“Ok, that’s two whiskey shots. You going to tell me what happened now?”
I gave TJ a shrugged and stared at the empty glass in my hand. “I was an ass.”
With a snort, he rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but that’s old news.”
When I glared, TJ sighed. “You’re the one who called me out, remember? And it wasn’t just for free booze. I think. I hope.”
His look of mock-distress did its trick and made me chuckle, diffusing the tense atmosphere.
“When Cass came over tonight I thought it was going to involve less talk and more, well…” TJ huffed but let me continue. “Cass was stressing about Doug, though, and I didn’t know this was the weekend Linda had left them.”
“Oh shit, I’d forgotten too.”
“Yeah, well, when you get home, if Cass is there, take him out for a drink or something. He could probably use it. He said he and Doug used to get shitfaced, but Doug still hasn’t called him yet.”
Blowing out a breath, TJ nodded. “You both are pulling me into bars today, huh?” Outside of the poker nights, TJ actually didn’t drink much. I gave him an apologetic smile. “So how did things go wrong?”
It was my turn to sigh. “He started asking about Nate and why I would never go visit his grave, and I said I never went to my Dad’s grave and he just kept pushing the topic.”
“How’d he push?”
“I don’t know, acting like there was some issue I was hiding from or something by not going. Didn’t matter what I said.”
“And then?” he prodded.
I couldn’t look him in the eye—and it was so odd having this talk about my love life and his nephew. “I might have told him to get out.”
Christ, the look of death he was giving me. “I was angry and he was trying to deflect from his own pain by focusing on me.”
TJ shook his head and sipped his ice water. “And he’s the ‘kid’?” he muttered.
“I’m sorry, man. I know I shouldn’t of said that, but he needs to know when to let matters be too.”
“Have you apologized yet? Told him any of this?”
“You know I haven’t. I called you the second he left.”
He rubbed his face. “This is why I should stay single. Call him. Text him. Whatever, just apologize.”
“And talk to him. You always bottle things up, you can’t do that and have a good relationship with someone.”
“You’re the expert?” I teased, trying for lightness. He didn’t bite.
“Hey, I can still observe and learn. You don’t even that many close friendships.”
“I’m on the go. I’m a private person.”
Eying him, I almost asked for another drink. I sensed I was going to need it.
“Now who’s not talking? What’s that ‘uh-huh’ supposed to mean?”
“You know you have a martyr complex sometimes.”
“What?” I sat up straight in surprise. “What are you talking about?”
“You never reach out for help. You never talk to anyone when shit’s bothering you.”
“What guy does that?”
He spread his hands. “Hey. I’m not the poster boy for the sensitive male, but I’ve seen what closing yourself off can do to a person. Doug hasn’t ever had a conversation of any kind of substance with me, ever. That has to have affected Cass. And maybe it helps me put all this in a certain light.”
I couldn't help shaking my head. “When do you ever ‘talk’ and reach out?”
“I called you after Tracy dumped me, didn’t I? I called you when Nate was in the accident. And I know I’m known as the talker when he have our poker nights.”
“And I’m known as the laconic one?”
His eyebrows rose. “I don’t think the guys would put it that way, but you do come off a bit as the silent type. I think they chalk it up to your artistic side.”
“And you travel a lot.”
“That’s work. And what does it have to do with anything?”
“It helps you keep everyone at a distance.”
You push people away, don’t you? I’d agreed with Cass when he’d said that once before, but since then I’d definitely shifted to a more defensive stance. “I told Cass about Nate, didn’t I?” I ran my fingers through my hair and exhaled. “With the way you talk, I’m beginning to wonder why anyone wants to have anything to do with me.”
TJ chuckled. “Because we love you anyway, jackass.”
We…Love. TJ could only speak for himself, so I wasn’t sure why he tried to say “we,” as if he knew Cass’ feelings that well. It was too soon for either of us to consider that.
I had no reply to that. TJ gripped my shoulder and stood. “Talk to Cass. You have, what? Two or three weeks before you go? You don’t want to leave things as they are now.”
“Yeah, I’ll be gone most of the winter. I doubt he’ll be waiting around pining for me. Maybe there’s no point.”
“And there’s the martyr complex we know so well,” TJ chided with a smirk. Then he patted my back and left.
I stayed for a bit longer at the bar, extremely tempted to get a third drink. I knew getting drunk wouldn’t help matters, though. Been there and done that in my younger years; definitely not worth the hangover.
Actually, as I stepped out into the night, I realized it wasn’t that late, and I had no idea what to do with myself. So I did what I tended to do when I felt uncertain or overwhelmed. I walked. Not to anywhere in particular (though it would’ve been helpful to be someplace I didn’t know so well so I could find new spots and talk to random new people) just to move and let my mind drift. I didn’t know why, but it always seemed to help. Didn’t hurt that I had an excellent sense of direction either, but that’s beside the point.
The seasons had shifted and it was cold now. I didn’t mind the chill air, though I would never love the overcast skies that lasted through the winter here. I watched my breath fog when I huffed and wondered what changes my own life was shifting through.
First thing was first, though, I had to talk—apologize—to Cass. I pulled out my phone.
“He didn’t mean it.”
I shook my head at Lance, scowling. “He was being a jackass and he knew it.”
Lance blew out a long breath and glanced around the bar. He weren’t in Boys Town and not even in a gay bar. I’d somehow gotten him out to Gold Star, a dive bar.
“Why did we want to come here again?” he asked, attempting to keep from crinkling his nose and failing.
All I could do was shrug. I’d only been here once before, with Uncle TJ and it reminded me of him and felt, well, felt like the kind of place where we’d just be left to ourselves to talk. And it had cheap drinks.
“How much was that beer?”
He snorted. “Two-dollar Pabst special.”
“There’s your answer.” That earned me an eye roll.
“I only got it because I don’t trust a dive bar that serves free popcorn to make a proper gimlet.”
My turn to eye roll. “That’s like the easiest dr—”
“Stop,” Lance said, holding up a hand. “You’re too good at deflecting and getting off topic. Are you avoiding talk about your dad or about Will?”
Well, fuck. With a groan I let my forehead clunk the table between us. “You sound just like him.”
“Who? Don’t say your dad!”
“No. Will. We got into this stupid argument. We were talking about my dad and that whole mess and I asked him about his ex, Nate, and if he’d ever gone to his grave and—”
“Wait, wait, wait. His ex is dead?” Nate’s eyes were bugging out of his head.
“Don’t look like that,” I snapped, taking a swig of beer.
“Like he killed the guy or something.”
Lance’s thin shoulders shrugged. “Didn’t say it, but I don’t really know the guy, so who knows!”
“It was a car accident, and now who’s getting us off topic?”
“Okay, okay,” he muttered. I could see his eyes wander to a group of guys along the bar. Oh, good grief.
“They’re straight. Can we focus?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. I’m listening.”
I loved Lance, but I was very glad we’d never dated.
“Anyway, he got really pissy when I asked him about the grave and stuff.”
Lance adjusted his hair as one of the guys walked by, then asked, “How did that even come up? His ex? His grave?”
I spread my hands. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to talk about Dad, and Will was talking about dinner or something and I just asked. I mean, I know a lot of Dad’s shit is from stuff he never dealt with, so maybe I wondered how Will’s dealt with his own brand of baggage.”
“That’s what it’s really about,” Lance said, pointing his beer my way, which really wasn’t as effective with a can instead of a bottle.
“What do you mean?”
He spread his arms. “The whole argument you two had, that you’re all salty over. You made the talk about him instead of you dealing with your shit.”
I opened my mouth, then thought better of arguing and looked at my own beer, giving a half-shrug. “Even if I did, he was still an ass. I mean, I was kicked out of my own goddamned house. I went to Will’s to feel better, maybe mess around, and then he throws me out too. Jackass.”
“Yeah, it was a dick move. He should’ve known better. Not gonna argue that, but…”
“But?” I eyed him with a ‘go-ahead-and-say-it’ look.
“Sounds like he could tell you weren’t asking so much about him as you were asking about, like, something, anything that was not you-related.”
With a frown I finished my beer and got up to get us another round. Lance knew me well enough not to get pissed at my silence. Sometimes I needed time to just think. I didn’t consider myself to be the kind of person to put off dealing with things. I mean, I’d dealt with my mom leaving as a kid and never made excuses or tried to convince myself she would come back. Unlike my Dad.
Waving my hand, I tried to flag the bartender down, again. I let out a breath and worked on my patience. My mind drifted again. I’d learned a lot about denial and repression from my Dad, a lot of what not to do basically. Maybe that was why I wasn’t very open with him.
“Two Pabst,” I called out, and headed back to Lance after dropping money on the bar.
“So…?” Lance asked, eyes aglow.
“Did you talk to any of the bar boys?”
It took me a while to reply since I laughed so hard. “No, I didn’t even think to.”
“Ugh, you’re a lost cause. You must have it bad for Will if you’re not even looking anymore.”
I handed him his beer and sat down. “You’re looking at them and they are looking at that group of girls in the corner. They’re totally straight.”
Lance just grinned and tapped his fingertips on the table. “So they think…doesn’t mean they’re not curious.”
“So,” I said after a moment, “maybe you have a point about me, well, avoiding talking about my Dad.”
“Wow, I scored a point?”
“Shut up.” I gave him a playful smack and he laughed. “I was going to say that I feel like I usually face up to stuff, but…I guess, with certain things—my Dad being one of those things—I don’t.”
“I can’t really blame you there,” Lance admitted. “But I’m guessing Will, since he’s your uncle’s friend, right? That he knows your Dad can be a dick. So, I don’t know, I’d think he’d understand and hopefully listen.”
“Yeah, he would.”
“You still look all mopey. You don’t want to talk to him? Isn’t he your man and all that?”
I glanced about the bar and picked at the tab of my can. “For now.”
Now Lance’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that mean?”
Letting my head fall back, I groaned. “He’s leaving.”
“Sometime early next month.”
I slumped back down in my seat. “No, but for the rest of the winter I think.”
“Well that sucks. Why?”
Lance cocked his head. “What’s he do for work?”
“Photography, with a sort of photojournalism focus.” I wasn’t very good at explaining things in my current mood. The beers probably didn’t help.
“So, what does that mean for you guys?” Lance asked, elbows on the table and looking intent on the conversation for once—when I’d really rather not discuss this topic.
“I don’t exactly know yet.”
“Something else you don’t want to talk to him about?”
Blowing out a breath, I shook my head, then scowled at the group of people coming in when they left the door open too long and cold air swam around us. “They need a curtain by that door.”
Lance knocked on the table like a door. “Hello? Dive bar! Fancy is not their game in here.”
With a snort I shook my head again and tried to think. It had gotten noisy. “Wanna play pool?”
Lance looked at me like I was nuts. “Really?”
“Why not? Your bar boys have moved to play a game at the table in the back.”
“Woo, now you’re speaking my language.” He stood, then paused. “What about Will? What are you going to do?”
Standing up, I stuck my tongue out at him and replied, “I’ll talk to him, ok? Soon.”
Lance chuckled and we made out way through the bar. Then my phone rang.
“Well, shit. Speak of the devil.” Lance glanced at my phone screen and patted my shoulder. “Sooner than you thought I guess. I’ll be waiting right back here for you.” He winked and kept walking towards the back.
I scowled at my phone. “They better have decent reception in here,” I muttered to myself, “I am not going outside.” Then I stepped outside.