Monday morning I was working on removing a valve cover on an old Honda whose gasket had dried up and started to leak. The motor smoked something nasty when it warmed up, burning the oil and leaving a residue all over the engine compartment and the windshield. I was just setting the cover aside when I heard someone calling out.
“Hi,” I hollered back and poked my head around the upraised hood. Two guys were approaching. One had well defined chest and arms, and his shorts showed he hadn't skipped leg day. His partner had more of a runner's build and was kind of lanky.
“Hi. Are you Ryan?” the slender one asked.
“I am,” I replied, wiping my hands on a rag. “How can I help you?”
“My sister had her car here over the weekend. I guess she and her boyfriend broke down a little, the way she puts it.”
I grinned. “Chloe and Howard. Yeah, they were broke down just a little,” I said with a chuckle. They both smiled in response.
“Thanks for helping her out like that. If it had been a furnace, Howard would have been all over it, but I don't think he knows cars very well,” he said. “I'm her brother, Derek and this is my boyfriend, Austin.”
I'm meeting gay guys everywhere all of a sudden, I thought. “Nice to meet you. Did she make an appointment?”
“She did. We're here to drop it off, but I thought I'd ask how long it would take. Maybe we'll hit up the architectural salvage store if we can get it back today.”
“No,” Austin groaned. He opened his eyes wide and added, “Please say we have to come back tomorrow. I'm begging you.”
I chuckled. “Well, unless the parts were ordered ahead of time, tomorrow is more likely for a pick-up. Let me check the parts shelf to see if stuff was ordered ahead.”
I went back toward the office. I could see my dad in his office chair working on the quarterly taxes. He heard me and turned in his chair. “How's the Gleason's Honda?”
“Seal is dried out. I'll probably need to spray the side of the engine to get rid of some of the old oil.”
“Use some Dawn to clean the windshield,” he suggested.
“I will,” I said with a nod. “I was just going to check the appointment parts shelf. I had someone stop on Saturday - broke down – but I guess they have an appointment today for a tune-up?”
“Yeah. Called yesterday, first thing. I ordered a cap, rotor, plugs, wires, air, oil and fuel filters. See what it needs – should be on the shelf under...uh...” He turned and looked at his desk. “Pellegrini.”
“Okay,” I said and ambled to the shelf. Sure enough there was a box of parts with a strip of dry erase under it with 'Pellegrini' in my father's harsh script. “Yeah. Here it is.” I left the box on the shelf and headed back to the guys who were waiting out front and leaning on the car.
“Pellegrini?” I asked, just to confirm.
Derek turned toward me. “Yep.”
“Okay, well, parts are here.”
Derek smirked and looked at Austin. “Looks like I win.”
I shrugged. “Still better off to pick up tomorrow. I have to finish this job first,” I said, hooking my thumb at the Honda. “Then I can start your car, but it depends on how much of those parts it needs.”
“What do you mean?” Austin asked.
“Like, the guy did an oil change sometime this year, from what I recall. Does she want that changed now? Did the guy change the air filter? Is the fuel filter the original one? If so, it should be changed. That's not mentioning the stuff I showed her that was worn out – cap, rotor. Likely needs plugs and wires.” I shrugged. “It's not totally straightforward.”
Derek nodded. “I was texting with our friend Devyn last night – he worked for his dad in a garage, too,” he said. “He mentioned some of those things, so I'm not totally surprised. It does mean we don't have to rush back and I can take my time at the architectural-”
“Ryan, help a guy out, would you?” Austin said with a little good-natured whine.
“Uh, unless I put you to work – and I don't think my dad would go for it – not sure what I can do for ya, dude,” I said with a chuckle.
“My dad bought an old Victorian and we're slowly fixing it up to be a B&B. Getting stuff from that era – cheap – is a priority for me,” Derek said and side-eyed his boyfriend. “We have different priorities.”
I chuckled. “Well, good luck. Keys in the car?”
And before long I was back at the Honda. I had lunch with my dad and Pat. Pat spent most of the time alternatively busting my dad's nuts and talking about women he thought were hot. He told stories of hitting bars and the various women he'd encounter, all the while my father was calling bullshit after every other claim. It was kind of funny, the sort of boastful bullshit I've heard from just about every group of guys. I finished up the Honda after lunch, running it through the car wash a few blocks away just to clear out the last of the Dawn and oily residue.
Pat and my father were in bay three – the major work bay – where they had started the job of lifting out a dead engine to start a rebuild. Dad used to let me help with those, but I think he figured out I was enjoying it, and since working at the garage was supposed to be about punishment he wasn't letting me over there. I spent the afternoon on the Pellegrini car, saving the bad parts for show and tell.
As I worked I thought about Derek and Austin and how natural a couple they appeared to be. They seemed like they had their own interests, but they still did things together. That was relationship goals right there.
Late that night I was falling into a black hole of YouTube videos when it occurred to me that Ben and I had gotten along pretty well – better than Jace and I had. I still hadn't reached out to him, but I wasn't sure how to, exactly. Thoughts were tumbling in my head like bingo balls, and something kept sticking out to me. Something....
I sat up a bit straighter. Luca had said Jace had been checking out my Insta. The morning I'd...woken up with Ben, his house ghoul Gwen had been spreading the news. I wondered if that was how I could make contact. Gwen and Benji - Ben! - were likely following each other. So the way to Ben was through nosy Gwen. I slumped a little – I didn't know Ben's Insta and I sure as hell didn't know Gwen's. Oh. But...no. Well. I mean. If I could avoid telling him...
I opened my Insta and went to the page of people I follow. There she was, Frannie. Luca's little sister. The one who'd told him about Ben and I hooking up. I decided to send her a DM. If I asked her not to tell Luca she would, because that's Fran. So I'd play it cool.
RJO01: Hey Frannie, you there?
PajamasAtTheTable: If I said I wasn't?
I rolled my eyes.
RJ01: Do you have a link to that thread? The rumor about me and Benji?
Fuck, I'd already hit send. He was Ben. Benjamin Masterson. Not Bennie. Not Benji. Not something falsely edgy or hipster like Jamin or something. Ben.
PajamasAtTheTable: Yeah. Why? Starting drama?
RJ01: Don't you think the drama is already there?
PajamasAtTheTable: Facts. Here you go. He's too hot for u.
Brat. I followed the link and read Gwen's original post – including a picture of me looking at her camera with a very WTF expression on my face. Nosy POS. There were a flurry of comments, but I ignored them – or tried to – and touched the screen name of the person that posted the picture – Gweneveer. I thumbed through Gwen's photos. It looked like she'd known Ben for a while because the farther back I went, the younger he got when he was included. Finally I spotted his screen name because she'd tagged him.
I studied the name for a minute. I guess maybe he liked being called Benji. I guess some Bens did. My finger hovered over his screen name, ready to go to his photos, links and a place I could DM him. What would I say? Should I ask him out to coffee? What his dreams were? If he liked me? Well, he said he liked sex with me, but what about the rest? Did I want this? Him? I pulled my finger back, unable to fully process all the questions racing through my mind.
Tuesday morning I finished the tune-up to Chloe's car. Her dad brought her to get the car, and she totally oversold what I'd done for her that past Saturday. I showed them the parts we'd replaced and explained what was wrong with each one. He was super nice about the whole thing and complimented me far more than I deserved. I had lunch with my dad and Pat again before getting stuck with clean up duty for most of the afternoon.
That night my parents went over to a local pub for a drink with friends, and Annie was staying over at a friend's house, so I stayed home with Stan. We baked brownies from a mix and watched some cartoons before I read to him. After his book it still took forty-five minutes to get him to sleep; by then I was wiped out, too.
Wednesday Luca joined me for lunch, and we sat on the old bench seat outside again.
“So. Summer's not going to last forever. I'm going to register at community college. How about you?” he asked before biting into his sandwich.
I chewed and looked off into the middle distance. “I was thinking about going back for auto shop.”
He nodded. “Your parents don't know.”
I shook my head. “Nope. How could you tell?” I asked with a grin.
“Your dad will have a stroke. Your mom a nervous breakdown. If you take auto shop, you'll have to finish raising your siblings.”
“Facts,” I said with a nod. I sighed. “Yeah. I haven't just sat down and made a real decision, but it's kind of lurking, because I'm running out of time to register. I got the forms. I even did the little pre-placement test, but I haven't told the folks.”
Luca smiled at me. “Good for you, man. It's always been something you liked to do – and you're good at it.” He grunted and said, “Maybe this is the first step in rebuilding you as you want to be.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked with a chuckle.
He frowned a little. “I have a theory that some people try either consciously or unconsciously to be happy, to make themselves into the person they want to be, make their lives what they want them to be. My parents did it – they almost killed each other and messed me up, but they went in directions they thought would make them happier.”
“Is this all about me supposedly breaking down my life over the last year?” I asked, chuckling.
“You can laugh all you want, but you tore the whole thing down. This school thing will be the first big step in the other direction – but at the same time, you're destroying a cornerstone of what your parents wanted you to be. All the tutoring to get your grades up, all the things you missed out on to achieve their dream...that's going to be gone.” He paused. “And then there's Benji.”
“Oh for Christ's sake,” I grumbled. “You know, I could meet a girl this very afternoon. Why are you so into this Ben thing?”
“Because you slept with him.” He paused. “Only the second person you've slept with. Kind of choosy, you are.”
“How would you know? There could be others,” I said sullenly, but unconvincingly.
“When will you tell your parents?”
I looked up to see my father crossing the back of the shop. “Soon.”
When I got my phone from my locker at the end of the day I had messages from Julia waiting. Essentially they were a list of updates – that she was taking off, landing, waiting for the baggage to be off loaded, then a bag was lost, then it was found and finally she was home and telling me to come see her.
“Dad. Julia's home. I'm going to head over for a bit,” I said as he was climbing into his truck.
“Oh?” he asked, leaving his door open. “You going to try and fix things between you?”
I paused. “I don't think so. I think...we're going to figure out what we look like going forward.”
He made a small grunt, no more than an extra-heavy breath. “That's not easy. Still, kudos for trying. Just don't be so successful you get her pregnant.”
I rolled my eyes. “See ya, pop.”
Julia Ward lived in a raised ranch like so many others in her development. Her mom looked a little surprised to see me, but that was washed away by Julia squealing my name and hugging me, her feet pulled up off the ground like a movie scene. She dragged me downstairs into their family room, and we huddled up on the couch.
“I am so glad to see you,” she said sincerely. “That trip – that family! Ugh. I wish I could divorce them all or something.”
“Did it get worse?” I asked.
“So. Bad. On the bright side, I think I know why my parents go to these reunion things.” She paused, letting me think it over for a moment before she landed her punch. “They feel so much more normal after hanging out with those psychos.”
I laughed at her.
“I'm serious. It's like going shopping at Wally World – you see people in stained pajamas, yoga pants that show off some camel toe-”
I didn't hear anything else because I was laughing so hard. I wiped my eyes and smiled at her. “I missed you so much.”
“I missed you more,” she said promptly and laid her head on my shoulder so her curly hair could tickle my nose. We sat companionably for a minute and I could almost imagine we were still an item. That lasted until she spoke. “I'm glad we broke up.”
My hand, which had idly curled some of her hair around my fingers, stilled. “What?”
She snuggled into me. “This is who we are, Ry. We're real. We keep things going with a minimum of bullshit.” She leaned back enough to look up at me. “I love you. But...things have been different for a while. I felt it, but didn't understand it when we were juniors. We broke up a few times, and it kind of worked some of our kinks out. I was afraid, then, that I was going to lose you. You get me, and that's not always an easy thing to do.”
“I don't think you're that difficult to get,” I said quietly.
“But you're one of the few. Because of that I didn't want to let you go, because I was afraid of losing what we have. I know that's selfish. I've known it for a while and I still kept it up.”
“Just let me say this, Ry. Then it's your turn. Okay?” she looked at me with wet eyes and I nodded. She sat up, but moved close and took my hand in hers. “You have no idea what you're worth. When I really realized things were changing fast – not just you, but me too – I knew our days as a couple were numbered. We've seen what happens when the prom king and the cheerleader get married in enough movies, right?” She snorted out a little laugh.
“I wasn't prom king, and you weren't a cheerleader,” I said wryly.
She grabbed my chin between her fingers and shook my head lightly. “Don't get shmaht, shee?” she asked, affecting an accent.
I opened my mouth and made a warbling sound to accompany her head shake and we laughed together. She tilted her head. “High school sweethearts. That was us and we were good at it. Now...we need to have each other's backs.”
I pushed my lips together and off to one side. “Seems like you've thought about this a lot.”
She turned away, pulling my arm around her and lay back against me. “I have. I was afraid we couldn't make the change from dating to best friends, but here we are, and I don't want to lose you. I know we were kind of...drifting along. You're making huge changes – school, for example. I'm sure home is kind of uncomfortable.”
“Eh. They are still hanging onto the doctor thing. I was talking to Luca today about that. I'm going to have to tell them I'm not going to try to be a doctor. Soon.”
“Do you know what you want to do?”
There was a pause and then she said, “Your mother will have a bird.” We both laughed.
“Yeah,” I said, my voice trailing off.
“So. Tell me about Benji.”
I sighed, feeling guilt creep up. “I don't know much, really. He's big on Italy and wants to be a teacher.”
“And he's hot. Handsome. Something like that.”
Heat rushed to my face and I was glad she wasn't looking at me. It felt wrong to have this conversation with her, but I couldn't just shut her down. “He is nice looking, yeah.”
She idly stroked my forearm. “So. What's the plan?”
I paused, feeling as if the conversation was surreal. Julia had always hidden her discomfort with action and once she got going she was able to commit to her path. I assume the idea of me and guys – Ben – was enough to make her uncomfortable and I was feeling more and more guilt – for having cheated, for having ended our relationship that way, even if it was rearranging into something new.
“What?” she asked, turning to face me.
I looked down at her and sighed. “I feel guilty talking to you about him. I feel bad about what I've done. I haven't moved past it.”
She turned away, lay her head back on my chest, and slipped her fingers between my own. “I wish it had gone differently, but we can't let this thing be the end of us. I forgive you, if it helps.” She paused. “You do this all the time...beating yourself up. But be honest with me – is Benji the first guy you've ever caught feelings for?”
I hesitated and then shook my head. I'd hurt her enough – I wouldn't make it worse with lying. “No,” I whispered, and my breath hitched.
“Oh, no,” she said softly, turning and hugging me, and I hugged her back to me. “No, no. It's okay. Heart wants what the heart wants and that, right? Don't cry, babe.”
“I just...I just....”
“You just what, babe?”
I rubbed her back for a moment and sighed. “Luca said...he said he figured me out because of...of...Tyler Fr-Franklin.”
She leaned back. “Really? Tall Tyler gave you a sexual awakening?”
I was momentarily gobsmacked. She rolled her eyes and I smiled tentatively.
“He's not my type, but you do you. So, why did we date then? We had sex, Ry. Where do we fit into all that?” she asked, her tone soft.
“I...think I'm bi. Maybe.”
She studied me for a moment and nodded. “Okay. What we had, when we had it, was real.”
“God, yes,” I said.
She studied my face. “I thought so.” She placed a hand on the side of my face. “I wish I'd seen you stressing sooner. I thought it had more to do with your parents and the tutors and the 'Doctor Owens' crap than anything else. And now? What about Benji?”
Reluctantly I told her about Luca's advice, and then added in the conversation I'd had with Jace.
“So. We should go out to karaoke then,” she said, nose wrinkling.
“Um. I think I'm going to feel really weird if I ever go there, but even weirder if I go with you.”
“Ry. I want to look at the hot guys. Come on!” she whined.
“Oh my God. You're serious?”
“Well, not tonight. But let's go dance tomorrow and make Luca go.” She looked at me with wide eyes. “I want to see guys hitting on him.”
Jesus Christ. This gay thing is going to kill me. We ended up playing some Mario Kart and she won because she cheats. Later I lay awake in bed, looking at the link and wondering if I should...and then I did.
Ben Masterson had taken a lot of pictures. I mean a cubic butt-ton. I kind of watched him grow from middle-school right through graduation and to the present day. He looked happiest at high school through what was probably a few months after graduation, then his pictures started to change. Rather, he started to change in them. He went from open smiles or laughing to doing the stupid thing all guys seem to do which is repeatedly run their fingers through their hair as they take a selfie.
There was a section in the middle of this...decline in his images that was populated with famous Italian gardens – Boboli Gardens sticks in my head. It's in Florence behind the Palazzo Pitti. There were famous hedges, images of Tuscany with the familiar shot of a winery on a hill with tall, narrow evergreens in the foreground. I spent a lot of time looking up the places he was listing in his pictures.
His first few pictures out dancing, presumably at Nirvana with all the shirtless guys around, he looked off-the-charts happy. I smiled, thinking he must have felt free. Free of high school people and in a place where who he was would be the normal thing. But it didn't take long before the same group of people started showing up in his pictures. They looked bored or put on fake smiles. Ben was affecting looks – fake looks.
Worst of all, he no longer looked happy or free.
At lunch the next day I walked over to Montanino Real Estate, the company owned by Luca's parents. How they were successful as business partners but such shitty parents was a mystery to me. I hadn't taken the time to change from my coveralls, so I drew a lip curl from the secretary when I stepped into the office. If the old secretary had been her it wouldn't have been an issue, but Mrs. Haskins-Granger had retired and I wasn't sure if I'd met this new one, yet – Karen Lisette, by the nameplate on her desk.
“Is there something I can do for you?” she asked. Her tone suggested there was nothing she'd like to do for me.
“Luca Montanino, please,” I said.
She frowned. “He's working. His parents don't allow-”
“Okay, thanks,” I said and walked past her desk to the wall that separated the secretary and 'for sale montage' that Mrs. Montanino maintained from the bullpen where the sales folks made their appointments and such.
“Excuse me!” I heard the wheels of her chair as she pushed back from her desk.
I stepped into the bullpen. A few Realtors looked up and then went back to their work. Large glass windows displayed the offices of Mr. and Mrs. Montanino – after the divorce they kept the same last name for 'product continuity' or some shit. Luca was in his dad's office, standing in front of the desk with a folder in his hand. He glanced up and saw me. He smiled widely and said something to his father, who looked up and waved me forward.
“I'm speaking to you!” the secretary said huffily.
I glanced at her. “You shouldn't judge people whose clothes show they do manual work for a living.” I headed to the office door with her click-clacking in her high heels and talking rapid-fire behind me the whole way. When she stepped into the office she immediately began apologizing to Mr. Montanino.
“It's all right, Karen. This is Luca's best friend, Ryan Owens. He's fine, you can head back out front,” he said and looked at me. “Did you just roll out from under a car?”
“Van, actually,” I said with a smile. “I have a short lunch, but I wanted to talk to Luca.”
“Okay if I take lunch, Dad?” Luca asked, tapping the file in his hand.
“Sure. Get that squared when you get back,” he said, pointing at the file and then dismissing us. We walked through the office, past Karen, and out to the street.
“You never dress up to take me out anymore,” Luca teased.
“I'm dressed like a real man!” I protested, flexing.
“Dork,” he said and laughed. “So what's so important you couldn't text?”
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and looked at him from the corner of my eye as we walked toward the deli. “I talked with Julia last night.”
“I know. She was bragging about kicking your ass on Mario Kart,” he said.
“I know this, too,” he said and laughed. “I'm assuming the best, based on that, but...how'd it go?”
I nodded. “Good, I think.” I relayed most of our conversation, sans her wondering if the sex between us had been real, the attraction. “I told her about Jace and what we talked about, so now she wants to go to Nirvana.”
“Don't we all?” Luca quipped.
Grinning a bit as I held the door for him I said, “She wants to see guys hitting on you.”
He laughed aloud as we took our place in line to order sandwiches. “I'll bet she does.”
“Anyway. She wanted to go last night, but I feel weird going with her to that place – I mean I feel weird about going there to begin with, but with her...after how I....”
Luca shook his head. “Stop. Stop beating yourself up. It's done and I don't think it's something you're going to do again, so you learned from it. You've got to move forward, bro.”
I swallowed. “Easy to say.”
He patted my shoulder. “I know. Still, glad Julia is embracing you while you're figuring this out. So what's the plan, we all going tonight or Friday? I haven't asked Lilly out yet, so no plans to break.”
“I don't know, buddy,” I said, teasing him. “Maybe you need Lilly for protection.”
He just laughed at me. We ordered our food and then sat on a bench out on the sidewalk. We were quiet for a few minutes, eating quickly because I had to get back. At last I had to say what I'd planned.
“So. Um, thinking maybe you could ask Lilly. For tonight. They have eighteen and over night for dancing. Um. Ben's supposed to dance, I guess.”
He finished chewing, all the while looking at my face. “Have you asked him out?”
I grimaced and shook my head. “I...finally looked up his Insta last night. I looked through his pictures and...I don't know. Maybe it's my imagination, but...Jace said he's hanging out with what he calls the 'snappy crowd'.”
“Who is? Jace?”
“Oh. Okay. What's a snappy crowd?”
“Way they dress. Attitude.” I paused. “Ben has a lot of pictures. He looked super happy – free – senior year and just after graduation. But a lot of his more recent ones...” I sighed. “I don't know. Maybe I'm seeing stuff that isn't there.”
“Sounds like you might care about him a little.”
I shrugged. “I don't really know him.”
“Sounds like you want to, though.”
I balled up my wrapper and let out a sigh before meeting his gaze. “Yeah.”