“So what you enjoy for relaxation is work, huh?” he asked me about four.
“Well. I might work on my car or something, but yeah. I like the shop, making it run better. I feel good when I complete a job,” I explained.
“Well, as much as I enjoy you being manly, I have a pet-sitting job tonight, so I need to go get ready.”
“Oh, you have to leave?” I asked, disappointment clear in my voice.
“Oh, come on now,” he said, blushing. He approached me and put his hands in his pockets. “I'm going to get a fat head if I think you miss me when I'm gone.”
I leaned forward to fill his field of vision. “I do. Miss you.” Funny, I hadn't realized it before, but I guess I did. I liked being where he was.
He blushed deeper, but smiled at me. “Take me home, please?”
“I just have to lock up. You're pet sitting on a Saturday night?” I asked as I pulled the bay door down.
“Yeah. One Saturday a month this lady, Jean Marie, goes to a meeting of the Yellow Hat Ladies Club. I sit for her Yorkie, Lady Victoria. She's fine with being called Vickie, though,” he said and chuckled at my expression.
“Who names their dog that?”
“It's a purebred,” he said.
“Okay. What's the Yellow Hat Club?”
“I think they just drink, but I really don't know,” he confessed. “She comes back sauced every time. And they wear yellow hats!”
“Okay. Well. Let's get you home, and I'll drop you off. What time do you get done?”
“She's usually home by one and pays for a ride-share home,” he said.
“I could come get you,” I offered.
“That would be nice,” he said with a very sinful smile.
“You're just thinking of getting laid!” I exclaimed.
“I am!” he said with a laugh and hugged me. “And then I thought about cuddling after and waking up to your fuzzy brain in the morning.” He leaned back. “You look ungodly cute when you just wake up and smell that first scent of coffee. You know that?”
Heat bloomed in my face. “Um, no.”
“Well, it's true.” He paused. “Unfortunately, I have to be at the club by eight. We're doing a massive clean-up and refresh of the storage area, so you being around me will do nothing to help me. Can we get together Sunday when I get done?”
“Oh. Okay,” I said, not masking my disappointment very well.
“Don't make me feel guilty,” he said quietly. “I'd love to spend the time with you, but I have rent to make.” He leaned over and kissed my cheek. “And I'll make you coffee before you go to work on Monday.”
“Okay, then,” I said, feeling silly and smiling to cover. We got cleaned up and I reluctantly dropped him off at his apartment. “You want me to drop you off for your dog-sitting?” I asked.
“No,” he said with regret. “She picks me up, and on the way to her house she tells me everything about her dog – again.”
I couldn't help but laugh at him. As I headed home Julia texted me, so I called her. “What's up, girlie?”
“Stop. I hate when you call me that.”
“I know. Girlie.”
“Ugh. You're so happy it's disgusting. What are you doing?”
“Benji has to work. You want to hang out?”'
“God, yes. I need a caramel iced coffee from that place in the mall, and then I want to catch up – I haven't seen you since we pretended to help Luca pack,” she said with a sigh.
I laughed. “Okay, just stopping home to eat and then I'll come get you,” I told her. I climbed from the car and went in to get myself a shower and changed, but that was forgotten as soon as I heard my sister screaming and my mother yelling back. I'd heard people talk about how mothers and daughters can be, but until that moment I never really understood. I couldn't even understand what they were saying. They were in the living room with red faces and spittle flying from their lips, and if it wasn't so loud and wrong it'd have been funny.
“You're too young-”
“He loves me!”
I went deeper into the house in search of my dad and found him in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a doughnut. He looked up at me, sighed and bit his doughnut.
“Mothers and daughters,” he said. “Your aunt Megan used to go night and day with your grandmother. It took living apart for years for them to get along.” He paused. “You know anything about this boy she thinks she's in love with?”
“I know the type,” I said as I leaned against the counter. “She's impressed because he has a car, and he's impressed because he's got a back seat.”
My dad sighed. “That's about what I was afraid of. I don't know where this stubborn streak in your sister comes from-”
I burst out laughing.
“Hey!” he protested. I laughed harder.
“Rotten kid,” he grumbled. “So listen. I know you're an adult and all that, but this staying out late and being gone all weekend are worrying your mother. Why can't you bring this new girl to meet the family, huh? Sunday dinner? Something like that?”
I was still chuckling as I reached for a glass from the cupboard. “So you're okay with staying out all night and weekends as long as we come to Sunday dinner?”
“When did you turn into such a smart-ass?” he grumbled. “You used to be my favorite.”
“I knew it,” I mockingly exclaimed as I poured milk into my glass. “Stan wins because he fits peas and carrots up his nose.”
My father looked to the ceiling. “That boy may need a hockey helmet to go in public later in life.”
I choked on my milk.
“Hah! Serves you right,” my dad said, grinning. He winced as there was a final, high pitched scream from the living room and then stomping feet and a door slam. My mother entered the kitchen with a red face and a nasty gleam in her eye.
“She's grounded. I'm turning her phone off. I'm cutting off her internet. If she so much as looks at me crooked....”
“Or sneaks out to meet,” I dropped my tone and fluttered my eyelashes and cooed, “Jameison?”
“Sneak out?” I swear to God my mother’s nostrils flared. “Anne Marie Owens!” She headed down the hallway, and I glanced at my father.
He was shaking his head. “Pure evil. You get it from your mother.” He paused. “Is she sneaking out?”
“It was in the back of her mind, but as far as I know – no.”
He nodded. “Well. Where were you all day?” he asked as he rummaged through the freezer, likely looking for a bag of vegetables to accompany dinner.
“Went to the shop. Started organizing your treasure bay,” I said neutrally and watched him flash me a the stink eye. “You can't look over there yet, Dad. Not until we get finished.”
“But I need-”
“You don't need a damn thing over there,” I said with a grin.
He leaned back and looked me up and down. “Who taught you to talk to me like that? Your mother, that's who. You get all these bad manners from her.”
“I'm going to have a word with her tonight,” he said with some false bravado.
“We came up with a real good system. I think you'll discover things you've forgotten in there.”
“Who is we?”
My brain felt like it was suddenly fluttering my head and my heart joined it moments later. “What?”
“You keep saying 'we'. You taking a date to organize my parts? Work on your grandpa's old jalopy? Dates sure have changed since my day,” he said.
“Not as much as you think. I mean, Jameison has a car, and you know those usually have back seats,” I said.
His lips drew tightly together. “Your mother has that in hand, but it's true boys are little more than walking boners. Now,” he said with some finality, tossing a bag of mixed veggies on the counter. He placed his hands on the counter as if bracing himself and looked at me. “School.”
My heart fluttered harder. I knew this had been coming, but now that it was here... “Yeah?”
“Yeah? You have just yeah to say? Look, I know we had to recover from last fall. We've gone over it and I won't rehash it. But it's time to get back on track, and you have to get registered. Medical school will take some doing, more than before.”
“I know,” I said, still stalling.
My mom re-entered the room. “That child!”
“Where's Stan?” I asked, desperate to change the direction of this conversation.
“I have to pick him up,” my mother said, glancing at the clock. “He has a yoga class – and I wouldn't normally leave him, but I got a call from the school about Anne and that...boy,” she said, trailing off, her tone turning distasteful. She shook herself. “What were you two talking about?”
“School,” my dad said before I could jump in.
“Perfect! Something to go right this evening!” she said and crossed to the center island and opened a drawer. I knew things were going to go south when I saw all the papers she spread out. Even upside down I recognized the icon of the local community college. Worse, I saw she had tabs marking things she wanted to show me. With a sinking feeling in my gut I crossed the small space to look at the papers she'd assembled.
“I think these are the classes that will be most helpful to you,” my mother said, patting her hand on the stack of forms. “All of these are required for medical school anyway – basic courses that aren't pre-med. In the long run it will save money for you to take a course here before you make the jump to a four year school.”
I let out a slow breath and steeled myself. “I don't want to be a doctor.” Man, that felt scary. It was out there now. My mother was looking at me, her expression frozen. No real emotion, just locked in place like a photograph. I looked at my father, whose face had fallen as if I'd gut-punched him.
“Ryan, what are you talking about?”
The full sentence was from my mother, and that wasn't good. Her face was slowly deepening into a reddish color – and with our fair skin that meant embarrassment, anger or both.
“I don't think being a doctor is for me,” I said.
My mother folded one hand over the other. Aww, shit.
“And when did you decide this?” she asked, her voice brittle. “When you graduated high school? When you partied your ass off in college? Was there a point during all the times we were paying for tutors and helping you with your homework? When exactly did you reach this life changing decision?”
“Maybe it was when I realized I'd never been asked what I wanted. Maybe when I realized I didn't want to spend my life living this dream for you,” I said, my voice trembling.
“My dream?” She said in a low, dangerous tone. “My dream? Oh, how selfish to want a future for my son! How horrible I have been to you!”
“What about the future I want?” I asked. Demanded. Maybe somewhere in between.
“And what would that be? What is so much better, what will take better care of you and the family you'll have, than being a doctor?” my mother demanded.
I glanced at my dad who seemed lost. “I want to be a mechanic.”
“I told you!” my mother shrieked, turning on my father.
“Leave him alone!” I hollered back.
“Wait, stop!” my father pleaded, waving at us with his hands, but it was no use. Everything quickly devolved into the kind of screaming match my mother had with my sister. I didn't raise my voice often, and rarely with my parents, but this was a flood. Like when a dam gets dynamited. Soon I didn't even know what was being said, and things that I was responding to were lost as my mother threw a whirlwind of new categories, and then she'd backtrack to argue against something I'd said – it was total chaos.
Then it shifted.
“It's this new girl. Isn't it?” My father sounded as if he'd found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. “This makes sense!” He looked from my mother to me. “We pushed, he struggled at school. We worked though that, but he's been out – a lot. Whole weekends away. Sometimes weeknights. This new influence has got him all twisted around – he's thinking with the wrong head!”
“Benjamin wants me to go to school; he's trying to go to school, too,” I said, without thinking beyond poking a hole in his theory.
“Benjamin? Who is Benjamin?” my mother demanded.
“None of your business,” I said and spun around, striding for the door.
“Get back here! If you leave, don't come back!” my mother yelled.
“Fine!” I yelled and slammed the front door behind me. I climbed into my car, hands shaking, and pulled away from the curb. I pressed the gas too hard and overcorrected to avoid hitting a car across the street, then steadied out and left, going where I felt safest – Luca's.
“Yeah, he's over here,” Luca said into his phone. “Big fight with his parents. Okay. See you later.”
I was stretched across Luca's bed with his pillow under my chin, my arms pulling it tightly to me. “Julia coming over?”
“Duh. So. It was worse than we thought,” he said, flopping down beside me and making me bounce up a bit.
“Sounds like your mom was ready to explode, given your sister. Who is this Jameison guy, anyway?”
I relaxed my grip on the pillow and rubbed my face. “I don't know. Some dude with a car and, maybe, money. Annie's flipped for him. I half think she's doing it to piss my parents off, but she uses it to argue with me, too.”
“When did this start?” he asked with a chuckle.
“Puberty,” I muttered and we both chuckled.
“Well, I was going to wait until Monday, when I move in, but...did I tell you this apartment I'm getting is huge? Three bedrooms?”
I slowly turned toward him. “Do you think my mom was serious?”
He looked at me for a moment and shrugged. “Probably not. I mean, right then, yeah. But either way...you're not the same guy that lived in their house all this time. You're barely home as it is, between Benji, work and hanging with me and Julia.” He paused. “I debated if I wanted to say this, but I'm going to anyway. Part of asking you to move in is selfish. You're the only person that's been true to me my whole life and I don't want to lose that. To grow apart. I know it might happen, but I'm going to fight it.”
“Dude,” I said, my voice growing soft. “I'm not going anywhere.”
He nodded his head several times. “I know. But I also know things change. I just want to have us change with it. Together. Keep that bond.”
I felt suddenly vulnerable at the feelings floating around between us. Did I just take it for granted that Luca and I would always be there for each other? Why can't I tell him when I'm afraid like he's just telling me? I'd never really worried about losing Luca, because it seemed like that was impossible. So I told him as much.
“Yeah, well, like I said – maybe it's time for you to move out. Sounds like your folks are going to need to get used to the idea you're not going to be a doctor.”
“What about rent?”
“Parents are paying,” he said. We heard footsteps coming up the stairs and paused as Julia and Luca's mom entered the room. Thank God his little sister, Frannie, lived with his dad. Last thing I wanted was her nose in my business, any more than I wanted Annie's.
“Hey, bitches,” Julia said and flopped across the both of us.
“Ryan, I just want you to know I set up the guest room for you – just like old times, huh?” his mom said. Seemed kind of inappropriate to act like my being there that night was just a normal sleep over like we'd done as kids.
“Thanks, Mrs. M,” I said instead of voicing my irritation.
“I keep telling you to call me Nina!” she said playfully. “Well, I'm going to have a cocktail. It's been a bitch of a week.” She headed out the door and left my mind just as quickly.
“So. The mighty, perfect – notice the comma in there – RJ Owens got into a motherfucker of a fight with his parents. Who saw that coming?” Julia asked. I craned my neck around to look at her.
“When did you learn all these words?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Motherfucker?”
“Eat me,” she said breezily and then rolled so she was lying with her back on mine, effectively holding me down on the mattress with her body weight. “I've decided I've been missing out on a whole category of the English language. I should swear more.”
“Profanity is like seasoning,” Luca opined. “sprinkling it here and there makes it most effective – if you overwhelm with it, then it loses its significance.
“Fucking A,” Julia said.
I rolled over and dumped her at the head of the bed. “Potty mouth. So sexy.”
“Ugh. Tease,” she said with a laugh. “So. How bad was it with your parents?”
“Nuclear. Worst I've ever had with them,” I said and sighed. “I mean, my mom was already over her personal limit with my sister, so it didn't take much to put her into overdrive with me.”
“Your mom has always had the shorter fuse,” she said and then glanced at Luca. “Remember when you chewed glass or something? When you guys were studying?”
I frowned in thought, but Luca started laughing. “That clear candy that turned red with saliva? She thought I was nuts,” he trailed off in chuckles.
“Oh, Halloween? Then she started screaming and asking what drugs you took?” I joined his laughter thinking of her losing her mind. “My mom has always been convinced one of us kids would get 'hooked on dope', as she says.”
“It's me!” Julia said and then we all laughed. “I think you guys have to help me vet a new boyfriend.”
This was met with confused noises from both of us.
“Well, I should have gone for Luca – this is plain, now. I mean, Luca, you never thought of dating RJ, right?” she asked, holding her hand out, palm up.
“Uh. Well,” Luca rubbed the back of his neck.
“What? Dude!” I said in shock and Luca started to laugh,
“Not a chance,” he said through his laughter. “But Julia, people break up all the time. Far as I know...people don't usually ask their ex for advice on who to date next.”
“It's not advice, really,” she said. “Besides, we didn't have a bad break-up – it was just time and we both still love each other.”
Luca nodded his head slowly. “And if I accept that at face value...why does this include me?”
“Duh,” she said, as if it were obvious. “When we were in ninth grade I had to make a choice. RJ and his muscles or you with that fabulous haircut. Remember? When he was getting it straightened and feathered?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, recalling the look. I lowered my tone. “That was hot, Luca. I'd have gone for you.”
“Oh, fuck you,” he laughed. “What does my hair have to do with this?”
“Simple. You went to a buzz cut, so I made the muscles choice.”
“Okay, okay,” Luca said through his laughter as he sat up. “First, what muscles?”
“And second, me getting a haircut five years ago suddenly makes it my responsibility to help you find a boyfriend?”
“Yeah,” she said with a nod of her head. She looked at me. “Right?”
“Makes total sense to me,” I said as I flexed my arm. “There's a muscle for you.”
“That ship's sailed, Owens,” she said with a chuckle. “But I think we should go to the mall, get coffees and check out guys. Plus...I have a candidate to discuss.”
“Why do we have to go to the mall for that?” I asked.
“Because the guys that work Saturdays are adorable,” she said with a grin.
“How long have you been checking these guys out?” I asked, narrowing my eyes.
“You're the ex,” she said, wagging a finger. “You don't get to ask anymore.”
Luca drove us to the mall, and on the way Benji started texting me selfies of him and the dog, faces pressed together. I shared them, of course, and couldn't help but smile at his pictures. He asked what I was doing and I let him know I was on the outs with my parents and was hanging at Luca's that night, and that I was out with Luca and Julia at the mall. My phone rang immediately.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I replied easily, feeling immensely better at hearing his voice. It was odd. I'd had tension in my neck I hadn't been aware of until it let go when I heard his voice. “We're just going to grab coffees and hang out at the mall for a bit. Julia likes some kid who works at the coffee place,” I said, teasing her.
“They're cute!” she said defiantly.
“Well... you sound okay. You want me to come over after I get done?” he asked with concern.
“No,” I said. “You have to get up in the morning. I'm okay, but...thank you. For asking.”
“We'll take care of him, Ben,” Luca said loudly.
“Fucking sweetheart, Ben is,” Julia said.
“He can still hear you,” I said sarcastically.
“Oh? Let me say it louder for the people in the back – Benji's a sweetheart!”
“Okay,” he said with a chuckle. “Call me later, okay?”
“Okay, babe,” I said and hung up.
There was a little ribbing, but we got to the mall in short order. It wasn't a fancy mall, but it had done something many malls hadn't – it had kept its occupancy rate up and people still seemed to like going there. We went to a place called Cuppa Joe's, and while Luca and Julia ordered I let my eyes wander over the menu since I don't like other people making my coffee.
“What can I get for you?” the clerk asked. I glanced at him, noted his name tag – Mason – and his good looks. This must be the one Julia likes.
“What do you think, Jules? Something blonde?” I asked, teasing since Mason was decidedly blonde.
“I make a mean vanilla chai,” he said, seemingly unaware. “Don't I, E?”
“Don't you what?” asked another guy, coming out from the back room with a bag of sugar. Whereas Mason was 'in-your-face' attractive, this fellow was low key handsome.
“Make a mean vanilla chai.”
“Mason,” E said with a tired tone. “It's a mix.”
“Ethan!” Mason said, scandalized. “Not in front of the C-U-S-T...uh...”
“Jesus, Mase,” Ethan said with a smile and a shake of his head. “May I make you something?” he asked me.
“Something non-coffee,” I said, wondering what he'd recommend.
“The frozen strawberry-banana frap is pretty good,” he said.
“I'll try that,” I said.
We waited as the guys made our drinks, and Julia openly ogled them. She had changed. “Jules. Did you always look at guys like this when I wasn't there?”
She laughed at me. “No. But now I'm looking at the smorgasbord of available guys,” she said with a grin.
We moved to the end of the counter to wait for our drinks. As we did a tall girl with a rather nice figure leaned over the counter while a shorter fellow, cute but hard looking, stood with his hands in his pockets. At least he looked hard until he made eye contact with Ethan, and then a smile blossomed on his face and I knew – just knew – that's what I looked like when I saw Benji.
“Ris!” Mason said with a wide smile. “Raspberry mochachino?”
“Boy knows what I like,” she said in a sultry way and they both laughed. Our drink orders came up and we headed out into the mall.
“Looks like both your coffee boys are taken,” I said in passing.
“Yeah, yeah,” she grumbled.
We wandered the mall and bought very little, yet managed to have a good time together. While I was concerned about my parents, in the back of my head I felt like this was the best course for now – a cooling off. If I'd stayed we'd have fought more. I might have caved, only to disappoint later when I wasn't able – or willing – to follow through on the idea of being an M.D. It wasn't for everyone, and certainly not for me.
I don't think it would have gone the way it did if my mom and sister hadn't just gone at it tooth and nail, but it was what it was. Besides, my mom still had Anne to chew on in my absence, and after the way she was acting toward me the last time we talked, I was happy to throw her to the wolf. Not wolves, because my dad was too shell-shocked to go on the attack. It kind of irked me he'd blamed Benji – though he got the gender wrong – for this huge decision.
We dropped Julia off on the way back to Luca's. She gave us each a peck, and told us we still had a lot of work to do vetting a new boyfriend for her. I think she was kidding.
“So,” Luca said. “What do you think about moving in with me?”
I glanced at him and smiled. “Think your folks would go for that?”
“Sure. I think they expect it. I might have even mentioned you'd join me. Keep us both on the level.”
“Wow. You set everyone up with this thing, didn't you?” I asked, laughing.
“Hey. I'm seeing you, Ben, Lilly and me getting brunch after a late night of dancing and stuff. It'll be epic,” he said with such confidence that I just shook my head.
“You have it all planned out,” I said, wondering how much of that was true.
“If you're not planning, you're revising,” he said.
“Your dad say that?”
“Something like it,” he said with a nod.
“You really saying who I'm dating would be, like....”
“Dude. Benji's good for you. I like what I know about him. Hell, he can move in, too,” he said, though I thought he was joking.
“You know,” I said as a thought occurred to me. “This 'me dating a guy' thing really hasn't fazed you. Has it?”
“RJ. I love you, man.”
“Yeah, and I love you too, Luca. But-”
“Nah,” he said and pushed my shoulder. “I love you. Good and bad, and who you are attracted to or love is part of that. So no, it didn't faze me at all.”
“I'll take that room, buddy,” I told him.
“Atta boy, RJ,” he said and lifted his fist in triumph.