The banter kept up as we rode home. Once in the room, Bry got back down to his normal vacation ensemble of swim trunks, which I copied, and we headed out into the cool night, walking down toward the beach past other vacationers who'd already set up around the gas fireplaces. The air was filled with the scent of saltwater, pushing across our skin and picking up speed here and there to whip our hair about. I walked beside him to stand in the water, colder now that the sun had gone down.
We were quiet for a minute, and I felt content to be with him in this place.
He moved his foot, almost like he was going to turn toward me, but then he just ground his toes into the soft sand. “Been debating,” he said, offering no context.
His lower lip pushed up and the tip of his tongue separated his lips for a brief moment. “I never wanted to ask.”
My mind drew a blank as to what he would hesitate to ask me, unless it was about gay sex or something. Straight guys seem comfortable making gay sex jokes, but...I guess we're not all that good at serious conversations unless it's something like right now – right atmosphere, right person.
“About?” I repeated, softening my tone.
He looked down the beach, and his hair twirled as our knees were splashed by the tide. He looked back toward me, his face getting harder to read with the lack of light.
“People always say shit. I mean, I'm probably guilty. I'm sure I am. But lately I've wondered a little. I didn't want to, especially since my dad saying it so much is probably why it's on my mind at all.” He paused and sighed. “Have you ever, like, been...into me? As, like, more than a friend?”
Wow. I guess we were doing the uncomfortable talk thing.
“We kind of talked about that. Are you trying to find out how deep that goes or...?”
He shrugged and looked out to the dark ocean. “I'm not sure. I really mean that. I want to say nothing would ever change us. We're bros. Not like we went to war or something, but I'd trust you in a situation like that.”
“I mean...I can't think of anything that would make me not have your back. Sure, we're going to change over time,” I said carefully. “But we're always going to be important to each other. Right? Keep our families close when we grow up and...and...fuck.”
“What?” he asked, turning his gaze toward me.
I lifted my arms and dropped them before looking at him. “Different colleges. I'm not even looking forward to not sharing that with you. What happens if you fall in love with some girl that doesn't like me and you as friends? You know how it can be with relationships – first you don't hang out, then you don't see each other for a while, and when you don't get that...day to day kind of contact, then you just...like, fade.” I pursed my lips. “If you're wondering if you're, like, important to me...yeah, Dumbass, the answer is yes.”
He shoved me and smiled. “Not what I was going to ask, but you know I know that already. I mean you know it, too. But...” he looked away for a moment and then back. “It's just awkward to ask. People talk, like I said. Say shit. I always brushed it off because, like, we're bros. I kind of feel like we tell each other just about everything. All the important stuff, so I figured...not possible. But.”
I cleared my throat and shifted on my feet. “But?”
He swallowed, and I watched his Adam's apple move up and down before he turned his gaze back to me. “So. Have you? Ever been...into me?”
Okay. He'd asked twice. If I didn't answer or gave him a non-answer, he'd know anyway – and I'd be being deceptive. Now was not the time to be scared. I was, but it wasn't the time.
His eyes got just a little wider, and he looked back out to sea. “Um. Was there. I mean. You never said.”
“Why would I?” I asked, also looking out at the dark water. “You don't see me that way. You'll never feel like that. Was I supposed to make you feel uncomfortable?”
“I...I don't know.” He sighed. “I mean, I guess I see what you're saying. I never...saw anything like that, and when people would say things about you and me, like couple sorts of things, I'd tell them to get bent. Like...nothing was going to come between us, and....”
I swallowed and looked at him. “Bry. Bryson.”
He turned his head toward me.
“I love you.”
He moved his lips a bit and then said, “Bro. You know I love you, too.”
“That's why I never said anything. I know I can't love you any more than I do. I know you love me the most you can. I'm not going to pressure you and risk maybe make things weird between us because I want more than you can give. That's not fair. You're not responsible for me or how I feel. Do you get that?”
He swallowed and looked at me, his expression firming. “So it wasn't because you thought I couldn't handle it or anything?”
I laughed. I mean really laughed. “Bry. I never worried about that. I know you see what's important about me – that I have your back, that I want good things for you, and that I'm...afraid we'll grow apart.”
He shook his head. “I don't want to grow apart. I also don't want...well, that's stupid.” He looked away.
He sighed. “I was just going to say I didn't want important things to come between us, but...I guess I can understand why you didn't say anything.” He looked back at me. “You kept quiet for us.”
“Us,” I agreed and held my fist out. He smiled and bumped my fist.
We stood for a minute, just listening to the waves and just existing with each other.
“So...Claudio. You have to make that work.”
“I do?” I asked, laughing a little.
“Yeah. I mean, if you guys flame out, I'll never get to talk to his sister.” I laughed. And he grinned at me. “Think she's okay for me?”
I lifted my chin a little. “Maybe exactly what you need.”
He chuckled then patted my shoulder awkwardly. “I think I got what I need. Everything else is just...you know?”
So this was it. My feelings for him were in the open, and I hadn't died. He didn't reject me or say something that extended hope or even the nice yet painful 'if I were gay, I'd date you' kind of thing. We were still us...and that was a good thing.
“I know,” I confirmed.
He swallowed. “But you know I have to ask...why me?”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Why you? You're serious?”
He held a hand out, palm up. “I'm athletic, but second string everything. Decent grades, but average. People know me, but I'm not joining clubs. Really, high school was you and me with other people kind of going in and out of our orbit. I'm, like, not special?”
I frowned. “This is kind of weird. To me...you shouldn't need anyone to pump your ego, but if that's what this is....”
“Nah. Never mind,” he said and looked back out at the water.
Okay, yeah. That wasn't a nice thing to say. If he wanted his ego stroked a little, I'd be happy to. “There's this idea out there. Maybe not an idea, but this...assumption that people have to be the best at something to be worth anything. Like you have to be a great musician or athlete. If you don't have the talent inborn, then maybe you work out all the time and sculpt your body for others to admire.” I shook my head. “You don't have abs.” He put his hand over his stomach. “You're smart, but maybe don't try as hard as you could. You're this perfectly ordinary guy that decided I was good enough for him. And I looked at this guy who so many people, even himself, thinks is just average, and I see someone that gives me security, loyalty and his own brand of love. You want to know what I see in you? It's you. You're enough.”
He lifted his fisted hand to his mouth and coughed. “Uh.”
“Nah, bro. You asked.”
He smiled as he glanced at me. “Yeah. Okay if I just say same? I don't think I can say all that.”
I looked out at the darkness, listened to the waves and smelled the sea air. “You do. All the time. All good.”
Claudio's first message didn't hit my phone until eleven twenty and we didn't stop until nearly one thirty. The next morning around ten-thirty, he'd ridden a bike over and was sitting on the beach with us – and I do mean us. Bry was curious, Jim probably didn't care, but Kim and Bry's mom seemed to think they had a front row seat for a rom-com. It was kind of bizarre.
Claudio, who had to be surprised it wasn't just he and I, was pretty graceful about it. Kim started off speaking to him in Spanish, and I know she said something about a cute guy, so I'm pretty sure she was teasing about Claudio and me. I need to sharpen up my Spanish!
Claudio had on a tank top and his shorts; he abandoned his socks and shoes on the deck, since we were all on the beach. He had a bag with his work shirt in it and a towel, since we were on the beach and all.
“Okay, high school Spanish was too long ago for me,” Bry's mom said. “Tell me, you dangerously handsome thing, all about yourself.”
Claudio blushed a little and smiled – which I have to say made me notice him in a new way. I mean, I think I got swept up a bit in his personality when we met, but now that I was able to just look at him, I was beginning to think he was so cute. It kind of hit me that his personality enhanced his looks, rather than his looks attracting me first.
“I live with my family here in town,” he said. “My grandparents on my mother's side, my unmarried uncle, my aunt whose husband died before I was born and her daughter, who is just getting ready to move out. My older brother Mauricio and my twin sister, Marina.”
Bry's mom leaned forward. “What's it like to have all those voices, especially such a wide range of experiences?”
“It's nuts, mostly,” he said with a laugh. “My great-grandparents emigrated here when they were young. My grandparents tell us their stories about how bad things were at home. The fruit companies from the United States had a lot of money, and they got the U.S. military to come in several times. They didn't care about the people, just the profit from the bananas. Have you ever heard the phrase 'Banana Republic'? That's where it came from.”
“That's all companies care about – profit, never mind the people who actually get the work done,” Jim said quietly.
“That's what they say; it's one of the reasons they went into business here for themselves. My mother was born at the hospital about a half hour away, and then my family bought the house we're in now. Over time all kinds of family has lived there – I don't know how I'd sleep without all the noise of other people!”
That drew a round of chuckles.
“I loved the food at your family's place,” Bry's mom said. “Kim has been dying to show off all the things she knows, and some of those things are pretty tasty!”
Claudio smiled. “Most of the food is from family recipes, but you can't always get the same things here that you can in Honduras.”
“So you were raised here in the states, right?” Jim asked.
“Yep. Born, too. Me, Marina and Mauricio.”
“So with your grandparents coming from one culture, and your parents probably having some of that culture, but also growing up in the states – how do you relate to your grandparents, given this is the only culture you know?”
Claudio wrinkled his brow. “Our grandparents are very traditional. They were raised Catholic, my parents are Catholic, and we were brought to church, but it seems to have died out with our generation. My grandparents are always being critical of us not going to church and saying things to our parents, and I guess that's my fault.”
“Is it because of being gay?” Kim asked quietly.
Claudio looked at her. “It's the drag. Cassock? More like dress! Come on!” We all laughed, but Claudio continued to speak once we'd quieted a bit. “My brother, who is only nine months older than me, and my sister turned their backs on the church for the way they talk about gay people. My parents don't know why they feel that way, but when my parents or grandparents bring it up, my brother and sister give them that reason – discrimination.”
“I love your sibs already,” Bry's mom said.
“Uh.” Bry cleared his throat and smiled. “Speaking of your sister....”
“She didn't even notice you, bro,” Claudio said seriously. “Not your fault – she was busy losing her shit about me, and Rion showing up at the restaurant.”
“Oh. Yeah. Well.” Bry looked – and sounded – like he didn't know what to say.
“I think he just wants to know if she's single. If she is...Bry is single,” I offered.
Claudio raised an eyebrow at Bry. “It's my sister, bro. How do I know you'll be good to her?”
“Because he's my best friend,” I said with a smile.
Claudio jutted his chin at me. “I think you should take me for a long walk and convince me.”
“There it is,” Kim said with a grin. “Well, I want to go take the boat cruise off the cape, so I'm going to order tickets. Mrs. Bethune? Did you want to come?”
“That sounds relaxing,” she said in agreement.
I looked at Bry. “You good?”
“I'm going to chill here. Go.”
I smiled and stood. Claudio offered me his hand, and we set off down the beach, though it grew awkward to hold hands for long due to the angle of the beach as it sloped down into the water. The sun was climbing higher in the sky, and I got the impression today would be a hot one.
“So. Tell me about Bry.”
I glanced at Claudio and smiled. “He's my oldest, best friend. For a while I thought I had, like, a group of friends, but really...my mom always likes to say 'friends are the family you choose', and this past year I really realized that I was handing out that label too easily. Not everyone I was friendly with was my friend. I had that wake-up in the middle of the school year. People were talking about their plans for college, and only Bry was talking about where we'd be, applying to the same places. He was the only one that made an effort or showed interest in keeping our relationship.”
“So why aren't you dating him?”
“He's hopelessly straight,” I said with a laugh.
“But if you could?”
I sighed. “I love him. I'll always love him, I think. But I'm...understanding, a little, that there's a lot of different kinds of love.”
“What about you? Friends?”
“Well, not like you define them. I guess I have so much family I'm not all that interested in adding to it. But yeah, some folks I hang with and we go places, do stuff.”
“Boyfriends?” I asked teasingly.
“Eh. Small town. Not very many options. People that come for the summer usually give me a taste of what I'm missing, but it's never for long.”
I tried to set that aside for now – after all, I was only here for another two weeks. “Really? I figured there's all these romantic places, like maybe hiding under the pier to avoid prying eyes.”
He laughed. “Rion! You have any idea what's under those things? Trash! I mean there used to be stuff going on under there, I guess. My Uncle said they had problems before with bottles and needles, but with the tourist money coming in, the cops are pretty vigilant, you know? If you want to sneak under there to do something, you're probably on camera!”
I burst out laughing. “Can you imagine? Couple cops sitting around a monitor with coffee and donuts going 'Earl! Earl, come here! Those two are about to go at it again!'”
We fell to laughing, leaning on each other. The beach evened out a bit, and Claudio took my hand again. I grinned at him and was thinking about kissing him when I heard someone yelling, though I missed what they said. Looking around, I saw a middle aged man with hands in the air, palms up and looking at us.
“Is he talking to us?” I asked.
Before Claudio could respond the guy, yelled again. “Hey! I said there are kids here! They don't need to see that!”
Claudio let go of my hand, and I looked at him with a frown and then back to the guy, who made some kind of challenging gesture with his hands.
“Bigot!” I yelled at him. “I hope you don't have kids!”
His eyes grew wide, and he started walking toward us.
“Rion! I have to live here!” Claudio whispered fiercely.
The guy got closer, maybe twenty feet away, and he started demanding to know what I'd said.
“I said you're a fucking bigot. I hope there aren’t kids who have to grow up around your kind of poison!” My voice shook, but I stood my ground. He got less than a foot from me and leaned in, pointing at my face.
“You people have got no boundaries and no morals! My kids don't need to see sex shows right here on the sand while they're on vacation! Take your perverted asses somewhere else before I call the cops!”
I put my arm out to shield Claudio and try to shift him behind me, mostly to hide his face and keep the focus on me – because he was right, he lived here. This guy could say the wrong thing to the right person.
“Holding hands is a sex act? Your poor wife!” I said with a big grin.
“You motherfucker!” he exclaimed and hurled himself at me. It could have been worse, but it was probably more comical than anything else. Anyone who has ever played on a beach – running, wrestling with a friend – knows the sand moves under you, so you can't act like you're standing on something solid. This guy's feet didn't get the message, and he kind of fell into me, but I didn't hit the ground. I stumbled back, but Claudio kept me on my feet. The guy flopped a little as he righted himself and went to stand up.
“Joe! Joe!” A woman was moving awkwardly across the beach.
“Come on,” Claudio said urgently and pulled me back toward the direction we'd come from.
“Come here!” the guy, Joe, hollered as he gained his feet. The woman had reached him and grabbed his arm.
“Are you crazy? Those punks could kill you!” she said loudly, grabbing his arm.
“Bigot!” I jeered as I started walking away with Claudio pulling my arm.
“Motherfucker!” the guy took a step toward us, but his wife – I guess – pulled back on his arm with both hands.
“Joe! Stop!” she said firmly. “Come sit down. Drink your beer.”
We walked back down the beach maybe fifty feet before Claudio spoke. “I don't know if I should yell at you or compliment the hell out of you.”
“On the one hand, that guy could walk into my family restaurant and out me or make trouble, which would make trouble for not just me but maybe the restaurant.” He sighed and took my hand. “But on the other hand, you really stood up to him. Kind of stupid, kind of brave.”
“Well...I'd rather you be impressed. I mean, I'm sorry about the whole...you know, potential consequences, but the guy was being a dick.” I bumped his shoulder with mine. “But if you're impressed, I'll take that, too.”
He looked at me, rolled his eyes and smiled a little. “You're brave. Just don't be reckless, too.”
I snorted. “Says the guy who kissed me on the beach, in public.”
“I was in the moment!” he protested with a little laugh. He glanced at me, and his grin got wider. “I didn't hear you complaining.”
We picked our way back to the inn where I was staying, the beaches starting to fill up with people sunbathing and playing in the water. Families set up awnings and umbrellas, while others lounged on chairs or towels, and kids dug in the sand and mashed it into their siblings' hair. We did let our hands fall away from each other, only because it made walking at an angle awkward, but then we were back on the beach in front of my place, and Bry was lying out in the sun on a chair, ear buds in and his eyes closed.
I walked down to the water's edge and cupped seawater in my hands. I didn't have much left by the time I got back to Bry, but I splashed him with what I had and made him jump anyway.
“Ah! Jackass!” he hollered as the cold water startled him.
“I just didn't want you to burn,” I said trying to sound innocent.
“You guys have a good chat?” he asked, sitting up and putting his ear buds away.
“Yeah. Until your friend tried to fight some random guy,” Claudio said.
“Uh, what?” Bry asked.
“That's not what happened!” I exclaimed and poked Claudio in the ribs.
Laughing, he said to Bry, “Dude yelled at us for holding hands, and your friend clapped back, and the guy nearly fell on him!”
Laughing, I related the whole story to Bry, who said we should get Jim and head back down there to square the guy away.
I got changed, and we all went into the water for a bit, asking random questions between splashing and trying to drown each other. Claudio and Bry seemed to get on pretty well, and I was pleased about that. The problem of what to do after the next two weeks was over seemed too far away to think about. I wanted to enjoy Claudio for now and let tomorrow take care of itself. Claudio had to leave about one for his shift, but we had a nice little kiss in the hallway before he did. Something sweet to keep him in my thoughts.
That afternoon we ended up being invited by Shana to go out on a boat her family was renting. Her family was nice enough, though Michael was distant, and I felt a bit like a third wheel between Bry and Shana. I sat on the back of the boat while conversations happened around me, letting my feet dangle in the water and thinking about Claudio.
“Why are you even here?” Michael asked, sitting down next to me cross-legged.
“My sister has the hots for your friend. You know she invited you so he'd come, right?”
Feeling awkward, I replied, “Yeah. So?”
“So you should have stayed back and let your friend and my sister have a minute to breathe, that's what.”
I frowned. “Being at the back of the boat's not enough space? It's not like they're going to hook up in front of everyone.”
“Jesus, you're stupid too. Your friend should be paying attention to my sister, who invited him, not you, who tagged along because one of them was too polite. Get a fucking clue, bro.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I'm not your bro. I'm not doing anything wrong.”
He shook his head and made to stand. “You're a douche.”
“Yeah, you are,” I replied. He wandered off, and I sat and stewed a bit. Unless he was amazingly progressive about his sister getting laid, I don't think that was the real problem. I think he just didn't like me. Maybe he'd picked up on how close Bry and I were? Maybe he thinks...we're a couple, and Bry just isn't mentioning anything to his sister for...what? Why? I can't even come up with anything besides he's a dick. One thing he did accomplish, though, was I felt uncomfortable for the rest of the evening.
Once we got back to our temporary home, Bry swore he was done with Shana. “Her mouth never fucking stops. I thought maybe she was just nervous last time, but no – her entire personality revolves around her not being able to shut the fuck up for five minutes,” he groused.
“Her brother is a douche. I thought he at least looked good, but not anymore,” I muttered.
“What did he do?” Bry asked.
I related my conversation with him at the back of the boat, and he agreed with me. Jim held the door open for Kim a little later, and they got ready to chill in the room. Kim started doing what girls with long hair do when they get ready for bed, but as she did she looked over at me.
“Claudio coming back tonight?”
“I'm all for you getting a boy, bro, but I'm not sleeping on the floor,” Bry said seriously.
“Notice he didn't say he wouldn't share with you guys, either,” Jim said, grinning.
“Like they're going to fuck right here? With you two in the room?” Bry said, scoffing. “I'm just saying, rather be on a mattress than a floor.”
“You haven't had the right kind of sex,” Kim said to him before looking back to me expectantly.
“I don't know. I mean, I figure he has to work tomorrow.”
“Maybe. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, though. So unless he's part of a weekly deep cleaning or something....” She raised her eyebrows at me, and I glanced at Bry.
“I'm good with it,” he said and shrugged. “Claudio should be too. You'd be busy with him.”
“We wouldn't be busy next to you,” I said, reddening. My phone buzzed, and I saw a message from Claudio.
“Aww. He makes you smile.”
“Shut up,” I muttered before asking Claudio if he wanted to come back to the inn. He messaged right away that he was glad I asked, because he was headed toward me anyway. Okay, now I was smiling.
“Babe,” Kim said, looking back at Jim. “Didn't you say you guys have a tradition? A night swim?”
“Oh. Well, I, uh.” Jim rubbed the back of his neck. “Not sure about you getting all naked in front of my horny, single brother.”
“Oh? Well, too bad it's not your decision.” She kissed him lightly. “Now is it?” She glanced back at us. “When I go out, I get a five minute head start, and if you peek, I'll tell your father I caught you two fucking.”
“What?” Bry yelped. “That's fucking evil!”
“So am I!” she said, smiling sweetly.
Shit. Was I ready for this?