When Viola Cesario started their third day in the city, they only had one friend, Seward, who found them a room to rent. It was originally supposed to be a studio apartment for both Viola and Sebastian, but the brother’s plans had changed rather abruptly, and they couldn’t afford the place on their own. Seward actually knew a house where they could move into that same day, but he kept making calls and database searches instead.
“What’s wrong with the first room?” they questioned. “I can afford it.”
“Bad neighborhood,” he muttered pretending he needed to see the keyboard to type.
“I can’t afford a good neighborhood,” they reminded him.
“You’re not from here, you don’t know what that’s like,” he said and they had to agree with him on that. But everything else was either too expansive or two hours away from work. So they insisted in the first room, and Seward finally said what he was so worried about: “I can’t send a little girl to live with three guys.”
They didn’t even know what to disagree with first in his statement. “I’m not little, I’m eighteen,” Seward smiled condescendingly, but it didn’t stop them. “And I’m not a girl,” they reminded him, trying not to raise their voice on that matter.
“Which only moves you into an even more vulnerable position,” he observed.
“What if Cesario rents a room?” they offered.
“What do you mean?” he asked confused.
“Do you know any of those guys?” they asked while calculating how dangerous the idea was, but so was the hostel they had been living in for the past three days.
“Sure, they’re alright,” Seward answered the question. “One of them fixed a leak in my place, very chatty guy, ended up inviting me to a barbecue and all. I’m not saying I’m friends with them, but they’re ok.”
“You just have to tell them my name’s Cesario, and say he when you talk about me,” they suggested, trying to stay positive.
By the afternoon he had introduced them to the trio, who lived in shabby house from a time when it was normal to build four bedrooms and only one bathroom in a house. Curio was a big guy with thick black beard and huge muscles that made his soft, gentle voice a surprise. Valentine was tall, skinny, and sweaty, with eyes always open wide, which was a little disconcerting at first. Orsino was the shirtless, hairy man, who immediately started telling Seward a story Cesario couldn’t follow, he had taken one glance at their guitar case and started asking what kind of music Cesario played. He insisted they played something, until they gave in. He also offered them a beer. “We can’t let the singer run dry,” he said. Seward left Cesario, assuring they were in good company with their new roommates, who invited them to play games.
Cesario had never felt so much like one of the guys as they felt now, and it was actually an easy thing to do: since Seward had introduced them only as Cesario, the others didn’t have any reason to think they were anything but a dude. They had no need for worrying too much about voice or mannerisms, because the others already saw them as a guy, and that was why it was so different being introduced by someone else, no one felt the need for asking “are you a boy or a girl?” like so many did upon first meeting them, they simply accepted what Seward called them and did the same.
The four of them played games, and teased one another, and survived on chips for hours. Orsino was the kind of player who yelled at his character like its actions were independent from him. Valentine gave unsolicited advice when it wasn’t his turn. Curio had a nervous leg he bounced whenever he was sitting but especially when playing. Cesario would stick out his tongue for focus.
The new comer doubted they’d ever had this much fun without Sebastian. They had never felt like one of the guys in the company of those who knew them as Viola. There were very few who knew them as both, but those three were the first friends they made who only knew Cesario. It was a new and exciting feeling they had no name for but that touched and improved each little thing: the life important choosing of pizza toppings, the ill thought through acceptance to join the others in smoking something called "sunflower” in Orsino’s old-fashioned hookah, and the subsequent coughing fit, which had the boys laughing at them.
Suddenly they couldn’t breath and had to run to the bathroom. They pulled the flannel and the t-shirt off in a hurry, and then struggled to pull the binder off, which seemed to take ages. Finally they could breathe again. Enough that they realized they had to pull their clothes back on, to avoid further problems. But they were too aware there was nothing holding their chest now. They folded the binder and hid it in their pocket, at least they had pockets, you gotta be thankful for the small blessings.
Knocks on the door. “Are you alright in there?” someone asked while the others laughed loudly.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Just freaking out, thanks.
“Are you having a bad trip?” he insisted.
They opened the door immediately and stared dead serious at Orsino: “Why would I be tripping? What did I smoke?”
“Weed! What did you think?” he laughed at them.
“I don’t know! You guys said sunflower.”
“Yeah, each kind has a nickname,” he laughed some more.
They thought about it and decided they weren’t high. The others were laughing, while Cesario was very aware of each little thing happening around them. They calculated if the others could see anything different now the binder was off. They looked for any changes in the way the guys looked at them, doubt, confusion, something. They were suddenly sure the guys would see right through them.
“Are you ok, man?” Valentine asked, sprawled on the floor, cradling his head in his arms, not looking all that focused on Cesario anyway.
“Fine,” they promised. “I didn’t know that was weed.”
“Too bad, if I knew it was your first time, I’d have taken you to see the sunset.” It was hard to believe in his words when he was just lying there on the floor, but the sentiment was sweet.
“Come get your ass kicked,” said Curio, without even turning around, his leg bouncing to the intro of Mario Kart.
Cesario had no idea why the game felt so much more difficult than usual, so they persisted, but that didn’t really help. It was impossible to get the hang of it. And Curio was getting frustrated because there was no challenge. As if concentrating wasn’t difficult enough already, Valentine asked: “Hey, guys, where’s Orsino?”
“Oh, no!” Curio said in response.
“Oh, no, what?” asked Cesario, neglecting the game in his curiosity.
“This,” said Valentine referring to the song starting to come from another room.
“It’s a great song,” Cesario argued, recognizing Nights in White Satin.
“Maybe the first thousand times,” he said getting up and taking his turn against Curio.
But then the song stopped before the end. “That’s weird,” Curio said.
“I don’t like this song anymore,” Orsino announced coming back from his room.
The other guys made a sarcastic celebration of the news. “So you’re ready to go out and have some fun?” Curio asked, still not turning away from the game.
Orsino threw himself on the couch, and Cesario was amazed at how over dramatically he did it, they couldn’t contain a little giggle. “What’s the point?” the man said in an excessively pained voice. Cesario wanted to laugh, he sounded like a kid faking an injury. He went on: “Why does everybody keep telling me to go out? Please tell me, what’s so important out there?”
“You know, it’s where all the people are,” Cesario shrugged.
“And they go places and meet other people,” Valentine joined in explaining the obvious.
“You go out,” Orsino said annoyed by the subject. “I’ve already met one person today,” he pointed his hand at Cesario. “That’s enough socializing.”
The house smelled of food when Cesario woke up the next morning. They went to the kitchen to refill the water bottle and found Orsino busy, surrounded by ingredients diced in obsessive symmetry, stirring something in a pot. Cesario was just going to head back to their room, but the man saw them and wished a good morning. After responding to that, they couldn’t resist commenting: “Dude, I don’t know what you’re doing there, but it smells so good!”
Orsino laughed. “It’s just onions and olive oil, I haven’t even added garlic yet.”
“Whatever it is, it smells like real food.”
“I’m guessing you can’t cook?” Cesario shook their head. “You should learn, eating pizza everyday will get old fast. And you get to show off and hear people say how great your food is.”
They chuckled. “I thought you were going to say I should learn to cook because girls like it.” That’s what people used to tell Sebastian.
“They do,” Orsino agreed, nodding. “But I didn’t know if you’d care about that,” he smiled like he’d just told a joke and was fishing for their reaction.
Whatever the joke was, Cesario didn’t get it. And it was pretty obvious, because Orsino laughed at them. “What?” they asked frustrated.
He laughed some more. “Nothing,” he stifled the rest of his laughter.
They made a deal, he would share his food with Cesario if they played guitar while Orsino cooked. They decided it was a good trade, and went on to get their guitar, and do their part. They played Get Back, Come as You Are, Bigmouth Strikes Again, and after a second of doubt, I Will Survive. Orsino approved of every one of the songs, he gave the obligatory nervous laugh at the first few verses of the last song, but approved. Cesario asked him about his musical preferences, and got a long answer from Orsino. They were also invited to see his record collection. The man was vinyl enthusiast, and Cesario went through his long plays and compacts in great curiosity. And even though they hadn’t asked, his stories telling why he loved certain songs were kind of cute.
Orsino was a real chatterer and went from talking about music to talking about his job, or more precisely the weird things he’d seen entering people’s houses to do repairs: shrines made for celebrities, years of hoarding lying around, twelve cats wearing sweaters matching their patterns, a guy with an actual tinfoil hat and the craziest talk he’d ever heard, and more. Cesario thought those were funny and didn’t mind Orsino was doing most of the talking.
They ate together, played fighting games, and finally Cesario noticed: “Where are the guys?”
“Curio works sundays sometimes, and Valentine’s with his girlfriend.”
“Don’t you have girlfriend too?”
“I was close, but then she said something that made it impossible.”
“What?” they were very curious about whatever the girl could’ve said to make it so final.
“She said no,” he explained. And Cesario wasn’t expecting that answer, so they genuinely had a laughing fit. While Cesario was catching their breath, he added: “You don’t have to laugh so hard,” which only renewed their laughter.
“Sorry, man,” they wiped their tears. “I thought you were joking.”
“I kind of am,” he shrugged. “She never even answers. I kind of wish she’d block me, so I’d know for sure, but she just leaves me on seen and never sends a single word, not even an emoji, not even an unrelated photo.”
“What have you been sending? Please, don’t say nudes.” Cesario was half joking but if he said “yes” that conversation would end right there.
Orsino pulled his phone out, opened the chat and handed it to the boy a little too aggressively. “Does that look like a dick to you?”
It was poetry, Cesario realized. They’d probably like to receive poetry from an attractive guy like this one but at the same time, it wasn’t difficult to see it was a poor flirting strategy. And looking closer, it was kind of bland too, it went on and on in some kind of list talking about her eyes, lips, hair, and so on, and Cesario was bored pretty quickly. “This kind of thing only works when she’s already interested,” they told him, giving the phone back.
He didn’t take the comment well. “All girls like poetry,” he argued.
This time it was Cesario who didn’t take it well, so they jabbed at Orsino with an equally outrageous statement: “Straight guys hate poetry.”
“Who are you calling gay?” he said like he was about to fight the boy.
“I think you’re missing my point here,” Cesario told him, pretending they weren’t worried. “Isn’t it at all possible she doesn’t like poetry, even though she’s a girl?”
“Oh!” he said in disappointment. “Then I should definitely send her a dick pic.”
Cesario had never facepalmed so hard in their life. Still they tried: “That’s another thing that only works if she’s already interested. You should try it in person, I mean, you’re fun to be around, you should be hanging out with her, making her laugh.”
He went from angry to just plain miserable at their words, and accused: “You’re describing a one-way ticket to friendzone, kid. I bet you’ve never had a girlfriend. And you’re trying to tell me what to do?”
“You have zero chill, huh?”
Orsino made an angry frown, crossed his arms, and shut up. Cesario chuckled, shook their head, and pulled out their phone, sensing that conversation was over. As usual, Sebastian only posted selfies where he tried to look hot (and maybe he succeeded, he had a fair amount of likes). But he had also sent his twin a private message asking if they were ok, and saying their idea was insane and Seward was out of his mind for agreeing. They replied reminding him it was even more dangerous driving a truckload of explosives across the country, so maybe recklessness ran in the family. They playfully accused each other of being the worst, when Orsino decided to pick up from where he’d left off.
“You know what the problem is?”
Cesario put down their phone to look at him curiously and ask: “What?”
“I didn’t know what to say to her.” Cesario had trouble believing that. “I worked in her house for days and couldn’t think of a single thing to start a conversation.”
“What? You can’t talk to girls?” It was also hard to believe.
“No, it’s just with her,” he was quick to clarify, and sounded a little offended by the suggestion. “She’s so.... perfect.”
Cesario laughed. “Of course she is. People are always perfect until you get to know them.”
“I think you’re just a pessimist.”
They walked to the subway in Valentine’s company. There was a man playing guitar on the platform, and their friend stood close to him enjoying the music, so of course Cesario did the same. He finished his song before the train arrived, reminding his little audience all contributions were welcome. Cesario fished for a coin in his pocket, Valentine shook his head and laughed at his own financial problems saying: “Not this week.”
The man was still there with his guitar in the evening when Cesario got back. They wondered if he had stood there all day playing but they weren’t about to start a conversation with a complete stranger. Still they wondered how much he could’ve made. The man sure didn’t look as exhausted as Cesario felt.
They weren’t even sure they were alive by the time they started climbing their way up the narrow, uphill street where the house stood. “Can I get you something, rich boy?” a very tall kid asked them, in an antagonizing tone that sent adrenaline rushing through Cesario’s body and mind.
They saw the two other kids right behind the first, they weren’t armed, but all three had walkie-talkies and Cesario knew what that meant. “I live there,” they pointed to the end of the street.
“Where?” the boy pressed, sure he was being lied to.
“That old house right there,” they pointed, since the houses weren’t numbered.
“You live there alone?” the boy still didn’t believe them.
“I just rented a room. I moved in on saturday,” they explained going in panic.
“You did? Saturday was busy,” he laughed, and the other boys joined him. “What’s your name?”
“Cesario,” they blurted out as quickly as possible.
The boys introduced themselves by nicknames, and told them if they ever needed anything to come to them. “Go home, no one’s going to mess with you, we’re watching.” Cesario wasn’t comforted at all by the promise, still they thanked and said it was nice meeting them. They made the rest of the climb home in a flash, and before they found the steadiness to put the key to the hole, the boy shouted: “Tell Curio we say hi!”
Cesario entered the house still fearing for their life. Their hands were shaking, and they felt like crying but at the same time there was too much going on in their head. They just stood by the door, trying to make sense of what had just happened. It was only when Orsino walked to the kitchen that he noticed Cesario.
“Dude, what happened?” the look on his face told them they looked just as bad as they felt.
“I’m not sure. There were these kids, and I think they’re dealers or something, and they didn’t believe I live here, and I thought they were gonna kill me, and… and they told me to say hi to Curio?”
“Oh, they’re not dealers, they’re surveillance,” Orsino explained matter-of-factly. “Wait, did they beat you?”
“So you’re ok?”
Orsino laughed at their face. “You gotta toughen up, man. If that’s what you’re like on a good day, what are you doing when there’s a shooting?”
“You’re telling me this is normal?” Cesario knew it was true but didn’t want to believe it.
“What? Don’t rich people have a guy at the door asking where you’re going, and telling you which elevator you can use? What’s the difference?”
“It’s not the same!” Cesario protested, offended he had suggested organized crime using children was the same as having a shitty job.
“Hey, don’t yell at me. Go yell at the governor, at the secretary of public defense or something. If I were in charge we’d be having very different problems. But those guys are doing their jobs, same as everybody. Just get used to it.”
They sat on the couch eating noodles while Orsino and Valentine disputed to choose which video they’d play on the big screen next. They tried to watch some and forget about the earlier events, but their phone kept buzzing with a student who had doubts about the homework. Cesario answered her questions despite the bad timing and how they disliked her constant use of heart and kiss emojis.
They heard Valentine say their name, and left the chat to see what was going on. “He’s hogging the playlist, you know he is,” he accused Orsino. “You choose the next video, so he can’t complain.”
Cesario thought of a stand up comedian they used to laugh at with Sebastian, but as soon as they looked at the phone, there were three more messages from the same student, and one was entirely made of emojis. “God Dammit, I’m eating!” they yelled at the phone.
“Who’s bugging you? Just ignore them,” Orsino said, without waiting for an answer to the first question.
His suggestion sounded so much like an order, they put their phone down immediately, and explained: “It’s one of my students, she’s kind of making me do her homework for her.”
“Is she paying overtime?” Once more he didn’t care about the answer, and sounded very commanding when he suggested: “Stop working for free!”
“Okay?” they said, feeling bullied.
“No, no! Is she cute?” Valentine asked, and didn’t wait for an answer either: “Show us her pic.” He didn’t sound commanding like his friend, but Cesario thought no harm could come of that. As soon as Valentine saw the close up selfie of her profile, he let out a high pitched laugh, and pulled Orsino closer. “Man, you won’t believe this shit!”
He looked at the phone in doubt, one eyebrow raised in suspicion, in a second both his eyebrows shot up in surprise and he snatched the phone from Cesario, who was getting tired of holding it up, but got really offended by the invasion of their privacy (there were a whole bunch of photos of them in makeup and girly clothes in that phone). Orsino still stared in shock at the screen. “That’s Olivia!” he finally said. Cesario tried to get his phone back, but Orsino was much taller and stretched his arm, keeping the phone away from them, as leverage. “You’re her teacher?” he asked very seriously, but then a weird smile appeared on his face. “You’re her teacher?” he asked again in completely different tone.
“I am, but whatever you’re thinking, I’m not helping. Now give it back!” they said, wrestling Orsino’s arm with a lot of energy and still getting no closer to the phone.
He pretended he was going to give it back, just to raise his arm at the last second. “You think I’m some kind of serial killer or something? Why can’t you help a friend out?” Now he gave the phone back.
“You’re gonna haress my student, and I’m gonna lose that job,” Cesario spat out still angry that Orsino could keep the phone from them so easily.
“I’m not gonna do that. I just want you to talk me up to her. Make me look good.”
“No! I’m gonna lose my job. That’s inappropriate as fuck.”
“‘Inappropriate as fuck’”, Valentine echoed in amusement. “That’s exactly what HR would say,” and he laughed at his own joke.
“Just tell her about this friend you have who likes the same stuff as her,” Orsino insisted.
“You don’t even know what she likes, do you?” they challenged the man.
“You’ll tell me, I’ll learn all about it.”
Cesario huffed in frustration. “You know what? I’m too tired for this. Good night.”
“Better say yes, he’s not letting go,” Valentine said, shaking his head, almost singing his words.
They sought refuge in their bedroom, but didn’t fall asleep. All they could think of was how outrageous Orsino’s dumb idea was. Outrageous and sexist: how dare he assume the girl didn’t know who she wanted to hook up with? And it was so manipulative of him to give the phone back and accuse them of not helping a friend at the same time. What a jerk! No, they were not helping that asshole. He didn’t even ask nicely, he just assumed Cesario would do as he said. No, being hot didn’t give him the right to boss them around.
Oh, no! They weren’t supposed to think about roommates like that. Don’t worry, they reasoned with the feeling, it’s no big deal, yeah, he’s hot but he’s also a dumbass. It didn’t work so well against memory of shirtless Orsino welcoming them to the house. Cesario groaned in frustration trying to think of anything else, but being bombarded by images their brain had just come up with: shirtless Orsino edited into naked Orsino, and a whole slideshow of images involving the two of them. And to make it worse, those images gave them a familiar tingling sensation.
No, no, no! Anything else, they begged of their brain. For a little while the brain obeyed and came up with memories of every crush they’d ever had (even those who were actually into Sebastian). But they were stupid enough to consciously tell themself: you see? He’s not your type. Their rebellious brain however went right back to the slideshow.
They cried without tears against the pillow for a few seconds. Then they told the brain to shut up because it was time to sleep, and their mind went quiet for about thirty seconds, until they picked up Do I Wanna Know playing somewhere in the house. They both enjoyed and were annoyed by that song, usually, that is. Tonight, their main opinion was that playing that song late at night could only be Orsino’s idea. That ridiculous, immature, pretty, pretty hot man. And guess what? It was on repeat. They punched the wall out of frustration, but that made him turn up the volume.
Cesario took a moment to make sure the clothes they slept in were loose enough, and headed out to confront him. “Come on, man, some of us have to work tomorrow,” they complained as they went to the living room.
“It’s not even midnight,” he said very calmly, as he came from the kitchen with a coffee mug.
Part of Cesario’s brain was hung upon the amount of coffee he was going to drink that late, but it was a very small part. Mostly they concentrated very hard in pretending the man wasn’t wearing just a towel around his waist. It didn’t show more than usual, but the simple possibility it might made it impossible to focus on anything else. “Please, just turn on the music,” they asked, deciding it was better to go back to the bedroom before they did something stupid.
“Turn on?” Orsino highlighted their mistake.
“No, not turn on,” they corrected in embarrassed haste. “Not turn on. Turn down. I didn’t mean turn on. Down. Down.”
“Of course, of course,” he said between his chuckles, “I know what you mean.”
Cesario didn’t like the way he said that, like he was implying something else entirely and they didn’t know what exactly. But confronting the hot guy wearing a towel was just too much, and they were already at the door by then.
Cesario’s day also started with “oh, no!” when they realized what their interrupted dream was about, or more exactly who. This was even more stupid than pretending they were a man around people they lived with. A good way of reasoning with those ideas was keeping in mind there was a world of hot people out there they didn’t live with, people who weren’t obsessed with girls they’d never talked to, people who were actually available.
That resolve lasted until they got to the kitchen, where Orsino opened a huge smile upon seeing them and said: “Good morning, my friend,” with a suspicious amount of enthusiasm.
“That’s a lot of energy so early in the morning,” they accused, angry at being so moved by that obviously phony smile.
“Not a morning person, huh?” he kept smiling. “So much for hoping you’d be in a better mood in the morning.” Cesario realized he was trying to get them to smile back, and refused to. “I wanna talk business with you.”
“Business?” that wasn’t what they expected.
“Yes, business. Exchanging work for money.”
“You want me teach you how to play the guitar?” they guessed.
“No, I need you to find some excuse to talk about me to Olivia.”
“That again? I said no. That’s stupid! Leave me alone!” they said throwing at those words all the anger of finding themself jealous.
“Is twenty stupid?” He laid a bill on the countertop with annoying confidence.
“Stop that!” they whined.
He laughed, and raised his offer: “Fifty?”
Cesario hated being so tempted by money, but they needed it. “Fine,” they gave in begrudgingly.Orsino’s smile was so smug they just wanted to hit him on his stupid, hot face. “This feels like it should be illegal,” they complained.
“Then do it for free,” Orsino shrugged.
“You know what, Cesario? I think you’ve just become my best friend,” he slapped their shoulder with too much enthusiasm.
It didn’t hurt as much as being friendzoned. “I gotta go,” they said, not sure if they were sad, angry, or whatever. They left home with all those conflicting feelings battling within.
It came as surprise when an unpleasantly familiar voice shouted out: “Hey, Cesario!” it was the boy from last night, they recognized in fear. They looked around to find the kid standing on a rooftop, “Your backpack’s open,” he informed. They were so relieved, it probably showed when they thanked the boy, who gave a thumbs up in response.
Now they really had no idea how they felt.