Nath Jones
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Roast Beef & Havarti

The woods had been cleared for the two men, partially. Heavy-tread machinery had flattened and raised dried mud. But on that very early morning they didn’t notice what was; they were there to imagine what would be—a red-glass backsplash against slate. Surrounded by tree stumps and dew-covered construction machinery, the men, lovers, stood on the temporary plywood floor of the home they were building together. They hadn’t wanted a wide green lawn flowing into the next yard. They wanted to keep the neighbors’ lit windows at an arboreal distance—loved to have familial laughter close but not too close. They wanted Acadian flycatchers and a ten-minute drive into town, a place just hospitable enough, in the rolling glacial hills two and a half hours west of Cincinnati.

One man, Wyatt, was tall and thin with dark brown hair. He wore neat clothes and carefully-tied shoes. The other man, who was almost always referred to as Wyatt’s boyfriend, or Wyatt’s partner, or that guy who lives with Wyatt, though he did wear a required name tag at his work, was more rumpled and talked constantly about having to manage his weight. Not that morning, but on other days, usually in the evening he’d say, “I probably shouldn’t eat this,” and then eat, justifying consumption with a story about his terrible day. But that morning he said, “This is where the sink’ll go.” The man, whose mother had wanted so much to call him Henry, rarely gave up. His arms were spread in a V indicating the southeast corner. A plastic grocery bag hung from his arm.

“Why?”

“Because of the skylight.”

“Skylight? Is that back in? You know it’ll leak.”

“We’ll caulk it or whatever.” He moved toward the threshold where his partner stood. While he walked he didn’t look up, didn’t look Wyatt in the eye, intimacy being the trouble that it is, and kept rummaging in the plastic bag. “I really don’t think the overhang of the mezzanine is going to obstruct the light.”

“Mezzanine?”

Impatiently he offered both sandwiches on open palms. The sun had not yet risen enough to warm the day. But it would. Spring was enlivening the underbrush. Countless tiny green leaves unfolded around them. “Yeah. You want the roast beef or the ham salad?”

Wyatt kept his distance but leaned toward the offerings. “What kind of cheese is that?”

“Havarti.”

“Havarti?”

Wyatt’s boyfriend, whose name (to his mother’s great regret) was Len, said, “Skylight? Mezzanine? You’ve seen the blueprints. Now you’re shocked it’s Havarti? Why are you acting so stupid? You, yourself, were the one who bought the cheese. It’s the only cheese we have anywhere in the fridge right now. So of course it’s Havarti. What’s with you?”

“It’s early. I need coffee, not ham salad.”

“So you want the roast beef?”

“No. What I most want is coffee. You drove right past my favorite—”

“Don’t be so condescending. You said we had to decide about this today so your shit of a contractor—I still say we should have hired my uncle—will come back and finally start on the kitchen. You have to be at work by nine. I have to work until nine. So here we are. I know it’s early. Get over it. Let’s just make these decisions and get out of here.” He pointed back emphatically to where he’d been standing. “That’s where the sink should go.”

To the world of good looks and good manners they were Wyatt and that other guy. But at home? Alone? Together? Wyatt loved Len, loved how the name Leonard had been insisted upon by Len’s father’s mother who felt someone should continue bearing the burden bequeathed years before to her favorite uncle. Wyatt also loved the way Len’s mother never forgave her husband for not being able to stand up to his mother about the necessity of passing on such a horrific family name. Most of all Wyatt loved how Len’s mom maintained passive resistance by refusing to call her child by name, instead summoning him always with Governor-General during those years of his most fervent passion to grow up. Wyatt never, ever used the term  Governor-General himself, was forbidden to do so, but said as if long deputized to his station as second-in-command, “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not decide this without coffee.”

“Then you should have brought some coffee. You just don’t want the sink over there.” Len shoved the roast beef sandwich at him and moved toward the south edge of the temporary floor. He took the plastic bag off his arm and spread it on the plywood. He sat on the bag and watched his lover, who could not be forced, coaxed, or coddled in moments like this. He’d come over and sit down in his own time.

The sound of a breeze moving through the prior year’s brown oak leaves was more pronounced than the noise of single cars as they sped by on the distant highway. One car would go by, then silence would return. Another would go by, then be gone again toward life.

Watching Wyatt did no good. Nothing could rush him. He was mulishly impossible. As his lover was ignoring his stare, Len lost all patience and was forced to say, “Jesus. What are you doing?”

“I’m taking the cheese off.”

“Why?”

“Havarti’s not a sandwich cheese.”

“Yes, it is. Even if it’s not, when I got to the fridge, the roast beef was all dried out ‘cause you didn’t close the bag. How hard is it to run two fingers along a Ziploc? Bread’s dry. Beef’s dry. You won’t eat mayo. I had to put cheese on it to give it enough moisture so it didn’t cling all up in the roof of your mouth.”

“Sandwich cheeses should complement the meat, not compete with it. Swiss. Muenster. Provolone. Even American. All very good sandwich cheeses. They have mild flavors.”

“What are you even talking about? Taste it. Havarti is more mild than Swiss for sure. Plus, it’s cut in the damn shape of the bread. How is it not a sandwich cheese? You could have bought provolone or Muenster. You do the groceries. Why buy Havarti?”

“I didn’t get the Havarti to make sandwiches! I was going to have some cheese and grapes and salami and watch a movie while you were at work one night this week. I don’t like cooking a whole meal just for me.”

“Have you heard of leftovers? A microwave maybe?”

“Not that it’s your business, but I wanted to have a nice little cold plate.”

“So this is what you do while I’m at work? You make nice little cold plates and watch old movies?”

“I don’t make a habit of it. But sometimes, yes. Especially if a good movie’s on. Or a bad movie that I love.”

“So let me get this straight. Havarti complements salami on your cold plate, just not on the sandwich I made for you while you were preening like a guinea hen for half an hour? Are you sure you don’t want to change that story?”

Wyatt had to restrain himself from addressing the Governor-General directly. “Sandwiches are different.”

“Oh, professor, do tell. I so love your little lectures.”

Wyatt ignored the snide tone and took him at his word. “If you’re eating finger foods, one bite of cheese, then one bite of meat, the flavors linger and can blend on your palate as you alternate. But in a sandwich you get it all at once. If one flavor dominates—it just doesn’t end up tasting good.”

“So you need contrast on an appetizer platter, but complementary flavors in a sandwich.”

“Yes.”

“You and your constant bullshit! Havarti complements everything. It barely even has any flavor! You just have to be right. You are so crazy.”

“I am not.”

“Yes. You are.”

“If I’m so crazy then you eat the roast beef and Havarti.”

“You hate ham salad.”

“Then don’t be pissed if I take the damned Havarti off my sandwich.”

They looked at the place in the dirt where a broken bag of cement had been forgotten, rained on, and turned to a mass of concrete around the base of a sugar maple they’d hoped to preserve—even tap—: the one that would shade the front sitting room. The concrete would need to be removed without killing the tree. One of them would have to call. They independently tried to remember the foreman’s name.

“Don’t look at me. I see it.”

Wyatt never did sit down. His lover finished the ham salad sandwich and stood up again. He walked back to the best place for the sink. “What about cheddar?”

Wyatt picked up the plastic bag, which had been left behind, and put the sandwich wrap in it. But he didn’t say anything to scold his lover, and he entertained the question. “Cheddar?”

“Cheddar is definitely a sandwich cheese, and it is certainly not always mild.”

“Cheddar’s different.”

Len didn’t want to be bothered. He threw crust out toward the cement around the tree. “How?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I. Except with apples. In the fall.”

Wyatt conceded. “Or on Ritz crackers—you know those crocks of spread your sister sends from Wisconsin every October after we go apple-picking?”

“With the little round knife. So good. I love those little wooden-handled spreaders.”

Wyatt eased his previous restraint, took quite a severe tone with his lover. “We’re not moving all fourteen of those spreaders to this new kitchen. I am not going to look at your drawers of clutter in a brand new house.”

“Half of them have fallen apart because you let them soak.”

“You let the cheese dry on the blade.” Then, thinking of apple-picking with their nieces, Wyatt redirected them both. Or tried. “I love cheddar. Just not on sandwiches.”

“You and your cold plates. Is that why you’re always drunk when I get home late?”

“Wine goes well with cheese and meat.”

Len mimicked him. “Wine goes well with cheese and meat. Can you be more droll?”

“Why are you attacking me? Would you look at that sunrise and just relax? We both have a long day today. Look around you. Those uprights are the beginnings of our home together. Our home. No one else’s. Let’s figure out this sink placement.”

“Ours and no one else’s, until you sell it.”

“Why would I sell it?”

Len threw up both hands in mock defeat. “You were already talking about the property values going up and all that.”

“Why wouldn’t you want the property values to go up?”

“It doesn’t matter if you’re not going to sell it.”

“But increasing property values is just an indicator of how nice a place is to live.”

“So why don’t you say, I hope we have a nice place to live that gets even nicer?

Wyatt traced his eyebrow with one finger. “Nice place? Gets even nicer? I may be droll, but at least I’m an adult.”

“You are the farthest thing from an adult. Cold plates are like damn kindergarten snack time.” Len had planted himself where the sink should be. But his lover seemed to be ignoring the issue, wandering around picking up trash, putting it into the plastic bag. The Governor-General was not kind at all and almost shouted, “Please! Just answer me! Where do you want the sink?”

“I told you where I want the sink.”

“When?”

“Wherever you want it.”

“Wyatt. What? When did you say that?”

“I don’t have to say that. That’s what’s going to end up happening or I’ll hear about it every day for the next fifteen years, until I sell our home in a selfish fit of greed related to the increased property values.”

Len ignored the sarcasm, focused on the sink placement. “And you’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Fine. Then that’s where it’ll go.”

Almost disappointed that he’d won, Len said, “Why are you being so conciliatory all of a sudden?”

“It’s your sink.”

“I’m not doing all the dishes.”

Wyatt stopped and faced this man, lowered his voice, disengaging completely from their comfortable years of interminable bickering banter. “I know. But you’re the morning person. And standing there, where you want your sink to go, with the roseate light falling all around you, is perfect. If you were stunning, it’d be stunning. So yes, you can have your skylight. And yes, you can put your sink in that corner. Because as many days as possible I want to walk into this kitchen in the mornings and see you in that light. It’s our morning light, and this is our home.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

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Best New American Voices nominee Nath Jones received an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University. Her publishing credits include PANK Magazine, There Are No Rules, and Sailing World. She lives and writes in Chicago.