You’re never too old to learn something. For example, I learned that, on Lee’s scale of one—to the most important thing in the world—spending time with hot men trumped buying furniture for work. A mistake I will never make again. Me being tricked into attending Penn’s birthday didn’t go over well. Lee threw a fit the only way he knew how, dramatically with a side of passive aggressive. By the end of the night I had promised, on the grave of every family member I loved, that I would never hangout with the Knott brothers without him.
I was socialed-out and looked forward to a down weekend. I needed to recharge. But then Nathan and Kelsea called and invited us over. I’d been friends with Nathan since before I could form a sentence. Lee and Kelsea were cousin-besties. She was Lee’s best-woman and Lee was slated to be her man-of-honor. So, accepting their invitation was a no-brainer. Spending time with them easy, it took no effort at all. Their home was our home and our home was their home.
Nathan and Kelsea lived in a weird area; a small canyon with no cell-service. Lee hated that every time we visited, he had to connect to Wi-Fi. I was the opposite; I loved the freedom it brought. No service, no interruptions.
“Al Borland!” Nathan shouted as we got out of the car. “Up for a little reno work?”
He was in the middle of cutting some two-by-fours in the middle of his yard. Nathan was handsome even if he was balding more than most our age. He’d taken to wearing a hat most of the time to cover it up. He put the saw down and met us halfway.
“Where’s Kels?” Lee asked. Nathan motioned to the house and Lee took off, taking the porch in one leap. He loved Nathan but not enough to get roped into manual labor. Nathan and I laughed as we watched Lee disappear into the house.
“What’s today’s project?” I asked.
Nathan dusted his hands then his shirt. He’d been working for a while before we showed and had sweated through his armpits and the back of his shirt.
“Finally adding that small shed.”
“About time,” I laughed. “It’s been, what—four years you’ve been talking about doing that?”
Nathan flipped me off. “Yeah, well, shit happens. Some of us have real jobs.”
Now it was my turn to flip him off. He loved to give me a hard time about my job, in reality, he was jealous of my flexible schedule. He worked for a moving company and worked crazy, labor intensive hours.
We got to work on the shed. He had the foundation finished so we framed in the walls. It took us most of the day but we got it done. All he had left to do was the roofing. It was dark when we made it into the house. Lee and Kelsea were sitting at the table, drinking wine. Nathan grabbed himself a beer and me a water.
We ate dinner, laughed, and caught up. It was always a good time. It was two-in-the-morning when we finally pulled ourselves away.
“Let’s do this every Friday night. We can make a standing date,” Kelsea begged as she hugged Lee.
“Yes! No matter what happens, we have dinner,” he demanded. “We can rotate houses!” It was a rehearsed speech of promises that they said every time we got together. Nathan and I could recite it verbatim, and did, when our spouses weren’t looking.
“Why don’t we do this more often?” Lee asked as we drove away. “We’re so busy but this is good. We really need to make it a priority.”
“I’m fine with that,” I said. Lee was usually the one who turned it down. They were our best friends; it was easy to put them on the back burner. He knew they’d always be there.
When we finally reached cell service, my phone beeped with notifications. It solidified why I loved being out of service now and again. Being the doting husband and awesome co-pilot Lee was, he started reading the messages aloud while I drove. If a reply was necessary, he’d type it out.
“David wants to know if you’re still hosting game night tomorrow? If so, do you want him to reach out to some of the guys?”
“Yes, and Yes. Tell him they can come at seven. We’ll have pizza ready. They either leave before eleven or stay the night. And no more than ten guys.”
Lee typed away on my phone before moving to the next message.
“There’s dozens of messages from numbers you don’t have logged.” He held up the phone so I could see my inbox.
“‘Come over about eleven and we’ll take the boat out’ ‘The boats warmed up, almost here?’ ‘Nash…’ ‘Tried calling you but you’re not answering’ ‘We’re waiting for you.’
He read the messages in rapid concession before flipping to another unknown sender.
‘Dude, where are you?’ ‘I’m going to assume your car exploded or you’re dying?’” Flip. ‘Nash, you done upset the boys. Ryan and Penn are coming after you’ Flip. ‘Promises, promises...’
“This one has a sad face emoji and broken heart emoji,” Lee described before reading off a few more messages. They were similar to the rest. When he finished, he re-read them silently to himself. “Are these from the Knotts? Were we supposed to hang out with them today?”
“Not really. I mean, they mentioned something last weekend but it was more an off-handed comment. Nothing concrete.”
“It sounds like it was more than off-handed. Did we ghost the Knotts? Please tell me we didn’t ghost the Knotts.” Lee stared at me, daring me to tell him we stood them up, that we had committed the biggest crime in history by spending the day with our best friends instead.
“I think they’re being a bit dramatic. Besides, Nathan needed us. They are our best friends after all.”
“Nash,” Lee sighed. “You’re an idiot.”
I found his level of distraughtness over the matter quite amusing and squeezed his knee with a chuckle. “The summer isn’t over, love.”
“You better hope it’s not.” There was a slight rise in his voice, a warning. He covered my hand with his and squeezed. “You better fix this.”
Tuesday was HOT. The Oregon coast was nothing like California and Florida, where the beaches were warm and the water was blue. It was more like the vampire trilogy movie where the vampires lived in an overcasted, rainy shadow of a town. Only the town stretched the entire coast line. It was rare to see anything over seventy. Seventy-five and everyone in town was dying. Literally. Heatagetten. Some places stop functioning when it rains, we stop functioning when it’s hot.
I decided to blast some more high school nostalgia and power wash everything I could get my hands on while working on my tan. I hadn’t run much since Seattle and the muscle strain felt good. I was belting the chorus of a song I wished I didn’t know the lyrics to when the music cutout, leaving me awkwardly a cappella.
“You have interesting taste in music.”
I jerked, almost dropping the wand but managing to not plummet to the ground. “Jesus—”
The amigos were standing a few yards away with their typical megawatt smiles. With shaky, scared legs, I climbed down the ladder. Logan and Penn were each holding a power cord: one to the power washer, the other, the music box.
“And you have a way of showing up at the most inopportune times. Like, when I’m singing songs that no one should sing.” When I got off the ladder, I shook my hair like a wet dog then gave it a quick run through with my fingers, trying to tame the mess that was my blonde hair.
Ryan crossed his arms like an angry father and looked at me like I was busted. “What happened last weekend?”
“What?” I asked. “We were helping Nathan and Kels with their shed.”
“You were supposed to come over. We were waiting for you.”
I cringed. “I completely forgot.”
“Honestly, I didn’t think it was a serious invite. Kind of like a ‘yeah totally, lets hangout sometime’, but then you never do and it’s okay.”
Ryan was genuinely taken back by my response. “Seriously? You think that us kidnapping you and forcing you to agree to come back was some kind of non-invite?” He scoffed. “If that’s the case, what does a genuine invite look like?”
“A felony. Probably five-ten,” Penn mumbled from beside his brother.
I pointed at him and laughed. “That’s terrifyingly accurate.”
Penn smirked, proud of himself for being funny. I’m not sure I’d ever seen him make a joke.
“Then stop resisting and no one gets hurt,” Ryan said.
“You don’t get told no very often, do you?” I asked.
“No, we really don’t. But you like to be difficult, don’t you?”
“I’m the difficult one?” Nash laughed. “You’re the one breaking the law every time you come here.”
“We wouldn’t have to resort to breaking the law if you weren’t such a pain in our ass. Now come along, we’re going to lunch.”
I wasn’t the kind of guy who spent much time on presentation, but I was in no shape to go anywhere—dripping wet and wearing shorts. “I would love to, really, but I’m in the middle of—”
Umpf. Penn flung me over his shoulder. He wasn’t that much bigger than me but that it didn’t stop him from tossing my grown, one-eighty-pound ass around effortlessly.
“Really?” I shouted. Ryan and Logan quickly locked everything in the garage before following us to the truck.
“Stop being so difficult all the time and we won’t have to resort to such drastic measures. If you think about it, it’s your fault,” Logan said as he and Ryan climbed into the back seat. Penn flopped me in the driver's seat then motioned for me to scoot over.
“No shoes, no shirt, no service.” I said, just in case they hadn’t noticed my state of undress. There was a second of rustling before getting whacked in the side of my head.
“There,” Ryan said. “Penn’s clothes should fit better than mine.”
I gathered the clothes in my lap then held them up. There was a worn Penn’s Septic sweatshirts and a pair of athletic shorts. I pulled the sweatshirt to my face and took a quick whiff. “I’m guessing the shorts are dirty, too?”
“You didn’t complain too much when it was my dirty clothes,” Ryan cut in.
“Actually, I remember complaining a lot.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, maybe you did. But Penn smells better than I do.”
Anything smelled better than concrete dust. With his clothes on my lap, I carefully shimmied out of my wet shorts. The clothes shifted, almost exposing myself. I wasn’t over modest and we were all grown ass men. I glanced at Penn. He was staring at the road like his life depended on it.
I knew that look. I remember driving over the mountain pass when I was eighteen. It was snowing so hard. I had never driven in a blizzard before. I was so nervous and stressed that I turned the music off so I could see the road better. Someone could’ve been murdered in the back seat and I wouldn’t have noticed, that’s how hard I was concentrating.
That’s what Penn looked like, like he was driving in a blizzard for the first time. Like he had never seen another guy naked despite growing up with brothers and a dozen male cousins. I couldn’t help but laugh at how uncomfortable he looked.
A minute later we pulled into the parking lot. It was busy with the weekday lunch rush. We were seated at a small table, Ryan and Logan on one side, Penn and I on the other.
“This is cozy,” I said as Penn practically squished me into the wall. It was hands down the smallest table I’d ever eaten at. I was sure there was no way everything would fit.
“We’ll share. It’s either that or wait thirty minutes for a bigger table.”
“So,” I asked as I opened my menu. “What do you guys usually get?”
“I was thinking the seafood trio?” Logan responded, looking quizzically at Ryan, who frowned.
“What about the seven mares soup?”
“Ugh, I just had that on Saturday.” They went back and forth so I ignored them.
“What do you want?” Penn asked quietly.
“Hmm,” I glanced at my top three choices. “The chicken salad.”
“Good God, why?” Logan scoffed. “Poor Penny’s gonna die of starvation.” Of course they expected us to share
“It’s fine. They have big salads. I’m not that hungry.” Penn assured me.
“No, I can pick something else,” I snatched the menu back up and looked again. “What do you usually like?”
“I’m not picky.”
We settled on the two-person chicken fajitas. I asked for extra vegetables and a side of rice. Ryan and Logan settled on something that had the word crema in it and a round of sodas.
“I’ll have a water.”
“You’re a health nut, aren’t you?”
“Meh, I guess. Not intentionally though, more out of a habit.”
“How do you mean?”
“Food is fuel. I run, play basketball, hike, indoor rock climbing, or whatever else I can feel like doing. When I eat like crap, I feel like crap. That doesn’t jive with an active lifestyle.”
They continued to ask me questions. Logan and Ryan eventually got side tracked into their own convo but Penn kept going. He was quite engaging. “Do you have any marathons coming up?”
“I have Boston next April. It’s kind of a way off so I might do a half when I go to Thailand in November. I haven’t decided. I’m still recovering from Seattle. I’m not sure I’m ready to jump into another one.”
“Boston? That’s impressive. Isn’t that hard to do?”
“I don’t think it’s harder than any other marathon but not just anyone can sign up. You have to qualify and then sign up in time. It’s definitely not for beginners.”
“What does it take to qualify?”
“Well, you have to compete in a qualified race, that’s what I was doing in Seattle. Then you have to sign up in time to get a spot in your division.”
“And you’re qualified?”
“I guess so. We’ll find out when it comes time to sign up.”
It wasn’t until the food came and we were eating and laughing that it hit me…I’d been invited—erm, kidnapped by the Knotts, again, and didn’t call Lee. If he found out…well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Lee was far more outgoing and social. This kind of stuff is what kept him going in life. He wanted more friends, he wanted to be invited places, he loved lunch dates. I didn’t want to see the look of disappointment in his eyes again.
“Is the food bad?” Penn looked concerned. I must’ve been showing my thoughts aloud.
“I forgot to invite Lee to lunch.”
“Surely you guys don’t have to eat every meal together,” Ryan said.
“Oh no, that’s not the problem,” I said, realizing how the situation must seem. I didn’t want them to think we were connected at the hip but I also couldn't tell them the truth: ‘Lee is practically in love with you guys and he wants you to take shots off his naked body’.
“Lee works a lot and has been feeling left out. I promised to call him next time we did something and I forgot.”
“Just don’t tell him.”
“That’s not an option,” I said. “I don’t make a habit of lying or withholding information from my husband. It sets an unhealthy precedent.”
“So, you’d rather piss him off over something so trivial like lunch?”
“I guess that’s subjective. What’s trivial to one person might be important to another. Rather I share the same opinion with him or not, I’d never tell him that his feelings are ridiculous. That’s incredibly disrespectful, in my opinion.”
“Shit, no wonder you’re nominated for Man of the year.” Logan looked guilty. He glanced at Ryan, Penn, then back at me. “You’re going to make us look like terrible husbands.”
“Or, maybe you can take his lead and learn to be a good husband,” Penn said pointedly.
“What would you know about being a good husband?” Ryan kicked Logan under the table and Logan recoiled. “I didn’t mean that.”
“It’s fine,” Penn set down his utensils, set his napkin on the table, and excused himself.
I tried to mind my own while Ryan and Logan had a wordless argument. Penn wasn’t happy when he got back and the rest of lunch was eaten in silence. When the bill came Ryan tossed the whole thing to Logan, who didn’t argue. He had ruined lunch after all.
We went back to Penn’s truck, which was really nice. Both Ryan and Logan drove newer, white work trucks. Penn’s was neither brand new or a work truck. It was probably ten years old and well taken care of. The beast was completely blacked out, just like the death trap he tried to kill me in on his birthday.
The irony wasn’t lost on me. His brothers were blonde with short haircuts, blue eyes, they drove white trucks, and had outgoing personalities. Penn was the black sheep, literally. He had dark hair, dark eyes, all his toys were black, his truck was black, he usually wore dark clothes, and he was quieter and more reserved than the others.
“I have to take them back to work first, is that okay?” Penn asked as he pulled out of the parking lot.
“Your truck, your rules.” I said and Penn’s lip curled and it made me smile.
The ride wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as lunch. Whatever Logan had done was forgiven and they were back to their normal banter. When we pulled up to the jobsite, there was no long goodbye. Ryan told me that we would be doing it again soon. Then they were gone.
“Is he always like that?”
“Yeah. Does it bother you?” Penn glanced at me before returning his eyes to the road.
I looked out the window and thought about it. “A little. I just don’t understand it.”
“Understand what? Why is he an ass?”
“That,” I laughed. “But more like, why does he—well all of you really—going out of your way to include me. It’s sudden and unexpected.”
“Sudden?” He said. “I guess that’s subjective.”
“Ah, I see what you did there, except it’s not subjective. Less than a two-month period is definitely considered sudden.”
“You’d be right, except you’re wrong.” I raised my brow and turned to give him my full attention. “They’ve been inviting you over for the better part of a decade. That’s hardly the definition of sudden.”
“Well, yeah, but those weren’t like, real invites,” I waved him off.
“Okay,” I sighed. “I guess I can’t say they weren’t genuine invitations. Your family is very social and hosts a lot of events, yes?” Penn nodded. “It’s hard to feel like the invite is genuine when literally every person is invited. It becomes a status thing. So many people go because it looks good on social media or they think it gives them some sort of credit. That’s not me. I socialize for a living. I’m out there in front of everyone, and I love it, but when it comes to my personal life, I want authentic relationships. Being invited to big social events by someone I barely know isn’t how I want to spend my free time.”
“Did it ever occur to you that you’re invited because you’re the kind of person we enjoy being around?”
“No,” I laughed. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Don’t take this the wrong way, but how do you build authentic relationships with hundreds of people? Take your birthday for example. I floated around making small talk because Ryan forced me to stay then disappeared. I didn’t have a relevant conversation all day. It wasn’t until I ditched everyone to hang out with your nephews that I was a part of something I enjoyed.”
“We went riding together, I think that counts for something,” his tone was defensive.
“Yes, but—and I don’t mean this negatively, just my perspective,” I clarified. “But you looked irritated that I was there. And you didn’t exactly invite me riding, you commandeered Kayde’s invitation and turned it into attempted murder.” Penn pursed his lips. He looked...troubled. Maybe I had come on too strong or sounded like an arrogant ass. “I’m not saying I had a terrible time. I did have fun—not riding with you, of course, that was terrible,” I teased. “But overall, it was good.”
He seemed to think about what I said. “What about the Third?”
I looked at him and smiled.“Minus being blindsided and kidnapped? It was great. But our time together didn’t include half the town. It was just the three of us. It was intentional. That’s the stuff I can get behind.”
Penn nodded in understanding as he pulled up to the house. “Just so there’s no confusion, we really like you and the invites are genuine. We’ve always enjoyed and respected you.”
“Something I’ll never understand,” I joked.
“Perception,” he tried to hide the smirk but I saw it. “So, you’ll come willingly next time?
I shook my head and got out. “Goodbye Penn.”
“You didn’t even call,” he shouted, beyond upset about lunch.
“They showed up unannounced and then everything happened so fast. By the time I realized my mistake, we were already eating. And, before you get upset, the food came really fast!”
“It’s not fair. You don’t even want to be friends with them.”
“That’s not true and you know it.”
“You sure didn’t want to hangout with them a few weeks ago!”
“You know how I feel about superficial relationships but it’s different now. This is intentional, so yeah, I’d like to get to know them better.”
“Well, it would be nice to be included.”
“You are! I promise,” I wrapped my arms around Lee and pulled him in. “I love you. I would never exclude you. There’s no person I’d rather spend my time with than you.” He mumbled into my chest but hugged me back.
“Everyone shut up,” Ryan yelled in the background. “Sorry, Nash, I don’t think I heard you right. Did you just ask if we were free this weekend?”
“Yes, Ryan. I’m calling to see if you all wanted to do something.”
“Fuck yes we’re free. Even if we weren’t, we’d cancel our plans. It’s once in a lifetime that Nash Cushman extends an invitation!” he shouted. In my mind’s eye, I could see him smiling, maybe even dancing in victory.
“Don’t make me regret it.”
“I wouldn’t dare!”
I found myself laughing at the dramatic nature of it all. We made plans for Friday; a guy’s night. Lee was over the moon. Not only did he weasel out of working late but managed to get off early. Determination really could move mountains.
Lee spent the whole day cleaning. I should’ve taken offense to it since I was the one who usually cleaned, but I knew this was what he did, he went over every square inch before guests came over.
“Lee, calm down. They don’t care if our baseboards are clean. They just want to hang out. Let's relax before they get here.”
I dragged him to the couch and forced him to snuggle. He barely relaxed in my arms. Every minute or so he remembered something he needed to do and would try to get up. I held him tight and forced him to stay with me. Okay, maybe part of me thrived on irritating him just a little.
“Dammit, Nash. They’re here and I have nothing ready,” he snapped as he jumped off the couch. Lee wore a buttoned-up shirt and chinos. He tried to make me wear the same but I refused. It was a guy’s night not a job interview. He smoothed and straightened his clothes as he rushed to the door.
“Because there’s nothing to prepare. We have food, drinks, and games,” I said, though my words fell on deaf years. I was still sitting on the couch when he opened the door and greeted our new friends. It was typical of Lee to go all out to impress our guests.
“Nash,” he shouted happily— as if he hadn’t just tried to kill me with his jedi mind powers. “Our guests have arrived.”
I could hear Lee starting the tour. It was something he did every time people came over for the first time. We had built the home from the ground up and he was proud, we both were. “Nash loves to cook and insisted on this kitchen.”
I leaned against the doorway and watched as Lee led them to the garage. I rolled my eyes because when I go to someone's house, I’m secretly dying to scope out their garage. Not.
Ryan, Penn, and Logan followed Lee around like good little guests. I mouthed an apology on Lee’s behalf but they didn’t seem bothered. In fact, they seemed more than happy to play along. I came up the rear and joined the tour as he showed them the spare room, the movie room, bathrooms, utility closets and, finally, our bedroom.
“That’s pretty much everything,” Lee wrapped up the tour and led us back to the kitchen where he played a well-stocked bartender. We played cards, talked, and joked. Like most guys, the conversation was wide but not deep.
Penn sat next to me and I could tell he’d taken our conversation to heart because he was the epitome of intentional. We spent a lot of the night talking while Lee hosted Ryan and Logan.
He told me all about his work. Turns out he was a travel welder by trade and currently between welding jobs. He was waiting to sign a contract and then he’d be off again. The septic business was what he did when he was in town.
“Does it bother Camilla that you’re gone all the time?”
“No. She knows I love what I do.”
“I’m surprised she’s not demanding to spend every second with you while you’re home.”
“She does,” Ryan interrupted. “It drives him nuts. He was practically running out of the house tonight.”
Lee came over and filled my water glass. “Sounds like Nash,” he teased.
“Stop telling lies,” I wrapped my arm around his waist and pulled him onto my lap. “It’s just that Lee only wants to spend time together when I’m busy.”
“You’re always busy with something. You never stop.” Lee wrapped his arm around my shoulder.
“Then stop adding to my hunny-to-do list.” I playfully glared at Lee. He’d really relaxed as the night wore on. I was glad to see him stop trying to impress them. I much preferred watching him being happy.
Lee tried to pull away but I kept my arms around him. “Are you going to let me up?”
“No. You were just complaining that I never want to spend time with you. Now I’m trying to spend time with you and you want to ditch me.” He pretended like he was irritated but the smile on his face gave him away. He loved the attention and I loved giving it to him.
Penn excused himself. When he returned, he took Lee’s seat on the other side of the table. The distance wasn’t lost on me. I kept trying to get his attention but he was no longer engaged. It wasn’t long after that that they excused themselves.
“Okay,” Logan got up. “Thank you guys for having us.”
“Oh,” Lee said, disappointed. “Leaving already?” It was late but earlier for a guy’s night. I think both Lee and I had expected the night to be longer.
“Yeah, we’re helping Lon with some stuff tomorrow. He always wants to start early.” We walked them to the porch. “When are we coming over again?” he asked.
“Next weekend, if you want,” Lee said. He was trying to play it cool but I could tell he was excited about the prospect of this being a long-term thing. We shook hands then the brothers took off.
I saw a lot more of them after that. Lunch became a regular thing and so did the weekends. There were even some unexpected week-night hangouts. Ryan and Logan played mushball while Penn and I watched. It was the perfect blend of social outing mixed with really great conversation.
Lee spent as much time with us as possible but his schedule wasn’t nearly as flexible. He needed notice to arrange things and that wasn’t how the Knott’s worked. They didn’t plan. They did. Everything was spontaneous.
It’s funny how things changed. For as long as I could remember, I had a giant fantasy crush on Ryan. I thought he was God's gift to gorgeous men. The more we hung out, the less he appealed to me. I thought he had a lot of amazing qualities but he became too humanized to fantasize about. I was simply a good friend.
Ryan had also started as the initiator. The beginning of the ‘friendship’ revolved around him and I but, as the summer grew on, that shifted. It was Penn and I who texted about meeting up and it was Penn who I spent most of my time talking to. I liked Ryan and Logan but it was my friendship with Penn that grew deeper. We even started carpooling. Penn would pick me up on the way to meet Ryan and Logan at the restaurant. There were even days when it was just Penn and I at lunch while everyone else worked.
Penn had no problem going deep. It seemed like we talked about everything. I knew him on a level that I hadn’t begun to scratch with his brothers. They were fun to talk to and happy to share a lot of their life. Still, it wasn’t the same.
And it wasn’t all good.
I started noticing things. The more we hung out, the more apparent it became. The more apparent it became, the bigger the issue became—for me. It was Lee. They didn’t like him. If I was honest, I noticed it the first night they came over for guys night. They interacted with him but it was strained. It was like they tolerated him for my benefit. Except, it was no benefit to me. And once I saw it, it was all I noticed.
It was little things.
In the beginning, I’d get a text in the morning to see if I was free for lunch. That gave me enough time to give Lee a heads up so he could make most of our lunch dates. Then suddenly, I stopped getting notice. They’d just show up unannounced, making it impossible for Lee to come.
Then the weekends. They were always busy except when Lee had to work. I was irritated with them. They were grown adults behaving like children, so I started declining. When they bugged me to come, I told them Lee was busy and we’d come next time. That led to what I called the olive branch events. Suddenly, their schedules would open up.
I wanted to be happy but I wasn’t. I loved Lee and it pained me to watch him having a good time with people who didn’t want to be around him. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I was developing legitimate feelings for Penn. It was no longer a minor crush. I had lied to myself—justified why it was okay to spend long hours with Penn, knowing it was wrong. I was dancing on a landslide. If I wasn’t careful, that landslide was going to fall and take everyone out.
It was time to terminate the friendship.
I didn’t know how to tell them, so I avoided them. I knew it wasn’t the most mature thing to do, but sometimes cold turkey was the best way to go.
It was late August and, despite their best efforts, I hadn’t seen them in weeks. Phone calls sent to voicemail and texts left unanswered. I even parked in the garage after Lee left so I wouldn’t have to answer the door when they showed up.
I knew I couldn’t avoid them forever so it didn’t really come as a shock when they used the FedEx guy as a trojan horse and slipped past my defenses.
Ryan stood in front with the other two flanking behind. None of them looked happy. “Are you going to invite us in?”
I reluctantly opened the door. I didn’t really have another option, I needed to address the situation, and it wasn’t my nature to be a complete ass. I led them to the kitchen table and pushed my paperwork to the side so they could sit. Penn didn’t waste a minute getting to the point.
“You’ve been avoiding us.”
As hard as it was and as much as I wanted to avoid the awkward conversation, I wasn’t going to lie and I don’t think any of them expected such a candid response. “I’ve been busy, but, yes, I suppose I have.”
“Why? Did we do something?” Penn asked. He seemed genuinely confused and upset by the sudden cold shoulder.
“You guys don’t like Lee.”
“Yeah we do, Lee’s a great guy.” Logan said. Ryan nodded along but neither of them were convincing.
“I’m a lot of things but stupid isn’t one of them. I’ve been watching the way you guys interact with him and you’ve been excluding him all summer.”
The room was quiet as they shared a few glances back and forth.
“Okay, you’re right,” Ryan admitted. “It’s not that we don’t like Lee, it’s just that, he’s just not our favorite. But we really like you and wanted to hang out with you. I guess we didn’t realize how obvious we were.”
“I don’t think Lee realizes it, but I do, and that’s enough for me.”
“What do you mean?” Penn asked.
“I mean, I feel shitty knowing he thinks the world of you guys and in return, you’ve been assholes. The look on his face every time he finds out that I went to lunch or to the lake or to mushball...it’s terrible,” I frowned. “I’m sorry. I love him and I won’t let him be disrespected like that.”
“You’re breaking up with us?” Ryan asked.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Will you still come to the birthday party?” Ryan’s oldest daughter was having a big birthday bash and everyone was invited.
“Is Lee invited?”
“Of course, he was already invited. Nothing’s changed.”
“As long as Lee wants to go, we’ll be there.” And Lee definitely wanted to go. It’s all he’d been talking about.
There wasn’t much conversation after that. When they left, they looked like whipped puppies. Penn hung back as his brothers walked to the truck. “I’m sorry. I can’t speak for my brothers but I didn’t realize the gravity of it all, until now. I really don’t want things to end like this.”
“You guys have the right to like or dislike whomever you want. I’m not mad at you for that. But I will always put Lee first. To me, marriage is a package deal.”
Lee was first in my heart and I had failed him when I let my crush on Penn catch fire. I may have been upset that they didn’t like Lee, but it was my feelings for Penn that was far more dangerous. I couldn’t leave my heart undisciplined like that. As sad as was to see my friendships end before they truly began, felt no guilt as they left my home.
Lee first and foremost. Always.
Trying to explain to Lee why the Knotts had disappeared was hard. So, I avoided it, and when I couldn’t avoid it, I told him I was busy with work, and when I wasn’t busy, I told him they were busy. I felt like shit. I just got done telling the brothers how I wouldn’t lie to Lee, yet there I was, lying to Lee.
Then there was Ellie’s birthday. I had gone to so many sweet sixteens that I’d lost count, but Lee was so excited. It was an all-white themed party and Lee had gone shopping to accommodate the very specific dress code. By the grace of God, the party ended up being the same night as the Man of the Year awards banquet. Knowing how bad Lee wanted to go to the birthday party, I told him we could skip the banquet.
Lee would have none of that. We were going. He insisted the party would end later than the banquet so we could make it to both. Honestly, I didn’t want to go to either—the banquet nor the party. The former because I didn’t care much about the award, the latter because I didn’t want to see the brothers. It would be so awkward to watch Lee interact like everything was fine.
The banquet represented the end of summer and was about as entertaining as a bag of stones. We couldn’t bail early because the Man of the Year award was the last presentation of the night. When it finally ended, we had to stay and mingle because I had won. God knows how, but I won. As much as I didn’t want to win, I felt incredibly honored. The evening passed by in a blur. There had been a lot of awards presented; to both businesses and people. I loved my community and ended up having a wonderful time celebrating everyone that gave time and resources to making Lincoln a standout community. By the time we finished, we had completely missed Ellie’s party.
My phone beeped nonstop the next day. News had spread and everyone wanted to send their congratulations. Among the messages were some from the Knotts.
Congratulations. You earned it. Don’t doubt it or sell yourself short. It’s all about perspective
I re-read Penn’s text several times. We had talked about the nomination, how I was up against phenomenal people and how I didn’t feel like I deserved to win. He tried to shut it down but the feelings remained. Even after winning held on to the guilt of taking something that someone else deserved. Surely someone else was more deserving? Lee, bless his soul, was so happy about the title that he failed to notice my anxiety over winning.
I hated that Penn had the words I needed to hear.
September came. That meant Club was starting and my schedule picked up. I spent my days working and my nights hauling teenagers to and from school events. I love this season. I loved that when Lee wasn’t working late, he was by my side. It was my job but he loved it just as much. As fun as the summer had been, I was glad to get back to normal.
For the first time in years, the wrestling team was doing amazing. We were a small district and wrestling wasn’t a big sport which meant we didn’t have a lot of local meets, maybe two a season. But boy, when we did, the crowd showed up.
The first thing I noticed when we pulled into the parking lot were the trucks. The Knott trucks. Logan’s son, Koby, had joined the team. Like most Knott’s, he was a natural and was dominating his weight class. Knowing they were there made me nervous. I hadn’t seen them in over a month.
I discreetly looked for them when we walked in. I excused myself to use the restroom so I wouldn’t miss anything later. When finished, I went to find Lee. I had expected him to be in the lobby waiting but he wasn’t.
“Nash, look who I found,” Lee shouted from just outside the gym doors. He was smiling brightly, proud of the long-lost toys he finally found. Knowing that no one there liked him, I smiled politely then tried to extract.
“Let’s grab our seats, the first round is going to start soon.”
“Oh yeah, sure,” he turned toward the group. “Where are you guys sitting?”
I mentally cringed, facepalmed, shuddered, and every other thing that happens when the person you love has no idea how uncomfortable the situation, they’re in is. “I thought we were going to sit with John and Stacy?”
“Well, they’re welcome to join us if they’d like.” Lee was annoyed at me for being pushy. He wanted to sit with the Knotts. When Lee wasn’t paying attention, I mouthed an apology. Other than looking guilty, they seemed unphased by Lee’s self-inviting behavior.
“We should head in before all the spots are taken,” Penn said, nodding for Lee to follow him. Lee smiled at me before following Penn through the gym. Lee sat smack dab in the middle of the group while I sat at the end. I wanted to sit anywhere but there and was thankful when a group of boys joined me.
I glanced at Lee a few times. He was happily chatting away with Penn. Or course Penn was the one to treat Lee with kindness after everything that happened. I hated that. I wish Penn would go away, leave Lee alone.
I was watching a kid named Bennett, who couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds, taking down another kid who barely looked old enough to compete at the high school level when Lee practically tripped over the person sitting next to me before crouching down in front of me. He looked happy and ever so eager.
“You’re not busy next weekend, are you? They invited us over.”
“Next weekend?” I asked, trying to buy time while I thought of an excuse. “I’m going to a Cross Country meet in Sweet Home.”
“You can’t miss it?”
I shook my head; it was a dumb question. Even if I could, I wouldn't miss it. It wasn’t just part of my job; I was something genuinely enjoyed.
“What about the following weekend?”
I glanced at Penn. It wasn’t just him waiting for an answer, it was everyone. Why were they doing this? They might’ve been including Lee but I knew it was fake and Lee deserved more than that. I deserved more than that.
“I’m speaking at camp. I’ll be gone all weekend.” Lee knew I was telling the truth but everyone thought I was lying through my teeth.
“What about lunch? We could all meet up next week or something,” Penn asked.
“Yes! Lunch would be great. Monday’s are no good for Nash but any other day works. I just need a little heads up. It’s been forever since we had lunch,” Lee was practically bursting from excitement.
The brothers looked hopeful, silently begging me to agree. I didn’t want to do lunch but Lee would never let it go if we passed. “Yeah, maybe. We’ll see,” I offered. It was the best I could do in a pinch. It seemed to satisfy Lee because he bounded back to the group.
Thirty minutes later Lee squeezed passed me. “I’m going to get water, you want one?”
I shook my head and held the half full bottle I already had. Lee smiled and quickly descended the stairs and out the door to the parent run concession stand. Not even a second later the kids sitting next to me were being shooed away. Logan sat to my right, Ryan to my left, and Penn in front of me.
“You really hate us, don’t you?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, you sure as shit don’t like us,” Logan glowered.
“That’s not true either. I like Ryan and Penn well enough.”
Their eyes went wide and flicked with emotion.
Logan looked hurt. “What did I do?” He asked quietly.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. I just don’t like being around you,” I shrugged. Logan blinked and sat back. I don’t think anyone had ever said that to him. All the air had been knocked from his sails. Penn and Ryan watched their brother then looked at me with a mixture of irritation and confusion. It felt like we sat there for an hour while the three of them tried to take in my words.
“Ok,” Logan stood up. “I’m going to go.”
“Sit down.” I grabbed his arm and pulled him back down.“Are you upset about what I said?” He looked at me like I had asked the stupid question in the world. Yes, of course he was upset. I looked at Penn and Ryan. “Are you guys upset about what I said?”
“Honestly? Yeah. You were kind of an asshole.” I was glad to see anger in Ryan’s eyes. It meant he understood.
“Now you understand where I’m coming from. And maybe now you know how I felt when I found out you didn’t like my husband or how it felt watching him being excluded and pushed out. Just because you’re being nice to him doesn’t change anything. I know how you really feel and that makes me feel protective over Lee.”
“I get it. We acted like assholes. And just so you know, we don’t dislike him,” Logan clarified. “He’s just—it’s complicated.”
That response irritated me. It wasn’t complicated, not for me. I pursed my lips and shook my head in disappointment.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. There’s nothing complicated about it. Lee is sweet, generous, kind, funny, and loyal. Whether you like him or not, that's your prerogative. The only thing that makes this complicated is how you guys are treating him. Thinking it’s okay to string him along the way you have. He might not have a clue but I do. You don’t like him? Fine, but leave him alone. Don’t invite him over, don’t chit chat with him, and don’t lie to him. That’s the only thing making any of this complicated.”
Without another word, I left. I caught Lee on my way out. He was surprised we were leaving early but I told him I wasn’t feeling good. He seemed to buy it well enough and made me lay down as soon as we got home.
I barely slept that night. I didn’t know how to handle the situation. As long as Lee thought they liked him, this was never going to get better. But how could I tell him the truth? It would devastate him. He would be humiliated and never want to show his face in public again.