“I got us each a burrito and then a quesadilla to split,” he said with a grin of hungry anticipation. I handed him a ten for mine and we tucked into some awfully damn good burritos.
“So. Does this thing that happened with Benji have you questioning yourself at all? I don't think I asked that,” Luca said, then took a healthy bite.
I worked a piece of tortilla off a tooth where it had become stuck. “I don't know,” I said with a sigh. “I mean...sure, some guys look good. But everyone knows that, right?”
Luca nodded. “I think so. I can understand why some girls are attracted to some guys. Difference for me is I don't share the attraction. How do you feel, though?”
I frowned lightly. “About Benji – Ben!” I grunted to myself. “About Ben, or about guys in general?”
“Either or,” Luca said.
I looked out into the shop and thought for a minute. I liked talking to Luca. Sometimes I don't know the questions to ask myself. I let my eyes lose focus as I thought about Ben and the time I'd spent with him. I tried to figure out if – no when – I'd started to feel attracted. It wasn't immediately. I don't think it was the alcohol, not entirely. I hadn't had that much, but I wouldn't risk a DUI. Ben was nice looking – medium brown hair that was a little long with a nice face – a little wide with full lips and sharp cheekbones. He was dressed in an understated way – a plain white tee under a button-up shirt and jeans that were maybe a couple threads shy of being classed as 'skinny jeans', rolled up a bit at the bottom to show off a bit of ankle. Those jeans definitely emphasized his lower body.
So I knew he was good looking, but then I talked to him. I mean really talked for the first time, and something changed during that conversation. My heart had beaten faster. My thoughts had raced. Restlessness had settled into my limbs and I fidgeted, standing and excusing myself to use the bathroom when I didn't need to go. I'd had some crushes over time, and I supposed if I looked at all of them really hard there were probably some guys I tried being friends with because of their looks rather than them being worth knowing.
I turned my gaze back to Luca, who was picking at his half of the quesadilla while I thought.
“No guy has made me feel like Ben did. There are some attractive guys – like I can see they look good, like you were saying,” I said, nodding at him. He looked back at me patiently while I finished. “But there was something about him that night. Something I've never felt with anyone – male or female. Yeah, he looked good, but at some point in talking to him, he became something different.”
Luca bobbed his head a few times and pursed his lips contemplatively. “Seems like you should know more about him, then. My suggestion stands – coffee. Lunch. Walk in the park. Pick something and see if the way you felt that night is the way you still feel around him.”
I turned that over. “Yeah. Maybe you have a point.”
After lunch Luca had to head over to get Lilly. I guess there was some modern art thing they were going to, now that they'd viewed something more in line with classical art – or something. I don't know. Luca gave me a long hug before he left, something he does once in a while. I guess some guys would be uncomfortable with it, but that's just stupid. Luca and I have always been like that. After he left I spent some time thinking about what to say to Benji – Ben, God damn it. How do I even get ahold of him?
I let my brain stew on that while I drained the oil from Chloe's car. Once I had collected the oil I ran a magnet through it and took a hard look. I didn't see much of anything, so I when they came back I recommended a tune-up as the best course of action. I put the same oil back into the car – they hadn't authorized me to change it and I didn't want to charge them for something they hadn't agreed to. I put the battery back in and after a lot of cranking it slowly caught and settled into a more-or-less steady rhythm.
“Can I make an appointment to get the tune-up done?” she asked.
“Sure, but you have to call Monday. My dad does the scheduling,” I told her. “And I'd change the oil. It looked like it was about due.”
“How much do I owe you?” she asked, pulling her little purse around.
I held my hands up. “You all have a good weekend.”
“Oh, no. No, no, no,” Chloe said, but Howard put a hand on her arm.
He nodded at me. “Thank you...?”
“Ryan. Ryan Owens.”
“Thanks, Ryan. We'll get that appointment on Monday.”
I smiled and nodded. As they headed for their car I heard Chloe hissing at him, demanding to know why he stopped her from paying me.
I just shook my head and set about cleaning up the tools and locking the place up.
My house was full of drama that night as my little sister, Anne, was fighting with my parents because she was 'in love' with a guy two years older than her who had a car. My parents were afraid he'd impregnate their daughter. I think Anne was just enjoying their fear. She can get a sick charge out of riling people up.
Then my little brother, Stan, plugged the toilet and tried to 'fix' it himself using everyone's toothbrush and my father's aftershave. I gladly volunteered to run out and get new toothbrushes – anything to escape that weird feeling of chaos. It turned into a really late night, because I ended up helping my dad pull the toilet up and clean out the junk that Stan had originally used to cause the blockage – toys.
Sunday was a slow day and I slept in.
Shit. Luca knows I like my sleep.
“Ryan,” he said in a sing-song voice right next to my ear.
I waved a hand past my ear to shoo him. “Stop. Sleeping.”
“I have coffee.”
Fuck. I turned my head enough to face him, holding one of our coffee cups – so from our home pot, not a chain. “Cheater.”
He grinned down at me and held the cup forth. I grunted and sat up to accept it.
“Heard about your wild night,” Luca said, snickering.
“I don't know how Stan is still alive,” I said with a chuckle. I sipped the brew and closed my eyes. Come on, caffeine, do your thing. “So why are you here waking me up?”
Luca grinned. “Lilly. She wants to head out to the lake with some friends, so I told her I'd drag you along with us.”
I raised an eyebrow and tried to process that. “The three of us?”
“Nah. She's got a few friends going. I don't know them that well, but they all seem cool,” he said.
“Ugh. You woke me up to be your wingman?” I said and groaned.
“You don't want me out there just dangling, do you?” he asked. I just looked back at him for a minute and he rolled his eyes. “You do not. Stop.”
Luca had dark hair with highlights that was really thick and looked like it would curl if it had room. So it was...wavy, I guess. Warm brown eyes and perfect teeth – courtesy of a high-priced orthodontist and whitening treatments – and he was a pretty handsome guy. My heart tripped just after the thought occurred to me.
“What?” Luca asked.
“You just, like, gave a full body twitch or something.”
He furrowed his brow while chuckling at me. “What? What's running through your head?”
What was running through my head?
“Is it Benji again?” he teased. “Do you have a date?”
“No. Loser,” I grumbled and sipped my coffee. I pursed my lips and looked down into the cup and quietly asked, “Did you ever think I was gay?”
The mattress shifted as he sat down and then worked his way so he was next to me, but not quite touching.
“So, middle-school me thought you might be. I almost hit you with it one time, too. Remember what a dickhead I was in middle-school?” He snorted and laughed.
“You were going through shit,” I said quietly, still looking at my brew. It would get cold, so I sipped while he went on with this memory – I don't know why he felt the need to revisit it though. He had been a dick, and I hadn't always been gracious and understanding about why. Not then, though I'd felt bad when I'd realized.
“I was, no doubt. So here we are – I'm pissed at the world because my parents won't stop fighting. My house feels like tension and anger are things you can reach out and catch in your hand if you're fast enough. Sometimes you think you even see them in the corner of your eye, but they're gone when you turn to look.”
“That's...an interesting way to put it.”
“I've had a lot of time to think about it, so I can wax kind of poetic, I think,” he said and bumped me with his shoulder. “So anyway, all this is going on, and we had a fight about...something. We were both fuming, and I can remember I'd been stewing since the fight, and I wanted to say something really nasty.” His voice dropped and became a bit shaky as he said, “Remember Ken Nally?”
“Malibu Ken?” I asked, my lip curling at the old jibe.
“That's the one,” he said, his voice still shaking. “So here I came, ready to just call you a faggot in front of the world and he starts ripping me about my parents and how they have signs for their business all over town and how my dad is probably fucking the secretary – which he was – and I was just kind of stunned. It was so unexpected. Ken and I never got along, and I still don't know why he chose that moment – but then there you were, standing between us and barking in his face.”
I snorted. “I remember that.”
Luca cleared his throat and said, “I went away the next week – school break. You and me, we hadn't made up, but I was talking to a cousin of mine whose family had joined us at the beach.” He bumped me with his shoulder and I glanced up at him. “She was this goth chick. A wet dream for you.”
“Eww,” I said and laughed. He joined me, and as we shook our shoulders pressed together, and when he resumed his story they stayed that way.
“I thought she was weird – all that black make-up and the chrome things hanging off her clothes. We ignored each other for the first few days, but I was spending a lot of time sitting on the beach staring at the ocean rolling in and out. She stood next to me and we ignored each other for a bit more and then...I just started to tell her stuff. How Malibu Ken pissed me off, how I'd been mad at you, and how you stepped in and I didn't know what to do with that.”
I sipped my coffee and asked, “So what did she say.”
“Nothing at first. She told me about herself – she'd been overweight when she was little and people had made fun of her. When she hit middle-school she lost weight, but things didn't change. They called her anorexic and stuff. She did some counseling.” Luca paused and then said, “She told me she eventually learned that unless she cared about the person, their thoughts about her didn't matter. Then she started demanding to know why I cared what Malibu Ken thought. At first I was like, 'Well, it's none of his business, and he should keep his mouth shut,' and stuff like that, and she basically told me that if I don't care about Ken, I shouldn't care what he says or does – or at the least it shouldn't hurt me.
“Then she said...your friend loves you, though. He's majorly pissed, you guys are fighting and he still jumps in on your side?”
“Without even thinking I said, well yeah, Ryan's my best friend. And right then I realized how much damage I almost did. Then I realized that, at the least, I was important to you. I was too much of an asshole to accept that you loved me, or that I loved you back, but she had a point. It took me a long time to get the part where I mostly don't care what people think who I don't care about, but I'm pretty good at it now.”
I glanced up at him. “What does this have to do with-”
“Everything,” he said, looking at me intently. “Yeah, I had an idea you could be gay or bi. When you and Julia got together I was a little hurt because it had been us three for a long time. But the newness wore off and things were more-or-less back to normal. I eventually noticed that you seemed just as happy to cuddle with Julia as you were me. I mean, I know bromances and homiesexuals are all the thing now, but we were that before it was a thing. You know?”
I frowned lightly. “But why did you think I could be gay? Or bi or whatever?”
“I think it was Greg Henneman that made me suspicious, but Tyler Franklin that confirmed it. Greg was really important for like a three week stretch or something, and then you didn't bring him up any more. But Tyler....”
I glanced down, heat filling my cheeks.
“Yeah. Tyler was suddenly someone you wanted to be friends with. Then Becky Nice started dating him, and you went into a little funk.”
I was quiet for a minute. “It's kind of like you made a study of me.”
“I did. I was too chicken shit to tell you I loved you back, so I tried to be aware so I could be the best friend I could. What else should I do for someone that held me together when my parents were tearing me apart? Or for who sticks up for me even when they're pissed at me?”
I blushed harder, but I wasn't uneasy.
He put his head on my shoulder. “Now will you get dressed and come to the lake with me?”
I started to chuckle. “Did you just tell me all that to get me to go?”
“Nah. I love you, loser. Now come on.”
I took a quick shower before getting ready for the beach – swim trunks, slides and a sleeveless tee. We took Luca's car, and I didn't mind much. When his parents had divorced they only preserved their business, as it had grown quite well and neither was willing to give it up. Luca was stuck in the middle, with them alternatively competing for his love and hurting him to hurt their former spouse. The car, a baby Beemer, was comfortable and fast, so I enjoyed the odd ride in it.
Callahan's Beach was named for a local industrialist who was long dead along with whatever industry they'd been involved in. As we rode I tried to let my mind drift, but it kept coming back to Luca bringing up Tyler Franklin. Tyler was tall and slender – one of those guys whose shorts never got below his knee because he grew too fast. He had hair the color of wet straw.
At first I just liked looking at him. I didn't think about it like looking at Julia or another girl, but it really wasn't much different. We shared gym class and I spied on him when he changed out. We'd gotten friendly, even hanging out a little – and then Becky Nice had happened. I suppose I can't blame her for being interested in him, though I hadn't felt that way at the time. I never would have asked him out, but it seemed her dating him snuffed out the dream. I suppose it's like when you are enamored with a celebrity and find out they are dating.
Tyler had filled out a bit by the time we graduated, but he'd still been slender and tall – still really cute. Jesus. I guess I've been burying this shit.
The beach isn't that big – a man-made lake with imported sand. Luca and I headed over to a group of people – I assumed he recognized Lilly among them. That was confirmed when a pretty girl with long, straight brown hair bounced out of the group and met us partway.
“Hey, babe,” she said with a large smile. Man, that look...it was so genuine it hurt to look at it.
“Hey,” Luca said, drawing the word out and giving her a light hug. “This is my bestie, Ryan.”
“Hi,” she said, giving me a wide smile but hanging on Luca.
“Hey. Nice to meet you,” I said.
“You too. Come on, I'll introduce you.”
So we met Bruce, who seemed to be into weightlifting, and Carrie, who Bruce could have probably held over his head with one hand. Oh, and they were a couple. We met Kate and Lois, Jim and Didi, Grace, Sara, Christine and Jace. Most of them were unremarkable as far as appearance, but Lilly made some mention of Jace being single that didn't click right away for me.
So we grilled using the charcoal cookers provided by the beach, we spent some time in the water – but only after I stood around awkwardly near Luca, since I knew no one. Eventually I just went into the lake, though, and floated on my back for a bit. The water would fill my ears and make the world go silent except for the weird rushing of the water itself. I looked up at the late summer sky while moving my arms and legs slowly to help keep me afloat when I had to let air from my lungs. It was peaceful.
Getting splashed didn't exactly break the mood I was in, but I did sit up to tread water so I could see where to head to keep chilling out.
“Hey,” Jace said as I righted myself.
“Oh, hey,” I said, and held my place so I wouldn't be rude.
“This is going to sound super weird and uncomfortable, but Lilly is trying to hook us up. She sent me over here, so can we just talk for a bit and get her to think she was successful so she can go back to chewing on Luca's ear instead of mine?”
He laughed at my dumbfounded look.
“I know, it's the stupidest thing. I got out of a relationship not that long ago and I really don't want to date. My sister,” he said, tossing a less than loving look over his shoulder, “keeps insisting I need to get back out there. She makes some stupid analogy about falling off a motorcycle and I'm like...bitch, you have never been on a motorcycle.”
Bemused I asked, “Have you?”
“Been on a motorcycle? Yes. If you fall and get road rash, then get back on, you're just an idiot.” He paused and smiled. “My last boyfriend had a motorcycle. I think that's why she says that.”
I chuckled. “Sure, we can talk and fool your sister.”
“Excellent. So I take it you're single?”
“Yeah. Broke up with...my girlfriend just recently.”
“Aww, you're a baby gay,” he said and laughed a little. “Have you been down to Nirvana? It's a gay club. They do eighteen and over dance nights on Tuesday and Thursday. If you like karaoke they do that Wednesday. I bar back sometimes, so I have the schedule kind of in my head.”
I shook my head and then leaned backward to dunk my hair in the water before running the excess from my hair. “No, never been. Is it a good time?”
He tilted his head. “It depends on who you're with and what you like.” He hesitated. “Lilly said you know Benji.”
I pushed my tongue against my teeth. “Did she?”
“Uh oh. Did I just step in it?”
I rolled my neck, popping it a couple times. “All good. What about Ben?”
“Well,” he said, proceeding cautiously. “Ben was okay when he was coming with a friend – that's kind of the key. When he started dancing, then he'd be there alone and he's kind of in with the snappy crowd.”
“Snappy crowd?” I asked, perplexed.
“Yeah. Selfies. Can't be too thin. Make-up. Fake designer clothes. Benji was sweet, but those guys have him thinking he's got to make himself over to be – I don't know, pretty? They are in a constant state of artificial reinvention, but really they are just fake.” Jace let himself slip beneath the surface and then popped back up, wiping his face.
“I don't know Ben that well,” I said, wondering about who Ben was with these guys. What did he see in them? “What did you mean by started dancing?”
“Oh!” he said, perking up. “They have these cages, they look like big bird cages, and guys dance inside them in shorts or underwear for tips and fun I guess. Ben has done that a few times – he's very good at it.”
“Oh,” I said, not sure how to feel about it – or if I had a right to feel anything about it at all.
“So you're Luca's bestie, huh?”
I glanced toward the beach where Luca had lifted Lilly up and was twirling her around as she unconvincingly screamed to be put down.
“Yeah. Since we were around twelve or thirteen. We both went to a summer camp – it was the only year I went – and we hung out just about every day.”
“Did you guys bond over a fight or arts and crafts or what?”
I frowned and smiled at once and looked at Jace. “How much we hated the lunches. Their milks were always lukewarm, the sandwiches were soggy, the fruit was rock hard from sitting on ice or something – I mean it was all just shit.” I laughed at the memory and he giggled.
“Sounds like the things people say about cafeteria food,” he said.
“Our high school had a great caf. Their wraps were the shit.”
“Mine were terrible. Cardboard pizza with grease sitting on top of the cheese – eww.”
I laughed with him.
“So, if you're single...are you going to ask Benji out?”
I dunked my head and wiped the water from my eyes before sighing. “I have no idea.”
“No rush, right? I mean, you just got out of a relationship. I guess you're bi? Swapping teams like that – or did you have a big gay revelation?”
Did fucking a guy you didn't know that well but may want to know better count as a revelation? Or was the systematic unraveling of everything I thought I was more to blame? Or this 'tearing my life down' Luca thought I was doing?
“Sorry, that was nosy,” Jace said and appeared contrite. “As a rule I don't date guys who are still getting used to being out. I like to be public – holding hands, PDA; no one will force me to hide again. Did that enough,” he said, trailing off. “Um, so, how do you know Benji?”
I swallowed. “We went to high school together. Don't really know each other that well.”
“Shame. He's cute.”
Yeah. He is.
We talked a little more, but I was feeling colder as the sun started to sink behind the tall trees. Around seven I tossed my shirt and slides in the back of the car and Luca and I headed home. Luca talked about Lilly and some of the conversations they'd had and how weird that body builder and his stick-figure girlfriend looked side-by-side.
“So. What did you think of Jace?”
I groaned. “Were you and his sister setting us up or just you?”
He laughed. “It was Lilly, actually. I'm just curious what your impressions were.”
I sighed. “I don't know. He was okay. Nice looking, I guess.”
Luca gave me a nod and said, “He's not your type. That's my take.”
I chuckled, my cheeks felt hot and I looked out the window. “Yeah? Okay. Why is that?”
“Simple. He was intimidated by you.”
I snorted and looked at him. “Please. He had no trouble talking to me.”
Luca hummed and smiled, glancing at me and then back to the road. “He was interested, that's true enough, but his sister had to push him into talking to you.”
I snorted. “He said she wanted us to hook up, but that he'd just gotten out of a relationship and wasn't ready.”
Luca laughed and I looked at him, waiting to find out what was so funny. “That reveals so much about him. So much passive/aggressive bullshit.”
“What?” I asked, completely confused.
“Okay, first? He was licking you with his eyeballs, okay? Totally attracted. Then he goes to you and says someone else wants you two to hook up – trust me, he was ready to go off in the bushes and have you rail him,” he said, snickering with laughter.
“Shut up,” I said, smiling with embarrassment.
“Oh, it gets better,” Luca said between his giggles. “Not only does he tell you that, but then he follows it up by saying that he's not ready to date, to cover himself in case you aren't interested.”
“It was a valid reason,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Right up until you know that he broke up with his ex five months ago.”
I looked at him skeptically. “Five months?”
Luca gave me a knowing look.
“Okay. I admit that seems a little...long to not be ready. It could have been painful, a long-term relationship.”
Luca laughed again. “You intimidated him, turned him on and turned him into a passive/aggressive lying mess. Do you have this effect on all the gay boys, Ry?”
“Oh, fuck you,” I said, laughing at him. “What about the girls? Any of them talk about me?”
“Not as much. Some interest for sure, but not as much. Jace was truly smitten.”
“Great,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“To be truthful, I knew he'd like you anyway.”
I raised an eyebrow and waited.
“He found you through my Insta. I guess he started drooling to Lilly.”
Thunderstruck I said, “You fucker. Is that why you brought me today?”
“So you could meet a guy? Well, not my worst idea, but no. I didn't know anyone else, so you can relax – it wasn't a setup. I just knew he was into you already, that's all.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said, sinking into my seat and muttering. I sat up and blurted, “Do you think guys are checking me out online?”
“Duh!” Luca said and immediately broke down laughing. It took me a second, but then I did, too. Of course they would, right? I mean, not all of them, I wasn't everyone's type, but still. What a dumb thought. Why hadn't I thought of that before?
“I was right though. Not your type, right?”
I pursed my lips, looked at him and then out the window. “He was okay.”
“I still don't think he was intimidated,” I muttered.