It was a balmy day, the weather, at least, perfect. Johnny hoped, as he climbed the stairs, that the fresh air and cool breeze would calm him down and give him some perspective.
His thoughts spun wildly out of control, a haze of confusion, hurt, anger, betrayal. Only a few minutes ago, coming home from work, he had run into Claudette, leaving his and Lisa’s condo. His future mother-in-law’s warmth towards him was usually obvious, but today she had seemed cold and distant.
She had only stopped long enough to say, “Oh, hi, Johnny,” before she practically tried to flee. Johnny, seeing her discomfort, had asked her what was wrong, slowly drawing out the problem. Claudette had eventually revealed that Lisa had told her mother about the night Johnny had come home, dejected, his promotion an empty promise. Lisa had said that he had drained the bottle of vodka without much help from her, that he had been in a drunken stupor, that he had hit his future wife. Johnny wasn’t used to drinking, and it was true that his memories of that night were hazy, but he knew it wasn’t true, that it was bullshit.
“I did not hit her, it’s not true, it’s bullshit, I did not hit her, I did not,” Johnny complained, drawing out his last point as he flung his empty water bottle aside in anger. “Oh, hi, Mark.”
“Oh, hey, Johnny, what’s up,” Mark greeted him, relaxing in one of the patio chairs in the corner of the rooftop, twirling a football in his hands. He wasn’t going to ask, not directly anyways, about the grievances Johnny had been listing as he exited the stairwell. There was no way he could’ve avoided overhearing, but he knew better than to blithely bring it up.
“I have a problem with Lisa,” Johnny explained. “She says that I hit her.”
“What?” Mark asked with theatrical disbelief, exaggerating his reaction in trying to mask his lack of surprise. “Well, did you?”
“No, it’s not true,” Johnny repeated as he sat down next to Mark, before adding, somewhat overdue, “Don’t even ask.” He crossed his legs, trying to adopt a relaxed posture. “What’s new with you?” he asked in an attempt to deflect the conversation.
“Well, I’m just sitting up here thinking, you know?” Mark replied, leaning back in his chair. Despite his posture, Johnny could tell from the darkness in Mark’s eyes and the slight knitting of his forehead that Mark was more unsettled than he had initially seemed. “I’ve got a question for you.”
“Yeah?” Johnny prompted.
Picking his words carefully, Mark hesitated before asking, “You think girls like to cheat like guys do?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “What makes you say that?” he asked slowly.
“I don’t know.” Mark stood, still idly playing with the ball in his hands. “I don’t know. I’m just…” Pacing around the rooftop, Mark momentarily trailed off. “I’m just thinking,” he finally stated.
Turning away, Johnny’s eyes scanned San Francisco’s skyline. “I don’t need to worry about that because Lisa is loyal to me,” he sniffed.
“Yeah, man, you never know,” Mark blurted, instantly regretting his inadvertent hint. Trying to cover it up, he continued, somewhat meaninglessly, “People are very strange these days. I used to know a girl,” he kept going, attempting to connect his comment with something logical, “She had a dozen guys. One of them found out about it, beat her up so bad she ended up in a hospital on Guerrero street.”
Johnny chuckled in response. “What a story, Mark,” he laughed.
Taken aback at Johnny’s reaction, Mark’s mind drew a blank. “Yeah, you can say that again,” he finally answered, defaulting to banality.
Standing, Johnny strode over to where Mark stood, leaning against the short wall around the roof, and adopted an imitation of his pose. “I’m so happy to have you as my best friend,” he said ironically, putting a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “And I love Lisa so much.”
“Yeah, man,” Mark smiled sadly. “Yeah, you are very lucky.”
Not understanding the meaning hidden behind his best friend’s words, Johnny cocked his head. “Well, maybe you should have a girl, Mark,” he suggested, trying to reassure him.
Uncomfortable, Mark pushed off the wall, biting his lip as he paced, putting distance between himself and Johnny. “Yeah, he agreed slowly. “Maybe you’re right.” He looked down at the football in his hands. “Maybe I have one already,” he continued slyly. “I don’t know yet.”
“Well, what happened?” Johnny demanded suddenly. “Remember Betty? That’s her name?”
“Betty?” Mark repeated, slowly turning around to face Johnny.
Mark shifted uncomfortably. “Yeah, we don’t see each other anymore,” he said, mulling over his past, disastrous relationship, a failed attempt at distracting himself from his pursuit of Johnny. The effort was too little, too late, especially after he’d already uprooted his life to move into the same apartment building to better keep an eye on the object of his suspicion. “You know, she wasn’t any good in bed,” he lied, fabricating an excuse for the abrupt end to their tryst. “She was beautiful, but we had too many arguments.”
“That’s too bad. My Lisa is great when I can get it,” Johnny noted, apparently considering having sex two out of the last three nights unsatisfactory.
Mark groaned. “Oh man, I just can’t figure women out,” he commiserated, dropping back into his previously vacated patio chair. “Sometimes they’re just too smart, sometimes they’re just flat out stupid,” he continued, feigning distrust for fifty-percent of the human race in order to further work his way into Johnny’s good graces. “Other times they’re just evil.”
“It seems to me like you’re the expert, Mark,” Johnny enthused at Mark’s simplistic understanding of those strange beings who don’t have penises and thus will always remain a mystery. Apparently committed to aping Mark’s actions, he once again sat down in the chair next to his best friend.
“No,” Mark laughed at the absurd notion. “Definitely not an expert, Johnny.” His smile suddenly faded.
“What’s bothering you, Mark?”
Mark rose, pacing away as he toyed with the football. “Nothing, man.”
“Do you have some secret?” Johnny asked as he followed. He reached out a hand for Mark’s shoulder, pulling him around and bringing them face-to-face.
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“Why?” Mark scoffed, talking over Johnny. “Forget it, dude.”
“Come on,” Johnny urged, snatching the football for some reason. “Is it some secret? Talk to me, come on!”
“No, forget it,” Mark told Johnny again, throwing his arm up. “I’ll talk to you later,” he called back as he stalked away.
Idly tossing the football, Johnny watched his best friend go before retreating to the patio chair. “Well, whatever.”
As Mark descended down the stairwell, back into the apartment building, he pushed Denny, who had just been coming up, aside, roughly shoving him into the door. Denny, confused and hurt, threw his hands in the air, wondering what he had done to deserve such treatment as the door slammed shut behind him. Shrugging it off, he said, “Hey, Johnny,” as he trotted over to the patio chairs.
“Oh, hi, Denny,” Johnny gave his customary greeting, still tossing the football, watching it spin and twirl through the air.
“What’s wrong with Mark?”
“He’s cranky today,” Johnny chuckled. “Girl trouble, I guess. What’s new with you?”
Denny shrugged noncommittally. “Not much. Still going to the movie tonight?”
“Oh, sure we are,” Johnny nodded, dangling the football above his head.
“What kind of movie are we going to see?”
“Well, we’ll see…” Lost in thought, Johnny trailed off. “Denny, don’t plan too much,” he finally chided. “It might not come out right.”
“Alright,” Denny accepted the bizarre answer. “Let’s toss the ball around.”
“Okay,” Johnny agreed, standing and lobbing the ball to where Denny stood, next to the edge of the building.
Deftly catching the football, Denny examined the ball, studying the stitching and seemingly trying to memorize every dimple of the faux leather. “I’ve got to tell you about something,” he started before tossing the ball back to Johnny.
“Shoot, Denny.” The ball landed in Johnny’s fingers with a thunk. The football flew back across the space between them.
“It’s about Lisa.”
“Go on,” Johnny prompted.
“She’s beautiful.” Denny’s fingers traced the stitching on the football, his eyes locked on Johnny’s. “She looks great in her red dress. I think I’m in love with her.”
“Go on,” Johnny prompted again, as if more information would improve the situation.
“I know she doesn’t like me because sometimes she’s mean to me,” Denny went on, “But sometimes when I’m around her, I feel like I want to kiss her and tell her that I love her. I don’t know,” he sighed. “I’m just confused.”
“Denny,” Johnny tut-tutted, “Don’t worry about that. Lisa loves you, too. As a person, as a human being. As a friend,” he babbled. “You know, people don’t have to say it. They can feel it.”
“What do you mean?” Denny asked, perhaps confused by Johnny’s nearly impenetrable accent.
“You can love someone deep inside your heart and there is nothing wrong with it,” Johnny explained. “If a lot of people love each other, the world would be a better place to live.”
“Lisa’s your future wife,” Denny pointed out randomly.
“Denny, don’t worry about it,” Johnny said again. “You are a part of our family. We love you very much. We will help you any time. And Lisa loves you, too,” he reiterated. “As a friend. You are sort of like her son.”
“You mean, you’re not upset with me?” Denny asked in surprise, completely ignoring the fact that he was only about five years younger than Lisa.
“No, Johnny told him as they both stood, “Because I trust you and I trust Lisa. What about Elizabeth, huh?”
Denny grinned at the mention of the girl he had met a few weeks ago, when he ran into her in the halls of the apartment building. Coincidentally, Denny had been on his way home while Elizabeth had been heading out, saying she had only been there to visit a friend. “Well,” he blushed, playing with the football as he paced, “I love her.”
“Mmhmm,” Johnny replied sagely.
“When I graduate from college, get a good job,” Denny described, “I want to marry her and have kids with her.”
“That’s the idea,” Johnny approved.
“You’re right,” Denny laughed. “Thanks for paying my tuition.”
“You’re very welcome, Denny, and keep in mind,” Johnny wrapped his arm around Denny’s shoulder as he spoke like a salesman, “If you have any problems, talk to me and I will help you.”
“Awesome. Thanks, Johnny.”
“Let’s go eat, huh?” Johnny ushered the eighteen-year-old towards the door to the stairwell. “Come on, let’s go.” As he playfully jostled the younger man, they began their descent into the apartment building.