Monday, August 7, 2017

Choosing to Stand Still by Justine Manzano

The platonic status of Katie's relationship with her roommate Matty is challenged when one of his exes draws attention to a secret in plain sight; by Justine Manzano.

"Kathryn? Kathryn Norris? Is that you?" Bethany squealed and, in lieu of putting my hands over my ears to block out the shrill sound of her voice, I winced and turned towards her.

"Hi Bethany." I tried for polite. I don't think it worked. After all, Bethany was the ex-girlfriend of my best friend, Matty Alonzo.

Every morning, I went to the 24-hour bodega on the corner from the apartment I shared with Matty, and every day I ordered a bagel and cream cheese, a roll with butter, and two piping hot coffees, light and sweet. And somehow, every morning until now, I had happily managed to avoid her.

"How are you? What have you been up to?" Her questions ended high, in a squawk.

I smiled, brittle and forced. "Well, you know. Still auditioning. Still hosting open mic night at the club."

"College?" It was a shame she seemed comfortable with that as a full sentence.

"Not at eighteen, not at nineteen, and not now." I rolled my eyes. A preppy until the end, Bethany had never grasped the fact that I was not sorority girl material.

"Of course not." There was that bitter judgment I was used to from her. "And how is Matthew?"

For a moment, I didn't know who she spoke of. Matthew? I didn't know any Matthew. I wasn't best friends with Matthew since we were infants; I didn't share an apartment with Matthew; it wasn't Matthew who treated me like I was more than the lost cause everybody else seemed to think I was. That guy was Matty.

Bethany thought Matty was a child's name. In the course of her year dating him, she had irrevocably turned him into Matthew, to the point where I barely knew who people were discussing when they mentioned him, and Matty only referred to himself as anything but Matthew when I was around.

Oh. That Matthew.

"Matty," I corrected, "is doing great. Third year at Columbia, top of his class, Dean's List, basking in the glow of that full scholarship. You know how it is."

She beamed in response. You'd almost think she was still dating him.

"And how are you and Matthew doing?"

"Fine. Still besties. Still living together." I answered offhandedly, interrupting our conversation to shout an order to the man behind the counter. This was a formality, as the guy had it half ready before I even walked in the door.

"Oh." Bethany said, as if I surprised her.

"What does that mean? 'Oh.' Were you expecting something else?" She probably expected me to say we'd gone to shit.

Bethany looked contrite, and I almost felt bad for my reaction. Almost.

"No! I just thought... well, I guess I just thought..." She swiped at her pretty, perfect blonde hair, so different from my brassy red. "Any idiot can see he's in love with you. I just thought you guys would be together by now."

I screwed up my nose. I hadn't seen it which, to Bethany, made me lower than an idiot. My head whipped around so fast that my sloppy high ponytail spun forward, layers of gelled curls slapping me across the face. "Why would you think that?"

"Well, you have to see how he dotes on you. He treats you like you're the most important thing in the world."

"He treats me like any good friend would," I said.

Bethany shook her head, slowly, her eyes sad. I half-expected her to reach out and pat me on the head. "You only say that because he's the only good friend you've ever had. Katie, come on, you were the reason I broke up with him! Didn't he tell you?"

No. No, he hadn't. That was how I knew it was complete and utter bullshit. Matty never kept anything from me. He never lied to me and he hadn't started because of Bethany. Besides, this wasn't the first time somebody had been jealous of my relationship with Matty. It was unique and, as such, bound for ridicule.

"Bullshit Beth," I snapped, just in time for the deli counter guy to place my order onto the counter. I grabbed the food, threw down much more of Matty's money than was necessary, and raced out of the store without a word of goodbye to either the man at the counter or Bethany.

I couldn't believe the gall of that bitch. How dare she try to screw with my friendship with Matty?

When I unlocked the door to our two-bedroom apartment, I found Matty already awake and playing video games on our couch.

Anybody else who knew him wouldn't recognize him first thing in the morning. To the outside world, Matthew Alonzo was a tidily dressed, well groomed, business man in the making. At twenty-one years old, he already looked like he could hold down a job at a Fortune 500 company - and he did, as a lowly grunt, a night-shift employee working to keep the wheels greased when everyone else left their nine-to-five. A full time college career with straight A's and a great job. He was using it, the money his parents gave him, and the portion of his scholarship that was allotted to living expenses, to support the both of us as I worked on my singing career. I wasn't surprised Bethany saw me as a freeloader.

Matty may look corporate in public, but first thing in the morning was an entirely different story. At home, Matty allowed himself to relax completely and all of that tidiness and sophistication he forced on himself in his outdoor life slipped away. I always believed it was how he maintained his sanity through all his hard work. This shift was the reason I found him sitting on our big red sofa, bent over in concentration, trying for all the world to destroy whatever he was shooting to pieces in the video game he played, his dark eyes locked on the screen.

He wore a t-shirt, splattered with the contents of his last three meals at home - most notably some soy sauce from the pan-fried wantons he'd ordered on Saturday - proof that you shouldn't try to eat anything containing liquid substances while balancing on a couch, without a tray or something. His blue gym shorts matched the blue baseball cap he had slung carelessly on his head, backwards, an attempt to control the dark frizzy curls that only copious amounts of hair gel could maintain. He let out a string of curses, throwing himself backwards onto the couch, when he was defeated once again. Scrubbing his hands over his cheeks, lightly dusted with the beginnings of facial hair he'd be sure to shave later, he looked over at me and grinned. His smile was broad, his teeth broad and shiny white, and that coupled with an extra-long and pointy nose had earned him the nickname "Ratty Matty", which he hated.

When he smiled up at me though, I saw something I hadn't expected, hadn't realized existed before Bethany had opened her stupid mouth. He was way too happy to see my face. As a matter of fact, he was always too happy to see me. I had a bag of food in my hand, not a winning lottery ticket, but that was how he looked at me.

Everything Bethany had said began to make an odd sort of sense. So many years believing we kept absolutely no secrets from each other to discover he was keeping a giant secret from me and had been for a very long time. The realization stole the air from my lungs.

"I'm starving and coffee is needed. Did you see what that moon creature just did to me?" Matty laughed. "That never would have happened if I had been properly caffeinated."

I smiled fondly at him, temporarily swallowing the fear Bethany's words had uncovered in me as I reached into the bag and produced his half of our feast. This could wait until after his classes were done for the day. He didn't need this stress now.

He launched himself from his seat, pressing his usual good morning kiss to my cheek, and I pretended the feeling didn't send the usual jolt of warmth from my cheek down to my toes. "Thanks Kate."

My heart flipped. I ignored it like I always did. It didn't mean anything.

He sat back down on the couch and unwrapped his food and I did the same. I felt his eyes on me, examining me, like I was one of the financial reports he learned about in business class and he needed to conjure a forecast.

I realized I didn't have a hope in hell of hiding this before Matty even asked.

"What happened?"

I feigned confusion.

"Don't. Something is wrong and I know it. So fess up, okay?" His tone started bossy, but softened by the end. I looked into his eyes, shining with concern, and gulped hard.

No matter what I felt, I couldn't be in love with Matty Alonzo. My relationships never ended well. My friendship with Matty was never going to end. I was not going to force it to an early death by getting mixed up with him in this way.

He leaned forward, right into my personal space. I refused to turn myself away from my bagel, to allow my eyes to meet his. I resolutely stared at my food as I answered him.

"I ran into Bethany at the store. Do you know what she said to me?"

He averted his gaze. "Bethany says a lot of things. Most of it is crap. I stopped listening when we broke up."

"Yeah. Why exactly did you break up?"

He dropped his bagel into his lap. "You sound like you already know the answer to that." He nodded, jerkily, something he normally did when he was nervous. Something I normally found endearing. Not today.

"Tell me it's bullshit, Matty." I needed him to tell me we were still the same, he was still the same kid who kept my father from beating me after I shoved a bean up his nose in kindergarten by telling everyone he had done it himself. I needed him to shove this change in the relationship up his own considerable nose, take the blame and not put this shit on me.

This was not my idea.

Matty picked up his phone, held up one finger, and began to type.

"What are you doing?" The ice in my tone made me wince.

"I'm e-mailing my boss and my professors to inform them I will not be in today. You and I need to have a conversation." He said the words with a detachment I envied. When he finished his emails, he placed his phone on the table where he'd set his game controller earlier. He stared out at the paused television screen and took a deep breath. "I didn't want this conversation to happen this way."

"What conversation, Matty?" My words were filled with venom. "What the hell is going on? What did you tell Bethany?" It was not lost on me that Matty had cleared his very busy day for me. It made Bethany's words ring true, which made me feel worse.

He dropped his head into his hands, tipping forward so his elbows rested on his knees. "It's not so much about what I told her. It's more about what she saw."

"Saw?"

"You and me." He turned his face so he peeked out at me from between his fingers. "The way we are with each other. Nobody acts like we do."

I laughed a little, a sense of relief washing away my panic. "We have a unique friendship. I love that about us. Nobody acts like we do, because there is nobody like us."

"Kate!" He groaned, sitting up straight and turning to face me. "Nobody has a friendship like ours because our relationship is not a friendship."

The panic returned. I nodded, the same jerky head motion he had just managed. "Right. Because we're more than friends, we're family."

"Yes. And no."

I turned, sitting ramrod straight. He was very close, and his warmth radiated from him, reaching for me. I wanted to enjoy it, but I never enjoyed something like this. I destroyed it.

My voice was small and empty when it fled my lips. "Matty, what are you saying?"

There had to be some great explanation for this. This could not be what I thought because it was crazy. He couldn't possibly think this was worth the risk. He couldn't.

"Bethany broke up with me because she said I was too close to you." His voice was velvety, sexy, and I didn't want it to be sexy, so I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the other times I had needed to push similar thoughts from my mind. "At first I thought she was just jealous. I mean, we're best friends. Have been before we knew what boyfriends and girlfriends were. But then I started thinking about things."

I was thinking about things too. I was thinking about ex-boyfriends I had cheated on that Matty had scolded me about; about guys I had toyed with because I couldn't be bothered to commit to anything; about all the random sex I'd had in this apartment, quieting down my partners so Matty wouldn't mock me about it in the morning; about the way Matty used to distract my father at the front door of my childhood home so I could come through the back when I was returning from a party at five in the morning and how angry that had made my father and how that had always gotten him in trouble with his; about how it never seemed right that he constantly took the fall for me.

My mother died in childbirth and my father never allowed me to forget it. All through my childhood I destroyed my relationships. Poison, since the day I was born. Matty was an innocent. Dad constantly asked how a boy like Matty could ever be such close friends with a girl like me. I wondered the same thing, but it didn't stop me from enjoying it. Until this.

"I'm saying... I think Bethany may have been right. I think I may be... in love with you."

No. No. No. No. No.

He watched me with his dark eyes, searching mine for a reaction. They went from hopeful to hurt in a matter of seconds. "You can't tell me you don't feel anything for me. I know you do."

My heart clenched. He was right. He was always right. I loved him. So much that I knew better than to ever pursue it.

Being with me would destroy him. He had taken care of me all of my life in one way or another. I wasn't exactly the 'stand up and do everything on my own' type. He had a life, a future. I had nothing. I had given him nothing.

But I could give him this. "You don't want this." I tried to say it firmly, but my throat was dry, and it came out cloudy.

He reached out to stroke my cheek. God, did that feel good. Damn near perfect. And just like Catholic school had taught me, the better something feels, the more wrong it usually is.

"You think I haven't thought this through?" He smiled at me, a nervous grin. "This is me we're talking about. I think everything through. Just..." He closed his eyes and leaned in until his warm lips met mine in a gentle kiss that grew more confident when I didn't pull away. His hand cupped the back of my neck, pulling me closer.

At first, I froze. But despite myself, I leaned into him and kissed him back. More than that, I wrapped my hand in his dingy t-shirt and pulled him closer, deepening things before I even knew what was happening. This was real. This was right. This was the one person I trusted more than anybody else and he wanted me.

No, not wanted me. Needed me.

He tipped us over so my back was against the armrest, and he leaned against me.

I couldn't do this.

It started somewhere deep within, this sort of abject fear, and it spread through me from head to toe, until my hands shook and my heart raced from more than just Matty's nearness. A cold sweat broke out across my forehead and I started to feel a little faint, a little nauseous, which was totally not something you want to tell your best friend while he's kissing you.

And he was such a good kisser. If I could just let it go...

"Matty..." I started, when our lips parted. Maybe I just needed to talk to him, to explain the fear that bubbled up inside and try to cope with it. Maybe we could work. "I'm a little freaked by all this." I said again, between kisses

"I know." He smiled against my mouth, not getting it. "This is crazy."

I wasn't telling him to stop. I shook so hard I couldn't put the words together. He wasn't hearing me. The only person who had ever bothered to truly listen, and he couldn't hear how scared I was?

But I kept kissing him, so what the hell was I doing?

I placed my shaking hand to his chest. "Matty, I'm scared."

"We'll be fine. It's fine. We're... we're fine." His eyes were hopeful and he smiled and he wasn't understanding me. He wasn't being my Matty because he was so caught up in what he wanted and what he needed, he didn't care what I tried to tell him. He couldn't see me. He never put himself before me. Which only proved there couldn't be any us.

He moved back over me, and I couldn't breathe. Just one moment of facing the possibility of a relationship with me had already torn a hole into our friendship. A nervous, furious energy bubbled inside of me, and the next time he came up for air I swung back and nailed him right in the nose with my clenched fist.

Pain radiated up my arm. I don't know what I was thinking.

"What the hell?" He grabbed his nose and pushed himself off me.

I jumped to my feet, crazed adrenaline surging through me. Shaking, I rubbed at my hand, at the throbbing there, and winced. I never thought I'd hit Matty. "I tried to tell you to stop. You wouldn't."

"Damn it, Katie! You really think I would hurt you?" He looked just as pissed as I was, but also hurt, and disappointed, and about a dozen different emotions that I didn't have a hope in hell of discerning. He stormed away from me, walked to the mirror in the bathroom and gingerly touched his nose. "Fuck."

"I... no... I don't. Not intentionally. Not... not physically or anything." The tears clogged my voice before they made it to my eyes.

He looked into the mirror, through the reflection at me, where I now stood in the hallway watching him. Something registered in his eyes, an understanding, and he became my Matty again. He rubbed at the bridge of his nose one more time. "It's okay. It's not even bleeding. I'm fine." He leaned over to splash water on his face and the sound of it covered the sounds of my movements as I grabbed my eternally stocked overnight bag and pulled my beige wool peacoat over my shoulders.

"I'm not pissed," Matty said. "Well, I was at first, but I'm over it. We should talk about this. I think I did this all wrong. We can work, but we've just got to -"

The door slammed behind me before he could finish his sentence.



I had to choose between the better of two evils. Which would hurt less? Which loss could I survive?

I hoped losing the chance at a romance with Matty would save the friendship. If I could prove to him what a mess of a girlfriend I could be, maybe he'd pack it up and go off in search of someone else, relegating me safely to the status of best friend once again. Then, it would all just be his awful mistake.

Alcohol slid down my throat, its bitterness making the journey to my stomach and igniting a burn there. My eyes found a man all the way down at the end of the bar. He was hard to see in the dim lights, but what I could see was cute, with bright blonde hair and blue eyes, like he'd just walked off the beach. The perfect target. Sure I was stereotyping, but in a bar, when an emergency pickup was needed, it was a necessary evil. Sometimes, you had to pick according to type. More importantly, he didn't have curly hair. He didn't have dark searching eyes. He didn't even look particularly smart or responsible. He was perfect because he was nothing like Matty.

I slid off of my stool and went to go greet my new friend.



I may have made a terrible mistake.

I realized sometime after I came, purposefully loud, courtesy of Lance or Vance or whatever the hell the guy from the bar had been named. Sometime between then and the moment I heard the front door slam so hard the walls shook.

I waited for hours, wanting to call everyone I could think of to track him down, but I couldn't muster the courage to face them. How many people knew he'd been in love with me? How many people knew how little I deserved it?

When he returned the next morning, he drove his cousin Vanessa's car. I had long since kicked the stranger out of the apartment. It was just me and him.

Katie and Matty. Best Friends Till the End.

It seemed like so long ago I wrote those words in my notebook. The End seemed much further away then.

He didn't say anything to me at first, just marched past where I sat on the couch and into his room. I heard his suitcase smack the bedframe as he slid it out from below the mattress, followed by the violent tugging of the zipper and the clothing being all but punched into it.

My throat closed. I could barely stand, but I made it to his room on wobbly feet, determined to stop whatever insane idea had popped into his head.

"Where are you going?" I asked with the foolish nerve of someone who thought they had the right to know.

His head jerked up. His eyes were red-rimmed and tired. His nose was still a little swollen. His eyes... had he been crying over me?

My heart felt like it was squeezed by an invisible force. When he finally spoke, that invisible force crunched it under its heavy boot.

"You can keep the apartment, at least until it's time to pay rent. If you find a way to keep paying for it, it's yours." He marched to the other side of the room and started packing his school books, launching them into the bag with enough anger to tear a hole in it.

"That's it?" My voice was strained, damaged. "You tell me you want me, I say 'no', and you're on your way? Done with me? Twenty years of friendship and that's all I get?"

"I didn't tell you I wanted you." He didn't look up, his words sneaking between gritted teeth. "I told you I loved you. And you didn't say 'no'. I could have handled 'no'. But this?" He looked up at me with disgust. "This... you must hate me. Were you trying to prove everything everybody's ever told me about you?"

There was a flicker in his eyes, and for a second I thought he realized the truth, realized I loved him, that I couldn't risk sacrificing him. If he had just said something, I could try because it would prove he knew me better than anyone else in the world, that it was worth the damn risk. Maybe, if he saw through my crap, I couldn't hurt him. Not really. Not for a long time. Because he would figure it out.

Except I wasn't sure it was my choice anymore.

"You were, weren't you? That's exactly what you were trying to do." He shook his head. "I know who you are. I didn't need your protection."

I didn't say a word. There were no words to say. I locked myself up in my bedroom, collapsed against the door and cried soundless tears.

The door slammed behind him again.



A month later, Matty came to pick up the rest of his things.

The weather floated between warm and cold - he kind of day where the sun is so strong you almost can't resist the urge to take off your coat every other block, only to be punished when the chill returns to the air. The wind kept blowing the occasional strand of my hair in front of me, so I saw the curl dance in the air a little before it dropped back down to my beige peacoat. The wool of the coat itched my neck and I had to unbutton it before I could sit comfortably on the park bench.

When I looked out at the decrepit swings, the graffiti doused slides, and the chipped paint on the jungle gym, the memory of Matty and I plotting an obstacle course in that maze of toys played before my eyes. The jungle gym was bright green then, the metal slides reflecting the shining sunlight. So many years later, I waited here, killing time, and hoped he would be done moving out before I returned.

I pulled out the photo I had stuffed into my pocket. Over the past few days, I had folded and unfolded it repeatedly along the same crease, and my stomach twisted every time I saw how that crease fell right between Matty and I.

I had no idea why I packed it. It had been a robotic gesture, but it was the one thing I couldn't bear him taking. It belonged to both of us, and he wouldn't be happy about it. But then, he might not want a reminder of me around him anymore anyway.

I looked at the picture. It felt like a tremendous waste of time. So much invested in each other that I couldn't imagine how Matty would avoid reminders of me. We were too ingrained in each other's lives.

It hadn't taken Matty a long time to find a place, and a paranoid voice in the back of my mind told me I was right yet again: he'd lined one up already, planning to move behind my back, perhaps even planning to broach the topic of love with me, but Bethany got there first. Maybe he had gotten the place because he was so sure I would react in such a train-wreck kind of way, that he would need a sanctuary.

I never was good with change. Or relationships. Or decisions in general.

I'd made a mistake. I just couldn't put my finger on when that mistake had begun. It seemed obvious that it started at punching him in the nose, but it could have been when I'd allowed him to protect me, when I allowed him to rush to my rescue and save me from myself. It might have been that day I'd stuck a bean in his nose and then let him protect me from my father, the day I gave him the impression I needed him by my side, looking out for me, always.

I still wasn't sure if I should have kept kissing him back, taken the change he had offered. Gone for it. It just seemed like too big a gamble.

I glanced down at the picture in my hands. I couldn't remember being there. I wished I did, but the photograph was all I had.

I wore pink baby booties. The baby beside me, Matty, had blue. Our parents had known each other from around the neighborhood, our mothers part of the same book club. When my mother died after my birth, Matty's parents stayed in touch with my father, and, eventually, their home became my shelter when my father kept screwing up. Matty and I lived our lives side by side, just as we'd been in that nursery, until that fateful day when I screwed things up.

In the photograph, we rested in plastic containers with little hospital bracelets wrapped around our wrists. My cheeks, though no longer pink and wrinkly as they had been, were still just as chubby. My mouth was still perpetually pouty. I was no longer as small, but I screamed just as damn loud, and I could practically hear this miniature version of me screaming in the picture - shrill, high-pitched cries that pierced the ears of those surrounding me. My tiny hands were tightly balled into fists that would eventually lash out in a punch and end a friendship. My tiny feet had been red and skinny, like tiny twigs reaching out from the branch. They were still ugly and skinny like that - just painted with glittery pink nail polish.

Matty on the other hand was impeccable. Not messy like me. His infant body was wrapped securely in a blanket - a yellow one with tiny blue bunnies around the edges - not left uncovered like mine. Infant Matty's hair was black and spiky, his brow furrowed, his eyes windows to serious thoughts he should be too young to have. His nose was bigger than the rest of his body - born with the Alonzo family nose everyone dreaded. His mouth was closed and his arms held over his head like he'd already won a battle, like a champion in celebration.

Though I couldn't remember the time of the photograph, I could tell Matty smelled like baby powder - clean - just as I knew I smelled like I needed a diaper change. I longed for those days. I hoped I hadn't yet had the chance to taint the baby powder clean of his world.

Sighing, I pulled my eyes away from the picture and folded it again along the same crease that divided me from the only person that ever really understood me. I slammed it back into my pocket and my heart felt swollen. I couldn't breathe for my guilt.

A glance at my watch showed me Matty should have finished leaving me.

The ten-minute walk back home was painful. I knew what awaited me, but it was nothing compared to the actuality of the gaping maw of my now empty apartment. Not just empty of things, but empty of him.

I found the letter where the picture once was.

Katie,

I wanted to move forward, I always have. But you chose to stand still. I couldn't do that. I have places I need to be.

I truly wish you all the best. Maybe one day, you will find it in you to move on your own. And maybe, when that day comes, you can track me down and we can give this friendship another try, when you can stand on your own without me pulling you along.

I love you. And I probably always will. But I refuse to drag you somewhere you don't want to go.

Always yours,

Matty

The heart of this place was gone, ripped from its chest still beating and I didn't know if I'd ever find anything to keep it alive. I wondered the same thing about me for a moment, before realizing that maybe, if I could do this to something so perfect, this was exactly where I belonged.

Out of motion. Standing still.

3 comments:

  1. A great study of the complications at the heart of human relationships - and the way needs and assumptions filter what we know and see. Very well realised. A sad but nonetheless realistic conclusion. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. I found this well written and interesting
    It seemed that the author had either experienced such a situation or at least researched. A well balanced story.
    Mike McC

    ReplyDelete
  3. Guilt, self-loathing, feelings of alienation and self-destruction. Symptoms of an unbalanceable equation, and to have attempted to do so in this piece wouldn't have been right. Sometimes I felt there was almost too much information, because everything's being very ably shown through the dia/monologue, so we don't need to be told about say - Katie's Catholic background, but I like the way the information is released to the reader, and particularly the reason why Katie and Matty are 'family'. Matty's letter is positive, uplifting, and leaves the reader with the feeling that a resolution is possible...After all, relationships never end, they only change!
    B r o o k e

    ReplyDelete