When Jon is four years old, he meets Raoul Goldenlake. It's his dad's ten-year college reunion, and it's mostly really boring, just a lot of adults and talking and no one taking Jon over to that table he saw with all the cookies on it. It's all very unfair.
But it's a little nice too, because his father hasn't looked so happy in a long time, probably not since his grandpa died. He has a hug for everyone, and an especially big one for the for the large, black-haired man he finds not far from the cookie table, followed by a manly clap on the back. "Goldenlake!"
"Conte! It's been too long."
His father sobers. "I know, it has. I'm sorry. It's been so busy the last few years, between Dad and the company and Jon--" he smiles down at Jonathan. "This is my son, Jon, by the way. Jon, this is Mr. Goldenlake. We were in the same fraternity. That means he's like my brother."
"Nice to meet you, Jon," says the man, squatting down. "You must be, what, five now?"
"Four," says Jon, holding up his fingers.
"Four! Same as my Raoul." He looks up at Jon's dad. "Of course, mine's already big as an ox. Takes after me for size, but he's shy, like his mother. Come over here, Raoul."
Jon sees the larger boy look over from behind his mother's leg. He has dark eyes and curly black hair. Jon likes him at once, even though he doesn't actually come over. He looks nice, even hiding behind his mom.
"I was sorry to hear about your father," he hears Mr. Goldenlake telling his dad, but he doesn't care much about that. He's going over to see Raoul.
"Hi," he says. "I'm Jon."
"Raoul," says the boy. His voice is quiet, for how big he is.
"There's a table over there with cookies," says Jon. "I saw it when we came in. I bet we could get some."
Raoul perks up. "What kind of cookies?"
"I dunno, a lot. Chocolate chip for sure. And I think double chocolate."
Raoul beams, and Jon grins back.
They see each other off and on for the next few years, joint vacations at the beach, an occasional holiday, now that their dads are back in touch. But Raoul's family moves to England for a few years when Jon's eleven, and by the time they get back, their families have lost the habit of spending time together, and Jon doesn't see Raoul again for seven years.
When he's fifteen, he meets Alanna Trebond, and he doesn't realize how important that is either.
He's in the library, trying to find the raunchiest book he can, when he sees a scrawny kid with shaggy red hair sitting in the corner, surrounded by books. He knows of exactly two scrawny redheads who like reading, and they both have the same last name, so he says, "Hey, Trebond." The kid looks up, and Jon can see some signs of breasts and feminine features, so he tries a big smile (girls really like his smile) and says, "Alanna, right?" She nods. "I'm Jonathan Conte," he says, offering his hand. "My friends call me Jon."
She shakes, but she looks like she's still waiting for the punchline. Or possibly the punch. He's heard she gets in a lot of fights; there's a fading ring of black around her right eye. "Nice to meet you," she says.
"You're in here a lot, right?" he asks.
"Yeah," she says, looking even warier.
"You want to help me out with a project?"
"I'm not going to do your homework for you!" she snaps, which makes him like her instantly. No wonder she gets in fights so much, with a temper that short.
"It's not homework. I've got a bet with my cousin Gary. I bet him I could find the dirtiest porn in the library."
"It's still kind of cheating," she points out. "If I help you."
"Yeah, but if I win, I'll give you half."
Alanna sticks her hand out, all business. "Deal."
Jon has to smile. "Deal," he says, and they shake again.
She stands and brushes herself off. "Old Latin poetry is really filthy," she says. "Come on."
He doesn't really mean to adopt Alanna, but she's so tiny and stubborn and clearly alone that he can't help it. He doesn't do as well adopting her brother, but her brother doesn't really seem to want friends. Whereas Alanna clearly craves companionship. She just doesn't really seem to understand how to get it. Jon's willing to help her out.
"You absolutely, positively, one-hundred-and-twenty percent cannot sleep with her," Gary tells him. Gary likes Alanna too.
"Why would I sleep with her?"
"Because you always sleep with girls. You meet a girl, you talk to her for twenty seconds, and you've already decided you want to sleep with her."
"Well, I've known Alanna for more than twenty seconds," says Jon. "And I don't always do that."
"You can't sleep with her."
"I can't believe you have so little faith in me!"
"I can't believe you're refusing to just say I won't sleep with Alanna."
"I shouldn't have to say it. You should trust me."
"Jon, I've known you since birth," says Gary. "If there's one thing I know, it's not to trust you." He gives Jon a pointed look. "She's a good kid."
"I know. I like her."
"And you still haven't said it."
"Well, you have me thinking about it!" Jon protests. "She's cool! What if I someday--"
"Jon, unless you are prepared to marry that girl, you will not sleep with her. Am I clear?"
"You're clear," says Jon, and Gary nods.
Jon does not point out that he did not actually say he wouldn't sleep with Alanna. It's not his responsibility to point out Gary's failures. Not until Gary is yelling at him about it.
Of course, he wasn't actually planning to sleep with Alanna. Really, he wasn't. He just didn't like the way Gary was insinuating he might. And he never likes to rule things out. But Alanna is his best friend. He doesn't sleep with his best friends.
And then he does.
It's not like it's an accident, not exactly. It will go on to be one of the biggest regrets of his life, but it just starts off as, well, Alanna being his best friend.
It's his junior year, two days before Thanksgiving. Gary and Francis have already gone home, so it's just him and Alanna in their suite. She's not supposed to be in there, even with other people, but Alanna's known how to sneak into his room forever. She's not big on rules.
She's also miserable.
"Just come home with me," says Jon.
"That would go over really well," she says. She's lying on his bed with one arm over her eyes. "Sorry, Father, I got a better offer. From that guy you hate. Thom's worried he's going to disown me if he finds out."
"You've never met my father. He doesn't even care, that's the worst part. If I didn't show up, there's a really good chance he wouldn't even notice. He won't come down for Thanksgiving dinner. He won't talk to us. But god forbid he finds out I skipped out, because then he'll want to know where I was, and there'll be hell to pay." She sniffles, and Jon gets up to lie next to her, worried. "It's not a big deal," she says fiercely.
"I know," he says, and pulls her in for a hug. She rolls into him, wrapping her arms back around him slowly. She's not very used to physical affection. He and Gary are working on it. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," she says, a little muffled by his shirt.
He strokes her back and they stay there for a while, until Alanna starts to hesitantly nuzzle his neck. Jon doesn't know if she means it as a come-on or if she just starts doing it unconsciously, but he takes it as one, and pulls her up to kiss her because that's what you do when someone nuzzles your neck. And then it's all fumbling and touching and he probably should have stopped it at some point, but it's Alanna, and she's lovely, and if he isn't the first one to sleep with her, it'll probably be some asshole who doesn't care about her at all.
Later, he will think that he didn't really screw it up until the next morning, when Alanna tried to kiss him and he panicked, ruffled her hair, and told her to get dressed or they'd miss breakfast. At the time, it seemed like the best way to deal with an awkward situation. It wasn't like they were going to have sex again. It was a fluke. So he just played it off, and they went to breakfast, and she acted like she was happy with this solution too.
Later, he will find out that he broke her heart.
"So, I did that thing you told me not to do," he tells Gary when he calls to wish him a happy Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving part is mostly a ruse. He just needs to talk to someone, and Gary is his best option.
"You'll have to narrow it down."
"The thing with Alanna."
There's a long pause. Gary is in Colorado with the grandparents he doesn't share with Jon for Thanksgiving, and Jon is in New York with his own non-Gary grandparents. He's very lucky this is a year where they aren't together for the holiday. Although he supposes that if they had been, he might not have slept with Alanna.
Either way, he thinks it's probably too far for Gary to actually drive down to murder him.
"I could fly down to murder you," Gary says, apparently coming to the same conclusion.
"You'd have to fly into Albany," Jon says. "You hate Albany."
"I hate you. Is she okay?"
"Of course she's okay! What do you think I did to her?"
"I think you're the worst person possible for her to sleep with."
"There is no way that's true."
"You shouldn't have done it."
"I didn't mean to!"
"That just makes it worse."
Jon scrubs his face. "Look, it's fine. We had breakfast, we hung out. It was normal. Nothing bad happened."
"Then why are you calling me?"
Gary is too smart for his own good. "I don't know."
"You feel guilty."
"I don't feel guilty. We had sex! Sex is awesome. She enjoyed herself. I'm glad I made sure her first time was great. Now if other guys don't get her off, she'll know they aren't worth her time. So--shut up."
"A strong argument." Gary sighs. "If I have to choose between you and her, I'm picking her."
"You don't have to pick. And we're related! You can't decide not to be related to me anymore."
He sighs again. "Just--be prepared to marry her, okay?"
"I'm prepared," says Jon, and it's not even a lie. He's not planning to ever get married, but if Alanna needed a green card or a father for her baby or there was some wacky pretending-to-be-married situation, he'd be there with bells on. "She's my best friend, you know."
"You're not emotionally equipped to be anyone's best friend."
"No," Jon admits. "But I am anyway. Happy Thanksgiving, Gary."
"I'm going to punch you in the face next time I see you."
"That seems fair."
Jon finds out why Gary was so upset almost a year later.
"You never date," he observes to Alanna. It's a shame. She's great. She should have a great boyfriend.
"Neither do you," she says, not looking at him.
"Well, no, but I have a sex life. You don't date or have a sex life. I should set you up with someone. Is anyone in your grade not an idiot?"
"Thom," she says dryly. "But we're related."
"Seriously," he says, poking her with his foot. "You should get a boyfriend."
"I don't want a boyfriend."
"Why not? I hear they're fun. I've never tried it myself--"
"I only just got over having a crush on you, I don't want another," Alanna snaps, and Jon can see the exact second she realizes what she said and regrets it.
"Me?" he asks. He thought Alanna knew better. Plenty of girls have crushes on him--he's not being egotistical, he knows it's true. Some of them tell him, some of them are very obvious, and he's sure there are some of them he never knows about, but he never imagined Alanna would be one of them.
"I'm over it," she says. "It's not a big deal."
"Did you--" he starts. They haven't ever really talked about the time they slept together. They just go on like it never happened. "When we, uh, did you have--"
"Yes," she says shortly. "We don't have to talk about it."
"Would it have changed anything if you knew?" she asks, violet eyes intense on him.
"I wouldn't have slept with you," he says, and instantly knows it's the wrong thing. She wants to hear that he would have dated her. That it would have meant something more to him. But Jon's not that guy.
She slumps back. "Thought not. That's why I didn't tell you."
"It's fine," she says. "And that's not why I don't date, so don't get all stupid about it. I just haven't met anyone I like. And you don't date either, so it's kind of hypocritical of you to tell me to get out there. I'm fine."
"Well," Jon says, awkwardly. "Just tell me if there is anyone you like," he says. "So I can make sure he's good enough for you."
She rolls her eyes. "I have a brother, you know. I don't need another."
"Two more," Jon corrects. "Gary will want to make sure too."
just remember i am only forty minutes away, Jon texts Alanna. He's pretty sure this is not what he's supposed to be doing now that he's at college, but Alanna's just finished her first day of school and already has texted him about three kids she wants to beat up. when in doubt, call me. do not just start punching people
stop worrying, she texts back. And then, of course, what's wrong with punching people?
you're not helping
stop being a mother hen and enjoy college. i'm fine
He's on his way to his dad's old frat house for their first rush event. He falls into step with a tall guy with curly black hair who looks weirdly familiar. Jon squints at him until he notices and frowns, clearly confused by the scrutiny.
"Can I help you?" he asks. His voice is surprisingly soft.
Jon grins and launches himself at the guy. "Raoul!"
Raoul barely catches him. "Uh."
"Dude! It's Jon!"
Raoul lets him go and stares at him. He blushes, like he's embarrassed he didn't recognize Jon, which is stupid. It's been seven years. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. Jon is just great with faces. It is yet another reason he is a naturally great politician. "Jon Conte?"
"What's up! Are you rushing? Oh man, please tell me you're rushing. We can be bros! I mean, obviously, we're already bros. Bros are forever. But seriously, this is awesome! How have you been? What's your number? Do you have snapchat? You need to get snapchat."
Raoul is laughing. "Good to see you too, Jon."
Jon slings his arm around Raoul's shoulders, which is a little awkward, because Raoul is a few inches taller than he is. But he doesn't care. It's Raoul. He missed Raoul.
"So, how have the last seven years been?" he asks, and just like that, they're friends again.
"Double date!" he tells Raoul. He's never seen Raoul on a date. This is something he needs to correct. "You and me. Two girls from that sorority across the street that loves bikinis. You can have whichever one you want."
Raoul barely glances up. "I'm busy."
"You're clearly not. That looks like homework. That doesn't count." He flops down next to Raoul on the bed. "Double date! Double dates are awesome."
"You keep trying to convince me of this. I still don't believe you."
"Please?" says Jon.
Raoul sighs and runs his hand through his hair. "Close the door, will you?"
Jon frowns. He gets up and goes over to close the door, cocking his head at Raoul. "What?"
"Look, it's not a big deal, I don't want to talk about it, and I don't want the rest of the frat to know," he says. He reminds Jon of Alanna, suddenly. Not as irritable, but the same kind of stubbornness, the same determindedly casual way they talk about their feelings, like they're hoping he won't notice they have them. He really hopes Alanna comes here next year. They'd get along great. "I'm gay," he says.
Jon blinks. "Oh."
"I should have told you," he says. "Before you agreed to room with me. If this changes anything, I--"
"Dude," says Jon. "No way!" He slings his arm around Raoul and kisses his temple, like he would if he really was Alanna. Or, well, Alanna before he found out she had a crush on him. He's still not quite back to easy affection with her. But he's getting there. "I don't care. It's cool. I will no longer try to set you up with girls."
"Or boys," says Raoul. "I'm not really interested in dating right now. And I don't want anyone to know. I don't like attention."
Jon sighs exaggeratedly. "God, you're going to love my best friend Alanna. Not in a romantic way," he adds quickly. "Just you guys are really going to get along. She always tells me that when I try to set her up too."
"You're a weird guy, Jon."
"See? That's just what she'd say."
Jon meets George Cooper on his twenty-first birthday, and thinks very seriously about trying to sleep with him.
"I mean, that's something everyone should try once, right?"
"Not sure," says George. "I've met some people who are very definitely straight. Or very definitely gay. Very definitely attracted to only one gender."
"I guess," says Jon. "But I don't think I am. I'm like, seventy-five percent? Girls. But there's twenty-five percent that might be, you know."
"Bi-curious," George supplies. "The word you're lookin' for is bi-curious. You're pretty drunk."
"Well, it's my birthday. You're supposed to get pretty drunk on your birthday."
"It is your birthday." George clinks his glass of water against Jon's beer. "Happy birthday. I'm not goin' to sleep with you."
"Fair enough," says Jon. "I want to keep coming back here. It might be weird if we slept together. Or it might not. Sometimes it's not." He looks up at George. "Why am I turning twenty-one before all my friends? And why did you bust Raoul for his fake ID?"
"'Cause it was obviously fake and I don't want to get arrested," says George. "Get older friends or better fake IDs, or it's just goin' to be you and me, darlin'."
"And you're not planning to sleep with me."
"I don't think so, no. But thanks for askin'."
Jon nods. "Good call. You are wise, bartender."
George snorts. "I try, anyway."
Raoul's twenty-first birthday is a month and a half after Jon's, so Jon figures maybe he can sleep with George. He feels like someone should sleep with George. George is a cool dude.
"Got another fake ID for me?" he asks, when Jon and Raoul come in.
Gary is, in fact, working very hard on a fake ID that will fool George. He's upset by how fast he caught the last ones. If he ever perfects it, and they figure out how to get Alanna out here without making a scene, she'll be the first to get one.
"It's my birthday," says Raoul, handing over his license.
"Well, happy birthday," says George, once he's passed inspection. They're about the same height, which seems like it would probably be convenient. Not that Jon has ever made out with anyone the same height he is, but just in general. It seems like a plus.
"Thanks," says Raoul.
"This is George," Jon says. "George is gay."
"I'm not, in point of fact," George says. "I'm bi, thanks."
"Oh. Well, this is George. He's bi."
"Not usually how I start introductions," he remarks, offering Raoul his hand. "But nice to meet you, Raoul."
"I'm going to let you two get to know each other while I play Buck Hunter and get wasted," Jon declares. He claps Raoul on the shoulder. "Enjoy."
He gets through two games before Raoul comes over. "What exactly was your plan here?" he asks.
"Well, I was going to hunt bucks for a while," says Jon. "Then I was going to go home."
"And you were hoping I'd go home with the bartender."
"Well, he's cool, right?"
Raoul rolls his eyes. "I still don't want a boyfriend."
Jon waggles his eyebrows. "Who said anything about a boyfriend?"
"A hookup either," says Raoul. "Move over, I want to play too."
He doesn't think of George as a match for Alanna until she gets the flu and George brings soup.
Jon sort of stares at it, and then pokes the Tupperware container on the bar. It doesn't do anything. "What's this?" he asks. "Why are you giving it to me?"
"It's soup," says George. He's not quite meeting Jon's eyes. "Not for you. It's for Alan. You said he was sick, yeah? I had the flu last winter. My ma made me this soup, worked wonders."
"You're giving me soup?"
"I'm givin' Alan soup. You better not eat it. You're not sick."
"Why are you giving Alan soup?"
"He's sick." George finally looks at him. "I like Alan," he adds, almost defiantly.
"I like Alan too. He's a good kid."
"He is," George agrees. "Tell him I hope he feels better. And give him the soup."
On their way back to the frat, he tells Raoul, "I think George likes Alanna."
"George doesn't know Alanna," Raoul points out. "If he likes anyone, he likes Alan."
"Well then he likes Alan," he says, and holds up the soup. "He brought her soup. Because I said she was sick."
"You don't sound thrilled."
"Well, I dunno. He's old. And--I dunno."
Raoul frowns. "Didn't you want me to sleep with him?"
"Yeah, but that's different."
"Because Alanna's your favorite person in the world, I know."
There's something off in Raoul's tone, but Jon can't place it. He narrows his eyes at Raoul. "That's not why," he says. He doesn't usually rank his favorite people. He knows that if he did, Raoul and Alanna would be at the top of the list, but he doesn't know who would come first. Not that he needs to. Unless they're both about to be shot or something and he can only save one of them, it will never matter. "It's because I'm the one who broke her heart," he says. "I'm the reason she's--the way she is. About dating. And I think if she gets another bad one, she'll probably never recover. So I've got to be careful. I can't let just anyone date her."
Raoul's quiet for a long time. "That's not your call," he finally says. "But George is a good guy. He's not just anyone."
"And he wouldn't sleep with me," Jon muses. "So he's not just easy either."
Raoul chokes. "When did that come up?"
"I hit on him the first time I was there."
Jon shrugs. "I dunno. He's kind of--he's got something."
"That too. But I could be into that. I slept with this one girl a few times, she was--"
"Please don't finish that thought."
"Anyway. According to George, I'm bi-curious, and he seems to be the expert."
Raoul is quiet again. "If he liked Alanna, he'd probably be good for her. But he might not like Alanna."
"Of course he would," Jon says. "He already likes Alan, and he likes women. I don't see the problem."
"There are a lot of problems," says Raoul. "Don't try to set them up, okay? Just let it be. It's really not your business. It'll happen if it happens."
Jon sighs. "Do I have to give her the soup?"
"Yes. You have to give her the soup."
"And can I beat him up if he hurts her?"
"I doubt it," says Raoul. "I think he's probably pretty good in a fight."
"Maybe both of us." Raoul gives him a dubious look. "Well, maybe if Alanna helped too."
At age twenty-two, the closest Jon Conte has come to a relationship is sleeping with the same girl four times over the course of two days. He was in Maui, and she was a yoga instructor. It was an excellent two days, and he remembers it fondly. But that's it. Jon doesn't date.
But then the graduation party happens.
Jon was planning to be completely blitzed, but for once, he's not actually in the mood to get drunk. He thinks it might have something to do with Alanna showing up with George Cooper, how close they are and how much they touch and how much George makes her smile. It makes him feel too large for his skin, somewhere between proud and melancholy. It's not that he wants Alanna, it's just that it hurts a little to see someone else making her so happy. He still feels like that's his job.
The two of them leave early, and Jon watches them go from a table in the corner while he nurses a vodka tonic.
"Please tell me you aren't jealous," says Gary, sitting down on Jon's right. Raoul sits down on his left. "She's happy. You aren't allowed to stand outside her window with a boombox saying you've changed your mind. Not now."
"I would never try that," says Jon. "If she didn't kill me, Thayet or Buri would." He leans against Raoul. "I'm not jealous. I'm just--I think this is how fathers feel when their children grow up. As creepy as I'm sure that sounds. Also, graduation and shit. I've got a lot going on. I'm deep. I have layers, just like Shrek."
"Of course you do," says Gary. He sighs. "This is getting too maudlin for me. Raoul, you're on boombox duty? Don't let him anywhere near one. Or an MP3 player with speakers. Or snapchat. I just don't want him to send me any snapchats."
"I am not going to do anything stupid," says Jon. "I am not, and have never been, in love with Alanna."
"I'm not convinced that's true," says Gary. He bumps Raoul's fist and leaves.
"You believe me, right?"
"I honestly have no idea what ever goes on in your head," says Raoul. "But I believe you're happy for Alanna."
"Well, at least there's that." He starts to sit up, to move away from Raoul, and that's when Raoul turns and kisses him. It's quick and completely chaste. It almost seems like an accident, but Raoul's not like that. Raoul's never been like that. Jon stares at him for a minute, and Raoul looks back, steady and serene and strangely resigned. It's too much for Jon to parse, so he just leans in, slow enough to give Raoul time to stop him, and kisses him again, for real. Raoul slides his hand up into Jon's hair, keeping him close, and they stay there for what feels like hours, never going any farther than just kissing.
Finally, Raoul pulls back, swallows visibly, and says, "I should get home."
Jon nods. "Yeah. Me too."
After Raoul leaves, though, he lies down on the floor, staring at the ceiling, and must eventually fall asleep there, although he doesn't know when. He doesn't feel any less weird when he wakes up the next morning.
"You know what I thought when I found out Alanna used to have a crush on me?" Jon asks a week later. He's ready for this. He's sure.
Raoul looks nervous; they haven't really talked since the whole kissing thing. Jon's a little surprised he even showed up. "As I've mentioned, I never know what you think."
"I couldn't believe she didn't know better." He bumps his shoulder against Raoul's. "You're like that, but even more."
"Thanks," says Raoul, looking down, and Jon thinks he probably picked the wrong way to approach this.
"I was going to ask you on a date," he says. "But I've never dated anyone. I don't know what it's--" he waves vaguely. "I have no idea how it works. I was thinking we could just make out a lot. And I wouldn't have sex with anyone but you until you wise up and dump me. We could also go to restaurants if you want. And movies. I will be drunk at the movies. And probably at the restaurants. You know me."
Raoul stares at him, agape, for a long minute. "You're serious," he says finally.
"Yeah. So I better be right that you want this. I even asked Alanna. She'll make fun of me if I'm wrong."
"You asked Alanna?"
"If I should date you. Not how dating works. I probably should have asked her that too."
"I don't think we have to do it right," says Raoul, looking down with a blush, and that's all the encouragement Jon needs. He pulls him in for another kiss, because he's been thinking about kissing Raoul all week. "Everyone's going to see," he murmurs, but they're still kissing.
"Is that a problem?" Jon nuzzles his jaw. He's so definitely bi-curious. "I'm not subtle."
"No," says Raoul. He's a little pink. "I always figured I'd come out if I ever got a boyfriend." Raoul's a private guy, but if he liked Jon, he must have been prepared for a bit more of the spotlight. Jon's bad at staying out of the spotlight.
"Well, you've got one now," says Jon, and kisses him again. Raoul has no objections this time.
When Jon is twenty-two, he gets his first and only boyfriend, and his best friend gets her first and only boyfriend too.
It's a pretty good year, all things considered. And he's pretty sure the best is yet to come.