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“Holy Mother of God,” Parrish said, following it up with a whisper. “Wait till I tell Levi about this.” Yesterday, he’d picked me up from Harper’s place when I outstayed my welcome. There was a rhythm to it that I could almost appreciate. I had done a full circle through all my friends, probably ruining some beyond repair and making others awkward for a long time to come.
Six weeks of moving through all my close contacts meant I’d been a burden to eight different people and their loved ones. Just yesterday, I had been politely asked to leave because Harper and her man were planning to turn the tiny attic space I’d been using into an art studio. Parrish happened to call, as he had nearly every day, and insisted on taking me to the parlor. It was just that we had to leave my things in the storage for the time being and I was practically moving with only my dirty clothes in a backpack.
Heat rose up my neck as Parrish pulled over at the address Megan had given me. “This can’t be right,” I said. I knew her family had always had some business dealings that had been beyond my comprehension, but I hadn’t realized they were freaking loaded. Maybe this was her boyfriend’s place or something.
“You’re seriously staying here?” Parrish asked, humor electric in his voice.
“Um…I think,” I said.
Warm light poured out of all the windows of the old, brick townhouse. It was shorter than some other houses we passed in the same street, but it was no less breathtaking. The narrow strip of grass and flowers between the iron fence and the brick wall of the house represented the entirety of the front yard. But I had no doubt there was a sprawling green surface behind the house.
The large wooden door at the entrance, with its brass knocker and an elaborate doorknob, seemed more expensive than everything Bruce and I had owned together.
“I’m so out of my depths here,” I whispered.
Parrish screwed his face and lifted his eyebrows apologetically. “I wish I had a spare room, man.”
“Please. You’ve done more than enough,” I said. My back still hurt from sleeping on the sofa in the tattoo parlor.
“This place is giving me the chills,” Parrish said, as if he was dropping me off at a haunted house in the middle of the woods.
I snort-chuckled. “It’s gonna be fine.” Then, I thought to myself, if only a little uptight. Parrish had been calling his friends all evening yesterday, asking around if anyone’s willing to rent out a bedroom for a short while, but there’d been no luck. Had it not been for Megan’s message, I would probably be looking at a homeless shelter for the night. If I were so lucky.
Ever so slightly, I longed to return to the peeling penthouse. To kick my shoes off and settle on the sofa with an extra cushion under my ass to protect me from the sofa’s springs. To open a bottle of wine and relax with a glass or two. To put a dinner together just for us.
My heart sank when I thought of him. Not with sadness that he wasn’t in my life. Hell no. That feeling had worn off quickly. It was sinking with a desperate sense of shame. How could I have never noticed something so big going on behind my back? That alone made me more pathetic than I’d ever been before.
“If you’re sure about it, buddy,” Parrish said. “But let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”
And he meant it. There wasn’t a soul in Hunts Point who doubted it when Parrish said those words. Maybe it didn’t happen often, but when it did, he was a hundred percent ready to take on the world for you. And even more so in the past few months now that Levi was by his side.
“And don’t be a stranger,” he added as I went for the door to get out of the car.
“Deal,” I said, thanking him one last time before we parted.
I walked up to the house, wearing the same clothes from yesterday morning. I desperately craved a hot shower. I pressed the doorbell and heard heavy footsteps tumbling along the stairs on the other side of the door. There was no way they were Megan’s, and anxiety of being face to face with a stranger made my heart trip. But when the door opened, my tongue tied and I had to blink twice before I believed my eyes.
The six-foot-three man who stood on the other side looked like a goddamn model freshly back from a catwalk. Dark brown eyes, close-cropped hair, yesterday’s stubble along his strong jaw; he looked approximately my age, but with helluva lot more physical activity in his day. Bulky even with the impressive height, he was every bit as handsome as Megan was beautiful.
There wasn’t a shred of surprise in me that Megan would have a drop-dead gorgeous partner.
“H-hi.” Great. I stammered on the easiest word.
I raised my eyebrows a little, but the big guy bit his lip and I discovered that he could look even hotter. Fuck. Me. If I had to be around him for more than, well, this moment, it would be hard not to stare.
“H-hey, man,” he said, stumbling over his words, too. When he thrust his hand forward for a shake, I took it. It was surprisingly soft for the strength of his grip. “Garret,” he said and licked his lips, his gaze moving all over my face and chest.
“Aaron,” I said, feeling lucky I could remember my name after ogling the tightness of his short-sleeved T-shirt. His other hand was wrapped in what I thought was a bandage, but quickly realized my mistake. He was holding a matching piece of fabric which I figured was some sort of boxing hand wrap. His face was a little flushed and pretty enough to be distracting even without his ridiculously sculpted arms out in plain sight.
“Come in,” he said. “Megan’s still out.”
“Oh.” I went to step inside, but the doorstep was ever so slightly higher than I’d expected, so I stubbed my toes and hooked my foot against it, suddenly hurtling myself at Garret and plummeting toward the floor.
“Careful.” Garret swooped in, wrapping those massive arms of his around my torso and holding me up, but my face pressed hard against his slightly sweat-dampened T-shirt. I could feel the hardness of his pecs just from rubbing my cheek against them by accident. Or was it divine intervention? I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I only knew that my limbs relaxed for a split second and I let myself be squished against the rippling muscles.
Fuck, I thought. So much for a cool introduction. I clawed at him while I got back up to my feet. Dragging myself along his body, I inhaled, and wished I could linger on him a few moments longer. The sweet trace of sweat was delicious on him after the exertion, as was his pine and sea breeze cologne.
I dusted myself off, avoiding his look. “Thanks,” I murmured and found myself inside. I suppose it didn’t matter how I got in there, but that I was inside.
I was met with the warmth of the blended interior designs, mixing the traditional, picturesque Brooklyn Heights feel with contemporary comfort. I blinked quickly, taking in the narrow hallway in front of me and a staircase leading up. To my left, separated by a wide arch, was the spacious living room. Beyond it, a dining room and a smaller arch, which I imagined led into the kitchen, occupied the remaining space.
Unsure of what to do with my hands, I tucked them inside my pockets and worried that this had been a mistake. Not only was I intruding in the home of someone I hadn’t seen in ages and her confusingly beautiful boyfriend, but I was wearing dirty clothes and only had my phone, wallet, and a backpack of yet more dirty laundry on me.
“Do you, uh, want a beer?” Garret asked, lifting his right hand to the back of his head. He made slow motions with the hand, his biceps curling enough that I had to forcibly look away.
“Sure,” I said in as cool a tone as I could muster, like I hadn’t accidentally dry humped him three seconds ago. “Beer’s fine.” I’d prefer wine, I thought, then quickly remembered the beggars and choosers adage that fit all too well right now.
Garret dropped his arm and walked into the living room, crossed the open space of the dining room, and disappeared behind the smaller arch. When he showed up again, I was scanning the bookshelves of the living room and the massive fireplace in the middle of the main wall.
My host walked over to me and handed me the cold can. “Need a glass, man?”
“Uh, no,” I said, partly wishing I wasn’t here at all. It was odd to feel grateful for a roof over your head while wishing you were under a bridge instead, but that was exactly what I felt in this moment.
In every aspect I could imagine, Garret appeared to be the opposite of me. Big, strong, effortlessly confident, successful beyond my dreams if this was where he lived, and very, very straight.
In fact, the only thing in common I could identify was how awkward we both were about this arrangement.
Garret gestured for me to sit, said something like ‘make yourself comfortable,’ and settled for more awkward silence for a while. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he asked the wrongest question ever. “Did you catch the game last night?” His voice was warm without any meaning attached to its warmth.
“What game?” I asked. It felt like walking on eggshells. “That’s…football?”
Garret shared a small smile and nodded that he understood enough. “Yeah, football. The Brooklyn Blazers lost their captain and took the victory. Man, I was devastated. Brooks Dane apparently fractured his ankle. He won’t play professional football again.” Garret gravely shook his head and pulled a swig of beer from his can. “A real shame, you know? He had so much potential.”
I nodded, not sure what to say to any of that. My problems were a bit more immediate than that. “Do you play?” I asked after a few moments of silence.
Garret shrugged. “I don’t really have the time anymore.” He took another sip of his beer just as I did, then looked around the room, at his feet, and his fingernails, and finally at me. “You don’t play, huh?”
“Oh, no,” I said, laughing shortly. “I’m too clumsy to play. Wouldn’t mind showering in the locker room with them, though.”
Garret tensed and looked down, killing my laughter on the spot. I’d forgotten what a straight guy looked like in all these years of cozy living with Bruce. I mainly worked with queer people before losing my job and the few friends I had were either women or gays.
“Kidding,” I added meekly.
“Yeah. Sure.” He ogled around the room. “I don’t know what Megan’s up to. She said she was helping her cousin — do you know her cousin? Kate? — pick some gift. Maybe they stayed out for drinks.”
I nodded. “That’s okay. I don’t want to be her responsibility. You know? She doesn’t need to babysit me. I just appreciate you guys letting me crash here.”
“Right,” Garret said, then got up. “Let me show you where you are.”
I got up and followed him. I wondered what I looked like from his perspective. A hobo with little more than the clothes on his back, most likely. My cheeks were covered with a thin and rare stubble from yesterday morning that showed the most on my chin and above my lip. My green eyes were undoubtedly bloodshot from the lack of sleep after leaving Harper’s and breaking my back on Parrish’s parlor sofa. I hoped to fucking God I didn’t reek of sweat.
Instead of heading up the stairs, Garret led the way down the narrow hallway. “That way’s the backyard, but it’s been rainy as fuck so I don’t really know what the state of it is.” He gave a soft, awkward smile that revealed his big, white teeth and I nearly choked. Christ, Megan’s always had the best of everything. Boyfriends included, apparently.
That wasn’t totally fair. I hadn’t been an envious teenager. But the bitter taste Bruce had left in my mouth in the last 6 weeks made me think things that surprised even myself.
I pushed away the momentary jealousy at their fine house and her handsome boyfriend, then nodded at whatever Garret was saying. It was hard to follow over the length of his eyelashes.
“…bathroom, if you want to shower,” he was saying.
My eyes widened. “Do I stink?”
He froze, mouth open and eyes wide. “Um…I didn’t mean…”
But I laughed out loud, even if it was dulled by the thickness of air between us. “To be fair, I’m dying for a shower.”
Garret’s frown deepened. “You can totally do that right away.”
I rubbed my hands together. “I, uh, have a problem,” I admitted, cheeks aflame. “I didn’t get to do my laundry at Harper’s place.”
He lifted his eyebrows as if I was telling the most compelling story ever. Was this what a man’s undivided attention looked like? “We’ve got all you need in the laundry room just there.” He pointed to the door that I hadn’t noticed until now, at the end of the hallway, leading into a room that was probably no larger than what a washing machine and a dryer required.
“Thanks,” I said with a smile, not exactly solving my problem yet.
Garret stood quietly and watched me as I stewed and simmered. “Right. Uh, the basement’s this way.” He turned away from me with stiffness that resembled muscle burn after a workout. This guy definitely trained. His left hand was still wrapped to protect him from calluses. The length of his left arm was covered in tattoos that blended and morphed into one another, forming a long sleeve of pure perfection. I could imagine Parrish bringing his face close to Garret’s arm to inspect every drop of ink.
Garret opened the white door and flicked on the lights in the basement. As I followed, I discovered that this was no basement at all, but a fully fledged recreation area with gym equipment, a punching bag, and atmospheric lights for evening gatherings. There were small windows lined high up on one side, looking to the street if my internal compass was any good. The orange light coming through the windows was my strongest clue.
“This is nice,” I said. “Really nice.”
“Yeah, the sofa pulls out, so you’ll have an actual bed,” Garret said, looking around.
There was the faintest scent of sweat in the basement. Not surprising, since this was where Garret sculpted that body of his.
“Thanks for…letting me use your space,” I said and looked away.
He gave a grunt that might have meant ‘no problem’ in straight English, but I screwed my lips to one side and wondered if Megan would show up soon. That way, I wouldn’t feel like I fell into another dimension, at least, even if I hadn’t seen her in years.
“Your house is amazing, man,” I said, stumbling over the words. Somehow, my speech pattern got straighter around Garret and I hated this bubbling feeling of inferiority. I remembered it well from a long time ago when I practically ran away from straight guys like they were the plague. And here I was, in one of those guys’ man cave.
“Thanks,” he said. “It’s Megan’s, actually. I moved in recently.”
“Oh.” My perspective shifted hard, but I tried not to show it. Still, everything I’d thought so far was rewritten in a single breath.
“I think I have some clothes that don’t fit me anymore,” Garret said. “I’ll check in the attic while you shower.”
An urge to apologize for something — anything — was unbearable. I was an inconvenience. Worse still, I was an inconvenience without any clean clothes. “Sounds good. Thank you,” I said, the apology non-verbal, but present in my tone.
I followed Garret upstairs and he showed me into the bathroom, then said he’d leave the clothes on the dresser in the hallway.
The bathroom was brightly lit with white lights, discreetly built into the ceiling and around the mirror above the sink. The shower was so spacious that it was nearly the size of Bruce’s entire bathroom.
I wondered what Megan had been up to all these years. She’d definitely gone down a different path. She’d always been smart, acing subjects seemingly with no effort back in school.
This wasn’t even about her. I could find it in myself to be happy for an old friend’s success. The nasty feelings that shifted under the surface were all directed at myself. Where had it all gone so wrong? Where had I surrendered to a life of struggle and terrible mistakes? It must have been before Bruce, but he hadn’t helped a bit.
Again, even the thought of him made my heart sink a little lower. But now, I wasn’t so sure what this feeling was. It didn’t really feel like heartbreak. Shame, for sure. And embarrassment and a sense of blinding stupidity. Yep, I knew all of those. But something else was brewing in me and I didn’t know what to call it.
I tightened my fists briefly, then grabbed the edge of my T-shirt and pulled it up over my head. I peeled my jeans down my legs, then dropped my underwear, and stepped into the shower. Hot water made my skin tingle and I let myself indulge in this sweet moment of relaxation. When the hell had I had a long, hot shower last? Ages, probably.
I rubbed my face as water poured down my body. Tension knotted in my chest as I tried to forget, for just one moment, how horrible my life had gotten. In that single day, I’d lost everything and I had been trying to get back on my feet ever since.
Just then, eyes closed and the heat of my body rising, I blanked out completely. No thoughts remained and the tension faded away enough so that I could take a deep breath of air.
I didn’t know where to go or what to do. Call Dad? Maybe. Maybe I was finally desperate enough. I didn’t like that option, but at least it existed. Not that he would be much help, but he’d give me a place to crash for a while if I outstayed my welcome here. I couldn’t plan. I could barely stand right now. All I wanted was to curl up in a corner and stop existing. If only I could.