When he broke up with his girlfriend in his last year of university his mind turned against women. Never dating again and constantly with agendas, he muttered, believing it. His friend keeps quiet when she needs to, listens when she needs to, talks when she needs to. Without words they turn to sex – something both need for different reasons. His friend pulls him through his life for a time when he would have been content to sit and let it slide by.
“Are you happy?” she asks. He lies in the bed his friend shares with her boyfriend; they are naked and sweat pools in the hollows of his collarbones and the backs of her knees. He slides a hand down his friend’s side and presses her close to him, kissing her shoulder languorously. With a slow, lazy smile he rolls her onto her back and settles his hips against hers once more, burying his face in the place where her shoulder and neck meet, his every action and smile saying I’m grateful for you. His deep, steady heartbeat under his friend’s palm saying I’m content.
She swept into their lives, all swirls and curls and grace, with her shy heart set on him from the start. It was only a matter of time before never dating again turned to embarrassed, shy confessions of she makes me feel… oh god, I am so gay for her. With the well-tuned efficiency of a close-knit group, they wordlessly made room for this new red haired, long-legged creature.
“Are you happy?” His friend works her hand slowly over his back in a comforting motion that had after so many years become unconscious. He shifts his shoulders, as if adjusting a weight that rests heavily on them. His yes doesn’t need to be spoken, and when he breathes too happy it doesn’t need to be explained.
A rough patch hits at their year-and-a-half mark. He’s moody and inaccessible and frustrated because of it; his friend paces anxiously on the edge of his awareness, waiting to be let in, waiting to be helpful. He tries to carry on as usual with his friend, but she knows too much, sees him too well. Eventually they fall to talking one evening, and his worries tumble from his lips easier than he thought they would. She nods, listening.
“Are you happy?” comes her inevitable question. She holds his hand in hers, kneading his flesh and toying with his fingers. She watches him blink once, twice, three times and sigh. He swallows hard and leaves the room. Wary of pushing too hard and too fast, she pads down the hallway after him. When she approaches, he watches her carefully through red-rimmed eyes, his arms crossed, his jaw set. He wants not to need her but she’s on her toes and her arms are around him, and he’s pressing his face tight to her neck, already wet with his tears. She holds him tight, as if without her he’d fly apart. Sometimes he thinks he might.
When he decides to marry his girl, no one is surprised. His two friends make speeches and clink glasses and take vaguely pornographic photos with the disposable cameras left on every table. Later, when little flower girls lie sleeping in their father’s arms and the bride dances slowly in hers, he sits down quietly next to his friend. The other had buggered off with a bridesmaid and a lewd hand gesture.
“Are you happy?” she asks again, years after the first time. She watches her best friend: bow-tie undone to hang loosely around his neck, a sweet flush of pink across his cheeks and an absent smile on his lips. She watches her best friend as he watches his new bride, not hearing her question but not needing to answer anyway.
There’s a rough time when they can’t conceive; painfully he seeks his friend out to talk to. Always so reluctant to share any part of his intimate life, but he’s drowning and she’s always been there before when he reaches out. It’s near impossible to drag any coherency out of him, amid all of his vagueness and ambiguity but she does so with the precision and tenderness of someone well used to the task. He sits awkwardly on a stool in her kitchen and she knows just when to pull up a second for herself, her hand smoothing circles over his back.
“Are you happy?” Later, they lie on the couch together, fitting together in that strange way they always seem to manage on too-small couches. His thumb stills where it had been tracing the veins on the inside of her wrist and she feels his chest rise under her cheek in a heavy sigh. I’m scared his silence says and his friend combs her fingers gently through the hair at his temples until he falls asleep.
He feels his wife slipping away, her attention divided, and he weathers it stoically. When they have company she is the girl he met years ago, the bright, happy, goofy girl. She smacks him playfully with an oven mitt when he reaches for a taste of her custard. His friend watches curiously as this domestic cinema unfolds and she sees desperation in his eyes. She’s different when we’re alone, he confesses quietly, worrying his fingers around and around and around the neck of his bottle. It changes everything.
“Are you happy?” his friend asks just as quietly. His expression is confused; it says yes and no and I can’t be without her and she’s everything and I love her. He blinks and grabs his friend’s feet, pulling them into his lap in the way that he longs to be pulled into hers. He twists his fingers through his hair and meets his friend’s eyes. She sees that he knows what she’s seen for years and she is saddened by it – knowing you love someone more than they can ever love you is a curse. She knows this from experience, and now so does he.
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