Author: Guede Mazaka
“I think I’ll have a pint.” But instead of actually getting off his arse and doing that, Joe slouches in the back corner and stares at the wall. It has a stain on it that is the exact size and shape of a hotcake. His stomach clenches and he thinks it makes a small noise, but it’s hard to tell, what with all the racket of the bar going on around them.
America had been good to Jess. She looks beautiful, even though she also looks like she’s about to go sprinting for the door and her hands are squeezing the top of her chair. The corner of her mouth tugs into a grimace. “I’m really sorry. Joe. I would have told you sooner, except I didn’t know, really, and…I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about, is there? I mean, it’s not like you can help it.” That comes out a little meaner than Joe had meant it to be, but honestly, he thinks he’s still taking it bloody well. All things considered, he should’ve been well on his way to wrecking the bar by now.
Well, except that he still cares about Jess and he doesn’t want to scare her any more than she already is, and that he’s having difficulty just feeling his toes wiggle in his shoes, and that he really would like that pint. Maybe he should drag himself back to his locker room and take a nap first, see if his head cleared.
“So…” Jess uncertainly waves her hand, her big eyes nervous on him. “Are you going to be all right? My mum’s going to miss me soon…”
She is gorgeous. When Joe looks sideways at her hair, he thinks he sees a gold sheen that wasn’t there before and that had to have come from all the running around under the California sun. She’s got a half-healed scab on her elbow and when she shifts uneasily on her feet he can see all the new muscle she’s built up. He remembers how she’d walked into that German bar, all shy and tense and awkward, and he looks at her now, sees the easy breezing grace she’s got even though she’s a bit on the nervy side, and he thinks it was a well-spent four months of waiting.
And then he remembers that right, she’s off-limits again. If she ever wasn’t in the first place.
His stomach hurts. But oddly enough, he doesn’t think he’s about to throw up, or throw a fit, or throw much of anything.
Joe drags up a smile, and somehow it’s not as fake as he expects. He even stands to see her out without much of a problem. “Yeah. I’ll just…I need a few more minutes. But you run home—they’ve not seen you in four months, after all.”
She flashes some teeth, but quick as anything her smile whizzes off her face. “Thank you, Joe. I mean it. For everything.”
And she puts out a hand—no, more like dangles it a little short because she’s not sure. It’s the same thing with Joe, who finds himself flapping his hand an inch away because he wasn’t sure where they had been before and now he’s really not sure where they are. Can he touch her? Is this allowed? Is this one of those things that’s allowed but that’s a shite thing to do nevertheless and nobody in their right mind does it?
Well, they’re both impatient. Finally one or the other starts to, and then the second follows almost at once and then they’ve grabbed each other’s hands. It’s a stiff but firm shake, and the next second they’re standing well back from each other. For a moment Joe almost puts his hands behind his back, just like he did when he was standing cowed before his upset father.
“See you,” Jess says, and she’s not at all certain about it.
“Yeah,” Joe answers, and he’s more hopeful than anything.
He flops back down while she walks out, and he stares at that weird stain some more. He could really—
--“Pint?” Tony drops one down before Joe can answer, and then puts himself in the seat Jess just left.
Of course Joe knows why the other man’s here, but he needs that nutty, smooth beer flowing down his throat and he appreciates the way Tony just sits quietly, his silence not questioning at all but comfortingly non-pushy, and so he doesn’t comment.
* * *
But two weeks later, Tony shows up again and this time Joe has to say something.
He misses Jess. He hadn’t seen her more than once, what with the whirl in which her relatives kept her and the general awkwardness of the situation. And he did see Jules, but that was…something there had changed as far back as the day Jules had pulled Jess onto the field and Joe hadn’t noticed till it was too late to either change it or to change himself to get along with it. He knows when it’s too late.
And he really regrets that because he thought of Jules as a friend, and in some ways as close a friend as he’d ever had. Joe really doesn’t want to make the same mistake, but he’s afraid that he is. Because even though Jess and he hadn’t been able to even call each other more than once or twice a month, there’d still been some kind of connection just because they thought that they’d be dating once she got back. But now she’d done away with that, and Joe missed the feeling of having something to link Jess to him. Because now that he thinks about it, she was a friend, too. She showed him bits of a world he never would have seen otherwise, and he’d enjoyed those glimpses.
But playing cricket with Mr. Bharma was a nice, polite, distant biweekly meeting that didn’t really leave Joe raring to show up to the next one. True, he liked it, but Mr. Bharma had his reservations and understandably he was slow to lose them. And he was busy, and a generation older, and so Joe couldn’t ask him for help in crossing the gaps to the rest of their world. And Jess was either in America, or on edge around Joe, or with Jules. Or all three at once, and Jess had precious little chances to get time with Jules without raising suspicion, so Joe didn’t really want to ask much of her either.
Which left Tony, but—“Look, I really appreciate what you’re doing for me, but you don’t have to. It’s all right.”
Tony blinks at Joe, and Joe braces himself. But the other man doesn’t do anything except poke around a chunk of fish with his chip. “What are you talking about?”
“This. This…I’ll be all right, yeah. Jess doesn’t need to worry,” Joe says. He wonders if maybe kicking his feet up on the chair opposite him will make it come out more naturally, make it sound less half-hearted. Because he really does mean it, but he also doesn’t want to make that one mistake again and lose good company.
Frowning, Tony lifts the chip to his mouth. Then he freezes. His face shapes itself into an incredible grimace, and then he smacks himself on the forehead. “Oh. You think I’m doing this because Jess asked me to. Well—all right, the first time was. But hey, I’m worried about you even if she isn’t—she is, by the way, but if she weren’t I’d still be here.”
“What for? It’s not like you’re in love with me.” That was such a dumb thing to say. Joe wishes immediately afterward that he could sink into the ground.
Oddly enough, Tony looks to be in the same way. He’s frozen again.
It’s Joe’s turn to blink and wonder if the world’s flipped while he wasn’t looking. “Are you?”
Tony considers the chip and the question. Then he says, not a trace of doubt in his voice: “Not in the least.” But what he says after that is considerably less steady. “I’m not Jess. I can’t do like she does and gamble a comfortable thing on a happy thing. I’m here because I’m worried about you, and because I like blathering to you about university and listening to you go on about footie. Not here for anything more—else. Anything else.”
Joe…needs to put this into words. It’s not making sense as a thought. “So…you’re ga—”
“Shhh!” Tony hisses. “Nobody knows except Jess, and that’s how I want it.”
And then he looks over his shoulder, another confident and easy-going person reduced to nervous fright by Joe, and Joe just thinks No. Not again.
On the other hand, then what? He has no idea. It doesn’t look like Tony’s about to offer up any suggestions. Life isn’t going to stop for long and let him sort it out.
“No worries about me telling,” he says, dragging out the words because he’s stalling and thinking. But what it comes down to is that he’s got no clue except one single do-not-do scenario.
Okay. He can start from there. And then he can take another look after he’s gone a bit, and see what the lay of things looks like then. It’s not much different from reanalyzing the field while people are running on it. Joe hopes.
“Sorry, Tony. I…don’t spend much time with blokes at any rate, seeing as they tend to laugh at what I do.” But Joe can work on that. Joe is going to work on that, and later he’s going to work on Jess and Jules. Maybe it won’t be the same as it was, or be what he thought it was going to be, but there’s got to be something left for them. “Pass the chips?”
Tony studies him, brows drawn down and chin on fist. “You really all right?”
“Yeah,” Joe says, after a while has passed.
“All right. You can have a chip then.” The basket gets nudged over.
For a moment, they both stare at it. And then Joe laughs and whacks Tony on the shoulder for being such a tosser, and Tony stops staring like he thinks Joe might want to kill him, and it’s…something, anyway.