Paul kicks the door of his apartment shut. He tosses the junk mail on the coffee table and tears the perforated strip from the cardboard envelope. As he slides the thick tan paper from inside, he exhales a breath he’s been holding for years. He grins as he digs around in the hall closet, and finally, gently places the framed diploma on the waiting hook.
His smile falters as he steps back and sits down on the sofa. The clock ticks through the silence, time passing without an upcoming deadline or expectation. The distant sounds of the neighbors arguing upstairs and a lawnmower guttering down the block fade in through the open windows. The emptiness in the air echoes around him. “Six years,” Paul mutters to himself. Six years of school, of constant work, done. “Time to move on to real life.”
He lets his head drop back and closes his eyes. For a few minutes, he lays there in the dead summer air of his apartment, letting the particular, peaceful nothing of his home soak into him through his lungs.
A knock on the door jars Paul from his near-sleep, and he jerks himself upright, disoriented. When he swings the door open, his jaw drops.
Jack’s square, stubble-covered face breaks into a smile at the sight of Paul. He outstretches his arms, faded leather jacket and motorcycle helmet hanging loosely from one hand. “Paul, buddy! How’s it shakin’?”
Paul shakes his head and looks Jack up and down in disbelief. “What… what are you doing here?”
“I’m back in town!” Jack says, grin widening as he leans against Paul’s doorway. “Came to see my pal.”
Paul’s face tightens. Pal . Of course.
Jack drops his eyes to the concrete porch, taps his heel, and clears his throat. “Listen, Paul, um.” He glances out toward the curb, where his black Kawasaki motorcycle stands beside the sign for Paul’s apartment building. “I’m only in town for a day or two, but I don’t have anywhere to stay, and I was hoping…”
Paul lets Jack trail off, then glances toward his living room and the tired brown couch. With a sigh and a smile, he steps back to grant Jack entry, gesturing into his apartment. “Anything for a friend.”
He watches cautiously as Jack drops his helmet, jacket, and patch-covered messenger bag on the sofa and flops onto the cushion beside them, looking exactly as he did five years ago. Paul grabs his credit card offers and electric bill from the table, offering Jack a smile and walking away from the living room. He drops the envelopes on his desk, breathing heavily, trying to fight the cold and writhing creature growing in his gut. He glances back toward the living room at Jack, making himself at home on the couch. Maybe a bit too much at home, actually. Jack’s possessions already cover the surfaces around him, and he seems unbothered, scrolling through Twitter on his phone. Paul turns back to his desk, closes his eyes, and takes a steadying breath.
“I didn’t know you were going to be in Boston,” he says, straightening and walking back toward the living room. “Are you here with your band? Do you have a performance?”
“Ugh, no,” Jack groans. He leans back across the sofa in a dramatic sprawl. “We were GOING to have a gig at the Sinclair - the fucking Sinclair! - but Nick and Max cancelled last minute.” His face scrunches up in a petulant, self-pitying expression. Paul’s seen it many times over the last twenty years. “I told them if they’re going to drop out on me when I book the best venue in Boston, they can fuck off. I need bandmates I can count on.”
Paul hums sympathetically and leans against the half-wall separating the living room from the kitchen. “Yeesh. Say goodnight to Jacuzzi of Despair.”
“Oh, I can find new bandmates, come on,” Jack protests. “We’ll be back in business in no time. It’s not that hard to find a drummer and a bassist.” He sticks out his tongue and flips his keys around his fingers. “I just need people who really care about the future of the band. About success.”
Paul nods and opens the fridge. “Sounds like you could use a drink, Jack,” he says, wishing he’d already had one himself. “Bourbon?”
Jack drags a hand down his face and scratches at his near-beard with a laugh. “God, yes please.” He accepts the glass Paul hands him and raises it with a smile. “You know me so well.”
Paul shifts Jack’s bag and jacket to the floor and sinks into the couch beside him. “It’s too bad Nick and Max dipped out on you. This is your first time in Boston in a while.”
Jack takes a swig from his glass. “Yeah, it’s been about six months. And last time we were in some shitty basement place with space for maybe a hundred people. Smoky, tinny, terrible acoustics. But God, the fucking Sinclair, come on…”
Paul raises his eyebrows and keeps his breathing even, taking a sip of whiskey and letting it burn its way down his throat before he responds. “I didn’t know you were in Boston six months ago.” The thing in his gut twists, cold tendrils pressing into his insides.
Jack pauses, and the air hangs frozen between them. “Oh,” he says, sipping his whiskey slowly. “Yeah. Sorry. I mean, we were really busy, with traveling and trying to find someone to take Nick’s daughter for the weekend and everything.”
“Right, of course,” Paul says, nodding. He bites his lip and looks down into his glass. “...You could’ve mentioned in an email, though.”
The clock ticks pointedly as the two men each finish their drinks. Pressure tenses up in Paul’s ears. The silence is so loud.
“...Sorry,” says Jack.
Paul shrugs and stands up, pasting a smile onto his face. “Let me get you another,” he offers, taking Jack’s now-empty glass. As he pours the whiskey, he breathes from his stomach, trying to soothe the icy knot beneath his ribs. He makes his own drink a double. “So,” he calls back over his shoulder to Jack. “No band, no gig, and I assume no hotel.” He walks back over to the couch and gives Jack back his glass. “What’s the plan?”
Jack frowns, exhales, and shrugs. “...I don’t know,” he admits quietly, sipping at his drink. “I mean, I…” He trails off, staring distantly at the wall above Paul’s TV where the diplomas hang. “I’ve been with this band for five years. I’ve been working at this band for five years.” He looks down into his glass, swirling the whiskey absently. “Where do I go from here?”
Paul nods and taps a finger on his glass. “I know what you mean,” he says. “I haven’t been out of school since…” He considers briefly. “Well. Ever, I suppose. Now that I’ve got my Master’s…”
“Shit, Paul, you got your MBA?” Jack says, grinning and looking back over at Paul. “Congratulations, dude, that’s great!” He throws an arm around Paul with a broad smile. The touch runs a shock through Paul’s skin, and he leans into it instinctively. “That’s a lot of work, Paul. Good job.”
Paul shrugs and settles back into the couch, Jack’s arm hot against his shoulder. “I mean… MBA. The big one. How can I move on to a job after that?” He takes another drink. “I’ve been in school for my entire life. I’m not sure what else I can do.” The whiskey burns down his throat, bubbling with the twisting anxiety inside him.
He starts when he feels a hand on his neck, and looks up to see Jack watching him carefully. “You okay, Paul?”
Paul shakes his head with an exhale. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m fine.” He smiles and takes another sip of the whiskey. “I just need a week or two of down time to get my head straight before I move to New Jersey for my new job.”
Jack splutters on his drink. “Jersey? You’re kidding me.”
Paul grins and rolls his eyes. “Plenty of people love living in New Jersey, Jack. It won’t kill me.”
“You don’t know that,” Jack says indignantly. “The worst show I ever had was in Newark. They wanted to drag me off the damn stage.” He shakes his head and laughs, giving Paul’s hair a ruffle. “Honestly, Paul, I don’t know if I can visit Jersey, even for you.”
“Oh, you’re one to talk!” exclaims Paul, heat flushing in his cheeks. “The only place I’ve seen you for the last five years is on Instagram, and I know for a fact you love Boston.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jack says. “I’ve been busy.”
“So have I, but I still had time to send you emails once in a while,” Paul says, pulling away from Jack’s touch. “You think grad school is easier than yelling MCR covers at a crowd?”
Jack closes his eyes with a sigh. The lawnmower outside dies with a chug. “...I’m sorry.” Jack’s voice is quieter now. Small. “I should’ve talked to you more. Sooner. I’m sorry.”
Paul deflates under the sincerity in Jack’s tone. “You’re my best friend, Jack,” he says, defeated. “I missed you.”
Jack nods and loops his arm back around Paul’s shoulders, pulling him close again. “I missed you too, Paul.”
Paul is suddenly aware of the heat in his cheeks. He looks away from Jack and brings his whiskey to his lips. “Oh, I’m out,” he says, blinking in surprise at the empty glass.
Jack laughs, a deep, full sound that seems to fill the room with a comfortable, light warmth. “You drink as fast as ever,” he says, then gulps down the rest of his own glass. “You can just bring the bottle over, if you want.” He leans forward to put the glass on the table. “We should celebrate your Master’s.”
Paul grins and runs a hand through his mussed-up black curls. “...Sure. Why not?” He stands and retrieves the whiskey from the fridge, and after a moment of consideration, decides to pop the cork out of a fresh bottle of white wine. A fresh glass for each of them, and Paul’s back on the sofa, leaning into Jack’s side and raising his glass. “It’s good to have you back, Jack.”
Jack clinks his glass of whiskey against Paul’s glass of wine and drops his arm back around Paul’s shoulder, pulling him into a comfortable lean. “Good to be back.”
Paul throws back another swig of the half-empty bottle of wine and shifts his shoulder where it rests against Jack. “Goats, though,” he says. “You know those photos of goats in trees? They’re - they climb trees, Jack. That’s unacceptable.”
Jack laughs, and Paul can feel the rumble of it in his chest. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why is it unacceptable for goats to climb trees? Plenty of things climb trees.”
“Goats are land animals, Jack. Ground animals. Mountain animals.” Paul takes another gulp of wine, swishing the tart liquid over his tongue. “They aren’t supposed to climb trees. They’re… they have hooves.”
“Hooves are a barrier to tree climbing?”
“Listen, I’m only saying there’s a reason Satan is depicted as a goat man. That’s all I’m trying to say.”
“So goats are the devil.”
“Alright, sure, okay,” Jack says, and Paul hears the smile in his voice. Jack’s arm tightens around Paul, hand shifting to rest on Paul’s hip. His thumb feels warm and soft against the stretch of exposed skin between Paul’s shirt and waistband. “Hey, remember Park City?”
“The police station?” Paul asks with a smile. “That was such a bad idea.”
“It was your idea.” Jack takes another sip of whiskey and shrugs under Paul’s weight. “Besides, it was fun.”
Paul chuckles and covers his face; his cheeks are hot against his fingertips. “We could have gotten into so much trouble, though. I’m ninety percent sure breaking and entering is a felony.”
Jack hums. “Only if you steal something, I think. And you’re the one who wanted the goat.”
Paul’s smile widens. “I did want the goat.”
“Man, I miss the fun we used to have,” Jack says fondly. “We should do something tomorrow. Racing. Explore an abandoned building. Something fun.”
A twinge goes through Paul’s gut, and he leaves his hand resting over his eyes. The warmth of Jack’s body against his own sparks against the sudden sickness he feels, the cold fingers of the fist clenched in his gut.
“Or maybe a road trip,” Jack continues. “You said you’ve got a week or two. We could go see some shows in Philly, or drive out to upstate New York.” His thumb rubs slow circles across Paul’s hip. “Or just go see Riverport again. It’s been a while.”
Paul drops his hand from his eyes and sits up, pulling away from Jack. “I don’t know,” he hedges. “I’ve got a lot to line up before I move, I still…” His gut twists with the lie. Everything was finalized three weeks ago.
“Oh,” Jack says flatly. “Yeah. Right. Of course.”
Paul feels very cold. He takes another long swig from the bottle of wine. It’s sour on his tongue. “I still have the goat,” he says, glancing back at Jack with a small smile.
Jack laughs quietly and reaches into the pocket of his jeans. “And I still have the switchblade I snagged from the drawer.”
Paul raises his eyebrows. “I’m gonna go ahead and say you should put that away, because you have had a lot of my bourbon.”
Jack chuckles and tosses the knife onto the coffee table, then props his feet up beside it. “That’s fair.” His eyes widen and he looks back at Paul with a grin. “Oh, man, remember when I found that butterfly knife in the shed? Just after high school?”
Paul huffs out a laugh and shakes his head. “Don’t remind me. Sarah called me in a panic, asking me to drive you to the hospital.”
Jack snickers and holds his right hand toward Paul’s face. “Seven stitches. Hurt like a motherfucker.”
Paul runs a hand over the long pale scar on Jack’s palm. It matches the faded latticework of old wounds along Jack’s forearm. “Did Sarah ever call you back after that? She seemed too…” Paul trails off, considering his words. “Too nice to keep up with you.”
Jack shakes his head. “She broke up with me the next day.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Paul drops his hand to his knee and leans back into the couch, taking another drink of wine. “Did you see anybody after her?”
Jack shrugs. “Not like nobody wanted a piece of lead singer action, but most of them weren’t great about me being trans.”
Paul nods and stares up at the ceiling. “I know what you mean. I dated someone for a while during my freshman year, but he got aggressive when I started talking about HRT. Turns out he was just… not a great person.”
“Nobody since him?” Jack asks, mouth lingering on the edge of his glass.
“Nope,” Paul says with a sigh. Jack’s arm rests over his shoulders, warm and heavy, and the alcohol settles like cast iron over the lonely pit in his stomach. “Nobody.”
Jack finishes his drink and leans forward to place the glass on the table. Silent air wafts in from the window, and Paul wishes he’d put on music. Anything to drag him out of his thoughts. He closes his eyes and leans back, feeling Jack’s weight shift on the couch beside him as he settles. Then, he feels a hand on his cheek, and his eyes fly open. Jack leans close, breath warm on Paul’s face. Jack’s eyes fix on Paul’s mouth. The clock ticks. Jack closes the distance.
Jack’s mouth is warm and soft against Paul’s, and stubble lightly scrapes Paul’s lips. Paul’s eyes flutter closed and he makes a soft sound, kissing Jack back. Jack’s hand slides around Paul’s face, warm in the base of his hair. Paul shifts, pressing himself into Jack, tasting the whiskey on his breath. A loud thunk startles him and he breaks contact, opening his eyes and pushing lightly against Jack’s chest.
“I - um -” Paul leans back, putting a few inches between himself and Jack, and bends to pick up the fallen bottle of wine. A pool of the pale yellow liquid slowly seeps into the carpet. “...Jack, you’re drunk. We’re drunk.”
“You don’t want this,” Paul says. He shifts away, sitting up and gently pushing Jack off. “You made that abundantly clear the last time I saw you.”
“ Paul - ”
“Apparently not when you’re sober, anyway,” Paul continues, standing and dropping the bottle of wine on the table. He pushes against the rising ice in his lungs, but it chokes off his words all the same. “I don’t want to be just - just -”
“ Paul. ” Jack’s hand catches Paul’s, bringing him to a stop. Paul’s head whips around and his eyes land on Jack’s, impossibly blue and bright. Paul stands frozen as Jack lifts Paul’s hand slowly to his lips, pressing a kiss against Paul’s knuckles.
Paul’s hand is the only warm part of his body. “Jack, what is this?”
Jack hesitates and glances away from Paul, uncertain. “...What do you want it to be?”
Paul snorts. “The last time I told you what I wanted, you left for five years.” He pulls his hand away from Jack and rubs his eyes, trying to focus on his breathing and quell the squirming of his gut. “I told you and you - you skipped town on me. I didn’t hear from you for months.” He shakes his head and squints his eyes shut. “You abandoned me, Jack.”
“I know, Paul, I -” Jack takes a deep breath and looks back up at Paul. “I’m sorry.” His voice is low and rough. “I was startled, and scared, and I hurt you, and I’m sorry.” He stands, and Paul feels the heat of Jack’s hand brush against his arm. “I was scared, and I left, and I messed up.” He sighs, and his voice shrinks. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come. I’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
Paul turns to meet Jack’s eyes, reaching a hand up to Jack’s shoulder and tracing the honesty in his face. He lifts his hand to Jack’s cheek and runs his thumb across the rough skin. He shakes his head slowly. “Please stay.”
Jack leans forward, and his mouth is on Paul’s again, and Paul wants this more than he’s ever wanted anything.
Paul nestles into the warmth in front of him, eyes still closed as he drifts out of sleep. He stirs slowly, registering Jack’s body against his own and blinking. Jack’s arm rests over Paul’s side, holding him close. He smells of cedar and chamomile under an unidentifiable sweetness. Paul smiles and raises a tentative hand to run his fingers over the scars that underline Jack’s chest.
As Paul’s mind wakes up and memories of the previous night start to creep in with the roots of a headache, his smile falters. He closes his eyes and lets his hand rest on Jack’s chest, trying to hold onto the comfort of their bodies pressed together, but a knot forms in his stomach. How long does he have until Jack wakes up? Until he leaves again, running away from the memory of last night? Until Paul is alone?
Paul opens his eyes and runs his hand across Jack’s side, looking over the naked body in front of him and letting the expectation of rejection deflate his shoulders. He’s done this before, he reminds himself. He just needs to box up the feelings again and put them away like last year’s Christmas lights. This time, though, he needs to leave the box to gather its dust for good.
Jack stirs beside him, arm tightening around Paul before he loosens his grip and grunts. He rolls over onto his back, pulling away from Paul, then lifts a hand to his face and grumbles something unintelligible. Paul keeps his eyes trained on Jack’s chest, away from his face. After a long pause, Jack sits up and rubs his face. “I, uh. I’ll be right back,” he says, standing awkwardly and stretching. “Bathroom.”
Paul watches Jack bend to pick up his boxers and leave the room. Once Paul hears the bathroom door close, he rolls onto his back with a sigh. The headache is starting to set in with a vengeance. Even though Jack’s leaving, Paul reasons, he’ll have to deal with the hangover. He stands and walks to his closet, retrieves clothes for the day, and takes a moment to breathe before heading for the kitchen. The sink hisses as he fills the kettle. The pounding in his head and the cold twisting in his gut seem to cancel each other out into calmness as he sets the coffee filter over the mug and spoons out the grounds. After a moment of thought, he reaches back into the cupboard and pulls a second mug from the cupboard.
When Jack emerges from the bathroom, Paul is pouring water into the coffeemaker for the second cup. He glances over his shoulder to see Jack fully dressed, looking around like he’s lost. Paul looks back at the coffee, waiting for the last of the liquid to drain out of the filter. “Coffee’s ready,” he says aloud, the only sound save from the steady drips.
“Oh,” Jack says, approaching Paul. “Thanks.” He reaches out and takes the mug Paul extends to him. “My head is pounding. Thank you.”
Paul pours milk into his own cup and stirs it with a spoonful of sugar before taking a sip. “I still don’t know how you can drink it black. It’s too bitter.”
“Yeah, well, milk is gross,” Jack says with a smirk. “It’s not that bitter.”
They lapse into silence again. Paul dumps the water from the kettle into the sink to distract him from the way Jack is tapping his fingers on his leg. “Do you have anywhere to be today?” he asks.
“Not really.” Jack sips his coffee and fiddles with the hem of his pants. “...Hey, Paul, um. About last night -”
“Forget it,” Paul says into the lip of his mug. The lump in his stomach has grown claws. “No harm, no foul.”
“What?” Jack says, setting down his mug and taking a step closer to Paul. “No, I -”
“You’re just going to get awkward, leave, and avoid me for another five years,” Paul says, stirring his coffee and staring pointedly into his mug. “Let’s just skip the awkward. Forget about last night. It’s fine.”
“No, Paul, that’s not -” Jack cuts himself off, opening and closing his mouth fruitlessly. Eventually, he sighs and looks away. “Paul, I told you last night. I don’t want to avoid you. I want…” He pauses, squinting at the floor and worrying the edge of his shirt. “Paul… what do you want?”
Paul’s head pulses, and he closes his eyes, trying to escape the light of the sun in the kitchen window and the inscrutability of Jack’s face. “You already know what I want, Jack.”
“No, I don’t,” Jack says, taking a step forward and leaning against the counter. “I know you told me you loved me five years ago, and I know we slept together last night when we were very drunk.” He shakes his head and shifts his feet before looking back up at Paul. “That doesn’t really say a lot about where I stand.”
“Where you stand?” Paul asks, looking at Jack incredulously. “I tell you I love you, you drop off the face of the planet for five years, and then you come to my apartment for a one-night stand, without ever saying a word about what we’re doing here .” He steps toward Jack. “Never, not once, have you ever told me what you want.”
Jack sighs, looking away and tapping his fingers on the counter. “...It was Elisa’s birthday.”
“Elisa. Nick’s daughter.” Jack shuffles his feet. “I scheduled the Sinclair on top of Nick’s daughter’s fucking birthday party.”
Paul blinks at Jack. “Well, that was rude of you.”
“Yeah, don’t have to rub it in,” Jack says, irritated. “Of fucking course they left. I never told either of them anything until the last minute.” He sighs again. “I guess the birthday party was the last straw, but… I’ve been the problem the whole time.”
Paul raises an eyebrow. “Well, that’s a sentence I never expected to hear from you.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Breaking news: Jack Joyce admits he was wrong.” Paul grins. “I think you’re admitting it to the wrong person, though.”
Jack shakes his head and takes a step toward Paul. “No, Paul, you don’t understand. I’ve been the problem this whole time. I didn’t want to admit…” He gestures between the two of them. “This. To you, to me.” He looks back down at the counter. “It took me five years to figure out what I want, but I finally got it. I’ve been the problem, but…” He falls silent. “...I still need an answer, Paul.” He looks back up, catching Paul’s eyes. “I need to know what you want. Not what you wanted five years ago. I need to know what you want right now.”
Paul presses a hand to his head, feeling the blood in his temples. The silence stretches long before he responds. “...I love you, Jack.” He focuses on his feet, toes pale against the gray tile floor of the kitchen. “Last night, it was like you never left. Like nothing changed.” He glances back up to see Jack drumming his fingers on the counter. “Everything was the same as before, and I still love you.” It hurts just to say it. He squeezes his eyes shut again, trying to fight the twisting, biting anxiety in his gut.
“Paul,” Jack says, and Paul is startled by the nearness of Jack’s voice. He opens his eyes and Jack’s right in front of him, hands reaching out cautiously to touch Paul’s face. After a moment of hesitation, Jack leans forward, touching his lips to Paul’s. The kiss feels different in the light of day; Jack moves slowly, holding Paul so gently that he’s sure if he moved away Jack would back off in an instant. It’s so light Paul fears he’s imagining the touch. The tension in Paul’s chest winds up into his throat, and he so badly needs Jack to stay. Paul reaches up, wraps his arms around Jack’s waist, and kisses him back.
Jack makes a low noise in the back of his throat and presses into Paul, sliding his hand up into Paul’s hair and kissing him harder. Paul sighs and lets the sensation overtake him, then Jack’s mouth is moving, to his cheek, his neck. “You,” Jack mutters in between fervent kisses that send shivers through Paul’s skin. “I want you,” another kiss. “I want this ,” another kiss. He draws back and holds Paul’s face in his hands. “I want to wake up with you and have coffee and be here with you every day, Paul.” He smiles and drops his hand to Paul’s shoulder, shaking him lightly, and Paul feels the last of the ice in his gut melt at Jack’s next words: “Paul, I love you.”
Paul feels lightness bubble up inside him, but he bites away the smile forming on his lips. “...So. Just to clarify. You want to be with me? Like this?”
Jack grins. “Preferably without the morning-after cold shoulder.”
Paul holds up a hand. “We need some ground rules. I need to at least know what city you’re in.”
Jack looks down and nods. “I’ll… I want to do better. I’ll try to do better.” He swallows, and Paul sees his eyebrows tense up. “Better than before, and better than with my band. I don’t want to screw this up, too.”
Paul lets the smile widen across his face. He lifts Jack’s chin with a touch. “I think as long as you feel that way, we’ll be fine.” He leans in and presses another kiss to Jack’s lips, softly, gently, then pulls back. “I am still moving to New Jersey.”
Jack laughs and shakes his head. “Then you’ll be the only good thing there, babe.”
Paul laughs and pulls Jack back in, kissing him and letting the warmth bubble up in his chest. They hold each other close, warm and happy and hopeful, and the forgotten coffee on the counter cools in the wake of them.