At the end of those two weeks my mother's things were loaded into a moving truck. She made a halfhearted attempt to get me to join her, and then she was gone. I said goodbye to her and watched as her little Honda pulled away, heading down my street for the last time.
I was dawdling at home, wondering when I'd see my mom again and what that would be like, when I got a surprise call from Elliot.
“Hi, Elliot. What's up?”
“Hey! Glad I got you. Listen, what are you doing in, like, twenty minutes?”
Okay, weird question. “Um. I don't know. Jack gets out of work in an hour, so I'll probably go meet him. Why? What's going on?”
“The hardest thing about a band is people leave and join, get pissy and fight – blah, blah, blah. People equals drama. This time that drama means we lost a singer. Not a good one, but better than me singing everything – I don't really want to do that. And I thought to myself that I know some good singers, and this one guy in particular who might want to hop in his car and come down to sing with the band, see if he likes it?”
“Um, wow. I mean, it sounds cool, but I don't know what you guys have for a playlist. I'd be starting from scratch, and I've never sung with a band before,” I said, feeling anxious and somewhat excited.
“I figure if you come down and jam a little with us, I'll toss in a few of the Billy Joel numbers you already know – they're good, they can pick up the tune. Then we can see what you might know that we do and see if there is any chemistry – good or bad.”
I thought for a minute but couldn't see a downside, and I could use the distraction. “Yeah, Okay, let's do this.”
I headed down from my room. My dad was lurking, as he always seemed to be doing these days, and he wanted to know what was up.
“I got invited to try singing for a band by the guy who does the piano at our summer singing club,” I said. “I'm going to head over and try it out.”
“Derry...look, I know with the situation as uncomfortable as it is things have been different. I've given you a long leash on being out of the house, not asking permission and stuff like that. That can't go on forever,” he said.
I pulled my shoes on and looked up at him. “I'm seventeen. I don't mind checking in, but permission? Doesn't seem like you have much-”
“No matter what I do – good or bad – I am still your father. This is still the home in which you are a child, and if I tell you there needs to be permission then there damn well has to be permission. You can still get grounded, lose your car keys, I can shut off the phone. Don't go thinking that this suddenly means you have no consequences for your actions.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What I'm doing right now? That's a consequence of your actions. My lack of respect? It's a consequence of your actions. You want to take my car keys?” I pulled them from my pocket and dropped them on the floor. “There you go. Want to shut off my phone? Go ahead. If you think that's going to do shit to make things more normal, well, that's just pathetic.”
I turned and shut the door firmly behind me. My chest was heaving. I wasn’t used to talking to either of my parents like that. We usually got along, although I was always outvoted two to one on anything that involved a family vote. Don't know why I thought of that just then; I guess I thought things were a little unfair. And now I had no car. Shit.
I texted Elliot for an address and then texted that address to Jack in the hopes he'd come get me. I started to walk down to the street, checking my bank account to see if I could swing a ride-share or if I'd need to tell Elliot I was going to be way longer than twenty minutes. I grumbled as I stalked down the street about my father demanding that things go back to being just as they were. Was he stoned? Nothing was the same!
“Derry!” Shit. I stopped and turned as my father walked to the end of the driveway. “Come here, please.”
I gritted my teeth and walked back toward him; I’m sure my body language was clear that I wasn't in favor of the idea. I stopped sullenly in front of him.
He pursed his lips and sucked his mouth in almost as if he were sucking a lemon. Calmly he said, “You're right that things are different. Things have changed and nothing is normal. Some basic things haven't changed – you're still my son, I'm still your father and it's my role to set limits for you.”
I opened my mouth and he held a hand up – and I stilled my tongue, but only just.
“You'll get your turn,” he said in that same maddeningly calm tone. He sighed. “Derry, for just a second think of my perspective. Do you think I don't know how much my actions have hurt everyone, including myself? It's like hitting myself in the jaw with a bazooka and watching everyone look at me in horror – I'm in pain, and so is everyone else. You're angry at me – I get that. I'd be angry, too. Maybe...maybe I am trying to grab at something to maintain some sense of control over a situation that lacks any of it.” He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “I need to know where you are. Yes, you need to ask. That's not unreasonable.”
I stared at him.
“Derry, come on. Think this through for a minute.”
“I have,” I said quietly, angrily. “I think you should trust me more. I have never given you any reason to think I'd be out doing illegal or dangerous things.”
“I was nine!”
“The cops brought you home and it scared the shit out of us!” he exclaimed.
“Get over it!” I snapped. “I know better now! Besides, the shotgun shell was empty. God!”
He let out a short sigh. “I want to know where you are. I'm not letting that go.”
I bit my lip. “Fine.”
He handed me my keys and as I took them he covered my hand with his. “I love you, Derry, even though you hate me right now.”
“I don't hate you. You're just pissing me off,” I said sourly. “Yeah, okay, the situation with mom is fucked.” His eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything about my language. “Yeah, it's been really hard, first with her going all incommunicado, then pressuring me like a psycho and telling me staying here is choosing you over her. Then watching her stuff get piled up in boxes a little at a time while – I guess – she hoped I'd change my mind and run away from life to sit on a beach.”
“It doesn't sound so bad,” he said quietly.
I shook my head. “Except for what I'd lose. So yeah, I'm pissed. I'm anxious and a little depressed, and I've been avoiding being home so my boyfriend and I can try to keep our relationship intact while all this goes on. I get good grades, I do my chores and I don't think what I'm saying is being too unreasonable.”
He did the weird thing of pursing his lips and sucking them in at the same time and then said, “We can talk about it. For now, I want to know where you are, because right now I need to know you're okay. If you want to go somewhere, I want you to call and say where it is – and if I say not to, I expect you to listen to me.”
“Dad,” I groaned.
“No. You’re seventeen, not twenty-five. This is the way it is. For now. We can talk about changing it up later.”
I bit my lip again. “Okay. For now.”
He hugged me and I hugged him back out of obligation at first, but out of a need at last. God I'm fucked up.
Dad went inside and I headed over to the address Elliot gave me. It was a nice looking home. He opened the door as I stepped from my car, calling out playfully that I was late and already pissing off the band. I rolled my eyes but jogged up to his doorway, where he pulled me in, patted my shoulder and asked if I wanted a drink before he dragged me to his basement.
“Band, this is Derry Keefe. Derry, this is the band” he said waving to the group of people with their instruments. “You can learn names later.” He turned to the band. “Derry has the sweetest range from tenor to baritone you've ever heard. He's been working with the singing club I play for a few nights a week, so I thought we could try one of the songs from the review that he knows better, and then after you're all impressed with him, we can see what else he knows that we already play.”
“You're so cocky with a new person around,” a girl said, tapping her drumsticks together. “I like it. Can we call you Daddy?”
The band broke down laughing and I couldn't help joining them. Elliot was shaking with humor, but moved me to a spot by his piano. “Okay. Let's get this started.”
We did two I was familiar with from the review and then shifted gears, jumping to some very new music. Some of the titles I knew, others not so much. It was confusing at times, riotously funny at others, and I had an absolute blast. Elliot picked up his phone from the top of the piano where it was shaking. Glancing at the screen he looked at me. “Your boyfriend? You needed backup?” he snickered.
“Thing at home, thought I might have needed a ride,” I said. Elliot ran up to get Jack, and I got some compliments from the band, which I returned. With Jack in the room, Elliot encouraged us to start on the set the band currently had, and placed sheets of lyrics before me. For the next while I sang myself silly while the band played, and I felt removed from the stupidity that was currently my life.
They eventually introduced themselves, but I promptly forgot all their names in my excitement that they wanted me to sing for their band. I was a mess, but I was happy. Jack and I went out for some fast food, and then he asked if I'd stay over with him. I told him I needed a change of clothes and a shower, and he stated firmly that he wanted to clean me.
I raised an eyebrow. “That was pretty strong there, Jack.”
He nodded seriously. “I see the value in being direct sometimes, like you do with me. And in case I wasn't being clear – like hinting it – I want you naked.”
I flushed and laughed. We went to my house and I got clothes, and I told my dad I wanted to sleep over at Jack's. He nodded and said to have a good night, and off we went.
After that night the sex tapered off. His mom had moved to a motel and was looking for an apartment. His house was quieter, and his dad was as kind as you could expect right then. The weight of our homes wasn't quite as crushing as it had been, the pressure let off somehow. It disturbed me a bit, the thought that Jack and I having sex was a pressure release more than a declaration of our relationship and how strong it was. The thought ate at me and was affecting my ability to enjoy Jack.
The thought rumbled in my head, and I thought about who to talk to about it, eventually. Delia was a no-go. She was up and down about Ahmed. I didn't even consider my father. I wondered if I should ask Jack, but I didn't want to throw a potential grenade into our relationship like questioning why we'd made love so much and had slacked off to nothing, especially after we'd just come through our parents being idiots. I think it would have been awkward and useless with Luke – he was wrapped up in his Nik bubble and neurotically asking us all about many moves he made. No way I'd talk to Zac – he was amazing and funny, but had zero relationship experience unless you count whatever strange thing he had going on with his friends – and maybe that was all in his head.
No, the answer was clear. Jared.
I thought to meet him at a chain coffee store, because Quigley's was for when I met Jack, and I didn't really want to change that in my head with however this conversation might go.
Jared is annoyingly put together, much like Luke. He managed to look nice in whatever he wore, and I've sometimes wondered if good looking people just look good, even if they wear crappy things. It's like when you see a pretty actor and they take on some role where they are disheveled and homeless or something – it's almost like they are too pretty to be believed in the role.
I don't know that Jared was quite in that class, but what he did have that Luke lacked was an air of confidence. Idly I wondered where he'd gotten his confidence from. He and Luke had grown up together, so why were they so different on that score? On the whole it seemed like Luke was far more damaged than Jared, likely from the divorce of their parents. Was it just because Jared was older?
Jared and I got drinks and sat at a small table for two.
“How are you holding up?” Jared asked without hesitation.
I shrugged. “It's been hard. Both our homes broken up, parents doing strange things, and we were just...trying to get through it with our relationship intact.”
Jared snorted, his lip curling in amusement, and he sipped before speaking. “Jack's in love. I mean, honest to God, he's found someone that changes his life.”
I hated how Jared could suddenly put me off balance. “Well, I don't know about-”
He cut me off. “I do. Listen, Jack's a rock in every sense of the word. He'll support you without wavering. He's always ready to keep your world from falling apart, just by being there.” He leaned back. “When I met Jack, I was a mess. I was in a new school, and I was just trying to keep my shit together. My parents had fought like motherfuckers in the house, in court – it was nasty, or it felt like that. What I needed more than anything was a loyal friend to count on, and you could see that in everything Jack did. It amazed me that no one else saw it, or they couldn't be bothered to look.”
I frowned lightly. “What do you mean?”
He grinned. “Jack is a stereotypical artist in a lot of ways. He...checks out, thinking his thoughts about how to draw something or just seeing something in a way others don't. He feels things on a personal level that some people will never experience. The first day I met Jack he was this big, goofy kid that was just...observing the world around him like he wasn't really part of it all. That made me curious, so I sat down with him and introduced myself. You know what happened?”
“What?” I leaned forward to hear his answer.
“He told me I had perfect cheekbones and asked if my family had them, too.”
I blinked. “He what?” I started to chuckle.
Jared nodded. “He didn't care what brands of clothes I wore. He didn't care that I was new and unknown to people at school or whether I'd be cool or a jerk. He just said something totally Jack.” He paused. “Since I've gotten to know him, I know how he values people. I don't know if it's because his parents have always been low-key fighting or if he's empathetic to that kind of pain – maybe he somehow picked up on the crap I was carrying because of my parents like some cloud surrounding me, but he didn't care if I might be fucked up. He just picked me up by being my friend – and I do mean that. He listened to me when I was angry. He supported everything I wanted to do – like football? Not a Jack thing. But I said 'Hey buddy, do this thing with me,' and his response was always 'Okay, let's do it'.”
I sipped my drink. “I kind of got the impression Jack looked up to you.”
“Jack loves me. He values me. But the truth is, I look up to him. But while he's a rock about being supportive and a great friend, he's also not so quick when it comes to realizing what he means to other people – and how.”
I frowned deeply. “I don't think that's true. Jack knows I love him.”
“Totally,” Jared replied with a curt nod. “It's the depth, though. Look at me. Every time I date I spend a lot of time on this new person, and Jack always feels as if I'm going to leave him behind. He doesn't realize how important he is to me, and that's frustrating. Look at how things were with Luke. Luke loves Jack, but not romantically. Jack wasn't able to see the difference – and let's be honest, Luke has some relationship issues of his own.”
I smiled. “But now you? All good in relationships?”
“Oh, I'm a fucking train wreck!” he said with a laugh. “Don't even ask me why I keep giving Lauren chances. But Luke? He's in a different category, completely.” He paused and seemed to consider me. “When you guys were dating he couldn't say enough good things about you. Even when he was starting to feel anxious, even when he was a day before breaking up with you, he was high on you as a person.”
I shifted in my chair. “I. Uh.”
He shrugged. “I don't know why I said that. Except that maybe Luke thinks he's not worth someone good. It's why he's such a basket case about Nik. He's talked to me about breaking up with Nik because he feels stressed and Nik is so forgiving, but I think that's what he needs. Someone that will give him the chance to run in circles, doubting himself and reassuring him that he's worth it.”
“Okay,” I said quietly. “I'm a little lost as to why you're bringing that up.”
He wrapped his hands around his cup. “No matter how much we love people, doubt can find its way in. I'm so proud of Jack for opening himself up to you. I'm so happy that someone good sees the good in Jack. I worry about you guys, though. You guys went through a bunch of stress. I know how hard a divorce can be on people. I can see you both leaning hard on each other.”
“It's hard to...express how we've helped each other through this. Big things and small.” I shook my head. “I'm not sure where I'd be if I hadn't had Jack.”
“He'd be a lot worse off without you,” Jared said firmly. “But that brings me back to my point. Jack's a rock. It takes a long time for things to work their way down to the point that he's totally confident in them. Even after all the time he's been my best friend – the best friend – he gets hit with doubts when I date.” He held a hand up. “I admit, I had to adjust my thinking, too. But sometimes he starts to overthink, and it makes him doubt things that are solid. Like him and me. Like you and him. Like...his parents and his home.”
“Has he...said something to you to make you think...?”
He smiled. “It's my gut. I know Jack, and you're really smart.” He paused and I wondered why he'd been complimenting me throughout this conversation. “Look, Derry...I think a lot, too. Maybe as much as Jack, just about different stuff. I like you – a lot. Even without what you mean to Jack, you're good people. Worth knowing, worth investing time in. I know, I know you have to take that with a shrug because of Lauren, but we don't have time for that box of monkeys.” He shifted forward. “So when my best friend's boyfriend suggests we meet up for coffee and we haven't ever really hung out, just the two of us? I did some heavy thinking. Stop it.”
“Stop whatever made you think we should talk. I'm happy to hang out with you, and I'm totally willing to help in any – I mean any – way I can. But you have to stick with what works, and my friend, be direct with Jack. Whatever is bothering you, whatever you're worried about, trust me. My advice to you is always, one-hundred percent, talk to the guy that loves you like a rock. Solid. Permanent.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You think you're pretty smart.”
“About some things,” he conceded. “I'm an expert on Jack. Give me Jeopardy questions on Jack and I'll go home a winner. I like to think I understand people, given time – except Lauren. She's someone I just can't nail down, and I don't know if that's me or her, but again – a box of monkeys for another time.”
I pursed my lips, then took a swallow of my cooling drink. “I wasn't sure about you before. Jack is so...invested in you. Confident. Even though he was kind of lost when you started dating Lauren.”
“Sometimes he needs a gentle slap to the head to settle his weirder thoughts,” Jared said with a grin. “But what do you think about me now?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Jealous that you know Jack so well.”
“He's an open book to you, trust me. Just do what you're doing. He's so happy it makes you sick to stand next to him sometimes,” he said and faked puking. I chuckled.
“He's been very strong for us both through this, but he went to you when he needed someone to lean on.”
“Only because you were in the same boat. And hey, I'm going to lean on you guys some days. We've got senior year coming up to rock, we've got college after and then – life opens up before us. We're a fucking cliché of friendship if I ever heard one.”
I chuckled. It was kind of interesting how he was advising me as if he knew what I'd say, in general, and he wasn't wrong.
“So coffee,” he said, proffering his cup. “Most people think it's an Italian thing – Latté, Espresso and all that. But Europeans actually got coffee from the Ottoman Turks. Starbucks once opened a coffee shop in Vienna because they take their coffee so seriously there, they figured if they could make in Vienna, they could make it anywhere.”
I chuckled. “And did they make it in Vienna?”
He paused. “You know, I don't know?”
Jared was right. If there were issues in my relationship – or if I thought there were – then I needed to talk to Jack. It took almost a week, but then my big show arrived – opening night. It was such a mix – we did a bunch of these old songs – the FM Staples – and I know it sounds conceited, but I fucking nailed Your Song. Imagined I was singing right at Jack the whole time. While one person sang, many others were dancing or backup singing, sometimes both. The Billy Joel Medley was crazy, with the music changing and the lines we'd learned delivered as we hit our spots to literally be in the spotlight. It was exciting, and the fact that my mother wasn't there for it didn't slow me down. Jack was in the audience with Jared, Luke and Nik. Nik's friends had come – and a bunch of Elliot's friends had come to support him, and I was told a bunch of them would come to hear the band as well. It almost made me forget what I planned for afterward.
Eventually 'afterward' got there, though, and then I was staying over at Jack's. We had a late meal with his dad. I'd been too nervous to eat before the show – plus you didn't want to have to go to the bathroom while dancing. I felt badly for his dad, who seemed to be trying so hard but was clearly mourning the death of his marriage – and perhaps more. Jack's mom was a drinker, and Jack had said that was worse now, so that loomed as a large issue in the future.
Later Jack and I retreated to his room. Jack sat down at his computer and was looking at a drawing he'd been tinkering with, but I found I couldn't keep my concerns to myself anymore.
“Yeah?” he asked quietly.
“Are you okay?”
He turned slowly to me, as if my question had taken a long time to go from his ears to his brain and then for his brain to figure it out.
“I'm good as I can be, I think,” he said. “Why? Are you okay?”
I slowly shook my head. “I think...I need to talk to you. Something's going on, and I don't know what it is or what it means – if anything.”
“Okay,” he said and turned toward me, his brow drawing down. “What's going on?”
For the first time in my relationship with Jack I felt out of control. He liked it when I was direct with him, but usually I knew what I wanted. I sort of had an idea now, but the idea was a little fuzzy around the edges.
“With all we've had to deal with...my biggest worry was losing you,” I said slowly.
“Me, too,” he said. “There wasn't anything I could do about my parents. They've been doing this long...slide to nowhere for as long as I can think of. It almost seems like it's part of my normal life, you know? Because it's been here so long.” He looked down at his hands and then back to me. “So all I could think of was keeping you. I really need you right now, and I honestly don't know how I'd get through this without you.”
“It's me. Right? Whatever I did, Derry, I'm-”
“No! You didn't do anything wrong!” I said, standing as tears filled his eyes. I went to him and we hugged, he sitting in his chair and me standing over my big, tenderhearted artist, trying to stabilize ourselves. It was hard not to feel weary, sad, to cry myself over how tense this all of the sudden seemed. Had he been feeling this weird tension between us that I was feeling? Was he unsure? That was maddening – I wanted him to be sure of me. Of us.
I trailed my fingers up his neck and into his hair. His face was turned to one side and pressed to my chest and I kissed the top of his head.
“Are you okay?” I whispered.
He let out a shuddering breath and nodded his head, pulling back and wiping his eyes. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. “I feel like I'm going to screw this up every time I open my mouth.”
“Jack...my beautiful Jack,” I said quietly and he looked up at me with his watery eyes. “I love you, Jack. You're not screwing this up, not even a little.”
He smiled a bit, just a little one, but it was good. Better.
There was a tap at the door and his dad poked his head in. “I am going to – oh, Jack. What's the – are you okay?” he asked as he stepped into the room.
Jack sniffled. “Yeah. Just, you know, stress. Derry's here with me, I'm okay.”
His dad pulled him up into a hug and said something to him I couldn't hear. I felt awkward standing there, but that doubled when his dad gave me a quick hug too.
“Okay. Goodnight, guys.”
After the door closed I moved to stop Jack from retaking his seat. “Jack, I need to talk to you.”
He nodded. “Anything. What's up?”
“Jack, I love you.” I stared him in the eye, willing my emotions to traverse the distance and make him feel the will of my affection and devotion for him. “We've spent a lot of time lately making love. But it stopped when our mothers moved out. I'm confused. Was sex a release for you? For us? Did it mean to you what it does to me? Because I feel like I'm whole when we're together.”
He reached out and put the tips of his fingers on my forearms. “That was kind of poetic, Mr. Keefe,” he said, a little smile playing about his lips. “I think...I think it meant a lot of things, looking back – and I've been doing that. Thinking.” He looked down for a moment, but returned his gaze to my face. “The first time I just needed you. It wasn't so much about, like, getting off. I needed the intimacy, and I wanted it from you. I felt like...everything will be okay if I can just get enough love from you. I felt secure with you. Safe in a way I can't describe.”
I was stunned at his words. I had no idea he felt so deeply about our lovemaking. Hearing it was like sunlight filling my soul.
“Jack,” I said with a smile, shaking my head, “I wanted us to make love for a while, now. I wanted you to be intimate with me, and I was getting frustrated with throwing out hints and them bouncing off you like Teflon,” I said with a small laugh.
He blushed lightly. “I love being with you. I love you.” He frowned lightly. “Is that the problem? Wasn't I any good at it?”
“God, no,” I said with a chuckle and kissed him slowly, feeling him melt to me. Pulling back just a bit I said, “It was that we were making love so much and then it just...stopped. I was thinking...maybe I wasn't any good at it or something. I don't know. It's been bothering me, and I didn't want to add stress to you by talking about it, but then there really is no one else to talk to.”
“Jared would love to hear about our love life, I'm sure,” he said with a roll of his eyes. He looked at me with a firm gaze. “You're very good at making love. Making me feel safe. Making me feel like this relationship is where I'm supposed to be. This thing we have is so...solid.”
I smiled involuntarily at his praise and flushed with pleasure at his feelings about our relationship.
“I guess...” he said slowly, “the intimacy I needed from you wasn't always about sex, even though I love that.” He blushed and smiled at me. “Now that I feel it's okay to cuddle you or touch you whenever...like I have permission, it's been what I needed. I'll make love with you whenever you want, but Derry...babe, you have to tell me things. You know I'm not so good at picking up on subtle things from people and I don't want to miss out on things with you because I just, you know, missed it.”
I kissed him. Partially to get him to stop. Partially because I wanted to. Partially because I needed a half-second to think. I cupped his face and a sense of legitimately proper love washed through me like a waterfall. I was overflowing with the emotion and the unshakable strength of our relationship, even if it wobbles a little top-heavy once in a while. I seized on my wild thoughts, turning from him and locking his door. Turning back, I pulled his shirt over his head, but held him back from closing the distance.
I ran my fingers gently across his skin, perking his nipples in a way that thrilled me. I reached down and pushed his sweats down, kneeling and pulling his underwear with them. He lifted one leg then the other as I removed his clothing, and then I stood before him. I pushed his shoulders, guiding him back down into his chair.
“What are you doing?” he asked in confusion.
I looked down at him and pulled my shirt off, tossing it aside.
“I love you, Jack,” I said quietly. I reached down and pulled both my socks off. He reached for my fly, but I pushed his hand away, encouraged by the lengthening of his dick as I disrobed before him.
“I want to give us something,” I said. I undid my fly and pushed the jeans down, now only clad in underwear that was half on one hip and partway down the other.
“I....” Jack trailed off, his eyes roaming my skin, coming back to my face and then starting again.
I walked back to the side of his bed, turning when I heard him stand from his chair.
“Sit down, Babe,” I said gently. He paused, started to sit, stood up, backed a few steps and slowly sat with his eyes focused on me.
I pushed down my underwear and stood revealed before him, my sex standing hard and ready. I climbed onto his bed and stretched out on my back, one leg bent with my foot tucked behind my other knee. I lifted one arm up behind me and let the other stroke my hard length with just my fingertips.
He stared at me and licked his lips. “Derry? What are we doing here?”
I waited until he looked at me, our gazes locking.
“Draw me,” I said quietly. “And when you're done, make love to me.”