Since people have been asking: we've now reached the point where "Best Four Years" and "Against the World" are (roughly) on the same timeline, so should be a little better with alternating between the two of them.
Quick question, though, for anyone who wants to leave a comment: which of the three storylines in "Against the World"--Paris, New Orleans, or California--are you most engaged with? (More curious than anything.) Let me know!
One word: lingered between us, caught in the still, desert air.
Heart pounding. Didn’t have the courage to ask.
I’d never been speechless around Matt before. Never been nervous. Not like this.
I love you, I wanted to say. I’m in love with you, and I’ve felt this way since the moment I met you.
He said: Fuck.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. Without specificity.
Sorry for what?
Didn’t know. Hoped he wouldn’t ask.
Matt exhaled. Looked away from me, cast his eyes down at the dark shores of Lake Perris.
“Do you want to just chalk it up to drunkenness and forget it?” he said, finally.
“Are you asking me if I want to?” I replied. “Or are you telling me you’re going to?”
Matt didn’t have a response. He closed his eyes. Silent meditation.
I didn’t want to lie. If this was going in that direction. This couldn’t be the moment I’d look back on for the rest of my life, wondering if I could’ve had him if only I’d let myself.
“I’m not that drunk anymore,” I told him.
We sat. Still. So close to each other.
Matt was still looking out to the lake. “Do you like guys?”
“Would it change things if I do?”
“Of course not.” But he still wasn’t looking at me. “I like girls.”
I felt myself deflating. But not as much as I thought, because that kiss--that kiss was something, meant something.
Couldn’t have been faked. Not like that. Not by Matt.
Matt gave me a long, crackling sigh. “I don’t know.”
That. That. That smallest flicker of hope: Do you only like girls? I don’t know.
We were still, for a long time. The silent ripples in the lake, the crickets and coyotes in the hills, Matt and me in dusty tuxedos.
“I,” he said, finally, “think we should get home before my parents notice we’re late.”
“So,” I texted Becker. “When are you thinking of popping up to New York?”
“How about this weekend?”
“Missed the boat--it’s already Saturday afternoon.”
There was a pause. “No, this weekend: six days from now. June 15th.”
“Next weekend, you mean.”
“This weekend,” Becker repeated. “Mark your calendar.”
I closed my phone.
“Look at you, all smiley,” my roommate Lizzie said, as she put two mugs on the kitchen countertop in our Harlem apartment.. “Someone special?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.” I paused. “Well, actually, that’s stupid, because he’s coming and you’ll meet him: I’ve been seeing a guy at Tulane.”
“Carver said when he met you last night that he thought you were gay,” Lizzie replied. “But Carver also thinks everyone’s gay.”
“Yeah, I got that vibe last night,” I told her. “Sorry, I just--well, we’re not out. At school, I mean. Me and Becker. I’ve actually never told anyone I’m gay before. Well, I have, but that’s only because they’ve caught me. Or someone else told them first. You’re not the only person who knows or anything, is what I’m trying to say.”
Lizzie put her hands on either side of my face. “Stop babbling. You’re okay.”
I had to smile at that. “Sorry.” The tea kettle started whistling, so she let me go and turned back towards the stove. “It’s just a weird thing to tell people. ‘I’m gay.’ You know? It changes things. It changes the way people look at you.”
“Not even a little bit,” Lizzie replies, filling our mugs with hot water. “It’s 2007, Kevin, sorry. I’m not here to gay-bash you.”
“I know,” I told her. “That’s not what I meant. I just meant—” I smiled. “I don’t know what I meant, really.”
“I’m going to tell you what I told Carver when he came out to me freshman year,” she said. “‘I still love you. You’re still you. And I’m so touched that you decided to share your secret with me.’”
“Was it really that much of a secret, considering it was Carver?”
Lizzie giggled, handed me the mug. “It took him until November of freshman year, do you believe that? It’s like, honey, you’re wearing a hot pink cardigan and just used the word ‘decoupage.’”
“I like to think I pass a little better than that.”
“You do.” She gave me an eager smile, raised her mug to her lips. “So. Your boyfriend. Tell me all the juicy details. Becker?”
“Peter Adam Becker,” I told her. “Everyone calls him Becker. He’s cute. In a preppy, Republican sort of way. A little spoiled, a little quiet, but very sweet. It’s just tough in New Orleans, you know? We have to hide everything. And I mean: everything. He’s in this fraternity, with all of our mutual friends, and he is so scared everyone will find out.”
“That’d be so fun,” she said, “to have a secret affair that no one can know about.”
“It gets old, believe me,” I replied. “I’m just happy he’ll be up here. He knows no one in the city, so we can be an actual couple. Finally.”
“Aw,” Lizzie said. “So you and your boyfriend are going to hold hands, Central Park carriage ride, kiss on the Liberty Island Ferry, that sort of thing?”
I grinned. “Something like that.”
Shouting at me: an email from Chris Baker from eight hours ago: “CALL YOUR BROTHER. IMPORTANT.”
It’s eight o’clock at night here, which means it’s one o’clock in the afternoon in New Orleans.
Call your brother. Important.
Rent? No. He wouldn’t call Chris over rent.
I stumble quickly to the payphone. Take out my international calling card and dial Chris.
Because I want to hear from him first. To steady my nerves.
“Hang on,” he shouts, over the din of The Boot or someplace, and there’s some clattering until he’s out on the street. “You got my email?”
“Call my brother about what?”
There’s a long pause. “Just call him. Please.”
The gravity in Chris’s voice. I drop.
Because whatever it is. Important.
“Don’t make me call him. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” Chris says. “Call me later.”
I force my way through the trembling hands, the palpitating heart. Pick up my international calling card again, dial it and dial Nicky’s number.
And I’m nervous.
To talk to him.
To hear what he has to say.
“Hey,” I choke. “It’s Kevin.”
There’s a long pause. I don’t know what I’m expecting him to say.
But I did not expect: “Mom died on Tuesday.”
Words. That don’t impart meaning on me.
I should feel more.
I want to feel more.
I feel nothing.
“How?” All I can manage.
“About what you’d expect,” Nicky says, quietly. “Pouring rain, driving the wrong fucking way on the 215. Got hit head-on by another car.”
The other car. A family, maybe. Happy. Two kids in the backseat, Mom giggling up front, Dad strong and kind and dependable. Heading back from Disneyland.
Lives that meant something, ended in an instant by the cyclone of Linda Marie Malley.
I want to ask. About them.
When my dad died, I--
I wouldn’t want to know.
“I can come home.”
I do the calculations in my head. The last-minute flight to California I can’t afford.
Let alone getting back here.
If I want to get back here.
And for a second, I think: what if I go.
Suddenly no Duncan. No Aaron. No anyone and anything, and.
I can come home. Is something Becker would say. And do.
Fuck you. Last words I said to my mother.
Who would I be coming home for?
“There’s nothing you can do,” Nick says. “No funeral or anything. County had her cremated. I figured I’d scatter her in the Pacific, like we did with Dad.”
“Well, you shouldn’t put the two of them together, for one thing.”
He gives one breathy, defeated laugh. “Let them fucking duke it out.” He pauses. “So you’re really in France?”
“I’m really in France.”
“And you’re a fag now?”
Filthy word. Fag.
But he doesn’t say it cruelly. Oddly. There’s no malice.
“I’ve always been one.”
There’s another long pause. Nick doesn’t know what to say.
“Well, you didn’t have to be such a dick about it,” he says, finally.
That I’m not expecting.
Such a dick about it? When he hadn’t called me for four months--only breaking the silence because he had to tell me our mother died?
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“‘I don’t care if you disown me or not, because I don’t give a shit about either one of you’?” he recites. “Fucking pathetic. I don’t care if you suck dick, you shouldn’t have fucking abandoned us like that without even talking to us.”
After everything I did.
Every. Goddamn. Thing.
Everything I paid for. Everything I tried to make happen for him and Mom, both of whom were too self-destructive to ever be trusted with anything.
“That’s not fair.”
“No, it’s not fucking fair.”
We don’t say anything, but we don’t hang up.
“What are you going to do?” I ask, finally.
“What do you mean?”
“Where are you going? Are you keeping the house?”
“Landlord was evicting us anyway. I’ll just crash on a couch until I can get my own place.”
I remember: Lena and I taking him to In-N-Out. My last effort to get him to Las Palomas: whoring out my girlfriend in hopes that he’d cling to her.
One of the many times I tried to save him.
Promise me one thing.
And maybe--if there’s one good thing to come of all this, it’d be Nicky.
“I think you should leave,” I tell him. “Fresh start. Go somewhere else. Leave, and never look back.”
He doesn’t say anything for a while. But I can hear his breath on the phone. “I always wondered how you could do that.”
“Leave,” he says, “and never look back.”
I hold the receiver close to my face. Exhale.
“You just go. And when you wake up, it’s like none of it ever happened.”
“But it did happen,” he says. “You can’t just say it didn’t happen, because it did happen.”
“Look, why don’t you drive to New Orleans?” I offer. “I’ll call Bistro Napoleon--they’re always looking for bussers. You can stay with Chris in my old house until you get on your feet.”
“Well, that’s a fucking lunatic idea.”
“It sounds crazy until you do it,” I tell him, “and it works, and you’re gone, and you’re happier than you ever thought you could be. You can actually do something with your life. Something that’s not Colton or La Cadena.”
“You’re not fucking listening.”
“I don’t need to listen--I’m trying to help you.”
“I don’t need your fucking help.”
“You’ve always needed my help!”
“Fucking bullshit,” he says. “You want me to need your help, but I like my life.”
I dial it back. Try to be calm. Like my dad would’ve been.
“Just listen to me,” I tell him. “If you just think about it, you’d realize what I’m telling you.”
There’s a pause. “Keep in touch, will you?”
And the line goes dead.
“I’m so ashamed of you, bug,” says my dad.
“I know,” I tell him. “I know that.”
He hadn’t called me bug since I was a kid.
I don’t know why he does now, in my memory.
Aaron Ackerman is coming down the stairs, in a velvet blazer and a graphic tee.
“There you are,” he says. “You’re wearing that?”
I’m in a flannel and jeans.
And my mother’s dead.
I play with my dad’s dog tags. Malley, Michael J. Catholic. A Positive.
“I’m wearing this.”
“Tops,” he replies, with an eyeroll, and I don’t remember much of anything else until we’re at Sebastien Szabo’s birthday party.
“Of course, I haven’t seen Kevin since the cenozoic era,” Carver is telling a suicidal Aaron. “The Seine has proved to be an impenetrable impediment to continued companionship. That, and Kevin is notorious for leaving people in the past where he thinks they belong.”
Sebastien and Duncan rented out a bar in the Marais, a dark and charmless back room packed with two very different sets of people: sturdy foreign doctors and billowy French gays.
Plus us, the American barflies of Le Manifeste.
And Carver Alexander, who is beginning to feel like a critical mistake.
Back in New York, he seemed so smart and glamorous, someone at ease with himself.
I should’ve left him there. In New York. He’s a piece that belongs to a different puzzle.
But Carver is not the kind of person who goes quietly. He left me a message every day this week with Ross until Ross made me call him back.
“Aren’t we still in the cenozoic era?” Aaron interrupts, thankfully saving me from having to answer Carver’s latest charge. “And I got a B-minus in geology.”
And I shouldn’t have come tonight.
Told Aaron that I had a fever or a stomachache, but.
But I wanted to come.
I wanted to feel more about my mom. I don’t feel more.
Except the sneaking suspicion that I failed her. In some perverse way.
Promise me one thing.
Carver scowls. “It’s merely a metaphor, Monsieur Ackerman.”
But Aaron’s already won, so he doesn’t seem too concerned about furthering the conversation with Carver.
He’s, instead, doing a gentle shoulder bop to “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle, as it floods out of the speakers.
“They say in Kevin, love comes first,” Aaron sings at me, prodding my chest with his finger. “We’ll make Kevin a place on earth.”
She’s buying a stairway to Kevin.
My dad would sing.
My mom would try to sing, flat.
“You’re so original,” I deadpan.
“Not to mention, a fabulous dancer,” he replies.
Behind Aaron, Sebastien and Duncan are heading towards us. Holding hands.
“Happy you made it,” Sebastien greets us.
We exchange kisses, the French way.
And Duncan shakes my hand, gives me a half hug and a weak smile. “Good to see you, mate,” he says, crisp but friendly, like he’s greeting an old classmate. “Thanks for coming.”
My eyes linger with Duncan’s for a moment, those pale green eyes that I’ve drowned in before.
Neither of us quite know what to say.
I hadn’t seen him with Sebastien since before he started inviting me to his apartment.
“Nina and Ross couldn’t make it?” Sebastien asks, finally.
“They’re on their way,” Aaron tells him. “They wanted to do dinner together.” He lowers his voice into a hoarse whisper. “Just the two of them.”
“Not just fucking,” Sebastien says, an observation not a question.
Duncan’s eyes, meanwhile, have moved onto Carver.
“This is Duncan and Sebastien,” I say. “This is Carver. He’s a New York friend.”
Duncan uncoils just slightly at the word “friend.” For a moment, I imagine him jealous.
“I’m also a Paris friend,” Carver replies, icily. “Well, bon anniversaire to whichever one of you is commemorating your natal day.”
“That would be Sebastien,” Duncan says, without seeming tripped up by “natal day.” “My last birthday was thirty, so I’m officially done celebrating them forever.” He claps his hands together. “But! We have a tab at the bar, so please drink away.”
“Risky telling that to a pair of Tulane students,” Aaron replies.
Sebastian smiles politely. “You should see our friends.” He smiles, turns to Duncan. “Is Julien here? We should introduce him to Kevin.”
Duncan momentarily looks surprised, but hitches back up a smile and looks right back at me:
“What a great idea. You two would really hit it off.”
As he stands next to Sebastien, holding hands, pretending they’re happy.
To the room but, I can’t shake the suspicion, especially to me.
I want to fuck Duncan again, I do know that. Feel something familiar.
I’m horny as fuck and thought of having to go through the motions of another sexy stranger like the French Torso seems like a exhausting.
On the day that my mother.
Maybe Julien will sweep me off my feet, that we’ll see each other across the crowded bar.
Who. Is. That.
Cue narration by Bob Saget. This is how I met your.
Julien has yet to materialize.
“He’s always late,” Sebastien says, “but you will like him. But his English is not so good.”
“Won’t matter where they’re going,” Duncan replies.
We make a little more small talk, and when they’re only barely out of earshot, Carver asks me, “So which one have you been fucking?”
“The Australian one,” Aaron replies.
“Could you two say it any louder?”
He sticks out his tongue at me. “But Kevin has a whole list of technicalities as to why there’s nothing wrong with fucking a friend’s boyfriend behind his back.”
“There is nothing wrong with that,” I tell Carver. “I had a threesome with both of them and I fucked his boyfriend once. They’re open.”
“Oh,” Carver says. “Then you’re correct: you’re not transgressing. Monogamy is not humanity’s natural state. It’s very healthy to copulate outside of a relationship.”
“Yes, this situation is the epitome of health,” Aaron replies. “Speaking of fucking, did Duncan say if Boubou’s coming?”
“Boubou was the big black cock Aaron took the night I had a threesome with Duncan and Sebastien,” I tell Carver.
“You say that like I should be ashamed,” Aaron replies, with a smirk. “Oh, no, the straights are here.”
Nina and Ross, also holding hands.
“Oh, Carver, you made it,” Ross says, weakly.
Yes: very much regretting Carver.
“Dinner sure took a while,” Aaron tells them. With a smirk, adds, “Sure you didn’t stop home afterwards for a quickie knowing we were all already gone?”
Unexpectedly, it’s Nina who goes red and Ross who looks especially proud of himself.
“Well,” Nina says, as she quickly regains herself, “Kevin, you should be happy that we did stop home, because I got an AIM message from your high school friend while this guy was showering.”
Who is also a piece of an astonishingly different puzzle.
“Oh?” I say, as calmly as I can.
But I know what she’s going to say before she says it: that he’s coming to Paris.
“St. Patrick’s Day weekend,” she confirms, “and he said he’d love for us to show them around. They’ve got the hostel literally down the street from us.”
That last bit does surprise me.
To think of Matt Barber in Paris. Across the street from me. By choice.
I cannot imagine what he wants from me, and I try to piece it together in my head.
That he dated Nina’s friend.
And Nina’s friends with me.
And maybe he thinks I’m going to tell her what happened, that Nina will tell her friend, her friend will tell the rest of UC Berkeley.
That he needs to come to Paris to figure out what he should be prepared for, what would come back to Berkeley with him.
Poor Matt Barber.
Tormented by the possibility of being humiliated in front of everyone.
He wouldn’t take no for an answer, I would tell Nina.
If you’re religious, you know she’s going to a better place, Matt would tell me, but of course he wasn’t religious.
Or is he now--how would I even know.
“Why would he come to Paris for St. Patrick’s Day?” Aaron asks.
“He’s not coming to Paris for St. Patrick’s Day,” Nina replies. “He’s going to be in Paris on the weekend that happens to include St. Patrick’s Day. Aren’t you going to Berlin for St. Patrick’s Day?”
Or maybe he wants to actually patch things up but of course he doesn’t want that.
And I don’t want that.
I don’t like him crowding my head--he’s better filed away in dusty old memories.
Like my mom. Better. Like that.
“I’m going to Berlin March 14 through 16,” Aaron keeps going. “St. Patrick’s Day is that Monday. I’ll be back in Paris by then.”
“Then aren’t you the one going to Paris for St. Patrick’s Day?” Nina replies, and with what can pass in her mind for a victory, she quickly bolts the conversation and, to me, says, “I figure we’ll have them meet us at Le Manifeste, and we can wander from there? How does he feel about communism?”
“I don’t know him very well, I told you.”
“Oh,” she replies. “He made it sound like you guys were close back in the day.”
He would have said.
He would have said just about anything. As it turned out.
“Overlapping circles,” I dismiss, instead of telling her that when I close my eyes I can still smell his Fierce by Abercrombie & Fitch. “I think we need to get this party going if they’re going to spend this bar tab. Shots?”
There’s a general groan of approval, and I go up to the bar.
And I can feel the current of California, of Matt, of my mom, receding. And my life coming back into my mind: the room, the party, my life in Paris.
The way it’s supposed to be.
“Five shots of tequila.”
And the night begins again.
July 14th: lured Nicky to In-N-Out so we could talk about Las Palomas.
A topic I knew he didn’t want to discuss but we were running out of time.
Lena was my backup. So I could sing the praises of our high school with a “blonde trophy bimbo of upper-middle-class suburbia” as a visual aid. Her words.
I didn’t know how to begin.
Maybe I was scared of the answer I knew was coming.
“So,” I told Nicky, once we all settled into our burgers. “Tomorrow’s the last day to apply for a district transfer, so I just wanted to touch base and get your thoughts—”
“Touch base and get my thoughts?” Nick repeated, look of disgust on his face. “Fuck, Kevin. Why do you sound like a fucking corporation?”
Off to a great start.
Promise me you’ll be strong for them.
“I know it feels like everyone you know is going to Valencia,” I continued, “and I get that. It’s so much easier to do what everyone else is doing, but it’s not about today or tomorrow. It’s about your future, Nick. You’re a smart kid, and you should get the best kind of education you can. Because there’s so much more to the world than Colton. Better people to know than the La Cadena Crew. You deserve to get out. I want you to get out.”
Nicky was scowling, but he wasn’t disagreeing. So there was that.
“And I know it sounds like it’ll be hard,” I added. “Look, I spent my first week eating lunch by myself in the library. Not even eating, because I couldn’t bear the humiliation of waiting in the subsidized school lunch line. But a week later, I met Matt, I met Harry, Hiroshi, Tucker. And suddenly, it felt like I belonged there. I’ve never once regretted doing it. Not once. And I’ll be there for you, every step of the way.”
Nicky took a sip of his vanilla milkshake.
“Girls tell me literally every day they wish there were two Malleys,” Lena interjected, with a placid and complacent smile that dropped her IQ points by double digits. “I was Prom Princess last year, so believe me when I say: I know every girl on campus.”
That made Nicky smile. But not in a friendly way. He sensed a pressure point.
“You’re more than welcome to give me the phone number of some guera bitches from Moreno Valley,” he told her. “I see even the hot ones aren’t afraid to slum it with some thug from Colton.”
“It’s a contingent offer,” she replied, flatly. Dispensing with the bullshit, she pushed the transfer form across the table. “Sign, Nicky.”
“Don’t call me Nicky, what the fuck,” he said. “Kevin, I’ve told you fucking fifty times: I’m not going to Las Palomas, so just drop it.”
“Okay, think about this another way,” I told him. The Hail Mary I hadn’t planned on using, but had readied just in case. “Over the past three years, I’ve made $43,227 from slinging weed. You’re going to be nothing but just another hood rat at Valencia, but at Las Palomas? You’ll be king. I can have J.C. set it up. I can.”
“J.C.,” he repeated, still smiling, shaking his head. “I hang with La Cadena, bro. They fucking own J.C.--you think I need him and his piddly shit? So I can what, exactly? Sacrifice the next four years of my life to pay rent, so Mom can keep drinking away Dad’s pension?”
I glanced over at Lena, who was sipping her milkshake and pointedly staring over to the counter.
“I did what I had to do,” I told him, “to keep a roof over our heads.”
“So you don’t feel guilty about spending all your time with your fucking jotos in Moreno Valley?” he replied. “Please. You can say you’re my brother, but you don’t have my back.”
“That’s not true. You know that’s not true.”
“I don’t need you to swoop in,” he continued, unabated, “with some phony concern about how you want some better life for me, because guess what? I like my life. I don’t need to suck the dick of the rich and the famous to feel like I’m someone. I’ve got people who have my back, who care about me, and that’s fucking more than you can say about your bitch-ass Prom Queen girlfriend who’s going to drop you the second she stops rebelling against her parents.”
Lena’s chair slid out, hands on the table, face reddened like she was going to say something. But she didn’t. She stared at Nicky, for a second, two seconds, and then beelined for the bathroom.
Nicky and I both watched her go.
“Don’t bring Lena into this,” I told him. “Don’t bring my friends into this. You know what’s wrong with you? You’re deluded. And you think there’s nothing else outside of Colton, but there is. They’ve got you so brainwashed--”
“Brainwashed?” Nicky repeated. “Because I can’t be bought with the promise of your stupid bougie little world? Full of some rich fake-friends and a bimbo girlfriend and her mom’s Lexus? You fucking sit there in some overpriced shirt from Abercrombie and tell me that I’m the one who’s brainwashed.” He shook his head. “I’ve got people who like me for me. What the fuck do you have?”
“Okay so,” Becker texted, “I’m thinking June 23rd.”
“Oh, and here I was still holding out hope you’d change your mind and come up tomorrow after all.”
“I told you,” Becker replied, and I could almost hear the sternness in his words. “I didn’t realize it was Father’s Day Weekend. And it’s been hard with work and all.”
Becker worked precisely fifteen hours a week at J.Crew, a place that seemed his shifts solely one the days he was planning on coming to New York.
One of these days, I was going to threaten to visit him. See how quickly J.Crew became a flexible employer.
“I don’t know, Becker, do you really think you can live without me for another week?”
“I’ll try my best.”
I closed my phone, looked back up to the group, who was staring at me.
“Sorry,” I told them. “My dad was texting me.”
Who knew why I said it was my dad. Of all people.
Four of us, all interns at Smith Barney, at Phil van der Rohe’s apartment on Central Park West, drinking on a Thursday evening. Really, it was his grandmother’s apartment--she had decamped to the Hamptons for the summer--but he was occupying the whole three-bedroom spread.
Rich people: allergic to the notion that an intern should spend the summer without a multimillion-dollar apartment to himself. I imagined Becker drifting through a place like this.
“Is that a RAZR?” Phil asked, wrinkling his nose. “God, I’d kill myself if I didn’t have a BlackBerry.”
I looked down at my phone, which suddenly seemed cheap, and slid it back in my pocket. “And you’ll never know the simple joys of T-9 word. How I pity you.”
Kate grinned, set down her drink on the glass coffee table next to her iPhone. “Seriously, Phil, not everyone grew up in Greenwich.”
“West Coast, best coast,” I agreed.
“Where in California are you from, again?” Phil asked.
Phil’s smug, fat face. Normally, in situations like this--when I was surrounded by acquaintances at Tulane, for instance--I’d say Moreno Valley, but I definitely wanted to smack the shit off his smile more than that.
“Napa Valley,” I told him. “My dad owns a winery called Prairie Chapel. It’s not big or anything--my grandparents bought it for him for his birthday one year, I think. Something like that.”
Phil’s smile flickered, and I reached for the bottle of scotch he had set in the middle of the coffee table.
“And your grandparents are who, exactly?” he asked, maybe skeptical, maybe jealous. “If they just go around buying wineries for people?”
I tried to search my brain for some famous Malley that I could appropriate, and the only one I could think of was Ern Malley, who wasn’t a person so much as a literary hoax from the 1940s.
Fitting, in its way.
“And he was a multi-millionaire poet,” Phil repeated. “Apparently?”
I poured my tumbler to the brim with scotch, because this was good shit and I wasn’t about to leave any of it for Phil’s grandmother.
“Well, the money’s from my grandmother’s side,” I told him, with a smirk. “The Qantas family. Founded the airline. Why did you think my middle name is Qantas?”
One thing I learned in my profession: people had no interest in the truth. You weren’t selling a product; you were selling a feeling, a dream, a life.
If you sold it well enough, people would believe anything.
J.C. told me that. I learned more from him than I did from Intro to Business.
“Ern Malley sounds so familiar,” Dave bullshitted, taking the nearly-empty bottle of scotch from me. “I think I read him in high school.”
“You probably all read him in high school,” I replied, eyes trained on Phil. “‘Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Did you read that one?”
“Oh, I definitely remember that one,” said Kate. “Shit, he is a big deal.”
Phil looked irritated by this sudden turn of events.
“That was his most famous poem, anyway,” I told them. “He never did like it very much.”
“I’ve heard much about you,” purrs Julien. He has an impenetrably thick French accent, his English slurring along his voice as an afterthought.
He is hot though. Duncan and Sebastien were right about that. Dark hair, artfully messy, a kind of brooding Jake Gyllenhaal face. And a great body, can tell even under his clinging graphic tee.
The type of guy that, of course, anyone would want to hook up with at a party like this.
I’m watching Duncan, meek over Julien’s shoulder with a thin, uncomfortable smile, downing his drink.
And I like that he’s a little bit jealous. I want to take him in my arms and say, “Let’s get out of here.”
Matt Barber coming to Paris.
To Le Manifeste. To my life.
Tell me about Mark again, I would tell him, and I’ll tell you about my mom.
Sebastien beams over Julien’s other shoulder like a dad cheering on a soccer game.
“I’ve heard exactly nothing about you,” I tell him.
Julien blinks at me blankly. Linguistic Error 404.
“Anyway, what are you drinking?” I ask.
He looks down at his drink, holds it up. It’s brown liquid with ice. “Yes.”
I can’t help but smile at that. “Oh.”
And I lock eyes with Duncan, who is also suppressing a giggle.
Looking pleased that it’s not going well.
“Julien is from Antibes,” Sebastien interjects, “in the south, on the Riviera.”
He mutters some strands of French at Julien, who lights up, begins stanzas of French poetry, animated with his arms and face.
“He says it’s very beautiful there,” Sebastien says, earnestly.
Duncan’s smile grows. Mine does too.
“Ask him if he wants me to fuck him in the bathroom,” I tell Sebastien, without taking my eyes off Duncan.
Sebastien gets a smirk. “Do you really want me to ask him that?”
Duncan’s smile has abruptly vanished. “Absolutely.”
Sebastien turns to Julien, and I guess he actually does say it, because Julien turns a bit red but giggles at the prospect.
He turns to me, leans into me: kisses me.
A short kiss, short but deep.
“Find me at the end,” he whispers.
But I know I won’t.
“Okay, okay,” Becker texted. “Fourth of July. So we can have an extra day--what do you think?”
“Hamburgers or hot dogs?”
I snapped my phone shut, looked up at the rest of the group, who were gathered in mine and Lizzie’s apartment in Harlem. “Sorry about that.”
“Was that the boyfriend?” Carver asked. “To tell you he’s not coming next weekend, or to sunder relations altogether?”
“He’s coming up Fourth of July now,” I told him. “Sorry, Carver, you’ll have to keep your paws off me for at least another two weeks.”
“I’ll put it on my calendar,” Carver replied. “Dear Diary.”
“I think we’re getting off-topic,” Lizzie said, accepting the bong from Jesse. “Kevin, you were telling us how you intern with a bunch of complete idiots.”
“Well, it’s all about the salesmanship,” I replied. “It wouldn’t be the first time I duped people into thinking I was a member of the patrician elite.”
“Yes, you seem like a tremendously skilled liar,” Carver said. “But I refuse to believe anyone could be so dense as to think your family was run out of Australia by a coup in 1968.”
Lizzie handed me the bong.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It was the first thing that came to my mind. They keep shooting the shit about how rich they are, and what am I supposed to do?”
“I mean, you could not keep embellishing your family history,” Carver replied.
“Tell them you sell pot and play trumpet in the subway?” Jesse suggested.
“Not going to happen,” I said. “This is Smith Barney. And believe me: no group of rich kids wants to be friends with the poor kid. They’ll treat you okay for a while, but at the end of the day, you’re never actually going to be one of them and they’ll just throw you aside when they realize you have no idea what you’re doing in that world.”
“So why do you try?” Carver asked. “Why do you try to be one of them? If you think they’re going to expose you as some fraud, somewhere down the line?”
“I’m not trying to be one of them,” I told him, icily. “I’m mocking them.”
“Doesn’t sound like it,” he replied. “Spinning a very interesting but ultimately very fraudulent yarn about your life.”
“I don’t like lying to people,” I said, “as a general rule.”
Carver smirked. “Do they know you suck dick?”
“Okay, Carver,” Lizzie said, “maybe we should hit the bar.”
Lena pulled the Lexus in front of our house, and Nick jumped out without saying anything.
But Lena and I stayed, silent in the front seats.
“You know what, let’s go talk to J.C.,” I told her, finally, unbuckling my seatbelt. “Maybe we’ve been looking at this the wrong way.”
I thought Lena would weigh in, but she didn’t. She pulled the keys out of the ignition, followed me across the street and up the walk to J.C.’s house.
Laura, heavily pregnant and covered in a permanent glaze of sweat from the hot desert summer, answered the door. “Hey, you two,” she said. “Here for J.C.?”
I nodded and, without saying anything, she ushered us inside. Followed her into the dining room, where J.C. was sitting at the head of the table.
It amazed me how clean the house had gotten since Laura moved in about four months ago. Nothing like the places in Moreno Valley, like Lena’s house or Matt’s house, but less of a crack den and more of a home.
Laura went into the kitchen. She didn’t like to know what went on.
“Please tell me you need more product,” J.C. said.
“It’s a seasonal market,” I replied. “I’ve barely sold what you gave me last week.”
J.C. shook his head bitterly. “Killing me, man.”
Lena and I sat down at the table.
“We just had lunch with Nicky,” I told him. “About Las Palomas. And it didn’t go well.”
J.C. threw back his head. “Listen when I tell you: you don’t want to make waves with La Cadena. They want Nick where they want him, and he’s going to go where they tell him to go. It’s no longer up to you.”
“That’s why I thought you might have,” I said, “an inside track. Some influence, I mean.”
J.C. rolled his eyes. “You want me to, what, go tell Loco that he better let your baby brother go to some fucking rich kid high school or else? This isn’t The-fucking-O.C., Kev.”
“His name’s Loco?” Lena asked, with a smirk. “That’s not very imaginative.”
“Yeah, well,” J.C. said, “when he shoots you in the back of the head and rapes your dead body for the rest of the week, you probably won’t be too concerned about what they call him.”
The small fell from Lena’s face. She had lost her swagger--a girl who, generally speaking, didn’t lose her swagger.
“They don’t really do that, Lena!” Laura called, from the kitchen. “Babe, don’t tell her that!”
“Lena,” I said, “maybe you should go see what Laura’s up to.”
Lena rolled her eyes, didn’t move. “I’m a big girl.”
I looked back to J.C. “Give me his number,” I said, “if you’re too pussy to call him up.”
“Don’t Fucking Do Stupid Shit,” J.C. replied. “Rule number one. The only fucking rule! You’re going to get yourself killed, and then you’re going to get me killed, and then you’re going to get our two bitches killed.” He motioned to Lena, then to the kitchen. “Over what? Over what high school Nick fucking goes to? Let it go.”
“He’s my brother, J.C.”
Promise me one thing.
“I’m your brother,” he replied. “Have I ever told you to give up unless it’s a lost cause? Give the fuck up. It’s a lost cause. I know what you promised your dad, and believe me, if he had any of the sense it seemed like he had, he’s proud as shit that you did as much as you’ve done for Nick and your mom.” He shook his head. “Take your girl back to the suburbs, fill out your application to UCLA or wherever, and get the fuck out of Colton and never look back.”
Well. After that, I didn’t know exactly what to do.
And I had nowhere to go.
Matt, in Big Bear. Nicky, at our house.
So I took Lena to my favorite spot in Colton: the dry, concrete riverbed of the Santa Ana River, under the overpass to the 2015 freeway. Secluded, tucked behind old warehouses and cracking asphalt--a place that seemed my own and no one else's.
“I’ve never taken anyone here,” I told Lena, slumping against one of the concrete pylons holding up the overpass as I finished rolling a joint. “Real people, I mean. Las Palomas people.”
Lena looked briefly surprised by that. “Not even Matt?”
I shook my head. “You know all of our Las Palomas friends would find me trashy as fuck.”
“You didn’t think I would?”
“I don’t know,” I said, handing her the joint. “I guess not.”
Lena exhaled smoke. “I don’t know how you do what you do.”
“What, sell weed?”
“No,” she said. “Live.”
“Well, I don’t threaten Loco, for starters.”
“No,” she said, again. “I mean, you’re seventeen and it seems like you have the whole weight of the world on your shoulders. And I can’t imagine that. I can’t. I’d do anything for my brothers--but you were, what, fourteen and your dad told you to support the family?”
“That should give you an idea of what he thought about my mother’s sense of responsibility.” I paused. “Lot of good I’ve done. His wife’s at a bar at two o’clock in the afternoon and his son’s in a street gang.”
“But then there’s you,” she said. “Maybe J.C.’s right. That you did as much as anyone could’ve expected you to do, and maybe you should stop blaming yourself because you weren’t able to make other people perfect.”
Lena never looked so beautiful as she did in the ditch under the overpass, in an Abercrombie jean skirt and flip flops.
I tried to give her a smile. “This is probably more rebellion than you had in mind when you took up with the likes of me, Marissa Cooper.”
“I’m not with you because I’m rebelling,” she said, matching my hazy smile. “I’m with you because I love you.”
Something she had never said before.
And God, I wished so hard that I could love her. Wished that I was straight, so I could sweep this beautiful woman up in my arms like a conquering force, and tell her: I love you too.
Instead, I thought of the moment when I’d inevitably break her heart.
Her eyes were inviting me to say it back. But I couldn’t.
A kaleidoscope of a thousand emotions burst across her face. As she realized I had nothing for her.
“Well, even if I was,” she deflected, breezy smile snapping onto her face, “it wouldn’t have worked anyway, because my parents are crazy about you.”
On what planet was I good news for Lena Taylor?
When we just came from a house where she was threatened with rape and murder?
When did I not spend a day dragging her in just a little deeper, killing her slowly and methodically, a premeditated poisoning of her empathy?
“Only because they don’t know who I really am.”
“They do,” she said. “And I do too.”
My phone buzzed. Another text from Matt Barber.
“But seriously, dude, what’s the ETA on that burrito?”
I had to smile at that. I couldn’t ever not smile at Matt Barber.
“If you miss me, just say it,” I texted back.
The response was immediate: “Fine. I miss you.”
I looked up at Lena, who was no longer smiling.
“I think we should head back,” I told her, “before it gets too late.”
“Back to your place?” she asked. “Or back to Moreno?”
I wrinkled my face. “To Moreno. I’m going to borrow Matt’s car for a bit.”
“So I’m looking at my calendar,” Becker texted. “July 20. Are you around?”
“I’m always around, Becker,” I told him. “You missed a fun Fourth of July.”
“I told you, my mom already invited the Averys over for a barbecue,” he replied. “I couldn’t get out of it. But I promise: July 18.”
“July 18,” I confirmed, and I closed my phone before I could text him what I actually wanted to say, which was less clerical.
This is the third time you’ve postponed, and if you’re not going to come up to New York, then...
I didn’t have an end to that sentence. Not really.
I don’t want to be with her. I want to be with you.
I knew why he postponed, each time: he didn’t want to tell his parents he was visiting someone. Lest it invite questions: who is this Kevin Malley?
It had nothing to do with me. Becker was never going to care about me more than he cared about surface-level opinions, and that was it, and that was that.
I leaned back against the tile wall, raised my trumpet, and began playing “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue.”
One of my favorites. I remembered the first time I heard it. Preservation Hall, the night before I evacuated for Katrina.
Music was so honest. Impossible to fake music. Not the trumpet, anyway. You blew, you pressed the keys, and beautiful music came out or it didn’t.
No shortcut. No faking it. Becker or the interns at Smith Barney or Matt Barber, anyone, they’d have to start at the bottom and learn and practice, the way I had to.
When I finished the song, there was some narrow applause from a girl in a red dress, maybe mid-twenties. She tossed a dollar bill into my open case, on top of the maybe fifteen or sixteen dollars I’d gotten from sitting here for far too long.
“You’re not homeless, are you?”
“I’m an investment banker at Smith Barney,” I told her, “who missed his helicopter to the Hamptons.”
She smiled. Like she didn’t know if I was joking or not.
She looked a little like Lena when she smiled. Or maybe I was just imagining that.
“Well, you’re very hot,” she said, “and very talented. If you’d want to grab a drink.”
I couldn’t tell if she was sincere, or if she was a prostitute, but either way, I had no interest in deep-sea fishing at this moment of my life.
Not when I was thinking of Becker, aching for Becker.
“Sorry, I suck dick,” I told her. “You don’t have a dick under that dress, do you?”
Seemed a bit taken aback by that, smiled umcomfortably and hurried on her way.
Carver was watching all of this, from over by the fare machines.
“You look morose,” he said, approaching me, yellow MetroCard hanging limply from his fingers.
“Let me guess,” Carver said, “Once more, the boyfriend pushed his sojourn further into the future?”
“The boyfriend did push his sojourn further into the future,” I replied. “July 18. Mark your calendar. Or don’t bother, because we both know he won’t actually be here on July 18.”
“Maybe it’s time,” he said, “to reconsider whether or not this gentleman is the proper partner for you at this juncture of your life.”
Carver was exhausting.
Becker was exhausting.
Everyone was exhausting.
“He’s worth the wait,” I told him, resolute. “He’ll come around. He just needs a little push.”
“If he doesn’t,” Carver said, fluttering his eyelids, “you’re very hot and very talented, if you want to grab a drink.”
“Fuck off, Carver.”
“Kitty has claws,” he replied. He looked down at the case, counted the cash silently in his head. “Wow, seventeen dollars. Now you can buy a whole lunch at Hale and Hearty.”
“I thought ‘art isn’t worth creating if it’s going to be treated like a commodity’?”
“It isn’t,” he replied. He took out a five dollar bill, tossed it in the case. “But this is just sad.”
He continued to stand, looming over me.
“I assume there’s a reason you’re here?”
“I’m just passing through,” he replied. “Going to the Village to buy paint. Come with me. You can see how an artist practices his craft.”
“I know, your boss let you render the Nabisco logo in grayscale last week. You already told me.”
Carver wrinkled his face. “So how’s trading stock? Everything you want and more?”
“Don’t be a dick, Carver.”
“You started it,” he said. “No, I genuinely want to know. You said your boyfriend pushed you into doing it, because he’s Richie Rich, and you didn’t want to remind him that you’re actually white trash. But now, you’d rather sit on the floor of the New York City Subway than go to your internship.”
“It’s a Saturday.”
“Do they all still think you’re the heir to Qantas Airlines?”
I gave him a thin smile. “They treat me like one of them. It’s nice.”
“Oh, who cares?” he said. “A bunch of vapid, shallow people think you’re swell. What does it matter if they care about you if they don’t know who you really are?”
“Who said they care about me? These people are temporary. In five weeks, I’ll throw them away and go back to my actual people.”
“Who also don’t know you’re gay.”
“Not everyone has to know everything about everyone, Carver,” I told him. “Just because you’re in constant state of oversharing.”
“You can’t unring a bell, darling,” he told me. “Once you’ve enjoyed la vie en vérité, you can’t go back to the way things were, and you know that.” He frowns. “Are you going to throw us away in five weeks?”
“You’re getting dangerously close.”
Carver said nothing. From below, a train approaching. “That’ll be the 2 train. Last chance to come with me.”
I picked up my trumpet, and started playing “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” until Carver left.
Later. I lie in wait.
For Duncan. Outside the bathrooms.
Maybe I’m a little too drunk.
I prop myself up against the wall, behind one of the bartenders who’s waiting for the stall, and wait for Duncan to pop up.
“Hey,” he says, as the bartender pushes past him into the bathroom. “Enjoying the party?”
He’s wearing the white cricket sweater from the first time we met at the Bataclan.
And he looks very relaxed. With all of this.
I wonder if, in a bar in Florence, Matt Barber is relaxed.
And at a bar in Colton, there’s a miserable bar stool left empty.
Do they poor one out for someone who drunk drives into oncoming traffic?
I want none of them here. Not any of them.
Even I don’t want to be here.
“And,” he says, with a smirk, “you and Julien. That was bold.”
“I say what I want,” I tell him, “and I get it.”
“So you’re actually going to fuck him?”
“Why do you care?”
Duncan cocks his head. “I can’t make conversation?”
“That’s not conversation.”
“It’s none of my business who you fuck,” he says. “If you want to fuck Julien, fuck Julien. I don’t care.”
“I think you do care.”
Duncan gives an exasperated sigh, shakes his head, but he says nothing.
Because I know he does care.
And Duncan Rinehart may be the only person alive who does actually care about me.
You’re a fag now?
I’ve always been one.
“How about, instead of Julien, I take you home and fuck the living shit out of you on the floor, like I did last time?”
Duncan gives me a polite but cautionary smile. “You doing alright, mate?”
“I’m fine,” I tell him, “mate. Sorry if I just want to bend you over the bathroom sink, rip down your pants, and abuse your hole like the bottom bitch you are.”
Duncan’s smile can’t help but grow. “It’s Sebastien’s birthday.” He lowers his voice. “I’ll be off Monday, and Sebastien will be gone. Maybe you can come by.”
And I hate how I’m the one that needs to be hidden.
Always fucking hidden.
You’ll wish you lived your whole life like this.
No, I am living my whole life like this.
Fuck it. I don’t care. I lean in. I kiss him.
He kisses back. Really does: grabs the back of my head, pulls me in just a little deeper, as my hand goes down to his hardening crotch.
But he breaks it. It’s just a short kiss, a quick one, an explanatory one.
“For the record, I’d much rather be curled up with you and a bottle of wine than be at this bar,” he tells me. “Sebastien’s friends are all dreadful, aren’t they?”
Sad eyes. Sad smile. Sad Duncan.
He cried on my shoulder.
I’m glad you’re here. I’m so sorry.
A terrible thing happened to me today. I would tell him.
And maybe Duncan’s the only person I would tell this to.
“You know what I want?” I reply. “I want to run away with you. And then, when we slam the book shut on Paris, we’ll be together. Just the two of us.”
Duncan giggles. “Where? Run off to some little shack in Tahiti? I’ll heal the natives, you sunbathe in the nude?”
“What if we did?”
He gives me an odd look, a slightly uncomfortable look. “I think you’re a few drinks further than I am.”
“I’m fine, I told you,” I reply. “I just don’t get it. What’s the point of doing this, if you don’t get to be happy?”
“The point of what?”
“The point of everything,” I reply. “Starting everything again. It’s like, you get something good, and then boom, it shatters into a million pieces. Over and over again, and I don’t get it.”
Duncan bites his lip, betrays no emotion.
But I want to run away from here. I know that.
You can’t just say it didn’t happen, because it did happen.
But. I would never have to think about this place or these people.
And what would it be like, if there were no next chapters, no new starts: the final avatar of Kevin Michael Malley, who gets to wake up with the same man every morning, in the same place, no past, the present and future carefully unfurling like a long, white carpet.
Duncan bites his lip. “You’re not going to get what you want out of me.”
“And what is it that I want?”
“What everyone wants,” he says. “You want to feel close to someone. I understand it. I understand you. Better than you think, because we’re not so different.”
I put my hand on his cheek.
“I don’t understand why Sebastien gets to have you.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, softly, pulling my hand down. “I know what you want and you’re not going to get it from me.”
The bathroom door opens, and the woman comes out. Duncan gives me a polite smile as she heads back upstairs.
“Well, bathroom’s free,” he tells me.
“Is that an invitation?” I ask him. Maybe too pleading: “Come on.”
“Monday,” he repeats, clapping me on the shoulder.
Don’t Fucking Do Stupid Shit, his eyes say.
“How about” Becker texted, “August 3?”
If your ass isn’t here on August 3, this is over.
I wanted to say.
I did not say.
“Whatever works for you,” I replied. “I know your schedule’s so busy.”
It was supposed to be sarcastic, annoyed, bitter, but none of that came through in text.
“Should work,” Becker replied, matter-of-factly.
I closed my phone.
“Why don’t you just fuck someone else?” Carver asked me.
“Don’t tell him to fuck someone else,” Jesse replied, coming back with four cans of Bud Light. We were at Whiskeytown, in the East Village.
“He likes this boy, Carver,” added Lizzie.
“Carver doesn’t understand human interaction,” I told them. “He thinks that, unless you’re giving into your base id, you’re being fundamentally dishonest.”
“I don’t think I appreciate that,” Carver replied. He was scanning the crowd. He was always scanning the crown, like a Serengeti predator. “See that guy in the plaid? Fucked him. Has a girlfriend.”
“You’re proving my point,” I told him.
“No, I’m not,” he replied. “I wanted dick. He wanted ass. We both left happy and satisfied.” He shook his head. “You philosophers. Always overthinking everything. You’re not going to convince me that suppressing desires, and lying to yourself about what you really want, is at all healthy. Sorry to burst your bubble.”
“I want someone to know me,” I told him. “Before we go to bed together. To actually care about me. I don’t want it to be meaningless.”
“I don’t have meaningless sex,” Carver said, taking a sip of his Bud Light. “It always has meaning to me.”
It’s that part of the evening: where I pull my international calling card out of my wallet, and I hold the receiver to my ear.
Chris Baker has a bad habit of texting his parents when he’s drunk, which I could never understand.
The last thing I think of when I’m drunk is texting Linda Malley.
Fuck you. Was the last thing I ever said to her.
I’m so ashamed of you, bug, my dad would say.
I know. I would say.
Calling Becker is a bad idea.
I do realize that.
Even in my drunk, orphaned haze.
As I replace the receiver.
I told my mom Fuck you and I stormed out of the house and I drove to New Orleans and I never saw her again. And I would never see her again.
And there’s never any going back to the past.
And nor do I want to go back. To being hidden. To being nothing.
I don’t want Becker here.
I don’t want Matt here.
Or my mom or my dad.
I don’t even want Duncan here. As it turns out.
It’s March. I have two more months in Paris, and there’s nothing left here that I want.
And plenty of things I don’t want.
“You know, I think I’m supposed to be out-of-town that weekend,” I tell Nina.
She looks at me, interrupted and startled by the abruptness. “Sorry, what weekend?”
“The weekend that guy from Berkeley’s coming.”
“Oh,” she says, nonchalantly. “Too bad. Are you going to Berlin with Aaron?”
It’s an easier out than what I had been assuming, so I tell her, “Yes.”
Aaron smiles, eager to see where this is going: luckily he’s too discreet to say anything without knowing more of the story.
“Oh, I’ve been begging Kevin to come with us for ages,” he tells Nina, theatrically. “‘You must do a gays’ weekend with me and my friends from Vienna.’ I finally sold him on Berlin.” Locking eyes with me, he adds, “It must’ve been the debaucherous clubs and leather bars.”
“As it happens, I have always aspired to see Berlin,” Carver says.
“Berlin’s closed that day,” Aaron replies. “They’re putting the wall back up just for you. Read the news.”
Matt met me alongside Big Bear Boulevard, on the edge of a dusty driveway marked with handpainted sign: “LDS Youth Camp, 0.25 miles.”
“Spring me from this hellhole,” he said, flinging himself in the passenger seat of the Eclipse. “Drive.”
“Wait, can you just leave like this?”
“I’ve got about ninety minutes,” he said. “Just have to be back for Shower Hour at five.”
Matt looked at me, grinned. “You got the contraband, dude?”
I handed him the greasy bag from Los Hermanos, and Matt unearthed the foil-wrapped California burrito. “My precious,” he said.
“Hey, Kevin, thanks for driving two hours to bring me a burrito, how’s your summer been?’” I said.
“I know how your summer’s been,” he told me, mouth full. “Dull. Keep heading down this road, I’ll tell you where to turn.” He took another bite. “I heard you caught a Dodgers game last week with your new BFFs Van, Brig, and Josh.”
“Are you jealous that you’ve been banished to the wilderness all summer, but your dad and brothers took me to LA for a baseball game?”
“Depends: field or box?”
“Left Field Pavilion.”
“Not jealous at all.” He took another bite of burrito. “Lynn didn’t give you shit about taking my car?”
“Oh, I stole it,” I told him. “There was a high-speed chase down Perris Boulevard and everything--Lynn’s Honda Odyssey hot on my heels. Actually, I’m a wanted fugitive now. Dead or alive.”
Matt was smiling. “Thanks for coming, dude.”
“Well, you said you missed me.”
I thought about that kiss.
Which I was thinking about constantly, even though we had never, ever spoken of again.
Matt said nothing. He was thinking about that kiss too. Maybe.
We drove in silence for a minute or two until he had me turn down a unmarked gravel driveway
“You’re not taking me somewhere to murder me, are you?”
We were weaving through trees, until out popped a lone, squat house on the lakeshore, dressed up to look like a log cabin. I parked at the edge of the gravel, looking out over the lake.
“Jenna’s uncle’s place,” he told me, as we headed down the wooded hill towards the lake--towards the house’s small dock, cantilevered over the shoreline. “But they’re only here on the weekends.”
“And you decided to just help yourself to it during the week?”
Matt grinned, as we stepped onto the dock. “I mean, I can’t get in the house or anything, but the yard and the dock are great places to chill. Too far to go on foot from camp, but Harry was here a few weeks ago so we came here and smoked a little bit. No one around to bother us.”
Matt peeled off his t-shirt. Showed me his sinewy body.
Tanned from the summer, lightly muscled from swimming in the lake, trim from sparsely eating the camp diet.
The waistband on his boardshorts hitting just below his triangular hip bones, just above the start of his pubes.
He was staring at me. “You bring your swimsuit? It’s too hot to sit on the dock.”
I shook my head. “I came straight from J.C.’s.”
“J.C.?” Matt asked. Sat down on the edge of the dock, feet trawling in the water. “What’d he want?”
“Personal stuff,” I replied. “Nick’s high school education.”
“So he’s not going to Las Palomas, then.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Matt said nothing. He jumped in the rest of the way, into the lake, then resurfaced, propping himself up on the side of the wood. “Want to light a joint?”
“You’re going to smoke it in there?”
Matt smiled, lazily splashing water up at me. “I’ll hold onto the dock. Come on in.”
I began unbuttoning my shirt, looking down at Matt’s head.
“What, in my underwear?”
Matt didn’t say anything. Didn’t say no.
Normally, this would be the part of the conversation where one of us would make a vaguely gay joke—”You just want to see me in my boxers, dude, ha ha ha”--but I didn’t, I couldn’t.
Not after that kiss.
That never discussed kiss, sempervirens.
I peeled off my shirt, already sweaty. Pulled down my shorts to my boxer briefs, trying to will myself from getting hard.
Matt had turned away was watching me out of the corner of his eye.
Alone, at the edge of the lake: cut off from the world, from Las Palomas, Moreno Valley.
“You know,” I said, setting the joint down on the edge of the dock, “I don’t really want to drive home in wet underwear though.”
Matt flickered, for a moment, then looked nonchalant about it. “Well, it’s pretty secluded over here.” No opinion, not even a suggestion: just an observation. A deniable observation.
But, like anything: it wasn’t a no.
I yanked down my boxer briefs.
And I was naked. Dick swinging. In front of Matt.
By now, Matt didn’t, couldn’t, pretend he wasn’t staring at me.
I jumped into the water.
And when I surfaced, Matt had already taken off his board shorts. Was putting them in a wet clump on the edge of the dock. “What,” he said, casually, mouth creeping into a smile. “Couldn’t let you be the only one swimming free.”
And there we were. Treading water.
Naked. Both of us.
I could see the outline of Matt’s pale dick, abstract under the gentle ripples of Big Bear Lake. Knew he could see mine too.
“It feels amazing,” I told him. Small talk, apparently. Naked small talk, with my best friend. Who had a girlfriend. Both of us: girlfriends. “You’re right. It was too hot not to come in the water.”
Matt kept treading water. “Yeah, dude.” Didn’t quite know what to do, for a bit, so he turned over, swam back to the dock, naked ass cresting just below the top of the water.
I grabbed the dock next to him. Matt had picked up the joint, holding it between wet fingers.
Beneath the water, Matt’s dick was rock hard.
I moved close to him. So close that we’re almost touching.
“I,” he said, his voice suddenly soft, “don’t have a lighter.”
“I don’t really want to smoke.”
Matt gave me a thin smile. “What do you want to do?”
We both knew what we wanted to do.
We didn’t know who was going to be the first one to go there.
To make subtext text. To dramatically change our relationship in a way that couldn’t be explained away by drunkenness or teenage horniness.
“Did you really miss me?” I asked him, quietly.
One of the only times I’d seen Matt Barber sheepish. Awkward smile, vague discomfort.
“I,” he said.
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. In the clear ripples, both of our dicks were at full mast.
So I leaned in. And, for the second time, I kissed Matt Barber.
Our naked bodies, just barely submerged. My hand on the side of his thigh, his hand on mine, both of our dicks hard dicks rubbing against each other.
Beyond jacking off in his bed.
Beyond even a drunken kiss.
Sober. And naked. And hard.
We were full-on making out. Holding onto the dock, and holding onto each other.
Naked bodies, submerged.
Dicks, near the breaking point.
My hand found its way to Matt’s engorged dick, poking out of the water, and he let out an involuntary moan when I grabbed it.
Kept my lips on his, as I began to slowly stroke him off.
Matt was moaning into my mouth, unable to stop--unable to break away, unable to do anything but feel the pleasure that I was giving him.
Until finally, he threw his head back, grunted, and a geyser of cum shot up from his dick, striking us both in the chin.
“Whoa,” he said, when I--not him--broke the kiss.
Matt, startled. That look on his face. Unsure. But not disapproving.
White cum, dripping down his chin. Dripping down both of our chins.
“I suppose ‘whoa’ is better than the ‘fuck’ I got last time.”
“I,” Matt sputtered. “That was unexpected.”
We bobbed in the water. Holding on to the deck. Holding onto each other--not with our hands, but with our eyes, with our lust.
“I miss you too,” I told him, finally, “when you’re up here.”
Matt leaned into me. Kissed me again.
Kissed, but this time, he wasn’t unsure. And I wasn’t unsure. His hand on my back, my hand on his, our tongues tangled together.
Becker finally got to New York.
August 3, like he said. For the first time, not bullshitting.
Becker was Becker.
“Okay, but after dinner, come out with us,” Lizzie said, setting down her beer. “Carver keeps asking me if he gets to meet your boyfriend.”
Oh, God, no, Lizzie.
In front of Becker?
Who was suddenly having a very silent, very visible meltdown inside his head.
Smiling blandly through the entire thing. But I knew Becker.
And, of course, he spent the next half-hour giving clipped answers to every question Lizzie asked him, stewing over the mental Holocaust that had suddenly clogged his neurotic little brain.
Luckily, Lizzie didn’t need help filling the conversation.
Kept his eyes trained on me. Smoldering. Each moment, his fury building, ruminating over the word: boyfriend. A word only Becker could take as an insult.
And finally, Lizzie left to go meet Jesse and Carver, and I desperately hoped that the promise of sex--for the first time in three months--could drag Becker back onto Team Kevin, but:
“I cannot believe you,” he said, the minute Lizzie closed the front door behind her. “You’re out now?”
Why couldn’t Becker be like normal boyfriends? Oh, I’m so happy to see you, Kevin, whom I haven’t seen since the middle of May. Why was everything so dramatic?
“It’s just for the summer, Becker.” My voice was calm, measured, like I was talking to an angry child, which was essentially what I was doing. “None of these people go to school with us.”
“I don’t like you outing me,” he snapped. “That’s a terrible thing to do.”
And fuck him. Outing?
Your boyfriend telling a handful of people that he would never see again that he was my boyfriend was not “outing.”
An entire locker row looking at you as if you suddenly had AIDS? That was outing.
But I didn’t want to fight with Becker. I desperately wanted to stop fighting, so I could smother his face into a pillow and destroy his ass with my dick.
Three months. Bone dry.
“We’ve never used the boyfriend word, and you’re using it to everyone else.”
“That was Lizzie’s word.” Oh, fuck it, did I really want to blame Lizzie? Who cared at this point. Becker sometimes needed a slap in the face. “We’ve been together for five months. How else would you describe us, exactly, Becker, if not boyfriends?”
“I don’t know,” I huffed. “We’re, like, exclusive fuck buddies with a romantic component.”
God. Did he listen to himself talk? Ever?
“That’s boyfriends,” I told him. “We agreed to not fuck anyone else over the summer. We agreed that we’re both into each other. We talk every day. You’ve sexted me from the breakroom at J.Crew. So fuck off. Why can’t you just enjoy the weekend?”
Becker had no rebuttal, and we both knew it. Beyond the Becker motto: “I’m just not ready for this.”
I loved when I got the upper hand. When I sent Becker into a forced retreat, or sexy little game of cat and mouse.
“You remember what you said at the beach--spring break?” I asked him. “That when it got complicated, we’d figure it out. Guess what: now it’s complicated.”
“It’s not intrinsically complicated,” he sulked. “You’re creating complications. That’s not the same thing.”
Calling my boyfriend my boyfriend--telling people I was gay, before said boyfriend arrived. None of those were manufactured complications, but I didn’t feel like pushing this fight any furhter than it had already gone.
“You have forty-eight hours until train,” I reasoned. “You can be a pill about it, or I can fuck your brains out, and then we can go have dinner. Because I’m horny and hungry and tired of fighting with you.” I touched his arm. “Come on, Becker.” I lowered my voice. “Tell me you want me to fuck your brains out.”
His fury cracked. Mouth turned up just a little.
I had won.
“I want you to fuck my brains out,” he complied. “And then dinner.”
I picked Becker up, and he instinctively wrapped his legs around me--good little bottom.
We both wanted this so bad. Ravenous in our mutual horniness.
We kissed. Hard. A hard and sensual kiss, Becker’s arms thrown around my neck, pulling my lips into his. Lips on lips.
God. I missed this man.
Missed the way he kissed me, the way he felt in my arms.
Threw him down on the bed. Climbed on top of him.
Kissed him down the jawline.
“I’m not going to leave your ass until Sunday,” I whispered.
Becker. Rock hard in his shorts. Me. Rock hard in my suit pants.
Tangled in each other, as clothes came flying off--as I sucked his engorged dick, as he sucked mine.
Kissed more. Explored each other’s bodies. Becker’s milky skin, his flat stomach, his narrow frame.
Until Becker uttered those three magic words.
“Get a condom.”
I propped myself up on an elbow, my mouth just an inch away from his.
“Get on all fours,” I whispered back.
Becker did what he was told. Climbed up on the bed. Ass facing me. Perfect ass, pink hole, ready and open and willing and desperate for cock.
“Do you think you can take it?” I asked him, positioning myself behind him. “Or do you want a finger. It’s been a while.”
“Just fuck me, Malley.”
Fuck. There was nothing about this boy that wasn’t explosively sexy to me.
No one as desperate for cock as Becker, in that moment.
I grabbed him at the hips, slowly began to sink my dick into his ass.
Becker was moaning. Almost uncontrollably, almost unstoppably.
Started rocking my hips gently, forcing my big dick deeper and deeper. Faster, faster, harder.
Becker. His moans, to his grunts, as I began to fuck my boyfriend--my boyfriend--in the ass for the first time in three months.
God. Felt so fucking good.
After three months.
Began pounding him.
Pounding him as hard as I could, and Becker’s grunts became louder, more sharp, as I pushed him closer and closer to the edge.
Three months, and neither of us could last very long. I felt the tide rising, felt my dick getting so close. Reached around, grabbed Becker’s dick, stroked it maybe four or five times, and suddenly: collapse.
Becker, a loud and guttural noise, as cum jetted out of his dick like a geyser--as I loaded his ass with what I could already feel was the biggest load I’d cum in quite a while.
“We should get a move on anyway,” I said, once we both caught our breath, lying next to each other, looking up at the ceiling. “I got us reservations at Otto in the Village. I thought you’d want pizza in New York.”
“Pizza and sex,” he told me, smile on his face. We leaned together, for a kiss. “What a great night.”
And it takes precisely two seconds after we’re alone for the first time for Aaron to pull me into a corner and smack me lightly on top of the head.
“Was that for inviting myself to Berlin?”
“No, I got a text from Veronica about an hour ago,” he says, looking at his phone. “She says, ‘Smack Kevin in the head for ignoring me.’”
“Great use of fifty cents.”
“What’d you do to her?”
“I’m behind with my emailing.”
“Oh, that’s all?” he replies. “Just give her a brief rundown. Two minutes. ‘I’m fucking a doctor who’s in a relationship with our dorm’s bartender, and Aaron Ackerman is the greatest person I’ve ever met in my life.’ Just the basics.”
And my mom died.
And the last thing I said to her was, Fuck you.
And she’s dead and I still hate her and I hate that I still hate her and I hate that I feel nothing when I’m supposed to feel. Something.
I say nothing, so Aaron gives me an awkward smile. “Or whatever. You know Veronica just as well as I do.”
As well as he does.
It’s weird to think of Aaron and Veronica as friends, though of course they are: they’ve known each other longer than I’ve known either of them.
In August, when we go back to Tulane, would Aaron be out of place?
Would he be Carver, someone who seemed to fit so well in one place and so horribly in the next?
And of course he would. Aaron, hanging out with the straight Iota Chi frat guys, with Brett Morton or Matt Rowen or even Chris Baker?
“Girl,” he would tell a disdainful Tommy Pereira, “this playlist needs a little less T.I. and a little more Mariah.”
Because he isn’t friends with Kevin Malley, the Tulane drug dealer.
He’s friends with Kevin Malley, the gay study abroad student.
Just like he’s not friends with Kevin Qantas Malley, New York stockbroker, or “Pabs” Malley, fratres of His Majesty the Prom Prince.
I wish I could tell him I’m sorry.
For having to leave him behind.
Fuck you, I would tell him instead, and never see him again.
Aaron smacks me lightly on the head again. “That one is for inviting yourself to Berlin.”
“I don’t have to go,” I tell him. “You just have to tell Nina I did.”
His smile falters, just slightly. “Everything okay?”
“Why wouldn’t everything be okay?”
I thought that was convincing enough, but not for Aaron Ackerman.
“Because you’re in a kind of dark mania,” he replies. “Nina said your high school friend is coming in March, and you lied and said you’re going with me to Berlin? And you don’t even care if you go to Berlin, so you’re just going to, what, hide in your room?”
“I can’t be in Paris for St. Patrick’s Day.”
Where there’s no suffering.
Aaron grins. “You fucked this guy, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“And that’s not a denial,” he says. “You don’t have to tell me the whole megillah, just the fun parts.”
I say nothing.
The smile falls from his face. “And it ended badly, I’m guessing?”
I don’t have the words.
How could I possibly describe the last three months at Las Palomas High School?
Lunch in the library. I remember that.
And I remember Lena. In the locker row.
And Matt. Matt, with our friends that we’re really his friends, and his sudden reality that I had never existed.
I’m so disappointed in you, said my mom.
You don’t get to be disappointed in me, I had said. Not with your track record.
“So you went after a straight guy,” he says, quietly, sympathetically, “and he let you suck his dick for a while until he rejected you. We’ve all been there.”
“It wasn’t that,” I tell him.
Was it that?
Matt felt so real to me.
Then we can do this all the time.
It wasn’t some straight guy getting his rocks off. I knew that much. It was real, it was intimate.
But I can’t tell Aaron.
Even three years later. I can’t.
“Alright, fine,” I finish. “That is exactly what happened.”
“You’re lying,” Aaron tells me. “Well, you’re openly gay now, and clearly he doesn’t care about whatever you two did to each other, so face him like a man. It’s not healthy to run away just because you’re scared of what could happen.”
“Don’t you want to be my hero?” I ask him. “Save me, like the nuns at the end of The Sound of Music?”
“This boy is not the Nazis,” Aaron replies, matter-of-fact, “and I ain’t no nun.”
And the thought. Of seeing Matt.
How could I.
“Come on. Please.”
He crosses his arms. “You can come with me to Berlin, but I’m going to think less of you if you do.”
“I’ll take it.”
“And if you tell me what actually happened,” he adds, “because now I feel like it’s one hell of a story.”
Words don’t come out of my open mouth. I can feel tears running down my face.
For Matt. For my mom. Maybe both or neither.
Maybe just for the weight of the evening. The lethal dose of stress and death and alcohol.
Aaron’s face is suddenly grave, his eyes wide.
“No, no, you come to Berlin,” he stammers. “It’ll be fabulous.” He fakes a big smile and some jazz hands. “Please don’t cry.”
I wipe my eyes with my sleeve. “Sorry.” With a forced smile, I tell him, “I didn’t know crying was the fastest way to get you to flip out.”
“I’m a middle child, I can’t stand it when people cry.”
“You miss him,” he says, finally. “You miss him and it still hurts and you don’t want to relive it. I get it. But sometimes you go back years later with a smile on your face and you realize how insignificant people are.”
Fuck you, I had said. To my mom.
And then she died.
Promise me one thing.
He wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I love you despite your stinking breath.
You don’t understand. He took my world away.
“It’s all in the past,” I tell Aaron. “The past should be left in the past, because that’s where the past fucking belongs.”
Aaron shuffles. Takes a sip of his drink. “You ever see a therapist?”
“I don’t need a therapist. I just need someone who I feel close to. To talk to about things, you know.”
Across the dance floor, Duncan and Sebastien are dancing.
Smiling. Grabbing onto each other.
Duncan invited me to have sex on Monday.
But he’s smiling at Sebastien anyway.
It amazes me how people can fake things.
Stare at things right in front of you and vow not to feel.
I’m so ashamed of you, bug.
“Well, I’m here to listen,” he tells me, quietly. “If you feel close to me, I mean.”
And in the moment.
In the moment, through my drunken desperation, I’ve never felt closer to anyone.