“I told Helena.”
Sully had just spent the latter half of the day debating the merits of partying versus studying. The invite came from a Uni friend, a tall Irish guy from his morning lecture hall, talking about a warehouse party not too far from campus. He gave a non-committal answer at first, too many deadlines looming for him to comfortably say yes, but not enough to convincingly say no. Not to mention the guy, Patrick, is very persistent in his pestering, and simultaneously decent to look at, though it is hard to get a read on what way he swings, and Sully has never felt comfortable just asking.
All these thoughts were swarming in Sully’s mind as he hopped in the front seat of the taxi they’re splitting. As customary, he went to greet the driver only to see Ash of all people.
Of course, the driver is Ash. Over 2,000 taxi drivers in Perth and he gets the one he's been avoiding the last three months. He spends the whole ride evading eye contact and subtly fidgeting, all his effort focused on keeping his face neutral.
Neutral that is, until Ash says something he never expected.
“I told her I’m gay.”
His eyebrows perk up, any façade of neutrality abandoned. This is not how he expected this night to go. Time slows as he stands outside the car, his mind blank on how to proceed. He wants so badly to default to his usual strategy, to keep his walls up and his heart guarded.
“Are you going to say anything?”
It dawns on Sully, how big this is for Ash, how lonely he must feel. He thinks back to when he was 13, how quiet and distant his mother was after he came out. She accepted him soon enough, but every minute until then was agonizing.
He steps back into the car.
“You did the right thing.” Sully sits close to him but averts his eyes, terrified of what he might see if he looks straight at him. “Are you okay?” he forces as much empathy as he can into the question, instincts be damned.
“No. I’m not.”
Sully takes a deep breath and finally looks at Ash, eyebrows knit together, unsure what to say. The eyes he sees are sad, but also hopeful, and maybe a little bit anxious as they dart around Sully’s face. Sully fidgets his fingers for a bit, a reckless idea bubbling in his head. He rests his hand on Ash’s shoulder and says, “You look like you could use a drink. Want to come in for a bit.”
Now it’s Ash’s turn to look confused. Sully can feel the sweat on his palm, his heart rate speeding up.
“I’m supposed to be working tonight,” Ash deflects, “Besides, I can’t just leave my car here.”
“Fair.” Sully frowns, wracking his emotionally addled brain for a solution. “How about you drink, and I drive us home? My treat.”
“Are you sure?” Ash laughs, incredulous, “You’re here with your mates, man, I can’t ask you to do that.”
Sully cuts him off, “Don’t worry about it,” he massages Ash’s shoulder ever so subtly, despite his better judgment, “I got class tomorrow, probably best if I’m not hungover.”
“Alright,” Ash relents, “I’ll have a drink,” Sully emphasizes the a, as in just one, “But you owe me a 5-Star review, 120 characters about how great a driver I am.” Sully looks down and chuckles. He can feel a crack in his walls and if he’s not careful it’ll cause a flood. Ash, meanwhile, turns his attention to the warehouse. It’s a factory from the second world war converted into a party ground for hipsters, and it’s clear on Ash’s face that he’s trying to gauge how much this will put him back. “So, uh…how much is the cover?”
“Not a lot, less than the price of drinks, I think. This place is apparently “up and coming” so they’re doing a promotion night.”
“How much in dollars?” Ash persists.
“I said my treat, didn’t I? That includes cover.”
“I can pay for myself.” Ash insists, “If anything I should pay for you. Last time you treated me, I treated you like shit, ditched you for that arsehole Tyler. Let me make it right this time.”
Ash turns off the ignition and hops out of the car before Sully can argue.
Let me make it right this time.
Sully fixates on what Ash said, mentally picking at the words as he follows Ash inside.
One more crack in the wall.
“This is my mate, Ash.”
Patrick, Nonso, Alden, Marie, and Jemma. Sully introduced them in rapid-fire succession and Ash is utterly failing at keeping their names straight. A thumping techno beat and synchronized light show dull his senses, smoke that’s half fog-machine, half hooch, clouds his vision. He turns his attention to Sully, still expecting a second head to grow from his neck. The two have barely spoken in the preceding months, now they’re ‘mates’ again? It stings a little, being called that after all the brush offs and cold shoulders, but Ash knows he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Sully nudges him, subtly cueing him to come back to reality and say hello. “Cool to meet you all.” He flashes his best and most practiced smile, the one he’s been whipping out for a month now around Helena, around his uncle. It seems to be convincing enough, the guys all shake his hand, the girls smile politely, Jemma a bit more flirtatious than Marie. One of the guys, Patrick he thinks, gives him a curious once-over, before turning back to his drink. A new song comes on and Ash is suddenly hyper-aware of an arm wrapped around his shoulder.
“Do you want to dance first or check out the bar?”
Ash looks away from the hand on his shoulder to the face that’s now very close to his. It’s a good face, a sweet smile, and nice eyes behind a great pair of glasses. He can feel himself swallow as he averts his gaze, unsure of how long he was staring.
“Bar,” he pauses, “Definitely bar.”
Sully nods and points the way. Ash follows his friend to a lit-up countertop just outside the warehouse. The colors from the lights are vibrant as he takes in the fog-free air. He sees Sully let out a huge sigh before doing the same. Great minds and whatnot.
Sully flags down the bartender, a short, built guy in a tank top with a healthy coating of stubble. “Can I get you guys anything?”
“Yeah, can I get a water and a Strongbow?”
Sully always had a way of remembering what Ash likes.
“Sorry mate, only cider we got is Bulmers?”
Sully blanches, sticking out his tongue and scrunching his nose in a way that makes Ash giggle. He looks over and asks, “You cool with Bulmers?”
“Bulmers is fine, I’m not that picky.” Ash is that picky, but he figures it’s better than the assortment of craft beers and spirits that from looking at the menu, would set him back three rides worth of tips.
“Okay, a water and a Bulmers please.”
“Coming right up.” The bartender smiles at Sully with a glint in his eye that Ash doesn’t particularly care for. He bends down to grab a cider and hands it to Sully with a wink. “That’ll be $7.50”
Ash swoops in and puts down a tenner before Sully can grab his wallet. He stares down the bartender, not sure exactly what he’s trying to assert but asserting it regardless. “Keep the rest mate.”
“Someone’s trying to impress,” the bartender winks at Ash now, “Don’t worry mate, just being friendly. Glasses here is all yours.”
“Oh, he’s not…” they both say in unison before the bartender interrupts them.
“Oh, he’s not?” he deadpans, elongating the ‘o’ to mimic them. “My mistake, definitely not.” He smirks now, rolling his eyes as if this is a common occurrence.
Ash feels a sudden urge to deck the guy but he forces his fists into open palms, breathes slowly, and laughs politely. There’s an edge to him tonight, a simmer of emotions threatening to boil over. He wonders if this was a good idea.
Luckily, Sully notices and gives him an out. “Look, open barstools.” Sully points out a triad of stools up against the warehouse's outer wall that just freed up. The counter is cluttered with empty glasses, but they can make room. “Quick, let’s grab them.” Ash grabs his drink and starts to powerwalk, using his long limbs to catch and surpass Sully who’s already making the mad dash for a seat. Ash arrives first grabbing a seat on the edge, but before Sully can make it a couple arrives out of thin air and stakes their claim. Ash groans, but doesn’t say anything, just stares daggers at the couple while Sully grips his shoulder.”
“Sorry man, I should’ve grabbed the middle seat, would’ve been a lot easier to save you one.”
“You still say sorry way too much Ash,” Sully gives him a firm look, “We’ll just trade spots when my legs get tired.” He blows at a strand of hair that’s fallen out of place, hoping to fix it through willpower and lung strength alone. He’s failing horribly.
“Given your running form, I’m sure that won’t take long.” Ash teases, remembering the last time they went out to a gig like this.
I let you beat me. Our runs on the beach, I let you win.
A knot forms in Ash’s stomach, but he ignores it. Sully meanwhile is smiling. “Really, because I’m pretty sure I run more than you do Mr. Car-Owner.” Sully has moved past blowing on his bangs to mussing them up with his fingers. Ash reaches out to fix the loose strands, running his hand through the soft locks until their back into place. If his fingers lingered a little longer than perhaps necessary, Sully doesn’t say so. Well, he does, but not with words. He clears his throat and steps back slightly. The moment has left; Ash realizes.
“So uh, how did she take it?”
“How did who?” Ash starts to say before he realizes, “Oh, you mean Helena.” Sully nods in response. Ash takes a second to collect himself, but he finally answers, “Not great.” Ash rubs his eyes and looks away,
“You’d think for a promotion night they’d do a better job cleaning the place, dusty as all hell” He laughs through a sniffle.
“We’re outside Ash.” Sully’s a smartarse, but there’s no malice in it. “But I hear pollen season came early this year, climate change and all that.” It’s nowhere near pollen season, but Ash appreciates the indulgence in his lie regardless. He decided to be truthful.
“I think I really hurt her.”
Sully is silent. His brow knitted together, doing that face he makes when he’s deep in thought.
Ash’s breath hitches slightly, he can feel the words pushing like a tidal wave on a levee. The space between him and Sully is claustrophobic enough, he doesn’t need this flood of emotions to make it smaller.
“I think I hurt you too.” Ash is only barely audible above the thumping beat of the warehouse. “And I don’t think I ever apologized for it. Not really, anyway”
“Don’t what Sully?” Anger, there’s an emotion he can work with. It isn’t pleasant, for him or Sully, but it’s productive.
“Don’t apologize for something you can’t do anything about.” Sully looks torn, a myriad of emotions on his normally stoic face, and Ash can’t read any of them. “I was there too when your uncle walked in. I saw the way he reacted, the way your brother frowned and shook his head. I don’t hate you or judge you or even blame you for what happened, but I can’t play these games either Ash.” He takes a deep sigh and continues. “I want things, need things that I know you can’t give, and I know aren’t fair to ask so all I ask now is that we just keep our distance.”
Ash looks away and considers this. He takes a pull from his drink, hoping the alcohol will push his thoughts along to where they need to be. “What if I want those things too?” He takes another long pull, refusing to look at his former friend. “What if I don’t want to stay at a distance? What if I miss you, Sully?”
The song playing inside changes from a moody techno beat to a pop song that Sully likes and Ash pretends to hate. “We should go back inside.” Sully says, “Don’t want the others to think we ditched them.” It isn’t an answer, but it isn’t a rejection either.
“Sure.” Ash agrees, grateful for the distraction. He takes a long swig of his beer and follows Sully inside.
One more crack in the wall.