"I'll be there in a little bit." He said and we hung up.
`I hope I know what I'm doing,' I said and sighed.
The doorbell rang an hour later and I opened it to find Charlie standing on the stoop with his suitcases. `This is a really bad idea', I thought for the hundredth time. I stood back and let him come in.
"This is really cool of you, Ryan. Thanks."
"Well, we're both pretty much in the same situation so..."
"Yeah." He said and I saw his eyes skim down my body. I realized that I was standing there in only in a pair of light cotton workout shorts. "You get some sleep?"
"No. I actually had trouble falling asleep."
"When do you work next?"
"Tonight at twelve but I'm only running till eight in the morning."
"You've been up since...?"
"Eleven a.m. yesterday."
"Jesus, dude. Go in and lie down. I'll be fine." He said and I took his suggestion and laid back down on my bed.
Sleep did not come. I kept thinking of Charlie in my apartment, walking around, touching things. An hour later, I glanced at the alarm clock and saw it was four. I finally pulled myself out of bed and headed back into the living room. He was there, laying on the couch, his nose pressed in a book. Flashbacks of the two years we had spent together flooded through my mind. He loved his books, preferring them to t.v. and always had a pile with him wherever he went. The book he was reading was mine though, one of my embarrassing vices, a gay romance.
"Good book?" I asked. He looked up startled and grinned. My heart skipped a beat.
"Yeah, not bad. You always did love these things."
"Yeah and you always called them `silly little wastes of paper'." I said with a smile. "I tried forever to get you to read just one."
"I read that one that had you crying for a week."
"I didn't cry for a week. Only a couple days. It was a beautiful story."
"It was a passable story."
"It was about two soldiers who each thought the other died in Pearl Harbor and then they found each other after the war. It was a beautiful story."
"Like I said, it was a passable story." He said and put the book down. "What's wrong? Can't sleep?"
"No, I can't."
"Ryan, you look like shit."
"Yeah, well fuck you too." I said with a bit more heat than I had anticipated.
"Calm down. Jesus, you're so touchy when you don't get enough sleep. I'm just saying you look tired as hell."
"I am tired as hell! I'm exhausted!"
"Then go to bed!"
"I'll go to bed when I'm fucking ready to!" I stood and stormed into the kitchen.
I don't know how he did it but the man just had to open his mouth and speak and I wanted to rip out his heart. He had followed me and watched as I slammed the drawers getting ready to make a pot of coffee. It was going to be a long night.
"Charlie, I don't think this is going to work. I think it was a mistake. Maybe you should just go."
I was surprised and looked up to see him standing in the kitchen doorway. I was disappointed that he had agreed so readily but also relieved. I knew that it was the right thing to do. If you can't handle something the only thing you can do is protect yourself and for some reason I needed to protect myself from him.
"O.K." I said and went back to making coffee.
Charlie came into the kitchen and took the coffee pot out of my hands and put it down on the counter.
"I'll leave after you've gone to bed."
"I told you, I'll go to bed when I'm fucking ready!"
"Then make up your mind to be `fucking ready' now! You're going to bed." He took me by the arms and dragged me into my bed room. To be honest, I didn't put up much of a fight.
He threw me on the bed and pulled the covers over me but I tried to get back up.
"Fuck that, Ryan!" He said, and laid down on top of me. I froze.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!!"
"What's best for you, since you're not! Now go the fuck to sleep!"
"Get off me!" I shouted and he did, but only rolled to my right and held me close with one arm while throwing a leg over mine. "I said, get off me!"
"Just be quiet, Ryan. Why does everything have to be a fight with you?"
"With me?! Are you fucking serious!" I said and tried to throw his arm off me.
"Hey, baby..." The endearment got me and I stilled. "You know you'll get to sleep with me here. Just close your eyes. You have to be ready for work in a couple hours. Let me do this for you."
I let his words flow through me trying to make sense of them and how I felt about him. I had hated him for so long but here I was laying next to him. Feeling his warm, hard body behind mine, his hot breath against the back of my neck, the comfort of his arms and leg trapping me against him and I felt a sense of peace fill me. `Oh fuck', I thought as I drifted off to sleep. `I'm still in love with him.'
I woke hours later and rolled over to find the bed empty. Where he had laid was cold, he had left sometime before. I stood and walked toward the bathroom and passing the kitchen saw Charlie standing in front of the stove.
"You're still here." I said, in surprise.
"Yeah, I wanted to make you dinner before work. Actually, I was just about to wake you up." He said. "Why don't you take a shower and I'll have everything ready when you get out."
"O.K." I said stupidly, not knowing what else to say.
"I'll leave after dinner, Ryan." He said and turned around to stir whatever was in the frying pan.
The water felt good and searing hot down my skin but it didn't clear my head as it usually did, my thoughts being consumed by the man in the kitchen. I dried off and realized I had forgotten my clothes in my bedroom and had to walk through my apartment in just a towel. Charlie sat at my table, reading a book as I walked by. He didn't look up but I thought I saw him glace out of the corner of his eye. I smiled a bit to myself as I dressed for work.
"So, about my little melt down.... sorry."
"Yeah. You always did get bitchy when you were overtired."
"I did. Do, rather." I said and sat down across from him. He handed me a plate of teriyaki chicken over noodles. "So, what I said about you leaving.... You don't have to."
"I wasn't going to."
I raised my eyes and met his smiling ones and had to grin back.
"I figured you were tired and didn't mean it. You were also dealing with a lot of stress. I saw the bill from the auto shop. Next time, ask me. I'd do it for you and if I can't do it for you I'd get you someone I trust to do it for a lot less."
"No problem. I don't want to add to your stress, Ryan. I want to be your friend."
"Why though? I mean, we're exes. Not all exes are supposed to be or can be friends."
"Maybe not. But out of all the friends I've ever had, exes or not, you're the only one I miss."
I started feeling uncomfortable and finished dinner quickly. I stood and placed my plate in the kitchen sink.
"I'll do the dishes when I get home." I said.
"Nope. I know I'm sort of a guest here, but you're doing me a big favor so I figure I owe you. Don't worry about it." He handed me a brown paper bag.
"Three a.m. snack." He said and grinned. I opened the bag and looked in.
"Oh you're fucking kidding me!" I said, a bright smile on my face. "kolache?"
"I had some time while you slept. It's not totally from scratch but it should taste pretty close."
"I haven't had kolache since we broke up."
"Yeah, I figured. It's kinda hard to find sometimes. There's enough for whoever your partner is tonight."
"Like I'd give them any."
"Well, your choice. Take some coffee." He said, handing me a thermos and leaned in and kissed my cheek. "Play nice with the other kids."
"I will." I said and grabbed my coat and keys and was about to head out the door.
"Ryan." I turned back. "Be safe."
Al and I were again partners and again stationed in the little, quiet town of Rosendale. We sat in a parking lot with the heat on full blast as Al complained about his family whom I knew he loved more than anything. I barely paid attention as I kept glancing at the brown paper bag on the dashboard, wondering what it's significance was. It was a while before I realized that Al was no longer talking but watching me.
"So you gonna tell me what's in the bag?"
"kolache. It's a Czech dessert bread. It's got poppies and apples and honey and stuff. It's really good."
"It must be that way you keep staring at it." I blushed a bit and was grateful that Al couldn't see it in the dim light of the dashboard. "Where did you get it?"
"Charlie made it."
"Charlie the ex?"
"Yeah. He's part Czech."
"He gave you that at lunch yesterday?"
"No. He gave me that before I left for work."
"Ah. So he's.... staying with you?"
"Yeah, well... his family's out of town."
Al started laughing great big belly shaking laughs.
"Your ex-." he said after catching his breath. "the one you wanted to rip off his head and vomit down his neck is staying at your house and made you dessert bread, whatever the hell that means."
"This is the guy you said you had no more feelings for."
"Did you sleep together yet?"
"No! Well, sort of." Al laughed again. "No, we didn't sleep together."
"I bet you didn't!"
"I mean, he was just helping me get to sleep."
"I've used that excuse with the wife. `Come on, honey. It'll make me sleep better'."
"We didn't have sex. We just sort of laid together and I fell asleep."
"Ok. That's fine. I'm not much into listening to other peoples sex lives anyway." He chuckled a bit more. "So, are we going to have some kol... whatever it is?"
I opened the bag, pulled out the gooey pastry, handed him some and poured coffee into his empty cup. I watched him take a bite and saw his eyes go wide.
"Oh my God!"
"I think I just got diabetes but I don't care."
"I know." I took a bite off my own piece. "God, I missed this stuff."
"As much as you missed Charlie?" Al asked and I didn't answer.
I got home not long after eight in the morning and quietly opened the door hoping not to disturb Charlie if he was still sleeping. I saw him bundled up on the couch and heard his soft snores. I kicked off my shoes and crept over toward the couch, sat on the coffee table and stared into his sleeping face. We had met at a party Sarah had thrown for one of her girlfriends birthdays when we were both twenty eight. The connection was immediate and the chemistry was amazing. We left the party early and went back to his apartment where I moved in not two weeks later. I had never actually been in love till I met Charlie and apparently had fallen hard and not taken time to look first. Things began to degrade a few months later with arguments over cleaning habits and money. By the end of our two year relationship we were arguing about who was stifling who and how much space each other needed. The break up had been as quick and decisive as the beginning and he had moved to New Jersey to take a job with a construction firm. A mutual friend had told me of his cheating after we had split up. I had been left standing in the middle of what had been a life together wondering what the hell had happened. Now I sat in the middle of my living room wondering what was happening now.
"Hey." Charlie said, sleepily.
I had been so wrapped up in the memories that I had failed to notice him waken.
"What's going on?"
"I was just thinking."
"Nothing important." I said and stood. "I'm gonna catch a quick nap. Wake me around noon?"
"Sure." Charlie seemed to want to say something but he let me go.
I stripped down to my boxers and laid down in my bed and decided that nothing was happening. Some people were just better friends than lovers and not meant to be together. After the holidays Charlie would return to his life and I would return to mine. That's just how it had to be.
"Ryan?" A voice said, pulling me from my sleep. "Ryan?"
"You said to wake up you around noon. It's one."
"All right." I said and opened my eyes.
Charlie sat on the edge of my bed.
"Come on. Get up. I want to go get a tree today."
"A tree? Really?"
"Yeah. Why not?"
"I don't know. I just didn't think about getting one this year."
"Well, bah humbug to you too, motherfucker." He chuckled. "Come on! Let's get a tree and some decorations and shit. We'll do up your apartment and it'll be all garish and horrible! It'll be great!"
"Oh God! Like our first year-."
"-and that horrible Christmas tree!"
"You remember that thing? It was pitiful!"
"It was awful!"
"The only pine tree that looked like it had Dutch Elm disease." I laughed.
"I loved it." He said.
"Yeah, me too." I agreed.
"It was our first."
"It was special."
"Maybe this one could be special too." Charlie said.
"No Charlie, this one can't be special."
"Why not, Ryan?"
"Because things are too different now." I said and Charlie sighed.
"You're the most pessimistic hopeless romantic I've ever met." He said and smiled.
"I'm not a romantic anymore. I'm a realist." I said and sat up.
"That would be a horrible waste if it was true. You have the biggest heart of anyone I know. You always saw the best in people. Made me want to be a better person."
"So, what happened?"
"Ouch." He said and stood up. "I'm going to let you finish waking up."
"Charlie, I'm sorry." I said as he started walking out of the room.
"Don't worry about it." He closed the door and I sat feeling horrible.
I dressed quickly and headed into the living room where I found Charlie reading another book.
"Come on." I said.
"To get a tree."
"No. That's all right. I'm sorry, Ryan. I didn't mean to push that on you. It was stupid."
"No, you're right. We're here, we're together, we're friends, we should have a tree."
"I don't know. I think maybe you're right. We'll skip it."
"Passive aggressive much? Get your ass off the couch and let's go. We're getting a tree if it kills me."
He looked no where as enthused as he had before but I was hoping I could get him back into the mood. We threw on our coats, got into Charlie's truck and headed out into the cold. The radio played a mix of new and old music with a few Christmas songs added in. I wished I had thought to bring some coffee or hot chocolate or even brandy but figured we could pick some up on the way. I told Charlie to pull into a local hardware store.
"What are we stopping in here for?" He asked.
"A saw or an ax."
"We're going to chop down our own tree."
"What?" He laughed. "I thought we'd just buy one from the Boy Scouts or something."
"Where's the fun in that?" I asked. "We're gonna do it ourselves. Have you ever cut down your own tree?"
"Then it'll be new."
After buying both an ax and a saw, and picking up some pumpkin coffee at Dunkin Donuts, we headed out to a Christmas tree farm and parked among car loads of families each trudging off to pick the perfect tree. We made our own way through the farm with me pointing out potentials and him giving his comments which weren't as energetic as I had hoped. We continued on toward the edges of the property and away from the rest of the people who tended toward to stay toward the middle of the farm. Charlie's mood hadn't changed, not that he was being morose, but I didn't feel like I had kicked his puppy. I figured it was up to me to make the peace.
"Look, I'm sorry I said what I did. I just can't go back to the way we were." I started as we walked along the neat little rows of trees.
"What's wrong with the way we were?" I chuckled at his question.
"Let's see, we fought all the time, we never got along. I think we were just too different."
"We weren't too different, Ryan. We got along, really well actually. We just got caught up in the little shit. We let it get to us and break us apart." He sighed. "I felt that you were always at work and you never listened to me. I also felt that you didn't appreciate what I did for us and the relationship."
"`What you did for us and the relationship'?" I asked, feeling a knot tighten in my chest.
"Yeah. It's just how I felt."
"Are you including the fact that you cheated on me in `what you did for us and the relationship'?" I said and realized he had stopped walking. I turned around and saw him, hands in his pockets looking at me. "Is that one of the things you did for us, Charlie?"
"You knew about that?" He asked, a pained expression on his face.
"Yeah. Well, not when it was going on. After you left."
"How did you find out?"
"Does it matter?"
"It does." He said and I let out an exasperated sigh.
"Your good friend Brad told me after I told him I wouldn't sleep with him. You ever see him?" I asked.
"Yeah. We still hang out." Charlie took a breath. "Or did till now."
"Don't blame Brad, he was just horny and thought he'd tell me and make me so mad I'd want to sleep with him to get back at you. Truth was, I was so hurt and disgusted I didn't want to sleep with anybody, much less him."
"He had no right to tell you."
"He had EVERY right to tell me because the one who SHOULD have told me didn't!" I yelled. "Wouldn't! You were too chicken shit to tell me the truth."
"You're right. I still am. I've been debating on telling you since I saw you in the grocery store."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because I hurt you and don't know how to make it right." He said.
"That depends on what you mean by `make it right'?"
"I think you know what I mean."
"I do and it's not going to happen. It can't. You fucked up, pal. The most we might be able to be is friends and that's a maybe." I said and continued walking. He fell into step beside me.
"Can I ask you a question?" I asked.
"When did you do it? When did you cheat on me?"
"The day before I left. I realized we would never survive that."
"You didn't even give us a chance." I said. "We might have."
"You would have forgiven me? With all the shit we were going through at the time?" His piercing green eyes stared into mine searching for something. I feared he was looking for hope or forgiveness. God, I hate the holidays.
"No, probably not." We walked a couple of feet not even paying attention to the trees at this point. "Was it worth it?"
"No. I knew it wouldn't be but I felt like I was failing with you and couldn't fix it so I thought `why not fuck up REALLY big?' I felt like the biggest dirt bag in the world."
"Well, people fuck up, I guess."
"Yeah. Me more than others?"
"No, you just `fuck up REALLY big'." I said and chuckled. "I guess it's ancient history now."
"If I could do anything to take it back, I would."
"I know. But you can't. We'll have to get over it."
"Think you can?" He asked.
"I don't know."
The rest of the afternoon was pretty much shot and we left the tree farm without a Christmas tree. It was a quiet and awkward ride home, feeling like there was so much unsaid. The bad thing about things unsaid is that even if they're spoken they might not be powerful enough to heal the rift between us.
We walked into the apartment and kicked off our shoes. Charlie went to the kitchen and started dinner while I chose to turn on the t.v. and stare at whatever was on just to be away from him and spend some time with my thoughts. God, this felt like we were dating again. How had we learned so many bad habits in just two years? Finally after an hour I went into the kitchen and asked if he needed any help.
"No, I pretty much got it all done. You could set the table though."
I set out the plates and silverware and sat down to eat. He placed the meal, sausage and peppers in front of us and we dug in. He always had been the better cook.