“So,” Kenny McGrath said, “Can I ask you a question?”
He hadn’t noticed Kenny, or he might have stayed inside, or at least hung around out front. Now that Kenny was a cashier too, they didn’t have to work together.
Brendan didn’t say anything.
“I gotta know,” Kenny said, “when you’re fucking Dena—”
“You really need to not say that again.”
“I mean, you are fucking her, right? Well, when you’re fucking her, do you feel straighter? Do you feel like the man you always wanted to be?”
Brendan un-slouched himself from the wall and stood up straight, still looking straight ahead.
“I think I’m going to leave,” Brendan said. “You have a good day, Kenneth.”
Brendan folded his hands in his apron and turned for the back door while Kenny repeated, “You have a good day, Kenneth! Fuck you, Brendan Miller!”“Okay, so I guess you all want an explanation?”
“No, that’s alright—” Claire began, but Matt and Paul said, “Hell, yeah,” and then looked at each other.
Layla looked at them, Claire shrugged and said, “By the way, Paul, we know you’re gay.”
Paul turned around, red, and Layla said, “Good, now we can all be awkward and embarrassed. So, what do you all want to know?”
“Why haven’t I seen that old man before?” said Paul.
Layla put her hands together.
“That old man is my grandpa. And you ain’t seen Papa, cause Papa was a rollin’ stone. He rolled into town long enough to marry my grandmother and he stayed something like faithful to her until Fenn was about five or six or seven, or hell, I don’t know. Then he just dipped. They were separated for twenty years before they finally went ahead and got the divorce. The other old lady is my great-grandmother. She never liked my grandfather, not even when he was a little boy.”
“Your great-grandmother knew him when he was a little boy?” Claire said.
“Well, yeah. See, she was his stepmother. She had been married to his father.”
“Oh, my God.”
“That’s why everyone’s last name is Houghton.”
“But they’re not niece and nephew… or anything?”
“They aren’t niece and nephew, but I’m pretty sure they are some type of cousin. It’s legal. Don’t make that face.”
“Are you sorry you asked?” Claire turned to her brothers.
Mouth open in an amazed smile, Paul said, “Not really. Where the hell does Lee come from?”
“Lee is Lula’s sister’s grandson,” Layla began.
“And my grandfather’s nephew.”
“The grandfather downstairs?”
Claire’s eyes were up at the ceiling and she was muttering something, counting on her fingers.
“What are you doing?” said Layla.
“Trying to make out your family tree. And I can’t.”
“You need to talk to her.”
“What do you mean, I need to… I can’t.”
“Brendan, this is fucked up!” Will exclaimed. “Look at you. Why are you doing this? And… Pardon me, but if I’m not wrong, then she’s not the only person you need to talk too.”
“I can’t… I… I’m having sex with her. We’re doing it all the time. She likes it. I mean, I like it too—”
“When you close your eyes and pretend she’s someone else—”
“I shouldn’t have told you that.”
“No, you should have, Bren. You really should have because you can’t keep on doing this. It’s not fair to her. Or to you.”
And then Will added, “It’s really not fair to her. I mean, you’re doing this to Dena so you can… Never mind.”
“So I can what?” said Brendan.
“So you can turn yourself into something you’re not. And… it’s not fair.”
“Look,” Brendan said. “I know it’s not fair. That’s why… I’m not going to stop. It makes her happy when we—”
“Stop!” Brendan’s voice grew hard. “I’m serious, Will. Don’t ever say that.”
“Well, it’s not making love. I’m sorry, Bren. But we’re supposed to be friends, and friends tell each other shit when they see that they need to.”
“I think Layla’s rubbing off on you.”
“Well…” Will shrugged. “I think she is too. And that’s a good thing.”
“I’m so tired,” Brendan said, suddenly.
“I’m just so tired of pretending. I’m so… tired. I hate… feeling the way I do. Like this fraud, like this… this monster who is hurting everybody.”
“Aw,” Will covered his mouth and shook his head. He sat down on the bed beside his friend and put his arm around him.
“Brendan, you have to tell her the truth. You can’t go on like this. Don’t be afraid. All of your friends are going to support you. The both of you.”
“You’re the only real friend I have.”
“That is not true!”
“Well, it will be… after I talk to her.”
“No,” Will said, stoutly. “It won’t be. But even if it was, you’d still have me. So don’t worry.”
Brendan buried his face in his hands so long Will thought he was crying. When he removed them his face was red, but dry. He cleared his throat, stood up and said, “I gotta go. I gotta go see Dena.”
Monday afternoon, Julian Lawden was leaving the theatre when he saw, from the corner of his eye, Layla Lawden. He thought to keep on walking, and then shrugged and came toward her.
When he stood in front of her she said, “Hello?”
“Do you know who I am?”
Layla’s hello had been the closest thing she could come up with to simultaneously throwing out a challenge while claiming ignorance.
“Yes,” she said, at last. “I do.”
“All right,” said Julian. “Well, what do you want to do about that?”
“Whaddo you mean what do I want to do about it?”
“Look,” Julian’s voice changed. “I’m not the one that broke up your parents’ not so happy marriage, so you can lose that tone of voice right now.”
No man ever talked to her that way. No man who wasn’t in her family. But then, Julian was family.
“How old are you?” Layla said.
“Older than you. By a year.”
When Julian smiled at her, it wasn’t a welcoming one.
“You thought to yourself, ‘I’m the daughter of Hoot Lawden’—and if you want to be proud of that you can be—‘and this is the bastard of the woman he left my mother for.’ And then you learn that it’s the other way around.”
She looked at him.
“See,” Julian put a finger up. “You’re the bastard.
“Hoot was married to my mother before he married yours. It was short. They didn’t get on. He was a cheat. What’s new? He cheated with Adele. I was already about to come into this world when Adele said she was pregnant. With you, Layla.”
Layla’s face dried, and all up and down it, all up and down her body heat pricks stung her.
“My mother said, at the time, she didn’t want him anymore. He could go to Adele. So he did. But apparently neither one of them got over each other as much as they said. Whatever they did, I’m not the bastard you seem to think I am, and no matter how much you think Hoot loved your mother, whenever he left her house, apparently he couldn’t quit fucking mine.”
Layla’s hand went up to slap him, but Julian caught her wrist.
“None of that, okay?”
As he lowered her hand back to her side, Julian told her in a level, almost conversational voice, “I, for one, am tired of seeing your sanctimonious black ass walk around here, turning me the evil eye for no reason, and if it’s all the same, I just thought I’d give you a reason.”
He released her hand, smiled, and turned around to walk away.
Then he turned back around while Layla was rubbing her wrist and said, “When you want to talk civil, come and see me, sis. After all,” he said, saluting her, “we’re family.”
Layla thought about going back to her house, but winded by her conversation with Julian, she caught the Number Thirteen, putting her bike on its rack, and headed toward Dena’s instead.
When she got there, Brendan was by his car and Layla thought, “Shit, I should have called first,” but Brendan called her over.
Layla wheeled the bicycle across the street and rested on its handlebars looking at Brendan.
“You look horrible.”
“I feel horrible. Layla, just go in and be with her.”
“What?” she began. Then, “Brendan, what’s going on?”
“Just,” Brendan shook her head, “Be with her. I have to go. I need to go,” he said, and got into the car.
Layla wheeled the bike up the hill watching Brendan drive away, and then she left it on the brick porch of the Meraden house and went inside, going up the stairs in the narrow hallway and down the hall of the old house, to her best friend’s room.
Layla put her ear to the door.
“Shit,” she murmured, and tapped softly.
“No,” Dena’s voice was thick through the door.
“It’s me, Deen. I’m coming in.”
Layla pushed the door open, and Dena was sitting on the edge of the bed. It was awful to watch, her face buried in her hands, hidden by her dark hair, her body shaking.
She got up and her face was red and streaked. She threw her arms around Layla and dragged her to the bed.
“Oh, God,” she wailed while Layla rocked her, pushing away Hoot and Julian and the news Julian had told her, pushing away how hot and tired she was, how horrible Brendan had looked.
“Oh, my God,” Dena cried, shaking and sobbing.
“Yes,” said Will.
“What all did you know?” Layla said. “Because tonight my oldest friend tells me: one, she was sleeping with Brendan, who might be my second oldest friend, and then two—”
“I knew all of it,” Will said.
Layla stared at him.
“Brendan came to me, Layla. Dena didn’t know that. He was so confused. He was scared. He needed someone to talk to, and I’m his only friend.”
“That,” Layla said thickly, “is not true.”
“He couldn’t tell you.”
“Dena couldn’t tell me either. But Brendan, he told you everything?”
“Yeah,” Will said, weakly. “He did.”
Layla turned away from him and stood staring hard out of the window.
“You know what?” she said. “There’s really enough in my life right now. I really shouldn’t even care that my friends thought that I couldn’t be confided in. I shouldn’t care. Like, did you know I met my brother today? That’s what I wanted to talk about? I met him and it turns out he’s older, and the woman my father cheated on my mother with was his ex wife, and apparently he was sleeping with my mother while he was married to her, and that’s how I was conceived? Did you know that, Will?”
“No, Lay. Sit here, we’ll talk about it.”
“I just talked about it,” she whirled around. “I just stood here, and fucking talked about it. You’re so good, Will, about hearing everyone’s secrets, so good that apparently you know everyone’s business while I’m in the dark. And then it’s okay to tell me when you feel like it, tell me you’ve all been hiding shit from me. It’s okay because it’s all about Dena who couldn’t tell what the fuck we all could tell from a mile away.”
“Dena was just—”
“Fuck Dena,” Layla said. “And fuck Brendan.”
She crossed the room to leave.
“Let me give you a ride home.”
“No, Will,” she said.
And then she added: “ And fuck you, too.”
“What the fuck do you want?”
“Can I come in?”
“Well, then can I stand on the stoop and say what I need to say?”
“Brendan Miller you can drop dead and say what you need to say in hell.”
Kenny McGrath turned around and tried to shut the door, but Brendan pushed it back.
“You must want me to kick your ass. Really, Brendan.”
“We need to talk.”
“We tried that already. I tried that already. You said you didn’t need to be around me anymore. You said we weren’t anything. You said—”
“I was afraid.”
“You were afraid? You were an asshole.”
Brendan stood at the door waiting.
“Well, come in,” said Kenny.
Brendan nodded, and walked into the living room.
“No one’s home,” Kenny said. “So you can say your piece.”
“Dena’s gone. I mean, I told her everything.”
“Did you tell her you were sucking my dick? Did you tell her we were fucking each other for three months all that time you were telling her how busy you were, and how left out Will was feeling? Did you tell her that when you stayed over we were screwing in the same bed?”
“You make it sound like that, Ken. But… we were more than that.”
“Were we?” Kenny said. “Because, see, I thought we were in love. I… I was afraid when I thought so, but I was sure of it. I thought everything we did was because we couldn’t keep our hands off of each other, because we were so into each other. I really thought that. I was high as a kite. I thought you were too. I thought we had literally discovered sex, and love and… all of that shit. And one day we’d decide how to tell folks about it.
“And then, one day you were like, it’s over. You weren’t even gentle about it. You were just… you treated me like the plague. Like I was this disgusting thing that was turning you into something gross, and Dena Reardon was going to cure you.”
“I think that was the way I felt,” Brendan said quickly. “No, listen. I… with us I felt so out of control and so, different and so scared, so scared of the way I felt about you. The things that were happening to us when we were together. I knew I was gay, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to be. But it’s who I was. It was so natural and… I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Well, Brendan, I’ve had a long time to not know, all by myself, while you treated me like shit and screwed Dena. I’ve had a long time to be miserable, to hate myself. To hate you. To… wanna die. You know what that feels like, Bren? To want to fucking die, to curl up in a fucking ball and just die? You know what that’s like?”
Kenny looked at him dubiously.
“If you knew, why the fuck would you do that to someone else?”
“I need you to get the fuck out.”
“Please,” Kenny said, taking a breath, and taking his hands through his hair, “I need you to go.”
Brendan nodded, and went to the front door.
“I just… wanted to let you know how sorry I was.”
Brendan nodded and left, closing the door behind him.
A second later it opened.
“Brendan!” Kenny said, exhausted.
Brendan bit his lip.
“Kenny, I love you. I never stopped being in love with you. I… just wanted you to know that too.”
“All right,” Kenny said. “Now, get out?”
Brendan swallowed, took a breath, and then nodded.
“What?” Tom said, walking into the apartment, “is all this?”
Before Lee could say anything, Tom said, “It smells so good in here. God, I didn’t know you could cook! Lee, what is this?”
“Well, sit down,” Lee said coming out of the kitchen.
“You look ridiculous.”
“You don’t like my apron?”
“Lee,” Tom said as Lee shoved him into a chair, “What—?”
“You know how sometimes people throw going away dinners?”
Tom’s face changed.
“Oh, no, Lee.”
“Well,” Lee continued, raising a finger, “I’m throwing a ‘I’m not going anywhere anytime soon dinner.’ For us. No one else is invited.”
“What?” Tom tilted his head. “What are you saying?”
“You’re kind of slow, Tom. I just said it.”
“You’re not…” Tom began again. “You’re staying?”
“Yes. I can’t really think of a good reason not too.”
“Aw, Lee,” Tom leaped up and hugged him. “This is great. This is… the greatest news.”
“Of course I can move in with Adele until I get my own place.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can’t really stay here.”
“It would be like me becoming your instant live-in boyfriend.”
Lee separated from him and looked down at himself, murmuring, “This is a ridiculous apron.” Then he said, “Thom, you don’t just move into someone’s place and not leave.”
“Lee,” Tom said, coming behind him and helping him untie the apron. “I have waited a long, a looooong time to share my life with someone. My space. This place basically says ‘Fill me up.’”
“It’s pretty damn empty, all right.”
“And cold. And I’m pretty damn empty, too, and these last few weeks have been… I don’t know. The whole thing about maybe you would leave, the whole thing about me just kind of risking that and taking love right now, in the moment… it’s really been something. And… if we can start a life together… I don’t mean to get heavy. I mean, if we could just try this out, together, we would be real happy.”
“Tom, I wouldn’t be staying if I didn’t agree.”
“So… you’ll stay? I mean… here?”
“Great.” Tom pressed himself to Lee and murmured into his chest. “It’s hard for me, you know. To give myself to someone. To trust myself to be soft. You make it easy. I don’t mean to sound clingy and everything. But this, right now, is great. I want to just… hold you and never let you go.”
“Well, you’re going to have to let me go sooner or later.”
“Because the sauce is about to bubble over.”
“So,” Julian said, opening the door, “you wanna talk, or you wanna fight?”
Layla nodded and said, “I don’t want to do either. I’ve been all over town.”
She entered the house and Julian said, “They’re not home. Either one of them. It’s getting toward evening, and you’ve been on that bike.”
She shook her head, “I took the bus. I put it on the rack.”
“Still,” Julian said, “I can give you a ride back home.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“I’d say it is,” he disagreed. “You thirsty?”
Layla put her hands on the top of her head.
“Today, my oldest friend, who I was coming to tell about you told me that her boyfriend had, firstly, been sleeping with her for weeks. Which she never told me. And then she told me that he was gay, and he had just left her.”
“Yes,” Layla agreed. “And, that he had been fooling around with another guy. Someone we all knew. Who we thought was just a friend.”
“And then,” Layla said, “I find out that my boyfriend knew all of this already, and he had never told me. None of them told me.”
“That’s a mess,” Julian sympathized. “That’s a real mess.”
“And now what you told me…
“I want to know, did my mother know my father was already married when they got together?”
“I… I wanted to believe that my mother was… a virgin when she got married.”
“I want to believe my mother’s a virgin now.”
“But… she was pregnant with me already… Before my father proposed to her?”
“You want to grill her for having a sex life?”
“I don’t have a sex life,” Layla railed. “My slut of a best friend does. My—Brendan, who I grew up with, who won the dork of the year award in K-8: apparently he can fuck boys and girls at the same time and keep a job at Martins. So no, my mother’s sex life is a bit much to hear about right now.”
“What else do you want to know?”
Layla opened her mouth, and shook her head.
“I don’t know… I… I need to go.”
“I’ll drive you.”
“Rossford’s not that big.”
“Suit yourself,” Julian said.
She nodded and went to the door.
She turned around.
“See, I want to feel sorry for you. I want to be sorry for how I treated you today. I want to be your friend. You are my sister.”
“But it’s hard for me, cause you’re kind of a bitch.”
“Goodnight, Julian,” she said, and pulled her bicycle out through the door.
Because it was summer, the sky was golden though it was approaching nine o’clock. She didn’t want to see her mother, or any of her family right now. She didn’t want her friends. She wanted a car. A car with limitless gas that would drive her out of this world. She needed to be someplace else.
The car was approaching her. It looked like Brendan’s. As they both came to the red light it came beside her and stopped.
“Layla, get in.”
“No,” she said. It was Brendan. Goddamn him.
“Layla, it’s late. You’ve been on that damn thing all day. You’re not Greg Lamont.”
“You’re not Lance Armstrong,” he said.
Her thighs hurt. Her ass hurt by now. She was funky and sweaty.
“Get in,” he said in that voice Brendan used every once in awhile that meant he was completely serious.
The light turned green. Brendan didn’t move. Layla took a breath and climbed off of the bike. Brendan got out of the car and opened his trunk. He took the bike. His arms were strong. He seemed so skinny, it was a surprise. He unhooked the wheel expertly, stuck it in the back of his car, closed the trunk lightly, and Layla got in.
They drove. They drove in silence.
The Dairy Queen, the Cadillac Lot, the Mitsubishi place, Movies 10, Wendys, a Catholic bookstore, a Greek restaurant, gold red light settling on them, glowing off their glass fronts in copper waves. Gold red light on the asphalt.
“I don’t blame you if you don’t want to talk to me.”
“Brendan. Eventually, I want you to drop me off at my uncle’s. Okay?”
“But for now, could you just drive. Just… let’s just drive. And not say anything.”
And so they drove.
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