Friday night we didn't get done until about two in the morning. We were exhausted, and we knew Saturday would be just as bad. There was always a certain boost of energy from being done for the night, though, and I wasn't surprised that Claudio grabbed my hand in the small, dark space between his home and the house next door and pulled me back toward the street. Like ghosts we slipped through the night and back to our familiar place in the dark of the trees in the town park.
“So.” He looked at me expectantly, the tiny bit of light in the overcast night coming from the lights at the far end of the park. He was not much more than a beautiful shadow to my eyes.
“You weren't you by the end of the night. Did you have a bad customer?”
I leaned back against the tree trunk. “You noticed that?”
“I notice a lot,” he said. After I was quiet for another minute he prompted me again with, “So? Tell me.”
I sighed. “Our families are very different,” I said quietly. “My mom is...nosy at the best of times, hellishly controlling at her worst.”
“Really?” he asked in a tone that suggested some doubt. “But she let you stay here to work – or I guess I should say I thought that was all worked out on your end.”
I shook my head. “I lied to her.” Taking a breath, I continued, “She's always been too much there in my life. I used to just stand by and let her, because it was always a fight if I didn't, and of course I'd lose those fights. I'd almost kind of gotten to think that was the way things were supposed to be. Except, when I was old enough to realize Bry's family wasn't like that. I saw how he acts, how his parents had some room for disagreement or just letting someone have a bad day without piling on.”
“That...sounds horrible,” he said quietly. Together we sat at the base of the tree, and he leaned against me, not constraining me, but letting me know I wasn't alone. “My parents forced us to go to church, though I think my grandparents might have forced their hand a little. I always felt like my parents believe, but not on the same level as my grandparents.”
I sniffed. “Religion isn't a thing in my house. But my mom...let's just say I was afraid she was going to show up here. So I lied. And it was a dumb lie. I told her that Bry's mom had gotten a good deal to extend the vacation by a week.”
“Why was that dumb?”
I shrugged. “Couple things. That would mean she'd be away from her home for a month, that she had the vacation time available, and that her husband did, too. But...I didn't tell Bry's mom the deal, so she had no idea when my mom got nosy. So my mom called and lost her shit on me, and we argued like we do, and she threatened me like she does, and it's always exhausting.”
“Uh. So I'm going to say something that may get me in trouble with you, but I feel like I should risk it.”
I glanced at him; my eyes had adjusted to the point that I could make out his features much better.
“So this thing we're working on...kind of feels like a boyfriend thing. It's not just a hook-up thing. It's not a friends with benefits thing. The closest I can think of is it's like...near boyfriend. Boyfriend adjacent. The thing about that is...we kind of share the load, right? I mean, I'm not Bry. You've known him for years, and you might have told him later tonight about all this and worked through it, but...I want you to know I'm here for this part of you, too. The not so fun parts and the worrying parts. I'm here for the easy parts and the hard parts, the fun parts and the times when you might need to cry from anger or sadness. I'm here.”
I leaned in and kissed him briefly. “Thank you. For saying that. I...yeah, I probably would have vented to Bry – still might. But with us playing this game of keeping things from most of your family, I didn't want to add my problems onto yours.”
He pulled me to him awkwardly, hugging and putting his lips by my ear. “That's what I'm saying. It's kind of you to think of my feelings, but this is supposed to be an 'us' thing. You're aware of my family position, and you're working to keep things on track for us; how can you expect me to not be there for you with your family stuff?”
He pulled back, and we looked at each other. “I guess it is kind of boyfriend stuff.” I smiled tentatively.
“I'd like it to be. I feel so much calmer with you around.” He smiled. “My family is constant motion and chaos, and I love some of that, maybe because I'm so used to it. Then you come along, and the world slows down and gets quieter, almost like it doesn't want to intrude on me so I don't miss out on you. It almost feels like some universal mind is making you stand out against the constant noise of the world so I don't miss out.”
“Oh, my God,” I said, covering my face and chuckling.
“What? Too much?” he asked, chuckling himself.
I shook my head. “No. It just reminded me of my grandfather.”
“Uh. Not sure I like that connection!”
I laughed and wiped at my eyes. “No, no. I called him when my mother wouldn't stop calling and texting after I hung up on her.”
“You hung up on your mother? Wow. My mom would probably beat me with a cooking spoon!”
We laughed together. “Well, like I said, it went badly. She told me I had no privacy until I moved out, then she was mad I stayed here for a boy instead of the pure motivation of a job or not lying to her.”
“Aw. You told your mom you stayed here for me?” He flexed his biceps, and we laughed again.
“Anyway. I called my grampa, and he always makes me smile. My grandparents want to meet you.” I paused. “You know, it's funny. I stayed here to see what there was between us, and it didn't take that long to figure it out. I mean...I feel like I'm figuring it out.”
He lifted his chin. “Boyfriends? No one else?”
I stared at him in the gloom. “Boyfriends,” I said softly. “No one else.”
We made out a little, but then it was getting pretty late – or early, I guess – and we headed for home. We split in the backyard, and I went to my bunk and he to his home. I was a little surprised that Marina and Bry were sitting up watching something on his phone.
“Oh, hey,” Bry said. “We were trying to wait up, but man I can't sleep with her snoring.”
“You drool. And fart,” she said, pushing him and standing up from where they'd been cuddled.
“So.” I let my finger point back and forth between them.
“Look, you're still a fucker for saying that to my mother,” Marina said. “Plus, you don't know if I was dating anyone. You should at least include me in planning weird shit like that.”
I nodded. “True. Like I said, your mom kind of caught us off guard. Claudio thinks it'll be okay with his parents and stuff, but...I don't want to force him out of the closet.”
Marina stretched and yawned as she slipped her feet into her Crocs. “You did the right thing, even if it pissed me off. Claudio is blind about the family, sometimes. Mauricio and I protect him, because we know the truth. They will never accept him being gay. When he comes out, it's going to be a war. Mauricio and I are on his side, but it's going to hurt.”
I was a little stunned. “And I thought my mom was bad.”
“Your mom should take my dad and run for the fucking hills,” Bry muttered. “Goodnight, bonita, bonita Marina.”
“Don't be so sappy,” she said with a grin and kissed him – and it was a no fooling around kiss. At the ten second mark I was getting second-hand embarrassment and went to my bunk, kicked off my shoes and peeled my socks off. I tossed my shorts to the side and sat down on my bed, only to find them still kissing.
“Guys. Either start stripping or go to bed. I don’t have the energy for this make-out-only thing you have going on.”
They broke the kiss, and Marina smiled at me, looked at Bry and then left the room.
“Looks like you turned the corner with her,” I said.
He sat on his bunk. “Bro, she may be the best thing you ever did for me. It seemed like she was interested, and you know I was, but telling her mom kind of gave her the nudge she needed to make a move. She is fucking perfect, bro.”
I smiled. “I'm glad. I think she might be the first girl you went for that's actually worth your time.”
He leaned forward. “You still want me though, right? My ego needs that.”
I shut the light off.
“Go to sleep,” I said, chuckling as I rolled to my side.
“Jesus! No, I would not tap your sweet ass, because I have a boyfriend, but if I were single I'd rawdog you. Happy now?”
“I can sleep, at least. Night, Bro.”
“Night, Bry. Idiot.”
I was never so happy to see a Monday as I was that week. Deliveries had been nuts, and while I was happy with the tips and cash being slid my way, I was ready for a day off. Bry and Marina decided to go spend a day in the nearby big city, taking a ferry across the harbor. I was glad they were going to get some time to build on whatever they were doing and just as glad to get some time with Claudio. After Bry and Marina had left, Claudio and I headed for the town beach. It was a little crowded, so we walked down the shore a bit, to where we'd have a stretch of beach nearly to ourselves.
Claudio pulled his shirt off and shucked his sandals before grabbing a bottle of sun block.
“Come on, pale man. You'll burn,” he teased. I copied him, and we each made sure the other was protected before we headed into the water. We swam and played a bit, wrestling a little, cuddling a little, and then trying to tickle each other. He jumped into my arms like a monkey, wrapping his legs around my waist and holding me around my neck while the water buoyed us.
“So this weekend is the carnival,” Claudio said. “They do this big event, lots of music and dancing. We set up our food cart and do a smaller version of our menu – mostly the pupusas and curtido, plus some platanos fritos, both as salted chips and chunks with crema. Now I was thinking...maybe you and I could run the cart this year.”
“Is it a volunteer thing? Will your parents want to pay me?”
“Not at all. Deliveries should be a little lighter with the number of people out on the street – they block off the main road for a few blocks – and we'll get tips there, too. It's fun, even if we don't get to dance and stuff like everyone else.”
“Do you like to dance?” I asked curiously.
He shrugged and wiped the water from his face and back through his hair. “I wouldn't say I'm good at it, but I like to dance sometimes.”
I shifted my grip on him, resettling my hands back into place on his lower back.
He locked his gaze to mine. “You can move your hands a little lower, you know.”
Well. If he was going to say that.... I slipped my hands down a bit, cupping his butt through his swimsuit and giving him a squeeze.
“Aw. Through the cloth? Where's your sense of adventure?” he asked, lowering his voice and grinning.
I raised an eyebrow and grinned as I moved my hands again, slipping past his waistband and grabbing hold of his butt with my bare hands.
“Finally,” he said, rolling his eyes and leaning forward to kiss me. It wasn't a long kiss, but I'd always thought the water was cool enough to stop people from getting erections. I was wrong.
He unlatched his legs and pushed his chest into mine, moving us out a bit deeper so that we were up to about our necks.
“Let me give you a hint,” he said and pushed the front of my shorts down, shoving the waist past my erection and then grabbing hold. I gasped as he moved along my shaft, feeling the water swirl around my balls and taking in the curious sensation of the area just behind the head that was getting a taste of the direct feel of the cold water. I pushed his shorts down hurriedly, and soon we were engaged in stroking each other, sharing small kisses, but much more focused on keeping our balance as the waves hit us and stroking each other.
“Uh. Oh,” he grunted and leaned into me as his dick pulsed in my hand. He leaned his forehead against my shoulder and pulled on my dick more urgently, and I pressed forward into him as I released with a low groan. He moved his hand slowly, stroking me lightly and then fondling my balls gently while I reached around to pull him closer, holding his cheeks and kneading them slowly, reveling in the feeling.
“I can't believe we just did that in public,” I said with a little laugh.
“No one can see,” he said quietly. “No evidence. Just...food for the fish, I guess.” He laughed. He kissed my shoulder and laid his forehead against my skin. “I love touching you,” he said, rolling my balls about with his gentle touch. “You're lucky there are people around, or we would be trying a whole lot more.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said, leaning back and smiling slyly. He leaned forward and gave me a small kiss, and then we just held each other against the ebb and flow of the tide, shorts somewhere down our legs. My senses were in a blissful overload with his body pressed to mine, the water swirling around us and caressing my skin like an inquisitive lover.
My bliss was interrupted by a call from the beach. Someone was calling out to Claudio. He lifted his head, and we both looked back to the shore, to see Mauricio and his girlfriend and a few other people we didn't know.
“Shit,” Claudio grunted. With a look at me he dunked himself underwater, no doubt wetting his hair, but more importantly, pulling his shorts up. I followed suit, and then we moved a bit toward shore, but Mauricio was already walking into the water holding his girlfriend's hand.
“What's up?” Claudio asked.
“We went to the fish market this morning and then over to the hardware store, so Stella could get some supplies. We thought it'd be nice to get in some beach time – relax today, you know?”
“The beach is so crowded,” Stella added. “My dad was fixing this door at our house, and he needed an order picked up, but now I just want to chill. It's hard to believe college is only a few weeks away from starting.”
Not something I want to think about, I thought.
“Yeah, beach is always full in tourist season. This part is harder to get to, so most of them won't try. Besides, no town lifeguards or concession stands to feed their bloated asses,” Claudio said.
“Remember that guy that tried to beat you up? When we were walking?” I teased.
“He was jealous I was holding your hand – did you see what he has to go to bed with?” Claudio demanded, splashing me.
“Oh, you guys are together? I thought you were just horsing around out here,” Stella said with a little laugh.
“We don't tell anyone besides Marina,” Mauricio told her. “My parents aren't very...progressive.”
“Really? That's odd, because you are,” she replied.
“I think it's because my parents were raised in a neighborhood of other people from the same area as my grandparents, but those kinds of neighborhoods go away – and I think my parents moved here with my grandparents not long after Mauricio was born to start the restaurant. So Mauricio, Marina and I were all raised around other Americans, for better or worse.”
“Worse,” Mauricio said with a laugh and splashed his brother.
“That's actually kind of interesting,” Stella said, ignoring the splashing. “Not all Americans are that progressive either. Some of them would be pretty disrespectful to you just because you're not lily white.”
“Yeah. We kind of pushed back,” Claudio said. “With us close in age, anyone picking on one of us was suddenly dealing with three of us. It's why we don't really put up with that kind of bigotry from anyone.”
“What will you do about your family, then? I mean, are you going to come out?”
“It'll work out,” Claudio said confidently.
I glanced at Mauricio, and his expression wasn't nearly as confident as Claudio's voice.
We went to the park before coming back to the house for the cookout, where Mauricio set up his phone in a projector and put a movie on the side of the building Bry and I were camping out in. Claudio told his parents about how he and I would take the cart down to the carnival this year, and there was a little back and forth between him and his parents, but they agreed if Mauricio joined us, as he had more experience, because it would be busier than we realized.
That night we wandered down to the dock again and sat down, letting our feet dangle off the side above the rolling waves.
“I always take my sandals off before dangling my feet. I lost one once, so now I'm paranoid,” Claudio said.
“I thought you just didn't like shoes much.”
“I don't,” he admitted. “But I – grudgingly – accept they have a place and time. Dangling your feet off the pier isn't one of them.”
“Yeah, sounds valid.” I glanced at him. “So...seems like Mauricio and Marina are concerned about your parents' reaction to you coming out.”
He bobbed his head. “Yeah, I know. I guess...it has to happen sometime. Right now I'm choosing to believe in my family, and I'll do that until they prove me wrong.”
I put my hand over his and looked out over the dark water. “I'm here.”
He rolled his hand over and intertwined his fingers with mine. “Like a good boyfriend.”
I chuckled. “Exactly like a good boyfriend.”
“So...tell me about these grandparents that want to meet me.”
I smiled. “My grampa is a joker. I can't think of a time he didn't make me feel better, especially with my mom.”
“Is he her dad?”
“Yeah. He says he doesn't know why she's turned out like she has. I mean, she's never beat me or anything. She pays the bills, and there was always food in the house. So I guess I'm saying...she's not a bad person, but she's got this one thing that is just...ugh!”
He chuckled. “How did we get to talking about your mother?”
I gave him a shoulder bump. “Grampa tells stories instead of having conversations. He sometimes gets stuck on a detail and will come back to something small over and over that doesn't really have anything to do with a story. Like if someone was one color or another or what restaurant they were eating at. He's always been my biggest fan, honestly. I'm sure he drives my grandma nuts.”
“Is she nice?”
“Oh, totally. We used to bake together when I was little, and she usually pulls me out of school a few times a year for a mental health day so we can go do something together, like catch a movie or have a lazy lunch.”
“I would love to do that with you,” he said, turning and smiling at me. “Just show up and surprise you, take you away from a boring day.”
“You can cook for me anytime,” I offered.
“That would be at night, when we're home to watch something together on TV. Some Netflix and chill.”
I smiled. “I'd like that. I liked the movie tonight; we should do that together.”
He sighed and leaned his head onto my shoulder. “If only we lived closer.”
“I'm literally in your backyard!” I said, laughing at him.
“So I think my sister it taking this whole 'Bry as her fake boyfriend' thing a little seriously.”
I chuckled. “Well, he's been trying to get her to notice him, so. Seems more like they just needed an excuse.”
“Well, you need your sleep,” he said, standing up and slipping his sandals on. I stood as well, but before I could ask, he said, “Tomorrow I have to teach you how to make some of the stuff we'll sell at carnival.”
Thinking of what his mother had said when we were in the kitchen earlier in the week, I raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh?”
“Yep. Tomorrow you can work on the curtido.”
I took his hand. “It's a start.”
Tuesday was kind of fun. Claudio and I were in the kitchen at the restaurant so he could teach me to make the curtido that goes with the pupusas. He had me chopping the ingredients – cabbage, carrots, and onions, just like his mother had talked about when she gave me a rundown the previous week. He said some people like to add peppers for spice, but he didn't want to go crazy with it. As each batch of veggies was done, we'd place them in containers, add vinegar, oregano and salt, mix well, then seal them up and refrigerate to let them marinate.
“You can serve curtido fresh, but I like it better when it's had a chance to soak in some of the other flavors,” he explained. Although there was plenty for that night's service, he kept me chopping, not only to teach me, he claimed, but because we could store what I was making to be used through the week. “You can be my sous chef,” he teased.
“I never really enjoyed cooking that much, but I'm enjoying the idea we're making this together,” I told him. “I just have to wonder, though, if your mom is going to come in and tell me you're teaching me wrong or something.”
“No. No joking in the kitchen,” he said solemnly. “Once we leave, I'll tell everyone you were hopeless and I had to redo all your work.”
I raised an eyebrow. “We're still in the kitchen.”
“Yes, but I won't say that in the kitchen. You see? Keeps things separate.”
“But if you tell me you're going to do it while we're in the kitchen, then you're breaking your own rule.”
“I don't think so,” he said dismissively.
“Just remember – if I screw it up, it's because you're a bad teacher.”
He widened his eyes. “You take that back.”
“Eh,” I said, shrugging.
“Take that back! Don't you say that!” he said, snapping a towel at me, as I laughed and leaned my hips away.
“Oh what is going on in here?” his mom said, breezing into the kitchen. “Curtido? Good chopping, Rion. You want the cabbage to be thinly sliced as well as the onion. They are more flavorful, and they take less time to absorb the flavors from the spices and vinegar.” She sighed. “If only Claudio chopped so well.”
“Who do you think taught him?” he said with a snort.
“Probably his mother, considering I taught you.”
His father entered the kitchen and looked at my pile of chopped veggies. “Why so thin? You want them to have some body, so you can't go too thin.”
“Don't listen to him; he's only trying to confuse you,” his mother advised.
“He's cutting them up like Claudio; how much more can I really confuse him?” he teased, wrapping an apron around his waist. “Okay, let's get things started.”
Soon we had our before-work meal, and within thirty minutes the delivery orders started to come in. By the time the night was over, I was wiped out. It was made a little crappier, because Claudio was going with his father to get the cart they used for Carnival from storage, so it would be in place and ready to be cleaned the next day. Seemed kind of weird, but if we'd hung out that night I might have fallen asleep on him anyway.
“So,” Bry said as we walked back from the restaurant. “Talked to my mom tonight. She was texting while I was making a delivery, and, kind of weird, she said she'd talked to your mom, and she seemed surprised we had jobs.”
I blinked at him. “Yeah. You knew I wasn't telling her.”
He tilted his head. “Dumbass. Your mother must have called you, right?”
I blinked a few more times. “Yeah.”
“And I'm guessing she was pissed?”
“Man, was she. I hung up on her after fighting for a while. Called Grampa.”
“Don't sidetrack me. Your gramp is way too cool for someone with suspenders,” he said. “But you had this argument and didn't say anything to me? Usually we'd talk about shit like this going down.”
I thought for a second, my mind just not doing much more than keeping my feet moving. “Oh, right. Yeah, I probably would have, but Claudio and I went out that night, and he could tell something was up, so I told him. I think I felt okay enough with it.”
He sighed. “So it starts. First you don't want to sleep with me anymore, now you don't tell me everything. Where will it end, Rion? Where, I ask you?”
I chuckled at him. “Don't worry, you're still dead sexy. I actually felt better after I'd talked to Gramp, but you know...if it was an issue, I'd have told you. I'm not doing that thing where I forget I have a best friend.”
“Eh. I know what we are, Bro. Claudio, if he's your boy, has to be number one. I'm always there, of course, but I'm just giving you shit.”
I grinned tiredly. We got back to the bunk and just crashed – or I did anyway.
Wednesday saw me joining Claudio early to start cleaning the food cart. I guess it was kind of fancy, with all the stainless steel. In truth it wasn't that dirty, having been cleaned before storage, but it wasn't used that much, and anything that sits needs thorough testing. That was something else my grandfather taught me. That lesson came courtesy of an old car he'd loved that he'd kept garaged through the winter. He eventually sold it. He wasn't thrilled to let it go – but he explained that it wasn't good for a vehicle to sit, and it always meant he had to sink more and more money into it.
After the cart was in good shape, Claudio took me back into the kitchen. He had me chopping again, but this time it was plantains. They looked a lot like bananas, but they weren't very tasty. Claudio had a good laugh at me – I guess you don't normally eat them raw like bananas. He said we were making them two ways – the first was thinner chips like I was doing that we would fry and salt – pretty simple. The other we'd make on-site.
“Now, we'll bag up the chips to sell as a snack to walk around with, but let me show you how to make platanos fritos con crema,” he said. “So we cut the platano into chunks instead of slices,” he said, demonstrating as he quickly chopped up a platano. “Now the crema is easy – get that can of condensed milk while I get the sour cream.”
We mixed the condensed milk and the sour cream, then set it in the freezer to chill while lopping up a few more platanos. He showed me how to fry them, then had me do it as well. These were fried in a pan versus something more like a fryer you'd see in a restaurant for french fries – that was for the chips.
“I didn't know this was such an easy dish,” I told him.
“Most Americans wouldn't know. They didn't grow up with it. This is probably our version of chicken nuggets – easy to make, and just about everyone eats them.”
We had an absolutely bonkers night of deliveries, and after the extended day from cleaning the cart with Claudio, learning to cook and running all over town, I was whipped. Claudio came to our bunk with Marina, and they set up a movie, but I was fading fast. I snuggled into Claudio and he kissed my hair.
“You smell good,” he said.
“I use both nostrils,” I said sleepily and dozed off.
Friday was a madhouse. I was really excited, because Claudio and I would be at the Carnival that night, and we'd spend the whole evening together, even if we were working. Other nights we barely saw each other until after work, because we were both so busy. The last thing I wanted was for his parents to decide I wasn't hustling or something and fire my ass.
I went into the kitchen with Claudio, and he fixed me with a slightly amused, appraising look.
“What's that look for?” I asked.
He glanced around really quickly and then in a low voice said, “We've been seeing each other for a month. A month since we first met.”
“We met on a Friday?” I asked.
“More or less. Don't overthink it,” he said with a little grin. “But...I hate how my mother knows me, sometimes.”
Now I was really confused, and I told him so.
He just smiled. “Over in that cabinet is corn flour. Would you grab some please?”
Curious I went to the cupboard and grabbed one of the bags of corn flour and headed back to the prep surface. He met me there with a bowl of water. He explained how much to use and we mixed the corn flour and water until it was malleable, a bit thicker than pancake mix, I'd say. He slid a bowl of cheese over and then he showed me, side by side, how to take some of the mixture and make a ball out of it, then flatten it. He added the cheese in the middle then folded the edges up in a neat trick and flattened it down again.
“Let's just get a few of these ready,” he said. He turned on the flat cooktop, and we made a stack of – then it hit me. He was teaching me to make pupusas. His mother had said...he'd better love someone if he's teaching them to make pupusas. I stared at him for a moment, and I thought...he knows. He knows I just made the connection.
I wanted to say something – the right something – but his parents came into the kitchen, and before you knew it, we were packing the cart with supplies, then his dad was towing it over. We were sitting in the truck with his dad, and then we were setting things up. Just as the griddle was warming and we were getting ingredients ready, I got his attention.
“I...love you, too.”
Even through the cinnamon coloring of his skin, the blush was just as evident as his smile. “Can I just tell you, you're adorable when you're exhausted?”
I tilted my head at the odd change of subject. “What are you talking about?”
He grinned. “Last night I told you that you smelled good, and you told me it was because you use both nostrils…right before you fell asleep.”
I stared. “I did not.”
He giggled. “You did. Bry told me-”
“He – I'll kill him,” I said with a laugh.
Through his giggles he asked, “Did you really tell him he smelled like a cock?”
“My mind was so tired, the closest I could get to chicken was cock!” I laughed, trying and failing to defend myself.