I Read A Lot Ch. 04

bylill_street_writer©

Amy's eyes were sparkling with interest and amazement. "Oh my God, Gabe" she bubbled. "That was amazing. Scott practically ran out of here. Thank you so much."

A waitress came over and placed a glass in front of Amy. "Mineral water with lime?" she said. After she took our order for pizza, the waitress left and Amy looked like she wanted to get back to the whole Scott-incident. It was obvious to me that Gabe wanted to put the whole thing behind him so Gabe put a stop to that.

"Amy?" Gabe asked in a sweet voice. "When are you due?" And with that, he completely switched the focus onto Amy and away from him. It was masterful. While Amy just goggled at him and made these funny fish-without-air faces, Gabe leaned back in his chair a little and put a hand on my knee. I covered his hand with mine and squeezed.

"How did you know?" Amy gasped. "We haven't told anyone yet." She placed a hand flat and low and on her belly.

"Hmmm, let's see," Gabe said with a mischievous smile. "You've been crying, tired, and emotional. You won't play Frisbee and even though you're tiny, you keep wearing baggy clothes. Oh, and you've been trying to mother Tom and I for the last couple of weeks."

I laughed at that last one. "She does that anyway."

"Enough out of you," Amy glared. Then she looked at Gabe and said, "I'm eleven weeks and we went to our first doctor's appointment two days ago. Everything looks really good and the doctor thinks we can probably start telling people if we want to."

"So what? Is that November?" I asked. Amy was going to be the first of my close friends to be pregnant and the whole idea was really taking me by surprise.

"Is what November?" Henry asked as he came up behind me. He walked around the table and took a chair next to Amy, throwing his arm protectively about Amy's shoulders. I knew just what he felt like that moment.

"Well," Gabe said gleefully. "What do you think is happening in November, Dad?"

Henry blushed and kissed Amy's cheek. "So does that mean she told you without me?"

"Gabe guessed."

"And I'm thrilled. You two will be excellent parents."

"What do you think, Uncle Tom?" Henry grinned at me.

It was now my turn to be speechless. I tried to formulate the right response and it wasn't that I wasn't happy for them, I just had no idea what to say. But 'thrilled'? I guess, since it wouldn't be my child. It just hadn't occurred to me that my peers were really ready old enough to have kids yet. Weren't we all still too young for that kind of responsibility?

The other three finally cracked up and started laughing. Gabe put an arm around my shoulders and said, "Don't hurt yourself thinking too hard, babe"

"Sorry," I mumbled. "I'm surprised and happy. It's just huge though. It'll take a while to sink in and seem real."

Amy nodded and agreed. "It's been eleven weeks and I can hardly believe it's real. If it weren't for morning sickness and the fact that my waist is disappearing, I might still think it is just a mistake."

Before I knew what was happening, a flurry of baby-talk surrounded the group. Gender, due dates, doctors' names, birthing methods, epidurals and all sorts of things I didn't want to understand any better than I already did. I assured Henry that I would support him in any way I possibly could, as long as it didn't include any bodily fluids. He gave me a knowing smile and clapped me on the back. God, what a fate.

Gabe, on the other hand seemed to be loving every moment. He seemed to revel, not so much in the discussion, but in the joy and happiness around him. I drank more beer and shoved the pizza in front of him, reminding him that we needed to leave soon.

Amidst the baby-frenzy, I finally dragged Gabe away as he shouted that he wanted to see the something-grams. "When did you turn into . . ." I paused since I had nothing to say that wouldn't offend most of the human population. Cynical I might be, but I wasn't a total ass. I usually left that to Scott.

"A nurturing and kind friend?" Gabe supplied.

"Um yeah, okay."

"My sister had a baby a couple of years ago. I listened to her go through the whole thing and it was cooler than I thought it would be. Before she moved, I got to spend a lot of time with my nephew, too. He's a fun little guy, you know?" Gabe said all this as we walked to my car.

"He was fun as long as he wasn't puking and pooping?" I asked.

Well yeah," Gabe admitted a little sheepishly.

Inside the car, I was left to my own thoughts, which I had been ignoring for a while. All day long, I had been looking forward to seeing Gabe and spending time alone with him. Somehow, I had created this little fantasy where we would work serenely side-by-side and share our evening in silence and peace. Now I had an inner orchestra of conflicting emotions tuning up in my mind. I didn't really feel ready to confront my protective and possessive feelings towards Gabe or the idea that my best friends were about to become real grown-ups.

Life suddenly seemed a lot more serious than it did just one hour before.

I had no idea if Gabe understood how I was feeling or if he was in his own little world. Whatever it was, he respected my need to be quiet and didn't try to get me to talk about might be bothering me.

We got to the café, figured out what had to be done first and started work. While the café was still open and pretty busy, we were able to get the one wall painted (that was my job) and hang some sort of mobiles from the ceiling (definitely Gabe, there). Until the place cleared out though, we wouldn't really be able to wield hammers and pull tables away from the rest of the walls. All this time, Gabe thankfully left me mostly alone to work and think.

The only problem with this situation was that I wasn't as happy being alone as I thought I would be. I mean, Gabe was only half a room away, and I had created this huge space between us. I became crankier and crankier as time went on. I had the feeling that I needed to talk to him, but I couldn't understand how that would help. Why couldn't I just figure stuff out on my own. Like: why was I so completely pissed off at him about the whole incident with Scott? And why did it make me sad that Amy and Henry were going to have a baby when I was supposed to be happy? And why did I keep looking over at Gabe every two minutes to make sure that some idiot didn't start flirting with him? Whatever was going on, I didn't like feeling this unsettled.

**Gabe**

I wanted to ask him what was wrong, why he was acting like a sulking kid with his bottom lip pouting out. I also wanted to smack him in the back of the head and tell him to get the hell over it, whatever his problem was. But, either approach would have Tom sinking further into his own mind, making up conversations that would be worse than anything we could say to one another. God, he could be morose sometimes.

In the end, I just started talking, without thinking about it much first, which is sort of a 'me' thing to do. But first I quietly walked up behind him while he was washing brushes in the utility room, with the water running. The room was tiny and bright with a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.

He knew I was there though; I saw his shoulders straighten as I moved closer. When I was right behind him I lowered my mouth to his ear and said, "I think we have some unfinished business from the other night."

Only when he was done with the brush did he turn around. He was still tense, but I couldn't tell if it was from anger, fear or nerves. His shoulders were square and he jutted his chin out a little defiantly, like he was ready to face the principal in elementary school. But he met my eyes and said, "How do people do this, Gabe? We're not even together and I'm a wreck?"

Wow, Tom just does not know how to beat around the bush at all. Either it's a total silent treatment or he just lays his heart open. His plaintive honesty took my breath away.

"I don't know, babe. I haven't figured it all out yet." Then I took one off his broad hands and laced his fingers with mine, like he did after that first Frisbee game. The tight band of worry around my chest loosened a little as he tightened his grasp and rubbed the soft pad of flesh under my thumb. "Talk to me."

With that soft request and demand, Tom closed his eyes and breathed deeply a few times. "I'm scared shitless most of the time. I'm afraid that I'll disappoint you, that you don't care about me as much as I care about you, that you'll leave." Then he opened his eyes and pierced my heart with his stare. "Gabe, I do not want to mess this up."

His words rang true and honest. I could feel how hard it was for him to admit so many weaknesses to me. Could I be even half as honest with him as he was with me? I never had before. My usual modus operandi was to be with someone as long as it was easy, then take off before being in a relationship became work. Maybe it was time I tried something different.

"So far," I said. "You've done almost everything right. And I haven't made it especially easy on you either."

I leaned in, kissed his lips softly and continued, "When I'm at the bookstore, I look at books and wonder 'has Tom read this one?'. On Thursdays for Frisbee, I make sure that that I look at least a little bit good, because I like to see you smile when you first see me. And before you leave my place, I always want to know when the next time will be that I see you. But I've never told you any of that. Does it make any sense?"

After a moment, Tom nodded thoughtfully and quirked a half-smile. "I thought I might have to tear Scott's head off tonight. When you went over to bust his chops, and you did your flirting routine, I got so jealous; Amy had to talk me off the ledge. But when he looked like he might take a swing at you, I just could take it anymore."

"Yeah, I noticed." I beamed at him. "It was quite the display of testosterone."

Tom laughed, "That figures. I turn into a Neanderthal and you get a kick out of it."

"Are you kidding? It was totally hot. I've never had a guy fight for me before." And this was the truth. I don't think I had ever meant so much to anyone before, because I hadn't ever let anyone care about me that much.

I put my hand on Tom's chest. His heart was racing under my touch. He kept staring into my eyes, but it seemed that his vision got a little glazed at this point. Between my words and the contact of our bodies, I wasn't really surprised when his free hand reached around my waist and pulled me to him. He covered my mouth with his and there was nothing civilized in his kiss. His fear, desire, need and possessiveness drove him to claim my mouth and to hell with me if I didn't want him. Lucky for both of us I did. I didn't try to take control because he needed to feel that right now, but I did match him with my own hunger. Our tongues darted and danced as we sucked and nipped at one another. For long minutes, he explored my mouth thoroughly and held my body immobile against him, pressing his need into me as he plundered.

Finally I had to push him away in order to breathe. "Okay," I said, trying to get my breath. "I get it. You kind of like me a little bit."

Tom just chuckled and loosened his grip a tiny bit so I could breathe. "Yeah, just a little bit. Of course, this might not be the most romantic place to tell you," Tom said and he waved his hand to indicate the mop room.

We headed out to the main room and decided to relax a little with some coffee until the place cleared out a little. I was hugely relieved when Tom took a seat close to me like usual instead of across the table. It was a habit he had started from the very first and I always enjoyed that sense of proximity, the feeling that our closeness had meaning and importance.

"You know," Tom said quietly after he set his coffee cup down. "I don't really dislike babies."

Where had this come from? Back at the restaurant he had been making jokes, but I didn't take any of that seriously and I told him that. "You were just kidding; I think Henry and Amy know that."

"Good," he sighed. "But I'm still having a hard time with the whole idea. I've known them for a long time and you'd think I wouldn't be surprised by this, but I am. I guess it never occurred to me that they would start a family of their own?"

I tilted my head and looked at his three-quarter profile: straight long nose, the hard line of his determined jaw, a day's growth of whiskers casting shadows in the hollows of his cheeks. "What's bothering you?" Hopefully he caught my interested tone, my curiosity.

His eye flicked to me, but he kept his head turned that little bit away. "I'm not quite sure, I don't have it all figured out yet."

"You could just talk to me anyway, you know. I'd like to listen"

Tom tilted his head down and stared at our hands that were twined in his lap. I doubted that either of us noticed when that had happened, but it felt good and solid. "Would it make any sense if I told you that I felt a little jealous and angry when Amy said they were going to have a baby? At first I just tried to tell myself that it was leftover emotion from the thing with Scott, but I think it's more than that."

I nodded, but I doubted he could see my action so I spoke the next word softly, "How long have you three been friends?"

"Since second year of college. Henry and I knew each other from the dorms in our first year. We never lived with each other, exactly, but usually really close by. Then for the last six years Amy has been there, too."

"What was that like, when you met Amy and introduced her to Henry?" I felt a little like a hawk or eagle, circling overhead. I had spied my prey, getting closer and closer to what was really bothering Tom. He'd been cactus-prickly at least since the restaurant, but before that too, I thought. Though we hadn't known each other that long, I did know enough to realize that I could never pry anything out of him. He would only talk when he was good and ready. My job was to listen . . . carefully.

Tom turned his head and his smile flashed as our eyes met. "When those two got together, it was like music. They fit so well. I think they had a few ups and downs, but really, there was never any question that they were meant to build a life together. They are more than the sum of their parts, if that makes any sense."

I nodded, and then I waited. The silence stretched a bit, but before it became taut or brittle, Tom continued.

"I'm remembering now that I was a little worried that I had possibly done myself out of two friends by introducing them. But that never happened. I mean, we've stayed friends, the three of us, maybe even better friends than we would have otherwise"

"And now?" I prompted softy.

"A baby? I know it is completely selfish of me to focus on how their having a baby is going to change my life, but at least part of me can't seem to help it. Amy and Henry have been the only things keeping me going sometimes. If it weren't for Amy, I would never have left my work cubicle and tried propose a project, let alone lead a team. And Henry's had my back for so long." Tom's eyes pleaded with me to understand, not to judge him too harshly for his admission. "I am completely happy for them, 'cause no baby could ask for better parents."

My hand rubbed his and I tried to show him my acceptance of his fears. "I think your being reasonable, Tom. They're a big part of your life, I get that."

"There's something else, too."

"What?"

Sucking in a huge, bracing lungful of air, Tom said in one breath, "The other day you said you wanted to take things one step at a time, but I'm not sure I can do that." The he just stared at me, and waited for my reaction.

"Oh," I said softly and I probably blinked a lot. Tom's hand tightened on mine, but I pulled and pulled until I had it back and he was no longer touching me in any way. In the middle of a quiet, public place, I promised myself not to make a scene. Besides, I told myself, we hadn't been going out that long and we hadn't (thank God) slept together yet. So Tom breaking up with me shouldn't be a big deal. I would think it to death and make myself a million promises not to do whatever it was that caused him to leave, even if I couldn't actually think of a single thing I would have done differently. "Um, let me just get the rest of my stuff out of your car and you can get out of here."

With that, I made to stand up. I had to lock my knees in order not to fall over though, since I felt suddenly a little shaky. But if he said "it's me, it's nothing about you," I might just freaking scream.

"What, where are you . . . wait just sit down a second." Tom sounded urgent.

While I wanted nothing more than to leave the room, I sat stiffly and placed my hands over my knees. In my head, I had a picture of my great-grandmother sitting like that: sort of prim. Tom tried to pry my hands off my knees, but I wouldn't budge, so he settled for circling my wrists with his fingers.

Tom hung his head and mumbled, "Christ, this is why I'm an engineer, Gabe. I never get this right."

"It's okay, just say it," I ground out. "I'm sure I've heard it before."

"Gabe, I don't want to take this one step at a time. I want every step right now, the whole, damned marathon."

"What?" Okay, now I was totally confused.

Fingers grazed my cheek and feathered down my jaw. "I don't think I could stand to have you in my life and then have you leave. And I'm terrified that I'll scare you away because I want more than you do. I don't think I could really handle a casual relationship when what I really want is so much more than that."

"You do? With me?"

"Yeah, of course." Tom chuckled a little and I wondered why. "You say that like I must be crazy or something."

"It's just that no one I've ever felt strongly about has wanted a real relationship before. At some point, I stopped thinking it would ever happen. Instead, I just got used not getting involved. It might take me a little time to get used to the idea." I think I was smiling by now, and I know Tom was grinning like an idiot.

"So does that mean I can go back to holding your hand and you're not going to try escaping on me again?"

I nodded.

"Good," Tom said and he exhaled a breath he had been holding for a long time. "Now I think I can try to get my heart started again."

For the longest time we just sat in our chairs, knees touching, holding hands as we tried to wrap our minds around what we had just figured out.

"Boyfriend?" I said

"At least that," Tom replied. "Do you have anything better?"

I snorted a laugh, "Nothing that can be said out loud." And I nudged myself closer until one of my legs was in between his.

"So how long before we can get out of here, do you think?" Tom asked and he practically leered at me.

The café was pretty empty by then, and it was a testament to how oblivious we had been that we hadn't noticed. "Well, if get started now and stay focused, we might finish in about an hour and a half. Is that fast enough?" I asked.

"Nope," Tom growled. "But it won't get done just talking about it."

And with that, we both got to our feet and went over to the tools I had gathered. After hours spent measuring and figuring, I had decided on the placement of eleven small frames and one bigger one. The one was covered with paper, and I wasn't ready to reveal it until tomorrow. Other than that, the rest of the pictures were ready to hang. Along with the plans, I handed Tom a level, a measuring tape, a hammer and some nails.

"Get to work, handyman," I said and I smacked his butt for emphasis.

Watching Tom focus on a task in front of him was an awesome sight. It was like he actually submerged himself in his work, and I suspected this is what had made him so successful in his career. With a pencil behind his ear, he rechecked all my measurements, made adjustments to my plan as he went around the room and then double checked all this against the dimensions of the pictures. Except for the last picture, he was done in only half the time I had expected.

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