They rode the elevator down two stories and Val had a sober moment to wonder why he was allowing what was basically a stranger into his apartment. The answer wasn’t difficult to come by, he really didn’t want to be alone, not tonight. At least not until after eleven. It would then be six months to the hour since he’d received that awful phone call, if he could make it past that point, everything else would be okay.
He unlocked his apartment door and flicked on the light switch. He tossed his keys into the basket nailed inside the door and shrugged out of his coat. Gavan followed close behind and dropped his own keys into the basket uninvited.
“You know, I normally don’t let a guy take me home until the second date and no one meets Trist until at least the fourth or fifth date.” He teased but when Val didn’t laugh he held up his hands. “It was a joke, maybe one in bad taste, but a joke.”
Val shook his head. “Sorry, still too sober to laugh much today. Come on in.”
“Thanks.” He stretched and heard his spine pop. “Oh, eight hours in surgery. Eight hours to stew over Wally, I’m such an idiot, you’d think I’d have learned not to return phone calls from boyfriends before going into the OR.” He followed Val into the apartment and tried not to be too nosy as he glanced around.
The apartment was smaller then his own, one bedroom and the central living kitchen space. Only Val had lined the walls with bookcases which were over flowing with books. A modestly sized television sat in front of an older but obviously well loved sofa. The place wasn’t dirty but it had a cluttered feel to it. Books sat in stacks along side chairs, a cotton blanket lay tossed along the side of the sofa unfolded. The kitchen was orderly but there were no small decorator touches anywhere.
“Remotes on the sofa, can you get the game on and did you still want that coffee?”
Gavan smiled. “Sure, since I doubt more whiskey will change anything.” He found the remote and flipped on the television. When he turned to see if he could help in the kitchen he saw the one bookshelf that wasn’t dusty, that wasn’t stacked with books. This one shelf was cleared of all the clutter of life, a purple velvet runner covered the simple wood and set on it were photos. He was drawn over to it and studied the smiling faces.
“Is this your sister?” He nodded his head but didn’t touch.
Val glanced up before busying himself again. “Yes, Violet, her husband Nayef, their oldest, my nephew Kamil and my niece Ziya.” It had been forever since he’d spoken their names aloud.
Violet looked like her brother, lovely, soft brown hair and warm brown eyes. The same attractive elegant features, the same bright smile. Only, the woman in the photo wore a soft blue headscarf as did the girl who didn’t appear to be more than five. Navef was obviously Middle Eastern, his skin a dark golden brown, his eyes black and both his son and daughter had is rich, lovely coloring. They made a handsome family, smiling, joyful.
“They were Muslim?” Gavan asked even though he already knew the answer.
Val pulled mugs from the cupboard. “Navef was a translator for the government, Violet worked as an analyst. They met in DC, fell in love and she converted. It’s a lovely religion, can’t judge the entire faith by a handful of radical misogynists. Hungry?”
“I’m okay.” Gavan peered around the photos but most were of his sister and her family.
“I asked if you were hungry, I’ve banana bread that I’m never going to get eaten.”
His stomach growled at the idea even if the thought of putting banana bread on top of six shots of whiskey worried him. Even if he’d spread those shots out over hours and the run in with Trist has sobered him up. “I’m never one to say no to baked goods.” He moved now to the kitchen and was surprised to see the bread was on a plate, not a store box.
“Did you bake that?”
Val paused, knife half way through the loaf. “Don’t laugh, I bake when I’m stressed.”
“I would never laugh and risk being denied banana bread, it’s been forever since I’ve had any homemade baked things. Are you sure you’re not gay?” He accepted the plate piled high with slices of the rich bread. “I mean, coffee and banana bread is kind of faggy for a basketball game.”
“I’m secure enough in my masculinity to bake.” He moved to pour the just finished coffee into mugs. “Oh, only soy milk though.”
He slid the mug over and carried his own black coffee with him. “Oh, man that guy is on fire this year!”
They plopped themselves onto the sofa and for the second half of the game cheered and groaned with nearly every pass of the ball. Gavan ended up eating every crumb of the surprisingly well made bread and the coffee was plenty to sober him up. Val had poured the last of the pot of coffee into their mugs as they both stood, watching intently, as the final seconds of the game ticked away and a last second ball scored the winning points.
“Aw man that’s what’s great about basketball!” Gavan grinned. “Most days, it just blows but a game like that is magic.” He eyed Val’s height as the man slid the empty pot onto the kitchen counter. “You play?” Val shook his head. “Not seriously. You?”
“A pick up game occasionally. This was really great, thanks so much for letting me crash here. You really don’t have a stick up your ass like everyone thinks.”
Val raised an eyebrow. “Thanks, I think.” He flicked the television off and was grateful for the silence.
“I didn’t mean it as it sounds, you’re just so, distant, all the time.” He grinned. “Being around someone more subdued is nice, Trist is never subtle.”
“About him, if you don’t mind…”
“You mean what’s wrong with him?” Gavan glanced into his coffee. “Technically, he’s been diagnosed as undifferentiated schizophrenia, bi-polar, Dissociative identity disorder, and an entire slew of anxiety disorders. The schizophrenia is usually where doctors lump him.”
“His medication must be good, he seemed very stable.” And only someone who worked with unstable schizophrenics could say that and mean it.
Gavan shook his head. “Meds do nothing for him other then turn him into a zombie. He’s been on them all at one point or another, a lot of them just make him worse.” He wanted to tell the truth, he really did but he was liking the idea of finding a friend in Val and didn’t want to spook him away.
“It is, it baffles most doctors so they just up the dosage until he’s in a corner drooling. He’s not like most people, he’s special. For the most part, he’s able to stay in control so long as his routine isn’t broken. Which is why I can’t go away for the weekend, ever.” He sipped at the coffee.
“And his parents can’t help?”
“It’s complicated. We’ve a great aunt who can keep him calm but she lives with our grandmother and the two of them don’t get along.”
“That must be difficult for you.” But in his mind Val was replaying the scene he witnessed and it didn’t match with any of the schizophrenics he’d worked with.
“I love him, he’s family.” He shrugged. “Sure, there are times I wish I could dump him into a kennel like a dog for a couple of days but hey, he’s family. When I was a senior in college, I was desperate to go away for spring break. My girlfriend at the time had a place reserved, all my friends were going but there was Trist.”
“He couldn’t go.” It was a statement not a question.
“Bingo. So I wasn’t going to go. He promised he’d stay with our great aunt if I went and I agreed and left. Only, the first day he was there, our grandmother tore into him and he left, went back to our apartment and didn’t tell me. I was gone five days when I got a call saying I had to come home. Trist had an episode, wandered out into the street, gotten himself hit by a car. It broke his leg but the hospital had to put him in your ward with the other nut cases because he wasn’t making any sense. When I got home he was just gone, between the meds and getting lost in his own head. It took him months to fully recover.” He picked at the crumbs of the bread still on his plate and sucked them off his fingers while hoping some of the resentment he still felt didn’t show.
“And now this Wally is doing the same thing, making you pick between him and your cousin. That isn’t easy. I can see why you’d be upset, there is respite care you know. You could call them in for a few days, he wouldn’t have to leave the apartment. The disruption would be minimal.” That was one of the hardest things with serious mental illness, the effects on the rest of the family. The guilt they sometimes carried for not being able to fix the illness and the guilt over their natural resentment.
“Won’t work, trust me. Thing is, he’s harder on himself than I ever am. He thinks he’s ruining my life. If Wally and I break up, Trist will beat himself up over it for weeks.” He shook his head. “He booked us rooms at this silly little bed and breakfast. God, I don’t know how I’m going to tell him no.”
“So don’t, call in the respite care for two days. How much trouble can your cousin get into for two days?”
The innocent, helpful, blissfully unaware tone that Val used made Gavan laugh. “More than you can possibly imagine. He scares the jeepers out of most people, I’ve had caretakers literally run out of our apartment. One of them, this charming, highly skilled, Latina woman, called in her priest, Trist scared her so badly.”
“How long can he go on his own?”
“A good day?” Gavan shrugged, trying to remember the last time they’d had more than a single good day in a row. “Nineteen, twenty hours, less then a day. A bad day? Not more than eight, at most, the less the better. It’s part of the reason I went for OR nursing, if he’s having a meltdown I can switch shifts with one of the other girls and then get my hours in on his good days. I know what you’re thinking and there’s no way he can swing forty eight hours on his own.”
That hadn’t been what he was thinking but the idea stuck in his head and took a long sip of the dark coffee to loosen it up. “Actually, I was thinking you should go and I could check in on him.”
Gavan swallowed his coffee wrong and choked on it. He was caught, coughing and unable to answer.
“The idea’s not that absurd, is it?”
“Christ you must be a masochist.” He forced out around the inhaled coffee.
“It is what I do for a living. I doubt he could scare me off and there are few crisis that could arise that I haven’t already seen before. It’s only for two days.”
“You’re actually serious about this.”
Val smiled a small, sad smile. “I am. I tried to cancel my time off but they’d already scheduled it in so I couldn’t. My fiancée, girlfriend, whatever, is going to Mexico for what would have been our honeymoon and she’s taking her sister not me. I’d really rather not sit on my hands this weekend and think too much about things. The distraction would do me good.”
“She’s taking her sister on your honeymoon? That’s harsh.”
“We haven’t been getting along very well of late, I didn’t want to go.”
“Let me think about it, that’s a big offer.”
“I understand, I know how I’d feel if he were my cousin.”
“Wow, it’s almost eleven thirty, I should get back up there and see if his head’s exploded.” Gavan gathered up his coffee mug and plate and took them to the kitchen.
“You said he had a client coming by?”
He paused in the kitchen before turning and smiling. “Tell you what, Val, re-think that offer, I’ll think about it too. Tomorrow, after work, I’ll stop in and if you still think you’d be up to it, I’ll explain everything. It’s late and that story is complicated, fair enough?”
Val nodded but his mind was chewing over the options and not finding many. “Fair enough.”
Gavan fished his keys from the basket by the door and paused on his way out to offer his hand. “It was nice actually meeting you, Val.”
Val accepted it and nodded. “Same here, we’ll have to watch more games together.”
“Count on it, so long as you keep making that bread! It was fantastic! Night.”
“Goodnight.” Val stood in the door and watched as the man, now sober, made is way down the hall toward the elevators. He’d made the offer on a whim and wasn’t sure if it was a good one or not. In any case, he’d survived past eleven without too much grief and that was worth some repayment of the kindness.
Val turned his alarm clock off and slept, and slept, and slept. He woke up after noon and groaned at the headache behind his eyes from too much whiskey or too much sleep. He’d crashed for nearly twelve hours and that was something he hadn’t done since he was a child. Since right after his parents death to be exact and it was a sure sign that he was far more depressed than he was actually feeling.
He showered, shaved and forced himself to eat something before turning to putter about the apartment. His big project for his new found time off was to organize his books, before he could do that he had to get all the strays wrangled together. It wasn’t something that held his interest, his mind kept running over the night before. Finally he gave up, dropped another stack of books at the base of a shelf and pulled his bike from the bedroom. If his mind wouldn’t shut off, he could take his body along for the ride.
The day was chilly but the icy rain had disappeared and let the sun out. Val was glad he’d bundled up and covered his ears but the clear, cold winter air was brisk and just what he needed to shut his mind down. He didn’t ride as far or as long as he would have liked, the cold drove him home, but it was plenty.
His sunglasses had fogged up the moment he’d re-entered the warm building but he didn’t pull the hat and scarf off until he was on his floor. The bike was light so he just picked it up and carried it down to his apartment door. When he turned the corner and had his door in eyeshot, he was surprised by what was waiting for him.
Sitting on his heels, back leaning against his door, was Tristram. He was chewing on a thumbnail and had his eyes half closed. There was nothing to indicate how long the other man may have been waiting but Val had been gone well over an hour, he wondered what his neighbors would think of seeing the skinny man pretending to be a doorstop.
“Tristram?” Val began carefully and stepped lightly down the hall.
The dark head snapped up and the obsessive gnawing on the already chewed off thumbnail stopped. “Trist, no one but my fucking grandmother calls me Tristram.” He bounced to his feet, soothing out the wrinkles from his jeans.
Val watched as the odd eyes darted around wildly, unable to hold on to one object for too long. “What can I do for you?”
Trist shook his head and his eyelids fluttered in too many blinks. One of his hands waved in a vague motion to the air beside him. If a nagging child had stood beside him, the motion would have been one asking for silence or behavior but with only empty hallway, it looked random, insane. He swallowed hard and shook his head with more conviction. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come.” With an uneasy start, he took a step to leave only to find Val had turned sideways a little and let the bike block the hallway.
“No, it’s okay, what’s on your mind?” He knew better then to let Trist leave. God only knew where the fellow might end up. At the least, he could get Trist back up to his apartment.
“I’m not a fucking prisoner.” Trist snapped out, growing angry. “Fuck!” He drew a long slow breath and visibly started to relax. “Look, I’m sorry about last night.” One hand began to rub reflexively at his forehead in what Val was starting to see as a nervous tic.
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, you were right, we were drunk.”
“No, it’s just, I, damn…” Trist bounced his weight from foot to foot and chewed on a nail for a moment.
Val smiled mildly, lightly, and it was his professional smile because that was all he’d been able to summon up for months now. “Hey, it’s okay. Whatever it is you want to say, I’ll listen.”
The black rimmed eyes locked tightly to Val’s and there was clarity in them, not scattered madness. “Gavan’s going to shit out a litter of kittens.” He sighed and some internal choice was made. “Look, your sister’s car wreck? It wasn’t an accident. Navef didn’t fall asleep, there wasn’t a dog in the road, nothing like that.” He hated that the open acceptance in the warm brown eyes disappeared and was replaced with sharp and brittle pain.
“What did you say?” Val whispered out, not sure if he should be angry or broken in grief.
Trist just shook his head and ducked his eyes again. “I said it, see, I said it, that’s enough!” He pushed forward and shoved the blocking bike away but Val’s grip was weak and he didn’t even try to stop him.
“Trist?” Val managed to call out as the skinny man was reaching a turn in the hallway on his way back to the elevators.
“Leave me the fuck alone! I’m going home now!” Trist’s voice floated back but Val had an odd suspicion the words weren’t meant for him.
Val stood alone in his hallway too startled to even consider getting his door unlocked. He’s seen thousands of people with every sort of delusions but never had one spoken about his private life. Gavan must have told his cousin, that was the only logical reasoning behind it. That meant, for as much as Val had enjoyed having someone to drink with and watch a game with, Gavan would either have to stop that or their new born friendship would die in it’s infancy.