We made the rest of the trip back to his house talking idly about what needed to be moved on Monday. I was yawning and crashed pretty quickly in the spare room. I peeled off my clothes until I was down to my underwear and slid beneath the covers. I pulled my phone out and called Benji.
“Hey. How are you holding up, babe?” he asked.
“I'm good,” I said. I told him my theory on how my parents and I needed the break and so forth. I told him how Annie'd already had my mom too pissed off to form individual words by the time I'd gotten home. We talked a little, but I was yawning, so he said good night and we agreed to meet the next day. I put my phone on the nightstand and closed my eyes, thinking of Benji and how he looked when he brought me coffee in the morning, how he smiled as he looked down at me.
I was drifting to sleep when the room grew lighter. I thought it was weird, but I was struggling to open my eyes enough to see what had changed, but it was like being in a dream where you want to move but can't. I thought I felt a hand run up from my forearm to my shoulder and I hummed in approval. In my mind I was seeing Benji sitting by me with a cup of coffee to greet the day with. But then I felt something odd and I couldn't place it. Something like claws.
I mumbled as the hand went beneath the covers and ran over the front of my hip, slowly edging closer to my crotch.
“Benji?” I tried to ask.
“I told you to call me Nina, Ryan,” the boozy voice said. That was like a jolt of electricity and I started, not quite awake but no longer drifting off.
“Nina?” I asked blearily. “What's going on?” In my stupor I actually called her by her first name as she'd told me to for so long.
“It's been a long time for me, RJ,” she said and brought my hand to her breast. I pulled back quickly and was now more fully awake.
“What the fuck?”
“It's okay! It's okay! You've grown up so nicely and I'll give you what those young girls can't – experience. I just need a little love from a young man like you,” she purred – or tried to.
“Mrs. Montanino,” I said firmly, bordering on anger. “You're my best friend's mom-”
“I'll be your Mrs. Robinson,” she said.
“I have no idea what the fuck that means, but get out or I'll tell Luca.”
She paused. “I don't think-”
“Now,” I said. “Or I swear to God, I'll scream for him.”
She stood shakily. “No need to mention this to anyone. But...if you change your mind....”
She bobbed her head uncertainly and left the room. I scrambled to the door and locked it. Jesus. The thought of waking up with her riding me or sucking me off was enough to freak me the fuck out. Luca would hate me if something had happened, not that I wanted it to. Fuck. Would she say something to him? Fear lanced through me and I opened the door and padded down the hall to his room. His light was still on, so I tapped on the door and opened it. He was lying on his bed texting, probably to Lilly.
“RJ?” he asked.
“Yeah. Um. Something seriously freaky just happened.”
He frowned. “What?”
“You're not going to believe me, but...your mom just tried to seduce me.”
“She...fucking Christ – Mom!” He was on his feet and pushing past me. “Are you fucking serious with this?” he hollered as he headed down the hallway and opened his mother's bedroom door. “I wondered why you kept telling me RJ looked so nice, but I didn't expect this! What the hell is wrong with you?”
A lengthy back and forth ensued about how she had needs and I was single, and he screamed that my boyfriend wouldn't like me sleeping with her – and nor would he. “That's my best friend. You've known him since he was in grade school with me! If you want to cougar it up, go find some guys I don't know, for fucks sake!”
She let out a wail, but he was red-faced and ignoring her as he came back down the hallway.
He pushed my shoulder, shoving me into his room. “Don't. It's not you, it's her.” He turned and shut the door, then after a moment’s hesitation, locked it. He turned to look at me. “I never thought...I mean she'd said things, but I didn't think...I'm sorry, RJ.”
I raised a hand and dropped it, feeling useless. “That wasn't your fault, Luca. I mean – I didn't see that coming, why should you? I was afraid she'd say something and make you think that I...that...you know, twist things.”
He shook his head and a sad expression settled on his face. “This,” he said softly. “This is why I don't mind taking their money for a car or an apartment or anything else.” He looked up at me. “You don't know what it's like to be an accessory. I started figuring it out after going to your place and seeing how...involved your parents were with you.”
“One way to put it.”
“Yeah, one way,” he agreed absently. “But later when you overhear your parents saying that some cousin or some distant relation or client's kid has whatever, so they'd better make sure I have it – for appearances. Marketing.” He looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes. “I know I have stuff, but...you and Julia are the only people in my life I really value. You understand now?”
It just happened then. Before it was always Luca with the feelings and the strength to express them without appearing...I don't know. I don't have the words. Except I did. I grabbed him and gave him the kind of hug he gives me. The ones that are too tight for friends, too long to be casual and I told him, “I love you, Luca.”
He gripped me tight and I felt him shudder. Drops hit my shoulder and I held on as he rode out the emotions of the moment – emotions made by moments like this that had happened for his whole life. His words echoed off my soul – how I was the only one who'd always been true to him – and he'd always been true to me.
“I got you,” I told him. “I got you.” And I did. I don't know for how long that night, but I knew – and I think he knew – I meant for good.
Sunday morning I borrowed some clothes from Luca, then we packed his stuff for real. Late in the afternoon I went over to meet Benji when he was leaving the club. He greeted me warmly and we stood outside the club hugging much as Luca and I had the night before. We spent a quiet evening at his apartment watching T.V. and just trying to decompress. I hesitated, but ended up telling him what had transpired with Luca's mom, then swore him to silence – Luca was embarrassed enough as it was.
Barney kept a fairly civil tongue until she realized I was staying, then she made some snide comments about me contributing to rent. God. I wanted to just sweep him right out of there or kick her to the curb. Eventually we did head to bed, though, as we both had plans the next day – he at work and me helping move Luca. I should probably go home during the day and get some of my stuff as well. No matter how this played out with my parents, things were changing.
We settled in beside one another and the most wonderful thing happened. I've heard people talk about there being a difference between having sex, or even fucking, and making love. I was sure I'd just made love for the first time – it was slow and tender and sent me to sleep with a deep comfort from knowing that I was cared for.
Monday was busy. We moved Luca's stuff first thing in the morning, loading his junk into a small rental truck. When he'd said the apartment was huge, he hadn't been kidding.
“Wow,” I said, truly surprised.
“I know, right?” he said in a pleased tone. “So check it out – we have the living room with the little deck – we totally need a hibachi for that.”
“Will a hibachi fit? There's barely enough room to stand out there,” I said dubiously.
“I'll make it work,” he said dismissively. “But look, the bedrooms have plenty of space, so we can be in separate rooms when you annoy me.”
“Fuck you,” I replied, chuckling.
Grinning he continued. “The third bedroom is smaller, but I was thinking of putting a VR in there. You know, the one with the sensors on the walls? One dedicated space, huh?”
“I mean, yeah, this place is way bigger than I was thinking when I heard apartment,” I told him.
“Rooms are big enough for,” he cleared his throat, “sleepovers.”
I grinned at him. After finishing his stuff we went to my house and emptied my closets and grabbed my most important stuff. My needs like food and shelter would be met immediately, but I'd need to find a part-time job at least for my car insurance and gas. I hadn't spent a great deal that I'd earned since my parents had 'forced' me to work at the shop after my bombing at college, so I wasn't exactly broke. I brought Ben over that evening to 'help', but we mostly sat around with Luca and Lilly having pizza, tired from moving our junk.
My bed was on the floor and in pieces, so Benji talked me into sleeping at his place again. I was too worn out for anything but sleep, but I was rapidly not wanting to wake up anywhere but with him.
As we drove over my phone rang. I felt apprehensive as I glanced at the number – my dad. I let out a sigh and picked up.
“Ryan. I'm...your mother was worried. She went to put some things from the laundry room on your bed and...well, it's something of a shock.” He paused. “Son-”
“Dad,” I said with a sigh. “Mom told me not to come back. She said if I left-”
“She was angry, damn it!” my father snapped. “This came out of left field! We're not allowed to react? Not allowed some...heat of the moment hyperbole? After twenty years you just, what? Turn your back on us as a family?”
I held my tongue, which wasn't easy. “What would you want me to do, Dad? Keep what I want to myself? Live a lie? Something I don't want to be or do? When was it ever okay for me to say I don't think this is what I want for me?”
I listened to him as he shuffled around on his end. “Years. You never said anything against this plan to make your life better than we had. Just...when did you decide this?”
I glanced at Benji, who put his hand over mine. “I realized it when I went to college. I guess it felt better when I was home, but once I got there I realized I didn't care about medicine – not like I should to save lives. Think about it, Dad. All those tutors. All the extra help, the constant studying and I still wasn't a brilliant learner.”
“Well, everyone has to work hard to get what they want, son.”
“I did work hard, but I didn't want it, Dad.”
I heard him sigh. “This isn't easy to take. We wanted things to be better for you than they were for us. To have a position of respect and security.”
“Dad,” I chided gently. “I always thought we had it good. I liked that you were a mechanic and owned your own business. The shop has a great reputation and everyone respects you. I respect you. I wanted to be like you.”
He sniffed. “Are you coming to work tomorrow?”
“I'm going to the school to register.”
“Okay. Wednesday, then. The McKays have that clutch job coming in, and I was counting on you to be there since that head gasket job on the Anderson's Volvo went pear-shaped.”
I looked at Benji and leaned my head back against the headrest. “Okay. See you then.”
“And Ryan...” He sighed. “Call your mother, okay? She worries. And you've been spending a lot of time with this Ben fellow, so why are you hiding him from us? Bring him to dinner or something, huh?”
I looked over at Benji and his eyes were wide. I smiled. “Okay, Dad. Might be a good idea. He was helping me organize your treasure bay, you know.”
“Yeah, I figured. I needed a-”
“You did not!” I cut him off, laughing in spite of my fatigue.
He immediately protested. “I thought I had a metal script badge, you know the one says 'automatic' on it? I wasn't sure if you'd organized those yet, so I looked at the chart you were making.” He lowered his voice, sounding more like my dad than ever as he teased. “Not really your work, you know, son? I need to meet this organizational genius.”
After we hung up Benji and I talked a little, but I was emotionally and physically worn out. I was unburdened, however, by my father's invitation to bring Benji to meet the family. I was just too tired to ask Benji what he thought about that.
In the morning Benji brought me coffee and looked at me with a look I can only describe as indulgent.
“What's your plans for the day, babe?” he asked me.
I pulled him down for a light kiss. Smiling at him I said, “I have to go to the college and apply.”
The corner of his mouth pulled up. “Good. I may be able to apply next year. Save some classes for me.”
“Hah, they never run out of those,” I said. Something tickled the back of my mind about school, but it slipped away.
“Well, I should-”
“Ben,” Barney said, opening his door. Her expression soured at spotting me, though she'd known I was there before. “Rent won't pay itself. Let's go.”
“Do you have to be so nasty?” I ask.
“Real world, real problems,” she retorted and turned.
Benji gritted his teeth.
“I'm sorry. I know you have to live with her, but...Jesus.”
“What? I'm not angry with you,” he said quickly. “She's pissing me off. I don't know why she's being so rotten, but I'm sure as fuck going to find out – right now.” He leaned down and gave me a peck. “I'll talk to you later?”
“Count on it,” I said with a grin.
He stood and brushed his jacket of invisible lint and strode out of the room. I sat up and sipped my coffee and looked around at his room. I hated it. I mean, I loved that it was his in a unique way, but he deserved better. I liked his organization, his personal touch but there wasn't much that didn't let you know this place was a dump – from the stains in the ceiling to the mattress on the floor. He worked so much, yet the majority of what he made seemed to go to this crushing rent. How much could it cost to live here?
I thought on that, searching my mind for a conversation we'd had before about his rent. How much had he said he paid per month? I thought on that as I drained my cup, and continued as I got into the shower. Admittedly, my mind wandered in the shower, but sometimes if you don't focus on a thing it comes to you. Huh. Eight hundred, he'd said.
I toweled off as I turned that thought over in my head. “Wait a second,” I said aloud. “They are paying sixteen-hundred a month for this dump?”
I'm no expert on real estate values or the apartment market, but that seemed steep for what was offered in this place. I dressed and called Luca.
“Morning,” he said with a yawn. “I just can't wake up today.”
“Want me to bring you a coffee or something?” I asked.
“Ohh. Maybe one of those double shot things?”
“Addict,” I teased. “Hey, Luca...did you happen to notice how much your rent is per month? I mean when you were scouting things out?”
“Sure. I mean, you know it's taken care of though, right?”
“Yeah. Just asking in general. What's the rent?”
“It's on the high end, eighteen-hundred a month, but my parents got a discount because they work with the leasing company on some other real estate things.”
I hummed to myself. “Benji is getting taken advantage of, I think.”
I explained how he was always working and how much he'd said his part of the rent was. I described their place in comparison to Luca's and how it didn't seem to line up to an equal split.
“I looked at places that were, like, twenty-three-hundred a month. I didn't look at the place Benji lives at – it was too far away, but...you could always walk down to the office and ask about prices.”
“That's a thought,” I said, mulling the idea.
“Will that thought include bringing me coffee?” he asked, a little lilt in his voice.
I chuckled. “Yeah. See you soon.”
I dressed in yesterday's clothes and headed down to the office. It was a run-down, yet professional space. There was a waist-level counter like you'd find in a motel with a desk behind it where a woman with bright orange hair sat.
“Hi there,” she said with a smile. “How can I help you?”
“Um, a friend of mine had a two bedroom here a while ago. I'm in the market so I thought I'd ask about pricing?”
“Oh, sure,” she said, smiling and standing from the desk. She crossed the small space to the counter and picked up a generic sheet and handed it to me. “This has the most common floor plans for one, two and three bedroom apartments. We do run a credit check and require first and last month’s rent for a deposit. We rent on twelve month leases.”
I looked down at the sheet. “Utilities and such are separate?”
“They are,” she said with a smile.
“What is the rent for a two-bedroom?”
“They range from nine-hundred to eleven-hundred depending on if it's been renovated and the amenity level,” she said. “Some of the more modernized units have stone countertops and new appliances. If you're on a smaller budget, we have some units that are more...dated, but quite comfortable at the lower per-month. Of course we do try to update them when they become available, so that's kind of catch as catch can.”
Something she'd said tickled the back of my brain. “You said you do twelve month leases? Not six?”
“No, I'm afraid not. Twelve is the industry standard,” she said, smile fading as she started to clue in that I wasn't serious about renting there.
“Okay, thank you,” I said, taking the sheet with me. I turned all this information over in my head, growing angrier as I did. Barney was fooling Benji into paying almost all the rent – and what was that shit about six month leases? I'm sure he told me that they were on six month lease – why would she lie about that part? I wasn't sure, but I knew where to ask.
I went through a local coffee joint and ordered a tea for myself and a latté with a double espresso shot in it. I cruised over to the Montanino's real estate office and cruised by the Karen at the reception desk with little more than a hand wave. She made token noises of complaint but didn't stand, so I let her fall out of my consciousness. I passed between the bullpen desks toward the offices in the back. His mom's door was open and she was staring at her computer screen. His dad's door was closed. I kept going, opening a door to their filing area.
Among his many gopher duties, Luca was tasked with data entry. Luca, his feet up on his desk, was clearly not caring much about work today. His eyes brightened when he saw me.
“Which are you more happy to see?” I teased. He grabbed the coffee and smiled at me, genuflecting and I laughed at him. He sat back down at his desk and I pulled a chair over to sit nearby.
“This is good. I can get a pick-me-up out of this,” he said and sipped. “Mmm. So, headed to the school to register?”
“Yeah. Dad called last night,” I said, not having realized I was going to mention it.
“How'd that go?”
“Good, actually. I still have to call my mom, but you know...it's a new day.”
“Yeah. Never slay more than one dragon per day. It's exhausting,” Luca said, curling his lip in amusement. “Oh! What did the rental office say at Ben's place?”
I related my conversation and wondered what it meant that Benji thought he was on six-month leases while the place didn't offer them.
“Might be that he's not on the lease,” Luca said. “Like, she could be sub-letting the space to him. It'd be shitty of her to do that to a friend – I mean, that's really doing him dirty.”
“Yeah,” I said thoughtfully. “If I go down that road, why wouldn't he just get his own place?”
“Lack of credit? Maybe didn't have a steady job?”
“Yeah, maybe back then – but he works all the time, now.”
“Move him into your room. We have space.”
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“You don't think that'd be awkward?”
He raised his eyebrow at me, challenging both my question and my eyebrow. “Whoever you date will be hanging at the apartment anyway. I'd assume neither of us is going to complain about overnight guests, and you said he can cook, so...downside?”
The door opened behind us and his mom walked in.
“Oh! I didn't realize RJ was here,” she said, acting as if nothing were awkward between us. “Luca, I need the Gonzalez file back. The home inspector just faxed an amended copy of his report and I want to make sure that gets included when you record it.”
“Okay,” Luca agreed. “Hey, mom? What are some good reasons why a person doesn't or can't get their own apartment?”
“Oh, well, a lot of things," she said, sitting on the edge of the desk by me and letting her skirt ride up just a touch. I wasn't sure if it was intentional. “Credit would probably be the most common. Most landlords will run a credit check and if you have little to none or bad credit, they likely will not rent to you. Of course sometimes people will sublet to avoid being found – like running from an abusive spouse. Many places want first and last month's rent down, and that can be a big nut – especially for people on a fixed income. Young people have more trouble due to lack of renting history. Any number of things, really.”
“What about leases that run less than a year?” I asked.
She shifted toward me and leaned toward me to show off some cleavage, although that could all have been in my head.
“Short term leases can be had for a variety of reasons. College rentals, month-to-month for people visiting the area or such. Why do you ask?”
“A friend of ours. We think he's getting screwed,” Luca said.
“Oh? Well, tell him to come to us if he needs help,” she said, smiled at me and strode to the door.
She turned. “Yes?”
“That file you wanted?”
She looked blank for a moment, then brightened. “Oh, yes!” She walked back, accepted a folder from Luca and then left the room.
“Man. I don't know why she has it so bad for you, but it's weird,” Luca said.
“What are you talking about?”
“She asked for the Gonzales file. I gave her the Wilson file; she didn't even check. She was just here to flirt with you,” he said.
“Come on. You have to register, too,” I said, gaining my feet.
“Oh. Yeah, well,” he said as he rubbed the back of his neck. “I'm not really sure what to register for.”
“You sure as hell aren't going to figure that out here, Luca. Come on.”