I didn’t mean to kiss Dred. It was an accident.
I was a little hungover after the wedding, and the sunlight was, like, glaring through my windshield, and when she got in the car I was happy to see her, so I kissed her. Okay, so “kiss Dred” wasn’t on my list of things to do, but it was an accident. And we were grown-ups. It was no big deal.
Except for the way neither of us pulled back.
Except for the way I really wanted to kiss her more.
Except for the look in her eyes—all open and warm and eager—when she started to say, “Whoa, Z, that was—”
Then: “Fuck!” She glared over my shoulder. “Damn it, Emerson. Z, will you roll down your window for a minute?”
“Okay . . .”
I hadn’t noticed Emerson calling her, but she’d heard him, so he must have been. I was in “accidentally kissing Dred” land. No external forces need apply.
Also, what had she been about to say? Whoa, Z, that was—what?
Emerson was wheezing and leaning on his cane when he got to the car. “Swatches. Jesus, that’s a long haul when my leg’s being a bitch. Obie wants to know which one of these they want to buy.” A manila envelope landed on Dred’s lap.
“Do I look like his errand boy to you?”
Emerson offered one of his crooked smiles. “Pretty much, yeah. You girls have fun now.”
“Don’t think I won’t beat you with that cane.”
“I’m pretty sure you won’t. Bye, Zane.”
“See ya, Emerson.” I pulled away from the curb, trying to decide if the silence in the car was awkward, or I was imagining things. Not that it mattered. “So I’m not pregnant.”
“Big fuckin’ negative, yep. Yesterday, before the wedding.”
“Wow, and then you spent all day smiling and making nice with people. It’s like God really hates you or something.”
“Shut up. I actually enjoy smiling and making nice with people. Plus, it’s better than sitting in my condo staring at the walls wondering why I’m such a failure.” I couldn’t talk this way to everyone. But I could to Dred, even after accidentally kissing her and crossing all the made-up lines we’d drawn around fake-dating.
Fake-dating had seemed like a good idea to get my best friend off my back about “getting out there” and “staying open to relationships.” And it had done its job. Dred and I had fun, no one got hurt, and for six months I’d been free of friendly nudges toward any lady with a pulse.
Damn it. I shouldn’t have kissed her. No. I should kiss her again. All the time. Or never. Hell. I blushed even thinking about kissing her again. If she saw the blush, she’d probably kill me; I made sure I kept my face pointed away, and turned up the radio. “I haven’t heard this song in months! Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne. Listen to her voice, it’s amazing.”
Jesus. Way to compound the awkward, Zane. I’d just drawn our attention to a song all about how there was no place the singer would rather be than with whoever she was singing to.
I turned it down again and tried to come up with a distraction. “You want to hear the other thing that happened at the wedding? Or no, after it. I may have cried all over the grooms.”
“Poor you.” Her voice wasn’t exactly sympathetic.
“They, uh, offered me sperm.” I repeated it in my head, but no, that was the correct sentence. “Tom’s sperm.”
“No fucking way.” She shifted, and even though I didn’t look over, I could tell she was facing me now. “No way.”
“Shit, Zane. You gonna take them up on that? I mean, it’d be cheaper, but then you’re stuck with . . . men.”
She knew from being stuck with men. Her ex had every other weekend with Baby James, after skipping out on the first five months of his life. Shit was complicated.
“They know I’m not looking for co-parents. But I don’t know. There’s a lot to think about.”
“Genetics-wise, it’d be a solid match. Tom’s all kinds of perfect specimen of blond, blue-eyed Aryan man.”
“Okay, thanks, now I’m totally creeped out. I’m not trying to have baby Hitler!”
She laughed. Dred’s laugh was low and sharp, like if you got too close it’d make you bleed.
“You’re so mean.” I may have huffed.
“You’re the one who wants to have baby Hitler with Tom of Finland.”
“Oh my god, stop it, Mildred!”
Her hand ghosted over my knee and withdrew. Would she have done that pre-accidental-kiss? I didn’t think so. Did that mean the kiss had been good for her, too? How could I tell? A sentence that starts with Whoa, Z could be going anywhere.
“Well?” This time she poked me. That was definitely the usual way of things. “Are you going to think about it?”
“Of course I’m going to think about it. It’s been twelve cycles. Twelve BFNs. And I’m supposedly healthy. And all of those donors I tried had other positives, so it’s not them.” I blinked a few times to keep my emotions from taking over. The thing about trying to get pregnant is that it’s a constant pressure, a weight on your skin, and even if your awareness of it drops for a few minutes, the smallest thing can remind you that you’re compressed on all sides by an inability to do this very basic thing.
I cleared my throat. “Anyway.” I pulled the car into a parking spot that may or may not still be a red zone from back when the drop-in center was a warehouse of some kind. “Hey, that’s interesting.”
I gestured to the car in front of us. “Cam Rheingold’s car. He’s been down here a lot lately.”
“I thought you were only allowed to make people into a soap opera at Club Fred’s.”
“What? I’m not! I’m just saying, you know, that’s interesting.”
She poked me again, and when I turned she was smirking. “I know exactly what you’re saying, gutter brain.”
“Shut up, I’m so not. I’m not.”
The smirk. Oh jeez. I wanted to kiss her smirking face.
“Let’s off-load all this junk,” I mumbled, and got out of the car.
Cam and Keith were in the kitchen when we walked into the center, standing at closer-than-regulation distance. Not that I inferred anything from their apparent intimacy. Except that they were . . . close. Physically. In the kitchen.
Keith waved. “Please tell me you come bearing food and I can eat something other than peanut butter and banana today.”
I gestured to the car. “So much food. You guys want to help unload?”
“Definitely.” Oh look, he casually touched Cam’s arm. Because they were close. Physically. “If you can tempt Josh away from the computer, I’d appreciate it. He’s gonna go blind if he keeps staring at that spreadsheet, willing it to tell him something different.”
“Sure.” Cam smiled at us. “I’ll be right back to help.”
I shrugged. “Oh, three of us is enough, don’t worry about it.”
Dred kicked my ankle, which I took as: Stop making them into a soap opera. Which I wasn’t, kind of, though what Cam was going to do to tempt Josh away from the computer was intriguing.
My brain tried to tag that thought like I was entering it in my notebook app: blowjob, kissing, massage. I could go into the temptation business. That was a list I could keep going with: dirty talk, handjob, kissing.
Why was I thinking about kissing?
I performed a forced shut down on my mental processes and led the way to the car.
Donating all the leftover reception food to the Queer Youth Project’s drop-in center was Carlos’s brilliant idea (“I mean, the last fucking thing we want is to start married life with half a ton of goddamn catered food”). I’d volunteered to do it as my final wedding-planning-job duty, and man, I was glad to see the last of it emptying out of my car.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish.” I shut the hatch with a flourish.
“That bad?” Keith carefully balanced huge portions of cake in each hand.
“No. Well, yes, though I’d do it again. For Carlos, not for just anyone.”
He batted his eyelashes at me suggestively.
I pointed at him. “I’m not going to trip you out of respect for the cake. Why, are you guys getting married?”
“No way. Well, maybe someday, but not anytime soon.”
Dred poked her head out the sliding door. “We good?”
“We are so good.” I did not stare at her lips. Or, okay, I made myself stop staring at her lips.
“Does that mean it’s time to eat cake?”
Gah, stop making me think about lips. I swept an arm through the air and called, “Let them eat cake!”
“You’re such a nerd.” She grabbed half of Keith’s armload. “But we’re going to eat this now, right? You better not be teasing me, Zane.”
“Are you sure you don’t like it when she teases you?” Keith slid past her, evading a clumsy kick in his direction. He laughed (and didn’t see her getting ready to kick him again). “The lady doth protest too— Oof!”
He managed—barely—to not drop the cake. My heart was pounding like crazy until all the cake was safely on the counter.
That cake was wildly expensive. It’d be like dropping a Fabergé egg or something.
Keith shook out his arms and spun around. “Totally uncalled for, Mildred! Plus, you know it basically proves my point, right?”
She glared at him. “Are you having sex with Cameron?”
His jaw dropped.
“What are we interrupting?” a new voice asked.
I turned to Josh with relief. Despite being a mere twenty-four years old, the boy had the kind of calm control that immediately soothed a room.
Keith shook his head, still looking flummoxed. “Uh, I pissed off Mildred. Or something. And hell yes, I’m having sex with Cameron. It’s not a secret.”
Poor Cam. His face was crimson and he had busied himself picking through food, maybe trying to sort it, or just trying to pretend he was somewhere else.
“It’s definitely not a secret,” Josh agreed.
“Sorry.” Dred glanced at me. “Anyway, can you guys take all this?”
“As long as it was at food-safe temperatures between last night and right now.” Keith started picking through. “We probably can’t serve the hot food.”
Josh grabbed a stack of plates. “More for us.”
“Josh! It hasn’t been at temp. It’s not safe to eat.”
“It was refrigerated and I’m reheating it. It’s no different than if we made it at home and then—”
“Except that like a hundred people breathed on it and it sat out for hours.”
Keith rolled his eyes. “Fine. You get salmonella. I’m sticking with things that are safe to eat.”
Since I wasn’t pregnant, I went ahead and joined Josh and Dred in eating potentially toxic leftovers. So that was a perk. Kind of.
Cam notably stuck with Keith in avoiding potentially toxic leftovers, even leaning next to him against the counter. At least his blush had calmed down a few threat levels.
“Where’s Mister James today?” Josh asked, when our initial feeding frenzy had died down.
“With Obie and Emerson.” Dred felt around in her pockets. “Oh, and Obie sent you swatches.”
Keith and Josh exchanged a glance. Keith shoved the manila envelope in a drawer. “Thanks, we’ll, uh, get back to him later.”
“Swatches?” Cam asked.
Josh waved a fork. “We’re commissioning a piece. It’s no big deal.”
Oops. I caught Dred’s eye and mouthed, Oops.
“A piece.” Cam studied the two of them. “That’s interesting.”
“It’s not that interesting,” Keith said quickly. “Anyway. Um. Let’s talk about something totally unrelated. How’s the baby thing going, Zane?”
“Er, sorry, never mind.”
“It’s fine.” I executed an oh-so-casual one-shoulder shrug. “Future Kid continues to be elusive. There is one development, though, which is that a friend recently offered to donate sperm.”
“Whoa.” There was something charming about Keith’s excitement. “That’s really cool, right? I mean, is that a thing people do? Should we have done that?” He appealed to Josh, who answered by kissing him. Keith accepted the kiss, but not as an answer. “No, but seriously, should we have?”
Dred tossed her plate and went to open one of the cake boxes. “Plus, you’d want to be daddies. Zane doesn’t want daddies.”
“We wouldn’t have to be.” He paused. “Actually, that’s probably a lie. I think if a kid was running around with my genes—or Josh’s—I’d probably, you know, want to kind of be involved.”
“Me too.” Josh smiled at me apologetically. “Sorry, Zane.”
“Hey, I’m right there with you. I couldn’t be totally detached from a kid who was part me.”
“Oh, I could.” Dred deposited the cake and a handful of forks on the table. “As long as I didn’t have to give birth to it. I don’t think I could be a surrogate. Pregnancy was way too much of a pain in the ass. But if I could just jerk off and fill a cup with eggs—” She shrugged. “I’d give them away to whoever the hell wanted them.”
Cameron cleared his throat. “I think I could as well. I don’t feel any instinctive need to father a child. But if someone needed sperm, I think I could contribute my own without being emotionally attached to the outcome.”
“That’s a difference between us, Cam.” Keith grinned. “I would totally be attached to a kid with your DNA.”
And poor Cam was blushing again.
“Anyway,” I said, taking the spotlight off his bright-red cheeks. “There are a lot of things to think about. And it’s not quite as easy as just jerking off in a cup. Like, for best results he’d have to not come for a day or two before, which is kind of an awkward thing to ask someone.” Though Carlos would probably make it into some kind of chastity game and they’d both get off on it. I turned my mind away from . . . that.
“But consider yourself added to the list, Cam.” Dred smiled a little maliciously.
I elbowed her. And grabbed a fork. “Family-style cake. You people better not have germs.”
“So many germs.” Keith dug into the cake. “Oh my god. Oh my god. This is the greatest cake that has ever been baked. Is this . . . salted caramel that I’m tasting?”
“It really is. Salted caramel filling with a chocolate ganache frosting. And it cost a fortune, so enjoy.”
Keith made a sound, something between a moan and a sigh. “I am so enjoying.”
Josh quirked an eyebrow at him. “We might have to take some of this home. It’s obscene watching you eat cake, babe.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Dred advised, closing her eyes to better appreciate the bite she was chewing. “Be one with the cake, Keith.”
“I am so completely one with the cake right now.”
We left sometime later, full of cake, with some to take back to the farmhouse for Obie and Emerson and Baby James.
We were quiet for most of the trip. When I made the turn onto her street, Dred asked, “You want to come in?”
I couldn’t read her tone. I usually went in. If this had happened two days ago, I wouldn’t even be thinking about it.
But for that damn accidental kiss. I wanted to kiss her again, but I couldn’t say that. Fake-dating worked for me because it got my friend Jaq off my back. It worked for Dred because it got her out without actually requiring she date people. My whole role was to not be pressure. I couldn’t switch it up now.
“Did you start your new quilt yet?” Give me a reason to come in.
“Started sewing it, started ripping it out.”
I parked the car. “But, jeez, you’ve been planning it for months.”
“That’s quilting. Plan for a million years, sew for five minutes, rip for five hours.”
I wanted to go in. Was there any reason not to go in? Maybe we could accidentally kiss again. No. Bad idea, Suzanne. “So . . . can I see what you’re ripping out?”
“If you want to see my crap, sure. When’re you gonna bring over some fabric so you can get started on your quilt?”
“When I grow some ovaries. I still don’t think I can actually make a quilt, Dred.”
“Of course you can make a quilt. Everyone can make a quilt. Not everyone can make a show quilt, but everyone can make a quilt.” She sat back in the seat. “Take us to the fabric store. We’ll work on it today.”
I restarted my car, trying to tell myself that this was only a volunteer job to her, that it had nothing to do with wanting to spend more time with me. It definitely had nothing to do with that kiss. I wanted to ask her what she’d been about to say, earlier, when Emerson interrupted, but it wasn’t the kind of thing I could bring up randomly.
Maybe if I accidentally kissed her again . . .
No. Bad idea, Zane.
Distraction time. “You’re just procrastinating about your own project.”
“Yeah. I am.”
“I’m good with that.”
The moment stretched. We were idling at the curb. The car was in park.
I wanted to lean across the console and kiss her. But I didn’t.
Dinner on the third Sunday was always at my sister Andi’s, ever since she married her childhood best friend when they were twenty. Fast-forward sixteen years and here we were, sitting at her dining room table, me checking my phone every five minutes because I desperately needed the Andi-and-Jimmy show to be over.
She poured herself another generous glass of wine, and when she leaned forward I could see the professional lowlights in her hair. It was a nice job. Didn’t compare to my half-shaved purple, but hey, not everyone can be me. “You don’t understand the legal ramifications of this. You think you do, but you don’t.”
You think you understand, but you don’t should be on Andi’s tombstone. She forever believed she had the only relevant take on any given situation.
“We’re not being alarmist,” Jimmy said. The additional as usual went unspoken, but his furrowed brows communicated it clearly enough. “Really, Zane. I’ve done some research. There are some pretty gnarly outcomes.”
“Did you see any of the good outcomes, or were you only looking for the freaky stuff?”
“I’m sure there are good outcomes, but is this where you want to take a chance? An anonymous donor offers so much more protection for your family—”
“I don’t have a family. Big fuckin’ negative. No baby. Anonymous donors might well be the cat’s meow, but right now they’re just a huge money pit and I keep not getting pregnant.” Shit. Mayday, mayday. Do not cry, Suzanne. Do. Not. Cry. I checked my phone again. Quarter after 7 p.m. Also, a message from Jaq: You can come by here after you escape. We have chocolate mousse.
Oh, we, was it? So that was a here in the sense of at my girlfriend’s, which was interesting. They’d been together for seven months or something? I did math on my fingers and tried to tune out the grating sound of my sister warming up to an argument.
Both Andi and Jimmy were lawyers, a matching set, so cute you could put them on the cover of a magazine: Andi’s pale skin and long, brown hair; arm in arm with Jimmy, who was slightly taller with dark skin and short hair. In complementary business casual, of course.
They were trained in arguing. Me? I’d gone into real estate. I was trained in negotiation and gently, subtly nudging people to the thing that was best for them. I was no match for Andi and Jimmy when they really sank their teeth into something, and wow, I should not have told them about Tom’s potential donation to Team Future Kid.
Or at least I shouldn’t have told them until I decided what I was going to do. The thing with my sister was that you couldn’t convince her you knew better than she did, but you could convince her there was no point in arguing about it. But only if it was true. And at the moment I couldn’t figure out if the risk was worth the potential reward.
If I got a kid out of the thing, it was probably worth anything. I’d be willing to put up with an ugly custody battle and a dissolution of my friendship with Carlos and Tom. I didn’t think it would come to that, but I really wanted to be a mom. And I was getting more desperate with every cycle, which of course Andi knew.
Andi wanted a partner and a stable, monogamous relationship—but no kids. Ever. I wanted a kid, maybe two, but I wasn’t really invested in the idea of a stable relationship to go with it. That wasn’t part of my whole picture of the future. Have a kid was on my list. Find a stable partner was not. Between Andi and me, you could make one stereotypical woman, who wanted a family. Instead of two half-credit women who wanted such different things we could only understand one another intellectually.
“—aside from the not inconsiderable danger of the child itself discovering that you asked someone you barely know—”
“I don’t ‘barely know’ Tom! He’s been with Carlos for years!”
“Zane, do you really know anything about him? Or his family?”
“He’s from the Midwest. He came out here for school. What’s there to know?”
“His medical history for one! Is he estranged from his parents? If he is, I’d like to know why.”
“If he is, it’s probably because they wanted a nice, normal, straight boy and they got Tom!” I pushed back my chair. “I’m pretty much done with this conversation.”
“You’re not done until you make a decision, and I want you to have all the information you need to make an informed one!”
Jimmy shifted in his chair. He didn’t get off on the Jaffe family dramatics. Well, he must’ve gotten off on it a little, since he’d been around long enough to know who he was marrying. In his customary role as peacemaker, he said, “Okay, okay, come on now.”
“Come on now nothing.” I stood up. “Control your wife!”
As I walked out the front door I could hear Andi sputtering in rage, which didn’t make me feel nearly as good as it should have.
The bitch of it was . . . they were right. There were a lot of risks. Starting with all the basic risks of having unprotected sex with someone, since you were shooting their jizz in your vag. And continuing to the real legal danger that they might not sign a paper relinquishing their parental rights when the time came. And they couldn’t do that until after the kid was born, which was messy on all sides.
Technically if I got pregnant I could sue Tom for child support. How shitty would that be?
I lingered on the front steps of their narrow row house until Jimmy came out to smoke.
“Thanks a lot, asshat.” He offered me a cigarette, which I took. “Happy BFN.”
It was our monthly ritual. Andi pretended she didn’t know. I was pretty sure she pretended not to know that he was still smoking at all, and I really didn’t smoke, except for this one time each month.
I took a drag and offered a totally insincere apology. “Sorry, pal. That’s what you get for marrying into this family. You have no excuse.”
“She’s taking a bath. So I’m off the hook for processing.”
“You’re lucky she’s not a lesbian.”
He waved his glowing cigarette in my direction. “Excuse me, unnecessary stereotype? And the lesbian I know best in the world never processes anything with anyone, so I have reason to doubt that one.”
“Oh, it’s true. So true.”
“Come on, kid. What’s really going on? I thought you were just as against known donors as we are.”
I blew smoke into the air and shivered into my hoodie. “What’s going on is I’m tired, Jimmy. I’m tired of doing this every month for over a year. I’m sick of taking my temperature and checking my cervix and looking at my cervical mucus.”
“Looking at my cervical mucus, and waiting for it to go stretchy like egg whites so I know I’m fertile.”
“That’s gross, FYI.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“I hear all that, Zanie. I do. I get this is a fucking endless thing right now. And I know why you keep trying.” Unspoken: Unlike Andi, who thinks you should adopt already and save your money for the kid’s college fund. “But I don’t want you to make a rash decision because you’re starting to freak out, then regret it later.”
“I’m not starting to freak out, Jimmy.” I waited a beat before adding, “I’m so far into freak-out I’m numb.”
He shook his head, stubbing the cigarette butt out on the steps, then absently brushing away the ash. “You keep acting like it’s all fine.”
“What else am I gonna do?”
“At a guess—maybe indulge in a moment of honesty and actually tell me how you are for once?”
I’d always liked Jimmy. Most of the time I liked him a whole lot more than I liked Andi. But there was no way he could relate to how deeply my need to be a mother went, or how utterly inevitable it felt, that all I needed to do was keep trying and it would happen.
“I’m fine. I have a good job. I have a place to live in a safe neighborhood, good food to eat, excellent health care, and an extended chosen family. Oh, and a pain in the ass for a sister. You’re okay, though.”
I modulated my tone. “I know you’re worried about me, but I’m fine. I just wish this would happen already so I could move on with my life.”
“I wish you would see all the other paths you could take to get to where you want to go.” He kissed my cheek. “You coming back in?”
“Nah. Tell her I forgive her for being a butthead. That oughta help.”
“I’ll tell her you were willing to prostrate yourself in abject apology, but I told you it would only disturb her bath, so I finally convinced you to go home.”
“Actually, I’m going to Hannah’s.”
His eyes narrowed. “Oh. Jaq’s new girlfriend?”
“I did the math on that. Apparently they’ve been dating for like seven months.”
“Wow. That practically makes her family.”
“For real. Also, I’m gonna tell Jaq you said that and next time she sees you, she’s gonna kick your ass.”
“You just like promoting drama so you can feel like the only sane girl in La Vista.”
“You know that’s right, big brother.” I stubbed out my cigarette and stood up. “Thanks for the smoke.”
“Hopefully it’ll be the last one.”
“Yeah. Hopefully.” I kissed his cheek. “See ya, Jimmy.”
I got in my car and started to text Jaq that I was on my way. But stopped.
It wasn’t that late, but Andi had the right idea; I didn’t want to go to Hannah’s and eat mousse right now (well, okay, I kind of wanted to do that). What sounded even better than chocolate mousse was a bath, a book, and candlelight. Thank all the gods for the invention of self-lit ebook readers.
I texted, Maybe next time. Gonna go home and wallow in my own filth.
The car was still warming up when she replied: Have a good bath. XO.
Couldn’t beat old friends to understand your dumb jokes, right?
I tried really hard to relax in my bath, but I ended up spending most of it thinking about Tom, and what it would be like if I decided to use his sperm. It did feel like a risk, no matter how well I knew him. On the other hand, the idea of it—of trying something new—actually felt exciting. In a way that nothing related to trying to conceive had felt exciting in a long time.
Jaq and I went to the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The only exception was that I didn’t go the day after I ovulated on an insemination cycle out of a totally superstitious belief that I might somehow, during vigorous treadmilling, jolt the egg and ruin everything.
It’s not a real thing. Obviously. The human race wouldn’t continue if reproduction were that fragile. But when you’d worked as long and as hard as I had to get pregnant, you didn’t take chances. And anyway, it was a good excuse not to go to the gym. Even Jaq didn’t argue with it.
Before she’d hooked up with Hannah, we’d always done something after the gym. We’d get tacos, or smoothies, or we’d head to Club Fred’s for a drink or four. Nothing says healthy like liquor and women, am I right? In the post-Hannah world, sometimes she’d meet up with us somewhere, or sometimes we’d cut our thing short so Jaq could get home.
Sometimes, like today, Jaq said, “My girlfriend’s sending me sexy text messages, I gotta go,” and kissed my cheek on her way out of the locker room.
It’s not like you could really be bitter at a moment like that. At least someone was gonna get laid.
I made my way to Fred’s all by my lonesome and took the stool next to Cameron’s. “’Sup?”
“Hmm? Oh, hi, Zane.” He looked up from his phone, and it took him a moment to focus on me. “I’m reading this historical romance. It’s weirdly captivating.”
“I don’t know. I suppose I didn’t think I’d be all that interested in Regency England, but I’ve been doing some Google searches—and apparently I am. The whole thing is fascinating.” He shook his head. “How are you?”
“Went to the gym, so I’m ready to drink all the calories I burned. Fredi! Give a thirsty woman a beer, would you?”
Fredi shot me a vicious glare, which had been my goal. “I’ll serve you when I feel like it, Jaffe! Hold your horses!”
“She hates me,” I confided to Cam. “Tried to sneak in one time and she’s hated me ever since.”
“You wouldn’t think she’d be able to keep track of everyone who’d ever tried to sneak in here.”
“What can I say? I’m just that memorable.” I nudged him. “So. Josh and Keith, huh?”
“They’re here somewhere. Dancing, I think.” Cam could usually get away with pretending he hadn’t caught the nuances of whatever was going on around him, but the way he was looking anywhere but at me blew his cover.
“You don’t want to dance with them?”
“I don’t dance.”
Nudge, nudge. “So. Keith and Josh, huh?”
He sighed. “Yes. That is the answer to your not-question. Yes. Me and them.”
“Good? What does that mean, ‘good’?”
I studied him, thinking about how many times I’d seen him on this particular stool, how easily I could picture him in the Rhein’s ticket booth. “Good for you. Way to change things up, Cam.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“I really think you do, and it’s okay. Seriously.”
He cleared his throat. “How’s it going with Mildred?”
A beer landed in front of me on the counter, accompanied by another patented Fredi glare. At close range Fredi’s glare was unsettling, almost physical.
To say nothing of her growl. “You running a tab tonight?”
“I’ll get Zane’s,” Cam said smoothly, pulling out his wallet.
“Why thank you, kind sir.” I tipped an imaginary hat to him.
Fredi grunted, took his money, and walked away.
“How’s it going with Mildred?” he asked again.
“So you bought my beer and now I have to answer your questions?”
He opened his mouth, shut it, and paused. “Actually, yes. I think that’s exactly correct. You owe me.”
“Listen, Dred and I aren’t really dating. We’re pretend dating. Fake-dating, if you will.”
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s a mutually beneficial thing where she gets out of the house and spends time vaguely ‘in the world’ and I get Jaq to stop making online dating profiles in my name.”
“I can see all that. I guess my question is . . . why aren’t you actually dating? Since it’s so mutually beneficial? You aren’t attracted to each other?”
“Uh—I—I wouldn’t say that—” I came up short. “Wait, what do you mean?”
“What’s stopping you from asking Mildred on a real date?”
“I don’t think she’s interested.”
He blinked. “Really.”
I was still waiting for a follow-up to “really” when Josh came from behind Cam and draped an arm around his shoulders. A warm, very nearly beautiful smile lit Cam’s face as he twisted a bit to look up.
Josh returned the look. “Keith wants you to dance with us.”
“I don’t dance.”
“He knows I don’t dance.”
“Fine.” Josh sighed dramatically. “What if we put on music back at the apartment? Would you dance with him then?”
“I don’t dance. It’s not a question of venue.” But the smile teased up at the corners.
“Cam, c’mon, do me a solid and dance with him. I hate it when he pouts.”
Cam considered this for a long moment. Clearly they’d forgotten about me, but I wasn’t complaining; I’d been watching Cam go through the world alone since he started showing up at Fred’s. Before then I’d known him as “the Rheingold kid, who’s always reading in the ticket booth.” It was a little bit glorious watching him . . . play.
“So I’d be doing both of you a service,” he finally said.
Josh grinned. “You saying you’d want to negotiate terms?”
“I’m ready to go if you two are.”
“Hell yes.” Josh waved to me. “How’s it going, Zane?”
“My night’s not looking as good as yours is, but it’s still pretty good.”
“Man, you don’t even know.” He kissed Cam’s cheek and melted back into the crowd.
I leveled a look at him. “So.”
Cam blushed appropriately. “Hmm?”
“Don’t ‘hmm’ me, buddy.”
“Anyway. I’ve been thinking about it, and if you trust Tom and Carlos, I think it’s an intriguing idea, you know. The thing you told us about the other day.”
“Yeah. Like—” He paused, eyes narrowing. “I think about how families are built a lot lately. The different ways it happens, and how it’s not always the way people think it will be. So anyway, not that I have an opinion to register really, but I think it’s an interesting idea.”
“Thanks, kid.” I socked his arm. “You’re gonna dance with Keith when you get home, aren’t you?”
“Not my home. Actually. I, uh, stay a lot of the time at their apartment. Not because, you know—even if we weren’t, they’d let me sleep on the sofa. My place is . . . difficult. Right now.”
It took me thirty seconds of staring dumbly at him to figure out what he meant. “Oh shit. Because of the attack?”
“I still think about it a lot, even though it turned out fine. And the case—the case against him is good. I can’t imagine how people feel when the perpetrator gets out, or isn’t arrested at all. That must be horrible.”
Even just watching him in Fred’s, I could see his rising discomfort, the sweat at his temples, the way his fingers tapped lightly on the edge of his phone.
“I was sitting here, before you came in, thinking about how it affected everyone.” He gestured to the bar. “Club Fred’s is made up of two groups now: the people who are oblivious, and the people who are . . . wary. The people who were afraid before and aren’t quite sure if they can stop being afraid yet.”
“It’s definitely more depressing around here than it used to be.”
“I think it’s fear. But I might be projecting.” He offered a tired smile. “You think?”
“No.” I swiveled around to see more of the room. The changes were almost imperceptible. Business had gone down—I knew only because Tom had mentioned it—but not noticeably. I couldn’t tell by all the empty chairs or anything like that. But Cam was right. Club Fred’s used to be . . . open. People flitted from group to group, socializing like honeybees, or joined conversations at the high tables without being invited. I hadn’t noticed a change as it happened, but now, looking around, I could see its stamp. Chairs drawn more tightly together, heads down, conversations lower than they would have been before. I knew a whole lot of people, but only a few I could have approached unannounced without feeling like a suspicious presence.
“You used to be able to walk up to anyone and feel welcomed,” I said.
“Well. Maybe you used to be able to do that.”
I smiled. “I did. Now I’d feel like I was intruding. How do you notice it, Cam?”
“People used to linger at the bar, talk to strangers. Sometimes me, sometimes just whomever was around. Now there are fewer people on their own. They move in small packs, even the ones who seem most oblivious. It’s interesting. But I miss the way it was before.” He shrugged. “I used to feel like sitting here reading was normal. Now it feels like an imposition, or—”
Keith tumbled into his arms. “Josh said you’re gonna dance with me when we get home.”
“I didn’t commit.”
“Oh, you’re committed. Sorry, Zane, Cam’s got a date with me and some music.”
I pretended annoyance. “Oh, sure, fine. I’ll sit here and philosophize to myself, then.”
“Glad you understand.” He shot me an impish grin and slid out of Cam’s lap. “C’mon. Plus, I can tell you’re thinking about him again, so stop.”
“Not him.” Cam tucked his phone away in the inner pocket of his coat. “We were talking about how Club Fred’s has changed.”
“Yeah, it’s morose everywhere but the dance floor.” Keith tugged Cam’s hands like a little kid. “C’mon.”
“Good night, Zane.”
“See ya, boys. Have fun.”
“We totally will.”
As they were walking away I heard Cam ask where Josh was. I turned in time to see his body stiffen when Keith airily replied that Josh was getting the car.
It’s so weird what you can see when no one knows you’re watching. Keith put an arm around his shoulders and whispered something in his ear, something that made Cam take a deep breath.
Then they were gone, out the door, and I was left by myself at the bar, thinking about how happy I was for Cam. And maybe a tiny bit bitter that no one was around to whisper calming things in my ear. Which was stupid, because for most of my life, the last thing I wanted was that kind of intimacy. Getting laid was one thing. People grabbing my hand and acting giddy about being with me was fun for about five minutes before I found it exhausting.
I had so much to do. With my life. I had my career, which I intended to make an awful lot of money at, and a social schedule that let me hang out with a lot of different people every week, and I had good friends. I wanted to have a kid. I didn’t need to add a girlfriend to that mix; where would I find time for a girlfriend?
Good. Settled. I didn’t want a girlfriend.
A text message came in from Dred. Emerson made apple pie. Get ice cream on your way over. He says vanilla, and don’t cheap out.
I finished my beer, bemoaned my lack of diet, and made my way to my car.
Apple pie and ice cream at the farmhouse was better than sitting at the bar, thinking about how not-lonely I was.