He’s almost relieved when Vanessa breaks up with him. Almost. He finds himself sitting alone on a bench in Washington Square Park, having gone down to her apartment to “talk.” Not that he did much talking. He didn’t know what to say, honestly. He knew their relationship was unbalanced, having never been able to shake the feeling that he was swallowing his own tongue whenever he tried to talk to her. He looked around at the park, at the people living their lives, and couldn’t shake the feeling that they existed in a separate world, one that he couldn’t quite penetrate. Vanessa had chosen this world, and he wondered if he could have ever reached her, or if they would always be speaking a different language.
He trudged towards the A train. Sonny had gotten better about watching the bodega on his own, but Usnavi didn’t like being away for too long. It made his skin itch, like a bad sweater. As the stations rushed by, he sighed. He could have really had a chance with her, maybe things could have been different. If he wasn’t himself. If he was better. Stronger. More articulate. His heart ached in his chest. Who was he kidding? Vanessa had always been the most beautiful girl in the barrio. He had been reaching, loving her.
As he stepped back onto familiar territory, he swore off relationships for the time being. It was just too complicated. Usnavi liked things simpler, organized, like the shelves in the bodega. Hunched against the winter wind, he opened up the door to the store and the heat hit him in a rush that made his muscles loosen. Benny leaned up against the counter, drumming his fingers against the worn surface.
“You’re back! Finally, someone can make the coffee right!” He shot a significant look at Sonny.
“Whatever, man,” Sonny muttered.
Usnavi got started on his coffee, and pulled a Milky Way out from the candy shelf, sliding it towards Benny, who nodded gratefully.
“What’s up, Usnavi?”
Usnavi didn’t quite meet his eyes when he said, “Vanessa and I broke up.”
“Shit,” muttered Benny. “You okay?”
“I don’t know. Ask me tomorrow.”
“I’ll do better than that. I’ll be back at closing with a bottle of tequila.”
Usnavi doesn’t reply; he hands the coffee over to Benny. And that night, when Benny returns with the promised bottle of tequila, he is grateful.
Usnavi wasn’t sure when it happened. When, exactly, his vision had changed. Not his literal vision, he had always been blessed with the ability to read without glasses. But his mind’s eyes, the way he shifted and categorized people into friend and foe, the people that had imprinted into his heart. Benny was his best friend. They had each other’s backs. But lately, he felt the tug of something more. A tug in the base of his chest, that insisted on doing backflips whenever he saw his friend.
And lately—he swore he wasn’t imagining it—Benny had been coming in more frequently. He was always there when Usnavi opened up in the morning, but now he came at various intervals during the day. There was always an excuse.
After his fifth coffee, Usnavi raised an eyebrow at his friend. “You’re going to have caffeine running through your veins instead of blood at this rate.”
“Sleep is for the weak.”
“Or the fully functional.”
“When did I ever say I was that?”
Benny lingered at the counter. He seemed to be twitchy, though Usnavi wasn’t sure if it was nerves, or all of those café con leches running through his system. “Hey,” he said, finally.
“What?” Usnavi swallowed. He could feel his heartbeat pick up, his palms sweating. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound brusque.”
“Never mind,” Usnavi said quickly.
“Anyway.” Benny looked almost nervous, seemingly out of character for his ever-confident friend. “You want to go out sometime?”
Usnavi gripped the counter. Go out. As friends, of course. Couldn’t mean anything else. But Benny didn’t usually ask him like this. Usually Benny would just show up at the bodega with a six pack or something. Usnavi would toss the spare keys to Sonny, and they’d be on their way. Could it be possible…? Usnavi shook his head. He was dreaming, surely. He ignored the impulse inside of him that desired something so much more, that part of him that he hadn’t dared explore yet.
“Sure,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t shake.
“Maybe grab some drinks, or something?”
Usnavi nodded. “Yeah,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t squeak. Something was definitely up.
“Good.” Benny placed his hand on top of Usnavi’s in a way that seemed deliberate, calculated, planned. Usnavi swallowed, hard. His skin burned where Benny touched him. “I’ll pick you up at eight. Have Sonny watch the store.”
“Yeah,” he said, his voice sounding tinny to his ears. His head was swimming. This couldn’t be happening. This was some crazy dream, some world turned upside down, one where he felt things he dared not even name, desired more than he would ever dream of.
Maybe, just maybe, Usnavi thought as Benny left, the negative space absorbing his absence, this could be the start of something beautiful.
Benny was prompt. Usnavi liked that.
Usnavi had taken the time to put on a clean shirt, to splash his face with cold water, to do anything to calm his frazzled nerves. There had been little that would stop his breath from coming in short pants, of the feeling like he was crawling out of skin with nerves, with anticipation. He told himself that he was being ridiculous. He and Benny were just friends. Anything else was a figment of his imagination.
The bar was an old favorite of theirs, and Usnavi was grateful for the familiarity of that. Something to cling to in the maelstrom.
“Hey.” Suddenly Benny was in front of him, and Usnavi felt his throat go dry and tight, all the words he’d planning to say disappearing in an instant.
“Hey,” he managed to choke out.
“Drinks?” Benny didn’t seem nervous at all, and Usnavi wondered if he was reading this situation all wrong.
“Drinks,” he agreed. Benny ordered two beers.
The evening passed a little easier after that. Usnavi kept glancing over at Benny, but it seemed like whatever he thought was there wasn’t. He tried to ignore the disappointment that welled in his heart. It was stupid. He was being ridiculous. The question kept weighing on his mind: why had Benny gone to all this trouble to ask him out, like they were more than friends? What was going on?
His head was spinning when they slipped from the bar and out onto the street, the winter air sobering him up significantly. He started the trek back towards his apartment, the words still stuck in his mind.
“Benny?” The alcohol made him bold, he told himself.
“Why’d you ask me out tonight?”
Benny stopped on the sidewalk right outside Usnavi’s place. “I thought it was obvious.”
“Really?” Usnavi could barely breathe. His hopes leapt too far; he couldn’t read the intensity on his best friend’s face. It was too much to dream.
“C’mere.” Benny pulled Usnavi closer and planted such a kiss on him that he could feel it down to his toes.
He had imagined it, of course, in those moments before falling asleep at night, in a slow moment at the store. Thoughts he had buried deep in the back of his mind. But this was better, so much better than any fantasy. It was happening, it was really happening. Usnavi kissed him back, forehead to forehead. They broke for air.
Benny nodded towards the front door. “You want to…?”
Usnavi swore all the breath left his lungs in that moment. Overcome, he nodded.
The elevator was broken again; they raced up the stairs, laughing, hand in hand. Hysteria rushed through his body as they paused to kiss between floors. He fumbled with his keys when they finally reached the door; as soon as it shut behind them they were reaching for each other, stumbling towards the bedroom.
Usnavi was lost in every sensation, in Benny’s touch, in his kisses, his heart swelling with love. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from blurting out how he felt. It was inherently surreal as Benny pushed him up against the wall, their bodies pressed so closely together that Usnavi could feel the hardness in his pants.
Benny smirked. “Never thought I’d see the day when you would be begging for me, ‘Navi.”
At this, Usnavi pulled him into another kiss. Before he knew it, both were undressed, and he was shaking, nerves and desire pulling his muscles taut.
“You okay?” Benny looked at him with concern.
“What? No, I’m fine. Just fine.”
Usnavi could feel the flush on his face. “I’ve…not done this before.”
“Really?” Benny pulled away a little to look Usnavi directly in his eyes. “Not even with Vanessa?”
Usnavi shook his head and looked away from Benny’s honest gaze. “Heavy petting, not much more.”
Benny pressed a kiss to the side of his temple. “We don’t have to, if you don’t want to. Take it slow, if you need to.”
Usnavi ran his hands down Benny’s torso. “I want to.”
Benny’s grin could have lit up all of Washington Heights. “Excellent.”
And after, as Usnavi lie in bed, Benny by his side, he realized that maybe, on some level, this was inevitable. That falling for his best friend was the best thing he could have done. He looked over at Benny, who slept peacefully, and pressed a kiss to the side of his temple.
“I love you,” Usnavi whispered, and he knew, in the end, that he couldn’t have asked for anyone else.