“He has got to go,” I said, nodding towards the five-foot stuffed Grinch sitting across the kitchen table from me at Jack’s side. Jack attempted a halfhearted chuckle, not even touching the glorious, hot slab of ham majestically perched on a plate in front of him.
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Are you going to eat that ham?”
He pushed the plate dejectedly across the table. I slid my own (clean) plate aside and used my fork to slice off an especially hammy ham-slice with gusto.
Pure concern was creating visible creases in Jack’s face. Lifting the fork to my lips, I paused to ask, “What’s wrong?”
Jack looked aside forlornly, pushing his fingers through his thick, dark hair. Chewing thoughtfully, I actualized a thought I’d had in fleeting snippets before: everything about Jack was pure comfort to me. From his moody brown eyes to his wiry hair, to the warmth in his voice, every inch of Jack actualized the fact that I’d often call him before my parents when I felt distraught.
His lips parted.
“Speak,” I commanded, helping myself to another generous forkful of ham.
“It’s… Adam,” Jack groaned.
“What about him?” I was a fighter. I was going to continue prompting Jack until the truth eked out from between those lips sealed tight with teenage-boy melancholy.
“It sounds stupid, though,” Jack protested.
“No,” I corrected. “The time I called you from school halfway through a mental breakdown because I was lost in the stacks was stupid. Just tell me.” I lowered my fork and gave him a pleading smile.
“Fine.” So now he would hopefully talk, despite still avoiding eye contact.
And talk he did. “I’ve called Adam every other day, and he won’t even call me back, he just texted me and said he’s too busy. But I always see him places. With other people. And he just avoids eye contact with me, it’s like I’m not even there.”
“Mhh,” I groaned in sympathy as I dunked a roll in some ham juice off the bottom of my plate. “You at least deserve an in-person call back. I know it hurts, but you can do better than him. You need someone who cares more.”
“Not like that,” Jack said angrily. He seemed to think I was implying that he, well, had feelings for Adam.
“No, I know, just as a friend. Platonic. You need friends who will take care of you just as much as you need, like, that kind of love, if not more.” I paused. “Though I did sit behind Adam at church on Christmas, and, man, he was looking sharp in that suit. His jawbone is practically sculpted.”
Jack kicked me swiftly in the leg from under the table. I crumpled in pain and groaned. I deserved that, not only on the immediate outer level, but also because I’d never think about Adam idly in class or while lying awake at night. Instead, Jessica strolled across the screen of my mind, her hips swaying gently. The grace with which she tucks her ebony curtain of hair behind her ear as she writes, sitting across the table from me in the dining hall, resonates in my mind with a more clear, beautiful ring (a physical ring, is that possible?) than the sound of any bell I’d ever heard.
“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, returning attention to my dinner roll. “But really,” I continued, “it hurts to grow apart, I know. But you deserve a better friend than that. I’m only here on break for two weeks, and I’ve seen you every other day.”
Jack nodded soberingly.
“How’s it going with Kate?” I ask, opting for a complete subject change.
Jack’s face lit up. (I hit the jackpot. The Jack- jackpot. Ugh. Punch me.) Jack had been hanging out with Kate lately, and trying to muster up the courage to ask her to the Winter Dance. I listened to Kate-stories as I finished my ham-slab. Jack’s little sister wandered in, and we played a leisurely game of Go Fish as snow drifted down outside the window. Before I knew it, it was five o’clock.
As I walked out the door to head home for dinner, I idly opened the “messages” folder on my phone. Jessica, said the top of the screen. I had texted her hours ago today, asking her how her break was going. Still no reply, and nothing from last weekend when I asked about her family ski trip, either. My ribcage felt like it was collapsing, slowly shrinking in. Compressing my heart. Making me feel increasingly alone: an inescapable, sinking loneliness.
I slid the car key back in my pocket and turned back around to Jack’s house. Golden light streamed through the curtains, and I saw the silhouettes of his family as they gathered around the table. Before I could even think straight, my feet had carried me to the back door and my hand was knocking. Jack’s mom got the door.
“Do you mind if I stay for dinner?” I asked. I must have looked dejected.
She rested her hand on my shoulder and smiled warmly. “Absolutely.”