Nick furrowed his brow at the tangled insides of his 2006 Mazda 3. He nervously ran his finger along the propped hood before glancing over to his roommate. Tucker stood in skinny jeans and with one of his long grey cardigans over an un-tucked collared shirt: Tucker’s day-off wear. His dark hair was showered and combed, but not styled, though it was already afternoon. He pushed his glasses up his nose and nervously glanced around, probably to see if any neighbours were watching the display in the open parking lot of their apartment building.
“You look fine, Tucker. No one’s watching us.”
“Perhaps. But you did have a tantrum that I heard from my desk.”
“Ugh. It’s the car. That’s why I’m freaking out. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
With a groan, Nick closed the hood and then slid back into the driver’s-side door. When the car hadn’t started fifteen minutes earlier, Nick had descended into every single swear word combination imaginable as if they’d been a chant to fix his engine. Since Nick and Tucker’s shared fourth-floor apartment looked directly down on Nick’s reserved parking space, it was a matter of time before Tucker found Nick the way he was now: frustrated, panicky, and utterly late for a class meeting. The way Tucker hunched as he watched Nick flail over the car was overwhelming, but Nick had learned to brush it off. Invasive, all-encompassing, and overwhelming is how Tucker always was. When his dark eyes fixated on something — be it a stain on their kitchen floor or an obscure German word in a book he was studying — he didn’t stop staring until he figured it out. If anything, Nick began to feel comforted having him around, even if he probably knew less about cars than Nick did.
“Nobody knows what they’re doing until they try again,” Tucker said. “So try the car again.”
With another sigh, Nick turned the key in the ignition and the car hummed. He was about to celebrate his victory when the engine failed to turn over. The car went silent. “Shit, shit, shit. What does that sound like to you?”
“Sounds like it won’t start.”
“Thanks, Tucker. That’s all I know too. Real insightful.”
“That’s a pretty definitive problem. You don’t really need to know the why of the problem, only that it is.”
Nick stared at Tucker with disdain. Fucking German philosophy PhDs. He loved Tucker with all his heart, but he wanted to hug him at the same time as push him over when he got too esoteric for his own good.
When Nick tried starting the car again, the engine wouldn’t even hum to life. A bright light near his odometer spat out a red symbol that made no sense. He consulted Tucker about it, but all Tucker could do was push his thick-rimmed glasses to the end of his nose and speculate with a wave of his hands. When Tucker folded his arms over his chest and began pacing, his attention now diverted, Nick knew there was no hope left. His car was now officially fried.
“Well, that’s it,” Nick said. “I think I’m done. That’s all I know how to do.”
“Recognizing limitations is a good quality, especially in our modern era.”
When Nick was silent, Tucker continued glancing around at the spring blooms by their walkway and the nice weather outside, as if he hadn’t been beyond their apartment door in days. Which was probably true for both of them, really.
Nick struggled to remember the last time he’d driven his car for any length of time. The grocery store they shopped at was around the corner, so there was no need for driving there and back. He’d finished his course work for his English PhD six months earlier too, so there was only dissertation writing (which could be done at home) and sometimes teaching on campus (which he needed to drive to). For the spring term, he was teaching an online course called Introduction to Business Writing and didn’t need to be present in a classroom. That course did have meetings with his supervisor and a bunch of other PhD students teaching the class, though, and Nick definitely needed to be on campus for that.
The thought of the course material made him want to roll his eyes. But now that his car wouldn’t start and Professor Anatol was probably already taking attendance, teaching business English to a bunch of students through an outdated technical online interface wasn’t even the worst thing that was happening to him.
Nick groaned as his stomach lurched. He hit his steering wheel with the heel of his hand. “Well, fuck. I wish I was good at cars. I’ve clearly made the wrong career move.”
“No, you haven’t. And no, you don’t.”
“Okay, I don’t. But I have no idea what to do or how to fix this. It could be as simple as forgetting to change the fucking oil or leaving my lights on and now needing a jump. Or it could be something I don’t even know the name for and now I need a new engine.”
“Huh.” Tucker sighed. “I almost forgot that time you left your lights on all night. You’re really not good with cars. You know, Kant used to walk a lot. Maybe you should walk more?”
“Tucker. Not. Helping.”
“Well, I can tell you one thing for sure: us pedestrians usually take the bus to campus. And there’s a stop just around the corner that probably comes by in ten minutes or so.” Tucker squinted as he looked down through his glasses at his watch. “Or eight minutes. Better hurry and you won’t be late.”
“Fuck.” Nick reached into the backseat of his car for his backpack and tossed his keys into his front pocket. Nick cast a glance over his shoulder as he rounded the corner of their apartment building. “You’ll be here later tonight, right? I need your help with that thing.”
“Yes, that thing. Of course I’ll be here. Where the hell else am I gonna go? You’re welcome, by the way.”
If Nick hadn’t already been running, he probably would have laughed.
* * * * *
The bus over to the school was hot and cramped. Considering this was the first day where it actually felt like spring, complete with picturesque blue skies and yellow sun shining, after a long winter in Waterloo, everyone else on the bus seemed happy to be suddenly overdressed and overheated. Many passengers had their coats off and taking up the seats next to them. The front windows were open, allowing a breeze to cool the seating area as much as it could. Nick was wearing a black collared shirt over a band T-shirt, along with a pair of tight blue jeans. After rolling up his sleeves and unbuttoning the collared shirt so it acted more like a jacket, the heat seemed manageable-and so did the time.
University of Waterloo was only a fifteen-minute drive away from their two-bedroom apartment. Nick figured it would take at least twenty-five minutes for the bus to arrive on campus. He checked his phone for the meeting’s room number and was relieved to see it scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and not 2 p.m. like he’d thought. From the landmarks outside, they were over halfway to campus, and it was 2:20 p.m. He’d have to run to the meeting room, but he’d make it. Finally, Professor Anatol wouldn’t think he was a fuckup who was always late.
Nick cringed when he remembered his car. How do you take a car to a mechanic when it won’t start? And why don’t I have CAA? His mother had been nagging him to get CAA since he bought the car used from a woman he’d met off Craigslist three years ago. He’d thought his mother was being paranoid, and put off getting anything beyond insurance. But of course cars eventually break down. And that means you have to get a tow truck and pay for it all yourself. Nick groaned as he pushed the thought away. That was not the thing to worry about right now.
After fiddling around on his phone to find music, Nick realized the bus was already at the station stop for the university. With another belabored sigh, he slipped his phone back into his pocket and ran out the back of the bus without so much as a thank-you to the driver. Darting across the campus was a nightmare — why were four people insisting on walking in a line together, effectively blocking the whole sidewalk? — but the more he ran, the more he felt in control of something. His car might have broken down, he might have had no money, but he had run track for six months when he was fourteen and still super skinny. He’d been a natural sprinter that year-until a growth spurt over the summer had made him fill out in his shoulders and some in his stomach. He’d gone from needing two meals to satisfy his grandmother to being teased for being “husky” almost overnight, and lost his edge on the track team. His weight had scaled down from being broke in university and living off ramen, and now his five-foot-ten frame had settled on a nice middle ground. He was soft in some places and would never, ever be a gym rat, but he could still sprint when he needed to.
As Nick rounded the corner to the humanities building, he was sure that he’d make it on time-until a woman came out of the set of double doors at the exact same time, and clocked him right in the stomach with the door handle.
Nick doubled over in pain. Oomph and yet another long string of curses left his mouth.
“Oh my God.” The woman gasped, her voice pitched low with horror. “Are you okay?”
Nick rubbed a hand over the tender area of his stomach. He winced, but his pride was more wounded than anything. His legs throbbed from running and his breath had been knocked out of his lungs, but that was his own fault.
“I’m fine. I’m fine. Just not my day today.”
The woman seemed about to say something else when a group of guys dressed in polo shirts came through the second door. They swerved around the two of them, but knocked over the book bag she’d set on the ground. They didn’t seem to notice and kept walking as nearly a dozen titles scattered over the front steps.
“Assholes,” she mumbled. Her sympathetic tone disappeared in one word, and Nick was struck by her sudden fragility. She’d seemed like an utter brick wall when she’d rammed the door handle into him, composed of superhuman strength and power, but now he noticed her heart-shaped face and the soft brown hair that hung loosely at the sides. She tucked her hair behind her ears in a nervous gesture, revealing brightly painted purple nails.
“Hey, I’m sure those guys didn’t mean it. Some people are accident prone, you know?” Nick wanted the words to come out as a jest, but his panting breath made them sound harsh, as if he were still mad at the woman for running into him. When she examined him with her pointed stare, a familiar yet uncanny feeling of familiarity flowed through him. Do I know her? Have I taught her before in a first-year class? No, too old for that. She seems like my age. Is she a grad student from another department, then? Nick ran over the options he could think of as to why this girl was pinging on all his radars, until she looked away. She began to gather her books with stiff movements.
“I guess I’m just lucky that way,” she mumbled again. “Always accident prone.”
“Hey. That’s not what I meant. I’m sorry.” Nick started to pick up the books that had scattered on the ground. He furrowed his brow at some of the titles-most of them were about printmaking in Russia in the Modernist period-and worked on piling them back into her bag again.
“Hey, thanks.” The woman met his gaze again, her smile small but genuine. “Are you feeling okay? I didn’t break a rib? Wouldn’t be the first time, if I’m honest.”
“No, no.” Nick looked down at his stomach, pulling his T-shirt taut as he did. “I’m perfectly fine. Definitely late now, but fine.”
“Well, that’s good. Not that you’re late, but that you’re fine. I like your T-shirt, by the way.”
When the woman laughed, Nick’s cheeks flamed. He was wearing his old Bouncing Souls T-shirt, the one with the holes in the armpits from constant use. Tucker had made fun of him for the shirt (calling it his “security blanket”) at least a dozen times, and he was so not willing to hear the same kind of flak from a random stranger who probably had cracked his rib.
Before Nick could argue with her, the woman undid her white leather jacket and pulled it open to reveal the exact same Bouncing Souls shirt underneath. Nick swore his smile took up his entire face.
“No way! How cool!”
The woman shrugged as she buttoned up her jacket again. She hiked her book bag over her arm and then gestured behind Nick. “I better get going, and it sounds like you should too.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. I promise I won’t run like a maniac next time I’m here.”
“Running can be fun, as long as it’s for a good reason. But maybe look a little more, okay?”
When the woman smiled, butterflies swarmed in Nick’s stomach. He pushed the reaction away and focused on what he needed to do: get to the meeting before Professor Anatol gave him the worst section of this class to grade. He jogged the rest of the way, making sure to look around corners as he went. By the time he arrived, he was only five minutes late-and Anatol was nowhere to be seen.
Nick slunk into a spot at the back, right next to his casual friend Sam from his earlier PhD classes. “Where’s Anatol?”
“Late,” Sam said. “He sent an email five minutes ago that he was caught in a meeting across campus, but he’d be here soon. So I guess you didn’t have to book it here as much as you thought, huh?”
“Maybe,” Nick said. “But I’m kind of glad I did.”
“I never thought I’d see you again,” Greg said.
Nick grinned nonchalantly as he leaned against the mechanic’s doorway. His ex-boyfriend Greg was behind the counter, filling out some reports, while Greg’s bosses, John and Ray, had taken Nick’s car around the other side. After the class meeting, Nick had swallowed his pride and called a tow truck and told them to drop it off at the closest mechanic. When the driver had informed him that’d be Davis’s Car and Auto Repair, Nick hadn’t been surprised.
“How could I never see your face again? Please,” Nick said. “I knew this would happen one day. I’ve been in Waterloo so long I have memories around every corner. Most of them good.”
Greg chuckled. “Well, I think you should make a scrapbook. Save up for when you finally defend that damn degree of yours.”
“In that case, I may be here for years. So humor me and help me out right now. Your friends have just taken my poor car.”
“Let me finish up this paperwork, then I’m all yours. Always a pleasure to serve, you know.” Greg winked before he hurriedly scrawled a few more notes on whatever forms he was filling in.
Out of all of Nick’s breakups, Greg had easily been the best. The two of them had hooked up in the back laundry room of a house party, where Nick also had met Tucker, during the early part of his PhD. After exchanging numbers, they soon had sex in Greg’s car. Two weeks later, they were having sex fairly regularly as if it were a sport. In spite of Nick desperately wanting the relationship to go somewhere more romantic and mean something beyond fucking, they both knew they would never work out. Greg’s large biceps and taut muscles, dusty-blond hair, and sharp jawline drew Nick in, but his messy apartment and gambling habit (and subsequent credit card debt) were huge turnoffs for anything long-term. According to Greg, Nick’s intellect and his wild theories about the world made interesting pillow and dinner talk, but Nick’s addiction to romantic comedies on Netflix made him seem both too serious and too sappy. So after two months of fooling around, Greg invited Nick over for a glass of whiskey and they mutually decided to see other people. It had taken another two weeks for the “no fucking around anymore” part of the breakup to really take effect, and by that time, Greg had found someone else through Grindr, and Netflix had uploaded all of Friends to its queue, so Nick had something else to do on Friday and Saturday nights.
Greg set the forms aside on the counter and turned his attention back to Nick. “So what brings you here?”
“As if you don’t know. I am just that desperate and hopeless.” Nick sighed overdramatically. “Also, my car won’t start. John and Ray took it around by the back door.”
“I thought it was only me who got in your back door?”
“Oh, don’t start that. My heart is like my car and can’t take being toyed with.”
“Hmm. Sounds like a big issue.”
Greg chuckled. Before their flirtation could go much further, John and Ray stepped in from the garage and placed a new form in front of Greg. They grabbed some donuts from a box near the coffee machine and disappeared again into another room. “Well, apparently I’m the only one free today, so I may as well check it out.”
“You’re an angel. Thank you.” Nick held back from kissing Greg on the cheek with gratitude. When Greg walked around the counter and grabbed Nick in a half hug, Nick felt much better.
“Don’t worry, Nick. I’ll go take a look at this mess, and maybe we can get you out of here before nightfall.”
* * *
An hour later, Greg came back into the storefront area with grease on the front of his uniform and sections of his sandy-blond hair sticking up. He chewed on his lip, avoiding Nick’s wave, as he slid behind the front counter’s computer. Nick had been nursing a cup of really dark and bitter coffee, which he now crinkled in his hand as he stood.
“Oh no. I know that look,” Nick said. “That’s the ‘this is expensive and I don’t know how to break it to you’ look. I’ve seen it more than once.”
Greg’s gaze narrowed in on the computer screen without answering Nick. He let out a low whistle.
“I’m so not getting out of here before nightfall,” Nick said.
“I know. Spoke too soon. Sorry.”
“It’s fine. Just don’t drag it out. Tell me the news. I can take it.” Nick clapped a hand over his chest. He felt as if he were repeating the dialogue of every father in a Lifetime movie about a kid with cancer. From the way Greg’s brows continued to knit, maybe that wasn’t far off.
“Well. I know that mechanics are notorious for going under the hood for one issue and coming up with several others. But I can’t let you drive out of here.”
“Well, yeah. The engine.”
“That’s relatively minor. Still shitty, and kind of expensive, but it could be fixed in twenty-four hours. It’s your brakes that concern me.”
“That sounds ominous,” Nick said. “But as far as I know, they’ve been working well.”
“They have. But you ever hear a grinding noise while driving? It may be small, but it’s there-right?”
Nick tried to remember, but came up with nothing.
“Well, the shocks are wearing away, along with the brake pads. That’s what’s making that noise. If you don’t hear it now, you’ll start to hear it soon. And the more those wear away, the closer you get to your brakes not working. That really is ominous, like you said, so I need to replace them. And, well, come here for a second.” Greg motioned for Nick to come behind the counter. Nick did so, sliding in close to Greg, because any kind of bodily contact right now would make him feel better. If Tucker had been there, Nick would have tried to hold his hand, and Tucker probably would have let him. Nick’s car’s make and model were on the screen, next to a list with different manufactures, part names that made no sense, and their cost. Their astronomical cost.
“Hey. Wait. I thought a Mazda was supposed to be cheaper? That was why I bought this car.”
“I know. It’s good advice for the standard repairs. But when we’re talking about batteries and brakes and shocks, there’s only so much I can do. I’m not a miracle worker.”
Nick closed his eyes and tried to steady himself. “I know, I know. You’re a huge help. But how much are we talking here? I’m already in pretty deep because of the tow truck.”
Greg tapped the keyboard a few times. The total amount was listed at the bottom. Four digits. Nick felt like he’d been wounded. Everything above twenty dollars seemed too high, unless he was talking about his student loan payments. A couple grand for something like a car made him want to curl up into a ball.
“I can’t pay that. Not right now. It’s just . . .”
“I get it. You’re in school. I’m good with this stuff, remember?”
“I do. You were a saint in your other life.” Nick smiled. When they had dated, it had always been Greg picking up their bills at restaurants or at movies. It had been nice, for a while, to feel like a kept boyfriend. But Nick was under no illusions right now. There was no way Greg would pay for this-even if Nick did sneak him away and give him a blowjob in the back. Which he wasn’t totally above doing . . . he’d just prefer to not ignite that flame of attraction right now.
“This is what I can do.” Greg typed in more numbers on the screen. “A discount. Friends and family. I’m taking out most of the labour costs this way.”
“Oh my God. Really? That would be great.”
Nick watched as some of the possible total was knocked down-but not much. It looked like only ten percent of the initial total was gone. That was still a lot, but by no means enough. Nick’s smile fell from his face, and Greg squeezed his shoulder.
“That’s all I can do, Nickie.”
“I know, I know. Thanks so much for even considering me discount-worthy. I think I can pay that total.” Nick scanned his phone for his funding email from the university, plus his latest credit card statement. He did some quick math in his head, and though it pained him, he nodded. “Yeah, I can pay that bill. But not now? I have to wait until the end of the month for my money from my teaching job to come in. I’ve already paid the tow truck with credit, so I can’t max that out. Then there’s rent and food, you know. I like eating. But I’m thinking of developing a finer palette for the many different types of ramen noodles.”
“I understand entirely.” Greg inputted a few commands into the computer, possibly ordering the parts he’d need and saving the bill for later. “These parts will take a few days to come in, anyway. I obviously can’t let you drive out of the lot, so we can keep your car. No charge. We’ll fix the issues when the parts are in, and then I can let the car stay here a little beyond that. Whenever you can pay, you can take it back. Make sense?”
“Yeah, but don’t push the limit too far, you know? These guys barely notice anything that’s not a donut, so if by chance they somehow realize that your grey little Mazda has been hanging around too long, I can stave them off for at least a week. Hopefully you’ll have the money by then.”
“Thank you! Thank you so much. This is huge.” Nick fought the urge to hug Greg again. Greg smiled, his dimples visible on his cheeks. Nick shuddered as he remembered what those dimples tasted like and what Greg felt like underneath his uniform. Nick pushed those thoughts away. Those days were done, and this small favour was only that-a favour for old times’ sake.
“Okay. Good. Always happy to help,” Greg said. “Give me a few minutes to collect some stuff in the back room and print out a few forms. I also think I have to do an oil change. But after that, would you like a ride back to your place? We offer them for paying customers.”
Nick let out a relieved sigh. He had anticipated walking the half hour back to his apartment under the hot sun, but now he could relax and get even more bad coffee.
“That sounds perfect. Thank you again.”
Greg lifted up a hand, almost as if he were bowing. “No worries, Nickie. I always try my best.”
Nick was in the middle of his second cup of bitter coffee when his phone rang. Alex Moore displayed on the screen, and Nick’s heart sank. Shit, Alex. Alex and his fucking party. Nick had forgotten what time-and really, what day-it was with everything that had happened. It was almost six now, the end of the work day, and he’d thought he’d get to go home and relax in front of a TV show marathon, drowning his sorrow in ramen noodles. Not quite. Nick almost let the call go to voice mail. Knowing he wouldn’t hear the end of it, he clicked Accept and stepped outside the mechanic’s lobby.
“Nick!” Alex roared into the phone. “Where have you been? You better be stuck in traffic right now.”
“I’m actually stuck at a mechanic’s.”
“Stop playing, man. What time are you really heading out here tonight?”
“Uh . . . Um . . . Fuck,” Nick murmured under his breath as he kicked the curb. Guilt crept under his skin. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten about Alex, so much as Nick had been strategically putting off thinking about him. In order for Nick to be in grad school, he had to be good at compartmentalizing or he’d become overwhelmed by all he had to do. To even think about Alex’s wedding, happening at the end of June, made him want to break out in hives. There was too much to consider, and now, way too much he couldn’t afford. This weekend was supposed to be reserved for a small party between the groomsmen, and then Alex, and his other friend Levi, getting fitted for tuxes along with Nick. It was supposed to be a fun reunion of all three of them, reminiscent of their University of Toronto days. But now everything felt like a burden, and in spite of Nick loving Alex (and, to a certain degree, Levi) as his best friends, he didn’t know if he could face Toronto.
“Don’t leave me hanging, Nick. What’s up?”
Nick sighed. “I can’t come tonight. There’s just no way. My car won’t start. And apparently I’ve been driving with my brake lines perilously close to cutting out. It’s a wonder I’m alive, really.”
“Oh, oh wow.” Alex’s voice took on a serious-yet parental-tone he must have used in his high school classroom when he was teaching. “That’s terrible.”
“Yeah. New brakes and new battery. Bad news.”
“That’s not good.”
“Yeah, it’s not.” Nick was silent for a while. He kicked some pebbles and felt utterly wretched about the whole thing. Alex’s voice hadn’t changed from the parental tone, and Nick didn’t like feeling chastised, even in a small way. “I can probably make it out tomorrow to get fitted for the tux, though. I know there’s no way of getting around that. But the party tonight I can’t attend. Not even if I took a bus.”
“Okay, I think that’s a good solution,” Alex said. “I’m glad the tux fitting can still happen, and I look forward to seeing you.”
“But?” Nick asked. “C’mon, man. I know you’re giving me teacher tone right now. What else is up?”
“Bullshit,” Nick challenged. In addition to being a high school teacher, Alex was the youngest in their friend group by a couple of months, and he was the one who kept everyone together and happy. Even if Nick didn’t mean to miss their clubbing experience tonight, it was as if he’d missed out on the wedding itself.
When Alex sighed, Nick knew they were getting somewhere. Alex was going back into social mode, and that meant being honest with Nick for what felt like the first time in months.
“I just miss you, you know? It’s already like you’re a completely different person because of the PhD. At least you did your master’s close by, but now . . . you’re stuck in your ivory tower.”
“Not a chance. I’m the only person here who refuses to change. Still a stubborn Romantic with a capital R at heart, which is why I’m in school. Studying the Romantics. Forget ivory towers, man. And,” Nick added with urgency, “I’m still your best man. I’m still coming to your wedding. Even if I can’t stand the bachelor party you’re having.”
“We could get a stripper for you! I don’t mind, and there’s lots of time to rearrange that,” Alex said. Nick was the only gay one in their group of friends. Usually it didn’t matter, since they bonded far more often about music than they did about women. Alex’s fairy-tale romance with Erin, his university girlfriend, and the subsequent wedding plans had changed their dynamic-but not in the way Nick had anticipated. Instead of being bored senseless by the wedding details, he found himself longing for them way, way too much.
“Nah, don’t worry about getting me a beefcake for your party. It’s not about me, you know? It’s your wedding and your party. I’ll go and maybe talk to some of the girls about something innocuous. Maybe they like the same movies as me.”
“Maybe.” Alex laughed a little. “I just wish you could have been around for the house party tonight.”
“Me too, but really, having a party tonight and then a bachelor party seems excessive. You straights are monsters.”
“Hey now,” Alex said, still lighthearted. “It’s my last week of decadence. Or something like that.”
“Yeah, something.” Nick rolled his eyes. “At least you have Levi tonight, and he can champion a party well enough. Tomorrow, you’ll have me. And the rest of the weekend, we can see how things go. Sound good?”
“Yeah, really good. You’re going to come tomorrow with the car?”
“Um . . .” Nick glanced across the street to the GO Bus terminal. The sign’s green and white logo seemed like a beacon in the night, especially since they were the only bus company that went directly from Waterloo to Toronto at least twice a day, even on the weekends. “Nah, I have another plan. I’ll work it out. Just save me a seat for lunch before the tuxes, okay?”
“Okay,” Alex said, his voice lighter now. “Stay safe, my man.”
When Nick hung up the phone, he remained on the curb for a while longer, his thoughts a jumbled mess. Ever since Alex had proposed to Erin, there had been a rift in their friendship. Nick had thought it was because he’d taken his PhD to a new school two hours away, but he knew that wasn’t true. His friendship with Levi had still remained the same, even if Levi had also changed from the nerdy, six-foot-four lanky guy who loved punk to the big-shot stock trader in Toronto.
No-the change had everything to do with Alex’s wedding, and as the date approached, Nick felt it in his gut like an ulcer. None of it seemed fair. Nick wanted a wedding, probably more than anyone he’d ever known, but his desire had always been stifled or kept under wraps. He had heard all the arguments against getting married, the clichés, the tropes, how it still reinforced heteronormativity for gays, but he didn’t care. He wanted the tux for himself, and he wanted to pick the colours. He wanted to rent out the large hall to have the first dance with someone, then file off into a plane for a dream honeymoon. But more than any of the ephemera associated with a wedding, Nick wanted the husband. The person by his side-the love of his life. But he also knew, with the way things had been going lately, this dream would never happen.
“Hey, Nick?” Greg stepped out of the mechanic’s office, scanned the parking lot, and located Nick across the street. He waved him over. “Come on, man. You ready to go?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Nick nodded, still shaking away the lingering hope under his skin. “I’ll be right there.”
* * *
“So how has your dilemma been?” Tucker asked.
Nick groaned before shucking his bag onto their wooden table. Tucker leaned against the counter, still drinking from the same mug of coffee that he’d had earlier in the day. Their kitchen was devoid of any dishes, and it looked as if the counters had been scrubbed until they shone. Which meant that Tucker had been avoiding work all day, cleaning like a fiend while simultaneously listening to audiobooks about the civil war. Anything but his dissertation.
“I’m exhausted, that’s how I am.” Nick walked past Tucker to the fridge, only to close the door after he saw nothing that was his to eat inside. “And I have no car.”
“I figured that from the cute guy driving you home. Sorry, man. I know it sucks. If it makes you feel better, please eat my leftover Chinese food.”
“What?” Nick looked sheepishly into the fridge and then back at Tucker. “Are you sure?”
“Definitely sure. I don’t like whatever it is.”
“Why did you get it, then? Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, you know. Just odd.”
Tucker shrugged. “I actually can’t read the local menu, so I just pick numbers, which I do know the Mandarin for. Sometimes it’s good. Other times . . . it’s yours.”
“Well, normally I would tell you to just go to a different place with an English menu, but I know you’re an odd creature, Tucker, and right now you’re also a lifesaver.” Nick emptied the take-out container into a small bowl and slipped it in their microwave. Tucker remained leaning on the counter, his skinny body almost a forty-five-degree angle as he continued to drink coffee. When Nick took his newly acquired dinner to the table, Tucker followed and sat across from him.
“It was odd not having you around. I got a lot of cleaning done.”
“I see that. You still avoiding your dissertation.” Nick stated it like a fact rather than a question. Tucker’s pale skin flamed pink.
“I know the writing is in my head. I just have to find the right words before I put it down.”
Nick snorted and took a large bite. He realized he hadn’t eaten all day, other than the coffees at the mechanic’s place, and slowly fell into silence as he devoured almost everything from the container.
Tucker was a year ahead of Nick in his PhD program. This was his fourth year, but definitely not his last. Unless he somehow managed to “find the right words” in the next three months, it looked like Tucker was going to be around for another semester. Which Nick could use. Tucker was always on time with the rent money and kept the small, two-bedroom place spotless. He was also really good with finding meals Nick would like.
Nick set down the container that he’d practically licked clean. “What number was that? It was delicious.”
“Get four more often.”
Tucker rolled his eyes. “Is there anything else you need? You’re acting a little odd.”
“The car is really fucked. New battery and brakes. Gonna cost a couple grand that I don’t have right now. I will have it in the future, and I know time makes everything, especially money problems, a lot better . . . but I’m having a hard time with mantras lately.”
“That’s because mantras aren’t anything. They’re purposely void of meaning so a reader can input whatever they want. ‘This too shall pass’? That means nothing. But say it to the right person, and it can mean everything.”
“Huh, I guess so,” Nick said. “And it’s run out of meaning for me. Especially when, on top of the car bills, I’m going to have to head to Toronto tomorrow for a tux fitting for a tux that I don’t think I can afford. Then there’s bus fare getting to Toronto and back. It’s . . . just really shitty right now. But I know it’s shitty for you too. That’s grad school.”
“Well, that’s what credit cards are for.”
“I can’t put a couple grand on my card. That’s . . . too much, and the interest rates would kill me.”
“So put the tux on it. Don’t think about the car right now. And,” Tucker said, digging into his pockets. He pulled out a couple of twenties and laid them on the table. “Take this for the bus.”
Nick blinked at the cash as if it were magic for several seconds. “No, man. I can’t take your money. Your number-four dinner is one thing, but this is too much.”
Tucker merely slid the money to Nick across the table. “Take it. You need it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Tucker said, rather impatiently. Nick touched the edge of the twenties and felt whatever pride he had wash away.
“Thank you. I’ll pay you back.”
“Consider this payback. You drove me around a lot last month. Remember the Hegel book? I use the car as much as you sometimes, you know.”
“Right, I suppose so.”
A couple of weeks ago, Tucker had needed to find some obscure German history book at the library, and when they didn’t have it, the two of them ended up taking an impromptu trip to Guelph, a town nearly an hour away, just to find a book that looked as if it were at least a thousand years old and bound in human skin. Nick had been grateful for the trip away from his office, so he hadn’t considered it something just for Tucker. Now, looking at the money in front of him, he knew it was an even enough trade. Not that he liked thinking that way. This would be enough for a bus ticket there and back to Toronto, he could put whatever tux on his credit card like Tucker said, and Greg had given him enough stalling tactics for the car. Things would be fine. Difficult, but fine.
“You’re an awesome friend, you do know this, right?”
Tucker smiled. “And a fantastic roommate. I mean, have you seen how clean this kitchen is?”
Nick laughed. “Yes, you’re great.”
Surprising himself, Nick rose from his chair and wrapped Tucker in a hug. Tucker’s skinny arms were stiff as he reciprocated, but he also seemed genuinely moved.
“Thanks, man,” Nick echoed. “I really do mean it.”
“Don’t mention it.”
It was too early. Way too early for Nick-and the sad part was that it was only ten in the morning. As he contemplated his poor life choice of staying up until 4 a.m. in order to watch Pitch Perfect (and then reading fanfiction about the film), he sipped coffee from a travel mug he’d borrowed from Tucker. Being an English grad student had spoiled Nick tremendously. Without classes to attend or actual in-class sessions to teach, he had too much power to decide his bedtime. And he clearly was not ready for this responsibility. Not if he still wanted to make it to Toronto for a tux fitting and a possible lunch with Levi and Alex without bags under his eyes.
Nick was wearing a zip-up hoodie with the hood over his bedhead, and his backpack over one shoulder. A couple of other people who seemed as tired as Nick also waited for the bus. It was easier to wait here than any stop in town, since he would be able to get first pick of the bus seats, and with how groggy he was feeling, he was not even remotely up for any kind of social contact or seat sharing. He was about to flick on his iPhone for music, when another group of people with giant suitcases at their side, most likely undergrads, swarmed the bus stop. Nick groaned and wanted to curse Alex for needing him on a Saturday-the busiest day for travel. Nick was scanning the crowd and attempting to do a head count so he could decipher whether or not he could sit alone when he skimmed a familiar white leather jacket.
The woman he’d run into from before stood in the lineup with a small red purse over one arm and a large backpack at her feet. She didn’t seem to notice him at all; she was completely engrossed in her phone. Something familiar-yet-foreign twisted inside Nick once again. He tried to see if she was wearing another Bouncing Souls T-shirt, or any kind of pop punk from the 1990s, but couldn’t tell. When he lifted his gaze from her shirt to her face, she was staring at him.
Nick froze. It looks like I was staring at her tits, doesn’t it? Shit. Nick turned away quickly as he heard his oldest sister’s recriminations in his head for his bad behavior towards women. There had been a solid year and a half before he came out to his sisters and parents as gay that Cheryl would pinch him anytime his eyes sunk to a woman’s chest when they were out in public. He imagined Cheryl now doing the exact same thing to her future son, teaching him how to respect women and to be terrified to look anywhere below a woman’s shoulders.
“Hey . . . you.”
Nick’s heart hammered again. The woman now stood next to him, her smile slightly crooked. “Hi . . .?” His voice hitched.
“Help me out here,” the woman went on. “Do I know you from the Grad House or somewhere else?”
“You- I- We bumped into each other. Yesterday.”
As soon as the woman made the connection, her smile fell. “Oh, of course. I’m so sorry.”
Nick shrugged. “Hey, it happens.”
“Are you all healed? I didn’t actually break anything, right?”
“No, no. I’m fine.”
She nodded slowly, then smiled. “Sorry, it’s coming back to me now. I see a lot of faces, so I sometimes forget who is from where. You’re the Bouncing Souls guy.”
Nick beamed at the name. “I am? Awesome. Are you the Bouncing Souls girl, then?”
“I can be. Not today, though.” The woman undid her leather jacket and displayed a bright-pink and black T-shirt with the name Letters to Cleo on it.
“Ah, very nice. I don’t know much by them, but I appreciate the vintage quality of it.”
Their conversation became fragmented as the people around them began to stir. The green GO Bus was stopped at the lights closest to the school. Nick gathered his bag from the ground and noticed the woman had hers by her side.
“So,” she said as she dug through her purse, “I normally hate riding GO buses like this. Super uncomfortable, and I’m never sure if I’m going to get a weirdo or not. But you seem nice, so I think I’d like to take my chances with you. Do you mind if I sit with you?”
Nick laughed. His cheeks heated. Why did this kind of attention feel so nice? It wasn’t quite the same thing as approval from his sisters or his best female friends. This was the same kind of butterfly swooning he first got when Greg had said he was smart and sexy (even though, at the time, he’d definitely had a soul patch) or when Barry had said he’d write a song for him (even if the song itself had never materialized). It was attraction-desire. But she’s a woman. And that’s just plain weird. So it has to be something else.
“Sure,” Nick said. “I think I’d like that. But only if we can keep talking about music.”
“Of course. I’m Katie, by the way.” She extended her hand for a shake as the bus pulled up. Her palms were large in Nick’s, but her skin was soft.
On the second floor of the bus, it felt like Nick could see all of Waterloo laid out before him. Katie sat in the aisle seat after putting her bag in an overhead compartment, while Nick kept his at his feet. As they’d shuffled onto the bus, he realized that Katie wore no heels but was still as tall as him. When they sat down, Katie seemed smaller only when she crossed her legs.
“So, you like the Souls and Letters to Cleo,” Katie said after getting comfortable next to him. She was about to say something else when Nick jumped in.
“Well, I can’t really say much about Cleo. I mean, I just know the 10 Things I Hate About You reference.”
“Ah, but that’s still lots.” Katie tilted her head, as if to assess him. “Are you a film buff?”
“I love movies, yeah.” Nick smiled. When she mirrored the action, he had to look away. He fisted the material of his jeans-a nervous tick he hadn’t done since defending his master’s thesis. “But . . . I’m not a buff. Not in the film-critic kind of way.”
“What do you mean?”
Nick sighed, realizing that this was a much larger discussion than they maybe wanted to have. Her heart-shaped face was open, though, and a faint trace of a smile was still on her lips. She wanted to hear about his random movie opinions, whatever they were. “So, most of the people I know who are into film are grad students who fawn over French New Wave cinema. Or tell me that Kubrick is a god among men. And yeah, I’m all for Jean-Luc Godard and Clockwork Orange, but that’s not what I stay up really late watching at night, you know?”
“Okay, I see that. So what do you stay up late watching?”
Nick chuckled lightly, looking away in subtle embarrassment. “Let’s just say I watched Pitch Perfect last night when I should have been sleeping.”
Katie’s eyes widened. “Oh my God. I love that movie.”
“Really?” Nick said. “That’s amazing. I’ve been expecting everyone to give me shit for it.”
“Everyone?” Katie lifted a perfectly manicured eyebrow. She pursed her lips in a dramatic way, as if she was about to give him sage-like advice. “I think you may need to find better people to hang around if they’ll give you shit for watching a movie.”
“Yeah, probably. Comes with the territory as an English grad, though. Some people in my program are actual film buffs who write long academic papers for journals about this stuff. Which means I get into an argument about Citizen Kane at least once a week. Or I used to, when I was on campus more.”