“Well, if it isn’t my favourite student!”
Eddie laughs and removes his earphones as he enters the classroom. “Hey, Greta! Good to see you again.”
He walks over, hand outstretched, and she shakes it while smiling at him. “Has it been a year already? I’m going to start thinking you’re coming here just to see me.”
Laughing loudly, Eddie says, “Now, now, First Aid is my only love!” Oh, God, what’s happening. He laughs again, his face hurting, and uses his left hand rub his forehead. Yeah, take a good luck at that wedding ring, Greta, if that is your real name. He moves to the first desk in the rows set out in front of the instructor’s, mindlessly unzipping his backpack and unpacking his notebook, pens, KeepCup, plastic baggy of teabags, plastic baggy of gluten-free mini-muffins, and water bottle. “Any new material this year, huh?”
“Well, since you asked, the procedure for CPR has changed.”
That was last year, Greta, get it together. “Oh, really?”
The conversation continues on amiably until Eddie finds an opportunity to
excuse himself. He should probably take a shit before class starts anyway, and he only has twenty minutes.
Out in the common area of the training centre there is a coffee station, with a few biscuits laid out on a plate. Eddie gives those a wide berth and instead fills his KeepCup with boiling water, adding his teabag afterwards to steep. He tests the two taps of the water cooler for temperature, then fills his bottle halfway from each. He straightens up, stretches his neck, then turns to face the room. He is pretty early. There is a kid — with, Jesus Christ, is that acne? — probably a graduate, sitting on the couch immersed in their phone. And a bored looking secretary at the desk to one side. On the wall, a TV screen displays the rooms and courses that are taking place in the training centre today. Room 1 — Presentation Skills. Room 2 — Advanced Excel. Room 3 — First Aid.
Eddie takes a sip of his water, then closes the lid again and shakes the bottle while thinking of his introduction. “Yeah, hi, my name’s Eddie Kaspbrak. I’m in Risk. It’s fitting, I guess. Haha. Ha.”
Eddie hates himself.
“I’ve worked here for, uh, twelve years and I’ve been taking this course for, uh, also twelve years.
“And I guess I’m here because I would really like to know how not to die.”
Eddie chews his bottom lip, brow furrowing, and glances at his Fitbit. His heart rate is a little fast, but that’s just the nerves. What if he forgets everything he’s ever learned and makes an ass of himself? Like, he is here to learn — that is literally the reason he is here — but also, it is way easier to learn things you already know. Is it too early to go back to the room? What if Greta corners him again? What if his partner is super awkward? What if his partner is — worse — super friendly? Why isn’t anyone else arriving yet, Jesus!
He considers taking some Loperamide, and pausing that thought, goes to take a shit.
The bowel movement starts pretty OK, and Eddie considers just hiding there in the cubicle until closer to the start of class. But right at the end there is a sudden stoppage, the kind where you can pretty much feel whatever it is halfway in, halfway out, and after a teeth-grinding and vein-popping few moments of pushing and breathing and pushing some more, he gives up in dismay, and spends the next ten minutes dealing with the remnants. Rushing to grab his cup and his bottle, he storms back to the classroom in a sweat to find only about half the other chairs have been filled. He wipes his brow with a tissue from his pocket, pretends to be engrossed in his phone, and takes his seat at the front of the room.
No one takes the seat beside him.
(Because he still smells like shit, that’s why.)
The class starts and his introduction ends up more like, “And I’m here because it’s just the kind of skill everyone should have.” Eddie hates himself, and he hates the smart-alecky way it comes out, and he hates the fact that his blood pressure monitor goes nuts and his neck stays warm for ten minutes after he speaks to the room. But, thus is life. Eddie’s life, anyway.
Suddenly, the door slams open. “Oh, shit,” says the man behind it, jumping at the force of his own entrance. He leans into the room, looks around, raising his hands. “Sorry — sorry. First Aid training, right?” Shoulders hunched, he adjusts the strap of his satchel as he throws Greta an apologetic grimace, then skulks to the nearest available seat — which, of course, is right next to Eddie.
Long legs bend like spider’s in faded black jeans as the man sits, knees almost knocking the underside of the desk. He crosses his arms, quickly glances around the room, then lays his attention on the instructor. Eddie can hear the man’s breathing, laboured, knows he is sweating — he probably rushed over here. Fucking noobs. The training centre is only ten minutes from the main office, but everyone always underestimates the extended commute.
Eddie jumps as something taps his arm — the man’s hand.
“Hey, man, I’m Richie,” the guy whispers, leaning towards him with his hand out to shake. He seems to change his mind then and waves slightly instead, an oddly
endearing gesture. He pushes thick glasses up his nose as he looks over Eddie, brown eyes wide.
Inexplicably mute, Eddie picks up the cardboard nameplate in front of him and shows it to the man — to Richie. Richie meets his eyes again and smiles vaguely, the corners of his lips quirking up. Eddie returns the simper.
Business smile. Profesh, profesh.
“Well, we just finished introductions,” Greta is saying, “but if the latecomer wants to answer the questions on the screen…”
Richie lunges around, adjusting his glasses to read the slides. “Name, role… oh, sure thing, I got it.” He sits up straighter and turns around, waving at the room. “So, hi, I’m Richie. I’m in IT. Support — but, like, application support not hardware or anything like that. If you need an NT password reset, if you got blue screen of death, tossed your laptop out the window and broke the screen, please hesitate to call me, because I cannot help you with any of that shit. In fact, just hesitate to call me, period. I can and will hang up on you.”
Dead silence follows. Eddie’s eyes widen and a laugh threatens to burst out of his mouth. A moment later it does, a sputtering raspberry of a laugh, augmented by the silence of the room. Richie turns back to him. Their eyes meet briefly, and Richie’s, magnified by his glasses, twinkle as he slowly grins.
He pauses a moment, then turns and peers at the screen again. “And I guess I’m here because… Well, to be perfectly honest, someone on our floor had to go and I drew the short straw.”
Greta’s eyes have glazed over. The grin sneaks back onto Richie’s face. Eddie can’t stop smiling, either, and has to turn his head away to hide it.
They spend the first hour or so going through slides, slides that haven’t changed much in the twelve years Eddie has been coming here. Greta must really think Eddie is into her: he doesn’t, like, technically need to do anything but a refresher class every two years, but he comes to the full-on three day course annually anyway. He takes notes, he pays rapt attention, and he prays he never has to use any of this shit in real life. Richie flicks a pen in his fingers, glances at Eddie sometimes, and doodles the rest.
By the time Greta calls for morning break, Eddie has been mentally to-ing and fro-ing for the last half an hour over whether he can squeeze in another toilet break and a tea run in the fifteen minutes they’re given. He hasn’t decided yet, when Richie sighs loudly and turns to him, leaned way back in his chair.
“Soooo, Eddie, you heard my spiel. What do you do?”
Panic. I do panic. “Me? Oh, I’m in Risk.”
“Oh, God,” cries Richie, making a face. He stops then and grins lopsidedly. “Oh man, I bet you get that reaction a lot, huh.”
“Actually, no. That’s just you, asshole.”
Richie practically explodes into spurts of laughter. Eddie glances at him, going for disapproving, but can’t seem to keep a straight face and ends up smiling himself. Richie leans over as if to grasp Eddies arm
(do not fucking touch me)
— but doesn’t.
“Shit, maybe it is just me,” continues Richie, pulling his hand back to run his fingers through his shaggy dark curls instead. “We got a bad rep in IT, no idea why.”
The hairs on the back of Eddie’s neck are still standing up, but he manages to retort, “That’s funny — it seems like you’re so interested in helping people.”
Richie cackles. He flourishes slightly, then puts on some kind of startlingly accurate Frasier Crane impression. “And why are you here, Edward?”
Eddie finds himself smiling too. Weirdly… comfortable. Weirdly… brave.
(Oh God. Oh God, he’s gonna say it.)
“Well, I, uh,” stumbles Eddie, laughing and rubbing his neck. “I’m, like — I’m basically just waiting for them to tell me how not to die.”
Richie pauses, then snorts. “What, you think if you keep showing up they’ll eventually give you a free pass on death?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’d be perfect, yeah,” says Eddie.
“Like, oh, it’s Eddie’s time — but, wait, he has three hundred hours in First Aid! Someone give this man an exemption!”
Eddie is too invested to even laugh, just keeps nodding fervently. “Immunity, yeah. But, no, I’m serious, one of these tricks could save my life one day. I need that shit — I need to know.”
Richie rubs his mouth with three of his fingers, smiling mischievously. “Wait, so this isn’t about saving other people lives, it’s about saving your own life?”
“Yeah, no, fuck other people. I hate other people.”
Richie seems to find that deliciously funny, bent double and holding his stomach as he laughs for almost a whole minute.
As he’s wiping his eyes, Eddie says, “I’m not fucking joking,” and that starts him off all over again.
“That’s fucking insane,” Richie cries. “You’re insane.”
He senses Richie’s eyes on him — curious, amused eyes — and Eddie again feels the horrid gooseflesh break out over his skin like static electricity. He turns his head, neck warming.
Richie glances around the empty room and back to Eddie with a weird awkwardness freezing his smile. “So, uh, you getting a coffee or what?”
Eddie stands up as Richie does, rummaging in his baggie. “No, but I’ll get a tea.”
Standing, Eddie raises his head to see Richie looking down on him, blinking, from his solid six foot whatever the fuck and Jesus Christ the man’s tall. Eddie straightens up quickly, and glares up at him from his perfectly average five nine.
(Do not fucking say anything, I will fucking kill you if you fucking say anything—)
Smiling tentatively, Richie shoves his hands in his jacket pockets and heads for the door.
Eddie’s face falls.
Why the fuck didn’t he say anything?
Walking out to the coffee station, Eddie’s mind is an odd mix of oh God we can’t possibly keep this conversation going and oh God I kind of want to keep this conversation going. Which is kind of rare. Social situations are pretty much a necessary nightmare for Eddie, but he is also a forty year old man whose wife is his best friend (which probably wouldn’t be so bad if she weren’t also his only friend), so he sort of craves them too. And Richie seems, chill, he supposes. And funny. And they seem to have some sort of
connection. Just, a shared humour or something. That is kind of rare too.
“So my boss told me I need to start ‘taking initiative,’” drawls Richie, doing the air quotes with his fingers as he picks out a sachet of coffee and empties it into a paper cup.
“Oh, yeah?” replies Eddie, glancing at him. He can sense a punchline far off in the distance.
“He’s been looking pretty peaky these days.” Richie gestures with his arms wide around his middle, and Eddie concludes that Richie’s boss may be overweight. Richie grins, and leans in, and Eddie feels a shiver run over his skin at the proximity. “So I’m, like, I’m thinking, one of these days this dude’s gonna kick the bucket. He could have a fucking heart attack, man. So I tell him, I say, look, bro, are you sure you want me to go on this First Aid training?” He starts giggling, holding his hand up to his face. “Me? Are you sure?”
“How’s that for initiative!” finishes Eddie.
Richie blinks. “Oh, shit. I was just going for straight up blackmail. But that’s good too, I like that.”
Eddie shakes his head and looks away, pretending to disapprove. After a moment, Richie frowns and turns around to face the room. “So, uh, you’ve been here before, right? Have you ever actually had to use any of this stuff?”
“No, fuck me, could you imagine? If I ever saw someone having a heart attack, I think I would literally start having one myself.”
Richie covers his face and laughs. “Then there’d be two— They’d need two—” He can’t finish, scrunching his eyes up and bending over to slap his knee. Picturing it, Eddie grins, too.
The two end up joining an awkward circle with the rest of the class, discussing the commute and the course and the prospects for lunch. Eddie is only really aware of Richie beside him, the tense energy, the couple of loud laughs he gives and jokes he makes. Feeling tired suddenly, Eddie laments missing his chance to use the toilet.
After the break they start into the Heimlich manoeuvre — or abdominal thrusts, as they’re now called. Richie glances at him at that point, peeling his top lip over his teeth in an obvious attempt to hold back a laugh. Eddie shakes his head, clears his throat, and has to press his fist to his mouth to hide his smile.
Richie throws him a slightly wide-eyed look as they stand up to start the partnered demonstrations. Eddie is too busy dealing with his own stress to really unpack it.
“I’ll go first,” Eddie says,
(just get this over with)
and moves behind Richie.
“Uh, OK, you’re eager. I’m into it.”
Taking a deep breath, Eddie stares at Richie’s broad back, his eyes coming just above his shoulder. He steps closer, enough to put his arms around the man’s middle, but not too close
(too fucking close)
to be uncomfortable.
It’s uncomfortable anyway.
“Oh ho, careful there, I’m ticklish.”
“Shut the fuck up, man.”
Richie squirms a bit and says, “If I were really choking, wouldn’t I be like writhing around—” He starts wiggling even more.
“Stop it, stop—!”
Eddie laughs, briefly dropping his head, and it knocks against Richie’s back. Within the awkward hovering circle of his arms he can feel the larger man, feel him whole and warm and alive, feel his slightly doughy stomach buckling as he laughs, and Eddie can smell him too. Bowels stirring, Eddie quickly makes the fist above his naval, places his other hand on top, and squeezes a couple of times — in and up, in and up. Eddie lets go.
“Wow, uh, are you always that quick?” asks Richie, turning around and grinning. Eddie glares at him.
“Your turn, fucknuts.”
“Fucknuts? Nobody’s called me fucknuts since my ex-girlfriend, and she— well let’s not get into that.” He laughs a little unhingedly as he moves behind Eddie, talking to himself. “OK, OK, here we go. Don’t mind if I—”
Eddie tries not to flinch as the arms slip around his middle, the shadow and warmth looming over his back. His stomach feels awful, creeping and quivering, and his heart is racing too. But Richie keeps his arms aloft, not really touching him, as Eddie had done.
As he finds his belly button, Richie pokes him. “Boop.”
Eddie jumps. He actually is ticklish. “What the fuck— stop fucking around!”
“I’m just doing what the instructions say, man!”
“There’s no fucking booping involved, do you see any fucking booping written up there?”
“Really? You didn’t hear? You gotta boop so you don’t— shit your pants.”
Richie bursts out laughing at his own crappy joke, the moron. Annoyed, Eddie wrestles himself out of the man’s hold and backs a few steps away, crossing his arms. Richie tries to suppress his grin, but just ends up leering at him as Eddie shakes his head.
Eddie glances around the room, sees Greta sufficiently distracted, and raises a finger at Richie. “This is fucking — you gotta take this seriously, man. What if someone on your floor actually starts choking, and you’re the only one—”
“OK, OK, I’m sorry,” says Richie, laughing nervously and rubbing the back of his neck. “It’s just fucking awkward, OK? Just let me try again.”
He takes a step and Eddie slashes his hands in the air. “No. Fuck off. Fuck you.”
“Dude, come on! Like you said — what if I actually need to use this someday?”
Eddie fumes, then takes a deep breath and turns around, raising his arms slightly. He’s pretty sure he hears Richie snort. Richie puts his arms around him again, finds his naval (with Eddie’s help) and does the motion. They separate, and stand awkwardly a few feet apart, arms crossed.
Pouting, Eddie glances at the other man. “That’s the worst part of the three days, just so you know. We do most of the rest on the mannequin.”
Richie smiles vaguely. “Wow, just like my sex life.”
Eddie cracks up — and can’t stop laughing for ten minutes, clutching the back of his chair. Richie is in a similar state, and at one point grabs Eddie’s arm for balance.
(Eddie doesn’t mind.)
When they sit down and go back to the slides, he can’t even look at Richie anymore. Richie has his hand pressed over his mouth, and his shoulders shake every once in a while. Just when Eddie thinks he’s calmed down again, the laughter boils up from his belly and he has to turn his head away, hide his face. They’re like school kids. They’re like fucking twelve year olds. It’s fucking ridiculous, but it’s fun, and when it gets to lunchtime the two of them sit at a table to themselves, unaware of everyone else. They talk about work a bit, about various projects they’re on, movies and TV shows and whatever else people talk about. Only Eddie usually finds that sort of chat unbearable, bullshit small talk, just-keep-talking-until-you-can-finally-flee kind of deal, but with Richie it’s on another level. They even end up returning late to the classroom.
The CPR mannequins have arrived.
“Whoa, what happened to this guy?” asks Richie.
“Amputated waist,” replies Eddie. Richie snorts.
There’s a hole in the bottom of the doll, where the air gets pushed out. While Greta is talking, Richie reaches out and starts fiddling with the hole. Eddie can’t — he can’t. He kicks Richie, who turns to him and starts making faces — sensual faces — and then they’re both pressing their hands over their mouths and ducking their heads again to stifle the giggles.
Richie’s attempts at chest compressions go like this:
“Harder,” Eddie tells him.
“Yeah, you need to press harder.”
“Harder? You want me to go harder?”
Eddie opens his mouth, and then he’s bent double.
Collapsing into laughter himself, Richie manages to say, “Harder, yeah? Like this? This hard enough for ya?” then splutters some more. Eddie can’t breathe, and swats the air near Richie’s arm a couple of times. Richie continues pumping on the doll, making faces and noises and thrusting motions, until Greta comes over and then they really can’t hold it in. Their shrieks of laughter fill the room, and Greta scowls at Eddie like she’s very disappointed, and Eddie finds he cannot give one single fuck. He hasn’t laughed so hard in years.
He never wanted to be the favourite anyway.
That’s just the first day. The second is worse. The third, they’re a bit tired, so things reach new levels of absurdity. At four o’clock, when the classroom is emptying and they’re thanking Greta for her time, Richie turns to him with the same the same weird frozen smile as the first day when he asked if Eddie was going for coffee. “Hey, uh, look, man. I dunno, do you want to go grab a drink or something?”
Eddie blinks. “Yeah, I do,” he says immediately. Then he actually thinks about it. Well, he doesn’t need to think — he already knows he wants to. Hell, he really wants to. But can he? Can he? Is he even allowed? “Yeah, uh, sure, man. I’ll just text my wife and let her know.”
“Cool,” says Richie. “Cool cool cool.”
Eleven G and Ts, two pints of water, and three calls from Myra later (two of those go unanswered — he is so fucked when he gets home), Eddie is just on time for the last train. Richie is still there, because he lives right around the corner apparently. (“I mean you can always stay over if you miss it, man,” he rambles on, to which Eddie scoffs, “No fucking way, dude, my wife would literally kill me.”)
Is that why, or is it because they’re still not done talking somehow, still entertained and tickled and enchanted by each other, and it occurs to Eddie that if he had any choice in the matter he might’ve stayed out all night with this guy, talking and laughing and fucking about all the way until dawn?
So they stand on the platform, stumbling slightly and using each other for balance, laughing and talking in low voices and realising for the first time how truly drunk they are and how late it got, and as the train pulls up Eddie sighs and pats Richie’s arm.
“A’ight, man, it was a good fucking — fucking good time, man. See you Monday, yeah?”
“Wha’s Monday?” asks Richie, and hiccoughs.
“Well, work. That thing that you ‘pparently don’t even fucking do, asshole.”
“Dude.” Richie wipes a hand across his face, suddenly giggling. “Dude, we don’t even—” He starts counting on his fingers. “We don’t work in the same department. We don’t cross over. We never even saw each other before this — fuckin’ — whatever the fuck this was.”
Eddie blinks, and grabs his arm again. “Holy shit, this company’s siloed as fuck!”
Richie laughs hysterically, clutching his stomach. “We don’t have each other’s fucking phone numbers. Don’t got no fucking Facebook, man!”
Eddie backs up onto the train, and Richie steps into the doorway. “What about the — the fucking Skype thing, dude, and email, we can find each other easy—”
“How many Richie’s you think work at Green Turtle? How many Eddie’s?” Richie laughs again, wiping a tear away. “I’m tellin’ ya, man, we are literally never going to see each other again.”
Eddie makes a face as this reality hits him. “But I want to see you again.”
Richie smiles at him, eyes half closed, scanning Eddie’s face for a moment. His glasses have slipped down his nose and he pushes them up, brushing Eddie’s arm lightly as he drops his hand. “Y’don’t even know my surname.”
The door alarms chime and Eddie says, “What’s your—?” before Richie steps back and the doors close between them. Richie looks at him, a look of amazed amusement on his face, and then a sudden dazed dismay. Eddie raises his hands up and shouts, “Are you fucking serious?”
Richie laughs a little, bracing his mouth against it, and shrugs. As the train starts to move he walks along with it, and when it picks up Eddie walks down the carriage too, until eventually they lose sight of each other, and Eddie is left standing watching the platform disappear and graffitied grey walls replace it.
He catches his reflection briefly as the windows darken, eyes sunken and red, greasy skin, and mussed up hair. He looks
fucking terrible. He feels even worse.
If we never see each other again, he thinks, sinking down into a seat, it’s because Myra really has murdered me.