The first thing anyone should know about Kadar was this: he was not gay. Yet somehow, in a universal sized joke, he’d wound up with the bubbly attitude and sweet looks that made girls flock to him in the same way they would flock to puppies or ducklings. It was nice – really – but girls didn’t want to date puppies or ducklings, they wanted to take you shopping and have you give input on which shoes matched their new skirt, or reassure them that having a frappuccino wasn’t going to ruin their diet.
Basically, they wanted him to be the gay best friend.
But he wasn’t gay.
The cosmic joke was this – while Kadar was straight as a Midwest backcountry road, his pickily, antisocial brother who had all the personable charm of a cactus, was not.
If Kadar hadn’t walked in on Malik making out with a boy back in high school, then proceeded to receive the most awkward Talk of his life, he never would have known that he was as gay as a unicorn running over a rainbow in a glittery sky full of cotton candy clouds. Kadar was pretty certain that he was the only one outside their parents that knew this fact – cactuses tend not to share much about their life.
For his brother, life was work, study, sleep, repeat. As a grad student, that was probably the fastest way to finishing his degree and getting on with his life – not that Kadar was taking notes; undergrad was a time of self-discovery, Netflix binging, and frat parties.
And while Kadar loved and accepted his brother, thanks to their very different lifestyles, he knew that the two of them could never live in the same space again without one of them being strung off a balcony. Instead, they agreed met up for lunch every Saturday and called that good enough.
This in particular Saturday, Malik hadn’t arrived alone. It wasn’t uncommon, but it wasn’t common either. Maybe once a month, Malik would show up at the café they’d chosen that week with his roommate in tow.
No longer held by the constraints of required campus housing that still bound Kadar, Malik had chosen to live off-campus in a small rental house that he shared with his long-time best friend, Altaïr – that he had any friend’s that would subject themselves to his brother on a daily basis, let alone for full spans of days and weeks, was a miracle that Kadar thought best left uncomprehended.
Kadar had spent his first 16 years living with Malik and had memorized every warning sign that the beast had risen and to clear the way to the coffee pot or be demolished; Altaïr would willingly face the horrors of Kadar’s childhood mornings with a noncommittal hum and hand Malik an already prepared mug.
If Kadar hadn’t witnessed such an act of bravery himself, he never would have believed it, but thanks to a tragic flooding of his dorm’s floor, there had been a week earlier in his sophomore year that he’d been forced to live on Malik’s couch while the school busily worked to fix the leaking plumbing and replace the ruined carpet. For seven days, Kadar would wake up in a cold sweat to the sound of Malik stumbling down the hall, only to watch his housemate get up from the kitchen table and the research strewed across it, usher Malik into a chair, and put a hot mug into his waiting hands.
In Kadar’s book, the daily ritual of near-self-sacrifice was enough to elevated Altaïr from his long-held pedestal of coolness to near-godhood.
That Altaïr occasionally showed up to his and Malik’s Saturday lunches hadn’t really bothered him. The other man would get his food or coffee and sit quietly, rarely contributing to their conversation. Sometimes he would get his own table and just study through the meeting then leave with Malik. All of this had never been a problem.
Until it suddenly was.
You see, during the fatal week of residing within his brother’s home, one thing had become abundantly clear – while Kadar considered himself to be completely straight, he couldn’t help but notice that Altaïr was hot. Not pretty-boy-on-the-magazine-cover hot, but trip-over-your-own-feet-into-moving-traffic-because-you-can’t-stop-staring gorgeous. It had been a strange and confusing realization that had slapped Kadar on his first morning in the shared house, when Altaïr had returned from his pre-dawn run. The older man had come back dripping with sweat and made a beeline for the shower. When he’d exited, it had been wearing only a towel. The expanse of perfect, tan skin stretched over lean muscle was enough to make any man question his sexuality.
Altaïr had walked past Kadar’s couch and into the kitchen, where he started two pots of coffee, then nonchalantly instructed Kadar, “Don’t touch the one by the sink. That’s Malik’s. The one by the stove’s a free-for-all,” before going back to his room to get dressed.
Kadar had had just enough time to scrape his jaw off the floor and his mind into some semblance of composure before he had then witnessed the miracle of Altaïr interacting with his brother pre-caffeine and not being destroyed.
And this ritual went on for a week.
Now, with a few months between him and that week, Kadar still couldn’t shake how attractive Malik’s roommate was. It was getting to the point of ridiculous that Kadar thought he should probably do something about it, because honestly, if he thought another man was so attractive, then he might not be as straight as he originally thought. So, he should act on it, right? That’s what he’d done when he’d found girls attractive (he’d wound up being dragged into sorority parties or mall outings where they all kept telling him how adorable he was and gushing about their crushes too many times to count, but that was beside the point).
So, here he was, having coffee with his brother, and Altaïr was along. Today, it seemed Altaïr would be present in the same building, but not at their table. Currently, the other man was talking with a group of other students on the couches set up around the café.
Malik interrupted his reverie by throwing the balled-up wrapper of his straw at Kadar’s forehead. “If you’re going to keep ignoring everything I say, we can reschedule this for later.”
“What?” Kadar didn’t mean to get distracted, but Altaïr’s jeans were doing great things for his profile. “No, I’m good, but I gotta ask you something.”
The eyebrow Malik raised immediately told Kadar he had 5-seconds to get his thoughts out before his brother gave up all hope on keeping him in one spot and went back to the library to study more.
“Altaïr’s single, right?”
For the first time in Kadar’s life, he received the great cosmic gift of witnessing Malik choke on his coffee. If everything else went horribly wrong today, he could at the least forever treasure the image of his brother almost spitting out his precious liquid black death onto the café table.
Amidst the coughing, Malik sputtered, “What? Are you gay now?”
And wasn’t that the question of the century? Honestly, the answer was probably not, except…
“I mean, no,” he started, because that was the closest thing to the truth, “but have you seen his thighs? The guy’s like a Greek god or something!” If anyone could appreciate the physical appeal of a person, it should be Malik – object of current lustful discussion being his best friend notwithstanding.
The coffee cup had frozen on its trajected path to Malik’s mouth. His brother seemed to be in an equally frozen state, just staring at Kadar in a similar way to how he had just stared when Kadar was 14 and taken a friend’s dare to eat a whole bucket of cheese curds then get onto the tilt-a-whirl at the fair. Unlike then, this wasn’t a stupid idea fueled by even-stupider teenage hubris. Yet similar to the past, Kadar was going to push through this with equal conviction.
“Maybe I should ask him out, what do you think? No harm in trying, right?” Without giving Malik enough time to answer, Kadar stood up from the café table and started across the room. He thought he heard Malik finally stutter something in response, but Kadar was far past paying attention; Altaïr was only a few steps away and he wasn’t going to chicken out now.
Altaïr was standing with two other students – a man and woman – that Kadar vaguely recognized from Malik’s study group (at least he thought they were from his study group. They might be his TA’s…).
Kadar approached with a friendly, “Hey, Altaïr!” which got him the quick side-glance he was hoping for. Having the other man in his house every weekend since he could remember gave Kadar a slight advantage of keying into Altaïr’s nonverbal cues; he knew he had his attention.
Riding high on his wave of courage, Kadar wasted no time in waiting for Altaïr’s friends to clear out, or trying to separate him from the group to make this easier, Kadar decided to play things cool and just get it out here and now.
“So, what are you doing this Friday?” There, he’d said it. He’d actually asked and, if he was being honest, he’d sounded pretty damn confident.
Altaïr glanced over at him again, his typically neutral expression only broken by a slightly raised eyebrow. Without missing a beat, he replied, “Fucking your brother,” and turned back to his other conversation.
If the brain could make its own unique sounds in times of great distress or confusion, Kadar’s would be screaming. What it did manage to emit, was a mystically calm, “Good to know,” and, “’Kay, bye,” before his muscles propelled him without permission into a hasty retreat back to the table where he could now see his brother sitting absolutely stock still. The only movement to be found was one of his eyes twitching ever so slightly.
Kadar took his seat and kept quiet, staring intently at his rapidly cooling coffee, hands in his lap, like he was back in high school, waiting for his mom to meet him at the principal’s office to explain why he’d skipped physics to make out with Claudia Auditore behind the gym.
Just like then, Kadar – never in possession of the terrifying patience of his mother or brother – was the first one to break the daunting silence.
“So… you have a boyfriend.” And great. Now he sounded like an idiot. Quickly glancing up at Malik’s expression, he probably was an idiot, but he really didn’t want to know just how much of one.
The deep breath his brother took before proceeding made Kadar shrink back into his chair. Oh, he was about to get it.
“Yes,” he said in a deceptively calm voice. Kadar just wanted the floor to swallow him whole – was that too much to ask of the universe? “I’ve had a boyfriend for the past 8 years!”
Now, Kadar knew by instinct that he should be fleeing for his life in this moment, but sometimes, stupid-little-brother instincts override in-danger-of-older-sibling-maiming-me instincts. Now was one of those moments, because Kadar knew basic math and 8 years meant –
“You’ve been dating since high school?”
If you ever looked up the word incredulous in a dictionary and looked at the picture demonstrating said word, Kadar was almost certain that you would find a picture of his brother’s face in this exact moment. This face was usually accompanied by words like, ‘I helped raise you, how are you this stupid?” The answer was simple – he had no idea.
“Mom wouldn’t let Altaïr stay past 8, even on exam nights,” Malik proffered, seeming to be trying to help Kadar make the math make sense.
“Staying up too late before a test is bad for your focus?” Kadar said, trying to counter.
“We couldn’t be in any room without parental supervision – he wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom if Mom didn’t have eyes on me!”
“Parents are suspicious of everything!”
“We chose a college together!”
“You’re best friends!”
“We’ve lived together the whole time!”
“I repeat – you’re best friends!” Kadar couldn’t help the creeping panic taking over his voice. The more points Malik brought up, the more of what he’d witnessed during his childhood and teendom made a lot more sense.
“You helped me move into the house,” Malik continued, his accent thickening with disbelief. Kadar knew it would only be a matter of moments before his brother slipped into their mother tongue completely “You helped me haul in the mattress. We only have one bed!”
“I thought they made queen size bunk beds!”
Had Altaïr not shown up at exactly that moment, Kadar most likely would have become one of the many casualties of his brother’s intolerance for idiocy. Instead, he had to live with the image of Altaïr smiling – a rare event that never meant anything good, especially since it was far too satisfied, to the point that even Malik flinched under it – and leaning over Malik’s shoulder and saying in a not-quiet-enough voice, “I’m topping Friday.”
The moment of distraction was enough to allow Kadar to quickly gather his things and make a hasty retreat to the café’s exit and out the door, Malik’s voice echoing behind him, “Like hell you are!” followed by Altaïr’s cackle and something about a bet, but he missed it as the door clicked closed behind him.
As he walked hastily down the sidewalk, heading back to his dorm, Kadar determined that venturing into the realm of dating men was probably far too treacherous for him and that it would be far wiser to stick to mall dates and calorie confessions. At least he knew how to handle those.