Not everything was perfect. One afternoon not long into our daily concurrence, she flipped open her phone and spoke into it while the TV and I shared a few minutes of pause. They sounded like routine lines, familiar and a little bored. I asked her who it had been once she hung up, and with the corrective nonchalance of an unimpressed teacher, she said, “Oh – my boyfriend.”

Right. The one from the concert. The one I’d used as a disclaimer while Natalie typed a few ideas to me later that night, that hapless lemon I said she’d need to toss before she and I were to try any of the things she apparently had in mind. When she invited me to a “film” a few days or week later, I hadn’t bothered to fact check. I don’t well enough remember myself then to know exactly how much of that was naivety, and how much was my own wishful fibbing. But it’d take another week, maybe, for this dull call to uncap fully the slightly twisted truth.

I played it cool; the situation was just cool enough, more or less, to play it so. Not talking about it further seemed not to clarity it further. I told a friendly acquaintance about it in neutral font over AIM one nearby night, and bowing obeisant to some unseen pickup artist god, he recited like a rosary:

if it ain’t a problem for her, it ain’t a problem for you.

Like trying on a fashion previously unconsidered, I returned his grin saying yes, he must be right. But it didn’t feel like it, looking in the mirror; it felt awkward, a touch heavy, and made me look  a bit of  a douche. I wasn’t used to being in deep, mutual like with someone whose liking rights ostensibly belonged to someone else.

Cautiously protracted, the situation began to make stranger and somehow better-feeling sense. Natalie and her now-named boy, Justin, had been dating for around two years. It began when she was a freshman, and he a senior – my first hindsight justification of my disdain for him. Now he was a rising sophomore in college, as Natalie was becoming a junior in high school. Everything was almost perfect, she said, until university; his was only a brief drive away, but once there, he became semi-remote, quasi-sexual, and wholly reluctant to acknowledge her as his Facebook Official girl. I ventured he might be seeing someone else, but Natalie insisted she knew what was going on, that Justin in his advanced age had become emotionally castrato. She volunteered, for whatever it might be worth to me, that in many months they hadn’t so much as kissed. (“Which is why it feels right seeing you in the first place.”) But they were still best friends, a keystone support for one another. So -friends boy and girl they remained.

A simple thing had grown interesting.

All the moreso when, after a week or two of repurposing a thick swatch of her rightful property, I finally met Natalie’s mother. We broke spoken bread at last in the living room-arranged foyer I had usually only glanced between long, hasty strides. I was struck, if anything, by her size and age. Natalie was a very median 5’7”, but her low weight scale scores and aspirational legs1 made her scan somehow petite; her mother, several obvious inches taller, was by no measure a small woman. Her crowning wool-white wool, which marked that height clearly upon most backdrops, had me guessing she was maybe a decade older than the mid-fortysomething I’d later learn her to be. That was after I found out she had spent most of her career as a nurse, but long before I’d scrubbed her name from my mental archive and relabeled her “the Big Nurse,” to be precise, in all future thoughts.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be avoiding you,” she quickly reconciled. “I know I seemed cold. I just didn’t understand what Natalie was doing with you, and Justin, and all of that.” I nodded sympathetically.

“But now, I understand – it’s fine, and I understand.”

I returned the Big Nurse’s smile and managed not to ask her to share. I was entering blindly a game the two of them had been playing wide-eyed for already some time, not sure where laid the stakes or how far the table stretched beyond me.

But as the silent scrabble between us quit and resumed over the days and weeks, I began to piece something together. Natalie still spoke fondly of Justin as her “best friend,” and the Big Nurse still spoke fondly of herself as “practically his mother”– he had lacked an adequate one of his own, she quickly elaborated, then quickly elaborated that Justin’s actual mother was nevertheless alive and real and entirely reliable. This seemed an inscrutably bizarre position in which to triangulate oneself, one’s teenage daughter, and her four-years-elder boyfriend. Natalie’s fear of reclassifying her bond with Justin made a now creepier kind of sense – such can be awkward and complicated even when your own mom isn’t also texting the guy “I love you too,” on occasion. And as a recent addition to Natalie’s life,2 in capacities inexact, I understood I had no place or say in that weirdness. It was one in which, despite what I seemed to be feeling, I knew better than to want a word.

Everything seemed to resist simplification, though, with Natalie and I fixing to see each other so much. One day, sick of the couch, we went to the combination playground-park by the woods down her street, which seemed like a silly thing to ignore. After some idle time on the swings she led me to a clearer clearing past the tree line and asked to inspect my car key, dropping it suddenly down her underwear and running away, giggling, as though from a just-tagged It. For a while I chased and reasoned with her, irked in the laughing way that comes moments before things get unfunny, until we interrupted to notice my silver-grey Volvo ‘96 sloping down the nearby hill toward her house. The giggles stopped, her smile constricting to a tight pause.

“…Is that Justin?”

My pause was a fraction of hers:

“…What.”

Her pause was a mixed fraction of mine:

“…He has the same car as you.”

My mind mimed the motion of a wishbone snapping unevenly. It was in fact not Justin but a third parallel universe Volvo, which was not a relief but rather a cosmic pirouette at least one twist more disorienting. I retrieved my key in the least interesting way possible, given their whereabouts, having invented some reason to leave.

There came a similar episode on an adjacent night, when after some DVD or another Natalie opened her cellular clamshell and pronounced its freshest contents.

“Mom’s driving home right now,” she said. “She’s bringing Justin.”

Here? Now? It was post-nightfall; I had been there longer than the day.

“He wanted to say hello before going back home from college. He’ll be gone again soon.”

Does he know I’m here? Does he know who I am?

“Not yet,” she said. “And yes.” I rose from the couch.

“This is too weird.” I shifted my head in a way that communicated thought, and a low decibel concession to spinal ligaments. “I don’t want to meet this guy.” I least of all wanted to pretend his girlfriend and I were like two opposing telephone poles. It felt newly obvious that I had been drafted to play a part in a teen romance novel easily read by its cover.

Natalie, still shirtless, angled her ankles against the folds of the couch and sprung herself in protest onto my back, giggling again as she latched her arms around my t-shirted chest.

“Seriously – I don’t.” I placed thumb and longest finger on either end of her wrists, picklocking them with a casual snap. She slumped back down to the leather behind us, where she looked pretty in her surprise when I turned to acknowledge her on my way to the door.

“I’ll see you later,” I said, key in palm as before.

  1. Not far short of the ones that upheld all 6’5” of me. []
  2. Though not her first non-platonic try-out in the time since Justin graduated into his slight remove at a college closeby, I also found out thereabouts. []

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