# 84 – PDAs and Frosting Knives

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“You gonna tell me my name?”  Michael was crouched in front of the oven, looking as if he was about to attack the turkey with the baster.

“Your name?”  Liza stared at the unfrosted cake, waiting for inspiration to strike.

“Yeah, this morning you said to ask you what you nicknamed me,” he said, closing the oven door and leaned against the counter.  There was an amused look on his face.

“Oh.  Mick.  I nicknamed you Mick.”  Liza smiled.  “You know, Burgess Meredith’s character from the Rocky movies.”

Michael let out a laugh that sounded like it was part cough.  “Jesus Christ!  Burgess Meredith!”  He crouched back down to look at his reflection in the oven door.  “Yeah, alright.”  He stood up and rubbed a hand over his face.  “I guess living outside does that to you.  Ya know, when I was young, I looked more like Drago.”

Liza stifled a laugh.  He wasn’t kidding.  Hmm…  Michael had fair skin and light eyes.  He’d probably been blond.  There was the big square jaw like Dolph Lundgren.  He would be a decent height if he wasn’t so stooped.  She could kind of see it.  Liza tried to imagine what Bruce would look like in ten years if he continued to live this way.  “Michael, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”  A little cigar appeared in his mouth.  He lit it on the stove.

“Homeless people…do some of them want to live that way?  I mean, I know it sounds like a stupid question, but Bruce…  I guess what I’m asking is, if someone offered them a place to live, would most of them take it?”

“You’re askin’ if I think Bruce would move in here with you,” said Michael.

Liza nodded.  “And you.”

“Me?”  Surprise registered on his face, then suspicion.  “Why would you want me here?”

Liza shrugged.  “Why not?  I like you, you’re Bruce’s friend, and I have the space.”

“This wouldn’t bother you?”  He puffed hard on the little cigar, creating a grey cloud around his head.  “Or this?”  He slid the bottle of Bird Dog out from behind the mixer.  “Or, how about this?”  He smiled wide, showcasing his single tooth.

“No, but it would bother me if you died alone in some alleyway while I lived in a house with empty bedrooms,” said Liza

Michael stared at her.  He walked over and whacked her on the back, softer than he had earlier.  “I’d…think about it.  You have to ask Bruce yourself.  I’m not tellin’ you anything you don’t already know by pointing out that he makes enough at his job to buy a place to live if he wanted.”  Liza nodded.  Michael looked like he was thinking.  “Ask ‘em.  Make sure he knows that you want him to stay.  Make sure he knows how you feel about him.”  Michael gave her a wide-eyed, pointed look.

Liza ran her hand over the pocket that held Bruce’s note.  She felt guilty for leaving him hanging.  He deserved it, but still.  Didn’t everyone fear not having a declaration of love met with an immediate reciprocal response?  Liza cringed at the thought of telling him that she loved him.  Romance novels were a secret pleasure of hers since she was a teenager, but she was no good at real life romance.  Public displays of affection, sappy greeting cards, weddings, and all things Valentine’s Day weirded her out.  So how was she going to do this?  She twirled the frosting knife between her fingers as she stared down at the cake.  Maybe she would take a page from Bruce’s book, you know, figuratively this time.   

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# 83 – Regret

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Pots, utensils, and food dishes in various stages of preparedness covered the surface of the counter and the table.  If kitchens had brains, hers was wondering if her parents had come back to life.  After walking off with Bruce’s note, Liza decided to be a big girl and not spend the rest of the day hiding out in her bedroom.  Instead, she was hiding out with Michael, who turned out to be a cranky tyrant in the kitchen.  The cranky part, at least, had improved when Liza presented him with the Bird Dog.

He was making turkey with pineapple stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, asparagus, and fresh rolls (So that was what the white hook that came with the mixer was for.).  Liza was chopping vegetables for a soup stock.  Michael had been appalled when he saw the frozen pie that Liza picked up at the market, but he let it go when she told him that she was also going to make a cake.

Liza hated to cook, but didn’t mind baking and loved to decorate cakes.  The chocolate pound cake that she made should be ready for frosting when she was done chopping.  Liza tried to think of a design, but Bruce’s note kept forcing its way into her head.  I LOVE YOU.

She knew that she loved Bruce a long time ago, but hadn’t considered actually telling him.  Michael probably wouldn’t get involved with Bruce if he was in her shoes.  Her mind had that conversation on an involuntary replay ever since.

She knew what he meant, as long as that was all that he meant.  Liza wasn’t as clueless as people thought.  She knew that a homeless guy was no catch, but that really didn’t bother her.  Liza wasn’t looking for someone to take care of her.  She had a house, a car, and a job that paid enough for her to cover her expenses.

What worried her was the part of Bruce’s story that she didn’t know.  She had tried to put it out of her head, but another conversation kept finding its way into her head.  When he thought that Bruce had taken a vacation, Smiley Jim…Professor Crozier had said that he deserved it after “everything”.  Her brain felt overloaded.  Jim and Michael yammered away while the woman and little girl from the picture looked on silently.

“What?!” barked Michael.  Liza must have been staring.  She shook her head and tossed the last of the vegetable pieces into the pot.  Michael stomped over to inspect her work, wiping his hands on a towel that dangled from his waistband.  He dug through the pot frowning.

“Good!” said Michael, flashing his tooth and whacking her on the back.  “Now…since I don’t want you ruining Christmas dinner with your mood.”  Liza raised her eyebrows.  He pretended not to notice.  “I’m gonna give you some unsolicited advice.  If you love him, then keep going.  You’re gonna have problems, but they’ll be nothing like the regret you’ll have to live with forever if you end it.”  Michael slid a bottle of Bird Dog from behind the mixer.  He took three huge gulps and then went back to his sweet potatoes.

# 82 – The Whole Astrology Thing

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If you buy into the whole astrology thing, you know that Cancers are ruled by their emotions.  This was true in Liza’s case.  Not only that, it usually took her a while to identify her feelings about something, so she was constantly caught off guard by her own reactions.

When Liza read Bruce’s words, she felt like she might burst into flames and pass out.  She didn’t, but neither did she respond in an appropriate amount of time.  Then she pulled a Bruce, sneaking a glance at him out of the corner of her eye.  He was staring at the notepad, working his tongue around the inside of his cheek.  She couldn’t think of anything to say.  Liza tore the page from the notepad and walked out of the room.

# 81 – More Paper

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Liza woke up this morning with her head resting on Bruce’s chest.  His arms were wrapped around her.  She lay there with her eyes closed, not wanting to get up, thinking about everything:  sitting in the garden before econ class, the parchment paper, Casey’s story, the econ paper, her escape from Brad, the past few days.  When she’d finally opened her eyes and peeked up a Bruce, she saw that he was watching her out of the corner of his eye.  His stare was intense.  Liza didn’t know how to interpret it.

Just then, Michael had stomped into the living room.  A little cigar dangled from the corner of his mouth.  He was wearing her mom’s old powder blue apron.  A lobster claw oven mitt covered each hand and he was holding a sizzling frying pan.  “Come on and eat.  You two can lay on the floor all you want later.  I need to clean up so I can start Christmas dinner, Liza needs to go to the supermarket before it closes, and you need to go invite Jake and Heath,” he said.

“It’s Sam,” said Liza.  “Jake and Sam.”

Michael stared at her from behind a haze of smoke.  He shook his head and stomped back to the kitchen.

“Oh, I get it.  Haha.  Real cute,” she said to his retreating back.  “Ask me some time what I nicknamed you.”

Liza tore through the supermarket and liquor store.  At home she deposited the groceries and four bottles of Bird Dog on the kitchen counter and went to find Bruce.  He was sitting at the desk in her drawing-room.  The crumbled papers had been flattened out and placed in a neat pile on the corner of the desk.  At the top of the pile was one of the many unfinished sketches of Bruce.  Liza cringed.  He sat bent over a yellow notepad, writing furiously with her fountain pen.  As she rounded the desk to stand next to him, he flipped the page and continued to write.  Then he sat back and slid the notepad toward her.

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# 80 – Peanut Butter and Beer

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Liza speed walked through the supermarket with Michael’s list.  It was good to be shopping for more people than just herself.  She felt compelled to buy things other than peanut butter and beer.  That reminded her, she needed to stop at the liquor store on the way home for Michael’s Bird Dog.

She was uneasy about contributing to his habit, but she wasn’t naive enough to think that she could stop him.  Anyway, he had done more housework in the past few days than Alice, Tony, and Mr. Belvedere put together, and he was cooking Christmas dinner.

Liza had come to enjoy Michael’s presence in the house, smoking and muttering included.  If Jake was the brother she never had, Michael was her long-lost father.  John had been nice, but they weren’t close.  He was just there, like the sofa or refrigerator.  But Bruce was different from anything.  There was nothing to compare him to.

# 79 – File Not Found

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Bruce plowed on.  “I’m sure you’ve guessed that I didn’t always live this way.  I know you want to know what happened,” Bruce said.  His voice was soft.  Deliberate.  He’d given this a lot of thought.  Liza looked over.  He was still looking at the ceiling.  There was a weird expression on his face.  He was somewhere else.

“No one…  I never… I, I don’t like to talk about it.”  Bruce was getting flustered.  He reminded Liza of a malfunctioning electronic, like an error message was about to pop up on his face.   “I’m not even sure how it happened.  Like how you’re a seventh semester freshman…  You make too many mistakes that you don’t know how to fix.  Suddenly you find yourself in a situation that would shock your old self.”  Liza was motionless.  “But…maybe we… maybe I can talk about it some day – if there is one.  I mean, if we stay friends, but, I’m not…  Please don’t worry about me.  I’m not an addict or anything…”

She’d never seen him this way before and she didn’t like it.  Liza wanted this conversation to end.  She wanted the old Bruce from the summer to come back, even if he didn’t want anything to do with her anymore.  It seemed like a simple question, but clearly it didn’t have a simple answer.  If the explanation taxed him this much, then she could wait to hear it.  He’d acknowledged that there was something that he wasn’t telling her.  That and the guardian angel thing were enough.  She decided right then to let it go.  He didn’t have to tell her, or he could tell her when he was ready.  She wasn’t going to ask again.  It would be hard.  She usually gave up when something got hard, but she wasn’t going to do that with Bruce.

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“I know,” said Liza.  “It’s okay.”  She reached out her hand.  Bruce looked at it for a second before reaching out and enveloping her hand in his long fingers.  He looked at her and smiled.  She smiled back and wondered if he remembered their date at the bookstore.  He must have, because just then he tugged her toward him by her hand, slowly, like he expected her to protest.  She didn’t think, just kissed him back.  They pulled the blankets and pillows on the floor and lay there holding hands.  Michael found them asleep like that a couple of hours later when he got up to make breakfast.

# 78 – Something Else

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Now Liza was staring and not saying anything.  It didn’t make sense.  Why would she end it?  She couldn’t think with his with his big dark eyes boring into her, so she went back to staring at the ceiling.

Once he was out of the hospital and feeling better, she would have pressed him for an explanation about what had happened at the underpass.  He was afraid that she wouldn’t want to see him if he told her that he was homeless.  That made sense, though it wouldn’t have been the case if he had just told her.

There was something else.  What he really didn’t want to tell her was why he was homeless.  She ran through the possibilities:  drugs, alcohol, gambling problem, mental disorder, criminal record.  Bruce wasn’t exactly straight-laced, but none of these seemed right.  Plus, any one of them would probably preclude him from being able to land or keep his job.  Maybe it had something to do with the woman and the little girl from the picture in his office.  Hmm…a bad divorce settlement?  Child support?  Liza used to do payroll.  The garnishments could be ridiculously high, but a university dean should still make more than enough money to afford some place to live.  Besides, if that was the case, he wouldn’t have a picture of both of them.

What then?  Did it matter?  If any of those were the real reason, did she still want to be his friend?  Would she go out with him again if she had the chance?  Maybe.  Liza realized that although she wanted to understand how he came to be in this situation, that wasn’t what was really bothering her.  “Why did you just disappear on me after you left the hospital?” she asked the ceiling.

“I told you,” he said.

“You couldn’t have said something to me?”

“I thought it would be better that way.”

“You mean easier.  For you,” said Liza.

Bruce flipped on his back and stared up at the ceiling with Liza.  “Better and easier, for both of us.”  Bruce rubbed his neck and sighed.  “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you that I’m currently homeless.  I didn’t set out to hide it from you.  I guess…It’s one of those things that you don’t want to tell someone when you first meet them, but after a while it feels like you’ve waited too long.”

Liza mulled this over.  It was hard to decide when to break out your dirty laundry in a new relationship.  You didn’t want to scare people away before they got to know you, or wait too long and be seen as deceitful.  Liza had experienced the same thing; not with any issues as major as Bruce’s, but she could understand.  “Okay,” she said.  “But I wish you’d given me a chance.”