A Little Bit of Loneliness
“Just so you know, Maddie, that’s my foot.”
Maddie shot him an apologetic glance. “Whoops, sorry about that, Nick. Why are your legs so stretched out?”
Nick couldn’t help his amused smile. “Because they’re longer than yours.”
“It probably doesn’t help that you scrunch up at a desk most of a day. You’re like a tax gremlin,” Andrew observed completely unapologetically. “Jeez though, Maddie—playing footsie with my best friend.” He put a hand to his chest, as if he was actually insulted.
Nick knew him better than that though. He could see Andrew’s joking smile and hear his lilting tone, and he knew that Maddie heard it too.
She rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “You’re the one who sat over there because you said Nick would get lonely all by himself on that side of the table.”
“Hey, I also said that it’s easier to look at you from this side,” Andrew defended, staring at her like a lovestruck puppy.
Nick sighed at the two of them as a few moments of silence passed. If he had to describe what it felt like to be a third wheel, it was that moment: that moment where he sat in their booth feeling like he could get up and leave and the two of them would continue to make eyes at each other until they inevitably started making out. Yes, that exact scenario had happened before.
That was why Nick shoved Andrew’s shoulder to break whatever trance he was in. “Just go sit next to her. I don’t need your girlfriend running her foot up my leg all night.”
Andrew chuckled to himself, scooting in next to his girlfriend. They immediately linked hands atop the table and Nick tried not to feel a pang of longing in his chest.
“Yeah, as much as I love you, I’d prefer that you have your own girl to feel you up,” Andrew said jokingly, earning himself a playful little smack from Maddie.
She shifted to sit even closer to him, and Nick felt that pang in his chest again. He couldn’t even remember the last time someone had held his hand or sat close to him. Andrew or Maddie would probably give him a hug if he asked, but he didn’t want to bother them. He didn’t need them to worry about him like Maddie was currently doing with her wide brown doe eyes.
She leaned forward. Her caramel-colored braid fell from her shoulder. Her eyes and voice softened. “You know, it’s been a few years since Penny. I know that you’ve never wanted me to set you up, but there are tons of women who would love a guy like you.”
Nick breathed through the slight indignation he felt at her unintentionally patronizing tone. He plastered on a smile as he shook his head. “Yeah, I’m sure that there are tons of women who want to date the tax gremlin,” he said sarcastically.
Andrew picked at the pretzels on the table. “Even I know that doing people’s taxes is a respectable job. Women love guys who have their shit together.”
“We sure do, Mr. Dental Assistant,” Maddie said, punctuating her statement with a quick kiss.
“I appreciate you saying that considering that you make a lot more money than me,” Andrew laughed, leaning closer to her.
“And I have a lot more debt. Medical school isn’t cheap,” Maddie smirked, rubbing her thumb over his hand atop the table.
Andrew kissed her firmly on the cheek. “Putting aside the fact that the three of us are in unfortunate amounts of debt thanks to the price of higher education—back to Nickolas.” Both of them turned back to stare at him.
Nick rolled his eyes at them. “Don’t call me ‘Nickolas,’” he started, although it was probably futile. He’d known Andrew for too many years for his reprimands to have any effect. “And for the record, I’m not in as much debt as you two because I earned scholarships, and I don’t need you two to set me up either. I’ll… I’ll find someone.” He tried to say it confidently, but he couldn’t exactly project confidence when it came to his love life anymore.
He could do taxes and talk about obscure historical facts that no one cared about. It was difficult to feel confident about that.
“Nick,” Maddie prompted kindly. “You will find someone. You’re tall and lanky—as we’ve established with your long legs—and you’re smart. Uh, I should have said smart first—that’s more important than your height.”
“Yeah, but height helps. You’re objectively good-looking too, I’d say,” Andrew added, looking at him with the critical eye that one would use to consider a painting. “I mean, you’ve got a good smile and all that.”
Nick felt like he was talking to his mother. Every time he went home to see her, she would tell him about how he was so sweet and smart and any woman would be lucky to have him because he was such a beautiful boy with his dark eyebrows and expressive eyes and not-overly-prominent cheekbones. All that very sweet mom crap that literally no one but a mom could get away with saying.
He ran a hand through his brown hair, very aware of the fact that he would probably make it stick up. “Thanks for the encouragement, but I’m fine. I’ll find someone and if I don’t, then I’ll just bother you two forever. And maybe adopt a bunch of elderly pets.”
Andrew gave him a sympathetic look. “You’re never a bother.” He said it so easily, so genuinely that Nick felt that lonely pang in his chest subside ever so slightly. “Now, about this pet idea: I’m a fan of this one. The three of us could buy a huge house and run a pet shelter. Make an Instagram for all of them, make money, and quit our jobs.”
Nick listened to the pet shelter idea for a while, silently agreeing with Maddie when she said that if this pet idea was happening, then they should probably all start working out to carry giant bags of pet food more easily. Andrew suggested getting another dolly and getting the pet food delivered to their door.
These two were such big dorks. It was no wonder that they were perfect for each other.
Nick was glad to call them his friends too, even if sometimes seeing them so in love only reminded him that he was painfully single and getting older with every year. Not that twenty-seven was old. Thirty just felt too close for his liking.
But he was still young enough to enjoy an entire night with his friends and their couple bantering.
Literally, the entire night. The three of them shared a two-bedroom apartment.
Nick yawned and shut his bedroom door behind him, resolutely ignoring whatever his friends were doing outside that caused Maddie to shriek and laugh. Yes, he knew they did all kinds of dirty things behind closed doors, and he’d definitely walked in on them before. More than once. Really, after four years of these two dating and eleven years of knowing Andrew, it would be more surprising if he hadn’t walked in on them at some point.
That didn’t mean that he wanted to think about what his friend was doing to make Maddie sound like that though.
Nick fell into his bed with a tired groan, sinking into the old blue and white bedspread. He was so tired that he had barely kicked his shoes off before his eyes were ready to close. At another girlish laugh from Maddie and a suspicious groan from Andrew though, he firmly pulled one of his pillows atop his head before he curled up atop the covers.
He must have drifted off to sleep in that position, because when he woke, it was to the sensation of warmth on his face—that uncomfortable warmth like when he used to sleep with even his face underneath the covers because he was angry and didn’t want his mom or dad to kiss him goodnight. His body was stiff from being curled up, and he felt like he could use a couple of more hours of sleep, but he was too used to getting up early to be more than moderately annoyed.
Still, he looked at the still-dark sky outside and murmured “Too early” before he stretched and tossed his pillow back to its place on his bed.
Another Monday, another day of work. Nick yawned as he showered, yawned again when he tiredly shoved together some breakfast, and rubbed at the back of his neck at the slight twinge he felt when he looked to his left. He tipped some scrambled eggs and toast onto plates for Maddie and Andrew too.
Andrew accepted his with a happy groan. “Honestly, I would marry you just for the food if I didn’t have Maddie.”
“We could do a three-person wedding,” Maddie suggested through a bite of toast. She looked especially rumbled with her hair sticking out of its messy ponytail. “My parents will disown me for that kind of wedding though.”
Nick rolled his eyes, leaning against the counter to eat his food standing. “Like I’d want to marry either of you. You two aren’t even marrying each other yet, so don’t bring me into it.”
Andrew adjusted his work scrubs, smiling. “Eh, we’ll end up together, wedding or not,” he said to Maddie with an enviable amount of confidence.
She simply smiled up at him and gave him a kiss to send him off to work. She sent Nick off with him with a pat on the back instead, which was definitely for the best. He’d already had enough of her accidentally playing footsie with him underneath the table.
Nick had made breakfast, so Andrew bought the coffee. “Always needs more sugar,” Nick murmured, dumping a few more packets in his.
Andrew gave him a look like he was a child who had just tasted bitter coffee for the first time and instantly regretted it. “It’s a wonder that there’s any coffee left after all that sugar and creamer.”
Nick shrugged, taking a sip and reveling at the much-improved flavor. “Life’s too short to drink bitter coffee. See you later?”
“See you,” Andrew said easily, tipping his coffee in lieu of a wave and jogging in the direction of his office. Nick walked briskly in the other direction.
He had never thought about it before, but “tax gremlin” probably was the best way to describe his job—which was as an accountant by the way. He spent the days hunched over at his desk pulling up tax forms, talking to clients, and punching numbers into his calculator.
Nick certainly felt like a gremlin as he slogged through two weeks of people calling him constantly, of 80-hour workdays, of “oh, wait I have one more piece of income.” While he normally appreciated the quiet work and found it satisfying to solve problems that would have most people pulling their hair out, the last few weeks of tax season really tried his patience. It was a wonder that he didn’t crush his calculator with a hammer, but suffice to say, there was a reason why he didn’t buy those expensive graphing calculators that no one needed for anything but tenth-grade math.
The weeks passed in a flurry of numbers and forms. By the Friday after April 15th, Nick was looking forward to a night in with his friends. Takeout in his hands, he opened the door to their apartment with a smile on his face.
That smile faded when he walked in.
“Want me to carry a pair of your flats for when your feet start hurting?”
“These shoes should definitely not hurt this time.”
“You say that about all the shoes.”
“It’s not my fault that I wear comfortable shoes all day. My feet aren’t used to being fancy,” Maddie maintained, laughing while she said it.
Nick felt like an idiot holding bags of takeout as he stood there watching his friends get ready to go out. He supposed that he should have checked with them to make sure that they were still on for the night, but in all fairness, he hadn’t expected them to forget.
When Andrew noticed him there, it took him a second to realize why Nick was standing with takeout in his hands. He shot him an apologetic glance. “Crap—we forgot that we were going to stay in tonight.”
Maddie had finally fixed her heels on her feet. She frowned with her eyebrows pinched together. “Oh, we did promise that… We can cancel our plans tonight and stay in.” She spoke in that pity way—like she was trying to be nice and fully hoped that Nick would say no.
He obliged, hoping that his smile wasn’t as sad as it felt. “Hey, no, it’s fine. I know that you guys have your other friends, and there will still be food in the morning.” That pang hit his chest again. He felt lonely suddenly, a feeling that only intensified when Maddie reached up to fix Andrew’s dirty blonde hair for him.
It was an intimate domestic gesture that Nick hadn’t experienced in a long time.
“I’d hope there would still be food in the morning,” Andrew joked, putting an arm around Nick’s neck jovially. “You’d probably need a looser pair of pants if you ate all of that.”
“Ha ha,” Nick said, rolling his eyes and shoving his friend off of him. “You guys have a nice time tonight.”
Andrew was smiling calmly. “Yeah, Joey and Kendra are pretty cool. We’ll bring you back dessert or something. But you know,” he said matter-of-factly, “you really don’t need us weighing you down. Go out, have a good time, meet a nice lady. We’ll eat Chinese for breakfast instead.”
“Everyone knows that Chinese is best for breakfast anyway,” Maddie pointed out, straightening her shirt and grabbing her keys. She slipped her hand into Andrew’s and that little pang came back. “Have a good night, okay, Nick?”
He tore his eyes away from their hands to smile at her. “Don’t worry about me. I could use some time without you two always making eyes at each other.”
Andrew chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. “I’m going to make fun of you so much when you start dating someone,” he teased easily, moving to hold the door open for Maddie.
Both of his friends were out the door in about a second. The sound of the door closing felt too loud in the now-silent apartment. The way the bag of food crinkled sounded forlorn as Nick placed it on the table with a sigh.
“Go out, huh?” he murmured to himself. The living room opposite the kitchen was dark. The couch and TV didn’t seem quite as inviting as they had an hour ago.
Nick eyed the food with a sigh. “Well, for the sake of my pants size, it’s probably the best option,” he said with a shrug.
He stripped off his work clothes in exchange for something more casual. Collecting his keys and wallet, Nick shut off the lights. The door sounded again behind him as he shut it, letting his feet carry him aimlessly through the dark streets.