Sharp shows up at the diner looking anxious, as always, and a little sleepier than usual. It’s miserably wet outside and as he peels himself free of his jacket, droplets of rain scatter over the Formica table. I glance down at the bowl of sugar packets the waitress left and remind myself as I have for ten years that I no longer sweeten my coffee.
“You have the girls this weekend?” I ask. “You look exhausted.”
He bumps the table as he gets into the booth and my coffee splashes out of the mug. He automatically reaches for too many napkins but I already have it covered.
“Relax,” I say. “You seem wound up.”
“Oh, well.” He scratches his head. “Maybe I am.”
I consider waiting until after we eat to get to the thing on my mind, but I’m anxious to know, so I ask, “Did you read my story?”
He looks at me a moment, his expression a study of blankness, then silently picks up the menu and mulls it over with all the concentration of a man taking a test. I know what he’ll order in the end, and when the waitress comes and he says pancakes and an egg and some grits with sausage gravy, too, I say nothing.
Sharp is a little meaty and red-headed and freckled. And he’s balding some on top, but he isn’t hipster enough or self-conscious enough to shave his whole head the way a lot of guys do nowadays. He keeps it old-fashioned barber short. When it’s combed flat it’s not so bad, but he’s that guy who scratches his head when he’s tired or nervous or excited or thinking. He scratches his head almost all the time and he does it until the hair sticks up like koala ears. And then he looks like the goofiest bastard you ever saw.
He notices my silence. “You think I should’ve got the omelet instead, don’t you?”
“I don’t care what you get, Sharp.”
He shrugs. I notice that his t-shirt is all bunched around his shoulders from pulling off the jacket. If he were one of my girl friends, I would reach out and fix it, but ever since junior high I’ve been paranoid that anything that physical and intimate will seem like a pass. I know my guy friends now are smart enough to know I’m just gay, not a sex-starved maniac, but it’s just a weird holdover from earlier times. Instead I say drily, “Your shirts all fucked up.”
“Oh.” He makes my coffee splash out twice more as he tries to fix it. This time I let him mop up the mess. He looks peeved. “Who do they make these little fucking booths for anyway?”
I glance out the window. Even in the crappy weather, the sidewalk has lots of people on it. The rain can’t empty a street in New York. The east villagers are moving faster than normal, but they still got things to do. The weather has greyed all the bright tops and scarves and the assortment of hats, but the taxis only look more vibrant. They are cartoon cheery; blocks of cheddar coasting through the rain.
“Can’t we talk about your story after we eat?” Sharp says.
I give him a look. His eyes are scotch brown, easily his best feature, and they usually register a cocktail of worry, concern and impatience. They are intelligent eyes that carry a weighty sadness even when they’re laughing. His eyes could make a mother out of anyone. When we first were friends, I fell in love with him because of those eyes. Or I thought I loved him. Maybe I just fell in love with wanting to make them happier eyes, which I now know is entirely impossible. I even suspect he’d be a little less brilliant if he weren’t quite so troubled. Anyway, Sharp’s not suicidal or anything, just a keeper of gloom. But he’s really a funny guy, too.
“What’s that?” he says, his brows gathering like thunderclouds.
“I asked if we could go over your story later and you give me this long look like you want to fuck me or kill me or spit in my face.”
I laugh at him, but I can feel my face burn with a blush. “You’re an idiot,” I say. “But if I had to pick one, I think I’d happily spit in your ugly face.”
He scowls and starts opening too many sugar packets, dumping the contents into his coffee. He grimaces when he takes the first sip. “Too sweet.”
“I saw that coming.”
We have this thing between us, me and Sharp. It’s like we could almost be lovers – in different skins, of course – or we could so easily be enemies. We’d be the kind of former friends who hide in grocery store aisles from each other and when someone brought up the other one to us, we’d go home and get drunk and maybe draw pictures on napkins of people being decapitated. We’d wake up and not remember drawing it, but we’d remember that someone had said, “You see Sharp anymore?” And our hangover would be colossal. It’s good that me and Sharp are friends, because us being enemies would be like cancer.
“Yeah, Sharp, we can go over it later. I mean, I’ve waited this long. I can wait ten more minutes.”
He looks like he wants to argue, to defend himself for dodging the topic for three weeks, but then the waitress is back and putting the plates down. I see that this time he finally spots the mole on her arm and as his mouth turns down, I look away and hide a smile behind my coffee mug. She stands back a little ways and puts her hands on her hips.
“Anything else, whiles I’m here?”
“We’re good,” I say for both of us.
She looks at me like she disagrees and her eyes roam the table dubiously. Pointing to Sharp’s mug, she says, “I’ll come back and top you off.”
“No,” he says. “Thanks.”
I watch her back as she moves off, noticing she forgot to iron one of her sleeves. One of them is perfect with a crease and everything and the other one looks like she dragged the uniform right out of the laundry hamper.
“You grossed out?” I ask with a smidge of pleasure.
“No.” He flashes those scotch brown eyes at me.
Sharp doesn’t cut his pancakes, he saws at them like he’s clearing land westward. He doesn’t spoon up his grits, he shovels them like Fred Flintstone working the quarry. I eat my omelet in silence.
“You hear anything from that actress?” he asks with his mouth full. “She still want you to edit that script of hers?”
“That’s what I’ve been doing the last two weeks.”
He shrugs. “She seems like an idiot.”
“She is,” I agree. “But my fridge is full for once.”
He looks a little interested, then grimaces into his plate.
“In any event, I like editing almost as much as writing so it’s good. Or good enough.”
The infuriating thing about Sharp is that he’s so opaque at times. I like to be able to read people. It makes me feel certain about my world. When Sharp just gives you a glance, it could be anything. Some people look at you and you know they’re hurt or irritated or just looking at you to be sure it was you who said their name. With Sharp, he might be noticing for the first time that your eyes are a little close set or even finally figuring out that you’re not as clever as he thought you were. Or he might be seeing you have a booger. That bastard would not tell you’ve had a booger until you were leaving a party and then he’d say, “Yeah, I noticed it an hour ago but you were flirting with that guy you’re into and I didn’t want to embarrass you.” I mean, a lot of people would not be friends with someone like Sharp. Friends tell you about boogers, open flies, toilet paper stuck to your shoe.
He pushes his plate aside with a sour expression on his face. He finished everything he ordered and now his stomach hurts. This is how it goes. Folding his arms and tucking his fingers into the pits, he says, “The story isn’t so bad, but you got that thing about the gift horse wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“You say something like, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth unless you want to get bitten. Or unless you want to see a tangle of soldiers…'”
I finish up for him. “‘..Huddled in its stomach, which could be either erotic or disgusting, but I’m betting on the latter.’ What’s wrong with that? I thought it was kind of clever.”
He shakes his head. “But the gift horse thing and the Trojan horse thing aren’t the same thing. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth because that’s like checking out its teeth, like taking a gift but then judging its worth. It’s rude.”
I bite my lip and push away my plate. Feeling queasy, I reach for my coffee, but then take a drink of my water instead. The water at this place is always cloudy, but I pretend not to notice anymore.
Sharp says, “The Trojan horse thing is where the ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ thing comes from. So, you can’t use that part.”
“But that’s the setup and all the back and forth between Ant and Nan comes from that thing.”
He shrugs in a way I think is kind of hateful. Later, I’m sure I’ll decide it wasn’t.
He says, “Look, you asked me to read it.”
“But I wanted your opinion on the dialogue and things like the characters, not to pick apart some geeky detail like that.”
“Your whole story is built on you not knowing your shit, dipshit,” he says. Irritated with me, his voice drops down into his chest. When I used to be sort of in love with him, I found that deep tone arousing. Even now it makes me feel a little funny.
“Well, maybe if I change that part and make it about something else…”
He is shaking his head, looking bored now and glancing over my shoulder. In the long silence I land back into the moment, hearing again the murmur of other people talking, the clatter of knives and forks at work, the vague discharge of a pop song from the old jukebox in the front. He leans forward, dropping his elbows on the table. Instinctively, I lean in, too.
“The part about how they feel about each other is good,” he says. “Except you don’t really let anyone know how Ant feels. Seems a little slanted.”
“But that would make it like Nan knows how he feels.”
He rakes his hands through his hair and there it is, that stupid koala bear head. This time I reach out and knock the ears down. He stares at me in astonishment.
I try to pick up the thread again. “Ant is just one of those mysteries that Nan can’t figure out. I mean, that’s how some people are. They never get together, they never have a happy ending. You’re supposed to walk away from the story feeling really frustrated about all of that shit in life.”
He sits back, still looking a little shocked. Folding his arms again, the scotch eyes are almost angry. Anyway, they’re very dark now. Coca-Cola dark. “Well, if leaving them frustrated is what you wanted, then you nailed it.”