The phone rings at what could charitably be described as “goddamn early o'clock,” and Robert gives serious thought (as serious as can be when he's only semi-lucid and semi-sober) to chucking it out the goddamn window. Probably wouldn't work. Betsy would just think it was a game and bring it back.
BLOODY MARY, reads the display when he manages to crack an eye at it, and he tries to take her calls, he really does, even at ass o'clock in the morning, it builds character or something, so with a deep groan he rolls over onto his back and puts the phone to his ear.
“Ugggh,” he manages. More than she deserves, really.
“Rise and shine, loser, it's time for mimosas and Craig-watching.”
“I'm calling in dead today.” He pulls the pillow over his face to block out the light creeping in around the blinds, but it's too late. Betsy has realized that her favorite person in the world is awake and it's play time. Her tiny paws are prancing around on his chest, at a pounds-per-square-inch ratio disproportionate to her size.
“I saw you leaving with New Guy last night,” Mary says smugly. “Is he still there? Kick him out and get your ass over here. Come on. I raised you better than this. Bros before hos.”
“It was a magical evening,” Robert mumbles into the pillow. “Turns out that beneath the hideous, unassuming, cat-print button-down, he's actually a leather daddy with a penchant for breathplay and emotionally-compromising dirty talk. He's got a dungeon in his basement. He made me cry three times before he let me come. I think he changed my life.”
“You struck out.”
“I struck out. Still pretty magical though.” Betsy's managed to snuffle her way under the pillow, like an ostrich sticking its head under the sand. Her wet nose nudges against his chin, her tail thwaps enthusiastically against his chest. He gives in and scritches her neck, and the tail thwaps faster.
It makes him feel a little better about the world. Like, 1.5% better.
“Don't make me break out the big guns, Rob.”
He takes a deep breath and forces himself to sit up, shifting Betsy into the crook of his arm. The headache intensifies, but it's not the worst he's had, nothing that an ibuprofen and a pitcher of Mat's weak mimosas won't fix. “Keep your guns in your shirt, woman, I'm on my way.”
Mary laughs. “Good boy.”
“Woof,” he agrees, and disconnects.
“So what really happened with New Guy?” she asks, once they're in position. By which he means: the Coffee Spoon has been open for twelve minutes; they have claimed the one outdoor table that manages to avoid direct morning sunlight; a pitcher of weak mimosas has been acquired and the first round is underway. Mary is her usual First-Wives-Club-glamorous self, makeup impeccable and hangover disguised behind a pair of oversized sunglasses. Robert would like to think he's got the debauched-rockstar-chic thing going on himself, but he probably just looks like he slept in a dumpster. Wouldn't be the first time.
“His name is Gene,” Robert finds himself saying in lieu of an answer. It seems important.
“Tell that to someone who cares. So what happened?”
Mary's already two thirds of the way through her glass, but Robert makes himself sip his. It's almost like he's being virtuous.
He shrugs. “We chatted. He hit on me, really awkwardly.” Your face is, uh, good, indeed. “We walked back from the bar together, because, as luck would have it, he has moved into the house literally next door to me, and I thought we'd maybe...” had a connection? something? there'd been something there, right? “...but when I invited him up for a fuck he got uncomfortable and said he had to go home.”
Mary hums thoughtfully. “That'll make the barbecue fun.”
He cracks an eye at her, feeling a sudden sense of foreboding. “What barbecue?”
She sucks in a breath that suggests she's going to do violence to the next thing she gets her hands on, but sets her champagne glass down on the table as delicately as a princess. “Joseph,” she bites out, “found out about the new dad on the block. Brought him homemade cookies yesterday. Now he's throwing a barbecue on Saturday to welcome him to the neighborhood. Congratulations, you're invited.”
“I'm not going,” Robert says automatically. “I have plans.” Plans to stay home and staple-gun his fucking hand to the wall, because literally anything would be less excruciating than attending a Joseph-Christiansen-hosted barbecue.
“No, you don't, and yes, you are. I've already RSVP'd for you.”
“Woman, I will see you in hell first—”
“If I have to suffer, you have to suffer,” she says, taking a placid swig from a glass with a depressingly low champagne-to-orange-juice ratio.
Robert can tell when he's been defeated, and this is it. Ignominious defeat.
“It'll be great,” she assures him blithely. “We'll hang out by the punch bowl and get shitfaced and watch Joseph's eye do that twitching thing.”
“Ugghh.” He puts his face down in his arms, feels her pat the back of his head benevolently.
“Cheer up. It's almost time for Craig to get here.”
“I don't know why you think that forcing me to confront the inadequacy of my own existence before I'm even fully awake is supposed to cheer me up,” he mutters.
“Do it for the spank bank,” she advises sagely.
They fall into silence for a few minutes. Mary's good at that, surprisingly, and they stay that way until Craig's familiar, mesomorphic figure turns the corner, unexpectedly followed a second later by—
Oh, fuck him.
Mary squints up the street. “Is that...?
“Oh, fuck me,” he groans, and puts his face on the table again. “Tell him Robert's not here. Tell him I'm a mannequin you prop up in your passenger seat so you can use the HOV lane.”
“I'm impressed with his resilience,” Mary remarks, eyebrows raised as she takes a sip of her drink. She looks like she should be reviewing the scene through opera glasses. “He was matching you shot for shot last night, and you could barely haul your ass out of bed this morning.”
“Right. A real trooper.” A trooper who probably didn't have an additional six shots after getting home. To his daughter. Who obviously adores him.
“Contact in T-minus ten seconds,” Mary warns, as the joggers approach.
Okay, see, here's the thing: Craig usually has the decency not to attempt smalltalk—not with them, not at this ungodly hour. He's too busy... carb cycling or... glycogen-depleting... or... whatever the hell it was he'd tried to explain that first time, when he was new to the neighborhood and didn't understand that Robert and Mary were not so much up early as still up, and they, blindsided by this Adonis in Adidas who was suddenly trying to make conversation with them, had only been stunned into polite attentiveness re: his discussion of interval training and fasted cardio by virtue of still being mostly drunk.
Anyway. That had gone well.
In his defense, Craig had been pretty quick to realize when he was playing to the wrong crowd and graciously excused himself (with a diplomatic nod to keeping his heartrate up), and thus they had achieved the current status quo—a comfortable equilibrium in which he waves to them as he passes and doesn't even judge them for their life choices because he's genuinely too goddamn nice for that, and they wave back and pretend like they're not ogling his ass when he goes by. Everyone is happy; it is a system that works.
Except today, for reasons unbeknownst to god or man, Craig and the New Guy—Gene—are making eye contact, are slowing down, are stopping, what the ever-loving fuck did Robert do to deserve this.
(Oh, who is he kidding. He deserves everything he gets, and then some.)
“Hey dudes!” says Craig, brimming with the uncomplicated zeal for physical activity usually only found in dogs. He has The Baby strapped to his chest, The Baby that always stares straight at Robert as if she's got a direct line to all the impure thoughts he's having about her father, and feels that he really ought to sit in the corner and think about what he's done. Craig grins, pants, favors the new guy with an (enviably long, enviably lingering) shoulder-clasp. “Dudes! Hey! This is Gene. He just moved into the cul-de-sac.”
Gene nods, considerably more winded than Craig, but then, who wouldn't be. He's got wisps of hair escaping from his bun and he's pink-cheeked from exertion, with a fine sheen of sweat over his face—more or less exactly how he might have looked in bed last night, if Robert had somehow played his cards better. Gene darts a shy, hesitant smile at him; Robert has never been more thankful for sunglasses and the excuse not to acknowledge eye contact.
“Yeah,” Gene pants, leaning over to plant his hands on his thighs. “I met them last night. At Jim and Kim's. For the Game.” He steals a glance up at Robert again. “Hey Robert. Hey—Mary.”
Robert tips his glass at them, forces his mouth into a smile. Mary's probably annoyed that he managed to remember her name, because now she doesn't get to rake him over the coals for it.
“Hello, Gene. Nice to see you're making the right sort of friends,” Mary says with a smile, all barbed politeness. Robert knows enough to know what that tone of voice bodes, that it never bodes well, and he'd tell her to stand down if he could work up the energy.
Yet, inexplicably, that seems to be the right answer, because it makes Gene huff out a laugh, shaking his head, and as he turns to look at Craig his cautious smile for Robert relaxes into something infinitely more natural. “You mean Craig? Nah, we've known each other for ages.”
“Ages, bro,” Craig agrees. “Gene and I were like, best friends in college.”
“Since freshman year. And he's actually a terrible influence.”
“Since we were eighteen. That's like, more than half our lives.” Craig shakes his head. “Dude, the more I think about it, the more of a trip it is. Half our lives, man. Freakin' wild.”
Gene nods, still trying to catch his breath. “Yeah, we fell out of touch for a while—”
“For like ten years, bro, but it feels like yesterday—”
Oh, jesus fucking christ, he has to still be asleep. This is too fucking on-the-nose to be anything except what his subconscious would dream up to torture him with.
“We're going to the gym,” he hears Craig announce proudly when he resumes paying attention.
“Under duress,” Gene puts in, ducking his eyes in that self-effacing smile that is, goddamn it, just as endearing in daylight as it had been under the shitty neon at Jim and Kim's.
“—and then getting a bro-brunch, just like old times.” Accompanied by a fistbump, because Craig.
“Only if we can find a place that serves bread soup,” Gene agrees, solemnly fistbumping him back.
For some reason, that makes Craig completely lose his shit, startling him into a peal of laughter that has him bending double, one hand on The Baby to keep her steady. “Oh my god, dude, I had forgotten all about that! I can't believe you still remember that.”
“The Long Con of Bio 402,” Gene says to Mary and Robert, straight-faced except for a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“Noooo, my worst hour!” Craig moans. “Dude, don't tell them! I'm not proud of that one, bro.”
“Well! This I have to hear,” Mary announces, because this woman, the woman who can cut a swath of devastation through social niceties like Hannibal's elephants through the Pyrenees, who could have long since sent these two on their way with their tails between their legs, is also a harpy who lives to see Robert suffer. He kicks her under the table, but she just smirks.
Gene laughs, ducks his head. “Okay, so there was this asshole in our bio class—”
“Language, Gene, there is a baby in the audience!” Craig scolds with mock horror, covering The Baby's ears.
“Sorry, sorry. So there was this jerk in our bio class—”
“He wasn't that bad,” Craig protests, with the air of a well-trodden argument.
“Yes he was. Swear to god, it was like he'd never met an Asian person before—”
“He was from some little podunk nowhere town, maybe he hadn't!”
“Craig, this was junior year, he had no excuse.”
Craig heaves an indulgent sigh and takes over, “So in like, the first week of class, he's trying to make friends, and he comes up to me and asks where I'm from—”
“He's doing that 'talk loud and talk slow' thing,” Gene clarifies.
“—and I'm about to be like, Bro, it's cool, I'm from Santa Cruz, when this guy,” affectionate nudge at Gene, “cuts in and is like—”
“I'm sorry, he doesn't speak English,” Gene says, all wide-eyed sincerity. “He's an exchange student from Kahnos, a small island nation off the Korean archipelago.”
“For the record: Korea is not an archipelago,” Craig hastens to add, as if there was anyone at the table unaware of that.
“We kept this going for the entire semester,” Gene says, practically misty-eyed with nostalgia. “Building lies upon lies.”
“Remember when he asked how I was attending the class, if I couldn't speak English?”
“And I told him that you couldn't speak English, but you could lip-read it.”
“And the bread soup thing.”
“That one was Smashley's, not mine,” Gene reminds him, scrupulously fair.
“Yeah, but you guys tag-teamed it.”
“Right, so this guy,” Gene says, with affectionate nudge at Craig, “rolls up into class one day—”
“It was an 8 AM section,” Craig adds.
“Dude, stop, you're giving me flashbacks to 'Nam. So he shows up with breakfast in hand, which, because this is Keg-Stand Craig, still in his larval stage, not yet having metamorphosed into the beautiful butterfly of responsible adulthood you see before you today, is toast in ramen. Yes—you heard me right. Toast. In ramen. As if that were a thing that normal people eat.”
“Well when you think about it, toast is basically just noodles in a different shape, bro.”
“And the guy's there, and you can tell that he is both horrified and enthralled by the sight of Craig shoveling ramen-soaked toast into his mouth, desperate to say something about it, and Smashley's there—”
“She wasn't even supposed to be in that section,” Craig says fondly.
“And she looks at the guy and explains to him, with a stone poker face, that bread soup is considered a Kahnosian delicacy, because wheat—”
“—'and wheat by-products'—”
“Weren't introduced on Kahnos until the late 20th century, so they've become synonymous with 'modernity and cultural sophistication.' And then we got him to eat it,” Gene says with relish.
“Like, I wasn't very awake, so I just kinda held it out for him to try, cuz it wasn't actually bad, you know?”
Gene gives him a conciliatory pat on the shoulder. “My dude, it was vile. But I was like, Psst! You have to take it, sharing food is a big deal on Kahnos, he's going to think you're rejecting his friendship if you don't try it. So the guy choked down a bite, and then lied through his teeth and said it was so good.” Gene smiles, shakes his head. “What a stand-up guy.”
Fuck this fucking dream sequence, Robert wants to wake up already. Fuck the sort of world that would drop his soulmate right in front of him, only for said person to already be Craig goddamn-perfect Cahn's soulmate.
He tunes back in to hear Craig saying, “Man, I felt so bad for lying to him about that.”
“You always were the weakest link,” Gene says darkly.
“I got him a souvenir from Santa Cruz when I went home for Christmas. And he was cool about it, in the end.”
“Only because no one can ever stay mad at you,” Gene says, and the—the fondness in his voice, the bottomless wealth of affection shining from his eyes, makes Robert want to flip the table and just walk away.
Because isn't that the bitch of it, really—who could stay mad at Craig? He's the sweetest guy you'll ever fucking meet. He's a beautiful person who deserves every beautiful thing the world has to offer. The most genuinely, uncomplicatedly, good and pure specimen of manhood that Robert has ever had the misfortune of winding up in a side-by-side comparison with. A puppy, with a chiseled jaw and an ass you could bounce a quarter off of. Jesus fucking christ, no wonder Gene hadn't been buying what Robert was selling.
He's vaguely aware that Craig's making their excuses now—keeping heartrates up and all that, yessiree, good chap, whatever—aware of Gene's eyes for some reason lingering on him. Robert opts to concentrate on the champagne glass instead.
“Are you guys coming to the barbecue this weekend?” Gene asks suddenly, glancing at Mary to ostensibly include both of them in the question, but his gaze comes back around to Robert like iron filings to a magnet.
“Wouldn't miss it for the world,” Mary assures him breezily.
Robert tips his glass at her. “She refuses to let me miss it.”
Gene's eyes flicker uncertainly between the two of them, and Robert can see the thought as it occurs to him, they get it all the time, when people misinterpret the weird rapport between them as a romantic one, as something easier to understand than what it really is. Gene's taking the data—Mary hitting on him, then Robert propositioning him, now the two of them hanging out the way male and female friends usually don't—and trying to come up with a narrative, and failing.
“Later dudes, see you on Saturday!” Craig says cheerily as they start to peel off again.
“Later dude,” Mary says flatly, the irony of it, as usual, lost on Craig.
“See you, bro,” Robert contributes. He nods at Gene. “Gene.”
They manage to hold the tableau until Craig and Gene have disappeared around the corner, off to lift heavy things and put them down again, no doubt while gazing into each other's eyes and sharing fond memories of their disgustingly wholesome youth. Goddamn it.
Robert lets his head collapse onto the table again.
He's just so tired. Can't even decide whether he wants to be drunker, or whether he wants to sleep, to have the luxury of just not existing for a few hours.
“End me, Mary,” he mutters into the tabletop. “Put me out of my misery. It'd be doing the lord's work.”
“Aww, he's a little con man, just like you,” Mary coos into her champagne glass. “No wonder you're sweet on him.”
He can't even work up the energy to deny that, and it's not like Mary couldn't see through him anyway. She knows all the weak points in his bullshit-exoskeleton by now.
Fuck it, right? He barely knows the guy. A few drinks and one non-hookup aren't worth mourning like it's the end of some grand love affair.
He sits up, leaning back in his chair and tipping his face at the sky, where dawn pink is giving way to blue. Deep breaths.
“Well, that was nice while it lasted,” he says aloud, pleased that it manages to come out with only a light soupçon of bitterness on top.
“Gene is dooooomed,” Mary sing-songs. “The softball moms are going to murder himmm.”
“Dead man walking,” Robert agrees on autopilot.
“They would Cask-of-Amontillado each other in a heartbeat to get into Craig's sweaty gym shorts.”
“Most eligible dad on the block,” he affirms numbly. For once, sleep is sounding better than alcohol.
Mary rolls her head to face him, her sunglasses boring into him like insect eyes. “You know he's too perfect to be real. There's no way that's an actual human being.”
Robert takes a deep breath, lets it out. “Obviously an android,” he says at last. “Built by aliens and sent to spy on us.”
She shakes her head sadly, takes a drink. “Honestly, they're not fooling anyone. I'm almost embarrassed for them.”
“They really should dial it back a notch.”
“Guys, please—less is more.”
Silence settles over them again, comfortable, routine. All the things they don't ever actually say to each other bumping around at its edges. Finally Mary reaches over and flicks his elbow.
“You wanna help me finish this, or are you tapping out?” she asks, indicating the half-empty pitcher. Her blessing to leave, if he wants to, or to stay and not talk about it anymore.
He stares at the pitcher for a long moment, trying to work up the energy to care one way or the other. It's all a tired jumble. The hangover he's got coming. The image of sunlight streaming over his empty bed. That last glimpse of Craig as he jogged off, like a taunt of what Robert could be if he could just stop.
“I want it to be stronger,” he says, sounding sulky even to his own ears. Mimosas are nice, but he'll have orange juice coming out his fucking gills before it gets him half as fuzzy as he'd like to be.
“Well, bro,” Mary says. With her sunglasses fixed on him, she reaches into her purse and pulls out a flask, setting it on the table between them. “Good thing I got your back, bro.”
He takes a breath. Tips his glass to her. “King me.”
When he gets home and goes to let Betsy back inside, sunlight is streaming in through the patio doors.
And he's... good.
He leans on the glass, breathes out, closes his eyes and lets himself soak up the warmth, soak up the sunlight, painting red against the back of his eyelids. Betsy's jumping around his feet, barking, her nails skittering over the hardwood floor in her excitement. The weight has lifted, for once, and for a long, quiet moment he lets himself just be. Feeling the sunlight warm on his arms. Listening to himself just breathe.
He lingers there, half-drowsing, before eventually he shakes himself awake again. He pushes away from the door and turns the blinds behind him, plunging the living room into darkness.
“Alright, sweetheart,” he grunts, bending down to pick Betsy up. “Naptime for bad boys and girls.”
He sets her down on the couch. Shrugs off his jacket. Toes off his shoes. Digs phone and wallet out of his pockets. His phone's blinking the light for unread messages and—
Unknown number: Hey Robert! It's Gene
Unknown number: Craig gave me your number, hope that's okay?
Unknown number: It was good seeing you today
Unknown number: And meeting you last night
Unknown number: Hopefully I'll run into you at the party as well!
Unknown number: :)
And all at once, the weight comes crashing back down, his breath leaving him in a rush. He's sitting down hard on the couch, his hand on the phone dumb and motionless, his mind blank and on the retreat.
He needs to—
Say something. Something normal, something flirty, something whatever, fucking anything, goddamnit, Robert, you used to be able to do this, even his signature, off-putting Robert weirdness would be better than radio silence, but—
He curls forward and lets out a ragged breath, closing his eyes and pressing his forehead against the edge of the phone, a grounding pressure in an ocean that's threatening to drag him under.
“Fuck.” His knuckles are tight around the phone. His eyes are heavy and hot with something that's never actually going to turn into tears. “Fuck.”
Gene in the bar, aglow in the shitty neon, ducking his head shyly at Robert's dumb lines but unable to keep from smiling and glancing back at him, bright-eyed and breathless with the potential of—
Gene on the night sidewalk outside Robert's house, his smile freezing into something stiff and uncomfortable at the prospect of—
Gene on the morning sidewalk outside the Coffee Spoon, leaning into Craig and smiling and elbowing him, so comfortable in each other's space, so full of each other's history, with no room for—
“I can't deal with you right now,” he whispers, as if there were anyone around to hear him. Anyone besides Betsy, that is, now whining and nosing against his arm, her dumb little paws sliding around his lap in a losing battle with gravity.
“Yeah,” he says aloud. He swallows. He finds her head with his hand, moves to rub the back of her neck. “Yeah, sweetheart, we're going to sleep.”
He thumbs off the screen without looking at it again, lays the phone face-down on the coffee table, and lets himself sink down into the couch. The AC is droning in the background, and Betsy is taking twenty minutes to settle, like she always does, but even that is its own kind of comfort.
This isn't the worst day he's had.
Sleep comes over him, gradually, and the weight begins to recede once more.