It's a fifty mile trip from Silver Lake to San Pedro. Shaun's been traveling the distance several times a week for the past month and a half. Bob Dylan is playing on his car stereo. The setting sun is slanting in from the side in flashes of light and shadow between the palm trees along North Harbor Boulevard. Shaun squints his eyes a little against the light, unfazed, mouthing the words to the song that's playing. At the intersection he flicks on his indicator, putting the sun at his back as he turns left onto O'Farrel Street.
He has spent the last few days alone in his new apartment, dividing his time between a couple of editing jobs, assembling a heavy floor to ceiling bookcase in the crook of the living room, and adding a satisfying ten thousand words to his new book. Today he drives up the hill and parks his car just around the corner of Palos Verdes Street. Zach's car is parked in the driveway and Zach himself is sitting on the doorstep to his family's house, wearing an undershirt, jeans and flip-flops, and eating a bowl of cereal. He has just shoveled a spoonful into his mouth when he sees Shaun, and he smiles widely and then wipes the back of his hand across his closed mouth.
Shaun walks up to him. “What's up, babe?” He sits down next to Zach on the sun-warmed steps. Zach chews quickly, pointing the spoon to his mouth, still smiling slightly. He's newly showered after his shift at the diner and this close Shaun can smell the shampoo on his still damp hair, see a couple of droplets drying out on the tanned skin of his shoulders.
“Hey,” Zach says once he's finished chewing, and then he quickly scans their surroundings before leaning in and planting a firm kiss on Shaun's lips.
“Hey,” Shaun echoes, a little breathless. During the past six weeks after Jeanne left, Shaun has been constantly surprised by Zach's growing boldness. Two months ago, Zach wouldn't even stand close to him in public, as if people would be magically able to tell that they were together. Last week, Zach had casually grabbed his hand, his warm callused fingers curling around Shaun's as they waited in line at the little cinema three blocks down from Shaun's Silver Lake apartment.
He leans in to bump his shoulder against Zach's. “You wanna go pick up Cody? Is he with Tori or your dad?”
“Tori,” Zach says. “I'll be ready in a minute.” He chews and swallows the last mouthful of cereal and then pushes himself to his feet.
Shaun follows him inside, but stops to wait for Zach in the living room while he listens to the sounds from the kitchen, the clink of plate and spoon, the water splashing from the faucet. Once his eyes adjust to the dim light inside, he notes the three black plastic bags which stand leaned against the wall in the hallway, packed up and ready to be moved.
Zach returns from the kitchen wiping his hands on his shirt, and Shaun feels a familiar rush of excitement and affection at the intent look on his face as he walks up close and leans in. They share a couple of gentle, unrushed kisses. Zach's fingers come up to ghost over the shape of Shaun's ears, skim through his hair, stroke over his neck. Shaun shivers, pleased. Zach's fingers are still a little damp and his lips and mouth are sweet and cool with milk and sugar. Shaun puts his hands on the sharp edges of Zach's hipbones, lets his fingers search out the curves of bone and muscle. He hums quietly, reveling in the sensations.
It is a calm and quiet moment, but when they pull back, Shaun is surprised to catch Zach's eyes and see that he is not wearing the light and playful expression that Shaun has come to expect, but instead looks preoccupied, pensive.
“Zach?” Shaun tries to catch his eyes.
Zach doesn't answer and doesn't quite meet his eyes, he just leans in once more, pressing a final kiss on Shaun's lips. “Let's go get Cody,” he mumbles before pulling away, opening the door and stepping outside into the fading sunlight.
When Shaun follows him to the car, the neighbors have come out into their garden. They call out a greeting across the chain link fence which is the only thing separating their property from Zach's driveway. Zach moves away from Shaun imperceptibly as he answers, and it's the smart thing to do in this neighborhood, Shaun knows that. He's been getting too comfortable in Los Angeles. It still feels like a tiny defeat after the kiss on the doorstep.
The drive to Tori's place is short. The front door flies open as soon as Zach has put the car into park, and Shaun has only just stepped onto the pavement when Cody comes rushing down the garden steps, already wearing his shoes and jacket. When Shaun picks him up and hugs him tight he can feel Zach's eyes on them. Zach told him that Cody doesn't ask for his mom that often anymore. It's been six weeks since she left, and no word of when she'll be ready to let Cody join her in Oregon. It's one of the few things that Shaun sometimes still finds hard to bring up with Zach: all the worries and frustrations that Zach has to struggle with for caring so deeply about his nephew.
When they get back to the house they cook dinner and eat it together by the rickety dining room table. They watch TV for a little while and then Shaun reads Cody a chapter of the book they've started on, before Zach comes back from cleaning the kitchen to put him to bed under heavy protest. “I'm not tired,” Cody says, voice loud enough that it carries from his bedroom to the kitchen where Shaun is doing the last of the dishes. Fifteen minutes later, he is fast asleep.
Shaun gets a beer for himself and for Zach from the fridge, and they walk outside to the front of the house where Zach's work space is halfway packed up, crates of spray cans and paint stacked on top of each other. They lean against the fence, looking out at the blue lights from the Vincent Thomas bridge. Right in front of them the ground drops away to a steep, trash littered slope leading down to an empty parking lot. At the bottom of the hill, a train comes rumbling down the railway. They drink in silence while it passes, listening to the deep, rhythmic sound of the cars rushing past out there in the darkness.
“When we first moved here, I used to go down to the tracks to watch the trains go by,” Zach finally says. “I used to fantasize about jumping one of the freight trains and just taking off.”
“And now I'm really leaving.” Zach hesitates for a long moment, biting his lip. He sends Shaun a sideways look. “Dad's decided to sell the house,” he finally says, like a confession.
Before Shaun had left the Pacific Bluffs for college, Zach and his family had been living in a small rental next to the San Diego freeway. Upon returning, Shaun had been surprised to hear that the family had acquired a house, although he was less surprised when he finally saw it. “I thought him and Carolynn were going to move in here when you left?”
“They were, but. They decided to stay in Carolynn's apartment after all.”
Shaun searches Zach's face. “You sad about it?” Every wall in that house is covered with Zach's art – some of it on paper, some of it painted directly onto the fraying wallpaper.
Zach casts a quick glance over his shoulder and Shaun doesn't need to follow his gaze to know what he sees: the door with the wrought iron bars, the glass behind them broken and replaced with plywood, the scuffed paint on the concrete steps, the random pieces of half-broken furniture and boxes of junk stacked along the outer walls.
“This house doesn't really hold a lot of happy memories,” Zach says and shrugs. “Dad bought it for Jeanne when she was pregnant. He used the money from mom's life insurance. All of our savings. It was supposed to be for Jeanne and Cody and Roy. I was going to have the small room until I left for college and Dad was going to sleep on the fold out couch in the living room. We were going to be a real family.” Zach's gaze is fixed on the horizon, but he turns his face briefly when Shaun touches his hand. He sighs. “But after half a year Roy started using again, and then Dad had his accident and Jeanne dropped out of college, and everything went to shit.” He runs a hand through his hair from the nape of his neck to his forehead, and then smiles without humor and takes a swig of his beer.
“The thing is, Dad says he wants to give Jeanne and me some money if he makes a profit on the house. Like a college fund, a couple of years late.” Shaun can see Zach slowly tensing up all over as he talks. “And... Jeanne called today, said she was doing pretty well up there in Portland. She asked me if -- she said she wanted me to have her share.”
It takes Shaun a moment to understand what Zach is saying, because his body language seems to be at such discord with the words coming out of his mouth. Shaun can feel his eyebrows shoot up of their own volition. He didn't know what he was expecting, but this certainly wasn't it. “Well, that's surprising.” Jeanne had never struck him as the gracious type. Still, he doesn't get why this is so obviously bothering Zach.
Zach worries his bottom lips with his teeth. “It could be something like five or six thousand dollars.”
Shaun knows how much money that must be to Zach, who's been used to making eight dollars an hour in malls and diners for the last three years. He knows it's a lot of money for Jeanne, too. “Well,” he says, “I guess it's only fair, I mean you are going to be taking care of her kid for a while – not to mention all the years you helped pay the rent here.”
“Yeah.” Zach smiles tightly. This should be a good thing - that kind of money is going to go a long way in helping set up his new life in Los Angeles - but something seems off, there's obviously something that Zach is holding back.
“It might... It could make a big difference,” Zach says vaguely, looking at Shaun like he's imploring him to understand, wearing the kind of tight, desperate expression that Shaun hasn't seen on his face for weeks. “Anyway, let's... ” Zach starts, then stops. “Let's not talk about this now. Is that okay?” he finally says.
“Okay.” Shaun acquiesces, but he feels a little unsettled. He takes a swig of his beer. The triangles of light from the bridge suddenly look cold and bright in the distance.
At twenty-two, Shaun had already been living in L.A. for three years. He had been filled with self-righteous anger towards his conservative lobbyist step-dad, and a burning desire to explore his sexuality, his creative visions and his possibilities in life. He had finished his bachelor's degree right after his twenty-second birthday, and then he had taken off. A year studying abroad had been a convenient excuse to get out - to go surfing in Spain, hitchhike from Barcelona to Copenhagen, smoke a good deal of European hashish and hook up with handsome guys with exotic names and accents.
He looks at Zach now - at twenty-two he has been working hard at minimum wage jobs for years, jotting down his dreams and ambitions in a portfolio that he has showed to almost no-one, and caring for a small boy who at the moment depends on him for everything. What dreams would he want to fulfill - once he is in Los Angeles and once Jeanne takes Cody back - with ten thousand dollars in his pocket?
Shaun turns his gaze away from Zach's profile, and out towards the dark crane towers silhouetted against the lights from the bridge. Yesterday, he had been focused on placing his new bookcase so it would shelter his king-sized bed from the rest of the living room - to create an illusion of a separate room - in the firm belief that in two weeks, Zach would be sharing that bed with him every night. Now, he suddenly feels a sliver of doubt that he doesn't want to put words to.
That night they make love in the dark, seeking out each other by touch beneath the covers. Cody is sleeping on the other side of the hallway, and in this house Zach never makes a sound in bed. Shaun feels Zach's shuddering breaths against his mouth, his neck, the sensitive skin where his thighs meet his hips. He struggles to hold back his own moans, and when Zach finally takes him in his mouth, the rustle of linen seems to be the loudest sound in the room.
Shaun feels like he's burning up in the heat beneath the blankets. He is trembling, a full body tremor, and he blindly seeks out Zach's mouth when he crawls back up next to him. He lets himself be held down when Zach unselfconsciously rolls on top to thrust against him. His weight makes Shaun lose his breath, makes him want it even more - he can feel his own body slowly slipping out of his control. The press of each of Zach's clutching fingertips make his muscles alternately tense and relax as he rises towards every point of contact: Zach's hands, mouth, chest, his hot, slick cock moving against Shaun's own. He can't imagine ever not feeling this fevered for Zach, the way he has from the beginning.
Afterwards, Zach falls asleep quickly – he had an early morning shift at McCowan's, and then the rush hour shift at the diner. Shaun lives on a different rhythm and doesn't feel particularly tired. He lies awake, looking out at the smog-tinged street light filtering in through the dusty window, and lets his mind wander.
Three times during these past six weeks, Zach's dad and his girlfriend have taken Cody, and Zach has driven his banged up old GMC to Los Angeles to spend the night. Shaun listens to Zach's calm breathing while he thinks about the last time Zach had come up to visit – closing his eyes to see Zach padding naked across the living room to the kitchen to grab a bottle of water, his naked form briefly illuminated by the light from the fridge. He opens his eyes and remembers how he had walked up to take the bottle from Zach's hand and pressed him gently against the kitchen counter, leaning in against the taut curve of his body to seek out his cool, wet mouth.
Next to him in bed, Zach's hand is curled loosely around the covers. The back of his hand is tanned a deep brown that fades out toward his palm.
Shaun has just left a long-term boyfriend six months ago. The royalty checks from his first book are steadily dwindling. He has moved away from the neighborhood that he's lived in for the last eight years. He is on the edge of finishing a book that he sometimes thinks is a work of art and sometimes wildly pretentious - and if it doesn't sell, he can't bear the thought of having to ask his step-dad for money. He's dating a guy who is ten years younger and who is only just coming to terms with being gay. He didn't mean to fall in love this hard and this quickly.
But beneath the rush of these first fevered months, he thinks he's beginning to see the shapes and edges of what he and Zach could become in time, and he desperately wants it. He wants more time. He's beginning to think that he wants forever if he can have it.
Finally feeling like his body has calmed down enough to let him sleep, he curls onto his side, breathing in the scent of sex and sleep all around him. Zach has turned over to sleep on his stomach. Beneath his eyelids his eyes are moving slightly; his lips are softly forming unvoiced words.
Shaun had waited four years for Jeff to be ready to settle down. He doesn't know how much longer he can stand waiting - but he'll try if he has to, for Zach.
Shaun is beginning to understand that part of the logistics of adding a small child to a relationship is that you end up having to take turns with things that you could once do together. He let Zach go out on the board first, while he and Cody looked for crabs in the surf (and Cody used Zach's absence to make Shaun promise him that they would get ice cream from Baskin-Robbins on their way home).
Now Shaun lies wet and exhausted next to Zach, who has already changed out of his wetsuit and is watching Cody play down on the beach. The rock is smooth and warm beneath his feet and the salt water drying on his face makes his skin prickle. He feels out of breath and happy – he caught a couple of good waves out there - and Zach is graciously letting him rest his head on his thigh although he is dry and warm by now, and Shaun is still cold and wet from the water.
“One day,” he says philosophically, “one day, if we can get your dad to watch Cody, we could bring some blankets down here, and sleep on the beach.” He turns his head, letting his lips graze the skin high on Zach's thigh as he's speaking. He grins when he feels Zach jump slightly beneath him, and looks up to make sure that Zach is catching his drift.
Zach looks down and runs a palm over Shaun's hair. He's smiling, but underneath there is a mix of emotions playing across his face.
“Have you... you've slept with a lot of guys?” he asks after a moment.
Shaun feels the mood shift abruptly. He hesitates for a minute, but the thing is, he wants to be with Zach, and if he's going to be with him, he needs to be honest with him from the start. “I've slept with some guys.”
Zach blinks and looks away. Shaun resist the stupid urge to explain, to say: I had felt so hemmed in for so long, and it was always safe, and in some parts of Northern Europe things were so easy, so free.
“And you and Jeff, you saw other people?” Zach asks after a long silence.
Shaun had almost forgotten that he had even told Zach about that. From where he's lying he can't read Zach's expression at all. “We had an open relationship for a couple of years, yes,” he answers after a beat. He wishes he knew where this conversation was going. “It didn't work out for me, in the end,” he adds carefully, a little scared to be closing a door, wondering if he could do it again, for Zach.
Zach looks at him searchingly and then away. “I've never done that. I mean, obviously, but --” he shrugs, “I've only ever slept with Tori. And you.”
Shaun closes his eyes, just for two seconds, to gather his thoughts. He knows that Zach wants to be with him. He knows that Zach meant it when they had talked about being together in Los Angeles. But the rest, he suddenly realizes - the apartment, the king sized bed, the child sized furniture in the room that was originally meant to be Shaun's bedroom and office – were choices made out of necessity and barely discussed.
The apartment in Silver Lake - which he had found after sleeping on friends' couches for three weeks - had originally been chosen mainly because it had been cheap: a one bedroom apartment with a big, L-shaped living room and an adjoining kitchen, just at the edge of the Silver Lake neighborhood. He hadn't been thinking about it as a long-term home before he started considering the option that Zach and Cody might live there with him.
But it had been a pretty rash decision for Zach to move in with him, and to have Cody move in with them, too, until Jeanne was ready to bring him to Portland. With ten thousand dollars to start him out, Shaun realizes, Zach will suddenly have other options.
He opens his eyes to find Zach looking down on him with something like worry, but he doesn't have a chance to speak before Cody moves into his line of sight.
“Shaun, come see my sweet sandcastle,” he says, grabbing Shaun's hand to drag him up. Shaun scrambles to his feet, and Zach surprises him by pulling him in for a firm, almost demonstrative kiss before letting him go. Cody doesn't even notice, impatiently pulling at Shaun to make him follow.
Shaun is still learning, getting used to Cody's open affection, his sometimes mercurial moods, his frank questions and his occasional jealousy over Zach's attention. Two weeks ago, Shaun had told Cody no for the first time. Cody had been surprised and then upset, shouting and finally running out of the room and slamming the door to his bedroom when Shaun would not give in. Shaun had sat stunned at the table, while Zach quietly stood up and let himself into Cody's room, closing the door behind him. Ten minutes later Cody came back out and apologized, looking a little sheepish.
Today Cody drags him down to the seaside to show him the sand castle's prison tower, the moat and the walking bridge. He's leaning his small frame against Shaun's knee where he's squatting beside him while he points out the different features of his architectural constructions. Shaun forgets to look at the castle. Instead, he looks down at Cody: his hair is pale and frizzy from all the time spent in the sun, and when he puts his hand on Shaun's knee for balance it feels warm and scratchy, his soft skin covered with grains of sand.
Shaun leans back on his heels and keeps watching Cody as he runs down to the ocean surf to gather water for the moat in his blue plastic bucket. When Shaun had decided to leave Jeff, his growing wish for a family and for children had still been abstract - but Cody is right here, calling out for Shaun with growing familiarity, curling up against him on the couch while they read, coming to him specifically to ask for ice cream because he has already figured out that Shaun is softer than Zach on that front, and has a sweeter tooth, too.
It has been easy for Shaun to let himself forget that Zach is not actually Cody's dad - that Cody has a mom in Portland and will eventually leave them.
Shaun tears his gaze away from Cody to look back towards the rocks. Zach is sitting by their things, too far away for Shaun to be able to read his expression. He lifts his hand and Zach raises his, and for a short stupid moment, Shaun feels like they're waving goodbye.
They return to the house in the late afternoon with their bellies full of Chocolate Fudge and Cherry Jubilee ice cream. Cody jumps out of the backseat like a jack-in-the-box, running up the front steps and waiting impatiently by the door for Zach to come and unlock it. Shaun moves his hands to unfasten the seat belt by rote, but after the sash and buckle have snapped back he remains seated. From the passenger side he watches Zach laugh as Cody squeezes through the door as soon as he opens it.
Shaun should get out of the car, go into the house and pack up his stuff, bring the three plastic bags out and put them in the trunk of his own car. Zach has an evening shift at the diner, Carolynn is coming over to pick up Cody in an hour. It's time for Shaun to go. He has a meeting with his publicist early in the morning, a lunch date with a couple of friends later in the day.
But he can't leave.
Zach walks to the back of the car and pops the trunk to retrieve the board and their wetsuits. He leans the board against the outer wall, hangs the wetsuits to dry over the stair railing. Only then does he notice that Shaun hasn't moved from the passenger seat. Their eyes meet through the windshield - Shaun sees Zach take a deep breath, and feels himself mirror the motion. Zach casts a glance towards the house, then wipes his hands on his boardshorts and walks over to Shaun's side of the car.
Shaun pulls the door handle and Zach opens the door, leaning down to peer into the car with a nervous smile. “Hey.”
Shaun lets himself look at Zach for a second. Even when Zach was just his brother's friend, Shaun had recognized - in a detached sort of way - that he found him attractive. But he never really let himself look. These last three months he has been watching Zach intently: the small birth mark on his cheek, the often too-serious set of his mouth, his slightly crooked jawline. He's so beautiful.
“We need to talk, don't we?” he finally asks, and the way Zach's face falls answers his question.
At this moment Cody comes running back out, “Shaun, are you leaving now? Can I start your car?”
Zach schools his expression and turns away from the car to face him. “Not today, Cody. I need you to go inside and pick a movie to bring over to Poppy and Carolynn, okay?”
Cody casts a nervous glance from Zach to Shaun, but in the end he reluctantly turns around and goes back inside. Zach watches him retreat and then walks around the hood of the car and slides into the driver's seat. He closes the door firmly, and then sits for a moment in silence.
“Look,” he starts, “you told me once that I had a choice when it came to my family. Back then I didn't, but now I do.” He pauses. Shaun waits him out, staring down at Zach's foot tapping out a jittery rhythm against the floor of the car.
“Jeanne didn't offer me the money,” Zach finally says in a rush. “It's for Cody. She wants me to have legal guardianship. She wants me to have him for good.”
“She wants what's best for him, and she thinks that I'm it.” Zach continues, looking almost pained. “And the thing is, so do I.”
Shaun knows how Zach hates being disloyal to his family, but he has to agree. There is no denying that Zach seems to be the only one in his family with the resources to really give Cody the consistent care that he so desperately needs. But there is a question that needs asking – one that Zach seems to always forget. Shaun reaches out, touching him lightly. “Zach, what do you want?”
Zach physically startles at the question. The muscle of his jaw clenches. A couple of tears run down his cheeks. Zach wipes them away with a look of embarrassment and frustration, breathing heavily and turning his head to look up at the ceiling. “You know, Cody never used to throw tantrums. He used to be the easiest kid in the world. Like he didn't expect much from anybody. He could just sit and draw for hours when I brought him to work because Jeanne was off somewhere.”
“Zach...” Shaun mumbles.
Zach finally, finally looks at him. “I used to be just like that when I was little,” he says. “I remember sitting outside the mall for hours, waiting for Mom to come out on her breaks and thinking that I had to be quiet and good for her. Cody has never shouted at Jeanne, or anyone actually, before now.”
“Zach, what do you want?” Shaun repeats. He's trying his best to keep his voice steady, to be calm for Zach, but his heart is beating so hard he can feel it in his stomach.
Zach draws a deep shaky breath. “I want it all,” he says, wiping his tears away with the thumb of his hand, looking almost angry. “I want Cody to be my kid, and I want to go to CalArts, and I want you to be with me, with both of us.”
Shaun has to hide his face in his hand for a moment. He presses his fingers against his eyes.
Beside him Zach continues. “But we've only known each other for three months, and you want to go to Barcelona, and you go to LGBT rallies, and smoke pot - you never meant to house a broke guy and his pseudo-son. You write books and have open relationships and -- and I know what I'm asking is too much.”
“It's not,” Shaun says. He feels giddy with relief. He can't help the smile tugging at the corners of his lips. He feels almost embarrassed for how far off mark he's been. From now on, he is not going to jump to any conclusions when it comes to what Zach wants.
“Zach, I want you in my life. Both of you. For good.”
“Yeah?” Zach looks so surprised that Shaun has to laugh, just a little, with the sheer joyous irony of it. He is thirty-two, Zach's ten years his junior and just about to move to the big city, to start living out his dreams.
“This isn't how I thought this conversation was going to go,” he says lightly, touching Zach's thigh to reassure him.
He can see Zach thinking it over, catching Shaun's drift. “My life isn't how it's suppose to go,” he says, smiling wryly, but finally smiling, “But I want it... This is what I want to choose... I just -- I don't expect you to be where I am.”
Shaun looks down at his hands resting in his lap. There is a pink smear of cherry ice cream on his sleeve. His laugh has faded to an affectionate smile. “Perhaps master underestimates student,” he says softly, looking back up.
Zach's expression softens. “Shut up,” he says, but he's smiling widely.
Just past Zach, Shaun can see the neighbor moving by, mowing his lawn and sending them covert glances. On Shaun's side, Cody is surreptitiously spying on them from a half-opened door, looking a little anxious. Still, Zach draws Shaun in by the neck and kisses him.
When they pull apart, Shaun turns to reach for the door handle. “Only two weeks till the semester starts, now,” he says.
Zach nods, also moving to get out of the car. “Yeah,” he says, “Yeah, I think we're ready.”