Just Desserts

by Chris Stuck

Will and Nem’s incredible filmmaker friend, Kevin, was showing his latest work at their local independent theater, and Nem was saying they had to go. It was the night before Halloween, and they were in bed. Her laptop was propped up on her knees, and she was looking at Facebook. “He just sent the invite,” she said. “It looks like fun.”

“A film? What kind?” Will was fingering the remote, searching through one app after another on their streaming device. They’d recently gotten rid of cable. They’d unplugged, and their bills were so much lower now, but he had trouble finding good things to watch.

“His usual kind. You know what he does.” Their French bulldog, Daisy, was cooing and snorting between them like a piglet.

Will remembered Kevin made films but didn’t recall seeing any of them. Though he knew he must have. He’d probably been drinking when he’d seen them, which was why he couldn’t remember them now. “I thought he did industrial films, advertising, shit like that.”

Nem sighed. “You never remember anything right. He does his own stuff when time and money permits. Documentaries. Social issues. They’re good. Remember the one about the little people?”

Will didn’t remember at all.

“Well, we’re going. I already accepted.” She handed him his phone. “Now you have to.”

Will kept scrolling through dumb show after dumb movie after dumb documentary. He was having trouble starting new things now, too. There was so much stuff out there. Everything they tried to watch just wasn’t any good, though. What’d happened to shows? Didn’t they used to be good? He put down the remote and took the phone. “Can’t your acceptance cover us both?”

“No, you have to accept, too, so he knows you have an interest. C’mon, this is what people do. We need to get our social life back up and running.”

“Fine.” Will accepted.

“And leave a nice comment.”

He turned to Nem indignantly, but she was still reading from her computer with a smile. He looked back at his phone, at Kevin’s Facebook page and his earnest happy face. He was an energetic white guy, a perfect citizen. He was a good dude who never said anything weird around Will and Nem, or any other Black folks for that matter. He liked to talk about Black cinema, Blaxploitation, and Black issues with Will. Sometimes, Will’s other white friend, Rob, would be within earshot, Rob who they hadn’t even heard from in months, Rob who was kind of a dummy.

Even though Will still couldn’t remember Kevin’s films, he typed, “Hey, man, can’t wait, really looking forward to it.” He was about to log out, but then he saw his old friend Rob’s comment.

“This is gonna be spectacular! We’ll be in the front row! I promise you won’t have to call the cops this time. Haha.” Will rolled his eyes and thought, Oh, dude, fuck you. He logged out and tossed his phone to the end of the bed. He hated Facebook. It was for old people, like Rob. He looked back over at Nem, and she was still mesmerized by her laptop. Under the sheets, he touched her leg, imagining he was petting the serpent tattooed on her smooth thigh. He started to say something, but she held up her finger for him to wait.

“I’m reading this really good article,” she said. “Hold on.”

He asked what it was about. She parted her lips and took a while to say that she’d tell him in a second. In the end, she never told him. She just kept stroking Daisy’s belly. So, he turned over and went to sleep.

*     *     *

They’d recently quit drinking. They’d recently gotten their lives back on track. There were a lot of recentlies in their life. Nem had recently moved to a better job at a new engineering firm, and Will had recently decided not to leave his current one at a different engineering firm. Since they’d given up alcohol, two things had also happened: they discovered they really had no social life without it, and all their friends, except for Kevin, evidently were highly functioning alcoholics. All of them were overweight and extremely unhealthy. The men had beer bellies and man boobs, or what the jacked dudes at the gym called “bitch tits.” The women had muffin tops and thunder thighs and apron bellies. Not that there was anything wrong with that.

A third thing had happened to Will and Nem in sobriety, too. They’d taken up baking, him especially. They never ate sweets or desserts when they used to drink, but without all the sugar from booze in their diets, they craved cookies and pies and cakes now. Even still, for the last five months of abstinence, they worked out compulsively to ease the stress and anxiety of their now-boring, nondrinking lives.

They slimmed back down to their original weights. They felt better about themselves. Their sex life improved. They didn’t schedule their lovemaking. It happened spontaneously. When Will looked down, he could actually see his dick and not just his fat belly. They thought they’d meet new people, develop relationships with all the strangers at the gym, sober people, people who were healthy, who didn’t smoke or snort coke or occasionally inhale the vapor from a sizzling pile of meth through a straw now and again. But as the months wore on, it was obvious that wasn’t going to happen. The closest they came was with another Black couple at the gym who were both quite buff but used the word “fellowship” as a verb and openly said things like “God has a plan.”

*     *     *

Kevin’s film was being shown in mid-December. So naturally, Nem began to remind Will about it around Thanksgiving. He needed forewarning with things. Otherwise, he’d get cranky and feel put-upon when they were sprung on him. She and Will had a sober Thanksgiving that year. They didn’t invite any friends like they usually did. They drank tall glasses of water with slices of lemon and cucumber in them. They sat across from each other at their dinged up antique table, eating organic turkey, an amazing spinach and squash gratin, roasted potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. In their drinking days, only months ago, all of it would’ve been paired with cocktails and then a few twenty-dollar bottles of Pinot and then more cocktails and a joint and a bump and a vicious hangover the next day.

“You know Rob will be at the movie,” Will said.

“I know, and it’s a film.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I don’t know, but I think Kevin prefers his work to be called films.”

“Okay,” he said. “You know fucking Rob will be at the fucking film, then.”

She brought a forkful of potatoes to her mouth, and her teeth scraped audibly against the tines.

“So what?”

Will looked down at his food and moved things around.

“We can avoid him,” she said. “We can get there late and sit in the back. We can leave early.”

They’d made a Banoffee pie for dessert. It was sitting on the kitchen counter. Will peered over his shoulder at it, craving the sugar.

“You miss him, don’t you?”

“Hell no.” He and Rob had been drinking buddies, barhopping buddies. They used to get stoned and go see old kung fu movies at the same theater that would be showing Kevin’s film. Once a week, the theater had a ’70s and ’80s martial arts action movie night, and Will and Rob would be there, high and drunk, without fail, snickering like teenage boys at all the movies from their youth. They were both in their forties now and didn’t have kids, didn’t want kids. It was all the entertainment they desired.

“You probably miss all those movies, don’t you?”

“Films?” he said.

Her eyes smiled back at him.

“Actually, I don’t.” He and Rob had been movie buddies for so many years that the theater had started recycling all the ones he and Rob had already seen. “Those movies aren’t really that great unless you’re drunk and high. Besides, there are only so many of them.” He drowned his turkey with more gravy. “What about you?”


“Yeah.” He smiled. She always tried to seem so together, as though she didn’t feel the same way about Rob and Rob’s other half, Nikko. “You and Nikko were just as tight as me and Rob.” While he and Rob were at movie night, Nem and Nikko took a series of French classes together and then ended up at one wine bar or another, maybe even a male strip club. “If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t have this stinky little devil.” He motioned down at Daisy, who was curled up on her dog bed, cooing, what their vet said was a self-consoling thing animals did.

“It wasn’t because of her. We both developed an interest in Frenchies at the same time.”

Will knocked back the rest of his water, looking at her over the cucumber and lemon slices floating in his glass. “Yeah, but they had theirs first.”

“Yeah, but theirs really is a devil. Daisy is a sweetheart. We got lucky with her.”

It was true. Rob and Nikko’s Frenchie, a boy named Herc, pissed all over their house, terrorized their cat, and gnawed the legs of all their furniture like they were cobs of corn.

Will and Nem finished their plates in silence.

Rob and Nikko were technically their closest friends, but so many other couples were, too. Will and Nem were tight with a number of people they’d met at their local bar down the street. They’d all become friends with the owners and their significant others as well. Years and years and years passed in drunken bliss. But then the bar went under. One of the owners had to go to rehab. A coffee shop opened in the bar’s old space, and it seemed something changed in Will and Nem’s life. They didn’t want to drink anymore. They never heard from Rob and Nikko or any of their other bar friends. Will and Nem felt as though they’d wasted all those years boozing and being chummy with people who, it turned out, weren’t that loyal and were all still boozing without them, ruining their bodies. With Rob and Nikko especially, though, Will and Nem felt like they’d been ghosted.

He was waiting for the right time to egg her on. Though they weren’t saying anything about it now, it was clear they were both thinking about it, reliving all those good times and being baffled at the sudden lack of contact, the cord that had been cut. What had happened? Since Rob was white and Nikko was Japanese and Will and Nem were Black, at the height of their friendship, they all felt as though they were part of a unique racial union. Sewn into their bond was perfect harmony and love and the spirit of that old Coca-Cola song from their childhoods.

Will cleared his and Nem’s plates and took them into the kitchen. He turned on their electric kettle and heated up water for tea. He sliced two hefty pieces of Banoffee pie. “I don’t know. I thought we really connected with them.” Out the kitchen window, he looked in the yard and saw their overgrown Rhododendron.

“That fucker Rob was even supposed to trim our yard for us, remember?”

Nem scowled, and he was happy to see it. He didn’t want to be in this alone. When they were still drinking, over a particularly wine-soaked dinner, Rob, a former landscaper, said he would trim all their stuff nicely, do a real pro job since Will sucked at it. They knew Rob didn’t really mean it at the time, but later, sober, he kept saying he would do it. He meant it, or at least seemed to. They even said they’d pay him. They didn’t want him to feel burdened, though, so they also gave him a couple chances to back out. “You sure? You don’t have to if you don’t want to. Really. We can just hire someone.” He said he was sure. He was adamant. So, Will and Nem thought for once he wasn’t bullshitting. But then the bar closed, and everyone they knew split off from them.

Nem sucked her teeth. “Yeah, but you know Rob turns into a liar when he drinks. So does Nikko. They’re both full of shit.”

“I mean, damn. We had them over a million times. They had us over. We helped them move, for shit’s sake. I watched their mean dog when they went on vacation that one time, and the little shit bit me, remember? Doesn’t that mean something?” Will shook his head and took a bite of pie. It was the best he’d ever made. “I listened to him talk about how ashamed he was about his racist parents. I was practically his therapist. I mean, like, what the fuck?” He shook his head and lifted his mug and blew on his chamomile tea.

“And it’s not like we haven’t tried to touch base with them.”

Will nodded passionately. “I texted him a bunch of times. Nothing. No radio contact.”

“Same here. Bubkes.” Nem narrowed her eyes. “Now that I think about it,” she said, licking cream and caramel from her spoon. “They were both kind of oblivious and just into their own shit, Nikko especially. I could never stand her. Why were we even hanging with them?”

After dessert, they went to bed and made love for an hour and a half, their longest session ever. First, she was on top and then he was, and then they were on their sides, and then she was in front and he was behind, pumping against her great ass. Then they spiced it up even more by strapping themselves into this really elaborate sex swing they’d purchased online and had set up in the guest room.

Without alcohol dulling their libidos, they’d discovered a creativity in their lovemaking that they never knew was possible. They had better sex now than when they were in their twenties. Still, when it was over, they found themselves in bed, eating more dessert, her on her laptop and him searching their streaming device for a good show to watch, both of them thinking of their old friends who had somehow vanished, their old friends who, Will and Nem believed, had stolen something essential from their lives.

*     *     *

In the two-week run-up to Kevin’s film night, Will and Nem exercised extra-hard, laid off the sweets and sugar in their tea and even dropped five pounds each. They ate only salads with tofu and superfoods and drank so much water that they both had to take three leaks in the middle of the night. The skin on their faces thinned. Their cheekbones began to show themselves. They both noticed their shoulder muscles starting to bulge, and Will saw more and more veins popping out on his biceps and chest. Nem jokingly said he was beginning to look like an erect penis, and he took that as a compliment.

They fucked all the time now. They were having increasingly nasty sex. They incorporated porn and toys and wonderful-smelling lubricants that warmed from friction. Nem got oodles of kudos from her new colleagues and found a few mistakes in some crucial designs that would’ve cost the company millions. In her spare time, she finished painting all the accent walls she’d been meaning to change in the house. She hung some really expensive designer wallpaper in their bedroom, completing the job in one day without stinking up the room or making them have to sleep in the guest bed for a night or two. She harvested all the fall and winter veggies they’d planted in their tiny yard when they first stopped drinking. They made all kinds of interesting dishes with them, squash soups, cauliflower steaks, and pots and pots of braised greens.

Will pushed himself at work and finished a large project a month ahead of schedule. His boss was thinking of making him partner. In his spare time, he made elaborate desserts and gave them away to their neighbors. One night, after more sex, he looked at Facebook and saw Rob and Kevin had become good buddies and started cycling together. They’d posted themselves in their tight, ridiculously colorful cycling spandex, looking like Tour de France reenactors or something. What a couple of dweebs!

As a treat, Will took a week off of work and helped Nem around the house. He trimmed all their trees and bushes like Rob was supposed to. He got their two vintage Triumph motorcycles back up and running, rebuilding the carburetors and wheels, adding new inner tubes and tires. He polished all the engine covers and repainted the fenders and gas tanks, putting some slick matching flames on each. There were no hiccups in any of their tasks. Nothing broke or didn’t fit right. It was as though they were good at these things and had just forgotten, as if all their boozing had held them back. As a prelude to sex, they took their bikes for rides around town after dinner every night, cruising next to each other, blipping their throttles at stop lights just to hear how good their engines sounded. They thought they’d finally moved on and gotten back to the people they used to be before they’d met all their stupid drunk friends. They’d high-five each other just before the light turned green and then they’d peel out, zooming home over the asphalt, anticipating the near-endless love they were about to make.

*     *     *

The night of the film was rainy, and Will and Nem did exactly as they’d planned. They showed up late. They turned into the secret alley behind the theater where they usually parked, but there was a gold luxury SUV already parked there, with a vanity plate that said ROBNNIK. “Oh, Jesus,” Will said. He and Nem had discovered this secret alley years ago and had showed it to Rob and Nikko, and now of course they were parking here, as if they’d discovered it themselves.

“I guess we don’t really own it,” Nem said. “It’s not our alley.”

“Yeah, we’re being irrational, but still, screw them. Who buys a luxury SUV anyway? What a waste of money!” The alley was where he and Rob used to sit in his car and smoke joints before rambling into the theater to watch stupid movies. It was where Nem and Nikko parked, too, because of the little wine bar they frequented next to the theater. They liked that they could slip down the alley and drive home down backstreets, unseen by police cruisers, since she and Nikko were usually visibly soused when they left the bar.

“Pay it no mind,” Nem said to Will as they got out, as she opened her umbrella with the nice wood handle. “Bad memories. We aren’t those people anymore.” They went inside, and Kevin and his really nice partner, Shannon, were in the theater lobby. They greeted Will and Nem genuinely, as Will and Nem expected. Kevin and Shannon were upfront, unaffected people. They were good Samaritans. They volunteered at soup kitchens and food banks. There was no shame in their game. Seeing Kevin now made Will feel bad for thinking of him in his cycling gear as a dweeb.

As they stood there, Will noticed Kevin looked especially nervous.

“I have to give a speech,” he said.

Like a protective brother, Will squeezed his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. You got this.”

Kevin, who was a little shorter, looked up at him, a tiny bit of fear still in his eyes. “Thanks, man. I appreciate that.” His hands were shaking. He wrapped his arm around Will’s waist and pulled him close like a true friend.

Nem and Shannon kissed each other’s cheeks. “We really need to get together,” Nem said. “We haven’t been all that social since we stopped drinking, though.”

Shannon brightened up. “We haven’t been drinking either. Not a drop. I think we’re kind of done with all that. Thank God you are, too.”

Nem looked at Will with a satisfied expression that said, “See, they’re just like us. Aren’t you glad we came?”

“Well, we should leave you to it,” Will said, and Nem moved to his side. They held hands as they went into the main theater.

Since Kevin was a lesser-known filmmaker, the place wasn’t packed. It was all friends and family, which was nice. Will and Nem found two seats on the aisle right inside the door. They scanned the audience, seeing some familiar faces, people they knew in passing, people from the bar, people they’d had inebriated conversations with. Will and Nem nodded and smiled at them, flashed peace signs. It was eight o’clock, and they’d already had a nice vegan dinner at home. Sitting there, it was as though they could feel their organs functioning so much better, the blood coursing through their freed-up veins.

About ten rows up ahead, however, they finally caught sight of Rob and Nikko, who were sitting with a bunch of other people, people their age. Rob and Nikko were almost ten years older, and it seemed they were still true to their habits. They and their gang were all drinking beer and cramming handfuls of popcorn into their mouths. Will zoomed in on the back of Rob’s head, his shoulder-length wavy hair, and remembered all of his movements, the way his shoulders bounced as he talked, how he slurped his beer and always pumped his fist as though he were at a concert. The movie screen was still dark and the lights were still up and he was acting like some rock group was about to perform.

Nem watched Nikko speak to a woman sitting next to her, whirling her hand in the air, like she always did, as though she were explaining complex concepts, as though she were some scientist. In actuality, she was a dental assistant. The bitch was even wearing that expensive ass wooden barrette Nem had gotten her for her birthday one year. That shit cost, like, ninety-five dollars.

Will and Nem obviously hadn’t gotten there late enough because the film still hadn’t started. And now Rob was standing, moving out into the aisle. His clear plastic cup only had a swallow of beer left in it. He was folding up his empty popcorn bag. He’d always been a gorger. He was coming up the main aisle, looking around, and at first Will and Nem both wondered if he was looking for them. But he wasn’t. He was as tipsy and in his own world as he’d always been, as maybe they’d been, too. Who had they been oblivious to back then? Rob was now only five feet away, and he still didn’t see them. They hadn’t laid eyes on him in about six months, and now he looked like a stranger. He compulsively ran his hand through his hair, as he often did, front to back, front to back, his precious wavy hair.

Finally, Will just grabbed Rob’s shirt sleeve as he passed by. He tugged on it and said, “Hey, man. Remember us?” Nem wasn’t sure what Will would do next, but he just sat back. They both waited for Rob to answer.

“Oh, hey, old friends. How you guys doing?” More of him running his fingers through his hair. He almost seemed nervous, hopping from foot to foot, but they realized he just had to pee.

Will and Nem looked at each other. Surprisingly, the sound of his voice meant nothing to them. They realized they had moved on. “Not much. Just trying to be healthy,” Nem said.

Rob nodded, his eyes glassy with booze.

“Still drinking, I see.” Will chuckled. “When’s the baby due?”

Rob looked down at his empty beer and then ran his plump hand over his noticeable gut, smiling uncomfortably.

Will was mean for saying that, but who gave a fuck? He wanted to ask where Rob had been, to say, “And what’s your name again?” Guilt trip him for going AWOL. He didn’t have to, though.

Rob started lying his ass off. “You guys, Nikko and I got so busy after the bar closed. She thought we should start doing things as a couple. Solo,” he said. He seemed to forget that Will and Nem both followed them on every social media platform that existed. They’d seen Rob and Nikko were hanging with all kinds of people other than Will and Nem. But they didn’t care now. A switch had been flipped. They’d known Rob and Nikko for as long as they needed to. The relationship had run its course. Still, they were polite. They asked about their dog, Herc, and Rob said they’d had to rehome him, which wasn’t surprising. Rob and Nikko couldn’t stick with anything, let alone a pet.

Will and Nem held hands and nodded and said that was too bad. Rob didn’t even ask how their dog was doing. The theater lights flickered, and Kevin emerged from the shadows and made his way to the front. Rob eased off from Will and Nem and headed to the lobby. Kevin started stuttering and fretfully talking about his film, a documentary about an eighteen-year-old undocumented Mexican kid who’d come into the country with his parents as a toddler. His parents had more children and were now documented, but the son wasn’t. Somehow, he’d fallen through the cracks. He’d gone through school, was a star athlete, a good student, but he’d gotten picked up by immigration on a sweep at a construction site the first day of his very first job after graduation. It was so heartbreaking, and the film hadn’t even started yet.

While Kevin explained the production process, on Will and Nem’s right, they could feel Rob come back into the theater, stop next to them, and watch Kevin. He had another plastic cup of beer and another big bag of popcorn. He looked over at them briefly, as though he wanted to say something else, but in the end, he just went back to his seat next to Nikko.

*     *     *

The film was only ten minutes long. It was beautifully shot and poetic. It was mostly images, carefully chosen dialogue. Javier, the undocumented son, was eventually released, though his future was uncertain. He could still be deported. The film was a hopeful but grim statement on US immigration policies. When it was over, Kevin had a panel of local activists do a Q and A, and he brought Javier and his family on stage as well. It was uplifting, soul nourishment. Will went on his phone and donated two hundred bucks to each activist’s organization and a grand to Javier and his family.

When the lights went up, Will and Nem immediately left. They waved goodbye to Kevin and Shannon, miming “call us” with their hands. They went outside into the drizzly night. Nem popped open her umbrella, and they held hands again.

“Good film,” Will said. “Touching.”

“See, aren’t you glad we came?”

They walked back over to the secret alley.

“That wasn’t too weird for you, was it?” he said.

“No, but it was odd. Why is Rob such a weirdo?”

They were arm in arm now.

“He acted like a robot, didn’t he?”

“It was like he had amnesia,” Nem said. “What the fuck?” After a moment, she said, “Nikko was even wearing that nice ass barrette. She probably doesn’t remember I’m the one who got it for her.”

Will felt beyond it all now. “Forget them,” he said. “They’re miserable people, and they don’t even know it.”

They came up on Rob and Nikko’s luxury SUV and their stupid vanity plate. It was just like them to have a luxury SUV. To Will, it seemed like the dumbest vehicle on Earth. Who needed a luxury SUV? It was for posers. They weren’t hauling wood or dirty trailers with that shit. They weren’t going rock crawling. Neither of them left their neighborhood.

As Will and Nem were passing by, he saw a baseball cap sitting on their dashboard. It had the logo from Will’s engineering firm on the front. He’d lent it to Rob on a rainy night like this because Rob didn’t want his wavy hair to get wet and frizzy, and of course Rob had never given it back. It was a floppy and unstylish cap. Will didn’t even care about it, but seeing it there suddenly pissed him off. He stopped and studied it through the glass. It was like a piece of him was locked inside that phony vehicle, never to be released.

“What?” Nem said. “You all right?”

“I’m fine.” Will took his keys out of his pocket. “Watch this.” He brandished the most jagged key he had and slowly dragged it down the side of Rob and Nikko’s SUV, pushing into the plastic fenders and the doors, digging a long, brutal scratch in the paint. Nem gasped at first, but when he looked back at her, she curled her lip the way she always did right before sex. She collapsed her umbrella, turned it around, and like a home run hitter, swung at one of the taillights, laughing as the wooden handle exploded the lens. She swung at the other one and laughed more, all that colorful plastic dropping in shards, looking like candy.

At home, they screwed for an hour again and afterward allowed themselves to have slivers of a chocolate cake he’d made. He finally found something they could watch on their streaming device, a British baking show that they binged two episodes of. By one in the morning, Nem had dosed off. He took their plates to the kitchen and, on the way back, peeked into the garage at their beautiful motorcycles. He looked outside at their trimmed yard. Their lives were locked in place now, all their ambitions on course.

Will climbed into bed and saw their streaming device had stopped. The TV screen said, “Are you still with us?” Will turned it off, and Daisy the Dog climbed up her pet stairs onto the bed. She snuggled in between them, and Will reclined and smiled. Nem was right. They had lucked out with this girl. He rubbed her belly and listened to her coo. That little purring thing inside of her started up and got louder and louder, sounding, to him at least, like a freshly rebuilt engine, one that would keep running for years and years and years.

Chris Stuck is the author of Give My Love to the Savages: Stories, published in July 2021 by Amistad/HarperCollins. He was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and the Oregon Book Award, and is a Pushcart Prize winner. His work has been published in various literary journals.