“Let me see! What are you doing?” he asked with happy suspicion. He stood beside me as I showed him the picture and he raised an eyebrow at me. “Hey. Not bad, Car Doctor Owens. Maybe you should be a photographer.”
“Yeah? Can I do your boudoir set?”
“Oh. I don't know,” he said, teasing. He pulled his phone out and his mouth dropped open. “Jesus! It's after five?”
Glancing at my phone I saw it was indeed past five – almost five-thirty. “Wow. I guess time got away from us.”
“Oh, God!” he said with a groan. “We are such a cliché!”
“What?” I asked, bubbling with laughter at his reaction.
“We totally are!” he said, laughing but sounding as if he were protesting all in one. “We had such a good time we lost track of the day? I mean come on!”
I smiled and shook my head at him.
The skin around his eyes crinkled and he pursed his lips. “I hate to say this, but I have to go. I left a sauce on the stove to simmer and I have to pick up some pasta at the store on the way home.” He paused and then took on a considering expression. “Unless you like the idea of dinner. With me.”
I looked him over, feet up to his face and smiled. “First date and you're making me dinner? Wow. I call that a win.”
He stared at me. “Oh. My God. This was a date? I practically showed up in my 'go to the market' clothes. That doesn't seem like a date.”
I moved up to him and hesitated only a moment before placing my hands on his hips. “A date to the market can be fun, if we do it together.”
“Oh, come on!” he said with a giggle. “You sound like a cheap romance novel!”
“Your eyes, your lips!” I said, affecting a fake French-ish accent. “I cannot resist! Muah! Muah! Muah!” I smacked my lips together in exaggerated kisses, and he laughed and twisted in my arms.
“Let me go, Goober! I have to put my shoes back on!” he said happily. Moments later we were in my car, and he told me how to find the store he preferred to shop in. We sang along a bit to the radio, then stopped to get the pasta. He gave me a quick once-over and picked up eggs before we paid and headed to his apartment.
His place was a dump. I mean it was clean, but a dump. I guess it didn't really register that well the night we hooked up, but the building was run down, and the apartment was definitely dated. Things like, the furniture were obviously old – probably second-hand. Yet...it smelled good. I felt weird. I felt better because he was here, but I wasn't a big fan of such a shabby living space.
“I turned up the sauce – just had it warming,” he said as he walked back from the small kitchen area. “Has to simmer for about another forty minutes or so.”
“Oh. Okay,” I said with a nod. He glanced behind him and I followed his gaze. His couch. I followed him over and we sat close together. He leaned forward, folding himself into me, and I held him.
“So. Do you have any contact with your parents?” I asked quietly.
“Not much. They're in this...stupid mental space where they think I'm gay just to aggravate them. Like, they thought I'd grow out of it or something,” he said and shrugged. “They keep telling me as soon as I stop they'll pay for college and stuff.”
I wondered for a minute if I'd be in a similar situation, considering I wouldn't be studying what my parents had dreamed of for so long. I didn't hold the thought. Instead I focused on holding Benji, feeling his warmth and inhaling his scent. He snuggled tighter to me and sighed. I started to chuckle.
“What?” he asked, trying to pull his head back, but I held him close.
“I was just thinking about how I was enjoying holding you and all, and then I remembered what you said about being a cheap romance novel.”
He snorted and snuggled in again. “I like those novels.”
“Yeah,” I said with affection. “So are you an only child?”
“Nope. Last of six. My sibs all live at least an hour away – I don't think they get along that well with my parents either.”
“That's weird. Maybe it's them then, right?” I asked.
“Well, duh. Can't be me, right?” he asked, chuckling. We talked a little more, but of nothing in particular.
The door leading out of the apartment opened, and Gwen stepped in, glanced at us and opened her mouth – and froze for a moment. Her eyes got larger and her jaw snapped closed. “Um, hi. Um, Ryan.”
“Let's check on the sauce,” Benji suggested. “Are you hungry, Gwen? Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes.”
She looked at Benji with a questioning expression and then recovered jovially. “Yeah! I'm starving, actually. I had to work through my break – are you not working tonight?” she asked while she hung her purse from a hook by the door and worked to take off her boots. Before he could answer she prattled on. “That creepy supervisor was down on the floor again, and I swear he was paying way – way! - too much attention to that new girl. I'm not sure anyone has warned her yet, you know?”
“Why does he still work there?” I asked.
“Related to the owner,” Benji supplied as he stood up. I joined him as he walked to the kitchen area.
“Yeah. A cousin or something. I think the owner thinks he's trying to help the guy out, but no one else will hire the jerk,” Gwen said. “Ugh, so glad this day is over.”
“And no, by the way,” Benji said, looking at Gwen. “No dancing tonight.”
Gwen looked at me. “That because of you?”
I wasn't sure if she thought I was telling him not to or if he preferred my company, so I just looked toward him. “I don't know. Is it because of me?”
“Damn right it's because of you,” he grumbled, smiling as he said it.
I looked back at Gwen. “The first thing in this relationship that's officially my fault.”
“Relationship?” Gwen asked, jaw dropping again. “I mean. Really?”
“Apparently,” he said as he pulled a pot out from a lower cabinet.
“Want me to get water on?” I asked, reaching for the pot.
He smiled and handed it over to me. I put water in the pot for the pasta, salted it and started the burner. He added a few drops of olive oil to the water and soon we were on our way to making dinner together. Gwen disappeared into her room and emerged in more casual clothes. She tried to be subtle about Julia, asking how she was doing, alluding to our breakup. I was a little sensitive about it, considering Julia felt Gwen was trying to get under her skin, but I kept my cool.
“She's fine,” I said. “She went to Nirvana with me the other night.”
I nodded. “Yeah, we'd broken up the previous week. She was out of town, but we're still really close.” Julia's preferred order of events rolled off my tongue pretty well, I thought.
“Um. Wow,” she said, and her expression matched her tone. “So. Ben. Are you totally done with dancing? Because rent-”
“No. I know,” he said quickly. I realized that there were financial issues that Benji didn't want to talk about. At this point it wasn't any of my business, but later might be a different story.
“So what do you do for work, Gwen?” I asked, continuing my attempt to be civil.
“Oh, I work as a hostess at Romanov's,” she said. Romanov's was a local icon for good food and was usually quite busy. “I won't wear the little skirt to be a waitress – I mean with my big ass – you get it?” she asked, laughing.
“Sounds like a shitty metric of how you do your job or what you qualify for,” I said cautiously.
“It totally is, believe me,” she said, “but some girls share tips with me because I steer better paying customers to their tables.” She grinned. “I still get mine.”
Benji announced it was time to eat, so we took up positions in the little sitting area and Gwen put on some TV series they were watching and we ate a pretty damn good meal. I made sure to let Benji know, and he was pleased but tried to be modest. After dinner we settled in on the couch and Benji curled into me. I glanced at my phone from time to time, with my father's rules in the back of my head, but I was very content to be where I was.
I fielded a few texts from Luca, but not very many because he was going out with Lilly. I sent a cryptic message to my sister about us needing to talk and she got snippy; I guess she'd seen my pic of Benji from the park and made a few – correct – assumptions. I don't understand how people think they deserve to know things about you, especially when you haven't finished understanding them yourself.
The show they were watching was kind of boring – I forget what it was – and with my full belly and Benji warmly curled into my side and the sweet smell of his hair I soon found that it was hard to keep my eyes open.
Eventually I stopped trying to fight it and drifted into a nap. I don't think I dreamed, nothing that I remembered anyway, but when I woke up it was to Benji standing up.
“What time is it?” I asked, adding in a large yawn. I felt pleasantly tired in all my muscles.
He stretched in front of me and his shirt rode up a little, flashing some skin. “Just after eleven,” he said. “I was going to serve up a little ice cream. Want some?”
“Sure,” I said and stretched as well. We took turns using the bathroom and I asked where Gwen was.
“She has opening shift tomorrow, so she decided to cut it short.”
“So...what were you doing then? You didn't watch ahead on her, did you?” I asked, teasing.
“Nah,” he said, chuckling. “I was just reading on my phone and relaxing on my pillow.”
“Huh? Oh, me?” I asked, realization hitting my not-quite-awake brain. I smiled at his little...term of endearment.
“Yeah. You're pretty comfy,” he said with a secretive smile.
“Good to know I'm useful,” I replied. He scooped up two bowls of rocky road and we returned to the couch, sitting at opposite ends but turned toward each other.
“So. Dancing is paying the rent?” I tried to keep my tone neutral, but wasn't sure if I'd succeeded.
He nodded, spooned some ice cream into his mouth and then said, “It does. Rent isn't cheap, even worse when you're trying to save for school.”
I nodded, and looked down as I dipped my spoon intro the bowl.
“Why? Does that bother you?”
I put the spoonful in my mouth and thought for a minute. “I liked watching you dance. You're good at it.” I looked up at him. “But people aren't there to actually appreciate your dancing. They're staring at your skin, and I admit it makes me a little...jealous. It's not just...appreciating that you look good. It's people like Peter. They think they know you – actually, no. They don't care if they know you, as long as they get to control you.”
“Well, he doesn't. Control me.”
I looked at him solemnly. “He looks at you like that. He thinks it makes you vulnerable. Then he realizes he wants to control you.” I wasn't sure where this was coming from, but the truth of it – the logic – rang true. “It's why he tried to slut-shame you to me, implying how used up you were sexually and how often he'd had you.”
“But I told you-” he protested and I nodded, cutting him off.
“But what if I hadn't given you that chance?” I asked, studying his face. “What if his words had made me reconsider approaching you? Who else has he sent away from you that you might have been happy with?”
He pursed his lips and gave me a considering look. “I see what you mean. But I'm going to go with, I think he did me a favor, because I'm happy now. And if someone was willing to swerve me because he thought there was a chance I'd slept with a jerk or that I was too slutty for their tastes or whatever, then he weeded them out. He opened the door for you, who wouldn't listen to him.”
I ran my tongue across the top of my mouth. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“Besides, it pays. You'd be surprised how much this shit hole costs, and school? Don't get me started.”
“What about grants?”
“Parents make too much. I have to have an address other than theirs for something stupid like two years,” he said and sighed. “Believe me, I want to go to school, and I've looked at it pretty hard, I think.”
I bobbed my head and finished up my ice cream. “I just want good things for you,” I said quietly. “I hope you don't feel judged.”
“I've judged myself a lot, Ryan,” he said with a chuckle. “You've seen a little of my...neurosis, I guess. You have an understanding of my situation. I guess I'll just have to wait and see how that works over time. I have to dance, right now. It pays better than a part time job. If something comes up, I'll look at it but....”
I nodded. “In the meantime I need to be at the club to protect my boyfriend from people who think they can have him because he dances.” I said it with a grim tone and looked at him firmly, but his look of shock set me to laughing, followed by his own.
“Okay,” he said with a grin. “You can come protect me.”
I smiled at him. We put our bowls in the sink, and then I had a moment of indecision. I had perhaps twenty minutes to get home before dad's curfew, but I likely wouldn't make it. I didn't want to invite myself to stay, either.
“I think I have an extra toothbrush, but then your tongue has been in my mouth, so you can use mine I guess – even though it sounds kind of gross.”
I tilted my head. “Does my breath stink? Is that your subtle way of telling me?”
He grinned. “I like to brush before bed. I assume you do, too, if you want a goodnight kiss.”
To make sure I got the implication I asked, “So you want me to brush my teeth to get a kiss before I go home?”
He shot me a perplexed expression. “I bought eggs.”
I shrugged and chuckled at him. “So?”
He walked up close to me and said, “I got them so I can make you breakfast. You know...after you wake up here in the morning.”
“Ohhh,” I said, trying to stay cool and pretend like I'd known all along. “What if I'm expected at home?”
“You have a phone and free will, Ryan,” he said and chuckled. “I'm going to brush my teeth.” He locked his gaze to mine as he turned, looking at me briefly over his shoulder. I'm not stupid – I followed him to the bathroom. I don't know why it's gross to use someone else's toothbrush, but it is. Logically it shouldn't be. Whatever.
We retreated to his room. As a courtesy I sent a text to my dad that I wouldn't be home before I turned the phone off to conserve its battery. As I set the phone down excitement raced through me and I felt more awake; I was going to bed with Benji. It almost didn't matter that the mattress was on the floor or that his room was shabby – although it was majorly squared away. Like museum quality organized – something I hadn't cared about, and couldn't care less about now. When I turned to find him with his shirt off, I forgot about his room.
He swallowed and pushed his jeans down, his underwear barely hanging on at his hips. My excitement grew at seeing so much of him exposed. His crossing the room toward me was sexy as hell, and it all went up to eleven when he pushed my shirt up and ran his fingers across my stomach and chest, his hand between my flesh and the fabric.
Then he was kissing me, and my shirt was gone. I was trying to feel him everywhere at once – the energy had changed from our last time together. Before it was slower; this felt more like a need, a hunger. Soon the last threads of our clothes were gone and we descended to his mattress, kissing fervently, hands caressing as if the touch were required to sustain life.
I'd never done a sixty-nine. I'd received blow-jobs, and once I'd returned the favor to Julia, but I'd never taken the next step. At first I was confused when Benji spun around on the bed, but then he engulfed me and I stopped thinking for a minute or three. Then he rolled into me, his erection pushing against my chin and sliding off, leaving a warm trail across my skin.
It was much like our dancing earlier in the week as I again tried to mirror him. Where his tongue went on me, I went on him. When he tried to swallow me whole, I copied, coughing for my trouble. The duality was overwhelming at first, feeling him on me – warm and slick, his tongue probing and then molding itself to my hardness – and his own erection in my mouth and the sweet taste of his excitement leaking from him. I was surprised how much squirming resulted from pressing my tongue to his taint, and his to mine. The feeling of both giving and receiving at the same time was a completely new experience, one I wholly approved of. But like all things, it couldn't last forever.
He turned and climbed his way up my body, both of us breathing heavily, and he kissed me with an intensity I struggle to make clear. I continued our matching game and tried to give as good as I got. He rolled to his side and pressed our foreheads together, both of us breathless.
He let out a short, sharp laugh. “You're so incredible.”
“You're not bad yourself,” I said, not able to think of anything better. I don't think Julia and I ever complimented each other after sex. But I didn't want to think about that; I wanted to focus on Benji. He pushed my shoulder and I rolled to my back. He rested his head on my shoulder and his hand on my chest.
“Promise me something,” he said, his tone a soft statement. “Promise me this – this right now, this today we had – is real. Even if nothing else ends up being real, tell me this was.”
“Why would you-”
I curled my arm behind him, pulling him to my side. “I promise. Today was real.”
His fingertips tightened on my pec and he kissed my chest. There were no more words, but I stayed awake for a good while thinking about what he’d said. Today I'd felt alive – wasn't that real? Had someone played Benji so that he was gun shy about relationships? I wasn't sure how long I could go without being in a relationship; I was so used to it. I was comfortable with Benji. My parents...that made me uncomfortable. I wasn't worried about being around my friends or even Julia at this stage – she'd been better than I deserved. As his breathing steadied out I turned my head and kissed his hair and hoped I could make this real for good for us both.