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"People are afraid to merge on freeways," Brian says, staring out the car window. His mom didn't even come into the train station, just idled on the street and waved and popped the trunk when he walked out.

"What?"

"People," he says. "They're, like. Afraid. To merge."

"Brian, what are you talking about?"

"It's a book," he says. "It's, like, a metaphor."

"Is this something you read for a class?"

Brian sighs. "Yes," he says. "It was just for a class."

 

His first semester at Harvard, Brian took Expository Writing, Chem 10, Math 124, and an English seminar called "You Can Never Go Home Again." They read The Odyssey, Hamlet,The Things They Carried, Refuge and Less Than Zero. Brian liked Less Than Zero best.

His first month at Harvard, Brian wound up sleeping with a guy down the hall. Okay, in the first month all he wound up doing was making out with him and getting a hand job, but by his second month, they were sleeping together. The guy's name is Dan. He's from California. He's not Jewish. Brian's been pretending he doesn't know which of those facts will bother his family the most.

 

His mother slams the brakes to avoid hitting a three-legged dog that's limping across their street.

"Jesus," he says, his hand on the dashboard.

"Brian."

"What?"

"Just. Why do you have to say that?"

Brian squints. "Is that the Finkelmans' dog?" he asks. Dan's brother has a cat that got its paw stuck in a raccoon trap. They renamed it Hoppy. Dan and his brother think that's really funny.

"Yes," his mother says. "Marty hit him backing out of the driveway."

"Jesus."

"Brian."

"What? It's not like I said 'fuck' or something. You don't even believe in him."

"Well, you don't have to say that either. And Jesus isn't something you do or don't believe in."

"But you don't believe, like, that he was the second coming. Or whatever. So what does it matter if I say it?"

She turns into their driveway with an angry click of the blinker. There's not even anyone behind them.

"Say whatever you want," she says. She slams the door.

Brian kicks at the ice that melted off his shoes onto the floor mat. "Fuck," he says to himself, breath fogging the windshield. "Also, I'm gay."

 

The fact that Brian is gay should be, like, so obvious to his parents. They're the ones who make a living trying to figure out what people are lying to themselves about, after all. He's convinced that when he was six and made a time capsule to bury in the backyard, his father managed to slip in a note that says, "P.S. Brian is gay." Except probably what the note says is more like, "N.B., Even at such a young age, Brian displays latent homosexual tendencies."

So the fact that he has to actually, you know. Tell them? Like, sit them down in the living room or over dinner or something and just say, "Hey, Mom, Dad, I'm gay, please pass the butter." That's just monumentally unfair. And totally typical. Everything always has to be about them.

Because once he does tell them -- and he will, he really will, he told Dan that he would tell them and Dan said, "Good, because I'm not even going to think about getting back together with some closet case" -- once he does tell them, he knows that any ownership that he has over his life, over his sex life, for Christ's sake, will be totally lost in a flurry of I-statements and carefully evasive affirmations that his parents had nothing to do with how he wound up being such a flaming queer in the first place.

 

Of course, that's how it would be if he had normal overly educated upper-middle class parents and not the totally detached yuppie freaks he's got. No. His parents skip right over the fact that he just said, "Well, because I'm gay," and even if it was in response to "Whydon't you like the sweater your grandma sent?" and not something profound, he still said it. He says it again.

"Sweetie," his mom says, "but you took Angela Chase to prom."

"Angela Chase was the queen fag hag of Liberty High! The fact that I even went to prom with her probably made everybody think I wasn't straight."

"That is such an ugly term, really," his father says.

"You prefer the more clinical and also binary 'heterosexual,' I presume," Brian says.

His father frowns. "No, I meant 'fag hag.' What self-respecting young straight woman would want to identify that way?"

Brian throws his napkin on the table. It's not quite as dramatic as, say, throwing his plate across the room, but he's not a drama queen, so sometimes he has to settle. "Why are we talking about Angela Chase? I'm gay. You're supposed to, like, say something substantial about this. When I'm -- for the rest of my life this is supposed to be a key part of my coming-out narrative and all you have to say to me is that I took Angela Chase to the prom?" He stands up. "God. I'm, I'm going."

"Where?" his father says.

"Upstairs. Out. I don't know."

 

His mother stops him on his way out the back door. "Brian," she says, and finally, he thinks. Finally. She's going to say something conciliatory and matronly, full of advice and just a little bit of concern for her newly revealed gay son. "You still have to do chores," she says. "Just because you're in college now doesn't mean you can skip garbage duty."

So then he's standing there in twenty-degree weather without a scarf and his head is actually cold because a month ago he cut off all his hair, and do they mention that? Do they say, Brian, what in God's name have you done to your cute little curly hair and does this have something to do with your sudden decision that you like it up the ass? No. No, all they do is give him the goddamn garbage to take out. Jesus.

So he winds up at the Chases' house, because from the garbage in the alley it's only a few more steps. He hasn't talked to Angela since, God, it must be since October, maybe, but she's probably home from Swarthmore by now. Maybe Mr. and Mrs. Chase have actually read some parenting book that includes how to deal with your kid being gay. They like to plan ahead like that, just in case. They probably would say something like, "We're really happy for you, Brian, we're glad you've figured out what you want." Like that.

Mr. Chase opens the back door with a wooden spoon in one hand and an apron tied around his waist. "Well if it isn't Brian Krakow," he says. "I didn't know you were back home yet."

"Well, I am," Brian says. "I'm home. I just got home. It's."

"Home?" Mr. Chase catches a drop of something tomato-y with his tongue and nods for Brian to follow him into the kitchen.

Brian sighs and maybe smiles for the first time since he left Boston. "Yeah," he says.

"Ready to leave already, huh?" Brian nods. "Hey, how is Harvard anyway?"

"It's fine," Brian says. "It's, you know. Hard."

"Little fish?"

"You know, that is really, that is this thing that everyone says, as if it's supposed to make you feel better, that somehow this metaphor like something you would learn in kindergarten, like out of a picture book. Like it's supposed to make you feel better about being stupid."

Mr. Chase sniffs the bubbling pot and furrows his brow.

Brian puts his hands in his pockets. "I'm done," he says. "Sorry."

"Do you, uh. Maybe want a beer or something?"

Brian sighs. "No. No, thank you."

"Milk? Hot cider?" He leans against the fridge and cocks his head. "Do you, uh, drink coffee yet?"

"Coffee would be great, Mr. Chase," Brian says. "Coffee would. Yes. Be really great."

"Coffee it is." Mr. Chase smiles and turns on the tap. "But you gotta quit calling me that. I've known you since you were, what. Six? Don't make me feel like an old man yet."

 

"So the thing is," Brian says. "It's like, it's like I didn't say anything at all, you know? I come home and I have this thing to tell them, this -- it's a very important thing --"

Mr. Chase, Graham, nods, takes the last sip of his coffee. Brian gulps the rest of his.

"-- and it's, it's like I said, you know, oh, could you pass me the sports section or something. Except not that. Because no one in my house even reads the sports section, but --"

Graham holds up the pot of coffee and Brian nods, even though his heart is pounding. Really the truth is he hasn't exactly learned to drink coffee yet, but sometimes when he and Dan stay up all night, Dan wants to go to Starbucks and Brian goes along so they don't have to say goodbye yet. Brian's not very good at saying goodbye.

"-- so I could want, like, the sports section and the comics and no one would care because all they'd have to say is, 'But you took Angela Chase to the prom,' like that even has anything to do with it."

"Uh, what does she have to do with it?" Graham asks.

"Nothing," Brian says, "That's the point. That's exactly the point."

"Oh," Graham says. "Okay."

"It's just that." Brian stirs more sugar into his coffee. They have a little sugar thing with its own ceramic measuring spoon. It's kind of cute. His parents only use Equal tablets. And they drink decaf. Nobody drinks decaf. It's such a stupid thing to drink, no wonder his parents like it. "It's just that. The thing. That I told them?" Graham nods. "The thing I told them is that I'm, like. I'm gay. So."

"Ahh."

"Yeah." Brian keeps stirring his coffee. He's hypnotized by the sound his metal spoon makes against the coffee mug. It's a mug from the people who make Gold Medal Flour, like something that came in a gift set. The way the seal is orange like the sun but not quite is hypnotizing, too. Any minute now he's going to have an out-of-body experience.

"Brian."

"Yeah."

"What did they say?"

Brian looks away from the Gold Medal seal and Graham's eyes are wrinkled in the corners, like he's really listening.

"They, uh. They said that I took Angela to the prom and, um, that I still have to do my chores."

"Just because you took --"

"I know."

Graham is kind of waving his hands around, all emphatic. Brian hopes it's not because he's mad that he took Angela to the prom. "I mean, you two went as friends, and --"

"I know! You'd think they'd. They just."

Graham nods, looking down at the countertop, fiddling his fingers in a dishrag. "You'd think they'd just know the right thing to say."

Brian wipes at his nose. "Yeah."

Graham pushes back from the counter and turns on the stove again. "The thing is, Brian? Parents are -- they pretty much are never going to say the right thing."

"Yeah, I know." He takes another sip.

"Especially when you really need them to." Brian sighs, and Graham stirs his sauce. "You, uh. Are you doing okay otherwise?"

Other than being a little gay fish, Brian thinks, things are just dandy. "Yeah," he says. "Thanks for the coffee, uh, Graham." He stands up.

"Anytime. And I think, because I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you weren't looking to have coffee with me tonight, I believe that the prom queen herself is probably at the mall right now, doing some holiday shopping."

"She wasn't the prom queen," Brian says. She wore dark blue and he managed to get her the right kind of corsage even if Mrs. Chase had to help pin it on, and they went to the prom for, like, fifteen minutes before taking off with Rickie and Rayanne and this guy Tommy who'd only been at Liberty for about four months. They sat in some diner downtown and had fries covered in gravy at three in the morning, making fun of all the limos going by and how much money people had wasted on them.

Graham is staring out the kitchen window at the gray sky. "No, but she was beautiful, wasn't she? She looked just like her mother." He looks at Brian. "Wasn't she beautiful?"

"Yeah," Brian says. "So."

"The mall," Graham says. "That would be my bet. You want to take my car?"

"Uh."

"The keys are hanging by the garage door. Just be careful, if you jiggle the window thing wrong the light stays on and runs down the battery."

Brian pulls on his jacket. "Really?"

"Really, it's okay," Graham says. "I'm going to be cooking all night, go ahead."

 

The mall is this entire city built so people can worship at the altar of capitalism. It makes him sick to his stomach. There are a million people and all of them are buying things as fast as they can, as if they don't get whatever it is they don't really want for those people they don't even really like right this very second that the world will come to a screeching halt.

Even if he wanted to find Angela, and he's not even sure he does, he wasn't actually looking for her, he was just standing on his back porch and going through their door looked like a better idea than going back in through his. Even if he wanted to find Angela, with all the crazy holiday shoppers he probably can't.

So he won't. He'll just wander around and look at the obsessive spenders and the stupid gifts and think about how in California it's probably really really warm right now. Like, warm enough to sit out by a pool. In little swim trunks. Or maybe even nothing.

The day before the first day he kissed Dan, he'd been at the MAC running three miles on the treadmill because if he wanted even the chance to try out for crew, he'd have to be able to run three miles. Or at least more than a mile. He'd been running, and feeling like an idiot because he didn't even want to be on crew, he just wanted to have something to do that was Harvard-esque, so that if he changed his mind about being pre-med he'd have something else to say about what he did at school. Anyway he was running laps and then walking to the locker room and there was Dan, in this pair of Dolce & Gabanna silver hip-hugger trunks, except of course at that point he'd never even kissed Dan, let alone watched him strip off layer after layer of expensive, extravagantly labeled clothing, designers' names falling off his lips like poetry.

Probably right now Dan is in California lying naked by his pool and having sex with some Armani model he went to Exeter with. Brian hates Exeter. He hates being reminded he's just a kid who went to public school, even if it wasn't because of money, it was because his parents are stupid fucking psychiatrists who thought it would be, like, normalizing.

It turns out the mall is really depressing, and who knows where Angela Chase is anyway, and he's been inside for ten minutes and his ears are still cold because stupid Pennsylvania is so fucking cold in the winter and he left his other hat in Dan's room sometime after Thanksgiving. He's going to buy a hat to cover his now-bare head and then go home to his stupid, unshockable family and tell them something exceedingly boring and normal that he did at school, like eat at the cafeteria every day, or go to some protest about benefits for the custodial staff or something.

There are a lot of striped hats on a table just inside the big door to the Gap, and Brian is pretty sure that Dan would say that the Gap is just stuff that was actually fashionable a year ago, but whatever, fuck Dan. His ears aren't cold. Brian's neck is cold, too, but he can't decide if buying a matching scarf is entirely too much stripe. Jesus fucking Christ. He's gay. He's supposed to suddenly know these things now?

There's a nice, middle-age mom-looking woman standing across the table. "Uh, do you think --" Brian starts, and after a minute her eyes come to rest on him and she seems to realize he's talking to her. "Do you think if I get, like, the hat. And the scarf. Is that just totally too many stripes?"

"Is this for your girlfriend?" she asks.

Oh God. This is what happens to queers without natural fashion sense. "Uh," he starts. "It's, no, it's actually for me. Are these, like. Girl scarves?"

"I don't know." She picks up a hat and squints at the label, then paws for the bifocals resting on her chest. They're hanging off a long, reindeer-decorated cord. This is all so embarrassing that Brian's ears aren't cold at all anymore, they feel like they could start their own nuclear power plant.

He looks up from the pile of stripes, all at criss-crosses with each other and he's not really all that OCD but a mess like that makes him sort of want to develop an anxiety disorder just to have an excuse for neatening up a table at a mall. He looks up and there's Rickie Vasquez, and Rickie says, "Actually, they're unisex. So, you're like. Totally okay."

"Oh my God," Brian says, and the mom-lady looks up like she wants to chastise him.

"Oh my God," Rickie says, laughing a little.

"Hi," Brian says.

"Hi." Rickie folds scarves and hats and mittens and the mom-lady squints at both of them and then moves away.

Brian reaches across the table and touches Rickie's arm. "You have, like, absolutely no idea how glad I am to see you right now," he says.

"I know," Rickie says. "Um, I mean. Me too."

Brian steps around the display and slings an arm around Rickie's shoulder. "I, like, just got in. I was gonna call." Rickie feels good. He feels solid, like he's doing okay.

Rickie leans into him for a brief moment, then pulls away. "I, um. Have this really kind of crazy manager lady? If we, like, even talk to people we know she thinks we're going to try to give them our discount."

"Oh," Brian says. He takes two steps back. Rickie feels solid but his eyes are kind of bloodshot. "Okay. Sorry."

Rickie's head pops up. "No, no. I. I just really need this job, and with the holidays I need the extra hours and --"

"No," Brian says. "I totally understand. It's cool. I'll, like, I'll just go." He puts his hands in his pockets. Rickie's okay.

Rickie folds a scarf in neat thirds without looking down at his hands, and he smiles with each flick of his wrists. "You should get a scarf and a hat," he says. "I mean. Not because, I don't mean because I work here. But it would look good on you. It's not too many stripes."

Brian picks up a hat and tugs a little at the stitching. "And they're, like. Okay?"

"Unisex," Rickie says. "You know. Boys and girls. So it won't make you look, you know." He smiles and kind of cocks his head back and forth.

"Oh," Brian says. He opens his mouth and then closes it again. He opens it. "I'm gay," he says.

Rickie stops folding.

"I mean." Brian bites his lip and tries to tug at his hair except he doesn't have any hair left, so he just sort of rubs his head. "Well, I am." He starts giggling, almost like he's hysterical. He feels kind of hysterical. Maybe it's the mall. There are a lot of fucking people all around them and he wonders who else just heard him say that.

Rickie starts giggling too, and then he slides his arm around Brian's waist and says, "I know."

"Okay," Brian says. Rickie's hand is resting on the curve of Brian's hip, right on one of his belt loops. His fingers are warm. "So."

"So," Rickie says, and then he scoots away with a nervous glance back toward the checkout counter.

"So, like, when do you get off?" Brian asks, and it sounds normal when it's on hyperdrive from his brain to his mouth but once he's said it, the words rattle around like the dumbest thought he's ever had, except out loud so people can hear it. Which wouldn't be so atypical except in this case someone like Rickie heard it, too. "From work," he says. "Obviously. I mean. It's just that my parents are insane. So if you, when you get done from work, if you wanted to do something else. Like, nowhere near my house."

Rickie smiles and says, "Nine. If you come back to pick me up, I'll give you my discount."

"Won't you get in trouble or something?"

"I'll just buy them and you can pay me back," Rickie says, looking back again.

"Okay," Brian says. "So. Nine. Nine o'clock."

Rickie nods and smiles and snags Brian's wrist as he's walking away. "I'm glad you came by," he says, and he darts a quick kiss on Brian's cheek, so fast that he's turned and gone back to the scowling manager lady before Brian even has a chance to say, me too.

 

Possibly the worst part of the mall is the food court. Brian sits at a broken plastic table that all but falls over every time he puts his elbow down. He's poking at McDonald's French fries and a Coke and thinking he maybe shouldn't have let Mr. Chase give him all that coffee. There are two really loud, really sugar-wired little kids at the table next to him who are arguing with each other about which toy is cooler and why each deserves it more than the other.

He's in the middle of the goddamned mall but Brian kind of wants to cry because he's had other things to think about, school and Dan and the big gay world waiting for him to get his shit together. He's been busy and sometimes he forgets how scary the mere idea of a world without Rickie really was.

He looks up and Angela Chase is standing there, looking down at him, arms full of shopping bags. She says, "What are you doing here?" like she's annoyed, but then she breaks into a huge smile and she's just beautiful. "Brian Krakow, my God," she says, and she's tugging him up into a long, tight hug.

"Your dad said you were here," Brian says.

"You talked to my dad?" She lets him go and flounces down into one chair, piling her bags up on the floor between them. "Brian, why did you talk to my dad?"

"He gave me his car," Brian says.

She steals one of his fries. "But why?"

Brian shrugs. "I'm not really sure. I went over, I was. My parents are insane." She nods, she knows this. "And he said you were here, and that I should take his car." She licks the salt off her fingers and looks contemplative. "I don't understand it either," he says. "Is he, like, okay?"

"My dad?"

Brian nods. She tilts her head and tucks a piece of hair behind her ear. It's dyed black with long pink stripes cut through it. Fuchsia, maybe, is what they'd be called. It's turning out to be a very stripey day. Rickie would know if it was fuchsia or some other pink. Rickie was gay when Brian was still letting his mother pick out his clothes. Rickie has, like, a gay bone in his body. Brian is starting to suspect he does not, no matter how much he likes the sex. Also, now he has to tell Angela. Because otherwise she'll go home and Mr. Chase, Graham, will be all, "So Brian Krakow's gay, huh," and that would be, like, beyond weird. So it's turning out to be a very stripey, coming-out kind of day.

"My dad is..." Angela sighs and Brian takes a sip of his Coke. There's not really anything left but melted ice and it makes this obscene slurping noise. Angela blinks really slow and says, "I think my dad is just worried about my mom."

"What's he worried about about your mom?"

"Oh," she says. "I thought maybe he. Oh." She looks up from the table and her chin is shaking. Brian scoots his chair forward and the broken table rocks. He covers her hand and she shakes her head, eyes full and wet. "I thought maybe he told you," she says. "They found a, a lump. It's, you know, probably going to be fine."

"Jesus," Brian says, and Angela wipes a quick finger beneath her eyes, drying the skin. When she's not smiling she almost looks horrible, really tired and dark circles under her eyes.

"And it's so crazy," she says. "Like, she has to have chemo? And her hair is. Her hair is all falling out and all she can talk about is how I need to, like, teach all the girls in my dorm about breast self-exams. She's."

"God," Brian says. He doesn't know what to do other than keep holding her hand.

"And I keep telling her, you know, I barely even have any breasts to examine. And I'm not going back, I'm not going to leave while you're doing this, how could I, how could I think about going anywhere, you know? Why would she want me to leave? I don't know. And Danielle is, like, in this weird denial about all of it, and I think I probably flunked all my finals anyway because I was so stressed out and. I just. God, Brian."

"I know," he says. He has no idea what he's talking about. He sighs.

"Oh, Brian," she says, and she squeezes his hand. "I'm sorry. I'm like, hi, nice to see you, my mom has cancer and I just. How are you? When did you get back? How's school?"

"I. It's."

"Tell me something new and fabulous about your life. I've been shopping all day today and I really just want to kill everyone in the world. I want to kill people who haven't been born yet. Tell me something fabulous they only teach you at Harvard."

"Well," Brian says. "I. I cut my hair. In the, like, grand of scheme of things, it's not very --"

"No," she says. "Just. Talk to me like someone normal, not someone whose mom is all sick, okay? Because these stupid girls I go to school with, they're all. They're useless. And I've known you since we were, like, children, and you have to have done something in the last three months that is reassuring in its utter predictability. Right?"

"Well," Brian says. He takes a deep breath. People are always taking deep breaths before they say important things, even when it's really just a few short words that you could gasp out with, like, no oxygen in your lungs whatsoever. "It turns out. It turns out I'm gay. So. There's that. Which, I don't know, was maybe kind of predictable?"

She laughs like a small explosion, like a natural geyser, and Brian pulls away and sits back, crossing his arms.

"Oh, no," she says, "not like. I mean. You're right, it's so predictable and it's. It's wonderful." She beams and hugs him. "I'm so glad you -- I'm just so glad."

"Yeah, so, like, I think it turns out that everyone knew already. Did you know already?"

Angela ducks into her shoulder but can't hide the grin. "I just, like. I wanted you to know, like, more than that vague thing you tried to tell me at prom about how you thought -- what was it? That love was like this metaphysical thing you just had to believe in even when you weren't sure why. And now you do, and it's, it's the best news ever." She hugs him again and says, "So, tell me the story. Who was the lucky guy?"

Finally, Brian thinks. He's been telling people all day and finally someone wants to know the story. He loves Angela. He loves that Angela wants to know, and so he tells her about Dan, about the pool and how Dan remembered that Brian was in his chem class even though Brian wasn't sure, and how they had coffee and talked about degenerate atoms and it turned out they lived three doors down from each other but Dan had just transferred over from Weld so they hadn't met.

"And then, you know."

"Then what?" she asks. "It's not like you just put everybody in the same place and, you know, boom."

"Well, it wasn't. Boom. It was. You know. Good."

"Oh, Brian," she says. "That's just. It's the best thing I've heard all day. You have a boyfriend!"

"Well," he says.

She raises one eyebrow.

"I just. We broke up. Or. I don't think we really were super-together to start off with."

"You were just having a lot of sex," she says, and Brian blinks.

"It wasn't like that," he says. "It was, I don't know." He can feel himself blush. "Like that. Except nicer. He's in California for Christmas. We might get back together after break."

"Okay," Angela says, and she sounds really kind. She casts a glance at her heap of packages and rolls her eyes. "I should probably get home," she says. "My mom made me buy things for, like, every cousin we never talk to. We never buy presents for other people and then this year, it's like --" She stops, and then sputters, "Oh! We, we have to find Rickie and tell him! He's here, he works at the Gap and sometimes this other place, this, like bar where he dances or whatever but I think he's working tonight here. You have to go tell him!"

Brian smiles and scrubs at his head with his knuckles. "Already did," he says. "I went to buy a new hat and he was right there."

"He's doing good," she says. "Better. He's better than he was this summer."

This summer after Rayanne left to go to New York to try being Rayanne professionally, Rickie had a breakdown that nobody really ever discusses. It was sort of like, as soon as he didn't have someone he had to watch over every minute, he went out and tried everything he'd ever thought he might want to do. Like, at once.

"That's good," Brian says. He looks good, he almost says, but then doesn't and isn't sure why he doesn't but after a minute it's too late to say without sounding like he had to have an internal debate about it. He checks his watch. It's quarter to nine. "I actually, I'm supposed to go meet him in a little bit."

"You have a date with Rickie Vasquez? You've been out for like twelve seconds and you have a date with Rickie? My Rickie?"

"Angela," he says. "It's not, we don't have a date. We're just. I don't know. Going to have coffee or something." He looks at her bags. "You could, you know, even come."

"I have to go home," she says, sighing. "With my Rickie," she says again.

"And that's just, what is that? Like you even hang out with him every day any more either? He's, if anything he's our Rickie. All of ours, all of us who had to --"

"Okay," she says, because they don't discuss it.

"We never talk about anything," Brian says, even though that's not the whole truth either.

"Okay. I'm sorry, I didn't mean. I'm sorry, I'm just all." She waves a hand around and Brian stands up, leans over to hug her.

"I know," he says.

She gets up and he helps her gather all her stuff together. "Come over for breakfast," she says. "My dad will make those eggs you like."

"You sure?" Brian says.

"Yes, yes, absolutely yes. Please come."

"Okay. I have to, um. Meet Rickie. Now, I mean. You don't wanna --"

Angela shakes her head and shuffles away, arms full. "Give him a kiss for me," she says, over her shoulder.

 

Brian hasn't been to the mall since sometime before graduation and he gets turned around at the junction of a Cinnabon and a music store he thinks is new. So by the time he actually gets to the Gap it's almost ten after. Rickie isn't there, but when Brian turns around, he can see him sitting on one of the stone steps leading down to a fountain. He has Brian's scarf wrapped loosely around his neck and the hat in one hand.

"I swear, I got lost," Brian says, plopping down beside Rickie and bumping his shoulder. Rickie smiles. "Nice hat, also."

"Yeah?"

Brian nods.

"This guy I know," Rickie says, "he's always getting lost but I haven't seen him in a while so I decided to cut him some slack and buy him this hat he liked."

"Oh no," Brian says. "I'll pay you back. Let me pay you back."

Rickie stands up and reaches a hand down to Brian. "Buy me a drink and we'll call it even. I owe you anyway."

"For what?"

"This summer. I owe you more than a drink, I know."

Even Rickie never talked about it. It was late August and he was in the hospital and then the day after he got out Brian left for Boston. In the hospital they only said things like "My parents bought me a footlocker for the dorm" or "The Jell-O today was really gross," and then Brian was gone and Rickie was supposedly okay and last he heard no one even had a phone number where they could call Rayanne and tell her what almost happened.

"You look good," Brian says, and Rickie nods.

"I am. I'm -- I'm not going to do something like that again."

The mall is emptier now and Brian hates it less. It's not all that bad, standing there with Rickie's hand still around his wrist, on their way out for a drink, everybody okay and not trying to run away all at once. "Okay," he says, because maybe it's just not the kind of thing people know how to talk about. "Maybe you should buy me a drink. And we'll call it even."

"Now you get it, welcome to being gay, get used to buying people drinks to get what you want," Rickie says, laughing. It's how Rickie laughs when he's acting old. Which, Brian knows they're technically the same age but Rickie is definitely older in real life than Brian will probably ever be.

"Where, where can we go, that we can actually, like, get into? I don't have an ID."

"Don't worry," Rickie says. "I know a place."

 

The place Rickie knows turns out to also be the place where he sometimes dances, though, "It's not really dancing, the way they have it set up right now," he admits. There's a shirtless guy in skin-tight black briefs with silver sparkles on the seams doing a bump-and-grind up on a box above one of the stages. Brian looks down at Rickie. Rickie has shed Brian's hat and his black puffy down coat, and suddenly he's this cute Latino guy in really well-fit jeans and a small bright green t-shirt. He's cute and he knows all the barbacks and some of the bartenders, so they don't get carded and they even get their first few drinks two-for-one.

Brian's been to two gay bars, like, ever. With Dan, well, with Dan and a bunch of gay guys Dan always hangs out with everywhere. One of the bars was small and dark and really crowded and Dan said there was an actual back room where guys would have sex. The other was big and dark, except the strobe lights, and really crowded, and Dan said there was a handicapped bathroom down the back hallway where guys would have sex.

This isn't quite like either of those, but Brian doesn't care, because Rickie's tugging him onto the dance floor even when Brian says he doesn't dance, like, ever. "Don't worry, there's not any room," Rickie says. "Just put your hands up and shake your ass a little." He still laughs at Brian when Brian tries to just do that, but when he's done laughing, he pulls Brian by the waist so they're up close.

Brian's jerking around and he feels like a spaz, and with Rickie pressed to him he feels like a spaz who might cause someone bodily harm, and then Rickie puts his mouth right up against Brian's ear and yells over the music. "Stop thinking so much and just move, Krakow!"

Brian laughs like that's actually possible, and then Rickie shimmies against him and lifts his arms above his head and somehow Rickie's not wearing a shirt anymore. Which is, it's pretty hot with all the people and the colored lights and the dancing and now that he thinks about it -- don't think so much, but he can't not -- he's pretty sweaty himself. That could be the two-for-one drinks, maybe, but then Rickie's got his hands on Brian's shirt, tugging it up and off, reaching around to tuck it into the back of Brian's jeans.

He's not hot now, he's, like, insane, and Rickie's skin is smooth and his hand on Brian's back feels like ice. Really firm ice that holds him and makes him feel like liquid, like lava against Rickie's sure movements. His stomach is rubbing against Rickie's ribs, slick and, Jesus, sexy, and when Brian finally looks at Rickie's face, Rickie is smiling and his eyes are shut. He's so. They're. They're.

They're dancing.

Brian closes his eyes and lets Rickie move them, thinking this is part of Rickie thinking he owes Brian something, take him out and show him what it's really like to be gay. One of his arms is around Rickie's neck and sometimes Rickie tilts his head back and they both open their eyes but don't stop dancing. Brian always shuts his eyes first, but Rickie never lets go for longer than it takes to touch a different part of Brian's back or slide around his back and dance with his arms around Brian's waist.

The music changes but it never actually stops and it all kind of sounds the same but Rickie presses his fingers to Brian's skin a little more firmly with each new voice. Brian officially doesn't care if they're playing a polka as long as he doesn't have to stand still ever again. He feels liquidy smooth, like those boys they were last summer lived in some other time and place, where people worried so much about each other that they forgot they had their own lives to live.

Rickie curls back around so they're face-to-face, and Brian dips his head, Rickie's shoulder trailing beneath his mouth. Rickie looks up, a little surprised, but not like he's upset. Just like he's seeing Brian different, like finally someone can tell that he's fucking changed in three months and didn't come back to Pittsburgh just like he left. Brian wants to know what his own face looks like to make Rickie look at him like that.

And so Brian does it again, licking a river of sweat that runs along Rickie's collarbone. Rickie holds the back of Brian's neck and then skids his fingers up along Brian's head where the hair's all shaved short. Brian puts his hands on Rickie's shoulders, thumbs in the grooves of bone and fingers over the silky curve of skin. When he kisses the tendon in Rickie's neck with his eyes open, he can see straight down Rickie's spine, bony ridges that disappear into tight jeans. Jesus.

Rickie has a really, like. Nice ass. Is probably the way to put it. Brian's not usually the kind of guy who puts it like that. But then again it's not like he was looking all those years and just pretending not to. He kind of wasn't noticing. Like, working really hard at not noticing. Rickie's stroking Brian's neck, holding him close, and he's moving again with the music, and Brian can be really dense but he can't help but notice how hard Rickie is, pressed up against his thigh.

Rickie's hand slips down Brian's back to grind their hips together, and Brian gasps and fumbles for Rickie's mouth. He misses the first time, catching Rickie's jaw with his teeth, and Rickie hisses and rears back, digging his fingernails into Brian's neck.

Brian has only kissed two guys in his life, Dan and this guy who was hanging on him at the second gay bar he went to, when Dan was ignoring him and Brian was trying to make him jealous. But he's not an idiot. He does know how to do it, and he holds Rickie's chin with one hand and his shoulder with the other and brings their mouths together.

Rickie opens his mouth right away, his tongue pushing between Brian's lips, wet and sweet, blue like whatever fruity thing he'd been drinking. Brian gasps again, only this time Rickie can tell because he's, right there, and it would be kind of embarrassing but Rickie just sucks on Brian's lower lip. Brian's hand slides from Rickie's face down around his ass, his very very nice ass, Jesus, and bumping hips and kissing is almost too much, especially with the bass thudding deep in his chest and colored lights flashing through his closed eyelids.

He's pretty sure those are lights in the club and not him being oxygen deprived and ready to pass out. Just because it feels like all the blood in his body is currently rushing at top speed to his dick doesn't actually mean there's nothing left in his brain. He doesn't think so, anyway, and then Rickie slips one finger down the side of his jeans, between his hipbone and the denim, and, Jesus fuck if they're gonna really do something about this they should do it soon. Somewhere slightly less crowded, maybe.

He's only eighteen, he can't help thinking with his dick. It's, like, his job. Everyone's been saying for years that it was about time he started acting his age.

"Is there, like, someplace we can go?" Brian nods towards what he thinks is the back of the bar.

Rickie follows Brian's look and swallows a laugh, shaking his head, kissing Brian's ear. "We can walk to my place from here," he shouts.

Oh. That's. Oh.

They put on their shirts, and Rickie takes his sweaty palm and leads him through the mass of dancing bodies. Three separate times, cute guys with glitter on their faces stop Rickie by the shoulder, kiss him on the lips and tell him they should go out sometime. Rickie squeezes Brian's hand each time and smiles and says, "Sure, I know, we really should!" It's like being dragged around by someone famous, only when did Rickie get famous and popular, anyway?

That's it, he's popular, it's just a weird adjustment because none of them was ever really popular. It's why they all got along even when they were so different. So now Rickie's the big fish in the gay sea and Brian follows him out like a groupie.

It's shockingly cold on the street corner. Sweat seems to freeze to his neck and his ears ring and echo. Rickie folds himself into his stuffed down jacket and just like that he's the same old Rickie who Brian has always known. He's just the kid who wore eyeliner in tenth grade and likes ketchup on his sweet and sour chicken and Brian's stomach flips a little. What is he doing here with that kid?

Rickie turns on a dime, smiling as he wraps the striped scarf around his neck. Brian scrubs at his ears and Rickie grins, pulling the hat from his pocket. "Cold?" he says, laughing and holding Brian's elbow. "You look like maybe you're a little..." He leans in and kisses Brian's nose and Brian almost snorts he's so surprised.

"Um, I'm, yeah. Yeah, I'm a little cold," Brian says, and Rickie tugs the hat down right over his eyes. Brian puts his hands out for balance and bumps Rickie's chest.

"Hold still," Rickie whispers, so close Brian can smell sweaty cologne and fake ice-smoke. His fingers rest on Brian's cheekbones and then he pushes the knitted fabric up, folding it over until Brian can blink the rest of the way free.

"Hi," Brian says. "Hey."

"Hey." Rickie pulls the hat down on the sides just enough so it covers Brian's ears and Brian reaches forward and kisses him, lips warm and already defrosting his mouth.

"Please tell me your new apartment has heat," Brian mumbles against Rickie's mouth.

"Okay, that place was a dump, and anyway, it did have heat. Eventually." He tugs Brian's hand and they run down a side street, coming to an abrupt halt in front of a metal door with more locks than a bank vault. The hallway has graffiti and a narrow, curving set of stairs that seem to be pitched backwards.

More locks on Rickie's door and Brian is starting to wonder if he should feel, like, unsafe. It's not as much of a dump of a building as the first place Rickie lived, after he got legally emancipated and Mr. Katimski said it was okay because he somehow thought Rickie made more money after school the Piercing Pagoda than he did. He never asked anyone for help, but they all bought Rickie lunch and sometimes groceries just to make sure ends met.

Rickie's standing inside the shadowed apartment and Brian's still in the hall. Rickie says, "Um, if you're. I mean, you're gonna be here for a little while, right?"

Brian nods because he's not sure right now he could go anywhere. Oh, in town. Rickie means he'll be in town for a while, like maybe he doesn't want to do this now. Brian nods weakly.

"We don't have to do this right now," Rickie says, propping his hands on Brian's chest. He probably means it to be reassuring, except Brian's still so shocked and cold that it's more like Rickie jabbed him with a live wire. He steps inside and wraps his arms around Rickie's waist, crushing them together.

"Now," he says, and Rickie's kiss is hungry and kind of dirty and it hits Brian that they're really doing this, they're having sex and he's been back for like twelve seconds and maybe winter break won't entirely suck after all.

Rickie's arm snakes around his waist and Brian falls back, his shoulderblades thudding on the door. Rickie kisses his neck and there's a metallic clang as Rickie locking the door. He has three big metal locks and Brian is glad he's safely inside, inside with Rickie, with this cute boy who's doing this amazing thing with his tongue in Brian's ear, running his hand from Brian's waist up his side, waggling his fingers under Brian's armpit like they're just about to have a tickling match.

And that shouldn't be as cute and sexy as it feels. Brian giggles and Rickie shoves his coat off his shoulders, raising Brian's arms up above his head. Rickie's hand trails up the inside of his bare arm and it's not just cute, it's the sexiest thing anyone's ever done to him, especially because Rickie's other hand is moving down in tandem.

And if Brian can shift just a little bit, just, yeah, right there. There. Rickie strips off both their shirts and starts rubbing Brian through his pants. Then he's working the fly open one-handed and kissing Brian's neck. Brian's free hand holds the door handle like it's the only thing keeping him standing up. Like he's going anywhere.

Rickie's fingers slip inside his boxers and it's like he can see them from outside himself, Rickie's hand moving in quick stutters, him pinned up against the door like a butterfly in a box. It's like he's standing there watching them and maybe he's dead, maybe he's dying or maybe he's asleep and dreaming and that would totally explain how four hours ago his mom was making him take out the trash and now Rickie Vasquez is giving him the best hand job in the history of the world.

And he's still thinking, why can't he stop thinking. If his dad could see him now he'd need textbooks and special visits to his own therapist because none of it would be theoretical again. That kind of thinking is bound to lead to more thinking, which could be disastrous, but Rickie twists his hand fast and hard and all that's left is warmth and shuddering heat and, God, Jesus, yes.

"Yeah," Rickie sighs as Brian sags down the wall, and that's nice, how Rickie is just sighing and pawing his hair and not talking like a porn star or something because Rickie might be as gay as one of Madonna's back-up dancers but he's not an actual porn star. Though Brian would be happy to give him a reference right now. Very happy.

Brian rubs his hand over Rickie's hip and hooks his thumb in the button of Rickie's pants because for some inexplicable reason he's actually still wearing pants. When they're pushed off and pooled around Rickie's knees, Brian follows his thumb with his mouth because he should, like, reciprocate. He must be thinking again to think the word reciprocate, but he shakes it off, burying his nose in the coarse hair at the base of Rickie's dick.

"You've done this before, right?" Rickie's voice is torn and low and Brian nuzzles the fold of his thigh, just wanting to be inside the warm roughness of that sound.

"Of course," he smiles against Rickie's hipbone. "How do you think I figured out I was gay?"

Rickie rubs his fingers into Brian's scalp. "I knew way before."

"I knew," Brian says. He did. He knew. He knew something even if he didn't know what, exactly, he knew. He knew there was something more to know. He licks the underside of Rickie's cock and grins when Rickie's ass quivers under his hands. "I just wasn't sure."

Rickie sighs again, "Brian," this time, and Brian rises shakily onto his knees and swallows him whole. Dan taught him that on a long sunny November afternoon when they left Dan's curtains open and fooled around in the shifting patch of fading light. "Open up," Dan said, more than once, tapping his cheek, until Brian could. And who gives a fuck about Dan anyway, Rickie is moaning and holding his shoulders and Brian can do this, he's good at this, he knows he is because there's nothing more honest than reluctant praise.

"Oh God," Rickie whispers, something between awe and surprise still lacing his voice, like he actually believes there's something to pray to, and this might only be the second dick Brian's had down his throat but he can tell Rickie's close. He sucks hard and swallows and then there's actually a gush to swallow.

Rickie slips gracelessly down to the floor, his arms folding around Brian's neck. Brian tucks his nose under Rickie's chin and tries to catch his breath. He's almost hard again just from being on his knees. And, well, from being eighteen and, like, alive and almost naked and sweaty and pressed up against hot, damp flesh.

Rickie laughs a little against his temple, but before Brian can start worrying that means he's done something wrong, Rickie angles his neck and kisses the corner of his mouth. "I guess you're really sure," Rickie whispers.

"'Bout what?" Brian asks, and his voice is thick and low and sounds like someone else's entirely. Someone from the kind of movie where you come home and fall right back into your life, except your life has more sex and less talking than when you left.

"You know," Rickie says, rubbing his thumb in Brian's palm. "About being gay."

"I told you I've done this before."

"I believe you," Rickie says, just shy of a giggle, and he kisses Brian again, their collective breathing finally evening out. "You wanna, um, get up and go be gay on the bed?"

"Okay," Brian says, flexing his calf muscles and trying to remember how to stand. When he manages, the first thing he sees is the green glow of an alarm clock on the little table next to the futon. "I mean, I can't," he says, leaning down again to snag his pants. "I mean, I have to go."

"Oh," Rickie says. "Oh. Okay." He crosses his arms over his chest. "Okay, right. Let me call you a cab."

"Oh," Brian says. "Oh, I. No, it's not like. Um." He bends in and kisses Rickie, and after a minute, Rickie kisses back. His lips are still warm. "I just. It's really late. My parents are going to kill me."

"Oh," Rickie says, nodding.

"I mean --" Brian's trying not to keep kissing him, but it's not really working. "I should."

"Yeah," Rickie says, and the third or fourth time around he says it a little more firmly and puts his hand on Brian's stomach, pushing away just a little. "I'll call you a cab," he says, and, oh, that's a good idea, Rickie is so smart to think of calling a cab when Brian can barely remember his own name. He just nods, fingers still drawing shapes on Rickie's sternum, shapes and numbers and Rickie kisses his jaw and walks over to the phone.

Brian follows him like a magnet. Rickie's dialing and giving the dispatcher his address like he's done this a hundred times before and Brian puts his mouth on Rickie's warm, bare shoulderblade, winds his hand around Rickie's belly. Rickie thumbs off the phone and tilts his head back, short curls brushing Brian's throat. "You should get dressed," Rickie says hoarsely, and Brian nods.

"What are you doing tomorrow?" he asks, and Rickie stills for a minute in his embrace, then relaxes again against Brian's chest.

"Working. Working some more."

Right. Not everyone gets a Christmas vacation. "I should go," Brian says again.

"Yeah, your parents."

"And you have to work," Brian says.

Rickie's phone rings loud and sharp just as a cab honks from down on the street. "You're still not wearing enough clothes," Rickie says, but he's turning around and his hand is sliding up Brian's chest, Brian's shirt in his fist like he's wiping Brian down. Brian kisses him, thinking, thinking thinking thinking, I don't want to go.

Rickie doesn't reach for the phone, and Brian doesn't stop kissing him.

"I don't have to be at the mall until three," Rickie says.

They're still standing at the side of the bed, and Brian holds Rickie's thigh tight. The muscle flexes under his fingers and Rickie's hips rock, almost by accident. Brian says, "I could stay."

 

Brian is trying to sneak back in through his kitchen door, but the handle won't turn. The door is locked. His mother locked the goddamned door. She probably hasn't even noticed he's not home. He should have just stayed at Rickie's until Rickie had to go in and just staggered in his front door as his parents got home from work. Maybe then they would have had something to say about him being gay.

He gives the handle one more vicious yank. Maybe he'll break it.

"Lose your keys?"

Brian jumps, feeling guilty even though it's his own house. He turns around and Jordan Catalano is tiptoeing down the Chase's walk.

"I -- I didn't really think I'd need keys to sneak back into my own house," Brian says.

"Hey Brain."

"Hey." Jordan looks exhausted, and he's holding his jacket shut like maybe the zipper's broken. "Are you -- is Angela --"

"She's all right," Jordan says. "She's real, I think she's just real worried."

"About Mrs. Chase."

Jordan looks at Brian like he's an idiot, which if you think about it and everything that's happened between them it's pretty fucking ironic. "Yeah. I mean, we're not even --"

"Yeah," Brian says. Angela and Jordan haven't been for a while, except for all those times when they were.

"But she, like, needs me," Jordan says, staring at his own cuff. "She doesn't even want to -- you know." Brian nods. "She just wants me to hold her."

"That's good, then," Brian says. He rubs his eyes. He and Rickie didn't really sleep at all. They were too busy being really, really gay.

Jordan is still talking. "It's like..." He sighs. "It's like she's a little girl, and she thinks I can protect her or something. From whatever's gonna happen. But I don't. I don't think I can."

Brian nods and kicks at the base of the door.

"Are you really locked out?"

"Yeah. No. I don't know. I didn't really want to try going in the front."

"Do you have a credit card?"

"What?"

Jordan says, "If you have, like, a credit card or a license or something, we might be able to jimmy the door."

Brian laughs. He doesn't mean to, he's just maybe a little exhausted and hysterical and Jordan Catalano wants to help him break into his house. He hands Jordan his wallet and Jordan selects the Rainbow Pride Visa. Of course. He doesn't even use it except for books. Some guy in the student center who was kind of cute got him to sign up for it during midterms.

"That's not," he says, "it's just, like. They make donations."

Jordan is crouched in front of the door. "What?"

"Never mind." His head is really cold, still wet from the shower. He must have left his hat at Rickie's. "Is that actually going to, you know, work?"

"It will if you give me a minute." Jordan looks back, then bites his lip and fiddles with the card. "Where were you anyway?"

Brian leans against the side of the house. "Out," he says. "I'm out."

"Oh, with Rickie, right."

"What?"

The lock clicks, loud in the sleepy silent morning. Jordan stands up. "Angela, she said you and Rickie went out."

"Right," Brian says. "We went out."

Jordan hands him back his gay credit card and smiles lazily. "Tino and me used to break into his mom's house all the time."

Brian thinks he might just fall asleep standing up if he doesn't find a nice empty quiet bed really soon. "Right," he says. He thinks his brain must be working independently of his mouth and body because his legs and arms want to go to sleep but he just keeps making conversation. He had been hoping he'd grown out of that. "Tino. How's Tino?"

Jordan shrugs and leans a shoulder against the half-open door. "Don't know. I think maybe he moved in with this girl he got pregnant."

"Oh," Brian says. He doesn't know why he just figured that he'd go to Harvard and everyone else's life would stay the same. Somehow he hadn't thought about how even Jordan Catalano's life probably changed in the last three months.

"I got this new band, though?" Jordan is bouncing a little, like he's waking up. "It's called Tree Frog. Me and this guy Alex started it. We were South American Tree Frog but people kept showing up and thinking we were gonna have, like, pan flutes or something."

Maybe Jordan hasn't changed that much.

"Have you slept at all?" he asks, and Brian shakes his head.

"Brain, man, you should go." He claps Brian on the shoulder. "I'll see you around. Angela says you're having a party?"

"What?"

"Yeah," Jordan says, walking away, down the alley to where his car's probably parked out front. "I'll see you at the party," he says, and then he's gone.

 

He wakes up when Angela jumps in his bed. "Brian, you're late."

He sits up, heart pounding. This is like the dream he was having. A weird high school dream where Rickie wanted to go to prom in a powder blue tux and Angela was the prom queen but instead of a tiara she got a long, striped scarf.

"Are you coming to breakfast?" Angela's fuchsia-striped hair is really bright and this is not a dream, it's just way too early to be awake. "Are you?"

"What are you doing here?"

"Morning," she shrugs. "Breakfast. Come on, my dad's almost done cooking."

Brian scratches his chest and he's not dreaming, he's in his bed with Angela and he's not even wearing a shirt. "How did you get in here?"

"Your mom let me in. She said to tell you they're leaving in half an hour."

"Leaving?"

Angela clambers off the bed and sticks her head in the closet. "Come on, get dressed."

His mom smiles at Angela, her big having-people-over-for-drinks smile, and tells Brian that he should remember to bring in the mail while they're gone.

"While you're where?"

"Brian," his mom says, dragging out his name like he's twelve and late for school. "I told you last night that if you'd wanted to go with your father and me on this cruise you should have said so in November when I asked you for the tenth time."

Brian has no idea what's going on. His thigh is throbbing like maybe he pulled something being really gay with Rickie and his mother is acting like she hopes Angela being there solves everything. Angela thinks it's great that I'm gay, he wants to say. She wasn't surprised at all. She says it's not your fault and you should stop acting like idiots.

"Brian."

"You're going on a cruise?"

Brian's mom rolls her eyes and Angela tugs on his sleeve. His mom says, "You go on ahead, you two." She smiles. "I'll leave grocery money."

Angela pushes him out the back door. The cold morning hits him like a slap and, Jesus, why does anyone live in this part of the country in the winter? It's got to be warmer anywhere else in the world, in California it's probably seventy degrees, and Brian realizes he hasn't thought about Dan since he went down on Rickie the first time. And, Jesus. Rickie. He and Rickie... He wonders if he should tell Angela now. He wonders if she can tell.

The warmth of the Chases' kitchen is like a fireplace, like a loud, clanging, clattering fireplace and Danielle jumps up and hugs him and starts telling him about junior high and how kids in junior high are so much cooler. Mr. Chase, Graham, smiles over a pan full of eggs and points with his elbow at an empty coffee cup. Mrs. Chase is leaning against the counter in her bathrobe. She looks tired.

"Good morning, Brian," she says, as Angela leans down to kiss her forehead. "Are you glad to be home? How is school?"

"I --"

"Mom," Angela says, "please, no twenty questions, he just woke up."

Brian pats Danielle on the back and that's, Jesus, she's wearing a bra now and that's just way too much to process at once about someone who he practically remembers being born, so he just pats her shoulder and tries to smile at Mrs. Chase. "It's good," he says. She smiles weakly back. Graham nods at the coffee again and Brian pours himself a cup.

Graham does this fancy flip with the eggs and says, "Everything work out okay with the car?"

"The car?"

Graham turns off the stove and bumps Danielle out of the way to get plates down from a cabinet. "You forgot the thing I told you about jiggling the switch."

"I, uh." Jesus, the car. He totally forgot about the car. "Yeah. Yeah. It's at the mall still."

Brian takes the plates that are being held out to him and Danielle pushes him into the dining room. "Maybe Angela can take Patty's car over and give you a jump," Graham says, and Brian nods, and then they're all there, eating and passing the butter and being this totally normal family and no one thinks he's Angela's boyfriend but he's welcome there anyway.

It turns out he's starving and Graham keeps putting more on his plate and Angela keeps smiling and trying to get her mom to eat something, maybe some dry toast. Graham looks monumentally tired and Brian makes conversation because being grown up seems to require a lot of not talking about what's going on right in front of you.

 

Brian thought maybe his parents were joking about the cruise but he should have known better. His parents never joke. They're physically incapable of actual humor.

There's two hundred dollars cash on the counter and a note reminding him to take out the trash and save receipts from the grocery store. His mother never trusts him to buy actual food. A fax with the ship's itinerary is pinned to the refrigerator with a New Yorker cartoon magnet. They're coming back the day before he leaves. He's seen his parents twice in three months, at Thanksgiving and at Family Weekend and now that he's actually home, they're gone.

He probably should be upset, should be carefully listing his feelings of abandonment, but really he's mostly excited because he just figured out that if his parents are gone he can be out at night as much as he wants and never have to answer any questions. Out with Rickie.

His legs are sore and his back is aching and when he decides to take a long, hot shower he finds a bruise on his collarbone. A hickey. Rickie Vasquez left a hickey on his neck and Brian giggles at his reflection. This is the best winter vacation ever already.

He has no idea what he's supposed to do now. When they called the cab company back and promised this time they really needed one, Rickie was barely awake, just kissed Brian's shoulder and said he'd see him later.

Brian's not sure if he's supposed to call Rickie or if Rickie is going to call him so instead he reads his father's Wall Street Journal and eats all the ice cream in the freezer. His parents like the most boring ice cream in the world. Angela knocks on the kitchen door at two-thirty with Mrs. Chase's car keys in her hand.

When they're stopped at a light behind a million holiday shoppers who have no idea how to signal, let alone drive, Angela tilts her head and asks, "So where did you guys go last night?"

"This club. The car is fine, by the way. I don't really need a jump." He can feel himself blushing and he turns to stare out at the traffic.

"How did you get home, anyway?"

"Uh." Brian is wearing a turtleneck sweater and he has no idea how to say this. "I just, you know. Took a cab."

"From the club?" Angela switches the radio station and they go forward about twelve feet before the light turns red again.

"Uh, yeah," Brian says. "From the club. It was pretty late." Angela turns left and then into the mall parking lot. He has no idea where he parked her dad's car.

"Did you have fun?" she asks, and her forehead scrunches a little.

"Yeah," Brian says quickly. "Hey, look, there's the car."

He's got the key in the door when Angela rolls down her window and backs up. "Aren't you going to go say hi to Rickie? Isn't he working today?"

"Oh," Brian says. "Yeah, I think so."

"Brian?"

He stares down at his hands, which are turning pink in the cold air. "Yeah, I'm going in to say hi."

The mall is still awful but he almost doesn't notice because mostly he's worried about how much his hands are sweating. He wipes them on his pants. There are five high school girls all wearing almost the same outfit and blocking most of the entrance to the Gap. There's still a big table full of scarves and it's, Jesus, it's been less than a day, this just happened and his parents are gone and there's a bell choir by the fountain playing some awful Christmas song.

And there's Rickie. Rickie's behind the register and he looks up and Brian kind of waves and then feels like an idiot for waving because really, who waves anymore, he looks like a five-year-old.

And then Rickie smiles. He looks so happy and Jesus, he's so beautiful and Brian just stands there blocking the table of scarves and staring because Rickie is beautiful like this but he's even better when he's naked, and Brian knows. Brian knows and probably he'll get to know it again, hopefully very soon because right now it's pretty hard to look at Rickie and know what he looks like without his clothes on but not be able to do anything about it.

The woman Rickie's waiting on finally says something to get his attention and Rickie fumbles with the shopping bag. He counts her change and sneaks another look up at Brian. Brian wants to cover the grin on his face because he knows he must look like an idiot but he doesn't really care.

 

Brian spends three nights at Rickie's apartment, going home to sleep all day while Rickie's at work. He hadn't realized it was possible to have that much sex for that many hours in a row.

One afternoon Angela comes over and they watch a Lifetime movie about this woman with two husbands in different cities, and she asks what he's been doing and he says, "Oh, you know."

"They don't give you, like, homework, do they?" she asks, and it takes him a minute to realize she means Harvard, do Harvard professors give homework on vacation.

"Not really," he says. He has finals in less than a month and he should probably do some reading but he's too busy being gay to think very hard about it.

She pulls this ugly brown afghan his grandmother made over her legs and puts her head on Brian's shoulder. "So what have you been doing all day?"

"Oh, you know," he says. "Sleeping. Like, a lot." It's like he can't talk about it with someone who hasn't seen Rickie naked.

"Yesterday," Angela says, pulling at a thread in the blanket. "Yesterday my mom didn't get out of bed at all."

Brian doesn't know what to say, so he just puts his arm around her for the rest of the movie.

 

The day before Christmas Eve, Angela shows up on his doorstep at noon with a paper bag full of streamers. "Jordan said you were having a party," she says, pushing into the kitchen. "And everybody's home and I think everybody is ready to kill their parents and what we need, Brian, what we really need is a party in a big, empty house and everyone can come and talk about everyone else and all the things about high school that sucked. Okay?"

It's the first time she's really smiled since the day he got home, so he says okay. Angela calls Sharon and tells her to call everyone else, and Jordan shows up at eight with a lot of beer and says that Tree Frog is going to set up in the living room if that's okay. Brian says okay. It's maybe the only word left in his vocabulary. Or maybe he's just been possessed, invaded by some guy who's popular and has parties and has a lot of sex and knows things like how to mix a Manhattan that apparently not everyone learned the first month at college.

Sharon brings two girls he's never met and a fruitcake wrapped in green plastic. She kisses his cheek and tells him she really missed him, which makes no sense because he doesn't think they ever actually hung out. He gives her a beer and she goes away.

Rickie shows up at nine-thirty, dressed head to toe in black and wearing this silver Christmas tree decoration around his neck like a boa. There are five or six guys trailing after him and Brian can feel his heart thud against his ribs and sweat break out on his forehead. Rickie brought a posse, a gang of guys who look like they could be in International Male and Brian's talking to this girl who was in his physics class whose name he can't remember but mostly he is panicking about his outfit. He's wearing jeans and a blue t-shirt with a faded feed store logo that Angela gave him that morning. He's wearing his black Vans and, Jesus, he is the least cool gay guy ever.

Also he and Rickie never talked about telling people, so Brian just hasn't. But now there are all these people, like right there, and Brian still wants to pin Rickie up against the couch and kiss him for hours. Rickie has the most amazing lips Brian has ever seen, full and soft and when they're kissing Brian loses all sense of time and place and stops thinking and just is.

Rickie's laughing really loudly at something one of the guys who came with him said, laughing and gesturing wildly with his hands. Brian tells the girl he's going to get a beer and goes across the room.

"Hey," he says.

Rickie tilts up his chin and flips the silver garland back over his shoulder. His eyes are smudged black and his nails are painted a shiny red. Brian hasn't seen Rickie in this much makeup in years.

"Hi Brian."

"Hi," Brian says. He's never actually kissed a guy in public before, if you don't count him and Rickie at the club or the time he tried to kiss Dan behind the library, and Brian doesn't think either of those actually counts. He and Rickie haven't really managed to leave the house this week.

Rickie waves his arms at the guys in the circle around him. "Everyone, this is Brian."

Brian nods. "Hi."

Rickie points at the guys one by one. "Paul, Steven, Mikey, Marlon and Eduardo." He rolls out the middle in Eduardo's name with his tongue like it's his new favorite thing to say. Brian's name is the most boring name in the whole world. Rickie doesn't touch him, just stands up perfectly straight and raises an eyebrow.

Brian holds his beer really tightly and nods, looking around his living room. "I think there are like fifth-generation crashers here. Who are these people?"

"These are my friends, Brian."

"Yeah, no, I mean. I mean the other people who I don't even think know anyone I know."

Mikey, or maybe it's Steven, one of the guys puts his arms around Rickie's neck from behind like how Rickie had draped himself over Brian in the shower yesterday, and says, "Is there anything other than beer to drink? I don't drink beer."

"In the kitchen." Brian points.

"I'm really thirsty," Rickie says, with a long, slow look at Brian that he thinks he's supposed to be able to translate but really he has no idea what the fuck is going on.

"Well, there are drinks in the kitchen," he says again, and Rickie turns right around and walks off. Everyone except Paul follows him. Brian has this weird idea that Paul has been left to keep an eye on him.

"So where do you go to school?" Paul is a cute, short Asian guy with spiky hair and an iridescent shirt.

"Um. Boston."

"Cool. My cousin Jimmy goes to BU. Jimmy Wallace?"

"Uh, I don't know him," Brian says.

"Yeah, it's a pretty big school."

"I mean." Brian shrugs. "I don't actually go there. I, uh, go to Harvard."

"Oh," Paul says. "Oh -- you're. You're here with Rickie?"

Brian peers down at Paul and crosses his arms. "Well, this is my house."

Jordan comes around the corner and hits Brian in the shoulder. "Hey, Brain, we're out of ice again. I'm going for more."

"Oh, okay," Brian says. "Do you need me to come with you? I could --"

"Nope," Jordan says, still walking.

Paul says, "Did that guy just call you Brain?"

Angela rescues him ten years later, pulling him down onto the couch in a drunken heap. "You know who should be here," she says, and he twists a finger into her hair. Fuchsia. She smells like peach schnapps.

"Have you talked to her?"

"No," Angela says, shaking her head back and forth like she's playing Charades and trying to act out sad. "No one has. I tried to call Amber and her number isn't working. I think maybe she went to New York, too."

"Maybe they'll be here for Christmas."

"Yeah, sure, maybe she'll just, like, show up. And everything will be perfect."

"Yeah," Brian says bitterly.

Angela sighs and props her chin on Brian's knee. "So were you going to tell me, like, ever?"

He almost says, tell you what, but Angela glares at him before he can get the words out. "I don't know."

"He thinks you're mad at him or something."

"I'm not -- why would I, why would I be mad at him?"

Angela sits up straight. "Because you've barely talked to him all night and you won't tell anyone what's going on and you're being an asshole?"

"But --"

"And you always do this, Brian, you're always just lost in your own world and you never think about other --"

"Oh, because you're suddenly the Queen of Empathy. Yeah, maybe Rayanne will come, maybe that would be a good idea because if she comes then she can run off again and maybe then --"

Her face starts to crumple, just like that, like there's a switch, and Brian sighs and looks down at his jeans.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I. I don't know what I'm doing."

"Oh, Brian, you're so. You." She puts her hand over his. "Just go over there and act like you like him or something."

"I do like him."

"So stop acting like you're fifteen and go tell him that yourself."

"I don't know. What about his, like. Posse. Or whatever."

"Please, a posse? Brian, a posse? He just brought them because -- okay, they're his friends, first of all, and you said to bring people. Or I did, I think. And also because you're being like this, and if you were Rickie would you really want to have to deal all by yourself with you being like this?"

"Uh. No?"

She nods seriously. "Right. See?"

"I'm sorry," he says. "About the thing about Rayanne. I don't --"

"Do you remember that party that Rayanne had right after graduation?"

"Um. The one with the Kabuki theme?"

"No, with the cowboys."

"Yeah?" Brian's not sure.

"Yeah, right before..." Angela bites her lip and sags a little.

Right before Rayanne left. Brian just doesn't have anyone else to blame, is the thing.

"So there was this --" Angela tugs Brian up and stares at him very intently. "She was really drunk, right, and I was too and we made this, like, fort. Out of blankets and pillows, on Amber's bed? And we were lying there listening to all of the people and the party and she just."

"What," Brian says finally.

"She kissed me," Angela says.

"She kissed you?"

"Yes, Brian, don't look so surprised. It's not like you're the only one who ever --"

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry." It's so loud at his house that he has to look down to make sure Angela isn't whispering or something. She's not, she's just staring down at her nails. "So, uh, then what?"

Angela picks at the crease of Brian's jeans. "Then, I don't know. Then she just kind of ran away. And I don't know what I was supposed to say to her. She just left."

"That's." Angela's face trembles a little and Brian puts his arms around her. "That wasn't your fault," he says.

"And then Rickie --"

"That really wasn't your fault."

"I know," she says against his shirt, but not very convincingly.

"Hey, we, nobody had any idea whatsoever that he was going to freak out like that." Freaking out is the understatement of the year, but they don't talk about this and it's the closest thing he can think of.

She sits back and wipes her eyes. "Do you really think he's better? Like, actually better?"

Brian and Rickie haven't talked about it since his first day back, but even so, Brian can tell. It was just a one-time thing for Rickie, not a slippery slide back and forth like Rayanne was always doing. "Yeah," he says.

Angela sniffs and tucks one leg up under her, putting her hand on Brian's wrist. "Then why -- Brian, why do you act like if you like him -- I mean, you do, right?" Brian nods. "You know he's not going to freak out because you have to go back to school."

"I --"

"He knows you have to go back to school, Brian, everybody knows that."

Brian's been trying to forget. He doesn't know why everybody's so sure that's what he wants to do. He's not really all that sure. Maybe he should just transfer to something closer, somewhere where he actually can remember what it's like to set the curve instead of working his ass off just to keep his head above water.

"So just go over there and tell him you're sorry you're a jerk and you're glad he's here."

"I am, I just --"

"Hey there." Jordan bends over the couch from behind and kisses Angela on the cheek, upside-down. "I think we're gonna play in a minute. You wanna make a request?"

Angela shakes her head. "I'll come watch." She pushes herself up off the couch. "Brian has to go do something anyway."

 

Rickie is leaning against the wall in the living room, looking out the window at the snow. Brian puts his arms around him from behind and kisses Rickie's neck, all in one move before he can think about what he's doing or who might see. "Angela says I'm an asshole."

"Yeah, I figured you wouldn't realize it on your own."

"I've never really done this before. I don't. I really have absolutely no idea what I'm doing."

Rickie grins, lips curling up in Brian's peripheral vision. "Yeah you do."

It looks so cold outside and their breath is fogging the window, blocking their view. The snow is beautiful and brittle. "I just. I'm supposed to go back, and --"

"Of course you are," Rickie says. "That's, you know. That's what you do. Did you think --"

"I don't know," Brian says, because what did he think, that Rickie would quit his job at the Gap and come hang out in Boston just because they had a good couple of weeks.

Rickie tilts his head back onto Brian's shoulder. "It's like who you are. I always, you know. Liked you for that."

Rickie makes Brian feel smart and capable and good in bed and he doesn't want to think about going back, going away. "Can you stay here tonight?" he asks. "I mean, after. I mean I'm not going to be here for -- just. After everyone leaves, you could stay."

There's an electric whine and then Jordan's amplified voice, scratchy and so, so loud that Brian swears the windows rattle. Rickie turns and wraps his arms around Brian's waist, kissing him wet and slow. He puts his lips right next to Brian's ear and says, over the music, "I could stay."

 

Even Brian, who has no gay gene whatsoever, can tell that Mr. Katimski's house is in serious need of help. There is a fat white and brown cat that chases its tail in circles for a while and then bounds down the hallway. The long velvet drapes look like something out of a Truman Capote novel. Piles of student papers marked up in red are stacked next to the clawed feet of the coffee table. It makes Brian kind of queasy. He's still waiting to get one of his Expository Writing papers back and it's probably got cat hair on it or is in his professor's trash or something.

But other than the mess, dinner isn't all that bad. "Brian Krakow?" Mr. Katimski says at the door, but then he rubs at his head and kisses Rickie on the cheek and says, "Oh geez, you told me and I completely forgot he was coming." He throws open his arms and then hugs Brian tight. When he lets go he says, projecting like there's an audience a mile away, "It's Christmas! No one goes hungry on Christmas!"

Brian holds up a red foil bag with a fresh baguette poking out of it. "Oh, wow," Mr. Katimski says. "Well would you look at that. Douglas? Is there room for bread in the oven?"

And then he's gone, and he's still as crazy as he was at school, just completely insane. He makes Brian feel very normal. Rickie squeezes his hand.

"So, Brian," Mr. Katimski says between the honeyed ham and the pumpkin pie. "So what are you reading for school?"

Rickie puts his hand on Brian's thigh under the table. It's like some kind of test, like he has to pass some guess-who's-coming-to-dinner test even though Mr. Katimski already knows him and told him over salad to call him Richard. Brian's not sure he likes calling all these adults by their first names all the time. It's like he's supposed to have more in common with them.

"Oh, um, it's really great," he says. "I'm taking this class and it's all about journeys and coming home and --"

Douglas smiles and nods. "The Odyssey again, huh?"

"Uh, yeah," Brian says. "And Terry Tempest Williams and Tim O'Brien and Bret Easton Ellis and it's --"

"That one who wrote the book nobody would publish, with the axe-murderer?" Douglas is weird. He does some kind of a math for an insurance company, and he's quiet except when he's not. Mr. Katimski, Richard, just laughs and sometimes touches his elbow to get his attention.

"Well, yeah," Brian says, "but before that he wrote Less Than Zero and it was this thing he did in three weeks on speed but the book is this whole, he takes all these things that about how there's no real place for kids to question things and he --"

Douglas stands up and pats Brian on the shoulder. "Who's ready for pie?" Richard raises his hand like he's in class and Douglas leans down to kiss his forehead on the way to the kitchen. They seem to make sense to each other.

Rickie bumps his knee against Brian's and smiles. "They're my family," he said in the car on the way over, and Brian's going back soon but it's not like he's never coming home again. There's still spring break, and the summer, and mostly he wants Rickie not to be embarrassed of him. Brian exhales and takes a long drink of his water.

Richard pours more wine for everyone. "You've gotta be looking forward to going back to school. I mean, wow, the opportunities at a school like that. You know I had a friend who went to Harvard, and he --" He taps the upended bottle and a few drops splash on the table. "Well I guess you know how it is."

 

Rickie shows up the next day at Brian's house with a bottle of spiced rum under one arm and a bag from the video store under the other. "I got the night off," he says, and Brian kisses him because this is so much better than deciding he needs to study chemistry if he has any hope of not destroying his GPA before he's even really started.

"Here," Rickie says, handing him the video bag. Madonna's Truth or Dare and Less Than Zero, the movie version with Robert Downey Jr. and Jami Gerz and that guy who was in every eighties movie ever, the one with the feathered hair. Andrew McCarthy.

The VCR in the family room hasn't been fixed even though it stopped working in mid-August. His parents supposedly only listen to NPR, except they still have a TV and working video player in their bedroom, so Brian's not sure he believes that anymore. That sounds like a thing a couple of shrinks would tell their kid to get him to read more books.

Brian doesn't want to read any more books. He wants to make hot cider with spiced rum and crawl into his parents' big bed with Rickie, who will let Brian take his shirt off the minute they're lying down without him needing to have any excuse at all. They can curl up and watch Madonna and then a movie about a teenage wasteland. That's what he wants to do.

They get about ten minutes into Truth or Dare before they're totally naked, and at one point Rickie stops, actually pulls his mouth off and turns around and flicks his nail at Brian's hip until Brian opens his eyes and stops complaining. "You have to see this part, this is the best part," Rickie says. "Right here when she says she's going to do the show anyway."

Brian pushes up on his elbows and moans because, Jesus, you don't just stop like that, but then Rickie turns back to him and smiles across the length of his body. He holds onto Brian's calves and slides off the bed, onto his knees, dragging Brian along with him to the edge of the mattress. He rubs his hands on the outside of Brian's thighs and Brian kicks his heels into the box spring and he is never going to hear "Like a Virgin" and not think of this night, of this vacation, of Rickie.

There's leftover ice cream from the party and if that's the worst thing they spill on his parents' sheets, he's still going to have to get things cleaned. Rickie climbs back up and lies between Brian's legs, the back of his head on Brian's chest, and Brian knew the movie wasn't going to be anything like the book but still it doesn't have to be so different.

"The whole point was that it was this, like, subculture of nihilism and decadence and it was maybe fictional or maybe not and this," Brian says, gasping a little because Rickie is rubbing up against him, slowly, like a warm fleshy blanket of sex. "It's, this is just all the stuff people thought was shocking about the book. And the whole point was how nobody really knows each other, and how people are, like, so afraid to merge. That's all."

The credits start rolling and Rickie turns over onto his stomach, lying right on top of Brian. "I get that," he says. "That not merging thing. Being afraid to. It's like -- you know there are these other things you should be doing. Like, joining. But it's all so fast. It all goes so fast, you know?"

Brian has chem homework and his parents are coming home tomorrow and then he's going back and, Jesus, it all goes so fast. "I know," he says, and Rickie kisses his chest. This is better than talking about it.

 

He sleeps through his parents getting home, only waking up a little when his dad yells his name up the stairs, and his mom opens his bedroom door without knocking and stands there for a long time like she can tell he isn't really asleep. They turn up the heat too high and then he dozes back off, drifting in and out of an oven, kicking off his sheets and his flannel pants and reaching out like Rickie's hot skin will be sweet and sticky against his.

When the house is still and steady and dark, Brian sneaks down the stairs and makes himself a sandwich. The Chases' kitchen lights are on and he slides into his dad's galoshes and walks like a scarecrow to their back door. Angela puts one finger over her lips and ushers him inside. She's wearing plaid cotton pants and a tank top from this bar where Jordan's band was always playing last year.

"I have to go back tomorrow," he says, and she nods.

"Did you and --"

"We already said goodbye." Or at least Rickie said he would call and Brian said he would write and it doesn't matter if they actually said it because it's happening anyway. He's trying not to compose epic poems in his head about a winter fling. Rickie said maybe he could get a weekend off and borrow a car and drive up to Boston.

"Oh honey," Angela says, and she stands in long wool socks on the toes of his ridiculous red rubber boots and kisses his cheek.

"I might come home for the summer," he says, even though he has no idea. She's taking the semester off to be with her mom, but really none of them know where they're going to be in six months.

He goes back home and sleeps for an hour or two, then gets up and finishes packing. He stuffs the striped hat Rickie bought him into the zipper pocket of his bag.

 

There's ice on the highway, black ice, his mother says, so they take the back way to the train station.

"But how do you know it's black ice?" he asks. "How do you know it's even really there?"

"Brian," she sighs. She's wearing sweatpants and lace-up Land's End boots and has bags under her eyes and a sunburned nose. She looks tired but healthy. "So did you have a good vacation?"

An old man driving a grizzled taxi rushes by them and Brian tries to find patterns in the exhaust fog. He thinks maybe there's supposed to be some kind of blinking sign, a haunting billboard with a catch phrase, a wrong turn that takes him to Rickie's apartment or the Chases' house or home instead of away, away back to Boston and Harvard and the middle of the bell curve.

"Brian? Are you ignoring me?"

"After I left," he says.

"What?"

"Nothing," he says. The station looks empty and foreboding and there's no point in doing this now because he has hours on the train not to cry.

His mom puts her hand on his shoulder and he opens the car door. "Brian?"

"Nothing. It's just a line from a book."