–previously published in Creepy Gnome v3 The Last Issue
A wave of garlic hit me and my stomach clenched as Dad held open the door of Mama’s Ristorante. Another dinner with the Straths, and another Inquisition. Enduring the same questions and dodging the truth was bad enough with my own family; to deal with the same thing month after month from another? Torture. I stepped over the sill and waited for my eyes to adapt to the dark interior. The babble of the other diners washed over me. The dark wood of the tables absorbed light, giving the restaurant a cave-like atmosphere. Eyes adjusted, I looked across the room. The Straths sat in our usual corner.
Betty Strath, her honey curls up, gesticulated while John scratched his five-o’clock shadow. Cameron, my supposed best friend, watched us come in, his look thoughtful. His white shirt clung to the full curve of his chest. His hair curled around his ears. Every dinner we lined up the same: Betty and Mom, John and Dad, Cameron and me. A monthly reunion of hugs and handshakes.
John slopped up salad for everyone, stray leaves fluttering to the table. My dad requisitioned two pieces of garlic bread, and offered me one. Mom and Betty already sipped merlot.
“You learn anything in class?” Dad cracked garlic bread between words.
“Sure. Humans evolved.” I spooned spaghetti on my plate, sauce splattering the checkerboard cloth.
“Yeah, but you sure?” John asked.
I shrugged. “Sure.” I mixed my noodles and sauce.
“Can’t believe everything, Edward.” John drank wine. “You still getting all A’s?”
“How’s the business, John?” my dad asked, a reprieve.
“Can’t complain. Don’t believe this recession everyone whines about. The shop’s doing well.”
Cameron paid no attention; his forearm bunched as he ate.
Squishing and crunching noises punctuated dinner. Garlic overpowered tomato as Parmesan made a desperate stand. Nothing changed at Mama’s.
“Cameron, how’s school? Still majoring in business?” My dad prodded his food.
“Yeah. Ready for football to start up again.” He spoke to his forkful of spaghetti.
He had lived football in high school, making captain his junior year. I played saxophone in the marching band. Our lives could not have been more dissimilar.
Betty excused herself. Leaning down, she kissed Cameron above his ear and ruffled his hair.
“So, you got a girlfriend yet?” John directed his words to me.
My back stiffened. Possible answers raced through my mind, had I used this one yet? I opened my mouth.
“I know, I know. ‘Too busy studying’. You should get out there, play the field.” He poked Cameron.
Cameron glanced up, his mouth dimpled sensuously. He dug into his food again, leaving me to defend myself. I impaled a meatball.
Mom frowned at John, limp noodles swayed on her fork—its journey half-made.
“The boy needs to get out.” Dad nodded, his comb-over flopping. “Sow his wild oats. He’s got to be a man.”
“You know I’m sitting right here,” I murmured.
“I could tell stories about my youth,” John said.
Mom set her fork down, not taking her eyes off my dad.
“You don’t think it’s unhealthy for him?” He eyed her. “For all I know, the boy could be gay, you putting him in marching band. Should’ve played sports like Cameron. What?”
The dreaded word—gay. My “role model” chowed down on food within reach. My legs itched to go; I stilled them, though my heart thumped.
Betty weaved past the near table and sat. She began to say something, but Dad interrupted her.
“What? It’s a legitimate concern.” My dad threw his arms up; he wanted a son like him to live sports every moment. Mom rolled her eyes.
“Just eat,” she said. “No more, alright?”
“Whatever you say dear.” My dad shoved pasta into his mouth. She scowled at Dad.
I stirred noodles on my plate. The checkered tablecloth was splotched red. I stole a look at Cameron. Though he slurped pasta, I imagined caressing his body.
The chair dug into my back. Cameron didn’t talk with parentals nearby. He is the golden boy, and silence is golden.
The split in our relationship had occurred in the middle of sixth grade, after our annual Christmas party. I pulled Cameron’s name, thrilled with my luck; I hadn’t yet put a name to my feelings. I purchased the number-one item on his list against my mom’s urging: an Arbor A-Frame snowboard.
In school, I asked him how he liked his board. A group of his older friends encircled him like a weapon in the damp hallway.
“My board’s awesome.” He leered and nudged his friends.
“I’m glad you like it.” I smiled, unaware.
“Yeah. Better than that stupid girly movie you got me, Edward. Why would I want to watch Mean Girls over and over?”
His friends snickered. They uttered “queer” as if they hurled stones. My eyes burned, though I tried to suppress the welling inside. How could he deny my gift? A deep fiery sensation gripped my body, and my nails dug half-moons in my palms. Emotions warred; it felt as though a balloon burst, and my whole body trembled.
“Baby’s gonna cry.” His friend’s dark-eyes blazed.
I spun away from them. A hot wetness filled my eyes, trickling down my cheeks.
I ran home in the Albuquerque snow.
He appeared at my house after school and apologized for lying; he said the truth would have made his friends jealous. He asked if I wanted to watch a movie with him, my choice. I don’t know why I said yes. His flaxen hair gleamed. I couldn’t say no, not with his sparkling emerald eyes. Nor deny his flushed cheeks. I forgave him. We watched movies and pigged out on popcorn. During the last movie, I slept on his shoulder, his head resting on mine. The credits woke us. My mom drove him home late in the evening.
“Hey.” Cameron’s deep voice banished the past. Our parents discussed the same things, gesticulating wildly. He leaned towards me, obscuring any other view.
“Huh?” I shook the last vestiges of memories like cobwebs.
“You should swing by my place tonight. Having a little get-together.”
My dad, overhearing, slapped me on the back, and told me to go. My mom agreed—she thought we didn’t spend enough time together. She doesn’t understand we weren’t her and Betty, nor Nana and Grandma Sudol.
“Alright.” To Cameron, I added, “I’ll come by after hookah.”
Cameron grinned and leaned back. “Cool.”
Robert leaned against a support outside Abdullah’s Hookah, his shirt loose on his rail-thin frame. I crossed the beat-up pavement, the night sky dark; silence blanketed the strip mall at this hour. He embraced me, the top of his head barely to my chin; I patted his back. Robert was the only gay guy I knew. He had told me to join the Gay Straight Alliance, but I didn’t want to. Rainbows are not my style. I wasn’t out to anyone but him; we had drank at a party, and we both checked out the same guy. I hadn’t told Robert about my plans later, as he had wanted to keep me away from Cameron.
The lounge overflowed with tobacco smoke stirring as we entered. A neon sign blinked on the far wall. I let Robert led me to a booth against the center of the wall.
“I like to watch people,” he confided, glancing around.
The booth squished underneath me, concrete wall at my back. A few other groups were scattered near the front.
We ordered shisha from the Persian waitress. I handed her a ten-dollar bill. Two chairs faced the low table.
“How was dinner?” Robert crossed his legs.
“Unbelievable.” I shook my head. “They asked me again why I don’t bang every chick that walks through the door.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t come out to them already.”
“You know why. I’d get kicked out, if not worse.”
A tall man bore our hookah, brushing stray curls from his face. His smoky eyes wandered over Robert and me.
“Thanks,” I said.
He smiled and walked to the back.
The gilded glass promised tranquility. I took the first hit, my eyes closed. Mint rolled on my tongue, and I released the smoke in rings. I passed the tasseled hose to Robert. Smoke rose from his mouth. Arabic music weaved around us between inhalations.
“How was golden boy?” Robert asked. He held the pipe at an angle. How gay he looked.
“He invited me over. Mom and Dad said I have to go.”
Robert frowned. He inhaled from the hose, holding he breath for long moment.
I’ve told Robert before that nothing will happen between us. He wasn’t my type. “You wanna go?”
“I’m going to Sarah and Alicia’s.” He drew on the hookah.
I leaned against the wall.
He blew out smoke. “You should come. It’ll be more fun.”
“Maybe next time?” I looked at him.
He rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine. Be that way.” He heaved a dramatic sigh.
I laughed. “Well, give me more warning next time.”
Once the tobacco turns, we exit the lounge.
Robert hugged me with limp, warm arms: too caring. “Have fun. Remember he’s straight.”
Later he’d send me a drunken message calling me an asshole.
I texted Cameron: be there soon.
Depeche Mode blasted through my speakers. I stomped on the gas. The engine roared and my Mustang surged forward. Cameron lived across town; I headed toward I-40. Wind whipped my hair, and cool air flushed my cheeks as I sped along the highway.
At his complex, I parked next to his green Jeep. I knocked on the door, apartment 230B. The door opened. “Come in,” Cameron said. He sported a white tank top. He sat on the couch after I entered.
The apartment smelled clean, and carryout containers didn’t cover every surface. Plain dishes were on the counter. His apartment felt as beige as my home, only the kitchen counters were robin’s egg blue. Bottles filled the trashcan. Jose Cuervo rested on the counter. I dropped my keys on the pile.
He watched TV, beer in hand. Tom, who I had met before, sat on the love seat with a girl.
“Help yourself,” Cameron said.
I opened the fridge, a peek into his private life, stocked with alcohol, salsa, eggs, milk, cheese, moldy bread—he had Blue Moon. I twisted the cap off. I dropped onto the couch, praying I didn’t lose control and do something I’d regret. The wheat flavor bubbled. His friends’ presence should restrain me.
The TV flashed images of Law and Order, distracting me from Cameron’s heat next to me. Spring air swept through an open window. Juan, another friend, appeared from the bathroom, grabbed the Cuervo. He sat next to me; I had no idea why he liked to talk to me.
“Whatcha been up to?” The stink of tequila drfited from Juan.
“Just school.” I drank.
“Oh very nice.” Juan nodded.
Tom shoved his tongue down the girl’s throat, pawing her chest during a commercial break. Juan guzzled the last of the Jose Cuervo. I took a swig.
Law and Order flipped back on, none too soon.
“Anything new?” I asked Cameron after a minute.
“Dumped this girl, Jessica.”
I wondered why I was there. Juan stared at the empty bottle of Cuervo. He looked at me as if the lack of liquid was my fault. He stumbled towards the kitchen to search for more.
“She wasn’t worth it.” He shook his head.
Juan disappeared behind the counter, muttering. Cabinets opened and closed over the squelch of the lovers’ lips. I pointed my thumb at Tom’s girl, with a questioning look. Cameron shrugged.
He stood, tossing his bottle in the trash. Knowing he couldn’t see me—everyone else was oblivious—I watched him. His back rippled under his a-shirt. Muscles bunched as he twisted. He bent to reach beer, and I nearly fainted. My heart beat fast. I averted my gaze to the neutral zone of the television.
“Another Blue Moon?” he asked.
Beer caps clinked against glass. He handed me one, while he drank the other next to me. My phone buzzed in my pocket: Robert. I didn’t look.
“Drink up,” he said. “We are the only ones not drunk yet.” His grin lit up the room. “I’m glad we’re still friends.”
I nodded. I didn’t question his statement. The second beer emptied fast.
“You have a roommate?” I paid partial attention to the lawyer cross-examining a witness.
“Two: Tyler and Steve. They went out tonight.”
I craved him like an addict. I chugged my beer, then stood to grab two more. Juan had passed out on the floor clutching the tequila; Tom and Co. now laid on the couch. I needed to get drunk.
“Not king of the parties anymore?” I nudged him.
“Nah, I guess not, but whatever.”
I offered him a beer, and we toast to friendship. I guzzled mine.
“Slow down.” He smiled, though.
“One more.” I spoke more to the fridge. “Is Juan going to be okay?”
“He’ll be fine.”
I tossed the next back, feeling hazy. I sat on the couch. Heat radiated off his body, though he felt miles distant. He drained his beer slowly, but he rose to snag another.
Alcohol flowed hot through my veins. Law and Order still played: the lawyers demanded justice, acting out the last moments of the courtroom drama.
“It’s certainly hot,” I said.
He chucked. “I blame the lovers.” Tom and his girl still locked lips, though they no longer fondled each other
“You don’t mind?” I fingered a cap.
“Not really. I’m sure they’ll pass out soon. Tom drank more than Juan. She’s a light-weight from what Tom says.”
They convicted the man, sentenced him to prison. Warmth rushed away as Cameron rose, cool air replacing his heat. The fridge opened; my eyes watched the TV instead of Cameron.
He handed me another beer, changing the channel.
“Chug contest?” I looked at him, aching to touch his face.
Golden canyons dimpled around emerald oceans. “You’ll lose.”
He smirked. “Alright. One, two, three.” At two, glass touched my lips, at three, I gulped.
“Done.” He pounded the beer on the table. I burped swallowed air and did the same.
“Told you, you’d lose.” He grinned.
I had the sudden urge to wrestle him, spurred by the alcohol. I shoved him, jumping on top of him and tickled. His blond head rolled about; his teeth glimmered. He giggled as I redoubled my effort. You know his friends are watching your every move. No, they aren’t.
He strove to catch his breath. I perched on his chest, the soft couch beneath us. My breath hitched; his chest stretched the fabric of the tank, and his burly arms flexed involuntarily. Scooting back, I tickled his sides again, the ridges of his muscles contracting. He squirmed under my fingertips. I felt pulled as a magnet to a lodestone. My lips hovered over his.
He laughed; liquid seeped from his closed eyes. He failed to force me off, his arms momentarily weak. I kissed him; his lips reciprocated—as if of their own volition. He tasted of beer and garlic—to me, exquisite. My hands stilled on his trembling sides as giggles cascaded from him, and reverberated down my throat. I inhaled his fragrance: a mix of sweat, cologne, and mint shampoo. He didn’t try to stop me but struggled to regain his breath; he wheezed through his nose. His lips continued to respond, though not as before. He tried to push me again, but failing, he rolled us onto the carpeted floor.
I lay under him. He gasped as he sat on me, his torso heaving. His hands rested on his hips, and he fought stray laughter.
Should I tickle him again? Cameron’s arms darted out and gripped my wrists. He pressed my arms backward, and I struggled all the way. I squirmed to get out from under him. My arms collapsed, pinned above my head.
“Gotcha.” He lowered his face into mine, the scent of beer rushed my senses. Our noses touched. “I’m not that drunk,” he said, green pools sucking me in. My world narrowed to his eyes.
“What?” I asked, locked into his gaze.
He whispered, “Your fantasy has been fulfilled.” Hot breath teased my ear; my spine shivered. “I’ll let you by this once. I’m not a queer.“ He released my arms.
I squashed the uprising constriction, converting the sour feeling into something I could handle. “Fuck off,” I whispered, turning away from him. “I have to go.” I remain pinned.
“I don’t think so, bud.” His eyebrows drew together, and I knew he was serious. I didn’t care.
I shoved him. “You’re an asshole, you know that?” Carpet dug into my palms as I sat up. The TV blurted an advertisement for toilet paper. Tom and his girl had passed out.
“Well, fuck you too,” he said. “I’ve known you were gay since sixth grade.”
My head jerked up. “You’ve known, this whole time?”
“Don’t blame me, closet case.” He moved to the couch.
“Why? You’ve teased me all these years.” My arm burned to fling something at him. “I wanted you with all my heart. Even when you hurt me, I knew you’d make it better.”
He didn’t look at me.
“Why let me kiss you now?” I stumbled up, using the table for support.
“Let you? I didn’t let you.” His eyes pierced me.
I prodded my pockets, searching for my keys. The pile was gone. I sunk to the couch next to him, rubbing my hair. He sat there, watching me. I wiped my eyes. His warm body radiated comforting warmth. His muscular arm drew me to his chest, though I tried to shrug him away.
“Hey, I’m sorry.”
I breathed. Like heaven, like hell. Though our bodies touch, a chasm lay between us.
I looked up. “I’ve gotta go.” I shoulder him.
“No keys, no car. You’re staying the night. I’ll call for you.“ I hugged myself while he called.
“Come on.” He helped me stand and he walked me to his bedroom down the dim hall. He faced my body towards his bed, and left the room. The door closed behind him.
I striped to my underwear, leaving my clothes in a heap, and crawled into his sheets. The ceiling wheeled, the rough sheets pressed into my sweaty skin. I huddled against the wall.
The door closed again, and clothes rustled to the floor. He lies next to me, his body searing my back.
“I’m not sleeping on the floor.”
I inched away.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured.
“I don’t care,” I tell the pillow.
“I mean it.”
I rolled over. “Apology accepted.”
He chuckled. “Remember our mom’s making us say that all the time as kids?”
“Yeah.” I exhaled.
He lay supine. I moved his arms, savoring the feel of his skin under my hands, and laid my head on his sculpted chest. I entwined my arms around him, and rose and fell with his breath. He didn’t resist, and I pretended he loved me, that the warmth was real. His arm wrapped tight around me, tingling my body. He pulled me in, whispering goodnight. I fell asleep to the rhythm of his breathing. The moment would never occur again.