Alex and Jeremy reunite. Later, Alex takes care of some unfinished business.
“Holy shit! Jeremy!” Alex almost shouted, too excited about being reunited with his childhood friend that he hadn’t seen for a decade. “Are you serious? I can’t believe it’s you!”
Pulling him into a hug, Alex could feel all of the memories returning: how they met at the summer camp and immediately hit it off, how they spent the entire week hanging out, learning about each other and playing games. Alex never admitted it to anyone, but he even had a little crush on Jeremy at the time. Perhaps it was the combination of being young, meeting a new, cute guy and being away from home, in a different environment.
Unfortunately, once the camp was over and everyone went their own way, their long-distance friendship didn’t stand the test of time. Even though they promised each other they would stand in touch, they failed. Not because they didn’t want to, but simply because real life got in the way. They each had their own friends, school and family, not to mention the short attention span kids their age usually have. After a while, their text messages turned from daily to weekly, and later monthly. Ultimately, they ceased altogether.
Now that they were back together, it was like they just came from that camp a few days ago. Alex couldn’t explain it, but he felt overjoyed. Why am I so happy about seeing him? It’s not like we’ve been friends for years, he thought. He just knew that he hadn’t felt that excited in a long time.
“It’s great to see you again, pal!” Jeremy grinned as they broke away from the hug and sat back down at the table.
“You too! Oh, man, I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you!” Alex said enthusiastically. Even though a tiny part of him felt dumb, it was hard for him to feel anything but excitement at that moment.
“Well, it’s been ten years or so,” Jeremy replied.
“But you knew it was me, right?” Alex asked, and the baker nodded. “When did you figure it out?”
“You know, I wasn’t really sure right away, but I kinda had my suspicions. Obviously, I didn’t know if you were still living here or not, but later I checked you up on Facebook and I realized it was definitely you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would’ve come straight away!”
“Well, you did come just now,” Jeremy shrugged. “And I wanted to see your reaction.”
“Oh jeez,” Alex laughed. “Well there you go, you got me! All thanks to Raphael.”
Jeremy chuckled and Alex found it hard to take his eyes off of him. The guy was too adorable when he smiled.
“Speaking of which, I’m still starving! Am I gonna get that famous pizza?”
“Oops, sorry, I forgot. I’m a bad host,” Jeremy said as he got up and went to the display cabinet. He took a fresh slice of pizza and brought it over to Alex.
A few customers stopped by and while Alex was enjoying his dinner, Jeremy served them.
“So, how was it?” the baker asked his old friend after the last of the customers left the bakery.
“Ugh, so good! And I’m not just saying that because I was so hungry,” Alex replied, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
“Oh, I’m so glad,” Jeremy said. Alex couldn’t help but notice the guy’s pale cheeks starting to blush. “So, uh… Do I have a new regular customer now?”
“You bet! It’s not really on my way, but I’ll definitely be coming now that I know who’s running the place.”
“Thank you, I hope you do. I mean, we have so much to catch up on. Ten years…” Jeremy said as they were sipping their coffee.
“I know,” Alex nodded. “Jer… I’m really sorry I didn’t stay in touch with you, I really am. We had so much fun at the camp and then-“
“Hey, it’s ok. It’s my fault, too. I should’ve tried harder as well. It’s not like we cut each other out on purpose, right?”
“No, of course not!” Alex shook his head.
“I mean, these things happen. People grow apart, especially when they don’t see each other all the time,” Jeremy shrugged. “And Jer? Is that my nickname now?” he chuckled.
“Well yeah, if that’s ok? What do other people call you?” Alex inquired curiously. He was glad to be already getting reacquainted with his old friend and learning things about him. Talking to Jeremy felt so natural and easy. He was like a breath of fresh air compared to the stale and musty aura exuded by Brandon.
“Hmm… My mom just calls me Jeremy. Some friends and my sister call me Jay.”
“Ok, I like Jay,” Alex nodded. “But I think I’m gonna stick with Jer. It’ll be just my nickname for you.”
“Ok, I approve,” Jeremy chortled. “Do I get to pick a nickname for you?”
“If you want, sure.”
“Hmmm,” Jeremy thought, putting a finger on his lips. Alex traced its movement, keeping his eyes on it. “That’s not really fair, is it? How do you make a nickname out of Alex?”
The black-haired guy just made a smug grin and shrugged. “I dunno, do your best.”
“Well, Al is for old people, so… X?”
Alex let out a laugh, his face beaming. “As in ‘E-X’?”
“No, just X. Sounds good, right?”
“I’m down with it,” Alex nodded. “Jer and X. We sound like a cartoon duo.”
“Yeah, Ren & Stimpy can’t touch us.”
Before the guys realized it, it was already near closing time. Jeremy got up to turn around the ‘Open/Closed’ sign hanging on the door, so they could keep talking in peace and not be disturbed by any potential new customers.
“Tell me about you, what have you been doing? Do you still go to that mansion where we had the camp?” Alex asked, dying to know more about Jeremy’s life. Now that the guy was back in his life, Alex had hoped this time they could stay friends.
“Uh, no, I haven’t been there in a while,” Jeremy said, looking down. “My dad died a few years ago and we haven’t been there since.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Alex said, reaching over and patting him on the forearm.
“Thanks. It was tough on all of us, but you know, you gotta move on. We sold the old family house and bought a nice little apartment for mom and my sister, and this bakery for myself. I’m living here now, in the apartment upstairs,” Jeremy said, pointing to the flight of stairs that led up. “Mom’s staying for a few days, she came to help. If she comes down, I’ll introduce you to her.”
“Cool, I’d love that,” Alex smiled. “So you did it,” he added, gesturing with his hands all around him.
“What do you mean?”
“I remember at the camp, you said your dream was to become a chef and have your own place, and now you do. This is definitely something to be proud of.”
“Thank you,” Jeremy gave a shy smile as his cheeks turned rosy. “What about you, what have you been up to?”
Alex laughed at his not-so-subtle attempt at changing the subject.
“Me? Well, I’m still in college,” Alex said, contemplating how much to reveal.
Telling Brandon was one thing. He had to tell him because he needed the money, but he also didn’t particularly care about what Brandon would think about him. It was different with Jeremy. Even though Alex didn’t know the guy that well, he didn’t want him to have a bad opinion of Alex.
“What are you majoring in?”
“Tourism and marketing. But I’m taking a break right now, so I came back home for a while. I have one more semester to go.”
“Oh, so you’re close to graduating.”
“Yeah, yeah. I just needed to take a break.”
“Hey, what about the friends of yours from the camp? Are you still in touch with them?” Jeremy asked, failing to remember their names.
“Oh, Richie and Niall! Yeah, we chat online sometimes, but they went away to college. We haven’t seen each other in a year at least, since the last summer break. But they’re doing well. Richie is studying to become an architect, and Niall’s going to be a doctor.”
“Awesome, I hope I get to see them if they come back here.”
“That would be cool, the four of us together again. Hey, maybe we could go camping again,” Alex suggested.
“I’d love that, I haven’t been camping in ages!”
Once again, Alex drifted off to the summer camp when they were thirteen and the amazing memories he had from that trip. Even though he knew he liked guys, at the time he hadn’t yet come out, let alone kissed anyone. He just enjoyed fantasizing about guys from school and had many crushes, and Jeremy was definitely one of them.
He was more than a little surprised when the guy asked him the next question, as if he knew what Alex was thinking.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
“Uh, actually, I am,” Alex nodded, realizing he hadn’t actually come out to Jeremy at any point during the evening. “His name is Brandon. We actually just met a few days ago.”
“Oh, nice,” Jeremy said, looking down at his coffee cup.
Alex tried to decipher the look on his face, but wasn’t able to. Something was there, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Could he be homophobic? The thought had crossed Alex’s mind, but he immediately dismissed it. No way, he doesn’t seem the type. I don’t believe he has a mean bone in his body, Alex thought.
“What about you, anyone special in your life?” Alex asked. Just at that moment, a voice from above interrupted their evening.
“Sweetie, are you closing up? Do you need any help?” a female voice could be heard, accompanied by footsteps coming down the stairs.
“No, mom, I’m good,” Jeremy replied, turning around just as a middle-aged woman showed up.
She was a fit woman for her age, dressed in a brown tracksuit and holding a cell phone in her hand. Her dirty-blond hair was tied in a messy ponytail.
“Oh, I didn’t know you have company!” she exclaimed merrily, as if she just saw her favorite celebrity. Immediately, she proceeded toward their table.
“Yeah, this is my friend Alex. Alex, this is my mom Zara.”
“Nice to meet you, Alex,” the woman said, vigorously shaking his hand and smiling.
“It’s a pleasure,” Alex replied politely.
“Well, I won’t bother you, boys. Lock up after you’re done, ok?” the woman said, turning to her son. “And don’t forget to call Natalie tomorrow. You know it’s her birthday…”
“I know, mom,” Jeremy rolled his eyes.
“I hope you brought her a present.”
“I did, mom. Like I could forget.”
“I’m just saying…” Zara shrugged her shoulders and turned to leave.
“Is Natalie your sister?” Alex asked. All he knew was that Jeremy had a younger sister, but he didn’t know her name or much about her.
“No, she’s Jeremy’s girlfriend,” Zara cut in just as her son opened his mouth to respond. “His sister’s name is Emily.”
“Oh, ok,” Alex replied quietly, trying not to look surprised.
That amazing summer, ten years ago, he had hoped Jeremy was gay because he had a crush on him. But even now, during their long conversation throughout the evening, he could’ve sworn he got some vibes from the guy. Obviously, I was wrong, Alex concluded.
“Well, I’m off. You boys have fun,” Zara said and retreated to the apartment upstairs.
Soon after she left, Alex was ready to head off home as well. Jeremy saw him out, and the two of them stood in front of the bakery to say goodbye. It was already dark outside, but the street lights illuminated the area.
“It’s been great seeing you again,” Jeremy smiled as he gave Alex a hug.
“You too! Man, this was such a surprise for me. I can’t believe we actually met after all this time!”
Still under the impression of everything that happened that evening, Alex stood in front of his old friend, looking at him.
“I know, it sounds crazy,” Jeremy said with a grin that showed off his dimples.
“Well, I’ll see you soon! And I mean soon, not like in ten years or something, ok?”
“Definitely. Bye, X!”
“Bye, Jer,” Alex smiled. With a wave, he turned around and walked away down the street.
When he finished work the next day, Alex changed into his clothes and headed out. He quickly typed out a message to his dad not to pick him up, telling him he was going to see a friend. That was a little lie, but his dad didn’t have to know the truth – that Alex was going to a bookie to pay his debt.
Kris lived and worked in one of the more distant areas of the town, away from the center. Alex hadn’t been there in years, but he still remembered the way. He’d spent many afternoons and weekends there with his high school friends, watching soccer games and sometimes betting on them. Right now, all of it seemed like a distant memory, as if it happened decades ago.
Walking through the streets that looked new and familiar at the same time, Alex found himself going faster and faster. The anticipation was killing him; he wanted to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible. He would worry about repaying Brandon later. The guy said he wasn’t in a hurry anyway, so Alex wasn’t too concerned about him.
Finally arriving at Kris’ sportsbook, Alex wasn’t surprised that it didn’t change much, at least from the outside. There was still that same broken neon sign with two of the letters not lighting up, showing ‘ROPH’ instead of ‘TROPHY’. Alex remembered that being a codename they would use when making plans to go there. “Let’s meet at Roph” was a sentence he’d heard so many times.
Entering the place, he found that much of it was the same. There were new monitors, new speakers and some new customers, but the atmosphere in the place was unchanged – dark and stuffy. What he used to perceive as mysterious and exciting, he now saw as filthy.
He looked around, glancing at the people sitting and drinking. Everyone seemed engrossed at the matches playing on large flat screens mounted on walls.
“Well, well, if it isn’t my friend Alex,” Kris spoke, appearing from behind a wall. He had a smug look on his face, like the cat that got the cream.
I’m not your fucking friend, Alex wanted to say, but thought it better not to start anything. Just give him the money and leave, that’s the plan, he repeated to himself.
“What can I do for you? Came to hang out, revisit the good old days?” Kris asked, approaching him.
“I said I’d bring you the money, so here I am,” Alex said, taking out his wallet and pulling out the money. “There.”
With an aggravating chuckle, Kris took the money and counted it slowly.
“…four, five, six. Nice doing business with you,” he said with a smirk, putting the money in his pocket.
Averting his gaze from the bookie, Alex looked at a screen with the betting odds, contemplating which soccer teams would be the best to bet on. If I won, I could get back the money and pay Brandon back!
“Anything I can help you with?” Kris asked. “Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you a drink.”
Suddenly, Alex felt his phone buzzing in his pocket and snapped back to reality. Taking it out, he quickly pressed the green icon.
“Hey, it’s me,” Jeremy’s cheerful voice greeted him from the other side.
“Jer, thank God you called!” Alex sighed, realizing he was about to do something stupid.
“Why, what’s the matter?” Jeremy asked worriedly.
Oh, shit, did I say that out loud?
“Uh, sorry, I got distracted,” Alex said, leaving the bookie without looking back. “I meant to say, I’m glad you called.”
And that was no lie – he was indeed happy to hear from his friend again.
“So, what’s up?” he asked gleefully as he left ‘Roph’ with a spring in his step. “Yeah, I’m free this weekend. Count me in!”
Thank you so much to everyone who's reading this story. I appreciate it a lot!