I figured I'd skip going home and head to Jack's, but when I texted to let him know he told me he was leaving and heading to Jared's. I asked him if I should meet him there, and he said definitely, so I was off. Bit of a jerk moment, but I was wondering what happened that he was going to Jared instead of me. I hate myself sometimes, and maybe I am a little jealous of how much regard Jack has for Jared – Jesus. I did not want to be a controlling bitch and drive Jack away. Why am I so neurotic about Jared? If anything it made me more angry and completely unenthused to confront this right now, but there you go.
I pulled up to the Benson's and found a fleet of vehicles – Jack's, Jared's, Mr. Benson and the hooptie Luke couldn't get started but bought because he thought it looked cool. I parked on the street and rang the bell. Jared answered the door, admitting me, and had no sooner closed the door than he enveloped me in a hug.
“I'm so sorry for you guys,” he said quietly.
“I'm here if you need me, okay? I know you have Jack, but I'll be the backup plan, okay?”
I will never be able to explain why. Maybe it was because my brain was processing shit in the background. Maybe I wasn't as over it as I seemed or was trying to be. Maybe I just knew it wasn't over, because my mom had yet to weigh in and was hiding out. Maybe it was because all I had been able to control was going to Jack to try and preserve us. I'd been completely not me when I bailed on my job that morning – I'm quick tempered, but usually not to that degree. I'm responsible.
And that was why, maybe, I started crying on Jared Benson's shoulder. That was why I tentatively hugged him back. I think about that moment from time to time, and that's the best answer I can give; it was all building up inside me, and I had to let some of the pressure off.
Of course my crying brought Jack running, with Luke not far behind him. I turned from Jared and fell into Jack's arms like some damsel in distress – and I just didn't care. I was ugly crying, and Jared had brought it out of me. We shifted off into the living room, and Luke brought out some fuzzy blankets for us to curl up with. I was huddled next to Jack, who was rubbing his hand up and down my back. Luke was on the other end of the couch, his feet tucked up under him and a blanket tossed about his shoulders like a shawl. Jared had brought out some chips and stuff and settled into a chair while his dad wandered out to take another chair.
I guess crying brings all the boys to the living room. I hope to Christ that's not my superpower.
“You boys are having a rough time of it. I'm so sorry you have to go through this,” Mr. Benson said into the silence.
I felt Jack's chest vibrate as he spoke. “Things haven't been good with my parents for a while, but they never fought like they are now.” He paused. “I just couldn't hang around there. And with Derry's dad being the other half, going there didn't seem like the right thing to do.”
There it was. That's why he came to Jared's. I am such an asshole.
“I can understand, and you know you boys are always welcome here,” Mr. Benson said. “You were practically an extra Benson as it was.” He smiled wanly.
Jared and Luke murmured words of agreement. After a few minutes of silence Mr. Benson spoke again.
“Divorce is no easy thing. Not for anyone involved.” He looked at each of us, taking the group in with a sweep of his tired eyes. “When my wife and I separated I went through a litany of phases: was it my fault? Had she simply chosen to be with a woman? Why did she hate her life with us so much that she had to leave?” He shook his head. “The truth is always simpler and at the same time more complex than we imagine.”
“You never talked much about mom...after,” Luke said, his voice tiny.
His father looked at him and smiled sadly. “It would have been all bad if I had, at least at first. Once I'd said things against her, you'd have always remembered my words.” He let out a breath. “No. It wasn't fair to you kids to burden you with my own emotions toward your mother then. I won't speak badly because, in the end, it wasn't about fault.”
“What do you mean?” Jared asked. “I mean, statistically? Like fifty percent of people divorce, so was it just unlucky?”
His dad snorted out a laugh. “No. It was because your mom was raised in the same dumb way a lot of people our age were. She was repressed and got married because it was what she was supposed to do – what she was taught was expected of her. We care about each other, I'd say we love each other – but you boys should know all about there being different types of love.” He closed his eyes and said softly, “She tried. She was a good mother, but she wasn't good with me. It wasn't her fault, not in the end.” He put his hands over his nose as if in prayer and let out another breath, dropping his hands back down. “Living as someone she wasn't would have killed her. Some people think they should stay together for the children, but that's a bad idea. Take the pain you guys felt at our divorce and compare it to growing up around two people who were miserable and fighting your entire lives. But that's how people in our generation were raised – taught that if your marriage failed you were damaged. That you hadn't worked hard enough.”
“Sounds like pastors who say bad things only happen if you don't pray enough or the right way.” Oh, I'd said that. I hadn't even thought to speak and it was happening.
“Very like that,” their dad said with a nod of his head. “So as tough as this is on you guys, you have us to fall back on. Your parents are hurting and trying to find their way forward. At some point you reach the cruel realization that your parents are only people. Just humans who don't have all the answers, but who are doing the best they can.”
“But...she had kids,” Luke said softly.
His dad rubbed his forehead and sighed. “Yeah. Leaving was still for your benefit, Luke. Your mom loves you guys – a lot. But what you may not understand yet is that you have to be stable yourself to be able to support others.”
“But she just dumped us on you!” Jared said, hurt evident in his voice.
His dad held up a hand. “She did what she had to do. Jared, imagine if you and I didn't accept Luke for who he is and kept piling on and forcing him toward relationships he couldn't be himself in.” His dad stared at him hard. “Sometimes people feel like there is no point to living anymore. If that happens they can't help anyone, not even themselves. You may not have the best relationship with your mom, but you do have one. She still provided some financial support and she's managed to build a life.”
There was a pregnant pause, and then Luke asked, “What about you?”
His dad looked at him. “I got most of what I wanted. Yes, I'd have liked to have a partner to share my family with, but I got three full-time kids and my adoptee,” he said, nodding toward Jack. “I love being a dad. I don't get the same satisfaction from work or sports or anything else that I do from you guys.”
“Even Kyrstie?” Jared asked with an impish grin.
Their dad chuckled. “She's had a hard road, but even your sister. She's grown a lot, being out on her own.”
“I just don't know how she affords it,” Luke said.
“Her apartment?” Jared asked.
“She's got a job, right?” Jack asked.
“Sure. But she lives with friends,” Luke said. “How does she have a job that pays enough for rent and to pay people to be her friends. Huh?”
Laughter erupted in the room and Mr. Benson had a hard time not laughing while trying to tell his son he shouldn't say things like that about his sister.
A question was swirling in the back of my mind, and I guess I was caught up in the mood of the situation. “How does that affect me and Jack? I mean...I don't know how Jack feels, but I'm not sure I can forgive my dad.”
Jack's arms flexed, pulling me to him a bit tighter. I felt the vibration of his voice through his chest as he spoke. “I honestly don't know if I can forgive my mom,” he said quietly. Maybe he and I had worried about the same thing.
“I can only offer you some advice from the outside, guys,” Mr. Benson said quietly. “What your parents did wasn't about you. Yes, it affects you and it sucks. It hurts. But you have to remember that they didn't do this with the intention of hurting you. They did it for other reasons – unhappiness, the need to feel...something other than what they did. We may never know, and frankly you may not want to know.” He sighed. “They are still the same people. They still feel the same way toward you. Yes, it will take time to work through your feelings, but try to keep in mind that you guys have us and they weren't aiming at you. They were aiming at themselves.”
I was feeling a little overwhelmed, and pressure was building in my skull. I had to change the mood and the topic quickly. “So, Jared. Sorry, but I guess Delia is having some weird rebounding thing with her Ex.”
He waved a hand. “Eh. Lauren came around and was pretty contrite. I think I believed her enough to give her another chance.”
“Oh, Christ,” Jack muttered.
“Come on now, Jacky!” Jared said, his tone teasing. “Making up isn't so bad. Wait till you guys fight and make up.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Besides, we shouldn't be talking about my love life when Luke's is so much more interesting,” Jared said with a wicked grin.
“Oh, jeez, look at the time!” Luke said making to stand.
“Whoa, whoa,” his dad said, holding up a hand. “You're dating again?”
“Ugh,” Luke groaned, falling back into his chair. “I met this guy last summer when I was doing the umpiring for little league. He lives a little bit away, so we didn't do any more than chat.” He paused. “We've been talking for a long time now, though. We like some of the same stuff and...I don't know. I like him. A lot.”
“Where's a bit away?” I asked.
“Sanitaria Springs,” he said.
“Come on, let's see a picture,” Jack said, and Jared grinned at having switched the conversation. I wasn't going to let him off completely.
“Yeah, find a good picture while we tell Jared what a bad idea Lauren is,” I said.
“You too, Derry? Come on, man!” Jared groaned and laughed all in one. There was a round of teasing that lifted the spirits in the room, and then we eventually got a look at this boy Luke was falling for. He was nice looking, with rich brown hair, blue eyes, pale skin and a slender figure. I looked up at Luke with his clear complexion, dark eyes and brown hair that was already lightening from the summer sun.
“So when do we get to meet him?” I teased.
“Oh. Well, you know, he lives like an hour away,” Luke said.
“Yes! Road trip!” Jared said with enthusiasm. “Jacky? Derry? What do you say? Shall we help this romance along?”
“I'm getting out of here,” their dad said, exiting the room chuckling.
“Seriously?” Luke asked, and then grinned. “Let me text him and see if he's around tomorrow.”
Jared helped Jack pull the couch out into a bed, joking that this would be the first time Jack had slept over and used the couch.
“Did you guys share a bed before?” I asked, curious.
“Nah,” Jared said. “We were usually awake all night talking about deep shit that would have seemed dumb at two in the afternoon.” He laughed and Jack grinned in agreement. “There's an air mattress in the closet. We'd crash wherever – sometimes he got the bed, sometimes I did. Depended on who fell asleep first or whatever.”
Luke eventually wandered out, happily telling us this boy, named Nik, was free the next day. We watched a movie and then called it a night. I had mixed feelings, but I texted my dad to let him know I was okay and staying at Jared's. Part of me felt like he didn't deserve to know, but another felt guilty that he might worry – as if he didn't feel bad enough already. Jack told me his parents knew where he'd go, so it wasn't a problem for him.
“So,” I said once we were alone and the house was dark. I told him about quitting my job and how Mr. Maddox had lined me up with a new one. Jack told me he was going to follow up with the burger joint because he hated where he was.
Thinking of why we were here – Jack's parents fighting, our parents’ infidelity – I laid my head on Jack's chest. “How are you holding up, babe?”
He sighed and rested his arm around me. “Honestly? I think a part of me is relieved.”
“How's that work?”
“It's like...things around my house have been tense for a while. Long time. Like when Mr. Benson said that it was better for people to break up than to keep that constant misery around their kids forever? I've had that at home, kind of. Ever since things started going bad at my mom's old job, things have been weird and tense between her and my dad. I get along with both of them, but they were like...not fighting, but just this huge space opened up between them.” He paused. “I hope something good comes out if this in the end. What else can I do?”
“I don't think I knew how bad it was for you at home,” I said quietly.
“It wasn't. I mean, not as bad as it could have been.” He paused again. “I guess, maybe, I'm not that hard to get along with? I don't know. I guess it didn't seem so bad because I was used to it, and now that everything kind of blew up...I can see it better for what it was. Does that make sense?”
“As much as anything else,” I said.
“How about you? Quitting jobs doesn't sound like a you sort of thing.”
“It's not,” I agreed. “I was aggravated this morning, because I had pubes of steel-”
He broke out into giggles. “You what?”
“Don't laugh! It's your fault,” I grumbled and proceeded to tell him about my morning in greater detail. He started to laugh and I grinned, poking him, and then he started to poke me, and soon enough we were giggling and trying to make the other laugh without getting too loud. Last thing we needed was to get Jared or Luke out there, much less thinking we were getting it on in their living room.
“What do you think about Luke getting back into dating?”
Jack hummed a moment. “I think it's good the guy he likes lives far away. Maybe Luke won't feel so...I don't know. Trapped? It's not like they'll see each other at school and stuff. Might be a good thing.”
I grunted. “Maybe. I hope he's going into this with a new perspective. He lost out on you and you'd have done anything for him, so he has to find someone else.” I squeezed him. “You're mine.”
He chuckled. “There was a time you were right – I'd have done anything. But...I don't know. I learned from that.” He rolled toward me. “Kind of found a perfect guy for me. Tells me when he wants stuff so I don't miss out.”
“Like me telling you what to do, huh?”
“More like...I realize I need a pointer sometimes. I don't like it when you're direct and pissed at me, but I like it when you tell me what you want.”
“I kind of feel like you should be able to take a hint,” I said. “Like, I'm your boyfriend. Of course I want you to touch me. You know?”
“Didn't we just have this conversation?” he asked, rolling his eyes.
“And until you get it,” I said, poking him in the chest.
He chuckled and pulled me on top of him. Softly he said, “I did get it, though.”
I dropped my forehead to his chest and chuckled. “Okay, confession.” I lifted my gaze to meet his. “I tell you I want us to touch and stuff, and now that we have? I'm obsessed. I have stupid sex-related answers to innocent questions in my head – all day!”
We laughed softly together. “I just had a little trouble sitting,” Jack said. He ran his fingers through my hair. “But it was worth it. I needed you. Being that close. I know I'll never forget it.”
Then I kissed him a little. Words are great, but kissing has its place too.
Jared drove us the next day, so Jack and I were in the back seat. I rested my head on his thigh while Jared kept coming up with stupid facts that were kind of entertaining.
“Did you know most males only come about a teaspoon or less? It's a weird fact, but I have to wonder how they did that. I mean, it stands to reason you come less as you get older, right? Do you think they averaged out the ages or what?”
I looked up at Jack and we started to laugh.
“I'm serious!” Jared said, kind-of seriously. “I mean, compare us to blue whales.”
“What? How? Why?” Luke asked, laughing.
“The average blue whale has a penis that's a whole foot thick and ten feet long! Imagine the mess after they have a wet dream! Ridiculous!”
We all broke up laughing. And that is how we ended up talking about whale cum.
We pulled up to a nice house on a pleasant street. Luke had been texting as we got closer, letting his boy know we were almost there. We stretched as we climbed from the car – I'd never been a fan of long car rides, but what the hell. It might be fun, and it beat the hell out of staying at home.
A boy who looked familiar to me leaned out of the front door and called out to us with an unusual accent. “Go side of house, out back. Ham...ham...sandwich. You know, the cook sandwich? Ah, come. Eat.” He closed the door and we all looked at each other.
“Was that for us?” Jared asked Luke.
“Um. I think that was his friend. Mat.” Luke looked uncertain and a bit nervous.
“Well, let's go around back and see, then,” Jared said. We fell in behind him and were met on the side of the house by a boy I recognized from the picture Luke had shown us: this was Nik. And he was blushing.
“Hello,” he said with a wave of one hand while the other was in his pocket. He had an accent similar to Mat, and I was dying to ask where he was from.
“Hi, Nik.” Luke was suddenly awkward. I felt badly for him. He hadn't done right by me or Jack, but it wasn't because he was trying to hurt anyone. Everyone has their own demons, and if I was going to tell Jack not to hang onto things, I had to take my own advice.
“Hi, Nik,” I said with a smile. “I'm Derry, one of Luke's friends. This is my boyfriend, Jack, and his best friend Jared. Oh, Jared is Luke's brother.”
“Wow. Lots of people,” Nik said with a smile. “Come into the back yard, we are grilling. Papas are making hamburgers and hot dogs. We have salad and corns on the cobs and pasta salad – is very good. Come. Eat.”
We filed into the back yard and were introduced to Nik's papas, his best friend Matei and Matei’s girlfriend, Averi. Averi's parents were also there. We were welcomed, given plates and told where the bathrooms were, and essentially left alone. The adults were talking and carrying on, obviously having a good time. Nik and Luke sat across from each other, and we all fell in around the table.
“This is excellent,” Jared said. “A lot of people think pasta salad is Italian, but it's not. Italians like their pasta hot – this is an American thing.”
“My brother spits out random facts. Sorry,” Luke said to Nik.
“Is funny,” Nik said with a nice smile.
“So how do you guys know each other?” Averi asked Luke. “Don't you live a few towns over or something?”
“Um. I was umpiring a little league game,” Luke began.
“Oh!” Averi said with a grin. “You're that umpire.”
“Oh, what?” Luke asked, reddening.
“We have other girl with us, yes?” Matei said, warming to the story. His accent was adorable, but I couldn't shake the idea that he looked familiar. “Girl says 'Look, umpire has cute butt. You think he has cute butt? I think he has cute butt.'” We started to laugh and Nik smiled, reddening. Luke was a little embarrassed, but he was smiling. “So then girl says 'I have idea! We must see if he like boy or the girl! So I will give him paper that says on one side my information and on the other side Nikolai information.' But then!” He raised a finger dramatically. “Someone ask if they want to date just because of cute butt. I tell Nikolai, this person with the butt, he must look better than me for Nikolai to date.”
“Ugh!” Nik groaned, leaning back and looking up at the sky, but grinning.
“So then girl goes up to umpire to give note – and water, so she can see face. She comes back and says 'He's ugly, you no want him, Nik.' ”
“She did not!” Nik exclaimed and then laughed. He turned to Luke and said, “She say you have kissing lips. Nice skin. Soft voice.” His face was red, but he was smiling.
“Uh. Okay,” Luke said, seeming uncertain. “I guess we'll have to test some of that out at some point.”
“Ooohhh,” I said, teasing. They both blushed, but it was fun. We ended up playing some games – lawn twister, which was a first for me. We all took a break for watermelon, but the twister was stupidly fun. Nik mentioned a place we could get ice cream that was a short walk away, so we all ambled over. Couples matched up, so we got stuck with Jared – the only single guy in the group. He threatened to hold one of our hands.
We wandered to the town park and fooled around on the swings and gym set that were clearly for younger kids. Hey, some people never outgrow monkey bars. We slowly made our way back to Nik's, topped up on leftover food and hit the bathrooms before heading back to town. We did let Nik and Luke go ahead of us to the car so they could get in a little kissing time, since they seemed to like each other once the awkwardness of first meeting had worn off.
We were quiet in the car on the way home, but of course that couldn't last – and we were all dying to know. Jared broke the subject wide open with, “So? What did you think of him?”
Luke turned in his seat and let his gaze go back and forth to us and his brother. “I...don't want to screw this up.”
“Well,” I said looking at Jack and smiling. “I guess Nik's lips must have been good for kissing, too!”
I looked back to Luke and he smiled slightly. “Very good. But...you know how tough it is for me to be in a relationship. I have been talking to him for months, and he's the sweetest fucking guy ever. He's been through a bunch of shit, and he's caused a fair amount – like made mistakes – like I have. I just...I really like him. I want to make this work.”
I cleared my throat. “Can I offer you some advice?”
He bobbed his head and looked at me with such an open expression it was nearly painful. I could see how badly he really did want this to work.
“If you start to stress...talk to one of us. Get some perspective. You have friends so...let us be your friends.”
He swallowed and then nodded. “I will.”
Jared hummed to himself for a moment. “Kind of cool he admits to having caused shit before.”
“Why?” Luke asked warily.
“I think it's good to have someone that admits faults,” Jared said and shrugged. “If he can admit he screwed up before, then maybe he's learned from it. You have your own stuff. You know what it is, and you know we all hope you learned from it for you – not because it benefits any of us.”
“Well. Not entirely true,” Jack said, his tone teasing. “I mean, if Luke's learned, then we don't have to console him. Right?”
Luke narrowed his eyes. “You used to be so much nicer to me.”
“Yeah. Maybe I was less honest,” Jack said with a nod. “But I'm only teasing. I'm glad you have someone you like and who very obviously likes you back. I agree with Jared. It's good that you guys aren't hiding stuff you've messed up on – or are you?”
“I told him about my...dating stupidity,” Luke said, starting defensively and then trailing off. “He still wants to take the risk. He says we've been talking a long time and he thinks he knows me, enough to try.”
“What do you think?” I asked gently.
Luke looked at me. “I told you. I want this to work. I'm still...tense, but it feels different going into this having told him how I've imploded my relationships before. I mean, I guess I understand myself better.”
I chuckled lightly. “You know, if you'd asked me if you and I would ever be friends after we broke up, I'd probably have said fuck no. But...” I glanced at Jack and then back to Luke. “Maybe...I grew a little, too.”
The weekend passed slowly. Jack and I were both in our own homes Saturday night, and Sunday was just a drag. Jack was working and I was at loose ends. I could have gone to Delia's or to see the Bensons, but I just wasn't feeling it. Instead I was moody and didn't want to deal with anyone, so I didn't. I thought about calling my mom, but when she goes somewhere to clear her head you don't bug her.
That didn't stop me worrying about what she might want to do in a divorce. You heard all kinds of shitty things about what adults did in divorces, how they hurt their kids. What if one of my parents decides to leave town? What if that parent wanted custody? What if they both want to get out of town, where does that leave me? Jack and I had clung to each other through this, but what if something like that – clearly out of our control – tears us apart?
That led me to thinking the same thing about Jack's parents. What if...I don't know, what if his dad can't keep the house? Assuming his mom moves out or leaves permanently. Like...what if it's just too expensive for one person? What if his dad just can't take it anymore and bails, leaving Jack with that drunk wreck of a mother? Jesus Christ, I wish Jack were here.
Jack called when he left work, and I vented my worries at him.
“Yeah. I hear you,” he said in a tired tone.
“Well..I mean, what do you think?”
“I think...I can't control any of it. I think I'm neurotic enough without thinking constantly about another thing that could take you away from me, so I'm not going to do it.”
He sounded so resolute. “But-”
“No,” he said with a little chuckle. “Look, if you want to get philosophical, we're both less than specks in the universe. The world will keep going if we don't stay together.”
“Wait, wait,” he chided me, and I bit my tongue as he continued. “Losing you would be devastating to my universe. But I can't stop it, and I can't control it until something happens. If my parents decide to sell my house, I'll fight for them to stay in the district for my senior year or close enough to see you. My parents love me, just...just not each other, so much. I know they'll listen, if it comes to that. I hold onto that, whenever I think too much about losing you,” he said, his voice growing soft.
“My parents love me, too,” I said, my pitch matching his. “I want the same things you do. So I guess....”
“Yeah. Wait for that problem to come to you. It's not one you can fix before it gets here. In the meantime, we can keep each other whole.”
I sighed. “I wish you were here.”