“You were totally right! I needed this!” I half-shouted at Lance against the pumping house music inside the club.
“I’m too polite to say I-told-you-so,” he replied with a grin, sipping his pink cosmo.
“No, you’re not!”
He laughed. “You’re right! I told you so!”
It had been the perfect thing to do tonight. After dealing with Will the evening before, I needed to let loose, and Lance—always open and always himself—was the perfect person to be around. With him, there weren’t any hidden emotions or motivations or skeletons in his closet. Hell, no. Once he was out of the closet he never looked back and never held anything in.
Maybe that made him sound a bit crazy—maybe he was. But he was genuine, always himself, and he was a damn loyal friend. And he could dance like a motherfucker! I laughed and watched him sway his hips and throw his arms up, totally absorbed by the music and the epitome of ‘dance like no one’s watching’.
Damn, how I needed this! I plucked my drink from a side table to take a sip, then chased it with water (I knew if I didn’t rehydrate I was going to regret it, the drinks at Ross’ were strong). I grabbed his hips playfully to move against him, and he grinned. We danced a few songs together, luring others on the dance floor between us, before pulling away to take a breather.
Without asking, we both headed for the back door to the porch to douse ourselves in the cool air.
“Whew!” I sighed, wiping the sweat off my face. “It’s been too long! I forgot how damn hot it gets in there.”
“You can always take your shirt off,” he said with a wink, before fishing his cigarettes from his pocket.
“I can’t believe you still smoke!”
“I can’t believe you haven’t brought Will up even once yet,” he smirked as he lit the cig and puffed out a cloud. “Aren’t you guys living together?”
He knew damn well we weren’t. “Ha. Ha. You’re so funny.”
Chuckling, he shrugged. “Trouble in paradise?”
“We’re not even dating.”
“So says the guy who waits around to kiss his honey welcome home.”
I rolled my eyes. I never should’ve told Lance that Will had given me his key. Or that I went over there more often than I should. Or that we’d kiss occasionally.
Folding my arms, I leaned against the cold brick of the building behind me. “Still doesn’t mean we’re dating. Do I have to go through the whole thing about him still being hung up on his ex?”
“No! You gave me more than enough details on the drive here.” He softened his words with a smile. “But I know when you are gone on someone. Why else would his ex matter to you?”
“Because even as just his friend, I’m concerned that he’s carrying too much baggage about the past.”
“Not your job to fix him, though.”
“I can worry. I can want to help.”
Lance just shrugged and inhaled more smoke. “What do you really want to happen with him, Cass?”
I knew that tone, he wasn’t going to let this go. Even here, at the back of a Boys Town club where most of the other patrons were in dark corners making out or openly groping each other.
“I don’t know.”
I sighed. “I can’t have what I want. He’s not ready and I don’t know if he ever will be.”
“Does that mean you’ve laid your cards out on the table and he told you to fold? Or are you still keeping them against your chest?”
I smirked. “Your poker metaphors suck.”
“You know what I mean, smartass!”
“I haven’t been that direct…but he knows.”
“Be direct and then tell me what he does.”
“Lance,” I said, shaking my head.
“Cass.” He stubbed out his cigarette. “Come on, more dancing!”
That sounded fine to me—much preferred over talking about Will. A Lady Gaga song came on and Lance lit up like a Christmas tree. “Gotta dance on a platform for my Lady!”
I snorted, which was lost in the pumping bass of the music, and let Lance tug me up onto the packed platform. We gripped each other and laughed as we played up our ridiculous sexy dancing. Someone tried to get up onto the platform near us and I accidentally tipped him back.
“Ah! Sorry, man! Let me help you.” I took his hand and helped pull him onto the already crowded platform. My eyes glanced out over the gyrating bodies below and guys at the bar. Then my jaw dropped.
“Holy shit. I don’t believe it.”
“What?” Lance asked.
“Who? Heath Ledger? ‘Cause otherwise don’t stop dancing!”
“No way!” Lance started turning his head like a lifeguard scanning a beach. “Where? I want to see this prince of yours.”
“I’m mad at him, remember?”
“Uh-huh. So which one is he?”
“At the bar. Plaid shirt.”
Lance looked like he’d eaten something rotten. “Plaid? Seriously? In Boys Town?”
“He doesn’t wear it a lot, ok? And what does that matter?” I retorted.
Lance knew better. “Means he didn’t come to dance, which sucks.” Then his eyes lit up, as he grabbed me by the waist. “Let’s see if we can lure him out!”
“You have to tell him.”
“I know.” TJ wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t already screamed at myself a hundred times. “He ran out the door, I didn’t have a chance.”
I didn’t mention that I had handled it all wrong. Yesterday had, quite literally, been a shit day, and then I’d had to add to it to make it truly craptacular.
“I don’t know why you waited so long. I told you it was only going to get harder.”
“TJ, you are not helping,” I said in an act of iron-willed restraint, when I really wanted to tell him to take his obvious advice and shove it up his--
“I’m sorry. I don’t like to see you, or Cass, hurting.” He patted my shoulder. “And I just get pissed when everyone doesn’t realize I’m right in the first place.”
He was teasing now, knowing it would make me smile, which I reluctantly did.
“I think I scared him too.” I spread my hands. “Telling him about the Society offer, and about how I used to live my life—basically saying if I take this opportunity then he has to come in second. I wanted to discuss it with him, dammit. I just…”
“It was a bad day. It happens.”
I expelled a long breath. “Yeah. What do I do now?”
“Tell him. Everything.”
“I will, tonight.”
But it hadn’t worked out that way. For starters, I couldn’t get a hold of Cass. The kid didn’t answer his phone and it wasn’t as if I could stop by where he lived to see if he was home. So I made my own plans.
I was restless and tired of thinking, so I drove into the city. I needed a night off, a night out of the region. Thankfully a buddy of mine was free, so we were able to meet up for drinks—even if it was in a loud, overcrowded club filled with twinks.
Not that I minded a little eye candy, but I hated having to shout over loud music. Still, it felt good to be out.
“How long’s it been?” Tony asked as our beers were set in front of us. How he’d managed to score stools at the bar I didn’t know—and knew better than to ask.
“Too long!” I said with a grin, taking a long draw of the lager.
“I heard you moved back, but then I still didn’t see you around.”
“Moved back to northwest Indiana to be with my sister, who had a kid…unexpectedly.”
“Ahh.” His brows rose and he gave a nod. Tony was a good guy, but he was a partier and after his family disowned him as a teen, he never looked back. Finding a good partner probably would’ve done him good after so many years alone, but he’d had no luck. Maybe it was because he spent his time in joints like this, scoping for twinks.
“So you came back from globe trekking to play house?”
I snorted. “I have my own place and my own plans, but shit man, she needs some help.”
He nodded and drank, and I changed the subject. It became clear very quickly, however, that this wasn’t my scene—if it ever had been. I wasn’t exactly a homebody, but the lights and bass and chaos just…didn’t do it for me. And visions of where I’d rather be kept plaguing me.
When had been the last time I’d really spent time with my camera? Fuck. It used to be that I didn’t feel whole unless I took some kind of shots every damn day. With all the craziness with Katie, it just hadn’t happened. In months. No wonder I was cranky.
Then, of course, there was Cass. I’d never wanted to do portraits before, but wanted to capture him on film sometime. Since I’d met him, things had been easier. Life had flowed a little better, I’d breathed a little easier. Until I started feeling trapped. Not by him, really, but by the situation.
I took a long drag on my drink, reminding myself that I’d come out to forget about all that.
“You’re missing the show,” Tony whispered/yelled in my ear over the music.
He pointed out toward the dance floor, which was in full view from our seats. It was boxed in with bodies, half of them with their shirts off. I had to admit, it was a pretty spectacular display. There were also platforms bordering the floor that were packed with sweaty, proud dancers.
“Not bad, eh?” Tony chuckled. “I’ve got my eye on…that one.” He pointed to a flamboyant, lanky otter on one of the platforms, grinding away with a very nice looking, muscular—“Oh, hell.”
“See something you like, huh?”
My mouth opened, but I couldn’t form words. I didn’t know what blindsided me more, that Cass was out partying it up, or that some other guy was fucking partying up on his body.
The song changed and I watched as Cass hopped down and then helped the little shit with him to follow.
“I’ll be back,” I tossed to Tony, practically jumping off my stool.
So, apparently Cass was so heart-broken about our argument that he found someone the next damn night to ease his pain? I was not letting them slip off together. Fuck that.
As I wiggled through the mass of bodies, my rational mind tugged at my anger. You’re not together, remember? I unclenched my fists and tried to think as I caught sight of him. Unfortunately all thought flew from me as I took in his tight jeans, tighter shirt, and flushed face. God, I wanted to eat him alive.
Our eyes met and I was at a loss for words. I could see the my heat reflected in his eyes, but there was uncertainty too. We hadn’t left things well the night before and I knew he must have a ton of questions—and I owed him a hell of a lot of answers. But just then, away from normal life and daily demands, I knew we wanted the same thing: to be in this moment and enjoy it to the fullest, together.
Bodies bounced around us and we started getting dirty looks as we stood stalled in place and getting in the way of their grinding. Then the damn otter showed up next to us. The bastard grinned at me and slipped an arm around Cass’ waist. He closed the distance between us. “You gonna gawk at us or dance?” As he spoke, he moved behind Cass and caressed his hands over his hips as he set their bodies moving to the deep, bass beat. I could feel my blood rise at the sight of any hands other than my own touching Cass, and if I’d had a clear shot to his face I would’ve been tempted to punch his damn lights out. How dare this guy touch Cass that way! And how dare Cass just stand there and let him?
Without conscious thought I stepped into Cass’ space and pressed up against him. I couldn’t not touch him. Hell, it was all I could do not to yank him out of the club that second and find somewhere close and private to claim him in every way I hadn’t yet allowed myself before.
Cass slipped his arms about my neck and my vision narrowed down to only him. I tugged him closer by his belt loops. In seconds our bodies molded tight and perfect into one another,
Good god, it was amazing. Cass’ arms kept me close as he sucked in his breath. We’d worked so hard for so long to keep things light between us that it was only now, in this moment, that we truly acknowledged the attraction between us. And fuck if it wasn’t like opening a floodgate.
Had I been mad before? I couldn’t remember anything other than the way Cass was moving under my hands. Looking over his shoulder, I saw that the other kid had disappeared. Good.
I wasn’t holding back anymore. Screw moving slow. Screw trying to act like there wasn’t something strong and real and electric between us. Cass felt like heaven. I was through denying myself this.
He looked up at me with glassy eyes and moved to straddle one of my thighs, grinding into me. Hard. My hands found their way under his shirt, gliding up his ribs as we humped on the dance floor. I felt him groan more than heard it, and he leaned back, letting my arms take his weight as he bent his head back and practically presented himself to me. He was the hottest thing I’d ever seen.
I swayed his body, digging my fingers about his hipbones to steady him as his head nearly reached the floor. Then he righted himself and I had to briefly release him to force a few buttons open on my shirt. What had I been thinking wearing fucking flannel? Though I could hardly regret it, as Cass shoved my hands away and made quick work of the rest of the buttons, then let his hands rove. Hot fingertips brushed up my chest before his arms wrapped around my waist and he brought us flush against one another, groin to shoulder. I could feel his heavy breathing. Our eyes locked, and I knew if I didn’t taste him right then I was going to lose my mind.
With the music vibrating through me like a live wire, I leaned down, fascinated by Cass’ full, parted lips.
“Hey, Cass! You forgot your drink! Oh—Sorry!”
That damn otter! My only consolation at being interrupted was the death glare Cass gave the guy as he snatched his drink from him. “Thanks,” Cass said with heavy sarcasm. “You can go now.”
Rather than looking chastised, the other kid was amused. Cass must have felt the growl rumbling through my throat, as he patted my chest the way one humors an over-protective dog.
“Introduce me and I will,” the otter said, undeterred. Cass rolled his eyes and nodded at him, eyes on me. “Will this is Lance. Lance, Will.”
“Good to put a body to the face—I mean, a face to the name,” Lance said, his “mistake” anything but.
“Oh, come on,” Lance said chuckling. “I’m harmless.” He eyed us and then added, “By the way, don’t forget, you were going to drive us home.”
Us? There was an “us” with them? I growled again and Cass rubbed my back indulgently. Then he smirked, “Unlike myself, you live in the city. You can cab it.”
“And leave my car here?”
Cass shrugged, looking unrepentant. I didn’t mind their banter, as I still held Cass’ hips pressed against me. I could’ve stood there half the night. The other half I could think of a few other things to do, though…
“Or you could have someone else drive you or stay the night at their place,” Cass offered Lance with a knowing grin.
“No. That was one time.”
“And us coming here has nothing to do with the fact that it’s one of Dain’s favorite haunts.”
It was Lance’s turn to roll his eyes. “Don’t be a bitch, Cassidy.”
“Ugh, don’t call me Cassidy!”
“Fine, I’ll go,” he said, pointing a finger, “but you owe me.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Cass muttered. Lance kissed him on the cheek and a dark spike of anger shot through me.
“Now get back to your boy, er, man,” Lance quipped. “He looks about ready to bite a head off before mating.”
Before Cass could get in another word, Lance slipped away through the crowd.
“Let’s get some air,” Cass said. Taking my hand, he pulled me outside.
“Damn wind,” I muttered, shutting the door behind me and turning to see Alia and TJ watching me. He was helping me sit tonight since we’d had plans to hang out before Kate reminded me I was booked for babysitting duty (it was an added bonus that he was up for sitting her at his place). “What?” I asked as I set the paper bags down on the coffee table and TJ scowled.
“Language,” he retorted.
“What? Oh, come on! She’s not even two, she’s not repeating everything I say.”
He shook his head, “She will soon enough.”
Rolling my eyes, I broke open one of the bags and grinned at Alia. “Look what I got us for dinner!” Her eyes lit up at the sight of fried chicken. Not the Southern kind, but the Chinese variety, with sauce on the side as I wasn’t sure she’d be up for that. But some form of chicken nuggets and rice? Easy win with a toddler.
“Chinese again?” TJ asked. He wasn’t complaining, just looked skeptical. It’s possible that in the past I may have been a bit of an ethic food snob and put my nose up at the local Americanized Chinese take-out joints.
“It’s good, right?”
Grabbing plates from his kitchen, TJ gave a shrug as he set them down. “True. How’d you discover this place?”
I mumbled and earned a “What was that?” from TJ.
“It’s one of Cass’ favorites.”
He gave me a look, but Alia’s cries for food thankfully detoured his argument. Assuming he was about to start one.
As I tucked in, I had to admit he’d been fairly decent about the Cass issue in the last couple weeks, maybe because we were still (mostly) in the friend zone. It probably didn’t hurt that I’d also was a better mood than I’d been in a long ass time. There wasn’t any question that TJ had noticed.
“Alia,” he scoffed, “you’re making a mess!”
That she was; she’d dragged a container of rice to her and was trying to shove the sticky stuff into her mouth, with marginal success. I smiled; it wasn’t my house or carpet and TJ had been the one to offer to have us over.
“Don’t look so smug,” he said, trying to wipe her hands as she growled. (Literally—who knew kids actually growled?) “You’re helping me clean this. Go get a wet towel!”
I chuckled and obeyed. TJ made me promise to bring a high chair or booster seat or something if Alia was brought over for another meal, which I was more than happy to agree to. Any help watching Alia was amazing, and less clean up for me? Hell yeah.
Truth be told, I’d been surprised TJ was so willing, but hey, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right?
“Well, she got some food inside her,” TJ said with a defeated exhale as Alia went running off to wreak havoc with the box of toys set on the couch. It was funny to see what a struggle it was just for her to climb onto the couch itself.
“You have to help me baby proof this place.”
“Really?” I blinked. “You have most things out of harm’s way. How often do you actually plan to sit her?”
He shrugged and moved to his lazy boy while I stayed on the floor. “Don’t know, but better to have things set up and not have to think about it or rush around ‘proofing’ everything if I do, right?”
“Yeah.” Though I wasn’t quite convinced that was all there was to it. TJ was like family to me, and Kate by extension, so he did what he could for us when we needed it, but I hoped he didn’t feel obligated to fill a ‘father figure’ role for Alia. I mean, I was around, would be around for… well, I wasn’t sure.
“Did you reply to the Photo Society yet?”
God damn, everyone talked about how wonderful it was when people knew you well, but it could be a huge pain in the ass too—because there’s no hiding anything from them.
“I accepted. Not like I could seriously turn down membership. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still free to do whatever type of photography I like. Something different maybe.”
His eyes narrowed. “Yeah, sure. You spent months working on a portfolio review of the plight of the homeless with some the best photographers in the world, have honed your skills over a decade—“
“Not quite that—”
“Whatever you’ve been through you’ve always gone into the field to shoot. For a decade,” he said. “And now that you are finally going to be a member of an elite class of the best in your profession, you’re going to, what? Decline the invite and start shooting weddings?”
“I think that’s being dramatic. And I said I accepted—did you miss that? Alia, stop that!” I yanked at the toys she’d been stuffing down the back of the couch and, predictably, she wailed like I’d just kicked a puppy. Christ. “Alia, you can still play with your toys! Just don’t put them where—can you STOP screaming?!”
I heard TJ huff at my own raised voice as he moved across the room to grab my niece and lift her in his arms. She kicked around at first but he hushed and rocked her and she clung to him and stared daggers at me. Just great.
“Good to know she likes one of us.”
TJ ignored me. “Anyway, what’s your plan? You don’t want to keep doing what you’re doing?”
“No, that’s— I already have a flight booked for the Philippines in six weeks or so. But…”
“But?” His voice was muffled as Alia’s little hands pressed against his mouth and played with his lips.
“I don’t know. With Alia around and Kate depending on me more, maybe I shouldn’t leave so much or put myself in risky situations. I could find a different angle and work more in the States.”
“True.” He was waggling his eyebrows and half-listening now as Alia chuckled. But he turned to me to ask, “And your family, that’s the only reason you’d want to make this change?”
I opened and shut my mouth, then spread my hands. “I can’t say. I don’t think there’s anything else that’s…solid enough to bank on or change for.”
TJ set Alia back down—or tried. She screamed so he picked her up again and settled back on the couch with her in his lap. “Have you mentioned any of this to Cass?”
“No.” At his look I threw my hands up. “Why would I? We’re trying to be friends, remember? It would be different if we were together, but we’re not. And frankly the kid has enough to think about right now.”
TJ sighed. “I wish he’d just come out. Things can’t stay this way; it’s not healthy.”
“He has to decide on a career too.” I ran a hand through my hair and saw TJ mirror it as he shook his head.
“This is why I didn’t want you two messing around. People should be in a good, stable place if they start seeing someone seriously and, no offense, but neither of you are there.”
I looked down at my hands, picking at a loose piece of carpet. “I was a mess when I met Nate, and that actually helped me.”
“Yes, but he was in a good place. I don’t know…”
“TJ, I don’t know what you want from me. I’m trying to respect your wishes, not push Cass into anything, respect the fact he’s living in the closet, not get too close—and now you’re saying I’m not taking things with him serious enough because I’m not consulting him about my future? Give me a break here!”
He flopped back on the couch and fished Alia’s pacifier out of his pocket when she began to whine.
“This thing between you and Cass, whatever it is, I think it’s too late to try and keep your distance.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think…maybe you two have to face what’s between you and talk frankly about it. Because no matter what I or anyone else thinks, there’s definitely something there. Maybe I was wrong to ask you to ignore it.”
“Now you say this?” I grumbled.
“I know,” he said with a laugh at the irony, “but, be honest, you two haven’t exactly been acting like brothers.”
I couldn’t hide my smirk. “Maybe not—but I haven’t let it go too far either.”
He nodded, and patted Alia where she’d started dozing on his chest.
“You know you’re not going to be able to move now without waking her?”
I smiled. “Language!”
TJ put the TV on low and was still dozing with Alia on him when Kate came by to pick her up. Somehow she stayed asleep while moving her to the car (small miracles!) and I gave Kate a hug good night before walking home. I had a light jacket on, though it almost wasn’t enough with the weather shifting across the thermostat every day. The change of seasons was always crazy unpredictable.
I barely noticed the chill in the air as I walked, though—there was too much on my mind. Just ‘friends’ or not, I needed to talk with Cass about my plans, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. With so much up in the air for him, the last thing I wanted to do was add one more variable, one more ball to juggle.
I loved my work. Loved that when I really dug my heels in, it felt like I could make a difference with my photos. I’d captured some amazing moments. It took patience to get to know a community and build trust, as I was often seeking to know what was happening to people behind the scenes or on the fringes in a society. It also meant dealing with crap weather, squalid conditions, and food poisoning. But I wasn’t the one dealing with those conditions every day, and it was all worth it when it came together.
Not that it always did, but the gamble and sacrifice were worth it. Well, I’d always thought they were. I don’t think I ever realized quite how much Nate had to sacrifice in turn. I could be gone weeks at a time, I missed weddings and birthdays. Nate had rolled with it, at least at first. He knew it was my passion and saw how much it was a part of my life, so he’d never asked me to change things. Thinking back, maybe he should have. Because it had cost both of us, in the end.
My feet ended up at my front door and I had to berate myself for falling into such a morose mood. It probably wasn’t going to help me make any decisions. Turning the knob, which was left unlocked, I opened my door and had to grin.
Cass sat on the living room floor, face fixed to the TV screen, deep into whatever game he’d brought over. Did I mention I’d given him a key to my place at some point? He’d mentioned how confining his own house felt sometimes so it had just felt natural. And I couldn’t say it wasn’t nice to come home to someone when he dropped in.
“Greet you in a sec. Gotta kill zombies right now.”
I snorted and grabbed a beer from the fridge. By the time I sat down on the couch, Cass was spouting obscenities at the screen. He dropped the controller and sat next to me, giving me a quick kiss.
“How was your night?”
“Alia not cooperating?” he chuckled.
“Does she ever?”
“Aw, what a put-upon uncle you are!” he said, squishing my face.
He was in such a good mood; I hated to spoil it. I moved his hands away. “What about you?”
“Other than zombie-killing?” he sighed and flopped on back onto the couch. “Got online to pointlessly research careers.”
“Careers such as…?”
“Carpenter, lawyer, dog-walker. The usual.”
I snorted. “That right?”
“I even looked into photography.”
He played with the loop on my jeans. “Maybe. You’ve never said what kind of photography you do. I’ve seen some of the pictures you’ve framed around here but,” he waved his hand at the apartment, “I can tell that those were just for fun.”
“I see,” I said with a smile, brushing my fingers through his hair. It was nice to have this casual touching between us, the ease of conversation on nights like this. It was so nice in fact that I wasn’t paying enough attention to where his questions were leading.
“Will,” he said, sitting up and locking on my eyes, “tell me about your photography. Show me your work. I don’t know why you haven’t yet.”
I groaned and rested my head back on the couch. “Can we do it when I haven’t been dealing with Alia and I’m not so tired?”
“Most people like to talk about what they do for a living, you know.”
With a mirthless chuckle, I told him, “Most people don’t have to deal with poop under their fingernails.”
“I went to check Alia’s diaper and realized, ‘Oh, yes there is poo, and I just put my fingers in it.’”
Cass was trying not to laugh. “Yeah, I’ve done that before with my little cousins.”
Scrubbing my hands over my face I said, “I know it should be funny, but it doesn’t seem that way right now.” I lifted my head and shook it. “What is it someone said about comedy? Time plus pain equals humor? Maybe I just need more time.”
Cass squeezed my knee. “What else is it? What’s up?”
“I just…” I spread his hands. “This isn’t where I thought I’d be. I’m glad I’m able to help Katie, but this really wasn’t the plan.”
“What are you trying to say? What was the plan?”
“It wasn’t being back here. In this town. Not on a regular basis.” I withheld a sigh at the look on Cass’ face, “The town gets small, right?”
“I know.” He paused, a determined look on his face. “This indecision wouldn’t have anything to do with this would it?” Cass asked, pulling a letter out from the couch cushions. “What’s The Photo Society?”
“Hey! What are you doing with that?” I reached for it but Cass snatched it away.
“What is it?”
Letting out the sigh I told him, “Just what it sounds like. It’s a society for a specialized group of photographers, usually those who bridge into photojournalism.”
“You forgot to say it was damn prestigious and invitation only.” He winked.
“Evidently you already know something about it.”
“The wonders of Google!”
“Why did you ask then?”
“Because I wanted you to tell me.” Then added under his breath, “Wondered if you would tell me.”
“Am I that secretive?”
He looked at me then, and his eyes searching mine seemed to delve deeper than I was comfortable with.
“You don’t appear to be at first, but yeah, you are.”
“Want to tell me why you think that?”
Cass waved the letter in my face. “This would be a start.” I swatted at the letter as he added, “The travel plans you never mentioned might be another.”
How the hell…? Cass must have read my face because he sighed and said, “I borrowed your computer to get online and you’d left the ticket confirmation up. I wasn’t spying, so don’t look at me like that.”
I wasn’t quite sure what to think at this point. Obviously I trusted Cass or he wouldn’t have my key, and these were things I should talk to him about even if he hadn’t brought them up—things I meant to talk to him about—but… it still struck me as intrusive.
I watched as Will tried to gather himself, fighting off his temper, or trying not to put up his defenses. Even though I knew I was pushing him, I’d waited for answers long enough. If we were going to move forward—and let’s face it, we already were—these things had to be dealt with.
Will swept a hand through his hair, not speaking at first.
“Fine. I’ve been accepted into The Photo Society.” He said finally. “It’s a pretty generic sounding name, but it's a very elite group—many of the photographers work with National Geographic.”
Holy shit. “That’s huge! I want to say congratulations, but you don’t look as if this is good news.”
He frowned down at the letter in my hands. “I know it is, but…” He rubbed a hand over his face. I wanted so badly to help him, but I had no idea what he was so conflicted over. And he seemed a bit—distant.
“It’s a different kind of life, if I start down that path. I mean, seriously start down it,” he said. “My main aim has always been documenting the homeless in foreign countries—trying to see how different cultures deal with the issue and the people. You really have to earn trust and it makes it easy to get attached to people. I do what I can to shed light on the problem but it’s damn exhausting. Christ, I’ve gotten to know the insides of hospitals sometimes better than people, between food poisoning and infections, but,” he shook his head, not looking at me, eyes far off, “it has been incredibly rewarding. And I thought… I always thought that it was what I was meant to do.” Running fingers through his hair again, he let out a huff of breath, and I just let him continue. “To do that kind of work, it has to be your top priority, everything else is second.” Watching him hunch over, head in his hands, I began to get a bad feeling skittering across my shoulders. I wasn’t going to like where this was going.
“Nate, he…understood that.” Will shook his head. “But I think it’s part of the reason we grew apart, over time. And then when Kate got pregnant, I dropped everything to support her.”
Oh god, his voice was shaking. Why didn’t I feel like I could touch him? It was like his past with Nate was an invisible barrier between us.
“I think that was when Nate realized I’d never done that for him. Never dropped everything to be with him; never put him first. He’d never asked but, still, it was there. He knew…” his voice choked, “I couldn’t love him enough.”
Two thoughts slammed into my mind almost in the same instant—that Will shouldn’t blame himself for this, when he was just doing his job, and, a split second after, that Will was crying over losing this guy. Still torn up over the loss two years later.
“You’re still in love with him.”
“What?” Will looked up at me with his tear-streaked face and I almost reached for him then, almost wrapped myself around him and begged for him to put his past aside, but of course it wasn’t all in the past, was it? I didn’t know where Nate was now, but there was always a chance of a reunion. Even if there wasn’t, I couldn’t bare to get attached to someone whose own heart was still taken by someone else. And as much as I told myself I didn’t, couldn’t, have feelings for Will, it didn’t matter. Even if I didn’t now, I would if we were given time.
And that made a new fear curl deep in my belly. I couldn’t bring myself to examine the depth of it. I couldn’t process it all.
“Where are you going? Cass!”
“I’ll talk to you later. I just…I have to go right now.”
“Cass, wait, please!”
But I was already out the door.
“Hey, it’s me. I’m holding you to hanging out this weekend. Give me a ring back.” I ended the call and fell back on my bed with a huff. Why wasn’t anyone around tonight? Shaun was so bad at getting back to my voicemails, but he had better be ready to hang, because Will said he was up for it and it was important he meet my friends.
Which was ridiculous of me, really. Not them meeting, but the fact it felt like such a crucial necessity. As if I was introducing them to a boyfriend. And no matter how much he felt like my boyfriend, he wasn’t.
I rubbed my hands over my face and groaned.
How long were we going to keep up the “friends” façade, anyway? Because seriously, that’s what it was. If we kept seeing each other, there was no way things wouldn’t move forward. And then what?
“Cass! What are you doing? Let’s go!”
Oh, yeah, pizza night out with Dad. At least it would distract me from my problems. I grabbed my keys, wallet, phone, and headed out.
“Expecting a call?” Dad asked, making me flinch as I pulled back from checking my phone.
I stuffed my mouth with pizza and shrugged. “Waitin’ to hear from Shaun about the weekend.”
“Big plans?” he asked, smiling before sipping his beer.
“You can’t lie for shit, son.” He was chuckling, but the irony of that statement turned the pizza over in my stomach.
Wait, what did he mean?
He shook his head. “A dad knows when his son is distracted because of a girl. Who is she?”
Relief and dread washed over me in equal parts.
“Seriously, Dad, it’s no one.”
We kept eating and thankfully I was able to steer our talk into safer waters. But the conversation stayed with me.
All I could think of the rest of the week was how pleased Dad had looked. Even during good times, he wasn’t a very forthcoming guy. And the past several years hadn’t been good times. So to see him smile… It should have made me feel good. But of course, it was all based on a lie, so it had the opposite affect on me.
And if Dad found out I was mooning over a guy, well, it would have the opposite affect on him too. Which was so shitty. The fact banging a girl would make him feel so proud—like I was a ‘man’—but actually finding love (with the wrong kind of person) would make him condemn me, was utter crap. Not that I blamed him really. That was what he’d been taught, the environment he grew up in. All I could hope was that he wasn’t too old to change when push came to shove.
Looking into the mirror, I groaned. Why would I try out new hair gel tonight? The first night I was going to meet Cass’ friends?
Because you’re trying to look young and hip for them, my mind supplied. Not much chance of that. The gel was too greasy and the style was less Mad Men and more Grease the Musical.
I was still fussing with it ten minutes later when my phone rang. Wiping off my hands, I grabbed my cell. “Hey, Kate. What’s up?”
“I got called in to work tonight,” she said. “I have to leave in an hour. I know this is your night off, but can you sit Alia? Please?”
Shit. Any other night I would, but tonight? Why did it have to be tonight? It was hard enough building up the courage to meet Cass’ ‘crew’. I wanted it over with, even though that sounded dramatic. It was true just the same.
“Will, are you there?”
“Yeah. Yes, I’ll watch her.”
“Thank you, thank you! I owe you!”
Damn that restaurant. Kate was apparently the only reliable person on staff, given the number of times she got called in.
The doorbell rang and I looked heavenward. Great, Cass was already here and now I had to tell him I couldn’t make it. I strode to the door and opened it to a smiling, sexy Cass. He had a cargo style denim jacket, a loose t-shirt underneath that hugged him just right, and dark washed jeans that were snug in places that made my hands ache to touch.
“Hey,” he said. “You ready? Or should I, huh, come in?”
“Come in.” I smiled, but he noticed my hesitation.
“Kate just called. She needs me to watch Alia.”
“Oh…” His face fell and all I wanted to do was kiss him and make it better. “Isn’t anyone else free to watch her?”
Blowing out a breath, I considered that. “Maybe. Give me a minute. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen. I’ll be right back.” Phone in hand, I stepped into the bathroom and shut the door. I crossed my fingers and dialed.
“What’s up, Will?”
“Kate just called me last minute to watch Alia. Can you think of anyone who might be able to, other than me?”
He paused. “Are you with Cass?”
I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t lie. Expelling a breath, I said, “Yes.”
“Is he going to spend the night?”
“What? No!” I bit back a curse. “TJ, I’m telling you, we’re not like that. Yes, we’re supposed to hang out tonight, with his friends. I’d like a night to just relax with some good company.”
“Me and the guys aren’t good company?” he teased.
I snorted. “You know what I mean.”
Another pause. “Did you open the letter?”
Oh good lord!
“Yes. And yes, I was accepted.”
“You sound thrilled.”
“TJ,” I growled, “I don’t want to think about it tonight, ok? Can you consider sitting options? Any of your other nieces or nephews maybe?”
“No,” he said, and my heart sank. Why did the universe have to torture me like— “But I can watch her if you need me to.”
“Geez, thanks for the vote of confidence. Yeah, I think I can handle her for one evening.”
“Ok, but go to Kate’s place to do it. She’ll need you there by 7. Alia sleeps by 8:30 and you’ll want to—“
“I’ll get the details from Kate. I’ll give her a ring to let her know the change in plan. It’ll be fine. Just,” he sighed and I felt him reel in whatever he was about to say, “…Just remember, Cass is young, inexperienced.” Another pause. “If you hurt him…”
“TJ, I’m hanging up now.”
“Hey, there he is!” I heard a voice call as Cass pulled me through the front door of his friend’s house.
“Hey, Shaun. This is Will. I mentioned he was coming along, right?”
“Will, good to meet you. Come on in!” Shaun waved us to follow him down the stairs to the basement, which had been set up like either a bachelor pad or maybe a man cave. Bare walls, an old couch the only furniture, exercise equipment in the corner, and a giant flat-screen TV with multiple game consoles. It smelled of weed and tobacco.
Ah, to be twenty-two again, I thought with a smile. Of course, I didn’t actually want to go back to that time. Sure, the stamina was nice, but there were so many questions up in the air, so many doubts about what to do with your life. No thanks.
Then I realized I wasn’t so far from that now.
“Beer?” Shaun offered, opening a mini-fridge against the wall.
“Yes.” Beer, however, was ageless.
Cass and Shaun introduced me to the other two guys there, which was brief since they were in the midst of game play. Maybe it was the alcohol (I bypassed the pot), but the night was chill and pretty fun. Some games I sucked at, but there were a few where I could hold my own, and it was fun to razz all of them and give them shit. There was typical talk of play and pussy, and I couldn’t tell if Cass was out to them or not. Shaun was very welcoming and made an effort at other conversation, though, so it was a good bet he was the only one in the know.
It was a good time and surprisingly nice to be with a crowd of people who didn’t have to discuss spouses or real estate or health care—though there was nothing that could make you feel older than being in a room filled with people who’s cultural references were a good ten years out of sync with you.
There was a brief discussion about the phenomenon of mullets, and why it was only white guys who had them. When I piped up with, “Well, white women have them too, look at Florence Henderson”, I was met with blank stares.
“Who’s Florence Henderson?” Cass asked absentmindedly as he played. It was so casual and innocent, but a little blade went through my heart.
“The mom on the Brady Bunch,” I answered.
“You should’ve been watching Good Times,” Shaun chuckled.
“There were mullets on there too.”
“True,” Shaun laughed.
The night moved on and when the other guys decided to head to one of the local bars, Cass opted us out, much to my relief. Not that it wouldn’t be fun, but being alone with Cass would be better.
“Sorry,” he said as we walked to my car, “I’m hungry. I hope you don’t mind skipping the bar.”
God, he was cute. “Of course not. Where to?”
“Round the Clock? Steak & Shake?”
“Either’s fine by me.”
We ended up at the Round the Clock after a brief detour through the Krispy Kreme drive-thru, and settled into one of their burgundy-colored booths.
“I haven’t been here since they renovated,” I told Cass as we glanced at the menus. “I hope they still have the lemon-rice soup.”
Cass chuckled and grinned. “They do. Renovated or not, they still started as the typical Chicagoland Greek diner—they’ll always have lemon-rice soup and saganaki.”
I looked over the multi-paged menu and debated what to get. It was general diner fare, with those special Greek additions that made it so dear to my heart. The last time I’d been inside it had been a more open layout with old-fashioned Formica tables and cornflower blue booths with white floors and walls. Now they’d done it up with a rustic theme, with ‘worn’ looking wood adoring the outside, and internal windows dividing areas up, and dark wood beams along the walls and ceiling. Different wrapping, but the same place at heart. It had taken me years of travel and living in other cities to appreciate the diner scene in Chicago. It just wasn’t like this anywhere else.
“You look like a kid in a candy store,” Cass quipped. “Not like this place is special.”
“Spoken like someone who’s never lived outside the area. You don’t know how lucky you are,” I told him with a shake of my head.
He met my smile and raised a brow, “Oh?”
“Yep. Around Chicago you can eat anytime, day or night. In a lot of other areas of the country, you’re shit outta luck after 9pm.”
“That can’t be true.”
I spread my hands. “And yet…”
“Seriously? Like where?”
“Entire city of San Francisco for one. There’s about two all-night diners in the whole city, and over in Berkeley—college town or not—if you don’t eat by 9 you’re probably not going to be able to.”
The waitress stepped up then and we both asked for more time.
“Plus,” I added after she’d gone, “most of the diners around Chicago and the region are Greek, but you go to the east coast, west coast, and you’re gonna be hard pressed to find lemon rice soup.”
Cass laughed. “Well, I don’t have to ask what you’re getting!”
The waitress returned, took our orders, and we settled again into light, safe conversation, but we both could feel that we were just treading water above the real issues surrounding us.
During a lull after our plates had been cleared but our coffee hadn’t arrived, I offered, “Your friends seem like good guys. Do they, uh, know you’re out?”
Cass looked away at that. “Well, I’m not.”
“So it’s not just your dad you’re keeping it from.”
Yeah, he was definitely uncomfortable, but this needed to be discussed.
“Shaun knows. TJ knows.”
“I suspected as much. No one else?”
His finger ran along the edge of his mug as it was placed before him. “Lance, a friend from high school. He lives in the city. His whole crew knows, but that’s different.”
His eyes narrowed. “Yeah, it is. They’re in the city; they go to Boys Town. They get to be out. Me? Here? It might only be a half hour outside the city, but it’s a different world in Indiana.”
“If you say so.”
“That’s rich. You gonna tell me you act the same way here as somewhere like SF?”
A couple people looked our way and Cass shrank deeper into the booth. The waitress brought our coffee over and slipped away without asking if we needed anything else.
“I’m not trying to rile you up or push you, Cass. I just have seen a lot of guys put themselves into bad spots by hiding who they are for too long.” I tried to reach over for his hand but he held back. Could I honestly blame him? I didn’t want to admit it, but he had a point.
“I’m sorry. You’re right,” I said into his silence. “I’ve never gone in for pda’s so I don’t think about it that much, but walking on the street holding hands around here? Probably not the safest thing to do. But yes, I could do that in other places if I wanted to.”
He nodded then and seemed to unfold. We ordered pie—because you can’t come to a diner and not order pie. I’d thought we’d exhausted our quota for meaningful talk for the evening, but Cass was ready to gave as good as he got.
“So,” he said, distracting me by spooning coconut cream into his mouth, “you kind of clammed up on the walk the other day. You carrying some baggage or something?”
I guess turn-about was fair play. “You always this blunt?”
He shrugged. “When I want something, yeah.”
That hit me right in the chest. The kid regrouped quick. I took a long breath and let it out. How was I supposed to move slowly in the face of that kind of sexy determination?
“Yes,” I heard myself say, “I am.” Not that I had wanted to admit that—definitely not so early on. But it’s hard to circumnavigate such a direct question.
I picked at the pie left on my plate while I tried to form words. This was the first time I had to explain my recent past to anyone. Everyone who knew me here was already well aware of it. And didn’t ask questions.
“Bad break-up,” I said at last.
I felt him pause. “How bad?” he asked softly. The way he was looking at me, I knew he’d gotten the wrong impression.
“It wasn’t an abusive relationship or anything like that.”
“Well, that’s good. But then…?”
I could probably ask Cass to drop the subject, but even though it was difficult for me, it was important I get it out. Maybe it would help me move past it.
“We had been together a long time.”
I took a breath. “Eight years.”
I smirked. I’d known that would throw him. Cass looked away.
“It’s just, if I had been dating someone eight years, we would’ve be together since I was fifteen.”
“Way to make me feel my age, kid.”
“S-sorry,” he stumbled, but still pressed on. “What happened?”
I spread my hands. “We’d gone through a lot together, and we had always made it through. I thought we’d be in it for the long haul, but—” How did I explain this? How much should I say? “I don’t know. We didn’t communicate enough, and we kind of started going down different paths without realizing it. Then my sister got pregnant and her boyfriend split, so I knew I had to help out. Nate wasn’t up for that.”
“What? He left you just because you wanted to help your sister out and babysit sometimes?”
“It was more complicated than that.” Although there had definitely been days when I thought of it in exactly those terms. It was kind of refreshing to hear someone take my side, with such a simple vindication.
“Anyway, what can I say? It happens.”
Cass was quiet for a long time; I wondered if he’d probe further. I hoped he wouldn’t.
His hand slipped into mine. I looked to him and found him staring at our intertwined fingers and he flexed his against mine. It was such a tender gesture—and brave, considering his misgivings. My throat felt tight.
“Were…were you two…” he stopped. “When you first got together, was it like it is with us now? This easy?” He was looking for reassurance, of course he was. We weren’t even officially together and he was already fearing for the road ahead. My brain said I should find that troublesome; my heart thought it was unbearably sweet to see Cass looking so vulnerable.
I cleared my head to think about the answer and realized, “Actually, no.”
His eyes met mine as he said, “With most couples, it starts like a honeymoon and then things change. Wasn’t it like that?”
I’d never really thought of this. It had been good between Nate and me. Really good for several years, but… “Things between us started pretty heavy. I was different when I was your age, when I met Nate.”
Cass didn’t push for more; he just waited and watched me. I dared to venture into places I wasn’t very comfortable going. “I’m not saying there wasn’t a spark between us, or that we didn’t have great times but, when we met, I was in a really bad place, and Nate wasn’t looking for a commitment.”
“Oh.” His voice was quiet. I wondered what he was thinking. Usually I could tell, and I hated that it was my relationship with Nate that was putting a damper on our own time together.
“You were in a bad place, how exactly?”
I’d never realized how many landmines were in my past. “I was…depressed.”
“Suicidal?” he guessed, all too aptly. His hand squeezed down on mine.
“Yeah.” I let out a long breath. “I really admire how together you are at your age. It took me a long time to sort things out. Nate was there for me. He really helped me get above water again.” I shrugged. “But I think he needed me to support him too, and even after I recovered I leaned on him too much. And then with the baby…” I shook my head, “it was all too much.”
“I don’t have it all together.” His voice was sad and soft, and he sounded so young. No, no one really had it all together at twenty-two. But he was doing damn good, and I told him so.
“Thanks,” he said.
I paid the check and we left the diner without saying much else, until we were inside the car. Cass’ hand was over mine before I could put the key into the ignition. His eyes, wavering but warm, held mine as he leaned up and kissed my mouth. It was a small kiss; tender and uncomplicated. And that was one of the things I liked about him most: Cass didn’t dive into things the way I used to—the way I still sometimes do. He had patience and took his time; he appreciated the journey as much as the destination.
He sat with his head on my shoulder and we stayed in our oasis of the car for a while longer, until I felt the mood shift into something more intimate.
“I better get you home.”
Cass pulled away reluctantly. His crestfallen face had me leaning in to kiss his cheek before I knew what I was doing.
He smiled; I started the engine.
“What is it with you two?”
The guys had all left, but, as usual, I hung out after to shoot the shit with TJ and help clean up. I paused from clearing beer bottles and stray snacks to look up at TJ. I didn’t have to ask whom he meant. I tried to keep my poker face in place but it was a lot easier to do while playing cards.
“What do you mean?”
He folded his arms and I expelled a breath, frowning. “I don’t know. He’s a great kid.” I shrugged. “He’s fun to be around.”
“Come on man, we could all see the way you looked at each other. You’re not thinking of him as a kid.”
“I’m not making a move either.” His look put me on the defensive. I let the bottles fall into the recycling bin with a clatter. “Christ TJ, haven’t I been miserable enough lately? So I meet someone I can finally have some fun with and who makes me laugh. Give me some credit that I’m not just going to jump down his pants.”
My voice was harder than I’d meant, but I didn’t apologize. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. All Cass and I had done was talk.
“Look, I know it hasn’t been easy for you. I’m not begrudging you happiness or anything.” He broke off his stare and began putting the poker chips back into the beds. “But it’s my nephew you’re talking about, and my brother isn’t the most tolerant guy. And, well, Cass is young.”
I noticed he didn’t say straight, so Cass must be out to at least his uncle. That was good. I wasn’t sure how deep in the closet the he was.
“He’s legal,” I pointed out unwisely.
“I know, I know. I’m honestly just enjoying being around him.”
He nodded, but I caught the muttered, “For now.”
“Hey, you know what I went through with Nate. The last thing I want to do is rush into anything. If Cass were straight, I’d still enjoy just spending time with him.” At least I liked to think so.
TJ nodded and took the recycling up the stairs.
I couldn’t pretend I didn’t share his concerns. The problem with that instant feeling of rapport was that it could wither like paper in a flame once the real world crept in. Real problems; real baggage. When two people first meet, everything is new, there’s no expectations, and that buzz in your veins at their nearness keeps you smiling even after you’ve parted. But eventually you do have to deal with life. With ex’s and bills, and one of you forgetting to gas up the car or do the laundry.
But none of that stopped me from thinking about Cass’ sweet laugh or his cute little bubble butt when I laid down for bed that night. Shit, I was in so much trouble if just thinking about him tickling me had me hard. Was it just that he was off-limits that had me thinking of him in an endless loop? It was like being a teenager again with an incurable crush.
And as I tried to read some random magazine article in bed, I gave in to the urge to do exactly what I’d done over the years when any guy wouldn’t get out of my head. Kicking off my pants, I shoved down my briefs and ran a hand over my already hard dick.
I thought about Cass’ smile, the way his jeans fit. The way he’d feel in my arms and how he’d look when I touched him, put my mouth on him…
How had I gone this long without touching him? I knew it would be warm and electric. I’d run my fingers along his farmer’s tan lines and tease him about it, just before taking his mouth.
Then I groaned, because holy hell, I was already on the brink. My dirty little mind supplied Cass’ voice echoing in my head: “Oh, Will! There, yes!” Would he be demanding in bed, or soft and yielding? The thought of it sent white ribbons of come erupting across my belly.
I grabbed the tissues next to my bed and wiped up, shaking my head at myself, because that had been way too fast and way too easy.
And I had no idea how I was going to deal with this.
So I distracted myself.
Not bothering to dress, I stood and grabbed the letter still sitting on the table by the door, then flopped back onto the bed. Nothing like sexual frustration to make you face your procrastination.
For a moment I just held it in my hands, running a finger over the return address: The Photo Society.
It was such an unassuming name for such an incredible collective. With a deep breath, I gingerly tore open the envelope and unfolded the letter.
And stared at the words on the page for a full minute.
“Huh,” was all I managed before I folded the letter back up and slipped it into the drawer in the nightstand.
“Come get food with me,” was Cass’ greeting when he called me a few days later. I glanced at my watch.
“Don’t you have work? At 1:30? On a Tuesday?”
“Nope. Dad’s company is between jobs. Next one should start in a week. So, what do you say?”
I paused, saved the work on my computer and smiled as I cradled my cellphone to my ear. “Where?”
“Hong Sue Palace.”
“I don’t know it.” But as I was already online I did a quick search. The single picture of the narrow grey stone building didn’t look promising.
“It’s the best,” Cass said.
“Yeah. We could bring it back to your place.”
“Glad you’ve thought this through already.”
There was the slightest pause before he offered, “Or we could take it someplace else. There’s a forest preserve with picnic tables not far from it.”
I said ok.
An hour later we spread out our oyster pails on a rickety picnic table under the trees.
“I’ve never come here.”
“No?” Cass smiled. “Looks like a man of the world like you still has some new experiences waiting even in our little corner of the map.”
We tucked in and I had to admit, it was damn good Chinese food.
“I think the Palace has been open since the 60’s. I grew up going there. I know it’s a hole-in-the-wall, but I love it. Especially that little window they have so you can look into the kitchen and watch them cook.”
His smile was sweet, boyish. We were sitting side-by-side and not a single other soul was around. I gave his lips a little kiss.
“Hey, that’s cheating. Don’t be a tease.” He popped another piece of chicken in his mouth with a pout.
“Sorry.” But I couldn’t stop smiling. “You were asking for it.”
He shook his head and smiled now.
As we finished up the food and tossed the containers in the trash barrels, Cass convinced me to take a walk along the paved bike path that went through the woods.
“I’d think you’d be all about taking a walk. An explorer like yourself—I wouldn’t guess you’d be lazy!”
Giving a soft huff, I shook my head. No, not lazy, but I wasn’t big on pre-paved trails through forest preserves that overlooked suburban homes. Yeah, it was a snobbish attitude and I didn’t want to admit it to Cass, but there it was.
We walked quite a ways, as Cass led me off the pavement and onto some trails deeper in the woods. I thought for certain he was just trying to get us lost enough so he’d have cover to make a move, but he didn’t so much as try to hold my hand.
“So what did you do over the weekend? Other than poker?”
I shrugged and ducked a branch. “Work. Uploading new photos, cleaning up my webpage.” And looking for flights, though I didn’t say it. “You?”
Cass shrugged. “I thought about going downtown, but…”
“I don’t know. I didn’t feel like clubbing or drinking all that much.”
I thought I could read between the lines of that. Maybe he didn’t want just a quick lay after we’d been hanging out. That could be wishful thinking, though I hoped not.
Then I checked myself. Friends, remember? Doesn’t matter who he spends the night with.
“And,” he went on, “I had to get up for church on Sunday. Like I have to do every Sunday.”
“Not too thrilled about that, I take it?” I said, giving him a grin.
“Not particularly. Just another thing on a long list I have to talk to my Dad about.”
“Good ol’ Roman Catholic.”
I snorted. “Same here.”
He stumbled. “Seriously?”
“It’s what I was raised; I still go sometimes,” I said, shrugging.
“But…” He was at a loss for moment. His hands spread. “How can you go voluntarily, with their stance on…certain things?”
“The policy toward gays?’
“Is that why you’d rather not go?”
Cass shrugged, like he wasn’t sure how much he wanted to get into this. “Partially, sure. But it never really did much for me anyway. I never went when I was away at school, though I always enjoyed going to midnight mass at Christmas with my dad. That was special. But normally, I’m glad to be away from it.”
“I think the whole ritual is ingrained in me. Growing up celebrating my saint’s feast day, stuff like that,” I explained. “And my sister still considers herself Catholic enough to go every Sunday. She wants Alia to grow up with that community, too.”
“Wow, celebrating your saint’s feast day?” he chuckled. “I never knew anyone’s family who did that.”
“It was a different time. I don’t think it’s the same these days.”
“You aren’t that old, you know, gramps. Wait, which saint are you named after?”
I knew my cheeks were heating as I answered, “Uh, my middle name is Ignatius.”
Cass bit his lip, holding back his laugh, or trying at least. “Seriously?”
With a playful shove into his shoulder I told him, “Yeah, seriously.” Then asked, “You don’t ever miss it?”
“Nope,” Cass answered without the slightest hesitation.
“You’re father know that?”
He frowned. “Sort of. There are weeks I miss church with him, but I think he chalks that up to my age, and thinks I’ll become more devout when I get a little older.”
“Are you certain you won’t?”
Cass blinked at me. “Hell yeah. Like I said, even as a kid, it never did it for me. I was bored to tears at every service, and I could never figure out why the priests were so dull and serious and foreboding. I can still remember a ‘kid’s sermon’ in CCD where the priest talked about hellfire and damnation.” I shook my head. “I looked around and thought ‘Really? We’re kids. What does this have to do with us?’” Letting out a sigh, he went on. “I remember too, how much heaven was talked about. It was supposed to be this amazing, wonderful, joyful place.”
When he paused, I glanced over to him, sensing there was more. Finally he said in a subdued voice, “Then my grandfather died. At the funeral everyone was so somber, and my grandmother was sobbing. It must’ve been the first funeral I ever went to. I was still pretty young, and I couldn't understand why, if heaven was such a great place, everyone was so sad that grandpa was there now.”
“I’m sure you were hurting too,” I offered softly.
“I knew he’d been sick and I knew he didn’t want to be on life support. He died quickly and everyone said he didn’t suffer.” Shrugging, he admitted, “So, no, I wasn’t. I think I was too young to understand the reality of it all. But as I got older, I realized that everyone was crying not for the end of his life but for the loss of his presence in theirs.”
My feet stopped moving, my chest tight.
I could feel Cass looking at me, feel his concern, but I couldn’t meet his eyes. That moments like these could still hit me was unnerving.
“Let’s head back,” I managed, then turned back the way we’d come.
Even with my abrupt end to the conversation, Cass didn’t push, and I realized he was a much more patient person than I ever would be. And I was very grateful for it. When we finally reached the car again, he opened his door and said, “So, uh, since we’re friends and all, would you be up for meeting some of my other friends?”
I blinked, slipping into the car and delaying an answer as my mind shifted gears. It was a reasonable request, though it felt awkward. The fact that we were both aware of that made it easier somehow, though. “What did you have in mind?” I asked reluctantly.
He smiled at that and I knew I was going to do anything he asked. He probably knew it too.
“Hey! Hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“No, not at all.”
He looked like he had, though, if the half-finished basket of pita bread was anything to go by.
“Would you like something to drink?” the waiter asked, suddenly at the table. He handed us menus and I shook my head. “Water is fine.”
I took a moment to look Will over as he grabbed another piece of bread and put it between those full lips. He had a simple button-down shirt and jeans on, but they fit him so well. He’d look good in anything. Or better, nothing.
He caught my gaze and I reached for my water.
“You come here often?” I asked with a chuckle to break the moment. He laughed with me and I felt warmth curl in my belly.
“There aren’t that many good spots in the ‘burbs, but this place has the real deal.”
“Doesn’t everyone always say their favorite restaurant is ‘authentic’?” I smiled.
“True, but I can say with confidence a lot of these dishes really are authentic.”
“And you judge that by…?” I really liked giving him a hard time. He was so easy and good-natured about being teased. So many guys weren’t.
He grinned. “Because I’ve been to the dishes’ countries of origin.”
“Oh. Wow.” It was a lame reply but I was a bit taken off guard. I looked over the menu and felt my nerves give a kick. I tended to play it safe at restaurants. I was the kind of guy that ordered club sandwiches all the time or the same dish over and over because I knew it and liked it and that was enough for me. But I didn’t want to do that now—not with Will, the apparent world-traveler. I didn’t even know what a lot of the dishes were, but I couldn’t go with something as banal as the ‘hummus plate’.
“Hey,” he said. I looked back up. “Is that all the time it took for you to realize what an old guy I am?” He had a self-deprecating lopsided grin, but I was surprised to notice that his cheeks were a little pink.
“What? Not at all! Actually,” I chewed my lip then stopped myself, “I was thinking what an inexperienced kid I am.”
He gave an easy shrug. “If you want to get out and go places, that’s half the battle. Some people around here don’t even get that far.” I nodded, but still felt self-conscious.
The waiter came back to the table and a ridiculous jolt of panic shot through me. I didn’t want to sit there trying to decide for like twenty minutes what to eat, but I still had no idea what to order.
“I’ll have the veggie platter, with labneh, dolma, baba ghanouj—and, can I add the kibbeh on the side?“
“With the kibbeh, of course,” the waiter grinned. “And you?”
I opened my mouth, “Umm…”
“Do you eat meat?” Will asked.
“He’ll have the kufta kabob with rice.”
The waiter simply nodded at this and walked off.
“Hope you don’t mind,” Will said, “it’s one of the best dishes. We can always share if you don’t like yours.”
“Ok, sounds good.” I never thought it would be a relief to have another man order food for me. If anyone had asked me about it before this, I would’ve said it was a dick move. But…it didn’t feel that way with Will.
“Was that too aggressive of me?” he asked.
“Ordering for you.”
“Oh, no. I couldn't decide anyway.” I could feel myself blush. “Just another sign of what a kid I am, huh?”
He tilted his head and rested his elbows on the table, not exactly leaning in towards me, but close. “How about we make a pact: I don’t talk about being an old man, and you don’t talk about being a young kid?”
I smiled. “Agreed.”
He gave a soft smile in return and tore a piece of pita bread, dipping it in olive oil that had some sort of seeds or spices mixed in. I did the same, and found it damn tasty.
“Speaking of kids—actual kids,” he clarified, “I wanted to thank you for watching Alia at TJs.”
“Oh, that was nothing.” My grin broadened. “I love kids, and Alia is very sweet.”
“She is with you, anyway.”
I had to chuckle at that. “It’s easier for someone who’s not always around and doesn’t really have to discipline her.”
“Somehow I get the feeling you’d do just fine even if you were the disciplinarian, though.”
There was something disparaging in his voice that made me stop and really look at him.
“You have a hard time with her, don’t you?”
He gave a long sigh. “I love her, don’t get me wrong, but…” He shrugged. “It’s tough. I don’t have any experience with kids. It’s all new to me.” As he spoke he spread his hands, looking a bit lost.
That was interesting. This rugged-looking, worldly guy overwhelmed by a tiny kid. Suddenly I didn’t feel as self-conscious. No matter how confident someone appeared, we all had our weaknesses, and I had to admit I found his pretty damn cute.
“You’re good with her,” I told him. And even though I hadn’t seen him with her much, I thought I had a pretty good reading on people. “It’s never easy. She’s not even yours and from what TJ said you’re basically helping raise her, that’s pretty gusty.”
Huh. This really bothered him.
Reaching across the table, I squeezed his hand. It wasn’t a move I normally would’ve done around town, but it was early enough that not many people were in the restaurant.
Will looked up from where he’d been gazing at the table and gave a lopsided grin.
The waiter came then with some tea we hadn’t ordered and I immediately pulled back. But Will just looked at the glass and then grinned at the waiter. “Thanks,” he said. “ You always remember even when I don’t.”
With a chuckle, the man left and I fought an embarrassed flush. What had I thought? They’d bring us free drinks just to interrupt two guys holding hands? Yes, I did. I was just glad this was a case of me being paranoid rather than others being prejudice. But around here, hell, one never knew.
“You ok?” Will asked after taking a sip.
“Yeah. What did they bring you?”
Now he tilted he head and smiled at me. “Black tea prepared very strong; this kind with a little cardamom in it. Why did you jump when he brought it over?”
I gave him a look as if it was obvious why and he returned it with a soft laugh. The food came then and we tucked in, our talk turning less personal. It was still easy to talk, though, and it felt like it shouldn’t have been. More than easy: effortless. And the food was damn good.
“I gather even though you ordered the veggie plate you’re not vegetarian,” I said, nodding to his side of kibbeh, which had turned out to be some kind of football-shaped stuffed meatball.
“No, not a vegetarian,” he chuckled. “I just order my favorites.”
After Will’s prompting, I ended up trying everything on his plate. It was all good, but the thick labneh yogurt I could’ve done without.
Will ordered more tea, I ordered coffee, and then I gave him a look. Something was on his mind. “Out with it.”
I decided he looked cute when he was startled.
“You look like you want to say something but keep stopping yourself.”
He gave a shake of the head but grinned. “You’re just like my sister. I just start thinking about something and somehow you know.”
I raised my brows, “So?”
His levity faded and he sat back. “It’s been a good night. Obviously we get on.”
He looked increasingly uncomfortable. “But I think it’s best if we, umm, keep things platonic.”
“You invited me out so you could tell me we need to be friends?”
At least he had the decency to look chagrined.
“I guess so, yeah.”
“Well, that…wasn’t what I expected.”
He waved for the check and took it before I could protest. “Come on,” he said, “let’s talk for a bit outside.”
He stood, signing for the bill at the counter and saying goodbye to the staff on our way out. Once we were in the parking lot we just stood there. I really didn’t know what to say. Will was a pretty easy person to read; I knew the attraction was mutual, so I didn’t have a clue what the ‘friends’ thing was about.
He said, “Look, I’m sorry I phrased that so poorly in there.” I waited. If I said anything now it was going to come out snotty. “Your uncle is my best friend. He’s practically family.” Will finally looked at me. “And I don’t think of you as a kid, but,” he sighed, “you are young.”
“So that’s it?”
“No.” His look was serious and his eyes gave away everything his words wouldn’t allow. “I’m not going to jump into anything with you, though. I’m not ready to open up right now.” He touched my chin with his fingers, then let his hand drop. “But I do want to spend time with you. Can we just keep things light for now?”
It was odd to have someone older than me—someone who was mature, who had life experience and a career—putting it that way. It sounded like the kind of thing a guy who was young and wanted to play the field would say. I knew that wasn’t why he was saying it, and I hoped he’d give me a real reason eventually.
I took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Ok.”
He smiled and when someone stepped out the restaurant door near us, our hands quickly broke apart. We might be only a half hour from Chicago, but northwest Indiana wasn’t the most tolerant of places. You just never knew.
“Anyway,” Will said when we were alone again, “I had a good time. If we were alone, I’d be tempted to give you a goodnight kiss.”
I rolled me eyes and gave him a shove. “Tease.”
He chuckled and we headed to our cars. His taillights had barely left the parking lot when I got a text: How’s the date with hot stuff?
I sighed and hit the call button.
“If you’re free to call me, the date can’t be going well,” said Lance.
“Nope, already over. And it wasn’t actually a date.”
“Oh, no—is he straight?”
“Worse, he gave me the friend talk.”
“On the first date?!”
“See above: not a date.”
“Oh, honey. What a weirdo.”
I laughed. “Not really.” I did enjoy Lance when I needed a pick-me-up.
“You don’t sound that crestfallen.”
“No, I guess not.”
“I know you were after him so that means you haven’t given up.”
He was right, though I felt dumb admitting it. “Maybe.”
“The good news is it’s still early—come up to the city and dance the blues away with me!”
I groaned. “Dude, I do not have your energy!”
“Aw, come on! You haven’t gone out and even dry humped anyone all summer!”
“Good night, Lance.”
“Have fun with your left hand again tonight then.”
“You can’t see me, but I’m giving you the finger.”
“I wish someone would, a finger right up my—“
After my not-a-date date with Will, it would’ve been reasonable to think we wouldn’t talk much, but somehow we started calling each other every few days after that. It was like we couldn’t help ourselves. I knew I couldn’t. And whatever Will’s reservations were, we both wanted each other’s company.
After I’d come home that night, and my Father had asked me about my evening, Will’s concerns hit home. Honestly, what had I been thinking? I couldn’t have a relationship with someone who knew my Dad. Ok, so they wouldn’t exactly being holding heart-to-hearts anytime soon, but the connection existed. Especially with Will and Uncle TJ being such good friends, if we started anything, more people would be involved in hiding it than just me. I couldn’t ask that of them. So I couldn’t be involved with Will in any way unless I was ready for some serious life changes.
That didn’t mean we couldn’t hang out though. As friends.
Which was easier when we didn’t see each other face-to-face. After that dinner, we didn’t make any other plans to see one another. We talked at length some nights, but never about what we were doing with friends or outings we were planning. Our circles, thankfully, didn’t crossover much. I kept myself busy hanging with Shaun, he even convinced me to go camping with a few other guys one weekend. Something I probably never would’ve done if I hadn’t been looking for things to keep me distracted. Plus, you can’t really jerk off when you’re stuck in a tent with your buddy. At least you shouldn’t. So I was able to skip my almost daily masturbation session—when I inevitably ended up fantasizing about a certain tall, dark, and handsome man.
I thought I was doing well. Playing it safe. But Fate can be a tricky little bitch when she wants to be.
“Cass! Get your skinny butt over here!”
I laughed at Dave as I reached TJ’s basement and headed over to the poker table. I almost stumbled—but saved myself at the last moment.
“Hi, Will,” I said weakly, trying for nonchalance. “Hey, Dave. Craig.”
TJ pushed out a chair for me with his foot. “Just in time. My hand sucks. Let’s reshuffle guys!” He spoke around a cigar in his mouth, the one he always had and never lit. He loved getting decked out in the cheesiest, most cliché poker player gear: plastic green visor, button-down shirt, and that gross cigar. I loved it.
“You started without me?”
Uncle TJ replied, “Just a practice hand.”
“Says you,” Dave grumbled, tossing his cards to TJ. “You want a beer, kid?”
I smirked. Dave groaned. “You owe me a buck already!” I chuckled, rubbing my hands together.
Will looked between us blankly. I’d been trying to ignore him, because I instinctively wanted to look at him and no one else, but now I told him, “It got old fast always being called ‘kid’, so I managed to get all these old farts to agree that they owed a dollar every time they said it.”
“We should get money whenever you call us old,” Dave shot back.
“But I remember not to say it most of the time. Aloud at least.”
That earned me a snort and Dave tossed chips my way, then handed me a beer.
Once the game got started I managed to relax. Ok, I’m sure the beer helped too. And the fact I won the first couple rounds.
“Lucky bastard,” Craig said with a shake of his head and a rueful smile as he watched me collect the heap of chips. He turned to Will, “I thought you were always the lucky one. Kid’s givin’ you a run for your money!”
Oh, Will could definitely get lucky if he wanted to.
I shoved that thought back. Focus. I glanced at Will. On poker.
“Another dollar,” I told Craig, smirking.
The next round of cards didn’t favor me so well. Truthfully, I wasn’t that great at cards, but then again neither was anyone else. I found myself looking them over to see if they were giving anything away.
Will lifted his brows. Had I been staring? “Do I have something on my face?” he chuckled, and I hoped desperately I wasn’t blushing.
“I’m figuring out your tells.”
There were collective snorts and laughter. “Keep forgetting that you and Will haven’t ever been here on the same night,” TJ said. “Bastard doesn’t have any tells.”
I insisted, “Everyone has a tell.”
“Well, if you find it, let us know.”
“Like hell I will.”
Another round of laughs. Another round of beer. The guys started to talk about work or sports—or women. Oh, yeah, this was the part that always gave me second thoughts about joining poker night. TJ knew about me, but no one else did, because I’d asked him not to mention it. Not yet. Not until I was ready.
But they must’ve all known about Will; he hadn’t made a secret of it at the party. I stood as the round finished, my winnings shrinking.
“Anyone else need another beer? Or water?” I went to TJ’s bar and grabbed the drinks from the mini-fridge—and admitted that, even though it sucked I couldn’t totally be myself, it was still great to hang out with the TJ and his friends—and Will. Even when I was wound-up, being near him eased something deep inside my chest.
He had his back to me as I walked back from the bar, and I wondered how the nape of someone’s neck could manage to be so damn sexy.
I handed out the drinks as TJ shuffled. I happened to be standing next to Will and saw him rub his shoulder.
“Got a kink?” I asked.
“Something like that.”
“Here, let me see if I can help.” Then I shoved a hand down the back of his shirt. He yelped.
“Your hands are like ice!”
I laughed as he tried to push me away. “Aww, big tough man afraid of my little cold fingers?” He had his elbows on the table and I grinned. I pushed my hands up the side of his loose shirt and squeezed his side.
“Ahhh!” he collapsed in a fit of laughter and a bright flash of joy spread through me at the sound. He was squirming now and I tickled harder.
Damn it felt good to touch his skin, and it wasn’t even sexual. Not much anyway. It was just nice to feel that unspoken connection between us even more acutely when the warmth of his skin was beneath my hand.
“Ahh, stop!” he roared as he fell off his chair trying to get out of reach. I wanted to topple down over him and make him beg for mercy, but I suddenly felt eyes on me and righted myself.
TJ was looking between me and Will with raised brows and a frown—a tough combination but he managed it.
I shrugged and Will crawled back to his chair, slapping my arm. “Jackass,” he said with a grin.
TJ’s party had not gone according to plan. Not at all.
Though I’m not usually big on parties, I admit I’d been looking forward to hanging out with TJ and Craig and Dave and the rest of the crew. I’d missed poker night the entire summer because Kate’s work schedule demanded I watch Alia in the evenings. I’d been hoping to catch up with everyone.
Instead all I could do was try to act like I wasn’t crushing on the one young cub in the room—a cub that happened to be my best friend’s nephew. (Ok, maybe he wasn’t a ‘cub’ in the usual gay man’s sense of the word—no beard and little body hair from what I could see—but he was so damn adorable I just the image just stuck.) And his father clearly could use more than a beer to chill the fuck out. I’d never known Doug that well, but I hadn’t thought he was that big of an asshole. My family was Italian and Serbian but most people just saw a vague ethnic mutt when they looked at me; it had been a while since I’d dealt with someone being openly bigoted.
More important to me than personal insult was that Doug’s reaction to me had made it nearly impossible to even talk to Cassidy at the party. And that was all I really wanted to do once I’d caught sight of him. Not much threw me off my feet these days, but seeing him sitting there with all the guys, bottle tipped to his mouth as his eyes met mine… Yeah, floored, that was the term.
He’d looked great, even before that little blush had crept over his cheeks when he’d looked away. I’d told myself after Sunshine Market that it was just as well I’d never gotten the guy’s number—since he was probably too young and I really wasn’t ready for that kind of complication in my life. It was fun to fantasize about might-have-beens, but of course reality was different. Nothing would’ve happened between us, I told myself. But all that flew out the window when our glances caught.
Until I’d learned he was Doug’s kid, of course. Talk about inconvenient.
Just another reason nothing could happen. But my eyes kept finding him the whole afternoon—especially when I saw him willingly, happily, playing with Alia. Watching this young, hot guy being so kind and giving with my little niece… it curled into my belly and warmed something within me that had been strained for years. Myself, I didn’t get on with kids that easily. Caring for Alia had me running up a damn steep learning curve. But Cassidy seemed right at home. And his openness with her and the way she responded to it—hugging this guy she’d only known for a few hours—had me melting.
Maybe it was because most guys had a hard time letting themselves be that vulnerable. I know I did. I didn’t want to baby-talk and sit on the floor and play house or whatever-the-hell kids did. I never wanted to be with anyone under twelve since I’d turned thirteen. It took a lot of kindness and self-possession for a guy to put a kid before himself. And a kid that wasn’t his own? Or even related?
Fuck, my heart wasn’t used to this level of sappy emotion. And this was someone I could not get involved with. I vowed to avoid him at the party after that, but the house wasn’t all that big.
And then, just when I’d thought I was in the clear because he’d left the party, he had to come back and lure me down to the basement to grin and flirt and give me his number. It opened a hell of a Pandora’s box for me.
“Alia can have milk before her nap, but try to use the sippy cup instead of the bottle. The milk should calm her so she won’t fuss as much, so if you just--Will?”
“Huh?” I looked up. “Sorry, Kate. I’m listening.” Sure I was.
I hadn’t been able to focus on anything since that damn party. And I blamed being so scatter-brained on the fact that I had no one I could talk to about Cass. I’d tried with TJ, but it hadn’t gone over well.
“I can’t believe Cassidy is your nephew,” I’d told him the day after the party. “I didn’t expect him to already be graduated.”
“He’s twenty-three. He was thirteen when Margaret left.”
I shook my head. “He looks like a kid.”
“He is a kid.”
“Twenty-three isn’t that young.”
“We’re ten years older than him.” Nine technically, but, wisely, I didn’t point that out.
TJ had paused then and looked at me. “Why are you asking about him?”
“I wasn’t. I was just making a comment.”
I shrugged and hoped I hadn’t given anything away. TJ didn’t have much luck with women and even though he wanted kids and a family, it hadn’t happened—not yet anyway. So he doted on his nieces and nephews, and he was damn protective of them. Not that the guy didn’t trust me, but trying to hit on his nephew probably wouldn’t go over well.
I brought myself back to the present to find Kate staring me with a glint in her eye I didn’t like.
“What?” I asked.
“Who is he?”
She folded her arms across her chest. “Out with it.”
“Don’t you have to get to work?”
She gave her watch a cursory glance. “I’ve got time. So tell me his name.”
“Oh, come on. I’m a bit distracted and automatically it has to be a guy, right?”
The fact she was right made me pissed and defensive. I took a breath. “Look, it’s not something I can talk about ok?”
Of course that made her eyes glow—she was one step away from rubbing her hands together with glee. “Now you have to tell me!” she said, grinning.
“I really can’t.”
“Unless he’s some kind of secret agent or war criminal, I think you can.”
“Yes, secret agent, ya got me.”
With a chuckle, she shook her head and pinched my arm.
“Hey! You know I hate that!” I rubbed my bicep and tried to look wounded.
“And you know I hate people keeping things from me. Especially you. So spill already.”
I blew out a long breath. “You’re a gossip, and I can’t have you spreading this around.” I hoped I sounded serious enough. She frowned but didn’t argue; at least she recognized the truth.
“Is it some friend of mine?”
“One of our relatives?”
“Ok, we’ve covered everyone I talk to, so you’re in the clear.”
Grabbing my hair, I tugged. This is what I get for complaining I had no one to talk to. “You still have to be careful who you might mention it to, if I tell you.”
Uh-huh. But I was going to tell her and we both knew it.
“You know I went to TJ’s party last weekend.”
“Yeah.” Her brow wrinkled. I could almost see the gears moving in her head and coming up blank. “It’s one of TJ’s friends?”
“No. Will you just listen?”
I took a moment to pause. How to put this? “Just keep in mind that nothing is going to happen with this guy. But he’s the first person I’ve really been attracted to since…”
“Ok.” One word but I could hear her curiosity loud and clear.
“Doug was there of course—“
“Oh god! Not Doug!”
“No! Jesus, can you stop interrupting?”
I paused again, making her wait. “Anyway, like I was saying, Doug was there and a bunch of other guys were hanging out around the bar. One of them was this younger guy I’d seen at Sunshine Market. And... we talked. He was cute. But young.”
I glared. “The guy is Doug’s son.”
I had the satisfaction of seeing her eyes go comically wide, before I regretted letting her know.
“Well,” she said after a moment, “you said you weren’t going to pursue it, so it’s not that big a deal, right? Doug usually doesn’t even come out to TJ’s parties and stuff so his son probably won’t either.” She looked at me.
“What?” I asked.
“Was he mean?”
“Doug’s son? Like, could he tell you found him attractive and he was pissed or something?”
“No.” Although, given Doug’s political (and religious) leanings, her concern probably wasn’t far off base. Except… “The kid’s gay.”
“Oh.” Another comic deer-in-headlights look. It would’ve been so damn amusing, if I found the situation itself amusing instead of depressing. “Christ, it’s gotta be tough for him in that household.”
That was putting it lightly. “Yeah, well,” I said, “in any case, he’s too young, and even if he wasn’t it would be too complicated.” I leaned back and ran my hands through my hair. I needed a haircut.
Kate was eying me, but I pretended not to notice. I didn’t really want her sisterly advice on this one. And much to my relief (and surprise), she didn’t give it.
“I should head to work. We can talk more tonight if you want, ‘kay?”
I nodded and went to see what disaster Alia was up to in the bedroom.
We didn’t end up talking later, of course. Both of us were too damn tired for it. I’d put Alia to bed and had time to eat dinner, so after I kissed my sis goodbye I was left to return to my own place, which just didn’t sound appealing. But, frankly, neither did going out. Especially since I’d quit smoking and somehow Indiana had managed to hold-off a smoking ban in its bars. I inhaled enough to make up for a year without a cigarette with one night in a local dive.
I pulled out my phone, hesitated, then made a call.
“Why are you calling me?”
“Hello to you too.” I smiled. TJ was such smartass. “Want to grab a drink? I just got off baby duty.”
“I thought you had sworn off bars.”
Sometimes TJ had way too good a memory. I rolled my eyes and told him, “Not entirely, and that Dugan’s place has a patio. I’d be up for it.”
“Maybe another night. I got an early start tomorrow. Not all of us live your carefree lifestyle.” I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said with a snort. “That’s me, between babysitting and staring at my computer I’m totally carefree.”
“I’ll see you soon, man. And don’t forget to open that letter!”
I sighed as I ended the call and started walking. The night was nice but cool, with that autumn tang to it that promised cold weather to come, even as the summer tried in vain to hold it back. The trees rustled in the breeze and I kicked a stone in my path.
The calm of the night should’ve put me in a good mood. I loved easy late-summer nights like this—when the night breeze was so perfect it feels like water over your skin. A car went by, music blaring and bass so deep it made my chest vibrate. I glared at the retreating back window and tried to push down my annoyance.
A lot bothered me lately, more than it used to. I was definitely too young to start becoming a grumpy old man. And compared to just a couple years before, life was going well. On paper at least—but I couldn’t feel it. Maybe I was just waiting for the ax to fall. It had been one thing after another for so long, I didn’t know how to relax even when things were fine.
And the matters that weren’t fine—like my personal life or my moodiness—well, I really didn’t want to examine those. You could only self-reflect so much before you tumbled into that reflecting pool and drowned. So I’d had my heart broken. So what?
That happened to everyone at one time or another. People got over it, moved on. Sure, what I’d been through might have been more than most people had to deal with when it came to break-ups, but in the end I still just had to find a way to suck it up. It had been years already, for Christ’s sake.
What I needed was to start something new. It was easy to use Katie and Alia as an excuse to just sit around and keep the status quo, but I wasn’t really doing myself any favors.
I should plan my next trip; that would help. Even if I couldn’t leave Kate and Alia again this soon, I could book the flight now so I would get a good deal—and be gone for the worst of the winter.
My phone rang and I felt a pang of hope that TJ had changed his mind. But I didn’t recognize the number. That was odd. Especially at this time of night. I almost didn’t answer, but somehow found myself saying, “Hello?”
“You didn’t call.”
I blinked, about to ask who the hell this was—then the voice registered. “Cassidy?”
A soft chuckle met my ear. “Good guess. Have you got a lot of guys calling like this?”
“Obviously not.” I smiled, irrationally pleased to hear him. “And especially not guys I never gave my number to.”
“I asked Uncle TJ for it.”
I gave a quiet ‘ahh’ in reply and wondered what TJ had thought of that little request. Then I told myself it didn’t matter. Nothing was going to happen between us, anyway. “What excuse did you give, exactly?”
“For wanting your number? So you could be my big gay mentor, what else?”
I almost snorted as I laughed. “You’re crazy, kid.”
“Call me Cass.”
I paused. There was a soft undertone in his voice, subtle, but I knew enough to notice. I really had to end this now, before it began. I had to set him straight (as is were).
“Cass it is then.”
* * *
I checked my watch for the thousandth time and once again berated myself for what a bad idea this was. I was waiting in the one Mediterranean restaurant in town for a guy who I was not meeting for a date. Anything but, actually. Although I doubted Cass realized that—and I knew that wasn’t fair, but, well, some things were just better explained in person than over the phone. Right?
Or maybe I was being a chicken shit. Or maybe I couldn’t help wondering what a date with Cass would feel like before I threw the hatchet down.
Trying not to fidget, I took a breath and sat back in my chair. The restaurant was small, located in a non-descript, old style strip mall (meaning the storefront met the sidewalk with the parking lot behind) off a busy street, and I came here enough that they knew me and I could be relaxed. Or relatively relaxed, considering why I was here. Cass seemed like a good, level-headed kid, but what if he made a scene? Better to have it happen somewhere that the wait staff already knew me enough not to think I was some weirdo or shmuck.
I checked my watch again. Five o’clock exactly. Too early to make this an official ‘date night’. Maybe Cass would think better of it and not show up. Maybe--
He walked in from the back door and my heart skipped. It fucking skipped. He was wearing a fitted flannel shirt and jeans and my reaction was still that visceral.
No, I had been right the first time. This was a bad, bad idea.
“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.