The first time you wake up next to him, it takes a few seconds for the memories to surface from the depths of your beer-soaked brain.
You kissed him. You kissed Zach. Holy shit.
He’s asleep beside you, his back to you, arms crossed, knees drawn halfway up, snoring lightly. It’s fucking freezing, the wind off the ocean cutting through your hoodie like it was made of paper. Your hands are like ice and you tuck them under your arms to warm them. You should get up, get a blanket. Better yet, you should go inside to your warm bed, wake Zach up and offer him Gabe’s room if he wants it.
You don’t do any of that. You stay here instead, shivering inside your clothes, staring at the back of his head, because you don’t want this moment to end. You don’t want him to go. And you know he will if you wake him up. You can picture it now, the look of panic on his face when he remembers, the sound of his tongue tripping over itself in his haste to make excuses. And you’d let him go without an argument because you get it, you do. And maybe you’d finally go inside after he left and climb into your nice comfy bed. But probably not. You’d probably stay right here, freezing your ass off, staring at the empty place where Zach had been, trying not to miss him.
Because here’s the thing: He kissed you back.
The first time you accept that you’re not going to turn back is when you’re halfway across the Vincent Thomas Bridge. You’d fought with yourself for more than an hour, agonizing over what would happen, what it would mean, how it might change you, why it would even matter if it did, before finally just making a decision already goddamn it, and zipping up your hoodie with a finality you didn’t quite feel.
You kept giving yourself mental checkpoints to pass through, last chances to reconsider. First, it was the car. If you made it to the car without talking yourself out of it, then that was it, there was no turning back.
You made it to the car. You even turned it on and pulled away from the curb before it occurred to you that you’d passed your first checkpoint without even thinking about it. So you threw up another one. And another one after that. The mini mart. The water tower. Each one farther from the life you had and closer to the one you weren’t sure you wanted. Closer to Shaun.
Your last checkpoint was the bridge. And by the time it occurred to you that you were actually on it, you were already more than halfway across, San Pedro behind you along with any lingering delusions that you could still turn back.
Because you couldn’t. And you didn’t. And now here you are, heart in your throat, ringing the bell of this cavernous house with a hand that’s only shaking slightly. You think a little desperately that maybe he’s not alone, that here you are standing on his doorstep, rehearsing the words you toyed with in your head the whole way here, the ones that would make it make sense, the way you treated him on the beach earlier, and he could be upstairs right now with someone else, doing the things you’ve barely even let yourself consider.
But he isn’t. And when he opens the door and you lift your head to meet his eyes, you don’t say anything at all, kissing him instead because this, this is something you know how to do, speak without words. You’ve been doing it your whole life, it seems, for as long as you can remember, ever since the first time you sat down to draw. You’ve never really been very good at words, at putting them together, at saying what you mean. They always seem to come out wrong.
But here, right now, it doesn’t matter anyway. Because you’re here with Shaun, his mouth hot against your skin, and you have no need for words.
The first time you have sex with Zach, it feels like drowning. Like being pulled under by a riptide. But instead of struggling against it, you go willingly, surrendering to it, letting it carry you away.
You never thought you’d have him like this, under you, over you, skin to skin, his hands on your body like the one thing you’ve been missing your whole life. You didn’t even let yourself think about the possibility of it in the weak moments after you kissed him that first time. Not much, anyway. You’re old enough to know that torturing yourself over what ifs is a huge fucking waste of time.
It’s just as well, you think, since reality is so much better than anything you could have dreamed up. Zach’s everywhere at once, eager and willing, and you want to tell him to slow down a little, that you have all night, but you don’t. You just follow his lead, urgency spreading beneath your skin, arousal making you restless. A part of you can’t help but think that this may be your only chance to have this, so you better take all you can.
His responsiveness to your touch is electrifying, his muscles jumping beneath your lips as you kiss a line down his belly. You take his cock in your mouth without preamble, tasting him, spit pooling instantly on the back of your tongue. He bites off a sharp sound, breath stuttering, and you lift your eyes to look at him. His arms are over his head, head thrown back, Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. He looks beautiful like this, open and carefree, and you want to keep him here, just like this, forever.
It’s not until later, until after, when you’ve closed and locked the front door and gathered up the discarded clothes on the stairs, when you’ve climbed back into a bed that no longer seems so lonely now that Zach’s asleep beside you, that you let yourself think. About tonight and what it means. About what it will mean for tomorrow.
No matter how it ends, though, you know one thing for certain: when you look back on all the best moments of your life, this will always be one of them.
The first time you finally put a name to this feeling you’ve been carrying around with you, it kind of just sneaks up on you. You’re downstairs in the living room of Shaun’s house, doing your best to melt into the ridiculously comfortable sofa, half-watching the Dodgers-Padres game and not trying very hard to stay awake. You can’t remember the last time you had a day like this one, no work, no worries, no Cody. A day to yourself, for yourself only, where the only thing you had to think about was nothing at all. It’s been pretty fucking amazing, actually.
You’re just about asleep when you feel Shaun’s lips on your temple and his fingers in your hair. You turn your head to look at him. He’s smiling at you and his eyes are warm and he’s close enough that you can still smell the soap on his skin. You remember how it got there, the slide of your hands across his slick skin, the taste of his kiss under the shower spray. You feel yourself blush, and you know he sees it by the way his eyes narrow a little and his smile widens, by the way he brushes the pad of his thumb across your cheek. It annoys you that he can elicit this reaction in you, even now, after everything you’ve done together. You don’t remember ever blushing with Tori, except maybe the first time you were both naked together, when, despite all your bravado, you didn’t quite know what to do next. But it’s different with Shaun. Everything’s different. Sex. Truth. Happiness. The future. It has more dimensions now, color and shape and depth beyond the San Pedro skyline. All because of him.
And that’s when it hits you, what this is. You’ve felt it all along, you think, since the moment you couldn’t stop the grin from breaking across your face that first morning after.
You’re in love.
The first time you met Zach, he was eight years old. You were already an adult then, barely, but you felt like the world was yours. You were itching to leave Pacific Bluffs, to leave Larry behind. It’s not that he was a bad guy, really, but he wasn’t your dad and never would be and it still hurt sometimes to see your mom happy with someone else. You were ambivalent about leaving your mom, though, about leaving Gabe. He already possessed in spades the brash bravado that would be his defining quality, but underneath he was still a little boy who looked up to you a little too much and still sometimes sneaked into your room at night, the remnants of a bad dream still clinging to his memory.
Then came Zach, a scholarship kid from San Pedro whose slacks weren’t designer and whose shoes never shined like the other kids’, but who never seemed to let that get in his way. Even as a kid, he was inscrutable, with a tough exterior impermeable to the pointed disdain tossed his way by the privileged little pricks in blue blazers who got delivered to school by their nannies. He was smarter than most of them and possessed an eerie maturity that you understood only later when you learned more about his family life.
Gabe took to him immediately, dragging him home from school one day, Zach trailing behind him like a wayward puppy, big eyes and slack mouth, as if he’d never seen a house so big before in his life. He walked through the house carefully, like he was afraid to touch anything, and actually asked if it was okay if he used the bathroom. If not, he said, he could wait until he got home.
His lack of surfing experience baffled Gabe, a boy who learned to surf almost before he learned to walk. When he announced to you that he was going to personally remedy the situation and teach his new friend how to surf, you decided that it was time to step in. Gabe was pretty good with a board, but he was still a child, and you couldn’t in good conscience trust another human to Gabe’s care.
So you taught Zach how to surf. He caught on quickly. He seemed to possess an easy grace, a litheness and fluidity that made him a natural. It wasn’t until later, when you rarely saw Gabe without Zach, the two of them soulmates of a sort, that you saw him on a skateboard, that same easy grace on display.
Fifteen years later, Zach is still graceful. But he’s grown into it now, he wears it differently. It’s still there on display out on the water or on a skateboard, but it shows at other times, too. Like in the way his hand moves across the paper when he sketches. Or in the way he scoops a sleeping Cody up into his arms without waking him. Or in the easy way his body moves through space. You remember watching him that first morning after, as he gathered up his clothes and pulled them back on. You wanted him to stay, to lie with you under the blankets as the sun moved slowly across the floor. But he couldn’t. You didn’t argue because you knew there were parts of him that belonged to other people and always would. And you knew in your heart he’d be back.
The first time you make love with Shaun, or rather, the first time you think of it maybe not in those terms exactly, but as something more than just sex, you’re on your back and he’s inside you and you’re kissing him long and slow. You’re well past the pain and deep into the pleasure, that space between everything and nothing where the rest of the world fades away and the only thing that matters is the two of you, together like this.
And it’s good. It’s fucking perfect, actually, and you never thought it could be. You never thought you’d like it so much, that reluctant attraction could turn into a need this urgent. When you’re with him, you feel different, like a newer, better version of yourself. Stronger, more confident. Like you could have anything, be anything you wanted as long as he was with you. And you constantly find yourself fighting against the feeling that it’s all just so much illusion, just a reflection on water, easily destroyed in an instant by the touch of a fingertip.
You’re close, you can feel it, the build of your orgasm tightening low in your belly, and you pull away from his mouth and open your eyes. His eyes are still closed, teeth bared a little in concentration as he moves inside you. His hand on your cock is pulling you closer, closer, a few more strokes and you’ll tip over the edge. You squeeze his ribs between your knees and still his hand with yours. He falters, then stops, his eyes opening and meeting yours, his breath warm and quick against your cheek. He just holds there, looking at you, and you know in this instant that this is what you want. You want this, you want him, you want Us, and it terrifies you.
He opens his mouth to speak, but you silence him with your own, your fingers curving around the back of his head, your tongue sliding smoothly against his. You lower your legs to the bed, bracing your feet against the mattress, and, leveraging your weight, flip the two of you over. You’re on top now, your knees bracing Shaun’s hips, and you meet his surprised look with a grin.
He’s still inside you, and this change in position allows you to take him deeper. He groans as you move, his hands gripping your thighs, his eyes falling shut, mouth falling open as he tips his head back. It amazes you that you can do this to him, make him feel this way. You think you shouldn’t be enough. It’s not like you’re an expert at this. You’re still learning as you go. But the way he looks at you, the sounds he makes, the way he says your name, the way he touches you afterwards. Those things are real.
You’re ready to come now; you want him to come with you.
You lean forward, gripping the edge of the bed frame. You feel Shaun’s knees come up behind you, his hands holding your hips, fingertips pressing into your skin. You let him take over, setting his own rhythm. It doesn’t take long before you feel the urgency building again, burning at the base of your spine. Outside, the ocean is endless, and you think that’s how you feel right now, connected to him like this, like there’s not a single place where you stop and he starts. You’re just one thing, together. Infinite.
When you come, it’s with his name on your lips.
The first time you tell your brother about you and Zach, you expect a different reaction. After all, Gabe isn’t exactly what anyone would call subtle and you basically just dropped an atom bomb of truth right in his lap.
But he surprises you. There’s shock, sure. But mostly not. You weren’t sure what you were expecting, exactly, but it was definitely something…more. More bluster, maybe. More denial. More what-the-fuck-is-this-a-joke. But there’s none of that. And after a few seconds of silence where you can almost hear the gears grinding in his head with the effort to process this new reality, Gabe just…accepts it. Just like that. As if all he had to do to make all the old pieces fit into this new pattern was tilt his head a little to the left. Same picture, different angle, like looking at the Mona Lisa in a mirror. Either way, it’s still a masterpiece.
Maybe he takes it so well because he’s drunk, but you don’t think so. When Gabe loves someone, it’s without strings, all in, no questions. It’s one of his better qualities. For all of Larry’s talk about how Gabe needs to grow up, be more responsible, stop seeing life as one continuous party, you think the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from your little brother about accepting people for who they are.
You only tell him when you do because he finds you hiding out in the dark on the deck outside your bedroom where you’ve spent the last couple hours feeling sorry for yourself. There’s a half-empty bottle of single-malt scotch on the ground next to you and you’re so fucking cliché you can hardly stand yourself. No wonder you haven’t been able to write a fucking thing worth reading in weeks. Except for the parts you shared with Zach, your own life reads like bad fanfiction. You can’t even use the excuse that you’re drunk either. The bottle was half empty when you grabbed it from the kitchen.
Gabe doesn’t make you talk. Another surprise. Usually, you can’t shut him up. He’s always been a little in love with the sound of his own voice and you brace yourself for a barrage of questions, some of which will inevitably have to do with the relative merits of gay sex. But they don’t come. Instead, he pulls up a chair and sits down beside you and doesn’t say a word. All his friends are either gone or passed out somewhere downstairs. In the morning you’ll make greasy breakfast sandwiches with a side of Advil for the ones who remain before sending them on their way. You’ll gather up the trash and sort the recycling and relive your last conversation with Zach another thousand times, trying to pinpoint the exact moment it all went wrong. And you’ll resolve, and fail, to let it go.
But that’s tomorrow. Tonight you’ll sit here and let yourself feel it just a little while longer. And you’ll feel grateful in a way you could never adequately describe that you don’t have to do it alone.
The first time you realize you’re going to fuck it all up is when you’re sitting by the fire, listening to Gabe regale his friends with yet another variation of the same story he’s been telling since you were 14. You’re only half listening, Gabe’s voice and the others’ laughter just background accompaniment to the noise inside your own head. The longer you sit there, the more you realize that it’s been there the whole time, this insistent little voice, since the moment you showed up on Shaun’s doorstep and plunged headfirst into the abyss.
Shaun is right when he calls you a coward. Because you are. You can’t do this. You thought you could, but you just can’t. This isn’t who you are, this isn’t what you want. Only it is, and deep down, in that still, small place inside of you, you know it’s the truth. But it doesn’t matter. You should’ve known better. People like you don’t get to have the things you want. People like you get their days parceled out one at a time, one after the next after the next, with no chance at all to glimpse the future. You live each day as they come, until one day, they just stop coming.
The passenger door’s barely closed before you pull out of the driveway. You don’t look back. You don’t think you could stand to see him disappear into the house. Or worse, see him staring after you. If you did, your resolve might crack. You might slam on the brakes, shut off the car, and run back up the driveway to him. You might drag him into the house and up the stairs and onto the bed that’s felt more like home to you than almost anywhere else these last few weeks. You might fuck him like the world’s on fire, Gabe and his friends be damned.
You might do all of that. So you don’t look back.
The first time you come home to him – and the few days you stayed in your parents’ house before you went back to LA together don’t count; that place will never be your home, even with Zach asleep beside you – you actually stop in the doorway, your hand still on the doorknob, and look around. You’ve only just moved in and everything’s in chaos, boxes stacked everywhere in various stages of being unpacked, the few pieces of furniture you have still sitting in the same spots you set them down in after hefting them upstairs. Any other day, at any other time in your life, this kind of mess would have driven you crazy, would’ve compelled you to stay up all night until at least the living room was finished, because while you’re not exactly anal retentive about neatness, you do like things in their place.
But that’s just it, you realize. That’s exactly why the mess doesn’t bother you like it would have before. Because everything is exactly where it should be: namely here, with you, in the space you’ll share with them, just the three of you. Eventually it will all get put away into drawers and closets and cabinets, piled on the coffee table, and strewn across the bar, the flotsam of everyday life. But for now, it’s fine exactly where it is, commingled and messy, your books and Zach’s art supplies and the pitifully small box of Cody’s toys, stacked around the room in a single chaotic collection, like they’ve always been pieces of the same greater whole and have only just now found their proper place.
It makes you unbelievably happy.
The first time he comes home to you, you’re in the kitchen, trying to scrounge up something to make for dinner. Cody’s napping, so you’ve taken the opportunity to start unpacking. So far all you’ve managed to find that wasn’t cereal or alcohol is a mostly full box of spaghetti, a jar of garlic stuffed olives, a 6-pack of chicken flavored ramen, a jar of Nutella, and a bottle of A1. All this stuff came from Shaun’s old place, and based on what you’ve found so far, you’re certain of either one of two things: Shaun ate a lot of takeout or his ex did most of the cooking.
You open another box. Canned goods. Only none of them seem to go together in any meaningful way. Water chestnuts. Stewed tomatoes with green chilies. Tuna. Chickpeas. Hominy. Cat food. You’ve arrived just in time, you think, smiling to yourself. The man would starve to death without you. It’s a wonder he’s managed to live this long, really. Because you’ve tasted his cooking, and while it’ll keep you alive, he’s not exactly Bobby Flay.
Not that you are, but you know your way around a kitchen. And you know what staples are, few of which he has, unless you count a half dozen types of red wine and three jars of capers, which you’ve just extricated from the bottom of the box.
You hear the front door close as you cut open another box. You resorted to using your favorite X-Acto knife, the one you use to make your stencils, to cut the tape after you’d gummed up all your keys searching for the kitchen knives. Which you never found. Or scissors either, for that matter. Shaun seemed to be in possession of absolutely no sharp objects, which, if you didn’t know any better, would make you think he’d previously lived in a daycare.
You feel him before you see him, the warmth of his arms around your belly, the press of his lips to the back of your neck. You can feel him smiling against your skin, and you can’t help but do the same. Because you can do that now, let yourself be happy, smile without reservation. You’re still learning how to do it, but it’s getting easier every day.
You turn to face him, his hands resting loosely on your hips. His smile still tugs at the corners of his mouth and you lean in to kiss him, nipping at his bottom lip with the edges of your teeth and making him grin, before pushing him away. He pulls you back in for one more kiss, letting it linger, before finally relinquishing his grip, his fingertips tracing down your arm as he lets you go. He looks around at the disheveled kitchen and smiles like it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. His happiness unnerves you a little, but mostly it doesn’t. Mostly it makes you feel content.
You still can’t believe you’re actually here, with Shaun, with Cody, in this city and this apartment and this kitchen. You can’t believe that this is your life now, yours to keep for as long as he’ll have you.
But it is. It’s the first day of the rest of your life.