by TK Hoshikuzu (TK 星屑)
On paper, everything was peachy. Suddenly inheriting a house outside of a thriving city gave him the opportunity start anew. He was blessed with no mortgage and minimal student loans (thank goodness his parents couldn’t take back what was already paid – though they tried). Though the circumstances of their meeting had been unconventional, his roommate provided much-needed income while he took the time to build his career in the entirely frivolous field of patisserie. At his leisure he developed his menu of desserts and honed his skills. At the age of twenty-two, he was lucky to chase his dreams freely. He could have no complaints, and he did not complain, but everything he produced was garbage.
Disturbed by this trend, Joey frowned at the lumpy, gray custard, which grimaced back at him. “You know why I’m so hideous,” it seemed to scold. “Don’t pretend everything is okay.”
He took a bite to make sure it was terrible, then spooned it into the trash can. The custard was wrong. Everything was okay. Everything would be okay. With time his mental state would catch up to his peachy situation. He looked forward to the future, when he could reassess the past with a detached, bemused view, when he could shake his head at his immaturity, when wouldn’t hurt so much.
As he flipped through his notes, Joey heard the front door knob being jostled. He didn’t pay it any attention. The lives of his and his past roommates rarely intersected, and Ken seemed plenty busy.
“Oh hey,” Ken greeted warmly, throwing his gym bag aside with a thud.
Joey’s gaze slid to the bag and replied cordially, “Hello.” In the same breath, he began, “You aren’t–”
“I’m not going to leave that there,” Ken interrupted. “Just give me a sec.”
He peeled off his sweaty tank top, giving him a little show before Joey averted his gaze. He heard heavy footsteps come toward him, and when he glanced up, was met with Ken, who was shirtless and peering over the kitchen counter. It was tall, dividing the kitchen and the living room and doubled as a bar. Joey was surrounded by dirty pots and dishes. “What did you make today?” he asked with interest.
“Nothing good,” Joey sighed, letting the pages of notes fall out of his hand. “It’s already trashed.”
“Let me try it next time.” Ken smiled and leaned on the counter. Joey could see the sweat glisten on his chest. “Don’t you need a second opinion?”
“I went to school for this, taught by actual professionals. I doubt you could tell me something that I don’t already know,” Joey jabbed with a mock turn of the nose. He started to wash the dishes, but Ken continued to hover.
“That’s probably true.” He clapped Joey’s shoulder, and as he walked away, he said, “Eating bad food alone sounds terrible though.”
Joey watched the hot water rinse the bad custard off the bowl. He considered Ken’s offer. His presence was unexpectedly pleasant, like a burst of creamy, sweet liquid from what one thought was solid chocolate. His other roommates certainly didn’t take interest in him or his activities.
He pulled out a plain cheesecake that had been chilling in the fridge. As he cut two slices, the smoothness and consistent coloring gave him hope. Ken wanted to experience Joey’s terrible food together, but Joey couldn’t help but wish that it was good and that Ken liked it. His confections had always been surefire ways to bring smiles to others, and he’d hate to lose that.
Ken returned freshly showered, towel around his neck. He examined the thin slices of strawberry topping and motioned to them, asking, “One of those pieces for me?”
“You were so eager to suffer,” Joey sighed. Ken picked up a plate with a flourish and cut off the tip of the cheesecake.
Turning the fork in his hand, Ken studied the piece and said, “Looks normal.” He popped it in his mouth. “It tastes okay to me.”
Incredulous, Joey took a bite. “It’s awful,” he blurted. “It’s too salty and sour.” He wrinkled his nose and squinted in disgust. Finishing off his own slice, Ken watched him plop the plate on the counter and declare, “I can’t finish this.” Joey could handle his own disappointment but was upset that someone had to witness it.
“I can’t taste anything wrong with yours,” Ken said, polishing off Joey’s. “It’s like regular cheesecake to me.” Upon witnessing Joey’s distress, he offered, “Granted, it’s not the best cheesecake I’ve ever had.”
Joey rubbed his eyes. He had been baking garbage all day. “It’s not good enough for me.” He crossed his arms, struggling to swallow the setback. That stupid custard was right, just like the undercooked apple galette and the bitter danishes before that.
He heard the fridge and a cabinet open at once, and found Ken pulling bottles and ingredients from both. He shoved an armful into Joey for him to hold.
“Then let’s take the bad taste out of your mouth.” He pulled out the blender and saucepan. “Margarita okay?” he asked over his shoulder.
Bad memories washed over him like a cold wave, and Joey gave a nervous chuckle. “I don’t have the best relationship with alcohol.”
“That’s because you’ve never had my drinks.” When Joey kept waffling, he added, “Maybe your professional training can tell me if I’m actually any good. Just try one.”
Mixology didn’t take much interest with Joey because he wasn’t much of a drinker, but he could appreciate a good cocktail.
“It looks like you know what you’re doing,” Joey said. He was sitting on the other side of the counter, perched on one of many high stools. Ken was swirling a mix of sugar and water in the sauce pan over medium heat. “What can you cook?”
“Nothing special, just cocktails.”
Counting off his fingers, Joey joked, “So a Mimosa for breakfast, a Bloody Mary for lunch, and a Manhattan for dinner?”
“Sounds about right,” Ken replied with a half-smile. He let the syrup cool and blended zest of a lime, salt, and sugar. “As a bartender, I’m impressed by how well stocked your glassware is. You have every glass for every drink, even those mugs that’s only for Moscow Mules.” He poured the rest of the ingredients in the shaker. “It must have been expensive.”
“Oh well, yeah, I guess,” Joey said, uncertainty quavering in his tone. A questioning look from Ken made him admit, “It’s my mom’s house. I’m sure it was a lot of money.”
“She has great taste,” Ken complimented.
Joey responded with quiet thanks and fiddled with the corner of a napkin. He was handed a margarita glass rimmed with salt, sugar, and blended lime.
“Hope it’s not too sweet.” Ken held his own glass up and Joey clinked his against it. “Cheers.”
A lick of his lips and Joey was taken by the taste. It was refreshing and there was no usual burn of alcohol. He was taken by the lime most of all. For the first time in a long time, he felt a familiar spark of inspiration.
“Good?” Ken asked, breaking his thoughts. “What does Mr. Professional think?”
Joey hesitated for one second, struck by a feeling of deja vu. “It’s really good,” he said and smiled, despite himself.
With a broad grin, Ken whipped up another batch in the shaker without prompting. “I’m glad you like it. There’s a whole menu I can make for you. I usually don’t do this outside of work, but if it cheers you up…”
“I was in a bad mood today,” Joey agreed, but Ken shook his head.
“I think this is the best mood I’ve seen on you since we met.” With a wistful look, he said, “It’s nice that I can do this for you.”
Joey sipped from his glass and didn’t pay attention to the weight of his words or his expression. “You’ve already done a lot.” He could feel more of the burn as he reached the bottom. “I’m glad you’re my roommate.” He was slightly embarrassed to reveal that, but he could stand to let Ken, the one person to show he cared, know that he appreciated him.
Listening to Joey’s words and tidying the kitchen, Ken looked up and snickered at him. “Your face is so red!” He cupped Joey’s cheeks in his hands. “You really don’t drink. Your face is so warm.”
Joey swatted his hands away but responded with a short laugh. “Your hands are just cold.”
“Or maybe you’re sick?” Ken bent over, far enough that he had to make an effort, and touched his forehead to Joey’s. Joey smiled and pushed back against his forehead, charmed by his playfulness.
In defense, Joey said, “You’re exaggerating. I bet I’m just a little pink, which is natural.”
Ken took his hand and gently tugged him off the stool. “I’m not,” he insisted. “Let’s go to the bathroom.”
With a flip of the light switch, Joey blinked in surprise at his reflection. He was indeed a blotchy red, as if he was sick with a fever. The obvious shock on his face prompted Ken to ask, “Is this normal?”
He could only laugh at the absurdity. “I’ve never looked at myself when drinking.” He added, “I’ve never been around other people after drinking this much. How strong was that margarita?”
“How do you feel?” Ken asked, ignoring the question. The pair stood side by side, looking at their reflections in the mirror.
“I feel kind of stupid, but otherwise okay.” Joey stared at himself, wondering if he looked this red months ago, that painful time when he had binged alone. He must have been, given how trashed he had gotten.
Ken turned to look at Joey. “Are you part Asian? Maybe?”
“No,” he immediately responded, incredulous, then said, “I mean, I don’t know. Maybe.” All of that information was buried in his birth mother’s house, but the idea of digging through it sank in his gut and strained his chest. “Why do you ask?”
“Lots of Asians get that ‘glow’ when they drink,” Ken said thoughtfully. “You look kind of Asian too, like in your eyes, your cheeks, lips…”
Ken was awfully close and it was making Joey hot in the cramped bathroom. Edging away, he asked, “What makes you an expert?”
Joey envied the proud look that flitted across Ken’s face. It was a look that was sure of his own roots, their identity. “I‘m half.”
At his answer, Joey looked at the mirror. They were starkly different. Ken was a dusky brown with golden eyes and dark hair. He was tall, a little muscular, and had a smile that twisted in such cheeky ways. Joey had an average build and a little pooch. His skin was a horrific red now, but on a normal day he was pale. His hair was a chestnut brown and he had gray eyes that he could admit were pretty. Taking a closer glance, he noticed the way his eyes slyly tapered and grew curious.
Ken asked presumptuously, “So you have no idea what you are?”
Joey slid downwards, tipsiness peaking. Ken took a seat next to him. Their shoulders touched, and Joey leaned on him. “No, I’m not sure,” he replied tiredly. “My parents are a mix of Irish, Polish, and German. My birth parents,” he gestured his hands around him to indicate their surroundings, “I don’t know yet. I don’t feel ready yet.” He hugged his knees and buried his face in his arms. “All I know that it was her house and now it’s mine.”
He had shoved such thoughts to the back of his mind. Ken and a bit of alcohol had dragged out questions that adopted children commonly ask, questions that he was told were ungrateful and a waste of time. But it was true; before he’d thought to look, she was already gone. There was no longer a point in dwelling on what could have been.
Ken took the somber silence as an opportunity to close their night. “Come on,” he spoke gently. “Let’s get you to bed.”
Before he opened his eyes, he felt sick. He could either stay in bed nauseated or make it worse by getting up. He was still wearing the clothes from last night, but he chose to drag himself to the kitchen and get pain pills. A glance at the living room clock told him that it was almost half past eleven in the morning. He was grateful to find a tall glass of cold water with little particles of ice leftover, a few tablets on the counter, and a sticky note, no doubt left by Ken. He tossed them into his mouth before downing the water. Both hands propping himself on the counter, he tiredly looked at Ken’s message.
Feel better see you tonight
Joey turned on the electric kettle for tea and whipped up a greasy breakfast sandwich. In proper form, he put his mug of tea and meal on a tray and settled on the couch. Wrapping himself in the spare blanket, he burrowed in and stared into space. How nice it was to focus on nothing.
He found himself dreading Ken’s return, embarrassed by last night’s show of emotion. Certain he’d acted a fool, he was mortified by his vulnerability. It was difficult to accept that everything was not okay, despite being his daily mantra. He decided that Ken had caught him off-guard. Without warning he had stepped over the polite boundary between roommates. His former roommates hadn’t acted so familiarly, so this was unknown territory.
Joey had never volunteered his preferences, but nevertheless, Ken acted as if he knew. Whether from a man or from a woman, Joey was terrible at discerning attraction and always assumed he was mistaken. But he was certain that Ken was flirting with him. A wry smile slipped out when Joey remembered that, in contrast, his ex had tried so hard to hide the fact that he was in love with him.
The unexpected thought spurred shivers, crawling like bugs on his skin. He stuffed his food and imagined himself similarly stuffing that painful memory. Silently chanting that everything was going to be okay, he welcomed sleep like a dear friend and he dreamed of lime for hours. He conjured a wonderfully pale green cake that was fluffy and sour-sweet. The bite of lime before the melting sweetness made his mouth water and he opened his eyes. The patisserie muses took him and ordered him to bake. He obeyed the call, running to the store without hesitation.
Ken returned from one of his gigs, wearing a uniformed shirt. He found Joey sitting at the kitchen counter and scribbling notes. Again he was surrounded by piles of pans and utensils of all sizes. To interrupt his roommate’s thoughts, Ken said, “It smells great in here.”
Joey looked up. “Oh, hello.” The fingers that held his pen were dyed green. “I’ve got a cake chilling in the fridge. I’d like you to try it.”
“I’d love to try it,” he replied, but his answer didn’t matter. Without waiting for a reply, Joey had already plated a slice and set it on the counter for him. It came from a dome-shaped cake covered with a soft pea-green fondant. A swirl of white chocolate topped the front. The sponge was lightly soaked in sweet lime syrup and rum.
“It’s my third try. The first two were garbage.” Joey wiped his hands on his apron and stared intently at Ken, who picked up the fork.
As he cut into it, he said, “Your cheesecake yesterday was fine. I think you’re too hard on yourself.”
“It’s no good unless I think so,” Joey firmly replied.
Before he bit into it, Ken joked, “So this one was the good one?” Joey shook his head and motioned that he should eat, so he did. Ken was subsequently surprised, and he couldn’t help but smile, which made Joey smile too.
“It’s good, right?” Joey asked, a grin breaking out as naturally as it used to.
Between mouthfuls, Ken exclaimed, “It’s not good, it’s amazing! It’s like the margaritas from last night, but a cake.”
He had forgotten how satisfying it was for someone to enjoy his creations. “Yeah, actually, that did inspire me.” He shuffled his feet bashfully with a face-splitting smile. “That hasn’t happened in a while, so thanks.”
“Didn’t I say I had a whole menu of drinks? This could be fun.” Ken leaned over and spied the binder that Joey was taking notes in. “May I?” he asked as he grabbed it anyway, but Joey enjoyed his enthusiasm.
He flipped through the pages, which were neatly tucked into sheet protectors. “These are your recipes, right?”
“Yup, it took me years to tease those out, and I’m always changing them.” Joey sidled next to Ken and felt proud of his collection.
“I’m not seeing a recipe for the lime cake though,” Ken said after a second look-through, even looking into the binder pockets.
Pointing at the loose leaf sheets at the front, Joey replied, “I was taking notes on the recipe before you walked in. I was taking a regular sponge recipe and played around with proportions.” Ken pulled out a folded paper from the pocket and opened it.
“Rosewater pudding?” he asked with an intrigued tone and glanced at Joey, whose smile disappeared.
“Give me that.” Joey’s voice was tight and his eyes were staring at the sheet. He grasped the paper and gently pulled at it, but Ken wouldn’t let go, wearing a look of curiosity. “Please give it to me.” Their eyes met. Ken was startled by the desperation in Joey’s eyes and the stronger tug at the sheet of paper, so he released his grip.
Joey quickly slid it back into the binder and closed it, pulling it to his chest. “You, uh, please enjoy the cake. I’m going to clean up.” He stared at the ground as he spoke, but said nothing more to Ken. His brows were permanently knitted as he began to tackle dish washing. Ken stood around for a second, but didn’t try engaging him again and withdrew to his room.
Joey felt remorse for ruining a second night, but Ken uncovered what Joey had been trying to shove down earlier that day. He turned the water up to as hot as he could take it. The internet said it would take about eleven weeks, but he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t get over him. Everything was so much better now. There was absolutely no need to linger on what he could not change.
For a hot second he blamed Ken for dredging up painful memories. Ken was only a roommate, and had no business keeping company and asking personal questions. He didn’t have to be so friendly or act so interested. He could stand to keep his shirt on after going to the gym; no one needed to see how thick his waist was or how solid his back was. Joey just wanted to be left alone.
This train of thought screeched to a halt and he was thankful for the burn of hot water, which kept his mind alert. He should have known better. He had been burned by the same fear and self-isolation that he felt now. It was how he found himself in this position, after all. As much as his instincts wanted him to hide and lick his wounds, he also wanted his emotions to stop tailspinning.
Finished, he wiped his hands on the towel. They were red, indignant of the abuse they received, but he was morbidly content by the sharp pain. Wounds weren’t healing, and he didn’t know what to do. Joey glanced at the direction of Ken’s room. He could try a couple things.
It was the first laugh he had heard that was louder than a smirking snicker, and Joey perked up. His heart was full, like it was fit to burst with happiness.
“This is too exotic for me. You should have just dyed a vanilla pudding pack red,” the ex demurred after laughing.
Joey found he couldn’t speak, stopped by a heavy lump in his throat. He watched his spoon poise over the pudding, then dip into it. After taking a bite, the ex smiled, then his expression crumpled with emotion. His face flushed and his lips were trembling so softly.
“I’ve never tasted anything like this before. You made this for me?”
Only for you, he wanted to say, struggled to spit out, but his mouth was clamped shut. Do you understand? Joey thought as he watched him finish his personal dessert like it was the last treat he’d ever eat. It seemed like he understood, given the way the ex stroked his cheek with a graceful finger. Joey grabbed his hand, wrenched open his mouth at last, and —
His eyes flickered open, the warm feeling slowly dying down in his chest. Joey shut them again out of bad habit, trying to recreate the memory of that feeling. But the sun was shining too brightly on him, so he rolled out of his solitary bed and shuffled from his room to the bathroom.
He was met with a sticky note on the mirror, which read one word: Sure. The night before Joey had written a note and stuck it on the mirror, asking Ken if he could make him more drinks tonight. Maybe they should communicate in sticky notes only, Joey mused, because it seemed the best way to avoid awkward, emotional situations.
Of course, if he were actually trying to do that, he wouldn’t have invited Ken at all. He threw himself on the plush couch with his laptop, exhaling as he sank into it. The intent was to browse for job openings, but he couldn’t keep his mind off other matters. Everything was okay (he’d never admit otherwise), but it could be better. Ken was still good company, so maybe it could be worth opening up a little. He didn’t know where it would go, but it would be something new, something other than counting his blessings every day.
Talking about himself would be easy, Joey told himself as he abandoned his job search and cooked his way through countless dishes. Cooking came easier to him than baking, and in some ways, more forgiving. Plus, he felt at home surrounded by all that food, so much so that when Ken returned from work, Joey could greet him comfortably.
“Do you ever leave the kitchen?” Ken asked, wearing loose-fitting slacks. It looked like Joey had barricaded himself with a fort of food.
“Are you hungry?” Joey asked breathily, tired by day-long cooking. He ignored the question though.
Ken took off his shoes and threw his book bag on the couch. “Well, you did text me not to eat anything.” He set down plastic bags from the grocery on the counter.
“Now all we need are the drinks,” Joey declared as he tossed Ken a small smile. He began to set the table, bringing out a myriad of dishes: lemon chicken, roasted brussel sprouts, steamed broccoli, chicken soup, pasta salad, strawberry and raspberry compote, and a gravy boat – just in case. Joey tried not to pay attention to Ken’s perplexed expression.
Whatever he was thinking, Ken made no comment on the unexpected feast. Instead, he rolled his sleeves up and asked, “What are you feeling?”
Joey was grateful that Ken did not mention the quantity of dishes. “Anything but vodka, please.” He took a seat at the time and drummed his fingers, trying not to focus on how anxious he was. Deciding to trust someone and acting on that decision were two different things. When Ken set down another rum drink, Joey stared at it for a second. He really wasn’t much of a drinker, but he remembered how it easy it was to hold his nose and swallow glass after glass of orange juice and vodka. Of course, he got violently sick after, but this had been months ago. Such things got easier with time – or at least, it was supposed to.
He knocked back half of the drink, a pleasant mix of coconut, orange, and pineapple. As Ken joined him at the table next to him, he remarked, “I thought you weren’t a drinker.”
“I’m not,” he lightly replied, but not really sure where he stood anymore. “That was really nice and tropical. Can’t really taste the alcohol. What’s it called?”
“It’s a ‘Painkiller,’” Ken with a dry tone. Joey coughed before he took another sip. Point-blank, he followed up, “You look like you need one.”
“I do?” he asked. He used to be good at hiding behind a good-natured smile.
Ken gave him a thoughtful look. Joey held his gaze, but let it fall. He probably did look like a wreck. It was hard to tell by looking at the same face every day, and Joey refused to look at pictures from before the break-up. He was sure that seeing his past self would remind him how ignorant and naive he was back then. His old self actually thought that his parents would accept his choice, that his ex would stay with him, that his birth mother would be there when he was ready to look for her.
“Um, should I go?” Ken asked, breaking his thoughts.
“No, don’t.” He took a deep breath, held it for one second. All of these fantasies turned disappointments were shared with no one. His shoulders sagged as he exhaled. “I want to talk for once.”
Helping himself to dinner, he asked, “Talk? About what?”
Joey shrugged a shoulder. “Anything. Not talking isn’t doing me any favors.”
“Do you want to talk about last night?”
“That’s not fair,” he immediately replied, then was struck by the irony of his protest. “Let me rephrase. It’s not that I want to, but I know that I should.” His stomach churned. It felt like standing on the edge of a cliff and staring into the ocean.
“Maybe saying it won’t be as bad as you think.” Ken ate, letting his roommate scrape up the guts to speak.
Joey revealed at last, “That recipe you found was a personal gift to my ex. We broke up a few months ago.”
Ken nodded. “Still hurts?”
“It does.” Joey took a tentative bite of the chicken and was surprised. It was like he hadn’t eaten chicken in months, like he was discovering its taste again.
“You must have really cared about him.”
Joey paused, but Ken didn’t immediately catch his gaffe, freezing after he grabbed the salt.
“Him who?” Joey asked. The second bite of chicken was bitter going down. “Why would you assume that?”
“Good guess?” he replied with a flimsy laugh.
One glance at Ken’s sheepish expression made Joey exclaim, knife still in hand, “Oh my God, you knew. How did you find out?”
His face turned sullen. “It wasn’t on purpose.”
Joey swallowed again, setting down his utensils. “Tell me.”
“I was looking for tape,” Ken began, “and I found boxes with pictures in them, pictures of you and him.” His expression was both apologetic and defensive, unsure of whether to feel guilty.
A revelation like this usually prompted Joey to shut down and walk away from the table, but he was stubborn. The humiliation and embarrassment welling inside him was a good thing, he tried to convince himself.
“I found photos of your mom too,” Ken added in a quiet, unsure way. “I thought you had seen them before.”
“You should have minded your own business,” Joey said without facing him. Despite best efforts to stay firm, his eyes were glued to his plate. This was light-years faster than he wanted. Ken knew too much about him, more about him than Joey did. This was more than ripping a bandaid off, it was ripping his whole skin off. He trembled as the memories of the last few months drifted back to the forefront. When everything was okay, he would have gone back and digested each one, piece by piece. He still couldn’t comprehend why these misfortunes had happened to him.
“I know I fucked up. It was an accident,” Ken said in an insistent tone, wanting to gloss over his mistake.
“No, you should have just minded your in business. You shouldn’t have kept looking,” Joey repeated heatedly. “You’re such an asshole.” He usually didn’t curse, but he was angry and since he hadn’t eaten that much, he was feeling the Painkiller fast.
Ken sighed with resignation, since Joey wasn’t going to let it slide. He shrugged helplessly, “Look, I won’t argue with you. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that.” A tiny chink in his own cocksure facade broke as he added, “I just wanted you to open up a little.”
At this point, Joey was so upset that his voice grew louder and more quavering, “A little? Who are you, anyway? You don’t, you don’t know anything about me. What right do you have pushing your way into my life?” He whipped his head up to glare at Ken, but the odd expression on his face made him look back down. He didn’t know what look that was.
“I don’t, but you look like you need somebody.”
“Well, you don’t need to stick around for my sake,” Joey replied, but immediately regretted saying. A part of him wished he had admitted to Ken that he did need someone, but another part wanted Ken to jump off a bridge.
To his surprise, Ken breathed a short laugh. “Honestly, I’m not. Finding those pictures made me think I had a chance with you.”
Joey’s face was well red at this point. He propped his chin on an elbow, his palm cupping his mouth. Noticing his drink, he finished it in one go. It took a few seconds for him to fish for an answer, because he was shocked that he was right about Ken flirting with him.
“The first thought after seeing those pictures was that you had a chance with me?” His anger was subsiding, but he still felt raw. He took a deep breath and proceeded carefully.
“Well, you know how it is. Outside of obvious places, you kind of have to dance around the question, is he or not?”
Joey didn’t know, though it sounded like it made sense. He had no idea, because he had very little experience with his newfound sexuality, only two years old. He didn’t nod, because he didn’t want to show Ken any sign of forgiveness, so he stared at Ken, who grew uncomfortable.
“Joey, I’m sorry, okay? You were right. I shouldn’t have gone through your stuff.” Ken finally looked repentant.
“Just don’t ask me about any of that again. If,” he emphasized, “we do talk about it, it’s going to be on my terms.”
“Okay,” Ken said with relief. “By the way, I am really hungry, so I’m going to eat. But if you want, I can go to my room or –”
“Please don’t,” Joey said. Despite the fact that the night took an unpleasant turn, it was a small comfort that Ken did not know everything, but enough to understand what Joey was going through. It was enough to break the barrier that Joey had built between them, and Joey’s mind was filling with questions. “Can we talk?”
“You tell me what you want to talk about,” Ken said carefully.
“So many things.” The alcohol loosening his tongue, he continued, “I’m not hungry, but please eat.” His eyes grew rounder and filled with curiosity as he asked, “What was it like when you realized you liked guys?”
Joey had forgotten how much he loved hugging. The warmth was constant and enveloped you with such precious security. Burying his face into Ken’s shoulder, he inhaled the comforting smell of his deodorant and sweat. In his drunken stupor, the way Ken held him and stroked the hairs on his nape was bliss.
They were huddled on the floor and Joey did not remember how it happened, so he asked aloud, “How did we get here?”
“You tripped on yourself and fell.”
His knee throbbed on cue. Joey remembered the two of them talking at the table, he asking and Ken answering. He remembered the inquisitive look in Ken’s eyes at his questions, and he could guess that Ken realized he was inexperienced. That moment stayed with him the most. At some point, likely out of chagrin, Joey asked for another drink and then he was on the floor. He tightened his hold around Ken, the moment bittersweet. Joey wouldn’t ordinarily turn to someone like Ken for comfort, but then again, he felt like he had no choice. He was there, and maybe that was enough for now.
“How are you feeling?”
“I feel okay,” he lied.
Ken asked with the knowing tone of someone who regularly dealt with drunks, “Really? Because you’re drunk.”
He replied, words slurring, “The last time I had this much was when I realized he had left me. I definitely had too much, and I was alone then.” Joey paused and lifted his head look at him dimly, “I didn’t throw up everywhere, did I?” When Ken shook his head, he continued, resting his back down, “Okay, so trust me when I say it’s better now. Someone to leave me pills and water,” he slurred. He grasped Ken’s shirt, balling his fingers into it.
Joey could feel Ken bury his nose in his hair. “I can do that and more.”
A needling notion pierced his foggy brain and Joey looked at Ken. He was almost the exact opposite to the ex, uncannily so, but both handsome in their own respects. After Ken’s confession hours before, Joey sidestepped the messy subject. But in Ken’s pushy way – something Joey was quickly learning about – Joey was confronted with his interest again.
“Hey,” he began slowly. “It’s not like I don’t like you.” He was thankful that his face was already red. “It’s not like you’re not good-looking either, because you’re really good-looking, but…” he trailed off. There were so many reasons, all of which pointed to the fact that he was afraid. He didn’t know where any of this was going.
“I know,” Ken said. “You got out of a serious relationship, and you’re nervous about moving forward. Plus, there’s the fact that I shot myself in the foot earlier. But I like you, Joey. You’re cute and I like being around you.” Joey envied his boldness and was flattered by the words. Ken was so sure of himself, barreling through life. “Anyway, it doesn’t have to be serious. This can be fun,” Ken added, pausing an extra beat longer before saying, “right?”
The word ‘fun’ snagged Joey’s thoughts, a small frown forming as he was lost in them. His mind cleared enough to be conscious of their intimate position and how his body had grown so hot. His arms fit so comfortably around Ken’s neck and he didn’t want to let go. Then Ken bumped his forehead against Joey’s and remarked, “You sure like to live in there.” He smiled in that frustrating, curling way. “Don’t think too hard.”
A friend had said that to him when a younger Joey had been standing in the edge of a ten foot high dock by the lake. For some reason, he recalled that he jumped off because of that phrase and Ken kissed him, catching him mid-thought. It was a soft peck, but he demanded his attention.
He had it. Like magnets to flakes of iron, his golden-brown eyes pulled in every stray thought Joey had in his brain, little heated observations over the past month on how masculine and confident Ken was. They coalesced into something unfamiliar, but comfortable and alluring. His skin crawled as he hesitantly returned the kiss, before marveling at how easily he forgot every sorrow.
The silence amplified every little noise, whose vibrations rang in Joey’s ears and shimmied down to his groin. Another press of a kiss and a kiss turned into kissing, then hands sneaking up under Joey’s shirt. Ken’s thumbs were skimming the thin skin over Joey’s ribs when he pulled Joey closer and planted a kiss at the base of his neck. But the shiver of pleasure threw Joey into a minor panic, which pierced through his drunken consciousness, so he pulled back, stuttering insecurities.
Heart pounding in his throat, he needlessly apologized, “It’s been a while, and I don’t think I’m good enough, I don’t know if I’ll be any good…”
“Hmm?” He made a questioning noise as he mouthed his neck and let his teeth gently scrape his skin. It was a far cry from the trembling, tender fumbles that Joey had been used to with his ex. Intimidated by his arousal, Joey pulled him into a tight hug and buried his face into Ken’s neck as a silent way for him to stop. Ken got the hint and hugged him back. The steady rhythm of Ken’s heartbeat lulled him to sleep, and his last thought was that he wished they could stay like this forever.
When Joey woke up and discovered he was alone in his bed, he crept out of his room for answers. He was hungover again and had only a foggy idea of what had happened the night before. Ken’s room was next to his, the door cracked open. As his landlord, he tried not to intrude on his privacy, so he was reluctant to peek inside. Joey had seen his room once before, when Ken had just moved in with his scant belongings. Ken hadn’t accumulated much more, such that even the clutter inside struggled to do its job.
Ken was still asleep. It was a weekday, but he kept an irregular schedule doing odd jobs on top of his regular stint as a bartender. It certainly wasn’t the bartending that kept his physique chiseled. Joey wasn’t exactly sure what was said last night, but the sight of Ken – shirtless and the covers hugging the round of his ass – reminded him of the warm hunger from last night and how it intimidated him.
He sat at the edge of the bed, his hands clasped and fingers fiddling. He continued where he left off, comparing Ken to the ex: rough instead of sensitive, aggressive instead of passive, dark instead of pale, sensual instead of sentimental. The bed creaked when he leaned over to get a better look. Ken cracked open an eye, regarded him, and scooted closer to him.
“Come to continue where we left off?” he asked sleepily, but his gaze was alert.
Joey realized he was staring but didn’t stop himself. “And where was that?“
“Don’t remember?” He stretched as he yawned and inched closer again.
“Did something happen after I passed out?” Joey suddenly found his fingers interesting and studied them, avoiding Ken’s eyes.
“I mean before that.”
What Joey could recall was his babbling about his inexperience. He was flustered by the embarrassment of that memory of his foolishness, so he rambled nervously, ”Well, all of that is from growing up on the edges of the Bible Belt. Actually, I’ve come a long way. I’m only halfway uncomfortable with myself.”
“Relax,” Ken said, moving his hand over Joey’s. “I’m not going to make fun of you for that.”
He entwined his fingers with Joey’s. Joey waited for something to happen, while Ken seemed satisfied with gazing at him. Swallowing the lump that made its way to his throat, he was envious of Ken’s confident, zen demeanor. He wanted that peace for himself, he wanted Ken.
What was it that Ken told him last night? Don’t think so hard, Joey reminded himself. Don’t think about anything else. Ken pulled him down until he was lying next to him. When Joey withdrew because he remembered he stank of rum and hadn’t taken a shower yet, Ken threw his arms around him. Imprisoned, Joey gave him an unsure look.
“What is it?” Ken asked, pecking his cheek. “Talk to me.”
“Anything,” he said before another peck.
It was like lava was making its way through his veins, and his rising body heat distracted him from his hangover. He softly spoke, “I think it’s almost magical, the way you’re so comfortable with yourself. You actually like yourself.”
“Someone has to,” he laughed as his hands moved down and under Joey’s t-shirt. They rested around his waist. “Why don’t you like yourself?”
“Looking back, I feel like it’s all been wrong. Wrong place, wrong family, wrong feelings. It’s not my fault, but it’s hard not to blame myself.”
“You have a big heart, don’t you?” When Joey blinked, puzzled by the comment, he smiled and stroked the length of his side with the backs of his fingers. “You care a lot, even about things you shouldn’t. You took me in, didn’t you?”
So much had happened since he let Ken stay with him. So strange and so new was his second tryst. “What was I thinking? I’m still not sure…” Joey leaned into Ken’s touch, and Ken lost no time in pulling off Joey’s shirt. Ken gently rolled them over and laid Joey on his back. Himself on his side, Ken ran a hand over Joey’s chest, nuzzling his ear.
“I’ll take care of you,” he murmured. His fingers ran all over him, thumbing his nipples until they were pert and skimming the edge of Joey’s boxers. Joey swallowed again, his throat dry, when he felt wet lips press against his collarbone and Ken’s cock grind against his thigh.
“I’d, I’d like that,” he said, then gasped when he felt a long, wet lick up the length of his cock. He bit his lip, made shy by noise he made, instead voicing soft grunts as Ken explored his dick with sucks and strokes.
Ken paused to affectionately kiss his stomach, right under his rib cage. “Don’t hold back. Hearing you is such a turn on.” Joey realized he was biting into a finger joint to stifle himself and let go. Ken nudged his shaft with his nose, saying, “Fuck, I’ve wanted this,” and swallowed as much as he could.
A loud groan slipped out and Joey arched off the bed. The swirls of tongue, starting at the base and ending at the head, elicited moans and sighs like in the porn videos Joey surreptitiously watched. This was a thousand times better though, seeing the way Ken ravenously explore his length, while reaching down in his briefs to stroke himself.
Joey reached down to run a hand through Ken’s hair, grinding into his mouth. He squirmed and stuttered, “I‘m close, ah! S-so close…”
To his frustration, Ken released him, resorting to light licks. Joey could feel his tongue, slick against the base of his shaft, and his sunset-golden eyes devouring the way Joey craved release. He could hear Ken stroking himself, his dick wet with precum. Without warning, Ken swallowed Joey’s length and slowly, forcefully bobbed up and down the length, sucking throughout. Joey bucked his hips as much as he could, straining against the arm that was pinning him down.
He let out a short, soft cry, and came. Ken kept sucking and swallowed every drop of come that Joey could offer. He whimpered because Ken sucked for a few seconds too long, but then he got to see Ken climax, his seed spilling on Joey’s thigh. He took a deep, ragged breath and didn’t move, even when Ken settled next to him.
“Thank you,” Joey finally said, not knowing what else to say. Ken smirked at this, then laughed when he thought more about his grateful answer.
“Fun, right?” he asked, nosing his shoulder.
Fun was too simple, but he couldn’t put the swell of emotions to words. At once, Joey had felt carnal, erotic, and stupid, a mix he rarely, if ever, felt. “Your idea of fun is interesting.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Ken said with a smug grin, leaning over to kiss him and nip his bottom lip.
Chocolate was a familiar friend, but the traditional flavor wasn’t cutting it, so Joey began blending different flavors. He took a tentative step with the not-so-experimental chocolate and passionfruit. It was a gorgeous mix, but it wasn’t what Joey was looking for. For weeks he had baked only with chocolate, because he couldn’t get it off of his mind. It was a maddening endeavor, like an itch he couldn’t scratch.
He took a bite of his fourth take of spicy chocolate mousse. It was sweet, creamy, with a painful heat behind it. The fact that he couldn’t stop eating it meant it was worthy of filing away in his recipe binder, but it still wasn’t what he was looking for. He could feel that he was close to finishing his menu, because his patisseries were improving steadily. Everything had been okay, but was getting better. Soon, he’d be able to put a confident foot forward in his job search.
Per usual, he heard the door open and a bag hit the floor, but he was preoccupied with his search. Ken strode into the kitchen and kissed his temple.
“Chiles? No wonder it smelled so spicy in here.” He snatched the glass of mousse from Joey’s hands and shoved two envelopes into him.
Joey made a disgruntled noise at Ken, then glanced at the letters in his hands. He opened them without looking at Ken. He didn’t want to give Ken the satisfaction of seeing his reaction, but his insides tightened. He was both apprehensive and expectant. Joey folded the letters up again after he had read them and tucked them back into their envelopes, but said nothing.
Resting his chin on Joey’s shoulder, he asked into his ear, “Any bad news? This is awesome, by the way.”
Joey shook his head, trying to keep composure. Ken did like Joey’s cooking, but his appetite was more for Joey. Such a brazen attraction was so novel and exhilarating that he was swept away, often literally, off his feet. It was nice to feel wanted again, and Ken expressed it so demandingly.
“Wanna practice a little later?” Ken asked, arms wrapping tightly around his shoulders. “I’ll be gentle.”
Their tests returned negative, reporting a clean bill of health. “Okay,” Joey murmured. Spotting Ken about to lick a bit of stray mousse from his finger, he leaned over and caught it in his mouth. He gave Ken an innocent look as he let the finger slip out clean. In response, Ken pushed a biting kiss into his nape. There was something about Joey’s naivete that seemed to flip a switch. Joey didn’t understand – he thought he was awkward and ignorant – but he welcomed the attention.
Joey let his needs take a backseat and, for better or for worse, his wounds healed around Ken’s intrusive presence. Gladly he grabbed the chance to move forward, becoming familiar with a side of him that he was told was abhorrent. He wouldn’t call it ‘fun,’ as Ken insisted, but rather a sticky obsession, just like his search for the perfect chocolate dessert.
His eyes had lit up with excitement when Joey let slip that he’d never been penetrated, but Ken was mindful enough to prioritize his partner’s comfort. Ken’s instructions were meticulous and he communicated everything. Joey appreciated it all, but at some points, his consideration felt more like teasing. When Joey looked slightly uneasy, Ken withdrew contact until Joey coaxed him back, placing his hands around him and rubbing against him. Sometimes Ken would detail how Joey’s body reacted as it happened. Case in point was their fourth time ‘practicing’ together.
“Did that feel good?” Ken asked, giving his ass a light grope. “You clenched when I –”
“Stop,” he blurted, mortified. He was straddling Ken’s lap, arms tight around his neck. Until Ken had spoken, he had been absorbed with Ken’s experienced hands, one stroking his cock methodically and the other slowly pushing fingers inside and out of him. He had been breathing slight, fluttery moans right into Ken’s ear.
“You want me to stop?” he teased in a voice that tickled Joey’s shoulder and washed over him like hot syrup. He slid his digits out and ran hands over the curve of Joey’s ass. Bare naked and goosebumps trailing his sides, he huffed out a disgruntled breath, but pushed back into his hands, loving the warmth. Joey kissed him, his tongue enticing his way into his mouth and mutely persuading Ken to continue.
They were in Ken’s bedroom with the door closed, blinds shut. Joey knew there was no need, but it eased his nerves anyway. To feel so good did seem sinful, especially when, instead of fingers, Joey felt the tip of Ken’s cock press and slip against him.
Breaking their kiss, Ken asked, “Do you want to try a little?” Touching his nose against Joey’s, purred huskily, “We can stop if you want.” Ken’s tone strongly suggested he hoped otherwise, and it didn’t help that his length kept nudging him.
“Please slow,” Joey whispered, a shudder running up his back.
A hungry smile on his face, he gently sank him onto his dick. When a hint of a whine started deep in Joey’s throat, Ken started breathing praises and promises into his skin, how fucking hot this was, how good Joey was being, what he’d love to do to his tight hole.
Joey settled in his lap, hands clenching and gasps escaping. “It f-feels weird,” he said. He kept readjusting his position, but Ken held him down to take his cock to the hilt.
“Just, just relax,” Ken directed. “Just stay like this, don’t move.” He leaned in to catch Joey’s mouth and softly kiss him. He grabbed more lube and gripped Joey’s length, jerking him off to pull him back to pleasure. Joey was losing his mind, and his ass didn’t know what to do, had never done this before, so it kept clenching and clenching and clenching and Ken kept stroking and rubbing so tortuously. He imagined Ken buried inside him, ready to come inside him, leave a little bit of himself inside of Joey. His toes balled up and he ground against Ken’s hands and his cock in an instinctual motion, then came without warning. Harshly exhaling, he bit his lip and voiced soft cries in between. Ken’s hands were still tightly around his insistently pulsing length.
In the afterglow, Joey felt hands tightly grip his hips and the still hard dick grind inside him. Resting his hands behind Ken’s head, sinking his fingers into his hair, he focused on the shallow thrusts and hard friction. Ken was bent forward, his breath hot against Joey’s chest, and he was lost, concentrating on the peak. Joey could feel his fingers dig into the rounds of his ass and Ken’s thighs tense and relax under him. He could do this again, no question.
He heard a burst of a grunt, and something warm spurted into his depths. Ken hugged him tightly and buried his face into his neck, and Joey wondered at how vulnerable he felt in that split second. He fidgeted a little in Ken’s lap until Ken distracted him with a soft kiss.
He entwining their fingers, palm to palm, and Ken declared, “There, you did it.”
Between evening breaths, he said, “I don’t think that counted.”
A tired laugh couldn’t but slip out. “What? Why?”
“Because,” Joey drifted off, embarrassed by his thoughts. “Never mind, it did.”
“No, you can’t start and not finish that thought. Remember? You said you wanted to keep talking.”
Joey cursed Ken’s pushiness. “Because,” he said, “it was just practicing, right? It wasn’t like” –he paused– “on the internet.” He waited for the laughter, which arrived as expected. He sulked as Ken pulled him into a smothering hug, still laughing. He wiggled so that Ken’s spent cock could free itself, but Ken kept hugging him.
“Does it matter? It was fun, wasn’t it?”
Life goes in circles and circles, Joey thought. His stomach lurched as Ken smiled at him, a frustrating, curling curve, like a cat caught with feathers in his maw. “Well,” he said in a harmless tone, but in words that spoke otherwise, “we’ll keep going until it does count.”
Ken found Joey nestled in the couch when he returned. Today he was wearing a server’s uniform. The air smelled of chocolate, which meant he had been baking.
“Hi,” Joey greeted brightly, a pillow in his arms.
He smiled, delighted by Joey’s good mood. “Hey,” he responded. “What did you make today?”
With a triumphant look, he exclaimed, “Cockolate cum pream cuffs, I mean, chocolate rum cream puffs. There’s a few in the kitchen. Can you bring me a glass of water?”
Ken collapsed next to Joey with two of the confections in one hand and requested water in the other. After giving sideways glance to Joey, he took a careful bite. “It’s perfect. I love it,” he remarked, devouring the rest of it. “It’s pretty rich though.”
Sipping on the glass, Joey nodded. “Yeah, it is. It’s delicious, but you can’t have too much of it.” Then he hiccupped.
“Are you drunk from these?” Ken asked, as he ate the second one. “These are really strong. Does the cream have rum in it?”
“I thought it would be good to round off my menu with something more adult.” He hiccupped again.
“So you’ve finished it.”
“Yup,” he replied, exaggerating the ‘p’. “I’ve practiced everything too, and it all tastes great.”
“See? It was just a matter of time before your skills were up to snuff.”
Joey shook his head. “They taste good, but different than they used to. But I’ve finished the menu, and that deserves a high-five.” He held up a hand, but Ken missed because Joey’s head was swimming and he had instinctively grabbed his temple.
“Wait, let’s try that again,” he said, raising a hand again. This time, Ken grabbed his wrist and pulled him in for a kiss.
“We’ll need you to lay off the booze,” Ken remarked, licking stray cream off his lips. To that, Joey crawled on top of Ken and curled up against his chest.
“I don’t think I need it any more,” he said with a long sigh of relief. “Not as long as you’re here.”