It turned out the phone call wasn’t that bad. Most of the time when people called Oz Books, it was to ask what books they had in stock or could possibly order. The former was easy; Max had a pretty good mental map of the bookstore and its contents. The latter was a hassle, requiring a fight to the death with the universally archaic system, a series of ones and zeroes that probably predated the concept of the written word and was as likely to spit out an error message as it was a clear answer. But to his relief, the person on the other end of the line wasn’t looking for information about the latest romance novel and its price in the three languages in which it had been released or the availability of obscure Russian poetry.
It was his friends. They’d called towards the end of closing time deliberately. Not because they wanted to extend his time inside badgering him for information. It was much worse than that. Once upon a time, Max had regularly seen his friends. He’d gone to see them once a week, spending time together on weekends where they’d hang out in someone’s living room until the sun came up, talking about lots of nothing and laughing. That was a long time ago, when he’d still had the energy to go out. His role in the group as the Token Cisgender Heterosexual Guy had been hard-won, but he’d proven himself to be an ally in all respects, and he had occasionally been jokingly referred to as “one of the girls”.
These days he didn’t really feel like he could, anymore. Sure, part of it was how much energy he had. He found that more and more things that used to be easy had become boring, or draining, and the thought of going out, of leaving the apartment, was almost terrifying. Even thinking about it sapped the energy from his limbs, and he would drag himself to bed, scrolling through various social media apps until his eyelids got too heavy.
But there was more to it than that. His friends were, of course, more than just queer. They were activists and writers and moms and so on. They had their lives and identities. But what had brought them together and had kept them so closely knit throughout the years was the fact that they had found family in each other and had seen their queerness in each other. He’d only sort of stumbled into it through an ex. The breakup had been bad and the group had descended on Max like a pack of overbearing, friendly wolves, and adopted him as their little token straight.
He felt like he didn’t fit, not really. Sure, to some extent he could relate to some of their experiences, but that was by virtue of his politics, his resistance to his mother’s outright bigotry. His experiences, his life, had not been marked by rejection from society. Not the way theirs had been, and he felt fake whenever he felt he could relate to their experiences. He felt like an outsider, and that it was only a matter of time before he fell out with the group. And so he’d started to distance himself a bit, to lessen the blow when they inevitably got tired of him and told him that, nothing personal, but they preferred being around people they could more personally relate to and his presence was intrusive on their space or something.
They still called him, from time to time, to check up on him, but he felt like it was something they did out of obligation from time to time, and this time, he felt, was no different. The girl on the phone was someone he wanted to call a friend, but couldn’t. He’d once made the mistake of calling someone a good friend, only to be corrected by that person, and he’d never made the mistake of an assumption like that again. Remy was a good person, though, and he doubted that she would do something like that, but he didn’t want to put her in the awkward position of having to pretend that she actually liked his company.
“Look,” Remy said, her slight French accent slipping through, “we are all just worried about you, Max. We haven’t seen you in months, and it’s clear something is bugging you.” Max sighed. He wanted to believe her, but he couldn’t help but feel like her checking up on him was something she felt she had to do. And even if she didn’t do it out of frustrated or resigned obligation -- she genuinely was a good person -- he wasn’t really worth the effort and he knew it. He was scared that she knew it too, but he wasn’t going to, well, say anything. He appreciated the effort, at least.
“I’m okay, Rem. I just… I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, and I’m just… so low on energy lately. Just don’t really enjoy things a whole lot anymore…” His voice petered out as he realized that he’d said a little too much if he didn’t want Remy to be too worried. It was too late, now. He could probably walk some of it back? Maybe?
“That sounds like a depression, Maxim,” she said. Her accent made it sound like she pronounced his chosen name as ‘Maxime’, but he never had it in him to correct her. It was cute to have a nickname, even if it wasn’t gendered correctly. After he’d left his mother’s house for the last time, he’d felt so utterly removed from his heritage, the name and identity he owed his family. And his friends had encouraged him to try out a new one. “After all,” they’d said, “if trans people get to choose a new name when they reinvent yourself, why wouldn’t you?” He’d seen the logic in that argument, and Max, or Maxim, had been born shortly after, and he’d never heard his old name from any of their lips ever again, as if they’d sworn a pact. They were better friends than he deserved, he knew.
“I know. I swear I’m fine. It’s just a dip,” he said in a soothing voice, hoping she’d pick up on it. He could hear her ‘hum’ on the other end of the line and realized he wasn’t going to get away with it that easily.
“Are you seeing a therapist, at least?” He sighed, turning away from the microphone so she couldn’t hear. “You know I can recommend a very good one if you aren’t still. If you tell her I sent you, she’ll probably give you a few free sessions.”
Max wanted to say yes. Sort of. Everyone in the group had a therapist. Most people, Remy included, went to see the same therapist, a woman who was roughly their age who had specialized in queer issues and generalized anxiety. “That would be lying, Remy. She’d just take me on because she’d think I’m a queer friend of yours.” She started to protest, so he pushed through with a lie. “I promise I’ll talk to someone. I just need to get my bearings again.”
“What’s… I just… We’re here for you, Maxim. You’re a part of our family too,” she said. Max squeezed his eyes shut, feeling a lump in his throat. He hadn’t expected her to lie this way, and it had taken him off guard. He took a deep breath to keep his voice from breaking when he opened his mouth again.
“I -- That’s very kind of you to say, Remy. I promise I’ll… Yeah. I’ll talk to you later. I have to close the shop,” he said, hoping the original intention behind the call would have been forgotten. No such luck.
“Look, it’s Friday. We’re getting together again. Just six of us, box of wine, snacks…” She let the sentence play itself out, promising a wonderful night with people he’d feel like he was deceiving for not being good enough.
“I’m not… I don’t know, Remy. I don’t think so. It’s Friday, like you said. I’m very tired and I just want to go to bed.” He heard her sigh again, but there was a sense of resignation that she was giving up.
“We’ll miss you,” she added. Max felt guilty, he could feel the defeat in her voice. He didn’t want to let her down, but this was genuinely better for everyone. This way he didn’t get his hopes up before they were dashed, but he also didn’t have to feel like he was invading queer spaces he didn’t belong in, especially considering the fact that, with one other exception who wasn’t around a lot, the group was primarily women, trans or cis, and he felt uncomfortable with how easily they’d let him into that space. It wasn’t his, and he felt like a gross intruder every time. This was better for everyone.
“Thank you,” he said, not believing her. “Have fun tonight!” he added with forced enthusiasm, and hung up. He still needed to actually close the store. He had planned on closing up while he’d been on the phone, but Remy had a disarming quality to her voice that made it very hard to tune her out. She’d been training to be a social worker for a reason. She was just… good with people.
But that did mean he still had to sweep up before he could begin closing the doors and counting the register. James Oz had made it clear to Max when he’d first started working there that, if the numbers were all in order and he wasn’t skimming off the top, it didn’t matter all that much on which days he did the register. When Max had first applied, before he’d known just how much money James and Mary had saved up, he’d mostly been confused at how callous they seemed to be about this source of income. After a few months, he’d realized that Oz Books was losing money. Not by much, and they broke even about half the time. But it was trickling dollars and cents every month. He tried not to think about the possibility that his attitude, his lack of energy, was partially responsible for that. When he’d brought it up, James had just winked and told him not to worry about it, and that it wouldn’t cut into his wages. Max had shrugged. He preferred old people who didn’t care about money over the ones who obsessed over it. But he himself found it important to do his due diligence, and counted the income every day.
He took the broom from the store room and got ready to do a quick sweep of the store when the little bell above the door rang, reminding him that he’d forgotten to lock up first. He looked up, about to say something, but the air was sucked out of his lungs by virtue of the woman that had just walked in. She was tall and her very big hair was done partially up. She wore a brown leather jacket that didn’t hide the fact that she was muscular in a way that made him feel insecure in a very good way.
What had really taken his breath away, however, was the way she looked. She had an air of comfortable confidence to her, like she was exactly where she wanted to be at all times, a feeling he couldn’t even imagine having. She looked like she knew who she was and had done for a long time. But most importantly, she looked at him with a smile. It was a warm smile, a smile that he immediately regretted having seen because he knew that, from that point on, he would do what he could to see it again, and would probably never be good enough for it. It was a smile that was dazzling at first glance, and when Max realized it played in her eyes too, he was already lost.
“Are you still open?” she asked. “I tried calling last week?” Max vaguely remembered a voicemail. His brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
“Eh…” he said, words coming as easy to him as anything else had in the past few months, and he cursed his now-completely absent vocabulary internally.
She smiled at him again, unaware of the damage she was doing. “I’m looking for some textbooks I ordered,” she said. “My name is Victoria.”