by Hiwaru Kibi (火悪 木美)
Minh looked up from his phone just in time to see the man stumbling toward the elevator, trying to manage a narrow box almost as tall as he was, and almost as heavy, from the looks of it. So Minh did the only polite thing and jammed his foot in front of the door, holding it open.
“Thanks,” said the man, followed by, “sorry.” The reason for the gratitude was obvious; the reason for the apology was that the apartment building’s elevator was not really sized to fit two grown men and a huge flat-pack box. The box fit the diagonal of the elevator car’s rectangle. The box’s owner’s head was all that Minh could see over the barrier, and the first real thing that Minh noticed about him was that he had an amazing smile.
“What floor?” asked Minh, who was determined to behave like a human being and not just stare at the way the stranger’s smile curved handsomely across his face bones. He had very nice face bones. And hazel eyes, yes, those were hard to miss, especially when they were trained right on Minh. He wished he could stop behaving like a human being and sink through the floor. More practically, he wished he weren’t wearing his pajamas like someone who’d slept past noon on a Tuesday and only come down because he was expecting a letter that hadn’t arrived anyway. He wished a lot of things, really.
“Eight, please,” the man answered.
Oh, thought Minh as he pressed the button he’d been going to press anyway, this must have been why there’d been movers last week at the other end of the hall. “That makes two of us,” he said, first trying to sound casual, then trying not to wince as he realized he’d failed. Nothing about this morning (technically afternoon) was getting any better.
But the man perked up anyway. “Oh, hey, neighbor,” he said. “I’m Eric.”
“Minh.” The barrier of the box was too high to attempt a comfortable handshake over, and Minh was glad he noticed before he tried. The look that determined that, however, also gave him a good look of the side, where there was a colorful label announcing that one could turn the contents into a charming rustic crib.
Oh. Baby furniture. It was a good thing Minh hadn’t done something stupid like, say, get his hopes up.
Minh stepped out when they arrived at their floor, then reached back and held the doors open as Eric shoved the box out. “You need a hand with that?” asked Minh, though he didn’t know exactly what kind of assistance he could provide. He had been a swimmer in high school, which would have made him great at shoving the crib down some aquatic expanse, but left him less able to deal with it on dry land.
“Hey, thanks, but don’t worry,” said Eric, giving the box a push. The cheap linoleum of the hallway floor seemed ideal for this weird new sport. He pointed to the closest door to the elevator. “I’m right here.”
“Sure,” said Minh, who added after a second, “I’m down in 803. So I’ll probably be seeing you around.”
“Yeah!” Eric sounded far too perky for a man half out of breath. “See you ’round, neighbor.”
Minh took his mail, which contained no acceptance letters to anywhere, and went back to his own apartment. He would make himself lunch and forget that he had temporarily gotten his hopes up about a lot of stupid things today.
“Hey, neighbor,” said Eric, whose shirt was considerably more soaked-through with sweat than he had been an hour previous. “Assembly’s a little rougher than I thought it would be. You wouldn’t have a hammer I could borrow?”
“Sure,” said Minh, now really wishing he’d changed out of his pajamas and into something more like a functioning adult would wear. “What size?”
“Oh, man,” Eric laughed, sounding more than a little out of breath, “that is way too technical for me.”
The utility closet by the door was an unqualified mess, but not so much that Minh couldn’t reach in and pluck out a claw hammer, which he figured would be the right fit for most any job faced by a man who didn’t already own a hammer of any stripe. “Thanks, you’re a lifesaver,” Eric said as Minh handed over the tool. “I’ll have it right back.”
“Take your time.” Minh shrugged. “I didn’t have any urgent hammering scheduled this afternoon or anything.”
The quip made Eric laugh again, which made Minh remind himself that the handsome white boy who now lived at the other end of his hall was also going to use this hammer to put together a bed for a baby, possibly even multiple babies. But when he caught a glance of Eric’s left hand and saw no ring of any stripe, he couldn’t help feeling a stab of maybe.
It was a stupid maybe, but it was enough to make him drag his butt into the shower. Eric would be back to return the hammer eventually, after all, and it would be better not to look like the man who had spent both waking hours of a weekday watching Hulu and feeling sorry for himself. And if he couldn’t quite stop thinking about the lopsided way Eric’s lips lifted into a grin, well, that was his problem and no one else’s.
Minh’s newly purpled hair had almost completely dried by the time he paused Project Runway and went to answer the door. Eric didn’t have the hammer with him, though, and he looked considerably more frazzled than he had the last time. “How about … something that looks like a big screwdriver, but it’s a hexagon?”
“Allen wrench,” said Minh. He opened the utility closet and pulled out the smallest of the toolboxes there, a shiny red thing. It had been one of Marcus’, but Marcus had had left it behind when he’d moved out five months ago, so finders keepers. “It’s in there, with some other stuff. …If it’s not too weird, you can just keep it.”
Eric’s dark eyebrows pulled toward the center of his face. “Hey, don’t let me steal your tools–”
By way of answering, Minh pulled back the door to the utility closet so Eric could see inside. His was a small-ish apartment, cozy for two and really almost too big for one, but it lacked storage space in the extreme. Thus, the sole bedroom closet held clothes, the tiny kitchen pantry held food, and everything else went straight to here. “Engineering major, theater tech minor,” Minh said, hoping that would explain the sheer amount of hardware in there.
Eric, for his own part, looked suitably impressed. “So you’re pretty good at building things, huh?” he said, looking up and down at the rows of different small tools stacked on shelves and hung from the door. “This is maybe weird, and I can totally understand if you’ve got other stuff going, but I’m just going to man up and ask: Is there any way I could pay you in beer to come just … take a look at the catastrophe that I’ve made?”
“Sure. I mean, yeah. I’m at a good stopping place,” Minh said, glad that the table with his textbooks was visible from the door, and his television was not. He grabbed his key from the hook by the door and followed Eric down the hall. As long as this man was going to unintentionally break his heart just by existing, Minh might as well be neighborly about it.
The beer was good. Eric’s sense of assembly was not.
Well, if Minh were being totally fair, he would have to admit that the instructions weren’t the clearest things in the world, such that even he would have gotten off to a rough start if forced to follow them. But Eric hadn’t followed them. Or he had, but badly, like holding a map backwards and upside-down, so that the path you thought led to the duck pond actually got you lost in the woods and eaten by a bear. And then there’d been the hammer.
“I just thought,” Eric said, as Minh braced his feet against the wall and rerouted all his strength into leverage. The boards didn’t budge. “I just thought that would be, you know, a way to make them stay together.”
“You weren’t wrong,” grunted Minh. The trick was to do this so that nothing that wasn’t already broken broke. The trick was made trickier by the way in which Eric seemed to have driven in this particular nail with a force comparable to a meteor impact. Cute white boy must have been hiding some muscles under those preppy clothes, Minh thought, and then he deliberately thought about something else. Given the mess in front of him, it wasn’t as though he had a shortage of distractions.
“But I wasn’t right,” Eric said sheepishly from over Minh’s shoulder.
Minh couldn’t help the laugh that slipped out. “You weren’t that either.” His smile widened to a grin as he felt one of the boards begin to give.
“You,” Minh snarled at a spring, “are not part K-3a.”
Eric returned from the ten-foot walk to the kitchen, which had become necessary because beers were cold and the apartment was hot, and beers made the apartment seem less hot, and the previous beers were now not only no longer cold, they were no longer beers, but empty bottles instead. Now Minh was sweating too, undoing all the good work he’d done in the shower barely an hour previous. He took the chilled bottle gratefully from Eric’s hand and ran the cold glass across his forehead. Condensation gathered and dripped down his face, the contrasting chill making him shiver.
“Huh,” Eric said, and before Minh could ask what here was huh-worthy, Eric swept his foot under the couch. A spring rolled out, one slightly smaller than the one Minh had been uncharitable toward earlier. It spun in a little circle before coming to rest next to Minh’s hip.
“Son of a bitch,” said Minh. He couldn’t even be angry. He was more sort of impressed. But if that monster crib thought it had him beat, it had another think coming.
“Electrical engineering,” Minh explained. He was aware the answer was somewhat muffled by the socket wrench clamped in his teeth, pulling wide one side of his mouth, but his hands were busy, and some bad habits — like putting everything long and hard in the vicinity into his mouth — died hard.
Eric nodded just enough that he didn’t violate Minh’s order to stay still. “Where?” he asked, his own mouth unencumbered by tools.
Considering the sounds he knew he needed to make, Minh sighed and let the wrench drop into his lap. “Bay Area.”
“And you’re supposed to hear back soon?” asked Eric.
Minh sighed and took a second to focus on tightening that particular screw. “Soon but not too soon. There’s a weird sweet spot. Too soon means they rejected you outright. Too long means they’re getting all their first and second choices settled before they tell you, sorry, you’re too far down the runner-up list for a spot in our program.” Minh sighed again, this time directing all the air up one side of his face to brush back his long bangs. They rose for a second, then flopped sweatily back down in his face.
“So what you’re saying is,” Eric said, the corner of his mouth curling into a smug grin, “I should take this back and get an electric crib.”
“Don’t you dare.” Minh pointed a two-inch screw as threateningly at Eric as a two-inch screw could be pointed at anyone.
“I kept the receipt!” Eric let go of the half-assembled gate and reached for his wallet, knocking over at least eighty empty beer bottles in the process, for the sound they made. “I’ll just say, I’m sorry, do you have something in digital? Because this acoustic model is just way too simple.”
Acoustic. Unbelievable. “Hey, I think I know why you had trouble putting this thing together on your own,” Minh said.
“Yeah, and why’s that?” Eric asked, or at least started to ask. The question was interrupted midway by Minh’s sweaty, balled-up shirt, which he had taken off, crumpled into as much of a sphere as possible, and sent flying straight toward Eric’s face. Maybe under other circumstances this would have registered in Minh’s brain as a completely inappropriate response, but he was hot, befuddled by furniture, and more than mildly drunk, and it seemed like the best idea in the world. And then they were both laughing, laid out on the floor like complete loons, howling so loud they were probably bothering the neighbors. Minh couldn’t really seem to care.
Somewhere in the process more than Minh’s shirt had been removed. His pants, too, and his underwear, and everything but a single sock, which wouldn’t seem to come off, no matter how hard he kicked at it. He wasn’t giving much attention to that, though; he was instead far more interested in how all of Eric’s clothes had come off, and a condom had come on, and now Eric was fucking him.
Minh liked to think of himself as a switch, but the truth was that Marcus had never wanted anything but having his ass pounded, so Minh had spent nearly a year forgetting how good it felt to just have the hell topped out of you. It was a weird balance of high attention and low pressure, like it was all about him, but at the same time wasn’t requiring him to do anything. All he had to do was lie there on his back and keep his legs wrapped around Eric’s waist while Eric went to town.
Eric did not fuck ass like a straight man. He also didn’t kiss like a straight man, and he definitely hadn’t taken Minh’s dick all the way into his mouth like a straight man. Minh was starting to reconsider some of his initial assessments.
It was now approximately ten billion degrees in the apartment, especially with the way the afternoon sun shone in through the windows. They were both drenched in sweat now, like runners. Minh ran his hands up and down Eric’s back, feeling the way those powerful muscles shifted and strained beneath his slick skin. He looked up at Eric’s face and saw that amazing smile, so amazing that Minh just had to kiss it and take some of it for himself. There was nothing about Eric that wasn’t amazing right then, especially considering how he seemed to know just how to thrust to make Minh see stars. He had a lovely uncut cock that Minh was going to love getting a taste of, if he ever decided that he was going to let Eric stop fucking him.
And yes, Minh would admit, he was drunk. They were both drunk. And the fact that they were drunk and fucking on a cleared-off patch of a floor otherwise strewn with baby furniture parts did not escape Minh’s awareness. At the same time, if this was a bad idea, it felt like a downright great one.
Minh felt like he should say something, some note of encouragement or even just plain appreciation. But he’d always been too self-conscious to be a real talker during sex, so instead he held on to Eric’s body, digging his fingers in so that the little rises of his short fingernails just bit into Eric’s shoulders. Eric groaned into the kiss and shifted his weight to his knees, using the extra leverage to pound harder. The world was slick heat and pressure, and everything smelled like sweat and lube and particle board. It brought back such fond memories of high school that he had to laugh.
“What?” Eric asked, though he was smiling. He looked at Minh with an expression that was close enough to adoration that it made Minh’s knees weak.
“I love this,” Minh said in the space between thrusts. “Fuck me harder.”
Eric paused only long enough to grab Minh’s legs and heave them over his shoulders, then set into doing exactly what he’d been told. It seemed like he was a lot better at these kinds of instructions.
“You want to call out for pizza?” asked Eric from where he was using Minh’s shoulder for a pillow.
Minh had never wanted anything more in his entire life.
“No, no, that.” Minh pointed at the other object on the floor by Eric’s foot.
Using the hand he wasn’t using to hold a slice of pizza, Eric put down the gate shoe he had mistaken for a bumper spring and picked up the actual bumper spring. He had gotten almost all the way dressed again, as he’d lost the coin toss about being the one who had to greet the delivery guy at the door. Somehow, though, that made him look even more like he’d just gotten laid than he had completely naked. Minh was not one bit complaining.
The pizza was good, and the good news was that it filled Minh’s stomach with something other than alcohol, getting him right on track to being less drunk. The bad news was that it was surely doing the same to Eric. If the what-did-we-just-do panic was coming, it was going to hit sooner rather than later.
Eric, however, still seemed pleased as punch to have a young man sitting on his living room floor in only boxers, more so Minh’s ass didn’t get all over everything than out of any concession to modesty. He sat back against the couch and grinned away at Minh, who was — almost unbelievably — making progress. Once the initial damage had been undone, it had been only a matter of getting everything back in its initial order. That point reached, Minh felt comfortable all but ditching the instructions and moving forward on instinct. So far it had served him well.
There was a bullet that needed to be bit, though, and Minh supposed they were past the point of pretending otherwise. Casually as he could, he poured almost all of his attention into securing the handle bracket and used what little he had left to ask, “So, you live here alone?”
“Well,” said Eric, and Minh’s heart sank. He was a homewrecker. He had let the booze get the best of him and indulged a cheater, probably a serial cheater, in his extra-relationship activities. He had been so blinded by the promise of really good sex that he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. He had destroyed what little was left of the sanctity of heterosexual love. He had become the Other Woman.
But before Minh could grab the scourge and start the self-flagellation, he heard somewhere in Eric’s continued explanation the words “my” and “sister”.
Minh frowned. “Wait, what?”
Mario was dark-eyed, wore a vest with a tie, and could fit a substantial amount of his foot in his mouth. He was also obviously the crib’s new inhabitant.
He seemed to weigh about negative ten pounds, which Minh was able to gauge because he had for some reason been handed this baby. He was wearing all his clothes again, and even right-side-out and right-way-forward, which he supposed made him look like enough of a reasonable adult that someone might trust him with a baby. Especially, he thought, when that someone seemed even younger than he was.
Jenny looked like fifteen was both her age and the number of hours she’d slept in the past month. She had a sort of wilted punk look about her, like she was down to maybe thirty percent of the piercings she had holes for. Her hair was about an inch of natural brown roots before turning to a faded version of bubblegum pink. She looked with obvious envy at Minh’s recent dye job. And the few times Minh saw it confirmed, she had her brother’s beautiful smile.
The siblings’ conversation slipped soon into discussions that Minh could barely follow and wasn’t sure he should be hearing anyway, so he turned his attention to Mario, who was apparently all of three weeks old. As the youngest son and youngest grandchild down both sides, Minh had little experience around babies. Despite not having any personal experience with vaginas (save coming out of one), Minh knew intellectually that they only got so big, so babies had to be pretty little. But Mario was very little. Minh could think of several containers he had in his apartment that Mario would fit comfortably into. He wondered if he should clear out his shower caddy and offer that for some kind of cleaning corral.
“And I nearly fucked it all up, but then it turns out we have a engineering wizard living down the hall,” Eric said, catching Minh’s attention enough that he tuned back into the conversation.
Jenny fixed him with a smile of pure exhausted gratitude. “Thank you so much.”
Mario would fit easily lengthwise in the pizza box, but probably not with the lid closed, and then he’d be covered in pizza leavings anyway. “Just glad I could help out,” said Minh. He’d barely thought about graduate school or acceptance letters or the terrifying looming specter of his whole future all day. He felt great.
The number that popped up on the home screen on Minh’s phone was unfamiliar, but the shirtless selfie attached to the text message was a sight he knew well by now. He patted himself on the back for having had the foresight to enter his own number into Eric’s phone when Eric was downstairs hauling boxes up from the back of Jenny’s friend’s truck.
The light in Minh’s apartment was too shitty for a good shot, Minh knew this from disappointing experience, so instead he texted back: Hey handsome
Hey neighbor came the quick reply.
Baby asleep? asked Minh.
Dreaming in his new acoustic bed, answered Eric, following the words with a smiling emoji and a sleeping emoji. Jenny too. Called home. Kind of rough.
Neither of the siblings had gone into great detail, and Minh hadn’t wanted to pry, but from what he’d picked up from context, he didn’t imagine that conversation had gone well at all. You’re a good big brother, he texted back, because it was all he had to add to the situation, and because he had every indication that it was true.
There was a long pause after that, no ‘typing’ ellipsis bubble or anything, such that Minh was afraid he’d screwed up — put his foot in his mouth, only not as adorably as when Mario did it. He’d poured a glass of wine and started composing an apologetic reply, acknowledging that he should really keep his opinions out of other people’s business, when he heard a quiet rap at the front door. Not wanting to hope, he held his breath and turned the knob.
Eric was standing there, phone in hand. “I suck at typing on this thing,” he said.
“Good thing science has provided us with alternate means of communication,” said Minh, grabbing the front of Eric’s shirt and yanking him inside. Just one of the apartments in this building was still too big for one person and too small for two, but with two apartments and three and a half people to work with, Minh’s engineer’s brain could definitely envision some exciting possibilities.