Ryan never explicitly stated that he wanted Penn and I back together but it didn’t take a college education to figure it out. Subtle wasn’t a word any of them knew well. When he mentioned the vacation and me coming along, I knew the intention. And yes, I used their motives for my own benefit.
Here is what I knew as I boarded the plane:
Penn was angry at me for how things ended. Understandably, as they could’ve and should’ve gone differently. According to Ryan, Penn had pulled away from his family in the last year. He wasn’t as involved as he had been and stayed home whenever he could.
But I knew something else:
At the end of the day, he had a weakness. And that weakness was me. I knew that with a little time and a lot of patience, I could break through his walls and rebuild what we once had. And I had a feeling it would be better than anything either of us could imagine.
I’ve never considered myself a master manipulator but I thought I had a pretty good grasp on how things would go down. There was a really good chance that Penn would be livid when he found out I was coming. He’d probably give me the cold shoulder. And after a day or two, he’d calm down. Being around each other was bound to rekindle something between us, it had to. What we had was authentic.
Despite moving away, I still had feelings for him after all this time. It was likely he did, too. He’s the one that’s had feelings for me since he was a teenager. I would fight for that. I came prepared.
Except I didn’t.
Let’s just say I was right when I said I wasn’t a master manipulator. I had no clue what I was stepping into. On the surface, it was good. Penn was slightly annoyed but not livid, he didn’t give me the cold shoulder, and he didn’t push me away. But he didn’t gravitate towards me like he used to, he didn’t initiate conversation, and he didn’t seem to care if we hung out or not. I was nothing but a commoner to him.
He used to look at me with a deep affection, a look that made me feel like a million dollars even if I hadn’t known its full effects at the time. Now he looked at me the same way he looked at a dish towel.
Occasionally, I would catch a flash of something in those dark eyes, but mostly, nope.
The biggest curveball, hands down, was his family. Seriously, holy smokes.
They were amazing, truly. They had a commitment to their village that was par none. They were insanely generous to those they loved as well as their community. They were funny, nice, sweet, and authentic. I admired so much about their dynamic. I had longed to be part of it. And when everything went down with Lee, I got to become a part of it and it was everything I dreamed.
Then I left and moved to Portland. When Ryan reached out to me and we started hanging out again, I realized the amazing feeling I got from being part of the village was really, well, not part of the village at all.
It was Penn.
It was a big kick in the head to say the least. I was still tending to said head injury when we arrived in Hawaii. That’s when the next blow came. Spending 24/7 with a group of people isn’t a thing of beauty. It’s a big fat ugly scab that you can’t unsee. I still thought the world of them but I realized there was some serious dysfunction and a lot of it was aimed at Penn.
Whatever my plans had been, they went up in smoke along with my selfish ambitions.
“You,” I pointed at one of the lazy ass kids on the couch, then to another. “And you. Up. You too,” I said, pointing at yet another one. “All of you. Get up. Let’s go.”
I went to the next room and then the next until I had the nine oldest teenagers ready to go.
“Where are we going?” Kody asked as they waited by the door while I grabbed the van key.
“To get pineapple whips.”
“Ice cream?” he asked. “In this weather?”
“Do you want ice cream or not?” I asked, staring pointedly. Sometimes, when dealing with teenagers or adults, you have to be firm.
They looked at each other then got their shoes on, shuffled outside and into the van.
The little shop in town was everything you’d expect from a Hawaiian tourist trap. Hawaiian themed, brightly colored, and a chill vibe. We crowded around a small table inside since the outside seating was out of commission.
The reports were calling for a storm and by all means, it was getting worse by the minute. I almost missed the dark sky and the soft rain we had.
The thing I loved about kids was how completely unsuspecting they were. They thought I had ruined their quiet time out of the kindness of my heart.
“So,” I said, lazily licking my pineapple whip. They looked at me and smiled. Like I said, unsuspecting. “Do you guys remember when we were at the airport and Mandy and Rob’s son, Lukas tried to scare you guys?” The group collectively groaned their annoyance. “Yeah,” I agreed. “It was cute at first because he loved your reaction. But it wasn’t as funny when he was still trying to scare you this morning, was it?”
“We were humoring him at the airport. But he’s five, he’s not scary,” Lexi said.
“And it’s annoying,” JJ added.
“It is, isn’t it?” I asked, licking my whip. “It got old pretty fast, right?”
“So ooold,” Kayde drawled, laughing.
“Would it be annoying if he only did it occasionally?”
“Not at all,” Lexi answered. “It’s just so excessive right now. It’s like, every time he sees us, he tries to scare us. And if we don’t react, he keeps doing it.”
“The whole howling thing you guys do is pretty funny.” They glanced at one another, smirking. “The meowing is funny, too,” I added. More glancing, more smirking. “It’s not annoying at all.”
Kayde laughed. “It would be funny if you knew why we were doing it.”
“Oh,” I said, taking another lick. “I know why you’re doing it.” The group looked skeptical. How on earth could I possibly know. “The howling caught me off guard but I caught on to the meowing pretty quick, you know, since it happened every time I looked at Penn. After that, simple high school algebra filled in the rest of the equation.”
The group frowned that they’d been found out. Not quite as low key as they thought.
“It’s still funny,” Kody defended.
“Yeah?” I asked. “Why’s that?”
He hesitated. “Because, you know, you guys used to—” he gestured with his hand, too immature to say that Penn and I had dated. “And Penn, you know,” again with the hand gestures. “—since forever.”
“Penn and I used to be together and Penn’s had feelings for me since forever?”
“That’s what I just said,” he groaned. Talking about stuff was hard.
“You’re right. Both of those things are true. But you know what else?” I asked. “We broke up.”
“Yeah,” Kyla tucked her brown hair behind her ear and rolled her eyes. “We remember.”
“Why do you say it like that?”
“Because you broke Uncle Penn’s heart and he was depressed as hell after you left,” she bit out. “He’s not Penny’s dad. FYI.”
“Thank you for that,” I smiled. I couldn’t blame her for the attitude. “What do you think would’ve happened if I would’ve handled things differently?”
“You and Uncle Penn would be married.” Lexi was so confident I had no doubt that she and every person in that room believed it to be true.
“Married?” I asked.
“At least engaged.”
“Definitely a possibility,” I conceded. “Do you think he was excited when he found out I was coming on this trip?”
“No,” Kody barked. “He wasn’t happy at all.”
When I asked why it led to a pretty awesome conversation about the difficulties of relationships. We talked about how it feels seeing someone after it’s all said and done. They opened up about their own experiences; things that were hard for them, how friends weren’t always sympathetic or sensitive, and how crazy it is that someone can be the center of your world one minute, then despise them the next.
“Do you guys think I should’ve stayed home?” I asked.
“No,” they collectively answered.
“Why?” I asked, curiously. No one answered right away and I decided to let the silence go on for as long as necessary. Finally, Jackson, one of their cousins, finally spoke up.
“We want you guys to work out.”
Kayde chewed on his thumbnail as he waited for me to answer. I’d had lots of conversations with them in the past, random things mostly; friendships, sports, etc., but we never talked about Penn and me. I had a feeling no one really talked to them about Penn and me. Everything they knew about us they’d picked up by watching.
“I’ll be honest,” I told them. “I came here hoping that maybe your uncle and I could fix things between us. I mean, it’s Hawaii! Who wouldn’t fall in love here?” I gestured out the window where the sky was gloomy and the rain bounced off the sidewalk. We laughed at the irony of it.
“How’s it working out?” Kayla asked. “Are you guys back together?”
I shook my head. “No. We’re not back together. What I really want, more than anything, is to be his friend again.”
“Friends don’t get married.”
“Absolutely they do,” I said, then looked at Kayde. “When you dated Shay, how long had you guys been friends?”
“Well, I guess technically we weren’t friends. She moved here and we started dating pretty quick.”
“Because she was cute and you got all those weird, warm, and gooey feelings inside?” Kayde blushed and I had my answer. “It’s easy to get caught up in those feel-good emotions but you’ll learn that friendship is underrated. Those intense feelings will fade but friendship will keep the real feelings going when the warm and gooey dries up.”
“But you and Uncle Penn had a friendship and things didn’t work out.”
“We had a friendship but there were a lot of other things in play that made that situation hard. Some of those obstacles are gone now. Which is why I hope we can build our friendship again.”
“And then get married,” Kody smirked.
“And then be friends,” I corrected and they frowned. “And then who knows.”
They smiled. “Cool.”
“Yes,” I laughed. “Cool. Which brings me back to the howling and the meowing.”
“But it’s funny!” Kody said.
“It’s hilarious,” I agreed. “But you’re dangerously close to being like Lukas. You have to learn the art of timing. It’s funniest when it’s used sparingly. Plus, how do you think uncle Penn feels every time he hears it?”
“He rolled his eyes the first time, that’s his way of laughing.”
“Just like you thought Lukas was funny the first time,” I pointedly looked at Kayde and he shrunk in his chair. “I can only guess how Penn feels about me being here and I have no idea what, if anything, it’s doing to the inside of his head. But I know how I feel and I’d be relieved to have the chance to look at Penn and work out how I feel about things without a chorus of people mocking us. So, I’m asking if you guys would stop. For a while. Give your uncle a break.”
“No more howling or meowing, at all?” Kayde asked.
“I’ll tell you what. Save the howling and meowing for that perfect moment. The one that makes the whole thing shine.”
“How do we know when that is?” he asked.
“Oh, you’ll know.”
They looked at each other and nodded.
“And me looking at his wolf pack does not count,” I said, pointing a finger at the group. They all started laughing and giving me a hard time. It was the perfect ending to a really great conversation.
When we got back to the house and before everyone parted ways, Kayde pulled me off to the side. “I feel like a jerk,” he said. “I can see why Uncle Penn might not think it’s so funny and I feel really douchey about doing what we did. So, yeah, I just wanted to say thank you for calling us out.” Kayde reached his hand and I shook it, all bro like. “And, you know, if you need anything, let me know. We really want Uncle Penn to be happy.”
“I’m sure he’s plenty happy.”
Kayde looked me straight on. “I don’t know what he is but happy isn’t it. Not like he was when you two were chill.”
The comment made me happy and sad but I tapped it down. “Stop bringing so much attention to him and he might not be so moody. And, hey,” I said as Kayde started walking away. “Keep your dad and your uncle away and we’ll see how things go.”
Kayde laughed like I’d asked the most preposterous thing. No way would Ryan and Logan leave us alone. But I also saw a look of determination in his eyes. Challenge accepted.
Penn was playing on the floor with Penny when I walked in. He acknowledged me with a smile but that was it. I’m man enough to admit it sucked. I was also man enough to power through.
Cam smiled at me from the sofa where she’d been talking to Penn and Penny. I still felt kind of awkward around her. She and Penny were a constant reminder of my overreaction and I wondered if I’d ever be around her and not cringe internally.
The guys were playing cards at one table while some of the wives were drinking coffee and nibbling on fruit at the other.
“That was nice of you to take the kids out. I think they were getting stir crazy,” she said, smiling.
“Yeah, something different to do.”
Penn looked at Cam. “They were going out tonight anyway. Some teen mixer/luau.”
Cam glared at him for calling her out. Maybe she wasn’t completely comfortable around me anyway. “Still, it was nice of Nash to get them out of the house.”
Penn nodded and pulled Penny, who had wandered too far away, back to where he was.
The second I laid on the floor next to Penn with my head propped on my hand, Cam got up, sighting she needed to talk to Jane about something. Smooth.
“What did you guys do?” Penn asked, still playing with Penny.
“We got Pineapple whips,” I responded. “I’ve been here for a week and haven’t had one yet. I couldn’t go another day. I would have gone with you but I know how much you love pineapple.”
Penn made a face and stuck out his tongue, making the redhead laugh. “Pineapple whip is super yucky, huh girly.” Penny tried to say the word yucky and it was adorably hilarious. Penn smiled. “See, she agrees.”
“Cause she doesn’t know. I’ll have her begging for a pineapple whip before she flys out.”
“She’ll never fall for it.”
“Mhmm,” I hummed, looking cocky as hell. Penn looked at me and smiled. A real, ear to ear, heart-stopping, reminder of how good it could get, smile. It was l progress and a sweet little victory. I’d only had a few of those since being here and each one tasted better than the last.
We sat on the floor for a while and then it was dinner time. All twelve kids, minus Penny, left for the luau while the rest of us ate at home. Penn even sat next to me, by his own free will. No big deal. We talked about the history of pineapples in Hawaii. It doesn’t sound fascinating but watching Penn school us all was hot.
After dinner, we’d normally hangout on the patio but with the weather being so rude, we were forced to stay inside. Someone mentioned doing an adult game night since the kids were gone and everyone went wild
They moved all the sofas and chairs into a circle while Logan grabbed a few games.
I can honestly say I didn’t know what was happening. I thought it was just a regular game night but with no kids. I didn’t know ‘adult’ was code from something rated R. It started out innocently enough but then they ditched the games that had guidelines and decided to go straight to personal sharing.
“Okay,” Abby clapped. “We’ll take turns picking the topic. I’ll start—” she tapped her lips as she thought. “Name the craziest place you’ve had sex.”
Penn and I were sitting across the circle from each other. I looked at him with wide eyes making him smile. Penn wasn’t an over-sharer by any means and I, by nature, shared most of my life, just not this kind of stuff.
Most of the group were with people they’d dated since high school or college. So, as they went around the group it was more of a he said/she said. Abby said the craziest place was on the patio when they were vacationing in Florida but Logan said it was a blowjob in the men’s room at some restaurant.
I can honestly say I’d have been fine never learning any of that.
In reality, the craziest place was probably on a train with Lee, but I didn’t want to talk about Lee in this manner and especially not in front of Penn. When it came to my turn, I looked at Penn.
“Probably—" I made a face because I was soooo uncomfortable and had no clue how this would be received by him. “When we were in Thailand and I had to pull off on the side of the road because—” and suddenly I was no more mature than Kayde had been earlier that day. I couldn’t even say because you were blowing me so good I couldn’t focus on the road.
Everyone whooped and Penn turned red. I mouthed my apology but he shrugged it off. He didn’t seem bothered by it, no more than he was bothered by the barbarically adolescent game we were playing.
When it was his turn, he mirrored the Thailand experience.
We went around a few times. Semi harmless, though inappropriate questions to have in such a casual setting. “When was your first kiss, who was your first boyfriend/girlfriend,” etc.
Then it was Ryan’s turn and he looked between Penn and I and I knew it was going to be bad. I think his heart was in the right place, kind of. This was his attempt at bringing Penn and I closer. I just wish he would’ve done it using something that didn’t make both of us uncomfortable.
But just before Ryan was about to announce what the next round would be, Penn’s phone rang. Penny was holding it and Jane was holding her, so Jane grabbed the phone and smiled. “Look who it is!” Penn reached for the phone but Jane rolled her eyes and she swiped the call, putting it on speaker. “Hey, Jason.”
“Hey! How’s Hawaii?”
“Stormy,” she frowned.
“Boo. That’s no good.”
“It’s fine,” Abby cut in, “We’re having fun. Talking about sex stuff. Ryan was just about to pick a topic.”
”Sweet,” he laughed through the speaker. “I could use the ego boost.”
It felt like the air got sucked out of the room. I had completely forgotten about Jason. In fact, I had to rack my brain to remember who the fuck he was. I hadn’t heard anything about him in a while. Penn hadn’t mentioned him, not even once, since we arrived. Now he was on the phone, butting into the game like he belonged there. A game I didn’t want to play to begin with but I definitely didn’t want to play if I was going to hear about him and Penn.
Penn looked just as uncomfortable as he reached for the phone. The girls waved him off and told Jason he should go first. They were dying to hear his answer. I had a hard time believing they were that stupid but maybe they were. Why would they put Penn in such a shitty place?
Once it was decided that Jason was joining us for the next couple of rounds, Ryan sat up and smirked. “Who’s the best lay? Jason, you’re up.”
And I knew this was a pointed question because everyone in the room was married except Penn and I. Why would anyone who’s married, name someone who wasn’t their spouse? Which meant the question was aimed at Penn and I. Technically, we never had sex as defined by the hetero culture, but the theory remained. But now there was Jason, which made everything worse. Instead of working to bring Penn and I together, it was shoveling a great divide.
“What’s the definition of best lay? Are we talking actual penetrative intercourse? Or sexual encounters in general?” Jason asked.
Jane and Abby looked at each other for a moment then shrugged. “In general.”
“Probably this guy named Buck. I don’t know if that’s his actual name but it’s what he went by. He really knew what he was doing. Either that or I was a stupid nineteen-year-old. Doesn’t matter, he still blew my mind.”
The group asked him a few questions about his experience which he had no qualms about discussing. Me on the other hand, I couldn’t help but watch Penn. He wasn’t happy and I don’t think it had anything to do with Jason’s answer. The more I watched him squirm and avoid eye contact with me, the angrier I got at his family.
I might’ve had personal reasons for not wanting Jason there but at the end of the day, it was about Penn. And for them to put him in such an uncomfortable position, knowing he was already out of his comfort zone just being a part of this game to start with, was unbelievable to me.
I was so focused on Penn that I didn’t hear anyone’s answers but I knew Jason was an active participant in the game. Good for him. Whatever. Then it was my turn and I just couldn’t.
“I’m sorry,” I shook my head, “I’m out.” The room booed and gave me thumbs down. So, I continued. “Well, I’m not comfortable talking about this stuff in general but I have my ex-boyfriend sitting across the room and his boyfriend on the phone and I just think this is not only inappropriate but insanely disrespectful—to me, to Penn, and to Jason,” I said. “Who’s the best lay? Seriously? Are any of you married people going to name someone other than your spouse?” I asked. Mostly, no one answered but a few people shook their heads. “Didn’t think so. This means you want Penn to sit here in front of me and Jason and answer this question. Or me to answer this question in front of Penn and his current beau, knowing I’m going to say Penn. It doesn’t matter how you roll it; it’s putting us all in an awkward position. If Penn wants to stay and answer this, good for him, but I don’t see the benefit of this game.” I stood up and shimmied my way out of the closed circle of furniture. “Sorry, but no.”
Penn stood, snatched the phone from Abby, and followed me out. In a perfect world, we could’ve talked about what just happened but that’s not how life works. Penn mouthed thank you then I watched as he took the phone off speaker and walked to his room.
I went to my room, the one I shared with every male in the house between the ages of twelve and twenty. My sorry excuse for a mattress sat on the floor because I was a guest in this house and too kind to claim a real bed even though I was in my mid-thirties and too old for this crap. Seriously, it didn’t bother me until that moment but now it was too late. On top of that, they’d be back soon and then I’d lose all privacy and any chance of sleep.
I sat in the room trying to calm myself but I was pretty furious. It was a dick move. I was so angry for Penn but I had to check myself because it wasn’t my place to fight Penn’s battle. Whatever relationship or dynamic he had with his family was between him and them. It wasn’t my place.
It was late when the kids came home. I pretended to be asleep when the older boys came in to change while the younger boys got ready for bed. An hour later they were all in bed, sleeping. Which never happened. If I was a betting man, I’d put one-hundred large on their parents feeling guilty and threatening them an inch of their life if they woke me up.
I got out of the sleeping bag and carefully grabbed my bedding and the mattress and tiptoed out of the room. I didn’t have to walk through the living room to get to Penn’s room, thank god. I propped my bed against the wall and took a breath as I stood in front of his door. Then I knocked; loud enough to get his attention should he be sleeping but soft enough to not make a big deal out of it.
I heard him moving around, then the door opened. He stood there, eyes lidded with sleep, wearing nothing but charcoal boxer-briefs. It took him a second to realize it was me and, when he did, he woke up a little more.
“Everything okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Just wondering if the offer to share a room was still on the table.”
Penn regarded me for a moment then glanced inside the room, to the window that was being pummeled by rain. He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. I was about to walk away because I didn’t want sharing a room with me to be such a difficult decision. What I thought was a simple knock on his door all of a sudden became more complicated.
Had I really thought it was a simple gesture? Was I telling myself that it was or was I trying to alleviate the guilt for knocking on his door in the middle of the night? Because the truth of the matter was, that as much as I wanted to see if he was okay, to let him vent about the evening, to fight for our friendship, to mesh and converse like we used to, the ball was in Penn’s court. I knew that if Penn wanted anything, and I do mean anything, I would not say no.
So, I guess that knock was not so simple after all.
Anytime we did something on the sly like stealing candy, drinking from the milk container, or lying, my Grandpa would say, ‘you’re looking a little crooked, must be from all that bad posture’. I learned from a young age that bad posture wasn’t just a physical ailment. I knew that I needed to say no. I needed to say it for both of us. He was obviously conflicted and, as honorable as my motives may have been, it was also of bad posture. Which is why I was about to walk away, but then he opened the door wider and stepped aside. Our gazes locked as my feet crossed the threshold.