PART ONE: JULIA
“Morning, Jules!” Erick’s voice carries with the cold gust of the early morning. I look at my watch, 6:35. I’m late. He smiles at me as I cross the last few steps that separate us.
“Morning, handsome!” I bend down to kiss him on the cheek, long and tender, while I hold his face with my left hand, just like I do every morning.
“You’re late!” He scolds me good naturedly. When I straighten, he leans back against his backrest and looks up at me with a cute grin that brings out his slight dimples.
“I know, I know,” I smile back. I rub my hands a little before fishing the keys out of my pocket.
“You’re cold,” he pouts at me.
I crutch down and struggle to open the lock pad with my numb fingers. It takes me a while. He stares at me with a crease between his eyebrows. Finally, I unlock it and put it away. I need both hands to lift the heavy iron curtain. You’d think that after all this time, I would have the strength to just lift it, effortlessly, since I do it every morning. But no, somehow, after five years, I still struggle to lift the damn thing.
“There,” I announce like some big triunf once the curtain is up.
I look down at Erick. The crease is still there and his lips form a straight line. I know he wishes he could help. I smile to reassure him and open the glass door. He makes a gesture with his arm to signal I should go in first. His hand sort of dangles when he moves his arm. His fingers are curled up and he has to move his whole arm back to get his hand to bounce inwards again. I don’t stare.
I cross the threshold and take off my coat. He pushes his rims and moves his wheelchair forward until he’s inside. The sun’s out, but it’s still a little dark. He rolls to the wall and turns the lights on. That, he can do.
I go behind the counter and start turning things on. He puts on some music. It’s our little routine. I get the kitchen started, then put the chairs down and carry the two tables that go outside. He helps with the table cloths, although he’s slow. We both sing along the music while we work. I have the coffee running and bread in the oven by the time I come out to help him. He has just covered half the tables, I do the rest.
Once everything’s set, he rolls back outside and parks his chair behind his table. Yeah, that’s his table, his and Tony’s, my husband. Well, technically he’s my ex husband, but I never seem to make the switch in my head, even though we’ve been divorced for eight years.
“You’re still cold,” Erick frowns again when I bring him his coffee.
I set it on the table and rub my hands again.
“They’ll warm up in a minute,” I say.
He reaches out to grab my hand but then stops.
“Why don’t you grab the cup for a while?” He suggests.
“Sure,” I indulge him. I sit across from him and hold the cup between my hands for a minute. It feels good, the blood is returning to my fingers. I look up and see Tony walking towards us. He’s wearing a black wool coat that I bought for him years ago. The coat may be old, but I swear he looks like a freaking model in it, his tall figure approaching, walking with his back straight, like he owns the street. He runs his fingers through his black hair, which has always been so smooth. He has a few grey hairs now, they make him look even sexier. I shake the thought away and scold myself in silence.
“Here,” I set the coffee cup back down in front of Erick. “You shouldn’t grab it yet, it’s too hot,” I warn him because I know he can’t feel his hands. He could get burned and not even notice. He nods.
I stand up just as Tony reaches us. He stops me from leaving with a hand in the small of my back and I have to fight the urge to fall into his embrace.
“Good morning,” I say.
“Morning,” he kisses my cheek. “You’re ice cold!” He takes a step back to watch me and puts his hand on my cheek. I stiffen. Then he takes it away to hold my hands in his, he rubs them a few times and then brings them up to his lips and blows. His breath is warm and it makes me tingle in all the right places. “Your hands are always so cold!” His are always warm. “I bet your feet are worse!”
Oh god, why does he have to say those things?
“My feet are fine, thank you!” I take my hands away from him but I already have the image of us lying in bed together. I feel heat rising to my cheeks. I avoid looking at Erick. “I’ll get your coffee,” I say and flee to the kitchen.
I return a few minutes later, free of all images of my husband naked, ex husband, and set a black coffee in front of him.
“What will my favorite customer have this morning?” I say to Erick. I don’t ask Tony for his order. He always has the same thing. He’s the only person I know who can have the same thing for breakfast every morning and not tire of it.
“I’ll just have some of that delicious bread of yours,” Erick says with a sweet smile.
“Just that?” I ask. “How about some pancakes?” I always have to push Erick to eat. It didn’t use to be that way, but since his accident, he eats very little. I think it’s because he struggles with the cutlery and it just tires him.
“Uh,” he pouts. He’s cute when he does that, kind of like a child. “Half an order?”
“Ok,” I compromise.
It’s now ten after seven and other customers start to arrive. Mostly, it’s coffee to go, bread, some sandwiches. An old man, also a regular, sits inside. I can manage this flow of orders on my own, I have a girl who helps me, but she comes in later, when the place is more crowded. I wish I could have her full time, but I can’t afford it.
I prepare the food and bring it out to the guys. They thank me and carry on with their conversation. Sometimes I wonder how come they still have things to talk about, since they spend all day, everyday, together. They start with breakfast here, at my coffee shop, every weekday, and then they drive to work together. Erick and Tony are partners. They own a transportation company together. They are also best friends. They have been since we were children. The three of us used to live in the same neighborhood when we were kids. Actually, Erick and I still live in the same houses we grew up in. Tony has moved away, but he lives just a few blocks down the road now.
I serve them breakfast and go back to the kitchen. My hands are full when I hear Sean, my sixteen year old son, arriving.
“Hi, uncle Erick. How are you?” He stops at their table still outside.
“I’m fine, you? How’s school?” Erick lifts a fist, or his version of it, and bumps it with Sean’s.
“Same old, same old.”
“The ladies?” Erick winks at him.
“All falling for me,” he jokes.
“Dad,” he greets Tony but then doesn’t wait around for his response. Instead, he rushes inside rearranging the backpack on his shoulder.
Tony looks like he’s about to say something but Sean is quickly out of his sight and behind the counter.
“Hi, mom,” he kisses my cheek and grabs a muffin I’m about to serve to a customer.
“Sean!” I scold him. He flashes me a smile. It’s his father’s smile, the one that says I own the world. It completely disarms me. My boy is very handsome. A younger, softer version of my husband. Tall, well built, black hair, white skin, gray eyes, long lashes that make me jealous.
I replace the muffin with an identical one and take it to table three. As I set the plate down, I see a woman on running clothes stop by the guy’s table.
“Hey there,” she says in an overly chipper voice. “So this is where you hide every morning,” she says to Tony, a suggestive look in her green eyes. “You must be Erick,” she tucks a strand of loose hair behind her ear, and turns her pretty and young face to my husband. She stares at him for a couple of seconds, with a flirty smile plastered on her unwrinkled face. I suppose she’s expecting him to introduce her. But Tony is quiet. He doesn’t smile back. His lips are pressed into a straight line. I see her smile falter ever so slightly before she turns to Erick again.
“Hi, I’m Laura,” she stretches a perfectly manicured hand out for him to shake. “Tony’s new neighbor.”
“Hi,” a crease forms between Erick’s brows. Then he stretches out his hand to grab hers. The moment they touch, she looks down at Erick’s hand. Erick can’t shake hands anymore. His fingers are curled in and they have groves where the muscles should be. He can’t move his fingers at all. It makes people uncomfortable.
She takes her hand away and brushes imaginary lint off her sporty clothes. She’s wearing leggings that show off her round ass, and a matching jacket that is way too tight around her boobs. She must be in her early thirties. Fine, in her late twenties. Her light brown hair is tied up in a messy ponytail and she’s wearing makeup around her gorgeous green eyes even though it’s barely 7:30 in the morning and she’s apparently out for a run.
“So, this place must be really good if you guys come here every morning,” she turns her attention back to Tony. “I think I’ll try the coffee,” she flashes him that smile again.
You don’t go through ten years of marriage with a man like Tony and not see that smile a hundred times in the face of pretty women. I know the look too. I’ve also seen it enough times. Oh well, it’s not my business anymore. I force myself to look away. I’ve spent much longer than it requires to set a muffin down at a customer’s table anyway. I so don’t want to be caught staring. I turn on my heels.
“May I join you?” I hear her say behind me. I start walking away but Tony’s voice stops me cold.
“No,” he says roundly.
No? Did he really just say that? I can’t keep myself from turning back around. I can’t see Tony’s expression well from this angle, but I see hers. She looks shocked, like she can’t believe he said that. I can’t believe he said that. The smile is still on her face, but now it looks fake, like someone who has been posing still for a photograph for way too long.
Erick clears his throat to break the uncomfortable silence.
“We were about to leave,” he says awkwardly. “We have to open the office,” he takes out his wallet like he’s about to pay. “Sorry,” he adds for good measure.
“Oh,” she fiddles with her hair. “Ok. Another time then, maybe. I was looking forward to meeting you, Erick, I’ve heard a lot about you,” she turns to Tony again. “Maybe I’ll come earlier next time,” she gives him a shier smile this time.
Tony turns his head towards me and I barely have enough time to look away and pretend to be cleaning a table.
“I rather you didn’t,” he says in a tone that makes me feel bad for the poor girl. I risk lifting my eyes again. She’s trying her best to keep on smiling but her eyes give her away. “This place is just for Erick and me.”
The girl looks like a child who’s just been told off by her father.
“Sure,” she manages to utter lowly. “Nice to meet you, Erick.” She doesn’t shake his hand this time.
“Goodbye,” Tony gives her the final blow before Erick can answer.
“Nice to meet you too,” Erick rushes out.
She nods and turns away. I swear she looks like she’s about to cry. Tony looks back at me again. I grab the sugar bowl just to pretend to be doing something and I walk away without meeting his eyes.
“Are they leaving already?” Sean asks me once I’m back behind the counter.
“I don’t think so, why? Do you want a ride or something?” I ask my son who’s seemenly hiding back here.
“Nope,” he looks at me like I’m crazy for thinking that. Teenagers. “Are they gonna be much longer?”
I look at my watch, 7:35. They always leave at quarter to eight. You could set your watch by everything Tony does. He’s the reason Erick and I have such fixed routines. I don’t think we would be quite so predictable were it not because we revolve around Tony’s schedule like bees to the queen.
“Ten minutes,” I tell Sean.
“Uff! I’m gonna be late,” he complains.
I’m about to ask what the hell he’s waiting for when a customer orders a coffee and I get distracted with work. A woman sits on the last empty remaining table. The one I was just pretending to clean. There are only four tables inside my coffee shop, and two outside. It’s a small place.
“Take the sugar to table four, would you Sean?”
He looks at me in a strange way.
“I can’t,” he pouts.
“Ok, ok,” he gets up and picks the sugar bowl. “Why did you bring it here anyways?” He complains, but he takes it to the table as I asked.
“Sean,” Tony calls him.
“I’m helping mom,” Sean’s quick to get back behind the counter.
I roll my eyes at him.
Surely enough, ten minutes later, Tony gets up and Erick pushes away from the table and grabs his rims. Sean bursts out running.
“Dad,” he calls and Tony turns around to look at him. “Can I have some money?”
Tony squints at him. “What for?”
“School. I need to buy some books,” Sean shrugs.
Tony takes out his wallet. “How much?” He says holding out two bills.
Sean grabs one right out of his hand.
“Thanks,” he yells as he rushes away.
“Sean,” Tony calls but our son doesn’t look back.
“I’m late,” he yells out.
Tony looks back at me. I shrug. Like I said, teenagers.
The next morning, I arrive at the coffee shop at half past six. I’m on time today, but Erick is waiting for me already.
“Morning, handsome,” I lean in and kiss him hello.
When we part, he leans against his backrest and looks up at me with that sweet smile of his. Erick is also a good looking man. Not in the same sense as Tony but perhaps just as attractive as him. Although he’s not that young anymore -none of us are- he still has that all american boy look. A nice smile with perfectly aligned teeth, clean symmetrical features, blue eyes, slight dimples. His hair is light brown. Of course, there’s the fact that he’s disabled, and his body looks like it. He can never sit quite straight due to the fact that he can’t really control his torso, so he’s always sort of slouching on his chair, unlike Tony who has the best posture ever, I swear. You’d think that being as tall as he is, 6.3, he would tend to slouch, but no. Tony always stands tall, proud of his full height, which is probably his most alluring trait. The only time Tony slouched down was when he kissed me, since I never reached higher than his chin, even in heels. Tony’s face isn’t as nice as Erick’s, but he more than makes up for it in masculinity and self confidence. Tony’s rough, well built. He has broad shoulders and defined biceps. Ever since he could grow it, he has had a goatee shortly trimmed around his sexy lips. When we were young, they were a hard pair to resist. Now, since Erick’s in the chair, I suppose women don’t look at him the same way. He hasn’t had a girlfriend in like forever.
I rub my hands a little before reaching for the keys to start the whole opening the coffee shop procedure. Erick’s smile widens and he reaches for a pair of gloves that I just now notice have been sitting on his lap. He picks them up using both hands, which is his way of picking anything up, and hands them to me. I take them. They are fingerless gloves made out of wool and I can tell right away that they’re high quality because they’re really smooth, probably cashmere. I immediately put them on. They feel great on my hands.
“Thanks. That’s so sweet,” I bend down and hug him.
Half an hour later, like clockwork, Tony slides down into the chair across from Erick. I already have his coffee ready and take it over there. He stands up again to greet me. I wish he didn’t do that because, as I said, his height is his most alluring trait. When he’s standing and places a hand in my back to pull me towards him as he bends down to kiss me on the cheek, I always get the urge to let my head rest on his chest. Damn him.
“How about some eggs today?” I say to Erick, fighting the gravity Tony holds over me.
“Sure,” he says and I lay a hand on his shoulder, which is a place he can still feel. He looks up at me with a grin.
“Is Sean coming over today?” Tony asks me.
“I don’t think so,” I restrain myself from completing the sentence with the fact that he got money yesterday so I don’t think he’ll be by today. Tony's probably thinking the same thing though, because he frowns at my response.
The guys have breakfast and talk until quarter to eight when they wave their goodbyes and leave as usual. As I’m cleaning the table, I realize Erick barely touched his breakfast. So I decide to cook him something special for lunch and take it over to the office. It’s Friday, so we’ll make plans to hang out later. Sean’s always out on Fridays, so for a while now, Erick and I have been hanging together Friday night. That probably means that Tony’s got a girlfriend, or Erick would be hanging out with him. It must be that Laura chick from yesterday. I push the thought away. She did seem to know exactly who Erick was and that they had breakfast here every morning. Which means Tony must have told her about it. At least she doesn’t show up today. Not that I was expecting her to, after yesterday.
I can’t help but wonder if Tony sent her away for my sake, although it could just be to protect his precious routine. Tony really doesn’t like change. Either way, I’m glad he did. The last thing I want is to watch that girl all over my husband, ex husband. I feel a tad of guilt for my thoughts and try to focus on cooking. Cooking relaxes me.
A little before noon, I give instructions to Jessica, my only employee, to take care of things while I’m gone, and I set out towards Cross Transports. The company was originally founded by Tony’s father, Sean Cross. Our son is named after him. He was a sweet man who raised Tony practically on his own. But eight years ago, the company had financial problems for reasons I really don’t want to recall. Erick used the settlement money of his accident to rescue the company. So now, Cross Transports belongs to both of them.
I get there right on time. The woman at the front desk knows me. She’s about 60 years old and has worked here ever since I can remember.
“Hi, Betty,” I say to her.
“Ms Cross,” she greets me. She’s the only other person who somehow hasn’t managed to register my divorce even after eight years. I go by my maiden name now, Taylor, but I don’t correct her. “Should I let Mr Cross know you’re here?” She asks me.
“I’m here to see Erick,” I tell her as I make my way towards the elevator without waiting for her answer. I know she’ll let Tony know anyway. It’s her job, so I don’t hold it against her.
I leave the elevator and walk straight to Erick’s office. His face lights up when he sees me come in.
“Hey there, Jules!” He uses both hands to push away from the desk before rolling his wheelchair to meet me.
“I brought you lunch,” I set the bag I’ve been carrying over his desk. The smile he gives me is the best payment I could hope for. Lately, I think that smile is the best part of my day.
He starts moving papers away from the desk to make space. He uses both hands to get folders between his palms and lift them up. It’s tricky at best, so I help him. Once we’ve cleared the desk, I take out a couple of topperwears and two plates. Then I move one of the chairs that sit in front of his desk to let him park his wheelchair on this side, and I sit next to him.
“It smells good,” he wrinkles his nose in this adorable gesture he always makes when I cook.
“It’s chicken marsala,” I announce, proud of myself.
There’s a knock and this cute girl opens the door. She’s short but really pretty, a dirty blond in her mid thirties. She’s wearing a pencil skirt and a white blouse that is loose but has just the right amount of cleavage. She’s rocking the outfit. She looks professional and classy. It makes me self conscious about what I’m wearing, jeans and a blue sweater I’ve probably worn at least once a week for the past couple of months.
“Hi, Lou,” Erick says with a smile that could rival the one he gives me.
“Sorry, I didn’t realize you had company,” she apologizes but walks in the office anyway. Her three inch heels cling against the floor tiles as she walks towards us without faltering. I could never wear heels like that, I would break my ankle.
“This is July,” Erick introduces me. “Jules, this is Louise.”
“Hi,” I force myself to say. Even her name is classy.
“Nice to meet you,” she barely looks at me. “I’ve got that report you asked for. But I’ll just leave it here.” She leans in to set the folder on the desk letting me see her white lace bra. I bet Erick saw it too.
“Thanks! I’ll check it after lunch.”
She nods and turns around to leave. Erick follows her with his gaze. He doesn’t look back at me until the door closes behind her.
“So?” I say.
“So?” He shakes his head at me.
“That’s Lou. She’s been here for almost a month now. She’s John Willson’s replacement,” he explains as if this answers my question.
“And?” I push him.
“You like her,” I spit out.
Erick uses both hands over his rims to lift his body up and adjust his position on the chair. He’s blushing.
“No, I don’t,” he starts to deny but his face gives him away. “Ok, a little,” he relinquishes.
“And?” I press.
“Have you asked her out?”
“No, of course not!”
He gives me a look like I’m crazy.
“Because she would say no,” he looks away.
“You don’t know that,” I say. I hate the fact that he might be right though. She’s very likely to say no because of Erick’s disability.
“This is really good,” Erick tries to change the subject.
“Erick,” I start, but I don’t want to patronize him. “Ok, she might say no,” I look for his eyes. “But she could also say yes. You won’t know unless you ask her.”
“Just drop it,” he says. He’s got a sad look all of a sudden.
No way I’m gonna let him get down over this. Not if I can help it.
“Erick, I know, ok? I know some women only see the chair. But not every woman.” Not me, I think but for some reason I don’t say that part. “You’ve had girlfriends,” I say because he has.
Erick’s been in that chair for almost nine years. The first couple of years were the hardest. He was really depressed for a while. But now I’d say he’s ok with it for the most part. He’s accepted it. We all have. And I think he’s happy. Perhaps a little lonely, but he has a good life. I know him pretty well so I think I can bouche for his state of mind. He’s had a few relationships over the years. He even got serious with a girl a few years back. That didn’t work out, but there’s no reason to think he won’t find someone.
“You are a successful guy, good-looking, nice,”
“Don’t say nice,” he stops me. “Please don’t say I’m a nice guy, Jules.”
“You are a nice guy!”
He drops his head back with a heavy sigh.
“That’s not a compliment, you know?” He says, his head still hanging back. “Girls don’t like nice guys,” he finally looks back at me. “Girls are friends with nice guys, they’re not attracted to them.”
“That’s not true,” I shake my head at him. Although perhaps it is. “Ok, maybe young girls don’t like nice guys, but women, you know, with a little maturity, do. We’re tired of douchebags who treat us like crap.”
I get a small grin at that.
“I’m her boss. I can’t risk asking her out and if she says no, things get all weird between us at the office. I could even get a sexual harassment lawsuit,” he explains but he doesn’t have a grim face anymore.
“Then where else are you supposed to meet someone?” I ask. “At a bar?”
The smile reaches his eyes this time. “Yeah, ‘cause I go to so many bars.”
“Ok, then. Let’s go to a bar,” I suggest. “Tonight. Let’s go to a karaoke bar.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on! It’ll be fun. We haven’t done that in like forever. You know you’re sexy when you sing. I’ll bet you’ll score.”
“Done deal, hu?” He chuckles.
“Yeah! So? Are we going or what? I heard of this place…”
“I can’t tonight,” he interrupts.
“Hum…” he hesitates.
“You’re hanging out with Tony,” I squint at him.
“Sorry,” he gives me an apologetic look.
“Hey there!” As if we’ve invoked him, Tony materializes at the door. “You’re eating without me?” He fakes an offended look. “What’s that?” He walks to us and grabs my fork without asking. He takes a bite in his mouth and closes his eyes. “Chicken marsala,” he announces opening them back up with this intense look. “Let me guess, you brought some for me as well. I bet you were just about to knock on my office.” He shakes his head at me.
“Actually,” I jank the fork away from his hand. “I came here to ask Erick to a karaoke bar tonight, but he’s hanging out with you instead. I bet you were just about to invite me, weren’t you?” Two can play at this game.
Tony flashes me a smile at that. He’s got the sexiest smile ever. A smile that says “I can get away with everything and anything.”
“Of course you’re invited,” he winks at me, the bastard. “So it’s gonna be karaoke huh? Eight o’clock. My place,” he takes the fork from me again and grabs another bite. “See you there!” He sets the fork down and kisses my cheek so fast I don’t have time to pull away. Then, he’s out the door before I can say I have no intention of going.
So now I’m staring at my reflection in the mirror trying my best not to compare myself with Laura. I’ve put on my favorite jeans, they’re dark blue with faded stripes on my pelvis. I also wore the nicest blouse I own. It’s a spaghetti strap top with a pattern. It shows off my shoulders and it’s tight around my boobs. I don’t look the same as I did when I married Tony. He, of course, looks even better now. Usually I don’t stress that much about it though. I mean, who has time to worry about appearance when you run a business, a house, and have a kid?
Besides, the only people who see me are customers and Erick, who I hang out with most of the time. And I really don’t care what I wear in front of Erick. We have that kind of relationship in which we’re just comfortable with each other no matter what. We’ve known each other for so long. We’ve seen each other at our worst. For a while, after his accident, I used to bathe and dress Erick. I even wiped his ass. It’s hard to be self conscious about what you wear around a guy whose ass you’ve wiped.
Tony, however, is something else. Even though I see him practically every day, and we were married for over ten years, I still get kind of nervous every time we’re about to meet. Especially when it’s something like this, outside the coffee shop or the office. I know I shouldn’t. It’s not like I’m holding my breath for us to get back together. I know that’s never going to happen. But for some reason, I still want him to see me at my best.
So I apply makeup tonight. Not so much that it would be out of character, but some mascara and a touch of light pink lipstick. I look at my reflection in the mirror one more time before I go, and try my best not to compare myself with Laura or Louise. I toss the lipstick in my purse, grab my coat and head for the door.
Erick is waiting for me outside to walk together to Tony’s place. Well, I’ll walk and he’ll roll.
“You look pretty,” he says with a boyish grin.
“So do you,” I giggle like a teenager.
Tony opens the door to us, and of course, he pulls me to him with a hand on my waist and kisses me in the cheek. How come I’m never fast enough to escape him? It even takes me a second to resume motion after he lets go. Finally, I walk in his apartment and take off my coat. I hang it in the rack by the door and when I turn around I find him staring at me. He grabs my hand and makes me swing as if we were dancing.
“Jules, you look… stunning!” He gives me an intense look that makes me blush. I know I don’t look stunning. I might look better than I do on a weekday at the café, but stunning is stretching. However, the way he says it, you’d think I was in a nightgown with my hair up, about to walk into a ball.
“Uh huh,” I say ironically and release myself from his grip in an enormous display of self control.
I sit on the couch and Erick parks his chair next to me. Tony hands us both drinks. Scotch, neat. It’s our thing. Tony introduced us both to alcohol when we were all far too young by stealing his father’s scotch. It was the only thing his father drank and therefore the only spirits in the house. At the beginning, it was really hard to stomach it, but then it became my drink of choice. Now, I even keep a bottle in the top cabinet and treat myself to a glass more often than I care to admit. I take a big sip now and let it warm my throat and calm my nerves.
Tony sits in the piano stool in front of us and grins at me. His living room is poorly decorated. He has the one couch and bare walls. An old piano occupies most of the space, next to it, two guitars hang from the wall, one acoustic, one electric. In highschool, Tony and Erick had their version of a boy band. They’re both really skilled musicians. Girls in school threw themselves at them. But I was the one Tony ended up with. He had his fair share of girls while guys stayed away from me. Later, I found out that no one dared to go near me, because even then, he had claimed me as his girl. Senior year, he made things official. We went to college together, and as far as I know, he was always faithful to me. He used to say he didn’t have eyes for anyone else. It was always me, we were supposed to be together forever. Until I screwed everything up.
“So, it’s karaoke night,” Tony announces with a mischievous smile.
He sets his glass down and turns around in the stool. Without further ado, he opens the lid of the piano and starts playing Aerosmith’s “I don’t want to miss a thing”. I know he chose that song because it’s one of my favorites. The intro sounds soft at first, every keystroke bouncing from the walls of the apartment to some place deep inside me, heating me up with anticipation. Then, he opens his mouth, the lyrics flood the living room and it’s as if I’m the room. The song is flowing inside of me, resounding in my inner walls. He has a raspy voice, and if I said before Tony’s sexy, I was cutting it short, way short. Seriously, I could come just by listening to him. I writhe in my place and press my thighs together trying helplessly to overcome the feelings he provokes.
When the song is over, I’m flushed. It’s the beginning of winter, but I desperately want to open a window. I take a big gulp of my scotch hoping it will help. Over the rim of the glass I catch Erick’s eyes on me. I try to conceal my face by tipping the glass further and I end up emptying it up to the last drop. Erick raises an eyebrow.
“Your turn,” Tony says to Erick. “What will it be?”
Erick clears his throat and finally looks away from me.
“Every little thing she does is magic,” he says. Another favorite of mine.
Tony nods and starts pressing the keys. Erick’s voice is different, one might say better, it’s deep but he can really hit the high notes. He can conjure up more volume than Tony, but he’s also shyer, so he usually holds back. When Erick sings, it has a different effect on me, it’s relaxing, it’s fun, and I really love this song. So after the first few lines, I join him. As we sing together, I can feel Erick loosening up. He starts to sing higher and I lean against him during the chorus. Tony has his back turned to us, so I seize the moment and relax. I love singing with Erick, it’s one of my favorite things in the world.
“Every little thing she does... Every little thing she does,” Erick’s eyes are pressed shut and he’s swinging his head to the rhythm. I take a moment to watch him. He looks really cute. When he opens his eyes at the end of the song, I flash him a smile and his cheeks turn red. I hug his arm and rest my head on his shoulder.
Before I know it, Tony’s singing “Your song” by Elton John. He makes a gesture with his chin inviting me to join him in the piano. I don’t own a piano, so I haven’t played in a really long time. I’d be lying if I said that old piano isn’t one of the things I miss most about my marriage. What the hell. I get up and go to him. Tony scoops up in the stool to make space for me. I pick up the melody as he’s singing the chorus. He raises the volume with a lopsided smile.
When the song ends, he playfully bumps his side against me. I smile at him despite myself.
“When a man loves a woman,” Erick’s voice makes me turn around. Apparently, they’re both out to please me. I know if I weren’t here, they would be singing “Stairway to heaven”, maybe Nirvana. They’re choosing these songs because they know I like them.
I notice Erick’s glass is empty, as is mine. So I get up to get a refill.
“So, are we getting drunk tonight?” Tony empties his own glass at the sight of me.
“I think we're too old for that.” I hand Erick his glass, which he takes with both hands.
“One is never too old for that,” Erick counters. It surprises me, because Erick is not a big drinker, at least he hasn’t been in the last years.
Tony looks up at him surprised too.
“You wanna get drunk tonight man?” He asks his best friend, no sheepish tone this time, but as an honest and friendly offer.
If Erick wants to get drunk, he will need our help. Nine years after his accident, Erick is pretty independant. He can dress himself, go to the bathroom, transfer himself from the chair to the bed or the couch. But all those things require an effort, and he knows, as well as us, that he can’t do half of them drunk. If for some reason he wants to get drunk though, we will take care of him. Tony will carry him when it’s time to go to bed, we will undress him. I will empty his leg bag. We’ve done it for him before, although not for a while. We did it when he broke up with his last serious girlfriend and once after he got into a really big fight with his father.
Erick seems to be considering it, but after a minute, he shakes his head.
“Nah, I’m good, but thanks for the offer,” he sets the glass down carefully.
I sit back down on the piano and play.
“Thanks for the trip down memory lane, guys, but I also like some current songs,” I say.
They both roll their eyes at me in unison. I start singing an Ed Sheeran song, partly because I know they’ll laugh at that, and partly because I don’t want to encourage any piss contest between them.
Later, we sing Madonna, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and even some Bruno Mars. This is the best time I’ve had in months. Even though the three of us hang out fairly often, we haven’t done karaoke night in a very long time. Between songs, we laugh at old stories about their band days. At some point during the night, Erick transfers to the couch next to me. Tony alternates between the piano stool, the center table, and the empty place next to me.
A little after midnight, Tony starts singing “Crazy” a capella, another Aerosmith song I really like.
“Why don’t you get the guitar down?” Erick interrupts him.
Tony stops singing. He looks down and shakes his head.
“Nah,” he says without meeting his eyes.
Erick used to be crazy good with the guitar. Now, obviously, he can’t play, since his hands don’t work. Even though it’s been nine years, both Tony and I know it still stings. Erick never says it out loud, but we know it’s one of the things he misses the most. More than walking, that’s for sure. Tony doesn’t want to play the guitar because he feels like he’d be rubbing it in his face.
“Tony, get the guitar,” Erick presses.
“I’m better at the piano,” Tony holds his ground.
“This song is better in guitar,” Erick insists. Still, Tony hesitates.
“Come on man, what are you gonna do, never play the guitar around me again? It’s been nine years. I can take it,” he declares. And I guess he can, he’s a pretty tough guy.
Tony nods. He gets up and grabs the acoustic guitar. Then he starts the song again. I really love the beginning of this song, and Tony does it perfectly.
“Girl, you’ve got to change your crazy ways. D’you hear me?” He sings looking at me. “Honey!”
He always used to call me “honey” as an inner joke, he still does sometimes. In a lot of ways, our relationship hasn’t changed that much. I mean, we don’t sleep together anymore. We haven’t since the divorce, not once, although there’s been plenty of times when I’ve wanted to. But we are still very much in each other's lives. He’s still the guy I call when the car breaks down, or when the sink is leaking. I know I shouldn’t, but somehow I always end up doing so. It’s probably the reason why I haven’t had a single serious relationship in all this time. I’ve done my fair share of dating, as has he -the fact doesn’t escape me -, but no one I’ve been serious about.
I know Tony has had many girlfriends over the years. I know it for a fact, but I’ve never actually seen him with anyone, nor has our son. He’s always very discreet about it. Not that he has to be. I mean, we’re divorced. A part of me thanks him for it though. I don’t know what I would feel if I saw him with another woman. I’d like to think I’d be mature about it, and acknowledge the fact that he’s completely entitled to a relationship with whoever he wants to, but in reality, I think it would crush me.
So yeah, I admit I still have feelings for my husband. I think I always will. He’s the love of my life. You don’t just get over the love of your life. Although I should, I really should. It hits me as he’s leaning against me while he sings U2’s “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.
I stand up from the stool where I’ve been sitting next to him for the past couple of songs, and pour myself another scotch. Then I go back to the couch next to Erick. I hug his arm as I sit down and smile at him.
“Time for Sinatra?” He shows his dimples as he smiles.
“Hell yeah!” I agree.
Erick used to make a great impersonation of Frank Sinatra, dance moves and all. Now, he won’t do the movements but he’ll still sing the hell out of it. Especially now that he’s had a few drinks.
He chooses “Can’t take my eyes off of you” and sings the whole thing staring at me. He’s flirting. I know it’s all a game, but I find myself enjoying it. It would be so easy to be with Erick. We already know each other so well. We get along perfectly, we never fight. My son loves him. I already know all the details of his disability. I used to look after him when he couldn’t take care of himself, so those things wouldn’t be awkward between us. He wouldn’t have to worry about that as he does every time he asks a new woman out. And I really don’t care about that at all. Our relationship would be the same as it is now, except that we would be romantically involved.
“Oh pretty baby,” his breath tingles me as he leans in. How would his lips feel on mine? “You’d be like heaven to touch,” how would his hands feel on me? I imagine my own hands over his chest and picture myself nibbling his earlobe. “Can’t take my eyes off of you,” he has the most beautiful blue eyes and they shine on me now. “Oh let me love you!” He finishes the song just an inch from my face. For a moment, he lingers there, quiet now, catching his breath. Then he throws his head back in a gesture very characteristic of him and laughs.
Oh god! Erick is Tony’s best friend. We could never be together. It would be such a betrayal. I need to get out of here, like right now.
I get up from the couch abruptly.
“I gotta go,” I announce to no one in particular, maybe I’ve said it to myself. I’m looking at the door, mentally listing the steps to carry out my words. Put my coat on, grab my purse, move my feet. Where’s my cellphone? For some reason I also take inventory of my glass of scotch. There’s still some of it left, and as weird as it sounds, I have to drink it. It feels like unfinished business, so I turn around, grab it and drink it empty. Then I take the glass to the kitchen, because it would be bad manners if I don’t.
“Are you ok?” Someone asks, I’m not sure who, maybe both of them have said it at the same time. I don’t want to look up at either of them.
“Uh hu,” I mumble.
“Jules?” Tony is standing next to me. I don’t have to look up to know, I feel his full height behind me and I know it’s him and not Erick, who is short. Well, he’s actually not, but since he's always sitting down, I guess he is now.
“I’m fine,” I say, conjuring up the courage to turn around and look at him. “I’ve just realized how late it is. My mom will go crazy,” I say, and it’s partially true. Yeah, I live with my mother now. We lost the house around the same time as the divorce due to financial problems that were more than a little bit my fault, and I ended up moving back home. “So I should go.”
I grab my coat and my purse but my hands are shaking a bit, so I don’t attempt to put it on.
“Wait,” this time it’s Erick talking. I recognize his voice. I guess it means I’m starting to get a grip on myself. “I’ll take you home,” he says.
I turn around and see he’s trying to transfer back into his chair without much luck. He always struggles a bit, since he doesn't have full strength on his arms, but right now he’s struggling more than usual, maybe on account of me rushing him, or maybe because he’s had a few drinks. He leans in too abruptly and his upper body falls forward on his own lap. He doesn’t have any abb control either, so when that happens, it’s hard for him to get back up. Tony gives me one pained look before turning around and walking back to him.
Tony reaches Erick and grabs his arms from above, he lifts him up slightly, just enough so that Erick can do the rest on his own and get back into a sitting position. When he does, his legs start jumping on their own. I feel awful now.
“I’m sorry,” I say when Erick is back up. He’s using both hands to hold his upper body straight now that he’s not resting his back against the couch. He’s dragged himself to the edge of the seat, to be as close as possible to his chair before transfering. I walk over there and crouch in front of him. “I’ll wait for you, I’m sorry,” I apologize again.
He laughs it off though. “I guess I’m a little bit drunk after all,” he grins at me.
“Do you need help?” Tony offers.
“Yeah, I guess I do,” he keeps the smile.
Tony leans down and Erick wraps both arms around his neck. Tony lifts him up easily and drops him on the chair.
“I’ll take you both home,” he says roundly.