“Tate!” April called out. “You have got to calm down. Honestly, you’re going to give me a panic attack or something. They’ll be here soon.”
The party started at noon but by the time twelve o’ clock rolled by, no one had arrived. Tate was starting to get more than a little antsy. There wasn’t anyone who could blame him, really. Several people had said that they would not be able to make it, others had made last minute arrangements, and that very morning two people had already cancelled on him.
All of this culminated in Tate feeling nervous. That was the day that he turned twenty-five. He wasn’t sure that most would consider that a milestone but it felt like it should have been one. He was on the cusp of a midlife crisis.
Okay, so that was a bit of an exaggeration. He hadn’t quite reached that level. But, he wasn’t that far from it, though.
And he needed his friends to be around him to celebrate this momentous occasion.
Around him, there was a commotion. His mother and sister were cooking up a storm, everything that happened in the background during a barbecue; the green salad and the potato salad and the pasta salad. There was probably more going on, but Tate had been ushered out of the kitchen almost as soon as he had entered it. The women in his family were annoyed that he would attempt to interfere, even though he wasn’t trying to. His father and his brother were setting up seats and the like outside. Tate had been forbidden from taking part in the arrangements so he was left feeling even more useless. He could not wait until the guests started arriving and he could start up the barbecue. After much debate, Tate had managed to convince his family to allow him to man the grill. It felt like a birthday present of sorts all on its own.
The fact that he was not allowed to help anyone do anything since it was his special day did nothing but leave him too lost in his own thoughts and worries. He decided to grab his guitar and go sit out in the front yard. He was playing punk songs full of angst, reminiscing about his rebellious teenage years, when his April joined him. She sat down on the porch beside him, close enough that their shoulders touched.
April was the girl that his parents wanted him to marry. The two of them had grown up together and when April became romantically interested in Tate, everyone was on board with that. After all, he had never had a long-term girlfriend. The thing was, Tate wasn’t sure that he wanted one.
“What if no one comes?” Tate asked her, knowing that he sounded like a little kid. He was being ridiculous. He could not help it though.
“Elaina and Richard said that they were coming, right?”
Tate nodded his head. “Yeah, they did.”
“Well then, why are you so worried? Those two never let you down.”
He could not argue with April there. She was right. Elaina and Richard were his two best friends. They were the two people in the world that he knew would be there for him whenever he needed, for whatever he needed. Still, it was getting later and later and he had not heard from them. He strummed his fingers absently on the strings of his guitar, silently sulking.
April seemed to know that he was not up for company because she stood from the porch and went back inside, her fingers brushing his shoulders as she left. Tate felt kind of guilty about their short interaction but there was nothing new there. Lately, almost all of his interactions with April left him feeling uncomfortable.
His friends did not leave him sulking for much longer. He heard the telltale rumble of a motorbike engine making its way up his street and he was quick to put his guitar down. He raced down the driveway, ready to open the gate for his first guests of the day, not including his April, who had been there since before the party was meant to start at the crack of dawn. Tate wasn’t entirely sure why April had arrived so early since she wasn’t able to help with the preparations. Still, he supposed the girls that your parents wanted you to marry were meant to have those sorts of perks.
The motorbike rumbled in and onto the driveway, Elaina and Richard. They came to a smooth halt and Elaina hopped off, followed by Richard. Tate forced himself to wait until they had removed their helmets before he went over to give them each a hug, starting with Elaina.
“Hey, are we the first to arrive?” She asked as she hugged him back.
Tate was saved from having to answer the embarrassing question by the arrival of April. She took over, pulling Elaina into a hug as he turned to give Richard one. The fact that they were the first to arrive was not what made it embarrassing. It was that they were the first to arrive and they were an hour late.
“This guy has been losing his mind a little,” April was saying to Richard. “He thought that you guys weren’t going to be able to make it.”
“Sorry, man,” Richard said. “We hit traffic that we did not anticipate.”
“Not to mention we were making a pasta salad to bring along and we kind of forgot to buy pasta first so by the time that the water had boiled, guess who had to run to the store?” Elaina added.
Tate laughed. “Why am I not surprised?”
Richard and Elaina were generally very good at both planning and sticking to plans. On the odd occasion that they did not have everything right down to the dotted I’s and crossed T’s, they really didn’t. There was no in between for them.
Tate was just relieved that they were there.
“So where is everyone?” Richard asked. He had reached into the compartment beneath his bike seat and pulled out two bags.
“A few people were unable to make it,” April said, answering before Tate had a chance.
“My family is inside getting stuff ready if you want to go say hello.” Tate reached over to take one of the bags out of Richard’s hands. “I have another friend coming by for a bit but he won’t be able to stay long. He has to pick his wife up from the airport.”
The friend in question, Tyler, showed up while they were all inside exchanging pleasantries and small talk with Tate’s family. Richard and Elaina had brought a rather large selection of board games for everyone to play. They were probably Tate’s nerdiest friends but he loved them for it. He was excited to try out the new games with them.
Tate had never been the sort of person who went out clubbing nor had massive parties with beer kegs all over the place. He was content to have a good old-fashioned barbecue with his family, some good friends, and either a console or board games in the case of Richard and Elaina.
By the time that everyone had greeted his family, they were all chased out of the kitchen and told to go and have a good time. Tate had been given permission to start up the grill so Richard and Tyler helped him move it out of the garage where it was stored. He had poured in the charcoal and set it alight. While they waited for it to get hot enough, the five of them sat around the patio table and started playing one of Richard’s card games.
It was some kind of fantasy, turn-based game and Tate sucked at it. It was pretty clear that Richard and Elaina played the game quite often because they were the last two people still playing and it had gotten pretty intense. Tate could not help but laugh while watching them because they were both so competitive. More than once, Elaina swore at Richard for making a specific play. She was like a sailor when it came to playing games.
Unfortunately, Tyler only had time for the one game so once Elaina beat Richard, something Tate was convinced Richard had let her do, Tyler announced that he would have to be off. Tate was slightly disappointed that his birthday gathering was such a small one and already one of the people who had shown up was leaving but he went to let Tyler out and thanked him for coming through.
“So, would it be cool if Lee came by?” Richard asked when Tate returned to the backyard.
“Yeah, he’s one of the guys I work with. You met him once.”
Tate did not need reminding. He remembered Lee quite well. The two of them had only met on one occasion but it wasn’t something that he would be forgetting any time soon. It wasn’t because anything of significance had happened that day. Rather, Lee had had an effect on Tate that he still could not quite fathom.
The day that the two of them had met had been unplanned. Tate had dropped by the bookstore where Richard worked, there to pick up one of the books that he had ordered in, and he bumped into Lee. The two of them had hit it off instantly. It was like their souls had collided.
That sounded dramatic when Tate thought about it but that was what had happened. They were on the same wavelength as soon as they met. Tate felt that it was because of their creative flows.
Lee worked at a bookstore as a means to make a living – what he really wanted to do was pursue his dream as a performing artist. He had studied theatre, majoring in musical theatre. Tate worked as a retail assistant– what he really wanted to do was pursue his dream as an author. He wrote several fictional genres, specializing in horror oddly enough.
“I remember Lee,” Tate said in what he hoped sounded like a nonchalant tone of voice. While he spoke, Tate stoked the flames of the barbecue. It was about time that they started grilling. “He wants to come to my birthday party?”
“I mentioned that you were having a party and he kind of jokingly acted like he was offended that you didn’t invite him, so I said I would ask.”
“Dude, Lee is welcome to join us. The more the merrier.”
Richard smiled. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and he was already typing away when he said, “Cool, I’ll let him know.”
For a little while, everything was rather quiet. Tate was content to have his friends around. They were sitting outside while he began to grill the meat, all of them with a drink in their hand. The thing that Tate loved most about his friends was the way that there never seemed to be an awkward moment – even when they sat together in silence, it was a comfortable one. The only one who seemed to be a bit out of place was April, but that did not surprise Tate.
“Hey dude,” Richard said about twenty minutes later. Tate was about to put the second selection of meat onto the grill. “Lee just got here. If you throw me the keys, I can go and let him in.”
Tate reached into his back pocket and tossed Richard the gate keys just as Richard had put his beer down on the patio table, beside the game that they had yet to put away again. Richard caught them with one hand and then he sprinted into the house, disappearing from sight. Tate’s house was pretty massive but that was because it wasn’t his house and his parents had amassed fair amount of wealth over the generations. It was easy to get lost if you hadn’t visited before. Someone had to guide Lee.
When they joined the rest of the party outside, Richard and Lee were deep in conversation. As they got closer, Tate overheard part of their conversation. “So, I need that shift covered because the final hour interferes with the first hour of the poetry slam,” Lee was saying.
“Sure, dude. No problem. I got you.”
The two of them finished their talk and Richard took his place back in his seat, picking his beer up and taking a swig. Lee caught sight of Tate behind the grill and a smile lit up his face. He raced over to him and unabashedly pulled the other man into a hug. Tate was surprised at first but he quickly reciprocated, embracing the man who had come to his birthday even though they were practically strangers. He could not help but notice that Lee smelled really good.
When Lee pulled back, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small envelope. “Happy birthday, Tate.”
“Ah, man,” Tate said. “You really didn’t have to get me anything.”
“Nonsense. It’s your birthday. Besides, it isn’t much.”
Tate didn’t care what it was. He was grateful. He hadn’t expected anything at all. He opened the envelope and inside there were two things; the first thing was a gift card to spend at the bookstore where Richard and Lee worked, and the second was an invitation to some kind of event called a poetry slam. Tate didn’t know much about poetry or poetry reading but he knew that he was going to be attending this one.
It was the same one that he heard Lee speaking to Richard about. He needed a shift covered in order to attend the event. Tate wasn’t sure if Lee was going to be merely attending or if he was going to be performing but, for whatever reason, he didn’t feel comfortable asking.
“Thank you so much, Lee. These are awesome. I will definitely be going to this poetry slam thing.”
Lee chuckled at that. “Poetry slam thing,” Lee repeated.
“Well, that’s what it is. Isn’t it?”
That only made Lee laugh again and Tate felt his cheeks warming in response. “Yeah, I suppose it is.”
“Here you go,” Richard said suddenly, interrupting their conversation, which was basically over. Richard handed Lee an already opened beer.
While he was preparing the meat, Tate found it difficult to take his eyes off Lee. The man had an endless stream of charisma. He seemed impossible not to get along with. Soon Richard, Elaina, and April were laughing. Tate was laughing too and every so often Lee caught his eye and grinned or wiggled his eyebrows or winked.
By the time the food was finally done, the rest of Tate’s family had joined them outside. The table was lined with food of all kinds. There were two roasting pans full of the meat that Tate had prepared and several bowls full of a variety of salads from Greek salad to quinoa salad to pasta salad and everything in between. The table, down to the people who were sitting at it, was a perfect blend of people from different cultures and backgrounds coming together and Tate could not help but think that it was rather beautiful.
Most of the people were silent as they ate. For Tate, he was simply happy that everyone was together. He was kind of nervous that, no doubt due to the different backgrounds, someone might say something that caused the rest of the table to have an adverse reaction.
In his case, he had been thinking about a tiny spider that was probably crawling along the shower door at that very moment. Lee had no such qualms. He was perfectly happy to bring up the elephant in the room and Tate got the feeling that he didn’t even know how big a deal that was.
“This is the first time I’ve been at a barbecue where the crowd has been one that was so diverse.” Lee smiled over at Richard and Elaina and it was obvious that he was referring to their race and the color of their skin. “I think that it is pretty amazing so congratulations to you guys for keeping such open minds that has allowed us to reach this point.”
To Tate’s surprise, no one got upset with Lee. In fact, there was a murmur of agreement from Tate’s family members and both Richard and Elaina were beaming at Lee. The only person who seemed as shocked as Tate had been, seemed to be April and she looked downright uncomfortable at Lee’s honesty.
Lee’s presence at his party made it that much better and he was so glad that he had friends like Richard and Elaina. If it weren’t for them, he would not be there. Hell, if it weren’t for Richard and Elaina, Tate would probably be celebrating his birthday on his own and that meant no celebration at all.
“Here’s to having accepting friends,” Tate said, raising his beer.
It meant the world to him when his friends raised their drinks to him, even if they didn’t really realize the implications behind it.