Wednesday morning was a glorious clusterfuck. I've never seen Benji before his coffee, and it was fucking hilarious. His hair was sticking up, his eyes were blinking like the idea of light was a new thing and he seemed to have no real sense of depth perception. It was adorable and hilarious wrapped up in one. I got him to the shower and woke him up before bringing him back to his apartment.
“No more sleepovers until you have a coffee machine,” he grumbled.
“I'll get one today after work,” I promised.
He made us coffee and Gwen wandered out from the bathroom where she'd been getting ready for work. Her expression soured when she saw me.
“Hi, Gwen. How are you?” I asked, forcing myself to be nice for the sake of whatever plan Benji was cooking up.
“Getting ready for work. Don't you have a job? Oh, you live at home, right? Just us adults have to earn a living?” she stated. She shifted her gaze to Benji. “Working tonight?”
“Yeah,” he said as if she weren't being a witch. “Rent in three weeks, so no time to waste.” He let out a sigh. “I wish you had a car, Gwen. Then we could share a ride to work.”
“Yeah.” She paused and then headed for her room.
I studied him for a minute, wondering what he had up his sleeve. Benji glanced at his phone. “Shit, I'm going to miss the bus. I have to go get my suit on.”
“I can drop you,” I said to his back as he crossed the room, then stopped. He didn't turn to me, he didn't speak, but simply held still. Moments later Gwen emerged from her room and picked up a scarf to complete her look – whatever it was.
“I'm leaving – Benji! Jesus, you're missing the bus. You better not get fired!” she said as she headed for the door and left.
Benji looked at me and grinned. “Dropping me off isn't a problem?”
“Nah.” I sipped my coffee and read stuff on my phone while he finished getting ready. On the way over to the bank where he worked he was quiet and I let him be. Eventually he broke the silence.
“Can you do me a favor?”
“Sure. What do you need?”
He looked at me. “Find me a small SUV for sale so I can point it out to Gwen? But, you know, make sure it's a piece of shit without looking like one?”
I raised an eyebrow. “I'll see what I can do.”
Pat opened his arms wide when I got to work. “Oh! Oh, look who came to work! What happened? Figured out you can't actually live on sweet lovin' alone?” he asked and cackled.
“Like you know what that even is,” I said with a roll of my eyes.
“I do know it can be awful damn hard to pry yourself out of bed with a beauty by your side and a bottle of tequila – worm included – in your belly,” he said and frowned. “Least I think it was a worm.”
“You're a legend, Pat,” I said with a chuckle.
“I know,” he beamed. He sidled a bit closer. “Your dad's been worried.”
In a quieter tone I said, “I know.”
“With his treasure bay half done, he can't find a damn thing – not that he could before!” he said with a gleeful laugh.
I let out a nervous laugh, misunderstanding what Pat had thought my dad was nervous about.
He leaned back and held his knuckles out. “Grats on the boyfriend. You happy?”
I bumped his fist. “Yeah. Totally.”
“Good for you,” he lowered his voice. “Less competition for the ladies for me!”
“Uh huh,” I said with a roll of my eyes. He cackled a little and started walking away. “Hey, Pat.”
“You've been around the car business for a while,” I said, thinking.
“You trying to call me old? I can still get women, you know,” he growled.
“Not busting you this time,” I said with a grin. “If you wanted to steer a jerk to a car they'd get taken on, any place you'd send them?”
“Huh? Explain how much I don't like this person,” he said, rubbing his chin.
“Imagine they've been cheating you for a year on rent, making you pay way more than your fair share for a dump to live in, lied to you so they could overcharge you and-”
“Whoa,” he said holding up a hand. “How does the car figure?”
I frowned. “It's revenge. I think he wants to help her burn some of the money he'll never get back by having her sink it into a crap vehicle she pays too much for. He hasn't given me all the details.”
He thought for a minute, turned half away from me and then let out a breath. “You sure we don't want to just stick her in a fifty-five-gallon drum?”
I chuckled. “I think the idea is to make her suffer, not end it all. Plus, you know, murder. Prison.”
“I'm too good looking for prison.” He chuckled. “Okay. You know Apex Motors? Over on...uh...what's that....”
“Yeah, I know the place. They shifty?”
“Well, I know a guy...let me talk to him first. I'll get back to you, okay?”
“Sure, thanks.” After that my day was busy. Dad had me help to pull a transmission to be sent out for rebuild, and then he sent me to hone cylinders on the engine they had pulled the week before and worked with me to put new bearings in it in preparation for putting it back together. All of that made the day go by quickly. Once done I headed over to a big box store to find a good coffee maker. Luca texted to ask when I was going to be home, as he wanted to order food. I told him where I was, and we argued about which kind of coffee machine to get.
If he wants a goddamn espresso machine, he can buy it himself.
I called Benji instead. “Hey, babe, how was work?”
“Ugh. Legion of Karens today. How about you? Install some whatchamacalits and doohickeys?”
I chuckled. “A few. Hey, I'm shopping for a coffee machine and I was thinking-”
“Bunn. Makes a pot in three minutes.”
“Oh, nice. Um,” I muttered as I scanned the display models. “Don't see that brand here.”
“We may have to order one online. I'll search up something.”
“Need a coffee pot at the apartment now,” I told him.
“Because my boyfriend said no more sleepovers until I got one,” I reminded him.
“Wow. You do listen to me!”
“Shut up. Are you getting ready for work?”
“Yeah, got home about twenty minutes ago.”
“Dancing tonight?” I asked, trying to keep my voice neutral.
He sighed. “Do you not want me to?”
I hemmed and hawed for a minute. “I don't like other guys ogling you,” I admitted. “You have a lot of other jobs. Can't this one...I don't know, can't you do without it?”
He waited a moment to reply. “Are you jealous? Is that what I'm hearing?”
“Yes,” I said, fingering a shelf label. “You're sexy and beautiful and I want that for me, not for the boozy crowd at Nirvana. Especially not for Peter and his snappy crowd, as Jace called them.”
“Hm,” he said. “So is this a request?”
I snorted. “Like I get to tell you want to do? Yeah, it's a request.”
“Oh. Well, in that case, granted. I'm suddenly free tonight, but I need to leave because Barney. Come and get me?”
“On my way.”
Benji didn't stay over most nights, but he did spend more of his evenings with me when one of his side hustles wasn't demanding his attention. It was essential that Barney not catch on that he wasn't working, he told me, though he didn't really explain things. I assumed it was part of his master plan for revenge and left him to plan it – after all he'd been cheated. I, on the other hand, was getting tons of Benji time, which suited me fine.
Saturday we went to the garage and got going again on the inventory. We'd only been involved for about an hour when we heard a car pull in to the parking lot. I poked my head out of the bay door, hoping it was just someone turning around rather than a situation like with Chloe, but it was neither.
“We brought pizza!” my dad called out as he climbed from the car. My mother was opening the back door and retrieving the pizza from the back seat. I looked back into the bay at Benji, who had frozen, completely unsure what to do.
“So. Ready to meet my folks?” I quipped.
“Um,” was all he said as he tried to wipe the dust from his hands.
Then they were on us.
“I hope you haven't lost anything,” my father grumped from the opening of the bay door.
“Like you'd know,” my mother teased. “RJ, I'm bringing these to the office. Let's eat while it's hot and discuss strategy.”
“Strategy?” I asked, lost.
“Yeah. Your mother and I figured we'd come down and work with you guys to get this bay all organized.”
I looked back at Benji who gave a small shrug of his shoulders. I turned back to my father. “Mom is going to get dirty?”
“Nah. Brought her laptop to start a spreadsheet.”
“Oh. That's excellent,” Benji said, then blushed at having spoken.
Benji trailed after me as we hit the bathroom to wash our hands and then we crowded into the office with my parents.
“Here you are, one of each,” my mother said as she handed me a plate. “Give that to Benjamin, won't you? Hi, it's nice to meet you.”
“Hi, um, Mrs. Owens. Mr. Owens.”
“Come! Sit!” my mother said, sitting on a bench and patting the space beside her. I started to move and she held up a finger. “Not you. Benjamin?”
I looked back at him and he blew out a breath and let his eyes go wide for a moment before taking the offered – suggested – seat.
“RJ has been very cryptic about you, Benjamin,” my mother said. She looked up at him and smiled. “Do you like pizza?”
“Wh- oh, yeah. Yes, I do,” he said.
“You should know,” my dad said. “My wife's side of the family is pure evil.”
“Please,” she said. “Yours could teach mules to be stubborn.”
My dad looked up toward me. “It was your mom's idea to ambush you guys at the shop.”
“She just lured you with pizza? That the story?” I asked, chuckling.
“It was all her!” my dad insisted.
“How quickly co-conspirators turn on you,” my mother said dryly. She turned to Benji. “Tell me about this organizing project.”
“Oh! Well,” Benji said, setting his slice down. “Ryan and I were-”
“No, wait, I'm sorry,” My mother interrupted and smiled. “First tell me how he roped you into helping. Then we can talk details.”
“I didn't rope him,” I protested.
“You owe me twenty bucks,” my dad said to my mom.
“What? Oh, eww! You two are sick!” I told them and they just laughed at me.
“So?” my mom prompted Benji.
The corner of Benji's mouth curled up in amusement. “Well, he'd done some things that I like to do – he took me out to a park that was inspired after the Boboli gardens in Florence, Italy, for example, and I asked him to take me to do something that he liked.”
“And he brought you here?” she asked in disbelief. She looked at me with wide eyes. “You brought a date to a garage? To work with dirty parts?”
“Well, I do get to clean him up after,” I said and winked, just to tweak her.
She pointed at me. “That's your father through and through. He's a pig,” she said to my dad. “Are you happy now?”
“Let me ask you something,” my dad said to Benji. “Do you ever win an argument with RJ? Because I lose before my wife opens her mouth. Everything is my fault. Do you have that problem?”
“He was telling a story. Stop,” my mom said and looked back at Benji.
He chuckled and continued. “He told me how much the stuff in that bay meant to his dad and how he'd found a whole car in there – and I had to see that! A mess that covered a whole car?”
“Sounds like his bedroom,” my mom said.
“Sounds like your side of the room,” my father countered. “Go on, Benjamin.”
“Well he showed me how he wanted to organize it, and then I added some ideas, so now we've been taking inventory – but some of the thingamabobs don't have labels, and a few of the chummies are a total mystery to us both,” he said.
“See?” my father demanded, looking up at me. “You need me for this.”
“No one can just do something nice for you, can they?” I asked.
“It's true,” my mother said. “He can't help himself. His whole family is like that, you know.” She looked at Benji. “RJ was never like that, of course. Are you stubborn?”
“Like a rock,” I muttered loudly enough for him to hear.
“I don't think you have any room – or cooking skills – to talk,” he said.
“Hey!” my dad said with a grin. “Look what he got from you!”
“There is nothing wrong with my cooking,” my mother said and threw a string of cheese at him, which he tried to catch, but it stuck to his chin and dangled.
We finished lunch and headed into the bay. Benji showed my mom the list we'd put together, and I showed my dad how we'd organized them but had yet to put them on the shelves. For the next few hours we four worked together and talked as we put the kind of organization on this bay it hadn't seen since it was first built. There were some odds and ends that didn't really fit into a category, so there was some mess, but my dad said he could get some racking to store the last few things away.
I pulled the cover off my grandfather's car and gave it an appreciative look. “I like this.”
“What you have now is probably better. And for how long this has been sitting, it's going to need work. It's a money pit – rubber is probably bad, have to flush the fluids and – hey, look! The paint is perfect, huh? I can't remember if we left a battery in it. Pop the hood and let's check,” my dad said.
“No. You two can waste time on that later,” my mom said, cutting into my dad's enthusiasm. “Let's get washed up. We have to head back and make sure Anne hasn't sold Stan into slavery somewhere.”
“Anne still wound up?” I asked.
“She's still grounded,” my mother replied. She turned and regarded Benji. “Benjamin, I like you.”
“Uh, thank you?” he asked and then smiled. “I like you, too. I like your marriage.”
“You do?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah. You guys tease each other so much, but it's just a sign of how close you are. I love that.”
“How cute,” my dad said and threw an arm around my shoulders. “He thinks we're teasing.”
“Okay,” my mother said with some finality and looked at my father with a questioning expression. He squeezed my shoulder, but I was too late to see whatever expression he gave to my mother. Instead she turned to Benji and said, “RJ tells me you want to be a teacher, but that you're working a ridiculous amount and struggling to save enough, and that your apartment situation might be untenable.”
Benji smiled and me, a sour smile if I ever saw one. “Ryan has a big mouth.”
“He does,” my father said with an exaggerated nod. He let go of me and took a few steps toward Benji. “He's also got the biggest heart of anyone I know. I'm intensely proud of my boy. Since you've won his heart, you must be just as special.”
Benji looked off balance, and my mother swooped in. “Now. The living situation.”
“I, um, asked him to move in with me,” I interjected.
My mother looked over her shoulder in thought. “Montanino's are paying?” I nodded. “Well, they aren't completely worthless.” She turned back to Benji. “So. School. When do you register?”
Benji straightened up a little. “Look, I get that you're protective of your son, but I'm willing to pay my way. I'm working every chance I get and I'm saving and I will go to school.”
“Of course you will,” my father said as if it were done already. “Being a teacher takes a long time. Some districts require a masters. You can't wait – so, what? Is it money?”
Benji pressed his lips together and I stepped between my parents to stand between them. “Stop. You're making him uncomfortable.”
“It's okay,” he said quietly and moved to stand beside me. He took my hand and said, “I promise you I'm not trying to take advantage of Ryan. I love him.”
My mother smiled and reached out, putting her palm to the side of his face. “No one is thinking that. We believe in education. It's your future and RJ's. As his parents we want the best for him – have always.” She withdrew her hand. “We got him tutors and took away parts of his childhood with the idea that we were securing his future.” She turned her gaze to me. “As well intentioned as we were, that wasn't his path.” Her gaze swiveled back to him. “You are. This isn't something you throw back, Benji.”
I started at her use of the diminutive.
“This isn't a car or something extravagant. It's not an attempt to buy you off.” She leaned in. “It's an investment in you. If your parents can't or won't do the right thing and put the one my son loves into school, then we will.”
Benji opened his mouth and my mother raised a finger.
“Don't even think of arguing with me, or it goes back to Benjamin.”
Benji looked at me and I smiled, shrugging at him. He looked back at my parents, as my father had moved up behind my mom and was resting his chin on her shoulder while hugging her from behind.
“Won't,” Benji said.
“What's that?” my dad asked.
“You said if my parent's can't or won't. It’s won't. They don't approve of my sexuality and want me to...hide. It.”
My mother lifted her fingertips to her mouth and looked at my dad. “I don't even think your side of the family would be that bad.”
“I have to admit, yours either, “he replied.
“Dad. You told me last week-”
“Ah, ah, ah! This is a bonding moment!” he said.
“What? What did you say about my family? RJ?” my mother asked.
“Oh, you know, the usual. Disappearing neighbors. Murder. Moving trucks in the night.”
“I didn't say anything about moving trucks!” my dad protested.
“I'll deal with you later,” my mom told him and turned back to Benji. She reached out and took his hand. “This is a wise investment. Maybe one of our best. You'll do good things.”
After a moment Benji said in a choked voice, “Thank you.”
My parents smiled. My dad cleared his throat. “With you guys living on your own, you really can't do much work. I can use some stuff here on weekends of course, but...Ryan, I wanted you to learn something by working in the shop after you came home from college. I didn't expect it to be this, but you did learn.”
I squeezed Benji's hand lightly. “Yeah, I did,” I agreed.
“Working in the shop wasn't supposed to be a punishment, not really,” he said. “But you'll need things. So I wanted you to know it wasn't a gift.”
“What wasn't a gift?”
“The money in your account,” my mother said. “Did you really think we were charging you rent?”
“Well, yeah. It seemed fair,” I said.
“See? We could have kept it!” my dad stage whispered.
“You see? Evil. His entire family,” my mother said with a knowing smile. “But no, RJ. All that 'rent' money is yours for school and living expenses.” She paused. “I'm proud of you.”
“Okay, let's go, in case Annie decided to go get pregnant,” my father said.
“She hasn't had time,” my mother said as they turned to leave.
“Don't you remember how quick teenage boys are?”
“Move it!” my mother snapped and moments later my dad beeped the horn and waved as they left.
I looked at Benji. “You said you loved me.”
“Yeah,” he said with a little smile. “Not quite how I envisioned telling you, but...the important part was I said it.”
The next day was a beach day, declared by Luca. As it happens, it had been stated so by Lilly, but we were all going. On a whim I reached out to Tris and Ehren and they jumped at the chance to go, so we caravaned our way down to the lake and spent some time lying in the sun and grilling greasy things that were deliciously bad for you. We swam and played, dunked each other and floated in the bright afternoon sunshine.
Ehren and Tris were a pleasant contrast to each other. Ehren had an edge to him that was coupled with a sweet shyness, while Tris was obviously used to being social and, perhaps, popular. They were both good looking, but that changed when they got side-by-side and you could see how well they fit. They were like asymmetric pieces that became a pleasing, symmetrical whole when put together.
Later Lilly and Luca went for a walk and Benji and I sat at a picnic table with Ehren and Tris.
“So. Seems like you figured some things out,” Ehren said to me with a little smile on his face.
“I did,” I said, wrapping an arm around Benji's shoulders. He responded by placing his head on my shoulder.
“You were the one that told him about leaving things behind, right?” Benji asked.
“Yeah,” Ehren replied with a nod.
“He left out part of it,” Tristan said, pulling Ehren into his side and smiling at him with unvarnished fondness. “He forgot to tell you it's just as important what you take with you.”
“I take it you took Ehren with you?” Benji asked, chuckling.
Tris looked at Benji. “Yeah. My parents don't like our relationship, which is sad. But Ehren and I have been through more than anyone else I know to be together.”
“Have your parents cut you off?” Benji asked.
“No. They just make their position clear, and that's unacceptable. Ehren is the most wonderful-”
“Oh my God, stop!” Ehren said, covering his face.
“He's not so good at compliments,” Tris stage whispered.
“Shut. Up,” Ehren told him and we laughed at them.
“Well, my parents don't approve of who I am. They don't even know about Ryan,” Benji said to them. “But I like your statement. Both of them. I'm working on leaving the crap from my parents behind and embracing Ryan's family – taking that with me.”
“Doesn't hurt my parents love him,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “What about your folks, Ehren?”
“My moms love Tris,” Ehren said. “They helped us when Tris's parents balked at us moving in together. They came around some, but they still don't like me.”
“What jerks. Come to Ryan's house. I bet his family loves you, too,” Benji said with a grin. “Oh! And you guys should totally come hang out with us. We have a really nice apartment – we could do dinner and a game night or something.”
“That sounds awesome,” Tris said. “I have to confess, the club scene isn't too exciting. I can't decide if it's just lame here or if it's not for me.”
We chatted until the sun dropped from the sky, though the evening was still warm, about Ehren's love of books, Tris's interest in education, which led to Benji's interest in being a teacher and finally to my own interest in cars. It was weird. There was a chemistry in the air and I felt undeniably optimistic about...life.
It was a moment, a moment that I felt I needed to hold on to. Recognizing when one of the really cool moments is happening in your life and sinking into it is really a form of magic. I felt like the secrets of the universe were on the tip of my tongue, like I was on the cusp of understanding...everything. It wasn't maddening to not know, to not take than final step. Instead I felt like there was nothing but possibility in front of me. Eventually Luca and Lilly returned and we all headed for the apartment, only to end up staying up most of the night playing games and hanging out. Ehren and Tris ended up crashing at our place, and I was confident I'd made my first real friends in the new community I belonged to.
Benji and I climbed into bed, and I ran my palm appreciatively over his behind. “Hmm. I just want to-”
“Babe,” he said with a yawn. “Can you just cuddle me? I'm sleepy.”
“Of course,” I said, huddling in beside him. I couldn't help that I was poking him in the side for a bit; some things are beyond my control.
He smiled at me and in a slow, tired voice said, “I'll give you some love after I sleep. And one day, when I'm in the mood, I'm going to climb on top of you and give you some dick instead of the other way around.”
I raised an eyebrow, not that he could see since his eyes were closed. “Oh?” I asked. It had never occurred to me that he'd want to fuck me, considering how our roles had played out. Didn't you just pick one? Top or bottom? “Babe? Babe, are you serious?”
He let out a soft snore and left me wondering about that. Shit. Was he being influenced just by meeting my parents? Was he being evil?