knight of wang
California Dreaming, part 13/16

it’s all written now, i’m just tuning up the rest. i’ll for sure post at least one more tonight.

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    In the car, he sulks like a child. The kind of sulk that screams ‘notice me!’ like a tantrum. It’s suddenly apparent how happy you’ve been to give him whatever attention his damaged psyche requires up to now, because this is the first time you haven’t wanted to. You want to tell him, You’re twenty-six years old, for crying out loud. Scowling out the window with your arms crossed is something you should’ve outgrown ten years ago. Are these your only coping mechanisms? Run away or mope? What do you even expect me to do about it?

    What you say instead is, “I’m getting a little tired of takeout. I think I’ll cook. How do you feel about Egyptian food? There’s this rice and lentil thing with fried onions —”

    “Oh, are we pretending nothing’s wrong?” he says acidly without looking at you.

    “My — a wise man once told me never to start an argument in a car. Fights are always worse in closed spaces.”

    “Your what? Your dad?”

    “My parents’ butler, actually,” you admit, ready for him to sneer at the idea of anyone having a butler in this day and age.

    But the line of his shoulders softens a little, and his voice is a shade less caustic when he says, “Maybe we have more in common than I thought.”

    “Your family had a butler too?”

    A bitter grind of laughter, but not at you. “We had a series of underpaid Mexican maids, and my mother was so proud of speaking Spanish to them. I mean, her Spanish wasn’t even very good, and all she ever said was condescending impersonal shit, but God did she show off in front of her friends, and they just ate it up. Like she was some kind of fucking ambassador because she could say ‘saca la basura’ instead of ‘take out the trash’. And I think my father slept with every single one of them. The maids, not the friends. Though he probably did some of those too. He even slept with Magdalena, she looked like a fucking sock monkey.”

    You let out your breath in a surprised chuckle, which makes you realize you were holding it. He’s never talked about his family before. But then, neither have you. “My father insisted that Arthur learn Arabic, even though we only spoke English at home.”

    “Artoor,” Eridan echoes mockingly. “You had a French butler.”

    “And naturally Father didn’t learn French. Mother knew a bit, because she went to finishing school and apparently that’s what you do there, but she only used it to drop quotes and sound refined.”

    “How civilized.” The corner of his mouth is pulling, like he’s fighting a genuine smile.

    “Well, the upshot is that my French is better than my Arabic, because who wouldn’t rather speak a language their parents don’t?”

    “I learned Russian in school because nobody knows Russian. Result: I have no fucking use for it.”

    “I’d like to hear you speak it, if you still remember.”

    “You first. Arabic. Go.”

    You quote him a line from the Poem of Imru-ul-Quais, the only one of the Mu’allaqat you can halfway stand. He shudders like you dropped an ice cube down the back of his shirt and barks, “Stop!”

    “What?” you demand, a little offended. “You said to.”

    “What did you say?”

    “‘Come, my friends, as we stand here grieving, don’t you see the lightning?’ Context doesn’t help it much, but I do like that line.”

    “What is it?”

    “A poem. From the sixth century, if I recall correctly. I was made to memorize it. Cultural importance, blah blah blah. All those old poems start out blithering about some girl’s hair and then go off on a series of random tangents and end in a flood of fatuous advice. I prefer modern poetry. And in English, though the new generation of Arabic poets has merit.” You glance away from the road to give him a hurt look. “I really wish you wouldn’t look at me as if I put a knife to your throat. Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who hears Arabic and thinks ‘terrorist’.”

    “No. What? No. I just. Actually.” He wriggles his shoulders, exactly as if that imaginary ice cube were sliding down his spine. “Disturbingly sexy, that’s all. Were you trying to do a sexy voice?”

    You return your attention to traffic with a grin. “No. Mostly I was just trying to remember the stupid thing.”

    “Forget I said anything. God, I feel like such a tool now.”

    “Don’t. I’m flattered. Your turn: Russian.”

    He throws you a few words, half gargle and half snarl, and you think you may be making the same face he did at your Arabic. Goodness. It is disturbingly exciting. You wonder if there’s some interesting neurological mechanism to blame for the phenomenon.

    “If you tell me that was a pleasant greeting,” you say, “I will be very surprised.”

    “No,” he half-smiles. “‘You want to be human? Then act human.’ Line from ‘Night Watch’. There was a time when I thought watching it without subtitles in front of my roommate made me an intellectual. Rather than, for instance, an irritating douche.”

    “But the subtitles were so artistic.”

    “Oh, come on.”

    “You don’t think so?”

    “They were a gimmick. Totally over the top.”

    “I thought they really added something.”

    “Yeah: e-z cheez.”

    You bicker mildly about movies the rest of the way home. That doesn’t count as arguing in the car. Even if he is one of those film elitists who can never just relax and enjoy the movie.

* * *

    Since he didn’t offer any objection to the idea of Egyptian food, you go ahead and start cooking. You’re not usually much of a lentil fan, but with fried onions and plenty of cumin they’re all right, and when you leave them out the rice just tastes strange. You hope Eridan’s never had kushari done the usual way, so he won’t know there are supposed to be tomatoes in it. Ugh, tomatoes. So squishy. And if you use tomato sauce instead it just turns into a soupy mess —

    “Okay, so, I’m still mad at you for reading it, but since you did, what did you think?”

    You turn to stare blankly at Eridan. Your spoon drips a blob of garlicky olive oil on the toe of your boot. “Wait, back up,” you say slowly.

    He’s sitting at the table with his notebook. He picks it up and slaps it down again. There’s a flash in his eyes, something as much gleeful as angry; spoiling for a fight. Your stomach starts to roil as you realize he’s probably going to get one, no matter how you try to stay calm.

    “I didn’t read your notebook,” you say carefully.

    “Yes you fucking did, so don’t waste my time. I’m over it. Just tell me what you think.”

    Slowly, taking pains to be gentle and not slam things around, you set the spoon in the pan and turn off the burner, get a dishrag to clean off your boot. “I did not,” you repeat, “read your notebook. Since you began accusing me after I mentioned my dream, I assume something in it —”

    “Your ‘dream’ was lifted right out of my fucking novel in progress, so how about you just quit trying to play me.”

    Your knuckles go white around the rag. Dirty water squeezes out all over your foot and the floor. You straighten so carefully, everything in reserve, you are not going to do this. “I. Did not. Read. Your notebook.”

    “Like repeating it is going to make it true.”

    “I’m not a liar!" you roar, whipping the wet rag at the sink and missing. In the back of your mind, in the pit of your stomach, you’re clawing frantically for the reins, but it’s no use, your anger’s run away with you and Eridan doesn’t know what he just started. You don’t even know what you’re going to say until it’s out, but your voice is rattling the kitchen window. "I do not lie! I never lie! You sit there accusing me of dishonesty, after all the times I’ve had to — do you know how hard it is to keep from hurting your feelings without resorting to untruths? Do you know how fast I have to think sometimes to stay honest? And now you —”

    “Well then where the fuck did you get that merman bullshit, huh?” Stalking around the table, head forward on his neck, snarl-grinning — he’s enjoying this. “Don’t you come all wounded innocence at me when I caught you with your hand in the goddamn cookie jar.”

    “You did no such thing, and your repeated insistence that you did is clearly just a way of taunting me!”

    “Oh, so now I’m the dishonest one, nice.”

    “What else could it be? You refuse to entertain the idea that I might be telling the truth, even though I’ve never lied to you, you just —”

    “That I know of.”

    “Eridan, God damn it!" You realize you’ve raised your hand, and yank it back with a gasp. Grab the edge of the counter to anchor yourself. He’s too close. He’s asking to get hurt. “What are you doing? You stay over there. I’ll stay here and you stay over there.”

    “I wouldn’t hit you if you didn’t make me so angry,” he sneers, “is that where we’re heading?”

    “Just step back out of my personal space! Fine, you’ve found a hot button, now stop pushing it!”

    “Or else what? Is it empty threat time now?”

    “I won’t stand for being called a liar! You will stop!”

    He’s so close now you can feel his breath, and the challenge in his eyes is unbearable. The linoleum facing of the counter makes a small cracking sound in your grip. Eridan pokes a single deliberate finger into the middle of your chest. “Or. Else. What.”

    “Or else we can’t be friends anymore,” you croak.

    The vicious gleam slowly fades from Eridan’s eyes. Then his face blurs, so you’re not sure what expression it takes on next.

    “Oh.” It’s barely a breath.

    “I didn’t mean to threaten you.” Your voice cracks.

    “Oh, Jesus.”

    Swallowing salt, you turn to look for your dishcloth. It knocked over some cereal boxes. You need to stop leaving groceries on the counter.

    “Jesus. Zahhak. I um. Equius.”

    It’s the first time he’s ever called you by your given name. You take a deep breath, twisting the dishcloth in your hands. “I’m glad I turned off the onions. They’ll be soggy but at. Least they aren’t. Burnt.” You give a choked laugh.

    Then you catch your breath as Eridan slides his arms around you from behind and rests his forehead against the back of your neck. “I’m an asshole,” he whispers. “I’m such an asshole.”