Conversations 4

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle


Mattei: Rainy Days and Mondays

I miss summer.

Summer days bring sleeping late and hot breakfast with Papa Tom. Summer is swimming and games at the park. Summer is talking to Averi during the day and then sharing secrets with Nik in the dark. Summer goes by too fast; you can't completely enjoy summer until it's autumn and leaves are changing colors, and the temperature means you can't go outside in just shorts anymore – autumn makes your nipples stand up for all the wrong reasons.

Summer ending also means school begins again – and Nik is back to being a huge pain in the ass. He is so much worse than Papas with checking about homework, making sure I get to school on time, yelling at me for smoking. A man needs at least one vice!

But visa is ending. Things were set up for eighteen months, and I am scared. Nik said he would do everything in his power to keep me here, and it is amazing that my friend from the orphanage has so much love that it almost becomes power enough to make two countries cooperate.

I finished patting my hair dry and stood up from my bed – the bed I was using in their home that wasn't really mine – and looked in a mirror that reflected a man with a future he had no control over. I wished Nik was here now, but he went to see his boyfriend, Luke. Immediately after I admonished myself. Nik has done so much. He does not need to hear me cry, again, that I may have to go back to Romania. I am afraid to ask Papas what is happening. The more I hear nothing of progress, the more afraid I become.

I stood up and tossed my towel behind me and looked at myself in the mirror. My skin was tanned from the sun, except for my waist down to about the middle of my thigh. It was kind of fascinating to see, the change in skin color. The tan felt like it was me – myself as I am in the United States. Here I am Mat. Mat with the cute accent. Mat with a big family who can use his phone to call for help from a dozen people. Mat with a brother by choosing who cares for him so much that I could be brought literally halfway around the world.

I ran my fingers down my stomach to the pale skin of my hip. This pale section...this is the hidden me. The Romanian me. There I am Mattei, orphan and whore.

I move my hand up my stomach, noting the flat planes I have worked for this past year, running with the boys Nik calls family and exercising to stave off my fears and moments when I am lonely inside, even when not actually alone. Pecs that are larger, but not like Nate. We do look similar, but as the year has gone by, it's become more obvious we are different. I am not as tall, not as strong and not anywhere near as athletic. I moved my hand to my face, pushing my chin to one side to look at my profile, then running my hand back down to my waist to the hair above my manhood.

My body is attractive. Sexy. I have a good penis. I am told I have a very nice ass.

And I hate it. I hate all of it.

As I look from my feet up my body, I feel a beast in my belly uncurl. Fear. Loathing. In Romania, men see me like this. They want to possess me for a short time, but never from love. Never with a kind hand. Some may think they are kind, but I am just a pretty piece of furniture that comes with convenient places to put your hard cock.

Even Nik likes my body, or he did. I'm not sure those kinds of things ever really go away, not completely. The only reason he wouldn't sleep with me now is because Papas said no. I looked down and felt shame creep through my gut. Nik is not like that. Nik does not sleep with me because of Papas, yes, but more because Nik wants me to stay and be his brother. But he has a brother he loves, and more family than any one person could need. What use can I be?

I dress and brush my teeth, but the feelings in my stomach churn, making me feel like I could throw up. Again I wish that Nik were home. He would know what to say, how to help me find balance. I wonder about calling Averi, but it seems like too much to say. What will she think when I say grown men have fucked me? What would she think that I used to take payment in food to spread my legs and grit my teeth as men forced their cock into me? That they would shove their dick so far into my mouth I'd gag and my nose would run everywhere – and that the men who did that enjoyed seeing me choke and the snot on my face.

Days like this I usually need Nik; he is the only one that knows the details. I confessed some to Papas, most shamefully. I see how they feel sorry for what I did, but I was not forced. It was a trade. A trade I wasn't happy with, but I got what I needed. But some days that doesn't feel like enough, like I should have been stronger. I sometimes wonder if having done some things with Nik had led me to a point where going with men had been easier than it would have otherwise.

Hard to tell. A man will do much when he is hungry, like any other animal.

I head out into the house, quiet for a Monday – a national holiday. Papa Kevin took Nik to see Luke, so just Papa Tom is home. He has a big project for work and has been typing on his computer a lot, so I try to be quiet as I go into the kitchen. As I enter the room, though, Papa Tom looks up from his computer and smiles at me.

“Good morning, Mat. Decided to get up, huh?”

I try to return his smile. “I am needing much sleep. Too much thinking with the school and the homework, it makes my brain full.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, there are definitely those days.”

I grabbed a bowl from the cabinet and my hand...I don't know. I got clumsy, I guess. I dropped the bowl, and it fell to the floor, breaking into pieces. The sound of the bowl breaking triggered something inside me, maybe something close to the surface with the way I was feeling that morning. It's the only thinking I can think of as for why I suddenly felt afraid and started to cry.

“Hey, hey – are you okay, Mat? Are you hurt?” Papa Tom asked, coming to my side. I clutched the edge of the sink and tensed my body at his touch. “It's okay,” he said calmly, rubbing my back.

“I. I am s-sorry.”

“It was my favorite bowl, too,” he said with a chuckle.

I looked at him with wide eyes. “Is true?”

He shook his head with a smile. “No. It was a joke, Mat. I bought inexpensive bowls when we first got kids. If I want to keep something, I don't let little boys near it.”

I gave him a weak smile. “I am not little boy.”

“Sometimes life makes us feel small. Sometimes we are all little again, and things scare us or hurt us like they did when we were little.”

I looked down to the bowl. “Yes. Is true.”

“I know. Why don't we make a hot breakfast together? How does that sound?”

Sensing he was treating me like a small child, I bristled. “You do not need to treat me like a child. It was just a bowl.”

His smile made me feel silly. “There are always times when it's nice to be cared for like we were a loved child, Mat. Some days curling up on the couch with a blanket and a good book are as close as you can get as an adult, so don't knock it while you can still get it, kid.”

I frowned lightly. “I am being...ungrateful.”

He leaned his head to one side. “I think you have stuff on your mind, maybe.” His expression shifted to one of concern. “I know life has been hard for you for a long time, Mat. Maybe you'll never really trust adults or men. All I can do is try to be aware when you look like you're going through something and remind you that you're not alone. I know you'd probably share whatever's on your mind with Nik, but I love you, too. I'm here for you.”

Far from comforting me, his words made me feel worse about myself for not even considering trying to talk to him about what was lurking in my mind that morning. I didn't want to be more trouble. “You are not working?” I asked, about to say I didn't want to trouble him.

“I need a break!” he said with a laugh. “This project – this customer – is killing me!” He went to the desk and closed his laptop and then grabbed a broom and dustpan from the closet.

“I clean,” I said, taking them from him.

“Okay. I'll get some stuff from the fridge,” he said. I swept up, and he brought out eggs and containers of items he'd cut up previously to save time.

I swept up the shards of broken glass and dumped them in the trash before returning the cleaning items to their storage place. I joined Papa Tom at the counter, and he and I fell into a comforting routine of cooking side-by-side. I got the mixing bowl down, and he handed me eggs to crack and whisk in the bowl while he heated the pan and melted butter inside. I'd pour the beaten eggs in the pan, and he would add ingredients. Before long we sat down at the little table on the back patio with coffee and toast to round out our meal.

“You're turning into a good cook, Mat,” Papa Tom said, lifting a bite of food in salute before eating.

“I never think about cooking before,” I said. “But it makes me feel good to do something, to move and understand what I am doing.”

Small drops of rain began to tap the metal awning overhead, just the very first hesitant drops, as if the clouds were trying to decide if they should release their tears or not.

“I always liked cooking,” Papa Tom said. “As a kid my family was poor, and we ate what we could afford. My parents would share the load in the house as far as maintaining things, and they would find neat ways to make ordinary things taste new or different, so we didn't get bored. I always liked that they made that effort – or at least I appreciated it as I got older – and was surprised to find more people didn't make the effort to enjoy their food. I mean, we have to eat, and what we eat determines some of how healthy we are, so it makes sense to eat well. To enjoy something you have to do.”

“I like this idea,” I said with a nod of my head. “I like to eat. I think this is because I didn't have so much to eat when I was little.”

“Probably very true, but now that you have enough to eat your challenge will be not to eat too much!”

I waved my fork. “No such thing, Papa Tom. You are trying to tease, but I am not falling for your tricks!”

He chuckled, and I smiled at him, probably my first smile of the day.

“Well, the clear solution is, you need to learn to cook for others. That way if you're cooking, you're not eating everything.”

His words brought forth some of what I'd been thinking about – what my future may be and how I may not have the option to be taught how to cook or anything else. You can't learn a trade if you're on your back being fucked, not unless your goal is to get fucked again.

“Papa,” I said quietly, surprised to have spoken but now feeling like I was committed to say something.


“Nothing.” I shook my head.

It was quiet for a moment, and then Papa Tom said, “Maybe we can go to the store and pick stuff out for dinner? Maybe you'd like to learn to cook something new?”

I realized he was doing it again – trying to adapt to me. Treating me like a child...but maybe not. Maybe he was letting me off the hook. I looked up at him, and he sipped from his cup and gave me a small smile. It wasn't a happy smile. I think maybe it was a sad smile.

“Are you sad, Papa?” I asked, again a little surprised my mouth decided to pass on what my brain was saying without me actually deciding to do that.

His smile lost any humor. “Maybe a little.” He lifted his cup and held it with both hands. “It's really tough to be a papa sometimes, Mat. Every kid we've had in this house is different – personality, what they are good at, what they need help with. Sometimes it's tough just to get some people to ask for help. Sometimes people feel like it makes them weak to not know everything, to not be able to figure everything out on their own.” He sipped from his cup. “So as papas it's our job – a job we love – to try and find ways to help our kids where they will let us, to find ways to open doors for them so they can see new and better ways to do things. So they can feel better about who they are.”

I thought about that for a moment. I'd never thought about what it must be like to be a papa. I think if I had children I'd be a good papa, but then...what if I didn't know what to do? Who would I ask? Aren't you supposed to know what to do when you're a papa?

“I think,” I said slowly, “you and Papa Kevin seem to know what you're doing.”

“I appreciate that,” he said, smiling enough that his eyes crinkled – more of a real smile. “But it's not really true. We've had our successes, of course. We try to be there for our kids when they need us, even when they think they are too big to need us or too old. Sasha and Bobby were very, very different kids. They have turned into very different, but wonderful people. Nik has had to go through so much, some of it because of how he thought life worked because of the things that happened to him when he was little. Now he's learning so much, and I'm excited to see who he's going to become.”

I understood what he was saying. Or maybe I didn't and just thought I did. Maybe he wanted me to talk to him, but maybe he was also letting me know their children were a success, and there was no place for me, one who was too damaged.

“You remind me a little bit of Nik when he first got here,” Papa said, and I looked back up at him.


“He didn't trust us to be good papas. He so badly wanted to be with Sasha, but he didn't know him; he was in love with the idea of Sasha. That Sasha had made it in life and things would change just because of Sasha. Change always comes from within. He looked for love in the wrong places; he didn't know the difference between sex and love. I'm encouraged with this relationship he has with Luke. It seems healthier than his previous tries. It shows growth.”

I frowned as I tried to figure out what that meant in terms of how I remind him of Nik. “I'm not sure I understand,” I admitted.

The rain picked up a bit, sending down a steady stream of light rain. Not a storm, but something the plants would enjoy.

“You were lucky, when you got here,” Papa said. “You had Nik, someone you knew loved you and who spoke your language – literally and figuratively.”

I frowned again. “I still don't understand. You mean Romanian?”

“That, and he knew what it was to lose his family. To be orphaned and to find new family – you. To have you taken from him hurt tremendously. It hurt so much that even when he was okay again, when he had many, many people around who loved him and he loved them back, even with all his new family, his heart still ached for the family he'd lost.”

“His parents? He didn't talk about them very much,” I said.

“No, silly. He missed you.” Papa Tom smiled. “You've given him a new perspective and a new purpose. He wants to succeed more than ever, but now he has someone to share that with. Someone who understands how hard life can be.”

I looked away and watched the rain sprinkle the yard with life. “I do not think that is how he sees me.”

“Oh? Well, I guess you could be right. How do you think he sees you?”

I shook my head. “It is...complicated.”

“No doubt. Most relationships are.”

I looked down at my coffee cup and lifted the cold liquid to my lips, not drinking it. Cold coffee in a cup is just disgusting. Setting the cup down I looked at Papa Tom. “Nik is...he is good person. He is caring, and his heart is too big for the world. People will try to hurt him. He doesn't know what people are really like.”

Papa tilted his head from side to side. “Yes and no,” he said. “I can prove it. The people you met in Romania – the tourists – have you met people like that here?”

I frowned. “No. But pedophiles are everywhere.”

“That's a sad truth,” Papa agreed. “But there are conditions that allow people like that to victimize others. Situations like not having families to look out for their young ones. Economic situations like being an orphan with too little to eat or in a poor family with too many mouths to feed and too few dollars to buy food. Nik doesn't have to deal with the things you did, but he understands them in a way Papa Kevin and I never really will. My family was poor, but we weren't poor like that. We had parents that stayed with us and cared for us. If my parents had died like Nik's did, my story could have been very different – maybe not so different from your story.”

I lifted my chin a little in defiance. “I did what I had to.”

Papa Tom nodded his head, and I was sure his expression was very sad. “Yes, Mattei. I'm sorry to agree with you.”

I looked away at the rain. “Rain makes some people sad. It was never nice to be stuck in the rain, except when it was warm. Warm rain meant when it stopped you would be dry quickly. But cold rain....”

“My dad used to love a song called 'Rainy Days and Mondays'. It's kind of a sad song about how certain things can make us sad – and here it is rainy and a Monday. I like rain, though. It cleans things, brings life and can be very soothing to listen to while you curl up with a hot drink, safe and dry inside.”

I sighed. I should talk to Papa, but I was afraid. Afraid saying the things in my head would make him want to send me back, back to things that frightened me. But I was tired. So tired of being scared. It might hurt me later, but maybe I could feel better for a little bit if I just told him.


“Yes, Mat?”

“I am...scared.”

“Of what, sweetheart?”


“Why don't we pick one or two and talk about them? Maybe it won't be so bad.”

I sighed, just a little. Pick one? They all seemed to go together. “It's hard to pick just one thing, Papa. They seem to be...locked together? Go together? One thing that makes me afraid leads to something else that makes me afraid. I am so tired, sometimes, but I am always afraid.”

“It sounds exhausting,” he said softly. “Why don't we start with one, and then we'll just follow it as long as you can?”

I looked down, my hands moving restlessly in my lap. “In Romania I go with men. I tell you this before. Men look at me and they see someone they want to own, for a little bit. They hurt. This summer with Nik, I ran with Robin. I swim. My body has changed. Averi says I look very good, but I think about men who look at me and like what they see. I think about having to go back to Romania and that men will like what they see – and it makes me”

“Wow. That's a lot to unpack right there,” Papa said. “But let's start with something that may help – I don't think you're going back to Romania.”

I turned my head slowly. “ do you know this?”

He tilted his head a little. “It's an educated guess. The whole process of foreign adoption is difficult and expensive, but we have had a lot of help from Mr. Preda. It's unfortunate his boss lost the most recent election, but he still has some power until their term ends, and I know one of his priorities is to get you settled here permanently. Bureaucracy is a blessing and a curse, sometimes. But I think everything is headed in the right direction, and I'm sure you won't have to deal with those men anymore.”

I ran my palm down over my nose, covering my mouth and hiding the noises my body wanted to make.

“Maybe we should have kept you more updated, but the process is complicated, although it follows certain predictable paths. I don't think it'll take more than a few months at the most before your adoption will become final. I thought we'd surprise you, but maybe that was a mistake. It seems like it's made things worse for you.”

I shook my head. “ is a relief.”

“But I think we need to talk more about these other feelings you have,” Papa continued. “Those men and not having to see them, not having to worry if you have to see them so you can eat, is just part of the problem. Sweetheart, we have to talk about making sure you don't hate who you see in the mirror.”

I sniffed and rubbed the side of my hand under my nose and sat back. “I have strong, good body. Nothing to hate.”

“No, nothing to hate,” he agreed. “ don't like what you see.”

I looked down for a moment and then met his gaze, my emotions in disarray with the idea he thought I would stay and the relief, but the very real understanding that there were still people out there who would offer to use me. Who might put me in a position to take advantage.

“I hate...the way some people see me.” I looked away and then back, not quite looking at his face. “I am happy that Averi likes how I look. But I also feel...angry. That other people will see something in me, like those men did. Something weak to be used.”

“That brings up something very good to talk about,” Papa said. “We have no control over how people perceive us. We can try to control that, but in the end people are going to think what they want. If you were very overweight, there would still be people who are attracted to you. If you were unwashed and overweight and smelly, believe it or not, there would still be some people who like that.”

I curled my lip. “I have to wear deodorant to fit in, but there are still people who like this...disgusting stuff?”

Papa chuckled. “Listen, Mat, there is an old saying about there being a seat for every butt, and that applies to everything. There is always someone out there who will find someone else attractive. Right now, you're what people might call objectively attractive – meaning nearly anyone could stand back and say you are attractive. Maybe not perfect for them, but attractive. But to find someone that is specifically attracted to you is something called subjective.”

I shook my head, not understanding.

“I like green. To me my kitchen, with the green and white color scheme, is perfect. That's a subjective opinion, because others might look at it and think it's terrible. That's because color preference is subjective. So, there are men and women and young and old people that may find you objectively attractive, but there will always be a subset that finds you subjectively attractive.” He leaned forward. “Like some people think your accent is adorable, while there are some people that think your accent means you're stupid. Those are subjective – and ignorant – opinions.”

“So you are saying...what are you saying?”

He smiled. “I'm saying you have to be happy with your own appearance. If you want the abs and muscles you're working to develop, make sure it's what you want to look like. If you don't really want to look like that, then don't. As long as you're healthy, I certainly don't care what you do – I'll love you no matter what you look like.”

I looked down, and I'm sure I adopted a complicated expression – confusion, curiosity, hope, fear. I have no idea what anyone would call that.

“ me?”

“Mat! Of course we love you! Very much!” he said with a big grin. “You've been hurt so much, but you've made so much progress! Papa Kevin and I know you still have a lot of work to do, but we're so proud of you for the work you've done so far. Just like Nik, I can't wait to see the wonderful man you'll become.”

Feelings that were moving too fast for me to pin down flickered through me like a candle flame buffeted by a breeze. Instead of reassuring me, it left me with more questions.

“Papa,” I said softly. “I do not understand myself.”

“Oh, Mat, the fact you recognize that is bigger than you realize. The first step of figuring yourself out is to realize how much you have to learn about yourself. Anyone your age who thinks they completely understand themselves is very likely an idiot,” he said with a laugh.

I looked at him with curiosity. “What do you mean?”

He smiled. “Let me back up and say, first, that we're all idiots sometimes. When we are immature and young, we might think things about ourselves, but the fact is that we haven't had very many challenges or situations yet that test us and allow us to see who we are. We all hope we'd be heroic and do the right thing, but sometimes we discover fear holds us in place, freezing us, and we can't think until the fear has passed. Sometimes we find out our role isn't heroic, or rather it takes time to find out what form our heroic role is.” He set his cup on his plate and folded his hands. “Like, I wouldn't be heroic in a war, I don't think. But maybe my heroic role is to be there for someone who just needs someone to believe in them, to give them time to get past all the bad things life has thrown at them. I have to tell you, Mat, it's the most rewarding type of heroism I can think of. But when I was young, I'd never have guessed that. Like other boys, I thought I might be a heroic policeman catching bad people or maybe a firefighter climbing into a burning building to save someone. But...that's not how I'm built.”

“So you think that I don't like how I look is...being an idiot?”

He chuckled. “No, not what I meant. I mean that you didn't have any time to think about who you were before, because you were busy trying to survive. Now that you have some space, you're punishing yourself for what others think about the way you survived. Maybe you think people will judge you because of what you had to do.”

My eyes got wet, and I pursed my lips. “Yes. This is true.”

“Mat. Please look at me for a moment.”

I took a deep breath and squashed the moisture from my eyes before it could develop into more. After another breath I looked up at Papa Tom.

“You don't need those people, Mat. Yes, it will hurt when they walk away, and you might think it makes you whatever they may say to hurt you. But they weren't there, and they don't know what they would do in your situation – because they are ignorant. They don’t know what it's like to live as you did. Your value isn't based on what someone else thinks.”

He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head toward me, and I nodded slowly.

“Mat, did you ever hurt someone for fun?”

Confused, I shook my head. “No. I don't think so.”

“If your papa had come to take you home and you'd had food, would you ever have let you?”

Moisture filled my eyes again. “No,” I whispered.

“Then when someone tries to make you feel bad because you were hungry, they are a bad person for you. They don't understand, and if they judge you, leave them behind. No matter if it hurts, leave them behind, because they weren't there. They have no right to judge you.”

I rubbed my eyes again. “I think I understand.”

“I hope so, because you're a good kid. You are still a kid who needs time to do the growing you might have done when you were younger, and that makes it harder to do now. But you're good, Mat. You're going to be okay.”

I was trying not to let my emotions wash me away, and I could feel my face contorting in ways I wasn't trying to consciously. “How, Papa? How am I good?”

“Oh, finally something easy!” Papa Tom said with a big smile. “You work so hard, Mat. I know, I know – Nik is on your butt all the time, but it's because he sees how much you can do when you try hard. Look how much better you speak English now. Look at how much better you're doing in school. Look at how much you understand about how to fix things on a car, because you paid attention when Lucien showed you things. Look at how much happier you've made Nik just by being here. Look at the person Nik is discovering he can be, paying attention to his best friend in the world and being there for you through anything.” He reached out and put a hand over one of mine. “Look how much you've grown, letting two old guys know they can still do heroic things. You're making the world better just by being here, Mat. If that's not good, I don't know what is.”

For the first time in a long time, I cried then. I don't think I'm someone who cries very much, but according to Papa Tom, maybe I don't really know who I am yet. Papa Tom stood and pulled me up into a hug, and I didn’t protest that I wasn't a child. After crying I felt tired, too tired to do much. I went back to my room and stopped in the doorway, looking at the space. It wasn't full of Papas' things anymore. I had pictures on the walls – pictures from school, pictures of me with Averi and with Nik. Pictures of friends together, my American family. The one Nik promised would be here for me, if I let them. There was a picture of me with Nik and Papas dressed in suits for court, and another with me and Averi dressed up for a school dance, and one with Nik and Luke dressed also for a school dance.

Many of these pictures were on my phone. My phone that was on the table with my computer, next to my closet, where I had many clothes, which was next to my dresser with even more clothes. I had a television and could watch so many different things there was no way to see them all. I laid down on my bed – not just one for me to use for now, but mine. In my home, the one I shared with my family. I was so tired, but now I was not so sad. For now. Maybe Papa was right that I was just starting to understand who I was, and maybe I had the wrong idea, sometimes. Maybe.

But Papa was for sure right that he was a hero. Mine.

Tristan Malone: Package Deal

I woke to the sound of the alarm on my phone. Tiredly, I reached over and shut it off before dropping back onto the mattress. I tried not to fall asleep; lying back down after the alarm is kind of a chancy thing for me to do. It's even odds I'll fall asleep. Deciding that I didn't want to get up yet I did the next best thing and annoyed my boyfriend. I rolled over and started to gently kiss his sleeping face, until he stirred and opened his eyes.

“What are you doing?” he asked, squinting his eyes.

“Kissing you awake,” I replied.

He paused. “Why?”

“Why?” I asked, starting to laugh.

“Yeah. You have to get up, not me,” he said, smiling sleepily.

“Oh. I'll get you up,” I told him. He told me I didn't have time, but of course I knew that, so I settled for tickling him instead. Eventually that turned into hugging and a little kissing. Then my second alarm went off, and I got up to go get a shower. Once dressed I went out make coffee, but was pleasantly surprised to find Ehren had made me a pot.

I was looking at my phone screen while sipping coffee and leaning against the kitchen counter when my phone rang. Just bad timing, really – my finger was just about to hit the screen, and I accidentally answered.

“Finally!” my mother said. “I was thinking I'd have to call the building super or something to come check on you!”

“Sorry,” I said, trying to sound like I meant it. “The semester ending means exams, and I've been pretty crammed with prep.”

“I'm sure,” she said. “A full schedule is nothing to sneeze at. When is your next final?”

“Econ this morning. I have about an hour and a half. I just need to get ready and head over to the campus.”

“You'd have had a shorter commute if you'd lived in a dorm. Cheaper, too,” she said.

“And I'm so eager to have this discussion for the thousandth time,” I said with a groan.

“Well. Bears repeating.” She cleared her throat. “How is Ehren?”

Sexy as fuck. “He's doing really well. He's got the state test in a few days, but the local depot thinks he's got a good chance of getting in. He's a little worried; it's the state, but the people he'd work with aren't always so open minded.”

“Yes, that's certainly valid,” she said. “The local depot you say? Does that mean he'd be staying there for the summer?”

“If he gets the job, yes. I'm looking at some local opportunities in my field, but we haven't made any decisions yet.”

“Tristan, honey, you should come home and work for the summer. At least you can save some money on rent and food,” she said reproachfully.

“It's a consideration,” I said, trying to avoid an argument. “But ultimately it depends on if he gets the job, because we can both live off that income if we needed to.”

“But that's my point – you don't need to. You should-”

“Sorry, Mom, have to go shower and get ready. Thanks for calling. We'll talk soon,” I said and hung up.

Ehren looked at me from our little kitchen table. “If she cuts you off, school will be really hard to pay for.”

“Cross that bridge when we get to it,” I said, setting my phone down. “What are you doing today?”

“Ryan told me they can use some help a few days a week down at his dad's garage. I guess his dad has a bunch of cars to strip useful stuff from before they scrap them and a limited amount of time to get it done. It's good money and some hang out time with Ry.”

“Sounds dirty. I'll have to clean you up later,” I said, bumping my hip into his shoulder.

He sighed and said, “I know you don't want to think about it, but we should consider – economically – what it might mean for us to not have the apartment for the summer.”

“We know the monthly cost to have it, but what's the rest of the non-financial costs of separating for the summer?” I asked. “Living with my parents and how intrusive they are in our relationship? A whole three months of listening to them tell me I can do better?”

He sighed. “I just meant we should figure this stuff out together. Make a plan so that-”

I set my cup down on the table and slid around so I was sitting on his lap. He looked at me with vague amusement. “I'm where you are, period. I have never cared what that costs, because it's a bargain. I really wish you'd stop trying to be so misguided when it comes to the reality of us being together. You know you're where I'm going to be, so can we just drop that part? Please?”

He smiled, one of his beautiful smiles, and nodded. “Okay, Babe.”

“Now. I have to go focus and be a test taker while you go hang out with our friend. I know, I know you're going to call it work – but let's be honest. You love hanging out with them.”

He snorted. “Like you don't?”

“I do! I'm just saying!” I kissed him and grabbed my stuff before heading down to my car. It turned over slowly, and like I do every time it does that, I tried to make a mental note to ask Ryan about it. Trouble is I nearly always forget after the car is started and I'm on my way.

I glanced up at our apartment before looking behind me and pulling out. Heading into traffic, I left the radio down low, thinking about my mother's call and Ehren being so...flexible about trying to not be responsible for tearing me away from my family. It's what he calls it sometimes when we talk, and it's infuriating. He's quick to note how people are responsible for their own choices, but so blind when it comes to how my parents treat our relationship.

That's not completely fair. For himself, he kind of just shuts them off. At first he couldn't really forgive them, but in therapy he made some peace with it. Not forgiveness, but he reached a place where he said that he understood that their issues were just that and not his responsibility. But when it comes to me, he wants me to have everything, including a healthy relationship with my parents.

I pulled into a parking space and headed for my building.

“They need to schedule this shit later in the day.”

I looked up and smiled at my bitching friend, Brandon; it was his natural state. “Didn't sleep last night?”

“Econ is the worst of the basic classes they make you take, next to public speaking,” he grumbled, rising from his spot on a bench and falling in with me. “Whoever said taking 12 years of English wasn't enough to skip taking it in college just wanted to make more money.”

I chuckled. “Well, at least we're getting to the end.”

“Ehren hear about when the test is?”

“Couple days,” I said with a nod. “The supervisor said it gives him more opportunities later, but he's going to have the job with the road crew soon.”

“What's that mean for the summer?” he asked, opening the door and not holding it for me.

“If he gets the job, I'm guessing we'll stay in the apartment. Although my mom called this morning.”

“Yeah, was going to ask if she'd started sending flying monkeys after you yet,” he said with a snicker.

“She spoke like she was just trying to be reasonable, but she's not listening. Plus, you know Ehren, he wants to give me things that are out of his reach, so he's trying to make it okay for me to go home and not feel guilty or something.”

“I don't really want to hear about what he gives you,” Brandon said, giving me a scowl and then laughing.

“I know you're just secretly wanting his D, and you can't have it,” I teased, and he made a face as we entered the classroom. We sat down and got our things out for the test, which started on time and wasn't as bad as I'd feared. I worked steadily through the packet, then reviewed it to make sure I hadn't rushed through anything obvious before handing it in.

I headed out, checking the time, and was thinking about bringing a coffee or something to Ehren and Ryan when I saw I had a text from Benji asking if I was busy. I texted my thoughts, and he responded that he was on campus and wondered if I wanted to grab lunch with him. I agreed and we made plans to meet at my car in a half hour.

I made my way to the bench I'd seen Brandon sitting on earlier and sat down, closed my eyes and tilted my head back to turn my face to the sun and take a breath. This past school year had been a challenge, to say the least. Thank goodness for Ehren – he's always ready to try something with me. He tried so hard with my folks, and even though my parents have tried in their own crappy way, somehow it always comes across how they don't approve of Ehren.

I have no idea what it would take to really cause them to shift, but I'm starting not to care. It's sad, I know. It's not how things should be, but I can't change them. Maybe if there was some sort of family medical drama where Ehren showed up and did something – but that's kind of shitty, too. He's already proved himself – not that he should have to. It's not his job to overcome their prejudice.

Moving here early had been a bit risky. His moms were financially helpful, which shamed my parents into stopping them being unhelpful. They made a few efforts, came up to see the apartment, took my car for tires. I appreciated that, but all the side-eye they give Ehren keeps us apart. How do you not get being unwelcoming to him is the same to me?

I'm ashamed to say that Ehren and I were feeling some stress being on our own. Oh, not at first, but things he talked about that I'd dismissed were coming true in some ways. Ehren will always be a bit different in how he sees the world. He knows how shitty people can be when given the chance. He didn't have a childhood where he was happy and supported. Instead he had to grow up and take care of himself without the benefit of people who cared.

Despite that, he'd worked so hard. So hard. Yet when we'd go out to a gay club, for instance, we found the same issues we'd have interacting with other people – just being gay doesn't mean you have much, if anything, else in common with people. We'd wanted to make some friends, but the club seemed more about finding someone to hook up with. When folks found out we weren't accepting those kinds of invitations, they weren't as interested in us.

Thank goodness for Ryan and Benji. Brandon is there, of course, and the prickly bastard has grown very fond of Ehren, but he and Melanie have their own stuff, and they live at home and commute to school, different ones at that, so it wasn't as easy to get some human interaction with other people. Still, Ryan and Benji made a big difference. I think we were starting to think we were broken or something, not wanting what others our age did. We liked to go dancing, we liked to do things, but I think there was a social need that wasn't being met somewhere. Maybe some outside validation that we were okay from someone besides a parent, like his moms.

Ryan is one of those late bloomers you hear about, and boy did he. He and Benji share a big apartment with their friend Luca, whose girlfriend stays over a lot. Ehren made a connection with Benji, whose parents aren't what anyone would call supportive.

“Are you sleeping? Is Ehren wearing you out that much?” Benji asked with a laugh.

I opened my eyes and smiled at him. “That's him, wearing me out,” I said with a grin. We started to walk to my car. “I was thinking about bringing Ehren a coffee or lunch.”

“I had a similar thought, but once they take off what they want to save, they are hauling the carcass for scrap, so they may not even be there,” Benji replied.

“Means we can eat what we want!” I said with a grin.

“Have you guys settled on summer plans?” he asked as we headed over to our favorite spot. We've discovered we like spicy foods, and both our partners are less thrilled. So when it's just Benji and I, we like to head over to this Indian restaurant and burn some taste buds.

“Ugh. Reminds me – my mother called this morning asking the same thing.”

“Oh? I really don't get her. You can't get much better than Ehren.”

“Right? Plus all the crap we've gone through to be together, and she thinks she's going to wait him out or something,” I said. “Aggravates the hell out of me. You know the worst part? Ehren hasn't done anything to me or her. Things have mostly happened to him, but she wants to live in this little fear bubble.”

He tilted his head. “Why do you think that is? Have you ever done anything to give her a reason to be afraid for you?”

“Whose side are you on?” I asked playfully. Looking back to the road I sighed. “Yeah. When I was a teenager I went through a really bad stretch and made some half-assed attempt at suicide. We did the family therapy thing, my sister and I got really close, and we worked through all that.”

“Yeah. I understand. For you it's part of the past, probably where you'd like to leave it.”

The hairs on the back of my neck stirred. “You sound like you didn't finish your thought.”


“Your tone, there. It sounded like you had more to say.”

He chuckled. “I was just thinking. Sometimes what's over for some people never really ends for another.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, not really the same thing, but it's what came to mind,” he said. “Ryan's folks were convinced – convinced – that he was going to be a doctor. They stuck with it even when he flunked out and then told them he didn't want to be a doctor. It was a big thing. I mean, yeah, they did get over it. I don't know if that's the same thing as being afraid your kid is too fragile for someone who's had Ehren's history. At some point you have to trust your kid.”

I bit my lip for a second. Could he be right? “It's hard to say. I know what happened with me scared them pretty badly. What happened to Ehren was...I mean, the initial issues were terrible, and he kind of had to learn all new skills to fit in, but I parents didn't make much of an effort. They keep doubling down that they'd do the same things again, like calling CPS on him. After...the thing with his coach, and that fucking excuse for a human and what he did to Ehren, they were idiots for months. They eased up some, but there is always this shitty underlying tension. Could that be the source of it all?”

Benji shrugged. “I'm just running my mouth, Tris. I don't know everyone nearly as well as you do, or the particulars of a lot of things. I just hate to see you not have a good relationship, since they obviously love you, but it's the shittiest thing that they look down on who you love.”

“Yeah. Well, what are you guys doing for the summer?”

“Ugh. Ryan is obsessed with his grandfather's car. He says he's going to teach me to drive stick on that thing,” he said with an eye roll and a grin.

We pulled up and headed into the restaurant. “Ryan loves you so much it's stupid,” I said with a laugh.

“I'd argue, mistake, of course, was trying to keep things balanced.”

We paused the conversation as we were seated and provided menus. We'd been there often enough that we didn't need them, and with our orders placed I had to ask.

“What balance are you talking about?”

“Oh, you know. When Ryan was trying to see what we might have between us, he made an effort to go outside his familiar places or push the envelope on his comfort level to meet me in places I'd feel more comfortable.” He sipped his water. “Like the first time we really talked-”

“After you guys fucked, right? I want to get the order here right – fuck then talk?” I grinned at him and he flipped me off.

“Yeah, that's the order,” he said with a snicker. “Anyway, we met at this cafe where they had good coffee and biscotti, and across the street they'd done up the gardens in the style of the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Then it was Nirvana, which you've seen him there. So, I made the mistake of saying to him that he goes places to make me happy and comfortable, why don't we go somewhere he enjoys? Let him introduce me to things he likes, you know?”

“Yeah, of course,” I agreed.

“So he took me to his dad's garage,” he deadpanned, and we both laughed. “I'm not kidding! We were working in his father's treasure bay-”

“What, what?”

Benji rolled his eyes and smiled. “His dad has this one bay filled with stuff he's collected – parts of cars, mostly. But it was this unholy mess, stuff just here and there, and Ryan was trying to organize it for his dad – and he found an entire car buried in there. That was what drew me in – a mess so big he found a whole car, Tris.”

I laughed. “I'd have to see it, too.”

“Right? So – this was so cute – his parents came down one Saturday and surprised us at the shop while we were doing that. They are so funny together. They pick at each other and are really smart. Anyway, Ryan asks about the car, and at first his dad is all 'It's old, it'll need this and that other thing,' and then, without taking a breath, he starts saying 'Oh, but I wonder about this and that, and let's put a battery in it and see what happens,' and now Ryan's obsessed with it.”

“That's so cute,” I said through my laughter. “Ehren is so much easier with his obsessions. Books – my apartment is filled with books. We go to garage sales, and he always finds a book or two.” I tilted my head to one side. “We also have brought home plenty of shelving from garage sales for all his books.”

Benji laughed. “Aww, that's sweet, though. I'll bet he loves coming home to things he always wanted, right?”

“True,” I said as I moved my hands while our lunch was served. “Plus, there's a comfort in knowing where I'll probably find him. His favorite chair with a blanket and a book.”

“Ryan's done so well in his classes this year,” Benji said. “I had a hard time for the first few weeks. I was excited, but I wasn't used to the workload. Fortunately, he was used to the way his parents used to do things, and we got on a schedule, which really helped. Honestly, I'd have struggled so much more without him this year.”

“This is so spicy, I love it,” I said, taking a sip of water.

“Let me try a piece?” he held his fork up, waiting for me to nod – which of course I did. “God. Love that spice.”

“This is such a great way to celebrate our first year being done with. So, what did you say you guys were doing for the summer? Oh right, his grandfather's car.”

He rolled his eyes again. “I am not mechanical at all. He's been busting my nuts about making sure I can change a tire, and I keep telling him – I put gas in, and I can turn the key. If it makes weird noises, I call my boyfriend!”

I covered my mouth I was laughing so hard. “You can't be serious, right? You can change a tire?”

“Of course. But if I start looking too mechanical, he'll be sticking me into one of those coverall things, and I'll have grease under my fingernails all summer.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes – partly from laughing and partly from the spicy food. “Oh, that's too funny.”

“Eh. It's fun watching him when he works on a car, actually. He's so confident disassembling things, and he talks to me like I understand every word of it.” He leaned forward. “The scary part is, I think I am starting to understand a little. I think that's his secret plan.”

We wrapped up lunch and headed over to the garage, to check in on our guys and so I could get my battery checked. Ryan and Ehren were sweating, throwing metal scrap into a car.

“I thought you guys were taking parts off of them?” I asked.

Ehren wiped his face with his shirt, and a little shiver ran up my spine as he exposed his stomach for a moment. “Yeah. We already took the good parts off this one. We're just putting scrap metal in to get the weight up for scrap price.”

“Oh,” I said, thinking that was economical. “Well, I thought I should stop, because my battery seems low, and I keep forgetting to ask Ryan to look at it.”

“Pop the hood,” Ehren said. I did, and he lifted it up and looked at the battery. “I don't see corrosion. Let's see what Ryan says.”

Ryan was busy chasing Benji around the parking lot, flexing his grimy fingers, while Benji kept his distance. That took a few minutes to wind down, but eventually they both wandered over to my car.

“What's up?” Ryan asked.

“I think my battery is getting weak,” I told him. “It can be slow to start, and the meter in the dash isn't reading as high as it used to.”

“Huh. Let me get a tester.”

I was there for maybe an hour, between Ryan checking my car and all the nonsense chatter. Ryan told me the battery was definitely weak, but that it wasn't the problem – my alternator wasn't putting out enough charge. He told me he'd find me one and I could bring the car back.

“Hey, where's this car Benji was telling me about that you guys are working on?”

“Traitor,” Benji said with a grin.

For the next fifteen minutes Ryan told me a bunch of things about the car and how he was restoring it with Benji and would teach him to drive stick. It was just too cute and wholesome. Then Ryan's dad came out and greeted Benji the way Ehren should be greeted by my folks. It was nice, but a crappy reminder, too. He suggested I leave my car there, since Ehren had driven anyway – no need to risk a breakdown. I checked my exam schedule and conferred with Ehren before leaving my car there to be fixed.

Ehren and I headed for home. We talked about our days, and I related how Ryan was plotting to have Benji work on the car all summer and how cute it was.

“Oh yeah? Should I have you come down and help me take cars apart? Would that be cute, too?”

“No! Jerk,” I said with a laugh. “Besides, we'll be busy enough this summer. You'll be working, I'll get something part time, and before we know it it'll be time for the school year to start again.”

“We should do some stuff, though. Maybe some overnights or something. Niagara Falls? Maybe New York City? Or a beach somewhere?”

As we climbed from the car, I laughed at him. “Why? So you can have a new place to read? The couch isn't comfy enough anymore?”

He made to grab me, and I ran for the stairs to our apartment. He followed, but we both pulled up at the sight of my parents standing at our door.

“Oh! We thought you might be home already,” my mom said. “Ehren,” she said, nodding to him.

“Mom, Dad. Uh, hi. Unexpected.”

“Mr. Malone. Mrs. Malone,” Ehren said quietly.

“Yes, unexpected.” My dad gave us a nod and pushed his upper lip up, smashing his mustache a bit. “We wanted to talk to you guys, and while your mom has been trying, it seems that the phone isn't the best way. We thought, last resort, we'd just show up.”

“Oh,” I said, glancing at Ehren who nodded subtly at me. “Well, okay. Uh, come on in.”

I opened our door and admitted my parents, a first for us.

“My God!” My mom said, looking around the living room area. “Have you read all these books?” She looked to Ehren, mouth open a bit.

“Not all, no,” he said quietly. “Those two racks are the ones I've read. The rest are my 'to read' list.”

“I have a pile of three I intend to read, but this,” my father said with a shake of his head. “I'd love to have time to read that much.”

“Ehren reads almost every night,” I said, kicking off my shoes on a mat by the door. “Hon? Want to grab a shower?”

Ehren's lips twitched in amusement. “Yeah, I guess I should. I probably stink. Excuse me.”

I offered my parents something to drink and puttered until I heard the shower kick on. I turned then and leaned against the kitchen counter. “Okay. What's up?”

Dad was sitting in Ehren's reading chair, and my mom was looking at the spines, reading titles and commenting on any she found interesting. At my question she turned and glanced at my dad before looking to me.

“Mostly it's what your dad said. We have barely seen you since school started. You sent us your grades, as agreed, and you had a great first year. That doesn't mean we don't miss you.” She adopted a slightly put out look. “Tristan. We love you.”

I softened my stance. “I know. I love you too. But you don't love Ehren, and I do. He's my future, and I have to set boundaries.”

My father gained his feet and turned toward me. “We recognize we've made mistakes. We are responsible for how things are right now, for the most part. After your mom called you this morning and you hung up on her, she was very upset. I left work, and we spent a big chunk of our day trying to figure things out.”

I held a sigh in. “I'm sorry. About hanging up. It's just...every time we talk you throw shade at him. I've worked so hard for my relationship, and so has he. Yes, he's been through some horrible things, but they have made him who he is as well. I won't say I'm happy about those things, but I love him, and he loves me.”

My mom folded her hands. “Yes. We know. I think...we have been busy reacting since the day we called CPS. We've been on the defensive, trying to look out for you.”


“Hang on,” she said, putting a hand up. “I'm not trying to start an argument. Just...let me finish.”

I sighed. “Okay.”

“So, as I was saying, we were defensive. Reacting to what we saw as threats. You do realize we almost lost both of you, right? To different things that we had no idea were an issue?”

“And Ehren made sure my sister got home,” I said.

My dad nodded. “He did. It doesn't change that we had no idea she'd been in trouble – that amount of trouble – and that we could have lost her. She was likely going to be their next rape victim – and that's what sticks with you, Tris. It's what keeps you awake at night – thinking of what almost happened and how to prevent something like it happening again.”

“And this affects how you treat Ehren how?”

My parents looked at each other, and then my mom turned to me and spoke. “Ehren has had to make decisions that no child should have to make. As a parent, as you know, his whole existence was a nightmare to us – because we could all too easily see you in a bad situation making bad choices – picking the least bad out of many bad choices. You have to admit – some of the things he's decided to do were because of how he lived before – how his mindset works.”

I crossed my arms. “It's not his job to deal with your fears. Those are a 'you' problem, and punishing him – and me – for being together isn't going to make anything better.”

My father nodded his head. “You're right. We're just explaining where we were coming from. It felt like a bad track record was an existential threat, one we had a right to fear because of things that had almost taken you both from us.” He let out a breath. “But you're right. It's an 'us' problem. To a point.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What do you mean by that?”

“We mean,” my mother said, “That we recognize our shortcomings, and we're here to try to start patching things between us.” She took a few steps, pulling my arms apart and holding me by my hands. “Sweetheart, this whole thing has been bad for us all. Regardless of any right and wrong – and sometimes that there aren't any real rights or wrongs – our most important thing in life has always been you and your sister. We realize that what's happening right now is cutting you off from us just as surely as if our worst fears have come to light.”

I frowned. “But Ehren-”

“Is a fine person,” my dad said. “We spent some time on the phone with his moms today as well. It's what prompted us to come here. We know things have to change, but it couldn't just be said over the phone. We need to open ourselves to learning who Ehren is now, and who you are with him. Something we didn't do before.” He took a few steps forward. “Please, son. We miss you.”

I sighed. “I miss you guys, too. I just...don't want you making him feel bad or uncomfortable.”

My mother nodded. “We understand. It won't be an overnight thing, but let us take you to dinner. Let's open the door to trying to fix things.”

I crossed my arms again. “If this is about this summer....”

“We'll respect what you decide to do. If you want to talk about it, we certainly can. Work out the economics, run some numbers and such. But we'll respect what you guys decide.” My dad spread his hands wide. “Fair enough?”

I studied him for a moment and then nodded. “Fair enough.” I heard the shower shut off and asked them to wait while I spoke to Ehren. I met him in the bedroom, his hair wet and beads of water on his skin as he toweled dry.

“So, what did they want?” he asked. “Sorry to leave you out there, but it looked like you guys needed to talk.”

“We did, I guess,” I said, coming up behind him and kissing his skin, hot and moist from the shower. “I love you.”

He turned and smiled at me. “I love you, too. What's on your mind?”

I looked down at his naked body and back up, grinning.

“I mean with your parents,” he said, smiling and giving me a chaste kiss.

“They say they want to try and fix things and start by taking us out to dinner,” I said.

“Oh?” he said, turning from me and opening his underwear drawer. “What did you say?”

“Nothing, yet,” I replied, sitting on the edge of our bed. “I mean, I agree with the basic idea. They finally admitted to being wrong, kind of.”

He turned, leaning back against the dresser and looking so goddamn sexy. “And what do you want?”

I studied his face, one that has seen so much, the face I want to look at for the rest of my life. “I want them to love you like I do. I want them to see you for who you are, the way I do. I want....”

“Well. I guess I should put pants on then,” he said in a soft voice. “They can't do any of that if I stay home in my sweatpants and read a book.”

I looked up at him. “You mean you'd be willing?”

He smiled, the skin around his eyes crinkling a bit. “For you? Can't think of anything I wouldn't do.”

I stood up. “But they have a bad track record of doing things like this. Claiming they are making an effort and then just throwing shade.”

He shrugged his shoulders. “They showed up. Despite everything, they still love you, apparently enough that they are trying to get over their feelings toward me. I don't know, Tris. I think you have to give chances.”

I crossed my arms. “How many?”

“Honestly? As many as it takes. I'm all good, because when it's all over, I still have you. As long as that's the case...I hate to sound like a douche, but I don't care about your parents outside of that. I know this whole thing weighs on you, even though you try to brush it off. I know what we have is real and that you're not going to leave me because they don't approve. I only care about them in as much as they affect you. So I don't care how many chances you give them, until it hurts you. Then it stops.”

I shook my head. “I don't deserve you.”

He chuckled. “So it's your call. Do I get dressed and we go out with your folks, or do you kick them out and we stay in?”

“Depends. Are you putting any more clothes on if we stay in?”

He grinned. “Depends. Do I get to take your clothes off you if we stay in?”

“You're impossible,” I said with a smile, running my fingers through my hair. “Okay. I'll do the right thing. But later? Later you're taking clothes off.”

He smiled gently. “Can't wait.”

Riley Nakamura: It's In His Nature

I love the west-side park. It has a small man-made pond that isn't stocked with fish, so you don't have people hanging around trying to hook one. There are big shade trees with birds in the branches in nicer weather, and there is something ethereal about being near them in the odd silence snow brings, their barren arms reaching to the sky with a coat of snow on them. There is a whole section that some people might think is overgrown with weeds, but it's actually a fantastic habitat for bees and other creatures that lose more and more space to humans every year.

Once a month I come here to pick up trash others leave behind. I sit and I watch for the wild creatures that call it home. Groundhogs, squirrels and a flock of geese tend to be the most common. Sometimes you'll see a deer, gracefully picking leaves from a bush and looking around to check its safety. It seems the ones who are gentle and peaceful are always being devoured by the bloodthirsty and aggressive. If anything, it's a lesson: be peaceful, but be ready to defend.

I pushed my hands deeper into my coat pockets and shifted on the bench. It had been raining here for days, then we got a few nasty days to let us know fall was giving way to winter. Maybe not completely, but it was on the way. Leaves had fallen, been bagged and hauled away or mulched or used as part of compost for the spring.

I have bad luck with guys. I used to think it was just me, that I was the problem. I don't understand people who feel the need to kill to live. I don't understand hunters. My first boyfriend had invited me over, and his dad had a few friends there, and they were talking about hunting. I had asked why they needed to kill the deer. One had said, using a shitty tone as if they didn't like to be questioned, that the deer would have starved due to lack of food in the area and the oncoming winter. He tried to turn my question back on me – again, like it was an attack – and asked if they should have let them starve instead.

When I suggested not destroying their habitat so they'd have food, my boyfriend was told to go find some video games or something to play. We didn't last much longer. My second boyfriend wasn't much better. My third tried a lot, but we just didn't have anything in common besides being gay. My fourth boyfriend, though...damn.

I stopped eating meat when I was about six. I was fortunate, because my parents taught me the cost of my choices by having me make my own main dish for meals. They taught me the nutritional choices I'd need to make, and they validated my feelings and reasoning rather than trying to make me conform or dismissing my thoughts. I was also lucky enough that we had the money for separate dishes and that they were willing.

When I was about ten I started helping with cleanups in public spaces – which my parents had to be somewhat involved in for me to participate. I liked my video games, and I liked to run, even if I wasn't into competing that much. But as time went by, the natural world and my place in it became important to me. There is a balance to everything, and sometimes it's vicious. I'm self-aware, so I can choose not to be vicious or cruel.

My fourth boyfriend, Bryce, pulls my heart as much as nature does. As much as I love to just sit and be, I love to look at his face and be with him.

He's not like me. He's not a vegetarian, though he tries anything I make him, and he chooses not to eat meat when we go out. I really keep my mouth shut about the whole eating-meat thing unless asked. When I did the park cleanup, he came with me. It wasn't a big deal to him, but the fact he did it just to spend time with me is one reason why he's so important to me.

I remember looking at my cousin's pictures on my phone, which is where I saw Bryce the first time. His face is a little long, an oval shape topped with sandy hair that hangs straight down. He has brown eyes that are the definition of warm. He's athletic, but not an athlete. I asked my cousin about him, but carefully, so I didn't let on that I thought his friend was cute. My aunt, his mom, is an alcoholic, so he sometimes comes to hang out for a weekend at our house while my uncle does whatever he does with her. They don't seem happy in any way.

But one time my cousin mentioned his friend Bryce had come out – and I had to take my shot. It took a little bit – Bryce seemed surprised someone would be interested in him, which was legit cute. Then we went to do a cleanup, and I swear he was halfway to owning my heart.

Like my cousin's mom, my boyfriend's mom is just awful. Best word I can think of. She's mean. She puts Bryce down, and his stepfather only cared enough to berate Bryce – right up until he beat him. I don't know if he'd hit Bryce before – Bryce doesn't like to talk about it – but this time it landed Bryce in foster care. We’ve broken up a few times for a few hours when he's gotten upset. He gets depressed and thinks he's not good enough for me, which I can't even express how that breaks my heart.

My parents were really trying to support me with how upset I was about his situation, even while respecting that Bryce didn't want me to talk about details very much. He went back and forth on that, telling me I could say what I thought I needed to for my folks, but that was it, and then sometimes it would eat him up that his step-father had beaten him and how little his mother seemed to care, and he didn't want anyone to know.

I had been sitting in the window of my room – a corner window with seating my dad had built into it so I could look at the outside. He'd done it when I was small, but as I'd gotten older it had remained one of my favorite spots in the house. I was looking outside, not seeing anything, as I thought about Bryce and that he was going into a foster home that day. He was angry and scared and pushing me away like he does, and I was feeling really down, for my part, thinking of him and how I just wanted to be there for him.

“That window is getting a lot of use lately,” my mother said, bringing a laundry hamper into the room. “You left your stuff in the dryer again.”

I glanced at her. “I'm sorry. I'm kind of distracted.”

“Daydreaming about your cute boyfriend? This one must be special,” she teased.

I gave her a weak smile. “He is. But...he's going into a foster home today, and he's upset. He's pushing me away, and it's killing me.”

“Oh. I'm so sorry,” she said, moving to sit beside me on the bench. “When you were little we could both sit here and I could hold you. Now you're so fat we both can't fit anymore!”

I tried to smile, but my lips just trembled. She pulled me in, and I let her, but I didn't have the energy to hug her back. I wanted to hug Bryce. “I love him, Mom.”

“I can tell,” she said softly. “I know things have been tough for him. Give him a chance to get into this new space, and then we'll see, okay? I'm sure we can work things out so you guys can see each other. Dad and I can talk to his foster parents and – oh, you know what? We'll talk to Joe. He's familiar with the foster system.”

“He is? How?” I asked, curious in spite of myself.

“He does weekend relief fostering. Sometimes a family needs a break or has something going on where they can't take the child with them, so Joe will do a short-term care for them – like a weekend or something.”

“Oh. I thought maybe Bryce would end up there.”

“I don't think so, no,” my mom said softly, “but let's talk to Joe tonight at dinner so we understand what we're dealing with, okay?”

I nodded. Eventually I set about getting ready to go. At least my raging weirdo of a sister was staying at a friend's house, so I could talk to Joe whenever a question entered my mind. The ride over was quiet; I listened to my headphones while my parents talked up front. Joe's house looks nice from the outside – warm. He takes really good care of it. Ansel usually doesn't, and the few times I'd been to Ansel's house, it had looked kind of run down. I'd told him one time that he was letting other gay people down by having such low standards. He told me 'I'm not that kind of gay'. Should be interesting to see how Joe handles that.

My dad rang the bell, and Joe let us in – but then the weirdest, best thing happened – there was Bryce. He looked really nice in jeans and an untucked button-up shirt and clean socks. It didn't matter that we were kind of fighting earlier in the day, I was just so happy to see him, and he fell into me. I've never held someone so desperately in my life. He told me he didn't know just how much he needed me until that hug, and it just made me want to hang onto him that much more.

His foster parents are...good. Way better than his mom or stepdad. Joe is tall and slim, while Ansel is stockier, compared to Joe, and I think being around gay men has helped Bryce in some ways. He can see that gay people can make it, can form good relationships.

I turned at the sound of crunching twigs and smiled, standing to meet my boyfriend.

“I'm cold sitting here by myself,” I complained. He smiled. His smiles always look like there's a little surprise mixed in with his happiness, like it's a new thing that someone is happy to see him.

“Sorry,” he said and gave me a hug. I held him an extra beat or two just because I like to, then I took his hand, and we sat down on the bench. “I was talking to Sean.”

“Ah. What wisdom did he have for you today?” Sean is a big brother figure to Bryce, almost like having a therapist. I wished I could give Bryce that kind of comfort, but for now I had to be happy he had someone he felt he could talk to about anything.

“Oh, you know how he is.” He paused and then said, “He was asking about how counseling is and if I picked my topic for the science paper. I swear he thinks about my homework more than I do.”

“Yup. It's how you know he loves you.” I paused. “So what are you picking for your science paper?”

He rolled his eyes. “I love you, too.”

I chuckled. “Well since you love me....”

He laughed. “How come when you say that it usually means I have to clean something?”

I stuck my tongue out. “Since I love you, too...we're going camping for the three-day weekend next week. My sister gets to bring a friend so...would you like to come?”

He stared at me for a moment. “In this cold? You're serious?”

I looped my arm through his. “Fire at night, warm drink, we can snuggle.”

He drummed his feet on the ground. “Really? You want me to sleep on the ground?”

I laid my head on his shoulder. “Please? Come with me?”

He laughed and then let out a sigh. “I'll see if Joe says it's okay.”

I sat up quickly. “Really? You'll come?”

He chuckled. “Yeah, if I can. I'll be there.”

I smiled. “I guess I can tell you now – we're renting a cabin. I don't think my mother does 'tents'.”

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. “You were going to let me think I was going to sleep with a rock in my back, weren't you?”

I tugged on his arm. “I promise to keep you warm.”

He chuckled and flexed his arm, kind of giving me a one-armed squeeze.

“Are you okay?”

“Eh. You know. Just more of the same bullshit.” He cleared his throat. “My mom is proving in front of the judge that she doesn't want me back. I...didn't think that would hurt, but it kind of does.”

“Well, yeah. I really don't like your mother. She did one good thing.”

He chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Ansel has me coming over to the shop after school and putting tools away and cleaning up for a few bucks. It's not difficult, and I like having some money. He said maybe they could bring me on part time later if I was interested.”

“Jesus. If my dad gets you working on cars, I'll never hear the end of it.” I tried to adapt a deep tone to make fun of my dad. “Well, mister captain planet, looks like your boyfriend is okay with plain old polluting cars. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

We both laughed. “I don't know about working on anything. Ansel says there are some basics I should know – oil changes, changing a tire. I admit I like the idea of not being a complete idiot when I get a car, and he said something about maybe buying something to fix up together.”

“Ugh. I love him for trying so hard for you, but I wish it were in a better way.”

He snorted. “At least he's not trying to bond over hunting, right?”

“Don't even start,” I said, lightly punching his arm.

We sat in silence for a few minutes, a light breeze shifting through the bare branches and the sun making for the horizon, as was its way during these months. I love that we can just be sometimes.


“Yeah, Babe?”

“I was talking with the therapist. You know, just conversation. But it made me wonder...what do you see in me?”

“Like what do I like about you?”

He shrugged. “I guess. I mean, yeah. Why do you keep dating me? I've broken up with you like three times.”

“Hm. Well, first is because you're cute as hell,” I said with a grin. “I mean, that was the first thing that got my attention, of course.”

“Of course,” he agreed, though I know he really didn't see himself like that.

“Then who you are really came through when I got to hang out with you.”

“And...who is that? I mean, according to you?”

“Respectful of who I am. Not very many people seem to want to think about what they say or do, they just want to react and have no extra thought about if they are wrong or right. They just expect whatever they do to be okay with everyone else.” I lifted my head and turned to look at him. “I know the way I feel isn't popular with most people, but you never put me down or make fun of me for it. In fact you go with me just to be with me and maybe see what I'm doing. I think you take some new information and you've added it to how you see the world instead of burying your head and assuming you know it all.”

He looked at me with a confused expression. “You get that from me going to cleanups and trying vegetarian food?”

“Yes!” I said, laughing. “I've had boyfriends. They were terrible. You're my lucky number four.”

He chuckled and shook his head.

“I also think you're a pretty good kisser. I also don't like your mom, because she's made you think you're less than who you are, and because she's putting you through all this crap – the way your step-father treated you included – means you can't see it. So when you break up with me, I know it's more from stress than you being mad at me. Don't get the wrong idea, it gets old,” I said, squeezing his arm, “but I talk you back into being with me, because I get what's happening. And because I love you and you're cute and and a good kisser.”

He laughed a little, and I joined him.

“Sean...sometimes he says stuff like that too – minus cute and kissing,” he said, flashing me a smile. “I just don't get why other people see that and I don't.”

“Because you'd be insufferable,” I said promptly.

He gave me a weak smile. He laced his fingers together and said, “I wish I was as sure about myself as you are.”

“I'm not,” I replied.

“But you-”

“Look, Babe, I have things that are important to me, yes. Really important. Last year I couldn't imagine anything being on the same level as the environment. Ever since I was able to understand the tiniest bit about how we, as a species, do so much harm, I've been focused on trying to make a difference.” I shook my head. “And then there was you.”

“Come on,” he said, letting out a little laugh.

“I'm serious. It's not just because you are so open minded about the things I'm passionate about, but you're also making me feel better about myself, because you're trying so hard for you. It would be easy – or even lazy – for some guy to try to turn himself into a clone of me, to try and make something of himself that he really wasn't. You're not doing that, because you've already figured out you have to do things for you, and that puts you so far ahead of other people. You have no idea.”

“Huh. I never thought about it like that. I just thought, you know, you're my age, and you already know what you want to do. How you want to leave your mark. I'm just...clueless.”

“Maybe,” I said. “but you're aware that you have no clues, but that there are clues to find, and you're looking. Most poor suckers wander around never having a clue, and never knowing they could look for them either.”

“How'd you get so smart?” he asked, smiling at me.

“Arguing with my parents,” I said with a grin.


I saw very little of Bryce in the next two weeks. Joe and Ansel said he could go camping, but only if his school work was up to date. I offered to help, but they were stuck on the idea Bryce had to get things done himself. I was aggravated, because I wasn't seeing much of him and because I could help him, but of course my mom took their side and said Bryce had to work for things he wanted, so they were setting an expectation that was good for him.

Of course we checked in a lot during the day, and I was on his ass about progress reports. I like going to a cabin, and I like nature – in fact it was a perfect vacation for me – but everything would be that much better with Bryce along. Also, I hated to admit, if he didn't meet Joe and Ansel's expectations, then he'd feel bad about himself. He's good at that, and I don't like it.

So when he didn't get his project done, I was crushed.

I was angry and disappointed.

“There will be other vacations, Rile,” my dad said.

I shook my head. “He knew this was important to me. I thought it was important to him.”

“I'm sure it was. We don't always hit what we aim for, buddy. Given how things have gone for him, he's probably beating himself up as it is.”

I leaned back against the wall. “Yeah, I guess. He did work really hard. I've barely seen him.”

“Right. Now think about how much he's gone through, and you may have some idea about how upset he is at himself.”

I sighed. “So, you're saying I have no right to be pissed.”

“I'm saying I'd probably go kick his ass,” my dad said with a laugh.

I smiled. “Why?”

“Because teenage boys are idiots,” he said, trying to sound wise. When I didn't reply, he continued, “Look. Bryce is a good guy going through a lot. If I had to guess, he probably felt pressure from the schoolwork, pressure not to let you down, plus he's trying to do the counseling, and he has to deal with Ansel – and you know I wouldn't wish that on anyone.”

I laughed. “You keep inviting him over! Why do you say stuff like that?”

He pointed at me. “You take that back! You know your mom likes Joe, so I have to invite them both!”

I laughed harder. “He's your best friend!”

My dad smiled and shrugged. “Still. He's got a lot going on. If you called him out he might even get mad, just because he's so frustrated on his own. All I'm saying is...probably should cut the guy some slack.”

“Yeah,” I said, sighing. I turned the situation over in my head, and then I looked up at my dad, a smile starting to spread.

He looked at me wearily. “What? What are you up to?”

“I was just thinking,” I said, the idea forming in my head. “Joe and Ansel said he couldn't go camping with us unless his work was done, right?”

“Yeah,” my dad replied, still sounding cautious.

“So, in theory, I could bring camping to him. Right?”

My dad covered his eyes with his hand. “This is your mother's influence.”


Joe's house has a back deck that he calls a three season room. It has plants and furniture in the spring, summer and fall, but he brings his plants in for safety and puts away the furniture, so it's a bare space now. Bryce was being kept at the shop with Ansel as part of the plan Friday afternoon, and I was hard at work setting up a tent, air mattress, sleeping bags, a cooler and an electric fireplace, as well as a small fire pot for s'mores.

“Well I think it's impressive for you to give up a vacation to stay with him,” Joe said. “I suppose young love is more powerful than a lot of things at times.”

I laughed at him. “My parents said something like that, too. It's not like we can't go on walks here – not that I didn't want to go.”

“I know,” he said, his tone properly regretful. “I'm sorry he couldn't go. Bryce is still learning healthy boundaries, and while my heart would like to let him go, my head says I wouldn’t be doing him any favors. Sometimes you have to do what's best for someone, even if it's not the most fun thing.”

I thought about that for a moment. “Do you think that's a good thing? I do that for Ansel too, right?”

He gave me a measured look, sticking his tongue into his cheek at the last. “Well. The difference with adults is two things. First, you have to accept that what's right in your world may not be right for them. Secondly, it's about them deciding to do things, rather than you forcing the issue.”

“But you them. Right? If you love them?”

He sighed and sat down on a plastic chair. “It's touchy, to be honest. Ideally these desires to help come from a place of love. Unfortunately, it can start to cloud how you see a person. You start to see where they need work and improving rather than the person you loved to begin with. If you're asking for my...well, no. You're not.” He bit his lower lip. “What I would say to you is that Bryce has walked a path very different from yours. To him the things he went through are normal, because it was his experience. Now he has people telling him how wrong his experience was,'s a confusing time to be Bryce.”

I turned and gave him my attention, not caring about my camp setup.

He smiled gently. “Sometimes he probably feels very out of control. Sometimes that feels liberating – do anything, it doesn't matter, because everything has changed. Sometimes it feels very scary, because many things you thought you knew have changed. Change is a strange beast to ride.” He looked down a bit before looking back to me. “If I were you, I wouldn't lose sight of who he is that you love. Remember it when he's not being that person, because it's still there. He's still there. Right now he doesn't really know who he is, so...just be there. Don't try to solve things for him. Give him advice he asks for, but other than that – enjoy him. Give him hope.”

I looked at Joe for a long minute. The gray mixed into his hair stood out more strongly due to the dark coloring of his skin. My dad was starting to get a few gray hairs too; he told my sister and I we were the cause. My mom colors her hair – I'm not sure what her natural color is.

“It sounds like you're telling me to do what a parent does.”

“Maybe. Just a little.” He smiled a bit wider. “Adults will have a smaller role in his life right now. His peers will be how he forms other opinions – his personality is set. He has a lot of things against him. Kids with disruptive childhoods can struggle later in life. They can be less educated than their peers, have more addiction and substance issues and have trouble forming proper relationships, because they had such poor examples. So...he has a lot to overcome. Giving him hope, though, is something everyone can do that loves him. So, do that.”

I nodded and looked back to my camping setup. Camping was my thing – nature. I loved it, and I wanted to share it with Bryce. Bryce always did what I wanted to, and I told myself it was because he wanted to be with me. I'm sure some of that is true, but was he doing these things just for me and not getting much in return? Wasn't giving hope also giving validation to the things he likes as well? I thought on that as I completed my setup.

“What's going on out here?” Bryce asked behind me. I turned and smiled – he was dirty from the shop.

“Well, I just didn't want a whole three day weekend away from my boyfriend,” I said with a grin.

He grimaced instead of smiling back. “You stayed because I screwed up?”

I nodded. “Yep. I really did want to go, but to be honest I was looking forward to sharing that with you.” I shrugged. “It just wasn't going to be the same without you, and I'd rather be with you.”

He let out an uncertain chuckle. “Okay. I mean, I'm glad you're here, but I'm sorry you didn't get to go.”

I approached him and sank into a hug that he quickly returned. “How about you go with me next time?”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“In the meantime, I brought camping to you, so we can talk about what you want to do this weekend.”

“What do you mean?”

I leaned back, leaving my hands firm behind his neck, while his own were flat to my sides. “I mean I love you. I love taking long walks with you, I love you trying all the things that are new to you for me – like food, cleaning up the park, listening to me talk about the environment. But we haven't really done things that you're interested in. I've been a bad boyfriend – and I could learn a lot just from what you've been doing for me. So tonight we camp, tomorrow we do what's on your mind. What do you think?”

He glanced behind him and then back to me. He leaned in and kissed me, a really sweet kiss. Pulling back, he said. “I want to do that. And I want to take you to Mrs. Fernandez's house. She makes the best food, and I'm sure she can teach us ways to make it vegetarian. I want you to meet Fern and I want to hang out with your cousin, Jo, since it's his fault we got together.” Then he kissed me again, very sweetly. “And I want to do that. I kind of always want to.”

“Sounds better than camping,” I said with a grin.

He sighed. “But first I have to finish the project. She said if I turned it in by Sunday night, I'd still get full credit, because I'd done a lot of work already.”

“Okay. What do you have left to do?”

“I have to transfer stuff to Power Point slides and get some stuff formatted. Joe said I have a lot of misspellings, and he's right – I was just rushing. Help me out?”

“How about you shower so you stop smelling like car fluids, but give me what you have, so I can start getting some formatting done?”

“How about the shower happens while you help me set the table?” Joe asked, coming up behind us.

“He lurks,” Bryce said, deadpan. “You always have to look around before doing anything.”

“Joe,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “He kisses so much better when you aren't looking.”

“Oh my God,” Bryce said, smiling and blushing while leaning his forehead down to my shoulder.

“It was more controlled than the last time, when he tried to swallow your whole head,” Ansel said, appearing behind Joe, wrapping his arms around his middle and resting his chin on Joe's shoulder.

I pulled Bryce a little closer, and Joe smiled at me. “I'll see you in the kitchen,” Joe said. “Bryce, should probably get your stuff in the laundry.”

“Okay,” he said, lifting his head.

Joe and Ansel turned and went back into the house.

“They're gone,” I said softly. “Kiss me again.”

He grinned. “Oh yeah? Like that?”

I smiled back. “They're going to holler at you to get in the shower,” I reminded him.

He hummed and went back to work on my lips.

That night we finished his project, then camped. The next day was really fun, meeting his friend Fern's mom, and she did have neat ways for us to cook foods that I can only think are comfort foods to Bryce. Then we visited with my cousin, who he calls Jo due to his last name – Johansson. Sunday, though...Sunday was the best. We spent the whole day, more or less, in his room, watching movies and playing games while eating junk. And kissing. Lots of kissing.