The 1989 Geo Spectrum was not a car of beauty.
Neither roundish nor boxy, it had a blunt-nosed front and a saggy-diaper back. Despite being a hatchback, it lacked storage space, and as a two-door, it proved difficult to get in and out of the rear seats.
It was, frankly, an embarrassment to drive, which was why it had ended up in the ownership of Zachary Roth's eighty-seven-year-old grandmother. The problem was Zach's Bubbie didn't want to drive it cross-country to Zach's parents' new home in Boulder, Colorado. She wanted Zach to drive it.
The car smelled like Pine-Sol, decaying foam rubber, and World War II. The brown seats were sun bleached, which Zach hadn't known was possible with vinyl. The entire car was immaculate in that grandmotherly way that meant it was clean, but brittle and old. Even the fabric on the roof seemed crackled and stretched too thin.
Zach's boyfriend, Austin Jenker, didn't know they were going to be traveling in the Spectrum. It was one of the facts Zach had strategically omitted while presenting the idea of the road trip. All Austin knew was they were driving to Colorado to visit Zach's family for Hanukkah. But when Austin emerged from his apartment complex, duffel stuffed and swung over one large shoulder, backpack over the other, and in his hands the toolbox he seemed to take with him everywhere, he did not look pleased.
"You're kidding me, right?" were his first words.
Zach leaned against the car door and crossed his arms, trying to look tough. It was hard. The car was tiny and white. It had crocheted beige seat covers, and a dream catcher hung from the rearview mirror.
"There's no way we're going fourteen hundred miles in that piece-of-shit car." Austin glared at the small tires as if they were to blame.
"Come on," Zach said, giving Austin his most winning smile. "It'll be an adventure."
"This is your grandmother's car, right?"
Zach nodded, surprised Austin had noticed such an insignificant detail the one time he'd been around when Zach's grandmother stopped over. But then again, Austin was always attentive to detail, especially when it came to anything on wheels.
"That engine barely turns over," Austin said.
"And because you know things like that, you'll be a perfect companion."
Austin gave him a sharp look. "You just want me along because I'm a mechanic."
"No," Zach said. "I want you along because I like your company, I like screwing in cheap motels, and most of all, I want my parents to meet you."
Austin studied Zach's expression carefully. He still had his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He looked tired, rough, and angry, and if anything, it added to his roguish attractiveness. His dirty-blond hair was getting too long, so he pushed back his bangs to better glower at the vehicle.
His skin was red, no doubt from the vigorous scrubbing he'd just given himself in the shower. Austin owned an automotive shop. He came home oil stained but was adamant about appearing clean anytime he wasn't at work.
Zach didn't care either way. Austin was different from anyone else he'd ever dated; the oil stains only added to his charm.
"Last month you said you wanted to spend time away from the city," Zach reminded him.
"I was thinking somewhere sunny. With gay bars."
"I bet Boulder has a gay bar," Zach said, although he wasn't 100 percent sure about that, because he hadn't been there before. He knew Boulder had environmentalists. It also had strict development policies and a city planning department that had the kind of power land-use planners like Zach could only envy.
Zach shook his head. Progressive zoning enforcement was not going to win Austin over. "Look, I have to take the car to my grandmother. I'm just hoping we can make something enjoyable out of the burden."
"Your parents know you're gay?" Austin asked at last.
Zach rolled his eyes. "Of course."
"Just checking." Austin frowned. "I don't feel like being the announcement. That's all." He threw his duffel into the back of the car. He turned Zach by the shoulder and kissed him. Zach wasn't used to public displays of affection, but he liked how Austin never gave a shit. Austin pushed Zach against the car and ground his hips into him as he kissed him deeply, then let go.
"We'd better go now if we're going to avoid traffic." Austin sauntered over to the passenger side, and it took Zach a moment to recapture his equilibrium before he sat behind the wheel.
Austin studied the dashboard. "There's no CD player?"
"Yeah, only a cassette player. I hoped you'd bring your iPod. We can use one of those cassette adapters. Otherwise we're stuck with"--Zach fumbled through his grandmother's cassettes in the console--"Million Dollar Polkas."
Austin groaned. He rustled through the backpack between his boots. "When was the last time the old lady had the oil changed?"
"I'm sure exactly when scheduled," Zach assured him. "Bubbie is a firm believer in regular maintenance."
Austin pulled out his iPod and hooked it to the cassette adapter. He shook his head. "You know, it wasn't easy taking eight entire days off work. I left everything up to Rick. And Rick is a moron. I wouldn't be surprised if my shop is burned to the ground by the time I get back."
"Your shop will be fine. I trust Rick."
Austin raised an eyebrow at that. "If I'm going to miss this much work, I should be heading somewhere warm. California. Florida."
"I've never seen you in a Speedo," Zach said.
"Yeah, well, I look fucking hot."
"I believe you." Zach grinned. "Next holiday, sunshine it is."
Austin yanked at the seat belt, which creaked as it stretched around his broad chest. He had to push the seat all the way back and recline it in order to fit his large body in such a limited space. "We live in a rain forest, and we go on vacation somewhere colder."
Zach's heart hurt a little at all the complaining. "Then why'd you agree to come?"
"Because I love you," Austin said. "And I'd never forgive myself if you went alone and got beaten up in Idaho for being a Jewish homosexual in a Geo Spectrum."
"Ha. Everybody knows Geos are popular in Idaho." Zach laughed, but he felt light-headed every time Austin mentioned he loved him.
Zach turned the key in the ignition. After a few weak revs, the engine burst to life.
"There's a present for you behind my seat," he told Austin.
Austin was still frowning when he reached back and deftly raised a blue cooler from the floor. Zach had stocked it with all his favorite Austin bait: summer sausage, sour-cream-and-chives potato chips, salsa, tortilla chips, spinach dip, pretzels, even crackers and a canister of spray cheese, not to mention a collection of soda and beer.
"No way, baby!"
Zach smiled. Food made it easy to win Austin's heart.
Austin, momentarily content with a bag of potato chips, didn't complain further, and Zach pulled out of the apartment complex and headed east to the freeway.
He'd planned the trip with time to spare, in case they wanted to spend an extra night somewhere along the way. It would take three days to get to Boulder, leaving five days to spend with Zach's family before they flew back to Seattle.
At first Zach hadn't relished the prospect of driving cross-country in winter either.
"It isn't safe for me to take the car!" Bubbie had screamed over the phone. Having lost her hearing, she'd resorted to shrieking everything.
"If it isn't safe, then why would you want me to drive it?" Zach had argued. He had imagined many ways of visiting his parents and his grandmother in Colorado, but in a white Geo Spectrum was not part of even his darkest imaginings.
"You're young!" Bubbie had reasoned.
"How does that help the car?" Zach had countered.
"This is the kind of adventure you young boys love, anyway," Bubbie had told him.
Zach had many rebuttals. He was not, technically, a young boy anymore. He'd busted into the third decade the previous month.
And he had also never been one for road trips. The last time he'd taken one, he'd ended up stranded in Bakersfield after the high school band bus drove off without him. He'd had to hitch a ride carrying his tuba. A man had solicited him for oral sex, and a woman who might have been a prostitute had stolen his fanny pack.
Zach no longer played tuba, and he'd sworn off fanny packs years ago. He'd matured. Matured in the kind of way that made the idea of driving an old car from Seattle to Boulder in December sound less like an adventure and more like a plain old bad idea.
But then he'd thought about Austin and changed his mind.
After all, it seemed like the kind of undertaking the two of them needed at this stage in their relationship. It was a good way to test things, see if the overpowering affection Zach had for Austin was strong enough to hold up to the tensions of, say, a road trip through snow.
For the last month, Austin had been pressing for them to move in together. It had started as casual joking, but with every repetition, Zach had realized Austin was completely serious. Austin had even started looking at condos in Zach's part of town that would be big enough for two.
But every time domesticity raised its head, Zach politely and firmly beat it back down. It was too soon. They had only known each other for six months.
And Austin had a temper. He was brash and outspoken and didn't care what others thought about him. Nothing seemed to frighten him, which had the strange aftereffect of frightening Zach. What trouble could a man like Austin get into?
So in many ways this road trip was a consolation prize for Austin. Zach knew Austin's feelings got hurt whenever Zach casually shot down the idea of domesticity. So Zach hoped Austin would see that, even though he wasn't ready to commit to moving in, he was serious about their relationship, that this wasn't just a casual fling.
Besides, Zach was thrilled his parents were finally going to meet a guy worthy of being taken home. He could prove to them he was capable of making good decisions when it came to his personal life. He'd struck out too many times for them to trust his judgment.
And that was another reason Zach worried about moving in with Austin. With others, he'd grown so distrustful, jaded by all but the moment of lust that drove him and left him careless and, later, regretful.
Zach knew it was partially his hang-ups that had made past relationships difficult. Too many men had assumed his self-effacing sense of humor and slim build meant he was a pushover. Maybe he was. Zach had never learned how to defend himself physically. He preferred joking his way out of situations.
But many of the men who were attracted to his dark hair and long, thin body seemed to take his passive nature for granted and push too far.
After a string of disappointments, the last thing Zach wanted to do was move in with another tough guy.
But Austin was different. Even though he was a big man--six feet five, two hundred and fifty pounds, all muscle and hair--Austin was unexpectedly affectionate, a man who loved to touch and be touched, with a hungry need for closeness, making his broad chest even more inviting. And despite his hulking presence in bed, Austin was a polite and selfless lover who saw to Zach needs first, even to extremes. It had become Zach's obsession of late to see Austin get off first, but Austin showed remarkable self-control and never pushed his requests until Zach was sated.
And besides being surprisingly kind, Austin was an all-around different type of guy than Zach usually dated.
He didn't own a single suit, for one thing.
He'd gone to the technical college and was a skilled mechanic. He worked out religiously, watched football obsessively, and spent the rest of his time taking comalike naps that alarmed Zach with their death-resembling intensity.
In the beginning, their opposite lifestyles had worried Zach. He didn't know anything about cars other than how to drive them. He worked for the local government as a city planner. Zach read a book a night and had a penchant for sad Asian movies. His exercise routine was designed to be as brief and painless as possible and existed solely to ward off threats of developing the Roth-family gut, which perched on spindly Roth-family legs like a terrible, round goiter.
But despite their differences, Zach and Austin had lasted six months. Apparently he made Austin laugh, and that was a good thing. Austin's laugh was one of those honest, happy sounds that was contagious. So Zach kept Austin laughing.
And Austin made Zach feel safe. Safer than he had in a long time, since those bad months with Ed. Once, at the movies, a drunk had accosted Zach. Austin had turned and punched the assailant so fast that Zach hadn't even realized what happened until the other man clutched his jaw and writhed on the parking-lot cement.
There was something to be said about having a tough guy on your side.
But most important, they trusted each other, and with that trust had developed a relationship Zach truly felt excited about. They had the prospect of being something amazing together as long as Zach didn't ruin it by rushing into domesticity, or as long as Austin didn't screw it up by becoming a bully. It was a relationship worthy of gentle coaxing, something built with care and consideration.