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Remembering Why You're in Love

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 March 19, 2019

Matt wondered if Jason was judging him.

“No, I don’t care that you’re gay now.”

Matt bit his tongue at the last two words. “No, I mean about...” he dug his heels into the floor, “leaving her...”

Jason told him that he was just happy for the promotion, and that Matt’s personal relations were just that: personal. Then they got back to silently working overtime.

At ten twenty-five, Jason stood up. “It’s getting late. I want to go home to my wife.”

Ouch . The “my wife” gave Matt a sharp stab to the stomach. Jason had been putting more emphasis on it lately, although it could’ve been a manifestation of Matt’s guilt.

“Good night, Jason.”

“Night.”

The door creaked shut and Matt was left to his lonesome. He straightened some papers and abandoned the room. Dinnertime.

He nuked a microwave meal, his leg jittering for the entire ninety seconds. The machine’s whir echoed through vacant halls. The house was too big for one man, and the emptiness suffocated Matt.

Ding-Ding . His food was ready. He sat down at the kitchen island. Something fluffy rubbed up against his feet.

“Oh hi, Skip, come to join me?”

The cat circled around the kitchen, apathetic to his owner.

Matt sighed. “Good enough.”

He pulled out his phone. What sort of exciting news graced his timeline today?

He checked his Instagram. Pictures of his friends and fans scrolled past—that brought a smile to his face. He checked his notifications. His last picture got a ton of likes, and a few comments from his friends. There were a few jokes and snarks. But as with his last posts, a troubling trend started forming.

Dude. Where’s your wife?

How looooong is she gonna be gone?

We miss our girl!

This is one hell of a vacation. Three months? Is something wrong?

Guys, I think we just need to face facts. She’s not coming back. :(

Are you at least going to vidcon this year? You havn’t gone to anything in months.

Oh my god, is she dead?

Did they break up? That’s so sad :,,,(

They haven’t said anything, but probably. Her social medias are dead and we haven’t seen her since November.

He let the phone drop onto the counter. His pulsed raced.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

It had become a phenomenon. While he knew that her absence would be felt, he wasn’t prepared for how much it would affect every aspect of his life, from the half-empty bed to the comment section.

And he didn’t think reminders of her were going to cause such anxiety.

Missing her felt weird. He expected to be sad, to be angry, to be lonely. That was how it started.

Wanting to curl up in a ball and die was one thing. Getting your blood alcohol content to a level your body wasn’t ready for after years of teetotalism was one thing. Smashing a few wedding glasses was one thing. Those were normal break-up feelings.

But now it just felt like a cavity in his heart. A vacuous hole nothing could fill, not hugs, not kisses, not sex.

Her ghost hung in the air, and not in the big things, like her empty dresser, her absence at meetings, her presence at the breakfast table.

No, she was missing in all the little ways. When he bought more tea only to realize the box at home hadn’t been touched in weeks. Opening the passenger car door for no one to come out. Waking up to the screeching of his alarm clock instead of the gentler noises of his wife’s morning routine.

He looked at his left hand. It looked so empty without the ring.

Putting his face in his hands, he felt wetness.

Oh for fuck’s sake, I’m crying again.

A stream of tears fell down from his face and onto his food. Well, at least now it will be salted , he thought. God, I really need to learn how to cook .

Picking up his phone again, he shot a quick text to Nathan. “Please be awake,” he squeaked.

The home phone rang . Oh fuck, no, no, no, pretend to be dead… Google don’t...

Google Home, not caring about his feelings, interpreted whatever noise from his cat or squeak of the floorboards as a signal to accept the call.

“Matthew?” Said a man’s voice.

He ducked under the countertop, as if they could see him.

“Matthew? I know you can hear me. You can’t hide forever, y’know.”

No, but I can certainly try, he thought, paralyzed.

“I just want to hear your side of the story.”

No you don’t, Dad.

“She told us hers, son. It’s not very… Well, it doesn’t sound like something you’d do. Am I right?”

I don’t know about that. I’ve been doing a lot of things I didn’t think I’d do lately.

“I don’t want to believe it, little man, but you haven’t returned any of our calls since… November? Wow. That’s a pretty long time, Matthew. We know you’re hiding something from us.”

It went silent.

Please be over, please be over. He stood up, knocking the barstool over. Fuckfuckfuckfuckhedefinitelyheardthat.

“So you are there!”

“No, I’m not.” Matt approached the phone.

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Son,” Mr. Patrick said, holding the vowel.

“Dad,” Matthew mimicked the inflection.

“Is there another woman?”

“No.”

A sigh of relief came from the other side. “So you’re not seeing anyone else?”

“I never said that.” Matt slammed the end call button before his dad could finish saying “ what?” .

His stomach dropped when he realized what just happened.

The home phone rang again. He pulled out the phone’s wall plug.

“Nope. Hell no. Not tonight. Maybe not ever.”

He went his room, head hanging low. “Big fucking mistake,” Matt whispered tearfully, “I made a big fucking mistake.”

Too tired to shower, he put some pajamas and just tucked himself into bed, his only company the tiny blue teddy made for his son.

“Well, if anyone was going to ruin my life, it was going to be me,” he told the stuffed animal laying beside him. “Now there’s a clickbait YouTube video: HOW I RUINED MY LIFE (AND MARRIAGE).”

The teddy bear loved his joke. He pulled it closer.

”Why the hell did I do this?” He yelled at the ceiling.

“I miss my baby. My baby boy. Why’d you take the kids, Karen?” He laughed tearfully, hugging it tighter.

“Oh god, I need help.”

He picked up his phone. Therapists near me , he googled. Too many results popped up. It made his head spin. He’d return to that in the morning.

Going back to his home menu, he made eye contact with a photo of Nate. His boyfriend. It gave him a little tingle when he thought about it.

Thinking about that moment made him smile.

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

“What do you want for dinner?” Matthew scanned the takeout menu.

“You.” Nate leaned in, kissing and biting at the side of his date’s neck, earning some giggles.

“Unfortunately—“ Matt pushed him away—“I’m not on the menu yet, so you’re gonna have to choose something else.”

“Alright, fine. Spaghetti.”

”Okay. I’ll be right back.” He gave Nate a kiss on the cheek before heading out to his car.

“Why can’t we just eat at the restaurant?”

“Beeeeecaaaaaaause… people will see us, Nate! I have eleven million subscribers!

“Okay, okay. No need to flex on me, bro.”

“It’s not a flex! It’s a word of warning! If we go out, we will get caught !” Matt pouted, crossing his arms.

Nathan’s expression went from neutral to concerned. The silence lingered for a moment as he stared at Matt.

Then Nate smiled.

“Alright, whatever makes you happy, babe.” He gave Matt a kiss. “Don’t forget your coat. I wouldn’t want you to get that vicious LA frostbite.” Nate pulled his jacket off and put it over Matt’s shoulders.

Matt giggled. “I won’t!”

“Bye, I love you,” Nate cooed.

“Bye!”

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

And there was the picture of Nate (and all the mismatched candles he had lit for “ romantic atmosphere ” while Matt was out) slurping down that spaghetti on his home screen.

“You don’t have to eat it all in two bites, Natey.”

“Yeah, but I can and I will!”

Matt smiled, clicking his photo app. He started scrolling through pictures.

The one of him in Nate’s clothing popped up.

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

Matt ran his fingers through his sleeping boyfriend’s hair. Nathan looked so cute like this, head tucked

Matt wanted to stay like this forever, bathed in the January morning light, Nate’s arms wrapped around his waist. It was peace.

Nate’s fragile eyelashes fluttered open. “Good morning, handsome. How are you feeling?.”

Matt flushed. “Good… shouldn’t I be asking you that, considering you were… on the, um, receiving end?”

Nate snickered at the euphemism. “You were nervous last night. How are you feeling now?”

“Um, well, a lot less scared, y’know, but there’s still a lot more things to get to,” Matt replied, after a pause for thought.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. We have all the time in the world. We don’t have to rush into anything you aren’t comfortable with or ready for.”

“I know, I know, it’s just that this is new territory for me.”

Nate started laughing. Laughing hard.

“What’s so funny?”

It took a few moments for Nathan to catch his breath.

“Matt. MatPat. Matthew. You keep making it sound like I’m some sort of gay sex god. I had one boyfriend in college, and I haven’t done anything with a guy in six years. This is all pretty new for me too.”

“Still more than none.”

“Well baby, if you want more experience, you can get more experience right here with me.”

Nate kissed him on the cheek. Matthew responded with putting his tongue in Nathan’s mouth.

And they were locked at the lips as their hands moved southward.

Matt cooled down in the shower. Warm water ran over is body, stinging the bite and nail marks scattered over his neck and back.

Nate liked it rough. And very messy.

“How’d it get in my hair ?”

Matt grabbed through the blurry black bottles on the shower wall, trying to find the shampoo one. However he only succeeded in knocking half of the shower’s contents onto the floor.

“Are you okay in there?”

“I’m fine! I can’t find the shampoo and I can’t see anything!” Matt yelled back, picking up the the various contents and placing them back on the wall.

“It’s the one with the blue stripe!”

“The blue stripe? Nathan, I can can barely tell that these are bottles, let alone see their colors!”

Nate marched into the bathroom, slid open the curtain, picked up one of the black blurs from the floor and handed it to Matt.

“Thanks.”

Matt spent forty-five minutes in the shower trying to wash away all the stains that would go away, and he totally didn’t spent the last ten of them struggling to turn off the knob and being too proud to ask Nate for help again.

He tied the towel around his waist and emerged from the bathroom to find Nate eating cereal in his glasses—only his glasses.

“Nate-Nathan! Why are you all...”

“It’s my apartment. I can wear what I want.”

“Put some clothes on.”

“Aww, cmon…

“Too much! It’s too much!” Matt covered his eyes.

Nate sighed, throwing a bathrobe over his shoulders, although that still left little to the imagination.

“Aw, shit. I didn’t bring any extra clothes.”

“Well, you can borrow some of mine~.” Nate smirked, leaning suggestively on his open closet door.

Matt sighed. “Do you own anything but black?”

“Nope.”

“Am I going to come out of this looking like like Patrick Stump from Twenty One Pilots?”

Nate facepalmed.

“Is that a yes?” Matt rummaged through the dark t-shirts.

“Fall Out Boy. Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy.

“Whatever.”

Whatever ? What do you mean whatever ?”

“Which theater does Wicked play at?”

Nate stared blankly. “Um… Broadway?”

“Gershwin Theater. See? It’s not as easy as you think. At least I knew the fedora guy’s name—what about this one? Can I borrow it?” He held up a black graphic tee with a bird on it.

“Take anything you like.”

The two Matt found a bomber jacket and dark ripped jeans.

Assessing himself in the mirror, he didn’t look bad. Just… off. Certainly not like MatPat.

Nathan was snapping pictures. “I love you in that outfit. And the red hair.

“I look like an idiot.”

“An adorable little idiot.” Nate said, wrapping his arms around Matthew’s waist.

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

A giggle escaped Matt’s lips. It was a soft giggle, and had there been any other presence in the room, they wouldn’t have noticed it.

Matt scrolled through again. He found another memory. This one, however, was with her.

The two of them embracing, her fingers gripping onto his red leather jacket as he wrapped an arm around her shoulder, kissing her cheek, as they took a photo in the bathroom mirror. She wore that sweater...

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

Matt didn’t like to admit it, but sometimes when Nate wasn’t around, he’d go to her untouched drawer and put on something. Most of it didn’t fit, except for the sweaters. He was particularly fond of the cream one with the beads on the front.

He slipped it on, reveling in its soft embrace. He might’ve stayed there forever, fetal position on the floor, if the front door hadn’t flung open.

He tossed on his sports jacket and zipped it all the way up, and went downstairs to greet his boyfriend.

“Natey!” Matt greeted with a kiss on the lips.

Nathan wrapped his arms around Matt, squeezing him.

“I’ve missed you!” Matt said, between kisses.

“I was only gone for a week, Flamehead.”

“It was a loooong week, though.” Smooch . “Did you have fun?” Smooch. “Were the fans nice?” Smooch. “Did you do a lot?” Smooch. “Any drama?”

Nate giggled. “I can’t talk if you keep—” he was cut off by another kiss.

“Tell me later, then.” Matt said, putting his lips together once again.

Nate picked Matt up by the waist and spun him around and around, carrying him to the couch, where they fell down, tangled up, in a fit of laughter.

The moment was soiled by a buzzing in Matt’s back pocket.

Groaning, he picked it up—the bank was calling. “Hello?”

A monotony moaned on the other side.

“Who is it?” Nate asked.

“The bank. I’m getting charges from… Arizona and North Carolina.”

Nate pulled away.

“No, I don’t want to cancel the card! Those aren’t fraudulent charges!” Matt glanced at his boyfriend, who was looking at the floor.

“What’s the story? Look, it’s... complicated?” Matt told the woman on the phone, not wanting to dump his baggage onto an innocent employee.

“Give me a second,” he whispered to Nate, walking out of the room to deal with business.

“Yeah, my wife’s on… vacation.”

Matt ended the call with a sigh, emotionally drained.

He walked back in the living room to find his furniture all out of place.

“Nate? What’s going on here?”

“I’m building a fort,” he explained, placing a kitchen stool a few feet away from the couch.

“May I ask why?”

“Because,” Nate countered, “I want to.”

“We’re grown-ass men, Nathan.”

“All the more reason. Adults can do whatever they want, including built pillow forts. Go get some blankets from upstairs, please.”

Still skeptical, Matt complied.

“Okay, spread the pink one out on the floor, in between the stools and the sofa, and then find something to hold the corners of the blue one down on the stools.”

“What about the pillows?”

“We’ll get to the pillows. First we have to build the structure.”

“What, are you a pillow fort expert?”

“Yes. I have a PhD in bed-based architecture.”

“Nathan, you don’t have a PhD in… anything.”

“Fake news!” He shouted, sticking his tongue out.

Matt stuck out his tongue in response, but still followed the instructions.

“See, I told you I was an expert.” Nate picked Matt up and brought him inside. “Welcome to Casa de Nathan, ” he announced, plopping Matt down on some pillows and tickling his abdomen.

Matt tried to fight him off, but was powerless. All he could do is giggle.

“Nate… Nate… Nate… Stop!” Matt cried, breathless.

“Alright, since you asked so nicely.” He said, pulling away.

Matt seized the opening, going for the neck.

“Hey, no fair! You said…” Nate finished the sentence with a fit of laughter.

“Of course it’s fair. I’m winning.” Matt climbed on top, pinning his opponent down. However he underestimated his boyfriend’s strength and Nate was able to reverse their positions and have Matt begging for mercy again.

“Hey, where’d you get that sweater?”

Matt’s jacket was open. His pulse quickened. “Oh, it was just at the bottom of my closet, and well, some of my clothes are missing.”

“It’s nice.” Nate rubbed the fabric against his cheek. Ooh, and soft! I didn’t know they made men’s sweaters with little thingies.” He poked at the beads.

“It’s women’s, actually...” he corrected sheepishly.

“Aw, you don’t need to be shy. I’m not gonna judge. I love you all the same.”

“I know, it’s not—it’s just—” Matt struggled. He had a lot of feelings that were hard to put into words.

It’s not mine, it’s hers.

If it was about her, you would have worn this before she left.

Unable to speak, he kissed Nate hard, gripping his neck hard enough to leave nail marks, pushing his tongue inside.

Nate pulled away from the kiss, and tucked his head into Matt’s chest, curling into the sweater. “So, you wanna hear about my trip?”

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

Matt got more pillows, burying himself in the pile, and became one with the fluff.

Then he went back into his phone, clicking on the video of them dancing.

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

“Happy Valentine’s day,” Matt said, holding out a dozen white roses and a bottle of ginger ale.

Nate took the gifts, eyebrows raised. “Um, thank you?”

“You’re welcome,” Matt said, “Is there something wrong with it?”

“Isn’t it a bit showy for the first of February?”

“Not really. It’s what I get every year.”

Nate’s face twisted. “We’ve been together for three months.”

Oh, shit. “Old habit,” he muttered. “I’m used to buying gifts for the first fourteen days of the month for Ste—”

Nate tucked the flowers into Matt’s open hands.

“They’re for you.” Matt passed them back.

Nate turned away. “I don’t want them.”

“But—but—”

“Go give them to your wife.”

“Nathan,” Matt pleaded.

“Because you got them for her!” Nate slammed the door—Matt saw a flash of regret in his eyes before it closed.

Dejected, Matt headed home in a silent car.

He tried to sit down and do his work, but couldn’t think about anything except for the afternoon’s events.

And for the first time in several years, he found himself googling Valentine’s Day ideas.

Most of it was too public, too impractical to schedule, or not up Nate’s alley (or were they? Matt had so much to learn).

He ended up settling on the least shit idea he could come up with

That night he fell asleep cradling his computer.

They didn’t talk for a couple of days, which was quite abnormal. The silence weighed down on him, and it was in this time he realized he couldn’t keep himself or his relationship closed off from the world. It made his stomach turn. What would people say?

With nothing else to do, Matt tried to email her. Happy Valentine’s Day, sorry you’re alone. Sorry it’s my fault. Please let me see my son.

He didn’t get a response.

The couple reconciled well enough with a movie date and make-up sex, but the tension hung in the air between them.

February thirteenth Matt knocked at the apartment door again.

“Do you have an overnight bag?”

Nate nodded, picking it up.

“C’mon, I have something—somewhere to show you,” he said, interlacing their fingers.

“Where are we going?” Nate inquired.

Matt put his finger to his lips. “It’s a surprise,” Matt giggled.

“The evil look in your eyes scares me.” Nate said.

“And yet, you’re still coming with me.” Matt purred. “I’ll even let you play your music in the car. We can listen to all the Fall Out Boy—whose lead singer is Patrick Stump, see, I do learn—you want.”

“Bravo, I’m very impressed,” Nate climbed into the passenger’s seat.

“Thank you,” Matt said, leaning over to kiss Nate.

Nate pulled him closer, over the center console, wrapping one arm around Matt’s waist and squeezing Matt’s butt with the other hand.

Matt put his fingers through Nate’s belt loops, eating him up.

“Ah, fuck, I love you, fuck ,” Nate moaned.

A figure appeared in his peripheral vision. Matt went still.

Nate pulled away. “What’s wrong?”

“I think someone saw us.” Matt pulled back into the driver’s seat.

“I don’t see anyone.”

“Let’s go now so we make it on time,” Matt rushed out, smoothing out his wrinkled shirt.

And so they drove for an hour and some, not talking. Nate didn’t even sing along to “Victorious”, staring at his phone, which wasn’t even on half the time.

It was after dark the car pulled up to a small cabin. The tires grinded against the gravel.

“Is this where you’re planning to kill me?” Nate joked. “Because I always pictured it being somewhere more fun. Like, in Vegas covered in cocaine and hookers.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “It only looks horror-movie-ish because it’s dark. When the sun comes up? I’ll look…” more like the picture on Airbnb, “nicer.”

They took their bags out and walked to the door.

The inside was prettier. The cabin had an open floor plan, so you could see the kitchen and the living room. Wood lined the floors and walls, covered by wool rugs with bright patterns. Two blue couches and a coffee table faced a fireplace with a flatscreen mounted above it. The kitchen was small and sterile, and a few dark doors lined the wall, presumably leading to the bathroom and bedroom.

Nate hit the light switch. Light came pouring down from the ceiling.

Matt looked up. A giant brass chandelier hung over their heads, with little glass crystals breaking the light down into rainbows. “Preeeetty.”

Nate giggled, watching Matt be mesmerized by the light. “I’ll go do dinner then.”

Nate microwaved mac-and-cheese as Matt followed tiny rainbows around the room.

The microwave dinged, and Matt was summoned to the kitchen.

Nate sat on the counter, Matt leaned against it.

“Y’know, one of us should really learn how to cook,” Matt commented, “because we can’t live off the microwave forever.”

“I can cook,” Nate protested.

“Yeah, I don’t think it’s really ‘cooked’ if I have to chew the rice.”

Nate took it as a challenge. “I will become the the greatest master.”

Matt laughed, which made Nate laugh.

They

“I like the chandelier

“Really? I couldn’t tell.”

“It seems so fancy. Like not for a cabin. It should be in a dance hall or something. It looks like, oh!” The one at my wedding.

Matt looked at the floor. He’d made himself sad again.

Nate noticed his boyfriend's mood change. “Looks like what?”

“Can you dance?” Matt asked, desperate for a change of subject.

“Yeah, I’m a pretty good dancer,” Nate responded, shredding an air guitar.

Matt shook his head. “No, I meant like formal dancing.” He said, demonstrating with an imaginary partner.

“Slow dancing? No not really.”

Something sparked in Matthew. “Well then, I’ll have you teach you.” He bounced over to the living room.

Struggling, Matt pushed the sofa to the side.

“What’re you doing?” Nate raised his eyebrows.

“We need room to dance, right?” Matt said, “Can you move the table?”

Nate nodded hesitantly, picking up the coffee table and putting it to the side. Then they shoved the second sofa out of the way together.

Matt grabbed Nate's waist. “Put your left hand on my shoulder, and align your feet with mine.”

“Like this?” Nate did as instructed.

“Yes,” Matt said, interlocking their free hands. “Now when I step my right foot back,” he did as said, “you move your left foot forward.”

Nate moved his foot.

“Perfect! Now the other foot. Just follow my lead.”

Nate cautiously followed Matt’s steps.

“See? You’re good at this!”

“I’m just trying not to step on your feet.”

Matt smiled.

“Okay, now I’m going to try and spin you around.”

“Oh no,” Nate said.

“Don’t be like that!” Matt raised his arm. “Let go of my shoulder and go under.”

Nate ducked under Matt’s arm and turned around.

“Yay! You did it!”

Nate grinned.

“All you needed was a little faith in yourself.” Matt gleamed. “Let’s go a little faster now… okay, 1, 2, 3, 4...”

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

It wasn’t like Matt was a complete stranger to Nate’s friends. He knew who each of them were, on YouTube at least, and they

Matt bit his lip. Eventually, he would have to formally introduce Nate as his boyfriend.

He wasn’t looking forward to that. And after the incident with Austin, and the conversation with Safiya, he was certain it was going to be a trash can fire.

So, in the meantime, Matt had contented himself to clinging to Nate’s waist, faking smiles through Safiya’s wedding planning, getting judgmental looks from Jason, and attempting to decode his friends’ text messages to discern their knowledge of the situation.

He walked into the office with pizza and soda, trying to find Nate’s space, only to bump into Hunter.

"Hey," Matt said, not making eye contact.

Arms snaked around Matt's waist from behind, scaring Matt.

"Gah! Warn me time!"

Sorry babe," Nate kissed him on the cheek. "Hunter, I'd like you meet my new boyfriend."

"Hi, MatPat!"

"Hi!" Another voice said. Andy had entered the room. He reached out for a handshake. "I've heard a lot about you."

"Good or bad?" Matt giggled nervously, accepting the handshake.

Andy smiled. "Well, apparently, you're cute and handsome and smart and sexy and adorable and loving and your smile is brighter than a thousand suns and your hair gets all fluffy when you sleep and you're the smartest man alive and you have the voice of an angel and did I mention you're cute and handsome? I hear you’re really handsome."

Matt went bright red, knowing Nate was shooting death glares from behind him.

"I didn't say any—okay, I didn't say most of that!"

"You didn't have to."

Matt glanced at Hunter. "How much do you know?"

"None of that, until now."

Everyone went uncomfortably silent (except Andy, he reveled in this).

"Anyways, I brought you lunch," Matt cut the silence. "You can let go of me now."

"I can, but I don't want to."

"Don't you want to have lunch?"

"I want to have you." Nate turned Matt's face towards him and kissed hard.

"Get a room, you two!" Hunter shouted.

"Gladly. C'mon, Matt." Nate pulled him aside into his office.

"Remember, we agreed no sex under this roof!"

"Thanks, Hunter!"

When the door closed, Matt crossed his arms. "Did you have to be so..."

"I thought you liked PDA."

"Well one thing is affection another thing is being like that. "

Nate's shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry. I won't do it again."

"I-I'm not ready to be this open about us."

"Just wanted to show you off," Nate muttered to the ground.

"And what exactly have you shared with Andy? Did you give him the details of our sex life?"

"No, no," he looked at the floor, "I haven't shared anything too private with him. It's just that I talked to him a lot last year before we became a thing about my growing crush on you. And I didn't say all that! I just told him about us sharing beds using some uh, descriptive language."

Matt was relieved.

"So you've already told all your friends about me?"

"Most of them," Nate said, "Andy knew before, and I told Hunter, Brett, and Shady, although they didn't believe me until I showed them a picture of us kissing don't know if I told my DnD group your identity but I definitely mentioned the whole 'boyfriend' thing. Same with Lyle and Amanda, I think? Not looking forward to that conversation with my mom, but I'm gonna have to bite that bullet soon."

"And they were all okay with the whole gay thing?"

"Well, they were all pretty concerned about the homewrecking..."

"I haven't told anyone yet. Except Safiya and Austin, kinda." Matt interjected.

Nate's eyebrows rose. "You should probably tell them soon. The longer you wait, the worse you'll look."

Matt bit his lip, thinking about the incident with Austin.  "Yeah... don't want them hearing it from her."

"Hey, don't worry, I'll be there to help you. Offer emotional support." Nate squeezed Matt's shoulders.

"I'm not good at confrontation, Nate."

"Aww," Nate cooed, giving Matt a hug. "I know, I know."

"But anyways, my friends do want to get to know you more. I was hoping we could all hang out this weekend. How much affection are you okay with?"

"Yeah, that sounds fine. Not a lot. Nothing more than a kiss on the cheek."

Nate tried and failed to conceal his disappointment. "Okay."

"I'm sorry, it's not you, it's me and all my new fears and boundaries.” Matt buried his face into his (borrowed) hoodie.

“Don’t apologize, you have nothing to be sorry for.” Nate assured. “Okay? I love you.”

Matt nodded.

“Let’s have some pizza. Pizza will solve your problems.” Nate opened the box and grabbed a slice. “Here comes the airplane! Open wide!”

Matt complied, letting Nate feed him pizza.

“Yay! Good boy!” He clapped, and then let him have another bite.

“Wow, you guys are into some weird shit,” Dookie said, walking in.

“Shut it, Hunter. He’s having a rough day.”

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

Matt scrolled to last week’s photos of Nate and the sunset. “What am I going to do with you, Nate?” He giggled.

He put the phone down on the night-table. I should at least try to sleep , he figured, tucking himself in and embracing a pillow.

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

“Happy Saint Matthew Patrick’s Day!” Nate exclaimed as Matt came downstairs.

“Oh, definitely never heard that one before.” Matt rolled his eyes.

“Hey, you’re not wearing any green!”

“These are my pajamas, Nate.”

“The leprechauns don’t care. I still have to pinch you.” Nate said, pinching Matt’s butt.

“Fucker.” Matt stuck his tongue out.

“I love you, too!”

Matt grumbled. “I need caffeine.”

“I’ll be all the caffeine you ever need,” Nate teased, running fingers through Matt’s fluffy bedhead.

“I want an open relationship, then. I need Diet Coke.”

“Hm, I’ll think about it.” Nate placed his hands on Matt’s shoulders.

After breakfast Matt got dressed. He couldn’t find any green shirts, though he swore he’d had some, so he put on a Game Theory sweatshirt and some strange shamrock antennae from Nate’s collection of cheap plastic jewelry. “Ok, I’m ready, let’s go.”

Nate put green beads around both their necks. “ Now we’re ready.”

They walked to the carnival on foot. It was a new installment this year; a tacky green affair with spotty glitter on some of the signs. There were enough creepy leprechauns were plastered everywhere for the Irish to claim that they were still being racially discriminated against. Still, Nate had claimed it to be a perfect date idea. (“Fine, but you’re paying for everything!”)

The lady at the entrance gave them dark green wristbands to indicate they could drink.

Inside, they made their first stop at the food stand.

“Look, the beers are green,” Nate held his cup out, showing Matt the mossy-colored liquid.

“I think ‘green’ is subjective,” Matt countered.

“Aw, they put little shamrocks in the foam!”

“Are those edible?” Matt buried his face in funnel cake.

“I hope so,” Nate said, putting one in his mouth.

“Ooh, ooh!” Matt pointed to the ring toss. “I wanna play!” He grabbed Nate’s hand and pulled him over.

“Hello, hello,” called the man behind the counter. “Would you boys like to play? Three rings for two tickets.”

Matt looked to Nate, who gave the man two tickets. Three metal loops were placed on the counter in front of them.

The space between them and the poles was about seven feet. It would be an easy shot if the poles didn’t rotate around a conveyor belt.

Matt picked up a ring and aimed his shot. He missed.

Frowning, he threw another. “Missed again, dammit.”

“Last ring! Make it count!” The booth runner announced.

Matt paused pensively, calculating the best angle for his throw. He re-positioned himself, and made his final toss.

It hit the pole and bounced off.

“Fu—dammit!”

Nate gave the booth manager two more tickets. “Lemme show you how it’s done,” he boasted, throwing a ring.

It landed in the grass.

Matt clapped. “Bravo. Good job. Excellent.”

“Shut up.”

“Even I did better than that,” Matt snarked, picking up the second ring.

It landed on the little pole. “See, Nate? That’s how it’s done.”

Nate stuck his tongue out.

Matt threw the final ring. He scored.

The booth master congratulated Matt and directed him toward the eligible prizes.

“I’ll let him pick it out.” He nudged Nate.

Nate grabbed a palm-sized bear holding a heart and booped Matt’s nose with it.

“You two seem like nice friends,” chuckled the booth man, without a hint of irony.

Matt just smiled and nodded, ready to proceed.

“We make an even cuter couple,” Nate responded.

“Yes we do.” Matt was already pulling him away to the next booth. “C’mon,” I wanna beat you at high striker.

Matt didn’t beat Nate at high striker, but he did beat him at skeeball, and then at whack-a-mole, which Nate blamed on the beer, although that didn’t stop him from drinking two more, or from winning two games of mini-bowling.

“Maybe, if you were more sober, you’d do better,” Matt said, leaning on the claw machine as Nate tried to grab the Eevee plush.

“No, no, I’m doing just fine,” Nate insisted, eyes fixated on the glass.

“Unless you lose, then you were too drunk.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

In the end, Nate got the Pokemon. “See, told you.”

“C’mon, let’s go home, it’s late.” Matt yawned.

“Okay,” Nate agreed.

As they exited the carnival area, the sun was beginning his descent, dying the sky blazing pink and soft peach, surrounding the Ferris wheel.

Matt’s head on Nate shoulder, the couple watched the sunset, completely forgetting about their no PDA rules for a precious moment in time.

Matt pulled out his phone to take a photo.

Something sparked in Nate. “Hold my beer.” Nate said, giving him the beer.

He grabbed the edge of the wall and pulled himself up.

“You’re gonna kill yourself!”

“No, I’m not!” He kicked one leg over the wall. Tentatively, he stood up, ignoring Matthew’s protests. “See? I’m fine.”

“Oh my god, Nathan, get down from there!”

“Take my picture first!” He posed.

“Alright, but then you’re coming back down,” Matt sighed.

Click. Click. Click. Nate did a variety of silly and dramatic poses.

“Okay, I’ll get down now.”

“And how exactly do you plan to do that?” Matt crossed his arms and smirked.

“Easy. I’ll go over there, where the wall’s a bit lower, and get off there.” Nate stepped cat

“Catch me, MatPat!”

“Wha—” Matt barely registered what was happening before Nate jumped from the four foot wall and toward Matt, who barely had time to stretch his arms out.

To his credit, Nate did actually make it to his target, almost tipping the poor man over. Matt re-adjusted his stance.

“You caught me!” Nate wrapped his arms around Matt’s shoulders, smirking flirtatiously.

“Holy shit, I gotta work out more,” Matt sighed, breathless.

Nate grabbed his now half-empty cup from Matt’s hand. “Aw, you spilled my beer.”

Matt gave him a death look.

•-*^*~•~*^*-•

An hour later the phone on the nightstand buzzed.

Matt’s eyes fluttered open; he hadn’t gotten comfortable enough to fall asleep. Who was calling at this hour? He wiped away his tears, hoping he wouldn’t sound like he was crying.

Nathan. He picked it up, heart pounding.

“Natey!” Matt squealed, completely undoing all of puberty in a second.

“You do realize that ‘u up?’ is the most fuckboy text you could send, right?” Nathan groaned, half-asleep.

“Well, don’t I just radiate raw fuckboy energy?” Matt tried to laugh, a sniffle escaping him.

“Are you crying?” Nate asked, concerned.

Matt’s only response was muffled whimpers.

“What’s wrong?”

It was a simple question, but it shattered glass.

Matthew broke down into another full stream of tears.

“I-I don’t know what’s wrong—what’s wrong with me.” He tried to continue, but couldn’t through all his bawling.

“Hey, hey,” Nathan gave soft assurances over the phone. “It’s gonna be okay.”

“Everything feels wrong and bad and it’s like I don’t even feel sad, just numb and cold and I just want to tear myself out of my body and escape it. I don’t want to be me anymore.” Matt sobbed into the phone.

“Just let it all out, Matty, let it all out.”

“It’s—it’s—it’s—”

Nate gave gentle shushes, letting Matt cry and sob as much as he needed.

“Nathan… I think I need help. Like therapy help.”

There was a brief pause.

“I think that would be good for you.” Matt imagined Nate smiling on the other side.

“Really?”

“Yeah. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s clear you’ve been different these past few months. You’re very…” Nate drifted off, looking for the right word.

“Bitchy?” Matt offered.

“No! No. Just… Emotional! And a bit cranky.”

“So, bitchy?”

“MatPat…” Nathan sighed. “Are you having trouble sleeping?”

“Yes. I wish you were with me. Have I ever told you how much I hate that you’re an hour away?”

“Only about once a day.”

“I can’t help it. I love you.”

“I love you too.” Nate giggled.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing. I just love hearing you say those words.”

“I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you. And I mean it!” Matt shouted into the phone. “Now can you please sing to me?”

Nate was laughing one other end.

“One sec. Lemme just get tucked in.” Matt grabbed the plushie and buried himself in the fluffy pillows. “Ok, I’m ready now.”

“Hey Matt?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m really proud of you, for reaching out. It takes a lot of courage to admit you need help.” Nate said, almost whispering.

Matt’s heart warmed. “Um, thanks, Nate.” He

“You’re welcome.”

Nate began his serenade. Matt closed his eyes, breathing steadily in and out to the rhythm of Nate’s guitar strums.

“You know I never mean well, I can’t help but help myself…”

Matt fell asleep in his throne of pillows.

Chapter Text

November 30th, 2018

"Ma'am, are you okay?" The CVS employee asked.

Stephanie smiled and nodded at him, tears streaming down her face.

"Ma'am, your phone is ringing," he said, pointing at the object glowing and buzzing in her shopping basket.

"I know," she said, eyes on the shelves. She picked up three boxes of blond hair dye, and threw it in with her other items: toothpaste, soap, shampoo, underwear, tampons, water, wine, and microwave meals.

The phone went still for a moment. Was he done pestering her?

Then it buzzed again.

The employee frowned in confusion. "Are you going to pick it up?"

"No."

He stared for a moment before realizing this was above his pay grade. He walked away, leaving Steph by herself. Good. She didn't want to talk to anyone right now, especially not a man.

She paid for her shit, ignoring the cashier’s attempts to make polite conversation and returned to her car, getting in and slamming the pedal to metal. She drove away, disregarding the speed limit, in an unknown direction, followed only by streetlights and a howling phone. She didn't care where she was going, as long as it was away .

Away from her old life, away from everything, but especially away from him .

Buzzbuzzbuzzbuzzbuzz . The damn phone cried more than the baby in the backseat.

Dammit, that piece-of-shit fuckboy's really got some nerve . She opened the window, glancing at her phone.

Gritting her teeth, she resisted the temptation. Annoying as it was, she'd have to keep it if she wanted to survive.

And she drove on and on and on into the inky blackness of the night, anger keeping her awake into the youngest hours of the morning. Even the phone grew tired and fell asleep before Stephanie called it quits.

Salome, Arizona read the sign. So this was away , at least for tonight.

She stopped at a motel. The receptionist looked up at a wrecked Madonna and child, mauve lipstick forming an o .

"Aw, sweetie," cooed her syrupy voice, "what happened?"

Steph avoided eye-contact, looking at tacky plastic decorations. "There was another woman," she whispered softly but firmly into the air, finally giving voice to what had driven her across state lines after dark with a baby in the backseat..

"Oh, darlin', I'm so sorry."

"It's just... it's just... you think he's the one and... and..." Tears flowed down from her face. The baby joins in, and Stephanie tried to calm him as she broke down herself.

The receptionist passed Steph a box of tissues, who took it gratefully.

"He didn't deserve you, sweetheart. If he did, he'd treat you like the princess you are."

"I spent almost ten years with that man, and he threw it all away for some...some... I don't know..."

Stephanie had never met the other woman. Or had she? All of her worst fears became vivid mental images. Her imagination conjured glimpses of trusted friends and college co-eds, kissing his lips, nibbling on his ear, removing his shirt,touching his dick, riding him. She envisioned him grazing his hands down her figure, unhooking her bra, reaching up her miniskirt, making empty promises.

She remembered the marks on his neck. They had imprinted into the back of her eyelids like scars.

"Honey, don't think about it. You'll torture yourself. I want you to know that whatever he did, it's his fault. It doesn't say anything about you."

Stephanie tried to believe it.

With a look of pity, the receptionist swiped Steph's card and passed over a set of keys. "You'll be in room 413."

"Well I'd better get comfy. Who knows how long I'll be here." Steph's low voice cracked. She grabbed the keys and ran out to get her stuff out of her car.

Steph rolled two stuffed suitcases and carried one large duffel bag to the elevator. She found herself surrounded by mirrors, forced to look at the rusted reflection.

Her hair, pulled into a neat bun this morning, had ends sticking out everywhere. Her blouse, dried cleaned yesterday, was a wrinkled, stained rag. Her pencil skirt had torn, and it was only now that she realized that she was wearing mismatched shoes, one of which was her future ex-husband's.

Her face looked like a Barbie doll was put under a hair dryer. She tried to wipe her dripping mascara away, but only succeeded in smearing it across her cheeks.

Pathetic. Truly pathetic. This is why he left you .

The baby giggled and reached his hand out toward his reflection.

Stephanie had never been so thankful to arrive at the fourth floor. She rushed past twelve doors, shoved the key into the lock, threw the door open, dropped the luggage on the floor, and fell onto the recliner.

Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Leaving the child on the chair, she stood up to assess her situation.

The light hummed when she flipped the switch. Her room had a queen bed in the center, wrapped in sheets that had probably been white once. The peeling wallpaper was royal blue with flaking gold embellishments. There was a kitchen in the far away corner, with yellow countertops and forest green accessories. Sheer brown curtains covered balcony doors that were about fifteen steps from the door. Pulling a sliding door aside, Steph found a purple bathroom with a vanity and shower.

Good enough . She had bigger concerns that shitty interior design. She unzipped her bags. What supplies did she have? Where could the baby sleep?

When she stormed out of the house, she tossed in anything in arm's reach, not bothering to discern what landed in her suitcase. Pulling out the contents, she found that while she had taken enough of her and the baby's clothes to last on their own, a lot of his stuff had slipped in.

T-shirts and jeans and jackets and boxers and socks and shoes that she saw everyday, that she snuggled and borrowed and stole, now laid in a crumpled mess on the piss-smelling motel bed. Her stomach swirled.

With nimble fingers, she picked up her blouses and trousers and cardigans and bras and hung them in her room's tiny closet, placing her t-shirts, socks, and underwear into the drawers provided, tucking tiny onesies into the remaining space.

Once the clothes had been taken out of the bag, she found the foldable crib at the bottom, so at least one of them wouldn't have to sleep in centuries-old pee.

"Alright, now let's get you to bed—hey, how'd you get that?" The baby had gotten a hand of one of his father's shirts, and was eating it.

Steph tried to yank the blue fabric away, upsetting the child.

"Sorry, sorry," she stopped pulling, "you can keep it."

He wouldn't let go of it, even as Steph changed his diaper and rocked him to sleep, the shirt held tightly in his five-month-old grip.

With the child taken care of, she finally could take care of herself.

First order of business. She was too well known to be running around as is. Grabbing the three boxes of hair dye, she went to the bathroom.

She looked at her herself in the mirror for the second time that morning. She couldn't help but gaze at it in contempt, zeroing in on all the little flaws and imperfections. No wonder she couldn't beat the competition. Medusa stared at her through the glass, and Steph wanted nothing more than to destroy her.

"Alright, the instructions..." She skimmed the box. "Gloves on, mix it, leave it in for half an hour, may stain... Fuck it. Let's do this." She tore the boxes open.

Putting on a pair of gloves, she immediately tore through the thumb. She put the pairs on from the other two boxes, hoping the friction between them wouldn't cause more tearing.

She opened the products and mixed them together; it started to smell, so she pushed open the tiny bathroom window and turned the fan on.

She ripped her ponytail out ("Ow!"), and began painting her hair. The odor slapped her in the face like this evening's revelations, and her eyes watered for the millionth time that night, but she didn't care, almost reveling in internal pains manifesting physically.

So. Much. Hair. Steph never really thought she had this much. Perhaps it was the pregnancy hormones? But that's just a... no. Absolutely not.

Now bleached, she had about half an hour to kill. Should she eat with a bunch of chemicals above her face? Whatever. She put an instant dinner in the microwave, then shoved the half-cold contents down her throat, not bothering to taste it, chasing it with a few sips of wine straight from the bottle. It was a dinner fit for a queen.

Bleach dripped down onto her shoulders, ruining her top. Wasn't this one a birthday gift from her husband? It hurt to think about. Or maybe that was her scalp.

When she returned to the bathroom, her hair was visibly lighter. She turned the shower knob. Water sputtered out like his half-formed excuses. She had to toggle the knob to get a respectable flow, and it wouldn't get hotter than lukewarm.

She stripped down and got in. Well, it's a good thing I bought shampoo, as they don't seem to have any. She poised herself to rinse out the bleach, getting the displeasure of spending time with her naked form.

She thought that she had been doing pretty well losing all the weight, but the pregnancy had still left stretch marks. The first signs of aging were starting to appear. And perhaps there were some areas which she could easily be beaten by a couple of competitors. Did it matter though? Whatever it was, she wasn't good enough. She broke down again, tears washed away, going down the drain.

Emerging from the shower, she got the first glimpse of her new self.

The blonde was... bold. She had went from cinnamon to platinum in about an hour. Her whole face seemed different, the color bringing out different contours in her face.

She was a new person.

For the first time in twelve hours, she laughed.

Exiting the bathroom, her smile dropped. All of her husband's clothes strewn across the bed. Fuck.

How do I deal with this? She pondered, changing into something more comfortable for the night.

She didn't want to keep them. Their presence sickened her. She wanted to cleanse herself of them. They stood only as reminders of the man who betrayed her. Who'd... probably fucked somebody else in the past twenty-four hours. In fact, now with Stephanie out of the house he probably was with her right now. Maybe it wasn't even the same woman. And maybe there'd be a different broad this afternoon.

Dizziness came upon her, thinking of all the signs she should have seen, all the lies he must've told, all the nights he was away, all the harpies he spent time with.

Her stomach boiled and sloshed. Her skin was suddenly scorching. The floor spun and the walls danced.

Steph ran to the kitchen sink.

She puked. And puked. Little green globs and bits of slimy breaded chicken found a new home in the sink corners. It matched the decor.

Grabbing the kitchen scissors, she held them just above her shoulder.

And she snipped, snipped, snipped.

Bits of her hair stuck to the vomit chunks in the sink.

Snip. Snip. Snip.

She looked at her reflection in the toaster. Despite distortion at the edges, her new haircut looked about even. She placed the scissors down beside a box of matches.

Matches. That sparked an idea. A beautiful, terrible idea.

Pocketing the box, she walked downstairs to her car and popped open the trunk. Inside was a jerry can of gasoline.

A vicious grin came across her face.

At the end was an assortment of trash cans. Steph grabbed the empty metal one, and placed it in front of her door.

She got armfuls of clothes and threw them into the trash.

On one hand, it was cleansing revenge. On the other hand, it was like saying goodbye to old friends.

The face of a cat in sunglasses looked up at her. Sorry, buddy. I need this.

His brown leather jacket. How many times had she worn it herself?

A red shirt with little black decals on it. Navy with a dragon on the sleeve. Heather gray with the periodic table. Blue shirt with stripes. Dark jeans. Light jeans. Khakis. A black hoodie with the green logo. Boxer-briefs in every color of the rainbow. Denim jacket. Cerulean sweater. The sneaker she accidentally stole.

Her jaw fell when she pulled out a lacy black bra. This wasn't hers. On the cusp of another breakdown, she channeled that energy into rage, tossing it in.

Across the way was an abandoned building with a decent parking lot. Perfect.

She picked up the can and the gas, her knuckles white.

She placed it on the dirty sidewalk. Looking towards the motel, she saw a couple of silhouettes hanging in the upper floors. Perhaps they had come to watch.

This was it. She flipped over the jerry can, dousing the clothes, making sure the liquid penetrated through every single layer of fabric. Then she tossed the empty plastic canister aside.

And now, the show. She pulled the matchbox out of her pocket and struck one against the side of the box.

“One for him.” She dropped it into the pile.

She struck another. “And one for his side slut!” She threw it so hard she nearly blew it out.

And then she leaped back to watch her cauldron bubble.

The twin flames started slowly. The second match’s grew faster and larger. It consumed the green shirt on top before the first had even made a hole.

During the third layer, however, the fury seemed to be sputtering out. What was wrong? Did she not put enough fuel? She gave it a nudge with her foot. The stick moved closer together, and the light erupted.

It took a few more layers for the fires to meet. Once they did, it really started combusting. The smell of paper filled the air, and the crackle of fire soothed her like a song. Stephanie bathed in the orange light of revenge .

She watched her husband’s possessions turn from bright cyans, chartreuses, and crimsons to pale ash and black residue.

The fire reflected in her eyes. Blazing orbs replaced shit brown.

The silhouettes above her gave a few whoops.

She gave them a bow.

As the night became lighter, her torch ran out. She knocked the trash can over, spilling silver onto the sidewalk.

Leaving a painting of ash clumps and a fading embers, Steph dragged the tin-can upstairs, putting it back in its alcove.

The sun peeked her head out, burning the horizon and singeing its edges. The ends of the world turned red.

She returned to her room, everything right where she left it, baby still asleep. It felt cleaner.

Grabbing the bottle of wine, she dragged her ass to the balcony and collapsed onto to the rickety folding chair to watch the sunrise.

Laying upon a creaky throne, covered in purple stains, Stephanie passed out.