I made straight for my room, quiet as possible. Alex heard me though. His voice caught me at the foot of the stairs.
“Umm—yeah. Yeah. Sorry for—I didn’t see your message,” I lied.
He came out of the kitchen wearing jeans and a collar shirt with the top button undone. He only had a couple years on me, would be starting college in the fall, but he was taller, stronger. “I made a feast, bro.”
“Sorry,” I repeated, and looked away. “I’ll go change then. Take a quick shower.”
“I still don’t see why you’re always at the Y when we have a perfectly decent pool here. Dad shelled out like fifty grand for it.”
This was after mom died. She wanted a pool, and he kept putting her off. Now she was dead and we had a real nice one that none of us used.
“I like swimming in public,” I told Alex, like I’d been telling him all summer, and started up the stairs.
“Showing off that hot bod, huh?”
I stripped and stared at my body in the mirror. Slender and pale. Fragile, Alex would say. I decided to shave my chest hair. Sat on the toilet for a while. Then I stepped into the shower and let the water course over me. I closed my eyes and thought of Jill, her body beneath me, the taste of her.
Forty minutes had passed by the time I sat down at the kitchen table, but Alex simply handed me a plate with a little of everything on it—stuffed chicken, mashed potatoes, caesar salad, a biscuit—and said, “It’ll taste shitty. I had to warm it like five times.”
“Sorry,” I said.
He shrugged and made himself a cup of coffee. Slid into a chair across from me and watched me eat. Between bites I glanced out the window and into the darkening backyard. Beyond the pool, we had a swing set. When we were kids, we spent hours on them, Alex pushing me, telling me stories.
“Maybe we could go together. Tomorrow,” he said, cradling the coffee in his hands.
I shifted in my seat. “You don’t like swimming.”
“No,” he said. “But then, neither did you. But just look at you now. It’s like you’re training for the Olympics.”
Jill and I had planned to take a short road trip tomorrow, to see a friend in Rochester.
“I like to swim alone,” I said. “It’s not—it’s not a big deal. I just sort of lose myself in it.”
“You like being alone in public?”
I didn’t answer, bit into the chicken instead. “It’s excellent.”
“I haven’t seen you much this summer. And it’s my last, Joe. We haven’t—I know you probably think—”
“It’s very tender. Just as tender as Mom’s. You should make some for Dad, when he’s back.”
“—I miss you, Joe.”
I watched my plate.
“Truth is—if I’m honest with you—I like you more than pretty much anyone else.”
He took a sip. And another.
I cleared my throat, cut the remaining chicken into smaller and smaller pieces.
He reached over, put a hand on my arm. I shrugged him off and he looked hurt. “I know what we—what I—I know it’s wrong. Do you feel like you can’t say no? You do—that’s why—but you’ve got to believe me. The truth is I like you more than anyone.”
“I’m just not—” I started. Met his eye, briefly. “I’ve tried but I’m not. Whenever—it feels mechanical.”
“It’s just my last summer. And I call and you never pick up. What’ll it be like when I’m up at Binghamton?”
“It’s only an hour away.”
“We live in the same house now and I barely see you.”
“I have a girlfriend,” I said, surprising myself. “We’ve been dating for months and I like her a lot. I think I’m in love with her. And I hate swimming.”
He stood, poured himself more coffee. “And you’re happy with her?”
“Yeah,” I said, too fast.
When he didn’t respond, I said, “I think I’m slightly in love with her.”
“Yes—yes, I’m happy for you,” he said in a sad voice. “Really. Good for you. It’s better this way. And I’ll be at Binghamton. You’ll pick up though, when I call?”
“Yeah,” I nod. I butter the biscuit.
“You’ll be better about it?”
“I’ll be better about it.”
I bit into the biscuit. It was rubbery from being heated up so many times.
“Can we just—one more time… just watch a movie together? Netflix? We haven’t done that in a while.”
My plate was empty.
“Just a movie?”
Even the biscuit. The rubbery biscuit.
“It’s harder for me. You don’t realize it but it’s so much harder for me. And you got Mom’s looks. Everyone says so. It’s just easier for you.”
“Can I have seconds?” I asked.
He leapt at the chance to serve me, and I felt a little sick. He piled more food onto my plate, more than I could possibly eat.
“Worked up an appetite from all that swimming?” he said, and slid the plate over to me.
“I told you. I hate swimming. I haven’t been swimming.”
“Right. Yes.” He bit his lip and let out a deep breath. “I know I haven’t been a good brother.”
I picked at my plate.
“You’re not hungry anymore?” he asked.
“I’m hungry,” I said.
“Do you want to take it into the living room? I can put a movie on and you can eat.”
I continued to pick at the food.
“I can put a movie on, if you want. You can watch and eat. I’ll go put a movie on.”
He led me into the living room, and I didn’t stop him. He picked out an old comedy we both liked, Some Like It Hot.
We settled on the couch, a foot or so between us, a tray-table in front of me.
Half an hour into the movie, I still hadn’t touched the food, so Alex moved closer. His leg touching mine. He reached over me to push the tray table away.
“No,” I said.
I took up my fork and knife and began to eat my second dinner, cold now, in full earnest.
“I can heat it up for you—”
“I like it cold,” I said.
The movie played on, neither of us watching.
About the author:
Emil Ostrovski is represented by Laura Langlie of the Laura Langlie Literary Agency. He has had four other short stories published in Word Riot. His debut novel, The Paradox of Vertical Flight, will be released in 2013 by Greenwillow.