Tomás reached the door first. He held it open for Birch, an action which had, over the years, lost all significance when applied to anyone else. Holding the door for someone had just become a social necessity, something Tomás did out of habit rather than through any true desire to be kind or helpful.
Yet with Birch, the act made him smile. Birch smiled at him in return, pale lips widening across a face brought to a blush by the cold air, revealing his straight, white teeth. “Thank you, sir,” Birch said, with a laugh behind his words. Tomás’s smiled broadened.
Birch took the handle of the next set of doors, and held it for Tomás. Like many commercial spaces, the restaurant had two sets of doors to help them save on heating costs. Today was an unseasonably cold March day, with the morning’s snow flurry still resting on the grass despite the day’s sun.
Inside, Birch unwound his scarf, draping it over his arm. He and Tomás unzipped their coats while they waited for the hostess, revealing clothes chosen for a nice evening in a moderately upscale restaurant. Tomás wore a long-sleeved button down shirt with a blocky blue-and-green plaid pattern. Birch wore a soft grey sweater over a cream dress shirt.
“I haven’t been here in years,” Birch said. His eyes travelled across the tables, searching.
“Really? You haven’t been since you moved back?” Tomás asked.
“No. I haven’t had a reason, really,” Birch replied.
The hostess bustled out of a side room, adjusting her skirt as she walked. “Table for two?” she asked.
“Three, actually,” Tomás said.
“Oh, are you with a shorter Asian lady? Bit heavy?” the hostess asked.
Tomás blinked at the description, but his non-confrontational nature got the better of him. “Um, yes. She’s already here?”
“Sure is,” the hostess said. “Right this way.”
Tomás checked his phone as the hostess lead them through the store. No, they were still a good fifteen minutes early. Rin must have gotten out of work early today.
Birch pulled on the sleeve of his shirt. “What the fuck?” he mouthed, pointing at the hostess. “Who says that?” Tomás could only shrug.
The hostess led them to a booth in the back corner of the main dining room, where, sure enough, Rin sat waiting for them.Well, for Tomás. He could see the surprise in her eyes at seeing Birch the moment they came into her view.
Rin stood to greet them. She hugged Tomás first, then turned to Birch. “I didn’t expect to see you tonight, Birch,” she said, hugging him as well.
“Tomás said it would be alright if I tagged along,” he said.
“Of course,” Rin said. She smiled, but Tomás immediately knew she was lying. She straightened her dress as she sat back down.
Feeling suddenly quite awkward, Tomás gestured for Birch to sit down first. “Oh, no,” Birch said. “Sit down. I’m going to go wash my hands first.” He passed Tomás his jacket to stuff against the wall of the booth.
Tomás crinkled his nose at the odd excuse, but said nothing. He took the seat across from his wife. There were only two sets of silverware on the table. A glass of water, with no lemon, sat in front of Tomás. The condensation had already made a small pool on the coaster.
Rin took a drink from her own water, then set it down deliberately. She spoke without meeting Tomás’s eyes. “Why is Birch here?”
“He’s our friend,” Tomás said evasively. “We eat dinner together all the time.”
“We do,” Rin said, “but this is supposed to be our night, Tomás. It’s our anniversary.”
Tomás scrambled for the excuse he had prepared; he had almost forgotten it, in his anxiety over Rin’s reaction. “Well, we were hanging out while you were at work, and Birch mentioned he didn’t know what he was going to do for dinner. I felt bad.”
“You felt bad so you invited him to our anniversary dinner?” Rin said. “Tomás, I love Birch, but you know I wanted to save tonight just for us.”
“I know,” Tomás said. “I’m sorry. You know how I get when I feel bad for someone, though.”
Rin sighed. “I know, but you know that Birch would have been fine. He knows how to cook, and even if he didn’t, he knows where to buy food.”
“I’m sorry, Rin,” Tomás said again. “If I’m honest, he was helping me pick out your gift.”
“Oh?” Rin said. “Just today, you went and bought my gift?”
“It was my day off,” Tomás said. “It was the first day Birch had the chance to help me during the day.”
“Okay, one: you shouldn’t have needed Birch’s help to pick it out. You’ve been doing it yourself for five years,” Rin said. “And two: You hang out with Birch all the time. This was not the first chance you two had to go together.”
“I wasn’t trying to upset you,” Tomás said. “He’s your best friend. I thought you’d be glad to see him, or at least fine with it.”
“Tomás, stop being so obtuse,” Rin said. “We both know you knew I would be upset.”
“I didn’t know you’d be this upset,” Tomás said. “I thought you’d mostly be surprised.”
“Well, you guessed that part right,” Rin said. Rin reached for a dinner roll. She tore it open with her fingers, rather than cutting it with her knife, as she would usually have done. Tomás watched in silence as she buttered it.
He took a roll for himself. He didn’t know what to say or how to break the tense silence.
Birch slid into the seat next to him, catching Tomás by surprise. He had withdrawn from the world for a moment there. Light pressure from Birch’s leg told him he should scoot over on the seat, but for a moment he resisted, enjoying the heat of Birch’s touch. Then he realized where they were and who was sitting across from them. He moved.
“I’m sorry for intruding,” Birch said. Apparently he had caught on to the mood.
“It’s alright, Birch,” Rin said. “You know we’re always glad to have you.” She sounded more genuine than Tomás would have expected. Perhaps she was saving all of her ire for him.
Birch took a roll. “I appreciate that,” he said. He placed the roll on his plate, and starting tearing off little bits to eat, rather than taking bites. “Did you have a good day?”
“No,” Rin said. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
Rin ran a veterinary clinic alongside two partners. Good days could be very good, but Rin didn’t often want to talk about bad days. She loved animals, and she loved helping them, but sometimes Tomás wondered if her job would be easier if she cared a little bit less. She grew so attached to the animals that when something bad happened, it really brought her down.
“What about you?” Rin asked.
“Well, I only had clients this morning,” Birch said. “Nothing special. I guess I did have an older gentleman who kept farting during his massage. That was interesting.”
“Kept farting?” Tomás asked. “Like, not just once?”
Birch shook his head. “Not just once. Many, many time. Honestly I don’t think he could hear them? He had hearing aids in.”
“He had to feel them, at least,” Tomás said. “You don’t just fart and not know about it.
Birch shrugged. “There was one particularly loud one that probably made his butt vibrate a bit. He raised his head up after that one. I told him just to relax and enjoy the massage.”
“Maybe he got a bit too relaxed,” Tomás suggested.
“I don’t know,” Birch said. “Maybe.”
“I don’t know how you did it,” Rin said. “Did you… cover your nose or something?”
“No.” Birch laughed. “I did light some incense before the next client, though.”
Rin’s mood seemed to lighten as they conversed. She rarely spoke directly to Tomás, however — she mainly interjected into Birch’s stories, making questions and comments about them rather than anything Tomás said. Even then she didn’t speak much. It felt as though Tomás was speaking mostly with Birch, and Rin was just trying to find a space for herself in their conversation.
After her third glass of wine, she spoke a bit more freely, and laughed more, but at that point Tomás grew somewhat concerned. She had driven herself here. Birch had brought Tomás, with the intent that he ride home with Rin, but they hadn’t mentioned that to Rin. She usually had no more than one glass of wine. Two was a lot for her. When she finished her third glass and asked for a fourth, Tomás considered cutting her off. He didn’t, though, because he knew she wouldn’t be happy with him.
To Tomás’s surprise, Birch paid the bill. “Think of it as an anniversary present,” he said, “and as thanks for letting me crash your dinner.”
Out of Rin’s sight, Tomás squeezed Birch’s hand. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
They made it a point not to talk about finances, but Tomás knew that Birch didn’t make as much money as them. Masseurs and yoga instructors weren’t the sort of people who were rolling in dough. Rin made the most money out of the three of them, with Tomás, as Assistant Manager at a local grocery store, falling in the middle.
“It’s no problem,” Birch said. “I love you guys. Tonight’s a special night. Six years, right?”
“That’s right,” Rin said, giving a half-smile in Tomás’s direction. “Six years dealing with this guy. You don’t know what you’re in for.”
“What?” Birch asked, confused. Tomás felt a chill prickle up his spine. Did she suspect something?
“You hold onto friends tight, Birch,” Rin said. “Like me. You moved to California but you never let me go. Now you’re back, and we’re hanging out like you never left, and now you’ve attached yourself to my husband, too. You’ll have to deal with him as much as I do.”
Rin’s words made it sound like she might be explaining a joke, but Tomás got the idea that she was covering up a slip. The smile on her face didn’t reach her eyes, which, Tomás thought, looked like they might begin spilling tears at any moment. Then again, maybe it was the wine. Rin was prone to crying when she drank enough.
“Oh,” Birch said. He and Tomás held the doors for Rin as she exited the restaurant. Tomás gripped Birch’s shoulder briefly as he passed him, a light, comforting touch that he hoped Rin wouldn’t notice. But no, she was already scanning the parking lot for her vehicle.
“I’ll drive, Rin,” Tomás said. “Birch brought me so we could ride together.”
“That was nice of him,” Rin said, standing on the curb, still searching. Tomás had seen her car immediately. The vibrant green paint stood out even in the dimming light of evening.
“I’ll catch you too later,” Birch said. He pulled Rin into a strong hug, both arms wrapping around her. “Love you both.” To Tomás he gave a one-armed hug, his body turned slightly so that less of them pressed against each other. That was how they hugged in front of Rin.
“Drive safely,” Tomás said.
“You too,” Birch said. “Text me when you get home.”
“I will,” Tomás said. The request made him smile. If half an hour went by and he hadn’t texted Birch, something was wrong.
Tomás took Rin’s hand and led her into the parking lot. She wasn’t incredibly drunk — they’d had a lot to eat, and the dinner had stretched out longer than an hour. Still, she wavered a bit when standing still, and she kept blinking more than was necessary.
“I love him,” she said, pulling herself close to Tomás as they walked. “I love you, too. You know that, right?”
“I know,” Tomás said.
“I’m glad he moved back to Michigan,” she said. “I missed him. And I’m glad he got to meet you.”
“We met before, at our wedding,” Tomás said. He knew that to be true, but if he was honest, he barely remembered it. Only the pictures from the wedding day proved to his memory that Birch had been there. Other than that day, before Birch had moved back here, he’d mainly been a character in Rin’s stories from her school days.
“That didn’t really count,” Rin said. As they approached the car, she began rooting around in her purse. “I know my keys are in here somewhere.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tomás said. He pulled his keyring out of his jacket pocket. “I have a copy of your key, remember?” He hit a button, and Rin’s car unlocked, lights flashing light a beacon in the twilight.
“Right,” Rin said. She started pulling toward the driver’s seat, but Tomás guided her toward the passenger side. She slid into her seat with a sigh.
When Tomás closed the driver’s side door behind him, and moved to pull on his seatbelt, he realized Rin was sitting perfectly still, hands folded in front of her, with tears running down her face. She made no move to wipe them away. She stared at him instead, intently.
Tomás froze, his arm partway through the motions of positioning his seat belt. His mind raced through the possibilities of what she was about to say, and the excuses he might make. Yes, he spent a lot of time with Birch. Yes, he liked Birch a lot, and maybe they touched a bit more intimately than two guys should. Maybe he felt things for Birch he’d never even thought about feeling for another man. But he had never cheated on Rin. He and Birch had never done anything beyond a hug.
“We have to put Bunni down,” Rin said, her voice curiously steady despite the tears and the wine. “He has cancer.”
“I… what? Bunni?” Tomás felt something huge rise up in his chest, a great pressure following the brief, brief thought of Oh thank goodness she doesn’t know, which was quickly subsumed entirely by the wave of grief. “Why?”
They’d had Bunni, their dog, since the first year of their marriage. He was only five years old. He’d be six next month. Or he would have been.
“I just told you,” Rin said. “He has cancer.”
“Well can’t you treat it? Like, chemo or surgery or whatever?”
“No,” Rin said. “It’s not… I mean, maybe, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a patient.”
“Why?” Tomás asked. “If there’s even a chance…”
“The chance is so low, Tomás,” Rin said. “There might as well not even be one. Even if he lived, he’d never been the same.”
Tomás shook his head. He turned away from Rin, put his hands on the steering wheel. “Let’s go home.”
“Tomás…” Rin began.
“Let’s go home. I want to be home.”
“You have to turn the car on, Tomás,” Rin said. “You have to put your seatbelt on.”
Tomás took a deep breath. He brought the seatbelt across his chest. As he did so, it pressed against something hard in his jacket pocket. He pulled it out and handed it to Rin. “Your gift,” he said. Along with the words came another wave of pressure, this time behind his eyes. He forced himself not to cry.
Rin opened the box slowly. Tomás hadn’t wrapped it. She pulled out his gift — a silver bracelet, with an engraved oval as its focus, which Rin opened to reveal a photo of herself, Tomás, and Bunni, smiling and happy under a tree in their backyard, taken by Birch that summer.
“Oh, Tomás,” Rin said. She finally reached up to wipe the tears from her face. “It’s lovely.”
He didn’t know what to say, so he drove them home in silence.