When Allison invited him out, Brian almost said no. He hadn't told his family he was in Chicago. There was nothing he wanted to endure less than a tedious dinner in their small, dark house in Shermer where his mother would passively aggressively criticize everything from his job to his haircut. His father would sit silently, mechanically eating until his plate was empty and he could flee to the den, door shut until Brian would knock to say goodbye and slip him a check.
"Brian," she said on the phone, "come on. I haven't seen you in ages. Come have a drink. It's the end of the semester, my classmates and I are celebrating." Allison was working on her master's in social work at UIC. She'd really gotten her life together and it had been a while since he'd seen her in person.
"All right, yes," he said, looking out the hotel room window at the grey Chicago sky. "Where am I going?"
He'd been living in California for the last eleven years and his body wasn't used to the sharp, icy wind that cut down the streets as he made his way from the El to the bar. There were Christmas lights on the porch railings and wreaths hung on doors. Brian didn't have a tree back in his apartment in Palo Alto. He didn't see the point when it was just him.
The bar was on the next corner. There was a woodcut of an Old Style logo and white lights glowing on the inside of the fogged up front window. A metal sign over the door read Silver Star. Brian looked both ways and crossed the street.
"So, Brian. You and Ali went to high school together?"
The girl - Kara, he thought - was leaning into him a little too close. They had all been there awhile, judging by the number of glasses stacked on the table. The rest of the bar was busy, but not packed. The crowd was pretty mixed, neighborhood locals with the UIC students but Brian hadn't missed the tiny rainbow flag stuck in the mirror behind the bar.
"Yeah, we did. We were both…"
"Weirdos." Allison answered, shoving in on his other side. She set down a round of vodka shots. "I mean, you were like, a nerdy weirdo and I was just a freak."
"Quit it," he said, bumping her shoulder with his. "You weren't a freak. You were a messed up kid, just like all the rest of us." He clinked his shot glass against hers. "To drinking vodka whenever."
She laughed before she threw the shot back. "Damn straight. Okay, can you stop being all mysterious about what you're in town for? It's too early for a Christmas visit."
Brian wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "A job interview, if you can believe it. There's a financial management company that I did some freelance work for last year. They're looking to overhaul their entire mainframe from the ground up. I'd be a department head, carte blanche to do whatever I want."
"Oh my God, that's amazing," she said. "Why didn't you say something before? Is George going to come with you? One of my professors worked for the CPS for ages, I'm sure she can give him some names of people to get in touch with for interviews."
Brian stared down at the scarred tabletop. "George and I aren't together anymore," he said quietly. "We - it just wasn't working. He moved back to San Francisco in February."
"February? Jesus, Brian, why didn't you say anything? Is that why you skipped the reunion?"
He rolled his eyes. "No, I skipped it because I had less than zero interest in seeing any of those people again. I talk to you and I talk to Andy and that's enough for me."
Allison bit her lip. "Then that's gonna make this kind of awkward," she said, looking toward the bar.
John Bender was standing behind it.
His mouth tasted like something had rotted in it. There was a spring jammed into his lower back and when he tried to sit up, the entire room whirled. Brian had to close his eyes and breathe deep and slow to keep from retching.
"There a glass of water on the table in front of you and a shit ton of Advil," an amused voice said from somewhere across the room. Brian could also smell coffee, but water - as much water as his body could consume - was top priority.
When he forced his eyes back open, he found himself in an unfinished loft. He dry swallowed four pills and chugged the entire glass of water. His stomach lurched and for a second, he thought he was going to be sick, but it passed. He was still wearing his jeans and sweater, but his shoes were gone.
"You take it black?"
Brian blinked. John was standing in the kitchen, the coffeepot in his hand. "Uh, yeah, with two sugars," he said. John poured, spooned the sugar in, and came out of the kitchen. He was barefoot, wearing a pair of faded black cargo pants and a long sleeved shirt. His hair was long, just like it had been in high school, but there was silver at the temples now. Brian felt that same stupid, fucked up twist in his chest that he used to feel when he was seventeen. "Thanks."
John sat down at the other end of the couch, slouching into the corner. "It's been a long time since anyone's been that spectacularly shitfaced in my bar. Even at midterms and that's saying something."
"Your bar?" Brian said, trying to shake the haze out of his head. "Did Allison know that?"
"Yeah. She and her friends started coming in last fall. She dropped her beer on the floor when she saw me," John answered, grinning. "It was worth the clean up."
"I thought that you got arrested?" He wished he could take the question back as soon as he'd said it. What in the hell was happening to him? It was exactly this kind of thing that kept him away from Shermer - the minute he came in touch with the past, he immediately reverted to his clumsy high school self.
To his credit, John didn't look all that insulted. "I did - four or five times. On the last one, the asshole DA decided he wanted to make an example of me, so they were going to ask for the max. It would've been something like, eighteen years total. But the judge gave me a choice - jail or the Marines. I figured four years there couldn't be worse than the fucking county lock up."
"You - John Bender, the anti-authority poster boy, joined the United States Marines? Are kidding me?"
"Ooh rah," John said, pulling up his sleeve, On the forearm where he once showed Brian the burn scars from his father's cigars, was a gorgeous tattoo of the eagle, the anchor, and the globe. "I was a combat engineer in Kuwait, got my honorable discharge a few years ago."
He gulped down his coffee, hoping the caffeine would help him wrap his brain around the concept that John had been a Marine. The brief flash of John in a uniform was summarily tucked away for examination some other time when Brian wasn't hungover and sitting on John's couch.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound so surprised," he said, shifting - slowly because his head felt like it was in a vice - and sitting back against the other end of the couch. "You have to admit, it is kind of crazy though."
John chuckled. "Yeah, I guess it is. Man, you should've seen the look on Vernon's face when I saw him last. I thought he was gonna shit his pants."
"Jesus, is he still teaching at Shermer?"
"Unfortunately for the students, yes. I went out there a few months ago as a favor for a recruiter friend of mine." John stretched his arms up over his head and his shirt rode up. Brian saw the end of a thick, puckered scar. When John realized it, he yanked his shirt down and got to his feet. "I need to go downstairs and get the bar squared away for opening. I didn't get a chance to do it last night on account of dragging your drunk ass up here before you got sick everywhere.
"Shit," Brian said, standing up way too fast. "Let me come down and help."
"No need." He gave Brian a quick once over. "You can crash out up here for awhile longer if you need to."
"Yeah, okay," he said, sinking back down onto the couch slowly. "John," he called. John stopped at the door. "Thanks."
He must have fallen back asleep but this time when he sat up, he was roughly eighty five percent sure he wasn't going to die. And he was starving. John hadn't come back yet and Brian felt weird about poking through his kitchen without asking. He had another glass of water at the sink before he went to the bathroom. Like everything else, it was clean and sparse. He borrowed some toothpaste and brushed with his finger. When he came out, he found his shoes next to the door and his wallet in the pocket of his jacket.
The hallway outside the loft door was dark, but Brian followed the low hum of music to a set of stairs that let back down to the bar. The store room door was propped open and he heard John talking to someone, a women.
"You gonna be okay working on your own until Barry gets here at six?"
"Boss, it's three hours. You're gonna have to let me work shifts on my own eventually - hello." She waved and Brian realized she was waving at him. "You lost?"
John shook his head. "Norah, this is Brian. He's an old friend. Brian, this is Norah, my pain in the ass weekend bartender." He wiped his hands on a rag and tossed it at Norah. "Fine, if you burn down my bar, I will end you - got it?"
She winked at Brian. "He's a little overprotective of his things."
"I remember," Brian said with a smile. "I'm gonna head back to my hotel so I can shower, but if you're, uh, not working, maybe we can have dinner? Catch up when I'm not pickling myself with cheap vodka." His palms were sweating and there was a fluttery panic in his chest. But there was nothing to be nervous about - it was just dinner with an old friend.
John stepped closer to him, getting into his personal space and Brian was suddenly really relieved that he thought about the toothpaste. "Sure, dinner's good. You're staying at the Palmer House?
"I - yes, I am," Brian said.
"I'll meet you there at 1900 then," John said.
"That means seven o'clock," Norah cut in, not at all hiding the fact that she was eavesdropping.
Brian rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I know that." He looked back at John, who had a soft smile on his face. "See you then."
He found John in the lobby, heavy soled motorcycle boots dripping slush onto the marble floor. The way he was slouched in the chair reminded Brian so viscerally of those Saturday mornings in detention when John would slump at the table across the aisle from him while he tried to work on his AP Calculus homework.
They'd had a rotation - him, Allison, Claire, and Andy - for the rest of the time that John was also spending his Saturday mornings with Vernon. It had been Andy's idea. "Just in case that dick bag gets any ideas." Andy was a high school wrestling coach in Iowa with a wife and two sons.
"You staring from across the room at me isn't less creepy," John said as he stood up. He was smiling though and Brian tugged at his end of his scarf, hoping it would hide his creeping flush. "So, where are we going?"
"Oh," Brian said, "I - don't know. Usually when I came downtown it was with my parents because my sister wanted to eat in that shitty restaurant in Marshall Fields." He didn't think he was still this bad at dating, not anymore. Of course, he usually also had more time to plan actual dates.
They went out onto State Street and John's hand brushed his. "If you're up for a walk, I know a place," he said. "Claire actually turned me on to it, if you can believe that."
"How is she?"
John walked on the outside near the curb as they made their way north, weaving through the Saturday night before Christmas crowds. When a group of teenagers passed them, he had to step in closer to John and he didn't move back.
"Claire's...Claire, you know? She's traveling a lot now. The divorce screwed her up, but she got a ton of his money, so between that and what she already had, she can do whatever she wants. I saw her in Berlin a few years ago when I had a stopover on my way home from the Middle East."
"I always wondered why you and her didn't work out. I mean, I know all the academic reasons, but, I don't know, she liked you a lot."
John snorted. "I liked her too, but it turned out I liked Bobby Kowalski better."
"That guy that drove the van with the dragon on the side? I thought he was your dealer," Brian said, hunching into his jacket as they crossed the bridge. The river was partially frozen over and the shards of ice were drifting with the wind.
"He was my dealer," John said, "among other things. Shit, I haven't thought about him in years." He stopped in front of a narrow doorway. "This is us." He held the door open and Brian didn't bother to stop himself from brushing up close. This had already been the strangest weekend he'd had in years and if it ended with him sleeping with his secret high school crush, it would be one for the record books.
It was a Japanese restaurant, with low tables and pillows on the floor. John was talking to the hostess, who was giggling and touching his arm. Well, at least that hadn't changed.
"There aren't any tables, but Yuko says we can sit at the bar and eat," John said, shrugging out of his coat. "And we don't have to take our shoes off."
After they'd ordered enough sushi and sake to feed four people, John looked at him, smiling. "When do you hear about the job offer?"
Brian blinked. "How did you - "
"You talk a lot when you're wasted, did you know that?" John asked before taking a sip of his sake. "Just because you don't like your family doesn't mean you shouldn't take the job. Shermer's two hours west on a decent traffic day. Chicago's a good town."
"I have a life in California," Brian argued. "I can't just up and leave." The words were weak and he knew it, but he didn't like feeling dictated to. It was something he and his therapist had discussed just before George's departure. "And I hate Illinois."
"You hate what it represents to you and I don't fucking blame you, man. I had no intention of coming back here." He picked up a piece of edamame and dragged it between his teeth, sucking the beans out. "But God or fate or whatever the hell works in funny ways."
"Why didn't you tell anyone you were gay when were in high school?" Brian asked.
John started at the shift in conversation. "Same reasons you didn't probably. I was scared, I hoped it wasn't true. As if I needed to make my life harder, Christ. And what, you went off to Genius Utopia and it was all just rainbows and unicorns?"
"Hardly," Brian answered, knocking back the rest of his sake. The bartender topped off his glass and brought them a fresh bottle. "I had no idea what I was doing. It took me two years just to figure out how to hit on someone in a bar. It was - it was fucking pathetic actually. George used to say - "
"He dumped you, so nothing he had to say is worthwhile to me. And it shouldn't be to you," John said.
"You were a Marine - "
"Always will be," John reminded him. "That's some shit that seeps into your bones."
"How did you…"
"They didn't ask and I didn't tell. A few of the guys saw me with Claire in Germany and Allison used to write me letters. Fucking bleeding heart, that one. They thought she was my girl and I didn't disabuse them of that notion."
Their food came then and the silence while they ate wasn't entirely uncomfortable. Brian barely tasted anything because he was thinking. He jolted when John kicked at his stool.
"You in there?"
Brian set down his chopsticks and wiped his mouth. He stood up and John gave him a smirk. But before he could spit out whatever he was about to say, Brian kissed him hard.
It wasn't the kind of kiss he'd thought about but forced himself not to acknowledge while he was in high school, secretly jerking off in his bedroom. It wasn't the kind of kiss he'd thought about when he was twenty and sitting in his dorm room, reading Allison's latest letter, seeing the mention about John getting arrested. It wasn't the kind of kiss that he'd thought about when he did go out to bars and flirted with dark haired men that looked a little rough. It wasn't the kind of kiss he'd thought about this morning when John brought him coffee to dispel a ferocious hangover.
It was the kind of kiss that was a little off-kilter. It took them a second to get the angle right and John's neck was in a position that would be uncomfortable eventually. It was the kind of kiss that Brian would think about when he went back to his hotel and jerked off noisily in the shower. It was the kind of kiss that made something ache in his rib cage because he knew he needed to breathe but he didn't want to stop. It was the kind of kiss that made him want more for the first time in ages.
John was the one the broke away first. His eyes were glassy and his mouth was slick and damp. "Jesus Christ, why weren't we doing that in high school?"
"Because you were an asshole and we were both cowards?" Brian said quietly. John reached up and touched his cheek. It was a gentle gesture that Brian knew he must have always been capable of, but didn't indulge in all that often. He leaned into John's touch. "Maybe there are some other advantages to Chicago that we haven't talked about yet."
"I am entirely willing to convince you, if that's what it takes," John said, licking his lips. "Lots of ways to keep warm in the winter that don't involve cranking up the heater."
Brian sat back down and gave an embarrassed smile to the bartender. "I'm looking forward to it."