I don't sweat homework that much. My senior year has my required courses and an extra art class, even though all I really do is sketch. I'm one of those people who likes art. I try, but I just don't have any real talent. I'm not like a third grader, but you won't mistake my work for a professional either. The nice thing was I had a big, two period study hall that I usually took in the library. If I had homework I hadn't finished I'd do it then, otherwise I'd get on my sketching or looking at books that claimed they could teach you how to draw.
I sat down in the library and turned on my tablet, thinking about sketching the panel of Walker and me kissing on the top of the hill. Some artists would make each blade of grass visible, but I'd just put a few black squiggles here and there to give the viewer a sense, and then try and do something with the placing of the figures.
I looked up, surprised to see Derek. “Um, hi.” I paused. “What's up?”
He leaned on the back of the chair. “Uh, not to be nosy, but...seemed like you had people you didn't really like sitting with you yesterday. Then the whole Corey thing. Is that...a problem?”
He must mean Marc and Kendra. “Uh. Well, yeah, we kind of...aren't friends anymore.”
“Okay. Mind if we...make sure there isn't a seat at the table for them?”
Mystified I said, “Uh, sure. Yeah.”
He looked behind me and jerked his head. I glanced over my shoulder and was shocked to see the joiners from the other day – I saw Jake Thayer, Sean Kirkwood, Phil Ashmore, Nate Kennedy, Grayson Anderson and Dylan Whalen. They set their bags down and pulled out tablets or laptops, giving me nods of greetings before Phil prompted Nate to continue whatever they'd been talking about.
“Have you told Elliot yet?” Phil asked.
Nate shook his head. “I'm not sure how to even bring it up.”
“You wouldn't be the first long-distance couple,” Grey said reasonably.
“Yeah, but that's not all of it,” Nate said with a little sigh. “He could have gone to school in New York City. Freaking Julliard. Now I tell him I have a chance to play baseball, like really work on it where there are pro scouts around all the time? How do I tell him I'm chasing my dream when he missed out on his?”
“It's Elliot, though. I'd understand how you feel better if it were Jon, because he's got to be jealous first, scheming the next and then applying to the school I'm at – notice the sensible thing comes last? That's my boyfriend,” Jake said with a grin. “Elliot will miss you, but he's mature. He's seen enough to know you're not leaving him, you're just chasing a dream – a future. He'll be okay with it.”
I knew Nate Kennedy was a total legend at school for his baseball ability, but I guess I hadn't realized he might play professionally one day. Not that it was my business. I looked down at my sketch and tried to ignore them.
“I don't know,” Nate said. “If it bothers him...I just won't go.”
“Nate! Don't be an idiot!” Dylan said. “Of course it'll bother him. Anyone in a good relationship would be bothered that their other half wasn't close by. He'll support you, though. Don't forget, I vetted this guy before you dated.”
“Shoved me at him, you mean,” Nate said with a gentle laugh. His expression sobered. “I'm not sure I can...I mean, I get to see him almost every day. I'm not sure how well I'd do away from him.”
“It's not easy,” Phil said with a little sigh. “Trying to make enough money to make the distance work makes it harder. And if you're in Florida, that's a little more expensive than just gas.”
“Yeah,” Nate said with disappointment. “I know.” Nate glanced toward me, and then did a double take as if he'd forgotten I were there. “Uh. Sorry for the personal info dump.”
“I. Um. No. No worries,” I said awkwardly. The table got quiet, and I wondered if they were waiting on me to say something. Were they? Is this what happened when you were part of a group? But I wasn't – not really. Derek probably just told them it would be a good idea. Or something. This was the thing I hated about groups – what were you supposed to do? I didn't know anything about these people other than they were gay. I think. I'd heard Nate had dated girls; I’d had no idea he was seeing a guy now. Did that make him bi, or was he pan or some other identity I was clueless about? Was that even my business?
I blinked and looked at Derek.
“What are you sketching?”
“Um. Oh. It's a...ah, well, the last panel of a...comic.”
“Cool,” Derek said. “Griffin used to like to draw. He wanted to make a cartoon out of all of us as superheroes.”
“I think that idea got banned,” Sean said. “I wasn't there for it, but I think that was part of the fallout from the comic con.”
“You guys went to a con?” I asked, surprised and a little envious.
“Yeah. Pretty sure I remember Lu threatening Robin if he ever brought up the whole skin-tight-outfit-in-public thing,” Sean said with a laugh, causing a ripple of laughter around the table and a warning from the librarian.
They quieted a bit and moved on to other things to talk about. I felt embarrassed and excited that I'd participated in their conversation – not because I was a total mess in social situations, which I can be. No it was because I thought I liked them, and I was...just not wanting to screw it up. Groups are really stressful, and trying to fit into one? Ugh, please.
After school I had practice, and Walker teased me about keeping up, but there was just no way I could match his stride. Maybe if I started to run on the weekends or something to get better stamina, or maybe I could just tell him to slow the heck down if he wanted to run near me. I suppose it doesn't really matter, since it's not like you can talk to anyone while you run, but I'll admit I liked that he wanted me closer. If I'm honest, I wanted that too, which was just kind of new. Walker was nothing like Marc and Victor. I was starting to think Walker was my first real relationship.
My footfalls slowed as I crossed the finish line and put my arms over my head. Walker was already recovered, since he'd finished sooner, and was smiling at me with a smug expression. It was a subtle mocking, but one I thought I could wipe off his face if I worked on my stamina. Coach started talking to us, making a few notes before the meet Friday. We had one the next Tuesday and then a big one the following Saturday.
I rolled my head around, popping my neck, and headed for my car when coach let us go. Walker fell in beside me, having scooped up his bag.
“So. My mom wants to meet you.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “She met me.”
“Yeah, but this time it would be dinner, so, like, not just picking me up. Then we could...maybe watch something? Cuddle a bit?” He stood on the passenger side of my car, waiting for me to unlock it.
“I don't know,” I said and frowned a little. “I was thinking of working on my stamina so I could keep up with you at practice.” I looked up at him. “Can't be in two places at once, you know?”
He raised an eyebrow right back at me. “We both know you couldn't give a shit about your run time. So the question is...are you going to cheat yourself out of valuable cuddle time over getting your balls busted about having short legs?”
I tilted my head. “Yep.” I unlocked the car and we both climbed in.
“Now isn't the time to stand on principle,” he said, buckling the seat belt.
“I figured it bothered you – you do keep bringing it up,” I said, trying to sound innocent.
“Babe,” he said quietly.
I shivered and looked back at him. “What?”
“Come over for dinner and a cuddle. Don't make me do something like tickle you while you drive. That could be dangerous, but if you force me to...I will!”
I widened my eyes. “No tickling. Ever. I will gift your balls to your mom as earrings,” I said seriously.
The fucker laughed.
“Please?” he asked, leaning his head on the headrest and smiling, not smugly, just his normal smile.
I looked straight ahead. “As long as we're clear.”
I stopped home first, so I could shower and get the okay from the folks to skip dinner at home. I cleaned up quickly and picked out a long sleeve tee to wear under a regular tee. It was warmer than a single shirt, but it wasn't a sweatshirt like Walker had teased me about, either. I pulled on some joggers and went back to the kitchen, where my mom was sitting with Walker.
“All set?” I asked him.
“Yeah.” He smiled at me and turned to my mother. “See you later, then.”
“I expect to,” she said and turned toward me. “You'll invite him to dinner?”
I took two awkward steps and said, “Uh, yeah. Of course.”
Walker took my hand and pulled me out of the house. “Your mom was cool,” he said.
“Did she pump you for information?” I asked as we buckled in.
“Regular stuff. How old, where I live. Normal things, I guess.”
I glanced at him and smiled. “I just think I should learn all about you before she tries.”
“Are you...jealous of your mother?” he asked and then started to laugh at me.
“What? No! I just mean, you know, we've only hung out once.”
He reached over and took my hand, and my heart rate felt like it sped up and slowed down all at once. “Yeah, but it was good. It answered major things.”
I swallowed. “Like what?”
“How much you want me,” he said and laughed as I whipped my head around to look at him. “Watch the road!”
I turned back to the road and shook my head. “You're going to be a problem. Aren't you?”
“Yep,” he said with an amused tone. “Complete pain in the ass.”
I pulled into his complex, and we walked to the front door. I thought he might stop us outside the door, maybe give me a few tips on his folks or just a kiss for good luck, but...he just opened the door and kicked his shoes off. I followed suit.
“Smells awful!” Walker said.
“What?” his mother said indignantly.
“Matty! Can't even smell dinner 'cause of him!” Walker said, messing his brother’s hair.
“Don't touch! Jerk!” Matty said.
“Hi, Matty,” I said. He stuck his tongue out at me, and Walker tried to catch it between his fingers, but Matty pulled it back in and grinned in triumph at his brother.
“I told you, Matty,” Walker said in a tone of warning. “You stick that tongue out, and one day I'm going to pull it out for you.”
“Matthew,” his mother said, entering the room. “That tongue better stay in your mouth.” She turned to Walker. “I think that smell is you. Go before you make me gag.”
Walker threw his hands in the air and glanced back to me. “Offer her chocolate if she gets too personal, okay?” he said with a grin, and his mother slapped his shoulder as he headed down the hall to his room.
“Come on. I won't abandon you with Matty and the TV,” she said, and I followed in her wake, taking a seat on one of the stools that sat before a flat counter space that opened on the other side to the kitchen.
She smiled. “Walker tells me you're a senior.”
“I am,” I said. “Looking at colleges.”
“What are you thinking of for a major?”
“If I were any good at it, graphic design. Outside of that, I might go into marketing – seems like it's close to being artistic.”
She smiled and stirred something in a pan. “Anything can be artistic, and just about anything can suck the artistic out of the art.”
I tilted my head. “What do you mean?”
“Like corporate things. Their purpose isn't art but to manipulate. Get people to identify and buy rather than feel anything through their work. I wouldn't sell yourself short, either. There are so many styles out there that I think it's really hard to say what's good and what isn't. It's an individual experience. Some people think the pinnacle of painted art is Thomas Kincaide. Other's think it's Gustav Klimt. Visually they look nothing alike, but they are both well known, accepted artists.”
“I guess I didn't think of that,” I admitted.
She turned burners down low and joined me on the second stool. She held a hand out to me. “I'm Victoria Kay.”
I shook her hand. “Noah Seaford.”
“Oh, I know,” she said with a smile and a little eye roll. “Now let's get some ground rules out of the way.”
I stiffened slightly.
“Gotcha,” she said with a grin. “Relax! It's just dinner and your boyfriend’s parents for the first time!”
I let out a nervous chuckle. The front door opened, and her husband came in, said hello and kissed his wife, and went to change when informed dinner was nearly ready. Matty came running into the kitchen and started being loud with his mom, making gibberish sounds. It was annoying as hell, but I was surprised by his mom's response. Instead of demanding he stop, she bent her knees to look him in the eye and mimicked him.
Pretty sure that's not how it would have gone in my house. There would have been warnings and consequences.
His dad came back into the room and lifted Matty up from behind, making the loud shit squeal some more.
I think maybe kids aren't for me.
“Hi, Noah. How's things?” his dad asked as he set Matty back down.
“Good, thanks. You?”
“Busy, but not exactly exciting,” he said with a grin. “Walker in the shower?”
“For about twenty minutes,” his mother grumbled. “Go throw ice water on him.”
“Nah. Takes too long to pick the lock,” his dad said. He grinned at me and moved down the hall to the bathroom door where he yelled, “Walker! Noah's leaving!”
What the heck?
The bathroom door opened. “Leaving? Why?”
“Stop whacking off – we're hungry,” his dad said, strolling away from him.
“You're paying my therapy bills!” Walker called after him.
“Not sure what he expects. What else is a teenage boy going to do in the shower for that long?” his dad asked, accepting plates from his wife and placing them around the table.
“I've fallen asleep standing up in the shower before,” I said. “I'm not really a morning person.”
“I'm a hybrid morning person,” his dad said. “I like to get my stuff done in the morning, but I don't want anyone to bother me.”
Walker appeared in shorts that looked thick, like they were made from the same material as sweatpants, and a tee shirt. His hair was a little springy and damp, and he looked...fresh, I guess. Pretty. I don't know what I'm saying.
“I half thought they scared you off,” he said teasingly to me and took my hand for a moment.
“Walker, come grab this bowl, please, and put it on the table,” his mom said.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“Not the first time,” his mom said. “This time you're a guest. Next time you're family, and don't expect to be served.”
“Mom!” Walker said, speaking from the side of his mouth, but clearly so everyone could hear. “I haven't given him the ring yet! Ixnay on the amilyfay.”
“Ickenchay,” she said teasingly.
“Did...you just call him a chicken? What language is that?”
“That is called pig Latin,” his dad said with a roll of his eyes. “Walker and my wife – the mother of my children – think it's clever.”
“Makes it easy to talk about him without him being able to understand,” his wife said with a smile as we sat down around the table. There was a lively discussion, not unlike what I have at home when I don't have a practice. There was a lot more teasing and back and forth between the kids and adults than there was at my house, but it was familiar.
I brought my plate out to the kitchen and helped Walker load the dishwasher, then he took my hand and led me back to his tiny bedroom. He left his door open and pushed me onto his bed so hard I bounced.
“Shithead,” I grumbled. He joined me and shifted around until we'd resumed the cuddle position we'd been in while I'd been sketching.
He started a question and answer with me, getting all the things out of the way I thought we'd do last time – favorite colors, movies and games. Just the little things that someone who knows you should know, I guess. He asked if I had extended family, and I told him about some relatives we don't see that often.
“I guess your cousin lives close, and your grandparents? Lina said something about you guys hanging out for a while once.”
“Grandparents lived in Maine. It's one reason Lina and I spent so much time together – no choice,” he said with a grin.
“Is that how she got to be your person?” I asked, and his eyes widened a little and then narrowed in amusement.
“Has she been talking about me? I'll get her,” he said with a snicker.
“Not really. I mean a little, but we just talked in the library one day,” I said. He ran his hand down my arm and locked our fingers together.
“Yeah,” he said with a dramatic sigh. “She's my person. I'll call her after you leave me for a Swedish supermodel.”
“What?” I asked, laughing.
“What do you mean, what? Are you seriously saying you wouldn't dump me for a supermodel?” He grinned. “I mean, we haven't even gone on a single date and I'm not sure how to get you to ask me out, but be real – Swedish. Supermodel.”
I shook my head. “Wait. Did you just say we're not dating?”
“Well, we've hung out. We haven't, technically, been on a date. I haven't heard anyone ask me out.”
That shit. He thought he was funny. “That's a relief,” I said and let out a breath. “After that kiss, I figured people would assume. Glad we're on the same page!”
“Evil,” he said, poking my side. “You're not supposed to agree with me. You're supposed to argue!”
“But why?” I asked, laughter bubbling up.
“Because arguing is fun!” he teased, digging his finger in a bit. “It's also embarrassing if I'm telling people who my boyfriend is and he tells other people we're not dating.”
“Oh, jeez,” I said regretfully. “Boyfriend?” I inhaled through my teeth making a hissing sound. “I don't know.”
He rolled forward, pushing his forehead to mine. “Stop. You know this is right. Besides, who else is going to run with you and demand you sketch them? Who else will,” he glanced toward the door and then back to me, lowering his voice, “leave his house and ride a damn bike all the way the hell over to your house – in the dark! – to kiss you.”
“Why didn't you drive?” I asked with a smile.
He tilted his head. “Did you not hear me just now? My romantic suffering to kiss your lips?”
I just grinned at him.
He rolled his eyes. “I don't have my own car.” He paused. “My dad had his own company; a few years ago it went bankrupt. The business was in my dad's name, and it hurt us a lot. So I work part time and help my parents out with bills.”
I widened my eyes.
“They are the worst about accepting it, so I just...sneak some cash into mom's purse or dad's wallet. It helps when they have some extra bucks.”
I studied his face for a moment. “That's responsible and kind all in one,” I said quietly.
He narrowed his eyes playfully. “And does that get me a kiss?”
I smiled back. “If it does, does that mean I'm your person then? Is that what boyfriends means?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I need my person for when we're fighting and I love you and hate you at the same time. I can go to my person and bitch, and they'll take my side. If we're fighting, you're going to take your side so you can't be my boyfriend and my person.”
“Hmm,” I said, frowning.
“Boyfriends get kissed and cuddled. Persons do not,” he said.
“So then I would be...?”
“Wow!” I said with a laugh. “Look at the time!”
“No,” he said while laughing and grabbing on to me a bit tighter.
From the hallway his mom loudly said, “I'm not sure, but I'll ask! Hopefully they are fully clothed!” She appeared in the doorway and called back down the hall. “You owe me a dollar!”
“Whatever you're going to try and lure me from my room with, the answer is no,” Walker said before his mom could say anything.
She raised her eyebrows and smiled lightly. “Okay. I'll just eat that half gallon of ice cream on my own.”
“I'm not five. I can resist ice cream,” he said.
“Sure,” she said as she turned. “Just thought I should offer.” Then she left, and he sighed.
“Let's give it like five minutes so it seems like I tried, okay? Do you like ice cream?”
“Yeah. I like it better when it's mixed with something hot so it melts together, like peach cobbler with a scoop of vanilla,” I said.
“Oh, sounds excellent,” he agreed.
I adjusted myself in his loose grip so I could look at his face. “Okay, so we need to get a few things out of the way.”
He unwound his limbs from me and sat up cross-legged and waited.
“You're, like, naturally funnier than I am. I like that, but there is also some things that have to be serious.”
“I think that should be up for debate, but I'm going to let you finish,” he said with a cocky grin and placed his hand over mine.
I nodded and let out a slow breath. “We only just started hanging out, but I'm already seeing how...screwed up my previous relationships have been.”
He remained silent, only moving his thumb across the back of my hand.
“I like where we're headed, and I don't know if this is actually too fast – or like, what the rules really are – but are we boyfriends or not?”
He smiled and opened his mouth, and I held up a finger – not one he was expecting.
“No. No being cute or walking a line. I'm being serious. Do you want to be my boyfriend? What does that actually mean, if we're boyfriends?”
He tilted his head. “What a funny question.”
“Not if you're me,” I said with a partial eye roll. “Look. My dating history is two guys. They were both really more like extended flings, which had its good points but was also kind of confusing and a let down. If I've learned anything from those relationships, it’s that...they were lacking.”
He regarded me with interest. “My turn?”
I nodded. “I just want you to know where I'm coming from.”
He nodded back. “Fair. I've dated more, but I'm an actual virgin. I've learned a few things from my relationships – I know I'm a decent person, and I know I can be a good boyfriend. But I also know what it's like to be in a toxic relationship where the person who says he loves me is taking advantage of me in different ways.” He sighed. “I'm generally a happy person. I make jokes. But if I'm not being clear on something important to you, then do what you're doing now. Tell me we need a serious minute.”
I nodded slowly. “What about...the rest?”
He gave me a sharp nod. “I'm not...I'm...weird, I guess. At least, my two boyfriends told me I was frigid and stuff like that.”
I cocked my head. “You like to cuddle. That's kind of a warm thing.”
“Right?” he said with a little smile. “I like kissing. I like cuddling. I'm...a little...kind of holding back on taking that next step.”
I nodded. “Okay. I'm not in a rush.”
“We're still having a serious minute. Right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
He took a few moments. “I'm weird because when I first got a phone and started looking at all the thirst traps on Instagram and TikTok and...at first I wanted all that as much as any horny guy, I guess.” He licked his lips. “But when shit got real with my first boyfriend, like three weeks in, I backed off. He got mad. My second boyfriend went a little slower, but getting me was like a goal. I wasn't enough.” He did a slow motion shrug. “I don't want to feel like I'm giving up something to someone. You're...exciting. You're fun, and you have a real personality, and you're not into me just to try to get with me. This already feels more real, and I want more of that...realness.”
“Okay,” I said with a nod. “I hear you. But I'm not hearing why you think you're weird and stuff.”
He scratched the back of his head and folded his hands in his lap. “I'm a junior in high school with my V-Card. You're a senior with experience. You're...I feel like it's expected we should be, you know, right at it. I just...I don't expect a movie moment, but I don't want to feel like my first time is a mistake, either.” He sighed. “Even if it doesn't last, I want to know when I do that that I was in love with that person, and they were in love with me. No regrets.”
I'm not sure why, but Walker suddenly seemed far more real to me right then. Before I had understood him less and perhaps placed him in some rarefied air, but now I could see he did have things to worry about and he wasn't just some...perfect guy.
“So you think wanting a relationship instead of just hookups is weird? Or you think that's what makes you feel weird?”
He shrugged and looked away. “You hooked up. You're normal.”
I chuckled. “I am not normal.”
He frowned. “What? Why not?”
I chuckled again. “My first hookup? A friend of mine – or I thought he was,” I said with a shake of my head. “I think maybe he's struggling with who he is sexually, but that summer was just one hookup with him after another. No hanging out, really – or it'd be honest to say we'd stopped hanging out and were only hooking up.” I shook my head slowly. “At first it seemed really cool because I was getting laid, but then it got to be like...an appointment. Then he started dating someone else that was supposed to be my friend, and she thinks being gay isn't really a thing. Then I met a guy up at the lake at the start of summer and we clicked – more than I had with my friend – but it wasn't a lasting connection. We hooked up a lot. Talked some after. It was better, but last time we were together he said something like...is this enough for you? I think I've been thinking about that, like...subconsciously, and I know now that it's not. It's not enough.” I looked at Walker. “I want a relationship. The next time I have sex...I want it to be special.”
The corner of his mouth curled in a smile. He picked at my fingers until I turned my hand over, and he laced his fingers with mine. “Boyfriends?”
I nodded. “Boyfriends.”
He cleared his throat. “Exclusive.” A statement.
I nodded. “Exclusive.”
He cleared his throat again. “Ice cream?”
Feeling bold I said, “I think I owe you this first...for being responsible and kind.” It wasn't a long kiss, but not just a peck either. He put a hand on my cheek and held me there for a moment, and that was nice. Really nice.