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SATURDAY: FOUR DAYS ’TIL CHRISTMAS

Winston’s just settled into a nice, oversized bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios when he remembers. He needs to text Mark to ask if they’re still on to go to Monday’s Sparks game, since Alisha’s supposed to be starting.

“Hey! It’s Winston!” Jess says a little too loudly as she pads into the kitchen in pajamas.

“Hey, Jess,” Winston says, without looking up from his phone. He’s getting kinda good at texting left-handed, which leaves his right hand free for cereal-shoveling. Multitasking!

“Who, uh, who ya’ texting?” Jess says as she grabs a mug out of the cupboard. Winston hits send and looks up at her.

“Uh, just Mark,” he says, distracted, just as Jess somehow manages to bobble the mug she’s holding and send it rolling across the countertop.

Winston’s phone buzzes on the counter but it’s not Mark — just Coach, bitching about how cold it is back home in Syracuse. My balls are lodged somewhere behind my belly button.

He’s distracted by the front door slamming and Schmidt’s halfway through a diatribe about Whole Foods being out of almond milk and do they have any non-dairy alternatives he can borrow?

Winston exchanges a look with Jess as Schmidt strides between them and flings open their fridge door without asking. He’s been making up more and more excuses to come over and ending up just loitering around, as though hanging out were the real reason he came over in the first place. It’s sort of sweet and sort of completely idiotic.

Schmidt suddenly pauses and pulls his head back out of the fridge, looking at both of them thoughtfully.

“Hey, Winston,” he says, eyes still on Jess, before shutting the fridge and turning to look at him. “What do you think about this belt with these slacks? Gauche? Or bold?”

Winston frowns and raises his eyebrows.

“Uh. It’s… fine?” He looks back at Jess to exchange another look, but she turns away fast and starts doing loud things with the kettle and her bajillion overdecorated tins of tea.

“Hey, Jess,” Nick calls, voice coming toward them. “Do you know where we put the— oh.“

“Put the what?” she says, turning around.

“Uh, nothing,” he mutters, backing out of the kitchen. “Sorry, I— never mind."

“Weirdo,” Schmidt says to the air. Maybe he and Nick are having drama again. Such a crazy old married couple.

==

He’d gotten the email from Mark in early October. Yo, it said. Guess who just moved to LA.

Mark had been on the Estonian national basketball team, their own token American in the next country over. They’d gotten to know each other pretty well over the course of a whole lot of regional tourneys.

LeBron? he wrote back.

Mike D'Antoni wishes, showed up in his inbox an hour later. Drinks?

Winston went to move his laundry into the dryer. Checked the forecast. Removed Furguson from his keyboard. Clicked reply and suggested a sports bar downtown that none of his roommates had probably ever heard of.

 

SATURDAY NIGHT

I guess, said the text back from Mark about the game, which was not the reply he’d expected. He’s still thinking about it when he comes home to an ultra-sparkly apartment. Well, sparkly’s the wrong word: it's more glowy. It's all dark except for the strings of white Christmas lights Jess has up all over the place.

“Hey!” she says when she sees him. “I made chocolate spice bread.” She has each of their favorite baked goods memorized and uses that power for nothing but evil. Winston narrows his eyes as she nudges the plate on the coffee table in his direction, but damn, that loaf looks good. He flops onto the other couch and grabs a piece, glancing over at the muted TV.

“Yeahhh, Love Actually,” he says through a mouthful of (freaking delicious) chocolateyness. “I haven’t watched it yet this year."

“Oh, um,” Jess says, fidgeting before leaning forward to grab a stack of DVDs off the coffee table. “I thought maybe you’d want to watch one of these.”

“Nah, I’m cool,” he says, taking another bite. Onscreen, Mr. Bean is gift-wrapping his heart out.

“… are you sure?” Jess says. “I have, um, Milk.” She shuffles through the DVD cases. “American Beauty. The Birdcage?

Winston makes a noncommittal noise and reaches for another slice of bread. He’s about to ask Jess to unmute the TV when the door bangs open.

“Hey, Nick,” Winston says, without needing to look over. Nick has always treated doors like they’ve personally wronged him.

“Hey, you!” Jess says, much more brightly.

“Uh, hey,” Nick says. When Winston glances over, he looks away from them fast, like he's really interested in the drugstore flyer on the side table.

“Wanna watch a movie with us, Nick?” Jess asks. “I was thinking one of these.” She holds up a couple more DVDs from her stack.

“Pick your pleasure, matey,” she adds, turning them so Winston can see the covers. Brokeback Mountain and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. Winston frowns.

“Hey, Jess,” Nick says, “can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Uh... sure,” Jess says and follows him out of the room. Even with the TV volume back on, Winston can easily hear when the yelling starts. He doesn’t know which is worse: the fights they had before they were dating, or the ones they have now.

Oh well, at least now Jess is the person who has to deal with Nick’s weird moods. One good thing about this whole situation is that he’s felt compelled to spend much less time unraveling the mysteries of Nick Miller’s psyche. Which is convenient at times like this, when otherwise Winston would feel a lot more obligated to try to deal with whatever’s bugging Nick.

He turns the volume a little higher and offers himself another slice of spice bread.

 

2009

Believe it or not, the universe of the Transnational Baltic Basketball League was not insanely huge. You got to know the circuit pretty well. Or really well. The other courts; the refs; the angry coaches yelling in their respective languages; the other players.

The universe of Americans-signed-to-FIBA-Europe-basketball-teams-in-the-former-Soviet-Bloc was even smaller. A handful of them scattered throughout Eastern European 'ball. Two months in, Winston could recognize pretty much all of them, jerk his chin upward in acknowledgment if they passed in some grim, concrete hall near the locker room.

Four months in, he met Mark.

He wasn’t Mark at first; Winston just thought of him as the dude who held his eye a little too long from across the court. And did it again later in the hallway.

“Hey,” he said, not looking away, and Winston realized he was American.

“Hey,” Winston said back. He didn’t look away either.

==

So Europe was lonely. His teammates made a lot of jokes in Latvian and he was never quite able to shake the creeping feeling that they were about him. He missed Chicago. He missed LA. He missed shower heads he could fit under without ducking down a foot.  Having someone he could bump into on the road, pick up wherever they left off... it was easy. It didn’t suck.

He was bad enough at picking up girls (or dudes) in the States. Trying it in a country where he got stared at in public just for, gasp, being black, wasn’t going to be pretty.

After a while he realized Mark was not just a mysteriously willing visitor to Winston’s mojo zone. He was funny, too, in a dry, understated way. Mark had a lot of great sotto voce observations about European life and European bars and the mysterious European love for Bon Jovi. Mark had stupid messy hair and a stupid, sleepy-eyed smirk and. This was good.

They saw each other every few weeks, maybe, during the basketball season (the marginally less-cold part of the year), whenever their teams played each other or circled through the same tournament. Sometimes it’d be a month or two. It kept things laid back, the way he liked it, the way he’d always had it with dudes. Nothing much to talk about, just knowing that when they were in the same city there'd be slightly-too-short hotel beds and someone to mess them up with. And later stay up late with, making fun of Russian-dubbed movies on TV.

==

It’s not like it was the first time; or the second or third. Winston figured a lot of things out about himself in his high school locker room, and figured out how to act on them in his college one.  It's definitely not like they're the only two dudes doing this kind of thing. 

The only person he'd ever told just shrugged, like being his sister meant nothing would surprise her.

“Yeah, I wondered,” Alicia said, then feinted left and managed a basket while he was still reacting.

 

SUNDAY: THREE DAYS ’TIL CHRISTMAS

Whatever’s bugging Nick — the first Christmas without his dad? — is making the vibe in the apartment all weird. He keeps skulking out of the room and won’t respond to Winston with more than a grunt. Winston’s spent so many years on Nick Miller Meltdown Watch Autopilot that it’s jangling his nerves.

Everyone’s acting weird, really. “Hey, girl!” Schmidt said when Winston went over to escape the appalling Christmas-themed sexfest Nick and Jess were having. (“Santa and Mrs. Santa?” Schmidt asked. “Bumble and Hermey,” Winston said, with every ounce of disgust he could muster.) “… hey, bitch?” Schmidt offered when Winston just stared at him. “Hey, brother?"

Cece and Jess are hanging out at the kitchen table that afternoon when he comes in to grab a can of Furguson’s favorite wet cat food. Cece’s been hanging around more since Schmidt moved out, which is especially welcome when he needs someone to share an eye roll with when Nick and Jess tangent into a conversation about how much they like each other.

“Look, it’s really not a big deal,” Cece’s saying. “Just. Chill.”

“But why—“ Jess starts, but Cece cuts her off.

“Hey Winston,” she says, and Jess jumps and turns to look at him, pushing her glasses up on her nose.

“Yo,” he says, pulling the tab off the cat food can. “Hey, Jess, do you think Schmidt knows he still has a jar of whitefish in the fridge and will he notice if I give it to Furguson?”

Jess makes a face.

“Knock yourself out, as long as I don’t have to smell it.”

“Smell what?” Nick says, wandering in. “—oh."

“My gourmet whitefish creation,” Winston answers, grabbing the jar. "Cat loves the food of the chosen people.” There had been a kind of dramatic latke incident last month.

There’s a kind of awkward silence, like they wouldn’t be doing the same thing if they had their own cool little dude cat pals. Jess breaks it.

“Oh hey, do you guys mind if I go get my guitar? I’ve got this new song about friendship and openness that—”

“NO,” Nick says over Cece's, “Jess” in a warning tone. Maybe they’re as sick of her recent foray into Mariah Carey Christmas medleys as he is. Jess frowns and slumps back in her chair, arms crossed.

“Scrooges,” she mutters.

 

FALL 2013

It was kind of creepily normal to see Mark again, almost too easy to start hanging out right where they left off. In his glamorous post-Latvia life he was a writer for what he called a “not-quite middle tier sports blog,” now in charge of covering West Coast teams.

He was funnier than Winston remembered. Somehow had a five o’clock shadow around the clock. Still just the same height as him. Still kissed a little like he was laughing at some joke you didn’t quite get, but not in a bad way.

It was easy to get lazy and let the streams cross, his words collide. He brought Mark by Nick’s bar one night and they got in a pleasant argument about top shelf scotch. He and Jess nerded out about Battlestar Galactica and he and Coach nerded out about fantasy football. He and Schmidt apparently read the same lame productivity guru blogs because of course they did.

Easy enough, too, to crash at Mark’s place every once in a while after his night shift. And then sometimes on the nights he was off. (Not like his roommates paid enough attention to know his schedule, the idiots.)

It felt basically normal to invite him over for the annual 4D pre-Christmas Friday movie night. Even if he did end up siding against Winston in the fierce Grinch vs Charlie Brown Christmas debate.

 

MONDAY: CHRISTMAS EVE EVE

By Monday night he’s had enough.

Mark is being weird and he basically hates it and Coach sent so many texts in a row with vivid descriptions of the coldness and whereabouts of his balls that it woke Winston up and that’s after he couldn’t fall asleep because whatever Nick was doing to Jess apparently needed incredibly loud verbal appreciation.

When he stomps through the living room, Nick and Jess and Schmidt all abruptly stop talking and look at him with identical guilty expressions.

What?” he says, turning to face them. They all look vaguely not quite at him, but he folds his arms and gives them his second most fearsome Theodore K. Mullins look.

It’s Jess who breaks the silence.

“We were just wondering, um.”

“Jess, don’t,” Nick says, but she ignores him.

“Is there anything you want to tell us?”

He can’t tell anything from their faces. Schmidt and Jess have on identical Big Eyes and Nick’s looking down at the corner of the couch.

“Did Furguson puke in the laundry room again?” he says, honestly confused. They all start talking at once.

“YES,” Nick says, “That’s it, yes, that’s what we’re—“

“Nick, stop it,” Jess says, rounding on him.

“Oh my god, that cat is so disgusting,” Schmidt says with a shudder.

“My cat is not disgusting!” Winston says as Jess raises her voice.

“That’s not what this is about, it’s—"

Jessica,” Nick says, voice at his sternest.

“I’m so glad I moved out and away from that vermin,” Schmidt says to no one.

“Cats are very clean, you don’t--” Winston starts to insist.

“We know you’re gay!” Schmidt shouts and everything in the room kind of stops. Winston’s stomach lurches to the side, drops down, rises up into his throat.

“What,” he manages, and all three of them are looking at him now with faces somewhere between worried and sympathetic.

“Mark told us, man,” Nick says softly. “The other night. When you were in the bathroom.”

Winston scrubs his hands over his face. Everything suddenly makes a huge amount of terrible sense. Schmidt’s bizarre conversation topics. Jess trying to coax him into confiding in her. Nick avoiding him. … Mark avoiding him.

“We just thought maybe you needed to know it was okay to tell us,” Jess says in her Gentle Teacher Voice.

When Winston looks up they’re all still giving him that horrible look: part pity, part expectant, like he’s going to give them some impassioned coming out speech.

“Maybe what I need is for people to stay out of my damn business,” he says instead, and manages a satisfying door slam on the way out of the apartment.

==

You told my roommates about us? He sends the text before he can second guess it, then starts pacing his way around the roof.

Mark’s reply comes back before he’s ready for it.

You didn’t think to tell me you’re still in the closet?

Winston angrily types and deletes several responses before he gets another text from Mark.

I can’t date any more guys still pretending they’re straight. It’s messed me up too many times. I’m sorry.

He feels like he’s just gotten an elbow to the chest on the court. Mark thinks they’re dating. He and Mark… may actually be dating. Are they dating?? … and now breaking up?

The idea of that just being the kind of thing you casually assume — the kind of thing that can casually happen to people like him, like them, could be something more than scratching an itch — is like the moment of snapping the last puzzle piece into place. Oh. Oh.

==

Winston doesn’t turn around when he hears the door to the roof scrape open, but he can tell from the footsteps and the pause behind him that it’s Nick.

When he doesn’t react, Nick comes around beside him, holding out a beer bottle. Winston accepts it and takes a long swig as Nick sits down beside him, ancient beach chair creaking under his weight.

“So,” says Nick, after taking a pull from his own beer.

“So,” Winston echoes.

Nick fidgets, short thumbnail picking at the edge of his beer label and Winston takes another drink; it’s cold and hoppy, a good distraction.

“So… you’re gay,” Nick says, the end of the sentence tilting up like it’s part statement, part question. Winston feels a surge behind his gut, that this is actually happening, they’re going to have this conversation after so many years of imagining it.

“Yeah,” says Winston and it almost makes him dizzy, the huge swell of relief he gets, finally saying it, saying it to Nick. “Well, kind of.” Nick frowns over at him, face folded in confusion. “Kind of gay,” Winston says. “Kind of straight. I do like girls. I really liked Shelby. I haven’t been lying about that. I just... like dudes too. More. I like dudes more.” He huffs out a breath and looks back down at his beer bottle. It’s his turn to toy with the damp edge of the label. The silence between them stretches out.

“Why didn’t you tell me, man?” Nick says finally, voice softer and Winston glances up at him.

“Because...” he pauses, then makes himself say it. “‘cause I didn’t want it to be true. I was trying to make it not be true. And then I thought I had to choose, one way or the other, and I couldn’t, and I didn’t know how to even explain that.” Now that he’s started talking it’s all coming out in a rush. “And ‘cause I didn’t want to make things weird. With us.”

Nick’s frown gets even deeper.

“What? No. It’s just been messing with my head that I didn’t know."

Winston’s eyebrows go up.

“Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?"

“Yeah, man,” Nick says, spreading his hands. “I mean—“ His voice gets softer. “I thought we were best friends. I just kept thinking: why didn’t I know? Should I have known?"

Winston can’t help it, he feels a laugh bubbling out of him.

“Oh my god,” he says, rubbing his free hand over his knee. “I thought you were in total gay panic mode.”

Nick frowns harder, in that grumpy-earnest way he has.

“Dude, no. It’s just you.” His frown goes a little wide-eyed. “Though I do feel a little weirder about the penis fights now.”

Winston winces even as he laughs.

“Yeah, let’s just never revisit that,” he says and Nick huffs out a laugh too.

It almost feels like everything’s back to normal, but Winston feels his expression going serious again.

“So… we’re cool?” he says and Nick’s mouth twists into a grin.

“We’re cool,” he says, and reaches over to clink the neck of his beer against Winston’s bottle. They slip into easy silence and Winston can feel himself relaxing, muscles un-knotting themselves, conscious of the mellow LA air, Christmas lights up on houses in the Hills. No matter how long he’s been out here, the warm Decembers still blow his mind.

“Honestly,” Nick says after a moment. “If one of my roommates was going to come out, I honestly thought it would be Schmidt.” He pauses. “Or Coach."

Winston laughs again.

“He does make some dubious karaoke choices."

They’re quiet for a while longer, listening to Feliz Navidad playing faintly somewhere in the distance.

“So… you and Mark,” Nick says after a while. “Serious?” To his credit he barely sounds like this is a strange conversation.

Winston lets out a heavy breath.

“I … don’t know, man,” he says. “Could be. I think. But I think maybe I’ve screwed things up.” He’s the dumbest boy in school.

He doesn’t add anything about how hard it’s been to see Nick falling so hard for Jess, the two of them so stupid-in-love. How it just reminds him of how long it’s been since he felt that way or how every time he wants to hang out with him, Nick’s spooning Jess on the couch or otherwise being gross and happy. How it’s made him have a weird year and the excessive number of phrases he’s come up with to rhyme with Furguson in impromptu song is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Well,” Nick says, upending the last of his beer. “I’m not your typical relationship advice guy—“

“Oh, really?” Winston says flatly but Nick ignores him.

“— but you know what you always tell me to do."

Winston frowns and can’t bring anything to mind.

“What are you talking about?” he says.

Nick quirks the side of his mouth into a smile and sets his empty bottle down on the concrete of the roof with a clink.

“Fix it,” he says. “You tell me to fix it."

==

He thinks about how doesn’t know what to say the whole drive over to Mark’s place and then when he gets there, it turns out he actually does. He knows exactly what to say. And somehow all the things he’s saying are getting Mark’s spine to unstiffen, his jaw to relax.  It means when Winston eventually slides his hands up into Mark's hair, he only steps closer.

==

Here’s what’s going to happen: Nick’s going to miss his flight home for Christmas yet again, shocking absolutely no one. Meaning Jess can stop pretending she’s loitering in LA over the holidays so she can hang out with Cece. Schmidt will stomp in on Christmas morning and wake them all up complaining about how Hanukkah was a month ago, how’s he supposed to get back into present giving mode, even while passing out their gifts. Nick will probably give Winston an assortment of screws in a ziploc bag and look pleased with himself.

He’ll call his mom. She'll tell him exactly how much snow is on the ground in Chicago. His roommates will drive him nuts and his cat will still be amazeballs and he'll text Mark to come over like it's something that could happen every day.