Over the next few weeks, Alex and Jeremy have unconsciously settled into a nice, comfortable routine of seeing each other at least two or three times a week - whenever their schedules allowed it. Alex usually worked the first shift at the car wash, which meant he was free most evenings and on the weekends.
Jeremy’s mom was still living with him in the apartment above the bakery. Although they planned for her to stay only for a week or two to help him set everything up, they seemed to have underestimated the amount of work that needed to be done on a daily basis. So, she was still staying there, covering one shift while Jeremy worked the other. Even though the apartment was small, it had two bedrooms, which meant they had their own freedom and privacy.
Alex enjoyed seeing the young baker whenever possible. He also knew Jeremy’s birthday was coming up and wanted to surprise him. Since Jeremy wasn’t much of a party guy, a surprise party was out of the question, but Alex still wanted to buy him a nice gift - he just had to figure out what.
The two guys shared some stolen kisses when they were alone - usually in Alex’s room - but otherwise mostly just hung out as friends. Close friends who had a crush on each other, but friends nonetheless. Alex was aware Jeremy didn’t want to start anything serious just yet, so he didn’t want to push it and risk driving him away.
That Thursday afternoon, the two of them were sitting on a wooden bench near the river, observing a family of swans swimming around graciously. Alex loved the view from the quay, so they often found themselves spending time together there. Jeremy indulged him even though he could observe that same view from the bakery every day.
“Natalie sent me a text yesterday,” Jeremy said, looking at his phone.
“Oh? What did she say?” Alex asked. After that one not so pleasant encounter at his house, he didn’t see the girl anymore, and was quite glad about it. Apparently, she hadn’t visited Jeremy either since then.
“She said she’d be away for a few weeks, visiting some relatives. I hope she won’t stop talking to me because of this,” Jeremy said. “We were best friends for so long.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll still talk to you. Maybe she just wanted to distance herself from everything for a while - it makes it easier to cope,” Alex offered his words of wisdom.
“I guess. Pretending to be a couple was dumb, we never should’ve done it.”
“Hey, it’s no use thinking like that now. Seriously, Jer, don’t beat yourself up over it,” Alex said. He noticed Jeremy was often insecure and liked to over-analyze everything. Alex was different - in his mind, there was no use crying over spilt milk. That’s why, when he returned from Paris, he couldn’t wait for his family to stop talking about his screw-up. He did it, he was punished for it, so what was the use in holding it over his head for so long?
“Natalie knew what she was getting herself into. And it’s not like you did it to hurt anyone. So stop blaming yourself so much, ok?”
“Ok,” Jeremy conceded, even managing a smile.
“Now that’s better,” Alex nodded in satisfaction, resisting the temptation to plant a big kiss on his lips.
When he returned home that afternoon, Alex was taken by surprise when he started receiving texts from the person he least expected to - Brandon. The first one came as he was doing chest workouts in his room. Even though working at the car wash kept him physically active during the day, he didn’t want to neglect his strength training and muscle building workouts. As he did his bench presses, his phone buzzed and he waited to finish his set and take a look. To say he was flabbergasted to see Brandon’s name pop up on the screen would be a big understatement. Especially when he read the seemingly friendly, innocuous message.
Brandon: Hey, what’s up? Just wanted to see if you’d like to hang out - as friends?
Alex picked up a towel from his bed and wiped off the sweat of his glistening chest and face. He enjoyed how his body felt, his muscles all pumped up and tense. Finally, he wiped off his sweaty palms and took the phone again, thinking of whether to reply - and what? Ok, he would definitely reply, it would be rude not to, he decided - but should he accept Brandon’s offer?
It’s true that when he broke up with the guy, they agreed they could still remain friends, but Alex didn’t actually think it would ever happen. It was just one of those things people say to be polite, but never really mean it. He’d seen it many times when he was in college. You sleep with someone, they say “it’s been fun, I’ll see you around”, but you both know you won’t. That’s why it’s called a one night stand. You had fun for one night, and that’s it - in the morning, you go your separate ways. And that’s ok.
So now what?
He realized he could’ve easily ignored the message or come up with an excuse for not having time, but he knew that would be quite tacky. Like taking the easy way out. Cheating. Like when his friends at college would see a drop of rain and use it as an excuse not to go to the gym with him. So, the part of his brain that was apparently in charge of making questionable decisions decided to accept the invitation. He figured there was no harm in having a beer and catching up with the guy as long as they were both clear they were just friends and it was not a date.
Alex: Hey, I’m alright, HBU? Sure, I’m up for hanging out.
It didn’t take long for a reply to arrive.
Brandon: Sweet! How about Sat @ noon? I’ll pick you up.
Alex thought about it and decided to go with it. He was free pretty much all day on Saturday, and Jeremy was working the first shift, so they had no plans to meet at that time.
Alex: OK see ya then.
After replying, Alex returned to his workout, but he still couldn’t stop wondering if he made the right call. However, he didn’t dwell too much on that, deciding that he would just see how things go on Saturday and go from there. Chances were high that Brandon would bore him again with his talk of his mega successful business ventures and acquiring new real estate in the most elite parts of town. If that happened, he decided he’d find any excuse to get out early.
Saturday morning saw Alex helping his dad in the garage around the car. How unfair, he thought, having to help repair the car but can’t even drive it or have my own! As if I don’t get enough work at the car wash.
Still, he sucked it up and did what his dad told him to, passing him tools, checking tire pressure and whatever else was necessary.
Once they were done, he went back inside the house, wanting to get out of the sweaty clothes and take a shower. Back in his room, dressed in a thin, dark grey sweater and black jeans, Alex got comfortable in his bed and took his phone, opening the gambling app to check the latest scores. It became a habit of his over the past few weeks. He was still into football and would watch games whenever he had time for it. So, there’s no reason not to check the results, he told himself. I don’t even need to gamble, I just want to stay in the loop.
Still, when he heard a knock on the door and saw his sister entering the room, he jumped in alarm and locked his phone as quickly as possible. If anyone saw what he was doing, they would make a big deal out of it - especially his mom – so he had to be extra careful.
His sister, Liz, was especially jumpy those days, as the pressure of graduating from high school and getting into college was getting to her. She would come to his room ten times a day, always with a different question about college life. Even though it would be a few months before she got information whether she was accepted, she was already in the midst of planning everything.
“Hey, what’s up?” Alex asked, trying to sound relaxed.
“Hey I was just thinking, when you go to the dorms, can you choose your roommate? Or do you get stuck with whoever they give you?” Liz asked, joining Alex on the bed.
“Umm it depends on the college. In some places you get assigned a roommate, in others you can choose. But unless you already know the person well, I don’t see the point in choosing, right?” he shrugged.
“What about your roommate when you started college? Michael, right?”
“Yeah, he was actually alright. We got put together randomly and it turned out great. We were friendly the whole time we were there,” Alex remembered. Before I went to Paris for the last semester and fucked it all up.
At that moment, his phone buzzed and he swiped to read the message, already knowing who it’s from.
Brandon: Almost there!
Taking his phone and wallet, Alex got up and headed out the door.
“Sorry, gotta run,” he turned to Liz.
“Where you off to?”
“Just meeting a friend,” Alex replied as he went down the stairs, Liz trailing him.
“Oh, which friend?”
“Brandon,” he said, not turning around. He was almost out the door!
“Brandon Brandon?!” Liz asked. Alex rolled his eyes at the screeching voice she used when she was surprised or excited. “I didn't know you two were friends all of a sudden!?”
“Well, we had a friendly break-up, so…” Alex opened the door and saw the silver Mercedes parked in the driveway, with the guy sitting in the driver’s seat. “See ya,” he greeted his little sister and went toward the car, happy to have quickly shut down Liz’s questioning.
As he entered the car and sat in the passenger seat, he could see that Brandon was all smiles.
“Hey man, how’s it going?” the brown-haired guy asked, shaking Alex’s hand. “I hope this is not weird.”
“Hey, good to see you,” Alex replied politely. “Um, no, it’s not gonna be weird. We’re ok, right?”
“Yeah, we’re good,” Brandon nodded.
Alex glanced at him and noticed something was different about him. His long hair still looked impeccable, loosely tied in the back, and he looked as fresh as a daisy, but there was something off.
That’s when it hit him – the guy was dressed way too casually compared to what Alex remembered from the brief period they were going out. His dress shoes and designer clothes were replaced by sneakers, faded jeans and a hoodie. It all still looked nice and perfectly color-coordinated, but he no longer looked as if he was headed to a dinner party at the Swiss Embassy.
After a few moments of what seemed to have been awkward silence, the two guys started chatting and Alex started feeling hopeful that maybe things don’t have to be weird between them. Maybe they could actually hang out as friends.
“So where are we going?” he asked.
“Actually, I was about to ask you if you had any ideas? If not, I thought we could just go downtown to a bar for a drink or two?” Brandon suggested, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Sure, sounds good to me.”
To Alex’s surprise, Brandon chose a rather small bar called ‘Clockwork’, located in an alley filled with similar-looking cafes and fast food joints. It was a popular place among tourists and locals alike. Most of the places were quite affordable and attracted a variety of people of all ages.
As they found an empty table and Alex ordered a light beer, Brandon did the same. Their drinks arrived quickly and the boys continued their chat. Even though the place was packed, the music wasn’t too loud so they could actually hear each other without having to shout.
“What’s new with you? Are you still working at the same company?” Alex asked, not knowing what to say. They didn’t really have much in common, which showed from the start. It was one of the reasons he broke it off - the biggest one being Jeremy, of course.
“Yeah, yeah, still there. I like it. Business is going well, but you know, nothing exciting,” Brandon shrugged and Alex just nodded. That was weird. The guy used to take so much pride in his job and how well he was doing at the company, and now it’s almost as if he was being modest. Is that even possible?
“What about you, still working at the car wash?” Brandon asked, but there was no maliciousness in his voice, only curiosity.
“Yeah, I am,” Alex nodded.
“So, uh, are you seeing anyone?” Brandon asked at one point during their chat. “That guy you mentioned?”
“Jeremy, yeah. We’re seeing each other,” Alex said briefly, not wanting to go into the details of their relationship. There was no need for Brandon to know. “He’s… he’s a great guy,” he added, smiling. “What about you? Any eligible bachelors come your way?”
“Hah, no, not really. I’ve had a few friends trying to set me up on blind dates, but nothing came out of it,” Brandon shook his head, frowning a bit.
“Ugh, I hate blind dates,” Alex said. “Why are they even still a thing? We’re in the twenty-first century, for God’s sake. Everyone’s got a camera and can take pics of themselves!”
“I know, right? It’s perfectly normal that I want to see what my date looks like beforehand. Like, I’m not asking for their DNA test.”
About two hours later, Alex noticed they seemed to have run out of conversation topics, so he decided it’d be as good a time as any to call it a day. He was surprised at how smoothly it all went. There was no awkwardness or hostility, although he couldn’t help but notice that Brandon did seem a lot different than the last time they saw each other.
“Well, I should really get going. I have a friend coming over in a while and I’d hate to cancel on him again,” Alex said, “but I had a lot of fun. Thanks for inviting me.”
“Hey, no problem, my pleasure! It was nice to catch up,” Brandon nodded.
Once they stepped outside of the bar, Alex pulled out several banknotes from his wallet and handed them to Brandon, who looked at him with a puzzled look on his face.
“I wanted to thank you once again for lending me the money. It was really a big deal for me back then and I haven’t forgotten about it!”
Brandon batted his hand away, refusing it.
“Come on, man, you don’t need to pay me back. Seriously, forget about it,” he shook his head, but Alex was insistent.
“Hey, I thought we were friends now? And you don’t wanna make things awkward between us, right?”
“Then accept this. It really meant a lot, but I don’t wanna have any debts,” Alex said, placing the money in Brandon’s hand. The long-haired guy finally accepted it without further complaints and put the money in his pocket.
After sharing a bro-hug, the guys went their separate ways, with Brandon driving off and Alex deciding to walk back home. He wanted to window shop for a bit, just in case he had a sudden stroke of inspiration for Jeremy’s birthday gift.
In the end, he went home empty-handed, but he still had nearly two weeks to figure it out.
Big thanks to everyone reading this story! Let me know what you think!