“Dad, does it seem weird to you that I don't date?” I asked Brandon, the older of my dads.
“Of all the weird things you do, that one worries me least,” he said with a little smile.
“Uh huh,” I said, emphasizing the sounds to show how dumb he was being. “Kari dates. My friends date.”
“What's your rush?” he asked. “When it's time, you'll do it. Don't force it.”
Brandon likes to give me advice. It seems to be his thing. I've probably told him at least a bajillion times he should do a podcast or AMA – ask me anything – so that he can get a wider audience. He's right way more than he's not entirely wrong, but there's just so much advice you can absorb before you start to wonder if you're making your own choices, am I right?
I love Brandon. He's my Dad, capital D. He's involved, and after having had my mother to compare him to, it was obvious and kind of shocking. My mom would just up and leave for a stretch of time whenever the mood struck her. I'm sure she had reasons, but I never knew what they were. I stopped crying about her leaving when I was six or seven. I had my sister, but then she also 'pulled a mom' and disappeared shortly after Mom had.
Brandon checked my school work early on, but he followed my grades and kept an open line with my teachers later. It still feels sometimes like I'm being spied on, but he says the only things he hears are good things and it always brightens his day. I think that's messed up, because it's harder to be resentful about him getting good news. I think he does that on purpose.
When I lived with my mom we had food, sometimes. I ate at school more than home, I think. I wanted stuff other people seemed to think was important, which made me think it was important, like...certain clothes and electronics – and electronics are cool all by themselves, so yeah. Wanted them.
Brandon cooked a lot and had me help, which was less fun. He got me a new phone last year. He and Hal got me a TV and game system. One day he walked in and just tossed a set of wireless gaming headphones at me. For being me, he said. Night and day doesn't seem like it emphasizes the difference enough.
I can appreciate now how much free rein I had compared to how Brandon parents. I have plenty of moments of resentfulness, because I did okay looking after myself. Mostly. But I have to admit...it's nice to have someone to turn to.
“Can I help you?” Pause. “Oh, hi, Isaac – you're back again.”
I swam up out of my mental fog to see the line I'd been standing in was gone. The voice was the server at my favorite coffee place, Marshall, and yes, I'm here enough to know the staff by name and most of their schedules. Never come in on Wednesdays. Delivery day. Many frowny faces. “Hi,” I replied, smiling. “Chestnut praline me, please.”
“We going big today?” he asked with a smile.
“When do I not?” I replied with a grin, unable to not return his smile.
“All right, all right, all right,” he said in his best fake Matthew McConaughey, which was really, really bad, yes, but also funny as hell. Marshall is my favorite worker, maybe my favorite other thing as well. We'll see.
I paid for my drink and moved off to wait. I'll probably apply to this shop next year when I am old enough – they don't hire until sixteen. My grandfather had gotten me a job with the school district this past summer and it had been more awesome than I thought a job could be – but that was because of Derry.
People are the big difference in anything. You could have a shitty job, shitty house, shitty car, but it was all manageable if you had great people. Cleaning up the school for the summer was not the stuff of dreams. If I'd had a jackass to work with, it would have been a really long damn summer. Derry was really good company though, and we'd hit it off right away. He'd quit his job at a grocery store in the most epic way ever, but that just made him available for a new job. My grandparents seem to have a nose for good people, and they'd liked Derry after he waited on them at the store a few times. My grandfather believes in random acts of kindness because he says it makes him feel good as well as the other person. It really is a win-win.
So he helped Derry get the job, I got to hang with Derry and make a new friend, and Derry rewarded my grandfather with solid work all summer. Even though my grandfather was retired, his reputation is still important to him, and Derry didn't make him regret recommending him for the job. Talking to Derry made me think about how Brandon talks to me.
“Here you go,” Bellamy, another clerk, said, placing my drink on the counter in front of me.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling, and took my drink over and planted myself in an overstuffed chair. I pulled my phone out, but it was sort of just a prop, because my mind seemed to want to dissect myself today.
So Brandon has sneaky ways of talking, of giving advice. Sometimes it's straightforward, but other times it gets disguised as just a conversation. If I think about it, usually he's tried to teach me something every time I talked with him, whether he meant to or not. Wait, that didn't make as much sense as I thought, but I think most people understand. So he doesn't always try, is what I mean, but he usually teaches me anyway.
So Brandon and I have a hangout night every few weeks. I know it might sound lame, but it's totally not. We have a few favorite places to eat dinner – and oh my God, Korean barbecue, where have you been all my life? Anyway, we hang out and we talk. I tell him about stuff people talk about at school – politics, environment, video games, whatever. It's different from texting, because with texting it's not always spelled out. There's this whole extra dimension to talking in person – facial expressions, body language, tone of voice.
Brandon helps me to see that things are never as simple as they seem, which sucks righteously. Somehow he always circles around to make a point. I don't always give him the satisfaction, but he makes the point. Like I wasn't totally sold on the idea of working this past summer, but we were eating out and talking about it.
“I just don't see the point,” I told him. “I'll spend most of my life working. Shouldn't I enjoy time off while I can?”
“You absolutely should,” he agreed, which always meant there was a 'but' coming somewhere. “Work and life balance is critical to being able to enjoy life and provide for yourself. That's one reason why I think you should get a part-time job.”
“Wait,” I said with suspicion. “It almost sounded like you agreed with me until the end.”
“I do agree with you,” he said with a smile. “But it's qualified.”
“I knew there was a 'but' coming,” I muttered.
He laughed at me. “Lots of people have philosophies on how to live your life. It changes as you age – and the reason it changes is-”
“You have trouble getting off the floor as you get old?”
He paused and then dryly said, “You learn more and your perspective changes.”
I thought for a moment. “Okay, that makes sense. But why wouldn't I do nothing but vibe for the summer if I have the chance?”
He bobbed his head side-to-side. “It's an option. But if experiences are what teach us – inform us how to live our best life – then we need experiences. We have to change things and try new things. So you already know what it's like to game for hours and not shower for nearly a week.”
I wiggled my eyebrows. “It was good too.”
“Yeah,” he said, unimpressed. “But you learn nothing, get nothing new from doing it again. If you get a job, you meet new people. You find out things you like and don't like. It all has value in informing yourself for things that happen later in life. All learning has value.”
“I think that undervalues what you can learn from gaming,” I told him promptly.
“It might,” he conceded. “But you can still game and have a summer job. If you just game you get fewer experiences and no money.”
“I have money,” I said confidently. “I live with you!”
He gave me the stink eye, so I said I'd do the job. I wasn't entirely sold on it, but not that much longer afterward I saw Derry 'give notice', as my grandfather called it, and met him for real. Derry was an interesting guy, partly because of all the stuff he had going on in his life when we met. It was bad enough that his dad had cheated on his mom, but the real slimy part was that Derry's dad cheated with Derry's boyfriend's mom. Talk about spilling tea!
Derry and his boyfriend Jack stayed together, helping each other get through a bad time. I think it was then that I started getting my ideas about people and how they make and break things. The easy thing – or easiest thing maybe – was to break up and walk away over a shitty situation, even if they didn't do anything wrong. Brandon thought it took strong people and a strong relationship to survive, and I agreed. Privately, of course. Derry was a good guy, and it made working not a bad thing. He says I helped him stay sane with all the stuff he had going on, and I have to say I was pleased with myself. He was older, and I think that if you're older you must be a little farther along in the 'has their shit together' sweepstakes. I also thought it was interesting, given my past personal troubles, that I could help someone like that just by talking and generally being there.
A door closed in the hallway near my chair – the hallway that led to the bathrooms and the entrance to the employee area. The shift leader, Tara, was walking out on her break. She saw me and smiled. “Gonna have to charge you rent on that seat!” she teased.
I lifted my empty cup. “Made my mortgage payment already.”
She laughed again. “I don't know about that chestnut praline stuff. I'm looking forward to the chocolate peppermint – can't believe we ran out.”
“Marshall probably poured it down the sink because he knew it was bad,” I said smugly.
“Marshall better not!” she said loudly so Marshall could hear.
He appeared from behind the counter in the space where you pick up your stuff. “Better not what?”
“Pour out my chocolate peppermint syrup. Is that why it went so fast? Customer here thinks he saw you pouring it out on me.”
Marshall looked at me and rolled his eyes. “I was pouring out the chestnut praline before he got here – he just caught me before I was done.”
“You didn't!” I said, sounding offended. “Marshall! I thought we were bros!”
“After you threw me under the bus just now? Nah, I don't think so!” he said with a laugh and then turned away to greet a customer at the drive-through. Tara went on her way to go out and smoke, and I debated getting another coffee. I glanced at the clock and did the math, working the schedule in my head. Yeah, one more,I decided.
I had to wait a few minutes with Tara on break and Marshall doing drive-through while skinny Bellamy, who was writing bad musical plays in his spare time, was in the back cleaning. Usually one person was cleaning things by this point in the day. Thinking of his plays, they were so bad – I mean bad to the point they were funny when they weren't supposed to be. Is comedy theater a thing? I'd met Bellamy toward the end of the summer and found him immediately likable. Eventually Marshall wandered over to me and just handed me a cup.
“Thanks,” I said quietly, smiling at him.
“Just don't tell Tara,” he said and wandered back to his station. I went back to my comfy chair and sat down, sipping my chestnut praline. Marshall makes the best coffee in the place, I don't care what anyone says.
My train of thought resumed, and I started thinking more about the past summer. I'd met so many people through work, and then more through Kari, my sister-aunt. I grinned to myself just thinking how that irritated her. Brandon, my dad, married her brother, who is now also my dad. So my dads are raising us both, but she is also my aunt, because she's my dad's sister. So...sister-aunt. Made her spicy when I said that.
But anyway, I met people she worked with, too. She told me the whole story about her favorite co-worker, Hunter, who had kind of an epic love story with his boyfriend Caleb. She kind of sighs about it, then tells Alan, her boyfriend, to shape up. I'm not sure how long Alan has left on his leash with Kari, but I think she's about done with him. Alan's not a bad guy, just kind of a twat. One day I expect there will be this tremendous popping noise, and Alan will finally be able to take a deep breath, with his head no longer being up his ass.
So Hunter was her fave, and he was pretty cool. I really owed him for the shorts he'd suggested, because he was right – the soft liner on the inside was the most comfy thing ever. I think that'll be what they put on my tombstone – just wanted to be comfy. His sister had been something else. She and Hunter were twins, but I liked her whole look a lot more. She had this sass thing that just sat on her face – not like resting bitch face, but more like she was going to challenge you. Face. Yeah, it may not be a thing, but I bet there's a word for it in German. She dressed more like a guy than any girl I knew, and she did it on purpose, not like one of those post-sex scenes in a movie where she comes out of the bedroom wearing his shirt.
She'd go work boots, canvas pants and whatever it is workmen wear for a shirt. There was something really cool about the look, something that made me think for days. Hunter looked nice, but his aesthetic was more 'guy who buys mall clothes', and it was average. It didn't spark anything, even though he was nice looking. She was probably just as nice looking, but the clash of her choices versus her looks was somehow fascinating to me.
The summer was really changed forever by my two besties, though – Tim and Liz. At first I liked Liz because we could talk pretty easily. Hanging out wasn't work like it is with some people. She was nice enough to look at, with a smaller face framed by her long hair. I thought we might date for a hot minute, then Tim started kind of competing for my attention – or at least that's how I saw it. It was never just me and Liz anymore; Tim was always there, too. Tim was different from Liz – he was quiet while she's outgoing. He's a math-brain while she's an English-brain. I mean that really defines their personalities – he's all about being a planner and understanding stuff while she's more in-the-moment.
So no one was more surprised than me when they became united in fucking with me.
I admit Kari's not wrong about me liking the attention, at first anyway. I like both of them and I started to question myself pretty seriously about what it was I wanted – guys or girls. Thing is I don't really think I'm Bi. Or Pan. Or...a unicorn or whatever. I'll be honest that I don't really understand all of them. I think if I read through a list of all the different labels out there I could probably find a few I could fit into sometimes – and other times, not.
I sort of brought that up with Brandon one night while we were out. I was asking him about how he and Hal got together, the age difference and how they dealt with it. It just seemed like age would be a big barricade to things like relationships.
“Well the first thing you have to understand is that everyone is attracted to different things, and those things can change.”
“You mean...I don't know what you mean.”
“Well, let's say you see someone you're attracted to right away – the right look, right eye color, dresses right – everything checks your boxes. So you go over and say hello and they say something shitty to you. So right away all the things you found attractive no longer matter because of a new factor.” He'd paused and looked at me seriously. “Looks truly are only skin deep. You can't get by in a real relationship with someone you can't talk to or whose thinking is too alien from your own.”
I thought about that for a second. “How was it with you and Hal then?”
“Well, I thought he was very handsome the first time I saw him – very endearing. I thought he was likely straight, because most men are. He joined me for a game of darts a bit later after we'd been working together for a bit and he told me he was interested in me.”
“Were you surprised?”
“A little, yeah,” he'd said and blushed. I hadn't know he was capable. It was oddly human for an adult to do that. “If there is an age difference in a relationship it can create a power imbalance. For instance he hadn't finished his education and I was already an established professional.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Money,” he said bluntly. “It's the main cause of people breaking up. One person makes less and either feels like they can't say as much about having a financial say or control, or the other refuses to allow them any say because of it, so they fight. Or they both make too little or spend too much – sometimes both – and then they fight over the scarce resources.”
“Oh,” I said, not having thought of that. I guess I didn't really understand it, but he wouldn't say that was an issue for people if it wasn't. I don't think I would mind if someone made more than I did – but then maybe they wouldn't like that? Maybe if I made a lot less? Something to think about I guess. “So...you thought Hal looked good and that was it? I mean yeah, you said he liked you back but...that was all?”
“Not even the most important thing,” he said with a chuckle. “Looks are the ad. The commercial. The coupon in the flyer or on your phone. They are there to get attention so you get closer to check things out. Hal's looks made me do that, but it was our chemistry that took us to the next level. We got along, we could keep each other company and doing things or saying things to please each other also made us happy. Those things usually go a long, long way to having a real relationship.”
I thought for a minute and asked, “So some people have that, then they don't? Or what? I've heard about half of married people get a divorce.”
“Things change,” he said in a tired voice. “It's the nature of things. People stop responding to things they did before. Their perspective on the world changes, their tastes change. Sometimes there's a traumatic event, which can be anything from a medical event like cancer or an accident to some sort of infidelity to...lots of things. Anything.”
I ate my food in silence as I thought about that. This was the thing with Brandon – even just asking him about him and Hal turned into making me think.
“So...relationships are fragile?”
“Sure. And they can be strong as well.” He paused. “Think of them like a piece of metal. It can be strong, and as long as you take care of it it won't rust or corrode. But if you bend it enough times, back and forth, it weakens until it breaks. Everything requires care and maintenance – especially relationships.”
I'd been thinking about that a lot. Sometimes it seems like relationships could be exhausting. Hal got stressed while he was studying and on deadlines, and Brandon was there to take the edge off. When Kari has a flare-up of her personality, Hal usually handles her better than Brandon does. Maybe it's more about fitting together than it is some other things? It seemed complicated.
Tim and Liz had both started dating, but they both continually teased me as if I somehow belonged to them anyway. They both got territorial when I made friends with Derry, which was equal parts annoying and amusing. It was amusing to screw with them and let them think there was something with Derry going on, but it was kind of annoying that their attitude was sort of like they were entitled to me or to know what was going on with me.
I mean, most of the time even I don't know what's going on with me. That might be the biggest mystery of all. I get teased sometimes about who I could be interested in, what sexuality I am, and I guess it's been easier to be slippery about it because I don't have any real answers. The more I think about things, the more I think about aesthetics. Take blond hair for instance. Tim has this really washed-out, almost white blond hair. I'm not really a fan of it. His family is overweight and he's started to lean that way. In a general sense I think that's not great – Brandon is always pushing balance and making me move as much as I sit still. Tim is pretty much like a rock – once he gets somewhere, he stays.
But I like lots of other shades considered blond. Jut not his.
Liz has a pretty face and she's outgoing, but she's got this obsession with things that fit oddly. Like she'll wear a snug top and poofy pants, or something poofy on top and leggings. She recently got an asymmetrical 'Karen' haircut and I keep thinking of that when she pressures me on stuff that has nothing to do with anything.
I like both of them – they're my closest friends. That doesn't mean I don't know they aren't perfect. I'm sure they could point out a few things about me they think aren't ideal too, so I'm not trying to trash them.
But what does it all mean? I got a clue about aesthetics when I was talking to Hal one day after we'd gone for a run. Hal is a decent dresser and a nice enough looking guy. I asked him what drew him to Brandon, and at first I thought he was going to blow off my question. Then he raised the bottom of his shirt to wipe his face, and he sighed.
“His calm confidence,” he said quietly. “A lot of people think the outside is all that matters – and it has its place, no doubt in my mind. But you can't have anything lasting just based on looks. There has to be chemistry, and for me some of that is the way Brandon can be a calm center when life is going on. It's a rare skill. He has confidence and wisdom from making mistakes, and he knows that's where it comes from. Brandon's personality has all of these components that make me feel at ease, and after losing my parents, I think I needed that sense of security more than ever.”
I thought for a second. “So what do you bring to him?”
He smiled. “A different kind of security. Everyone of every age needs to know they can still appeal to someone they are interested in. We fit together because we enjoy making each other happy. We like experiencing things together – new things like foods or travel, sometimes even parenting. We like to learn things and appreciate education.” He paused. “We can be still with each other, too. We don't have to talk, just knowing we're both in the house.”
“All those are feelings. Isn't there any, like, attraction?”
Hal laughed. “Of course, in both directions. But Brandon's aesthetic is a lot like his personality. He wears understated colors and things that are comfortable without being form-fitting.” Hal paused. “The strong chin. It's a really nice feature.”
I think that was when I first realized that I had to consider what I brought to a relationship besides just what I wanted. That was kind of a 'duh' moment, but on the other hand I was also thinking a lot about the chin comment. I looked at Brandon's chin the next time I saw him and it was square, sure. But it didn't mean to me what it did to Hal. That made me think of Hunter's sister and her aesthetic – and I instantly knew what Hal meant.
Tim's appeal was in his personality, not in his appearance. Liz was the opposite. Neither had an aesthetic that really caught me for some reason. How interesting.
I tried to think about a lot of people I'd met and who would fit into a box that I might be interested in. When I tried to look at it like that I discovered Derry was high on the list. I really liked his red hair and how his smattering of freckles blended with his pale skin. The red hair was a big contrast with his skin, and it made him really interesting. I wonder if that was some of what Jack saw and why he was so interested in drawing him.
Of course Derry was dating, so there wasn't really much point in wondering what I'd bring to a relationship like that. Our chemistry was more friends, I guess, but maybe that was because he was already dating and happy? Something else to think about.
At the end of the summer I had a nice bit of cash in the bank. I'd been buying things I'd wanted for lunch and stuff, and Brandon was making me put part of what I made aside to save for things I would want later – like a car. Wow. Me with a car. I spent a whole lot of time looking up cars after that. Funny, I never used to care much about them, but now? I guess it's like Brandon says, that things always change. I'd bought myself a set of wireless earbuds for my phone for music, and my dad was all 'now that you know the value of a dollar, you'll take better care of them.' I just repeated it back to him in a high-pitched tone to mock him. I half wanted to drop them in the toilet just to prove him wrong.
“Did you get another one?”
I looked up as Tara came back in from her break. I grinned. “Caffeine is my friend.”
She chuckled lightly as she went past me and back into the employee area.
So if I line things up, the aesthetics are like the coupons Brandon says get your attention, make you want to try something. After that it depends on a whole lot of things. Someone may not look at you and immediately like what they see, but then maybe they like other things enough to see where things go. It's complicated, fragile and apparently beautiful enough that most people spend a lot of time looking for it.
The side door opened and I glanced up. Bellamy walked past me, phone in hand, scrolling as he headed over to the far side of the seating area and sat down. Bellamy was a funny one. I'd talked to all of the staff, trying to be friendly and learn more about them – have experiences as Brandon might say. Only a small lie since I had an ulterior motive, but some of the staff were more interesting than others. Tara was working to become a store manager, and she was kind of by the book. She had a small kid, was a single mom who was dating a string of losers as she put it. She had a mouth piercing that was kind of off-putting and a misspelled tattoo on her neck.
I shivered at the thought of someone stabbing a needle repeatedly into my neck.
Bellamy was thin, but he managed to wear things to bring some balance to his body. He didn't wear baggy clothes, but he also didn't wear tight things. When I'd first started coming to the shop near the end of September he had a few things that looked like they weren't his best, but by December it seemed like he'd replaced a lot of things. He didn't strike me like Hunter, who was a clothes whore and wanted to look good all the time. I mean he did, but it somehow looked too forced. Bellamy was just replacing crappy stuff and he looked better for it.
He'd been really pinching his face as he typed on his phone one day, and I'd stuck my nose in, asking if he was having a fight. He'd looked surprised to be noticed, but then told me he was working on the latest thing he was going to delete. It had piqued my interest and he'd told me about going to a live theater thing over the summer with friends and having been blown away. He was slowly coming to the realization that he may end up being more of a patron of those plays than having anything to do with making one.
I'd read it and laughed out loud, though he told me that part wasn't supposed to be funny. Oops, my bad.
I'd heard him mention a boyfriend, so I guess he was working his own relationship. He had a brother or something that picked him up from work a lot. Guy was nice looking and seemed really comfortable – like he had a confident way of holding himself. It made me wonder if that was what Hal was talking about? He didn't have the age, but maybe he'd made some mistakes and learned from them and it made him more confident? I don't know. Seems counter-intuitive.
I sipped the last of my drink and my phone buzzed. I set the empty aside and thumbed my phone open.
Me: Not yet. Don't get your tits in a tangle.
Derry: Asshole. See if I care.
Me: You do. You know you do.
Derry: Fuck you. I hope he says no.
Me. Nah, you don't.
Derry: I do now!
Me: Nah. You love me.
Derry: Fuck that.
I laughed to myself.
“What are you laughing about?” Bellamy asked, dropping into the chair beside me. “I deleted my play – your fault – so it can't be that.”
“Hanging at my favorite shop, waiting for something to happen. You know, the usual.”
“Like what? A robbery? Are you casing the joint?” he asked, his tone trying to mimic a mobster.
“Yeah. Planning to steal the chestnut praline syrup. Where is it? Tell me and you won't get hurt,” I told him, mimicking him.
He laughed. “I had some old guy grumbling about people not drinking any coffee flavored coffee. Why do people get so bent about other people enjoying something they don't?”
I shrugged. “I guess if they aren't happy, no one can be?”
“Probably,” he said agreeably. “I have to find a nice gift for my boyfriend. What would you like as a gift? I mean if we were dating?”
I stared at him for a second. “The chestnut praline syrup. This is why we can't date – you don't listen to me, Bell.”
He laughed at me. “You know what I mean. I want to get him something nice.”
“Buy him underwear. It’s a gift for you both,” I said sagely. Or tried to sound sage. How do you sound like a green spice anyway? How did that become the word for being wise? Too many people smoking green herbs was my guess.
“Aren't you racy,” he said with a knowing smile. I wonder what he thinks he knows? “I bought him some of those before, though. I need something new.”
I thought for a second. “Take him someplace special for dinner. Like fancy – above your pay grade fancy. You saved up and can now afford one single meal.”
“I save better than that,” he said with a little smile. “But I like where you're going. We usually eat at fast food places, so this would definitely be different. Plus I could ask him to dress up a little. I bet he looks really nice for special events.”
“Is that what happens in the car before or after dinner?” I asked, scratching my head.
“Ha. Ha,” he said. “Are you buying something nice for your special someone this year?”
“Sure. Doesn't everyone?”
“What are you getting?” he asked.
“Not sure. Need to figure out who the someone special is first before I can know.”
“Slick. Fine, keep your secrets,” he said, trying to sound sly. He didn't.
“No, really. I'm not dating anyone.” I paused. “Did you quit writing?”
He sighed. “No. I keep thinking I must have something I can say, but it all comes out wrong.”
“Maybe write about you.”
“What do you mean?”
“One of my teachers once said something like it's easier to write about things you know. So why don't you start there? How you got here in life, funny or sad things that happened, good and bad people.” I paused. “You don't have to say anything about what you get up to in the car.”
“Just because you learned about road head doesn't mean I'm giving it, mister,” he said playfully. “That is kind of interesting though. My parents were a mess, which made me a mess, but now I'm in a better place. I wonder if I can make something out of that? The only real question is where do I write in a minor character like you?”
“We both know I'll be the best part. And hey, they wrote a hit musical about stray cats. The bar isn't that high.”
“I haven't seen that one yet. My boyfriend breaks all gay stereotypes and doesn't like musicals.” He paused and glanced at me. “Do you like musicals?”
“Some,” I said. “Haven't really seen many.”
He snorted. He tapped a quick staccato on his phone and stood up. “I made a note. I'll let you know if anything actually happens with the idea because if it does you have to read it. For now...back to the gallows.”
“You love your job,” I teased.
“It's okay, except for people,” he said with a little smile and departed.
I stood up and tossed my cup away and glanced at my phone. I felt a sneeze coming on and pinched my nose for a minute until I could get a napkin and blow my nose. Weird how that all of a sudden snuck up on me. I used some sanitizer on my hands from a bottle on the counter and then toyed with my phone until I heard the door open again.
The shift leader – essentially the manager on duty – gets their break first and it's the longest, probably because their shift is a proper eight or so hours compared to the part timers. Bellamy liked to take his earlier, and then he'd prep for close, which made the person he was with generally happy. Tonight that person was Marshall, and he'd just stepped into the lobby for his break. He saw me near the counter and shook his head.
“How do you not just vibrate from all the caffeine?”
“How do you know I don't?” I challenged.
“You're not in line for another, are you?”
“Nah. Was thinking about some food.”
“Me too. I was going to hit the burrito joint. Want to come with?”
I fell in behind Marshall and we crossed the lot, played Human Frogger(TM) with the four lanes we needed to cross to get to the other side, and then walked down a half block to Diego's Everyday Taco. I have no idea why they named it that. Best I can figure is something got lost in translation, so it sounded good in Spanish, but ended up whatever that was in English. I've thought about how other languages order things so that they sound the reverse of English – but maybe it's that English is in reverse? Isn't that something? Everyone else hears us talking backwards and we think the rest of the world is backward.
The language barrier didn't interfere with their food. Marshall has good taste in burritos – and I see what you're thinking and you can stop right now. Now, you hear?
The guy behind the counter had a serious aesthetic going on. He had to be at least sixteen to work there, but he still had that whispy peach-fuzz on his face. My dad says some people look like they're forty when they're twenty, but that it helps them out when they're sixty. This guy looked twelve when he was...at least sixteen. I guess maybe when he's forty he'll look seventeen? Is that an advantage? His name was Cole, and I'd been in Diego's often enough to have seen him. Pretty sure he was a few grades ahead of me. He used to play football, but he caused a stir last winter when he broke up with this ditzy-but-nice girl named Haylee and started dating this guy named Drew.
I'd love to ask him about how he got from one end to the other, but I didn't know him other than by reputation.
“Hey, Marsh,” Cole said. Marshall ordered ahead of me and I followed up, curious how well they knew each other. As I said, Diego's had a stupid name, but awesome burritos. Brandon had brought me here a few times when I had doctor’s appointments or something. Some kids got sent back to school with that not-food from McD, but I got a freaking burrito.
After filling our cups we sat down in a small booth.
“I needed to get out of there for a few minutes. Tara's going to drive me insane,” he said before taking a bite.
“She looks like she's got RBF Syndrome these days,” I replied. He started to laugh, but he had some burrito in his mouth, so he started to cough. His face went all red, and I was laughing at him while he was trying not to laugh or die – hard to tell which from moment to moment.
“Don't say shit like that while I'm eating, bro,” he said after a drink. “Resting bitch face is no joke – no known cure except getting laid maybe, and I'm not volunteering.”
“Aww. You can give her a second to play with her first,” I teased.
“Fuck you,” he said with a smile. “I wouldn't fuck her with your dick. Besides, that whole store is gay. Bellamy is, his brother or whatever is – and of course the brother's boyfriend. They don't work there, but they show up a lot. I bet the gay is so thick there even Tara is thinking about lesbianism.”
“Better than getting preggers again,” I opined.
“No doubt,” he agreed. “I can't imagine being pregnant. I'd definitely be one of those people that don't want kids. Have you seen the size of some babies’ heads? Now compare that to the size of the dick going in to start that mess?”
“Some girls might have more room,” I said, just to say it.
“Big difference between a hotdog down a hallway and squeezing a kid out. Then sometimes they give you so much anesthesia and then cut you open for a C-section? Imagine how stoned you have to be to not feel the pain of your belly being cut open?”
“Like this?” I asked, showing him the open end of my burrito. We both laughed – what a stupid subject.
“I have a lot of gay friends, so I guess that's why I've never talked pregnancy or childbirth with them,” I said with a snicker.
Marshall looked at me with an expression I'd term thoughtful.
“Bell thinks you're gay.”
“Does he?” I asked, then chuckled. “He's not the first.”
“Doesn't bother you?”
I shrugged. “I could tell you I have dads and they are better than my bio parents. I could tell you I have gay friends and some of them are way cooler than plenty of straight people I know – but I guess the important thing is it doesn't matter much. Doesn't make you good or bad.”
Marshall nodded and finished off his burrito. I copied him, knowing his break was going to end soon and I'd head for home. I had some homework to do, but tonight worked out really well, since my dads went to darts. Brandon will let me order in or get stuff if I want to try cooking. Tonight I told him I wanted to walk down to Diego's, so he just left me cash. Kari was probably out with Alan – maybe for one of the last times.
Marshall balled up his wrapper and placed it in the plastic basket the burrito is served in. “So.”
I tossed my wrapper in with his and put my basket under his. “So,” I said back to him.
“I've dated like six girls. You know that, right?”
“I never counted.”
“But you know.”
I nodded. “How do you know Cole?”
He tilted his head. “He's my cousin. Why?”
“I was just curious. Heard all the rumors and wondered what the truth was.”
Marshall shrugged and said, “He was always gay. Didn't feel safe at home until after his parents split up. Now he's got a boyfriend, and he likes that very much.”
“Are you guys close?”
He looked at me for a moment. “I have to get back to work,” he said and jerked his head to indicate I should follow. We hit the street and headed for the sidewalk. Marshall adopted a slow pace as we walked the half-block up to cross the street.
“No, we weren't close. His mom, my aunt, is my dad's sister. My grandpa Mike is about as big of an asshole as you can be, and my aunt was just like him. As far as I know, she still is.” Marshall glanced at me. “I have four siblings and none of us was close with my dad's side of the family. But with things changing...Cole and I got cool with each other. His boyfriend is pretty decent. They have a good thing.”
I wasn't sure what to say – thanks for clearing that up and answering a personal question seemed silly. “My friend Derry has a really nice boyfriend too. Jack. He's an artist and he likes to draw Derry a lot, I guess. I can understand.” I paused. “Derry has red hair and pale skin, so there's this big color contrast that I think is really interesting.”
“You an artist?”
I smiled. “I just admire things that look good or interesting.”
Traffic became noticeably lighter, and I followed Marshall across the street. “You getting more coffee?”
Marshall paused and glanced at me. “So why did you ask about Cole?”
“You seemed to know him, and like I said, I didn't know the whole story. Just rumors.”
Marshall waited a beat. “Oh. Just gossip then?”
“Uh, no,” I said quickly. “Look, this is going to sound lame – it always does when I think about it too much. My dad says I have to meet people and have experiences to know better what I want out of the world. Mostly I think he's just trying to get me off my games, but he's usually not that wrong.” I held my hand to my chest. “I never tell him that. You know how parents can be when you have to admit they were right.”
He snorted and the ends of his mouth curled up. “Yeah.”
“So I'm trying to do different things, listen to people and watch to see what's going on around me. It's actually a longer story than you have time for before your break ends.”
Marshall nodded. “Well, that'll shut Bellamy up anyway.”
I tilted my head. “Does that ever happen?”
He snorted out a laugh. “Sometimes.”
I thought for a second. “What will shut him up?”
“He thought you were waiting for me.”
Marshall was looking at me expectantly. Not sure what he expected, but okay.
“Well. How about you tell him he was wrong anyway?”
He frowned and slowly said, “So...you were waiting for me?”
Okay, now I felt weird. “Yeah.”
His mouth moved around in a weird way. “You, uh, heard me say I've dated girls.”
“And you're still waiting for me?”
I laughed. “I wasn't going to ask you out.”
His expression turned to confusion. “You weren't?”
I laughed. “No.”
“Oh. Well, don't I look stupid.”
I laughed. “No, I guess I do. Look, I'm in a weird spot or phase or something. I'm all about the commercial and then the relationship and the experience, and that's why I waited for you.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You just strung a bunch of words together like you thought they made sense, but they don't.”
“Yeah. I'm like that sometimes.” I tilted my head an regarded him. “Your outside? It's the commercial. Your commercial says comfy to me, and I like comfy. I've been hanging out here since September – first because Derry got me a few drinks from here, via Jack's delivery, and I wanted more. But...I know most of the staff kind of well, I think.”
He gave me an appraising look. “Oh yeah?”
I nodded. “I could give you a creepy run down, but I'm just going to stick with you. I won't even get complicated – I like you. You're nice to people unless they're not nice to you. I have a complicated past, but I don't think you'd care about that – and I mean not holding it against me. I don't know about the rest of it – dating. I have two friends I'll tell you about, if you want to hear sometime.” I shifted on my feet. “But yeah, I think you look comfy, and you're someone I want to know more about. I know that sounds like it's a line, but it's true.”
Marshall nodded his head a few times. “So...you're not gay, and you're not trying to date me?”
I smiled. “I didn't say that.”
He frowned. “I'm confused.”
I shrugged. “It's my thing.”
He hesitated. “Come in. I need to punch in.”
Curious, I followed him. I felt nervous and very excited. This must be what Brandon means by new experiences. I didn't think saying this the way I did to Marshall would just make him want to get away from me. I had an idea that he's a curious guy and he'd be interested to know what the heck I was talking about.
He's not the only one.
He headed through the employee door and I pulled my phone out. Damn. Sure, Derry wasn't interested at all.
Me: Eleven texts? Sure. You don't care at all.
Derry: Eat me. What'd he say?
Me: He wants me.
Derry: Uh huh.
Me: He's curious.
Derry: So are you – not even about him.
Me: Don't be jealous
Derry: Jack says you better not ruin things at our coffee place
Me: Truth comes out. All you care about is coffee.
Derry: Damn right.
I glanced up as Marshall came back out the door. He jutted his chin at a group of chairs so I moved to sit down with him.
“Tara left. Bellamy talked himself into thinking we're going to talk about dating, so he's doing all the work in exchange for the details.”
I nodded. Solemnly I said, “I had no idea he was such a perv.”
“Hopeless romantic,” he replied. “Now...clear up whatever that word salad was from before.”
“Okay, so, people's outsides – the way they dress, the way they take care of themselves or not – that's the commercial. It's supposed to get your attention. Got it?”
“I skip ads. Haven't you heard of streaming?”
I mock glared. “Anyway. So once the commercial gets your attention, you see if the product is any good. People work the same way. Like someone gets your attention, and then they do something or say something troll-like, and then you know, nope, not for me.”
Marshall blinked a few times. “I want to say I understand you – and in a very weird way I think I do – but what does that have to do with me?”
I shrugged. “Your commercial says you're comfy.”
He stared at me.
“Summer was khaki shorts and soft tees. Fall turned into hoodies and joggers. Now you went with denim and padded plaid shirts. You are the walking definition of comfy, Marshall.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “You know it sounds like you've been stalking me. Right?”
“Sure,” I said with a nod. “Except I wasn't creepy about it. I didn't show up at your house or talk to you randomly at school. When I come to the shop I buy my coffee – and I think you like me a little since there's that thing we don't tell Tara about.”
He rolled his eyes. “Just because I slide you the occasional free coffee....”
“Yeah. So anyway. I was talking to Derry – that's probably him blowing up my phone right now – and he said I should hang out with you. The only thing was – how? Like I'd have to change things by talking in school or whatever. And if you like someone you don't want to come off as creepy, right?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Yeah, okay.”
“So I know Bellamy takes his break first, then he cleans stuff for closing, and the closer lets Bell go first because they want to get out of there and not clean stuff.”
Marshall stared for a moment. “Bell takes his break early because he texts his boyfriend. They try to time their breaks since they have distance between them.”
I looked at him for a moment. “Well, shit. I thought I had that figured out. Explains why he was on his phone when he came out on break – I thought he was just making another play.”
“Yeah. Guess you don't know it all,” he said with a grin.
“I don't. It's why I'm here. Experiences, remember?”
“So...I'm an experience?”
“Sure. Aren't I?” I asked, grinning widely.
He chuckled. “You're something.”
“I think we should talk about how you want me to ask you out,” I said seriously.
“I what now?”
“It's obvious. You thought that was what I was here for, and even though you could have left it at 'I've dated girls' to close the door, you came back out here to hear what I had to say.”
He laughed. “That's because what you had to say was so fucked up I needed some clarification!”
I pushed my tongue against the roof of my mouth. “Yeah. You should probably get used to that.”
“Oh?” he asked, still chuckling. “Why's that?”
I leaned back in my chair and looked at him. “Because when you date people, you usually are around them a lot. Unless you're weird, like Bell.”
His eyes grew wide. “Oh, so now we're going to date?”
“It seems obvious.” I grinned. “Tell me you're not curious.”
His expression told me he thought I was being weird. “Are you curious?”
I waited a beat. “Very.”
“Haven't thought about it.”
He scowled. “Haven't thought about it? Why are you bringing up dating then?”
“You brought it up, I'm just saying we should talk about it,” I said, just to continue to mess with him. I have to admit, talking to him was a lot of fun. Although...I guess that could be seen as tiresome, too. “So here's the short version. My friends Tim and Liz. They're very different people, but they also like to act like they're into me. It's kind of fun, but at the same time it's annoying sometimes, too. One of their big things is arguing about which one of them I like more. Like, like more.”
He grinned. “And the answer is neither of them?”
I sighed. “More or less. They both have positives, and I like hanging out with them, but nothing that makes me think of anything more.”
He chuckled. “And I make you think of something more?”
I tilted my head. “You make me think of something different. That makes me curious. Like If you had to list the things you have that you're most comfy in, what would they be?”
He shrugged. “Some of my older, more worn clothes. Soft and all that.”
“Right. But the way you dress and act makes me think of comfy. So I keep thinking about being comfy with you. To be honest I don't know where that goes.”
“Comfy like...hugging or cuddling or something?”
“Or something,” I agreed.
He frowned. “Are you always this confusing?”
I leaned forward as I sighed. “Sort of. I honestly don't think about the gay or straight thing anymore. I used to. Tim and Liz had me kind of tied up about it for a while like I needed to choose a side. After thinking about it for most of the last year I think I figured out what I want is a relationship. Someone's aesthetic – like your being comfy – is what gets my attention. I'm pretty sure I can bring some good things to a relationship, if nothing else by knowing some things not to do.”
“Dated a lot huh? Made some mistakes?”
“Not so much, no,” I said. “I told you. I watch what goes on around me. I don't catch everything, not by a lot, I'm sure. But I've seen some epic failures in relationships, just from comparing what my mom used to do and what my dads do now. It's pretty much like don't and do, no real in between.”
He was quiet for a minute, and I wondered if he was going to say anything. Eventually he did. Very quietly. “What about how I told you I've only dated girls?”
I nodded. “I think that's a you problem. I can't tell you how to feel. I have enough trouble myself. I figure you must have learned a few things to do and not to do. Right now I don't care if you tell yourself it's practice for something else. I'll even talk to you about it as much as you want. The point is we should be comfy together. I've seen your commercial, I like the product and I want to buy it.”
He raised his eyebrows. “This isn't a transaction. You're talking about me changing who I am.”
I shook my head. “I don't think so. You could have walked away a bunch of times. But you're intelligent and curious, and now you're wondering...what if?”
He laughed. “I'm thinking you're very weird – weirder than I thought.”
“This? This is nothing,” I said with a scoff and smiling at him.
He looked down and pulled at the ends of his fingers. “How would things...being comfy together work?”
“Hanging out. Texting.”
“But you keep saying dating. Dating usually means...physical stuff.”
“You're saying you can't control yourself around me, right? I knew it,” I said dejectedly.
“What? No, I didn't say that. Jerk,” he said with a scowl.
My nerves jumped up a few notches. I'd thought about this and thought about it, but there was no way he wasn't tempted, because he hadn't gotten up and walked away. He could be stringing me, but he didn't seem like that kind of cruel.
“I'll be honest, Marshall. If you get into your comfy clothes and we're watching a movie? I'm going to get comfy right with you.”
I swallowed. “Yep. If we decide a kiss is the way to go or something else, then as long as we decide and it’s not just what someone else thinks, then I'm okay with that. I'm just not going to call it something because someone else wants to put a label on it they understand. Whatever we do, it’s our relationship and no one else's.”
Marshall leaned back in his chair and looked at me. I tried to slow down my heart as I leaned back and let him look – because I looked back. Marshall always looked like he'd just come from washing his face. It was a clean look I liked. There are some people that just pull that look off, but when you couple that with his comfy level it took him to new places for me.
He sighed. “You're going to regret this.”
Not an answer I could have predicted.
“I didn't tell you why those relationships didn't work out. Did I?”
He shook his head. “I'll want pretty much all your free time. If you go somewhere, I'll want to go, too. I kind of...take being a couple to extremes, I guess.”
“Well...then you've made that mistake. So if I ask you to chill, you can do that.”
“I don't know. I haven't been very good at that.”
“You'll do fine,” I said with confidence I probably had no right to. I stood up. “I have to go get my homework done before my dads get home.” It was the very last thing I wanted to do, but also the only thing I could think of. He had to go back to work, and I can't just hang out here.
He stood up and looked behind the counter. Looking back at me he said, “I get done in an hour. What homework do you have?”
Softly I said, “If you're there I'm pretty sure I won't get anything done.” I hesitated and then said, “But if I go get my work done, maybe you could stop by after work?”
“I could,” he said, matching my tone. “I have to know something first, if this has any chance of working.”
I widened my eyes. “Yes, I'm a virgin.”
He cocked his head to one side.
“I guess I have no idea why I said that. What were you going to say?”
His eyes moved in small increments, as if studying my face. I wondered what he saw when he looked at me. Was there a form of my own commercial playing out in front of me, something he was assessing? Or was he looking at the product, now, and wondering if he could ever...?
He took a step toward me and brought his face closer to mine. Oh. I guess we were going to kiss.
I mirrored his movement and his lips were soft and the kiss gentle. Our lips moved against each other’s, and it was so cool. I could do this all day. Even his lips were comfy! His mouth opened. I copied him, and we each had a quick taste of the other before resuming the soft kisses he started with. He leaned back and looked at me.
“Okay. I guess we're doing this, then.”
I blinked, partially lost in the feeling of my first kiss. “Because we can kiss?”
He lowered his voice. “Because I liked it. I wasn't sure if I could ever. But...I liked kissing you.”
“Well...I guess we can add that to the list of things we can do,” I said, trying to say something, anything, because my brain wasn't prepared for wherever we'd just ended up. I thought maybe we'd go out to eat a few times, maybe later watch some movies or TV and cuddle up during a snowstorm. I hadn't really thought about kissing, but now I was. Now I was thinking about it a lot.
“Give me your number,” he said quietly, as if it were a secret. So I did, and he texted so I had his. “I'll stop by when I get done?”
“Yeah. I'll go get my homework finished.”
“Okay,” he said, letting a breath out. “Let's do this.”
I left him then and walked home, pulling my coat tighter as the wind kicked. up. People have teased me a few different ways about what I'm interested in. My sexuality has been something people couldn't nail down, so they would pick at me endlessly to satisfy their own curiosity. If you asked me right now, I still wouldn't know. I'm putting the pieces together, and I'm not going to jump to conclusions.
What I do know is I liked being kissed. For the first time I'd gotten hard as a direct result of an action, not some general desire to jerk it or from some random thing like the announcement of a math test. That was something new, and I was kind of focused on that. When Marshall came over later, would that happen again? Was it Marshall or just being kissed? More than that?
My phone shook in my pocket and I was reminded about Derry. I pulled the phone out and thumbed to the message screen.
Derry: What did he say?
Me: He went off script.
Me: He kissed me
Derry: Yes! When can we meet him?
Me: I don't know. I'm still figuring out what it means.
Derry: It means he likes you. Duh!
I paused for a second. I'd actually been so caught up I'd forgotten to think of that. Marshall likes me. Like...he's interested in me. It shouldn't be a surprise at this point, but I think my brain was still playing catch up.
Me: Yeah. I like him too. He's comfy.
Derry: Even when he was kissing you?
Me: Very comfy. What does that mean?
Derry: Aww. It means Jack has to draw you and soon.
Derry: Really. He'll tell you, when a relationship first starts a person looks different. Different energy and he says that comes through when he draws.
Derry: Seriously, he'll be mad if you don't
Me: Well, you said people have to get over it if you get mad. Won't he get over it?
Derry: You're not sleeping with him. Think I get more wiggle room than you do.
Me: Wiggle room in your room?
Derry: You're such a shit. This weekend? See if Marshall can come too
Me: We'll see.
I put my phone away and thought about the evening – actually the mishmash of months that had led to this evening where I gambled trying to get closer to Marshall. My thoughts jumped to what Derry had said, how Jack claimed the energy was different. Different because of a relationship? It made some sense, because I couldn't understand how I was feeling. It was a good feeling, but I had trouble understanding it. Kissing had been fast, and even though I wanted more, I also wondered what it meant. Was Marshall thinking sex? Was I? I knew how my dick was reacting – and I also knew it wasn't thinking at all. It's kind of funny – my goal was just to hang out, and I'd really liked talking to Marshall, but now all I could think about was kissing again. Did our relationship jump to that? Like, is that all it was now? Or was it going to go back and forth between talking and the indescribable desire to kiss again?
I'd never ask my dad about that, even though I know I could. I don't want to know more about how his relationship with Hal works, not when it comes to this. Maybe...Jack. Derry was too smug about this working out with Marshall, but Jack was more sensitive.
I stopped in front of my house and looked up at the structure. This was my home, not because I live in it, but because of the people that share the space with me. I was going to change that in a big way by having Marshall in my home. It was exciting, and my dad certainly couldn't say I wasn't having an experience.
I headed inside to finish my work so I could get comfy later with my boyfriend.