“I’ve started praying.”
“The way I see it, God is in all of us. Right? God is everywhere. So when you pray, you’re kinda praying to yourself–to the God inside of you.”
“Hm.” I exhaled, ashing my wood tip Black & Mild on the edge of the steel bench. The grey dust fell into a small patch of grass near my boots. A door closed behind me. The air was warm and still and a bit misty from this evening’s light rain. A full orange moon hung low beneath the clouds. I nestled my phone between my shoulder and ear, squinting one eye. I held my forefinger and thumb toward the skies and positioned the moon between them.
I couldn’t remember the last time I prayed.
I’d missed Len’s voice. His absence had begun to render me delusional. Clouds and puddles and random men in grocery store aisles had all started to remind me of him. The calm that washed over me when he’d answered the phone was incomparable to most of my current vices. I ashed the black again and faced the lit part toward me. Its glow was as orange as the moon.
“I’m over school,” I said. “I think about quitting all the time. Every morning. But then I think about living with my parents and, well, you know.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. I heard a shuffling noise in the background and wondered if he was reading something. Rolling a joint, maybe.
“Eh, I’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ve only got a year to go. Assuming I don’t jump from the roof of the library first.”
“No, I mean I’m sorry for being a bad friend.” Len paused. “For not answering your calls.”
The line fell silent. I could feel my heartbeat at the base of my throat. It was late now. Late enough for me to be the only person sitting outside of the dorm hall. I could hear cars passing at the intersection beyond the parking lot. The rasp of tires slowing on wet asphalt echoed faintly in the hush of night. Ever so often someone would stroll along the walkway toward their respective building. No one spoke.
“It’s alright. I’m just–I wish you wouldn’t worry me like that.” I took a final drag of the black. “I really needed to hear your voice.”
I reached over to snuff the butt of the cigar on the edge of the bench. My glasses slid down to the tip of my nose and I took them off, wiping at the sleep in my eyes.
I thought of the last time I’d seen Len. How that night felt much like this one. Still and wet but wrapped in the sticky musk of a Georgia summer. How we’d sat across from one another, liquor-filled and ample-hearted, the moon hanging so heavy and shining so hard above our heads that we could’ve peeled it clean from its bed of dusk. Could’ve cracked it open in our palms. Could’ve swallowed the thing whole.
* * *
“Can I get you two anything else?” The waitress fidgeted with her apron. She was tall and thin with a mess of reddish-brown curls pulled and tucked behind two large ears. Every time she smiled she’d reveal a mouth full of braces, which made her upper lip protrude further than her bottom one.
I looked at Len and then at our empty glasses.
“Two tequila shots, please.” Len smirked at me. His eyes were glossy–a sure sign that the last two drinks had finally caught up to him.
“Salt and lime?” The waitress picked our glasses up from the table.
“Sugar with mine,” I said. The waitress nodded and then awkwardly bowed before turning to head to the bar.
The city was lively tonight. We sat outside of the restaurant at one of the tables that faced a pizzeria on the corner. There were a few groups of people scattered around us, sitting at other tables and at the bar. Some clung to the fence that separated the venue from the sidewalk, enveloped in cigarette smoke and conversation. There was a promising energy in the air.
I hadn’t been home in nearly four months. I hadn’t seen Len in even longer. He was working two jobs now, traversing his way through the thick of the blue-collared world. And it showed. He’d gained a good bit of muscle in his chest and arms since winter. A tangle of forearm veins bulged from beneath his coffee-colored skin. His face was fuller now and he’d started growing his hair out. There was an inch of dark brown new growth that kinked and coiled about his scalp and every few minutes he’d twine his fingers in the loose strands at the nape of his neck. I found myself staring often, lost in the newness of him.
“Do you have a picture?”
“Oh, right!” Len reached into his back jean pocket and pulled out his phone. He slid his thumb back and forth across its surface for a few seconds, stopped, and then handed the phone to me.
A young woman looked at me from the bright screen. Len told me her name was Ki. I liked that. Her hair was braided and sat atop her head in a neat black bun. She had almond-shaped eyes and her teeth were a brilliant shade of white. I smiled back as if she was actually standing before me. Ki was gorgeous.
I imagined what her voice might sound like.
“She’s pretty,” I said, giving Len a subtle nod of approval. He smiled shyly as I slid the phone across the table.
“Yea, she felt weird about me meeting you tonight.”
“But we aren’t even–”
“I know,” he said. “I’m not use to this.”
“To what? Having a girlfriend?”
“The jealousy.” Len pulled at the collar of his t-shirt as if the mere thought of Ki had begun to suffocate him. “I don’t think she’s my girlfriend yet.”
The waitress returned with our shots. Len and I removed the limes from the rims and lifted the glasses to toast. I cringed as the liquor spilled onto the back of my tongue. It burned. I’d never been good at drinking liquor straight.
“Man,” I licked the remaining sugar from the glass. “State sucks without you.”
“How is everyone?” Len wiped his mouth with his hand and leaned back, nearly melting into his chair.
“Everybody’s cool,” I said. “Ty and Jazz are still together. Faye has yet to come to terms with her pothead ways. Nino’s thinking about joining the Navy. Doubt he’ll go through with it, though.”
“And I bet he’s still trying to fuck every Delta on campus too,” Len was looking down now, trying to seem interested.
“I suppose,” I laughed. “They all ask about you and I never know what to say.”
“It wasn’t good for me,” Len’s eyes darted between me and the table. “Being there wasn’t good for me at all.”
I wanted to hold my hand out and have him put his in mine. There was something familiarly obtrusive inviting itself back into our world. Right then. As the moon shone and the liquor lingered. It crept up from someplace we’d tried to bury with silence and distance. Len was sitting directly in front of me, gorgeous and home-like, and I began missing him all over again.
“And things are better now?” I asked, waiting for him to look me in the eyes.
“Honestly, the real world is hard,” Len said.
“I mean at least I’m not wasting thousands of dollars I don’t have, but this shit–this being expected of all the time is wild,” Len reached into another pocket and pulled out a wood tip Black & Mild, lighting it before speaking again. “I pay rent, I have bills, I work two jobs and still don’t have enough money. Or time.”
“What about Ki?” I tried cracking a smile. “Does she make you happy?”
“She’s fine, yea. I don’t know. Happiness seems more like a really great idea than a reality most of the time.”
I felt something thin and pointed tear into my heart.
“You know I’m here, Len. I get it. I do. You can always call me,” I said, wanting to hold him.
* * *
I was hot, suddenly. A wave of heat ran from my roots and into my spine. How?
“That’s why I haven’t been answering. Why I’ve been distant. I’m lost.” The words were spilling out of Len.
I wanted to speak. I closed my eyes and tried imagining the smiling girl from the phone screen. I tried imagining Len and a baby. I tried imaging Len’s smile. All felt so far away from me.
“Since when? For how long?” I held my stomach, keeping it in place.
“Remember that night at the bar?”
I nodded. He didn’t wait for me to answer.
“Since then. She’s due any day now.”
“I’ve wanted to tell you. But I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
“Len, it’s alright.”
“We’re not together anymore.”
“We haven’t been since the summer.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I–I’ve been praying.”
I wanted a drink.
“Will you pray for me?”
I really wanted a drink.
“Yes, Len. I’ll pray for you.”
I looked at my hand. I wanted prayer to be another smoke, a shot glass, or Len’s hand in mine. I wanted to see him. Wanted to know how long his hair had grown. Wanted a lot more than I could have that night. As the moon glowed orange, making every part of me hot. I wanted to peel it from the skies. Wanted to crack it open. Wanted to swallow it whole.