Anneliese was supposed to show up at six p.m. She arrives at midnight, with an apologetic smile and an arm around Benji.
Adam’s pissed off, but he tries to hide it with a big, hearty, “Heyyy! What’s up!”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry”—Anneliese falls on him in a hug—“I picked up a stray and he made me late.”
Her hair is tickling Adam’s nose, so he disentangles himself from her. While they’ve been hugging, Benji has sauntered inside. He’s picking up Nana’s trinkets – a porcelain rabbit that sits on a doily; a framed photo of poodle-skirted girlfriends from the 1950s – and he’s examining each one.
“Hey, man.” Benji’s eyes flick up to catch Adam’s gaze. Then it’s back to whatever catalogue he’s creating in his mind, fingertips skimming across a walnut display cabinet.
Anneliese rushes in with, “You know my brother.”
Of course, Adam doesn’t. He doesn’t know Benji any more than he knows Ice-Cream-Scooper Erik or Lunch-Lady Denise or Boston Freakin Rob. But, yeah, he knows him.
Benji is taller than he looked on TV surrounded by pro athletes. His hair is still try-hard tousled, his lips lodged in a permanent smirk. He seems uninterested in Adam, scrutinizing the ceiling rose in Nana’s hallway instead.
“Hey, man,” Adam says, forcing a smile. “Great game.”
“Shoulda played that idol, right?” Benji says. His remark starts out American, then stretches into Australian as it reaches the question mark.
“Ugh, enough game talk.” Anneliese claps her hands together. “Show me an armchair I can collapse into and pour me a drink.”
Adam raises his eyebrows, but otherwise tries to cover his surprise. He gestures toward the living room with its squishy cream-colored chairs and Tiffany lamps.
He was thinking they’d go out. He tripadvisor’ed three different dinner options and located bars close to each one if they wanted to continue drinking afterward. He even read a review for a comedy place that he planned to casually mention if Anneliese was looking for entertainment.
He hadn’t thought they’d stay in. At his Nana’s house. Drinking gin at 12:14 a.m.
“I am still so jet-lagged.” Anneliese hides a yawn behind her fist. “And I always forget mixing drinks makes me sleepy.”
Okay. Adam’s jaw tightens. So they’ve already been out for the night. And this is—what? A pity pit-stop?
Anneliese’s LA trip has been planned for months. When she was in Cabo with Adam and Jay, they talked at length about all the things they’d do together. Now Anneliese is here, and Jay … isn’t.
Adam swills Nana’s pilfered gin around in his glass. In this moment, it’s glaring that he and Anneliese have nothing in common. Less than nothing if she doesn’t want to talk about Survivor.
“So where did you say Jay is?” she asks.
“Filming.” Adam can’t keep the disdain out of his voice as he adds, “Some MTV shit.”
Jay tossed back a shot of tequila and let the glass clatter onto the wooden bar.
Adam snorted. He pushed his own shot glass back and forth between thumb and forefinger, but didn’t drink.
The trashy tiki bar in Los Feliz was rowdy, even though it was a Tuesday night. A Latin-pop band onstage was playing a too-fast, staccato rhythm. Beside him on a bar stool, Jay was jiggling his leg, his foot kicking Adam over and over, either by accident or on purpose.
“C’mon.” Jay gave a sardonic grin and flexed his muscles. “I was built for this.”
Adam tried to smile along with him. He tried to keep the edge out of his voice as he asked, “What did your agent say?”
“Totally on board. Great way to get my face out there.” Jay pantomimed a pout. “And what a face it is.”
Adam couldn’t make his smile stay put. He shifted his shot glass across the bar again.
“What did Mel say?”
“She said, and I quote, that is the stupidest thing I ever heard. But then she laughed, so I’m taking it that she loves the idea.”
Adam exhaled a long breath through his nose. Melanie knew precisely how to handle Jay. Pat him on the head and say, Go be a clown on TV; I’ll be here when you come back. Why couldn’t Adam do the same?
Maybe because there was a chance Jay wouldn’t come back; not this Jay, not Jay-his-roommate, not Jay who scarcely let a day pass without texting, hey wanna hang out? Another Jay might return in his place. A Jay with a media career. A Jay with a girlfriend.
“Isn’t it a little tacky to go on some show and pretend you might be soulmates with some girl you hooked up with once?”
Jay waggled his eyebrows. When Adam fidgeted with his full shot glass yet again, Jay reached over and swiped it.
“If you don’t drink this, I’m going to.”
“Fine”—Adam flung out an arm to take back the shot glass—“give it to me.”
“Open up, baby bird,” Jay said.
He held the shot glass out of reach with one hand and, using the other, tapped the corner of Adam’s mouth.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Adam muttered.
“Without Mama here to feed you, what will you do?”
Despite Jay’s joking tone, Adam’s stomach dropped at the word Mama. It must have showed in his expression, because regret flashed across Jay’s face. Still, he was too far into the bit to stop. He made a humming sound and his fingertips tapped Adam’s lips.
Adam’s stomach gave a twang, sorrow twisting into something else. Jay’s face was close to his; those warm brown eyes were intense, despite the smudginess of booze.
“Open up,” Jay said.
Adam unhooked his jaw and Jay fitted the rim of the shot glass against his bottom lip.
“Swallow,” Jay murmured and—
Sweetjesusandfuckingchrist. Did Jay realize what that sounded like? Did he guess at the way Adam’s cock jumped? Did he do it on purpose or was it just—
Jay being Jay.
Adam swallowed. He was woozy before the tequila even hit his bloodstream.
A spare trickle escaped Adam’s mouth and Jay swiped a casual thumb across his lips. He sucked his thumb clean with a thoughtful expression.
“You’ll miss me, right?” he said, half-forlorn, half-teasing.
Adam cleared his throat. He cleared his mind of the familiar what-ifs: what kissing Jay would feel like, what noises Jay might make as he unzipped his pants.
“While you’re partying in some beach house, I gotta work. My speaking schedule is getting pretty crazy.”
Adam didn’t mean to sound patronizing. He wasn’t intending to hurt Jay’s feelings. Yet when Jay’s mouth slackened into a straight line, he still felt a sense of triumph.
“Cool, man, cool,” Jay muttered and looked away. “You do you and I’ll do me.”
“You know Jay, he could make friends with a potted plant,” he says. “All the girls’ll fall in love with him. The people at home, too.”
He knows he’s rambling, but he can’t stop. Anneliese and Benji are watching him impassively, their similar features exaggerated side by side, hooded eyelids and bitten lips.
Adam continues, “I bet there’ll be some Beverly Hills divorcee watching and she’ll want him to be her kept boy. Offer him a part in a movie. Something crazy like that. If you can imagine it, it’ll happen to Jay—”
“That’s wild,” Anneliese says without feeling. It’s a mercy-killing, like she’s stuck an arrow through his monologue.
Her phone beeps and her attention flutters away. Benji’s still looking at him, though. His interest in Nana’s house (“this place pre-war?”) seems to have ebbed away, and now it’s Adam who he’s cataloguing.
“You and Jay, you’re like best buddies now?” he asks.
“We’re friends,” Adam says stiffly. He pauses and, when Benji doesn’t reply, he trots out the familiar line, “He’s like the brother I love to hate.”
“I kinda thought you played that up for the cameras,” Benji said.
The comment riles Adam and he’s about to argue, but Anneliese cuts in, “No, these two, they’d live in each other’s pockets if they could.”
Benji’s wearing a T-shirt, but he pats the place where his breast pocket would be anyway. He licks his lips and he’s still. Looking. At Adam.
A weird memory slices through Adam’s brain.
They were in Cabo and they’d been drinking for so long he’d forgotten what sober felt like. He’d forgotten what sane felt like. At the apartment where they were staying, he was sprawled on the couch, while Jay and Anneliese played a game of Turtle Wushu and argued about threesomes.
“They’re boring!” Anneliese said breathlessly, weaving to avoid Jay. “There’s too much downtime. I’m having sex, I want attention. All the attention. On me.”
Shot glasses balanced on the tops of their hands (in lieu of turtles), the two of them stood in Ninja stance, evading each other’s grasping hands.
“You. Are. In. Sane.” Jay batted at Anneliese’s hand, but only succeeded in capsizing his own shot glass ‘turtle’. It tumbled to the floor with a clunk.
Anneliese let out a victory yell. Adam closed his eyes, trying and failing to tune out their conversation.
“What downtime?” Jay continued. “Are you balancing your checkbook while the guy’s pounding the other girl?”
“Oh, obviously you think it’s two girls, one guy,” Anneliese said. “Chauvinist.”
“I’m a chauvinist because I think you need to get laid better? Sure, okay.”
“Could you guys … stop … shouting?” Adam said in a thin voice. He popped his head up off the couch and opened his eyes.
If alcohol hadn’t obliterated his senses, he might have felt shocked at what he saw.
They were kissing. Messy, animalistic kissing. Jay’s fist yanked at Anneliese’s hair. Anneliese’s fingers clawed at his bare back.
Then they fell apart and they were both laughing. It was a bent-double, wheezing-for-air fit of laughter that lasted twice as long as their kiss.
“You couldn’t handle me in the sack,” Anneliese said at last, wiping her eyes.
“Prob’ly not.” Jay gave a courtly bow and wavered on the spot, eyes flickering around the room.
If Adam hadn’t been so drunk, he might have known for sure if Jay’s gaze landed on him in that moment.
Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t.
Either way, there was no threesome in Cabo, no checkbook-balancing, no moment where Jay’s hand tangled in Adam’s hair and his lips dragged down Adam’s throat.
“You can sleep in the guest room if you like,” Adam says, stifling a yawn of his own.
“Thanks, but I’m getting up early tomorrow to hit the beach with Kacey,” Anneliese says, “you remember Kacey, right?” (Adam doesn’t.) “So I should shoot off.”
He tells himself it’s not disappointment he feels. He tells himself it’s not loneliness.
With Anneliese here, he can almost pretend it’s Cabo all over again and Jay is in the other room. Any minute, he’ll waltz through the door and jack up the music. Sleep when you’re dead, you slackers!
With a shake of his head, Adam clears the mental image. He levers himself up out of his chair and goes to show Anneliese to the door. To his surprise, Benji doesn’t move.
“You go,” Benji says to Anneliese, “I’m gonna chill.” His face is utterly relaxed as he turns to Adam. “Cool if I kip here tonight, bro?”
Benji rolls the sleeves of his T-shirt up over his shoulders to better show off his biceps. He balances a hand against his chin and Adam notices for the first time how long his fingers are, how carelessly graceful his movements.
Do people say no to Benji? He doesn’t give the impression that they do. The thought makes Adam’s scalp tingle.
He covers up his discomfort with a blustery laugh.
“My nana basically runs a hostel,” he says. “Any Survivor player in need can stay here.”
A look passes between Benji and his sister. It lasts two seconds at most, but Adam gets the sense they crammed a whole conversation into that wordless moment. Benji’s smirking again when she gets up to leave.
Anneliese is out the door quickly and forgets to hug Adam goodbye.
In the guest room, Benji drops his backpack onto the bed. “G’night,” he says, squeezing an arm around Adam in the hug Anneliese didn’t bother with. He smells like soap and something green. Eucalyptus, maybe.
Tucked up in his own bed, Adam tosses and turns. He can’t figure this guy out. Playing with him must have been a nightmare. It’s Survivor 101: keep the predictable player; cut the mastermind who thrives in chaos.
He’s hoping Benji is gone by the time he wakes up.
In the kitchen, there are scrambled eggs cooling in the pan, and Benji is playing cards with Nana.
“Nana’s smoking me, bro,” Benji says to Adam by way of greeting.
“Not true at all.” Nana swats at him playfully and then turns her smile on Adam. “How did you sleep, pumpkin?”
Adam flushes. A rapid glance at Benji shows his lips are pinched in amusement. He’s filed the name ‘pumpkin’ away in whatever catalogue of Adam he’s created.
“Fine.” Adam tries to keep his voice neutral. “What are you playing?”
He edges past the kitchen table and takes a bite of breakfast straight out of the pan. There are jalapeños in the eggs, which means Nana definitely didn’t make them.
It’s only been eight hours and, far from leaving, Benji seems to have moved in.
When Adam gets visitors, most of them appear to think it’s an oddity that he lives with his grandmother. All of them – except Jay, of course – treat her like a kindly housekeeper. Not Benji. The three of them play poker (poker! normally Nana plays gin rummy) for three hours.
When their game finally wraps up and Nana leaves for her tai chi class, Adam waits for Benji to pack up and go. Instead, he cracks his neck, retrieves his laptop, and says, “No rest for the wicked, eh?”
“What’s going on?” Adam asks.
“A/B testing for these ads is driving me nuts, man. And I’m Skyping with an investor tomorrow, so I need to figure out what I’m gonna say. I also got”—he pauses, scrolling—“a hundred and twelve emails overnight so I guess I should try and demolish some of those.”
Adam gives a jerk of his head. It’s not that he expected Benji’s life as a digital entrepreneur to mostly involve scrolling through pics of bikini babes on Instagram, but … yeah, that’s kinda what he expected.
Benji settles into his work at the kitchen table. Adam sits down opposite him with his own laptop open. He picks up his phone and taps out a message to his brother. Think I gained a squatter.
Evan texts back immediately. Haha who?
Adam hesitates and then lets the screen darken. He loves his brother, but he’s not really the one he wants to be texting.
Jay’s phone was confiscated by MTV production two weeks ago, but when Adam hears a beep, he still expects a find a spelling-mistake-strewn, emoji-filled message from Jay waiting for him.
What’s Jay doing right now? Gambolling in the waves while three cameras follow him? Drinking his bodyweight in cheap vodka? Going on a producer-manipulated ‘date’?
He pushes these thoughts away and drags his laptop towards him. He actually does have work to do. Real work. Not “getting paid to party.”
To his surprise, he gets a lot done. One hour drips away into five hours. The room turns golden and then begins to dim. The full coffee pot between them dwindles to empty.
Last time Adam tried to get any work done around Jay, it was less than ten minutes before Jay was whining and pelting him with salted peanuts. Benji, by contrast, is perfectly focused. His calm energy is contagious. Adam breaks the back of a new speech he’s been struggling with for a month.
For the first time in weeks, he’s clear-headed and undistracted. Mostly undistracted.
(He pretends not to notice how Benji rubs the pads of his fingers against his lips when he’s concentrating, how Benji’s hair goes from tousled to unruly after the tenth time he runs a hand through it.)
“You’re getting too in the weeds.” Benji leans back in his chair, arching his body in a stretch. “Keep it simple.”
“I know”—Adam rolls his eyes—“just say the same thing over and over.”
“That’s marketing, bro.” Benji gives him a wink and Adam wants to hate him for it.
He can’t. He actually likes the guy.
They’ve been working in silence for the bulk of the afternoon, but then Benji wanted his opinion on his investor pitch, and Adam figured he could use a second pair of eyes on his speech.
For a fleeting moment, he imagines what Jay’s advice would be: Just get up there and wing it. A ghost of a smile crosses his lips. The worst part is that would actually work if it were Jay giving the speech. Not for anyone else in the world, but for Jay … sure.
He taps out a note to himself on his document: keep it simple, marketing, repeat.
Across from him, Benji hammers his return key using a fist.
“Boom. Last email. Done. Now let’s shut up shop before any more come in.” He slaps his laptop closed and raises his eyebrows at Adam. “What are you doing tonight, dude?”
Adam looks at the kitchen window, which has turned into a black rectangle. It’s evening and he’s scarcely noticed. Nana came home thirty minutes ago—“don’t let me interrupt”—and turned on the lights for them.
“There’s this, uh, comedy place I heard about …” Adam clears his throat. If he’s honest, his plans are TV with Nana.
“I just found out one of my favorite bands is playing in Hollywood. You interested? Or will your friends be expecting you at the comedy thing?”
Benji tilts his head to one side and looks at him. If it’s possible to feel a look, Adam does, right in his groin. He swallows.
“It’s not a definite plan,” he says. “So. I could come see the band.” He fidgets with his phone. “Hear the band. It’s weird how we say ‘see a band’, right? Like the whole experience is about the music, who cares what you’re seeing? But then, when you think about it like that, you may as well just play a recording of the band in a crowded room and you’d get approximately the same experience—”
“So you’ll come,” Benji cuts in.
During that dumb monologue, Adam felt his heart rate increasing. While they were just sitting and working together, he’d been relaxed. But now Benji’s full attention is focused on him.
“Yeah, I’ll come,” Adam says, gulping past a lump in his throat.
Benji licks his lips and gives him another one of those hooded, searching glances. “Okay then.”
When he and Benji step inside a dark club on Sunset, it’s not like that. Not at all.
The small space, only a little bigger than his nana’s living room, is so packed with people it wouldn’t be possible to dance even if the music were dance-y. It’s not.
Instead of playing melodies, the five-piece band are creating waves of sound. Sometimes it’s a gentle ebb and flow, sometimes the guitar and drums crash into a crescendo. This is music with texture. Music with handholds, making it feel possible to climb inside it and escape to another world.
Adam’s expecting there to be singing, but when the lead guy steps up to the microphone, it’s just nonsense.
“So this is like Sigur Rós stuff?” he whisper-shouts in Benji’s direction. “Instrumental and, uh, experimental? That’s cool, you know I think it’s interesting the ways that creativity can push boundaries and—”
Benji, who’s been standing shoulder to shoulder with him up till now, drapes an arm around his neck. The green smell of him is intoxicating: lime and wet grass, sharpened with the salt of sweat.
“Shhh,” he says, and Adam can hear his smile even if he can’t see it. “Just be inside the moment, be inside the music.”
What a fucking pretentious thing to say. Especially when Adam was making a serious point about the nature of creativity.
But Benji’s still close, the heat of him pressed against Adam’s back. And, yeah, okay. This is the kind of music that can blot out your thoughts, if you’ll let it.
It’s a relief not to think for a while. He concentrates on the sound, on the beat of his heart, on the feel of Benji’s breathing reverberating through his body.
There’s one song, near the end of the band’s set, and it’s not about anything. It can’t be about anything. There are no words. But, in the cocoon of a club, Adam is also sure the song is about lust and love and the messy line between the two.
Maybe Benji feels it too, because his lips are there at Adam’s temple. In the darkness, surrounded by sound, Adam twists around, tilting his face up. Benji’s features blur before his eyes and they’re kissing in slow motion.
Jay would laugh and call him a pussy, but he doesn’t care. The back of an Uber is not sexy. The seats are slippery faux-leather and there’s an overwhelming smell of synthetic pine. He can’t stop looking at the little laminated sign that reads: Your driver is Raoul. Hav an astonisshing day. :)
He twitches his ankles crossed one way and then the other. Stealing a sideways glance, he sees that Benji’s face is impassive, even bored. His heart drops.
The music cast a spell, but it’s broken now. Nomadic Benji will probably be gone by the morning.
A hand lands on Adam’s thigh.
His leg muscles tense.
He shoots another glance at Benji, who angles his head just slightly. The dim light has turned his gray eyes black and they sear like coals against Adam’s skin.
Another second of hesitation and then Adam sends out a silent apology to Raoul.
He scrambles to bridge the gap between him and Benji. Where their kisses were slow and experimental in the club, now they’re quick and frantic. Benji’s long fingers are pulling at his clothing, he’s murmuring fuck, yeah, fuck, as Adam grinds against the bulge of his erection.
He doesn’t need a song to let him know what lust is like. It’s burning him up inside.
And, yeah, it turns out that making out in the back of an Uber feels pretty good.
Adam woke up early despite the late night, buzzing with energy even though he’s sleep-deprived.
His body feels used, his skin hyper-sensitive. When he slips shower gel over his body, he feels an echo of Benji’s fingertips, his tongue. There’s a bruise or two where Benji held him down.
He closes his eyes and drowns in the sense memories of last night.
On his way back from the bathroom, curls of wet hair dripping down his neck, he notices Benji’s laptop isn’t charging on the display cabinet. Was his toothbrush still in the mug? He frowns. He can’t remember.
He hears voices coming from his bedroom.
Oh God, it must be Nana.
In his gut, he feels a squeamish, teenage embarrassment. He chokes out a laugh. Who cares? Who cares if his nana knows he hooked up with a guy last night? She’s always telling him to have more fun.
Hey, Nana, I’m having fun. It’s not ten-sexy-singles-in-a-beach-house, but it feels good.
Adam pushes open the door and … there’s no Nana.
There’s only Benji, shirtless in boxers, sitting cross-legged on the bed, holding his phone. His phone. Adam’s phone.
Then it clicks. The other voice he heard—
“—so it’s two in the morning and I’m trying to sneak back to my room, but I get all turned around and when I try what I think is my door, this angry Korean woman starts screaming—”
The face on the phone screen is blurred as Jay re-enacts his escapade. His voice is tinny but unmistakable.
Benji’s laughing uproariously. He spares Adam only a convivial nod when he spots him.
Jay finishes out his story – he did, at last, find his own room – while Adam hovers in the doorway. His mind is racing. Has Jay stopped to read the situation? Will he connect the dots?
Benji’s shirtless, but then, Nana mostly keeps the A/C off, so it’s hot. (Jay is rarely ever not shirtless, after all.) Benji’s hair is tousled, but only in its usual hipster way. Adam got dressed in the bathroom, so he’s fully clothed.
The sheets are rumpled, but it’s not like Jay can smell sex in the air.
“You wanna speak to your boy?” Benji, still maddeningly unflustered, waves the phone in Adam’s direction.
“Later, man, I got a producer up my ass,” Jay says. “Tell that slacker to make his bed and call me later.”
The screen clears. A static-y silence descends.
Damn Jay and his magical belief that a good life can only follow a neatly-made bed.
Benji drops the phone and rubs an idle hand across his chest.
“It kept ringing, so I picked it up,” he says with a shrug. “Jay’s a cool guy. Anneliese put me on the phone with him once.”
Adam’s heart is still thumping, his voice sticking in his throat. He gives a nod, like, sure, no big deal.
“You miss him, huh?” Benji says when Adam remains quiet. His tone is perfectly even.
Adam avoids his gaze. He’s grown to like Benji, grown to trust him. Despite this, yesterday’s worries resurface:
What’s Benji’s game? Has he guessed Adam’s feelings for Jay? Is he trying to stir the pot?
Survivor 101: Never keep around the agent of chaos. Always cut him loose.
For the first time, Adam notices that all of Benji’s stuff is packed away in his backpack, drawstrings pulled tight. Maybe he won’t need to cut him loose. Maybe he’s voting himself out of this game.
“Should probably make the bed,” Adam mumbles.
He tugs half-heartedly at the corner of the sheet. Benji, still cross-legged on top of the bedsheets, doesn’t move to help him.
“How ‘bout we make it later?” he says in a low voice.
Adam, who put on a blue Oxford shirt and chinos after his shower, feels prickly with heat. In the morning light, Benji’s eyes are a smooth, metallic gray. He can’t have shaven in a few days, because dark stubble is starting to grow through. His lips, when he licks them, gleam red and inviting.
“It’s okay to miss him,” Benji says slowly. “When I’m gone”—he winks—“you can miss me, too.”
Adam gasps out a laugh. He might have tried to resist for a few seconds more, but Benji reaches out and grabs a fistful of his shirt. He kisses him hard. Adam’s legs give out and he tumbles onto the bed.
Later, he will make his bed. Later, Benji will saunter on to his next adventure. Later, Adam will return Jay’s call.
But, before later, is now.
Hey got booted from the house so now I’m just killin time at some hotel till the producers come up with a dum twist and put me back in. What u up to?
Adam lies on his bed, still unmade. He lets his phone fall facedown on his stomach.
He feels the ghost of a shiver as he thinks of Benji’s hands peeling off his chinos, his hooded eyes as he licked a stripe up the underside of his cock.
When Adam closes his eyes, though, it’s not Benji’s face he sees.