Neil sat in his car on the bypass and contemplated jumping.
He’d only allowed himself to come up here a few times over the last nine years, always in daylight. It was actually quite beautiful. New Halliday spread to either side of the highway, little hamlets here and there, a few larger buildings scattered throughout. The bypass had been built arching high over a little warren of twisting dirt roads and houses not necessarily hooked up to the grid right where the hills began to melt into the flats, and Neil was startled to realize he’d never really noticed the view before.
He took a few shaky breaths and tried to keep focusing on the horizon, but moments after realizing he’d managed to distract himself, he launched back into the turmoil that had brought him out here in the first place.
Alan goddamn Stemple. Of all smug assholes. Mr Stemple, scourge of New Halliday Elementary’s fifth grade, back as principal. Neil’s principal. Neil’s boss.
His fingernails curled into his palms and he forced himself to relax. Dammit. This was not how grown men reacted to bad news. But seeing Stemple pushed him back into the vicious snake-chases-tail cycle of self-loathing, self-destruction, and punishment.
The pre-start-of-term staff meeting had taken two hours. Two hours of seeing Stemple’s face, hearing his voice, feeling smaller and smaller while the rest of the faculty and staff asked questions and reminisced and mostly congratulated Stemple on his new role. There were a few people who stayed out of the generally convivial vibe—Auntie Mel had settled for elbowing Neil enough times to bruise—but for the most part Neil’s fellow teachers were happy with their new principal.
At least it was Friday. Clem would understand his mood and give him what he needed. Right before telling him to leave.
Neil laid his head down on the steering wheel and tried not to think. About anything. Ever.
He ignored two calls from Mel, who almost certainly wanted to commiserate about Stemple. He’d dodged her after the meeting, but Mel didn’t appreciate being dodged. Still, he couldn’t sit here in his car in a turn-out on the bypass forever. He had to go. Home. He’d go home, he’d take a long, punishing run, and then he’d head over to Nan’s and take solace in the bright lights and plastic booths, where Neil would smile, and say hello to people, and sink into a pretense of normalcy until Clem closed the restaurant at ten.
It was important to pretend everything was fine, even if the act of pretending itself felt like defeat, like he was giving in to the sick thing in his gut that could only be released by proximity to Clem Robbins.
Clem, ultimately, was just another self-destructive act, but Neil couldn’t care about that right now. And he couldn’t stop going home with Clem on Friday nights.
* * *
There was a moment. Every week. A moment right inside the door to Clem’s little house, a moment when Neil heard the door lock behind him and closed his eyes.
This was the place. This was where he could stop trying to be all right.
Clem wasn’t the guy who wrapped his arms around you from behind and told you everything was okay, which was a good damn thing. Neil breathed in the air of Clem’s house, the hint of Clem’s presence.
“Stemple,” he said, keeping his eyes closed. “Alan Stemple is the new principal. It’s official.”
“That should lead to nothing but trouble.” Clem touched his shoulder, then moved away. “You should eat something.”
“You already fed me.”
“You think I’m fooled by you covertly throwing away your dinner when I turn my back?”
Neil shook his head. “Not really. No. I wasn’t trying to fool you.”
“Come on, Neil. Let me make you something.”
Omelets. Good ones, with green onions and garlic and capers. Light, fluffy. Neil enjoyed every bite, but probably he would have enjoyed anything Clem made specifically for him in this pristine home kitchen where he felt halfway human.
He felt better after eating.
“I’m just so angry. I know it has nothing to do with me, but I’m so angry that things just can’t be easy for once. This is my third year, Clem, you know? I couldn’t have just a little bit more time before fucking Alan Stemple looms over me with his sweaty neck rolls?”
Clem laughed. “Neck rolls?”
“He’s gained weight. Beer weight, from the looks of it. He’s got that vaguely swollen thing going for him.” Neil shook his head. “I know I sound like a whiny baby, I’m just—fuck, Clem. I’m just frustrated.”
“Yeah. Right. Sorry.”
“You want to beat the bag for a bit?”
Before we fuck, Neil added silently. He’d taken that run earlier, but he hadn’t pushed himself too far. He could probably beat on Clem’s punching bag and still get himself safely home, push his body just a little bit more, but not quite to breaking since he still had to get in his car at the end of it.
“Yeah, that’d be good.”
Clem’s house was at the end of a road with only three or four other houses on it, all spaced out with fields in between (and a perpetually half-dead apple orchard on the far side of the street). Neil had never asked, but he’d assumed Clem and his ex had picked the house because of its isolation; at least, it couldn’t have been all that welcoming for two men to move to New Halliday thirty years ago. It wasn’t welcoming to live in New Halliday as an openly gay man now, though at least it was—improving.
The night had grown chilly, and a breeze pricked at the sweat on the back of his neck. Crickets chirped out in the yard, in the field beyond. Neil grit his teeth and tried to focus on the heavy red bag, feeling his fists in the gloves, feeling their familiar weight.
Feeling, more than that, Clem’s gaze on him.
He’d picked up boxing in college, awkwardly at first, then losing himself to the obsessive attention of it. Focus, concentration, absolute dedication to the moment. New Halliday had two gyms, neither of which was set up for boxing, which he’d complained about to Clem one night at Nan’s soon after he came back. Clem had offered the bag at his house, if Neil didn’t mind waiting until after closing.
That had been the first night. Neil didn’t know what the hell this was, except that it had been going longer than any relationship he’d ever had.
He threw combinations at the bag over and over again, switching it up until his arms were screaming. This was part of the game, part of what he needed when he came here. He kept going, thinking that at any moment he’d pass out, he’d puke, but before that happened, Clem always stepped in.
Oh thank god. Neil slouched against the bag and watched Clem’s reflection approach from behind in the glass of the window. Six-two, short, white hair combed close to his head, more fit than most men half his age. Like Neil, who was less fit, and slightly more than half his age.
He didn’t even have an older man thing. He had a Clem thing, which was so much fucking worse.
He offered his hands and Clem unwrapped him, replacing the gloves and wraps on the little bench against the wall to air out.
Clem passed him a bottle of water, which he drained.
Neil tossed the bottle into Clem’s recycling bin and met his eyes. “Today was pretty bad.”
“I could use a hand.” He smiled, shrugging just slightly. “So to speak.”
“You want to shower first or later?”
Like this was just another session at the gym, scheduled after boxing the bag and before the lonely drive home.
Clem nodded and stepped up to him. And after that—after that—everything except this faded to nothing.
Neil loved this feeling, this release, this abandoning of everything sensible. Clem’s hand closed over his mouth, over his nose, and that firm, unyielding pressure made everything else disappear. He looked into Clem’s face, his dark blue-gray eyes, and felt the pressure in his chest build until his toes tingled.
This time he slouched against Clem, and Clem let him.
“You think it’s gonna be that bad? You’ve grown up since you were his student. Maybe Stemple’s grown up a little too.”
Neil took a few shaky breaths. “I keep telling myself to give him a chance. But I look at him and I’m just the little sissy he let the other boys beat up on as long as they kept it behind his back. You know one time he was splitting the class into boys and girls, and he ‘accidentally’ told me to go over with the girls?” The rage was building again and Clem’s hand closed over his nose, leaving him the harsh breaths he could get through his mouth, which shouldn’t have calmed him down, but did.
When he could breathe again, Clem released him. “Stemple’s been an asshole since he was old enough to go to Nan’s by himself. But at least you’re the one teaching now, Neil. You can protect the kids.”
“Can I, though? I mean, Henderson was bad enough, and I’ve heard how he treated Nova. Stemple— I don’t know how to stand between Stemple and the kids.”
Clem pulled him up and backed him into the wall, angling his pelvis to pin Neil there. “You’ll do everything you can do. Those kids are lucky to have you, and you know Math and Henry know that, even if other people don’t. They wouldn’t have anyone else teaching Nova this year. Or Xavier.”
“Yeah. I know. That’s why I feel like such a fucking fraud.” Neil shook his head. “Why don’t we ever do the chitchat part of this before the sex, Clem?”
Damn, yeah, he didn’t have an older man thing, but Clem’s age seemed intertwined with his strength, and being held in place by him not quite close enough to kiss was better than getting blown by anyone else.
“Because you don’t open your mouth until I shut it for you.” Clem kissed him, hard, lips forcing Neil’s wide so his tongue could sweep through. “You still driving Dillon to the airport in the morning?”
Just like that: from gasping to kissing to casual mention of friends.
“Yeah. Early, though.”
“You mind bringing him that cookbook I picked up for him? Don’t know if he’s still got room in his luggage, but he can leave it at the apartment if he doesn’t.”
“Thanks.” Clem’s hands slid up his chest, to his arms. Neil reached over his head until his fingers brushed the porch light. He’d joked once that Clem should install hooks all over his house since he liked fucking Neil against the wall so much, and for a second Clem looked like he was considering the idea.
Christ, he was a little pathetic. His heart had leapt into his throat for that brief second, as if Clem was going to do more than feed him, choke him, and fuck him.
Now he thought of that embarrassing lapse every time Clem took him like this, bodies tight against each other, each of them hard in his clothes, Clem’s hand almost unbearably gentle as it stopped his air, in contrast to his thrusts.
Sometimes Clem made him come in his clothes, especially on nights when Clem thought Neil should be prioritizing sleep. Thank god tonight he understood that Neil needed more.
Clem alternately kissed him and took his breath, frotting so hard Neil would probably have bruises. But before either of them could come, Clem dragged his wrists down from the wall and pulled him through to the bedroom, hooking him by his back belt loop and tugging his pants off.
Yes, yes, yes. Neil came down hard on the bed, pushing his ass back into Clem’s waiting hands, closing his eyes when he heard the tear of the condom packet. Two fingers opened him roughly, a cursory prep job, and then it was all Clem, pushing in, pushing deep, pressing down until he was entirely over Neil, until he could hook an arm around Neil’s neck.
They never talked. None of the endearments Neil had been used to with other lovers, with boyfriends; all those nonsense syllables interrupting a private moment, a moment that didn’t require language. He hadn’t even had to explain to Clem that “Oh, baby, yes” took him right out of the moment.
Clem’s hand over his mouth sank him deeper into it, almost impossibly deep, and Clem let him thrash without stopping right away, which was a glorious fucking high.
I could die. I’m not going to, but I could.
It was how Neil got off. Not always. But on the bad nights? I could die was the thought that pushed him over the edge when he couldn’t breathe, when Clem was suffocating him neatly and fucking him so hard the burn overwhelmed the pleasure.
He sucked in breaths when he was already coming and bit down on Clem’s hand, not quite crying out. Clem did what he always did, which was slow down and shift up, until Neil felt like he was splitting open. It was harder to breathe and he gasped, even though he was no longer gagged.
Clem latched onto his shoulder, a practiced move designed to be hidden by Neil’s shirts, and when he came he bit down and gnashed Neil’s skin between his teeth.
Neil wished he could make this moment last forever, this feeling of abandon, when Clem came and marked him simultaneously. But Clem licked, then kissed, the mark he’d made, pulling carefully out. They didn’t cuddle. They never cuddled. But they did lie there to catch their breaths, an island of tired calm Neil wished he could conjure at other times. Like twenty minutes from now when he was cold and climbing into his own bed, very much alone.
“School starts Wednesday?”
Fuck everything. “Yeah,” he said, closing his eyes.
“You could come by Nan’s after, tell me how it went.”
“Maybe.” He wouldn’t. The second he broke the cardinal Fridays-only rule, everything would fall apart.
“Tell Dillon to have a safe trip.”
When the small talk ran dry, it was time to go. But Neil wasn’t pathetic enough to draw it out. He stretched and levered himself up, pulling on his shirt, his discarded boxers. Clem was never in a hurry to get dressed. He lounged back on his pillows with his hands behind his head, watching Neil. A faded tattoo of gnarled branches roughly the size of Neil’s palm graced his shoulder. Another one, an even more faded black sword, marked his left forearm. Signs of a life lived long before Neil, but he never felt minimized by them.
Neil sighed and sat down, resting a hand on Clem’s thigh. “Thank you for feeding me. Twice.”
“You want me to make something for you to take with you?”
“I can feed myself, Clem.”
“But will you?”
“Yes, Mother,” Neil said, holding his gaze.
Clem reached down to stroke his dick. “Your mother must be very well endowed.”
“God, okay, I deserved that.”
Neil leaned down to kiss him. “See you next week.”
“Come by Wednesday if you want to. At least come by if you aren’t going to make yourself something to eat. And I’m not counting Kraft anything, Neil.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll probably be busy with first day stuff anyway.” He lingered a second longer. “It was good tonight. Thanks.”
Clem waved his hand. “For me too.”
He let himself out. Clem walked him to the door every Friday for the first six months they were…doing this thing. Now Clem always stayed in the bed if they were in the bed, letting Neil show himself out. It felt weirdly intimate, turning off all the lights but the light in the kitchen, making sure the door locked behind him.
All contradictions, this thing with Clem. But it was the best thing in his life aside from his students, and the days leading up to the new school year were hard. He never felt prepared enough.
Neil drove home, took another shower, and fell into bed. A few minutes later he rolled over and set his alarm for oh-dark-thirty, which was the time he needed to head over to Dil’s to pick him up for the airport.
Wasn’t it, like, Ben Franklin who said the thing about sleeping? “There will be sleeping enough in the grave,” right? Whoever it was, Neil agreed. Screw sleep, anyway.
The first day of school turned Nan’s into a mad house. They hosted the new school-parents in the morning, giving away gallons of coffee. The high schoolers with off campus privileges came in for lunch, and he was always amused to see a few of the older kids take it on themselves to keep the younger ones in line. (“You don’t have arms? Clear your table!”) But the after school surge began at twelve-thirty when the minimum day let out at the two charter schools, and continued through dinner.
Math and Henry—AKA New Halliday’s only married gay couple—brought the boys in, and Clem halfway hoped they’d mention Neil, but they didn’t.
Xavier kept his head down, ordering only when Henry poked him, but Nova actually made eye contact.
“The regular for you, Nova?”
“Yes, please, Mr Robbins.”
He held the boy’s gaze and nodded, then turned to Math. Math, who was grinning. And Math was the kind of man who smiled a lot, but this time he was smiling because his son seemed happy. It was a damn good look on both of them.
Clem gave them the usual friends of Nan’s discount for former employees, Henry rolled his eyes, and Xavier finally looked up when Clem pushed a small bucket of coins across the counter.
This time Xav looked him in the eye. Clem nodded, and he nodded back.
“Nov, c’mon, we gotta test out the arcade games.”
“Xav, you should at least say thank you—”
Clem waved at Henry. “He’s okay. Bad day at school?”
“Normal day at school. All of them are bad.”
“Xav will find his way,” Math said, putting an arm around Henry’s shoulders for a very brief squeeze. “Let’s go sit. Thanks, Clem.”
Clem chatted to everyone about the first day of school. He hadn’t scheduled any of his high schoolers to come in today, but all three of them did, just to say hello (and eat dinner). Rog came on at three for the closing shift, and Clem decided to promote him right around the time someone spilled a milkshake into the fryer and Rog kept his cool (and kept everyone away from it without interrupting service more than informing folks that it was going to take a little longer for fries now and they would no longer be gluten-free because of course the milkshake fell into the no-breaded-foods vat).
“Nicely done,” Clem told him a few minutes later.
“Yeah, that was interesting. We gonna be able to use that tonight, or—”
“I’ll take care of it.”
An hour later Clem retreated to his office and started getting paperwork together to officially change Rog’s status to Assistant Store Manager. Nan’s hadn’t had a real ASM in years, but it had been on his list of things to do. Mostly because Gage kept ragging him. (Give a man a boyfriend he likes more than he likes serving beer and this is what happens: he promotes two of his best employees and suddenly realizes his bar can run without him.)
Hell, Rog had been at Nan’s for maybe two years now, and he’d worked all the jobs. He was due.
Paperwork was a sound distraction for the rest of Wednesday evening, and when he offered Rog the job, Rog took it.
Neil did not stop by.
* * *
Thirty years ago, when Clem first arrived in New Halliday, he’d been looking for a safe place to hole up for a while and lick his wounds. He and Brent had been to nonstop funerals for months (only it felt like they’d been going to nonstop funerals their entire lives), and the San Diego gay community was decimated.
They’d fought, endlessly, about moving to San Francisco. Clem thought finding a place where the entire world wasn’t sick or dying seemed like a good idea. Brent always wanted to be in the middle of the action, though at the time he’d said things like, “These are our people, you selfish sonofabitch. Are you really so afraid of death that you’d turn your back on our people?”
The ridicule had made Clem feel small, but his fear of death had, yeah, been strong enough for him to hold his ground. Only it was more than a fear of death. It was a fear of the life you’d lead after you found the first lesion, the first sore. It was fear of every cough, every sneeze.
Clem had felt the tendrils of the virus as if they covered his skin, just waiting for the opportunity to get inside.
He’d finally won the argument by saying, “The bathhouses are closed, Brent. Why don’t we hang out somewhere else until they re-open?”
And, in a sense, that’s exactly what Clem had done. Of course, they never dreamed the bathhouses would stay closed. Sure, you could go to places now, but it would never be like it had been, and Clem’s chest ached when he thought about it. They’d grieved their friends. Each of them had grieved the men who’d taken them by hand and initiated them into their new, shiny, non-self-loathing lives. They hadn’t realized they were grieving an entire lifestyle no young gay man would live again, gravitating toward the city, gravitating toward the neighborhood where he could finally inhale without hiding.
The New Halliday of thirty years ago was flummoxed by the arrival of two men, together, who wanted to open a burger place. Brent always claimed that it was Clem’s food that won them over, but Clem figured it was probably more a combination of lacking alternatives and curiosity, helped by the fact that they never touched each other in public. They’d gone to New Halliday to survive, and while they told themselves they weren’t going back into hiding, they also knew to keep their heads down. When Brent finally took off eight years into owning Nan’s together, a few of the more dense citizens of New Halliday were actually a little surprised to discover they’d been more than business partners.
Neil should have grown up in a world that didn’t demand his life as a sacrifice, and yet somehow, sitting in Clem’s kitchen, bones just slightly more prominent than they should have been, he reminded Clem of all those other men, wasting away because no one cared.
He set a chicken stir-fry in front of Neil and rounded the counter to stand behind him, trying to remember if he’d eaten anything at Nan’s earlier. “You look like hell,” he said, dropping his hands to Neil’s shoulders.
“Ha. Yeah. Feel like hell, too.” A vague gesture of dismissal. “Don’t want to talk about it. Everything’s fine.”
“Not talking about it works for me. ‘Everything’s fine’ is the kind of lie that only gets you into trouble.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes I gotta lie to myself to get through the day. That feels really fucking good, Clem. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Eat.”
“Yeah, I have, like, no appetite at all.”
Skinny, but healthy, not in any actual danger. Clem gave his shoulders another squeeze before going back into the kitchen for two waters.
“How long are you giving yourself this time?” he asked.
“Oh, maybe three weeks. The Stemple thing is—complicated. But if I still feel like this in three weeks, I’ll worry. Until then I should be okay as long as I keep showering and showing up for work. We’re, uh, down to the bare minimum, Clem, you know?”
Clem nodded. “You still want me to back you up?” In the event that three weeks from now you don’t feel any better?
“If it’s okay. It helps knowing someone’s paying attention.” A wry twist to Neil’s mouth. He didn’t explain, and Clem didn’t ask. Twice before he’d asked Clem to spot him, and Clem hadn’t known what that meant, except that Neil wouldn’t want constant check-ins or text messages or gentle words. He just needed to know that if he fell off the edge at least one person would notice, so Clem made sure Neil knew he was there, watching, even if he couldn’t help.
“Sure. What do you think of that marinade? I’m playing with it a little.”
“Honey, right? And lemon?”
“Yeah, the citrus is a nice balance to the sort of heaviness I can taste in the honey.” Neil laughed. “God, listen to me, like I know what I’m talking about.”
“I thought the same thing. I didn’t mind the honey, but it needed something other than garlic, which is what I tried the first time.”
“Hm. Garlic and honey? They don’t, like, clash?”
“They didn’t clash. But they didn’t add much to each other, either. Though there’s garlic in this marinade as well, but the lime makes both the garlic and the honey brighter.”
“Yeah,” Neil said thoughtfully, chewing. “Yeah, I can taste that. You should come in sometime and cook something with my kids, Clem. That’d be great.”
Clem took a sip of water to cover his discomposure at Neil using the phrase “my kids”. “Sure. We could make a good salad, something hearty they’d forget was even salad.”
“That would be fantastic. We’ll take a picture and send it to Jamie Oliver, since he’s got that big hard-on about kids cooking. Wow, okay, I take that back. That definitely came out wrong.” Neil offered a weak smile and Clem kissed him, if only to make it disappear. “Thanks for letting me be fucked up here without trying to fix me. I mean, more than shoving food down my throat.”
“I’m trying really hard not to make the obvious joke.”
“It would be beneath you, Clem.”
“And there’s another one.”
Another weak smile. “Bedroom, yeah?”
“Yeah, Neil. Bedroom.”
Neil washed up the dishes and put them on the rack to dry, reaching for the dishtowel. “I’d be doing okay if I could just sleep, you know?”
“You sleep on Friday nights okay?”
Everything in Neil’s face froze, then shuttered. “I sleep on all the nights about the same.”
An opening. Clem could see all the openings, all the spaces Neil left for him. He took this one, even though he already knew what Neil would say.
“You can come by on a night that’s not Friday. If it helps.”
“I think what we do is fine.”
Except neither one of them really thought that. But standing here in the kitchen wasn’t getting them anywhere, and the excellent sex they’d be having ten minutes from now probably wasn’t gonna get them anywhere, either.
Once a week. It was scant, but Clem would take it, even if he’d have been happy with twice a week, or god forbid, whenever they wanted. He’d thought Neil couldn’t possibly want an old man, that he was lonely more than anything. But these days he gave Clem glimpses below the surface, and what Clem saw there was desire. For this, for him, possibly even for them, though he didn’t let himself go too far down that road.
“Come on,” he said, but instead of leading Neil to the bedroom, he stepped up, pinning him to the wall with a hand at his throat. “You want to die, Neil?”
“Not today,” Neil replied, looking him in the eye.
Good enough. Clem kissed him, hand shifting around to the back of his neck. “Let me know if that changes.”
“I’ll come here if it does, but it won’t. I’m just tired of feeling like my mind is mostly full of darkness, Clem.”
“I don’t see that in you all the time.” Another kiss, and he let himself linger longer than usual. “And even when I do, I always see the light, too.”
“Yeah. Okay. That’s good. Thank you.” Neil closed his eyes and leaned in, and Clem considered doing the thing he’d so far successfully resisted doing, even though he was always tempted. But if he told Neil to stay the night, Neil would say no. Neil needed this to be what it was, or at least he thought he did.
Which was probably for the best. Even if they were only fooling themselves.
The sex was good, and left Clem so physically exhausted he could barely lift his hand to pat Neil’s when Neil, fully dressed, said goodbye. (He secretly hoped Neil didn’t know how often he barely managed to lever himself upright on his pillows after they were done, or how he had to force his body through a cool-down routine when he heard the door close or he’d wake up stiff and sore. Sex wasn’t supposed to be an endurance sport, but at 53 it was damn close.)
“Thanks, Clem,” Neil murmured, kissing him lightly.
“Goodnight.” See you next week.
Neil left. Clem’s stretches took ten minutes and his shower took five. Dammed if he didn’t halfway wish that one of these days when he came out, Neil would still be in the bed waiting for him.
Aunt Mel caught him before he could escape. That was Neil’s only excuse.
“Well. You’re still upright.”
If Mel hadn’t been related—and practically raised him—she’d be his best friend. She was kind of a bitch in all the best ways, and most of the time she hid it with a smile that was just the right amounts of “I agree completely” and “I want to rip your eyeballs out and shove my boot through their sockets until your brain is a nicely whipped merengue.”
Neil offered his own version of the same smile and said, “One day at a time, right?”
“Damn right, buster. Let’s go.”
“Lu and Liam are hosting us for dinner.”
“I have plans.”
“I shouldn’t eat with my student.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know Liam emailed you.”
“Dammit.” Luanne, who was Xavier’s mom, taught sixth grade and terrified him a little, even though she wasn’t a scary teacher. She was a very, very good teacher, the kind of creative teacher Neil himself wanted to be someday. But a consequence of his high opinion of her was that he felt constantly as if she was critiquing him silently and ferreting out his failures.
Mel wiggled her fingers at him. “You got more lies? Bring ’em on, baby. Line ’em up so I can shoot ’em down.”
“I—” He slumped against his desk. “Hell, Auntie, I’m barely upright. The last thing I want to do is go to Luanne’s for dinner.”
“All right, pal. You don’t want to go, you don’t have to go.”
“You and I will go get something by ourselves. What about burgers? That avocado thing at Nan’s is delicious.”
“Fine, we’ll go to Luanne’s.”
Clearly not exactly the response she was expecting. He should have fought longer before giving in; anything else was way too revealing.
“But early, right? Because I haven’t been sleeping well.”
Because she was related by blood, and had practically raised him, she didn’t say anything right away. A small epoch passed while Neil waited to see if his aunt would demand answers.
“Early dinner at Luanne’s,” she said finally. “Come on, nephew mine.”
They drove separately, which gave Neil a little time to get his resources in order before facing Luanne and Liam. He liked them very much, but he couldn’t relax around them now that he was Xav’s teacher. Still, maybe keeping his shit together would be a good distraction from falling apart.
“Hey, Neil,” Liam said, shaking his hand. “We dropped Xav off at Math and Henry’s, so you can quit rehearsing how you’re going to deal with eating dinner with him.”
“I only did that a little. Thanks for the email, by the way. Are you sure he meant it when he said he didn’t mind me coming over?”
“Yeah. He likes you.”
Which was nice, but surprising. “Oh good. He’s a tough read.”
Liam shook his head. “You’re telling me. Lu’s out back.”
“Where’s Zinny?” Mel asked.
“Oh, she’s at school. Piano lessons.”
“Piano? Is she at Performing Arts?”
“She is,” Liam said. His smile was a little tight, so Neil didn’t ask any questions, even though being accepted to Performing Arts New Halliday in seventh grade was a pretty big deal.
“I’m sure she’d rather be playing piano than eating dinner with us,” Mel said. “Lu! What’re you doing? You want help?”
“Beer? Soda? Water?”
“Water would be great.”
Liam jerked his head in the direction of the kitchen, but led him all the way through and into the garage, where another refrigerator was packed with waters.
“Listen, how’s he doing really? Xav, I mean. Not that—not that you can’t tell both of us—”
The thing about being from New Halliday was that you knew things about people. For instance, even though Neil had no memory of every having met Liam’s three older brothers, he knew their reputation from years of being in school. The Torell boys were widely thought of as geniuses (though Mel considered only the second-oldest a Mensa candidate; the other two were just “so effing smart they’d make Alex Trebek look like he needed a remedial course in British Literature”).
Liam was the dumb one. Instead of pursuing medicine, law, or academia, he was merely a computer guy, with a business in town doing…Neil had no idea what, except that there didn’t seem to be any technology-related problem Liam couldn’t fix.
“It’s only the third week of school,” he hedged.
“Shit. Yeah. And he’s already going downhill, right?”
“He’s struggling a little.”
Neil thought about Xav and Nova, heads together, projecting unassailable untouchability at their classmates. “No, socially he and Nova just do their thing. No one seems to go out of their way to pick on them, and they keep to themselves. As far as school goes, I know he knows the answers to things, but if I call on him, he can’t give them.”
“Can’t, though, right? Lu doesn’t get it. I know she thinks she does, and I know she’s a fantastic teacher, but this isn’t the same as assessing other people’s children, and Xav is—”
“Very smart and very intimidated by being in a classroom,” Neil said, unscrewing his water. “He’s got a spelling test tomorrow, but Nova will score higher even though Xav’s the one with the bigger vocabulary. And he hates having to write anything out, but talking to him makes it clear his critical thinking skills are sharp. I’ve been doing a lot of research this week, Liam, but I’m not sure I’ll be much help to him. I can work closely with him—and you—to get him through the year with the knowledge he’ll need to set him up for next year, but I’m not sure how to help him with his scholastic skills.”
“Yeah. But you see what I see, don’t you? He’s not trying to be obstinate. It’s so hard to explain to Luanne. She was always great in school.”
Neil nodded. “I was always great at telling teachers what they wanted to hear, but the second we were released from the classroom it was like everyone was speaking a language I didn’t know. I remember what that felt like really well.” Not that it helped. None of his lessons were reverse-applicable. Well. With the possible exception of “if you’re trying to kill yourself by jumping off the bypass, make sure you aim for the cement or you might screw it up and survive.”
“You guys coming in from your top secret meeting soon?” Luanne called.
“If I could get her to understand he’s not being stubborn,” Liam murmured. “She thinks the right incentive will make him shape up.”
“Did you tell Neil our idea?”
“I was just going to.”
“We’re going to offer to get Xav a dog at the end of the year if he gets all pluses and check marks,” Luanne said, coming to lean in the doorway. “What do you think, Neil?”
“So, no ‘needs improvements’, huh?” I think I can write out his report cards now. “Hey, Luanne.”
“Hey, kiddo. Come in. Come out back, where it’s not sweltering.”
He went through the door first, but she waited for Liam. They might have kissed, it’s not like he was paying attention, but obviously she knew what they were talking about and didn’t mind.
What would it be like to be married? To know you disagreed with someone, to try so hard to find common ground? He’d had a handful of boyfriends in college, but since he’d come back to New Halliday, he’d been so obsessed with being a fine upstanding (mentally healthy) gay man, he hadn’t bothered.
Or, okay, he’d been too afraid. He loved New Halliday. Which made him feel pretty vulnerable to the dating revolving door he’d taken advantage of when he was anywhere other than here.
Neil elevated his expression to “acceptably normal for a casual dinner” and said, “Anything I can do to help?”
* * *
The very last thing Neil wanted to do on Saturday was go to dinner with Math and Henry and Gage. He liked all three of them very much, but what he wanted to do was cook a frozen pizza, take it into his bedroom, and pass out watching Netflix after eating it. Maybe he’d watch one of those fanatical documentaries about the environment. There were a few that made him happy he wasn’t all that invested in climate change. (Not that he didn’t believe it in, just that he didn’t…care. People whose main three goals each day weren’t get out of bed, get dressed, try to eat at least once—those people could care about the rate of temperature increase and its effect on Arctic wildlife.)
But this was a dinner to celebrate Math and Henry passing their home visit from the adoption agency, and Neil knew how big a deal it was. So he forced himself to put on a good shirt and drive to Ma Bella’s, which was the only decent Italian place in New Halliday.
Math and Henry, as it turned out, were late.
“You look about as happy to be here as I am,” Gage mumbled, standing in the waiting area with him.
“I can’t believe you came while Dillon’s in Sweden.”
Gage shook his head. “Believe me, Neil, if Dil was here, this is the last place we’d be right now.”
“Dil appreciates family. He might have insisted you guys come to this dinner.”
“He wouldn’t have had a fucking choice,” Gage said. When Neil raised his eyebrows, he added, “Oh shut up. You know what I mean. And where the hell is Clem? If I have to be here, he should be, too.”
“At Nan’s, I assume.”
“You assume, huh?” Gage shook his head again, but instead of the careless punctuation it had been the first time, now he was looking right at Neil. “You’re just as bad as he is. Jesus, Neil, the two of you—”
Saved by the door chime.
Henry immediately moved to the host stand, but Math went to them. “Sorry we’re late. Parking’s crazy.”
“The opera house has a benefit going for Community Action New Halliday,” Neil said.
“I didn’t even think about that, you’re right. Thank god they still have our table. I just heard a convoluted lecture on the economics of the reservations system and our role as consumers within it.”
Henry shot him a look, but even then, it was irritated overlying fond.
Neil had to stop reading into other people’s relationships. It was getting a little bit creepy.
“So?” Gage asked. “Tell us how it went.”
They heard all the details of the home visit and the worker Math and Henry (and Nova) had been assigned, who seemed pretty okay with them.
“I didn’t get the impression she had met a lot of queer people,” Math said. “But we were not her first gay couple.”
“Gay married couple,” Henry added. “God, that feels good to say.”
“She liked it, too. Amanda, the worker. Didn’t you think?”
“Yes,” Henry said. “Though it made you a lot more comfortable than it made me.”
“You think if you two weren’t married, she would have been less friendly?”
Both of them nodded. “It’s just a feeling. But it’s a strong feeling. It bothers you, Henry?”
“Not—bothers me. Exactly. But I think there are plenty of sane reasons not to get married, and the idea that someone could penalize us when it comes to adopting a child because of those reasons bothers me.”
“Hm. Okay. I agree. Though for the record, I’d be completely insane to not want to marry you.”
The happy, married, soon-to-be-parents-(again) couple kissed. Neil averted his eyes. Gage made rude noises about things that should be done in private.
Actually, the two of them sitting here across from the happy (etc) couple were probably thinking some of the same things. Gage wished desperately that Dillon was in the hemisphere, and Neil—Neil wished desperately that he didn’t want Clem, who was. In this hemisphere, time zone, and town.
When Gage asked everyone if they wanted a round of celebratory drinks at the Dugout, Math and Henry begged off (with the kind of heat passing between them that made it clear they had no intention of spending any part of tonight anywhere but in their bedroom).
Neil said, “You buying?”
They stayed at the bar long enough to wave around at Gage’s regulars before heading upstairs. Neil hadn’t been to the apartment until Dillon moved in, but even so, he could tell Dil’s presence changed it. For one, the space in between the door and the kitchen was full of newly-packed boxes and the rest of the place seemed oddly bereft.
“So, are you remodeling? Or do you just like the cardboard aesthetic?”
“Sounds like you’re volunteering to help me move all this shit out, Neil.”
“I don’t help millionaires move, Gage.”
“Shit. Don’t even say that. Plus it could be years before I see that money.”
Gage poured whiskey into two glasses and passed one over. “Probably not. The young turk Ralph hired to”—he waved a hand around—“do whatever it is with his estate said it probably won’t take that long. Still, I’m not counting any of that money until it’s actually in my possession.”
“Is that why you didn’t go to Sweden with Dil?”
“Nah.” Gage gestured to the couch, and took a seat on the unraveling armchair. “That was just bad timing. Steve’s sister’s wedding coincided with when they wanted Dil to move out there. Anyway, I’ll visit him when he’s a little more settled. He’s sleeping in his boss’s teenage son’s room at the moment, which would not be conducive to both of us being there. Hey, did I tell you the whack-a-mole came back?”
“That kid who keeps showing up at the Dugout.” He waved a slightly apologetic hand. “Steve started calling him the whack-a-mole.”
“Shit. What’s his deal?”
“I still don’t know. He sees me, pauses, then runs out the back door. But—” Gage hesitated.
“Hell. This is your fault. But I’m wondering if it’s a gay thing. Just—the way he looks at me sometimes. Hell, I don’t know. It’s probably nothing. But keep Alex Junior on your gay list, okay?”
“Sure.” Since this was the first time Gage had ever talked about his internal tracking of local queers without mocking him, Neil decided to let it pass.
Now that he was here, staring out the front windows at downtown New Halliday, Neil didn’t really know what to say. He could ask more about Dillon, or more about the Dugout. He downed his whiskey and pondered walking four miles home so he could justify having another.
“I met Dil four months ago and now I want him here all the time,” Gage said from behind him. “How the hell do you manage to only see Clem once a week? That would kill me.”
“It’s what it is.”
“I thought that was on him. I even got on his case about it.”
Neil half-turned. “You got on Clem’s case? About me?”
“I told him you wanted more and he should get his head out of his ass.”
Jesus. Neil turned resolutely back to the windows, watching the cars drive past. People were mostly heading home now, and some parts of Main looked almost deserted. “You volunteering relationship advice right now?”
“That’d be a joke. Problem is, I still think of you as a kid, wearing a shirt too big for you to play outfield. Guess you have your own look-out, huh, Neil?”
Probably not. But suddenly Neil was having a hard time being civil. He sloshed more whiskey into his glass and pointed it at Gage.
“I came out, in New Halliday, when I was fifteen years old. I’ve had my own look-out since long before then, Gage, okay?”
“That’s kind of my point.”
“Well, I’m not planning any big jumps, so you can stand down.”
Gage studied him, and Neil realized he’d only taken a sip, maybe two, of his own drink. “You’re an adult, and you and I are friends. Clem and I are friends, too. You won’t remember Brent because you were barely in school when he took off, but he was a real piece of work. All smiles to his customers, a fucking nightmare to work for, and I don’t even want to know what he was like at home, but if I had to guess I’d bet he ran hot and cold pretty much non-stop.”
“Yeah, I’m not sorry I missed him.”
“I wouldn’t be shocked if they got into it sometimes. I know they looked like they were about to kill each other at Nan’s and we’d all just lie low until it passed and they liked each other again.”
“You worked there?”
“For about six months, until Brent raised his hand to me and I threw a spatula at him.”
“Yep. He only hired high school kids he thought he could bully. Him leaving was the best thing that ever happened to Clem. And Nan’s.”
Neil waited, since it seemed like some kind of moral-of-the-story would be forthcoming. But Gage only shook his head.
“Yeah, I think I had this wrong. Dillon told me I was casting you as the damsel in distress, and I guess he was right.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Shit, Neil, that’s the kind of line we tell ourselves to get out of taking a risk on anything better than what we’ve got.”
“And here comes the moral of the story,” Neil muttered.
“The moral of the story is no one actually takes care of themselves. Or else you wouldn’t keep having all of us out to dinner and keeping track of every potential queer in town. Finish your drink and I’ll drive you home.”
Neil lifted his glass and judged the level of it. “I’m fine. We just had dinner, Gage. I can get myself home.”
“It’s not that I don’t believe you. It’s that if you end up drunk driving into a tree everyone in town will think you did it on purpose, Neil.”
And fuck you, too. Neil burst into abrupt too-loud laughter. “God, that’s true. If I die not of old age or cancer, everyone will forever think I offed myself. Oh my god, Gage.”
“Nope. I’m good. Watch.” He walked heel-toe in a straight line, then closed his eyes and touched his nose. “You want me to do the alphabet backwards?”
He thought Gage was going to insist, which would make things awkward. But he didn’t.
“Nah, you’re moving like you’re under the legal limit. You gonna be okay?”
“Guess we’ll find out, won’t we? But I’m not gonna drive into a tree. Or jump.”
Gage stood up. “Plan the next dinner for when Dil’s back. We’ll come, at least for a little while.”
“You don’t have to—”
“Yeah. We do. For me, not him. I grew up here, too, Neil. And I was in the closet for a damn long time.”
“You sure you don’t want a ride?”
“I’m sure. Thanks.”
He waved and let himself out.
Just after eleven. He probably could have walked/run home, even in these clothes, but now that he was in the car the drive seemed too short. Or the destination too empty.
Neil drove to Clem’s instead.
It wasn’t a good idea. It was Saturday, not Friday. There were rules, dammit, and there were rules for a reason. He couldn’t start thinking of Clem’s as a place he could turn to on a bad night. All the nights were bad nights. If he broke the rule once, he might not be able to stop next time. It’d start as weekends only. Then he’d slip on a school night. Then—
Clem opened the door. And instead of the pulling-away Neil expected to see, he found pleasure. Clem smiled and stepped aside. “Didn’t expect to see you tonight. How was dinner?”
Neil could have beaten himself bloody against the walls of Clem’s resistance all night, but pleasure, acceptance, were far too dangerous.
He backed away, hands defensively raised in front of himself.
“I have to leave.”
“You just— Neil, come inside. Did you actually eat at the restaurant?”
“I have to— I’ll see you next week—”
Clem stood there, in the doorway, and watched him. He knew it, he could feel it, even though he didn’t look over.
He didn’t run his car into a tree on the way home. He was way too exhausted for that level of dramatics, and considering last time, he’d probably live to hang his head in shame over it. Best to just fall into bed and try not to think. About anything.