She was quiet for a moment. “Damn it, Ry. Okay. I need you to do one thing for me, all right?”
“We broke up last week. Okay? Like, Thursday of last week.” I was trying to wrap my head around her request when she continued. “Wait, have you talked to anyone about this?”
She sighed. “Okay. No one else?”
“No. Not something to brag about.”
“Right. Okay, he will keep his mouth shut so – last Thursday, okay?”
I thought for a moment. “Why?”
I frowned. “What about her?”
“Look, Ry, this is all bad enough, right? Neither of us is happy with this, but we have to deal with reality, okay?” she said, sounding flustered. “Brenda wants to rub it in my face that you cheated. Neither of us needs her shit while we're doing this, okay? It feels bad enough – weird enough – that I don't want to deal with her bitchiness too. Can we at least agree to say we broke up last week so it's not cheating?”
I kind of felt slapped. It's weird. My emotions were jumbled, and while I'd successfully tamped them down throughout the day – mostly – this turn of events was really throwing me.
“I'm a little confused,” I said truthfully. “I cheated on you, but you seem almost relieved. Then you say you still love me, but then you want me to lie about me cheating on you because...?”
“Let me back that up a second,” she said firmly. “I do love you. Outside my family – immediate family! – you're the closest person in my life. In some ways dating you was like dating my brother because we know everything about each other. Am I hurt? Yes, but maybe not as much as I should be. I've been thinking about it all day.” She sighed. “At first I was angry, and I cried a little. As the day went on and I started to think about things, I knew I still loved you the same way I always have. Sure, when we were in middle school or a little later, it was newer and I was all 'I have a hot boyfriend who I actually like', but that's all...mellowed.
“What I'm trying to say is I understand me a little better. I love you, I do. I want us to get past this because I think we need each other, and I want you in my life. That's going to take time. Now, second, I'm trying to manage this stupid thing. Brenda started posting all about how Benji got laid and how you just waited for me to be out of town so you could nail him. This is kind of spreading and I wouldn't be surprised if your sister knows.”
“Gwen was telling people this morning,” I said, running a hand through my hair. “Luca found out because his sister told him.”
“That's kind of my point. Reality is we have to manage this shit in the short term, and long term we need to work some shit out between us. First we take the stink out of this because we'd broken up. Then we figure out where you're headed.” She paused. “Just so you know, I love you whoever you end up with. I have to admit, I never saw something with Benji as a possibility.”
“Join the club.”
“Have you...I mean, did you like him before...this happened?”
I shrugged, though she couldn't see. “I don't know.”
“Well...we'll talk when I get back, okay? Meantime, do this for me, okay?”
I sighed. “Yeah, okay. I'm...sorry, Jules.”
Her tone softened. “Me, too, Ry. I wish we could have been smarter and handled this right, but what's important is we're still us, right?”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. I sat in the car and thought for a little bit, trying to work out exactly what was going on in my life, but it seemed like it all ran together. I thought about what Luca had said this afternoon. He wasn't wrong. When I'd arrived at college I felt so...out of place. It was supposed to be my first big step toward being a doctor, but before med school there was this to do, away from everyone...and it was too much. As hard as I work to learn, school had always been a struggle. Yes, I'd gotten good grades, but I'd had to work my ass off for them. The courses I'd had...they ate me alive. So, I'd partied. Partied while I failed and not gone back for the second semester, because what was the point?
As I drove home I felt unsettled. All the emotions I'd been keeping a hold on while waiting to speak to Julia were now running wild. Worse, I was beginning to realize Julia wasn't the big problem for me. I was. I had focused on her and how this was going to make her feel, but as usual she was way ahead of me. I'm sure she was being honest when she'd said she'd been angry, at first. She was like that – light up really quickly, but then burn out just as fast. Then she'd been thoughtful...and I'd blown it.
Once home I tried to keep to myself. My sister, Anne, was hard to read. Her nose was always in her phone, but if she knew something had happened last night then she wasn't saying. She had chances – when she came to tell me about dinner, when I was out back with my little brother, Stan, playing with him in his kiddy pool. Anything to keep me distracted. Dinner was surreal, because I felt so out of sorts and no one really knew why.
At the end of the night I was stretched across my bed with my phone in front of me, but I couldn't keep my mind on what I might do with it. Music? Wasn't sure what to listen to. I looked at my saved music, and when that failed to excite me I flipped through an app. My finger hovered over a streaming app, but I never touched the screen and it went black. I stared at the black screen and thought about my conversation with Julia.
She'd been ready to let me – us – go. Before I'd cheated, she'd been ready. I felt bad, but did I feel bad enough? Did I feel bad the right way? I'd focused on how I'd be making Julia feel, but what did it say about me that I'd cheated? Yes, okay Julia had a point – we weren't the most romantic, cuddly couple. Lots of couples weren't a stereotype though.
I turned my phone back on and flipped through news and entertainment articles, but nothing held my attention.
“Oh, there you are,” my mother said. I rolled to my side and looked at my doorway where she stood, leaning on the frame.
“Where else would I be, Ma?” I asked, giving her a little smile.
“I don't know. Maybe wherever you were last night – which wasn't home – and worrying your father? You know how he gets.”
“He said you get that way, not him.”
“That's called projection, sweetheart. We've talked about this many, many times,” she said and chuckled before crossing the room and sitting beside me. In a direct tone she said, “So. What's going on.”
For just a heartbeat I almost thought she was going to ask about me sleeping with Benji – Ben! But that was stupid. I opened my mouth to ask what she meant, but she beat me to it.
“You aren't yourself tonight; don't try to tell me differently.” She held a hand up to forestall the aforementioned 'telling her differently' so I'd really, really not try it. Really. “You barely said anything at dinner and you love my cacciatore,” she said, as if I needed evidence of my feeling odd that evening. “You hate that little wading pool we got for Stan, and yet you played with him for at least an hour.”
“He was having fun!” I said, defending myself.
“And your sister? You haven't picked on her once tonight. Do you have a fever?” she reached out and placed the back of her hand on my forehead and I laughed and pushed her hand away.
“I'm fine,” I said.
“Hair is fine. I didn't ask about your hair.”
I sighed. Maybe it was better this way. “Julia and I broke things off.”
She nodded sagely. “Good.”
I looked at her with wide eyes. “What do you mean good? She was my girlfriend for the last – what – three years?”
She tilted her hand from side to side. “About that. You two were cute in the beginning, but let's be honest – there's no spark there. No magic. You two were just safe with each other. Comfortable like an old sweatshirt – the kind with grass stains and maybe dried salsa on the front.”
“Hear me out!” she said, a little smile on her lips. “People change. You need more. She needs different. Doesn't mean you can't be friends – although that's hard. It's strange to be friends with someone you've seen naked.”
“What? You going to tell me you haven't?”
I looked at her, jaw slackened and then gave her a sly grin.
“Okay, then,” she said as if it were settled. “Besides, she didn't look like a doctor's wife. Not for you. Maybe a podiatrist.”
“Ma!” I protested, but she looked at me with a glint in her eye. I rolled mine at her. “You love Julia, stop it.”
“Sure, I do,” she said quietly. “But it changes nothing. I don't think you would have been happy. You weren't made for 'okay'. Not for 'it works'. You need more and it wasn't going to be Julia.”
I snorted. “She took me lots of places. I don't even know what you're talking about. Do you?” I asked, laughing.
“Are you being smart with your mother? Your dear old mother? I should spank you,” she teased and then actually smacked my hip. “It hurts now. You have to mourn it, but it's not the end. Not for you, kid.” She stood up and looked down at me fondly. “Your father owes me ten dollars. He thought Julia was pregnant.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You're both evil.”
She nodded, headed to the door and then paused. Looking back at me she said, “I needed more too. Evil keeps things interesting.” Then she was gone.
The rest of the week passed slowly. I had some times where I needed to let out a couple of tears, mourning what Julia and I had lost. Mourning for how directionless I felt. The only saving grace was that my sister didn't seem to know anything. I don't know how that's possible, but it could be that – if she'd heard – she thought it was a rumor of some kind. My ma knew about the break-up of course, but I guess she hadn't told my dad. One night at dinner he asked, and I told.
“I'm sorry, RJ,” Ma said and hugged me, referring to me as she did by my first two initials – Ryan James, and pretending that she hadn't known – I don't know why. “These things that start in high school, they usually don't last afterward. I know that doesn't help you now, but I hope you keep it in mind to ease your pain later.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly.
“Hey!” my father protested. “You said she might be pregnant!”
“Ed! Not at the table!”
My sister goggled and then started to laugh. Great, a new rumor. So my mom hadn't told my father, but decided to dangle that to what? Screw with him? Is this what she meant by evil keeping things interesting?
“Well,” my father said, “she didn't act like a doctor's wife anyway. It's better you're single during school – where are you going?”
I stood from the table and walked from the room, only hearing my mother take 'that tone' with my father. I don't talk much about how I feel, not with most people and I get that from my dad. He's got this macho-asshole streak in him that clashes with my desire to...I don't know. Not hide how I feel? What does that even mean? Regardless his comment had felt like a punch to the gut and I just wanted to be somewhere else.
Saturday I headed back over to the garage to meet Luca. His car needed brakes and I told him I'd do them to save him some money. My dad just frowned and said, “You know, if you do things like that for free, people expect it. When it's your job – your livelihood – you charge. Doctors don't diagnose for free. Artists and musicians charge for their work. Why should we be any different?”
He was all growl, though. He loved Luca and would have likely helped him out, even if he was bitching the whole way. I opened a bay door so Luca would know I was there and then put the work clothes from the week into the old washer my dad had installed when my mother told him no more greasy clothes at home. Since I was working for the summer, I got the job of laundry on Saturday as well. I hooked my phone to a bluetooth speaker and tossed my nice hoodie back into my car, leaving me in ratty jeans and a tee shirt. I brewed up some coffee and was just pouring a cup when I heard a car pull up.
I stepped out with my cup in hand and squinted to see through the early morning brightness. Luca called out a greeting and I grunted, wishing I were still in bed.
“Hey, how are you Sunshine?” he teased.
“Fuck you,” I muttered.
“Oh, come on now!” he joked and I shook my head at him. He put an arm around my shoulders and gave me a half hug. “Appreciate this, RJ. I'd a brought you coffee, but I know how much you like this shit your pops makes.”
“You get me out of bed and now you insult my brew?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “I keep my own coffee here, thank you very much.”
He grinned and shook his iced coffee from a chain in front of me. “This is the stuff. That stuff,” he tipped his cup toward mine, “is literally the shit.”
“You want to do your brakes yourself?” I growled.
“I'm going to sit down and be quiet while you have your cup of liquid gold,” he said quickly and sat down on the small couch in the office. I sat in my dad's chair and sipped my coffee.
“How'd your date go?” I asked.
“I like her a lot,” Luca said. “Lilly is into sculpting and she took me to this gallery about twenty minutes away,” he said, prattling on about his date. “They had some odd things I didn't really get, but I like the ones that are more realistic. We were looking through a book and the museums in Europe must be fantastic to visit – some of the sculptures look like they could start talking to you, they are so good.”
“Yeah? How long you been seeing this girl?” I asked as I finished off my coffee.
“A few months. I've told you about her before,” he said.
I stood and stretched. “Have you?” I teased.
“RJ. Why are you so mean to me, huh?” he said, letting a little whine into his voice.
“I don't know what you're talking about,” I said as I walked to the jack and dragged it over to his car. “I mean you date so many girls, it's hard to keep track.”
“I hang out with a lot, I don't date every one of them,” he replied. “Don't be jealous. Want me to set you up?”
I burst out laughing for the first time in days. “God, no!” I said. “What the hell would I have in common with any of them?”
“I date women of quality,” he said, putting on a stuffy tone.
“You date pretentious women,” I said with a snort and retrieved the jack stands. “Make sure your parking brake is on.”
He complied and I jacked the car up, then placed the stands before letting the jack down a bit. I didn't remove it since I didn't have to get under the car; leaving it there added a layer of protection. I popped the front tires off, checked the size of the bolts on the caliper and headed for the toolbox to get what I needed.
“So. Julia gets back Sunday,” he said, trying to sound casual.
I glanced at him and then reached for a socket and the ratchet. “Yeah.”
I paused and sighed. “We were. I think we'll still be close.”
“That's good. You guys have as much history as we do,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said noncommittally. I grabbed a padded stool and sat down by his driver's side wheel well and pulled on the brake rotor, but it wasn't budging. “Hey, put your keys in the ignition and put it to the 'on' position?”
“Right,” he said and did what I asked, allowing me to rotate the hub so I could get a clear shot at the bolts on the caliper. They were solidly in place, but I managed to get them off without too much trouble. I pulled the caliper off and used a little bit of wire to hang them from the spring so they wouldn't put strain on the brake line.
I paused as if waiting for a blow. Then I slowly stood and looked into his car. The passenger seat had the box of brake pads I'd told him to get, so rather than answer him I opened the door and reached down to get the box. I checked that he'd gotten the right ones, then physically compared them to the old pads to be sure they'd work.
“Don't want to talk about that, huh?”
I sighed and let my head drop a bit. “What am I supposed to say, Luca?” I popped the hood and opened the cap on the brake master cylinder, then wandered back over to the passenger side where Luca was waiting.
His hand gripped my shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Just wondering if you're okay, man.”
I took a few breaths and then squatted down. I used a large c-clamp to push the caliper piston back into place before putting some anti-squeal on the back of the pads to keep them quiet.
“I don't know,” I said to him, though I'm not sure he was still waiting for an answer. I seated the caliper. “I mean, I don't know what it means or what I'm feeling.” I put anti-seize on the bolts for the caliper. “I mean what am I supposed to be feeling right now? It's all messed up. School. Julie.”
After a moment of silence Luca asked, “Whatever that was with Benji?”
I sighed. I slid the bolts into place and spun them down by hand. “Whatever that was with Benji,” I admitted. I used the ratchet to tighten them down and carted my stuff to the other side.
“I don't need rotors? Your dad said I might.”
“They're plenty thick enough, and only a little groove on the one side,” I said as I set to work on the passenger side. “You could have them resurfaced, but I don't think you need it.”
“Cool,” he said. He leaned against his car beside me. “So. What do we know about Benji?”
I paused in my work and let out a sigh. “Not that much, really. He was in our graduating class. We got on all right when we were around each other, which wasn't all that much that I can remember.”
Luca snorted. “You get along with everyone.”
“I do not!” I protested, as if it were a bad thing.
Luca squatted down beside me. I glanced at him and then turned my attention back to the work. Well, maybe not my attention, but my gaze.
“When my dad cheated, I thought it was the end of everything. The fact that I was the one that caught him only made it more confusing, frightening and made me angrier than I could express – so mad I didn't even recognize it for what it was. I was a little bit of a mess, you might remember.”
I nodded slightly, keeping my hands busy.
“What did Julia say about it?” he asked, his voice soft.
“That, um, she thought we should have ended our dating life together a while ago.” I swallowed. “That she'd been mad at first, but then realized she'd changed. That we'd changed. She says she still loves me.”
“Yeah. Well, you're a pretty decent guy.” I glanced at Luca, but he wasn't looking at me. “I'm glad you guys weren't married with kids when this happened..”
I didn't reply. It would have been a hundred times worse, that's true. But wouldn't I be smarter if it were later in life? Wouldn't I have been wise enough? Wouldn't I have been dedicated? I might not even know Ben by that time in my life – shit! With that last thought the air was punctuated by a sharp snapping noise that told the world I'd just snapped one of the bolts that held the caliper in place.
“God damn it,” I sighed.
“Shit. That's a problem. Right?” Luca asked. I glanced up at him. He was seriously asking – he had no clue when it came to mechanics of any kind. He looked like a D-list socialite – tanned skin, too dark to have been for show, but from just spending hours in his family's pool. His hair was dense, and I could never decide if it wanted to be wavy or curly, but it never got the chance since he kept it short.
“It means it'll take a little longer,” I admitted. I removed the other caliper bolt and hung the caliper from the spring, then checked to see what size bolts locked down the frame for the caliper. I headed back to the toolbox and got a socket and off-set wrench, and then snagged a can of penetrant as well. I sat down and sprayed the bolts down thoroughly and then waited to let the chemicals do their magic.
“So. Lilly. Real thing?”
“Yeah. I like her a lot. She's smart. She has a plan for how she'd like to live. Doesn't want kids until later in life, if at all. She can be funny. Hey, she has a twin brother if you're interested.”
I sighed. “Fuck you, Luca.”
He laughed lightly. “Hey. You know it doesn't matter to me, right?”
I knew. Luca was pretty socially aware. He said it wasn't being socially liberal so much as it was accepting people for who they were. He disliked the term social conservative just as much, saying they just didn't like to be called assholes so they made up a term to hide it.
“So. You going to call him or something?”
I put the socket on the bolt, but couldn't get a decent angle with the ratchet to apply pressure so I put the wrench on it. It squealed a little and then broke free. Moments later its twin did the same and I had the frame off. I took the frame inside the garage with Luca trailing me. I put the frame in a vise and sprayed up the bolt, then set about getting the torch ready to heat the stub.
“I don't know,” I said, once again picking up the conversation as if no time had passed. “What do I say?”
“Well. Do you like him?”
I thought for a moment on that. As I did I got an old pair of vice-grips out and sparked up the torch. As I adjusted the flame down I said, “I did. He was fun. Interesting. The guy is in love with Italy. He knows all kinds of facts and stuff about it. It was actually kind of interesting.”
“Yeah? Modern Italy or are we talking history or what?”
I held the tip of the blue flame to the snapped bolt. “History. He thinks he wants to be a teacher,” I said absently. Once the bolt got a nice glow I turned off the torch, enjoying the snapping sound it made as the flame went out. I used the vice-grips to get a solid hold on the broken bolt and turned it easily out of the frame. I held it up for Luca to see.
“Little bit of everything.”
“What?” he asked.
“Ben. He knows a little bit of everything about Italy. History. Current events. Even the mafia. He knows a shit-ton about that,” I said. “Or maybe I just asked a lot of questions about it.” I went back to his car to get the twin to the bolt I'd snapped and went through my father's hardware bins to find a match for it. Dad never threw away hardware. I used some anti-seize on all the bolts as I put them back together and got ready to put the wheels back on.
“Well, you should call him. Or ask him to coffee or something. Just to get more information about what this means to you,” Luca said.
I thought on that for a minute.
“Hello? Hi! I hope you can help me.” I looked up from the wheel I was about to bolt onto Luca's car to see a young couple around my age.
“It's my dad's place, but I can try to help you out. What's wrong?” I asked.
“I'd appreciate it,” the guy said in an overly grateful tone. “Our car broke down practically in front of your shop.”
The girl took over. “I stalled it – still getting used to a clutch – and it acts like the battery is dead or something.”
“Okay. Just let me finish this,” I said. I put Luca's wheels on, set the car down and used a torque wrench to tighten the lug nuts. Once done I told Luca he could take it for a test drive and he offered to go grab some lunch. While he was out I spent the next little while with this couple – Howard and Chloe – and what turned out to be their corroded battery terminals.
“See all that crumbly-looking white and green stuff on the battery posts?” I asked as I pointed them out.
“Yeah. What is that crap?” Chloe asked.
“Corrosion. Looks like an old battery,” I told him.
“I've never seen corrosion like that,” Howard said. “I work with my dad doing HVAC stuff, and I've seen some stuff – but not like that!”
“I knew I shouldn't have bought this car,” Chloe said and sighed. “The guy tricked me. I wanted to wait until Dev was available to look it over for me, but he made me feel like someone was going to snag it out from under me. I can't even drive a stick!”
“It's okay! You'll learn,” Howard said, giving her a side-hug and rubbing his hand up and down her arm.
The garage had a solution that would cause the corrosion to froth with these yellow bubbles, and then I cleaned that off before using a steel brush on the battery terminals and cables. The battery hadn't been getting enough of a charge, though, so I had to quick-charge it for a bit before they'd be ready to roll again. I looked the car over while the battery charged.
“It's in decent shape,” I said finally. “The rotors aren't grooved, the rubber is good. There isn't any real rust to speak of.” I looked around under the hood. “The wires – they aren't new, but – hey, mind if I pop the cap?”
“Uh, sure,” the guy said, glancing at his girlfriend.
“Please,” she said. “I'd feel better if you did.”
I grabbed a screwdriver and released the cap. Lifting it up I instantly wondered how this car had started at all. I said as much to them. “Do you see this carbon scoring in here? All this black powder?” They leaned in and nodded. “You can also see this rough edge on the contact point of the rotor?” More nods. “That means these parts are worn out. New ones would have smooth metal, and the contact points in the cap,” I pointed to the dulled, scored metal along the inside.
“Does that mean it's broken?” Chloe asked.
“No. I mean, it needs a tune-up, right?” Howard asked.
“Exactly. It's likely the cap, rotor, plugs and wires need replacing. Was the car hard to start when it was running? Like cranking a lot before it would actually run?”
“Yes!” Chloe said, and then her jubilation broke and her face dropped. “Wait, that's bad. Right?”
“Well, not completely. I'd drain the oil and see how much metal you see in the bottom of the pan. If you see a lot of metal flakes then the engine may be pretty worn. I'd start there before you put the money into the tune up.”
“Is that something you can do?” Chloe asked.
I rubbed the back of my neck as Luca pulled back into the lot with our lunch. “Well, we're technically closed. Luca's a buddy of mine, so I was doing his stuff on my day off,” I said. Chloe's face took on a look of understanding.
“Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize,” she said.
“No, no, don't be sorry,” I said. “Um. If you can leave it for a bit – the battery has to charge anyway – I can drain the oil so we can get an idea. It's not the only thing, but it'll give you some clue if they took care of the engine by changing the oil. Oh,” I said, struck by a thought. I lay down by the front bumper and dragged myself under a bit, casting my gaze about for the oil filter. Spotting it and getting a good look, I scuttled out from under the car.
“Well, the oil filter looks appropriately old.”
“What do you mean by appropriately?” Howard asked.
“Like, it's not rusted and ancient like it's never been changed, and it's not brand new like they changed it just before selling it to hide something. So draining the oil to look for metal should be more useful than if they'd done one of those two things.” I carefully popped the cap on the radiator overflow. This car company used red anti-freeze. “The color of the coolant is good. If it were darkened then there might be oil leaking into the water jacket.” I looked up at them. “Want to come back in like an hour or something? Let me eat and then I'll take a look?”
“Please,” Chloe said. “I would feel so much better having some real information about how much I screwed up buying this thing.” She looked at her boyfriend. “I should have waited for you, at least.”
Howard let that slide and asked about places to go for lunch. Luca was the food expert – I just liked to eat. Howard and Chloe headed off to get a bite and I retreated to the office with Luca.