It takes three mini-lectures on road safety and a quiz about how to fix various mechanical problems before Lukas's dad agrees to lend him the truck for the night. There are a lot of reminders to keep his eye on the oil gauge, but it's worth it once Lukas is dressed in his best button-down shirt, keys in hand, and ready to take Philip on their first official date.
"Watch out for the traffic heading over to the interstate." Lukas's dad continues giving last-minute instructions even after Lukas is buckled into the driver's seat. "Truckers have been known to run a red light now and again when they get behind schedule"
Lukas feels sure the concerned look on his dad's face has nothing to do with the lazy rural traffic on Route 9. His dad has been doing his best to be supportive, but there's still a part of him, Lukas knows, that would be happy if the fact that his son is gay could stay their little secret forever.
"I'll be careful, Dad. Promise."
His dad gives him a scrutinizing look and nods. "I'll expect you home by eleven."
"Midnight?" Lukas negotiates hopefully.
"Eleven," his dad says more firmly.
At Gabe and Helen's, it's Gabe who answers the door. "Lukas," he says, with a big smile. "Come on in."
"Hey, Lukas," Helen calls from the living room.
From her cheery tone, Lukas suspects that she is also smiling. He's beginning to regret not listening when Philip said that he should just text from the truck instead of coming in.
"It's our first real date. I want to do it right," Lukas had insisted.
"Okay, but you should be prepared for Helen and Gabe to find it all extremely cute," Philip had warned.
It appears he was right. Gabe, in particular, looks as if he really wants to pull out his camera and start taking pictures like it's prom night.
Thankfully, Philip makes his appearance, putting an end to the awkwardness. "Hey."
"Hey," Lukas says, smiling and pulling him in for a hug.
"Have fun," Gabe tells them.
"Be home by eleven," Helen adds, in her sensible sheriff voice.
"So where are we going?" Philip asks, once he's settled in the passenger seat.
"It's a surprise. Somewhere we've never been before."
"In Tivoli?" Philip asks disbelievingly.
Lukas laughs, but refuses to give Philip any hints. At the turn for Red Hook, Philip looks confused when they head in the opposite direction.
"Just trust me," Lukas tells him.
It's pretty far out in the country, halfway between Tivoli and Livingston, when Lukas spots the place, a plain, squat building with a parking lot full of cars.
Philip looks around curiously. "What is it?"
Lukas grins. "Come inside and see."
Years ago, this had been a sort of roadhouse with carpet on the walls and fistfights breaking out in the parking lot every other weekend until finally a concerned Christian group lobbied the county commissioner's office to have it shut down.
Now the place is back in business as something else entirely.
"I don't believe it," Philip says under his breath as they come through the door.
There's a bar along one wall, clusters of tables and chairs, a dance floor, nothing out of the ordinary for Tivoli, except for the way people are paired off, guys with guys and girls with girls, all talking and laughing and flirting.
"Come on," Lukas says, taking Philip by the hand and leading him over to the bar.
They settle onto stools, and Lukas gives the beer list the once-over as if he knows one kind from another.
The bartender comes to take their order, and she reminds Lukas a little bit of his mom and the women she was friends with, sturdy, no-nonsense types who could operate a hay baler and bake a cherry pie from scratch. "I'm Rita. What can I get you, boys?"
"I'm thinking a Bud," Lukas says, with a glance over at Philip.
Philip nods. "Works for me."
They produce the fake ID's they haven't used since their trip into the city.
Rita flicks her gaze down at the licenses and back up at them. "Coke, Sprite, or Root Beer?" She waves off their protest before they can get a word out. "You boys are welcome here, but I'm not going to serve beer to Sheriff Torrance's underage son or his equally underage boyfriend. If you're hungry, I recommend the burgers." She pushes a menu at them.
Lukas feels his face turning hot, his whole head really, even the tips of his ears. Boyfriends. That's what she called them. Because that's what they are. He leans in closer to Philip, and they sit there holding hands and grinning at each other like complete dorks. The bartender gives up on the idea that they might actually order for themselves. She brings them plates of burgers and fries and tall mugs of Coke.
It's maybe the best burger Lukas has ever, quite possibly just because he's so happy to be here, and he demolishes it in no time. Philip polishes his off too. Rita nods with approval as she takes away their empty plates and brings them two more Cokes.
"Where did you hear about this place?" Philip wants to know.
"At the party in Red Hook last week."
That had been an eye-opening experience. The party had been thrown by the older brother of one of their classmates, home from college on spring break. Dale Brisbee. Starting point guard of Red Hook High's state-championship team. Perennial class president. The lead in the Drama Club's spring musical four years in a row, leaving all the girls whispering about how dreamy he was. Lukas had been a freshman when Dale was a senior, and he can still remember staring at him whenever he passed by in the hall, slack-jawed with admiration. It seems kind of dumb now how hard Lukas tried to pretend to himself that he wasn't gay. He's had crushes on guys since pretty much always.
That wasn't the revelation, though. Toward the end of the party, when everyone was blurry with cheap beer, Dale had come staggering up to Lukas. "So that's your boyfriend, huh?"
Lukas had frozen, his stomach doing a sheer, vertical plummet the way it did when a motocross trick went wrong, his old hero worship crashing headlong into hard, cold reality. It had been mostly okay since they came out at school, holding hands in the parking lot before classes like every other couple, but occasionally they ran into someone who insisted on being an asshole about it.
"Yeah, he's my boyfriend. You have something to say about it?"
"He's hot," Dale said, with an appreciative nod. "You guys are brave for coming out while you're still in high school, you know that, right? I never had the guts. Oh hey, there's a place you should check out. Some people I know from Brooklyn moved up here to open it. Finally somewhere to go around here where you can hang out with other gay people."
It seems kind of silly in hindsight that Lukas somehow imagined he was the only person born and raised in Tivoli ever to be gay and keeping it a secret, but holy hell, Dale Brisbee. Lukas can still hardly believe it.
"This was a good idea." Philip leans in closer.
Philip nods. "Thanks for—you know, trying to cheer me up."
They haven't talked much about what happened with Kane and even less about Philip's mom. Philip hasn't seemed to want to. At the funeral, he was still in shock, so pale Lukas was afraid he was going to fall over. In the week afterward, he'd gone quiet and kind of withdrawn, preferring to stick close to home. Even now, he has darkish purple smudges beneath his eyes, as if he hasn't been sleeping well.
"I asked my dad what I should do," Lukas confesses.
"You asked your dad?" Philip blinks, disbelievingly.
Lukas laughs. That had been an awkward conversation for sure. "He said I should make sure you have some fun."
I wish I'd done that for you. I wish I could have remembered that it's not betraying the person you lost to go on living. Your mother would have wanted that.
"Hey, so I got an application for Cornell." Philip's eyes widen. It's his top choice, but whenever they've talked about college, Lukas has never been sure if he was going to bother applying anywhere. "There's also the community college in Ithaca if I don't get in. Not all of us have straight A's."
Philip laughs, and he looks so happy, and Lukas wants to make him look like that all the time.
"I thought you were going straight onto the circuit."
Lukas shrugs. "My mom would have wanted me to go to college, and the circuit will still be there. I just want us to be together."
"I want us to be together too," Philip whispers, leaning in.
Lukas can feel Philip's breath against his cheek, and he's aching for it, the press of their bodies, the warmth of Philip's mouth against his. An alarm goes off in his head, the survival instinct that's been running his life since his first inkling that he might like boys instead of girls. We can't, not here, someone might see. Lukas hitches to a stop, just for a moment, before he remembers that actually they can. It's safe here. They can be themselves.
He kisses Philip fully, sweetly on the lips, in full view of God and Rita and everyone else.
It makes him giddy, this sense of freedom, and he jerks his head toward the dance floor. "You want to?"
Philip looks suddenly shy. "I'm not very good."
Lukas kisses him again, smiling. "You've got to be better than me."
They hold hands as they skirt past tables full of people eating and drinking and chatting. Lukas recognizes more than one face in the crowd: Shirley Niedermayer, who has been delivering their mail ever since Lukas can remember; Doug Johnson, who works at the farm co-op; one of the mechanics from the garage where Lukas's dad takes the truck. It upends what Lukas has always secretly feared: that being gay makes him separate somehow, an outsider in his own hometown, different from everyone else.
The music is blues-y, heavy on twang. Some of the other couples are doing what Lukas thinks might be the two-step. He and Philip eye them dubiously and end up just kind of swaying together, more or less in time to the music. It makes Lukas think of all of the school dances he's ever gone to, how he always felt like a fraud, especially when he and Rose were dating. They'd be out there on the dance floor, wrapped around each other as if they were just like all the other couples when Lukas knew they weren't like that at all.
This is so different. He's almost painfully aware of the shape of Philip's body, his heat, every point of contact between them. When their thighs brush together, he can feel the hitch in Philip's breath, the way he leans into the touch. Lukas nuzzles Philip's temple, his cheek. One of his favorite places to kiss is the hollow of Philip's throat, and he does it now, letting himself linger.
"Oh," Philip says, with a breathy little sigh. He loves having his neck kissed, so Lukas does it again.
Lukas's breath starts to come more quickly, and he feels hot all over. He darts a quick glance around to see if they're freaking anyone out, but no one is paying any attention to them.
"Do you want to—" Lukas starts.
At the same time, Philip says, "Maybe we should go."
Settling up their tab, hustling out to the truck…it's all a blur to Lukas. Everything is Philip: the scent of him, outline of his body beneath his clothes, the way he just seems to take up Lukas's entire field of vision, as if nothing and no one else exists.
He turns the truck out onto the road, and Philip asks, "You know somewhere we can go?"
By unspoken agreement, they'll never go back to the cabin. That limits their options, but Lukas does have an idea.
"If you don't mind roughing it a little," Lukas tells him.
"As long as it's close."
The raw urgency in that makes Lukas step on the gas a little harder. He turns off the main highway onto a graveled back road and finally to a rutted pathway leading up the hillside. There's a clearing in a grove of trees at the end of the path, a tucked-away place where no one will bother them. Lukas parks the truck.
"Come on," he says.
His dad keeps bad-weather supplies in the box in the truck bed, and Lukas spreads out a blanket for them to lie on and takes out another in case it turns cold. They stretch out side by side, and suddenly Lukas doesn't know what to do next. Since that first time they were together, so much has happened—everything with Kane and Philip's mom and dealing with people's reactions to their relationship. They haven't really been alone, not like they were at that motel, not like they are now.
"Philip—" Lukas doesn't even know what he wants to ask.
Philip turns toward him and smiles, and suddenly Lukas is on familiar ground again. They fall into each other, kissing desperately, legs tangling together, hands grasping and clutching at clothes, trying to push underneath.
"Please," Philip whispers.
The word sounds enormous in the deep stillness of the woods, and Lukas mutters, fuck, because he wants it so much, to please Philip, give him anything, everything.
They frantically shove shirts up, pants and underwear down. The sensation of bare skin is dizzying, and Lukas is desperate for more of it, blindly pushing his hips into Philip's and kissing messily. It's only the second time he's had sex, and he still doesn't really know what he's doing. Philip is so responsive, though, that Lukas just does more of whatever makes him gasp the loudest.
"Lukas," Philip moans.
It's so hot that Lukas feels like the individual cells of his body could explode from the heat, and he's been hard since they were dancing back at the bar, and—
"Fuck," he says as he spills all over Philip's stomach.
Philip bites his lip, bucks up, and comes too.
They flop back against the blanket, and Philip scoots closer, pillowing his head on Lukas's chest. Lukas lazily strokes a hand along Philip's arm and stares up at the clear night sky, picking out the stars of Ursa Major. He can remember camping out in the backyard with his mom when he was just little, maybe three years old, and having her point out the constellations to him, in a hushed voice as if she were passing along a magical secret.
"I miss my mom," he whispers, almost like a confession.
"Me too," Philip says, in a small, watery voice against Lukas's ribs.
Lukas nods and turns into Philip, and they hold onto each other tightly. It isn't betraying the people you lost to go on living, but it sure does hurt like hell.
They're quiet on the way home, and Lukas turns on the radio, finding something with a blues-y twang, which makes Philip smile. At Gabe and Helen's, he stops in the driveway and kills the engine. The porch light is on, but otherwise the house looks dark.
"They've already gone to bed?" Lukas asks.
"That, or they don't want us to think they're waiting up."
They grin at each other, and Philip leans over to kiss him. "Thanks for tonight. It was fun."
Lukas wraps Philip up in his arms, wanting to hold onto him forever.
But he does have a curfew, and it's just before eleven when he walks through the door at his house. His dad is not like Helen and Gabe; he has no interest at all in pretending to be a cool parent. Lukas finds him sitting at the kitchen table, quite clearly waiting up.
"How'd it go?" his dad asks.
"Good. We had fun. Didn't hit any interstate traffic. All the truck's gauges were normal." He hands over the keys.
His dad nods thoughtfully and after a moment he says, "Maybe you can do it again next weekend."
Lukas's dad isn't much on words. He speaks in gestures, and this one seems a lot like he's giving Lukas and Philip his blessing.
Lukas swallows hard. "Thanks, Dad. Goodnight."
He heads upstairs, and the thing is: Lukas has never expected to feel like he belongs anywhere, not truly, not his real self, not in the town where he's lived since he was born, not at school where everyone has always wanted to be his friend, not even in his own home.
Tonight, as he brushes his teeth and changes into his pajamas, he feels finally, finally like maybe he's been wrong all this time.
Maybe he's exactly who he's supposed to be and right where he belongs.