Read Chapter 1 of The Friendship Study
Between the music and my pulse thrumming in my ears, I think the pounding on my front door is thunder. The sky outside my window is slate gray, the clouds full to bursting.
But the pounding comes again, along with the ring of my doorbell, the two-tone sound distinctly un-storm-like. I turn my music down as I drag a balled-up T-shirt over my sweaty chest. My heartbeat is still coming down from the last set of back squats and my thigh aches from when the leg was in traction. A phantom pain that the doctors have hummed about skeptically in the two years since.
The doorbell rings again, three times in quick succession. “I’m coming,” I yell.
A broad-shouldered, stocky person stands on the other side of the glazed glass door. “George?” I ask as I yank it open, already knowing the answer. I’d recognize the shape of him anywhere.
He narrows his eyes and gives me a once-over, his lip curled in disgust. For a panicked moment, I wrack my brain for some event I’ve missed. One that I agreed to attend with him and forgot to cancel.
“You need a shower.”
I look down at myself. He has a point. My sweat has acted like glue, sticking dirt and dust to my skin. I need a shower and clearly my home gym needs one, too.
“I was working out,” I say stupidly.
He walks past me, careful to avoid skin-to-skin contact. George never liked to join me at the gym when we were together. We’d hit the yoga studio or spin class but he “declined to participate” in the toxic bro culture of most weight rooms. The result is that George has stacked, lean muscle and some of the best cardiovascular stamina of anyone I know. Since my accident he’s tried to get me to come with him to yoga again, and I’ve even acquiesced a few times, but I’m positive I didn’t agree to that today.
George stands in my entryway, his head swiveling between the living room and the kitchen.
“Not that it’s not nice to see you but…what are you doing here?” I ask.
He nods once and, seeming to make a decision, moves into the kitchen, placing a tote bag I hadn’t noticed on the counter and opening the fridge. Bottles and jars clink as he moves stuff around, placing a six-pack of beer inside.
This is officially weird.
The last time George drank beer, we’d stolen it from my grandfather’s beer fridge in the garage.
A fly buzzes past me and my still-hot skin puckers against the cool air. I’ve left the door open. I pull it closed and follow him into the kitchen. “Did we have plans?” I finally ask.
The answer is no. I know that it’s no. Not for his lack of trying. I’ve just been a terrible friend—ex—whatever, this past year…maybe even longer.
“Why don’t you go shower, Logan. You stink.” He places a bag of tortilla chips, a brick of cheese, sour cream, salsa, and avocadoes on my counter. He opens the cupboard at his feet. Shuts it.
“Where’d you put your casserole dish?” He sounds livid. Like rearranging my kitchen was a personal attack. But I’m still stuck on his use of my last name. He hasn’t called me Logan since we were in high school. Since we were both dragging ourselves through comphet in public, while giving each other hand jobs in his parents’ basement in private.
He came out first. By baking a cake and piping I’m gay in rainbow icing on top, serving it to his parents after dinner. They were happy for him. His mom cried—out of happiness that he’d shared such an important part of himself with them, not out of any sense of disappointment. George came out and came into himself.
I came out more slowly. First, just to him.
I * don’t * just like girls, I’d typed into our private chat. Words I had written and deleted what felt like hundreds of times. The backspace button was practically smoking.
I know [emoji1.happyface], he’d responded. He’d promptly asked me on a date.
Then I came out to our friends, but since most of my friends were George’s friends, other outcast kids he’d collected over the years, mostly queer theater kids, telling them felt less like coming out and more like landing in a loud, fluffy pillow of love and acceptance.
I came out to the fire station, too, but only after a few years on the job. After I made sure they saw my contributions as invaluable, and after a few of the old-guard vets, who used “gay” as an insult, had retired. For the most part, they were chill. A few blank faces that I’m sure were working hard not to show disgust, some confusion since bisexuality continues to be one of the most perplexing of all the sexualities known to straights. After I dropped a few “hose” jokes at my own expense, everyone calmed down. Since having sex in the firehouse, regardless of the gender of your partner, is expressly and certifiably prohibited, I didn’t have to hide much. But I was always worried that someone—one of my older coworkers who kept in touch or a rookie who’d idolized him—would out me to Pop.
Even when we were dating, to Pop, George was always just a friend. My best friend, but just a friend. Back then, we’d used all of the same tools that straight boys used to emotionally distance themselves, including calling each other by our last names.
I probably don’t have the right to the feeling, but Logan makes me angry. Pop isn’t here and to George, I’m Jesse. Jess. I’d even accept Juicy, the name he called me only when he wanted to make me blush. A name I’d asked him to stop using once we stopped being boyfriends.
I let that anger dictate the next words out of my mouth. “Listen, you can’t just barge in on a Saturday afternoon, uninvited, and start making lunch. What the hell are you doing here?”
“No, you listen.” He points a finger at me. George has always been able to give as good as he gets. “I tried giving you space. We all did. You’ve got yourself some new job you didn’t even tell me about, which is…whatever. You haven’t been dating and I get why you might not want to share that with me, anyway. Hell, you’re a private guy, Jesse. OK? I get it. But you are also my best friend.” His words end on a sigh, losing all of their bluster.
He slides his hand across the countertop, the tips of our fingers touching. My heart squeezes and I hope it doesn’t show up like it feels, a crack down the center of my face.
“You’re my best friend, too.” My voice is shaky, and I swallow the other words down, that he’s the person I’m closest to in this world, other than Pop.
George doesn’t let me off the hook, though. “You haven’t been texting anyone back for months. You don’t pick up the phone. You didn’t join the softball team this year. I’m trying to be understanding, but I miss you.”
After over a decade of knowing each other, George is used to my silences. Still, I can’t help but feel self-conscious about them. I stare down at the old Formica countertop, trace my finger over the faint brown crescent moon burned into it, marking the spot where Grandma had once put a hot pot down without a trivet.
“So, you’re going to shower,” George says, softer. “And I’m going to make this new nacho dip I found, and you’re going to drink beer, and we will watch some rugby match on whatever channel you pay too much money for. And we’re going to start again.”
“Our friendship,” he says, quieter still. “We’re going to restart it without the baggage of being exes and the decade that we’ve already accumulated between us. We’re just going to be two queer dudes, hanging out. Being friends.” He clears his throat and clenches his jaw, a little embarrassed.
“The casserole dish is above the stove,” I say after a moment.
The shower is too hot, then too cold. Never an in-between. I dress still a little wet, my shirt sticking to my back. I putter around my weight room, what used to be my bedroom until I moved everything into the master bedroom last year, after Pop moved into the assisted-care home. I wipe down the floor mats I installed, and the bench, the bar and the plates, the mirror on the wall, with an all-purpose cleaner.
Pre-match commentary blares as I enter the living room and I join George on the couch, a bowl of chips and the casserole dish—now filled with some sour-cream-salsa-cheese concoction—between us. “I also ordered a pizza,” George says, his eyes on the TV screen as if he’s actually interested in what two old white Welsh men have to say about these random teams’ prospects this season.
I shrug and dip a chip. “It’s good,” I say with a full mouth.
He preens. George has a separate Instagram account dedicated to his cooking and baking projects. I assume he’s already uploaded photos of this dish to the account. Meanwhile, I have an Instagram account I have forgotten the password to.
I sip my beer; it’s still warm after too few minutes in the fridge. A rugby player drop-kicks the ball from the middle of the field. George scrolls his phone. Despite his claims that we are starting fresh, he’s as comfortable here as I am. He’s as familiar as the furniture that’s been here for twenty years at least, the school pictures and my grandparents’ wedding photos hanging over the fireplace; nothing’s been changed since my grandmother was alive. The only new things in this house are the television and the close-cropped haircut I got last week.
Eventually, the boredom gets the best of him, and George regales me with the drama at his job. He’s the administrator for the psychology department at the University of Wilvale, the school that’s the only reason this town is on a map at all. George is also, slowly, getting his PhD part-time. He doesn’t want to be a psychologist, he says. He just wants to be able to psychoanalyze our friends. Since this is the exact level of meddling I expect from him, I’ve never said anything about how he’s spending a shit-ton of money to be able to dole out the best advice in our friend group.
“OK,” George says, breaking the comfortable silence that has settled between us. “There’s more to this intervention than just starting fresh.” His voice is pitched high. He catches his lip between his teeth.
I freeze with the beer bottle halfway to my mouth. This is what his nerves are about.
“Don’t be mad,” he pleads.
I place my bottle on the coaster and resist the urge to say I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. Because George does this. He’s the king of not-always-welcome surprises. Most of the time I’m quiet because I don’t know what to say but this time, I let the silence hang thick between us.
The doorbell rings. George winces at the door and back at me. “That’s the food.”
George’s eyes are bigger than my stomach. I’m already full.
He says quickly, “You’re going on a date tonight.” Then gets up to answer the door.
“A what?” I ask when he comes back carrying a pizza box. Normally, I’d reach for my wallet, but he can cover this one. “A date?”
I’m not disappointed. I’m definitely mad. But underneath that anger is the gripping fear that makes it hard to speak, to breathe.
“Why?” I ask, then before he can answer, “With who? When? George, why?”
He slides the box onto the coffee table. “Just listen.”
“No.” I stand up. Sit down. It’s been two years since my accident but in this weather—unseasonably cold, damp, the air heavy with rain that hasn’t fallen yet—my leg stiffens, aches. I press my fist against it, as if the pressure on the muscle will distract my nerves from the metal in my bones, the muscles that were torn and shredded.
“No. I’m not going on a date with anybody. You can’t do this to me, George.”
“There’s this woman who works at the university.” He plows ahead as if I haven’t already said an adamant and resounding absolutely the fuck not. “And we’ve become lunch buddies and we’ve been talking and she’s really lonely—but gorgeous—and she hasn’t been on a successful date in forever—I don’t know why, she’s lovely—and she reminded me of you.”
He walks into the kitchen, the floorboards creaking under his feet. The sound of cupboards opening and closing drifts in over the quiet hum of thickly accented rugby match commentary. As if this is just a casual conversation and not George meddling in my personal life. Again.
“She reminds you of me because…we’re both lonely and can’t get dates?” I ask. “Do you know how rude that sounds?” I don’t get angry often. Even now the feeling is burning up, leaving something empty and airless in its place. But my voice still trembles.
He comes back with two plates and starts doling out slices. “And I told her about you, and she said you sounded great and how about this Saturday, and I said I’d set it up and now…” he says, breathless. “It’s Saturday.”
“What if I had plans already?” I ask, as he shoves a plate into my hands.
“I didn’t say I did have plans, just what if,” I grumble.
“Maybe if you’d answer your phone or text me back once in a while,” he hisses, his hand still gripping my plate. “We wouldn’t be finding ourselves in this predicament.”
George leans back, holding his plate up at his chest to avoid crumbs falling everywhere. He takes a huge bite of his pizza, grumbling around greasy pepperoni. I dump my plate onto the coffee table. My stomach has soured to the thought of food, and instead I worry; about how terribly my last date went, with a man I’d met through an app, who turned out to only want sex but definitely not sex with me; at how I used to be strong, capable, a firefighter, a man who trusted his body, and how now I’m not strong or capable of much at all, how I’m not a firefighter, how I’ve lost that trust.
I know, somewhere deep down, that this is probably anxiety. I know that I should probably do something about that but losing my job didn’t just affect my identity. It affected my access to things like therapy at anything close to an affordable rate.
Mostly, I worry about George’s supreme ability to meddle. And my inability to say no to him. Because he does meddle, but George also loves me, and he worries, too. And if he’s done this, knowing how I’d react, I’ve made him worry. A lot.
“I need to visit Pop,” I say, a little helplessly. A last-ditch effort at no.
“Lulu said you should meet her at The Pump at seven. You have lots of time.”
He shoots me a look. “Yes. Lulu.”
“Sounds like a cartoon character,” I mumble.
He shoves me, his shoulder to mine. With the difference in our size, I don’t move. “It’s short for Eloise. Don’t be rude.”
“I’m not,” I say. “I’m sorry.” I feel sheepish. “This is just…a lot.”
The match plays on, the Welsh accents on the announcers so thick I can only pick out every third word or so. But I don’t want to hear them talk. I watch since it’s better than not watching. If I can’t play anymore, at least I have this.
“Jess,” he says, softly. “I really am sorry for meddling.” George nibbles his pizza.
“I know you are.” The invisible fist wrapped around my chest loosens. Everything feels a little bit better now that I’m Jess again.
“It’s just cuz I want—”
“What’s best for me. I know.” I sigh. And I do know. I love him enough not to care…too much. “Next time could you just set up a dating profile without my permission instead, though?”
George throws his head back as he laughs, his dark curls flopping on his forehead, and it’s not until hearing it that I realize how much I’ve missed it. Laughter: his, Pop’s, my own.
“So, you’ll go?” he asks.
I sigh. “What’s she like?”
George lights up. He knows he’s winning and I hate it. “She’s smart and funny and a little quirky. Here.” He pulls out his phone and navigates to an Instagram account for someone named @luluvsyou.
And she may not be a cartoon character of the Saturday morning TV variety. More like my thirteen-year-old Sailor Moon obsession. Her eyes are big and blue, framed by winged eyeliner, her lips a shiny bubble gum pink. Her hair is a purple cloud around her head.
“She doesn’t have that hair anymore,” he says. “She just doesn’t update her social media a lot.”
So, we’re both lonely, bad at getting dates, and terrible at content creation. At least we’ll have something to talk about. “George, she’s…”
He won’t let me get away with saying she’s too pretty for me. But he can’t stop me from thinking it. And not even in an “I’m ugly” way. I know what I look like. But there’s more to a relationship than attraction and I’m not sure I can bring the rest.
“If you really, really don’t want to, I’ll text her right now and cancel but…I really do think you’ll like her. And at the very least, you could be friends.” His gray eyes are big and pleading. He’s got his palms pressed together like he might beg.
“It’s weird,” I say. “That my ex is setting me up on dates.”
“The straights could never,” he says and this time I laugh.
“Yeah. I’ll go,” I say, even though it makes my chest feel tight, a date that might end like the last one. Or a person who might expect me to fit within their life when I can barely fit into my own. “On one condition,” I say.
I can tell he means it.
“You stop meddling.”
George is quiet, staring blankly at the TV screen. Like he has to think about it and he’s weighing his options, as if it might be worth canceling on this “Lulu” for the right to keep sticking his nose in my business.
He sighs. “Fine.”
I sit back against the couch and focus on the match. This feels like a win, even if it isn’t really.