the rows of bottles. The Bruins were on.
“Got it.” She had large eyes and fluffy hair. Steven smiled openly, she smiled back.
“Lots of kids tonight, no? Kinda weird,” he said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder towards the birthday party.
“Tell me about it. They tip in Legos!” She laughed and tossed her hair over her shoulder as she opened the new bottles and wiped a few drips from the bar in a circular motion. “Here you go, hon.”
Steven laughed. “I bet. Still, fun for them, I guess, if they are sports fans. And the moms get to drink.”
“I know, they do. No one parties like a group of moms. Don’t think any of them drove here, at least I hope not! It’s some birthday party, something. I don’t know. You got kids?”
Steven blushed. Was she interested? Or just making conversation? “No. Not yet… Someday, I hope.”
“Me either. I don’t get it. Why would anyone take their kids to a sports bar for their birthday? Feels weird, right?”
“It does. Bruins fans start young!”
“Ha! Who the hell likes the Bruins?” She winked at him. Steven laughed.
“Look, I gotta get back to my friend. He’s … he needs this beer.” He looked in her eyes, hoping she’d keep talking and he wouldn’t have to go back to the table. But she started to move down the bar to serve a couple who had just come in and were pointing at the beers on tap.
“Cool. See you in a bit!” And she smiled again.
Jay was leaning his cheek on one hand, picking at his food with his other one. He’d eaten nothing, but he grabbed the bottle from Steven and drank it immediately.
“So…” Steven put his bottle on the table and pulled out his chair. His burger had arrived. He was hungry and took a few bites.
The birthday party was louder than ever. Now there was a cake or something at the table, and they were cheering and yelling. The mothers were even standing up next to the kids, everyone cheering and shouting.
Steven didn’t like the silence clinging to the space between him and Jay. “So, yeah. I can’t believe she didn’t tell you anything else. After all you’ve been through. Didn’t tell you who, I mean.”
“Nope. So, yeah…” Jay bent down and scratched his ankle.
“I kinda followed her.”
Steven drank too much of his beer and had to cough before he could speak. “You what? What do you mean?”
Jay shrugged and drank quickly. He slouched a bit.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I wanted to know who it was, you know?”
“What’d you do—wait outside her house?” he demanded. “Stalk her?”
“Fuck off. No. No, I just … I just knew where she was, you know? She picks the kids up, yoga … so, sometimes …. I don’t know. I just wanted to see.”
“Christ, Jay…” Steven finished his beer, wanting to get back to the bar, to that smiling bartender.
“I don’t know if this is better or worse. I didn’t see anyone. Her. Kids. Nothing else.”
“No. Well, Jim.”
“Fuck that, if he made her happy… Shit, man, I loved her.”
“So did Jim.” Shit. “I mean, sorry, man. I didn’t mean…“
Jay shook his head, “Shut up. Just shut up. I loved her. I loved her. She loved me.” His voice rose as he spoke, bits of spit flew out into the air between them.
Steven proceeded cautiously. “So you didn’t see another guy?”
“No. No other guy.”
Jay scowled and said bitterly, “Well, yeah. Of course.”
“Jay, man. Look, I don’t mean to be tough, I know you’re hurt, but you know….”
“You know fuck.” Jay leaned forward and narrowed his eyes at Steven, his cheeks were beef red, his grin wolfish and toothy.
“Well…,” Steven continued carefully. “You know. You said you saw her, watched her, and you didn’t see anyone. Well, maybe the other man?”
“What other man?”
“Maybe … maybe it’s Jim, you know. Maybe the other man is Jim.”
Jay’s face clenched and then quickly stretched into a wide, broad smile. “Yeah!” He pounded the table. “That’s it. You got it, Steve! She left him because he couldn’t make her happy with his tiny sausage dick, so she went looking for me, and I made her happy in every possible way, made her beg, and then what—he grew a few inches and she went back to him? You sure got it. Figured this one out. No wonder you’re the smart one. Jesus fucking Christ!”
Jay’s yelling made the kids stare. Steven was embarrassed, Jay’s words hung like a blade in the air. He finished his beer and stood up to go back to the bar without saying anything.
Jay rubbed his temples and leaned over his plate. The food smelled stale and greasy. He put his plate on the empty table next to him. The kids behind him were moving around in the aisle, swinging their coats around, hitting everything. The mothers were laughing and smiling, trying to match each kid with the right coat.
All these smiles didn’t fool Jay though. They looked fake, probably didn’t like each other. His girlfriend, Jody, had a kid from her first marriage. She always hated going out with other mothers. She got so bitter about it, almost nasty. Her mouth would curl up, get all ugly. She said all these moms ever talked about were kids: before they were born, it was “how to decorate the room,” then buying “the right fabrics,” then “hand-making all the food,” then saggy breasts and sore vaginas. It just went on and on and on… Like any of it mattered. It was so stupid.
He felt bad for Jody, but hell, if she hated it, why go? Why bother? Kids wouldn’t notice. Jay asked her once why she didn’t just hang out with people she liked, and she’d glare at him and say it was for Ben and what choice did she have? Then, after a while, he realized she was like this, too—other moms probably complained about her, she was as bad as any of them.
He stopped listening to her, just shut her out. He was about to break up with Jody, had it all planned too, even what he’d say to Ben, who, for some reason, liked him. Ben was a good kid, sweet kid. Jay had wanted to break up with Jody for weeks now but just couldn’t, probably because of Ben. Ben’s actual dad was an alcoholic, last they heard he was in Maryland. They didn’t have anyone else. But, man, life with Jody sucked, really sucked.
Then Liz came along. They had met at work, she was part-time at the store he managed. That is how it goes—you slowly and quietly die until someone comes along and wakes you up. Liz was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Steven, that shit, was still at the bar, talking to the bartender. She was cute. She was throwing back her head and laughing, probably just being nice. Steven was so desperate, it was kind of pathetic. Perhaps he needed to get rid of him, too.
“Goddamn it!” Jay shouted and stood up. One of the kids had pushed his chair, and he fell forward and spilled his beer all over the place. Jay jerked out of the chair before it spread on his lap, but he was too late, it foamed and dripped off the table and onto the floor in quick drips. One of the moms shot him a look and ushered her kid away from Jay’s waving arms and angry looks.
“Thanks for that!” he shouted after her, “Thanks a lot. Try parenting! What the hell!”
The mom, her hand on her son’s back in a move to both protect him and usher him out, turned around and looked at Jay. “I’m sorry about your beer. But they are children! Don’t be an asshole.”
Jay threw down his napkin and stepped towards her, though he didn’t know what he was going to say. He wanted to yell. This woman with the stupid mom hair and her dumbass kid.
But his phone rang, and instead of yelling, he pulled it out of his pocket and looked at it. Jody. Probably checking up on him. “What? Yeah. Out with Steve. Around ten. I don’t know. Yeah…”
The mother who had yelled at him hadn’t left. Actually, she was walking towards him, her son waiting at the door behind her. Most of the other mothers were at the door on phones or zipping up coats. Her boots clicked on the floor. What the hell was going on?
“Jod, hang on.” Jay put the phone in his hand and looked at the woman now standing in front of him. Tall, in a clinging sweater, and tall boots, she leaned, hoisting her bag on her hip. It was full of toys and things from the party.
“You’re Ben’s dad.”
Jay stared, he had no idea what this woman was talking about, or why she knew the name of his son. She kept talking, her voice cold, clipped. “I’m Sam’s mom. I know Jody. I’m friends with Jody.”
“I’m not his dad. Glad you’re friends with her. Don’t care.” Confused. Jody was on the phone, talking about bedtimes and stories, and this woman he’d never met was standing in front of him. Steven was still talking to the bartender, leaning towards her, and though Jay couldn’t see Steven’s face, he saw the woman laughing. He must be saying something funny. And now this woman, this stupid woman with mom hair in front of him, waving her chin, kid running all over. Jody had said something about avoiding a birthday party today, or Ben being sick or something…. He had heard that when he left.
“I know you. I know your type. You are a shit. You think you can do all this—” She waved at the table, all the bottles, the puddles on the floor, taking in all the mess in her wave, “—whatever you want. You have no idea. Jody is the best… You’re a little shit. Ben’s a good kid.” She waved her hand in his face, pushed her chin up. He could smell her perfume, it smelled nice, actually, kinda soft.
His hand moved involuntarily. The phone. He still holding the phone. He looked at it, saw the photo of Jody and Ben that she had put on it a few months ago. He slipped it inside his pocket.
“You don’t know shit. You know what? You don’t know shit.” Jay jerked his arm up, his face was burning. He snapped his wrist a few times, cracking his bones, and just as he was about to kick over the chair in his anger, he felt a hand on his back, then his shoulder.
“Jay. Knock it off. Come on. Let’s go.” Steven was holding Jay’s arms down and gently pushing him back to the table. “Grab your coat. Let’s go, I’ll drive you home.” Steven’s thick voice cut through Jay’s anger, and suddenly he was exhausted, spent. The mothers and their children left, the Bruins scored a goal, and cheering surrounded them.
Moving at this point, but still blabbing, Jay continued. “She doesn’t know who I am. And I’m not going to change. I am who I am. Fuck her. Fuck all of them. I’m not going to change.”
Steven picked up Jay’s coat that he had left on the chair and said under his breath, “Naw, man, you won’t.” Then, louder, “Come on, I’ll drive you home. Too cold to walk.”
They left and walked a block to where Steven left his car. Jay kicked the snow, neither said anything. When they got to Jay’s building, the light upstairs was on.
Jay got out of the car, stepped into a snow bank, sank, and slowly trudged through it until he was on the shoveled sidewalk. Salt cracked under his feet as he turned to go upstairs. “Thanks, man. Call you tomorrow.
“No,” Steven called out from the car. He bellowed and growled, then found his voice and said measuredly, “Not anymore. You’re a shit. You’ve always been a shit. I get it—hell, I was a shit too. But now, man… You have an sense of who you can be and what you want, I know you do. There is a man you need to be, and it is not this. You’ve got people in your life, good people who need you. Grow up, man. No one else can do it for you.”
Steven looked straight ahead, put the car into drive. He put up his window and pulled violently out of the snow bank, scraping against the ice and spinning his tires before they gripped traction and took off. Through a small circle of clean window in the back of his truck—the only part that wasn’t covered with a gray sheet of ice and salt—he would have been able to see a figure in the street, waving his arms, stomping, running after him. He would have seen it get smaller and smaller, then, as the road turned, it would have been no more. Though Steven never saw the figure, for he didn’t look back.
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