Life is strange.
Just a few months ago I'd been accepted to Juilliard, had a boyfriend and knew what my future held. At least I'd thought so. Since then my father had suffered a debilitating stroke, followed by rehab and a few minor strokes that had left him unrecognizable. Our finances had run dangerously low and I'd given up Julliard and gone to work at a sandwich shop to contribute to the household expenses. My mother was, by turns, grateful and embarrassed, melancholy and resolute. My home, a place of peace amid the world, had become unstable and ever-changing.
Music, though, was still a refuge. Oh, and quite unexpectedly, baseball had become one, too. The thought made me smile as I warmed up on the keyboard before we began our set. I'd discovered a local hangout where they had open mic nights. A few bands had formed, broken and reformed as personalities and musical styles came into conflict or harmony. My friends – my family – had come to see a few iterations of groups I'd been involved with. In between helping my mother at home, working, and going out to play out with the various bands, I'd grown into a baseball fan.
Only a few times had I been left on the bleachers by myself to cheer on Nate Kennedy and his team. I'd gained an understanding of how the game worked, and I'd participated in everything from celebrating achievements to berating the umpire. At first I'd been a little nervous about wearing Nate's old jersey; I wasn't a sports fan, per se. But I was a Nate fan, and now I looked forward to pulling on the button-up uniform top to show whom I was there to support.
“Okay, let's do a sound check,” Lisa said. Lisa was the bassist for this iteration of the band and was very focused as well as creative. Our guitarist, Alex, was an interesting contradiction in terms of how people pictured musicians. While some people went for outlandish, attention-grabbing clothing, he frequently wore work boots, jeans and a flannel shirt; not exactly what one might expect from an artist. While well kept he was interesting just because he dressed differently than expected. He kept a covered cup of coffee on a stand near him instead of water, which was a little odd because the hot stage lights made you sweat.
As we went through the routine of our sound check I noted Brett was late again. Brett was a singer but he was limited. He had a hard time with rehearsal schedules. He seemed to think the show only started when he arrived and that he needed no warm ups or prep work for us to be successful as a group. I was already planning to tell the group I wasn't staying, not with him and his antics.
Our drummer was Kelly, a girl with long honey-colored hair that was a striking contrast to her darker skin. My guess was she was mixed race, but I didn't know her well enough to have learned much in the way of personal details.
As we finished up I noticed a few of the small tables being pushed together. A knot of familiar, welcome faces were taking seats and ordering sodas and waters. The family had given me so much stability and support since the wheels came off of my life that I was sometimes amazed I'd done without them for so long. Here they were again, out for some fun and to support my band. Well, me, really. Robin and Lu had likely driven many of them in that brick-shaped bus of Lu's. Griffin, Devyn, and their friend Philip were anchoring one end of the table with Nate and Dylan squeezed next to them. I nodded to them as I caught a few eyes, but to be honest, my gaze lingered on Nate.
There was something brewing with him. Or perhaps I should say, something to do with him was brewing within me. Colby and I had broken up just before school ended, and while we were polite to one another, it was in the manner of people who are moving away from one another rather than toward. The plain fact of it was I liked Nate. I liked that despite his on-field prowess he wasn't full of himself or some kind of an alpha that needed to be in charge wherever he was. He was competitive yet modest. He was fun to be with and would try new things. For instance, he'd joined me a few times at the piano bench and was making some progress, even though he insisted he had no musical ability. I could talk to him, and despite his being a year behind me, he was more mature than a lot of people I'd met. Brett, for instance.
“Okay, looks like princess flaked on us. I'm not throwing away this chance to play out, though. Elliot, think you can do the 'Joy to the World' vocals to get us started?” Lisa asked.
“Uh, yeah. I can swing that,” I told her. We moved a mic stand by me so I could provide the vocals to a fun song by an old band named Three Dog Night. After a few minutes of warming up and tuning we were ready, and Lisa greeted the crowd and gave them some name for the band. Then Alex jumped in with the opening chords.
“Jeremiah was a bullfrog,” I sang, dropping my voice a bit lower than normal and trying to add a bit of scratchiness to it. We pulled the song together pretty well, and my friends gave us an enthusiastic reception.
“Hey! I'm here you know!” Brett's voice cut across my awareness like nails on a chalkboard. He stepped up onto the stage as we wound up that first song and was visibly upset. “What's the big idea? Nobody starts on time. Haven't you ever been to a real show?”
Lisa said something to him in a short, direct tone, but I couldn't hear it. I groaned internally as Brett pulled the mic from the stand in front of me. He looked down at me haughtily and said, “You're kind of pretty in a plain way, but you can't sing. Let me show you how it's done.”
Anger flashed through me, chased by embarrassment as I realized he'd not bothered to shield the mic with his hand and everyone had heard him. He greeted the room with a false cheer and my friends, right up front, booed him. He kept talking and they got louder, yelling at him to get off the stage. Lisa jumped in and announced the next song, trying to salvage the night, and we launched into the next tune. We played our set and I tried to just enjoy the music and that my friends had come out to see me play – and had stood up for me. Once the set was done, however, I quickly began to pack up my gear: keyboard, stand, amp and wiring.
My intent was to put things away so I could go spend time with my friends, but that wasn't to be.
“His whole table was sabotaging me! He needs to go, seriously! Find someone with talent!”
I looked over my shoulder at Brett, who was complaining to the rest of the band. I snorted.
“Hey, I quit. Problem solved,” I said and turned back to my stuff.
“No, screw that. If Brett stays, I'm done,” Alex said.
“Me too,” Kelly chimed in. “I just want to play, and Brett, you're more drama than you're worth.”
“Unanimous. Hit the road, Brett,” Lisa told him. Brett tried to argue and said a few nasty things but I wasn't really pleased one way or another. I felt like he'd put a pall over the performance that I couldn't shake.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Brett snarled as he invaded my space.
“Whoa. Back off,” I told him.
“Fuck that!” he snapped. “Don't you think guys like us should stick together? Don't you have any loyalty?”
“Uh, I'm nothing like you.” Not only that, I thought, but weren't you just throwing me under the bus?
“Please. I see your table full of queens over there. If they hadn't been booing me this wouldn't be happening!”
“We booed you because you stink,” Nate said in a quiet yet dangerous tone and stepped between us, forcing Brett back a step.
“Oh, great!” Brett exclaimed and waved an arm toward me. “Got your butch boy toy to fight for you?”
“No,” Nate said quietly. “I'm actually protecting you here.”
We both looked at him in confusion.
“I think if you keep running your mouth, my boy Elliot here is going to take one of those cables and wrap it around your chicken neck until you finally shut up.”
My jaw unhinged and Brett's eyes widened as he looked down at my hands filled with the half-coiled wires from my setup.
“Fuck this,” Brett snarled ineffectually and stalked away. My table sent up a cheer at his departure but I was looking at Nate who had a slight blush on his face.
“Need a hand?” he asked.
The corner of my mouth pulled up. “Hand me that bag?”
“Hey. I'm going to Hermie's to get some rosin and look at some sheet music. Busy?”
I glanced around at the laundry scattered across my bed, waiting to be folded. “Nothing I don't want to put off. Shall I meet you?”
“Nah,” Griffin replied. “I'll pick you up in about fifteen?”
“Cool,” I replied and hung up. Walking into the living room I found my dad in his wheelchair, strap around his chest. He kept trying to stand up, but he no longer had the balance or coordination. The doctors said he'd likely never walk again, but that hadn't gotten through to my dad. He'd taken a couple of bad falls, and there was talk of him needing more care than we could give him at home.
“Hey, Pop,” I said and dropped into the chair next to him. He smiled widely, vacantly.
“Music,” he said in a garbled voice. I picked up the remote and flicked it over to one of the channels that played music from the 60s. He sighed in satisfaction as I replaced the remote.
“I'm going to the music store. Maybe I should get some new music, huh?”
“Music,” he said with a smile and a nod.
I shook my head and stood, placing a kiss on the crown of his head. He gurgled happily and I walked back into the kitchen in search of my mom. She was sitting at the table with a stack of papers and a laptop open.
“Hi, Mom. How's it looking?”
She glanced at me and sighed. “I'm so glad your friends knew how to get this laptop working again. With the spreadsheets to work with, well, it makes it a lot easier to see how broke we are,” she said and let out a rueful chuckle.
I sat beside her. “How bad?”
She let out a small sigh and smiled. “We won't starve, but we can't afford to have your father get more care, either. Not until we can get his disability approved. It's hard to keep a decent attitude about it all, but I guess it could be worse.”
I rubbed the side of my nose. “The owner of the shop was talking to me about trying to get into a management training program the chain offers. If I do that, I can get more hours.”
My mother shook her head. “The summer is fine, part-time as long as it won't interfere with school is fine. We can't squander your future on the now.”
“Mom,” I said with a sigh.
“No.” She glared at me. “I'm grateful, Elliot, for everything you're doing. God knows I'm grateful for your friends and everything they've done to help. I never thought that in my life I'd ever be grateful to the kindness of a teenage boy; they aren't exactly known for their largess.
“But you have to get an education. The community college is very good and I have all the paperwork for grants. There may be a program we can take advantage of where your dad used to work; thank God they are family owned and being very generous with us—and for your father's insurance.” She placed a hand over mine and looked at me intently. “I'm very proud of you, Elliot. I know your father felt you were the greatest testament to our married life. I will not let you squander your future because of your compassion and decency. Help as you can, and let your parents...parent do her job, too.”
I looked down at my hands. I still felt the need to try to help more. “If we sold my car and didn't have the insurance payment, that would help. I can get rides or use my bike or something.”
She leaned back in her chair. “Do you remember the day you got that car?”
I smiled thinly. “I'm not sure who was happier, me or Dad.”
She shook her head. “Elliot, honey, I appreciate your willingness to help and sacrifice. I do. Thank you. But this part, it isn't your responsibility or your fight. If I need help, I'll ask, okay? I promise.”
I nodded reluctantly, wishing there were a way out.
“We're selling Dad's car already. He'll...never drive again. It's in good shape, and mine is doing okay on miles. They're paid for. Don't worry so much, Elliot. We'll find a way through this.”
I nodded and let out a sigh. “Griffin is picking me up to go to Hermie's. Do you need anything from the store while I'm out?”
“Oh, yes. Here, I made a list, and I have a couple of coupons,” she said, turning to grab her purse from the backrest of the chair. “I also cleaned his mother's pan – did you ever get me her number so I could thank her?”
“Ah, crap. No, I forgot. I'm sorry,” I replied while feeling a little dumb.
“Please remember today. I don't think she'd hold it against us, but I don't want to let anyone think we aren't grateful for the unexpected and welcome help.”
“I will,” I told her.
Minutes later I climbed into Griffin's Prius and buckled in. “Here's your mom's pan. Before I forget again, can you shoot me your mom's number? My mom wants to call to thank her for all her help.”
“Yeah, no probs.”
“Hey, thanks for calling, Griff. I can't remember the last time I went to Hermie's.”
“No problem. So are you playing with that band still, or did you actually quit?”
“Eh,” I shrugged. “They booted Brett in favor of me. Kind of feel like I owe them a little.”
“You're not a bad singer. Why don't you take over the vocals?”
“Nah. I like it sometimes, don't get me wrong, but I think we're all going to take turns a bit for now, unless someone comes along who works out better.”
Griff hmmmed a reply and then said, “So, Nate really stood up to that guy.”
I chuckled. “Nate's a solid guy. Not sure how Brett wasn't wetting himself.”
We laughed and Griff continued, “Nate rocks. He deserves something good in his life. You know, ahem, so do you.”
I glanced at Griff and smiled. “Subtle, Griff. You're a real ninja.”
“It's a gift,” he said and broke down laughing.
“Hey, I saw Philip out the other night with you guys. How's he recovering from his break-up?”
“In a minute,” Griff said in a teasing tone. “Since you're going to fence with me...what do you think of Nate?”
I felt my face warming slightly. “He's one of the good guys. Easy to talk to, boy-next-door good looks, modest. Can't think of a bad thing to say about the guy.”
I shrugged. “So what?”
“Jesus. Okay, fine, we'll play this game. Have you thought about asking him out? Do you like Nate that way?”
I turned and looked out the window. I sighed lightly before replying. It was hard not to think about the idea, considering how many unsubtle pushes I was getting. I'm not really sure what was holding me back, but a few things jumped to mind. “It's not a good time. Things are all kinds of weird in my life and Nate doesn't deserve to have to deal with that.”
“Setting aside the details of that statement, you have thought about Nate as boyfriend material?”
I chuckled and looked back toward Griff. “Yeah, duh. What's not to like? But, like I said, I have a lot going on and relationships take work. I've had one already that I wasn't ready for and I'll always regret that. I had another that was dying and I didn't realize it until it was too late. Do I really want to start something, or try to, when I have all this history and these distractions?” I shook my head.
“But you like Nate? Like, are attracted to him?”
I laughed and threw my hands up in the air. “Yeah! Nate's adorable inside and out. What's your point?”
“Just this,” Griff said casually. “One of the great things about knowing Nate is that he doesn't need to be the center of attention anywhere he is. I think the biggest mistake you could make is to avoid a relationship with him when it's happening so organically on its own. Think about it – this isn't like a blind date or where you're trying to get to know someone. If you were talking about hitting up a dating app or something then, yeah, I'd be asking if you were ready for that.
“But all that awkward stuff about getting to know each other is behind you, not to mention all your friends approve. You know who Nate is and he knows you. You both like each other already. Isn't that worth building on?”
“Wait, Nate likes me? I mean, you know this?”
“I didn't, you know, ask him outright. But he's happy to go where you're going to be, he's happy you're at his games, and he kind of leads the charge in rounding folks up to go see you play. He's actually willingly spent time at a musical instrument because he's spending time with you. So, I think there is reason to think he likes you just fine.”
My heart fluttered in my chest. “Yeah, but that could just be that he likes hanging out. It doesn't imply, you know, romantic interest.”
“Well, I think you should seriously consider spending more time with him. You guys would be good for each other and, El, don't you think you guys deserve a win?”
There was a certain amount of truth, of sense to Griff's argument. Would dating Nate be more like spending time with him like I was now? Would it be that much different than what we were doing already? Well, yes, of course it would! We'd have time alone and that meant.... I swallowed at the idea of spending that kind of time with Nate. Although he was athletic and he did train to stay in shape, he was by no means a weightlifter or something in that category. He simply seemed organic and wholesome; naturally athletic and his body developed along that line. I'd idly wondered what he looked like under those clothes. It had been a long time since Colby had shown any real interest in anything physical with me, though perhaps I'd not been pursuing him, either.
I did wonder how Nate managed to have, at all times, a skin tone with a light tan almost always present. Was that simply his natural skin tone?
“So, while you think about that... Philip? Yeah, he's starting to come around.”
“Philip?” I asked in confusion and then my mind caught up. “Oh, right. Didn't he and Boomer used to date?”
“Yeah. Philip was kind of mentally on a pendulum. First it was outright disrespect and piggishness, and then he went to being something of a prude. Losing Sterling – Boomer's given name – was hard on him. It's taken him some time to get over some of the anger in order to talk and now he's feeling really remorseful and a little sorry for himself.”
I unbuckled as he killed the engine. “Huh. I don't know much about Philip. I know he used to be kind of sleazy.”
“Yeah, he had a bad run. He really cares about Sterling. I think he's trying to work up the courage to admit he might not have been fair with him. I just hope it's not too late. Sterling was good for him.”
“They broke up a while ago, didn't they?” I asked as we entered the store. I followed Griff as he made his way to the area for supplies.
“Yeah. I think Philip might have stayed stubborn about it all until he heard Sterling kissed Jamie Kirkwood.”
“Seriously? I thought I heard Jamie was dating a girl. Is anyone straight in that family?” I asked with a chuckle.
“He's dating Emily something,” Griff replied with a chortle. “Girl is pretty and smarter than Jamie, so he's been pretty stuck on her. Way I hear it, Sterling kissed Jamie and Jamie just kind of got conquered,” he said and burst into giggles. I joined him, thinking of the confident younger Kirkwood getting a surprise lip-lock from a buddy.
“How'd Jamie take it?”
“Oh, not a great deal fazes him anymore I don't think. Not stuff like that anyway. He's getting some of that zen-like quality Robin has, the calm bastard,” Griff snickered.
“So you think that got Phil's attention? He's going to try and get Sterling back?” I asked as we drifted over to the sheet music.
“Honestly? I think he's been sneaking over there at night. He kind of drops hints, and I can't swear to it, but I think they've been hooking up.”
“So not dating but still getting a piece?”
“I think Philip, in his own screwed up way, is trying to win Sterling back. I'm not sure how it's working out. I haven't asked Philip about it directly; he's been a little stand-offish about his private life since they broke up. But he got pretty stiff when he heard about Sterling kissing someone else.”
“Think he was waiting for Boomer to come crawling back?” I asked as I thumbed through a book of 60s music.
“You know, I kind of think he was, in a way. I just hope Philip doesn't get hurt again. You can't build anything out of sneaking around to screw,” Griff grumbled.
I grunted and put the music book back. It made more sense for me, right now, to download music – except the printer was broken. Crap. I thumbed the book and decided to get it. If I played the keyboard in the living room for my dad, maybe it would be a good thing.
“Thinking about Nate?” Griff teased. “Thinking about making another kind of 'sheet music'?” I glanced at him and blushed.
“This book,” I said. “My dad is into music from the 60s. I was debating getting the book. My printer at home is broken so I can't print stuff that's free right now.”
“Oh, come to my house. Let's print some stuff,” Griff offered.
“Yeah, no problem. Hey, maybe we can stop by Dev's and see if Nate is home.”
“Okay, hang on,” I told him. “Seriously, why are you pimping this kid out? I'd kind of get your trying to move compatible people together, but really? And the sheet music joke?”
“You guys could make a great duet.” He looked at me with amusement in his eyes.
“Beautiful music together?”
“Stop!” I said with a laugh and pushed his shoulder. He broke into a smile.
“All kidding aside, Dev knows who you are. I mean, he knows. He loves Nate like a long-lost sibling. Now, I don't know you as well as Dev, but I do know Nate. I've seen his not-so-great moments and I've seen the tremendous progress he's made.”
Griff bit his lip. “My motivation isn't purely your or Nate's happiness.”
Ah, now we were getting down to it. “Okay, and?” I leaned against the display of sheet music and waited for Griff to respond.
“I would like to see you both happy,” he amended. “It's just not the only thing I care about. Devyn is...I won't say he's my world. I love my parents and they're incredible people. Devyn, though? He's my future. I can't think of anything I wouldn't do for him.” He sighed and looked away. “He's worrying about not being here for Nate.”
“Nate's, what, seventeen? Isn't he old enough to handle himself? Or is there something wrong with him?” I asked, wondering if I'd just stumbled onto some fatal flaw.
“It's not really that. They're really close, of course, and I just know ninety percent of Devyn's motivation for getting that damn surgery was just so he could talk to Nate,” Griff said with a little heat in his voice. He looked up at me, slightly abashed. “I know that sounds terrible. I know Dev wants to talk to me, also. To be able to actually say that he loves me, all that. But I know him and I know Nate was high on his list of reasons to go through with it.”
I let my head tilt from side to side. “Yeah, probably. But from what I understand, they didn't even cut his neck. It was all—”
“Not you too!” he groaned. “Look, I know I'm not being reasonable. But,” he said with conviction, “every surgery has risk. I'm just not willing to risk Devyn. Period.”
He leaned to one side. “Wouldn't you be?”
Once more I tilted my head from side to side. “I don't get to make decisions for anyone else. I guess you found that out, though.” I smiled at him and he blew a breath out.
“Yeah. Anyway, not the point,” he said. “Nate. You may know Nate has a bit of a checkered dating history, yeah?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, I know he had some kissing adventures at camp. I think I told you I'd heard something about him and Nik. That's all I know, honestly.”
“Okay, well, he hasn't made the smartest moves with his love life. Nik is a whole story in itself and, honestly, it's kind of sad. I feel for both of them; they're part of my family. But...a bad fit.” He sighed. “Dylan tried to land Nate at one point.”
“Really?” I asked, my voice rising to match my eyebrows. “But he and Cris seem really tight and they both adore...is there a three way thing going on?”
Griffin laughed. “No! Though we have teased Nate about it since Dylan and Cris both think he's cute.” He shook his head. “No, Dylan first woke Nate up to the idea of guys. See, Nate is sweet, loyal, compassionate...and he can be a little thick.”
I chuckled. “People say I have my head in the clouds. You mean like that?”
Griff pursed his lips. “Not exactly. He used to not think things through very well, but he's come a long way, there. But, see, he also boned some girl last year and then he, uh....” Griffin flushed a deep red and the corners of his mouth twitched up in an embarrassed smile. “Devyn and I were having some alone time. Nate didn't realize I was there and came in to talk to Dev and, instead, ended up watching us.”
I covered my mouth as I coughed and tried not to laugh. “Um, wow. So, um, what does that have to do with...?”
“Just this. He wants what Dev and I have. Not, you know, nailed down to having that with a guy, but he wants the relationship. He's mentally there, you know? I want him to have that stable, mature relationship and not chance him getting to round three with Nik or someone who is in that...frame of mind.”
“And what frame is that?”
“Horny. Or only horny.” Griff laughed. “Look, I hope Nate gets laid by whomever he's dating and on his terms. It's just that Nate's figured out sex isn't the same as a relationship. He wants both. So finding a good match for him is good for him and good for my own relationship.”
“I see,” I said with a chuckle. “And you think I'm the answer?”
Griff looked at me hard. I could tell he was weighing his words and, maybe, assessing his true feelings.
“I think you guys are too compatible to not give each other a chance. I think Nate is ready for a good, real love and I think Devyn knows you well enough to think you will give him that.”
I blushed. “Um, Dev hasn't said anything to me. Just you.”
“He will. But, hey, I know we can't make you like Nate or become attracted but...I hope he's on your mind.”
More and more, he is. But I'd be damned if I'd give Griff the satisfaction.
Our shoes beat the asphalt at a frantic pace as Cris and I sprinted the final two blocks toward his house. My lungs burned, my legs felt disconnected from my body and I flew down the road with the wind pushing my hair back and Cris in my peripheral vision keeping up with my every step. The air whipped over and past the skin on my chest, cooling me and drying sweat almost as fast as my body produced it. We both pulled up on his lawn and gulped for air. Dylan, sitting in a lawn chair and recording us on his phone, cheered at us and declared a tie.
I pushed his chair over.
Cris laughed in spurts, given our lack of breath. It took a few minutes to regulate our breathing and get hydrated. With us both playing summer league baseball – one that scouts attended – Cris and I had teamed up to work out and keep one another honest in our exercise. Dylan just liked watching us exhaust ourselves, though today he'd gotten it into his head to record our workout as if it were some sort of how-to with his silly commentary to go along with our various exercises. I'd ridden out the day before with them both and stayed over at Cris's. His parents were stiff but liked that I was a ballplayer. I had a feeling that they thought I was some straight guy that was going to lead Cris back to the straight and narrow.
If I were straight, that still wouldn't happen. He and Dylan were nearly as tight as Griff and Dev, and things don't work like that anyway. Not that they knew, of course, but one, I'm bi. For two, I had no designs on either of my friends.
“Are you guys almost done? I want to get pizza,” Dylan complained as he looked between us.
I glanced at Cris. “I told you. Should have left him at home if you want to get in a full workout.”
“Oh, he's going to get a workout,” Dylan growled and looked at Cris who flushed and laughed while wiping his chest off with his wadded up shirt.
“Not with me in the room,” I snorted.
“We can be quiet. Can't we?” Dylan said to Cris who flushed even more and chuckled. I looked back and forth between them.
“No. Seriously? You guys were getting it on right next to me?” My jaw dropped open at the thought of me sleeping away while they poked and prodded each other.
Dylan stuck his tongue out. “We can wake you up next time, if you want. Or are you holding out for Elliot?”
“Jesus. Here we go again!” I exclaimed and threw my hands in the air.
Cris burst out laughing and Dylan smiled unrepentantly. I looked straight up into the sky and blew my breath out. Cris's laughter was joined by Dylan's.
“I don't know why you're so resistant to the idea,” Dylan said in a reasonable tone, undercut with a thread of playfulness. “He's a cool guy. He seems to like you. He's got great hands and those cheekbones could cut glass.”
“He's a year older, going to college soon and he's got a lot of responsibilities at home. He doesn't need some clumsy come-on from me.” I brought my gaze down and locked on Dylan's face, willing myself to look intimidating.
“So he needs you. Is that so bad?” Dylan replied. “It's not like you wouldn't step up for him anyway. You could do worse. In fact, have done worse.”
“You going to throw Nik at me right now? Really?”
Dylan frowned. “Nik cared in his way. No, I was thinking of that slut you banged.”
“Jesus,” I said with a frown. “I really shouldn't tell you shit.”
His expression shifted to something approaching contrition. “I just think you guys would be an amazing fit. He enjoys spending time with you, how much could it hurt to see if there is any romantic chemistry there?”
I snorted. “You just want me to have a boyfriend.”
“Well, it's true I'd prefer to see you with a guy,” he conceded as he approached me. “Not just any guy though. The right guy.”
“I'm bi. What about the right girl?”
“Well,” he said drawing it out. “I know the right answer is whomever you feel happy with, but I really do like having that in common with you. So, yeah, maybe I'm a little biased. But!” He held a finger up and grinned. “Elliot is perfect for you and you know it. You even like him!”
I shook my head and Cris stepped up, placing a hand on his boyfriend's shoulder. “Take it easy. He's got his reasons.”
“Hmph,” Dylan groused. He glanced at his phone and grinned. Hitting the screen he said, “Why hello, Elliot. Oh? Did you see it all? You can't have.”
I rolled my eyes as he walked away and I assumed he was just screwing with me.
“Huh,” Cris said and looked at Dylan thoughtfully.
“What?” I asked as I pulled my shirt back on.
“Well I thought he was joking but...I think he posted some of our earlier workout online.”
“So? Why are you...?”
Cris glanced at me. “Well, you know Dylan. What are the odds he posted it and tagged it for Elliot's attention?”
My eyes widened. “Oh, for the love of...what is it with this obsession he has with putting me and Elliot together?”
Cris sat on the curb and I joined him, stretching my legs out and enjoying letting the breeze push the fine hairs on my legs around, slightly tickling my skin. I leaned back on his lawn, digging my elbows into the soft grass and tilted my head back. I closed my eyes and let the sun warm me and dry any remaining sweat from my body.
“I think it's a couple of things,” Cris said slowly as if thinking.
“You think what's a couple of things?” I asked distractedly as I sat up and scratched my neck.
“Why he's so interested in you and Elliot. You know, Dylan's always been up front with just about everything in his life.”
“Yeah. Dyl has never been the kind of guy to snow you about something,” I agreed.
“Well, you won't be surprised that he explained right away how much you meant to him,” Cris replied and bumped me with his shoulder. I looked at him and smiled. He continued, “I even worried that, if you expressed interest in him he'd leave me for you.”
My jaw dropped. “Cris! I'd never try to poach anyone, especially not one of you guys! How could you even think that?”
He held a hand up and chuckled. “It was before we'd met, actually. Dylan, in typical fashion, told me that time had passed and he was focusing his energy on our relationship. There's no question, he's done everything he can to make this long distance thing work out.”
“Wait, you're not dumping him, are you?” I asked in alarm. It was just something about what he'd said about the long-distance thing that set off a warning in me.
“What? No! Don't be dense, Kennedy!” he said and laughed. “I'm saying Dylan's honest to a fault, loyal to a fault. So I think there's a couple reasons he wants to see you with Elliot.”
I rolled my eyes. “Okay, Cris, I guess it's your turn. Give me your sales pitch.”
“No pitch, just trying to give you Dylan's motivation. Firstly, I do think he really believes you guys are right for each other. Elliot is a really good guy and I've had some time to get to know him while we were at your games. Personally, I think Elliot is into you.” He held up a pair of fingers, “For two, I know that girl you slept with—”
“Jesus, will no one let that go?”
“—wasn't very accepting of Dylan. So I think Elliot has the added bonus of security, that Dylan knows you won't grow away from him because of a relationship where your partner doesn't like gay people.”
“Come on! Give me some credit. You think I'd date someone like that?”
Cris shrugged and looked away. “No. But you don't always find out about these things right away. Sometimes you get to care about someone and discover some fatal flaw. It's not always black and white, you know?”
“Okay, maybe,” I assented. “But Dylan has to know I wouldn't ever drop him.”
Cris sighed. “He knows. I think he doesn't want to see you in that position again. No one likes to be part of a 'me or them' kind of choice.”
We fell silent and I thought back over my history with Elliot. I knew of him because I'd gone to watch Devyn play at concerts with the school's show band, Sahara. Elliot played piano and did a little singing. I'd gotten to know him a little more at last year's camping trip. I flushed a little as I thought about El, sitting out in the sun on a deck chair and how I admired his slender form.
Guys who were into sports like me and were serious tended to try to 'bulk up'. I, on the other hand, simply wanted to tone and build on what I had in a balanced way, not to end up looking like I was a gym rat or a steroid head. Elliot didn't fit any of that. His muscles were slightly defined and he appeared somewhat delicate. Thinking of the words thin or skinny made me think of someone undernourished or unhealthy like one of those posters for African relief funds. Elliot was slender and healthy but would never be mistaken for an athlete.
Of course, there'd been a lot of nice looking guys at camp. Frequently they would be in some state of undress from swimming or other activities. That too, of course, was where I'd had an encounter with Nik that had left me breathless and a little amazed. It also brought to mind the conversation I'd had with Philip, right after he'd walked in and gotten an eyeful of my bare ass. Philip had awkwardly tried to flirt with me, but it had never amounted to anything. I dimly recall planning to try and kiss Philip, but the opportunity hadn't presented itself and I had gotten over the idea.
Since that time I'd run into Elliot with increasing frequency, culminating with him coming to my games and my listening to him when he played out. He'd been kind when my mother passed and I tried to be a friend while his family was struggling with his dad's stroke. But under all that I couldn't deny an attraction to him, an enjoyment of his company. He was comforting to be around and pretty good looking to boot.
I headed inside with Cris and picked up my phone while I waited for him to shower. I couldn't help the smile that tugged at my lips as I saw a waiting text from Elliot.
“Damn. I didn't know you were hiding a six pack under that uniform!”
“You can only see it if I tighten my stomach,” I replied, heat rushing to my face.
“I didn't realize you had to work so hard to keep your shape. That looks like hard work!”
“If I want scouts to notice me I have to stay in shape. I can't believe Dylan sent you a video of Cris and me working out!” I would have to get even with Dylan, somehow. This was embarrassing, yet exciting. Did Elliot like what he'd seen? Did he like more than just what I looked like? It seemed so, with his attending my games and teaching me, sort of, to play piano. Sharing himself with me.
“Was a little bit of a surprise to me, too. Getting ready for your game tomorrow?”
“Just working out in general. You coming tomorrow?” My heartbeat picked up as I waited for his reply.
“Yes! I washed my game jersey and I'm ready to go!” I felt like my face was on fire. Every time he wore my jersey I felt a thrill of excitement.
“When are you playing out next?”
“Lisa called today, actually. We're going to play tonight at 7. Think you can make it?”
I bit my lip and looked at the time. Only one o'clock. “I'm relying on Cris to get me back to the springs. If he drops me off can you give me a ride home?”
“Definitely. Let me know!”
Dylan poked his head into the room. “Crispy showering?”
“Yeah,” I replied and set my phone down. “You had to follow up sending Elliot a video with talking to him, huh?”
“Technically,” he said while leaning against the wall, “he would have been calling me. I was just faking, though. I saw you and Cris talking and decided to call Griff instead.”
“I didn't realize you and Griff were on calling terms,” I said while thinking I was missing something. I hate that feeling.
“He and I have similar goals,” Dylan said breezily. “So, uh, any comments from Elliot on your...workout video?”
My face filled with warmth again. “Why'd you do that, Dyl?”
“I just wanted Elliot to see what he was missing. So?”
I shook my head and looked away. “He's playing out tonight. I asked if I was able to get Cris to drop me at the place he's playing out if I could get a ride home with him.”
“Oh, we'll drop you off,” Dylan said with a knowing smile. “And if he wants to see you so quickly then that video did its job!”
I was relieved when Cris reentered the room and I was able to escape to the shower.
After Cris and I got cleaned up we went out for pizza and generally screwed around the downtown area, walking around and looking through store windows and talking. Dylan didn't push the Elliot thing, but I know he wanted to.
I'm not against the idea, I'm really not. I know Elliot jokes that his fingers are what draws people in and I admit his long, slender, tapered fingers look like hands I'd want to hold. He's easy going and likes to share his interests, but he's completely willing to let someone share their interests with him as well. He's also good looking. Elliot is built in a unique way. He's around five foot ten or so with brown hair that looks impossibly soft. His face is sculpted with prominent cheekbones and his slender form somehow makes him look like he has long legs despite also seeming proportional.
I liked looking at Elliot when he let his mind wander, and he did that often. His eyes would drift out of focus and the most wonderful, thoughtful expression would settle onto his face. He was the ultimate boy-next-door and Devyn's talk of what a good kisser Elliot was only made me more interested.
My points, though, are valid. I have no idea if Elliot would be interested in a half-baked jock like me. I feel clumsy around him with his fine boned features next to my plain looks. El also had a lot going on at home with his dad's condition, which wasn't going to change any time soon. He had college coming up and what college guy wants to date a high school senior? I mean, he probably wants some hot college guy, right?
“Jesus and Christ, Nate! I swear to God there is smoke pouring from your ears!” Cris said with a hearty laugh. I smiled and my face felt flushed. Both Dylan and Cris liked to make fun of me when I drifted off into thought.
“Cris! Hi!” The voice was one I didn't recognize. All three of us turned to see a lanky teen crossing the street with a short, round-faced companion. Not only were they physically opposites but the taller one was almost swishing across the street and his partner was doing something a little closer to waddling.
“Hey, Simon,” Cris replied as the two arrived in front of us. “I think you know my boyfriend, Dylan, and this is our friend Nate.”
“Hi, Dylan. Nice to see you. And helloo, Nate!”
I blushed but shook Simon's hand.
“This is my boyfriend, Kyle. We were just thinking about heading to the ice cream place. Want to join us?” As Simon spoke I couldn't help but think he was the most stereotypical gay boy I'd ever heard. He seemed anxious and yet bubbly. I'd never met anyone like him, but, maybe because I'd grown some in the last year, I didn't mind his flamboyance.
“I love ice cream,” I said before my friends could answer. Simon squealed and clapped quickly while Kyle nodded and smiled.
“Ice cream would be perfect,” Dylan admitted, and we turned as a group and started walking to the next block before turning and walking another two to an ice cream stand. On the way Simon bubbled and made interesting noises and frequently made me chuckle. Kyle seemed like such an opposite yet he stayed right beside Simon. How interesting that they were so different and yet they fit together. Could that be an example of what I might have with Elliot?
Damn Dylan for giving me hopes and ideas about Elliot! Sometimes it seemed like I had Elliot on the brain!
“Nate! Wake up!” Dylan said and laughed. I blinked a little owlishly and looked around at the group.
“Sorry, I guess I zoned out. What did I miss?”
“I was asking if you were seeing anyone but you have someone on your mind, that's sure enough!” Simon said with a little squeal. “Who is it? Is she pretty? A cheerleader or a dancer?”
The corner of my mouth pulled up and I glanced at Dylan who looked to be holding his breath. I rolled my eyes and looked back at Simon. “He plays piano.”
“You're gay?” Kyle blurted and then went very red.
My own face felt warm but I tilted my head and said, “I'm bi, actually. But my friends, here, are trying to push me to go out with this one guy.”
“Do you like this guy?” Simon asked breathlessly.
I nodded. “He's really cool.”
“Is he pretty? Like Simon?” Kyle asked and Simon blushed and leaned into his boyfriend with a big smile.
It just wasn't possible not to smile back. “He's very good looking, yes.”
“What's holding you back? He looks good, you look good – is he a nice guy?” Kyle asked and then suddenly seemed to realize he'd commented on my appearance and his face went a deep red.
I coughed and smiled a little nervously. “A few things. He's a year older, has a lot going on at home right now. I'm not sure he feels that way toward me. Stuff, you know.”
“I told him he should find out,” Dylan told them and they both nodded.
“Honey, you're a catch. Don't let anything like that hold you back. He'd be lucky to have you,” Simon said with authority and his boyfriend nodded in agreement. Huh. No jealousy between them. How odd. Oh, and he'd just complimented the fuck out of me.
“That's nice of you to say,” I began but stopped as Simon began to wave his finger at me.
“No, I'm not just saying that. When I found out Cris was gay I was like 'Whoa. Guys like Cris are never gay'. When I found out Kyle was gay I was like, 'I'm locking him down before anyone else finds out!'” and he laughed. Kyle smiled widely and Simon continued, “Honey, you're a unicorn. You're nice and polite, handsome and...listen, even though I know I grate on some people's nerves – fuck them, you know? But you're cool and nice as could be. Grab that pianist. Make him yours.”
“Okay then,” I said with a chuckle. “How about we get some ice cream and get off my love life?”
We ordered and took seats. Some people would look at Simon pointedly, as his very existence was something of a spectacle. But Simon was right – fuck them. We hung out for an hour or so before Cris said we needed to head back to the Springs. Dylan agreed and said they needed to drop me to meet Elliot which drew a round of ohs. The ride back was quiet; I was turning over things about Elliot in my head the entire way.
Dylan had fooled Cris's mother into thinking his house was a safe, responsible place by having his aunt Mina pose as his mother on the phone. That netted him having Cris stay over sometimes, and tonight was such a night. I knew they'd have sex of some kind at some point. They did't have to to enjoy each other's company; Dylan had told me that, to him, sex was simply demonstrating his affection for Cris physically, as opposed to the other ways he showed Cris what he meant to him. He'd told me that they didn't always mess around on overnights. I was a little skeptical, but hey, it was his relationship, not mine. If it were mine, say having Elliot sleep over? Yeah, sex.
Jesus, I just thought about sex with Elliot. My relationship history was spotty at best. Would I hope, should Elliot want a relationship, for it to be physical as well? I think that would be a yes. In fact, it was a hell yes. God, I felt like such a twelve year old with a crush.
They both wished me good luck as they dropped me downtown and I waved them away with a smile. I hoisted my bag and entered the business, a weird combination of bar/restaurant/coffee shop. Elliot's band was already warming up, so I got a drink and settled in to listen. I'd like to say I could recall something about the set they played, but in truth I was looking at Elliot and letting 'What if?' play over and over in my head.
When they were done, I approached them and congratulated him on his performance. He smiled widely and ran a hand through his damp hair.
“Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for coming, of course,” he said.
“Wouldn't miss it,” I replied. “Need a hand?”
We loaded up his keyboard and stand, as well as wires and an amp. It all fit easily into his car with room to spare for my overnight bag, and I climbed in next to him.
“I don't think I could work out like you do. I run sometimes but, man, I was sweating just watching you guys!” Elliot said with a laugh as we pulled out into traffic and he pointed the car back toward home.
“Nah. You could do it. Want to come next time?” I asked, wondering if his comment about sweating while watching meant something besides the literal. I hated this cat and mouse!
“Maybe. I don't think I could keep up with you two.”
“I could ease you into it, just us,” I offered.
He looked at me and grinned before refocusing his attention on the road. “You going to be my personal trainer? I don't have any money.”
I blushed. “I work cheap. Maybe you can pay me back and come to the batting cages with me Saturday?” I had no idea where that came from.
“Whoa, play sports? Me? Only if you learn something on the piano!” he said and laughed.
“I already know that one thing,” I said and wiggled my pointer fingers while grinning at him.
“Uh, no, that's cheating,” he replied. “I can teach you something. Want to stop by my house before I drop you off?”
My heart skipped a beat. “Uh, yeah. I don't have any plans.” Jesus, my mouth was dry.
Elliot's house was really nice to look at. The interior was kind of elegant with two tone walls and wainscoting. The furniture looked expensive, and I wondered just what his folks did for work. Or, had done. I helped him carry his gear into his room and place it out of the way. Elliot asked if I'd mind waiting a few minutes while he cleaned up; the lights were hot on the stage and he was covered in dried sweat.
He grabbed a couple of things and disappeared through a door – jeez, he gets a private bathroom too? I heard the shower kick on and I let my gaze wander around the room from his full bed to the framed art on his walls of bands and instruments. He really did breathe music. He had a section devoted to pictures, a collage of sorts, and there were some pictures of him with Sahara playing somewhere. A selfie of him and his ex on a hiking trail or campsite. I was surprised to find one of me in my uniform. I was poised at third base, waiting for the crack of the bat. I felt a fluttering of emotions run through my chest and over my heart.
The shower kicked off and I moved over to sit on the bed and pulled my phone out. I didn't want him to think I was going through his stuff, even though I sort of was. Moments later he walked in with damp hair, a tee shirt and shorts. He stopped at his bureau and pulled ankle socks out before sitting beside me to pull them on.
“So what kind of music do you like, Nate?”
“Um, I like a lot of things, actually. It depends on what I'm doing, though.”
“Oh?” he asked and folded his legs on the bed. “Do tell.”
I slipped my phone back in my pocket. “Well, if I'm doing homework or something else where I need to focus, I like the music to have no words. Otherwise it distracts me. It's like my brain wants to listen, as if someone were talking to me.” I blushed and felt stupid.
“I completely get that,” Elliot replied, holding his hand out palm up. “It's almost like my brain is hard wired to pay attention to language and it's completely distracting. What else?”
Feeling relieved and a little heady I replied, “I like something with a steady, quick beat when I'm working out. Something I can time my movements to if I'm running or whatever.”
“I like a more moderate pace when I exercise, but then that's why you have muscles and I don't!” he said with a chuckle. “Anything else?”
“Um. I've liked a lot of things I've heard you play.” My face suddenly felt on fire and I rushed to add, “Like that bullfrog song. That was fun.”
“Ah, you liked Joy to the World? That's the name of that song,” he said with a pleased expression. “I wasn't supposed to sing that, but I admit it was a lot of fun.”
I chuckled. “I liked it. Is it hard to play?” I forced my gaze away from him and his smile. There was something about being close to him in his room that was making me feel warm and it was impossible to deny a rising tide of affection for him. I stood and wiped my hands on my jeans and glanced at his pictures.
“It's not terribly hard, no.”
I was conscious of him suddenly standing beside me. I pointed to the picture of him and Colby, sure if nothing else it would calm my racing heart and temper my hot-blooded response to being with Elliot. “Where was this?”
Elliot paused a moment. “Uh, we were hiking the trails around a lake. I forget the name of the park; it's about a half hour or so away from here.” He paused. “Colby was pretty big about the outdoors. Are you?”
I nodded. “Not like hiking. I like sports but not exercise for the sake of exercise. I'll play outdoor sports is what I mean. I like to swim and stuff, too.” Shit, I was babbling. “Do you? Um, like the outdoors?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “I like the occasional run. I didn't mind the hiking so much; it was more about the company. I think I've spent most of my outdoor time in baseball stands recently,” he said with a chuckle and pointed at the picture of me. Heat rushed into my face and my heart quaked a little.
“Oh, look. I'm, uh, when did you take that?” I stuttered.
“A few weeks ago. Dylan and Cris were talking and...well, I like to keep memories of things I enjoyed. So I put that one of Colby and me hiking,” he pointed to the image and then let his finger drift. “This was the first day with my car. My parents and me at the dealership. Sahara at sectionals. The beach at our camping trip last year. You at third base. All good stuff.”
The tremble in my heart moved across my chest and I shivered involuntarily. A moment swelled between us as I looked at the important events on his wall, but my mind kept coming back to one thing. I was an important moment to Elliot. Me.
“Come on, student! I'll have you making music in no time!” he said with a gleeful laugh and clapped me on the shoulder. I jumped and then joined his laughter.
“I think you underestimate how unmusical I am,” I told him as we descended the stairs to his basement.
“I've already seen you're not so clumsy as you like to claim,” he teased. We sat down on the piano bench and he gave me a quick tutorial of how the keys were laid out and what they meant. He showed me a short piece of repetitive music and encouraged me to try copying his motions. It seemed kind of hopeless as my fingers just didn't seem to be built for a keyboard, not if you wanted me to play anything but two-fingered chop sticks.
“Okay, wait, let's try this,” Elliot said as he stood and moved behind me, pressing my shoulder to center me on the bench. He reached over me and placed my hand on the keyboard, moving my fingers to set them up where they needed to be. He repeated the process with the left hand.
“All right. So, the left hand is going to play the simpler part of this, like so,” he said and laid his left hand over mine. He pressed on my fingers, pressing them down onto the keys and then lifted my hand and replaced them, repeating the process. At first I was just amazed at the touch of his hand, but I forced myself to focus and within a few minutes I was making roughly the right key strokes.
“Good. Now, we mix in the other hand,” he said. This didn't go nearly so well. I felt kind of dumb, making as many mistakes as I did, but El just kept encouraging me and moving my fingers with his. Despite the awkwardness of the questions racing through my head, I was having fun. Elliot and I began to laugh at my mistakes and then try again. He'd sometimes play one hand to let me focus on the other but I much preferred his fingers pushing on mine.
“Well, I better get some shoes on and get you home,” he finally said. I cleared my throat and smiled tentatively.
“Thanks for the lesson. I guess this means you have to hit the batting cages with me Saturday?”
“Nate. You do realize if you put that on the internet, I will have to kill you. Like, with my power cords.” He looked at me seriously and then we both laughed. “I still can't believe you said that. I thought Brett was going to crap!”
“I can't believe he was such an asshole,” I said and tapped one of the keys. “Especially what he said about plain, um, talent. He couldn't compare, totally.” I can't believe I was about to reference that asshole saying El was pretty in a plain way. Jesus.
“Um, thanks,” he replied and a quick glance confirmed the blush on his face. Had he picked up on my near error? I was sure he had. Shit! I felt tension binding my chest and wanted to break it at any cost. Anything that would make him not look at me and see the dense jock who was starting to want this glittering star in his life.
“Um. Uh, so, now that I butchered your piano why don't you play something?” I asked, with very little wavering in my voice.
He smiled and my heart picked up an extra beat. “You did well. You want me to teach you something else?”
“No. No, I was just...you know, asking you to play something.”
His cheeks grew slightly red. “You mean play a song for you?”
I tried to reply, to squeal out a denial or even to demur and say that wasn't really what I'd meant, but I guess I really had been asking that. He pulled his lips inward and sat down on the bench. I moved off to one side as he placed his hands on the keyboard. He began to stroke the keys, seeming to look for something to play. I guess that makes sense since he hadn't planned out a tune or anything.
I was mesmerized as I watched his fingers stroke the keys, and then he paused. He placed his fingers and began to play. The tune tickled the back of my mind, but I couldn't place it. He started to sing a little under his breath, too low for me to hear, until he hit the chorus and began to play harder.
'Let my love open the door. Let my love open the door. Let my love open the door...to your heart.'
My heart pounded in my chest as he finished the song. He cleared his throat and said, “We start playing that one next week. I'm supposed to sing. I'm...not sure about....”
“I loved it. Who does that song?”
His face was in three quarter profile to me and he softly replied, “Pete Townsend. He was in a famous band called The Who.”
“Is that a joke? Like Doctor Who?”
He chuckled. “Doctor Who isn't a joke.”
“It's not? Why would the guy be named Who?” I asked in puzzlement.
Elliot turned toward me, his face returning to its natural coloring. “According to the show his name is unpronounceable to humans. He usually just goes by 'The Doctor'. And The Who was a pretty big British band – I have so much to teach you!” he said and laughed. I couldn't help but join him.
I followed him upstairs and he pulled on shoes and grabbed his keys and wallet before we headed over to my house. I made sure he'd be at my game the next day before saying goodbye for the night.
I drove back home in a bit of a daze. I don't even remember taking turns or stopping for lights. The only thing that stayed with me was an incredibly light feeling in my chest, especially when I thought of placing Nate's hands on the keys. Hanging with Nate was easy and Griff was right; he didn't need to be the center of attention or have you focused on him. However, I did find it came to me easily. I wanted to pay attention to him. In fact, I felt good. Measurably good.
Once home I did a couple of chores to help my mom, but I was distracted with thoughts of Nate. Especially in that little workout video. I'd never been such a fan of crunches as when watching Nate, shirtless and sweating as his abs tightened. I'd also noted a tan line when his waistband shifted, and thinking of it now made me feel warm in the face and caused a tightening in my pants.
I was late to his game the following day. I got stuck at work when someone called in, but Dylan and Cris saved my spot. They went out to celebrate Nate hitting a home run in a loss, and it twisted in my gut that I had to go home and take care of things there, lest it all fall on my mother's shoulders.
Back home I took care of the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, moved some laundry into the dryer and swept up the hallways and kitchen floor. After that I saw to my own laundry, getting it started at least. If I stayed up late enough I could put the other laundry, my dad's stuff, on the folding table; my mom didn't appreciate me actually folding their stuff. Hadn't figured that one yet. But if I could get my stuff into the dryer tonight, it'd make tomorrow easier.
Walking back into my room I plopped on the bed and checked my phone. A text from Dev was waiting. Apparently he and Griff had been talking.
“Okay, I'll get to the point. Where do you stand on Nate?”
I rolled my eyes. “He's a great guy. I've enjoyed going to his games and getting to hang out with you guys. I guess I'm a baseball fan now.” I paused for a second and then rushed to add, “and a fan of Nate.”
“I think you guys would be good for each other.”
I blinked a time or two. There it was again, pushing Nate and me together but this was Dev outright saying so. My ex, Dev. The one that got away. The person who'd seen me for who I was when I was blundering about with some sham of an idea in my head about who and what I was. I am a year older than Nate, which isn't insurmountable. Nate seemed like the boy-next-door. He had an innocent nature, easy smile and a wholesome attractiveness to him. I enjoyed his appreciation for my attending his games...or was it more than that? I thought of his fine, light brown hair and his golden tan that was fully in evidence with the warm weather; his body looked well kept in his uniform. Well, after that video, I knew his body was well kept. He was a complete contrast to me with my boring, completely average brown hair and a body that needed more exercise than it got.
The real prize about Nate, more than his physical qualities, was who he was. He was openly grateful to people around him and unassuming. Despite his on the field prowess I'd never heard him brag; though he and Cris would often compare stats, it was friendly, almost collegial. He seemed very kind and caring, even chivalrous. As was usual of late, the more I thought of Nate the more the idea of having something between us appealed to me. But would Nate be interested in me? Was I actually on the verge of asking him out? Could I handle a relationship?
Do I dare risk myself right now?
I woke my phone and looked at that last message and chewed my lip. “What makes you say that?”
Almost as if he were waiting to pounce his reply came through a few words at a time, breaking a longer reply into several short bits.
“A lot of things. You already get along and he's comfortable with you. You volunteered to teach him something important to you and also were educated about something important to Nate. It's something he was sorely lacking and resentful about with Nik.”
Hmm. But did he mean—
“Besides, my cousin needs someone who'll be kind to his heart. You're one of the kindest guys I know and I'd feel good about him being with you.”
Well. I guess I had Devyn's blessing. I chuckled and replied. “Dev, I don't know if Nate likes me like that. He's sweet not to mention good looking. But...” I bit my lip and typed quickly, “I'd be open to the idea, if he were interested. Is he?”
“Maybe you should ask him.” he said, ending it with a smiley face. Like that said anything!
“Okay, look, if you're trying to get us together so hard answer this – what happened with Nik?”
“I'll tell you but why?”
I sighed. “I've had a few failed relationships. IF I go through with this, don't you think knowing what broke his last relationship is good info to have?”
“Point. It was because Nik didn't see Nate as a person but a sex object.”
I paused, thinking of that workout video. Nate's lightly tanned skin with a thin sheen of sweat covering his working muscles. The abs that tightened and announced their presence with each repetition of his exercise. I swallowed. I might not have become this...thirsty seeing him like that six months ago, but I knew more about him, now. I knew he was worth knowing as a person, but that did nothing to make me stop thinking of his shirtless form, working out.
“So...does Nate not like his appearance being commented on? Or was it worse?”
“Far worse. Nik didn't go to games or talk to Nate. The longer their little fling went on the more it became only about getting into Nate's bed.”
Not a bad place to be, I thought and then felt a little silly.
“Of course, now that you're teaching him piano and he's going to hear you play....now that you guys share interests and each other's time, it'd probably be okay if you wanted into his bed.”
I let out an embarrassed laugh. “Dev! Stop trying to whore your cousin out!”
He sent a smiley face. “Seriously, your friendship with him is deeper than his relationship with Nik was. One more thing?”
“Sure, why not?”
“I know him. I know you. I want the best for you both and I honestly think this is it.”
I had a hard time getting to sleep that night. In fact I was up late enough to get my clothes from the dryer and folded and put away, no less. I thought about texting Nate but I didn't want to seem desperate. I knew I wanted something to happen, now. I wanted to try this out, whatever it turned into. When I finally did lie down to sleep all I could think of was Nate and what he might say should I ask him if he had any interest in me beyond friendship. Being realistic, I know he must be getting pushed from his side, too. Yet he made no move toward me, right? Nothing obvious, anyway.
Once I did fall asleep, it was deeply. I don't know that I dreamt, but I didn't wake until after ten. I ate a light breakfast, my stomach trembling with anticipation about the day to come. I set up my keyboard and played a few tunes for my dad that Griff had printed for me, and my dad grinned widely at the sound of music. It was both rewarding and sadder than I can express to see him happy, yet so diminished.
At one everything changed. Nate texted to ask if we were still on and with a burst of nervous hope I asked him when I should pick him up. I took a quick shower and spent a few more minutes than normal on my grooming. It was a warm day so I decided on a tee shirt and Nate's jersey, which seemed apropos considering I was going to be swinging a baseball bat. Cargo shorts and canvas shoes completed my baseball look and some thirty minutes later I made my way over to Nate's home. I was a little surprised to find him waiting outside, but I figured he'd probably had enough of being prodded in my direction. Did he like me or would he make a move based on the pressure we, I think, were both under?
I flushed as he hopped off the stoop, admiring his arms as he put his phone away and his open smile. Jesus, was I falling or what?
“Hey,” he said with a smile as he climbed in.
“Hi,” I greeted him and returned his smile. “So, I have no idea where the batting cages are.”
“A block down from the Dairy Queen,” he replied and, since I knew where that landmark was, we were off. “I was thinking about grabbing some ice cream after. You like ice cream?”
“A huge weakness for me,” I admitted. “Now, listen. I think, maybe, I played tee ball when I was little. Since then I've never handled a bat.”
“Don't worry. It's actually a lot like tee ball. You focus on the ball and make the bat meet the ball. Simple.”
I looked at him and raised an eyebrow. “Nate. Before the ball was holding still. Now it'll be, what. Eighty miles an hour?”
He burst out laughing. “No. They have different cages with different speeds. We'll start you out around forty or fifty.”
“Oh. That doesn't sound quite as life threatening,” I said and he laughed at me.
I parked in front of the complex, which also had mini-golf, bumper boats and a small race track with lawnmower engines powering the cars.
“How did I not know this was here?” I asked as I looked around.
“You need to get out more?” he asked and laughed as I swatted at him.
We bought tokens for the batting cages, a long row of chain link enclosures that had an automatic pitching machine aimed at each one of them. As promised Nate walked me to the fifty mile per hour cage and handed me a helmet and bat.
“Okay, so, the machine's pitches won't be in the same place every time, just like a real pitcher. Sometimes it'll throw inside, others outside or high or low. So, settle your feet – no, here.”
I stood awkwardly as Nate moved behind me and nudged my right foot with his own, and I moved my foot farther to the right. After telling me that was good, he walked around and resettled my hands on the bat as, apparently, my hands were backward. He moved to my left and took a step back.
“Okay, take a slow swing,” he instructed. I did so and he nodded. “All right, just a little adjustment.” His face grew red and he stepped behind me, moving his arms around me and settling his hands over mine. This had to be the cheesiest move ever, but at the very least I think it cleared up whether or not Nate had any interest in me, considering he was essentially hugging me from behind. It was a little distracting to feel him pressed up against me, but with the question of his attraction to me resolved I felt the possibilities presented by our time together today were limitless. He moved with me to adjust my swing and admonished me to keep my eye on the ball.
He dropped a token in the box, hit the button and stepped out of the cage. I stood and waited as the machine began to make whirring noises, but nothing happened.
“Hey, isn't it—” I got no farther as a yellow rubber ball swooped past me and crashed into the fencing. Growling at his laughter I turned and faced the machine. I wasn't quite ready but I swung at the next pitch and missed. Not even close. I tried four more times and then, by some miracle, made solid contact.
“Ah!” I hollered and dropped the bat. “Jesus, that stung!”
He burst out laughing and told me to grip the bat harder. I reached down for the bat, giving him an evil look, and yelped as the next pitch whizzed by me. “Shit, isn't there a pause button?” I demanded.
“No,” he replied through his laughter. Grumbling, I got set and tried again but only managed to get a little piece of one other pitch before the machine shut down.
“Don't move,” he told me as he dropped another coin in. I settled in and was determined to hit that damn ball. This time I hit at least five of them and each one made that bat vibrate like a bell. Nate would clap once loudly and exhort me to dig in and hit the next one. My hands were sore from gripping so hard as well as the reverberation from hitting the damn things. The muscles in my hands felt like they'd had a rough workout. Nate's grin, though, made it sort of worth it. I smiled back at him and bowed, but jumped when the last ball whizzed by me.
“I think that machine is out to get me,” I told him. He grinned and clapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted to try the sixty mile an hour cage. I fixed him with a look that would have killed a lesser being. Instead I suggested he hit a few and he walked me down to the ninety mile per hour cage and then, chuckling, pulled the helmet off my head and plopped it on his own.
He didn't hit every one, but damn near. From there we raced on the go-karts and splashed each other on the bumper boats before playing a round of mini-golf. All the time we were together I was reminded of all the encouragement I'd been given about Nate, and he was everything that had been said of him and more. He was funny, a bit playful, and I never had the sense of him feeling superior because he was athletic and I wasn't.
Most of all, while he didn't demand attention or constant conversation, I found myself seeking that interaction out. I began to wonder if I were somehow starved of affection, given the long death of my last relationship and the hardships that had recently been visited on my family. I won't say I felt needy, but I did feel warm and comfortable with Nate. The guy was perfect for me, I realized. Everyone else had been right. They all saw something I might never have.
We walked back toward my car, the day still bright even though it was later in the afternoon. The parking lot was about half full and people were milling about at the attractions. With the remains of a small ice cream each in hand we sat on the hood companionably and polished off the cold treat.
“Well, I guess we know now what your future in baseball is,” he said with a grin.
“Yeah. Fan in the stands!” I replied and we laughed. Once that died down I said on a lower voice. “I had fun today. Thanks for asking me to come.”
He cleared his throat and his hand fluttered as if to make contact with me and then thought better of it.
“I had fun, too. Hanging out with you is...easy. I mean...Jesus,” he muttered. I waited for just a moment, willing him to make the first move and then Nate slid off the hood and turned to face me, his hands landing on the skin of my thighs. Sparks lit up my nerves and sent streamers of fire racing up my legs, to my heart and brain. I looked up at his face, handsome in the summer light and saw something I hadn't seen in a very long time. Need. Determination. Attraction. Dare I hope, blossoming love?
In a wavering voice Nate said, “I asked Devyn once how I could have what he does with Griff. He told me I could wait and it might sneak up when I'm not looking, or if I saw what I wanted that I should go for it.” He gave me a nervous smile and said, “This is me. Going for it.”
I watched him lean in and, heart pounding, I met him halfway and reached behind his head, digging my fingers into his soft locks and kissing him with abandon. I'm not sure if he had planned to kiss me and back off, wondering if I'd be accepting or what, but as he broke the kiss and started to lean back I pushed his head toward me lightly.
“Uh, uh, not yet,” I told him. His arms moved around me and the kiss grew into a sudden make out. I slid forward a bit until we were pressed together and gave myself in full to the experience of kissing someone who so wanted to kiss me. I wasn't sure when I was last kissed like that or when I'd put so much into a kiss. I wasn't sure exactly when things had begun going wrong with Colby but I recognized the difference. His kisses grew slower and lingering, until with a final brush of his lips against mine he pulled away and looked at me with an expression close to wonder.
“Wow. I mean. I thought maybe. Our age difference. Stuff with your dad. I. Um.” He finally stopped stumbling and smiled shyly. “You sure can kiss.”
I smiled at him and placed a hand on his cheek. “My life is going in weird places, Nate. I'd really like it, though, if you were part of it. A big part.”
“You mean, um, to be clear...like boyfriends?” he asked, hope warring with excitement in his voice.
“If that sounds good to you, you can just come here and kiss me again.”
Nate leaned forward and staked his claim to being boyfriends, that's for sure. It was kind of amazing how good his kiss, his arms, the press of his body felt. The whole damn situation felt perfect. I know I'd been getting the hard sell about Nate, but if this wasn't truth in advertising I don't know what was. If anything the second kiss was better than the first, as if Nate's heart understood his feelings were returned and was blossoming with pent up emotion.
I've already learned I can't predict the future. I thought I'd be leaving for New York City this fall with Colby beside me and studying music until I burst. But life changed and that entire future went down the toilet. Perhaps here, now, a new future was opening before me. With Nate beside me, I felt pretty good about that.
He laughed softly as he pulled from our kiss. “I'm not sure I should tell Dylan or Cris. They have been selling me on you for months.”
I held him loosely in my arms, just to keep him from drifting away. I smiled up at him and nodded. “Griff and Dev were on me, too. I think Dylan must have been lobbying me too, sending me that workout video.”
Nate blushed. “He thought it might make you more interested.”
“Oh, it did.” I let him suffer for just a second before continuing. “Truth, though? I was already interested. Very. I wasn't sure, for some of the reasons you mentioned but...I like you, Nate. I'm ready for something good to happen. I think you're going to be a big part of that. Or, at least I hope you are.”
The corner of his mouth pulled up in a smile. “I'm going to work hard at this. I want this,” he said and paused as his gaze fixed to my own. “For the first time I actually know what I want. I want you.”
And that, friends and neighbors, is how I spent the first half of my summer vacation. The second half was spent forging deeper bonds with a guy I very nearly missed out on. He loves to just cuddle and he's equally cool with making out all evening. He's great with my dad, reading to him from the paper. He claims it's the music and style section, but I've heard him recounting the baseball box scores. My mother loves him and he's become a fixture in our home, helping out, and through that the both of us have been healing. He's easy going, handsome, and has a noble heart. My mom is already advising him to come to our house after school to do his homework with me in the fall. He changes the balance in our home, one that was sinking lower and lower, but with him, the house feels better. Manageable. As if he's stabilizing it, somehow, just by being himself.
We strive for balance, participating in the events of each other's lives. Everything I do is better when I do it with Nate, from exercise to music, from kissing to....that. Oh, that. Pig moment: sex with Nate makes me crave more sex with Nate. Being intimate with him is a completely new experience. Having someone who pays as much attention to your happiness as his own makes for extreme satisfaction. His workout video had lit off my imagination, but the real thing was so much better. I understood, after having seen him naked, why someone would want to keep seeing him naked. I worried at first that he'd shy away from sex because of his experience being objectified and his history of bad relationships.
I am so fucking glad to have been wrong.
I wonder, if I were to ask my mom, did she know when she met my dad if he was the love of her life? How soon do you know? Because this feeling I have with him...it's like nothing else.
Author's Note: Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed my story. ICYMI I'm hearing from less than 1% of my readers about what they thought of my work. It does take an effort to create these, to have then proofread and edited. I pay money to host my site and post stories that you are reading - sometimes supported by genrous readers. I dont ask/require that in exchange for my stories. So, now that you've read, please don't assume someone else will say what they thought, go to my message board and leave a note, even as a guest or hit the link up top and drop me a line. I did my job, reader, please do yours.