I headed down to the shop Saturday morning to get the weekly laundry done. Once that was started I got restless. I had nicer clothes on – khakis, boat shoes and a polo that complemented my complexion, or so Julia has said once or twice. Unfortunately I had nothing else to do. I took my phone out, but found myself drawn right back to Ben's images. I texted Luca, but he wasn't answering – probably sleeping in. I texted Julia, and she actually texted that unless this was an emergency, let her sleep.
Ugh. I needed a distraction in the worst way. I looked around a little and decided I should start cleaning out the fifth bay. My father is a pack rat's pack rat, and the fifth bay was the ultimate tribute to that fact. The garage had four working bays; the fifth had become dad's little storage area. Unusual car part? Might have a slight chance of being used? Into the fifth bay it went. The thing was packed, and there was barely any room to move.
I changed into a spare set of coveralls and pushed the little dumpster over by the door to the fifth bay. I went back inside and picked my way through the fifth bay over to the outside door – no easy feat – and unlocked it, opening it to the world for the first time in who knows how long. I looked around and saw car doors, beat up, grease-stained boxes with faded marker on the side to tell what it was supposed to have in it. There was some sturdy metal shelving along one wall, and I decided to start there and see if I could apply some order.
I worked steadily, tossing out boxes that were too brittle to be anything but a mess and stacking parts on the shelf. I took some masking tape and put labels on the shelving to identify the parts, or at least what the box had said before I tossed it. Or thought it said. The work was actually going pretty well, and in a few hours I had the whole shelf organized. I went to the office for some water and swapped around the laundry before heading back to the fifth bay. I made some space and pushed an engine sitting on a pallet over to the wall.
I tugged on a canvas tarp that seemed to be caught up in a large pile of junk. I reached down and tugged the end of it, but it was securely held down by a bunch of parts. I noted that there was a softer underside to the tarp, perhaps to protect whatever it might cover. That was just odd. Rather than organizing, I started moving things around to uncover more of the tarp, and wasn't at all surprised to find that there seemed to be a car under all that.
I shifted boxes and parts until I could fold back the tarp enough to reveal the nose of a car. It was an old VW with a box-like nose – nothing I recognized. It was painted a pretty, dark blue and the body – what I could see so far – seemed to be in good shape. I worked the tarp back until I could see the registration on the lower corner of the driver's windshield. I let out a small whistle – this thing was from 1984! My mind raced with the possibilities of why this thing was here, why my dad would bury it under all that junk and what great condition it looked to be in.
My phone shook in my pocket and I pulled it out. Shit. It was a reminder, set for an hour before my appointment with Ben. I headed back to the small bathroom where my locker was and cleaned up – I'd gotten way dirtier than I'd intended. I scrubbed and wiped longer than I should have, but I didn't want to look like a scrub when I got there. After checking myself in the cracked mirror I headed over to the café to meet up with Ben. I ran over a bunch of things in my head to talk about – his interest in all things Italian, his dancing, his family, his current dating situation.
That brought me up short and I actually took my foot off the gas. That wasn't like me, not very much. I suddenly felt like I was rushing this. Forcing it. Why? Was it because I'd slept with him? We'd had a really nice evening together and the sex had been the cherry on top, but did that give us something to build from?
I parked and crossed the street to the café. I was about fifteen minutes early and didn't see Ben yet. I went ahead and got a coffee and a couple of biscotti to go with it. I picked a two seater table near the window and watched for Ben. As I waited I thought back to why I wanted to know more. It was fair to say I was curious, because this was as far as I'd ever gone with a guy, romantically. I had to draw that line, because I loved Luca and I knew the dude loved me. We've been friends, leaning on each other for years. I think going through some tough things had made us better friends, closer than people who just hang out and have fun all the time.
Benji was different. My feelings went back and forth about him – just like my language did, going back and forth between Ben and Benji. I had always thought of him, when I'd had a reason to, as Ben. I'd fought Benji as being too intimate, but had been warming to it. The thing was, if I took a step back, why was that? Yes, I thought he was cute. Yes, he'd been engaging and fun that evening – far more than I'd expected. Yes, he'd been good in bed. Well, those added up, right? Was I over-thinking this?
I glanced at my phone – 3:15. Was Ben one of those people that was late wherever he went? Or was he stuck in traffic? Had he changed his mind? Should I call him? Message him? I bit my lower lip. I glanced out of the window, but I didn't know what his car looked like. Did he have a car? We did agree on three o'clock today, right? I put my phone down and looked out of the window, watching to see if he crossed the street or came strolling up the sidewalk.
At three-thirty I was starting to lose my cool. Damn it, I wanted to see Ben. I wanted to talk to him. But would I seem desperate or weird if I called – or showed up at his apartment? Definitely for the second one. Then I had an idea that I thought might strike the right balance. I took a selfie with the shop behind me and then tagged in Ben when I posted it.
RJO01: Hanging at Café Italia, waiting to chill with @BenjiComeHome.
I waited quietly, phone cradled in my hand as I waited to see if my gambit would pay off. Realistically, if he didn't want to see me, he didn't have to. Maybe he didn't want to say no when we were in the club? Insecurities rolled around inside my head, knocking each other about and my brain – my phone buzzed. I looked down to see a new direct message.
BenjiComeHome: I'm coming, I'm so sorry.
RJO01: Should I order something for you?
BenjiComeHome: I'll pick something when I get there, thank you though.
I felt good enough that I went and grabbed another coffee and a few more biscotti. I was really pleased with myself for not going overboard. I'm usually pretty relaxed, I think, but this...I was nervous. That was okay, as long as it didn't get the best of me. I dunked my biscotti and watched for Benji. Twenty minutes later I saw him getting off the city bus. He was dressed simply in snug jeans and a solid gray tee shirt with canvas sneakers. He ran his fingers through his hair and I wondered for a moment if he was nervous as well.
He entered the café and I stood, lifting my hand to wave. He smiled tightly and walked over to me.
“I'm so sorry,” he said quietly.
“All good,” I said quickly. “You want something?”
“Uh,” he said, looking toward the counter. “I'm not much for coffee I don't make at home.”
“Me either,” I said with a grin. “This is pretty good, though, especially with the biscotti.”
He looked down at the table where my half cup waited with another of the cookies. “Well....”
“Come on. My treat, give it a try.”
He looked up at me and his features softened. “Okay. If it's bad coffee, I blame you. I'll be scarred for life.”
“Then I'll owe you one,” I said with a grin and went to the counter to order for him. I quickly returned and placed the cup and cookies in front of him, then sat and watched as he doctored his coffee. He took a sip, watching me over the edge of the cup and then seemed to...swirl the liquid in his mouth before swallowing.
“Okay,” he said. “It's actually pretty good.”
I grinned and picked up a biscotti. “You're supposed to dunk this in there for a bit, let it soak in some of the coffee.”
“I know,” he said, his tone teasing a bit.
I just grinned at him as we had our coffee in relative silence. I observed him, now up close and in a quiet place – how his fingers held the cookie, how he looked with the cup pressed to his lip – and then how the tip of his tongue cleared the coffee from his upper lip. He wrapped his fingers around his cup and fixed me with a calm look.
My butterflies went away. I don't know why. The worst he could do would be to be negative or say no to whatever future we may have. It would hurt, no doubt, but I...had a good feeling.
“So,” I replied, daring to give him a small smile. “I-”
“I don't understand,” he said, cutting me off. “You don't seem angry. I kind of thought you were joking with me, even though I admit I have no idea what the joke was. You show up in my club with a bunch of your friends and I actually wondered for a second how much trouble I was in.”
I stared. “You thought I was going to, what, hurt you?”
He blushed. “Not...really. But you never know. Straight guys can be touchy after the fact. Plus with Gwen being a nosy bitch and blowing up your relationship with Julia – sorry about that. She was always nice, but what was she doing at the club?”
I stared at him for a second. “Okay, so we've move past where you think I might try to hurt you. True?”
He blushed a bit more. “Yes. I'm sorry.”
I nodded. “So, as I was going to say, I met this guy, kind of for the first time, and I had a great time with him.”
He looked back at me steadily. “That's what you wanted to say?”
Now I blushed. “Julia and I...things had cooled off. We're still friends, love each other, but...that was headed south. Not, like, angry south just...the romance had faded.” She knew it before I did; that much I didn't need to say.
He gave me an uncertain nod.
“My friend Luca – Luca Montanino. Do you remember him?”
His lips twitched as if he wanted to smile. “Yeah. Luca was sweet.”
I tilted my head from side to side. “He's a great friend. Anyway, he started pointing some things out to me and I've come to terms with being...bi, I guess.”
He tilted his head and studied my face. “Really?”
I nodded slowly, taking a breath. “I really had a good time hanging out with you. I thought the stuff you were talking about...we could have a conversation. You know? That's not always an easy thing.”
He looked down and away. “And how about me going legs up?”
I waited for him, curious why he'd be embarrassed. “Hey,” I said, trying to pitch my voice gently. He glanced up. “That was pretty fucking special.”
He opened his mouth uncertainly, then leaned back and crossed his arms. “I'm an idiot.”
I chuckled. “You don't really know me, so I get not being sure.”
He waved me off and let out a sigh. “No, it's this...series of bad choices. I'm stuck, and not showing up today would have been another one to add to the pile.”
“What do you mean? If you don't mind me asking, that is,” I asked.
He looked away for moment and a bitter smile settled on his lips. “I thought everything would be different after high school. I'd be an adult. I wouldn't have to worry about what my parents thought of me. I could go places with real live gay boys like me, instead of drooling over straight boys – like you.”
I smiled and looked down in my lap for a quick moment, then returned my gaze to his face. “Bucket list, I think you said.”
He blushed pretty hard and a nervous smile crossed his lips. “Moving right along,” he said and chuckled lightly. “Once high school ended I had this...unholy fight with my parents. Turns out I did have to worry about them – they threw me out.”
I frowned deeply. “Why?”
His eyes grew wide and he blew out a breath. “They demanded I stop being gay. They said it was time to put away kid things – like I was going to grow out of it or something – and it turned into this huge, ugly fight that ended up with me homeless.”
I leaned forward. “I'm so sorry. I can't even imagine.”
His lips drew together with emotion, but he nodded and took a breath. “After that I did a lot of things, but I felt sort of out of control. Like, I was free, but now I was working without a net. I crashed with Gwen, then got a job and we got settled with an apartment. It was good for a few months, but then...” He let out a sigh and looked away. “Have you ever met someone who doesn't treat you well, and they go on treating you poorly because you allow it? But it took you a long time to figure out that it was them and not you? Like sometimes they'd do something really nice and follow it up with all these little bullshit things that, added up, are really screwed up?”
I turned that over for a minute. “I don't think so, unless you count Luca's parents and how they treated him.” I looked at his concerned expression. “Nasty divorce.”
“Oh. I remember hearing something about that, but then I thought it was just a rumor because they are still in business, right?”
“Yeah. I guess business partners became marriage, and they took a long damn time to figure out they should have stuck with what they were good at.” I shrugged. It was history to me, but news for him.
He nodded. “Well, that brings me around to why I'm an idiot.”
I rested my chin on my hand and smiled at him. “I'm waiting.”
He shot me an amused expression. “Peter told me you just wanted to get me someplace out of the way and...” He hesitated. “He said a bunch of things, but more just made implications.”
I grunted. “That's funny. He was pretty descriptive in trying to turn me away from you.”
He frowned. “Like what?”
I widened my eyes and took a deep breath. “Kind of said he's had sex with you so many times-”
“Oh, fuck him! I never slept with him – I swear to God, Ryan!” he burst out and put a hand to his forehead. “That fucking snake!”
“Hey, hey,” I said, trying to calm him. “I didn't believe him.”
He glanced at me and I was alarmed to see his eyes were wet. “I just...he said...God, I'm so stupid.”
“Benji, look, I'm not totally sure what's up here, but I wish you'd quit putting yourself down. I didn't spend the whole night with an idiot. Guy was smart, he's got ambitions. I liked him. A lot.”
He rubbed his eyes quickly and looked away from me. “I'm sorry. This whole thing – my life – seems like a mess.” He stood up. “I should go.”
I stood as well. “I wish you wouldn't.”
He looked around uncomfortably and I realized people were noticing us.
“Can we just go outside, then?” he begged.
“Yeah, of course,” I said and touched his back and shoulder lightly as I guided him to the door. Once on the sidewalk I kept up subtly guiding him to the crosswalk and to the other side of the street. He was breathing in a way that suggested to me he was trying to get control of his emotions. He seemed to become more aware when we started walking on the grass of the park.
“I'm sorry. Again. I just...I'm stressed out. This is stressing me.” He sighed and quietly said, “I hate this.”
“It's cool,” I told him, calming my tone. “Shit gets overwhelming sometimes. All good, Benji. I got you.”
“Where are we?” he asked, slowing his pace and changing the subject.
“This park just got renovated,” I said to him. He looked around as we walked at a sedate pace. There were manicured shrubs and a box hedge to provide a green wall against the street and the noise of traffic. I was thinking about the scene in the café. It seems like Benji'd had a hard time since graduation. I knew things would be hard with my folks when I told them about not wanting to be a doctor, but I couldn't picture being thrown out like that.
He took a deep breath and his shoulders relaxed a bit. He glanced at my hand resting on his shoulder and blushed. I flushed and lifted my hand.
“This place...it's really peaceful,” Benji said.
“It reminds me a little of those Italian gardens you like so much,” I told him.
He looked at me with an expression of mild surprise. “I guess you really did listen to what I was talking about.”
I nodded. “That and you have a ton of them on your Insta page.”
He pulled his lips into a smile. “You've been looking at my pictures?”
I shrugged and smiled. “Wanted to see what I could learn.”
He cleared his throat and a pleased expression settled on his face. “And did you learn anything?”
“That I wanted to know more,” I said, feeling bold yet practical. I touched his forearm and brought him to a stop. “I also noticed that...you looked different at the end of graduation – free. And your pictures now...not so much.”
He nodded his head sadly. “Yeah. That's perceptive,” he said quietly. He toed off his sneakers and picked them up so he could walk barefoot on the grass. I fell in beside him as he strolled sedately, sniffing away the last of his upset. At last he spoke.
“After Gwen and I got the apartment I went a little bit crazy. Hook-up apps. Clubbing.” He glanced at me and blushed. “Had a little scare, got checked out – I'm clean.”
I nodded, absorbing that he had a lot more experience that I did – both with being gay and sexual experience. Julia and I had done it a few times, but not with any regularity and not for a long, long time. We'd first just wanted to kind of get it over with, because everyone was talking about it and it was this big mystery. I'd seen plenty of porn, but you could only take that so far. I pulled myself back to the present.
“So after that experience I wanted to...refocus. I'd had fun, but now I had an appreciation that I was playing with fire.” He sighed lightly. “So I went to the club one night on my own, and I met Peter and his group. I ignored some of their snark because I wanted to fit in somewhere and stop doing the things I was doing.” He looked at me. “Like, I needed something to replace it, you understand?”
He nodded. “What I didn't realize, not until it was much later and I couldn't figure out how to get myself out of it, was that they were this...cult, practically. They wear certain things – Peter is always telling other people what to wear, how to act and all that. At first it was annoying, but I could tolerate it. I even bought into it a little – and then a lot.”
“What do you mean?”
He rested his fingertips on the bridge of his nose. “I've always been a little overweight-”
“Uh, what?” I asked, chuckling.
He looked at me and frowned. “It's true. Peter kept reminding me I needed to – hey! Stop laughing!”
I was trying to hold it in, but snorting. It made him start to chuckle while telling me to stop, which made me laugh harder. We went back and forth like that with him telling me to stop while laughing at my inability to stop laughing. What made it crazier was that I had to tell him why it was so funny, which was embarrassing, yet truthful. How could he honestly look at himself and call what he saw fat? Or even less than perfect?
He bumped me with his shoulder which pushed me a little off balance. “Why are you laughing?” His tone was teasing, as if he were enjoying this. Hell, I sure was.
“Well, I-” I chortled and he grinned at me. “I just can't believe what you're saying! I mean, who'd believe you're fat at all?”
His expression clouded. “I've always been a little overweight.”
I tilted my head. “Says who?” I shook my head. “Wait, let me...this is going to sound funny, okay? But it's true.”
He raised an eyebrow at me and waited.
“I've seen you naked.” I swallowed. “There is nothing wrong with your body.”
His face went red and he smiled widely. “Well. It's nicer than what Peter says about me.”
“Peter can get fucked,” I said and grunted. “He was a real asshole.”
Benji touched my arm. “I'm serious. I never slept with him.”
I hesitated and then shrugged. “Even if you did, it's your life. You get to make your own mistakes, right?”
He shook his head. “No. This is important. I didn't sleep with him. I made some bad choices, but not that one.”
I smiled at him. “I believe you, if that's what you're worried about.”
He paused. “Well. Yeah.” He looked at me hard and then said, “He lied about both of us. To each of us. I mean. Right?”
Oh. This was about more than who he'd chosen to sleep with, more about judging his character. “Of course. I understand.”
He waited a beat and nodded. “Okay.”
I suddenly felt self-conscious. I was just standing there looking at Benji and not really sure what to do or say next. I needed to move this along.
“So. You l-love Italy, you want to be a teacher and you can dance,” I said.
He cocked his head to one side. “I can't really dance. I take on all kinds of odd jobs – house sitting, pet sitting, dog walking – whatever. But with dancing I get tips, and it's a nice addition to what I make at my day job.”
“And that is?” I asked as we turned to walk slowly through the park.
“I don't know if you remember because you weren't really awake – and Gwen was being a pain – but I have to wear a suit to the bank,” he said. “Have to get that eight hundred a month for rent!”
“Oh. So conservative during the day and wild man at night, huh?” I teased and he laughed. “By the way, yes, you can dance. Kept my attention.”
“Oh yeah?” he asked, blushing and smiling. “What about you? You were the big brain that was going to medical school and minored in basketball.”
I made a half-grimace, half-smile at him. “Well, according to Luca, I'm reinventing myself.”
I nodded. “Flamed out at college.”
“No!” he gasped, sounding quite sad.
“Yep,” I said with a nod. “Julia and I...that's over, obviously. Then there is school this fall.”
“Going for pre-med stuff? Will you go away?”
I shook my head. “Changing my major completely. I like mechanics. I think I want to do that.”
“So you'll be a car doctor then,” he said with a smile.
I laughed. “Yeah. Hope my folks see it the same way.”
“Oh, they don't know?” he asked, concerned.
“Not yet. Real soon, though.”
He looked at me thoughtfully. “I guess that is a lot of change since graduation.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Luca says I'm tearing down my old life to build what I want. Maybe once I got away from my parents and the constant 'Doctor Owens' crap....”
“Yeah. Parental expectations are a bitch,” he said ruefully.
I nodded glumly. “Of course, there's also that other thing I'm changing. Accepting.”
He cocked his head at me.
He smiled, something shy and perfectly...Benji. “I admit I was pretty shocked you were...receptive to me the other night.” He looked up at me. “I used to admire how hard you worked in class. I may have watched a few basketball games,” he said with a blush. “But you were never one of those guys that was stuck up.”
“I didn't have time!” I said with a laugh. “I'd have had to schedule it between tutors!”
He chuckled and shook his head. We walked around the park slowly, sometimes sitting on available benches, sometimes standing in place, but we never stopped talking to each other. We eventually happened on a small pond with a very large rock beside it. We climbed up and sat beside each other and looked down at the dark water.
“So this is nice,” he said. He glanced up at me. “What now? Did you get whatever answer you wanted from me?”
I frowned. “You're not dumb, so why are you saying that like I just had to ask you some questions? I said-”
“That you wanted to know more about me. And you do. Right?”
“So I'm...I had a really good time with you. Today. And I guess I'm just wondering...what now?”
I turned that over in my head. I'd really enjoyed talking with him, too. So what did I have in mind? More? Yes, more of this. More of him. More time. More walks. More laughing.
“Honestly? You. This,” I said, shaking a finger back and forth to indicate us. “This feels good. Right.”
He looked at me cautiously. “You're kind of new to the whole...being with a guy thing. I'm out. I mean way out. I don't want to go back.”
I nodded. “I wouldn't ask you to. Luca and Julia know. Obviously Luca's girl, Lilly, and Jace. I'm not sure how I'm going to handle my folks, but I think my first stop is my little sister, because she thinks if I'm gay and date you, that makes her popular.”
“Excuse – what?” he asked, laughing.
I threw my hands up. “School girls.”
His eyes went wide and he laughed harder. His laughter slowed and turned into a sweet smile, and then he leaned forward. Aww, yeah. We worked a series of small kisses, and it was sweet. Not too much, not making a scene, but low-key sexy and fun.
He leaned back and grinned at me. I tried to think of something smooth to say and failed completely. He let out a sigh. “Wow. So this is a thing between us, huh?”
“Works for me,” I said. I wanted something to hold this moment still, to be able to see him like this whenever I wanted. Well, that's why smart people invented the camera. “Hold still. I want a picture.”
“I have tons online,” he said, but stayed where he was as I climbed down and pulled my phone out.
“Your pictures lately stink,” I said plainly as I opened the camera app.
“Oh really?” he asked, unimpressed.
“Yes. Although my sister thinks you have game – but school girl, remember?”
He laughed and flipped me off. I grinned back as I held my phone up to take the picture. He moved his hand up to his hair and I frowned.
“No. Not one of those fuckboy pictures,” I said.
“What?” he asked with a frown.
I took a few steps toward him. “You hang out with those guys – Peter's people. Fuckboys. They're fake, they're liars, and you're not happy when you act like them. Your pictures prove it.”
We looked at each other, gazes locked. “So what is it you want from me then?” he asked softly, uncertainly.
I let out a slow breath. “A real picture of you. Benji without the fuckboy influence.”
He frowned a little, then smiled. “You like that word. Stop saying it.”
I lowered my chin a little and looked up at him, then bit my lower lip just a bit. I think you could have taken it as an 'aw shucks, been caught' kind of look, but I suppose if you were thinking sexually it could have been hot.
“Fine. We'll do it your way,” he said, rolling his eyes for emphasis. “What do you want me to do?”
“Look at a part of the park you like. Just...let your eyes wander.”
“I'd like to keep them in my head,” he said, but did as I'd asked.
I got lucky. I caught him just as he reached up to swipe at a bug on his neck. The picture looks a lot cooler without knowing that's why his hand is on his neck. I posted it to my feed, tagging him in.
RJO01: @Benjicomehome found a quiet place
Well, I guess I'd have to say something to my sister soon.