The bar was as usual, buzzing with strangers, glasses filled in with wines and air mingled with gossip. Johnny, was obviously bored, as he scrutinized his sight with squinted eyes, so that someone would pop up and he could get flirting skills to work. He had recently gotten his rusty skills some juice, so that he could wrap someone along his fingers. But to his utmost chagrin, none of the customer that day or the past week was particularly congenial to participate as lab rat.
The women were pretty, almost sultry with thigh-ridden cocktail dresses and jewelry hanging down their neck like chandeliers. But Johnny wasn’t interested to chat them up, since his sexuality deemed him not to. To put out the matters point-blank, he was gay. However, Johnny couldn’t score a meaty man on a random night so casually because most of them would turn out straight, fuck boys who were looking for some dick and well, there were dramatic queens who would, without guilty put the tabs on him.
It wasn’t that Johnny was nit-picky, or his drink was an awful combination was of old-fashioned (and it partly dampened his consciousness) but he was looking for someone. Just that perfect, scored 10/10 on your checklist type of person.
Johnny wandered his eyes again over the heft of brunettes, and took a sip of his scathing drink. He tapped the marble table-top, and asked for another drink. The bartender benevolently smiled, and shook some drinks to present him with his 5th drink of the night. The bar was well lit with golden illumination from the corner of the ceiling, the gentlemen scattered around the floor, each with a pairing to mouth to. Not to mention, there were men marshaled beside him, some making out and some, just talking boisterously.
You know, if Johnny hadn’t taken his chance to crane his neck and look over some suited shoulder, he would have never met his 10/10. Or to put out simply, Ten. When Johnny eyes had met the sprawled body, and languid shoulders over the table, with empty glasses circled beside him, he raised his eyebrows, amused.
Johnny put his hand in the air, to halt the bartender from sliding any more drinks on the table. He curled his finger at him, to draw him closer. The bartender bent over the table, and Johnny whispered,
“Who is that?” He pointed at the stranger, who was on the other side of the man sitting beside him. The bartender smiled slyly, before wiping down the table top, mumbling under his breath.
“What?” Johnny asked again, and the bartender gave a chuckle. The bartender came a little closer, his lips close to Johnny’s ear cartilage.
“He is Ten.” Literally Ten? Did his parents run out off names or something? “Came from Thailand, son of some business tycoon and rest you have to know it yourself. Hint :he is going through a heartbreak so I will suggest you to go over easy.”
“Oh, well, easy isn’t my forte.”
The bartender shrugged, reclining himself back and standing there, nonchalant with arms crossed across his chest.
“Don’t blame me if your efforts flush off to the drain. Last time, you were this interested on some stranger, it played back at you.”
“She was a girl.” Johnny talked back, abashed, “ I am gay now. ”
“I’m not sure if you should play that card so carelessly.” The bartender sighed, and filled up his glass anyway, “but I guess, I will offer you both some drinks, from me.”
Johnny could feel his lips curving up once more, as he thanked the bartender with a wink. The latter only gagged in response, and inclined towards the stranger with a cock of his eyebrow. Johnny hopped off his barstool, with his glass hanging of his grip loosely as he made his way to the man.
The man had his head burrowed in his arms, his back slightly heaving and covered his red satin coat. The tousled plop of raven hair hid his face from the bright rays of the ceiling lights, hinting an ombre hue to his strands. Johnny didn’t waste his chance taking the seat beside him, the expensive vinyl squeaky under his shifts. The latter wasn’t wavered; not one bit.
“Rough night?” Johnny asked, as per the prior suggestion, he came off soft. He gingerly placed the glass on the table, as to not jolt the other up with his presence.
“What?” The stranger responded, although a bit muffled under his shadow, and Johnny looked relieved with just an answer. The typical rich kids were the type to ignore you, spill drinks on your equally expensive coat or just hail the stool over your head. Johnny was fine with an irked off “what?”…just fine.
“No, I just wanted to offer you a drink. You looked a bit off from my side.” Johnny said, not to pull off a nerve. He was nervous, skittish with his choice of words, but he wanted to come off as more of a gentleman. But, Johnny was not going to admit it to himself.
“Did you even see my face?” The man spat with evident irksomeness, “Go away, I have enough to deal with. I can buy a drink on my own.”
“Point taken.But, you know I am all ears if you want to, spill your sorrows or something. Not judging at all.” The man seemed to bit back a sigh, and craned his neck to glance at Johnny. But when their eyes met under the hum of the jazz tunes playing in the background, and the honey voice of Chet Baker, Johnny couldn’t help but gulp.
He had finally scored the perfect man. 10/10.
“If you only had the bravery to ask for her number.” Johnny groaned, and Ten only huffed, at his own loss. “You know, all these years we have been together and you have not learned to master the artistry of flirting yet.”
“Oh. Learn from all those idiotic blabbers from your mouth?” Ten chuckled, “Oh, please. Spare me.”
“No…I just thought that girl was the perfect to your one.” Johnny hopped off one from block of the pavement, to the next. Ten was trailing beside him, a few strides far as his eyes stuck on the broad of Johnny’s slumped shoulders. The alley was empty, and the club they exited from was at the crossroads they left a while ago and the array of shops on the opposite was bind shut. There were cars on the roads, and the cool summer breeze awakened the goosebumps on their skin while the time dreaded slowly as if they were trudging on slow motion.
That was about the wee hours of the morning, when people are thinning except some weird hobos hanging around the street or the early dawn clouds blurry on the deep persian of the sky, there were just you and the person you could heart earning for.
Johnny walked a little slower, for Ten to catch up. Ten hummed to a song of Chet Baker’s, pulling in the memories of the night they first met.
“Hey…Ten?” Ten replied with a throaty mumble and Johnny sensed it was a sign to continue. Their legs were tired, muscles cramping under the layer of their trousers and fingers itching to wrap close.
“Do you remember…the day we first met?”
“I was drunk and you were looking for someone to hook up?” Ten let his fingers unconsciously hook on the holes of Johnny’s sweater, “Sure do.”
“I was thinking…”Johnny halted in his steps, causing Ten to stutter too.
“Yeah…” Johnny couldn’t help but avert his eyes from the tip of his boots to the eyes that were wandering on the side of his face. Johnny could feel his breath hitch, taking in the reek of cigarettes in. Ten’s hair ruffled in the hair, the strands in a colour of bright crimson, darkened by the dim illumination of the streets. He let his hands return to his sides, brushing Johnny skin eliciting the cringe within him.
“Could you promise me something?” Johnny asked, his voice quivering and rough. He excused that it was because of the cold he caught a few days earlier and he hoped that Ten didn’t catch up to it.
“Just something…I mean since we are both single…”
“And girls or boys doesn’t seem to catch up on our flirting...” Ten added, with a knot of laugh.
“Yeah, that...”Johnny let out a huff of cackle before taking in a heave, “suppose, people don’t catch up to our flirting even when we are 40.”
“I am sure we are not that bad.” Ten patted Johnny arms, and plunged his palms into his pocket after. He signaled Johnny, by bumping his shoulder on to his, to walk beside him, their steps finally matching and the sky graduating a light hue.
Johnny shrugged, tugging a lazy smile on the corner of his lips, “I am sure we are not. But for example, if we do get old and you know, fall behind what the bandwagon of youngsters will bring then, let’s promise something to ourselves.”
“Okay…Suzy. Time to walk to on your feet.” Ten hoisted the girl off his shoulders, and set her on the floor. The girl whined, flailing his chubby hands in the air, blabbering incoherently for Ten to take her back.
“Suzy…”Ten trailed, buckling his knees to take squatting position in order to match her height, “My shoulders hurt and you don’t like when Papa is hurting do you?” Ten pouted, in order to catch some of her sympathy. The girl fumbled with her little fingers, before raising it to tug on the bangs that curtained Ten’s forehead.
“I hate you.” The girl huffed, walking away with resentment weighing her small steps. Ten shifted his glance onto the cart full of groceries and then to his daughter, before straightening his position, to run after his daughter. Even if she had legs of a lilliputian, she could walk faster than he could in 5 minutes. Sneaking her way through the shelves and corridors, she giggled as she tried to hide from her frantic parents.
“Suzy!” Ten whispered, albeit loud but not enough to catch the attention of the bystanders. He walked through the snack aisle, hoping to catch the sight of the hopping pigtails and frills of her pink dress, but it had no avail. Ten was not sure of where Suzy could skip to, when the snacks had to fail lure her in.
“Suzy!” Ten had finally caught her running, and then disappearing behind a shelf of sauces. The air-conditioner whirred in the background, chilling his bones as he passed the raw section, as he looked for the naughty little pest, utterly flabbergasted.
Ten sighed when he saw Suzy standing still, in the middle of the stationary aisle. Rolling his eyes, he walked closer as he controlled himself not to lose his frustration on his daughter.
“Suzy.” Ten called out, but her back was to her. He could hear a muffled exchange of words between Suzy and some stranger, whom he couldn’t really see due to her blocking him. Ten walked a little closer, to thank the stranger for stalling his daughter but he couldn’t let the words slip his tongue when his eyes met those of the stranger.
The dour eyes of Ten looked back at him, his left ear hidden in the nest of his arms. The sagged tilt of his lips, and the reddened hint on his cheeks expressed the drunk headspace the latter was in. Johnny sipped his drink, gulping as the liquor stuck to his throat, burning. Johnny wasn’t sure if it was the prior warning the bartender gave, or the slow, sensual rhythm of jazz, or the enthralling smile the Ten slipped, he could feel his heart palpating inside.
The fear of falling in love, still held Johnny back because what he wanted that night was the joy of enjoying a single night of sex. But the urge of listening what the stranger cooped inside, made Johnny lose the last string of holding on to that hypocrite thought. He found himself, holding his finger in air as he mouthed to the bartender for a glass of water. The bartender only shook his head, and presented him with his third glass of old-fashioned and the stranger a tall glass of water.
“Name…?’ The stranger asked hoarsely, slowly waking up from his slacked posture as he twisted his arms above his head. Johnny smiled and introduced himself with “Johnny” with an intent of a handshake. Johnny had his hand planted in air, but the stranger didn’t meet the gesture so Johnny pulled it behind.
The stranger showcased the full set of fingers in air, as an hiccup escaped his lips.
“Ten...yeah.” If the bartender hadn’t told Johnny the stranger’s name before, he could have never caught it with such gesticulation of fingers. But he did, and it seemed like it made Ten slightly impressed.
Ten squirmed in his seat, the drunken antics evident but it didn’t scare Johnny off. Johnny took in a breath as he tried to engage in a conversation with him.
“So where are you from?”
“Thailand.” Ten gulped a mouthful of his water, as he shivered lightly before looking at Johnny under his eyelashes, “How did you know I was not from here?”
“Uh…I just knew.” Ten pursed his lips, nodding.
“Thailand, huh?” Johnny chuckled, “I heard that’s a country,um, full of-”
“Prostitutes?” Ten rolled his lips, slamming the glass on the table, “You know, this is the nth time I’ve been hearing about this. You know, it is kind of annoying. At least, to me.”
“Okay. Okay.” Johnny raised his glass half-air, “Sorry I won’t say it anymore. But do tell me about your country. Charm me.”
“No…” Ten lamented, as he let his fingers circle on the rim of the glass, “I’m not in the mood.” Johnny conceded with an “okay” and continued tapping his fingers on the marble top. The bar seemed to grow with more crowd as the clock inched to reach 12, and the sound of the trumpet were layered on with the plummeting gossip of the population.
“Can you guess why am I here?” Ten asked, then that he had his torso towards Johnny, looking at him with droopy eyelids and tousled air of sleepiness.
“Can’ figure.” You are lonely, friendless, looking for a one night stand, drinking away your fruitless time. Johnny had plenty of reasons to offer, but he wasn’t sure if every person was a reflection of him.
“Well, I’ve some kind of a project to complete.” Ten smiled slyly, “So I met this girl at an exchange program last summer. She was the definition of the perfect to your one. But, she was coming here and I-I liked her too much to actually let her slip by.”
“So you hopped on a plane to catch her. Now, you in a mission to pursue her even though your whole ‘ascetic’ lifestyle is at risk.” Johnny grumbled,and he could feel himself being tugged to the edge of his seat. Of course, by Ten’s words, it was evident that Johnny had no chance but perhaps the thought that he felt there was that small lit of fire still not extinguished in his heart, let him stuck on the seat.
“Not quite. But yeah, along those lines.”
“The lengths you go for a girl.” Johnny tightened his lips as he noticed the glass was empty with pity ice cubes clinking with each other. He deemed it was safe not to imbibe onto any more drinks than he had already for the night.
“As I said earlier, she is the one.” Ten pointed at Johnny’s glass, asking if he needed a refill. Johnny waved him off, and shook his head.
“In that case…”Johnny stated, “I am your one too.” Ten scoffed in disbelief, taking a swig of his water. It seemed that the heaviness of the alcohol had rubbed of Ten, since he acted more like a proper being rather than just slurring off words.
“I mean, see…we are here, in this ruckus of a bar. That too, on a Sunday. Who in their right mind…?”
“You mean, people don’t go to night bars on a Sunday?”
“Not that.” Johnny was just rambling, “I just trying hard to make a point here.”
“Very hard.” Ten noted, “But to your dismay, it is utterly false. I am not gay and even if you are very handsome, probably rich judging from your Armani suit and you came all the way to keep me company, I am not attracted in the least.” Johnny bit back a gasp, mockingly. “I hope that suit is not a knock off.” Ten added in the end, with a smile.
“It is not.” Johnny straightened his suit, for emphasis.
“Shouldn’t you be at the gay bar or something? It is probably better than having to play, “Guess his sexuality” in here?”
“Too much to handle. It gets rough in there, oh boy.” Johnny cringed, as his mind reeled in the night he took in the chance of paying a gay bar visit, and he ended up waking up with a 5. He had better luck in there, because he could wake up with someone who appeared 10 and also had 10 hanging in the inside. Yes, it did cost him some hapless night but it was worth it.
“Okay.” Ten bit back a grin, “Tell me more about your gay endeavors. I could use some story time to dilly dally hearing my Mother scream at my ear, for not picking her calls.”
“Ten.” Johnny mumbled, holding the little girl’s waist before peeking from her shoulders. Johnny could recognize that shrill voice anywhere, for it had embossed in his eardrums for years. Ten stood there still, still unable to integrate the situation thoroughly, as if Johnny’s figure bent down before his daughter was just a vision of an empty vessel.
“Hi.” Ten spoke, fumbling with the hem of his suit, before tugging on it skittishly. Johnny stood up from his posture, as Suzy swiftly wrapped her whole hand around Johnny’s pinky finger. Suzy glanced up, studying Johnny’s visage wrapped in awe before moving onto his father’s, who reflected the same expression.
Suzy only reached Johnny’s knees, his mighty height towering her but she did not feel intimidated at the least. After all, Johnny had promised her a pair of bunny ears, she had her eyes on.
Johnny cleared his throat, before reciprocating with a mumbled, “Hey.” carrying a taut smile under his breath. The array of junk food surrounded him by plethora of bright hues, and Ten’s strikingly black suit stood in contrast. Johnny comparatively had worn a plaid blue shirt, with his grown bangs itching his eyebrows and a pair of loose dress pants. Johnny was out on an errand, and he had dropped by the convenience store only to pick up some groceries.
“It’s been a long-”
“time. Yeah. I know.” Johnny smiled, before he tightened his hand around the little girl’s tighter. He lightly shook their linked hands before asking, “Is she yours and Jud-”
“Yeah.” Ten inclined his eyebrows at the little girl, mouthing something.
“My name is Suzy.” Her tiny little voice spoke, catching Johnny’s attention. Johnny broke into a grin, and buckled his knees again to be par with the girl’s height. Johnny could pinpoint the features she had rubbed off of Ten’s, for example, her red tipped nose, eyebrows and the feline smile. It somewhat had satiated Johnny’s beating heart, as he squeezed the girl’s supple cheeks and pinched the tip of her nose.
“That is a cute name.” Johnny complimented, before he craned his neck to face Ten.
“Can we go out for some coffee? I would like to catch up.” Ten nodded, before he walked forward to fix the static strands that poked out of Suzy’s messed up pigtails.
“Can I carry her?” Johnny asked, and Ten bobbed his head again to concede. Johnny hoisted the little girl with a heave, as the latter fluttered her hand mid-air, before grasping onto Johnny’s shoulder. She nestled deeper onto Johnny’s warmth, taking in the scent of the heavy cologne
Johnny couldn’t figure the smile that Ten gave after, seeing Suzy comfortably resting her head on to Johnny’s chest, as her hand looped around his neck to hug him. Ten turgidly informed that he had more paraphernalia to buy, so Johnny should wait at the exit. Johnny had checked out with his own necessities and a bunny ears headband which Suzy had adorned on her head as soon as that. Johnny played around with Suzy, pulling on her ears as he piped in with small questions.
“I’m done.” Ten said, as he lifted two tote bags on his each hand. Suzy excitedly showed off her ears, before chiming in that Johnny had bought it for her. Ten lips sagged slightly, before uplifting a small smile, complimenting that the accessory suited her.
“Suzy, now let go of him. You must walk.” Ten warned, as he left the bags inside of his car, before slamming the door shut.
“No, it’s okay.” Johnny excused, his eyes squinting due to the burning sun rays hitting his eyes, “She can stay.”
“She won’t let go if you continue like that. Don’t say I didn't warn you.” Ten unbuttoned his suit, on second thought, and threw it inside the car leaving him in a crisp white shirt. Johnny walked beside Ten, the latter seeming irascible so he didn’t try to poke in with anything unnecessary.
The coffees stayed stagnant under their looming shadow, with the cafe playing a small mutter of an acoustic indie. Both of them were obdurate to let words leave their lips, as Ten stirred his coffee mindlessly and Johnny played around with Suzy’s bunny ears a little more.
“Papa…look.” Suzy waved the sugar sachet in air, her missing front tooth on display, and Ten couldn’t help but flick the tip of her nose, melting at her adorableness. Johnny felt placated at the small gesture, leaving his galumphing heart to to an unhurried speed.
“Hey…Ten. Ho-How’s Judy?” Johnny asked, with an evident maudlin tone to his voice. Ten sipped his coffee, and placed the cup back.
“She’s, um…”Ten carded his nails on the table cloth, “I guess she is fine.”
“What do you mean, ‘I guess’?”
“Well, after having Suzy, we both got busy in our own work. She would never return home and Suzy would always be left with the nanny and I had to come home already to take care of her.” Ten sucked in a deep breath, his eyes unfocused, “She had the ‘too-much-work’ excuse like stuck on her lips everyday and one day, I just broke down. I told it was work or us, and she chose work because I was too intrusive and annoying. Filed the divorce papers, and I won Suzy’s custody…”
“Oh.” Johnny could only nod, letting his finger wrap around Suzy’s pigtails. He couldn’t raise his head to meet Ten’s eyes, because the heavy burden on his heart seemed to had enlarged.
“What about you? Last time I saw you was at my wedding, and that was-”
“10 years ago? Time flies.” Johnny trailed, as he glanced at his iced coffee, which the half-melted ice cubes floating on the surface, “But yeah, I’ve been fine.”
“Oh,” Johnny realized that probably Ten wanted to know about his mundane lifestyle too, “Well, I moved to Staten Island. I am still handling the real-estate job that I had…not much clients like I used to have before but It works enough to eat and live.”
“What about Mom?” Ten chimed, as he bent slightly towards Suzy and inched his hand to wipe off the ice cream smeared on her upper lips.
“You mean Mom? Like my Mom?”
“Yeah, who else?” Ten reclined back, catching Johnny’s inexplicable expression. He chuckled lightly at Johnny’s inane question, as his hands scrunched up the tissue.
“No, she’s fine.” A sudden mawkish feeling took over Johnny’s sagged lips, “I was just surprised you still call my Mom that.”
“Well, a promise is a promise.” The conservation seemed to had ebbed away the awkwardness they had held against earlier, as they rambled off talking about the friends they had lost contact with or the times they had missed. Suzy dozed off comfortably on Johnny’s chest, while their coffee remained forgotten under the whirr of air-conditioner.
The time had unfortunately came to a close, and Ten had excused himself with a reason that he had a meeting to attend to. “Plus, she is missing her nap time.” Ten pointed at Suzy who was then drooling on Johnny’s arms, long asleep. Johnny nodded, gingerly shifting her until he returned her to Ten’s embrace.
“Hey…Ten?” Ten stood up from the table, carrying Suzy at his one side and the bunny ears gripped tightly on his other, “C-Can I call you? Like later on…”
“Yeah.” Ten breathed, “Yeah. Sure. Why not?”
“Um…you know I’ll just give my office email. My number is not memorized to t at the moment, so just email a ‘hi’ and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
Johnny could see the lies blabbering through Ten’s lips, and he ignored it for the better of him. Perhaps, it was because he still loved him. He wasn’t sure.
Ten stood at the end of the aisle, the tail of the wedding crawled against the floor as she approached. Johnny watched it unfold, the tip of his fingers curling in a fist as nails carded crescents in his palm. Through a one-sided decision, he was unfortunately appointed as Ten’s best man, being the one who was in still, unconditionally, irrationally in love with him. You see, the day, Johnny was called upon the cafe, burying the hatchet of some argument they had got themselves involved in, among the glasses of coffee and crumbles of bread, Ten had disclosed he proposed his then girlfriend. Johnny was astounded, his tongue only roughened like sandpaper as he managed to croak out,
“What? Why so…”
Oh, Johnny remembered, why they were in an argument in the first place. Johnny had said, more like raged over the fact, Ten had left him to suffer their night together at the bar, alone while he went hooking up with his girlfriend.
And then, it was that. Proposals, weddings, a week of silent treatment costed him so much more.
“I know you don’t like her much, but just bear with me.”
“It’s not that I don’t like her.” That only earned a deadpan stare from Ten, the word ‘Really?’ plastered on his face which managed Johnny to mumble “Okay, I don’t like her.but aren’t you rushing this a bit?”
“Rushing? I’m freaking 30!”
“Why can’t you just wait?!” Johnny screeched, taking Ten by a jolt and earned a few stares from the others in the cafe. For me… But of course that went unheard.
“Johnny, you are overreacting.” Ten said calmly, “I just came here to say if you are willing to be my best man. If you are, just call me.”
Johnny did call him, after a few days of deliberation. Okay , a day of deliberation. But, when Johnny was left in that cafe, with stares hovering over him from time to time, and distasteful coffee drowning his lungs, he remembered why he was friends with Ten in the first place. Or how he was friends with Ten, because from the beginning it was pellucid, Ten and him would be nothing more than just friends.
Just friends. Even if that sounded like the title of a cheesy 80s sitcom.
“Ten, I can be your best man. It would be an honour for me.”
“You could have said that in the cafe, without embarrassing me or yourself.” Ten shuffled on the other side, before letting out a heave, “But thank you. For not judging me, I mean. My parents did enough to count for the whole world.”
Ten’s parents were the portrayal of the archaic times, where unconventional had no meaning in their dictionary. Even though it was their son getting married before stepping on to 35 milestone, (which in short would didn’t garner much harangue than expected), but it still gave them space to question who he was getting married with, her age and all sorts of foolish inquiries. How Johnny knew all of that? Because Johnny, was a prey of all that questions 5 years back.
It should bother Johnny by then, when he straightened the suit on Ten’s shoulders, brushing away particles of dust that seemed to settle on the puffed pads. When he saw Ten’s reflection in the mirror, Johnny’s face along with him, it should have been clear by then, Johnny should have been against the wedding from the start. But then again, he would be grouped with the judgemental parents, and Johnny didn’t know if he wanted Ten to give up on his wedding for someone as Johnny.
“Do you think I am doing the right thing?” Ten prodded, as he turned around from the mirror to look at Johnny, “Am I marrying the right girl?”
It should have been his chance to say no.
“Yes, of course. Doubts are underrated, and for all I know she is perfect.” Not even close to perfect, was what his quivering lips said.
Johnny loved him of course, jealousy only molding it crass and irrational. The bridesmaid trudging close to the bride, blonde, petite and conceited. She passed a glance, which fortunately Johnny caught and gave a smile in exchange. Weddings are in a way, a chance for the best man to fuck with the bridesmaid, and Johnny visibly found his then.
Vows are exchanged, gifted with smiles and empty promises. Johnny handed over the silver band over to Ten, which eh wounded around the bride’s fingers. While Johnny had been chanting inside for a catastrophe to bless upon them, so that Ten couldn’t say ‘I do’, the matrimony was sealed and Ten had already kissed the bride.
Throughout his years of friendship, Johnny had seen Ten kiss a lot of girls. A boy,only once. But nothing burned as much as it did that day, it was awful. It was like his heart was thrown like the flower bouquet from the bride’s hand, which luckily that bridesmaid had caught (yes, the one who had been giving Johnny the looks throughout the entire evening).
The same flower bouquet was trashed mercilessly in the bin, as the girl hungrily clawed her nails all over Johnny’s bare chest. They kissed, devouring each others mouths as if they hadn’t had the entire ‘after party’ meal (to Johnny’s defense he didn’t, he really didn’t have an appetite). It was wrong, to fuck someone right after your best friend’s wedding, but leaving the wedding riding in an Irish goodbye, was a sin.
“You met him in a bar?” The girl said almost impassively, pulling a cigarette rolled in between her fingers.
“You are gay, you say. But you did fuck me today.”
“I don’t know.” Johnny groaned, hiding his hands in the cushion of his palms, exhausted, “I just couldn’t bear seeing him like getting married with someone other than me. Loving someone else instead of me. I am selfish to be thinking like that, but I deserve it. I deserve him.”
“No, you don’t.” She said, dragging from the cigarette and then blowing the fumes in the air, “Even if you sacrificed yourself for him, you don’t deserve him. Nobody deserves anyone.”
“But everyone deserves sex.” Johnny mumbled, clutching the blanket to cover his naked thighs. The girl beside him was barren of any clothes, not even a blanket helped to cover her, but she didn’t care because the cigarette seemed to do all the work for her.
After that, it was Johnny’s own circling regime of regretting last night’s sex with a girl (with a fucking girl), smoking some the box of cigarettes the girl left behind her and hanging up all the calls from Ten. Johnny never despised himself more than he did that night.
“John, today at 4, okay? Don’t forget. Listen, you don’t have to buy any gift to, you know, welcome yourself, really. It’s fine. For Suzy, too, don’t worry about it.”
Johnny relentlessly listened to the voicemail over and over again, until it transformed to an ear worm so that he could replay it without the help of his phone. He carried, two plastic bags full of chocolates, and a box of champagne. As per the voicemail, he ignored it. Ten never meant anything he said in voicemail, the proof being the recording he last sent to Johnny’s landline the day after his marriage.
“Johnny, don’t ever fucking contact me. You and I, are done.”
Or the one after their day at the cursed carnival,
“Johnny, let’s never get drunk again. I can’t keep people like this and whether you accept this or not, but this is all your fault. Fucking your fault.” T en called Johnny later that day, to get drunk again.
Among the bustling subway carriage, Johnny found himself smiling, the plastic bags clutched close to himself. There was nothing exciting about it, but the fact that he was going to see Ten again, in the vulnerability of his own home, after what had been 10 years of harrowing loneliness.
Ten lived in one of the most expensive residential areas, but it was expected, with how the family firm had exalting throughout the years.High rise building shrouding over him, sleek cars planted beside each other in the open car park, reminded him of the times he visited Ten’s parents’ home, nearly 13 years back. It was the same feeling of heaviness capturing him, yet placation he was supposed to receive, with Ten whispering slyly, “Just say ‘yes’ to everything they say” was missing, leaving an obvious void behind.
It was Ten then, he was going to face, and the nervousness was eating him from the inside. It wasn’t his way to be ardent, even before, but all he wanted was to see Ten forgive him, with a fake smile even.
Pressing on the lift button, he waited, as the lift ascended up to the top floor.
Johnny looked over the shadow of the lilliputian projection of the buildings under him, as if it were intimidated by him. As if he could step over it, and they would cry for help. Ten was opposite of him, his lips tilted up as he scrutinized the scenery below him. They were enclosed in a ferris wheel, in the middle of the day, the clamor of the carnival ricocheting from the glassed cocoon.
“This is better than your plan to ride all those extreme rollercoasters.” Ten chuckled lightly, his eyes not diverting from the sun rays enlightening the verdant crown of the trees, “You said you were feeling nauseous, and suddenly discoursed into ‘let’s ride a rollercoaster’. I mean keep your mind stilled at least at one place.”
“This isn’t better.” I t was bette r, “This is fucking boring. ” It wasn’t.
“Even if we rode those rides, all I was going to end up in, was a shower of your vomit.” Ten said, reminding of the last time, Johnny vomited all over his lap, because the undulating ride was a bit too strong for his digestive system.
“Your shirt…”Johnny gestured to the white shirt Ten was wearing, “…does look like it needs some colour.” Johnny then stood up from his side, and bent his back to pad towards Ten’s side. He sighed, as he squeezed to Ten’s side, poking the latter’s side with the tip of his fingers.
“People will think we are dating the way you are acting.” Ten guffawed, a bit ticklish with the successive pokes on his side. It incited Johnny to bubble in laughter too, his hands crawling on the prominent curve of Ten’s waist.
“Well, why can’t we?”
“Why can’t we, what?” The ministrations of Johnny’s hand stopped as he looked directly in Ten’s eyes, the pupils of his tugging him in. Ten’s cheekbones wilted, tips curving down and skin highlighted by the orange hue of the rays. They were at the top of the sky, and the insular streams flowed below their soles.
“Date. Why can’t we date?”
“Because we can’t.”
“Dad!” Suzy was there, falling short of the huge door gaped open, “The uncle from the other day is here.” Johnny laughed, as he bent to sit on his haunches to meet Suzy’s eyes, “I have a name, you know.”
“What is that?” She asked, adorableness taking a hold of her every gesture.
The girl bit back a gasp, and curled a strand of hair behind her eyes. She was the exact image of her mother, with that high rose cheeks, and pale skin. Her eyes mimicked the feline ones of Ten, along with the thin lips.
“I know your name well.” Johnny puckered his lips, initiating a frown, “I’m hurt.”
“No, don’t be.” Suzy, let the waves of her hair fall over the side of her hair, as she tried wring it back by craning her neck, failing poorly. Johnny laughed, as he twisted her hair and took the bunch to one side of her shoulder.
“You should tie up your hair prettily. Mind if I teach you?” Handing over the plastic bags of chocolate to her hand, she screeched gleefully and caught a hold of Johnny’s pinky. Johnny scrutinized how tiny her fingers were, wounded around his, and wished that he could kiss it. But, he couldn’t. No matter what he thought of her, he couldn’t.
“Dad!” She screeched again, throwing the plastic bags somewhere. The apartment that laid in front of him was gregarious with its own mighty glassed window, sheen reflection of the buildings, car park down below. The sky reflected a graduation of orange, telling them the sun set was only minutes away, highlighting the gray couch on the edge of the apartment, and the marbled kitchen across them.
Imagine Ten’s apartment like this, an expensive New York condo, white walls with textured wallpapers, the art Ten drew during his university classes marshaled next to each other contrasting with the pink plushies sprawled all over the floor. Johnny vigilantly took note of the family pictures that were adorned on the furniture, angled to show the grins worn by Ten and his daughter, in what seemed like a park. Ten’s parents in another, friends he couldn’t seem to recognize shoulder to shoulder and a tiny frame of Johnny and Ten during their graduation. Johnny was squeezing his nose shut and-
“Johnny, for once take a decent picture.” Ten hissed, pinching Johnny’s side, which only encouraged to irk Ten off with stealthy pokes on his waist.
“And people say you are a photographer.”
“I am a photographer not a model.” Johnny said, catching Ten his shoulder and pulling him in his chest. Ten’s mother curled her lips in distaste, the camera stilled in the grip of her hands as she visibly had enough. It was one of Johnny’s renowned talents, to annoy Ten’s mother to whatever he did, which did reprimand Ten with too many lectures of choosing the right set of friends.
“Right.” As Johnny looked down at Ten, scrutinizing the slope of his nose bridge, his lips itching to kiss the tip of it. In an amiable gesture, if allowed. The jubilation of the graduate students fell to the ground, as Johnny kept him close, his heartbeats could be sensed by the quivering of the tip of his fingertips. When Johnny kept him like that, glued to the clothing he wore, he used to think how much longer he could keep it on. That pretense of friendship.
“Ten!” Johnny whispered, catching Ten’s attention from the camera to which Ten’s mother, then again, clicked her tongue. “I just saw Claire. I think she is still behind me.”
Of course, Ten peeped from the height of Johnny’s shoulder, and his nose hovering in the air, in curiosity. Johnny couldn’t help but take the tip in between his fingers and twist it. The sound of the shutter almost audible in his ears, as the picture was captured there, in the lens of the camera.
“Promise what?” Ten stopped on his steps, turning to look at Johnny, “Is it that I have to join you in late night of charades? Better yet, is it the philosophical discourse on the youngsters? Because I-”
“Let’s get married then. If nothing works out, let’s get married.”
It took the strength of his curled fist, the palpitations of his heart, and the bow of his lips to finally utter those words. They weren’t exactly young, the age of 30 only a few years away, and Johnny couldn’t wait. Couldn’t wait for the failures to approach, to people to disappear, so that Ten could see him, clearly among those haziness.
Ten damped his lips, darting his eyes away, his hands falling by his side, plunging in his pockets, as if to warm them up. To Johnny’s chagrin, Ten didn’t say anything for a while, pretending to be contemplating on his answer. He wasn’t keen on the matter, it was evident by his hesitant shuffles of his feet and yet, Johnny looked a little close to find the answer embossed in the deepest of Ten’s insides.
Ten braced his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, tip toeing on his soles, the wind caressing the strands on his forehead, as Ten’s lips met the side of his cheek. A chaste contact of their skin, Johnny’s arms circled around Ten’s waist as the cold air wafted away from the warmth of their enclosed bodies.
“We can’t do this.” Ten said, his lips only an excruciating inch away. Johnny searched for the honesty that laid in his words, on those lips, but everything Ten feigned was uncomprehending. Johnny wanted to ask him the reason why, but his depleted energy couldn’t afford to. The dawn broke above them, the paint of azure colour gushing out but it was still the middle of the night for them. Ten was still in his arms, and Johnny was still in love with him.
“You know what, you are not in the right mind for this. It’s- it’s just proposal so-um-just you know what, “ Johnny removed his arms from Ten’s waist, and rummaged through his pockets for a receipt, “Just write your answer for me here. Yes, or No. I will open it, when we are both 40 and we-we-unfortunately or fortunately-are still single. Just write it down for me.”
“Okay. I can do that.”
The smothering gap of his pockets, as the birds chimed in for the growing effervescence of the morning, Johnny watched Ten scribble down his answer on the paper. Ten folded the paper on his own, in a neat square and handed it back to Johnny.
“Don’t open it. You promised.”
“Suzy, you promised to help me clean-Oh Johnny.” Ten halted on his way to the other room, carrying a black garbage bag. Sighing he shook the bag in air, and Johnny nodded.
“Just going to discard this, okay?” Ten’s lips curved a bit, “Busy yourself with um-” Noticing that Johnny was standing in front of the frames, “-with the pictures. I’ll be back.”
“Sure. Yeah.” Ten left with a loud thud of the front metal door, the lock beeping behind him and Suzy was nowhere to be found, while Johnny could feel himself stumped on by the heaviness of his own. Johnny played around by himself, touching the edges of the table and massaging the corner with his fingers. He didn’t exactly look for Suzy, but could hear the rustle of her footsteps and some automated voice of perhaps a doll, far away in the right corridor.
With a sigh, he thought to entertain himself with Suzy, to perhaps tie her hair. She had an awful bunch of hair, as Johnny noticed, from her mother. Judy. Judy, was someone Johnny had met during their, both Ten and his last years of Post-Grad. Petite, short, the white coat hanging from her shoulders, her brunette always sticking to the air as she walked. Pretty when she smiled, waved at them from far and squeezed close to Johnny whenever she could see a chance.
Johnny had rejected her advances with a simple, “I’m gay.” and her hands fluttered off his arms, as if it was scathing. He was a guy of brutal personality, honest to the point and he wondered, what had gone wrong in his ways, to lose Ten to that crumbling disposition.
The light from Suzy’s room cut the floor in fluorescent rays, and Johnny opened the door wider, he could see the same sloped shoulders as Judy facing away from him. Ten persuaded Judy the week after, standing on the fact that Judy liked him. She did, as she told Ten the other night.
Johnny said nothing, sealed his lips right after, and prepared himself from the showy gestures of love, from deep kisses to hand scurrying in and out of clothes, unfolding in front of him. Judy had no shame, just to irk the jealousy in Johnny, so that he could regret what he had lost. Lost her, she meant.
But for Johnny, it would be Ten he lost. He lost Ten, with tries, with chances, with confessions that he loved him. He lost Ten on the first day he met him, he lost Ten everyday he spent with him. That day too, would be another similar one.
“Suzy…” Johnny called after her, as she craned her neck to look at him with those eyes, those eyes of Ten, “…want me to tie your hair up?”
“Suzy, you forgot me right after I bought you chocolates. That’s mean, you know.” Johnny took hold of her arms, and sat her on his lap. He let her hair flow in between his finger gaps, as he twisted and curled the the single threads around.
“Yes, you should be sorry.” Johnny chuckled, flicking the tip of her nose, which she also carried from Ten.
Johnny hummed as he braided the hair into a plait, and let it hang in front of her, along her shoulder. Satisfied he tapped her shoulder and asked if she liked it.
“It’s pretty.” She said, touching it with her hand, causing Johnny to move her hand somewhere as not to distort the shape of it.
“I’m glad you liked it…I’m glad you did.”
“Dad always braids me like this whenever I go to school. Before, mom used to. Now, you did. Do you like me, like mom and dad does?”
“Yes.” Every fiber of Johnny said no. He never liked her , Johnny thought, as he let his finger slip off her shoulder.
“Hi.” Johnny spun around at a sudden tap on his shoulder. He was taken aback to see the person standing right in front of him.
“Hi, how are you?” Out of curtsy, he initiated a handshake to which the person gladly took, with that same smug smile pulling on her lips. She still smelled of the Cherry Cigarettes from the night of the wedding, her hair grew wavy till the juncture of her neck, contrasting from the boyish cut she had worn that night.
“I’m fine.” Her hand was warm against his, and soon enough Johnny left her hand hovering in air.
“So, what brings you to New York?” She, Fen as introduced herself before taking Johnny out for a cafe, said as she sipped her day cocktail. The ice clunk against each other in Johnny’s scotch, a sip and he was done with it. Day time drinking was never for him.
“I…I had some work here. You know, selling houses and stuff.”
“So…you did not come to meet Ten?” Fen clicked her fingers on the marble table, eyes darting off to the window, reflecting the bustling roads of Manhattan right outside before settling it on Johnny’s thighs.
“No. Not Ten. I did not talk to him for years.”
“Is it because of the, um, the sudden goodbye or…” she pointed her finger back in front in the space between them, “…because we fucked?”
“Not because we fucked. It’s just…I don’t know.” Of course, Johnny knew why Ten told him to cut off the inkling of relationship they had left after the wedding, via voicemail. Not even call, via voicemail. But, Johnny knew better that Ten never meant what he said in the voicemail.
“They are trying for a kid.” She informed, her smile slightly crooked, “And…Ten…he really misses you.”
I miss him too , Johnny said to himself, I am not sure I am brave enough to face him.
“Well, did you find someone, you know, a guy?”
“No. I had on and off thing with someone at my office.” Johnny ordered a glass of water from the waiter before continuing, “But then, something happened and we broke up.”
“Oh, that’s-that’s, bad.”
“Can’t find a better consolation?”
“Not really. Do you want to go for a hotel?”
“Is that what you wanted to say this whole time?” Johnny laughed airily, the glass of water presented right in front of him, “You know that I’m gay, right?”
Despite the ongoing pesters of Fen, and the piled up glasses of water, Johnny found himself torn off at last. She waved behind her, her other hand braced on the side hand bag as she smiled wide enough for Johnny to notice, she was really satisfied with that spontaneous rendezvous. It wasn’t that, Johnny wasn’t mirroring the same emotions she had conveyed, but the sudden quips of Ten and his family, or Judy, wasn’t really setting him off at a favoured start.
The crowd thickened on the pavement, the streets packed with more yellow taxis than ever but Johnny found himself sighing, his heart melting off piece by piece as he imagined how would it have been if visited Ten then. Would Judy stop despising him for once, now that she was married to his best friend? Would Ten forgive him for leaving the wedding just like that, only to hook up with someone he wasn’t meant to?
Would Ten take him back, for who he was?
“Hey.” Ten was leaning against the door jamb, watching Suzy inclined on Johnny’s chest fondly. Johnny gave a tight smile, since Suzy remained heavy in slumber on his chest, stalling him to move anywhere.
“Was it her nap time?” Johnny harshly whispered, and Ten nodded enthusiastically, obviously juicing the fun out of the situation. It only encouraged Johnny to furrow his brows, and let a hiss at the fact of the need of nap times and how susceptible children were to sleep.
“Yeah.” Ten breathed, before padding towards Johnny to hoist Suzy from his hold, and carried her to the bed. Johnny watched it happen, smiling to himself, his hands holding tight on his dress pants. Johnny was proud to see Ten mature himself enough to take care of his daughter, even on his own. Prior to those years of 30s, Ten was a helpless young man chasing girls down the corridors of college, laughing to nonsensical turn of events and getting himself drunk without a reasoning.
Those 10 years that Johnny had missed, had left an incurable scar and he realized he might not even know the Ten that was in front of him, smooching his daughter’s cheeks, tucking her in. It was an inner contemplation, an endless wondering that Johnny engulfed himself in, of whether he was wrong to leave Ten be?
“I ordered dinner. You want to…” Ten broke Johnny from his stupor, and Johnny looked at him questioningly.
“I ordered dinner.” Ten inclined his chin towards the corridor.
“Uh-Yes.” Johnny’s legs were numb, for crossing his legs for the past 15 minutes.Ten noticed it, and walked to him, to lend his arm. His hands seemed bony, pale and Johnny couldn’t help but stare at it, dumbfounded.
“Right. Yeah.” Taking his hand, Johnny balanced himself on his soles, before following Ten out of Suzy’s room. Ten went ahead, and started taking out plastic boxes of take out from the white plastic bag.
“You always eat take out?”
“Sometimes. Today seemed like it would be the perfect occasion.”
Johnny only uttered a ‘yes’ along with some rhythmic chuckles.There was nothing to talk about other than just mere exchange about weather, the condition of the food (which was unappetizing) or how things had been for both of them. Out of bravery, Ten had spilled some disturbing ordeals that he went through during the divorce and how he never went over it, even then.
“It’s Judy…” Johnny said, punching the noodles back to the box, playing with them, “…it’s not like you expect anything more.”
“You talk like you knew her better.”
“Of course I did.” Johnny wasn’t lying then, neither he was lying about Judy the day Ten asked Johnny to be his best man. Perhaps, it would have been a better decision at stake if the bride was anyone other than Judy. Judy was the epitome of hatred in Johnny’s view.
For then, it seemed like those days at the bar had came filtering through the nostalgia, reminiscences about parents, college friends, and of course their own midnight endeavors. Johnny had added, honestly, he had slept with a girl impulsively once a few years back (yes, the same one the day of Ten’s wedding, but he didn’t say that). Only if Ten knew, he wouldn’t guffawed at the remark like that.
“Thank you for coming today.” Ten blurted out of nowhere, when even the story of their dorms hadn’t even finished. It seemed like Ten had suddenly realized what he had been missing the last 10 years of his life.
“Of course, you are my friend.”
“Best friends. We were best friends…what happened to that?”
Johnny cleared his throat audibly, as an awkward gesture of not knowing the answer to that. If he pondered on it for a while even, he wasn't sure he would find an answer to that. The answer was on the tip of his tongue, tangled within the knot in his throat but he couldn’t articulate the words even if he wanted to.
“I don’t know.”
“You fucking left me at my own wedding. My fucking best friend wasn’t even there when I was at the pit of despair, going through all these custody, divorce papers. Where were you when I needed you the most?” Ten exasperated, his own food uneaten and forgotten, “Why are you acting like everything is alright?”
Johnny was guilty, but he didn’t show it. If anything was to blame, it should had been Ten. Without fail, Johnny had vocalized what he had felt, what he wanted with Ten and yet shamelessly, Ten had to marry someone he didn’t even like.
“Everything is alright.” He could pretend like that, as long the evening could be stretched, as long the 10 years could be forgotten until the remnants would dissipate in air. So that, they could only remember the things they had gone through, the things only they know.
“No, it’s not. Stop making yourself believe that you are the fucking Samaritan in this issue. I needed you.”
“You told me not to contact you.”
“You know how I never mean those things. How come I will never need you? You are-”
“-Then why did you marry her? Why the fuck did you marry Judy? You knew, I like you. You knew, I wanted you. Why everything should be my fault? Why, for once, you wouldn’t admit that you liked me too?”
The apartment was grew in the silence that Johnny pulled, because he wasn’t supposed to say that. The receipt where Ten scribbled those words resounded along the walls, reminding them of the whet phrases that Ten meant. Even though the wane rays of the moon, lightened the floor, the peripheral profile of Johnny as they looked at each other, their hearts failed to match.
“Don’t open it. You promised.”
Of course, the redundant urge overpowered the promise, the integrity Johnny wanted to keep. He wanted to know a reason to which he could keep holding on to. The folded ears of the receipt, and among the rough inked prices of the grocery he had shopped a week ago, was the cursive flourishes of Ten’s writing,
“Please tell me “I love you” always until I hear it.”
The receipt was still hidden in his wallet, among the small picture of that graduation photo of Ten and Johnny. He had a copy too, stuck behind the transparent pocket of his wallet. He hoped as he stared at Ten, that those words weren’t a transitory flash of feelings. The kiss, the chaste one they had, the first kiss he adored much more, wasn’t just a spur of the moment.
“Will you let me say ‘I love you’ to you again?”
The momentary dash of fervour went across Ten’s pupils, and obliterated itself before Johnny could catch it. Ten’s hands were folded on the table, as he broke the contact and looked elsewhere. Perhaps, he was pondering like that day, he did on the street, before kissing him.
“Is it because you don’t want to hear it?” Johnny prodded, because except the occasional sniffles and the thuds of Johnny’s chopsticks, acting as the ticking hands of the clock.
“No.” Ten inhaled a deep breath in, biting his lips after, “I want you to tell it to me until you get tired of it. So that you won’t tell it to me anymore.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t believe you.” The chair cried as Johnny pushed it back, as he stood up abruptly.
“Johnny what you are asking of me is-is something I can’t give you. Yes, I love you. I love you-I always have. The love you gave me, did behind my back or the love you had for me on that first night we met. But what about Suzy, or my parents?”
“Fuck it all.” Johnny walked towards him, and dropped on his haunches, sitting himself in front of Ten’s knees. Without a thought, he let his hands rest on Ten’s thighs, gripping the dress pants tight.
“Please…” His voice croaked, despite his struggled to repress those tears in, “I love you. How many times do I have to repeat it?” Taking an inhale of the stale air of the apartment, he said, “I will do it as many times you ask me.”
Johnny could feel Ten’s lips pressing on his crown, his own cries muffled the tousled hair of his. Clutching his strands tight around his fingers, Ten shivered as he chanted his apologies, for his obdurate decision.
Perhaps, Johnny was too late. Maybe, Ten was too strong, or the love Johnny had for him was useless. Too inexorable, too much to carry.
“Oh…”Ten rolled his eyes, as his phone was flipped shut again. “Mom called for at least 13 times, until she resorted to voicemails and messages.” Johnny chuckled, catching a smile on the latter.
“My mother is pretty chill about this.”
“About you hanging out in bars looking for a hookup?”
Johnny could feel his heart sink to the bottom of his stomach, as he managed to mumble of some answer. Ten for once, in that whole evening, smiled as if he meant it. He realized in that bar of conceited people, he found Ten, a person he could get inured to. The feelings of romance could be pocketed for some other time; he could survive with that.