Aaron scrunched a ball of used packing tape, and after failing to locate a trash bag, dropped it straight onto Jake’s head.
“Hey!” Jake made a half-hearted attempt to relocate the tape onto Aaron’s ass. He couldn’t quite reach that high from where he sat, though, with his legs splayed out on the hardwood floor. “Quit working already, will you? It’s almost nine, and I’m beat.”
Aaron sank down next to him. A few boxes remained unpacked, strewn about the unfurnished living room, but they would wait. “Yeah, guess you’re right.” Drowsy from the day’s exertions and from the summer heat, he rested his head on Jake’s shoulder and placed his palm on one of Jake’s temptingly outturned thighs.
Jake plucked the hand off so he could slip under Aaron’s arm and burrow into his neck. "You're dusty," he remarked, though it didn’t stop his lips from leaving a soft, wet trail down to Aaron’s collarbone.
"Yeah." Aaron wiped his brow. "You wouldn't think unpacking in a new, clean apartment would get me this dirty. Does this mean we've brought dust from our old lives with us?"
Jake shrugged, his fingers walking up Aaron's chest and catching him by the chin for a kiss. "Doesn't matter. We'll have plenty of time in our new lives to clean it up…just maybe not this second."
"New life," Aaron mumbled as he leaned back against the barren wall. He didn't want to get too sappy on their first night in the new place, but the emotions were just too close to the surface for him to control. “How’d I get so lucky?”
With a shake of his head, Jake tucked his legs under himself and stood. “Don’t give luck all the credit. We deserve some of it, you know. Our own choices brought us here.”
Aaron rolled his eyes and took Jake’s hand, letting Jake pull him to his feet. “If you say so.”
Though he supposed there was truth in Jake’s words. Some of the pivotal moments were fading now, and maybe one day he wouldn’t be able to remember them at all—maybe it’d just be a general blur of this-was-meant-to-be. But if he really concentrated, sifting through snapshots of his life, he could still recall at least part of it.
He'd pulled over to make a phone call, he'd given his leftovers to a homeless man, and he'd bought a little girl’s doll.
Three months earlier
May 14th, 2012
An older couple on a motorcycle with one of those attached sidecars sputtered past Aaron. The woman rode with goggles and an ear-to-ear smile, gray hair spilling out of her helmet and into the wind. The man kept darting his eyes over to her as he drove, and even through the visor Aaron could see the affection.
They caught him staring, and waved. He waved back automatically, but really wanted to stomp on his brakes—or rush ahead—to get away from them. His mind was tumbling over thoughts, unsure of what to make of his current emotional situation.
He knew he loved Jake. But he hated the limbo they were stuck in.
It was probably his fault, though. He hadn't said the words he needed to say to move things forward. So they just kept on going, socializing with barely-mutual friends, screwing on weekends and exchanging flirting text-messages when they were apart.
He didn't want to ask for more. Didn’t know how. Because what if the answer was no? Wasn’t a bird in hand worth two in the bush?
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and Aaron's eyes landed on his dash. It was 9 a.m., and Jake would be leaving his shift at Pete’s Coffee now. It had to be him.
One day Aaron planned on springing for a fancy car that answered his phone calls for him, but for now his frugality had him stuck with the old-fashioned method. He tried to dig the phone out of his pocket with one hand and wound up drifting slightly over the lane markers. The motorcycle-riding couple was still right beside him, and he quickly straightened the car.
It wasn't worth an accident. He pulled off the freeway at a rest stop a few feet ahead and dialed Jake back.
Eleven months earlier
September 10th, 2011
"Well, I had a good time," Jake said.
Aaron knew those words, and that tone of voice. I had a good time, but this is probably it for us.
He opened the door of the little Italian eatery and let Jake walk out first. “Would you maybe like to… stop and get some coffee or something?”
Jake made a show of looking at his watch. “Aw, man, I’d like to, but it’s gettin’ kinda late. Should probably hit the road.”
“Oh. Yeah. Bit of a drive back to Santa Barbara, huh.”
Aaron’s chest tightened. Even though there was nothing at stake romantically—yet—the rejection of the possibility was still hard to bear. He covered his nagging disappointment by fiddling with the knot on his plastic bag of leftovers—half an eggplant parmesan sandwich. At least he had that to bring home with him.
They walked up the street under the twinkling lights of downtown Culver City’s decorated trees. Aaron thought about starting some small-talk, to make their last few minutes together less awkward, but really, what was the point? There just hadn’t been sparks. They’d go their separate ways, and never see each other again. A few minutes of uncomfortable silence hardly seemed like something to trouble himself over.
“Hey, man.” A grubby hand suddenly reached up and tugged at his jacket. “You got a few bucks to spare? I’m real hungry.”
Aaron glanced down at the man—no, the kid—barely in his twenties, if that. The shadow of stubble on his face might’ve made him look a little older, but there were no wrinkles around his troubled brown eyes.
“Oh… sorry…pretty sure I don’t have any cash.” He dug out his wallet, just to double check, but only the shiny plastic credit cards stared back at him. “Would you like an eggplant sandwich? There’s some fries in here, too.”
The kid sighed and nodded. “Sure, man.”
Aaron handed him the food.
Twelve months earlier
August 21st, 2011
“Please, Aaron. I really need your help here.” Sally hiked her two-month-old son a little higher onto her chest. “I just can’t get away right now. Can’t you do me this little favor?”
Aaron flopped down onto her leather recliner, wincing when he landed on a plastic teacup. He dug it out and tossed it onto the pile of toys on the floor. “I have a lot of work to do, Sal. Our firm just got this really important case, and I’ve been assigned to it, which means they might be looking to promote me…”
“Oh, please, go on,” Sally interrupted, yanking a bottle from the diaper bag on her sofa. “I’d love to hear more about your fabulous career while I’m dealing with a sick baby and a four-year-old with a birthday party in a five hours for which she has no present.”
Aaron rolled his eyes. Sally might’ve been an adult now, but she’d always be his bratty little sister. “It’s not my fault you didn’t plan ahead. Why didn’t you get her the gift before today?”
“Because I was busy.” She drew out the last word, settling into a seat with the baby in her arms so she could feed him. “Trying to raise two kids and work at the same time. It’s not easy, you know.”
“Yeah, well, you do have a husband to help you,” Aaron pointed out.
“You think I have it all, don’t you.” Sally huffed.
Kind of, Aaron thought. But that was best kept to himself.
“Anyways, Greg’s getting the cake and the party supplies. I just can’t go out with Tommy now while he’s all stuffed up like this.” She used a rag to wipe the baby’s nose and displayed the yellow snot to make her point. “So could you please help me?”
Aaron scowled at a Barbie with chunks of hair torn out that lay at his feet. “I’ve never even heard of that place you want me to go, Sal.”
She shifted to tug her cell phone out of her pocket. “It’s called American Girl, and it’s right there at The Grove shopping center. I can send you a link to the doll she wants. Oh, and you’ll need to pick out a nice outfit for it, too.”
Seriously? He almost kicked the Barbie, but she looked like she’d suffered enough abuse.
“Please, Aar. If it’s at all possible, it’d really help me out.” She switched off her annoying entitled voice. “I mean, if you really are that busy this afternoon, I understand. I guess I could ask my friend Mel if she can stop by after her shift, but she always goes straight to pick up her daughter from daycare…”
“Nah.” Aaron scratched his head. It might have been the last way he’d planned to spend the afternoon, but it was what families were for. “I guess I can do it.”
He plodded his way down the paved stone walkway, then hurried across the road when the trolley cut through the trendily-dressed shoppers. The Grove was not his normal turf, and he felt out of place in jeans and plain black t-shirt. If they’d been a little tighter, he probably would’ve fit in better. But he’d dressed for comfort that morning, planning to be knee-deep in research instead of little girl’s dolls.
He found the store Sally had directed him to and slid through the door, already overwhelmed by the clusters of preteen girls and their mothers. The place was set up like a boutique, not like the Toys“R”Us where he normally got his niece’s gifts. He knew he needed some doll named Megan…but she was rather nondescript, and he really had no idea what kind of dress-up outfit he was supposed to get to go with her. Overalls? A poofy gown? An apron? No, that might seem sexist. He stood in the middle of the store, shifting left and right to avoid squealing little girls as he stared at the stacked boxes around him.
“Boy, do you look lost.” A voice sounded right by his shoulder. He turned to find a shorter man smirking at him, one hand shoved into his tight jeans as he balanced his weight on the opposite leg. The guy ran his eyes along Aaron’s body, lingering on his chest for just a moment before returning to his face.
Aaron’s skin warmed, and he prayed the blush didn’t hit his cheeks. But whatever expression he made, it must’ve been enough to give him away, because the stranger’s face eased into a hopeful smile.
“Maybe I could lend you a hand…my little sister is hooked on these dolls…I gotta drive her all the way up from Santa Barbara to pick out just the right one.” He pointed to a curly-haired brunette girl standing a few feet in front of them.
“Um, yeah, that’d be great, actually. I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing.”
“I’m Jake.” A calloused hand wrapped around Aaron’s with a firm but gentle grip. Deep blue eyes looked warmly into his as their hands stayed connected for several seconds.
“Aaron. Good to meet you, Jake.”
Maybe doing this favor wasn’t such a bad decision after all.
September 10th, 2011
“Thanks, man.” The boy dug into the bag right away, taking large, ravenous bites of the sandwich. He must’ve been really hungry.
Aaron took a few quick steps forward, eager to end the evening, before he noticed Jake was no longer beside him. He was a ways back, posed with his hand in his pocket and his hip jutting out, the same way he’d looked when they’d first met.
“You always do that?” Jake asked.
“Give money—or food—to homeless people.”
Aaron blinked, rewinding the past few minutes in his head. Oh, right. He had given his food away…but he hadn’t thought much of it. “Uh, yeah. I mean, I guess.”
“How come?” Jake pressed.
Aaron scratched his head. “Why wouldn’t I? I mean, it was a good sandwich, but I can get another, and he looked like he needed it.”
Jake’s lips twitched, his eyes glowing with something—approval, maybe? “The last guy I was with pretty much turned and ran whenever he saw someone begging on the streets. That relationship didn’t last long.”
“Nah.” Jake shuffled closer, looking down at his shoes. “Not into guys like that. My, uh, mom… well, when she was younger, she spent some time on the streets. So I guess… sometimes when I see people like that kid…it really hits home.”
“Yeah, I can understand that.” Aaron reached out, tentatively at first, to lay a comforting hand on Jake’s shoulder. When he got a warm smile in response, he leaned in with a little more weight. “I guess I was just raised to believe you treat all people with respect…and sharing a meal or a few bucks seems respectful to me.”
With his arm still on Jake’s shoulders, they moved a few feet forward, until Jake suddenly brought them to a stop. “You know, I just realized…if we get some coffee, the caffeine should make me fine for the drive home.”
A trumpet of victory bugled in Aaron’s head. “Oh, sure. I know a nice café a few blocks away.”
“Sounds great.” Jake did his little hopeful smile—like the one he’d had that first day—and Aaron dared to think maybe he wouldn’t be driving home to Santa Barbara that night at all.
May 14, 2012
On the side of the freeway, Aaron pressed the phone up to his ear.
"Hey there," Jake answered. "Thought maybe you were still driving to L.A."
"I am. I just stopped to call you back."
"You didn't have to call me right back. I'll keep.”
Aaron rolled his eyes. Useless in a phone conversation, but a hard habit to break. "Well, I hate sneaking off when you're at work. I wish I coulda stayed till you were done with your shift, but…"
"Yeah, I know. You have to work, too."
The line went quiet for a time. Neither of them wanted to rehash the question with no answers. How far would their relationship go when they were separated like this?
"You coming up to my place next weekend?"
"Yeah. Sure. I'll be there. Look, I don't want to keep you. I just... wanted to, uh, tell you how much fun I had… you know, like I always do."
"Yeah." Aaron rubbed his cellphone against his cheek. "I'll talk to you tomorrow, Jake. Love you."
"Love you too," Jake answered, and they hung up.
Aaron started back on the road to Los Angeles. He only got a mile before the flashing red and blue of police lights caused him to slow.
A cop was directing traffic around a scene of at least three cars, mangled and tossed about the road. And in the middle of the pile up, out of the corner of his eye, Aaron made out gray hair spilling from a helmet, stained with blood.
The woman was lifeless.
He drove another mile before pulling over again, his hands shaking against the steering wheel.
Life. Crushed in an instant. It happened all the time, but it wasn't something he saw everyday.
He had the most childish urge to clutch someone—anyone, even a stranger on the street—to celebrate the luck they shared just by still breathing. And maybe he'd been graced by even more luck than the average passerby. There'd been more vehicles involved than just the motorcycle. Were there more fatalities? More devastating injuries?
He could've been there. He could've been right there when it happened, been part of it, if he hadn't stopped to answer his phone.
His hand flew to the piece of plastic and he pressed redial, impatient breaths heating the air between his lips and the mouthpiece.
"Aaron? You forget to tell me something?"
"I love you," Aaron said without taking the time to think about it. "And I don't want to do this back and forth thing anymore. Look, I can't move right now because of the job thing, and I'd never force you to do anything you weren't comfortable with…but if you were, I mean, if you are, if you wanted…maybe we could start looking into getting a place together, if you could find a job out here…"
Jake was silent. It seemed like forever, but Aaron had his eyes on the clock and while he waited for signs of life, the numbers didn’t change.
"You're serious? You want to… to move in together?"
"Yeah. I'm serious. Maybe I shoulda asked you sooner… but I was afraid you'd say no."
"I say yes."
"Yes, you dope."
Laughter was the best medicine. Aaron let out his in a short, excited burst. "Guess I made the right call, then."
August 30th, 2012
“Come on, slow poke.” Jake dragged Aaron down the hallway. “We have that new bed to break in, you know.”
Smiling over at him, Aaron let his free hand trail along the empty walls. They were blank canvases, waiting to be filled…with pictures of a wedding, perhaps, or maybe even smiling children in their fathers’ loving arms.
There were still some choices left to make.
Thank you to NoNotNever, for catching a couple editing snafus