Arthur searched through a sea of bobbing heads for Gwen’s unmistakable honey-brown locks. He had plenty of blondes to choose from, most of the bleached variety. It didn’t worry him that he couldn’t see his girlfriend amongst the faces at the Oakland International Airport arrival terminal; he didn’t expect to. Hell would go on holiday before Gwen was early for anything.
He grabbed the nearest luggage cart, not realizing that it had a gimp wheel. It took an annoying amount of effort to straighten it. If Arthur wasn’t so damn stubborn, he might have reconsidered the wisdom of boarding a flight to Oakland with his entire life packed in two suitcases, with an iPhone a blink away from death.
It wasn’t until the last of Arthur’s bags were loaded onto the crippled cart that he noticed the young man with the teal scarf pretending not to stare at him. He was pale as bone and almost as thin, leaning against a pillar with a cardboard sign. Arthur forced his luggage cart next to the man, wondering what kind of lunatic wears a scarf in August.
Arthur cleared his throat. "That’s my name."
The man in the scarf looked down at his sharpie-scribbled cardboard and shifted awkwardly, as if he wasn’t sure how it had got into his hands in the first place.
“My name. On your sign,” Arthur elaborated.
A smile parted pillow lips, blue eyes peering under a tussle of black hair. "I thought so,” the young man said, offering his hand.
Arthur shook it automatically. The stranger’s fingers were slender, his grip surprisingly firm and as warm as his demeanor. When he unrolled from his slouch, Arthur was able to get a better feel of how tall he was. The guy had an inch over him, which meant that he was six foot at least. Arthur couldn’t say why, but the revelation ticked him off.
“I’ve heard a lot about you, Arthur.” The stranger smiled.
“And who the hell are you?”
He didn’t mean to sound crass. He’d just come off a six-hour United Airlines flight, where he’d been fed nothing but peanuts and stuffed next to a painfully middle-aged woman. Even a saint can’t feign interest in Persian cats for four hours. The flight was purgatory and Arthur was in no mood for a game of ‘guess who’ at the airport with a nameless hipster.
The stranger grinned, putting down his sign. “I take it you haven’t checked your phone in a while?”
Arthur fished his phone from his back pocket, swiped open the lock screen and prayed for a sliver of battery life. The phone’s screen lit, flooding with missed texts from Gwen.
“I’ll save you the trouble of reading those. Gwen called me this afternoon. Something came up. She’s stuck working late tonight at the GAP tonight. ‘Chino-gate’, she called it. Apparently everyone and their mother wants a pair of chinos, can you believe that? She asked me if I could pick you instead.”
“And you are?”
“Merlin," the dark-haired man said, his low melodic voice cutting through the hum of the airport.“ Merlin Emrys.”
Finally Arthur was getting somewhere. Merlin? No. Gwen had never mentioned anyone with a name that strange before. Part of Arthur wondered if the guy standing in front of him was a scammer, but even if he was, there was little need for concern. Whatever height Merlin had over him, Arthur easily outclassed him in weight and muscle. By the waifish look of Merlin, he could be brought down with one good punch, though Arthur would hate to make a scene at the airport if he didn’t have to.
Merlin, as if sensing Arthur’s apprehension, pulled out his own phone, fiddling with the screen and offering it up to Arthur’s ear. “Here, listen,” he said.
“It doesn’t bite,” Merlin added smoothly.
Gwen’s voice cooed from the speaker. Apparently she did coin the phrase ‘Chino-gate’. This Merlin guy was legit; the message on Merlin’s phone was from Gwen.
"So -- Merlin? Like the wizard?” Arthur asked casually. “You do magic tricks or something?”
“You mean cards?” Merlin replied, not caring to elaborate further. “I don’t have enough for a cab. Are you all right with taking BART?”
Arthur wrinkled his nose. “As in The Simpsons?”
“Ah, right. Out-of-towner. BART’s the acronym for ‘Bay Public Rapid Transit’. It’s the train system over here.”
“Gwen didn’t let you borrow her car?”
The tips of Merlin’s ears reddened to the color of fresh sunburn. “I, um... don’t drive.”
Arthur hooked one hand onto his cart, taking a swig of the stale backwash left in his water bottle. “Train’s fine,” he muttered.
They ditched the cart before reaching the escalator, Merlin struggling to haul Arthur’s luggage up the churning stairs. The suitcases barreled off the last step, one piece catching Merlin behind the leg, making him flounder and flail to stay standing. He had a lankiness about him that most people outgrow by their teens; a lack of grace that was laughable. And it took Arthur an incredible amount of polite willpower not to do just that.
When they reached the BART station, Arthur was asked for a five, Merlin fiddling with the machine till it spat out two tickets.
“I’m sure you’ll be an expert at the train once you start commuting to San Francisco for classes,” Merlin said, handing Arthur a glossy white ticket.
Arthur replied with a dry grunt. How did Merlin know he was starting school in the city? He wondered. Just how much has Gwen told this stranger about him?
“Richmond train now arriving on platform Two,” an electronic voice droned above.
They boarded the train and sat across from another, Arthur's luggage filling the space meant for their legs. Arthur guessed it to be an off commute hour; the train was almost deserted. The seats were a stained, coarse green cloth, sticky to the touch. Every now and again Arthur would get a wafting nose full of stale piss smell.
So this was his welcome to the Bay-Area? He couldn’t imagine taking this bio-hazard to school every day.
But today the reward waiting for Arthur was worth the stress.
In hours he’d be with Gwen, see her playful smile, sample the sweet taste of her kisses. They had maintained a long-distance relationship for three years; ever since Gwen had ditched her life in Indiana to get a degree in Fine Arts in California. Arthur had tried to suggest a program closer to home, in Chicago (a good compromise, in his opinion) but Gwen had never been romanced by the windy city.
Sure, Arthur hadn’t been thrilled about the long-distance relationship, worrying about fidelity issues, but they had been together since their senior year of high school, and for Gwen he was willing to make it work. He’d had a fair share of girlfriends in the past, but out of all of them, Gwen was the only person Arthur had felt comfortable hanging out with. She didn’t bug him for sex all the time, or assume that because his father was loaded that Arthur should pay for every meal. Arthur had never had to stress with Gwen; they just co-existed peacefully together in their own skins.
He couldn’t help but wonder if things would be the same, now that they were giving the couple thing a real shot.
Arthur roused himself from his thoughts. “Merlin, how much longer until we arrive?”
He was met with the clack of the train tracks and a deep nasal sound. Merlin’s shoulders were slumped against the glass; his head lulling to the side, eyes closed.
“Hey!” Arthur growled, shaking Merlin from across the row. “Are you sleeping?”
“Am I what?” Merlin yawned, wiping a spot of drool off his chin.
“Possibly. How long was I out?”
“I don’t know how long you were asleep. I just looked over and you were -- Forget it. Did we miss our stop?”
“Dunno. What was the last one?”
“Mc-something or other.”
Merlin stretched out his arms, curling comfortably into a ball in his seat. “Oh, MacArthur. Were in good shape. I’ll rest a bit more and we’ll get off at the next one.”
“But we almost missed our stop," Arthur growled. "Shouldn’t you at least sit up so you don’t nod off again?”
“Almost is a strange word,” Merlin mused, his eyes half lidded like a sunning cat. “Have you ever noticed that almost never happens? Just like the word tomorrow. It never really comes.”
The grey streets blurred around them in their moving capsule, Arthur watching silently as sunlight cut across the high ridges of Merlin’s cheekbones, his dark lashes fighting the song of sleep. There was something incredibly off about Merlin, so off in fact, that Arthur couldn’t take his eyes off of him.
To his credit, Merlin managed to stay awake the remaining fifteen minutes of their ride, the BART releasing them into the green bosom of a street called College Avenue. The sidewalks were dappled with sturdy oak trees; bicycles zipped past in gusts of wind. Cafes dotted the street, filled to the brim with laptop clicking fingers and Bluetoothed ears. A dreadlocked hippie at one corner crooned a poem about peace to passersby and Merlin flipped a quarter into his crochet hat, complimenting him on his voice.
Something about the skill of the flip made Arthur even less convinced that Merlin wasn’t an amateur magician.
“The apartment’s a short walk from here,” Merlin announced, grabbing both of Arthur’s suitcases. “Do you need to buy anything before we head over? Didn’t forget your toothbrush, did you?”
Arthur wheedled the suitcases out of Merlin’s hands. He was tempted to grab Merlin’s own shoulder bag from him too, but was certain the gesture would completely emasculate him. "No, I’m fine.”
“So, Arthur, is it your first time in California?”
“I went to Los Angeles once when I was a kid—Disneyland, and all that.” A picture from that trip still sat on the mantel in Arthur’s father’s living room. It was one of a few genuinely happy moments of of his childhood, when his father and stepmother weren’t at each other's throats. Arthur couldn’t blame his stepmother for filing for divorce from Uther after seven tumultuous years together. He’d only wished she’d fought harder for full custody of his step-sister, Morgan.
Merlin sighed, tapping his fingers rhythmically on his bag. Staring straight ahead he asked, “So you’ve never visited Oakland before, or even San Francisco? Brave of you to move somewhere you’ve never been.”
“Hardly," Arthur replied. "Gwen’s been nagging me to come up for two years, and this year in Indiana we had coldest winter in twenty years. It’s been snowing continuously since November, and I’ve been shoveling and salting all of it out of the driveway. I’m looking forward to some sun.”
“You’ll be majoring in industrial design at CCAC right?”
Strange, Arthur thought, this guy even knows my major. But all he said in reply was, “Yeah.”
“What do you think of Oakland so far?”
“I’ve been off the plane for less than an hour, so I’ll reserve judgment. But I can say without bias that it’s sunny.”
“It’s no SoCal,” Merlin replied. He shifted the bag on his shoulder, his scarf slipping down his neck, exposing ivory skin. “Don’t let it fool you. Always dress in layers—first rule of the Bay Area.”
The luggage wheels clicked cheerily down the sidewalk. They were moving away from cafés and into residential streets, passing brown-picket fences and imposing craftsman houses that looked large enough to house generations within.
Arthur didn’t know why he asked it. Curiosity? The realization that he knew nothing about Merlin except that Merlin knew far too much about him?
“So Merlin, how do you know Gwen?” he asked.
Merlin shrugged. “We’re in the same year at CCAC. And we’re roommates, of course.”
The words were a punch in Arthur's gut. “Wait, I thought she lived alone?“
Merlin stumbled over a root in the sidewalk, his eyes briefly meeting Arthur’s before retreating back to his sneakers. “Gwen didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?
The sentence jumbled together as if it was a single word. “A downstairs unit opened up at Gwen’s place, and she was able to switch her studio for a two bedroom. It’s a ton more space, a bigger kitchen, but she couldn’t afford the rent, so I split the lease with her.”
“When did that happen?”
“Two months ago.”
Arthur stopped dead in his tracks. Two months? For two months Gwen had been living with a dude, and she didn’t have the decency to tell him? She didn’t tell him, did she? No, Arthur couldn’t remember a single text, email, or call mentioning Gwen moving in with a guy. He would have vetoed that shit right off the bat.
“So you and Gwen are friends?” Arthur said, making sure to overemphasize the last word.
“Yes.” Merlin exhaled. “I’m just a friend from school who needed a place to live.”
Arthur’s skin bristled. It would be one thing if the guy standing next to him were a troll. But Merlin was handsome, albeit in an unusual unprocessed sort-of way, the type of masculine attractiveness Arthur couldn’t quite put to words.
In silence, they reached Gwen’s apartment, a modest building with brown shingles and a black medieval steel gate. Arthur wouldn’t go as far as to call the neighborhood ghetto, but it was borderline sketchy. He saw the change once they passed Telegraph Avenue, perfectly manicured lawns retreating into older homes with peeling paint and iron window bars.
Merlin struggled with the gate until it clicked open. The inside of the apartment building was a hidden oasis. A lush common lawn in the center, and a BBQ pit shadowed by redwoods. Arthur was led to a corner unit with a small patio and potted plants dotting the front entrance.
“This is the one,” Merlin said, then he unlocked the front door, unlacing his black Converse string by string.
“Gwen’s still gardening, I see.” Arthur replied.
“We just bought—I mean, Gwen thought succulents were the only plants that would stand a chance against me so we picked some up.”
Arthur was about to step inside when Merlin caught hold of his arm. “Take off your shoes, please,” he said lightly. “You’ll track mud on the floor.”
The unexpected contact prickled Arthur’s skin. He didn’t feel right-- not sick exactly-- tired, hungry for sure. He pulled off his Nike's and tossed them by the door. The living room was spacious but held little more than an IKEA couch and an old model television perched on a milk crate. The dining room was a similar deal: a metal patio table with three chairs, a poster, taped to the wall, displaying two dressed-up kittens smoking in a bathroom stall. The epitome of the ‘Starving artists’, Arthur thought with a chuckle.
He plopped himself down on the couch as if he had always lived there and asked, “When does Gwen get off work?”
“I’ll text her,” Merlin said, pulling his phone from his skinny jeans with some difficulty. “Go ahead and drop your stuff in her room, she won’t mind. It’s down the hall to the left.”
Gwen’s room looked just like her—flawless. It had the same prissy white furniture set, and the same bed they had tumbled in and out of together a hundred times, back in Indiana. Arthur sunk into the comforter, drawing it to his stubbly chin. It smelled like a bouquet of Downy laundry detergent with just a hint of coconut oil—the same oil Gwen would have Arthur rub on her skin before bed, as both moisturizer and enticement.
The walls were the trademark hospital white of cheap apartments, decorated with photos. Some were neatly framed, but most were crudely tacked clothing advertisements torn from fashion magazines, of sullen models photoshopped beyond reason.
Arthur was relieved to see Gwen had kept touches of their shared past, including a photo from senior prom. She looked like Cinderella in a sequined dress with gold jewelry glistening from her ears and throat, and he -- a per-hour prince charming in a sauvé rental suit.
Next to the prom picture she’d pinned something more recent, a Polaroid of her and Merlin. Gwen was in pink, duck-facing the camera, Merlin looking the shy puppy beside her in the exact color palette he was wearing today but with a wine scarf.
How many scarves did this Merlin guy own?
A head popped in the room. Speak of the devil, thought Arthur with a sigh.
“Gwen says she’ll be back in an hour and to start dinner without her. Hungry?” Merlin smiled.
“Famished.” And he was, Arthur’s stomach tying in knots. “They only served rabbit food on the flight.”
“I’m afraid you might have a similar problem at Chez Merlin. But I’ll do my best."
The door shut. Arthur laid his luggage on its side, found a clean shirt, tossing out a government inspection card with it. He always got checked; what about his underwear and toothbrush read terrorist? He’d have to ask Gwen later where she wanted him to stash his stuff. He’d have to ask her a lot of things.
Once he was dressed, Arthur opened the closet, just for a peek. He didn’t know what he expected to find in there. Skeletons? Written admissions of a sordid love affair with a certain new roommate? Something about Merlin still didn’t sit right with him.
The closet was full of nothing but clothes and shoes, candy colored and painstakingly arranged.
He felt like a tool.
True to his word, the meal Merlin laid out on the dining room table looked like it was flown in from a third world country. He called to Arthur from the belly of the galley kitche.n
“What would you like to drink? We have water, juice-“
“Do you have any beer?” Arthur asked.
Merlin came out of the kitchen with the bottle tucked under his arm, his striped sleeves rolled up to his elbows. As he flopped down into a seat at the table, pouring the amber liquid into a chilled glass, Arthur could make out the ebony lines of a tattoo. The work took up the underside of Merlin’s left forearm, a realistic black and white rendering of a pair of scissors.
“Sorry, no lemon wedges,” Merlin said, sliding the drink across the table to Arthur.
Arthur was hardly expecting lemons, let alone a chilled glass. He noticed casually that Merlin only brought the one beer and nothing for himself. The first sip was bliss as it hit Arthur’s tongue, exactly what he had needed six hours ago on the flight.
“Do you have any food allergies?” Merlin asked.
Arthur shook his head.
“This is a vegan recipe,” Merlin said in between bites. “It calls for chicken stock, but I substitute with veggie and add almonds in for protein. The kalamata olives are what give it the extra flavor.”
“What is vegan, exactly?" Arthur groaned, poking the grainy concoction staring up at him with his fork. "The more extreme cult of the vegetarian?”
Merlin bit his lip, his for suspended in mid-air. “And what would you prefer to eat?” he asked mildly.
“Nothing, it’s--” Arthur searched for a polite excuse. “I’m used to a dinner you need to grill a little, if you know what I mean.”
“Like a steak?” Merlin said, raising his eyebrow. “Sorry, I don’t keep meat in the house. If you want steak you’re going to have to hunt it yourself.”
“Then it’s a good thing I know my way around a gun when the fifteenth of November rolls around.”
“Deer season,” Arthur said, peppering his food. “I'm a damn good shot. Landed a beautiful three-and-a-half year old buck last year that weighed in at one-eighty. My dad even had him mounted.”
Arthur waved a hand over his plate. “Trust me, hunting deer is less disgusting than eating this.”
Torches lit behind Merlin’s blue glass eyes, a half smile curling his lips. “If you’re such a sportsman, then certainly you can brave up a little and try what I’ve cooked?” he mused. “If you did, you might realize it’s not as bad as you think.”
There was a freshly competitive atmosphere at the table, and Arthur was more than game.
“Fine,” he said, separating his food into piles with his fork. “I’ll eat, but with conditions. I ask you a question, and you give me a simple, honest, answer. Do that and I’ll take a bite of this stuff. Fair?”
“Okay, but I hardly see what’s in it for--”
“Are you fucking my girlfriend, Merlin?”
Merlin froze, back straight, fair skin bleaching even further. He looked like a still frame in a Tim Burton movie. He took a moment to digest the accusation, flushed a brilliant scarlet and whispered, “Of course not.”
“It would be stupid to lie to me.”
“If you’re having issues with Gwen, I’m not the one you should be talking--“
“I just find it odd, Merlin, that you’re on such friendly terms with her. Living with together for two months without my--”
Merlin slapped his napkin to the table. “I already told you, Gwen and I are just friends. If you’re having relationship problems, then you need to take it up with your girlfriend and keep me out of it. Enjoy your dinner, Arthur, order a pizza for all I care! I’ve lost my appetite.”
The front door slammed, leaving Arthur alone in a new apartment, in a new state, and in complete silence. He shoveled a bite of lentils into his mouth. It was different, gritty and foreign to his taste buds, yet there was a potent mingling of flavor. He put his fork down.
He wouldn’t say he was won over by the taste, but to his surprise he didn’t hate it.
Arthur found Merlin in the parking lot, squatting over an oil stain next to the rusted shell of a Toyota Camry. He was wrapped up like a cocoon in his black sweater; invisible in the darkness, save for the billowing cloud of his cigarette.
He heard Arthur’s footsteps, and exhaled a ring of smoke with an annoyed whistle.
“Mind if I join you?” Arthur asked.
“This is my last one,” Merlin said, flicking ash to the ground.
“It’s fine. I don’t smoke.”
“Do they only chew tobacco in Indiana?”
Why was it that the first defense of a Californian was always to attack the Midwest like it was full of backward hicks?
“Are vegans even allowed to smoke?” Arthur asked briskly, sliding beside Merlin against the car.“ Isn’t smoking counterintuitive to the whole being healthy thing?”
“Counterintuitive?” Merlin’s voice was all seriousness, but a familiar grin had found its way back to him. “You sound like a business major.”
“My father would be pleased to hear that.”
“But yes,” Merlin agreed, taking another drag. “It’s a filthy habit. One I’m supposed to be quitting.”
“Then throw it away and stop tonight.”
Merlin's gaze struck fast like an arrow in its mark, making Arthur’s palms feel uncomfortably moist. They were unflinching pools, eyes that didn't pass over anything, but drank in what was set before them, giving Arthur the impression that this mundane conversation wasn’t as important as what was left unspoken.
Arthur swallowed. “Look, Merlin, I’m sorry about--“
“It’s cool,” Merlin said, warmth back in his words. “I don’t agree, but get it. It’s natural under the circumstances that you’d be suspicious, and I didn’t mean to spring that on you. Honestly, I’d assumed Gwen would have told you the roommate situation before you arrived.”
“You’re fine with a double roommate arrangement then?” Arthur asked.
“Sure. You’ll be paying $500 a month, what problem could I have with lessing my rent? I spend most of my weeknights in the studio anyway. You’ll have plenty of space, and when the apartment lease is up at the end of the year, you lovebirds can look for a cozy nest all your own.”
“You're a decent guy, Merlin,” Arthur said, not realizing he'd said it until it was too late. “Would you mind, you know, not mentioning any of this to Gwen?”
Merlin killed his cigarette under his heel. “I won’t if you promise not to cook meat on my stove. I don’t like the smell of it. If you’ve got to, use the barbecue outside, OK?”
Arthur nodded as Merlin rose to his feet, turning in the direction of the moonlit skeleton of the outside gate.
“I’m meeting a friend at Aroma Cafe tonight, shouldn't be there past midnight. Tell Gwen there’s a Tupperware of leftovers in the fridge for her. I know she’ll eat them.”
It was a not-so-subtle dig, acknowledged Arthur, but after how ungracious he had acted today—not entirely undeserved.
Merlin pushed open the café door; silver bells on its handle singing his arrival. The interior felt like home. Its rich adobe walls hung heavy with paintings, the air perfumed with a blunt mix of coffee grounds and orange zest.
He walked straight to the back, not bothering to glance at the colorful chalkboard menu, and greeted the nymph of a girl behind the counter with a solitary wave. She smiled, revealing a crooked canine and the glint of a tongue ring as she spoke.
“Merlin, are you my reinforcement tonight?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Freya,” Merlin replied, walking through a break in the counter to join Freya by the espresso machine. “I’m just passing by.”
“Why do you come here on your days off?” Freya asked, sloshing her mop into a muddied water bucket. “Don’t you get enough of this dump?”
“I’m meeting a friend, and I like to go where my drinks are free.” Merlin laughed. He let his fingers, as if retaining memory of their own, pluck ingredients hidden within the tiny coffee prep station. Merlin knew every inch of the cluttered space, from its shelf of chipped coffee cups to the stack of dishrags piled high above the dryer out back.
There was no glamor in Merlin’s part time job at Aroma Café, brewing coffee for the hung-over and caffeine-addicted citizens of the East Bay, but it helped pay the rent and like any job had its perks (particularly co-workers who didn’t think twice about letting Merlin have drinks on the house).
When Merlin’s hands finished their task, he was left with a silky concoction of flavors blended in a round-bellied pitcher. He screeched the espresso machine to life, cradling the bottom of the pitcher and tilting it until the liquid inside frothed.
“That’s all foam,” Freya observed. “It’ll have no taste.”
“I know,” Merlin said, pouring the weightless froth into a ceramic mug. “That’s how I like it.”
Freya shook her head with a small smile, the cloth tassels of her mop slapping as they hit the floor. With a light goodbye to Freya and a sip of his airy creation, Merlin stepped outside to look for his friend.
The exterior tables were deserted, Merlin’s only company at the moment a gang of moths worshiping the light above the trash can. With nobody nearby to complain, Merlin lit up and waited. He could smell Lance’s cologne before he saw him. Armani Code, if Merlin wasn’t mistaken.
Lance’s face bore the shadow of a frown, his blue polo shirt noticeably wrinkled as if he’d worn a jacket over it most of the day.
“You told me you were quitting,” Lance said, un-tucking a portfolio from under his arm. “I thought you meant it this time.”
Merlin looked down to his American Spirit, then back up to the moths. New players were joining in the courtship of the bulb, but they didn’t seem to be making headway, either.
“Unexpected setback,” Merlin replied. “How did your interview go?”
“I got the internship.”
“Lance, that’s great!”
“Thanks for the support, Mer, but it’s not impressive as you think,” Lance said, batting a moth from his face. He seated his portfolio on a chair, then pulled one out for himself. “I have a family friend who’s close with one of the project managers. The firm does mostly residential architecture projects, so it’s not what I was hoping for, but I have to start somewhere, right?”
Merlin tilted his chair back on its hind legs. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. Paying internships are hard to come by. Most of us poor art students have to take crappy jobs at places like, you know, coffee shops.”
“Fair enough,” Lance smiled, resting his elbows on the table. “Enjoying the last days of vacation before the tortures of junior year?”
Merlin’s chair thudded back to the ground. “I guess." He shrugged. "I picked up my new housemate today.”
“You mean Gwen’s boyfriend," Lance replied. "He’s finally here?”
“He has a name, you know.”
“Arthur, as if I’d forget. He was all Gwen talked about when we had dinner at Yoshi’s last week. Industrial design major, was it?"
Merlin nodded. He was well aware that Lance had a fat crush on Gwen, and couldn’t help but feel partially responsible for the man's suffering. He’d introduced Gwen and Lance sophomore year. After a flick of her hair, Lance had plunged like a lemming off a cliff for Gwen.
Ever since that day, Lance would ask Merlin questions about Gwen in an off-handed way, inviting her to any party however small, or make up parties, for that matter.
“So, what’s Mr. Perfect like?” Lance asked.
Merlin snuffed out his cigarette out in the glass ashtray and thought for a moment, dredging Arthur’s face from the depths of his memory, where he'd hidden it. The copper sheen of long bangs, blue eyes, not the deep brooding blue of his own, but a blue as clean as a running water. A body the Greeks would have set to marble.
All this came to mind, but Merlin settled with, “Blond.”
“I know that,” Lance said, loosening the collar of his shirt. “I’ve seen his Facebook photos, they’re all so...“ He waved a hand in the air as if trying to summon the word.
“Abercrombie?” Merlin offered, hiding his blush behind a sip of his drink.
“Yes. But how’s the guy’s personality?”
“He’s cocky. We’ve had a fight already.”
“I can’t imagine that. You’re so mellow.”
“He doesn't like my cooking,” Merlin said, putting his cigarette box back into his pocket. “That, and he thought I was sleeping with his girlfriend.”
Lance laughed, the force of it echoing into the empty street. “What? Doesn’t’ he know that you're practically celibate?”
“Ha-ha. Have a good laugh at my expense.”
“Come on, Mer, I'm not trying to rip on you, but you haven’t had a relationship since freshman year. Sometimes I worry.“
Merlin would have been livid if Lance weren’t dead-right. The last relationship he’d had was over a year ago; a fling with a boy name Will—a friend who since their schooldays had given Merlin the impression that he wanted to become more. It took a New Year’s Eve and four drinks for Will to get his wish, and within a month they were broken up, Merlin swearing to himself as he emptied every bottle of alcohol he owned into the toilet that he would never get wasted again.
“I didn’t realize my romantic life, or lack thereof, was so interesting to you,” Merlin said, returning his empty mug to a tub above the trashcan. “If anything changes, you’ll be the first to know, but don’t get your hopes up. At present, I'm engaged to my Juki industrial sewing machine and he’s very high-maintenance.”
“All work and no play,“ Lance teased.
“Gets Merlin straight A’s,” Merlin quipped. “Can I get you something to drink? We still haven’t celebrated your new internship.”
“I could go for coffee, thanks.”
Merlin stood by the trashcan, waiting. He knew what was coming, but couldn’t stifle a sigh as he heard Lance say exactly what he was expecting.
“I’d hoped this Arthur guy wouldn’t last,” Lance sighed, his expression grim. “That he was a leftover High school crush Gwen would work out of her system.”
“I should’ve guessed you’d have ulterior motives when you suggested coffee. You know, Lance, they make restraining orders for people like you.”
“Trust me, I’m trying to get over her, Scout's honor. But the more I tell myself not to think about Gwen, the worse it gets.”
Above Merlin’s head the moths pounded the tinted light, the powder of their wings dusting the night as they flew. Merlin plucked at the air, catching one of the insects in his hand. He could feel it quiver there, trapped against his palm, the velvet movement of its wings frantic, like a beating of a tiny heart.
“You and these moths,” Merlin said, uncurling his fingers so that the moth perched ornamented on his knuckle. With a shake of his hand, it flew back to its mission. “Why not give it up?”
“Some people are worth the suffering.” Lance smiled, looking at the yellow sliver of moon that hung low on the skyline. “I can’t explain it to you, Merlin. You’ll understand, one day, if you’re lucky.”
The words gave Merlin a sickness he couldn’t shake. “If you’re talking about love,” he groaned, visions of Arthur still swimming laps in his mind, “Don’t waste your time, Lance. It’s not for me.”
Gwen staggered in the apartment at quarter to nine. Spying Arthur at the kitchen table, she ditched her purse and jumped him with a tackle that would make an offensive lineman proud.
“Arthur,” she squealed, straddling Arthur’s lap. “You're here! You look good, but how do you feel? Are you half-dead?”
“Zombified.” Arthur yawned, stretching out his legs. “Totally exhausted.”
She barraged him with kisses, throwing her oversized Gap sweatshirt across the room as if it were poisoned. “I don’t know about you, but I could sure use a drink. Will you join me?”
Arthur nodded, and Gwen jumped off his lap. She walked into the kitchen, taking her time before coming back with two coffee mugs full of red wine.
“This is for tonight. It was meant to celebrate us, though I’m not sure you deserve it. I texted you all day and I couldn’t get through, and now I see you stole the Corona I was saving? Very naughty, Mr. Pendragon.
Arthur wrapped a hand around the half moon of Gwen’s waist, tickling her as she handed him his mug. He’d almost forgotten how tiny she was—how easily his arms encircled her.
“I regret nothing. And for the record, it was your roommate who offered me the Corona.”
“How dare Merlin,” Gwen smiled. “We have rules in this house about stealing. Where is he, anyway? Did he head out for the night?”
Arthur thought back to the driveway, the circles of smoke and the lips that so effortlessly formed them. He cleared his throat. “Some place called Aroma. There’s a Tupperware of leftovers, do you want me to heat them up for you?”
“That’d be great! My feet are killing me.”
Letting his hands fall from Gwen’s waist, Arthur walked into the kitchen. When he opened the fridge, he found it full of more greenery than a meadow in springtime—a vegetarian paradise.
“I take it Merlin does most of the cooking?” Arthur exhaled.
“And you’re cool with that?"
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I’ve heard a terrible rumor that he’s a vegan.”
“You know me,” Gwen said, tossing her hair back. “I’d never give up cheese, but I compromised at lenient Vegetarian. Actually, I’ve lost a few pounds already.”
Arthur popped the food into microwave, set it for two minutes, and came back to Gwen. “How West Coast of you. Apparently there's a lot you’ve been hiding from me, Guinevere.”
Gwen took a sip of wine from her Garfield mug. “Cryptic much?”
“For starters, couldn’t you have mentioned before I’d packed up my life and flown across the state that you’re living with circa 1980 Morrissey?“
“Morrissey?” I don’t see it; Merlin’s cuter than him. And since when do you listen to The Smiths?”
Arthur hadn’t realized the extent of his anger. The more he thought about the predicament at hand, the more his blood boiled, the childish part of him wanting to make Gwen pay for what she'd hidden.
“Don’t change the subject,” he demanded. “I thought me moving up here meant living alone, just the two of us. That the point was to be our own as a couple, not to share an apartment with some weird—“
“It wasn’t realistic, Arthur. The rent here is crazy! Yes, I get it; I should’ve told you about the roommate situation before you came. But you’re here now, you’re free, so just let it go. Trust me, you don’t have to worry about Merlin."
Arthur trudged back into the kitchen, relishing the excuse not to look at Gwen. He pulled out the Tupperware from the microwave, yanking open drawers until he found the one hiding the silverware.
“Why? Does he have a girlfriend?” he asked, sliding Gwen’s food in front of her.
“All the girls in the fashion department—except me, of course, can’t get enough of Merlin. But no. He’s never dated any of them. And he’s never even brought anyone home.”
“Wait, Merlin's in fashion with you? Are you telling me he’s a queer?”
“First off, there are a ton of straight male designers in the industry! Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Yohji Yamamoto, to name a few. And second,” Gwen snapped, picking up her fork. “I hate it when you use that word. You’re being derogatory, and you won’t say that in this apartment again. Ever.”
Finally it all made sense—the reason Gwen had hidden having a roommate, conveniently forgetting to tell Arthur about Merlin for two months.
Arthur leaned back in his chair. “Unbelievable. Damn it, Gwen. You know how I feel about that lifestyle. It’s not…normal.”
The words could have been plucked from his father’s own mouth. Arthur's father, who only months ago, when Arthur told him what school he wanted to attend, had lectured him from the leather throne of his Lazy Boy chair.
“The California College Of The Arts, San Francisco?” Uther had spat, Arthur’s letter of acceptance to CCAC clutched in his hairy hands. “You think I’m paying for my son to go to some faggot school?”
It had taken Arthur a month to convince his father that in fact, not everyone in San Francisco were homosexual, and that the school was a dual campus—one building in Oakland, another in San Francisco—and he would be living in Oakland. This seemed to please Uther, or at least loosen him up enough to have a discussion. And once Arthur told him his plans to move in with his girlfriend, the old man was finally willing to write a check to the school and agree on the amount for Arthur’s living stipend. His father would never understand his son's desire to move to a city with such a liberal reputation, but apparently skirt chasing was something Uther sympathized with.
Gwen slammed her fork down, rousing Arthur from his thoughts. Her dark eyes were rich were with rage, but even angry, she had a determined aura about her; Gwen, his modern Joan of Arc.
“Being gay isn’t a lifestyle choice. It’s the way some people are born, and I don’t even know for certain if Merlin is. It’s not like I’ve gone up and asked him!”
“How can you say it’s not a choice?" Arthur replied curtly. "Who you sleep with is as much a choice as what clothes you put on in the morning or what you—”
“Oh come off it. By that crappy logic I could deduce that you and I just chose to be straight one day?”
Arthur's voice caught in his throat. “And what am I supposed to do if he starts hitting on me?" Have you considered that?”
“Give me a break. I’m sorry to disappoint you, Arthur Pendragon, but you are not as irresistible as you think you are.”
Arthur leaned over and kissed Gwen’s cheek as she chewed. “Fine. Whatever. It’s done. I don’t want to talk about him anymore. It’s killing my mood.”
“Does this mean you’re staying?”
Arthur nodded, sitting down in the chair next to Gwen. “I can’t believe the crap I put up with for you.”
“You’ll have to be nice, OK?”
He crept his fingers up her thigh, pausing at the hem of her skirt. “I’ll show you how nice I can be—“
“Stop it, brute.” She chuckled, slapping his hand away. “And finish your wine.”
“It’s not beer.”
“You’ll be a fan. I’ll take you wine tasting up in Napa, make a real Californian of you yet.”
“That’ll be the day,” Arthur mumbled. He leaned over, rested his head on Gwen's shoulder.
Through the strands of her hair he saw the front door, a thought tugging at him. “What’s the roommate etiquette in this apartment? Can we finish the bottle or do we have to save what’s-his-face a glass?’
“Merlin doesn’t drink,” Gwen breathed. She ignored the rest of her meal, shook Arthur’s head off her and turned to face him, slowly unbuttoning the front of Arthur's shirt.
“Doesn’t drink, doesn’t drive, doesn’t eat real food, doesn’t have sex with women. What does Merlin do?” Arthur asked, relaxing in his chair. “Besides smoke?”
“He’s the top student in the fashion department; everything he makes is magic,” Gwen replied, freeing the last of Arthur's shirt buttons. Her acrylic nails played with the sculpted lines of his chest, her mouth kissing ridges of muscle before she moved her attentions lower, to his brass belt buckle. “But I don’t want to talk about him anymore,” she parroted. “It’s killing my mood.”
Arthur’s first week in California had him feeling like a seasick voyager, fresh on land and gathering his bearings. The city of Oakland was gritty, colorful, and loud with life. He was beginning to learn through experience which neighborhoods had pleasant streets to jog through, and which, with their graffiti threats, were best avoided altogether.
He took to exercising while when Gwen was at work, and when she came home they made up for lost time. They made love. Streamed episodes of “The Walking Dead” (Arthur joking that if a zombie apocalypse did arrive, he’d be more than capable of defending and repopulating the world himself), snuggling into one another, and when the episode had finished, made love again.
He took Gwen’s Honda in for an oil change (reprimanding her for not having it done so in a year), and last but not least bought an easel, masking tape, and a large canvas tarp, so that by the end of Thursday night Arthur had constructed a small but functional painting studio in the corner of the living room.
To Arthur's relief, he saw little of his new roommate that first week. The only conversation he'd had with Merlin since their awkward first night together was an occasional goodbye as he slipped out the door. However, there will still signs that Merlin was about. The steamy fog trail left from the long showers Merlin took in the morning, glimpses of him slipping into his room, dressed only in underwear and a loose fitting tees. And, of course, the Tupperware containers of leftover hippie meals in the fridge.
By the start of his classes on Monday, Arthur was happy for a change of pace. Being a transfer student with community college units under his belt meant skipping most of his humanities and sciences classes, and going straight into the bulk of his major requirements.
The CCAC building was a designer’s wet dream, built with massive steel beams and glass curving into white walls. The design studios were equipped above and beyond Arthur's expectations, his teachers accomplished in their fields, but without the ego that plagued so many artists. It was as if for once in his life all that Arthur desired was falling neatly into place.
Then he had to go and fuck it up by getting iced coffee.
The pleasure of accomplishment came to Arthur with each gulp of air, and each extension of his already burning calf muscles. He ran down the uniform sidewalk; sweat dripping from every pore, pooling the collar of his shirt. He stopped at stop sign at the corner, whipping his melting face against his arm and shaking moisture out of his hair. The sun hung low in the sky, so orange and ripe that Arthur imagined plucking it and taking a bite as if it were a fruit.
He opened his water bottle instead, sucking down the last measly droplets, but his throat was still roasting.
Arthur turned to his right, taking in the chipped glass windows of a storefront and a cracked concrete driveway. A mechanic shop. He’d have no luck getting something to drink there. The left seemed promising: A boutique, and a building with a weathered sandwich board out front. Aroma Café, it read. Hadn't he heard that name before?
The café door handle jingled like Santa’s sleigh as Arthur entered. It was a quaint little place; the coloring rich and earthy.
He walked up to the counter, plucked out his earbuds, put his iTunes app on pause, and said, “I’ll have an iced—"
There was a glint of metal. A pitcher spun in air, crashing to the tile, liquid spraying in all directions. The barista swore under his breath. Arthur watched with startled amusement as the man leaned down, his face splattered with water, cheeks red with embarrassment.
“Merlin? You work here?” Arthur asked, much louder then he had realized.
Merlin nodded, wiping his face off on his apron. “A few days a week,” he replied sheepishly. “I’m so sorry, did I spill that on you? Can I get you a towel?”
Arthur startled. Who, me? No I’m just wet with my own reeking sweat, he thought to himself. He decided to own it, cracking his neck as he said coolly, “No. I'm fine, just been jogging. It’s part of my workout routine, an hour a day. I don’t usually go this route."
Arthur noticed Merlin wasn’t looking at his eyes anymore, but he was certainly inspecting everything else.
“You wanted, an…iced coffee?” Merlin stammered.
Arthur let a thin smile touch lips as he caught Merlin staring. He'd made a grown man blush—a first. “How much do I owe you?“ he asked, pulling his wallet slowly from his shorts.
“On the house,” Merlin replied, turning away again. “Sit wherever you like, I’ll bring the coffee out when it’s done.”
Merlin busied himself in front of a stainless steel fridge, their conversation obviously over. From behind the counter a pretty chocolate haired girl had brought a mop to clean the mess. As Arthur walked away, seating himself at a chair by the window, he could just make out her voice over the slosh of mopping.
“That guy is gorgeous, and so checking you out,” she whispered to Merlin. “Tell me you’re going to at least ask for his number?”
Merlin went rigid, his eyes pleading for silence. He shot a paniced look at Arthur, who had put his ear buds back in, pretending to listen to his music. It seemed to be enough to convince Merlin that Arthur couldn’t hear their conversation.
“Keep it down Freya, that’s my roommate, okay?” he whispered back.
The girl, Freya, laughed as she said, “I think I know which room he’s been sleeping in.”
“You mean his girlfriend’s room, the one I share the house with,” Merlin snapped.
Freya’s face dropped. “Oh,” she replied, sneaking a puzzled look towards Arthur. “Right.”
Merlin ignored her, mixing the ice and coffee and popping on a plastic lid. He slid out from behind the counter and walked cautiously up to Arthur’s table.
Arthur waited, hearing Merlin’s footsteps through his silent ear buds, but pretending otherwise.
Merlin cleared his throat. He tapped his foot on the ground, and with a childish shyness stuttered, “Um, I...that is...your drink’s done.”
Arthur took out his earbuds for a second time, flashed his patented panty-dropping smile, and said, “You’re stuttering, Merlin. Do I make you nervous?”
“Yes—no—of course not!” Merlin sputtered, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he spoke. “I am working you know, so um, well, Just come up to the counter if you need anything.”
Bothering Merlin was proving an enjoyable pastime, Arthur thought wickedly. From his jumpy reactions at Arthur's workout gear, to the hushed conversations he’d had with his co-worker, there was no question in Arthur’s mind that Merlin was gay, or at the very least bi. And if Arthur wasn’t mistaken, Merlin was a little enamored by him.
Of course Arthur would never reciprocate, but at the very least couldn’t he test the power he had over Merlin? Toy with him a bit?
“Anything?” Arthur asked suggestively.
Arthur knew women, was used to the adoration of school girls who’d hidden over a mere glimpse of his handsome face. Merlin may have been embarrassed, but he was hardly the hapless school girl. Merlin's cheeks were red, but he stood firm. He crossed his arms; looked Arthur straight and the eye and said in a silken voice, “Try me.”
Damn it. Too far.
All of a sudden, Arthur was back in high school gym class, looking down a long colorless wall of tile, to the silver shower heads curved up like snakes in the men’s locker room. He was re-living feelings that had cornered him every time he’d set foot inside, sensations he had written off as a lingering adrenaline rush after a game. Sensations he had shut down, fought, and strangled at all costs until he could quench the feelings later with a girl and an hour-long screw.
Arthur tried desperately to shake the growing desire from his body, but it was firmer than his resolve. The control he’d reveled in only minutes ago stripped from him. What the hell was this? He was Arthur Pendragon, flirter extraordinaire! Was he really going to be so affected by a good-looking gay boy with an affinity for scarves?
Merlin was still beside him, his tall figure backlit, a grin sitting beautifully on the bows of a closed mouth.
Oh god that mouth...
Arthur cleared his throat. “Well,” he coughed. “A to-go cup. Perfect. See you around,”
He turned tail before Merlin had a chance to speak again, the door of the café slamming, bells shouting after Arthur. Every ounce of him wanted to wipe the stupid grin off Merlin’s face, to punish him in a slow and delicious fashion for making him feel so bothered. So vulnerable. But instead, Arthur ran full force back to the apartment, back to Gwen, until he was certain that Merlin's ridiculous smile was far behind him.
Gwen looked like a nymph, her cheeks ripe as blossoms, golden body sinking into the white sheets. Arthur watched the falling of her ribcage, each breath pulling in and out like the tide.
“Arthur that was—wow,” Gwen exhaled.
Arthur smiled, melting into a pillow beside her, already half asleep in a room that was so quiet and so clean, a person could mistake it for heaven.
See, he told himself, everything is fine. What you felt before, that was the anomaly. What is Merlin to you but a passing fancy? A light flirtation at worst, but this—Arthur stared into Gwen’s face for reassurance. Her amber eyes, ruby lips. This is real. Normal. It’s where you belong.
He thought it over, and over, and over again, until he began to believe it.