I had to admit that his love looked good on her.
Ava bounded down the steps to where I waited in the lobby. Her big, shiny ‘fro — so long now that it fell into her eyes and she had to push it out of her face before she looked up at me — bounced on her shoulders. Once she was in front of me, she looked up at me and smiled.
Gah … yeah. I never made her smile like that. Levi’s love definitely looked good on her.
“Hey, Ava,” I said.
“Pet names are no longer permitted, but where do you stand on hugs?” she asked.
“Get in my arms,” I said and yanked her into my chest. “Hugs are permitted.”
Don’t hug her too hard, or hold her too close. But I did bury my nose in her hair. She still smelled the same — African Musk and the peppermint oil she massaged into her scalp so that her hair grew in thick and healthy. That smell used to linger on my pillows when she left.
I held her away from me. “So how long do I have you?”
“Until six? I wanna be home by the time Levi finishes up a Boys & Girls.”
About four hours. Not nearly long enough. “Cool, so what should we do with our time?”
“Day drink over chili cheese fries?” she suggested with a half-hearted shrug and a crooked smile.
I chuckled. “What you want to talk about requires a day drinking?”
“I don’t know about it being a requirement, but it might make it easier.”
“Gotcha.” I nodded and shoved my hands in my pockets. “Fuck it. I’m off for the next two days. Let’s do this.”
“You wanna drive or …”
“You drive. I think I’m the only one who hasn’t caught ride in the Bronco.”
“Cool. I’m parked in the garage.”
Ava had just moved into Levi’s apartment by Cooper River Park before Thanksgiving. Me and the rest of the crew helped. With rogue cops on the street who might be looking for her, it was a good idea for Levi to move her in. Ava’s old place wasn’t nearly as secure, and I didn’t want to admit the number of times I’d driven by just to see if her light was on and she was safe. She was safer out here. Further away, but safer.
“So how’s work? I feel like we haven’t caught up in ages,” she asked as we walked through the building’s parking garage toward the hulking, blacked out Bronco. “Yves said that you were thinking of going back to school to study fire science and maybe trying for Lieutenant?”
I rolled my eyes. That conversation with my sister had happened after drinking too much and spilling too many feelings. “Yves has a big mouth,” I said.
Ava hit the key fob to unlock the Bronco’s doors. I followed her over to the driver’s side and opened the door for her to climb in.
“I can do this myself, you know,” she said as she stepped up and slid into the black leather seat.
“I know. Are you in?” I asked. She gave me a nod, and I slammed the door closed before walking around to the passenger side.
“Was it a secret?” she asked once I was settled in the seat next to her.
“No, it wasn’t a secret, but I haven’t actually decided to do it.” I huffed out a frustrated sigh as I buckled my seatbelt. “It’s just an idea I’m kicking around.”
I didn’t add that I was only thinking about a fire science degree and trying for a promotion because I was searching for something to occupy my mind. The real truth of it was that I didn’t know what to do with my life right now. Everyone around me seemed to be making life-changing decisions — falling in love, getting married, moving in together, having kids. Even my loquita little sister, Yves, was settling down and growing up. And Ava, my ex, the Beans to my Franks, the one who got away, was getting married.
And it wasn’t to me.
It had been nearly six years since we’d been in a relationship. Of course, we weren’t completely estranged during that time. We vacillated between being on again - off again, to enemies, to secret lovers, and now friends. This friendship that we were navigating had the potential to be better than the romantic relationship we had, which … when it was good, it was really good. Good enough to make me forget the hard bits. I still couldn’t figure out how I ended up back in the friend zone, though. It just kind of…happened. After keeping her at a distance for the better part of a year, she showed up at my mother’s dinner table like no time had passed. I was surprised to see her that day but happy at the same time. It had been clear that things were going to be strictly platonic the moment she started talking, though. She’d just met Levi and even when she told me about him then, I could tell that it was different.
Ava didn’t love easy, and she made loving her hard. The fact that she was already so into him was telling, but for some reason, I thought that it would … fizzle out? It was a terrible and selfish thought. I wanted Ava to be happy — she deserved to be happy, but I didn’t expect it that conversation on my mother’s stoop to end in a proposal.
Either way, I had to get over it — push away any thoughts or feelings about what might have been. Levi was a great guy that I actually liked, and Ava deserved love like that.
“So, what is it?” Ava continued like I hadn’t derailed the conversation about me going back to school. “Are you worried that you can’t do it? That too much time has passed, and it’s going to be too hard?”
“Partly …” I admitted. I could lie, but I wasn’t very good at that. Saying what I felt in the moment had always served me better in the end. “I don’t know. I’ve been in my head lately.”
“Are you sure it’s your head and not your feelings that you’ve been in?” Ava asked in that frank, straightforward way that she had.
I looked at her; took in that self-satisfied look on her face. Maybe it was because we were so close, or maybe I was just that transparent, but there was no point in trying to hide anything from her. “So we’re gonna talk about it?”
“Yup!” she said, drawing out the word and popping her lips for emphasis. “I think we should talk about it. I think we gotta talk this shit out, Franks. The energy you’re giving off has me worried, and I need to know we’re okay.”
I groaned and tipped my head back on the headrest. “Okay, where do you want to start?”
“How about the beginning?”
“The beginning,” I echoed.
What good would it do to talk about that?
Yes, it had been on my mind since the moment I saw her sitting at my mother’s dinner table. Honestly, thinking about Ava had probably led to Giada breaking up with me. Not for nothing, I’d really been blindsided by that. I wasn’t deeply in love with the girl, but I loved her enough to want to think and talk about marriage. Apparently, that wasn’t enough. “Why do you want to talk about that now?”
She shrugged and pulled out into traffic. “Because we never have and I think we need to… pop the pimple. Get the poison out.”
“Pop the pimple… That’s a visual,” I muttered.
Ava breathed out an exasperated sigh. “I’m just saying… I’m aware that some closure is needed here.”
“Closure,” I echoed.
“Stop fucking repeating everything I say, Franks. I’m just saying that it’s clear that some things have been left unsaid and if we’re going to continue to be in each other’s lives, we have to say those things. Out loud.”
I looked out the window. We were crossing the Ben Franklin into Philly. There was only one place Ava liked to get chili cheese fries, and that was Jim’s on South. Which meant that we were probably going to walk up to Donnie Darla’s for a citywide special. This was going to be a long afternoon, and Ava wasn’t going to let it end until they had said everything that needs to be said.
“Fine,” I agreed. “Let’s pop the pimple. Get the poison out.”
“Okay, then,” she said, giving me a sidelong glance that felt like a challenge. “Let’s.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in Donnie Darla’s. It used to be mine and Cesar’s spot. We introduced Yves and Ava to the place while they were still in college, but somehow, Ava got it in the break-up. That was fine with me. At the time, I was probably drinking too much anyway. I made the decision to turn my attention toward renovating my row home and getting really good at my job, which worked out great for me.
But I had to admit that it felt good to be sitting across from her now at our favorite hi-top in the corner, Jim’s chili cheese fries on the table between us, a pitcher of Pabst sweating next to the fries, and two shots of Jim Beam in either of our hands.
Ava raised her glass. “To closure.”
I raised mine. “To closure.”
We both downed our shots and banged the glasses down on the table, which was the universal signal for the bartender to hustle over and refill them. I picked up my beer and chased the harsh whiskey with a deep swallow.
“So when do we agree this all began?” she asked.
I licked the foam off my top lip. “That night in Seaside Heights.”
That summer, me and my then best friend Cesar had decided to split a rental down the shore. We’d landed a couple of good-paying construction jobs and had money to burn. Yves and Ava had just completed their freshman year, and I wanted to celebrate my little sister. She was the first Santiago to go to college, and she had killed it that first year, finishing off the last semester with high As in all of her classes. I’d been so proud of her— I still was. Cesar was her boyfriend at the time, and they were getting pretty serious. To be honest, I never entirely approved of it, but I didn’t want to be the thing that came between them. I didn’t know that Cesar was abusing her at that time, but in hindsight, that summer was my first hint at their relationship dynamic.
But it was also the first time I really noticed Ava.
Yves had brought Ava home for Nochebuena earlier that year, and from that night on, she had become a fixture at our dinner table on Thursday and Sunday nights. I had thought she was cute, for sure, but for some reason, I’d filed her under “too young.” But that all changed that summer in Seaside Heights.
Ava showed up in a bright, white tank top, daisy dukes, and rocking some fresh box braids; giving me Janet Jackson, Poetic Justice vibes. I had a massive crush on Janet at the time, and Ava’s personality was sort of like Justice — fiery, but still shy, and intense. And smart. So fucking smart that she intimidated me a bit.
I ain’t stupid, but I’m not an academic like my sisters Yves and Mercedes. I’d spent most of my time in high school on the football field and with the girls who sat in the stands, waiting for their chance. Maybe that was why I was so smitten with her. She was different than what I was used to.
“It took an hour for me to grow a powerful crush on you,” I said finally. “But by the time I parked at that shack in Seaside Heights, I’d decided not to act on it.”
She chuckled. “Wow. I had a crush on you the moment Yves said, This is my brother I. What took you so long?”
I shrugged. “You were young and my sister’s best friend. Not someone from the neighborhood, but someone who was going through the whole college experience with her. You two were each other’s support system as you grew into the amazing women you were born to be. I wasn’t about to fuck that up.”
“But then you kissed me?” she said, genuinely confused.
“That wasn’t my fault?”
“Wasn’t your fault? If I remember correctly, I was out on the deck, smoking a joint and trying to escape that endless loop of arguing and fucking between Cesar and Yves, and then you came out there half naked —”
“I was wearing basketball shorts, ma’am. Let’s not rewrite history. Besides, you were the one who was sitting up on the railing looking like a siren in that white tank top, and those tiny cheerleading shorts with your skin looking all glow-y like the moonlight was underneath it—”
“Excuse me?” she sputtered, choking on her beer.
I rolled my eyes and passed her some napkins. “Did you spit in the fries?” I muttered, slightly embarrassed that I’d let all of that flowery language come out of my mouth.
“Is that really what you thought when you saw me that night?” she asked as she tried her best to clean up her mess. I signaled for the bartender who came over with a rag and cleaned it all up.
“Yes, it was really what I thought,” I admitted once the woman was gone. “What did you think I was thinking?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “I just remember feeling super self-conscious because I wasn’t wearing a bra and my nipples got hard when you looked at me.”
I chuckled and picked up my fork. “I remember that, too.” I stabbed a few fries and shoveled them into my mouth. “Coño …” I said with a sigh.
“Still good, huh?” she asked before picking up her own fork.
“Uh … yeah, but I was just remembering those perky ass nipples under that virginal white tank top.”
“I wasn’t a virgin.”
“Yeah, and I found that out later on that week.”
Even without the moonlight, Ava’s complexion dark and luminescent as a cacao bean, but I knew if I brushed my fingertips across her cheek, they would be warm with the blush I couldn’t see.
Her gaze dropped to the fries, and mine dropped to her lips.
“But what I want to know is …” She cleared her throat. “If you decided I was off limits before we even got down the shore, why’d you kiss me?”
I dipped my head so that I could look her in the eye. “I don’t know, Ava. I guess I just wanted you.” When our eyes met a soft gasp spilled from her lips. God, her lips…
I dropped my fork and leaned back in my chair. I had to lean back because if I kept staring into her eyes like that, I would kiss her and …
“What are we doing here? This feels dangerous, Ava.”
“Why? Because you wanted to kiss me just now?”
Now my cheeks heated as blood rushed to my face. “Well, yeah,” I admitted. “And I’m friends with Levi, and I don’t want to disrespect your relationship.”
“Good,” she said with a lift of one eyebrow. “So don’t.”
“It would be a lot easier if you quit looking at me like that.”
Her mouth twisted into a wry smile. “Okay, that’s fair.” She reached for her beer and took a deep swallow. Foamy head settled on her top lip, and she licked it away. My dick throbbed in response.
This was definitely dangerous.
“I’ve been thinking about us a lot lately,” she said after shoveling in a mouthful of fries.
“Why?” I asked and then held my breath while I waited for her answer. My heart thudded so loudly that surely the sound couldn’t be contained in my chest. What was this wild feeling inside of me? Hope?
“I don’t know. I just don’t like knowing that I’ve hurt you in some way.”
Hope fled as quickly as it came. What did I think she was going to do? Confess that she was still in love with me and call off the wedding? “Beans … I’m not hurt. We’ve been over for a long time.”
She shook her head. “I know but the way you’ve been acting lately…”
“Okay, but that’s not hurt. I guess it’s …” I searched my mind for the right word. “Regret,” I said finally.
Her brown eyes searched mine. “Regret? That we didn’t work out?”
“In a way,” I said with a shrug. I picked up my beer, drained the glass then refilled it again. “This is frustratingly difficult to explain.”
“Why does it matter?”
“Because you matter to me, Franks. You’re family now and …I feel you pulling away.”
“I’m just trying to keep a respectful distance. I don’t want anyone to think that—”
“No one thinks that but you, Franks.”
Well, what was I supposed to say? That seeing how caring and attentive Levi was with her made me feel inadequate in some way that I couldn’t name? That the way Levi so easily understood her anxiety and read her moods made me feel like I didn’t try hard enough when we were together?
“Maybe I just wish I hadn’t given up on us so easily. I ended things as soon as they got hard.”
“We were just kids—”
“Yeah, I know, but knowing what I know of you now … it could have been different.”
Ava shook her head. “It wouldn’t have. I was really damaged back then. Even if you said and did things differently, I wouldn’t have been in the right place mentally or emotionally to receive it.”
“That’s fair,” I said with a nod. “I’m glad you’re marrying Levi. I don’t want you to think I’m not. You deserve all of this happiness, Ava I just wish I could have been better for you.”
“And I wish I’d been better for you,” she echoed then sighed the longest sigh. “Did you think about me during those two years?”
“After we broke up?” I nodded. “Of course, I did.” I stalked her Instagram. Checked her website for new photos of the couples she’d photographed — hoping to catch a glimpse of her. When I met up with my sister, I looked over her shoulder, hoping to see Ava’s face. “Did you think about me?”
She laughed bitterly then stabbed her fork into the fries. “Nope. I made it my business to erase every trace of you from my life and drown myself in as many dicks as possible to escape the very real fact that I was too fucked up to be with you.”
A red hot poker of jealousy shot through me. “Did it work?”
“Nope. I just figured out that I was really too fucked up to be with anybody so I kinda just … stopped trying.”
“And then, Levi.”
“And then Levi,” she parroted.
“He’s a good guy, Ava. You deserve to be with him.”
“Do I?” She stabbed a few more fries onto her fork. “Sometimes I wonder,” she murmured before stuffing them in her mouth.
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
She ignored my question and positioned her fork to load it up with more fries.
“Stop it. You’re not even hungry. You’re gonna make yourself sick,” I said, pushing the fries away.
Ava scowled but didn’t bother to pretend like she wanted to keep eating them. I may not be able to read her moods as easily as Levi, but I knew that if she picked at food that she would normally inhale, she was probably feeling nervous or anxious and would only throw it all up if she kept eating.
“Does Levi really know we’re seeing each other today?” I asked suspiciously.
She rolled her eyes. “Of course, he does.”
“Does he know that we’re supposed to be finding closure?” I mimed air quotes when I said the word closure. Such a ridiculous fucking word.
“What does that mean?” she asked, gesturing at my hands.
“I don’t know, Ava. This feels strange to me.”
“And you think it doesn’t feel strange to me? We were talking about the wedding and trying to decide on an officiant, and what type of ceremony we would want when somehow, in our Google search, we came across this page about soul mates and twin flames—”
I held up a hand for her to be quiet for a moment so I could catch up. Wedding officiant? Soul mates? Twin Flames? “What does all of this have to do with me?” I asked.
“Basically, he thinks you’re not the only one who needs closure. He thinks I need it, too.”
“And was he specific about the way this closure should be attained?”
Ava shook her head and laughed dispassionately. “No, he wasn’t.”
Had that shot of whiskey finally hit my bloodstream? Because my mind had slowed, caught on hot, sticky thoughts of how people typically achieved closure from past relationships. I swallowed hard and licked my lips.
“You probably don’t remember this, but nochebuena was the first time we met.”
Ava nodded. “I first saw you on the first day of freshman year. The day we moved into the dorms. My room was across the hall.”
“What? That room was empty when we moved her in.”
“Yeah, but I spotted you when you came in and hung out into the common area until you and Cesar left.”
I laughed cautiously. “Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know. I saw you and Yves in the parking lot, and I thought, these are two of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. I hope she’s not my roommate. Then, of course, I overheard her telling the RA her room number and realized that she wasn’t, but she did live across the hall, and I died inside.”
“Died inside? I don’t understand…”
“Me and pretty girls … we didn’t have a good history at that time in my life.”
I frowned. “But you’re a pretty girl. You were then, and you are now.”
“Not according to my high school’s standards. I was too dark, too skinny, too poor, and too weird. I didn’t have a lot of friends.”
“And you thought Yves was the same,” I said softly. It wasn’t a question and couldn’t even reassure her that she’d had nothing fear from my little sister. Yves wasn’t exactly a mean girl, but I knew she could be cruel. “How long did it take you to realize that she wasn’t Regina George?”
She laughed. “You got it wrong. Yves is Regina George. It just took me most of the semester to realize that I was Cady Heron.”
“Who’s Cady Heron?”
She rolled her eyes. “Anyway, even though I avoided Yves in the dorm, our majors brought us together over and over again. I still hid in my room whenever I heard your voice in the hallway, but Yves always kept her door open, so I spied on you through my peephole. I was inexplicably drawn to you.” She shook her head with an embarrassed smile. “Back then, Yves was oversharing everywhere on social media, and I would stalk her comments for your name every time she posted. It was very unhealthy behavior.”
I stared at her wide-eyed. She’d never told me any of this. All I knew was from the moment Yves started talking about how the weird girl across the hall wasn’t plotting her demise and started posting about the things they did together, I’d indulged in the same sort of stalker behavior. Scrolling through her pics on IG — which were mostly the haunting and gritty photography she did for her course work, but occasionally she would break up the photos of her work with an artistically cropped photo of herself. Sometimes it was an overexposed picture of her in profile. A close up on the beauty mark on the inside of her left knee. Or her waist length, freshly braided hair skimming her flat belly in a bikini or crop top. I was inexplicably drawn to her, too. I had wanted to know her, too.
I leaned forward and rested my elbows on the table.
“When Yves told me that you were coming to Seaside Heights with us, I spent almost every moment wondering how I was going to avoid making a fool of myself in front of you. Yes, you were my sister’s new best friend. Yes, you were only nineteen and far too young for my twenty-four-year-old ass to be checking for, but …” I laughed, my cheeks flushing hot. “I wanted you to like me. I wanted you to be impressed by me — your best friend’s older brother. I wanted to know you … but I didn’t anticipate being on the other end of that. I didn’t expect to be impressed by you. I didn’t expect to be impressed by you. I didn’t know that after spending an hour and thirty minutes on the expressway with you in the car debating whether The Blueprint 3 was better than Reasonable Doubt, that I would already be halfway in love with you.”
She smiled. “The great debate about the maturation of Shawn Corey Carter. You’re still wrong, by the way.”
“Oh, my god. How many times do me and Shawn have to tell you that if you want his old shit, listen to his old albums?”
Ava sucked her teeth. “That wasn’t my point, and you know it.”
“What was ya point so I can prove that wrong, too?”
“My point was that he wasn’t rapping to or about me on The Blueprint 3! That it alienated a whole ass demo with the party tone of that album!”
“What do you expect? The nigga got rich! I couldn’t keep rapping about his triple beam dreams!”
She gasped and covered her mouth in faux astonishment. “Did you just use the phrase triple beam dream unironically?”
“Whatever,” I said with a dismissive wave, then laughed. “But that right there. That’s what I mean. The bond was instantaneous and intense. I took everything in me to keep a respectable distance from those first seven days.”
“And on the seventh night, you kissed me.”
“And I declared your lips a holy and sanctified place and said that it was good.”
We both laughed way too hard at my borderline blasphemous joke until joy-filled tears came to our eyes.
“But seriously though … do you remember how it was?” I asked. “How inseparable we were? How more than a few hours apart felt like an eternity. I mean, yeah, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other, but it was more than that? Right?”
“No, it definitely was,” she said, resting her elbows on the table and leaning in close again. “And that’s what’s survived all this time, right? That other thing.”
“I mean … yeah. But that’s because it didn’t work out.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, her voice soft. “But it makes me wonder though …”
“What would have happened if you never kissed me?”
A nervous smile twitched and tickled at the corners of my mouth. “What do you mean?”
“Okay, hear me out.” She scooted closer to the table and leaned in even closer now. The African musk and peppermint scent of her flooded my senses, drowning out the smell of the cold fries and room temperature beer. In the low light, the little bit of sun that filtered in through the windows caught in her skin and shimmered in the hickory brown of her eyes.
“I’m listening …” I said slightly suspicious, but a little bit drugged by her closeness.
“Okay, what if we never kissed? What if by rushing to solidify our relationship in a physical way, we messed out on years of being what we were really meant to be?”
“And what’s that?”
“Friends. Really good, super-tight, lifelong friends.”
I frowned and leaned back in my chair again. “I don’t understand …are you saying that you regret being with me? Wish that we never—”
“No, Franks. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I just mean that we were on our way to a rock-solid friendship, then we kissed, and made love, and put so much pressure on what we felt for each other to make it look the way it should to everyone else.”
I fought to keep logic ahead of my feelings, but it sounded like she regretted it all. Not just the kiss. Everything they had all three years that they spent together.
“I know what I felt for you, Ava. But what did you feel for me?”
Her brows dipped into a frown. “I can’t believe you’re asking me how I felt. You know how I felt.”
“I thought I did. But the things you’re saying right now…”
“I’m doing this all wrong —”” she shook her head and leaned away.
“What did you feel for me, Ava? Did you ever love me?”
“Of course, I did. I still do.” Her voice is a soft anguished whisper.
“Is that what this about? You love both of us, and you have to downplay what you feel or felt for me so that the love you have for him makes sense?”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “Why are you trying to get me to say something to hurt you? This is what I’m talking about, Franks. This tension between us is pushing us apart.”
“Maybe that’s better. Maybe it’s unrealistic to go from lovers to friends.”
“People do it all the time.”
“Maybe we’re not those kind of people.”
“I know that …we’re Franks and Beans. We go together—”
“No, we don’t,” I said, shaking my head. “Not anymore.”
“Why? Because the possibility of us being together as a couple is no longer there?”
“What? That’s not—” I held my hands up in surrender. “It’s getting late. Maybe we should head back.”
“No … we need to talk this out. I don’t want to keep feeling this tension between us.” She laughed and shook her head. “Anyway, you gotta know that running away from this is pointless. We’re just going to cycle back into each other’s lives again. Three months, six months, a year from now, I’ll be on your stoop, or you’ll run into me at Yves’ place and we’ll be right back here.”
I wanted to disagree, but she was right. That thing … that instantaneous, intense, passionate bond always brought us back together. Before the last big break up, we argued and called it quits at least half a dozen times. Those never lasted more than a few weeks, a month at most. Sometimes we only made it a few hours without calling each other and apologizing. The only thing that kept me away these last two years was knowing what I know now; she may love me, but not in the way I needed. And if I was completely honest with myself, I couldn’t love her the way she needed either.
I pressed the heels of my hands into my eyes. “I wish I knew how I could still have all of these feelings for you. This feeling that I'll never get over you unless I just cut all ties and cauterize the wound. But then there's this incredible love that feels me with anxiety, and worry, and fucking doubt.”
“If what we had was even real or if I’m just romanticizing it. And look at me … it’s two years later since I kicked you out of my place and I’m still …” I looked in her eyes. Her smiling eyes.
“Of course, it was real, but we’ve always been more than just lovers.” She reached across the table and took his hand. “You were one of my two best friends, my teacher, my therapist, when I needed one.”
I chuckled. “We were definitely all of those things for each other. I believe you were the first one to encourage me to stop dreaming about becoming a firefighter and sign up for training.”
“And you gave me my first digital camera and made me start considering that I wasn’t just a photojournalist, but also a fine artist.” She laced her fingers between his. “It wasn’t wasted time.”
“No, not wasted time,” I agreed, looking down at our joined hands. “But definitely the wrong time.”
“Not wrong. Just … not quite right. But this moment right here? This moment is the perfect moment in time.”
She shifted close again.
“Perfect time for what?”
“Well…” she nibbled on her bottom lip. “When I was thinking of us, I realized that every time we cycle into each other’s lives, it’s because one or both of us is going through some big, life-changing thing. You with joining the Fire Department and me starting my wedding photography business.”
“And now you’re getting married.”
She nodded. “Why not be more intentional about it this time?”
“Well… first I think we should make some sort of pact, you know?”
“Yeah, and if we can do that and really mean it… I want you to walk me down the aisle.”
A genuine laugh burst out of me. Not the nervous one that I usually employed when I felt unsure or stressed out. “Are you serious? You can’t be serious.”
“I’m so serious.”
I stared at her. She had to be joking. This had to be a joke. I just had to wait for the punchline. It was coming any minute.
“When I think of that moment and who is walking with me toward the love of my life, it’s you—”
“No!” The word barked out me before I even realized I’d said it. “Fuck no, Ava.”
She looked crushed. “No? Just no?”
“Ava… for most of this conversation, I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’m not still in love with you—”
“You’re not in love with me, Marcelo,” she said, shaking her head. “But even if you were, the time has never been right for that! This isn't all that complicated. The right thing at the wrong time is just the wrong fucking thing, Franks.”
“So we should skip the part where we were in love and land at me walking you down the aisle like I’m your dad or some shit?”
“No, I--" Ava sat back in her chair and stared at me for a moment. "Nevermind. Forget I said anything."
“I’m not trying to be hard on you, but this is a big ask.”
“I know it is, that’s why I asked you,” she said softly. “But you’re right. Maybe I didn’t really think this through.” She pushed away from the table and stood up. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom, pay the bill, and then we can go.”
Before I could say another word, Ava hustled toward the bathroom at the far end of the bar.
“Fuck. Ah fuck,” I cursed under my breath. I fucked that up. But really, how did she expect me to respond? One minute we were just catching up and that had somehow turned into her asking me to walk her down the aisle. To give her away to the love of her life.
Big ask. That ask was way too fucking big.
I looked up as she came down the hallway from the restroom and walked up to the bar to pay the tab. I pushed away from the table and went to her side.
“I got this,” I said, pulling out my wallet.
“No… I asked you out. I should pay.”
“No, seriously. Let me.”
Ava backed away and walked toward the door. She was pissed. And understandably so. She’d bared her soul to me. Shown me how she wanted to make space for me in her life and her heart, and I said no. Yeah, she should be pissed. And probably hurt too. But I couldn't do what she asked. I couldn’t walk her down the aisle. I just fucking couldn’t. Even if things weren’t ever going to be the way they once were between us, I couldn’t give her way to someone else.
The bartender took my card and rang up the tab. Ava was pacing on the sidewalk with her phone to her ear. Probably telling Levi how much I had disappointed her.
Fuck, fuck, fuckity-fuck. What did I just do? Was this the thing that would push her out of my life for good?
I signed the receipt, collected my card, and joined her on the sidewalk.
“No, it’s cool. I don’t need you to talk to him. But he’s standing right here so I probably should get off the phone,” she said. Her gaze flicked upward to meet mine for a second before she looked away. “I’ll be home in a few. Love you, babe.” She hung up and stuffed her phone into her pocket and gave me a tense smile.
“Is he pissed at me? Should I expect him to confront me about this?”
She shook her head. “Of course not. I knew there was a chance you might say no, so we planned for it.”
“What’s the plan? Is Auntie Portia gonna walk you down the aisle or—”
“I’m gonna walk down by myself,” she interrupted.
“Wait …Ava, no. There’s gotta be a better alternative than—”
“We should probably head back if we want to beat the evening traffic.”
Ava was quiet on the walk back to her Bronco, and in that silence, I searched for a way to make this right. But the only thought that came to my mind was an image of Ava — resplendent and beautiful in her wedding dress — standing at the end of the aisle…alone. And no matter how I came at it, she didn’t deserve that. She didn’t deserve to be reminded on the happiest day of her life that she was the unfortunate recipient of two shitty ass parents. She should feel nothing but loved on that day.
I reached over and turned the radio down. “This intentional friends thing… how do we do that? How does that look?”
Ava glanced at me and shrugged. “It looks however we want it to look. We make the rules.”
“Yeah… but how? What kind of rules?”
She went quiet again, but this time, I could tell it was a contemplative silence.
“Well,” she began. “For one thing, I never want to feel like anything can come between us anymore. The tension between us is exhausting and painful sometimes, and that’s because I always feel like I might say or do the wrong thing, and you’ll hate me forever.”
I shook my head. “I could never hate you, Ava. But I hear you on that. I’m always afraid of saying the wrong thing and hurting you in a way you can’t forgive.”
“See?” she said with a lopsided smile. “We already acknowledge that the thought of life without each other is less than satisfying. So …maybe we say right now, in this moment, that there is nothing you or me can say or do that will end our friendship. That we’ll always find a way to work it out.”
“Okay,” I said with a nod. “Agreed.”
“What about you? What do you want or need from me?”
I gave that some thought. Ava was my ex, but she had become a part of my family in a way that no other girlfriend had before or since. That closeness meant that I had shared things with her and leaned on her in ways that I was unable to do with my mother or my sisters. I felt responsible for them. I had to be strong and steady for them at all times, but I didn’t have to be that with Ava. But the moment we broke up, that closeness evaporated, and I felt alone in it again.
“I want to be able to come to you and talk to you like I used to back then,” I blurted.
“Okay,” she said softly.
“I love my sister, but Yves, but she’s not a great person to confide in —for me at least.”
Ava chuckled. “She’s not always the best person for me to confide in either. She can be ridiculously self-centered sometimes.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
They both laughed and then a comfortable silence settled between them.
“I can do that,” she said finally. “I can be there for you to lean on like I was back in the day.”
“And I’ll be the same for you,” I said.
Ava pulled into her building’s underground garage, parked, and killed the engine. “Well—”
“I’ll walk you down the aisle,” I interrupted. “I’ll… give you away. I’ll be the one to give you to him.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, her voice soft and uncertain. “I don’t want you to do anything that might cause you emotional pain—”
“Thinking of you walking down the aisle alone like you have no one who loves or supports you would cause me emotional pain. You shouldn’t be alone in that moment and if that means I have to be the one who gives you to him … I’ll do it.”
I looked at her, and she gave me a smile. She was so happy. Goddamn, she was achingly beautiful when she was this happy.
“Thanks, Franks,” she said.
“You’re welcome, Beans.”
The garage filled with the sound of a big 8 cylinder engine and Levi’s black Monte Carlo roared in. He slung his car into the space next to the Bronco. Ava lit up like a spark when she saw him climb out of the car. I expected her to jump out immediately, but instead, she sat quietly, hidden by the tinted windows and watched him walk toward the elevators.
“I can’t wait until you meet someone who makes you feel this way,” she whispered softly.
I grunted, but I couldn’t really agree because I felt like I already had.
We climbed out of the car, and the sound of our doors made Levi turn and look back. The smile that spread across his face was just as bright as the one she had smiled a moment ago.
I slowed my steps and Ava drew up short, too.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Nothing it’s just …” I shook my head and laughed. “When I first saw you today in the lobby, I thought, wow. His love looks really good on her.” I looked at her. “And it does, Beans. His love has transformed you, and I’m just glad that you’re gonna let me stick around to witness it. And who knows?” I rocked back on my heels. “Maybe it will rub off on me.”
“Franks…” she looked up at me and placed a hand in the middle my chest. “You know I love you, right?”
A reflexive, nervous smile stretched my lips as I nodded. “Yeah, I know,” I finally managed to croak. “I love you, too, Beans.”
Ava sighed and took my face in both her hands. I froze, breath stalling in my chest as she pushed up on her toes and pressed a sweet, chaste kiss to my lips.
“You’ll find her,” she whispered. “And I promise you that she’ll make you feel loved and needed every single day. And I’ll be there to take the pictures at your wedding. But until then …please, for the love of god, get your dick wet.”
I laughed at that, but a lump formed in my throat as she pulled away.
“Thank you for saying yes to walking me down the aisle.”
“I guess this proves that I will do anything for you, huh?” I said, after clearing my throat.
“Thanks, Franks.” She winked at me then turned to walk away. Toward Levi.
I watched her until she reached the elevator doors to the lobby where Levi was waiting for her.
“You get a pass for that one!” Levi called out.
I started to apologize, but thought better of it when he looked at Ava. Even from twenty feet away, I could see the love and understanding Levi had for her. I watched him pull her close and search her face for a moment. One hand held her cheek gently as he kissed her. The kiss was so passionate that the chaste brush of the lips she’d given me seemed to be nothing more than what it was — affection between friends. A goodbye to the ardent love that began that summer in Seaside Heights.
“You wanna come up? We’re about to order some dinner,” Levi asked as I approached.
“Yeah, come up for dinner. Or at least a drink,” Ava cosigned.
“Nah,” I said. “You two enjoy each other.” I winked at Ava, tipped my chin at Levi then took the stairs to the lobby. In those hundred or so steps, I realized that I only wanted two things in life: love like that and the bravery to embrace it.