The final skate of the camp is winding down and Jack Zimmermann sits on the bench for a moment, running through strategy while the coaches conference before the last scrimmage.
Knight, one of the guys he’s been skating well with this week, slides up and rests his forearms on the boards.
“Thought of something. This kid I know has a truck that is wicked huge. He’s looking for company on his drive to the Pacific this week, and he’s a fucking sweetheart. What do you think? Did I save the day?”
Jack considers Knight’s possible motives from across the boards and raises an eyebrow. Knight slides backward on the ice and crosses his arms.
“What’s wrong with that?”
Jack thinks for a moment. “Would I have to talk to him?”
Knight nods. “Definitely. Yes.”
Jack thinks some more. “Does he play hockey?”
Knight shakes his head and grins. “Zimmermann, you beaut. Yes, he does. We played together in college.”
Jack needs to be moved out to Portland, Oregon by the following Thursday. Camp with the Providence Falconers has gone well, but Jack’s agent is pretty sure they aren’t interested this year. He’s got a contract waiting with the WHL team in Portland, if he wants it.
Jack wants it.
A moving company can get him out there, but with no guarantees and a shitload of cash up front. His parents would help, but he wants to make this work on his own.
“Alright. Give me his number.”
They meet outside a rundown frat house up at Samwell University two days later. The early morning heat is just starting to thicken up, so Jack knows his sweat is mostly nerves. He’s moving across the continent.
“My mom went here,” Jack tells Knight as they drive onto campus in Knight’s car, “but I’ve never visited before.”
“It’s a wicked little paradise. Best four years of my life,” Knight replies.
“This must be it,” Jack says as they turn a corner. A huge F-150 is parked out front, tailgate open.
“Sure as shit. That’s the Haus. You get bored on the road, you just ask Bitty to tell you tales from this place, my man.”
Jack feels his own grin. “Do most of these stories involve you?”
Knight tags him on the shoulder. “Well fuck, Zimmermann, I would certainly hope so.”
As they pull up, two men emerge from the shadows of the porch. One is short and blond, the other taller with long brown hair twirled up into a bun. Jack blinks. He’s fairly certain, for a moment, that they are holding hands.
“Bits!” Knight shouts and the small blond one runs towards the car.
Jack looks over at Knight, eyebrows raised. Knight doesn’t even notice. He’s too busy hopping out of the car and getting spun into a careening hug by the blond.
“Oh lord, I’m so dang nervous I’m about to pee myself, Shitty. What have I gotten my poor self into?” Jack overhears as he climbs out of the passenger seat.
“Bits, this is Jack. Jack, Eric Bittle.” Knight gestures broadly between them.
Jack nods. “Hey.”
“Jack, it is sure a pleasure. Shitty has told me all about you.” Eric Bittle extends a hand and Jack takes it, trying not to panic about what Knight, or Shitty apparently, might have told this kid. Bittle’s grip is a bit shaky, and he’s so short Jack starts to doubt Knight’s claim that he ever played hockey.
“Y’all just missed Mama and Coach,” Bittle says, running a hand through his hair. Jack has a moment to take in his tight jean shorts and tank top. “They brought the truck up and helped me get packed, but they wanted to get back on the road before traffic, and shit I was thinking we should do the same and look how the time is flying by! So how do we do this? Do you have a lot of stuff, Jack? I thought there’d be so much room but lord do I have too much to bring. There’s still a bit of space in the truck bed, and we can fill the back of the cab, too. Shitty said you’d be traveling light?”
Without waiting for a response, Eric Bittle trots over to start extracting Jack’s belongings from Knight’s car.
Jack is frozen in the wake of so many words.
He feels Knight’s arm snake over his shoulders and squeeze.
“Trust me, Zimmermann. You’re going to love him.”
It takes about fifteen minutes to rearrange the boxes and duffles already in the truck bed to make room for Jack’s belongings. He’s bringing one suitcase of clothes, a couple small pieces of furniture, and three boxes of personal items, but most of the space he needs in the truck is for gear.
“Lord, I thought my days of lugging hockey bags were over!” Eric Bittle says with a laugh.
Jack notices the other guy, with the man bun, lingering up on the steps of the porch, hands deep in the pockets of his faded jeans.
They get the truck bed cover secured and Jack stows his case with his computer and phone in the cab.
“That does it,” Knight says, slamming the tailgate and patting the side of the truck.
For the first time, Bittle loses a bit of the energy that he’d bounded off the porch with. He sighs and looks back towards the house.
“Suppose I’d best say my goodbyes. And Jack, I suggest you use the facilities before we hit the road.”
“Aww, Mama Bitty,” Knight says affectionately, and he ruffles Bittle’s hair.
“Where?” Jack asks, trying to control his low level of panic. Maybe getting on the road will help.
The bathroom in the frat house is surprisingly clean. There’s a house plant on a shelf and curtains made out of fabric decorated with little hockey sticks and pucks.
While washing his hands, Jack splashes his face with cool water and counts for a few breaths. He’s making the right decision. He’s ready for this move. He’s going to be fine driving cross-country with a talkative, scantily-dressed stranger.
“Fuck it, Zimmermann,” he mutters to his reflection. “You got this.”
Jack heads out of the bathroom towards the front door, stopping briefly to stare at a couple of interesting paintings on the wall of the hallway, again wondering what sort of frat house this might be. But in the entryway, he is stopped in his tracks by what he sees.
Eric Bittle and the guy with the man bun are visible through the arch to the living room. And they are kissing. Deeply kissing, arms wrapped tight around each other.
Jack freezes, his heart thundering in his chest.
As he watches, Bittle pulls back and looks up at man bun. “We’ll talk every day, hon.”
Man bun leans down so that their foreheads are pressed together. “I’m going to miss you too much, Eric,” he says, his voice breathy.
Jack slowly eases his way to the front door, but not before he sees man bun lean in for another deep kiss, and Bittle respond by craning up on his toes and pulling even closer, and then Jack is dashing out the door and back towards Knight, casually leaning against the truck.
Fuck, he thinks. Oh fuck.
Bittle takes the first shift driving. As they load into the cab, man bun follows Bittle like a sad puppy, and Jack realizes he didn’t need to worry about having seen something private. Man bun leans through Bittle’s open window and kisses him again and again. Jack just stares forward, trying to breathe.
“So. Have a great season, Zimmermann.”
Jack startles at Knight’s voice, right next to him. He’s leaning in at Jack’s window.
“Yeah. Thanks. I really appreciate all of this,” Jack says, hoping his voice sounds calm, even as he can hear intimate murmured words right next to him.
When he speaks, Knight’s voice is low and serious. “Bits is a great guy, Jack. Trust me? And have a good trip?”
Jack swallows and nods. “I will.”
Bittle’s voice pierces through Jack’s clogged brain. “Oh sweet Jesus, look at the time. We gotta get going!” he says, and Jack’s chest tightens a little more. He’s really doing this.
As they pull out, man bun follows alongside the truck for half a block. Bittle waves and shouts farewells, but Jack stares at the road ahead and doesn’t look back.
“Do you wanna put on some music?”
If Bittle is crushed about leaving his… man bun, he’s hiding it well. Bittle is confidently weaving the big truck towards the interstate, AC blasting, a little smile on his face.
“Sure,” Jack says, just to say something. His heart rate has slowed considerably since they pulled away and got onto the highway.
Bittle hands Jack his phone. “Just hit play.”
Jack doesn’t recognize the music that starts, but it’s nice to not be sitting in silence anymore.
“So, Jack Zimmermann. I can’t thank you enough. I was frankly terrified about driving across the country alone. Thank the lord for Shitty.”
Jack shakes his head. “Why do you call him that?”
Bittle laughs. “Oh, hockey nickname. I sometimes forget that it isn’t actually his name!”
“I just call him Knight,” Jack says.
“Well, he was my knight in shining armor finding you to come along, hon.”
Bittle smiles over at Jack for a moment, and then turns back to the road and makes an aggressive move to pass a slow car.
Bittle shouts at the little car as it recedes behind them, “Didn’t your mama teach you any manners?”
Jack grips onto the armrest and tries to smile back.
The miles start to slide away once they get on the interstate, and Bittle’s lead foot makes more sense when the speed limit is higher. Jack pulls out his phone and texts his parents that he’s on the road. His father texts back right away.
Papa Send us pictures. I love a good old fashioned road trip.
Jack takes a quick shot out the windshield at the tree-lined interstate that could be almost anywhere, and texts it to his father.
Papa That’s the stuff!
Jack pockets his phone.
“So, Jack,” Bittle starts, turning down the volume on the music a little. “We have a long drive ahead of us. I suppose we best start getting to know each other!”
Jack’s panic spikes up for a moment.
Jack has thought this through. He intends to ask Bittle about his history with hockey, especially the time he played with Knight. He has an entire line of questioning planned in his head, but when he opens his mouth, that’s not what comes out.
“Was that your boyfriend?”
It’s quiet in the cab for a moment. Jack feels heat travel up his neck and settle into his cheeks. Shit.
“Shitty said that wouldn’t be a problem for you.” Bittle’s voice is very quiet. “Because if it is, it’s not too late to turn back.”
Jack swallows hard and shakes his head. “It’s not.”
“Oh, well then,” Bittle says, his voice lighter. “To be honest, I don’t even know what to tell you about Smith.”
“That’s his name. My… boyfriend.”
“His first name?”
Bittle gives him a look. “Well, I certainly don’t call my… boyfriend by his surname, Jack.”
Jack tries to recover. “Right. Sorry.”
Bittle just laughs and continues. “He wants to try staying together long distance. We’re gonna give it a go, but don’t rightly know what’s gonna happen. We’ve only been together for three months.”
Jack nods. “Long distance is hard.”
Bittle glances over at him for a moment. “Sounds like you’ve tried it?”
Jack’s mouth dries up in an instant. This is not what he wants to talk about. Not the recent long months in Kitchener, and certainly not the other time, before.
“Not for a while,” he manages. “But yeah.”
“I’ll be up north of Seattle. It’s darn far away.” Bittle’s voice sounds a little shaky again. “Smith is the first guy I… he’s worth trying at least. He’s a really good kisser.”
Jack decides to veer off of this minefield he’d inadvertently led them to. “What are you going to be doing in Washington?”
Bittle breathes out, “Oh Christ, it’s quite a story, Jack.”
He launches into a long explanation about his history as an amateur baker and food vlogger, and how he’s headed to this grad program all about bread science through Washington State University. Jack settles in to listen and as his pulse slows he finds he’s actually pretty interested.
The longer Bittle talks about his future with bread, the further the terrifying conversation about relationships drifts into the past. Jack stares out at the passing trees, and tries to relax.
After about four hours, they pull off to stretch, gas up, get coffee, and switch driving. Bittle breaks out the first of his many Tupperwares full of baked goods. The blueberry muffin Jack inhales is one of the best he’s ever had.
“I’ve made a driving schedule for us,” Jack says, showing Bittle the chart he’d drafted on the back of a notebook during the last few miles. “And some mileage goals for each day.”
“Well, what a thoughtful gentleman, Jack Zimmermann.” Bittle glances at his detailed chart. “I’m sure it’s just fine with me.”
“We’ll have to do a couple of really long days. Two nights in whatever motels we can find.”
Bittle looks a bit taken aback, like maybe he hadn’t thought so far ahead as to how they would spend their nights on the road.
“Two nights? Oh well, that sounds reasonable, hon.”
“Did you even look at a map before we left?”
Bittle lets his gaze drift up to the sky as if the answer to Jack’s question might be in a passing cloud. Jack tries not to tense up thinking about how he’s trusted his future to this stranger.
“Not as such,” he murmurs. “But why look at a map when my phone can tell me exactly where I am at all times?”
Jack shakes his head. “I’ll buy us a map from the dep,” he says. “Just in case.”
“The store, Bittle.”
“Oh.” Bittle shoots him a little grin. “And a whoopie pie? If they have ‘em?”
Jack walks to the little store with his head down, trying to figure out if he even likes this kid.
“Bun jur. Comment to tapples?”
Jack snorts. They are back on the road, Jack driving now, eating a second muffin, getting a feel for the big truck. The rows of trees along the interstate have started to give way to rolling green hills.
“Almost. You could just say Allô instead of trying to pronounce Bonjour.’”
“No, if I’m gonna speak French, I’m gonna do it right.”
“Allô is right, Bittle. It’s an actual way to greet someone.”
Jack sneaks a peek at the man in the passenger seat next to him. From his expression, Bittle appears unconvinced.
“It’s Allô, not like the plant.”
Bittle sighs dramatically, and then says, “After this, I’m teaching you to speak proper Georgia. Repeat after me. ‘I reckon aloe is close enough, or I’m fixin’ to get real ornery. Darn tootin’’”
Jack can’t stop himself from smiling. “Fine. Mais ne viens pas me plaindre quand tout le monde veut que tu guérisses leurs brûlures.”
“That’s a foul, Jack. Excessive French.”
“You have to study harder. We have three more days.”
“I take it back. I don’t want to learn another language. I want to… hear your thoughts on last year’s playoffs.”
Jack frowns at the sudden change of topic. “NHL playoffs?”
“Mm-hm. Shitty told me that in desperate straits, I could always get you talking about hockey.”
Jack smiles again, and it strikes him that he’s suddenly been smiling quite a lot.
“That’s true. So what’s your question?”
They spend the next many hours and driving shifts lost in hockey. Bittle is good at asking questions, and Jack apparently has a lot to say about pretty much every team in the league. Then he gets Bittle talking about his years at Samwell. Jack is impressed to learn he’d captained his team as a senior, and realizes then that he’d actually read about Bittle, the out gay captain in the NCAA.
Bittle gets Jack storytelling about his recent years bouncing around the OHL. As it gets dark, they come perilously close to ground Jack does not want to tread, the story of the years before he’d made his way back into the game. Thankfully they reach Jack’s mileage goal for the day just as his pulse is starting to rise.
They take the next exit.
“We are in the middle of nowhere, Jack.”
Jack turns into the parking lot of the less-sketchy-looking of the two motels right off the interstate. “This is Indiana.”
“Those things are not mutually exclusive,” Bittle replies. But he also yawns and stretches and doesn’t complain when Jack parks the truck by the neon Vacancy sign.
Jack nods towards a restaurant next door that appears to have just emerged, fully formed, out of a time capsule from 1962.
“Looks like that place over there serves pie.”
Bittle is mid-stretch and yawn as he says, “Won’t be half as good as mine.”
“How do you not even know Lemonade?”
Jack takes another bite of apple pie. He has to admit that Bittle’s critique of the dry and flavorless crust is pretty spot on. Bittle’s exasperation at Jack’s lack of knowledge about current music seems equally warranted, though a little dramatic for Jack’s comfort.
“Sorry. It’s just not important to me.”
Bittle stares at him with his big brown eyes wide open. “You have to be like, actively shielding yourself from modern culture. I can’t. I mean, lord almighty.”
Jack swallows his bite. “Is Smith a big fan?”
Bittle’s mouth tightens to a line. “At least Smith knows who she is, Jack. He recognizes a song if it comes on!”
Jack takes another bite. He’s tired and really not sure what he’s supposed to be feeling about this entire conversation.
“I’ve heard of her.”
Bittle rolls his eyes and pushes his half-eaten slice of berry pie to the edge of the table. “Heard of her! Sweet Jesus. Heard of. With that attitude, a boy might wonder what you do even care about.”
The words are dropped casually, as an afterthought, but they hit Jack right in the chest. There was a time not long ago when he didn’t have an answer to that, even for himself. But now he has an actual list, developed with his therapist over the last several years, that she calls his ‘things worth living for’ list. He cares about things. He does.
But he’s not ready to share any of that with this kid, so instead, he says, “I care about hockey.”
Bittle’s eyes narrow and he shakes his head. “Don’t they play music at hockey games? Last I checked it was possible to both skate and listen at the same time.”
“Sorry,” Jack says again.
“No need to apologize to me,” Bittle says with an expansive gesture. “Lucky for you, Queen Bey is very forgiving.”
Jack doesn’t know what to make of that, so he takes another bite of the mediocre pie and hopes Bittle will change the subject.
The bed in Jack’s motel room feels like it’s made of cardboard, cotton batting, and springs, but he’s pretty exhausted, so it will do. He texts his parents and turns out the light, hoping to drift off. Bittle has the television on in the next room, some sort of talent competition. It’s loud enough that the wall between them might as well not exist.
Jack replays the day in his head, trying to come to some sort of solid opinion about this kid, Bittle. Knight had told him that he was sure they’d get along well, and maybe they were? Jack isn’t even sure.
The television next door clicks off, and Jack hears Bittle puttering around, opening and closing doors, and finally settling into bed.
After a few quiet minutes, through the wall he hears, “Goodnight, Jack!”
Jack’s face heats, even alone in the dark. “Night, Bittle,” he replies, hoping he’s loud enough to be heard.
“Sleep well!” is Bittle’s cheerful reply.
“Shut the fuck up!” someone shouts from a couple rooms away. Jack startles and pulls the thin blanket over his head.
While he’d been listening to Bittle, Bittle had been listening to him.
Jack knocks on Bittle’s door at five a.m, his breath visible in the early morning air, travel bag slung over his shoulder. The air smells of the fresh dewey damp of the surrounding fields, overlaid by the musk of diesel from the interstate and the acrid stench of the hotel dumpster.
Bittle’s groan is audible before he even cracks open the door.
“Are you joshin’ with me, Jack Zimmermann?” Bittle looks out at him, bleary-eyed, from beneath a wild mess of blonde curls. The light is not on in the room behind him.
“Did you look at the schedule?” Jack asks, a little flustered. Bittle is wearing a tight white t-shirt and purple jockeys. Jack tries not to stare. “We need to be on the road at 5 o’clock.”
There’s a long pause while Bittle looks at Jack, his expression a squinty, sleepy glare. Jack’s heart is pounding a touch too hard.
Finally, Bittle says, “I’ll need twenty minutes.”
Jack can’t stop himself from looking at his watch. “Fifteen?”
Bittle gently closes the door in Jack’s face.
Jack starts mentally rewriting the day’s mileage to account for a later start. It’s easier than continuing to think about Bittle’s thighs.
Jack waits in the truck, watching the morning slowly take shape around him. Bittle appears seventeen minutes later, dressed and with a hoodie on, cinched tight around his face. He doesn’t talk to Jack at all, just tosses his overnight bag in the back of the cab and climbs in.
There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts next to the gas station. Bittle slumps over to get himself coffee while Jack fills the tank.
Jack is in the driver’s seat studying the map when Bittle returns, holding two coffees.
“Didn’t know how you like it,” he says, thrusting one cup at Jack.
Jack gets a little rush of feeling that he can’t quite identify. “Black is fine.” He takes the cup. “Thanks.”
“We’re listening to Lemonade,” Bittle states, nestling his coffee in the cup holder, reclining his seat, and disappearing into his phone.
Jack turns the key as music starts, and he rides the unfamiliar rhythms out onto the interstate.
It’s a quiet morning on the road, just a few cars amid the steady flow of transports. Jack drives and Bittle sleeps, tucked into his hoodie, arms crossed and legs drawn up onto the seat. They make it past Chicago without getting caught up in too much traffic, and then it is just farmland as far as Jack can see.
Bittle’s music fills the cab, and Jack floats along with it. The reality is that Jack enjoys music, he just really doesn’t pay attention to what’s popular or which song is which. He occupies his time imagining what sets this music apart in a way that makes Bittle love it so much.
An hour out of Chicago, they hit a sudden slowdown. The change in speed rouses Bittle from his nap.
Bittle stretches and yawns, looking around.
“Oh Lord, Jack. I didn’t mean to be out for so long. Suppose I didn’t really get any sleep in that awful bed last night.”
Jack smiles, watching the brake lights ahead and finding a good rhythm to keep the truck inching along in the traffic. “It’s fine.”
“Also someone, who shall remain nameless, woke me up at five in the morning.”
Jack starts to say something back, but Bittle pops his seat up from reclining, and keeps talking.
“What’s this traffic about?” he asks, grabbing his phone.
“Don’t know,” Jack replies. He hasn’t seen any construction signs, but that seems most likely.
Bittle taps into his phone.
“Oh. Accident ahead. Not too far. Should be through this in a few minutes.”
Jack feels sweat break out across his lower back.
“Oh,” he says. “Good.”
Bittle fusses with his music and Jack manages the truck while his breath grows more and more shallow and his pulse picks up speed. The line of vehicles trapping them on the roadway appears endless.
They see the mass of flashing emergency lights after a few minutes.
“Looks like a mess up there,” Bittle says, craning up to get a better look.
Jack nods and stares ahead and tries to disguise that fact that his ears have started ringing and his chest feels like a brick is lodged in his lungs.
He has a variety of strategies to slow the pace of his heart and stop his mind from spinning out of control at moments like this, but all of them feel impossible to do with Bittle sitting right next to him. He just keeps the truck moving forward and tries not to let his gaze leave the car directly in front of them.
“Looks like a couple cars and… oh no. A motorcycle? Must have just happened,” Bittle continues his play-by-play of the on-coming scene and Jack’s vision tunnels.
He tries counting in his head, steady and slow, but the urge to jump out of the truck and run is almost irresistible.
After what feels like an eternity, Jack merges the truck into the single lane of cars that are creeping past the accident scene. He tries not to, but he glances over once. There’s a white sedan on its side, a pickup with most of the front end smashed in and the motorcycle Bittle had mentioned laying on the pavement. There are several ambulances with emergency techs buzzing around them, four fire trucks, and three police officers out on the road waving Jack through to the open interstate before him. He tries to breathe through the enormous weight that has lodged in his throat and chest, but he can’t.
“What a shame,” Bittle says as they pull past and Jack floors the truck to get away from the scene as fast as possible.
They fly down the highway, the endless farmscape a manic blur.
Jack can barely hear Bittle’s voice through the pounding in his ears.
“Jack, are you okay?”
Jack can’t get his voice to work, can’t suck in a lungful of air. Can’t even glance over at Bittle.
The next exit looks to take them deep into the middle of nowhere, but Jack pulls the truck onto the off-ramp anyway. They drive a short distance down a desolate highway to a patch of gravel on the side of the road. Jack doesn’t even turn the truck off before he’s out of the cab and walking, just trying to get his body to take a breath.
He hears Bittle’s footsteps, following him.
“Jack, why don’t you stop and sit down a minute? Can you do that?”
Jack pulls up and then sinks onto the ground, head to his knees. He breathes and breathes and breathes until he can finally feel the sharp gravel digging into his ass and the hot breeze stirred up by the occasional passing vehicle.
When he is able to look up, he realizes that Bittle is sitting right next to him, one knee casually touching Jack’s thigh. He’s breathing slowly too, in and out, like he thinks maybe if he stays calm, Jack will be able to calm down as well. Maybe he’s right.
“Sorry,” Jack says, followed by a long exhale. “Sorry.”
Bittle shakes his head. “You got nothing to be sorry about, Jack.”
“No, I do.”
Bittle is quiet for a moment. Jack looks over and he’s just staring out into the field of corn across from them.
“That was a lot.”
Jack’s not sure what Bittle’s referring to, so he doesn’t ask. Instead, he thinks back to the way the door to the smashed pickup had obviously needed to be pried open to get someone out.
“When do you think that happened?” he sputters, looking at the gravel.
“The car accident?”
Jack braces for Bittle to laugh at him, but he doesn’t. Instead he says, “Well, I don’t rightly know, but I’d guess maybe thirty minutes ago? Maybe a little more?”
Jack nods again, and a little of the weight in his chest releases. “Yeah.” He gets a little more air in his lungs and looks over at Bittle. “I’m glad you overslept.”
Bittle looks at him, gaze confused for a moment, then says, “You thinking that might have been us out there? In that wreck?”
Jack closes his eyes, and nods. This is what his brain does. And he knows what comes next, what always comes next when he’s panicked and revealed one of his unreasonable fears to someone. Bittle will explain that the chances of them being in an accident are so small that he should calm down. They are safe and sound and nothing bad could ever happen to them. And Jack will not feel an ounce better.
But instead, Bittle says, “Well, I suppose that could be. The timing was right if we’d hit the road a little earlier. But you know, I saw so many good people out there helping those folks, I’m thinking if it had been us, we’d be getting taken care of in the best sort of way right now.”
Jack looks over at Bittle, who is still staring out at the cornfield.
Bittle meets his gaze and smiles. “Sure.”
Jack takes his first truly calming deep breath. The brick in his chest loosens and lets more air in.
“When I play hockey, sometimes my body shuts down when I think a big hit is coming. I’ve worked real hard to overcome it, but it still happens sometimes. Even last season, I passed out on the ice two times, Jack. So.”
Jack feels Bittle’s knee nudge against him. He sighs and looks out at the sea of corn.
“I wish I had a different brain,” Jack says.
Bittle lets out a little puff of breath, like a scoff. “Well, then you wouldn’t be yourself. And you would never have met Shitty or needed a ride out to Portland, and who knows where you’d be then? Certainly not here with me! So don’t wish that, hon. I know we just met, but I’d say your brain seems to be in fine working order. Except for the lack of Beyoncé. But that can be remedied.”
Jack laughs a little at that, and Bittle’s knee nudges his again. He’s suddenly wrapped in the smell of the warm cornfields and rich soil. It’s very quiet.
“Do you mind if we just sit here for a few minutes?” Jack asks.
“Course not. And I’ll drive the next leg, whatever your plan says, mister.”
Jack smiles. Bittle leans his head back, eyes closed, his face bathed by the sun.
When they get back into the truck a few minutes later, Jack thinks that maybe Eric Bittle might be a good friend to have.
“When was your first kiss?”
Bittle drops this question into an easy silence that had stretched over a long patch of cornfields, only his endless playlist to break the quiet.
“My first kiss?” Jack repeats, even though he’d heard Bittle just fine. His brain rockets around trying to figure out what to say.
“Mine was in ninth grade. Her name was Siena,” Bittle says, hands on the steering wheel, his voice taking on a storytelling grandeur. “You heard me right. Her. Don’t be shocked. It was at a cast party after our school production of Little Shop of Horrors. I’d had a wine cooler, and she was sitting in my lap. Needless to say, it was horrifying. Lord, I knew I liked boys, but I didn’t know how very much until that moment, bless her heart. How ‘bout you, Jack?”
Jack’s pulse races. He thinks about how open Bittle has been with him, how easy he is to just sit with. How he’d known exactly what to say when Jack’s whirling thoughts were at their worst. Jack’s never been able to talk to anyone about this sort of thing. He opens his mouth and words come out.
“It was my best friend. We were sixteen.”
Bittle glances over at Jack for a moment. “Aww, that’s sweet! Were wine coolers involved?”
“No.” Jack takes a breath and keeps talking, his gaze fixed out onto the open highway. He can’t feel his limbs. “He’d scored a hatty that afternoon, though.”
The silence is long enough that Jack knows Bittle heard him, loud and clear.
“Well ain’t that something,” Bittle says, sort of quiet.
“I guess,” Jack answers lamely, his face hot.
The music fills the silence that follows.
After a moment, Bittle looks over at Jack and asks brightly, “So. Did you ever kiss him again?”
Jack licks his lips and nods. “Yep.”
“Still do sometimes. When we see each other. It’s…” Jack can’t believe that he’s saying any of this, but the words just keep coming. “It’s complicated.”
Bittle is quiet again, like he’s thinking.
“What’s his name?” Bittle asks after a minute.
Jack hesitates a moment, and then settles on, “Kenny.”
Bittle snorts, and Jack flinches for a moment, sure that he’s just outed himself and Parse to this total stranger for no reason.
But then Bittle giggles and says, “How come when you say the name Kenny, he sounds like a sophisticated intellectual who reads Russian novels for fun, but when I say the name Kenny, he sounds like a backwoods hick who spends his days trapping bullfrogs and shooting squirrels for dinner?”
Jack grins. “He’s definitely not either of those.”
“kenNY, KENny.” Bittle keeps saying the name over and over again with various accents until they are both breaking up.
“Do you like how I say Siena?” Jack asks.
“Ooo,” Bittle teases. “So very fancy, Mr. French-Canada!”
Jack feels his cheeks grow hot. “Siena,” he says again.
“Kenny,” Bittle replies, in something that sounds like a mix of Swedish and Australian. Then he freezes and shouts, “Oh I have the best idea! Let’s put on the Little Shop of Horrors soundtrack! Oh my lord, yes!”
Bittle tosses his phone at Jack and starts singing some show tune at top volume, and Jack can’t stop laughing.
After an over eighteen hour day on the road, they finally stop at a funky looking motel off the interstate in Wyoming.
They’d pulled in for dinner at a drive-through several hours earlier, but Bittle suggests they check out the bar next to the motel before bed, which seems to be open and has a surprisingly clean and welcoming vibe. Most of the customers are seated at the bar. They take a table in the corner. Bittle orders a gin and tonic. Jack gets a coffee.
Jack is weirdly wired after the long day on the road.
Bittle sighs and stretches and Jack watches the muscles in his shoulders move under his skin.
“That was one long-ass day,” Bittle says.
They spend a few minutes recounting the highlights of the trip so far. For Bittle, it’s been seeing the country for the first time, the hugeness of the prairie, the openness of the sky.
“For me, it was definitely listening to all that Rihanna,” Jacks says innocently.
“Excuse me, Jack Zimmermann?” Bittle says, staring at him, drink in hand.
“That’s her name, right?” Jack allows himself a little raise of the eyebrow grin.
“You best be teasing, sir, or we will be having very strict lessons in diva identification tomorrow.” But Bittle’s grinning too, and they both laugh. “You are impossible, Jack,” he says.
They fall silent for a minute, and Jack stares at the pattern printed into the table top.
“You know how I got, thinking about that accident this morning?” Jack asks.
“I do,” Bittle says.
“I just…” Jack tries to get his thoughts to line up and come out in some sort of coherent order. “When things seem to be going my way, going well, I just… my brain decides I don’t deserve it. Like if I lose focus for a minute, I’ll end up getting smashed. And well, things are pretty good right now, so I…”
Jack pauses. What he means to say is too complicated. He takes a sip of his coffee instead. It’s very bitter.
“Why would you think you don’t deserve to be happy?” Bittle asks.
Jack shakes his head. “Experience, I guess.”
Bittle gives him a look, kind of annoyed but also kind, and puts his hand out, palm up on the table. “Well, I can’t speak to your experiences, but I don’t see a sign hanging round your neck that says Made to Suffer. You’re a sweet, handsome, funny man, far as I can tell.”
Without thinking too hard, Jack lets himself reach out and take Bittle’s offered hand with his own.
“You too,” is what he manages to say.
They hold hands for a moment, and it’s perfect.
But Jack feels it when the moment gets away from him. His hand stays on Bittle’s for a touch too long. Their eyes meet, Bittle’s gaze so kind and warm, and neither of them look away. Jack’s breathing shallows, just a little, and his heart speeds up. Bittle bites his lip and Jack thinks, for a moment, that he’s going to lean into him, can even imagine how soft Bittle’s lips would feel pressing against his.
It’s nothing, really. Just a look. Jack plays the moment over and over in his head for days after.
But Bittle abruptly pulls his hand out from under Jack’s grasp and shakes himself and says, “Jack. I have a boyfriend.”
Jack sits back, his breath coming fast. “Huh?”
“I… we can’t.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“I’d never do that to him.” Bittle slumps back into his seat, arms crossed over his chest, his gaze everywhere but towards Jack.
Jack’s pulse is still elevated. He looks at the floor. “Oh yeah. Of course.”
Bittle shoves his chair back from the table and stands quickly, knocking into the edge hard enough to spill some of Jack’s coffee. “I think that’s it for me. I’ll be ready in the morning. Night, Jack.”
He retreats in rapid steps out of the bar. Jack watches him go.
Bittle is dressed and ready and standing by the truck when Jack comes out of his room the next morning. He smiles and says a cheerful, “Good morning.”
Jack can’t tell if he’s relieved or crushed that they are just going to ignore whatever it was that happened the night before.
It’s with them, though. All day. They never get back to that easy quiet between them. There’s no laughter. Jack is thankful that they are driving through the most beautiful mountain landscapes possible so that they can at least remark on that, rather than sit in awkward silence all day. Bittle spends a lot of his time, when he’s not driving, on his phone.
Jack texts the family he’s billeting within Portland until he can get his own place, letting them know he’ll be getting in later that night. They send back a picture of the room they have ready for him along with a welcome message containing eight exclamation points.
Whatever magic had fueled the first legs of the trip is gone. Jack just wants to get to Portland and on with his life.
It’s past dark when they finally pull in front of the unremarkable suburban house that is Jack’s new temporary home. Jack turns off the truck. Neither he nor Bittle move or speak in the silence.
“Guess this is it,” Jack says.
“Guess so,” Bittle says.
“You have my number,” Jack says. “If you ever need anything.”
“Yeah,” Bittle says. “That’s probably not the best idea.”
Jack’s heart feels like it weighs a hundred pounds. “Not like that. Just, neither of us really know anyone else out here.”
In the dim light, Jack can see Bittle’s smile.
“That’s sweet. But I don’t think…it’s a four-hour drive. You’ll have your team. I’ll have my program. It’ll be great, Jack.”
Jack can’t figure out a single thing to say to that, so he just nods and opens up the door to the truck to start unloading, and just like that, he’s out of Eric Bittle’s life.
As Bittle drives away, Jack waves once and Bittle raises his hand for a moment and then he’s gone.