Zach had saved a table at his favorite brewery, Top Hops. Neither his girlfriend, Emma, nor his best friend, Quinn, were here yet. He checked his watch, while tapping his foot impatiently. He hated sitting alone and being early, but someone had to save a table or else they'd just be standing around and not enjoying their drinks in the same way. This sense of duty to arrive early both compelled and prided Zach. It slightly bothered him that Emma was late, but he had gotten used to Quinn’s tardiness over the years of their friendship.
About ten minutes after Zach arrived, Emma pulled up in her white sedan and parked. She took out her bejeweled smartphone to see if her boyfriend, Zach, had texted her that he had arrived yet. She knew it was probable - Zach was always on time. He made sure to be there first, otherwise “it’d be a nightmare,” as he would say. Imagine having to wait ten more minutes for a seat, she thought with a sigh. Even though she loved Zach, this particular affinity for doing things a certain way did sometimes rub her the wrong way.
Sometimes, she had this nagging intrusive thought of texting him her frustration. But when she weighed her frustration against her love for him, the small annoyance didn’t really matter. It was just a thought and nothing more.
As she was checking her phone, another car quickly pulled in beside hers. She glanced up to see Quinn, wearing expensive sunglasses as he drove his modern red sports' car. He looked over at her and smiled. She sighed a little bit. She always hated walking in with Quinn instead of Zach, but her and Zach never arrived at the same time. That intrusive thought came back. She pushed her phone back into her purse to shake off the temptation.
Quinn strode out from his car and around to her. "Em!" Quinn shouted, arms open wide. He came in for an embrace. She always hugged him back, but tried to make it quick. It was no secret to Emma that Quinn had an obsession with her. She and Zach had talked about it on more than one occasion. The compliments Quinn always said to her, the gifts he gave to her, the opportunities he took advantage of to sit across from her and stare deeply into her eyes. If Zach wasn't such a confident guy, she didn't think their friendship would still be working out. But since Zach wasn't threatened, and she was not attracted to Quinn, they allowed the dynamic to remain.
"Is Zach here yet?" Quinn asked as they began walking side by side into the bar.
"What do you think?" she retorted. Somehow, her tone had come out bitterly. The intrusive thought wasn’t going away as easily this time. Quinn picked up on it immediately.
"You know, I'm never on time. It's one of my charms."
She laughed. He smiled proudly. One of Quinn's favorite things about Emma, that he always complimented her on, was her laugh. He tucked a lock of his straight, coiffed black hair behind his ear to accentuate his squared jaw.
"You two are very different, you know," Quinn added.
"Yeah, opposites attract. Haven't you ever heard that?"
"Opposites attract, yeah. Men and women. They're opposites. That's what the expression means."
"No, it does not," she said, then a sudden doubt arose in her mind.
"I hope that wasn't your main criteria for dating my boy Zach," Quinn added as he purposefully brushed his arm against hers.
Before she could protest, they came inside. Zach saw them both and stood up. He was well-dressed, usually overdressed for an evening out. He immediately put his arm around Emma who smiled blissfully. Quinn looked away and sighed to himself. Then Zach came over and greeted Quinn with a slide and pound.
They all sat down - Zach and Emma on one side of the table and Quinn on the other side, directly across from Emma.
They made small talk about work, school (Emma was in nursing school, but Zach and Quinn were both already in their careers), and told many jokes. After a little bit, Zach excused himself to use the bathroom. He had a small bladder and had to go after just one beer.
"There he goes again," Quinn said. "I swear his bladder is smaller than a pine nut."
Emma laughed again. He smiled the same way as before. Then he leaned in across the table. "How did he do it?" Quinn whispered.
She furrowed her brow. "Do what?"
"How did he land you? I mean, I love the guy, but I wouldn't date him. He's too... particular. You strike me as the type of girl who likes someone more... laid back."
Insulted, she sat up, and said firmly, "Enough. It's none of your business. Okay?"
Pulling back from the table and raising his hands innocently, Quinn got up to get himself another drink. "I'll be right back," he said.
Emma took out her phone and began scrolling through social media. She wanted to distract herself. She was getting a little tired of hanging out with Zach's friends, especially Quinn. She texted her friend, Alaine, and asked if she wanted to meet them at the bar. That would be a good buffer for Quinn’s inappropriate advances towards her.
Meanwhile, Zach was sitting on the toilet, typing away on his own phone. He hated being at the bar with Quinn and Emma. The confidence that Quinn had, the natural poise and bravado. Those were things he desperately wanted. He felt so boring by comparison. Before Zach headed to the bathroom, Quinn had dominated the conversation with all the interesting things he was up to.
While Zach worked a normal 9-5 office job, Quinn was the lead developer at a video game franchise. He was making lots of money and was only twenty-six. He had two sports cars, his own house with a pool, and lots of pets and leisure. Every other week he was on vacation it seemed like.
Zach was struggling to impress Emma. His dingy little apartment, used SUV, and pathetically cheap date night ideas was going to inevitably lead to Emma leaving him. For someone like Quinn. Someone more interesting and fun. He just wanted that confidence.
As he sat there with his phone open, Zach had this intrusive thought of breaking up with Emma. He didn’t want to, she hadn’t done anything. She was perfect in his eyes. But he had become even more self-conscious since they started dating. He was constantly beating himself up for not doing enough. Even his successful dates still had drawbacks in his mind. But he tried to shake off the thought. Emma wasn’t the problem. It was him.
Flushing the toilet, he got up and looked at himself in the mirror. She always told him he was handsome, but he doubted it. His long working hours and volunteer work left little time for the gym or even a good shave. He noticed strange, long hairs under his chin and… Was that toothpaste in his mustache? He wiped his face with a towel and cleaned up, but he couldn't do anything about the random neck hairs he'd missed. With a sigh, he tried to collect himself and came back out.
To his surprise, Emma's friend Alaine was sitting at the table beside her now. Quinn was not around.
He came over and sat across from Emma. "Hey, Alaine, when did you get here?"
Emma leaned in and whispered, "Quinn was being a jerk so I brought Alaine to intimidate him." Alaine was not easily pushed around and she was Emma's protective friend until she had approved of Emma's choice of Zach. He was honored, but still couldn't quite understand how he'd passed the tests.
"Oh, don't be bothered. He gets like that when he’s buzzed is all," Zach said.
"Is he always buzzed?" Alaine said, causing Emma to laugh.
Just then, Quinn came back with a new round of beers. "To friendship," he declared, setting down the tray full of bottles and glasses.
The round was more than Zach would have ordered for himself. At $9 a pint, he tried to limit himself to one beer. When Quinn did stuff like this without asking, it always bugged him. But he hated to be in debt to anyone, even friends. "I'll Venmo you," Zach said, taking out his phone.
"Pish posh," Quinn said. "It's on me,” Zach nodded, then began to put his phone away. Then Quinn added, “I know you need the money, so."
The words were like daggers to Zach's fledgling ego. "Screw you, bro." He yelled, abruptly leaving the table and going outside.
Emma got up quickly after him and followed him out. Alaine stayed seated, arms folded, glaring at Quinn.
"What?" he said. "Zach’s fine. He probably didn't get the raise he was going for or something like that."
"Mhmm," she retorted.
Outside, Emma found Zach pacing back and forth with both hands in his jacket pockets. "Hey, what was that all about?" Emma asked. "I know he's a jerk but that seemed sort of out of character for you."
Deciding to tell the truth, Zach laid it all out, or all that he could lay out in five minutes. Emma stood there quietly until he finished. "Babe, you really think that Quinn is better than you? There is nothing better about him than you, trust me."
"Are you kidding? He has everything I want, babe."
She took his words personally, taking a step back from him. "Well, he doesn't have me." Since he didn’t respond right away, she turned around and walked away from him.
Going back inside, Emma grabbed her purse and tugged on her friend’s shoulder. "Alaine, let's go." Alaine wasted no time. They got up and left without a word to Quinn.
Emma barely said a word to Zach as she walked past him. She just said they were leaving. And they did.
Zach came back inside, defeated, and sat slouched in his chair. Quinn held out a beer to his friend. "Nature's cure-all, pal."
"Thanks," Zach said, taking the glass. "Why am I such a failure?"
"Failure? Bro, look at your freaking life. You have what every guy wants."
"No, you have what every guy wants," Zach said.
There was a moment of silence between them. "Are you saying you… Want to house sit for me next weekend? Cause I'm going to Cancun with the folks for four days," Quinn said.
"No, I--" he thought about it, "Okay maybe, sure. But what I mean is you have the life... I may have the girl, but I don't have anything else going for me."
Quinn pensively tapped his beer bottle against his lip. "Well, I have the job, the house, the cars... But I don't have anything else going for me."
It was the first real moment they'd had since Emma and Zach started dating three months ago.
"So you've been looking at my life with envy?" Zach asked, baffled.
"Yeah. And you've been looking at my life with envy?" Quinn said, taking a swig of beer.
They sat there in silence for a moment. The realization was slowly sinking in.
"You know," Quinn said slowly. "My company is hiring. It's entry-level, but it'd be more exciting than ordering seat cushions for a living..."
Zach perked up. "Hmm. Also, I was thinking, Emma's cousin Steph is single again. Remember the one you talked to at her birthday party? The one with the green highlights in her hair."
"Yeah," Quinn said reminiscing. He looked down woefully. "Nah, she probably wouldn't go for me." What he really wanted was Emma.
"No, no, Emma and I can talk you up. I'll be your wingman."
Quinn gave a half-hearted smile. "This is why we're best friends, Zach. We fill in each other's gaps."
"Cheers to that," Zach said. They clinked Zach’s glass against Quinn’s bottle then both took a drink.
Quinn stared at Zach. Even though he was his best friend for years, this sense of boiling jealousy never abated. Zach was always more desirable to women, and it drove Quinn crazy. "Do you ever wonder if in an alternate reality, there's a version of me with your girlfriend, and a version of you with my job?" Quinn said.
Zach coughed up his last sip. "And, you ruined the moment," Zach said, getting up and leaving. "I will Venmo you. For that beer. I don’t want to owe you anything.”
In a short time, Quinn had scared everyone away. He sighed, eyeing the two beers Emma and Alaine had left behind. He quickly chugged one of them then slammed it down on the table. Fury was rising up inside of him. Zach was probably gonna go home and call Emma. They were probably going to make up and be all jolly and cheerful together. Quinn couldn’t fight this hatred he was feeling. He looked around at the rest of the bar. A table of women who’d witnessed some of the scene earlier glared at him with judgmental stares. Women who were detested by him.
He eyed Emma’s unopened beer bottle. He had had four already tonight. He was seeing the bottles shift back and forth in his vision. Then he had a wicked idea.
Picking up the bottle, Quinn ran outside. Zach was still approaching his car and fumbling for his keys. He never heard Quinn coming.
With his blood pumping, Quinn swung the bottle at the crown of Zach's skull. It shattered and Zach fell forward with a yell. His forehead struck the SUV’s bumper and made a dent. He fell face down on the concrete and did not move.
Quinn's hand was shaking. His vision was blurry but it came back into startling focus. The initial rage was gone. "Zach, Zach! Get up, man." He tried to lift him, but Zach's head had a greenish purple color at the forehead and temple. He was not responding.
Even though he was struggling to, Quinn had to think fast. He couldn't go to the police or even the hospital after what he’d done.
Driving with the body in the trunk, Quinn went to the top of the highest hill in town. "Zach liked my car. Maybe he stole it. Yeah, that'll work."
Putting the car in neutral and getting out, Quinn bit his lip. The car inched, then scooted forward towards the edge of the hill. It went over the top and quietly fell down. The crash was loud. Very loud. Lights went on in the neighborhood. Quinn climbed down. He walked for an hour then got home, unlocked his house door, greeted his dogs, then got in bed and fell asleep.
Even though he was a prime suspect, and the police investigated him for weeks, Quinn was never convicted for the crime. It had been ruled a drunken accident…
It wasn't immediate, but eventually, Emma began to love him. She had been angry when Zach was found dead, as she assumed Quinn was responsible for Zach’s death. But once the cops cleared him of guilt, she apologized to Quinn. She cried in his arms. Then eventually they kissed. The rest was history.
Thirty years later, sitting on his deck of their beautiful vista in Italy, an older, fatter Quinn looked out on the night sky. A more fragile, but still delicately beautiful Emma came out and kissed him goodnight. The grandkids were coming over tomorrow. He smiled and said goodnight.
"So," he said alone and to himself. "So this is the alternate reality." Thinking back, he had had a good life. But the haunting memory of what he had done had never gone away. He had gotten everything he wanted, but he had lost his best friend in the process. It wasn't worth it.
At the bar that night, Quinn stared at his fourth beer. His eyes went back into focus. He called an Uber. "Please take me home right away," he told the driver. Then he called Zach from the car. "I don't want your life, man. I'm sorry. I like the way my life is. And you should too. You really should appreciate it. Enjoy Emma and we'll talk about that job tomorrow, okay?"
Zach agreed. He and Emma had made up and they were together in his apartment. He had called her and apologized, explaining more about his insecurities. His life was much better than he felt it was. He had called her from his small apartment and they talked on the phone for an hour, before she realized she wanted to come over and be with him in person. He sat on the couch with her and looked at his flat screen TV, kitchen amenities, and framed picture of his family. He actually had it pretty good. And the best part was his relationship. Even though he had doubts and fears, they were not worth a life without Emma.
What they all three realized that same night was that sometimes all you really needed to hold your life together was a little gratitude, forgiveness, and perspective.