Hanna’s lips were thin and pressing, much like the hands that gathered fabric at the small of Gervassi’s back. Hanna’s lips asked questions where Afra’s had always given answers. Gervassi couldn’t say a word. He looked at her hands; they invited him to a life or travel, of whimsy, of tranquil chaos. There was so much potential for the two of them as people, but as he continued to sit there, thinking of Hanna’s lips against his own, he knew there was nothing for them together.
“I shouldn’t be here.” Gervassi straightened his shirt and stood up. The daylight peered through the early morning clouds. A coffee cup sat untouched in Hanna’s bike basket. She’d bought it for him and he took her hand instead, kissing her and wondering why the whole time he did it.
There were people watching them now. Hanna was shredding the edges of her tutu. This one was yellow and had red stripes. It made her look like a bottle of mixed condiments. What was Gervassi doing kissing mixed condiments? What next? Sneaking out his apartment window to visit the ranch bottle? Gervassi’s gaze met Hanna’s and he jumped back further. He’d seen how Eleanor looked at him after they broke up, and she was jealous of he and Afra because he no longer fit into her closed-book narrative, but Hanna looked like it was all so funny to her, like teenagers and their love lives didn’t matter and she was the one who got to decide about what mattered and didn’t.
“¿Dónde vas, Vas?” Hanna’s hands stayed in her lap, fingers clicking in time to the sounds of the park. Her rings slid against each other, matching the rhythm of people walking, talking, and living together as privately as they could. Her tutu’s edges were mutilated by now, pieces of red and yellow fell to the ground like a McDonald’s blizzard. “You’re really upset about this. Why?”
“Why? Because I have a girlfriend and you’re not-”
“I never said I was. You’re the one who called me, asked you to meet you at this park, told me all about your little fight with your little girlfriend.” Gervassi flinched at every time she said little. It sounded like the most condescending word in her vocabulary. “And besides. You kissed me first.”
“Right, well, now I’m leaving first, too. I’d appreciate it if you deleted my number, though, I’ll do the same with yours.”
Hanna sighed. She deleted his number and showed him the screen where his contact information was previously stored. “Happy now?”
“Thank you. And I’m sorry if I made it seem like we could be more than friends, I really am, Hanna.”
“Wait, really? You’re sorry? Gosh, I couldn’t tell. The whole sad kicked dog thing wasn’t quite selling your remorse. Yeah.” Hanna reached for the coffee in her bike basket. “Here. It’s cold, just like you.” She stood up and hopped on her bike. “Remember, I get around and I’ll be around. You could still come with me. We could see the world, sell tutus… Things the way we planned ‘em, if we work in tandem,” she sang, and then stopped, “I know you won’t call me, but I’m sure you could find me, of course, if Afra has two bolts of sense and doesn’t want your apologies. I wouldn’t. She deserves better.”
Gervassi nodded. For once, his eyes were dry. There was no reason for him to be crying. He was the one who’d screwed things up and then, for extra measure, screwed them up even more. There was a certain point where emotions needed to be put aside and he needed to think about this logically. He watched Hanna leave the park and when he turned around to walk towards his apartment, a lady was watching him. She was tiny and old and she was feeding pigeons from a bag of cinnamon cereal.
“Young man.” She pointed at him. Gervassi sat down. He wasn’t going to ignore a septuagenarian.
“Ma’am?” If he disgraced every other woman in his life, he wouldn’t do the same for this frail, benevolent bird lady. If she needed help crossing the street, he would do that. If she needed a meal, he would dig up the last thirteen dollars he had in his pocket and hope it covered at least lunch. He would give her his cold coffee, too, but that boarded on the edge of disgrace so he left it on the ground.
“You are a chicken-hearted duke of limbs, I hope you realize.”
Oh. She was insulting him. Ah well, he deserved it. “Excuse me, ma’am? A chicken-hearted duke of limbs?” He deserved it, he was sure, but he didn’t know what it meant.
“You’re a coward and you have no sense of balance.” He still stared at her. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what the words meant, it was that they weren’t quite processing as a sentence directed at him. The old lady tossed another cereal piece at a pigeon. “Like the girl said, whoever she is doesn’t deserve this.”
“I know! And I was calling her yesterday to tell her what happened but at that point I had just been hanging out with Hanna and nothing had happened that I should have had to call about but now I kissed her and Afra probably hates me. Muz is going to murder me. Everyone is. I-”
“You feel sorry for yourself.”
Gervassi blinked. Sorry? Yeah, but not for himself. “No, I don’t . I’m upset with myself because I made a huge mistake and I don’t know how to fix it.”
“You feel sorry for yourself and you aren’t taking responsibility for what you did. Why did you kiss someone who wasn’t your girlfriend?”
“I wanted a distraction because my dad had called me and told me this terrible family secret and I knew Afra would listen, but Hanna was here and I just-”
“Excuses. You make a lot of them. Stop.”
“Those aren’t excuses, though. They’re reasons.”
“Ah, but maybe you should ask yourself what the reasons for making all these excuses are, instead of continuing to lie to yourself and the people you love.”
“What do you know about it? I love my family and my friends more than anything. Who do you love? These pigeons?”
“I have me. Do you have yourself? Who are you without the people you know?”
Gervassi stared at the lady. Her cold little eyes stuck into his chest. It hurt, because she was telling the truth and he didn’t know what to do with it. Hanna would have let him kiss her, hold her, have her as long as he wanted and the terrible part was that for a minute, he did want. He wanted to have something separate, to himself, away from Afra, who would never be a victim of casualty. “I’m still me, lady. I’ve always been me.” He swept his foot past a pigeon. It squealed and played dead. Stupid pigeon. Those birds weren’t supposed to play dead. “Don’t you know? I’ve always been who I am.”
“No.” She threw a breadcrumb at Gervassi and it stuck to the front of his shirt. “Look how far you’ve come.”
“For better or for worse?”
She glared at him. “You decide.” Then she stood up and walked away, much more agile than Gervassi thought a woman of her age would be. The bricks underneath him shifted with his confusion, growing brighter and darker as his coat’s shadow fell across them on his way back to the apartment.
Afra, on the other hand and a few states away, knew exactly what to do. She had a knife, and if she didn’t set it to work on something in the next few hours, her mission would be incomplete. Muz had sat her down after she called about Gervassi and Hanna and said, “I want you to do something for me.” Afra, buried in her pillows hornet mad, and asked what it was.
“You want me to print off all my pictures of and with him and make multiple dart boards, so that in my rageful youth, I also become a professional dart board-er?”
“No, Triscin and I were talking and we-”
“You were talking? When?”
“We thought you needed to get alllll the negative feelings out of your system, so we bought you a weapon! But, before you get the wrong idea, this is for art.” Muz handed Afra a small, wooden handled carving knife. “Triscin is sending over a quarter of a tree trunk for you to use. I thought it might be a big project but,” she bopped her friend’s nose, “You’ve always been an ambitious girl.”
Afra thought Muz and Triscin (for whatever reason he was involved in the conversation) were rushing things, assuming she 100% wanted to end things forever with Gervassi. She needed time to think and as much as she appreciated her friend’s efforts to make her feel better, they were smothering. It was the comforting kind of smothering, not the kill-you-with-a-pillow kind, but it still choked her.
She picked up her phone instead of the knife. Her pajama pants were covered in wood shavings; she’d been sanding and smoothing all morning, and her hands hurt. There was a band-aid wrapped around her left thumb, and another one around her left index finger. They were the neat kind of band-aid that blended in with your skin tone. Afra had wanted to try them out for a while, and her opportunity presented itself. It was hard to notice her fingers were even hurt. The ads did their product justice. Afra had seventeen messages from Gervassi. She read them all twice, and then started listening to his voicemails. There were six.
“Afra. Afra. Please call me. Call me? Afra?”
“I can’t call you, Vassi. I don’t know what to say.”
“I kissed Hanna. I’m not making excuses for why but I need you to call me back.”
Afra stabbed the knife into the table and clicked the next voicemail.
“You’re my best friend. I miss you. I want to hear your voice again, even if you just say goodbye. Let’s not do this without talking. Talk to me? I’ll listen to you. I won’t even talk. You can tell me why I’m wrong. I know I’m wrong. But I don’t want to be right without you.”
“I won’t call again after this one. I think we both need space but you especially. I’m trying my best to fix this but if I broke too much I understand. From now, though, I don’t want to feel sorry for myself and bully others into feeling sorry for me too. One question, Afra. Did you feel bad? Is that why you started talking to me-”
Afra paused the voicemail and ran her finger along the gaping crack in her phone’s screen. His number was right there, under the divided glass, and with one little press she could have him back. She could forget he ever lied, or kissed, or touched another girl. Hanna. Afra knew it wasn’t any good to blame Hanna for it, but didn’t the older girl think before setting her sights on boys young enough to be her little brother? Seven years. That was an ocean of time between them.
“I bet kissing her was like running through a spiderweb,” Afra told her dog, who had since walked into the room and perched his rotund self beside her. Tim Gunn’s head rested on her leg, expectant. “What do you think, Gunny? Should I go find someone to kiss like a spiderweb? The thing is,” she picked up Tim Gunn and set him in her lap, “I wouldn’t like it.”
Afra rested her chin on the top of her dog’s head and sighed. She was more tired than angry, but the hurt was still raw and it stung, like someone had smacked her across the face. Then again, it wasn’t her face that hurt. Tim Gunn growled low. Afra’s phone was ringing. She answered before checking the caller ID, expecting a call from Muz and her faithful advisor, Triscin.
“Afra. Hi. I didn't think you’d pick up. Are you free? Can I talk to you?”
“I don’t want to talk to you right now, Vassi.” She wanted to call him his whole name. Cut Ger-vassi into halves and shove them right at him, declaring her disdain for the world to hear. Vassi, though, was stuck to the roof of her mouth like peanut butter. Maybe the more she said it, the less heavy it would feel on her tongue.
“I don’t know. I’m in the middle of a project at the moment.”
“Oh.” Gervassi set his mug down on the table. The barista was listening to his conversation, judging by his get-out eyes, wide and green at the prospect of eavesdropping on such an intriguing dialogue. “Should I call back, then, or…?”
“I broke my phone.”
“I threw it at the wall and the screen shattered. I guess we all have our coping mechanisms. You kiss girls, I throw phones. Maybe we should switch things up. I hear there’s a girl named Hanna who is in dire need of young company. Should I give her a call? She doesn’t care, I don’t think, if I have a boyfriend or not. She didn’t care about me.”
“But I’m still your boyfriend?” Gervassi expected everything but that. He expected their months of clear waters to turn to storm overnight no matter how he fought to save their sinking ship. It was sad, he thought now, but he didn’t expect Afra to fight for it too.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at a coffee shop in the park by my apartment.”
Afra shook her head, “I mean where are you?”
“Why do people keep asking me questions like that?”
“I wish I could answer you. Hey, I miss you too. I don’t want to fight-”
“But, I need to process some things. So do you. I was upset enough that you lied to me, but instead of, well, you know what you did.”
“I do. I know.” Gervassi took deep breaths, channeling his inner park lady. He would not make excuses for his cheating. He wouldn’t label it as a distraction, or blame anyone but himself in this situation. Not Afra, not Hanna, not his dad, not Rogelio. “If it makes you feel any better, she’s gone. I deleted her number and blocked her and I know it’s not about her, but Afra?”
Tim Gunn’s nose was cold and wet, like Afra’s cheeks. She hadn’t noticed the tears until then. “What?”
“Please know she was never your level.”
“What would you do if it was me?”
“If you’d kissed Hanna?”
“Yeah, or anyone else. What would you do? Would you be okay the next day, even if I did apologize eight million times and left voicemails?”
“I don’t think I would be, no.”
Afra pulled the knife out of her table. “Then you can’t ask me to be okay right now. I’ll call you.” Tim Gunn snuffled, as though hating the idea. “Tim Gunn doesn’t approve.”
“He’s a good man, Charlie Brown.”
Afra smiled, but didn’t laugh. “So are you. Stop selling yourself short. I have to go.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you for answering.”
“Yeah. Bye, Vassi.”
They hung up, and Afra wiped the tears off her face, settling deeper into Tim Gunn’s fur. He made a muffled sound and looked up at her before licking her cheeks free of remaining tears. She hugged him as tightly as she could without hurting him. The carving knife stayed untouched for the rest of the night, but the TV was on until early morning. She painted her nails, shopped online for some new books, and wrapped up the third season of All American on Netflix. Muz called and Afra related back the story of Gervassi kissing Hanna. A friend would have been angry, but as a best friend, Muz was livid.
“You’re really quiet.”
“You can’t plan a murder out loud.”
“Muz, please, don’t kill him.”
“I won’t. Torture is useless on a corpse.”
“I need you to not be in jail for our high school graduation. I appreciate the support, but the best thing you can do for me right now is listen to me, not avenge my honor.”
Muz made a face. She was on Skype with Triscin, though he’d been muted while she talked to Afra, and he laughed before remembering he was supposed to be just as angry as she was. “Have you started the carving yet? I’m sure it would help keep you mind off things.”
Afra didn’t want to keep her mind off things. She wanted to magically come up with a solution and be able to call Gervassi back and tell him everything was okay. “Um, it’s not my favorite thing in the world. It was cool of you to share with me, but I don’t find it thrilling.”
“Ah, gotcha. Well, hey, do you want to join a watch party? I set it up with Triscin and some of the other Colorado kids.”
“I think I will, sure, what movie are you watching?”
Muz blanked. She glanced at her computer screen. Triscin mouthed, “V for Vendetta!”
“V for Vendetta. It’s a classic, even on the top 100 movie list. I thought we’d watch it together, knock that bucket list item off once and for all.”
Afra hadn’t heard of that movie before, but she didn’t mind giving it a try. “Alrighty, I have some errands to run but I can make it back in time to watch it if you plan it for later today.”
“Does five work?”
“Five is awesome.”
“Yeah. See you then, Muz.”