„Let’s hear it then, what’s this latest emergency about, Missus?“
Joey and me and walking down a dusty path in one of the city’s bigger parks. Summer’s still going strong, weaving the insidious odors of dog excrement and sweat with what little oxygen there is in the humid air. I hate the city in the summer, but this year, I have nowhere to run. Work has caught up with me. Life, as well.
„I wouldn’t say it’s an emergency. You’re always so dramatic. I’ve been thinking about Jim lately, that’s all.“
Predictably, Joey moans and stops in his tracks.
„Oh no, not this again. Please. It’s way too humid. Sure, a professional crisis, some family drama – I could deal with that. But not your lover boy, I beg of you.“
Though he’s trying very hard to sound serious, I know he doesn’t mean any of it. Curiosity may have killed the cat but the cat has nine lives, and I suspect Joey has many more. Sometimes I find it a little funny, because in his heart of hearts, he’s what you’d refer to as „such a girl“ – if you were a sexist or politically incorrect male, and Joey was short for Josephine. I just call him an incorrigible gossip, even though it’s a bit unfair – Joey never discusses people in that down-to-earth fashion we mortals do, but he manages to somehow extract bits and pieces of what’s going on and put them in a wider context, usually culminating in a philosophical conundrum about human existence.
„I can pretend to try and persuade you, but we both know you’ll cave. So can I go on without the added bonus of a five minute conversation in which you’ll tell me to go ahead in the end?“
„Oh, what do we have here? You’re on top of your game today! Go ahead, then. The mic’s yours.“
I inhale deeply. Joey’s smirking at me, no doubt I look like a presidential candidate before a political debate. In a way, I feel like that as well. When I talk about my lovers with Joey, I always have to be extra cautious to keep to the topic at hand and not stray into the land of Rambling Self-pity. Not too often, that is.
„Thank you. So, you remember how we talked about it a couple of weeks ago and you said I was only sleeping with him to make believe that somebody loves me?“
„Yes, I have vaguely painful, bitter memories of that particular exchange.“
(He’s referencing the fact that I’d thrown a lemon at his eye. I can’t remember why exactly, but it must’ve been deserved. It was one of my happiest moments this summer.)
„And then I said I might be falling in love with him, and you said it would all get complicated and messed up again, like it did with Mister Y.“
„Yes, and I still stand by my verdict, even though it would appear it’s taking a bit longer than I would’ve expected. You still happy and carefree, or is this when you tell me Joey, you were so right?“
The answer to that question isn’t as easy as it should be. Am I happy? No, but I never really am for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Carefree? Not so much, although very little of my daily worrying concerns Jim.
„Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, okay? You weren’t so right. But there’s this thing..“
„Oh, there’s a thing, is there? Is it a big thing?“
Having no lemon half-moons this time, I opt for a medium-velocity slap on the back of his head. Leave it to him to throw sexual innuendo around the one time I don’t want to talk about bedroom gymnastics.
„Okay, okay. What thing?“
„Well, he came over last night and you know, there was a thing and then another, and they led to yet another thing.“
„As things tend to do.“
„Yes. And it was great. I mean, kind of surreal and primal, and all kinds of wrong as well, just…“
„I get it. Moving on. Get to the actual thing that’s bothering you. I don’t particularly crave for these mental images.“
I take another deep breath. It’s not easy to admit this to anyone, even if it’s Joey who knows me best. I don’t like being vulnerable, or girly, and I know that’s exactly what I’ll seem like after I tell him about this morning.
„Well, all of that was great. It was sex and it was fun, we talked after, tried to watch a movie, had some more sex. The usual. But then this morning, I woke up and Jim was sprawled beside me on the bed and he woke up too, just like that, in a matter of minutes. And he kind of snuggled next to me. Just snuggled, closed his eyes and continued sleeping. It didn’t bother me one bit, I kind of liked it. And I’m not even a morning person.“
„You mean not at all.“
„Yes. Plus, I had a bit of a hangover, too. So I should’ve been really grumpy and dismissive by all standards. But I wasn’t. And the thought crossed my mind, how that’s fine, you know – that’s fine, too. The cuddling. And being okay with it.“
Joey glanced at me in mock horror.
„You think cuddling is okay? Wow, the next thing I’ll be hearing, genocide will be acceptable, too. You Hitler, you!“
„Shut up. There’s a point I’m trying to make.“
„Okay. I’ll shut up and let you finish. You say over and out once you’re done and I’m free to comment. But let me just voice my discontent – had I known this was going to be a lecture, I’d have brought a pen and paper to take notes.“
Casting him a disapproving glance, I resume my description of today’s earlier events.
„What I was really saying is, I think I’m kind of getting used to Jim. And this morning it crossed my mind, well, you don’t have to promise anything except that you’ll try. That you’ll be honest. We’re all complex. Even if you care about someone, you can still fall in love with another person, you know? Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it, so perhaps it’s nobody’s fault in the end. Shit can happen that no one wants to happen, that no one can control. That’s life too, that’s probably more life than anything. The changes. And it doesn’t matter what you say you are, how you define it, it can always go wrong. So perhaps not defining anything, not promising anything, is best. I never thought it would happen, but at that moment, I remembered you-know-who and I kind of forgave him. Over and out.“
Joey’s staring at me wide-eyed now and I know I’ve managed to finally grab his full attention by mentioning The Cheater, since he is a person we never talk about anymore. He’s a person we never talked about even when it happened, except to make a solemn pact we would not talk about him ever again. And then here I am, five years later, fishing out that old half-rotten corpse from my closet and laying it out in front of us in the afternoon light.
„You know, and I never told you this before because we’d made that pact not to mention you-know-who, but since you brought it up, I think it’s safe now. I always kind of felt partially responsible for that.“
„What? Are you kidding me?“
„No, hear me out. I mean, I liked the guy at first. I thought he was good for you, and then there was this one time when you’d gone to the bathroom or you were drunk out of your mind, I don’t remember the details, but I know him and me were alone and we were doing the male alcohol bonding thing. And I told him, I said, take care of her, alright? She may seem tough and she’s young, but she’s been through a lot already and I don’t think she’d recover from another big disappointment. And, if you have to let her down, let her down easy and don’t mess with her head too much. She really wants this to work. And then, well, you know what happened better than me. But I always thought that maybe by telling him all of that, I gave him extra ammo, that I practically set you up for all the manipulation which followed by showing him what I thought to be your weakness.“
A few minutes pass while I let it sink in, then I put my arm around Joey’s waist and hug him tightly.
„Is this why you never wanted to meet any of my other boyfriends, after him?“
„To an extent.“
„It wasn’t your fault.“
„Yeah, well. I should’ve looked after you better.“
„Joey? I don’t care about any of that stuff anymore. It’s fine. I’ve learned my lesson.“
He’s still staring at the ground, and I can tell there’s something else he wants to say. By his reticence to share it with me, I guess this next part might not be about ancient history.
„It’s just that, you say that you’ve learned your lesson, and all this stuff you’ve told me, it makes sense for you to think that way and it’s logical and mature, even.“
„But it’s not you, Missus. You’ve always been an idealist. I hate to hear you talk about not making promises and being okay with the relativity of love. You’re an effing Jane Austen character for the 21st century if ever there was one. This is not you talking, it’s your disappointments and I’m so sorry to say it, but I’ve never heard you be more on the defensive than just now.“
Needless to mention, this is not the response I expected. For once, I thought Joey would agree with me where romance is concerned and what he got out of my whole triumphant monolog is me being defeatist. I let my hand fall from his waist and fiddle with my thumb ring. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as ashamed with Joey as I do in this moment.
„What is it that you’re trying to tell me, exactly? What, I’m lying to myself yet again? I’m settling for less, I’m being passive, I’m not listening to what I really want? Poor little Missus, always letting men decide for her? Is that what you’re saying?“
My reaction might be somewhat over-the-top, I suppose that happens when someone tells you a truth into your face, that you’ve tried very hard to rationalize into non-existence. For the umpteenth time, I wonder how the Hell he’s gotten to know me as well as this and why I let him in the first place. I shouldn’t have broached this subject with Joey, I realize. I’ll never be able to rescue the sliver of peace Jim gives me now, it’s been vaporized.
„I wasn’t saying that at all. You’ve said it though, perhaps because you’re scared that it might be true. And if you feel that way, there’s a reason for it. But that’s not what I was saying.“
He takes a seat at a nearby bench and pulls me down with him. I sulkily squirm on his knee as he laughs a little.
„Listen, I wanted to ask you, this morning, when you were with Jim, you liked it, right?“
I nod, still unwilling to talk.
„Okay, so that’s good. You like Jim, you might be falling in love with Jim, or you might not, you’re not sure about that. Are you?“
„Okay, that’s okay, too. But when you do find out, don’t sell yourself short, please. That’s all I wanted to say. When you find out what you want, ask for it. Because it’s okay to want things, it’s just as okay as cuddling.“
This forces a smile out of me. Joey seems pleased.
„Do you still think a big disappointment might do me in, like you did when you talked to you-know-who?“
„No, no I don’t. When I saw how you dealt with that, I said to myself, shit, I was an idiot to doubt her. I think you’re pretty much invincible, that’s why I keep pushing you. Because I see how strong you are, even when you think you’re not.“
I hug Joey to hide I’ve gotten a bit teary-eyed, then get off his lap.
„Let’s have some lemonade in town, shall we? And then I can tell you all about my new professional crisis. The other day, my boss was like…“
The casual banter goes on for the rest of the afternoon. We thirstily gulp down our drinks and then order others. By the time I reach my apartment, it’s already half past eight in the evening and I have three missed calls from Jim. I text him an apology and invite him to come over. He arrives in no time and as we quip back and forth while eating dinner, I’m reminded of the way Joey talks to me. In an unexpected surge of sincerity, I stop the fork halfway between my mouth and the plate and look at him.
„Will you sleep here tonight? I’ve decided I like cuddles in the morning.“
Jim pauses for a second, then smiles.
„Sure. Thought you’d never ask.“
It seems that, sometimes, getting what you want really is as simple as finding the courage to ask for it.