It was a short kiss. A making-a-point kiss. He pulled back and went back to staring at the lake, and I just lay there trying to remember how to breathe.
Eventually he started talking again. "I came out to my dad when I was... I dunno, thirteen. Fourteen. You'd think it was a dumb move, but he took it pretty well. He didn't try to make me take it back, you know? He didn't try and shove girls at me and like... cure me with pussy. None of that stupid shit. He's a good dad basically. But deep down he believes I'm a sissy. He never said it. He just started treating me like I was weak. In subtle ways. He just... stopped drawing me into the business, never outright shut me out but he never invited me in. You know what I mean? By the time I even noticed, everybody was used to thinking of me as a civilian. And he was getting a reputation for being soft, cuz you can't keep the shit away from your kid if you're ass-deep in it yourself."
He picked a tuft of grass and flicked it back and forth across his lower lip while he thought of what to say next.
Holy shit that was distracting.
"One day I overheard him talking with somebody. I only knew the guy by voice. I knew he was a hitter Dad used a lot. It wasn't a big secret or anything, I just wasn't in the habit of going in his office when the door was closed. So this guy's talking to Dad, and I'm not even listening really, and then something grabs my attention and I have to hear every word. This guy's telling Dad his son told him he's gay. And what's he supposed to do about it, considering how people are. He says he doesn't want his boy to have to act like an animal just to get some respect. And I was thinking --"
"Wait. You're telling me my dad outed me to the boss?"
He nodded without looking at me. "Went to him for advice. Maybe Dad asked him about me before, I dunno. Well, Dad tells him to ease you out. Send you to accountant school or some shit. We can always use accountants. Then you don't gotta prove nothing. And your dad says there's just no way. He says you're dead set to walk in his shoes whether he likes it or not, and he just wants to see you do it on the same terms as anybody else."
As if the day hadn't been enough of an emotional roller coaster, I started to tear up over that. "Fuck I miss him," I choked.
Nicky looked startled, like he hadn't even thought it might do that to me. Then he ducked his head guiltily. "Sorry. It hasn't been that long, has it? I didn't mean to punch the bruise. But I gotta tell you this."
"I know. I'm not a sissy ether, Nicky."
"I'm just saying. I'm sorry."
He shrugged and went on with his story. "The point I'm making is, I realized then what Dad was doing. Easing me out. I thought it through and then I went and told him what I thought. I said I'm just fine with 'acting like an animal' if that's what works. I'm not gonna be any fucking accountant. And you know what he said? He said I should just find a nice boy and settle down." He spat. "So screw him. I'll get there on my own. I'll make whatever I can on the side, and do what I gotta do, and I'll keep it secret but not too secret, you know, so it gets around but in whispers. And then when it's time to step up, everybody remembers they've been whispering about me for years. They remember they're scared of me and they're just glad now they know why. That's the plan."
"I've heard worse," I conceded. I sniffed hard, though I was done wobbling over Dad. Sometimes it just takes your sinuses a while to get the memo. "So you don't want me to be too convincing when I say I burned those guys tonight."
"Yeah, that's about the size of it. Be serious, could you be convincing even if you wanted to?"
"That's what I thought. You can't lie for shit, Joey."
"Okay, what about The Aquarium? Why were we there, how's that tie in?"
"Huh? Oh. Jimmy said that's where our dads used to hang out, back in the day. I just wanted to see it." He shook his head sharply as if to jolt his thoughts back in order. "Where I'm going with this is, that's why Dad was like, 'This is Sal Marino's son, you know, Sal Marino' -- and there's me without a clue, going, 'And I care why?' He was telling me he found me a nice boy, and you and me should run along and -- and play fuckin -- Jeeves and Wooster or something -- and let the men get on with the man stuff." He gave a frustrated growl and kicked up a divot of dirt with his heel. "Fuck him, man! I don't have to take that shit! We don't have to take that shit."
"Oh." After thinking about it a minute I added, "Jeez. I'm slow, ain't I?"
Nicky glanced at me sidelong. He started to crack a grin. "Little bit."
"I never woulda figured it out."
"Better if you didn't. I wouldn't even say anything, except I was acting real weird while I was trying to put it together, and you knew something was up."
"Oh. So you don't... like the idea of... I mean."
"Settling down for a spot of harmless domestic faggotry? Hang up the guns and pick out some fucking curtains? No I don't like it, and fuck you very much for asking."
"No." I sat up so I could look him in the eye. Then I found I didn't know what I wanted to say.
"Okay, what?" he demanded.
"I never said --" I had to look away. The moon was setting on the lake, it was real pretty. And I couldn't fucking breathe. "Dammit. I been shot at and my heart wasn't going this hard. You gonna make me do all the work?"
"Who's just been talking for half an hour, huh? Now you talk."
"You just like to see me suffer."
"Fair's fair," he insisted. He waited for me a bit more, then shoved my arm. "Well? Give."
"Well, what if I just kind of like you?"
His eyes softened pityingly, and he shook his head. "Joey. You gonna let them win?"
"Way to miss the point." I sighed. Suddenly I was just really tired. I stood up and dusted off my ass. "I got up when you did, and I didn't go back to bed. Can we go?"
Nicky looked away. "Yeah," he whispered. "We can go."
At the car, I offered him the keys. He raised an eyebrow at me. I said, "You're sober, and I'm tired as hell. You drive."
He took them real carefully, not touching my hand even a little bit. The passenger seat was still reclined. I didn't bother putting it up. He wasn't as crazy a driver as I thought he might be, or else he was driving carefully for my sake. I zonked out before we reached the highway and didn't wake up again until he shook me awake.
In the elevator, he said, "I feel like I should carry you."
I blinked at him. "What?"
"You know, turnabout's fair play. You carried me up from the car enough times."
I almost grumbled than I was fine, but I realized just in time that he was apologizing for shooting me down back at the lake. Letting me know he was grateful for how I took care of him, even though he didn't like the scheme that put me there. So when we stepped out of the elevator, I said, "Okay, can't walk, you carry me."
"No problem," he said, putting an arm around my back and bending to put the other behind my knees. "I can -- uf -- Jesus, Joey, how much do you weigh?"
I laughed. "More than you, I can say that." I started to walk on my own, but he got in front of me.
"Fuck you, I can do this." He put his shoulder in my stomach and hoisted me fireman style, though it made him grunt.
"Ow," I complained.
"Deal. Shit, how do you unlock the door when -- quit kicking!"
"Yes you are."
"You can put me down."
"No, it's a challenge now, so suck it up." He finally got the door open.
He whonked my head a good one on the wall when he turned around to shut it. He said sorry, but he didn't put me down. He carried me into his room and dropped me on the bed, then stood rolling his arm and rubbing his shoulder, face scrunched like he was eating lemons. When I tried to sit up, he pushed me down. He sat down at my feet and started picking at my shoelaces.
The hope that'd started to simmer when he brought me in the bedroom went cold again. He was just going to do to me what I always did to him. I sighed. "Hey Nicky?"
"Yeah?" He gave up on the laces and just yanked my shoe off.
"When I did this for you... did you ever wish I'd climb in with you?"
He glanced up and met my eyes. His were full of confusion and uncertainty. Dammit, I didn't mean to upset him. He probably didn't mean to upset me either. Now that everything was out in the open, how were we managing to fuck it up?
"I like you," I pointed out. Even though I said it before and got shot down, maybe this time it would work. "Kind of a lot."
With a sigh, he looked down. He got my other shoe and dropped it off the bed. "I like you too, Joey. But..." He trailed off, tilting his head like a bird. Staring at the hole in my sock.
I waggled my bare toe at him.
"Joey, you dumbass, you couldn't spend some of that wad Dad gave you on new socks?"
"I dunno. Didn't think of it." I sat up and grabbed his hand before he could yank it away. "But what, Nicky? Look at me."
Then we just stared for a long time. I couldn't look away, and whether he could or not, he didn't. His face was so honest now. He was never honest like that for anybody else. I realized I didn't just like him. I realized I was crazy for him. Crazy for his bleach-blue eyes and his messy long hair, crazy for his skinny body and his stupid cheap rings, crazy for his smartass remarks and bitter anger and sudden sweetness. Just completely out of my mind for him. I must've been for a long time without realizing it.
"Fuck settling down," I said. "We're not nice boys. We're not animals either. We're smart and we don't flinch and I dunno how far you trust me, but I trust you all the way. When it's time for you to step up, I wanna be right there with you. Just say the word, Nicky."
The confusion cleared from his face, chased off by a growing grin. "You know just what to say, don't you? You got a fast mouth."
"It could be a slow mouth if you like that better," I offered innocently.
He pushed me down and kissed me until my head spun. When we came up for air, he said, "There's so many stupid jokes I could make. Right hand man. Got my back."
"God," I gasped. "How can you even talk right now?"
"Good point." He kissed me again, and there was no more conversation after that for quite a while.
Much later, as I drifted in and out of sleep with my nose buried in his neck, one question dropped into the middle of my contented thoughts like a rock into jello. I murmured his name. His answer had no vowels in it. I tried again.
"Nicky, listen. Just one thing's still bugging me."
"Who told Ray Rastelli?"
"Unh?" He pried one eye open and squinted at me. "Tol'im what?"
"At your birthday party, he came up to me all full of himself and called me a big queer. Was he at your dad's house that day or what?"
Nicky squinted at me for a while longer. It really was fucking adorable. At last he snorted. "No, man, Ratso's just an asshole. Prolly wanted to take you down a peg cuz Dad was talking about you."
He clumsily shoved me around and made me be his pillow this time. "When I'm king of the world we'll kill him lots, okay baby? Now shut up and lemme sleep."
I don't know if it's possible to fall asleep while grinning from ear to ear, but as far as I remember, that's exactly what I did.