“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.