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About corvus

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    creative writing (fiction and poetry), music (composing and playing it), opera, yeats, dickinson, maria callas, harry potter, biomedical engineering

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  1. corvus

    annual hello's

    Happy new year to everyone too!
  2. corvus

    2011 Fitness Totals

    That's crazy!! As paya said, there are only 365 days in a year... On the other hand, you look pretty happy running. I've not gone to the gym nearly as frequently as you have, but I've been getting better returns than in the past after I started taking some protein powder. But then I'm building up vanity and not mileage.
  3. My last post here was Nov 30, 2010. That's more than a year ago. Two weeks ago, I got on a plane back home for the holidays. A week ago, I had the strange feeling of going backwards, and I realized that it was nostalgia bred by having time for myself to catch up to myself, or maybe by boredom. A few nights ago, I reread domluka's Desert Dropping. Now I'm here. It's funny how it's these internet stories, more than anything else, that have created a world that feels almost private to me. Domluka is one of them, and this fellow Jason Locke who wrote Searching for Christophe and Shadow People is another. I don't know how I'd feel about their stories if they were printed out and made into a book. It's precisely that these are internet texts that gives them this kind of feeling, for me. Unlike books which are tangible and printed, these words can blink on and out of existence quite easily. And their authors can disappear more thoroughly. I'm not quite sure how to explain it, or maybe, having explained it, explain the appeal. Maybe the appeal is incidental, and it's only because these stories were the ones I read when I was younger, and they happened to be in the internet. It's been ages since I wrote a story. I took a look at the ones I had on this site, and I feel very fondly for all of them, but didn't particularly want to reread any of them. I think the idea of writing a story is almost a fantasy in itself. It's like falling in love with love, to use the cliche. There *should* be a version of things, a world to exist, which reproduces the current one and yet is better -- but the tangibles of this imagined world are something else altogether. But maybe this is the subject I should be writing about, except that it's a bit too... metaphysical, I guess. Metaphysics are depressing inherently. But it's so nice to be on this site again! Of course, just typing that previous sentence feels a bit like Norma Desmond, but anyhow -- all you people in the dark, happy holidays, and many wishes towards more writing out of Domluka.
  4. I noticed you've adopted a Yeats name - very pleased to see that!

  5. This title interested me, because my guy is so anti-religious it's almost a religion: his parents - mother especially - are hardcore Catholics, and I honestly think he's been hurt by the experience. So I don't mind when he goes out of his way to be a bit iconoclastic. (I myself am not religious - I do find the stories and metaphors to be powerful and real.) I don't know on what terms the two of you take religion and each others' religion, but it might be helpful to relate it to one's personal history, for example, if one is used to certain traditions, if one had a powerful experience in a temple, etc. That works better than these isolated images and words and terms. I'm glad, also, that you've found a guy you like.
  6. Heya! you were in singapore last summer?

  7. I'm sure you know the Korean group The Wonder Girls? Their " " song was quiiiite a hit when I was in Singapore this summer. Can't help you with boybands - apologies - and I'm generally lost in my world of classical. But, I quite like the Swedish Laleh ( ) and the American indie Bon Iver ( ).
  8. Happy (belated) New Year to you too! :)

  9. Wow, congratulations! Good luck to everyone involved, including the 18 eggs. I appreciate your sharing your adventures with us. For me, it's an inspiration as well for what is possible in my future.
  10. corvus

    Chapter 8: Missing

    This poem starts with such great rhythm. The first four lines are all two-beat lines, describing the death of a relationship. The funneling into one beat with "Yes" provides great impact. The poem goes on with the same rhythm and the same sentiment, sealing what seems to be an inexorable end: "Eternal turns infernal. / Disbelief confronts relief." But a wonderful turn comes with the next line: "You are so beautiful" It succeeds because it's so disarming, it's something that even the bitterness of "infernal" and "disbelief" can't quench. And the long 'o' sounds ("so" and "beautiful") have echoes from before -- eternal, infernal. The next line is another one-beater, "I wish," and the wish is so modest after the Dickinsonian stretches to the "forever" and "eternal": "I wish / We shared a home." But where can this "imagined" wish go? It goes to the "muse" -- the inability of the speaker to drop the thoughts of "you" lead him seek recourse in the muse. But another wonderful turn happens here, in the characterization of the "muse" -- she is "a curse for now," and a "sound that pounds." I think this poet has great governance in the introduction of the suddenly erotic -- it's great. The final two lines wrap it up with an enjambment and caesura: "The second beat of two / Missing, my life thru." It's as though this poem has framed an entire life -- loss and love, beauty, eroticism -- and now it's "thru."
  11. corvus

    Chapter 1

    THE REST STOP corvus The Ragdens always went to a horseback-riding ranch in Strawberry for their summer vacation, and Paul Ragden always drove. It was a four-hour trip that began in farmland, and quickly became wide stretches of dust and dried grass, brittle beneath the California sky. Sally Ragden, eleven and restless, was scanninga travel brochure in the front seat. Her mother sat behind her, keeping a large straw hat angled against the midday sun. "How do you spell ‘mesmerizing?'" Sally peered at the page through large, Minnie-mouse sunglasses. "Mom? Josh? Dad? Anyone?" "M," Paul began, "E-S-M-E-R-I-Z-" "Okay, that's too easy. What about... ‘Petaluna?'" Paul grinned. "Place names don't count." "They do too. Mom? Josh?" Josh Ragden was staring out the window. Slowly, he turned to give the back of his sister's chair a stony look, and then resumed his vigil. "Mom?" "It's P-E-T-A-" "I said Mom, not you, Dad," Sally interrupted. Eileen Ragden stirred. "Paul, when are we going to be there?" "Oh, just two more hours, hon. We're halfway there already." "Didn't you say that an hour ago?" "No, I didn't. I probably said an hour ago that we had three hours left, and we were only one-fourth way there." "I think you said two more hours one hour ago. I'm quite sure of it." "Well," said Paul, and he shrugged, smiled at the window. "Maybe I did." Sally closed the travel brochure. "Does anyone need to use the toilet?" she announced. "Because I do. Reading in the car makes me feel sick." "Don't even think about barfing on me, Sally!" Josh barked, pulling his legs in. "Sally--" Eileen began. "Rest stop!" Paul shouted, and their car, a battered Chevrolet with a noticeable dent in the front right door, veered onto an exit. The parking lot shimmered with heat. The building, brown and wood-paneled, stood at the edge of the grass. The sky curved over it, down to a flat horizon. A picnic table stood on white concrete. Next to it, a sweltering green trash can. Paul Ragden opened the back of the Chevrolet and hauled out the icebox. It was tricky keeping the icebox balanced on his hip while his other hand reached up to shut the trunk door, but he managed it, barely. On the way to the picnic table, he glanced at the only other car in the parking lot--a shiny new convertible, its edges looking strangely hard in the sunlight. He wondered, briefly, who would be traveling through nowhere in such a car. "Want some food, Josh?" he asked after reaching the table. "Sandwiches. They're ham and lettuce and tomatoes." Josh shrugged. "I'll take that as a yes," said Paul, reaching into the icebox. Josh glanced up, face baleful even while squinting at the sun, and shook his head. "Guess not then," Paul muttered. He looked around. Sally had gone straight to the bathroom; Eileen was still in the car, enshrouded by her large straw hat. He tossed the sandwich lightly in his hand, and then, after a false start, walked over to the car. "Eileen?" He knocked on the window. His wife slowly turned her head, as though she were deep underwater, and glanced at him through the tinted glass. She must be able to hear him, he thought, but he gestured instead, pointing at the sandwich, then at her, and then at his mouth. She shook her head. "They're good," he said loudly. "Ham and lettuce and tomatoes." Eileen tilted the straw hat over her eyes, and shrunk deeper into the chair. By the time Paul had returned to the picnic table, Sally had gotten back. "It stinks in there," she declared, rubbing her nose. "There were flies everywhere, and someone had forgotten to flush the toilet. Are those sandwiches? Mm, I'm hungry." Paul watched her struggle with the saran wrap before finally biting into the sandwich. She frowned, swallowed. "Dad, there're onions in here! I don't like onions." "Oh, right," said Paul, flipping open the icebox and digging deeper. "I remembered that this time, and I made sandwiches both with onions and without. Let's see, maybe I can find one without onions--" "No thanks, Dad," Sally said, wrapping up the sandwich and setting it on the table. "It's okay. I'm not hungry anymore." "Not hungry anymore? Just after one bite?" Sally shook her head. Paul shrugged, worked his face into a smile, and squinted at the sky. It was wide and featureless. He looked out at the grass, the highway, and realized with a mixture of sadness and elation that they were quite alone. "I'm going to use the bathroom," he said, and left the table. He told himself that the little things didn't matter. The sandwiches, Eileen's unresponsiveness. He was still telling himself that when he entered the darkness, the sharp scent of urine, and saw a man leaning against the counter. For a split-second, Paul stopped in surprise. A fashionable pink polo shirt, jeans that rode a bit too low. Hands jammed in the pockets, the thumbs sticking out. Forearms that revealed sinew and muscle. Eyes--he only caught a glimpse of blue. Then he was standing in front of the urinal, jerking down his zipper and pretending to be nonchalant. He waited--a tinge of embarrassment, his mind going forth on the momentum of his thoughts, still blankly considering sandwiches and his wife--but finally, release. It felt good; he could forget that he was being watched. Was he being watched? The thought that this was absurd crossed his mind. He had to control himself; he was not alone; his family was outside. The stream dwindled. A sort of calmness slipped over him, and he tucked himself in with practiced movements, a mechanized sleepwalker, then moved to the counter to wash his hands without looking at anything in particular. The stink stung his nostrils. He twisted the rusted knob and wrung his hands under the water, simultaneously glancing up into the mirror. The other man was staring at him in the glass. Paul held the gaze only for a moment, then dropped it casually, with an automatic smile. "Hey," he said, in as friendly a tone as he could. "Hi." The voice had been low, a bit rough. Paul felt his heart thrumming in his chest. "Traveling?" He twisted the knobs and turned to the wall. "Yeah." "Same here." There were no paper towels, only an air-drying machine. He pushed it and held his hands, as wet with sweat as they were with water, in the current. Hot air rushed over his wrists. He wished suddenly that there were a mirror in front of him with which he could see the other man, who must be standing just behind him, maybe a step, two steps away. He was still staggering under this yearning when the current stopped, and he was obliged to step to the doorway, into the blinding sun and brutal clarity of the air. "Are we ready to go?" he asked, voice somewhat raspy. "Dad, Josh said I was a dyke again," Sally said accusingly. "What's a dyke?" "I didn't say that!" Josh hissed. "Stop lying." "I'm not lying," said Sally, pitching her voice upward and inflecting it with an aggravating lilt. "You called me a dyke, you did. Right after Dad went into the bathroom." "Did not!" "Did too!" Sitting as he did, the wood burning the seat of his pants, Paul felt a sudden loathing towards the world, particularly his family, his car, himself. He hated that his parents had bought him this car against his will more than ten years ago, and that he hadn't managed to replace it. He hated that Eileen didn't feel a shred of affection for him, that he felt even less for her. "Oh for God's sake, I don't want to celebrate our anniversary!" she'd snapped he'd suggested it last month. "Not even if you made enough money to take us to a proper restaurant." He knew she had married him because there was no one else who would have her, because there was something involving her job as a teacher and a high school student and things he tried hard not to know. He hated that she pretended to her friends that she was quite happy, and that the small flaw in her happiness was entirely his fault. "If only Paul were a bit more... sensitive..." He wanted to rip off her big straw hat and those tawdry glasses and crush them under his feet, and sometimes he imagined himself doing so, even though he had never laid a hand on her. Those glasses and that hat were the only things she had cared about that morning, while he packed and Sally and Josh fought. "Why can't you dress more like a girl? Why do you have to wear boy's clothes and do boy's things? Why can't you play with Barbie like girls are supposed to?" "Because I don't want to, that's why!" "Then you're a dyke!" "I'm not!" "You are!" "Josh, Sally--" he'd said, but it was ineffectual. Eileen had stood to the side, the sunglasses already on her face and a smile on her lips that seemed to say, "Yes, this is what will happen; your children will grow to despise you because you are a pathetic father and pitiful man." And on the car, he had known that none of them wanted to go, he knew it more than any of them, but he had tried, with games and jokes, to entertain them during the ride, but all of it had met with silence. "Dad," Josh had muttered, his only words that day so far. "Stop trying." He hated his son because he was like his mother, and he hated his daughter, too, because she was like himself. He got up unsteadily. The sun beat down like a drum's heavy rumble. Sally and Josh had lapsed into silence, or perhaps they were still bickering, but he was barely aware of them. He said something, an excuse of sorts; it made no difference as he walked into the darkness again. The man was not standing as he had before, leaning against the counter. Paul scanned the room, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Then he saw it: under the space of one of the cubicles, he noticed feet, ankles, legs. The same fashionable jeans, the expensive shoes. The pants, he noticed with a quickening of his heart, were not bunched around the ankles. Paul hesitated; he had never done this, only thought about this with wistful misery while lying alone in bed, while cleaning away the dishes by himself, while staring at the ceiling from the cold grave of the bathtub. His hands were trembling. He knew he was moving like a puppet in the hands of an apprentice, as clumsily as broken clockwork, but he didn't care. He pushed open the adjacent stall and slipped in, shut the door behind him, locked it, sat. He swallowed. Waited. The stench of urine seemed to cover his skin, from the sides of his neck to his chest. He glanced at the walls; predictably there were words written there, all sorts of lewd messages and nonsense--"I LOVE TIGHT PUSSY" "HORNY 8:00 TONIGHT"--that he hardly registered. The edges of the door, he saw, were splintered. The toilet paper dispenser was empty. The floor was slick under his feet, and dirt from unknown shoes seemed to have formed symbols on the tiles. It was utterly quiet. He heard a stir. The man in the next stall had moved, was moving. There was the sound of the door being unlocked. Paul stared at the shoes, shiny even in the dimness, and watched them step outside the stall towards the doorway and vanish into the sunlight. The silence seemed to buzz a little. He gripped his knees with his hands and stared at the door in front of him, the blank beige door scribbled with pencil marks, ink streaks. He waited for the shoes to come back, but the silence stretched on, so thick it seemed to fill his head like the hair gel he'd used that morning. His insides felt like lead. Presently footsteps came again, but he had barely managed to muster hope when he heard Josh's voice, a disinterested drawl. "Dad?" Paul cleared his throat. "I'll be out soon." Josh left, his shoes scraping heavily across the ground. Paul Ragden drew a deep breath and stood, his knees a little shaky. What had he been thinking? he thought suddenly, sharply. Reality slammed into him. If he had ended up doing something with that stranger (a stranger whom he'd just happened to meet at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere!), Josh surely would have walked in, and- It was too terrible to ponder. It was good that the man had stepped out, he thought, instead of... And anyway, it was probably just his stupid fancies. His mind could get carried away sometimes, spinning the most impossible threads. Paul washed his hands, his face, and walked out without drying either. Sally had resumed eating her sandwich. "Look, Dad," she said in a conspiratorial voice. She pointed at the lavatory complex. Towards the back, in the shade, were two men, standing so closely that their faces were almost touching. "What are they...? Are they...? Josh said..." "They're, well, different," said Paul. He fixed the lid onto the icebox. "Come on, back to the road again." "Are they--gay?" Sally asked, almost in an awed whisper, trailing her father through the parking lot. "They're fairies," said Josh in a tone of disgust. "I expect they are gay," Paul said. He glanced back casually, following Sally's engrossed gaze. "Josh, could you open the trunk for me?" The icebox returned to the trunk, Paul slipped back into the driver's seat. The Chevrolet swung back onto the highway, rumbling down the sun-leeched concrete. Paul had to frown with concentration; the shimmer of heat made him wonder if the road was truly there or not. "So were they really... gay?" Sally asked. "I guess so," Paul said. "I don't think normal men do that sort of thing." "They're fags," said Josh. "Josh..." "So is it a bad thing, to be gay?" Sally interrupted. She turned in her seat to glance back at the rest stop, now a speck in the wilderness of dry gold. "It is," Eileen said. She shifted her large straw hat and lifted a hand to adjust her glasses. "It's a horrible thing. Disgusting. Isn't it, Paul?" "Yes," said Paul, glancing into the rear view mirror. "It is."
  12. corvus

    Chapter 1

    1. Senior spring was one of those things that you were supposed to look to forward to starting from preschool. Four glorious months that would make up for twelve years of misery. That’s what everyone said, at least. Things have a way of not working out the way they should. That Monday afternoon in the school parking lot, I was thinking about something else entirely. I was thinking about my mom’s birthday—which was today—and the fact that she was going to celebrate it with her boyfriend, Steve. I told myself I didn’t really care who she spent it with. She had every right to spend it with her boyfriend. But some things just take a lot of telling to make true. Anyway, that was before I got distracted and stuck my nose in business that would make my last semester of high school pretty damn interesting. “Hey, will you just fuck off and leave him alone?” After twelve years of school, there are some things you learn not to do. For example: you don’t tell someone to fuck off who can turn around and beat you up. It’s stupid and gets you black eyes and a split lip. Granted, the person I’d just said it to wasn’t about to beat me up anytime soon. She was kind of on the anorexic side. But she was also the kind of girl who had a much bigger boyfriend a speed dial away. In any case, the girl I’d just told to fuck off, who I later learned was really called Kate Landauer, stared at me with big, shocked eyes and said, “Excuse me?” “You heard me,” I said. “Fuck off and leave him alone.” Kate Landauer huffed, tossed her hair, jutted out her hips, and looked from me to the guy standing between us. “Weell,” she said, and you could just hear her mind clicking as she tried to think of something insulting that wouldn’t get her beaten up by me. Finally she made a scoffing sound. “I was only asking!” “Yeah.” I’d already realized, by this point, that I was probably going to be in a shitload of trouble tomorrow, thanks to my big fat mouth. But I didn’t want her to think I was going to take my words back. So I just said, “Sure,” and waited for her to go, which she did after another fake smile and hair toss. So far, I’ve been leaving something out. Something that’d explain a lot, including why I’d just told off Kate Landauer. I don’t usually say that sort of thing. Some things, though, get to me and make me snap. You probably wouldn’t be able to tell just from looking at me, but I’m gay. I don’t look gay—or I don’t think I do, at least. My clothes (except my work ones) are pretty ratty; I don’t manicure anything; and I wouldn’t be caught dead wagging my ass to Madonna. One thing I share with all other gays in the world, though, was a reaction to the word “faggot.” I don’t care who says it. There’s no better way of making me want to smash someone’s nose in. “Was she bothering you a lot?” I asked. The guy next to me kind of shook his head and tried to muster a smile. I think that’s when I really noticed him for the first time. The guy had a nice sort of smile. He had nice eyes, too, and a nice nose. But the main thing I saw was something cautious, almost scared, in that smile. I knew what it meant. Or I thought I did. “Hey, chill,” I said. “I don’t care if you’re”—for a moment, I almost used the word Kate Laundauer had used—“like that or not. She was just being a bitch, that’s all.” The guy didn’t meet my eyes. “Yeah… Thanks.” There was a kind of awkward silence. The guy must’ve thought that I was considering beating him up too, even though I’d made myself pretty clear. I was a whole head taller than he was and looked like I could press him into the cement with my thumb. And you don’t recover too well after some girl’s been hounding you and asking if you were a faggot. “D’you have a ride home?” He shook his head. I thought it over. I kind of do that a lot—act or talk first, and then think it over. In any case, I had work later, and my mom’s birthday after that. But I didn’t have much homework, and it probably wouldn’t take long to drop this kid off. Plus, he was pretty cute. Blue eyes and curlyish hair halfway between brunette and blond. I also had some sort of feeling with him, the kind you get when you look at a bike or a game through a store window, but you see your own reflection in the glass. “C’mon,” I said. “I’ll give you a ride.” “No, it’s… I live pretty close.” “Hey, it’s no problem,” I said, trying to sound as friendly as possible. “You sure?” “Positive,” I said. Then he smiled at me, openly. He really did have a nice smile. “Thanks.” “I’m Nick, by the way,” I said. “What’s your name?” “I’m Alec,” he said. We shook hands and got into my car. It was an ‘86 Toyota Corolla, nothing to write home about, although it had belonged to my dad. He hadn’t taken it with him when he left, just as he hadn’t taken a lot of other things. Neither my mom nor I even touched it before I needed a car of my own. I figured six years was enough time for memories of my dad’s presence to fade. Anyway, it was my car now. “Where’d you live?” “Um, kind of close to Long’s Drugs.” “Yeah? I work at the pizzeria in the plaza.” “Oh, cool.” The plaza—which was really a bunch of shops and restaurants together in one spot—was a three minute drive or a ten minute walk from school. Fifteen if you wanted to stop at Joe’s for an ice cream. “You a junior?” Alec nodded. “Cool.” We didn’t say much after that. Partly because it was such a short drive, and partly because we were, after all, strangers. You don’t go chatting the day away with someone you’ve just met, particularly when it was under pretty inauspicious circumstances. And I didn’t know any juniors, so there wasn’t much we could talk about. Well, I knew maybe one or two who hung out with Melina. They were theatre people, and I really didn’t have much to say to them. It’s not that they were bad people. It was just that I’d rather take a run, or listen to some of my own music, than talk about Hair Spray. A minute later, we’d gotten to Alec’s street. I’d actually never seen the houses around the plaza, but it didn’t look too different from my own. The concrete was spotted black because a bunch of olive trees grew from an island in the middle of the street. All the houses had squashed little yards with grass poking from the cracks in the pavement, and Alec’s was no exception. “Thanks,” he said. “No problem, man,” I said. He got out of my car, adjusted his backpack on his shoulders, and kind of hesitated. “Uh, see you later,” he said at last, and flashed a last, nervous smile. “Yeah, see you tomorrow, Alec!” I called, as he scampered off. I pulled out of his driveway, making sure there weren’t any little old ladies waiting to get squashed behind me, I remember thinking that I probably wouldn’t be seeing him tomorrow. I mean, I was fairly certain I’d never seen him before, and there was no reason why I would see him again. We might bump into each other in the corridors, but there was no guarantee we’d even recognize each other then. But, driving away, it struck me that I wanted to see him again. That was pretty unusual, because I usually didn’t like to be bothered. Put me alone in a room with some CD’s, dumbbells, and lots of junk food, and I’d be happy for a few months. I liked being around people I was friendly with, but I didn’t exactly yearn for their company while they were away. I was a pretty solitary guy. Have been ever since I was a kid. At least since I was nine. But here I was, wondering, as I drove, if I would be seeing Alec’s timid smile again tomorrow, and also wondering if there was any truth in what Kate Landauer had said as she’d dogged him through the old school parking lot. --- The house was empty when I got back. That wasn’t unusual, as my mom got off work at about eight, which was in the middle of my shift at the pizzeria. Most of the time, she brought something from McDonald’s with her, and that would be our dinner. Big Macs and fries. It wasn’t that we didn’t know how to cook—I was actually pretty good at it, if Melina wasn’t shitting me. It was just that neither of us did. I was sitting there, wondering if today I should try making something special, when I got a call on my cell. It was Melina. “Hey, what’s up?” “Nick, are you busy?” “Uh…” I wasn’t exactly doing anything at the moment, but if Melina asks you if you’re busy, the safest thing to do is to stall. “I really need your help.” “Yeah?” “We’re recording Monday night’s performance, but Mrs. Kraft can’t get the speakers to work.” I kind of let out a breath I’d been holding: recording business. That wasn’t too bad. I’d done it several times already, and not just for Melina. Ever since Mr. Ravenswood, the previous music teacher, left in my freshman year, I’d become the de-facto technician of Livingston High School’s drama and music department. It was really sort of an accident. Mr. Ravenswood had been the only one who knew how to figure out the equipment. But according to Melina, he flatly refused to come back to show how to use the stuff. I guess we were a pretty traumatic bunch of kids. Anyway, Melina had been desperate—I think they were doing Bluebeard’s Castle, or something—and I said that I’d fiddled a bit with my dad’s old recording stuff, and maybe I could help out. To cut the long story short, I did manage to help them make the recording, and I’ve been stuck with helping out ever since “Yeah, I can take a look.” “Can you do it today?” “Uh… no, I’ve got work tonight. And it’s my mom’s birthday.” “Oh, really! Tell her happy birthday for me!” “Yeah, I will,” I said, sounding pretty dull. Melina didn’t catch it, though. She usually didn’t notice, which I thought was a good thing. I mean, it’d be pretty tiresome to have your feelings noticed all the time. “So you’ll do something with your mom?” “Yeah, I’m planning to.” Maybe bake her a cake, I thought. I could do it before I went to work if I started now. “But you can come tomorrow?” “Yeah.” “Thanks so much!” “Yeah, yeah…” We hung up, and I went upstairs to the computer to find a good cake recipe. The last time I’d made one was a year ago, for Melina’s birthday, and that had been the first time I’d actually baked something. I was pretty sure I could pull it off now, too. I’m actually pretty good at this sort of thing—cooking, fiddling with electrical stuff. I guess that means I should be a handyman. “Nick the Handyman.” Had a pretty nice ring to it. I ended up making carrot cake. It took a bit longer than I expected, because I didn’t have any “allspice.” I had to nip out and buy that, along with some pecans. In any case, by the time I had to go to work, I had the cake in the refrigerator, where it was supposed to sit for four hours. I put a note on the door, in case my mom wouldn’t notice. It took me a while to actually figure out what to put down. In the end I just wrote, in big letters, “CAKE IN FRIDGE.” I figured I would tell her “Happy Birthday” later. I also figured that adding “PS Steve can have some, too” would be a bit too obvious. I don’t do much thinking at work. Usually I’m too busy kneading dough, sprinkling cheese, or clearing up the trash. I do a lot of my thinking while driving. It’s pretty relaxing, and I haven’t crashed yet. I started off by wondering whether or not my mom would like my birthday present for her. I figured it would depend on Steve. If he thought it was weird for a seventeen-year-old guy to bake a cake for his mom—which, I guess, is pretty weird—she’d probably want to hide the cake in the closet until Steve was gone. My mom was like that. At least, she’s been that way since my dad left. Actually, I can hardly remember what she was like before it happened. I have a lot of memories about my dad, though—how he’d made me learn biking without training wheels, how he’d always give me the bigger ice cream cone when we stopped by Joe’s. I could remember lots of things. But not much about my mom. It was nine when I got back. The first thing I noticed was that the driveway was empty. Now that was pretty unusual. My mom taught classes at the community college and came back pretty much the same time every day. I went inside and checked the fridge; the cake was untouched. My mom was probably with Steve. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. The only question was when she’d be back. I could imagine their dinner being about two hours long—three, max. So I’d wait till eleven before worrying. It was a quarter to twelve when I finally called. I waited a total of five rings before she picked up. “Nick?” “Mom, where are you?” I could hear another voice indistinctly. A man’s voice. “I’m with… Steve.” I frowned. There was more murmuring, and my mom was holding the phone away from her as she said something that I couldn’t make out. It took me a full second before I realized what was really going on. When I did— Well, what can you say to your mom after figuring out that she was in the middle of having sex with her boyfriend? Steve made some kind of comment. A moment later, my mom said, “I’ll be home… in the morning.” “Yeah,” I said. The silence was just waiting to get awkward. “Uh, happy birthday, Mom.” Now that definitely was awkward. Oddly, I only felt a bit numb, as though I were watching someone drop an empty eggshell on the floor. We hung up pretty quickly after that. I got up and walked around a bit just to calm down, even though I wasn’t really worked up. I opened the fridge and considered eating the cake myself. But no, it was still her birthday present. And Steve was still invited to have some. It was well past twelve when my phone rang again. Nobody called that late, and at first I thought it was my mom, asking me to pick her up, even though she had her own car. But then I looked at the number. I don’t ever screen people—I get so few calls in the first place—but this was the one number that made me consider, every time, if I should just pretend I wasn’t there. I picked up anyway. “Nelson.” “What’s up, Raimondi?” “Nothing much,” I said carefully. There was a long silence. After a while, I began to hear someone in the background. It sounded like a girl’s voice, but I couldn’t be sure. “Hey, you wanna come over and try some of this? It’s the best shit I’ve had in a while, you don’t want to miss it.” “No. Thanks.” There was that sound again, louder. This time, I was sure that it was a girl, and she didn’t sound too happy. “I haven’t seen you in forever, dude. What’re you doing?” “Right now?” “Yeah.” “Getting ready for bed. I’ve school tomorrow.” “School,” Nelson muttered. It was an old topic, though we never really talked about it. I might’ve tried a year ago, when Nelson’s dad had gotten himself jailed and Nelson had just dropped out, but he wouldn’t listen to me then. Now I was the one not listening. The girl made another sound, and this time Nelson barked, “Shut up! I’m talking to my best friend Nick Raimondi here. Hey, Raimondi, I’m with Jessica right now. Do you know Jessica?” “No.” “Hey Jessica, you wanna talk to Raimondi?” “Nelson,” I started, wanting to head him off, but I had the feeling he wasn’t listening at the moment, because the girl Jessica was saying something pretty loudly and Nelson was talking back. I just waited, getting impatient but knowing there was nothing I could do. After a while, I could hear Nelson on the phone again, even though he wasn’t saying anything. I could hear his breathing—ragged, like he’d smoked too many cigarettes that day. “Nelson?” “Yeah?” And then, “I haven’t seen you in forever, man.” “I know.” “What’re you doing tomorrow?” I thought fast. “Well, I’ve got work, and I’m also helping Melina with the sound equipment—” “Melina, Melina,” Nelson snapped, “it’s her and her theatre shit again? Hey, are you finally fucking her?” I got up. “I’m hanging up.” “Dude, I was just messing around! I didn’t mean it, all right? And I know you don’t go screwing chicks like that. You’re, what, saving your virginity for marriage?” “No.” “No? Then you should get laid, dude.” “Nelson—” I could think of nothing to say. “Are you stoned?” “What are you, dumb? ‘course I’m stoned.” There was that silence again. This time, though, I could hear Jessica getting louder in the background. It seemed as though she was getting pissy about Nelson being on the phone. Then I heard Nelson answering, his voice rising, and at some point the phone dropped on the ground or the bed, and I began to hear the sort of noises that you’d find on a porno track. I hung up. I didn’t need to hear Nelson making out. I didn’t need to picture it either. Not the up-and-down movement of his pale white ass, nor the half-opened smirk of his lips. I was looking at six hours of sleep before the morning. The house was quiet. Usually my mom would be watching TV, and every so often I’d hear, dimly, the fake laughter you get all the time in comedy shows. I didn’t expect to be missing it so much. I was tired, sleepy, but I couldn’t fall asleep. Finally, I tried thinking of something totally different, something that would get my mind off my mom, who was with Steve, and Nelson, who was with Jessica. Eventually, I found myself thinking of olive trees—a line of them, all growing on a narrow island in the middle of the street. It was Alec’s street. I pictured myself in my car, driving over the patches of black, watching the trunks flash by like a silent black-and-white film. I was pulling into the driveway, and looking at the blue wood paneling and weeds poking up through the cracks. That was when I fell asleep.
  13. corvus

    Chapter 2

    2. Melina was the sort of person who’d talk your ear off if you let her. It was probably a good thing, then, she wasn’t the sort of person to wait for you to respond, as I was tuning her out while eating the sandwich I’d made for lunch. Something she said, though, pitched me back to earth. “What?” “I heard,” said Melina, “that you had a fight with Darius Wigglesworth’s girlfriend.” “Who?” “Darius Wigglesworth.” “Yeah, who the hell’s that?” Melina’s eyes got really wide. With her freckles and pigtails, she looked a bit like those cloth dolls you find in a museum about colonial America. “You don’t know who Darius Wigglesworth is?” “No.” “He was in my English class last year. He used to go to Bellarmine—you know, the all-boys private school—but he transferred here in tenth grade.” “Wait, why’d he do that?” I’d only heard of rich parents fishing their kids out of the public school sink and shipping them off to private schools, and not the other way around. “I heard his dad wanted him to,” Melina said. Her voice had gotten hushed, as if she were telling me something not a lot of people were supposed to know. “His dad’s on the city council, and his mom is one of the justices in the city court. I heard they live in a house that’s so big it has its own indoor swimming pool.” “Huh,” I said. “So who’s this girlfriend?” “Kate Landauer. She’s on the cheerleading squad.” “Okay.” I’d actually thought about yesterday’s encounter several times already, and I was expecting something to happen. But I’d seen neither Kate nor Alec, and I had no idea the whole thing would get so big that Melina would be telling me about it. “I also heard that you were defending a junior,” Melina added. “Or somehow that there was this junior involved.” “Yeah? I guess you didn’t hear what Kate Laundauer had been saying to him before I told her to fuck off.” “No.” “She asked him if he was a fag. And something about his dad deserving a faggot son.” I said it all in a very low voice. My school wasn’t exactly hostile about gays, but it wasn’t one of those places where the class president was a queen. Melina kept quiet and let me shrug. She was great at this sort of thing. Besides my mom, Melina was the only person who knew about my being gay. She was also a lot more helpful about it than my mom was. “So, uh…” I paused. “Am I in danger of getting beaten up by Wigglesworth?” That wasn’t my original question. I had wanted to ask if she knew the full name of the junior whom I’d defended, but I figured that might’ve seemed a bit—something. And this other question was important, too. Melina shook her head. “I don’t think Darius is a jock.” “Is he preppy?” Melina suddenly coughed. Violently. I was patting her back when I noticed her pointing at something, but at the same time looking strangely as though she didn’t want to be noticed pointing. I looked up and realized why. There are some people who, at first sight, make you wish they’d strut back to whatever well-waxed Porsche or Mercedes-Benz they’d slunk out of. Maybe it was because I saw Kate Landauer first, with her dangerously bulging shirt and heavy mascara, and the guy next to her second. In any case, I guess you could say that my first impressions of Darius Wigglesworth were pretty shitty. “Does he always look as if he’s got a stick in his ass?” Melina giggled. “I don’t think he’s too bad looking.” My eyes narrowed. “You don’t have a crush on him, do you?” “Of course not!” I looked up again. I was kind of surprised I hadn’t noticed him before. I mean, you don’t see too many people wearing a tie and blazer in a ratty public school. A moment later, they left. “I don’t think he’ll do anything,” Melina said. “I’d be more concerned about Kate Landauer. She can be—well, a real gossip sometimes.” I nodded. Melina was very charitable when it came to describing other people. “Yeah. And I could probably take him on.” “Lucky you won’t have to,” said Melina, and went on about the revolving stage they’d made for Les Miserables. I didn’t bother correcting her. I’d gotten the feeling that I’d be seeing more of Darius Wigglesworth soon. If you stare someone down across a high school courtyard at lunch and have that stare met for a good three seconds, then you can expect a bit more than staring after the last bell rings. --- I ended up spending a solid three hours helping Melina with the recording equipment. Someone had been fiddling with it since the last show, someone I would have really liked to meet in a dark alley. “How’s it going?” Melina asked. I grunted. “Want a cupcake?” You had to admit that, for all their limp-wristing, theatre people made good food. I was fairly certain that Melina had made these herself; there was something about the cupcakes that was just her. She said the same about my cooking, but I wasn’t sure if she was shitting me. My mom was the only other person I could ask, and that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. I was going in search of another cupcake, having finished testing the microphones, when I noticed a familiar face dawdling backstage, behind a scene of what I supposed was Paris burning. It was Alec. It was like something from a movie. One moment Alec was staring at the backdrop, bored, and the next he’d looked up, as though he’d felt my stare, and broke into the same smile I remembered from the day before. “Hey,” I said. “Hey,” he said. “I didn’t know you were part of this thing.” He indicated the mess around us. “I’m actually just helping Melina with the recording equipment. You know Melina?” “Yeah,” said Alec, and he smiled again. “She’s the queen bee.” I chuckled. “Yeah, that’s her.” “I’m actually not really part of this either,” Alec said. “I’m doing for the extra credit. I’m in drama ‘cause I couldn’t get any other elective to fit, and Mrs. Holton’s giving us extra credit if we go in to do extras.” I nodded. “So I’m not in it either,” Alec added. “It’s just the extra credit. I’m pretty bad at drama anyway.” I nodded again. “Yeah, sure. It must be, uh, pretty tough, having to show up at all the rehearsals and everything.” “Yeah, but it’s not bad. I mean, everyone is pretty cool, and there’s good food.” “Oh yeah, definitely,” I said. “Melina’s a great cook. You should see her in the kitchen. She’s intense about baking. Almost as intense as she is about theatre.” Alec chuckled. “Yeah.” There was a little silence. I think we both felt it. I wasn’t a talker, and I wager Alec wasn’t either. That was okay, though. I mean, words are only good for filling up spaces that you’re scared of open up, and the best things tend to come when the cracks get big enough that you breathe in ways you didn’t know you could. At this point, though, I was still wracking my brains for something to cover the ever-lengthening silence. “That… girl,” I said at last. “She’s not giving you any trouble, is she?” “You mean, Kate Landauer? No, she’s—she’s been leaving me alone.” “Good,” I said, nodding. Another silence, this one a lot less comfortable. You know how sometimes you wish you’d picked a better subject to change to, but can’t anymore? This was one of those moments. “D’you know her boyfriend?” asked Alec. “Darius Wigglesworth?” “Know of, but only because Melina was warning me about him. Sounds like he’s pretty loaded.” “Yeah,” Alec said. “Yeah, he is. Pretty loaded, I mean.” “I heard his dad’s on the city council and all.” “Yeah. He is.” “And his mom’s a court justice.” “Yeah.” The smile on Alec’s face had shrunk to a grimace the moment I mentioned Kate Landauer, and had been getting more and more strained. I guess Wigglesworth was something of a sore spot, but he was like a goddamned sink in the conversation. I was trying to think of something else to say when Melina arrived. “Hey Nick, how’s the recording system?” I jumped, literally. “Good,” I mumbled. “Almost done.” “That’s great—I was a bit worried, but, well, I figured you’d have it running by tonight. And I didn’t know you two knew each other?” “We met—yesterday,” I said. Melina’s eyes widened, and she got that Raggedy-Ann-doll look again. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t know it was you—” She stopped for a very awkward pause, and then gave me a smile that struck me as much too knowing. “Well, that’s lovely, isn’t it? I’ll go get some cupcakes. You want some, Nick?” “No,” I lied. “I think I’ll go back to the microphones.” Alec’s gaze had gravitated to the ground, as though something really fascinating were happening on the black wooden planks. But he looked when I paused. “See you later,” I said. “And have fun with the, uh, rehearsal.” Alec gave a wan half-wave. “You too, Nick.” I don’t usually do a lot of thinking while at work. I kind of just cruise through, kind of playing the routine. But every so often, something would come up that would stick to my brain and not let go, even when I’m spreading basil or sending a pizza into the open-flame oven. Alec, I found out, was one of those things. Alec, with his half-open lips and a mess of hair that I bet would feel real soft between my fingers. I’d seen him only twice, and both times he was wearing the same dark blue zip-down sweater and jeans, but I was already picturing what he’d look like in only a shirt and boxers. He had solid shoulders and, from what I could tell, a pretty tight ass. Without so many clothes on, he’d be cute. Scratch that. Cute was definitely the wrong word. You can do a lot of thinking while working in a restaurant. But it’s harder to surreptitiously to rearrange your crotch while kneading dough and taking orders. I thought about the conversation we had backstage. It had been awkward, but, well, I guess that’s mostly because neither Alec nor I were the talky type. But I knew the hesitation came from more than that. I wondered what Alec’s life was like, if he had any close friends. I wondered what his dad was like. People like Kate Landauer were full of shit, but there was usually something truthful buried under all the crap they came up with. Deserve a faggot son, eh? There’d been something fishy with the way Alec had insisted that he was only doing the theatre stuff for extra credit. I suspected some serious mind-fucking. Assuming that Alec wasn’t just another skittish straight guy, of course. I have the gaydar of a goat, but I was pretty sure that my guess was more than wishful thinking. And I was pretty sure I hadn’t imagined the one or two times he’d glanced at me with his eyes turned down. I knew that sort of glance too well, knew it with a warm jolt at the pit of my stomach. It was nearly ten, the end of my shift, and I was still letting my mind occasionally drift to Alec, when I saw two people walking through the doorway that brought such a scowl to my face even Giulietta, my boss, noticed. “Did you overcook?” she asked, peering at the pizza I’d just hauled out of the oven. “No.” “I’ll cut,” she said, nudging me to the cash register. Giulietta didn’t like taking orders because she was short, had a thick Italian accent, and was half deaf in one ear. I didn’t usually mind, but I wasn’t exactly eager for Kate Landauer and Darius Wigglesworth to make their orders. “Can I help you, sir?” I said. I was half-expecting him to step forward with a threatening smirk. But Wigglesworth looked only annoyed proceeded to frown at the menu. I waited. I mean, it wasn’t uncommon for people to take forever to make their choices, especially if they had never been here before. Although, they didn’t usually take that long. I spent the time by looking bored and pretending not to be studying Wigglesworth. Melina was right—he was good looking, with nice jaw lines and a fifty-dollar hairdo. He would’ve looked a lot better, though, if his face weren’t caught somewhere between bored and disapproving. My view was obstructed when Landauer leaned on the counter, bending slightly so that her cleavage was squashed against the counter and angled at my face. “Well, what would you suggest?” I shrugged. “If you want something with vegetables, we have tomato basil, spinach, onions and pepper, mushroom, and combination.” “But what’d you suggest?” She turned briefly to Wigglesworth before turning back with an expectant simper on her face. “Tomato basil is good,” I said. Ever since the restaurant guide had published a review some few years back mentioning our tomato basil topping by name, Giuletta had instructed us to push it as our “claim to fame.” It was good; even I thought so, and I lived and breathed pizza fifteen hours a week. Landauer turned her head around. “Well, Darry?” Wigglesworth frowned. The annoyed look had deepened, though I was pretty sure that my shirt, which he was glaring at, didn’t have anything objectionable on it. More likely, whatever had crawled up his ass had suddenly decided to fester. “Cheese is fine,” he said at last. Landauer giggled. “One cheese, and one tomato basil, please…” Her gaze wandered down to my nametag. “…Nick. And the other kid’s name is Alec! Nick and Alec!” She giggled. I didn’t respond. I doubt I would’ve been civil if I had let myself say anything. “For here or to go, sir?” “To go,” Landauer said. She turned to Wigglesworth as though for confirmation. I didn’t wait to see what his reaction was. The sooner they were gone, the better. I ended getting off my shift ten minutes later than usual, just so Wigglesworth and that girlfriend of his would be well out the door when I followed suit. I didn’t exactly have a history of violence, but keeping cool definitely wasn’t one of my strengths. In a way, it was ironic that Nelson was the high school dropout smoking his brains out, and not me. We’d both been angry, violent, and self-destructive, but for a time, I’d been the one who drank harder, smoked joints down to a smaller stub, smashed windows with greater force. But I was also the one who’d flushed all the hash and tobacco I could find down the toilet, and avoided Nelson for a whole month. I’m not proud of that. The hiding, I mean. The shitty excuses I gave for not seeing him. The leaving behind of my best friend, like my dad left me behind, and my mother, and ten years I actually thought had meant something. But I had tried with Nelson. Just not enough. Some of the things I’m glad to have left behind, though. Things I don’t like to get into—memories that are too close, as long as I know that Nelson’s only a phone call away. But, I mean, as things are, with Nelson screwing a different girl every week and spouting off shit about fags even when he’s not stoned, there’s no point. Back when we still did everything together, I used to be able to tell him anything. Like my fantasies of hunting down my dad to a dingy motel room and tying him in a chair, the way you see in Mafia movies, and letting him know with a switchblade just how much I hated his guts. It wasn’t the sort of thing I could see myself telling Melina. But now, Nelson was for all practical purposes out of my life, and I didn’t need a bigoted bitch like Landauer and her rich boyfriend to remind me of all the anger I’d felt before I’d left. Things were hard enough without Wigglesworth’s stuck-up frown and Landauer’s cleavage jiggling in my face. But at least one thing was certain: I wouldn’t have to worry about getting beat up on. Wigglesworth probably hadn’t lifted his hand in his life, except to wipe his ass after using his fancy white toilet in his indoor-swimming-pool house.
  14. corvus

    Chapter 3

    3. I didn't like any of my mother's boyfriends. The closest I ever got to any of them was an occasional "hello" and some half-assed questions about school. Nelson suggested several times that I beat them up. I kind of agreed every time that it was a good idea, but it never happened. About a year and a half after my dad left, my mom started spending a lot of time with my middle school History teacher. Call me slow, but it wasn't until I saw him kissing her cheek in the driveway that I figured out what was happening. I mean, you just don't expect your mother to have relations with any other man except your dad. At least I didn't. I remember being real quiet for a whole week. I never told my mom that I saw, but, somehow, she knew. From then on, she started bringing him-his name was Charles-home more often. Whenever he was here, she'd keep looking at me. What did she think I was going to do? Charge out with a steak knife to carve up the adulterous couple? My mom was a divorcee. She hadn't had a wedding ring on her finger for years. But I was relieved when she stopped bringing Charles home, shortly before Christmas. Definitely relieved. Melina had called earlier that day to remind me to be at the performance. She also mentioned a party afterwards. "Can you give us a ride? Please?" "Uh... are you gonna need a ride back?" "Can you do that, too? I know you do have your morning run on Saturday too, but-just this night?" Before I could say anything, she went on. "It'd be fun, don't you think? The party, I mean." I hesitated. I wasn't in the mood for getting smashed. But at least I'd done that sort of thing before. Melina telling me to have fun myself was probably a way of asking me to go with her, though I've no idea why she'd want to go in the first place. Well, I take that back-if you think about it, and given that Melina was Melina, it wasn't exactly surprising that she'd want to check it out but was kind of scared of the whole thing. Anyway, if she wanted me around, I supposed I could skip out on flipping through channels in the living room. Plus, if it was theatre people going, Alec might be there, too. "Yeah, guess so." "Great! Thanks so much, Nick!" She gushed a bit more, I said it was no problem, and then we hung up. I got to the school theatre a bit early, so I spent the last half hour listening to the orchestra tune up in the pit and hoping that this would be more interesting than Julius Caesar. I also kept my eyes open for people I knew, but there wasn't anyone there in the crowd that I recognized. I suppose that meant Alec was backstage. They'd seated everyone and were dimming the lights when I noticed two very familiar faces towards the back of the audience. It's a sign of how close my mom and I are that I didn't know I'd be bumping into her on her Friday night date. Yeah, that's what she and Steve-or maybe just Steve-had decided to do tonight: watch my high school's production of Les Miserables. The show started. I guess it was more interesting than Shakespeare, but I wasn't really paying attention. Every so often, I'd glance at where my mom was sitting with Steve, and I'd get more annoyed. I mean, it's not that I throw a fit whenever I see my mom with her guy. I'd even been on speaking terms with some of them. But for the entire first half of the show, Steve was always leaning over to say something in my mom's ear, pulling himself so that he was halfway in her seat, and making an ass of himself. Maybe I'd have minded less if Steve didn't looked old enough to be my grandfather. My mom's the sort of woman who some people think is my sister. Steve, on the other hand, had the remains of his tangled white hair slicked back in this greasy knot behind his head, and glasses that made him look like a stuffed bird. He probably also had false teeth. Anyway, after act one had ended, I headed to a more out-of-the-way bathroom in a different cluster of buildings at the school. I really didn't want to deal with lines, or the possibility of running into my mom or Steve. I'd just started my business at the urinal when I heard someone come in. Someone by the name of Darius Wigglesworth. He shuffled up to the urinal next to mine. By this time, I'd stopped expecting him to start a fight, so I could treat him as I'd treat any other kid whose parents had too much cash. I ignored him. He did the same. A few seconds later, I finished, and went to the sink to wash my hands. I took a moment to check out Wigglesworth's ass in the mirror. He was done now, and was bending slightly as he zipped up, which made him push his ass out just a bit more. Then he turned around. It occurred to me that if Wigglesworth weren't such a stuck up prig-and didn't so obviously have a girlfriend-I wouldn't mind getting a little friendly with him. But he was Wigglesworth, and Landauer was more firmly attached to his arm than a species of alien mold. By the time I left the bathroom, we hadn't said a single word, and, except for a glance in the mirror that was probably accidental, didn't even meet each other's eyes. Not that I wanted it to be any different. I ducked back into my special little room for act two, and noticed that my mom and Steve had vanished during the intermission. Just like that-gone. The second act was more exciting than the first. The show in general was more exciting than most things the theatre people decided to put up. Too bad my mom missed it. It'd probably been Steve's idea to leave early. It wasn't as though he was paying any attention, anyway. He was too busy rubbing his snout in my mom's neck. That, it occurred to me then, was probably what they'd left to do. When the final scene rolled around, which I suppose was moving and uplifting to everyone else, I was just glad it was over. Melina showed up when most of the audience members had left. She was all smiles. "Well?" "It's done," I said. "You can hand it to Mike to process." Mike was one of Melina's friends, a nerd who was good with computer software and an ass with hardware. Which was why I was here, and not him. Melina looked relieved. "Then it's perfect. Everything was perfect." "Uh-huh." "So you're coming to the party?" "Yeah." "You wouldn't mind giving rides to more than just me, would you?" "Uh... I can only fit a few other people." "It's just me and Greg," Melina said. "And Alec. You know Alec, right?" I felt my face go red. I was glad it was dark. It usually took a lot to make me blush, and here I was, turning into a regular tomato. "'course I know him," I said, sounding like a potato was in my mouth. "So you won't mind?" "No," I grunted. "Great!" she said. I swore she was giggling on the way out. Nobody seemed really anxious to get to that party. While Melina went backstage to mingle and congratulate everyone, I stood a bit apart and waited. The whole thing was kind of funny to watch: there were chorus members still in costume mingling with guys who were carrying violins or trombones. Every so often I'd see Melina talking or quietly cleaning up the stage. The only person missing, it seemed, was Alec. People were starting to leaving in clumps before Melina showed up with a mousy-looking guy. That was Greg, I remembered. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Nick," Melina said. "You remember Greg, right?" I was about say that yes, I did, when Greg butted in with a voice from hell. "So you did the recording? That's so cool, dude! Did you do the recording for The Crucible, too? That's totally wicked!" He grinned. The last time I saw him, he'd been merely bumbling. Somewhere between then and now, he'd obviously catapulted out of the closet and had picked up every stereotype being gay had to offer. His nails even looked manicured. If we hadn't met before, and if Melina weren't there, I'd probably have told him to fuck off. "Um... yeah." I turned my attention to Melina, but she was scanning the crowd. "Hey, Alec's coming with us, isn't he?" Melina nodded. "He said he'd come, but he wasn't sure if he could make it." I grunted. "Did you tell him I was giving you guys a ride?" "Yeah. I mean, I told you that he'd get a ride with us, but not that you were giving it..." She trailed off. "Let's go." Melina blinked at me. "But-aren't we waiting for Alec?" "He's not here," I said. They followed me through the parking lot, Greg chattering the whole way, and me trying at the same time to tune him out. "It's up in the hills," Melina said, after everyone had buckled and we were off. "Which is... the other way." "Yeah. I know." There was a pause. "Nick, where are we going?" "A detour," I said, but I looked into the rear view window and gave Melina a quick smile. No use in getting her worried. "Oh," she said and frowned. "Nick, you're speeding." I grunted. "Not anymore." I was getting a bit anxious as I pulled around the Plaza and headed down the street I remembered from a few days ago. I figured that, since the show hadn't been over for more than ten minutes, Alec was at the tail end of his way back, if he'd been walking slowly and I'd been driving fast enough. I was aware of Melina saying my name again in a we're-going-way-too-fast tone, but I eased my foot off the gas because I finally saw him, about two houses away from his own, looking down as he walked past the olive trees. I honked my horn. "Hey, Alec!" I shouted. His head popped up and he looked as though an alien had just landed in his backyard. I cruised up a little closer, which also gave me some time to think of what exactly to say. "Need a ride to the party?" I was at the sidewalk when he finally stepped off the curb. "I didn't know you were coming too," he mumbled. "Melina roped me in," I said, glancing over my shoulder. From what I saw, Melina had just finished exchanging a significant glance with Greg. "Yeah. So. You coming?" Alec hesitated. Just one more nudge, I thought. I leaned over, grabbed the passenger door handle, and pushed the door wide open. That's all it took. I didn't bother hiding my smile when Alec went around the front and eased himself in, smiling nervously and looking even more unsure than the last time he'd gotten a ride from me. That was going to change, I decided as I stepped on the gas. I couldn't have Alec feeling uncomfortable with me when he was the person I least minded having in my car, and in other places, too. --- The party was taking place in one of those big mansion-like things up on the hills. I remembered what Melina had said about Darius Wigglesworth's living arrangements, and for a moment I considered asking her if she was actually making me enter his house. But I decided I was just paranoid, and I didn't really want to mention Darius with Alec around. "Look at the size of that!" Greg whispered to whoever was bothering to listen. "That's, like, totally three times the size of my house!" "So who lives here?" I asked. At least there was about as much curb as there was house. I parked at the end of a long line of cars, half of which looked a bit expensive for my taste. "I'm not sure," Melina said, a bit sheepishly. "I know it's Jase's friend, but he said we weren't allowed to know." "That's fishy," I said, just as Greg started to hyperventilate about the size of that lawn. Newark-where I lived-wasn't much of a city, no matter how hard the city council tried. If you went a few blocks from where I lived, you'd get to a bunch of shops the city council likes to think is "cosmopolitan." Go the other way, and you'd reach some pretty slummy houses, one of which is Nelson's. If you went up the hills, though, and pass a bunch of farms and reservoirs-California's a dry place-you'd reach these megalomaniac homes. There was a pretty bad wildfire some years back, which made all the rich folks talk about moving away, but nothing happened. I guess the they liked looking down on the rest of us too much to find a safer place to build their indoor swimming pools. We reached the door very slowly. That was because Melina and Greg seemed to want to follow me, but I wanted to be walking next to Alec, who was lagging at the very back. Finally, a swarm of people passed us and we kind of got washed in. Some of them, I noticed, looked very much like jocks. I frowned at Melina, who was sticking as close as she could to Greg and me. "Is this party kind of free for all?" I asked. "I guess so," Melina shouted back. There was a lot of noise. Not enough flashing light, but definitely enough noise. And whoever designed this house must've had a fixation with staircases, because there was a giant one winding up all three floors. The steps were packed with kids humping each other and the walls, which were covered by a whole gallery of stilted family portraits and watercolor paintings. I looked back, suddenly worried that Alec had disappeared while I was looking around. But he was still there. I grinned. He returned it, faltered, and looked down, shy or scared or awkward or all three. Melina found some of her theatre friends, which was the perfect chance for me to ditch the crowds. This being at a party, it was kind of hard to find a semi-private place, but I'd noticed the backyard looking pretty empty. I shouldered my way to the drinks, grabbed a couple of beers, and plowed to the back, Alec in tow. We got onto the patio, and I let out a sigh. He looked surprised when I handed him a Heineken. "First time?" Alec nodded. When he spoke, he sounded a bit like he was dragging his feet. "My dad doesn't want me to drink." "You don't have to if you don't want to. I don't wanna force you." "Is it... obvious if you've been drinking?" I chuckled. "Not if you don't have a lot at once and don't burp. Beer burp's pretty obvious." "Oh," said Alec. "Here." I took his bottle, hauled out my handy bottle-opener keychain, popped his lid and then mine. He took a sip. The face he made, you'd have thought someone had punched a lemon in his mouth. "That bad?" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "It's just like dishwater." I laughed. I want to reach out and knock his shoulder. Or sling my arm over his shoulders and lean over and brush my lips against his ear. Instead, I took a long gulp of beer and felt it slide, cold and hard, into my stomach. The backyard of this guy's house was a pretty sweet deal. There was a good-sized swimming pool, but it was covered by a tarp that looked as if it'd been there for a while. There were leaves and dirty-looking puddles all over the surface. I was willing to bet that the pool bottom would be covered with leaves, too, all clumped up and broken by the cold water. I glanced over at Alec. We were leaning against the back wall, and he was kind of staring out at nothing. Both of us were. What're you supposed to say when you want to get to know someone for the sake of wanting to know them? "They've a swimming pool," I said, and pointed as though it were easy to miss. "Looks a bit like a lake, doesn't it?" Alec chuckled, but it seemed polite more than really interested. "Yeah," he said. I wondered if he knew that I meant that it was like a lake with all the leaves seeping to the bottom, or if he thought I just thought it was a big pool. I took another gulp of beer and said the first thing that was on my mind. "My dad kind of taught me to drink." Alec was looking at me now. "That was when I was ten." "Ten?" I laughed; couldn't help it. "I mean, he showed me how to sniff wine and told me all the different kinds of beers and stuff. He didn't let me touch any, of course." "What'd your mom say?" "I can't remember." "So you've been a wine expert since you were ten?" I laughed again. "No, I just..." I shrugged. "Well, sort of..." I trailed off. Alec nodded, as though he understood what I was trying to say. "Yeah." I looked down at the green and white label. Heineken, with a big red star on top. It wasn't giving me any answers. "My dad also left us when I was ten." I could feel Alec's eyes on me. I went on after another gulp of beer, though I'd no idea where I was going. "I guess you could say drinking's my way of remembering him, huh?" That got a chuckle from him, though it didn't sound very amused. I shrugged. "Anyway." I was almost through with my first beer. He'd barely gotten the water level past the neck. We were so quiet you could almost hear the people on the other side of the wall at our backs. We weren't alone enough. That's what it was. I had the sudden urge to pile Alec into my car and drive to some empty parking lot. A quiet place where no one was watching or listening. All dark, except the old yellow streetlight, the reflections on the window. I think both of us jumped when the back door slammed open and a few girls literally raced out, giggling and followed by a bunch of shirtless guys. One of them was drunk or stoned enough to step off the patio the wrong way. Fortunately for him, whoever owned this place had thought concrete wasn't good enough and wanted grass around the pool. "Let's go in," I suggested. Alec looked relieved. He looked less relieved after we'd stepped inside, though. The noise level had gone up a good bit, and the smell had changed. Someone evidently decided to retch in a potted plant instead of a toilet. The thought of toilets brought my mind to my bladder, which was in pretty urgent need of release. Beer does that to me. "I need to use the bathroom," I said to Alec, practically shouting in his ear. He nodded. It was on my tongue to ask him if he'd be okay with me gone, but it was the sort of thing you'd say to kindergarteners, not high school juniors. I left. Of course, I'd no idea where the bathroom was, but I figured a house this big had to have at least six or seven. I went upstairs, since the noise seemed to have moved to down, and, on my way, got a good eyeful of the family photo archives. I guess if humans were to die out and some alien race wanted to preserve the most perfect human family ever, all they had to do was flood this house with preservatives. There were photos of the bride, photos of the groom. A bunch of marriage photos. And, suddenly, a gallery dedicated to baby. Baby on a rocking horse, baby in his crib, baby grinning toothlessly at the camera. Oh, now the first tooth. And I bet that was the first step. And then a photo of mommy and daddy with baby in the middle, smiling that shit-eating grin, as if he knew he'd won the jackpot and landed himself in the most perfect family ever. By the second floor, the baby photos were phasing out in favor of toddler photos. Mitts, baseball uniform. Tossing a ball with dad. Canoeing with dad. I'd just turned down a hallway, which I decided was the "dad" gallery, when a few things happened: it occurred to me that baby (boy, now) was looking oddly familiar, and I nearly walked into Darius Wigglesworth, which made me realize why said boy was looking so familiar. I think both of us were pretty startled. I, however, probably looked like I'd been sucker-punched, because I'd just figured out who the star of those family portraits really was. Wigglesworth recovered first. "You're here, too," he said flatly. I guess "recovered" was too strong a word. I mean, what kind of question was that? "Uh, yeah." I had to literally bite down to keep myself from demanding whether I was actually in his house. I ended up asking anyway. "You live here?" The hallway was pretty badly lit, so I couldn't see him too well. But his face seemed to darken when I said it. "Not exactly." "What's that supposed to mean?" Now he was looking annoyed. "This is my parents' other house." "Other house?" "They've got two. The one in town's where we usually live. This is for the real estate." And the fucking picture gallery, I thought. "So who lives here?" He glared. "No one does," he said. I suppose he was going for the ice-cold tone, but I was picturing that stick in his ass beginning to sprout flowers. He'd even crossed his arms over his chest. It occurred to me that, besides the eyes and nose, he didn't really look like the beaming little kid covering the walls. Somewhere down the line, he'd traded smiles for the brooding-and-constipated look. "D'you at least know where the bathrooms are?" "There are two downstairs and one on the third floor, but that's off limits. The ones downstairs are broken or occupied. And there's this one here, which is also occupied." He pointed to a door to his left. "I'm waiting too, in case you're wondering." "Didn't you say there's one on the third floor?" "That's off limits," he said sharply. I shrugged. "I was only saying. I mean, it is your house." He shrugged as well, and proceeded to fix his gaze on the opposite wall. Fine. I could play that game too. Only I really did need to go pee. I considered going up to the third floor, but I decided that that was too much a bastard thing to do. I really couldn't figure out why Darius Wigglesworth was such an asshole. I mean, I knew it couldn't be about Kate Landauer; I knew how vindictive jocks behaved, and Wigglesworth was different. Maybe he was just a douche bag in general. For a moment, I felt a bit sorry for him. He probably didn't get along with a lot of people, probably thanks to the great people skills he learned at private school. Maybe that was why Wigglesworth senior had decided to send him to good old Irvington High. Sadly for him, it clearly wasn't working. I mean, who wears a tie and blazer to school every day? "You were at the musical." I started. "Yeah," I said. "I was doing the sound recording for Melina." He nodded, still staring fixedly at the wall. There was a long pause. Then the toilet flushed. Wigglesworth straightened, and I realized I had done the same. After another long pause, the bathroom door finally opened, and Wigglesworth was in such a hurry to get in that he practically walked into the guy who was coming out. I made my way downstairs a few minutes later, figuring that I'd have to have a talk with Melina about this whole unknown party place business. Not that it was really a big problem or anything. After our few words in the hall, Wigglesworth had seemed determined to ignore me, and pretty much bolted the moment he left the bathroom. Typical douche bag behavior, I supposed. Alec wasn't where I'd left him. I picked up another beer and decided to dig a bit deeper into Wigglesworth's second house. I was halfway down a hallway when I began noticing the smell. That's right. Cigarettes and weed. For a moment, it was just like two years ago, and I was following Nelson down another smoke-filled corridor. This is my best friend Raimondi. How old are you, punk? Want some booze? His brother and his friends slapping my back and stuffing fags down our shirts, as if we were strippers at a party. Alec was standing in the doorway next to Greg. From the look on his face, he'd spotted me before I'd seen him. "Hey," I said. "Oh, you're here," Greg twerped, turning around. "We were beginning to wonder a bit where you were. Oh, is that a beer? You're not-I mean, you are giving us a ride back, aren't you?" I grunted. The smile on Alec's face, I'd noticed, seemed a bit strained. "Having fun?" Alec shrugged. "Yeah, it's... nice." His beer, I noticed, hadn't made any progress. And Greg was right, the little twit. One drink was the most I was getting tonight. "D'you want to go over there?" I said. "It kind of stinks over here." "Yeah," Greg said nervously. "Actually, Melina's having an argument." "Huh?" I looked. I guess I should've been expecting to see Kate Landauer after having just bumped into Wigglesworth. In fact, given the pot-smoking jock-and-cheerleader crowd, I would've been really stupid not to be expecting her. Still, I was really going to have to have a talk with Melina about dragging me to parties without knowing at all who was going. At that moment, though, Melina was busy having a very animated conversation with the last person on earth I thought she'd talk to. Greg was right. Melina, who never argued with anyone, was having an argument with Kate Landauer. Next thing you know, pigs were going to fly over the backyard, and Wigglesworth was going to ask me for a kiss. "What're they going on about?" Greg and Alec exchanged a glance. "Melina heard that other girl say something about Les Misérables," Greg explained. "And it wasn't very nice." "Ah." I frowned. This wasn't an argument Melina was going to win. She was looking pretty upset, but Kate Landauer was still looking cool as a cherry. I guess she was used to this sort of thing, being the queen bitch that she evidently was. I figured I needed to do something before things got out of hand. But just as I was deciding what, I noticed Alec freezing up beside me. I didn't even have to turn around to figure out why. Darius Wigglesworth had just stalked right past us as though we didn't exist, and bee-lined for his girlfriend. It took only one second for Landauer to drop the frigid-bitch look, wrap her arms around Wigglesworth's neck, and plant a smug, wet kiss on his cheek. "Oh my God, isn't that Darius Wigglesworth?" Greg breathed. "Yeah," I said. Alec, I noticed, had edged out of sight and was receding down the hall. "Isn't he hot?" I snapped my head around. "What?" "I mean-" "Never mind," I growled. "Take this," I said, handing him the beer. I was halfway across the room before Landauer registered my presence. I was pretty sure Wigglesworth knew I was there, but if he wanted to pretend I wasn't, that was fine by me. "Nick!" Landauer cooed, as though we were old friends. "I didn't know you were here?" "Yeah," I said. It was rude, I know, but I wasn't there to make conversation. "C'mon," I said to Melina, patting her shoulder, trying to herd her away. "Oh, do you know Melina?" Landauer said, big eyes blinking. "I had no idea you two knew each other. Melina and I go way back. We used to go to the same church." "Right," I said. "That's great." Landauer giggled. I made sure I didn't scowl, and shot Wigglesworth a death glare instead. He'd been staring at me, though I'd no idea why. I made it to the hall in one piece. Melina was dead quiet, which meant she was somewhere between an inch and a few words away from tears. I wanted to tell her not to let what that Landauer bitch said get to her, but there wasn't even enough space to breathe in the hallway. "Where's Alec?" "I think he went that way," said Greg. Alec still smiled when he saw me, but the smile was even more strained. "Do you have the time?" Greg glanced at his watch. "Half past eleven." "I should..." Alec trailed off. "I guess we ought to be going, huh?" I said. I felt Melina nod. "Yeah, well." I took a last look around. "C'mon." The night felt cold after we'd been inside so long. Alec was rubbing the back of his arms and huddling in on himself. Neither Greg nor Melina said a word. It occurred to me that the silence that had settled over us, broken every so often by a snivel from Melina, was uncomfortable and awkward, and really the worst way to end a night out. "Hey Greg," I said, "where'd you live?" "Um, you can just drop me off at Melina's," he said. "I live pretty close." "Right." It would be Melina first, together with Greg. And then I'd be alone with Alec for the drive to his house. I felt a shiver in my gut. The night had not lost all hope. I knew it wasn't anything-I mean, I knew that nothing was likely to happen. But I still felt wide-awake and alert when I'd pulled up to the curb next to Melina's house. "Hey, Melina?" I said. "Call me tomorrow if you want anything." She nodded. "Yeah. Good night, Nick." I offered a grin. Melina had spoken; that was always a good sign. "G'night!" We finished our goodbyes, and I waited until Melina had disappeared into the house and Greg around the corner before starting off. We were quiet. But it felt as though a different sort of silence had dropped into the car between Alec and me. Or maybe it was just my imagination. "Had fun?" Alec shrugged. I couldn't make out his face too well in the dark, and I could only take a glance or two at a time. There were road signs and little old ladies I had to make sure not to run over. "I guess so." "You can say it sucked. I won't mind." He chuckled. "Yeah, well... I mean, I don't think parties are really my thing." "No. Too noisy. Too many people." "Yeah." We were halfway to his house by now. I was making twenty-five on a road I usually sped through at thirty-five. I'd have slowed to ten, but that'd be a bit too suspicious, or too desperate. Alec was still quiet. "So, uh..." A pause. "Yeah, I totally didn't expect to see Wigglesworth or his girlfriend there." "No," Alec said, almost too quietly to hear. I wanted to have a good look at his face. All I could catch were these damn glances. What were you supposed to do when all you had were those and some half-mumbled words to go by? We were approaching the plaza. "Hey, uh, want to stop for something to drink?" Alec shifted. "I'm okay, but if you're thirsty..." I wasn't at all thirsty, of course. "It'll be real quick." A few minutes later, we had pulled up in front of the late-night Jamba Juice. "Never been here before?" I asked. Alec was looking even more hesitant than usual. He paused before shaking his head. "It's kind of late, don't you think?" I felt like someone had stepped on my stomach. "Yeah." I considered starting the engine and pulling out, but I couldn't just do that without looking like an idiot. "You wanna come? Maybe you'll see something you like." Another long pause, and another shake of the head. "Yeah. Uh, I'll be right back." I guess I should've expected that Alec wouldn't want to stay out too late. I mean, we'd sort of ambushed the whole party on him. I should've been glad he'd gone at all. And maybe he simply didn't want to hang out with me that much anyway. I mean, it hadn't been awful, our conversation behind Wigglesworth's house, but it hadn't been great either. Neither of us had known what to say, really, and I'd ended up going on about my dad for some weird reason. I don't know why, but it was gnawing at me, the possibility that I hadn't managed to get Alec to have a good time. Maybe what he wanted most right now was for me to drive him back without trying to strike up conversation or offer drink stops. Maybe that's what I should've done. Alec was exactly as he was when I opened the car door a minute later. I offered him the drink. "Wanna try?" I said. "No, I'm fine." I shrugged and took a sip. It tasted a bit like mango. Maybe peach. Maybe something else entirely. We were going past the olive trees when I tried again. I guess I should've gotten the message by then, but sometimes, especially if you're desperate and kind of pig-headed like me, you don't know when to stop. "Look," I said, "I'm uh... I'm sorry things turned out so crappy, with, you know, Landauer and Wigglesworth showing up, and all that-stuff." "No, it's... it's okay. Really." By the last word, he'd sounded a bit more like he really did mean it. I felt some of the weight lifting off my chest. "You won't have any trouble with your dad, will you? About being out late and all." I added when Alec didn't respond immediately, "I could pull some bullshit for you. Say we were working on the project." "No, it's okay." "Yeah." We were there. I killed the engine and started talking before he could do more than unbuckle his seatbelt. "Um, if you, you know, ever want to hang out or something, you can give me a call. Let me see if I've any paper..." I reached over to the passenger compartment and groped for the latch. It was purely accidental, the touching. His knee, against my arm. The latch came away, and I muttered "sorry" under my breath as I leaned further to flip for some paper. Alec edged away. "Here," I said, my voice hoarser than it'd been a minute ago. "Uh, d'you have a pen?" I asked, stupidly. Alec shook his head. "Oh. Well..." I trailed off. "Well, I'm glad you came." "Yeah." The streetlight behind us cast a dim orange glow that caught part of his face and left the rest of him in the dark. His eyes were fixed on the top of the dashboard. I'd reached out my hand before I knew it. I could hear my heart going dum-dum, dum-dum, as if the light from the street had somehow turned into sound and was running circles in my head. "Thanks," Alec mumbled, shifting forward noticeably, "for the ride." "Yeah. Yeah, it's no problem." He pushed the door open and slipped out. "Thanks," he said again. I had to clear my throat first. I was clutching the back of the passenger seat so hard my fingers hurt. "See you later!" I called. His house didn't have one of those motion-detector lights, I noticed. I nearly couldn't make him out as he waited. Then the door opened, and I could see the silhouette of a man backlit by a sickly sort of glow, the sort you have in kitchens, before the light narrowed to a crack and disappeared. That left me alone in the dark and a sick, leaden feeling at the pit of my stomach. It was one thing not to have had a good time at a party and another to have fucked things up so badly that you wanted to slap yourself, multiple times. I drove off, cursing myself and wishing-almost-that Nelson would call. Then I'd be able to talk to everyone I'd ever fucked up with. This was going to be a long, long night.
  15. corvus

    Chapter 4

    4. Melina called after I'd got back from my morning run, but before I'd made much of a start on breakfast. "Are you busy right now?" "Well, I just broke open two eggs." "Oh, pancakes? Can I come over?" "Eh... Just scrambled eggs, actually, but if you're making pancakes, you can come over." "Great! I'll be over in ten minutes. Um, that's okay, isn't it? Your mom won't mind?" "My mom's not here. See you in a bit." We hung up, and I put the bowl with the eggs in the fridge as I went to take my shower. When I got back, Melina was at the stove, and two pancakes were already in the plate. It'd taken a few months after we got to know each other for me to convince her that she could just let herself in if I wasn't there to get the door, but it was worth it. Melina's pancakes are to die for. "So I guess you dropped Alec off after us? Where does he live, anyway?" I grunted. "Next to the plaza." "Oh, that's not far then." She poured some batter on the pan. "What did he think of the party?" I shrugged. "He..." I trailed off and listened to Melina flipping a pancake. Then I sighed and sat back, my appetite completely shot. "Melina, I fucked up." "What?" I dropped my head in my hands and nearly sloshed milk out of my cup as my elbows hit the table. "I did something stupid." "What did you do?" "Nothing." "Nothing?" I sighed. I hadn't tried to kiss him, I hadn't tried to stick my hands into his pants or anything. Not that I didn't want to. I hadn't. I'd only suggested it instead in two accidental touches, and either Alec wasn't as gay as I thought, or he was a serious closet case. One way or the other, he was probably going to avoid me for the rest of his life. "It can't have been that bad?" "Yeah." I shifted in my seat and decided that this subject had gone on for long enough. It wasn't helping my appetite, at any rate. "So what're you going to do this weekend?" "Nick-" "Are you gonna do a big bake-a-thon?" Melina sighed. "Greg and I are going to watch all of The Sopranos in one go. And there's a performance tonight, of course." "Yeah. So how's Greg?" "Greg?" Melina gave me an innocent look, which obviously meant she was hiding something. "He's fine. Why?" I crossed my arms. "You haven't been talking to him about-me, have you?" Me and Alec, I meant, but I remembered that there wasn't even remotely an "and" between us. Melina flushed. "Only a bit. Do you mind it?" "It's not that I mind. It's just not gonna happen." "I'm sure it wasn't that bad." I grunted. "So what're you doing today?" "Uh... Sopranos and the show?" "Right, you said," I muttered, feeling a bit embarrassed. "Oh yeah. So d'you find out whose house that was?" "No. Whose?" "Darius Wigglesworth." "Darius Wigglesworth! Who told you?" "Uh..." I realized, suddenly, that I somehow didn't want Melina to know I'd been having a conversation with Darius Wigglesworth. "He did, kind of. It's his second house. His first house has the indoor swimming pool, I bet." "Indoor swimming pool?" I frowned. "Yeah, indoor swimming pool." "Oh! The indoor swimming pool, right." I felt a bit annoyed, but Melina thankfully decided to start remarking on how pleased she was with the opening show yesterday, but how irritated she'd been that the piccolos were sharp in the second act. In the middle of that and my absent-minded "hmm"s, she said, "I was kind of surprised by how much pot was at that party-you used to smoke it, didn't you?" "Yeah." Melina nodded and went on about piccolos. I'd found that Melina was matter-of-fact about a lot of things that people would normally get hung up about. Like the fact that I was gay. Or the fact that I'd been a delinquent when we met. It's funny, the thing about friends. You don't miss or need them until after you have then. Nelson had just decided to play hooky on a permanent basis; his dad had ended up in jail for the last time; and I'd just started to shut myself away from the guy who'd been my best friend and only friend. Then Melina had come up, in overalls and with fuzzy pigtails, and asked me if I could please help her record Bluebeard's Castle, if it wasn't too much of a bother. She'd bake me brownies if I did. "Do you want to watch The Sopranos with us?" I shook my head. "I've got work today." "Oh, that's right. When do you get off?" "Seven." "Do you want to come over for dinner?" I hesitated. Melina's mom made superb dinners. I swear I gained five pounds every time I went to her house. I'd make that ten pounds if my stomach could fit it. But I didn't really feel like it, not when the last time I'd talked to my mom had been her birthday, three days ago. "I dunno. I'll call you if I do." Melina smiled. "Great. Greg'll be there too." "Yeah." I stacked the dishes and took them to the sink. "He is gay, isn't he ?" There was a pause before Melina responded. "Um, he says he is." "Yeah," I said. "Just so you don't have a crush on him, or anything." Melina giggled. "Me? Have a crush on Greg?" I shrugged. "I'm just making sure. I mean, it's my job to beat up everyone who tries to, uh..." "Endanger my-virtue?" "Yeah. Sounds about right. It's my job." I gave the last plate an extra hard scrub and held it to the light coming through the garden window. "Ma-ee duty," I said to my reflection, with my best fake Italian accent. Melina giggled again. "I already have a dad to do that." "Yeah, well." I paused. "You do, I guess." --- Unlike some restaurants, Pinocchio's didn't suddenly get much busier on the weekends. I guess the people who ate there on weekdays finally had time to cook on the weekends, and people who usually cooked chose Saturdays to be lazy. Anyway, I guess it balances out. Today, though, it just had to happen that someone who could have stayed home decided to come during my shift. It wasn't Alec. I'll be lying if I said I hadn't been hoping-even though I knew it was a pretty stupid thing to hope for-that he'd show up. No, it was Darius Wigglesworth. I sighed. "Did you overcook?" "No, no," I said, going up to the counter and thinking that there was no way in hell Giuletta was as deaf as she claimed. "Can I help you, sir?" I said, when Wigglesworth had finished inching his way to the counter. At least he hadn't come with Landauer, his girlfriend. Otherwise, I might have to change jobs. "Cheese." "Regular or Sicilian?" "Regular." At least he'd come with a script in mind. "That'll be one sixty, sir." He paid. I tossed a slice into the oven and glanced at the time. Six fifty-five. Maybe I'd take up Melina's offer after all. I'd gotten pretty used to Melina's mom and dad, and I think they were pretty used to me, too, but eating at someone else's house feels weird, no matter how many times you do it. I took out the pizza after a minute had passed. "Here you go, sir," I said, but Wigglesworth didn't seem to have noticed. He was frowning at someone who'd just come in. I followed his stare, and nearly dropped the pizza. It was Alec, hesitating half in the doorway, looking ready to back out. "Alec!" I slid the pizza at Wigglesworth and jogged out from behind the counter. "Hey, what's up, man?" Alec's eyes seemed determined to focus on anything except at me. But he was there, right in front of me, right after I'd spent the whole day resigning myself to the fact that there was no way in hell I was going to see him again. I wasn't about to ask why. I was probably scaring away Giuletta's business with the way I was grinning, and my heart was pounding like a goldfish that had flopped out of its bowl, and part of me was downright terrified that Alec would step back and mutter that he'd come to the wrong shop. But he didn't. He was here. "Hi Nick," he said. "Hey," I said. We kind of stood there for a good while before I realized that people might be wondering why there was a mad grinning loon blocking the doorway. I turned and gestured at the counter. "Want some pizza?" "Yeah," Alec said, sounding nervous. I went back behind the stand, and that's why I noticed Wigglesworth sitting at the table farthest away, glaring with his pizza untouched. I had the urge to cheerfully flick him off, but figured that might not be such a good idea in the long run. "We've got Sicilian and regular if you want pizza, and subs if you want subs. We've got a ton of toppings, too-cheese, pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, peppers, tomato basil, spinach-you name it." "Uh..." I chuckled, and he did too. Alec had been looking pretty overwhelmed for a moment. "Well, I dunno. What would you recommend?" "Sicilian tomato basil. It's great. And if I think it's great-it is." Alec chuckled again. I did too. It was as though I'd just won the world. "I mean, I do this fifteen hours a week, and if I'm not sick of it now, then it's gotta be, you know. Pretty damn good." "Yeah," Alec said. He'd pulled a five dollar bill from his pocket. "So, I guess, a slice of tomato basil?" "One tomato basil!" I announced, like one of those guys on ESPN. "For here or to go?" "Uh-" He paused. I kicked myself. I should've just planted him at table next to the counter without asking. Then, after noticing that his gaze kept sliding off to one side, I realized why he hesitating so much. Wigglesworth was still glaring at us. I wondered if he thought we were gossiping about him, or something, because he was looking pretty baleful. Then I guess he noticed that I was staring at him, because his eyes flickered up and he picked up his pizza to take a bite. He really hadn't eaten much of it yet. "I dunno..." "Here," I blurted out. "I mean, if you're not in a hurry, you can just, like, eat here..." Alec nodded. "Yeah. I guess that's okay." "Cool. Uh, do you want to drink anything? There's drinks there, and water's free." "Uh, water's fine." "Sure." There was a pause. "So, uh... How's your weekend so far?" "Pretty good." "Yeah." Another pause. "D'you have any plans for tonight?" "Plans? No, not really." I was distracted for a moment. Wigglesworth had stood up and was wiping his hands with his napkin. "Do you wanna watch a movie or something?" "Uh..." Alec smiled. "Yeah, I guess... why not?" "Cool, I get off-now, actually." I pointed at the clock, noticing that Wigglesworth had dumped his pizza, which he'd hardly touched, and stalked out the door. From the direction Alec was looking, he'd noticed it too. The day was certainly turning up. "We can go to the plaza theatre and watch something." "Now?" "Yeah," I said, pulling off my work apron. "Unless you're busy tonight? I heard they're playing something good." "Oh, yeah." We sat down at one of the tables close to the counter. Giuletta was well in the back, and the restaurant was empty. Just the two of us. "So what do you say?" Alec shrugged. "Yeah, I mean... I'll give my dad a call, I think he'll be okay with it." "Awesome." The grin was still on my face. I swear I must've looked as happy as a piece of cheese, for all I was smiling. I had no idea what had happened between last night and today, but I wasn't about to question it. Here was Alec, eating a tomato basil Sicilian and glancing up between bites with a smile that was real. The door opened. I was halfway out of my seat before I remembered that my shift was over. Giuletta began taking orders with her thick Italian accent, and I watched the newcomers pick out a regular and a spinach. Alec was nearly done. He'd stopped glancing up at me, but that was okay. I could pretend that we were only two normal guys at a pizzeria. For now, at least. --- We ended up watching one of those cheesy kung-fu comedies. I think Alec enjoyed it, which was good, but I'd been hoping that the theatre wouldn't be so packed. I'd have liked us to be somewhat alone, but I guess you can't have everything. It hit me, after the first big action piece passed, that this was my first date ever. I spent a whole minute wondering how big of a deal it was. I mean, I guess it's like the first time you get high, or the first time you get drunk. But the fact that it was with Alec made it seem important. I couldn't tell if he was thinking anything along those lines. Unlike me, I think he was actually paying attention to the movie. It was dark when we got out. Cold, too. I had to rub my arms to keep from shivering. "How'd you like it?" Alec shrugged. "It was pretty funny. I liked that stunt in the end." "Yeah, that was cool," I said, vaguely remembering something involving a four-storey drop. "Uh, d'you want to go do something?" He hesitated, again. But it didn't seem to take as long this time. "It's kind of late, but I can call my dad." "If it's okay, we can hang out at my house." Hang out, watch some TV, make food. I hoped Alec wouldn't mind if I cooked. I hadn't had anything since lunch, and I was really starting to feel it. "Yeah, I'd better ask my dad first." "Yeah, sure." I drifted towards my car. Alec followed, cell phone at his ear. "Hello, Dad? Yeah, it's me. We watched a movie. Um... Rush Hour, I think? It was an action comedy. An action comedy. Yeah. Dad, can I hang out at Nick's house for a while?" A pause, and then he turned to me. "How long, d'you think?" I shrugged. The whole night, but I decided not to suggest that. "Till eleven? Twelve? And I can give you a ride back." "Um, till eleven o'clock? And Nick says-Nick says he can give me a ride back." We waited. "Yeah, okay. I know, Dad. I know. Bye." Alec looked up. "He said yeah." "Great," I said. We got into my car, and it was almost like last night. There was the same darkness outside, the same quietness between us. But it was different, too, in the way he glanced at me with a smile that I had to make sure, during the stop signs and pauses in traffic, wasn't just the street lights. It was half past nine when we pulled up in my driveway, which I'd noticed was empty even before we turned down the block. "Hmm. I guess my mom isn't home yet." "Does she usually work this late?" I shook my head and turned the key in the lock. "She's probably at her boyfriend's place." I switched on the lights. We'd reached the kitchen before I added, "I don't think she'll be back tonight. Did you have dinner before the movie?" "Yeah." "Mind if I make something really quick?" "Oh, go ahead," said Alec. "I didn't know you haven't had dinner yet." He added, a moment later, "Can I watch?" "Yeah, of course." I was making sure I was cracking open my eggs over the bowl and not the floor, but I could see Alec from the corner of my eyes. I didn't need to look up to know that he was watching me. "I'm just making a few omelets," I said, snapping on the stove. "D'you want one?" "No, I'm good." His voice almost made me pause. It wasn't only quieter than it usually was. It also sounded softer. The eggs were getting really nicely even now, and the only noise between us was the sound of the egg whisk. I tried to think of something to say, but my brain seemed to have stopped functioning a while ago. I heard Alec get up. When I looked, he was peering at the cabinets, moving down the counter, closer to where I was standing. "So," I said, "uh... Do you cook at home, Alec?" He kind of smiled at the question, which I guess was pretty silly. "Cook? The only thing I've ever cooked are TV dinners." "Serious! Aw, that doesn't count." He shrugged. There was about two feet's distance between us now. One foot. "My dad doesn't think it's something guys should do, I guess." "Oh-so your mom doesn't cook?" "My mom's actually... not divorced, but they're separated, my parents. She lives on the other side of town. I see her every so often." "Oh." I felt my face go a bit red. There was no way of killing a mood like asking an awkward question. I shifted where I stood, but I noticed, suddenly, that Alec hadn't moved away. He'd gotten, if anything, even closer. I turned. Then I had to turn again and step as quickly as I could to the stove. I'd probably have dropped the eggs all over Alec's feet if I hadn't. He was so close I could count each eyelash. I felt like I'd swallowed a hot pepper that'd gone straight to the pit of my stomach. It didn't help that Alec was still standing there, only inches away, and I could smell the soap he used, feel- The thought hit me just as I let the eggs splash, sizzling, over the pan. Was Alec coming on to me? Suddenly, everything and nothing was making perfect sense and nonsense all at once. Wasn't he the one who'd balked last night, who'd brushed me off? Wasn't he the one who scurried out of my car without saying goodbye? But right now, he was standing so close that the hairs on my arm were standing on end. Normal guy friends don't stand this close. Or this quietly, this long. I grabbed the cheese from the fridge. "This one's almost done," I announced, and slid a plate on the counter. "Yeah." I'd planned on making at least two omelets, or three, but I wasn't so hungry anymore. And I kind of wanted to just swallow the omelet I had in one gulp so that we could get out of the kitchen and to whatever it was that we were going to do. I shivered. "Are you sure you don't want any?" "Yeah, I'm fine." I sat at the counter. Alec sat next to me. I fumbled with my fork on the first mouthful. I swear, I wasn't usually this clumsy. "So, uh... Do you have any hobbies, stuff you do for fun?" "Hobbies?" Alec shrugged. He did that a lot, I noticed. "Warcraft, basically. I should go out more and do more sports and stuff, but..." Another shrug. "I never got into that." "That's cool. Warcraft, I mean. I've played only one computer game in my life." "What's that?" "Mother Goose." "What?" I snorted. "It was this game my dad got for me. It was really stupid. You had all these nursery rhyme characters who lost nursery rhyme items, and you had to help get them find it. You got a big hug from Mother Goose if you won." "Wow." "That's why I know every single nursery rhyme that's ever existed. Totally useless shit." "Yeah..." "Well, I thought it was great when I played it." I finished scraping the last bits of egg and cheese from my plate, and stood. "My dad liked me to sing along with the nursery rhymes when they played. He was weird like that." "Yeah." I sponged the plate twice and washed off the soap suds, then put it on the plate rack to dry. I could see Alec looking at me in the reflection in the garden window. He looked pale and thin, the way you'd look if you turned into a ghost. I turned and went back to the seat next to him. His shoulders were hunched and he was frowning, as if he was trying to get something out, but was afraid of it. "Do you miss him, kind of?" I shrugged. "I did, when I was little. Now I'm used to it." What I said wasn't untrue-I was used to it now, and, really, I didn't miss my dad all that much. But I'd never talked about this to anyone, and doing so was making it come back. The day he left, the times when he was still here, his presence in this kitchen, under the same uneven light. I shifted in my seat. "Don't you miss your mom?" I asked. "Yeah, kind of." He paused, considering. "I still see her a bit, though, and I was never really close to her. I was much closer to my dad." "Yeah." Was closer. I nodded, and stared at the wall for a moment. "Do you wanna... check out my room?" "Yeah." A smile crept back to Alec's face. "Sure." I slid off the chair and led the way down the hall. I don't know why I did it, but I kept the lights off. I also don't know why I stopped at the end of the hall and pointed, not at my door, but the one opposite. "My dad left a whole bunch of stuff in the garage when he left. That's why we don't park in there anymore." I paused. "It's still there, all of it." "Yeah." I wanted to ask him if he wanted to see it. I wanted him to say that he wanted to see it. Only, there was no reason why he would. "There's a lot of stuff in there," I said. "Old stuff. My dad liked to collect things." "That's cool." "Yeah. We could... take a look, if you want." "Yeah," Alec said, "Sure." The garage was cooler than the rest of the house. I turned the switch, and the long line of light bulbs, dangling from the ceiling, flickered on at once. "Wow." "Cool, isn't it?" I led him to the couch at the back. It was ugly and green and the most comfortable thing in the world. According to my dad, he'd slept in it more than anywhere else, though he'd never said why. I wonder if that'd changed now. "Is this a record player?" "Yeah. Ancient, I know." I pointed at the bookcase next to it. "That's where the records are." "Wow." Alec peered at the labels. "Opera?" I nodded. "My dad is Italian, you know. Raimondi." "Yeah, but opera?" "Some of it's good, actually." I got up and stood next to him at the bookshelf. The hairs on my arms were starting to stand up again. "This one's good." "Norma?" "Yeah. It's about this druid priestess who gets betrayed by her Roman lover. She wants to kill her children, but decides not to, and in the end kills herself with good-fashioned immolation." I took the record out of its cover, which had a large picture of big-nosed soprano on it, and then slipped off the white paper lining. "I don't listen to it a lot anymore. I used to, for a while. Opera, I mean." "Yeah," said Alec, as I set the spindle at the right point and waited. We got up and sat on the couch. The flute solo started, and that became the only sound in the room, except the strings, which were going up and down like someone's breathing. You could hear the crackle from the record, a bit like the crinkling of wrapping paper. It'd been a while since I'd last been here. A week and a half. Not quite two. When I'd shown this place to Nelson, he'd been pretty impressed with the records, but I hadn't played him any. I wondered if Melina would like them, since she was into theatre, but Melina didn't know this place existed. Only Nelson, and now, Alec. "So what do you do?" "Uh..." I trailed off. Alec's voice had gotten soft again. "What?" "Like, in your spare time. Since you don't do any of the sports teams anymore." "How do you know I don't do the sports teams?" He'd gotten even closer. "My dad talks to Mr. Burns, the coach. They play pool every Saturday night." "Oh, really? I didn't know." Burns was a fiercely bearded man who wore sunglasses all the time. The only time I'd seen him without them was when he'd called me to his office, demanding why I wasn't on the track team. I'd said I had to work. He'd asked to see my dad, to get him to talk to sense into me. I had to tell him I hadn't seen my dad in five years. "I guess I spend a lot of time working at Pinocchio's." "Yeah. Mr. Burns is pretty bummed you aren't doing any of the athletic stuff." "Yeah, well..." I shrugged. "My dad approves of you." Alec paused. I looked at him. "He likes boys who do sports and can fix things. I've never fixed anything in my life. I told him that you did the sound recording." "Yeah? What else did you tell your dad about me?" Alec shrugged. "Nothing." He was turned halfway towards me, his eyes lowered and hands cupped in the space between us. I'd stopped wondering by now if it was only my imagination. Normal friends don't stare at each other for extended periods of time. Friends who wanted to be more than friends did. And I was sure, now, that Alec was waiting for me to lean forward and put my lips against his. But being sure of something and actually doing it were two very different things. Another few bars of music passed. Alec shifted, moving even closer. Damn it! If this wasn't my chance, then what was? I bent forward a bit, jerkily. It happened almost too quickly. One moment, I was still staring at Alec's lips, and the next, they were against mine, while the music in the background was slipping through the chromatic passages-my father's favorite part. I drew back slightly to get air, and Alec leaned forward, following. "Wow," I whispered. I was trembling. "Have you done this before?" I shook my head. Alec frowned and sat back. "Are you okay?" I tried to answer, but my voice caught in my throat. I was shaking, my entire body quivering like a leaf. "Yeah..." I managed at last. "It's just-" My voice sounded choked, small, as though I was scared to death of something. "Shh." Alec was stroking me, touching my shoulder and tracing a finger down my arm. "It's okay." I know, I tried to whisper, but my voice was caught in my throat. I tried to muster a grin, because Alec was starting to look a bit worried. I probably looked more like I was snarling, but after a moment, I did manage a quiet, "I'm okay." "You sure?" I nodded. And then lurched forward with a noise somewhere between a bark of laughter and a yell, and started kissing Alec in earnest on the ugly green couch my dad had left behind.
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