Hunched over a skinny latté he'd hardly touched until it was tepid, Luke passed the time at an out-of-the-way table at the Starbucks place over on Alpharetta Highway. Others came and went during that hour. He ignored them, and they him. He was caught between scared shitless and furious as he tried to appear like he had some purpose for being there other than to sip a barely warm latte.
How the hell could Ryan even do this to him?
* * *
Extract from Luke's notes:
There’s only a limited amount of time you can hide in Starbucks and drink coffee at a table all by yourself. Eventually you feel like an asshole with no friends—especially when you don't have anything to read, and didn’t bring your MacBook to hide behind and make use of the free WIFI! Other losers take notice of you, also pretending they're soon to be heading somewhere better.
My ‘Ryan’ problem, however, wasn’t going away no matter how long I stuck my head in the sand. In fact, there were so many problems, I didn’t know if problem was even the right word!
The one time I flicked on my phone, I saw I had two calls from him. There was a single voicemail—I guessed it was Ryan. Even listening to that felt like a risk, and I let it sit there for ages, staring at the face of the phone as though it contained within it the results of some unplanned biopsy. Opening it could bring huge relief, or it might bring…
There’d been a few text messages from Elliott, too. I didn't know how to answer him, either, so I didn't. I still had an hour or so before the airport run, and would face that when I had to. Yep, I know…sticking my head in the fucking sand again! Shit! Why did it all have to be such a mess? And I didn't even particularly like Starbucks!
* * *
“Luke, where are you? Call me…”
Luke had finally dug for the courage to listen to the voicemail. In fact, he listened to it three more times before he finally put the phone down next to his cold latté and rested his chin over his arms on the table. Whatever was going on in Ryan’s head, his tone hadn’t sounded like he was going to start ringing all their friends and bring Luke’s world to an end. That alongside the confusion at the parking lot was at least something, though it still didn’t answer any of the important questions. And ‘Luke, where are you? Call me…’ certainly didn’t explain why Ryan was Damon—or, in the end, what that really meant.
He played with the wooden stirrer and broke it in half. The more he considered it, the more one impossible thought kept pushing forward—Damon hadn’t been an act whose purpose was to out Luke. Damon was a side of Ryan his best friend kept hidden.
It made sense, despite how crazy it sounded. The whole Damon/Ryan thing; Ryan’s perplexing reactions in the parking lot. It all suggested that, against all the odds, Ryan was gay. Yet Luke’s gut pushed him in the opposite direction. He’d known Ryan long enough…how could it possibly be true? Either way, forgetting facts and even gut responses, something in the back of Luke’s head was counting the cards and coming up short of a straight flush!
The first time the thought came that he should probably go round to Ryan's, it slipped under Luke’s armor and wedged there, irritating him to the point where he considered it enough for it to feel like an idea. Not a good one, but possible. He sighed, grimacing as he took a sip of coffee that had become disgusting as it had cooled. Standing to stretch his legs at least, he walked across to the bin and dropped the whole thing in.
Going to see Ryan? It was probably the right thing to do—and maybe talking was good?
Once he was moving, he walked to the door rather than back to his table. The staff were probably glad to see the back of him, anyway! The thought that facing Ryan was the right thing to do became pressing, and Luke made straight for his car.
His phone binged again before he drove out of the parking lot, and he pulled over and glanced at it to see another text message from Elliott. Luke was glad it wasn’t the type of message that actually required an immediate answer, but he would have to reply soon. He wanted to, but maybe it would just be easier to text back a little later—something along the lines of ‘a friend had a fist fight at school. Bad stuff I need to deal with. Not going to be able to make it tonight.’
He set off again and weaved in and out of traffic as he tried to figure out what the hell he was going to say to Ryan when he got there. Nothing he tried in his head ended well. And not the least of his worries was that never—not even once—had he ever hit Ryan outside of the grid iron. Now he'd just smashed his fist into his friend’s face for Christ sake! Why the hell did he do that?! Forget all the other clamoring questions, would Ryan even be willing to give him the time of day after that? Though Ryan had called, hadn’t he…?
And then there was still Elliott. Luke just couldn’t see how to do the right thing. Flooring Ryan in the parking lot had consequences for everything. Ryan being gay, or even straight, had consequences with what he knew about Luke, and what he might say to others. Every step seemed to take him in the wrong direction somehow, and Luke felt like he was doing what he always did—messing up and hurting people in the process!
And that, he knew, was why he had to text Elliott sooner rather than later.
He pulled into a handy gas station and parked out of the way in one of the slots for those who were going in to shop at the attached 7-11. Taking out his mobile, he re-read the most recent message from Elliott and closed his eyes trying to conjure up something that would make sense in reply. After a few failed attempts and a lot of back spacing, he gave up and hit the speed dial, getting ready in his head to explain to his friend why it was that he couldn’t make it that evening.
The phone rung for what felt like an age, and he was just about to give up when it was answered.
“No, he is not here’” Estella said. “Ah…it is Luke, yes?”
It put Luke on the back foot immediately. “Oh, hi there. Is Elliott around somewhere? I need to talk to him.”
“He took the car to get some fuel while I am packing—but he left his phone. We see you later, yes?”
“That’s the thing, Es, I’m not sure… I can’t make it now. I’m really sorry.”
There was a pause.
“Oh—that is sad.” She sounded disappointed, and her tone became cautious. “Is it okay with you?”
“Sure, I’m fine. It’s just that something happened,” Luke hurried to add. “At school. Someone got into a fight and got hurt. I just need to help sort it out.”
“That is not good.” She sounded surprised. “A friend is hurt?”
Luke realized he couldn’t say, ‘it was nothing and I hardly know the guy’. Not if it meant he was breaking a promise to go to the airport. “It was my best friend, Ryan. Could you just tell Elliott that I’m sorry? I’ll try to phone later…”
“Ryan? Yes, I remember him. I will tell Elli. I am sorry I will not see you, Luke.”
“Yes, me too. I’m really sorry…have a great flight...bye…”
Disconnecting the call, he felt like a total shit. Maybe it had been easier that he hadn’t actually had to speak directly to Elliott, but he still felt awful. And he was none the wiser about how to face Ryan, either!
Arriving at last at Ryan’s house, he decided just to wing it as he knocked on the front door. There was no answer, but he knew Ryan had to be home because his badly-parked truck was skewed across the driveway, blocking it so that Luke had been forced to leave his Volvo on the curb.
Other than banging and shouting, the next option was the garden, and he went around the back and tried the gate.
It was locked.
“Ryan?” Tentatively, he called through a fence that was too tall to see over. Ry had done this to him before—mooching on the patio and refusing to answer the door. He tried again, louder this time, and was rewarded by a voice. But it wasn’t Ryan. It was his mother.
“Hello?” she called. “Is someone there?”
“It’s me, Mrs. Alexis. Luke.”
“Luke?” She sounded surprised.
“Yes, Mrs. Alexis.” Luke grimaced. In the circumstances, Helena Alexis was not at all the person he wanted to meet, but it was too late now. He pushed at the solid wooden gate again, but it didn’t budge.
He called again. “I was looking for Ryan.” Maybe he could have saved time by scaling the gate and clambering over—he’d done that a few times over the years—but not with Ryan’s mum by the pool.
Her drawl drifted over from the garden. “Come on around the front. The gate’s locked, and I’m afraid I don’t know where the key is.”
There was no other option but to return to the front door, and he waited on the porch until it was opened. Just inside, Helena Alexis was wearing sunshades. She had the appearance of someone who'd been sunbathing, but was fully covered by a chiffon gown as she faced him. Behind the dark shades it was impossible to tell whether she was glad to see Luke or not as he found himself being scrutinized in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t particularly like her and would have thought twice about going into the pool if she was out there—not that he expected to be swimming that afternoon!
“If you’re looking for Ryan, I’ve not seen him,” she said, looking past him to where the truck had been left askew on the drive, “but he must be in his room.”
Even without being able to see her eyes, he guessed from the creases on her forehead that she had no idea whether her son was home of not. But Ryan had to be up there, didn’t he? Gone were the days when either of them jumped on their bikes to go anywhere. Luke looked pointedly towards the stairs, and asked, “Would it be okay to go up and check?”
“Sure.” She shrugged and then flicked her head towards the drive. “If he’s there, tell him to get down and move his truck before his father gets home.”
Dismissing him from her world, she walked away in the direction of the patio, leaving him to close the front door. Luke watched her go, perhaps swishing her way back to her long drink. Like always with Ryan’s parents, he felt like he was walking on eggshells.
Closing the door carefully behind himself, he fretted for a while, pausing in the entrance hall.
‘Luke, where are you? Call me…’
Standing uncertainly at the bottom of the stairs, it felt like that’s what he really should have done. Called. Not this. Not walk in unannounced. However, it was too late now. He could hardly phone and tell Ryan he was at the bottom of the stairs! Slowly making his way up, he walked down the length of the familiar landing to tap softly on Ryan’s bedroom door.
There was no answer, and he frowned. Should he just go in anyway? He’d fully expected Ryan to be there, but then again, he might be wrong. At Starbucks, he'd convinced himself that they needed to talk, but now he wasn't so sure. Perhaps it would be best to make himself scarce, let it all calm down, and wait to talk to Ryan the following day?
Enough already! He berated himself for being so weak, pushed open the door and went straight in.
At first glance after Luke stepped into Ryan's bedroom, it seemed empty. The balcony windows were open and the space was warm with the humid aroma of the late afternoon. On the surface, it was no different from any of countless other times he’d hung out at Ryan’s place, yet this time his heart thumped with apprehension.
Trying to put aside a sense of foreboding, he moved in further. He could see that the bathroom door was partway open, but he didn't expect Ryan would be hiding in there. He guessed there was only one other place he might be, and saw he was right as he moved another two steps further in, and spotted Ryan outside, leaning against the balcony, gazing out into the garden. He hadn’t yet changed out of his school uniform, although the jacket and tie had been thrown haphazardly across the bed.
It was easier to decide to stay once Luke had seen Ryan, and maybe his friend had even been waiting for him. Ryan knew him well enough to know Luke might come over eventually, and he must have heard him—maybe even seen him—at the back gate, too. Probably, but if so, Ryan seemed oblivious just then to Luke's presence.
Luke stepped back towards the door, and closed it with a solid clunk. Even then, Ryan gave no indication he'd heard. Luke guessed Ryan had to know he was there by now, so he moved closer.
"Look, I'm really sorry I hit you," he said, his voice soft and sincere. He didn't know where else to start, and if his hand was anything to go by, it had probably hurt.
At last Ryan turned to face him. Luke suspected he’d been crying, because his eyes were inflamed, and his lip had split and was swollen where Luke had caught him in the face. That, and with the bruising from before, he looked like shit.
Moving in at last from the balcony to stand just inside the room, Ryan stopped leaned again the balcony doorframe. Awkward but not sullen, he didn’t make eye contact.
“I saw you at the gate, but…” Ryan gestured to his mouth, “...I didn’t want to come down and let Mom see this.”
"I’m really sorry, Ry...” Luke looked away from the dejected figure. Despite having floored Ryan earlier, his friend didn’t look like he was planning to come and beat the crap out of him. They lapsed into the uneasy silence of unknown territory.
It was Ryan who broke it first.
“So…you and Elliott…you're...” He sounded wistful and studied the floor, still avoiding eye contact. But Ryan was unable to contain himself for long. Dark demanding eyes drilled into Luke, and he burst out, “Is it true? Are you really gay?”
Luke flinched and looked nervously to the exposure of the open window.
Ryan glanced through the doorway and down towards the pool area, and lowered his volume a few notches. “It’s okay, Mom’s got her earphones back in. She can’t hear.” He turned and closed the big double doors anyway, cutting off the sounds of the outdoors.
“So?” Ryan's glint had become determined as they faced each other across the room.
Luke felt safer now they were in an enclosed space, realizing that if he couldn't be honest, then what the hell was the point of being there? Still, it felt like he was skating on ice, risking traversing a patch that was likely to be thin. It could give way at any moment under these kinds of questions, and he wasn’t quite ready yet to finally say it out loud. And he also had questions of his own. Anger at the layers of deceit that had been there for who knows how long, resurfaced, and he looked across and glared.
“If you really wanted to know, why didn’t you just ask me, instead of snatching my mobile and all the crap with Damon fucking Jamieson?”
"Wasn't what? A fucking lie?"
Ryan flinched. "I shouldn’t have, I know that.”
“Then why did you? Was it just to find out if I was gay?”
“No! Of course not. I didn’t even mean for you to find him on Facebook, but then somehow…” He ran out of speed and the fight went out of his eyes. “You're right…it got out of hand…it was a pretty shit thing to do.”
They descended into silence again, studying each other with uncertainty. Ryan kicked at the wall behind him gently with his foot and said, “You and Elliott…that text—”
“Don’t fucking go there,” Luke snapped. The memory of the sickening fear that had rolled over him in the parking lot, stoked his anger. “You had no right to read that!”
“I know…sorry...” Stung, Ryan hung his head. He blinked eyes that looked washed out. “Shit. Everything goes wrong for me!”
Luke took a deep breath and tried to calm down. Of all the people who had a right to complain that life had pissed all over them, Ryan had to be near the top of the list. Even money and a swanky home didn’t make up for the hand he’d been dealt when it came the stuff that really mattered. At the same time, Luke knew he wasn't exactly squeaky clean himself. Was he that quick to forget the time Ryan wept on their back deck after that awful day when they'd pulled him into a Hang? Luke knew he bore a lot of the blame for letting that happen; when it came to being a complete shitty bastard, he was right up there. It pulled the wind out of his billowing anger, and he slumped.
"I guess I'm no better. I just didn't know how to tell you. I thought you'd hate me." Or worse. They resorted to an awkward silence.
“So you are, then?” Ryan said. His tone quickened.
The room felt overly warm to Luke, and he felt his face flush. Other than to Simon, it was still only the second time he'd ever been challenged to admit his sexuality. Even 'Damon' hadn't known until the previous day!
At last, Luke nodded. “I guess…yes…I am…gay, I mean. And you? Are you, too, or was it all just—”
Ryan interrupted. “Yes, I am, too.”
“Oh.” Luke didn’t really know what to do with that now that it was on the table, and he stared at the floor. It was confusing, though he had a clear answer. This was Ryan, large as life, not Damon, and it was obvious he wasn’t lying. However, to hear Ryan say ‘yes, I am, too’ might have been the safest admission—and at least this wasn’t about being outed now—at the same time it was the more difficult discovery.
The easiest, ‘stay on the fence as long as possible’ answer Ryan could have given would have probably been something like ‘no, I’m straight, but I’ve got a few gay friends that I talk to only through Damon, so my other friends don’t get the wrong idea. But if you’re gay, that’s cool and I really support you—’
That would have made everything with Elliott a lot less complicated.
"How long?” Ryan eventually asked.
“Elliott?” Luke shrugged, but kept his distance, wondering if there were any right answers. “I only met him over the summer.”
“No—I meant how long have you known you’re gay?”
“Oh. I dunno. Six months, maybe?” At least that was when he’d finally admitted it to himself. “Other than Simon and Elliott, you’re the only one I’ve ever told.”
"Only six months?" Ryan's face fell. He shook his head and then started banging it gently on the wall behind him. “Is that all? Shit...I’ve been a stupid fucking asshole!”
Luke frowned. "I don't underst—"
“I convinced myself that you’d always been this way, ever since I met you and..." Ryan’s eyes dropped and he looked completely miserable.
"Forget it. It’s not you, it’s me that’s been acting like a prick. For what it’s worth now, I’m sorry. And I’m happy for you and Elliott.”
“He’s just a friend,” Luke replied, though he knew it was more than that. "What about you?" he added, quickly. There was so much he realized he wanted to know now, and questions started tumbling in his head, trying to find a way out. "How long, I mean?"
Ryan didn't answer at first, but then tried to conjure up half a smile, and chuckled, "Would it weird you out if I told you I couldn't keep my eyes off you when you first arrived?"
Luke's mouth dropped. Holy shit! “But…I thought you couldn't stand me at first."
"Self-preservation, I guess." Ryan chuckled again, but it didn't carry much humor. "I mean who’d want to be marked out as the gay kid at our school? Would you?"
"No..." Luke’s eyes flicked away. Both of them knew what that would look like.
"Not that it did me much good." Ryan brushed his damaged lips with the back of his hand and a smile touched them. An honest one this time, and all of the old Ryan, the Ryan that Luke knew so well, peeked through.
“You did a good job.” Luke found himself wanting to smile, too. “Honest to God, I had no idea, and nobody else does, either.”
Ryan’s grin became wistful. “I prefer to keep it that way. Anyway, like I said, I’m happy for you and Elliott.” Despite repeating himself, Ryan still didn’t sound happy for Luke.
“We’re just friends.”
“But you like him.”
“Yeah—I do like him, but…”
Luke couldn’t hold Ryan’s eye. Why did it have to be like this? Why did he have to chose when he didn’t even know how?
“Confused?” Ryan’s tone quickened again. “About?”
“People. You. Elliott. Shit, do I have to spell it out!?”
This was what had troubled Luke over a cup of undrinkable Starbucks. Wondering, after spending so long watching Ryan from afar—thinking that maybe it was only some stupid infatuation—would he feel the same, now that it wasn’t just a fantasy that Ryan was gay, too? Without really considering why, he stepped forward, reached up, and gently touched the puffy lip.
"Does it hurt? Maybe you should get some stuff on it?” He swallowed as the proximity brought a tremor to his hand that he wasn’t expecting.
Ryan’s hand came up slowly and he stared at Luke, an unexpected turmoil in his expression. He took hold Luke’s hand and eased it away, letting his head lean back. “Don’t… please don’t.” Closing his eyes, his tone brimmed with the same turmoil, and Luke pulled his hand back, confused.
“Don’t what? I was just—”
Ryan opened his eyes. “I know you were just being nice, but don’t touch me like that.”
“I didn’t mean it like that…”
“I know, but…” Ryan had a sad plaintive look in his eyes. He was pleading for something, but Luke was still confused. “It’s too hard. If you touch me like that, you need to mean it for the right reasons. Not just to be nice. Otherwise, treat me like you would if the school was watching."
“Oh.” Luke dropped his hand, and hung his head. “Sorry.”
It was like he’d anticipated. There were no easy win-win scenarios. Somebody was going to feel hurt, and, fuck, it was him that was going to have to decide who!
Ryan’s face and tone softened. “I’m sorry, too. That was a bit shit of me.”
“I…” Luke looked up. “Well, at least it was honest.”
“Maybe…but still shitty.” Ryan pulled a face, but then brushed his fingers invitingly against Luke’s hand. “Look, I like you…like…like that. I think you’ve figured that out now.”
“If you’re with Elliott, then…” Ryan continued, pushing to get it out, though he didn’t finish. “But if you want that with me… It’s one or the other. You have to decide.”
It had to be—scrap that, it was—the most horrible moment Luke had had in the whole uncomfortable, terrible afternoon. And it was so fucking…unfair! Ryan had been hurt enough already, hadn’t he? Maybe six months or three months ago…or a month—hell, even a week ago, things might have been different. But now…?
“Ry…I… me and Elliott… I mean I—”
“I get it.” Ryan’s face fell, and then became stiff with poorly hidden disappointment.