The couch felt different when Robin settled into it that evening, phone in hand. Not less cozy, but somehow diminished. He smiled at the window, now shrouded by curtains, and recalled his half hour of victory. The thrill had yet to fade.
Waking his phone, he tapped out a reply to Dan’s message.
Robin: If your ears burn when someone is talking about you, what happens when someone is thinking about you? Logically, something in your brain would heat up. Given that having my ears heat up usually isn’t a pleasant sensation, I’m not going to wish a burning of the brain upon you. But I was thinking about you around the time you sent your last message. Make of that what you will!
To exclaim or not to exclaim?
Had Dan, over the duration of their textual relationship, questioned the tone and grammar of his missives as much as Robin had?
Positioning his thumbs back over the phone’s keyboard, Robin continued. I was thinking about messaging you. As you did not receive a message at that time, you may assume (correctly) that I got tired and took a nap. The all-night sort, as it turned out. My sleepiness had nothing to do with you.
His momentum failed, his thumbs stilling over the keyboard. Robin checked out the curtains again, and thought about his big outing. It was nighttime. Funny about that, eh? So, ah, we’ve talked about the weather. How about <aimless work chatter>? Good, now that that’s out of the way, coffee. Did you know that monks were the first to experiment with making coffee? Beer, coffee, mustard? It was a good life, apparently. One of quiet contemplation and invention. If I had to do it all over… Yeah, no. I wouldn’t be a monk.
Or would he?
He wanted to make a date and then work his way toward getting there. He could always cancel on the day if he found himself trapped behind his front door. Or bowled over by strange dogs.
A pang of melancholy moved through him as he recalled tumbling around with his own dog. Gimli hadn’t been big enough to knock Robin down, but he’d often reached his front legs up to rest his paws against Robin’s middle, as though asking for a hug. Then he’d politely wait for Robin to lie next to him on the floor before rolling around with him like a puppy.
Next door, the sound of drums punctured the evening quiet.
Robin deleted the word Coffee and delved into the hesitation now making him awkward. It wasn’t the thought of going out that stilled his fingers, it was the why of it. He wanted to meet Dan, but meeting Dan wasn’t as important as it once had been. Robin hadn’t ventured outside his house today with the goal of getting coffee-ready for Dan.
He glanced at the shared wall separating him from Kaleb and Sean. Turned back to his phone.
Robin: I’ll get back to you about coffee. Got a work deadline looming.
A sort-of truth.
Robin: But it was great to hear from you. Hope you’re well!
Before he could second-guess any of it, Robin hit send and pocketed his phone. Then he abandoned his couch, climbed the stairs, and ducked into the second bedroom; the room that conveniently (or not) had a view of the back patio. And Sean’s yard.
Ignoring the shadowy shape of the exercise machine he never used, Robin padded across the carpet to the window and twitched the curtains apart. As he’d suspected, Sean was in his yard. An outdoor heater lit the space between Sean’s garage and shed with a warm, orange glow. Sean sat in the middle, in a collapsible chair, his feet propped up on a wiry ball of twine that was part of his latest project. His face tilted upward, the light of the gas lamp glancing off the angle of his cheek and jaw, and seemed to point in Robin’s direction. Robin ducked back behind the curtain.
Two seconds later, his phone chimed.
Heart racing, Robin tugged it out of his pocket and woke the screen. It’d be Dan replying to his last text. Not Sean playing I Spy.
It was Sean.
Robin’s finger trembled as he swiped down to open the text.
Sean: What’s up?
Robin: The sky?
Sean: Haha. Thinks he’s funny.
Robin: Who, me?
Sean: Yes, u. Doing the Rear Window thing? Keeping an eye on murders n such?
Robin: Now who thinks he’s funny?
Sean: How did the art thief get caught after a heist?
Sean: People saw a Van Gogh at the scene of the crime.
Robin: I think we should stop talking now.
Sean: I think u should join me on the patio.
Sucking in a breath, Robin turned his back to the wall beside the window and slid slowly down until he was sitting on the carpet, his legs extended. He breathed out. Swallowed. Breathed in again. Waited for his heart to slow down, the clamminess of his hands to abate. For the dizziness to recede.
Then he put his phone aside and rested his head against the wall. Summoned thoughts of the things that made him sad—because there should be a reason for his current misery. For why he was sitting on the floor of his darkened second bedroom thinking about why he couldn’t go next door and sit with his neighbor.
Before he could summon his litany of loss, another sensation gripped him. Maybe it was the same purpose that had driven him outside his front door today. That had enabled him to extend his legs from mishap and onto the sidewalk. Or maybe it was claiming that victory. Savoring it.
Robin picked up his phone and typed: We both know I can’t.
Sean: I think u want to.
Robin: I do. Lips twisting, he contemplated his reply, the truth of it, then added: You saw what happens when I try, though.
Sean: U touched the sidewalk.
Robin: My goal was the grocery store, but a black cat literally crossed my path.
Sean: A black cat?
Robin: Belongs to a neighbor. Gallia? Don’t know who the dog belongs to.
Sean: What dog?
Robin: You didn’t see the dog?
Sean: I saw u touch the sidewalk. Sitting on ur steps.
Robin: Before that, a black cat crossed in front of me and then the dog chasing it knocked me down.
Robin: Yeah. Sadly, not even my pride was wounded.
His balls still twinged a little.
He would not be mentioning that to Sean.
A moment later Sean texted again: Patio. Come talk 2 me.
An unpleasant force pinned Robin to the wall, pressing the air from his lungs and preventing him from pulling any back in.
Then he breathed.
Sean meant Robin’s patio. He’d invited Robin to talk through the fence.
Instead of replying, Robin tucked his phone inside his pocket and went downstairs. He collected his coat, hat, and gloves. Exchanged his slippers for boots. Descended to the basement. Pushed through the garage. Stood in the chill night air of his back patio.
A creak floated over the fence. Then Sean’s voice. “There you are.”
Here I am.
Robin approached the knot with the hole, then passed it to the wrapped set of furniture. He dug a chair out from under the tarp and dragged it back to the fence, setting it up near the hole, but not directly in front of it.
“It’s warmer over here,” Sean said.
Robin sat in his chair.
“Maybe one day.” Sean’s tone wasn’t wistful, exactly.
Robin wondered whether he should head back inside.
“Would you rather keep texting?” Sean asked.
Would it be weird if they did? “No,” Robin said, his voice a bare whisper. “But it’s kind of you to offer.”
“No, it’s not.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I’m trying to communicate with you, Robin. Kindness has nothing to do with it.”
“Why are you trying to communicate with me?”
A sigh sounded on Sean’s side of the fence. “Maybe I feel bad about the other night.”
“I feel like I pushed you.”
“Will you tell me about the tile?”
“I think you need to come over here for that.”
Robin let the night answer that one.
After a quiet moment, Sean spoke again. “Sometimes I think about you over there, and how only the fact Kaleb keeps doing stuff for you lets me know you’re still alive, and I wonder if it was something I did to make you withdraw, or if that was going to happen anyway. Then I wonder why—if it was John or Gimli, or both, and then I wonder why I’m wondering. Whether or not it’s any of my business.” Sean took a breath. “But I kinda thought we were friends, or friendly enough. I mean, my son spends a good portion of his life over at your place. Know what he asked me the other day?”
Replying with a simple “What?” was a hell of a lot easier than delving into everything else Sean had said.
“He asked if he should offer to pay the insurance on your car.”
A smile creased one side of Robin’s mouth. “He’s a good kid.”
“Thank him for me. Or I will. But I don’t mind paying it. He’s doing me a favor by keeping the car running.” Kaleb had even taken the vehicle in for its last oil change and inspection. Definitely a good kid. “I should probably sign the title over to him.”
“Don’t do that. Let him buy it if you want to sell it.”
Robin cradled that thought for a while, and then put it back into its mental basket when he realized he wasn’t quite ready to let his car go. He still hoped to drive it one day.
He hadn’t completely given up. It was just easier, sometimes, to pretend he had.
“Where would you go, if you got up the gumption to take the car out?” Sean asked.
“‘Gumption’? How old are you?”
A wry chuckle floated up into the night. “Answer the damn question.”
“I… don’t know.” Robin shifted in his seat. “I don’t actually sit here thinking about all the places I don’t go to.”
“You don’t?” Sean sounded surprised.
“Then what do you think about?”
“The people I’d like to see.”
A profound silence followed Robin’s admission. He could imagine Sean nodding on his side of the fence, and thinking, There we go, now we’re getting somewhere.
“Who would you like to see?” Sean finally asked.
Robin cleared his throat. “Ah, well, there’s this guy I was chatting with. On, um, a dating app. He’s invited me for coffee.”
“Good for you.”
Was it Robin’s imagination, or did Sean’s tone seem off?
“That why you got your feet onto the sidewalk today?” Sean asked.
Robin leaned back in his chair, causing it to creak like the one next-door. He folded his gloved hands in his lap and rolled his shoulders inside his jacket. The night was crisp, but not deathly cold. If he were to move around, he probably wouldn’t need as many layers. He directed his thoughts toward the patio next-door, and the gas heater lighting the cozy space. Sean sitting with his feet up on his sculpture. “How’s the postapocalyptic thing coming along?” he asked. “Were the references I sent helpful?”
Sean took a moment to answer. Then, instead of allowing the change of subject, he said, “When’s the coffee date?”
“Would it help if I encouraged you out every day or would you rather go it alone?”
“That’s not… I’m not…” Robin sighed. Pressed his gloved fingers to his forehead. “We haven’t set a date, and it’s not a date. He’s with someone else. The coffee is a consolation prize, I guess.”
“Can we talk about something else?”
“The links helped. Yes. Thank you. And my website is trash, I know. I fired the kid who was taking care of it because she would take a month to make the changes I requested and then bill me twice what I thought she was worth.”
“Is Kaleb into computers and stuff?”
“Not really, beyond gaming. He’s looking forward to your studio’s latest release.” If a smile could be heard, Sean was smiling now.
Robin’s lips curved in response. “As soon as we have a playable beta, I’ll set him up.”
“I could… update your website for you.”
“Yeah? You’d have time to do that?”
“I’d have to fit it in between scheduled outings to the sidewalk and the panic attacks that come afterward, but sure.”
Next door, the chair creaked and footsteps approached the fence. Sean’s voice was closer when he answered, and Robin guessed he might be peering through the hole—then decided he wasn’t. That Sean somehow knew that would freak him out.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” Sean said. “It’s not meant to normalize what you’re feeling or going through, or even to say, in any kind of way, that I know how it is. But, yeah. Here it is.” He spent a few seconds perhaps gathering words. “My first show, a professional show, I’d only been doing the full-on artist gig for about a year, and we’d had Kaleb for about three months. He was six years old and super quiet. The sort of kid you didn’t know was there until you looked for him or at him.
“I get home from setting it all up and I’m not walking on air, but in this state of weird euphoria. It was a gamble, deciding to do this full time. To make art. And getting a show at a gallery represented a huge payoff. People were going to see my work. Have the opportunity to buy it. I wouldn’t just be making tiles for bathrooms and backsplashes anymore. I was creating for creation’s sake.”
Sean paused, and Robin listened to the sounds of the night. The breathy hum of the gas lamp next-door and the soft, rhythmic thump of Kaleb’s drum practice. Traffic. The air moving.
“Anyway, I get home and Troy is packing a bag. He traveled a lot, like John, but somehow, I knew he wasn’t heading out of town. He was leaving me. I’d known when we adopted Kaleb that his heart wasn’t fully in it, but I figured he’d come around. That being a father would overtake him with the same joy I felt when I looked at Kaleb’s sweet little face. I also knew that me taking time out for my art would put some pressure on our finances, but we’d sat down and worked it out. ‘We’ll make it work,’ he said. I figured that meant we’d make it work.
“He offered to stay home and babysit Kaleb so I could go to my show. My first show. I told him to get the fuck out. I could have taken Kaleb with me. He was old enough to be good, and the gallery owner had met him before. But I didn’t do that either. I stayed home and held him and pretended nothing else was… I dunno. That being in any other place didn’t matter. That getting out wouldn’t make a difference.”
Sean moved on his side of the fence, his clothing brushing the wood.
Robin stood, breathed in deeply, and approached his own side. “It’s been longer than one night.”
Sean tapped the fence. “I know, man. And I’m not saying I get what’s happening with you, or how you feel. But listen to the next part. I don’t regret missing that show. Not because it meant a night with my kid, or because I’d have messed it up by crying in front of my art or whatever. But because not everything needs to happen when we think it does. The show went off pretty well anyway, and the next one was even better. What I mean is… we all have our own pace.”
“Can I ask you something?” Robin said.
Why aren’t you with someone now? “Why do you still come to Thanksgiving?”
“Would you rather I didn’t?”
“No. I… No.”
“What were you going to say?”
Robin leaned his head against the fence. “Do you ever get tired of being you?”
“All the time. Who doesn’t get tired of themselves? That’s what new shoes are for. Vacations.”
“I don’t understand why you’re still single.” “Robin. Man.” Sean sighed. Deeply, heavily. “I could say the same about you.”
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