You lower your head like a puppy and straggle toward the lifeless living room, unsure of the crime you’ve committed. But upon entering the vast void of furniture you turn back, “Well, I would ‘Go sit down,’” (making finger quotes with your hands) “but….” Roll your eyebrows around the room.
Len says, “Try out the new chair.”
Shoved awkwardly in the corner, pretty much the only thing left in the room, is a small blue Ikea chair. “Dude, what’s up with this?”
“You like it?” He asks.
Make a face like you’re licking a latex glove and say, “Yeah, this is way better than the furniture in my dentist’s office.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He is surprisingly undaunted by your insult—brace yourself. “You can’t afford a dentist.” And Len takes the win with the truth. You haven’t had dental insurance since you turned eighteen.
Subconsciously, you run your tongue over your K9s without him noticing, and ask, “Seriously, what the hell happened to all your stuff?”
He shrugs, nonchalantly, “I threw it out.”
“Huh,” you say with a shrug of your own. You can play this game, too. Walk to the window. The Eames chair is still outside, its free flopping sadly in the wind. You spin back around. “You been taking your meds?” you ask, only half-joking. Or not joking.
“Is your Indian name Hurts-With-Words?” He responds without missing a beat. This banter is not atypical of your conversations: brutal honesty diluted in mass quantities of sarcasm. Because the truth, the plain truth, leaves too many cracks in your high heavy walls. God forbid someone sneak in and inflict further damage on your already fragile psyches.
Lenny sharpens a knife at the counter that separates the kitchen from where you aren’t sitting. Then he holds up an ugly round ball, smells it, holds it up for you, and winks. “Now that’s what I call a job perk,” he smiles as he pins the truffle down and begins to shave slivers so thin they are almost transparent. He elaborates on neither the status of his contract, nor the furniture missing from his living room, and you know he’s not going to. He does things like this sometimes, things that are impulsive and irrational, but you’re just friends; you have no say. You stand back and watch from the sidelines. Besides, isn’t his ability to see things from this slightly skewed perspective what makes him the most interesting person you know? Makes him funny enough to make you cry? Aren’t these the things that make Lenny, Lenny?
“Sit,” he instructs, knifing the air in the direction of the blue chair. “But be careful, that chair makes people tell the truth.” This makes you smile, because you recognize it as a challenge only disguised as a warning. You sit. The cushion has as much give as nun at a strip club. The arms are too high, the seat is too low, the back is too straight. It might be the most uncomfortable your body has ever been, but you are determined to stay in the chair. You pull one leg over the arm, one arm over the back, and twist your neck like you’re at an off-off-Broadway open call for The Exorcist. Unfortunately, no position is tolerable for more than five seconds and eventually you admit defeat, slither onto the floor.
“I guess the truth makes me uncomfortable,” you say sarcastically, but not.
“I’m serious,” he insists. “I was checking out stemless stemware yesterday at Ikea with Tommy, you know? He was kinda getting bored and sits down in that chair.” Len attempts to light a burner under a ten-inch Calphalon. The stove clicks like a wind-up toy wound too far. “Next thing I know, he’s getting all weird and emotional and starts telling me how much he ‘appreciates our friendship’ and stuff, and I think he was being for real.” A flame shoots into the air as he jumps back, turns it down. The clicking subsides.
You reply, “He appreciates your friendship? You gotta fix that.” When he gives you the look, point to the stove, pretend you’re referring to the faulty pilot, and repeat wide-eyed, “You gotta fix that”.
“I’m serious,” he says again. “He was being sincere.”
Think to yourself: what does he expect you to say? It sounds like a set up; it doesn’t sound like something Tommy would say. It doesn’t sound like something any of your friends would say. It’s not that you don’t all appreciate each other, of course you do. You all came here alone, not so much relocating as dislocating from families that weren’t, creating one that was. You were lucky to find the only people that would appreciate your guarded imperfections in a city of pronounced perfection. But those words could never be said out loud. They would only fall short and come out sounding the way they sound in your head right now: cliché and insincere. So the affection remains unspoken, and maybe you’re even more grateful for that.
You’re ready to move on with this conversation. But Lenny’s not done.
“You know, Shell came over last night.” Immediately you’ve stopped listening and started wondering where you were, why you weren’t invited last night. But Lenny goes on about how Shell is thinking about transitioning, about how it’ll mean giving up her family—they’re so religious. They refer to her as “an abomination.” Neither of you speaks. Lenny slices limes. You wonder what Shell’s gonna do. You wonder why she hasn’t told you. Your mind wanders until Lenny brings you a beer, and drops down in the chair. Suddenly desperate to change the mood, lift your voice with your face and poke out a challenge. Affix your eyes to his. Lift one brow and offer up your best Cheshire-smile.
“So prove it. You’re sitting there, why don’t you tell me the truth?” You’re clever enough to know (or smart enough to remember) that the best hider in any empty room is always Lenny.
But this time, he doesn’t blink. He’s sitting with his knees spread wide in front of him and starts to rub his large boney hands up and down the tops of his thighs, the palms gliding easily over his soft jeans. He takes a deep breath. Suddenly the hairs on your neck are pushed out from the inside, a tightening spreads from where your molars used to be. Something is wrong.
Then something dings from inside the chair, it’s a loud bell ringing out the start of a middleweight fight. Or it’s your phone. It’s your phone, must’ve slipped from your pocket and fallen behind the cushion. Lenny reaches in and pulls it out, reading the text to you. “‘On my way.’ Wait, who’s on—Shawn’s on her way?” he questions. There’s seems to be a bit more than surprise in his voice. Maybe it’s that she’s more your friend than his. He’s only met her a couple of times, and he probably doesn’t feel like being “on” tonight, having to entertain a new person.
“I told her to come by if she ends up having the night off. She’s cool, you’ll like her when you get to know her better, trust me,” you assure. “You don’t mind, right? You said you liked Shawn.”
“I do. That’s not—” He’s lost his words, shakes his head. He’s being weird. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. I don’t care.” The words sputter out quickly, like he’s backing up a lawnmower. “What I was saying,” the lawnmower pushes forward again, “What I was saying was…” then stalls. You wait. You study his face as it tightens, his palms slide down his thighs again, then he drops his elbows to his knees and leans toward you. His eyes fix on yours.
You start to say, “What the Fu—”
“I’m sorry I’ve been flirting with you lately.” He breaks eye contact and sputters forward. “Maybe you didn’t notice.”
Of course you noticed, you’re not a complete imbecile. You’ve just been ignoring it (and all of its potential complications) for both your sakes. You just stare at him, trying to remember how to create words with your mouth. “Anyway, I’m sorry I put you in that position.” He reaches for a cigarette then lights two, handing you the other. “Anyway, I know we’re friends and I don’t want to fuck that up and….” It’s not the end of the sentence but he doesn’t finish it, either. He stands, seeking an ashtray.
You take a long minute and a short drag. The cigarette silently singes the skin between your fingers. Exhale and shrug like it means nothing—like the waitress forgot your straw, not like your best friend in the world just confessed to you, well, whatever it was he just confessed to you.
With your back to the kitchen and him in it, you say it. “Haven’t we been down this road before?”
You have been down that road before, a week after moving to LA. The two of you met at a party. He was standing by the soft cheese. You scanned the room and thought: That guy. I’ll go talk to that guy because he’s not intimidating at all. I can walk up to that guy and I won’t be nervous and I’ll be talking to someone and I won’t look like some pathetic girl sitting alone on the couch because she has no friends. But two minutes into the conversation he had you laughing and wondering why you hadn’t notice how incredibly handsome he really was, and three minutes later you were nervous.
Two days after that you were on a date that lasted for three days. You laughed as he invented stories about robot elementary school teachers with bad accents, about making short films of babies in diapers playing in the La Brea Tar Pits, about believing his head was a giant sensor for alien communication. There were times you didn’t laugh, too. Like when he told you the relief he felt when he heard about the accident that left his father paralyzed from the neck down. How he’d wished for it ever since he was a kid—for somebody to do to that man what that man had done to his mom. You cried, but less from the story and more because Lenny didn’t cry when he told it.
You loved him immediately, but it took him a whole three weeks to tell you he “just didn’t feel the same way,” with the force of a pebble hitting a windshield at ninety miles an hour. Sometimes your heart still feels like millions of sharp shards held together by two thin pieces of cellophane.
What could you do? You’d known each other three weeks. You moved on. You went your separate ways, dated other people, and a year later when you ran into each other at Trader Joes (both your baskets filled with Two Buck Chuck and frozen edamame), you laughed. Small talk turned into backstory, which turned into more stories, and you became friends. You pretended it never meant anything to you, either. You decided to accept that your romantic feelings were (and would always be) one-sided. And eventually you’d stop having them. You’d go on dates, he’d go on dates, then you’d meet at midnight at that Thai noodle house on Santa Monica, and crack up while comparing notes. You cut his hair, and he laughed in all the right places when you spoke. You never sat too close, or got drunk and made out, or any of the other stupid things people do with their exes when they’re trying to be friends. In fact, the two of you had been doing a pretty good job of being “just friends” for a few years now. So why risk it all? For what, sex? For a label that promised to be less stable than the one you already have?