Al stumbles home with blood glistening in his teeth, lips swelling, feet burning. He curses at himself all the way up the stairs, and maybe that’s how Darius hears him. Maybe he was waiting. Was he worried? He looks worried now as he opens the door, eyebrows knit together, all sad eyes and helping hands. Al wants to push him away and insist he’s alright but he doesn’t.
He lets Darius drag him upstairs and throw him on their couch. Darius brings him ice and never asks questions. He knows Al will talk when Al is good and fucking ready. There aren’t many secrets between the two of them anymore. Al would say there are none, yet something in Darius’ smile sometimes makes him think there’s one or two things left to tell.
Darius holds an ice pack to Al’s bruised eye. Al smiles.
People have learned to stop questioning Darius’ presence. It used to be “Who this dude?” and aggressive attempts to learn his story. Now it’s a nod and an expectation that Darius will accompany Paper Boi anywhere, anytime. Darius doesn’t appreciate the guys who call him a shadow or a tagalong. He and Al know how to be alone. They just don’t like it.
“You two brothers?”
Darius shakes his head violently before he stops himself. The suggestion makes him nauseous.
“Not through DNA,” Al tells the guy, at the same time Darius says, “Roommates,” and that’s sufficient enough.
Darius isn’t going to get hostile with a customer, no matter the sneer on this buyer’s face. Al can mess him up if he wants. They both have certain reputations to uphold. He takes a hit and melts into the couch cushions.
Earn wants to know what’s up between Darius and Al. Al won’t talk about it. Darius won’t speak about it, but he’ll bake some brownies and think about it all day in his room while Al sleeps on the couch. Moping. Mumbling.
Here’s what’s up between Darius and Al:
Al has seen this girl at least three times. He says they’re just fucking. Darius doesn’t like her. He has real reasons, including her voice, the way she says the word ‘yes’ like ‘yahs,’ and her opinions on patio furniture, all of which he has not mentioned to Al because they’re no longer speaking. They yelled about it the other day and Darius discovered (through a quick shouting match that ended in a week-long cooling off period) that Al just thinks Darius gets ‘moody’ when she comes around. Which is not necessarily wrong, just… incomplete.
Darius and Earn go adventuring, and at the end, Darius goes home. He passes a blunt to Al and everything’s alright. They’re always alright. They play videogames with their knees almost touching and take out an entire package of flaming hot Cheetos.
Al’s phone blinks a text message preview up at 3 AM, and all it says is, Fine, we’re done. There’s no attempt to hide the screen; if Darius was a different person, he’d think it was even strategically placed to be read.
Their knees touch and no one pulls away.
Someone calls their relationship ‘weird’ and Al’s blood pressure rises into the sky.
Someone calls Darius ‘weird’ and Darius accepts it; no, encourages it, with a smile. Darius is at peace with everything. He’s anthropomorphizing his weed and his gun and his shoes, putting on squeaky voices to amuse Al when they’re too high to do much but lay on the couch outside, counting stars. Losing count at 183, they start over again.
(Al feels like he’s lost the element of surprise when he rests the back of his hand on Darius’ stomach and Darius doesn’t even blink.)
“I ain’t gay.” It’s insistent, resentful, and aggressive.
Earn’s found an article online speculating that exact point: Ten Small-Time Rappers with Subtly Queer Lyrics. Al wants to break his laptop on the table corner. Instead, they’re taking it out on Call of Duty multiplayer. Darius is winning.
“Sexuality is really on a spectrum,” starts Earn as he watches them play, at the same time Darius says, “It’s all made up anyway. The people in power tell us what’s right and wrong and we need to fight back.” Darius and Earn give each other appreciative nods without eye contact. Al doesn’t label the feeling in his chest as jealousy because he has nothing to be jealous about.
“Y’all niggas is killing me,” Al huffs.
There’s silence for a long time besides the blaring machine guns and voiceover screams. Al welcomes the distraction. He’s never been great at memorization, but the article’s words are burned into his brain. Accusations, that’s what they are. Slander and libel or whatnot. He opens his mouth to remind Earn they need a good lawyer.
Darius beats him to the first weighted words of the afternoon. His eyes never leave the screen while he reveals, voice soft and level, “I’m gay.”
Al runs straight off a cliff and the screen mocks him for his failure. Darius pauses the game and sits back, completely nonchalant, patiently awaiting a response. Earn says, “I can go.” Al answers, “Yeah.”
They listen to him rummage his things together, apologizing when he takes too long and the tense silence stretches into infinite awkwardness. Eventually, the door closes downstairs. Al and Darius face one another, but Al doesn’t look at his… Well, he’s not sure what Darius is to him. And he doesn’t appreciate being lied to for so long. He vocalizes as much.
“I didn’t lie, Al. It just wasn’t the time to tell you.”
“Fuck! When the fuck was the time? You seen me half-naked, nigga.”
Darius nods like he’s taking this into consideration. He’s very serious, fucking monk-like, nothing out of balance or out of the ordinary. Al thinks that if anything should rattle that composure, it should be this. But it doesn’t. Not one bit.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“No!” Al yells without meaning to. If Darius leaves, he’s not sure what will happen, but he knows the mere suggestion felt like getting kicked in the ribs.
“I can’t help the way I feel,” Darius whispers. For the first time since Al’s known him, he sounds nervous.
Al side-eyes him. There’s another feeling there, interlaced with it, the kick of cocaine in a seemingly harmless blunt. So Al is overly sensitive for a month, careful about undressing, putting strain on a relationship that’s always been easy. After a while, he gets sick of himself. He changes. He asks questions and he learns. And he starts thinking that maybe, just maybe, having Darius a little closer wouldn’t be too bad.
It starts with an Instagram comment that Earn brushes off as a troll, but it doesn't stop it from getting under Al’s skin. Despite Earn recommending the comment be reported and deleted, Al keeps it.
Ain’t u scared ur friends gon fuck off when they figure out u a fake ass talentless fag?
Darius, who was not on Instagram (who refused to allow pictures of him on Al’s account, besides), reads the comment on Al’s phone when Al, seething, pushes the offending item into Darius’ outstretched hand. He’s interrupting Darius’ chess game. He’s apologizes, but Darius smiles up and replies, “This shit bothering you? It’s way more important than a game, Al.”
“I don’t like them questioning your loyalty is all.”
Darius smiles. When he hands the phone back, their fingers touch, linger. He murmurs, “I wandered into your life. Until you tell me to go, I’m not wandering anywhere else.”
Al replies to, but then reports and deletes, the comment. Then he falls asleep picturing Darius’ smile, and his head resting on the pillow beside his.
They’re on round two of three for rock-paper-scissors over which Ben and Jerry’s flavor to get. Darius is paying, but he wants fucking mint, and Al won’t stand for that. So they duel. It’s serious business.
Darius wins, keeping his ‘paper’ palm flat on Al’s ‘rock’ and teasing Al for not following his Paper Boi instincts. Al grumbles, smiles, and flips his hand up so their fingers touch. As they drop their hands, Darius pretends to lose his balance so he can fall into Al’s chest.
Al closes his eyes as he inhales the scent of honey-lemon weed and something unmistakably, indescribably Darius. They’re surrounded by cold air and ice cream flavors and all Al wants to do is lick cookie dough off Darius’ tongue.
“Get your green shit, then.”
Darius burrows into Al’s arms so they’re back-to-chest as he opens the refrigerated aisle door. Icy wind hits them instantly, a welcome relief in the Atlanta summer. June is unforgiving in Georgia. Ice cream and very few clothes are a good counterattack.
“Aren’t you Paper Boi?” a very excited voice asks.
Al and Darius leap away from one another as if they’re both on fire. Waving his arms, Al answers, “Nah, man, I think you got--” but the kid is already pulling out his IPhone and asking for a picture, reciting favorite lyrics, reminiscing about one of the local shows he attended. He has blonde hair and a rainbow phone case.
“I didn’t know you were. Well.” He flashes a dazzling white smile and amends, “It’s good to see another brother with some pride, ya feel?” Opening the camera feature, he says, “Your boyfriend can get in on this if he wants.”
“I don’t like pictures--”
“We’re not like that.”
And there’s the guilt, eating him alive, as he watches Darius take a couple steps back and press his lips in a thin line.
The kid’s broken voice doesn’t help, either, as his voice cracks through a stumbling, “I saw you guys, there’s no way…” He trails off, blushing. But that embarrassment soon turns to anger. “It’s June, man. I never thought you’d be part of the problem.”
“Hey,” Al begins.
“No, fuck this! Fuck you.” And he leaves.
Al spends the next few days anxiously tracking his tags on all social media and obsessing over every headline and article. He usually leaves the scrutinizing to Earn, but he’s too worried his secret will be all over the web to let anyone else handle it.
Darius insists he’s fine, but Al hurt him and he knows it. They smoke and Darius puts his head in Al’s lap, and Al kisses him with so many questions on his lips he feels like he’s invented a new interrogation technique. Darius holds the back of his neck, whispers, “You don’t have to explain. I know.”
“Has it changed me?”
“Bein’ on the radio, I don’t know.”
“Like at all?”
“You make more money.”
“Al, I’d tell you if fame was going to your head. You have no Hollywood ambition. You’re not treating people like shit and you’re not even bragging about these shows. You still want me around?”
“Why would you even ask that?”
“Yeah, Al. I think you’re good.”
Al’s fingers drum up Darius’ thigh, less hesitant before. Purposeful. Hungry. Darius flinches because it’s how he feels and he’s done pretending around Al. They’re on Darius’ bed together, joints smoked, limbs heavy and empty at the same time. Clothes on, arms wrapped around chests, ankles crossed, and Al’s just getting used to this guy-and-guy thing.
Al looks a little lost, a little heartbroken, a little angry.
“I don’t. Ah. Al, I don’t like sex."
“Nigga, what the fuck?” Al sits back, withdrawing his hands into his lap like a child caught stealing. He frowns.
“I don’t know man, I’ve just never felt that way ‘bout nobody. Everybody was always telling me that lust was ‘completely natural’ like if I wasn’t runnin’ around fuckin’ everything then something was wrong.” Darius scoots closer and rests his forehead on Al’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault, Al,” he adds, because Al’s face is guilty as hell. “Life treats people differently. All we can do is learn is how to live life and how to treat all the different people.”
After he’s done staring, Al cups Darius’ cheek in his palm. “This is good, though?” he asks, sliding his thumb across Darius’ bottom lip.
He shrugs. “I like kissing.”
“But you don’t like sex? Shit.” Al laughs a little. “That’s weird as hell.” But he’s returned to lying on his back and Darius listens to the words with his eyes closed. Each sounds rumbles low in Al’s chest. Darius kisses Al’s knuckles and mouth. They fall asleep.
“Damn, nigga, you gonna kiss me or what?”
“I have a better idea.”
Al’s confused until Darius rolls and lights a blunt, but he still looks a little downtrodden, like Darius picked weed over him. Darius grins. He inhales, holds the smoke in, and gestures for Al to lean closer. He breathes out into Al’s mouth. Al licks Darius’ tongue, chuckling through the kiss, lapping up scent and taste.
They finish Darius’ blunt in ten minutes, letting it burn in the ashtray as they get more distracted. When Al lights his own, the click of the lighter sounds a lot like I love you. Darius’ smile looks a lot like I love you, too.
It’s late. It’s late and they’re both exhausted, but there’s good music on the radio, the road is clear, and Al can drive with one hand while he uses the other to hold Darius’ hand, because it’s something they’re trying now and it makes them both giggle like grade-schoolers.
They pass an empty parking lot and slow down to read the building signs. Neon lights flash on and off, some broken, some so desaturated the words can’t be made out. A red XXX and a pink GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS. Nude outlines, dollar signs.
Darius finds it hilarious, while Al finds it kinda spooky. They drive on at a normal speed as Darius makes up reasons why the club closed.
“You’re the only dude I know can tell funny ghost stories,” Al says fondly.
“Thank you,” Darius says, and tips his head like he’s wearing a top hat. They laugh.
A minute later, they’re being pulled over, red and blue lights on but sirens (thankfully) off. Darius is calm and collected. Al swallows down the nerves because they’ve got drugs hidden in the backseat. They exit the car like they’re asked to; Al checks for guns in the cops’ hands as soon as they’re all outside.
“You boys live around here?” The cop asks from a safe distance away. He’s hiding behind his white door.
“Boys?” Al asks with a scoff. Darius mutters, “Don’t.”
The cop bristles. “Answer the question!”
“On our way home, sir,” Darius answers levelly. “Is something wrong?”
After lecturing for awhile about a broken turn signal, the cop lets them off with a warning. Before he goes, though, he pats them both down, asks for ID, and gets a picture with Paper Boi.
Al pulls up to their sidewalk and asks Darius to get out and check the light.
It’s not broken.
They’re not overly affectionate people to begin with, outwardly anyway, but Darius has never realized the acute fear a person could have to hold someone’s hand. Even when it’s just the two of them there’s something keeping those inches of space between their bodies. They’re pressed up side-to-side, or wrapped up at night, so Darius thinks their hands have some explaining to do.
Right now he’ll settle for lazy morning kisses and knuckles brushing as they walk backstage on Paper Boi’s tour.
Darius doesn’t believe in a single higher power, but he believes it’s arrogant and ignorant of mankind to assume they are not fated or controlled in some way, or even programmed into their daily routine.
So he tries to shake things up. He takes a different route almost every day when he walks to his usual hangouts. He buys pot from different sellers, tries different flavors, eats every food he’s offered. He wears what he likes and not what magazines say looks best. He prays to God and to Allah and to Buddha when he’s invited to, and he talks out loud to whoever might be listening when he’s at home. Every drink a stranger gives him is a new experience into a limitless life. Endless possibilities are a gateway to the mind’s eternity.
Nothing shakes up his routine quite like Alfred Miles.
They meet because Al is selling and Darius needs a new dealer. The previous one was cutting his shit, and it was fun for awhile, but Darius only needed to foam at the mouth one night of his life to know it wasn’t worth repeating.
Al opens the door and Darius thinks, I'm going to spend the rest of my life with this man.
He moves in the next day.