Failed Experiments In Ending A Relationship

by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色 墨)
illustrated by okchickadee
concept by Tougyo (闘魚)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/72105.html)

illustrated by okchickadee

Saturday, Two Weeks Ago:

Rob was standing next to the artichokes, thinking about how Jonathan would have insisted that something that took that much effort to eat couldn’t possibly be worth it, when a voice next to his ear said, “I heard you can steam those in the microwave.”

Rob’s reaction was one of instinctive horror: “Oh, God no,” he said, then thought about it for a second and amended, “I mean, I guess you could, but. . . why?

The guy chuckled, and wow, he was kind of good-looking, in that slender young Asian male way that Rob hadn’t found genuinely attractive since high school. “A lady told me that once right here, by the artichokes. I must’ve given her some look, ’cause she looked embarrassed and ran away.” He gave Rob a mischievous look. “What are you gonna make?”

Holy shit, was he getting cruised? At the grocery store? Berkeley Bowl’s produce section was pretty notorious for hippies and foodies chatting each other up, advising each other on local avocados and how to eat a cactus pear, but this was something Rob had yet to encounter. “I was, uh, I was thinking of just steaming them, actually,” he said. “Nothing fancy.”

“Looks pretty fancy in there,” the guy remarked, nodding to Rob’s basket, which so far contained: persimmons and pomegranates (because it was December), some sheep’s milk havarti that he’d sampled at the cheese island (because now nobody was nagging him about paying $7.99/lb for cheese), raisins and bread (because he’d had some vague flight of fancy about making bread pudding), mushrooms (because now nobody had a mushroom allergy, and he could make mushroom risotto), and various herbs and spices (because he found himself in abrupt need). “Maybe we should have dinner sometime.”

Rob opened his mouth to say sorry, I can’t, then realized that hey, why the hell not? He was single, after all. “Or we could just skip to the good part,” he suggested in his best “if you want, not that I’m craving your cock or anything” voice. Hell, he could do this. He wasn’t old or anything. He’d just gotten cruised in a grocery store.

The guy looked startled for a second, then grinned slowly, and Rob felt his mouth go dry.

What followed was hardly something you’d see on an episode of Queer as Folk. Berkeley Bowl, which was a madhouse even at two in the afternoon on a Monday, was nothing short of a circus on Saturdays, and they both had to finish shopping and check out. Then they had to get back to Rob’s apartment, which was closer, and then they had to somehow fit both their perishables in Rob’s refrigerator before they could go any farther.

But finally, when Rob’s artichokes were nestled in the crisper and the other guy’s ice cream had gone into the freezer and the cat had been shut in the bathroom, Rob found himself pushed up against the wall with a hand under his shirt. He was hard almost instantly, 16 and stupid with sex all over again, and he bent his head down to kiss the guy, who jerked away.

“Hey,” the guy said. “We’re not gonna do anything like that, are we?”

Oh, shit, yeah. It’d been–long enough–that he’d forgotten the rules. Rob leaned back a little and said, “No, ‘course not, sorry,” and then let his knees go out from under him, feeling the guy up all the way down. His mouth wasn’t gonna be doing anything else, after all; might as well put it to good use.

It’d been so long since he sucked an unfamiliar cock, and he hardly ever did that on his knees anymore, although at least the hardwood of his front hall was more forgiving than the tile in the kitchen. He was almost surprised by the other guy’s dick, the way it was shorter and more slender, surrounded by wiry black pubes instead of brown. He closed his mouth around it, and it was different, but a cock was still a cock, and he loved giving head, loved the taste and the smell of it, loved the way he could feel the guy’s abs flexing and twitching. This was one of those guys who didn’t like to let on that he was enjoying himself, all breathy gasps and barely moans, which Rob wasn’t so used to, but that was fine. He could get used to this.

The guy’s fingers curled around his head, but his hair was too short, so he pinched an ear instead. Rob jerked back so hard he almost forgot about his teeth, but he didn’t, and he glared up and started, “What the f–”

“Sorry,” the guy said, but he didn’t sound too sorry about it. “I just–do you fuck?”

It took Rob a second to parse it. “Top or bottom?” he asked.

The guy shrugged, and God, he was pretty, pants half-down around his thighs and his cock hanging out, all hard and shiny with spit. “I bottom,” he said, “but I can be versatile.”

“I top,” Rob said, and was rewarded with a grin.

If he thought kissing was too intimate or girly or whatever, would he object to a bed, too? But he didn’t, which Rob figured only made sense, since if all he’d wanted was a quick blowjob he wouldn’t have suggested fucking. He just shed his clothes into a puddle on the floor and kneed his way up to the top of the bed, where he took the headboard in his hands and then looked over his shoulder at Rob, eyebrows lifted. Well, then. Rob shucked his clothes and climbed up onto the bed with him. He felt a brief, foolish impulse to kiss the guy’s shoulder as he reached for the drawer, but he didn’t. The guy watched with interest as he rolled on the condom, squeezed a generous dollop of lube into his hand, and palmed his cock. He wiped his hand on the sheets before pulling the guy toward him by the hips.

“Are you–” he started.

“Man, just shut up and fuck me already,” the guy said.

Right, right, cut the chit-chat. He clearly knew what he was doing. As did Rob. This was just sex, after all; he knew how to do that.

The guy let out a slow, hissing exhale when Rob pressed in, and it was like the sound triggered some kind of sense-memory, or maybe it was a Pavlovian reaction. Whatever it was called, it just about melted Rob’s spine, and his hips lurched forward, then back, and then from there into a steady rhythm, and it was a good thing the guy had his hands on the headboard to brace them. He was still making those quiet, open-mouthed sounds, more like voiced pants than real moans, his head hanging down. That was fine. That was great. Rob let himself get pulled into the endless push and pull of fucking, let his mind wander, thinking about how long it’d been since he’d last worn a condom, how good this felt even so, how he almost never had sex on Saturdays because Saturdays were for errands and sometimes rehearsals, how–

The guy suddenly shifted, throwing off Rob’s rhythm. Rob opened his eyes without even realizing he’d closed them. The guy had only one hand on the headboard now; the other one disappeared under his belly, flexing in a familiar, smooth gesture, and Rob realized he’d been neglecting his duty. He paused for a second–God, how hard was that?–to lean over and get one hand down around the other guy’s cock, and then he started thrusting again, pumping and groping in time. Instead of letting go, though, the other guy just kept right on stroking, so that their fingers tangled together, wet with the guy’s precome, and damn, this was pretty hot. Hot enough that Rob couldn’t really concentrate that well on the reacharound anymore, but that was okay because the other guy came first with a little choked-off gasp, dribbling over their joined fingers and dripping onto the sheets.

Rob let go of the guy’s cock and put both hands back on his hips, smearing come across his skin. There wasn’t really time to be polite because this was it, he really needed to come right fucking now. He bit his lip when he came, trying to be quiet because the other guy was, and it wasn’t the greatest orgasm of his life, but it wasn’t bad, either. Maybe there was such a thing as a bad orgasm, but he’d never had one.

They were both breathing hard now, and Rob realized he was slumped over the other guy’s back. He pulled back, feeling bad–the other guy was smaller than him, after all–and almost forgot to hang on to the condom, keep it from slipping off. He looked at his hands the entire time while he tied it off, then took it into the bathroom and disposed of it there. Hero, sulking in a corner, glared at him and twitched away when Rob tried to pet him. By the time Rob got back to the bedroom, the other guy was sitting up and pulling on his boxers. Rob was surprised, then realized he wasn’t, really.

“Thanks,” he said, lamely.

“Hey, no problem,” said the other guy. “That was great.” He arched his back and winced theatrically, then threw Rob a wink and a grin that made him feel like a stud. “Wasn’t expecting to find that at the grocery store, you know?”

“Yeah,” Rob said. What was he supposed to say? “Me neither.”

The guy pulled on his shirt. “Gimme a sec, and I’ll be out of your hair.”

“I’ll, uh, go get your groceries together,” Rob said.

“Hey, that’d be cool,” the guy said. “Thanks.”

Watching him get dressed was no less hot than watching him take off his clothes. Rob grabbed his boxers off the floor and fled to the kitchen, where he weeded non-belongings out of his fridge and deposited them into a paper bag. He took the opportunity to also get rid of an unopened jar of mayonnaise (not his, and he wouldn’t be needing it) and a bag of baby carrots. Maybe he could dip the baby carrots in the jar of mayonnaise. Who cared? He was never going to see him ever again.

That Morning:

Rob wanted to make an omelette, only when he opened the spice cabinet, the pepper grinder was gone. As was the cumin, the basil, the parsley, the oregano–basically, all the herbs and spices he used the most often, the ones that were closest to the front.

He grabbed his jacket from the hall closet and was halfway to the street before he realized this was what Jonathan wanted. This was always how it worked: he and Jonathan got into a fight, Jonathan left or Rob kicked him out, and Jonathan took something with him: a few DVDs, or Rob’s best shirt, or one time, the cat. It was always a mistake, it’d gotten “mixed in” with his stuff somehow, but Rob knew better. If nothing else, the cat couldn’t just have “ended up” in Jonathan’s stuff. Then Rob would storm over to Jonathan’s parents’ house in El Cerrito to demand his things back, they’d have another fight that culminated in makeup sex, and then Jonathan would move back in.

Well, this time Rob wasn’t going to fall for it. This time, Rob would just go to the grocery store and buy more.

The Sunday After:

Rob slept in the next day because what the hell, he was alone, it was a Sunday, and it wasn’t like he had to be anywhere. He ate cereal for brunch–Christ, when was the last time he had cereal? What was he, a college student?–and read the Sunday comics, none of which were very funny except for Pearls Before Swine. Afterward, he left the paper open on the table instead of putting it away immediately like he always did because it wasn’t as if he was trying to set a good example anymore, was it? This was what he told himself when he left his bowl in the sink instead of washing it. Who the hell cared, anyway? The cat? Hero still hadn’t forgiven him for locking him in the bathroom last night and pointedly ignored him whenever he was in the room, save for when Rob scraped a can of food into his bowl.

There wasn’t really enough laundry for a full load, now that it was just his clothes, so Rob decided to leave it for next week and got out the vacuum cleaner instead. Hero immediately retreated into the bedroom. Rob left the TV babbling in the background while he vacuumed, feeling rather like a bored and dutiful housewife. Then he took out the garbage. Then, for lack of anything better to do, he scrubbed the shower and the bathroom and kitchen sinks, gave the toilet a quick brush, mopped the kitchen floor, and put the damn bowl in the dishwasher because he really did care, after all.

By the time all that was done it was time for dinner, but Rob found he didn’t really feel like cooking. He didn’t really feel like eating out, either. He thought about ordering Indian takeout, but the place had a $20 minimum, which was sort of insane and always resulted in enough food to feed at least two people. So instead, he put a frozen pizza in the oven and dug the guitar out of the closet.

Christmas, Five Years Ago:

“Hey,” Jonathan whispered in Rob’s ear. “Wake up. It’s Christmas.”

Rob groaned. “How the hell are you up before me?”

“I wanted to get your present ready,” Jonathan said, sounding pleased with himself. “Stay in bed, okay?”

If you wanted me to stay in bed, why the hell did you wake me up in the first place? Rob wondered. But he obediently stayed in bed. What had Jonathan gotten him? For his birthday it’d been a new olive oil sprayer, since their old Misto had jammed. For last Christmas, Jonathan had gotten him a reasonably good knife, along with a new carving board. It was probably more kitchen stuff.

Jonathan came back into the bedroom with what was obviously a guitar, despite it being clumsily wrapped in garish green paper with jolly, red-cheeked Santa faces all over it. Rob stared. He was quite certain that they did not own any wrapping paper like that.

“Merry Christmas,” Jonathan said, beaming.

Rob tore open the paper slowly. It wasn’t new, he realized, once the first strip of waxed paper fell away. The wood was scratched and scarred in places, and it didn’t smell like a music shop. It needed new strings. But it was still a good guitar. Rob plucked one of the strings and wondered, distantly, who’d given up this instrument, and whether it’d been worth it.

“You got me a guitar,” he said, stupidly.

Jonathan curled around Rob’s back. “Now you can stop asking me to let you into the drama room when you want to use the piano.”

“A guitar is not a piano,” Rob pointed out.

“Okay,” Jonathan admitted, laughing. “Next time, I’ll get you a piano.”

Some Undefined Period of Time Later:

Jonathan never did get him that piano. Then again, Rob hadn’t really expected him to.

Friday, Two Weeks Ago:

Rob counted to ten, and then he called his mother.

“Hey, Mom,” he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking.

“Robert, dear!” she said. “It’s so good to hear from you! What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Rob said hastily, wiping his nose and trying not to sniffle, even though his mom could probably hear him anyway. Mothers were like that. “I just wanted to let you know that Jonathan, um, Jonathan’s probably not going to be able to make it for Christmas.”

“Oh, honey,” she said. “Did you and Jonathan have another fight?”

“N–yeah, we kinda did. I don’t,” Rob paused and tried to gather his thoughts, “I don’t think,” he tried again, “I don’t think he’s going to be able to make it. It’s–it’s different.”

His mom was quiet for a few seconds. Don’t ask, Rob thought. Please don’t ask. “All right,” she said. “Well, Christmas isn’t for a while yet, so I’ll keep his place at the table, okay?”

“Okay,” Rob said, feeling too exhausted to argue. “I’ll talk to you later, Mom.”

“I hope you boys work things out,” she said.

“Me too,” Rob said, even though he didn’t think they would. “I’ve gotta go now, Mom.”

It was barely nine o’ clock, but Rob went to bed early. Everything would look better tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow was Saturday, and he’d make himself an omelette, and everything would be fine.

Saturday Again:

After the guy was gone, Rob leaned against the door and wondered what the hell he was supposed to be doing now. Oh, right, putting away the rest of his groceries, maybe? And he should probably put on some clothes. And at some point he needed to cook dinner and feed the cat, if the cat deigned to speak to him ever again.

His phone beeped pathetically on the counter, informing that he had a message from Jonathan.

“Hey,” Jonathan’s voice reported, flattened and distorted by the recording. “I just realized that I, uh, took some spices and stuff when I left. It must’ve gotten mixed up with my, with my, uh, stuff. Anyway, if you want ’em, go ahead and swing by. My parents’ll be home.”

Fat chance, Rob thought, and deleted the message.

Last Summer:

Rob tried not to think about how weird it was that he and Jonathan had just had sex in Jonathan’s parents’ house. At least they weren’t home. And at least it was more comfortable than last time, when they’d ended up having sex in the car.

“I took the cat on purpose,” Jonathan admitted. “He didn’t actually crawl into a box.”

“I know,” Rob said. “I’m not an idiot. And he has a name. You named him, actually.”

“That’s because I wanted a dog,” Jonathan replied. “Named Hero. Hero is the dumbest name for a cat ever. And he doesn’t answer to it, anyway. We might as well call him ‘Cat.'”

“You don’t make sense,” Rob told him.

“He was actually really mad,” Jonathan said, shifting so that he was holding Rob more securely. “He didn’t like the cat food that Mom tried to feed him. And he kept meowing.”

Rob smiled. “He knows where he belongs.”

September, Eight Years Ago:

“I don’t know why I didn’t know about him earlier,” Cheryl said as she sliced carrots with an eerie precision. “Well, no, I do know–he’s part time, it turns out, only comes for two periods a day, and I think he works at the middle school, too. I doubt he makes much money, but that’s all right, isn’t it?”

God, he should have known better when Cheryl invited him over for dinner. Ever since she got married, it was like she knew just how the whole damn world should get along. “Stop it,” he said. “You don’t even know he’s gay.”

“I have a perfectly adequate gaydar, thank you,” she said, and sounded awfully ruffled for a straight woman. She scooped the carrots into a bowl and moved seamlessly on to dicing scallions. “I knew you were gay, didn’t I?”

“That’s different,” Rob protested. “You’re my sister.”

Cheryl sniffed. “He does teach high school drama.” Rob opened his mouth to point out how indefensibly terrible she was being, but Cheryl continued: “Besides, he said so.”

Rob’s train of irate thought abruptly derailed. “What? How? Why?”

“I told him about you, of course.” Cheryl looked very pleased with herself. “He seemed very interested, by the way.”

Spring, Five Years Ago:

“They keep asking me if you’re going to visit today,” Jonathan told him, once there were only a few loiterers near the doors of the theater. There was nothing left of the cookies and shortbread except crumbs. “I think you’re spoiling them. You’re going to make them all fat, and then none of them will ever see Broadway.”

“I can’t think of anything else I’m sure kids will like,” Rob said, trying not to smile. “As long as you don’t get fat.”

“You mean you won’t love me anymore, if I’m fat?” Jonathan affected the perfect wounded expression, eyes wide, lips pouting. It made Rob want to kiss him. “I guess that means I have to give up the Ben & Jerry’s.”

“Oh, no,” Rob assured him, a little breathlessly; Jonathan did really lascivious things with Ben & Jerry’s spoons. And ice cream in general, although Ben & Jerry’s was a favorite.

Jonathan grinned at him and sauntered away after making sure that Rob was watching his ass. “I’m going to go make sure that everyone made it home okay and that nobody got into a car after a stranger offered them candy,” he called. “Hold down the fort, will you?”

“Sure,” Rob said, and Jonathan disappeared out the doors, leaving Rob to poke around the theater by himself. There was a lone upright piano against the wall, next to the stage, with yellowed keys and faded, scratched paint. One of the pedals didn’t work. Piano seated himself at the creaky bench and flexed his fingers. He played a scale, surprised that the piano was actually reasonably in tune–someone must look after it, after all–and then played a little song he’d memorized in the seventh grade with only a few missteps. It was amazing, how much piano lessons stayed with you.

He jerked, surprised, at the applause that followed his solo performance.

“Bravo!” Jonathan cried, clapping. “Encore!”

Rob ducked his head. “Thanks.”

“I didn’t know you played,” Jonathan said, coming over to lean against the piano. “Otherwise I would’ve bugged you to play for some of our performances.”

“I’m not very good,” Rob said. He hadn’t practiced since, oh God, high school. It was amazing he could still play at all. Maybe it was like riding a bicycle.

“Like I can tell the difference?” Jonthan said, cheerfully. “Did your mom make you take lessons?”

“I wanted to, actually,” Rob admitted. “I stopped when I started college. I couldn’t afford lessons, and I wasn’t going to major in music.” Though maybe he should have, he thought. But he hadn’t thought it would be useful, and neither had his parents. They’d given him the option of double majoring, but. . . well. He hadn’t thought he wanted music that much. Maybe he’d been wrong, but there was nothing he could do about that now.

“Too bad,” Jonathan said. “You play anything else? Didjeridoo?”

Rob laughed. “Guitar, a little. I taught myself, mostly.”

“Great,” Jonathan said. “I can afford a guitar.” And he grinned.

October, Six Years Ago

The key lay on the table between them, shining copper like a new penny, and Jonathan stared at it like it was a rabid rat or a questionable food item. Rob hoped that wasn’t a bad sign.

“I don’t,” Jonathan said in a low and troubled voice, picking at the cardboard holder on his coffee cup, “I don’t want to be some kind of trophy.”

Rob was horrified at the thought. Also, confused. “You’re not.”

Apparently that bled through his voice, because Jonathan relaxed, very slightly. “I don’t make a lot of money,” he said, as if it was some kind of confession, even though Jonathan always picked the cheapest thing on the menu, apparently owned no clothing that wasn’t threadbare, and suggested dates at places like Lanesplitters and Smart Alec’s, places that college kids went on dates.

“I know,” Rob said, bewildered. He’d pictured this going a lot differently. For one thing, there’d been less talking and more kissing, and some nakedness toward the end.

“Am I going to pay rent?” Jonathan asked. He was doing that focused, narrow-eyed thing, like he was searching Rob for subtext or ulterior motives. Rob was pretty sure they were having two different conversations.

“Not if–” Rob began, slowly, trying to feel his way.

“I’m going to pay the rent,” Jonathan insisted. “I’m going to pay the rent, and I’m going to buy groceries, and I’m going to clean the litterbox. I’m not going to be some kind of fucking housewife who can’t take care of herself.”

“Okay, okay,” Rob said. “You’ll pay rent. Now will you take the key?”

Jonathan put his hand over it, but didn’t pull it toward him. “Only if I get to pay you back for it.”

Now you’re just being stupid,” Rob said. “Happy anniversary, you fucking freak.”

January, Four Years Ago

“Oh, hey!” said the cashier, who in true Reel Video fashion had long hair with pink streaks, at least twelve facial piercings, and probably ate vegan pizza. “I love this movie,” he said, looking down at the cover before running it under the scanner. “You guys seen it before?”

“I have,” Jonathan said. “He hasn’t.”

“Mmm, you’ll love it,” said the cashier. “It’s really camp, but that’s sort of the point, you know? It’s almost like parts of uh, Edward Scissorhands.”

“Yeah, that’s what I told him,” Jonathan said, smiling and nodding and not making eye contact, since the cashier was ringing them up and taking the locking device out of the DVD case and doing other trained cashier motions. Then he asked them for $5.34, and Jonathan’s grin widened fractionally as he handed him a ten dollar bill. Rob was suddenly quite certain that if hadn’t been there, the cashier would have given Jonathan his phone number along with his change. Jonathan wouldn’t have called, but he’d have the guy’s phone number, and that was the victory, wasn’t it?

“If you like it, you could maybe check out A Touch of Pink,” the cashier suggested. “That’s not bad, either.”

“Thanks, we’ll keep that in mind,” said Rob, his mood suddenly sour. He just wanted to get the hell out of there and go home.

“Thanks, and have a good night,” the cashier said. The person in the line behind them was already moving to the counter, and Rob and Jonathan scuttled through the security gates, grabbed the DVD, and left.

“Hey,” Rob said, suddenly, when they were in the car. Jonathan turned to him with raised eyebrows. “Let’s go to Gary Danko,” he said.

“What?” Jonathan said, baffled.

Rob was aware he was babbling, but couldn’t seem to stop. “Gary Danko. Let’s go. I mean, not this weekend, obviously, you have to make reservations two months in advance, so–”

“Wait, wait, so this is a restaurant?” Jonathan said, turning around in his seat a little so he could look at Rob. Rob could only gape at him with what he could only assume was the same expression Jonathan had had when Rob said he’d never seen or even heard of But I’m A Cheerleader.

“Gary Danko is famous,” he said. “You have to make reservations two months in advance. He’s, fuck, if he doesn’t have a Michelin star–”

“That sounds expensive,” Jonathan said, frowning. “I don’t think–”

“It’ll be a birthday present,” Rob said. “For me. By the time the reservation comes around, it’ll be my birthday. I’ll pay,” he added, in case that wasn’t clear, which maybe it wasn’t, because Jonathan just looked more and more perplexed, until finally he looked horrified.

“You’re going to pay for your own birthday dinner?” Jonathan said, appalled.

“Hell, yes,” Rob said. “You’ll have to wear a suit.”

Almost Christmas, Two Years Ago

It was weird, Rob thought, seeing so many people laughing in one place. It was like watching a movie of an office party.

“Of course,” Jonathan continued, “they couldn’t plan a surprise birthday party with me there, so they had to get me out of the room somehow. Except, maybe you don’t know, teachers aren’t supposed to leave the kids unsupervised. I’m not supposed to leave the room. So. . .”

Rob had heard this story before, so he murmured to Jonathan that he’d be right back and slipped into the hallway. The back offices were empty and unlit, since the party was out in the main lobby, and when he heard them laugh, it was from far away. Standing there in the dark, he thought he should come up with some excuse for being back here in case someone came, like oh, I forgot something in my office, or I thought I heard something, or he could open a window and claim he wanted some air. . .

Oh, like anyone was going to come back here. Rob put his cup of punch down on the desk and tried to stop feeling so tired. It was barely nine o’ clock. It was a party. He was supposed to be having fun.

“Hey,” Jonathan said, suddenly. Rob jumped. “Something wrong?”

“Nah,” Rob said, waving a hand, and tried to remember any of the dozen excuses he’d thought up five minutes ago, but they’d all fled. “I was just getting tired of all the people.”

“You wanna go?” Jonathan said, putting a hand on his side, just below his ribs. At home, Jonathan would have just hugged him, put his chin on Rob’s shoulder and whispered in his ear.

“You’re having fun,” Rob said. “You wanted to come,” he added.

“Because you said you’d never gone. I think you need to get along better with your coworkers,” Jonathan said, and now he did pull Rob a little closer. “Besides, there’s free food.”

“Seasonal cookies and punch are not food,” Rob pointed out. He brought one hand up and put it over Jonathan’s, and Jonathan turned his hand a little so that they could lace their fingers together. The view outside the window was hardly the Financial District, but it was nice nonetheless, with Christmas lights strung through the trees and around the signs, and bright neon snowflakes and bells and wreaths suspended from every lamppost. It was nice to just stand there with Jonathan and look at them.

“Hey, there you are!” yelled Eric, who worked in the office next to Jonathan’s. He was barely a silhouette in the doorway, but Rob could see quite clearly his feigned reel of shock and horror, reflected in the window. “Oh man, get a room!”

Rob rolled his eyes. “We have a room, Eric.”

“Then go there, Jeez!” Eric let his arms fall. “Hey, c’mon, Ingrid sent me to find you ’cause we’re starting the gift exchange.”

Jonathan squeezed Rob’s fingers. “C’mon, let’s go back,” he said, quietly.

Rob squeezed back, then let go of Jonathan’s hand. “Okay.”

Thursday Evening

Rob came home to a paper bag in front of his door, its handles tied shut by a clumsy purple bow, made by someone more experienced with shoelaces than gifts. He smelled pepper when it picked it up and felt the weight of little glass bottles rolling around inside, clicking gently against each other. He didn’t bother to open it, just set it down in front of the dishwasher when he got inside.

Hero meowed at him indignantly, as he had every night, now that no one came home early and fed him. Rob wondered if Hero even noticed that there was one less person in the apartment. He gave Hero a scratch between the ears–which Hero was not very interested in before food–and got the cat food out of its cabinet.

He fed the cat, and then realized that he didn’t really feel like making dinner now. Risotto was too much time and trouble, especially for one person, and he’d lost his appetite. The mushrooms would last another few days. He probably couldn’t say that about the fresh basil, but–well.

The guitar was still in the living room from last night, and the night before. Rob thought about writing a song about not being hungry.

Friday Night

There was a glass on the coffee table. It wasn’t even on a coaster, and it’d probably left a ring. Rob opened his mouth to yell at Jonathan, then remembered that Jonathan hadn’t been there in–too long–and shut it again. Then he stared at it, wondering why it was there and what he’d been drinking and how he possibly could have missed putting it in the dishwasher, then discovered that he actually didn’t care very much. He couldn’t remember why he cared in the first place.

He microwaved another Hot Pocket for dinner. They were disgusting and tasted mostly of salt and preservatives, and somehow he always managed to burn his tongue with the first bite even though it was inevitably still half-frozen in the middle. He wondered if he was doing it wrong.

The basil in the bottom drawer was wilting. He threw it away.

Friday, Two Weeks Ago

“–and your crap is all over the bathroom, and you never clean up after yourself, and–”

“So why do you put up with me, then?” Jonathan demanded, arms spread, nearly knocking over a lamp. It felt like he took up almost all of the living room. “Is it so you can have some fucking trophy, oh, look at me, I’ve got a hot young actor charity case?”

Rob flinched. It wasn’t fair, Jonathan always brought it up, and he knew that wasn’t what it was like. “Jon–”

“That’s exactly how it is, isn’t it?” Jonathan took another step toward Rob, backing him against the wall. He’d never been afraid that Jonathan would hit him, but Jonathan was two inches taller than him and knew how to use it. That was the problem: he knew Rob, knew that Rob liked his personal space, and he knew how to use that against him. “You live vicariously through me. I’m doing what I love, I’m this fucking ‘free spirit,’ and you can’t stand that–”

I love the guitar you got me, Rob wanted to say, but instead he said, “Yeah, I just love how I get stuck paying all the rent.”

Jonathan jerked like Rob had actually punched him, and suddenly it was like all the energy went out of his body. His arms fell to his sides. “I pay rent,” he insisted, sounding almost childish.

“Oh yeah? What about last summer?” Rob demanded in a low, vicious hiss. “And the summer before that? And don’t forget how I pay for most of the groceries, because if I didn’t we’d be eating pizza and Hot Pockets–”

Jonathan looked away. “You said this wasn’t about money,” he said. His hair had gotten long, lately, so it was always falling in his eyes, and Rob wanted to touch his face. He clenched his hands into fists instead, reminded himself that he was angry. “You said it’d never–”

It’s not about the money, Rob thought, and for once that was actually what he said: “It’s not about the money.”

“Then what is it?” Jonathan cried. “Why are you so fucking unhappy?”

“Because of you!” Rob yelled. It always went like this. He never meant to yell, but they’d push each other on, and the next thing he knew he was in an empty apartment. It was like sex, in this crazy, fucked up way, only it ended with slammed doors instead of orgasms. “You’re just–so fucking perfect! My sister loves you, hell, perfect fucking strangers on the street love you, my office loves you, and you like your job, and–” Rob abruptly ran out of words and dragged in a deep sigh that shook toward the end. He let his head hang, so that he didn’t have to look at Jonathan. He couldn’t.

“You’re unhappy. . . because I’m happy?” Jonathan said. He sounded half-pitying, half incredulous. Rob felt the anger waking up again, which was good, because as long as he was angry he wouldn’t cry. “That’s. . . that’s the most fucking selfish thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Great,” Rob said. “Get out.”

“No,” Jonathan began, and Rob knew he was going to go on some kind of artsy-fartsy tirade about feelings and maybe therapy, so Rob just cut him off.

“Go away,” he said. He put one hand against his eyes. It was dark and soothing. “Come get your stuff tomorrow, when I’m at work. Keep the key; I’ll get the lock changed.”

He waited, and waited, and waited, until finally he heard Jonathan’s shuffling footsteps. There was a pause while Jonathan put on his shoes, and then the jingling of keys, and then the soft click of the door shutting behind him.

October, Eight Years Ago:

Jonathan showed up in a t-shirt and jeans with a hole in the thigh. His hair, too long to really be fashionable, was tied back at the neck, and his bangs fell into his eyes. Rob felt suddenly, irrevocably, old, not to mention overdressed in a polo shirt and khakis. He thought Cheryl’d said Jonathan was just a few years younger than him. Christ, did a few years make that much of a difference?

“I, uh, hi,” he said, standing up and shaking Jonathan’s hand. “Robert Langdon, but you can call me Rob.”

“Jonathan Drake,” Jonathan said. “You can, uh, call me Jonathan, just don’t call me Mr. Drake–I’m not late, am I? The walk took a little longer than I thought.”

“No, it’s fine,” Rob said, sitting back down and wrapping his hands around coffee. Yes. Coffee. He could do this. Coffee was neutral territory. They’d talk, and maybe they’d click and maybe they wouldn’t. In this case, he was leaning toward “wouldn’t,” but maybe he could at least get some sex out of this. You didn’t have to like a guy to have sex with him.

Jonathan did, as it turned out, teach two periods at the high school and one at the middle school, as well as some acting on the side, season permitting, “and believe me, it’s hell scheduling the productions around each other.” He didn’t restrict himself to just Shakespeare, “and I really like Arthur Miller, actually, and contemporary stuff. Nothing too artsy–I figure, if you’re not telling a story, you’re probably failing at whatever it is you’re trying to do. I’m theater, but not that theater.”

“But hey, enough about me–what about you?” He said this in a flat Humphrey Bogart accent, startling a laugh out of Rob. Jonathan’s eyes–Rob hated to think it, but they twinkled, and he somehow felt deeply flattered down to his toes. “It’s the actor’s curse: we all think the world revolves around us. You shouldn’t get me talking about myself.”

“There’s nothing to say about me, really,” Rob said. “I’m an accountant.”

“Ah.” Jonathan looked momentarily at a loss for words. He took a sip of coffee in a well-known stalling move. Rob, curious to see what he’d do next, waited. “You like numbers?” Jonathan ventured.

Rob decided to give him a break. “No,” he admitted. “But it’s. . . comfortable.”

Jonathan made a noncommittal noise and took another sip of his coffee. “You know, my mom once told me that if you’re comfortable in something, that’s when you should probably get out. ‘Course, she was talking about bed,” he added, “but I think it applies to other things.”

Rob stared at him for a few seconds. “You know,” he said, slowly, “your clothes look really. . . comfortable.”

Jonathan licked his lips in what Rob could only think was a totally slutty way. “You think?”

February, Five Years Ago:

Rob had a tendency to clean when he was angry, and–what do you know! There was a whole closet full of crap that needed cleaning, especially since Jonathan had just vacated his things, so it could probably do with some reorganizing.

Concert tickets, movie stubs, programs, old photos of high school acquaintances, nametags and badges from long-past conventions–what, did he think he was going to take up scrapbooking in his old age or something? Why did he keep all this crap? Time to get rid of all this. He sat on the bedroom floor and started sorting things into piles.

All in all, the pile of things to throw away was disappointingly small, and Rob was angry at himself for being so goddamn sentimental.

Wait. There was something missing.

Rob frowned at the piles. The pile of things to throw away consisted mostly of concert tickets for bands he no longer cared about it, movie stubs for movies that he’d seen with ex-boyfriends, unsigned theater programs, things like that. Things in the “keep” pile were jewelry that he didn’t wear but kept because someone had given it to him, notebooks filled with terrible songs he wrote in high school, signed programs and tickets that he didn’t think would ever be valuable, but he wasn’t about to throw them away when he went through all the trouble of getting them signed…

Wait, where was Liz’s walrus?

He didn’t particularly like Liz’s walrus. It was a stupid thing, a beanie baby that she’d gotten out of a vending machine or from McDonald’s or something, but she’d given it to Rob for his birthday a few years ago, when, at age four, she didn’t quite grasp that kids didn’t have to give grownups birthday presents. He’d kept it, never put it out or looked at it or anything, but dammit, his niece had given him that walrus. It was Liz’s walrus.

That was it. He was going to go see Jonathan about this. In person.

Today:

The neighborhood was still and quiet, startling to Rob, who’d lived in the city for so long and was used to a certain degree of ambient noise: cars passing on the freeway, the crashing roll of a shopping cart in the street, neighbors out late or up early. This, though, was practically a suburb, complete with trees lining the street and a garage on every house and a car in every driveway. Farther down the street, someone was watering the lawn.

Rob parked the car around the corner and walked to the house with guitar in hand, feeling silly. He’d never thought to buy a guitar strap until now. Well, too late; now it was just large and awkward in his hands as he nudged the doorbell with one knuckle and waited. What if Jonathan wasn’t home? What if his mother answered the door instead? Whoops, sorry Mrs. Drake, I was hoping your son would answer the door, if you’ll just go back and inside and pretend–

Joanthan opened the door, blinking owlishly. He must have been too lazy or rushed to put in his contacts, because he was wearing his glasses, same as when they’d first met, and Rob was filled with a rush of nostalgia and affection. Jonathan’s hair was messy, and he had several days’ worth of stubble on his chin and cheeks that Rob would have made him shave; Rob hated beard burn.

“Hey,” Rob said, since Jonathan clearly had no idea what to say.

“Hey,” Jonathan said, his eyes darting to the guitar and to Rob’s face and back to the guitar. He looked pensive.

“Look,” he said, quickly, “you don’t–”

“I do,” Rob interrupted him, and Jonathan looked quietly horrified, eyes flicking down at the guitar again. “Oh, God, no,” Rob said. “I’m not giving it back, I just–” He forced his words to a halt, nearly biting his tongue in the process. “I mean, I. I wrote a song.”

“A song?” Jonathan repeated, like he wasn’t sure if he should be hopeful or not. He finally let go of the doorknob, anyway, which was probably a good sign.

“Yeah,” Rob said. “First one I’ve written in years, I guess. I wanted you to hear it.”

— end —

The single lightbulb that hums in the kitchen
Exploded in the vacuum you made
When you left
So fast

I don’t mind the glass in my heels or the stumbling I guess
In the dark fumbling now for a flashlight
At least it’s quiet
It’s quiet at last

Our matching armor
The leather is rotting it’s almost worn through
But still
I would kill any dragon for you

I know the whiskey won’t make a difference
But it tastes less bitter than you
It’s clear
Just like we never were

And really sober is so close to somber
It’s a wonder that anyone ever drinks water
I’m fucking gone
And you’re gone for sure

On our pirate galleon
We plundered and pillaged
From July to June
Don’t worry
I buried all of my treasure for you

—SOLO!—-

Well it’s time for an adventure
If you come back I’ll be gone
And when I’m home with all the treasures of the east
I’ll save you some silk
And some saffron

La-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaaaa
La-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaaaa
La-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaaaa
La-la-la-laaaaaaaaaaaaa

Untitled Song (by Haakon Jack, who is a rock star)

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