It's been a month since he's moved in to this flat, now living much closer to his friends―no, family. He's been away from them for so many years, he hadn't realized how isolated he has become from them and how lonely he has become.
He has always been a people-person, his mother once describing him as a magnet that drew people in while also gravitating towards them. He was the person who with his boisterous outlook, charmed those around him using both his pretty words and gracious personality.
How much has changed. Because of him.
Joe sits on the edge of his bed, hands on his face, and elbows propped against his knees. He ignores the sound of his phone echoing in the background.
He doesn't need to check to know who's calling him.
It's probably Booker.
"I know you're there, Joe. How long are you going to sulk in your room?” His phone relays the recording voice message, confirming that it is indeed Booker. "You can't keep living like this. And that's coming from me, of all people."
"I know, Booker, I know." The last part barely a whisper.
"We're- I'm worried about you. I understand that what you've gone through- what that piece of shit did-"
A pause. Joe wonders if Booker ended the call until he hears a sigh and shuffling noises as if the other man was scratching the back of his head in frustration.
"Andy and Quynh are having a barbeque next Friday, you're of course invited. Matter in fact, we want you to be there. No, I expect you to be there."
With that, the phone beeps and the recording ends.
Joe doesn't move from his spot, doesn't reach to check his phone. He knows his family wants the best for him―why they spam him with messages of concern―why they convinced him to move here.
He knows, but he just can't bring himself to open up to them when he can't even bring himself to do anything nowadays.
Joe looks up from his hands across to the pile of ripped canvases and shredded papers, a pitiful stash of destroyed attempts.
His hands are back on his face, rubbing against his skin as if to will away the dark clouds enveloping him.
Nile, in an attempt to help Joe get back into art―while thoughtful, not warranted―had showed his earlier works to an art exhibitor who became a fan immediately. Before he knew it, Joe received a mail expressing much desire to showcase his work. With enough encouragement from his family, he reluctantly agreed. Because even he can't deny the ache in his heart to hold the charcoal against the white canvas.
Joe stands up and trails slowly to his studio area. He ignores the stool and ends up sitting on the floor, surrounded by the littered paper and art supplies. Once, he would have chided himself for not showing respect to his tools of trade. Now, he couldn't care less.
He reaches to grab the nearest pencil―half-broken one―and shuffles through to find a suitable...salvageable paper.
Closing his eyes, he tries to picture the garden from his childhood, the warmth he felt running through the field of sunflowers, chasing after his younger sister. The giggle that reverberates through the flowers when he grabbed her and spins her up in the air. His own laughter joining with hers.
His lips quirks, remembering fondly of such memory. His grip on the pencil is loose as he presses down the blunted tip onto the paper, grasping to keep that fond, warm feeling and manifest it on this canvas―
The sound of canvas being ripped apart echoes through the room. "Stop wasting your time with these frivolous doodles, and get a real job!"
A foot stomps on the fallen pieces, scrapping it against the bottom of the shoe. "You don't even have the talent, so why even bother trying?"
The grip on his pencil tightens, any more pressure and it'll end up snapping once again into even smaller pieces.
Joe bites on his lips, squeezing his eyes shut tight, trying to find that warmth again but instead feels pitting despair settle through him.
He looks down and sees dark vicious scribbles permanently marring the garden scene beneath it. Joe groans in frustration and crumples the paper, throwing it against the wall.
He wants to sob, his once passion is tainted and scarred forever. What if he can never draw properly again, what if he's forever unable to create?
―ah― A moaning sound pulls him out of his spiraling dark thoughts.
―ou like that―Joe can only sigh loudly, the walls in this apartment are thin enough that he can hear the faint sounds from the other side, and his neighbors are at this again.
Joe quickly gets up, kicking the messy pile in the process, and goes searching for his earphones. The last thing he wants right now is to listen to his neighbors have sex.
It's not every day but a common enough occurrence in the evenings that Joe's gotten into the habit of blasting music in his ears.
―ple-please...! He ramps up the volume, cursing his neighbors, whoever the fuck they are, for the umpteenth time.
Joe only leaves his flat to check his mail and throw away his trash. Grocery and supplies, he has delivered to him. Family and people, he's been avoiding in general.
As such, he goes to pick up his package and mail at odd hours to minimize human interaction.
It usually works.
Joe almost makes a full-on collision with someone as he takes the corner heading towards the mailboxes, not expecting anyone.
He's not sure if it was him or the other person that managed to make that last-minute attempt maneuver and successfully prevented the collision.
"Santa Maria! Mi dispia- I'm sorry." The voice is soft and accented, Italian, he assumes from the prior slip up. "I didn't see you coming."
"It's fine." Joe says curtly and waves it off, his eyes not quite looking up and instead focusing on the hand gestures the other man was making.
"Please go ahead." The man takes a step back to give Joe more room to go through the hallway. Wanting to quickly retreat back to his flat, Joe takes that offer and proceeds to do exactly that.
He didn't think much of the interaction until the next day when he enters the mail room to find the man from the day before opening the mailbox next to his.
Joe blinks and eyes the back of the man's head with moppy brown hair.
"You're my neighbor." He hadn't meant for that to be said out loud. The words only fumbling out because in the entire month he has stayed in this complex, he has never once seen his neighbor. (Not that he helped staying locked away himself.)
Joe remembers the numerous nights when he had to blast music to drown their voices, his face darkens as he opens his mouth to inform the man about the thin walls―
Only for that thought and frown to evaporate immediately when the mop of brown hair whips around suddenly and grace Joe with a small shy smile and gentle eyes. (The back of his mind, the one that he shoves down, whispers traitorously how beautiful this man is―a Roman sculpture with timeless beauty―he's already taken, the other part retorts.)
"It's you from yesterday." The man straightens up from his position. "You must be the mysterious 35B then. I had wonder for some time if someone actually moved next door." The man's eyes twinkles as he sticks out his hand to Joe. "It's nice to finally meet you."
"Uh-" Joe never had trouble with speaking, often lauded for his eloquence. And yet here he was stumbling, but then again, much has changed.
Joe clears his throat, trying again, and takes the hand, shaking it awkwardly. "Likewise. Sorry, I'm in a hurry." He doesn't blame himself too much for his apparent lack of social skills―he has become quite rusty in that department―when he quickly releases the hand and resume getting his mail to flee.
He tries to forget about the gorgeous Italian neighbor, but found it an impossible task, when few days later, he was once again at the mail area when Joe arrived at his usual time.
"I'm Nicky by the way." The Italian neighbor―Nicky―introduces himself.
"Joe." He responds in a way that doesn't leave room for further discussion. Maybe in earlier times, he would have initiated friendly small-talk. He had always enjoyed talking with people, but now his tongue felt heavy, and he only wanted to retreat back to his silent cave.
Nicky doesn't see put off by his closed-off behavior. Matter in fact, the other man simply hums a small tune while he opens up his mailbox.
A sharp contrast with Joe who was starting to feel tense as he waits for Nicky to finish. He wants to grab his mail and bolt.
As if Nicky read his mind, the man quickens his pace gathering his mails. "Sorry for taking up your time, Joe." He gives a small smile before scurrying to give him privacy, but not before adding a soft, "I'll see you around."
Joe doesn't have the time to respond before the figure disappears around the corner―not that he would have said anything in response.
He just stands there, staring at the direction Nicky went for a moment longer before shaking his head. Why was this man still continuing to make small talk with him? Did he not get the message? Maybe he'll stop. No better yet, maybe he'll stop coming to check his mail during Joe’s safe time. That way, Joe can go back to successfully avoiding people all together.
"Joe!" The bearded man turns around to spot Nicky arriving in the mail room just as he was turning the key to open his own mail compartment.
The voice is friendly, but Joe felt his face twitch in irritation especially in the context of the said neighbor keeping him up last night with the banging and moaning noises. It was louder than usual, and he's seriously starting to believe that Nicky is out to antagonize him not only during the night but during the day as well.
"Are you purposefully coming here just to bother me?" He winces at his own harsh tone. The last few times he's come to get his mail, that man was always there during his specific time.
Nicky blinks in confusion before offering an apologetic look. "It was not my intention to do so at all. Please do believe me." He pauses as if mulling to find the right words.
"It's just―how do you say it…" He strokes his mouth, his brows furrowing slightly. "This is the time when it's quiet? The residents don't usually..."
"...come at this hour." They end up saying it at the same time. Joe hadn't even realized his mouth moved by itself.
"Si- yes, that." He pauses again―Joe wonders if it's language barrier or if Nicky is naturally the type to think carefully through his words. "I was surprised to see you if I am being honest. I'm sorry if it seems intentional―well it is intentional to come here at this time, but not to bother you...just to avoid people." His shoulders seem to fold in on itself.
"No, no. I get it- I completely get it. Sometimes I- you get nervous at the thought of seeing people..." Joe's voice trails off, his eyes focus on Nicky's shoulders, wanting to loosen that tension building up. It looks unnatural in a man.
Nicky's lip quirks up on one corner and he nods in agreement. Joe chides himself in his assumption―maybe Nicky is a kindred spirit.
Following that exchange silence ensues but not an awkward one he had expected, but instead one of silent understanding as they each did their own thing.
Right before he exited the room, Joe looks over his shoulder and takes deep breathe, "I apologize for my- uh- behavior. I know I've been rude...but I'll see you around...Nicky."
Nicky's eyes crinkle as he gives Joe a soft smile that leaves him breathless. He couldn't help but think of the moon peeking out from the dark clouds, how it illuminates the sky so brightly.
Joe's hand itch to grab a pencil and capture the moon.
Something's changed since then. The next few meetings were silent but friendly wordless exchange before it evolved to small conversations, no more than few sentences about safe topics like the weather.
"Can you believe it? It's only September, and it's already 20 C." Nicky's hands gestures matched his exasperation before he wraps himself and shivers.
Joe could only agree with Nicky and laments missing the sun's warm rays. They talk about their Mediterranean background, and express regret moving so up north…and so far from the coast.
The conversations were brief, lasting only as long as it takes the two of them to gather their mails. But soon, they started to linger a little longer, the conversations no longer so short or so impersonal.
"My sister works as a museum curator," Joe explains and details her many accomplishments. Joe's always been proud of her and will gush about her to any willing ears. But he also adds, "Don't let her fool you though into thinking she’s some saint, she was an absolute menace as a child!" and he starts to spin tales of his childhood...the words flowing out with ease for the first time in a long while. He realized he forgot how much he enjoyed this, telling stories to a captivated audience. He watches the Nicky's eyes light up as listens fondly at their antics, chiming in here and there with a soft chuckle.
Nicky looks at Joe with such rapt attention as if he's the most important thing in the world and nothing else matters in this moment―only Joe.
His heart flutters at the twin seas looking at him so adoringly.
Without realizing it, Joe starts coming to check his mailbox daily. He doesn't even bother opening his compartment on most days, he’s only there for the company. He wonders if it's the same with the other man, as Nicky, too, without fail is present every day.
Joe starts to smile more―not the forced smile he's given his friends and family so they would be reassured...but the same genuine grin that used to come more freely and easily. He realizes he's been laughing more as well, Nicky's unexpected wry humor making him clutch his stomach as his hearty laughter fills the room.
He feels lighter...happier than he has been in years.
Nicky wasn't there on Friday.
Joe's tells himself that he's not disappointed. But he knows he's only lying to himself.
Leaning against the wall, he lingers for a moment longer―maybe Nicky's out of town. Maybe he's overslept or he's busy with personal matter―he reasons...rationalizes―anything to reassure himself that Nicky was not bored with him or worse became disgusted with what he saw through him.
"You're always so emotional, always playing the victim. That's why nobody likes you.”
“You think your 'friends' want to be around you? They're just tolerating you out of pity. They're all going to get fed up with you and leave. Just you wait."
"You're lucky I'm still with you."
Joe flinches at the memory.
Abruptly, he pushes himself off the wall and stumbles towards the exit. He knows he's acting irrationally...but his thoughts were making leaps and latching on to the fact that something is fundamentally wrong with him so people will inevitably leave him...he can't stop the voice ringing in his ears…no one wants you no one wants you no one wa…
Distracted by the voice, he almost collides with another person as he turns the corner. It felt like Deja vu, still not sure if it was him or the other person that promptly stopped their moment to prevent the impact.
Joe takes another step immediately, ignoring the person, he can feel trembles starting to form―he needs to get back. Get back to his room.
"Joe! I'm sorry I'm late― Joe?" The oh-so familiar sound pierces through the running mantra, and Joe can't help but stop in his track and look up with wide eyes.
His blurring vision sharpens and focus on the source of the voice. All he sees if Nicky's face.
"Are you all right...no, that's a dumb question, you're obviously not." His voice is soft and gentle.
"Joe... I'm going to touch your hand, okay." He nods his head with aborted movement, only now realizing that his own hands were trembling against Nicky's steady hand.
Joe grabs and grips Nicky's hand―a lifeline.
"Can you breathe with me, Joe? In...out...in...out..." Joe gasps, releasing the air he didn't know he was holding. In. Out. In. Out. His eyes focus on Nicky's pink lips, mimicking him until his breathing evens out.
He doesn't know how long they stayed like this, Nicky's warm hands resting on his, grounding him. He only hears the sound of breathing.
When he feels whatever was gripping him loosen up, Joe bows his head down in guilt. "I'm sor-"
"No." Nicky shakes his head interrupting Joe from finishing, "No need to apologize."
"I understand." If it was anyone else who said it, Joe might have made a snarky comment. He hates those two words. I understand. People keep saying to him, patronizing him that they know how he feels. But how can they understand him when they can't read his minds let alone comprehend what he went through.
But something about the way Nicky says makes him choke up, or maybe it's his expression―the eyes that seem to have seen too much and yet holds infinite kindness. When Nicky said those two words, it was from a place of genuine care and consideration.
Nicky picks up something, he must have dropped it at some point in favor of holding Joe's hand, to reassure him.
Joe braces himself, waiting for the dreaded question his family has been bombarding him in high frequency in recent months. Do you want to talk about it?
"I baked some muffins for you." Nicky smile is shy, faltering when Joe doesn't respond. "Or not, sorry I should have I asked if you even like muffins... or if you have some kind of allergi-" Nicky was rambling, awkwardly shuffling to put the container back into his bag.
This man is too sweet, and Joe feels guilt realizing his staring made Nicky misunderstand.
Trying to fix his mistake, Joe hastily reaches and wraps his fingers around Nicky's wrists. The other man instinctively jerks as if to pull his hand away from the grip, but relaxes so quickly, Joe almost didn't notice it.
"I do. I do want some, thank you."
When Nicky's sweet smile return, Joe can't help but find his own lips mimicking the motion.
"I was late today because I miscalculated how long it'll take to bake properly." Nicky explains as he tucks a stray hair behind his ear.
Only then Joe notices the bandages on Nicky's hands, he hadn't felt them when Nicky held his hand. The other man, perceptive as ever notices, "You look so worried! Please don't be, I was too clumsy and dropped a glass bowl this morning. Guess that didn't help with making the muffins on time either." Nicky shrugs it off with a laugh and opens up the container for Joe to take one. "Take some, they're blueberry muffins." It didn’t escape Joe how easily Nicky evaded the conversation, but with his own emotions frayed, he didn’t have the energy or the will to pursue further.
They end up sitting right there at the corridor, eating Nicky's hand baked muffins. The muffins are delicious, better than any Joe has had before, the texture soft and the sweetness just right. He tells Nicky exactly that, words rolling off his tongue with ease―his tongue not feeling so heavy.
They don't talk about what happened, instead they pick up their conversation from the day before as if Joe hadn't made a scene, as if it doesn't matter that he had this episode...and that it's all right, no judgement or worse, pity from the other man. Joe can even tell that Nicky's trying his best to distract him―trying to make him laugh more.
He wonders if he deserves Nicky's kindness...he wonders if this cruel world even deserved it.
―come here, now! The words, while faint, was distinct enough for Joe to know what its cue. Quickly he puts on his earbuds and turn on loud music to drown the noise between Nicky...and his partner. The thought makes something in his stomach tighten, and he tries not to think too much about his reaction. Nicky and Joe are just friends, he reminds himself. Nicky is taken, obviously from the sounds of a robust sex life coming from the other side of the wall.
Joe and Nicky are friends, and that's more than enough for him. He repeats this to himself again as his charcoal block glides across the canvas, the first time in a long while when his hands moved on its own to manifest a creation without the pain...the anxiety...the insecurity. His fingers moved without care and his mind was so fixated on a single image he wants to recreate that no other intrusive thoughts could invade.
Moving his hand away, he's greeted by Nicky's sweet soft smile, the crinkling corners of his eyes, his mouth slightly opened showing teeth.
A warmth spreads across his chest looking at the smile, his own lips unconsciously quirking up into a grin.
Joe adds few more final touches before he wipes his charcoal covered fingers against a cloth. His heart starts to thump, already anxious about the prospect of gifting this to Nicky.
For few days he mulled over wanting to do something for the other man as thanks for...well many things especially being the highlight of his day, a listening ear and a soothing voice that make him realize he's not alone. In summary, a beacon of light while he's been fumbling in the darkness.
He thought about buying something for Nicky but that felt tasteless. While some appreciate luxury gifts, Nicky doesn't seem the type. He seems to appreciate simple life...and would prefer more meaningful gifts, Joe thought to himself reflecting back to his conversations with Nicky.
He shakes his head, and huffs out a small laugh. No, Nicky would be grateful if he was given a rock. That's the type of person Joe realizes Nicky is.
Joe wants to give something to really show his gratitude, and he looked down to his traitorous hands that once used to create personal art to gift his loved ones. But they have been refusing to cooperate with him, and he was scared to even try, the shredded papers on the floor evident of why. He was scared of the invading voice of him that left his hands trembling as he destroys whatever he created.
But Nicky's smile has been haunting him for days, his hands itching to grab a pencil―an urge he hasn't had for so long, as if the Muse possessed his spirit and he is powerless in its grasp. With such fervor, Joe pressed down the charcoal and let his hands do its own thing. His mind was blank except for thoughts of Nicky...Nicky...Nicky...
He had sighed loudly when he finished, his shoulders ached and the back of his neck cramped, his eyes feeling strained from staring at the canvas for so long without pause. The pain was familiar...and it felt good. It felt like before, the familiar ease and contentment from creating. His hands were meant for creating as his mother used to say. He was at his most ease and comfortable when he was.
That was few minutes ago, now Joe is walking down the corridor with the canvas under his arms, his heart pounding against his chest. He can hear each beat. He hasn't shown his art to anyone since his ex...
Joe whips the canvas behind his back, an attempt to hide it.
"Are you okay?" Nicky's cheerful countenance quickly shifted to concern, "Are you feeling sick? Do you want me to get medicine?"
"Thanks for the offer, Nicky, but I'm all right." Joe tries to give Nicky a smile but he's sure it came out crooked. "I- I wanted to give you something. But now I'm...I'm wondering if it's even worth giving it to you. It's- uh- it's not that good-"
Nicky puts a hand on Joe's shoulder pulling the man from his rambling thoughts, his smile is reassuring. "You didn't have to get me anything, but I appreciate it nonetheless. Even the thought is more than enough for me."
Joe gulps, lost in Nicky's sea foam eyes. Slowly he pulls the canvas from behind and hands it to Nicky with trembling hands. Joe winces at his traitorous hands, trying to will them to still.
Joe’s eyes lower, trying to look at anything but Nicky's face as the other man takes the canvas.
Nicky doesn't respond, and all Joe can hear is his own beating heart about to burst out of his chest. He squeezes his eyes shut...the silence doesn't forebode well.
"...is this me?"
"Is this supposed to be me? Because is sure as fuck doesn't look like it. No wonder no one wants to buy you artwork!"
"What the fuck is this? You call this some gift? What can I do with this?! You should have just given me money if you couldn't think of anything better?! Everyone else gets- I don't know- watches from their partner, and here's mine giving me trash that's worth nothing!"
A scoff. "If you give that to her, I'm going to die from embarrassment, why don't you get something meaningful―something people won't immediately throw into the trash can?"
His breathing hitched, shoulders tensing. He shouldn't have expected any different. He already knew his art was not good enough. He opens his mouth few times to say an apology or anything but nothing comes out.
"...Joe." The voice is so low, he might have imagined it.
"This is...perfect. Beautiful! Splendissima! Oh...how I wish I had talent with words like you so I can drown you in compliments."
Joe's eyes shot up at Nicky, shocked by the words he's hearing― what?
Nicky's eyes seem to be watery, "I've never received such a precious gift before, thank you, Joe." His hands seem to be clutching the canvas carefully as if it's something so fragile that'll disappear and break if he lets go.
"I hadn't realized you were so talented...but I'm not surprised either, Joe. You are truly amazing."
Joe's ears start to warm up. "...you like it?" He hates how his weak his voice sounds
"I love it! Truly! Thank you again, Joe! Grazie." Nicky's voice is earnest and genuine in its expression. "Can you please tell me how you created such a masterpiece? Especially from memory, because this looks just like me!"
Joe's lips perk up and grow, going from ear to ear, and he couldn't help but release a loud laughter, feeling foolish at his previous insecurity. Nicky is not like that man. Nicky is...more.
They spend the next several minutes talking about art and different art techniques, which quickly revolved to tales from Joe's art school days.
When Nicky gives Joe the same smile he captured on paper, Joe’s heart starts to pound for a different reason.
His phone buzzes.
Joe hadn't realized it was, the sound drowned by the music he's been blasting in his ears. Nowadays he's been playing music every evening. Before it was only prompted on those days his neighbors decided to go at it, but now he doesn't even want to know if they―if Nicky is even having sex. He tells himself it's not jealously, it's just now he has a face to the sound and he doesn't want such mental image...of Nicky flushed face and bruised lips, whispering please.
Stop it. He tells himself, and it’s only when he shakes his head, he notices the vibrating phone. He welcomes such distraction wholeheartedly.
The caller is Booker.
"Joe, I know you're there, answer the godda― Joe?"
"Who else would it be." Joe can't help but laugh at the mental image of Booker, he can see it in his mind, the Frenchman aghast, eyes wide in shock like that time in college when his future wife called him an idiot and kissed him…only after a slap for making her wait so long.
"Fuck. You actually fucking answered."
"I'm doing well, Booker, thanks for asking." He smirks.
"I- I hadn't planned this out further than screaming at you to answer my phone."
Joe chuckles in response.
"I'll start again then, how are you, man?"
"I'm...better. It's been good, yeah, it's been good. I've even drawn some art." His eyes glance over at the canvas he’s working on…another one of Nicky.
"You- that's...great. More than great. I'm so fucking happy for you." Booker knows how much he's been struggling with art, how much that has been a strain on himself, how it's tied to his self-worth.
"Me, too. I met someone, and no―not a romantic interest before you ask. A..." What does he call Nicky? He's not an acquaintance. "...friend…” That didn’t sound right either, but it’s the closest thing he can think of us. “He's helped a lot pulling me out of dark clouds."
"I'm offended that you replaced your best friend with someone else." Booker's voice was completely deadpan that Joe couldn't help but bark out a laughter.
"Booker, you know this, you're not just a best friend...you're my brother."
Booker doesn't respond and Joe can imagine how the man would look like―the man pretends he's tough and all that, but he's quite mushy inside and statements like that melts him into a puddle of emotions.
"I don't think..." Joe shuffles towards the window, looking out at the sunset. "I don't think I'm completely fine, but I feel lighter... For once, I feel like I'm truly getting a fresh start...and move on?" Maybe it's because Nicky doesn't know his past that makes it easier to talk with the other man...no, it's just...Nicky with his comfortable presence and attentive eyes. While he doesn't talk much, he always somehow makes Joe feel like he's important and what he has to say, matter.
"Good, that's good, Joe. No one expects you to get better overnight. That doesn't make sense, but I'm happy to see you making progress. Whoever this new friend of yours is, I want to kiss them!"
Joe scoffs and teasingly adds, "With your face? Good luck with that! Even an angel like him wouldn't be gracious enough to kiss that face!"
Booker makes an offended sound and pauses. "...you really do sound good, Joe. Really. You sound like...well you--"
Before Booker can finish, he hears some yelling in the background and rapid-fire French curses from Booker. Some more shuffling.
"Joe! It's so good to hear from you!"
Joe chuckles, "Same to you, Nile." He missed her…he missed all of them.
"Listen, we're going out for drinks Friday night, please tell me you can come? I'll even get Booker to pay for your drinks"
Joe doesn't respond immediately...even though he's moved down here to be closer to them, he hasn't properly met them. The other line is quiet, not pressuring him.
"Only if Booker pays for drinks and dinner." Joe would have winked at Nile if they were with him. The excited sound followed by grumbling from the opposite side makes him laugh out loud.
Everything will be fine.
For once, he believed it.