A/N: I know this isn't what anybody's looking for. But I've been having trouble writing anything worth reading lately, so whatever comes along, I had better embrace. I think there's not much to this, a couple of chapters, maybe.
"So you've been single your whole life?" Manny made it sound unbelievable. And eternal. As if Brewer was an old man instead of merely thirty-one. Thirty.
It wasn't any of Manny's business anyway. But Brewer felt less invaded and more flattered by Manny's unlikely interest. "Yeah," he said. He watched Manny's pleasant face -- no change in the brown eyes or the manly little grin, just an abstract nod. Manny was just making conversation.
Manly Manny manfully making manly conversation.
He wasn't really interested. Did that make it better, or worse? Better, Brewer decided. He could turn the tables. "What about you?"
Manny shrugged. The cafe door opened, bringing in a chilly breath of noisy air from the outside. Wet and chilly: droplets from somewhere ended up on Brewer's face.
"I've had a couple of boyfriends. The last one was pretty serious. Not meant to be, though. We're better off friends. You had any near-misses?"
"Not really," Brewer said, shivering. His coffee was cold. Manny was distracting. How long had they been here? Long enough for the sky to go from grey to pink outside, and long enough to exhaust several good subjects before this one. "I should go," he said. "I have to pill the cat."
"Okay. See you tomorrow," Manny said, lightly, as if he enjoyed the goodbye as much as any other part of the conversation. Brewer wished he could say or do anything that lightly.
"Tomorrow," Brewer agreed.
The cat was a wonder: never all that difficult to pill, which was merciful, since he needed two pills twice a day. Brewer got through it and slouched into his bed, where he kept his books and his laptop. He read about fictional building materials and true histories until his eyes closed of their own accord. When he woke, it was still dark, and the cat was sitting on the top of his dresser, eyeing him with that blank feline stare that so easily translates to malevolence in the imaginative mind. Brewer fancied that he was not imaginative at all. He thought the cat looked like it was simply waiting for a stimulus to respond to, like Brewer's rising.
The cat followed Brewer into the kitchen and bore its pilling with equanimity. "You're not bad, for a cat," Brewer said, as he said most mornings, and put food in its dish.
The cat stared at him.
"What? You're a cat. That's cat food. Specially designed for cats. What's the problem?"
He opened a can of sardines and put one of the shiny little slimy fish gently on top of the cat's dish. The others he put away. Dinner, for both of them. He'd eat them for breakfast but he had never been able to eradicate the smell well enough for work purposes. Instead he had a handful of almonds and an orange. "See you later," he said to the cat as he went walking out the door.
"You got drenched," Manny observed in the elevator. "That's why we have umbrellas."
"I thought it wasn't going to rain till tonight," Brewer said. No need to say he didn't have one, and that he didn't actually have any functional rain gear right now. -- since he'd given everything away again. He hadn't been expecting to need anything for at least a couple more weeks. After the next paycheck. Anyway, he was just going to change his clothes. He wasn't without any resources or foresight. He always kept a change of clothes at work. You never knew what kind of messy surprises might ambush you during the day.
"You need to take better care of yourself," Manny said. "Since you don't let anybody else do it."
Brewer glared at him. What was his point? "I take care of myself okay," he said, thinking this was a lame thing to say.
"As well as you can, I expect," Manny said, but his soft expression was not in line with the words in any way that Brewer could figure.
"Come to lunch," Manny said. It wasn't a suggestion. Maybe not even an invitation. Brewer had a hundred reasons he didn't want to go, most of them unspeakable now that Manny had said that thing about taking care of himself. He didn't want to get his backup clothes wet. Yesterday, lingering at the cafe, Brewer had already spent his whole month's restaurant budget, and he didn't have any extra hidden away in another category. And he didn't want to answer any more of Manny's questions.
"I can't," Brewer finally said. "I'm waiting for a call." It was almost true. He was going to make a call, though, not get one.
"And you have to receive it on your work phone, right, because you don't have a cell phone?"
"Right," Brewer said.
"So who's blackmailing you? And over what?"
"Never mind. Just a joke."
Brewer watched him go, trying to tell himself Manny was just a jerk, not taking out his lunch till everyone was gone.
After he ate, he made the call. "How's he doing?" he asked.
"He sat up," Joey said. "He had real food for breakfast."
Brewer breathed out. "Really good. Did you talk with him?"
"Yeah. Still a lot of aphasia going on, but he makes sense as far as that goes."
"That's great. Great. And how are you holding up?"
Joey paused. "I don't know. I'm just hanging on till he comes home. Then we'll figure it out from there."
"What are you doing for dinner tonight?" Brewer asked.
"Melanie's coming over. You want to come over tomorrow? We can head over to the hospital together afterwards."
"Sounds good. See you later."
He hung up, and looking up, he saw Manny plaster on a smile.
"I wasn't eavesdropping but I thought I heard you making a date," Manny said. "Holding out on me? You actually have something going on?"
"No," Brewer said. "It's just a friend. His lover's in the hospital."
"Oh, sorry," Manny said. There was a gleam in his eye. "You need a ride to the hospital? I know you don't have a car."
He wasn't fine. The incessant soft hum of the hospital at night was reminiscent of the sound of an airplane cabin, and that put his morbid mind to thinking of a voyage to the country of death. And the walk through the corridors, half a step behind Joey, was just long enough to fill Brewer with sufficient dread by the time they got to Cal's room.
Cal smiled at Brewer beneficently as they entered. It wasn't the first time Brewer had seen him since the stroke, but it was the first time he'd seen him since they'd moved him here to the rehabilitation wing. He had more color and he was wearing real clothes. He was sitting in a chair, not in the bed. He waved at the bed for Joey and Brewer to sit there.
"Apple -- no. Hello," Cal said.
Joey scooted close to Cal and poked him gently in the belly. "Silly rabbit," he said.,
"Sounds right," Cal said, and laughed.
Brewer laughed too. "Apple's a reasonable greeting," he agreed. "Especially when it's me. I'm tempting, aren't I?"
"Was," Cal said. "Doey stops."
"Right, I know, I can't be half as tempting as Joey. Speaking of food and tempting, do they feed you right? All health and no delicious?"
"Delicious health," Cal said after a few tries. He waved his good hand at Joey. "Ask."
"Yeah. When Cal comes home he needs a lot of exercise and speaking practice. They're willing to train a couple people to help with the sessions --"
"Sure. I have Wednesdays off because of the furlough. Got nothing better to do. But I warn you, Cal, I'll work you hard."
Joey beamed. "I'll put you on the list. Better yet, come over here tomorrow and you'll see the person yourself."
Cal winked at Brewer. Brewer bit his lip, and smiled. He even smiled when Joey kissed Cal right on the mouth and mock-complained about how sloppy his kiss was with half his mouth paralyzed.
. . .
"Had an exciting weekend?" Manny asked. He had brought his lunch today and was sitting across from Brewer at a table in the lobby. Totally prey to any hapless clients who might come in desperately seeking help during their lunch hour, but Brewer didn't mind.
"Kind of. I spent yesterday learning how to put my friend through his paces. The one in the hospital."
"He's a racehorse?"
Brewer drew a blank. "No," he said, finally getting it, laughing. "He's had a stroke and he has exercises for his hand and his speech. I'm going to help out."
"Sounds difficult," Manny said. "Ever done anything like that before?"
"No, but they teach you really well. And Cal's really determined. He'll be a breeze to work with."
"He's like an old friend?"
Brewer blushed. "Yeah, but he's not that old. Just a few years older than me."
"Not just a friend."
"Just a friend. He has a lover."
"You blushed, though." Manny raised his hands. "Sorry, I'll stop pushing. I keep getting too nosy with you. I don't mean to."
"It's okay." Brewer decided to be a bit generous with Manny after all. "It was a little bit like that, a long time ago. Before Joey."
"He broke up with you for this guy? --"
"No, it wasn't like that. We weren't a couple, ever. I mean, I had feelings for him, but we didn't go that far. Remember? I said I never had a boyfriend."
"I remember that. I wondered if you didn't mean that in a bitter retrospective way or something."
"No, I really never had a boyfriend."
"So, an unrequited first love, and you're still pining. No? What happened?"
"I don't pine. I'm perfectly content. All that happened -- Cal took no for an answer, that's all."
"You said no? But you said you had feelings for him."
"I did. He's a really good guy. The best."
Manny winced. "You still --"
"Yeah, I still have feelings for him, but -- not like that, anymore. I wasn't ready for him then, and he moved on, and so did I. He's better off the way it turned out: Joey's better than me."
"Anybody else I'd think they were lying if they said they blew somebody off for being too good for them. Scum usually say that, you know, because they think people will believe it, when really they think the person's just boring. But you're you, and you think crap like that. It's a mistake, you know? You know that?"
"Yeah, but it's a mistake I won't repeat."
"So the next time you feel something for a guy, and he tries to get close to you -- you won't be reflexively saying no?"
"Of course not."
Manny grinned widely, opened his mouth to speak again. Brewer cut him off before he could launch into some plan to hook him up with some random guy. "I won't be feeling something for a guy in the first place, all right?"
"That's a dumb thing to promise," Manny said. "But all right, you want to goi through life loveless, that's okay with me."
"I'm not loveless. I love a bunch of people. Romantic love isn't all there is."
"But it's a really nice part of what there is," Manny said.
"Not everybody gets every good thing," Brewer said. "I have good things in my life and I'm content with them."
"Okay," Manny said, scowling, moving to gather his lunch things. "I guess I'm going to follow in Cal's footsteps here, then. Take no for an answer."
"What?" Brewer watched him go, seeing bits of a puzzle slowly assemble themselves before him.
Manny couldn't have been calling these nagging conversations courtship, could he?
I swear Manny's a much more pleasant guy than he seems to be. He's had his troubles, too, you know.