Dinner was unremarkable. My sister wasn't speaking to me, but I talked to my folks. Dad was really concerned that Luca was going to live on his own. Who was going to make sure he got an education? His parents might compete to send him to a school, but who would make sure he went and did his work? Nagging about things like this was how my father showed his love – it was the most smothering kind of love I know.
“Dad says you want to go register for school?” my mom asked.
“Yep. Luca and I were talking today. I think he'll go with me.”
“That's good. You both can study here again like when you were kids,” my mom said. A shiver ran up my spine at the thought of being forced into that. Stan saved me when he decided to shove peas in his nose, so I excused myself and bailed.
I decided since Benji and I were technically dating it would be fine to check on him. I didn't like the way he'd sounded, and I wanted to make sure there was nothing beyond having had a long day or something. I knocked on his door, and a few moments later Gwen opened up. She had on a green sweatshirt and purple yoga pants. Oh, and a curled lip on her face.
“He doesn't want-”
“Move, Barney,” I said curtly as I pushed past her.
I crossed the small shared space to Benji's room. Opening the door, I found him just getting up from his mattress. He looked surprised and confused to see me.
“Hey,” I said and closed the door softly behind me. “After we talked I was worried. You didn't sound like you.”
He flopped back onto his mattress and rolled away from me. “I'm fine.”
I toed my sneakers off and crawled onto the mattress, spooning in behind him. We lay like that for a while. It should have been uncomfortable, as he was plainly unhappy, but I felt a certain peace at having him in my arms.
“This is fucked up,” he said quietly.
“What is?” I asked softly.
“That I still want you,” he said, his voice trailing to a whisper. “I should have some self respect.”
“I don't understand.”
He sighed and remained quiet for a few minutes. I turned his words over, at a loss to explain what was on his mind.
“I was at work this morning,” he said very quietly. “I was still...glowing...from the weekend. I had a quiet moment between customers and I was thinking of you. Of how I mixed our laundry. I was thinking that...it was too soon.”
After a moment I asked, “What was too soon, Benji?”
He let out a tiny sigh. “That I should clear out a space for some of your clothes. And I knew,” he said, his voice getting stronger, “I knew I was moving too fast, but I couldn't stop myself. I figured I'd just text you and maybe if I just talked to you a little I'd dial back on my crazy.”
“And then you didn't answer all day. I mean, not like just 'Oh, he's busy right now' kind of thing. It was all day.”
I sighed. “And you thought that meant what?” I asked, trying to make my tone gentle. “That the weekend meant nothing?”
He rolled over suddenly, surprising me, and sat up. “Is it that much of a stretch? I spread my legs all weekend and you got laid – then went back to your life.”
“That makes zero sense, babe,” I said quietly, trying to rein myself in. “I had your dick in my mouth, too, and I didn't force myself on you. I thought we had a good time – like really connected. Was I wrong?”
He looked away and knotted his fingers. “No.”
“Then why would you think I'd act like such a bitch?”
He wiped one of his eyes. Aw, shit. Of course. Someone had fucked with his feelings before. “I'm sorry,” he whispered.
“No, I'm sorry,” I said and sat up. I wrapped my arm around him and pulled him into me. “Look, the thing with the phone was an honest misunderstanding. Looking at it from your side I can see why you might doubt me. But...this is some real shit, Benji. You twist me in knots. First thing I did at the end of the day was grab my phone to text you, and I instantly felt terrible.”
“I'm sorry,” he repeated, sounding defeated.
I put my finger under his chin and turned his face toward me. “It's all good, babe. You're all good. I'm in this thing with you. I came to see what was wrong. I wanted to bring you with me to my friends so you can get to know them, because they are important to me, and I want them to know you for the same reason.”
He hung his head. “I feel stupid.”
“Don't. I hate seeing you feel bad, and you didn't do anything wrong. But...if you feel bad sometimes, please talk to me. Give me the chance to help or fix it. Okay?”
He nodded and took a deep breath.
“Now. Can I please go show you off? I've been bragging about how into you I am,” I said and he chuckled a little. “I'm serious.”
He looked at me and wiped his eye again. “Okay. Let me wash my face and stuff.”
We walked in to the living room area and he went to the bathroom to wash up. Gwen was giving me a suspicious look. I walked closer to her and pitched my voice low. “Don't ever stand between me and my boyfriend, Barney. I'm building something with him.”
“Please. You're going to hit and run like every other guy he falls for. It's all guys do – so sure, you posture and you pretend all you like. But at the end of the day? It'll be me the poor bastard comes crying to,” she said, her tone more than a little smug.
“Fucking vampire is what you are,” I said with a shake of my head. “You want to hold him down.”
“No. All the gay boys hold him down,” she said, her tone nasty. “And some that are hard up, I guess.”
“Let me just grab my shoes,” he said, emerging from the bathroom. “Am I dressed okay?”
I smiled at him. “You look delicious. Come on,” I said to him. He gave me a quick smile and went to his room. I looked at Gwen. “Don't fuck with his head. I'll take him off your hands; don't worry about him, Barney.”
Her expression screwed up. “Whatever, and what the fuck is it with this Barney shit?”
I looked at her. “You're wearing green and purple, and you look like Barney the dinosaur.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you calling me fat?”
“I'm ready,” Benji said.
“Come on, babe,” I said and held my hand out. He took it and I grinned at him. We headed out and down to my car. I asked him about his day and I stopped to get us a snack. We were pretty close to normal when he cleared his throat a little.
“Um. So you said I should talk to you first. Like, taking us seriously.”
“Yeah. Why? What's up?”
“You and Gwen. Seemed like there was some tension in the room.”
I nodded. “There was. When I got there she tried to stop me from seeing my boyfriend. While you were in the bathroom she was talking shit about you and about us. I was just telling her not to put doubts and shit in your head and to never stand between me and my boyfriend.”
His eyes got a little wide. “You...what? What. Back up. Tell me everything.”
So I relayed the whole conversation, adding that it was as best as I could recall. He shook his head slowly and muttered, “That bitch.” He looked up at me. “I told you I've dated a lot. Slept with guys – not ashamed; I like sex. I...misread a few, not going to lie. I was afraid I'd stepped in it again this morning, even though the weekend felt so real.”
“It was real,” I said emphatically.
“I just...I can't believe she thinks that way about me.”
“Look, I'm not going to try and get between you in your own relationship with her. But I draw the line when she either makes you feel bad or tries to get between us. You okay with that?”
“Yeah,” he said with a small nod. I stopped in front of Luca's house, and he made a few nice comments about the house. I rapped on the front door and entered. Luca's mom poked her head out of the kitchen and smiled widely in greeting.
“Oh, God! Look at this handsome man, would you?” she said and held her arms out to me. I shuffled forward to give her a brief hug – one she extended. A little known secret is that I don't really like Luca's mom. When his parents started to really fight, she was the one to take it to eleven. We don't know, or even speculate on, how many times his dad cheated, but his mom had acted as if she needed to even the score. She wasn't shy about letting her ex-husband know how much better the dick was that she'd been getting.
She leaned back and smooshed my cheeks between her hands and I pulled back – not enough to let her know I really didn't like it, but enough to extricate myself.
“And who is this?” she asked, dragging the last word out.
“I'm Ben,” he said, extending his hand with his arm out straight – probably trying to avoid what had befallen me. I also noted he didn't give her his preferred name.
I went up the carpeted stairs to the second floor and to the end of the hall, to Luca's room. His dad had moved in with another woman in a condo, so they didn't have as much space, plus Luca had wanted to stay in the same school. His sister, Frannie, was a daddy's girl and took up the second bedroom at his dad’s condo.
“RJ,” Luca said with a grin and gave me one of those too-long hugs. Then he turned to Benji. “Benji, welcome,” he said and gave him a quick bro-hug.
“Um, hi, Luca,” he replied, off balance from the greeting, I guessed.
“Luca's a hugger,” I explained.
“I am,” Luca admitted. “I have to go through some stuff in here – I got a garbage bag to trash stuff. Julia decided preparing to move needs pizza so...hope you're hungry.”
“I ate at home, but I can always use a slice,” I said.
“Uh, yeah. Sounds good. I have a few bucks to chip in,” Benji replied.
“Don't worry about it,” Luca said, waving him off. “It's my move, I supply the snacks.” He turned and looked at his double-door closet. “First thing is that.”
We started in on the solid wall of crap Luca had in his closet, slowed each time he spotted something that brought back a memory or amused him so he'd stop us and tell us all about it. Julia showed up, which required us to stop and sit on the floor to eat pizza. They both started telling Benji stories about us – mainly about me. Birthday parties, sleepovers, just...those little cool moments that build relationships.
“Okay, so I want to know,” Julia said in a devious tone. Looking at Benji she continued, “When did you first like Ryan?”
“Oh. Hmm.” Benji looked at me and gave me a mock appraising expression. “Well, probably noticed him for the first time when we had 9th grade gym together. I got to watch him change.”
“Perv,” I said, blushing while they laughed.
“But,” Benji continued, “there was one time I saw him staring some guy down for coming after you, Luca. I admired the loyalty.”
“He's like a St. Bernard,” Luca said with a laugh.
“Slobber and all!” Julia added with glee.
“Whoa, whoa. What's with the piling on Ryan thing, huh?” I demanded playfully. Truthfully I was glad my friends – especially my ex-girlfriend – were making such an effort to include Benji. Luca went to get drinks and Benji went to help. Julia fixed me with what only could be called a superior look.
“What?” I asked.
“I've just been thinking. We don't get very many purely right or wrong moments. Like, you think you know what's right, you hold your breath and do it, and sometimes you just have to hope for the best. But us breaking up? It was right. You and Benji? It's right. So...I was right.”
I sucked on my teeth for a moment. “I'm struggling a little with how easily you've accepted my...change in status. Our romantic end.”
She took on a thoughtful expression. “Yeah. I'm pretty great, aren't I?” We both chuckled and she placed a hand on my forearm. “Once, we looked at each other the way you and Benji do. Sure, I was sad when I realized it was changing. But...we're not in high school anymore. Neither of us is the same. I've always liked who you are, RJ. I'm glad someone else looks like they love you for who you are. I think we both deserve that.”
Luca and Benji re-entered the room and we poured drinks. We made very little progress the rest of the evening. I had to get Benji home at a reasonable hour, since he had to get up early for work and I had to be in the door before midnight. After making out pretty hard in the car I made it home with just five minutes to spare. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking of the kisses Benji had given me before we parted. All I could think about was kissing him again.
The week unfolded with less drama. Although my sister and I were circling each other and I had a feeling that would come to a head at some point when she felt she had the upper hand or had her back to the wall, I wasn't worried. Julia and I went dancing at Nirvana one night while Benji was working, and we ran into Jace working as a barback. I spent some time helping Luca pack his stuff, and I spent most of the weekend with Benji.
The following week was slightly more stressful – my parents began making noises about studying to get back into the educational swing of things. When I'd come home after flunking out, my parents beat themselves up a bit for the pressure they had put on me to be a doctor. They decided that I needed a break and that I should ease back into my education with a community college that would allow me to transfer back to a pre-med environment. Class guides and reminder notes about the last day to register for classes were casually yet strategically strewn about the house.
That Friday Benji worked, and I went to Nirvana. I ended up hanging out with Ehren and Tristan, who had been about to leave for some food when I arrived. I waved to Benji and went with them to grab a bite and be sociable. After all, if this was going to be part of who I was, it made sense to try and make gay friends.
We settled into a booth, and while we looked at menus I decided to get to know my new friends a little better.
“So...how long have you guys been together?” I asked.
Tristan looked at Ehren and smiled. “I snagged him two years ago.”
“Snagged?” I asked with a chuckle.
Ehren turned his face toward me. “He always over-states things. It's his gift.”
I chuckled lightly.
“My boyfriend is really, really bad at taking a compliment,” Tristan said.
“I am not!”
“It's fun to compliment him and then watch him try to argue his way out of it,” Tristan went on.
“Jackass,” Ehren said and shoved his boyfriend with his shoulder. Turning to me he said, “He's done the work for this relationship. I-”
“Oh, fuck you!” Tristan replied, laughing. He turned toward me. “So my sister goes out and gets caught up with these guys, right?”
“Oh, not this again!” Ehren muttered.
Tristan went on to tell a pretty impressive story about how Ehren had saved his sister from some guys who were going to drug her and rape her. I mean, I looked at Ehren and he was blushing, and that kind of convinced me.
“You sound like a hero,” I said to him, wondering why he'd be embarrassed.
“There were...circumstances,” he said quietly. Looking up at me he said, “I was living on the street. I had to make a choice to help her, and possibly get hurt. On the street it's dangerous to stick your nose in someone else's business. So it wasn't that I was being altruistic.”
“Sure,” I said with a nod. “There's always a choice. Always reasons why we do something, even if it's just because it's the right thing. End of the day, you did a good thing.”
“I always tell him that, but he always thinks it's like a lie,” Tristan said while giving Ehren an affectionate look. Over the course of the meal I learned a lot more about them – and that Tristan's parents weren't big fans of his boyfriend and that was one of the driving reasons they'd moved early. Ehren's story had a lot of sad stuff, to be honest. I won't lie, I felt for the boy. It was clear they fit together well, with each of them believing in the other.
Something Ehren said stuck with me, although I didn't realize its significance at the time. After one of the stories about how bad things had gotten for him I asked how he managed to get through a day with all that baggage.
He fixed me with his intelligent eyes and said, “You don't, not right away. Initially I went to therapy for Tris, because he wanted me to. But now I go for me, to be a better person – a happier person. I can't pretend that things didn't happen. But...you can leave things behind you. The things you leave behind can be valuable, painful or sometimes both. Either way you can make some kind of peace with them and then move forward.”
“That easy, huh?” I chuckled.
“I struggled,” he said quietly.
“He did the work. He did a great job, too,” Tristan said with obvious pride.
I felt bad for his past, and I felt like I knew him so much better now. We traded numbers and shared our 'grams. Tristan told me they were glad to make some friends in a new place, so I told them we'd have to hang soon.
I went back over to the club and frowned when I saw Peter and his group standing near where Ben was dancing. If people wanted to tip him, they couldn't, because Peter's group was right in front of him. Well, I could fix that.
“'Scuse me,” I grunted as I pushed my way through them to the bar.
“What the fuck, butchie?” Peter snarled.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “What did you call me?”
He rolled his eyes. “Please, bitch. You're new, but you don't have to be so rude.”
“Back at you,” I said, giving him a hard look.
He tilted his head in a mocking way. “We're just hanging at our club.”
“A, you don't own it. B, you're blocking my boyfriend from making money because you're a catty bitch. Move along,” I said, shooing him.
“Oh, please! Boyfriend? That whore?” Peter chortled.
I reached out and tapped the bottom of his glass so it spilled all over his hand. “Oops.”
“Hey!” One of his friends frowned at me. “That's his drink!”
“Wow. Astute of you,” I said, smiling as Peter pressed his lips together in anger.
“Buy me a new one.”
“I'll tear you a new one,” I offered. I was putting on a good show, but there were four of them. If they got angry and realized they could probably kick my ass as a group, I was in trouble. I didn't think they were the type, though. I hoped.
Peter's eyes narrowed. “You won't always be here to-”
I stepped close to him, close enough that I think we were both uncomfortable. “You should really consider if you want to finish that threat. I can always do you one better. You know where my boyfriend works? I'll find out where you live. You see how that escalates? Walk away.”
His jaw worked and he swallowed. “Fuck this,” he said and turned from me. I let out a small breath of relief and looked over to the bartender.
“Drink?” he asked.
I looked up at Ben who was smiling at me and shaking his head. I backed off a little and let some guys get close to his cage and felt jealous as they tipped him for his dancing. I wasn't sure how long I could be cool about that. By the time he got done for the night I was sick of being in the club. We hit a drive through – him for dinner, me for a snack. We headed back to his apartment and walked in on Gwen eating some guy's face. I mean kissing, but you know – she's sloppy.
We more-or-less ignored them and went to Benji's room to eat and put something on the TV. We ate, stealing each other's fries and stuff and generally having a good time. What happened next I blame on having siblings.
“My legs are so sore from all the dancing,” he said, pointing his toes toward the end of the mattress.
“Yeah? So I shouldn't poke your leg like this?” I asked, pushing my finger into this thigh.
“Ah! Bitch!” he squealed and punched my thigh.
“Ow!” I groaned for fun and for the next ten minutes I kept poking his leg and he kept hitting me and we told each other to stop before doing it again. That devolved into me giving him a massage to relax his muscles, but it didn't work. We ended up having sex instead.
“Oh my god,” he groaned while kissing my chest. “Now I'm wiped out.”
I pulled him a little closer, and sleep claimed us soon enough.
I woke to my lips being softly kissed. I opened my eyes as Benji withdrew, grinning. “I made you coffee, babe.”
I sat up and accepted the cup, sipping. “Good coffee,” I murmured.
“So. I have a favor to ask,” Benji said. “You've been great about doing stuff I'm comfortable with and that's important to me.”
“Like the park. Like the club. Today, let's do something important to you.”
“You're important to me,” I teased.
“Sex fiend, “he said with a laugh. “But really. What does Ryan Owens do on a Saturday?”
I sighed. “Well, I go to the garage and do laundry, washing all the coveralls we use during the week.” I paused. “I did start to clean out and organize the cluttered bay my dad has, and found a car.”
“You found a car?”
I laughed. “Yeah. I guess it was my grandfather's. Want to try car repair for a day?”
He pushed his lips off to one side. “You'll be there, right? I mean, you actually enjoy this stuff?”
“Mechanic work, yeah. Not so much the laundry,” I said with a little grin.
“Okay, I'm in.”
We got dressed and ate before heading down to the garage. I was oddly nervous about his response to seeing my father's business. As with the reaction from the secretary at the realty, some people seem to think that people who work with their hands are less intelligent and look down at them. I was still getting to know Benji – he dressed nicely when he was going out, had nice clothes for work. He only dressed down in comfy stuff at home – and he wasn't rolling in cash, so he was careful with his things.
“Your family owns this?” he asked as we walked from my car to the front gate.
“Yeah. My dad has worked here ever since I can remember,” I told him with a little pride.
“It looks old-timey,” he said, looking over the cars out front and the building itself. “Has character.”
I unlocked the front door and walked him back to the tiny changing area. After getting us both into some coveralls I put the used ones from the week into the wash.
“So you said a spare parts bay? What's a bay?” he asked.
“Each one of the garage doors we saw out front leads to an area where we work on a car – we call them bays,” I explained.
“Ah. I know nothing about this stuff, so I apologize for the questions I'm going to ask,” he said with a nervous chuckle.
“Ask away,” I said with a grin. “So my dad is a pack rat's pack rat. This bay over here is where he keeps his treasures. Let me run inside and unlock it – I really think you need to see it from the front door to truly appreciate it.” Grinning I ran through the interior doorways, twisting my way between dad's piles of 'treasure' so I could unlock the door from the inside. I made my way quickly out front where Benji was waiting with an amused expression.
“Prepare yourself,” I said with a dramatic flourish and rolled up the metal bay door.
Benji's expression was neutral at first, like his mind didn't know how to process what it was seeing and just sort of...stopped. He slowly panned left then right. His brow furrowed. “You said you organized this?” He started to laugh. “Where?”
“I think you underestimate the size of the mess I was dealing with, here.” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“There is nothing organized here,” he said, continuing to laugh.
“No, look,” I said and strode to one of the shelves I'd organized. “See? I started putting some parts here by manufacturer. All this belongs to one.”
“Babe, babe, babe,” he said chidingly and then took a long look around the space. “Okay, look, there are so many parts in here that they are hiding that whole car I see – or a car-like shape – and you have to think with a lot more organization in mind.”
“Like how, smart guy?”
“Like...so you tell your dad the first shelf has Company A's parts – but all the other companies make the same part for themselves, right? So first he forgets which shelf has what manufacturer, then he forgets which shelf has his widget. If all the widgets were in the same place it might be easier.”
“Cars don't have widgets,” I stated dryly.
“I figured,” he said with a trace of sarcasm.
“So what would your plan be?”
“We start by listing what we have in a spreadsheet. Then we figure out where they can go on the shelf – because maybe cogs take up more space than widgets, so we have to plan for that, right? Then we put labels on the shelves like they do in box stores – rack A, shelf 4, something like that. Then with that written out and an inventory for your dad, all he has to do is add to it when he gets new treasures or subtract when he uses one.”
“Yeah. No guarantee he's ever going to use a damn thing from over here,” I said while rubbing my chin. “I like your idea. It is more organized.”
I got an old notebook and Benji took notes as we took inventory of the parts. We slowly organized them by type and system – like fuel systems, exhaust, etc. He suggested we could break down by manufacturer afterward, which also made sense. As we worked I had the idea of his room in my mind – how neat it was, even compared to the rest of the apartment he shared with Barney.
Much of the work was just organizing, not actually placing things on shelves. We took a break for lunch, and as we ate our subs he began to chuckle at me.
He pointed to the corner of his mouth. “You have some sauce.”
“Oh. Why is that so funny?” I asked as I absently wiped my mouth.
“Well...this is like a porn video.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, laughing.
“You know, blue collar garage guys going at it.” His face had gone red.
I'm pretty sure my own face was red, but now that he'd put the thought in my head I found it strangely exciting. What would it be like coming to work on Monday knowing I'd had sex where I work? Nervous, yet excited beyond anything I could think of, I told him to follow me so we could throw our stuff out. Once in the next bay over I dropped my trash on the floor and turned on him, grabbing him and kissing him deeply. I think I heard him growl a little.
I wasn't about to try using motor oil or something, so full on sex was out. Instead I unzipped him and went to town, excited by his breathy sounds of excitement. I tried to make it last, but he must have been wound as tightly as I was because he finished disappointingly quickly. My sadness didn't last as he practically tore at my coveralls to return the favor.
“God,” he groaned as we lay side-by-side on the concrete floor. “I can't get enough. What is it about you?”
“I don't know,” I admitted, “but I hope I don't lose it.”
“Me either,” he said, rolling into me and giggling. We kissed lightly and then got up, putting ourselves back into shape to continue the organization. It was plain we wouldn’t finish it today, but I liked where we were headed. I figured I could take the data from the notebook and turn it onto some kind of spreadsheet or maybe an interactive visual chart so dad could find stuff when he needed it, not that he ever did. We worked together steadily, talking and assisting with moving things from place to place.