Jude watches Steven with an intensity I've never seen before. It's out of the corner of his eye, and he holds conversations easily, laughing and even turning away, but it's damn obvious if I know what I'm looking for.
"What are you doing?"
"Enjoying myself," he says, and takes a drink of water from his cup. "That's what you're supposed to do at these sorts of parties, right?"
"No, I mean—you're watching Steven like he's going to plant a bomb or something. He was in the Army for six years and loved it. I don't think he's going to be blowing anything up anytime soon."
Smiling at me crookedly, Jude raises the cup to his lips again. "Believe me, I'm not worried about him blowing anything or anyone up," he says, but doesn't elaborate, instead heading off to talk to Megan's fiancé about something… something.
Megan finds me ten minutes later, sitting at a picnic table, alone, next to an old married couple my parents know. "Who pissed in your Cheerios?" she asks, sitting next to me and leaning against the tabletop with her elbows. "You haven't looked happy at all."
I make a vague sort of gesture towards Jude, who's still turned towards Steven. "He's watching him."
"Jude's watching Steven. Carefully." I still think Jude's concerned he's going to blow something up, but whatever. He can say whatever he wants. Megan asks who I'm talking about again, waiting until I lift my finger and point, and all she does is laugh at me.
"Jude watches everyone. When he met me three years ago, all he could do was ask me questions about my profession and watch as I made my rounds to greet the other people you knew." She snorts, glances at me over her sunglasses. "Lighten up. He's not doing it because he thinks Steven's a risk, he's doing it because he's fucking paranoid."
She and I sit in silence for a few moments until Riley returns to ask if we'd like to join him and a few others in a game of soccer. I tell him no thanks, but Megan lifts herself from the table and follows.
Steven catches my eye as Riley passes them. Jude's still watching Steven, but less intensely, it seems, though it could be the distance I've put between us. At least he knows he's being watched. Somehow that's more comforting.
He jogs over when they're well into the game and I'm still staring down into my cup of punch as though something will appear from nowhere, and he plops himself down opposite me. "You know, it's your party. You could look a little less…"
"Depressed? Put out? Loathing?"
His lips twitch. "All of the above."
"I just—" I sigh, watching Megan and Riley cheer from a point they'd just scored against Jude and his girlfriend. "I don't know."
I'm twenty six, now, and what do I have to show for the last year? A lot of bad dates, a few one night stands, and the best relationship I've ever had chipping away until it fell in a heap of shards at our feet. I haven't moved up at work, not that I'd be particularly thrilled at working higher in data processing, and I'm no closer now to happiness than I was last year. If anything, I'm farther away from happiness—even contentedness—than I was when I turned twenty five.
"Let me take you out to dinner," he says with a soft smile. "Get away from this and we'll go wherever you want. Just the two of us."
It's the birthday I'd always wanted to have with Steven, but he was always too afraid to give to me. It's not a good idea; I know what the two of us do when we get together. No amount of time is going to change our relationship or how either of us acts in relationships, or around each other.
But Steven's watching me with this look, expectant like a dog waiting for a treat, and as much as I want to say no, I can't.
Even if this all goes horribly, horribly wrong, I think I can say with certainty that the look on Steven's face right now more than makes up for any misery I may undergo.
Steven's smile is brighter in the dim light of the restaurant than it was outside at the park. It could be wishful thinking, but I don't think he knows it.
"I missed this," he says, when we're mid-conversation, voice casual. He leans back and rests his arm across the back of the booth seat. "Just you and me. For the last, what, month or so there's always been someone with us when we're together. No offense to our friends, but…" He gets this nostalgic look on his face. "…There's something about you that I like."
"Don't," I tell him, reaching forward for my glass of wine, shaking my head a little bit. "Please. I'm still having a hard time figuring out my life without you in it, I really don't think having you say a bunch of… Whatever those things are to me is really going to help me."
He bites at his lip, eyeing me carefully. "There's nothing—there's no reason for us to not be together now."
My laugh is humorless, muffled by the wine glass. "Yeah, there is. Look, I'm not going to go into specifics, Steven, because there are plenty of reasons why you and I shouldn't be together. I've been painfully aware of them for a while now, and as much as I—we just can't, all right?"
I am entirely too good at making him look like a kicked puppy, but he's quick to erase the look from his face.
"We were good together," he says, reaching for my hands. "Maybe not—maybe not at the talking thing, but we were. The sex was fucking—mind-blowing, right?"
It got worse towards the end, but I can't deny it, even though this would be a lot easier if I could. "Yeah. Understatement, but yeah." Nobody can make me come as hard or as quickly (or slowly, depending on his mood) as Steven can.
"And it wasn't like we didn't have good times together, regardless of me being emotionally stunted or not."
"And…" he pulls one of my hands to his lips, rubbing them against my fingers. "I have never loved someone as much as I love you."
Love. That's not even—that's now, currently, as in still-loves-me. Fuck, I can't—he's really pulling out whatever he can to get me to agree with him. "Steven…"
"Don't try to tell me you don't feel the same way." He pulls his hands away from mine and leans back in the seat. "I know you better than that."
"Fuck, Steven. Why—why couldn't you have said all of this when we were still together?"
"I did say all of this when we were together."
"All right, then, why couldn't you have said it when you first should have?"
He sighs, glances around the restaurant and bites his lip. This is much more familiar territory. He's finally back to the man I somehow fell in love with. Nervous and jittery and… everything he used to be.
"It wasn't that easy," he says, and his voice is soft. He seems so happy, so absolutely normal, the way I always wanted him to be when we were together. There's no underlying sadness in his gaze, nothing that suggests he's unhappy with life or me or the Army or anything behind that layer of contentedness like what used to be there. "It wasn't that easy because if it wasn't one of us with the issue, it was the other, and—don't even deny it, Mark, because you weren't perfect and normal like you made yourself out to be." Closing his eyes and shaking his head, he says, "That… came out way wrong."
The words just sort of fall into my mouth, not unlike the day I told him things weren't working out, but they sort of twist and turn around in there, letting me figure out whether I really like the way they sound before I can actually say them.
Steven's happy. Anyone can tell. He has that air about him, the expression on his face just drips happiness, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't the least bit jealous about that, that he can be happy when I still feel so miserable that I'd rather stay in bed all day.
He'd told me he wasn't dating, and hadn't planned on it. At one point, he hadn't said he was interested in getting back with me, but it was implied, heavily so if his lingering look meant anything.
I don't want to date. I'm not looking for a boyfriend. I'm looking for a partner. Steven has all the potential to be a partner; we know each other so well I feel like it's second nature to reach out for him when he's going to fall or know what he's doing with his hand when he pulls it out of his pocket. It's refreshing to know someone like that, especially over the last few months, when I haven't known anyone like I know Steven.
He could be happy in a relationship. With me, even, he could be happy. He's free from the Army, and while that doesn't solve all of his problems, it solves a few; his inability to be open about himself and his love life in public, or at all; having to fake his way through a marriage when necessary; having to pretend not to care that much about me—at least, only showing he cares about me as much as he cares about the lives of the other men putting their lives at risk… Maybe the 'I love you' thing could still be an issue, but he doesn't seem to have any sort of problem at all telling me now.
No, Steven could definitely be happy now that nothing's holding him back. Three months ago, ten minutes after our break up, I would have been entirely too quick to tell him 'yes, let's get back together,' but now…
I'm not happy. I'm not even happy at the thought of being with Steven again, not like I should be. I'm not happy with the idea of being with him—I'd just be happy at the idea of not being alone and not having to look for a partner anymore. It wouldn't be about Steven or about us. Eventually, I'd get over it, and I'd still have the same regrets, the same ex, and the same job, but I'd be older.
I can't afford to piss around with someone that isn't going to make me happy for the rest of my life.
He's still talking, words that sound meaningless and manipulative falling from his mouth, telling me that things would be great, because they were great, and he stops short when I stand up from the table.
"Look, I—" My voice catches in my throat. I reach to grab my wallet from the inside of my jacket, handing a few bills out to him. I'm not even sure how much I grab. "I wish I could. I really, really do, but—"
He nods, slow and steady, and when he takes the cash from me, there's only the slightest trace of disappointment in his eyes. "No, I get it," he murmurs, looking away again. I wonder, just for a second, if he really gets it or not. "But, hey, it was worth a shot, right?"
It probably wouldn't hurt nearly as much if he would have managed to look a little more upset about this, but the almost-nonchalant attitude he has… "I'll see you?"
The smile he sends me is bright, cheerful, and for a second I almost believe him when he says, "Yeah, definitely."
Maybe it could be worth it, I think as I'm leaving the restaurant. Those few months of happiness with him could change my outlook on this and stop me from becoming a bitter old man—or young man, as it were. Those few months could change my outlook on him.
But the fact remains. We can't be happy together, and while I'm miserable now, I'm prepared to take that on. Being Steven's reason for misery…
He's flirting with our waiter, but all of them are new tricks—nothing subtle like I'd seen him use before, and the waiter's eating it up, almost as though he never gets hit on.
Turning back towards the door, I open it to the rush of cool, evening air, smiling the slightest bit at the couple I almost crash into on my way out.
We'll be all right, as long as one of us is happy.