The first thing you noticed about Albert was his hair - it was thick and curly, with dark spirals popping out at every angle and it seemed to carry all the secrets of the world. It was the type of hair that begged to be caressed, and Albert was easily convinced to lay his head on your lap so that you could twirl every curl and watch them spring back into shape. Albert - sometimes Al, but never Bertie - would then close his eyes and relax his face into the smallest of smiles. Sometimes he would reach up and pull one of my curls, too, just to make me laugh.
We tell each other everything. When Al’s sister had her accident and needed someone to be with her at the hospital, his mom called me when she couldn’t find Al. When my grandmother passed away, Albert was next to me at the funeral, a natural extension of the family. Al read and re-read each one of my graduate school applications, so it was only fair that he was the first to hear when responses started arriving. Whenever we went out, everyone automatically assumes we’re a couple, sometimes curly-haired twins, who share no resemblance but the color and shape of our hair. Girls will talk to Al and suddenly adopt a fake friendliness when I show up at his elbow. Guys will talk to me and politely bow out whenever they see him. They know they can’t compete with his broad shoulders and dimpled smile, the way his whole face breaks into laughter at his own jokes, the way his skin glows under the strobe lights. And Al will kindly correct them: no, we’re just friends. Then he’ll add an extra smile for the pretty boys and if they’d like to get a drink sometime.
“You know, I know just the boy for you,” I told him one Friday night. It was the end of a party, the quiet time where people begin to fall asleep on couches and speak seriously about what they want for their future. Music played from the backyard and drifted through the open window. Honey and ash filled the air and settled on our skin. Albert was lying down, eyes closed with his head on top of my thighs. I was pulling apart one of his curls.
Albert smiled, flashing white teeth. “Oh yeah?” he said, prompting me to continue.
“Of course! His name is Marcus and he’s tall and bleached blond and likes watching screenings of classic films on tape at those weird cinemas you love. And he’s just about our age, maybe a little bit older.” I tried to put as much excitement into my voice as possible. “He just moved into my apartment last week, but I met him only this morning.”
A particularly perfect curl kept my attention for a few seconds. The song changed. “And Marcus has this beautiful cat, she’s black with green eyes and will come and sit on you while you pet her.”
I remembered this one time I told Albert about a boy I liked. I was still in love with Albert at the time, hoping beyond reason that Albert could love me back. Anyway, this boy had done something very stupid and I was complaining. Albert kept nodding. He was talking just like this, saying the same two sounds until I ran out of things to say, then he held my hands and looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re being silly. You know what’s going on.” I cried. I knew he was right, and I cried anyway.
“You should meet him!” I said. “I can throw a dinner! What are you doing tomorrow?”
A low, deep rumble came out of Albert’s chest, which I recognized as his exasperated sigh. Albert didn’t roll his eyes, though, as I might have done. Eventually, he said, “Don’t know yet.”
“I’m going to take that as a yes. Let me text Marcus.” I lifted Albert’s head and took my phone out of my back pocket. Albert grumbled at the discomfort.
Two party-goers stumbled into the kitchen, giggling. “We gotta go, Sharon!” the taller one said. “The ride is here!”
Sharon was looking for something. She ran her eyes over the kitchen counters, then the tables, then the chairs. Her gaze eventually found us. “Hey, have either of you seen my phone?”
“I saw one with a pink case in the bathroom,” Albert said without opening his eyes.
Sharon walked to the bathroom and came back with her phone. “Thanks Al!” She followed her friend out the door, calling over her shoulder, “Bye guys! Say hi to Robbie for me!”
Albert winced. His eyes shot open and he made a move as if to sit up, and then decided against it. As his body relaxed again, I ventured, “I guess she hasn’t heard yet.”
“I guess not.” He half-shrugged, then rubbed his eyes like a child trying to rub away the memory of a bad dream. “We should go home.”
The next night, Albert showed up at my house with a bottle of wine. “Albert!” I reprimanded him. “You know I am trying to get rid of all the alcohol in this place!”
He was not at all sorry. “But you need to try this wine. I had it at a dinner last week and it’s phenomenal.” He took wineglasses out of my cupboard and poured each of us a full glass.
I picked up my glass and raised it in the air. “What are we drinking to?”
Albert didn’t even hesitate. “To best friends,” he said as he raised his glass too, “who are always better than ex-boyfriends.”
A few minutes later the doorbell rang again. Marcus stood behind my door, in a crisp white shirt and holding another bottle of wine. “Marcus!” He stepped inside and kissed my cheek. “So good to see you. I don’t believe you’ve met my friend, Albert?”
It’s always nerve-wracking, this first meeting of the prospects. I never know if it’s going to work or not, but at least I’ve never produced any disasters. I’m proud to say that Robbie wasn’t one of mine.
Albert had told me once that people decided whether or not they liked each other in the first ten minutes of meeting. That’s why Albert stopped going on first dates: after the initial ten minutes, the rest of the date was useless. I had noticed out of the corner of my eye Albert doing his first once-over, his checkout scanner as I called it, when he looks someone up and down and notes every detail about them. I could hear his analysis in my head. Hair is bleached, but it’s done professionally, and recently, which is why it’s more silver than yellow. His earrings are from an Instagram advertisement, I saw it on my feed two weeks ago. That shirt is from Zara, Zara basics. Interesting that he went with the collarless collar though, the rest of his style is a little too safe for me to expect that, minus the hair of course. Like those Adidas Stan Smiths - that’s just basic. It’s almost like he wants to fit in to this city, but he doesn’t know where the line is, and he’s too afraid of taking any big risks.
Marcus had no such scanner gaze. He looked at Albert’s face as he shook his hand, and went with the direct “Nice to meet you man,” that started off many male friendships. Then he looked at me at me and smiled, his eyes bright and guileless. “With that hair, you two could almost be siblings.”
Albert laughed quietly, unsure about whether or not he liked Marcus yet. I knew the reason for that laugh. We didn’t look alike at all. Albert was tall and I was not, he had green eyes with short lashes whereas mine had lashes so long my mom once had to cut them, and his skin refused to carry any color and while mine often borrowed it. But, somehow, defying all expectations of geography and ancestry, our hair was, in fact, the same.
“Don’t mind the boxes,” I told Marcus as Albert handed him a glass of wine. “I leave for my graduate program the day after tomorrow.”
“And you chose to spend one of your last few nights with me?” Marcus said without any theatrics. “I am honored.” I believed him when he said that. There wasn’t an insincere line on his face. He carefully chose his seat so his back was against a wall, and arranged his body on the chair deliberately, gracefully. Albert hadn’t stopped staring. Albert sat very straight, with his jaw sticking out and an absent-minded expression on his face. Marcus turned to him and said, “So Albert, how do you like to spend your time?” Albert’s response was a second delayed, but when he started talking he smiled and I saw his body relax. His voice came back to my head. I like this one.
The rest of the dinner passed happily if uneventfully. At exactly the perfect moment, Marcus claimed that it was getting late, and got up to leave. After the goodbyes, Albert refused to let me clean up, and he told me jokes as I sat down and he filled the dishwasher. His phone was on the counter, and it lit up with a new message after a few minutes. Albert read it quickly and typed out a reply with soapy hands while I told him not to make a mess of my kitchen, to which Albert just laughed. When that was done, Albert joined me on the couch and put my hand on his head, demanding attention.
“You’re worse than a puppy!” I told him, and he replied with a smile. We stayed like that for a few seconds, then I said, “I just heard that my cousin is moving to this part of town, want to grab lunch with her tomorrow?”
Albert looked up at me, confused. “What’s going on?” I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. “What’s happened that I suddenly have to meet every new person that comes to town?” he asked.
“Well, you know,” I said.
“I know what?”
“I just want to make sure you’ve got people to keep you busy, you know, after this week.” After I go away, more or less. Al sat up, annoyed. He gave me a look, the one that meant I was being silly. “And besides, Marcus is very cute,” I said, trying to justify myself.
“Yes, Marcus is very cute. And he’s not Robbie. And this is LA, not Seattle,” Albert reminded me.
“But you were so sad in Seattle!” How long had we known each other now? I couldn’t remember. And other than Seattle, we have been together since that first day. Albert had found Robbie in Seattle. Albert had come back from Seattle with Robbie, looking completely broken. Albert wouldn’t go out, or if he did he wouldn’t take pictures, terrified that Robbie would find out that he was around other boys. Albert stopped traveling to visit friends, stopped calling his father who had told him to break up with Robbie, and lost 20 pounds that he didn’t really have to lose. Even his curls went flat. Once, we were at a couples dinner, Robbie and Albert and me and my boy of the week. Robbie said such horrible things that my date stood up and left. That night, I told Albert that he had to break up with Robbie. Why? Albert asked me. He wasn’t crying yet, he was just angry, but his anger had no real bite to it. All of his emotions had felt muted for a while. Is it because you’re jealous? You’re still in love with me, aren’t you? Albert accused me. I’m pretty sure I started crying first. I will always be in love with you, I told him, and it’s because I love you that I’m telling you, you have to break up with Robbie. I was right, of course.
“This is LA, not Seattle,” Al said again. “And you don’t have to always worry about me.” Albert pulled me into a hug, which made me feel safe even though I was the one trying to keep him safe. “I’m going to go home,” he said, and got up. “See you tomorrow for lunch?”
I gave him one last hug and walked him to the door. “Let’s say around one tomorrow?” Albert said yes and turned to walk away. “And don’t forget to text Marcus!” I yelled at his back.
“No worries there,” Albert said, waving his phone. I waved goodbye as he walked down the hall and disappeared down the stairs, curls bouncing with every step, and I hoped that my work here was done.