“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.