It's hot and it only gets hotter the further south you go. When you are rich and famous, you will have a car whose air conditioning works, or never mind works, 'exists' would be a good place to start. This is not that car. Danny rides with his head out the window like a dog half the time, too-long hair flying in the breeze, and sometimes his feet. You don't know how he gets into that position, it's only a few years since you quit gymnastics but even so you know you couldn't ride like that, probably you never could've, but when you stop at rest stations he jumps out light and easy, not bent and aching and creaking the way you are, even though you've been sitting like a normal person, back straight, eyes forward, mind on the road, even though you're only 23 and it ought to be years before you find yourself tottering along like a, a - you can't say 'cripple', that's something-ist and you have to be so careful these days, when a word out of place could bring your newly-forged career crashing down about your ears - like a little old man, then, which is pretty much how you feel right about now.
You've brought Danny along for company, and, although you haven't told him you think of it that way, knowing he'd only laugh, for moral support because your grandmother scares you a lot, and also to keep you awake on the long, long drive (when you are rich and famous, you will be able to afford air fare), and this last he has evidently taken to heart, the way only Danny can. He chatters incessantly, he sings along to the radio, he comments on everything he sees: girls, cars, scenery, factories, billboards, unflaggingly, sometimes maddeningly, energetic and cheerful. He drinks Coke from the bottle, and shares it with you without being asked; he feeds you butterscotch to keep your energy levels up. When he takes over the driving you inwardly cringe, sure that he'll drive like a little boy racer and get you both killed, but he surprises you, as Danny so often surprises you; he drives carefully, meticulously, eyes on the road, always just on or just under the speed limit, so ridiculously carefully, in fact, that you almost call him on it, but something about the set of his shoulders tells you that would be a bad thing to do. And how ironic would it be to complain that Danny's doing something that you thought he'd do badly too well?
He's wearing cut-off jeans and a khaki wifebeater, and in spite of the heat seems ridiculously cool and comfortable. In your summer weight slacks and short-sleeved shirt, you're wilting. When you stop for the night you determine that you'll find a Wal-Mart or whatever and buy some shorts, but when you do, and you try them on, you look like a stork which, not coincidentally, rhymes with 'dork', and so you buy another Sta-Press shirt instead, and a pair of chinos, and hope that the compromise will be good enough. Next day, as your shirt clings to your back and your pants crease into places where surely god never meant for them to go, you realise that 'dorky' is not that bad, and you resolve to try again that night, but somehow you forget and you never do. You spend half the night in the shower, tipping stream after stream of blessedly cold water over your head, while Danny sleeps in the sagging twin bed by the window, peaceful and oblivious.
Next time you stop, Danny dives into his bag and kicks off his HiTops and scuffs his feet into beaten-up leather flipflops that he says he got when he was backpacking round Europe last summer, which is more personal information than you've got out of Danny in all the year you've known him: he'll listen, he'll sympathise, he'll offer advice and, when advice fails, buy you beer, but for all that he talks, all that he seems to reveal, you realise occasionally you know next to nothing about him; only that, for a kid of 19, he's peculiarly compassionate and understanding and even, in his own way, wise. So you try to draw him out, and say, "You went to Europe? Where did you go?" - because when you were in college, you visited Espana and Deutschland and La Belle France, and also Portugal, where you thought that Spanish would be enough and it wasn't, and also, of course, England, where you discovered the meaning of the saying about two nations divided by a common language and also why English beer should be avoided at all costs but thank god they sold the real stuff in bottles - but Danny only sinks down in his seat and mutters that he was pretty wasted most of the time, he doesn't remember much, and you don't press because you can see that if you did it would get you nowhere. And that, you realise, is the difference, why Danny knows everything about you while you know so little about him; Danny will push, while you draw back, tactful and discreet, or maybe just scared of finding out too much, more than you had bargained for. You know that people have depths, everyone does, no-one is ever simply what they seem, should ever be taken at face value. But you know, too, that if you look too hard, you might not always like what you find. Easier, then, and safer not to take that risk. In that, as in everything. No risks; you live your life cautiously, stepping through a labyrinth of pitfalls and distractions, eyes always on your goal. You know what you want. And, knowing that, having come so far already, nothing's going to get in your way.
"Barcelona was the coolest," you say, and you launch into a speech about Gaudi and the architecture and the food and the nightlife, not that you ever really saw much of the nightlife because even in your teens, you weren't much of a party person; it carries you on for several more miles, and when Danny straightens up again and just says, "I never got to Spain. South of France, and we did some skiing in the Pyrenees," whatever it was that had been troubling him seems to have passed.
When you finally get to Florida, and all the way down through Florida to Miami, home of The Golden Girls and in latter days, appropriately enough, of your maternal grandmother, you pull up in her driveway and Grandma Andersen comes racing out to greet you. Your grandmother, who you were used to seeing in cashmere twin sets and Scottish tweed suits, is now dressed in rainbow-coloured pedal pushers and a shocking pink, or at least, it certainly shocks you, tank top, and you try not to stare at the loose, crepey skin of her upper arms as she reaches out to hug you. Then you stop thinking about that because the second thing she says, right after she screeches "Casey! Honey!" in your ear so loud you'll be hearing it for weeks, so shrill that all the dogs in the neighbourhood start to bark, the thing she says right after that is, "And is this your boyfriend?" And you hope that Danny hasn't heard - you think by the way he doesn't react that he hasn't heard - because it takes you just a little longer than it should to say "No, no, this is Danny, he's just a friend, I'm engaged, Grandma, remember?" and the reason it takes you so long is that when she said that a sudden spike of something you can't name shot through you. You can't name it, but it has something to do with lust, and a little to do with longing and a lot to do with loneliness and, while you're alliterating, quite a bit to do with Lisa, too, and how Lisa is pretty and can be fun, and is great in bed, and goes in and out in all the right places, and you love Lisa, of course you do ... but when you look at Danny's mouth, sometimes, there's something about the curve of it, a wistfulness, a hunger, and those things strike a chord in you; they remind you of something, something you didn't know you'd forgotten, something missing that you never knew your perfect life didn't possess until you looked for it and found it wasn't there. And, if you're honest with yourself, over these past few nights, in those hot, sticky, skanky motel rooms, you've looked at Danny, lying on his bed, wearing only his boxers and a light sheen of sweat, and you've wanted, oh, how you've wanted, to reach over a hand and trace a bead of sweat with your finger, bring it to your tongue and taste it. But you never have, you never gave in to that temptation, and there's a reason for that. Two reasons. One: you never, as you've said before, take risks; and, two: Danny is not your boyfriend. In fact, you're not gay and neither (so far as you know - and you would know, surely?) is he, so the whole thing is just ridiculous.
So why can you not stop thinking about it?
"He's just a friend, Grandma," you say, and you can feel Danny's eyes on you, you know they'll be huge and dark and will, if you turn and look at them, make you feel somehow guilty, lacking, negligent, and so you don't turn; you just say "This is Danny, Dan Rydell, he's interning at the station for the summer - " and whatever else might have been said or thought is lost as Danny comes forward and makes 'pleased to meet you' noises, and has to explain what an intern is and how it has nothing to do with hospitals although it's the same concept, yes, mostly it has to do with working all the hours god gave and taking home no money, and Grandma cackles, there's no other word for it, with laughter, and says, "Ah! Like a housewife!" and then Danny cracks up, and you know that's that: the two of them are bonded, soulmates, and you're left on the outside yet again because somehow you can't do that, you can't just say one word to a stranger and have it be the right word, the password into their life. You can't do it, you don't have the first idea how, and yet Danny does it all the time, as easily as he breathes, as quietly as he sleeps (quieter: he has nightmares; you've heard him moan, and thought ... thought it was something else, but, when you've dared to look, he's been asleep, thrashing; you've had to get out of bed, and cross over to him, and touch his shoulder and say "Shhh, Danny, shhh, it'll be all right," and watch as just the sound of your voice lulls him back to sleep and peace for the both of you, or it would be if you weren't then left lying awake wondering what it is, what it is in his past that haunts him so).
Grandma Andersen doesn't cook ("I served my time," she says), but she throws something into the microwave and you wolf it down without really tasting it. Danny smiles at her, and offers to shop for groceries and maybe cook tomorrow, if people are coming back here, but Grandma waves the offer away: "People will bring casseroles," she says. You remember your manners, and start to explain/apologise about your mom, and how she would've come but she's so busy with - but you don't get any further than that before Grandma Andersen, who Danny is already calling 'Margaret', waves her hands in the air and says "Bullshit! She never liked George, and she never forgave me for divorcing your grandfather, so don't give me that crock, Casey." Then she grins, a peculiarly Satanic, evil grin on such a sweet little old lady, and adds, "Just wait till I'm gone and she gets a look at my Will!" and she and Danny crack up laughing again, but you don't think it's all that funny, you're a family and shouldn't family come first and, for god's sake, look at Grandma, she's not in mourning, she's pouring herself an afternoon cocktail right now (and Danny's saying no to the offer, and you're thinking that booze actually looks pretty good right at this moment): is she truly, honestly all that upset about George when they were only together for what, five years, and no-one in the family even really knew him?
Grandma has a date to play golf this afternoon, she says, and you watch Danny's face light up as she invites you both along, and when he looks over at you, you feel a heel for saying no, you're tired, you'd like to rest up before the funeral, and you lay extra emphasis on the word in case Grandma's forgotten about it, tomorrow. All she does is shrug, and turn back to Danny and tell him that he's welcome to go along anyway - and you want to ask, doesn't the club have a dress code, but somehow you don't quite dare - and Danny looks torn for a moment, but then he says no, he'll stay with Casey, have a good time, Margaret, sink a hole for me, and Grandma laughs and says she'll sink a few, and they'll all be for you, hon. And when she's gone out and you've heard her car drive away, you find yourself turning on Danny and snapping at him, demanding to know what all that was about, Jesus, Danny, were you flirting with my grandmother? and a bit of you, a mean, spiteful, ugly part of you that you never acknowledge, enjoys the look of shock on his face, and the defensive way his hands come up as if to fend you off; you like the sense of power it gives you, it's unfamiliar and all the more exhilarating for that, and so you push it, you snap, "God, did you see the way she was dressed? What does she think she looks like?" And you know that, if you let him, Danny would tell you that that was up to her, not up to you, and you know that he'd be right, so you turn your back on him and pace over to stare out the window, out into her back yard with its neatly raked gravel and its tidily trimmed plant pots, out at the burning blue sky and the haze that hints of ocean far away, of space and distance and silence and all the things you long for, all the things that seem to be lacking in your life, your life that, for all you try to make it otherwise, suddenly seems so messy, so cluttered, and out-of-control. And you won't apologise, you won't, but you want to talk, to keep talking, you can't stand the silence, not in a stranger's house, not anywhere, and so you say, and you don't know why your voice is shaking, "He was a good man, my grandfather, he did everything for her, all those years, and she just left him, she just ran off with this George, none of us even knew him, we barely even met him, and how she thinks she has a right to expect us to be here, to say goodbye to him when we didn't even say hello - "
"But you are here," Danny says, quietly, and your hands grip the edge of the windowsill and tighten, knuckles whitening, as he says, "Maybe he wasn't the right man, your grandfather," and pauses, breathing evenly, gathering the words to make you understand, "or maybe he changed. Maybe she did, or they both did. People change, Casey, and people make mistakes, and it's nobody's fault." And you know that he's right, and that only makes you angrier, so angry that you spin around, ready to hit him, ready to shut that mouth any way it takes, but of course, you don't, of course, you're civilised, you only say, coldly, calmly, "It's my family, Danny, and it's none of your business," and then you walk away and lock yourself in the bathroom and you sink down on the floor and bury your head between your knees and think, People make mistakes and it's nobody's fault. And you think that sometimes you can fix those mistakes, but sometimes you can't, or not without people getting hurt, and is it worth hurting anyone when you're not even sure that it is a mistake, or that what you think you want is really what you want at all? - and the words run round and round in your head like rats in a cage and you're no closer to finding an answer when you hear your grandmother's car pull back up outside the house and the shrill clamour of women's voices and you realise oh god, oh god, she's brought all her friends back here and you're going to have to face them, and you've left Danny alone all this time, what were you thinking, what kind of a friend are you? And when you open the bathroom door, he's leaning on the wall outside, and he just looks up at you and grins and says, "Finally! Gotta pee, man," and vanishes inside, and you know then that it's all right, it's Danny, and he'll pretty much forgive you always, always, no matter what you do.
Which is really more responsibility than you're ready for, if you think about it, and so you don't. Think about it. Not right now.
The old ladies have, in fact, brought casseroles, and Danny is eating macaroni and cheese as if he hasn't seen food in a week while half a dozen white-haired women try to offer him cake, and you're sitting squished up into a corner of the couch, watching them, wondering why they have every single one of them had their hair styled identically, white hair in a halo around wrinkled faces, only the tints are different, blue and mauve and (your own grandmother's) pink; they remind you of parrots, macaws, cockatiels, and their voices only add to the impression, squawking and yammering and chattering, with only Danny's voice, laughing and protesting, occasionally sounding a deeper note. Your ears hurt, your back still aches from the driving, you're tired and your head is splitting, but your grandmother has made her famous rum punch and is not taking 'no' for an answer from anyone, least of all anyone who's not driving, and since that's you you're now on your third glass and are thinking wildly to yourself that what goes down is likely to come up at any moment, you haven't tasted rum since college and now you remember why. You hear Danny, an anxious tone in his voice, and tune in long enough to register that he's worrying about the old dears' safety and is being reassured that each and every one of them has a husband at home who will be happy to come and ferry them safely back, and you think, that's nice for the husbands, stuck at home having to fend for themselves while their wives are out getting drunk, some relationship that must be, and a little part of you is wondering how and when and why you got so bitter, and another part of you is thinking that rum isn't so bad after all and that part is attached to your hand, and that hand is reaching out to take another glass. And, somehow, maybe it's the heat, because Grandma Andersen does not seem to have got the hang of functioning A/C, maybe it's the rum, maybe it's something that was there all along, but another part of you realises with detachment that you're watching Danny far more closely than reason or courtesy dictate, letting your eyes linger on the long curve of his neck, the angle of his jaw, the way his mouth, that mouth, quirks, turning up at one corner but not the other, crooked and charming, charming and sexy and oh, god, where did that thought come from, and why can't it be un-thought because now you're looking at Danny's arms, his upper arms and the muscle definition there, his shoulders and the sharpness of collarbones framed by his teeshirt, the graceless, negligent splay of his sunburnt legs sprawled out in front of him, his long, narrow, feet in those sandals from Europe. You're watching him, and, when Danny gets up to go out to - where? The kitchen, the bathroom, you're getting up and following him and you catch up with him in the hallway, or he catches you as you stumble over your own feet; his hands are warm on your arms, warmer, hot, burning, you look down and think you see smoke, flames, some kind of warning sign, something that screams out 'danger', because you know that you are going to do something reckless and stupid and unconscionable, and then you do, you do it: you reach up, and take his face between your hands, and you say, thick and slurred, "Danny. Danny, Danny, Danny." And you're leaning in to kiss him when he slides away from you, suddenly he's over there instead of here, and you want him back here so you grab for him but he eludes you once again, and when he does, at last, come closer he's holding one hand up, palm flat against your chest, and he's saying, no, Casey, Casey, we can't do this, Casey, I don't - and you're thinking yes, yes, Danny, yes, we can and we will and I do, and this time when you lean forward his eyes flutter closed and his hands come up to clutch at your arms, thumbs digging into the muscle (there will be bruises when you check the next day), and this time he doesn't pull away; his mouth opens, and he welcomes your tongue inside, his own meeting it midway, hungry and inviting, needy, desperate; his breathing's fast, sobbing, choked, and when he pulls back it's only to say, not here, Casey, not here, and you reach behind you and there's a doorhandle, and you turn it and the door opens and you stumble into darkness and only dimly register that it must be the hall closet because now Danny is trying to crawl inside your skin and you are only a little less urgently trying to get nearer to him, although you are already plastered together so closely that it's hard to tell where 'Casey' ends and 'Danny' begins; his shoulders are broad and steady under your hands, oddly reassuring, as if his physical strength will be enough to protect you, both of you, from the harm that you know (you know, and yet you can't stop) you're about to do.
You've never done anything like this before, but how hard (ha!) can it be to figure out; you're a man, and you know what you enjoy, you know how you like to be touched, what turns you on, what makes you moan or cry or scream, and when you hear the noises that Danny's making, muffled, against your mouth, your mouth clamped tightly on to his to keep you both silent, when you hear him gasp and whimper against your skin you know that you're doing something right; his hands are clenched in your hair, and he's thrusting against you, blind, urgent, and now your fingers are in his mouth, gagging him, while you whisper fiercely into his ear, oh god, Danny, yeah, like that, right there, and you know you sound like a bad porn film but it doesn't matter, this is you and Danny and now and right and nothing else matters, past, present, future, none of it, this is it, this is it -
And then that is it, and you jerk and shudder, rigid for a moment, then slump back, gasping, against the wall. Something falls, and clatters, and you clutch at it, your hands and Danny's meeting on whatever-it-is, a broom? A mop? Something, and Danny lays his head on your shoulder and laughs softly, then turns to kiss your throat, his arms looped loosely around your neck. "Casey," he whispers, "Casey ..." And his head nestles against your shoulder again, and you wrap your arms around him, and you wonder if you can stay there forever, why can't this be forever?
But all too soon you realise, uncomfortably, that your pants are, well, pretty disgusting to be perfectly honest, and somehow you're going to have to get into the spare room and change them and hope no-one calls you on it. Danny's shorts are pooled on the floor and, it seems, have somehow managed to avoid spillage; getting back into them's a bit of a manoeuvre, especially in the dark, but he manages, and then he cracks the door open and peeks out, turning back to tell you that the coast is clear and then slipping away, back to the living room and little-old-lady land. You give him a moment, listening to the ragged pounding of your heart as gradually it slows and evens and what passes for normality is restored, and then you follow.
Grandma Andersen has eyes like a hawk, and immediately calls you on the change of clothes. You say, lamely, "I spilled something on the others," and watch, in some despair, as Danny dissolves into helpless giggles which he tries, unconvincingly, to disguise as a choking fit and, as old ladies descend upon him with glasses of water and pats on the back, you think you've got away with it. But then you see Grandma Andersen watching you, and you know you haven't fooled her. You know that she knows everything. And you know that, from judging her only a few hours ago, you have gone to being judged. And found wanting.
Danny doesn't come to bed that night; you find him the next morning, asleep in the porch swing. Grandma Andersen tries to induce him to attend the funeral, but, listening, you overhear him crying off, offering her excuses, words like 'outsider' and 'Jewish', and in the end she leaves him be. It may only be your imagination that she lets her hand rest on his shoulder a little longer than perhaps she might, that when she lifts that same hand to riffle through his hair it's a caress, a reassurance, a benediction. It may only be your imagination that when she speaks to you her voice is a little colder, her arm under your hand as you guide her into the chapel a little more rigid, a little stiffer, more unyielding. You know that it's not your imagination that when she kisses both of you goodbye it's Danny, the stranger, who she hugs and holds close for a long moment; you, she barely acknowledges.
Driving home, Danny sits straight and still, riding shotgun, while the radio plays into the empty air between you. When he takes over the driving, he drives as before, careful and meticulous, but now a little too fast, as if he can't wait to be home. Can't wait to be away from you. And, when you stop for the night, he undresses in the bathroom and comes out only when you've turned out the light; he gets into bed and lies down with his back to you, and he says nothing. You listen to his breathing, waiting until he falls asleep; sometimes you listen all night.
It gets a little cooler, the further you go north. At a rest stop somewhere in Maryland, Danny pulls out his backpack and goes into the men's room and comes out dressed in jeans and sneakers and a short-sleeved teeshirt. There are goosebumps on his lower arms, and, without saying a word, you open your own bag and toss him the sweater you packed and never wore. He takes it in silence, and wraps it around his shoulders, and then he huddles back into his seat and sits, staring out of the side window, while you get the car started and set off homeward again.
It's late, getting dark, by the time the street names start getting familiar. You stop the car a little way out of town and you say, very quietly, "Danny?" And when the silence has stretched out so far you could snap it and hit a high G sharp, you say, "I kind of love you, man. I'm sorry."
The silence goes on a little bit longer, and then longer still, and then again: longer. Eventually Danny says something, but it comes out wet-sounding and muffled and you realise that what he's been doing all this time, maybe through all the miles since Florida, is trying not to cry. And the word he's trying to say, you play it back in your head, and then again, and finally you know that what he said was "Lisa."
"Yeah," you say. "I know." And you say again, "I'm sorry," because you are, you really are, but what good's that going to do? And you start the car and finish the drive back to the world of everyday, the world of features and deadlines and breaking news, the world where Danny brings you stats and makes you coffee and hopes, maybe, to be you someday, a world away from the world where Danny is the only thing you want, the only thing you need, the taste in your mouth, the word on your lips, the touch of warm, solid, responsive flesh in your greedy, needy hand, where Danny + Casey = the only thing that makes perfect, inarguable sense. And you don't know what you're sorry for, but you think you might be apologising to yourself, for settling far too soon for something, someone, you know now you didn't want at all, or for being that person, that coward, who's too afraid to take risks. Or to Danny, for promising him (silently, but the promise was there, you gave it and you know he understood) something that you can never deliver. Maybe you're sorry that the only time you ever made love to him, the only time you ever will, it had to be a hasty, furtive, messy encounter in a closet, rushed and silent for fear of discovery, unplanned and clumsy, when Danny deserves more, so much more, flowers and poetry and wine and, god, all the things, all the things you laugh at every Valentine's Day and say to Lisa "You don't really want that, do you?". You only know what you're not sorry for: you're not sorry for those stolen moments, you're not sorry for kissing him, you're not sorry for the way you touched him, tasted him, let him touch you in return. You'll never be sorry for that. Even as you know you'll regret everything else.
When you pull up in front of Danny's crappy little one-room apartment, you wonder for a moment if he'll ask you in, and wonder for a moment what you would say if he did. But he only reaches into the back seat and pulls out his backpack, shoulders it and turns away and says, "I'll see you Monday, Casey." Then he's gone into the shadows; there's only you, just you, alone in the dark.
So you turn the car around and you drive the last few lonely miles back home. And when you get there, Lisa is waiting.