“I didn’t book a direct flight, as my Dad made me pay for this trip myself. And this was the cheapest option.”
The smell of burgers hovering over the white square table Conor and I sat at made my mouth water. The diner Conor dragged me to for our unplanned reunion had an old-fashioned appearance. As if it was built to attract European tourists, even though I doubt that any of them even fly here. Conor folded his hands, piercing me with his eyes. “So, your rich star-architect dad makes you go to work to pay for stuff yourself?” He raised his brows at me in disbelief.
“He said I had to learn what earning stuff is like.”
Connor couldn’t hold himself back anymore and burst out laughing.
“Why is that so funny?” I asked, feeling my blood pressure rising again, but Conor just shook his head and was all smiles as if he thought I deserved to be taught a lesson.
“I can’t imagine you… having a job. Sorry. The mighty quarterback who always lets people know who is king, working in a donut store.”
I huffed even though anger was futile. After what happened between us, I couldn’t blame him. He was just using this opportunity to entertain himself.
“Maybe you are a normal human being, after all.”
What else would I be?
I picked up the sticky menu and read through the different burgers, sandwiches, and all-day-breakfast variations. A waiter hardly older than us walked up to our table, straightening his short black hair one more time before putting on a fake smile.
“Good evening, gentleman. I’m Joshua, and I will be your server tonight. How are we today?”
As if you cared.
A brown stain on his company clothes, right on his chest, was barely covered by his name tag.
“Yeah, yeah. We’re good,” I replied hastily, to get by with the social conventions everybody else seems to like so much.
“You guys also stuck here due to the storm?”
“Can we skip the shenanigans and just order?” I interrupted Conor before he could engage further in that useless conversation.
“Oh my, someone is hungry, huh?” Waiter Guy turned to Conor, completely ignoring my angry stare. They glanced at each other as if I was the one wasting everybody’s time. Ugh, I hate small talk.
“I’ll take the house burger with fries and a Coke,” I barked at Josh-something, throwing the menu toward his side of the table. He tried to catch the laminated letter-sized paper but missed and instead slammed it onto the ground, almost knocking over the table.
Terrible reflexes, just like I thought. I threw my arms on the opposing side and stabilized the table before it overturned so that he wouldn’t get hurt by his clumsiness.
“Yeah, I’ll have the same.” Conor smiled apologetically at the waiter as if he had to reassure him that I wasn’t a bad guy.
“Okay. I’ll be back with you shortly,” he replied and walked away with a face that told me he would ensure to add extra saliva to my drink.
“Still angry at everyone and everything, huh?”
“No?” I countered so hastily that I probably confirmed the opposite answer. I wasn’t in the mood to be judged. Conor tapped his feet, following the beat of a song that pretended to be cool ten years ago. Just change the fucking topic, I told myself and took a deep breath.
“What brings you here?” I asked. What a stupid question. Conor clenched his eyebrows, possibly thinking the same as me. But places like this diner are made for dull conversation, so I went on with it. “Didn’t you move to LA?”
“That’s where I’m heading.” He eyed me as if he was waiting for the right moment to put information on the table that would either hurt me badly or kill me straight away. “Visited some friends over the holidays.”
I probably shouldn’t have investigated further, but my curiosity had already gotten the better of me.
“Anyone I know?”
“Maybe,” he chuckled.
“Don’t make me ask for every damn piece of information.”
“Will, for example. And Leo.”
“Like... Will Cooper and Leo Milton?”
The grin on Conor’s face widened as if he was happy this was difficult news for me. Cooper and Milton are two of my closest friends. I spend most of my afternoons with them, even though we no longer attend the same high school. Why the fuck didn’t I know anything about that? And why did he tell me now? Was he trying to break me? To get back at me?
My heart sank to my bottom. This wasn’t just any conversation between old friends. Without realizing it, I was in the middle of a fight. And I was losing.
“Yeah. Turns out they didn’t have as much of a problem with me being gay as you did.”
My eyes wandered over the table, to the bar, and back into my lap. I needed something else to look at than Conor’s sadistic face.
“So you waited for me to leave town to visit them?” Everything seemed to line up perfectly. When I asked Leo and Will what they were doing over the holidays, they bullshitted me with “usual family festivities.” So now they could have the time of their lives without risking me getting in their way. Am I that terrible that everyone had to lie to me?
“Nah, it was just a coincidence that you were out of town. The last time I visited, you were also home.” He kept revealing facts as if this was a true-crime show on Netflix—every piece of information more shocking than the last one.
I skimmed my fingers over the slippery table top, trying to appear unimpressed, while I clenched my toes into the floor. So my actions in the past had more of an impact than I thought they had. Great.
“Oh, trouble in paradise,” the waiter commented upon seeing my face. Why is everyone choosing to pick on me today?
He positioned two large cups filled with cola and ice close to the table’s edge, almost as if he wanted them to tip over. Bringing two separately wrapped straws, he neatly placed one next to Connor and threw the other toward me. I could feel the disappointment behind his constant fake smile when I easily caught it.
I just growled a “Thank you” and stared at a poster hanging over the table, advertising their newest steak-sandwich creation. If I had looked at him, I probably would have blared something stupid to divert my anger caused by Conor onto him. But I shouldn’t keep provoking the people who handle my food.
“Let me know if you need anything else,” and with a malicious “Enjoy your drinks,” he left us alone again. I scanned my cup to see if he actually spit in it, but I couldn’t determine anything suspicious.
“Does it make you uncomfortable that I talk so openly about everything?” Conor popped the straw out of its packaging and took a sip of the sparkling black fuel.
“Just for the record, I never had a problem with you being gay.”
“Sure,” Conor laughed and rolled his eyes, not believing a word.
I hate that people so often don’t believe me when I’m honest with them. They always used to look at me like he does now. I saw it from my Dad, my Mom, Milton and Cooper, and several others. But Conor’s facial expression told me more than he wanted. He doesn’t know what drove my actions back then. Because if he had, this conversation would have taken place differently.
“I mean it.”
“I understand. That’s why you told everyone I came onto you and called me a homo.”
That’s… shit. Yeah, I said that. And I could kill myself for having done that. But—
“So what else is new?” Before I could continue explaining myself, Conor changed the topic. “Football? Girlfriend?” And followed by an insightfully dark grin, “Boyfriend?”
“Oh, fuck this.” Of course, he couldn’t just stop, so I had to. This conversation was just too awkward, and none of us would get out alive if we kept going like this. I pushed myself up and grabbed my jacket, which I had shoved into the corner of the bench when we arrived.
“When have you lost your humor, Asher?” he interjected and raised his arm, ready to grab my wrist, but stopped right before he touched me. “I’m sorry. I promise I will stop now.” Connor smiled sincerely as if he was sorry for going this far. “Tell me a bit about your life. I really want to know.”
“Okay, okay,” I mumbled and sat back down. I hope I won’t regret this tomorrow. “You probably know that my Dad send me to a different high school than the other guys.” Conor nodded and, as I thought, was not surprised.
“No girlfriend—or boyfriend, before you have to keep asking….” I unpacked my straw and pushed it into the drink, but it kept coming up, so I bumped it down again and again. “I’m the quarterback of my high school team. But ten to one, you will like that I’m not the team captain. Coach says I’m not ready for that. But I will show him soon enough.”Contrary to what I imagined, Conor seemed more worried than happy about this information.
“What about you?” I thrust the straw to the bottom of the glass.
“I’m not a linebacker anymore. I felt the city’s pressure and started drama.”
“No way.” I stared at him in shock as he was one of the best linebackers I ever saw, and he could have made it big with his talent.
“Perhaps this is the work of Hollywood’s powerful witchcraft,” he laughed. The slurpy sound of me drinking through a straw underlined his words. “LA is crazy. I miss small-town living somehow, but now that I’ve been there again, I’m also happy to return home.”
“No boyfriend,” I asked and couldn’t help but add, “…or girlfriend?”
Conor laughed with a sadness that made me regret asking. “No, unfortunately, I lack the qualities to be… boyfriend material.”
Conor gazed into the distance.
What does he mean by that? Is he referring to what happened between us before he left?
He sighed and looked me straight in the eyes.
“I’m sorry, we kept my visits secret. I didn’t want to open old wounds, so I made the others promise not to tell you. Don’t let it out on them, okay?”
“It’s fine,” I asserted, as I didn’t want to make this conversation more complicated than it already was. But... I wasn’t fine. His sentence felt like a summary of what everyone thought about me.
Whenever I am around, I make everyone miserable. Because of me, he thinks he isn’t boyfriend material. He even had to ask me not to give my friends a hard time. Because that’s who I am, I believe—a person who is angry at everyone and everything. And who lets it out on their friends?
And I suppose I have to… live with that. With me being this person.
Even though I hate being like this.
But… what do they always say? If I don’t love myself for being who I am, who else would?
I leaned on the table and took another sip as Conor’s worried eyes pondered each of my moves.
“Are you happy, Ash?”