My best friend and former lover Mitch hauled his furniture from his brown pickup into the empty side of the duplex I owned. His apartment contained one bedroom, an avocado-colored stove, and an air conditioner balanced in the window dampening rather than cooling the air. The duplex was a dump I had just bought to fix up, so I had not even met the tenant from the other apartment. Mitch’s wife Janet had kept their house and their cat, so Mitch was kicking off his thirties in a place that probably reminded him of the shitty apartment we had shared after college.

I wanted to be with Mitch again the way we were after college, with that safety of the late-night sex call, the backup-plan date who was not really a date to parties filled with couples. But I did not have the courage to tell him that I wanted to pick up where we had left off before he married Janet any more than I could have told him I had loved him all those years ago. By the time he was free again (and moving into the duplex I owned), I had learned to seal off my heart from his casual, unofficial kind of love.

Mitch and I had hefted the sofa onto the front steps to angle it through the door when a woman in a yellow convertible that had likely been a good-looking car about fifteen years ago screeched into the driveway. The woman was still good-looking in that way of aging homecoming queens who believe blondes really do have more fun. I was wearing khakis left behind by some forgotten boyfriend, my unwashed hair sleeked back in a ponytail, my manicure chipped and peeling.

Mitch and I had been sweating and stumbling over books and boxes since noon. Mitch gouged out a piece of the spongy wood of the doorframe with the sofa leg as he shoved the couch through the door. I lurched backward but kept my balance. I always kept my balance. The sofa wedged into the doorway had trapped me in the room, but both Mitch and the woman stood in the full sun, with the yellow of her car, the brightness of her hair, and the sun glaring off the paved driveway casting a glow from where I slouched, blanketed by the shadows.

“I’m Mitch, and this is my . . . this is Andrea,” he said. “I’m moving in here, and I was hoping to have a nice neighbor. You look nice.” Mitch glanced back at me with that grin that he rained down on pretty girls and bartenders, lifted his baseball cap, and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

The blonde’s breasts stretched the fabric of her collared shirt. Her nametag winked in the sun, she smiled, and I swear she actually sashayed into her side of the duplex.

Mitch used to grin at me that way, flirting with that same awkward confidence. The tearing feeling that had bloomed in my chest when he showed me the ring he’d picked out for Janet surprised me. Although we only slept together twice after they got engaged, I was surprised how was easy it was to slip back into that old friendship quivering with an implied intimacy now that he and Janet had divorced.

“You mind letting me out of here, cowboy?” I said.

“You think she’ll loan me a cup of sugar? Maybe give me a little neighborly welcome?”

“You think she can hear us?” I said.

With his hands in his back pockets, Mitch gazed over toward her doorway as if he were just surveying the scenery. I rested against the end of the sofa with the mirage of Mitch still shimmering in the sun. Heavy green curtains sagged on the front window so that a diagonal line of sunlight rayed through the room. The place smelled of bug spray, ammonia, damp carpet, and menthol smoke.

“You ready to move this sofa in and get the rest of the stuff from the truck?” Mitch said.

“We need to get some curtains in here that aren’t busted off the rods. I’m sorry this place is kind of a dump, Mitch. It needs work.”

“It’s not a dump compared to some of the places I lived.”

Mitch grunted a laugh and squinted over his shoulder. “Let me get out of this damned sun before the blonde looks out the window.”

“You think she’s watching you?”

“She might be watching,” he said. “Watching her new neighbor stand in a dirt yard arguing with her new landlord who won’t move her sweet ass and help me lift the sofa.”

“What’s she thinking?” I asked. The blue floral pattern of the sofa was faded. I recognized the couch as a piece of passed-on furniture I had handed over to Mitch and Janet when I moved in with a guy named Rob, who, come to think of it, was the original owner of the khakis. At least Rob left me some decent pants, although I still don’t know why he took the toaster and all the forks.

I stepped over an ancient microwave to push the curtains open so that I could see across the little brick house across the street. Dead bees curled on the windowsill.

Mitch shoved a corner of the sofa into the house so he could get in, then he flopped across it with one leg hooked over the arm so that his boot tip jostled in the light falling through the door.

“She’s thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get with that hot new neighbor who drives the brown pickup. He looks like he works out,’” he said.

“Probably.”

“She’s thinking, ‘But what the hell is he doing moving furniture with that chick? She his sister or his girlfriend?’”

“Think she’ll believe we’re just friends?” I said.

“I bet the blonde’s thinking, ‘I wish I didn’t live next door to this dump either, and I wish I could find a man who owned a house instead of renting one. Maybe I should go back to school and get a better job so I don’t keep meeting losers,’” he said.

“You’re a dumbass, not a loser,” I said.

“Right. Important distinction,” Mitch said.

“Maybe she’s thinking, ‘That guy Mitch must be the marrying kind since he’s already wearing a wedding ring. His wife must be crazy to let him go. Maybe we’ll do it right on top of his big blue couch. Maybe Mitch will move in with me and we can screw all night and sublet his place and split the money.’”

“Janet stopped wanting me way before I lost my job,” Mitch said.

I touched his arm and he lifted up his head and shoulders so I could sit down. He rested his head back in my lap with the bill of his cap shading his face from me.

“Just a dumbass, sometimes. I never thought you were a loser,” I said.

“I don’t plan on living here long,” he said.

I sucked a deep breath in, blew a slow exhale out. I pulled his cap off, combed his hair back from his forehead with my fingers. He reached for his cap, and his hand whispered against mine as he took it. My best friend, the dumbass, the heartbreaker. Never mind the blonde. What was I thinking, letting him move in with me as his landlord?

I made my voice light, teasing. “Make sure you pay three months’ rent up front,” I said. “I can’t have you skipping out on me like the last guy.”

Mitch snorted. His eyes were closed and he arched his head back against my legs like a dog getting his ears scratched.

“The blonde is checking her lipstick and wondering if you’re going to ask her out for tiramisu,” I said.

“I hate tiramisu. Remember how we used to order cheesecake with raspberry sauce at that place in Memphis?” he said.

“Yeah, cheesecake and cheap wine, for all special occasions. Like when you finally graduated.”

“Or when I got engaged to Janet,” he started.

“And we decided we would just be friends,” I finished.

I smoothed the hair at his temples, traced it back behind his ears. We used to watch movies this way, one’s head resting in the other’s lap, hands stroking hair. In college, his hair had flowed long when mine had snarled up in cropped chunks close to my scalp. A car drove by with a stereo bass that thumped down the street. As the bass tapered off, I asked him why he had hooked up with his boss’s assistant.

He was quiet, then he said, “She laughed at my jokes.”

My fingers dropped away from him, and I rested my own head against the couch and stared up at the ceiling. “Wonder what the blonde’s doing,” I said. I wanted to sleep there in the damp dark.

“The blonde made a bologna sandwich and forgot about us both,” he said.

“And she’s planning how to get herself out of this dump.”
 
 
Photo by Lord Jim

Gwen Mullins

GWEN MULLINS’s fiction has appeared in several journals including Eclipse, PANK, and Talking River. In 2012 she won descant's Frank O' Connor Award. Gwen lives in Chattanooga, TN and she earned her M.F.A. through Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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