After the First Taste of Love

There was a strange finality to the click of the payphone as Nick hung up. He'd been glad to see one at the grungy Greyhound station on Chicago's west side. Payphones weren't as common as when he was a kid, and since Barrett owned Nick's cell phone, he wouldn't have called Angelo from it, even if he still had it. It—and everything else Barrett had bought him—had been deliberately left behind. So much was deliberate about the past twenty-four hours. He'd thought about leaving for a long time, but something always kept him: fear, denial, hope. Once he made up his mind, though, he left.

With few possessions, it was easy to cram everything that meant anything to him, plus some changes of clothes, in one backpack. The laptop belonged to him outright, having once been used for college, so he felt no guilt at the weight of the messenger bag. It felt good to have only what belonged to him and no more, nothing owed. Still, until he'd heard Angelo's voice, he hadn't realized how lonely he'd been. Hadn't let himself. Sitting down gingerly on a bench to wait, he was careful to take slow and shallow breaths. He knew the feeling of a cracked rib; it hurt like a motherfucker. But he didn't cry then, and he wouldn't cry now. He was just lucky Angelo hadn't written him off as "pathetic", like Barrett often said he would. Hell of a way to talk to someone you supposedly loved. He cursed silently, wishing he could stop thinking about Barrett now that he'd finally gotten away from him. He forced his mind to the present, to Angelo. Angelo was coming. The rest he would figure out later.

***

Exactly what Nick was up to, Angelo didn't know. Not details, anyway. That they hadn't spoken in two years and Nick called out of the blue from a bus station said a lot. That his voice had an unfamiliar shakiness said more. But who knew, maybe Angelo was imagining things. Nick could always take care of himself, and even though they'd parted company on a bad note, Angelo did want to see him. As he slipped on his shoes and grabbed his keys, his mind flew to the past, to the day he'd met the cocky rich-boy Barrett, slimy as they came yet irresistible to an oblivious Nick, desperate for his first taste of love. Angelo had loathed Barrett from the moment he saw the adoration in Nick's eyes, heard the declaration that Nick was moving out of the dorms and in with him. What could Angelo do, a friend who wasn't even really the "big brother" Nick called him? Nothing. So, he accepted reality, grudgingly, and watched Nick—inexperienced and eager to spread his wings—go. All the way to D.C. and not to return... until now.

Making his way to the station on West Harrison, Angelo's mind continued to wander. There wasn't much traffic on a late Tuesday night, and there was nothing on the radio. He wondered whether Nick was back for good or just for a night or two, whether Barrett was out of the picture or there had just been some lovers' quarrel. But his thoughts stalled at the moment of reunion. In only half an hour, he'd see Nick again. Funny how the anger vanished at the thought. The gut feeling that Nick needed him trumped any lingering resentment easily. Whether it was rescuing him from gay-bashing jocks in high school or cooking for him when he'd run away from home, Angelo had always been Nick's white knight— or his mixed-race knight, anyway. They both had that indeterminate look about them in common, as well as being gay, though their backgrounds were little alike. They clung to one another throughout those terrible and wonderful years in high school and beyond. Angelo needed to be "big bro", needed to be needed. Nick needed unconditional friendship and escape from that volatile Mexican-Jewish household of his. They found what they needed in each other. Until Barrett.

Exiting the highway for the less familiar part of the city where Nick waited, Angelo shifted into planning mode. The reunion hug couldn't last forever. As he wondered how different Nick would look since they last saw one another, he was also contemplating sleeping arrangements. He'd give Nick his bed and he'd sleep on the sofa. Knight stuff. Spare sheets were clean and he had extra throws. Check. Nick could have his blanket with the clean sheets and he'd put his sheets on the sofa. He hoped the extra pillows weren't too gross since the cats had claimed them; at least he could change the cases... if he had clean spares. Or Nick could have his pillow. As he pulled into the parking lot, he fought unfamiliar butterflies. It felt positively surreal: he was actually going to see Nick again. He didn't doubt they were both equally nervous.

Parking was no trouble in the half-empty lot, though the cold drizzle and chilly wind made him shiver as he rushed into the brightly lit station. The fluorescent lights were harsher than the rain, but it took only a moment to recognize Nick, sitting huddled on a bench. His hair was shaggy, bangs long over his eyes, and he was taking that posture that made him look even shorter than he was. "Nick." The sight made Angelo's heart clench, and in a half-unconscious shift, he stood straight and reached out a hand to put Nick at ease. Big brother was here.

Once Nick looked up, there was no hesitation before he rose and threw his arms around Angelo. "You came," he mumbled into Angelo's jacket. "You came."

"Of course I came," Angelo answered with dismissiveness that sounded false, even to his own ears. He wrapped his arms tightly around the almost-stranger who could never be less than family. He had the sudden feeling he had been thrust into some cheesy art film. They should have had a mood soundtrack instead of the announcement that smoking was prohibited inside the station. They should have been in black and white. Nick should never have left. With effort, he shook the "shoulds" from his head and stepped back to hold Nick's shoulders so he could look at him. And then he wished he hadn't. There were no tears—there were never tears with Nick—but he was shocked by the circles under Nick's big brown eyes, by the way his mouth turned down, by a thinness that wasn't about style but malnutrition, illness, or worry. "You look like hell," he said softly, like a secret he didn't want to keep.

He wasn't surprised that Nick turned his eyes down and away, shrugging at Angelo's scrutiny. But then he smiled hollowly, a blow-off gesture that the Nick he knew had never made. "Not everyone can be as fashionable as you," he joked.

Realizing the impact of his words, Angelo scrambled for a genuine smile, but his smiles always felt like awkward, lopsided things. He didn't want to continue this difficult reunion in public. Nick had often teased him for being too private, but he wasn't sure there was such a thing. "C'mon," he said, picking up Nick's backpack then reaching for his laptop case. He wanted Nick in the car, out of the glare, where he could reach deeper than that empty gaze to get some answers.

Nick hastily gripped the bag that held his laptop and grabbed his backpack away from Angelo. The tension lasted a split second until Angelo relinquished it and led his once best friend out to his car. He resisted the urge to ask why Nick had so little luggage. Either Nick was only here overnight or he'd taken off with just this. Given the way he looked and the way he was slouching along behind, it was the latter. So there was both everything and nothing to ask. They walked in silence, Angelo feeling the rain drip down his neck, not looking back to see Nick following but hearing his footfalls splashing. Competing impulses to hold him tight and never let him go and to yell "What the hell's happened to you?" warred as he popped the door locks and watched Nick toss the backpack and case into the back then climb in. There was an awkwardness to his movements, especially as he sat down. Angelo walked around the front of the car, eyes on Nick through the rain-spattered windshield. He climbed in and quickly started the engine.

As he turned on the lights and the wipers, Nick carefully pulled the seatbelt across his chest, eyes on the floor. Angelo fought to keep worry out of his eyes. Being Nick's knight meant care but no pity; he'd learned that long ago.

"Thank you," Nick said in the same pained, quiet voice he'd called Angelo with.

Angelo mumbled a dismissive, "No prob." If he started driving, the conversation would probably stay superficial. If he was busy navigating, they couldn't get all emotional or confrontational or whatever it was they were eventually likely to get. He kept his hand on the shift but didn't move it out of park. Watching the wipers smack and splash, he found himself asking, "Are you going to go back to him?" It wasn't what he thought he'd say. He couldn't really be sure Nick had been beaten. He couldn't even ask.

Nick's reply was quick and firm: "No. It's over." He shifted his eyes from his shoes to the window.

Angelo had no doubt his friend meant what he said, but his mind was full of questions.

How much pain was behind that answer? How scary had it been to take off with only a backpack and spend the day on a Greyhound? Did he worry I'd reject him, not come for him when he called? He watched as Nick tried to take a deep, slow breath that stuttered back into shallow gasps. "Are you hurt?" He kept being abrupt when he wanted to be chivalrous, so perhaps it was better to say nothing at all. He didn't want to accept that the fireball who had never listened to anyone's advice or let anyone get in his way was the guy sitting next to him, so quiet and broken.

"It doesn't matter."

Angelo wasn't satisfied with that answer, but before he could insist upon better, Nick snapped, "Yes. Can we go now? Please?"

At least that was familiar: impatience, grudging acknowledgement, more impatience. The urgency penetrated, and Angelo nodded, reversing out of the parking space and heading for home. There was no point in asking if he needed to go to the hospital. The answer would be no. He pondered how long it had been since whatever happened to hurt him had happened, how long since he had eaten, gotten a good night's sleep. "If you have a concussion or broken bones or something and aren't telling me..." The words trailed into silence. He listened to the wiper slapping as the rain came down harder. The threat was empty. "Little bro" was home.