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The Rest of Forever (The Firsts and Forever Series Book 16) by Alexa Land (1)

 

 

The Rest of Forever

by Alexa Land

 

The Firsts and Forever Series #16

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Copyright 2018 by Alexa Land.

All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission in whole or in part of this publication is permitted without express written consent from the author.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either used fictitiously or are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, business establishments or locales is purely coincidental.

 

This gay romance contains adult language and sexually explicit material.

It is intended for ADULTS ONLY.


Books by Alexa Land Include:

 

Feral (prequel to Tinder)

The Tinder Chronicles (Tinder, Hunted and Destined)

 

And the Firsts and Forever Series:

1 Way Off Plan

2 All In

3 In Pieces

 4 Gathering Storm

5 Salvation

6 Skye Blue

7 Against the Wall

8 Belonging

9 Coming Home

10 All I Believe

10.5 Hitman’s Holiday (novella)

11 The Distance

12 Who I Used to Be

13 Worlds Away

13.5 Armor (novella)

14 All I Ever Wanted

15 Take a Chance on Me

15.5 Once Burned (novella)

16 The Rest of Forever

 

 


Dedicated to

Terri H.

Friend and Reader

 

A special thank you to Terri

for coming up with

the title of this book!

 

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks as always to my fantastic team:

Melisha, Kim, and Ron

 

Thanks Jera for the late-night company and all the laughs!

Thank you Aimee M. for the archive review

Thank you Kylee for the Hoff

I appreciate your help and support!

 

And thank you as always to my Firsts & Forever group on Facebook for your friendship and enthusiasm!


Table of Contents

 

 


Chapter One

 

“Dad, what does bukkake mean?”

I glanced at my youngest son Mark, who’d just asked that question around a mouthful of toast. Since MJ, my twelve-year-old, nearly choked on his orange juice when his brother said that, I was going to guess it wasn’t good, but I actually had no idea what it meant. Instead of admitting I was clueless, I asked Mark, “Where did you learn that word?”

The nine-year-old pointed at his brother. “From MJ.”

“Oh my God! This is why I never let you hang out with me and my friends! You’re such a snitch!” MJ crossed his arms over his chest and glared at his sibling.

“Am not!”

“You totally are!”

“We don’t have time for this,” I said. “Finish your breakfast, both of you. If we don’t leave in four minutes, you’re going to be late for school.” As I loaded the dishwasher, I looked around and asked, “Where’s Mitchell? Why isn’t he eating?”

MJ muttered, “He says he’s doing a juice cleanse.”

“Why is a ten-year-old doing a juice cleanse? Never mind, don’t answer that. Just finish eating.” Mark picked up his plate and scraped the scrambled eggs into his mouth with the side of his fork. We didn’t have time for a lecture on table manners either, so I let that go and called, “Mitchell! Come here, please!”

He appeared in the doorway a few moments later with our dog tucked under his arm. All three of my sons were dark-haired like me, but while the youngest and oldest boys shared my olive complexion and were tall for their age, Mitchell was pale, short, and reed-thin. The last thing he needed was some sort of weird diet, so I said, “I never signed off on a juice cleanse.” I picked up his toast, wrapped it in a napkin, and handed it to him as I added, “We have to leave in three minutes, so you can eat that in the car. Where are your shoes?”

He frowned as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and said, “It’s my body. I think it’s kind of dictatorial to tell me what I can and can’t do with it.” Mitchell was ten going on forty-seven.

“We can talk about it in the car. Go find your shoes please, and put Gizmo in his crate,” I said as I dodged around Mark, who was carrying his plate to the sink. The dog flung himself around and grabbed the toast, which he choked down like a seagull with a fish. Mitchell grinned a little and held the napkin out of the dog’s reach.

I sighed as I wiped Mark’s crumbs from the sand-colored granite surface of the kitchen island and said, “There are granola bars in the cupboard. Grab one and keep it away from Gizmo.” Mark slung his backpack over one shoulder, and when he grabbed his skateboard and helmet, I asked, “What are you doing with that?”

Mark stuck the helmet on his head and said, “You told me I could take it today, because Romi Mendez and a bunch of us are going to the skate park after school. Remember? Her mom’s driving me to Nana’s house after, because you said we’re having dinner over there.”

“Oh. Right. Well, be sure to keep it in your locker this time. I don’t want another call from the principal about you skateboarding in the halls.”

Mark looked exasperated. “That happened one time.”

I took MJ’s plate as he started to put it in the sink and asked him, “Did you put your math homework in your backpack?”

“I don’t remember.” He unrolled the top of the brown paper bag with his name on it and looked inside as he said, “Nobody in junior high brings a sack lunch, Dad. Why can’t I eat the cafeteria food like everyone else?”

“We tried that,” I said, as I looked around for my glasses. “After a week, you admitted all you were having for lunch every day was five cartons of chocolate milk.”

I found the glasses a moment later, beside the coffee maker that I’d somehow failed to use that morning, and put them on as MJ said, “So? Milk is good for you.” He opened the sack labeled ‘Mark’ and peered inside.

I got the dishwasher going and gathered up the three sack lunches as I said, “Please go check your backpack for your math homework, and find Mitchell. We need to leave in two minutes!” I looked down at myself and brushed a dog hair from my navy blue tie, then patted my pockets for my keys. They were right where they should be, but I felt like I was forgetting something.

Mitchell appeared in the doorway, still shoeless, and announced, “Gizmo ate the latch on his travel crate, so now the door won’t close. If you want, I can hold him on my lap on the way to school.”

I paused in front of Mitchell and bent down to take a look at the panting, squirming animal in his arms. The dog was white with brown and black markings, and he was allegedly part Havanese and part Shih Tzu. But I was pretty sure Gizmo lived up to his name and was actually a gremlin. “Did he swallow it? If so, I probably need to take him to the vet.”

Mitchell shrugged, and his green hoodie slid off his skinny shoulders, revealing a stain on his T-shirt. Normally, I would have asked him to change, but since we were almost late, the fact that my middle child looked like a hobo was the least of my worries. He said, “I think he mostly just chewed on it.”

I heard the all-too-familiar sound of tires on hardwood in the front hallway and yelled, “No skateboarding in the house, Mark!” Then I looked around and asked, “Where did MJ go?”

Mitchell said, “I think he’s already in the car.”

If only. I took the dog from him and tried to keep the little beast from stuffing himself into the sack lunches as I said, “Go find your shoes and backpack. Actually, wait a second.” I opened a cupboard and grabbed a granola bar, which I handed to him as I said, “Okay, now go find your stuff.”

I grabbed my dark blue suit jacket and held it at arm’s length in an attempt to keep the dog hair off of it. Then I headed toward the front of the house, herding my two youngest sons ahead of me. Mitchell was carrying his shoes, and for some reason he’d put on a green knit cap with a big pompom on top. Close enough. When I reached the connecting door to the garage, I glanced down at the SUV. Big surprise, MJ wasn’t in there. I propped the door open with my foot and peered back down the hall as Gizmo struggled in my grasp and really tried to go for the sack lunches. After a beat, I yelled, “Michael, Junior! We’re leaving! Get over here!”

A few moments later, I heard my oldest son barreling down the stairs. He appeared in the hallway and jogged past me as he said, “I hate it when you use my full name.”

As if he hadn’t told me that a million times before. “I had to go for the heavy artillery,” I said, as I locked the connecting door and followed him down the stairway to the SUV. “We were going to be late.”

He grumbled, “We’ll be fine. You always get me there ten minutes early, and then I just have to stand around and wait for the bell to ring.”

“Because after I drop you off, I still have to make it to the grade school on time.” I glanced at the black concert T-shirt he was wearing under his red warm-up jacket and asked, “What happened to your polo shirt?”

“I had to change it. I looked like a dork.”

“It’s because he likes a girl,” Mark chimed in, as he stuck his head out the window of the SUV, “so he wants to look sexy for her.”

I stopped what I was doing and asked, “What girl?”

“There’s no girl! Oh my God! I just didn’t like that shirt, so I changed it.”

Mark smirked and said, “Oh really? Then why were you staring at Janet Leno during my basketball game last week?”

MJ muttered, “You need glasses.”

“Does Janet Leno go to your school,” I asked, “and are you inviting her to your birthday party? I’d like to meet her.”

The twelve-year-old looked mortified. “Just let it go, Dad.”

As MJ climbed into the passenger seat, I offloaded the dog into the backseat with Mark and Mitchell. Then I deposited my coat in the trunk before climbing behind the wheel and handing the sack lunches to MJ. A moment later, I realized what I was missing and exclaimed, “Oh, my briefcase!”

As I tumbled out of the big Ford, Mark exclaimed, “We’re going to be late, Dad!” I fought back a sigh.

Less than a minute later, my briefcase was loaded in the trunk and I was back behind the wheel. I hit the remote for the garage door, but nothing happened. Mitchell said, “Maybe the battery’s dead.”

In the next instant, Gizmo leapt out of the ten-year-old’s arms, clambered onto MJ’s lap, and crammed his head into one of the sack lunches. I grabbed the animal, who was wolfing down anything and everything he could sink his teeth into, and fought him for a ripped baggie of dog-mashed strawberries. I ended up flinging them onto the front of my light blue shirt. Awesome. Mark said, “Maybe we’re not feeding Gizmo enough.”

“We’re feeding him exactly what the veterinarian told us to feed him,” I said, as the dog began to lick the strawberry pulp off my shirt. “He had a good breakfast this morning, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s totally food-fixated.”

As I returned the dog to Mitchell, MJ held up the smashed paper bags and said, “These have all been stomped on. Now can I have cafeteria money?”

I handed him my wallet, and then I shook the remote as I said, “Give your brothers lunch money, too. Five dollars each should cover it.” I smacked the remote on my palm, pointed it at the garage door opener, and clicked it about a dozen times. Finally, the door opened with a mechanical whir and a rattle, and I muttered, “Thank God.”

MJ said, “You only have two twenties and a ten.”

I looked over my shoulder and backed out of the garage as I said, “Fine, use that and bring me the change.” When I reached the driveway, I shook and smacked the remote again. To my relief, the garage door actually closed behind us.

My oldest son distributed the bills, and predictably, the kid who ended up with the ten exclaimed, “No fair! MJ and Mitchell got twice as much as me!”

“It’s called the trickle-down effect,” Mitchell explained. “You’re the youngest, so you get less. It’s basic economics.” Where did he get that stuff?

I twisted around again and waited for some cars to pass while Mark and Mitchell bickered. The Outer Sunset was one of the quieter neighborhoods in San Francisco, but traffic was still a fact of life. While I was doing that, MJ began to chuckle, and he asked, “Why do you have this in your wallet, Dad?”

“Why do I have what?” My gaze was still on the traffic.

“This rubber. Hey, do you know it expired last September?”

My eyes went wide, and I turned to my oldest son and snatched the foil package from his fingers. “Never mind why I have that,” I said, as I crammed it into my pocket.

“It’s been like, a year since you broke up with Marie,” MJ persisted. “Has that been in there the whole time?”

I looked over my shoulder again, then swung onto the street and muttered, “We’re not talking about this.”

“I miss Marie. She was fun,” Mark said. “She said she was going to stay in touch, but she never did.” Great, now I felt guilty.

“Grownups always say junk like that,” Mitchell told him, “because they think we’ll get upset if they tell us the truth. Like, if Marie had been honest and said she never wanted to see us again because Dad dumped her, then you might have started crying and stuff, and she would’ve felt bad.”

“I’m not the one who would’ve started crying,” Mark insisted. “You’re the sensitive one.”

“Am not.”

“Are too. Yesterday, you started tearing up at a beer commercial!”

“So? The baby Clydesdale was lost, and it was sad.”

“It was still a beer commercial. Plus, you’d seen it before, so you knew the horse was going to find its way home.”

Mitchell shouted, “It’s okay for boys to cry! Just because you have the emotional depth of a petri dish doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me having feelings!”

“Dad, Mitchell called me a petri dish!”

“I did not!”

My two youngest sons bickered all the way to the junior high school. When I pulled to the curb, MJ shot me a look and said, “Kids. Am I right?” Then he handed me the mangled lunch sacks and jumped out of the SUV.

I called, “Have a good day,” and he gave me a little wave as he slammed the door. I watched as he jogged up to the building, and once he was inside, I pulled back into traffic.

The grade school was only a few blocks away, but I watched the time on my dashboard and chewed my lip as I made my way through the congested city streets. We were cutting it close. I pulled into the long line of cars in the roundabout at the front of the school with just a minute to spare, and then we ground to a halt. I leaned over to see who was holding up the line and sighed in exasperation as a mom in a white sedan got out of the car and went to the trunk with her kid. “Oh come on,” I complained. “That’s not how you do it! You’re supposed to drop off and go, not drop off and doddle!” The mom opened the trunk for her daughter, who picked up a violin case, and I said, “That is not a two-person job.” Finally, the parent got back behind the wheel.

“We can just hop out here,” Mitchell said.

“No, wait, we’re moving,” I said, and then I crept forward a car length. The next car in the number one position turned out to be another doddler, so I sighed and took the dog from Mitchell as I said, “Maybe you should hop out here. Oh wait, no, we’re moving again.” I pulled forward another car length, this time with a squirming dog on my lap. I had to remember to buy another travel crate ASAP.

A harsh buzzing sound echoed through the roundabout, and Mitchell exclaimed, “That’s the first bell, Dad, we gotta go!”

I said, “Yeah, okay,” even though the cars ahead of me all pulled forward. Mitchell and Mark piled out of the backseat as the van behind me honked. I yelled, “Have a good day, kids!” The door slammed and my sons took off running. I rolled forward slowly, watching until they were safely in the building, then scowled at the minivan in my rearview mirror and muttered, “Yeah, you know what? You were even later than I was, so bite me.” Few things made me as hostile as the daily school drop-off fiasco.

My next stop was doggie daycare. I’d learned the hard way that Gizmo really couldn’t be left at home unsupervised, even in a crate. He was just way too high-strung. That was when the Pampered Pup Palace became an unfortunate but necessary part of my life.

The ten-minute drive to daycare was spent trying to keep the dog from devouring the sad, wadded-up lunches on the passenger seat. I was thrilled that I’d spent several minutes of my jam-packed morning preparing nice, healthy things for my kids to eat (even though they preferred the heinous swill served up by the cafeteria), and then it all just ended up Gizmoed. At least the dog appreciated the lunches, but then again I’d literally seen him eat cat poop, so he wasn’t exactly a connoisseur.

As I pulled into the parking lot beside doggie daycare, Gizmo shifted his focus from the lunches to my leather wallet, which MJ had left in the center console. I tried to wrestle it away from him, which was great fun, as far as the dog was concerned. He wagged his stubby tail and really put his back into it. For a nine-pound dog, he was surprisingly strong.

Finally, I won the tug-of-war. While I was momentarily distracted, Gizmo lunged for the lunches and pulled a sandwich from the torn wrapping, which he choked down as quickly as he could. Fine, whatever.

I carried the dog into the building and tried to hand him to a new employee behind the counter. Just then, Gizmo made a disgusting retching sound, and the blond kid recoiled and said, “Dude, we can’t take your dog if it has kennel cough.”

“He doesn’t have kennel cough. He just swallowed half a sandwich without chewing.”

He shot me a look and said, “People food isn’t good for dogs.”

“Yeah, I know. Look, just take him. I promise he’s healthy as a horse.”

The kid countered with, “Dude, horses totally get sick.”

My nerves were frazzled by that point, but I took a deep breath and said, “Check our file. It has copies of his vaccination records, including the one for kennel cough.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, man. We can’t take sick dogs.”

“He’s not sick!” I took another deep breath and asked, as calmly as I could, “Can I speak to a manager?” The kid pointed to his name tag and grinned. Under the name “Dirk’ was the title ‘assistant manager.’ Really? I tried again. “The dog has a grooming appointment this morning at ten, and we can’t miss it. Your groomers are booked solid for a month, and his coat’s gotten so long that he can barely see.” I gathered up the hair over Gizmo’s eyes to illustrate my point.

“The salon can’t take sick dogs, either.”

“Help me out here. What am I supposed to do?”

The kid glanced from me to the dog, and then he looked under the counter. After a moment, he produced a sparkly, purple clip in the shape of a butterfly and fastened it onto Gizmo’s head, so the dog’s bangs stuck up in a little spout. Gizmo panted happily, and the kid reached for some hand sanitizer, which he squirted liberally into his palm. As he rubbed his hands together, I exclaimed, “Seriously? He’s a dog, not a plague rat!”

“Better safe than sorry, man.”

“Look, I have appointments all day, and I’m going to be late for the first one. I really need to go, and he really needs to stay.”

“Guess you have to take him to your appointments.”

“I don’t even have his leash with me.”

The kid gestured at the wall of merchandise to my left and said, “You can buy one.” 

I glanced at the flimsy nylon leads and said, “Those won’t work. He chews right through that kind.”

“You should like, think about training your dog, dude.”

My voice rose a little, despite myself. “I did! I paid for a whole year of private dog training! But at the end of it, the only person the dog would listen to was the trainer.”

The blond kid shook his head. “That’s no good, dude. That trainer needs to come back and like, show you how it’s done.”

“That’s not going to happen. She and I dated for a while, and then we broke up, and she moved to San Luis Obispo, and…why am I telling you this?”

“Wish I knew, man. So, do you want a leash, or not?”

I shook my head. “It’d be bitten in half in less than a minute. Do you have any pet carriers?”

“Yup, right there.” He pointed at an oversized pink purse with mesh sides. It was shaped like a castle and featured dimensional turrets with hot pink roofs in each corner. ‘Pampered Pup Palace’ was embroidered on both sides, beside a cartoon of a poodle in a tiara with a scepter in its mouth.

“Oh, come on.”

“Take it or leave it.”

I pulled the drool-soaked, slightly chewed wallet from my pocket and juggled the dog in my arms. “I don’t really have a choice. How much is it?”

“It’s on sale. Only one twenty-nine ninety-five.” I stared at him for a long moment, and then I sighed and handed over my credit card.

 

*****

 

After the hang-up at doggie daycare, I was already late meeting my brother for coffee. Then I had to spend fifteen minutes trying to find a parking spot in the Castro. Once I finally wedged the SUV into a space several blocks from my actual destination, I put on my suit jacket and loaded Gizmo into his new carrier. He stuck his head out through an opening at the front of the bag and panted happily.

I slung the carrier over my shoulder and hurried down the crowded sidewalk. Every fifteen feet or so, someone handed me a postcard-sized flyer advertising a sale or event. I took them just to be polite and stuck them in my jacket pocket. Eventually, I reached the elegant coffee house named for its owner, Sawyer MacNeil.

Like half the gay men in the city (or so it seemed), Sawyer was friends with my grandmother. Nana was a very enthusiastic supporter of the LGBTQ community, to say the least. She’d raised my brothers and me after our parents died, and when my oldest brother Dante came out, Nana decided to show her support in a big way. Somehow, it had spilled out to include the entire community.

When I stepped into the coffee house, Sawyer called out, “Hey there, Mike,” from behind the counter. I didn’t know him very well, but that didn’t really matter. Since he was part of the extended family Nana had created, that sort of made us relatives, minus the DNA.

I said hello and waved, and when he asked if I wanted the usual, I nodded. Then I craned my neck to look for Dante and finally spotted him in the back corner of the café. I wove among the tables, most of which were full, and glanced around at the warm surroundings. The floor was honey-colored, the lighting subdued, and the exposed brick wall to my right was lined with gorgeous oil paintings done by local artists. It was one of my favorite places in the city, and that was even before you factored in the sensational coffee.

Dante was doing something on his phone, and I took a moment to study him as I approached. I always thought he and I couldn’t be more different, although we looked a lot alike. Along with our brother Vincent, we were six-foot-four with a muscular build, black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. Only our brother Gianni had broken the mold (like my son Mitchell), in that he was smaller and paler than his brothers and had lighter eyes. Genetics was a funny thing.

As was so often the case, Dante was dressed in a needlessly expensive dark suit, which he’d paired with a crisp, black shirt. He reclined in the booth with one long leg sticking into the aisle and an arm draped over the back of his seat, completely owning his space. When he got a look at me, he chuckled and snapped a picture with his phone.

Then he tapped his screen and said, “Nice pretty pink penis purse, Mikey. It really goes with the blood-stained shirt. Were they both included in some sort of mental breakdown starter kit?” The phone beeped, and Dante grinned and added, “Vincent likes it, too. He wants to know if the cock clutch comes in any other colors, because the pink peens don’t really go with the suit from Accountants R Us.”

I put the carrier on the table and slid into the booth across from him as I said, “They’re strawberry stains, and is there some reason you’ve mentioned penises three times in the last thirty seconds?” Dante raised a dark eyebrow and gestured at the pet carrier. “What about it?” He traced one of the dimensional turrets at the corner of the bag, and I asked, “Are you saying that looks like a cock? Come on.”

“You can’t honestly tell me you don’t see it.”

“No. It’s just a castle. Only you would turn it into something dirty.”

Sawyer appeared at our table just then with my cappuccino and a paper cup of water for the dog, and Dante pointed at a turret and asked him, “What does that look like?”

Without missing a beat, Sawyer said, “A great, big dick.”

He grinned and leaned over to pet Gizmo, who slobbered on his hand, and Dante asked me, “Are you responsible for the have-a-shit’s hairdo? Because that’s a lovely butterfly clip, Mikey.”

I frowned at my brother and said, “As I’ve told you many times, a Havanese-Shih Tzu cross is called a Havashu, not a have-a-shit. And no, the clip wasn’t my idea. The dog had to miss his grooming appointment today, so that’s just to keep the hair out of his eyes.”

“And the dick purse? How do you explain that?”

“It’s not a dick purse! You’re just warped.”

While Sawyer was petting the dog, I glanced at his outfit. He was tall and built like I was, and he had a habit of mixing traditionally masculine and feminine clothing into a style all his own. That day, he was wearing a simple, V-neck T-shirt with a snug miniskirt, opaque tights, and high-heeled boots, all in black. His red lipstick provided a pop of color and was an interesting contrast to his no-nonsense short haircut. The way he dressed always struck me as really bold and brave. I usually tried to blend in, but I secretly admired people who were that comfortable in their own skin.

As Dante took a sip of coffee, I turned my attention back to him and said, “Hey, speaking of dirty minds, do either of you know what bukkake means?”

A burst of laughter slipped from Sawyer, and Dante just barely stopped short of a spit take, like MJ and his orange juice earlier that morning. My brother put down his mug and chuckled as he ran a napkin over his permanent five o’clock shadow. “Where did you hear your new word, Mikey?”

“Mark asked me what it meant over breakfast this morning. He said he learned it from his twelve-year-old brother.”

“And what did you tell him?”

“I couldn’t give him an answer, because I didn’t know, either. So, what does it mean?”

Sawyer was still smiling as he turned to walk away, and he said, “Have fun explaining that, Dante.”

While our friend returned to the counter, my brother asked, “How are you this sheltered at thirty-two?”

“I’m not sheltered!”

“Oh no, you really are.”

“You haven’t answered me. What does that word mean?”

Dante stared at me for a moment, and then he picked up his phone and quickly searched the internet. A few seconds later, he turned the screen to face me and said, “It means this.”

I exclaimed, “Oh my God!” The phone was playing a video of a naked woman, five naked men, and more flying semen than I’d ever seen, or ever wanted to. I felt myself turning red as I stammered, “Okay, I get the idea! Put it away!” Dante was grinning as he tapped the off-button and returned the phone to the tabletop. I frowned a little, and after a moment, I asked, “Wait, how did you know about that? It’s not like you’d ever watch straight porn.”

He shot me an exasperated look and said, “Can you honestly not imagine a gay version of that?”

“Oh. Right.” I went to take a sip of coffee, but then I grimaced at the foamy, white surface of my cappuccino and pushed the cup away, which made Dante chuckle. After a pause, I muttered, “I hate the thought of MJ looking at porn. I have all the parental controls in place on our computers, so I don’t even know how he’s accessing it.”

“At a friend’s house, probably.”

I nodded in agreement, and then I said, “How do I talk to him about this? I don’t even know where to start. He’s only twelve! I thought I still had time before something like this came up.”

“He’s turning thirteen in just a few weeks.”

“So?”

Dante took another sip of coffee and said, “So, he’s becoming a teenager.”

“But everything’s not supposed to change instantly. Just this morning, Markie was teasing MJ about having a crush on some girl. Before this, MJ never expressed the slightest interest in anyone. We’ve had the sex talk and all that, but I’m not mentally prepared for this to go from theoretical discussions to real life. Plus, now that I know he’s been looking at porn, there’s a whole added layer of complication. What’s that teaching him about love, or relationships, or even realistic expectations?”

“My only piece of advice here is don’t make it weird, but don’t avoid talking about it, either. The consequences are way too real. Believe me, I know.”

“What does that mean?”

“This weekend, I found out Joely’s girlfriend Maya is pregnant.” Dante and his husband Charlie were in the process of adopting two foster kids, brothers named Jayden and Joely. Jayden was fifteen, and Joely was barely nineteen, so that was definitely a surprise.

I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“Because you and I already had plans to meet here this morning, so I thought I’d tell you face-to-face.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Maya is moving in with us until the baby comes, and then we’ll figure it out. She says she wants to keep it, so we’re going to help those kids any way we can.”

“You’re oddly calm about this.” I finally took a sip of my cappuccino.

“Everyone keeps saying that. What good would it do to fly off the handle?”

I took another sip of coffee, and then I exclaimed, “I just realized this makes you a grandfather!”

Dante held up his hand, palm facing me. “No. We’re not going there. I’m way too young to be anyone’s grandpa.”

I grinned and said, “Apparently not.” Dante was only four years older than me and barely looked a day over thirty. Still, given how much he teased me, I was more than happy to return the favor.

As I took the dog out of the carrier and held him on my lap, my brother changed the subject with, “I want to talk to you about doing something special for Nana’s upcoming birthday.”

“Since she made us stop counting when she turned eighty, how do you think that’ll go over?”

“Nana might like to pretend she’s eighty and holding, and she may claim to be over the whole presents and candles bit, but she loves parties more than anyone I know,” he said. “So, we just won’t mention the birthday part. Instead, we’ll call it…hell, I don’t know, Nana Appreciation Day or something.”

“Good idea.” I held the cup of water for the dog, and Gizmo splashed more onto my pants than he actually drank as he lapped at it.

“As part of the celebration, I think it’d be great if the whole family could take a trip together over spring break next month. Since your schedule’s the most complicated, I wanted to talk to you first and find out if that might be a possibility.”

I thought about it before saying, “I could make it work. The boys all had different ideas about what they wanted to do with their week off, so I hadn’t actually booked anything yet. Where would we go?”

Dante asked, “What do you think about the idea of Catalina Island? Since we’re trying to coordinate a large number of people, I don’t want to go too far, but I still want it to feel like a getaway. I could rent a tour bus to drive everyone down to Los Angeles, and then it’s just a short ferry ride out to the island.”

“That could be fun. I remember Nana taking us there when we were kids.”

“That’s what made me think of it. Nana loved that vacation and talked about it for years afterwards. She always said she wanted to take us back there, but she never got around to it.”

I asked, “Do you think you’ll be able to find a place that can accommodate all of us during spring break?”

Dante picked up his phone again and said, “Actually, I know a guy named Ren Medina, who owns a ranch just outside Avalon. I mentioned we might be interested in renting the entire property, and he was all for it.”

He showed me a picture of an attractive, Spanish-style resort with a corral, and I said, “Mitchell will be so excited when I tell him they have horses.”

“I think Nana will like this place, too.”

“Definitely. So, how do you know this guy?”

“We used to be neighbors, and we played poker a couple of times a month before he moved south. He ran a successful tech company, and when he sold it, he used the money to build the ranch. But I don’t think it’s worked out the way he wanted it to.”

“It looks great, though. It also looks pretty spacious, so do you think it’d be okay if I brought a friend?”

My brother exclaimed, “Have you been holding out on me, Mikey? I didn’t know you were seeing someone. Who is she?”

“No, I literally mean a friend. I told you I was through with dating, and I meant it.”

“How can you be through with dating? You’ve only dated two people in your entire life.”

“That’s not true. I went on some blind dates before I met Marie,” I said. “Then I took a chance and got involved with her, but it didn’t work out, and my kids got hurt. It’s been over a year since she and I broke up, but just this morning they were talking about how much they missed her. I’m not doing that to them again.”

Dante’s expression grew sympathetic. “You’re a great dad, and I respect the fact that you put your boys first, but they’re fine. You raised them to be strong and resilient, and even if they miss your ex-girlfriend, they’ve dealt with it. So then the question becomes, what about your needs? Don’t you want someone in your life? You must be lonely.”

“How can I be lonely if I never even have a single moment to myself?”

“You can be lonely in a crowd, Mikey,” he said. “Don’t you miss the intimacy of being in a relationship? I don’t just mean sex, but you must miss that, too.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, as the dog began to lick my chin. “I just need to worry about raising my kids, running my business, getting through the ten thousand things on my to-do list, and—”

“This is just a thought, and feel free to tell me to fuck off. But maybe all of that’s just an excuse to keep you from getting hurt again. I know what it did to you when Jenny was killed by that drunk driver. You barely even had a chance to mourn, because you had three tiny boys depending on you. But I know it tore your heart out, and even though it’s been eight years, I don’t think you ever really got over losing your wife so suddenly.”

I told him, “I went out with Marie for close to two years. I tried to be in a relationship again. So, how am I making excuses?”

“Marie was utterly wrong for you. I have no idea what you even talked about, since you had absolutely nothing in common. In fact, I think the only reason you went out with her was because there was no chance of it developing into something serious, which meant you couldn’t get hurt.”

I frowned and said, “That makes it sound like I was leading her on.”

“Not at all. I really don’t think any of that was intentional.”

I took a sip of coffee, then asked, “How did we get on this subject?”

“You said you wanted to bring a friend to Catalina. I assumed you meant a girlfriend, but apparently I was wrong.”

“Yeah, you were. I was talking about Yoshi.”

The corner of my brother’s mouth quirked up into a smile, and he said, “Oh. Yeah, you should definitely bring Yoshi.”

“Why are you grinning?”

“No reason.” He picked up his phone and started writing a text. “I’m going to go ahead and tell my friend we want to rent that property, and we’ll get the ball rolling on the rest of the plans for Nana’s not-a-birthday party. I’ll handle all the arrangements, since I know your plate is full.”

“Can I bring the dog?”

Dante glanced at me. “Do you want to bring the dog?”

“Good point. I’ll make a reservation at the Doggie Divas Pet Resort for that week.”

My brother rolled his eyes and went back to his text. His phone beeped just a minute after he sent it, and he told me, “The ranch is reserved. Catalina, here we come.”

We visited for a few more minutes, and I finished my coffee, despite Gizmo’s best efforts to finish it for me. Then I slid out of the booth and said, “I have back-to-back appointments all day, so I need to get going. Um, my kids took all my cash….”

“Don’t worry, Mikey, I’ve got it. Are you coming to Nana’s Valentine’s Day party on Wednesday?”

I returned the dog to his carrier and slung it over my shoulder as I said, “No, I’m taking the boys to her house for dinner tonight instead. Her parties are a bit much on a school night.”

Dante’s teasing grin returned. “For you or your kids?” I sighed and headed to the door.


Chapter Two

 

“Oh, honey. Rough day, huh?”

Yoshiro Miyazaki got up from behind his desk and crossed the room to meet me when I entered his office. As my best friend drew me into an embrace, I murmured, “Rough week, and it’s only ten a.m. on Monday.” At around five-eleven, Yoshi was five inches shorter than I was. I also outweighed him by probably fifty pounds. But his hug still managed to totally envelop me, and I sank into it.

He chuckled when Gizmo started licking him, and he let go of me and scratched the dog’s ears as he said, “Aw, look at you with your cute little hair clip.”

The dog was beside himself with joy because he absolutely adored Yoshi, and when I pulled him from the carrier, he wagged his entire body. “Doggie daycare rejected him because he was making gagging sounds after scarfing down my kids’ lunch. They thought he had an infectious disease and didn’t buy my explanation that he’s actually just a crazed eating machine. Now I get to haul him from client to client all day.”

“You don’t have to do that. Just leave him here and pick him up after your appointments.” Yoshi took the dog from me, and Gizmo licked his face.

“I’m sure you have better things to do besides babysitting my gremlin. And you know he’s getting hair all over you, right?” As usual, Yoshi was dressed all in black, so that really was going to be disastrous.

He shrugged and said, “I don’t mind. Come on, let’s take Gizmo outside so he can stretch those stubby legs.”

I glanced at my friend as we headed to the back door of his tattoo studio. I’d always been in awe of Yoshi. He was strikingly handsome with flawless skin, expressive eyes, and enviable cheekbones, offset by a slightly prominent nose, which I thought gave him a regal profile. But even more remarkable than his good looks was the way he moved through life with ease and confidence.

I’d also always been struck by the fact that Yoshi functioned on a whole different level when it came to style and sophistication. He somehow managed to look pulled together and elegant all the time, even in just a T-shirt and jeans. His constant accessory was the black cityscape that sleeved his left arm from wrist to elbow, which I thought was perfection on him, and I wasn’t usually a fan of tattoos.

I considered myself lucky to know Yoshi. He and my brother Gianni had been best friends since college, and I’d been their third wheel. But when Gianni left to sail around the world with his boyfriend, Yoshi and I grew closer. Over the last couple of years, he’d become the best friend I’d ever had.

He turned the dog loose when we reached the cement patio behind the building, and Gizmo raced around sniffing everything. The yard was mostly used by the other tattoo artists for cigarette breaks, and apparently, as a freeform art gallery. The cinderblock walls surrounding the patio were covered in paintings ranging from a six-foot-high woman’s face to an alien-looking landscape, and all sorts of things in between. The furniture was just as eclectic, unlike the interior of the studio, which was sleek, modern, and totally coordinated in chrome and black leather.

My friend and I sat side-by-side on a vintage patio swing, and I leaned against Yoshi and admitted, “I’m so tired, and it’s only the start of the week. I have no idea how I’m going to make it to Friday, or why I’m even thinking about that, since my weekends are even busier than the weekdays.”

Yoshi rested his cheek against my hair and said, “You really need a vacation.”

“Funny you should mention that. I was going to ask if you want to come with me, my kids, and about thirty of my relatives to Catalina next month. Dante’s renting an entire ranch, and we’re going to celebrate Nana’s birthday without letting her know that’s what we’re doing, because she likes to pretend she isn’t getting any older. It’s the last week of March, over spring break. Please say yes. You know how insane my family is, and I’d love having a rational human being to talk to.”

“Absolutely. I’ll have to move some things around on my calendar, but that’s no problem. You know, I haven’t been to Catalina since I was about ten years old.”

“I was eight the one time I was there. I remember loving it. After that, I really wanted to move to an island.”

Yoshi asked, “An island with or without people?”

“Without, for the most part. I wanted to bring my brothers and Nana with me, but that was about it.”

“You know, you never mention your grandfather. Why is that?”

“He’s a rotten human being. I know I’m not supposed to feel that way about family, but it’s true. He barely wanted anything to do with my brothers and me when we were growing up. He used to say he’d already raised his sons, so he didn’t feel he should have to raise his grandsons, too.”

“What an asshole,” Yoshi said. “It’s not like you and your brothers had anyplace else to go after your parents were killed.”

“Yeah, he’s obviously a really compassionate individual. On top of that, we all found out a few years ago that he’d cheated on Nana throughout their marriage, and I’ll never forgive him for doing that to her.”

“It sounds like all of you are better off without him.”

“We really are,” I said. “It’s a good thing he basically ignored my brothers and me when we were living under his roof, because I think he would have been a terrible influence. One of the best things Nana ever did was divorce him, and I’m so glad she’s finally found herself a good man. She deserves every bit of happiness.”

“Agreed.”

“Anyway, enough about that. I’m glad you’re coming to Catalina. Fair warning: there are horses, and at some point my kids will probably try to coerce you into sitting on one in the name of recreation.”

Yoshi said, “So, you’re a huge fan of horseback riding, obviously.”

“Oh yeah. What’s not to like about getting your balls mashed while trying not to topple off a giant, hooved mammal?”

He smiled at me, and after a moment he said, “Okay, I’ve made it this long, but now I really have to ask about the crime scene all over your shirt.”

“You don’t want to hear about my morning.”

“Oh, but I do.”

“Alright. Well, I dragged my ass out of bed at five-thirty and worked out in my super posh garage gym, and then I got the boys ready for school, which was a slow-motion train wreck, same as usual. Next, I went three rounds with the dog over my kids’ sack lunches and lost, obviously, which is why I look like this and smell like Lotso Bear from Toy Story 3. You probably don’t get that reference, but trust me, it’s dead-on. Oh, I also learned what bukkake meant, and MJ found this in my wallet.” I pulled the condom from my pocket. “So, all in all, it was a pretty typical morning.”

“You didn’t know what bukkake meant before today?”

“No, but thank God for my big brother Dante, who explained it by showing me a video I can never unsee while we were in a crowded coffee house.”

Yoshi took the condom from me and glanced at it, and then he said, “Did you know this expired last September?”

“Yes, because MJ pointed it out to me. But the fact that it’s expired isn’t a problem, because my sex life is about as active as that of Tollund Man.”

“Do I want to know what that is?”

“No, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Tollund Man is a naturally mummified corpse that was found in a bog in Denmark in the 1950s. And why do I know about this? Because this past weekend, Mitchell decided that mummified bog corpses would be a fun subject for a school essay.”

Yoshi chuckled and said, “Let it never be said that conversations with you aren’t educational.”

I stood up and stretched, then said, “Okay, I’m going to shut up now and get to work. I’ll be migrating your accounts payable and receivable to a new software platform today. And yes, that’s every bit as exciting as it sounds.”

“How long did you block off to do that?”

“Two hours.”

“What’s on your schedule the rest of the day?”

“I have back-to-back appointments with two of my regular clients every Monday afternoon.”

Yoshi tossed his head to swing his glossy black hair out of his eyes, and his expensive haircut fell perfectly into place as he asked, “If you skipped those appointments today, what would happen?”

“There’d be more to do next week.”

“An unmanageable amount?”

“No, but it’s good to keep on top of things.”

“I think you should cancel your appointments,” he said. “Call and tell them you’ll see them next Monday.”

“Why?”

“Because if you don’t take a break, you’re going to run yourself into the ground.”

“But—”

“Come on, Mike, you know you could use a day off. Do I need to kidnap you?”

 I grinned a little and said, “How are you going to kidnap me? I’m a lot bigger than you.”

“But I fight dirty, and I bet you don’t.”

“I might.”

“Say yes, Mike.”

I chewed my lower lip for a moment before saying, “It’s kind of irresponsible to cancel those appointments, and ditching work sets a bad example for the boys.”

“You’re entitled to an occasional day off. When was the last time you had one of those?”

“I actually can’t remember.” He stared at me with an expression of exaggerated horror, and after a few moments, I said, “Okay. As long as I’m on time for after-school pickup, I guess it won’t do any harm.”

He looked delighted. “I’ll catch the dog. You grab whatever the hell the pink thing with dicks is that you were using to haul him around. Then let’s get you home, so the relaxing can commence.”

“You’re coming with me?” When he nodded, I said, “You should have led off with that. I would’ve said yes a lot sooner.”

 

*****

 

When we got to my house, Yoshi turned the dog loose, and Gizmo ran off to molest his favorite stuffed animal. After I called my afternoon appointments and rescheduled, my friend asked me, “Have you eaten today?”

“I didn’t have time.”

“How do you have time to cook breakfast for your kids, but not yourself?”

“If I made myself something, I wouldn’t have a chance to eat it.”

He turned me around and gave me a playful push toward the stairs. “Go change. I want to see you in full comfort mode when you come back down here. That does not mean jeans and a polo shirt, Mike, because that shit’s not comfortable. I’ll make us some food while you’re gone. Is there anything in the fridge you don’t want me to use?”

“No, help yourself to whatever you want.”

I turned and headed to the laundry room behind the kitchen, and Yoshi said, “Okay, so far you’re totally failing at following instructions.”

“I need to pretreat this shirt or the stains will set.”

He stuck his hand out and said, “Give it to me.”

I did as I was told, removing my suit jacket and tie before handing over the berry-blasted button-down. The stains had soaked through to the white tank underneath, so I stripped that off, too. His gaze flickered to my bare chest as he took the undershirt from me. I wrote it off as idle curiosity. Yoshi was gay, but he also had a very hot and very famous boyfriend, and people who dated rock stars didn’t check out accountants. I scooped up my jacket and tie and headed for the stairs.

By the time I returned to the kitchen just a few minutes later, dressed in a baggy T-shirt and a pair of cotton shorts I normally reserved for working out, Yoshi was in full chef mode. He diced some vegetables so quickly that his knife was a blur, and then he swept them into a pan that was sizzling on the stove. When he glanced at me, Yoshi grinned and said, “Now that’s what I’m talking about, maximum comfort.”

“How are you this good in the kitchen?” I asked as I circled the island and watched him crack an egg into a bowl using just one hand.

“I don’t like to half-ass things,” he said as he tossed the shells into the sink and cracked another egg with one hand. “A few years ago, I decided I wanted to learn to cook, so I took a series of classes at a local culinary school.” He added two more eggs, then whisked them with a splash of milk.

“Well, I’m certainly impressed.”

As he poured the egg mixture over the sautéed vegetables, he said, “Well, now that I’ve raised your expectations, I hope the meal lives up to them.”

Once the frittata was in the oven, Yoshi handed me a glass of orange juice and raised another in a toast, and I said, “To hooky Monday.”

We took a sip and leaned against the island side-by-side as we waited for the egg dish to bake. He looked around at my traditionally-styled kitchen, which was mostly white except for the sand-colored countertops, and said, “I’ve always wanted to cook in here. Is that weird? Every time I come over, I’m drawn to your kitchen.”

“I don’t see why. The one in your loft is like something out of a magazine.”

“Yeah, but all that stainless steel isn’t very warm or welcoming.”

“Well, any time you want to cook in a kitchen that’s far less impressive than yours, you have a standing invitation.”

He flashed me that radiant smile of his and said, “Though I disagree with the less impressive part, I’m totally going to take you up on that.”

Once the frittata was done, Yoshi served it with a fruit salad, and we sat down at the kitchen island to eat. Not surprisingly, the dish was absolutely delicious. When I told him that, he seemed pleased.

A moment later, Gizmo came barreling into the room with a food-crazed gleam in his eyes. Yoshi pointed at the dog, who was just about to jump on him, and said, “No. Sit.” To my amazement, the dog actually obeyed him.

“Wow. You’re good at absolutely everything,” I said. “I’m going to develop an inferiority complex.”

“I’m most definitely not good at everything. For example, you really don’t want to hear me sing.”

“I’ve heard you, and it wasn’t that bad.”

“When?”

“Last week, when you came over for dinner and you and MJ started making up words to the Star Wars theme song.”

He said, “Well, ‘not that bad’ is a long way from good.”

After we ate, he sent me out of the kitchen with instructions to start relaxing while he cleaned up. I headed down the photo-lined hallway to the family room at the back of the house, where I dropped onto the denim-slipcovered sofa. I loved that room. It had pretty blue walls, and French doors that let in a lot of sunlight and led to a balcony, with stairs to the small yard below. To the right of the doors was our TV and the game console I’d finally broken down and bought for the boys, and to the left was an entire wall of built-in shelves, which were filled with books, board games, and lots of family photos.

When I glanced at the shelves, my gaze happened to land on a framed photograph of Jenny with our three sons. I’d taken that picture just a week before she died. The photo always made my heart ache whenever it caught my eye. But that day, it hit me particularly hard. I just didn’t have the energy to keep up my usual façade of pretending everything was okay.

I studied the photo closely. Jenny had golden blonde hair and freckles and big, green eyes, and even though the boys didn’t look like their mom, I saw so much of her in them. She was there in Mitchell’s curiosity and quirky personality, and Mark’s love of sports, and MJ’s musical ability. Her kindness was in each of them too, and so was her zest for life.

Unexpectedly, a tear tumbled down my cheek. I took off my glasses and put them on the end table, at the base of a lamp shaped like a lighthouse with red and blue stripes. It had been one of Jenny’s favorite things. I ran the back of my hand over my eyes and tried to make myself get it together, but the tears just kept coming.

When Yoshi appeared in the doorway a couple of minutes later and saw what was happening, he hurried over and sat beside me on the couch, and I sank into his embrace. He was so patient. He just held me and stroked my hair as my tears soaked into his T-shirt.

Eventually, I whispered, “Thank God the boys aren’t here to see this.”

“What would be so bad about seeing you cry?”

“I’m supposed to be strong for them, Yoshi.”

He continued stroking my hair, and after a while, he asked, “What upset you?”

“I’m not sure. I was looking at Jenny’s picture, which always hurts, but it doesn’t usually bring me to tears. Not anymore.”

“You must miss her so much.”

“I do. She was my partner, in every sense of the word. But then, one day she was just gone. The boys were one, two, and four when that drunk driver ended her life. I hate the fact that MJ only has a handful of memories of her, and his brothers don’t remember her at all. To them, she’s just a face in pictures, like my parents are to me.”

His voice was so gentle when he said, “I don’t know how you got through it.”

“I don’t either. For a long time, I think I was just functioning on autopilot.” I sat up and stared at that photo as I said, “We were a team. Jenny and I were supposed to raise our kids together. For the last eight years, I’ve been scrambling to do her job and mine, and I’m exhausted, Yoshi, mentally and physically.”

“You never ask anyone for help, and I wish you would. You have me, and your brothers, and Nana, we’re all here for you.”

“That’s just…hard for me.”

After a pause, he asked, “Is Jenny’s family in the picture?”

I shook my head. “There’s no one left. She was an only child, raised by her widowed dad, and he passed away a few years ago. Jenny lost her mom when she was little. Since I’d lost my parents when I was three, it was one of the things that brought us together. Both of us wanted to give our kids what we never had, a stable home with two loving parents.”

I sighed and added, “That makes me sound ungrateful. Nana means the world to me, and I was lucky to be raised by someone who loved me unconditionally. But losing my parents the way I did left me so insecure, and what I wanted for my boys more than anything was a sense of security.”

Yoshi said softly, “You’ve provided that for them, Mike, that and so much more.”

“I’m trying. God, I’m trying. But sometimes I wonder if I’m too damaged to ever really pull it off.” I studied the red and blue area rug, and after a while, I asked, “Did Gianni ever tell you how we lost our parents?”

“He just said it was a home invasion.”

“That’s right. I was only three years old, so I’m pretty sure some of what I think I remember are actually manufactured memories, pieced together from the stories I’ve been told about that night. I know a group of men broke into our home when we were all asleep. They were there because of an old grudge, something stemming from my family’s involvement in organized crime, which went back generations. They shot my parents and my baby sister in their beds, and then they came for my brothers and me.” The story played in my head like a movie, showing me things I couldn’t possibly remember, and I wrapped my arms around myself as a cold trickle of fear slid down my spine.

Yoshi whispered, “My God.”

I took a deep breath and continued, “Dante heard them coming, and he woke my brothers and me. Then he held those men off with a shotgun so Vincent, Gianni and I could escape out a window.” I paused for a moment before saying, “I think I really do remember this part. I remember the fear in Vincent’s eyes as he lowered Gianni and me to the ground. I also remember I was barefoot, and the grass was cold and wet beneath my feet as we ran to the neighbor’s house for help. It was dark, and I was scared and confused. I definitely remember the sound of the shotgun blast and the way it echoed through the yard. I thought Dante had been shot, and I tried to go back for him, but Vincent and Gianni told me I had to keep going. They pulled me by my arms, almost dragging me across the yard. I was crying and calling Dante’s name. At least, I think I remember that.”

I exhaled slowly, and then I said, “Later on, family members filled in some of the gaps in that story. I found out that Dante ended up shooting and killing one of the monsters that broke into our home. The shot woke my father’s men, who were sleeping upstairs, and they saved Dante. Vinny, Gianni and I reached our neighbor’s house, and they called the police.

“My brothers and I moved in with Nana and our grandfather, and we never went back home after that night. Apparently the house is still standing, and it’s right here in the city. I’ve never gone and seen it. I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll remember more about that night, and it’s already too much to process, even after years of therapy.”

Yoshi grasped my hand, and when I looked at him, his eyes were full of sorrow. He whispered, “I’m so sorry that happened to you and your family.”

I wiped a tear from his cheek and murmured, “Sorry for dumping all of that on you.” I’d stopped crying. Actually, I’d stopped feeling much of anything, which was almost always the case when I tried to talk about that night. It was just far too painful and overwhelming, so it usually ended up shutting down a part of me, in a way I both hated and welcomed.

“I’m glad you told me.” I curled up on my side, and Yoshi sat on the edge of the couch and rested his hand on my arm. After a while, he said, “You should try to nap.”

I nodded and murmured, “Don’t let me sleep too long. Maybe just thirty minutes, okay? I can’t miss picking up my kids after school.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got you, Mike.” I felt a surprising wave of relief as he draped a blanket over me and I let my eyes slide shut.

 

*****

 

The first thing I saw when I awoke was Mitchell, who was sitting cross-legged at the coffee table and drawing on a sheet of construction paper with a fat marker. I sat up groggily and mumbled, “Hey kiddo. What time is it?” When I scratched my cheek, I found my unrelenting five o’clock shadow was back with a vengeance.

He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and said, “I’m not sure, but it’s getting close to dinnertime. You slept a lot.”

“How’d you get home from school?”

“Yoshi picked me up. He got MJ too, but not Mark because he’s skateboarding with his girlfriend.”

I echoed, “Girlfriend?”

“Oops, I wasn’t supposed to tell you that. Mark thought you’d freak out if you knew he and Romi Mendez are a couple.”

“Wait…my nine year old has a girlfriend? Since when? He and Romi have been friends since Kindergarten, and now they’re dating?”

“You’re freaking out, aren’t you? That’s exactly what Mark expected you to do.”

“He’s in the fourth grade!”

“Oh yeah, definitely freaking out. Do you want to breathe into a paper bag? I saw that on TV. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to do, but I can get you one.”

“No thanks.” I looked around for my glasses. When I found them on the end table, I slid them into place and muttered, “When did I become the last person to know anything around here?” Mitchell shrugged, and I asked him, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Gross!”

“Does MJ?”

“No, but I think he likes somebody. He’s all secret about it, though.”

I stood up and asked, “What’s he doing right now?”

“He and Yoshi are decorating cupcakes to take to Nana’s house. They wanted me to help, but that sounded kind of boring, so I’m making a card instead. We stopped at the store on the way home from school and got her some flowers too, because I told Yoshi we’re celebrating Nana’s Valentine’s Day today.”

I followed the sound of laughter to the kitchen, and when MJ saw me he exclaimed, “I didn’t think you’d ever wake up!”

“I hadn’t planned on sleeping that long. It felt good, though.” I squeezed Yoshi’s shoulder and said, “Thanks for getting the kids.”

“You’re welcome. I know you only intended to take a short nap, but I thought you could use the rest.”

“Yeah, I really needed that.”

I surveyed the kitchen island, which was covered in cupcakes, red and pink candies, heart-shaped sprinkles, and pastry bags of pink frosting. MJ pointed to one of their creations and told me, “Yoshi and I thought we were doing a really good job frosting the cupcakes, but we just realized they look exactly like pink poop emojis.”

They really did. “Nana will think it’s hilarious. Definitely leave them like that.” While MJ started fashioning eyes and smiles for the cupcakes out of candy, I said, “Be right back, I’m going to change my clothes. You should come to dinner with us, Yoshi.”

“I’d never say no to dinner at Nana’s.”

I went upstairs and cleaned up a bit in my bathroom before exchanging my outfit for jeans and a white polo shirt. That was basically my off-work uniform. I’d left my suit on the upholstered chair near my closet, and I looked it over and decided it was ready for the cleaners. I went through the pockets and pulled out the stack of flyers I’d been given in the Castro, then flipped through them idly as I carried them to the trash can in the bathroom. Most of them advertised sales at local businesses. Some promoted events around the city. One caught me completely off-guard and made me freeze in my tracks.

It was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. The flyer featured a black and white photo of two men. One of them was built a lot like me. He was naked and facing away from the camera, and his hands were bound behind his back. He knelt before a man in a suit, whose face was obscured by a shadow and the tilt of his head. The man in the suit was touching the kneeling man’s dark hair, in a way that seemed tender, almost loving. Or maybe I was reading a lot in.

Red letters across the bottom said: Join us at Kinx, the new, all-inclusive club for the BDSM community. That surprised me. While the photo obviously depicted submission and bondage, I’d always imagined BDSM as much more hardcore, whips and pain as opposed to that kind of gentle intimacy. Admittedly, it was a subject I knew nothing about. But that picture connected with me in a way I couldn’t explain, stirring something deep within and filling me with longing.

After a minute, I snapped myself out of it and threw away the stack of flyers. Okay, yes, I’d found that incredibly arousing, but there was no way on earth I’d go to a BDSM club. I didn’t have an exhibitionistic bone in my body. In fact, I was uncomfortable even just talking about sex, so doing anything in a public space was absolutely not happening. 

Dante’s comment from just that morning came back to me: what about your needs? I hesitated for a long moment, and then I fished the flyer out of the trash can. Even though I had no intention of actually going to that club, I was willing to admit I needed that photo. I hid it on the top shelf of my closet, well out of reach of my kids. Then I exhaled slowly and headed for the stairs.


Chapter Three

 

I’d realized at an early age that there was no one on earth like my grandmother. Nana had always been quirky, but the older she got, the more she let her freak flag fly. Around the time she turned seventy, she decided she no longer cared what anyone thought of her, so she was free to do and say whatever she wanted. A decade later, she was more committed to that idea than ever.

Her huge Queen Anne Victorian had been my home from the time I was three years old. It had been white back then, but these days it featured a shimmering rainbow that covered the façade top-to-bottom. We let ourselves into the grand foyer, with its marble floor, symmetrical staircases, and giant crystal chandelier. When I glanced up, I noticed a big, dick-shaped balloon, which must have escaped from its owner and now rested against the high ceiling. Sure, why not.

Nana, her husband Ollie, and one of her friends were in the living room immediately to our left. All three were wearing huge wigs and were in full makeup. Mark was with them, and his face was painted to look like a tiger. I didn’t bat an eye at any of that. Compared to some of the shenanigans I’d walked in on over the years, this was totally tame.

Nana called, “Hi boys! Mr. Mario was just giving me some makeup tips, and it turned into a full makeover! Ollie and Markie got in on the act, too. Don’t they look cute?”

I’d been so happy when Nana and Ollie found each other a couple of years ago. The little old man had a heart of gold, and he adored my grandmother. He also rode motorcycles, jumped out of airplanes, and overall, was nearly as zany as she was. I thought they really proved the adage ‘there’s somebody out there for everyone.’

At the moment, Ollie was wearing a puffy, lavender wig and bold makeup, which was interesting with his green track suit. Meanwhile, Nana sported a Marie Antoinette-worthy white beehive, a ton of makeup, and a pink track suit. Her dear friend and hair stylist Mr. Mario was a drag performer on the side, and he was made up to look a lot like Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, complete with a sparkly, white evening gown.

Yoshi and I called out a greeting, and as Mitchell and MJ went into the living room to present their great-grandmother with her card and gifts, I unclipped Gizmo’s chain from his collar. He immediately took off like a shot and formed a pack with Nana and Ollie’s dogs. One was a giant mutt named Tom Selleck, which looked like a Wookie. His buddy was a beige Chihuahua named Diego Rivera, a nod to Ollie’s long career in the art world.

We’d brought a hell of a lot of Chinese food at Nana’s request, after I told her we wanted to treat her to dinner for Valentine’s Day. As Yoshi and I carried the two big cardboard boxes into the spacious, yellow and white kitchen, he said, “I was thinking we should make ‘Hooky Monday’ a weekly event. You only have three clients that day, and I’m one of them. Could you move us somewhere else on your calendar? I don’t care when you get to my stuff, and you said the other two are long-time clients, so I bet they’d be fine with a change, too. That way, while the kids are in school, you’ll have a little time to yourself.”

“To do what?”

“I’m sure we’ll think of something.”

“We?”

He nodded. “I’ll join you. Sundays and Mondays are supposed to be my days off, but I’ve let my business eat up way too much of my life lately. It’ll be good for both of us to schedule in some down-time.”

“That might be doable,” I said, as I mentally rearranged my weekly schedule. “Mondays are my lightest days, so there’s not much to move around. It obviously won’t work during summer vacation when the kids are out of school, but until then, I think I can manage it.”

“Wow, that’s great. I really thought it’d be a lot harder to convince you.”

“Well, after my mini meltdown earlier today, I guess I’ve realized how much I really do need a break. That’s for my kids’ benefit, as well as mine. I can’t take care of them properly if I let myself get completely run down.”

When we’d finished unpacking a sea of white take-out containers onto the counter, Yoshi asked, “What are you doing on Wednesday for Valentine’s Day?”

“I’m totally embarrassing my oldest son by throwing a little party for the boys. We’re going to order pizza, bake cookies, and watch a movie. It’ll be super lame, just ask MJ. You probably have plans, but if not, would you like to join us?”

“Love to. What movie are we watching?”

“Whatever will embarrass MJ the most,” I said with a grin. “I’m thinking ‘Frozen,’ the sing-along version.”

“Perfect! Hey, did I tell you I learned to sing ‘Let It Go’ in Japanese?”

“Did you really?” Although he was second-generation Japanese-American, he rarely mentioned his heritage, so that was surprising on more than one level.

He nodded and said, “I was getting drunk by myself a couple of weeks ago while wading through the internet and found a video with subtitles. I had to watch it about twenty times, but I finally committed it to memory.”

“Aw, that’s both sad and funny. But I don’t know if I should believe you, since I can’t picture you doing any of that.”

Yoshi took off his black leather jacket and tossed it over a barstool, and then he flung his arms out to the sides and began belting out the Disney song in Japanese. He was a terrible singer, but that just made it more endearing. A few moments later, all three dogs ran into the kitchen and started barking at him, and Yoshi and I burst out laughing.

“Tough crowd,” he said with a smile, and we stepped around the dogs and headed for Nana’s cheerful yellow, red and white living room.

Mitchell ran up to us so we could admire his ice blue lipstick and shimmering green eyeshadow, and MJ was standing behind the canary-colored sofa with his arms crossed over his chest, as if he thought Mr. Mario might try to tackle him and perform an ambush makeover. I hated the fact that he’d become so reserved and self-conscious over the last year, but I also totally understood it, because I’d been exactly the same way at his age.

“Are we ready for dinner?” I asked. “I haven’t transferred the food to serving dishes yet, because I didn’t want it to get cold.”

“Oh now, don’t worry about that, Sugarplum,” Nana said as she came over to me. “We can just help ourselves out of the cartons. No need to get fancy.” She was barely five feet tall, so she had to pull me down really far in order to plant a big kiss on my forehead. Nana patted my cheek and added, “You look happy. That’s nice to see, since you’ve seemed pretty stressed out lately. Are you all mellow because pot’s finally legal in California?”

MJ snort-laughed, and I told her, “Um, no Nana. I just had a nap this afternoon.”

She shrugged her skinny shoulders and said, “That works too, I guess.” Then she turned to MJ and asked, “What’s new with you, Sugarplum, Junior? You’ve barely said a word since you got here.”

He tilted his head forward, so his bangs fell over his eyes. Another recent change had been the desire to grow his hair out. I wondered if that was just so he’d have something to hide behind. “Nothing’s new,” he mumbled. “Junior high is kind of a nightmare, but whatever.”

Mark came up to me with a big smile on his face and asked, “Do I look scary?”

“Terrifying.” I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture of his tiger stripes while he mugged for the camera, and then I asked, “Want me to text a copy to your girlfriend?”

Mark whirled around and pointed at Mitchell. “You told!”

Mitchell put on his glasses and admired his makeup in a handheld mirror as he said, “It’s in the past, bro. Let’s put it behind us and move on.”

I asked, “Do you want to invite Romi to our house for our mini Valentine’s Day party, Mark?”

He looked mortified and muttered, “No, Dad. Just no. Oh my God.”

I said, “Fine, but can we all just agree not to keep secrets from each other? I’m not going to lock you in a tower like Rapunzel if you do something you think I won’t like.”

Mark said, “I didn’t think you were going to lock me up, Dad. I just thought you’d stress out about it and make it weird. Even though Romi and I decided to be boyfriend and girlfriend, it’s exactly like before when we were just friends. The only difference is that now we get to use each other’s skateboards.” Okay, I could handle that.

“MJ is keeping a secret,” Mitchell informed us. His older brother’s eyes went wide, and Mitchell continued, “He told me not to tell anyone he really wants to audition for the talent show, but he’s too scared. He’s been singing Britney Spears songs in his room every night, and he actually doesn’t suck, so I think he should do it.”

MJ’s look of panic turned to one of pure annoyance as he told Mitchell, “Dad wants us to tell him our own secrets, dork butt, not somebody else’s!”

Before I had a chance to tell MJ not to call his brother names, Yoshi exclaimed, “Britney Spears is awesome! I bet you know the words to this song, MJ.”

He pulled out his phone and tapped the screen a few times, and when ‘Toxic’ began to play, Yoshi put his phone on the coffee table and bounced to the beat. I chuckled and began filming when he started to lip sync, and he strutted around the sofa and grabbed MJ’s hands. I was pleasantly surprised when the boy laughed and let Yoshi guide him to the center of the living room.

The two of them totally got into it, dancing with abandon while MJ sang along. Pretty soon, everyone joined in. My grandmother’s go-to dance move was twerking, and she did it with the vigor of a twenty-year-old while her giant wig flopped back and forth. Meanwhile, Mr. Mario and Ollie started dancing the jitterbug, and Mark and Mitchell pretty much just jumped around and wiggled.

MJ and Yoshi owned that song. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen my oldest son enjoy himself that much. He threw his skinny arms in the air and danced as he sang his heart out. Meanwhile, Yoshi lip synced and moved like one of Britney’s backup dancers.

I glanced up from the screen and watched my friend. He was always graceful, so it wasn’t really a surprise that he could dance, but it went above and beyond what I’d expected. When he turned around and swung his hips, my gaze shifted automatically to his ass in those tight jeans. As soon as I realized what I was doing, I quickly turned my attention back to the phone.

When the song ended, I told MJ, “You were amazing. You’ve always had a fantastic voice, and you’d be great in that talent show. What can I do to convince you to give it a shot?”

He studied the red and yellow area rug and muttered, “I want to, but what if I embarrass myself in front of the whole school?”

“You won’t.”

He glanced at me from beneath his dark lashes and said, “You don’t know that. I could freeze up, or forget the words, or trip over my own feet, or who knows what else? It’s all pretty terrifying.”

“If you want to, we can video chat with Uncle Gianni’s boyfriend,” I said. “Zan has been performing since he was a kid, and I bet he has a lot of tips and tricks for overcoming those fears.”

MJ shrugged and murmured, “Maybe.”

It often struck me as odd that two people in my life were both involved with rock stars. It all started when my brother Gianni fell in love with a very famous singer named Zan Tillane. About three years ago, Zan headlined a concert for charity and invited our whole family backstage. That was where Yoshi met Gale Goodwin, lead singer of a successful band called Mayday.

But while Zan and Gale were both famous singers, there ended the similarities. Gianni and Zan were in a loving, committed, lifelong relationship, and they traveled the world together. Meanwhile, Gale treated Yoshi as little more than a booty call. They hooked up whenever Gale breezed through San Francisco, and the rest of the time, Yoshi sat around waiting for Gale to call. He deserved so much better than that, but it wasn’t my place to tell him what I thought of his so-called boyfriend.

I returned the phone to my pocket and asked, “Is everyone ready for dinner?”

“Almost,” Yoshi told me. “But first, we have to dance to one more song, and you need to participate instead of just watching.”

“Oh no, I don’t dance.”

“Yes you do,” Yoshi said. “But maybe not like that.” He tapped his phone a couple of times, and as a slower Britney song called ‘Everytime’ began to play, he led me to the center of the living room. Yoshi slipped his arm around my waist and took my hand in his. Then we both tried to lead, which made us laugh.

He looked up at me with an amused sparkle in his dark eyes, and I said, “Go ahead.”

It felt odd to let someone else lead, but after a few moments, we found our rhythm. Nana and Ollie began to slow-dance too, and Mark and Mitchell grabbed each other’s hands and swung them back and forth as they did a jerky box-step around the living room. Meanwhile, MJ sang along, and Mr. Mario lip synced and acted out the song. Yoshi was watching me closely, and he said, “See? I knew you could do it. You just needed the right music.”

“That and the right partner,” I murmured, as he guided us confidently in a sweeping arc. That made him smile.

All too soon, the song ended. I was disappointed, maybe because that was more fun than I’d had in a long time. Mark said, “Can we eat now? I’m starving.” When I nodded, the kids hurried to the kitchen, with Mr. Mario, Nana and Ollie right on their heels.

Yoshi and I hung back for a moment, and as he pocketed his phone, he said, “Thanks for inviting me tonight, Mike. I always have a great time with your family.”

“I’m glad you’re here. It’s always twice as much fun when you’re along.” He probably thought I was just saying that, but I was perfectly serious.

 

*****

 

Later that night, after I’d dropped off Yoshi at his apartment and tucked Mark and Mitchell into bed, I knocked on MJ’s half-open door and stuck my head into his room. “Hey,” I said. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

MJ was sitting at his desk in pajamas which were printed all over with Batman’s bat signal. Twelve was a funny age. It seemed as though he both clung to and rejected his childhood in equal measure. I wondered how long it would be before he decided those pajamas were no longer cool, along with the Batman posters and toys that decorated his dark blue room. He looked up from his math homework and said, “I’ve been dreading this all day.”

I crossed the room and sat on the corner of his bed, just a couple of feet from him. I’d actually been dreading it too, but I didn’t tell him that. Instead, I said, “So, about that word you taught your kid brother….”

MJ’s cheeks turned red, and he dropped his gaze to the blue and yellow Batman area rug. “I didn’t teach it to him on purpose. My friend Caleb brought along his parents’ Cards Against Humanity game last time he came over, and we needed more than two people to play it, so we invited Mark and Mitchell to join us. But once we started, we figured out in like, ninety seconds that it wasn’t a game for kids. I’m sorry. I didn’t know that word either, and when Caleb looked it up online, it was super embarrassing. I didn’t tell Mark and Mitchell what it meant, and I’d kind of hoped they’d forgotten about it.”

“Well, good. I mean, you’re right, that’s definitely not a game for kids, but I thought you’d learned that word from watching porn. You’re not doing that, are you?” I was nearly as embarrassed as he was, but I had to ask.

He looked mortified and murmured, “Oh my God, Dad.”

“Is that a no?”

MJ glanced at me, and then he looked away and admitted, “One of the kids at school showed me a video on his phone once, and it was super embarrassing. I didn’t get why anyone would do that for money, because it’s just such a private thing. Then I wondered if there was something wrong with me, because he thought it was super hot, and I didn’t. Like, at all.”

“There’s nothing wrong with you, MJ.” He frowned and kept staring at the rug, and after a moment, I said, “I hope you know I’m here whenever you have questions or just need to talk about any of this stuff. I promise I’ll always try my best to listen without judging.”

“There is actually something I’ve been wanting to ask you.” He glanced at me and said, “For my birthday this year, can we just get pizza and cake and invite Yoshi over, but that’s it? I really don’t want a party.”

“You don’t? I thought you were looking forward to celebrating with your friends.”

“I’m not. Actually, I’m dreading it.”

“How come?”

MJ picked up a pencil and began fidgeting with it. After a pause, he said, “I think I was friends with those guys out of habit, more than anything else. We all started hanging out in second grade, for no real reason, and I’ve realized I really don’t have anything in common with them.”

“You don’t?”

He shook his head. “They’re actually really mean. They think it’s super funny to call everyone a fag or a homo, even though I’ve asked them to stop a bunch of times. I told them there were several gay people in my family, and I said I didn’t think it was okay to use those words. Jeff Brewer made fun of me for it, and the rest of the guys laughed. That really bothered me.”

“I’m proud of you for speaking up, MJ.”

“I had to, but it didn’t make a difference. They kept saying that stuff, and it made me super uncomfortable. So last week, I started eating lunch by myself, but that just made it worse. Jeff and Caleb and the rest of those guys started teasing me, and when I got upset, they said I had a stick up my butt and didn’t know how to take a joke.” MJ sighed and muttered, “I really hate junior high.”

“I’m so sorry you’re going through that. I think I should speak to Jeff and Caleb’s parents and—”

“No! That would make it so much worse, Dad. Please, just let me handle it.”

“Are you sure?” When he nodded vigorously, I said, “Well, okay, but you need to tell me if this keeps happening.”

“I will.” He added embarrassedly, “Thanks for listening, Dad.”

“Always.”

My son was quiet for a long moment before saying, “Remember what Mark said this morning? I wasn’t looking at Janet Leno at the basketball game, Dad.”

“It’s fine if you were. You’re almost thirteen, so if you’ve started becoming interested in girls—”

“Like I said, I wasn’t looking at Janet.” MJ met my gaze and said, so softly, “I was looking at her brother, Jude.”

As understanding dawned on me, I murmured, “Oh.”

“I know that shouldn’t be a big deal, especially in our family, but I just wanted to be like everyone else, and I’m not. I can’t stop thinking about Jude, and I don’t know what to do. There’s every chance he’s straight, so if I try to ask him out, I’ll probably embarrass myself. And what if he tells the kids at school? The teasing is already bad enough, and I can just imagine what would happen if Jeff and those guys found out I’m gay. My life would be hell.” MJ sighed and slumped in his chair. “I should be talking to Uncle Dante about this, or Yoshi. They’d know what to do. I really don’t expect you to understand what I’m feeling right now.”

“Actually, I know exactly what you’re going through,” I said. “When I was in the eighth grade, I fell in love with my best friend, Greg Parker. I had no idea what to do, and I was terrified of how he’d react if he found out.”

“How is that even possible? You like girls.”

“Actually, I’m bisexual.”

“Why didn’t I know that?”

“The same way I didn’t know you were gay. We just never talked about it before today.”

He said, “But your family never mentioned it, either.”

“They don’t know.”

My son asked, “Why would you keep that a secret? You have the most accepting family on the planet.”

“It’s not exactly a secret. I’m just a really private person, so I’ve always chosen not to talk about any aspect of my sex life with Nana or my brothers. If you tell one of them anything, then they tell the rest of the family. Next thing you know, your most private stuff is being openly discussed with anyone who’ll listen. They assumed I was straight when your mom and I got together, and I never bothered to correct them.”

MJ mulled that over for a few moments, and then he grinned and said, “You know what? We both just came out.”

I grinned too. “You’re right.”

“So, what happened with you and Greg? Did you ever tell him how you felt?”

I nodded. “Right after eighth grade graduation. It didn’t go well.”

“Why? What happened?”

I muttered, “Let’s just say, he didn’t share my feelings.”

“Come on, Dad. I know there’s more to the story than that. You’re always asking me to open up to you, so shouldn’t you do the same with me?”

He had a point. “Okay. The rest of the story is this: he punched me in the jaw and cussed me out, and then he told me he didn’t want to be my friend anymore. It was a relief that he and I ended up going to different high schools, because I think it would have been incredibly awkward to keep seeing him around after that.”

“Bummer.”

“I didn’t want to tell you that part because my story probably seems discouraging,” I said, “but it isn’t the only possible outcome to a situation like that. I’m sure if you talk to my brothers or Yoshi, they’ll have some good stories, along with a handful of bad ones from their past. That’s true for everyone. No matter if you’re gay, straight, bi, or whatever, there will be a few people who break your heart, and others who love you unconditionally.”

“But nobody’s going to tease you or beat you up for being straight.”             

“No, but then they’ll find something else. I know that sounds pessimistic, but you’ve already learned the hard way that bullies don’t need a reason to pick on you.”

He murmured, “I guess that’s true.”

“The main thing is just to keep being yourself, despite them. I know that’s easier said than done, by the way. But you’re such a strong person, MJ. I might not have been able to take that advice at your age, but you’re a lot tougher than I was.”

“You think I’m tough?” When I nodded, he thought about it for a while, and then he said, “I’m afraid to tell Jude how I feel. It’ll hurt if he rejects me, but at the same time, I don’t know if I’m ready to openly date a guy and show the world who I really am.”

“You’re only in the seventh grade, and you have so much time to figure this out,” I said, as I leaned forward and gently squeezed his skinny shoulder. “Maybe the first step is just to learn to accept this part of yourself. The good news is, you have me and the rest of our family behind you one hundred percent, so you won’t have to go through this alone.”

“Do you think you’ve accepted the bisexual part of yourself?”

I shrugged and said, “I guess so, although I don’t think about it much. It’s just a fact, like having brown eyes or big feet.”

“But you’ve never actually gone on a date with a guy, right?”

“Right.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve only dated three or four people in my life, and they happened to be women.”

“How is it even possible to make it to your age and still be able to count the people you’ve dated on one hand?”

It was a fair question, and I said, “Your mom and I started dating in high school and got married right after graduation. After she was gone, it took a very long time for me to want to go out with anyone again. When I finally did, I got set up on a handful of blind dates, and then I started seeing Marie, but I could just as easily have dated a guy.”

“Like Yoshi.”

“No, not like Yoshi. He has a boyfriend.”

“But his boyfriend is never here, and I’ve seen pictures of him kissing some guy in his band,” MJ said. “What’s that about?”

“I think he just does that for the attention.” Gale Goodwin was a media whore, and he and his lead guitarist often made out onstage, probably because he courted controversy. He was also a dick, but MJ could figure that part out for himself.

“Well, it’s not fair to Yoshi.”

“I know.” I got up and kissed the top of my son’s head, and then I told him, “I’m glad we talked.”

“Me too.” He looked at me with a dead-serious expression and added, “If you find yourself crushing on a guy at some point and don’t know what to do, you should come talk to me. My door is always open.” I’d said that last part to each of my sons about a million times, and I couldn’t help but grin as I left him to his homework.


Chapter Four

 

Every Wednesday afternoon, I had a standing appointment at the transition shelter my grandmother had founded. Rainbow Roost provided housing to LGBTQ young people, and it had only been open a few months. But from the moment the first residents moved in, it had become an extension of our family. That was true not only for the residents, but the staff and volunteers as well.

One of those volunteers hovered in the doorway of the director’s office while I entered some figures into a spreadsheet, and I looked up from my laptop and said, “Hi Elijah. I like your new haircut.”

Elijah Everett’s blond hair spiked up on top in a way that didn’t quite seem intentional, but it looked good on him. When his hair had been longer, it would often hide his face, the same way his baggy clothes still obscured his body. So in a way, the haircut seemed like progress, as if he was making an effort to come out of his shell.

He touched his hair self-consciously and said, in a soft voice tinged with a southern accent, “Thanks. Can I help you with anything? Nobody showed up for tutoring today.”

“Sure. If you want to, you can sort through this box of receipts and separate the ones for food.”

Elijah was a math prodigy, and he provided academic help to residents who were either in school or working toward their high school equivalency exam. He spent every Wednesday afternoon at the shelter, and since that was also when I came in to do the books, we’d gotten to know each other over the past few months. I’d always assumed he gravitated to me because we were both math nerds, and because he’d identified me as a fellow introvert.

He perched on one of the two chairs on the other side of the big desk and put the box on his lap, and as he began to go through it, I asked, “Are you having a good Valentine’s Day?”

“No. I wish it was over.”

“How come?”

Elijah peered at me from beneath his lashes. “I live with my ex-boyfriend Colt and his family, and his new boyfriend is coming to dinner tonight. It’s going to be painfully awkward.”

“I thought you were staying at a friend’s house in the East Bay, near your university.”

“I was, but when I finished my degree last month, I decided to move back to the city. That was a mistake,” he said, as he pushed back the sleeves of his oversized, pale blue cardigan and revealed a delicate charm bracelet.

“Not that it’s any of my business, but why do you live with your ex-boyfriend?”

“Colt’s older brother Chance took us in when we were teens, and Chance’s husband Finn became my legal guardian. They’re the kindest people you’ll ever meet, and they’ve always tried to make me feel welcome, but I don’t belong there. Actually, I don’t know where I belong.”

At twenty, Elijah wasn’t exactly a kid, but he still brought out my paternal instinct in a big way. Maybe that was because he always seemed so lost. I said, “Instead of enduring dinner with the new boyfriend, which really does sound awkward, come to my house for pizza tonight. I’m throwing a mini Valentine’s Day party for my sons, and my friend Yoshi will be there, too.”

He looked up from the receipts and chewed his full lower lip for a few moments. Finally, he said, “That sounds fun, but are you sure I wouldn’t be intruding?”

“Positive.”

“Okay then. Thank you.”

As I sorted a stack of papers on the desk, I asked him, “So, what’s the plan now that you’ve graduated?”

“I have no idea. My professors and academic advisor were really pushing me to go for my PhD. They said I’d be ‘wasting my gift’ if I didn’t do that, but I needed to step back from academia for a while and figure some stuff out.” After another pause, he said, “The thing is, I never asked to be freakishly good at math, and I hate the idea of letting this random thing I had no say in dictate my future. I don’t know what I want to do with the rest of my life, but I’d like a chance to figure it out on my own terms.”

“If you ever need a sounding board, I’d be happy to listen and offer my two cents.”

Elijah handed me a stack of receipts and said, “Can I ask why you decided to become an accountant?”

“It was a practical decision. I was married when I started college, and by the time I graduated, I already had three kids. This major and career were all about being able to support my family.”

“If you didn’t have to be practical, what would you have studied?”

It was nearly impossible to remember who I’d been before Jenny and the boys, back when my focus was solely on my wants and needs, and I murmured, “I really don’t know.”

“Do you like being an accountant?”

“I do, actually. It’s orderly and logical, and I find that really satisfying. I also love the fact that I run my own business, so I can work around my kids’ schedules and be there for them when they get home from school.”

Elijah looked wistful when he said, “Your boys are so lucky to have a dad like you. I can’t even imagine how different my life would have been if I’d gotten to grow up with that kind of love and support.” My paternal instinct clicked up another notch. At that point, I would have adopted Elijah if I could.

“I’m lucky to have them, too.”

After a pause, he asked, “Would you mind teaching me some basic bookkeeping? I had to work a register at my last job, and dealing with the public was miserable. I think this would be a much better fit for me.”

It was tempting to say the same thing his professors had, that a job as a bookkeeper was a waste of his talents. But I got what he was saying about making his own choices, so I told him, “I’d be happy to.” I opened a blank spreadsheet, and we got to work.

 

*****

 

At six o’clock that night, Yoshi let himself into my house with his key and called, “Happy Valentine’s Day! Where is everyone?”

I yelled, “Hey! I’m in the kitchen.”

He and Elijah appeared in the doorway a few moments later, and Yoshi said, “Look who I found on the porch.”

“Welcome, you two. Make yourselves comfortable. I’m almost done mixing up this chocolate chip cookie dough.”

Yoshi piled several canvas tote bags on the counter. Then he looked around at the cloud of red and pink heart-shaped balloons, the banner of hearts draping the island, and the cluster of cards on the windowsill and said, “It looks like Cupid blew up in here.”

“I was just trying to make it festive for the holiday,” I said, as I wiped my hands on my red apron. I was wearing it over a pink polo shirt, in keeping with the color scheme. “Want to help me with these cookies?”

Elijah pushed up the sleeves of his cardigan and asked, “What exactly are you doing here?” Two cookie sheets were lined up beside me, and each was topped with a dozen heart-shaped metal cookie cutters.

“I’m going to bake the cookies in the cutters, so they’ll hold their shape,” I explained.

Yoshi said, “And you just happened to have twenty-four identical cookie cutters?”

I shook my head. “I stopped by the dollar store before picking up my sons from school.”

“You really don’t do anything halfway when it comes to your kids,” Yoshi said. “Where are they, by the way?”

“Upstairs, allegedly doing their homework. I hope they actually get it done, so we can watch a movie later.”

Elijah asked, “How can I help?”

“You can deploy the nonstick spray, then help me pat the dough into the molds,” I said, as I removed the bowl from my mixer.

Yoshi grinned at me and said, “The real question is, who gets to lick the beater?” He gestured at the mixer paddle while Elijah sprayed the cookie sheets and cutters.

“The dough has raw eggs in it,” I told him. “It’s unsafe.” He raised an eyebrow, then took the beater from me and shared it with Elijah while I frowned and said, “You’re taking a risk.”

“Totally worth it.” They both scooped up some raw dough and licked it off their fingers.

Once they finished contaminating themselves, they washed their hands, and as I deposited the dough into the molds with a small ice cream scoop, they pushed it flat with their fingertips. When I filled the same mold a second and then a third time, I shot Yoshi a look and said, “You’re really pushing your luck.”

He swallowed the mouthful of cookie dough, then flashed me a smile and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I have the world’s biggest ‘I told you so’ cued up for later, when you’re praying for death in the bathroom.” That just made him chuckle.

Once the cookies were in the oven, I filled three glasses with nonalcoholic punch, and we sat down at the kitchen island. Elijah moved aside the elaborate fruit garnish, which was on a long skewer topped with a heart, and took a sip of his drink. Then he said, “You must really love Valentine’s Day.”

I just shrugged. “I try to make the most of every special occasion, for my kids’ sake.”

“You should see him on major holidays, like Christmas,” Yoshi said with a smile. “He decorates every room in the house and goes totally overboard. It’s so great.”

I reminded him, “Last Christmas, you told me I was bat shit crazy. That’s a direct quote.”

“Oh, you are,” Yoshi said. “You do way too much and totally wear yourself out in the process. But it comes from a place of pure love for your kids, so I think it’s the sweetest thing ever. Besides, I know you really can’t help yourself. You’re just like Nana.”

“I am?”

He nodded. “She can never do anything halfway either, and she looks for any excuse to celebrate.”

I stirred my drink with the fruit skewer and said, “I always thought Nana and I couldn’t be more different, but you’re right. We do have that in common.”

Yoshi asked, “What are you going to do about Easter? That’s the day we’re supposed to come back from Catalina.”

“I’m bringing a bunch of stuff along and buying the rest on the island,” I said. “We’ll have time for brunch, Easter baskets, and the egg hunt before he have to head back to San Francisco. I wish the boys didn’t have to be back in school the very next day, but we’ll make it work.” I turned to Elijah and said, “Hey, what are you doing the last week of March?”

He shrugged. “I doubt I’ll find a job by then, so probably nothing. Why do you ask?”

“We’re spending spring break on Catalina Island with about thirty friends and relatives, and you should come with us.”

He looked surprised, and for just a moment, he seemed excited. But then he grew serious again and said, “Thanks for the offer, but I can’t afford a vacation.”

“It won’t cost you a dime,” I said. “My brother rented an entire ranch, and there’s plenty of room. He’s also getting a tour bus to drive all of us down to southern California. The ferry to the island is my treat, and food will be taken care of, since my family always makes sure there’s enough to feed an army.”

“That sounds amazing, but are you sure I wouldn’t be in the way?”

“Positive.”

“I’m coming too,” Yoshi told him. “You should definitely join us.”

Elijah was too cautious to simply agree, so he asked, “Can I think about it?”

“Sure. Take all the time you need,” I said. “The bus is leaving at ten a.m. on March twenty-fourth, so you have until 9:59 that day to decide.” He nodded at that.

A moment later, we heard two of my sons racing down the stairs. Mark and Mitchell appeared in the doorway a minute later with Gizmo bouncing at their feet, and Mitchell announced, “The whole house smells like cookies!”

“I made your favorite, chocolate chip,” I said. “They’re for dessert. The pizzas should be here any minute, so please take the salad to the dining room table and call your brother for dinner.”

While Mark pulled the big salad bowl from the fridge, Mitchell turned and yelled, “Get your butt down here, MJ! It’s almost time to eat!”

I sighed and muttered, “Because that’s obviously what I meant.”

“It’s time-efficient. Oh hey, we have company. Not you, Yoshi, you’re family.” He went up to Elijah and stuck his hand out. “I’m Mitchell Dombruso. Please don’t call me Mitch, I hate that. You look familiar, but I can’t remember your name.”

The blond shook my son’s hand and said, “Elijah Everett.”

“Now I remember. You volunteer at Nana’s shelter. I think I’ve seen you at a couple of her parties, too. You’re always hiding in a corner.”

I thought that might embarrass Elijah, but he grinned a little and said, “Parties aren’t really my thing, but every now and then, I let the people I live with convince me to go with them.”

I took off my apron, brushed some flour from the leg of my jeans, and poured the boys their drinks. Mark and Mitchell clicked their glasses together, and I carried my drink and MJ’s through to the adjacent dining room. Yoshi took one look at the red and pink tablescape and said, “I see now that I was premature with my earlier Cupid comment. The kitchen was where he began his death throes. Clearly, this was where the actual explosion took place.”

“It’s not even that elaborate,” I protested. “I already had the red plates from Christmas and the pink tablecloth from Easter, and the centerpiece is just a bunch of Valentine’s Day decor I’ve collected over the years.”

“And the heart-shaped placemats and heart-festooned table runner?”

“Okay, those are new. You have to admit, they’re kind of cute.”

Someone knocked on the door, and a moment later, the timer went off in the kitchen. Yoshi said, “I’ll take the cookies out of the oven, you get the pizza,” and he and I went off in opposite directions.

By the time I returned to the dining room, MJ had joined us. I put the stack of cardboard boxes on the sideboard and lifted a lid, and Yoshi came into the room and said, “They’re heart-shaped, aren’t they?”

MJ answered for me. “Of course they are. My dad would never just get round pizzas on Valentine’s Day. You know how much he loves his themes.”

“I really do. Grab some salad, boys. That includes you, Mark,” I said.

“It’s not normal to eat leaves,” Mark complained. “I’m not a koala.”

“There’s a lot more in there besides lettuce,” I told him. “Pick out some cucumber and carrots.”

MJ used a pair of tongs to fill his salad bowl and said, “The carrot slices are heart-shaped. You need an intervention, Dad.”

Yoshi asked, “When did you find the time to make carrot hearts?”

“I made them last night, and it was actually pretty easy,” I said. “You just make a few cuts to the whole carrot, and when you slice it, the pieces look like hearts. What? I saw it on Pinterest.” Yoshi was chuckling as he sat beside me at the table.

After we ate our fill of pizza and I cajoled my sons into eating some salad, I stuck the leftovers in the fridge and served the cookies with milk. I also handed everyone a little gift bag, including Elijah and Yoshi. Elijah held the bag with both hands and asked, “Am I taking yours? You didn’t know I was coming until a few hours ago.”

I shook my head. “That’s for you. I got carried away and bought enough for ten people.”

As I watched him unpack the bag with wide eyes, I once again felt like adopting him. It just contained silly little toys, party favors, and a box of candy Conversation Hearts, but you would have thought it was a priceless treasure by his expression. He murmured, “Thank you so much,” as he turned over a little, metal car in his hands, then tucked it in his pocket.

Yoshi put on a pair of novelty sunglasses with red frames and heart-shaped lenses, and he handed me a second pair, which had been tucked into the centerpiece. Then he smiled at me and said, “Thanks, Mike. I brought a few presents, too. Will you come into the kitchen with me and help me get them?”

I replaced my glasses with the sunglasses and said, “Absolutely.”

When we reached the kitchen, he whispered, “Is it weird that I want to adopt a twenty-year-old? It is, isn’t it?”

“I feel the same way. Elijah probably thinks I’m nuts for inviting him to Catalina, but he just trips all my caretaker switches.”

Yoshi unpacked two of his canvas bags and said, “I’m glad you told me he was joining us tonight, so I could stop off and get him a gift. I would have felt terrible if I’d left him out.” He stacked four small, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates on the counter and said, “Yes, I’m sugaring up your kids.”

“I’m not complaining.”

“This is for you.” He handed me a very nice bottle of red wine and pulled a bottle of tequila from the bag. “And this is for me, after the kids go to bed, obviously. I don’t want to drink alone, so is it alright if I spend the night here?”

“Of course. The couch is yours any time you want it, you know that.” I put the wine on the counter and asked, “Are you alright, Yoshi?”

He took off his sunglasses and murmured, “Yeah. I’m just being stupid. Valentine’s Day is basically a made-up holiday, right? And not everyone celebrates it, so….”

“You were hoping your boyfriend would call, and he didn’t,” I guessed, as I pushed the sunglasses to the top of my head.

“He still could. It’s not even eleven p.m. in New York. That’s where he is right now. He’ll be headlining a show there on Friday, before flying to London.”

“Did you try calling him?”

Yoshi nodded. “It went to voicemail. Nothing new there. I also sent flowers to his hotel, and I still didn’t hear from him. But I bet a lot of men really aren’t into receiving flowers. Or maybe he got so many from his fans that mine just got lost among them.”

I said gently, “I can see why you’re hurt.”

“I’m not hurt. I just had some unrealistic expectations, which is on me, not him.”

“I don’t think it’s so unrealistic to expect a call on Valentine’s Day.”

“But Gale never claimed to be a conventional boyfriend, and like I said, this is a made-up holiday. Not like it’s Christmas or anything.”

It would have been unkind of me to remind him Gale hadn’t called on Christmas, either. Instead, I said, “Come on, let’s move our party to the family room, pick a movie, and sugar up my kids. Trying to find something we all want to watch should be good for a few laughs.” 

“Okay. Just let me grab the rest of the gifts. I got everyone the same thing, so it wouldn’t seem like I was playing favorites. Then I went back and grabbed one more for Elijah.”

He handed me a dark blue, leather-bound journal, which was embossed with a bear and three cubs, along with a beautiful silver pen. “Yours is lined,” he said, “because I couldn’t quite imagine you drawing pictures. The kids’ journals have blank pages. I doubt Mark will draw either, but maybe he’ll think of something to do with it.”

“Thank you. These are gorgeous. I got something for you too, but I’ll give it to you after the kids go to bed.” I left my pen and journal on the counter, well out of Gizmo range, and picked up the heart-shaped boxes.

We returned to the dining room, where Elijah and MJ were deep in conversation about music, and Mark and Mitchell were playing a game where the objective was to smack the back of the other person’s hands before they could be pulled away. Yoshi gave Elijah and each of my sons a journal and a beautiful box of colored pencils, and I followed him and distributed the chocolates. My kids were enthusiastic, and they all thanked him, but Elijah looked like he was on the verge of tears as he whispered, “This is so beautiful. I can’t thank you enough.” His journal was pale blue, like his sweater, and its cover was embossed with a little bird in flight. I thought it was oddly perfect.

I said, “Let’s head to the family room and get a movie going.”

MJ said, “Eli and I will be there in a few minutes. You can start without us.”

“Are you sure? That means Mark and Mitchell are picking the movie.”

“I’m fine with anything but watching ‘Frozen’ for the thousandth time,” he said. “I can’t live through one more massacre of ‘Let It Go’ by my brothers.”

We headed down the hall and got comfortable. Yoshi took his shoes off and curled up in a corner of the couch, and Mitchell climbed on him and put his head on Yoshi’s chest. I settled in beside them and flipped through an onscreen menu, while Mark sat cross-legged on the area rug with the dog. After a few moments, I stopped what I was doing to listen. MJ and Elijah were singing, and they harmonized beautifully. I whispered, “What song is that?”

Yoshi said, “It’s called ‘Look Away’ by Eli Lieb and Steve Grand. Wow, they’re so good.”

When they finished, MJ and Elijah joined us, but they both froze in the doorway when we all turned to look at them. Mark blurted, “You guys sounded awesome! I don’t even like that kind of sappy music, but that was really good.”

The color rose in Elijah’s cheeks, and MJ said, “I didn’t think you’d be able to hear us.”

“That was extraordinary,” I told them. “You really need to do the talent show, MJ.”

The pair came into the room and perched on the loveseat to my right. Elijah still looked mortified, and MJ said, “I’ve been thinking about it. The deadline is this Friday, and I came super close to signing up this week, but I really don’t want to make a fool of myself.”

I said, “Want to call Uncle Zan for some advice, like we talked about?” When MJ nodded, I pulled my phone from my pocket and sent a text. A minute later, a call came through on video chat, and when I answered it, Gianni’s face filled the screen.

My brother had always been handsome, but now he was absolutely striking. It wasn’t just because of the tan he’d acquired while sailing around the world with his boyfriend. He looked happy and relaxed, and I said, “Hey, Johnny. Being in love looks good on you.”

The nickname was our oldest joke. I hadn’t been able to pronounce his name when I was a toddler, so I’d called him Johnny instead. The rest of the family had picked up on it, and they still used it more often than his real name.

“Hey Mikey! Happy Valentine’s Day.”

“To you, too. Where are you right now?”

“Baja.” He and Zan had spent close to three years on a beautiful, vintage sailboat, in part so they could dodge the relentless paparazzi on their endless quest for photos of Gianni’s very famous boyfriend. But it had also given the couple a chance to explore the world together on a never-ending honeymoon (minus the actual wedding, which was a bit conventional for those two). When Zan came up behind my brother and kissed his bare shoulder, I didn’t have to ask how things were going. The love between them was impossible to miss.

“Hello there, mate,” Zan said, as he pushed a strand of his long, salt-and-pepper hair out of his green eyes. “Did Gi tell you the news?” I’d always liked his British accent.

“I was about to.” Gianni leaned back against his boyfriend and said, “We’re meeting you in Catalina next month. Don’t tell Nana, it’s a surprise.”

“That’s fantastic! How long can you stay?”

“The whole week. After that, we’re going to start house hunting in California. We haven’t decided on an exact location yet, but we know we want to be close enough to visit my family and Zan’s son regularly.” Zan was a lot older than my brother, and his son wasn’t much younger than Gianni, but I didn’t have a problem with that. The important thing was that the two of them clearly adored each other.

“Wow, so you’re finally giving up your seafaring lifestyle.”

“Yes and no,” Gianni said. “We’re going to keep the boat, and we want to find a place close to the water, so we can sail whenever the mood strikes us. At the same time though, we’ve been talking about it, and we’re ready to put down some roots.”

“That’s great! I can’t wait to see both of you.”

“We’re looking forward to it, too,” Zan said. “So tell me, what’s this about an aspiring singer in the family?”

“MJ’s thinking about signing up for the junior high talent show, but he’s never performed before an audience before. I was hoping you might be able to give him a couple of tips for dealing with stage fright.”

“I’d be happy to,” Zan said. “Hand me over to the lad and I’ll impart my Yoda-like wisdom.”

I chuckled at that and gave the phone to MJ. Elijah leaned in and peered at the screen, and then he whispered, “Holy crap, that’s Zan Tillane.” He pulled back quickly and looked absolutely stunned.

MJ said, “Hi Uncle Zan. I’m sorry to bother you. I know a junior high talent show isn’t a big deal or anything….”

“Of course it’s a big deal,” Zan told him, “and overcoming stage fright is an issue whether you’re performing for five people or fifty thousand.”

MJ said, “I keep thinking, what if I forget the words? Or what if I trip and fall on my way to the mic?”

“What if you do?”

“Everyone will laugh at me.”

“But if you laugh at yourself first, then they’re laughing with you, not at you,” Zan said. “Do you know how many times I’ve embarrassed myself while performing? I once fell off the stage at Wembley Stadium, in front of a crowd of over ninety thousand people. Another time, I split my pants while trying to do an awkward kick. Also, on at least three separate occasions, I totally blanked on the words to a song in front of a sold-out crowd.”

MJ murmured, “Oh my God, I would die.”

“I had two choices in each of those instances: be mortified and run away, or laugh it off. I chose the latter. When I forgot the words, the audience and I laughed about it together, and then I held out the microphone and they sang the song for me until I joined back in. I heard about that for years, not about how I’d screwed up, but how I and several thousand people shared a human, relatable moment. It became a favorite memory, both for me and the people in the audience.”

“But…weren’t you embarrassed?”

“Of course I was,” Zan said. “I’m sure my face was crimson. I couldn’t control that, but I could control what I did with my embarrassment. The key to so much of life is being able to laugh at yourself, MJ. If you can do that, you take so much power away from the haters in the world.”

MJ said, “Thank you for the advice, but I’m still not sure I can do this.”

I was pleasantly surprised when Zan said, “Let’s practice. Sing something with me.”

MJ glanced up from the screen and said, “Um, my whole family is staring at me.”

“Well, then let’s give them something worth staring at,” Zan said. “What shall we sing?”

“Um…how about ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’? I know it’s corny, but I’ve been practicing it.” MJ turned to Elijah and said, “Will you sing it with us?”

“I…um….” Elijah looked like he might bolt from the room.

MJ turned the phone toward the blond and said, “Uncle Zan, this is my new friend Elijah. He has a great voice.”

Elijah swallowed hard and whispered, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m talking to Zan Tillane.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Elijah. Now come on boys, sing with me,” Zan said. “On three.”

Yoshi held up his phone and started recording as the three of them broke into an absolutely beautiful rendition of that song. Elijah started off very quiet, but gained a bit of volume as the song went on. When they finished, I said, “I literally have goosebumps.”

Zan exclaimed, “Wow! You two are naturals, and your harmonies are spot-on. MJ, mark my words: that talent show is just going to be the beginning for you with that voice.”

My son asked, “Do you really think I can sing?”

“You both can. I’d tell you if it needed work, because it doesn’t do you any good to be lied to. When’s this talent show?”

“The Friday before spring break.”

“Good, then we have time to get ready. I’m looking forward to passing on some of what I’ve learned,” Zan said.

“I never actually said I was going to sign up.”

“But you want to, don’t you?”

MJ admitted, “Yeah. I really do.”

“You’ve got this, MJ,” Zan said. “Your only concern is going to be how badly you’ll show up the unlucky kids who try to follow your act. What do you think you’ll sing?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“Well, call me when you have it narrowed down. I’ll help you pick a song, and we’ll practice together,” Zan said.

After MJ thanked him and they said goodbye and disconnected the call, I asked, “So, you’re doing it?”

“Yeah. I mean, how many kids have a world famous rock star as their coach? I’d have to be crazy to pass up the opportunity to learn from one of the best. I just wish Eli could go up on stage with me.”

“I can be in the audience if you want me to,” Elijah said shyly.

“Definitely.” MJ glanced at the clock on the end table and said, “We’d better get a movie started if we’re going to finish before bedtime.” We quickly decided on ‘Cars’ and settled in comfortably.

When Yoshi’s phone beeped during the movie, he looked so hopeful as he pulled up the text. But then his face fell. I didn’t have to ask what had happened. Obviously, he’d been hoping it was his boyfriend, and of course it wasn’t. It seemed like all the joy drained from his body.

When the film ended and Elijah started to get up, MJ asked, “How about one more song for the road? What do we all know the words to?”

At that point, I would have done absolutely anything to make Yoshi smile again, so I leapt to my feet and said, “In continuing our Britney theme from the other day, how about this one?” I started badly singing ‘Oops, I did it Again’ and my boys fell over laughing. Then all three of them jumped up and joined in. We even attempted some of the dance moves, which was super awkward but hilarious. MJ took Elijah’s hand and pulled him to his feet, and I did the same with Yoshi. All of this was a bit too exciting for Gizmo, who started yipping and racing around in circles.

We were all laughing by the time we finished. When Elijah caught his breath, he said, “Thank you so much for inviting me over tonight. I had a great time.” I told him he was always welcome and offered to drive him home, but he said, “No thanks. My car’s parked a couple of blocks over.”

MJ said, “Can I walk him to his car?”

“Grab your coat,” I told MJ. “We’ll both go with him.” Not that the Outer Sunset was a bad neighborhood, but just about anywhere in San Francisco, muggings were known to happen.

While Elijah thanked Yoshi profusely for the gifts, I pulled on my jacket and leashed the dog. Then I told Yoshi and the kids we’d be right back, and we stepped out into the cool, foggy night. Since our house was only a few blocks from the ocean, fog and dampness were regular occurrences.

As we walked Elijah to his car, Gizmo tugged on his leash and tried to pee on absolutely everything, and the boys talked about music. After a while, Elijah glanced at me and asked, “Were you serious about taking me along to Catalina?” He was clutching his gifts to his chest, as if they were precious to him.

MJ answered for me. “My dad is always serious. He’s like, the most serious guy ever.” So much for my delusion that I was actually a fun parent. My son added, “You totally have to come to Catalina with us. It’s going to be so much fun! Plus, Uncle Zan will be there, so you and I can both get some vocal coaching from him, which is totally priceless.”

“That’s actually terrifying,” Elijah murmured. “I’ve been a huge fan of his since I was about eight years old, so I know for a fact that I’m going to embarrass myself when I meet him. I’ll probably start crying, and then he’ll think I’m a dork.”

“He wouldn’t think that. Zan’s a super nice guy, as you saw,” MJ said. “Please come along. I feel like I made a new friend tonight, and I’d love having someone to hang out with besides my crazy family. No offense, Dad.”

Elijah chewed his lower lip for a few moments before saying, “Okay. This makes me nervous, but I don’t want to miss out.”

MJ flashed him a huge smile and exclaimed, “Awesome!”

When we reached Elijah’s compact car, he thanked me repeatedly. After he drove away, MJ turned to me and said, “I need you to be brutally honest with me, Dad. Don’t just tell me I’ll be great because you’re my father and it’s your job to build me up. Do you really think I can do the talent show without embarrassing myself? I’m not asking if my voice is good enough. Do you think I can get up on a stage and perform without choking? You know me better than anyone, so tell the truth. As much as I want to do this, I’ll die if I mess up in front of Jude and the whole school.”

“I know you can do this for an absolute fact. I don’t think I could have done it at your age, even if I’d had a great voice like you do. But like I said the other day, you’re a lot tougher than I was, and I honestly believe you can do anything you put your mind to.”

“I hope I’m tough enough to take Zan’s advice and laugh it off if I mess up. I’d never live it down if I burst into tears and ran off the stage.”

“Let me ask you something. Are you putting yourself through all of this just to impress that boy you like?”

He glanced at me, and then he grinned a little and looked away. “Okay, so, maybe that’s in the back of my mind. Right now, he doesn’t know I’m alive, and I keep thinking, if I’m really good then he’ll have to notice me. But that’s not the only reason. I love singing, and if I ever want something to come of it, then I need to face my fears and get in front of an audience. Don’t you think?”

“Learning to perform in front of people is definitely a part of it.”

We started heading back home, and after a few moments, MJ said, “Thanks for the Valentine’s party, Dad. I know you tried hard to make it fun for all of us, and I think you did a good job.”

“Thanks, MJ. That means a lot.”

After a minute, we rounded the corner onto our street. All the houses on the block were basically the same, and they butted right up against their neighbors on both sides. They were all vaguely Spanish-style, with no front yard, slightly curved façades, and two stories built above a ground-level garage. Our neighbors had tried to individualize their houses by painting them in Easter egg pastels. The house to the left of ours was pale terra cotta, and the one to the right was mint green. Ours was white. My kids thought that was boring.

I couldn’t picture it any other color, though. It had been white ever since Nana bought the house for Jenny and me as a wedding present. I’d be forever grateful for that gift. We wouldn’t have been able to afford living in San Francisco without my grandmother’s generosity.

My son and I climbed the stairs to the left of the garage, and when I unlocked the door and we stepped into the foyer, MJ said, “I have a little homework left. I’m going to go upstairs and get it done.” I nodded and freed Gizmo from his leash, and the little mop of a dog ran ahead of MJ to the second floor.

I continued down the hallway and into the kitchen, where I found Yoshi loading the dishwasher. He handed me a glass of the red wine he’d brought me and said, “Mark and Mitchell are putting on their pajamas. You should go and put your feet up. I know it’s been a long day for you.”

“You don’t have to clean up.”

“I want to. Go on now. I’ll meet you on the couch in five minutes.”

“Okay, I’m going.”

When I reached the family room, I pulled a wrapped present from the cabinet beneath the bookshelves and put it on the coffee table. Then I sank into the comfortable sofa and took off my sneakers before sampling the wine. Not surprisingly, it was fantastic. Yoshi had excellent taste.

When he joined me a couple of minutes later, he too was holding a glass of red wine, and I asked, “What happened to the tequila?”

“As much as I’d like to drink myself into oblivion tonight, I decided that was a terrible coping strategy. So instead, I’ll settle for a mild buzz and good company.”

“And this.” I gestured at the wrapped gift on the table.

“Aw, thanks Mike. You didn’t have to get me anything.”

“To quote you from five minutes ago, I wanted to.”

He tucked his feet under him before unwrapping the gift, and then he murmured, “Oh wow.” It was the Blu-ray version of a Japanese film I knew he’d been trying to find for quite some time. “You remembered. I only mentioned this in passing once, over a year ago.”

“I’d been keeping an eye on eBay ever since. If you want to, we can watch it after the kids are asleep.” All the lettering was in Japanese, but because the cover featured a car in mid-air with an explosion behind it, superimposed behind a muscular Asian guy holding two guns, it was pretty obviously not a family movie. “I made sure it would play on machines sold in the U.S., by the way, so we should be good to go.” Yoshi tried to smile at me, but when he quickly turned away, I said, “Hey. Are you alright?”

He nodded. “It’s really touching that you’d make the effort to find this for me. Obviously, my emotions are all over the place today.”

“I’m sorry this Valentine’s Day didn’t work out the way you wanted it to.”

“It’s not just that. I haven’t heard from Gale in days. I accept that when he’s on the road, but I know he’s had this week off. He’s even in the U.S., so it’s not like there’s a massive time difference or anything.” He was quiet for a few moments before saying, “He calls me his boyfriend and says he cares about me, but I wish he’d show it sometimes.”

“I’m sorry, Yoshi.”

After a pause, he said, “Gale told me right from the start that he wasn’t going to be a typical boyfriend. For one thing, he’s not a hearts and flowers kind of guy. Since he’s on the road most of the time, he also said he needed a man who could deal with long absences and not take his busy schedule personally. I thought I could be that guy. In fact, it seemed ideal. You know how much time I devote to my tattoo studio, and it seemed like the best of both worlds: I could be a workaholic and still have a relationship. But after almost three years…I don’t know. Gale’s still Gale, but maybe I’m changing.”

“Maybe you’ve realized you want more than he’s willing to give.”

He asked, “But is it fair to want to rewrite the script after all this time? I knew what I was signing on for when Gale and I got involved.”

“If your needs aren’t being met, then yes. Absolutely.”

Yoshi fell silent. He seemed to be studying his left arm, the one that was sleeved wrist to elbow in a highly detailed cityscape rendered entirely in black ink. After a while, he said quietly, “I can’t stand it when I’m like this. The last thing I want is to be needy, and I hate it when I don’t have my emotions under control.”

“It’s okay to be upset.”

He slid closer and leaned against me, and I wrapped my arm around his shoulder. “I’m giving myself five minutes for this pity party,” he said, “and then I’m going to pull myself together, pretend Valentine’s Day is over, and get on with my life.” He curled up in the crook of my arm and put his head on my chest.

A couple of minutes later, we heard little feet on the stairs, and Mark yelled, “Daaaaad!” Neither of us moved an inch. Mitchell and Mark appeared in the family room dressed in matching Batman PJs, which I knew irritated both of them to no end. They’d picked out the same pajamas at the store, accused the other of copying, and finally reached an agreement to only wear them on different nights, because they didn’t want to look like ‘twinsies.’ I was sure they’d come downstairs to rat each other out over the blatant violation of the Great Pajama Accord, but when they saw Yoshi curled up with me, they seemed to forget their mission, and Mark asked, “Whatcha doing?”

“We’re having a pity party,” I told him. “You’re welcome to join us.”

Both kids considered that for a beat, and then they climbed on top of us and snuggled with Yoshi and me. We gathered them in an embrace, and after a moment, Mitchell asked, “Why are we having a pity party?”

“Because sometimes we just need to feel sad,” I said, “and that’s okay.” Mitchell nodded as he got comfortable on my lap.

A minute later, MJ wandered into the family room with the dog under his arm and asked, “What exactly is happening here?”

“We’re having a pity party,” Mitchell told him.

I added, “You’re welcome to join us.”

MJ opened the French doors so the dog could run down the stairs to the backyard, and he muttered, “You’re all crazy.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” I flashed him a smile, and my oldest son frowned at me.

After Gizmo did his business, he came running back inside and jumped on my lap, and I said, “See? Even the dog’s joining in. Come on, you know you want to.”

MJ closed and locked the doors, and then he stared at us for a long moment. Finally, he crossed the room to the sofa, wedged himself right into the center of the group, and tried to put his skinny arms around all of us. After a beat, he said, “This is weird.”

I chuckled and told him, “Yup. Just go with it.”

Yoshi murmured, “I love you guys.”

I said, “I love you too, Yoshi. I mean, we love you.” In that moment, I finally realized how much truth was in those words.


Chapter Five

 

Everything and nothing changed after it dawned on me that I’d fallen in love with my best friend. February turned into March, I got my sons to school and their various activities every day, and I ran my business. I also took Mondays off and made up for it by working a few extra hours in the evenings, after my kids went to bed.

The biggest event during that time period was MJ’s thirteenth birthday. We celebrated with our extended family, plus Elijah and Yoshi. I was sad that MJ didn’t want to invite any friends from school to his party, but if he was upset about that, he didn’t let it show.

While life went on around us, I made sure my relationship with Yoshi was just like it had always been. I didn’t know what to do about the fact that I’d developed real feelings for him. But the last thing I wanted was to damage our friendship by making things weird or awkward between us.

On a random Monday morning in mid-March, I dropped off the boys and the dog before meeting Dante at the coffee house. My oldest brother glanced up from his phone as I slid into the booth across from him, and he said, “How do you manage to make even casual clothes look uptight?” He reached across the table and tried to unfasten the top button on my polo shirt, and I smacked his hand away.

“This from a man who wears suits every day for absolutely no reason,” I shot back. “You don’t even work.” The one he was wearing that day was black and obviously obscenely expensive, as was his gray, open-collared shirt.

“I don’t crunch numbers or spend my days making color-coordinated spreadsheets like you do, but I work.”

“Kind of.”

He really did, but it appeared so effortless that I liked to tease him. Dante owned businesses and real estate all over the Bay Area, from a furniture store and restaurant to an entire strip mall, but he paid people to manage them for him. He also handled the family’s assets. The Dombruso clan had officially retired after generations spent doing some pretty shady stuff that was less than legal, but there was still money to manage, random business investments to keep an eye on, and the occasional fire to put out.

He took another sip of coffee, then asked, “How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting?”

“It was a thrill ride, same as usual,” I told him. “Mark had a basketball tournament in the South Bay, so that took up eleven hours on Saturday. Sunday, I re-grouted the boys’ bathroom. The kids ‘helped’ so that went really well, obviously. Later on, while I was out back trying to get Gizmo to stop eating the poo left behind by a cat who’d decided my yard was its litterbox, the kids decided to try a little experiment. They’d heard you can test spaghetti’s doneness by throwing it against a wall. That wouldn’t have been so bad, except that it was covered in marinara sauce at the time. Even after I scrubbed my white cabinet, it still looked like it was decorated in red fireworks. I ended up having to take the door off, and I plan to repaint it, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.”

My brother stared at me for a long moment, and then he said, “You’re losing control, Mikey.”

“The fact that you think I ever had control in the first place is hilarious.”

“Well, at least you’ve had the sense to stick with taking Mondays off. God knows you needed that mental health break. What are you doing today?”

“I’m going to Yoshi’s apartment, and he’s making us brunch. I don’t know what he has planned after that.” Dante smirked, and I asked, “What was that for?”

“What?”

“That smirk.”

“I didn’t smirk.”

Sawyer arrived with my cappuccino just then and said, “That was a total smirk. Hi Mike.”

“Hey Sawyer. Nice timing.” I took a look at my coffee and chuckled. He’d rendered a perfect, 3D representation of Gizmo out of foam. I snapped a picture, so I could show my kids later.

“I need to get back to work because I have two people out with the flu today, but it’s good to see both of you.” Sawyer flashed us a smile before turning on his stiletto heels and striding across the café. He was dressed in a V-neck sweater, a miniskirt, and tights, all black, and he looked fierce as ever.

“Thanks for the coffee art. This is way too cute to drink,” I called after him. Then I turned back to Dante and said, “I want to know why you smirk every time you hear Yoshi’s name. I thought you liked him. But whenever I mention him, I get this face.” I curled one side of my mouth and tried to do an exaggerated imitation of my brother, which made Dante chuckle.

“I do like Yoshi. I also respect the hell out of him,” he said. “You know that.”

“So why the…oh my God. Is it because you know I have a crush on him?”

Dante looked surprised. “Wow, you finally figured it out!”

“What did I figure out?”

He took a sip of coffee, then said, “That you’re crazy about your best friend.”

“But I only realized it a few weeks ago, and you’ve been smirking for months.”

Dante looked amused when he told me, “You and Yoshiro Miyazaki have been a couple for the better part of two years, but both of you seem bizarrely oblivious to that fact.”

“Oh, come on. He has a boyfriend, and you know how I feel about cheating!”

Dante held up his hands as if to calm me down, and he told me, “I’m not saying the two of you have been messing around. I know you’d never do that. But you’re still a couple, and you have been for a very long time.”

“How do you figure, since you know we’re not sleeping together? We’ve never even kissed.”

“You’re like an old couple who’s been married for thirty years, so there’s no physical intimacy anymore, but the love and mutual support remains. It’s actually very sweet. That said, I wish he’d break up with that fucking asshole of a boyfriend already, because you really need to get laid.”

“I never told you I was bisexual, so imagining us as a couple was a pretty big leap on your part.”

My brother held my gaze steadily and said, “There was no need to tell me. I’ve always known you’re bi.”

“How? I never said a word to you or anyone else.”

His expression grew surprisingly sympathetic when he leaned forward and said, “You sometimes seem to forget that I’ve been right here, every single day of your life, Mikey. When you fell in love with Greg Parker in junior high, I saw it in your eyes, maybe even before you realized it yourself. I also saw what it did to you when your friendship ended, right after eighth grade graduation. I’ve always assumed that happened because you finally told him how you felt.”

“That’s exactly right.” I gave those revelations a moment to sink in, and then I asked, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because you’ve always been intensely private, and I figured if I brought it up, I’d only embarrass you. It’s funny, Gianni would tell us everything that went on in his life to the point of oversharing, but you were the exact opposite. You always had this idea that you needed to handle everything yourself. You softened on that when you and Jenny got married. The two of you became a team. Now, you and Yoshi are the same way.”

I murmured, “I never thought about that.”

“Here’s what I’ve come to realize: you’re willing to let one person in and rely on them, but that’s your limit. I used to hate the way you kept a wall between yourself and the rest of us. Now, I think I get it. After our parents were taken from us, we all developed different ways of coping with that loss. Yours was to move to an island, metaphorically speaking, and convince yourself you didn’t need any of us to survive. I was glad when you figured out your island was big enough for a partner and kids. It would have broken my heart if you’d wound up alone.”

Everything he’d said was dead-on, and it caught me totally by surprise. I told him, “I had no idea you saw so much over the years.”

Dante took another sip of coffee before saying, “So, that’s the past. Now let’s talk about your future and what you’re going to do about the fact that you’re in love with your best friend.”

“I only said it was a crush.”

He waved his hand with a flourish and said, “Dante the all-seeing, remember?”

I grinned a little. “Yeah, okay. I had that lightbulb moment just last month. It was on Valentine’s Day, actually.”

“I take it you haven’t told him how you feel.”

“No, for a lot of reasons, including the fact that he’s not available. Even though his boyfriend is an asshole, Yoshi must love the guy. Why else would he have stuck around all those years?”

Dante shrugged, and I continued, “Also, what if he doesn’t feel the same way about me? Our friendship is as important to me as air, and finding out this isn’t mutual could ruin everything. Even if by some miracle he feels the same way, what happens if we try to transition from friends to more and it doesn’t work out? This is in the alternate universe where Yoshi doesn’t have a boyfriend, obviously. But let’s say he and the douche bag break up, and we try dating, and we fail. I can’t imagine trying to go back to the way things were after something like that, so not only would I lose him, but my kids would too, and they absolutely adore Yoshi.” I pointed at my brother and warned him, “Don’t say I’m using them as an excuse, because I’m not.”

“No, you’re absolutely right. Your boys would be devastated, but I don’t think Yoshi would ever turn his back on them, no matter what ended up happening between the two of you. He clearly adores those kids.”

I picked up a teaspoon and finally stirred the deflating foam dog into my coffee as I said, “For the last month, my motto has been ‘act casual.’ I don’t want to make things weird between Yoshi and me, which is pretty challenging since I’m a mess around him.”

Dante asked, “So, what’s the plan? I get that you have all kinds of reasons why you’re afraid to start something. But what are you going to do, just wait forever and hope Gale Goodwin eventually dies of old age? I’ve watched Yoshi put up with a lot of shit over the years, and I’m starting to think he’ll never break up with him. Gale probably isn’t going anywhere either, since he’s learned he can do whatever he wants, and he’ll still have a hot booty call waiting for him whenever he breezes through town.”

“I don’t know what to do. If Yoshi loves that guy, I can’t imagine he’d be very receptive to me telling him, hey by the way, your boyfriend is a total dick, so you should date me instead.”

“You need to figure it out sooner rather than later. What are you going to do next time Goodwin comes for a visit? Can you really see yourself smiling and waving while the man you love goes off to be with someone else, especially a douche like Gale?”

“That would be devastating.” I actually shuddered at the thought. “The good news is, his band’s currently doing a series of concerts in the UK, so it’s not like Gale’s going to appear on Yoshi’s doorstep tomorrow.”

“But he will show up eventually, and you need to tell Yoshi how you feel before that happens.”

“I know.”

After a moment, Dante asked, “What are you more afraid of, telling Yoshi how you feel and finding out it isn’t mutual, or finding out it is and opening yourself up to the first real relationship you’ve had since Jenny died?”

I didn’t have an answer for that.

 

*****

 

My worries were replaced with raw desire when Yoshi opened the door to his apartment half an hour later. His hair was damp and tousled, and he wore a sexy pair of black shorts and a form-fitting tank top, which showed off his strong arms and shoulders. My brain fizzled out at the sight of him, and I began chanting to myself, don’t stare, don’t stare, don’t stare.

He flashed a radiant smile and said, “Hey Mike. Perfect timing. I just got back from the gym. Two minutes earlier, and you would have caught me in the shower.” My internal chant was replaced with stop picturing that, stop picturing that…oh hell, you’re totally picturing that. I followed him inside, and when he turned to me and got very close, my heartbeat sped up. Yoshi unfastened the top two buttons on my polo shirt as he said, “You’re so funny with the buttoned-up-to-your-chin thing. What do you think will happen if you show those extra two inches of skin?”

“Nothing.” The word came out a bit choked. Okay, I really needed to get a grip.

“Exactly.” 

I followed him through his high-ceilinged living room to the open kitchen at the far end of the space. His home was a perfect reflection of him, in that it was gorgeous, flawless, and sophisticated. High-end furniture with clean lines, including black leather chairs and a matching sofa, mingled with modern artwork. The wall of windows on our left let in a lot of natural light, and the red brick on the opposite wall added warmth to the dark color palette. Immediately to the right of the kitchen, a spiral staircase led to his loft bedroom. I definitely didn’t need to think about that.

When we reached the kitchen, he asked me if I was hungry. Since my stomach was in knots, I murmured, “Not really.”

“Yeah, me neither. I think I’ll just make us a couple of smoothies.”

He tapped the iPod on the kitchen counter, and music began to play from a pair of wireless speakers. I used to tease him about his love of pop music, which somehow seemed incongruous with the rest of his aesthetic. But when he started dancing to an upbeat song I didn’t recognize, I just thought it was adorable.

My gaze strayed to his swaying ass when he turned his back to me. I redoubled my efforts to get a grip and turned my attention to a piece of art in a corner of the living room. Since the abstract metal sculpture was of two men in a loving embrace, it really didn’t help me refocus. Instead, it filled me with longing.

I leaned on the long, polished cement counter that separated the kitchen from the living area, and as he set up his blender and pulled some ingredients from the stainless steel refrigerator, I tried to make sense of the way my perception had shifted. I’d adored Yoshi for years, and the fact that he was strikingly handsome had never been lost on me. But realizing I was in love with him cast everything in a new light. He was still the same guy I’d known for years and the best friend I’d ever had, but he was so much more now, too.

He also had a boyfriend, so I really had to stop my ridiculous pining. I circled the counter and occupied myself by washing and slicing some fruit, while he talked animatedly about two of the artists at his tattoo studio and their ongoing efforts to out-prank each other. It took a lot of effort, but I managed to gather up all that longing and desire and push it aside, at least for the time being. I knew I’d have to deal with it eventually, but not right then. There really was only one objective that Monday, which was to calm the hell down and avoid ruining our friendship.

Once the smoothies were done, Yoshi turned off the blender and asked, “What would you like to do today? If you’re tired and want to rest, I’m totally down with that. But if you feel like you have energy to burn, I had an idea that might be fun. There’s a place that just opened a few blocks from here, and I thought we could check it out.”

Since staying busy definitely sounded like the way to go, I said, “Let’s do that.”

“Don’t you want to know what it is?”

I shook my head. “Surprise me.”

That made him smile and say, “You’re not really a ‘surprise me’ kind of guy.”

“I’m not?”

“Nope. You’re all about planning and preparation. But hey, I’m not going to argue with your new-found spirit of adventure. Why don’t you pour the smoothies into a couple of travel containers while I change?”

I did as he asked while he bounded up the spiral staircase. By the time I located a pair of water bottles and filled them with the thick banana-mango-blueberry-kale concoction, Yoshi was back. He’d changed into a pair of track pants, sneakers, a T-shirt, and a hoodie, all black of course. I asked, “We’re not going to a gym, are we? I know I told you to surprise me, but I worked out really hard this morning after taking the weekend off, and I’m feeling it.”

“Where do you hurt?”

“My arms and shoulders.”

He said, “You won’t need those muscles for what we’re about to do.”

“I’m starting to regret that ‘surprise me’.”

We took the elevator to the ground floor of Yoshi’s building and stepped out into the busy South of Market neighborhood. In recent years, SOMA had evolved into Silicon Valley North. The sidewalk was crowded with a lot of very busy-looking people in their twenties and early thirties, all apparently on their way to something vitally important. Yoshi and I were the only people not on a latest generation smartphone, Bluetooth headset, or Apple watch. I liked the fact that we stood apart from the crowd, though the kale smoothies were pretentious enough to keep me from feeling smug.

We started walking toward the cluster of huge buildings that made up the Moscone Center, and I asked, “Is that where we’re going? Because I could get behind the idea of crashing a convention, as long as it’s not about technology. I’m not into lusting over the latest and greatest gadget.”

“Nope. I have something much more off-beat in mind.”

“I can only imagine.” I tried to suck some of the thick smoothie through the spout on the water bottle and ended up puckering my cheeks and making a weird slurping sound. Smooth. Yoshi grinned, then unscrewed the lid on his bottle and took a drink as we walked.

When we reached the convention center, a town car pulled to the curb, and a very self-important businessman on a cellphone breezed out of the backseat and almost plowed us over. Yoshi shot him a dirty look, but the man didn’t even notice us. As the businessman hurried into the convention center, Yoshi stared after him and muttered, “My parents idolize that douche. How sad is that?”

“You know who he is?”

Yoshi nodded. “He and I were in the same high school graduating class, and now he owns a multi-million-dollar tech company. My parents read an article about him in the paper, and ever since then, they’ve been comparing me to him. It was already annoying when they kept comparing me to my cousin Stacey, who’s a dentist. But now I also have to hear about how well Len Yakimoto is doing.”

“I don’t get it. You’re really successful, Yoshi. Why can’t they just be happy for you?”

“I’m not successful by ‘Len Yakimoto’ standards. Plus, let’s not forget that I make my living tattooing people.”

 “So? You run a financially successful business, and your work is nationally recognized. What more do they want?”

“None of that matters to them. Maybe if I ran a different kind of business, they’d be okay with my income level. But they hate what I do for a living.”

“Is it a cultural thing?”

“In part. Even though my parents were both born in California, they sometimes go a bit overboard with trying to hang on to their heritage, as evidenced by the fact that they named me Yoshiro. Their names are Bob and Cheryl, just to give you a point of comparison. Traditionally, tattoos aren’t exactly celebrated in Japanese culture. That’s starting to change, but to the older generation, there’s still a stigma attached to it.”

“It seems like they’re looking for excuses to criticize you.”

“Story of my life.”

I said, “If you ever see me doing that to my sons, do me a favor and punch me in the face. There’s so much I want for each of them, but I’d hate myself if I let that overshadow their own hopes and dreams.”

Yoshi smiled at me and said, “You got it.”

That made me chuckle. “You seem pretty enthusiastic about the idea of punching me.”

“Nah. I’m just happy to hear you say you’ll put their dreams first. I may end up reminding you of that ten years from now, when MJ wants to pursue a career as a pop star, Mark’s trying for the NBA, and Mitchell…well, who knows what he’s going to land on? Whatever it is, I doubt it’ll be very conventional.”

  I stopped him in the middle of the crowded sidewalk with a hand on his arm, and when he turned to me, I said, “I’m going to say this because I think you don’t hear it enough, especially from your parents. I admire the hell out of you, Yoshi. You’re both a stunningly gifted artist and a shrewd businessman, and you found the perfect profession, one that brings together both of those talents. I’m also proud of you, and I’m glad you’re a role model for my boys. If they end up doing even half as well as you, then they’re going to be a huge success.”

 He pulled me down to his height and planted a kiss on my forehead before whispering, “Thank you.” Then he playfully pushed me away and said, “Now stop trying to make me emotional in public, Dombruso. Look, we’re nearly at our destination. Go ahead and tell me why you think we shouldn’t go in there and act like idiots.”

Yoshi gestured at a large building across the street, and I asked, “You mean that new trampoline place?”

“Yeah, have you been there?”

“Not yet, but I’ve been meaning to take the boys.”

“Let’s do that later this week. Today though, we’re going to get a sneak preview.”

“But it’s just for kids, right?”

He shook his head and told me, “Children’s hours on weekdays are three to eight p.m. The rest of the time, it’s meant for grown-ups.”

“That’s…weird.”

“And awesome. Come on, step outside your comfort zone.”

“So…we’re supposed to go in there and jump?”

Yoshi grinned and said, “It’s much worse than that. There are also mazes, a giant ball pit, and an art room where you draw on the walls.” His dark eyes were lit with excitement, but I looked skeptical. “You can do this, I promise you. Be silly. Have fun! Just for an hour or two, stop being a grown-up.” I still hesitated, so he added, “Do it for me, Mike.” That last sentence was the clincher. I would have done just about anything he asked of me.

When we got inside, I glanced up at the hundred random objects suspended from the high ceiling. They included several bicycles, a mannequin dressed like a scuba diver, and a big rainbow formed out of open, glittered umbrellas. The entire place was an onslaught of color, and I murmured, “It’s like Willy Wonka’s far less sedate brother decided to open a psychedelic gymnasium.”

“I know. Isn’t it great?”

Yoshi insisted on buying our tickets from the pink-haired young woman at the counter, and then he led me through the turnstile to a little room lined with neon-orange open shelving. As he took off his sneakers and stuck them on a shelf, I said, “Those are going to get stolen.”

“Yours might, too. Or maybe not, we’ll see.”

I said goodbye to my fairly new sneakers and stuck them beside his twice-as-expensive pair, and then I followed him into a huge room lined with trampolines. Yoshi took a running leap and executed a surprising flip onto the nearest one, and then he bounced in place as he waited for me to join him.

I had a choice to make: hang back on the sidelines, or risk embarrassing myself and participate. I was well aware of the fact that I’d spent most of my life as a spectator, but I couldn’t do that with Yoshi. If I was ever going to have a shot with him, I had to be willing to take some chances, and this was as good a place as any to start. I took a deep breath and leapt onto that trampoline.

 

*****

 

Two hours later, I grinned as I lounged in an enormous ball pit. We’d climbed and jumped and raced through mazes and made complete fools of ourselves, and it had been glorious. Fortunately, we’d had the place to ourselves, which had helped me lose my inhibitions.

I turned to Yoshi, who was floating beside me on a sea of brightly colored plastic balls, and said, “This was great. Thank you for bringing me here.”

“Thanks for acting like a dork with me.” When he reached out and brushed my hair from my eyes, my heart tripped over itself.

After a moment, I said, “I don’t want to leave the ball pit yet because this is oddly enjoyable, but I just realized we lost our smoothie bottles at some point.”

“That’s not all you lost.” He pulled my glasses from the pocket of his hoodie and said, “You didn’t even know these were gone, did you?” I shook my head and took them from him, and as I polished the lenses on the hem of my polo shirt, he asked, “Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You hide behind glasses you don’t really need, and dress in what’s practically become a uniform, and try to make sure no one notices you. But here’s the thing, Mike: it’s not working. You’re stunningly gorgeous and impossible to miss, despite your best efforts to fade into the background.”

I put on the glasses and murmured, “That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Sure it is. When the glasses were gone, you didn’t even miss them.” The plastic balls rustled as Yoshi rolled onto his side. His face was just a few inches from mine, and my gaze landed on his lips as he told me, “I’m saying this because I care about you, Mike: I think it’s time to stop hiding from the world and get back out there and date again. You’re probably going to tell me you tried a year ago when you went out with Marie, but I think you always knew it’d never work out with her.”

“Dante said the same thing.”

“Well, maybe we both have a point.”

“Maybe.”

His voice was so gentle when he said, “I won’t pretend to know what it was like when you lost your wife, and I know everyone grieves in their own way. But don’t you think it might be time to open your heart to love again, Mike?”

I shifted my gaze from his lips to his eyes. There was my opportunity to be honest with him, quite literally staring me in the face. But I just couldn’t tell him how I felt. Not yet.

While I blamed my hesitation on the fact that he had a boyfriend, in truth I was afraid of how everything would change once the words were out of my mouth. So I sat up and said, “Yeah. You’re right. Now, come on, let’s go find the snack bar and get a drink. Maybe we can ask them for some plastic bags to use as footwear, since our shoes must have been stolen by now.”

“Okay, I get it,” he said, as we both waded out of the ball pit. “This is none of my business and I should shut up. I didn’t mean to push, Mike. I just worry about you, that’s all.”

“I know, and I appreciate it,” I said. “For what it’s worth, I do actually plan to get back out there sometime soon.” That was very true. I just left out two critical words: with you.