To be frank, Annie wasn’t in the mood. Not in the mood for what, exactly? Anything. Everything. Talking or not talking, eating, sleeping, breathing—just living, really, was going to push her over the edge. It was one of those days where all she craved was a good scream and maybe to fling her arms around a bit, but that wasn’t appropriate and honestly, you’re an adult now and is this how you get your way? So, she’d politely excused herself and walked just a tad extra fast all the way home. She just wanted to be alone.
Honestly, who gave an 89% on an essay? The only feedback she’d gotten was: “These words taste like radish in my mouth. I hate radishes.”
She slammed the door more forcefully than she should. The frame wasn’t very good, and Troy always said one day she was going to knock it down. There was a teacher at Greendale that knocked a door down that same way—slammed it a little too hard day in and day out, until not only the door, but the whole frame keeled right over. That teacher was doing it on purpose, though. Took him six years to prove some inexplicable point.
Maybe Annie should do that. Knock out a whole frame just so people stop pushing her.
Her backpack was flung to the ground, and, for just a moment, she let out a strangled wail. It wasn’t as satisfying as she wanted it to be, but there were neighbors and their creepy landlord, and, no matter how riled up she was, she didn’t want to cause any trouble.
She made her way to the kitchen, because if she couldn’t be happy, then at the very least she could have chocolate. It didn’t make things better, it didn’t really help, but … it felt like a little rebellion, every time. Troy and Abed had done a good job loosening her up (within reason), but it still felt like she’d won a little victory when she skipped dinner and just went straight for dessert.
Her hand was on the cabinet when she heard the shuffle from the other room. Her heart thudded. Her grip tightened. Troy and Abed were supposed to be in class (she was supposed to be in class), and if either of them were home, so to would be the sounds of dialogue, or music, or a video game track. The apartment was never just … quiet. Not unless she was by herself.
Her hand crept back to her side. It flexed like it might grip the handle of a gun, but she reminded herself she’d given it up when she moved into the apartment. She understood that it was different for her to have one than Troy and Abed, she really understood that, but her nerves got the better of her sometimes. Sometimes she missed it.
She slid the knife off the counter as quietly as she could.
She crept into the living room.
“Are you going to knife me?” Abed asked, face neutral.
Her heart and legs floundered. “Jesus Christ, Abed! You’re supposed to be in class.”
She could practically see Shirley’s disapproval of her choice of swear, but, okay, look, it wasn’t even really, technically, his name—if you went by the Hebrew, the more accurate—okay, no. No. She was getting off track.
Abed’s eyes followed the knife as she gestured towards him and then the blank TV.
“Why are you just sitting here in the dark? You scared me half to death!”
“Are you doing a scene where the character is thinking of something, and they’re silent, but going on this whole internal journey, and then, at the end, they jump up and run off camera to go do something dramatic?”
“No,” he admitted.
“Oh.” The knife dropped a bit. “Then what are you doing?”
They stared for a moment, Annie at his face, and Abed at the knife. It finally fell limp to her side as her eyebrows scrunched and mouth pursed in confusion.
Her fingers twisted and curled around the handle. Abed went back to staring towards the TV—unusually and ominously blank.
She cleared her throat and quickly dropped the knife back in the kitchen, then tiptoed her way towards him.
“Is there … something bothering you?”
His head tilted back and forth almost imperceptibly as he decided how to respond.
“Just thinking about tropes.”
Her shoulders relaxed. That sounded more like him. She was almost worried that Abed had been abducted and replaced by a doppelganger, or that he’d gone into the dreamatorium alone and had gotten too stuck in a character. But he was just thinking about tropes. That was fine, that was Abed. The familiarity gave her enough confidence to approach fully and perch on the coffee table in front of his chair.
“I’m sorry I yelled,” she said, doing that little half-smile nose scrunch that always worked on Jeff. She wasn’t sure Abed even saw it, the way he was looking over her shoulder instead of at her, but the apology felt good to say. “Is there a trope you’re thinking about in particular?”
He hummed and gave a short nod. She waited for him to continue, but he just stared in that way that he did and rubbed his thumb over his fingers in a quick, anxious pattern.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, realizing her mistake. She’d asked a yes or no question and he’d answered it. “What trope are you thinking of?”
“Hays Code,” he shot off, a drum beat in the air.
The name sounded familiar. But sometimes the things Abed told her about were like a pipette drip in the tumultuous ocean of her brain. It didn’t mean she wasn’t listening, but it was drown out by the raging storm, the cutting rocks, the moon and the tides and the break on the shore—oh and sharks, maybe-
She shook her head.
“Would you mind explaining what that is?”
His finger rose in a point like he was going to begin, but it was an awkward, faltering second before the words actually began to spill from his mouth.
“Hays Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code, adopted and enforced in 1934. A set of morality-based guidelines that stifled American filmmaking with self-censorship rules until 1968. Among the guidelines were bans on sacrilegious profanity—like your little outburst just there—violence, drugs, sexual content, among other things.” His eyes flickered, only briefly. “Though not explicitly stated, the Code affected media portrayal of homosexuality, to the effect that it could not be portrayed without sufficiently condemning it as immoral, or …” His fingers continued their nervous dance. “-ending their story in tragedy. While the Hays Code was abandoned in 1968, its effects were deep-seated. That particular unspoken rule became what we now would refer to as ‘bury your gays’. The Code was abandoned, but the trope was too well established to die with it.”
She blinked. Her mouth felt dry. Her fingers wrung much like his from where they were held in her lap.
“Abed?” she asked.
“Can I sit with you?”
She’d never really asked before. Usually it was an unspoken assumption—that was Abed’s seat, and the other was Troy’s. She didn’t have one, so she sat with Abed. She’d never minded. It was nice. There weren’t many people she felt comfortable being that close to, but Abed was just the right amount of warm, and holding his hand felt like a star through cloud-cover, like a lighthouse on a familiar shore, a point of contact that kept her grounded and real and there.
But, she asks. This time, she had to ask.
Abed’s eyes glanced at her shoulder, at her hands, at her chin, back down.
He scooted over as she moved towards him, and instead of settling on the arm of the chair, she let her weight fall next to his, both of them crammed sharply together in the too small seat. He was trembling, just a little. She wondered if he’d eaten.
His hand slipped into hers.
Though her breath stuttered, she hoped it wasn’t enough that he’d notice.
“Abed, are you gay?”
For all that he could ramble, shroud his meaning in metaphor and obscure reference, Abed didn’t like when other people beat around the bush. He appreciated directness and honesty. So, though it felt to Annie like some dam had been broken, like all her soft guts would come spilling out at any moment, she asked the question as simply as she could.
The silence rang too long, though it couldn’t have been more than a moment.
“Maybe,” he said. His fingers wriggled, testing against hers. “I have liked the girls I’ve dated. Though it’s hard to tell if it’s more aesthetic appreciation, or- or if I just enjoy their company. Most of the ways people describe feelings are alien to me, so sometimes it’s hard for me to tell.”
“And with guys it feels the same?”
He shook his head, just a little. “Different. It … It feels different.”
Annie took as even a breath as she could, trying not to let her palm sweat against his own, though she didn’t, in the end, have much power over that.
“And thinking about the Hays Code has you worried that … that what you’re feeling is bad?”
He shook his head again, but it was a few seconds before he spoke.
“I’ve been trying to figure out my arc for a while,” he admitted. “Creating … contrived little schemes to nudge it this way or that. I’m not sure I can fight this one though. I don’t know if I can change how it ends.” He swallowed, throat bobbing. “The trope is well established for a reason.”
Annie’s hand squeezed his, not to comfort him, but out of reflex. She tried to relax it, blinking quickly against a sting in her eyes.
“And … the ending you’re worried you’re going to get …”
She let the sentence hang, because, frankly, she couldn’t find it within herself to finish. There was a knot in her throat she couldn’t swallow past.
Still, he took her meaning.
“Have you seen Dead Poet’s Society?” he asked.
Her stomach twisted. She nodded. She was glad he wasn’t looking at her, just staring towards the TV, because she wasn’t sure what her face would betray.
“Yeah.” His head jolted a bit. It was only slightly different from his thinking head tilt, but she recognized it as a sign of his nerves nonetheless. “It wasn’t a one to one metaphor, but it was about as blatant as it could be at the time. It still hit home for a lot of people.”
She cleared her throat, but it didn’t get rid of the choking feeling. “Have you thought about this before?” She wasn’t sure if he would gather her meaning—not the Code or the movie but … she couldn’t bring herself to even think it.
His lips pulled. He looked down at their conjoined hands, at Annie’s white knuckled grip.
Her grip relaxed, if only a little.
“But in the past?”
His shoulder shrugged against hers, and he let his thumb swipe back and forth over her knuckles.
“Kids are mean. Life is hard. You know how it is.”
She coughed out a little breath, nodding just a touch too quickly. “I get it. I do.”
Suddenly his brows furrowed, and his head swiveled towards her.
“Sorry,” he said, eyes darting back and forth over her expression. “I didn’t mean to make you worry about your own ending.”
Her eyebrows drew to mirror his.
“My …? Why would I be worried about my- Abed, you don’t think I’m gay, do you?”
His lips twitched at the side. He blinked.
“Sorry,” he said again. “Sometimes I misread people. I’m just very good at patterns, is all, and I’m a lot more observant than people think—”
“I’m not- You shouldn’t—” Her heart thudded like the crack of hooves at a horse race, and her eyes burned, and her stomach twisted. He couldn’t just- She never said- But he was watching her with that open, knowing stare, and she thought, if she couldn’t tell him right there, right then—if she couldn’t tell Abed, who had just put his heart on the table before her—when would she ever say it?
Her next words escaped as a croak.
“You can’t tell anyone.”
The understanding was quick to light his eyes. He nodded.
“I’m not ready to- I could never really—” She took a wet, shaky breath. “How long have you known?”
He looked as if he was weighing his answer. He was still staring at her with that intensity only Abed had.
“A while,” he told her eventually.
“Have you told any—”
She let out a breath. “Okay.” She swallowed, squeezing his hand. “Okay.”
He settled back down next to her, head tilting softly downward. “I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“I’m not worried about tropes, Abed.”
“But you’ve thought about it, too.”
Her eyes darted away, around their living room. “About the Hays Code? No, I—”
She froze. When Abed used her name like that, short, soft, she knew he was serious.
Her breath rattled through her nose. She pulled on his hand until their conjoined fingers were resting against her, arms wrapped around her in something like a hug.
“Kids are mean,” she repeated hoarsely. “Life is hard. You know how it is.”
He shifted a little closer. He nodded.
“I always felt like … like I had to be perfect. Like any little mistake, any slip up, any error, and … everything would come crashing down. I’d lose it all. Even as a kid, I knew my parents’ love was conditional.” Her swallow was harsh, tears dripping down her cheeks. “And so I took every advantage I could, because I thought … I thought I was just playing the game. I did everything I could to be at the top, because I thought being number one would keep me from losing.” She let out a laugh, breathy and bitter. “It didn’t. I just fell harder.”
She could feel Abed looking at her, but her gaze was fixed firmly on her lap. If it were someone else, Troy or Jeff, maybe Britta even, she’d want them to comfort her, to hold her, to tell her it was okay and that her fall from grace hadn’t been as bad as she thought. Abed didn’t, and she liked that. She liked that he just listened.
“I lost everything. My school, my scholarship, my friends … my family. I’d been thrown in the proverbial gutter and I just thought …” Her face pinched as she tried to get out the words. She shrugged. “Well, I’ll never be able to climb out of this one. There’s no point in …” She sighed. “If I hadn’t had been in the clinic, I don’t know. They watch for that sort of thing and, I don’t know, even in there I was so worried about being good. The day I got out, I enrolled in Greendale. It wasn’t what I thought my future was going to be, but it saved my life.”
There were a few beats of silence as her sentence hung, as her lips wavered and her eyes wept.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make this about me.”
“It’s okay,” Abed responded, quiet, and she knew that he meant it.
“I’m sorry you’ve ever felt the same way.”
“Me too,” he said. “But—for you, though.”
A tiny laugh escaped her, and she shifted to rest her cheek on his shoulder. She lifted her free arm to wipe the wetness from her face.
“Abed … I know we’ve said this before, but … tropes are good for movies. Movies have arcs, narrative, structure. But real life isn’t that way. Our stories aren’t bound by convention and rules. Just because it happens in the movies, doesn’t mean that’s how your life is going to go.”
“Yeah.” His fingers moved in pattern between her own. “Movies make sense, though. Life doesn’t. Life is chaotic and messy and confusing. You never know what someone’s going to say next. You can guess, and I have, but you can’t know. You can’t keep the ending in mind when you’re watching. A good ending is logical—it’s the only correct solution to a puzzle you didn’t think to solve. There’s foreshadowing. There’s staging. Characters have motivations, and they’re not always clear—but if you don’t understand you can watch it again, and again, and again, until you get it. If you don’t like it, you can’t change what happens, but there’s a comfort in it always staying the same. You can laugh, you can cry, but barring that, you can just … be there. You can be affected as much as you’ll be affected and the movie doesn’t care one way or another. It just exists, and you do too. And in a way, that’s its own kind of peace.”
Annie let that explanation wash over her, a display of emotion in its own logical kind of way. It made sense in the way that Abed frequently made sense if people just cared to listen. And for the moment, she didn’t feel like she had to respond, just sit there with him, listening in the way that he had listened to her, just existing with him like he obviously craved.
After a minute had passed of feeling his hand squeeze and loosen, watching his toes wiggle in his socks, she asked, “Abed, did something prompt all this? You seemed fine yesterday.”
He swallowed, fingers and toes stilling. Finally, she pulled away from him.
His eyes darted towards the open door of the dreamatorium, and hers followed.
On the floor were strewn chocolates, different kinds in little wrappers, looking like they’d been thrown and fallen in their places. Only the corner of it was visible, but through the doorway she could see the rounded corner of a pink carton.
Valentine’s was coming up.
“You got those for someone,” she said, not really a question.
“You got those for Troy.”
This, too, was a statement. It was one she felt as sure of as anything else.
He hummed again.
“Were you worried he’d say no?” she asked, turning back to face him.
His eyes lingered on the abandoned chocolates.
“No,” she corrected herself. “That wasn’t it.”
“I’m not sure what my arc is,” he said slowly. “I can contrive it all I want—I don’t know what my ending’s gonna be. I can ponder, I can analyze, but … I don’t really know. And that scares me. It scares me as much as it scares anyone, I think. But Troy is … he’s not set in stone. I have my guesses. I know what I hope. But what if by asking him I seal his fate? What if I take him off the path of the prom king and star athlete and I- I railroad him into decades of unspoken rules and tragedy? I- I can’t do that to him, I- I can’t—”
His mouth clamped shut.
She pulled his hand a little closer.
“Those are worries that I think, while maybe phrased in a different way, anyone would have. Life is hard and full of uncertainties, and … you and I both know it’s not any easier for us. It’s exponentially harder, in ways that most people wouldn’t even think of. Not because of movie rules or media tropes, but because … well … it’s just that much more uncertain. But, in spite of all that, I have one question for you.”
It was a very movie drama thing to say, and she knew it would draw his interest. His eyes slid to her, not meeting her own, but hovering around her nose, her mouth, her chin.
“Despite the uncertain ending,” she said, “despite the tropes, would it not be worth it if, along the way, he was happy?”
His head darted, just a little.
“Because, for whatever my opinion’s worth, I think if you asked him, he would be really, really happy.”
His eyes fell, down to the collar of her shirt, and she knew from his stillness that he was thinking.
Finally, he spoke.
“Your opinion’s worth a lot. More than most, at least. For the record.”
She huffed a laugh and leaned against him, letting her cheek rest against his shoulder once again.
“I know I’m a complete and utter hypocrite,” she said, “but sometimes I think you have to stop worrying about how it’ll all turn out and just embrace a moment for the moment that it is.”
“Wow,” he said flatly. “I don’t think I’ve seen you once practice that philosophy.”
“Oh, shut up,” she laughed.
He rocked their hands, leaning into her as well. “No, I get it, though. I do.”
“So …” She pulled back to look at him. “What’s the homage gonna be when you ask? What script are you working off?”
After a moment, he looked at her, face painted with an awkward little smile.
“I think maybe I’ll just wing it,” he said. “Speak from the cold, mechanical heart, and all that.”
A breath escaped her nose. She smiled at him. “Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.”
For a few moments, there was quiet.
“Don’t mention it.”
He nodded, shy, and looked away again. The heat between their palms and their pressed-against sides was starting to become uncomfortable, but Annie didn’t want to leave. This was Abed, her Abed, her boys, and, if push came to shove, she could have stayed like that forever.