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.