“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.