The Male Friends
“Alex is in this disgusting phase now where he likes zits,” says Brian, the first Male Friend, the one who started it all. He talks while flipping his menu for Il Ristretto back and forth, as if he doesn’t have it memorized and doesn’t plan on getting his usual (a macchiato in a cappuccino cup, two eggs sunny, a house salad with EVOO on the side).
“No,” says Tev, aghast.
“Yes. So instead of, like, hiding in shame and picking at his old zits and covering his face with his hand all the time, you know, like how it’s supposed to be, he treats them like a game and each one he tries to pop in just a way that it sprays the mirror with, you know, pus or whatever. And so each zit pop spray he circles in dry erase marker, and then he tries to make a connect-the-dots picture on the glass.” Brian finally pushes his menu aside.
“Literally the grossest thing I’ve heard all day.”
“He tried to make an ostrich this morning and I think he ran out of zits because near the feet there were just blood smears.”
“Brian, stop. Please. Wait til after we eat. Holy fuck,” says Tev. Tev (Steven, but Tev since his Coming Out, which apparently merited a name change) met Brian at camp when they were eight. They stayed in touch via snail mail for years, and it was in fact within one of these letters that Tev first told anyone he was a homosexual. Brian still holds that triumph, of being the first one let in to Tev’s (eventually public) secret, and no matter how close the other two Male Friends become with Tev, no one can take that tear-smeared letter away from him.
“God, I hate kids,” Carson says. He scratches his well-kept beard and adjusts his glasses, a habit that first reads as a nervous tic but soon clarifies into a tactic to draw attention to his hipster sensibilities.
“Every time you say that, Katie gets pregnant again,” Brian counters.
“Yeah, have you two ever heard of condoms?” Tev says.
The men giggle, low thunder in the tiny restaurant.
A waitress, blonde hair in a messy bun and eyes glazed in exhaustion, finds her way to the table and manages something like a smile. “Boys, how are we today?” she says. They admittedly tip well, but Scott, the quietest of the bunch, gets drunk every time they come, and it’s rare that Brian doesn’t send his eggs back.
“Lisa!” Tev and Carson say in tandem, and Tev adds, “Thank God we don’t have Tammy again. I mean, I’m sorry, but…”
“We just love you,” Carson interrupts. As the only one still working (outside of Scott’s weird remote whatever-he-does), he tends to use his filter on the highest setting of any of them. He scratches his beard again.
Lisa is unimpressed. “What are we drinking today, boys?”
It’s finally Scott’s turn to speak. “Mimosa, but add a shot of vodka. Two if you love me.”
He’s charming in the gruff, oafish way only hairy straight men can be.
“A martini-osa,” says Brian. He’s tried to make this lazy joke before, but it never lands, especially not with dead-eyed Lisa. She passes by his comment like she might avoid a dead raccoon on the sidewalk.
“Iced teas for the rest of you?”
The Male Friends nod. Brian adds, “A macchiato, too. In a…” but his request is interrupted by a barista presenting him with a macchiato in a cappuccino cup.
“Do we come here too often?” Brian asks no one, and the Four Male Friends laugh. Lisa looks at the barista, and her eyes say yes but her mouth remains pursed in an unsmile.
The brunches began after a nervous breakdown Brian had in the kitchen of his townhouse, during which the kids came home to find the microwave thrown through the breakfast nook window and their father supine on the floor, where he had apparently been for several hours. Before taking this position, he had written in ketchup on the kitchen’s hardwood floor: This town is not my town. This work is not my work. This family is not my family. Cassidy and Alex (back before breasts and zits, respectively, had conquered their soft bodies) called their mother in a panic, and after months of therapy and family yoga sessions at 6am, finally, eventually, Steffi messaged Carson over Facebook, the only person from Brian’s fraternity she knew lived nearby.
He needed, as best she could see it, more Male Friends.
Tev joined the group when he moved back to Corvallis, but Scott’s addition happened more by chance, as the three had been forced onto a community table on a busy morning, much to their dismay. Scott had already been sat there, and he was tipsy enough to join in on their conversation with enough zeal for them to take a vote on whether to invite him back next Thursday during one of his pee breaks. Since that unanimous decision, the Four Male Friends began to conquer brunch one Thursday at a time.
“How are the antiques these days?” Scott asks Carson, squirting a moat of sriracha around his benedict.
“Just had a couple great finds at a rundown place in Philo. Some silver so tarnished it looked like it had been stuck in swamp water for the last ten years. Got it off their hands for a dollar per piece. Candlesticks and platters. Plus a dresser and cedar chest. We’ll be able to turn all that around pretty quick.”
“Don’t know how you do it with the kids,” Brian says.
“Well, they make garage sale hunts more fun,” Carson replies. “Force me into efficiency. If I don’t find the good stuff quick, they’ll find it and break it on accident.”
They share another laugh.
“And how’s Cassidy doing?” Carson asks Brian, and as if a rubber band has been tightened around the table, they all lean in, iced teas and martini-osa forgotten in favor of this new tension.
Brian stumbles. Nervously: “Well, she’s not popping zits on the mirror like her brother, so there’s that.”
“No, I know. It looks like she’s doing way better. Adjusted her meds. Though that can always be rough. Last time she put on thirty pounds in two weeks. Obviously that’s better than—”
“Obviously,” Carson interjects gracefully, relieving the rubber band a millimeter and allowing a breath around the table.
“But still, she’s sixteen, and that’s tough at sixteen.”
“Everything’s tough at sixteen,” Carson agrees. “Dreading when AJ gets there.”
“You’ve still got a ways.”
“Just hope she’s not gay,” Tev says. “Now that’s tough at sixteen.”
“Man, I’ve never cried so much as I did when I got your letter,” Brian says, looking at Carson and Scott rather than Tev. “So much pain. However many years ago that was, I still feel how raw it is whenever you talk about it.”
Scott gestures for another mimosa to Lisa, who is doing her best to avoid them. She can see that Brian hasn’t started his eggs, which means maybe the whites don’t look right and she’ll have a cryptic remake request to pass along to her line cooks.
“If I was born to love women, how much happier I’d beeee,” Carson sings, giving Tev a mockingly doe-eyed look. Tev slaps him away.
“Is that Hamilton? I feel like that’s Hamilton,” Brian says.
“Not Hamilton. It’s from—”
“Which one’s the Hamilton song?”
“There are, like, a ton of—”
“Man, I love that music. You know what, we have to go. Have a boys’ night.”
Scott shrugs. “Hard to get tickets.”
“We have to go,” Brian says again. “I need a night out. Steffi will understand.”
“Where are they showing?” Carson asks. His eyes reveal that he knows where and has a distinct opinion about whether or not it would be worth it to see that show there, or if there’s a much better option someone needs to ask him about. He scratches his beard and rolls his sleeves, revealing two spiraling dragons tattooed up either arm.
“Boys’ night!” Brian whisper-shouts, ignoring Carson, just as Lisa returns with Scott’s drink.
“Everything tasting good?” she asks, and she breathes a sigh of relief when no one looks at her or says anything, other than Scott who nods a thank-you and taps his glass, empty once again.
If someone were to ask Brian why it was ketchup and not any other condiment from the frig that he chose to use to write his message on his freshly Pine-Soled hardwoods, why he would choose something so distinctly, disturbingly bloodlike for his kids to find, chances are he wouldn’t have an answer. Why not Sharpie, from the kitchen junk drawer, just as accessible and more allowing of faster, neater writing? Why not mayo, to reduce the shock value for Cassidy and Alex, who may have found calligraphic aioli humorous rather than scarring?
This work is not my work. This town is not my town. This family is not my family.
Mustard? Grape jelly? Dry erase marker from the family schedule whiteboard hanging above the spice cabinet? Brian had never been able to form a response when asked, neither to his therapist or Steffi or even to his Four Male Friends.
“Everyone thank Katie for brunch!” Carson declares, after taking the bill from Lisa.
“Thanks, Katie,” comes the chorus.
Carson kisses his credit card. “Thank you, my beautiful wife.”
“I’ll pray she never stops accounting,” Tev says prayerfully. “Or whatever it is.” He’s unemployed right now, but working. He writes. Before he started going by Tev, he thought that having a white name like Steven was holding him back from publication. Tev hasn’t published any more than Steven did, but he has gracefully exchanged excuses. Currently, he’s frustrated that his 23-and-Me revealed no Cherokee anywhere in his past (“It’s so in,” he had said during their fourth brunch, a comment noticed but uncontested by his companions).
“Cheers to that,” Scott says, finally drunk, and raises his mimosa glass. It’s his sixth, but no one’s counting anymore, except Lisa.
He and Carson generally trade the bill. So far, from the first time they ever began Male Friend brunch dates, Brian has yet to offer to take it, even though they all know Monsanto pays Steffi a hefty sum to convince farmers to sell their souls and eradicate all known instances of midwestern biodiversity.
Brian eyes the ketchup bottle in the middle of the table. A memory flickers across his brown eyes.
“Don’t forget boys’ night,” he says halfheartedly as they make for the door. “I’ll send dates to think about.”
Back at home, Brian empties the dishwasher and calls the air-conditioning man. Something’s not working with the vent in the bathroom. He goes through the refrigerator and tosses the bottles of expired dressings, wondering not for the first time where they all come from, instinctively blaming Steffi for their existence. There is nothing as lazy, he had once decided, as a store-bought dressing. His hands (unavoidably) pass over the other condiments in the frig, but he doesn’t take any out. He doesn’t write anything on the floor with ketchup. He clings to his annoyance over the dressing and scrubs the hardwood floors with Murphy’s Oil—he has moved on from Pine Sol, as it just doesn’t shine in the same way.
When Cassidy gets home, he wonders if she’s being called a slut at school for being the first to get boobs in her grade. Or do they all look like women before sophomore year? He can’t remember anymore. Then Alex gets home, and his face is still a pepperoni pizza of smashed pimples, by now leaking infection. Brian hugs them both, and for an early dinner they eat a salad of hardboiled eggs and romaine and not-yet-expired-but-nearly-there-so-it’s-gotta-go poppyseed ranch, and he wonders when his wife will return.
Benjamin Mast grew up in a Mennonite community in northern Indiana, but currently lives and works in Seattle with his boyfriend. He started working in restaurants as a busser, and now serves tables at a whiskey bar. Though COVID-19 has paused his employment, he's had more time to write.