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That Lesson Alone

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“If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That is the lesson, and that lesson alone will save you a lot of grief.” – Oprah Winfrey

*

Eventually Patrick had to go home and face the music.

He might have been an only child, but he had a very large extended family, almost all of whom were close. Some of them didn’t ask—but most of them asked. And most of them made assumptions.

One was that Patrick had had no idea he was gay until he met some guy named David, who rocked his world and changed everything. The other was that Patrick knew all along and hid it from them out of some combination of internalized homophobia and fear of external prejudice. This was the binary. No one seemed to leave room for a third option, something in between, where it was possible to kind of guess you were gay, but feel confused, and never feel like you had an opportunity to try.

Meeting people was hard. Going out and trying to make that happen was a lot of effort. Something else would come up—work and theater and baseball games and family; making time to do a thing like explore his sexuality when he wasn’t even sure it needed exploring was just another item on a to-do list that grew ever longer.

He’d gone with what was in front of him, what was easy. His friends had all settled down that way, his cousins—not with a magical romance, but with all the pieces falling into place, without an epic quest to make them fit. Patrick wasn’t an idealist. He knew life wasn’t like the movies, but for the people around him, finding someone hadn’t seemed like something they’d had to struggle with, and Patrick didn’t want a struggle.

Was that really so unusual? Was it so hard to believe that the reason he had never kissed a boy before was because the opportunity had simply never presented itself?

Was this not a thing that other people felt—that sometimes it didn’t happen for you, and you didn’t know how to make it happen, and when you thought about making it happen, it seemed too overwhelming for that moment in your life? Was it not overwhelming for everybody else? Was everybody else making some desperate and monumental effort to meet everyone they could to find the perfect kiss, the perfect sex, the perfect gender, the perfect date, the perfect person? If they were, they were hiding it from him, because somehow, they were managing to climb mountains and do ballet and get their taxes done around what seemed to him a large undertaking.

Was there some key moment at which he should have kissed a boy, just because he thought it might be nice to try it?

*

In high school, Patrick had been kind of horny all the time, and because he’d been horny in proximity to Rachel, he’d assumed it had been because of her. She was smart, nice, and pretty, and Patrick knew how high school was supposed to go. Make good grades, have friends, play a sport, get a weekend job, get a girlfriend, maybe try sex, maybe try drinking, get into a good university. Then you got a real job and got married and bought a house and had a mortgage. You had kids and you wore Dockers.

Patrick did all the things he was supposed to do in high school, except he also wrote music and did theater. “It’s okay you’re arty,” said Brandon, the pitcher on the baseball team. Patrick had told Rachel Brandon had said that. “I like that you’re arty,” she’d said, and snuggled closer to him.

“Yeah, I’m Michelangelo,” he’d told her.

Sex with Rachel hadn’t been that great, but he’d been in high school, so it had felt like the best thing ever. How was it supposed to be? Another person was touching his dick, and he was getting to touch the secret parts of girls; it was exciting because it was forbidden, and it was sex. It didn’t feel like what you read about in books, but then there were other books that said sex wasn’t like that at all. Patrick read a lot of books. He was kind of a nerd.

“I like that you’re kind of a nerd,” Rachel said.

“Yeah, I’m Isaac Newton,” Patrick said, and Rachel kissed him.

Guys are a lot gayer in locker rooms than lots of them will admit. They look at each other’s dicks and compare them; they talk about them and slap each other’s asses. Patrick thought all of this was normal, and that if he got horny around guys sometimes that was normal too, because he was a teenager; people said he was supposed to be horny all the time. He didn’t imagine anyone when he jacked off. He didn’t have to; he was touching his dick. It was enough to make him come.

Things had changed after high school. Patrick had gone to university five hours away while Rachel went to college near home, and long distance was hard. “I feel like you don’t miss me as much as I miss you,” Rachel had said over the phone.

I don’t, Patrick had realized and didn’t say, because that was cruel, but it was true. He’d taken a lot of business courses and was still trying to play ball and do theater on top of that. The university had a local radio station; he’d started helping there; he wanted to host. It was a lot, a whole lot, and he’d found himself barely thinking of Rachel at all. The breakup was for the best, he thought—she could have been the love of his life, but as it turned out she was just a high-school thing.

For a while he hadn’t had a girlfriend and hadn’t even thought about it much, until his friends had started to tease him. “Perpetually single,” Andrew called him. “The best wingman,” said Hutch. “He’ll never take your girl home.” At first Patrick laughed it off, but eventually he began to wonder why he didn’t have a girlfriend. His friends did. Sometimes ones who didn’t went out to bars to try to find them; Patrick went with them, but he didn’t really understand how they met girls there. It didn’t seem to happen to him.

He didn’t really think about being gay. It just didn’t really occur to him, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t encountered it before. They discussed LGBT issues in his theater classes. There were gay rights groups on campus. He had a friend from the radio, Taryn, who was a lesbian. She talked about being a lesbian a lot. He liked to listen to her; she was interesting and really different from anyone else he’d ever met.

Mom and Dad were Christian. They used to go to church all the time, the three of them, but in high school, Patrick had been so busy, and then there were months at a time when none of them would go. They went for holidays. No one ever talked about being gay. “Love is sacred.” The Bible said something about that. Taryn said she was in love with her girlfriend Della. Patrick thought that could be sacred too.

Ben Henrique, an excellent actor with whom Patrick had done a lot of theater, had come out to the whole cast one night right before a university performance of Midsummer. Everyone later said they kind of knew already. Patrick hadn’t, but when he heard people saying that, he thought maybe he kind of had. Like, it hadn’t changed his opinion of Ben at all.

Patrick kind of thought about how it must be for Ben, how terrifying it must be, how difficult. Like, how did you find guys, if you were gay, because how would you know? Maybe you just knew, if you were gay, who else was gay. Not like there were definite signs or anything, but if you were gay you probably grew attuned to subtle signs. Maybe that was how so many people in the cast said they had known. But Patrick hadn’t known. People didn’t use the term gaydar anymore. Maybe it was homophobic.

But Ben was good-looking. Patrick didn’t have a problem with admitting it. He’d even thought about it some—like, did Ben have sex? Well, of course he had sex. Most of the guys Patrick knew were having sex; it shouldn’t be different just because you were gay. But it was probably harder for Ben to find people to have sex with, and then when he did—like, what did you do? Did gay guys have anal sex as often as men and women had regular sex? But that was kind of homophobic, to think of it as “regular sex.” Ben could have regular sex, sure. But was anal sex regular sex for guys? Did they do it regularly? Did it hurt?

Like. Did you have to get ready for anal sex? Did you have to clean yourself out? Was that gross? Patrick actually thought masturbating was about as great as regular sex. Vaginal intercourse, not regular sex. Masturbating could be better. Was that normal? Guys said that was normal. He and Rachel had never done anal. He’d never thought about it. Should he have thought about it? Was that normal?

The guys who talked about doing anal with girls didn’t seem like very respectful guys. They talked about it like colonizing every part of a girl’s body, and Patrick thought it was gross. Those kinds of guys were gross, not anal sex. He was sure anal sex was very nice for some people. Maybe it wasn’t all anal sex. Maybe gay guys did other things. Things like just—touching each other. He didn’t see how that was that different than being with a girl. Maybe it wasn’t.

When Patrick went to bars with his friends, he didn’t ever see anyone that appealed to him, but it wasn’t like he was being picky. The girls just always seemed busy or distracted or like they were maybe there with someone, and the few that looked alone eventually got chatted up by other people while Patrick was working up the nerve. Sometimes Patrick didn’t even notice them, because his friends weren’t always there just to pick up girls. Usually a few of them were there just having a beer, either because they weren’t up for it that night or they were already with someone. Patrick usually passed most the night talking and having fun with them before realizing he could have spent that time picking up a girl.

A year passed, and he began to think something might be wrong.

He started making the effort, a real effort—he hadn’t been actually trying before, he realized, but now he tried. He tried to talk to girls at bars, even the ones who looked like they might not be actively trying to get picked up. It wasn’t easy. They blew him off or it was awkward, or they were with someone, and Patrick wondered whether maybe he was unattractive. Maybe the reason he wasn’t going out with girls was he was physically repellant in some way. Maybe it was his personality. He teased a lot. Maybe too much. “You’re a really jokester,” Rachel used to say.

“Yeah, I’m Ellen DeGeneres,” Patrick used to say.

He wrote a lot of songs during that time.

Eventually, he got better at it, talking to girls. They weren’t always there with someone. They didn’t always blow him off—but somehow, he still couldn’t imagine taking one of them home. Even though it had been so long since he’d had sex—should he want it more? Was something wrong with his dick? He’d talk to a pretty girl; she’d be smart and nice, but to him it felt like—there was nothing underneath.

Not that the girls were shallow. The encounter felt shallow, the purpose behind it shallow. What was the point, really? Take them to the dorm and sleep with them, and then what? They didn’t share interests, really. They weren’t super into him. He wasn’t super into them. How did you get past the point where it was awkward, and you didn’t really know if you liked each other to how it had been with Rachel?

Patrick guessed he just needed to find a girl he could click with. It was supposed to click. “Nothing clicks,” he started saying, when people talked about how single he was.

One night, a girl named Anna took Patrick back to her apartment. They had sex on her couch, and it was just as awful as high school sex except it was Anna, whom he didn’t really know, instead of Rachel. Rachel knew what had happened on the field trip to the zoo in the sixth grade. She knew what music he liked; she knew he thought pickles were funny; she knew he liked to be good at everything and that it was a problem for him when he was not. She would have known why he was so upset that this night had not gone perfectly according to plan, and poor Anna. She had no idea.

Patrick managed to leave Anna’s apartment without embarrassing himself—or Anna; at least, he hoped so. He didn’t want her to feel badly, or think that he felt badly, and he thought they parted on friendly enough terms, though she didn’t give him her number, and he didn’t give her his. Afterward, he went to the dorm, showered, then got in the old truck that used to belong to his dad and drove five and a half hours to see Rachel.

He didn’t call. He should have called, because he didn’t actually know which dorm was hers, and by the time he got there, it was three in the morning, and he didn’t want to wake her up. His parents were half an hour away, and he didn’t want to see them. He didn’t want to have to explain why he needed to see Rachel so badly. Instead, he slept in the truck and called her at seven in the morning. They got breakfast and talked until eleven.

She remembered the pickles. She remembered his mom’s nicknames for him. She knew what movies he liked, and he knew why she didn’t like dogs, and that she loved cathedrals, and that her relationship with her mother wasn’t that great. He knew everything about her, and she knew everything about him, and maybe this was why he hadn’t gotten a girlfriend, because his heart had really belonged to Rachel all along. Realizing it was a relief. Being with her was a relief, like an old baseball glove, a favorite song, a worn t-shirt. This was love. A relief.

They didn’t start going out again that day, but they did three weeks later when he came back to see her again. Whenever it felt like an effort to call her or go see her or have her visit, he remembered that she was the one, because look at what had happened when he hadn’t been with her. He’d slept with one other girl and then freaked out; Rachel was obviously it. And by then, Rachel was busier at school too—dancing, studying photography. They didn’t have a lot of time for each other, but that was okay.

Patrick’s degree was in business administration, which he liked well enough. The major included classes on accounting and finances, and he liked that sort of thing—spreadsheets and stats, the way everything always worked out the way you planned if you did it right. Business admin also had the people side of things, human resources and management, which Patrick liked as well. He was an extrovert. He would have withered inside, majoring in accounting. Business admin was a good degree; it played to his strengths while giving him good prospects for the future. Subconsciously, he’d had this whole plan—get the degree, get a steady job, and then he’d have enough money to be comfortable, get a house, get married. He could do whatever he wanted on the side.

When he graduated, he realized it was a stupid plan.

Why spend your life doing what you really wanted on the side? If you wanted it, why not go after it? So after school, instead of applying to work in sales as he had always assumed he would, he applied to work at the radio station closest to his parents’ town, which was still two hours away. The only thing available was a part-time job in licensing, but he knew his way around the law enough that he could do it well, and it was a foot in the door. He started painting houses on the side. He had a lot of student loans to pay off.

“You’d said you were going to move in with me,” Rachel said.

“I can’t, with this job,” Patrick said.

“Why not?”

“It’s a four-hour commute!”

“It’s a part-time job,” Rachel said.

“It’s important to me.”

“Am I important to you?”

“Come on, Rachel,” Patrick said. “You could move down there. We could get an apartment—”

“I have a life right here!”

Sometimes conversations with Rachel were so frustrating that Patrick thought he could do something terrible like yell at her, even though he never did. He got more frustrated with her than he ever remembered being with anyone else, but maybe he got so emotional about it because he loved her. Right. He was frustrated because he loved her. “Well,” he said, his voice low and tight. “This is my life. This is what I need.”

It had seemed so important at the time, such a big choice, the radio station instead of sales, a part-time job instead of real money, renting rooms and tiny apartments and eating cheap noodles and having boxes for furniture, instead of the life he had once imagined, wherein all his debts were paid in under five years. Cedar Lake instead of Pinewood, where his parents lived. He could still get the job and the wife and the house and the kids later. Right now, this was what Patrick wanted, what he needed, and he and Rachel only remained broken up for four months that time.

When those four months were over, she drove down to see him without calling, just as he had done to her when they were in school, and she’d knocked on his door while he was in the middle of dinner—eating pasta from a pan, watching television on a set that was sitting on a milk crate. He was splitting the rent with a guy named Quanto, who was never there, and it had been raining. Rachel had stood at the door of his apartment in a puddle, looking like a drowned fawn. Every part of his heart had ached to take care of her. He’d gotten her dry and given her his clothes, which were far too big, and then they’d had sex.

It was comfortable; she was comfortable; she knew how to touch his dick, and he knew how not to touch her clit. Afterwards they huddled under a blanket and watched an old movie, and maybe this was what adult life was supposed to be—not mortgages and marriage but doing things that made you feel good with someone you liked. It felt almost like being a kid. Who needed an entertainment center?

Rachel didn’t move in with him. They did long distance again, but it was a shorter distance now, and Patrick had less to distract him than in university. Meeting people was harder; finding extracurricular activities was harder. The station had less and less work for him, but Patrick picked up licensing for a few business owners as well.

“You could move back to Pinewood,” Rachel pointed out.

“There are more businesses in Cedar Lake,” Patrick said.

“But wasn’t the station why you were here?” she wanted to know. “They’re hardly giving you any hours.”

“I like licensing,” Patrick said.

“But why?”

He shrugged, somewhat uncomfortable. He hadn’t really thought about it. He didn’t like to think about it, because it brought up too many questions about what he was doing with his life that he couldn’t answer. He couldn’t answer why this felt right. It felt right to him. “You’re helping someone with a business, usually a new business. You’re helping them.”

“Helping them,” Rachel said unhappily.

“You’re helping them start something new,” Patrick clarified. “I like the idea of—people have new ideas, you know? I think I could get into patents.”

“Patents.”

“Why are you saying ‘patents’ that way?”

“Because you told me you wanted to do radio!”

“Why are you getting so upset?” Patrick demanded, upset now too.

“Do you think you’re maybe just . . . avoiding Pinewood?”

“Why would I be avoiding Pinewood?”

“Because you’re avoiding me!”

“Why would I avoid you?” Patrick asked, exasperated, because she always got like this. He didn’t understand. “I love you!”

“You don’t act like you do!”

It made Patrick angry. He was not someone who felt anger very often, except with her. “Taking you out on your anniversary—that wasn’t acting like I love you? Buying you that necklace—that wasn’t acting like I love you? Singing you that—that song?” Patrick felt his throat go tight. “It wasn’t because I love you?”

“Our anniversary,” Rachel whispered.

“What?” Patrick knew he had just snapped, and he didn’t like it.

Our anniversary,” Rachel said. “You took us out for our anniversary, not my anniversary.”

“I misspoke!”

“Sometimes, when you touch me . . .” Rachel swallowed hard. “I don’t think you really want me.”

“Of course, I want you,” Patrick said. “Who else could I possibly want?”

“That’s not—that’s not a good reason to want me,” Rachel said, her eyes bright.

“That’s not what I meant. Rachel.” Patrick’s shoulders sagged. “I—you know I tried. With other girls. Before. You know I—you know it didn’t work for me, because I don’t want anyone but you. I’ve never wanted anyone but you.”

Rachel nodded, but she was crying. “Okay.”

“Can I—can I touch you now? Can I show you—what I feel?”

Rachel nodded again, and he went to her, wrapping his arms around her, trying to show her how much she meant. He was twenty-two, and he’d never been with anyone else but that once, and that one time had felt so wrong. He’d never felt this way about anyone else. He’d never felt familiar and comfortable, like it was easy, and that was how you were supposed to feel, right? Love wasn’t supposed to be difficult.

Five months later, Rachel broke up with him.

“I’m interested in someone else,” she said.

“Who?” Patrick had demanded, but of course it was someone he didn’t know, someone Rachel knew from college. “But that means you’ve known him almost a year,” he said, when she explained it to him.

“I’ve known him two years,” Rachel said.

“But that means—have you been interested in him this whole time?”

“I didn’t let myself think about it,” Rachel said. “I was with you.”

“And suddenly you just decide—you want to be with him?”

“It wasn’t sudden.”

“Great,” Patrick said. “So you’ve been wanting to break up with me this whole time.”

“You know that’s not what I said.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying . . .” Rachel tucked her hair behind her ear, like she did when she was saying something she didn’t want to. “I think we’ve been together so long because we know each other so well,” Rachel said. “I care about you, and you care about me, but is it really based on us? Or is it based on memories of us?”

“I thought it was based on us,” Patrick croaked.

“I thought so too,” Rachel said, “but have you noticed we—everything we do, it’s like a habit. We’re not even excited to see each other.”

“I’m excited to see you.”

“But are you, really? When I see Blake, it’s—it’s exciting every time. I can’t wait to find out what he thinks, to tell him things that happened. It always feels new, even though I’ve known him for a while. Do you know what I mean?”

“No,” Patrick said, then saw Rachel’s sad smile. “No, I mean—I mean, I feel that when I’m with you.”

“Do you?” Rachel asked.

Patrick didn’t know. He didn’t know. They broke up, and he was devastated, but he felt devastated because—he wasn’t even sure he was sad about it. He went home to Pinewood and cried in his mother’s arms, and he didn’t know if he was crying about Rachel. He was crying because he didn’t know what he was doing; he wasn’t getting that many hours at the station; he hated sharing his apartment with Quanto; he didn’t know if he wanted to work in licensing; he didn’t know if he wanted Rachel; he didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t want the things a guy his age was supposed to want; he wasn’t doing the things a guy his age was supposed to do. Maybe something was wrong with him.

“It’s hard,” Mom said, stroking his hair. “You loved Rachel so much.”

Maybe he was gay, he thought, six months later.

For the first few weeks after Rachel left him, Patrick was just trying to get a handle on his life. Work at the radio dried up, and he started applying for other jobs and looking for other places to live. He was dealing with kind of a lot. The woman who’d been his girlfriend practically since high school had just left him; no wonder he didn’t really think about getting a new, different girlfriend. Weeks turned into months. He got a job in human resources at the regional municipality, but he didn’t move to a new apartment. He was still in a lot of debt.

Patrick didn’t have that many friends in Cedar Lake, which he didn’t really understand. He had been living there over a year, and he was pretty social. He’d found a bar that had open mic nights; he played his guitar, talked to the performers. Made friends with some people there, all of whom were either in their forties, consistently stoned, or married, or all three; he felt like a third wheel.

Cedar Lake had a curling club; Patrick was bad at curling, but he did it anyway. Life had no flavor without risk, right, and the social climate of curling was strangely similar to Cedar Lake’s music scene, although no one was consistently stoned. Except for maybe Jason. They didn’t hang out with Jason. Patrick wasn’t close to anybody, though. Maybe everyone had decided not to hang out with him, the way they didn’t hang out with Jason. He didn’t know.

Patrick volunteered at a fair-housing organization, doing their books. Everything there was always so busy, meeting people was difficult. At work, most people were a lot older than him. He made friends with them anyway. The sixty-year-old lady who lived next door loved tea almost as much as he did and disliked Quanto even more. Sometimes Patrick felt closer to her than anyone else in his life. Her name was Patti. Patti Bloom.

Patrick’s friends from university were all far away and were gradually falling out of touch. He maintained some long-distance friendships with a few guys from high school, and his cousins, of course, but Brandon seemed to have gone kind of off the rails. He’d turned into some kind of racist bigot, and he lived in Pinewood; who was there to be racist and bigoted against? But he was anyway; Patrick didn’t know what the hell had happened.

Not having friends he regularly spent time with was strange. Not having Rachel was strange, and Patrick thought about that year in college when his friends had teased him about being single. Now he didn’t even have enough friends to tease him about it, but he should be doing something. He should be dating. He felt like he didn’t have enough time. Dating took so much time.

That was stupid. Meeting someone, falling in love—eventually getting married, spending your life with someone—that was a central part of existence. Wasn’t it? You couldn’t just say, “Oh, I didn’t have time for that,” but when Patrick thought about it, the idea of dating made him feel kind of ill. It made his hands sweat. He didn’t know why.

Maybe his mother had been right—he’d cried when Rachel broke up with him because he’d loved her. Well, duh, Patrick. Don’t be such a dang dunce. Of course he’d been crying because he was in love with her. Of course he’d felt confused and upset about all those other issues, because Rachel was a central part of his existence; he’d lost her, and it had made his life feel like he was falling apart because he’d loved her.

Feeling nauseous at the idea of dating another woman was just further evidence he missed her. This was how missing her manifested itself. He just needed to—move on. Get past it. Until the idea of dating didn’t make him feel sick, and then he would try it. Like a normal person. Like normal people did. He just had to keep busy until he got over her. Busier. Do more things.

He auditioned for a part in Cedar Lake Theater’s Leaving Home and got a big role. The director was the first openly gay man Patrick ever remembered meeting. Openly gay as in flamboyantly gay; Patrick had known Ben Henrique at university. Ben hadn’t been out to everybody. Just the entire cast of Midsummer. “I wanted to do Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” Emile said, “but this town is too fucking conservative.”

Patrick went home and looked up Fortune and Men’s Eyes. It was apparently about gay men in prison.

Emile was fifty, married to a librarian named Larry, and seemed to be living his best life in that Waiting for Guffman kind of way. Brandon would have been a dick to him, but Patrick thought it was nice that Emile was so open about it. Patrick was playing a character named Ben in Leaving Home. Patrick thought about Ben Henrique a lot, for some reason.

Patrick asked Emile to coffee so they could discuss some questions he had about the part, but once they sat down, the only thing Patrick could think was, how did you know you were gay? Eventually, Patrick got through his questions—his actual questions, about the part—but even as he asked them, he realized they were not his actual questions at all. His actual question, the one he had stopped himself from asking, was one he didn’t understand why he would need to ask.

An obvious explanation presented itself, but it wasn’t true, because Patrick wasn’t gay. Even if he was, Emile was married, and he was in his fifties, and he was not an attractive man—balding and small, with sagging skin and thin lips. The idea that Patrick had asked Emile to coffee because Emile was gay bothered Patrick all day. Maybe he was just curious about it.

Patrick wondered what Ben was doing.

Patrick remembered thinking about how it must be hard for Ben to find someone, since he was gay. Patrick wondered if it had been hard for Emile to find Larry. Was it so very different from Patrick himself? He couldn’t find someone, and he was straight. To find someone, he’d have to date; to find dates, he’d have to—he didn’t know. Sign up on some kind of dating app? Maybe he should do that. Was that what Ben Henrique was doing? Were there dating apps for gay people?

Out of curiosity, Patrick checked. There were dating apps for gay people. In fact, most of the dating apps for straight people were also for gay people. You could say you were interested in both. Some people were interested in both. Taryn’s girlfriend, Della, had been interested in both. Patrick wondered what that was like. It was easier, surely. You had more options. But maybe it was more confusing.

Maybe Patrick wanted to date after all, because thinking about it was making him kind of hard. And he was on the internet anyway, so maybe he should look up porn. He didn’t usually do that. It kind of bored him, and anyway, it wasn’t really something he needed; he responded really well to touch. His own touch was usually enough, even though he wanted it to be someone else. But maybe he should look something up anyway? Maybe it would make him feel inspired to date, and he should be dating. That was the normal thing to do.

Patrick didn’t look up porn. He looked up Fortune and Men’s Eyes again, the play about gay men in prison. He wondered whether Emile was going to direct it, whether Patrick could be in it. Then Patrick put his hand on himself, slowly beginning to jack himself off.

Fuck.

Oh fuck.

The play sounded terrible. It sounded unhappy. It sounded like stereotypes about gay sex being about violence and dominance, and Patrick knew from university rallies and musicals that gay relationships could be loving. And they didn’t even have to be about AIDS; Emile was happy! And then Patrick was getting off to Rent and A Chorus Line, and he thought of Ben, maybe Ben in A Chorus Line, or maybe—Ben, right here, touching him. A man kissing him, a man putting his hand on his dick, a man’s dick brushing his.

Patrick came harder than he ever remembered coming.

Did this make him gay?

Patrick couldn’t ever remember being attracted to a guy before, and he tried to think of men, just to be sure. Lamar, one of his fellow actors in the play. Reggie, a guy he knew from curling. Quanto, his roommate. Brandon, his childhood friend; Andrew and Hutch, his best friends from college; Ben. Had he been attracted to Ben? Patrick didn’t remember being attracted to Ben. Wouldn’t he have noticed, if he had been attracted to Ben? He’d just come, thinking of Ben, except in the end he hadn’t really been thinking of Ben specifically, just a guy, a cock; did that make you gay?

Patrick had always found Jude Law’s incredibly good looks kind of distracting. Did that count?

Patrick started reading about homosexuality—on the internet, but he also went to the library and got books about it. He watched gay porn. He jacked off and thought about guys and thought that he might be into it. How did you know?

Sometimes, when you touch me, I don’t think you really want me, Rachel had said, and what if what he had felt with her had not been attraction? What if it worked with her because she knew how to touch him, because they’d been touching each other for so long? Is it really based on us? Or is it based on memories of us? she’d asked. He’d always gotten off better in her hand than inside of her body, and what if it was because his own body really just remembered being a teenager? Everything we do, it’s like a habit, she’d said, but Patrick hadn’t heard that sex could be a habit. That wasn’t a thing. You didn’t orgasm out of habit.

Could you?

Leaving Home opened. It went pretty well, and Patrick asked Emile for coffee again. This time, Patrick finally asked the question he really wanted to ask.

“How did I know I was gay?” Emile asked, laughing. “My dear, you had better ask when I didn’t know!”

Patrick gritted his teeth. “When didn’t you know?”

“Maybe when I was five or six?”

Patrick looked down at his tea. It wasn’t the answer he wanted, but it was an answer. Maybe he was just—confused. Maybe he really did miss Rachel.

“Why do you ask?” Emile wanted to know.

Every instinct in Patrick told him to lie, and he was good at giving up. He was really good at giving up; he was a perfectionist, and when things didn’t go his way, he couldn’t stand it. He got frustrated; he walked away. Rachel said it was his fatal flaw, but all three times, she was the one who had walked away from him—hadn’t she? Making himself look at Emile, Patrick said, “I thought I might be.” His hands tightened to fists on the table.

“Well,” Emile said, lifting his chin. “Not every young thing is as enlightened as I. For some, I’m told, it takes time.”

“I’ve had a lot of time.”

“Larry says he didn’t know until he was seventeen.”

“I’m twenty-three,” Patrick gritted out.

“Oh, dear.” Emile sipped his coffee. “Well, here’s an easy test—have you ever been attracted to a man?”

“I don’t know,” Patrick said, feeling miserable.

“Trust me, you’d know.” Emile had more coffee.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been attracted to a girl! Patrick wanted to yell at him, but of course he’d been attracted to girls. He’d been with Rachel for almost five years of his life, and he’d slept with that girl Anna. Why would he do that if he wasn’t attracted to them? Was he really the kind of person who would lie? Was he lying to himself—this whole time? But he wasn’t trying to lie to himself. He had masturbated, thinking of men! Shouldn’t that be enough?

“I just—think about guys sometimes,” Patrick said in a rush. “And I wanted to know if . . .”

“Everyone thinks about guys sometimes,” Emile said comfortingly, patting his hand. “I can’t tell you what you feel. I do know, if you feel it, you feel it, and if you don’t, you don’t.”

“So, I don’t,” Patrick said, trying to understand.

Emile just shrugged. “You’d know.”

*

“People are stupid about attraction,” David told him, so many years later, when Patrick told him about getting coffee with Emile.

“Yeah, but I was really unclear about it at the time,” Patrick said, kissing a line down David’s chest. Patrick was sort of done talking about the past; he didn’t like it. They were in bed together; they had better things to do.

“No,” David said. “He was dumb.”

“Don’t be hard on Emile,” Patrick said, smiling against David’s stomach.

“You went to him for guidance,” David said. “You needed Oprah, and he was Doctor Phil.”

“What’s wrong with Doctor Phil?”

“Everything’s wrong with Doctor Phil. Doctor Phil is not the point. He should have told you it’s different for everyone. He should have told you that what you feel—anything you feel—it’s okay.”

David’s hand carded through Patrick’s hair, and Patrick had been planning to go down on him, but David talked like this rarely enough that Patrick moved back up, putting his ear on David’s heart. He loved that sound, the steady thump thump thump of him. “It didn’t feel not okay,” Patrick said softly. “I just—didn’t know what I felt.”

“He should have told you that was okay too. That that was normal.” David’s hand kept moving in his hair.

Closing his eyes, Patrick imagined he could feel the rings, heavy gold against his scalp. “If I could have met you then, I wouldn’t have been confused.”

The hand paused. “If you had met me then,” David said softly, but then he didn’t finish.

Patrick knew. He knew it all. Drugs, eating disorders, casual sex and alcoholism, thousand-dollar manicures, abuse. Too much abuse that David never thought of as abuse. I just had bad luck, David sometimes said, but Patrick knew. “I would have loved you,” Patrick said, coming up to kiss David’s mouth. “I would have fallen in love with you. Nothing could ever stop me.”

“Tranqs could stop you,” David whispered, but he let Patrick kiss him, and now Patrick had that to file away as well; what sort of tranquilizers? He knew David had taken anxiety meds for a long time, but they had been good for him, he’d finally admitted; he wouldn’t call them tranqs unless he meant something bad, but that was over now. It was over.

“I found you,” Patrick said, kissing him. “I found you.”

“You were Lassie,” David said.

“Um. What?”

“I was Timmy in a well, and you were Lassie.”

“Right,” Patrick agreed. “I was Lassie. But I was Timmy too.”

“This metaphor is weird.”

“It’s yours,” Patrick said, kissing him.

“Yes.” David tugged Patrick’s hips. “Mine.”

*

After Leaving Home, Patrick signed up for a dating app called Bumpkin, mostly because he was kind of terrified that Rachel or Brandon or his mom or anyone else he knew would find him on Tinder or OkCupid. Bumpkin was smaller and kept it much more local, although you actually couldn’t put sexual preferences into it. It seemed kind of backwards that way. It was a rural app.

Maybe he should do OkCupid and try putting guys on there? But that would be even worse if anyone saw, because then people would think he was gay, and he didn’t even know if he was. He just sort of wanted to try it. He was bi-curious, which was something he’d heard in the nineties and never heard now. And it wasn’t that he minded people thinking he was gay, except what if Mom and Dad found out and they thought—what if they thought—Patrick didn’t know what they thought. He stayed on Bumpkin and went on a date with a girl named Sarah.

He and Sarah went on three dates. She was nice—pretty, he guessed, but he had trouble talking to her. They weren’t really on the same wavelength. She was really into things like design and modern art; she cared a lot about aesthetic and color palettes; she was pretentious about things like fashion and décor. She said she knew celebrities. When he jerked off, he couldn’t come to the thought of her.

Then he went on another date with a girl named Becky. “I don’t like small men,” she told him, and that was the end of that. Patrick had never really thought of himself as all that small.

He wondered again whether he was unattractive. He couldn’t tell. He had kind of a round face. Rachel used to tell him he was hot. Rachel’s brother Derek used to tell him he looked like an inoffensive potato.

The next day he got on Facebook. He hadn’t gotten on there in a long time, and he had a lot of messages. Patrick didn’t bother to look at them, typing Ben Henrique’s name into the field to message him, because Patrick thought he had him friended. He was pretty sure he had him friended. He had a lot of people from university friended—yes, he had him friended.

Patrick wrote that he was doing community theater in Cedar Lake, that it reminded him of Midsummer, that it made him wonder how Ben was doing. Then that was done, and Patrick had to wait for a reply. He looked at his other messages. Jacquelyn had messaged him.

Jacquelyn: It was nice to see you at Hutch’s wedding! How have you been?

Patrick replied, because he’d always liked Jacquelyn. She was buxom and round-faced with a knock-out head of red-hair and perfect freckles; everyone had always thought she was so hot. She was going out with Andre, last Patrick heard.

Jacquelyn replied later that day, but Ben replied the next day. Patrick kept the two conversations going, small-talk with Ben that Patrick later admitted to himself was an excuse to find out where Ben was living, chit-chat with Jacquelyn, catching up. She was no longer seeing Andre, which was too bad. Andre was a good guy. Maybe Patrick should message him too. Ben was still in St. Catharines, and Patrick messaged him back:

Patrick: I’m headed down there next weekend. Do you want to grab coffee?

It was a lie. Patrick didn’t know why he’d done it.

Jacquelyn: When will you be in St. Catharines again?

Patrick told Jacquelyn he didn’t know.

Jacquelyn: I never told you this before
Jacquelyn: You’re the hottest man alive when you sing

Ben: Yeah sure why not

Patrick slammed his laptop closed. He didn’t know what to do with that. He didn’t know what to do with any of that.

He didn’t know why he’d lied to Ben. He didn’t know what to say to Jacquelyn.

Thanks, you know, I snuck in the back to turn heat up when I did gigs so people would get hot

Thanks, you know, you’re pretty hot yourself

Thanks, you know, I’m going to St. Catharines to see a gay boy, do you want to hook up while I’m there?

Patrick opened his laptop. He messaged Ben about where to meet for coffee. He didn’t message Jacquelyn.

*

The only way Patrick knew how to flirt was tease. He’d done it a lot at university, with those girls in bars, and yet the only girl he’d ever taken home was Anna.

“Pulling pig-tails,” Andrew had told him once, when he’d witnessed Patrick’s attempts at seduction.

“I’m not going to pull anything else,” Patrick had said. He was very respectful of women. He didn’t like the idea of trying to touch them without their consent.

“You’re not going to pull at all, with that kind of attitude,” Andrew had said, downing a shot and walking straight up to a girl Patrick hadn’t even noticed at the bar. How did Andrew do that? Just—sense them, like that? Did he have a special radar?

Patrick drove three hours to St. Catharines for coffee with Ben, and Patrick teased him almost the entire time they were at the coffeehouse. He didn’t mean to. It just happened.

“You were always very popular,” Ben said at one point.

“Um, thanks?” The comment made Patrick feel a little hot, as though he was blushing. “I hope you don’t mean I was Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls.

“Patrick,” Ben said. “Lindsay Lohan was the nice girl. You were the nicest guy I knew. Everyone thought you were the nicest. And the most talented.”

“I paid them,” Patrick said. “I did a drug hustle on the side; you never knew.”

“Drugs?” said Ben, sounding confused.

“I’m—I was kidding.”

“Oh.” Ben laughed, a little awkwardly. “You were also the funniest.”

“Yeah. Five dollars to laugh at my jokes. Ten to tell people I’m hilarious. And when I was out of cash, I’d just get everyone drunk.”

“I thought—I guess I just thought—you didn’t really pay attention to me.”

Patrick’s pulse began to quicken. “You thought I ignored you?”

“I just—I didn’t know you noticed me.”

Patrick’s pulse kicked up another notch. “I noticed you,” he said, his voice too tight.

Ben had silky brown hair, a narrow face, slender build. He was taller than Patrick. He was cute. Like, really cute. When Patrick admitted that now, it didn’t feel objective; he felt it in his gut—Ben was cute. Was Patrick’s dick going to notice? Was that how it worked? Patrick wasn’t getting hard or anything, but his heart was practically slamming against his chest, and a warm feeling was pooling in his gut. He thought maybe he could get hard, if he wanted to.

“I’m probably going to be coming down to St Catharines on the weekends—I’m thinking about taking a course on business licensing,” Patrick said, even though he hadn’t thought about it until he said it. “Do you want to—hang out? Again?”

“Sure,” said Ben. “Hey, are you going to be in town tonight? My boyfriend is in a show.”

“Oh.” Patrick tried not to let his face change, but he swallowed hard. “I-I didn’t know—I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”

Ben frowned at him. “Um—Patrick. I came out to the entire cast on opening night. I thought—I guess I thought you’d remember.”

“Of course I remember,” Patrick said. “That . . . wasn’t what I meant. I just . . . didn’t know you were seeing someone. Right now.” They’d been having coffee for an hour, catching up, and Ben hadn’t even mentioned it.

“Oh, well—it’s kind of . . .” Ben shrugged. “We just started seeing each other recently. Are you still seeing Rachel?”

“No.”

“Oh. Sorry, man. I thought—I guess I thought you two were—you were going to get married, the real deal. Like Andrew and Joanie.”

“No.” Patrick dredged up a smile. “You know—I’m not even sure Andrew and Joanie were Andrew and Joanie. Andrew’s dating Sylvia now.”

“Sylvia? Sylvie Canton?”

Patrick faked another smile. “I actually have to get back to Cedar Lake tonight, so I can’t see the show. Excuse me—I have to use the restroom.”

This was stupid, Patrick told himself in the restroom, which he didn’t really need to use. He washed his face, scrubbing it hard. It was so stupid. He hadn’t needed to drive all this way. He could have just said over the phone, “Look, I’m curious about how gay people know they’re gay, and I don’t have anyone else to talk to about it except for a fifty-year-old queer who told me it’s not confusing,” except some small, stupid part of himself had secretly hoped that seeing Ben would answer the question. That Patrick would see him and want to sleep with him so badly that all of it would be solved.

An even smaller part of himself had thought that if he saw Ben and wanted to sleep with him, they could do it that night. They could get a motel room and—and—and Patrick didn’t know. Patrick could kiss him. Touch Ben’s dick. Touch his chest. Something gay, something really gay, so then he would know; he would know better than he did just jacking off and thinking about it, because that didn’t feel real. Gay porn didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. Nothing had ever felt real in his life except Rachel.

Patrick came back and faked his way through coffee with Ben. Acting like he didn’t want to throw up was far easier than he thought it would be, almost disturbingly easy. He joked around even more. He pretended it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing was serious, really. Life was a stage. Some Shakespeare thing.

When Patrick got in his busted-up truck to drive back to Cedar Lake, he drove all the way past it to Pinewood, to Mom and Dad.

“Oh, honey,” Mom said, her whole face breaking open when she saw him. Patrick hadn’t been aware that he looked that bad, but apparently, she saw something on his face, because she was immediately reaching up to pull him into her arms, stroking the back of his neck. “Honey, what happened? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Patrick said. “Nothing.”

“You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to,” Dad said the next morning. “Just know we’re here for you. We’re here.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Patrick said.

*

Twelve years later, Patrick could tell that story and almost laugh. It was kind of funny, really.

“I don’t think it’s funny,” David breathed.

They were standing in the stockroom at the store. Patrick arched back in David’s arms to look at his face. “Come on,” he said. “It’s a little funny. I drove three hundred kilometers just because Ben was the only gay man my age I knew.”

“What if Ben hadn’t been seeing somebody? You could have ended up with him.”

“No, I couldn’t have.”

“You could have,” David insisted, in his very David way. He tugged on Patrick’s hips, pulling him closer even though they were already lined up right against each other. “You didn’t know you were mine, yet. You could have ended up with anyone.”

“No, I couldn’t have.”

“How do you know?”

“He didn’t laugh at my jokes.”

David began to smile, the sideways one, the one he tried to hide but couldn’t because it became too big, the best of David’s smiles. “Well, okay. Maybe not with Ben.”

“Maybe not with anyone.” Patrick tugged David’s hips, much harder than David had tugged his; it jerked David’s body and made him squeak, just a little. Fuck, Patrick loved to do that to him. “No one but you, David.” Patrick kissed him. “Well,” he said, breaking away, “and Jude Law.”

David smoothed his hands over Patrick’s shoulders, down his back, down to the curve of his ass. “Jude Law can’t have you,” David said, squeezing.

“Aw. Would you fight him for me?”

“Mm, no.” David shook his head. “Jude Law wouldn’t laugh at your jokes either.”

“You don’t know.”

“I do. He has a very specific sense of humor.”

Patrick kissed him just to wipe the smirk off his face. “You’re such a tease,” he said against his mouth. “You’ve never met Jude Law.”

“But if I did,” said David, “I’d ensure he wouldn’t find you funny. At all. You’re mine. You belong to me.”

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed. “You think I’m hilarious.”

“Mm-hm.” Smiling, David kissed him again.

Chapter Text

Patrick stayed with his mom and dad. He called his boss and told him he wasn’t well enough to come in, which was true. He took off three days, then four. After a week, he dragged himself back to Cedar Lake, told his boss he was quitting, gave Quanto his rent for the next three months, then packed his things.

Five boxes. He didn’t take the diner chairs he’d found at a thrift store, which were chrome and vinyl and made him feel retro and so chic. He didn’t take the entertainment system he’d finally bought. He didn’t take the couch, on which he knew Quanto had had sex; it was disgusting anyway. He didn’t take the cute little coffee table, which he’d also been proud of, because there were joint burns on it and it probably smelled like pot. Quanto had been a real dick, actually; why had Patrick even stayed here? He was glad he was leaving. He wouldn’t miss it.

Ben texted him—they had exchanged phone numbers—and asked about hanging out. Patrick ignored him and went back to Pinewood. He lived with his parents. He applied for responsible jobs, adult jobs, a way to pay off all of his student loans.

He applied for jobs in sales. There weren’t as many as he thought there were going to be. He looked for jobs in human resources. There weren’t any jobs in human resources. He looked for jobs in management consulting. All of them required five years’ experience. He applied for a job as a financial analyst for an investment company. It looked soul-crushing. He’d been living with his parents for two months. The investment company offered him the job. He took it.

When he had enough money, he got his own apartment, like a real adult. Six weeks later, Rachel moved in.

They hadn’t exactly planned to get back together. After he’d moved in with his parents, he’d gotten a text from Rachel, but it was just a random string of letters.

Patrick: ?

Rachel: Sorry! I think I butt texted you

Patrick: ok

Rachel: I heard you were back in town

Patrick: But I didn’t see you at my parade

Rachel: You know we have like 6 parades a day for every stupid thing that happens

Patrick: Only 6?

Rachel: Look. Can we be friends?

Patrick looked at the text. He looked at it and looked at it and looked at it.

Patrick: sure

Rachel: Good.
Rachel: Wanna grab coffee or something?

Patrick thought about it again, for a long time.

Patrick: sure

So they’d had coffee. Seeing her was nice—no pressure. She had a boyfriend, Blake. All that frustration Patrick used to feel with her was gone, and there was just the warm blanket feeling, like he felt with his cousins, like he felt with Mom and Dad, like he felt with all of Pinewood. This was good; this was normal; this was familiar; this was something he understood.

Over the next two months, he and Rachel saw each other more. It turned out she was having problems with Blake. She’d moved in with him—something she and Patrick had never done. But they were fighting. She was unhappy.

She couldn’t move out; she didn’t have anywhere else to go. She didn’t have a job. She couldn’t go home; her mother was awful. Her mother was an alcoholic. Rachel was so unhappy. She was so, so unhappy.

Patrick was unhappy too. He hated his job.

“Come crash with me,” he said to her.

She’d looked up at him tearfully. They were in a park. She’d started crying on the park bench, and he’d put his arm around her. It felt good, like it was supposed to.

“Not as . . .” Patrick began to say. “You could just stay with me a while,” he said. “Until you find something.”

She gave him a watery smile. “Would it really work that way?”

“It could,” Patrick said.

“You always wanted to take care of me,” she said. “One day, I’ll have to grow up and be a big girl.”

“Right,” said Patrick. “So grown up. Until a month ago, I lived with my parents.”

“You ‘lived with them’ for three months.”

“I’m twenty-four,” said Patrick.

She leaned in, her forehead touching his. “So am I.”

“Besides, you took care of me too.”

“How did I take care of you?”

“When I broke my arm and couldn’t play,” said Patrick.

Rachel laughed. He could always make her laugh; it was easy. “You always tried to give me your jacket when I was cold.”

“You taught me how to dance,” said Patrick.

“A lot of good that did,” said Rachel. “You drove all the way up to Pinewood that night when Mom—that night.”

“You taught me how to boil water,” Patrick said, to lighten the mood, but Rachel’s mood was heavy.

“You held me in your arms when Dad died,” she said.

You taught me how to make love, he wanted to say, because it was true. He’d had sex with one other person besides her, but he couldn’t remember really wanting to with other people. She was so alone, and he was too; they didn’t have to be lonely. They didn’t have to be lonely. She had tied his ties, and he had been there when her mother had driven a van into their front porch. “Stay with me a little while,” he said.

“Just as friends?” she asked.

“As friends.”

*

She lived with him nine days before they ended up making out on his couch.

Patrick left early the next morning so he wouldn’t have to see her. All day at work, he planned what he would say. “About last night,” he said, when he got back. “I really just want to be friends. I didn’t plan on—when I invited you to stay—it was just . . . I’m at a point in my life that—”

“No, you’re right,” said Rachel. “I’m—I’m at the point too. I mean, a different point. I mean—I just got out of a pretty serious relationship.”

“Right,” said Patrick.

“We’ve never—we’ve never really been friends, have we?”

Patrick frowned. “I thought we were always friends.”

“I meant—without the other stuff. Without being together. We should try—I want to try. Just being friends.”

“Right,” Patrick said again. “That’s what I want. I want to try.”

“So,” Rachel said, in her let’s do this voice. “Let’s be friends.”

*

A week later, they made out on the couch again. It felt so nice. It was really nice, warm, someone touching him—Rachel touching him, Rachel who knew him, who had seen him at his very worst. God, it felt so nice.

“I just want to be friends,” Patrick said again.

“Me too,” said Rachel.

Patrick began to ignore all his potential matches on Bumpkin.

*

For a surreal three months, all they did was kiss.

“You said we were never friends,” Patrick said, in-between kisses. “We never tried living together either.”

“Mm,” she said, kissing his neck some more.

“We should have known it wouldn’t work.”

“What wouldn’t work?”

“Living together.”

“What?” Rachel pulled back. “You want me to move out?”

“Rachel, that’s not what I said.”

She tucked her hair behind her ear. “All right. What did you mean?”

“I just meant—us. This.” He gestured between them. “We’re supposed to be friends.”

“We are friends.”

Patrick gave her a look. “Friends don’t make out with each other.”

“What,” she teased. “You don’t make out with Mike?”

Mike was Patrick’s friend from Heighten Investments. He was hot—Patrick had admitted that to himself. He’d noticed. He didn’t think he was attracted to him, though. Mike was married. He had a wife, Michelle. Michelle was pregnant. “I mean,” said Patrick, his voice light, “if I was making out with Mike, it shouldn’t matter, right? Because you and I are supposed to be friends.”

“It might matter to Michelle,” Rachel teased, leaning in to kiss him again.

“Michelle and I have an understanding,” Patrick teased back.

“Ooh, do you have Mike on a timeshare?”

“I get him on Tuesdays.”

“Hot,” Rachel said, climbing over him to kiss him more thoroughly, and Patrick found that he was getting hard.

Was it because he was kissing Rachel, or because he was thinking about kissing Mike? The thought crossed Patrick’s mind, but Rachel was the one on top of him.

“I want to go down on you,” Rachel said.

“That’s not . . .” Patrick ripped himself away from her. “That’s not friends.”

“You’re hard,” she said. “That’s not friends either.”

It’s not because of you, he wanted to say, but that would be like a slap in the face, and he didn’t know anyway. He didn’t know. Mike was married. “I’m—I just want to . . . I just wanted to . . .” He gritted his teeth.

Rachel’s face changed. “Hey,” she said, getting off of him the rest of the way. “Hey, it’s okay. We don’t have to.”

“I’m gonna go take a shower,” he said, springing off the couch.

In the shower, he touched his cock and thought about Rachel. He thought about Rachel's mouth on him, sucking him and licking him. He got off to it. That meant he wasn’t gay, right? He should go back out there. Tell her he wanted to be with her. Didn’t he want to be with her? Why had he run away?

He stayed under the spray of the shower, letting the hot water pour over him. If he stayed here long enough, maybe Rachel would be in bed by the time he got out. It was his bed. He had a one-bedroom. He was sleeping on the couch. Maybe he’d thought this would happen when he’d asked Rachel to move in with him. Maybe he’d wanted it to. If he stayed in the shower long enough, then left early the next morning, he might not see her.

Then he’d be at work, and he hated work. He hated everything about it. “Give it time,” someone would say, if he had told anyone. He hadn’t told anyone. His parents would just feel bad for him. They already felt bad for him. They didn’t know why he’d moved back from Cedar Lake. They didn’t know why he’d begun living in Cedar Lake to begin with. They didn’t know why he was living with Rachel and saying she wasn’t his girlfriend. Patrick didn’t know any of these things either.

There was no one else to tell that he hated his job. No one was close enough to him to receive regular updates on his life. How had that happened? You were always popular, Ben had said. He could have told Rachel.

Patrick let the shower run cold.

*

They didn’t kiss for two weeks after that, and Patrick could feel it, the tension between them, and a part of him felt like he was just being stubborn. A hot girl who lived with him had wanted to go down on him, and he had said no because—because why?

Patrick took more showers, thinking about Rachel going down on him, a mouth on him, sucking him; he got off to it. He got off to her. It was to her, right? He wanted her, right? That was what this was about. He had always wanted Rachel; his body didn’t know how to be so close to her and not have her. That meant something. Right? That whole thing where he’d thought he might be gay—he’d just been confused.

One night, when the snow had turned to slush outside and work was particularly exhausting, Patrick had gotten home, and the apartment had smelled incredible.

“I made dinner,” Rachel said, coming out of the tiny kitchen, and Patrick had imagined this before. He’d imagined it in high school, being married to Rachel. He’d be at work; she’d be at home cooking, and he’d come home, and she would be there. He’d imagined exactly this, how warm it was, how pretty she looked, how good it smelled. He still wanted this, didn’t he? The marriage, the mortgage, the kids.

He put down his bag and he went and he kissed her.

“Oh,” Rachel said, when he pulled back for a breath. “I thought we weren’t?”

“I want to.” Patrick kissed her again. “Don’t you?”

“Yes.” Rachel wrapped her arms around his neck. “Yes.”

Patrick kept kissing her. He actually really wanted her. He wanted this, coming home to this. It felt so simple. This was so simple; why was he trying to make things complicated; nothing had to be complicated. As he kissed her, he pushed her against the wall—gently.

He was always really gentle with her. It was instinct. He wasn’t a violent person by any stretch of the imagination, and yet somehow, he could imagine things like pushing her around, and he didn’t like it. The image of that. He wasn’t a caveman; he didn’t want to be a caveman.

“You can let loose with me, you know,” she had told him once.

“I don’t want to,” he had told her.

Her face had fallen.

“No,” he’d said. “I mean—you’re special. I want to treat you like you’re special.”

He knew about rough sex; he knew that was a thing, but he didn’t want it. He didn’t like the thought of when he imagined it with her, the thought of manhandling her, the thought of yanking her body on top of his, the thought of forcing her to do something. She was so small; she was a woman; it made him think of violence and—and oppression; it repelled him. He controlled himself instinctively. He didn’t want to hurt her; he just wanted her to feel good. He wanted to feel good too.

So he got her against the wall, then got his hands on her ass, her thighs, then gently tugged.

“Yeah. Patrick.”

Then he lifted, and she did her little jump. They’d perfected this move when he was at university, Rachel getting her legs around his waist so that he was holding her up; she was so small, and he didn’t have huge muscles or anything, but he was strong enough. He was strong enough to carry her to the bedroom, anyway, her legs locked around his waist.

“Patrick,” she whispered. “The meatloaf.”

“I don’t care about the meatloaf,” he said. “Do you?”

“No,” she said, kissing him.

The next day, Patrick shut down his Bumpkin profile.

*

They were together for six months after that. Then Patrick broke it off. That was the first time he broke up with her, unless you counted the time that he’d moved to Cedar Lake. He didn’t count that. It hadn’t been about her. This time was about her.

His lease was up in a month. He’d signed it for a year. He could renew, but when he’d gotten that apartment, it had been for himself. He’d never lived alone before, and he’d thought he’d started a new chapter of his life. As it turned out, he’d lived alone just a few weeks before he’d flipped the book back and begun somewhere close to the beginning—fighting all the same old fights, treading all the old familiar patterns.

Rachel was clever. She was beautiful. She laughed at his jokes; she teased him back when he teased. They liked to go out to eat; they liked to watch movies. She wasn’t really into baseball, but he wasn’t really into dancing; that was okay. They had different musical taste, but over the years they’d found things they both enjoyed listening to. Sex with her wasn’t spectacular, but Patrick was sort of beginning to think people made sex into a bigger deal than it really was. They fit together. They fit.

She drove him up the goddamn wall.

He felt like he was giving all the time—giving his touch, his attention, his time, his energy, his dick, and it felt like it sucked the life out of him. He felt like life was being sucked out of him, and he didn’t know why, because the things she wanted were not unreasonable. She wanted touch. She wanted affection. She wanted inclusion in his life. These were reasonable things, but it was such an effort.

Remembering to touch her was an effort. Remembering to show affection for her was an effort. Remembering he loved her was an effort, and it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t feel like his life was a run-away wagon and he was being dragged by a rope, running to catch up to whichever direction it lurched. He should be at the reins; he didn’t know how to get there. He didn’t know how to catch up.

“I can’t do this,” he told her, the morning after they’d argued about the lease. He’d told her he didn’t want to renew it. She’d kept asking where they would live, what was wrong with the apartment, did he want another place, and he didn’t have any answers. It was stupid; he had no answers. All he knew was that he didn’t want to renew it. He’d slept on the couch that night. “I can’t do this anymore,” he said.

“Do what?” she asked, but he could hear the dread in her voice. She knew. He was relieved she knew.

“You deserve more,” he told her. “You deserve more than me.”

“But I . . .” She bit her lip. “I don’t want more than you.”

I want more than you, he thought, almost savagely, and it killed him, that the things he thought could be so cruel. He had only ever tried to be kind. He usually thought of himself as kind. “What if you do,” he asked her, “and you don’t even realize it? Rachel,” he went on, before she could interject. “You said it last time—we’ve known each other so long. We’re so comfortable. What if we’re doing this—what if we did this because it was easy?”

“It should be easy! Love is easy!”

“It’s not for me.”

Rachel tucked her hair behind her ear. “You’re saying loving me is hard, now?”

Patrick didn’t want to hurt her. There was no way to do this without hurting her. “Sometimes I think about what you said,” he said. “When you—wanted to be with Blake. You said—you said you were excited to be around him. That everything that happened to you, you wanted to tell him, and every time you saw him, you wanted to hear what he had to say. You said he always felt new. Shouldn’t—shouldn’t it be like that?”

“That’s a fairy tale,” she said, her voice harsh. “It was a fairy tale. You saw what happened with him.”

“I didn’t mean you should be with Blake,” he said.

“What, you want to be with him?” she snapped.

“Maybe I do,” he snapped back. “Maybe I want someone who’s different, who excites me, who makes me feel—” Then he saw the look on her face, and he heard himself, and he hated himself. “Rachel,” he said, reaching for her.

“No,” she said, flinching away. “If that’s not what I am for you—”

“That’s not what I am for you! You told me that when you left me for him!”

“And you’ve been holding a grudge this whole time? It’s been almost a year since I was with him!”

“That’s not what I mean,” he said.

“Then what do you mean, Patrick,” she said furiously, “because to me it sounds like you never loved me to begin with!”

“I mean I don’t want to fight,” he said, sinking down to sit on the couch. It still had his pillow and sheet on it. He still had on the boxers and t-shirt he’d slept in. “I don’t want to fight anymore.”

“Don’t look at me like that.”

Patrick looked at her. “Like what?”

“Like you’re a dog I’m kicking.” Tears were in Rachel’s eyes. “You’re the one who’s breaking up with me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said miserably. He put his face in his hands. “I’m so sorry.”

“Pea,” she said, coming to the couch to sit beside him. “Can’t we—” She put her hand on his shoulder, and he flinched. She took her hand away.

“I’m sorry,” Patrick said.

He didn’t know why he’d done that, why having her touch him made him want to get far, far away. He didn’t want her. He didn’t want his apartment. He didn’t want his job. He didn’t want Pinewood; he didn’t want anything. What was he supposed to want? What was the point of it, of anything? He couldn’t breathe.

He took his hands away from his face. “I just want—I just want time,” he said. “Time to myself. I need time to myself.”

Rachel burst into tears.

They started sleeping together again a year later.

*

Patrick put in notice at his job three days after he broke up with Rachel. He’d been keeping it mostly so he could pay for his apartment and his loans, and he still didn’t want to renew the lease agreement. The apartment was his and Rachel’s anyway. Meanwhile student loans were just a fact of his life now. He could live with it. What was another ten years of debt?

Patrick’s cousin Elliot had just bought a house with his wife, Allison, in Oak City, about three hours away. They could afford the house, but the mortgage was steep, and there was a room in the basement that they could rent if it was renovated. Patrick said he’d rent it without a renovation; it’d help them get enough money on the side to do the remodel. The basement currently didn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom, but that meant Elliot would give it to him in the interim for cheap. Patrick could live there for a while on his savings while he looked for a job.

Moving to Elliot and Allison’s basement in Oak City meant Patrick had to get rid of all of the furniture—furniture he’d bought when he’d moved into his apartment, because he’d though he was finally a grown-up person with a grown-up job. Furniture he’d bought with Rachel, because he’d thought he was in a grown-up relationship.

Patrick didn’t want any of the furniture. He didn’t need kitchen equipment. He wouldn’t have a kitchen; he’d be using Elliot and Allison’s. He didn’t need the television; Elliot had one. He didn’t need the Blu-ray player, the stereo, the speakers; he had a laptop. He had streaming. He didn’t need any of the books. He had an e-reader. He didn’t even need a lot of the clothes. They were business clothes for Heighten Investments. He didn’t want business clothes. He didn’t want suits. They didn’t feel like him; he didn’t want business.

Maybe he should give his singing a real go? People said he was pretty good. He still did open mic nights sometimes, but Patrick didn’t know. It was just something he did for fun. He didn’t know. Patrick didn’t need to be famous. When he thought about it, he didn’t really want to be famous. He wanted make things, give the world something new, but he didn’t have a lot of ideas of what that could be.

He wasn’t really an ideas kind of guy, he was beginning to realize. When he’d gotten out of university, he’d gone to work for the station in Cedar Lake because he’d wanted to be a part of creating something. It hadn’t worked out like he’d hoped, but he hadn’t tried anything different since. Had he stopped dreaming things, believing in things? Was this what getting older was? Was this how you were supposed to feel at twenty-five?

Eventually he took a job just because he needed one, something to pay bills while he looked for something better. It was a general manager at a sports equipment store. It was terrible. It was much better than being a financial analyst; at least he got to see people, talk to people. He’d never imagined working in retail again. He was good at it. People liked him. They got along with him, and Patrick liked having different people to talk to every day. It reminded him of his days at Rose Video, which hadn’t been so bad.

He didn’t make enough to move out of Elliot and Allison’s basement. It was okay. They got a built-in babysitter, and he got built-in friends to eat dinner with. For a while, it worked out. He wasn’t dating because he’d broken up with Rachel, moved to a new town, and got a new job all within the space of a week. It was a lot of change. He needed some stability.

He kind of joined a band. He wrote more songs. He volunteered for a garden center that did work beautifying the community. He took improv classes. Allison asked whether he was looking to date anyone. He went out with her friend, Trisha. Trisha was pretty and nice and very, very quiet. He found it hard to talk to her. He went on three dates with her anyway.

He put himself back on Bumpkin. Oak City was far enough away from Pineville that maybe people he knew wouldn’t see him on OkCupid. Patrick put himself on it. He checked that he was interested in women. He thought about checking the box for men. Was he interested in men? He’d been with Rachel for six months. Nine, if you counted making out beforehand. Wouldn’t he know if he was interested in men?

There was this girl in his improv class, Ophelia. She was hysterical. The first time Patrick met her, he’d nearly peed his pants he’d laughed so hard. A group of them from improv started going out for drinks occasionally, and Patrick realized it had been a long time since he’d made new friends. Real friends. There had been Mike from Heighten Investments, but Patrick and Mike didn’t have much in common, and with Michelle and the baby, Mike had often been busy. Besides him, Patrick had mostly hung out with his old high school friends, his cousins, Rachel’s friends. Not making new friends was easy in your hometown, where you already felt like you knew everyone, and your friends were already set.

These friends were different. Ophelia was different. Her father was a washed-up actor, she said. Who named their daughter Ophelia? Her mother was in international law. Who knew how her parents had gotten together long enough to have her? She’d already lived all over the world. She’d lived in Saudi Arabia. She was loud. She liked to eat. She talked with food in her mouth; it was a delight. It was a delight; she was always smiling, saying something funny; she was excited about the things she did; she did them with gusto. It should have been disgusting, how she talked with food in her mouth, but Patrick liked it. He really did.

The improv class ended after two months; Patrick decided to take a different one, but he kept up with the first set of people. He kept up with Ophelia. He began to think about her when she wasn't around. He began to look forward to seeing her. She felt so different from other people. Was this what Rachel had felt, when she had met Blake? Was this what she had been describing? Was this what everyone was describing?

Patrick couldn’t tell. He couldn’t tell if he wanted to have sex with Ophelia. He wasn’t opposed. Was he? She was pretty. Short and round and very pretty.

The problem was, he didn’t feel that different than he had making new friends at university. When he’d met Andrew. When he’d met Hutch. Even when he’d met Taryn, the lesbian night-host. He hadn’t felt it in a while, that feeling like he wanted to get to know someone better, wanted to spend time with them because they were easy to talk to and made him feel smart, made him feel funny. He hadn’t met someone new he wanted to spend time with in a while. Was that unusual?

“Are we dating?” Ophelia asked, the third time he asked her to grab a bite to eat with him.

“Um,” said Patrick. He didn’t know. He’d been trying to decide. That was disingenuous. He should have decided; he should have at least told her he was trying to decide.

“It sort of feels like we’re dating,” said Ophelia.

“I mean,” Patrick hedged. “Do you want to?”

“Sure,” said Ophelia. “Why not?”

That night, they kept talking long after the waiter brought the machine. They went out for coffee after that. They kept talking. It was such a great night. It wasn’t until they were finally saying goodnight that he realized he hadn’t touched her at all. He hadn’t even tried.

He should try it, here, outside the café, as he walked her to her car. Right now. The night was cool and purple, the streetlamps lit oil on the pavement into rainbow swirls, and the air smelled like rain. She was so pretty, with her hazel eyes and round face and short brown curls, her little button of a nose. He really should kiss her.

So he did. More awkwardly than he intended. More briefly. He asked her to go out with him again. She said yes.

Patrick deleted his dating profiles and dated Ophelia for six months. For the first three, they didn’t have sex. Patrick didn’t know if that was normal. He was sort of starting not to care what was normal. None of the basic things in life had ever felt normal to him—where he lived, his job, who he was dating. He was twenty-five. He should have had these things figured out.

He told Ophelia he wanted to take it slow. He’d never been with anyone but Rachel except the one time at university. When Patrick and Ophelia did have sex, it wasn’t great, but it was okay. He was fine with that, because he still liked her. A lot. He liked Ophelia better than most people he’d ever met, though he could not get over the feeling that he liked her as a friend. Now with awkward touching. He liked her exactly the way he had liked Taryn.

What difference did that make? Maybe he’d been in love with Taryn; maybe the fact that Taryn was a lesbian had confused him. You could fall in love with a lesbian. Just because she wouldn’t fall in love back didn’t mean you couldn’t have feelings for her, but he didn’t know why he was thinking about this. Ophelia was not a lesbian.

I’m the lesbian, said his brain, but of course that was stupid, except now he was thinking of that gay crisis he had had when he was twenty-three. He’d driven all the way to St. Catharines just to meet a boy. That sounded kind of gay to him.

But afterwards, he hadn’t wanted it. He’d been confused about his job, his living situation. He’d been confused about Rachel, and three months later, she’d moved in with him. That didn’t sound gay at all.

Patrick dated Ophelia. He slept with her in Elliot’s basement. He slept with her in the apartment she shared with her roommate. He slept with her and wondered whether he was gay. Bisexual. Obviously. He was sleeping with a girl.

Four months into dating, they were supposed to go to a concert, and everything had gone wrong. First the tickets hadn’t printed, then the traffic had been bad, then they couldn’t find parking, then the ticket scanner hadn’t worked on the tickets because the ink was too faded; he couldn’t pull them up on his phone; they didn’t allow that; he’d asked to see the manager.

“Let’s just go get fries,” Ophelia said.

“I don’t want fries,” Patrick said. “I want to see the manager.”

Ophelia seemed embarrassed that Patrick wanted to talk to the manager. She seemed annoyed that he was pushing it. Patrick understood why. It was just a concert. He’d blown it out of proportion. The manager let them in; they had a miserable time. “You know, when we first started going out,” Ophelia said on their way home, “I didn’t know you were so uptight.”

“I’m not uptight,” Patrick said tightly.

“You are,” said Ophelia. “You act so laid back, but deep down, you want things to go your way."

“Doesn’t everyone want things to go their way?”

“Nothing has ever really gone my way, so I don’t make much of a fuss. What’s going to happen is going to happen.”

She said it a few more times over the next two months, before they broke up. They argued about it once when they were having sex. He couldn’t get his dick to work; sometimes it didn’t do the things he wanted. It was frustrating. It was embarrassing. Ophelia said it didn’t bother her. She told him not to worry about it.

“I’m not worried,” he said. “I’m. . . I’m annoyed!”

“You know,” she said, and she was naked on the bed, all round curving lines and heavy breasts and full, full hips. He could see that she was beautiful; he thought that she was beautiful. His dick didn’t seem to find her beautiful. “You seem like an easy-going guy,” Ophelia said, in a husky low voice that should have been tantalizing but made him feel ashamed, “but underneath that, you are a prime tool, Patrick Brewer.”

“I’m not trying to be a tool,” he told her miserably.

“It’s okay you’re a tool,” she said, patting him comfortingly on the thigh. “Otherwise you’d be perfect, and that was sort of scary for me.”

“I’m not perfect either,” he said, still miserable.

“Sure. But only just.” Then she came up to kiss him, and she truly didn’t seem to mind that he couldn’t get into it, but he minded. He minded a lot, and he couldn’t tell which he minded more—that sometimes he couldn’t make love to her, or that she thought he was a prime tool. “You’re a little ball of nerves underneath!” she told him another time, when he was meeting her mom. She thought it was funny. He thought it hurt.

She made him feel like she thought he had lied to her, pretended to be someone different than he was, and Patrick didn’t like it. He was an honest person. He tried to tell the truth to everybody. Didn’t he? Rachel had said the same thing before, about him wanting things to go his way, but no one else ever had. Except Mom.

Patrick didn’t think of himself as particular. He liked when things made sense. He liked when things added up, but he liked that partly because he knew that wasn’t the way the world worked. The world didn’t add up. Patrick tried to seek order where he could, and thought he was pretty good at accepting it when he couldn’t. The world was messy and disorganized, and that was okay. He thought of himself as easy-going. He liked going with the flow. In general, he was amused by the flow. The flow was pretty funny, most of the time, unless it was the flow of his life.

The flow of his life was a God-dang mess. There was no flow at all. It was a series of jerking stops and starts, and he wished he could be in charge, but he wasn’t. He never had been. Maybe that was his whole problem, he thought, when she broke up with him.

“I kind of get the feeling you don’t actually want me,” Ophelia said.

“You said it didn’t matter,” Patrick said.

“What didn’t matter?”

“The . . . sex,” Patrick made himself say at last.

“Oh honey.” Ophelia’s eyes flooded with pity. “I’m not talking about—it’s not about that. I think you don’t want me. You don’t act like you do.”

“What else should I be doing,” Patrick said, “to act like it?”

“Okay, you act like it,” Ophelia said, “but it feels like acting.”

“I’m not acting,” Patrick said.

“Okay,” said Ophelia, then shrugged.

Patrick was crushed, and at the same time, felt that an incredible weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

He had really liked Ophelia. In a lot of ways, he had liked her better than Rachel; she’d riffed off his jokes, understood things he had trouble expressing, saw the world in ways that were interesting and funny and special. They had clicked, and he had had to remind himself to touch her. He had had to remind himself to put his arm around her, like a boyfriend. He had had to remind himself that he wanted to say sweet things and call her sweetheart, and that he wanted to kiss her. He had had to remind himself that he wanted to have sex with her, and in the end all of those reminders had felt like a chore.

Patrick didn’t understand why. He liked making other people happy. He liked giving other people what they wanted. He’d liked giving Rachel what she wanted. He’d liked spoiling her; he’d liked taking care of her; he’d liked making her feel good. He didn’t know why sharing himself with her, or with Ophelia, sometimes made him feel like he was carving off pieces of himself, why the pieces of themselves they’d given him in return hadn’t filled him up.

Was there something about him, something essentially dishonest, that made him a different person when he was with someone? Was he actually an asshole, actually someone who just wanted things to go his way, someone who took and took but gave nothing in return? It didn’t feel like him. It wasn’t who he wanted to be, but maybe he had been that for Ophelia. Maybe he had been that for Rachel. He didn’t know. He hadn’t meant to.

The thought of dating again made him feel ill. There had been Ophelia, a failed relationship; Trisha, who had barely talked; Sarah, who had only been interested in fashion and aesthetics; Becky, who didn’t like small men. Anna from university, an unsatisfying sexual encounter. And there had been Rachel. Four times now, there had been Rachel.

He tried to imagine being interested in someone else, but he couldn’t. Maybe because he had just broken up with Ophelia, though. Girlfriend of six months. Girlfriend whom he couldn’t remember wanting to make love to, even though they’d done it dozens of times. What the fuck was wrong with him?

No, seriously, what was wrong?

Ben Henrique, said Patrick’s brain. That was what was wrong with him.

He didn’t really know where the thought came from, except the next time he was touching himself in the shower, that was who he thought of. That was how he came, and maybe that was the problem right there. That was the whole dang problem—not Ben himself, but the idea of Ben. The concept of Ben. A man, a gay man.

Patrick had told himself he’d tried something with a boy, but it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. It was a lie.

It was a lie.

Patrick tried to think about boys. They were all his cousins. Or married. Or in relationships. With women. Did he know anyone who was gay? Sally at improv was married to a woman. She was in her fifties. Who else did he know? How come he’d known more gay people at university than he’d ever met since? He was twenty-six.

They’re not out, went his brain. Well, why weren’t they? How was he supposed to date them and find out if they weren’t out?

Patrick messaged Taryn on Facebook. It had been almost a year since he’d talked to her. A little less. He’d seen her at Andrew’s wedding to Joanie. They talked for a bit over the next few days, caught up. Eventually, Patrick finally asked.

Patrick: Look, I’m sorry, I know this is a personal question and you can tell me to stuff it if it’s invasive. I’ve just kind of been wondering. On a personal level. How did you know you were gay?

Taryn: Because I thought girls were hot.

Patrick: Hot how?

Taryn: What do you mean?

Patrick: Like did you see them and want to sleep with them? Or. Was it like something else

Taryn: Not necessarily. I mean thinking someone is hot isn’t the same as wanting to sleep with them.

Patrick: Then what is it?

Taryn: Idk. They make you want to look at them

Patrick: So you don’t want to look at boys?

Taryn: Not in the same way

Patrick: But what way

Taryn: Idk sexy ways
Taryn: Are you doing a research paper or what

Patrick: Just trying to figure some stuff out

Taryn: What stuff? Lesbians?

Patrick: I mean for myself

Taryn: But you’re straight

Patrick thought about that for a long time.

Patrick: I don’t know maybe not

Taryn: Have you ever even been attracted to a guy?

Patrick: I don’t know

Taryn: Don’t you think you’d know?

Patrick: no

Taryn: I think you’d know

Patrick: I don’t know if I’ve ever been attracted to a girl.

Taryn: But you were with rachel

Patrick: Look idk

Patrick wrote a bunch of stuff into the messenger field, then erased it.

I don’t know what it means that I

I’m not sure she and I were

I don’t know that I felt

I don’t get how you’re supposed to feel

I get off to men. I still think of men. I just don’t know any who are gay and I don’t want to say I am if I don’t know because it wouldn’t be fair to my family or to me or to let’s face it some guy I was leading along if I wasn’t sure

Patrick erased that too, then sent a different message.

Patrick: Being with Rachel wasn’t how people describe it feels when you’re attracted to someone. It wasn’t fair to her but idk how to be fair because I don’t know what it feels like

Patrick read what he had written and felt sick.

Patrick: I mean I know what it feels like because I’ve wanted to have sex before.

He looked at that too, and it still didn’t explain what he meant.

Patrick: And I’ve found people hot. I mean I’ve found men hot. But it was like you said I didn’t necessarily want to have sex. I mean I don’t know if I wanted to have sex. I couldn’t tell

Taryn: Just imagine kissing him

Patrick: Okay but the last man I felt that about was married

Taryn: So? It’s just your imagination

Patrick: But I don’t want to kiss him in my imagination. He’s married. To a girl.

Taryn: I mean if you actually found him hot would that really matter?

Patrick: idk

Taryn: I’m not trying to be glib or anything

Patrick: I’m mean shouldn’t it matter?

Taryn: But you can’t help who you’re attracted to

Patrick: But I wouldn’t want to kiss a hot girl who was married either. In my imagination

Taryn: Maybe you’re asexual?

Patrick: But I like sex

Taryn: It’s not about sex it’s about being attracted to people

Patrick: Ok but what if I’m attracted to guys who are available
Patrick: And gay
Patrick: And interested

Taryn: Okay there’s this thing called grindr

Patrick looked into Grindr. It was terrifying. It took him two weeks to get the courage to set up a profile, and then he slept with Rachel.

*

He’d been in the middle of setting up an account on Grindr when he got her text. She texted him by accident. He was glad. Grindr wanted a picture. He looked at some of the other pictures on the site, and he didn’t feel attracted to any of the men. In fact, he felt the opposite; seeing all that skin, those leers, those beautiful bodies made him uncomfortable. Did that mean he wasn’t gay? Sports Illustrated and Playboy made him uncomfortable too.

Maybe you’re asexual, Taryn had written.

“You’re conservative,” Brandon had told him once, which was funny now, considering how Brandon had turned out.

“Not everyone is attracted to overt displays of sexuality,” Ophelia had said. “Guys are hotter with their clothes on. It doesn’t mean I don’t want them to take them off at some point.”

Patrick suddenly missed her all over again. He wanted to talk to her. He wanted to talk to her about Grindr and should he put his picture on it, and if so what kind of picture should he take; should he show that he was nerdy, a book and some fake glasses maybe; should he show that he was arty with his guitar; should he show that he liked sports, disheveled and sweaty with a catcher’s mitt? Not a catcher’s mitt. A hockey stick. Fewer connotations. He wished he could talk to Ophelia about these options; she would have laughed. He would have laughed as well. It was freakin’ funny.

*

“A book and your guitar and a hockey stick all at once,” David suggested, when the failed attempt at Grindr came out many years later.

“Uh-huh, very sexy,” Patrick agreed, crowding David against a wall.

“It would be sexy to me,” David said, but Patrick wasn’t sure David had really thought this through. “We should take that picture. Right now.”

David definitely hadn’t thought this through. “I’m making dinner,” Patrick murmured, kissing him.

“This doesn’t feel like making dinner.”

Patrick dropped his arms, no longer caging David against the wall, and pointedly returned to stirring the pot on the stove.

“I could take it,” David said. “I’d pose you. With the hockey stick.”

David sounded particularly interested in this. Patrick didn’t know why, which made it even funnier. “And you’re going to post this picture on Grindr?”

“No,” said David. “I’d keep it. For my own purposes.”

“Uh-huh. What purposes?”

“Oh, you know. Just . . . purposes.”

“Right.” Patrick said brightly, “Maybe Ray could take my Grindr photo. He does photography professionally, you know.”

David’s face twisted. He was trying so hard not to smile, but he was failing, because he wasn’t the only one who was hilarious. “You’re disgusting,” he said.

“I love you too,” Patrick said, getting some alfredo sauce on the wooden spoon.

“That’s not what I said.”

“Oh really.” Patrick came toward him with the spoon, carefully balanced. “Open up.”

“Mmf,” David said, but Patrick was already shoving the spoon at his lips, and David was opening his mouth.

“Good?” said Patrick, but he could already see that it was.

“I wonder if Ken is on Grindr,” was all David said, after he had swallowed the sauce and licked his lips.

Patrick went back to the saucepan. “Ken who?”

“How many Kens do you know?” David asked, sounding appalled.

“You mean the Ken you tried to make me go out with, Ken?”

“He would have liked you and your hockey stick.”

Patrick could see where this was going. “I never put my picture on Grindr, David.”

“But if you had.”

“I didn’t.”

“But if you had.”

“I didn’t.”

“But if you—”

“If I had and someone had wanted to hook up with me, I would’ve probably lost my nerve before even meeting them.”

“Why? You’re not shy.”

“You know how I was.”

“Not really." David was swaying where he stood, which meant he wanted to push it. Patrick could never predict what, exactly, David was going to push, but he was going to push it, either because it made him anxious or he thought it was funny. Usually both, with David.

“What,” Patrick said finally, or else David might explode.

“What if you were on Grindr now?”

“I’m married.” David was way too distracted by this conversation to offer an opinion on the sauce, and Patrick should have known. He should have denied ever having a profile, when it had come up at that party. Patrick tried the alfredo sauce himself. It was pretty good.

“But what if you were on it now?”

“Just what are you trying to get at, David? Do you want to roleplay my Grindr hookup?”

David bit his lip.

“David.”

David bit his lip harder.

Patrick suppressed a smile. “I’ll be your random hookup if you want me to.”

“I don’t want you to be my random hookup,” David bit out a little too loudly. “I want you to be Patrick.”

Patrick bit down a bigger smile, distracting himself by adjusting the temperature on the stove. He didn’t need to say anything, because David always came out with more eventually.

“I had one.”

Oh. Of course. Of course, David had had a Grindr. Patrick hadn’t even thought about it, because sometimes he assumed wrong things, such as that everyone had been knocking down the door to sleep with David Rose, because, well, who wouldn’t be? He was David, and he’d made it clear he’d been open and available at that time, so sometimes Patrick assumed David would never even need to look, but it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. Patrick knew how alone David had been, how desperately alone before he met Stevie Budd.

“I had one and I—I used it.” David's voice had dropped precipitously in volume. “Well. Obviously. I had one but I never—I never had a you.”

“I would have fallen in love with you,” Patrick said, “if I hooked up with you on Grindr.”

“But you never had one.”

“But if I did,” Patrick said, finally leaving the stove to wrap his arms around David. He lowered his voice to match David’s undertone. “Do you really want to take that picture of me?”

“Yes,” David said, breathlessly.

“With the hockey stick?”

“Is that for golf?”

“Yes, David,” Patrick said, kissing him. “Hockey sticks are definitely for golf.”

David kissed him back, but the way his hands kind of fluttered on Patrick’s shoulders and back meant there was more, and eventually David pulled away. “I want to undo it for you,” David said.

“Undo what?”

“Whatever you were feeling when you—when you couldn’t take a Grindr photo; I want to undo every time you were ever—confused. Every time you were—Patrick, every time you were alone.”

“You already have,” Patrick said.

David didn’t look convinced.

“Every time I remember—those times,” Patrick said, “I don’t feel alone. Every time I remember—you’re there with me, and I remember you instead.”

“Mmph,” David said, that little muffled whine he did whenever Patrick said something that was too much.

“There’s just one other thing you have to do if you want to undo that particular memory for me,” Patrick said, murmuring along David's jaw.

“What?” David said, breathless once again.

“I get to see what your picture on Grindr was.”

“Not fair,” David mumbled, ducking his head, but Patrick already knew that David would show him. David showed him everything he was.

These days, Patrick showed him everything too.

*

Patrick was so confused and lonely that night when he’d been trying and failing to take a picture of himself that when Rachel’s text misfired, and they got to talking, he was glad when she said her housemates were out for the night, and did he want to come over. He was glad because Grindr made him desperately uncomfortable; the idea of going out and meeting a strange guy to hook up with him, to sleep with him, made him desperately uncomfortable. He didn’t want it; that meant he was wrong about being gay, right? Bisexual. He was wrong about being attracted to guys. Right?

Why would he feel so uncomfortable if he was bisexual? If he was bi, why wouldn’t he want it? Was he just being—homophobic? Taryn used to talk about internalized homophobia. Emile used to talk about it too. Even Ophelia used to talk about it, just as a general thing. But he wasn’t homophobic, was he? He didn’t feel afraid; he felt—he felt—he felt . . . he felt like he didn’t want to sleep with strangers. He didn’t even want to meet up with them for the purpose of seeing if he wanted to sleep with them.

He wanted to know someone first, date someone first, and wasn’t that a normal thing? Girls talked all the time about how gross it was that men wanted them for sex and didn’t want to get to know them. Guys talked about that less often. Some guys he knew talked about girls not putting out soon enough in a relationship. Patrick hadn’t liked those guys. Was this an—abnormal—thing for a guy to feel? To want to get to know someone before—before making love? Before having sex?

On another night, if Patrick had been thinking more rationally, he would not have told Rachel that he would come over, but then he did come over, and he didn’t initiate it, but somehow, they were kissing on the couch, and he was not protesting.

How could he protest? Why did he think that love had to be excitement and laughter and joy, when Rachel proved over and over again that love was comfortable, familiar, and easy? Wasn’t that how you were supposed to feel around someone you loved? Not overwhelmed—safe. So what if he got off to thoughts of guys sometimes? He’d never met one that he wanted, and he wanted this. He wanted her.

He was the one to initiate when the clothes started coming off. He didn’t even bother with her shirt; he wanted to be inside of her. He wanted that warmth, that familiarity. He wanted it more than he could ever remember wanting it, and he felt like something took him over, something primal, something buried. This was what he had been searching for all along; this was desire; this was passion.

“I want to fuck you,” he said, and he couldn’t remember ever saying anything like that before.

“Yes,” she gasped. “Yes.”

They made it to her bedroom. He was pushing her the whole way, not very nicely. “Yes,” she said, over and over again. “Patrick, yes.”

He jerked her jeans off. He yanked her underwear down. He remembered himself enough to ask if she had a condom, but he was being rough. He could feel himself being rough; he could see it, as though from far away. She was saying yes over and over and over again; she wanted it this way too.

He didn’t want it this way at all, he realized afterwards, after he’d taken off the condom, tied it off, and gotten up to look for a wastebasket in the house where she was renting a room, which he had never been to before. He felt—infinitely worse, and so God-dang guilty, that by the time he found the bathroom and flushed the condom, he felt like throwing up.

It hadn’t been passion. He felt certain of that now. It had been desperation. He’d been so desperate to feel something, anything at all, and he’d used her. He’d used her, like the worst kind of guy. Oh God. What if he had hurt her? He was bigger than her; she was a woman, fuck.

Fuck fuck fuck.

He still had his jeans on. He’d pulled down his pants to fuck her. Jesus. He washed himself off. He went back to her bedroom. She had her jeans back on. He’d still never taken off her shirt, he realized. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Do you want—can I get you anything?” It had never been awkward like this after, never, not with her.

“Look,” she said.

“Did I hurt you?” he said in a rush.

Rachel’s eyes went soft. “No. Patrick,” she said, coming toward him—closer.

Closer. Fuck. She was going to touch him. Fuck. Patrick desperately did not want to be touched. To step away now would be the height of cruelty, of unkindness; he had to force himself not to back away.

She didn’t touch him. “I wanted that. I’ve always wanted that from you.”

I never have, Patrick’s heart screamed. He swallowed hard.

“I wanted it especially tonight,” Rachel said.

“It’s been a year since I’ve seen you.” Patrick could hear the catch in his voice. Fuck. He was going to cry.

“I know.” Then she did touch him, and it wasn’t what he expected—a gentle hand on his arm.

He could bear it. He could barely bear it.

“I was just . . .” Rachel took a deep breath. “I felt really alone. I wanted to be with someone. I’m glad it was you.”

“I’m glad it was you too,” he heard himself say, and had no idea where it came from. Was it a lie? Was he someone who lied? He didn’t think of himself as someone who lied.

All actors lie about their lives, Emile had said once, when they were doing Leaving Home. Even at the time, Patrick hadn’t been sure Emile was such a great authority on life.

“We don’t . . .” Rachel seemed as though she was searching for words. “I don’t need this to be . . . This doesn’t have to mean we get back together.” She took her hand off his arm.

“What do you want?” he croaked.

“I . . .” She sat down on the foot of the bed. “Christ, I don’t know.” She put her face in her hands, and Patrick went to her automatically, sat beside her automatically, put his arm around her automatically.

He’d done this so many times before, and every time, he’d asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. Every time—when it all falls apart, every time—I always come back to you. I always want to come back to you.”

Patrick didn’t mind touching her now. He didn’t mind holding her now, because this, it wasn’t an expression of desire. He had heard desire from her before; this wasn’t it. It was despair, and he felt it too.

“It’s not fair to you,” she said, and she was crying now. “It’s not fair. But I know you. I know you. You know me. It’s easy. It’s easy; it’s familiar; it feels like . . . It’s not fair. It’s not fair to you.”

“Shh,” he said, pulling her closer her. “Shh. Honey. It’s okay.”

“I’m twenty-six years old, Patrick.”

He still remembered what she had said two years ago, before they got together again, before they broke up again. “So am I.” He kissed the top of her head.

“Shouldn’t I have it figured out by now? Why don’t I have it figured out?”

“It’s okay,” he told her. “Tell me what’s happening. Tell me what’s wrong.”

She told him about the boyfriend she’d broken up with two months ago, the job that she loved that didn’t pay enough, the house where she lived that cost too much, the mother who still didn’t care enough to give a fuck. Patrick didn’t want to tell her about Ophelia, but he did, because she was Rachel. He didn’t tell her about Taryn or about Grindr, because he didn’t know how, and it seemed insignificant, now. Even if he was bi, it was not the problem. Life was the problem. Life was not theater or a spreadsheet or a guitar; he didn’t know how to make it work.

“It’s okay,” Rachel told him. She kissed him on the cheek.

It was okay.

*

That night with Rachel felt like a definitive end to so many things. They had shared a night of passion based on the past, based on connection and memory, a way to say goodbye. Afterwards, he’d felt that panic of regret, but she felt the same as him; she’d wanted the same things—comfort, something that wasn’t complicated, a way to help her move on. They were moving on.

He had to move on. He didn’t hate his job at Fred’s Sports, but it wasn’t what he had wanted to do with his life. He was still in debt. He still lived in his cousin’s basement. Oak City was all right; the band he was in had kind of fallen apart, but they were all still friends, and he still had some friends from improv. It wasn’t enough to tie Patrick there. Maybe he should go back to Pinewood. Maybe he should go somewhere completely new, start over.

Mike, Patrick’s old friend from Heighten Investments, was getting a divorce. He was moving to Ashton, going to work for a law firm. Ashton was an hour from Pinewood, in the opposite direction from Oak City, bigger than both and bigger than Cedar Lake too, almost a city. Not quite a city. Patrick hadn’t liked living in St. Catharines—it had been fun for university, but it was too big, and he wasn’t big enough. He’d feel lost, alone. But something bigger than here, that could work out. That could be interesting.

Patrick thought the law firm part was interesting. Mike said he was doing paralegal work. He’d worked on some of the contracts at Heighten Investments. Patrick mentioned he’d always been interested in patents. Mike said the law firm was hiring. Not for paralegals; Patrick didn’t have the experience. But he could work his way up. Mike was looking for a roommate. Patrick said yes.

Mike hadn’t gotten a lot of money in the divorce, so the apartment Mike could afford wasn’t much. That meant Patrick could also afford it, its brown carpet and faded linoleum, its late nineties fixtures and uninspiring drywall. Patrick didn’t have much to move. He’d barely brought anything to Oak City and he’d barely accumulated anything while he was there.

“Dude, you don’t even have, like, pans?” said Mike.

“They were Elliot’s,” said Patrick.

Patrick got a job at the law firm. Not in the mailroom, but just a step above. He wasn’t sure he liked the people there—they seemed kind of conservative, but it was good experience, and the pay was far better than Fred’s Sports. He enrolled in classes to get a certificate in patent law. It was going to put him into further debt, but if he got the certificate, maybe he could get out of it. Anyway, this was something he’d always wanted to do. Why not? He was following his dreams. That was why he was in debt in the first place. Right?

Maybe he could find someone in Ashton, a girl. Maybe a boy. Patrick kept thinking about boys. He thought about them a lot, even though he’d never ended up getting a Grindr. He still got off to thinking about men sometimes. He’d tried sex with three different women, and none of it had seemed all that great. Maybe women were the problem. He was open to being gay. Bi? Gay.

Mike was still hot. When Patrick moved in with him, Patrick wondered what that was going to be like. Was he attracted to the guy he was about to live with? Maybe living with him would help Patrick figure out what he wanted. The stumbling block, he’d told Taryn, was that Mike was married, but now Mike was divorced. Did that make him hotter? Kind of, Patrick thought, but Mike wasn’t gay and probably not bi, so what would it matter if Patrick was attracted to him?

Was Patrick attracted to him? Kind of. Patrick liked looking at him. He felt kind of warm when he was alone with him, when Mike was close to him. He kind of felt it in his groin when Mike’s shirt rode up, when Mike wore tight jeans, when Mike flashed a particular smile, but Patrick didn’t feel like he was about to jump him, or anything. Finding someone hot didn’t mean you wanted to have sex with them, Taryn had said. Did Patrick want to have sex with him? He couldn’t tell.

After two months of living with Mike, Patrick could tell. He didn’t want to have sex with Mike. He didn’t even want to live with Mike. He didn’t even like Mike. Mike was a dillweed.

Patrick felt like he should have known this, except he wasn’t sure how he could have known. Mike had been a different person when he’d been with Michelle. Now he was a party animal. He brought girls home every other night. Different girls. Did he even know their names? Patrick didn’t like how Mike treated them. He didn’t like how Mike talked about them, like they were conquests, objects, there to be screwed.

Mike didn’t act like a father with two little kids. One of them was a baby. Mike saw them once a month and complained about seeing them. He was drunk a lot. He didn’t seem to care about his job. He didn’t seem to care about anyone. Patrick needed to move.

Getting out was hard. He’d signed a lease. He’d need to find someone who would take his room. He couldn’t afford to pay half the rent on Mike’s apartment and another place. It was a bad situation. Patrick went back to Pinewood for a weekend to stay with his parents. He texted Rachel. They slept together again. He didn’t want to get back together with her.

Christ, he was as bad as Mike.

Rachel didn’t want to get back together with him either, she said. She was still in a rough patch. He was too.

“Are we always in a rough patch?” she asked him. “What’s wrong with us?”

“The economy?” he teased.

She gave him a smile, a kiss on the cheek, and Patrick went back to Ashton.

*

Patrick made two friends living in Ashton.

One was Colleen. She worked at the law firm. She didn’t like it there. She was from Toronto. She’d moved from the city because she hated the cutthroat politics, jockeying for position, clawing to get ahead. She just wanted to do her job, she said, but treat people like human beings as well. Life wasn’t all about what you could get, she said. She wanted a breather, a break. The law firm in Ashton wasn’t what she had expected it to be. She thought people would be kinder out in the boonies, she said.

Colleen was smart. Colleen was capable. Colleen was gorgeous, so gorgeous that Patrick wondered if he was attracted to her. Maybe this was what attraction was; maybe he’d just never met a girl this gorgeous; he wanted to keep looking at her. That meant he was attracted to her, right? She was tall, dark-haired, olive skin, heavy brows. She looked like Jennifer Connelly. She was sophisticated in a way that made Patrick feel dorky and unpolished, like a small-town hick, which he was. She seemed like she was from another world, but that world was abusive, she said. That world would eat you alive. She wanted something real.

The other friend Patrick made was Adam. Well, he wasn’t a friend, exactly. Patrick wouldn’t call him a friend. Adam was a friend of Mike’s. Adam had a part-time job in a smoke shop and a lot of tattoos. He was in a band. He seemed really different than Mike, very punk to Mike’s very bro. “Oh, yeah,” said Mike. “I know Adam from high school. He turned out really fucking gay; can you believe it? Seemed to like pussy well enough in high school.”

Liking pussy was a disgusting way to talk about women. Also, how did Adam know he didn’t like pussy? How did he know he was really fucking gay?

Adam had dirty blond hair and ice blue eyes and was a little shorter than Patrick. Leaner. He had a tongue piercing. In the pictures on Facebook, he had a lot of safety pins in his clothes for some reason. Patrick didn’t know whether he should friend him. They’d barely been introduced when Adam had come over; Patrick hadn’t really wanted to meet him. He wasn’t interested in any of Mike’s friends.

It didn’t seem right—being interested now just because he had heard Adam was gay. Shouldn’t there be other things to get you interested? Shouldn’t Patrick have had a reaction to the way Adam looked when Patrick had first met him? Didn’t it mean something that Patrick hadn’t had a reaction to him? Patrick hadn’t felt attracted to him.

Facebook said Adam’s band—Eagle’s Bane—had a gig at a bar. Patrick went. He wasn’t sure why he was going, but he’d been meaning to check out some local bands anyway. After watching the band’s set—harsher and louder and more punk than the type of music Patrick listened to—Patrick went up and introduced himself. “I know you from somewhere,” Adam said.

“I’m Mike’s roommate,” said Patrick. “Mike Sorello?”

“Mike!” said Adam. “What a fucking douche.”

It wasn’t a nice thing to say, but it was just so true that Patrick smiled. “He kind of is,” Patrick agreed.

Adam invited Patrick to sit with Eagle’s Bane and watch the next set by another band. The objective of the evening appeared to be to get drunk and make fun of the other band. “Do you know them?” Patrick asked.

“They sound like pussies,” said Adam.

You’re a douche too, Patrick wanted to say, because who called people pussies? It wasn’t cool, but Patrick didn’t say anything. He wasn’t confrontational unless situations called for it. Ordinarily, he would have finished his drink to be polite, then extracted himself and never seen any of them again. Instead, he finished his drink, then had another, then another. Patrick wasn’t sure why.

When the other band was done, Adam invited them to sit with them, and everyone was copacetic, like Eagle’s Bane hadn’t spent the last half hour being dillweeds. Maybe it was just how people were, in the music scene; maybe it was competitive. Patrick didn’t know. He was distracted. He was distracted by Adam—by his thin lips and the they wrapped around the neck of the beer bottle, the way his throat looked when he tipped his head back. Patrick wished Adam wasn’t a douche.

The night ended. Patrick told Adam he played guitar, a little. “We should meet up sometime,” said Adam. “We can jam.”

“Yeah,” said Patrick. “We should.”

He went home to the apartment he disliked and Mike, whom Patrick disliked more, and found Adam again on Facebook, then friended him. Patrick friended everyone in the band, each dillweed one of them. Then he went to Eagle’s Bane’s next gig, and the next, and the next. Patrick didn’t know why. He didn’t even like their music.

At work, Colleen asked him to the movies. It was to see an art film. “I feel like the other people here wouldn’t be interested,” she said.

“I’m interested,” said Patrick. He used to love indie movies at university, but there weren’t really theaters where you could see that kind of thing in Pinewood, in Oak City. Ashton had an art house theater. “I guess there’s Netflix,” Patrick said, when he was talking about this, after seeing the film with her.

“I have Netflix,” said Colleen. “If you want to come over sometime.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Patrick looked away

That night, Patrick messaged Adam on Facebook.

Patrick: You mentioned jamming do you want to do it sometime?

Adam: Haha oh did I
Adam: Sure y not
Adam: Thurs? 11?

Patrick: I have work are you free on Sat

Adam: Sure 11?

Patrick: Works for me. Don’t want to disturb mike, do you want to do your place

Adam: Haha I hve housemates 2 they just hve 2 deal

Patrick: Sounds good
Patrick: Wait 11am or pm

Adam: ur so cute pm

Patrick felt kind of ill inside. Who invited someone to their place at eleven pm? And who subjected his housemates to his music at that hour? And ur so cute, what did that mean? Was Patrick supposed to feel this nervous? Patrick didn’t know. He didn’t know why he’d suggested to Adam that they jam. He didn’t know what he thought was going to happen. Did he want something to happen? What did he want to happen? He didn’t know. He didn’t know anything, anything, anything.

Saturday came, and Patrick spent way too long picking out his clothes. In the end he wore his jeans and his belt and his Henley, because whatever happened tonight, it wouldn’t change who he was. He was still Patrick Brewer. He was still Patrick Brewer.

His parents still loved him.

Adam lived in an unexpectedly quaint red house with a quaint concrete porch that had wrought-iron rails. Patrick went up the steps, guitar case in tow, knocked, and then heard yelling. The door swung open, revealing a distraught-looking woman. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“He’s mine,” said Adam, and Patrick’s heart skipped, and then Adam pushed the woman aside. “Come on,” said Adam. “She’s a bitch.” Then Adam turned to lead him through a messy living-room to a very dirty kitchen, the once-bright linoleum peeling off the floor. Patrick glanced back at the woman—young, blonde, her face quite sharp and her eyes quite red. Adam opened a door and clambered down rickety wood stairs two at a time, and more carefully, Patrick followed.

The basement was the seventies, with cement floors, shag rugs on the floor, and wood-paneling on the walls. There was a drum-kit, a keyboard, amps, speakers, a lot of cables that looked tangled; someone should be taking better care of them, Patrick thought. “Um,” Patrick said. “Who was that girl?”

“My sister,” Adam said, moving a mess of papers off a dilapidated couch that looked as though it might have once had velvet cushions. Adam flung himself onto them. “She’s so fucking annoying.”

“Is she okay?” Patrick asked, going to sit next to him, setting his guitar on the floor to open up the case.

“What are you doing?” said Adam.

Patrick paused. “I thought we were going to—did you want to play?”

Play,” said Adam, with this look on his face. Suddenly the look cleared. “Oh, you think we’re going to play music; that is so fucking cute, Patrick.”

“Um.” Patrick wet his lips, and he couldn’t help it; his eyes dropped to Adam’s lips. “What did you—think? We were going to do?”

“Well, let me tell you, Patrick,” Adam purred, then put his hand on Patrick’s.

Patrick broke into a cold sweat, and banging on the stairs suggested someone else clambering down them. Patrick jerked his hand away, and then someone else was there, a man. “She is letting you stay here,” said the man. “The least you could do is—”

Adam leapt off the couch. “She’s a fucking cunt is what she is! She thinks she can run my life!”

The sick, anxious knot in Patrick’s stomach untied. His hands stopped sweating.

“Fuck you,” said the man, and then he was yelling some more, but Patrick wasn’t really listening.

He was closing his guitar case. He was standing up. He was picking up the case; he was making his way around the drum kit. He knew what he was doing. He felt very sure.

“Where are you going?” Adam demanded.

“Home,” said Patrick, without looking back.

“Wait a minute,” Adam called out, coming after him. “Patrick, let me just deal with this; then we can—”

“Listen to me, you little shit,” said the man.

Maybe he grabbed Adam; Patrick didn’t know, or maybe Adam couldn’t resist turning back to yell at the man some more. Either way, Patrick didn’t turn back; he didn’t look. He made his way up the stairs, to the rectangle of yellow light emanating from the kitchen. Kitchen achieved, he made his way over the linoleum, past the sink and counter full of filthy dishes, into the living room with the laundry heaped in the chair, the dying flowers on the table, the girl crying on the couch. Patrick paused. Then he moved over to the couch, set his guitar case down on the floor next to her, then sat beside her. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Who are you?” She sniffled.

“I’m Patrick,” Patrick said. “I’d say I’m your brother’s friend, but that would be a lie. Do you need anything?”

The girl frowned at him, and Patrick still didn’t know her name. “Are you fucking him?”

“Nope,” Patrick said.

The frown deepened. “What are you doing here?”

“Well.” Standing up, Patrick looked around. He remembered seeing them in the kitchen, so he went and got a paper towel, then looked in the cabinets until he found a semi-clean looking glass. Filling it with water from the tap, he brought the glass and the paper tower out to her. “I’m on my way out,” he explained. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

She looked up at him uncomprehendingly. “You’re a lot nicer than anyone else he’s brought over here.”

“I’m sorry,” Patrick said, setting the water and paper towel on the table, next to the dying flowers. “That other guy down there—is he a friend of yours?”

“That’s my boyfriend,” said Adam’s sister.

“Uh-huh,” said Patrick. “Do you want me to stick around?”

“Um,” said Adam’s sister.

In the ensuing silence, Patrick could hear yelling downstairs. Adam’s sister began to cry again.

“Do you know any camp songs?” Patrick asked, going to sit beside her on the couch again.

“What?”

“Camp songs.” Patrick opened his guitar case, then brought out his guitar.

Adam’s sister gave him a strange look. “What are you doing?”

“I was gonna work on some music with your brother,” said Patrick, “but I don’t think he’s in the mood. What’s your name?”

Adam’s sister’s brow continued to furrow. “Amber.”

“Amber.” Patrick strummed his guitar, tightening the B-string a bit to adjust the tuning. “Do you know ‘Alligator’s Pyjamas’?”

Amber kind of looked like she thought he was crazy. She wasn’t crying at all any more, so Patrick kept doing it; he got halfway through “Alligator’s Pyjamas” before Amber’s boyfriend came up the stairs, followed immediately by Adam, who saw what was happening in the living room and seemed to think Patrick was even crazier than Amber did.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Adam demanded.

“Alligator’s Pyjamas,” said Patrick, taking the strap off his guitar.

Adam looked thoroughly disgusted with him. “You’re a fucking freak,” Adam said, then spun on his heel and stormed back down the stairs.

“Who the fuck are you?” asked Amber’s boyfriend, as Patrick put his guitar carefully back in its case.

This family said fuck a lot. “Patrick,” said Patrick.

“Thank you,” said Amber, getting up from the couch.

Patrick looked over to reply, but she hadn’t been saying it to him. She was saying it to her boyfriend, slipping her arms around his waist, kissing him. Patrick closed the case of his guitar, then stood up. “I guess I better go,” he said.

Amber pulled away from her boyfriend. “You know,” she said, this time to Patrick, “it’s true. You’re really fucking weird.”

“Yeah. I get that a lot,” Patrick said, even though he really never did, and he headed for the door.

“Adam is a walking disease,” Amber’s boyfriend called out after him. “Have fun with your chlamydia!”

“Yep,” Patrick said, and left the quaint red house with its quaint porch with wrought-iron rails.

*

David didn’t appreciate talking in the morning. For a long time, Patrick thought David didn’t appreciate much of anything in the morning, but he’d figured out a few things. Coffee was one. Breakfast—eventually—was another. Patrick made him eggs and tomatoes, which David liked—not as much as pancakes, but unlike pancakes, he didn’t complain about feeling heavy later.

“What?” David snapped, putting down his fork.

“What,” Patrick said, innocently.

“You’re . . . twittering about.” David made a very twittering gesture with his hand, and meanwhile, Patrick had been sitting very patiently at the table, waiting for David to gradually wake up, become human, and notice him.

“I’m not twittering,” Patrick said, feeling slightly guilty. David really preferred to wake up on his own time, and Patrick could have predicted that David wouldn’t like him sitting there waiting at the table. He should have known David would know Patrick wanted something.

“Okay,” said David, in a tone that meant he wasn’t buying it. “What do you want?”

“Don’t you want to finish your coffee?” Patrick said, kind of just to be a B.

“Fine.” David sipped his coffee, pretending like he didn’t care, and Patrick shouldn’t have teased him because David was going to win. Usually David couldn’t wait him out, but in the morning, David cared less, and now, Patrick cared too much.

“I want,” Patrick said, then stopped. “I want to visit my parents.”

“We saw them at Christmas.” David’s voice was softer now.

“No,” said Patrick. “I mean. I want. To visit Pinewood. With you.”

“Oh. Um. Okay. Do they have—museums? National monuments? I mean . . . what is it you want to see? The pinecone parade?”

“I want to see my hometown. With my husband in it.”

David ducked his head, lifting up his coffee cup in front of his mouth as though to sip it, as though he somehow thought he still could hide, or needed to hide, the fact that something that Patrick had said really pleased him. Patrick felt relieved that it had pleased him, because he liked pleasing David. He felt like he could spend a lifetime, pleasing David.

“So?” Patrick said, nudging David’s foot with his.

“What?” David was still kind of hiding behind his coffee cup.

“Will you go with me?”

“I mean . . . if that’s something you want.” David pretended to shrug, and Patrick didn’t know if chalance was an actual word, but David was the exactly opposite of nonchalance right there.

“It’s something I want.”

“Um. Would we be—staying with your parents?”

“We could get an Air B&B.”

“Oh. Okay.” David’s shoulders slumped.

“What?” Patrick said. “You want a real bed and breakfast?”

“No.”

“David.”

“That sounds great!” David said, loud and fake.

“Uh-huh. David.”

“I—would your parents really mind?” David pressed his lips together, like he didn’t like the taste of his own words. “If we stayed with them?”

“You want to stay with my parents?” Patrick asked, incredulous.

David nodded his head jerkily.

“Why?”

“I just think it would be nice.”

“But why?”

“No reason.” David’s face twisted again, and he was coming out with the reason. It was being screwed out of David right now, by whatever internal screwdriver existed in there, whatever it was that made him come out with all the bizarre and unexpected things he came out with; Patrick liked to watch. “Do you still have a bedroom?” David finally exploded.

“What?” Patrick said, because it was still unexpected.

“A bedroom,” David said. “Like a childhood bedroom. Like—a room you had when you were a kid. I don’t mean like—like a playroom or a nursery or the rec room or the child’s kitchen, I just mean—like a bedroom.”

“Child’s kitchen?” Patrick said, raising his brows.

“A bedroom like kids have on TV,” David said. “It’s full of . . . boy band posters and—and catchers’ mitts.” David bit his lip, as though what he had said was extremely embarrassing.

He should be embarrassed, if Patrick was reading this correctly. “It didn’t have boy band posters,” Patrick said slowly.

“But. Um. Is it still there? Do your parents—live in the same house?”

“They live in the same house,” Patrick said, watching as David pretended not to look too hopeful, pretended not to look too excited. David was failing at these things miserably. “My mom turned it into a sewing room.”

“Oh. Oh, that’s okay, I wasn’t . . .” David lifted his coffee, but then lowered it without sipping, hands wrapped around it as though for physical warmth. “I just wanted to see it, no reason.”

“Uh-huh,” Patrick said skeptically.

David’s own brows went up. “Are you saying you wouldn’t want to see my childhood room?”

“Pretty sure I saw it in a magazine once,” Patrick said, even though he hadn’t. He had no interest in David’s childhood room; David’s childhood broke his heart, and Patrick wanted to keep him forever in their small, two-bedroom house, where David still complained that the master bath was not a master bath. “What I really want to see is that child’s kitchen,” Patrick joked.

“So, your parents don’t have a guest room?” David said, looking away and sipping his coffee after all.

“The sewing room has a daybed.”

“Um. Chic.”

“It used to be my bed. If that interests you.”

David set his coffee mug on the table with a hasty little clatter. “Why would that interest me? It doesn’t interest me.” He picked it up again.

Patrick was kind of interested in how often he could make this coffee mug go up and down; it was pretty funny. “I thought maybe you wanted me to fuck you in it,” Patrick said. “Or you could fuck me in it; I’m not sure which you were gunning for.”

“The first one.” David set down the mug, then picked it up again. “No, the second. Patrick,” he said anxiously, putting it down again.

“What?” Patrick said, finally lifting his eyes from the mug back to David.

“Are you serious?”

“I’m always serious.”

“You’re literally never serious.”

“I am.” Patrick put his hand over David’s, where David’s fingers were still curled around the mug, where the gold rings were all lined up in a row today. David used to take the silver ones off when he slept. He never did the gold. He took them off when he showered, sometimes. He didn’t want his fingers to get dirty, he said.

Patrick had never taken his off since the day he put it on, and David’s hand twisted so his long fingers could interlace with Patrick’s shorter, blunter ones. Patrick leaned in to kiss him, and David tasted like coffee and tomato.

“I want to be your husband in your hometown,” David whispered, very quietly.

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed, dragging him up.

“I want to be your husband in every small town you’ve ever been in,” David said, going willingly.

“Like a tour?” Patrick asked, walking him back.

“Mm-hm.” David got just a little clumsy sometimes, the way he cradled Patrick’s neck, the way he stroked Patrick’s shoulders, when he was feeling particularly tender.

“That can be arranged,” Patrick said, stepping into him.

David teetered a bit before stepping backward, letting Patrick walk him back. “Oh, are we—are we doing this?” he asked, between Patrick’s kisses as Patrick walked him toward the bedroom. “Right now?”

“You got morning plans?”

“You’re dressed.”

“Undress me.”

Ooh,” David said, in his too-excited, sex is happening voice. “Is this because—?” Patrick kissed him again, and David asked, “You didn’t think that thing about your childhood bed was skeezy?”

“It’s pretty skeezy, David,” Patrick said, finally getting him to their bedroom, kissing him again now that they were there. When he pulled away, it was for just enough room to whisper. “Do you want me to be your husband in New York? Do you want me to fuck in you in your old apartment?”

David sucked in a breath, arms tightening around him. “No,” David breathed. “Patrick. No.”

Patrick didn’t want to either; he didn’t want to for the same reasons he didn’t want to see David’s childhood room, but he would’ve done it if David wanted it. He would have loved doing it with David, if it made any inch of David’s past feel kinder.

“Patrick,” said David, his voice and arms a little tight. “I don’t want to ever go to a place where I had to be without you.”

“That’s too bad.” Patrick pulled back to give him a lighter kiss. “You’ve been to Ashton several times without me, and now you have to go again to pick up those ceramics you ordered; it costs twice as much to ship.”

David’s mouth covered a smile. “Mm, yeah, shipping, talk dirty to me,” he said, teasing now as he pulled Patrick to their bed.

“I used to live in Ashton,” Patrick said, pushing David down. “I hated it.”

“Why?” David was already unbuttoning Patrick’s jeans.

“I missed you,” Patrick said.

“You hadn’t met me yet.”

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed. “It was the worst.”

“You do know that this is a song by Bjork,” said David.

“That’s right, David,” Patrick said, finally getting onto the bed with him. “We’re a song by Bjork.”

David was laughing so much that it was hard to kiss him, but somehow Patrick managed.

Chapter Text

The next time Colleen invited Patrick to her apartment, Patrick said yes. When she leaned into kiss him, Patrick kissed her back. When she reached to unbutton his shirt, Patrick took it off. When she said they should take it to the bedroom, Patrick followed. He didn’t want her. She was so pretty. He didn’t know what he wanted. It was better than going back to his own apartment with Mike. Maybe Patrick wasn’t gay. Maybe he was asexual, like Taryn said. Maybe he was broken.

He wasn’t asexual. The sex with Colleen was better than he could remember having. Colleen was a little—rough. It surprised him. He found himself being just a little rough in return, but not in the way that he had always feared. Because she was forceful, it was easily to believe that he would not hurt her, that she would tell him if she didn’t like it. They talked about it. She told him she would tell him.

It was nice. He felt freer than he had before. He didn’t realize he hadn’t felt free before. It made him worry that there was more lurking under the surface. How was he supposed to peel back those layers, when those layers were just himself? Shouldn’t he just—know, if those things were inside him; shouldn’t he know what he desired; shouldn’t he just be able to feel what he wanted?

Patrick couldn’t feel it. She held him down, and it made him realize he wanted to hold her down, and he felt like he’d never realized that before until he was with her. Maybe it was only with her? How were you supposed to find out what you wanted, what you liked, if it never occurred to you until someone did it to you that it was what you wanted? He hadn’t had the right fantasies. How was he supposed to figure out the right fantasies?

For a while, it was nice. The sex was nice. It made him feel—not alone, except when he realized he was using it in order not to feel alone, it began to make him feel alone. He didn’t know why he felt alone. Colleen was a beautiful woman. She was smart and sophisticated and liked him for some reason. The sex was better than other sex. Why did he feel like he was all alone?

She didn’t respond to his teasing like Ophelia had, by pushing back and making him laugh. She wasn’t familiar and comfortable, like Rachel. She was perhaps a little too serious, but she was witty and clever and had interesting opinions about things like politics and theater and society. She was a Blue Jays fan. What was not to like?

He should think about this rationally. Think about this rationally, Patrick. What did he feel about Colleen? What did he really feel? He searched for his feelings, but when he found them, his mind skated over them. He couldn’t get underneath them to find the reasons and the roots of them, as though the ground in which they grew had turned to ice and he kept slipping over it, over and over it, impossible to get beneath. He kept slipping.

He felt himself icing over everywhere, growing sharper edged just to break through and hold on, as though to keep his footing. He wanted to snap at people, but instead he laughed. He laughed a lot. He was laughing all the time; he was miserable. He was miserable living with Mike, Mike’s alcoholism and his misogyny and his treatment of his children. Patrick didn’t have enough money to get out of it for good. He shouldn’t have taken these classes for his certificate. It was too much money. It was a time suck. He felt like he didn’t have a life. Why had he wasted so many weekends here seeing Eagle’s Bane? What had he been trying to do?

And now here was Colleen, a perfect woman with whom he should have been happy, but he wasn’t. He couldn’t be, and he didn’t know why.

“Sometimes I think you’re not taking this seriously,” Colleen said.

Because I’m not, Patrick thought, but he didn’t say it. She had been trying to have a conversation about their relationship, and he had made a joke of it. It hadn’t been fair. He wasn’t being fair to her. “Life’s too short to be serious,” he said.

“Now you’re being pithy,” Colleen said.

It’s how I survive, he wanted to say, but that was also pithy. “Sorry,” he said instead. “Sorry. I’ll be long-winded from now on.”

“Stop it,” said Colleen.

“Sorry.” Patrick clamped his mouth shut so nothing else sarcastic could come out of it. He was being a dillweed; he knew he was being a dillweed; he didn’t know why he was behaving like this.

He knew why he was behaving like this.

He opened his mouth. “We should break up,” he said, and it was the most unkind thing he had ever said, because he meant it, and he needed to say it, except he should not have said in this way, not in the middle of this conversation, in which he was already being—as Ophelia would have said—a prime tool.

“What?” said Colleen, aghast.

“I like you,” Patrick said, his voice breaking. They’d been having sex for four months. “I really like you. I am so, so sorry.”

“I can’t even tell if you’re serious right now,” Colleen said.

Patrick swallowed around a sudden painful lump in his throat. It tasted like guilt. “I am,” he said. “I’m sorry. I—shouldn’t have said it this way.”

“Where is this coming from?” said Colleen. “I thought you were—I thought you . . . I don’t know where this is coming from.”

“Nowhere,” Patrick said, and as soon as it was out of his mouth, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. “Nowhere,” he said again. “You are good, and smart, and strong, and I’m—I’m—I’m—” Patrick stopped talking. He couldn’t think of what he was. A prime tool, said his brain.

A liar, said something else. Something deeper.

“You’re what?” said Colleen. “If it wasn’t working—why wouldn’t you tell me it wasn’t working? Why are you . . . why?”

Guilt felt like what he imagined an icepick might feel like, at the base of his skull, slowly driving forward and driving all thought from his brain. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t . . . know.”

She stared at him, and he realized he’d never really been able to read her face. She looked strong and smart and competent, with this beautiful fragility or vulnerability that made him want to take care of her, but that was just her face, her strong features mixed with the delicacy of her bone structure. She looked as fragile and vulnerable now as ever, and he couldn’t tell what she was actually feeling; of course she was fragile and vulnerable. Of course she was feeling that; he was a prime tool; he was breaking up with her. But he couldn’t read it in her. He couldn’t read anything. She was ice as well; they were skating across each other and on the other side of each of them was a yawning gap where something real should have been.

“I thought you were one of the good ones,” she said, turning from him slightly, and the line of her back was so beautiful in that moment. The sheen of her blouse was beautiful. Everything about her was beautiful; he didn’t understand her; he didn’t relate to her at all.

“I was trying to be,” he said.

He had three months before the lease was up on the apartment with Mike. He had just enough to pay it and get out, but that would mean he wouldn’t be able to pay for classes for his certificate. If he stuck it out, he could finish, get a place of his own, maybe, then quit the job, then do patent law somewhere like he wanted.

Instead he quit his job, quit school, quit Mike, and quit Ashton. He moved back to Pinewood. He still didn’t have his own pans.

*

In Pinewood, he took the first place he could get that wasn’t with his parents, which was a room in a house with four other twenty-somethings. They were all grad students, thinking that master’s degrees in physics and a PhD in environmental science would allow them to make a living. Patrick felt old, jaded. You shouldn’t be old and jaded-at twenty-seven.

He got a part-time job as a business manager at an auto-shop. And another part-time job as an investment administrative assistant at a credit union. And another part-time job as a major gifts officer for a non-profit that helped the homeless called Kathy’s Place. Together, the three jobs almost made a paycheck that could pay for rent, food, his new(ish) car, his student loans. He did consulting on the side.

He thought again about OkCupid. He thought about putting on it that he was interested in men. He thought about what he would say if they wanted to have sex with him. I don’t know. I’m not ready yet. I’m confused. I just want to see what it’s like. Couldn’t he just meet a gay single guy and judge by his feelings whether he wanted to date him? But if you put that you were interested in men on an app, and you were already saying you wanted to date them. It seemed disingenuous.

Instead, he went out for coffee with Rachel. He went out for lunch with Rachel. He went out for dinner with Rachel, and they talked about exes and dating and her photography and his music and her mom and patents and pickles and cathedrals.

“When are you going to marry that girl?” asked Aunt Linda, when Patrick mentioned he’d seen Rachel.

“Wait, you’re going out with Rachel?” asked Rob, Patrick’s cousin. “Again?”

Patrick wasn’t going out with Rachel. He was becoming friends with Rachel, in a way he had once proposed, but they had never been before.

“Who else are we going to be friends with?” Rachel said, when he mentioned this to her. “All of our other friends are married.”

“We can be friends with married people,” he pointed out.

“Sure, and babysit their babies,” she said. “Are you going to eat that spring roll?”

They were at their favorite Thai restaurant. It was in fact the only Asian restaurant for at least fifty kilometers in any direction. “No,” he said, turning his plate toward her. “There’s nothing wrong with kids,” he added.

Picking the spring roll off Patrick’s plate, Rachel just shrugged. “You’re the one who always wanted them.”

“I didn’t say I wanted them.”

“Fine. You’re the one who always brought it up.”

“Rachel,” Patrick said, troubled. “We’re not even going out.”

“That’s good,” Rachel said. “I don’t want to go out with you. I’m really interested in Tim; I think it’s going to work.”

“You know it’s not going to work,” Patrick said. Tim’s idea of great dates included monster trucks; she’d already told Patrick she couldn’t take him seriously, and yet she was still with him for some reason. When he was in town.

“I mean.” She grinned at him around her spring roll. “He’s hot, though.”

“Yeah.”

“See? Even you think he’s worth the monster trucks.”

Patrick watched her dip her spring roll in his sauce and thought, Why aren’t we together? He didn’t understand. This was cute; this was funny; he should be thinking this was cute and funny; this should be a date. Why wasn’t it a date? He didn’t want it to be a date. He didn’t want to date her.

Instead he started sleeping with her. She started sleeping with him. You’re a prime tool, Patrick, he could sometimes still hear Ophelia say. Patrick didn’t know what he was.

*

“Are we going out?” Patrick asked, the next time he slept with her.

“Do we have to define it?” Rachel was lazily stroking his arm.

“I think . . . maybe we should, yeah,” said Patrick. “I don’t want either of us getting hurt. I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“You never hurt me,” she said.

“I have.”

“No, you haven’t.”

“Rachel.”

“Ugh.” She rolled away from him on the bed, putting her back to him. “You’re always so practical.

“I moved here without a job. I live with a bunch of students. I’m not practical.”

“I just meant you always want to talk things through.”

“Not always.”

Rachel sucked in a breath. “No. Not always.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

Patrick waited.

“Sometimes you just . . . you’re just closed off, sometimes. Like there’s a barrier, between you and—everyone else.”

“A barrier,” said Patrick. “Like skin?”

“And you use jokes to deflect.”

“It wasn’t a funny joke.”

“But you’re still deflecting.”

Patrick turned to lie on his back. He put his hands over his face. “Sometimes I don’t . . . I don’t . . .” He gritted his teeth. He didn’t have words for this. “I don’t think I—feel what I’m supposed to feel. I don’t think I—nothing ever . . . nothing feels how it’s supposed to.”

“How is it supposed to feel?”

“I don’t know!”

“Then how come you know it—”

“Because I always feel like—like something’s missing, like I’m not doing a good enough job, like I’m messing it up. I always feel like I’m messing it up, and if I could just be—if I could just do the right thing, find the right way to be, then I would feel—I would feel . . . I wouldn’t feel like I never get to choose. I feel like I never get to choose.”

Rachel didn’t say anything for a long time, and Patrick took his hands off of his face. Those were awful things to say. Those were things you shouldn’t say to someone you’d just slept with, except he also remembered the time she’d cried after he’d fucked her. She’d told him then that she’d slept with him because it was easy, easy and familiar, and he had understood. Maybe she would understand.

“I think these are all pretty good reasons why we’re not together,” she said.

“What if . . . what if what’s missing is you?” he croaked.

“Do you really think that’s it?” She turned again to face him, her arm under her cheek to prop up her head. “I’ve thought that before, about you. I’m not sure it was true.”

“I don’t know.”

“What does your heart tell you?”

Patrick tried to listen to his heart. He couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t hear it; it was too loud; it was a cacophony.

I’ve never met anyone, I’ve never met anyone I want to be with, and what does that feel like? Is it wanting to look at them, wanting to be near them, wanting to sleep with them? Is it in your heart, in your mind, in your dick, where is it, what is it, what does everyone know, what does everyone feel, that I don’t? Why can’t I feel it? Am I missing that piece of me?

Maybe a piece was missing, but that piece wasn’t sex; it wasn’t romance; it wasn’t love. What was missing was the part that said, here’s what I have to do, because Patrick had never felt a calling. He’d never felt, this is what I want to do with my life. He’d never felt here is where I belong.

Why should he feel that with a person, when he’d never felt it in a place he’d lived, a job he’d worked, friends he’d had, his family, his home, his hobbies? He had so many friends, except he didn’t have friends—people with whom he belonged, someone with whom he belonged, somewhere he belonged, something he was meant to be doing.

What am I missing? said his heart. Why don’t I know?

“I don’t know,” Patrick said again.

“I don’t know either,” Rachel said. She put her hand on his chest. “It’s probably the economy.”

“Rachel.” He covered her hand, not knowing how someone who seemed to feel so many similar things could be so far away. Sometimes he felt like he was Hansel and she was Gretel, wandering through the woods. You didn’t want to find the candy house, because danger lurked inside, so you stayed out there, trailing breadcrumbs, hoping someone else would find you. “I don’t think it’s the economy.”

“Then what is it?”

He looked at her. “What if it’s just me?”

“Then it’s me too,” Rachel said. “It’s always been me too with you.”

Us two, Patrick thought. Moments like this made him feel as though he loved her, and he didn’t. He didn’t. He wondered if he ever had.

He kissed her hand and moved away a month later.

*

Patrick had been back in Pinewood five months, sleeping with Rachel but not dating her, when Danika, a friend he worked with at Kathy’s Place, mentioned her cousin’s non-profit in Mapleville. The company was working to help people find affordable housing. “They could use someone with accounting experience,” Danika told Patrick, and Patrick had only been working part-time at Evergreen Credit Union for six months, but he felt like at this point, he had experience in everything.

Mapleville was forty-five minutes away. Patrick drove over on a weekend to check out the start-up, which was called Come On Home. Danika’s sister, Eva, was the co-founder with one other gal, named Lenore. Besides them, there were only two other employees. They needed an accountant, someone to work on major gifts, and someone to review properties. It wouldn’t be full time, but it was new, different; Patrick could do some good. They said they were looking for innovators with an entrepreneurial spirit. “That’s me,” Patrick said.

He sent them an application. He wrote them a letter. He talked to them on the phone. He drove over to see them again. They hired him. Patrick moved again.

“You broke up with Rachel?” said Rob, his cousin. “Again?”

“It’s probably for the best,” Rachel said. “Who knows? Maybe things will work out with Tim after all.”

Patrick barely had any furniture. He still didn’t have pans. In Mapleville, Patrick shared an apartment with Eva and Lenore, who lived together. Mom said it was a little strange, him living with two women. “Nothing is going on,” he told her. “They need someone to share the rent. I need somewhere to stay.”

“I didn’t say anything was going on,” said Mom. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Still, there was something about the way Mom said it. She sounded like she did mean something by it. It made Patrick uncomfortable.

“Pretty sure Ross thinks we’re gay,” Patrick heard Eva tell Lenore one day. Ross was one of the other employees at Come On Home. He did part-time volunteer coordination.

“Meanwhile I’m pretty sure Hal thinks we’re straight,” said Lenore. Hal was their other coworker.

“People are wild,” said Eva.

Eva and Lenore never said what they actually were. Patrick felt like it seemed rude to ask. He never saw them kiss each other. He never saw them kiss anyone.

“It has a loft,” Patrick told his mom, “so I can be by myself. And a living room and a kitchen, two other bedrooms. And a balcony. We’re on the third floor. They have two little dogs.”

“I’m sure it’s very nice,” said Mom.

It was very nice. Living with Eva and Lenore in their apartment was about the most comfortable Patrick had ever felt, and he was excited about Come On Home. Maybe this was it. He worked as a part-time night manager at a movie theater to help make the rent. More retail. He still kind of liked it.

He thought about setting up a dating profile. He thought about putting on it that he was interested in seeing men. He felt so busy. How could he make time for that? Would anyone be interested in a twenty-eight-year-old guy who worked part-time at a movie theater? Who had never kissed a boy? It seemed too late, now. They would think he didn’t have his life together. What if Patrick put on a dating app that he liked men, and then he went out on a date with a man who—who was tall, who went to the gym, who had abs, who looked at Patrick with his round cheeks and his thick thighs and floppy hair and thought—and thought—and thought you’re not dating material. Gay guys on TV were always hot. They knew how to dress.

Inoffensive potato, Derek used to call him.

Patrick felt kind of unattractive, honestly. In Ashton, he’d been so busy with classes and work and avoiding Mike and avoiding everything that he hadn’t really been very physical. Except with Colleen. That didn’t count. He and Rachel used to hike, when they’d lived together, but when he’d moved back to Pinewood, they hadn’t. He’d gained some weight. It was all those spring rolls.

Patrick started volunteering for Parks and Rec, because it was active. He found a club that played hockey. Eva was a vegetarian. Maybe he should try being a vegetarian? Maybe later, he thought to himself, kind of like how he thought maybe later when he thought about being gay.

He was making friends, settling into the town. The town had a robust office of economic development for some reason; it was helping Come On Home. Patrick thought working for the office of economic development was something he could maybe work toward. He still liked the idea of helping new businesses. Maybe once he felt healthier and got a better job than the movie theater, he could work on dating.

Eva and Lenore had an active social life, with a lot of friends, one of whom was Mateo. Mateo was tall and lanky, with hair so black it shone like Superman. He wore it long and wavy, almost down to his shoulders but not quite, and his eyes were a bright, bright black, and he was beautiful. Everyone agreed that he was beautiful; this was not evidence that Patrick was gay. Eva and Lenore called him the pretty one; when they had parties and new people met Mateo, they all remarked upon it later, after he had gone.

Mateo was brilliant and rather too blunt, but he didn’t mean to be unkind. “Eva thinks he’s on the spectrum,” Lenore said at one point.

“What do you think?” Patrick asked.

“We’re all on some spectrum somewhere,” said Lenore.

Patrick didn’t mind bluntness. He liked it, and Mateo was concerned for other people’s feelings, even if he couldn’t seem to read them. His jokes were rather painful, but he didn’t get most of Patrick’s teasing, so Patrick toned it down, more than he usually did with people he liked. Mateo had an awkward laugh, breathy and nasal, just like his awkward voice, surprisingly high pitched, just like his awkward body, which should not have been awkward, with him being so beautiful, but it was. He didn’t know how to move it, and his hands fluttered when he talked. When they had parties and new people met Mateo, they all asked later, after he had gone, “Is he gay?”

“Have I mentioned spectra,” Lenore said.

“Who he sleeps with is his own business,” said Eva, and Patrick liked Mateo.

Patrick liked Mateo so much. Mateo liked musical theater; he knew all the shows; he talked about what was big on Broadway. Patrick said they should go see Mapleville Arts production of The Drowsy Chaperone; they all went—Eva, Lenore, and Mateo, but only Patrick and Mateo knew the show. They were the only ones who talked about it afterwards. When Mapleville Arts did A Chorus Line, Patrick went with just Mateo.

They took a trip down to Toronto together to see Les Misérables. It was Mateo’s favorite musical, for some reason. They got a hotel in the city together so they could drive back the next morning. Two double beds. Patrick felt almost ill with anxiety over it. Nothing’s going to happen, he told himself.

You want something to happen, said his brain.

Nothing happened. They had crêpes the next morning. Mateo teased him that he snored. Patrick knew for a fact he hadn’t snored. He hadn’t slept at all.

Mateo said he didn’t care for sports of any kind, but he said that he was interested in the fact that Patrick was interested in them. Mateo came to see some of Patrick’s hockey games, amused at first and then truly becoming more invested when Patrick tried to explain all the rules.

Mateo also liked to cook. He made Patrick dinner sometimes. “I’m thinking about having some people over,” Mateo asked. “Do you care for fondue, Patrick? I want to do a fondue. But only if you like fondue.”

It made Patrick’s cheeks feel too hot, his heart slamming up against his ribs. “I mean,” he kind of stuttered. “It’s your get-together. Why does it matter if I like fondue?”

Mateo had just looked at him with his solemn dark eyes in his solemn dark face. “Because I like you, Patrick,” he said, and that night Patrick dreamed of him. He dreamed of him and got off to thoughts of him the next morning. Mateo didn’t have his get-together. “I should,” he said. “Or we could rewatch literally all of Slings and Arrows. That does sound more appealing.”

Mateo never talked about women. He never talked about men either. Patrick didn’t know if Mateo was gay. Patrick had tried not to think about it. It had felt disrespectful somehow, too personal, invasive. Who he sleeps with is his own business, Eva had said, and she was right. Unless it could become Patrick’s business.

Patrick took a confused shower after rewatching literally all of Slings and Arrows, trying to decide whether he wanted it to be his business. He thought of dating Mateo, and his brain went, I’m already dating Mateo.

Patrick wasn’t actually dating Mateo. The shows, the hockey, marathoning TV—it felt like dating; it felt like what dating Mateo could be, but there was no touching, no kissing, no sex. That was what dating was. Wasn’t it? Wasn’t that what made you gay? Touching and kissing and sex? Otherwise, this was just—a friendship. Wasn’t it? Were these feelings deeper than friendship?

It sort of feels like we’re dating, Ophelia had said, just because he’d asked her out to eat a few times. He’d asked Mateo out to eat so many more times. Was that just friendship because Mateo was a guy?

The hot water of Eva and Lenore’s shower poured over Patrick, slowly fading into cold, and he realized he didn’t know the difference. He was twenty-eight, and he didn’t know the difference. What was the difference between someone you wanted to befriend and someone you wanted to date? What he had had with Rachel didn’t feel like friendship, but what he had had with Rachel didn’t feel like what he felt with anybody except his cousins, maybe. She felt like family, a part of his life not even due to a particular affinity but because she had always been there, because they were so often in the same place, at the same time, because they knew each other through and through.

But Patrick had been friends with Ophelia. He’d loved talking to her, spending time with her; he’d looked forward to being with her in a way he hadn’t with other people, except for some of his friends at university—Taryn and Hutch and Andrew, his friends in high school—Brandon. Patrick turned the water off in the shower and realized he couldn’t think of any other close friends, and he didn’t talk to Taryn or Hutch or Andrew anymore; he didn’t talk to Brandon. He could count his cousins as friends, maybe, except most of them had their own lives and were married now. He only kept up a lackluster correspondence with Elliot and Allison. Patrick didn’t even really like Rob. He loved them, but they didn’t feel like friends.

Who were his friends? He knew a lot of people. They kept up over email, text, Facebook sometimes. They met up sometimes. But they weren’t close, not like you read about, heard about, saw on TV, on social media, people talking about friends like family. They weren’t people he went to in times of need. They weren’t people he saw all the time; they weren’t people who felt like they were a part of him. Patrick didn’t have that, unless you counted Rachel. Why didn’t he have that?

Patrick got out of the shower and looked at himself in the mirror. He was twenty-eight. He was twenty-eight, and only just now realizing he didn’t have a best friend. He was twenty-eight, and only just now realizing he didn’t even really know what friendship was. He was twenty-eight, and he didn’t know if he had ever wanted anyone, had romantic feelings for anyone, been in love with anyone. He wanted to cut his hair. He wanted to chop it all off. He hated it.

“You look different,” Mateo said, rocking back on his heels and doing the slow blink he did, the next time Patrick saw him.

“Got a haircut,” said Patrick.

“What are you doing here?” Mateo was still just standing in the doorway of his apartment. Patrick hadn’t even texted; he’d dropped by unannounced.

“Um, I don’t . . .” Patrick sucked in a breath. “Do you want to get dinner?”

“I already ate,” said Mateo.

“Do you want . . . to go to Millie’s?”

“Who is it?” said a voice from inside the apartment.

“It’s no one,” Mateo said, closing the door slightly, so just the long sliver of himself filled the open space in the doorway, while an open space inside of Patrick’s slowly closed, so that his stomach could begin a jerky descent down the elevator of his spine.

“I didn’t know you had company,” Patrick said, his voice filling up that empty, echoing shaft.

“I don’t,” Mateo said, and Patrick stomach slid down another floor, to another vertebra.

“Who is it?” said the voice again, and someone was pushing behind Mateo at the door—a girl, a really pretty girl; she was pretty like a movie star; she looked just like Sandra Oh. “Hi,” she said. “You never have anyone over,” she added, poking Mateo in the ribs.

Mateo has me over all the time, Patrick wanted to say. We’ve watched Slings and Arrows twice. Instead he finally peeled his eyes of the movie star woman and looked up at Mateo, who looked like he might be in physical pain. “Patrick, this is Caitlin, my—my girlfriend.”

“Patrick!” said Caitlin, sounding delighted. “I’ve heard about you!”

I haven’t heard about you, Patrick wanted to say, but found he couldn’t say anything.

“What are you doing here? Did—did you guys have plans?” Caitlin looked up at Mateo. “He’s always forgetting; he’s a scatterbrain. Were you guys doing something tonight?”

“No,” said Patrick, finding his voice at last. It was thick and full of something that tasted bad. It tasted really bad. “We weren’t doing anything.”

“We were just about to order pizza,” Caitlin said, opening the door wider. “Do you want to join us? I’ve been telling Mateo I wanted to meet you.”

“No.” Having finally spoken, Mateo turned away from the doorway to look down at Caitlin. “Patrick was just leaving.”

“I was staying, actually,” Patrick said, because he was petty and vindictive, and he didn’t understand. It was unkind, and it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t understand. “I’d love pizza. I mean, if that’s all right with you, Mateo. I wouldn’t want to pressure you into anything.”

Mateo licked his lips but didn’t look at him. Instead his head tipped down. “Of course not, Patrick,” he said, in such a soft voice that Patrick immediately felt guilty.

But it was too late, and Caitlin was already ushering him inside, and Patrick didn’t know how to get out of it without explaining something, and he didn’t know what there was to explain. There wasn’t anything to explain. Mateo had done nothing wrong. No one had done anything wrong, and Mateo looked like someone was physically hurting him, and Patrick thought he was going to throw up, and Caitlin, bless her heart, was warm and friendly.

Patrick was polite to her and made conversation, and Mateo clenched his jaw and sat on the couch sullenly, while Caitlin looked concerned and worried that Mateo was being impolite. Patrick joked around, because that was what he did, and even joked with Mateo, who liked being teased even less when he was upset, and Patrick wasn’t trying to make it worse; he just didn’t want to be here. When the pizza came, he ate a slice, then said he had to go, so he left.

Rachel accidentally texted him two days later.

*

“Um,” said David. “This isn’t your parents’ house. Unless there’s something about your childhood you haven’t told me.”

“Nope,” Patrick said, unbuckling his seatbelt. “It’s another hour to Pinewood. This is Millie’s.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything,” said David, but he was unbuckling as well, getting out as Patrick got out.

Patrick didn’t really feel a strong need to explain. Millie’s always had pies in the window, and that hadn’t changed. “I know, I know,” Patrick said, as he headed toward the door, David trailing behind. “Cake is better than pie. Just trust me.”

“You can’t be trusted with dessert,” David said, but he went through the door that Patrick was holding open for him, and the high-handed way David had said it made Patrick smile.

Millie’s was tiny, with only room for the two display cases, the register, refrigerator, and three little plastic table in a row along the side with their six little plastic chairs. David was already judging, but Patrick ignored him, going up to the cases to look at the pies, picking up the paper pie list to hand to David.

“Oh,” David said. Apparently, he had just discovered there were meat pies.

“You want the curry one,” Patrick said.

“How do you know?”

Patrick shrugged. “Okay, get a different one.”

“Are we getting dessert pie?”

“I can’t be trusted with dessert,” Patrick said. “Come look.”

“Can I help you?” said a girl, coming out from the back as David edged closer to look at the pie specials for the day. There were only three meat pies, but there were usually a dozen or so dessert pies, and they changed every time.

David asked too many questions about the pie and then spent way too long choosing pie; it was hilarious to watch, and the pie girl was really nice about it, and Patrick was in love with him. He was so in love with David, who was anxious about choosing just one pie to have, and even after Patrick said David could taste his, David suggested picking up slices for Patrick’s parents, and when Patrick asked him whether this was so David could try their pie also David pretended to be scandalized. “One doesn’t give one’s father-in-law half-eaten pie,” he said.

“One doesn’t,” Patrick agreed, “but you would, if you thought you could make it look like you hadn’t stolen any.”

“I would not.” David put his nose in the air.

“Come on,” said Patrick. “Just a tiny sliver. Off that Chocolate Raspberry Ecstasy Pie, just for instance.”

David glanced guiltily at the pie case. “That’s in my top three.”

“Shocking,” said Patrick.

David finally decided on his dessert pie—and Patrick’s pie, and two for Patrick’s parents, and the curry pie for lunch, which Patrick got also. It was a lot of pie, and even though the pie girl put the ones for Patrick’s parents in to-go boxes and put the boxes in a bag for them, they had to make two trips to get all the pie to the little plastic tables with their waters. “How did you know this place was here?” David asked on the way back to the table from their second trip.

“I used to live here.”

“Okay, but we established that your parents didn’t live in a pie shop.”

“Remember when I said I worked at a non-profit?”

“The housing one,” David said, proving that he actually listened sometimes.

“Yup.”

“And you lived with those two girls,” David teased, leering.

“Yeah.” Patrick watched David take a bite of the curry pie, and the reaction was as expected—David loved it. He actually closed his eyes as he slid his fork out, and God. God. David was so easy to please. So, so easy to please. David thought he was hard to please—he’d said that more than Patrick cared to hear it, but the truth was that pleasing David felt like second nature to Patrick.

There were some times, earlier on, when how easy David was to please almost scared him. David had had so little positive, genuine attention and affection—for himself, for who he was, for things he cared about—that David could actually be really easily manipulated. That was probably why he had been manipulated so often, and David had let it happen to him. Once it was done, he concluded he had deserved it.

“I asked a guy out here, once,” Patrick said, and David’s head jerked up like on a string.

Easy to manipulate, Patrick thought again, but he wasn’t manipulating David. He had just known how David would react—that startled look, the twist beginning at the side of his mouth that meant he was sort of pleased and sort of nervous, too. David looked like that when Patrick talked about his past—particularly his past with men, like he was thrilled he was getting a present but kind of worried about what was in the box.

“I mean, I don’t think I knew I was asking him out.”

“Yes, we’re all familiar with that,” David said, ducking his head to take another bite of curry pie.

“We’d been here before,” Patrick said. “But that time, I think, I was asking him out.”

“Did you come here?” David asked, probably trying not to sound too eager.

So Patrick told him about Mateo, the dates that were not dates, the girlfriend Patrick had never heard of before that night.

“He was cheating on her,” David concluded.

“No.”

“He was emotionally cheating on her.”

“We didn’t.” Patrick shrugged. “We never.”

“He knew what he was doing,” David said, waving his fork a bit too wildly. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have kept her a secret from you.”

“Or he had no idea what he was doing,” said Patrick. “I didn’t.”

“Did you ask?”

Slowly Patrick shook his head. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Scowling, David waved his fork again. “What did he say?”

“He didn’t. We just . . .”

“You didn’t talk about it? Ever?”

Patrick shrugged again, sort of uncomfortably.

David’s face, his body, his being did that thing it did where he unfolded, where he looked like he wanted to spread out over Patrick and wrap around him to keep him warm.

“It was a long time ago,” Patrick said, feeling the warmth inside, even though David hadn’t touched him.

David glanced down at his plate. “I’m really glad you brought me here,” he whispered. “This pie was delicious.”

“Even though wasn’t cake?”

“The pie can’t help how it was born, Patrick.”

Patrick bit his lip, because that comment was way too dang stupid to deserve a smile, but he felt it happening anyway.

David tapped his fork on his plate, which was only had pie crust flakes and smears of curry on it now. Patrick’s plate still had curry crust, and Patrick waited. He waited, and waited, and then it came. “Are you going to eat the rest of yours?”

“David,” Patrick said, pretending to be something other than amused, “there are literally four more slices of pie you could eat.”

“Yeah.” David tapped his fork a few more times, and Patrick pretended that this was not hysterical, that this behavior was not adorable, that he did not adore him.

Patrick finally caved. “You still want it?”

“Mm-hm.” David licked his lips, and Patrick nudged his plate over.

Patrick had long since realized he did not miss Rachel. He never had, in each of the ways he had tried to start over. He thought maybe he should, because she had been fused into his life like a limb, and when she was missing for too long, he had always sought her out. But they never had been friends—not really; they had been what each other needed, until all the times they weren’t. He often remembered her with fondness, though, and for some reason he was never going to be able to explain, the way she’d asked are you going to eat that? and finished off his plate was also something he had adored.

“I’m glad I brought you here too,” Patrick said.

David blinked up at him with a fork full of curry pie still in his mouth.

“And just so you know,” Patrick said. “This is a date.”

*

Rachel: n

Patrick: ?

Rachel: Oh sorry that was for someone else

Patrick: ok

Rachel: ur right by them sorry

Patrick: ok

Patrick looked at his phone. He didn’t know why Mateo hadn’t told him he had a girlfriend. He didn’t know why he was upset about it. He couldn’t tell if it was that he had wanted to be Mateo’s boyfriend or whether it was the lying. The lying hurt so, so much, but a little voice in his head kept saying that was an excuse and not what had really hurt at all. He texted Rachel because he didn’t want to think about Mateo anymore.

Patrick: How are you

Rachel: Good. U?

Patrick: ok
Patrick: I miss you

Patrick saw his own text appear and regretted it; he regretted it. What was he doing? He didn’t miss her. Did he? Why would he have texted it if he didn’t?

Rachel: Miss you 2. Miss our spring rolls

Patrick: No spring rolls in mapleville

Rachel: Haha should I bring u some

Patrick: That’s a long way for a spring roll run

Rachel: Never 2 far 4 spring rolls
Rachel: Do you want me 2

Patrick swallowed hard, because he should say no. He should say no, because if she came here something would happen, and he didn’t want something to happen. He didn’t want something to happen. He didn’t want her.

Patrick: Idk would you miss a monster truck rally with tim

Rachel: Tim is no more

Patrick: Sorry about that

Rachel: Nbd u said it wouldn’t work out

Patrick: You shouldn’t listen to me

Rachel: Y ur always right

Patrick: No I’m not

Rachel: Yes you are

Oh, great, she was spelling words out; this was getting way too serious.

Rachel: Its just spring rolls pb

Patrick: Without dipping sauce what’s the point

Rachel: Fine I’ll get u sauce but beware I might eat them on the way over

Patrick: No fair I was promised spring rolls

Rachel: Promises r 4 losers

Patrick: Well you’ve never lied to me

Rachel: How could i
Rachel: U already know it all

Patrick: true

Rachel: B there in 1 hr

Patrick: Looking forward to it

*

Nothing happened with Rachel. She brought spring rolls. They talked almost all night, which made it sound like they had a lot to talk about. Patrick guessed they did. They had so much shared history. Anything either one of them said brought up a new memory—high school, university, his mother, hers, Derek, their friends, their old apartment, spring rolls, Tim, empanadas, the dang pickles.

No one else was like that. Patrick felt more comfortable than he had ever been. That thrum of excitement he had felt around Mateo wasn’t there, that sweet ache, the warm pool that might have been longing. Had it been longing? Maybe he was so interested in being gay because it was different. Maybe he needed to spice up his sex life. Maybe he was unknowingly homophobic and some part of him got off on thinking it was taboo?

He and Rachel had stayed up the whole night. He let her sleep in his bed until afternoon. He tried to sleep on the couch, mostly still just wondering why Mateo hadn’t told him that he’d had a girlfriend.

Eventually, Rachel woke up and had a shower and wore one of his t-shirts, which on her was like a dress. She put her jeans on under it. They went out for brunch—dinner, really.

“Why do you stop talking to me whenever you go away?” she asked him, when they were done eating and she was dropping him off at his apartment so she could make the drive home. They were sitting in her station wagon; it was a jalopy.

“I just got busy,” Patrick heard himself lie.

“Don’t,” she said, then poked him in the stomach. “Also, ow. You’re bony.”

“I’m not bony.”

“Yes, you are. You chopped off all your hair, and you’re thin. Like a stick-man. What is happening to you over here?”

Patrick didn’t want to tell her what was happening. “I told you,” he joked. “No spring rolls.”

“Yeah. We’ll see about that.” She said it as though she planned on visiting more, and he had to tell her. He had to tell her the truth.

“Rachel,” Patrick said, but then he didn’t know what the truth was. What was the truth?

“Yeah?”

I think I’m gay, but it would be horrible to say something like that to Rachel. She would think he had been lying to her all these years. Had he been lying to her? She would think he hadn’t loved her. She would think she wasn’t enough to make him love her, and he didn’t even know if he was gay. Shouldn’t he be bi? Since he’d been with girls. He didn’t even know; he had no idea. It was just a thought that crossed his mind sometimes.

I think I was in love and he just broke up with me, he thought next, and oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Was that true? Was that what happened?

“Patrick?” he heard her say, from what seemed like very far away.

I can’t he tried to say, but he couldn’t; a sound came out instead; he couldn’t make himself. He couldn’t make himself say it; he didn’t know if it was true. How could it be true if Mateo had never touched him, if he had never been touched, if no one would ever touch him ever again?

“Pea?” Rachel was saying. “Patrick, honey, sweetheart, tell me what wrong.” And then her arms were there, around his neck, and she was climbing across the gear shift for some reason, holding him to her for some reason. Her shirt was wet for some reason, and he heard awful sounds. “Shh, baby, I’ve got you,” she said, over and over again, cradling his head, her legs half in his lap. “Honey.” She kissed the side of his head, the side of his face. “It’s okay; it’s okay; I’m here. I’m here.”

It stopped after a minute or two, and Patrick’s head felt stuffy, but his heart didn’t feel anything at all. That was the good part about crying, he guessed, except he’d gotten snot on Rachel—which wouldn’t be the first time, but still, it was impolite—and he felt really tired. Rachel kept petting his hair, murmuring soft things. “I’m sorry,” Patrick said, when he thought he could speak without sobbing. “I don’t know what—I’m sorry.”

“I mean, because you slobbered on me?” Rachel had on the voice she used when she was determined to make the best of things. “Because I feel like I gotta remind you, I’m wearing your shirt.”

Patrick laughed, albeit weakly.

“Pea.” She stroked the side of his face, kissing his temple.

It felt like a different kind of kiss.

“I’m not,” Patrick said, turning his face away. “I can’t.”

“Can’t what?” Her hand left his face.

“I’m . . .” Patrick felt a flush of heat begin down his face; he already felt too hot and thick from crying; his brains were already wool, but somehow Rachel seemed to understand, because she climbed off of him, went back to her side of the station wagon, only keeping his hand to hold.

He didn’t want to hold her hand. He didn’t even want to touch her. Prime tool, and Patrick wondered if Ophelia was the only person he’d ever known who had really known who he really was.

“I’m not sure I can explain,” Patrick said finally, “why that just happened.”

“That’s okay,” Rachel said, rather too quickly.

“I’m just—I’m trying to figure some things out,” he said.

“Yeah. I mean, me too.”

“They’re not—they’re not about you.” He finally pulled his hand from hers.

“But why do you always—” She cut herself off, sounding angry, but when she turned to him, her eyes had tears of her own. “You always cut me out. You always have, ever since—it’s like—it’s like there’s a wall inside you, Patrick, and every time I try to get through you—you—I’m on the outside, looking in.”

I’m on the inside, looking out.

“I’m sorry,” Patrick said again.

“No.” Rachel took a big wet breath. “No, I’m sorry; I shouldn’t . . .” She blew out the breath in a kind of laugh. “We’re not even together. I’m just . . . I’m worried about you.”

“I’ll be okay.”

“We’re always okay.” Rachel faced the steering wheel. “We’re never happy.”

“I think I’m just not—I’m not very good at it.”

“Right, but you’re hilarious and cute, and I’m—I’m spunky and smart and very pretty. We’re white and got good educations and are able-bodied; we are very privileged. We don’t even have a good excuse.”

“We’re rebels?” Patrick tried.

“But you’ve always been a goody-two-shoes.”

“Maybe this is happiness.”

Rachel gave another breathy laugh. “Yeah. Maybe this is it.”

What if this is all there is? Patrick thought, and Rachel went home.

*

Patrick thought about being bi. He thought about it a lot.

Mapleville was a small town, which made it hard to meet people, but that didn’t mean there weren’t gay people there. Patrick was still really confused about whether Eva and Lenore were gay. They had separate bedrooms. Sometimes they cuddled on the couch. He should have asked when he moved in. It felt awkward to ask now, as if he was overly invested in whether they were having sex—which he wasn’t. He just—he kind of needed some advice, here, except who was he supposed to ask?

Maybe he should see a therapist. That was nuts. Was a therapist going to help him figure out whether he was gay? They’d probably say what everyone said. Are you attracted to guys? If you were, you’d know. Fine. Patrick was attracted to guys. Fine. Was that the same as wanting to date guys? Should he be dating guys? If he was bi, how come he wasn’t dating guys? How come he wasn’t meeting guys to date?

He put himself back on OkCupid. He selected, I’m open to everyone. Fine. He would see what happened, and then Lenore asked whether Mapleville Movie Theater was hiring. “We’re always hiring,” said Patrick, because no one wanted to live in Mapleville; Come On Home had nothing to do; the Office of Economic Development had nothing to do; he’d made a mistake moving to a dying town. Everyone wanted to live in Ottawa or Toronto. Maybe because there were gay bars there. There were no gay bars in Mapleville. There were three bars in the whole dang town.

“Great,” said Lenore, “because we’ve got this friend. He was living with his parents; they just kicked him out; he needs a job. Could you put in a good word?”

“Why did they kick him out?” Patrick asked, even though it wasn’t his business. He somehow felt like he already knew the answer.

“He came out,” said Lenore.

“Sure,” said Patrick. “I’ll put in a good word.”

So Casey started working at Mapleville Movie Theater, and he was on the nightshift, which sort of made Patrick Casey’s boss. Casey was small and had delicate features and shorn hair except for one long piece across his forehead. He wore shirts that looked like girl shirts, with flowers or stripes sewn with sparkle thread, and talked about being gay a whole lot, a whole, whole lot.

“Being in love with Cate Blanchett is part of the queer experience,” said Casey.

“I do not understand the pants that straight men wear. I mean, no offense, Patrick. You seem cool.”

“I’m a slut for sparkle,” said Casey, “just like any true gay should be.”

“I ate a whole tub of leftover popcorn last night for dinner,” said Casey.

“Sounds healthy,” Patrick said.

“You don’t understand,” Casey said. “It’s because I’m gay.”

Patrick was not in love with Cate Blanchett; he wore jeans that fit and didn’t cost too much, and eating a whole tub of leftover popcorn for dinner sounded appalling. Casey was nineteen years old, and Patrick was fully aware that Casey was not speaking for the experience of all queer people, Patrick still felt left out. He felt questioned. He felt hurt, which was stupid.

Liking sparkles doesn’t make you gay, Patrick told himself. But Casey was so sure, and what if the fact that Patrick didn’t want to wear floral-print shirts meant something? What if the fact that he didn’t want to pierce his ears meant something? What if he was an imposter, thinking he might be gay, when being gay meant being like Casey, someone for whom sexual preference was not just one facet but in fact the central core of his identity?

Patrick actually opened OkCupid to modify his profile before he stopped himself. Casey was nineteen. Patrick was twenty-eight—only nine years difference, but to Patrick, it was different; it felt entirely different, a wide gap; he felt like Casey was a child. A child. Casey wasn’t trying to say—he hadn’t meant to tell Patrick he wasn’t gay. He hadn’t meant to tell Patrick he wasn’t gay, just because of popcorn or because of sparkles. Casey was a kid trying to find himself; kids didn’t realize other people were still trying to find themselves; Patrick hadn’t known when he was nineteen that he would feel even more lost in life by the time he was twenty-eight.

When Patrick was nineteen, he’d thought he was going to work in sales and would have a marriage and mortgage and kids by now. Growing up and growing more confused about what life was meant to be wasn’t what you saw in movies, on the news, in magazines, in books. How would Casey know what it was like, to be an adult, and still feel so lost, so afraid? Patrick should feel glad for him, that Casey had at least figured out this much about himself; it shouldn’t have a bearing on what Patrick thought about himself; it shouldn’t matter at all. It shouldn’t matter at all.

Patrick left his OkCupid profile the way it was.

*

When Casey turned twenty, he had a great big party. “You’re invited,” he told Patrick. “I mean everyone who’s going is, like, super gay, but you’re cool.”

“Um,” said Patrick, actually, to his shame, considering this. Every hit on OkCupid had been a girl, and he found himself uninterested, so uninterested. Was he waiting to find a guy? To mutually like and chat up a guy? Were there even any guys in Mapleville who wanted other guys, who were not turning twenty freakin’ years old? Even if everyone at Casey’s party was younger than Patrick, early twenties was not an insurmountable age difference; maybe it was if they acted like Casey, but Rob was dating Julia and they were seven years apart and that didn’t seem like a thing.

But Patrick was kind of Casey’s boss, and it seemed kind of inappropriate, so inappropriate, except hanging together outside of work was not inappropriate, going to parties with colleagues was not inappropriate, and Patrick just wanted to meet them. He wanted to meet gay people. Not even to date, necessarily. He just wanted to talk to them. He wanted someone to talk to, and everyone who’s going is gay made Patrick long to go, to be someone who was going, to be there with the people who were gay. “Are you sure it would be okay?” he asked Casey.

“Wait, you mean you’d actually come?” Casey looked pretty stoked about this.

“That depends,” said Patrick. “Did you think I might dock your pay if I didn’t get invited to your big shindig? Because if so, maybe I’ve been setting the wrong example by adding those hours to your timesheet when you don’t clock in.”

“I forget!”

“You might wanna get that looked into.”

Casey swayed against the candy counter. He was smudging it up, but Patrick couldn’t hold it against him. He told everyone not to lean on it. They always leaned. “Were you serious?” he asked. “About coming to my party?”

“Do I have to get you a present?”

Casey’s eyes flicked down. “It would mean a lot to me.”

“Cash? Or like—Fallout? I could get you a movie certificate.”

“Not a present,” Casey mumbled. “I mean, if you came.”

Patrick was beginning to feel uncomfortable with this conversation. Was it different because Casey was gay? Should it be different? Did it make a difference that Patrick thought he might be gay too? Would it be the same thing if Case was a girl? Should it be the same thing? Patrick didn’t want Casey. He wasn’t attracted to Casey. Casey was barely twenty, and Patrick was his boss. This felt inappropriate.

“You could meet my boyfriend,” Casey said, lifting his gaze. “He says I talk about you all the time.”

“I’d complain about me too,” Patrick said, “if my boss harangued me this much about my timesheet.”

Casey swayed into the counter. “He says I don’t have positive role models.”

“My boss says that?” Patrick asked innocently.

“No, my boyfriend.”

“Sure, Casey,” Patrick said. “I’ll go to your party.”

Casey beamed, and Patrick didn’t really think himself the best role-model for a twenty-year-old gay boy, but it felt nice that Casey wanted him to be one—that despite Patrick’s straight pants, and his lack of sparkle, Casey thought that he could be one. It planted something warm inside of Patrick; maybe he could be gay and a good example, a kind example, an example for people who did not, apparently, dress how gay men should dress, but still wanted something different.

*

The night of the party, Patrick discovered that Eva and Lenore were also invited. Did that mean they were queer? Patrick didn’t want to ask, because possibly Casey had been full of BS when he said everyone who was going was gay. After all, Casey had invited Patrick, and Casey had made several comments that made it very clear Casey thought Patrick was as straight as an airport runway, but then again, Casey hadn’t thought that Patrick would say yes. When Patrick got to the party with Eva and Lenore, Mateo was there, so straight people were obviously allowed—although Mateo could be bi, Patrick guessed.

Possibly because Patrick was there, Mateo left before Patrick could ask.

“We never see Mateo anymore,” Eva said.

“What?” Patrick said, even though he’d heard her. The loud music and the yelling on the patio provided an excuse.

“We never see Mateo anymore,” said Eva. “Did you two break up?”

“We weren’t together,” Patrick yelled.

“Oh, my bad,” Eva said, leaning into him. She kind of smelled like weed.

Patrick had asked where Casey lived about a week after Casey had started at Mapleville Movie Theater, wanting to make sure that Casey had a good place to stay. “The house is great,” Casey had told Patrick. “We’re all baby gays.” One of the housemates was Casey’s boyfriend, which Patrick wasn’t sure was such a good idea, but what did he know.

The house was currently filled with people who really seemed to range from early twenties to forties, many of whom did not appear gender-conforming in such a way that Patrick could be sure of pronouns. It did seem like kind of a lot of queer people, judging from some of them who appeared to be lounging on each other and making out in various corners, but it was very loud and crowded, and Patrick imagined asking one of them, the way he had asked Emile, how did you know you were gay? It felt ignorant; it felt invasive; it felt like not his business, and eventually Patrick found the kitchen, which seemed to be a little quieter and less rowdy, and where a man was standing at the sink up to his elbows in soap suds.

“You’re doing the dishes?” Patrick asked, stupidly. The guy was a good-looking guy, and Patrick felt primed to notice the compact athletic frame, the short dark hair, the dark eyes, the slightly crooked nose.

“Someone has to,” said the guy, just concentrating on washing dishes.

“Can I help?”

The guy’s eyes slid over to him, a smile curling the corner of his mouth, and that—oh. That. Patrick felt his breath catch. “Sure,” said the guy, who handed Patrick a towel.

They guy’s name was Troy. He used to date one of Casey’s housemates, he said, and that meant Troy was single. Had the housemate Casey dated been a guy? Patrick wanted to ask but instead concentrated on drying the glass that Troy handed him, because Patrick felt like he was maybe too obsessed with what Casey had said about everybody at the party being gay. Like. Was he treating people like they were animals in a zoo? Was it different if he thought he might be an animal in a zoo too? That sounded wrong. That sounded bad. Patrick dried the glass, then moved onto the next one.

They got to talking about hockey, which was unexpected. Hockey is for straight people, Casey had said more than once. Troy was smart, and funny, and was an imagining tech at a clinic. Patrick imagined him in scrubs and thought, Yeah, I’m probably bi at the very least, but didn’t know what to do with that information. He didn’t know what to do with that information, because even if Troy wasn’t gay, Patrick thought that they could still be friends, and he was washing the dishes and realizing that maybe he didn’t know how to make friends anymore. He was confused about friends, now, apparently. Mateo had been his friend, except as soon as Patrick had found out Mateo had a girlfriend, that friendship had ended. Apparently. Patrick hadn’t seen Mateo in two months, until tonight.

Making friends shouldn’t be hard. It shouldn’t be hard, but even though Patrick knew people and liked people and was good at talking to people, he felt like making a real friend was rare. You didn’t like the same things, or the jokes fell flat, or they were just at a different point in life than you, or you could not get past that barrier where you could just say, hey, wanna hang with me? It shouldn’t be hard, but it was.

“Thanks for your help,” Troy said, when they were done with the dishes.

“This is why I come to parties,” Patrick said, and Troy laughed.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected to meet a guy here who was into hockey. They’re usually not that kind of party.”

What kind of party? Patrick wanted to say, because—did Troy think hockey was a straight sport too? Did everyone? It just . . . didn’t seem very fair to people who might be gay, who might like hockey. No wonder this was difficult. “Hey,” Patrick said instead. “There’s a game next Tuesday. Do you want—do you wanna go somewhere and watch?”

“Sure,” Troy said. “Sounds good. Gimme your number.”

They exchanged numbers, and Patrick thought he wasn’t blushing, because maybe he really was just looking for a friend. He missed his friend. He missed Mateo, and that wasn’t necessarily gay. That was just human.

It was possible to forget, sometimes, when you were worried about whether you were gay and whether you were admitting it to yourself—or for some reason not admitting it to yourself—that you were human too. That you wanted friends, and you wanted people to be near you and to touch you and to think about you and to want you, not in a sex way or a romantic way but in a human way. Patrick felt that somehow, in the midst of all of this confusion, he was forgetting how to be human.

“Cool,” he told Troy, thinking he sounded normal. “See you Tuesday.”

*

Patrick and Troy watched a few games. They had a few beers. Troy joined Patrick’s recreational hockey team, and all Patrick could think was yes, but are you gay? Patrick didn’t feel like he had felt with Mateo, or even Ophelia, really—that he had found someone special and unusual and different, who challenged his life and his perspective and his understanding of the world. Did that really matter?

Like why had his soul felt attached to Ophelia in a way it never had to Colleen; why had his heart felt different about Mateo—who was so prickly and strange and kind of awkward, really—than he had felt about other friends? Even Rachel? What made people connect, on a deeper level? Was there some underlying frequency each person had that resonated with a corresponding frequency in other people, and when you met them you—you thrummed?

Except thrumming could occur in different parts of you. Ophelia hadn’t made Patrick’s body thrum. Patrick felt like Troy made his body thrum. He felt so aware of Troy, watching every part of Troy, Troy’s lips and Troy’s hips and Troy’s hands, that it almost didn’t matter sometimes that the things that Troy said weren’t very interesting. The only thing that seemed to matter, really, was the answer to Patrick’s burning question: are you gay?

Troy was social—more so than Patrick, even though Patrick thought of himself as social. Troy started trying to get the hockey team to hang out more. Go to happy hour more. Now whenever Patrick and Troy watched games, there were other people there. Troy was better friends with the team than Patrick was. That was okay. Not everyone enjoyed Patrick’s sense of humor, and the team was becoming like groups of friends you read about, the kind of group that had a group text and in-jokes and history. The team also got wasted a lot, which—wasn’t exactly Patrick’s thing. Getting wasted was okay, now and then, but Patrick wasn’t very interested in getting drunk for the sake of getting drunk. Troy seemed sort of into getting drunk for the sake of getting drunk, and Patrick still didn’t know if Troy was gay.

The team talked about girls. Troy talked about girls. They didn’t talk about girls as much as some groups of guys talked about girls, which Patrick appreciated, because in general he did not appreciate the way groups of guys talked about girls. It rubbed him the wrong way. It made him feel like even more of a small-town Christian hick, and he wasn’t even that Christian, and they were in a small town. Patrick just thought that girls were people, and maybe you shouldn’t talk about them like objects. Troy didn’t talk about them like objects. He didn’t talk about them that much in general. Maybe he was bi. Maybe he was gay and hiding it. Maybe he was trying to figure it out.

Patrick took showers where he fantasized about helping Troy figure it out.

Patrick should have been curating his OkCupid and paying attention to likes and messages, but he wasn’t. Instead he was taking showers and fantasizing about something happening with Troy.

Nothing happened with Troy.

Troy got a girlfriend.

“Dude, I thought you were gay,” said another guy on the team. Everyone called him Banak. Patrick had never been sure whether it was a first name or last, and in this moment, Patrick felt extremely grateful to Banak for bringing this up.

Troy laughed. “What made you think that?”

“Aren’t, like, all your friends gay?” asked the guy.

“You’re my friends,” Troy said, gesturing vaguely at the guys on the team who were taking off their gear. “Does that make all of you gay?”

“Absolutely,” said Banak.

Patrick’s head jerked up, which he hadn’t meant to let happen. He was trying to pretend he wasn’t paying attention, that he didn’t care about Troy’s announcement that he’d finally scored with Angela. Patrick hadn’t even known about Angela. Why hadn’t Troy said anything? Why wasn’t everyone explicit with him about being straight and having girlfriends?

“We’re in a locker room,” Banak went on.

“Being in a locker room makes us gay?” said another guy on the team.

“What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room,” said Banak.

Patrick’s hands felt sweaty. Was Banak gay? He’d thought Banak had had a girlfriend. Had Patrick been paying attention to the wrong person this entire time? He hadn’t thought he was attracted to Banak, but it was like it didn’t matter. Patrick’s whole body was paying attention, brimming with too many questions. Wait are you gay are you available what does it mean?

“Nothing was going to happen in the locker room,” said Troy.

“So says you,” said Banak.

“Dude, you have a girlfriend,” said Troy.

“Yeah, but Hannah’s very open.” Banak leered.

“Stop it,” said Troy. “You’re embarrassing yourself.”

“Am I embarrassing myself, Patrick?” Banak asked.

“I’m pretty embarrassed,” Patrick said, standing up to throw his gear in his bag, so he could put his back to them. “I don’t understand why I never got asked to any threesomes with Hannah.”

Someone whistled. Everyone laughed. Patrick was good at making everyone laugh.

“Oh, you wanted threesomes with Hannah?” said Banak. “I mean, that can be arranged.”

“Right, but he wants you left out of it,” Troy said.

Everybody laughed again.

“Does Hannah have a sister?” someone called.

“Okay, but Hannah would not have a threesome with her sister,” said Banak, “because that would be incest.”

“I thought you said she was open!” someone else called, and there was hooting, and this was the kind of thing that Patrick didn’t like all that much, but they were joking. They were all just joking. It was all just a joke; he felt like he’d been punched in the stomach a thousand times. Patrick slung his bag over his shoulder and began to walk away.

“I mean, we’re open,” Banak called out. “If you swing that way!”

“He doesn’t swing that way,” said Troy.

“How would you know?” asked Banak.

“He doesn’t swing your way. You’re a putz. Hey Patty.” Troy called out just as Patrick was reaching out for the door. “Wanna do burgers?”

Patrick didn’t turn around. “No, I gotta go,” he said, pushing open the door.

“Hey, you okay?” Troy yelled after him.

“I think I’m sick,” Patrick yelled back, without turning around. He was thinking about quitting burgers. He was thinking about quitting the team. He was thinking about quitting life. He didn’t understand why he felt like he’d just been beat up, like he’d been left bruised in a locker room the way you read about, when Patrick had literally never experienced being bullied. He’d never experienced anything like that.

He didn’t understand why them joking about it made it feel worse. People should be able to joke. He wanted them to be able to joke. Heaven knew you had to tell a dang joke, or life would be too fucking sad. Fuck.

Just . . . fuck.

Patrick thought again about Ophelia, who had always made him laugh. When he got home, he texted Rachel, and asked if he could come down to Pinewood so they could go out for spring rolls. He was thinking about becoming a vegetarian.

*

The week following that conversation in the locker room, Patrick felt so stupid. Why had he been so stupid? What had made him think Troy was gay? Why had he wanted Troy to be gay? When Patrick thought about it, Troy was attractive, sure, but Patrick didn’t even want to date him. He didn’t even want to date him. Why hadn’t he just—asked? Because I didn’t know, Patrick kept thinking, but he didn’t know what he didn’t know—that he was bi, that Troy was straight? Was Patrick afraid of being bi?

I’m not bi, he thought to himself. I’m gay.

How could he think that when he’d literally only ever slept with girls?

“Straight people appropriate gay culture,” Casey said. “They talk about it all the time. Being gay is cool now. It’s a thing.”

Appropriation. Patrick didn’t know anything about appropriation. Was it appropriation to say you were gay if you never tried it?

“Being gay isn’t about sex,” Casey had said, another time.

Then what is it about? Patrick had wanted to scream. Was it about feeling out of place and uncomfortable in your own body and like nothing in the world matched up and everything in your life was wrong? Because if so, sign him up! He was gay out of his goddamn mind!

Patrick tried to get serious about OkCupid. His matches were still almost all girls. He sent likes to the guys, just to see what would happen. It was a lot of upkeep. You had to keep checking it; you had to make sure you looked at everyone. If they liked you back, you could talk to each other. That had happened only two times so far. One of the matches was in Cedar Lake. “That’s too far away,” AJ wrote. Then narrow your availability range, Patrick had wanted to write back. “Okay,” he wrote instead.

One night, Casey spent the evening sniping at customers and dragging himself around until Patrick finally sent him into the back for a fifteen, which turned into a thirty, which turned into the rest of the shift. Patrick worked concessions for him, then after close went to the stockroom to find Casey still at Patrick’s desk. “My boyfriend broke up with me,” Casey said dully, not even looking over at Patrick.

“Oh. I’m . . .” Patrick tried to find something to do with his hands. “I’m sorry.” He should really talk to him about how you shouldn’t tell the night manager suck it when he told you to take a break, but Patrick already knew he wasn’t ever going to.

“I don’t want to go home,” Casey said.

“Because—he’s there?”

“He’s turned them all against me.”

Patrick didn’t know whether that was actually true. Casey could be kind of dramatic, but he didn’t need expressions of doubt. “Do you have somewhere to go?” Patrick asked. “A friend to stay with?”

“I don’t have friends,” Casey said, in that same dull voice.

“Yeah, I heard about that sudden earthquake that swallowed the ten million people at your birthday party.”

“Those weren’t my friends.”

“What about Troy?”

“Who’s Troy?”

“Casey,” said Patrick. “You know who Troy is.”

“Troy is straight.”

“Casey,” Patrick said again.

Casey’s eyes flicked up at him. “You’re different.”

“I don’t see what sexual orientation has to do with it,” Patrick said, trying not to let his frustration show. “Do you feel unsafe going home?”

“Like that.” Casey’s eyes dropped back down to the desk. “I don’t know anyone else who would ask that.”

People care about your safety, Patrick wanted to say, but that sounded like he was doubting him too. “Do you feel unsafe going home?” he asked again.

“What if I did? What would you do then?”

“Maybe I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. Do you feel unsafe going home?”

“Yes.” Casey tilted his head defiantly, as though to challenge him, and maybe it was a challenge. Maybe Casey was just being a dillweed, but sometimes people acted this way when they were scared, when they thought they shouldn’t be scared, and Patrick didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to do.

He knew what his instinct was, but it didn’t feel appropriate. He was Casey’s boss. Casey was a kid. Casey was gay. “Is there anyone else you can stay with?”

Casey shook his head, and Patrick tried to ask several more times, in several different ways. “We’re not all like you,” Casey finally said. “We don’t all have support systems.”

“Do you want to stay with Eva and Lenore?” Patrick said, taking out his phone.

“You live with Eva and Lenore,” said Casey.

“Uh-huh.” Patrick found Eva on his phone, but it was late. She’d probably be asleep. He’d have to call; she’d sleep through a text.

“You’re asking me to stay with you?” said Casey.

“I’m asking you to stay with Eva and Lenore,” said Patrick, even though technically, Casey was correct.

“How come you don’t want me to stay with you?”

“Because I’m your boss,” said Patrick.

“You came to my party.”

“Bosses can go to parties, sometimes,” said Patrick. “They can’t ask you to sleep over at their apartment.”

“They could,” Casey said.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it.”

“But you are.”

“This is fun,” Patrick said. “I’m going to call Eva.”

“Don’t call Eva,” Casey said, standing up.

Patrick looked up at him. “Are you going home?”

“No,” Casey said, and then he was coming closer. And closer.

“What are you doing?” Patrick backed up a step. And then another.

“Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like?” Casey took another step forward.

“What?” Patrick’s shoulders slammed up against the supply shelves.

“You could pretend I was a girl,” Casey said, then put his hand on Patrick’s waist.

Patrick could feel the heat of Casey’s hand through his shirt. He could see the ring of gold in Casey’s brown eyes, and the way the fluorescent light caught in the soft fall of purple hair.

Patrick’s hand closed around Casey’s wrist, pulling Casey’s hand away, then Patrick let go, sliding out from between Casey and the shelves. “You’re upset,” Patrick said. “That’s not an excuse to come on to your boss in a back room. I’d—I want to help you, because you seem like you need help. Do you need my help?”

Casey didn’t turn around, but Patrick could see Casey’s shoulders curl in on themselves, Casey’s hands come up to his face. “I’m sorry,” Casey said. It sounded like a sob, and Patrick’s heart twisted hard.

“Come on,” Patrick said, as gently as he could. “Sit down.” He didn’t want to touch him, but he didn’t want Casey to think he didn’t want to touch him, so Patrick took him gently by the arm, guiding him back to the chair, moving the box of tissues on the desk so that it was right on the edge in front of Casey. Patrick wanted to get him water, because that was what he did when people cried, but he was afraid if he left to go to the concession counter Casey might do something stupid—stupider than trying to kiss Patrick, anyway.

“I was just . . .” Casey said. “You’re so . . .”

Tentatively, Patrick put his hand on Casey’s shoulder again. “It’s okay,” he said.

“You don’t know what it’s like.” Casey choked back a sob. “You have no idea what it’s like.”

Patrick took his hand off. “You’re right,” he said stiffly. “I don’t. I’m going to call Eva.”

Patrick called Eva, who said that Casey was welcome to stay. Patrick glanced down at Casey, then tried to figure out whether it would be too hurtful to ask Eva to come pick Casey up. It would be too hurtful, Patrick decided. Casey was an adult. Casey needed to be treated like an adult, even if he wasn’t currently acting like one. No one acted adult all the time, especially when they were twenty.

After ending the call with Eva, Patrick scrolled on his phone, and touched a different name.

“Who are you calling now?” Casey asked, looking up at him and sniffling.

“A friend,” Patrick said, turning away.

“Pea?” Rachel said, after the fourth ring, sounding sleepy.

“Hi,” Patrick said. “Can I come over?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Patrick said, even though he wasn’t. “I just—I need a place.”

“It’s the middle of the night.”

“Sorry,” Patrick said, because he didn’t have another friend that he could call and ask to stay with. He didn’t have another person like that. “Sorry, I shouldn’t—”

“Of course,” Rachel said. “Any time. Any time you need me, Patrick.”

I need you, Patrick thought desperately, but he didn’t want to say it in front of Casey. “Thank you,” Patrick said. “Thanks. I’ll—I’ll be there in an hour.”

“Was that . . . ?” Casey said, when Patrick had hung up. “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Are you ready to go?” Patrick said.

“I don’t . . .” Casey slowly got to his feet. “I can—I can go home. You don’t need to—we don’t need to do this.”

“Maybe we don’t need to,” said Patrick, “but I care what happens to you.”

“Right,” Casey said, “except you just called someone so you wouldn’t have to spend the night near me.”

“That’s not why I called her.”

“So, it is a girl.”

“Come on. Get your stuff,” Patrick said, as he went to the cubbies to get his bag. “I’ll give you a ride.”

“You’re not afraid I might make out with you in your car? You’re not afraid to have a fa—”

“Stop it!” Patrick finally exploded, wheeling around to face him. “Just—stop it!”

Casey’s mouth snapped shut.

“I’m not afraid of you! I’m not afraid! I’m—I—I care about you. I want to help you. I know that things have been hard for you, but that doesn’t mean you can go around telling people what they . . .” Patrick stopped, because Casey was looking at him with wide eyes. Patrick could not remember the last time he’d raised his voice at anyone, and he thought about being pressed into the shelves, about Casey’s hand on Patrick’s waist, the heat of skin through a cotton blend. “I’m not afraid of you, Casey,” Patrick said, much more softly. “I want you to be yourself. I want you to have the space and freedom and happiness to be yourself.”

“I don’t know what that is.” Casey sounded choked.

“What do you mean?”

“I thought—I thought I loved him. I thought I was in love with him, and he was in love with me.” Then Casey was crying, and Patrick did the other thing he did when people cried.

“Come here,” Patrick said, stepping closer, holding on for a minute while Casey cried, thinking about smoothing back his hair, thinking about holding him closer, resisting both of these things. Patrick wanted to touch someone. He recognized that he wanted to touch someone, that he wanted to touch Casey, even—maybe not in the way that Casey wanted, but in the end that difference would be difficult to identify. It would be too difficult, and Patrick knew better than to be too intimate, even with simple comfort, when someone had just tried to kiss you.

Casey’s sobs slowed, and Patrick stepped away. “Okay?” he asked.

Casey nodded, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

“Use a tissue,” Patrick said.

Casey did an ugly laugh, but he went and got a tissue. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

“It’s okay. Don’t get snot on the timeclock. Go on and get your stuff.”

Sniffling, Casey badged out, then went to the cubby and got his backpack, shoving his uniform vest and badge in it, taking out his coat. “Um, so thanks for . . . you know,” Casey said, once his coat was on and his backpack on and they were walking toward the car. “I’m sorry about—yeah.”

“Write a correction for the time you didn’t actually work tonight in the log,” Patrick said, “and we can call it even.”

“I didn’t actually—I’m not . . . You just. You always have your shit together. No one else in my life is like that. You know?”

“You’d be surprised,” Patrick said, unlocking his car.

“Why?” Casey asked. “Who else in my life has it together?”

“Did you eat dinner?”

“What?”

“Some of us had to work through the meal period because others of us were painting the stockroom in their germs,” Patrick said. “Want chicken?”

Patrick got them chicken at RaRa’s Chicken, not because he felt like he could eat but because he knew he probably should and Casey definitely could. Then dropped off Casey at the apartment, grabbing a few things for his trip to Rachel’s—a trip which he managed successfully for three blocks, then had to pull over and take out his phone, because he didn’t want Rachel. He wanted Mom. He wanted Mom he wanted Mom he wanted Mom; he wanted his mom and dad.

Patrick put his head on the steering wheel and thought about what he could say, what he could possibly say. Rachel was probably worried, but she knew how he was. He knew how she was. It would not be the first time that one of them had needed the other in the middle of the night, but years had passed since that time he had seen Ben Henrique, then driven straight back to Mom and Dad and stayed without an explanation. He’d stopped going to them with personal emergencies. He wanted them to think that he as mature and responsible and had his shit together. He wanted them to think he was an adult. He wanted them to think he knew what he was doing, because they thought that he was perfect. They were proud of everything he did. Would they still be proud if they knew?

Knew what? Patrick asked himself, but he didn’t know. He didn’t know.

Starting up the car, he drove on to Rachel’s.

*

Come On Home was struggling. It had been struggling for a while. “You can’t afford to pay me anymore,” Patrick told Lenore.

“We’re going to pay you,” said Lenore.

“But you can’t,” Patrick said. “There’s no money. I’ve written every grant. I’ve talked to every donor and investor. You can keep me, or you can keep the business.”

“I’ll keep you,” said Lenore.

Patrick quit.

That left him to survive on a part-time theater manager salary, which wasn’t going to cut it. He’d never really wanted to work at the movie theater in the first place. He’d been looking for a job since he’d moved here. He hadn’t found anything. Danika, Eva’s sister, said there was an opening for a full-time job at the credit union he’d been working at in Pinewood before he left. Patrick didn’t want to move back to Pinewood. He put in an application anyway.

Patrick hunted for jobs. He hunted for dates. These two things felt remarkably similar. They felt like their own jobs. Did people really do this? Update their resume, tweak their LinkedIn, rewrite their dating profile, find out who was looking for someone, find out who was looking at them, see who was interested, make first contact, pursue a relationship. Patrick didn’t really like to swear, but Jesus fucking Christ. Wasn’t there a better way to do this?

So few matches—on the dating app, not the job search—were men. Patrick sent a like to pretty much all of them. He started conversations with all of them who had a mutual like. One said he was too far away, like that first one months ago. Another one immediately started talking about bondage. Another one asked him for money.

One of them was a guy named Lee. He was really cute. In his photos he had thick dark hair and thick frame glasses that looked really dorky, and Patrick liked him instantly. In his profile he was funny; in his chats he was funny. Patrick got an interview for Evergreen Credit Union and a yes, let’s meet from Lee on the same day. They set up days—the interview with ECU and the meeting with Lee. They set up places. They set up times. Patrick was nervous. Not about the interview. About the meeting with Lee. He’d been on a thousand interviews.

Patrick: I’ve never done this before

Lee: What? Dating app?

Patrick: A date with a guy

Lee: ?

Patrick waited to see what that meant, but no reply seemed forthcoming.

Patrick: I hope that’s ok

Lee: I thought you were 30

Patrick: 29

Lee: Have you had sex

Patrick: With girls

Lee: Look

Patrick looked. The reply took a long time to come.

Lee: You seem really nice, I’m sorry to do this to you, but I think I have to cancel. I just didn’t know that before and it’s not really my thing sorry

Patrick: What’s not your thing

Lee: Showing you the ropes

Patrick: I can find the ropes myself

Lee: It’s not about you, I’m sorry, I’ve just been in some bad situations before, sorry

Patrick tried to think of something to say, something to reassure him, because without Lee explaining, Patrick could still tell where Lee was coming from. Lee didn’t want to be someone’s experiment; I’ve been in some bad situations before, and Patrick couldn’t even imagine. It hurt his heart to imagine. I’m not experimenting, he wanted to say, but it would be a lie. It would be a lie.

Patrick desperately did not want to lie. He didn’t want to be a liar. He was trying so hard not to be a liar.

Patrick: I understand

Lee: It’s not your fault
Lee: I’m sorry I couldn’t give that to you

You don’t have to give me anything! Patrick wanted to say, but Lee wasn’t in the room, and Patrick had been asking him to give something after all. Hadn’t he? It was a risk you took, when you said you were interested in someone, when you said you wanted to date someone, when you kissed someone. It could be a big risk or a small risk, depending on what you were looking for, on what you wanted, but it was still a risk; you risked your heart and your confidence and your sense of self.

Lee: Hope you find someone who can

Patrick got the job at Evergreen Credit Union. He moved back to Pinewood.

*

“This doesn’t look like your parents’ house either,” David remarked as Patrick pulled into the parking lot at the park.

“There’s something we haven’t talked about,” said Patrick.

“Baby pictures?” David looked guilty. “Because I already texted your mom about them.”

“David,” Patrick said. “You texted my mom about baby pictures nearly two years ago. You’ve basically been texting with my mom about baby pictures since I asked you to marry me.”

“It was—a little after.”

Patrick just looked at him. “Like two weeks.”

“I had to make the album!”

“Seemed a little soon to make a wedding album.”

“We were engaged!”

“Yeah,” Patrick said, feeling the teasing break open like a shell, with such a flooding warmth flowing all around it that it still felt like a rush, after all this time—how much he loved David, the fact that David was so excited and anxious and ridiculous that he’d started a wedding album before he’d started planning a wedding, their wedding. God, their wedding. Patrick kissed him, a little too warm in the car. “We were engaged,” he agreed.

“Mm, okay,” David said, pushing him away. “You’re making me nervous.”

“You’re the one who wanted to stay with my parents,” Patrick said, sitting back in the driver’s seat.

“But that was before you pulled me over to a random park and told me we had to talk about something and before you went all—all gooey; that’s how you go if there are things you don’t want to say.”

David knew all of Patrick’s tells now. Patrick couldn’t lie to him anymore, and it was a relief. It was such a relief. Patrick looked out the windshield. “It’s not a random park.”

“Okay,” David said slowly.

“It’s on the way to my parents’ house,” said Patrick. “I came here sometimes as a kid.”

“Okay, and I imagine you were a tiny terror, skinned knees and baseball socks and—and rumpled hair.”

“Yeah.” Patrick ran his hand over his hair. He still kept it short. David had commented on the shortness of it exactly twice. Your hair is too short to pull, he’d said once, in a tone that almost felt dismissive, once still early on, when they were talking about sex. And then, Have you thought—is there any way you might do your hair different for the wedding?

How would I do it different? Patrick had asked.

I meant . . . if you wanted to grow it out, David had said, looking away.

Patrick could tell David had been looking at the photos Mom had sent him for the album. I don’t want to, Patrick had said.

All right, David had said, never once even hinting again that it was something he might want to see.

“I used to have an apartment,” Patrick said. “Not far from here. I lived there with Rachel.”

“Mm-hm,” David said, putting his hand on Patrick’s, which was for some reason on the steering wheel. David pried it off, then brought it closer to him, both of his hands playing with Patrick’s. Patrick couldn’t tell whether David was trying to comfort him or himself. Both, probably, knowing David.

“I hadn’t planned on seeing her,” Patrick said, “but—but I thought I should mention. We might see her. It’s a small town.”

“Mm-hm,” David said again. “Do you want to see her?”

“I don’t miss her,” Patrick said, and he felt such an inexplicable sadness saying it, and he didn’t know why, because it was true. “I don’t . . . she was such a part of my life; I feel like I should, and I—I don’t. I don’t know why; I feel like I should . . .”

David brought Patrick’s hand up, kissing Patrick’s palm, and the gesture was so gentle and so tender that Patrick felt that swell inside again; he loved him.

“I love you,” Patrick said, choked for reasons still inexplicable, and there were times he just wanted to—to fill his eyes with David, hide himself in David, surround himself with David, and he didn’t know how to get what he needed except to press his face against David’s neck, pressing hard enough to smush his nose, and wait for the warmth of David to surround him.

“Come here,” David whispered, but his arms were already there, pulling Patrick closer, gathering him up in that strength and that warmth and that gentleness, gathering him against someone who felt that he was precious and knew that he was not perfect. David’s long, elegant fingers stroked the short hairs at the back of Patrick’s neck, his mouth pressing kisses to Patrick’s temple.

Rachel had held him like this once, in her car.

David had kissed him in his car.

When you lived in small towns, so much of your life was driving to get anywhere, get anywhere at all, and more important moments of your life than you expected played out in cars.

“You should have told me before we left,” David whispered.

“I didn’t realize,” Patrick said.

“You never realize,” David said, but the words were a gentle murmur, because there had been a barbecue four years ago now, and at it, David had learned all the worst of Patrick’s flaws.

“I love you,” Patrick said again.

David lightly bit his ear, then pushed him away. “It’s fine if you don’t miss her. Do you want to see her?”

Patrick kept his hand where it was on David’s thigh, squeezing a little. “I just meant—people are going to mention her; they’ll ask, and they’ll . . . I don’t know. Not everyone in town is like my parents.”

“That would be weird.” David made a face.

“And I don’t—we don’t need to be around anyone who doesn’t accept us; I’m not—that’s not what I brought you here for.”

David got that look on his face, the one he did when he was imagining things he didn’t like and was planning on swallowing them anyway; Patrick squeezed David’s thigh tighter. “But I would—do that,” David said, blinking slowly. “If you wanted me to.”

“I don’t ever want you to.” Patrick leaned in to kiss him again. “Never. Never, David.” Patrick scraped his teeth behind David’s ear, and David shivered.

“Don’t do that to me in cars,” he said, pushing Patrick away again. “You didn’t answer what I asked. Did you want to see her?”

Patrick finally let go of David’s thigh. “I hadn’t planned on it.”

David waited, but not very long. He wasn’t very patient. “Right,” he said. “But did you want to?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does she want to see you?”

“I doubt it.”

David licked his lips. “You should text her.”

“Are you sure?”

“Mm.” David nodded his head. “Just see.”

Patrick kissed him again, David’s temple. “I love you.”

“You say that a lot,” David said, looking pleased nevertheless.

“So I’ve been told,” Patrick said, getting out his phone, but then he thought about it. “You know I . . . you know that she’s the only other person I’ve ever said it to. Like that. Do you really want me to—do you still think I should text her?”

David hesitated. Then he nodded.

“Okay.” Patrick looked down at his phone. “Okay.” He scrolled down to Rachel’s number. It was still there, after all this time. He hadn’t felt like he should take it off, just in case there was some kind of hometown emergency with his parents. He hadn’t spoken to her since that barbecue. Patrick touched the icon for a text.

David put his hand on Patrick’s thigh.

Chapter Text

When Patrick moved back to Pinewood, he had a suitcase and two boxes. The suitcase was all clothes. One of the boxes was winter coats and a blanket Patti Bloom had knit for him. The other box was accumulated keepsakes he took everywhere, culled over too many years of moving. A photograph of his parents Rachel had taken and framed for him once. A scrapbook Taryn had made for him at university. A coffee mug of the radio station in Cedar Lake. A program for Leaving Home Patrick had framed and kept. A space helmet he’d taken at the improv theater give-away in Oak City. A bowl that Ophelia had made in a pottery class and given him. Textbooks for the courses he’d taken in Ashton. His hockey gear from Mapleville and a movie poster of Mad Max: Fury Road. Patrick should probably throw that away. He’d kept the playbill for Les Mis. He should throw that away too.

When you stayed in one place, you kept sentimental things. When you moved all the time, you had to look at them. Then you realized how dang sad they were, and you threw them away. He’d thrown away his curling gear from Cedar Lake at one point. He’d thrown away the ticket stubs for that terrible concert he’d been to with Ophelia. He’d thrown away the photo Colleen had taken of them at the farmers’ market. He’d thrown away the program for the dance revue that Rachel had been in, the lunch box with Jude Law on it she’d gotten him as a joke, the cork bathmat she had made for him. What was the point?

Patrick moved in with his cousin Rob. It was only temporary. The credit union paid well. He should be able to get his own place in two months.

All the other times Patrick had come back to Pinewood—after Cedar Lake, after Ashton—he’d fallen back into a pattern. See old friends, do old things, start sleeping with Rachel. He wasn’t going to do that again this time. He kept himself on OkCupid. He tried going to gay bars.

He figured he should try it out, like Taryn had said. Going to bars to meet people was something everyone did. Right? That was what everyone used to do at university. Patrick hadn’t been that successful, except that one time, but maybe it would be different now. It was a gay bar. It was guys.

It wasn’t different.

He went there, and he felt like he didn’t know what to do. Were you really just supposed to strike up a conversation with someone who looked cute? Did you have to find them cute? Should you worry about whether they were there with someone? Should you worry about seeming too forward, impolite, presumptuous? Patrick wasn’t shy, but his mother hadn’t raised him to be rude. What if no one here wanted to be hit on? He left after drinking only two-thirds of a bottle of beer.

When Patrick got back from the bar, he had a text from Rachel. He couldn’t even tell if it was one of her “accidental” texts this time. He should tell her she didn’t need to get in touch with him that way. They could just text. They could stop playing games. They could go to the movies this weekend, she suggested. Patrick texted to say he was free.

*

The second time Patrick went to a gay bar, he went because the first time he had not made a serious effort. That could not be counted as a serious effort, Patrick. You had to actually try. He hadn’t tried.

When Patrick got to the bar, there were seven people there. Four of them appeared to be in pairs and the last three appeared to be two guys and a girl. Patrick didn’t know what a girl was doing at a gay bar, and then he realized he was making assumptions about that person’s gender, and it probably wasn’t his business.

None of this felt like his business. If he went up and tried to strike up a conversation with any of these people, all of them would see. Patrick wasn’t trying to hide anything, but it wasn’t their business either; this was something he kind of wanted to try alone, for himself. He didn’t need an audience; he already felt like an imposter anyway, being at a gay bar when he wasn’t even sure he was gay; he needed a new gay bar.

Pinewood didn’t even have gay bars. He was in Ashton. This was what you got in a smallish town with just the one gay bar; there was no anonymity. He didn’t want to be anonymous, exactly; he just wanted the freedom to try—something—without feeling like it was some kind of performance; this was embarrassing. He was embarrassed. He’d driven an hour and a half to get here.

Besides, what if the reason he wasn’t sure whether he was gay was because he wasn’t attracted to all men? What if he was only attracted to certain men? It seemed that way, anyway. He felt fairly certain he’d never been attracted to Derek, or his childhood best friend Brandon, or his cousin Elliot. He hadn’t been attracted to Casey, and Casey was the only guy who had ever tried to kiss him. It would be nice to have some selection to figure this out; Patrick was not going to get selection here.

He should go to a city, like a real city; he should go to Toronto. That was five hours away. He should go to Ottawa; it was closer.

Patrick finished his beer and drove an hour and a half back to Rachel.

*

Technically she’d invited him. Friday is Ashley’s bday. Having a party if you wanna come starts at 7 there will be booze

Think I’m busy that night but I’ll check, Patrick had texted, because he’d been planning on the gay bar, but that was a bust and though it was ten when he got there, the party was still going.

“Peabody?” said Rachel’s housemate Ashley, when she answered the door. “We didn’t know that you were coming!”

“I didn’t know either,” Patrick said.

“It’s my birthday, get in here,” she said, then dragged him in.

There were a lot of people with Solo cups in various states of inebriation, and it was what Patrick wanted; he wanted to be lost. He found the beer; he got beer, and then Rachel found him, and he couldn’t hear her over the music and the laughing. “What?” he asked her.

“I didn’t think you’d come!” she yelled.

“Yeah,” he said, then drank almost a whole Solo cup of beer.

“Dance with me,” Rachel said.

“Yeah,” he agreed, but got another cup of beer before swaying with her in her living room, her arms around his neck.

She was warm and kind of drunk, and he hadn’t eaten, so by the time he was on his third cup of beer, they had stopped dancing and were making out on the couch. “Just friends,” she said, climbing into his lap.

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed, kissing her. “You’re my friend.”

“Make-out friend,” said Rachel. “You’re my make-out friend.”

“Didn’t we . . .” Patrick kissed her, something pricking at his fuzzy brain. “Didn’t we try that once?”

“We can try it again.” Rachel kissed his neck, and it felt good. It felt so good to be touched. “We can always try again.”

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed, putting a hand on her ass. “Trying things. I’m really open to—trying things. Rachel.” He pulled away.

“Mm?” She was sucking on his lower lip.

“Have you ever thought you might be gay?”

“Yeah.” She pulled off his lip. “Girls are hot,” she said, then she kissed him again.

Patrick’s hands tightened on her ass. “But guys are hot too. Right?”

“Yeah, they’re so hot. Everyone is hot.” She tried to kiss him again, and Patrick pulled away.

“But how can you tell?”

“I don’t know,” she said, then tried to kiss him again.

Patrick pulled away. “I think I need more beer.”

When he got back to the couch, Rachel was asleep on it, and he wanted her to be okay, so he sat on the couch, lifted up her head, put it in his lap, drank his beer, and fell asleep.

*

“I’m sorry,” Rachel said the next morning. “I think I was—really drunk.”

“I was drunk too,” Patrick said.

“Are we—I wasn’t trying to . . .”

“I wasn’t trying to either,” said Patrick.

“As long as we’re still good,” said Rachel.

“We are,” Patrick said.

They were.

*

The third time Patrick went to a gay bar, it was in Ottawa.

“You look out of place,” said a guy, coming to the bar beside Patrick, plunking down his drink.

The guy was hot. Extremely hot. Unrealistically hot, like model hot, hot down to every stray strand of his hair, which he had a lot of, loose and shaggy brown, narrow slits for eyes but in the chiseled, movie star way. He definitely had a chiseled jaw, with gorgeous stubble on it, and he was tall, and he had a dimple, and Patrick felt himself go as hot inside as the guy was outside. Patrick’s entire body felt like it was paying attention. He was certain this was what attraction was, and that answered the question, right? He was gay; Patrick was so gay; this was the answer. Right?

“Out of place?” Patrick repeated. “This isn’t where you meet up with your bowling league?”

“Cute,” said the guy, then put his hand on Patrick’s thigh, and Patrick immediately began to feel uncomfortable. “Want to go somewhere?” said the guy.

“Um.” The hand wasn’t exactly what was uncomfortable, but all the thoughts in Patrick’s head were. Are you safe, can I trust you, shouldn’t I know something about you first? “What’s your name?”

“Does it matter?” The hand slid up Patrick’s thigh.

“It does.” Patrick’s hand locked around the guy’s wrist, then pulled the hand off. “It does to me,” he said, letting go. “Sorry.”

“Your loss,” said the guy, who picked up his drink, slid off the bar stool, and wandered away.

Patrick watched him go, then looked around the bar—embarrassed, a little bit humiliated, wondering if anyone had seen. Was this what people did? Have sex with strangers? What if he wasn’t really interested in hook-ups? What if he was interested in things like dating and getting to know someone and romance? How could he do that in Ottawa, where he didn’t live? What did he think was going to happen?

This was stupid. If he was really gay, why would he need to go to Ottawa to find out? He should’ve found it out in St. Catharines, at university; he should have found it out in a high school locker room; he should know already; this was stupid. This was stupid. Why wouldn’t he know? Why wouldn’t he know?

Patrick left without finishing his beer. Then he texted Rachel.

*

In between going to gay bars, Patrick was trying to keep up with OkCupid. He matched with another guy who said that Patrick was too far away. Why weren’t these people narrowing their searches? Then he matched with a guy whose third question was, how do you feel about being called daddy? And the worst part of that was, it kind of skeeved Patrick out, but he didn’t know. Maybe he’d freakin’ love it; he didn’t know; he didn’t know what he liked. He thought he liked girls, and yet he’d been with girls and never actually liked girls. How was he supposed to know? But why would that be your third question; it was too much. It was too much. It wasn’t what Patrick was looking for.

He made another match who didn’t live too far away, who didn’t ask about calling him daddy, who wanted to meet. His name was Kyle. Patrick wasn’t attracted to Kyle’s profile pictures. Kyle was good-looking, even cute, but Patrick didn’t feel what he’d felt with the guy in the bar, with Lee, with Troy. With Mateo. It still hurt when he thought about Mateo. That was the best evidence of all, that this was something real, something that Patrick needed to face, about himself. He hadn’t been in love with Mateo. He’d been the closest to being in love with Mateo that he had ever been with anyone, and that was why Patrick had to meet Kyle, whom he didn’t even find attractive, because Patrick had to try. He had to try. If this was who he was, he had to know.

Patrick went on the date. Kyle never showed.

I got caught in traffic, Kyle messaged.

When Patrick got home, he had two texts from Rachel.

Rachel: y
Rachel: Omg that was a *legit* text misfire I’m so sorry

Patrick: Do you want to come over

Rachel: What 4

Patrick: idk

Rachel: It’s late

Patrick: Sorry nevermind

Rachel: No I’ll come over

Patrick: No it was a bad idea

Rachel: R u sure

Patrick: no

Rachel: R rob n larissa home

Patrick: Yes. They think we’re going out anyway

Rachel: I can do my best meg ryan harry met sally if you want 2 really screw w them

Patrick: Have I heard your best meg ryan
Patrick: Don’t answer that

Rachel: I never meg ryaned 4 u p

Patrick: Good to know

Rachel: Why r u worried if I meg ryaned

Patrick: Sometimes I just wonder what’s real

Rachel: Well go off, schopenhauer
Rachel: Whats wrong

Patrick: nothing

Rachel: Uve been super existential lately that’s how u get when ur depressed
Rachel: U 4get I know u

Patrick: I don’t forget

Rachel: Ok sit tight I’m bringing city of angels

Patrick: You know I hate that movie

Rachel: But p I don’t know what a pear tastes like to u

Patrick: I still hate that movie

Rachel: hahahaha face off it is then

*

Patrick slept with her. He didn’t mean to. She said she didn’t mean to either. Then she asked his mom to go shopping with her.

“I don’t think you should do that,” Patrick said.

“Do what?” Rachel asked, surprised.

“My mom thinks we’re dating,” Patrick said.

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Fine,” said Patrick. “She wants us to date.”

Rachel frowned, tucking her hair behind her ear. “You go out with my brother all the time.”

“That’s different,” said Patrick.

“Why?”

“Because we’re friends,” Patrick said. “We like the same teams.”

“I’m friends with your mom,” said Rachel. “We like the same stores.”

“It’s not the same!”

Rachel pressed her lips together. “Derek wants us to date,” she said finally, and Patrick flinched.

“No,” said Patrick. “He doesn’t.”

“You know he does,” she said quietly. “He worships you.”

“Fine,” Patrick said, boiling over in frustration. “Let’s date!”

“Do you want to date?”

“We might as well be,” said Patrick.

“It’s not a good enough reason.”

“Then what’s a good enough reason?” Patrick said, still feeling frustrated and so confused, because he didn’t know what he was supposed to feel, but everyone else seemed to know, and why not just give in?

“Love,” said Rachel.

I don’t know what that is, Patrick wanted to say, but he couldn’t, because she would think he had never loved her, and he did know what love was. He loved his mom. He loved his dad. He loved Elliot. He loved Allison. He loved Elliot’s and Allison’s daughter. He even loved Rob, that dingus, and Aunt Linda, and Uncle Jerry, and Peter and Jessica and James. If that was love, then he loved Rachel, but Patrick didn’t want to live with any of those people. He did not want to spend his life with any of those people. There were supposed to be different kinds of love. What if he wasn’t calibrated to feel them all?

“Are you saying you don’t love me?” Patrick asked.

Rachel bit her lip. She kind of chewed on it.

“Rachel.”

“Do you love me?” she burst out.

“Yes,” Patrick said.

“Fine,” Rachel said. “Let’s date.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” Patrick pointed out.

“I don’t know.” Rachel put her head in her hands. “I don’t know. I don’t know—what love is, how I’m supposed to feel; I just know . . . you’re always there. You’re just always there.”

That sounded like a dismal reason to love someone, and Patrick didn’t feel like he was always there. He felt like he was nowhere. His whole life felt untethered, that feather in Forrest Gump, that sad plastic bag in American Beauty, that little leaf dancing in the wind in some music video he had long since forgotten. Ophelia would have mocked him for the sentiment. He still missed her, sometimes. He wished they could have stayed friends.

“We should just try again,” Patrick heard himself say. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

*

Patrick shut down his OkCupid profile. He and Rachel tried again.

“I need a place,” Patrick said one day in the park. They were having coffee, like they often did in this park. “You always say your house is crowded.”

“Just what are you implying?” Rachel asked.

Patrick shrugged. “Let’s move in together.”

“Really?” Rachel tugged her hair behind her ear. “That’s how you’re going to ask?”

“I could hire a sky-writer.”

“You’re talking about living together.”

“You don’t think that merits a sky-writer?” Patrick sipped his tea.

“Be serious.”

“I am. Not about the sky-writing. Probably.”

“Don’t you think moving in together’s um. Jumping the gun?” Rachel asked.

“What gun?”

“I don’t know,” said Rachel. “A gun. Some kind of gun.”

“There’s no gun,” said Patrick.

“It’s an expression.”

“It’s not expressive.” Patrick had more tea.

“I think it’s expressive.”

“What’s it expressing?”

“I don’t know!” Rachel flapped her hands, one of which contained her iced mocha macchiato thingy. It was going to spill, and she was cute when she flapped her hands like that. Patrick had always found it cute. Cute made him feel warm inside. This was attraction; this had been attraction all along. Why had he been looking for something different? “I just think—we’re not even seriously dating,” Rachel said.

“I told you,” Patrick said. “I’m serious.”

“I can never tell.”

“Do you want me to get down on my knees?”

“Don’t joke about that!”

“I’m not joking,” Patrick said, suddenly feeling very serious. He went over to the trashcan near the tree to throw his tea away. He didn’t want the rest, and when he came back, he said, “We should get married.”

“That’s not funny.”

“No,” Patrick said. “It’s not.”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re serious!” Rachel waved her arms some more, and Patrick looked away.

“All right,” he said quietly.

“Ugh,” Rachel said. “I hate you sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed. “Me too.”

“Stop it.” She hit him on the arm.

“What am I doing now?” Patrick was aware that for most of this conversation, he had been a prime tool. He hadn’t been joking, not on purpose, but Rachel was right; he hadn’t been exactly serious either. He hadn’t been thinking at all. He had been on autopilot, saying things that came to mind just because they came to mind. He didn’t want to think at all anymore; he was tired of thinking.

“You’re doing—that thing you do,” Rachel said.

“What thing I do?”

“Where you won’t tell me what you’re really thinking.”

“I’ll tell you what I’m really thinking,” Patrick said, without thinking.

“Will you?” Rachel said, somewhat disbelievingly.

“I’m a leaf,” Patrick said.

Patrick explained that untethered, drifting feeling. “I’m—it’s like that. All the time.” Patrick’s gut hurt, saying these words, but he’d never said them before. To anyone. He felt like he needed to say them. “And I—I feel like I never get to control . . . . All I want is to catch me and put me in a box. I want to be in a box, so I don’t float away. I want to live inside a box with you, no one but you, because you’re like that too. You’re like that too, Rachel. We’ve always been like that.”

“But that—that’s sad.” Rachel’s eyes were wet.

“I know.” Patrick turned away.

“Don’t,” Rachel said, reaching out for him. “Don’t,” she said again, stepping into him. His arms went around her instinctively. “I’m like that too,” she whispered.

Patrick held her close.

*

Rachel found a house for them.

Patrick thought she had been right; living together was jumping the gun. He’d been looking at apartments for himself, leaving her out of it. She didn’t say anything about it, and then she was calling him, asking him to meet her mysteriously, taking him to this house, this house with a for sale sign out front, and they were inside the house, and it was perfect. It was perfect.

“We can’t do this,” Patrick said. “We can’t do this.”

“I know,” Rachel said.

“We can’t afford it.”

“I know.”

“We might be able to afford it,” Patrick said.

“I know.”

“You know everything now,” said Patrick, looking at the tile in the kitchen. Even the grout was good. “You’re Carnac the Magnificent.”

“Patrick, are you fifty?”

“We could get a dog,” Patrick said, checking out the windows, the green yard out front, already so well-tended.

“I know.”

“I wasn’t even serious about moving in together.”

“I know.” Rachel tucked her hair behind her ear.

“Are you going to say anything else?” Patrick said. “Literally anything else.”

“We shouldn’t,” said Rachel.

“I know,” said Patrick.

*

They didn’t buy the house. Instead they looked at houses. Then they kept looking at houses.

Patrick: Why are we doing this?

Patrick sent the text right after he sent her the newest listing he’d seen on Zoocasa.

Patrick: We shouldn’t buy a house

Rachel: It’s just fun

Patrick: It’s not fun
Patrick: We can’t buy a house

Rachel: Ok

Patrick: I didn’t mean I wasn’t having fun with you

Rachel: Ok

A few hours later Patrick sent her another listing on Zoocasa.

Patrick: This one has a pool

Rachel sent him another listing back.

Rachel: This is for rent

Patrick looked at it. Two bedroom, one bath, front and back yard, good neighborhood, down the street from Pinewood library. An ache blossomed in his heart, the ache that had broken ground in his chest when they’d looked at that first house, an ache that’s seed had been planted when he was five, when he was ten, when he was fifteen, when he had thought that he would grow up. He would get married. He would have a house. He would have kids. He would be happy.

Patrick didn’t have names for these emotions. He used the words he knew.

Patrick: I love you

Rachel: U love this backyard
Rachel: I do 2

*

They didn’t get a dog. They did rent the house.

Patrick brought her coffee in bed. Rachel was not a morning person. Patrick loved the way the sun streamed into their bedroom. He loved the way the light caught her skin, her hair. He loved the appreciative cooing sounds she made when she smelled the coffee, the way she shimmied up to take it from him, the way she smiled when she had her first sip. He loved the way it made him feel like a good boyfriend. Literally nothing else did, because he loved all these things and still didn’t love her. He knew he didn’t love her. He knew this was a game.

They were playing house. They were buying furniture. They were buying curtains. They were having friends over for games nights. They were pretending they were happy. They knew they were pretending, and they did it anyway, because pretending felt so good. This was what they’d always wanted. They’d always wanted it. Not with each other, but they’d always wanted it. Was it wrong to have it? Was it really wrong?

Patrick sat beside her in bed and did a crossword on his tablet as she drank her coffee. “Remember when you said we should get married?” she asked.

“Like. In eleventh grade?”

“Six months ago,” said Rachel.

“I was being a jerk.”

“What else is new?”

Patrick put the tablet down, turning to her in the bed. “Do you want to get married?”

“I was just thinking about it.”

“About what?”

Rachel shrugged. “About it.”

Patrick picked up his tablet. Rachel went on sipping coffee.

*

“Do you still think about getting married?” Patrick asked her. His arm was around Rachel. She was kind of sleeping on him. They were watching Creed.

“Mmph?” She lifted her head.

“Married,” Patrick said. “Do you still think about getting married?”

“Yes.” She yawned. “Do you?”

“Yeah,” Patrick pulled her closer. “Yes. Go back to sleep.”

*

“Jessica wants to know when we’re getting married,” Patrick told Rachel one evening over salad with chicken. It had been a good day—such a good day. He’d mowed the lawn. She’d weeded the garden. Then they’d cleaned up, taking turns with the shower. We should go to Bam’s, she had said. It’s on the way to Wolf’s. Wolf’s was the nursery. They were going to pick out shrubs. Bam’s was a burger joint, his favorite one, half-way to Oak City. It was an excellent idea, a delicious idea. They had burgers. They picked out shrubs.

We should see a movie, he had said, since they were halfway to Oak City anyway. With the shrubs in the car? Rachel had asked. They saw La La Land. They came home. Patrick unloaded the shrubs, the mulch. They were going to plant them tomorrow. Then while Rachel made dinner, he fixed the drain in the bathroom sink. It was disgusting. Now they were here, and Rachel had made salad with dressing from a jar seem special because she had shaved real parmesan on top and poured white wine to go with it, and Jessica wanted to know when they were getting married.

“Cousin Jessica or Joseph’s Jessica?” Rachel asked.

“Cousin Jessica,” said Patrick. “I mean, but probably Joseph’s Jessica too.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I don’t know,” Patrick said. “When are we getting married?”

“I don’t know,” Rachel said. “When do you want to get married?”

“I should get you a ring.”

“I don’t need a ring.”

“But I should get you one,” Patrick said.

Rachel looked away. “We’re not getting married.”

“We’re not?” said Patrick. “News to me.”

“You haven’t even asked me.”

Patrick stood up. He crossed over to where she sat at the table. “What are you doing?” she said breathlessly. Patrick got down on one knee, and he saw the tears that sprang to her eyes. “Patrick.” He took her hand.

“I didn’t get you a ring,” Patrick said, because he hadn’t planned this.

“I told you I don’t need a ring.” Her voice was wet.

“I’ll get you a ring,” Patrick said, kissing her hand.

“You still haven’t asked me,” Rachel said.

“Asked you what?”

Patrick wasn’t trying to be funny, but he didn’t know why he wasn’t saying it, and an actual tear was forming in Rachel’s eyes, about to plop over; he could see it. “Rachel,” Patrick said. “Will you marry me?”

“I mean.” Rachel dashed her tear away. “If it’s what Jessica would want.”

The laughter that bubbled up inside must have been happiness. Right? This was happiness, Patrick having to bow his head to keep himself from busting up with laughter, managing, finally, to say, “Cousin Jessica or Joseph’s Jessica?”

“Both,” Rachel said, then kissed him.

*

Three months after Rachel said yes, for Jessica’s sake, Patrick got these two clients, these two gay clients, these two gay clients who were married and buying a home together and getting this big loan. Patrick was helping them with their paperwork. One of them was hot and the other was sort of drab.

Patrick wanted them.

He didn’t want to have sex with them. He wanted both of them. He didn’t know what he wanted from them. He wanted what they had. They made him ache, those two clients, those two gay clients, Gary and Jamal, who were married and buying a house and so obviously loved each other. They loved each other. They loved each other in a way that Patrick did not love Rachel. He never would love Rachel that way, Patrick knew. He never had, and he never would, and he had been okay with that until he saw the way that Gary and Jamal were with one another.

He had told Rachel that he wanted to be in a box, and a part of him still wanted that, but it wasn’t fair to her. It wasn’t fair to her. It was a lie. He didn’t really want to be in a box. He would rather get swept along. He would rather float. He would rather drift forever, searching, searching, searching, than stay still with something he knew he didn’t want. Patrick longed for someone and something to long for. He longed for it more than he longed for happiness.

Rachel asked him when they should get married. Patrick said he didn’t know. She said okay. He said they should talk about it. She said okay and asked when it should be. He said he didn’t know. “I thought you wanted to talk about it,” she said.

“I wanted to talk about it,” he said. “You just keep asking when it should be.”

“Okay,” said Rachel. “Fall, winter, spring, or summer?”

“I don’t know,” Patrick said.

“I guess it depends on whether we do it this year.”

“That seems soon.” Patrick hadn’t spent time planning it or anything, but he’d always kind of wanted to have a nice wedding. The kind where people threw rice, and she wore lace, and he was smiling in the pictures, and looking like he wanted to be there. Those kinds of weddings took a while to plan, he supposed.

“Do you want to do it next year?” said Rachel.

“I don’t know,” said Patrick.

“I suppose that depends on the season,” said Rachel. “We could do winter this year.”

“Yeah.” If they got married in the winter, there would be snow. She would be wearing white. She’d look like she was disappearing in snow. He would be in black—you wore black, right? Even if it was a wedding? Because it was a tux. Maybe it would be gray. He would be gray. Like rain in all the white.

“If it was summer, it could be outside,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“That would be over a year away, though.”

“Yeah.”

“Which one do you want?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, do you want it this year or next year?”

I don’t know, he wanted to yell, and he hated how he wanted to yell when he was with her; he hated it. He hated it. “Let’s not do this right now,” he said.

“You’re the one who brought it up.”

“Yeah,” Patrick breathed. “My mistake.”

*

They went on like that, argument after argument, and Patrick knew he was being unreasonable. He was being unreasonable. He was thinking about Gary and Jamal and being unreasonable; he was thinking about Lee and Troy and being unreasonable; he was thinking about Mateo and that guy in that bar and being unreasonable. Was he living a lie? Was he one of those men you read about, who would have three kids and cheat on his wife with a man, because he’d always been living a lie?

Patrick had tried. He’d tried, he’d tried, he’d tried to date men, but he still didn’t know; he was trying with Rachel, and it wasn’t working, but he didn’t understand why it wasn’t working; it didn’t make sense that it wasn’t working. If they could just pick a date. If he could just pick a date. If he could just pick a year, and he couldn’t.

“I can’t,” he told Rachel one morning over breakfast. He was staring at his half-eaten Cheerios, growing soggy in milk while she was doing something in the pantry.

“What?” Rachel said, poking her head out of the pantry.

“Nothing,” he said, because it would sound out of the blue. It would come out of the blue, the way he had broken up with Colleen that one time. That had been wrong. He needed to find a way to do it. A better way to do it. Christmas was in two weeks. Then New Years. Valentines.

Patrick picked up his bowl. Took it over to the sink. Poured the remaining milk and Cheerios down the drain. He had to tell her, though. He had to find a way to do it. Soon.

*

It took another four months.

They were arguing all the time by then. “We should put off the wedding,” he said, three different times.

“There’s nothing to put off!” she said, the last time. “We never planned a wedding.”

“Good for us,” he said. “That shows future planning.”

“Not planning is literally the opposite of planning.”

“I just mean—we obviously have some issues to work through.” They had been arguing about retiling the bathroom, for God’s sake. Rachel wanted to do it, but they were in a rental. They didn’t even know how long they were going to be here. We’re getting married, she had said. Where else are we going to live? The lease was up in a month, he had pointed out. Not this again, she had said.

Not what again? he had said, because he had not brought up the lease until now.

They had gone back and forth about it four or five times until he realized she was thinking about the last time they’d lived together, when the lease was up, and he’d been annoyed because that was six years ago. It shouldn’t matter now, except it did matter. It did matter, because the same thing was happening. The same thing was happening, and it had been six years. Six whole years, and it was like no time at all had passed.

“Do you even want to marry me?” Rachel asked.

“Do you want to marry me?” he snapped back.

“Not right now!”

Patrick reared back. This was the opening he had been waiting for, and yet it still hurt. It still hurt. Why did it still hurt?

“I didn’t mean that,” she said.

“Yes, you did,” he said.

“I didn’t!” She covered her mouth, covering a soft choked sound also, and she was crying.

“Rachel,” he said.

“No.” Shaking her head, she turned away, shoulders shaking also.

“Rachel,” he said again, more gently.

No,” she said, quite loudly.

“Rachel,” he whispered, softer still. “I don’t want to renew the lease.”

She started crying in earnest then. Patrick moved closer to hold her. “No,” she said, pushing him away with weak hands.

He went and got her water. He went and got her tissues. He sat beside her. It was the least he could do.

“Why did you ask to marry me?” she said, holding gobs and gobs of tissues. “Why did you even ask?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Why did I say yes?”

“Rachel.” Patrick reached out to touch her shoulder. He couldn’t stand the sounds that she was making, that he had caused.

This time she let him hold her as she cried.

*

“I can’t imagine you here,” David said, that night in the sewing room, when Patrick’s arms were around him, and they were lying on his daybed.

They hadn’t had sex in it, despite all David’s promises. David had been tense ever since they’d gotten to the house, and Patrick had known he would be. David wasn’t not a shy person, but he was desperately shy about some things, and Patrick’s parents were one of those things. Patrick wished it wasn’t the case, but they hadn’t had enough time to become familiar, not really, and that David wanted them to like him was so achingly obvious. David never acted this way around anyone else, almost painfully polite and quiet. He usually got better around them after a day or two. He’d even gotten better that night, after Patrick had made fun of David enough for David to lose his patience, and Dad had laughed, and Mom had said, “Is he always this hard on you?”

“Yes,” David had said, confidentially but not at all quietly. “Your son is extremely rude to me.”

“Oh, we do know that,” Mom had said. “He got written up for being ‘rude and defiant’ in seventh grade.”

David had looked at him with and open mouth, gleeful, clapping it closed to look hungrily at mom for the rest of this story.

“That teacher didn’t like me,” Patrick said.

“Most of Patrick’s teachers liked him,” Dad said. “But he was very rude.”

“What happens when you get written up?” David wanted to know. “Do you have to go to the . . . principal’s office? Or . . . stand in a corner? With a hat?”

Mom’s face did that thing people’s faces sometimes did, when Roses talked, so Patrick put down his beer and said, “David went to boarding schools or had private tutors. Everything he knows about grade school he learned from Drew Barrymore, Julia Stiles, and nineteenth century novels. Sometimes he gets the novels confused with Clueless; it makes sense because they are very similar.”

“Okay, thank you!” David snapped.

“He didn’t have to stand in a corner,” Mom said. “He did have to do a walk of shame to the principal’s office.”

“Which I didn’t do,” said Patrick.

David had caught his breath in excitement, because he loved hearing any story in which Patrick had misbehaved, for some reason. David also seemed to treasure every mundane story of Patrick’s youth, as though these prosaic details were at all akin to the strange exotic mystery of David’s own childhood, instead of being like literally every detail of every youth of every small-town boy. Hearing the stories had helped David relax, at any rate, though he’d tensed up again when Mom had helped them make up the bed, and they unpacked to change into pyjamas and perform all the night-time ablutions in Patrick’s childhood bathroom. He’d been tense when they’d finished, tense when Patrick had turned out the light, tense when they’d lain down together in the bed.

“What do you mean, you can’t imagine me here?” Patrick asked, rubbing David’s hip a bit. David was always down for hip-rubbing, but it was awkward over pyjamas. Patrick slipped his hand in, like he’d done a million times, just for this, just to feel skin, just to touch that perfect part of him and calm him down.

“I just mean . . . why would you ever want to leave?” David’s voice was a whisper, and Patrick understood then, because David couldn’t understand the concept of a happy childhood. He’d told Patrick that once before, early in their relationship. I don’t believe in happy childhoods, he’d said. Anyone who says they had one is lying, and Patrick had laughed at him.

Patrick had been teasing, but he’d meant what he said about Ten Things I Hate About You and Never Been Kissed. David’s ideas of normal were based on American television. He hadn’t been too bad on the house tour or the tour of the town, but he’d still asked questions like, Where is the wall where you measured how tall Patrick was?

“We didn’t do that,” Dad had said.

“I mean in a doorway,” David had said. “With a pencil; you measure how high he comes up? Maybe you would have to push down on his hair.”

“Maybe Marcy has medical records somewhere,” said Dad.

“I don’t have medical records,” Mom said. “Why would I have medical records?”

“It’s creepy you want to look at my medical records,” Patrick had said, because David had looked so disappointed.

Then, after they’d gone to the backyard, then the neighborhood park: Where is the tire swing Patrick played on? David had wanted to know.

“Tire swing?” Dad had asked.

“Patrick didn’t have a tire swing,” Mom had said.

“Did Patrick tell you he had a tire swing?” Dad asked.

“I think Sandlot told David we had a tire swing,” said Patrick.

“What’s Sandlot?” said David.

“That’s right,” said Patrick. “It’s about baseball.”

“You’ve never seen Sandlot?” asked Dad.

“David’s never seen Field of Dreams,” said Patrick.

“Patrick’s never seen Pretty Woman,” said David, sounding stung.

“Is that something you’re supposed to see?” asked Mom.

David only asked a few more questions like that—Can we go to the diner where he hung out after high school? and Can we see the tree he climbed all the time when he was little? And possibly fell out of? And broke his arm? and Where do the youths go to get milkshakes? Except that last one was a joke. Probably. In fact, all of these questions were probably jokes, knowing David, but he also meant them. He meant them.

David thought that Patrick’s life was a Norman Rockwell painting, and Patrick had tried to tell David that Norman Rockwell was from the U.S., but David had a skewed idea of what small town Canadian boy life was meant to be, and Patrick couldn’t help it. He kissed the nape of David’s neck. Under David’s ear. Against David’s throat, because there was something almost desperately innocent about the fact that David couldn’t understand that a happy childhood did not equal a happy life. Sometimes David didn’t understand Patrick at all, and Patrick loved him more for it. He loved him the most for it. He loved him so much that it still thrilled him sometimes, that he was here. Beside David. In his childhood home. In his bed.

The last time that Patrick had stayed here, he’d been convinced he would never find happiness, that he would be lost, looking for it, but it wasn’t out there for him. It wasn’t out there waiting to be found, because it didn’t exist. It didn’t exist.

Squeezing David’s hip, Patrick held him tighter. “I was happy here as a kid,” he told David. “Not when I was older.”

“But what happened?” David arched his neck to try to see him in the dark, and Patrick kissed him, missing David’s lips almost entirely, catching David’s chin with teeth.

“I grew up,” Patrick said.

David put his head back on the pillow, reaching for the hand on his hip, drawing it up to his mouth, where he kissed Patrick’s fingertips, then placing it up over his heart, where he held it, and Patrick caught his breath. David was always loving, but he wasn’t always sentimental, and the moments when he was made Patrick feel like he could burst. “I’m sad you don’t have that measurement thing on a wall,” was all he said.

“Why?” Patrick asked, his voice cracking.

“I don’t know.” David turned back a little. “I wanted to watch you grow.”

Patrick’s hand moved to cup David’s cheek. “You have,” Patrick whispered, kissing him. “Darling. You have.”

*

After Patrick broke off the engagement, he stayed with his parents for two weeks. He’d already paid his share on the last month’s rent on their house, but staying with Rachel there was awkward, and she was moving back into her old room with her old housemates, who had rented her room for a year to a guy they said was skeezy and kicked out the second they heard she wanted to move back in. Patrick and Rachel had to sell their furniture, their television, their pans. At least they hadn’t gotten a dog.

“Aren’t you going to need any of this stuff?” Rachel asked, as they put things for sale online, went to thrift stores, gave their couch away to Rob.

I never did before, Patrick didn’t say. Instead he said, “I don’t know where I’m going,” and scoured every job board and website he could find.

“I do have another cousin with another business who says he wants part-time help,” said Danika.

“How many cousins do you have?” said Patrick.

“The Chowdhury family is vast,” said Danika.

“What is he hiring for?”

“I don’t know, some kind of business assistant,” said Danika. “But it’s in Schitt’s Creek.”

“Is that a—a place?” said Patrick.

“Yeah, outside of Elmdale,” said Danika. “So it might be too far?”

Elmdale was four hours away. “No,” Patrick said. “That’s perfect. What’s your cousin’s name?”

“Ray,” said Danika.

*

Patrick drove down for an interview, and Ray hired him on the spot. The job was part-time and didn’t pay enough. Patrick didn’t care. Ray had a room to rent. He’d give Patrick a discount, he said. He was an excellent cook, he said. Patrick said okay.

Patrick didn’t care about being stable. He didn’t care about being responsible. He didn’t care about making good choices. He’d tried to make good choices. He’d always tried to make good choices; he’d tried, and it had gotten him nowhere. He was nowhere. Schitt’s Creek was nowhere.

He wanted to keep trying, even though he always failed when he tried. He wanted to try, and what he had been doing with Rachel was giving up. He’d given up. He gave up often, when things didn’t go his way, but he didn’t want to give up on life. He wanted to live.

Every day in Schitt’s Creek, Patrick felt like he had escaped suffocation, and he was somehow saying, Here I am! Hit me with your best shot!

Patrick would rather make himself a target for heartbreak rather than feel like he had no heart at all.

*

When Patrick moved to Schitt’s Creek, he’d winnowed his world down to his suitcase. Everything else he had accumulated over the last fifteen months belonged to him and Rachel, and he didn’t want it. The extra two boxes he’d had when he’d moved from Mapleville back to Pinewood had been winnowed further still. He didn’t need that mug from the radio station, that space helmet from improv, the scrapbook Taryn had given him. Those things could stay at his parents’ house. Patrick wasn’t even sure how long he would be staying in Schitt’s Creek, and Ray’s closet didn’t have all that much space, probably due to the knickknacks everywhere.

Patrick wasn’t sure whether it would bother Ray if he took the knickknacks down. Patrick didn’t want to take them down. They were freaking funny.

Pretty much everything was freaking funny at this point, even Ray, who was just—the nicest and most awkward person Patrick had ever met. He was a good cook, and he was terrible about privacy, and he didn’t have much work for Patrick, but he paid well and was entertaining. With Ray around, Patrick didn’t have to worry about things like finding the local league, because Ray pretty much knew everything, and he really liked to talk.

“That would be Bob,” said Ray.

“Bob?” said Patrick.

“Bob’s Garage has a baseball team,” said Ray. “Or his wife Gwen. Café Tropical has a baseball team too, only—I don’t think the Café is an actual sponsor? I don’t think that they could sponsor anything.”

“Yeah,” said Patrick. “I’ve been there.”

“Who hasn’t?” Ray said with a grin and no judgment. “Gwen could tell you about that team, but Bob sponsors the other team. The mayor is on it!”

“The mayor is on the baseball team?” Patrick asked, surprised.

“Yes.” Ray nodded vigorously. “We’re a very small town. You know I was on the town council?”

“You may have mentioned it,” said Patrick, because Ray had mentioned it three times now.

“Moira Rose took my place,” said Ray.

“Okay,” Patrick said slowly, because Ray seemed to be waiting for some kind of reaction.

“Moira Rose, from Sunrise Bay,” Ray put in, perhaps sagely deducing that Patrick had no real reaction at all. “Her husband, Johnny Rose, ran Rose Video. The second largest video rental chain in North America,” he added, again quickly, just in case Patrick also had no reaction to this, Patrick supposed.

“Oh, well,” said Patrick. “I’ve heard of him. What’s he doing here?”

“They lost all of their fortune and had to move here!” Ray said excitedly.

“Why here?”

“Oh! They own the town!”

“Johnny Rose owns this town?”

“Yes!” Ray seemed near to bursting with this knowledge. “And their children, David Rose and Alexis Rose live here as well.”

“Their children?” Patrick frowned. “I feel like Johnny Rose was like—my dad’s age. Shouldn’t they be grown up?”

“Oh, yes! David and Alexis are your age. Possibly older. And younger. I think David must be older. I think Alexis must be your age. I don’t know. How old are you? I’m forty-six. I know I look young for my age.”

“Thirty,” Patrick said.

“They live in the motel. The Roses. Which must be a change of pace for them. They were always in the tabloids. And on YouTube. Did you know Alexis had a reality show? But now no one knows anything about them! Alexis was dating the mayor’s son, but now she isn’t, and no one knows who she is dating, and David was with Stevie, but Roland thought he couldn’t be, because he was sure that David was gay.”

Patrick had been scraping the side of his plate to scoop up the ravioli sauce, which really was very good, but now he froze, then pretended like he hadn’t frozen. He continued scraping up the sauce. “What made him think that he was gay?”

“I don’t know!” Ray sounded delighted about this, but he sounded delighted about everything. “Perhaps David said something. Roland is friends with the Roses. I, personally, am not friends with the Roses, but I have a crew with Roland and Ronnie. Ronnie is a local contractor; she is also on the town council, and she was—”

“Who’s Steve?”

“What?”

“You said—that guy was dating Steve,” said Patrick. “Who’s Steve?”

“Oh! Stevie!”

Patrick stopped pretending he still wanted to eat, instead picking up his water to have a sip, because this was stupid. It was so stupid. He was developing a Pavlovian response to just the word gay. It rang in his head. Am I? Probably. No one was going to help him, especially not Ray. “So that’s a girl?” Patrick asked carefully.

“Yes!” Ray said, still excited for some reason.

“Okay.” Setting down his water, Patrick picked up his fork.

“She works at the motel! She owns the motel! Her aunt died!”

Patrick listened politely, because he was a polite kind of guy, and Ray’s genuine enthusiasm was nice after everything. After so much. Ray was funny. The whole town was funny, like a joke. The sign outside the town was even funny; it was a joke. Patrick’s life was a joke. That was okay. A joke was better than a mistake.

*

Because of what Ray had said, Patrick paid attention whenever the name David Rose got mentioned, though Patrick would have paid attention otherwise, because the next time he heard people really talk about David Rose was when he got the lease on the General Store. Patrick would’ve noticed whoever took on that property, because he was probably going to help them file the papers, and that store was a travesty. Someone needed to do something about it. Someone could do something great with that real estate, and David Rose’s father was Johnny Rose.

Over the years, Patrick hadn’t really paid attention to the Roses, but they’d all had to watch a video back at Rose Video when Patrick was a teenager. It had talked about how Johnny Rose had started out when he was eighteen with two thousand dollars and made an empire out of it. Patrick wasn’t sure what kind of empire anyone could start in Schitt’s Creek, but he was interested in what David was going to do with the store. He was always interested in business ventures, and he told himself having heard that David might be gay made him a little more interested, but only a little.

Sure enough, an appointment with David Rose showed up in the appointment book only a few days later. Patrick tried not to be too curious about it. David Rose had bought the General Store, and no one knew what he was going to do. It was the current town mystery.

Then David came to Ray’s office, and—there was no real way to tell if someone was gay from their appearance. Patrick had learned that the hard way, but David Rose was wearing a skirt, and Patrick guessed that was what made people wonder. David was good-looking in a generic, magazine kind of way, and his hands were soft, which Patrick supposed made people wonder as well.

David Rose was also hilarious, but just like Ray, not purposefully so. David’s father may have been Johnny Rose, but David didn’t seem to have learned from him what starting a business entailed, instead waving his hands around and stringing together buzzwords as he described his branded immersive experience. The guy was gonna need a lot of help, so Patrick gave David his business card, and at least it meant that things wouldn’t be boring around here. Patrick could use some hilarity in his life, and helping a Kardashian-wannabe start a general, very specific store sounded like something that could only happen in Schitt’s Creek.

He was kind of looking forward to it.

*

“Hi David, it’s Patrick. I, um, was just calling to run my business plan—uh, by you in a little more detail. So feel free to give me a call back, and I will be happy to walk you through it. Okay, ciao.”

“Hi Patrick. Yeah, I think I—I think I called you David. Which, that’s not—that’s not your name! You can just delete that text, the—the voicemail that I left you. Um, just thought it might be a good idea to give you some background information about the—the store. It’s basically a general store. Um, that will support local artists under the brand of the store, which—which would also be my brand—oh. Sorry, I just got a text.”

“Oh God! Yeah, the text cut us off. So, as I was saying, local artists. Artisans. Artisanal. That would be the word. The store, I mean. It would be artisanal. But practical. You could get everyday things you need there. Like—like alpaca sweaters. But I also mean like things you need. Like cologne. But also things you need, like—like—like a scrub brush. That people use to—wash? Things? But craftsman. A craftsman scrub brush. So it would have both. Everyday things and everyday things.”

“Um, this is David again, I just realized I said—that probably wasn’t clear. I meant practical things and luxury items, like—like cuticle cream. But really the world should take better care of their cuticles, so that’s not a luxury item. Maybe, uh, I don’t mean luxury items. I just mean—scrub brushes, but also everything else.”

“The cuticle cream wouldn’t go by the scrub brushes. I just wanted to clarify that. This is David, by the way. David Rose. It’s not a sound business plan. I have a sound business plan. So. Now you know.”

“Hi, Patrick? This is David. I feel like I’m not being clear? About the types of products. I lived in the country for a while. It was very rough. But there was this butter? It was white. It had no salt. But it was so creamy. Creamier than other butter. Butterier than other butter. It melted in your mouth. Well, all butter melts in your mouth. That’s a saying. But it was so smooth. You can’t get butter like that in a typical grocery store. It—became one with the bread. That’s what I mean, about the products I’d sell.”

“Hi, I realized I just left you a whole voicemail about butter? You can delete that. This is David. Bye.”

“Hello, Patrick? This is David. The name of my store is Rose Apothecary. It will have a variety of products ranging from everyday practical to rustic chic. Forget I said rustic chic. I meant it—products will range from gourmet to focused on wellness to lifestyle retail, as well as the practical everyday items so people don’t have to drive all the way to Elmdale. Thank you for your time. Sincerely—I didn’t mean to say sincerely; forget that part. Otherwise, you can keep this message.”

“I just wanted to add to the last voicemail I left. I’d develop a brand. So all these individual vendors don’t have to—um. Do their own marketing? I—I mean, I would do the marketing. There would be a label. Everybody’s products would be under one label. That would help them be—there would be brand recognition. My brand, I mean. But it would help them. It would help them sell their products, I mean. Now they can only sell them if they go out to markets and—and hawk their wares, and I would do it for them so they could focus on—on production.”

“Hi, this is David, I just wanted to say, about the label—I’ve already made one. I mean I designed one. The idea—the label. I mean, I know what I’m doing. It’s just—it’s just—I’m just having trouble—it’s hard to describe. It’s a big idea. It’s kind of a big idea. But I know what I’m doing. I have a label. Idea, I mean.”

“Hi Patrick. This is David. I think I might have left a lot of voicemails on your phone? You can delete them; they weren’t important. No, Alexis, don’t—um, sorry; what. . . ? I think—oh my God, I’m going to kill you. Hi? Delete this. Bye.”

*

Patrick listened to all the messages. Then he listened to them again. Then he put them on speaker so he could take notes, because the idea David had for the store was good, even though he still seemed to be having trouble articulating it. It was a fantastic idea, actually. Ray dropped something on the table, and Patrick scrambled for the pause. “Don’t stop on my account!” Ray called out.

“I’m just—it’s David Rose,” Patrick said. “He has an idea. For the general store.”

“He certainly has a lot to say about it!”

Patrick felt embarrassed, and he didn’t know why, because he was taking notes so he could help David with his business. It was a professional thing, except it didn’t feel professional, because—because David himself was embarrassed. He seemed humiliated by his own messages, and yet he had kept leaving them. He obviously cared about the business he wanted to start. And about butter. David Rose appeared to care about butter deeply, and David Rose was deeply absurd, and David Rose appeared deeply aware that he was deeply absurd, and it made Patrick think perhaps too deeply about David Rose.

Patrick remembered what he’d thought, about David not having learned from his father, and it was true. It was obvious that David had no idea what he was doing, but he also seemed to possess whatever spark of genius had led Johnny Rose to build an empire from two thousand dollars, and Patrick was excited about that. Amused, because butter, but also inspired. He felt that thing you were supposed to feel, when you found something you wanted to do, because David had an amazing idea, but he didn’t know what he was doing, and that was where Patrick came in.

Patrick knew how to do it. He knew exactly how to do it. It wouldn’t be an empire, but it would be good. It would be good. He even liked the name.

Later that day, David came in again, his voice small and his whole face mortified. He asked for a new form, the form he gave Patrick covered in cross-outs and—was that nail polish?—and God, David was cute. He was just—really gosh dang cute, and the little bell that sometimes rang in Patrick’s brain went yep, you’re gay, but he didn’t know, because it would have been cute on anybody, David and his sad little papers, his embarrassed whispering.

Patrick teased him. The bell rang and said, Patrick, you’re flirting. Patrick didn’t know if he was, and he didn’t care anymore, honestly. He didn’t care. Why was he so concerned about it? He was free, he was a leaf, things could just happen. He wanted things to happen. He wanted David Rose to happen to him, again and again and again.

Then David did happen to him, so many times that Patrick made himself sick with hope at least twice per day, and on the night of David’s birthday, Patrick almost threw up in the restroom of Café Tropical. Then David kissed him in Patrick’s car, and Patrick didn’t feel like a leaf. He felt like a hand had reached out, cupping him gently, and guided him right where he belonged, where he had always belonged, where he had always wanted to belong. Patrick felt like he belonged, and he belonged to him.

*

Patrick could rarely predict what David would want to do after sex. Sometimes he just left—usually to take a shower. Other times he got cuddly. A few times he had become almost alarmingly needy. A few other times he couldn’t stop crying. Sometimes he just slept. David seemed embarrassed by it, as if consistency after sex was some kind of convenience he wished he could provide, but Patrick loved it. He loved that after all this time, he often still didn’t know what David was going to do.

Now David was dozing, fading in and out on the bed on Patrick’s childhood bed, on which they had just made love, quietly, so Patrick’s parents wouldn’t hear. “David,” Patrick said.

“Mm,” David said, slinging an arm over Patrick and tugging him closer, but not opening his eyes.

“David,” Patrick said again. “I want to go home.”

David cracked an eye open. “Right now?”

“In the morning.”

“I thought you wanted to stay another day.”

“I thought I did too.”

David closed his eyes again, but his hand moved along Patrick’s side, his hip, then back up again, then down again, a slow, soothing motion. Sometimes Patrick wondered whether David even realized half the thing that he did with his hands. In the quiet of his old bedroom, if Patrick concentrated, he could hear David breathing. “Are we going to talk about it, or are we doing mystery theater?” David finally said, still just stroking Patrick’s flank.

“Mystery theater,” Patrick said, because he had no idea what that meant, but it sounded fun.

“Mm. Okay.” Taking his hand away, David tucked his arm under his head, finally turning to turn toward Patrick in the dim lamplight. “Is it because we’re not seeing Rachel?”

“No,” Patrick said. Rachel had texted Patrick back to say that she was in Ashton with her boyfriend. She’d promised her boyfriend the weekend, but maybe she could see Patrick some other time, she said. “I don’t need to see her,” Patrick said. “I just hope she’s happy.”

“Mm-hm.” David put his hand on him again. “Is it because of your aunt? Or those breakfast people? Or Brandon?”

Aunt Linda had asked Patrick awkward questions about how Patrick had realized he was gay. Those breakfast people were a couple who were old friends of his parents, plus the waitress, who was an old friend of his, also asking awkward questions about how Patrick had realized he was gay. They had not seen Brandon, but Patrick had warned David Brandon might ask him awkward questions about being gay. Patrick wanted David to be prepared. Patrick had not been prepared.

“No,” Patrick said. “Yes.”

“Five more tries,” said David.

“Just five?”

“Four.”

“That’s not how bargaining works,” Patrick said, but David had stopped playing. He was waiting, and Patrick swallowed a sigh. “I know I don’t have to explain anything to them. That’s not what bothers me.”

David’s hand started stroking again, but he didn’t do anything else.

“It bothers me that—that the person that they knew. I’m not that person anymore. I don’t want to be that person ever again. When people look at me, in Schitt’s Creek, they know who I am. Who I really am.”

“Do you mean—” David’s voice was tentative, a little high. “Because of me?”

“Yes. Partly. But it’s also—it’s the store, and our house, and Stevie, our friends. It’s—it’s home. It’s home to me, and nowhere else ever was, not since this place, and this—it stopped being home when I went to university. A long time ago.”

“This was just a visit,” said David.

“I know,” said Patrick. “I just think—I think it’s a little bit too long. I got what I needed. I got to see you here, be here with you. Maybe we can do it again some time, but now I need—now I just want home. I want to be at home. With you.”

“Mm. Husband in your home town, husband in your house. Where do you need to see me next? Honolulu? Honduras?”

“Honduras.”

“Hanoi.”

“Halifax.”

“We’re naming exciting places,” David said.

“Home sounds pretty exciting to me,” Patrick said.

“I don’t think I ever had a home before,” David whispered. “I mean. We had six. If you count the lake house. And the Tuscan villa. But never—I don’t think ruby slippers would have sent me anywhere.”

“They would send me to you,” said Patrick, “if I had ruby slippers.”

“That’s really sweet, but I hope that if you had ruby slippers you would give them to someone who wouldn’t pair them with Levi’s.”

“I think I would look really good in ruby slippers.”

“Let’s agree to disagree,” David said, moving up to kiss him. David’s mouth tasted like a smile, and Patrick thought that there was no place like being in David’s arms. That he had taken thirty years to find his way to them didn’t seem too long, because he was here now, and tomorrow he would be home.