Gervassi unlocked the door to his apartment and stepped in. The place smelled just as he left it, proof that either his roommate hadn’t cleaned in the week he’d been gone, or that he hadn’t been back to the apartment in seven days. Either way, Gervassi didn’t want to waste energy on worrying about that guy. He was exhausted and he wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for seventeen hours. It had been a wild week and the rest would be received so, so well.
Only Gervassi was halted by a ringing phone seconds before he could sink into the pile of blankets and pillows. His first thought was that it was Afra. His second thought, when he looked at the caller ID and panicked, was holy meatballs. It wasn’t Afra, calling to say she was home already, or Ander checking in to make sure he was alright. It was his dad.
He debated answering, but then again he had no idea if his dad would call again if he missed the chance, so he pressed speaker phone and sat on the edge of his bed. There was a pause, as though his father was also debating speaking to him, and then, “Are you there?”
Gervassi nodded, realized his dad couldn’t hear through the phone, and then said, “Yes! Yeah, I’m here.” There was half a slice of pizza tucked between the edge of his mattress and the springboard of the bed. Maybe Rogelio had been home lately.
“So you wanted to talk still, I’m assuming.”
“You assume correctly.” Gervassi immediately hated the way they were speaking to each other. “I wanted to, you know, not act like we hate each other anymore.”
His dad sighed on the other end of the line, “I never hated you.”
“Well, it was hard to tell.” Gervassi was suddenly disgusted by the mess in his apartment, it made him feel full of garbage and he hated the whole room; nasty pizza and socks strung across the back of the doors included. He wanted to do the dishes. The vacuum cleaner never looked so appealing. Where was the bug spray? And the paper towels? It was all such a mess. After this call he would have to ring Rogelio and tell him to get back ASAP. They couldn’t go on living like this. “I don’t want to argue right now though, you’re the one who said we could have a conversation; I was hoping it would be a civil one.”
“Right, well. There’s something you said in our last conversation-”
“The one where I said you hated that you couldn’t save mom from the toaster accident but that you could’ve helped me more when I was sick and you didn’t? That one?” The intoxicating smells of the apartment were really getting to Gervassi. His head was spinning and his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He listened for his answer though, knowing the bare minimum might have to do.
“That’s the one. I needed to tell you, and this isn’t an easy thing to say, son, but, um, are you sitting down?”
“Okay,” Gervassi halfway hoped Rogelio would get back to the apartment in the middle of this conversation, but his dad plowed on undeterred, “I didn’t do more to help you because I had some business matters to take care of and believe it or not, I was keeping you safe more than you thought.”
“By abandoning me in the hospital or sending me across the state?”
“By making sure you were far away from the people who wanted to use you as leverage to get what they wanted from me.”
Gervassi laughed. His dad was making this sound like a mafia movie, but what could he have had that someone wanted so badly? It was ridiculous. Excuses. Gervassi didn’t want to hear them. “Don’t laugh, Gervassi. Did you ever stop to think your mother’s accident wasn’t so accidental?”
Images of his mom, his beautiful, angelic mother, sprawled out in the kitchen with a fizzling electric cord in her hand, a halfway exploded toaster on the counter spilled into Gervassi's head and he bit his tongue. He never thought it was anything other than what his father told him it was; a horrible malfunction. “What do you mean?”
“I mean people in power will do awful things to stay in that position. She was killed because of something I wouldn’t hand over to the wrong people and I couldn’t let the same thing happen to you.”
“Who were they?”
Gervassi’s dad paused, he was expecting his son to hang up shortly after he spilled the secret. “Old business partners. Men I used to trust. I can’t tell you much more but I wanted you to know the reasons why I cut you from the fabric of my life. It took one person away from me and I don’t want you to be the next. I have to go now.”
“Dad, you can’t expect me to believe that.”
“No, maybe not, but if you have any hope left for the two of us, you’ll have to trust me.” Clickclick and the sound of a cat howling in an alleyway; his father was gone and Gervassi sat alone in the cold apartment.
His phone slipped to the floor with a clatter and he left it there. He threw the leftover pizza to the ground with a moldy squelch and climbed under the blankets, but everything was too foul to be trapped underground with him. Off went the blankets, swept to the side in a soft storm. Off rolled Gervassi, buzzing with unwanted emotions. Off came the mattress, tossed off the frame. It thudded like a rock in July’s waters and Gervassi thought it would make him feel better but it didn’t.
“Maybe,” he said to the apartment walls, “I should just go on a walk.” Since no one was stopping him, he grabbed his phone, prayed it wasn’t too infected with Rogelio and Company germs, and headed out to the streets. Once he left the building he realized that the Florida air was sticky, not too conducive to the clearing of mind that Gervassi needed, but it was better than staying in the dumpster of an apartment.
The streets were filling out with the night crowd, college students and middle aged women on vacation alike. There was a couple walking their dog, a cute little poodle with a flouncing way of walking and a haircut to top the charts, and they stopped close to Gervassi.
“Would you take our picture?” They were obviously the kind of people who wanted the background in their photos, otherwise they would have taken the picture themselves. Gervassi shrugged and took the phone from them, swiping left to the camera.
“Would you mind standing like two seconds over to the right?”
The couple laughed together, swinging interlocked hands, and moved over. Gervassi took three pictures and handed the couple back their phone. Well, it was safe to assume it wasn’t their collective phone, but he wasn’t sure who owned it so he shoved it at one of them and stalked off without expecting a thank you. He told himself Afra would be proud of him, though, for not saying to the strangers. Their dog was cute, at the very least.
With a pang of remorse, Gervassi realized he needed to call Afra. She’d probably been blowing up his phone while he was throwing the temper tantrum of the century. He unlocked the screen and went to messages, but she hadn’t texted him and he didn’t have any voicemails or missed calls. Hmm. If he called would she pick up? Maybe she was asleep. He’d hate to wake her up after she and Muz had been driving for hours on end. Then again, he needed to talk to her ASAP. They weren’t a let’s-keep-secrets from each other kind of couple. He clicked her smiling face and listened; she picked up on the fifth ring.
“Vassi?” As he had imagined, she sounded like she’d just woken up. “Are you home?”
“Yeah, I got here about an hour ago but hey, listen, there’s something I need to tell you.” He stopped walking and sat down on a bench next to a man eating fried chicken from a massive paper bucket. I don’t know, maybe he was from Kentucky. “Should I wait, though? You sound really tired.”
Afra yawned and smiled. She’d just woken up, sure, but who wouldn’t feel more awake with the best alarm clock in the world on the other end of the phone? “No, no, go ahead.” She wrapped her bathrobe around her body and started to walk downstairs. It was still soft morning and Muz was still asleep. No one, not even Afra, was brave enough to talk on the phone as Muz was trying to get her beauty rest. “I’m going to go get some breakfast while we chat.”
“See, this isn’t really a chatting matter, Afra,” Gervassi clawed at his nose as he spoke, trying to stop the intrusive chicken smell from clocking him over the head, “I’ll wait till you’re sitting down.”
Afra sat down on a stair step. “Okay, I’m sitting down.” She yawned again, the bathrobe slipping down her shoulders. “This isn’t a break-up call, is it?”
“Of course not. It’s kind of the opposite.”
“Ah, a proposal, then. Are we getting hitched, Mr. Green?”
“No!” The man next to Gervassi jumped. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say it like that, but, um, no, not today.” He added, “Not today, Mrs. Green.”
“Absolved, go on.” Afra heard her mother stirring in the kitchen below. She dreaded having to talk to her parents about Colorado, even though they said she could go and it was fine, because she and Muz had gotten home almost two days after they said they would be.
“It’s about my dad.” Gervassi went on to explain their earlier conversation, not leaving out a single detail because he knew that Afra would absorb it all and love him through it like he would for her. He told her about throwing the mattress on the ground. By that point, the chicken man was rolling his eyes and moving to another bench because Gervassi was on the verge of tears. It was rude of the guy, but it wasn’t like he could exactly console a random teen without seeming like a weirdo, so he left to be, in one way, more considerate.
When Gervassi finished, Afra told him, “So first things first, we’re going to take some deep breaths and calm the heck down. I know,” she continued, “I know it’s not rational to calm down in a situation like this but it will make you feel better so deep breaths, and drink some water-”
“I don’t have water.”
“Well, go get some water and drink it. Um. I’m not sure what else to say.”
Gervassi closed his eyes and tried to will the people around him to magically trade places with Afra. He liked talking on the phone but he wanted her here with him. “You’re fine, listening was enough and yeah, I’m not sure what else there is to say. It’s only my life being tumped over for what? The fifth time? This week with Eleanor and now my dad has been a lot to handle to say the least.”
Afra could hear Muz snoring away in her bedroom and oh, what she would give to send that same sense of obliviousness to Vassi. “And now your apartment is trashed so you don’t want to deal with that either.”
“Yeah, well, technically it was semi-trashed before, too, but now it’s bordering on pigsty (I know, pigs are clean animals. For the sake of metaphor, let it go.) and I don’t know if I should threaten Rogelio or take care of it myself.”
“Clean up your mess and then threaten to leave if he doesn’t take of his.”
Gervassi liked that plan. “Makes sense. Though it does make it seem a little like a soap opera. ‘Take care of your mess or I’ll leave, Rogelio!’ Oh my word, he even has the perfect soap opera name. Am I living in an episode of a telenovela, Afra?”
“I dunno, man. Your dad did just call to confirm that your mother’s tragic death was pretty much a mafia ordered hit. Too soon?”
Gervassi thought about it; it was all ridiculous so why not compare it to something else unfeasible? “Nope, not at all. Can I call you later? I’m going to take your advice and get a drink.”
Afra sucked in her breath, “I said water, dude. Go get water.”
“I know, I’m planning on it. I’ll call you back, okay? Tell Muz I said hey when you’re telling her everything I just said.”
It was true, Afra would tell Muz everything as soon as she woke up. As much as she and Gervassi were not a secret keeping people, her loyalty to Muz defied even that. Lucky for them, Muz had a mouth she could lock like a steel trap if needed. “Okay, I will! Byeee, Vassi.”
“Bye, Afra.” He hung up before they got caught in the endless goodbye cycle he usually loved. He started walking towards the coffee shop two blocks down. There was a girl serving coffee quick as a snapper, but when Gervassi asked her for a cup of plain cold water, she froze.
“You want what?”
“Water. A glass of water.” Gervassi wasn’t sure why this girl was uneasy about water. “Y’know, H20? I’m sure you have plenty.”
“We don’t serve water, sir,” she spat, “And even if we did you’d have to be a paying customer to get it.”
Gervassi gritted his teeth. He pointed at a cookie under the counter’s glass top. “Then I guess I’ll be paying for a cookie today then, ma’am.” For all the wonderful strangers he managed to meet, this girl was not part of them. She sneered, muttered cursefully under her breath, and picked out the smallest cookie she could find. After wrapping it up in a paper bag, she snatched a glass off the counter beside her and filled it to the brim with tap water.
“That’ll be seven dollars.” She glanced in apology to the people behind Gervassi in line. “He’ll be out of here soon, folks, just some hobo wanting water.”
“Excuse me!” A loud as bells, clear as day voice rang out from above the murmuring line. The woman speaking had softly dyed red hair, smelled of caramels, and was wearing a black tutu over her jeans. “I believe I will be paying for this young man’s food and you,” she stuck a long finger two inches away from the rude barista’s nose, “Will be hearing from my lawyers.” She grabbed the cookie bag and the glass of water, but not before shoving a crumpled ten dollar bill at the cash register. “Take that and keep the change. Buy yourself some manners or something.”
“Hanna?” Gervassi couldn’t help but grin. This was another one of his favorite strangers, one who he’d coincidentally met on the same bus as Afra. “Why are you in Florida?”
Hanna looped her arm through Gervassi’s and they started walking towards the door. “I’m selling tutus at the Florida Apparel Convention in Naples! It’s so lucky to see you again! How’s life? It’s been, what, at least a month since we last saw each other?”
“Pretty sure it’s been more than a month but I’ve missed you too. Life has thrown me a curveball today but it’s nothing I’m not used to so I’ll get over it soon-ish.” He wouldn’t get over it without help, though, and the more he reminded himself of that the better. “Want to sit for a while? You can have the cookie. I didn’t want it. Afra told me to get water though so I appreciate your generosity.”
“You kidding?” Hanna let go of Gervassi’s arm and laughed loudly. “Oh wait, is Afra that gal you borrowed my phone to talk to?”
“Yes, the very same. We’re dating, if you hadn’t chalked that up yet.”
“Uh huh.” Hanna popped a caramel into her mouth. “That’s great, really, it is! I’m thrilled to hear it worked out.” She clapped her hands. “So where to?”
They ended up at a park ordained, “The Clovers Grove” and parked themselves at a picnic table sitting across the BBQ grill row. As they settled into catching up, Gervassi talking about Colorado and Hanna talking about her wild tutu sales going through the roofs lately, Afra called. “Let me get this.” Gervassi picked up the phone. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Checking in, I wanted to make sure you’d calmed down and were following doctor’s orders. Did you get water?”
Gervassi started to tell her about meeting Hanna again at the coffee shop, but then he stopped. “Yes, I did. I’m sitting at a park now. It’s nice, you would like it.”
“Oooh, can I see? We can FaceTime.” Afra’s voice sounded so happy at the prospect, only there was a strange feeling in Gervassi’s gut that was yelling at him not to do it.
“Actually, I’m not feeling too well. I think I’m headed back to the apartment to catch a nap until Rogelio comes back.”
Afra hmmed approvingly, now sitting at her kitchen’s bar and eating waffles. “Sure, okay. Text me if you need anything, though.”
“Ah, all I need is for you to be there when I call you again.”
Gervassi’s heart twisted as his girlfriend laughed, a marvelous sound he loved with all his might. Why didn’t he tell her he was with Hanna? He was her friend. There wouldn’t be an issue. Yet, he said his goodbyes to Afra and hung up without explaining.
The not-quite truth weighed heavy on his tongue.