Long car rides can be the most boring thing in the world. It must make it more fun if you're driving, or maybe if you're in the front seat with a window down. Papas like to drive with the windows up. Sasha says this is because they are like old ladies and don't want the wind to mess their hair up. I think – because it's all I have to do on this ride – that this car ride is worst of all because of what waits for me at the end of it. I'm excited, but also nervous. I haven't seen Matei in three years, between the things that happened at the orphanage and moving to America. As soon as I saw him on the screen in my living room, I knew who it was – and he knew me, still. Sasha has reminded me that I have changed and that I don't know what Matei might think about anything anymore.
He hadn't just looked older, I'd realized long after our video call was over. He looked...thin. Not like he wasn't eating, but like there wasn't so much Matei there as there used to be. Matei had a mischievous electricity to him that promised fun, daring and the potential for trouble. It was still there, hidden – but I was sure I had seen it when he recognized me. Thinking of it still brought a pressure on my chest that I had no explanation for.
“Let's stop here and use the bathroom before we actually get into the city,” one of my papas, the one called Kevin, said. “Thank goodness we're on the thruway now, but yikes this is a long drive.”
We pulled into a rest area with the name Ramapo and climbed out. I felt stiff and spent a moment stomping my feet to shake the weird feeling from my legs. We headed for the doors, past a woman selling sunglasses. Inside there was a convenience store, a McDonald's, an ice cream place and a store that sold Lavazza coffee. We walked past all of them and used the restroom. Papas always told me never to pass up a convenient restroom because you never know when you'll find the next one. It seemed silly to me, but I had to go, so I went.
“Nik? Would you like a drink?” my other papa, the one called Tom, asked me.
I glanced at the options and shook my head. “No, thank you, Papa.” He nodded and got in line to order coffee. I was speaking to Sasha yesterday and we agreed how it was kind of funny that we both didn't have a different name for our parents. FI called them both papa and he called them both dad – so did Bobby, who is now my oldest brother. It didn't seem to matter that we called them by the same name, because they seemed to know which one we were speaking to. It was interesting.
Interesting is a word I'd use to describe Bobby, too. He looks nothing like Sasha or me; he's huge. As Grandpa Buchanan said, he's 'built like a brick shithouse'. It seems like a mean thing to say. Who wants to look like a house filled with shit? Or is it made of shit? I will have to ask. Many times the words don't add up to the idea they sound like.
We climbed back into the car and continued on our way. My eyes widened in concern when I saw the sign that said 'Welcome to New Jersey'.
“What?” asked the papa who was driving. They just know.
“I thought we had to go to New York City?”
“We do, sweetheart. Why?”
“But we are in New Jersey!” I protested.
They laughed and the other papa, Tom, turned in his seat. “Part of New York City is farther south than the top of New Jersey.” He brought up a map on his phone and I leaned in as he pointed. “Because we're coming from way over here,” he said, sliding the map over near our home, “the best way to get to JFK is to cross through the north end of New Jersey, take the George Washington Bridge – which if you live down by the city you just call it 'The GW' – and then we drive down the side of Manhattan, through this tunnel here and then we'll almost be to the airport.”
I blinked. “New York City is very, very big.”
“Yes. One reason why we left,” Papa said.
“You used to live here?” I asked, amazed.
“Yes,” he said, his tone teasing. “Did you think papas had no life before Nik?”
I laughed at him. “I did not know you lived in New York City. Why did you leave?”
“It was too busy. Too noisy. I wanted kids and I wanted a slower life. So I told your papa, here, that we had to leave.”
“Oh, is that how you want to tell that story?” Kevin asked. They started trading teasing lines and I just smiled at them. They have a good relationship, I realized. Not like the one I had with Nathan. Maybe more like the one I have with Jamie or Lucien, maybe even Robin – in my case, without any romance. Maybe that was the secret? To have a good relationship before you tried for romance? It seemed like Nathan was some kind of kryptonite for me – kryptonite that lead to dumb decisions, out-of-control imagination and an extreme level of horniness.
Sasha says guys have a reputation for thinking with their smaller head. He had to explain that to me, but I think it makes a ton of sense.
“Here's the bridge, Nik. Look!”
I leaned forward between the seats and looked out the windshield. The metal structure of the bridge loomed over us, and I could feel a slight shift under the car as we started crossing over the Hudson River. I lowered my gaze and was struck by the mass of buildings on the other side of the water. Bucharest was large, built to resemble Paris, but New York City was so dense! The closer we got the more I felt as if I were a mouse being pushed toward the entrance of a maze.
We came to a stop and I became unsettled, feeling the bridge move under the car with all the traffic on it. We bounced up and down, and my mind careened into wild thoughts of the bridge as a trampoline, throwing us off and into the water, or becoming increasingly fatigued and collapsing. Then we were across and I gaped at the contradictions around me: graffiti and trash side by side with soaring buildings covered in glass. The car shook frequently as we passed over the uneven streets. We passed under the tracks for a train, and a few blocks later I saw one of the trains slithering between streets and buildings like a silver snake. With graffiti on it. We had to stop frequently and traffic was crazy! All these people! It amazed me to think of all the people around us, each having a destination, a plan, dreams. It was overwhelming.
We parked at the airport and took a shuttle to the proper terminal, the same one I'd arrived at when I had left Romania for a new life. I'd had Chase and Kale to escort me, to explain things I would see and people I would meet. When I had landed Chase had stayed with me through customs – I'd been supported every step of the way. Matei would be traveling alone. I wasn't sure if his English was any better than mine had been, but I did know he'd never been out of the country before – much less on an airplane. After having lived in this country for some time, I was still overwhelmed by New York City – in the positive and the negative. I could only imagine Matei's feelings.
My papa who loved cooking took me to find something to eat while my other papa went to the customs counter to speak to someone about Matei.
“I'm not sure how this works,” he'd said, “but I feel like a minor traveling alone should warrant some special treatment, and they should know his visa sponsors are here for him.”
I wasn't hungry, but I needed to use the bathroom badly. It was strange, I didn't need to go when we were in the car, but now that I was walking I felt like I would start leaking any moment!
Eventually Papas and I stood in front of a large set of screens that showed the arrival times of the many flights for this terminal. Matei's flight had left Bucharest and flown to Frankfurt before heading for New York. According to the screen his flight was on time.
“So,” Tom said to me, “I guess Sasha will bring Alec and Micah over tomorrow after work to meet Matei.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Sasha says this to me.”
“You must be excited to introduce Matei to everyone,” Kevin said.
I thought for a moment. “Maybe in a few days. I would like to spend time with Matei alone, first.” I glanced at the papa who'd asked the question. “I have video games and books to show him. He will like Micah, and other family, but first is just Nik and Matei.”
“I think that's a good idea,” Tom said. “It's been a few years. You guys should have a chance to catch up and re-establish your friendship.”
“You should probably tell him not to pull pranks on papas,” Kevin said, smiling a little.
I laughed. “Matei makes the jokes on mean people. The Priest. The nuns. Other boys.”
“Yes,” I said with a nod. “One boy is being mean to Matei. He is telling him that he has no papa that will come for him. Matei steal his shoes and hammer to the floor.”
“Hammer to...?” Both papas looked at me to clarify.
“With nails,” I said, miming hammering invisible nails.
“Oh!” they both said, looking at each other and chuckling. We waited for twenty minutes before Kevin went to see if he could find out what was happening with Matei, since the plane was on time. Tom and I stayed by the doors where international passengers passed through customs so we didn't miss Matei. I was buzzing with nerves, just wanting to get past this moment. Matei had been a very bright spot for me in the orphanage. He could always make me laugh, and he was loyal. We had become friends within a week of my arrival, and we'd made a good team, helping each other through school exercises, chores and evading responsibility for the tricks Matei played.
Kevin came back and looked frustrated. “They really can't tell me anything besides that he was on the plane. I told them he may not speak English well and the jackass literally curled his lip at the idea.”
“Some people,” Tom said, shaking his head. I spent over an hour throwing possibilities around in my head for what Matei would think. I know Sasha is trying to protect me when he warns me about the limits of what my papas can do, and how Matei might not be the same person I left behind. I feel a resolve, though, to help Matei. Many times in the orphanage it was the two of us against the system. Against the priests. Against the nuns, the government...the world. No matter how much he'd changed, that hadn't.
The doors leading to customs opened and Matei emerged slowly, looking around curiously. He lugged a really old suitcase with hard sides. I was used to the kinds of suitcases Kale and Chase had used – soft sides, bright colors and wheels on the bottom.
“Matei!” I called out and smiled widely.
He looked at me and grinned. “Nickolai!” He threw his arms wide and I walked to him quickly, taking in the boy who stood before me now in comparison to the boy I'd last seen so long ago.
He did look like Nate, or Nate looked like Matei – whatever. Matei was shorter, though his hair was the same golden brown and his skin was already showing a golden tan that reminded me of Nate. Besides being a bit shorter, Matei also had a wider grin, a glint of trouble in his eyes and as he walked toward me I noticed he didn't have the athletic grace that Nate did. That's not to say Matei stumbled or limped; Nate had a grace forged from all his sports and Matei didn't. So many differences, and yet my heart leapt to see him.
We embraced quickly, leaning back and smiling at each other. I drank in his details as if I'd never get to just look at him again. He wore a white button-up shirt that looked as though someone else had owned it before – likely a donation. I'd have once worn something like that as part of a 'best outfit' for church or in case a government official came to the orphanage. The blazer, a dark blue, looked clean, yet worn. The same was true of his khaki-colored pants, but his shoes shone brightly under the lights of the cavernous terminal.
“You wore your best! Nice shoes!” I said in Romanian.
“Preda gave me the shoes,” Matei said with a smile. “I hope I don't have to suck his dick when I get back to pay for them!”
I looked at him in shock and he laughed hard, though I wasn't sure if he was joking or if he really had been serious.
“Hello, Matei,” Tom said, breaking me from my shock.
“Matei, this is my papa, Tom Buchanan,” I said, turning to Matei's side so I could point out who was who. “And this is my other papa, Kevin Buchanan. Papas, this is my favorite friend, Matei Ionescu.”
Tom shook Matei's hand, followed by Kevin.
“We're very happy you've come to visit, Matei,” Kevin said. “How was your flight?”
Matei looked at him for a moment, and then said, “Flight was...in the air.” He looked back and forth between them and then looked at me before a grin split his face.
Tom laughed at Matei's joke and looked at me. “Nik! You have to explain to him, no jokes on papas!”
Matei grinned at them and said, “The plane was exciting for a little while, but then it was boring. Just sitting. Plane bounces when it lands, I am thinking this is bad thing, but no one panic. Second plane! Second plane have movies and beer!”
Kevin's eyebrow went up. “Beer? For you?”
Matei gave them a sly look and then grinned again. “I did not say beer for Matei. Just beer on plane.”
Kevin smiled and pointed at Matei. “I'm watching you.”
Matei blinked and looked at me. “What does he mean?”
“He means I told him how you like to play jokes. He is going to be on his guard so you don't play tricks on him,” I told him with a snicker while patting his shoulder.
“How about we give you a hand with your luggage?” Tom asked, lifting the old suitcase from Matei's grasp and we walked as a group.
“Matei, have you thought about anything you'd like to do while you're here?” Kevin asked.
Matei shrugged. “No. I am thinking of seeing Nikolai, and then whatever he wants to do, I will do too.”
“Easy kid,” Tom said quietly.
“Don't speak too quickly,” Kevin said softly.
I didn't ask my papas what they meant. I think I knew, but sex wasn't on my mind. I looked at Matei and grinned again, so pleased that he was here with me. Once Matei and I were in the back seat we began to talk while papas navigated us out of New York City.
“This city is huge!” Matei said to me, glancing out the windows as we left the airport and began driving over the bumpy streets that lead back to the exits toward New Jersey.
“There are too many people,” I told him. “I like to see some things here, but I know I wouldn't want to live here. It's always noisy.”
“I'll bet someone could get lost here,” he said, his tone speculative.
“Matei,” I said quietly. He turned to give me his attention. Softy I asked, “How are you?”
He jutted his chin toward the front seat. “Do they understand Romanian?”
I shook my head. “No. It's just us. So how are you?”
The corners of his mouth twitched as though he thought to smile and then changed his mind. “What do you mean?”
I shrugged and smiled at him. “I haven't seen you in two years. You seem...thinner.”
The corner of his mouth turned up. “The food, you remember? They still don't give much. My life is boring. Let's talk about you – what happened after you left Bucharest? Where did you go?”
I held a finger up in the air. “You first. I know I missed you like the nuns had cut an arm off. What have you been doing for two years?”
Matei raised an eyebrow and smiled mischievously. “Nikolai. I am the guest here. Aren't you supposed to be gracious and answer my questions first?”
I sighed and chuckled. “Yes, I am so gracious!” I dramatically put the back of my hand up to my forehead while tilting my head back and he laughed, as I hoped he would. I don't know why he didn't want to tell me what he'd been doing – maybe that he hadn't missed me? – but I would indulge him.
“Are you guys hungry? We could hit a drive-through,” Kevin asked us.
“A drive-through? You want to feed fast food to them?” Tom asked, aghast.
“Well gee, dear, we don't exactly have your kitchen available,” Kevin said with a snort.
“Ugh,” Tom replied. “Fine. But it's not food.”
“Are you being hungry?” I asked Matei.
He tilted his head a bit from side to side, and then hesitated before saying, “The dinner on the airplane was very little.”
We pulled into the Sloatsburg rest stop, on the opposite side of the thruway as the Ramapo exit. We walked in the warm evening, a mild breeze racing through the parking garage. Inside we ordered from a Burger King, with Tom muttering the entire time. I was hungrier than I thought, but Matei seemed like it had been a few days since he'd eaten. That probably wasn't true, unless he'd been bad. They would sometimes not feed someone if they'd been bad. Papas got him a second burger. Kevin said it was fun to watch someone really enjoy a burger, but the look on Tom's face told me something different. I think they thought Matei hadn't been given food, either.
Tom treated us to Starbucks and then we were back on the road.
“Papas, thank you for the food and Starbucks,” I said and nudged Matei.
“What?” he asked softly.
“Say thank you,” I said, laughing at him. His eyes went wide and he sat forward a bit.
“Thank you for the food. I was very hungry.”
Tom looked back over his shoulder. “You're very welcome, buddy.”
Matei sat back and raised an eyebrow at me. “How did you get here? How did I get here?”
The corner of my mouth pulled up and I raised my eyebrows at him. I was about to jump into how much things had changed for me, but I decided to start back at the point we'd been separated.
“When I left Bucharest, I was sent to Sinai. The priest who was in charge was meaner than any of the nuns in Bucharest.”
His mouth opened in wonder. “Meaner than a nun?”
I nodded seriously. “Father Gregory would say he had to hit us to remind us not to be bad, even if we hadn't done anything. He did things like the nuns, too, by not giving us food. But he would also put us in dark rooms, and it would be very hot. It seemed like it would last for days.”
“Bastard,” Matei muttered.
“I...was very lonely. There was no one to make me laugh,” I told him and he blushed lightly. I drew my lips tightly against each other and continued. “It was very hard in Sinai. The priests and the nuns were always telling us how bad we were. We had to sleep in a room with the lights on and someone watching so we do not touch anyone else.”
“That is stupid,” he said with a scoff. “They act like people don't touch each other. I don't understand why they hated you so much. We touched, but they never sent me away. How long were you there? And how did you get here?”
I nodded slowly. “While I was in Sinai I had a visit by two men – young men.”
“Niki,” Matei said in a solemn tone. “Did they...hurt you?”
I jumped a bit, so startled was I at his question. “Hurt me? No. Their names were Kale and Chase Kirkwood. They were married.” I paused and then deliberately said, “To each other.”
Matei stared at me for a full minute and then blinked. “You're serious?”
“Yes,” I said with a nod. “They told me they were reporters, but they lied. They knew my brother, Alexandru, and weren't sure they could help me come to America to be with him. But after they met me, they called Mr. Preda and Papas, and the next thing I know I am on a train for Bucharest and then on a plane to America.”
“And...” He tilted his head toward the front seat. “They are your papas?”
“Yes,” I said emphatically.
He watched me for a minute and a calculating look I'd never seen crossed his face, went away and then settled in. “Do I have to let them fuck me to stay?”
I stared at him, my mouth opening slightly. “Matei....”
His expression shifted to a smile, but the joy that was Matei wasn't there. “I'm kidding, Nik. Lighten up!”
“Matei,” I said, my voice filled with sorrow. “Did you think I would let someone hurt you?”
His expression faltered and he looked down at his hands and rubbed the palms on his pants. He glanced up at me and sighed. “After you left the priests and nuns got stricter. We got punished for anything. They don't give us much food, and the tourists can sometimes be nice. Not always, but sometimes. Really nice ones feed you at the fancy restaurants the tourists go to. Sometimes buy a shirt or shoes. Not many. The priest...Father Dumitru...he told us that you had gone to hell.” He paused and said in a whisper, “I thought you were dead.”
Tentatively I reached for his hand, covering it with mine and squeezing his fingers gently. “I'm okay. These really are my papas. They love me. Alexandru is a wonderful person – you'll see! I have a very big family and they will show you how to play baseball and fix automobiles and they will love you just because you are you. I promise.”
Matei looked at me with a mix of worry, caution and hope – or at least I hoped he had.
“Why am I here? Mr. Preda sent for me, and I saw you on his computer. It was like...well, seeing the dead come back to life!” he said, barking out a laugh to go with it. “Then Mr. Preda talked to me in his office and he told me this is a tremendous opportunity and I shouldn't squander it. But what does he mean, Niki? What am I supposed to do?”
I considered that for a moment, wondering where to start my explanation. I smiled reassuringly and let his hand go. “I thought I was in love with a boy named Nathan. But I realized, you and Nathan look a little bit alike.” I paused, feeling a little embarrassed.
Matei put his hand on my forearm. “I was brought here for sex with you?”
I frowned. “No! You weren't brought here for sex with anyone, idiot!” I huffed a moment and said, “I realized I really missed you. Alexandru's husband, Alec, spoke to Kale and Chase and they spoke to Mr. Preda to find out what had happened to you. They told me that Mr. Preda was interested in sending you to America for the summer to visit...but I think maybe there is a chance you can stay for good, if you want to.”
Matei laughed and shook his head. “You're telling me that all these people brought me all the way here, just because you said you missed me?”
Frowning I said, “No. Stop that.” He glanced at me, raising an eyebrow. When I was sure his snorting laugh was not going to start again, I continued, “My family is kind. Yes, they wanted to do this for me, but I think they wanted to do it for you, too. Because I care about you, and because you deserve a family, too.”
He stared at me for a moment, his mouth open. “I have a family. My father-”
“When?” I asked gently. “When will he come for you?”
A look of disappointment crossed his face, and then he set his mouth stubbornly. “He is busy. A busy man.”
“My family is not too busy for you, Matei,” I said quietly. “I'm not too busy, either. I want you to stay here.”
“As what?” he scoffed.
I let out a slow breath. “As my brother.”
He stared at me for a moment and then looked away, out the window. He began to pop each of his knuckles, one after the other as he faced the window. I felt anxious, again, as I had while waiting to see Matei again. What must his life have become that he asks me the things he does? And then the strangest thing happened. I realized that as much as Nate twisted my loins, I was not feeling anything like that for Matei. I felt sorrow and worry. I felt anger, dull and pulsing within me, that the world had treated him so poorly that he doubted my honesty. I felt protective. I suddenly had a new purpose.
He turned his head suddenly, facing me with a determined look. “None of this makes any sense! You say you want to help me stay, then help me! Tell me what I have to do,” he said, his tone slipping into one of pleading.
I turned in my seat and fixed him with a steely look, one that I hoped would break through his strange ideas of what was going on. “What you have to do is remember who I am. Nikolai Antonescu has become Nikolai Buchanan. I am American, now. I have a big family that wants to meet my best friend – one I would never betray! One who is funny and loyal.” I took a deep breath. “I do not know for sure if you can stay. I know that if you try and treat anyone like one of the tourists, they will be angry. They want to meet my friend, so...just be you.”
He pursed his lips slightly, then persisted. “Are you saying I'm not attractive enough for these people? Then why bring me here?”
I frowned at him and bit back my frustration. “Listen to me. You are here because of a miracle. Remember what I say to you tonight and I dare you to say it isn't true as time goes by.”
He blinked a few times and scratched the side of his nose before nodding. We rode in silence for less than an hour, though, before Matei began to shift on his seat.
“Mat? Are you all right?” Tom asked, turning to look at Matei as he pursed his lips.
Shaking his head, Matei said, “My stomach...I feel strange. I think I need the bathroom.”
Tom turned to Kevin and pointed at a gas station in the distance. “It's all that grease! Let's pull in up there.”
Matei wiggled on the seat, and I couldn't help but think it was funny. “Papas are treating you like a pregnant woman being rushed to a hospital.”
“I'm giving birth to the ugliest baby ever – ah! Don't make me laugh!” he said, snorting out a laugh and clutching his stomach.
“Your baby will smell just like you,” I teased and he flipped me off, but laughed anyway.
I walked inside with Matei, moving quickly toward the restrooms. I stood outside the door as Matei went inside and then started to giggle as I heard gas erupt from him in a long, bleating note.
“Shut up out there! Can't a man die in peace?” he groaned, yet giggling at my giggles.
“Is the paint peeling?”
“Shut up! Asshole!” he said, his admonition spoiled by his giggles, and then a groan as he passed even more gas.
“How's he doing?” Kevin asked from a few feet away.
I turned toward him, laughing. “He say his intestines are falling out!”
Papa laughed as Tom joined us. “I guess we should get some drinks and see if they have some anti-gas medicine. Shitty fast food,” he muttered.
“Yes, is shitty,” I said and laughed again as Matei blatted again. I tapped on the door. “Careful, your asshole will fall off!”
“Stop making me laugh!” he hollered. “It stinks so bad, I must be dying!”
I leaned against the door laughing and told Papas Matei said he was dying. Kevin snickered and Tom pushed his arm.
“We haven't even had him for twenty-four hours and you broke him!” Tom admonished Kevin, but chuckled as he did.
Eventually Matei emerged, and when I saw the sweat on his forehead I started to laugh again. He made a joke about trying to lure someone into the bathroom just to watch them come running out from the smell. We tried to convince papas that we just wanted to watch one person go in, and they were telling us no. But while we begged, someone went in – and right back out with a pinched face. Matei and I leaned against each other, laughing so hard we cried. Eventually we got back on the road and we fell asleep in the backseat, leaving papas to get us safely home.
We got home after two in the morning. We all got a little bit of energy when we got out of the car. I was excited for perhaps ten minutes to show Matei my home, but soon we were brushing teeth and I hugged him goodnight.
“I missed you, Matei. Welcome home.”
I woke to my bed moving. I mean the mattress, not that someone was moving my whole bed. I blinked owlishly in the darkness, trying to wake up enough to figure out what was going on.
“Move over. You're like a rock!” Matei said as he pushed my arm.
“What are you doing?” I grumbled, not complying. I didn't really want to comply, but I also didn't have enough body control – I was exhausted!
“I can't sleep down there. It's too quiet. Now go to sleep, Niki. I'm tired and you're talking too much,” Matei grumbled.
“I'll talk in my own bed if I want to,” I said petulantly, but rolled away from him and went back to sleep.
It was an odd feeling, to know that I was dreaming and still have something feel so very real. I was in Bucharest with Mama and Papa, and we were by the river for a picnic. Papa was cooking over a fire and mama was 'giving him advice'. She really was just giving him a hard time, but it was something they seemed to enjoy. I, on the other hand, was in the water being splashed. I turned to see Matei as he drew his arm back and hit the water with his arm in a wide arc that sent a sheet of water washing toward me. Then I was in the air, and as I flew I saw that Sasha had picked me up and was laughing as he threw me into a deeper part of the water. There was a logical part of my mind that was telling me none of this was true – my parents, Matei, Sasha and I had never been in the same place at the same time. Still, I struggled to reach the surface of the water to join them, but I found that all of my swimming brought me no closer. I could see Matei and Sasha in the water – just their bottom halves – and I tried to strike out toward them, but I could gain no momentum. I opened my mouth to yell to them to help me and-
“Lazy bones,” said Tom as he shook my shoulder. “Both of you! I thought boys had all kinds of energy. These two must be broken, honey.”
I opened my eyes and then rubbed them, trying to focus. “Papa? What time is?”
“Almost noon. You guys were pretty exhausted, huh?”
I propped myself up and looked around. Matei was lying beside me, silent as death. He seemed unsure what to do, but I wasn't didn't know why. Tom stood up from the side of the bed where he'd woken us while Kevin leaned in the doorway.
“Did you not like your bed, Mat?” Kevin asked.
Matei looked at me and I looked back, wondering why he wasn't answering.
“What do I tell them?” he asked nervously.
I tilted my head. “The truth?”
He looked back at my papas and cleared his throat. “The bed was very nice. The room was...too quiet.”
“Too quiet?” Tom asked.
Matei glanced at me and I nodded in encouragement. He looked back to them and said, “Yes. In orphanage there is the coughs, the squeaks of the other beds, the snoring, the farting and the sound of feet when someone goes to the bathroom. There was no noise. It was...strange. I could not sleep.”
“Oh, that's understandable,” Tom said looking at Kevin. “And here we thought we'd considered everything! So much for that. Well, come on, boys. I'll make you some eggs, even though breakfast is long over.”
They left and I rolled my head over to face Matei. “You should always be honest with papas. They will help.”
Matei snorted and stretched. I thought to protest, but then remembered my own advice to Matei. Over time, he would see I was right. We climbed out of bed and cleaned up before heading downstairs. Matei looked at Tom curiously as he added eggs to a frying pan.
“Nik? You want to show Mat how we do morning eggs around here?” Tom asked me.
I smiled widely and pulled Matei over with me. “May I have cheese, green pepper, onions and sausage, please?”
Matei raised an eyebrow and watched as Tom added in the requested ingredients. The pan sizzled and Tom added salt and pepper, cooking up my hot breakfast. During the week there wasn't as much time, so I had cereal frequently, but Tom always insisted on adding fruit and sometimes yogurt to my breakfast. On the weekends it was hot breakfast most of the time.
“That smells good,” Matei said in English and Tom smiled at him.
“Do you like to cook?” Tom asked.
“I don't know,” Matei replied. “I never cook.”
Tom slid my breakfast onto a plate and handed it to me. “Toast is on the table, sweetheart. Mat, how would you like to cook your breakfast?”
Matei looked at him dubiously, glanced at me – and of course I nodded at him in encouragement – and he nodded to Tom. Tom slid to one side and started pointing out the ingredients he had laid out in preparation – the chopped onion, green pepper, crumbled sausage and so on. He explained how to crack an egg, demonstrated, and then invited Matei to try. I ate standing up at the counter so I could watch. I had no interest in cooking beyond eating, and Tom had tried to teach me. I had thought it was annoying because I had no interest, but I wondered if I was wrong, now. Tom's face was filled with a smile as Matei followed directions, learning something that Tom cared about.
Minutes later Matei sat at the table with his food and I joined him to eat what was left of mine. Matei ate quickly and asked if he could make more. Tom laughed and told him to go ahead. Matei made a huge breakfast – he must have used five eggs! – and then he pushed some of it onto my plate.
“You have to eat more. You're making me look like a pig!” he said to me.
“You are a pig!” I said and made a grunt like a pig.
“Asshole,” he said, laughing at me and I joined him.
After Matei and I had showered, papas asked strange questions about Matei's clothes. I looked at him more carefully and realized why they were concerned. None of his clothes fit well and most were worn, probably used. The shoes he'd packed, besides the new dress shoes Mr. Preda had given him, were also very worn.
“Guess what, Nik?” Kevin said to me, grinning and rubbing his hands together.
“What?” I asked warily.
“You get to go clothes shopping!” he said gleefully.
“No!” I groaned. “I hate clothes shopping!”
“Well,” Tom said, emerging from Matei's room. “Too bad. You need some shorts and stuff for summer, and so does Mat. Let's get ready to go – oh, and we'd better let Sasha know we might not be back until evening so maybe they can come over tomorrow night?”
The rest of the day was boring, except for Matei. We talked a lot in the car while I warned him about how boring clothes shopping was. Matei got to see for himself as papas insisted he try things on and then come show them how they looked. He didn't understand, and asked me why they wanted to know what he wore – and then he asked if this had something to do with having sex with one of my papas. This time I got angry.
“Matei! Are you calling me a liar?” I demanded as I drew close to him. “Papas will never try that! No one here will! They are buying you clothes because you have ones that are almost scraps! They want to make sure the things they get for you fit and are of good quality, so you will show them what they look like on you and never say that shitty thing again!”
Matei looked uncomfortable, bobbed his head, and went back in to change.
“Nik? What was that all about? And don't say nothing,” Kevin said.
I sighed. “I do not want to tell you. Matei...I think things have been bad for him. Very bad. I think he is doing things. Things he should not. With tourists. He....” I trailed off, unable to repeat his words. My papas would be so hurt. I could never say things like that to them, knowing how hurt they would be that someone could think of them that way.
Kevin placed a hand on my shoulder. “Give him time, buddy. Adults haven't been a good thing in his life – just like priests weren't in yours. I can guess what he's thinking, and it will take some time to win his trust.” He paused and then asked, “I'd like to ask you, though...was what he said this morning true? He just came to your room because it was too quiet?”
I nodded glumly. “Yes. He push me to move over and I fall back to sleep.”
He nodded and and moved a half step closer. “Nik? One thing Papa and I haven't been specific about, but I think you should know...papa and I don't want you and Mat to have sex. Do you think that will be a problem?”
I flushed but shook my head. “No, papa. There will be no sex. I promise.”
He patted my shoulder, and then we were distracted by Matei emerging again and Tom handing me things to go try on. I groaned, but went. You never win if you go against papas anyway. Once papas had enough of clothes shopping, Tom ran his fingers through my hair and said I needed a haircut. I readily agreed as the place they take me to in the mall also washes my hair. It might sound strange, but having someone wash your hair feels amazing.
“What's going on?” Matei asked.
“I'm getting a haircut,” I said happily.
“So? What's the big deal?”
“They wash your hair for you at this place. It feels good – you should try it!” I enthused. “Plus they use a hot towel on your face, they massage your shoulders, too! You have to try!”
“I have three bags bursting with clothes and shoes. I didn't know underwear could have colors. I don't want to ask for anything right now.”
Maybe some won't like what I did next, or how I felt, but that's too bad. Yes, papas just spent money on us and not just a little bit. Yes, papas were going to get me a twenty-five dollar haircut and maybe I should have been more mindful of that. Right then all I cared about was sharing something new, something fun with Matei – something he'd never experienced that was simple, yet still thrilled me.
I reached out, with Tom looking at me, and ran a hand into Matei's long – too long – hair. “Papa? I think Matei has golden hair. Like a Golden Retriever.”
Matei frowned, not understanding everything I said, but twitching his head away from me and knowing I was up to something.
“Hmm. You think he should get a haircut, too?” Tom asked, putting his hand on his chin. “What do you think, Mat?”
Matei looked at me a little defiantly, then shook his head. “Is too much.”
Kevin put a hand on Matei's shoulder, who shrugged it off angrily and turned away from Kevin, but I saw the tears welling in his eyes.
“Matei? What's wrong?” I asked gently, coming to stand beside him, shoulder to shoulder with my papas behind us.
His shoulders hitched. I glanced at my papas and held a finger up, and was gratified at their collective nod. I felt a burst of pride that they trusted that I knew Matei enough to help where they may not yet be able to, but it was dashed as I looked at my friend.
“It is too much, Niki,” he said, his breath hitching. “This is bullshit! I cannot take all these clothes to Romania! Why buy these things just for me to leave them behind?”
Frustration and sadness washed through me. I wondered if bringing him here had been cruel, too cruel to show him something he wasn't sure he could have. Yet we can't always have what we see; Nathan was a reminder of that, and yet I would live.
“Matei, listen to me,” I said, pitching my voice low. “Did you miss me? At all?”
He turned his head to face me so quickly I heard a small pop from his neck. “Of course I did! You're my best friend! I thought you were dead! What kind of stupid question is that?”
I looked at him steadily. “I can't guarantee what will happen by the end of the summer. I promised to do everything I can to keep you here. But Matei, you are so worried about what you may or may not have that you are not having fun with me now? Why can't we have so much fun we wear out these new clothes? Why can't you enjoy getting a haircut because I tell you it is fun, and worry about the end of the summer when it gets here?”
He looked at me, blinking several times and then glanced down. “I'm sorry. I just don't want to go back. I'll try to stop being an asshole.”
“You can't help that, Matei. You've always been an asshole,” I teased, chuckling at him. His mouth curled and he bumped into me with his shoulder. “Papas asked if you would like a haircut. So you tell them 'yes please' and then you will get a haircut with me.”
He looked at me for a moment, and then shook his head. “You're different. It's good.” Then he turned toward papas who were waiting quietly. He sighed lightly and his face flushed. “I am sorry for being ungrateful. I would like a haircut too, please.”
Kevin took a step toward us and placed his hands on Matei's shoulders. “Mat, you're in a new situation. It's not always like this – clothes, shoes, haircuts – they don't happen everyday. My husband and I thought, well, that you could use some extra clothes and maybe save the ones you brought for second best. I hope that didn't make you feel badly.”
Matei laughed, and I do mean laughed. Papas looked at each other wondering what was going on, and all I could do was shrug. When Matei calmed down a bit he said, through snorts and some giggles, “Second best? My clothes were donated shit! Second best? For what? They're not good enough for to make diapers!”
Kevin chuckled. “Okay. Take it easy with the swearing. Shall we get those haircuts now?”
The salon wasn't very busy, so Matei and I ended up side by side. He was jealous because the woman cutting my hair was young and slender, but the girl cutting his hair had bad breath. They moved us to the sinks and I literally heard Matei groan with pleasure as the girl massaged his scalp with shampoo. I laughed.
“Shut up!” he said, giggling a little at my laughter.
“Oh! This is better than sex. Maybe not blowjob, but definitely sex.”
Fortunately they covered our faces with the warm cloths, so his grunts of approval were muted. I still found it funny. He was funny.
When we got done, papas made a big deal out of 'their handsome boys'. Matei was beaming, and my heart fluttered a bit, remembering things we used to do. I pushed the feelings back down, but I enjoyed the way his smile made him look so much better. While we had been getting our haircuts, Kevin had gone to a shop and purchased a pay as you go phone, like mine. He said Matei might want to use it for music or in case he got separated from us. Matei's eyes lit up and I helped him get it set up and to have a few important phone numbers saved.
In the car he put the headphones in and started fiddling around, looking for a music app. I lifted my phone to take a picture and he flexed his bicep for me, being silly as he does. We stopped for dinner on the way home, a barbecue place that I enjoyed. I think Matei ate a whole pig. When we got home we changed for bed and watched a movie in the living room with popcorn. Matei came to bed with me and shortly after the light went out, he started to talk.
“I'm sorry I insulted you and your papas today,” he said, his voice quiet in the darkness.
I sighed. “Matei, I think you have been doing things with men. It makes me angry – furious.”
“You're judging me? Not all of us got nice homes in America! I don't have a place full of food and clothes!” he snapped.
I sat up and shoved him. “I mean, those men shouldn't be touching you! You're not a whore!”
He turned his head, and I could tell mostly because I heard his hair against the pillow. “Yes, I am. How do you think I am not starving?”
I leaned close, tears threatening. “No more. That is over. I will do anything I have to do for you to stay, and for you to respect the chance we have here.”
“But why?” he said with a cheerless laugh. “You have everything, now. What good am I to you?”
“You're stupid,” I told him affectionately. “You are my best friend. This is not a trade. I don't need something in return for helping you. My papas are good people; it is in their nature to help.” I paused and said, “You are smart, Matei. Clever. Did you not see how happy papa was to teach you to cook this morning?”
“I...was too busy eating.”
“Did you see them smile when they asked if you liked your new clothes?”
I heard his hair shush across the pillow as he nodded.
“It was not because they think you look sexy. It is because they could help and you appreciated what they did. Respect papas, appreciate what they do, and they will love you, too.”
I lay back in the darkness and sighed, thinking of what I'd just said. What a hypocrite! I should be taking my own advice.
“I'm sorry, Nikolai,” he said softly.
“I forgive you,” I said immediately. “But don't ever say that thing again.”
We were both up by nine the next morning and Kevin had already left for work. Tom was in the kitchen with his laptop, working on something for his job. Matei and I took cereal boxes, milk, bowls, spoons, a bowl of sliced fruit, and yogurt out to the back deck to eat.
“I love that you get so much to eat,” he commented as he filled his bowl for the second time.
I leaned back with a bowl of yogurt and fruit mixed together. “Papa is very strict about having good food. We never go to fast food like we did the night we picked you up.”
“Ugh. I'm okay if we never eat that again. My insides are still in knots!”
“So tell me...you say you were in love with some boy that looked like me?”
I tilted my head from side-to-side and my face grew warm. “Not exactly alike. He is the most handsome boy I have ever seen. But, yes, he did remind me of you. I think that was part of why I liked him so much.”
He frowned. “Nikolai. We talked in the orphanage. I thought we agreed – boys are for fun. Girls, though...we always choose girls.”
I chewed the fruit in my mouth, taking my time. It hadn't occurred to me that this could be a problem, but I'm not sure why I hadn't considered it. Romania isn't known for being very tolerant, much less welcoming to gay people.
“Matei,” I said slowly. “Who I am attracted to is not a choice. It isn't....” I came to a stop, unable to form the rest of my sentence. I had been about to say it wasn't like a business transaction, or making a choice from a menu. It was deeper than that, but I suddenly wondered if Matei would understand that. He'd been the choice on the menu. He'd been...used.
“Isn't what?” he asked.
I shook my head slowly. “Nothing. I am gay. I like other boys. I will fall in love and marry a man, one day.”
He dipped his spoon into the bowl and stirred it around slowly. I wasn't sure if he was thinking or if he was just containing an emotion. Anger, maybe. Disgust? Judgment of some kind? I wasn't sure, but it was making me anxious – and angry.
“You don't approve?” I asked.
He dropped the spoon and the handle made a tink sound as it landed against the edge of the bowl. He looked up at me and sighed. “I don't know. When we did things, they were good. It was fun. Safe. Not gay, was what I thought – just fun. Fun with a friend. But then you were gone, the nuns got worse and I saw men looking at me. I mean, really looking – you understand?”
I nodded slowly, a feeling of dread in my stomach – sour and acidic.
“When first one ask me to have some fun, I think it won't be as much fun as with Nik – but the tourist will give me money.” He paused and looked up at me, his eyes wet. “It was never, never fun. Not like with you. These men, they are gay. Is that what you will be? Is that what you are?”
I shook my head violently. “That is not gay, Matei! That is a pedophile – someone who is attracted to children. Papas are not attracted to children, and I am not attracted to papas. I am not attracted to Alexandru's husband, even though he isn't that much older than I am. I suppose someone young could be attracted to someone older, and maybe the reverse is also true – but that is not who I am.”
He looked at me steadily. “I understand a trade, Nik. I understand when I go with someone that they will give me money. The church tells us gay is wrong. Bad. You say you're gay, but you're also not bad. I don't know what I'm supposed to feel.”
“Matei...we were always loyal to each other. We had a good friendship. I liked what we did, but it wasn't why we were friends. We won't do anything like that again.” I paused. “I know this is hard for you to understand. I should have thought of it before, but I didn't. Being gay...isn't what you've been taught. All I ask is that you do what I asked you to before – give this time and look around you, to see what I'm telling you is true if you can't believe me.”
His upper lip quivered and he rubbed his face quickly. “I am still struggling to understand why I'm here. I keep waiting for my part of the trade to come due. I don't know how I'm supposed to pay, and it worries me.”
I nodded to him, ordering my thoughts before I spoke. “When Nathan and I broke up – when he dumped me – Sasha and I talked for a while. I was very unhappy. I cried. Eventually I told Sasha and Papas about you – about your jokes, like the time you played the trick on Father Dumitru and his favorite bathroom, or put the nun's hat up on the flagpole.”
Matei laughed, his face splotchy from the emotions that were swirling inside and coming out in a confused jumble on his face.
“I tell them all about how you were my best friend and make me laugh. I tell them about how you always talk about the papa that will come get you, but that he never does,” I said, my voice getting softer. He doesn't reply, except to look down toward his lap. “Then I tell them about how much I miss my friend. My family, they want me to be happy. I don't think I ever really thought about that before now, but when I told them about you – they wanted to help. They called Mr. Preda, and he found you and got his reports. He asked if you could come to us, to learn about a better life.”
He raised his head, his eyes locking to mine. “How do I get this better life? How can I keep it, Nik?”
I smiled at him. “I keep telling you I will help you. Not for a trade. Not for sex and not for money. I will help you because you are my friend, my family – and I'm going to show you the family that will help you, if you will trust me.”
He looked at me long and hard, studying my face. I don't know what was going through his mind. I'd imagine it was still a struggle to believe someone didn't want something from him. I guess I was lying, in a way. I did want him, but as my friend. My companion. Perhaps as a partner in crime, as we used to be. He nodded then.
“So you are saying you aren't attracted to me anymore?”
I tilted my head. “Is that all you got out of everything I just said?”
“No,” he admitted. “I'm going to do what you say. I will try to earn a place here. But I can't help but think that you fell in love with a boy because he looked like me-”
“That wasn't why!”
“But now you say you do not want sex with me. Have I grown so ugly in two years, Nik?”
We looked at each other steadily for a full minute, maybe more. The corner of his mouth twitched and I knew – just knew – the gay thing wasn't going to be a problem. Soon we were laughing, finishing the fruit and yogurt before taking our trash back inside with us. Matei went to shower and I wandered over to Tom, hugging him from behind as he sat staring at his screen. He placed a hand over my arm, and patted me.
“Good morning, sweetheart. What's your plan today?”
“I am going to take Matei to the park. Tomorrow maybe Sasha will take us to swim. Then I will speak with Lucien about showing Matei about cars and how to fix.”
“Sounds busy,” he said warmly. “I guess you're enjoying having your friend come visit, huh?”
I slid around my papa, coming to his side and he turned to look at me, face warm with happiness. Happiness for me and my happiness. I am stupid that I don't see this plainly before.
“Papa, I want you to know I am learning very much from Matei.”
He frowned lightly. “Like what, buddy?”
“I am learning how lucky I was to come here. How much I am love by my family. I think I know these things, but maybe now I know them better than I thought. You understand?”
His frown softened and the corners of his mouth turned up. “Yes. Sometimes things we know or things we didn't realize we knew will become very apparent to us. I'm glad you can feel that love, Nik.”
I nodded a few times and took a breath. “Sasha warned me to enjoy time with Matei. That there are limits to papas and to family. To what they can do. But I am thinking – what if I am trying, too?”
“You've lost me again,” he replied with a small chuckle. “If you try what?”
I titled my head to look at him. “I am here because of effort. From Chase and Kale. From Papas. From Mr. Preda. Now, Matei is here because of Sasha, Alec, Chase, Kale, Mr. Preda and papas. If I work hard, maybe that will be enough for Matei to stay here with us.”
Papa let out a sigh. “I don't know, Nik. I won't say no, not right now, but...well, we'll just have to see.”
I took his chin in my hand and smiled. “Papa. I know already you wish to help him. Maybe not just because of me. Sasha was right, Matei has been doing things he does not want to do.” I stared at my papa, willing him to understand. “He does not want to do, papa. I will make sure he is good.”
“He's not a puppy, sweetie,” he said with a sigh. “I won't promise anything.”
I smiled. This battle was half-won. All I had to do was show Matei what he could have, and then keep him on course. After I showered, papa gave me some pocket money for ice cream and I walked Matei around the town, showing him the town park, the school I went to and pointing out the houses of friends and telling him stories of the people in my extended family. He still had questions about why I liked Nathan so much, and after I got us an ice cream, I sat down beside him on the picnic table to explain it to him.
“Nathan took a long time to find out what he liked. He is bi-sexual, and he is dating a really nice boy named Elliot,” I began. “When I met Nathan, I was still new to America and trying to accept that who I was wasn't a bad thing. Nathan kissed me by accident-”
“Wait, how do you do that? Kiss by accident, I mean.”
“He thought I was someone else. He was waiting in the hallway and grabbed me by mistake.” I paused and smiled. “It was a good kiss.”
Matei rolled his eyes.
“It was!” I said and laughed at him. “We went to the lake and made some hand sex together in the water.”
Matei pretended to gag and then laughed, and I pushed him while I joined his laughter. I trailed off and cleared my throat.
“Nathan kissed many people, and he dated a girl at school for a time. I was very unhappy, but after I spoke to Sasha he made me understand that I wasn't in love. Later, Nathan...his mother died.” I glanced up at Matei, whose face was looking at me intensely. “We talked – a really good talk. I stayed overnight and we did more sex things. I got...blinded by the sex things. I tried to hold onto Nathan, but he wasn't ready for dating. I...didn't listen.”
Matei cleared his throat. “Nathan. Was he good to you?”
I nodded. “Yes. I was bad to him. But he is a good person. You will like him.”
Eventually we wandered home and Matei proved he'd been listening to me earlier when he went to help Tom in the kitchen with dinner. The fun really started when Sasha, Alec and Micah got there. After I proudly introduced Matei to my brother's family, Alec took us in the backyard to play soccer. We were going to play two on two, except Alec kept changing teams without telling anyone first, and eventually it became a free for all. Alec could bring the fun out of anyone, and it was obvious Matei was having a joyful time. With a start I realized I was joyful as well, but not for myself. It was for Matei's joy.
Tuesday morning we were up early, and neither of us was very energetic about it. Sasha and Alec would come take us to the pool with Micah for the day. I was a little surprised when Sasha and Alec arrived in separate cars, but realized there were two other boys I didn't know in one of the cars with Micah. Matei and I approached the cars and I heard Alec say, loudly, “And that's how the body got into the trunk!”
Micah and his friends burst out chattering, calling Alec a liar and so on. Alec raised his hands and kept insisting it was the truth.
“What is he saying to them?” I asked Sasha as he approached us.
“I don't think I want to know,” Sasha said wryly. He said good morning to Matei and we followed him back to his car to put away our things, including a packed lunch in a cooler. “Did papa give you money to blow at the concession stand again?” Sasha asked teasingly.
I nodded solemnly. “He told me not to tell you. He said you would be jealous that he never spoiled you that way.”
“He did not, you brat!” he said and laughed at me. We climbed in and I let Matei sit up front. Sasha asked him about Romania – actually, asked him to tell him good things about Romania. He told Sasha a few stories about he and I getting in trouble for various plans that were Matei's doing, and Sasha laughed appreciatively. Once we arrived at the pool, Micah made introductions.
“This is Giancarlo, but you can call him Carlo,” he said, pointing to one of the boys.
“Hello,” Carlo said, his voice going up and down as if singing.
“And this is Dominic,” he said, indicating the other boy.
“Hey,” Dominic said with a small wave.
Knowing how our accent was frequently well received by Americans, I introduced the two of us. “I am Nikolai and this is best friend, Matei.”
“Hello,” Matei said, nodding to them both.
“Fuck,” Dominic said under his breath, far enough that Sasha or Alec could not hear. “I hope to Christ one of you, at least, is gay.”
I raised an eyebrow and reassessed Dominic. He seemed well built, as if athletic, but I thought he might be a year or three younger than me, like Micah.
“Why? You want boyfriend?” Matei asked, being funny.
Dominic snorted. “No! If you're both straight the girls are going to roll over and spread their legs for those accents. I won't stand a chance!”
“Dominic,” Micah said in a stuck up tone. “You don't have a chance anyway, or did you forget I was here? They won't notice you with me here.”
“Oh, damn!” Carlo said dramatically. All four of us looked at him and he smiled. “There's so much bullshit flying around, I just don't want to step in any.”
“Is funny,” Matei said, pointing at Carlo and we all laughed. Soon we were in the water and having fun – of course, first we had to be sprayed down with sunscreen. I always, always manage to get some on my tongue and it's so bitter! We played for a long time, then climbed from the water for lunch. Some more kids arrived, many girls, and I was amused to watch Matei as he watched the girls in their form-fitting bathing suits. It's not fair that boys don't dress the same way.
Dominic decided we should go talk to the girls, and Micah joined him. I raised an eyebrow at Matei and he seemed torn.
“Mat, go over!” Carlo encouraged him. “Your accent will knock Dominic down a peg or two. Trust me, he needs it.” He then held his hands beside his head and pretended as if his head were swelling. That was all Matei needed, satisfying his curiosity about the girls and his mischievous nature.
Carlo sighed. “He's really pretty.”
I glanced at Carlo. “Who?”
“Mat,” he said without looking at me. “Are you dating?”
“No,” I said. “Matei is my best friend.”
Carlo glanced at me. “That doesn't mean you couldn't date, but I get it. I need a boyfriend. All this straight-boy eye candy is torture.”
I grinned. “Is nice way to pass time, yes?”
He smiled, raised an eyebrow in amusement and tilted his head from side to side. “Well, it's not the worst thing.”
We sat idly, watching with vague interest as Micah, Dominic and Matei were near some girls. From the body language there was some boasting and silliness going on, and the girls were smiling and laughing. From a table off to our right I heard a heavy sigh and a semi-loud complaint, as if the speaker both wanted and didn't want to be heard.
“The hottest day of the year we have to go sit in the heat? Y'all know I don't swim!”
I looked at Carlo and then we both looked over to the table at a heavy set black boy in loose clothing who was sweating profusely and wiping his forehead with what appeared to be a washcloth.
A muscular girl with long brown hair streaked with something lighter pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the pool. “Paul, do you do anything besides bitch? You could sit and put your feet in the water or go flop in the kiddie pool, you know?”
“I hate the pool!” Paul grumped to her and she merely rolled her eyes.
“What's up?” asked a boy around Micah's age with developing muscles, who was quickly joined by a shorter, less developed boy with brown hair. They clung to the edge of the pool, watching Paul curiously.
“What's up? My temperature. My sweat glands. I need water and air-conditioning!” Paul said to them.
“He's bitching,” the girl said dryly.
“Oh. Okay then,” the athletic boy said, who looked Asian to me. He turned toward the other boy and threw his arms in the air while falling toward him and hollering, “Catch me!” The larger boy swamped the smaller and they splashed while the girl sneered.
“Animals,” she said loud enough to hear, and also be ignored by the two boys. She pushed away from the side of the pool and knifed cleanly through the water, crossing the pool quite quickly.
I glanced at Carlo. “Strange peoples.”
“Mm Hmm,” Carlo hummed in reply. “I'm just going to say hello. Come back me up, will you?”
“Back up?” I asked, not understanding. Carlo stood gracefully and took a step toward Paul before beckoning with his head for me to follow him. I stood and walked with him over to where Paul sat, fuming and staring daggers into the pool so hard it should have sprung a leak.
“Hi! I'm Carlo,” said my companion.
Paul turned to look and made an attempt to smile. “Hi. I'm Paul.”
“We heard,” Carlo said, his tone a lilt that hinted as if it wanted to sing. “This is my new friend Nikolai.”
I waved and said hello. Paul grunted, and lifted a hand half-heartedly.
“I overheard your conversation – I apologize, I didn't mean to spy. But I am just dying to ask why you came to a pool if you hate coming to a pool?”
Paul let his head roll back so that he'd be looking straight up into the sky if his eyes were open. “Because they say they're my friends and I believed them!”
Carlo and I looked at each other and then back to Paul whose head was now facing us again. I suppose the look of confusion was plain on both our faces.
Paul waved a hand at us. “Never mind. I could really use an ice-pop!” He said the last phrase loudly and in the direction of the pool. The girl was too far away to hear, but the boys were close enough and they swam over and climbed from the pool where I could get a better look at them. The athletic boy was definitely Asian, and his body spoke of a lot of time spent in motion. He was nice to look at, and his companion seemed like a contrasting, yet complementary figure. He wasn't developed like his friend, but neither did he appear overweight or inactive. He was somewhat pale and going a blushing shade along the tops of his shoulders.
“Time for the concession?” asked the smaller boy.
“Past time,” Paul grunted and heaved himself up from the chair, then wiped his forehead which immediately beaded with sweat again.
“Um, none of my business, but do you need some sun block on your shoulders?” Carlo asked the smaller boy, who looked funny as he tried to look at his shoulders.
“Ev? Do I?”
“Getting a little red, Abram. Like you're blushing.”
“Crap. I put that stuff on at the house. It's supposed to last all day,” Abram said.
“Sounds like it's time to leave!” Paul stated.
“Nikolai? Can we borrow Sasha's spray, do you think?” Carlo asked, kind of swaying with his body as he spoke.
“Yes. I am sure Sasha has more. One minute,” I said and trotted over to Sasha's stash of things he had for us.
“What's up, Nik?” Chase asked from his place next to Sasha.
“Sunscreen,” I said and shrugged. “A little boy, he is burning.”
“Oh, better hurry,” he said with a smile and I headed back with the can, shaking it as I went.
“Thanks,” the boy named Ev said and held his hand out for the can, which I gave him. He pushed Abram's head comically to one side, saying he didn't want to spray his face. Abram shoved him and Ev laughed before they settled enough for Ev to spray his shoulder.
“So Nikolai,” Ev said. “Your accent rocks. Where are you from?”
“Romania,” I replied. “You can call me Nik.”
He nodded. “Cool. I'm Everett. This is Abram,” he said, pushing the smaller boy backward and into the pool with a splash. Everett continued as Abram spluttered threats behind him. “That's Paul, and our friend Cassandra is out in the pool, somewhere. Thanks for the sunscreen.”
“You are welcome,” I said with a nod and placed the can under my towel so it would not get too hot.
“Ice-pop,” Paul said flatly. Abram climbed out of the pool and jumped on Everett's back. Everett simply reached under the smaller boy's knees and helped him as if for a piggy back ride.
“You want to see if the other guys want to go to the concession?” Carlo asked as he turned to me.
I nodded and called out to Matei, asking if he wanted a frozen treat. It was like calling a pack of dogs as he, Micah and Dominic all turned away from the group they had been playing with and swam to the side of the pool.
“May as well ask the ice queen,” Paul grumbled before hollering to Cassandra. She looked at him and I imagined I could hear her growl from where she was, but she struck out for us anyway.
“What are we getting?” Matei asked me.
“They have frozen treats, all kinds of different flavors. Like an icicle, but with flavor. Or you can get Slushie. It's like tiny crumbled bits of ice with flavor. Come.” I turned to join everyone else, but they were watching Matei and I.
“There's two of you?” asked Abram as he slid from Everett's back.
“Two of what?” I asked.
“With accents,” he clarified.
“Oh! Yes. Matei is best friend from Romania,” I said proudly.
“Nice to meet you,” they said, the greeting overlapping one another.
“I like the accent,” Cassandra said. Her companions turned to look at her. She glared back at them, a challenge in her eye. “What?”
“You said something nice!” Paul gasped and they burst out laughing as she cursed them. We headed to the concession and Carlo was pursing his lips.
“Something is wrong?” I asked Carlo.
He looked at me and the corner of his mouth pulled up. “Not really. It's just life. Those two are so cute,” he said, tilting his head toward Everett and Abram. I grinned at him and he smiled back. He's right, they were cute. Not enough for me to be interested in either – too young – but they were cute.
We got to the window and I huddled with Matei, explaining the choices and he decided on a red, white and blue bomb-pop in honor of America. Choices made, we moved back toward our towels and the table Paul had been sweating at.
“You two are so cute together,” Carlo said. I turned to look and he was addressing Abram and Everett, who were looking from Carlo to each other. “I mean, you are a couple, right? Did I miss something?”
“Only the fact these two should stop pretending and admit what everyone already knows,” Cassandra grumbled.
Everett and Abram blushed, which was really cute.
“Yep. Busted, and bad at hiding it,” Paul said and licked his popsicle.
“Sorry,” Carlo said to them. “I guess it was obvious to me, and I just wanted to say. I hope you aren't angry.”
“No,” Everett said. “We just hadn't said anything, yet. It's good though, right?” he asked, looking at Abram.
“Yep. This is good,” Abram replied, cheeks red.
Their group formed a loose circle and my group kind of wandered away, except for Carlo. He seemed to be enjoying himself.
Once we were home that night, Matei told me about some of the girls he'd met. He'd been a novelty with his accent, as I knew quite a bit about, and he'd enjoyed the attention.
“Carlo thinks you're pretty,” I told him.
“Well, he's very intelligent, obviously, and with good taste!” Matei replied and we both giggled in the dark.
Saturday morning came and Matei spent part of the morning learning more breakfast cooking with Tom. I spent part of that time texting with Jamie, and he was encouraging me to meet up in the park for a game of some kind, and then come to his house to swim and cookout. He said Robin would cook, that he just didn't know it yet – or Kale would, since he was home, now.
I put swimsuits and our sandals – which Kevin keeps calling slippies – in a bag for later. What a silly name! Slippies! He says it's because you slip them off and on, but don't we do that with shirts and other clothes as well? Soon Matei and I are walking to the town park, and I am explaining what we will do for the rest of the day.
“I could go for a cigarette. Do you know where I can get a couple?” Matei asked.
I raised an eyebrow at him. “No smoking. Papas will be upset if you do.”
He sighed. “Do you do everything your papas tell you to?”
“Then what's the harm?” he asks.
I purse my lips for a moment, wanting to word my response to the best effect. “Papas are usually right. They tried to warn me to be careful about Nathan and I did not listen, as an example. Right now I am trying to help you to become part of the family for them, and not just to me. I think keeping them happy helps with that, and not doing things like smoking helps.”
He frowned. “You think they would make me go back to Romania for smoking?”
I bit my lip and shook my head. “No. But papas will want to know you will respect the rules. If they say no smoking now, it also means no smoking later. If they say no drinking now, also means for later. If they say no sex now-”
“Wait! I want to have sex, that's not a fair rule!” he said and then started to laugh. I joined him, but grew serious.
“I mean between us. It would be a bad idea, because papas want to help you – I can tell. But sex, smoking, drinking, bad behavior makes it harder. They want to know who you are. If you will be respectful of the gift to live here, to accept their authority and their love.” I paused for a moment and then said, “I think you have to show them who you are, but also who you are willing to become. Besides, smoking will kill you.”
“Sure. But I'd rather die in my sleep or maybe during great sex instead of with lung cancer.”
“Oh, yes. Good point.”
We looked at each other and laughed again. Good point. Sure. I knew he still wanted a cigarette, but I hope he wants this life more.
The park was full of my family when we arrived and I spent a few minutes pointing out people and introducing anyone who approached us. There were too many names for Matei to remember, but at least they would know his name and could call out to him or teach him the rules as we played, since I didn't know myself. It felt odd and exciting to introduce Matei to Nathan.
“Nathan, I am happy for you to meet my best friend, Matei,” I said to him. I was still a bit nervous about how we would be able to be friends after the history we had, and I dearly hoped Nathan would live up to everything I believed him to be.
Nathan smiled at Matei and held his hand out. “Hi. You can call me Nate. It's really nice to meet you.”
Matei shook Nathan's hand and nodded. “Nikolai tells me of you. He says we are looking close, but I'm thinking Nikolai is maybe on drugs. He maybe needs help. Or glasses.”
Nathan burst out laughing and I shoved Matei, my cheeks flushing. “Mat,” Nathan said through his chuckles, “I think if Nik missed you so much he fell for my dumb ass, you must be a hell of a guy. Really, it's nice to meet you.”
Nathan joined the milling group of people and I raised an eyebrow at Matei. “Was that really necessary?”
“Of course,” he replied immediately. “Shame on you. I am much better looking.”
“No, you're not,” I said flatly.
Matei gasped and clutched at his neck. “You are so mean! We both know you would cut your balls off to sleep with me!” He paused dramatically to let his words sink in and we both started to laugh.
“You are such an idiot!” I said through my giggles.
We ended up playing American football, and it was fun to play and to laugh when things went wrong. Jamie was very competitive with a boy with broad shoulders, brown hair and skin that was beginning to tan nicely. He also had an accent that made it harder to understand him, but made me interested to hear what he was saying as well.
Eventually the game ended and many of us began to walk back toward the Kirkwood home for the promise of the pool and cook out. There were still several of us when we arrived, and I showed Matei where he could change for swimming.
“Hey, your friend have a good time in the park?” Jamie asked.
I smiled at him. “Confused, but yes, he enjoy. Thank you.”
“Glad to. Some of the girls are coming over, too. You know how they all love your accent,” he said, pretending disgust.
“Don't be jealous!” I told him with a grin. “Matei will steal all your girls!”
“Better not,” Jamie grumbled kindly. He was not kidding about girls coming over. Maybe Emily has a lot of friends? I was both distracted and entertained by three people, however. The first was Matei, of course. We played both in the water and in the yard with some of the other boys. But Matei had eyes for one of the girls, quite a pretty one with long dark hair that was like midnight flowing down her back. I saw him speaking to her and she seemed very interested in talking to him. The last one was the broad-shouldered boy from before. It was clear from his chest that he wasn't simply athletic, like Everett from the pool, but that he actively exercised to build muscles. The third was Nathan, and I still thought he was the most beautiful boy ever created. My heart sighed a bit, but it did not hurt as much as it once had.
Curiously, though, I felt no need to do more than look at him. My eye was drawn back to Matei and my feeling of responsibility toward him. I did not know how long that would last – it couldn't go on forever, and I wanted to fall in love – but for now Matei was most important.
As the day wore on I began to notice Matei's scent. Or it may be better to say his odor. I was not the only one, and when he went in to use the bathroom, the pretty girl sat down beside me.
“Ni, Nik,” she said with a pleasant smile.
“Hello,” I said, returning her smile.
“So your friend....”
“Matei?” I asked, though there was no real need to clarify.
“Yeah, Mat,” she said, her tone shifting slightly. “He's really nice. Do you know how long he'll be visiting?”
“I hope for him to stay and live,” I told her honestly.
She glanced toward the house, her smile making her look pleased. “He's funny, and awfully cute. You might want to explain deodorant to him, though.”
I widened my eyes. “Oh. I didn't think to tell him about such.”
She looked at me and wrinkled her nose prettily. “I know other parts of the world don't use it, but it's pretty common here. You have things to teach him, Nik.” She turned back toward the house and said, “And maybe I do, too.”
One of her friends came by and dragged her away, and they both splashed into the pool. Matei emerged from the house and, spying the girl with the long hair, leapt into the pool to join her. Well, it should do something for his odor, anyway. Later Jamie talked Robin into grilling some food because we had a guest – Matei. Robin said he'd do it only so Matei would know what grilled food should taste like. Matei was a bit nervous, considering his last burger experience, but as usual he ate quite a bit and was very happy to do so.
He teamed up with Jamie to throw people into the pool after we'd eaten, and it seemed to me that Jamie had someone with a mischievous streak to match his own, now. Lucien stopped to ask if we could help him with his brakes the next day and I eagerly agreed. Lucien would show Matei how to fix things on a car, and I was sure that was an experience Matei had never had. Later we walked home, and Matei was telling me funny things people had said and misunderstandings he'd had to ask for clarification about.
“I thought I would have more trouble speaking, but everyone was very nice. They teased me, but they were not mean. I liked them.”
“Especially the pretty girl with the long, dark hair?” I teased.
He groaned, throwing his head back and dragging his feet for a few steps as if staggering. “Averi! She is so pretty! I think she liked me!”
“She did,” I confirmed. “But there is something she told me to explain to you.”
“What? What did she say? Does she have a boyfriend already?”
“No!” I replied, laughing at his earnestness. “You stink!”
“What?” he asked, drawing up short. I turned to face him.
“In America they do not like the smell of sweat. We use deodorant or anti-perspirant so we don't smell terrible next to pretty girls or boys. I think she will not mind being near you if you don't smell so bad!”
He called me a liar, pushed me, but followed it up immediately by asking if I was serious. We went on like that, back and forth for the rest of the evening.
The next day Tom and Matei made a hot breakfast, and then we went to see Lucien. We spent the next several hours learning how to remove the front calipers from Lucien's bus, how to fit the new calipers and brake pads into place and then how to bleed the air from the brake lines. Lucien took his time to explain each step, and he had Matei and I each working on our own side. It was easier for me because I knew what the tool names were, so Lucien spent more time with Matei, teaching him the names of the tools and what they were used for.
Sasha brought us home late in the afternoon, and after we were clean I brought Matei downstairs where my games were.
“So you're telling me Lucien is gay?” he asked for perhaps the fourth time.
“Yes! For the last time, yes!” I replied, laughing at him. “You remember Robin who cooked on the grill yesterday?”
“He's a genius,” Matei said by way of a reply.
“He's dating Lucien,” I told him.
He considered that for a moment. “I didn't think gay people could fix cars. But Lucien is lucky, especially if Robin cooks all the time.”
“You're an idiot,” I told him, laughing. I tried to show him a game I liked to play, but he seemed distracted. We changed games several times, but Matei seemed hard pressed to get involved. I thought this was strange because he and I were so similar in many ways; I assumed he'd enjoy games as much as I did. After several tries at different games, he excused himself and went upstairs. I figured he'd probably eaten too much and just needed the bathroom. Thirty minutes later he wasn't back, yet, so I went upstairs to find him. I was confused and a bit concerned to see him sitting on the couch between papas, and that his face was red and his eyes wet.
“What is happening?” I asked worriedly. “Matei? Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he said and let out a ragged breath.
“Nik, why don't you sit down and join us for a minute. Do you mind, Mat?” Kevin asked. Matei shook his head, and I took a seat beside him as Kevin moved to a wing chair. I put an arm around Matei's shoulders and he leaned toward me subtly.
“Matei came up to have a serious conversation with us, and I'm really proud of him for doing that. It shows a lot of maturity and bravery to talk about the things he did, especially when he doesn't really know us.”
“I do know,” Matei said haltingly.
“Yeah,” Tom said. “That was a great way you said it, too.” He turned his gaze toward me. “He said he feels like he can trust us because of what he's seen from you the last several days, and from all the people he's met.”
“Is true,” Matei said, glancing at me. “This is not peoples like nuns or priests or social worker. They tell us they speak truth, but is only something to make things easier for themselves.”
“It's the family. I told you.”
“Nik,” Tom said quietly. “This is important. Would you please speak English so papa and I can understand?”
“Yes, I am sorry, Papa,” I replied. “I am saying to Matei that this is the family, that I told him this is what he would find.”
“It's been less than a week since you arrived,” Kevin said. “I want to thank you for choosing to trust us. I know that can't have been easy for you. I know it was probably impossible to believe what Nik must have told you about the group of friends Nik inherited from Sasha – people who call each other family, and act like it. They are very impressive people.”
“Yes. Impressive,” I agreed.
“Mat...the kinds of things you've had to do to survive are things no child should have to endure.”
“What?” Matei asked.
“I tell him,” I replied and translated for him.
Continuing, Kevin said, “I want you to know that Tom and I would like to help you, just as you're asking. We can see how important you are to Nik, and I think how important he is to you.”
I translated and Matei lifted his chin defiantly. “Nikolai is best friend. We are like brothers.”
“I know,” Kevin said softly. “What you are asking us to do is very big. I want you to do me a favor, if you can.”
I translated and Matei focused on Kevin, waiting to hear what he had to say. I admit to being very anxious as I think Matei asked them to let him stay.
“We have the summer to get to know you. You have a whole summer where the things you had to do before aren't a part of your life.” He hesitated and I translated in that gap before he continued. “Now that you know you don't have to do any of those things, I want you to try to be yourself. Give Tom and me a chance to know who we'd be inviting into our home. I would give a stranger shelter, but if we do this, you're not any stranger. You would be a part of our family. Do you understand?”
I translated and waited for Matei to gather his words. He looked at me and spoke in Romanian for me to translate.
“I understand that I am asking for much. Tell them I will do my best to show them that I am a good person who...who....” He stopped speaking and his eyes became wet again. He began to speak and then gasped, seeming to have some trouble catching his breath. He coughed and then whispered, “Nikolai. Am I good person? Am I worth saving?”
“Yes, Matei. You are worth saving,” I said for all to hear.
This was only a beginning. Matei had only been here a few days, but he had seen what everyone hoped, maybe sooner than anyone thought possible. He saw life could be better. He wanted that – and more. I would help him to succeed, no matter the cost. Tom pulled Matei from me to hug him close; to rub his back and make soothing sounds like a papa should when their child is in pain. Matei's struggle wasn't over. In many ways, he had just taken the first step on a path I hoped would lead him to a good life.
“I am very tired,” Matei said quietly. “I will go to sleep, now.” He hugged me briefly and Kevin pulled him tightly before patting his shoulder and letting him go to brush his teeth. I turned to face my papas.
“He told you what he did in Romania,” I said, stating what I felt I knew rather than confusing the issue by asking.
Tom nodded and looked down at his hands, while Kevin said, “Yes. He did. He also told us, as I'm guessing you knew, that he thought he'd have to trade himself to be able to stay here. That papa or I would...come to his room at night.”
“I told him is not true!” I said urgently.
“I'm sure you did, buddy,” Tom said quietly. “But we're adults. It took you a while to learn to trust us because of the things other adults did to you. He's had two years without your support with some pretty nasty adults.”
Kevin picked up the conversation. “What we saw tonight was him asking for help. He still doesn't fully understand what life here is like – he's only seen a few days' worth. We know he's going to struggle, and we hope that it's a struggle we can help him with.”
“He will succeed,” I stated. “I will help him.”
“Then he's already halfway home,” Tom said with a little smile.
I stood, feeling tired – and annoyed that Matei had brought up the whole idea of papas sleeping with him. I wasn't exactly angry – he'd been honest. But it was a shitty thing to say, and I thought it had been buried. I went and brushed my teeth and changed for bed, but was surprised to find that Matei wasn't there. I went downstairs and found him in the room that had been prepared for him, sitting on the bed.
He turned to look at me and smiled wanly. “This room isn't like yours. It's clean, like a hotel room.”
I shuddered to think about how he knew of hotel rooms. “Well, come on. Let's go to bed.”
“I think I should sleep here,” he said softly.
“Because it will show your papas I trust them, to sleep undefended.” He hesitated. “Maybe the room will change for me? One day maybe this room has a cell phone, posters and a computer for me to do school work? Maybe it is a good idea for me to sleep here and dream of that.”
I studied him for a minute, maybe more. He looked back at me steadily.
“No. Not tonight,” I said firmly. He looked at me questioningly, and I answered before he could ask. “My room is the way it is because I live in it every day. This room is partly an office. You and I will nudge papas to move their crap,” I said with a smile and he returned it. “Then we can put pictures, hang your clothes and make the room your room.”
He chuckled and I joined him, taking a step closer. “Today has been long, though. We can try tomorrow. If tomorrow is long, then we will try the next day. After this is your room full time, you can always come to my room when the day has been too long.”
He was quiet for a moment, then asked, “And you? What if your day is too long?”
“Then I will come to you, of course.”
He nodded his head slowly. “Yes. It is a good plan. It is too quiet here, anyway.”
“We will buy you noise machine,” I said with a snort.
“Machine with Averi saying goodnight is a machine I'd like to have,” he said with a rakish smile.
“Averi? The girl with the long, dark hair?”
He pretended to swoon and we laughed, leaning against each other and prattling away up the stairs and long after we'd turned the light out.