Shaun checks his watch again and automatically does the math: 4:38pm in LA. Zach’s show starts in three and a half hours. If he got on a plane right now, just stood up and walked out and hailed a taxi to the airport, bought a ticket on the first direct flight, he might still be able to make it. He’d be late, but he’d be there, which is where he’d rather be instead of sitting here in a swanky hotel bar in Chicago negotiating publishing rights for his new book.
He stifles a sigh and returns his hand to its hiding place under the table, his fingers tapping out an impatient rhythm against his thigh. Across the table, the publishing rep smiles at him, an expectant look on her face. He realizes a few seconds too late that she’s waiting for a response to a question he never even heard. He also realizes he doesn’t remember her name.
“I’m sorry, what?” He gives her his best smile and hopes that’s enough to excuse him. Next to him, Sam digs her nails into the meaty part of his leg above his knee.
“I was just asking if you’re enjoying your stay in Chicago,” she says. She motions around the bar. “Isn’t this a beautiful place? It’s one of the city’s most cherished landmarks.”
Shaun nods and takes a sip of his drink, consciously resisting the urge to look at his watch again. “It’s beautiful,” he says neutrally. “In fact, it’s a beautiful city.” He smiles. “I’ve been here many times and it gets even more beautiful every time.” He’s laying it on thick, he knows, so thick it nearly chokes him. But he really just wants to get to the point and get the fuck out of here.
“Have you ever been here in the winter?” she asks him. “That’s my favorite time of year. Snow on the ground, everyone bundled up. The cold seems to make the air shimmer.” She looks wistful.
“That’s just the result of two and a half million people shivering their asses off all at once,” he replies, and suppresses a wince as Sam digs her nails in again. Under the table, he grabs her wrist and pries her hand off, pressing it down on the seat between them. “Me, I prefer LA winters. Palm trees covered in twinkle lights and absolutely no risk of frostbite.” He smiles at her to soften the sarcasm and looks at his watch again.
It’s 4:42 in LA.
“Excuse us a moment, will you?” Sam says, pushing him out of the booth. “I need another drink and I need Shaun to help me carry it.”
Shaun barely catches a glimpse of the rep’s confused look before he’s manhandled across the room towards the bar itself, its highly polished teak surface reflecting his smirk as he meets Sam’s eyes and says, “Just how big is this drink that it needs both of us to carry it?”
She narrows her eyes at him, a look he’s seen a million times before, and always before she’s about to tear into him. His agent is nothing if not completely terrible at hiding her emotions. “Tell me something, Shaun. Are you actively trying to fuck up your career here? ’Cause that’s what it looks like to me.”
“Sam,” he says, gripping her shoulders. “Samantha.”
“Don’t ‘Samantha’ me, asshole,” she says, shrugging off his hands. She flashes a quick look over her shoulder towards their table, then looks back at him. “Precisely what is your problem with her?”
Shaun looks across the room at the rep, who is busy scrolling through something on her cell phone, completely oblivious to the fact that she's the current topic of their conversation. “Nothing,” he says, looking back at Sam. “She seems like a perfectly competent representative of her firm.”
Sam taps the bar twice with her nails to get the bartender’s attention. “Then what is it?”
Shaun eyes her. They’ve been over this a dozen times. “You know what it is.”
Sam rolls her eyes. “Oh, god. Zach’s thing again?”
Shaun has to take a breath before replying. Sam’s a terrific literary agent, but her people skills leave something to be desired sometimes. The bartender walks over to them and Sam gives him her order. He looks at Shaun, but Shaun shakes him off. He waits until the bartender leaves to speak again. “I told you I didn’t want to come here,” he says. “I told you to reschedule. You wouldn’t.”
“I couldn’t,” Sam says. “It was either now or we wait two months and by then we would miss the Christmas release. We’ve got to strike while the iron is hot, as they say.” The bartender returns, setting her glass down in front of her. Shaun watches as she picks it up and takes a sip through the stirring straw. “Perfect,” she says, smiling up at him. She takes another sip, tipping her head in the rep’s direction. “Then again, it should be for what they’re charging her.”
Shaun grasps her arm. “Sam,” he says, focusing his gaze on her face.
She sighs dramatically and stirs her drink. “If you didn’t want to come, then why are you here?”
“Because,” he says, “despite what you think, I am not actively trying to fuck up my career.” He lets of her arm. “But there’s more to life than selling books.”
She gives him an appraising look, shaking her head in mock disgust. “You are the worst excuse for a capitalist that I’ve ever seen. Most writers would be salivating at an opportunity like this.”
“None of them have a boyfriend who’s about to open his first art show in,” he looks at his watch, “three hours and 4 minutes.”
She’s on the brink of giving in; Shaun can see it in her eyes. Underneath her tough exterior, there’s a soft, gooey center. He’s actually seen her cry over Apple commercials and anything with a kitten in it. One more little push and she’ll cave.
She gives it one last try. “You said yourself he told you it was fine. That it was important for you to be here.”
“Sam,” he says. “You know Zach. If he thinks it would help someone he loves, you could set him on fire and he’d say it was fine.”
Sam takes another sip of her drink, looking up at him as she chews on the tip of her straw. He holds her gaze and his breath. He’s pretty much decided he’s already leaving, but he really, really wants her blessing.
“Go,” she says finally, lowering her drink. Her look of exasperation is full of reluctant affection. “You’re going to anyway.”
Shaun grins. “You’re beautiful,” he says, cupping her cheeks and kissing her right on the lips. “I owe you one.”
She blushes, lifting her drink to try to hide it. “You owe me more than one.” She nods in the rep’s direction. “And what do you want me to tell her?”
Shaun’s barely listening, already scrolling through his phone in search of flights to LA. “Tell her the truth,” he says.
“That you suddenly had to fly back to LA in the middle of negotiations because your big gay love for your boyfriend makes it impossible for you to be apart from him for more than a day?”
Shaun stops scrolling to look up. She’s smirking at him. “Did you just say, ‘big gay love’?”
She smiles. “Hey, you’re the writer, not me,” she says. “Besides, it’s not really that far off. It’s kind of disgusting, really, watching the two of you together.”
Shaun’s already looking back down at his phone, but he smiles at her words. “You’re just jealous.” His smile morphs into a grin. “There’s a flight leaving Midway in,” he once again consults his watch, “58 minutes.” He looks up at her. “That won’t give me any time to grab my stuff from the hotel.”
“Shaun,” she says. “Since when has the hero ever stopped to get his stuff before racing to meet his true love?” She sets her empty glass on the counter and rolls her eyes again, pushing him towards the door. “Go. I’ll get your things from the hotel.”
“You’re the best, Sam,” Shaun says giddily. “I mean it. I don’t think I’m paying you enough.” He turns and heads quickly for the lobby, resisting the urge to run.
“Tell me something I don’t know!” she calls after him.
He’s panting by the time he makes it to the gate, boarding pass crumpled in his hand. They’re closing the door to the tunnel when he slides to a stop in front of the check-in counter, panic twisting in his chest. He’s prepared to beg if he has to, to get right down on his knees, the attendant’s uniform crumpled in his fists, and plead to be let on the plane.
Turns out, he doesn’t have to. He hands the young man his pass and buzzes with impatience as he’s scanned in.
“Two more minutes and you would’ve been too late,” the man tells him, smiling. “You’re a very lucky man.”
The words immediately make Shaun think of Zach. Of Cody and Max and the life they all share together in their cozy little apartment in LA. Shaun smiles back at him. “I know,” he says.
The flight attendants greet him with their well-trained smiles firmly in place when he enters the plane, quickly shuffling him through first class and into the back of the plane. His is a middle seat, the last empty seat in economy class, as it turns out. The two people sharing his half of the row are already settled in, ear buds in and seat belts buckled. The lady on the aisle nearly jumps when he taps her on the shoulder, and gives him a harried look when she realizes she has to get up. He smiles at her as he slides into the row, apologizing, pulling in his elbows so he doesn’t disturb his neighbors.
He settles into his own seat, nodding to the man in the window seat, and pulls his phone from his pocket. There’s an unread message from Sam, time stamped a few minutes after he left the bar.
Have a safe flight. Give Zach a blowjob from me.
He laughs out loud, pressing the phone to his leg when he sees the woman trying to read the screen. When she looks away again, he brings the phone up and texts back, Get your mind out of the gutter and back on the negotiations. Make a good deal and there may be something extra in it for you.
Pulling up Zach’s name, he texts, Good luck tonight. I’m so proud of you. He presses SEND.
The flight attendant comes by to tell him to shut off his phone. He nods, but ignores her request, hoping to hear from Zach.
He hears from Sam first. Ive got her eating out of my hand. And im taking an extra 5%.
Shaun gives Zach another minute. Then another. Finally, he can’t wait any longer and shuts off his phone, tucking it away in his pocket.
It’s nearly 10:30pm LA time when the plane touches down. The second the tires touch the runway, Shaun pulls out his phone and powers it up. Three new messages.
The first one’s from Zach. Hope ur meeting is going well. Miss u & see u 2morrow. Shaun smiles and reads it again, then a third time, trying to picture the look on Zach’s face when he sees Shaun at the gallery tonight.
The next message is from Gabe, sent at 8:39pm. This shit is sooooo boring. Ud love it. Shaun laughs. It’s a good thing his little brother is Zach’s best friend, because he sure as hell didn’t drive all the way down from SB for the art. He loves Zach almost as much as Shaun does.
The third message is from Sam. Im a genius. U can thank me later. Call me in the am when the afterglow wears off. :) Shaun just smiles and shakes his head as he slips the phone back in his pocket.
The gallery is only 20 minutes from the airport, but even with the bit of extra speed paid for with the promise of a big tip, the ride in the taxi feels like it takes an hour. Shaun checks his watch a hundred times, watching the minutes pass slowly, willing the car to move faster. He’s tempted at one point to jump out and run the rest of the way when the traffic light seems content to stay red. It’s already past eleven.
The gallery lights are still on when the taxi stops out front and Shaun feels a wave of relief wash over him as he throws open the door and reaches for his wallet. “Thank you,” he says to the driver, handing him the last of his cash, nearly $100, as he steps out of the car.
The taxi drives off and Shaun’s left standing there looking up at the banner hung over the front doors, what he knows to be a goofy, love-struck smile creasing his face. Zach’s name is there, among the others, and Shaun feels a lump rising in his throat. Pride. Love. A hundred other emotions all at once.
When he walks through the door, he sees that there are still a few people milling around inside, chatting in small groups, talking with their hands, the low hum of their voices buzzing in the air. Trays filled with empty glasses and half-eaten hors d’oeuvres are sitting in the corners, waiting to be cleared away. The food table, he sees, has been picked clean. But he’s not here to eat, anyway.
He finally finds Zach standing across the room, in deep conversation with an older couple. They’re gesturing to a portion of Zach’s painting, and Zach smiles, nodding as he responds. It’s wonderful to see Zach like this, here in his element, showing off his talent to people who can really appreciate it. He’s blossomed so much in the last two years, his time at Cal Arts giving him so much confidence in his own abilities. Shaun likes to think maybe he had something to do with that too.
Zach looks up then, his mouth stopping mid-sentence when his eyes meet Shaun’s across the room. They just stand there for a moment, the two of them, suspended in time, until Zach tears his eyes away to make his excuses to the couple in front of him. Then he’s suddenly in front of Shaun, close enough to touch, shaking his head in disbelief.
“What the hell?” he asks, confusion mixing with happiness in his eyes.
Shaun smiles. “I just couldn’t miss it,” he says, softly, his throat suddenly tight. He finally reaches out, dragging his fingertips across Zach’s cheek. “I’m so proud of you, babe.”
Zach smiles back. “You already said that.”
“It bears repeating.” Shaun pulls Zach to him, holding him tight, closing his eyes when he feels Zach’s arms go around him. He turns his face into Zach’s neck, nosing into his hair, and whispers, “I should’ve been here when it opened. I never should have left.”
“You’re here now,” Zach says. “That’s all that matters.”
They stand like that for a few moments, until Zach finally pulls away. “Come on,” he says. Taking Shaun’s hand, he leads him back across the room towards his own exhibit, the one he’s kept hidden from Shaun for the last several weeks, claiming it wasn’t finished yet. Shaun’s been dying to see it, and now that he’s about to, he feels suddenly nervous, as if he’s the one whose heart and soul have been put on display for strangers’ eyes to gaze upon.
Looking around, it dawns on Shaun that someone is missing.
Zach laughs and squeezes his hand. “I freed him from bondage a couple of hours ago,” he says. “He says to text him when I’m done here and we’ll go out for a beer.” He looks over at Shaun. “Those plans aren’t set in stone. Just so you know.” The words are heavy with unspoken promise.
The couple is still standing there admiring Zach’s work when they approach. Shaun barely has the chance to glance at Zach’s painting before he’s standing with his back to it, introducing himself to the couple as he shakes their hands.
The woman smiles, her dark eyes twinkling, as she covers his hand with her own. “So you’re Shaun,” she says. “I feel like I already know so much about you.”
Shaun’s smile falters a bit as he looks over at Zach with a questioning look. Zach shifts from foot to foot, trying to pretend he’s not blushing. “Your name may have come up once or twice,” he says sheepishly.
The woman looks like she wants to stay and talk some more, but the man gently grips her by the elbow and says, “It’s getting late. We should get going.” He looks at Zach. “You have a lot of talent, young man. I look forward to seeing more of your work.” Then he looks at Shaun and smiles, leaning in to whisper, “Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. It seems to be working.” They take their leave.
Shaun watches them walk away for a few seconds before he turns to face Zach. “So,” he says.
Zach gives him a half-smile. “So.”
“I flew all this way just so I could finally see your masterpiece,” Shaun says, motioning to it. “Are you gonna let me look at it, or what? You’ve kept me waiting for weeks already.”
Zach flicks his eyes away, his gaze slowly wandering over his work. One last private look before sharing it with Shaun. Shaun just watches him, waiting.
“Okay,” Zach says, meeting Shaun’s eyes again. “You can look.”
Shaun turns to face it, his eyes trying to take it all in at once. It’s a swirl of lines and colors, several feet across and several feet high. Close up, he sees it’s a series of smaller pieces arranged into a larger theme, the lines and colors changing as he moves his eyes left to right, converging and twisting and flaring out again, only to meet again at a more distant point. He’s avoiding the nameplate until he gets his own feel for it, doesn’t want the title of the piece to influence his own interpretation. He feels Zach next to him, watching him, the weight of his gaze pressing into his skin, and he reaches out his hand to him, never moving his eyes from the painting.
Zach takes his hand and moves closer, his fingers slipping down between Shaun’s, their shoulders brushing. Shaun keeps looking at the painting, following the lines with his eyes, first one, then the other, letting them coalesce into shapes, their colors drawing out different emotions, one after the other.
The longer he looks at it, the more familiar it seems, like a story he’s read a thousand times before. There’s something about the shapes, the lines, the colors. “It’s….”
Then it clicks.
“…love,” he whispers.
Zach squeezes his hand. “It’s us,” he says softly.
Shaun turns to look at him. Zach’s looking back, eyes shining, a tentative smile on his face. He looks so beautiful, hopeful and happy and scared all at once, like he still can’t believe this is real, that this life is his to keep for as long as he wants it.
“It’s amazing,” Shaun says, smiling. “You’re amazing.”
Zach smiles, and Shaun watches the blush slowly pink Zach’s cheeks. Threading his fingers through Zach’s hair, he pulls him in for a soft kiss, smiling against Zach’s lips when he feels warm fingers grip the back of his shirt.
He lets it linger, savoring the moment, then finally pulls back to meet Zach’s eyes. “I love you, you know.”
Zach leans in to plant another soft kiss on Shaun’s lips. “I know.” He’s never said it back, not in so many words, but he’s shown it in a million different ways. And that’s enough for Shaun. It’s more than enough.
Pulling from the embrace, Zach walks over to the end of his exhibit, stopping in front of the small placard Shaun avoided before, the one with the piece’s name. Curious now, he follows Zach over, finally reading what it says.
THREE LITTLE WORDS
Below that is a brief inscription.
“For Shaun,” it reads, “who always hears the words I haven’t said.”