What It Takes

Levi likes Johnathan. A lot. He thinks he’s cute and funny and endlessly interesting. Johnathan thinks that maybe he might like Levi too, but he has a hard time believing that Levi likes him back, despite all the hints. Slowly, Levi begins to realize that if he wants to show Johnathan how he really feels, it'll require a much bolder move than his easy, soft spoken nature usually allows.

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5. Chapter Five: Beautiful Loser

    A few years ago, Levi considered torture to be bamboo shoots shoved under fingernails and archaic coffins with spikes jutting out from every surface. Torture was a physical pain. It could be withstood. Over the past year, however, Levi had found a new definition of torture as a pain of the mind. Torture was seeing Johnathan walk past him in the college dorms without even an acknowledgement, like he barely knew that Levi existed. Torture was watching Johnathan pine after Hayden, so subtle, yet so keen and heartbreaking in more ways than one.

    Now, torture had taken new heights. Not only were Johnathan’s attentions focused on someone other than Levi yet again, but, worst of all, this time they were reciprocated. At least with Hayden, Levi didn’t have to worry. Hayden would never even entertain the idea of cheating on Cyrus, and everyone knew that - Johnathan included. The only one hurt by the pining was Johnathan himself, and, well, Levi. 

    This was a thousand times worse. 

    Levi wasn’t sure whether it was a blessing or a curse that Johnathan currently wasn’t speaking to him. On one hand, it was horrible. Levi knew it was his fault, in a way, but having Johnathan mad at him, possibly hating him, was uniquely painful. But Levi had to acknowledge that, if nothing had happened to divide them, Johnathan might have talked to Levi about this girl. Rachel, was it? Or Raquel? It didn’t matter. Having to hear Johnathan admit that he was actually into her would almost be worse than the bamboo shoots. 

    Though, of course, Levi had to admit that, had they not fought, Johnathan likely wouldn’t have started seeing anyone. So, again, like everything else, that was Levi’s fault. 

    Levi sighed as he went over all of this in his head for the ten thousandth time. It had been four days since what he had un-affectionately dubbed “The Chopping Mall Incident,” and Levi still couldn’t stop thinking about what he should have done or what he should have said. It didn’t matter now. The damage was written in the lipstick stains hastily smeared on Johnathan’s cheek, or the whiff of perfume clinging to jacket. It was tearing Levi apart. 

    “Levi?” a voice broke through Levi’s whirlwind of thoughts. “Levi, are you with us?”

    “Yes, sir,” Levi replied quickly, his eyes snapping up from the tiles of the floor to the illuminated board on which an array of photos were pinned. 

    “What do you have to say about Amanda’s photo?” Professor Kent asked, lacing his hands together behind the small of his back and standing so that his stomach stuck out like half of an oversized bowling ball. He peered at Levi over his spectacles. 

    “Uh,” Levi said, looking frantically towards the board, trying to figure out which picture was Amanda’s. A boy who Levi was kind of friends with tapped on the third picture of the last row. Levi hoped his thanks came across in the grateful look he shot over. “I think the color contrast between the yellow rain boots and the bright blue of the sky’s reflection in the puddle gives it an almost whimsical effect,” Levi bullshitted. 

    Professor Kent looked towards the picture and pursed his lips, nodding thoughtfully. “Good observation. Moving on.”

    Levi managed to stay only half-zoned for the rest of class, barely noticing when the critique turned to his photo. He nodded at the criticism but forgot it as soon as his classmates stopped speaking. When at last the critique was over, Levi unpinned his photo without a word, then shuffled back to his desk, shoving it haphazardly into his bag. Slinging his backpack over his shoulder, Levi headed for the door with his head down.     “Levi,” Professor Kent said as Levi passed. “If you could stay a minute or two, I’d like to speak to you.”

    With a sigh, Levi paused at Professor Kent’s desk as the rest of the class filed out of the room. He looked after them longingly. “Yes, Professor?”

    “You seem off today. Is everything alright?” The older man’s white brows arched over his spectacles. 

    “Just tired,” Levi answered, hoping that would be the end of it. 

    Professor Kent leaned against his desk. “I only ask because I think your work today - both your photo and participation in the critique - weren’t up to your normal standards. You’re a very good photographer, Levi, and you have a keen eye. I hope you sort through whatever is causing you to be ‘tired’ before it does irreparable damage to your work.”

    Levi understood. He agreed. “I’ll work it out. The next assignment will be better. Thanks for your concern.”

    “Take care of yourself,” Professor Kent told him. 

    Nodding, Levi hurried from the room.

 

—[]—

 

    It was two days later that Levi came home in the late afternoon to find a surprise, and it wasn’t the happy kind. Levi knew something was up the moment he heard a high female laugh in the kitchen, growing louder as it moved towards the living room. He froze in the doorway of the house, listening. That wasn’t Char’s laugh. He wasn’t familiar enough with Natalie to be able to tell if it was hers, but something in his gut told him exactly whose it was. Dropping his bag by the door, Levi turned and headed right back outside.

    At first, Levi thought maybe he would take a walk, but then he realized that he didn’t really want to move. He stood in the driveway for a few minutes, considering, then settled for sitting behind the large tree that butted up against the neighbor’s fence. He was hidden from view of the windows of the house, so Levi wasn’t worried about Cyrus or Hayden seeing him, least of all Johnathan. Johnathan was currently pre-occupied. Sighing, Levi leaned his head back against the bark and closed his eyes. 

    After a few minutes of trying to escape his screaming thoughts, there was an actual voice beside Levi. He looked up as Char said, “Hey.” She paused. “Mind if I sit?”

    Levi shrugged, so Char took that as an invitation. She sat down next to him, staring at the peeling brown paint of the neighbor’s fence. “How’d you know I was here?” Levi said eventually after it didn’t look like Char was going to start talking any time soon. 

    “I saw you,” Char replied, as if it were obvious. “I came to visit Cyrus and Hayden. I live a few blocks down that way,” she said, pointing to the direction they were facing. “Plus, I mean, it’s not like you were expertly camouflaged.” Char smirked, sending a pointed look down at Levi’s bright blue and white shoes. He scowled. 

There was another long silence, which Char seemed content to let last. Levi appreciated that. After what seemed like an eternity of working himself up to it, Levi eventually said, as casually as he could manage, “So Johnathan has a girlfriend.”

    “So I hear,” Char replied. She reached up, gathering her long, dark hair into a quick ponytail. “Is that why you’re out here?”

    “Yeah,” Levi admitted. He suspected that she knew about his feelings for Johnathan. Char seemed to pick up on those things with more ease than most, and, for some reason, Levi was okay with her knowing. She felt… safe. Sympathetic, even. 

    “Do you want to talk about it?” Char offered. 

    Levi looked up, his eyes seeking out the blue of the sky between the leaves, and thought it over. “It’s my fault,” he said after a pause. “He’s angry at me.”

    “What did you do?”

    It took Levi a moment to pinpoint exactly what he had done. He knew he had made Johnathan mad, but it took a little bit of thought to remember just what it was that he had said to garner such a reaction. “I asked him if he was okay.”

    Char looked over, her brows furrowed. “What?” 

    Levi gave a half shrug. “We’re all worried about him. I asked if he was doing alright. He got defensive and wanted to know if something he had done had given the impression that he wasn’t.” Levi swallowed. “I said that he’d been shutting himself away more. He somehow took that and jumped to the conclusion that the only reason I was spending time with him was because I felt bad for him not having friends. He accused me of faking being bad at math so he’d help me.” Levi let out a dry laugh. “I really wasn’t, though. I’m probably gonna fail now.”

    There was another pause during which Levi waited for Char’s reaction. It was weird, summarizing it all like that. It somehow made it so much more clearer, and yet it seemed like that wasn’t the whole story. Levi felt like there was something he was leaving out, something else that he had done to piss Johnathan off that he was just forgetting. There had to be more of a reason behind the fact that they hadn’t spoken in nearly a week.

    “You know,” Char began slowly, “it seems to me like he overreacted quite a bit. I think you’re being a little too hard on yourself. All you were doing was checking up on him, like a friend should, and he jumped down your throat. I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that’s a sign that you struck a deeper nerve. That he’s not okay and he’s worried that you’re onto him.” Char looked over at Levi. “That’s probably why he’s doing this. This girlfriend thing. I mean, if I were him, my first move would be to convince you I was okay until you left me alone to go back to doing whatever I was doing before.”

    “That’s interesting insight, but I don’t know if it makes me feel better,” Levi admitted. “I don’t want to just pretend I’m not concerned about him anymore to get him to stop.”

    “It should make you feel better, though,” Char told him. “If I’m right, Johnathan’s not with this girl because he likes her. He’s with her as a mask. A cover. It won’t last, I promise. If anything, he was probably just worried about you getting too close. He was letting his guard down for you, and the moment things got a little too real, he threw those walls back up and pushed you away.”

    Somehow, that was kind of encouraging. Johnathan was just working through his problems; he didn’t actually hate Levi, not really. And if he didn’t like this girl either, well, that was certainly a plus.

    “How are you so sure?” Levi had to ask. 

    Char gave a little smile. “Johnathan and I are more similar than you think.” She paused, looking away from Levi, and out at the street. “I went through some stuff a few years ago. I won’t get into it, but I got through because I had people to help me. And now look, I’m happy, I’ve got Lee - who is annoyingly far away - but I’m doing great. Johnathan will get there too, but he needs people to help him. That has to be you.”

    Levi felt both emboldened and terrified at her words. “Just me? I can’t do that alone, especially since he’s mad at me right now.”

    “Well, who else? Hayden’s out of the question. I still think Johnathan’s too jealous of Cyrus on some level to bare his soul to him. I’ll certainly try to help, but I don’t think Johnathan’s ever really trusted me. We’re just sort of hangout-together friends. Not actual-conversation friends. You, on the other hand. You’re really good for him,” Char said, her voice earnest. “You actually care about him for him, no matter the problems he’s having right now. If you find a way to show him that and get him to trust you, that’ll go a long way.”

    Levi drew in a deep breath of fresh late-summer air, then looked over at Char. “You give really good advice. You should charge for your services.” 

    Char laughed, a light sound that was so different from the shrill, grating noise that Levi had heard come from the kitchen. “All I need right now is actors for a film project I’m working on. Advice in exchange for actors. Advice for Actors, I like that. Can you act?”

    Shrugging, Levi replied, “I don’t know. I’d certainly be willing to give it a shot though. For you,” he added with a brief smile. 

    Char smiled back. “Then I expect to be kept updated on the Johnathan situation, alright?” Levi nodded, and Char added, “I mean, to keep giving you advice of course, but also because I’m invested and I love to be in the loop.”

    Levi gave a quiet laugh. It was barely there, but it was  there. It was the first time he’d laughed in a few days, and it felt good. Char stood up, brushing off the back of her jeans. “I should go inside. Cyrus and Hayden will wonder if I’ve fallen in a ditch by the side of the road or something. You staying out here?”

    “Yeah, I think I’ll stay here for a bit. Thank you, Char. Really.”

    “No problem,” Char replied, “Enjoy your fence watching.”

    “Will do. Tell me what she’s like, yeah?”

    Char gave a small sigh. “I still don’t think you should dwell on it if there’s an 90% chance he’s not actually into her, but I will.” There was understanding in her gaze. “See you.”

    Levi heard Char’s footsteps get farther and farther away. He made out the sound of the front door closing, then leaned back against the tree trunk again. When he closed his eyes this time, he felt a little more peaceful than before, a little more optimistic. Levi hoped with everything he had that Char was right. 

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