Jase reflected on the week that had come and gone, feeling like it had been a week just like every other, only maybe it wasn't, because something felt different. He'd gone to work, yes, and he'd hated himself every moment he sat at his desk, and there were bad meetings and too much to do. Layla had skinned her knee at camp, and then he'd burned dinner on Wednesday but had made Layla's day by giving up and ordering pizza. He'd been kind of surprised when Karen followed through on her promise to take Layla to the city, expecting her to flake like she did so often these days. They were spending the night at Karen's parents, so now he was by himself in his house, feeling drained and lonely.
He looked out the window and saw his neighbor's battered Volkswagen sitting in the driveway. Without giving it much thought, he grabbed his wallet and keys and walked next door.
Lowell answered the door looking disheveled but kind of delicious. He had on a faded T-shirt and running shorts, and his hair was sticking out in several directions. He was sweaty, like he'd been working out, but something about the way Lowell smelled undid Jase. Lowell was sweaty, yes, but the smell was sweet and masculine. Jase wondered what it would be like to be closer to that body, to rub against the stubble on his chin, to take a deeper breath. He wanted to push Lowell against a wall and do unspeakable things to him. He took a step back, already hard, hoping Lowell's gaze would stay above his waist. He forced himself to smile. "Hey," he said.
"Hi." Lowell looked mildly embarrassed. "Sorry I smell like a locker room. I just got back from a run."
"It's okay." Saying he liked how Lowell smelled would probably have taken it too far. "I was wondering if you were doing anything tonight."
"Not as such. Why? Did you have something in mind?"
"I thought we could go out, get a drink or something. Karen took Layla for the weekend, so I'm just rattling around in my house."
"Okay, sure. Um. Give me ten minutes?"
Lowell's house had the same basic layout as Jase's, with the living room to the left of the front door, and a staircase to the right. Lowell indicated the couch in the living room. "Have a seat. Sorry for my house's unfurnished state. Feel free to watch TV or something." Then he ran upstairs.
Jase sat on the couch and heard water running through the pipes, indicating Lowell was in the shower. He looked around the room. It was tasteful. Sparse, yes, but all of Lowell's furniture and decorations had a sleek, modern aesthetic. Jase supposed this would make sense, since Lowell was a graphic designer. He'd probably spent time carefully picking things out instead of filling his house with whatever was easily available.
There were several magazines on the coffee table, most of them art or design related, though there was a men's fashion magazine that had a really hot model on the cover. Jase decided it was safer to avoid that one, so he picked up an art magazine and flipped through it, barely registering what appeared in any of the pictures.
He kept thinking that Lowell lived in a completely different world than he did, one that was urbane and beautiful, not cluttered and full of kids and baseball games. For the first time since they'd been reunited, Jase started to feel a little bit of that breach between them that had formed when they were teenagers.
As promised, Lowell bounded down the stairs ten minutes later, wearing a navy blue T-shirt and a pair of madras shorts, his hair toweled dry. "Let me just figure out where I left my sandals," he said, disappearing into the back of the house. He returned a moment later, sandals on his feet and keys in his hand.
"I'll drive," Jase said.
"Okay." Lowell grinned. The grin was completely disarming, the sort of smile that transformed Lowell from a good-looking guy to a knockout. Jase felt that smile in his gut.
Lowell locked up and followed Jase over to his driveway, and they got in the car. Jase said, "I figured we'd just go to Schuster's. Since Neal Schusterman took over, he's expanded the menu pretty extensively."
"Yeah? Okay, that sounds good." He shook his head. "I remember Schuster's being the place all the grown-ups went. I bet my old man wasted a lot of money in there."
Jase didn't say anything but instead put the car in gear and drove over to the bar. They rode in relative silence, punctuated by Lowell occasionally asking questions about things they drove past. Jase found Lowell's proximity a little disconcerting but took a deep breath and just tried to go with it.
As they walked into Schuster's, they nearly collided with Russ, who was on his way out of the restaurant. He looked surprised to see them. "Uh, hey," he said, running a hand through his hair like he was nervous. "How's the VW working out for you, Lowell?"
"Good so far. It seems to run well. Although you could fit everything I know about cars in the backseat of the Jetta with room to spare."
Russ smiled. "Hey, Jase, how goes it?"
"It goes fine."
"Well, I gotta run." He looked at Jase, then at Lowell, then back at Jase. "See you around."
Jase watched Russ walk out to his car before going into Schuster's. He felt a little confused but shook it off. Once they were inside, Lowell followed him to a table toward the back, next to a large window that overlooked Closter Park.
"Wow, this is nicer than I was expecting," Lowell said.
"Have you ever been here?"
"No, I don't think I have. Not even for dinner."
"Back when we were kids, they pretty much only served hamburgers. You might be happy to know it's got a more sophisticated menu now. Neal's cousin Charlotte is the head chef. She trained at some fancy restaurant in the city."
Neal walked over then and handed them each a menu. Jase had the menu committed to memory, but he took one anyway. He looked up in time to see Neal and Lowell exchange a strange look. "Hello, Neal," Lowell said.
"Good to see you again, Lowell." Neal blinked, then addressed the table at large. "We finally got that summer ale in, so that's on tap now. Special tonight is penne a la vodka. You boys want anything to drink?"
"I'll have the summer ale," said Jase.
Lowell scratched his chin. "You have anything that tastes less beer-y?"
Neal laughed. "I've got a cider on tap."
Neal left to get their drinks. Jase goggled at Lowell. "Not a fan of beer?"
"No, not really. I'm not much of a drinker. Just never acquired a taste for it, I guess."
"How did you get through college if you don't like beer?"
Lowell raised an eyebrow. "I think you and I had very different college experiences, my friend."
"Oh come on, it couldn't have been that different."
Lowell put his menu down and raised an eyebrow. "I know how your story goes. You got a baseball scholarship to UMass, right? So you went, played baseball, probably studied something liberal artsy. English?"
"Right. I bet you partied a lot, were maybe a member of a fraternity."
"Guilty. Phi Sig."
"Uh-huh. So you drank a lot of beer, slept with a lot of women."
"Well, I drank a lot of beer for sure, but I didn't sleep with that many women. I met my ex-wife in college. We started dating when we were juniors."
"Still. I fled Greenbriar and went straight to New York City. I majored in art at NYU. I had a gay roommate my freshman year, who I did not sleep with, for the record, but with whom I went out a lot. We got fake IDs and snuck into gay clubs where mostly we drank pink cocktails and danced a lot. No fraternities for me. I never would have gotten into one anyway. They tend not to take the gay kids."
"Or they do, if the gay kids stay in the closet."
That was exactly the wrong thing to say, Jase realized. The way Lowell's eyes scanned Jase's face made Jase feel like he was being examined. Lowell said, "Yeah, sure, probably some of that went around. Anyway, I'm sure I was really annoying in college, and I tended to queen it up a bit, wearing my homo status like a badge. It took me a while to get over myself."
"It's not like you kept any of it a secret in high school."
"True. Although at least in college, I got to date men publicly. You'll recall I took Joanie Reickert to prom."
"I do remember that."
"You got to take a real date. Weren't you going out with Shari deRossi back then?"
"Yep." Jase was a little surprised that Lowell remembered.
"So. College for me was like an all-you-can-eat buffet. I was free of my parents, and there were a lot of other gay kids around, so I found my little niche and fucked who I wanted to, and I also fell in love with the city. Things are a little different there than they are in New England."
"That's true," said Jase, who was a little hung up on the image of Lowell--the eighteen-year-old Lowell he remembered--fucking other men. He considered asking what clubs Lowell went to, but he didn't want to know if there'd been some close encounter, if they'd ever been to the same places. He didn't trust his face not to betray him if Lowell were to mention some place he'd gone to also.
Instead, he pretended to look at the menu as he watched Lowell, who ran a hand over his drying hair as he decided what to eat. Lowell still looked a little flushed from the heat that day, and Jase couldn't help but notice how smooth and soft his skin looked, how blue his eyes seemed. He sighed, then immediately regretted it.
Lowell looked up. "What?"
"Nothing. Just deciding what to eat."
Lowell nodded and went back to perusing the menu.
Neal came back a minute later and took their orders. He didn't seem especially talkative tonight. "Everything okay?" Jase asked.
"Yeah, it's fine." Neal looked down. "Russ and I had a completely stupid fight."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Jase said. "What was it about?"
Neal shook his head. "Nothing, just some stupid shit. I kind of picked a fight, and then he got mad and walked out of here."
Jase glanced at Lowell, who seemed to be following the conversation with some interest. Jase raised an eyebrow, which prompted Lowell to say, "It sounds just like high school. It's kind of surreal."
"Maybe not enough has changed since high school," said Neal. "Same old people, same old shit, only now we've got kids and mortgage payments to worry about too." He turned then and walked back to the kitchen.
There was a Yankees game on the TV over the bar, so Jase and Lowell spent the next few minutes talking about baseball. Lowell had only a casual knowledge of the sport, admitting that most of what he knew about the Yankees' lineup was picked up via osmosis while he lived in New York. "Why bother to pay attention when everything you need to know is on the back page of the Post someone left on the subway?" he said.
Neal brought out their food and went back to tending the bar. They dug in. At one point, Jase looked up and noticed that Lowell seemed to be on guard. "What's up?" Jase asked.
"I feel like everyone is looking at me." Lowell peered around the room.
Jase looked too. Everyone seemed absorbed in their meals. "You're crazy. Nobody here even knows who you are."
"Maybe. I feel sometimes like I'm a curiosity. I'll see someone around town, and they'll squint at me like they remember me and are waiting for me to do something outlandish. I mean, you're right, it's probably in my head, but still."
Jase watched Lowell eat for a moment, then said the first thing that occurred to him. "Why did you do it?"
Lowell frowned. "Do what?"
"Why'd you come out in high school? Why put yourself through the wringer like that?" He added more quietly, "Didn't you make yourself the curiosity?"
Lowell sighed and put down his fork. "I think mostly I did it to piss off my father."
"I bet you accomplished that."
"Oh yeah. But at least I never had to hide. Once everyone knew, once it was out there, people either accepted or condemned me. It was a good way to know who my real friends were."
Jase took that a little personally. "It's too bad we didn't stay friends in high school."
"Water under the bridge. Besides, you would never have heard the end of it if you'd palled around with me instead of your baseball buddies. Most of the jocks were calling me Lola, remember that?"
"Yeah. Probably I did too."
"Not to my face."
"Not because I wanted to."
"Tony Scarlotti started that trend, I think. I found him really intimidating."
"Yeah, me too. He used to threaten bodily harm if I didn't hit at least one home run every week."
Lowell laughed. "Jesus. Did that help you?" He thought about that for a moment. "Wait, didn't you have the regional home run record senior year?"
Jase nodded. "I guess he helped." He grinned.
Lowell laughed again. "That's crazy. God, I hated Tony Scarlotti."
"If it makes you feel better, he failed a class, lost his baseball scholarship, and had to drop out of college. Last I heard he was working as a blackjack dealer at Mohegan Sun."
"What goes around, comes around. I heard he was a shitty ballplayer in college anyway. Tore a rotator cuff as a freshman and was never quite the same after that."
"What about you? Why aren't you playing for the Yankees now?"
Jase sighed. He glanced at the TV over the bar. "I don't know if I ever would have been competitive enough to make it to the majors. I did all right in college. I could hit a ball and was a decent first baseman. And I could run fast. I was always a good runner. But--I don't know. I guess I let Karen convince me that there was no real future in baseball, so instead I got the sales job at Slater-Grosse and worked my way up through the ranks."
"But you don't especially like your job."
Jase took a sip of his beer. "It's fine."
"Still, you gave up baseball for the sake of your ex-wife."
"Well, now for the sake of my daughter, but yeah. She was probably right, you know. Making the majors, that was a pipe dream."
Lowell sat back in his chair and looked thoughtful. "You surprise me."
"I don't know. I never expected you to be so modest. And you've made sacrifices for the people you care about. I admire that."
"Oh. Thanks." Jase didn't know how to react, but he did know that part of him very much wanted to be admired, especially by Lowell.
"I guess you have to compromise as an adult. If it were up to me, I'd spend my days in Central Park, painting."
"I kind of wondered if you'd become an actor," said Jase.
"I was not a very good actor. Sure, I could hold my own in a high school production of The Music Man, but I took a theater class my freshman year of college and was floored by how much better everyone else was. I was much better suited for the visual arts program. I may not even be a good painter, but I can design things that people like."
"Yeah. You've got talents too. It's a shame for them to be wasted on your job."
Jase shook his head. "What can I do? Throw a baseball? Layla loves it, so we play catch sometimes, but that's the extent of it for me these days. She's been going to a coed T-ball-slash-baseball camp, actually."
"Really? That must be fun for you."
"I worry it's partly me reliving my childhood through her, and I try not to be one of those fathers, if you know what I mean."
"You mean you don't punch out the fathers on the opposing team?" Lowell chuckled.
"Nope. But Layla seems to genuinely enjoy the sport."
"So maybe she'll make the Olympic softball team."
"One can hope," Jase said with a smile.
Neal brought them a second round as they were finishing dinner. Lowell abandoned his plate, so Jase did likewise, taking a long sip of the beer.
"Makes me wonder how we were friends as kids," Lowell said. "I was a terrible athlete."
"You could run pretty fast, though. Besides, mostly we, what, ran around our yards, swung on the swing set, played with Transformers. Normal boy things. I didn't really take baseball seriously until high school."
"Which is about when we parted ways," Lowell pointed out.
"Yeah, but baseball wasn't the only reason."
Lowell folded his arms across his chest. "What were the other reasons?" he asked.
Jase frowned. "You were there. I don't know. Things changed. We grew apart."
"We seem to be getting along pretty well now."
"Well, sure. We're grown-up now."
Lowell uncrossed his arms and leaned on the table with his elbows. Jase leaned forward a little too, close enough to smell Lowell's shampoo, which smelled of pine. Quietly, Lowell said, "Part of me always wondered if you were ashamed of me. If you went off with your jock friends and left me in the dust because you didn't want to be associated with me anymore."
God, was that what Lowell really thought? "No, I was never ashamed of you." The emotion Jase felt was closer to "terrified." "I didn't know how to relate to you, I guess, especially after you came out, but I was never ashamed of you. I don't know. I was a stupid teenager."
"That's good to know, I suppose," Lowell said.
Jase nodded. He still felt a little terrified of Lowell. Jase was afraid of what Lowell represented, of what he could be. Jase was enjoying the rekindling of their friendship a great deal, which was also terrifying. He didn't know what he wanted from Lowell, didn't know what he could have, what he could dare to hope for. More to the point, though, he was terrified of what all that meant. Anonymous sex in a bar was one thing, but this palpable yearning for Lowell was something else entirely, something new and scary, something Jase could never allow himself to have.
"Thanks for dinner tonight," he said. "I go a little crazy when Layla's away. It helps to have someone else to talk to."
"I bet. I'm happy to oblige. It's nice to have friends here, I have to say. Joanie and I kept in touch, but otherwise, I just blew everyone off when I graduated, and I wasn't expecting to be welcomed back so warmly."
"People mature, the town changes. You may have been the first openly gay student at Greenbriar High, but you weren't the last."
"Yeah? Well, that's good." Lowell seemed genuinely pleased.
"One might say you're a trailblazer. I admire that about you, that you had the courage to do that."
"I wonder sometimes if it was more stupidity than courage."
"But you said so yourself, you got to be who you are, be with who you wanted. There's a lot to be said for that."
Lowell gave Jase a long, appraising look. "Yeah, there certainly is."