I felt the mattress shift as someone got up, but I wasn't really awake. I opened and closed my mouth, slowly working up to a yawn. As my mind slowly cleared I became aware of a fuzziness that always affects my thinking after having a few beers – I was a lightweight. I heard a shower start up – the curious stuttering of water running, then spitting as it shifted from the faucet to the shower head. I took a slow, deep breath and a few moments later realized the scents I was processing weren't familiar. Or maybe they were, but in such a distant way that I couldn't place them. Maybe it was just my brain. I shouldn't drink.
I rolled onto my back and raised my arm over my eyes, which I still hadn't opened. The yawn my body warned was coming finally surfaced and I stretched a little involuntarily. A feeling of unease rippled through me, and I reached down with my other hand to confirm that I wasn't wearing any clothes. Shit. My crotch had something entangled in it – drying lube, at a guess. Julia, my girlfriend, preferred that we use lube.
But she was in Lake Tahoe with her parents. Family reunion.
I heard voices through the wall and realized the shower sound was gone. How much time had passed? Julia would be furious with me – and to be honest, I wasn't exactly proud of myself. A door opened and I moved my arm to see who had entered the room, forcing my eyes to open.
Oh. What the fuck was this?
“Hey, sleepyhead,” he said to me.
“Ben! Were you serio- oh! OhmyGod!”
Behind Ben his roomie had appeared, or at least her head. Gwen Didier was someone I'd known a little in high school – as I had Ben Masterson – but we weren't really friends. Gwen's head disappeared and I had a sinking feeling Julia was going to find out about this faster than I'd have guessed. The mattress shifted as Ben sat down on the far side.
“Are you okay, Ryan?”
I grunted and sat up. “What....” I wasn't sure what I had intended to ask. If we'd fucked? Not sure I wanted conformation.
Ben smiled brightly and stood up. He was only clad in a towel, which he pulled off and quickly wiped over his back before hanging from a rod beside his door. I looked at his butt, so different from Julia's. She had a wide behind and something my mother called 'child-bearing hips'. Ben had a slender waist and a surprisingly taut set of butt cheeks. I watched in a trance, my mind still dulled, as he dressed for his day. Work clothes, I thought to myself. A suit.
He looked in a mirror and ran his fingers through his hair, then caught sight of me in the glass, looking at him. He smiled again and turned toward me.
“Take your time. Grab a shower if you like, and give the door a hard pull when you leave, okay? It sticks a little.”
Wow. I think I've said something like that before.
His smile softened into something else, though I wasn't sure what. “Hey. Thanks for taking that off my bucket list. I was afraid you...well, you were great. Fantastic.” He shook himself and stood. “I have to get to work. There's cereal if you’re hungry, and maybe bagels in the freezer if Gwen hasn't eaten them all. She's a carb-whore.”
“I am not!” she said clearly from just outside the door. She entered the room with her phone in hand. “Haley and Kelly as so jealous of you right now, Ben. Brenda can't stop laughing. Wait until Julia-”
“Gwen,” Ben said softly, yet authoritatively.
She looked up.
“Christ,” I muttered and rubbed my face. “What are you telling people?”
“That you and Ben fucked, of course,” Gwen said with such evident pleasure I almost choked on it.
“Gwen, let's give Ryan a minute, huh? I need coffee. Why don't you grab your purse and let's get some caffeine before I have to be at work?” he said, guiding her out by her elbow.
I sighed and watched them leaving the room, to see Ben stop and look back at me. He smiled, but there was no humor in it. “Whatever happens, really...thanks. You were great.” Then he was gone. I heard more talking through the wall, indistinct voices belonging to Ben and Gwen, and then what I assumed was the apartment door closing.
My phone chimed and I rubbed my face. Pulling the covers back, I put my feet on the floor and glanced around. My phone chimed again and I spotted my jeans a few feet away. I walked slowly to them, lifting them and pulling my phone from the front pocket as it chimed again. I turned it on and looked at the time. Seven in the morning. Well, I still had time to get to my own job, then. I thumbed the display to see who was texting me. My buddy Luca, as it happens.
Luca: Yo. Frannie is getting some weird info from Kelly Hulse.
Luca: Ry, where you at?
He added a laughing, crying emoji to the last one. Christ. Shower first, get myself ready for work so my father doesn't kill me. I'll call Luca on the way. With the apartment empty I didn't waste time trying to cover up on my way to the bathroom. It felt odd as hell, but my senses remained dulled until the warm water poured over me and I started to feel more myself.
This situation was fucked, but then that was the last year of my life – The Fucked Year. I seemed to just walk into these situations. My father would disagree – lack of planning, looking ahead, maybe not being clairvoyant if he was trying to be funny, which he rarely did or was. This situation, for instance. I was just getting off work when a person I'd known in high school texted to invite me to meet him, his girlfriend and her sister for food. Since the other option was to go home, I went out. We met up at a pub where they knew someone and before you know it we had a round of drinks.
I'm a lightweight. Always have been. I like an occasional cold beer on a hot day, but that's about it. But I was a little lonely with Julie gone. It was kind of rare to be asked out with some friends – or an acquaintance – so I went. It was during that first round that Ben – Benjamin, Benji, Ben or really annoyingly some girls called him Ben-Ben – showed up with Gwen. Some particulars were a bit fuzzy, but at some point we were invited back to B&G's apartment and a bottle of wine was produced. I accepted a glass just to have something to do with my hands while feeling slightly out of place. The wine was practically grape juice and then Benji – Ben! – was making some silly flirtations around the room. I remember the people who'd invited me bugging out at some point. I was drunk and knew it, so I wasn't getting in my car – not only that, it was after midnight. One of my father's hard and fast rules was no one comes home after midnight. Nope, you stay out, sleep in your car, whatever.
So I wasn't too upset about crashing at their apartment, but then it changed. Ben and I...the flirting changed. I responded, and he reciprocated. Clothes came off. Sex like I don't remember ever having before. It wasn't a race to finish, but more a...something about the journey, I guess. My memory flipped through the act like a slideshow – how he'd felt, how my fingers glided across his skin, how he spoke here and there – the way he said my name. Glancing down I saw I was at half-mast and felt guilty. Julia was going to be hurt and angry. I was embarrassed and guilty, and yet my cock felt none of those things.
I set about washing my face and whatnot to busy myself and try to ignore the situation before it became necessary to manage it.
Once dry and dressed in last night's clothes I headed down – remembering to give the door an extra tug – and got in my car. I wanted coffee and a sandwich and had just enough time to pick it up on the way to work, but I also had to call Luca. This was definitely a call – I didn't want any of this in a text to be pasted or forwarded to anyone.
After hitting the drive-thru I reluctantly called Luca.
“Stop,” I said, letting out a sigh afterward. “Just don't, okay?”
“Don't...what? Ask questions? Mix butter and peanut butter on my sandwich? Ask if you and Benji hooked up?”
I opened my mouth and pushed my tongue against my teeth before replying. “Questions suck, your sense of taste is weird and...yeah. We hooked up.”
There was a moment of silence. “Butter and peanut butter are distinct tastes, Ry. You hurt my feelings, bro.”
I snorted and relaxed just a touch.
He continued, “You should know; when Julia wakes up and gets into her phone, she's going to find out.”
I sighed. “Yeah. That's going to be a fucked conversation.”
“Honestly, Ry, I'm disappointed. You should have broken up with her first.”
“I didn't set out looking for something, Luca,” I replied sharply. “I...had a couple beers. Tyler asked me out with his girlfriend, whats-her-name and her sister. While we were at a place where they know someone, which is how we ended up with drinks, Ben showed up with that nosy friend of his. Gwen Didier.”
“So...you got drunk? Was Ben drunk? Like did he...you know.”
I frowned. “No, he didn't take advantage. We were both kind of drunk and I'm sure that helped things along, but...no. He didn't do anything wrong.”
“Oh. Well. Still kind of fucked up, Ry.”
“Yeah, thanks, I'm aware,” I snapped. “I fucked up and I know it, okay? I have to figure out how to make this not hurt Julia so much....”
“Okay. Well, see you around lunch time then,” he said quietly and hung up. Fuck, Luca, I was disappointed in me too, okay? I don't need it from you when I'm dishing myself double servings.
I pulled up in front of my father's business – Owen's Small Car Repair. Dad didn't like messing with more than six cylinders, so the name was pretty spot on. I walked across the street feeling jumpy, as if everyone here already knew I'd slept with Benji last night – Ben! Jesus, no need to get all pet name with the guy just because...I hate my brain, sometimes.
Passing through the front door, I nodded at Pat, the other mechanic besides my father. I was considered a helper, though I could do quite a bit more than just clean up the shop or replace a few spark plugs. I went into the bathroom, hung up my jeans and pulled my coveralls on. With a glance in the mirror I sighed and headed out for work.
My father was in his chair in the office and he glanced up at me, looking over the tops of his glasses. He looked back down at his desk and I grabbed a mug for my second cup of coffee. As a rule I hate coffee I don't brew myself. I like certain brands and a certain process. Today I was desperate enough to drink my dad's coffee. He buys shit coffee and puts too much in the basket.
“Didn't see you last night,” he said quietly.
As I filled my cup I said, “Went to hang with some friends. Saw how late it was, so I crashed at their place.”
I heard him toss his glasses to the desktop. “Your mother worries, you know.” That was code for he wasn't happy.
“I'll call her this morning,” I said, and sipped my coffee.
His chair creaked as he leaned back. “So. Julia is out of town, my son is out all night. It makes a man wonder.”
I looked at him over my cup as I sipped and waited.
The corner of his mouth curled. “Okay, you keep your secrets. Julia is nice enough, but she's not a doctor's wife.”
“Well, I'm not a doctor,” I replied.
“You'll get there! You just have to develop good study habits and focus!” he said with encouragement.
I sighed. “Dad....”
“No, no 'Dad',” he said, turning my words into a whine. “You're smart. You don't need to be getting grease on your hands for the rest of your life.” He waited, and when I didn't press the argument he grunted. “Unlock the tool cabinets and sweep up yesterday's cat litter.”
I took my coffee cup with me and headed to do as I'd been told. I set my coffee cup down on the tool cabinet, and after unlocking it, I started to sweep up. Dad bought various brands of absorbing agents for spills; he just called it all cat litter.
“You missed a spot,” Pat said with a grin.
“Yeah, yeah,” I grumbled.
“You look a little crapulous, Ryan,” he said, continuing to be way too cheerful. “Have a late night?”
I looked at him in surprise. If Pat knew, the rest of the world must.
He laughed. “Had a few, huh? Don't look at me like that! I came home many a night looking – and probably feeling – just as you do now. We all do it, kid,” he said and shook his head. A wave of relief went through me. The last thing I wanted was for people his age to know – because that meant my father would find out, too. I needed to focus on something other than the dread in my stomach as I anticipated speaking to Julia.
The first job of the day was to take the oil pan off a Toyota. The gasket was leaking and had to be replaced. It was an easy enough job, made easier when all the bolts came out without a problem. I took the pan down, negotiating it past a support strut, and dragged it from under the car. Residual oil dripped from the bottom of the engine into the pan I'd placed beneath it for that purpose. I took the oil pan to the workbench and started pulling off the stiff, cracked rubber gasket. Once most of it was free I took the pan to a parts washing bin and started to clean it up. Pans sit on the bottom of the engine and get dinged up, catching everything that would come up from the road to strike the engine.
As I cleaned I noted the sludge in the bottom, a few flecks of metal, and then daylight. Shit. The more I cleaned, the more I saw pinholes where the pan had rusted through near the lip where the pan and gasket met the block. That meant that while the gasket had been shot, the pan was also toast and had been contributing to the oil the customer had been finding in their driveway.
I headed over to inform my dad. “Dad. Pan is rusted out on that Toyota.”
“Rusted out? How bad?”
“Pinholes around the edge, up by the gasket,” I said, wiping my hands.
He thought for a second. “Okay. Get it squeaky clean; maybe we can braze it.”
“'Aight,” I replied and headed back. One thing I liked about my dad – he was a mechanic, not a parts changer. He repaired things, extended their lives where practical. The Toyota belonged to an older lady on a fixed income. It was likely she'd have trouble absorbing the cost of a new pan. Dad would patch the old one and make it last for a fraction of that.
I spent the rest of the morning on that job – making the old pan pristine, watching my old man braze the thing back into usefulness, and I was just walking back to the car to reinstall it when Luca showed up with lunch. His folks worked in real estate, and he was working in their office for the summer. He didn't know what he wanted to do for a career yet, so he'd gone to community college last year and was exploring being a Realtor this summer. I put on the new gasket and sealer, popped it into place and secured it, so the sealer could cure during lunch
“They always look at me funny when I ask for Russian dressing,” he said to me, handing me a bag with a sandwich inside.
“You look at me funny when I ask for Russian dressing,” I pointed out.
“You'd think you'd want to see Russians undressing,” he said with a snort and a grin. I chuckled with him and we took a seat outside on a discarded rear seat that had been removed from some long-gone vehicle. “So. Benji Masterson.”
“First, can we not call him Benji? That's like some intimate nickname or something or for a little kid,” I said, sounding grouchy to myself.
“Well, you were intim- okay! Don't hit!” he said and grinned at me.
“Glad you're enjoying this,” I grumbled.
“I don't know,” Luca said after a moment. “Seems like the capper to the year you've had, man.”
I snorted. That was the truth.
“I mean, I know you worked hard to get into that school – but you didn't want to be there. Your parents never listen to you. It's been 'Dr. Owens' as long as I can remember. So school didn't work out, you're home doing something you like – seems like the next step in finding yourself is losing the girl and getting the guy.”
I stared at him. “What are you, a psychiatrist?”
“An...interested observer,” he said with a grin.
“Julia and I were going to get married. Have kids. There are plans.”
Luca chewed for a moment and then grunted. “Mixing your tenses again. This is why you needed me for English papers.”
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“You said you were going to get married and there are plans. Those two don't really go together,” he pointed out.
“You know what I meant,” I grumbled and took a bite.
“No. I think you don't know what you mean,” he said and bumped me with his shoulder. “You're not getting weird 'cause it was a guy are you?”
I swallowed and then hunted after a piece of onion that was trapped between my gums and lip. “No. I just can't believe I cheated.”
Luca nodded. “Yeah. It's out of character. I told you before though, Ry – I think going to college and not being successful was what you needed to do, brother. Now you find out who you are.”
I stared at him for a second. “You want to stop with the Obi-Wan routine? Like you have it all together and I don't.”
Luca looked back at me steadily.
“Okay, fine, you have your shit together and I don't. Congratulations, you win at life!” I took a vicious bite of my sandwich. Things were quiet for a few minutes while I hashed things in my mind, without really making any progress. Was Luca right? My parents had always been on me that I was going to be a doctor. I'd had to work my ass off in school. I'd gotten extra help to ensure I had the grades to pursue a their dream.
College had been a disaster. I came from a strong family life – the oldest of three – and I'd had a circle of friends I'd felt comfortable with. All that changed. Everyone went somewhere different – except Luca. He'd always marched to his own beat, but managed to be a good friend despite or because of that. After failing out of college I'd come home to a disappointed household and a father who wanted me to earn my keep by working at his shop before hitting community college in the fall. I think he thought it was a punishment.
Luca stood up, pulling me from my thoughts. He looked down at me and gave a wry smile. “I don't have my shit together. I have no idea what to do next. What I do know is when I needed a friend, you were there. You're just unlucky enough that I'm going to return the favor.” He grinned and I laughed, shaking my head at him.
“Thanks for lunch.”
“Of course,” he said, brushing it off. He turned as if to leave, but then turned back. “One thing I'd like to know, though.”
I looked at him, waiting.
“Do you like Benji?”
I ran my fingers through my hair and sighed. “I honestly haven't thought about it. Ever since I woke up I've been thinking about Julia, and then dealing with other people's opinions. I haven’t had a chance to even think about anything. I have to get things sorted out.”
“Yeah,” he said with compassion. “Listen, I know you're going to beat yourself up about the cheating. You're right, to a point. But it seems like you've been tearing down everything you used to be for a while now. Maybe now you get to figure out what you're going to be next.”
“Dude,” I said as I gained my feet. “Seriously, who talks like that?”
“My parents have about a billion hours of Dr. Phil on their DVR, and they stream episodes in the office. I may need an intervention,” he said with a grin.
“You need to get away from your folks,” I told him with a laugh. We clapped our hands together and did our one armed hug, and I was back to my job and he headed back to his. The afternoon went pretty smoothly, but as the day wore on I wondered more and more about what I'd find on my phone. My dad was really old-school about personal calls and stuff at work, so my phone was in my jeans pocket in my locker. Luca was the perfect reason not to have checked it on my lunch break, but at the end of the day – I was going to have to deal with Julia.
Five o'clock rolled around and I went to the bathroom and cleaned my hands – my mother would give me crap at the dinner table. She said the same to my father, but ramped it up for me because 'A doctor's hands should be clean.' The guilt in our house....
At last I slipped on my jeans and headed for my car.
“Heading for the house? Your mother has Cacciatore for us tonight,” my father said.
I paused. “Sounds good. I was going to grab a real coffee, then I'll be home,” I said.
“You and that coffee,” he muttered good-naturedly before heading to his office. I got into my car, an old VW that a customer had elected not to fix. I had spent a year working on it, learning to love auto mechanics – to my parents' horror – and I was proud of my little car. It ran well, stopped well and got me where I wanted to go pretty comfortably. I drove over to my favorite coffee shop and hit the drive through. One day I will have the industrial coffee maker they use in my own kitchen, because this place makes a damned-near perfect cup. With my drink in hand I pulled into a parking space, took a deep breath, and took my phone from my pocket.
There were a few messages, but one missed call. From Julia. Only one. No message. I sighed and sipped my coffee and reflected on how it tasted for a moment before hitting redial. The phone rang twice and then picked up, but I could hear Julia faintly telling someone she'd be right back. There was a solid sound, perhaps a door closing, and then she was there.
“Ryan.” A statement.
“Ryan,” she said and sighed. “You have no idea. You know how much I was stressing about this reunion, and it's been nothing but a shit show, by the way and thanks for asking.”
I, wisely I thought, waited.
“First my aunt and her hell spawn showed up, and the next thing you know she's gone all mother-earth and has a bunch of used diapers to wash – she has a damn hamper for the dirty ones, and that kid must have shit his weight on the car ride down,” she said. I bit my lip and tried not to laugh. “Then my cousin tells everyone she's getting married and that started a fight when her mom got drunk and was telling people they weren't invited.”
“Um, wow,” I said. I truly was at a loss.
“Then we went out to dinner, and someone who thinks their precious crotch goblins are God's gift to something let them run wild in the buffet, and they broke the ice cream machine. I mean broke it, Ry. The restaurant is suing them or something – and I don't even know which relative that is. I hope I can block it out and never see them again.”
“I. Um, that's...a lot.”
“You have no idea,” she said with a sigh. “There's a reason my dad went to college all the way out in New York – because this family wouldn't chase him that far. Oh! And that leaves out Uncle Creepy, who is remarried to someone I'm not sure is old enough to be my aunt. I mean, yeah, I know love's not an age thing, but still. That's what got drunk Aunt riled up about the invitations, the thought of inviting him and his...daughter/wife.”
“I'm sorry, Jules,” I replied. She had a large family, but they were widely dispersed. Every time they got together, there was drama.
She was quiet for a moment. “I know you are.” She sighed. “Look, let's be honest, Ry. We're friends. I love you, I know you love me, but it’s not that kind of love. Right?”
My eyes began to water. “Um, nah, come on. I screwed up, Julia. I know I did. I'm incredibly sorry about it. I had a couple of beers and then-”
“Ryan. Ryan, stop,” she said quietly. I stopped, trying to steady my breath. Whatever happened next was going to change everything – maybe the last brick of whatever it was Luca said I was trying to tear down about my life. “I know we were serious in high school. But we're not in high school anymore. Ever since we graduated things have been different, and not just you.”
“We talked marriage. Kids,” I said weakly.
“And how our kids would be the cutest fuckers ever, I know,” she said, and I couldn't help but smile a little. “And they would have been – me and you? Those genes would have made models. But I took a gap year, and I’ve learned a lot more about the world and myself. You've been going through a lot of things, too. In a way I think this was inevitable, and I'm sad and selfish to say I'm glad it was you instead of me, because I'd feel doubly bad if I had to sleep with a cousin or something – and by the way, the family from Philly is here and Gordon is...what a glow-up.”
I had to switch gears to try and remember who Gordon was. “The kid who picked his nose all the time?”
“The same. He got hot, and I haven't seen him pick his nose once. I've been asking my mother exactly how closely we're related.”
“Jules!” I said, scandalized.
“Hey! Remember who cheated here,” she replied.
“Jules...I swear, it's not something I'm forgetting anytime soon,” I said quietly.
“Yeah, I know,” she said quietly. “But it's done. That part of us is done. You see that, right? Tell me you see that, Ry.”
I choked back the idea of crying. Maybe I deserved to mourn and maybe I didn't, but if I did I'd do it later.
“Okay, Jules,” I said quietly.
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