Dez is not a morning person. I remind myself of the fact when I feel the urge to ruffle his hair. His snapping turtle role isn’t worth a few moments of happiness. In the end, it’s my feelings that’ll be hurt and Dez who won’t remember what he said, halfheartedly apologizing in his boxers over coffee before I go to work.
I slide out of bed, thankful that we didn’t cuddle last night. Then again, when was the last time we slept touching? Feet on the floor, I scratch my nighttime stubble. Rigby realizes I’m awake, plodding from his pillow to lick my feet. I pat his enormous mastiff head that is somehow still not full-grown, and go into the bathroom.
Naturally I have to wait for Rigby to clear the door before I close it because he would whine in front of it while I took a shower. I wonder how Dez would handle that.
“Not well,” I inform Rigby without context, imagining that he understands just fine. He stretches his salt and pepper body out across half of the bathroom.
Stepping over him to get to the mirror, I recoil at the puffiness of my face. “Too much drinking last night, buddy. Why didn’t you say anything?”
I turn on the shower, enjoying a scream of water that throws itself at the tub, pebbling and rolling down the drain. While it warms, I poke a pocket of flesh that’s swollen with a lack of sleep and a six pack Mallory brought over last night. I can’t go into work looking like this; my coworkers will be on my like a duck on a June bug. They’ll ask me about Dez and the bags under my eyes; and I’ll wind up telling them about how it’s been a month since we’ve been been intimate, in any sense of the word.
Stepping into the shower, hot water purges my pores. By the time I finish shampooing my hair, I feel new.
The bathroom door opens, which shocks the conditioner bottle out of my hand and sets Rigby to whining. “Morning,” Dez says on a yawn.
“Talking to me or him?” I ask, peeking out from behind the curtain.
Dez stumbles into the shower, surprising me when he wraps his arms around me. He kisses my neck.
“I gotta go to work,” I say, but can’t seem to resist the urge to rest my head on his shoulder. This is nice.
The moment I sink into the moment, he steps away and reaches for the shampoo. “I had a bad dream.”
So much for that. “Oh yeah?” I ask, splashing my face a few times before getting out and going for the towel.
Rigby lifts his head and wags his tail. “Feed you in a minute, buddy.” I wipe the mirror free of steam. It’s hard to hide my sour expression. Neither Dez or I say anything. I take a razor to my cheeks.
Later that night, I seek solace in my grandmother’s recipe book after nine hours of emotional abuse at the bank. A disgruntled patron with a low balance, crying grandmothers, a single father embroiled in a tax audit. I flip breaded chicken thighs in hot oil. Rigby slobbers at the kitchen’s threshold. I stir the potatoes to keep them from bubbling over, plucking one out from cloudy flotsam, cut it with a fork, and turn off the heat.
In the living room, I hear the door unlock with Dez’s typical fumbling fashion. Rigby barks happily, his wagging tail the last thing I see before it disappears down the hall.
“Tommy, you home?” Dez’s voice calls, his footsteps coming soon after. I don’t have the energy to respond. “You all right?”
I turn and see him leaning in the doorway, hair disheveled, green eyes alert, shirt covered in paint. His concern makes him beautiful. “I’m fine,” I say, my attention back to the meal when oil spits up from the skillet.
Dez comes to wrap his arms around my waist and, against myself, I stiffen in his embrace. He smells of turpentine and peppermint.
“Hmm…yes, I see…” he starts off in a teasing way as he inhales behind my ear. “I’m afraid I have some bad news, Mr. Moore.”
I chuckle nervously, slipping out of his embrace. “What’s that?” When did I get so uncomfortable with him?
He clears his throat and leans against the counter with his arms crossed. “Better stir those beans before they go over,” he observes, voice quiet. I take a wooden spoon and give the pot a good swish.
“As I was saying…you’re a bullshit liar,” his tone isn’t unkind, almost joking. How long’s it been since he’s been playful? “Can I tell you why?”
I taste the potatoes. “I guess.” They need a little salt.
“Um, let’s see.” Dez slides back until he’s sitting up on the counter and rubs his palms together. “You’re listening to sad music.”
“This isn’t sad,” I reply without looking at him. Melody Gardot is singing. “This is sensual.”
He snorts and I blush. “Whatever. I know you. Remember when you got that D your first semester? You listened to ‘The Rain’ for two weeks.”
For some reason, the past pisses me off. I rip the potato pot off the stove and slosh it into the waiting colander, trying not to scald myself. “So what if I want to listen to some jazz?”
Free of water, I put the potatoes in a bowl with a stick of room temperature butter before smashing out my frustration.
He laughs, the sound grating. “Um, because you’re not just listening to music? Are those or are those not one-stick-mashed-potatoes? Is that or is that not your grandmother’s fried chicken recipe? ”
My mashing hand pauses long enough for me to incorporate some half-and-half. “My grandmother’s not here, Dez.”
This warrants a short laugh of disbelief. His voice is cold and sharp when he says, “Could you not be a smart ass for, like, a minute?” Dez hops down from the counter, grabs my wrist, and pulls me in for a forceful kiss. “You’re lucky I love you so goddamn much.”
I push him away and add salt like nothing happened. He stomps off to the bathroom where he will take a seven minute shower and then emerge smelling like clean cotton and toothpaste. Despite his artistic temperament, Dez is one of the most predictable creatures in the world.
Irritated with him and myself in equal parts, I pull off the final piece of chicken and put it in the oven where it will wait for gravy. Out comes a fresh whisk, milk, flour, salt, and pepper. I turn the heat on the skillet down to prevent burning. No matter how many times I make gravy, I worry about making a mistake every time. And, as usual, I’m worried about this batch, too. Is the flour browning too quickly? Is that burning I smell? Is it enough flour? The fact that I’m making milk gravy does very little to help my nerves.
But ten minutes later, I’m pulling a perfectly seasoned batch off the stove, Dez is coming out of the bedroom, and Rigby is watching with interest. “Expecting company?” he asks as he sets the table, eyeing the chicken, mound of potatoes, and pound of fresh green beans.
“No,” I answer flippantly. “Just felt like cooking.”
A fork clatters against a plate. “Because you’re upset.”
Rolling my eyes, I take my cauldron and slap a large portion of potatoes onto his plate because I know they’re his favorite. “I’m not upset.”
Dez waggles his eyebrows disbelievingly and kisses my arm as he goes for the table. A blush creeps up into my cheeks. “Today was just one of those days where you…” I plop into the seat next to him and unfold a napkin into my lap “…just kinda understand why people freak out and bring a gun to work.”
“Jesus, Tommy.” Dez sets his fork down and clasps his hands on the table. “What happened?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.” I fiddle with the green beans to avoid looking at him. He’s staring at me. My skin starts to crawl under the scrutiny.
“It’s fine. I’m fine. It was just a bad day.” I relent with a sigh. “This guy…this guy just screamed at me at the counter for, like, ten minutes.” The day creeps back into my skin, pushing me towards volcanism. The way his lips purse makes me want to throw my plate across the room. My hands are trembling and the volume of my voice is beyond my control: “I mean, who the fuck does that? Like, it’s not my fucking fault you don’t know how to balance your checkbook!”
“Easy, killer.” Dez gets up to pull down a bottle of red wine from the top of the fridge. “Do you want me to tell you about my day instead?”
“Sure, why not?” I spit, flinging hot milk gravy onto my chicken. Rigby sails after a wayward glob. Why would my feelings matter? Why would my day matter?
“Well,” he continues with the corkscrew in hand, “Toni met me over at the studio. We spent a couple of hours working on that new piece. I think it might be ready for gallery night.”
“That’s great,” I say sourly, brow furrowed, chewing furiously.
He laughs. Wine glugs into one glass then another. “Here.” A stemmed glass appears beside my hand as he sits down to take a bite of crispy chicken skin. “Mm. Oh! I never told you about the dream I had last night! Ugh, this is delicious—love it.” I roll my eyes but he doesn’t see. “Anyway, this dream last night was wild. I was standing in a cave, I think, but it was, like…closed off? I don’t know, it’s hard to remember.” Dez’s voice peters, trailing off in thought.
“There was this boulder I had to move out of the way, and that took forever. And it was so claustrophobic. I felt like I’d die if I didn’t get out.” He places the fork back on the table. His face is surprisingly thoughtful. For a moment, I’m tempted to reach for his hand. “When I finally got it out of the way…there was nothing.” His voice drops off into softness, his tapered fingers biting softly into my forearm. He looks lost. My heart twitches with sentiment. “Nothing, Thomas. There was no more of…anything.”
The album ends, a sultry feminine voice fading into trickling strings, chimes, and giggling children. The room becomes oppressive with its silence. I can’t think of anything to say to him, even after all of this time. Maybe it’s because of how rarely I’ve been in this position, the one offering comfort. “I’m sorry,” I say lamely.
His eyes scour my face, his own perplexed. “Aren’t you afraid of that, Tommy? Of there being nothing?”
A minute crawls by in silence. I shrug. I’m bad this sort of thing. Dez stares at me steadily, something flickering in his eyes. “But anyway,” I start, desperate for a change in conversation. “How’s the chicken? Cooked all the way through?”
Dez lifts his hand to push away from the table, shaking his head. “You know what, Thomas?” he snaps, voice venomous. He catches himself. “You know what? No. No. Never mind. I don’t want to do this right now.” He shakes his head again, maybe clearing his mind. “Yeah, dinner was great. I’m, uh,” he gets up, clears his throat, and stuffs his hands in his pockets, “I’m going to take a walk. Need to stretch my legs, get some air.”
“Oh, are you sure? It’s kind of late,” I protest gently, fighting between wanting to stop him and letting him go. Both bring with them the potential for disaster.
“I’ll be back later.” Dez goes to the hall for his shoes with Rigby hot on his heels, expecting to be walked. Only, Dez doesn’t acknowledge him. Instead, he just leaves.
My eyes close. Rigby whines. Dinner grows cold. It’s like a boulder has rolled in front of our front door. I’m not sure I want to move it. Who’s to say what lies beyond?