On TV or YouTube or even a movie, running with a dog is always this thing where you're jogging or riding a bike and the dog has no leash and is running right next to you because it has training. It knows where to go and where to be. Bruno has no training. Running with Bruno is more like trot a few feet and then come to a sudden stop while he sniffs...something. Or nothing. He may or may not lift his leg. There may or may not be anything left in the tank, but he'll still lift his leg.
I think the ultimate insult, though, was when he sat down and just refused to go any farther. I had to carry him home.
I didn't see much of Walker that weekend, but we sent plenty of messages. September was bleeding into October, and he was being all passive-aggressive about dressing up versus staying home and handing out candy. It was still a few weeks away, so I wasn't sure what his issue was – or if there even was an issue and he wasn’t just jerking me around for the fun of it. Amazingly, Kendra was texting me reminders about her party on Saturday, and I was starting to wonder if I should go. Walker came over for dinner Thursday and more formally met my family.
“Do you like to cook?” my mom asked him.
He nodded. “Comfort foods, yes. Easy things you can mix and bake – I'm all over that. Complicated things that end with candles and flowers? Not me,” he said with a grin.
“This is a special meal,” my dad said, “since this is more of a formal introduction.”
“Oh,” Walker said, glanced at me and smiled before lifting a fork with food toward my mom. “I'm a big fan of your work.”
My dad glanced at me and I looked down at my food.
“So what -” my dad began.
“He's a junior, his parents are still together, and he has a younger brother,” I said.
“Thank you, Cliff's Notes,” my dad grumbled.
“Who's Cliff?” Sandy asked, wanting to participate.
“It's a way to get a quick idea of a book – there's a whole series of them,” my mom said and turned back toward Walker. “Well, I don't know what Noah was worried about; you're much nicer than he claimed.”
“Really, Mom?” I raised an eyebrow and shook my head.
She growled at me, smiling. “I just want to get to know him,” she said, playfully defensive.
“You mean like how we got together?” Walker asked and then said, “I just couldn't turn him down anymore. It would have been cruel.”
“Wait, what?” I asked.
“He pretended to break his headphones, and we listened to music together. He totally set me up,” Walker said as if he were telling my mom some big secret.
“My headphones are broken,” I growled. “Plus you wanted to see my art.”
He nodded and smiled at me. “I did, too.” Then he bit down on the broccoli on his fork.
My dad started to chuckle. “Noah's been into sketching and using electronics to create things the last few years. He's also responsible for this little begging fur ball,” he said, looking down at Bruno.
“I'd like to have pets, but our apartment complex doesn't allow them,” Walker replied.
“Too bad. I'm sure you'd like having Bruno,” my mom said with a little laugh.
“Don't go giving my dog away,” I said, then looked at Bruno. “Go lay down. You know the rules.” He ignored me.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Sandy asked Walker.
“You know what? I don't,” Walker said.
“Why not?” she demanded.
“Well, I have a boyfriend. Boyfriends don't like it when you have a girlfriend at the same time.”
Her eyes got big. “You do?”
He mimicked her eyes and nodded. “Guess who it is?”
“Justin Beiber?” she asked, her voice rising.
“Too many tattoos,” he said with a shake of his head.
“Fictional character, but he seems nice,” Walker said with a grin.
“Shawn Mendes!” she said with conviction.
“Wow. I mean, there's a name for you,” Walker said with a big grin.
Sandy grew solemn. “I hope it's not Noah. That would be boring.”
Walker burst out laughing while I rolled my eyes. “Oh, he's not so boring,” Walker said.
“Is so,” my sister said, sulking.
It was my turn to do dishes, and Walker kept me company. When we headed back to my room, I showed him the three panels, and something in his expression grew soft. “Can I keep this?”
“I, uh, yeah,” I said, feeling my face get warm.
Walker climbed up on my desk chair and held his hand out. “Climb this hill and kiss me.”
Wobbly fucking chair.
We cuddled up, and I put a show on my computer. We talked about nothing, sometimes commenting on the show but most often ignoring it. I drove him home, and we had a nice make-out for a good night. I drove home happy. Back home my mom was in the living room with my sister, and she invited me to sit and watch with them, but I decided to sit with my dad in the garage instead. If I'd gone to my room my mother would have made constant commentary calling me to the living room, so it was better just to join dad.
“Hiding?” he asked with a knowing smile.
“Isn't that what you're doing?” I asked as I glanced at his works in progress. “Anything almost done?”
“Yeah. These three. Just have to put light bulbs in them, then close them up.” He handed me the blister pack of bulbs, and I sat on a stool and started taking the first clock apart.
“Walker seems like a good guy. How long have you known him?” dad asked.
“Longer than I thought,” I replied, trying to balance the Bakelite base with the heavy cast metal of the housing. “He's been on the running teams with me, but we didn't know each other.”
“Did you buy new headphones?”
“Nah. Figured maybe I'd ask as my big gift this year. What's this bumpy piece of metal here?” I asked.
Peering at the clock base he said, “It's an early rheostat. The lever there, if you move it to one side it increases the resistance, and if you go the opposite way it decreases the resistance.”
“Resistance to what?”
“The flow of electricity.” He showed me the lever, which made a rasping sound when he moved it. “It controls how much electricity reaches the bulb. It's how you make the night light brighter or dimmer.”
“I know a few people that have their lever set to dimmer,” I said and laughed with him.
“I liked him,” my dad said, looking down at a plastic clock case he was polishing. “He has a bit of confidence to him, but not enough to be a jerk.”
I shook my head. “It's his thing.” I glanced at my dad, who was wiping down the case to get it ready for reassembly. “Hey, Dad? How come we get along better than I do with Mom?”
He scratched the side of his head. “Probably trial and error. Before your kids are born you think of all the things your parents did that you didn't like or that you thought were mistakes, and you swear you're not going to do any of that – even if they were pretty good parents. Always room for improvement, right?” He chuckled. “Then you see your kid for the first time...let me tell you, the miracle of life is messy, loud and a little scary. Then when you take your baby home you keep expecting someone to step out of the shadows and take over, because you suddenly get a real sense of this...awesome responsibility. This life depends on you. An entire life.”
I watched him.
He glanced at me and smiled. “Your mom has always been a believer in she who hesitates is lost, so she set about creating structure – not just for you guys but for her sake as well. I admit, having a plan, having an outline for what comes next or how things should work, isn't the worst idea. It's just...when that plan or outline doesn't work, then you have to be willing to adjust.”
“That's...not Mom's strong suit.”
He chuckled. “Nobody's perfect,” he said.
I cleared my throat. “Me being gay didn't fit a plan. Did it?”
He grinned at me. “It did, actually. We were smart enough to know that our kids could be just about anyone, including gay.”
I screwed one of the tiny light bulbs into its socket. “So it didn't break up Mom's plan for a hundred grandkids or something?”
He chuckled. “Your mom isn't evil, Noah. She can be a little inflexible, sure.”
Something I couldn't yet identify slithered though my subconscious. I looked at him. “I wanted a dog for years. I had to stand in front of a guy with a gun to get one.”
He shook his head. “Not really fair. Your mom and I together made the decision not to have pets, because we already had three kids. Pets take time and energy, and we would have had to put too much time and money into any pet.”
I placed the heavy metal top onto the Bakelite base and let out a shuddering sigh. “I was lonely,” I said, voicing something I hadn't been aware I was going to say.
He nodded slowly. “We tried to be there for you.”
I wiped the corner of my eye and started the first of the screws that held the base to the metal case. “I think I just realized that my other...relationships didn't fix that either. But...Walker does. I don't feel lonely with him.”
He placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Sounds like you've found someone worth knowing.”
I set the clock upright and plugged it in, getting a small pleasure from seeing the little light splash across the dial.
“I have a clock analogy for you,” my dad said.
“Dad,” I groaned.
“Come on, it's a good one,” he said with a grin in his voice.
I sighed. “Okay. What is it?”
“This clock you fixed? It's like Ian. It has some flash to it, some chrome lookalike that hides all of its inner self, something that's probably getting easier to see now that he's away at school.”
“I never asked how that went, after he lied about the clothes and mom drove out there,” I said.
“Well, let's just say everyone got a few things to think about – and I see what you're doing, so let me get this out. It's a good one!”
I shook my head and smiled at my dad.
“I've always thought of you as one of these here,” he said, pointing to a small time-only clock. “Straight-forward, dependable.” He moved his hand over to an alarm. “As you started to grow up a bit more, I could see you had other things going on – more complexity than I realized.” He put his hands on my shoulders and turned me to face his tambour clocks – what some people call hump-back clocks for their distinctive small ends and swollen center. “But I realized just now, this is who you are.”
“The most common thing made?” I asked with a little snort.
He reached past me and lifted an ornate wooden clock down, using both hands, and turned it away from us before setting it on the bench. “It's like other clocks – has some nice things on the outside to look at, like a striking face,” he said, quickly grabbing my chin and giving it a playful shake. “But if you look just a bit closer,” he said, opening the door to the movement, a chime of some kind, “you see how complex and beautiful it really is.”
I sighed. “So you're comparing me to a Westminster chime? The one people turn off so they don't have to hear it?”
He smiled softly. “Some people love the tones of a chime clock. Look, everyone uses alarms. They may not like them, but they need them. But when you listen to a chime – when you listen to hear it chime – well, it makes me think that the sound might make a person feel less lonely. So maybe you do that for each other.”
I shook my head. “I'm never leaving you and your clocks alone with my boyfriend. You'll convince him he's a rare day/date style.”
“Nope,” he said, putting that clock back on its shelf and bringing down a clock that always made me smile a little. The face had a dog balancing a ball on a spring on its nose. “He's Trixie. Makes you smile.” He kissed the top of my head. “Your mom and I both would like for you to feel like smiling more often.”
I went to work Friday night, and Darrion was waiting to pounce.
“I've been so good for a week,” he said.
“Hi. Nice to see you, too,” I said dryly.
He pointed a finger at me. “I've been good. Now I need some details!”
I laughed as I pulled on my apron and turned to ask a customer what she'd like to drink.
“Oh. I don't want to drink.”
I looked a little closer. “Lina?”
“Not a word about my hair. Not if you want to live. Understand?” she said firmly.
“Oh, honey!” Darrion said. “Who did this to you?”
“My aunt,” she growled. “She said she was going to flat iron my hair, and she – look! She burned my hair and my forehead!”
“Why would you ever want your hair straightened?” Darrion asked, sounding quite sorry for her.
“I didn't, but my aunt – no, I'm not giving her any more of my energy.” She closed her eyes and took two deep breaths, pushing her palms out flat away from herself. Opening her eyes, she looked at me. “It's you I'm here to deal with.”
“I'm not missing this,” Darrion said, pulling up a stool.
“Really?” I asked, laughing at him.
“I've barely seen my person,” Lina said to me.
“Huh. Well, much as I'd like to say I was taking up all his time, I'm not seeing all that much of him – and I'm dating him.”
“See? That. Right there. That's going to be a problem,” she said, shaking her head. “I have a lot of problems – I told you about my boyfriend, right? I need him. You can't have my person right now.”
I chuckled. “Lina, I barely see him, and I'm dating him. We text a lot, but I see him when,” I began holding a finger up for each point, “I pick him up in the morning for school and at practice or if I give him a ride home from school, and we went to dinner at each other's houses. That's pretty much it in two weeks.”
She frowned. “Then where the hell has he been?” She looked up at me. “I have issues!”
“Oh, honey!” Darrion said and smiled. “I can take a break, and we can work on it, okay?”
She took a step back.
“Listen, you can't have Noah do it. He's dating your cousin, and you know he's already going to tell him you're jealous, right? So he's biased.” He put a hand to his chest. “Now me? I love to listen to other people's problems, and I'm objective – if anything, I'm on your side.” He leaned closer. “Noah has looked way too smug and happy the last week or two.”
“I have not,” I said with a grin.
Darrion pointed. “See? See that there? He's mocking me.”
Lina frowned and pointed at me. “I'll see you at school.” Then she turned and left, and I looked at Darrion with a raised eyebrow.
“I've been so patient with you,” Darrion said. “I want-”
“Hi, how can I help you?” I asked the customer that stepped up behind Darrion, who moved quickly and muttered that 'this isn't over'.
We had a small rush, then a kid spilled his drink on the counter, and it splashed all the way onto the floor where we work, so we had a big mess to clean up and had to remake the drink as well. Then we had one of those rare rushes where you can barely keep up – one latte, mocha and cappuccino after another. Being busy didn't stop Darrion from teasing that he had questions. Serious questions.
I wasn't sure what the heck he'd ask me. I was a little annoyed that he thought I'd just tell him about my relationship, but the honest truth was there wasn't a lot to tell. I was just happy being around Walker, and that was about that. So in the end I was more curious what he'd ask than what I had to tell. When we finally cleared up our line, he didn't even wait to wipe a counter down before he turned to me.
“Now I know every man has different standards and needs, and for me if he's not over six inches, it's just not going to work out. Now,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “Tell me everything.”
Oh. “Uh, not sure why I'd tell you – but we didn't do that.” I paused. “And to get out ahead of this, I won't be. Telling you.”
“Aww!” he said and stomped his foot lightly. “That sucks. I mean, I get it, but still. I get on my phone, and if there's no dick pic with a face in it, I'm passing.”
I leaned back against the counter. “My last two...relationships...were all about just hooking up. Is that what you do? Just hooking up?”
He nodded as he said, “Mostly. In my experience dating is overrated. People start to expect things, they start to get offended if you don't do things the way they want to or for a whole bunch of reasons. I've had a few boyfriends, but it doesn't last.” He held a hand to his chest. “But that's me. I have this friend, and he's been with his boyfriend for about a year – which is a record for him. Mine is about three months.” He wiped his brow dramatically. “That's if the dick is good.”
I shook my head and smiled at him. “Walker...I like being with him. Hanging out. Talking. Listening to music. He's...I didn't expect him.” I looked up at Darrion. “One day I was just thinking about how my summer fling was over, and then Walker turned up.” I frowned. “Actually, Corey showed up. But after that was done, Walker just...was there.”
Darrion tilted his head to one side and smiled at me. “I've been told by an old gay – he's like nearly thirty – that one day I'll want more than some good dick. I always tell him I hope not, but I guess one day it'd be nice to have some stability. I'm just not built for that yet, I guess.”
I nodded, and we got to work cleaning up so we could close. I walked to my car after and texted Walker to see if I could stop by. He texted quickly that I could, so I sent my dad a text as to what I was up to and headed over. I knocked on the door, and Walker opened it quickly, smiling at me.
“Walker...did you dress yourself?” I asked as I stepped into the apartment and kicked my shoes off.
He looked down and back at me, smiling. “Yeah. Like it?”
“Uh. I'm no fashion queen, but I'm not sure those colors...um, go. Together.”
“Well, I have laundry going, and it was all I had left,” he said with a groan as I followed him back to his room. I didn't see any of his family, which was kind of weird.
“You have a laundry room in the apartment?” I asked.
“No. My parents are at the laundromat. They said they needed to talk, so they dropped Matty off with a friend. I went to work and then cleaned the living room, so they'll be happy – or happier – when they get home.”
“Where do you work?” I asked as he turned and grabbed me close, giving me a nice kiss and then pushing me onto his bed.
“I wash dishes over at the diner on 6th,” he said, flopping next to me and curling his body toward me as we lay face to face. “My clothes got wet, so I changed. I can't be as put together as you, you know.”
“You can't even borrow my clothes,” I said agreeably.
He laughed. “One of your shirts would look like a crop top on me!”
“It would not!” I laughed back. We went back and forth a few times with that, then he pulled his shirt off and I handed over my tee shirt and he tried to pull it on, but he was laughing too hard. Eventually he got his head through the hole and pushed his arm through one arm hole, and then there was an audible ripping noise. He stopped suddenly and looked at me with eyes wide, then we both started laughing again.
“Okay, well, you just lost this dumb shirt,” I said, pulling on his tee shirt. “By the way, had a visit from your cousin today. She thinks I'm keeping you from her.”
He rolled his eyes as he tried to pull his arm back through the arm hole of my ruined shirt. “I picked up a few more shifts, and if I don't text her back right away! Oh my god!” He gave up on the shirt and left it hanging, so I helped him get the rag off.
“She showed up at my store, telling me we needed to talk and she needed her person and what a mess her life is,” I told him.
“Well, her life is a mess,” he conceded, tossing my old shirt aside. “But then it's always a mess.” He bent to me, both of us sitting on his bed, and held my face in his hands before giving me a sweet kiss. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “She's going to have to be fucking patient.”
I shook my head. “Where did you come from?”
He tilted his head and smiled. “What do you mean?”
“I mean...we've known each other, I guess, for a long time but now...all of a sudden here you are.”
He grinned wider and nodded. “Part of it was good timing,” he said. He pushed me around a little and we got back into a cuddle position. “Remember when I told you what song I thought fit you best? Desperado?”
“Yeah. Nice song.”
“Yeah. You always kind of looked like that, though. A little lonely, like...people at school didn't affect you much. I didn't think about it a lot, but I started to after I heard about Corey asking you out at a party? That sound right?”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” I muttered. “Yeah. Embarrassed the shit out of me.”
He chuckled and I shoved him, leaving my hand resting on his warm skin. “So I heard about that, and it just sent me wondering...if you were straight you'd have probably just told him right then. So I wondered about that until Lina reminded me about some gossip that you and Marc Castro had something a few years ago and how Kendra has made some...not subtle statements.”
I sighed. What else could I do? “What does any of that have to do with-”
“I'm getting there,” he said, poking me. “So after Lina said that, I saw how you seemed just...alone. You didn't talk to anyone on the team, you sat alone in the library-”
“When, exactly, did you see me in the library?”
“My person was there,” he said with a grin. “But I saw how Corey was just going overboard and how you were obviously uncomfortable. Then I thought to myself – what if no one took the time to notice you? To see a real person right there? I wondered about that a lot for a few weeks. Lina forced it out of me eventually, and hey you're pretty cute, so when your headphones broke I figured I'd take a chance and see who you were. Like, see what happened if someone bothered to find out.”
I rolled onto my back. “You make me sound like some kind of British aristocrat in a Victorian novel. Moping and creeping.”
He rolled forward, face hovering over mine. “Maybe. You do mope.”
I gave him a sour look, and he laughed at me.
“But then...we connected on music, and I heard about the picture from Lina, which made me think I wasn't wrong that we'd connected and...goddamn if I wasn't going to shoot my shot.” He coughed. “Um, after you'd let Corey down gently.”
“As if,” I said with a snort.
He leaned in close and flicked my earlobe with his tongue. I shifted away from the tickling sensation, laughing. “Now you. I showed you mine, now show me yours.”
I rolled my eyes. “Corey was just pissing me off. I turned him down, and he just kept pushing, not listening to me or caring that I said no.” I looked at him. “Marc was a summer thing. At the time I thought it might be more, but now I think he's...got pressures at home, and maybe in his head, and he just isn't who he wants to be, yet.” I took a breath. “I had another fling this past summer, and when I saw him the last time he asked me if I didn't want more than sex, and...I wasn't sure what he meant.”
He sat up and looked down at me. “You better be about to say 'until now'. Are you about to say 'until now?' You better.”
“Well. What's the point now? You – ah!” I squealed as he leapt forward and dug his fingertips into my ribs.
“Walker, we told you no girls in your room,” his mom said tiredly from the doorway. We both jumped, and I glanced at Walker, still shirtless, and then back to his mother, and heat rushed into my face. Of course I was likely still red-faced from him tickling me.
“He was tickling me,” I said sourly, giving Walker some side eye.
“Do you need help bringing the hampers in?” Walker asked as he stood up.
“Yes. Please,” she said and left the doorway. I helped Walker and his dad bring in the laundry and then had to leave. Walker let his front door close behind him so we could get in a decent kiss, and I just...I just...grinned at him.
“What?” he asked, breathless.
I reached up and ran my thumb over one of his hard nipples. “Until now,” I said with a smile and headed for my car.
“Damn right!” he said from behind me, and I just laughed.
Once home I had some leftovers, though I couldn't avoid my mom. “Got your first progress report; looks like you're off to a good start,” she said.
I bobbed my head, mouth full of shepherd's pie.
She leaned back against the counter and crossed her arms. “I like Walker. I'd like you to invite him over more often.”
I paused in mid-chew. “Wha?”
“Oh, finish! Ugh,” she frowned, waving her hand.
I swallowed and then again before being able to speak. “Why? Walker would be here for me, not you.”
She lifted her chin a little and placed one hand over the other – a pose that meant she was done. “I like him. That's enough to bring him over.”
I eyed her. “I don't like this.”
She nodded. “That's fine. It's...it's just not my place, Noah.”
I just shook my head as she left the room. I had a video chat with Walker before going to bed, but he'd put on a shirt by then. Afterward my mind wandered back to him lying beside me, shirt off. I'd been looking at his chest, of course, and thinking...thinking....
Ten minutes later I lay back, breathing hard. Wow. I mean...not my first time, but one of the few times I knew the person I was jerking off over.