By Kath Richards
I was at home watching a K-Drama when Heather called. My phone screen was cracked so it looked like Holly might be calling, which was weird since we’d just talked ten minutes before, but I picked up anyway.
“Yo,” I said, wedging the phone between my neck and shoulder.
“Hey big boy, guess where I am?”
I knocked my tupperware of salsa to the floor—it was only a little full, thank God.
“Thomas? Are you okay?” she said.
I looked at my phone again and sure enough it was Heather, not Holly. I did not, at this point, take a moment to consider why this was disappointing.
“Heather,” I cleared my throat and tried to lower my voice. “Good to hear from you, I just knocked something over in my office. Stapler.”
I grabbed a hand towel from the table and started blotting the chunky red stain on the pale carpet.
“You work too hard,” she purred. She was always purring or cooing—it could never be a regular-person voice with Heather. But like, no way she talks to her grandma in that voice, right? Or her kids?
“Well, someone has to.”
Heather laughed. I’m funny to Heather, but not in the way I’m funny to Holly. Holly snorts when I say things, she calls me an idiot and has this incredible Waluigi impression. Heather probably doesn’t even know who Waluigi is. I don’t think she’s ever played a Mario game, maybe even any video game other than Candy Crush, and actually, now that I think about it, Heather doesn’t laugh, not really. She giggles and demures.
“You didn’t guess where I am,” Heather said. “Aren’t you desperate to know?”
“Don’t tease,” I said, “the suspense, it’s killing me.”
I knew exactly where she was. Heather calls me two times a year, once in August and once in February, always from the Residence Inn downtown, usually half-naked, always wearing a perfume that makes me almost-sneeze (my nose can never commit to it, the sneeze, so it’s this nostril-tickling torture for ninety percent of our visits—the brink of sneezing with no release). I must be allergic to something in the scent, narcissus or neroli or something.
“Tell me you’re not busy?”
I wasn’t busy, obviously. I’m not often busy on Friday nights; I don’t know many middle school teachers with thrilling social lives. Some of the most noteworthy blips on my yearly agenda are the fall and winter holidays and Heather’s bi-annual booty calls.
Of course, I do hang out with Holly—we aren’t always boring, we’ve gone white-water rafting for my birthday every summer since our freshman year of college—but reporting hanging out with her in my journal would be like taking note of how often I brush my teeth or do the dishes.
“I guess I could finish some of this work on Monday,” I said.
I thought it would be great, fine, same as usual. Heather is rich and has really soft skin, and my brother refers to her only as the MILF I swindled into wanting me. He is not wrong about this, but still I tell him that MILF is crude and disrespectful unless Heather calls herself that, in which case it’s fine.
As Heather told me the details of where I could find her, I was thinking about Holly. But I was always thinking about Holly. She was my best friend—she is—and something was poking at me inside my chest (my emotional chest, not my literal chest), but I still put seventeen dollars of gas in my Mazda and went to Heather’s hotel, and I thought the evening would be just fine.
It’s February-cold outside and just starting to snow, but in a miserable way, not a romantic way—as in, my cheeks are bright red because I didn’t get my driver’s side window fixed six months ago and now I suffer the consequences. I am ringing and re-ringing the doorbell and my shoes are untied and my teeth are clicking against each other, all because Heather called.
I switch from ringing the doorbell to knocking. My knuckles are pink as I hammer away until the door finally swings open, letting a puff of hot air hit my face. It burns.
“What are you wearing?” Holly says.
I almost say, oh, I don’t know, my heart on my literal sleeve, right here, can’t you see it? I just left a smoking hot mom to come here, can’t you smell her perfume on me?
“What’s wrong with your doorbell?” I say instead.
“Nothing, but Marlene was playing Rick’s music. So, headphones.”
“Oh,” I say. “Makes sense.”
I’m still getting a hold of my breath from all the rushing and ringing and knocking when Marlene walks behind Holly, disappearing into the kitchen before reappearing with a Gatorade.
“Oh, hi, Thomas,” Marlene says.
“Hello, Marlene,” I call back, and Marlene’s bedroom door clicks shut behind her.
I’m still standing on their porch, just looking at Holly.
Holly is not rich, nor what anyone would describe as a MILF. She’s twenty-six—same as me—childless, and a PhD student in applied physics. She is infuriatingly smart, but she doesn’t wear perfume that makes me sneeze, or really perfume at all except for the Taylor Swift one she’s had since she was fourteen, and only wears that on special occasions. And she does have that Waluigi impression which, again, is terrific.
“Is that your funeral suit?”
I push past Holly to pace in her apartment—toeing my loafers off first, because Marlene has a thing about shoes in the house—and it smells like pumpkin candles and macaroni.
“Heather called,” I say.
Holly nods and waggles her eyebrows, ever the supportive best friend.
“Heather,” she says. “The mom with the big—”
“We shouldn’t objectify her. I think she does PTA for her kid’s school.”
“Right,” Holly says. I’m still pacing, my socks on the tile. “Are you headed there then?”
I stop moving and put my hands on my hips before I drop them, then put them back.
“I wanted to hang out with you,” I say, but I really mean, I love you, I love you.
Her forehead crinkles up.
“I’m studying tonight,” she says.
“No, you don’t get it, I—” there’s something in my throat and my nose itches. I think it’s that stupid perfume, so I take off the suit jacket and launch it towards the couch. It lands on the floor instead, but I don’t grab it. “I’m not asking you to hang out right now.”
Marlene comes out of her room then and nods to us before she slips on her shoes and heads for the front door. Probably to see Rick, who is twenty years old and trying to make it big on SoundCloud. Holly lives with the undergrads because it’s cheaper.
“Bye,” Marlene says.
“Bye,” we both say, and then are quiet.
Holly wears this old neon-green hoodie that says “Shalom” in a wiggly font across the front, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, orange sweats, reading glasses pushed up on her head. She told me last night that she wasn’t entirely sure of the last time she washed her hair but guessed it was four days ago.
“So,” Holly’s slippers pat against the floor on her way to the kitchen where she turns on the tea kettle. “You’re here because you do want to hang out, but to be clear, you do not want to hang out.”
“Yeah,” I say.
She considers this. I can tell because she squints just barely and looks at nothing next to me.
“I was with Heather, we were eating dinner and about to—you know,” my hand waves around in front of me. Holly nods. “She asked about my job, and she said, ‘how’s Goldman treating you?’”
“Ah, yes, Goldman,” Holly says, “where you have an assistant and an intern and your own bathroom.”
Holly was there when I first matched with Heather on Tinder, she made up the back story and everything.
“Yeah, and I realize it’s not right that she thinks I’m a hot young investment banker, so I finally tell her I’m actually a math teacher for thirteen-year-olds, and she doesn’t care. She just wants a guy that she can say is an investment banker to take to dinner and sleep with.”
“Did you just call yourself a hot young investment banker?” Holly whispers.
“So I go to dinner with her, and afterward she’s kissing all over my neck—”
“—And she just smells so expensive and I want to sneeze so bad, and all I can think is that this woman doesn’t even know who Waluigi is.”
“Waluigi? Like—” Holly hunches her spine and puts her arms up and I know she’s about to start talking in the voice, so I step into the kitchen and put my hands on her shoulders.
I am very close to Holly like this, and she looks up at me like I’ve crossed some boundary that should only be crossed during movie night and the three-legged races at her family reunions. She is right, I totally have. My mind is so far past that line, but I don’t take my hands off her arms, just slide them down to her elbows.
“She’s hot as ever, says she’s been doing an aerial yoga class in New York, and that it’s done ridiculous things for her abs.”
“Gross,” she whispers.
“I know,” I whisper back. “But I just kept thinking I had to leave immediately. I just had to go, so I did. I left her room and now I am here because I wanted to be hanging out with you.”
“And not just tonight, but when I’m at school, too, all the time, actually, and when she called I thought you were calling, and I wanted you to be calling.”
“I did call. We talked about that weird Craigslist posting.”
“I know, but I wanted you to be calling again. Instead of her.”
Neither of us speak. Holly’s cheeks stand out against the rest of her face, and the electric kettle clicks off behind her.
“Do you want tea?” she asks at the same time that I say, “What if I love you?”
“What?” Holly says at the same time that I say, “Tea would be great.”
I’m still holding her elbows, so I let go and push my hands into my pockets. Holly is not moving.
“Run that back,” she says.
“Tea would be great,” I repeat, and she thumps me on the shoulder.
“Say it again.”
“Don’t. You know what.”
“Thomas, what the hell?”
“Well, what if I love you?” I say, and put my hands on the back of my head. Holly is back to solving equations in the space somewhere to my left.
She turns towards the counter and pours bubbling water into two mugs (the “mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” one for her and the Scooby Doo one for me) before dropping in two bags and squeezing a glob of honey into each. I don’t tell her that she always makes it too sweet.
“Okay, what do you mean what if?” Holly looks offended, and not mildly.
“No, not what if, really, but, I mean—well, what if I said that I do?”
“What if you said you loved me? Love me? Like, love love me? Like—”
“Like that, yeah, like not just best-friend-love you, but like I-want-to-kiss-you love you.”
Holly blinks a few times.
“You want to kiss me?”
In all of our friendship, Holly and I have kissed one time. It was the first and last time Holly got really drunk, eight years ago, in the dusty basement of a frat house. She’d said it was weird, and I agreed, even though it was not weird at all and I thought about it for almost a whole year after. I never brought it up because after a while it became apparent that Holly was my coolest and smartest friend, and she bemoaned dating like it was the draft. This was fine, this has always been fine, I loved being friends with Holly.
But while I was kissing Heather, all I could think about was kissing Holly, even though the last time was all those years ago. So, do I want to kiss her now? I do, I definitely do, but also the thought is a little bit mortifying because she knows every one of my weirdest secrets and hopes. I say as much, and she laughs.
“It is,” she says, and I think this is a bad sign—I’m half-considering what lies I will have to tell to get us back to normal after this when she steps really close to me. So close that her forehead is right next to my chin. Her hair doesn’t even smell dirty, it smells like her, and I’m pretty sure I could breathe it in and not stop until my lungs were all the way full and then just hold it there. I do not do this because if I freak her out any more, she is going to bolt and then both Holly my best friend and Heather the hot mom will never call me again, and one of these losses will hurt much more than the other.
She looks up and I look down, and I see a spot of her PM moisturizer on her cheek. It’s the same one I use, and I know this because she doesn’t know anything about skincare and I’ve had to carry that burden for the last eight years.
Slowly, so as not to spook her, I lift a thumb to the spot and swipe the lotion across her cheekbone. There isn’t a shock or a flash of electricity from her skin to mine, or a current of intensity that we can’t deny, but her face feels warm and she’s got freckles on her nose.
“Are we going to kiss?” she asks.
“I hope so,” I say. My hand cradles the back of her head, barely touching her, just in case she decides to break away. “I do love you.”
“Okay,” she whispers and bridges the gap, pulling me to her, stepping on my toes in the process. We laugh, real laughing, as her mouth finds mine, and I think it’s the kind of story you write in a journal about.