Spring a few years ago I went to Mayflower dorm that sits on the River in Iowa City. Two years later it flooded. But this story isn't about the deluge -- it's about fighting, sort of.
A friend lived in Mayflower. His name is Henry. There was no occasion, just an invitation on a Thursday night for a pre-game drink before going into town. Mayflower is an old apartment building renovated to be a dorm so every time I went there I felt slightly out of my element. It was crossing a threshold from carefully monitored and manicured campus existence into the weird liminal space of strictly regulated freedom. College dorms are weird. Sort of like college life in general.
Henry invited me in. Well, he opened the door and, in a characteristic gesture, grabbed me in a hug and flipped me over his shoulder, somehow maneuvering me so that I cleared the door frame, into his apartment. "Sam!" he shouted. Henry is a diabetic who has never followed his prescribed diet and has survived by balancing his eating habits with absurd physical activity. I still don't think the guy sleeps.
Steadying myself against the wall, I said, "Never do that again," knowing that he'd just forget in a few minutes.
"How the hell are you?" he asked, darting past me into the kitchen. "Did you bring it?"
I nodded and pulled a gallon of Arizona Green Tea out of my back pack. He clapped his hands and said, "Fantastic. Now I'll show you my discovery. Follow me and let's begin."
I followed him through the cramped entry way with miraculously in-tact drywall into the tiny kitchen. The roommate was there, sitting at the table. He was a beefy kid, a bro who wore a cap on backwards and sunglasses to bars. He was eating a candy bar and had a large kitchen knife sitting next to him on the table.
"Hello," I said.
"Hi," he said.
"Hello," Henry said.
The roommate and Henry stared at each other for a moment. After a very tense silence the roommate picked up the knife and walked out of the kitchen to his room.
"So," I said. "How is that working out? I thought you two got along."
Henry went to the fridge and pulled an unopened bottle of Smirnoff from the freezer. In a brutal gesture he twisted the lid off and tossed it down on the wooden table. A sound like pennies falling. In the next room Coldplay suddenly erupted at an absurd volume. Henry gave the wall the finger.
"We did. But over the past few weeks, as we've gotten to know each other, it's just like been every time we're in the same room together we're both thinking 'I hate you.' Do you hear that music?" Henry stabbed his hand in the general direction of the noise. I refrained from saying that I like Coldplay.
"Anyway, Henry said, yanked a stool out from under the table and jumped down on the seat across from me with three glasses and the bottle of vodka. "Let me show you something."
He poured out about a glass full of the tea and then set it aside. He then refilled the gallon jug of tea with vodka and shook it vigorously. Once the ad hoc bar-tending was done he poured it out into the two glasses and then poured vodka into the glass with just tea and stirred it up with a butter knife. Three glasses.
"Where is Kim?" I asked and took one glass.
There was a loud knock on the door. "Speak of the devil," said Henry quietly and stood rather than jumped up. A moment later he led Kim into the kitchen and both sat down wordlessly. I raised my glass.
"To whatever," I said, feeling clever. Kim didn't ask what it was and drank anyway.
Then we talked about the weather, how the heat was becoming unpleasant and there was no way not to sweat anymore. We talked about classes and allergies, the pollen that chocked and itched and brought tears. It was a cordial conversation. And we talked about Tae Kwon Do.
I had been an amateur and, after moving to Iowa City, I had given up. Not Henry or Kim, though. They were Serious. They competed in Nationals and I met them both through the Iowa State Karate Club (a drinking club with a martial arts problem). They were the reason I didn't spar. Both of them were stronger, faster, and gleefully meaner than anyone else. So it wasn't so much that they were both serious as that they took too much pleasure in fighting.
Anyway, at some point I mentioned that I hadn't seen Molly in a long time and the conversation came to a dead stop. Henry and Kim looked at each other and then at their glasses. They took turns refilling. In the other room, Coldplay's "Trouble" was still playing as loud as ever and it now seemed strangely appropriate.
"Uh," I said. "What's going on?"
"Nothing, actually," Kim said. He looked at Henry. "Life and everything are sort of on hold right now. There has been a misunderstanding. A failure to communicate. And, so, nothing is happening."
"That's one way of putting it," Henry said, still looking at his glass.
Molly was Kim's ex. There had been marriage plans announced and then swept away, forgotten, tensions rising and falling. Ultimately, it sounded like all the wounds had healed months ago. Things were supposed to be back to normal.
Kim said, "How would you put it, then?"
"Molly is trying to decide which one of us she wants to date," Henry said, staring at his drink. Kim stiffened, turned red, and then relaxed.
"Yeah, that would be the sum of the misunderstanding," Kim said.
"She said so yesterday and now things are..."
"May the best man win," Kim said, raising his glass in a toast that no one reciprocated. "We have a gentleman's agreement."
"We do," Henry said, grabbing on to the statement for dear life and drinking. "We're waiting for her word and then the guy not chosen will ow out graciously."
"Step to the side. Tap out," Kim said. "That was the deal."
"It's not going to work that way, though," Henry said. He looked up and the two stared at each other until both nodded. "It's not, is it?" Henry said.
There was a grim pause. Eventually, I said, "Holy shit. Are you two going to fight over her?" hoping that this would jar everyone back to reality. It was my best hope.
They both looked at me. There was shock and horror.
"Holy fuck," Henry said. "We can't let it come to that."
"It would be like The Matrix," Kim said and he did not sound like he liked the idea.
"Buildings would collapse."
"Bystanders would be killed."
"There would never be enough police."
"They'd have to call out the Army."
"Call a national emergency."
"And we wouldn't stop until Everything was Broken."
"It would be apocalyptic."
"Uh, guys...?" I said. They both looked at me and must have seen terror because they both burst out laughing. This continued for a long time, drowning out the Coldplay.
"Come on," Henry said. "Let's get drunk and then go out."
And so we did.
That was the last I heard of the love triangle for a long time until one day, many months later, I asked a mutual friend how everything worked out. She said that Molly chose God over the boys and that was the end of it. When she said this, I felt sorry for God. It was only a matter of time before Kim and Henry had their reckoning.