How Far You’ve Come

by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)


I leaned my arm against the bar, right next to the stool he was perched on, and said, “Well, hey there, slick, how about you tell me what it takes to get bought a drink around here and I’ll tell you what the first two I want are.”

He leaned back a little, unhunching his broad shoulders from where he was sort of curled in towards his drink, and gave me a long up and down. “You prove you can fit two shot glasses in that mouth and I’ll buy you whatever you want, sweetheart,” he said. We both lasted about two straight-faced beats before he turned on his stool and held out an arm. “C’mere and give me a hug, you little fucker.”

I leaned in to give Emmett a tight squeeze right under the arms, with the scientifically determined amount of pats between the shoulderblades to make it not seem too fruity. “Sorry I’ve been such a ghost lately,” I said as I sat down on the stool next to him. “Stuff’s been real busy.” I pointed to his drink. “You need another one of those?”

Emmett had never been to Texas in his life but he liked to drink Shiner Bock and sometimes make up stories about his daddy’s oil well to girls in bars that we’d never see again. He was most of the way through the bottle in front of him. “I do need one, but you’re not buying it,” he said. He caught the eye of the bartender. Her name was Pamela and she smiled when she saw me. She was pretty tolerant of our bullshit. “Another Shiner for me, and get this pretty piece of work anything he wants.”

I leaned over the bar and smiled at her. “I’ll have your biggest, shittiest margarita, please.”

“Salt on the rim?” Pamela asked.

“Ooh, maybe later,” I said, just to make Emmett laugh. I smiled at Pamela. “Yes, salt, please, thank you.”

“Busy, huh?” Emmett said, and tilted the rest of his beer back into his mouth. “In a good way, I hope.”

“Yeah, yeah, mostly,” I said. “Just… working, you know?”

“Hell, that’s always good,” Emmett said.

“Three classes!” I said, and held up my fingers, in case he forgot what words meant. “It’s all community colleges, but, shit, someone might be fooled into thinking I’m a teacher.”

Emmett glanced at me sidelong and grinned, all bright-toothed and twinkle-eyed. “What do you have them call you? Mr. Benton? Professor Benton?”

I laughed. “They can if they want to, but I just tell them to call me Noah.”

Pamela placed a bottle of beer in front of Emmett and one big idiot glass full of frozen green slop in front of me. I said a thank you and Emmett nodded, but he was mostly still smiling at me. “Mr. Noah.”

I leaned over to sip my margarita as delicately and ridiculously through my straw as I possibly could. It was sweet, and tart, and I could already feel my pancreas and liver throbbing. “That’s what they’d call me if I were, like, a kindergarten teacher.”

“Not far off, right?” Emmett said.

I shrugged and took another sip until I was just skirting the edge of brain freeze. “Yeah, true to the true.” College freshman the world over were pretty sweet dumb little baby birds, whether you were teaching at an Ivy League or a community college, literary analysis of Chaucer or theatre arts. “Real glad to hang out, though. It’s been way, way too long. Being busy is kind of dumb.” I scooted my glass across the bar towards Emmett, and he leaned the neck of his beer over to tap the rim of it. He made a little kissy noise, and salt clung to the bottle. “How the hell have you been?”

“I’m alright,” he said, and took a drink. He put his bottle back on the bar and lifted his chin up a little, keeping his eyes fixed somewhere on the broken Pabst Blue Ribbon clock up on the wall. “I knocked up Ginny.”

I wasn’t drinking at the time, but I still choked. “You…” The lime and the sugar had already made my mouth feel tight, and now my tongue just felt stupid. “Holy shit.”

Emmett let out a laugh. It was nervous and loose all at once. “Yeah, well, you know. It happens.”

“You, uh…” I wiped at condensation on the lacquer of the bar with a napkin, just out of a sense of what the fuck. “Wow. So… what are you doing?” He and Ginny had been dating for a little less than a year. No, it was ten months, since they’d met just a few weeks after Rebecca and I broke up. I was good at remembering when the two of us were single at the same time. Ginny was nice, though. I liked her.

“She wants to keep it,” he said, and his eyes slowly wandered down from the PBR clock back to my face. “Now here’s the shit that blew my mind: I want her to, too.”

“Wow,” I said. In all my time of girl-dating, I’d never been through so much as a ‘shit, the condom broke,’ let alone an ‘I’m late’ scare, let alone the actual real deal consequences of any goodtimes. “Wow.”

Emmett laughed, that same way he had before, giddy and terrified. “Right?” he said. “I lose my fucking mind about seventeen times an hour these days.”

“Holy shit,” I said. I didn’t even have any friends with kids, not actual friends that I spent real human time with. “Are you going to get married or anything?”

Emmett shrugged one shoulder. “Haven’t talked about it,” he said. “Doesn’t seem like a real big priority.” He leaned back and thumped a hand against his chest. “I mean, I’m a goddamn bastard and I would expect any child of mine to be one just like his or her old man.”

I laughed. I hadn’t had a sip of my drink in a while, but I still felt like I had brain freeze. “Holy fucking shit, you’re going to be a dad.”

Emmett nodded. “I’m going to be a dad.”

I took in a very deep breath, one that felt like it got caught on something halfway down my chest. I circled the general area around my drink. “You need a big shitty margarita.”

Emmett collapsed over towards me, leaning his head on my shoulder. “Oh my god, I need like four.”

I put my hand around his waist and squeezed him in the best of a hug as I could, just as fruity as it could be. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’ll take good care of you.”

I met Emmett for the first time in a bar that didn’t have big shitty margaritas, but had ‘big’ and ‘shitty’ covered on just about every other front. Big pitchers of shitty beer, big dudes yelling shitty things at whatever sportsball was on television, big groups of college girls shrieking laughs at each other. They weren’t so shitty; that got left up to me, who wasn’t so big, trying desperately to get any of them to pay attention to me.

“Yeah, I’m working on my Masters,” I said to the girl I’d bought a drink. Her name was Jillian, she had strawberry blonde hair, and she clearly did not give a shit about my MFA. Which was fair; I didn’t give a shit about it a lot of the time, too.

“Oh, that’s… cool,” she said, and drank a heavy swallow of her beer. “I’m majoring in Political Science.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said. “That’s really… like, I guess you have a lot of good job prospects with something like that.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Jillian said, and drank again.

“Like… politics,” I said. I desperately needed another drink, but I had precious few dollars rubbing together left in my wallet. “Civics, and stuff. I mean, in this economy, it’s good to have… I guess, like…” There were about three swallows of beer left in my bottle and I took one. “Internships?”

“Mm-hm, yeah,” she said. “I’ll probably do one after I graduate.” Her eyes kept wandering over to the television playing football. For a moment I considered lying about how I used to play football, but there was the problem where she had eyes, and I was visibly a gangly awkward weirdo.

Gangly, awkward weirdos could have their appeal, though. “Oh, uh, I’m also in a band?” I mostly kept the uncertain inflection out of the end of my sentence. It was technically true; I did play musical instruments with other humans sometimes. Just not where other other humans could see.

Jillian’s eyebrows went up and she looked back at my face. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I play guitar.”

She smiled a little. “That’s cool.”

“I mean, I play a lot of things, really,” I said. I played the guitar and instruments shaped like guitars, which totally counted as a lot, I felt sure. “I taught myself.”

“Wow,” she said. “That’s pretty impressive.”

“And here my mom said staying locked up in my room all the time playing with myself wouldn’t pay off,” I said, and then considered faking a seizure, because that joke landed like a tin of upturned catfood on the Thanksgiving table. “I mean… you know, playing the guitar, you learn by…”

“No, I got it,” she said, and drank more of her beer.

“I, uh,” I said, and considered the end of my beer. “Yeah, I…” Before I could think of some other dumb thing to say, I felt a hand clasp my shoulder. Oh, good, this would be the point where I found out she had a boyfriend or a brother or a really strong-fingered girlfriend. I turned to see who’d grabbed me and saw a smiling face, though.

“Hey, I know you!” the guy said. I did not know him, not at all. “You played at Lefty’s three weeks ago, right?” Before I could say anything, like that I had never even been in a place called Lefty’s, let alone perform my special brand of sensitive folk-rock there, the guy just grinned brighter and gave me a solid thump on the shoulder. “Holy shit, you guys were great!” He left his hand on my shoulder and turned to Jillian. “Have you seen this guy play?”

She was smiling again, and shook her head. “No, I haven’t. We just met.”

“Oh, well, stick around, then.” He did some air guitar miming that was way more shred-based than I ever achieved, even in air format. “This guy fucking kills it.”

“Well, maybe I’ll have to see it sometime,” Jillian said, and then I heard a very high-pitched bellow of her name from the other end of the bar. “Oh, um, I guess my friend needs me? Thanks for the drink, Neil.” She put her hand on my arm, fingers just brushing my elbow. “Let me know if you’re doing a show sometime, okay?” She smiled and then slipped away through the crowd.

The guy still had his hand on my shoulder. “Well, shit, I tried,” he said. “How are you going to let her know anything if she doesn’t give you a number or an email or P.O. box or anything?”

I just gaped for a little while. “Do I know you?” I said. He was shorter than me, but broad and thick. He had pale blonde hair and a pink face and made me think of one of those little plastic bears full of honey. I had no idea who he was.

“No, you don’t,” he said. “I just overheard and thought I’d…” He laughed and shook his head. “Well, I was going to say help, but I guess ‘meddle’ is more accurate.”

“Is there even actually a place called Lefty’s?” was all I could think of to ask.

“Probably somewhere in the world, sure,” he said, and I laughed. He held out his hand. “I’m Emmett. And she said you were Neil?”

I took his hand and he squeezed it firmly. “Noah,” I said, and then wrinkled my nose. “Yeah, that was never going to happen, was it?”

“This place is good for getting shitcanned and watching sports, and terrible for meeting women,” Emmett said. He pointed at my mostly empty beer bottle. “You want a refill on that?”

I sighed and leaned my forearms on the bar. Emmett came to stand beside me. “Yeah, I definitely do,” I said. He got the bartender’s attention with a nod and expressed his beer desires with pointing to my bottle and holding up two fingers. “Is there a good place to meet women? Like… in the world?”

“Oh, I hear Lefty’s has a great singles’ night,” Emmett said, and I barked out a laugh. “But man, don’t ask me. I met my last girlfriend in the E.R.”

I laughed again, but Emmett just arched an eyebrow at me. “What, seriously?”

“Hand to god,” he said, and took a long pull off his beer. “A nurse.”

“You don’t…” I was going to say he didn’t look like the type who’d wind up in the hospital a lot, but there was some wild light in his eyes that made me sure I couldn’t assume much. “You spend a lot of time in the emergency room?”

“Oh, sure,” Emmett said. “Just came from there tonight.” My eyes went to his wrist for some sort of admission bracelet, then back up to look for some obvious head wound I’d missed. “I’m being a dick. I’m a med student.”

“Oh, wow,” I said. I got the feeling you got when you were a kid and you saw your teacher at the grocery store. It was weird to think of a doctor as someone who would also knock back a couple of Coronas at a crappy college bar. “I’m a… I’m not anything useful like that.”

“Hey, you play guitar. That’s fairly useful.” He grinned bright at me. “Unless you were bullshitting.”

“No!” I said. “No, that was true. See?” I held up my hand in front of him, and then realized that gesture didn’t make any damn sense. “Oh, uh, you see, I’ve got, uh…”

“No, I get it,” he said. “Calluses.” He smiled and held up his hand, same as mine. “I got ’em, too.”

I laughed. “Oh, shit, are you a rock and roll doctor?” I lifted my beer bottle to my lips and giggled into it. “A rock–”

“–ter?” Emmett said, finishing the doofy portmanteau with me. “Nah, mostly I just spend a lot of time locked up in my room playing with myself.”

I leaned in a little, going into as much of a conspiratorial whisper as I could in a noisy bar. “It is pretty fun, isn’t it?”

“Totally,” he said. “I mean, way more fun with another person, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, and took a drink. I paused with a mouthful of beer and blinked a few times before swallowing. “Oh, hey, are you trying to pick me up?” It kinda made sense. No one else in the whole place seemed to even register my presence as a human in the world, and this guy was focused enough on me to find a way to interrupt my inept girl-flirts.

“Oh!” Emmett said, and he looked off into the distance, blinking a few times. He looked like he was replaying the last few minutes in his head. “Oh, no, I’m not.” His smile came back right away, thankfully. I realized only then that in this sort of crowd, that question could have gone over super poorly. My hindsight was laser. “But, hey, if I did swing that way, I totally would. You’re obviously a fox.”

“Of course, obviously” I said, taking in a breath to puff my chest out. “An adorable, scrawny fox.”

“Hey, some people go for that,” Emmett said, and lifted his beer to clink with mine. I laughed while I tapped glass against glass, and felt my cheeks go a little hot. “No, I’m not here to pick anyone up. I just… need a way to unwind after a shift.”

“No shit, I bet,” I said. “You must have some stories.”

Emmett’s cheeks puffed out as he let out a slow breath. “I sure as fuck do.”

“Oh, uh, not that you have to tell them,” I said. “They’re probably gross and I’m kind of delicate.”

“Aw, sweetheart,” he said, and I couldn’t help but giggle. “Only, like, seventy percent of them are gross. The rest are all people on drugs doing crazy shit and stuff that people have shoved up their asses.” I laughed, loud and bright, and lifted up his beer bottle to tap a finger on it. “So many of these. Just… so many.”

“With the lime in it?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. He looked at me flatly for a moment, then added, “That’s not a joke.”

“Wow,” I said. “Talk about a twist.”

Emmett leaned his head back and cackled. “I like you,” he said. “Let’s be friends.”

“Okay,” I said, smiling against the lip of my beer bottle. I stopped, though, and drew it away to give a pointed look to the lime stuffed in the neck of the bottle, and then Emmett was laughing bright and loud, and I was, too. We made sure the next round was whiskey.

I’d been very seriously and sturdily warned that if I knocked on the door or rang the bell when I came by, Emmett would punch my heart out. He had medical training, he reminded me, so he knew exactly how to do that so it would be the most painful. So, I stood on his doorstep and sent a text, one little I’m here.

A few seconds later the door opened slowly and I saw Emmett. He looked tired, absolutely no doubt, his eyes puffy and his skin blotchy and his hair a tangled straw mess. But he also had a smile on him like I’d never seen before, and I’d seen him smile in so many ways.

“Hey,” he said, and his voice was soft, but not a whisper. “Come on in.”

I came in and he closed the door gently behind me. I toed my shoes off into the general footwear pile in the hall, then turned to Emmett with a smile.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said, and then I wrapped him up in a tight hug. He got his arms all the way around my waist and hung on.

I gave his hair a friendly nuzzle. “Wow, you stink,” I said, because he did.

“I’m pretty sure I showered at some point in my life,” he said into my shoulder.

“I can confirm this,” I said, because I could.

“Just probably not this week. Been a little occupied.” He let go of me and let out a long breath. “How about you? How was your week?”

“Oh, you know just the usual,” I said. “Work, went to the movies, made some spaghetti. Definitely didn’t witness the birth of my firstborn or anything fun like that.”

“Yeah,” Emmett said. “I mean, it’s no spaghetti, but…” He gave me that smile again. “Ready to meet him?”

“Absolutely,” I said, though the minute I did I felt a spike if fear that I wasn’t, that I’d do something wrong or, like, hate my best friend’s baby, even though I’d never shown signs of being a sociopath before. Emmett put his arm on my bicep and gave it a squeeze before guiding me in the way of the nursery.

He and Ginny hadn’t lived together before, so they’d gotten the joy of finding a new place and moving, one of humanity’s greatest nightmares under regular circumstances, let alone when one party was pregnant. They’d found a space, though, one with a little room that I’d helped to paint oak leaves on its walls. And now there was a crib in it, with its own little acorn resting inside.

“Ah, awake but not yelling about it,” Emmett said as he reached in to pick up his son — his son, it was all so weird to even think it. “Sucking up to company, huh?”

The baby had a pink face and a massive amount of black hair. He looked like a little caterpillar-slug and was the most adorable thing I’d ever seen. “Holy shit,” I said, then, “Uh, sorry.”

Emmett laughed. “Whatever, he doesn’t speak English.” He looked down at the baby and scowled a little. “I am going to have to learn to watch my filthy mouth before he learns, though.”

“So his first word isn’t ‘cocksucker,'” I said. I was whispering without meaning to, like you did in church.

Emmett arched one eyebrow. “That would be an impressive first word, though.”

“Yeah, lots of syllables,” I said. “Is Ginny home?”

“I told her to get out of the house for a few hours,” he said. “And then she cried, and then I cried, and then we made out a little and took a fifteen minute nap. Parenthood is fucking weird.”

“Yeah,” I said. “She’s doing okay?”

“According to her last text, she’s eating tacos, so I think she’s good right now,” Emmett said.

I laughed, and the baby in Emmett’s arms wiggled a little. “Oh, very good,” I said. “I mean, like, the whole… delivery, baby-having thing.”

“I tell you what, she was a fucking champ, ” Emmett said. “Did tell me she was going to, I quote, ‘put my balls in the George Foreman,’ but that was reasonable.” He leaned in to me and gave me an arch smile. “And I know I threw that thing out when we moved.”

I smiled right back. He was the same Emmett I’d known for so many years, same one who’d gotten me drunk, gotten me laid, gotten me jobs. Same one who’d called me an asshole, called me his best friend, called me in the middle of the night, called me a blanket hog. Now he just had this little thing in his arms that had his same nose.

“Can I hold him?” I said. I hadn’t really thought I wanted to until I said so; I was still completely terrified, but I felt some weird, gut-deep need.

Emmett’s eyes were soft when they met mine. “Yeah, of course,” he said, and they may have been a little damp when he put the baby in my arms. Mine might have been, too. Millions of mysterious happenings in the world. “Keep his head — yeah, you got it.”

“Oh,” I said to the baby in my arms. “You’re tiny.” I heard Emmett giggle a little. “You have a big head but you’re so tiny.”

Huge head,” Emmett said. “Just like his old man!”

I nestled the baby firmly in the crook of my arm and brushed my fingers over the tuft of hair on his big head. “Was it weird?” I said. “You know, seeing the whole… thing?”

I heard Emmett let out a whoosh of breath, but I was totally focused on a set of big brown eyes that kept drifting open like a sleepy kitten’s. “You know, I did my obstetrics rotation,” he said, “so I was pretty prepared, but… yeah, a lot weirder when it’s familiar territory, as it were.”

“I bet, yeah,” I said. I looked up at Emmett after a while and smiled. “Your kid is awesome.”

Emmett gave me the biggest grin in a lifetime of big grins. “He is, isn’t he?” He laughed, then, pushing his fingers back through his hair. “Though you might change his mind once he feels like expressing himself.”

He had such tiny little fingers. “Oh, works for screaming and for diaper business,” I said.

“You get me,” Emmett said.

“You just tell us your feelings however you need to…” I stopped and my eyes went wide. I looked up at Emmett. “Oh my god, what is wrong with me? I don’t know your baby’s name.”

Emmett took a breath and rubbed the back of his neck. “So, that’s a thing,” he said. “We haven’t decided on one yet.”

“Whoa,” I said. “Really?”

Emmett leaned on the changing table, and I could see again how exhausted he was. He took in a deep, slow breath. “Ginny lost a baby a few years ago. She was pretty far along,” he said. “So… I don’t know, superstition, caution, whatever. She didn’t want to name him until he really existed, you know?”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know.” Of course I didn’t, idiot.

“Yeah, she didn’t even tell me until pretty late in the game,” he said. “Just scared.” He shrugged a little and gave me a weary smile. “So, we decided we’d decide after he was born, and, well, I don’t know if you know this, but taking care of a baby kind of uses up all your good brain juice. If I’m not careful I’m going to end up naming my son ‘Cool Ranch’ or something.”

“No way,” I said, and brushed my fingers over the little dorito’s soft hair again. “Nacho or nothing.”

Emmett laughed. “So, I’m coming up with that and garbage like ‘Fritz Titmeister’, and Ginny can’t think of anything that isn’t the name of someone in her family, and she’s not crazy about that thought, so…” He came a little closer and brushed his hand over the baby’s hair, too, his fingers resting for a moment against mine. “It’ll be a good one, I promise.” He met my eyes again. “You want me to take him?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “No, I’m pretty good.” The baby was just chilling in my arms, making the occasional little coo or grunt. “Hey, why don’t you go take a shower? I’ll hold down the fort.”

Emmett looked from me to his baby and back again. “‘Fort’ is a terrible name for a baby,” he said, then smiled. “Yeah, that sounds awesome. Just… you know, the usual, don’t drop him or talk about politics or religion.”

“You got it,” I said, and Emmett came in to give me another hug, this one not quite so tight, what with the small living human between us. He headed out of the nursery with only one glance behind him, and I settled into the little rocking chair next to the crib.

“You’re really cute,” I said as I settled him against my chest, his little huge head resting right against my heart. “And I’m not just saying that because you’re half made up of someone I care about a lot. A lot of babies are super weird-looking at first. My sister had a baby and that kid looked like a pink baseball glove for, like, three months. It was really awkward.” I held one of his tiny hands in my fingers. God, I was probably going to start ovulating at this rate. “You lucked out, though. Cute right out of the gate. …Not gate. That’s weird. Sorry, Ginny. Sorry, women.”

He made a little grunt and wriggled. His eyes were closed entirely. “Okay, okay, I get it. Shut up and let the kid sleep, Noah.” I rocked in the chair and found myself humming a little after a while. My band hadn’t existed in years and I hadn’t written any music in nearly as long, but some noodling little tune was working out of my chest, the squeak of the chair making for an odd percussion.

I lost track of how long it was before Emmett appeared at the door, looking damp and clean and pinker than usual. He stopped in the doorway for a while, just looking at the two of us, a soft expression on his face. “I totally started to freak out when I was in the shower,” he said as he came over to stand next to me. “I mean, I totally start to freak out whenever I’m not directly looking at him, which I figure is pretty normal.” He rested his hand on my back, his fingers between my shoulderblades and his thumb resting against my neck. “Total instinct to just, like, run out all covered in suds to make sure that you both hadn’t suddenly dropped dead.” He squeezed my shoulder a little. “But then I was, like, nah, he’s got this. It’s Noah. I don’t have to worry.”

“I’m pretty good with babies,” I said. “Especially when they just fall asleep and don’t do anything the whole time.” I just rocked a little more and we looked at that little sleeping face, two grown-ass men entirely enraptured by an infant. It was a scene that would make Oprah cry. I looked up to Emmett. “Hey, how about the name ‘Oliver’?”

“Oliver?” Emmett said. “Why Oliver?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “Just popped into my head.”

He held out his hands for the baby, having been separated far too long. “That’s a pretty good one,” he said. “I’ll see what Ginny thinks of it.”

“I mean, either that or you name him Noah,” I said, as I carefully transferred the baby into his arms.

“No,” he said. “That would be weird for…. for so many reasons.” He made a little face as he settled the baby in his arms. “Oh, he fooled you, making you think he wasn’t doing anything.” Emmett gave me a bright grin. “How do you feel about diaper changes?”

I put my hands on the arms of the rocking chair and stood up. “Why, yes, I would love to cook you dinner!” I said, and then ended up powdering that baby’s cute little butt anyway.

Before Ginny, before the girl before Ginny, before Emmett realized he actually hated being a doctor, I’d gone with him to a party thrown by some girl her knew from school. I’d been lured in by the prospect of getting to flirt with nurses and sexy lady surgeons, or at least getting to drink free beer while listening to weird gross hospital stories, which it’d turned out I totally wasn’t too delicate for, after all. The actual scene, though, turned out to be mostly dudes getting into arguments about which jam band was the best jam band, lukewarm pizza with ham on it, and a leaky keg that made the whole place smell like Sam Adams’ toilet.

I’d decided to stick it out, though. I didn’t want Emmett to feel shitty for dragging me along, and if I drank enough beer I would probably eventually be able to grow an opinion about Phish. Before that dire event befell me, though, Emmett tugged at my sleeve.

“Hey, this sucks, doesn’t it?” he said, softer than necessary and leaned in close to make up for it.

“It really super sucks,” I said.

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that,” he said. “Do you want to bail?”

“I do,” I said, but I was not one to leave a man behind. “Want to go back to my place and get drunk and watch bad movies?”

“You’re beautiful and sexy,” Emmett said, and showed me all his teeth in a grin. “Let’s do that. Immediately.”

Twenty minutes later Emmett was on my couch with his feet up on my coffee table. “You know, there are a lot of things I respect about you,” he said.

“Mm-hm?” I said, as I came out of the kitchen.

“I respect your many artistic talents. I respect your good nature and dedicated friendship. I respect your height and roguish handsomeness,” he said, and I nodded for each. “But really, what I think I respect most, is how you are a man who says to another man, ‘hey, let’s get drunk,’ and then produces a beautifully chilled bottle of rosé.”

“Oh, it’s not just any rosé,” I said, my voice low and suave. “It’s a rosé with a screw cap, and it cost me four dollars.” I arched an eyebrow dramatically as I twisted the top of the bottle open with a satisfying crackling sound.

Emmett laughed and held up his glass, which had Boba Fett on it. “Consider my panties just blasted clean the fuck off,” he said, and I filled the glass up right to the top of his helmet. Emmett took a sip while I filled my own glass, which had sexy Star Wars Natalie Portman on it. I’d go a long way to make a guest comfortable, but the Padme glass was mine. “Oh, yeah. That’s basically Crystal Lite.”

I held out my glass to him. “You’re supposed to clink glasses before you drink, asshole,” I said. “It’s bad luck otherwise.”

“Right, right.” He clinked my glass and looked right in my eyes. “And you have to make eye contact or you’ll have seven years of bad sex.”

I looked at him while I drank and giggled a little into my cup. “Well, shit, that explains a lot.”

Emmett sipped more of his wine and wrinkled his nose. “You still having that problem, huh?”

I put a hand on my hip and sighed. “You know it,” I said. “Since the menopause am just dry as a bone down there.”

“Except during those night sweats, am I right?” he said.

“You’re telling me, sister,” I said, then clinked glasses with him again before laughing and plopping down on the opposite end of the couch. Talking nonsense with Emmett was as easy as breathing and felt like gulping air after being underwater after that dumb party. “The DVR is completely full of garbage,” I said. “We’ve got sharks versus all kinds of stuff, we have all kinds of dumb monsters eating teens, we have whatever erotic thrillers play on Cinemax at 3AM.”

“Oh, that all sounds pretty erotic and thrilling,” he said. “I’m feeling the sharks, though.” He stretched his arm across the back of my couch and tilted his head back to look at me. “What’re you all the way over there for, honey? Do I stink?”

I laughed into my glass as I reached for the remote. “I’m a little worried about being overpowered by your musk,” I said. “I mean, especially all jazzed up on stepmom wine. I might not be able to control myself.”

I had never in my life been flirted with as constantly by anyone as I had by Emmett, and I’d also never flirted with anyone as much as I did with him. It was a great sport between us, seeing who could one-up the other with some ridiculous seductive comment. It was the perfect system; it made asshole guys uncomfortable and made cool girls laugh. I knew there was something immature or stupid or offensive about our long term game of gay chicken, but once I’d changed his name in my phone to ‘Dr. Honeybear,’ I couldn’t go back. It was nice to be able to commit to something in my life, even if it was a running joke.

“I understand that it’s a very real risk,” Emmett said as I flipped on the TV. “But I promise, even if you find yourself overwhelmed by my staggering sexual charisma, I won’t go any further than first base.”

“Hmm, that does sound good,” I said as I fumbled a little remembering which button did what on the DVR remote, like I didn’t use it every damn day. “I’m not really a sports fan, after all.”

“And yet you could score so easy,” Emmett said. He tapped the back of the couch. “Seriously, though. Put on that movie with the gorilla fights and get the hell over here and snuggle.”

“Do you mean Planet of the Apes?” I said, just as I was scooting over on the couch. We had learned on one drunken evening that we both were comfortable enough with ourselves and each other to watch a movie all cuddled up. This discovery came about when I’d ended up dozing off with my head in Emmett’s lap watching Braveheart, and since then it’d become just another part of our machine.

“Yeah, you know, gorilla fights,” Emmett said and settle his arm around my shoulders. I wriggled down to make myself comfortable tucked in the couch cushions and against him as I flipped through the DVR’s memory to see if I still had that godawful remake saved. “I’m feeling like connecting with my people.” He gave his belly a good slap.

“I could see you as gorilla, yeah.” I so hadn’t saved that stupid movie. “I’m more of some kind of scrawny circus monkey,” I said. “Or one of those ones with the really long goony arms.”

Emmett started brushing his thumb up and down along the back of my neck and I let out a sigh. Seriously, other dudes did not realize what they were missing out on by being so afraid of friendly bro-touching. “Nah,” he said. “You’re lean. You’re lithe. You’re like a jungle cat.”

I smiled and glanced over at Emmett. “Just ready to pounce at any minute.” I said through a giggle, and quirked my eyebrow. “Meow.”

Emmett arched his brow high. “Oh, that so?” He put a little more weight behind his stroking thumb and my eyes got a little heavy. He really could keep doing that as long as he wanted. “Is that a threat or a promise?”

I laughed and took a swallow of wine to get my face straight again. “Oh, it’s both.”

Emmett just stayed there, eyebrow curved, fingers brushing my neck, looking at me expectantly. This was the point where we’d hold eye contact for as long as we both possibly could, all gazing into the limpid pools of each other’s eyes, until someone broke and started laughing. Emmett had some of the prettiest blue eyes I’d ever seen, and he wasn’t looking away, and wasn’t laughing. So I made what seemed to be the only sensible next move, and leaned in to kiss him.

I wasn’t really surprised when he didn’t pull away and laugh, since that would leave me the winner of this round. And I sort of wasn’t surprised when he started kissing me right back, because that was just keeping up the game. I was surprised when I found myself pushing my hands into his hair and kissing him deep enough to taste wine on his tongue. By the time Emmett broke away and started sucking on my neck, though, I was really just surprised that I’d never thought to do this before.

“Pouncing, huh?” I breathed shakily against Emmett’s ear. I felt his laugh on my throat, and that was all I needed to be hard enough it made my teeth hurt. If this went sideways, at least I could get a good laugh about my body’s commitment to a gag.

“Gorilla fight,” Emmett murmured against my skin, and then pushed me back on the couch to kiss me more.

I was pretty sure I hadn’t been sitting on some secret powder keg of gay lusts, I thought clearly as I grabbed Emmett’s ass with both hands. If I’d had idle thoughts towards any dicks while jerking off, they’d faded from my memory as soon as I’d gotten off. When Emmett started rubbing my cock through my jeans, I could only think about how I wanted him to never, ever stop. I could figure out what it meant later.

A noise came out of me when Emmett pressed the heel of his hand to the base of my cock, and that made him go still. I opened my eyes to find his. He looked a little unsure, a little worried; I probably did, too. But the second I felt my lips curve up just enough to be called a smile, he was sparkling again.

“This is still first base, right?” I said, gulping for air.

“Sure,” Emmett said, and started unbuckling my belt. “I love hockey.”

I laughed and grabbed him by a handful of his shirt to pull him down to kiss him more. I moaned into his mouth when he shoved his hand into my pants and wrapped his fingers around my dick. Emmett had strong hands, all square and broad, and I could feel the calluses on his fingers as he started to stroke me off. He circled the rough edge of his thumb around the tip of my cock and I made a weird strangled whimper noise as I hooked my thumbs in the waist of my pants to shove the whole affair down to the top of my thighs, giving him more room, letting him do more.

Emmett looked down at his hand as it moved on my cock and smiled. “Not surprised you’re a long-dicked man,” he said, and my dick twitched in his grip at the compliment. “Not that I’ve put much thought to it.”

“Sure,” I said, then he got another whimper out of me with a twist of his wrist. “No reason you would.”

“Nope,” he said, and he leaned down to kiss me again. I felt his weight pressing me into the couch cushions, and his mouth curving in a smile against mine, and then one little extra squeeze of his fingers was all it took to make me come. I put my hand in his hair and gasped into his mouth, and in those few high seconds, nothing had ever felt better.

When I was finished Emmett pulled back, sitting up to look down at me, at what he’d done. I had a moment of brilliant, stupid fear that somehow I had ruined the joke, taken it just a step too far by having the audacity to have an orgasm. “Shit,” Emmett said, and I waited for the next step to be him launching himself off the couch and out of the door and maybe away forever.

Instead, though, he just worked open his own belt with frantic fingers, tugging at button and zipper until he could pull out his cock. It was thick and pink, and he wrapped his hand around it and started jerking himself hard and fast. “Fuck,” he said. I wanted to kiss him, to help him, but all I could do was watch. Emmett grabbed a handful of my shirt and shoved it upwards, exposing more of my skin. He leaned over me and made a soft gasping sound as he came against my stomach, adding to my own mess.

Emmett rested his forehead against my collarbone as he caught his breath, and I let my hand come to rest at the small of his back. “Rude,” he said, and I pulled it away. He laughed. “No, not you, me.” He gave my neck a small kiss. “Impatient. Better word.”

“Well,” I said, and put my hand back, petting the base of his spine. “When the impulse takes you.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It took me real good.” He pushed himself upwards to survey the scene. I looked just raunchy, dick hanging out and jizz all over my belly. Emmett looked prouder than I’d ever seen him, enough that I started to giggle. He caught my eye for a second, long enough that I caught that I should follow his gaze on down. He still had his hand around his cock, though it was going soft. He guided the tip of his dick just to the tip of mine, and carefully, ever so lightly, made them touch.

“Boop,” he said, and then I covered my face with my arms and laughed until there were tears in my eyes.

“You need anything from the kitchen, sweetheart?” Emmett said as he pulled himself up off the couch.

“Nope,” I said. “I’m good.” Emmett gave my hair and then Ollie’s a ruffle as he walked past where we were having our serious block-based bro-down on the floor. He picked up the one with the letter ‘O’ on it and put it directly in his mouth. “Hey, good job, buddy! You’re gnawing your way towards literacy.”

“He’s gnawing on everything,” Ginny said. She pointed at the coffee table I was sitting next to. “There are little toddler teeth marks in that wood, just you look.” I did look, and there were.

“Wow, you’re ferocious,” I said to Ollie as I tried to take the block from his mouth, mostly succeeding in getting slobbered on.

“He had this little plastic spoon with a cat on it,” Ginny said. “He basically chewed it into a prison shiv. I just keep it around to look at when I start to get emotional about how I don’t breastfeed anymore.”

“Oh my god,” Rachel said, and crossed her arms over her chest. “Oh my god, I couldn’t.”

“You’d be surprised,” Ginny said, and took a drink from her mug of tea before pointing towards me. “Though with how much this one can’t get enough of the little bug, if you two ever have kids, he’s probably going to volunteer.”

I laughed and looked up at Rachel, who was making a face kind of like a distressed muppet. “Honey, don’t worry,” I said. “We both know my nips are way too delicate for that kind of work.”

She laughed and took a sip of her wine. “All of you is too delicate for that kind of work,” she said.

“It’s why you like me,” I said, as I managed to get Ollie to surrender the ‘O’, in a hostage trade situation for the ‘L’ block.

“It’s in there,” Rachel said, and leaned back on the sofa, crossing her legs at the ankle. We’d been together for a little more than a year; we’d hit the stage where we were talking about moving in together. We were a million miles away from the stage where we talked about having kids together.

Emmett came back into the room and let the bottom of his beer bottle rest on top of my head for a second as he passed on his way back to the couch. “What’d I miss?”

“Noah’s sensitive nipples,” Rachel said.

Emmett just snorted derisively and rolled his eyes. “Tell me something I don’t know,” he said, and she and Ginny both laughed. I’d never told Rachel all the details of my friendship with Emmett. I’d never told any of the women I’d dated, actually, and as far as I knew, he kept just as quiet on the topic. It just didn’t seem relevant. It was never anything serious, after all. Just something to keep the bachelor life a little less boring.

Ginny waved a hand a little in the air. “Don’t worry, Noah, formula is just fine, of course, if you hate your baby and want him to grow up to be a criminal.”

Literally what a pamphlet at the hospital said,” Emmett said to Rachel. I’d heard all about it before.

“Literally, of course,” she said.

Ollie decided that I needed to have the ‘L’ block back, and I took it, placing its spitty mass on top of an ‘R’ block. “Fortunately I do want any babies of mine to grow up to be criminals. So they can steal a lot of money and speedboats and stuff and take care of me when I’m old. So I’ll just cross ‘learn to lactate’ off the ol’ bucket list.” I looked up at the three of them, and smiled at the different levels of ‘amused with my bullshit’ on their faces, before I was distracted by Ollie knocking over the row of letters I’d set up beside him to spell ‘NOAH.’ Everyone was a critic.

“It is possible, you know,” Emmett said. “A guy came into the hospital once all hunched over with his jacket zipped up, and we get him in to check him out, and…” He made an explosive gesture with both hands at chest level. “Medication side effect, turned out.”

Rachel covered up her face with both hands. “Gross,” she said. “No more gross medical stories, please. I just ate.”

“Sorry, sorry,” Emmett said, and shrugged a little. “They’re all I got to keep me interesting. But, hey, finite supply, at least.” He took a long pull off his beer. “I mean, for now…”

Ginny thumped down her mug of tea on the coffee table and stood up, marching into the kitchen without another word. Emmett closed his eyes hard enough to make his whole face wrinkle. I could hear the sink running in the kitchen.

“Uh,” I said, and caught Rachel’s eyes. We hadn’t yet become masters of non-verbal communication, but some things were basic-level vocabulary.

“Oh!” she said, and put a hand to her pocket. “My phone. Excuse me for a moment, boys.” She slipped out onto the patio and closed the sliding door behind her. I could see her looking at her phone, which had not made a single vibration or chirp.

“Dude,” I said quietly, while Ollie claimed my fingers to gnaw on instead of any blocks. “What was that?”

“Sorry,” Emmett said. “It’s… I shouldn’t have said anything.” He let out a long sigh. “I’ve been thinking of, you know… giving it another go.”

“Giving what… oh,” I said. Partway through his second year of residency, before Ollie had even been twinkled up, Emmett had had the important realization that he hated being a doctor and didn’t want to do it anymore. “Seriously?”

Emmett raised one shoulder. He wasn’t quite meeting my eyes. “I mean, what else am I doing?” he said. He worked in the same way I did, scattershot and nowhere for long.”I’m not making enough damn money, that’s for sure. Not with loans to pay off and…” He looked at Ollie, who was probably going to gnaw all the skin off my pinkie. “I want to be able to provide for that little booger, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. I could hear dishes clanking in the kitchen. Rachel appeared to actually be on the phone now. “Ginny’s against it?”

“Figured that out, huh?” Emmett said, and drank more of his beer. “I don’t really get it. We’re not great at… talking.”

“Well, she’s got a point,” I said. “Well, I assume she does. It’s a pretty terrible idea.”

Emmett leaned his head back to give me a long look. “You think so?”

“I actually knew you back then, ow, ow, shit,” I said, and freed my hand from sharp toddler teeth. I offered Ollie an ‘A’ block, and he found it delicious. “Maybe you’ve forgotten how much you hated it, but I sure haven’t.” I remembered Emmett at my door in the middle of so many nights, tired and angry and not telling any stories. He’d just wanted to fall into my bed, get fucked, and sleep next to someone who liked him. I didn’t like doing things that way, and neither did he.

Emmett took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yeah, no, I know,” he said. “Just seems like a different guy sometimes.”

“Yeah, it was a different guy,” I said. “A guy who was miserable.” He’d given it up not long after I’d started seeing Rebecca. I couldn’t open that midnight door for him anymore then.

Emmett kept rubbing his brows. “I just keep thinking that maybe it’s worth it,” he said. “I mean, I’m older now, I’m more patient, I’m more tolerant of bullshit. Maybe it’s worth it for him.”

“Dude,” I said, and scooped Ollie into my lap, wrapping my hands around his tummy. Now we were both looking at Emmett. “Doing something that makes you miserable and makes it so you’d never be around is a real shitty way to support a kid.”

Emmett was still for a moment, then put his glasses back on and looked at me with soft eyes, and a little smile on his face. “When you put it that way?” he said. “You make me realize I’d just be setting myself up to become my dad.”

“Gross,” I said. If Emmett were a writer, he probably would have written seven tortured novels about his Classic Shitty Dad.

“Very,” he said.

“Can you even, like, do that, anyway?” I said. “Just go back to it, after you quit?”

Emmett made his own muppet face. “You know, I hadn’t really thought it that far out.” He puffed out his cheeks and stood up. “You’re smart and I need to remember to talk to you… always.” He stopped next to me to brush his fingers through my hair.

“Yeah, you really should,” I said. I leaned my head up to smile at him, and then my face contorted in pain as Ollie decided to start chewing on me again. Emmett laughed, scratched his fingers against my scalp, and headed into the kitchen, where Ginny was still clanking things.

Rachel peered in from the patio, catching my eye. I gave her a nod and she came back in, sliding the door closed behind her quietly. “Is everything okay?” she said softly as she came to sit down on the sofa near me.

“It’s cool,” I said. “Just… being a grown-up is hard, you know?”

“Oh my god, it’s so hard,” she said. She leaned down and brushed her fingers over Ollie’s thick mess of dark hair. “Stay a kid as long as you can, okay?”

“I agree,” I said, and rubbed Ollie’s belly until he stopped chewing on me quite so vigorously and giggled. “You just be cute and adorable and slobbery and don’t worry about anything in the world, because we’ll take care of it until you’re old enough to think we’re all lame.”

Rachel arched an eyebrow at me. “We will?”

I laughed a little, and it sounded more nervous than I meant. Just a bubble of something left from talking with Emmett. “Oh, well, yeah,” I said. “Didn’t I tell you that I’m going to be Ollie’s nanny until he’s a surly teen? And then I’m going to be his valet.”

Rachel laughed. “You’d be good at it.” She looked towards the kitchen. “Are they okay? Should we go?”

Just moments after Rachel finished speaking, Ginny returned in the room with a big bowl that looked to be full of fruit and cake and whipped cream. Emmett was trailing behind her with smaller bowls. “Trifle,” she said, and plopped the bowl down on the coffee table.

“Oh, wow,” Rachel said, peering in at the dessert. “That looks amazing.”

Ginny sighed, but in a way that sounded satisfied. There was a tension still between her and Emmett, but it didn’t feel like it was about to snap. “It is amazing. Emmett, serve it up.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and started scooping it out into bowls. “You know, if you’re going to fix dessert every time I make you mad…” And then it was tight again, like one wrong breath might break everything in the room. “Kidding, kidding, sorry.”

Ollie proved himself way better at diffusing a tense situation than his old man, when he intercepted the bowl that Ginny was handing to me, and put it directly, entirely on his face. The kid had amazing timing.

I was awakened from a sound sleep that I didn’t remember falling into by the buzz and bleep of my phone’s text alert. I had conked out on my couch in front of the TV, sitting up, dad style. It wasn’t even eleven o’clock. I was getting so old. I rubbed crap out of my eyes, took a breath to calm my suddenly racing heart, and looked at my phone.

Can I come over? was the message from Emmett.

Of course. I wrote back immediately, without putting much thought into why he might be asking. It was a sign he was getting old that he was asking at all instead of just showing up on my doorstep.

Be there soon he texted back right after. I flipped off the television and thought about picking up the apartment a little, but then I remembered it was just Emmett. I decided I’d just close my eyes for a few seconds longer and then at least put my dish from dinner in the sink.

I woke up to the sound of my doorbell ringing, and my heart got a good bit of drum solo time in as I pulled myself up to my feet with all the grace of a drunk newborn antelope. I opened the door to see Emmett. His eyes looked small; that was the thought my groggy brain managed to produce when I looked at him. All of him looked small, curled inward.

“Hey,” he said. “Were you asleep?”

“No,” I said, then blinked hard and rubbed my hand over my eyes. “Yes. I don’t know why I lied.”

“Everyone does,” he said. “It’s weird.” I stepped aside and let him in. He started to take off his jacket and I helped him, grabbing the collar while he slipped out of it. I hung it up on the rack by the door while he toed his shoes off. We’d done that dance hundreds of times, just a part of our routines, our machines. Usually it wasn’t so quiet, though.

“What’s up?” I said, because this clearly wasn’t just a social visit. Not with small eyes like that.

Emmett’s cheeks were pinker than usual, and I could see his throat move as he swallowed. “Ginny and I ended it tonight,” he said. That woke me up more fully than any alarm or bell.

“Shit,” I said. I put my hand between Emmett’s shoulderblades and walked us both to the living room to sit on the couch.

“It just wasn’t working,” he said. “It wasn’t working for me, it wasn’t working for her. So we decided… enough was enough.” He looked me right in the eyes; his were sharp and bright. “You could tell, couldn’t you?”

“Yeah,” I said, and nodded. “I could.” At some point Emmett had stopped talking about Ginny with me. At some point all of my visits to their place ended with them having hissed conversations in the kitchen while I tried to keep Ollie occupied. “What about Ollie?”

“That’s…” Emmett closed his eyes and drew in a breath that wasn’t quite steady. “We talked it out a lot. We suck as a couple, but we’re pretty good as parents. So we’re going to make that part work, no matter what.” He let out one of those stressed hiccups of a laugh. “We’ll probably be a lot better at it if we’re not trying to pretend we’re in love with each other.”

I slipped my arm around his shoulders and brought him in close to me. I could feel a level of tension leave him the second he found his familiar favorite spot tucked under my arm. “This sucks,” I said, and rubbed his shoulder a little. “It’s going to suck and be hard. But I think you did the right thing.”

Emmett put his face against my shoulder. His voice was muffled when he spoke. “It sucked so hard,” he said. “I’ve never had a breakup with someone that involved a mutual conversation with no yelling or cusses. Just… crying and apologies.” I hugged him a little tighter. “It was fucked up.” I hadn’t had anything like that, either. It sounded way more terrifying than the time a girl threw a hairdryer at me and walked out.

“Being a grown-up is so goddamn weird,” I said, and put my other arm around Emmett to get him wrapped up good and tight.

“The weirdest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, mostly into my shirt. “I just… I don’t want my kid growing up in a house where people are pissed off all the time. That shit gets under your skin.” I rubbed my hand up and down his back. “That shit gets right down into your bones.”

“I know,” I said. I didn’t really need to be saying much of anything, not right now. “I know.”

“I want Ginny to find someone she really cares about. Some cool stepdad guy. With a sweater and a moustache and all that shit,” Emmett said, and then sighed. “And I’ll… fuck, same as ever. Just try to do the best I can and figure out what the fuck I’m doing someday.”

“Hey,” I said, and nudged Emmett a little so he’d lift his head, so I could look at him. “You got one thing figured right the hell out: you are a good dad. I’ve seen you do a lot of things, and you’re better at being a dad than any of them.” I smiled at him and brushed my fingers back through his hair. “Except maybe bowling. You’re crazy good at that.”

Emmett laughed, startled and real, and I felt him relax a little more. “I’m scared to death,” he said. “Just the thought of how sometime soon there’s gonna be one night and then another night and another night where he’s going to go to bed and I won’t be there.”

“You’ll be there,” I said softly, and brushed the backs of my knuckles right over his heart. Emmett let out a breath and closed his eyes, leaning his weight against my hand as a tiny smile curved up his lips.

The last time I went through a breakup, I’d called Emmett and he’d come over right away. He’d showed up with a six pack of beer and it’d gone warm on the counter, because he spent the night far too busy sucking my dick until I couldn’t breathe to do any drinking. I sure as hell had felt a lot better afterwards.

That had been a long time ago. That ending wasn’t like this one. I wanted to kiss him right then, though; not as a prelude to fucking the pain away or anything basic like that, but just… to kiss him. Because it felt like it might be what we both needed. Because it felt like the right thing to do.

It was not the right thing to do, though, since the last message in my text history had been from Rachel, telling me she loved me and would see me at lunch tomorrow. I’d managed to send a love you too back before I’d dozed off. Kissing Emmett felt like it might fix everything in the world, but I’d gotten old enough to realize when knowing meant more than feeling.

I gave Emmett a little pat on the small of his back to make him draw back a little. “You want to stay here tonight?” I said.

Emmett nodded. “Yeah, thank you,” he said. “I’m not immediately moving out or anything, we’re still figuring out what we’re doing, but… tonight it would just be too much.” He shook his head. “We put Ollie to bed and we hugged each other and then I came here.”

“No better place for you to be,” I said. I gave him a little tap on the shoulder and we untangled from each other. I stood up and stretched and yawned into the back of my forearm. “Well, come on,” I said, and headed to the bedroom. I was relieved to hear Emmett following right behind.

Rachel had asked who the second toothbrush in my bathroom belonged to. I’d said, ‘Emmett,’ and she had said ‘oh,’ and that was that. It was one of the reasons I liked her so much, the way she got it. Or maybe she didn’t get it. Maybe I didn’t really get it, either. Emmett and I brushed our teeth side by side in front of my bathroom mirror and I rinsed mutual minty foam down the sink.

Emmett grabbed a stretched-out and threadbare t-shirt I had from college from the bottom drawer of my dresser and put it on after he’d stripped down to his shorts. Always his favorite. At least I’d been in pajamas when he’d showed up. I pulled back the covers and turned off the light while Emmett was settling into bed. I slipped in behind him and curled my arm around his waist. Usually Emmett preferred to be the big spoon — jetpacking, I always clarified, since he was shorter than me — but sometimes things needed to be different.

I curled myself tight around Emmett, as close as I could get. He always ran a little cold, and I ran a little hot. We made a good balance, tucked up like that. I pressed my hand over his heart, and felt his lay atop it not long after.

“You know you’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” he said, his voice soft and low in the darkness.

“I know,” I said. “So are you.”

“Thank you,” he said, and I placed one small, soft kiss against the back of his neck. It just felt right.

“There was a garbage truck,” Ollie said, for probably the third or fourth time.

“Oh, yeah, I know there was,” Emmett said as he offered Ollie a Lego block, which he shook his head at. Not the right one for the current construction project unfolding on the table. “Did you say there were three garbage trucks?”

“No,” Ollie said, and held up two of his little fingers. “There were two.”

“Where did you see them?” I asked, from where I was cutting vegetables just in the kitchen. Emmett was completely great on all kinds of dad stuff — bathtimes, bedtimes, story times, checking under the bed for monsters — but the dude was basically useless in the kitchen. To make sure both Dr. Waldo and the young Mr. Reyes-Waldo actually got some sort of non-ketchup based vegetable in their bodies, I came over at least one night a week when Emmett had the kiddo.

“Um… one was at the front,” Ollie said, and picked up a white block, which he then handed to his dad. “And one was at the, at the back.”

Emmett took the block and connected it on top of another, but Ollie shook his head and removed it himself. “There were garbage trucks at the front and the back of the parade?” he said, as calmly incredulous as one could be with one’s own three-year-old.

“No…” Ollie said, and put the block on a different part of the… it could be a boat he was building, or maybe a bridge. Hard to tell in such an early stage of development. “At the front of the street. And the back of the street.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, and reached over to the little kitchen table with a strip of bell pepper in my hand. Emmett leaned over and took it between his teeth, snapping it up. “What else was there? What else did you see?”

“Um… I don’t remember,” Ollie said, and stacked a couple of more blocks up. Emmett was required for a little extra pressure to make the top one snap in.

“Was there a band, maybe?” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” Ollie said. “A marching band. With a big, big, big…” He trailed off for a while, and focused on trying to connect one of those little cylindrical Lego bits to a part that just didn’t want it. Emmett gave me a look and smiled. The conversational path you wandered the under-five set was a wobbly one. “Big drum,” Ollie finished when he’d made the blocks accept his will.

“Coooool,” Emmett said. I reached over and fed him a piece of carrot. “Your mom said you saw horses,” he said, while chewing. Bad example for the youth. “Did you see horses?”

“Oh yeah!” Ollie said, and broke into a big smile. He looked at me and bit his lip, looking downright devious. “One of them pooped!”

“What!” I said, and managed to make an exaggerated face of disgust while also laughing. “Gross!”

Emmett stuck out his tongue to blow a loud raspberry, and that was it, total winner of the kiddo comedy contest. Ollie put his head down on the table as he giggled and giggled. Emmett glanced at me sidelong to see that I had a bit of a case of them myself. He swept in to scoop Ollie up and prop him on his hip; it wouldn’t be too long at all before he was too big for that.

“Did the garbage truck come clean it up?” Emmett asked, but Ollie just kept giggling and shaking his head. “Two garbage trucks and they can’t even clean up some horse poop? Well, I’m going to call the city because they are falling down on the job.”

“Maybe they need to hire a new driver,” I said, and reached over to give Ollie a poke in the tummy.

“The garbage truck doesn’t pick up poop!” Ollie said, someone looking at me very seriously through all his squirming.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “What does it pick up?”

Garbage!” Ollie said, and Emmett leaned him inward to me so he could get right up in my personal space bubble to make his point.

“Well, shows what I know,” I said.

“Seriously, Noah,” Emmett said as Ollie hooked his arms around his neck. “You have a lot to learn.”

“Clearly,” I said, and ate a piece of carrot myself. “Dinner will be ready in like fifteen?”

“Gotcha,” Emmett said, then leaned his head back to look at Ollie. “Okay, let’s put away your blocks and then get cleaned up for supper. Okay?”

Ollie gave a little nod and Emmett put him down on the floor. I watched them put the half-built structure — probably a boat, I’d decided — away while I cooked, and pulled out the little step stool so Ollie could wash his hands at the kitchen sink. While we ate our dinner — noodles and every crunchy, colorful vegetable I could think of — Ollie told us about the garbage trucks another two times, and also told us in detail exactly what a garbage truck did and did not do. He was a pretty awesome dinner companion.

He made it about halfway through Finding Nemo settled in between us on the couch before he started to droop. Emmett picked him up and got him tooth brushed and pajamaed while I cleaned up the kitchen. I stepped quietly into Ollie’s bedroom when Emmett had just started reading him — god help me, the kid had a serious focus on his interests — a book about all the machines at the construction site going to bed. I found myself humming a little as I watched his eyes get heavier and heavier. I hadn’t so much as touched a guitar in years, but I still always had the same little tune for him, ever since the first time.

I left the door open just a crack as I slipped out behind Emmett, the soft green-blue light of Ollie’s night light spilling out just a little in the hallway. “That kid is going to be a truck when he grows up,” Emmett said to me, softly.

“Hey, good work if you can get it,” I said, just as quietly. “I think that’s a union gig.”

“My sweet little dump truck,” he said, sighing towards the opening in the door. Emmett looked at me, then, a different kind of soft look in his eyes. “You staying?”

“Yeah,” I said, and leaned down to kiss him, gentle and good.

Rachel had taken a job in Taiwan a little over a year ago. After about nine months, we were both willing to admit that doing things long-distance was somehow not easy and fun like everyone always said ever. Maybe when her contract was up and she came home, we’d agreed. It was so anticlimactic and simple, it felt so little like a breakup at all, that I didn’t even mention it to Emmett until nearly a week after. He kissed me as soon as I did, though, and that, well… our machine was a little older now and the gears moved a little differently, but it still ran just as well.

We kissed and kissed and kissed, curled up beside each other in Emmett’s bed, because it kept us both quiet. We stayed almost dressed, shorts tugged down and shirts tugged up, just in case we had an unexpected interruption. I pressed my face against Emmett’s neck and wrapped my arms around his shoulders while he stroked me off. He murmured things in my ear, soft somethings about how good it all was, while his fingers around me felt like the most perfect thing in the world. I grasped at his hair and muffled my shout into his shoulder when he made me come, and as soon as I’d caught my breath, I was scooting down under the covers to take his cock deep in my mouth. He grabbed my hair, too.

We curled up with each other when we were finished, tangled up and way too hot to be under the covers like we were, but not quite ready to be anywhere else. Last week he’d fucked me slow and long into the mattress, and I’d fallen asleep with my face buried in the pillow and Emmett still heavy and too warm against my back. I just needed that kind of heat sometimes. I’d heard Emmett’s breath level out and go slow, and was just starting to doze off myself, when I heard the soft, high call from the other room of, “Daddy? Daddy, come here, please. Daddy?”

Emmett made a sleepy rumbling noise and kissed the corner of my mouth. “Stay put,” he said. “I’ll get it.” He pulled himself out of bed, and I didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep until I woke up to him curling up behind me, arm loose around my waist, hand over my heart.

“Ohhhh, god, I think I’m sunburned,” I said as I fell in through the door to Rachel’s apartment. “Am I sunburned? I feel sunburned.”

She squinted at me and then peered around me to look at my neck. “Doesn’t look like it yet,” she said, and then put her fingers on the back of my neck. “You feel pretty warm though.”

“I’m probably going to turn into a lobster man in like an hour,” I said, and made pinchy claw hands at her. She laughed and put her hand on my face, deflecting any of my crustacean efforts. After two years in Taiwan she’d decided she hated it there and hated her job and came back to the States. I guessed I had a real thing for people who ended up bailing on their careers. We’d never promised to get back together when she came back, but it seemed to make sense, so we had. We were grownups and we liked each other; it just was logical.

“No lobsters,” she said. “Allergic. Not kosher. Get, go away.” I made a couple more claw hands and a weak ‘raar’ noise, which was totally what lobsters did. She tapped both of my hands down and I gave her a dumb, tired smile. “I didn’t think I’d have to nag you to put on more sunscreen.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think you would, either,” I said. It’d been a whole damn day in the park with Ginny and Emmett and Ollie, picnic baskets and playground equipment and everything. The plan had started out with just an hour or so for lunch, but the day just… kept happening. “I just lost track of time.”

Rachel smiled and pressed her fingertips to my cheeks. I could feel them cool when she drew them away; I was going to be very red very soon. “Yeah, I guess you did.”

I was a grown man and I’d spent at least a full hour hanging out in the sandbox with Ollie. To be fair, we were working on some serious fortifications and structures, and there were even some plotlines starting to form. “I’m going to drink like a gallon of water and get in the shower,” I said. “Do you want to order in tonight? I’m good with whatever.”

Rachel nodded. “Yeah, I’ll get something.” She had her phone out and I went in the kitchen to drink glass after glass of water. The hot water in the shower stung on my skin, and when I’d dried off, I poked around in Rachel’s medicine cabinet and found some moisturizer that didn’t look like it cost fifty dollars an ounce, and dabbed it on my cheeks and the back of my neck. It probably wouldn’t help, but at least I smelled a little nicer.

It felt a little strange to get back into my sun-sweaty clothes, but I hadn’t left anything at Rachel’s since we’d gotten back together. I stopped in the kitchen on my way out to get us both glasses of ice water. She was sitting on the couch frowning lightly at her phone when I put the glass in her hand.

“I should take aspirin or something,” I said. “That’s a thing for sunburn, right?”

“Yeah, it is,” she said. She put her glass down on the coffee table without taking a drink.

“Did you order something?” I asked. “If you didn’t decide yet, I think Thai would be good.” Visions of cucumber salad and noodles were dancing in my head.

“I didn’t yet,” Rachel said, and then took in a breath. I knew that breath; I knew the sound of the breath that came right before exactly what she said next. “We need to talk about something.”

“Oh,” I said. I was an adult man now, well in my thirties, and while those words were still bone-knife terrifying, I didn’t feel like bolting. “What is it?”

“I really like you,” she said, and then reached out to take one of my hands in hers. “I mean… I love you. I do.”

“Yeah,” I said, quietly. “I do, too.”

“I could do this with you,” she said, and then laughed, that strained way when nothing was really funny. “I mean, long term, I could do this. You’re one of the reasons I came home, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, and brushed my thumb over the back of her knuckles. “I know that.”

“But today just made me realize…” Rachel stopped and breathed in slowly, steadying herself. She had poise for days; she could look like a ballerina at the Whole Foods buffet. “When you think about your future, do you see yourself having kids? Do you want kids?”

My face had felt hot before, but now it felt weirdly chilled. I had never thought about it. Maybe that was my problem in so many things, that I didn’t stop to think about it, any kind of its, until the issue was right in front of me. Maybe that wasn’t really a problem at all. “Yeah,” I said. I always found the truest answer under pressure. “Yeah, I really do.”

Rachel closed her eyes and took in an even slower breath. Her fingers squeezed mine. “Okay,” she said. “Because I really don’t.”

That wasn’t the end, not that night. It ended with us the second time like it had the first, in a lot of slow steps and mature conversations until one night we were just saying goodbye. This time, at least, it got to be face to face. I got a hug.

I didn’t text Emmett before I showed up at his place. Didn’t call. Just knocked on the door. I had no idea if he was even home. I could see lights on in the windows, but sometimes he just left them on when he went out. It was a good thing he’d never become a surgeon; he’d probably have left a sponge in someone. Maybe he’d taken Ollie out somewhere fun. Maybe he’d gotten a date.

Emmett opened the door. “Oh, shit, Noah,” he said. “Hey.” He stepped back from the door so I could come in. “What’s up?”

“Rachel,” I said, as his fingers brushed my neck as he helped me take my jacket off. “It’s over.”

“Shit,” he said. “For… uh, sorry, this sounds like dick. For real this time?”

“Yeah,” I said. There was a blank space in the hall where I always kicked my shoes off. “For really real this time.”

I found a way to both slump and sprawl on Emmett’s couch at the same time. “Did, uh.” Emmett swallowed and sniffed in a little breath through his nostrils. “Something happen?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But also no.” I laughed and hunched myself over so I was leaning on him a little. “We had the kids talk.”

Emmett let out a rough laugh as he settled his arm around my shoulders. “Shit,” he said. “I never had that one. Obviously.” He rubbed his thumb up and down on the back of my neck and I closed my eyes.

“I said yes, and she said no,” I said. “And then it was two weird weeks of figuring out if that could be a thing we could compromise on, but, uh…”

“Hard to have half a kid, yeah,” Emmett said.

“Yeah, except for…” I closed my mouth, pursing my lips tight. “Mm.”

“Well, yeah,” Emmett said. “You can borrow my kid any time you want. You’re basically his third dad at this point.” Emmett laughed and gave my neck a little squeeze. “Fuck that, second. You were there before Philip.”

I closed my eyes very tight, enough that I saw stars. “No moustache, though,” I said. After a long while of Emmett rubbing the back of my neck, of me feeling his heart beat where our skin met, of me smelling the stale sweat on the old t-shirt I knew he’d spent too many days bumming around the house in without washing, I sat up and looked him in the eye. “Can we get drunk? Like, old-school drunk?”

Emmett blinked a few times. “Well, shit. Yes, we can,” he said. He put his fingers in my hair for a moment before he stood up and went into the kitchen. I heard some bumping and clinking, and then he came back into the living room with two pretty crystal wine glasses and a bottle of wine that was a very lovely pink shade.

“Ginny’s mom gave this to me,” he said, and was wincing a little. “I think it cost, like, twenty bucks. Like, what am I going to do, drink this in front of the TV eating mac and cheese?”

“Dude,” I said, and when I smiled it made my cheeks ache in a way that felt good. “That sounds great.”

Emmett’s eyebrows went up high. “Huh, yeah, you know what? It does.” He handed me the glasses and started working on the bottle with the corkscrew he’d had tucked in his hand against its neck. “You’re a real smart guy, Noah.”

“So smart I should teach kindergarten,” I said, and Emmett uncorked the bottle with a pop of triumph.

Wine and the un-fancy kind of cheese and Sharknado later I was in Emmett’s bed, wearing one of his shirts, nuzzling my nose into his neck. His fingers brushed up and down my back, along my spine in a way that made me feel like a cat. It all felt better, just in that moment.

“You know you’ve always got me,” Emmett said, just soft words right into my ear. “Always. Me and Ollie.”

“I know,” I said, and I really, actually did. I kissed him once, soft and easy, but for a long while. When I drew away Emmett settled his hand at the small of my back and I turned my face against the pillow. I hoped it would smell like me tomorrow.

“Be gentle, okay?” Emmett said. “No pulling.”

“Okay,” Ollie said as he put both of his hands on the wooly side of the sheep that was about as big as he was. The sheep didn’t seem too moved by the experience, but petting zoo animals had to have seen it all.

“Unless it’s… the wool… over his eyes,” I said, and then shook my head. “I got nothing. It’s hot out.”

Emmett put his hand on my lower back for a moment as he laughed. “The important thing is you tried, honey.” He gave a nod over to a bench up against the petting paddock fence. “Have a sit and keep an eye on the kidlet. I’m going to get us some waters.”

“You’re smart and I like you,” I said, and Emmett wrinkled his nose up at me in a smile before trotting off to the little refreshment cart parked just outside the pen full of bored ungulates and excited children. Those waters were probably going to cost him seven dollars.

I thunked myself down on the bench and watched Ollie as he got into what looked like a very deep four-year-old conversation with another kid, one dressed all in green and yellow with long blonde curls. I smiled and gave a quiet shout out to that kid’s parents, giving society’s gender expectations the business. Ollie needed a haircut himself; he had to keep brushing his bangs out of his eyes every twenty seconds, interrupting important goat-petting time.

Emmett came back and delivered the bottle of water into my hand before sitting down next to me. I cracked open the top and gulped down about a third of it. “We should give Ollie a haircut tonight,” I said.

“Yeah?” Emmett said, then smiled. “Yeah, we should. Talk about your wool over the eyes, am I right?”

“You’re telling me, sister,” I said, drinking more water. “Shearing season for real.”

Emmett laughed and leaned back against the bench, resting shoulder-to-shoulder with me. I looked over at him, watched him watching Ollie. He wore his glasses all the time now, and had grown some lines at the corners of his eyes from the squinting he did before he accepted that need. Just little pathways right to those pretty blue eyes. Ollie’s were brown enough to be nearly black, but somehow I thought they looked alike anyway.

We’d go back to Emmett’s tonight and cut Ollie’s hair short for the summer. I’d make dinner while Emmett got him in the bath. Ollie would probably talk about goats or tigers or beetles while we ate, and then would say he wasn’t tired probably a half dozen times before falling asleep on the couch fifteen minutes from the end of a movie. Emmett would put him to bed, and then come curl in under the covers and put me to bed, too.

Emmett’s hand was resting just on his thigh. I took in one small breath and let my hand settle next to it, slowly curling in to just hold his fingers. Emmett was still for just a few seconds, a couple of long heartbeats, and then I felt him sigh as he fit his fingers through mine.

“I was thinking,” I said, watching Ollie get focused on some bug or something down in the straw that covered the ground. “I was thinking we should maybe just do this.” I wasn’t sure if I’d been thinking it for the past five minutes or the past five years, but I’d been thinking it.

“Yeah?” Emmett said. He took in a long breath and squeezed my hand. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s a really good idea.”

“You know I love you,” I said, and it was far, far from the first time I’d ever said it.

“Yeah,” Emmett said, brushing his thumb over my knuckles. “I love you, too.” Good, he’d heard the difference in how I said it then, too.

“You and me,” I said, and looked over to see him smiling. “You and me and Ollie.”

“Always,” he said, and I leaned over to kiss him, for the first time ever where anyone else could see. Nothing had ever felt more right.

We were broken up soon after, though, by a four-year-old colliding with our knees. “Daddy!” he said, and I looked down to see him with his palms turned upwards to us. “A deer licked me!”

“It did?” he said. “You must taste salty.”

“Deer like salt,” I said.

“I’m not salty!” Ollie said.

“Well, not anymore,” Emmett said. “A deer licked it off!”

“Gross!” Ollie said, and shook his head, all that mess of hair flying in the air.

I gave Emmett’s hand one last squeeze and let go. “It’s super gross,” I said, and reached down to pick Ollie up as I got to my feet. “Let’s go wash your hands and then go look at the insect house.” I situated Ollie up on my shoulders, and he laughed as he grabbed onto my face with his deer-spitty hands. “Oh, now I gotta wash my face, too, great.”

Emmett reached up and put his hands on my cheeks, beaming up at me like a new sun. “There, now we’re all gross,” he said. He slipped his hand into the one of mine that didn’t have a hold on Ollie’s leg. “Lead the way, sweetheart,” he said, and I did.


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