It's not wine, it's – fizzy, gets up Jesse's nose, sickly sweet like syrup, and cheap, definitely alcoholic, baby-clothes pink, but it's not wine. Prisoners brew better wine in toilets Jesse decides as he swills a gulp of it around his mouth, not sure if he can actually stomach it.
"Just swallow," Emma says, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Don't – don't drag it out, man. It's easier just to swallow."
Andrew takes a swig from the bottle of Strawberry Hill, which is probably why he doesn't crack the obvious joke. "You know," he says, reading the label on the bottle, "it's not – it's not good. But I keep wanting to drink it. Like, it's gross but I keep drinking it. Why is that?"
Jesse swallows. It goes down like turpentine and soda water and sugar. "You can – you can have the rest," he says, digging his fingers into the rotting wood of the picnic table. "I think I'm done."
"Cheap date," Emma says, taking the bottle from Andrew and taking a slug. "Aw, sweet. Your cheeks are all rosy."
"Are they?" Jesse murmurs, glancing up at the trees waving and shaking in the wind, pale white-green poplar leaves. "They – they do that on their own. I can't help it. I hate it. You can say my name in a crowded room and I always immediately go red, all over. Andrew – Andrew loves that trick."
Andrew snorts, holding the bottle over for Jesse to drink again. "You can't be done, man. This is just the pre-drink before Armie's party. I wanna see you get sloshed tonight. Just, super hammered." Andrew turns to Emma, curling a lock of hair over her ear. "He's the best drunk I've ever seen. He'll just start like – rattling off facts sometimes. The capitals of South American countries and Nobel prize winners, and then he'll start quoting shit from like A Streetcar Named Desire. He's my favourite drunk."
Jesse wants to laugh but it catches in his throat. There's a man standing a hundred yards away, a familiar man, an aged facsimile of Andrew standing by a tree and smoking what Jesse knows is a hand-rolled cigarette. Standing there all quiet and all at once ruining the world Jesse thought he had. "Andrew –"
"Aw, come on, don't worry, I actually mean that. I love seeing you get drunk. It's like a dog walking on its hind legs," Andrew says, punching his shoulder.
"Andrew," Jesse says, pointing to the haunting man. "Uh. Uh, your dad is. He's standing over there."
Emma turns around to look but Andrew doesn't. A stare that becomes solid, Andrew's face dropping all emotion. A frozen moment, and Jesse wants to apologize, wants to stop Andrew from moving, wants to let him forget the world, and, oh shit. Andrew drinks another slug of the wine and stares straight at Jesse, eyes tightening at the corners in thin crow's feet. He goes pale, freckles standing out starkly against his skin, and the corner of his mouth tugs – to a smile, too worried to be a smile, barely there and half-bitter. He takes another drink from the bottle and then hands it over to Jesse, his hands shaking as he does. "Do I look drunk?"
Jesse shakes his head, leaves a fleeting touch on Andrew's shoulder. "You know you've always got my house –"
"Yup," Andrew says, kissing the top of Emma's head. "Leave some wine for me, eh? I won't be – I won't be long." He slides off the table, walking towards his dad with his hands shoved in his pockets.
"Should we –" Emma whispers.
"No," Jesse says, his shoulders dropping. "You – you can't. I learned that a – a long time ago. You don't fight – whatever they have. It doesn't work. It never works." Jesse swallows a mouthful of fizzing wine. "You just – you just hope he comes back. That's all you can – that's all you can hope for. That he comes back."
Emma looks at Jesse with wide eyes, sea green. Her bottom lip is bitten pink, and Jesse knows that feeling, that heart-thudding, leg-numbing feeling of dark clouds and sudden worry. Everything he feels, everything he's ever felt over the last seven years reflected in Emma's shoulders, her wincing twitch. Somehow seeing it in someone else is perversely nice. Knowing that he isn't alone in this, that someone else feels the same shivering doubt he has, that someone else worries about Andrew in the same frequency. Worries that he won't come back and wondering about the shape of the world if he doesn't.
They watch in silence as Andrew and his dad lean close, too far away from Jesse and Emma to be heard. They just talk though, calmly, Andrew's dad doing most of the listening, smoking his cigarette patiently. Andrew's head is bowed, kicking up dirt with the toe of his sneakers as his dad cups the back of Andrew's neck and speaks to him in clouds of smoke.
Emma fidgets to move and Jesse puts a hand on her shoulder.
There's something oddly sweet, strangely paternal about the way Andrew's dad tips his head up with a finger under the chin, like suddenly Andrew is six again and having the world set out for him in building blocks, being told how it's all going to be. Andrew's father isn't smiling when he looks at Andrew, but he isn't cold. He touches Andrew's shoulder, his cheek.
Andrew shakes his head, gestures over to where Jesse and Emma are sitting. Shakes his head again. His dad stands back, lets go of Andrew and crosses his arms over his chest. He says something that makes Andrew nod, a hiccup in the shape of his shoulders that makes Jesse wince. Another hiccup, a sob maybe, just a shiver in Andrew's posture. His dad takes one last puff of his cigarette before he crushes it underfoot and walks away, leaving Andrew standing in the same place like a black hole. Andrew stares at the ground and hiccups for a minute before his shoulders still and he can look up again. His dad's truck pulls away in a cloud of gravel and Andrew's shoulders shake.
"Emma," Jesse says quietly. "Don't ask him to talk about it, okay? If he – if he wants to, he will."
Emma frowns. "But –"
Jesse shakes his head, puts a hand on her knee. He just needs to say this, no stuttering, no giving away the thrill of panic in his chest, just say what needs to be said. "Do you trust me – about Andrew?"
"Don't ask him to talk about it," Jesse says, his voice quavering slightly. "Just – be there for him, okay? That's what he needs. He just needs to know we're – you're there for him, all right? He needs to know that his dad is wrong about him. That his dad is wrong, and that we need him as much as he needs us." Jesse digs his fingers into the rotten wood of the picnic table. "Just – love him, all right? Love him – as strong as you do. It's – what I did. I mean, it's – I know it's what he needs. Okay?"
Emma nods again. "Okay. I – okay."
Andrew walks back to them, and he's half-smiling again but his eyes are red and he rubs his nose with the back of his hand. "All right, enough pre-drinking," Andrew says, his voice quiet and struggling to stay even. "I am ready to go get so drunk I forget my name. Who's in?"
Emma looks at Andrew steadily for a second. It's all Jesse can do, not to move. Jesse bows his head, hopes she knows, hopes that Andrew knows too what kind of hearts are beating here for him. Please, let him know.
"Let's do it," Emma says finally.
Jesse nods, looks up at Andrew with a smile caught in the corner of his lips like a fish hook tugging him to stand.
"Great, I could use some facts," Andrew says, ruffling Jesse's hair quickly. They flank Andrew on their way back to the bikes. Jesse's hand swings as they walk, brushing against Andrew's maybe a bit too often to be accidental. Andrew grins at him after the third time, still only at half-mast but a flash of earnestness in his eye, a twitch to the grin that does a bit to set the world in orbit again. "Come on, kids. We've got dragons to slay."
Jesse wanders around, half-drunk and avoiding high fives like shrapnel. He shrugs through the crowd on the search for booze, empty red solo cups and broken bottles of beer like amber and potsherds. Jesse finds a bottle of vodka and empties an inch of it into his glass. Why not, now that he's a boy lost on a knife-edge, a willing part of Andrew's teenage mess now. He's a boy who ought to be drunk considering the circumstances. A cup in his hand, a buzzing world he doesn't understand spilling around him; beer pong and dancing girls, people he dodges away from as he stumbles back outside.
Armie's party is a torch, a brazier burning hot and loud in the neighbourhood. Taio Cruz loud enough the neighbours will complain. People, so many people who just aren't the right kind of people, not right now. High fives, I'm so wasted, take a picture of us. Jesse finds the backyard and the bonfire like a guiding light, drawing him out like a moth into canopied trees and smokers cluttered around joints. Emma waves at him, all close to Andrew and huddled near the fire. A thump of bass in his chest, a place to rest his head, yes. Walking towards them, stumbling on nothing.
Sweaters and bare feet warming by the stones. Jesse can smell the wood smoke in his hair, drinking vodka and sprite until his head is empty. He falls down next to Emma and props himself up on elbows, staring into the fire while the party rages around them, patterns in the smoke, dancers in the dark, all of it spinning in his head and tangled up in knots like cat's cradle.
"Get me a drink?" Andrew asks. His head sways, ebullient on beer and late night and forgetting. Jesse shares his drink, holds his vodka out for Andrew. "Dude, I am so drunk. I am so drunk, you don't even know," Andrew says, taking the vodka and drinking.
"I can't feel –" Jesse says, "I can't feel my life," Jesse says, taking the cup back from Andrew and downs the rest. His body is cotton, his body is an excuse and about to be wrong. "Andrew?"
"Yep. Woah, woah. Yeah?"
"Oh, God," and Jesse leans against him. He knows that Andrew needs to get drunk. Andrew ought to get drunk after the day he's had. Jesse doesn't normally get drunk, but today, today he will be with Andrew all the way. Head like feathers and fingers like lead. A good friend knows when booze is better than words.
Emma is against Andrew, all around him. Andrew's freckled arms looped around her waist. He whispers into her hair and Emma laughs. Jesse stares and everything is all right, dizzy and all right and the way things should be. The girl and boy, like a high school inspiration. The answer to the question that's hung in the air between them for years, the quiet what ifs, the wrong, wrong ideas about what it might have been. No, Andrew has a girlfriend and that's good, ain't it?
"You okay?" Emma asks Jesse, her voice low and thrilled. "I don't think I've ever seen you so drunk. I don't think I've ever seen you drink, actually." She laughs, touching the top of Jesse's head, patting his flyaway curls.
"I'm not," Jesse asks, feeling dizzy and his voice like sand. "Are you? Should I be?"
"I'm feeling it," Emma says, nodding slowly, dazed a little and too hot so her cheeks are flushed winter red. "You should be too. No one gets left behind, Jesse."
"I am, I think, I am, I might be drunk," Jesse says, wiping his mouth with his hand. Another minute of watching Andrew touch her cheek, kiss her jaw. So tangled, laughing as Jesse falls back next to them, cradling his head on Andrew's shoulder. "Andrew," Jesse says, limp and leaning against Emma's knees, her pale freckled legs and silence. "Andrew, guess what –"
Andrew smiles, head rolling drunk against Jesse's shoulder. "What?"
"The – the capital of Guyana is Georgetown," Jesse says, half-closing his eyes.
Andrew laughs, drinking deep from Jesse's cup. "It sure is."
"Suriname – Paramaribo," Jesse mutters closing his eyes, his body solid against Andrew.
"No way," Andrew says, an arm around Jesse is drunken half-hug. "You sure?"
"Positive," Jesse says, resting his head on Andrew's shoulder.
The fire is orange on their faces. The smoke makes their eyes water. Andrew nuzzles against Jesse's temple and doesn't say anything, doesn't need to say anything. Emma runs her thumb over Jesse's knuckles, her fingers playing over the cords and ribbons of his wrist. The moon is sickled. The beer is warm and tastes like bitter honey. It's a good time, it's a good forgetting time with hands dug into wet grass and heads rocking back, laughing against warm cheeks and the soft part of lips. Fingers digging into skin, holding each other hard. Jesse's mouth against Andrew's shoulder, breathing in his smell as solid as sleep. A Gordian knot of boys and girl.
"Guys," Andrew says, slurring his words. "No matter – no matter what happens with – no matter what, I'm glad we're friends. I'm glad we're friends and – I'm glad."
Jesse closes his eyes, propped up against Andrew. "La Paz, Bolivia." Andrew laughs against his cheek, tickling warm breath against his ear.
"Definitely," Emma says, touching Andrew's forehead, patting Jesse's arm. "I love you too."
"Good," Andrew says, melting back against the ground, limbless and sweet, hands on Emma's shoulder and Jesse's stomach. "Perfect. Chile?"
"Santiago," Jesse huffs, mouth against the crook of Andrew's throat.
(God, Jesse is totally wasted –
Ain't he just?
Andrew, can you hear me?
Emma, you are great, you know, you know that right –
Oh, Jesus. This is Jesse's house. Can you make it upstairs?
I'm so drunk.
I know. Me too – I can't, I – This is Jesse's house, okay? We're safe. We're right here. Just take him upstairs, don't make any noise, and fall asleep. Can you do that, Andrew?
How drunk are you?
Jesus. Me too. Okay. I'll help you. Hold Jesse. Good. Good boy. Now drag him up the stairs. Can you do that?
Good. On three, okay?
Grab his arm. Good, okay. Just upstairs. You know where Jesse's bedroom is?
Okay, and up – Jesus, okay, gently. Andrew? Are you holding Jess at all?
Emma. Em. Emma. My girl. My girly girl.
Oh Jesus, I'm gonna drop him, Andrew, Andrew, come on –)
Jesse doesn't remember walking home, but he really vividly remembers landing on his bed. His head smacks against the wall with a crack like lightning. Stars splash against the backs of his eyelids but he's laughing somehow, a gravelly laugh deep in his chest which is hilarious, too funny, too jacked up on vodka to even feel it that hard.
Andrew is laughing as he helps Jesse up, patting his shoulders, kissing the back of his head in a hushed way, too afraid to wake up parents, not sure what to do and doing it marvellously.
"Oh my God," Emma cups the back of Jesse's neck, lays him on the pillow. "Are you okay?"
"It hurts on my head," Jesse says, digging under sheets and blankets, twisting in them like an eel.
"Jesus, I can't do this right now," Emma groans. "You know, just because I'm – I'm the most sober one here does not mean I'm – that I'm – I'm at all sober. I can't feel my – fingers."
"I'm okay," Jesse says, a slack thumbs up for Emma. "Probably not a confess – concubi – concussion." Emma is pretty nice about tucking him in, dragging blankets over Jesse, stumbling half-drunk as she does. Jesse flops down on the pillow, curling around it like life preserver.
"Emma," Andrew says, stumbling as he tries to pull off his sneakers.
Jesse snuffles into his pillow and turns to watch them. A hum of red pain at the back of his head, pulsing against his eyes. Sticky and dark like molasses, weighed down by the tug of the world as he watches Andrew and Emma kiss, wet and sloppy and nice. (Watches his boy, his boy, when did Andrew become his boy?) Jesse wonders how that feels, all of it; the hidden bits of Andrew that Jesse has heard of but never seen. How he is in dark corners. Wonders how Andrew is when he's quiet and alone, when he's with a girl, when he's firetouched and alive, when he's growling low in his throat and pulling off his shirt. Oh, shit.
Andrew shoves in next to Jesse, crawling in with his arms and legs, finding Jesse like velcro and sticking to him, digging his cold nose in the crook of Jesse's shoulder, trapping Jesse's thigh between his legs.
Jesse touches Andrew's back, fists his hands in the cotton of Andrew's t-shirt (borrowed from Jesse) and tugs him closer, not even really thinking about it, just the way it kind of should be right now. Close, heartbeat close, holding him tight almost like a reflex.
Emma stands with her hands on her hips, swaying a little on the spot. She squints at the lights and shuts them off. "Good night, gremlins."
Andrew grabs her wrist, a flailed limb that reels her into the sunken ship of a bed. Emma lands with a thump, a weight on the mattress that draws them towards her like gravity. Too small for two, much too small for three. They make it work in origami arms and legs; Jesse around Andrew, Andrew around Emma. A third of the bed each in drunken, tired limbs, and it works a little.
"Hey," Andrew says, kissing Emma's cheek. "Silly, ain't it?"
"Silly?" Emma says quietly, leaning over him like a shadow.
"Wasn't it always supposed to be like this?" Andrew asks, and then kisses her strong.
Jesse watches, eyes open and then closed. The way Andrew kisses her jaw and chin and nose and mouth. Closing his eyes. The sound of their mouths a little wet and close and immediately real. Jesse tightens his arms around Andrew's stomach, not sure if he should, if he should be here or go away, if he should listen to them and smile like he's involved or feel like his chest is being scooped out like a carved pumpkin. The loud heat of summer, the sticking sweat between their clothes.
When Jesse opens his eyes, Andrew is so close, looking at him curiously. Jesse blinks twice, wets his lips with a quick flick of his tongue and he doesn't have time to think about where he should be. Andrew smiles, and nods and, all right, okay. Jesse shivers down to his toes, a twitch of his body that makes Andrew chuckle, his hand brushing against Jesse's cheek.
Jesse closes his eyes. When he leans forward, Andrew's mouth is there and half-open, wet and warm already from Emma. A kiss, and a quiet, heavy one too. A hiccup of a laugh buried between their lips. Jesse leans into it, lets himself fall into whatever this is. He kisses Andrew openly and wild, a great big breath shared between them. A whimper swallowed in Andrew's mouth, arms around his shoulders and neck. Jesse burns like a coal, his cheeks pink and hot, doing some living in a sudden second. Doing a lot of living all at once.
And then Andrew kisses him. Like, properly kisses him, hand on his cheek, hand around the back of Jesse's neck, tipping his head and drawing into him. Not all drunk and sloppy, but a proper you and me kiss, like it ought to be. Andrew kisses him like the world might be tumbling around them, like it won't be like this again.
Emma laughs, and the noise buries against the back of Andrew's head. A murmur, an I told you so in less than words. Her hands on Andrew's hips, her lips pressed hard against his neck. A muffled breath as her legs cup neatly in the hollows of Andrew's knees, as she flutters gently against his side, rubbing his shoulder and grinning. A fond smile, a sad smile, a break in her lovely face as the world comes down in chunks of stone and brick. A glance through Jesse's half-open eyes, a permission.
The wet flick of Andrew's tongue presses against Jesse's lips and he opens his mouth; he tastes Andrew in sweat and beer. Andrew's soft stubble is a rasp against skin, his thumb pressing hard against Jesse's cheek. Emma's perfume is all around them, sweet in the sharp smack of their mouths, the heat of Andrew's open lips, aching into the breath, biting small and sucking the blood to skin, making Jesse's mouth red and his voice a happy whimper.
A momentary pause, Andrew pulling away with a brush of nose on nose, nuzzling close. Jesse looks at Andrew wildly and he grins in the hovering, hesitant inch between them as crazy as pyrotechnics. All of it right there like total bedlam, their heat like brimstone. Oh, and Andrew lens forward for a soft kiss, pulling at lips between teeth – hey boy, hey.
Andrew turns to Emma and meets her mouth again. Lips still tingling, Jesse draws his hands under Andrew's shirt, not really knowing what the hell he's doing, but doing it all the same. He tugs the shirt to Andrew's ribs, hands up around the muscles of his shoulders. Andrew pulls away from Emma's mouth long enough to let Jesse draw the shirt over his head. A bare-skinned warmth between them, Jesse's hands sliding over his ribs, resting over the sun-warmed flat of Andrew's belly, fingertips dodging under the cinch of his belt.
When Andrew turns to look at Jesse again, his eyes are heavy. Not bright and boyish but liquid gold and determined; hot, turned on, furiously alive. Jesse kisses him, hard and almost painful. He moves his head just so, their noses brushing together, feeling the tug of Andrew's mouth and the flesh pinched between his teeth.
Emma undoes Andrew's belt with a sharp slick of metal on leather. Her hands fumble with Jesse's around the button of Andrew's fly. They undress him, hands together, loosening the zip of Andrew's jeans, their hands sliding Andrew's pants down his thighs, half-dragging his boxers down too. The rough brush of hair below his waist, the divots of his hips, the burning heat as Andrew is drawn slowly naked between them, his gasp and his moan chewed between his lips.
Jesse kisses Andrew as his hips buck closer, their legs shoving together. Andrew's hands fly up to Jesse's hair and he slams their mouths together, teeth and lips and groans as Emma and Jesse tug Andrew's jeans down to his knees, the jerky kick of his legs as he pushes his jeans down, down, off his ankles.
Jesse feels it like a bass speaker in his chest as Andrew groans loud, thudding and vibrating like a second heart. Emma hooks her thumbs under the elastic of Andrew's boxer shorts and shrugs them off. The swath of thin cotton pushed down as Andrew digs against Jesse's hip, hard and hot.
Turning to kiss Emma, turning back to kiss Jesse. Andrew's hands are cold under Jesse's shirt, and his hips hot as they grind naked against Jesse's thighs, the heat of him flush and hard and pressed against Jesse's bare stomach. Boxers around his knees, naked skin, Jesse flattening his hand down the front of Andrew's stomach and sliding low, curling around heat and the soft flush of hair as Andrew moans against his lips. Naked, starry-eyed, suddenly desperate.
Closing his eyes, Jesse moans, murmurs something that Andrew catches between his teeth. Hands tightening around him, with Emma's, building a rhythm. Yeah, yeah, me too, Andrew groans against Jesse's lips. Me too, me too, me too.
Jesse wakes up just after dawn. It feels like a false awakening, a dream within a dream, a fuzzy film blurring the lens with the world happening an arm's length away. He shivers, cold, and comes to term with his own body in scrapes and stops. His head is thunder, full of percussion. He feels like he's going to throw up, this sandy clenched sickness in his stomach. His limbs ache in a tense, overused way; bruised and fractured glass. Slowly, Jesse knows he is alive and suddenly really doesn't want to be.
Rolling over, Jesse brushes skin against skin, bare skin, his legs and thighs and stomach fever-warm scraping up against Andrew and the real world. Naked, both of them naked in the bed. Jesse is in bed with a boy, and he feels Andrew's hands on his chest, and there's an empty space where Emma should be.
Andrew is snoring softly beside him, curled all around Jesse. He stares at Andrew for a while, not quite seeing anything at all. He can't process anything this early and this naked, staring at Andrew like a stranger. That feeling of being hot and cold at once sweeps through Jesse's body, his hands trembling slightly from the roar of the hangover flooding through him like a monsoon. Andrew turns over a bit in sleep and Jesse pulls away from him delicately.
(A mish-mash of clothes in a tangle on the ground, half belonging to Jesse and half to Andrew. He just grabs whatever he can find, boxers and jeans and a t-shirt that smells like Andrew, like Emma.)
Every wild thought is kept quiet, hidden behind the black pulses of a migraine. Jesse kneels next to the toilet for ten minutes and thinks of absolutely nothing except for the relief of cold porcelain against his forehead. Jesse brushes his teeth and flosses and washes his face in a dead-eyed routine, leaning over the sink and trying to ignore the bright buds of red that cover his throat and collar.
The stairs are tricky and Jesse takes them one at a time. There's plenty Jesse ought to be right now, but mostly he just feels weirdly wrong, like he's upset some great cosmic thing, has woken up somewhere else in some other crooked universe where he doesn't belong. Wandering down familiar hallways and feeling totally lost, everything the way it ought to be and somehow totally foreign.
"Morning," Emma says. She's sitting at the kitchen table, dressed in yesterday's clothes and nursing a cup of black coffee. Her face is clean and naked of makeup, dark circles under her eyes and her hair a sleepy halo of red. "Sorry for snooping, I just really, really needed a cup of coffee."
"It's okay," Jesse says, standing uselessly in the kitchen doorway and looking around blankly, seeing everything for the first time.
"You want one?" Emma asks.
"No, no, I don't drink coffee," Jesse says.
"Are you okay?" Emma asks gently.
"I'm not sure," Jesse says honestly, can't even fake it right now, can't stutter the usual dodge from what he's actually feeling. He sits across from her at the kitchen table, looks down at the chipped and peeling paint, the stains of coffee rings on old newspapers. "I don't feel right."
"Hangovers," Emma says, raising her cup in salute.
"No," Jesse says, curling his legs under him and sitting uncomfortably cross-legged on the wooden chair. "Not that." Jesse presses his palms to his cheeks, squeezes his eyes closed, stinging like cut onions. "I don't know anymore."
Emma nods gently. "Yeah, okay. Relax, dude. Relax, okay? You don't feel – bad about it, do you?"
Jesse shakes his head. "I'm sorry for – I'm really sorry. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have – it's not like that, it really isn't, Andrew and I aren't – we're just not, okay? We were never – I like you two so much, I can't –"
"Shut up," Emma says, smiling over her coffee. "Seriously, this is – well, it is what it is, I guess. And Andrew – he, well, he fucking loves you so much, and I always kinda knew that. God, he talked about you so much. He always talked about you," Emma says, sighing slightly. She slinks a curl of Jesse's hair around his ear, smiles at him a little sadly. "I don't ever think he knew how much he loved you, but I did. I knew. I always knew what it was. What you were to him." Emma pushes shapes in the sugar spilled on the table, little patterns into the dust of white. "I – I am a firm believer that lives aren't simple."
Jesse stares at the kitchen table, the same table he's stared at since he was a kid. Chips in the wood, burns from cigarette butts. "It wasn't supposed to be like this."
"You didn't expect it?"
Jesse shakes his head. "Not like this. I thought if I – if I knew. I thought it would be really good. I thought it would make everything nice, finally. We could be – I don't know. I just thought it would feel good."
Emma takes a sip of her coffee. "But?"
"It's worse," Jesse says, murmurs almost. "It's not good at all. It's worse than wondering. I feel –" Jesse hovers on that, can't look at Emma, can't even smile."I don't know. I don't know anything. I'm just – honestly, you know what, I'm f-fucking terrified." Jesse bows his head, wants to be strong but he feels hot tears on his cheeks, salty on his lips. "It was supposed to feel nice, and it doesn't. It was supposed to feel good, but I'm so scared of it."
"Scared of what?"
"Scared of him," Jesse nearly gasps. He doesn't say anything for a minute, burying his head in his hands. Swiping his cheeks hard he looks up at Emma fiercely. He needs to say it, he really does. He's spent his whole life not saying these things and now in this crooked, off-center universe he needs to say it or he's going to scream. "I'm scared for him. I'm worried about where we'll all be in five years – one year, even. It's always felt like – like everything is ticking down, like every – every good thing in my life is spreading out gloriously behind me. You know, my whole life I've never known how to – how to love something right, the way I'm supposed to." Jesse takes a deep breath like he's drowning, pawing hands uselessly at the back of his neck. "I never could love Andrew like a real person. I couldn't ever just be a – a goddamn friend to him because my brain is all twisted up and wrong –" Jesse takes a deep breath. "And with all of this – with colleges and his dad and – now that I know – I just don't want him to disappear. I want to be the right person, the good friend he needs, but –" Jesse shakes his head, stares down at the wood grain and spilled sugar. "I'm not. I'm not the right person at all. I'm always wrong, I'm always wrong. I don't – I don't feel things right. And I just, I always thought. It was supposed to be nice, wasn't it? I thought I would feel – nice, for once."
Emma closes her eyes. "No. No, it doesn't. Jesse. It never does. It's never all right, loving someone. It just – it sucks. To be honest, Jesse, it sucks. It always sucks."
"I was scared being his friend," Jesse says. "I was scared when this was easy. But now – I'm – I don't know what anything is anymore." Jesse says. He's too hungover to worry about saying it, too drained and empty and naked to even worry he's saying it to Emma, to Andrew's girlfriend, to the real person. "I want to give it all up. I want to stay with – with him. I want to give up college, I want to give up leaving if –" Jesse shakes his head, feels the rush of anger pulse through his veins. "That's it. I don't want it if I'm not with him – I mean it, I wanna give up all of that, even if it's the wrong thing to do. I know it's the wrong thing, but – I want to stay. I need to. Actually, it's all I know anymore these days. That I'm gonna need him no matter where I go."
"Would you leave?" Jesse asks quietly, not quite miserably.
Emma's frown is tired. "No. I don't think I could."
"Is that fair, though?" Emma asks, shaking her head, red hair falling over her shoulders, in front of her face. "Giving it up, for him? Not going to college because of him? I mean, we all want to leave – we all want to get out –"
Jesse shrugs, chews on his bottom lip and can't think of a single thing to say. He shakes his head again, a shiver rooting down through his spine. He doesn't have a thought to offer, nothing but the trembling knot in his mind. "Probably not. Probably fucking not the right fucking thing for my future, no. But." Jesse bows his head, the world orbiting around him endlessly. "I'm done thinking like that. And – and it's not the wrong thing either, is it? Don't you think? If you made the choice?"
Emma waits for a while, and then slowly smiles, just at the corner of her lips. "You never swear."
"Fuckity fucking fuck," Jesse gasps.
"Yeah," Emma says, squeezing his shoulder. "You said it, dude. You said it."
"So we do it like this, then?" Jesse asks quietly.
"It's the wrong choice, in the big picture," Emma says evenly. "But I guess it's what we do. I guess so."
"Emma," Jesse says, wiping wet from his cheeks. "I'm sorry."
"Shut up," Emma says kindly. "Just, shut up, okay? Shut up for now."
Jesse nods. He looks down at the table again, patterns in the sugar, chunks carved in the wood that he runs his fingers over. After a minute, two, he looks up at Emma. She brushes her hand against the back of Jesse's neck. He looks down at the table again and swallows, pushes down the hot lump in his throat, the primal scream, the pulsing worry that his world has been built all wrong and what if it doesn't get any better from here on out. Emma kisses his cheek, and Jesse holds her hands in the spill of sugar and the mess of the morning. He feels their fingers lace; her hands cold, and his hot.
After nibbling dry bagels and sipping coffee, Emma stands and gestures towards the stairs like an inevitability. Jesse follows her slowly, half-reluctant, a pain behind his eyes and his hands unable to stay still.
Nothing is the way it ought to be anymore. Jesse traces the walls with his hands, the shape of his house that he's shared with Andrew for days and years, all of it now some kind of tomb for the old world shed like snake skin.
Andrew is still in Jesse's bed, totally naked, though his eyes are open. He's curled up in a ball, blankets twisted and curled around his legs like rope, his knees gripped close to his chest. He looks at them, exhausted, his hair a sweaty mess. All at once Jesse doesn't know how to move, doesn't have a clue how to make this all right, if it can ever be all right anymore, if it can be like it used to be. That simple world is dead now.
"I thought you left," Andrew says, his voice scraping like sandpaper. Emma kneels next to the bed, touches Andrew's hair, curls it behind his ear. "Went home, or something."
"We thought you were still asleep," Emma says, stroking his hair gently. "I'm sorry. We shouldn't have left you alone."
"It's okay," Andrew says, holding his knees closer, his whole body a twitch of muscle. Jesse feels like puking, can't even stand in the doorway straight, his knees folding under him, his nerve unravelling to threads. "As long as you ain't gone."
Emma smiles unsteadily. "No, we're not. We were just having some breakfast."
"Don't go," Andrew says quietly. "Don't go, okay?" His skin is sunbrowned and freckled, now like gold and light and rushed warm with the day. Jesse has seen him naked before, quick boys in changerooms and too much time spent together, but never so bright, never so humanly raw and open to it all. Jesse holds the doorframe and tries to look away. "This is something, ain't it?"
Emma doesn't say anything for a moment, and then she turns to look at Jesse. The flinch in her shoulders a tired shrug, a smile. "Jesse's here too," she says quietly.
"We're not going anywhere, Andrew," Jesse says all at once. It's false confidence and it probably showed but he says it hard, a husky conviction that doesn't even sound like his own voice. He leans against the doorway, his hair falling against his forehead, and he needs to say it. He has to, because his life has been a thousand times where he hasn't said it before. Let today be the once. "Okay? All right?" Jesse clears his throat, and returns stronger than he thought, the magma in Jesse's stomach to stone. This is it, in shuddering breaths, this is the new world, the cards left in the deck. "Never without you, okay? We're not – we're not going to be like –" Jesse pauses. "Hi, Andrew."
Andrew looks up at him like it's the first he realised Jesse was there. His smile softens, his lips wet. "Hey, Jess," he says, a limp convention, words Jesse's heard before but not like this. "Didn't expect you."
"I know," Jesse asks miserably, his head thumping with old booze and cold hallways and a weird and familiar shame. "I know you didn't. But – I'm here. All right. Now I'm here. I'm here, okay?."
"Hey, Jess," Andrew says again. His smile rusts like iron. His eyes are alive, like coffee and tobacco. He nods slightly, so much like a relief, a nod like words that won't happen. "You hungover too, huh?"
Jesse can't help it, and smiles. He nods, catches Andrew's glance. He nods again, so small and withdrawn, hoping it makes up for too many years. Hoping that maybe he fits into a pocket of Andrew's life, still has some important place left now that the plaster is crumbling. "Yeah," Jesse says. "Me too. Me too."
"Sucks," Andrew says, nodding. "Feels gross."
Jesse squeezes his eyes closed. "It really does."
Andrew curls tighter on himself, arms and legs and a naked boy more than the sum of his parts. Emma glances at Jesse and he nods.
They crawl into the bed, finding the gaps around Andrew. Their arms a shoelace tangle, hands and fingers. They cover Andrew in sudden heat; kiss his cheek, his nose, the nape of his neck, his mouth, his fingertips. Jesse closes his arms around Andrew's bare hips, and Emma kisses the top of his head. Andrew murmurs, warm with the hangover, a mumbling sweetness as he unravels himself and spools around them. Jesse's fingers find Emma's, clinging together in a knot over Andrew's chest, against the pale thudding tattoo of his heart under paper-thin skin. They coil all around him, talking crumbling words and whatever, last night's bruises and bites turning purplish blue.
They wander through a used car dealership as big as a football field. Row upon row of hopeless prospects, rusty and battered cars from the late 80s with their angled fenders, cracked sunroofs, and tires so flat the rims bend inward. Andrew's got eight-hundred bucks folded thick in his wallet and he's grinning and running his hands over the chipped and dented hoods of the old Toyotas and Oldsmobiles packed four deep, leading the way as Jesse follows behind.
Jesse is bored, but in that nice nothing-else-to-do way, the way of wasting time that makes him feel a bit too young. A hot sun, tired feet, sweat in the corners of his nose and dripping down from his temples to salt on his lips.
The shade from trees falls in patches, the two of them hiding in them like islands in the sea. Jesse doesn't know a thing about cars, but judging by the way Andrew keeps thumping them on the hood and saying that it sounds good and solid, neither does he. It just feels like a good thing to do, to wander in a labyrinth of old cars and linger in the sun with your best friend and have that be enough to get you through the day.
It's when Jesse stops to tie his shoe that Andrew, his voice full of awe, says: "This is it."
Jesse laughs and stands and stops laughing. "Seriously?"
Andrew runs to the black truck and throws himself on the hood. It's an old thing, 1982 Ford Bronco written in white paint on the windshield, $500. Two of its tires are flat, the antenna is bent at a 90 degree angle, and one of the wipers has been torn off. Andrew clings to it like he's trying to get his arms around for a hug.
"It is the greatest machine I have ever seen," Andrew says, rubbing his cheek against the sun-warmed metal. "Don't you love it?"
"Yes?" Jesse offers. There are rings of rust around the rear wheel arches. "I do?"
"God, it's stellar, it's totally stellar," Andrew says, scrambling up the hood and onto the roof. He sits cross-legged and grins there, absolutely the king of his rusty old Ford. "Come on. Come up here, come say hello."
Jesse lets himself up gingerly, the creak of metal under his feet, scrambling up next to Andrew. The sun makes weird shapes over the ground, dry and wet, shimmering up from too-hot metal hoods. They sit there with the steel searing the naked skin of their calves, their elbows. And despite it all, Jesse doesn't want to move at all, not an inch, just knows he wants to stay with his kind of boy, this kind of boy.
"Hey," Andrew says, squeezing Jesse's shoulder. "You can see it all from up here, eh?"
"Yeah," Jesse says. "All the, uh, all the cars. You can see all the cars."
"What am I going to do with you," Andrew says, burying his head in his hands. "You are totally dead inside sometimes, dude."
"I mean, cool. Cool. I love all the cars. Look at them all. What a cool thing to see," Jesse adds, can't help but smile. "It's all cool things from up here. Yes? Right?"
Andrew laughs, grins up at Jesse. "Can I say something? Right now, on top of the world?"
"On top of the truck," Jesse corrects quietly.
"Shut up, dude. On top of the world, okay," Andrew says, patting Jesse's back and keeping his hand there, rubbing his shoulders. "It's just, like, for months I couldn't – fuck, man, I slept like two hours a night for fucking weeks. I felt like a zombie. Like a goddamn zombie, and, I dunno. I felt like I was going nuts. You know what that's like? Fuck, it was just – whatever, when I was at your place, and you and Emma and, I dunno, I just slept. I slept for hours and hours and do you have any fucking idea what that feels like when you haven't slept properly? I felt like – like I could be a fucking human again, dude." Andrew laughs, stretches his arms to the sky in a yawn, rolls his head about his neck. "That's – that's a thing, right? I mean, I couldn't fucking sleep, for months, and I get to your place, with you two, and I could – I could sleep. That's a thing, right?"
"That's – I think that's a thing," Jesse murmurs, trying to keep the shout quiet in his chest, trying not to smile too hard. He shifts against the hot metal uncomfortably. "Yeah. That – it is. It is, I know what that feels like, I really do. Andrew, I do."
"I slept, dude," Andrew says, kissing the side of Jesse's head, all to do with nothing. "I slept and that was – well. I know what it was. I dunno. That's it, I guess. That's important to me and – that's what I wanted to say. It was – I don't wanna go back to the way it was before, that's all. I don't wanna feel like I did before."
"Right," Jesse says, nodding, blushing because he can't help it and doesn't want to, not right now. "Well, let's go then, let's run away," Jesse says, tight in his throat, a swallowed word, whatever, whatever it is. He can't care about anything else right now, doesn't even want to, as wild and immediate as thunder. "I think I could – yeah, I think I could. Right now. I'm kind of insane. Shall we?"
Andrew stares at him for a while, a smile blooming on his lips. He grins down at his sneakers, then up at Jesse again. "You know, I think you'd actually do it."
"I would," Jesse says tightly. He looks up at Andrew and it turns to steel in his chest. "I promise I would. I'll be your guy. I talked about it with Emma. We – we both would. We'd go. We would."
Andrew hisses out a laugh, thinks about what he's going to say for a long time, chewing on a thumbnail meditatively. "I don't want to stay here. Like, I dunno. I don't wanna stay here. Not forever. But we got our whole lives, right? I fucking love you. I do, down to my toes. I love you and Emma, and –" Andrew sighs long, puts a hand on Jesse's knee. He shakes his head, his fingers steady as Andrew taps a cigarette out of the box and lights. Blowing out thin smoke, his whole face a tired smile. "I just wanna see things as we live them, you know? That's all I ever wanted. That's all I ever meant. I just didn't – Jess, I don't wanna go anywhere but you."
Jesse smiles, punches Andrew's arm lightly. "So that's it? You're not going to – run away, pull a Kerouac, steal a station wagon and sleep in Golden Gate Park?"
Andrew looks at him for a second, rolling his cigarette between forefinger and thumb. "Wait. Damn. Damn, wait." Andrew says, blowing out smoke. "That's cold, Jesse. That's fucking cold. Are you calling my bluff? Cause I'll change my mind. I will."
"Not really," Jesse says, trying not to laugh, that giddy uncontrolled laugh that shivers from the roots of his lungs he chokes back at his Adam's apple. "I guess I just – I know you. I think I know you."
"Uh huh, sure," Andrew says. "Course you do." And then Andrew kisses him. A soft brush of lip to lip like he's finding Jesse's lips, testing their warmth, finding them solid. A kiss without the weight of anything behind it, just the sudden press and the lingering taste of it. A kiss for itself, just a kiss and lips and the wet smack as Andrew pulls away grinning. Just a kiss like there will be a lot of them to come. "Fuck you. Asshole."
"Jerk," Jesse says, blinking and a little dizzy.
"So, we gonna buy this monster truck or not?"
Jesse closes his eyes, and it's all he's got left, his last trump in a deck usually weighed against him. It's hard to figure out who he is anymore; how his voice sounds now, how he's supposed to smile, what he's supposed to say. Two thousand days of sick worry and suddenly twelve hours of being weird, shockingly okay. He feels like the Finns must after running from the sauna and rolling in the snow, like deep sea divers breaking the surface after decompressing foot by foot as the climb slowly, slowly towards the light. "Andrew, can I just, before we – okay, okay – Andrew, I – can I just tell you, can I just say that I'm kind of – in – you know. With you. Jesus, I can't even – okay, okay. Andrew, can I just say it? I – fuck you, I love you?" Jesse sucks in a breath. "Not a question. No, no. I love you. Shit. I love you and it's all wrong and I love you."
Andrew's cellphone beeps with a message and he flips it out, smiling down at the text. "Emma says hi." Andrew texts a quick reply while Jesse just stares at him, words drying up on his lips. Andrew shoves his phone back in his pocket and leans close to Jesse's side, laughing a little as he kisses Jesse's temple, his cheek, and then the corner of his mouth, and then his mouth proper in a short touch and a staccato smack. "Did you really need to tell me that? Dude, you've loved me since you were, like, what? Thirteen? Is this a big reveal?" Andrew laughs, props himself up on his palms. "I thought that was always the way it was. Wasn't it, dude? Ain't it that way? Anyway, I think we're done here, right? Found my dream truck and all."
"It's new to me," Jesse mumbles. "It's new, I thought. It feels new."
"Oh Jess," Andrew says. "Come on, let's go pick up Emma from work. I bet she'll like this truck. She'll like it proper, too. She won't make weird faces at it. I bet she'll think it's amazing."
"No, I – no, I'm –" Jesse stutters, frowning slightly. "Wait, Andrew."
Andrew slides down the windshield and off the hood, his cigarette bobbing between his lips. Gallantly, he extends a hand that Jesse ignores, making his own careful way down from the roof with his sneakers squeaking as he wriggles inch by inch to the ground.
"What?" Andrew asks, pushing back the wayward curls falling against Jesse's forehead. "You're not talking me out of the truck."
"No," Jesse says, leaning against hot black metal, the shiver that slices up his spine when Andrew touches his neck, a brush that feels so immediate, their bodies kind meeting in a knock at the knees and hips. "This – this is – I think I need to know what –"
Andrew shrugs, grinning out of the corner of his mouth. "I love you too. I don't know. I love you, tool. I love you so much. Fuck. I love you, dude, why's it got to be something? We should just, like, do this thing and, you know, we let it happen like it ought to. We just be who we gotta be, and we love like we oughta. The dude abides, Jess."
"That easy?" Jesse asks, chewing his lower lip, stopping when he notices Andrew watching curiously. "Is it that easy?"
"No, it isn't that easy," Andrew says, a one-shoulder shrug, a tremor in his lips that he smiles away. "But why make it harder than it is, you know?"
Jesse hesitates, leaning a little into Andrew's body, into the solid weight that doesn't move away, damp lips against his temple in a singular press. "So we just go?"
Andrew grins against Jesse's forehead, leans into him until they're nestled neatly in a knot, knee between knee, arms gently slung around hips. A shared bedroom, the same soap and shampoo, bundles of clothes no longer sorted into two piles until Jesse isn't totally sure what Andrew smells like anymore. Emma's faint perfume on both their shirts, the midday sweat damp on their collars, the dust in the turn-ups of their jeans.
"So we just go," Andrew says. "So, we get out of it. We say fuck it and we just – we do what we gotta. We go until we can't see where we came from. We just go, okay?"
Jesse nods, his forehead knocking against Andrew's shoulder. "Okay."