“My turn to ask a question. What’s your earliest memory?” Amal turned to look at TJ’s profile, sharp and pale against the spring green grasses of a Nebraska field. The sky arcing overhead was a heartbreakingly perfect shade of mid-May blue.
“Hm. Okay.” TJ pursed his lips, chewing a toothpick that was showing signs of long hours of abuse. “First thing I remember… I was lying in my bed. Couldn’t have been no more than one or two. And I remember, there was a radio coming from the room next door… and my mother laughed the way some ladies do.”
Amal narrowed his eyes. “And the next thing you remember you were walking down the street with your boys, with your troops?”
TJ grinned broadly and, regrettably, started singing. “Then I learned to play some mean guitar – I was underage in this funky bar, and I stepped outside to smoke myself a J…” Air guitar motions accompanied the worst imitation of high electric guitar notes Amal had ever heard.
Amal gave up and joined in, his voice tangling with TJ as they howled, off-key, into the springtime sky. “And when I come back to the room, everybody just seemed to move, and I turned my amp up loud and I began to pla-ay…”
“No, seriously, dude. Earliest memory. No poaching from Paul Simon.”
“Sorry, what can I say.” The way TJ bit down on the toothpick should have warned him. “I’m just a One Trick Pony.”
Amal pinched the bridge of his nose, and TJ waved his hands.
“Okay, okay, seriously. Hang on.”
A breeze picked up, tousling the grass and their hair, sending chill bumps over Amal’s skin. The smell of ozone tickled his nose and he turned to look at the horizon where gray clouds were gathering. They had a few minutes, but they’d be getting soaked if they didn’t move it. But TJ was so full of awe for every new thing they saw that wasn’t Berkeley, Amal didn’t have the heart to rush him away from this vista of grass and endless horizons.
“Dude. You gonna answer anytime soon?”
“Don’t rush me! This remembering shit is hard.” TJ scrunched up his face to illustrate just how hard. “Well. The earliest memory I have of you is—”
Amal froze, shocked. That’s not what I meant. The words sat like a frozen stone on the tip of his tongue, and if he could just open his mouth, they might fall out.
“Well, honestly, my first memory is thinking, Damn, is he going to feel like shit tomorrow.”
Amal huffed a little laugh, relief and disappointment washing through him in equal measures.
“And then I thought, He has to be the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Amal felt like a deer in headlights, but TJ just kept staring out to the horizon. Before Amal could find his tongue, a raindrop hit him square in the middle of the forehead, and he scrambled to his feet, grabbing TJ and pulling him along, stumbling and lurching.
The sky opened on them just as they got to the car, and Amal fumbled in his pockets for the car keys. By the time he got the keys out and the doors unlocked – “Why did you lock the doors? Did you think a moose was going to steal the car?” – they were soaking wet.
“Oh my God.” Amal ran his hands over his face, trying to get most of the water off. He slicked his hair back, cringing when he heard the droplets hit the headrest on his seat. Well, it wasn’t like the car couldn’t use a good interior cleaning. Sometime. Later. Probably. “That happened faster than I thought it would.”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
Their voices were muffled by the torrent of rain pounding on the car, and Amal could barely see through the windshield. Considering he had next to no idea where they were aside from beside the highway in Nebraska, he figured he might give the rain a chance to lighten up before he pulled away.
After a few moments of increasingly awkward silence, TJ said, “You know, come to think of it, I don’t think they have mooses in Nebraska.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, just – the plural of moose is just moose. Not mooses.”
“Not meece either? Oh well. So your turn. What’s your earliest memory?”
Amal fidgeted at the question. Should he tell his real earliest memory – his father brushing down the fabric of his embroidered kurta-paijama, making sure there were no wrinkles, and telling him he must be very quiet and still at the event they would be attending – or should he follow TJ’s lead and tell his first memory of their meeting?
“I… Of you? My first clear memory is you cooking in my kitchen. And wondering if we’d had sex. And being afraid that we had, and that I didn’t remember it.”
TJ’s stare was inscrutable in the low light, and later, Amal would remember holding his breath, but he would not remember what happened that led to them leaning into each other, lips touching tentatively at first and then hungrily.
He would remember TJ’s hand sliding up under his shirt and splaying over his stomach, and the way TJ murmured into his mouth, “Finally.” He would remember the taste of cigarette smoke and spearmint gum on TJ’s tongue and the thrilling chill of realizing how badly this could fuck things up… or how fucking amazing it could be.
He noticed the way their breathing slowed and synched as they pulled back, but it took him a few more moments to notice that the downpour had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Giddy and awkward, he stared out the windshield, and he was about to broach the inevitable, “So, that happened,” conversation when TJ blurted, “Look! There’s a rainbow!”
And there was, and somehow it was the best, cheesiest, most ridiculous sign the universe could’ve sent him.
“I think the universe is trying to tell us something,” he said between snickers.
TJ snorted, and then he giggled, and then they were leaning against each other, laughing, breathless, tears running down their faces.
Later, Amal would remember it as the first moment he felt completely free and at home in his own skin. And he would smile.