That first day Little Miss Lee had begged a ride, nervous hands fidgeting at her pack straps belying her confident stare, Jack had wondered where it would lead. Driving her home, that familiar route, no need to ask for directions—knowing her without knowing her—Jack found himself imagining Lydia staking claim to his friendship with similar blustered confidence. When she shook her hair back from her face and gave him a look, pink glossed lips quirked in flirtation, Jack thought oh, that and felt himself grin back reflexively in admiration. She was winning and so girl, from her neatly polished nails to the pressed pleats of her skirt. There was a yellow barrette that held back her hair from her pale, slender neck, her delicate ear. Jack let his admiration wash over, wash out, his envy. When she gave him that look, Jack thought oh, that, of course. Then, she’ll be back. Both thoughts shot him through with small shivers of apprehension and shame, followed quickly by the pleasure he felt whenever one of the elusive Lees side-stepped through his life.
But Lydia didn’t come back.
It was a few days later, after the weekend. Jack hadn’t bothered to bring his bag to class, so he simply jumped over the worst of a slushy puddle, pulled open the door of the old Beetle, and slid into its worn leather driver’s seat, already reaching into his pockets for his cigarettes. He cranked the key in the ignition and settled in to wait for the car to warm up. He was grabbing his lighter from where he’d tucked it above the visor when the passenger door was wrenched open. He turned, hoping for Lydia and expecting to see one of the other junior girls, someone more simpering and far less welcome. Instead, he got a face full of bristling, scowling Nath. Jack gaped, and the cigarette he was holding between his lips fell into his lap.
The car barely had a heater—it was still rasping to life—and Nath’s breath came out in wispy clouds as he growled, “You. What are you doing with my sister?”
“What?” Jack asked, reaching for the cigarette that he realized was no longer at the corner of his mouth.
Nath had lost his summer swimmer’s tan, but his face was darkened by a deep flush. Jack watched a drop of sweat drift down from his temple and catch in the dark, soft-looking hair that curled out from beneath his gray knit hat. Then his gaze swept over Nath’s high cheekbones and turned up nose, his long-lashed brown eyes alight with anger. He realized that Nath must have run from the hall of science classrooms all the way at the back of the school to catch him before he drove away.
“Hi,” he breathed. Because, damn, Nath was—well, he was in Jack’s car. Nath, spitting mad and panting, all up in Jack’s face.
“Hi?” Nath’s frown deepened. He wiped the back of his hand over his forehead, pushing aside the hair there so that it stuck up in an unfairly sweet way. “Are you stoned? Did you hear me? I saw my sister get into the car with you, Jack.”
Jack shrugged off his torpor before Nath could recognize his startled adoration and conclude that he was high on some serious shit. “Close the door,” he said, pitching his voice low, nonchalant. He picked up his cigarette and lit it with steady hands. He’d play the rake Nath saw him as; he’d be every inch that rake. Easy.
“What?” Nath asked, his turn to be confused.
“You’re letting out the heat. What little heat there is.”
“Well, do you want to talk or don’t you? Shut the door.”
Nath complied, and Jack threw the car into gear and backed out of the parking space, swinging the grumbling Beetle in the direction of the road.
“Where are we going?” Nath was still twisted in his seat, staring at Jack. He had his messenger bag in his lap, and his black wool coat was buttoned up tightly around his throat.
“Home. Unless you’d rather detour and have this tête-à-tête at the Point.” He glanced over at Nath, raising an eyebrow but holding back a full on leer—just a little innuendo, to play but not reveal too much.
Nath just shook his head. He was raising his eyebrows too, more a look of consternation than of sass. “You don’t have to give me a ride,” he said.
“Okay. Want out?” Jack didn’t slow the car or anything, but he still felt like a dick as soon as the words were loose. He ashed his cigarette into the coffee mug propped between the seats and sighed. “What I mean is that I don’t mind driving you home, talking. You saw me with your sister, and you’re upset. I get that, I guess.”
“So you admit that I should be upset that the two of you—”
“I’m not admitting anything,” Jack said over him, flexing the hand that was balanced atop the wheel, guiding them down the straight country road toward their neighborhood and the lake. “Jesus. I just gave her a ride, okay? She asked me for a ride.”
“Why would she do that?”
Jack rolled his eyes. “I don’t know. She said she missed the bus.”
“Look, just stay away from her, alright?”
“Seems like you should be telling her to stay away from me, seeing as she’s the one who—”
“I’m telling you. She’s my sister. She’s not—she wouldn’t—you’re not going to treat her like one of the girls you go out with. She’s not going to be one of the girls you go out with,” he finished in a stronger voice.
“Nath, damn it—” Jack reached for words, and he could feel his frustration warring with his deep, thwarted want to be respected. “Look, I know we’ve never been friends, that there’s this—animosity between us. I’m not even sure where it came from. But, like, that’s the thing—I’m not sure why it’s there. We’re neighbors. We’ve grown up together, sort of. I’m—” He paused and looked over at Nath to gauge his reaction. Nath was watching him, mouth frozen, lips slightly parted, as if he was waiting to jump in, to argue. “I’m not going to fuck around with your sister, Nath.”
“Well—well, I—” Nath stumbled. “Well, alright then.”
They drove in silence, Jack’s hands itching to do more roaming than the motions of smoking. He felt pent up; he wanted to stretch, to yank the car down the embankment up against the icy ditch, to vault the listing wooden fence and run and stomp wide circles into the field of snow. The winter sun was drooping lower and lower over the tree lattice immediately to their left and then further off to their right, beyond the fields. The clustered oaks and elms there hid the lake from view.
“I’m not going to say thank you,” Nath said. “Or sorry either, for assuming.” He hesitated. “As far as I know, those are just words. I’ll have to see.”
Jack snorted. “Are you saying you’ll be keeping an eye on me?”
“It’s alright,” he murmured, wishing for his leer back, for his bluster and innuendo. It had been easy with Lydia. Little Miss Lee, what can I do you for? She found him charming—elusive, balancing between threat and potential, a thrill. “I don’t mind having your eyes on me.” He looked over at Nath, trying for a grin and probably landing somewhere between determined and suggestive because Nath startled, uncomfortable. He reached up and swiped his hair from his forehead—a stiff, frustrated movement. One of his tics, Jack knew, from too many hours of staring at him from the back of various classrooms, resisting the twin urges to chuck balled up notebook paper at the back of his head and to fold him origami frogs and flowers like a besotted girl. When he loved Nath—when he let himself love Nath, let the longing hit him physically, growing almost like pain in his chest and swooping through his limbs and, yes, along his inner thighs and between his legs—he felt like a besotted girl. And it was the best feeling, actually. Sometimes he just lay on his bed and felt his body, eyes closed—the soft brush of his flannel comforter on his bare arms, the snugness of the elastic band on his briefs tight across his hipbones, chilled air and pleasure prickling his nipples, the texture of his hair where he ran a curl between his fingers lazily—imagining what it would be like for Nath to climb over him and lower his weight down on Jack’s body, to touch all the places where Jack was so acutely aware of sensation. What it would be like for Nath to rub his smooth, cool palm over the head of Jack’s cock—or if Jack's body were different, what it would be like to feel his long, sure fingers stroking against, teasing apart his lips gently, finding and stroking circles around the nub of his clit.
A confession: the other day in the car, when Lydia tossed her hair and looked at Jack, Jack had thought about doing it. Taking her out to the Point and pulling her into his lap, sliding his hands under the pleats of her skirt to work down her tights and feel the soft, smooth skin of her thighs. To have her squirm in his lap and press against him until she was wet through the cotton of her underwear. To feel her hands—he imagined them clever and slender like Nath’s but on a smaller scale—scramble to get under his shirt and touch his chest or tug at the back of his head, on his curls. He’d imagined spreading Lydia out on the faded wool blanket in the backseat of the Beetle, hooking her legs up over his shoulders to fuck deeper into her warmth. He’d imagined all this with a pleasure seated in flickering subjectivity—her body in one moment his, in another moment Nath’s.
Jack wasn’t sure he would have stopped himself from fucking Lydia, if Lydia had climbed into his car again. If she had leaned in and kissed him, touched him and wanted it. He hoped the thought of Nath would have stopped him. Looking at Nath now, disheveled, confused and proud, Jack believed himself, believed what he told Nath. I’m not going to fuck around with your sister. It would have been hard to resist though, and he wasn’t sure; after all, he would never have Nath, so why not have the next closest thing, if she was amenable, if she wanted Jack?
In the front seat of the Beetle, Nath reddened under Jack’s gaze. “You know what I mean,” he stammered. “I’ll be watching to make sure you stay away from my sister, that’s all.”
Tuesday it happened again.
Jack was in a fairly dark mood. Worrying about it now wasn’t going to do any good, but he was sure he’d fucked up his Calc test. He’d been confident he’d studied thoroughly, but the last page of problems had come out of nowhere, and he’d scrambled, barely finishing with the bell. His soul fucking wept when he stepped outside the four hundred building and into the back lot to see the weak, late afternoon sun. He wanted to soak in brightness and warmth. Fuck, he was done with winter.
He’d stayed after to talk to his Physics teacher and re-do a quiz, so the buses were gone and the lot was blissfully quiet and empty save for teachers’ cars. He didn’t expect to see Nath sitting huddled up atop the picnic table in the smokers’ corner of the lot, and he stood struck still with surprise as Nath jogged over to him. For a moment, Jack wondered if he was about to get punched.
But no. “Hey,” Nath said. “You heading home? Can I catch a ride?” Like his sister, he had this fierceness; if his approach had been self-conscious, he was direct now, standing in front of Jack; he met his eyes like it was easy, like asking for a ride was a sort of challenge.
“More surveillance?” Jack asked, trying to make the words light, like a quip.
Nath shrugged. “I missed the bus.”
Jack didn’t know what to say to that. He gestured toward the Beetle, and they crossed the lot toward it, climbed in, and settled themselves. Catching himself watching Nath loosening his scarf, undoing the top buttons of his coat, and tucking his bag at his feet with sure motions, Jack shook his head and got the car going and warming up.
“I haven’t seen your sister,” Jack announced into their quiet. He considered putting on the radio but was afraid it would make Nath think he didn’t want to talk. “I mean, outside of Physics.”
Nath nodded, fingers still wrapped in his scarf. It was a dark green plaid, and it looked soft and warm. He was shivering, Jack realized, and he let his fingers drift over the dash to re-position the vents toward Nath as he did his own dance of settling against the frigid leather, finding his cigarettes and matches. He hadn’t worn a coat over his moth-eaten, striped, brown sweater today; he didn’t mind the cold, really.
“Can I have one?” Nath asked.
“A cigarette. Can I—?”
Jack stared at him, then swore as the match burned up and singed his fingers. Nath smiled at that, but it was a sad tilt to his thin lips, no dimpling. The shivering, the fitful eye contact, the worry tightening the corners of his eyes and mouth, the waiting outside for Jack, of all people—he was upset. Something was up. “You don’t smoke,” he said.
Nath exhaled, and his shoulders and chest heaved. “Can you just—”
“Yes, of course, alright,” Jack murmured, pressing a second cigarette between his lips and lighting another match. He did this for girls sometimes. It always made him feel like he was in an old movie. He handed it to Nath, who took it carefully. Jack wanted to slide their fingers together, but he hesitated, and the moment was gone. “Will you tell me what’s wrong?” he asked instead. “Before you start coughing?”
Nath glared at him and pulled on the cigarette with an experimental, tentative air that was deeply endearing and made Jack think with vague fondness of oral fixations. Jack twisted between the seats to grab a water bottle from his backpack as, on cue, Nath began to cough.
“Here,” Jack said, offering the water. Nath was still glaring at Jack through watering eyes. “It’s okay. It happens to everyone when they start. Try again. You’ll have the hang of it in a minute.”
Nath took a sip of the water and another drag of the cigarette, letting his glare drop into a grimace.
“Your dad doesn’t smoke?” Jack asked, a little wistful.
Nath shook his head, gave a bark of humorless laughter that morphed into another cough.
“This isn’t the best time of year for starting. The air’s so dry already, I can feel it in my throat. We should—you should be having your first cigarette in the middle of summer.” Jack paused, musing, taking a drag of his cigarette; the light was becoming blue, as if determined to skip the picturesque golden hour and cast their shared discomfort in more somber, stark tones. Jack let himself enjoy the way the light fell on Nath’s dark hair; he let himself drift a bit. “Let’s say—sitting on the hood of a car by the lake—in a long twilight—and it’s warm and a little muggy of course, but not awful, just enough to make the air sit like velvet on your skin—and here—” Jack reached out and brushed his fingers against Nath’s neck, its hollow and Adam’s apple, right above the fold of the soft scarf. Nath shivered beneath his touch and brought his cigarette to his lips again, watching Jack carefully.
“You wrote that poem in the school paper last month,” he said suddenly, surprising Jack.
“You read it?”
“Yeah.” Nath’s smoke drifted up between them. Jack hadn’t cracked a window yet, and in the deepening blue between them, the air was swirling and alive with smoke, dreamy. “That’s what you sound like right now. Like a poem.”
Jack pulled his hand away from Nath’s neck reluctantly. He could feel Nath’s eyes on him as he rolled down his window an inch and then threw the car into gear, got them going. As he had suspected, it was easier for Nath to talk once they were driving and Jack’s eyes were on the road. He forced himself to keep them there, though he was itching to continue his stare down with Nath, to drive while gazing at him, again like a fellow in a black and white movie. Which would be dangerous—dangerous for the deer and foxes that liked to burst across the road at random moments, just for starters.
“It’s my dad—and well, my sister too,” Nath blurted out. “My whole family. I, uh—I got my Harvard acceptance, finally. I was waiting for it for ages, checking the mail constantly. And then it turned out Lydia had taken the letter and stashed it so I wouldn’t see it or something. I don’t even know why she would do that.”
Jack hmmed, feeling a twinge of sympathy both for Nath’s confused hurt and what seemed like Lydia’s overwhelming sadness at being left behind by her brother. He didn’t say anything though because he could tell that Nath wasn’t finished.
“I finally got the letter, and my parents, they’re…” He trailed off, sighing deeply. “They’re proud of me, I guess. I just thought it would be—more somehow. I worked so hard to get into Harvard. My dad went there, you know.”
“Oh,” Jack said. He hadn’t, of course. He’d been auditing history courses at the college where Nath’s father worked since his sophomore year, but he’d always avoided Professor Lee’s classes, feeling somehow that it would have been an imposition to enter Nath’s life indirectly that way, through a connection with his father.
“I don’t know what I thought would happen, why I thought it would be different,” Nath said, and Jack could hear the frustration and recrimination lacing Nath’s tone, toxic; it made him want to reach out and run his hand down Nath’s arm, to brush the weight he was hefting from his shoulders. “I mean, I guess he is proud of me. He’s just not very—I guess none of us are, really—demonstrative. Lydia, maybe, sometimes, with me. We get each other. At least I thought we did.” His voice was quieter now. Jack glanced at him quickly and saw that he was staring out his window, fingers tracing patterns on the glass. His other hand rested on his lap, holding the half-cigarette that had long since burnt out from neglect. “I don’t know what’s going on with her anymore though,” he said. “I thought she’d be really happy for me. That she’d share it with me, at least.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said. “That sounds really…hard. I’m sorry you’ve been feeling alone with it all.”
“Mm. Thanks.” Nath sighed. “Sorry to go off on you about my life.” He shook his head and kind of growled—that disappointment and self-loathing again, all over him. Jack wanted to shake him.
“You don’t have to apologize,” he said instead. “I don’t think you went off on me. And if you think you unloaded a bunch of shit on me that I didn’t want to hear—that no one would want to hear—you’re wrong, Nath.” How to say I want to hear about your life. It’s good to talk about this stuff. I will listen to you whenever? “Thanks for deciding to talk to me, really,” he managed, feeling only half coherent, all over the place.
Nath snorted and shook his head, dropping both hands and his gaze to his lap, where he started and held his cigarette up to squint at it. “I think I messed this up. It’s not going anymore.”
“Here.” Jack wasn’t sure where his matches had gone, but he remembered the lighter above the visor and passed it to Nath. “You can re-light it, if you’re feeling dedicated to the project.”
“Of becoming a smoker.”
Nath shrugged and laughed, mood lighter suddenly. Or perhaps he was just uncomfortable sharing so much about himself and needed to push all those feelings back where they came from, beneath his frown, beneath his competent and contained facade. “I’m not sure I am,” he said, but he re-lit the cigarette anyway—coughed—and then said, “Fuck.”
Jack laughed. “You finally figured out how to actually inhale the smoke? You’re quick. It took me a lot longer.”
“It really hits you,” Nath said around a cough. “Ugh.” He scrubbed at his mouth with the back of his hand.
“When did you start smoking?”
“Mm. I was twelve, I think.”
“Oh, damn. That’s—”
“Young, I know. Poor supervision.” Jack smiled. “Single mom. She works a lot.”
“I know,” Nath said. “She’s a doctor at the hospital. My mom never shut up about it when I was little, when you first moved here. I used to think your mom was, um, her hero or something, and then I got older and realized she was just completely jealous.”
“Oh,” Jack said, startled, not knowing what to say. His left hand was resting easy as anything atop the steering wheel, guiding them, but his right was a tight fist in his lap. They were at that point in the drive again—the turnaround at the side of the road, the gate, the single scraggly oak in the middle of the field, its branches dotted today with a cluster of black birds. The thicket of gray trees, lines on lines on lines, complicated and velvet like an intaglio print. Jack didn’t need to see the lake beyond to imagine its loveliness, a slate gray mirror troubling the neat line-work of the bare elms. He wanted to lie on his back in the field soaking up the cold. He wanted to stand at the shore of the lake and scream, to skip stones, to distort the perfect image of the trees—the magical mirror world of those trees that could only be seen in the surface of the water, what his mother had told him when he was very young and bundled up walking around the lake, when they had first moved to Middlewood in the middle of winter. Jack had found Middlewood so flat and bleak, all the snow and grayness but absent the ocean, absent the particular New England ways and close-knit togetherness that had been his only world.
“My father’s dead,” Jack said. “He left me and my mom, and I thought that maybe he would come back someday. Even though he was awful to my mom, I still kind of wanted that because I was so little, you know? But then he died, and it kept on being just the two of us.”
Nath coughed. Jack felt a warm touch on his clenched hand—Nath’s fingers pressing, rubbing, until he let the tension go and flexed his fingers. Nath was passing him his cigarette. Shakily, Jack raised it and touched his lips to the filter, where Nath’s had been.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Nath said.
Nath likely regretted both the conversation and the shared cigarette. Jack’s assessment was based on his own feelings—an awkwardly heavy tangle of nervy apprehension and chagrin—and on the fact that Nath hadn’t asked Jack for another ride. Jack couldn’t say that Nath was avoiding him because of the encounter, per se, because avoiding Jack—or ignoring him—was sort of Nath’s baseline. Several days later, after a restless long weekend where Jack got a package of records he'd been waiting on in the mail and nothing much else happened, Jack got to Physics class early, booking it straight there from Honors English without stopping at his locker to grab his books, hoping to snag a seat next to Lydia by lingering near the door till she arrived. She mouthed a hello as she slipped past him into the room a mere moment before the bell, however, and when Jack followed her, he got a scowl from the teacher for being practically late, and Lydia had taken the last seat at a table in the front, leaving Jack to his usual haunt in the back corner.
The next day, Jack was quicker. He detoured through the sophomore hall on his way to the parking lot and interrupted Lydia hurrying in the direction of the buses.
“How’s it going, Miss Lee?” he drawled, quirking his lips into a smile.
She twirled and paused, shifting her weight from foot to foot, clearly eager to be on her way. She looked at Jack appraisingly, as if to say, what’s it to you? What she did say was: “Don’t bother talking to me about my brother. He can talk to me himself if he has anything to say.” She raised an eyebrow at him with a flicker of her former flirtatiousness as she turned away. Jack scrubbed his hands through his curls, staring after her—a solitary, straight-backed figure with a heavy backpack making her way through the little clusters and knots of friends seizing the last social opportunity of the school day before dispersing to buses or waiting rides.
Jack found Nath in the library after a brief search that he spent distracted, trying to fabricate an explanation for what he was doing should he need one.
“Hey,” he whispered, dropping into the seat across from Nath. The gloomy room was nearly empty; there were some freshmen huddled over a poster board a few tables over, failing to keep their voices down, but Ms. Dotty seemed to have stepped away from her desk for the moment.
Nath looked up and frowned, dropped his gaze back to his book. It looked like Calc—a more advanced section than Jack’s, surely. He was leaning over an angled notebook, its open page nearly covered in sprawling calculations. Nath had been twirling his pencil like a debate kid. Now he clutched it like it was a stabbing implement. “Hey,” he said finally. “What are you doing here?”
Jack wanted Nath to look at him. He pushed his feet forward under the table until they bumped against Nath’s sneakers, and Nath looked up sharply. “What?” he said.
How are you? Jack thought. He licked his lips and said, “I was wandering through. Do you, ah, need a ride?”
Nath shook his head, expression inscrutable. Searching, maybe? Jack wasn’t sure. He just stared back, trying to communicate—what? Hello, I am here. Look at me, keep looking at me. After a moment, Nath said, “My mom’s picking me up soon for a doctor’s appointment.”
“Oh,” Jack said, taking the held out explanation gingerly, thoughtfully.
“Just a physical,” Nath said, for some reason. They were whispering. The group project freshmen were practically yelling, talking over each other about the placement of charts and images on their sign.
When Jack got up to go, Nath reached out and touched his arm. He said, “Thank you though. For offering,” and then ducked back down over his books.
The next day Nath was leaning against the Beetle, plain as day for anybody to see, and Jack had to endure the torture of walking all the way across the parking lot toward him while trying to maintain his cool. He felt as if his limbs were alien objects, moving and swinging in strange ways, and he wasn’t sure where to look, when to make eye contact, to raise his hand or call out, or what. When it became clear that Nath was solving these dilemmas by clutching his books to his chest and unabashedly watching Jack’s progress, face neutral, Jack just gave into the awkwardness, waved and shouted a hello from halfway across the lot. Nath smiled but didn’t respond otherwise, just waited. Jack resolved to start parking closer to the building.
“How’d your appointment go?” Jack asked, once he was in conversational distance; he figured he might as well skip the obvious. Here for that ride?
Nath shrugged, shifting from where he’d been leaning against the driver’s side door so Jack could pull the door open and heave his book bag into the back seat. “I had a moment of being flustered when the doctor asked me if I smoked. Kinda funny.” He was smiling. Jack watched him walk around to the passenger’s side before getting into the car.
“How’s that stuff with Lydia? With your dad?” Jack found himself asking. He was just full of questions, he thought wryly, shaking his head a bit and endeavoring to tone it down.
At Lydia’s name, Nath’s smile slipped. “I should talk to Lydia. I haven’t—I mean, I guess we’re not talking.”
“I haven’t really given her a chance. Since I found out about the letter and got so mad.” Nath rubbed his hands together. “Your heater’s the worst.”
“Yeah, I know. Here.” Jack adjusted the vents again in Nath’s direction. To be honest, he hadn’t really moved them much from the last time Nath was in his car, but it felt good to be solicitous, to fuss over Nath.
Instead of protesting, Nath frowned and nodded in Jack’s direction. “How can you be outside like that? Aren’t you freezing?”
Jack looked down at his gray hoodie and plucked at one of its strings. It was half-zipped over his striped sweater. “Yeah, I should probably wear a coat. The cold doesn’t bother me that much though. I don’t know why. Drives my mom crazy. Except she’s not usually around see what I’m wearing when I leave the house.”
Nath shook his head. He seemed to be relaxing as the car heated up though. He stared out the window, pulling at the buttons of his peacoat absently; it was hard to watch without imagining undressing him, imagining leaning in and taking over, button by button, stripping Nath down. Are we friends now? Jack wanted to blurt. He wondered if they really became friends, if Nath would lounge next to him in his room listening to records, if he would be comfortable enough to pause when Jack kissed him, to really feel the kiss, Jack’s full lips and soft bites and his tongue against Nath’s. Jack had this belief that was more long-nursed superstitious wishing than cockiness that if Nath would only give kissing Jack a chance, he would realize that kissing Jack was better than kissing other people, better than kissing girls—well, real girls, other girls.
Jack wouldn’t ask—wouldn’t ask for any of it, the affirmation or the hang out or the kiss. He was afraid, he realized, that if he drew attention to this strange situation, the two of them in the car together, Nath would go, oh, that’s right, what have I been thinking, this is ridiculous, I’ve loathed you forever, and he would disappear, like maybe yelling one last, leave my sister alone! over his shoulder. Better to just quietly wonder at and enjoy the fact that Nath seemed to be spending time with him—only little bits of time, but still—just to talk to him, not to talk about him and Lydia even.
“Do you really, ah…” Nath stumbled and trailed off.
“All the stories about you and different girls at school. Is it true? Do you—?” He gestured, nodding, toward the backseat, the patterned wool blanket tucked neatly to hide its crumbling upholstery.
The Beetle was probably warm enough for them to go. Jack would give it just one more minute. “It’s complicated,” he said.
The short answer was yes. Yes, over the past four years, he’d gotten in the habit of stepping out of loner mode to drive around or go to parties with the girls who made eyes at him, who were glad to get off with him, to let him canvass and taste their bodies lovingly, slowly, as if they were his own. Had he broken a few hearts along the way? He supposed so. Which was why since junior year he’d gotten pickier, stayed in loner mode more often. He'd relied on his reputation and air of disinterest to dissuade anyone who was looking for more than a physical connection. Nowadays, he preferred sex with college girls; it hadn’t happened too often, but he had met a few people on campus through the classes he audited, gone to a few parties. With his height, tawny curls, and handsome grin, he had seldom left alone. Girls hadn’t minded that he was slightly younger; they kind of liked it, he sensed, and he realized, in turn, that he kind of liked the way they pushed him around their narrow dorm beds. The way they tugged on his hair and sunk their teeth in him, relishing, flaunting their superior knowledge, age, and power. If Jack was a girl, he would be their kind of girl, teasing and confident.
Jack flushed as he realized his hesitancy was borne of the fear that Nath wouldn’t want him if he knew what a slut Jack was. As if he had a chance with Nath anyway.
“My mom works night shifts,” he said slowly. “I have the house to myself, almost always. I don’t really need to do it in the back seat, you know?”
“I guess that makes sense,” Nath said, looking at Jack’s shoulder, not his face. “Your car is very small.”
Jack laughed, and after a second, Nath joined in; Jack’s face was probably still as heated as Nath’s looked, but the tension between had snapped, and he was glad.
“Well, girls are small,” Jack said absently, after their laughter had dissipated. The car was warm enough. He backed out of the parking spot and started their drive home.
“Not always,” Nath said. “They don’t have to be.”
He didn’t mean anything by it, Jack knew. How could he? But he looked over and smiled warmly at Nath all the same. “Why did you ask me that question?” he wondered a moment later.
“I don’t know.” Nath sighed. “Just curious about you, beyond what people say, now that we’re talking. Now that you’re giving me rides home,” he finished awkwardly, turning to look out his window.
Jack grinned. “I can give you a ride home whenever. It’s nice to have the company.”
“Yeah. I spend a lot of time on my own, usually.”
“Me too. Except usually with Lydia. I mean, Lydia and I spend a lot of time together, usually.” He frowned. “You know what I mean.”
“Ah, yes and no. I’m an only child, so I’m not sure I’ve ever quite gotten the hang of being alone with another person. Maybe with my mom.” He shrugged. “Not sure it’s the same with parents though.”
“Being alone with another person,” Nath repeated, musingly, as if trying out the idea.
“I was thinking in a cozy way, a familiar way, not—not a sad way,” Jack said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Are you going to give her a chance to apologize? Or, you know, maybe ask her why she did what she did?”
Nath was quiet. They were approaching Jack’s field. No birds today, and it seemed lonelier for their desertion. Jack wondered who owned the land, who had let it be, let it stay fallow, for as long as Jack could remember.
“I know I need to,” Nath answered at last. "I thought I’d give myself some time to be angry, you know? Just a few days. I’m always there for Lydia, for everything she’s feeling. I have been since we were little. I thought, why don’t I take time for myself? But—but I guess it’s not fair to go on so long.”
There was a whole story there, and Jack was so curious. Nath supporting Lydia; he could start to see it, the idea instantly pressing at its predecessors—Lydia and Nath as peas in a pod, almost like twins, sitting on the bus together quietly, finding each other at lunch in elementary school. This new understanding: Nath protecting Lydia, Lydia leaning on Nath, depending on him to shield her—from what?
“My parents put a lot of pressure on her,” Nath said softly, as if guessing Jack’s thoughts. “She needs me to be the one who gets her.”
“I haven’t minded.” Except Nath sounded wistful, and Jack wondered what exactly he thought of when he pictured his whole life going differently, being different from the beginning.
“I guess there are a lot of things that a person can not mind that still kind of suck though,” Jack ventured.
“Exactly.” Nath hummed. He was still staring out the window. “It’s so pretty outside, this time of day. This time of year.”
“That field we passed before Half Mile Road, it’s my favorite for some reason. I always look at those trees and think about getting lost in them. Even though they open up to the lake without going very far, it’s like they go on forever.”
“Mmm, yeah.” Then he said, “You’re not smoking today.”
“Oh. Yeah. I forgot, I guess.”
“I liked what you said about how my first cigarette should’ve gone. How we should have sat on the hood of your car by the lake in the summer. Like some sort of summer ritual.”
Jack thought about how Nath had read the poem he’d written, had remembered it and mentioned it to Jack. He turned off the main road onto the street that led to their subdivision and got his first glimpse of the lake, of the late afternoon sun making the water blinding and bronze.
“We should do it again this summer,” Jack said. “I mean, we should do it.” The again had slipped in because he had pictured it so clearly. Nath’s warmth at his side, how he’d knock Jack with his elbow when he shifted, the glow of the cigarette in the dark, how night would hide their faces so they could talk on, side by side, less self-conscious about secrets they were sharing.
“Okay,” Nath agreed.
“Would you—do you want to come over and listen to records, in the meantime?”
Nath looked at him and visibly hesitated. “I can’t,” he said. “My mom’s expecting me home early.”
It wasn’t the world’s most explicit or decisive rejection, but still, Jack needed to pause. He had a long paper due for his European history class at the college on Thursday night, so he took a couple sick days and spent them cuddling up in his bed with his dog in the middle of a semi-circle of hardbound volumes and compiled journals, writing a succession of drafts that migrated from his notebooks to pages torn free on top of the books to little crumpled heaps on the floor of his room, interspersed with dirty socks.
He turned in the paper and ditched Friday too. His mom, medical professional that she was, knew he wasn’t sick, not even with a cold. But she also knew when Jack was avoiding something, and that it was best to just let him get on with it and take space from whatever was troubling him.
Jack didn't bother to tell her that he would have to move to a different street—city, state, maybe planet—to get enough space from Nath to breathe easy.
By Tuesday, he couldn’t in good conscience skip anymore school. He would fuck up his Physics grade for sure if he did.
Nath left him alone for several more days, until Jack was sure they had re-established a definitely-not-friends avoidance routine. But Jack could feel that they were not quite done. So he was not surprised when Nath knocked on his window and then hopped in the Beetle one afternoon when Jack was still warming the car up. His car radio was on the fritz, but he had gotten it working for a spell that morning, long enough to hear that the prolonged, winter-like spring was going to finally soften, taking with it the snow, Jack’s pretty field of snow, and ushering in true spring. The wood’s somber tree lattice would fill in with green, and the time would shift eventually, so there would be more daylight. No more dusky, shivering drives home from school with Nath. Jack would miss the snow, though the promise of a summer cigarette with Nath, carelessly made, nagged at the back of his mind.
“Where were you?” Nath asked, in lieu of a greeting.
“Home sick,” Jack offered, giving in and looking at him—because it’d be obvious he was in a sulk if he wouldn’t look at Nath.
Nath frowned. “Homesick?”
“No, I was at home sick.”
“You look alright.”
“Yes, thanks,” Jack said, annoyance fizzing up in him like a pestering wasp. He reached for a cigarette.
“Light one for me?” Nath asked, peeling off his bag, scarf, and hat and settling down into his seat like he belonged there.
“Light it yourself,” Jack muttered, chucking the pack at him.
“Hey, what did I do to you?” Nath threw the pack back, smirking when it hit Jack’s head and dropped between his legs, right at his crotch. Then Nath launched a flurried invasion on Jack’s personal space—snatching the cigarette Jack had tucked behind his ear and forgotten, sliding a hand into his hoodie pocket to liberate the lighter he’d shoved there, and lifting the cigarette box from between Jack’s thighs. He grabbed Jack’s hand from the steering wheel and smoothed open his palm, pressed the box into his grasp.
By the time Jack got his head clear, Nath was slouched in his seat again, trying—and failing—to properly light his cigarette with the sort of self-satisfied aplomb that should have been deeply incongruous with his inability to light the stupid thing.
“What did you do to me?” Jack repeated inanely. “Things.”
“Mmmph,” said Nath, flicking the lighter again.
His dexterous long fingers, thin pretty lips, and slight frown of concentration were very winning. Jack wanted to launch a counter-invasion and grab Nath’s wrists, light his fucking cigarette for him. He wanted to climb onto Nath’s lap, have Nath tip his head up to be kissed, baring the pale skin of his throat.
“Alright there?” Nath mumbled through closed lips, flicking his gaze over to Jack.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”
“No, I got it,” he replied. And he did. He coughed delicately, handed the lighter back to Jack. Jack wrapped his fingers around Nath’s wrist—almost reflexively, before he realized what he was doing. Nath looked surprised when Jack pulled, but he came, pliant. He was responsive to Jack’s touch when Jack released him, when Jack’s hand drifted up to his shoulder, then to curl around the back of his neck. Nath was looking at Jack’s mouth. The hand that held his cigarette did so delicately, had fluttered out of the way in the direction of the dash; a feminine gesture Jack wanted to devour, to own.
What had Jack been afraid of? He and Nath weren’t friends. They would never be friends, a veneer pulled over the deep longing, familiar and inextricable, Jack’s companion of years.
“Not here,” Nath murmured. He had to clear his throat before he could speak. He was still looking at Jack’s mouth.
“Not here. Let’s, ah—will you drive?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere.”
Jack released him, turned, threw the car into gear and took them to the road.
“When I asked you over the other day, and you said you couldn’t—”
“Is that why you threw the cigarettes at me?”
“Did you mean—”
“I meant just what I said. I told my mom I’d be home after school that day. I have to look after my little sister sometimes when Lydia and my mom go out.”
“Oh.” Jack had forgotten about the littlest Lee. Now that he thought about it, he could picture them together out by the lake, the small girl tagging along behind Nath, serious, arms full of towels while Nath carried a tote of afternoon supplies.
“And today? You don’t have to go home to watch—”
“Hannah.” He saw Nath shrug out of the corner of his eye. “No, I don’t have anywhere else to be. So where are you going to take me, Jack?”
Jack was going to take him to the Point. His heart was beating impatient-fast, and his hands were twitchy on the wheel. The things he was about to do to Nath. He couldn’t even believe this was maybe, potentially, seemingly happening. He kept darting glances at Nath, expecting to find a quick turn around, a change of heart, in his expression or demeanor. But he was implacable, leaning back with ease in the passenger seat, looking out the window with a smooth, calm expression. His cigarette had gone out again, and he held it between his fingers, his hands in his lap. He couldn’t possibly be as calm as he looked, could he?
The Point was really a cove—the very same crescent of sand sheltered by thick evergreens that Jack remembered walking with his mother as a little boy, hunting for skipping stones. Its name must have come from the narrow finger of rocks and scraggly trees that jutted out into the lake on its southern side, the most prominent intrusion in what was otherwise a neat and suburban body of water. The tree barrier obscured the view of Jack and Nath’s neighborhood, and the road was far enough back that you couldn’t hear any sounds of humanity on a quiet day. It certainly gave the place a sense of safety for Middlewood’s teens. Jack thought that the adults of their world were not so much blind to this as willing to accommodate. It was a concession: if Middlewood’s youth were drinking beer and necking here, held safe in the center of town, then they weren’t down the highway at Rodeo’s or at the quarry; they weren’t somewhere dangerous, outside the community. Jack certainly knew of many classmates who claimed to have gone all the way in this same gravel roundabout, this worn stretch of ground just yards from the sand and the water. But he had never been here with anyone. Like he’d told Nath, he had a mostly absent parent and full reign of his house; he’d explored his partners’ bodies in more typical locales—between sheets, his or the rough, cheap cotton of dormitory twin beds.
Maybe he should have been, but he wasn’t that worried about anyone else arriving and seeing them together. This place wasn’t as popular during the coldest parts of the year. Jack had passed winter afternoon hours smoking cigarettes, listening to the radio, and writing in his journal out here without seeing another car or person. Despite the vision he’d spun for Nath about a summer evening here and a shared cigarette, he had to admit that the place still and gray in mid-March had its charms. He maneuvered the Beetle to the area furthest from the road, where it was partially sheltered by a sapling that had snuck apart from the rest of the wood. Just in case.
“Here we are,” he said.
“And here I thought you were going to take me somewhere private.”
“This is private.”
“It’s romantic.” Nath snorted. “I’ll give you that.”
What a smart-ass. “Come here.”
“You know, I’ve never kissed a girl even.”
Jack didn’t hear the even at first, just felt kinda confusingly blind-sided, like Nath had seen into his secret heart.
Then he realized what Nath meant, of course, when Nath continued, “I’ve never kissed a guy.”
“But you’ve wanted to before,” Jack finished, studying Nath’s face.
“I kind of wish I was a girl,” Jack said. Because wasn’t this what they were doing, all of a sudden, trading secrets? “I mean—when I get with girls, I don’t just want them, you know? Sometimes I think about what it would be like to be like them, to have bodies like them.”
“Oh. I hadn’t really thought of that before.”
“Do you think it’s weird?” Do you mind? was what Jack was wondering.
Nath licked his lips. “How should I know? I told you. I hardly know anything about—“ He gestured between the two of them. “It wasn’t like anyone at school was ever going to…” Trailing off, he shrugged. He was blushing a bit.
“You never got into your dad’s porn stash?” Jack teased—because Nath and all the blind, provincial twats at school, he didn’t want to go there. They made him angry. The invocation of Nath’s loneliness made him angry. Or maybe it was the thought of someone else going to… with Nath.
“What?” Nath asked, incredulous.
“His magazines?” Jack clarified.
“I don’t think he has those.”
“Oh. I thought that was, like, a typical dad thing.”
“My dad is not very typical.” Nath looked impatient of the subject, uncomfortable. “One afternoon I was at the town library while my mom was getting her hair done, and I read Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”
“Yeah?” Jack had never read that one. But Lawrence! He was kind of impressed.
“Not all of it. I’m not that fast of a reader. I just skipped to all the sexy bits.”
“Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, don’t judge me, and also, why would I mind if you think about being a girl? I like you.”
Nath liked him. Jack licked his lips. “Judge you? Nath, I mean to enjoy you.” He wanted to drawl this in a low, raspy rake voice, but even to his ears, he sounded tentative, like he was asking permission.
Nath put a surprisingly heavy hand on Jack’s arm. “Well, come on, then,” he said. At least one of them had the raspy, rakish voice down. Jack shuddered with want.
“Push your seat all the way back,” he said.
“Uh.” Nath leaned over for a moment and fumbled under the seat for the lever. “I think it already is? Aren’t we supposed to, you know, get in the backseat?”
Jack twisted out of his seat and climbed over onto Nath’s lap. He teetered awkwardly for a moment, the roof brushing against the back of his head, before Nath’s hands came up to grip his thighs and pull him down to fully straddle him. “This isn’t a Buick, sweetheart,” he said against Nath’s ear. Nath threw his head back, exposing his throat—and, well, if that wasn’t an invitation, what was it? Jack’s hands rose to trace his collarbones. There were two small moles on the side of his neck, overgrown freckles with wobbly edges. How had he never noticed them before, in all his years of scrutiny? It was almost inconceivable. Jack dipped his head to kiss them, and then, because Nath gasped and dug his fingers into Jack’s thighs, to bite and suck until he raised a mottled red mark on Nath’s perfect skin.
“Oh.” Nath writhed upward against Jack. His hands had found their way under Jack’s sweatshirt, to press against his back. “God, do that again.”
Jack sucked another mark above Nath’s collarbone. He murmured against Nath’s skin, “You like that?”
“Yeah.” His voice shook.
Jack straightened up so Nath had to look up at him. Nath’s eyes were wide. Maybe, Jack thought, if he brought their faces close together, maybe Nath would finally—
Nath touched Jack’s face, the curls that were falling into his vision, then his wet lips. His touch was exploratory, very gentle. It made Jack tremble. All at once, Jack felt acutely aware of how he loomed over Nath. Of his size, his weight, how hard his cock was, pressing against Nath in a way that must be unmistakable. Jack swallowed. Now Nath was frowning, a small crease between his brows. His fingers traced Jack’s jawline, his cheekbones, even the tips of his lashes until Jack blinked, held very still. His throat worked; he tried to think of something to say to break the awful suspense of impending judgment. Some joke, some distraction.
“You’re very pretty,” Nath said.
“You are. Unless,” Nath stammered, "that’s the wrong word. I just—“
“Say it again.”
“I think you’re very pretty,” Nath whispered.
Jack shivered. “Would you kiss me?”
“I can try.”
Nath pressed his lips to Jack’s. Jack fought to stay still, to feel Nath move against him, instead of rushing forward to force his mouth open and lick into him. He thinks I’m pretty, Jack thought, dizzy.
Nath drew back, uncertain. “Is that—did I—?”
“Yeah, just like that, that was perfect,” Jack said, and then they were kissing again.
The second time Little Miss Lee claimed a ride, she yanked open the passenger door of the Beetle with as little by-your-leave as her brother, and even though Jack wasn’t expecting Nath, he did a double take.
“So, you and my brother, huh?” Lydia drawled, no preamble.
“You’re friends now or something?”
Oh. “Oh, yeah. We hang out after school sometimes.”
Lydia rolled her eyes. “Well, today he’s—”
“Helping tutor the Pre-Calc class, I know. Go on, get in.”
She hesitated for only a moment before she climbed into the car, tucking her backpack at her feet and smoothing her knee-length wool coat across her lap.
“You’re welcome to ask for a ride anytime, you know,” he continued, with probably more generosity than accuracy. More afternoons than not since last Monday, he and Nath had taken advantage of their drives home together in a way that decisively did not not allow for a third. “This whole thing—me and Nath hanging out—started because of you, because you asked me for a ride home that day.” Jack threw the car into gear, and they headed out of the parking lot. “It’s the least I can do.”
She shook her head and gave what he realized was a mock sigh. “It’s not as fun anymore. It was more fun when it made my brother crazy.”
Jack snorted. “What? You were using me for my troublemaker aesthetic, Miss Lee?”
“Not just that. You seemed—a little lonely, I suppose. Someone I might get on with.”
Jack considered this, giving himself a moment long enough to let the lump of feelings that had stopped his throat clear out. “We still could, you know,” he said. “Be friends. You and your brother are pretty good friends. There’s no reason we couldn’t all be friends.”
She ran her hands through her hair thoughtfully, chewed her lip a moment, watching him. “Yeah,” she said. “But just friends, okay? No”—she gestured between them—“funny business.”
“You got it, Miss Lee. Strictly friends, you and me.”
She grinned and relaxed back against the upholstery. “You got a cigarette for your friend?”
Jack sighed, then sighed again as she insisted on lighting it herself, fumbling with the pack of matches he’d had in his pocket. Who knew where his lighter had ended up.
They drove past the field—his ‘little field, all filled up with snow’—and Jack felt filled up with the desire to scoop up this perfect gray landscape—the field and the trees and the Point beyond where he and Nath had gasped and shuddered beneath each others’ hands—and fold it into a snow globe, to shake and watch and keep perfectly preserved forever. The radio droned that there would be a melt over the weekend. A sea change, the season’s turning, spring inching along. Lydia passed him the cigarette—it was the last one, they’d have to share—and his chapped lips touched to the shimmering pink printed upon the filter. Jack wondered if they would be friends. How deep they could go, he and these Lees, the only people in Middlewood he’d really wanted to let under his skin, come knocking on his window finally, as if the passenger seat of the old Beetle was rightfully theirs. He wondered what Lydia would say if she knew about him and Nath, and when they would tell her. Whether it would matter—whether Nath would keep coming around, wanting Jack’s kisses. Jack thought about yesterday, how he’d brought Nath home, how Nath had knelt on the mud room floor to greet Jack’s dog, hung his coat on the peg next to Jack’s sweatshirt, stood in socked feet in Jack’s kitchen, comfortable, like these were everyday occurrences and not little miracles. How they’d opened the package of records that’d come in the mail and listened to them one by one, sprawled out on Jack’s plaid flannel comforter, kissing and kissing, Nath’s hand between his legs, rubbing along the seam of his jeans, gentle. Their relationship—whatever it was—might just see summer.
When he dropped Lydia off at the Lee house, she turned to wave from the front steps. Jack waved back. When he parked down the street in his driveway, he realized she’d shaken free a barrette while combing her fingers through her hair. It lay in a crease of the upholstery, a sparkle of metal and canary yellow. Jack turned it over in his fingers, running his thumb over the smooth plastic, and then he slid it into his pocket.