Can This Be Real

an excerpt

Chapter One

", it's Zack--uh...Man, I just wanted to call and see how you're doing. Okay? Call me. Sorry, this blows. Hang in there. Call me back."

"Chris, Zack again. Look, I know you probably don't want to talk to anyone, but--look... I'm here okay? Call me."

"Chris? Are you there...?"

"I called your mom, Chris. Really? You need to let someone in the family know you're still alive...Shit! I didn't mean that...Chris?"

"It's been a week, Christian. It's time to pull your head out of that excellent ass of yours and call someone. Anyone. Fuck. I don't even know if I want it to be me anymore, but it better be someone, and it better be soon..."

"Christian, I'm downstairs. If you don't open the fucking door this very minute I'm calling the cops and demanding a welfare visit followed by a seventy-two hour hold. I'm not kidding. This is ridiculous, I didn't fly all the way from Portland just to talk to your door. You have until the count of..."

The security door buzzed open.

* * *

The man that held open the door to apartment 506-B looked more vampire than executive chef. It didn't take much imagination to count the days since Chris's world had imploded. Ignoring the lack of welcome and Chris's fugue as evidenced by the dark beard crusting his usually fair cheeks, dark purple circles under red-rimmed eyes and unwashed clothes, Zack pushed by the man still leaning in the doorway and assessed the damage.

If his friend's physical deterioration wasn't enough of a tell, the reek of stale Chinese food from half-empty to-go containers abandoned within eye line of the front door would do it for anyone who knew him. Chris was fastidious when it came to the food he'd eat. To him, "fast food" was a meal that took less than an hour to prepare.

"You need a keeper." Zack couldn't help the disapproval flattening his tone. He'd told himself a thousand times on the redeye from Oregon that he wasn't going to overreact and judge. Fuck it. Judging was exactly what Chris needed.

"I'm fine."

Zack could feel his eyebrow trying to scrabble further into his hairline. A quick glance around told a different story. The living room was a minefield of wadded up newspapers and cardboard pizza boxes, but it was Chris's kitchen, usually his pride and joy, that was the last straw.

The sink overflowed with unwashed dishes. Even worse there was a pot encrusted with what looked to be week-old mac and cheese from a box, sitting in the middle of the floor, a spoon cemented upright in the hardened noodles, and empty beer bottles lolling next to the neon orange mess. Zack could only guess that Chris had sat leaning against the refrigerator to eat but instead finished off what looked like a six-pack of porter, understandable given a choice between the two.

It took him just a minute to finish the tour. Chris's apartment was typical of Manhattan where space was at a premium. What was billed as a one bedroom here would be laughed out of Portland. Maybe you'd call it a studio plus. The "bedroom" was just big enough for Chris's double bed with about a foot of clearance to move around it. The closet doors had been removed by necessity, freeing up space for the small dresser inside and leaving just enough room to hang a few suits and a handful of shirts. It was such a tight squeeze that Zack imagined Chris could get dressed without actually getting out of bed first.

"At least it won't take long to pack you."

"What?" Zack could hear the fatigue heavy in Chris's voice as it floated in from the front of the apartment.

"As far as New York is concerned, you, my friend, are toxic waste, and this place is a dump. One more week and you'd be living on Red Bull and Slim Jims and ordering cable which you can no longer afford. You have a job waiting in Portland."

"I don't wanna go to Portland. I live here." Chris leaned into the bedroom.

"This isn't living. Where's the rest of your stuff?" Most of the dirty laundry piled on the mattress was jeans and T-shirts, unwashed socks and boxers, not the wardrobe of a successful executive chef.

"Jordan's." All the weariness was instantly gone from Chris's voice, replaced by hard, flat pain. Zack moved then, grabbing Chris and folding him into an embrace.

"Leave Jordan to me. You have things to do--I made a list on the plane."

"Oh, you did, did you?" Chris muttered into Zack's neck.

"Yup. You always were such a drama queen. I knew you'd be a wreck. You need me."

"Yeah, I do."

"Yup. You do. You also need constant supervision. You'll get both those things on the West coast."

"Portland? Really? Couldn't you find me a job in L.A. or San Francisco? Someplace where they don't make you wear plaid flannel and know the difference between steak tartar and hamburger?"

"Seriously, Chris, people outside of Manhattan do eat and Portland is one of the hot spots for culinary genius and innovation."

"Since when?"

"Since I moved back. Now hop to, if you plan on playing the food diva you're going to have to smell a whole hellava lot better than you do now and I've only got two days before I have to fly home. It may take that long to scrape all the crud off you."