By the time George left the coffee shop, he had been given an extra latte, some packets of gourmet peppermint cocoa, and one of the one-cup coffee contraptions he had stared at during the awkward moment of meeting his brother’s lover 12 years after his brother had killed himself. It had been a strange encounter—reconciliation turning quickly into conciliation on Leonard’s part, as if he had something to apologize for. His tentative, emotion-filled overtures made George’s throat constrict. It was as if Leonard had been waiting 12 years for George to push through those doors. Thinking such made George pull through a GoGas and slip himself a pack of ultra lights.
Giving Leonard the photo had been the right thing to do—no matter how much time had passed. Though the photo was in so many ways beside the point; it could have been anything to do with Chad. The gesture was what counted. George knew all this in his bones, and yet he still felt intensely uncomfortable for days afterward. His goal had not been to connect but to sever—to give himself permission to let go of his brother’s memory and move on. Instead, he had Leonard’s phone number, e-mail address, and mandate to join Facebook so that they could chat about Chad.
So, when the day came to leave for his new job, George packed with a secret sort of glee. As he was rolling and tucking ties into a compartment in the suitcase, he heard the elevator door open and the tapping of Martin’s forearm crutches.
Martin stopped at George’s door. “’Sup, buddy?”
Now, thought George, just say it. He tucked socks into a pocket in the suitcase. “Thought I’d take a trip.”
“Well,” Martin said, “here.” He held out a package in camo wrapping paper.
George kept his eyes on his packing. “What’s that?”
“Just a little something for your ‘trip.’”
George stopped packing and studied Martin. He was slouched over his forearm crutches as usual,giving George that crooked “you dummy” kind of smile that was just short of a shake of the head.
George scratched his jaw. “I meant to tell you…”
“The trouble with you managers is you think everybody else is stupid. Take this, please. My arm’s getting tired.”
George stepped over to Martin, took the gift, unwrapped it and marveled at a tablet PC. The old constriction in George’s throat returned. “Martin, you can’t be serious.”
“Black Friday, man. It was a sweet deal. Keep in touch, will you?”
“Sure,” George murmured, still marveling at the tablet.
“And don’t get to be an asshole again.”
George packed the tablet. “Tough times out there, Martin. A guy’s gotta do—”
“That’s bullshit. Have you told Cheri?”
George fidgeted. “Will you?”
Martin squinted down the hall. “What’s up with you, man?”
“I just don’t wanna hurt her.”
“No, you just wanna be gone before she knows she’s hurt, and that’ll hurt her double. Come on, George. You gotta have enough of a spine left for this much.”
“Yea, okay.” He turned away and finished packing.
Martin scrutinized George, and George felt his eyes on the back of his neck. They both knew he would not be telling Cheri he was leaving. For a brief time George had fallen from the remote seclusion he had built for himself over several years and had landed abruptly on this Earth and walked it with no pretensions, no defenses. Because he had been down-and-out. Now he was returning home, to some place up and in himself that was hard to entirely abandon once built.
“Do me a favor, George,” Martin said.
“Don’t buy any spy cameras.”
George turned red. As if he would. As if he had not been humiliated enough. He set his jaw, zipped up his suitcase and picked it up. “Are you finished?”
“Where you’re going, it’ll get lonely, and you’ll think you owe it to yourself. Just … try to stay cued into people. On their own terms. Don’t get to thinking you’re better than them, because you’re not.”
Something broke in George and before he knew it, he let a whole lot fly that had been pent up for a long time. “Martin, your experiment is finished and walking out the door. You don’t own me. you don’t know what I’m thinking. You don’t know the first thing about me, but you’re right there, always eager to tell me what to do. Well, I’m telling you, move out of my way.”
“Gladly,” Martin said. “Hope the tablet freezes on you.”
“Can’t believe I got involved in this sorry-ass operation,” George mumbled as he bumped Martin on his way out. He took the steps in twos, strode through the computer lab, ignoring greetings from pupils, and stepped out the door into a bright and frigid day.
And then regret set in.