Walkies

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by 2013

Simon was sure it was the right apartment. It had the right number. His key worked. Tiny was sprawled on his orthopedic bed in the middle of the living room floor. But the man in the blazer and boxers was new.

Of course, from the look on his face, it seemed the man was as surprised to see Simon as Simon was to see him. That surprise lasted only a second, though, before the man snapped back into practiced professional stiffness and trained a wooden smile on a laptop, which he’d propped up atop what looked to be a dictionary at the very edge of the apartment’s small dining room table. “No, those lateral projections won’t be released until next quarter,” he said into the headset mic, like that was a sentence that could mean something to someone. He was a handsome man, dark-haired and dark-eyed, crisp and professional — at least, from the waist up. From the waist down, he was wearing nothing but a pair of very small cotton shorts clearly not meant for company. “Megan has the preliminary numbers, right? Unless they’re behind schedule now.”

Simon tried to mouth some kind of explanation, but not only was the man not looking at him, the paper mask over the lower half of Simon’s face would have kept even the most well-articulated I’m the dog-walker from coming through. His panicked brain defaulted to routine, and he reached for the leash beside the door.

Tiny heard the familiar jingle and hopped up — or, rather, hefted all hundred-plus pounds of himself into a standing position. He lifted his snow-white muzzle into the air and gave a few sniffs, then began padding his way over toward Simon, wagging his tail lazily. It was the best corroboration Simon could have hoped for under the circumstances. “Hey, buddy,” Simon said softly, crouching down to clip the leash to Tiny’s collar. He gave Tiny a quick scratch behind his ears. “You ready to go?”

By way of response, Tiny just stood there, drooling slightly. He was a slightly arthritic ambulatory couch of a dog, friend to all things except the ones he accidentally stepped on. Simon had long since learned to warn anyone who got in the elevator with them wearing open-toed shoes. He tried to make some kind of parting gesture to the man, but the man was again talking to his laptop about latency and deliverables, now with a worried expression that furrowed his brows. He didn’t even glance over as Simon and Tiny slipped out as quietly as Simon could manage, then set out down the hall.

They stopped on their way outside so the doorman could give Tiny a loving scritch behind the ears. Simon couldn’t help being aware of his mask, as well as the masks on the other people passing through the lobby. One mask in a while wasn’t such an odd sight, especially in a building like this, where a large number of the units were owned by Chinese immigrants (like Simon’s grandmother) and their descendants (like Simon himself). But to see everyone starting to cover up, worse than the worst of flu seasons that Simon could remember … well, it was unsettling, to say the least. He wrinkled up his nose underneath his own paper mask, uncomfortable as they stepped out into the late March heat.

At least walking Tiny was as low-effort of a job as Simon had ever landed upon. The weather was nice, so they set off on their plodding way around the apartment building, stopping to sniff at things whose interest could only be divined by dog noses. With one hand, Simon held the leash; with the other, he scrolled through his social media feeds, trying to look for anything that wasn’t about sickness, or contagion, or the end of the world. There wasn’t much.

As often was the case, Tiny got tired halfway through the walk and plopped down in a shady spot. Simon sat down in the grass next to him, leaning back up against the tree providing the aforementioned shade. 

He triple-checked his email to make sure he hadn’t missed any instructions about not coming to get Tiny today. There was nothing about that, but he found a brief email from his agent saying, sorry, the company thanked Simon for his headshots, but they’d gone with a different face for their campaign. Simon’s disappointment was tempered by the fact that he couldn’t even remember what campaign it had been. His career of failures and semi-successes as an aspiring model all kind of blurred together, until sometimes it seemed like there was no lasting difference between the two.

Tiny made a little whuffing noise as he watched squirrels chase each other across the telephone wires. “Go get ’em,” Simon said, nudging Tiny in his furry brown side. “Go show them who’s boss.”

Tiny did not want to show anyone who was boss. He took the prodding nudge as affection and leaned in for more, which Simon gave him gladly. “You’re a smart boy,” Simon said, shaking out a few clouds of wispy undercoat and letting them waft off on the breeze. “You don’t have Facebook. Or Grindr. Or a job. Or anxiety.”

Tiny had none of these things. He had a human petting him, which was probably pretty good by dog standards, so Simon kept it up. There were worse things in the world than sitting outdoors, showing a dog affection, and having it count as work.

Simon was a professional dog-walker only in the most generous sense of the term, by which he meant he got paid for walking a dog, singular. Last August, he’d seen a flier in a friend’s building advertising dog-walking services, with nearly all of the TAKE ONE! tear-off numbers at the bottom gone. Simon had tried to replicate that success in his own building, only to discover that he must have been living among cat fanciers.

It had, however, netted him one call from a woman ten floors up from the apartment Simon shared with his grandmother. She’d been a pretty but bored-looking woman in a stylish dress who hadn’t flinched at the idea of paying someone a hundred dollars weekly for taking a dog for a walk. She’d promised him cash on the table at the end of the week, and that had been the last time that he’d seen another human in that apartment before today.

Should Simon have quit by now? Probably. Carving out an hour of his weekday, every weekday, was at times more of an imposition than the money was worth. It didn’t take a financial genius to realize that the way to thrive in this business was from walking multiple dogs at once, not taking a series of leisurely daily strolls with a single fluffy monstrosity.

But he hadn’t liked the way she’d looked at Tiny, nor the way she’d called him that furball when she’d pointed to him, like he was an unpleasant pest that needed to be dealt with. Tiny was such a sweetheart. He deserved someone in his life who loved him. Simon couldn’t just leave him without that.

Eventually Tiny could be bothered to do his business and plod his way back upstairs. This time, Simon knocked before he turned the key in the lock, wanting to give more warning than he had before. Simon crossed all his fingers and toes that the man was still on one of his video calls, so that Simon could just drop Tiny off and apologize later by email.

Of course his luck wasn’t that good. The man was standing by the end of the table, scowling at his phone’s screen. His outfit had in the interim come to a sort of formality equilibrium, where he wasn’t wearing his suit coat anymore, but he’d also pulled on a pair of sweatpants. Simon bit the inside of his cheek trying not to bring to mind the sight of those boxers, or the soft inner-thigh skin they hadn’t concealed. “Hi,” Simon said, unclipping Tiny’s leash. “Sorry about, you know, earlier.”

Tiny trotted over to the man, and the man’s entire demeanor changed. He put his phone face-down on the table and hunkered down a bit, letting Tiny come close and sniff his cheeks. “Were you a good boy?” he asked, rubbing Tiny’s ears.

“He was good,” Simon said, before realizing that maybe he wasn’t actually supposed to answer on Tiny’s behalf. It was too late now, though. “He’s always good. Hi. I’m Simon. Your, um, your dog-walker.”

The man looked up at Simon with a slight patient smile on his lips, as though, yes, he did understand that Tiny hadn’t taken himself out and returned independently. Simon was realizing more and more with each passing second that this guy was unfortunately stupidly handsome. “Hi.”

The woman who’d hired him hadn’t introduced herself, but the email address she’d given him had been for leigh.chao at some corporate dot-com Simon hadn’t bothered googling. “So, uh, where’s Leigh?” Simon asked, by way of making conversation.

The man frowned and stood. “I’m Leigh.”

For a moment, every gear in Simon’s brain ground to a halt. “Oh,” he said, before his brain could stop his stupid fucking mouth, “because I thought Leigh was a girl.”

“Yeah,” said the man who was apparently Leigh. The look on his face was the same practiced, plastic smile he’d aimed at the laptop earlier. It wasn’t great to be on the receiving end of it in person. “I get that a lot.”

That was the point where most reasonable people would have cut all their losses and run, which went no ways toward explaining why Simon’s brain thought it would be a good idea to say, “Since I got hired by a woman.”

“My ex,” Leigh said matter-of-factly.

Simon’s cheeks were so warm he was afraid they might set his mask on fire. “I’m, uh–” He pointed behind him toward the door for several full seconds before he remembered how to speak again. “I’m going now.”

“Okay.” Leigh was already looking back at his phone, frowning at whatever the little pop-up notifications told him.

Simon could have made a dashing exit right then, sprinting off into the wilderness and abandoning society altogether, except that he remembered he still had bills, and a grandmother, and a photoshoot on Thursday. “Is, um–” He took a breath so deep, the crinkly cloth of the mask plastered itself against his nose. “Should I keep coming, or…?” Helplessly, he pointed toward Simon’s laptop in a gesture of are you going to be here and not need me anymore?

Leigh followed Simon’s gesture with his eyes, then sighed. “Sorry, I’m–” He tapped something on his phone and set it down. “We just went remote today. Everything’s a nightmare. They’re saying it’s going to be at least two weeks before anyone’s back in the office. And I don’t want to disrupt Tiny’s routine. So yeah, why don’t you keep coming?”

Simon let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Okay,” he said, nodding. “It’s not much of a routine, though. Your — the woman who hired me — said it was fine anytime during the workday. So I just sort of come when I can. But I can try to pick a time,” he added hastily, “or I can text first, or call, or … something?”

Shaking his head, Leigh looked over at Tiny, who had again claimed his happy place. The bed was big, but a sprawling dog was bigger. “If it works for him, it works for me. I’ll even be sure to put on pants.”

“Or, uh, you know, don’t!” Simon offered, trying to sound casual and failing catastrophically as his own words hit his ears. “I mean you don’t have to. I mean, it’s your apartment, you know? You should feel … free to…” The words sputtered out of him like a dying car engine, which also reminded Simon of how he should probably get that light on the dashboard looked at one of these days. “I’m sorry, I’m in a hole, and I’m just going to stop digging.”

Once Simon got up the courage to look at Leigh’s face again, his heart was stopped by the smile he saw there — a real one, one that went all the way up to crinkle the corners of Leigh’s pretty dark eyes. “You’re fine,” Leigh said, his tone a bit gentler now. He folded his arms across his chest, and oh, it took everything Simon had not to stare at the sinews in his lean arms. “At least there were boxers there at all.”

Between the sight of Leigh’s inner thigh, the humiliation from the number of truly boneheaded things that exited Simon’s own mouth, and that last comment of Leigh’s, Simon’s brain was offline for the rest of the day. He dropped a bowl while making dinner for his grandma, sending it to the place in the sky all good broken dishes went. When she asked him what was wrong, he had to assure her that he was just nervous about looking good for his next photoshoot. Then he slipped away to take a very long shower.

 

~*~

 

For the next two weeks, no matter when Simon arrived, Leigh was on a call. Sometimes he was talking to the laptop, or staring at it and nodding with interest. Other times he was slumped in his seat, feet up on the chair next to him, speaking into his headset with his camera clearly off. Simon could tell how early or late in the workday he’d arrived by whether the table was littered with empty cans of coffee or empty cans of Red Bull.

Since Leigh was working, and since they knew one another now, Simon didn’t even say anything as he picked Tiny up or dropped him off again. He started knocking before unlocking the door, which seemed only polite even though Leigh never answered. Tiny learned the sound, though, and would already be wagging his tail by the time Simon stepped inside. It felt good to Simon to now have two whole beings on the planet who brightened up whenever he entered a room, his grandma included.

To say nothing of the closest thing he had at the moment to a steady income. The photoshoot had been postponed indefinitely, citing safety concerns. So had an in-person meeting with the advertising agency, which Simon had instead had to take through his phone against the backdrop of the least cluttered space he could find in his bedroom. He’d spent the whole time trying to look classy and professional, while praying that his grandma wouldn’t forget that she wasn’t supposed to disturb him. She meant only good things for her favorite (and only!) grandson, of course, but these days things could be so easy for her to forget.

If anything, walking Tiny became quickly a blessed respite from the whatever the hell was happening with everything else. Simon wondered what Tiny made of it all: the masks, the distancing, the constant smell of hand sanitizer in the air. Eh, he probably only noticed that random strangers on the street weren’t petting him as much as they used to. Oh, to have a dog’s-eye view of things.

On that next Friday, though, one of Simon’s friends with a moving company called needing an extra pair of hands. The job took all morning and well into the afternoon, so that it was nearly five by the time Simon was able to pick up Tiny, and well after by the time they returned to Leigh’s apartment.

Leigh wasn’t at the table when they walked back in, which Simon would just have let go under other circumstances, dropping off Tiny and slipping away without comment. But it was Friday, and Friday was supposed to be payday, but there were no bills left in their customary spot by the door. Simon’s non-confrontational instincts would have let it go until the following week, except that he’d been counting on the cash for groceries. So Simon straightened his spine and cleared his throat. “Um … hi?”

He heard the sound of the fridge’s door being shut, and then Leigh appeared from the doorway to the kitchen. The pretense of being at work at least from the waist up was gone; Leigh’s suit top had been replaced with a rumpled grey t-shirt, one a few shades lighter than his sweatpants. “Oh, hi,” Leigh said, his fingers perched around the rim of a beer can. “You’re back quick.”

“Not really, it’s–” Simon glanced at his phone. “It’s been forty-five minutes.”

“Oh.” Leigh ran his fingers back through his hair, mussing its short spikes. “Sorry, it’s … just a long day.”

“Yeah.” Simon nodded, even knowing that their definitions of ‘long day’ were wildly dissimilar. Honestly, given the choice, Simon would’ve taken hauling boxes over talking for hours anytime. “Is, um … is your work going back? You said two weeks, right?”

Leigh let out a bitter little laugh at that one. “No, we’re nowhere near going back. And we know it’s bad because management has stopped giving bullshit time estimates and now defaulted to ‘as the situation develops’ or things like that. So it looks like you’re going to be seeing me for a least a little while longer.”

There was no way for Simon to say that that was the opposite of bad. “Everything’s weird,” Simon said, because that was the truest small talk he could think to make. Yes, the weather was nice today, and the world was currently weird.

Leigh nodded and sighed, then seemed to notice the can in his hand. “Hey, do you want a beer?” He looked at Simon and frowned a little. “…Are you old enough to drink?”

Simon, in his oversized hoodie and big goofy sneakers, still grubby from a day of moving furniture, sighed. He was going to get carded until he was eighty. “I’m twenty-five.”

“Oh.” Leigh pursed his lips together for a moment. Simon tried not to notice how pretty and soft they were. “So do you want a beer?”

“No, that’s — that’s fine, thanks. I…” Simon rubbed his fingers along the back of his neck. “Um, but if you have my hundred bucks…?”

“Aw, shit.” Leigh wrinkled up his nose. “Sorry, I was going to tell you, I haven’t been by an ATM, since I haven’t, you know, left the apartment since last week. You have Venmo?”

“Yeah,” said Simon, who’d now had Venmo for approximately a month and had only the most basic idea how it worked. He opened the app and started poking at all the options. “Since last week, huh?”

Leigh walked over to the table and picked up his phone, presumably doing the same app dance Simon was. “Not much of anywhere to go. Work’s remote. Gym’s closed. I scored a grocery delivery slot for sometime tomorrow afternoon. Turns out I convert to a hermit lifestyle pretty easily. Which I guess doesn’t say much good about me.”

Simon shrugged, not knowing what to say to that. It wasn’t like he himself had any real social life that would be destroyed if he suddenly stopped going outside. It was just that the kind of jobs he worked couldn’t be done from behind a screen. That didn’t make him any better or worse off than Leigh, but it definitely limited his choices.

When he pulled up the Venmo QR code, Simon held it out for Leigh to see. Leigh took a step forward — and Simon instinctually took a step back. “Sorry, I–” Simon gestured to the mask across his face, then to the world in general. He put his phone down, still unlocked, on the back of Leigh’s couch, then moved away. “It’s not that I — I just don’t want to get you–“

“It’s fine,” Leigh said, giving Simon a tired smile. “In fact, hey, would you feel more comfortable if I wore one when you’re here?”

The answer was kinda, but Simon didn’t feel it was his place to tell a man that he had to mask up in his own home just because some stranger stopped by twice a day. “It’s fine, we’ll just–” Simon gestured across the distance between them. “I just … it’s just me and my grandma, and she’s old and kind of fragile. So I don’t want to be paranoid, but…”

“Paranoid times.” Leigh held his phone above Simon’s for a few seconds, until Simon’s made a cheerful little sound. With an approving nod, Leigh stepped back, giving Simon more than six feet of clearance, even in the smallish apartment, to retrieve his phone.

As Simon stuck it back in his pocket, he had a thought. “Hey, you know, I’m obviously still going out, so … well, you’ve got my number now, so if you need anything at the store or anything? I can pick it up for you. I — I know you said you get stuff delivered, but sometimes they forget things, or they get the wrong thing.” At least, that was what Simon had heard; he’d always just done the shopping himself. “Or maybe they don’t have it for sale? Or … anyway, if you think of something, you can just tell me. Text me. I mean, it’s not like I don’t know where you live or anything.”

“Thanks,” Leigh said, and for a moment, Simon thought he was getting the brush-off. But then he took a closer look at Leigh, whose expression was the kind of tired that came not just from a hard day’s work, but a bad night’s sleep — more than one, even. His smile, though, was unguarded and sincere. “I mean, don’t go to any trouble on my account.”

“No trouble!” Simon promised. “I’m going to the store already, I’m coming here already, so why not, right?”

Leigh nodded. “Okay. Thanks. Yeah, if I need anything, I’ll let you know.”

Simon rubbed the back of his neck as he looked down at the floor. “And, you know, if you want more beer or something, I am old enough to buy it!” 

Oh no, he regretted the joke as soon as he’d made it. Was it a joke? Was he flirting? What was he doing? He had to get out of there. Six feet of social distancing wasn’t working; he needed there to be at least six floors between them before Leigh’s mere presence stopped making Simon’s IQ drop. Why was he cursed with being so useless around handsome boys? 

Especially straight ones. Historically, the more unattainable they’d been, the more of a disaster Simon had become around them. Between this and living with his grandma, to whom he was emphatically not out, Simon figured he’d get a boyfriend around the same time he stopped getting carded. God, he hoped he was still cute by the time he landed in his future nursing home. Otherwise he was shit out of luck.

 

~*~

 

The lights were off in the apartment and the laptop was shut, such that when Simon arrived that Wednesday to pick up Tiny, he figured something had needed Leigh’s presence elsewhere. He left the small bag of pharmacy essentials he’d brought, receipt still in the bag, and set out with Tiny into the April sunshine.

When he returned, though, the bag was gone, and Simon could hear the sound of the shower’s running through the open bedroom door. Well, he was glad to have facilitated hygiene, he supposed. He’d just unhook Tiny and see himself out.

Tiny, however, seemed to have other ideas. Still attached to his leash, Tiny bounded forth with an uncharacteristic burst of energy, taking off toward the bedroom. Startled, Simon dropped the leash, which wrapped in Tiny’s wake around the leg of one of the dining room table chairs. The chair knocked forth into the table, sending a water bottle perched at its edge crashing to the floor. The good news was, it was one of those aluminum ones that could probably be dropped from an airplane without sustaining damage. The bad news was, the lid wasn’t on.

Simon’s jaw dropped in horror as he saw a spray of what smelled like green tea splatter all over the floor. He lunged for the bottle, but it was too late; whatever had been inside it was outside now.

Fuck, how to clean it up? He glanced into the kitchen, but he had no idea where Leigh kept his dish towels. Maybe there would be paper towels under the sink? He felt terrible rummaging around a near-stranger’s drawers, but he couldn’t just leave the mess and pretend he hadn’t seen it. Cutlery, tinfoil, utensils — then there they were, just beneath the hot pads. Simon grabbed as many as he could, then hurried back out to the spill.

His frantic search had distracted him from hearing the shower’s turning off, such that when he exited back into the apartment’s main room, Simon let out a yelp of surprise to see Leigh standing in the bedroom door, wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. “Everything okay?” Leigh asked.

“Yeah, I–” Simon all but dropped the dish towels wherever they would land, using his foot to ensure coverage. They weren’t exactly absorbent, so he wound up mostly herding the spilled tea to a central location. “Sorry, I — Tiny hit the chair — well, his leash hit the chair, and it hit the table, and your tea kind of–” Simon pointed to the wet mess in front of him.

“Wait, let me get you something better,” Leigh said, disappearing into the bedroom. He couldn’t have been gone longer than thirty seconds, but they were some of the longest Simon had ever experienced. The image of Leigh shirtless was practically burned onto the backs of Simon’s eyelids now. God, did he have a six-pack? Or had that just been a trick of the light as the droplets of water ran down his wet, bare chest and abdomen? How was he so attractive? Did he have a permit for it? Otherwise how could he justify doing things like being so beautiful in front of unsuspecting people?

When Leigh re-emerged, he was wearing a slightly damp t-shirt and pajama pants, and carrying the towel he’d been using, plus a dry one under it. Simon was proud of himself that he lifted neither of them to smell them, and instead just dropped them on the floor, doing his best to mitigate the damage. “Sorry, shit, I’m sorry,” Simon muttered, trying to get the droplets that had splashed under the table.

“It’s okay,” Leigh said, plopping a plastic hamper onto the floor. “Laundry goes out Friday anyway.”

Oh, the luxury of being able to send laundry out, instead of having to drag it all the way down to the ill-lit basement’s ill-functioning machines — that was a dream Simon barely let himself entertain. “Still, sorry.” Simon began to plop some of the towels into the hamper, which he was glad was otherwise empty, because he didn’t think his brain could handle the sight of Leigh’s dirty underwear right about now.

“It’s okay. Really.” Leigh stood back in the doorway to the bedroom, minding the distance between them. “Between spills and all the dog hair, there’s a reason I don’t have any rugs in here.”

Simon chuckled, still feeling sheepish about the disaster he’d — well, he hadn’t made it, but he’d facilitated it, and that was close enough for his guilt centers. He mopped up what he hoped were the last bits with a sigh. “Okay,” he said, then added once more, just for good measure, “sorry.”

Leigh raked his wet hair back with his fingers, leaving it a spiky black mess. “It’s all good. Hey, you even mopped my floor for me. That’s above and beyond.”

Simon should have taken the opportunity and made a graceful exit then. But something stopped him, some look in Leigh’s eyes more distant than having just been dragged out of a shower. “Hey, is–” Simon stood and tried to dry his hands off on his jeans. “It’s totally none of my business, and you can say so, but … is everything okay?”

Leigh’s smile remained fixed, but his brow furrowed, giving him away. “It’s–” He let out a bitter little laugh, leaning against the doorframe. “Everything’s fine. It’s all fine. I’m fine, I’m safe. Just trying not to read the news, you know?”

Did Simon ever know. “Yeah,” he said, nodding. “It’s weird.” God, why didn’t he have anything to say about things that wasn’t that? He needed a thesaurus, or a better brain, or both.

“I was supposed to be at my little brother’s bachelor party this weekend,” Leigh said. “I was all set to fly out to Portland for it, had the time off and everything. But he and I were just on the phone earlier, and he gets it — he’s canceled everything too, so it’s not like I, personally, am letting him down. But I still feel like I’m letting him down, you know?”

Simon, an only child of only children, still knew a great deal about family expectations and disappointment. “Yeah.” He stuck his hands in his pockets. “That sucks. I’m sorry.”

Leigh laughed a little at that, letting his chin drop to his chest. “But what are you going to do, right? Other than stay cooped up and hope for the best.”

Simon didn’t know if he’d ever felt so helpless in his life. Hidden, his hands clenched; he tapped each fingertip with his thumb in a nervous pattern. In the grand scheme of things, missing a canceled bachelor party didn’t seem so bad — but Simon also knew that had to make it sting more, the guilt of caring about small disappointments in a world of real problems. 

Before Simon could think of an appropriate response to the situation, though, Leigh let out another little laugh. “So, uh, hey, I’m about to ask something stupid, and you can totally say no, I’ll get it, it’s cool.”

“What’s that?” asked Simon, his brain already spinning through possibilities. He already knew the man’s preferred brands of face mask and multivitamin; how much stranger did pandemic requests get?

“You are kind of the only live human being I’ve said more than two words to in … a month, maybe?” This time, when Leigh laughed at that, he looked down at his feet, like that kind of isolation was something to be ashamed of, instead of the new normal. “Everybody else has been through a screen or on a phone, and it’s … well, I thought it was fine, and then I’m here like, awesome, you knocked over my tea, that means I get like two whole extra minutes to talk to someone! Which sounds completely pathetic, but I–“

“I get it,” Simon said, feeling the bite of his short fingernails as he squeezed them against his palm. He’d been so active, so focused on all his various jobs and errands, that it hadn’t really hit him how insubstantial his interactions with most people had become. No one wanted to talk for longer than was necessary, or at any distance that was closer than necessary. He had his grandma, of course, and he loved her dearly, but even in the normal course of events, there were only so many rambling, half-remembered soap opera recaps he could listen to before he found himself desperate for more stimulating conversation.

Leigh looked at Simon then, and Simon could see the faintest shadows of exhaustion darkening his cheeks. “So do you, like … want to come hang out on Friday or something? Just, you know, whenever, since I’ve got the day off anyway, and it’s not like I’ve got anywhere to be.”

Simon’s eyes must have gone wide at that, because Leigh put up his hands at once. “At a distance!” Leigh added quickly, pointing toward the living room setup; he had both a couch and a loveseat arranged at right angles around a small coffee table and Tiny’s bed. Two people seated at the farthest points from one another would certainly have the recommended six feet or so of distance between them. “Or–” Leigh’s shoulders slumped a fraction, seeming to run out of steam. “No, I get it, you’ve got your grandmother, you’ve got to be cautious–“

“That’d be great,” Simon said quickly, before Leigh could talk himself out of the invitation.

Leigh’s face lit up like a sunrise. God, he was so handsome, it should have been illegal. “Really?”

“Yeah, really.” Simon shuffled his feet a little, trying desperately not to look like a boy who’d just been asked out on a date. Because he hadn’t. This wasn’t a date. It clearly wasn’t a date. It so clearly wasn’t a date that he was going to spend the next forty-eight hours reminding himself at every opportunity just how much of a date it wasn’t. “I’ve got a thing for another job until the afternoon, but I can come over after.”

“Awesome.” The distance between Leigh’s fixed expression earlier and his real one now was so great that the former shouldn’t even have been called a smile. That was a placeholder, a pleasant neutral status begging the viewer not to question anything underneath. This one was a little goofy, a little toothy, and so intense that Simon was having a bit of trouble breathing. “So, okay: We, two grown-ups, just set up our own playdate. How about that? We can order a pizza or something. And beer, I’ve got beer.”

“Pizza and Beer Friday sounds great,” Simon said. He was grinning so hard himself that he’d all but displaced his mask, so he tugged it back more firmly into position over his chin. “Can I bring anything?”

Leigh chuckled as he shook his head. “I mean, unless you think there’s more to life than pizza and beer.”

“Not that I’ve noticed,” Simon lied, his heart pounding in his chest as he once again found himself staring at Leigh’s lips.

 

~*~

 

By the time he returned from Tiny’s Friday walk, Leigh’s apartment smelled like pizza. Tiny seemed particularly delighted by this, sniffing the air and wagging his tail as though he’d been granted a special treat. “Don’t you dare give him any,” Leigh said, poking his head out of the kitchen. “I refuse to be gassed out of my own apartment by pizza-crust dog farts.”

Simon laughed as he unclipped Tiny’s leash. “He doesn’t seem like that stinky of a boy,” he said, scritching behind Tiny’s ears.

Leigh rolled his eyes. “That is because he is on a very special Good Boy Diet, designed in a lab by science to keep him from becoming a toxic event. Speaking of–” Leigh snapped his fingers twice, getting Tiny’s attention. “You hungry? You want your dinner too?” Tiny emphatically did want his dinner, and plodded merrily toward the kitchen for it, fluffy tail wagging behind him. “Go on and grab a plate. I’ll be out in a second.”

Awkwardly, Simon took one of the plates by the pizza boxes and picked out two slices, one plain cheese and one pepperoni. He sat on the loveseat, his plate balanced on his knee, before realizing that wearing a mask and eating pizza were incompatible activities. Simon thought about just pulling it to the side as necessary, but that seemed ridiculous. Besides, Leigh was the one of them who hadn’t gone anywhere, so he was taking the bigger risk here. And if Leigh wasn’t going to mind, Simon wasn’t either. With a deep breath, Simon pulled his mask from his face and stuffed it in his pocket.

“I stocked up on his kibble a week ago, just in case–” Leigh started as he walked back into the apartment’s main room. As soon as he saw Simon, though, he stopped mid-stride and stared right at him.

Simon started to panic. Had he gotten pizza sauce all over his mouth? He hadn’t even taken a bite of his pizza yet; how had he done that? Well, if there was anyone in the entire world who could manage such an impossible feat of embarrassment, it was him, Simon Jiang, disaster gay extraordinaire.

What Leigh said, though, had nothing to do with pizza. He pointed straight at Simon and said, with the triumph of recognition, “You’re the guy from the Kai Xin Grocer ads!”

“I–” Simon frowned. “I am?”

“Aren’t you?” Leigh mimed pushing a shopping cart. “You and this cute girl, coming out of the store together. Like you just bought steaks for date night or something.” He gestured to his mouth and chin. “I just didn’t realize until I actually saw your whole face.”

“Oh!” A number of connections clicked together in Simon’s brain. He felt his cheeks turning pink. “Oh, wow, I didn’t even know that campaign was running yet. We took those back in November, and with everything going on, I kind of forgot about them.”

“Yeah, I get them on Facebook all the time.” Leigh chuckled as he selected his own pieces of pizza. “How about that? My dog-walker is a model.”

Simon’s cheeks turned even pinker at that, until he found himself wishing he could disappear beneath the collar of the too-nice shirt he’d chosen to wear for something that clearly wasn’t a date. “Barely a model,” he said with a cautious little laugh. “I mean, I’d like to be. Someday, you know, maybe. So until then, it’s a couple photoshoots a year, and a lot of odd jobs in-between.”

“How’d you get into it?”

“There was this guy I–” Had hooked up with, was how the rest of the sentence went, except Simon didn’t feel like going there now, not when his not-date with this ostensibly straight man was going so well. “A guy I knew, and he had been doing stuff since he was a kid, and he thought I could maybe go for it too. So I gave it a shot. And it turned out okay, I guess? I’m not exactly a breakout supermodel.” With a sigh, Simon gave a little self-deprecating shrug. “Next time you see that ad, will you take a screenshot and send it to me? My grandma doesn’t spent a lot of time online, and I want to show her.”

“You got it.” Leigh fired off a little salute with the hand that wasn’t holding the plate of pizza. “She can print it out.”

“Oh, you laugh, but that’s exactly what she’s going to do,” Simon said with an awkward little chuckle. “She’s got a scrapbook. I did a watch ad, so there’s a whole page in there that’s just my hand. You can’t even tell it’s me! But she says she can.”

“So it’s just the two of you?”

Simon nodded. “Since I was eight. How about you?” he asked, trying to steer the conversation away from his own past. Even if this wasn’t a date — and it wasn’t, it most emphatically wasn’t — there were still few things that brought the mood down more than a tale of being orphaned by a car crash. 

Part of that had always been the appeal to Simon of modeling: the idea of getting to be someone else’s live doll for a while, a body that didn’t need a personality or a past, so long as it could look in the right direction and hold a pose as long as was needed. He thought about the young man with the shopping cart and a girlfriend, the one he’d pretended to be for a couple hours one November afternoon. If that was the story he could get everyone else to understand at first glance, then they wouldn’t question anything else. And the last thing anyone wanted a model to do was open their pretty mouth.

Leigh got to take the floor for a bit and explain about his family, which was the exact opposite of Simon’s: a sprawling mass instead of a two-person unit. It turned out the person who’d been meant to get married this weekend was actually Leigh’s stepbrother, of which he had two, plus a stepsister and a half-sister, and a few nieces and nephews to boot. His mother’s side of the family mostly still lived in Oregon, his dad and stepmother had moved back to Taiwan a few years back to take care of her aging parents, and Leigh himself had wound up all the way over in Chicago for his job. He mentioned at least twice what it was he did, but by then the beers were out, and all Simon really caught was that Leigh’s job involved wearing a tie and supervising a lot of people as they did … something, that was for sure. Simon had to hand it to his own employment record — maybe the jobs he’d held weren’t the fanciest, but he could always explain what he did in thirty seconds or less.

What Simon was really paying attention to, though, was Leigh himself. By the time the first pizza was gone, Simon had to admit that this wasn’t just a casual attraction to an objectively handsome man — he was nursing a full-on, headfirst crush. He never stopped paying attention to what Leigh was saying, not really, but at the same time it was just so easy to get distracted by the little things, like the way Leigh’s knuckles looked as he held the top of a beer bottle, or the veins that ran up his muscled forearms, or the tiny gold hoops that circled through each of his earlobes, or the way the short hair at the back of his neck was getting more than a little scruffy.

And Leigh could talk, which was great, because Simon couldn’t. Or, rather, he couldn’t while also trusting himself not to say something completely boneheaded in front of the handsome straight guy he was definitely crushing on now. The best he figured he could hope for was continuing to make controlled and appropriate noises so as not to scare away said handsome straight guy. Anyway, it wasn’t like ninety percent of his post-pubescent life hadn’t been staring longingly at unattainable boys or anything.

Somewhere in the middle of a story Leigh was telling about one of his nephews, Tiny made the most disgruntled baying noise ever, then flopped over on one side with an Oscar-worthy dramatic thud that made Simon burst out laughing. “Oh, you think so, do you?” asked Leigh, chuckling as well. He extended a foot and rubbed Tiny’s belly, which seemed to placate Tiny for the time being. “Well, nobody asked you, you old man.”

“How long have you had him?” asked Simon.

“I got him when I got my first apartment,” Leigh said, “which was ten years ago, wow. He was just a puppy, then. There was a kid selling him in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. I paid all of five bucks for him, which was about a dollar a pound then, and works out to about four cents a pound now.”

“So you had no idea how big he was going to get?”

Laughing, Leigh shook his head. “Nope. My lease actually said no pets, but I thought, you know, he’s small, I’ll hide him!” With a sigh, Leigh gave Tiny’s distinctly un-tiny belly a poke with his toes. “That worked for approximately six weeks, until suddenly, the little furball that could fit in my backpack, well, couldn’t. ‘Tiny’, for the record, was not an ironic name at the time it was given.”

As though aware that he was the topic of discussion, Tiny turned his pleading eyes on Simon. “Sorry, big guy,” Simon said, actually tilting his plate to show there was nothing left on it. “It’s all gone.”

“Sure is a shame that nobody ever feeds you,” Leigh said, reaching down to scritch Tiny’s chest with his hand. “Or walks you, or pets you, or loves on you, or does anything to ensure you’re the most spoiled dog in the world.”

Simon couldn’t keep a dopey grin from his face as he watched Leigh pet a very contented Tiny. “I was worried at first, when I met him,” Simon said. Was this a good thing to say out loud? It didn’t matter; he’d had too many beers to stop now. “That he wasn’t happy, I mean. Not abused,” he added quickly, as Leigh’s brow furrowed. “He’s always been well-fed and healthy, and that’s great. But, you know, the lady I met that first time, I … I don’t think she really liked him.”

“Oh.” Leigh sighed a little as he let his hand wander down further toward Tiny’s belly. Tiny responded to the touch by lifting his leg a little more, making sure that Leigh had all the belly access he could possibly need for maximum dog attention. “Yeah, well … to be fair, she didn’t like a lot of things. Including me, as it turned out! So yeah, I think we broke up a couple weeks after you started talking Tiny out? For the best, really.” As he talked, Leigh slowly slid from the couch down onto the floor, until he was rubbing a very contented Tiny with both hands. “You talk less during movies, anyway.”

Simon’s instinct was to point out that he didn’t talk much during movies either, but fortunately good sense clamped his lips together before he could make the pathetic move of comparing himself to a man’s dog. He didn’t read a lot of dating advice, but he was certain all the columnists would have put that move firmly in the don’t category. Not, again, that they were dating, or that this was anything approaching a date. The fact that he had to keep reminding himself that boded ill.

He was scrambling for some other piece of conversation when his phone chirped twice. As he pulled it from his back pocket, Simon was startled to see that it was nearly eight — that sitting around and eating pizza and talking about nothing much had indeed consumed three hours of his life in a blink. “Everything okay?” asked Leigh from the floor.

“Oh, yeah, it’s–” Simon opened the message and tried not to sigh too much outwardly. “It’s my grandma. She’s…” No, there was no quick way to explain how she could get, especially on bad evenings, when she sometimes called him his father’s name, or his grandfather’s. “I’m sorry, I should really get home.”

“Hey, no worries.” Leigh popped to his feet with easy grace. He gave Simon a big grin as he lifted his arms above his head, stretching like he’d just run a race, until the barest hint of belly just peeked out from beneath his shirt. Simon had seen him fully shirtless, and yet he felt far more scandalized at just that casual glimpse. Fuck, he had it bad. “God, thanks, I — I kinda feel more human now. Just with someone to talk to. You know?”

Simon nodded. “We should do this again,” he said, just before the worries about sounding pathetic caught up with him. “You know, uh, if that’s cool?”

Leigh’s face lit up again with the kind of brightness that made Simon feel like a sunflower, drawn to its presence and directionless in its absence. “That’d be great, I–“

Then Leigh moved forward toward him and Simon took a step back.

He hadn’t meant to. He hadn’t even wanted to. After the little dance they’d done connecting their Venmo accounts, he was sure he’d gotten it out of his system. But after more than a month of masking up, keeping his distance, avoiding crowded spaces, giving people room, Simon’s whole body was working on instinct, and that instinct told him don’t let anyone get close. He hadn’t even registered what Leigh was going to do — probably offer a handshake or clap his shoulder or do something else completely normal that two friendly human beings did when they found themselves within six feet of one another. He’d just seen the motion and reacted, and reacted in a way that unfortunately couldn’t be played off as anything else.

Leigh’s expression was immediately contrite; he held up his hands and stepped back, nearly tripping over Tiny in the process. “Sorry, man, I–“

“It’s okay, it just–“

“No, I get it–“

“Seriously, it’s–“

“No worries!” Leigh said, then laughed as he rubbed at the back of his neck. His smile had gone back to the fixed, molded expression from earlier, and damn Simon that he now knew the full weight of the difference between the two. “Guess we’ll do the friendly handshake thing from a distance, right?”

Yes. That was absolutely what Simon wanted out of his life, friendly handshakes from a distance, forever. The pizza felt like lead in his stomach. “Yeah.”

“Can I wrap up some of the pizza for you?” Leigh asked, turning to the half-emptied boxes on the table with a host’s efficiency. He seemed somehow diminished now, as though he were hooked up to a dimmer slide, one that was now slowly creeping back down into darkness. “Do you have far to go?”

It took Simon several seconds to figure out the context of that question, and when he did, he laughed. “No, I–” He pointed downward. “We’re neighbors. Sort of. I’m down on sixteen.”

“No shit,” Leigh said with a laugh. “Well, you know, drop by anytime.” He left the box on the arm of the couch and then retreated, doing his steps in the dance of necessary separation. Everything happened at arm’s length these days, with no end in sight.

When he got back to the apartment with the box under his arm, Simon’s grandma asked him all sorts of questions about where it had come from, what he’d been doing, if he’d met any nice people, if he’d met any nice girls. Simon deflected first by saying that he’d had a nice dinner with one of his bosses, then redirected by asking her about her day. Apparently she and a few of her friends had heard there was a way to play mahjong together through their phones, a possibility which she’d told them all that her ever-so-smart grandson would be glad to figure out for them. Of course Simon would, he promised as he heated some leftover soup for her dinner. The pizza, he’d save for himself.

Once his grandma was tucked in, set up in bed with the TV to keep her company, Simon set himself to tidying up the apartment. It wasn’t particularly messy, but Simon figured that cleaning was a better use of his nervous energy than sitting around and scrolling through his Facebook feed. Besides, if he was going to make himself miserable over a boy, at least he could make himself miserable over a boy and do the dishes at the same time.

Their apartments were laid out almost exactly the same, though Simon’s had two bedrooms, while as far as Simon could tell, Leigh’s only had one. The spaces couldn’t have been more different, though. Simon’s grandmother’s apartment had nearly two decades of accumulated life packed into it, until nearly every space of the walls was covered with photographs and mementos and other decorative touches. That was why he’d been so drawn to Leigh’s place at first, Simon thought — it was all clean and open, elegant in its minimalism, with room to stretch and breathe. The greater view the extra floors afforded just enhanced that elevated feeling, until Simon had found himself often jealous of how classy and modern it all seemed by comparison.

Thinking of Leigh there now, though, made his heart ache. By itself, the spacious apartment seemed elegant; put a single person inside it, and it became lonely.

Stop being stupid, Simon told himself as his tears fell into the soapy dishwater. He turned on the hot water all the way, until it scalded his fingers and he couldn’t think about how much he wanted to go back up, to knock on Leigh’s door, to say you said anytime! and pray he’d meant it. He hadn’t, of course. It had been the polite thing to say, and they’d kept the polite distance between them, and that, by all rights, should have been the end of that for good.

 

~*~

 

Seeing Leigh talk on the phone sometimes gave Simon the sense of watching a badly dubbed movie, one where the original actors and translated voices had been given very different directorial notes. Leigh’s tone was cheerful and polite, while his face looked almost as droopy as Tiny’s. He rolled his eyes and held up two fingers to Simon. Simon nodded and decided to spend the time giving Tiny extra head-pats instead, which neither he nor Tiny minded a bit.

At last, with a grunt, Leigh yanked his headset off his head and swung his bare feet from the table to the floor. He was still dressed for business-casual success from the neck up, but today was wearing a loose pair of basketball shorts where the camera couldn’t see. “How’d it go?” he asked, his expression transformed into sincere joy and expectation. “What’d they say?”

Simon wanted to play it cool, but he was sure the grin on his own face gave him away. “I got it.”

“Yeah!” Leigh punched the air with his fist and did a little spin in place. “I knew it!” He looked even more excited than Simon had when he’d received the call from his agent telling him that he’d been chosen to be the face of some upcoming fall menswear lineup. It didn’t matter to Simon that he’d never heard of the designer before, or that he was going to be sporting peacoats and wool slacks when the early June heat was already creeping into the nineties. It could have been on the moon, as far as he’d been concerned, and Simon would have been happy.

Tiny clearly didn’t understand the nuances of the excitement, but he could tell that his human was happy, and he gave an excited little half-bark, his tail wagging. “Maybe I should bring you,” Simon said, rubbing under his chin. “You’re beautiful enough to be a model.”

Leigh laughed. “Come on, I can’t even put a bandana on him, or he’ll whine for hours.”

Nude modeling is a thing, Simon barely restrained himself from saying. Of course it was, but it wasn’t a thing he did, and not because he was too good for it or anything, but because what if his grandma somehow saw? The world-ending possibilities were too great for Simon ever to have explored avenues that involved removing all or even most of his clothes.

None of which Leigh needed to know about, of course, so Simon stood instead and cleared his throat. “So, um…” He tapped his fingertips in sequence as unobtrusively as he could. He didn’t know how else to get into it, so he just ran full speed ahead: “So I’m going to have to stay away for the next two weeks.”

“Two–” Leigh’s once-happy expression took a visible hit. “How come?”

“Yeah, so, um…” Simon sighed, becoming more self-conscious with every word he considered letting past his lips. “There’s all kinds of protocols now, and it’s one thing if you’re masked up like all the crew is going to be. But I can’t wear a mask all the time, since they need to put makeup on me and take pictures and all. So I’ve got to get tested and quarantine up, and then I’m not even really supposed to be around anyone.”

Leigh drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Then who’s going to take care of your grandma?”

“Anyone I don’t live with,” Simon amended, shuffling his feet. “And she doesn’t even leave the apartment, so, not a big risk factor there.”

“I mean…” Leigh screwed up his mouth to one side in thought, then gave a little shrug. “I don’t leave the apartment.”

At first, that statement didn’t mean much to Simon — of course Leigh didn’t leave his apartment, nobody much left their apartments these days, if they didn’t have to. But on reflection, it occurred to Simon that, no, Leigh really didn’t leave his apartment. The vague ‘do this again sometime’ had quickly turned into a regular thing, until Simon’s last six Friday nights had been spent on Leigh’s loveseat, laughing and talking about nothing in particular. Every week, Simon braced himself for Leigh’s having to cancel, probably on account of some social engagement more exciting than shooting the shit with his dog-walker. He could hardly have imagined that he’d be the one to call a halt to what had honestly become the highlight of his whole life.

It was true, though, that Leigh had decided to make good of his ability to stay put. He went out with Tiny for his morning walks and went jogging in the evenings, but that was it. “I mean, I guess you don’t, yeah,” Simon agreed, sticking his hands in his pockets for lack of anything better to do.

“So–” Leigh exhaled through pursed lips. “Nah, forget it.”

Simon frowned. “What?”

Leigh shook his head, squaring his jaw in what was clearly meant to be a reassuring expression. “It’s not important. I’ll just miss getting to hang out with you. That’s all. But, you know, two weeks?” He laughed in a way that might have been comical, had Simon not been able to all but hear him grinding his teeth. “That’s nothing. You have fun. And I’ll see you when it’s over! Be sure to look handsome for the camera, right?”

Of course — Simon couldn’t believe he’d been so dumb about it. Unlike Simon, Leigh was an extrovert, withering in his solitude like a plant in low light. No wonder he was so miserable at the idea of two weeks alone, with no one for company but people from the other sides of screens. Simon himself wasn’t much of a people person, but even he grew a little uneasy at the thought. It made perfect sense that Leigh might be upset.

So Simon squared his shoulders and blurted out, “Do you want to be part of my bubble?”

Leigh’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Your bubble?”

“Yeah, you–” Simon pulled out his phone and started scrolling through the email the agency had sent him, squinting at the unhelpful names of all the attachments. God, he’d gotten into this industry to smile and look pretty, not to do paperwork. “You have to sign something that says, basically, that you never go out and you never see anyone else who isn’t on my bubble list for more than, like, ten seconds at a time. And you won’t sue them if I get you sick. But–“

“Yeah!” Leigh grinned like he’d just been offered an opportunity far more interesting than the chance to sign a document basically swearing he never left his house. “And then we’re, what, Bubble Buddies?”

Did he have any idea he was that cute? He couldn’t possibly, Simon reckoned, or he would already have turned into a supervillain and charmed the whole world into submission. “Basically, yeah,” Simon said, and he was not blushing, damn it. He focused instead of letting himself be frustrated with the awkward mechanics of trying to forward a single PDF through his phone’s email client. He’d never before been so grateful for bad user interfaces. “I mean, if that’s cool?”

Before Leigh could answer, his laptop began playing a repetitive tone, and the look Leigh gave it could’ve curdled milk. “Look,” he said with a tired little laugh, “I’m afraid that if this point, if I don’t get our usual Friday pizza and decompression date, I’m going to snap and kill everyone on this call. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?”

Surprised into laughter, Simon was almost able to keep from fixating on Leigh’s obviously friendly and non-romantic use of the word ‘date’. Almost. “Okay, okay. Sign the form and we can avoid bloodshed.”

“You got it, Bubble Buddy.” Leigh shot Simon a pair of exaggerated finger guns before slipping on his headset and putting back on his well-practiced, corporate mask. He squared his shoulders and smiled right into the camera before pressing the button that silenced the chime tone. Seconds later, he was giving a pleasant greeting to what were presumably his colleagues on the other side of the connection, though Simon couldn’t see the screen. This was Simon’s cue to make his exit, so he gave Tiny one more belly rub before slipping out the door and into the quiet of the building’s hall.

Now that the conversation was over, Simon was hardly sure it had actually happened. He barely kept from opening the ‘Sent’ folder in his email client to verify that he had indeed just forwarded Leigh the paperwork — not so Simon could keep walking Leigh’s dog, which Simon supposed would have made much more sense, but so Leigh could see him. Just that. Just see him.

God, Simon had to stop thinking about it in ridiculous, over-the-top terms like that, or he’d make himself miserable. Besides, it wasn’t like he was asking Leigh to do anything special, or even change his life or habits at all. He was just signing a form absolving other people of legal responsibility for what would happen if the two of them kept doing the exact things they’d been doing already. That was it. The smallest of small potatoes.

He needed an appropriate outlet for everything going on inside his head, or at this rate, Simon was liable to explode.

He’d prepared a whole explanation for the agency, telling them just why in the world they were getting a form from this random guy. But as it turned out, the agency didn’t much care who got picked to be inside Simon’s bubble, so long as all the signatures were in place. He supposed they would’ve okayed him french-kissing the Queen of England, so long as she’d returned the right form and agreed to keep social distancing. Hell, given the kind of people the agency worked with, maybe they did have her signature on file somewhere. Simon didn’t know; he didn’t judge.

He was almost able to keep everything completely cool and under control about it, except for when his phone sent him a new-email notification the next day. It was a forward of a reply from the agency, sent to him from Leigh’s account, with a thumbs-up emoji and the subject line BUBBLE BUDDIES! That was when he walked straight-on into the side of a parked car.

 

~*~

 

“I like that plaid peacoat,” Leigh said, scrolling up through the proofs on Simon’s phone.

“Yeah, it was real comfortable.” Simon frowned and tried not to jerk his arms too much as he worked the separate game controllers. Onscreen, a cartoonishly large ball rolled around, gathering small objects as cheerful music played. This was the weirdest video game he’d ever been thrown into without explanation. “To bad it’s like a thousand dollars.” 

Leigh’s eyes went wide. “No shit?”

“Well, maybe not a thousand. But more than I’d want to spend on a coat.” Or would be able to, for that matter, but Simon wasn’t bringing that up. He stuck the tip of his tongue out of the corner of his mouth in concentration as he navigated the video-game sphere around the environment, hoping he was doing the right thing, or something approaching it. Sparkles filled the screen as he rolled the ball over a plate of fried shrimp. Great, now he was hungry.

Leigh leaned against the arm of the couch as he scrolled through the low-res images the agency had sent Simon that day. Simon had gotten the notification while waiting for curbside delivery of his groceries, and had only realized much later that his first thought had not been I can’t wait to show Grandma, but instead I can’t wait to show Leigh.

For his own part, Leigh had been about as excited about the shoot as Simon’s grandma had. He’d wanted to hear all about the day’s progress every time Simon had come by to get Tiny, until Simon found himself talking about stupid details, unimportant goings-on, little things that barely mattered to the people who were there at the time, much less anyone hearing about it after the fact. Often, Simon would become self-conscious mid-sentence, certain that there was no way Leigh cared enough to hear about that.

It seemed he did, though. Leigh responded with unfeigned enthusiasm to all of Simon’s stories, laughing and cringing as was appropriate, and never once trying to interrupt. One time, Simon had caught himself in the middle of what couldn’t have been an interesting story, and had tried to laugh it off, apologizing for suddenly turning into someone who talked too much. I think you talk just the right amount, Leigh had said, and oh boy, had Simon perseverated on that for days after.

Whatever. It was just a stupid crush between totally normal guy friends. Simon was going to grow up and get over it any minute now.

Leigh laughed then at something on the phone’s screen, and Simon sighed, knowing exactly what it was. “It’s not that bad,” he said, channeling his embarrassment into rolling the cartoon ball over a bunch of angry mice.

“It’s not bad at all!” Leigh protested, obviously lying. “It’s fashion. Apparently. Or is it? Maybe I’m just holding the phone upside-down.”

Simon sighed again. He didn’t even bother looking over at the screen; he knew exactly what his bangs had been teased into doing for that set of shots. “Look, my job is to wear the clothes and stare at the camera, not to complain when they do something stupid to my hair.”

Laughing, Leigh slid down until his knees were still hooked over the arm of the couch, but his back was resting up against Simon’s shoulder. Damn everything, that was one of the things that made Simon’s crush so hard to push past — that Leigh was so touchy. It seemed he’d barely been able to hold himself back for the time they’d needed to keep a respectable distance from one another for safety’s sake. A mere month of being together in a bubble, and Simon was certain Leigh had no functional concept of personal space. “I really like this one, though,” Leigh said, zooming in on a particular image.

Simon paused the game and leaned over to look. “Oh, no, that’s — that one’s just to check the lighting. They’re not going to keep that.”

“Why not, though?” Leigh said, looking at the picture again. In it, Simon was in place but not posing, resting against the wrought-iron bench they’d set up inside the otherwise empty loft apartment. The camera had caught him in a moment of staring off into the distance, taking a break from having to think about every muscle in his body. Simon thought he looked particularly vacuous there, a semi-pretty boy without a thought in his semi-pretty head.

“It’s just a test shot,” Simon explained. “You can’t even see any of the clothes.”

Leigh shrugged. “I like it. You look like you.”

“I always look like me.”

“Yeah, well, I guess you look less like you when they’ve got you all–” Leigh went for Simon’s hair with ruffling fingers, making Simon yelp with laughter as he tried to bat Leigh away and hold on to both Switch controllers. Leigh managed to get up under Simon’s bangs, but without any gel in them, they just flopped right back into place. Another triumph for Simon’s simple grooming routine. On instinct, Simon went for the first vulnerable place on Leigh’s body he could identify, which was right in his side, giving him a tickling poke that seemed to do nothing to dissuade him. If anything, it fired Leigh up more to paw at Simon’s poor hair, sweeping it every which way as Simon tried in vain to defend himself.

Tiny let out a disgusted whuf at all this roughhousing and toddled off to the relative peace and quiet of the bedroom, giving them one last baleful glare from the doorway that had both Leigh and Simon in stitches. “So sorry, Your Majesty,” Simon managed to gasp out, which in turn made Leigh laugh so hard that he rolled right onto the floor.

All at once, every synapse in Simon’s brain was flooded with the awareness of how easy it would be to just slide right down there on top of him, to pin Leigh to the floor and kiss him until he shut up. It was a bad idea, perhaps the worst idea he’d ever had, and it took his breath away with just how close he was to doing it.

Small mercies intervened then, and the doorbell rang. “Pizza!” Leigh announced, pointing toward the door but making no effort to right himself.

“Okay, okay, I’ll get it.” Simon pulled himself up on shaky legs, feeling not at all unlike a newborn giraffe. He opened the door to find two boxes stacked atop one another and the delivery person’s retreating form. At least contactless delivery meant never having to explain why your hair looked like had just gotten flash-styled by a maniac.

He turned back just in time to see Leigh hop to his feet with a frankly unfair amount of grace and dignity, considering how many grey dog hairs now covered his black t-shirt — a t-shirt which, Simon was now forced to note, had bunched up mid-fall to reveal Leigh’s trim, defined waist. Simon hated that this stupid crush was now making him think words like ‘trim, defined waist’. He tightened his grip on the cardboard boxes, as though they might give him the strength he needed not to fall over right then and there.

 

~*~

 

For not the first time in his life, Simon found himself wishing that he had the kind of sassy gay friend network that showed up in all the movies. Surely a cadre of swishy but well-meaning twinks could have talked some sense into him.

But the truth was, Simon not only didn’t have a sassy gay friend network, he didn’t have many friends, period. He had people he called friends, who were more in the category of acquaintances that he sometimes saw socially. As far as actual friends went, though, Simon had to admit that he hadn’t had any of those since high school, really. When they’d all gone to college and he’d stayed behind, he’d thrown himself into making ends meet and taking care of his grandmother. His social life had taken a corresponding dip, until Simon found himself staring at his phone late one night, wishing he had someone to talk to about Leigh — and realizing that the only person coming to mind was Leigh himself.

With a sad little snort, Simon wondered if he could somehow disguise the situation enough to get Leigh’s advice on it. Yeah, so how do you get over someone who’s gorgeous and funny and sweet and perfect, but absolutely does not feel the same way? Asking for a friend! Simon didn’t know what would be worse there — that Leigh would see through him, or that Leigh wouldn’t and would proceed to offer well-meaning helpful advice. The thought of either possibility made Simon want to crawl under his bed and never come out again.

The August heat made everything ten times as miserable, including rejections from the agency. Simon hadn’t particularly wanted either of the opportunities to pose for stock photos, but he had wanted the money they would’ve paid him to do it, which made him grumpy. He responded to this grumpiness by agreeing to a weekend of moving jobs, which nearly gave him heatstroke and made nothing better.

Tiny too seemed put out by the heat, deigning to step outside the building only as long as it took him to do his business, then sitting still and refusing to move until Simon agreed to turn around and lead him back inside. Simon understood; he wouldn’t have wanted to be out there in a fur coat either.

Simon was mostly thinking about the heat when he got back to Leigh’s apartment, hoping that Leigh wasn’t on a call so Simon could ask for a glass of water before he left. He knew Leigh wouldn’t mind if Simon just snuck in there and got a drink for himself, but it still felt a little rude. When he heard no one speaking as he opened the door, Simon figured he was in the clear.

Instead, he saw Leigh at his chair, staring out the window with a far-off expression, his headset loose around his neck. Before Simon could even ask what was wrong, Leigh sighed and ran his hands over his face. “Looks like my stepfather’s got it.”

“Shit,” Simon swore, gritting his teeth. “Is he … I mean, he’s not okay, obviously, but…?”

“He’s more okay than he could be. It’s mild.” Exhaling through pursed lips, Leigh stood and stretched his arms above his head. He wasn’t wearing his jacket anymore, and he’d pulled his tie loose from his neck. “But now he and Mom have to quarantine for two weeks, and she can’t go to work, and it’s–” With a noise of frustration, he clenched his fingers in his hair, which had grown sweetly shaggier during the months without a barber’s attention. “It sucks! It sucks, that’s what it is. It sucks all the way over there, and I’m all the way over here.”

Simon nodded as he let Tiny off his leash. Sensing that something was wrong with his person, Tiny trotted over to Leigh and sat right at his feet, looking up at him and wagging his tail. Bless dogs, they had no sense of scale, or tragedy.

The effect was immediate. Leigh sighed and let himself slump down to the floor, where he wrapped his arms around Tiny’s shaggy body. Tiny responded by wagging his tail even more vigorously. Whatever was happening, it couldn’t be too bad if he was getting hugged about it.

Left standing there with a loose leash in his hand, Simon was caught in the terrible middle between wanting to do something helpful and wanting to make a hasty exit so he didn’t somehow manage to make anything worse. Mostly, though, he felt paralyzed. His grandma was his whole family, and he sometimes lay awake at night wondering what he’d do if anything happened to her; he couldn’t imagine knowing that something was wrong and being halfway across the country about it.

“Do you want to come over for dinner?” Simon blurted out.

Leigh looked up at him from over the top of Tiny’s head. “Like, tonight?”

“Yeah,” Simon said, “or — well, I’m cooking tonight, and — if you want to — look, I’m making enough for leftovers, so there’ll be plenty.”

A little smile lifted the corner of Leigh’s mouth, one with a touch of wonder to it. “You cook?”

“I–” Sighing, Simon stuck his hands in his pockets. “I make food happen sometimes. Nothing fancy. But it’s food. And you can have some.” Simon couldn’t tell if he was making this sound like an appealing offer, or if he was just making Leigh’s life more difficult by forcing him concoct an excuse to say no. “And I owe you, what, four months’ worth of Friday pizzas?” Leigh hadn’t even once let Simon pay for even part of the order, no matter how many times Simon had tried to insist. “And you can meet my grandma.”

There was no way for Simon to be sure, but it seemed that last offer was the piece that pushed past Leigh’s resistance. “Yeah,” Leigh said, rubbing Tiny’s head one more time before he stood up. “I mean, if it’s not a problem–“

“It’s not. Cross my heart.” Simon shook his head. “She’ll be thrilled to meet you. You’ll be the first person who’s not me she’s seen since March.”

“Okay.” Though he still seemed a bit shaky, Leigh’s smile was back now, quiet and grateful. “Can I bring anything, or help out, or…?”

“Just … just promise you won’t get your culinary hopes up too high,” Simon warned. “She’s kind of a fragile old lady, so I don’t fix anything too adventurous.”

“I was going to microwave a burrito, so…” Leigh shrugged. “My weeknight bar for adventure is real low.”

“And her English is…” Simon winced and made a see-sawing gesture with his hand. Once upon a time, back when Simon was younger, she’d been quite fluent. Over the past several years, though, a lack of practice and creeping dementia meant that most days, her second language could be a hard time coming.

“Well, my Mandarin is…” Leigh made the gesture right back at him. “So I guess we’ll muddle through, right?”

They made plans for Leigh to arrive at six, and Simon made it all the way back out into the hall, with the door shut behind him, before practically sprinting for the stairwell. He didn’t bother waiting for the elevator, but raced down all ten flights of stairs as fast as he could, hoping the burst of exertion would run off some of his nervous energy. Leigh was coming over for dinner. No, he couldn’t even think about that or he’d trip and fall on his face, much less burn every dish on the menu, even the cold ones. Leigh was coming over for dinner. He hoped his grandmother would be okay with that.

As it turned out, she brightened completely at the news they were going to have a guest for dinner. She didn’t even ask about masks, which Simon figured either meant she trusted him with her safety or she had forgotten for the time being about the pandemic. Either way, Simon wasn’t going to question it. He set her up with Netflix, tossed an apron around his waist, and got to work.

There was something meditative about cooking that Simon appreciated, the choreography of getting everything ready both individually and together. He’d played the viola in middle school, and thus had always thought of cooking as a bit like conducting an orchestra, pulling all the different strands together to make a single thing. It required an amount of concentration that meant he couldn’t spend his energy worrying about other things, too, which was honestly his favorite part.

The green beans were just going into the pan when Simon heard a little knock on the apartment’s front door. “It’s open!” he called out, grateful that he’d remembered that he’d forgotten to turn the deadbolt. His hands were a bit full of utensils at the moment.

He heard the door open a moment later, followed by a quizzical sound from his grandma. “Hi, Grandma Jiang?” Simon heard Leigh say as the door shut behind him. “I’m Simon’s friend.”

“Simon’s friend!” his grandma announced. Simon heard her clap her hands together and shuffle to her feet. Moments later, she appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, brandishing Leigh like a prize. Her fingers were knit together around one of his elbows. Her tight white bun didn’t even reach the top of Leigh’s shoulder.

For his own part, Leigh looked … well, like himself, but at the same time, not. Simon did such a double-take that he nearly burned the garlic. For the most part, Simon had seen Leigh in one of two modes — the comfortable shirt-and-sweatpants look for lounging around the apartment, or the buttoned-up professional mode for being work-presentable. This was some heretofore undiscovered middle ground of classy casual. Leigh had on dark slacks and a deep plum button-down shirt cuffed to his elbows and open at his throat, at the base of which hung a little gold pendant. He’d gelled his hair back in a way that made him look presentable, though still a little rakish as the ends fell across his eyes.

“Hi,” said Leigh, giving a little wave. In the arm that Simon’s grandma was clutching, he carried a six-pack of assorted beers. Simon considered swooning outright then and there, and might have done just that, if his resulting unconsciousness wouldn’t have ruined dinner.

“Grandma, you’ve got to let him go,” Simon said, gesturing at her with his spatula.

His grandma shook her head and hauled Leigh back out toward the table. Leigh had only enough time to shoot Simon one apologetic and mildly frightened look before he was carried away to the place Simon’s grandma proclaimed was the seat of honor for guests, right next to hers. It was more appropriately the chair that junk mail usually got piled on, but Simon was hardly going to call her on that.

Simon singed his fingers on the inner bowl of the rice cooker, thinking too much about how good Leigh looked. Simon himself was still only in the same jeans and t-shirt he’d been wearing earlier, nothing fancy and definitely nothing that might qualify as ‘dressed for dinner’. He supposed Leigh had decided to clean up a little for meeting Simon’s grandma, but Simon felt woefully underdressed by comparison. He’d been so caught up in the mechanics of food that it hadn’t even crossed his mind that, hey, maybe he should look like a little bit less of a slob when company was coming over. He couldn’t even blame living with his grandmother for how he hadn’t had a real boyfriend-boyfriend since high school; this disaster was all him.

Simon’s first instinct was to rush through the end of dinner prep, trying to jump in as quickly as possible to save Leigh from whatever busybody bilingual assault he was about to face. “Simon’s friend,” Simon’s grandma repeated, seeming to have decided, at least for the time being, that English was the most appropriate for the setting. To Simon’s relief, it seemed this was shaping up to be one of her better nights.

“Yes,” Leigh confirmed. “I’m Leigh.”

“Leigh!” echoed his grandma, though Simon was certain the gap between the way Leigh actually rendered his name and whatever she’d interpreted it to be was likely pretty wide. “How long you been friends?”

Simon was far too focused on chopping up the last of the scallions to have intervened even if he’d wanted to, but he still caught that there was an edge to the way his grandma said that last word, as though there were layers beneath it that hadn’t jumped the translation. Leigh, however, sounded oblivious to any potential hidden meanings. “Since March,” he answered. “Simon helps me take care of my dog.”

“Your dog!” His grandma laughed approvingly. “Big dog?”

“Pretty big, yeah,” Leigh said with a chuckle. “His name is Tiny. I’ve got some pictures here…”

By the time Simon emerged to bring the first bowl to the table, his grandma had one of Leigh’s hands clasped firmly between hers, beaming up at him like Simon had just brought her another whole grandson to dote on. “Can I help?” asked Leigh, holding his phone in his other hand as he scrolled through a gallery of dog photos.

“Nope,” Simon said, setting the dish close to his grandmother. “You just stay there, guest of honor.”

It took Simon six full trips from the kitchen to the table to make sure he’d gotten everything, plates and utensils included, and by the time it was all spread out, he was feeling a little proud of himself. He’d stir-fried a mountain of vegetables, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, braised pork in soy sauce, steamed some tofu and a handful of plain buns, and fixed an enormous bowl of congee that he still knew would be gone in three days, given the rate at which their household went through it.

Leigh watched with wide eyes as the meal was spread before him. “Wow.”

“He cooks!” said Simon’s grandma, squeezing Leigh’s hand again.

“Not well,” Simon protested, setting out bowls at all their places. “I mean, it’s not complicated. I just throw some things together, and it all kind of works out. Or it doesn’t, and I try to remember not to do that again.”

“Did you teach him how to do this?” asked Leigh, looking over to Simon’s grandma.

She snorted and reached for the congee serving spoon. Before Simon could serve her instead, though, Leigh had taken it from her hand and was dishing some into her bowl. “Men cook,” she announced, settling back in her chair with one of the buns. She took a bite and made a face, then chided Simon for cooking plain ones instead of sweet ones.

“We’re watching your blood sugar,” Simon reminded her, as though they didn’t have this exchange at every meal. “And yes, Jiang men cook. Grandma says she married Grandpa for his twice-cooked pork. Which I remember having as a little kid, and yeah, I can understand marrying somebody over that.” He nudged a bottle of chili oil across the table toward Leigh. “We’re also watching her indigestion, so seasoning is a little DIY around here.”

With a smirk, Leigh picked up the bottle and turned it over, looking at its label. Simon didn’t know how much of the text Leigh could read, but given the bright red lettering and little flame graphics along the bottom, it was pretty obvious what was inside. “I didn’t know you liked it hot.”

Now that was a challenge if Simon had ever heard one. “I can take the heat,” Simon said with a casual shrug. “Can you?”

Without breaking eye contact, Leigh unscrewed the cap of the bottle and upended it over the tofu on his plate. The red-black contents splatted out onto the soft white cubes, a frightening color contrast. Leigh picked up one of the tofu pieces and popped it into his mouth, maintaining a pleasant smile even as a sheen of perspiration broke out over his forehead. 

It was on.

The dinner proceeded on two simultaneous tracks. In the first one, Leigh and Simon had a lovely conversation with Simon’s grandmother about Leigh’s life, interests, and family, with Simon providing translation at the occasional points where language broke down. In the second, Leigh and Simon were engaged in a chili oil death match. There was only one simple, unspoken rule: don’t crack. Defeat would come from showing any sign of weakness. They sat across the table from one another, grins fixed on their faces, as they worked halfway through a bottle that would have taken Simon by himself a month to finish.

By the time the meal was finished, not only was Simon’s shirt damp with sweat, but his scalp was tingling. He took comfort in the fact that Leigh seemed to be faring little better; Leigh’s once-styled hair was now all but plastered back, and there was a definite rasp to his voice whenever he spoke. Thank heavens his grandma seemed to be none the wiser to the macho nonsense taking place at her dinner table.

No, his grandma seemed only to have eyes for Leigh. Multiple times through the meal, she took his hand, squeezing it and telling him what a handsome young man he was. Every time, Simon would shoo her off, reminding her to let their guest finish his meal. She’d laugh and let go, but a few minutes later he’d catch her doing it again. At this point, he was beginning to suspect that his grandma had a bigger crush on Leigh than Simon himself did. While it might have embarrassed him to think of it in those terms, he surely could not have faulted her for her taste.

Simon didn’t know if he’d done Leigh any kind of kindness, bringing him into such a den of unwanted affection, but Leigh at least seemed far happier than he had earlier. Whether it was the food or the competition, he seemed miles off of the sad man sitting on his floor, hugging his dog because he couldn’t do anything else. Simon knew that kind of helplessness would fester and grow until it was soul-crushing, and if he could take it away, even for a short time, he was glad to do so.

Just seeing Leigh’s real smile, that was all he needed. If that was all he ever got, forever, then it would be enough. It would have to be.

Without preamble, Simon’s grandma nodded and pushed back from the table, her cue that the meal was done, at least as far as she was concerned. “I want to take a bath,” she told Simon, speaking in Mandarin now that she was talking directly to him.

“Okay.” Simon took his napkin from his lap and stood, then frowned as he realized his grandma was making no movements to rise from her seat. He slipped a hand beneath her arm, ready to help her stand.

But his grandma just shrugged him off. “Come get me when it’s ready,” she said, grabbing hold of Leigh’s forearm instead.

“I’m–” Feeling a bit of panic rise in his throat, Simon turned an apologetic look on Leigh. “Can you keep an eye on her a second while I go start her bath?”

“Oh, sure.” Leigh smiled first at Simon, then at his grandma. “We’ll hang out! No rush.”

‘No rush’ was a joke. Filling the tub was about the tensest five minutes of Simon’s life. He had to make sure the temperature was right, and that all the safety rails were set tight so that his grandma could get in and out independently. All this was fine and normal — the problem was that the rushing of the water as it filled the tub completely drowned out all noises from outside the bathroom, including whatever conversation might have been taking place even just a few feet away. Obviously this had not been an offhanded request; while the dementia certainly had a toehold in her brain, at other times she was as sharp as she’d ever been. She’d chased Simon out on purpose.

What could she have been saying to Leigh? Telling him embarrassing stories of Simon’s childhood? Asking for gossip about what imaginary women Simon might have been dating secretly? Grilling Leigh about the marriageability of his female family members? Each possibility seemed more plausible — and more nerve-wracking — than the last.

At last he returned to find the two of them still at the table, laughing like old friends. Simon felt caught somewhere between finding this heartwarming and feeling straight paranoid about what had transpired in his absence, so he split the difference and took his grandma’s arm. “Come get in before it gets cold,” he said, helping her to her feet.

This time, his grandma offered no resistance. She gave a little wave to Leigh as she held on to Simon’s arm. “Come eat any time.”

Leigh stood from the table as she did, a gentlemanly gesture that made Simon’s stomach flutter a little — not, of course, that anything Leigh did didn’t make Simon’s stomach flutter, but this was one he hadn’t been expecting. “Thank you, Grandma Jiang,” Leigh said, giving her a little wave right back.

“I’ll be” –Simon glanced back over his shoulder as he led his grandma off to her bathroom– “like, two minutes.”

“Sure, no worries,” said Leigh.

It of course took more than two minutes to get her settled for her bath, because somewhere in the interim, Simon’s grandma had turned into the fussiest human being imaginable. She insisted he add a little more hot water to the tub, then wanted him to cool it down a touch more, then demanded he get a different bathrobe from her linen closet. Simon did all this without complaint, but also as quickly as he could. He knew Leigh wouldn’t be offended, getting left out there alone, but it still seemed unfairly rude.

At last, he placed two clean towels on the back of the toilet, just in case the first one didn’t cut it. “Is that good, Grandma?”

His grandma nodded her approval, then reached for Simon’s hand and squeezed it in her soft fingers. “I’m very glad that you have a friend now,” she said to Simon with a little twinkle in her eye.

And there it was. English had hidden the double meaning from him, but in Mandarin, the weight of ‘friend’ came through loud and clear. Simon’s heart plunged into his stomach, where the lake of chili oil did it no favors. He swallowed hard and looked down at their joined hands, then forced a laugh like this had all been some big hilarious misunderstanding. “We’re just friends, Grandma,” Simon insisted, because it was true, and also because he did not have the emotional resources right now to deal with the idea that his grandmother might somehow have realized that her only grandson, and indeed her only living family member, was gay.

“All right, all right,” his grandma said, patting the back of Simon’s hand. “Make sure you send him home with some food. He doesn’t eat right. He’s too skinny. Handsome boy, but skinny like a monkey.”

When at last he made it out to the main room of the apartment, Simon was startled first by how Leigh wasn’t at the table anymore — and then by how nothing was at the table anymore. All the dishes had been cleared away, and Simon could hear the sound of running water from the kitchen. “Oh no,” he moaned, rushing toward the noise, “you didn’t have to–“

“I know,” Leigh said brightly from where he stood in front of the sink, up to his elbows in suds as he rinsed out what looked to be the last of the serving bowls. “I didn’t ask because you would’ve told me not to.”

Defeated by this logic, Simon sighed and slumped against the doorway. “Is there anything left I can do?”

Leigh’s smile was immeasurably smug. “Nope! I think I got all the leftovers into the fridge, too. Found your Tupperware drawer.”

For some reason, the idea of Leigh’s seeing their hoard of mismatched containers and reused plastic tubs made Simon want to bury his face in his hands. He bet that Leigh had clean, matching sets, like an actual adult. The burning in his cheeks now definitely wasn’t because of capsaicin. “I promise I didn’t invite you over just to make you do dishes.”

Laughing, Leigh shut off the water and reached for a nearby dish towel. “I know,” he said again. “You invited me over for dinner, which was great. And while I was here, there just happened to be some dishes that needed doing.”

“Thanks.” No, Simon was going to be a grownup about this, a grownup who could manage his normal emotions in a normal way. “Grandma’s going to be upset with me if I don’t send you home with some, though. She says you’re too skinny.”

That got a laugh out of Leigh. “Funny, that’s what she said about you too.”

Oh, the flames lighting up Simon’s cheeks surely were not going to go out anytime soon. “God, what else did she say about me?” he asked, praying that the answer wouldn’t be too terrible.

Folding his arms across his chest, Leigh leaned up against the counter. “That you’re a good boy and a good cook.” He shrugged a little. “And that she’s worried that you’re alone too much.”

So what else was new? “Yeah, she’s…” Simon exhaled through pursed lips. “When she was my age, she was pregnant with my dad, and when he was my age, he already had baby me. So I’m a little behind the family curve. …Oh God, she didn’t actually ask you if you had any single sisters available to marry me, did she?” Had he read her wrong? It wouldn’t have been the first time. Thank goodness he hadn’t said anything.

“What? No!” Leigh laughed. “Is that something she does?”

“She has been known to do it, yes.” Simon sighed and ran his fingers back through his hair, feeling like he’d just sat some terrible exam and come out the other side having no idea how he’d done. “Thank you. For the dishes. You really, truly did not have to do that.”

“And you didn’t have to invite me over for dinner,” Leigh said with a shrug. “But I’m really glad you did.”

Simon managed a smile. “And I’m really glad you said yes.”

The moment that followed was so strange to Simon as to be unquantifiable — because it felt like the end of a date, where the two participants were considering the best way to go about a good-night kiss. And that was patently ridiculous, because of course Leigh didn’t want to kiss him. Like Simon had said to his grandmother, they were friends, plain-English-friends, with no other innuendos or connotations or implied meanings. Sure, Simon wanted to kiss Leigh, but Simon wanted lots of things he didn’t deserve to have, so why should this be any different?

Even so, the few feet between them somehow felt charged, like if somehow Simon could manage to cross that distance, something might be on the other side. It was no more than wishful thinking on his part, he was sure, just his crazy crush run away with his imagination. It was silly for him to get caught up in such groundless fantasies. Things were just the way they were, and things were always going to be the way they were, and there was nothing small, simple Simon could do to change that.

But in that moment, it would have been so easy to believe something more was possible.

Then there was a little splash in from the direction of the master bathroom, followed by Simon’s grandmother’s calling for him — not in an urgent tone, thank goodness, but in the kind that suggested she had probably dropped something and would like if Simon would retrieve it for her. 

Just like that, whatever possibility had been building between them was gone. “Look, I–” Simon said, pointing back over his shoulder.

“It’s cool,” Leigh said, sticking his hands in the pockets of his slacks. “You let yourself in and out of my apartment all the time, I figure I can see myself out of yours once.”

Nodding, Simon started toward his grandmother’s bedroom. “So, um, I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“You know where I’ll be!” Leigh fired off a little two-fingered salute as he crossed the apartment. As he stepped out the front door, he turned back for a second, lingering in the doorway as though there might be something else that shouldn’t be left unsaid between them. Whatever might have come to his mind, though, it disappeared silently with him into the world outside the apartment door, which might have been as far away as Portland, or Taiwan, or the moon.

 

~*~

 

“Say cheese,” Simon said, holding up his phone.

Tiny did not say ‘cheese’, nor anything like it. He did, however, look up from his food bowl with a quizzical glare, and that was all Simon really needed. He snapped a couple pictures in quick succession, hoping they would appropriately convey the sentiment your dog is being fed and well-cared for. With a sigh, Simon folded up his long legs beneath him on Leigh’s couch and set about choosing the best one of them.

Technically, Simon had been in Leigh’s apartment without him several times before, twice a day every weekday at the start of his dog-walking career. It was a different thing entirely, however, to be there while Leigh was not just out of the building, but out of the state. According to the previous night’s texts, in fact, Leigh had survived the thirty-hour drive west just fine and was looking forward to landing face-first on his parents’ guest bed.

After losing their springtime plans to circumstances, Leigh’s stepbrother, Taylor, and his fiancee had decided that to hell with rescheduling, they were getting married the last weekend in September — close family only, all gatherings outdoors, and no pressure for anyone to come if they didn’t feel safe. Leigh had spent a full week dithering over his attendance, but Simon had known from the moment Leigh had mentioned it that he’d wind up going. Leigh obviously thought the world of Taylor, who’d been his stepbrother since they’d been twelve and six, respectively. He’d do it as safely as possible, but he’d be there.

More that once, Simon had wondered how much of Taylor Leigh saw in him, especially when Leigh made comments about things like how much Taylor would like Simon and how well the two of them would surely get along when they finally got to meet someday. Taylor was only a year younger than Simon, after all. That could explain why Leigh had felt comfortable getting so close to Simon so quickly.

Simon picked the droopiest picture of the bunch, where a blur in the background clearly showed how despite Tiny’s ostensibly sullen expression, he’d been wagging his tail the whole time. Simon searched and found a little I ♥ MY DAD sticker, pasted it in the corner of the image, and sent it off to Leigh.

Leigh responded barely thirty seconds later with a laughing emoji. Give him a hug for me.

Even though Simon knew there was no way Leigh could possibly know the difference, Simon got up, walked over to Tiny, and gave him as much of a hug as he could manage without disturbing Tiny’s very important dining experience. He even thought about trying to take a selfie for proof, but decided against it. The camera, it seemed, only loved him when someone else’s finger was on the shutter. By his count, he’d taken a whopping four and a half good selfies in his life, and those had all been largely by accident.

Hugged! he texted Leigh. How’s everything going? 

As he waited for the reply, Simon stretched back lengthwise along the cushions, his knees over the arm of the couch. He’d been on his feet all day, and it felt good to just melt into a near-horizontal position. Almost too good, in fact; he’d have to be careful he didn’t fall asleep accidentally.

His phone buzzed with Leigh’s response: Everything is good! They’re keeping me busy. Even a little Chinese-Dominican wedding is still a lot of wedding.

Simon could only imagine. How’s the groom holding up?

Excited! Leigh texted back. Once the worst has already happened, you just get to enjoy the rest.

As they went back and forth about nothing important, Tiny padded his way back out to the middle of the main room and flopped down in his bed. Simon had considered bringing Tiny back to his own apartment for the duration, but he’d wound up figuring that both Tiny and his grandma would be more comfortable if things stayed just the way they were. As a result, though, Simon found himself hanging around Leigh’s otherwise empty apartment far longer than was strictly necessary to take care of Tiny’s needs. He rationalized it to himself by saying that he didn’t want Tiny to get lonely, all the while actively avoiding admitting that his own loneliness was what he was actually trying and failing to dodge.

Simon didn’t even realize he’d let out a pathetic sigh until he saw Tiny looking up at him, head cocked with concern. “It’s okay,” Simon promised, reaching over to placate him with ear scritches. “I just miss your dad.”

Even though Simon knew Tiny didn’t actually understand nuanced human speech, he decided to interpret Tiny’s subsequent yawn as a note of agreement. “Don’t tell him I said so, though,” Simon added. “Present company excluded, he’s kind of the only friend I’ve got. I don’t want to make it weird.”

Tiny gave him the tail-wag of a trusted confidante who would never dare spill the beans. Of course he wouldn’t; he was a good boy.

The two-hour time difference and Leigh’s pre-wedding obligations meant that most of their text conversations were far less synchronous than that particular exchange wound up being. Simon’s phone chimed off and on throughout the day as Leigh popped in with the occasional comment or funny thing one of his family members had said. Simon felt bad that he had little to offer in the way of response besides various emoji combinations of encouragement, but Leigh never seemed daunted the short replies. If anything, he came off as delighted by the chance to share more pictures.

These are great roses!, with a photo of a bouquet in a jar of water on the top shelf of a refrigerator, the petals of the flowers shading from yellow in the center to a dark crimson at their tips.

Check out this awesome cake!, with a photo of a small tiered cake, all frosted in white except for an artful pile of cut fruit spilling over the top and down the sides.

Say hi to Yadira!, with a photo of Leigh with his arm around the shoulders of a dark-skinned woman, caught mid-laugh with a garland of white flowers in her wavy hair, pushing back against Leigh with sister-in-law-ly affection.

Handsomest groomsman is ready to go!, with a photo taken in a full-length mirror of Leigh in dark trousers and a dark crimson vest, his face half-hidden by the angle of the phone, but the trim shape of his body beneath the well-tailored clothes on full display.

That was the one that made Simon, unwisely checking his phone in the middle of the grocery store, steer his cart right into a presumptive display of Halloween candy. Leigh was absolutely ruining his life, Simon had to admit as he tried to get the bags of mini Snickers back where they belonged. He’d find a way to be upset about it, just as soon as he stopped staring at that picture.

That night, after making sure his grandma was comfortable in her bed, with her phone right nearby, Simon went back up to Leigh’s apartment to check on Tiny one more time. Tiny, of course, barely acknowledged that anyone had walked in the room. “Some watchdog you are,” Simon chided him. Tiny was unrepentant.

The thought of going back to his own apartment gave him pause, though. He’d just be going back to hole up in his bedroom and stare at his phone, after all — couldn’t he just do that here, and play Leigh’s Switch at the same time? Wasn’t that the objectively better way to spend his evening? He was glad, as he booted up the system, that he’d thought of it.

He woke again several hours later, the pause screen from his game still spinning cheerfully and silently across the television. Tiny was sacked out in his bed, emitting little doggy snores with every exhale. God, had Simon fallen asleep? He clearly had, but for how long? He fumbled with his phone next to him, looking for the time.

It was past 2AM, but that was immediately the least important thing on the screen. Instead, he saw a batch of text messages from Leigh. His phone had switched over automatically into silent mode at ten, meaning that even if he had been awake, he wouldn’t have heard any notifications. Simon scrubbed the heel of his hand across his face, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, and went to see what all Leigh had texted him during the post-ceremony dinner in his parents’ backyard.

The first few texts were standard Leigh stuff: a few photos of the outdoor setup, some commentary on who was there, a quick anecdote about how the Father of the Bride had managed to shatter two full wine glasses with a single comedically ill-timed gesture. Simon smiled as he scrolled through these, glad that Leigh was clearly having a good time. He deserved it, too, after being cooped up so long, with no one but his dog for company. Clearly he was thriving back in the social world of happy extroverts, and good for him.

Then there was a small gap in the timestamps, and Simon found himself staring hard at what came next:

Yesterday, 10:49 PM
Just sometimes a little hard with all the happy couples around, you know?

Oh, Simon knew. Not from family wedding experiences, of course, but from going out with friends and being the reason for an odd number of chairs around the table. His heart ached to think of Leigh there, surrounded by his loving family, with his happy smile starting to give way to his fixed, protective one, the mask Simon had come to think of as Leigh’s armor. It should have been Leigh’s happy place. He shouldn’t have found himself feeling so all alone.

Only been asked 5 times when it’s my turn to get married. New record for family restraint.

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’m having a good time! 

I really am. Just a few too many g and ts. Brother of the bride has a heavy pour.

Just homesick lol. After being locked up in my apartment for months all I want is to go back. Stockholm Syndrome but for buildings.

Miss my apartment and Tiny and you

And that was the end of the message history. Simon stared at the little bubbles for a long time, having no idea how to respond, or even if he should. In general, that was — there was absolutely no way he should reply right now, given than it was past midnight even on the West Coast.

He and Leigh had spoken a little bit about Leigh’s romantic history, to the point where Simon had learned that the name of the ex who’d hired him had been Jessica. But Leigh had been cagy around further details of both the relationship and its end. Simon suspected that whatever had happened there, it had hit hard, to the point where even a year later, Leigh was obviously still feeling the bruise. No wonder that walking into a wedding environment had stirred up those feelings of longing.

Simon sighed and forced himself to stand up. Sure, he could stay here all night torturing himself with thoughts of how Leigh was probably going to reconnect with his ex as soon as he got back home — ooh, or worse, how he was probably texting Jessica right now, late nights and time-zone differences be damned. He could poke the wound of his new catastrophic certainty that she was probably going to move back in soon, filling the empty space until Leigh’s apartment wasn’t lonely anymore. He could grit his teeth and sink into the misery of picturing Leigh hand-in-hand with a beautiful woman, smiling his real smile for her, telling his parents all about her, planning a big family wedding with her–

Or he could turn off the Switch, go back to his own apartment, and stop being childish about a stupid crush. With all the willpower he possessed, he forced himself toward the latter option.

Before he left, though, he got down on the floor and planted his face in Tiny’s side. Tiny responded with a grunt and an inquisitive head-lift. “If she’s mean to you, let me know, okay?” Simon murmured into Tiny’s fur. “She shouldn’t be mean to you. Because you’re the best boy ever.”

Tiny wagged his tail. Yes, he was, and thank you for noticing.

 

~*~

 

The next morning, Simon was over to Leigh’s bright and early for Tiny’s morning walk. As though he hadn’t seen Leigh’s texts before that very moment, he snapped a picture of Tiny sitting patiently by the door, waiting for the leash to get clipped to his collar, and sent it to Leigh with the text, Tiny misses you too! He figured that as cheerful deflections went, a photo of a happy dog couldn’t be beat.

To clear his head, Simon decided to go jogging. He hated jogging, but he figured that focusing on that hatred would give him something to do that wasn’t catastrophizing about the near-certain future in which Leigh was going to reconcile with his beautiful ex-girlfriend and leave Simon lonely forever. Besides, the weather was nice, providing the year’s first real break from the tyranny of summer, so Simon figured at least he wouldn’t melt in the process. He loaded up his phone with the most annoyingly inspirational Spotify playlist he could find, jammed his earbuds in his ears, and set out on the paths of a nearby park.

The weather was so nice, in fact, that it distracted him for a full five minutes from how much he hated jogging. After that, it was all about putting one foot in front of the other while still remembering to breathe, an act of coordination Simon felt he deserved a medal for. And dammit, he did feel a little better after getting out for a while and just existing in the world at large. The first edges of the trees were starting to shade from green to gold and red. It was strange to think how distant this September seemed from the last one, how much had changed in the time between them, and yet how much still felt like nothing had changed at all.

That was Simon’s deepest fear, the one he could rarely bear even to acknowledge: the fear that it would always be like this. His condition of scraping by on odd jobs, getting served mere crumbs of modelling opportunities, wanting to give his grandma nice things he couldn’t afford, being too awkward around handsome men and too determinedly in the closet to even consider dating — he lived with a terrifying certainty, nestled deep in the pit of his stomach, there would never be anything different for him. Maybe this was all he deserved.

But of course, how much of that stasis was his own fault? After all, it’d been well over a month since his grandma had maybe possibly given tacit approval of her grandson’s interest in men, or at least in one man in particular, and Simon had responded to the situation by not following up on it at all. And maybe he hadn’t actually dated since high school, sure, but he also hadn’t exactly put himself out there. There had to be plenty of men in a major metropolitan area who’d be interested in a relationship with a tall, gangly, only mildly neurotic twentysomething homosexual, didn’t there? And sure, he still thought of himself as gawky and skinny, with a big dumb horse-smile that several photographers had told him he needed to tone down, but other people thought he was attractive enough to be a model, so that had to count for something, right?

Ugh. Maybe he should just give up and install Grindr again.

Instead of making that terrible mistake, Simon jogged back home and dumped his sweaty carcass into a cold shower. He was just in a funk. He’d get over it. As soon as he could find a good enough distraction that he stopped feeling so damn sorry for himself, he’d be halfway to fine again already.

Leigh didn’t text back until after noon his time: Greetings from Hangover City, population me.

And then, as though that statement alone might not be convincing enough, Leigh sent a selfie.

The image was grainy in the way phone pictures got in low light, but many details came through loud and clear. Leigh was still in bed, with the covers up to his nose, so that only his mischievous dark eyes and truly atrocious bedhead peeked out over the top. However, having to hold out the camera for the shot meant Leigh had thrown the framing off, revealing a bit of his shoulder and side — which were obviously bare. Simon could even see down just far enough to where Leigh’s waist became his hip, and it might have been a trick of the angle, but Simon was pretty sure there was no change there to mark the transition. Either Leigh was wearing his pajama pants low enough that their waistband wasn’t showing in the picture, or…

Simon’s heart was racing. He wondered if he could get away with a second shower, without making his grandma worry that he was coming down with something. He wondered if he could just live in the shower from now on, until he washed down the drain and no longer had to deal with his life. Hangovers are the worst, he texted back instead, feeling like a dweeb the second he pressed the button to send the message.

A minute later, Leigh texted back a laughing emoji, followed by a crying emoji, then, What have you been up to today?

Not much, Simon replied, because that was easier than telling the story of having a small existential crisis in a public park. Went for a run.

Leigh responded with a thumbs-up, because he liked jogging, because of course he did, the insufferable jock. About to family brunch.

Well, at least the family’s collective post-wedding hangovers had been accounted for in the schedule. Don’t let me keep you, Simon texted, sitting down on his bed.

It’s cool, it’s just here at my mom’s house, Leigh replied. Everybody says hi.

That seemed strange to Simon; why would they do that? He supposed Leigh must have mentioned him once or twice since arriving home. Maybe it was a normal thing in Leigh’s household to discuss one’s pet-sitter with other family members. Simon didn’t know. He split the difference by sending back a waving emoji.

My mom says you need to teach me how to cook, Leigh replied after a minute.

Does she?

She says she’s going to start instituting your family rule where all the men do the cooking. My stepfather says can’t be worse than what we get now. Leigh sent a laughing emoji followed by a biohazard sign. I grew up eating a lot of takeout.

Simon hardly thought of himself someone that anyone should consider a culinary influence. You just throw stuff that tastes good together, he texted back. He added, And then put chili oil on it, with a flame emoji.

Leigh’s response was a line of laugh-crying emoji, followed by, Mom always said I had to stop eating that stuff or no one would want to kiss me.

I want to kiss you, Simon typed out as a reflex, knowing even as he did it how ridiculous and self-indulgent he was being. He stared at the little text in the entry box and sighed. Wouldn’t it be funny, he thought, if he were the kind of person who could say something like that? Maybe if he were, he wouldn’t be stuck in his rut of inaction, unhappy with his situation but lacking the boldness or initiative to change anything. Well, at least it was a familiar kind of misery. Shaking his head, Simon went to tap the key to delete those words so he could enter a much more reasonable response.

His hand, however, went rogue. The pattern of typing and sending messages had become so ingrained in Simon’s brain as a routine, that despite every intention he had in his body to erase the words he’d typed, his thumb shot over to the little green arrow and sent them to Leigh.

Time slowed to a crawl. Simon could feel the pause between each of his heartbeats as cold horror-sweat broke out over every inch of his skin. His lungs had seized up; he couldn’t even breathe. He had to grip his phone with both hands to keep it from slipping from his sweaty palms. Oh God, no, he had to fix it. He had to figure out some way to say that he was just kidding, it was a joke, friends joked about shit like that all the time, he was sorry, he didn’t mean it, he’d never do it again, he’d swear he’d never do it again, please don’t hate him, please don’t hate him forever.

What made it even worse was that Leigh wasn’t responding. There was no dynamic ellipsis popping up on his end, indicating that he was typing a reply. The text chain was still, frozen in place with an incriminating little ‘Delivered’ under Simon’s last bubble. All Simon could do was clutch his phone and stare into the silence as he felt his whole life crumble around him. Could he be moved out by the time Leigh got back? Unlikely, given his grandma’s attachment to her residence for the past two decades. Shit, so the sudden disappearance option was gone. Maybe he could have plastic surgery, change his whole look, start answering to something like ‘Brian’, change his voicemail message, pretend never to be home when someone knocked on the door. It wouldn’t be easy, completely ghosting someone while still taking his dog on daily walks, but if he put his mind to it, Simon could probably manage it.

Then the phone rang.

Simon was cursed again by reflex, because the only thing that overcame the paralytic terror he felt was the phone-answering routine he knew so well. Before he’d really considered what he was doing, he’d hit the green button to accept the call and lifted the phone to his ear. “…Hello?”

“Did you mean it?” asked Leigh’s raspy voice from the other end. He sounded out of breath, like he’d been running.

There seemed no safe way to answer that question in any direction, so Simon took a deep breath and went with the truth: “Yes.”

The sound from Leigh’s end of the line seemed equal parts triumphant cry and frustrated laugh, and oh boy, did Simon not know how to interpret that. “Fuck,” Leigh exhaled, even as Simon could hear the smile that lifted the corners of his mouth. “Because I have been trying to flirt with you this whole time and wondering if I was maybe doing something wrong?”

Simon was glad he was sitting, or else he would have fallen down. “You what?”

“Yeah!” Through the phone, there was the sound of a door’s opening, and then Leigh made a little huffing noise. “Go away!” Leigh hissed, though obviously to someone who wasn’t Simon. “Yes, it’s him, now go away and let me talk!”

The world was spinning out of control very quickly, and it seemed all Simon could do was cling to his phone like a life preserver after a shipwreck. “Who’s that?” Simon asked, because it was the only question he could think of that had any practical application.

“It’s my–” Leigh made a threatening little growl, and Simon could hear giggles and claps in response, followed by the sound of presumably the earlier door’s being shut again. “It’s my stupid family, but we weren’t talking about them, because you were about to tell me more about how you want to kiss me.”

“I–” All the blood in Simon’s body seemed to have risen to his cheeks and ears. He was sure he looked not unlike a tomato on top of a very tall pole. “Is that what I was about to do?”

“God, I hope so,” said Leigh with a happy sigh.

Simon tucked his knees up close to his chest and leaned sideways until he fell over atop his bed in a little happy ball. He wasn’t sure the smile on his face was ever going to come off now, no matter what the modelling agencies said. “And what, um, was I going to say?”

“You were going to say that you want to kiss me,” Leigh said. “I don’t want to just read it. I want to hear you say it.”

Speech was so difficult that Simon barely trusted his tongue anymore, but at least what he needed to say was sincere: “I want to kiss you.”

Leigh let out what sounded like a tightly held sigh of relief. “Okay, because I really want to kiss you too.”

“Since … when?” asked Simon. Maybe he’d had some sort of revelation since driving out to Oregon? Simon had never been on a life-changing road trip, but he heard they happened to people.

“Since, like, always,” Leigh said with a laugh. Simon could just imagine Leigh running his fingers through his shaggy hair. “Since I realized a gorgeous guy has the key to my apartment and loves my dog. God, I’ve been — my family is about to smother me with a pillow, I can’t stop talking about how perfect you are.”

Being called ‘perfect’ by a man who was himself, quite objectively, the most perfect man Simon had ever met knocked Leigh for a loop a bit. At this rate, the blush burning through his cheeks was going to become permanent. He was going to have to invest in powerful shades of concealer. He didn’t care. It was worth it. “I didn’t, um,” Simon stammered a bit. “I didn’t think you kissed guys.”

“I’m going to be honest with you, I haven’t kissed a whole lot of them,” Leigh said, sounding a little sheepish. “And not since college. But I think I’d like to get real good at it with you.”

“Me too,” said Simon. He was giddy. He hadn’t been giddy since he was fifteen. If he could have harnessed the power of sheer giddiness, he could have teleported himself to Portland right then and there. “I mean, I’m pretty out of practice myself. But if you don’t mind adding another activity to our Pizza and Beer Fridays–“

“As long as you’ll still kiss me after I eat too much chili oil.”

Simon laughed. “I will kiss you anytime. I promise.”

“Then it’s a date.” Leigh let out a happy little sigh. “…God, I miss you.”

…That had been what the text had said, hadn’t it? Simon had been so convinced about what it couldn’t have meant that he hadn’t understood the words right in front of his face: Miss my apartment and Tiny and you. Over the last six months, they hadn’t just become each other’s friend; they’d become each other’s home. All that was left was to close the distance.

“Miss you too,” Simon said, shutting his eyes and beginning right then to count the seconds until they were together again.

 

~*~

 

Simon hopped to his feet the instant he heard the key in the door, like he hadn’t been wired tight enough to explode ever since Leigh texted that he was parking the car. With work schedules, further family obligations, and the sheer effort needed to traverse seven not-small states, a full week had passed since Simon’s misfired text. Simon had stumbled into and over so many solid objects in the interim, but was comforted when Leigh admitted that he’d been knocking over things left and right at his parents’ house ever since that phone call. At least Simon wasn’t the only idiot here driven to lovesick distraction.

Tiny hopped to his feet as he heard the doorknob turn. Maybe he’d read the excitement off Simon’s body language, or maybe he just knew the sound, but the way he rushed over with an elderly dog’s heartfelt excitement made it clear, he knew who was behind that door. Wagging his tail, he crashed right into Leigh’s shins like a furry battering ram.

“Hey!” Leigh said, grabbing the doorframe so he didn’t topple over. Laughing, he nudged Tiny back enough to get his suitcases in and the door shut behind him. Then he plopped down right on the welcome mat, his legs crossed beneath him, and let a hundred-plus pounds of fluffy sweetheart lick his face.

Simon watched, feeling his entire insides turn into butterflies. He gripped the back of the couch, pressing his lips together as he tried to affect a casual demeanor that said anything but if you don’t hold me down I might vibrate out into space. God, Leigh was somehow more handsome than Simon remembered, more handsome even than he’d looked in the selfies he’d sent from the road. He was snuggled in an oversized grey hoodie, and his hair had finally grown out so much that he’d started being able to pull the longest bits of it back into a knot at the back of his head. He looked light-years away from the tense, close-cropped, stress-stretched suit Simon had walked in on in his boxers. If anything, the distance wasn’t in the choice of clothes — Leigh would go back to wearing a suit someday, Simon was sure — but in how comfortable he looked now in his own skin.

At last, Tiny somehow calculated that the number of kisses given was equivalent to the time Leigh had been away. He butted Leigh’s head once with his shoulder, then turned and toddled off toward the part of the kitchen where his water dish lived. Laughing, Leigh stood and wiped his face on his sleeve. “So,” he said, looking hopefully up at Simon, “where’s my kisses from you?”

That did it. All the cool composure Simon had hoped to affect was done. He practically threw himself across the apartment toward Leigh, grabbing both sides of Leigh’s face and kissing him with an intensity that might have knocked them both over, had Leigh not managed to get the front door closed earlier. As their mouths met, Simon could tell that Leigh was laughing, which was without question the sweetest sound in the world.

Leigh’s arms wrapped around Simon’s waist, holding him close. “Worth it,” he said, his lips moving against Simon’s. “So worth it.” He slid his hands down into the back pockets of Simon’s jeans and gave his butt a squeeze.

Simon yelped a little with surprise, then laughed too. This was the point past which his anxieties could no longer lie to him and say it was a joke, or a prank, or a dream. He was here, holding Leigh in his arms, kissing Leigh and getting kissed back like he meant it. He couldn’t help running his fingers up through Leigh’s hair, which was just as soft and fine as he’d imagined. He couldn’t get enough of feeling Leigh against his body, tasting Leigh on his tongue. It was stupidly perfect and he loved every second of it.

At last, Leigh pushed back a little and pressed their foreheads together, breathing heavily. “I am so ready to not be wearing these clothes anymore,” he said, squeezing Simon’s ass again. “And, um, I’m pretty ready for you to not be wearing clothes anymore either, if that’s cool?”

“That’s…” Closing his eyes, Simon nodded eagerly. “That’s what I want too.”

Leigh kissed him once more, then bent down to pick up his bags and started off toward the bedroom. “So I was watching some gay porn on the drive home–“

“You what?” Simon wished he’d been drinking something, just for the sheer building-toppling power of the spit-take that would have ensued.

“You know, for research,” Leigh called back over his shoulder with a smirk.

“Research, right.” Simon followed Leigh on into his bedroom, taking the opportunity to look around. He’d been in there before a few times, but only when coaxing Tiny out from the closet during thunderstorms, and every time, Simon had taken excruciating care not to invade Leigh’s privacy by staring. That seemed far less of a concern, though, now that he’d been invited in and invited to take off his clothes at the same time. It was as clean and sparse as the rest of the apartment, but Simon had long since learned not to confuse that for lacking personality. Leigh’s outward calm and composure were what made everything underneath fun to discover.

With a sigh, Leigh set down his suitcases at the foot of the bed, then tore off his hoodie and pitched it like a basketball into the hamper tucked between the wall and the dresser. “But I figured I’d wait until we were together in person to ask: Are you a bottom or a top?”

That would have been the second spectacular spit-take in as many minutes. “I’m, um…” Simon raked his fingers back through his hair. “I’m whatever it is when you haven’t had enough penetrative sex as an adult to figure out definitively either way?”

“Awesome!” Leigh clapped his hands, then rubbed them together like he was about to spring off some high dive. Such a jock. “Because I don’t know either!”

They’d discussed, during late-night phone calls while Leigh had driven around the city in order to be anywhere but his parents’ house, the brief extent of Leigh’s past experiences with men, which had gone no further than some making out and mutual handjobs among a couple of his frat brothers and other members of his college swim team. Leigh had always seemed very enthusiastic about the possibility of going further, though he’d seemed to avoid detailed preference questions in a way that had made him seem shy. Now Simon knew better: Leigh, the eternal troll, had just wanted to see the look on Simon’s face when he was asked.

Well, Simon hoped he’d been worth the wait, because his ears were burning now. “You know, you don’t have to be one or the other, right? You can be both. Or neither. Or … something else, probably.”

“Oh, sure,” Leigh said. He kicked off his shoes by the bedroom door, then proceeded to peel out of his shirt and socks with incredible efficiency. “But like I said, I was watching for research on the drive home, and I stopped at this motel that had a really nice shower, and I thought, you know, maybe I should try seeing how my fingers feel when they’re up there–“

“Oh my God,” Simon moaned, clapping his hands to his face. He was never going to survive this relationship. “Oh my God, stop.”

“And it was pretty good!” Leigh continued, showing no signs of even slowing down. “I mean, it’s a little weird, like up-the-down-escalator weird, but I can definitely see the appeal.”

Simon peeked out from behind his fingers, completely unsurprised to see Leigh’s smug smirk staring back at him. “Are you just fucking with me, or are you being serious?”

 Leigh reached for Simon’s hands and pulled them down from his face, then held them to his bare chest as they stood face to face. “I am both fucking with you and being serious,” Leigh said with a wink. “I want you to know that I’m up for it all. I’ll try anything once. And that really means anything. So whenever you’re ready for something, or you want something, don’t be afraid to ask. Because I’m not afraid to be asked.”

“Okay,” Simon said with what he hoped sounded like a confident tone, though his ears were still burning. He took a deep breath and squeezed Leigh’s hands as he let it back out. “Okay.”

“Because I,” Leigh said, smirking up at Simon as he stepped closer, “am looking forward to getting my hands all over my boyfriend.”

So much for Simon’s composure. “Me too,” he managed, holding onto Leigh’s hands like he might otherwise fly away.

Leigh wrapped his arms around Simon for a hug — and then picked him up. It wasn’t much, just a few inches’ clearance from the ground, but it was enough to make Simon sputter. Laughing, Leigh took advantage of the change in leverage and swept Simon right from his feet onto the bed, where he landed with a soft oof. It was a nice bed with a nice mattress, though firmer than Simon had expected. Leigh was on top of him in seconds, straddling Simon’s hips and kissing him as he went for Simon’s shirt. Simon didn’t even have time to make pre-emptive apologies in case Leigh was disappointed with what he found underneath. Seconds later, he was topless, Leigh’s hands were on his bare chest, and the expression on Leigh’s face looked like anything but disappointment.

“God, you’re so hot.” Leigh rubbed his hands over the planes of Simon’s chest. “When I told my family you were a model, they thought I was making you up. I had to show them both some of your ads and a picture of you with Tiny before they’d believe you were real.”

Now Simon could feel his blush spreading to his chest. “Stop,” he moaned through giggles, never wanting Leigh to stop again.

Leigh bent down and kissed Simon lightly on his lips. “True story.” He then kissed his way down Simon’s neck and chest, sliding his body down toward the end of the bed as he did. Leigh got his hands on the fly of Simon’s jeans and looked back at up at him. “This okay?”

Assuming Simon didn’t die from how rapidly all the blood in his body was being relocated, it was amazing. He nodded his approval to Leigh, who grinned and went right for it. In an instant, Simon was stripped from the waist down as well, until he was completely naked and stupidly hard, and all of it on top of Leigh’s bed. If he died right now, Simon would do so feeling very accomplished.

Leigh surveyed the scene for a moment. “Doesn’t seem fair,” he said, and responded by wriggling out of his own pants and boxers. Then he flopped back on the bed right next to Simon, until their heads lay side-by-side on the pillows and their legs twined together. He leaned in and kissed Simon, looking very pleased with the results of his efforts.

Because it didn’t seem like there was anywhere inappropriate to put his hands at the moment, Simon let his fingers brush over the curve of Simon’s hip, just as it shaded back into his ass. He’d spent so long trying not to get caught staring practically every time that Leigh turned around. It was amazing that he now got to actually put his hands on it, and he had every intention of taking advantage of the situation. He gave Leigh’s ass a squeeze, pulling him closer. Leigh responded with a playful eyebrow wiggle, to which there was no proper response but to kiss him again.

They kissed for a long time like that, just nice and slow, until Simon began to feel grounded again. Leigh was his tether, leading him out into the unknown while promising him that they’d never be too far apart. With that kind of security, Simon could begin to relax.

Of course, he couldn’t relax too far. Depending on the way one counted, Simon had been waiting either a week or six months for this, and his body wasn’t going to let him forget about it. Leigh pressed his thigh in closer, just between Simon’s legs. Simon let out a soft, breathy moan and said the first thing that came to mind: “Can I suck your dick?”

Leigh made such a wonderful noise at that, a laugh of pure surprise and delight. “Oh my God,” he moaned, his expression eager. “I promise you, unless there’s special circumstances going on, the answer to that question will always be yes.”

Bolstered by the encouragement, Simon gave Leigh a playful little shove, landing Leigh on his back and Simon half on top of him. Well, it was time to go to work. Simon said a small prayer that he hadn’t forgotten everything he knew about dick-sucking in the year or so since he’d last gotten a chance to do it, then started kissing his way down Leigh’s body.

He got to Leigh’s cock with his hand first, so he leaned back and let himself stare openly for a minute. It was a very nice dick, though admittedly he’d yet to meet a bad one. Leigh’s was particularly nice, though, because it was thick and clean and attached to Leigh, which was ultimately the most important part. As he stroked Leigh with one hand, Simon let the fingertips of his other hand drift down toward the soft skin between Leigh’s legs. “I have a confession to make,” Simon said with a grin.

“Oh?” Leigh grabbed a pillow and folded it double, propping himself up for a better view.

Simon nodded. “I have been thinking about this spot” –he poked the palest part of Leigh’s inner thigh– “since, um, the day we met.”

“The…?” Leigh raised an eyebrow, which Simon felt was an amusingly skeptical way to look at the person who had your cock in his hand.

“When I just walked in on you,” Simon explained, “and you were in those really nice, really short boxers.”

Leigh laughed at that, though the sound was heavy with as much arousal as amusement. “I forgot you did that.”

“Are–” Simon could’ve kicked himself. “Are you telling me, one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and I could have just never mentioned it again and gotten away with it?”

With a smirk, Leigh looked down his own naked body at where Simon, naked as well, was curled up by his hip. “Dude, I’d say this counts as getting away with it.”

The man had a point. There was nothing for it, then, but for Simon to get to work. He leaned forward and opened his mouth, taking the head of Leigh’s cock between his hips without hesitation. Simon rubbed his tongue across the tip, tasting the salt of Leigh’s skin and precome. Leigh’s breathing became audibly rough immediately; he grabbed for the sheets, rumpling them in his fists. Simon took this as a sign that he was doing something right, so he kept going. Slowly, he slid Leigh’s shaft into his mouth, taking his time with every inch. If he was going to get as skilled at this as he needed to be, he needed to learn the territory.

Leigh let out a groan that shaded into a laugh. “Fuck, that’s good.” He caught his lower lip between his teeth, giving him an adorably anxious look, as though he were afraid Simon might somehow find a reason to stop short.

Simon, however, had the opposite problem — he didn’t know how Leigh was going to get him off his dick ever again. Not when it felt this good to make Leigh make those noises, to make Leigh’s cock twitch and jerk inside his mouth. With his hand, he alternated between lightly teasing at Leigh’s balls and stroking the skin of his inner thigh. Every time he let the edges of his short fingernails skim across sensitive skin, Simon could feel Leigh’s whole body tremble. Simon smirked and leaned in a little closer, starting to bob his head with intent. Leigh’s cock was short enough that it didn’t threaten any unpleasant reflexes from Simon, leaving Simon free to devour it all the way to the root. He swallowed it down, then nuzzled his nose against the soft, dark line of hair that stretched up toward Leigh’s navel.

With a breathy little sigh, Leigh let go of the bed with one of his hands, and instead reached for Simon’s hair — not pulling or demanding so much as grasping for an anchor. “This okay?” he managed.

Simon nodded. It was more than okay; it was heavenly. He leaned into the touch, letting Leigh weave his fingers all the way through his shaggy locks. At this rate, Simon didn’t know if he’d ever agree to a haircut again, not if having it overgrown got him treated like this.

Sucking dick, Simon had found, was meditative in a different way from how cooking was — instead of several different things to manage, there was only one, and that worth doing to perfection. He smiled as he let his tongue work the sides of Leigh’s shaft while his mouth bobbed up and down on it. If something he did got a good reaction, he took note of it and made sure to do it again. He wasn’t a bad cocksucker, he supposed, but he could always be better. And now, he had both a reason to improve and a place to practice.

At last, Simon felt Leigh’s fingers tighten in his hair with telltale urgency. He found himself torn between wanting to let Leigh come in his mouth and not wanting to make a choking fool of himself on their first time together, and the anxiety of the latter impulse won. He pulled back, still licking and kissing at the head of Leigh’s cock as his hand took his mouth’s place on the shaft. He stroked Leigh hard with one hand, lightly working his balls with the other, letting Leigh know it was safe to let go.

“Fuck!” Leigh gasped as he came, shooting all over his belly and Simon’s hand. Simon barely missed getting hit in the face, and only seconds later found himself wondering if he should’ve let it happen anyway. From the blissful, contented way Leigh looked as he melted back against the pillows, Simon figured he hadn’t made a bad choice. It was just that there were still other choices to make. But they had time, and they had each other. That was all the start they needed.

Looking thoroughly fucked-out already, Leigh lifted a finger and beckoned Simon close with a grin. Simon couldn’t help the smug little smile that crept up on his lips as he crawled up the bed and flopped down right next to Leigh’s bare, sweaty body. “You liked that?” Simon teased.

Leigh’s response was to kiss Simon hard, pushing him over on his back so Leigh was on top of him again. Leigh got himself propped up above Simon, braced with one hand by his head and a knee between Simon’s thighs. He wrapped his hand around Simon’s cock and started stroking him hard. “I am going to have a lot of fun with this,” Leigh promised, his lips against Simon’s. “We’re going to figure out together what you like, and then I’m going to give it to you until you can’t stand up.”

Simon whimpered and lifted his hips into the touch. He hadn’t even been paying attention to how worked up he’d gotten just sucking Leigh off, and now he couldn’t think of anything else. “Please,” he moaned.

“I’m never going to get tired of this,” Leigh purred, pitching his voice at a low rumble that seemed to vibrate all the way out to the tips of Simon’s fingers. “I’m going to get my hands and mouth all over you and make you come until you can’t walk straight. I have wanted this for too damn long. And now I’ve got you and I get to touch you whenever I want.”

It was a poor showing of stamina, but Simon didn’t care. He bucked his hips up into Leigh’s touch, writhing under Leigh’s weight. And then it was his turn to make a mess of their respective stomachs and hands. Simon muffled his gasps against Leigh’s mouth, kissing him to let him know how good it was, how good he was, how much his hands belonged on Simon more than anywhere else.

They lay there afterward, Leigh curled up half-atop Simon’s body, Simon’s hand stroking his bare back lightly. The breeze from the overhead fan was cool against Simon’s overheated skin, and the light from the window was growing pleasantly dim with the coming dark of evening. From the other room, Simon could hear the gentle rhythm of dog snores. Well, it was good to know that at least someone was unbothered by this new arrangement.

Simon turned his head and pressed a kiss into Leigh’s messy hair, which had come almost entirely free of its earlier half-bun. “Is it too early,” Simon said, trying and actively failing to seem casual, “to say something kinda really sappy?”

“What?” asked Leigh, curling his hand across the center of Simon’s chest. “Sappy like telling me you’re already in love with me?”

Simon was sure his heart was pounding loud enough to be heard at street level. “Yeah,” he managed. “Yeah, like … like that.”

“You better be.” Leigh nudged him gently in the side. “Because I’m already in love with you, and that works better as a matching set.”

Simon had no response to that but to kiss Leigh, and kiss him again, and keep kissing him.

Later, they would order pizza and sit on the couch and play video games while Leigh told Simon more stories from the wedding. They would go out and walk Tiny together, holding hands as they passed beneath the yellowing trees, laughing together in the autumn air. They would cook Simon’s grandma dinner together, Leigh following every one of Simon’s instructions with laser-focused intensity. They would negotiate drawer space and living arrangements. Leigh would introduce Simon to his friends. Simon would bring Leigh along to fun photoshoot locations. They would figure out their shared life together as the seasons faded into each other and one year gave way to the next.

But for now, it was simply enough that they were together, holding one another close on Leigh’s bed at the end of a long road. Simon held his beloved tight and shut his eyes, and felt, deep within himself, the first stirrings of change.

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19 thoughts on “Walkies

  1. Wahhhhhhh this is so SWEET. I got butterflies in my stomach watching them fall for each other <3___<3 (and a hot neighbor to cure one’s loneliness in these weird times, who wouldn’t be happy )

  2. THIS WAS ADORABLE AAAA SHUKYOUUU! And 2013, your illustrations fit so perfectly with this story, Leigh’s so handsome I can’t stand it w. Dogs! Awkward dating! Love in the time of covid! Cooking! I’m in shambles. Thank you for this piece.

  3. Love the realism (grandma clenching hands, anxiety/awkwardness, outrage at pre-emptive guest dishwashing…) and progression of their feelings and relationship in this story!! Boyfriends and old dog combo ;_; I love!

  4. well, what is there to say except: lovely. genuinely the first piece of fictional media that addresses the pandemic that I’ve enjoyed – and boy, did I enjoy it! loved the build-up, loved the pay-off, loved the sense of a fully realised world/family/work life going on around the central couple. favourite little bit of characterisation: leigh’s jock tendencies peeping through more and more as he got comfortable round simon, up to and including saying ‘dude’ in bed. super charming.
    quite simply, it made me happy, so thank you. and the art is gorgeous <3

  5. Big dog! Biiig dog! He isn’t the focus of this story but he’s the reason for it, and after watching so many grooming videos lately of huge working breeds not understanding they aren’t tiny little babies (paired with the delightful illustrations) I can easily picture Tiny in my mind, borking and worfing and making nasty farts like a machine designed to break air filters. Just wonderful.

    The human characters proper are equally delightful, of course, both behaving more or less reasonably so the reader doesn’t become too frustrated with them refusing to make moves around each other, and it was nice to show Grandma Jiang’s natural cunning (on her better days, anyway) by having her figure things out well before her poor grandson. It’s also definitely been a hell of a time when one can have a quarantine story set over multiple months with no end in sight that still feels plenty optimistic in the end. Bubble Buddies, indeed! At least Leigh’s probably better at flirting than he thinks he is when not dealing with such oblivious partners.

    As for the illustrations, I love all the energy packed into them, and the way the lines and undersketching are magnified and dot-filtered so that their uncut glory shines through instead of getting stamped down for being “unfinished.” It made me think of newspaper photographs, in a way, and their size really worked for me. What a fantastic author/artist pair the two of you make!

  6. Little bit hard to read at the start (emotionally, not prose-wise!) but 100% worth it for the immense sweetness. Perfect meet cute, perfect descent into the classic Gay Hell of everyone assuming the other person isn’t interested. (Idiots to lovers buddies!) I about died when Leigh did bi finger guns — how did Simon not clock him then??

    Also, came here for the queer romance and wound up with the freaking Katamari song stuck in my head. Thanks SO much. :P

    Love the illustrations! They make me think of someone documenting little slice of life moments in their sketchbook, which is such a perfect fit for the vibe of the story. (And look at that SWEET fluffy boy!!)

  7. Ah I loved this so much. At first, reading about the pandemic made me sad and I wondered how these two doofuses would get together, lol. Love the big fluffer too ♡

  8. You did it again, Shukyou! Another excellent story. I really felt for Simon here, my guts we’re all twisted, on the edge of my seat, even though I KNEW it would be fine, they’d figure it out and be together by the end. I knew that intellectually, but dang if I wasn’t in the moment for the whole ride.

    Ahahahaha I loved the Katamari Damacy reference. Man I miss that game.

    Beautiful artwork. Just perfect.

    • Oh and also? That bit near the beginning where Leigh is talking about his work going remote for probably just two weeks. Ahahahahaha to infinity.

  9. I’m glad I’m not the only person who took “uses finger guns” as a tell, lmao. He did it and I was like SIMON! SIMON! THAT IS A BISEXUAL! WE LOVE FINGER GUNS SIMON!!!

    Nice to read about something good coming out of a pandemic situation!

  10. i barrelled through this story, starving for anything good — even fictional — out of these wretched 1.5 years, and the payoff was so good and sweet! Simon and Leigh are so heartwarming and i literally smiled at Leigh’s reaction to the accidental text message. thanks for this, this was really nice for my soul :’) also i enjoyed the nuggets of references sprinkled throughout. bubby buddies!

  11. I’m ill, so this comment is gonna be kinda disjointed, but!

    I absolutely loved their dynamic! I also loved Simon’s grandma. And that last picture of the hands and Tiny was so sweet!

  12. This was such a good read. Excellent slow buildup with plenty of tension and flirting but not flirting, and they had such good chemistry! I really love regular people doing regular things and this was just so so sweet ugh. I laughed so much with this story.

    Also! These illustrations!! They are SO handsome and Tiny is SO cute. And i just love compositions where they’re overlapping with the frame, and it looks really really great!

  13. Oh gosh this is so wonderful <3 You’ve included so many elements I love: big dumb dog! idiots pining for each other! perceptive grandma! an accurate description of the ways cooking and sucking a dick can be a meditative process!
    Lovely illustrations as well, each one capturing a moment so beautifully.

  14. aaaaAAAAA what the fuck this is so good!! i love how you can kind of tell leigh is in love the whole time, the increasing sense that simon is an unreliable narrator in his own anxieties. what a delight

  15. Things that are perfect about this:
    -Simon’s adorable self-doubting thirst from like minute one
    -The ART which is GORGEOUS
    -Managing to do anything at all nice and cute with pandemic realism and loneliness
    -Grandma being both like OH YES THIS BEAUTIFUL BOY BELONGS TO ME NOW and also like GET IT!!!!
    -Dumb idiot boys being dumb hot sauce idiots
    -Confession via true modern nightmare of hitting send when you meant to hit delete
    -The MOST VERY GOOD BOY!!!!!!
    -Everything
    -You

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