“So, how come you didn’t want to FaceTime with Afra? Surely you aren’t worried she’ll be upset we’re together.”
Gervassi leaned away from Hanna. She reminded him of a song. Afra reminded him of entire playlists, movies, sunsets, and of course, onions. Hanna was a line in a chorus and Afra was… more than that. Obviously! What was wrong with him? Hanna was a friend. She was an awesome friend who smelled like caramel and always showed up whenever he needed her most, but still, a friend.
“I don’t know. I thought she’d find it weird you magically showed up in my town.”
Hanna laughed. “I’m here for work, dummy. What’s wrong with that?”
Probably, Gervassi thought as he wanted to bury his head in his hands, the fact that you’re naturally friendly and for some reason I’m taking that as more than I should. Man, for all the little effort it took to fend off an ex-girlfriend in Colorado, Gervassi was beyond flustered that Hanna, a much older tutu saleswoman, was making him want to lie to Afra.
“Nothing’s wrong with that. Um, maybe I should go, though, I’m sure you have convention stuff to catch up on.”
Hanna frowned. Her lip gloss was light purple and made Gervassi think of the Sugar Plum Fairy dance. He pinched his leg. He wasn’t thinking about Hanna’s lip gloss or her lips.
She pointed at the glass of water he had in his hand. “You haven’t even started on that water, and wouldn’t it upset Afra more if you didn’t stay hydrated?”
“Yeah. It would.” Gervassi smiled and took a sip of his water. Hanna munched on the cookie she’d previously bought for him, but was gifted back when he didn’t want it. “So, um, tutu sales are good. What else is going on? Are you dating these days?” Ah, that was awkward. Gervassi wanted to roll under the bench and hide there with the squirrels. Why would he ask something like that? Why did he care? He didn’t. It was just a friendly conversation. Because they were friends.
“No, actually, I was engaged for a while but after I realized Jude didn’t care for my pet bunny,” Hanna threw her hands, “Out the door!”
“How old are you?”
It wasn’t on purpose, like a fly doesn’t get stuck to a spider’s web with hopes of being eaten, but Gervassi was hook, line, and sinker-ing into this conversation.
“Don’t you know you should never ask a lady her age?” Hanna seemed serious for a second and Gervassi was relieved because if he’d made her mad she would leave and the problem would be no longer. But Hanna wasn’t serious. “Kidding, kidding.” She patted Gervassi’s dyed orange hair and grinned, straight white teeth glimmering like fine china. “I’m twenty four.”
Gervassi was almost seven years younger than Hanna. That was insane. She was practically geriatric. This was basically illegal and he was just talking to her. He stood up. “I’m almost nineteen.”
“Oh, when’s your birthday? We should go celebrate! You can bring your little girlfriend.”
“She’s not my ‘little’ girlfriend. There’s nothing ‘little’ about our relationship.”
Hanna moved her arm back into her own personal space bubble, still smiling but now her eyes glimmered more than her teeth did. “I’m not saying it’s not a serious relationship but you guys are still pretty young-”
“I know! And that’s an awesome thing. A really cool thing that means we’re going to get old together and when we die, we’ll have decades of history together.” Gervassi sat back down on the bench, but he was ready to run at any second.
“That’s not what I was going to say. Look, I know you and Afra think this is it, but the truth is, things happen in life that we can’t control. Days happen where we wake up and find it’s not as easy to fall into the same pattern of easy love as it was the day before.”
“What are you saying?” Gervassi asked, but he knew the answer and it stuck against his teeth like cotton candy.
Hanna, pastel against the park’s streetlights, smiled again and this time her teeth didn’t show. “I’m saying that if it doesn’t work out between you and Afra for whatever reason, you,” she poked Gervassi in the arm, “know where to find me.”
As much as Gervassi wanted to jump up and yell that no, he would never leave Afra even if a million wild horses ripped him from side to side for it, he didn’t. He didn’t jump up or yell anything at all. “I won’t need to do that.”
“Why? Are you and Afra getting married?” Hanna was amused. “I of all people know that plans like that don’t always add up and even if you do get married, that’s not a promise you’ll stay together forever.”
“Yes, it is! That’s literally why most people get married. I don’t know why I’m arguing with you about this." Gervassi backed up so quickly he almost fell off the bench and when he didn’t, he wished he had. Falling on the hard park ground would have shaken some sense back into him.
Hanna nodded. She tapped her long nails against her black jeans and watched two girls walk by with long scarves. They were either both into Harry Potter, because the scarves were Hogwarts themed, or had raided a lost and found bucket at the local high school.
Hanna remembered her high school days well.
She’d always been so popular. Now she was older and selling tutus for a living, which, as much as she liked traveling, was a far fall from being valedictorian and prom queen. Maybe she’d read the signs wrong, but Gervassi had seemed to like her. She thought, under all that ‘I’m in love’ bravado, he probably still did. Hanna found herself easy to like.
“Look, I’m not trying to be some homewrecker, I promise. All I’m saying is that you could come travel the world with me. Imagine,” Hanna grabbed Gervassi’s hand and though hers was cold and her nails were chipped, digging into the sides of his fingers, he didn’t let go, “We could go anywhere. You have troubles with your dad, right? Leave him behind and come with me. It’ll be good. And so fun.”
Gervassi didn’t want good and fun. He needed to tell Hanna this before she got even more the wrong idea, but his hands wouldn’t move. He couldn’t will them to because as much as he knew all signs pointed to, “Get the heck out of here,” there was still a part of him that liked Hanna and her caramels and tutu and really, really cold hands. It was the part of Gervassi that told him Afra would forgive him for thinking maybe she wasn’t all he ever wanted or needed.
“That’s a terrible idea.” He looked at the sky. His hands didn’t belong to Hanna but he wasn’t calling her out for trespassing, either. It was bad and he didn’t know what to do to stop whatever was happening and at this point in the story you should jump up and yell your advice at this guy because honestly, I don’t know what he should do either.
“I’m going to go.” He picked up his hand and glared at it for being made of nerve endings and fragile, betraying bones.
“Remember we met on a bus too. There’s still room for a second story.” Hanna tucked a piece of her hair behind her ear and stood up as well, grabbing her purse and shoving the last of her cookie into her mouth. “I hope I didn’t scare you away.” She cocked her head and smiled at Gervassi as though he were the cute pet she wanted him to be. “I’m not a bad person.”
“Neither am I.” Gervassi took out his phone. “Let’s take a picture for Afra before I go. I don’t want her to find out we met and then think I was lying to her.”
Hanna put her hands on her tutu-ed hips. “But you were lying.”
“I’ll explain to her what happened. She’ll understand. Something bad happened and you were right around the corner. It’s not like I kissed you. I’m fine. It’s okay. We’re all good.” Gervassi hated that he had brought up kissing this strange version of his beloved LIB. She was different than how she’d been on the bus and it confused him more now because did it mean she’d always been like this or that she wanted him now that he was so far gone with Afra?
Spiders were scary, but Hanna was a different type of killer.
“Do you want to kiss me, Gervassi?” She was digging her knives of mental doubt into his stomach and he prayed a lightning bolt would knock the nearest tree over, smacking him into the ditch he belonged in.
“No.” He didn’t want to kiss Hanna, he just thought it would be a good distraction to kiss someone, and she happened to be nearest. “I do not. And I’m leaving now because I finished my water and I need to call my girlfriend. Who I adore. And respect enough to tell her that you-”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Excuse me.” Gervassi moved to go past her, but Hanna held out a hand. In her the center of her palm was a single, wrapped and wicked caramel. If he took it, she had him. If he left it, he would lose her but still tell Afra what had happened. It was a split second decision that took him ions too long.
“I’m on a diet. No sugar.”
Gervassi closed Hanna’s fingers over her extended palm and with a final look, swept past her. The water cup crunched with a plastic snapping noise as he smashed it in his clenched fist; then he threw it into the nearest trash can. He called Afra, but her phone went to voicemail.
“Dang.” Gervassi did ask that she answer when he called, but after all that had gone through his mind about Hanna, he had to cut her some slack. The most slack. In a world in which slack was a cake, Afra would get the biggest slice.
“Please leave a message after the tone. Beep.”
“Afra. Hi. I need to talk to you. I wasn’t alone in the park and I didn’t go home when I said I would. I’m sorry. I was with Hanna. You know her, she’s the,” Gervassi had no classification that fit that woman anymore, “Tutu saleswoman. She was here for a convention in Naples and we were catching up, but then she was saying all these things about me and her traveling the world together… I don’t want to, though. I love you. Please call me.”
He put the phone back in his pocket and the park was spinning, full of families and couples and singles and friends and strangers. Gervassi’s stomach jolted. Water couldn’t wash away the revolt in his body and mind, ice couldn’t freeze the ticking of his damaged internal clock.
Afra bounced on her heels as she finished putting the final touches on her newest piece of art. It was a sprawling quilt made from pictures of things she loved; all her friends, her parents, Gervassi, her dog, places she felt at home in, and things around that made her feel safe, like all the blankets on her bed and the stuffed animals lined up like soldiers next to her pillows. She was so proud of the quilt. Her smile was cracking her teeth, splitting her face down the middle and making her cheeks ache. It was such an expressive piece and this moment would forever be etched into the wet cement of her memory.
Afra sighed, content with what she’d accomplished, and sunk back into her bed. She turned her phone off silent. Oh, there was a missed call from Gervassi. Tim Gunn, Afra’s dog, jumped onto the bed and settled beside her. As she petted his soft ears, she listened to the voicemail Gervassi had left her.
“Afra. Hi.” She liked the way he said her name. She always listened to his voicemails more than once because they were a sweet reminder of what she already knew. “ I need to talk to you.” Those words were never good. “I wasn’t alone in the park and I didn’t go home when I said I would. I’m sorry. I was with Hanna.”
Afra cracked her knuckles against Tim Gunn’s stomach. He yawned. The recording went on playing. “You know her, she’s the,” Gervassi’s voice broke, “Tutu saleswoman. She was here for a convention in Naples and we were catching up, but then she was saying all these things about me and her traveling the world together… I don’t want to, though. I love you. Please call me.”
He loved her.
He wanted her to call him.
Afra didn’t know whether she should be glad he was being so honest or furious he’d lied before, when she wanted to talk and he said no, that he was tired and was headed to bed. She didn’t want to talk, though, now she wanted to light something up, preferably something flammable that would send smoke signals saying, “et tu, brute?” to Gervassi all the way in idiotic Florida.
“Hello?” Gervassi popped his head in the doorway of his apartment and the sickening fumes smacked him back. Only one possible explanation. The roommate must have come back, and brought friends with him. “Rogelio?”
“This place is nasty and I hate the way it makes me feel like I’ve done nothing productive or healthy with my life!”
From the other side of the closed bedroom door, Rogelio sighed an enormous sigh. “I pay my rent, you pay yours.”
There was a click, and the door swung open. The floor was littered with Scrabble tiles and Uno cards. There was an open can of Pringles resting sideways on Gervassi’s mattress and three fruit snacks- orange, grape, and cherry- were jammed like sticky tack to the ceiling.
“Are you kidding me? This is all gross. How can you stand it?”
Rogelio shook his head, morose eyes gazing past Gervassi. “You were cooler before you met that girl.”
“I do now, and the least you could do is not use the apartment as a modern art exhibit. How do you get fruit snacks on the ceiling?”
“Creatively. It was an assignment for class.”
“What’s your major?”
Rogelio cackled and his friends joined the chorus, the noise seeping into the walls and disturbing the sleep of everyone in a three mile radius. “Business.”
“You major in business?”
“No. But you should just mind yours.”
Gervassi’s phone started to buzz. He glared at Rogelio, scowled at his friends and their board games, and twisted the strings of his hoodie so tight around the ends of his fingers that they matched the grape fruit snack on the ceiling.
He slid the answer button and put the phone to his ear. “Afra? Are you there?”
“I am.” She was holding a stuffed rabbit in her lap and biting her lips.
“Good, good. I have to talk to you and say that whatever you think happened, it’s probably not true. She was just talking.”
“And you gave her the satisfaction of listening.”
Gervassi could feel Rogelio and Co. staring; their eyes were greedy for the drama. “She’s not you. She’ll never be you. I was still upset with all that my dad told me and I just wanted the company, you know that.”
“I wish you would stop using your problems as an excuse to make problems for me, too.” Afra gritted her teeth and squeezed the rabbit’s neck. “I wish you would stop pretending your walls are all broken down, because I get the feeling you never let me past the front gate. Am I still standing in the courtyard, Vassi?” Afra twisted the nose of her stuffed stress release. “I don’t want to be.”
“Of course not. You’re not in the courtyard.” Whatever that meant. “You’re with me, you’ll always be right here with me.”
“Until I can’t be and you mess up and then you call me and ask me to forgive you because you were going through a rough time? Where’s your backbone?”
Gervassi shot another deadly look at his roommate. He wouldn’t leave. “Um, Afra, my roommate is watching me and it’s kinda creepy. Do you mind if I go outside and call you back?”
“I don’t care where you go. I know where I think you should go, though, and it’s not outside.” The stuffed rabbit was a corpse in Afra’s lap. She threw it across the room and her phone followed it, thudding into the wall with a resounding whack. Afra walked out of the room while Gervassi was still talking. It was true.
Sometimes ignorance was bliss.