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A Fair Return

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Patrick shoves his bags into the trunk of his car, moving as fast as he can, trying to let the simple physical action take up all the space in his head. He wants it to drown out the scene that’s been playing on an endless loop behind his eyes since the night before.

You always fucking come back. This is no different.

It doesn’t work. He closes the trunk, hard, almost wishing to break something, the car or, hell, even his hand: to generate some emergency that could distract him more effectively.

He doesn’t manage it. And he isn’t so far gone, yet, that he’s gonna do it on purpose. He’s not that kind of guy, who would break his knuckles punching a wall because he can’t handle his own emotions. He’s more controlled than that. He takes a deep breath, then another, and doesn’t put his fist through the window of his sensible grey Toyota Corolla.

The night before, he broke it off with Rachel. He’s broken it off with Rachel before, lots of times, but not in the last year, and not since they got engaged ten months ago. He has no fucking idea how to make it stick this time around.

*

Patrick proposed to Rachel in a moonlit park, after a nice dinner in a restaurant way too fancy for them to afford very often. His parents had encouraged him to do it in the restaurant, to make everyone clap and cheer for them, but Patrick couldn’t bear the idea of all those strangers watching him while he tried to get the words out. He told himself it was because it was a private moment between the two of them―Patrick was a private kind of guy, after all―but it was also because he was incredibly, overwhelmingly nervous. Nervous she’d say no, nervous she’d say yes, his emotions were all over the place in the days leading up to it. Rachel had been hinting at the idea of getting engaged over the last couple months, since the last time they’d gotten back together, and he knew, logically, that she’d say yes. But still, Patrick felt like the result of the proposal was completely unpredictable. When he tried to imagine the moments after it, the days and weeks after it, what his life would look like once he was engaged, his mind came up blank.

He was nervous, that was the problem; he was nervous.

So he did it after they left the restaurant, walking Rachel to a nearby park bench, getting down on one knee in the dewy grass and giving her the ring he’d bought a couple of weeks before. It was white gold, her favourite, with a simple small diamond arrangement. It fit her finger perfectly, because he’d surreptitiously measured her other rings, and it was conflict-free, because that was the kind of thing they both cared about.

“It’s beautiful!” she cried, when she saw it. “Dude, yes, I would totally love to marry you!”

He laughed, because it was a perfectly Rachel thing to say, and he loved her in that moment. They hugged, and then they kissed, and they held hands on their way out of the park.

Rachel was so happy, grinning and bouncing, that Patrick felt happy too, like maybe the long years of messy breakups could finally be behind them. It was a relief, really, to have finally made this decision; what he was feeling was relief.

He made himself a promise, right then, to do right by her this time, and felt his resolve harden in his chest. Rachel had been his friend for longer than anyone, longer than they’d been dating. He owed her better than what he’d done in the past. He’d called it off with her so many times that it had become a running joke among their families and friends: You two break up yet today? Patrick’s friend Mike had said to them once. He could tell that Rachel didn’t like that; she flushed behind her freckles and shut down when people brought up their storied history. He hated that she felt embarrassed about it, and at the same time felt embarrassed himself, that he couldn’t commit to her. When he thought about another ten years like the last ten years, stringing her along six months at a time, dating other women in between, always giving up and going back to her, he felt sick. He felt angry. He needed something different.

So he did what his dad and mom and cousins and friends had been telling him to do for years now: he proposed. And when he saw the look in Rachel’s eyes, that joy and relief, he’d felt joy and relief too, like he’d finally made the right choice.

And it kept feeling that way for a little while. Or else, he’d held it together for a while, trying to think his way through it: she was a good person, and funny, and sweet, and he cared about her. It all added up, it all made perfect sense. They had tons of stuff in common; they knew how to talk to each other, when to tease and when to comfort; they’d seen each other through illnesses and dying family members and university and shitty jobs; they shared favourite tv shows and bands; and Patrick felt more comfortable with her sexually than with anyone else in his life, even though he’d never really been a very sexual person.

But eventually, even if he could convince himself of all that in the daytime, the nights got worse: at night he felt a deep sense of unease, a creeping despair that came over him while he lay awake in the darkness, Rachel’s sleeping body pressed against his, and his thoughts began to swarm. What if she gets pregnant. What if she wants to buy a house. What if my parents offer to help us buy a house. Thoughts that would make other people happy, thoughts that should make him happy, just made him feel dread. He lived in fear of those milestones, and he knew that wasn’t right, but he argued himself down, every time. He was just nervous. He was a commitment-phobe, he had trust issues to work on; he could be kind of an asshole, and he knew it. He and Rachel were perfect for each other. Everyone said so. He needed to get over it. He needed to be a better person.

When they saw each other, a few times a week, he tried to be a good fiancé: he cooked them dinner, joked around, brought her little gifts―holiday-themed socks, habanero peppers, things he knew she’d like. He talked to her mom on the phone when she was fed up with talking to her mom on the phone; he watched TV shows she liked and he didn’t; he went down on her, and worked hard to come when she returned the favour.

He told himself he’d feel better after the wedding, when things were more settled. And when he was less tired. He found he was always tired, since the proposal, coming home after work and just collapsing on the couch, zoning out in front of the TV. Friends would invite him over for dinner or board games, or invite him out for some pick-up baseball or a movie, but he never seemed to have the energy, anymore. He went to work, and he paid the attention to Rachel that he owed her, and that seemed to be as much as he could manage.

He went to the doctor about it. They tested him for Lyme. Other things, too. The tests all came back fine, and the doctor shrugged.

“Have you considered seeing a therapist?”

Patrick shook his head. His life was full; all the pieces were in place; he had no reason to be unhappy. Other people should get therapy. It was a good thing for people to do, in general. Everyone should feel free to go to therapy and really there was too much social stigma against it, but Patrick himself had no reason to go.

So he went on feeling tired. Maybe it was just how people felt in their thirties.

“You should play me something,” Rachel said, one night, when they were reading next to each other on Patrick’s couch. “You haven’t played me a song in forever.”

Patrick blinked in surprise. He hadn’t even thought about his guitar in weeks. Months, maybe. It occurred to him that he used to play all the time.

“Yeah, I’m really out of practice, babe,” he said.

She shrugged. “So get back in practice. I don’t mind if you’re rusty.”

It was eminently practical, just like she always was. It was one of the things they had in common, that made them such a good fit. So he dug his guitar out of the closet and dusted it off, tuning it quickly.

He tried a bunch of bits of songs, fiddling around, flitting from one to the other, indecisive. Then he played a few in earnest, just the ones that came to him off the top of his head. Nothing he’d written, just some stuff he remembered the chords for. He didn’t sound too bad, he thought.

“Jesus,” Rachel said, after the fourth or fifth one. “You know I love the sad ones, and I love the way you sing them, but just once can you play something happy?”

That’s when Patrick realized that his fingers hadn’t found a major key all night. He put his guitar back in his closet and closed the door.

“I’m sorry,” Rachel said, when he came back to sit next to her. Her eyes were anxious, worried she’d hurt him. “I’m sorry. You can play what you feel like. I’ll listen to sad songs all night if you want.”

“No, it’s okay. Just not in a good mood today, I guess.”

She frowned at him, and rubbed his back. “Anything I can help with? You wanna talk about it?”

“No,” Patrick said, because he couldn’t even imagine where to start to articulate the feeling in his chest, heavy and empty at the same time. “It’s okay. Thanks for being here.”

She kissed him, because she loved him, and wanted him to know it. He kissed her back, for the same reason.

*

When everyone in their lives started talking about wedding planning, about venues and colours and flowers, it all got worse. The dread in his chest expanded. He panicked. Rachel told him she’d picked out a dress already, because she’d found something gorgeous on sale, so he went in to get fitted for a suit. His dad went with him, smiling and telling him how happy he’d be when he wore this jacket to marry Rachel, and Patrick couldn’t catch his breath for a minute.

It was too real. This jacket: this was the jacket he’d wear to marry Rachel. He’d look like this, and feel like this, on the day they got married.

“I can’t help but notice you two haven’t set a date yet,” his dad went on, idly poking at the racks of suits in the shop. “Venues need to be booked early, son.”

“I know,” Patrick said, because he did know that, he’d done all the research and knew all the steps. He’d hoped that doing all the research would make him less anxious, or more decisive.

“Are you thinking spring? Because spring of next year is a long time away. You could probably still book some things around here for late summer or fall. This October? I bet George would give you a discount to rent the legion hall.”

It felt like being asked to set a countdown clock for his own execution.

Patrick sat down heavily on the little bench. He didn’t feel he could keep standing up. Where was the tailor? He said he’d just be out of the room for a second.

“October could be nice,” he said. “Not so hot.”

“So long as it doesn’t start snowing early,” his dad agreed.

“Well, global climate change,” Patrick said. His dad nodded.

There was an image behind his eyes, then, of a giant red ticking timer, numbers counting down. Patrick realized, in that moment, that he’d seen it before, that it’d been playing in the back of his mind for weeks. His hand tightened on the knee of the suit pants, and he forced himself to relax again, to let go. He’d wrinkle the material.

The tailor came back in, and Patrick swallowed and stood up and managed a smile, but he couldn’t shake that image, the red numbers ticking down towards inevitability, and he had to admit to himself that it wasn’t normal, it wasn’t a normal way to feel, even for a commitment-phobe, even for an asshole like him.

He got through the rest of the fitting, making small talk with his dad and the tailor, joking about formal wear: oh, we can never look as good as the ladies of course, oh, but they deserve this special day, don’t they, oh, what we go through for them, oh, the old ball and chain, ha ha, but we love them really. Nothing Patrick hadn’t heard before.

Later, alone in his apartment, he panicked, pacing, squeezing and kneading his hands together, sweating, until he finally managed to sit himself down and breathe for a few minutes.

He was crying, had been crying for a while. He was scared, and had been scared for months. He felt it, then, all at once.

The idea of calling off the engagement was ridiculous and terrifying. He could barely even approach the thought of it in his mind without feeling nauseated. It was literally unthinkable. No one in his life would accept it, or if they did accept it, they’d never respect him again. He could imagine the kind of gossip that would fly around town about it: oh, did you hear, Patrick fucked up again, could imagine people shaking their heads over it, making jokes. And how could he do that to Rachel? After all he’d put her through? He’d hate himself. Surely he wasn’t that much of a dick.

But even more terrifying was the increasingly clear picture of what his life would be like if he didn’t. He imagined himself in the future, miserable, always as miserable as he felt now, every day, for the rest of his life, only ever playing sad songs on the guitar. He imagined himself miserable with kids, miserable doing the same work day in and day out, for his whole life. He imagined feeling this tired, too, for the rest of his life, imagined it getting worse, year after year, until he couldn’t take it anymore. He was coldly terrified of where that story might end.

He had to end the relationship now, instead, for good this time. If he couldn’t keep his promise, if he couldn’t make himself be happy, then he had to call it off forever.

The problem was, he’d called it off forever at least three times before. He thought Rachel had, too, at least once. Some of their breakups had been more amicable, or more wistful, but there had definitely been a bunch of forevers in there.

Maybe that was why it took him two weeks to get up the courage to do it. His suit arrived from the tailor’s, neat and expensive, wrapped in plastic. He hung it in the closet. He thought about how it’d be a waste not to use it, and he thought about the sunk cost fallacy.

His entire life was a sunk cost fallacy.

He saw Rachel; he laughed with her; he kept trying, God, he kept trying even after he knew he couldn’t do it. Even after he knew he was going to call it off. He thought about it while they ate together, while they did the dishes, while they talked about Rachel’s asshole boss, while they fucked: he thought about how he was going to call it off. He was pretty sure that made him even more of an asshole, but every time he tried to find the words, tried to tell her, he choked.

One Thursday, he came home early from work to find Rachel in his apartment, which wasn’t strange considering she had a key and spent a lot of time there. What was a little more unusual was that his mom was there, too. There were magazine clippings all over the table, and Rachel’s computer was open to some kind of wedding website, displaying bridesmaid dresses and decorations. There was a picture of a man and a woman, impossibly beautiful and happy, heads bent together as they exchange rings.

They’re actors, Patrick thought, wildly. It didn’t mean anything.

“Oh, Patrick!” his mom said. “You’re home early.”

Patrick was, in fact, home early; Colin had left for an afternoon meeting and Patrick had taken his chance to skip out on a couple of hours of work when the boss wouldn’t notice. He’d told himself he could get caught up tomorrow; he was just so tired, today.

Rachel stood up and kissed Patrick quickly on the mouth. “We were trying to figure out colour schemes. Your suit is grey, right?”

“Yeah,” Patrick said. “I can get a tie and pocket square in the right colour once we decide on it.” He was going to break up with her, though; he would never buy that tie or that pocket square. He was lying.

All at once he was taken over by a wave of deep, powerful anger: anger at Rachel and his mom, for doing all this work that was going to be useless; anger at himself for being too much of a coward to tell her, to stop them from doing it; anger at the tailor, who had sent along a nice note about his special day along with the suit; anger at the entire situation. He felt an urge to scream, to sweep all the wedding preparation stuff to the ground, to pick up the sensible Acer Chromebook that Rachel got on sale and break it in half. He felt an urge to cry, and his throat started to close up in anticipation.

“Good. Your mom likes gold and hot pink.”

Patrick’s mom laughed. “I was joking!” she protested.

“I don’t think we’re going to do gold and hot pink,” Patrick said, smiling at his mother. “Or, in fact, trusting any of your decisions anymore.” His heart was racing; his mind felt full and slow, stuffed with cotton. He just wanted the conversation to be over.

His mom rolled her eyes at him. “Well, whatever you settle on, the important thing is just that you’re getting married. Don’t let all these little decisions make you lose sight of that.”

“Yeah,” Patrick said, barely getting the word out.

“You’re right, Marcy,” Rachel agreed. “That’s good advice.”

“Well. I guess I had better get going, let you two fight it out in peace.” She picked up her handbag and grabbed her coat off the rack by the door.

Patrick and Rachel both gave her a hug, Rachel for a little longer, because Rachel really loved his mom, and his mom really loved her. It was another thing that Patrick had to take away from her. From both of them, really. He wanted to be sick.

Once his mom was out the door, Rachel turned to him, hands in her jeans pockets, smiling. “You wanna go out for dinner, since you’re home so early?”

Patrick looked at all the magazines spread across the table; probably stuff his mother had found at yard sales or stolen from the hair salon. Probably stuff she had been saving for months, or for years. Patrick was her only child, and so he was the only location for her to pin all of her hopes and dreams.

His mom had asked him, weeks ago, if he wanted to give Rachel his grandmother’s wedding band. He still hadn’t gotten back to her with an answer.

He looked at Rachel’s soft, smiling face, at Rachel who had loved him and supported him for years, even when he left her hanging, even when he broke up with her over and over, or worse, when he got sullen and withdrawn and forced her to do it first. She had given up years of her life for him.

“I want to break up,” Patrick said, all in a rush, and it felt like vomiting, that same horrible disgusting out-of-control feeling. Rachel’s eyes widened, just for a second, and then narrowed.

“That’s funny,” she said, in a flat voice. She looked down at the table. Maybe she was thinking the same thoughts Patrick was, about his mom, about how disappointed his mom was going to be.

“I mean it,” Patrick said.

She brushed past him, picking up her glass and filling it at the sink. With her back to him, she said, “I know we’ve been through some shit, Patrick, but you can’t―can’t joke around about it, not anymore, it’s not okay.” She took a drink.

When she turned back around, he tried again. “I’m not joking. I walked in here and I saw all this―” he gestured at the table― “and I don’t want it, Rach. I can’t do it.”

There was a certain euphoria in saying it, a sense of relief. Whatever good feeling he had, though, was shattered when he noticed that she was crying.

“Don’t want a wedding? Or don’t want me?”

He couldn’t bring himself to say I don’t want you, not even then, not even when it was true. So he said, “I want to break up,” again.

That was when, in a cold voice and with hot tears slipping down her cheeks, she asked him why.

That was the question, wasn’t it. Patrick didn’t know the answer, not really. He just knew he couldn’t go through with it. He tried to explain it to her anyway, tried to explain why he wouldn’t want to marry a beautiful, funny, kind person who loved him and knew everything about him, why he wouldn’t want to spend his life with someone loyal and good, someone who had been his friend for so long. They worked, together: on paper, at least, they worked perfectly. He can’t find the flaw in that calculation but he knows there is one, knows there must be one, somewhere: he feels it.

“I don’t see how it can ever work between us,” he said. “I’m not―I’m so sorry, Rach. But I’m not happy. I’m miserable. I try to make it work, but nothing―nothing I do makes it work.” This with frustration. There was still a part of him insisting that he try to fix it. That he could fix it, if he tried harder. He pushed that part away.

Rachel laughed bitterly, wiping a tear away.

“You’ll come back,” she said, her voice an accusation, choked with snot because she always got snotty when she cried. If he weren’t the source of it, he’d get her a tissue. “You always fucking come back. This is no different.”

“No,” Patrick said, wishing, hoping that he was right, “no, I won’t, it’s for good. I can’t. I can’t anymore. I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry―” and that was when he started crying, and when she yelled at him, told him to stop it, that she couldn’t fucking stand it if he was going to cry, that she couldn’t fucking stand it if he chose to do this to them and then thought he got to cry about it. She was right; he was a piece of shit; he didn’t deserve to cry at all, much less in front of her. He did, though, he kept crying after she left his place, kept crying on and off for the rest of the day, until finally, in his bed very late at night, he fell into fitful doze. His last, bitter thought before sleep was: at least that’s over.

But in the cold light of day the next morning, he heard her words again, and started to worry that she was right. That’s what had always happened before, after all. The terror he’d been feeling, inching up on him over the months, surged again inside him, clenching his stomach and filling his brain with noise.

What would his mom say. What would his dad say. What would Rachel’s mom say. What would everyone at work say. He tried to imagine those conversations, tried to imagine himself navigating his way through them, each one more painful than the last. He tried to imagine continuing his life here.

He looked around his apartment. Over the last ten months, Rachel had suggested a few times that they move in together. He’d resisted the idea, saying that he wanted to keep their spaces separate until the wedding. The plan had been for Rachel to move in here, after, and then to look for bigger space together when they could. The place wasn’t bad―Patrick kept it clean and tidy, filled with simple, practical furniture that Rachel had helped him pick out, that they had both agreed on in the store based on price and utility. He’d move some of his sports memorabilia and 4-H trophies to make room for hers, right next to them; they’d get another bookshelf to put her scifi and romance in next to his nonfiction. She already had drawers in the dresser, and Patrick already kept her favourite foods in the kitchen, and there were already photos of them together on the wall. Their life together was already written into this space, ready and waiting for them to fill it. An expectation for the shape that Patrick should mold himself into.

He felt like he couldn’t breathe, like all that stuff was a weight pushing on his chest. And he knew, he knew, that he couldn’t stay there.

The decision came to him suddenly, his thoughts coalescing into a single impulse, the emotion, the desire, overwhelming his logical objections. Before he could start arguing with himself, he had his big duffel bag on the bed and was filling it with his clothes.

He wasn’t going to let himself go back again. He couldn’t. He couldn’t do that to either of them.

*

He packs the car up tight, until the only remaining empty space is the driver’s seat and enough of the back window to see out of. He goes back up to the apartment one last time. He hadn’t packed any kitchen stuff, or linens, or half of his clothes. He’ll ask his landlady to donate it all for him. He took all the personal items, though, and a lot of his books.

Looking over what’s left behind, he sees the useless remnants of his own life over the last ten years. He sees time wasted. There’s nothing here he can’t do without.

He almost leaves the pictures on the walls, then relents, and packs them up in a box with the rest of Rachel’s stuff. He’ll drop it at her apartment while she’s at work. On his way out of town. Along with his key to her apartment.

He walks downstairs, out his door, turns around, and knocks on his landlady’s door.

“I’m breaking my lease,” he says, when she opens it.

*

Patrick thinks about stopping to tell his mom and dad that he’s leaving town. Their house isn’t far away from his place. Or from Rachel’s place, for that matter, or from his aunt and uncle’s place, or from his job, or from Rachel’s job. The three square miles of his entire existence.

He knows what his dad will say: You’ve got a good life here, Patrick, and a good woman who loves you. He knows what his mom will say: Honey, we just want you to be happy. Can you at least tell us why you’re so unhappy? Let us help. He knows because they’ve said it to him half a dozen times before. And they’ve always been right, and reasonable, and he’s never been able to explain it. He still can’t explain it, but he knows, deep down, that he needs to change. He needs to change . . . something. Maybe everything.

But as clear as that is to him, he also knows that there are all kinds of people around here who can talk him out of it. They’ve done it before. He’s let them do it before.

You’ll come back. This is no different.

He texts his parents instead of going over there or calling, and he feels like a coward, and he feels something else, too. Brave, maybe. Steady, dependable Patrick: it’s not like him to do something like this. Maybe that’s why he has to do it, he thinks. Make the illogical choice. Do the thing that doesn’t add up.

Last of all, he emails his boss.

A couple months back, he’d called in sick every day for a week, telling himself each morning that he was going to take the time to apply for new jobs, to find something more exciting and challenging than creating financial plans for subsidiaries of corporate clients. Telling himself that was the change he needed. Then he’d spent the week on the couch, not doing very much of anything, helplessly watching the hours roll past him. The following Monday, he’d gone back to work, and quietly accepted well-wishes for the terrible flu he’d had.

He could ask Colin for leave. He could say all kinds of things: medical emergency, death in the family. That would be the safer route. It’s a good job. Steady. Good money. He’s been working himself up the ladder, and would probably be due for a promotion soon.

Patrick writes the words accept my resignation effective immediately and sends the email off.

When he can’t think of any more bridges to burn, he gets in the car and starts driving. He hopes to God it’s enough.

Rachel’s voice still rings in his head: This is no different.

*

Ten hours later, driving through the dark, he sees a sign for a town called Schitt’s Creek. He laughs to himself, and if it sounds hysterical, well, he’s the only one in the car to hear it.

He pulls off the highway.

*

There’s an old run-down motel in town, but it’s after midnight and the front office is locked and dark. Patrick knocks anyway, just in case, but no one comes to the door. He sighs and considers getting back on the road―hilariously appropriate name aside, he might as well find a town that has a Super 8―but his eyes are fuzzy with the long day of driving and he can’t bear the idea of starting back up again. It’s a surprisingly warm night, for early spring; he covers himself with a pile of coats from the back seat, and sleeps in his car.

*

When he wakes up, he’s freezing, and his phone is buzzing; he realizes after a few seconds that it’s been buzzing for a while. He glances at the screen: texts from his dad, his mom, his cousins, from Brad at work, and from Rachel: lots and lots of texts from Rachel.

Patrick reads them all. They all say the same things they always say. Then he puts his phone down in his lap and breathes and breathes. When that stops working, he cries for a while. When that stops working, he looks up real estate agents in Schitt’s Creek, Ontario.

He’ll find a place to stay. He’ll find a job, something to fill in the time and pay the bills so he doesn’t have to dig too much into his savings. And literally no one in this town will know a single thing about him. That thought on its own is so deeply appealing that he finds himself thinking it over and over: no one will know him, no one will expect anything of him, no one will ask him to explain himself. The relief that courses through him as he thinks those thoughts is like fresh air, like a sudden clean gale of wind through a finally opened window.

He texts his mom back. I’m fine. Gonna be out of town for a while, figuring things out. Love to everyone.

He texts Rachel, too, because he owes it to her: I’m sorry. I can’t anymore. You deserve better than me. It’s over.

Wiping his face, he starts the car.

*

Patrick walks into Ray Butani’s house-slash-office-slash-studio at ten in the morning, looking for a lead on an apartment.

“So, Patrick, there are some really lovely bachelor apartments around town that I would love to show you to. Or are we looking for something larger?”

“Something small,” Patrick says. “I’m not sure how long I’m going to be staying.” It might be better, in fact, to go back and get a room at that little motel he saw; what if he wanted to move on after a few days or a couple weeks?

“Well, there isn’t a property owner alive who doesn’t love to hear that!” Ray laughs good-naturedly, but Patrick frowns. Now that he thinks about it, he hasn’t really positioned himself well here. He’s always had a plan in his life, before, always had the steps laid out in front of him. But now he’s at the end of the line: he hasn’t showered, has no job, and has no idea where he’s going to spend the night.

“So, what do you do, Patrick?” Ray asks.

Patrick doesn’t actually know what he does anymore, so he settles on describing his old job. “I’m a . . . financial manager. But I’m traveling. Just, you know. Been traveling around. Looking for work.”

“An itinerant financial manager, right,” Ray says. Patrick’s only known the man for half an hour, but he’s already pretty sure that things are going badly when Ray doesn’t sound cheerful anymore.

“I have savings, I could show you a bank statement,” Patrick says.

“Okay! And perhaps your previous landlord would give you a reference?”

“I kind of . . . broke my lease,” Patrick admits.

“Uh-huh.” Ray appears to consider for a moment, and then his smile blooms on his face again. “Patrick, it occurs to me that I have a room to let here in this house. It’s not big, and you’d be sharing the kitchen and bathroom, but it is something I’d be happy to rent out on a month-to-month basis. With your last month’s rent deposit, of course.”

“Really?” Patrick asks. He hates how desperate he sounds. He should have been able to figure this out on his own, but he’d needed so badly to leave, and it had seemed like the only option at the time, to get as far away as possible.

“Sure. Let me show it to you. You know, I’d also be happy to lease you some office space here if you were interested in setting up shop. I do know a lot of people around town who could use advice on financial affairs.”

“I would think that my use of the common household space for my own small business wouldn’t require any additional payment,” Patrick points out, standing up with Ray. Ray waggles a finger at him.

“Very astute, Patrick, I can see that you must be a good financial manager. Perhaps I’ll hire you myself.”

Two hours after he walked in, Patrick walks out again, with a room, a sort-of job, and what feels like a new best friend; Ray is chatty and kind and, apparently, taking him out for lunch.

“You’ll have to go to the café eventually,” Ray says, walking there with him. It’s pretty far from his house to the centre of town, which is to say, about ten blocks; there really isn’t that much town here to speak of. “Everyone does.”

“Any other places to eat around here?” Patrick asks, to make conversation. Ray tells him about the pizza place on the highway just outside of town, the co-op grocery store that sometimes has ready-made stuff, and then launches into a confusing litany about Chinese food places that leaves Patrick unsure about whether there is one in town or whether there just used to be one. Old Mr Chen died, heart attack, tragic, and his son took over the business, and his son was involved in a really messy breakup with people named Linda and Heather, that much Patrick’s sure of, but whether the restaurant soldiers on or not is a mystery.

He smiles to himself, during this story; he kind of likes Ray. Certainly he can hold up a conversation, even when his partner in the endeavour maybe isn’t pulling his own weight.

“So, Patrick, where are you from?” Ray asks, as they finally reach the café and get settled in a booth. There aren’t that many other people here: a few men in plaid and trucker hats seated at the counter, nursing coffees and talking to each other in sporadic three- and four-word sentences; two women seated at a table together, one laughing out loud, the other smiling softly; a older guy with startling black eyebrows sitting in a booth with a woman much younger than he is: his daughter, maybe.

“About eight hours west,” Patrick replies, noncommittally. “Small town.”

“Ah? My family’s from Winnipeg, so I make that drive a couple of times a year. Where is it exactly?”

“Near Kenora,” Patrick says. For some reason he doesn’t want to even say the name of his hometown, doesn’t want to speak it here. He wants that clean-air feeling from last night, the feeling that no one here has to know anything about him.

“Well, we know it’s a small town when Kenora is the reference point,” Ray smiles, letting him off the hook. Patrick feels a little relief roll through him. “What made you stop here?”

That’s a little easier. “I was tired of driving, honestly. It’d been a long day. And the sign made me laugh.”

Ray smiles. “I’ll have to tell Roland―that’s our mayor―I’ll have to tell him that; he loves our town sign. You know, Patrick, back when I first came here, I stopped because of the sign, too.”

Sipping his tea, Patrick asks, “What made you leave Winnipeg?”

Shaking his head, Ray says, “I was a much younger man, and it was a different time. I didn’t think there was a life for me there. Well. You know how it is, being a young man yourself! You want to reject everything your parents planned for you. Now that I’m older, though, it just means I have to drive a long way to get to family reunions!”

“Yeah,” Patrick says. He thinks this over. He’s in his thirties, which is a little late to be rebelling, but on the other hand, he never did it when he was seventeen. “You must miss your family a lot, being so far away.”

Ray shrugs. “I have my life here.”

They eat really indifferent sandwiches with mostly edible fries, and Ray asks him more questions about himself. Patrick doesn’t lie, but he doesn’t mention Rachel, or his weird sudden exit from the town where he’d grown up and lived his whole life, though it must be obvious to Ray that something unusual happened for him to wash up in this town with no job and nowhere to stay. Ray seems to notice his hesitance to talk about it, after a while, and starts talking about himself instead, about the town, giving Patrick gossip on everyone in the café.

“And over in the booth is Johnny Rose and his daughter, Alexis,” Ray says, gesturing with his head. “Of the Rose family. Quite an intriguing local story.”

“Wait, like, Rose Video?” Patrick asks, surprised. He worked at a Rose Video in high school; now that he thinks about it, he recognizes Mr Rose from promotional materials. “I read about that. Their business manager stole everything and ran, right?”

“Mmm, yes, quite a sad story. I suppose it’s why people aren’t keen to trust people in your line of work, Patrick. Money men.”

Patrick frowns. “I would never steal a client’s money and run away,” he says.

“Right, right,” Ray agrees. “Well, we’ve just met, but I’ll assume you’re not a thief.” His eyes dart over Patrick’s face, as if what’s he’s not saying is: you do seem to have run away, though.

Patrick purses his lips and doesn’t answer, doesn’t mention the crushing unhappiness he’s lived with for years, or the confusing, pervasive feeling that he had to escape from what seemed like the perfect life. He tells himself: he can try being a new person, a person who doesn’t have that weighing them down. He can see what kind of person he might be, without that.

He clears his throat. “How’d they end up here?”

Ray shrugs. “Schitt’s Creek seems to be a place where people end up when they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

There’s a logical explanation for it, actually, and Ray tells him that too, about the deed to the town and the lack of buyers, but Patrick finds himself coming back to the symbolic explanation instead: that this town, somehow, has some attraction for people who are lost.

*

Ray is solicitous as a landlord and roommate, helping Patrick get his stuff moved into the house, making room for him in the fridge and on the shoe rack in the front room, and coming around Patrick’s door to chat with him each evening, talking about his day and mostly not asking questions, mostly letting Patrick listen. To his surprise, it’s just what he needs, someone to keep him company without applying any pressure to talk about himself, and Patrick’s grateful for it. It takes him a few days of watching clients and friends and acquaintances shuffle through the front office to realize that he’s nothing special, that Ray’s just that friendly and outgoing with everyone, but even so, it’s nice to have someone to talk to. He learns that Ray’s unfailingly upbeat, but perceptive at the same time, and has a particular way of seeing through people while bulldozing his way right through a conversation. He’s energetic, and particular, and everyone knows him, and he likes his photography business best of all, even though―as Patrick sees when he looks at his books for him―it’s by far the least profitable.

By focusing exclusively on real estate and travel, Ray could make a lot more money, but it’s clear that he loves being behind the camera. In his old life, Patrick might’ve told Ray this, told him he’d be better off giving up the picture-taking, but Ray’s the person who’s taken him in, and Patrick can’t bear to tell him his dreams are a bad idea.

On his off-time, Ray even helps Patrick find a used desk, and they put together a little office for him in the front room, next to what Ray lovingly calls his photography studio. It’s makeshift, but it’ll do, at least until he’s more on his feet.

About a week after he moves in, Patrick’s lying on his bed, looking at his phone, when Ray opens his door and sticks his head into the room. It’s far from the first time he’s done that, and Patrick thinks it’s good he’s single, and that he’s never had that much libido to begin with, or Ray’s presence might be less amusing and more annoying or embarrassing. As it is, Patrick mostly finds it funny.

“Patrick! Some friends and I are going bowling this evening. Would you like to join us? It will be an absolute blast, guaranteed.” He makes a definitive slicing motion with his hand on guaranteed, which is hard to argue with.

His phone is full of texts from his family, and social media posts from people who are much happier than he is, and his own Facebook account, which now says Relationship Status: Single, but still lists his location as what it was a week and a half ago. He’s been trying to get himself to update it for the last twenty minutes, then failing, then scrolling through the other, happier peoples’ posts instead.

“There’s a bowling alley here?”

“Bowling alley, curling rink, a couple of baseball fields and soccer fields,” Ray replies. “I hope you don’t mind, Patrick, but I couldn’t help noticing the sports-related memorabilia and the baseball bat and whatnot in your things when we moved you in, and I thought, what better occasion to induce Patrick to come out on the town?”

“I . . . don’t mind,” Patrick says. “That’s really nice.” It is, actually. It’s thoughtful. In his old life, Patrick never liked going bowling. It was loud, and it was sort of a sport but also sort of not, so you couldn’t lose yourself in the rush of it, like in hockey or lacrosse, and it wasn’t much of a team sport, either, so the feeling Patrick liked best in baseball, of working together to common purpose, of being in perfect synch with your teammates, was absent too. It was an activity with lots of talking and drunk people, and very little action: like curling, but without the fun parts. In his old life, no one ever asked Patrick to go bowling because they all knew he didn’t like it.

“So you’ll come with us?” Ray smiles a little wider.

Here in Schitt’s Creek, no one knows that. Ray doesn’t know that. And, what the hell: maybe New Patrick could be a person who likes bowling. He could be anyone, after all. He decides to try saying yes to things like this, to experimenting with things like this, while he makes himself over in this new town.

“I’d love to, Ray,” he says, after a pause. “But I’ll warn you, I’m not very good.”

“It’s mostly an excuse to gossip and see friends, anyway,” Ray enthuses. In his old life, Patrick had also disliked gossip; it’d always made him afraid of what people might be saying about him. But the only things people could say about him here are that he’s a mysterious stranger with a business degree.

“Sounds fun,” he says.

*

As he pulls up to the bowling alley, he feels some trepidation. He hasn’t hung out with people he doesn’t already know in a long, long time. Thinking back on it, he hasn’t really hung out with people he does know in a long time, either, other than Rachel and his parents. But he sees Ray as soon as he gets inside, standing with a group of people, so he takes a breath, wipes his palms on his jeans, and goes over to them. Ray introduces him around.

“Nice to meet you all,” Patrick says, shaking hands, trying to remember names: Jeff and his wife Emily, and Ronnie and her wife Karen, who he’d seen in the café the first time he went. While he’s repeating their names to himself in his mind, Ronnie’s looking him up and down.

“So you’re Ray’s date for the night,” she says. “I hope you’re ready to play.”

Patrick smiles, trying to deflect. “Uh, well, I’m not that good at bowling. And I’m just Ray’s friend. And I think we’re only here to have a good time?”

“Attitude like that’ll get you crushed,” Ronnie says, deadpan, and Patrick can’t help his sudden smile; he feels a stirring of competitive spirit, even if it is for bowling.

“Yeah, we’ll see who gets crushed,” he replies, and Ronnie laughs.

“I like this one, Ray,” she calls out to Ray, who’s made his way over to the shoes.

“Thank you, I like him too!” Ray calls back.

“We’re just friends,” Patrick says again, quickly, a little louder this time. Ronnie doesn’t seem to notice or acknowledge him.

Bowling is, actually, fun. Patrick’s more surprised than anyone. Part of it is the company: Ray could turn a state funeral into an evening of light entertainment, and everyone else is funny and quick, too. Patrick finds himself making jokes along with them, getting into the rhythm of their banter. He gets along with Ronnie in particular, who trash-talks him every time he picks up a bowling ball, and Jeff, who trash-talks Ronnie with equal vigour and winks at Patrick every time he does it. Patrick finds himself smiling more often than not.

“You’re gonna try to pick up that spare?” he calls out to Ronnie, who’s looking at a 3-7 split. “Probably better off playing it safe.” He feels a little thrill when she turns to him and raises one calm eyebrow.

“Watch and learn.”

She picks up the spare, and Jeff laughs. “Don’t see you making that shot, new guy,” he says.

“All right, all right,” Patrick grouses. He can’t remember the last time he enjoyed himself this much.

Ray definitely plays for fun, not noticing or caring about the competition between Ronnie, Patrick, and Jeff, but he’s also very good at it, and with Patrick’s meager contributions they manage to keep the game pretty neck and neck. Karen and Emily, meanwhile, are drinking what look like margaritas, chatting about Karen’s gravel business, and casually racking up mostly strikes and spares whenever one of the others reminds them it’s their turn.

“You really should try one,” Karen says, holding up her margarita. “Best in town.”

“At the bowling alley? That’s . . . pretty depressing,” Patrick says. Karen grins at him.

“Gotta find it where you can,” she says.

Patrick decides that he could use a drink, and heads over to the bar, intending to get a beer, like he usually does. It occurs to him, then, that New Patrick could drink anything he likes, that he doesn’t have to drink the same brand of beer he used to buy at the store out of habit. The margaritas had looked good, so he orders one. The guy tending bar doesn’t look at him twice or give him shit for it, just serves up his drink in its spindly glass with its colourful little paper umbrella and takes his money.

The margarita is pretty good. Karen clinks plastic glasses with him and tells him that, if he’s looking, she knows some local entrepreneurs who could use his services.

“That . . . would be amazing,” Patrick says. “I could really use the clients right now, honestly.”

“Lots of people around here with good business ideas but without any sense of how to handle the nitty-gritty stuff,” Karen says. “You could do well here. So long as you’re trustworthy.”

Patrick thinks again of the Rose Video story, wonders if it’s in the minds of some of the entrepreneurs around here, how easy it is to see all your work brought to nothing by one asshole. “I guess I’ll have to prove that to people, over time,” he says. Karen nods.

“Good answer,” she says.

Patrick wonders how much time he’d have to invest here, before the locals would trust him, and whether he’s going to be here that long.

When they get down to the last few frames, Ronnie punches him on the arm. “Hey, you’re improving, kid.”

Patrick narrows his eyes at her, and she laughs. His scores have picked up somewhat, and he even pulled a couple of strikes, but it’s not a stellar performance overall. “Yeah, just not in enough time to do us much good. I guess I’m rusty, but now I’m back in the swing of it you better watch out for next time.”

“Yeah, I’m shaking,” Ronnie replies, taking a sip of Karen’s margarita. “You used to bowl?”

“Nah, not really. But I played sports. Kind of a baseball guy, plus some hockey and lacrosse.”

“Baseball, huh,” Ronnie says. She gets a scheming look in her eye. “You any good?”

“High school shortstop for three years,” he says, comfortable enough post-margarita to brag a little. He remembers how it used to feel, the sun on his shoulders, the smell of oil and leather and dirt, the careful strategizing, and most of all those moments after winning games, when all the guys would fall together into a pile of joyous, tackling hugs. He loved that, that team feeling.

“Uh-huh. You played since then?”

Patrick thinks back. He’s a little shocked to remember how often he used to play, during the summers when he wasn’t at university and then after, when he moved back home again, with old high school friends of his. There was a local league, plus casual pick-up games now and then. He can’t quite remember when he’d fallen away from it, but he knows in the last couple years all his equipment has just been gathering dust in his closet next to his guitar. He remembers his friend Mike asking him to come out to games, up until about a year ago; after a lot of unexplained “no”s from Patrick, he’d stopped asking. Not long after that is when Patrick thinks he lost touch with Mike, in fact.

He brought his baseball equipment along in the car, as Ray had noticed, couldn’t quite bear to let go of it no matter how long it’d been. But he doesn’t even know when he last went to a game, or heard the crack of a bat anywhere but on the TV.

“A little. Not recently.”

“Well, show up at the field out back of the co-op on Sunday, we’ll see what you got.”

Patrick decides that he could be the kind of person who shows up to a tryout like that, the kind of person who likes being with other people, who doesn’t sit around in his apartment every evening too tired to do anything. New Patrick could be like that: friendly, outgoing, social. The way he used to be.

“Okay,” he says.

In the end, Ronnie and Karen win, but the rest of them don’t make it easy, which seems to make Ronnie happy.

Patrick can relate to that, the joy of real competition and a real victory. “Good game,” he says, just like he used to. His instincts are coming back.

“Good game,” Ronnie agrees, nodding at him.

He gives Ray a lift home afterward, and as they’re driving through the dark something occurs to him, something that Ronnie said, and he can’t quite get it out of his mind. Probably better to get it cleared up, he thinks.

“Ray, you, uh. You didn’t take me as your date tonight, did you?”

Ray’s inquisitive eyebrow is somehow really sweet. “Why, did you want me to?”

Patrick lets out a nervous laugh and shakes his head. “No, I―I just don’t want any misunderstandings.”

Laughing, Ray claps a hand on Patrick’s shoulder. “No, Patrick. I’m actually seeing someone I met online. A very nice young man named Joon-ho. He’s a bit younger than me, so who knows how long it will last, but it’s fun while it’s happening, right?”

Patrick nods, surprised. He hadn’t known that Ray was―was interested in men. Maybe that’s why Ronnie assumed what she did, he thinks. Because she knew about Ray. The weird part is, Patrick hadn’t known about Ray. They’ve spent most of the last week together, as roommates and as colleagues. He can’t pinpoint any real signs. He replays conversations in his head: everything seems so normal, to Patrick. Though he guesses he can imagine, now, what led Ray to leave home as a young man.

“Sounds nice,” he agrees. “Let me . . . let me know how it goes.”

“Oh, I will,” Ray promises. “Now, do you want to stay up and have popcorn and watch a movie, or go right to bed?”

Patrick decides that he can be the kind of person who stays up and has popcorn and watches a movie, at least this time. He tells Ray as much.

They watch whatever’s on Ray’s cable movies channel, something with explosions.

“So how do you know, uh, Ronnie and Karen and Jeff and Emily?” Patrick asks, when it’s on a commercial.

“Oh, there’s a local LGBTQ2AI-plus event that some of us go to. It’s just a nice way to socialize and meet people in town. Ronnie roped me into it as soon as I moved here. Quite a while ago, now, come to think of it.”

Patrick can imagine; the signs out front don’t look new. He wonders whether the event was called that same long acronym twenty years ago, when Ray had first moved here, or whether it had just been a Gay and Lesbian night, or something. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t think he wants to ask. He realizes that he’s never been in a room with more than two gay people before. Or―whatever letter they are. Queer? He doesn’t know the words. He doesn’t even know what all the letters and numbers Ray just said mean.

“Oh, cool,” Patrick says. “That’s, uh. That’s cool.”

*

A few weeks later, thanks to Karen’s connections through the women’s business association, Patrick has amassed a tidy little client list from the surrounding towns, people he can help with their small businesses, farms, and home offices. He’s sleeping soundly in his room at Ray’s, he’s learned not to leave his car at Bob’s Garage without getting an estimate in writing first, and he’s figured out which items on the Café Tropical menu are the most edible. He’s been to bowling again, and liked it even more than the first time. He’s even gotten an offer from Ronnie, after he showed up for tryouts, to be her new second baseman.

He feels good. He likes New Patrick.

*

He gets busy to the point where, one Thursday about a month after he sets up shop, he has appointments with clients all day―a packed schedule, for the first time―and by the end of it, he’s exhausted but satisfied. He’s building something good here, he thinks. The work is somewhat interesting, as well; at least now he gets to be part of what regular people are building, rather than just running numbers and strategies for big, faceless companies. He likes finding loopholes and money to help small, local businesses stay on their feet. Some of the locals’ business ideas are so wacky, or their business sense so hopeless, that he’s not sure they deserve to stay on their feet, but it’s still nice to give them advice, give them a fighting chance. Who knows, maybe the lady with the cat-hair scarves is onto something. Maybe Bob really can make a bagel shop work with no restaurant or bagel experience. For some reason, people in this town are just . . . really optimistic, and it makes Patrick feel optimistic, too.

“Patrick! I feel like I haven’t had a chance to talk to you all day,” Ray says, as Patrick’s last client―a guy with an organic dairy farm halfway to Elmdale―walks out the door.

“Yeah, it’s been busy,” Patrick says. He feels himself smiling, a little.

“Well congratulations,” Ray says. “Busyness is good for business, I always say.”

Usually, Ray’s the one inviting him out to bowling or for lunch at the café. Patrick’s never reciprocated, but he wants to now, to thank Ray for all the support he’s given him since he got to town. “Want to celebrate? Dinner’s on me.”

“Unfortunately I’m having dinner with Joon-ho this evening,” Ray replies, mock-frowning. “Well, I say unfortunately, but it’s fortunate for me! I haven’t seen him in ages. Can we take a raincheck?”

“Sure, sure,” Patrick says, and stands there with his hands on his hips, watching as Ray leaves the house. To go spend time with his boyfriend. That’s as it should be, Patrick thinks; Ray should spend time with his boyfriend.

He decides to celebrate on his own, instead, taking himself out to the café and getting a beer with his dinner. He eats by himself, reading a book on the building of the Panama canal that he’d started reading years ago. He picked it up again last week, thinking that New Patrick could be someone who finishes books, finishes projects, is happy with his life.

The Path Between the Seas,” Twyla, the waitress, reads, from the front cover. “Is it good?”

“So far. I’m only a little ways in, though,” Patrick says.

“History was my favourite subject in school,” Twyla says. “Of course, I had to drop out to get a job to support my friend Jacklyn through rehab, but I always thought I’d like to learn more.”

“Wow,” Patrick says. He can’t imagine doing something like that, reckless and, and selfless. He doesn’t know what to say. “That must have been hard.”

“Well,” Twyla says, “anything for a friend, right?” She smiles sunnily and waves her hand in front of her face, as if that kind of life decision is a silly passing fancy. “Anyhow, I could always get back into it.”

“I can loan you this, when I’m done,” Patrick offers, and Twyla nods.

“I’d like that,” she says.

Patrick orders another beer, because the first one tasted great, and because the book isn’t holding his attention all that well, and because he keeps thinking for some reason about Twyla giving up everything, giving up her dreams, for a friend who needed her.

By the time he finishes dinner, he’s a little tipsy, and his tipsiness makes him want to get tipsier, so he buys a bottle at the tiny hole-in-the-wall LCBO and takes it back home with him. Ray’s still out on his date with Joon-ho in Elmdale, Ray’s out having a great time with someone he loves, someone who loves him, so Patrick pours liberally for himself and turns on the TV.

Two hours later, he’s crying during an episode of Masterchef and too drunk to stand.

An hour after that, he’s facedown in the toilet, alternating between throwing up violently and cleaning the bowl so that Ray doesn’t find out that he’s been throwing up violently.

When he thinks it’s safe to come out of the bathroom, he curls up in his bed around his phone and reads his last text from Rachel, from a little over a week ago. I just wish you’d talk to me, it reads. Patrick wishes that too, sometimes: he wishes he’d talk to her. He’s an asshole for not talking to her, after all they’ve been through together. She was his best friend. Now he has no one.

He thinks about it, and tries a few times to write something to her, something about how he’s New Patrick now, or how he’s doing fine, or how he misses her and wants to come back. They’re all gibberish because he can’t make his hands work the way he wants to.

Before he can press send, he passes out.

*

He has client appointments the next day, too, so he drags himself out of bed and showers and gets ready for them. Ray says things to him in the morning, and Patrick nods along without really listening. He checks, again and again, to make sure he didn’t actually text anyone last night. He remembers wanting to text Rachel, wanting to tell her he’s sorry, wanting to tell her that he wants her back.

Part of him wishes he had done it. Another part of him hates himself for wishing he had done it.

Maybe it’s inevitable. Maybe she was right. You always fucking come back. Why is he even fighting it?

By the end of the day, the work he was enjoying so much yesterday feels empty and pointless. It’s exactly how he used to feel at his old job: going through the motions, the same things over and over, with no change or end in sight.

He could give Ray notice, he thinks. Finish out the month, and get back on the road. He could try to find somewhere else to be new, to start over, to figure things out. Or he could drive back home. He knows, in the moments when he’s being honest with himself, that if he gets back in his car he’s going to go back home. He’s going to beg for his job back. For his apartment back.

As he’s considering picking up the bottle of rye in his closet again, and maybe getting drunk enough to actually text Rachel this time, Ray walks in.

“Hello! Are we all ready for games night?”

Patrick blinks.

“Games night?” Ray repeats. “The games night you said you’d come to this morning?”

It turns out he should’ve been listening to what Ray was saying while he was hungover that morning. “Right, sorry.” He can’t think of anything else to say, so he adds, “I am . . . definitely ready.”

“Good. Whew! And you remembered to get the snacks?”

Patrick says that he was just on his way out the door to pick them up.

“Don’t forget the pretzels!” Ray sings out, as Patrick picks up his keys.

He mostly keeps it together through games night. Ronnie and Karen are there again, and a bunch of other people Patrick hasn’t met yet. He tries to make himself care about their names and their jobs and their opinions on the little Monopoly tokens.

Joon-ho’s there, too; Patrick’s only met him a handful of times, when he’s come to pick up Ray, but seeing him and Ray sitting next to each other, tsk-ing about the cards they draw, making each other laugh with jokes about the little game pieces, Patrick feels a stab of regret, or maybe anger, something missing inside his chest that he desperately wants to blame someone for. His hand shakes with it as he methodically plunks his little hat from space to space along the only road that exists.

He misses having what they have, that intimacy. It’s why he wanted to text Rachel, last night. Why he still wants to. Because he misses that.

Or, he tells himself he misses it, but there’s a dark voice underneath that thought, telling him that he never had it in the first place. With anyone. And that he never will, because he’s a fuckup who’s too afraid to commit to another person, even the perfect person for him, even Rachel. He frowns at Joon-ho and Ray, who are wasting time fucking around.

“Your turn, Joon-ho,” he says, interrupting their quiet, close conversation. His voice comes out louder than he wants it to, and Joon-ho looks surprised. There’s a little silence around the table for a second.

“So, Patrick, are you gonna make it to the game next Saturday?” Ronnie asks, interrupting it. “Terry, our current second baseperson, is now seven months pregnant. And I just don’t think they’ve got the speed they used to.”

Patrick says that he’ll be there. He thinks about how angry Ronnie would be if he called her and cancelled on Saturday morning. He can see that happening, like a movie in front of him, playing out like it’s inevitable. He wonders how many times he’ll have to cancel before people give up on him, the way Mike did, the way all his friends back home did, eventually. Probably not that many. No one really knows him or cares about him here.

Over the course of the night, they all ask him polite questions about where he’s from and what he used to do before coming to Schitt’s Creek, and they accept the vague, non-committal answers he gives them. He could tell them more, could tell them what he did, how he screwed up, what he left behind. At least then they’d know him a little better.

He doesn’t want anyone here to know him at all. He barely wants to know himself.

He keeps thinking about the hours he spent on the road to get here, belting along with country music and occasionally sobbing so hard he had to pull over. He pulled over a lot of times, on that drive. He also turned around once, before changing his mind and turning around again. He thinks all these people would be less interested in him if they knew the truth about how he’s a coward who ran out on his fiancée and his only chance at a good life.

He can’t go back. But he doesn’t know how long he can stay here.

After everyone goes home, he helps Ray clean up and heads to bed. He turns off his phone this time, so he won’t be tempted to text anyone, and proceeds to get drunk again, sitting on his bed with the door closed, drinking straight out of the bottle.

*

After a few days like that, he runs out of rye, and while he’s sober, during the day, he has enough self-preservation that he doesn’t let himself back into the LCBO to buy another. He’s scared by the idea that he’s been drinking himself into a stupor, night after night, but the fear isn’t as present as it should be. The lack of fear is almost more frightening than the drinking.

So he drives by the LCBO, and he doesn’t go in. He keeps himself from going in. That night, he lies in bed awake instead, thinking about all the mistakes he’s made, and tells himself it’s better. He can get better.

But that hot, wild feeling, that anger or regret or blame that he felt watching Ray and Joon-ho, that keeps happening at random times, even without the booze. When he sees Bob laughing with Twyla at the café. When he looks at his schedule, some mornings, and has so little desire to do any of the stuff he’s booked for himself that it feels like the opposite of desire, like revulsion. When he sees Ronnie, walking down the street, an uncharacteristic smile on her face as she texts on her phone. Patrick always tries to ride it out, tries to talk himself out of it: he’s fine, he’s doing okay, there’s no reason for him to feel this way about these people. He’s gotten away from his old life like he wanted. He’s a new person now. He should be happy.

It’s the same talk he used to give himself back home.

He reads Rachel’s last text again: I just wish you’d talk to me. She hasn’t texted since. Patrick wonders if she’s given up on him, found someone else. The thought makes his stomach drop, his skin go cold, and he thinks: if this isn’t love, what is? He thinks: I should text her back. He almost does, day after day after day, but he doesn’t know what to write.

He keeps working. He showers. He eats food. He’s okay; he has nothing to complain about.

*

A week after Patrick’s drinking binge, when he and Ray are both between appointments and the office space is unusually quiet, Ray pops over to Patrick’s desk and knocks on the wood in lieu of a door. That in itself is not unusual; it’s a regular bit that they do together.

Patrick looks up politely at Ray’s knock. “Yes, come in,” he says, because it makes Ray laugh every time he says that. This time is no exception.

“You are so funny, Patrick. That’s definitely one of the reasons why it’s nice having you around.”

“What can I do for you?” Patrick expects Ray to ask him to cover for him while he meets some clients at a property, or to ask him if he’s in for a casual night of poker. Patrick’s already debating with himself whether to say yes to the imaginary poker night or not, trying to come up with good excuses that Ray will accept. He could lie and say he has plans. Then he’d have to leave the house for long enough to fake it. He wonders where he could go. Maybe there’s a bar. Maybe he could just drive around by himself.

“Well, please don’t feel any pressure whatsoever to respond, but I have a somewhat sensitive personal question for you.”

Patrick looks up from his computer at that. He tries not to look nervous, but he can feel Ray watching him closely. “What is it?”

“You see, there’s a young lady who is currently looking for an apartment. Something small and affordable, but still with good light as she is quite an avid gardener. I advised her against the town center, of course, but―”

Patrick blinks and cuts him off. “What’s the personal question, Ray?”

Ray smiles. “She was in here the other day. Maya? She talked with you while she was waiting for me to finish with my photography client.”

Seeing the shape of it now, Patrick feels a low crawl of dread. That strange, fierce anger blooms inside him again, his skin going hot, and he’s desperate for Ray to just spit it out, already. “So you wanna ask me something?” he manages.

“Yes. The personal question is, are you interested in women? It’s just, I’ve noticed that you don’t seem to have a special someone around, and you’re really quite a catch. I know some would say it’s rude to ask, but how else are people supposed to get together, I ask you? Anyhow, I could line up some very attractive prospects for you, but I would need a little guidance as to your preferences when it comes to the various genders. But! Maya asked about you in particular.”

There are about twenty things in Ray’s little speech that set off alarm bells in his head, not least the idea of being shopped around town like a piece of real estate, but the loudest alarm, the most deafening, ear-splitting one, is the first, that Patrick hears along with the question are you interested in women.

No one in Patrick’s life, in his entire life, has ever asked him that before. It sends him reeling, his mind spinning in circles.

“I’m not―I’m not looking for a relationship right now,” he stutters. The old familiar thoughts roll by in his mind: that he’s an asshole, that no one should want to be with him, that he’s not worth getting involved with, that he’ll just fuck it up and run away in the end.

“Psssh, who said anything about a relationship? I was talking about a date. Dates are fun, you get to meet new people, have a conversation, eat a nice meal . . .”

Of course, of course Ray would be the kind of person who thinks dates are fun. Patrick mostly associates dates―especially first dates―with anxiety, with the sense that he has to do and say the right things, with the idea that the girl he’s with might see him as lacking. A date, for Patrick, has always just been another place where he has to work hard to prove himself. They’re exhausting.

When he’d imagined his new life, the New Patrick, he hadn’t imagined dating anyone. He hadn’t seen himself with a girlfriend. It occurs to him that that’s a little strange.

“I’m not looking for that, either,” he says, eventually.

Ray shrugs. “All right, suit yourself! But do let me know your preferences if you ever want me to set you up.”

“I will definitely let you know when and if that happens.”

Patrick tries to get back to the paperwork he was filling out. But he’s shaken by the conversation, and can’t focus for the rest of the day.

It only occurs to him later that he never actually told Ray that, yes, he’s interested in women.

*

The question keeps bothering at him the next day, and the next. Ray had asked it so casually, as if he were asking about Patrick’s lunch preferences or whether he would rather watch a romcom or a horror movie. Are you interested in women. It scratches and taps at the back of his mind, like a stray cat.

He pushes it away to do his work, to smile at clients, to hang out with Ray. When it comes back, he tries to make himself laugh: of course he’s interested in women. What a thing to ask. He considers being annoyed at Ray, for asking, but then he has to admit that it’s probably a good thing to do, that it’s nice of Ray, not to assume. It’s probably something they should all do, avoid making assumptions like that, for the sake of actual gay people. But no one would assume Patrick is gay. No one would look at him and think that.

Instead of thinking about it, Patrick rewatches Game 4 of the 1992 World Series. Then he rewatches Game 6 of the 1993 World Series. Then he watches a bunch of Cito Gaston interviews on YouTube, and he thinks about player management and development, about the long-term allocation and acquisition of resources over time, about the careful combination of training, skills, personalities, and experience that has to go into making a team. You can’t just drop a star player anywhere and expect them to perform perfectly. You can’t just add something in after the fact and assume it’ll work out okay. A team is a complicated, delicate machine, Patrick thinks, watching the moment when Alomar hits that two-run homer at the top of the ninth to tie up the game. Gaston knew that, knew how to make sure all the pieces worked together in harmony. Alomar’s homer is exciting, maybe even beautiful to watch, but it’s the result of hard work, planning, tinkering with different components until they move smoothly together. What happens in those moments, those game-tying home run moments, is the result of everything that came before. Step by step, leading to this result, and the result leads to the next step, and the next result. If you interrupt the sequence, you start losing games.

Patrick was six when the Jays won the series in 92. He doesn’t remember much about it, but he remembers his dad cheering, crying, picking him up in his arms. He remembers the weightless moment, his dad tossing him into the air, the freedom of it. Unless that memory is from the next year, when they won it again; he can’t be sure; they blur together in his mind.

When Patrick got older, he watched those games again and again, on his dad’s old worn out VHS tapes, wanting to know how they were constructed, what went into making those singular moments of joy. And he learned: planning, strategy, work. Management. Nothing about them was actually spontaneous, not in the way people meant that word. Things like that homer don’t just happen.

On Friday it’s date night again for Ray and Joon-ho. Ray told him they were going to go a movie at the drive-in. Patrick thinks he’ll stay in and rewatch more old games. It’s a nice feeling, to watch a game you already know well, where you can anticipate every strike and every hit and every double play.

Joon-ho shows up early, or else Ray is running late, Patrick’s not sure, but it ends up with Patrick answering the door and letting him in while Ray is still getting ready upstairs.

“I think Ray’ll be down in a minute,” he says.

“Cool,” Joon-ho says. They wait around together.

“Can I get you something to drink?”

“No, I think we’re heading out right away.”

There’s a little silence, filled only with the sound of running water upstairs. Patrick hopes Ray’s not getting into the shower. He tries to think of something to say.

“So, you made the drive down from Elmdale just to go to our drive-in,” he manages, eventually.

Joon-ho shrugs. “Sure. Well, Ray and I started off long-distance―dating app, you know how it is―but it’s not like there are a ton of opportunities for queer men in the area, so we thought we’d give it a shot. Now we’re kinda getting used to all the driving.”

Patrick nods. He hadn’t thought about that, how your opportunities got limited when you were, were queer, or whatever. “I think it’s good,” he says. “That you find time to see each other.” His stomach knots up, as he says it, and he’s not sure why.

“It’s not a chore,” Joon-ho smiles. “Honestly, with grad school being what it is, I look forward to date nights with Ray like a kid waiting for Christmas.”

Was there a time, back before the engagement, when Patrick felt that way about a date night? He can’t remember. When it’d been something exciting, maybe, a date to a hockey game or camping or to see a concert. He remembers being excited and giddy, the time he and Rachel took a spontaneous road trip to Winnipeg to see a show at Rainbow Stage, remembers kissing her in the car, so happy to be setting out. But. Not for the equivalent of the Schitt’s Creek drive-in.

Are you interested in women, Ray had asked him, like it was a choice you got to make.

Patrick clears his throat. “That’s really sweet,” he says, and finds that it’s true, he does think it’s sweet. “I hope you two have fun tonight.”

“We will. Um. Related to that. Is it cool with you if I end up staying over here? I hate driving back to Elmdale in the dark.”

“It’s, yeah, of course,” Patrick says, automatically, feeling his stomach twist again. “It’s cool with me.”

Ray finally comes down the stairs, looking not that much different from when he went up, but smiling, confident. He kisses Joon-ho on the cheek, and Joon-ho smiles, obviously pleased.

“Sorry to make you wait,” he says. “Patrick, thank you for entertaining Joon-ho while I was getting ready!”

“No problem,” Patrick says. “Enjoy the movie.”

Patrick goes to bed early that night, long before he expects Ray and Joon-ho back. He wants to give them privacy, in case they come back and―need privacy. For anything.

*

The next morning, he wakes up antsy, restless, like he’s already overcaffeinated. He has no real work to do, and he doesn’t want to hang around the house all day. He doesn’t really want to see people, either, though. He eats breakfast and thinks it through. Something is compelling him to move, so he finds some clothes to hike in and sets out, not sure yet where he’s going.

Jeff had recommended a hike to him, a couple weeks back, but he doesn’t remember the name of it, and has no clue how to get there. He drives to the café, wondering if anyone there might know.

“Hi, Patrick,” Twyla beams at him, as he walks in. “Get you some breakfast?”

“I already ate,” he says. “I was hoping for directions, actually. Do you know Jeff? Jeff and Emily Jeff?” Patrick realizes in that moment that he doesn’t know their last names, but Twyla nods.

“Sure. Jeff’s my third cousin. Well. Sort of.”

“Okay, so, he was telling me about a hike he likes to do. Richards? Russell?”

“Roberts Point?” She grabs some plates from the window, turning and depositing them with a couple of customers sitting at the counter. They thank her and she smiles at them. Her smiles always look so genuine.

“I think so, yeah. Do you know how to get there?”

“Hmm, dunno. Ronnie?”

Ronnie’s sitting at the far end of the counter; Patrick hadn’t even seen her behind the other people. She looks up from her newspaper. “What?”

“Do you know how to get to Roberts Point?”

“Sure,” she says. “C’mere.” Patrick walks over to her, watching as she grabs a clean napkin and pulls a pen out from her front jacket pocket.

She narrates the directions as she draws, in clear, neat lines, everything labelled by her swiftly moving hand. She’s a contractor, Patrick remembers, suddenly, like his Uncle Doug.

“And there’s no parking area, but you can just pull over on the road, everyone does,” she finishes. “Got it?”

“Got it,” Patrick says, taking the napkin. “Thanks.”

It’s a nice walk, fairly challenging on the uphill slopes, and not crowded, either; he only passes two people on his way up the little mountain. Jeff had suggested that it wasn’t well known, but was one of the gems in the area, and when he gets to the top, he can see why: the view is spectacular and there are hawks circling in the sky nearby. Even the air feels fresher and more life-sustaining than the air in town.

It’s a place for clarity.

He sits down on a rock and pulls out the lunch he packed, but doesn’t open it. He drinks in the view instead.

Are you interested in women. It echoes around his mind again and again, like it has been for the last few days. Up here, in the clear air with the sky open above him, it’s even louder. No one has ever asked him that before, because everyone in Patrick’s old life already knew. They all knew that he’d dated Rachel, and when he was on the outs with Rachel he’d dated Jackie, and Michelle, and Sherry. He’d gone on dates with other girls, too. Everyone knew that, including Patrick, and so nobody asked, including Patrick.

When he’d met Maya the other day, they’d talked for a good fifteen minutes while she waited for Ray. He’d thought she was nice. She was clearly intelligent, and she had a deadpan sense of humour, which Patrick always liked. She was someone he might like to hang out with at a games night or bowling. He’d felt good about their conversation, afterwards. He hadn’t thought for a second about asking her out.

When Ray had brought her up, all he’d felt was fear. She ought to be the kind of person that Patrick would want to date.

Patrick has met gay people. He had gay friends in university. He would know if he were gay. He’s thirty-one; clearly by now he would know if he were gay. That can’t be the solution.

There’s a sound behind him, shoes on the graveled path: it startles him out of his train of thought and he turns to look. It’s another hiker, a guy, maybe a little older than Patrick. A normal guy.

“Wow, what a view, right?” the guy says. Patrick nods and clears his throat.

“That it is.”

“Mind if I sit?”

Patrick gestures at the space next to him, and the guy takes off his backpack and sits down. He’s got dark hair, broad shoulders, and is wearing khaki cargo shorts and a red t-shirt, even though it’s still barely spring and not quite warm enough for bare skin.

“Want some trail mix?” Patrick offers. The guy looks at him for a second, assessing him, then shrugs and nods.

“Sure, thanks.” He holds out his hand, and Patrick shakes some out of the bag for him.

“Patrick,” Patrick says, gesturing at himself.

“Ben,” the guy replies.

They make idle stranger chit-chat about the trail, the view, other hikes in the area that Ben recommends, the town itself. It’s not deep, but it’s pleasant, easy conversation.

I could touch him, Patrick thinks, suddenly, wildly, in the middle of a sentence. I could reach out and touch his hand, or his shoulder. Nothing to stop me.

As Ben talks, telling a story about a hike that had gone disastrously wrong, Patrick breathes slowly and lets his mind pursue that thought: maybe Ben would look up at the touch to his hand, his eyes meeting Patrick’s; maybe his eyes would warm, maybe he would lean in and kiss him. Maybe Patrick would run his hand down Ben’s chest to his belly, dipping his fingers beneath the waist of his shorts.

Every single thought in the sequence is a gut-punch, a shock, and none of them are hard to imagine at all.

He shakes himself out of it in time to hear the end of what Ben’s saying.

“―absolute disaster, but at least I wasn’t the one with poison ivy.”

Patrick chuckles, nodding, and lets the conversation lag. He realizes that he’s been wringing his hands, pressing his left thumb hard into his right palm.

After a few seconds, he says, “Well, I’d better get going.”

“Mind if I walk down with you?” Ben asks. “I’d like the company.”

It sounds like flirtation. Patrick blinks at him in shock, his mind turning inside out for a moment with the idea that maybe he did touch his hand, maybe they did kiss. He reminds himself of reality and forces himself to smile.

He’s just overreacting, he tells himself. Misinterpreting the signs, because he had that weird passing thought. Ben’s just a normal guy being nice to someone he met on the trail.

“Sure,” he agrees.

It’s significantly easier on the way down than it was on the way up. Patrick finds his legs moving quicker, almost in a jog, as they follow the natural direction of gravity rather than trying to fight against it. He’s still, for some reason, kind of breathless. As if he’s exerting himself more than he thinks.

They continue to talk of inconsequential things, and this time Patrick pays more attention. Ben’s funny and interesting, like Maya had been, someone Patrick likes talking to. He works as a surveyor, he says, which means he spends a lot of time alone in the great outdoors.

“It’s a strange choice to go hiking by yourself on your downtime, then,” Patrick points out.

“Ah, but I get to meet interesting people,” Ben replies. Patrick could swear that his eyes linger on him. He thinks and thinks of something to say to that, something neutral, or something flirtatious, or something to shut the flirtation down, but his mind swamps with words and phrases and he can’t get any of them out.

At the bottom, Patrick points to his car. “This is me.”

“Cool. I’m over there.” He points. Then he looks at Patrick, just for half a second too long, before offering his hand. “Well. Nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Patrick says, going through the motions of the handshake. His hand feels sweaty in Ben’s warm, firm grip. He thinks again: I could kiss him. The thought is exciting, nauseating, impossible, overwhelming, and so close to reality that he can feel it, can imagine how Ben’s mouth would feel pressed up against his. He wants to. He thinks he wants to, and it’s not in a way he’s ever wanted anything before. Ever wanted anyone before.

He lets go of Ben’s hand. He doesn’t kiss him. Ben drives off.

*

Patrick spends the rest of the week looking at men. He feels a little creepy about it―they’re all his friends, acquaintances, or clients, after all―but he can’t seem to stop himself from glancing at their arms, imagining how they’d wrap around him, or at their faces, imagining how they’d kiss. He thinks about Ray’s constantly moving, expressive hands, how they might feel on his skin, and he thinks about Jeff’s beard, how it’d feel against his lips. God help him, but when that boring, smiley, too-nice-to-be-real veterinarian guy comes in for some tax advice, Patrick can’t stop thinking about his shoulders.

Patrick gets turned on, thinking about the vet guy’s stupid shoulders, to the point that he has to excuse himself from the meeting and go to the bathroom and talk himself down, until his dick stops trying to get hard and his skin stops fucking tingling. It’s nothing like he’s ever felt before.

Most of all, though, he thinks about what it might be like to be with men, instead of women; to hold a man’s hand; to lie down with his head in a man’s lap and talk for hours; to talk about the person he’s dating and say he; to take a man to a romantic dinner, with everyone else in the restaurant knowing what it was; to be allowed to do all of these things, to be free to be the person who could do all of these things. The thought feels relaxing, even restful, like just imagining those situations eases something deep within him. At the same time, he feels excited, thinking those thoughts, happy, like different pieces within him are finally clicking together.

“I’m gay,” he says, quietly, to himself in his room one night, to try it out. He’s lying in the dark in his pajamas, covers pulled up to his chin. “I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay.” It feels good to say out loud, even quietly, even to himself. And the more he says it, the more he feels like it might be true.

It also makes him feel deeply, profoundly stupid. Who doesn’t know they’re gay, by his age? Who could be so oblivious as to miss the signs? He doesn’t know how he could say it to his parents, to Rachel, to anyone he knew from his life before. He knows the first question they would ask: why didn’t you say something sooner? and he knows the only honest response to that would be I didn’t know. He can’t stand the thought of that, of the pitying looks he’d get, the jokes people might make. How stupid everyone would think he was. How it’d reflect on Rachel.

Patrick fantasizes: knowing this feeling, recognizing this feeling, at fourteen, and telling his parents. He has no idea how well they would’ve taken it, but at least it would’ve been a normal thing, a thing kids work out at that age. There would’ve been books, probably, books they could’ve read together, or a guidance counselor to help. He can imagine those awkward, painful counseling sessions, can imagine them being useless and backwards, and he wishes more than anything that he’d had them.

Patrick fantasizes: falling in love with a man when he went away to university―immediately, his mind provides the image of Jason McNeil, who he’d met in Econ 101 and invited to their pickup baseball games and hung out with at every opportunity, and shit, if that isn’t a fucking realization, okay―falling in love with him and knowing it, and trying something with him in the foolhardy way eighteen year olds were supposed to try things, and bringing Jason home, as his boyfriend, to meet his family and friends. He imagines himself scared but determined, holding Jason’s hand: he thinks he could’ve done that. If he’d known.

Patrick fantasizes: knowing at twenty, or twenty-five, even, driving down to the gay club in Central Valley to dance, to kiss strangers, to be wild and reckless. He was never actually wild and reckless, even at twenty, so he adjusts the fantasy: himself at the bar, on a stool, drinking and chatting with the bartender on slow nights, meeting other guys who were the kinds of guys who sat at the bar on slow nights to chat with the bartender. Going home with those guys. Having sex with them. Rejecting it every time someone in his life tried to set him up with a girl, and eventually getting sick enough of it to tell them: to say, I’m gay, I am not going to date Michelle to his friends or his family.

He’s too fucking old to be having this realization now. Everyone’s going to think he’s too old. He knows that. But here it is, fully-formed, whether he likes it or not, and he can either deal with it, and keep feeling that glorious puzzle-piece-click feeling, or he can not deal with it, and go back to feeling shitty and miserable, to drinking himself to sleep at night.

The second one isn’t even a real option. He couldn’t do it: now that he’s felt this way, felt the edges of how he could feel, he wants it, badly. He swallows and scrubs his hands over his eyes, blinking through the subsequent white spots in the darkness. He wants to cry, but he wants to sing, too, or something like it. He lies in the dark for a long time, just feeling that new feeling.

*

Patrick doesn’t tell anyone. He does his job, and thinks about the men he sees in the street, and he lets the thought settle in. I’m gay. It doesn’t go away, or stop feeling right; if anything, as more time passes, it feels better. He finds himself enjoying his work, again, and making it to every baseball game, and laughing with his new friends on bowling night. But he doesn’t tell anyone. He waits three weeks, until the third Saturday of the month rolls back around.

When that Saturday dawns, he hesitates over what to wear: almost everything he has is business or business casual. He settles on a pullover and a t-shirt, plus jeans, trying for something softer than his usual button-ups.

“You look nice,” Ray says to him, offhandedly, when he comes downstairs. Ray is working; Ray usually works hardest on the weekends, given the kinds of businesses he runs. Patrick shouldn’t interrupt. He licks his lips nervously.

“Thanks.”

He’d planned to wait until the afternoon to ask, but finds himself swarmed with nerves already, and the words come pouring out of him without much conscious direction.

“Hey, Ray, I want to ask you something,” he says, and Ray hums acknowledgement, but doesn’t look up; he’s sorting through a stack of flyers he’s had printed for newly available properties.

Patrick swallows. “Isn’t tonight the monthly get-together that you and Ronnie do?” Patrick’s looked up all the letters and numbers, one by one, read about them, but he’s not sure he could say them all in a row without stumbling.

“The LGBTQ2AI-plus night? Yes, it’s always the third Saturday of the month. It’s at Ronnie and Karen’s place tonight, so I’m anticipating poker or darts or something. And hard liquor.” Still sorting through the flyers.

Patrick nods swiftly, barely hearing the details. After a long minute amid the sound of Ray shuffling papers, Patrick gets his courage up enough to speak again.

“Can I come?”

Ray’s head comes up and swivels around so he can stare at Patrick; it’s a sensation not unlike being a wounded gazelle sighted by a hyena. Patrick feels exposed, his skin absurdly sensitive, like the smallest breeze could overwhelm him with its intensity of touch. He starts to sweat. He starts to wish he hadn’t said anything.

But then Ray picks his jaw up off the floor and smiles softly, and Patrick remembers that they’re friends, that Ray took him in and helped him when he landed in this town confused and alone.

“Of course,” he says, simply.

*

Patrick waves shyly as he walks in the door to Ronnie and Karen’s place. There are a few people here he’s already met, which is both good, since he’ll have something to talk about with them, and bad, since it means they’re looking at him and mentally revising their knowledge of him. These people know this thing about him now. He can’t just be a mysterious stranger with a business degree and a love of baseball.

There’s a surprise or two, as well: Jeff, who Patrick just saw the other day for bowling night, is sitting in the corner with a glass of wine, laughing with Karen, but his wife Emily is nowhere to be seen. And then there’s Twyla, from the café, who Patrick’s only ever heard talk about her terrible ex-boyfriends. He thinks through the list of initials Ray had rattled off, and wonders who might be which one. He wonders if it’s rude to ask. He thinks it might be.

“Patrick,” Ronnie says, nodding his way.

“Ronnie,” Patrick replies. He scrambles for something to say. “How’s that first base player of ours doing?”

“She’s gonna be fine. There’s nothing wrong with her arm.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Patrick says. Ronnie narrows her eyes at him.

“Listen, rookie, if you want to make a play for team captain, I’d recommend waiting until you’ve been on the team more than a few weeks.”

“I’m just saying, you’re making the wrong decision on this one, Ronnie. We’re gonna get slaughtered in our game against that Thornbridge team if you don’t pull her outta that position. Give her some time to recover over in right field.”

“And who exactly is gonna fill in for her, hmm?” Ronnie raises her eyebrow.

“I would be happy to―”

“Ah-ha! Can’t believe you admitted it.”

Patrick holds up his hands, laughing. “I just want what’s best for the team!” Ronnie snorts a laugh, then dismisses Patrick’s argument with a wave of her hand.

“Anyway, we’ll talk about it more tomorrow. And hey, it’s good to see you here, finally. Help yourself to some wine, or there’s beer and non-alcoholic coolers in the fridge, or water or whiskey on the counter.”

Patrick walks in the direction she gestures, towards the kitchen, his mind reeling with the implications of that word, finally. Had Ronnie thought he was gay this whole time? There’s no way she could’ve possibly known that when he didn’t know himself, could she? The thought eats at him. He wonders what kinds of signals he could possibly have been sending out.

He avoids the whiskey, still skittish from his last tangle with hard liquor, and opens the fridge to find the beer instead.

“Get one for me too?”

Patrick takes out two beers and spins around to hand one of them over to whoever was talking. He comes up against a familiar face.

“Oh hey, I know you,” Ben says. “Patrick, right?”

“Y―yeah,” Patrick says, handing over the beer. Ben holds up a bottle opener, question in his eyes, and Patrick nods. “Thanks.”

Ben pops both the tops and catches them expertly before they hit the floor. Patrick smiles at him, and he smiles back. He’s really handsome, Patrick thinks, experimentally. I find him handsome.

Ben coughs and steps back. “You should, uh, you should meet my boyfriend, he’s around here somewhere. I didn’t know you came to these things!”

“It’s . . . my first one,” Patrick admits. He catches his breath, hoping that Ben won’t ask him anything that will make him confess that it’s his first gay anything.

Ben doesn’t.

“Awesome. Welcome.”

Ben claps a hand on his shoulder, the same way any guy might if he ran into a friend at a party, but it feels more important than that, to Patrick: it feels warm, and steady, and like a minor revelation. Patrick thinks he must seem dazed and slow while Ben introduces him to his boyfriend, Steven, a smiling, handsome guy with a receding hairline wearing lipstick and eyeliner. Patrick shakes his hand, and that feels revelatory, too.

“You two been together long?” Patrick asks, which he thinks is a normal kind of question you can ask couples, even gay couples. It makes Ben duck his head.

“Few weeks,” he says.

I missed out, Patrick almost says, wanting to articulate the source of Ben’s embarrassment, but he manages to stop himself just in time. He doesn’t feel bad about it, though. He feels glad. That moment, on that hike, their connection, had all been as real as he’d imagined. Ben is gay, or, or one of the other letters that means he likes men; Patrick could’ve kissed him. Just that is plenty, is overwhelming, that he could’ve kissed a man in theory. He’s not sure he’s even ready to do it for real. Much less do . . . anything more.

He makes small talk with them for a little while, getting more comfortable. He wonders, watching Steven’s mouth, how you know if you’re the kind of gay man who wears lipstick sometimes. If he could be that kind of gay man. His mind rejects it initially as preposterous, but then he thinks about it, really thinks about it, and finds he doesn’t know; he has no actual instinct for it in any direction. The possibilities suddenly seem endless and dizzying.

He does his best to circle around the room and meet a few people, trying to act like he’s just new in town, rather than new to his entire sexuality. Everyone’s really nice, and gradually, he starts to relax. He talks about his work, and how he likes the town, and what it’s like rooming with Ray. People chat with him about their own passions and projects and problems, and every time someone uses a pronoun he’s not expecting, to describe themselves or their partners, Patrick feels a little pulse of energy over his skin, like a tiny electric shock, waking him up, making him aware.

Some people move or talk or dress in ways he thinks of as stereotypical: women with short haircuts and masculine clothing, or men who move their hands gracefully, let their voices rise. Patrick doesn’t ever remember being taught how to move his hands or use his voice, but he realizes that it must’ve happened, somehow, gradually, and over time. Then there are people who don’t fit any stereotypes Patrick knows, who he would never notice on the street, who people would probably assume are . . . whatever. No letters at all. There are so many options, is the thing: so many styles, so many ways of taking up space in the world. A lot of the young people have piercings; is that a gay thing? He thinks about the other sexualities and genders he’s looked up recently. Could it be a queer thing, or maybe a nonbinary thing? He doesn’t know.

After an hour or so, he’s startled by a piercing whistle from Ronnie, the same one she uses on game days, but so much louder in this smaller space. Everyone shuts up immediately, which was obviously her intention.

“Geez, Ronnie,” Twyla says, hand to her ear.

“Gotcha all listening, though, didn’t it?” Ronnie deadpans. The room laughs. “All right, all right, since it’s my turn to host, and since everyone’s finally here, I’m gonna pull today’s theme out of the hat.” She holds up an old, oil-stained trucker’s cap that reads Bob’s Garage in a very 80s font.

Patrick’s standing near Twyla, so he leans towards her and asks. “What’s up with the hat?”

“Oh, hi, Patrick,” Twyla says, grinning, all freckles. “Nice to see you here finally.”

“Thanks,” Patrick says, trying not to freak out at that word this time. “The hat?”

Ronnie is dramatically dipping her hand into the hat, fluttering through the bits of paper inside. Everyone is clapping and yelling.

“Oh, every month we all write suggestions for topics for these get-togethers,” she says, brightly. “So whatever topic she picks, we all discuss for the evening. Usually we do it as a big group for a while, then people can talk amongst themselves if they want. It’s fun. Well, unless someone writes a really awful one, but when that happens, we can veto it. It’s a good system.”

“I see,” Patrick murmurs. It sounds terrifying to him, but what the hell does he know.

“Usually it’s good to have a drink or two before it starts, though,” Twyla cautions. Patrick takes a self-conscious swig of his beer.

Ronnie draws her hand out of the hat, to much cheering. She looks at the paper.

“Oh, hell no, we’re not doing this,” she says, and crumples it and throws it onto the floor. Everyone cheers again, and she goes in for another. When she pulls that one out, she laughs.

“Okay, okay, I’ll go with it,” she says, then reads: “Happy teenaged experiences.” She pauses, looking around pointedly, ostensibly to see if anyone wants to veto. No one does. “All right, teen years it is. For those of us who can remember back that far.” The crowd laughs. “So. Who’s first?”

Someone Patrick doesn’t know puts up her hand―his hand? their hand?―and tells a story about rescuing a dog from a flood, and then later adopting that dog. It’s nice.

He turns to Twyla. “So, it doesn’t have to be like . . . a gay teenaged experience? Or whatever?”

Twyla shrugs. “It can be whatever you like.” She smiles blindingly. “If you’re here, it’s queer.”

A few more people tell stories. Jeff tells one that opens with “Well, as you all know, I didn’t transition till after high school, but . . .” and everyone laughs along with the silly story about being awkward around his high school girlfriend, and then gets a little weepy when he talks about how she helped him cut his hair short for the first time, and then laughs again when he talks about the shit he got from his parents for it afterwards. It’s strange, because it should be a sad story all the way through, and Patrick can imagine it in a movie, being sad, the heavy soundtrack when Jeff’s parents yell at him, the rejection. But the way Jeff tells it, it’s wry and funny, real in a way that kind of movie never is, with Jeff’s grounded, adult sense of exasperation and self-deprecation behind it.

It doesn’t hurt that Jeff himself is standing here with them, smiling and laughing, acting as his own happy ending.

Twyla tells a long, rambling anecdote that gets bizarrely dark in places, but then ends on, “ . . . and that’s how I ended up stealing that horse and riding off into the sunset,” so everybody cheers anyway.

When she finishes, she elbows Patrick. “You should tell one. Let everybody get to know you.”

Patrick hesitates, frozen. He can’t think of anything more frightening than letting everybody here get to know him. But he can think of a good memory, and the more he thinks about it, the more the itch to tell it starts to overwhelm his fear. He waits through a few more stories from the others, rehearsing it in his mind, and eventually puts his hand up.

“Patrick!” Ronnie acknowledges. “Everybody, this is Patrick’s first time to one of these shindigs, say hi.”

“Hi, Patrick,” the room choruses, and Patrick ducks his head.

“So, uh, I wasn’t out in high school,” he says, thinking that it’s the understatement of the year. “But I was on the lacrosse team.”

“Yeah you were!” someone yells. Patrick looks over, shocked, to see that it’s Steven. Steven raises his glass and blows Patrick a lipstick-red kiss. It makes him feel warm, safe, like there’s nothing he could say that would end his membership in this club. Like they would accept even a sad story from him. Like they have no particular expectations. It’s a new feeling. He smiles back at Steven.

“So, I was on the lacrosse team in grade eleven,” he continues, “but we weren’t very good.” He remembers back to those days, all the long, difficult practices that got them basically nowhere, and he starts to see it in a new light. He quirks his lips. “We spent a lot of days, um,” he pauses, then works up his courage, “shirtless and sweating together, but for some reason didn’t seem to improve.” Wild cheers from the crowd at that; Patrick laughs to himself. He can feel his blush, but doesn’t even care.

He hesitates, not sure what to say next. The seconds tick by, and he can feel himself getting more anxious, more red in the face, trying to find a way to say it, to express it. His tongue feels too thick in his mouth.

“Was there a boy?” Looking up, he sees Ray standing across the room, calm and smiling, meeting Patrick’s eyes. Patrick nods at him.

He doesn’t have to think about the question very hard. “His name was Peter,” Patrick says, to a smattering of applause. “And he was . . . gorgeous. And kind, and a year older than me.” He closes his eyes for a moment, thinking back to all the times he watched Peter on the field, all the times he babbled about Peter’s lacrosse skills at family dinners. He didn’t know; up until this very moment, he didn’t know. But he thinks he knows now. He’s reading his own history backwards and upside down, truly seeing it for the first time as he speaks it to this crowd.

“We were a really terrible team, but Peter was great. He carried us to the provincial championships that year, last seed, but we made it. And when we got there, we proceeded to fail epically. We won zero games. We got trampled.”

Patrick licks his lips and looks up, looks around at the people assembled here. They’re all relaxed, anticipatory, listening. “We had one last game, and there was no point in playing it, really. Unless we won by a lot, we weren’t moving on in the championship. But Peter got us all excited―”

“Yeah he did!” Steven yells, making Patrick break out laughing. He feels close to hysterical, now, like he might lose it at any moment, go from laughing in a normal way to laughing in a scary, out-of-control way. But Twyla rubs her hand on his back, and it grounds him. He takes a breath.

“Got us all excited,” Patrick repeats, “and I decided I wasn’t going down without a fight.”

There are a few low whistles that draw Patrick’s attention to the double entendre. He blows through them, feeling his face heating up again. “The other team was tough, way better than us. We played like hell, though, and after a lot of push and pull, we had it tied up. Just less than a minute left to play, we were up near the goal, and Peter passed the ball to me.”

He pauses, remembering: the surprise he’d felt when Peter had passed to him, rather than running up to the crease himself; the sense of trust and responsibility, the little nod Peter had given him, even though Patrick was only a midfielder and hadn’t scored a goal all game.

“I remember the rush of adrenaline. I remember Peter watching me, yelling encouragement at me.” Across the room, Ray is smiling at him, and so is Ronnie, and Karen. Patrick takes a quick, surprised breath. He feels tears behind his eyes, and blinks them back.

“I didn’t even think about it, I just scored the goal, my first and only goal of the day. And we won the game.”

Everybody claps and cheers. “And you went on to win the championship?” Jeff asks.

“Hell no,” Patrick says, still blinking back his tears. “We only won by one goal, and the other team still advanced. But God, it felt good.”

“And did that cute boy ever kiss you?” Ray asks. He’s such a romantic; Patrick grins at him.

“No, but he carried me on his shoulders.” The cheers at that throw Patrick back into the moment, makes him remember it clearly: the firm, sweaty grip of Peter’s hands on his legs; the sensation of being lifted, easily, borne by Peter’s strength; the heat of their bodies where they were pressed together, his thighs pressed close to Peter’s face. It comes back to him like a lost memory, all in a rush, and he feels it like he’s feeling it for the first time.

“And that was my favourite moment of high school,” Patrick concludes. He’s told that story a dozen times, a hundred, in his life, but he doesn’t think he ever understood it until now. He moves, quick as he can, to wipe his eye before any tears can slip down his cheek.

“Good story,” Twyla whispers, next to him.

“Thanks,” Patrick whispers back.

He settles in to listen to the next person.

*

When they get back home that night, after the party, Ray takes him by the shoulder and looks at him for a long moment. Patrick is suddenly terrified that Ray is going to kiss him. He has a lot of feelings about it all at once: that Ray is kind of cute, after all; that Patrick needs to kiss somebody eventually; that Ray is his friend; that Ray is dating Joon-ho, and that sometimes people date multiple people at once but Patrick’s not sure if he’s into that; that Patrick doesn’t need any complications in his life, and that he’s not necessarily ready for this at all, from anyone, and―

“Patrick,” Ray says, gently. “Would you mind if I just gave you a really big hug?”

Patrick blinks, and his thoughts stop in their tracks. “I―sure, I guess. I’ll take a hug.”

Ray does, pulling him close and squeezing him tight. After a few seconds, Patrick squeezes back. It feels necessary, suddenly, like breathing, like his need for his heart to keep on beating, to be in this hug with Ray.

He doesn’t know how long it lasts, which is how he realizes that he’s always timed his hugs with other men, before, counting off the seconds before back pats and letting go. It’s freeing to be able to touch, to not have to worry about what people will think.

“I’m so glad you came out to the shindig,” Ray says, when he draws back. Patrick nods.

“Thanks for taking me.”

Ray smiles and pats his shoulder before walking away, heading upstairs to his bedroom. “Let me know if you want me to set you up with any boys,” he says, as he goes.

“I will,” Patrick says, and even though he has absolutely no intention of doing so, even though he’s a little horrified at the idea of Ray using his hard sell approach for matchmaking, and even though he can’t quite picture it yet, going on a date with another man, even with all of that. It’s a nice thought.