Robbie stood in the gap of the garage. John had just turned the corner on his bike and was mostly coasting to his driveway. The leftover evening sun pushed his shadow out to a distorted length of black taffy that wobbled and wavered in front of him. He had more than enough time to put on a good smile before John skidded to a stop in front of him.
“Hey, Robbie,” he said as he slid off. “I’m not late, am I?”
“Naw, we got a bit. Come on in.” He wheeled John’s bike inside and pulled the door down behind them.
“Your Mom’s home?” he said as they sidled around the old, mostly clean Chevy.
“Yup. Today’s her day off. She doesn’t get many of them any more.”
“And she doesn’t mind?”
Robbie pulled open the door and waved him inside. “Oh, no. She likes you.”
This wasn’t John’s first time over, but it was the first time they hung out, so far as Robbie was concerned. John was two grades ahead of him, but they were in band together. The older boy didn’t quite fit the stereotype of the band geek, though perhaps half of the small high school band fit the same description. He had the wiry, secure body of a cross-country runner, and he’d gone out for wrestling his Freshman year as well. The minute the weather in Atlanta let him, which was usually, but not always, mid-April, he wore nothing but shorts and a t-shirt whenever he could. Unlike most Juniors at their school, the outfit suited him pretty well. Robbie was quite used to John’s dress code, though he did think it was a little silly and and already promised himself that when he was 16, he would wear normal clothes, no matter how many medals he had from running.
At least he hadn’t brought his Math book with him, Robbie thought. He had, of course, invited him over on a Saturday, and had tried to make sure that he knew that homework or test prep had nothing to do with why they were hanging out, but he still expected the older boy to pull a sheet of homework out of his pocket and ask him if he’d gotten a problem right, or something annoyingly similar. Robbie, long considered a Math genius though his grades didn’t always agree, had been tutoring the older boy ever since an awkward conversation during drum practice that had started with John snorting and saying, “This ain’t Freshman Math I’m doing,” and ending with John holding a wrinkled sheet of paper with both equations worked out the quick and elegant way Robbie liked to work them, and begging the gawky Freshman to help him pass. He’d been over twice after school, and they sometimes worked during lunch, but he also had a habit of cornering Robbie in the hallway for help, sometimes literally. Once, he’d even ran after him as he walked to the bus, the bus they both rode, and made him miss it while he showed him again how to use the quadratic formula. They’d both needed a ride home after that, and Robbie’s Mom had, after a lot of griping and promising that she and Robbie “would most certainly talk about this later,” driven out to the school to collect them.
They took off their shoes (a rock solid rule in both of their houses) and went into the living room. Their TV, large enough for the two of them but nowhere close to the gargantuan wall-spanning portals some of his friends had, sat on top of a cabinet meant to be a squat bookshelf. His Mom kept a few of her books there, but all of his were in his room. The only thing of his that he kept out here, occasionally, was his Nintendo, but right now there was a blank spot on the shelf. John looked around the room a little before he sat down, and his eyes went right to that blank spot.
“I thought you had a game out here, Robbie.”
Careful. “I did. It’s in my room right now. Mom doesn’t like me to play it out here that much.” Also, I’m grounded from it. Well, from the power supply. Just because she thinks I spend too much time on it, and not enough time ‘being a family,’ whatever that means.
“Shit. I was thinking, we got a half-hour before the first bout, right?”
“Watch your language,” a voice warned from his Mom’s room, and then she swept into the room. “You know I told you that those words are empty, Robbie. You…”
She stopped in front of the couch and stared. She was the tall one in the family, easily half a foot taller than Robbie (and even taller than his Dad, as far as he could remember) but she seemed to stoop a little as she looked John over from head to foot. She cradled the bowl of her weekend wine glass in her right hand, held a paperback open to her place with her other hand.
“I know you,” she said. “Gave you a ride home a week ago, right?”
He stood up and stuttered for a second. “Yes, Ma’am. John Harris.”
“Oh, sit down,” she said, but she didn’t sound that serious. “You’re the friend Robbie invited over to watch Wrestlemania?”
“Boxing,” Robbie said, but no one noticed.
“Well,” his Mom said, “Robbie talked me into getting some snacks, so let me get those out for you guys. Make yourself comfortable, okay?” She swallowed the last drop of wine and walked into the kitchen.
“She seems nice,” John said, finally looking at the TV.
“Yeah. She might watch with us a little bit.”
“Really? She likes boxing, too? I didn’t even know you liked it.”
I didn’t until a few days ago. “She usually spends her days off reading but she’ll watch stuff with me at night, no matter what it is.”
“Huh. I take it back. Your mom’s awesome.”
She did indeed come out and sit on the couch with them. Robbie had thought that she had kind of gone overboard with the snacks yesterday but John didn’t seem to mind, and that was what counted. She had been a little excited, to say the least, that he was having a friend over, and might have been more excited than he was.
By the time the second bout was over, she was on her third glass of wine. Robbie never saw her drink during the week, and she didn’t exactly get plastered, but she did usually finish off a bottle when she was having one of her nights. It was almost a ritual with them. Even though he couldn’t drive, she always gave him her car keys, and she’d taught him to make breakfast in the morning, allegedly because girls would one day love him for it, but mostly so she could sleep in. On nights when it was just the two of them, which was every Saturday night but tonight, she would give him a tiny glass to drink with her, but he wasn’t that big of a fan. Tonight, he knew his mom was in a great mood and she just might pop a second bottle. He was kind of counting on that.
“So… you’re in drums with Robbie, and you run?” She still sat between them on the couch, though the remains of the bowl of chips was on the coffee table. “Probably got a ton of girlfriends, huh?”
John laughed, a little. “No. I mean, not right now.”
“You will. You’re cute enough.” John didn’t say anything, and a second later, she started to pry herself off of the couch. “I should go to bed, boys.”
Robbie shot up off off the couch. “I can get your another glass, mom. If you want. It’s not even ten, yet.”
She looked at him. Her eyes were just starting to gloss over a little, but she still looked like she was in control. For a second, he was sure he’d overplayed his hand. He’d never done this before, and he knew, just knew that he’d screwed up.
“Sure,” she drawled. “I can watch another one with you.” She threw an arm around John and hugged him. “That okay with you?”
He smiled but didn’t say much.
“Do you want a glass, kid?”
“Well…” For a second, Robbie thought that his friend looked even younger than he looked. The the edge of his lip curved up a little bit and he squinted at the older woman. “Is that okay?”
“Under my roof? Whatever happens here, stays here.” She laughed and patted his side. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You run, you exercise, and you play an instrument, right? No offense, but if Robbie had his way, he’d play his damn Nintendo every night until it exploded.”
Robbie froze. This was not something he wanted to talk about, but he had no clue how to change the subject.
“Nintendo’s okay,” John said, sliding back into the couch a little. “We don’t have one but some of my friends do.”
“Well, Robbie was perfectly happy with his computer, which is something that is actually useful, you know, until his Grandma sent him that damn game for Christmas.” Robbie’s hand shook on the wine bottle but he was practiced enough to keep from spilling any. He put a little more than a bare drop in his wine glass of water, though.
“I don’t play it that much, mom.”
“No, because I take the cord from you, that’s why. And that’s a good thing. Makes you spend time with real people once in a while.” A little wine spilled on the table but he kept his smile on. A moment later he handed the smallest glass to John and the largest to mom. Nearly half the bottle fit in hers, but she didn’t notice. Then he went to sit in the easy chair off to the side of the room.
“Oh, look at mister anti-social over there,” she said, after she wiped her lips.”
“I can see it better from here.”
“Well, that’s fine. We’ll just watch them fight together, right, John?” She shook his shoulders gently, and then pulled him into her side. He had the same half-smile on his face, Robbie saw, but he didn’t get up, either. Typical jock, he thought. I knew this was going to happen.
He waited exactly one more fight before getting up. Mom and John had both finished their wine, though John still had a tight grip on the stem of his glass. He knew what was going to happen, and he didn’t need to be there for it. He had an excuse planned (“I’m going to go to the bathroom,”) but he didn’t need it. Still, he grabbed a book from his room and went to sit on the covered toilet, giving himself fifteen minutes. He hoped that wouldn’t be too long.
When he finally emerged, the fight was still on, but no one was in the living room. Something sank in the pit of his stomach, but he refused to let himself accept it just yet. Just because they stepped out of the room doesn’t mean…
Something thumped, softly, in his mom’s room.
Now he let himself realize what was going on. Without another glance to the living room, he spun on his heel and went to his room. He turned on the light and sat on his bed, still feeling something moving in the pit of his stomach. So many words, so many sentences, ran through his mind, but he didn’t think there was anything he could do. Well, nothing except…
His stomach sank. It’s always one thing, isn’t it? But he was committed, now. It was a risk, but he had to do it. He couldn’t go this far and not follow through.
His mom hadn’t shut her door, which was a pleasant surprise. Thankfully, her ‘things and stuff’ dresser was just inside, so he didn’t have to look much, and he knew exactly where she kept the cord; she’d made him put it there himself, after the last time she’d blown up on him for never wanting to do anything with friends. Well, I finally brought one over, mom. You happy now?
He didn’t want to look into the rest of the room, but as he turned around, something caught his eye. In the dark smudged light of the streetlight outside, he couldn’t see much, but he could tell his mom and his friend were under one worn quilt. Something skittered, scratched, and Robbie thought for a second that he heard John say, “wait,” or something like that.
“Sssssh,” mom said. “You know you want it.”
As Robbie turned to walk out, John twisted his head to look at him, and their eyes locked. Robbie couldn’t read the look on his face, but whatever he was trying to say, Robbie didn’t think it was none of his business. He smiled, closed the door, and went back to his room, and a minute later, he had his Nintendo on, finally. And he knew no one would bug him the rest of the night, for once.
It was a pretty damn good feeling.