“Cass, the door!” my Dad called.
I pushed away from my desk with a sigh. Was I going to have to endure him hollering through the house until my thirties? Assuming I stayed living at home that long, which was a frightening thought. Damn, I needed to get my ass in gear.
I ran to the door and pushed aside the screen.
“Hey, you ready to shoot some hoops or what?”
I glanced down at my khakis and sighed. “Just a second.”
He chuckled and stepped back outside. I changed my clothes and told Dad, “Lunch is on the stove when you want it, ‘kay?” He grunted and I left.
Shaun and I had barely gotten a block away when he gave me a look.
I rolled my eyes. “Yes.”
“You know what, you smartass! Yes, my Dad dragged me to mass again this morning.”
He chortled and dribbled the ball in his hands. “You’re such a sucker!”
“I know, I know!” I grabbed the ball from him as we stepped onto the court. “But I’m still faster than you!” I grinned as my lay-up sank through the hoop.
“That was a dirty move!” he said, grinning.
We proceeded to spend the next hour trouncing each other on the court. A couple other guys came by and joined us towards the end, and we eventually let them have the court.
Shaun and I sat on the curb along the street outside and he handed me a water bottle from his bag.
“Thanks,” I said, still breathing heavily from the workout. “How’s your family, by the way?”
He took a swing and shrugged. “Doing ok. Baby bro is going into his senior year in high school.”
“No shit! Wow. I still always think of him as such a kid.”
Shaun didn’t offer anything more and I let it go. His dad had lost his job at the steel mill the year before and I knew things were tough for them. They were tough for everyone these days, but especially anyone working steel or construction.
“What about your dad?” he asked, as if following the same train of thought. “How’s work been lately?”
I lifted a shoulder. “Same. No big projects. One building he started on is just sitting there now, rotting. It’s such a waste.”
He nodded. “And you?”
I looked at him. “What about me?”
With a huff, he said, “Have you talked to him about moving out or finding other work yet?”
My hackles went up and I took a breath. Just mentioning this made me defensive, but that wasn’t Shaun’s fault. He was only looking out for me. In fact, he was one of few people that took the worries over my future seriously. Sure, I had a paying job as soon as I’d graduated, and I didn’t have to pay rent. I also had to set aside my identity and work a job that drained me every day. It could’ve been worse, but knowing that didn’t make it any easier.
“I’ll talk to him soon.”
“That’s what you always say, dude. You’ve got to be honest with him about the whole construction thing. Actually, there’s a lot you still have to tell him, right?”
I wiped my forehead. “Look my situation’s not easy, ok?”
He snorted. “Oh, really? I know it’s tough for you, but try being black in Indiana. Not easier.”
“Legal for you to get married though—and easier to get laid!” I smirked.
He grinned. “I’ll give you that. How long’s it been?”
“I’ll take the fifth on that one.” He snorted and I let out a long breath. “I know I’m not doing myself any favors by waiting to tell Dad the truth, but I like having a roof over my head. And a job. When I can figure out how to make enough money to move out, maybe then.”
“You really think he’d kick you out if he knew you were gay?”
“Can you not say that so loud? And you’ve met my dad, right? You really doubt it?”
He didn’t have an answer for that. I appreciated his support though, more than I think he knew. Best friends weren’t to be taken for granted, and he’d been the first straight guy who I came out to that stayed close. It meant a lot. I had the impression a lot of gay guys liked hanging with women and—don’t get me wrong—I got on with women well, but maybe it was because I’d worked for my dad on construction for so many summers, I really preferred being around guys.
“Your dad had it rough when he was a kid, didn’t he?” Shaun asked. “You’d think that would make him more understanding, not less.”
I shrugged. “I guess you go one way or the other.” In my Dad’s case, I would have to say it was less about my grandfather and more about my mom that affected who he was now. He’d grown more rigid, more conservative and stubborn, and more protective of me, since she’d left. And I had to admit I’d become protective of him too. We’d only had each other for so long. Going away to school had been hard enough for him, but he’d let me. That was no small leap of faith on his part. Taking the step of me permanently leaving our little household unit… it was going to be tougher than I’d ever admit to Shaun. Or anyone. It wasn’t the kind of thing guys talked about.
“You guys up for another round?”
I grinned at the invite and Shaun and I joined guys on the court to go another couple rounds. Thank heaven for small favors! It felt way better to shoot more hoops instead of talking about my life. Much easier and way more fun.
Shaun and I didn’t talk as we walked back, which was fine by me; it was a companionable quiet. But as soon as we parted, my mind began to drift again.
It had been doing that a lot lately. Usually my thoughts went straight to my Dad. I needed to get out on my own. Eventually. And the problem wasn’t so much having to come out and tell my dad I wasn’t taking over the family business—though that was going to suck, no doubt. It was figuring out what I was going to do with my life.
Most of my friends were in the same boat. The lovely post-college phase of what-the-fuck-do-I-do-now? Some went to grad school. I’d considered it. But that would just be putting things off, and possibly investing more money into a direction I wouldn’t even end up going.
I didn’t hate construction. I liked physical work and I liked being able to see the tangible results of my hard labor. Building did give me that satisfaction. But working in any and all kinds of weather and having to commute sometimes two hours each way depending on where the worksite was? I could do without that.
If I was honest with myself (and that was becoming more of a challenge every day), I did have some ideas of alternative career paths. I looked down at my hands as I walked and flexed my sore thumb. I’d just have to wait and see.
All too soon I was back at my front door. Since it was the weekend, I should’ve had plans with Shaun or other friends to go out later, but everyone was busy with their own thing. Mainly meaning their significant others. I grimaced inwardly thinking of my dating prospects—or lack thereof. I could maybe call Josh to go clubbing, but I honestly didn’t have the energy to be out that late .
“Hey Dad, I’m back!” I called as I stepped inside.
“Oh good, I just got a call from your Uncle TJ reminding us about tonight. Can you run out and pick up some beer for us to bring over?”
“Uh, sure.” I’d totally forgotten there was a family thing today: Uncle TJ’s birthday actually. I changed my clothes again and headed back out.
“There they are! Thought you guys had forgotten about me!” Uncle TJ joked as my Dad and I came down the back stairs into TJ’s basement.
“We brought beer,” was all my Dad said in reply, though he did smile. It wasn’t that Dad disliked Uncle TJ, but they had very different views on a lot of things and I don’t think they’d ever really been close. Dad had been the eldest and TJ the baby, with Aunt Judy in the middle. Somehow they both got on with Judy, though. I didn’t pretend to understand their sibling dynamics. I was an only child, maybe that’s why it seemed complicated to me?
“Good to see you, Uncle TJ,” I said, crossing to the little bar he’d recently put along the back wall of the basement.
“Good to see you too, kid.” We gave a tight hug and he asked, “Are you still growing? You’re gonna be taller than me soon!”
I chuckled at that. “Maybe you’re just shrinking in your old age! How old are you now?”
“What? I’m twenty-nine this year, just like last year!” he scoffed reaching behind the bar.
I laughed and took the beer he offered. It was damn nice to finally be able to drink at family functions. Not that Uncle TJ hadn’t slipped me a beer or two before, but we’d always had to be careful that my Dad and my Aunt didn’t see. Now I could drink in the open, and sitting there at the bar with all the ‘guys’, it made me feel like I was finally an adult. Or close to one, anyway. It was hard to feel like a ‘man’ when you had to move straight back home after college. Of course, moving back in with parents was sort of the modus operandi of my generation. And, well, at least I was able to keep an eye on Dad, get him out of the hermit mode he’d settled into while I was gone. Make sure he went somewhere out of the house other than church. Honestly, the guy needed someone around. It was a shame he’d never consider granting divorce. Not something to think about right now, though.
“So,” TJ asked, spreading his arms out over the bar in a very Price Is Right kind of way, “what do you think?”
I glanced over the new bar, with its hardwood surface and lights glowing from underneath the front edge. “It’s awesome.” It really was, too. The entire basement was pretty damn impressive. Not that it had nice furniture or expensive paintings or paneling on the walls. What it did have were two old school slot machines and a stand-up arcade game of Ms. Packman, plus a very nice, felt-topped poker table in the corner opposite the bar. TJ was a very avid poker player and though I preferred something more straight-forward like blackjack, I'd never tell him that.
“I’m not sure what you can do to top this, though,” I teased—because every year he added some new addition to his playground of a basement.
“Dancing girls?” one of TJ’s friends quipped. I laughed along with the crew there, but I was picturing muscle-chested go-go boys in hot pants.
Someone got up and I took the vacated barstool. Aunt Judy and Uncle Dave were late, as usual. Four kids does slow you down. I was looking forward to playing with every single one of them, but it was nice to have a little ‘grown-up’ time beforehand, too.
I sat back and mostly just listened to Uncle TJ and his friends chat. I liked his friends but I didn’t know them that well. Dad watched whatever game was on the large-screen TV on the wall to the right of the bar.
Across the room the back stairs squeaked as new guests arrived. From the boots that entered my view it wasn’t Aunt Judy. Probably some friend of TJ’s.
I was about to turn away when I caught sight of the guy’s face. Why did he look familiar? Then he lifted a little girl into his arms and my mouth almost dropped open. The guy from the grocery? What the-?
“What is it Cass?” Dad asked nearby.
Immediately I schooled my features and looked away. “Nothing, I thought I saw a spider dropping from the ceiling.” Dear lord, was that the best I could come up with? Dad turned back to the game and I grabbed another beer, subtly sneaking another glance at ‘grocery guy’. He’d looked very sweet and helpless at the time, but I hadn’t remembered him being amazingly good-looking. But the was. As if he had radar, he turned my way as I popped open the beer and I couldn’t help my instinctive grin. He did a double take. Like, a proper straight-out-of-the-movies double take.
Then he looked away.
I hid my smile behind the beer and tried to focus on the conversation around me. And calm my heart, which was thumping against my ribs like it wanted to break through them.
I hadn’t really thought of the guy much since the other day. He’d been nice, and there had been some sort of spark there, but I’d assumed he was straight. Or at least not out. I’m not sure how I knew in the space of the few seconds we’d just made eye contact that he definitely was out and proud, but I did. And I was torn between elation and terror.
It took all my willpower to not stare. He was damn handsome. Wide shoulders, gorgeous dark hair and eyes, perfectly lickable olive skin… and apparently somehow connected to my family.
Without looking, I heard Judy and Dave and the kids all descend into the basement, and TJ moved out from behind the bar to greet them. I turned my back. I needed a moment to calm my blood—and other things—before I faced the rest of the room.
“You ok, Cassidy? You look a little flushed,” Craig, one of TJ’s poker buddies, said, raising his brow. “Two beers already getting you red in the face?”
I chuckled and decided a visit to the bathroom upstairs was in order. I didn’t panic easily—at least I didn’t used to. But hiding a huge part of who I was since moving back in with Dad had been having a bad affect on my nerves.
Stepping off the stool, I turned around to escape—and bumped right into a broad chest.
“Ooff! Sorry,” a deep voice said. A hand steadied my shoulder.
I knew without looking up who it was. And how I knew, when I’d barely met the man, I couldn’t tell you.
“S-sorry,” I sputtered. I took a step back, or as much of one as I could with the bar right behind me.
“Hey, Will! Long time, no see!” Craig said to my mystery man.
“I thought Katie was coming with you?” TJ said, coming around from the bar, “Every time I see you lately you’ve got Alia.” He was smiling down at where Alia was playing, but his eyes looked concerned when he glanced back at Will.
“Someone called in sick at the shop so Katie had to fill in at work.”
Will gave a nod. “Anyway, at least there’s a ton of other kids for Alia to play with here. So I can still hang out,” he said, taking the beer TJ offered.
“Hey, Doug, how long’s it been?” Will asked, turning to my Dad, who was up to grab a new beer.
“Have we met?”
Will laughed that off. “I was still a rugrat when you went off to school so I don’t blame you for not remembering me.”
Dad just nodded, then put a hand to my shoulder. “You met my son before?” he asked. I felt Will hesitate at the question, just a fraction of a second. “No, what’s your name?” he asked, putting out his hand.
The fact he lied kind of threw me. I was relieved on the one hand; on the other I realized that there was already something to hide between us. My nerves danced at what that implied.
I took his hand. “Cass. Cassidy.”
“You really are bad with names, huh? Or has TJ never even mentioned my boy?” my Dad gave Uncle TJ a smirk, and TJ spread his hands. “Hey, I probably have!” he said.
Dad patted me on the back and said proudly, “He just graduated last spring.”
“Oh,” Will looked at me and I could read something in his eyes that I was certain no one else did as he asked, “High school?”
There was a ripple of laughter around us and I tried not to blush. I knew why he was asking, but it was still embarrassing. “College,” I corrected, when no one else did. “Major in economics.” I cleared my throat. “I know I have a baby face.”
Will chuckled and fuck if it didn’t ripple right through me.
He gave me a smile and I gave him one back. There was a lot we couldn’t say in the midst of this crowd, but we could read it in one another’s faces all the same. I can’t really explain it, but everyone knows that feeling. The sudden hard pumping of your heart, the fizz in your blood that tells you the person you’ve just locked eyes with feels that connection too.
“So, Will. What’s your background, son?”
Turning back to my Dad, I switched gears so fast I swear I had whiplash. “Dad?” The way he eyed Will wasn’t exactly antagonistic, but it wasn’t friendly—challenging might be the word. What had changed in the last two seconds to make him look like that? He ignored me, of course.
“You heard me. I know you don’t come from Irish stock like me or TJ.”
“Dad!” Jesus. I knew my father had old school notions about certain things, but I hadn’t expected this. I mean, he’d met my friends and Shaun sure as hell wasn’t of ‘Irish stock’. He’d never made an issue about it—so what the hell was this?
“My background, my business. Sir.” Will finished off his beer and laid it, none too gently, on the bar before waling to another group across the room.
All the men around us had turned quiet. Everyone waiting for someone else to break the moment’s awkwardness.
“I’m gonna find the bathroom,” I said, keeping my eyes from my Dad. As I walked away I saw TJ glare and heard his hushed but angry voice asking my father what the hell was wrong with him.
I was happy to have a few minutes alone with a door between me and the rest of the party as I used the bathroom. I couldn’t imagine my Dad having any kind of ‘gaydar’, but what if he sensed that little thread of awareness between Will and me? Or just sensed that Will was gay? Could that have set him off? It would almost be a relief to assume he was just being racist, given those alternatives. And that was just really fucking sad on my part.
It was one thing for me to hide out in the closet, another all together to hope that others would just to make things easier for myself.
I rinsed my hands and headed to the kitchen for water. It was blissfully empty.
“So, you’re TJ’s nephew?”
I almost dropped the glass in my hand. Christ, I hadn’t even heard Will come up the stairs.
“Uh, yeah. Sorry about my Dad.” I wanted to be able to give an excuse for his words and behavior, but what could I honestly say? He wasn’t a bad person, but he was prejudiced. It was a contradiction I lived with every day.
Will shrugged those big shoulders. “I’m half Italian, half Serbian. I’ve heard worse.” He smiled and my unease melted beneath it.
“So how do you know my Uncle TJ?”
Will leaned his back against the kitchen counter across from me and said, “We lived on the same block growing up and went to elementary school together. My family moved to Munster when I was in junior high, but we stayed friends.” He shrugged.
“But I’ve never met you before.”
He tilted his head just so, looking amused, which would’ve annoyed me with most people but for some reason I felt like I was in on the joke and smiled.
“You’re young,” he said. I groaned. “I don’t mean it that way. I haven’t lived in Indiana for a long while and when I’ve been in town before I wasn’t going to TJ’s family gatherings.”
“But you do now.”
Another little shrug from those wide shoulders, which somehow made him look cute.
“I’m living here now.”
My eyebrows rose. I couldn’t imagine anyone returning to the region after they’d gotten out—I sure as hell wouldn’t. He read my face way too easily and laughed.
“My sister had Alia. She needs help with her.”
“Sure.” I nodded and was tempted to ask more—there was definitely a story there—but I didn’t want to be pushy. And it wasn’t my business, really. “So, are you always busy with work and watching Alia or…” I spread my hands and grinned. He gave something that was half-smirk, half-smile and knew exactly what I was getting at.
Footsteps came up the stairs and I turned to the sink to fill my glass.
“I think the kids want to play the Wii,” Aunt Judy said, looking at me. “Will you set it up for them?”
“Yeah, no problem.” I didn’t want to end the conversation but I didn’t have much choice. I was just relieved it hadn’t been my Dad who’d interrupted.
Will wandered back down to the basement and I played a few rounds of WiiSports with my cousins to keep myself occupied. The youngest kids lost interest in the videogames (or, rather, their older siblings got tired of dealing with them) and I chased them through the house or around the yard. All the while trying to keep an eye on the front door, which happened to adjoin the living room and was the main way out of the house. Sure enough, Will came upstairs just as dusk was coming on. Along with my Dad and a few others.
The TV was turned off—with much protest and whining from the kids, until the cake appeared. TJ wouldn’t tolerate singing, but he wouldn’t turn down cake either. I tried not to look at Will over rows of paper plates and frosting. Alia helped me by clinging to my pant leg and giving me puppy-dog eyes until I shared my cake.
“You ready son?’ Dad asked the second it was considered polite to leave.
We waved our farewells—among much grumbling from my little cousins—and I gave TJ a quick hug before leaving. I wasn’t sure what to feel as we went down the short concrete steps. Usually, I was relaxed and happy after hours of playing with the kids, but my mind had been distracted and my chest was roiling with giddiness and fear just thinking about Will. Which was ridiculous and frustrating because we’d barely shared one conversation.
“Oh, wait. I forgot my wallet,” I said just as Dad and I walked up to the car.
“How’d you do that?”
“Justin or someone wanted to look at my driver’s license. I must’ve left it on the sofa or something.”
That earned me a huff, but Dad waved me off.
The moment I was back inside, I started searching. But not for my wallet, which was still tucked in my jeans. Will glanced my way and I held his eyes for a moment longer than was normal.
“You forget something again?” TJ asked.
“Actually I was hoping I could grab one of those chocolate stouts,” I said in a conspiratory voice. “Mind if I snag one for home?”
TJ gave a laugh, and thankfully the kids were rowdy enough after the sugar rush that no one else noticed or followed me back down to the basement. Not even Will.
I opened the paper bag I’d grabbed in the kitchen, slipped the stout inside, and tried not to feel deflated. Then almost ran into Will as I rushed up the stairs.
“Jesus! I didn’t hear you. Again.”
“Sorry.” He didn’t look it.
Glancing over his shoulder, I made sure no one was there, then took his arm and began writing.
“You always carry a pen in your pocket?” he asked.
“Comes in handy, doesn’t it?”
He chuckled and it was such a warm sound, with him so close, I had to bite down on my lip to stop myself from leaning into him or slipping my hand from his wrist to his hip…or other places.
Christ. Get a hold of yourself, an inner voice yelled.
“Call me,” I said in a low voice. Fuck if I didn’t want to seal the words with my lips over his, but I wasn’t that stupid. I fled up the stairs before my willpower and intelligence fell to my libido.
I couldn’t help smiling as I stepped into the car.
“Got it?” Dad asked.
Even through my giddiness, I could feel Dad’s tension as we pulled away.
“That Will guy didn’t try to talk to you again, did he?” he asked.
Somehow I kept from flinching. I held in a frustrated exhalation; couldn’t I get a few minutes to just enjoy the moment before he had to rain on my gay parade?
“Why? And what was all that about ‘Irish stock’? You never say anything like that when Shaun or Jack comes over. And you know they aren’t white.”
“That guy was different.” He said, griping the steering wheel a bit too tight.
He gave a short sigh. “Let me watch the road.”
“Tell me why you said that to Will.”
“Oh, on a first name basis now, are you?”
“I just wanted him to know it wasn’t his place to be there.”
“Why? He’s Uncle Doug’s friend.”
Dad shot me a look that said without words exactly what he thought of my Uncle.
Dad glared at that, but I was a man now, not a boy, and I knew he took me more seriously these days.
“Look, I had my reasons.”
“You’re acting like a right bastard. You really want to get into this?”
“It’s not just that he’s not like us, son. He’s a fag.”
My stomach dropped. “How on earth would you know that?”
“He looked at you, son. You need to be more aware of these things before you end up in trouble.”
It was damn hard to hide my reaction to that; it was a good thing Dad had his eyes on the road. I wanted to yell and rile against him. Instead, I said nothing.
I told myself I was just being smart. I had to choose my battles, and it didn’t make sense to get into it with him right then and there. Why upset him when he was in the middle of driving? And I had a lot of preparations to make before I dealt with his inevitable disappointment. That’s what my rational brain was telling me. My heart was calling me a coward.
When we are young, we live our lives in reaction to the world around us, gathering the threads to weave.
Slowly, unknowingly, the moments of life are drawn together, shaping the pattern that will lead us for years to come.
Other hands guide our own, teaching us to weave.
Until one day, we realize we are alone before the loom,
the pattern at our feet not entirely of our making.
Our hands are free, but most of us continue the same pattern; it’s all we know. But some – the very willful or foolish or courageous – begin something new.
“What a cute baby! I can tell she’s a daddy’s girl,” the woman ringing me up said with a wink.
“She’s not mine, actually,” I told her. “She’s my niece.” It was reasonable to assume she was my daughter, I suppose, but it still always annoyed me. I didn’t think of myself as filling a paternal role, or looking paternal. Even if I was in my thirties, I liked to think I dressed better and looked less harried than the average dad. I missed the days I saw cute guys looking at my ass rather than people noticing my niece’s cute, saggy diaper.
“Such a shame I can’t see her sweet little face with that pacifier!” the cashier went on, ignoring me. She gave a sweet smile as she informed me, “It’s sometimes hard to break them of the habit, but having to pay for braces when she’s older will be even harder!”
I’d heard the same lecture the week before, but on the evils of babies who sucked their thumbs. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, it seemed. It was a wonder all kids weren’t walking around with horse teeth.
I grabbed my bags, hefted Alia up, and escaped as fast as I could. Some days were easier than others when I was babysitting. On the tough ones I reminded myself that at least watching Alia distracted me from other worries. Though it also made it a challenge to get laid; having a kid in your arms didn’t exactly bring the single guys running—and in northwest Indiana there weren’t that many candidates to begin with.
The heated summer wind whipped around us as I went through the now well-rehearsed routine of getting my niece strapped into the car and heading back to my sister’s place. I loved my niece, but I was looking forward to having time to myself, to catch up on some work, or zone out with a movie maybe. Yeah, the highlight of most of my evenings was staying at home with a movie. That was just sad.
“Come on, little lady,” I said once we arrived, going through the whole routine in reverse as I coaxed Alia out of the car. I hiked bags and baby girl up the concrete steps of my sister’s apartment building and knocked on Kate’s door.
“Hi guys!” she said brightly. She must’ve managed to get some rest while we’d been gone. I smiled and stepped inside, passing Alia over.
“How was my little peanut today?”
“Pretty good.” I dropped the bags by the kitchen counter and watched Kate nuzzling her little girl. Over a year and a half later, I was still sometimes amazed at the fact she was raising a kid. On her own.
“By the way, the lady at the Goodwill informed me I was ruining her teeth with the binky,” I said with a roll of my eyes.
“You should hear how people lecture me!” Kate said, setting Alia down and promptly causing her to screech. “You think ‘dad’ gets grief! Moms are supposed to know everything!”
I didn’t doubt her. And I gave her a lot of credit for raising Alia alone. I did what I could, but I couldn’t be around all the time. I tried not to think about that bastard Richard again. Every mother should have her partner to depend on. And every kid should have a father.
I took a breath and tried not to let my mind wander on that topic. It wasn’t just the situation with Richard I was pissed about—though seeing how Kate struggled made me want to hunt him down and strangle the little shit (or at least kick him in the balls). There was more to my mood, though. Namely that Kate and I had never had a father ourselves. He’d passed when we were too young to remember and though our own Mother had done her best, she wasn’t exactly the dependable type.
I had very little doubt, as I watched Kate rocking Alia in her arms, that our Mother’s actions affected hers. I knew without asking that Kate wanted to be the kind of mom we never had. Hell, even as a grandmother she hadn’t come through. Former Mrs. Casimiro was now Mrs. Cliffson and living across the country in Seattle.
Mom might bemoan not getting to see her granddaughter, but she didn’t go out of her way to fly out and visit very often. Fear of flying. Mmm-hmm.
“Why don’t you stay for a minute?” Kate asked. “I just put on some coffee.”
I was tired as hell after watching Alia and had things to do at home, but that meant I needed some coffee, right? “Sure,” I told her, guiding Alia into the living room while Kate detoured to the kitchen.
Alia pulled out every toy in the vicinity as I leaned back into the sofa. Kate’s apartment wasn’t much, just a simple one bedroom with a small kitchen and even smaller balcony. She wasn’t allowed to paint the walls, but she’d covered them with colorful cloths or thin decorative blankets (which she liked to call ‘tapestries’), alongside a few of my photographs.
“Here you go,” she said, handing me a hot mug. I smiled as she sat next to me. After being dumped by her baby’s daddy, she’d recovered remarkably well—better than I would’ve, that was for certain. She’d made this little apartment a home and I was damn proud of her.
Alia babbled at us as she played on the floor and we sipped our dark, sweet elixir. What did people do before caffeine? I shut my eyes and let out a sigh. I remembered reading somewhere that the earliest practices of drinking coffee or tea were related to monasteries or religious practices. Which had to mean it was pretty much a sacred practice, right? Totally justifiable, even if I usually got mine from the corner chain supplier.
“Are you going to TJ’s party this weekend?”
I blinked. “Probably. You going to bring Trevor?”
TJ was one of my long-time friends. One of the guys I grew up with. The kind of guy who always has your back. The kind of guy you endure socializing at parties for because they do the same for you. Or the equivalent; I didn’t throw parties. Not these days anyway.
“Only ‘maybe’ huh?”
She huffed. “It’s not easy for a single mom, you know! I want to be sure before Alia even meets anyone.”
“I thought maybe you’d get a sitter for her for the party.”
“As if I have the money for that,” she muttered. But she turned back to me a moment later, and patted my knee. “I’m sorry I’m grumpy. I don’t mean to take it out on you.”
I squeezed her hand. “It’s ok. Dating is never easy, especially when there’s…complications.”
With a long breath out, she plucked up Alia and leaned back to put my fussy niece in her lap. “Sometimes I envy you, you know,” she said, making my brows furrow.
“Well, guys are upfront with other guys. Right? Hook-ups have got to be easier. And you don’t have to worry about certain complications,” she chortled, snuggling Alia. That was a hard point to argue, but I knew she was also happy being a mom, despite it all. And for gays who knew they wanted kids, well, it was a complication they probably wouldn’t mind having. Not that I was in that category.
“If I only wanted hook-ups, you’d be right. But that’s not what I want.”
“I know.” Her eyes were far too insightful. “You’ll meet someone else.”
“Well, I better go,” I told her. “Places to go, guys to screw.” I stood and she followed, putting Alia on her hip with one arm and swatting me with the other. “Language!” But she was laughing as I went out the door.
I arrived back to my own apartment in minutes. My studio was practically around the corner from Kate, which made watching Alia far easier. I’d have opted to just continue couch surfing at her place, but Kate needed space sometimes—particularly since she’d started dating again. And she thought I needed the space as well, though I hadn’t had a proper date in months.
Stepping inside, I shut the door and flipped through my mail, pausing to stare down at one of the letters. I set it on the little table next to the door and dumped the rest on the kitchen table.
Opening the refrigerator, I gave a sigh. Old cheese, nearly empty yogurt, some leftovers, and pineapple-orange juice. Yeah, I needed groceries.
Instead I flopped down on the sofa and turned on the TV to channel surf.
How could so many channels exist and yet nothing good be on any of them? I tossed the remote aside and dropped my head back with a long exhalation.
I really needed to get out, to try something new. I knew that. If only I had a trip coming up. But I’d just gotten back a few weeks ago, and Kate was relying on me to be around for at least a month or two before I headed off again. Maybe I should go through the photos from the Alaska trip again. My stomach growled. Or not.
“Fine, you bastard. I’ll feed you!”
With take-out. Groceries could wait.
“Where the hell is the whole milk yogurt?” I muttered, scowling at all the Low and 2% options. I hated grocery shopping, and I’ll admit I’d been spoiled because up until a few years ago I’d never had to do it myself. So I always waited as long as possible between trips, and went out on days I was babysitting. Alia was usually better behaved if we were out doing something. And it was nice to go down the aisles with a person who was even more clueless of the selections offered than I was.
Alia babbled something and pointed at the yogurt selection with a frown. “I couldn’t agree more,” I told her as I squeezed her hand and moved us along.
A lot of people bemoaned their babies learning to walk, but I thought it was way easier to let her toddle around on her own than have to tow her in my arms all the time. Except when she made a break for it.
“Alia! Stop!” I snapped. Something in the chip aisle had caught her eye and she was off.
At least we were in the little local health market, rather than the huge supermarket where I really would’ve been in trouble. Then again, at a larger place I would’ve just put her in a cart.
“You want blue corn chips?” I asked dubiously. She nodded and squeezed the bag she’d snagged. “Sorry kiddo, those are too pricy for Uncle Will. Hey, don’t crush the bag— give me that!” I snagged the chips from her and her face crumpled. Oh no. No.
“It’s ok. Next time, alright?” But she was already in meltdown: her eyes squeezed shut, and her mouth opened in a silent cry that was going to erupt any minute like Vesuvius. Shit.
I scooped her up and she kicked her feet.
“Shhh! Come on. Let’s see if they have some good pickles, huh? You like picking out the pickles, don’t you?”
She shook her head and hiccupped through her tears. I squeezed my own eyes shut and prayed for patience. I was not meant to deal with kids!
“Hey, you the little lady making all this fuss?” a pleasant voice said nearby us.
I blinked and watched as a young man with brown hair and startling hazel eyes leaned in to give Alia a questioning look. She was distracted enough by his approach that she stopped screaming.
“You gotta be good for your daddy,” he said, glancing at me and giving me a smile that I felt deep in my chest. “How old is she?” he asked.
I watched Alia grab his upheld finger and settled her better in my arms. “Not quite a year and a half.”
“You come from a big family?” I couldn’t see why else a kid who looked like he was just out of high school would pay attention to a toddler. Most guys that age were too busy looking like tough-asses and trying to get laid to bother paying attention to a baby. I was a bit impressed. And touched.
“Nope,” he replied, to my surprise.
He must’ve seen my look. With a grin, he admitted, “I have younger cousins, though.” He chuckled as Alia tugged at his hand. “She’s a cutie.” He looked at me then back to her. “Does she look more like your wife?”
I almost blushed, though the hell knew why. “No, she’s my sister’s. I’m just watching her.” I don’t know why I expected him to know I was gay—maybe it was because my instincts were telling me that he was.
“Gotcha.” He reached into my basket and plucked out a pack of mozzarella string cheese, handing it to Alia as I set her back down. “That should distract her for a bit.”
“Thanks,” I managed. That little move had thrown me. It should’ve seemed presumptuous, but instead it hit me as…intimate, or maybe just very self-assured. I wasn’t sure, and it was unsettling.
“Well, I’ll let you guys finish your shopping.”
“Thanks for helping me out.”
“Of course,” he nodded and smiled, but I thought I saw his cheeks tinge the slightest bit pink. Maybe not so self-assured after all.
As he walked away, he glanced back over his shoulder and gave a smile—and my heart warmed several degrees. It wasn’t just that a hot young stud like him noticed me—his look wasn’t one of those ‘wish we were someplace alone’ ones. It was acknowledgement of something less tangible, something that wasn’t just attraction but connection.
When had been the last time I’d felt that? Hell, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d made a new friend, let alone hit it off with another guy.
Then his cute ass sauntered to the next aisle and he was gone. Just as well. He was probably legal, but I knew better than to date a college kid. I rolled my eyes just thinking about it. That had been hard enough when I was a college kid.
“Come on, baby girl.” I took Alia’s hand. “Time to check-out.”
“Honey, you’re home!” TJ said, chuckling as he opened my door and stepped back to let me in. “You got the kid with you?”
I glared at my best friend and set Alia down. “How about ‘can I help you with the groceries or anything’?”
TJ snorted but scooped up Alia. “You been dealing with this grump all day?” he asked her. I rolled my eyes and left to go back to the car and grab the other bags.
I hauled everything up the outdoor staircase to the second floor and TJ took a couple bags, following me into the kitchen.
Alia was tottering around near my feet, nearly tripping me over, so I gave her a Hobnob and nudged her back towards the living room area. Since the apartment was a glorified studio, the kitchen overlooked the living room, definitely a bonus when a little one was around. Usually when TJ was over he’d entertain Alia, but today he stayed in the kitchen, helping pack away some of the groceries—which I took as a bad sign.
Sure enough, as the last bag of chips went into the cabinet, he folded his arms and looked my way. “So, how are you doing? Any news?”
I gave him a look. “Is this an Dr. Phil moment? What’s with the sudden questions?”
“I saw your mail for one thing.”
I let out a long breath and prayed for calm. Why had I thought giving him a key to my place was a good thing? He meant well, I reminded myself. He was being the big brother I’d never had by playing protective and annoying the hell out of me. “Thanks for respecting my privacy,” I said sardonically.
“I didn’t open it.”
“Good for you.”
Alia whined from across the room and with a sigh I went to my desk, grabbed my laptop, and brought up a nature program to distract her.
“Resorting to TV already?” TJ teased.
“Hell yeah. She loves the Planet Earth series so I just keep the DVD in there all the time.” I shrugged. “At least it’s not reality TV, right?”
“And speaking of reality.”
I rolled my eyes at that. “Seriously? What a segue.”
“Well,” he said crossing his arms, “Are you going to tell me what’s up or not?”
“Nothing is up.” He narrowed his eyes and I gave a sigh of exasperation. “How can I know what’s going on until I open the letter?”
“Fine, but don’t be a pussy about this.” I scowled and he rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean,” he said.
“And you know I hate that term.” I’d heard it used way too many times by hyper-masculine males when I was an adolescent. It was interchangeable with ‘faggot’ in my mind, and I didn’t care for it.
“Just tell me you’re going to take advantage of the opportunity.”
“I don’t even know if there is an opportunity.”
“And you’d tell me if there was?”
“Yes. Can we stop the interrogation now?”
He smirked. “You’re such a baby.”
“I’ve been hanging out with one too long—and I don’t mean Alia.”
We grinned at one another and like that the tension faded. Thank god. I really didn’t need to be talking about any of my ‘issues’. Especially since they were really non-issues, not that anyone believed me when I told them that.
TJ offered to drop Alia back home for me and I ended up spending the evening uploading photos to my website—groaning all the while. I hated having to deal with the promotional side of photography, but these days it was a necessary evil. Websites were as ubiquitous as business cards, only more work and less fun to design.
As I watched the little beachball or pinwheel or whatever the hell it is spin while the photos uploaded, my eyes wandered, inevitably, to the lone folder on my desktop.
Don’t do it.
The loading finished and I chewed my lip. I was a masochist for not deleting—or at least hiding—that folder. I should turn off the screen. Or maybe open that damn letter. That, at least, might be good news. No good could come of opening the folder.
I double clicked and began to scroll. Pain bloomed in my chest. Picture after picture of me and Nate. Happy, smiling, arms around each other. Fuck. I logged out.
What did you expect, dumbass?
What I expected, what I’d been waiting for, was for things to get easier. Time heals all wounds, isn’t that what they say?
I sighed, grabbed a beer, and put on an episode of No Reservations.
Something poked me in the hip as I sat down, and I reached back and plucked out a fluffy bunny from between the sofa cushions. I looked at the little beady eyes of Alia’s toy and shook my head, “You ever have days like this, Mr. Rabbit?”
He didn’t have an answer.