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From the balcony of his Prague apartment, Dominic dials his once closest friend, Bryce. As they chat, Dominic paces back and forth under the towering moonlight – early-onset restless leg syndrome, he believes. Opposite Dominic’s balcony, five yards or so away is the balcony of a neighbouring apartment building. Every few minutes he distractedly glances through sliding doors at a man and woman smoking wispily in bed.
Bryce answers four thousand miles away. Bryce says he’s lazing in a hammock in the yard of a rustic colonial-era rental in Connecticut. Inside, his wife, Abigail, and infant twins named after characters from Friends are napping. He talks in an almost-whisper, free hand relaxing on his belly, only rising to fidget with his eyebrow piercing. He says he is watching the pale clouds straggle like sheep.
Somewhere between New England and Central Europe, the setting sun is hazing over the Atlantic like a smog. Neither Dominic nor Bryce know that this will be the last time they will speak for a decade.
“I wanted to thank you again,” Dominic says. “And again. Thank you.”
“I already told you, it was nothing,” Bryce says. “You’d do it for me.”
“I should have brought souvenirs,” Dominic says. “Do you like bread? Like, banana bread, zucchini bread, etcetera bread? An old friend mailed me several loaves of bread wrapped in plastic and drowning in a box of blue coloured zigzags. I froze them and they would still be fresh by the time they reached you.”
“Keep your carbs away from me,” Bryce says. “The girls are only nine months old and I have a dad bod.”
A week earlier, Bryce drove three hours to pick Dominic up from the airport in Providence, Rhode Island, delivered him to Dominic’s great grandpa’s funeral, and attended the proceedings. In the funeral home, the priest gathered the family and friends around the closed casket and led them in cyclic recitations of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. With each round, their prayers ascended louder before plateauing and crashing into a chorus of tears. Dominic, who only spoke to his great grandpa two or three times, stood askance and limp armed, watching on and feeling like he was an unfeeling wallflower because even Bryce, an outsider, had watery eyes after performing the prayers in protruding Latin.
Bryce was a good Catholic and had attended services in Latin, Spanish, Cantonese, Haitian-Creole, and Malayalam. Dominic had lapsed. In fact, Dominic believed that the Bible was bigger than what was printed – that the Gnostic Gospels from the Nag Hammadi library were likely suppressed but canonical chapters, that there were likely hundreds of books missing from the Bible that were destroyed by early Church authorities, that, like anybody or anything, there were secrets Christianity kept even from itself.
After the service and funeral procession, Bryce ate bar food with Dominic and his extended family. An aunt asked euphemistically if they two of them were a couple – embarrassed, Bryce flashed his gold band. Dominic deduced his aunt’s clumsy reasoning: why else would he proffer a plus one to a distant relative’s funeral, why else would she never have heard a whisper of a girlfriend at 30? What Dominic told nobody, Bryce included, was that he was a dyed in the wool asexual, that he had never been sexually attracted to anybody, including all of the woman whom he briefly dated. Though not the sole reason, the one commonality between all his attempted relationships were sexual mismatches that hindered the threads of his and their affection from coalescing.
Before leaving, Dominic introduced Bryce to kolache – cheap, store-bought, and doughy, offering to pilfer a few for Bryce’s drive home. Bryce declined. He delivered Dominic back to the Providence airport to catch his redeye to Europe.
“If not bread, how about tea?” Dominic asks from the balcony. “You remember Julian, my wanderlusty roommate who tutored me in Mandarin? He goes on multi-day hikes with his sons. He’s been to Appalachia, the Andes. He brews his own tea and stores it in international Starbucks thermoses. Anyway, he said he picked this green tea himself from the LaoShan mountains in Qingdao, China. He gave it to me the day before he went off the grid without a peep.”
“I wouldn’t know how to boil it,” Bryce says.
“You can look it up, Sherlock,” Dominic says.
“Abby – we are trying to cut out caffeine,” Bryce says.
“That’s crazy,” Dominic says.
“Crazy enough to work,” Bryce says.
“Maybe,” Dominic says.
Dominic only gives in re-gifts. This particular quirk is not due to laziness, he was sure; he resorts to re-gifting because the only objects he can find that glimmer with sentiment are gifts from family members and friends, prizes from contests and giveaways. He is no good at crafts, doesn’t know where he can handpick flowers or seedlings. And he can’t buy a present – that would be a shortcut, a transaction in the form of gesture, even though, typically, his re-gifted presents are, at one point, bulk-pedestaled on shelves.
Years prior, he offered the tea to Chloe, a woman with whom he’d been close until she moved from the Czech Republic to Seattle to teach at a school for the Deaf. She loves wearing long skirts and reading novels in Esperanto and teaches English to refugees for free. When he texted her about the tea, she politely turned it down with a violet sticky note left on his front door written in lower-case, how thoughtful.
“I got this collector’s coin, Eisenhower, your favourite president?” Dominic offers. Dominic’s favourite president was a tie between Obama and Carter. “Remember how I found it in the coin return of that vending machine on campus, remember?”
“Do you still like it out there in Czechia?” Bryce asks in verbal air quotes. “When the girls are older, maybe we all could visit. Me and Abbie talk about you often – she calls you my rival, says you must be the bees’ knees.’”
“It’s getting boring out here,” Dominic says, distracted. “I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stick around. I’m thinking Budapest next, or Warsaw – Ooh! What about a necklace with a Harvard class ring hanging from it?” Dominic asks.
Dominic picked it up for James, an entrepreneurship major and friend who had designed and paid for it before dropping out. He called Dominic, saying, I’m actually on a plane to Kenya right now to see my grandma, could you pick this up for me in the next few weeks?
“He works in a skyscraper in Nairobi now. What do you say? It’s the genuine article,” Dominic says.
“Abby went to Yale, we don’t need two Ivy Leaguers in this family,” Bryce says.
“So? You could pretend you went to Harvard instead of a state school and be a power couple,” Dominic says.
“We are a power couple,” Bryce says.
“A more powerful couple,” Dominic says.
“Not possible,” Bryce says.
“So no to the necklace, but how about a Blu-ray player I got in a raffle on a Caribbean cruise?” Dominic asks. “Or, my cousin’s dog’s old collar, who died while he was on an elementary school field trip to a history museum?”
“We stream everything we watch nowadays,” Bryce says.
“It’s free,” Dominic says. “You got to take something.”
“We think Monica is allergic to dogs,” Bryce says. “Not Rachel, strangely.”
“You earned something man. You drove seven hours out of your way in total,” Dominic says. “I tallied it.”
“You’d do it for me,” Bryce says. “Everything’s peachy here, pal.”
Dominic detects impatience in his friend’s voice. After all, the score is settled, what else is there to say? But Dominic knows it isn’t and wonders if Bryce perceives his insistence as an acknowledgment of their one-sided friendship. Dominic always feared he took Bryce for granted. He couldn’t picture himself taking a day off to drive to pick Bryce up from the airport. He’d rent him a car, call a cab, connect someone from his network of friends to pick Bryce up on his behalf – but to drive Bryce to a funeral of a relative he barely knew; why would anyone do such a thing?
“Everything doesn’t have to be peachy,” Dominic says.
Bryce does not respond to this. On Dominic’s end he sees the smoking man in the opposite apartment get out of bed. He and Bryce had been talking for an hour, and Dominic imagines that on Bryce’s end he’s watching the final cloud in the train pass over head.
“Bryce,” Dominic says. “Remember that purple rosary my mom got from the Vatican? That we had blessed by that priest in town?” Dominic asks, leaving out the part where, years later, that priest was defrocked and they never learned why. “I know you liked it. You should take it. I can get it in the mail tomorrow.”
Dominic knows what the perfect gift is for Bryce, but it would require powers beyond his control. Bryce was not a virgin when he met and married Abigail. Bryce recounted the story to Dominic a year or so after the incident. How he was drunk at a party and he was grinding with a woman and she asked if he wanted to go home with her. He said yes. They drank more and laid on her bed. He asked if she wanted to have sex. She said yes. After they finished and she was asleep and sobriety crept in, Bryce took off in the middle of the night and never saw her again.
He prayed. He confessed, and all was forgiven: his soul was white as snow. But Dominic suspected, under Bryce’s mumbled phrases, far off distracted glances, momentary gaps in the loving praises of his wife at their wedding day, that he still regretted that night. He gave into lust. He gave into shame by ghosting that poor woman. Along the infinite perimeter of his soul, Bryce believed, there was a sickly bruise the length of a fingernail that would forever tarnish his unblemished radiance.
Dominic most wishes he could turn back the clock and prevent Bryce’s regret from materializing to begin with. He imagines somehow loaning his orientation to Bryce for just that one night as to spare his friend the temptation to begin with.
“It’s fine man. I don’t need anything. It’s peachy like I said,” Bryce says.
“Not even the rosary? You’re impossible,” Dominic says.
“I think the girls are waking up,” Bryce says.
“Okay, okay, I got it I think,” Dominic says. “How about a memory my great grandpa recounted to me one of the only times we spoke?
“A Caribbean beach, white sand, his new lover reading a book even though the sun was setting and the vista was so beautiful that all he could do was lie there.”
“This isn’t mythology, Bryce. He was not drunk. Though I think he still felt sensual, hands behind his head, skin shriveled from the ocean water and ironed by the orange light. You can have this memory, if you want, completely uncorrupted.
“You don’t have to remember their eventual divorce and him getting ugly after the fact. Even at the moment, you don’t need to recall the peeling athlete’s foot he was itching the whole vacation.
“You don’t even have to know just how exhausted he was, that he felt like the burning wire in an incandescent light bulb, that on top of all that, he felt like he was being smothered in the atrium of a lampshade.”
“It’s time, man,” Bryce says.
“Back to the world?” Dominic asks.
“Back to the world,” Bryce says.
“We’ll talk soon?” Dominic asks.
“Definitely, man,” Bryce says.
“I hope you know I’m thankful, still,” Dominic says.
“I know,” Bryce says.
Dominic says goodbye, the line cuts. Silence.
Dominic goes inside for a drink of water and to pee. He decides to find Julian’s tin of green tea. It’s in the pantry and Dominic unseals it and sticks his nose in – the scent of sand – before walking out to his balcony.
The man who was smoking in bed is now smoking outside, leaning on the railing of his balcony. He looks up and notices Dominic standing there. He says something in Czech and Dominic tilts his head uncomprehendingly. The man holds up the box of cigarettes and points to it.
Dominic nods his head. The neighbour leans over the balcony railing, measuring his toss. He throws it. It arcs through the air. Dominic’s heart races. As if it were an arrow pointed towards his jugular, Dominic captures the box by slapping it between both of his palms, smushing it like puddy.
“Thank you!” Dominic says.
“You can keep it,” he shouts back, in English.
“Thank you,” Dominic shouts, a little too loud.
Dominic peers inside the box: three left. He goes inside for a lighter.
When he comes back out the neighbour is no longer on his balcony. His door is closed and his blinds are shut. Dominic decides he’ll smoke the rest of the pack, throw it away, and then go back inside for the night and boil a pot of water until it is nothing but a wasteland of bubbles and steam.