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The Corner Table

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Nico was seated at a corner table in Joe’s bar. His back was to the wall, and he was gazing aimlessly at the bar patrons as he sipped his beer. He was alone but not lonely, as was often the case these days. Where his friends and coworkers whined and fretted about drinking alone - about being seen alone-, he had always found peace in his solo ventures. It was a bit of calm in an often busy day. He preferred bars to his apartment though. He liked the atmosphere, and he liked people watching. He liked the feeling of being a part of something without much work on his part. Also, it was always easier to find a guy to spend the night with at a bar, although at the moment he wasn’t in the mood.

He must not have been people watching very closely, because he was surprised when a woman dropped into the chair across from him. She had curly, brown, chin-length hair that she was brushing out of her face and greenish-brownish eyes. She looked hauntingly familiar, although Nico was sure that they had never met before.

“Do you mind if I join you? My brother’s running late, and if I’m alone for more than two minutes strangers will try to talk to me. And I hate talking to strangers.” Nico couldn’t think of a polite reason to object. He certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving her to fend off strange men.

“Sure. No problem.” He waited while she took a sip of her drink before he asked, “Are we not strangers?” She flashed him a smile, and again, he was hit with a feeling of intense familiarity.

“Well, we know of each other.” A beat passed and Nico tried his hardest to place her. She raised her eyebrows, and he knew that she could see how much he was struggling. “You’re Nico. And I’m Tikva.” Nico choked on the beer he’d been swallowing. The woman - Tikva - waited patiently while he held a hand to chest and coughed.

“Schmitt?” She nodded. “You’re one of Levi’s sisters.”

“I am. So I figured at least this way I wouldn’t have to make small talk. You already know how many siblings I have, and I don’t really care how many you have. And I know that you won’t try to hit on me.” Nico took a sip of his drink to give himself a moment to gather his thoughts. Of course she was Levi’s sister. They looked stunningly alike, and he had seen pictures before. Those pictures had even stood in his apartment for a while. And now that he had a moment to look at her he saw the Deathly Hallows tattoo inked just under her collarbone, nearly identical to the one that Levi had on his thigh.

“Tikva...you’re the one that lives in Italy.” She nodded. “And you studied…” Nico trailed off. Really his brain was failing him. What did he know about Levi’s sisters? He knew they were close, and Levi called and facetimed them often. Devorah had met them for lunch once or twice. She had reminded him of Levi in both looks and temperament - a little quieter perhaps, but extremely kind. Tikva was different. She didn’t seem to have Levi’s gentleness or eagerness to please.

“Viticulture and enology. I own a vineyard in Umbria. And I really wish that you would skip the small talk.”

The thing was, Nico was really good at small talk. He considered it one of his talents, particularly when it came to networking and meeting parents. He could chat with anyone, and they would leave the conversation confident that he thought they were interesting. It made him a good, comforting doctor. It made him a great flirt. But clearly it wasn’t serving him here.

“Should I buy you a glass of wine then? The house red is pretty good.”

“The house red is Badda Bing Badda Boom Red. If you give it to me, I will pour it on you and your nice white shirt.” It was clear that she wasn’t interested in playing nice. Nico took another sip of his far too empty beer. Fine.

“Levi describes you as some kind of witch who flies into town, fixes some problems, turns things upside down and then disappears in a cloud of smoke and glitter.” That made Tikva laugh.

“I like that. I try to get my family in tip top shape when I’m around, and I do believe in a good exit.”

“So you are here to fix a problem,” Nico said.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m not here for you. This-” she gestured between them, “is a coincidence.”

“Are you sure about that? Because you’re not my sister, and I don’t need you trying to tell me how to live my life.” Tikva leaned back in her chair and gave him an appraising look.

“Listen, you’re hot. I can see that. And when you were on the same page, you and Levi were a damn good couple. And it kind of sucks that you two couldn’t communicate well enough to work through your shit. But there are a lot of guys in the world. I could introduce Levi to ten tomorrow, if that’s what he wanted. So, no. I didn’t fly to Seattle to waste my considerable magical talent on getting you back together with my brother. I have higher aspirations.”

“Such as?” Tikva took another sip of her Manhattan and set the glass down on a damp napkin before answering.

“While there are many guys in the world, we only have one mom. Actually, we only have one parent.” Nico heaved out a sigh and leaned forward so that his elbows were resting on the table.

“You can’t talk your mom into accepting that Levi’s gay. I know that Levi and Devorah have both tried. She has to get there on her own. Trust me.” Tikva shook her head fondly.

“I love my siblings, but sometimes they fail to get to the root of the problem. They try to treat the symptoms instead of the disease to use a medical metaphor. My mom doesn’t care that Levi’s gay.” Nico’s hands clutched the beer bottle tightly, and his shoulders tensed.

“Yes she does. Look, you may be Levi’s sister, but I was there. Your mom’s uncomfortable with Levi being gay, and she wants him to hide it. And he won’t settle for that.” Nico’s lips tightened briefly as he pushed away his guilt at the fact that he was unable to hold himself to the same standards. If Tikva noticed his gesture, she didn’t seem to care.

“If Mom was uncomfortable with Levi being gay, she would have said exactly that. Schmitts aren’t known for having a filter. You would never have been allowed into the house, let alone Levi’s bedroom. And you wouldn’t have been offered a sacred bowl of chicken noodle soup. That’s not her problem. Try again.”

“Well, she didn’t want Levi coming out to the rest of your family. She said that much. Even if she pretends to be supportive at home, asking him to stay in the closet is still homophobic.” Tikva shook her head, and Nico forced down a flash of annoyance. She was surprisingly infuriating.

“Not quite. Don’t worry, I won’t hold it against you. You’re missing some relevant historical context. Levi doesn’t have the same excuse, but he’s too close to this to look at it logically, so we’ll forgive him.” She winked at Nico, but he refused to return the gesture or even smile.

“Alright. What is your mom’s problem.” Honestly, Nico expected her to wave off his question and insist that she shouldn’t talk about it with him. This wasn’t the place or the time. It wasn’t her place. But apparently unabashed openness and oversharing was a Schmitt family trait because she said,

“She and Levi have the same problem. They’re both terrified of being alone.” Nico scoffed at that.

“Levi isn’t terrified of being alone.”

“Were you paying any attention?” Tikva asked incredulously. “Did you think that was a sane and stable Levi that you broke up with? It wasn’t. Saul died, and even though he was a bit of a dick, he and Levi were close. Then Levi moved out, and he and mom stopped talking. At this point we are down one favorite, secretly gay great-uncle, and one loving mother. Of course he’ll always have Devorah and me, but I’m in Italy and Devorah’s married with kids. So that leaves you: the hot, supportive, steady boyfriend.” At this point Tikva put her hands up in a gesture of surrender.

“Look, I’m not trying to come at you. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what you said or how you said it. But I know what Levi heard, which was:

  1. I don’t want to live with you. (i.e. I’m not ready to commit to you, and I don’t want to spend all of my time with you.)
  2. Surprise! I’m not out to my parents. They don’t know about you and likely never will.
  3. I’m super excited about a job opportunity that will involve me traveling all the time. No, I don’t want to talk about how it might affect our relationship, probably because I don’t care.”

“That’s not fair,” Nico protested.

“It’s not,” Tikva agreed. “And if you hadn’t been the one person keeping him from feeling utterly alone, he might have handled it better. But he’s terrified of being alone, so he clung to you. And it sounds like you felt a little stifled.” Nico pressed his thumb and index finger into his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache coming on, and he couldn’t decide if he wanted water or more beer.

“So, Levi’s afraid of being alone, and I’m a dick who abandoned him. Fine. Tell me about your mom. Explain how it makes any sense for her to push Levi away if she’s so afraid of being alone.”

The look Tikva gave him was both piercing and pensive. It wasn’t something that he was used to. His parents’ eyes were always stern and demanding. Strangers’ glances were appreciative. The looks his coworkers had given him always vacillated between distrusting and impressed. At different points, Levi’s gaze had been nervous, adoring or angry. Tikva was looking at Nico with clear eyes. It made him feel oddly vulnerable.

“Do you know how old my mom is?” It took Nico a moment to realize that she had spoken to him. He shook his head.

“She’s 47.” Nico raised his eyebrows.

“She was...young when she had you.”

“Very young. She was in college and in love with a boy that her parents didn’t approve of. She didn’t care though. She didn’t need her parents approval. He was tall and blonde, and charming. He was her first love, and she thought they would be together forever. It didn’t matter that they were from different backgrounds. It didn’t matter that her parents wanted her to marry a nice, Jewish boy. She was young, bold, and unafraid.”

Tikva waved her hands around as she spoke, and Nico clutched his beer closer to protect it from spillage.

“She didn’t need her parents’ approval,” she repeated. “Until she got pregnant. All of a sudden that boy didn’t love her quite so much. Surely she’d realized that they were never really going to get married and have a life together. They were too different. Ill-matched. He couldn’t be tied down by kids. Besides, he wasn’t even certain that they were his kids. Really, it wasn’t his problem.

“Her parents were furious. They were ready to cut her off and focus all of their affection and resources on her siblings. And she was terrified of being alone. Losing your family at any point is scary, but she was 20 years old. She didn’t have a degree, and she was pregnant with fucking triplets. So she begged her parents not to disown her. She promised that she would toe the line and never act out if they would just help her.

“You can say that she should have been braver. That she should have stood up for herself, and her choices, and her ideals, and boldly forged a path ahead as a lone single mother with her three kids. This country may have been founded on ideals, but it runs on money. Levi, Devorah and I have had lives filled with privilege and opportunities that we wouldn’t have had if our grandparents weren’t part of the picture. We have always had a home and more food than we needed. We got scholarships to college, but we never had to worry about working to pay our way.”

Tikva leaned in, resting her elbows on the table, mirroring Nico’s position.

“I am proud of Levi for standing up to our mom. I’m proud of him for prioritizing himself. But if Mom had made the same choice, our lives would have been completely different. She may never have finished her degree. Housing would have been unstable at best. I think she knew that. She succumbed to her parents rules and beliefs so that she could keep her family. So that we could have a family and the opportunities that came with it.” Tikva met Nico’s eyes again and breathed silently for a few moments. Nico was struck by how similar she was to Levi when she spoke. They were both passionate and articulate. It wouldn’t have surprised him to learn that she had also dominated the debate circuit. He half expected her to pull out a list of primary sources.

“What I’m saying, is that Mom doesn’t care that Levi’s gay. If it weren’t for her family - if it were just the four of us- she would be Levi’s biggest cheerleader. She would get one of those shirts that says Mom Hugs in rainbow letters. She would still be neurotic, but she’d be more worried about the ingredients of flavored lube than anything else.”

Nico held her gaze and tried to speak kindly.

“I get what you’re saying. Your mom made some hard choices. That doesn’t excuse her behavior. Levi is her son, and if she were dedicated to supporting him, like she should be, then she would prioritize him over her family’s opinions.”

“Exactly!” Tikva shouted, throwing her hands alarmingly close to Nico’s face. “That is what I’m here to tell her. That by asking Levi to hide his sexuality, she’s just doing what her parents did to her. I’m going to remind her that she’s not a 20 year old with three babies to feed anymore. She’s 47. She has two degrees, an awesome career, and three adult children that can feed themselves. And I’m going to make sure she knows that if supporting Levi means that she loses her parents and siblings, she will still never be alone, because she will always have us.

“I’m not trying to get you to agree with her. I’m just trying to get you to understand that she has toed the line for 27 years so that she can cling to the only family that she has. Can’t you sympathize with that?”

“Yeah, I can.” Nico sighed. He recognized the irony of the situation. He recognized that when Levi, who he loved, had begged him to talk, he refused. And that now that Levi’s sister was sitting across from him, he felt the urge to open up, despite the fact that she hadn’t asked and likely didn’t care.

“I’m not out to my parents. And it’s not because of shame. I’m out to everyone else. And at this point, it’s not because of security. I have a job and an apartment. I’m done with school. I’m not reliant on them financially. But it’s like you said, they’re the only family that I have. I would be alone without them. I live across the country, but it’s nice having somewhere to go home to. Even if more often than not I don’t want to go home...and when I do it feels disingenuous. But-” For the first time in a long time Nico was rambling. He could have stopped himself, but he wanted to argue his point. He wanted to feel understood.

“It’s not just about disownment. It’s about making them proud, because that’s all I’ve ever wanted. Even though nothing has been enough for them yet, I can’t bring myself to disappoint them even more by coming out. Is that so wrong?”

“No. It’s perfectly understandable.”

That was Levi’s problem. He didn’t understand what it’s like to crave your parents’ approval. It was like he couldn’t imagine how it feels to never get any praise from your family.”

“He definitely couldn’t. Our mom thinks we’re the best thing since the invention of the wheel, and that was pretty revolutionary. And if Levi wasn’t willing to listen when you explained that to him, that’s on him.” Nico was breathing heavily. He stared at Tikva’s empty glass while he worked to steady his breath and his hands. Finally he said,

“I guess I didn’t really explain it. I just don’t think I should have to throw every vulnerability I have at him in order to get some support. He had unrealistic expectations of me. Like you said, I’m proud of him for standing up to your mom, but not everyone can do that. Not everyone likes to pour their heart out. He wanted me to be perfect, and I’m not.” Tikva shrugged and gave a small smile.

“There were places where you both could have improved.

Nico collapsed back into his chair, propped his elbow on the chair next to him, and used his thumb to massage his temple.

“Alright. You win.”

“I didn’t know that this was a competition, but I’m delighted to hear it.”

“Don’t lie. You knew.” Nico was surprised to find himself smiling at the banter.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. What did I win?”

“You can tell me what you think about my relationship with Levi.” Nico waved his hand when Tikva opened her mouth to protest. “I know, I know. You’re not here for me. You’re here to fix your mom. But you’re a Schmitt, and that means that it’s physically painful for you to keep your thoughts to yourself. So, I’m giving you permission to give me the unbiased, sparknotes version of your opinion.” Tikva flashed him another smile.

“I’m a Schmitt. We only have full-length opinions.” All the same, she leaned back in her chair (Nico assumed it was so that she would have space to flail her arms at him again), took a deep breath, and began to speak.

“Levi has big feelings and big fears. Both of you knew that, which means that both of you were being pretty obtuse. Our family loves a lot and talks a lot, and that’s the only way that he knows how to be. It can be awesome, and it can be stifling. Sometimes he doesn’t think about how lucky he’s been, and that can make him seem naive and idealistic.

“You struggle with vulnerability. Again, both you and Levi know that, which means you should both have tried to do something about it. You’re always willing to step up to the plate when Levi needs help, but you shut down every conversation that makes you the slightest bit uncomfortable. There’s a difference between pouring your heart out and communicating your thoughts and needs. It would have been enough to say ‘My parents are hypercritical, and it’s hard to handle. I’m not out to them because their approval is important to me. This isn’t something that I feel up to talking about, but I could really use your support in other ways.’ Levi needs to be able to accept that and find other ways to support you.

“Your relationship was lacking balance. You gave 100% of the support, and Levi gave 100% of the vulnerability and that was always going to lead to failure. You need support. Levi needs realistic expectations. You both need communication. Your relationship can be salvaged with the use of average verbal and comprehension skills, and a brief discussion of love languages.” Tikva took exactly one breath, raised one shoulder to her ear, and said,

“If you want it to be. Like I said, there are a lot of guys out there.”

Nico hadn’t felt like he’d been slammed with that much information since his med school biochem class. He had spent weeks muddling through his thoughts and feelings on the break up, trying to pick apart anger, resentment, and sadness. Tikva had just provided him with a clear picture of his relationship. Nico looked up to see Tikva silently waiting for a response. Or not. She wasn’t actually looking at him. She’d turned her attention to the list of drinks posted on the wall. Finally, Nico spoke.

“Levi was right about you.” He wasn’t sure whether he meant that she was a witch or that she turned everything upside down or that she fixed things. He wasn’t sure that it mattered. She laughed and threw another wink in his direction.

“Just consider me your fairy godmother.” Nico rolled his empty beer bottle between his hands and glanced around the bar once again. He saw Levi walk in and begin scanning the room, obviously looking for his sister.

“Honestly, I think I would rather consider you my witch of a sister-in-law.” Tikva legitimately cackled. Like the witch she apparently was.

“And you wanted to waste this entire evening on small talk.” Nico smirked,

“My mistake.”

“Anyway, you’ll have to talk to Levi about that.” She followed his gaze to Levi, who was still scanning the room. She threw her hand in the air and waved enthusiastically until he saw her and started picking his way through the tables. Tikva turned back to Nico.

“Not tonight though. Levi and I are going to the pier for dinner, and then we’re going to dominate at Harry Potter trivia. It’s sibling bonding and you’re not invited.” She turned to yell a greeting at Levi, even though he was now only two feet away from their table. When she’d pulled back from the hug, Levi glanced between her and Nico a few times.

“What’s going on?” He asked curiously.

“Nothing.” Nico said. “I was just keeping your sister company since you were running a little late.” Levi gave Tikva an offended look.

“I’m five minutes early!”

“You said seven!”

“I said eight!”

“Oh.” Tikva turned to Nico and gave him a sly smile. “My mistake.” She turned back to Levi.

“It’s OK. Nico was here, so I didn’t have to talk to any strangers.”

“Thanks,” Levi said, shooting Nico a grateful look. “She hates small talk.”

“He did offer me a house red, which was rude.” Levi rolled his eyes, but it was clear that he was amused.

“We, the plebians, are free to drink Badda Bing Badda Boom whenever we like. Her majesty here is far too pretentious for that.”

“It’s objectively bad, Levi.” Tikva reached into a massive bag that Nico couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed before. There was a clink of glass as she pulled out a full bottle of wine. “In case you want to try something good, that’s one of mine.” She tapped the label. “From three years ago. Best in the region. Feel free to share it with someone.”

“Thanks again,” Levi said, pushing his sister in the direction of the door. “Have a good night.” He gave an awkward wave and followed his sister out.

“One minute!” Nico heard Tikva call out. “I forgot my wallet.” Nico looked down at the table, but there was nothing except for their empty drinks and used napkins. Tikva put one hand on the table and leaned down so that she could whisper,

“What was it that Levi said about my exits?”

“A cloud of smoke and glitter.”

“Well, I’m fresh out of smoke.” She reached once again into her absurdly large bag. Nico didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but it hadn’t been that she would throw a handful of glitter in the air, covering both them and the table.

“Have a sparkly life, Nico.” She turned and dashed away from the table.

“It was in my bag!” She called to Levi, who was looking at her with disbelief.

“Why do you always have glitter? And why do you always throw it at people? It could get in someone’s eye!”

Nico was seated at a corner table at Joe’s bar. He was out of beer, and he was covered in glitter that he would likely never be able to wash off. He had planned to be alone, but instead had spent almost an hour talking to Tikva Schmitt, who was brash, abrasive, insightful, and (somehow) charming. He was in love with her brother. And he thought that maybe he’d tell him on Monday.