A little while later I put the stuff away he'd gifted me, and we headed over to his house for dinner. There was some lively chat between my siblings and me about the dance, how some people had looked and gossip provided by Alessia.
“I heard someone beat Joe Fimmer's ass,” she said, giving me some side eye.
“What? You didn't say anything!” Teo said, staring at me.
I frowned. “I was alone with him, who else would possibly know?”
“You just confirmed it!” Alessia said triumphantly. “I figured someone got him because he's got a proper black eye now, and Cole posted this stupid cartoon of a guy flexing and said not to mess with his baby. Guess his baby beat someone's ass for him.”
I rolled my eyes. “Cole needed to have hit him harder. You can't just embarrass a guy or he'll come for you. Right, Teo? Back me up.”
“Truth,” he said. “It's like in sports. If you get up on someone and try to cruise instead of keeping the hammer down, you let them back in and then they come back. If someone steps to you, you have to hammer them back down.”
“No fighting,” his father said absently. “I want you both to go through some of the things in the garage this week. Anything we don't need – ffft! In the garbage.”
“If we needed anything out there it would be in the house,” his wife said quietly. “Most of it is junk.”
Then they began debating about some of the specific items that were in the garage and how needed they were. It was boring.
I hung out with Alessia and Teo after in the front room. We talked about our dates the night before, some details about how things had gone afterward and just kind of shared things with each other.
“So, I want to ask,” Alessia said. “Did you always like Cole? 'Cause I remember you saying he was cute as.”
“Well, I mean, I always thought he was pretty. I also thought he was a jerk, so I didn't really think about him a lot. After you told me some stuff that was going on at home for him, I kind of cut him some slack – even though it didn't matter; we didn't know each other then, really.” I shrugged and smiled at her.
“So he came after you, then?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yup. He totally faked needing help with science to spend time with me.”
“That's disgustingly awesome,” she said with a grunt. “So he wanted you and had to figure out how to make you see that?”
“I suppose. Wasn't that hard.”
“And you!” Alessia said, turning on Teo who looked up from his phone in surprise.
“How long has Ashley been beating his nerd meat about you?”
“Hmm,” he said, appearing to think about that. “He said he was talking to a guy in the GSA about wanting to find a date to the ball, but that there weren't that many out guys. I think he said it was Eric, because Eric had been talking about his boyfriend coming to the dance and he goes to a different school. So Eric told him about me being out and that he didn't think I was dating anyone, so Ashley started stalking me on all my social media crap. I guess he liked what he saw.”
“Mmm. Stalking sounds sexy until it's not. You keeping this one?” she asked.
He grinned. “Yeah. He's probably the best guy I've ever dated. Have you looked at that bubble butt on him?”
“Hell, yes,” Alessia said and laughed, rocking back and forth. I grinned at her. “I just can't believe you're dating someone a year behind you. It was always years ahead of you.”
“Eh. He's my kind of nerd,” Teo said with a smile. He looked at me. “Speaking of someone's type, your boy is perfect for you.”
“Yeah, he kind of is,” I said.
“He posted about ten minutes ago,” Teo said, turning his phone toward me. “Him and his dad down at Quigley's. It's nice he's got a solid relationship with his dad.”
“He is a pretty nice guy,” I agreed. “Seems like he genuinely cares about his kids. He and Cole have a set day, usually, to hang out and I guess they hadn't been able to do that for a while, so they were going tonight.”
“Weird. Parent night on a Saturday? Usually that's going to be hanging out with boyfriends and girlfriends, right?” she asked.
“Well, I guess he traded to get me permission to stay over last night,” I admitted.
“Wow,” Teo said. “Permission to have sex with his son. He must really like you!”
I laughed. “Yeah. His dad said something to me about respecting each other and I figured he knew things would happen. I didn't realize it was sort of planned out, though.”
“I think Cole's been planning to get in your pants for a while,” Alessia said and mimed giving a blow job.
“Hey, you're the one who had a dick in their mouth last night,” I said, not sure why I'd admit I hadn't. I wanted to.
“Yeah. It was some good dick, too,” Alessia said quietly, looking to see if her parents overheard. “He's not afraid to make a girl happy, either.”
“Stop,” I said, giggling a little.
“Yeah,” Teo said. “Neither of us wants to hear about our sister's vajayjay. But feel free to talk about his dick.”
“It's pretty nice, if I do say so myself,” she said smugly. I just laughed at her. We hung out until Cole called me, and I said my good-nights before devoting the rest of my evening to talking to him.
“So my dad says we have family court on Tuesday,” he said.
“Yup. That was part of what he wanted to talk about. He's looking to get full custody of me. We're meeting with a lawyer on Monday, who is also his divorce lawyer. Right now they need a legal separation to establish custody – and my dad says the lawyer told him I can choose where I want to live because of my age.”
I let out a sigh of relief. “That's great. Reminds me, though, how about Keith last night, huh? He ran right out there.”
“Holy shit, right?” Cole replied and chuckled. “My grandfather thought he was going to intimidate him, and Keith was like, naw, bitch!” He laughed aloud and I joined him. “Keith seriously likes you, though.”
“Yeah. Don't know why.”
“Probably not for the same reasons I like you,” he said.
“Probably,” I agreed. “But I think he's getting used to you, too.”
“Yeah. I'm getting used to his mannerisms and stuff. It's just weird – no, new. It's new. Something to get used to,” he said.
“You think your mom will try to force visitation or something?”
I heard him sigh. “I'm not sure. I feel kind of weird about that. I mean, I didn't have a bad relationship with my mom, but it feels like it's all different now.”
“Cole...from what you said it didn't really sound like your relationship with your mom was good,” I said quietly.
“No, no,” he insisted. “I mean, yeah, I don't like how she thinks about some stuff, but she was still there for me. She went to my games, wanted me to do well, got me the workout stuff I have in the basement at home. She was all about...um. Damn.”
I waited. “What is it, Babe?”
He sniffled a little. “It's just...I told you how she grew up. She told me about it. What men were supposed to be like. What makes a real man. She said I had to be strong, even if I wasn't. I had to do sports, even if I didn't feel like it. She said I had to date the right girls, and she thought Haylee was right.”
I wanted to distract him a bit. “I wonder why she thought Haylee was so right for you.”
He sniffled again. Very quietly he said, “She used to make fun of me after games. Tell me every mistake I made. For awhile I thought it was like a joke. Some weird motivation. But when I got pissed and told her to stop making jokes about me after I'd had a fumble in a game and everyone was on me about it, she told me I...that I was the joke.”
My anger rose up in me so fast it was blinding. “She fucking did what?”
“Stop,” he said softly, his voice breaking. “Please stop.”
“Stop what?” I snapped. “I can't believe – fuck, yes I can.” I sighed. I was boiling inside, but I also wanted him to finish draining this puss of a woman from his mind. “What did she say about Haylee?”
“It's...you're just going to get mad. How about-”
“Cole,” I said impatiently and then let out a slow breath to try and master my anger. “Baby. What did she say?”
He was quiet for a moment and all I heard was his periodic sniffle. Eventually, though, he said, “She was really happy when I...she had told me if I needed condoms to come to her. Dad had, too. So when I asked for them, all of a sudden she loved Haylee. It was like she saw her as making me normal – straight.”
I closed my eyes. “That fucking....”
“I don't like you being angry,” he said sadly. “You seem like you're mad a lot.”
“That's because I am,” I admitted. “Right now it's because someone hurt you. Look, Cole,” I said hesitating as to how to word my next sentence, but then just blurting things out. “You're real. What I feel for you is so real it hurts. I hate the idea of someone telling you you're less than. Three months ago you were just this pretty boy that I didn't really know, and now you're the middle of my fucking existence and anyone that wants to tell you that you aren't the most beautiful, sexy, kind, funny, most important person makes me want to do dangerous things to them.”
He was quiet for a moment and then he said, “Wow. I...my God. I can't...I don't even know how to reply except I love you. I've wanted to be able to talk to you for like a year, and I just couldn't handle it. I worry about how mad you get, though. Promise me you won't do something stupid?”
“Like, is there a specific time I'm not supposed to do something stupid?”
“Yeah. When you're mad. Call me instead. I'm afraid you're going to hurt someone at some point. You don't need that, Drew.”
I sighed and flopped back on the bed. We slowly moved to lighter topics and my head began to droop and I would snap up to try and hear anything he'd said. I began to mumble and he finally said, “It's two-thirty. Go to bed.”
“Yeah, I'm falling asleep,” I said and yawned to punctuate it. “I'd sleep better if you were here.”
“I love you,” he said quietly.
“I love you back,” I told him.
We should have hung up there, but I ended up falling asleep with him telling me to hang up.
Sunday was lost since it was a work day. It was fairly busy and I was actually able to focus on something besides the weirdness in my life and not obsess about wanting to be with Cole. When I was walking home I was texting with him and he said he'd just done a workout.
Yeah? Send me a selfie of you post-workout. Lemme see the new muscles :-)
I walked nearly a block before the phone buzzed. I looked down to see the requested selfie – he was wearing sweatpants riding low, shirtless, flexing and smiling.
I need some water. I added an eggplant and water splashing emojis.
He put emojis for smiling and blushing. We chatted a little, but then he said his dad needed him and he was gone. I got home, showered and finished my laundry before getting to the last of my homework. I needed to talk to Cole about his future plans so I could make sure they kept us together. I must have been tired, because I fell asleep before I was done with my work.
The week was kind of up and down. Monday Cole was with his dad and concerned about anything the lawyer had said. I questioned Cole that night, worried myself that something may have changed, but all was as it had been: the lawyer was confident things would work out the way they hoped.
Monday I also had to work, and Cole told me that his mother got into a fight with his father about visitation and custody. She intended to try to make sure Cole never saw his dad again. Needless to say, it stoked all my fear and anger afresh. I had another late night with my homework, but that was because I was spending so much time thinking about Cole I wasn't focused like I should be.
Tuesday I helped the Petrakises start to organize the garage. It was packed with crap, but there was some fun had, and I needed the distraction since Cole had gone to the hearing with his parents and it was kind of an all day thing. Teo and Alessia were over-the-top silly, and it only got better when Brax arrived. They were sort-of trying on old clothes, taking pictures and gossiping.
“So,” Brax said, glancing at me and winking as Alessia looked at him in curiosity. “My old girlfriend reached out from my old hometown today. Said she made a mistake to let me go. Was wondering if I'd ever come home to visit and if we could Netflix and chill.”
“What did you tell that skank, who I'll have to bury somewhere out of the way?” Alessia asked sweetly.
“Who, babe! Ease up on the homicide,” Brax said with a grin, pulling her to his side. “I didn't say yes.”
“If you had, you'd be buried next to the skank,” Teo said with a chuckle.
“Damn, tough crowd,” Brax said, grinning at me.
“I don't know why you're grinning at me, Brax. I don't think cheating's funny,” I said to him and then closed my eyes. “Sorry. That was stupid.”
“Bruh,” Brax said, pushing my shoulder. “Ease up.”
“No. I shouldn't have said that,” I snapped and looked at him. “I don't know how you can joke about it, but I'm not you. It wasn't my parents, so I have no right to open my mouth.”
He smiled at me crookedly. “Bruh. Bruh! That's why we're friends! I was only trying to tease my girl – you didn't offend me. Come on, now,” he said and put his fist out. “Come on. I got bigger shoulders than that.”
I looked at him and my anger simmered down a bit, and I half-heartedly bumped his fist. “How, though? How can you do that after your parents divorced because your dad cheated and Cole's parents are splitting up and my own father...I don't understand.”
He gave me that same crooked smile. “Matters who's saying it and what for, Drew. You'd never say something to hurt me or mine. My dad is a dick! I can say it. I love him, still. I hate what he did to my mom. We don't get on, but I don't hate him – not completely. It's complicated. Alessia knows I'm not going to cheat on her no more than she'd cheat on me.”
“Yeah. Better chance of Cole getting pregnant,” Alessia said with a snicker. She looked up at Brax. “You keep making jokes like that and it may cost you.”
“Oh?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. She reached down and cupped him.
“Two eggs, one squeeze. Mine, Braxton. Mine.”
He put his hands up. “Yours, baby girl, all yours!” he said, pretending fright. It was kind of funny.
“Drew was saying something yesterday that was kind of funny,” Teo said to his sister. “He pointed out that all of Dad's kids like dick.”
She giggled. “Yeah, but not all of us like the same dick.”
For some reason we all looked at Brax and his eyes went wide. Lifting his hands up in surrender he said, “Damn, guys! I know what a wishbone feels like now!”
That got us laughing pretty hard. “I was just telling him how Teo has checked him out,” I said to Alessia.
“Duh. He's dating my sister.” Teo paused. “Also wears sweatpants a lot. Figured the boy was showing off.”
“Not that I'm trying to change the subject, but you know Cole's in the same boat as y'all,” Brax said.
I thought for a second. “Right, him and his – well, I don't know. Emily is a little young and I don't know anything about Ginger except she seems to be on her mother's side of things.”
“Ginger's a copy of her momma,” Brax said. “I don't know Emily that much. But her, if it goes like you guys....”
“You mean Emily and Ginger are going to like you in sweatpants, too?” Teo asked, putting a mock confused tone in his voice.
“Imma stop now,” Brax said with a grin.
Cole showed up around eight and he looked worn out. I didn't ask right away what had happened, just wrapped him up and tried to hide him from the world. Of course, he was surrounded by family with us there, so I guess that was okay. We went inside to order some pizza – Mr. Petrakis had left money on the counter. The Mrs and he had gone out for marriage counseling with their priest.
Sitting around the table Cole ran his fingers through his hair several times as he recounted how the waiting beforehand was so stressful. How his mother and grandfather were there and talking at him like he had no choices and making threats against his father. It got bad enough that the lawyer got them a room by themselves to wait.
The courtroom had been a joke. First the judge didn't like that Cole didn't want to see his mother and gave him a lecture on how ungrateful teenagers were and how you only get one mother. Cole said he felt belittled and browbeaten and started to get afraid that he'd be sent to live with his mother – and then what?
Then the arrest of his mother was presented. The judge realized he'd made a mistake and went full-on the other way to lecture his mother about her responsibilities, and then things got worse. The grandfather interrupted the judge, yelled over him, started going on about a disgrace to the family line and how it was against nature. It got bad enough that the bailiff was called, and the grandfather resisted and then punched the bailiff. Two deputies came running, and the grandfather threw his red hat at one as he charged the other. They subdued him and dragged him off for processing.
The judge was furious. In the end he asked Cole what he wanted, and he said he wanted to live with his dad. The judge stared at the mother and said it was so ordered, and then the fight started over the separation agreement; the mother didn't want the father to see their youngest daughter due to his boyfriend. On the heels of that – constantly referring to her estranged husband's 'deviant lifestyle' – she tried to re-litigate the judge's decision on Cole.
More fireworks as the judge and the mother argued, and then the mother got dragged off for contempt. Cole was worn out emotionally. I could see how fragile he was, and I wasn't going to leave him alone. I wanted to keep him at my house, but I had a feeling his father wasn't going to let his son out of his sight for very long.
“Where is your dad now?” I asked when he was done with the horrific tale.
He rubbed his face with one hand. “He went to get Emily. She's going to stay at the apartment for tonight because my mother is...is in...jail again.”
My heart couldn't take it. Anger welled up and I had nowhere to aim it. I grabbed him and held him tightly with the desperate thought to fuse us so I could be a protective layer for him against the world. My arms were only matched by his own, and then he was crying and my anger knew no bounds. Stress churned my stomach to acid, my head began to pound and my muscles were trembling with the desire to take it out on someone – anyone.
Cole let out a small wail and I pulled his face tightly to my chest as his hands clutched desperately at my back. I buried my face in his hair, kissing the silken strands and willing some of my anger to strengthen him. I'm not sure what happened next. I wish I were making that up, but there is a gap in my memory. The next thing I remember is Cole looking up at me, fragile and beautiful with his red-rimmed eyes and puffy face.
“Will you?” he asked, and I had a sense it wasn't the first time he'd asked me something.
“Will I what?” I asked, hating that I was suddenly out of the loop.
“Come to my dad's? Stay with me tonight?”
“Of course. I'm not leaving you,” I said firmly.
“I'll run over and get your bag and some stuff for tomorrow,” Teo said. I nodded and he departed; I continued to maintain contact with Cole.
“I need a Kleenex, babe,” Cole said.
“I'll get the box,” Alessia said and she headed out of the room quickly. Just as fast she was back and then Teo was back and then the pizza showed up, all one after the other. Brax just sat beside us, one arm around Cole's shoulder.
“Eat,” I told Cole.
“I'm not really hungry,” he said quietly.
I looked him in the eye. “One slice? Please try?”
He let his gaze drop. “Okay.”
I sat on the same chair with him and shoved three slices in me while he barely finished the slice in front of him. His dad arrived shortly after and it was clear he was going to say no about me sleeping over, but I think Cole's beaten look made him reconsider. So we went back to the apartment. Keith had made food, so I convinced Cole to eat a little more, even though he wasn't hungry. He went to shower and I made up the pullout bed while Cole's dad got Emily ready for bed. Cole joined me, and he reminded me of finely spun crystal – fragile, yet gloriously beautiful. I got him in bed and then read to him from IT while he snuggled closely to me.
His father came back into the room and I put the book down, Cole's steady breathing telling me he was out.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
“He's mine. I have to take care of him,” I said, not accepting his thanks. He looked like he didn't like that answer, but I didn't care. I did add in a less-challenging tone, “I love him.”
He sat on the corner of the bed, so as not to disturb Cole. “This kind of drama can't go on forever. It's not sustainable, but at the same time I had expected Laurie to see some sense. I think her father is driving a lot of her attitudes right now.”
“What about her mom? Or your parents?”
“Her mom passed a few years after she was born. Her father dated a lot but never remarried. My parents are in Florida, but they should be here by the end of the week. I'm going to want Cole to spend some time with them so he's not here, where Laurie knows to find him. Not until she gets some sense.”
“He wants me with him,” I said protectively.
He sighed. “I know, Drew. We had a good talk Saturday and he made a very mature case for where he is with you right now. Even though it's my instinct, even as a grown man, to get help from supportive family members like my parents, I know what you mean to him. We'll figure something out.”
“Do you have siblings?”
He smiled wanly. “Six. I was born fifth. Unfortunately my siblings are all fairly successful and don't live close by. They also have families of their own, for the most part. Number four, Elise, is gay also – but she came out in her early twenties.”
“Cole said your parents...weren't good about you coming out.”
He sighed deeply. “They were a nightmare when I was a teenager struggling with my sexuality, but they were strangely accepting of my sister. They’ve grown far beyond their roots. They thought they were doing the right thing, because an actual doctor told them to do what they did to me. That isn't them anymore, or I'd never let them near him.”
I grunted lightly. “I won't let anything happen to him,” I said determinedly.
He sighed. “I said the same thing. I can't protect him from everything. No kid should have to hear the things he did from his own family today. I bit my tongue so the judge wouldn't see me in the same light he was seeing Laurie.” He smiled wanly at me. “Protect him from what you can, and when you can't – do what you're doing now. He needs this support.” He turned out the light even though it was early and I lay awake in the semi-darkness holding Cole lightly and placing the occasional kiss on his cheek, his forehead, the tip of his nose.
“I'm going to get you through this, Cole,” I whispered to him. “I love you. You're worth everything in the world to me.”