You ever have one of those nights where it's like if you looked hard enough, you might find yourself in the bottom of your mug of coffee, swirling down there in the darkness? Like suddenly everything might swim into the clear and you might know, really know something about who you are and what you should be doing with your life. I dunno, maybe no one else is as crazy as me.
But it was one of those nights, sitting there at the café down on the corner—Tim's or Sam's or some other generic name. There weren't too many people there, either; I was one of maybe five people, and the only person sitting at the bar seating that faced out onto the street. There were people hustling by out there, running from the chill toward the warmth of their separate homes, of their lovers' arms or their dogs or their blankets or whatever it was that made people warm.
Fuck, it had been so long since I had been warm.
I stared morosely into the mug I had just emptied, wondering whether I should have it refilled or get on with my life. Not that I had anywhere to get on to; if I went home now—and I couldn't imagine where else I might go at that hour—I would probably just crash out in front of the TV with a movie on. Story of my life.
I got a refill; the apartment was going to be freezing because I knew I had left the window cracked open that morning—I had been trying to air the place out overnight and was supposed to remember to shut the window but had been running late for work—and I was in no mood to deal with it just then.
On my way back to my seat, of course, someone ran into me and the coffee sloshed all over both of us—fortunately it wasn't too hot. I should have known better than to go against my gut instinct and get more coffee. Whenever I was even just slightly on the fence about something, chance always conspired to make me realise exactly why I shouldn't have done what I had just done.
The man was babbling out apologies all the while scolding a young kid standing contritely on the other side of him, so it was difficult for me to tell whether he was apologising to me or the kid, yelling at me or the kid. It didn't matter; I shrugged wordlessly, set the cup on an empty table, and grabbed some napkins, then dropped to the floor and began sopping up the mess. I knew the coffee wasn't going to come out of my white shirt; there was no point in bothering with that, and I didn't see why the barista should have to attend to the mess when it wasn't even her fault. I was clumsy and I hadn't been paying enough attention, and I recognised that.
The man joined me on the floor, grabbing some of the napkins straight out of my hands. "Here, let me get that; that was all my fault. I'm not normally that clumsy, but I'm not normally trying to keep an eye on Kelly either. He's my sister's son and a little bit more than I can handle—have you ever been around four-year-olds? Crazy bunch, the lot of them. Anyway."
The mess was cleaned up; he took the napkins and somehow managed to pitch them cleanly into the trash can—where 'somehow' meant he didn't share my total lack of aim. He grinned crookedly at me, and I had to admit he was rather handsome looking with his shaggy dark hair and grey eyes. Not that I would say anything to that effect, of course. "So. I'm Michael. Mickey, if you want." He held out a hand expectantly, and I shook it.
"Um," I replied eloquently. "James—I'm James."
"James," he said, like he was testing it out. He smiled again, that brilliant smile that I was sure stopped a dozen hearts a day. "Nice to meet you, James." He tossed a glance over his shoulder where the kid, almost an exact clone of his uncle only much younger and slightly pudgier, was watching us intently, a finger hooked in his mouth. "That ragamuffin," Mickey told me, "is Kelly, and he's the cause of the mess."
Kelly removed his thumb from his mouth and gave his uncle an affronted look. "Was not," he argued. "You shoulda been watchin' where you was going!"
Mickey shook his head, looking amused, and stood, offering me a hand up. "Look, I know your shirt's probably ruined—mine too, I'm sure—but let me buy you another coffee, okay? What were you having?"
"Nah, it's fine," I said, waving it away. I just wanted to go home; I didn't do people so well anymore. Maybe I needed to spend some more time out in the world, in those places between my job and my apartment. My artwork had long since ceased to imitate nature except in a purely abstract way, but maybe understanding people a bit better would bring a new dimension into my work. Who knew.
"But really-" Mickey protested.
I waved it away again. "Look, I already wasn't sure I wanted that coffee—I've already had quite a bit tonight and I actually have to get some sleep so I can work tomorrow. So really, this was just chance's way of telling me that I'd had one too many and I'd better get my sorry ass on back home." I glanced toward the kid and winced. "I mean-"
Mickey shook his head sharply. "It's fine; it's nothing he's never heard before." His face darkened momentarily, then he was all sunshine again. "Well, if you're done having coffee for the night, how about you meet me back here on, say, Thursday night and I'll buy you coffee then? I know it's an unusual night but my class schedule is really bizarre this semester and I'm teaching late most nights."
I blinked at him and cocked my head to the side. Was an attractive guy seriously asking me out? No, though, he was just trying to repay me because he had been part of the reason I had spilt my coffee; there was nothing more to it than that. No use reading more into it. And even if there was something more, I didn't have time to get involved with someone just then; I had a big exhibition coming up the following month and I had decided that afternoon to scrap all the pieces I had been working on previously and go in an entirely new direction. What direction, I still wasn't sure, but it would come to me. All the more reason to sleep.
"No, really," I assured him, "it's really all right; you don't have to worry about paying me back." I nodded at him and made to move past him to the doorway. "You have a good night."
He caught my arm, apparently a persistent one. "Let me walk you home, at least?"
I blinked at him and said snidely, "You're pretty desperate, aren't you, Michael?"
He blushed and shook his head, scuffing his foot along the ground. "Sorry. Whatever. I've got to get Kelly back to my sister anyway, I'm sure. See you around."
There was something more to the story, but it wasn't my place to press. If I said anything else like the comment on his desperation, I might just die of embarrassment. It apparently had been far too long since I had last interacted with strangers; my mother would have killed me if she had heard how rude I was.
When I got back to the apartment, it was just as cold as I had expected it to be, and I sighed and slammed the window shut. Perseus, the old orange tabby cat my kid brother had given me for my sixteenth birthday, gave me a dirty look and went back to his nap. I wondered where Angie had got to but didn't bother to look for her; I wasn't in the mood to cuddle with them that night, anyway. All I really wanted was a hot shower and then sleep. I had to come up with a new idea for the exhibition, after all.
You probably would have thought that with the way I had basically run away from Mickey, I would avoid getting coffee on Thursday—at least go to a different café. But truth be told, I had already forgot about the instance by the time Thursday rolled around, and when I got off work, I automatically headed to the café, hardly even paying attention to where my feet were leading me. In fact, as soon as I got my coffee and was sitting facing out onto the street, I was sketching again, drawing out spiralling shapes and thinking of colours for them, thinking who I trusted to blow pieces of glass this big.
Which is why I nearly fell off the stool when someone said my name and kicked out the stool next to me. I blinked owlishly up at Mickey, who smiled at me. "Hey," he greeted, nodding toward the chair he had kicked out. "Mind if I sit here?"
I started hurriedly gathering together all the scraps of paper I had been scribbling on, feeling a blush tinge my cheeks. "Sorry," I mumbled, sliding them all into my portfolio. "Don't know how long you were standing there. Wasn't purposefully ignoring you."
He shrugged and lounged in the seat, looking almost smug as he brought his coffee to his lips. "Yeah, I know—you were working; I saw you. I'm an English teacher over at the university and a lot of the kids are dual-majoring or minoring in art; I've seen them work too. Not to be too forward, but it's terribly cute. And not to be too forward again, but what were you working on? I didn't want to look because I know a lot of people are very private about their work."
I gave a short bark of laughter and shrugged, spinning slightly in my chair. "I can't afford to be private about my work; I've got an exhibition next month. And I really need to go right now. I'm sorry, I just have to get some work done."
Mickey stood hurriedly. "If that's the case, then I'll leave—I didn't mean to interrupt your work, I just thought you might want that coffee that I owe you or something. I was just passing by and saw you through the window and all. But I'll definitely not stay to chat if you're busy."
I glanced meaningfully toward my portfolio. "I'm already all packed up, so it's good; I'll go. I work better in my own space, anyway." Not that the apartment felt like my own space—somehow it still just felt like a temporary home, even after I had lived there for almost seven years—but he didn't need to know that.
He slipped a gentle hand onto my elbow. "Let me walk you home, then." He grinned. "No kid this time, see?"
I gave him a puzzled look, not sure really what he wanted and afraid it was going to sound too heavy-handed if I asked outright. But still-"Why?"
He frowned slightly and turned his head to the side. "Well, I kind of was reading these vibes from you that you might be interested in me. At least as a friend? So I was thinking maybe I'd get to know you better. You seem lonely. Wistful. I don't know. I read too much into body language a lot of the time; maybe you're just tired and preoccupied."
I swallowed and shook my head. "Still. You're not…" I shrugged and lifted my chin, like if I acted as though I had confidence, he might not realise the total impact of what I said next: "If this was high school, you'd never be seen within ten feet of me. We're not the same…type. You know?"
He gave me a bewildered stare for a long moment, then started laughing hard, hands on his knees. "If this were high school," he informed me at long last, "well. If this were high school I would not have had the guts to talk to you, that much is for sure. And if this were high school, well, I'd be the scrawny and awkward kid who only existed at home and in class. Fortunately, this isn't high school." He shook his head, still looking mirthful. "How old are you, anyway?"
And somehow he was guiding me by the hand at my elbow, or maybe I was leading him along; I couldn't tell. We were out on the street, though, and heading toward my apartment, even though every sense I had was telling me this was a bad idea, that even if he did have motives that weren't totally shady, I couldn't be starting a relationship just then. As soon as I started a relationship, chance was sure to show me what a huge mistake it had been.
"I'm twenty-six," I said in answer to Mickey's question.
He gave me an appraising look, then nodded a little. "Yeah, okay," he said, like I might have been lying to him and he had decided to trust me. "I'm twenty-eight. Since we're sharing. Your turn to ask a question."
I raised an eyebrow at him. "Is this some sort of bizarre get-to-know-you game that we're playing?"
He gave me a wicked smile and shrugged. "My mother gave me a set of cards that give topics to ask on a first date to keep the ball rolling, but I don't have them with me at the moment. But I thought you might, you know, want to start things off slowly like that. Then again, like I said before I tend to read a lot more than I should into certain things. I dunno, it's one of my worst traits."
I snorted. "If that's one of your worst traits, you're a saint."
"What's your worst trait?" he challenged, a gleam in his eye. "This could get interesting."
I ducked my head a little, wondering why I was still walking with this man who was, to all appearances, crazy. "I don't know," I mumbled. What was my worst trait? The fact that I could go for days without noticing anything except my art? The fact that I was a workaholic? The fact that I was a workaholic because my family didn't support my art and I hadn't spoken to my mother or father in years, except to wish them a Merry Christmas every year? The fact that I was twenty-six and hadn't even been on a date since high school? The fact that I, quite literally, had no friends?
"Oh, come on, I'll tell you my worst trait—I have this really bad habit of antagonising people just for fun. Like, sometimes I just watch myself doing something or saying something and I'm like, why did I do that? And then I think about it and it turns out I did that because sometimes I just really like to be an ass and a half." He shrugged self-consciously, the first time I had really seen him looking anything other than completely confident. And it was kind of sexy that he let his barriers drop like that, I had to admit.
"I work a lot," I finally admitted. "And don't really get out much."
Mickey snorted and then ruffled my hair suddenly, much to my surprise and chagrin. "Yeah, I could tell that about you." He winced and looked away slightly. "I guess that's another of my worst traits, though—I have this thing about hair…" He sighed heavily and turned imploring eyes on me. "Look, I'm going to touch your hair more than necessary, okay? I just have this thing about touching hair, I dunno."
I gave him an incredulous look. "I'm probably not going to see you again after tonight," I pointed out.
He visibly deflated and folded his arms across his chest. "Oh. Right."
Cripes, what was with this guy? How desperate was he? How did I deal with him? And was he desperate to the level of a stalker—was that how he had happened to turn up that night, or had he just turned up because it was Thursday night and he didn't have work?
For some reason, I reached out and laced my fingers with his, pulling him to a stop since we were outside my building and looking deep into his eyes. "Look, it's nothing personal, okay? It's nothing against you. But I have a lot of work I have to do right now; like I said, I have an exhibition next month. And I just started a whole new project for it, so pretty soon—once I'm done sketching out ideas and stuff—I'm going to be working pretty much around the clock to make sure this all comes together in time. I just don't have time for a relationship right now."
"Can I help you?" he asked, turning his head to the side. "I could, I don't know, clean your paint brushes for you or something."
Really desperate, it seemed. I suppressed a sigh. "I'm not a painter, first of all. And second of all, no, there's nothing you could do to help me with that, and I'm sure you have your own work you need to concern yourself with besides. You said you were a teacher, didn't you? Didn't classes just start a little while ago?"
Mickey shrugged. "Yeah, but I still have some free time. I'm teaching pretty easy classes this semester—classes I've taught in the past, so I'm not starting over from scratch. The main time-eating thing will be grading papers, and that won't happen until later on in the semester."
I scowled at him. "Don't make me sound bad," I warned. "Don't make it sound like I'm being unreasonable by saying I can't find time for a relationship. Just because I have to be working at the studio all the time, don't make me the enemy. I don't even know you; it isn't like you have any right to critique whether I want to have a relationship or not."
He blinked at my outburst and shook his head. "I wasn't critiquing, Jamie—I was just saying. It's great that you have a job that you love so much." He shrugged. "I just thought that maybe you and I could hit it off, and I kind of wanted to be around some. But whatever, I get it. I'm gone." He gave me a smile that was almost bitter, not nearly as bright as some of those that I had previously witnessed.
I caught his arm and pulled him toward the building. "Come on inside to warm up," I sighed, surrendering and still not fully sure what I was getting myself into. "You can, I don't know, hang out at the studio while I work, maybe. It'll be really boring for you I'm sure, but whatever, it's your time to kill. But as soon as I say I'm done with this mess, you're leaving, you understand me? That means you don't come 'round here anymore, you don't come 'round the studio anymore, any of that—got it? Because if I say I'm done then I'm seriously done and I don't have the luxury of unlimited free time to explain myself a dozen times over."
He rolled his eyes, but he was grinning with all his happiness again. "Promise. And hey, did you know you're really sexy when you get all type-A and laying-down-the-rules like that? Seriously."
I rolled my eyes and let us both into the building, suddenly realising as I started up the stairs—realising for the first time in years, I might add—how shabby the building looked. I felt almost self-conscious, afraid to be showing this to Mickey. Which was stupid because it wasn't like my apartment itself looked too shabby—I paid for upkeep on it and all—and it wasn't like he was anything special to me; I hardly knew that guy. But I had probably never had visitors over to my place, so this was odd to me. I swallowed hard.
Mickey's fingers danced lightly along the inside of my wrist, and I felt almost reassured, as though he had known I was nervous. "This place is great, you know that?" he asked. "I mean, it's really got potential. I do some photography on the side and, wow. I can see doing a shoot in here—you know, some sort of a grunge-y theme. I don't know."
I didn't point out that a 'grunge-y theme' wasn't really what anyone looked for in living arrangements; it sounded too cynical even in my mind. And I liked where I lived, I really did: it was a nice area, and it was close enough to everything that I didn't have to own a car. I had never got around to getting my driver's licence.
"And the silence," Mickey continued, "I appreciate the silence. You know, a lot of these old buildings are full of college students—mine definitely is. And even when they're not partying they're hanging out in the hallways and talking, just like they were back in the dorms. I don't know, sometimes you just wish for some quiet, huh? Some time to hear yourself think."
I didn't point out that the silence could really get to you sometimes, that the building was that quiet mostly because it was half empty, or that the building was quiet because none of us were the sort to bother with meeting our neighbours, were too caught up in our own things to even say hello to the guy next door. That was another thing that was too cynical, and if I remembered correctly, you weren't supposed to be cynical to guests. You were supposed to be friendly and open and inviting, happy. Fake.
Maybe that was part of the reason I had stopped hanging around people: I hit a certain age where I couldn't stem my cynicism anymore and it had been easier to say nothing at all.
Mickey's fingers fluttered along my pulse-point again. "Hey, you don't have to do this if you don't want to—we could go back to the coffee shop or something. If you don't want me here. I totally get it."
He actually sounded concerned; I was obviously failing in being a good host. I shook my head, trying to come up with words and floundering some more. Finally, stopping outside my door and turning to face him, I told him the truth. "I haven't done this in a long time. The whole human interaction thing. It's just got me a little on edge, that's all. I'm sorry." Ducked my head, blushed, scuffed my toe along the cracks in the linoleum.
He shook his head quickly. "No, no, no, don't apologise—I'm serious, if you don't want this, I'm out of here; say the word. I'm not trying to force you."
I gave him a flat look. "Really. Why were you so desperate outside and now you're all ready to leave?" He'd seen the place and didn't approve; he didn't want to get involved with me. Probably had been able to tell I was upper-crust—there were people that could really put their finger on that shit, even though I hadn't been around that society in half of forever—and had thought he could wring something out of me. Now he was seeing the building and realising he was mistaken or whatever. Well, tough shit for him, this was real. This was the reality.
"No, no, no," Mickey repeated, hands now fluttering earnestly at my wrists, like he was thinking to draw me closer but didn't quite dare because he didn't know how I'd react. "Just, you're really getting tense—tenser and tenser—and I really don't want to put you on the spot like this. I figure I'm more likely to get asked around again if you're comfortable."
I frowned at him; he seemed almost certain he'd get 'asked around again' and I didn't think I was disguising my true feelings that well. But I didn't know what to say, so I just shrugged. "It's fine," I said, taking a deep breath and turning to unlock the door. "There's not going to be a better time—I think if I knew you better, I'd only be more nervous than I already am. It's just that like I said, I don't entertain much. Or get out much." I pushed the door open and led him into the apartment, flicking on the lights as we went.
And here, here was where I really needed to play the good host, because those habits had been ingrained in me from the time I was old enough to understand. "Go ahead and get comfortable—have a seat on the couch or whatever. Would you like something to drink?"