It wasn't meant to be a thing, Zeke and Jimmy Jr. kissing at parties. It wasn't meant to be entertainment for drunk people, or scandalous, awaiting judgment. It wasn't meant to become, “if Zeke and Jimmy Jr don't kiss, was it even really a party?” (Which to be fair, only Tammy says, but still.)
It's all Tammy's fault, probably. Most things were.
They were braver now, half of freshman year of high school under their belts. They didn't want to be seen as babies anymore. They wanted more ownership of the school, their new school. They were ready to be sophomores, ready to feel more like they belonged, no longer the youngest.
They felt like bigshots now. They had the hang of high schools. They knew where their lockers were, where their classes were. They got used to their new teachers, the harder coursework, later nights. They got used to the parties too—high school parties. It was exciting. It was different. Or at least they felt like it had to be different, had to be some right of passage.
Zeke wasn't into all that existential mumbojumbo. He was in the moment. He was ready to go. He wasn't thinking about what everyone else was thinking about him or anyone else. He wasn't worried what anyone else thought about anything. Not everyone felt that way and sometimes he was swayed into things without realizing what the others' intentions were.
At Jocelyn's fourteenth birthday party, Tammy started a game of truth or dare. Kids made each other “text I love you to the most recent conversation on your phone” and “prank call your mom” and “dance for twenty seconds without music.” Tammy dared Jimmy Jr. and Zeke to kiss. And they did.
At Jenny Testa's, Tammy started spin the bottle. Zeke wasn't in the game at first, didn't even know what they were playing, when he sat down next to J-Ju. It was his turn to spin the bottle then, apparently, and Tammy decided the bottle was pointing at Zeke. Zeke could have seen the bottle and the circle and put two and two together better. Tammy also could have stopped being weird and bending rules and making them kiss. Did no one else think it was weird? It didn't seem weird at the time. It just seemed kind of stupid and fun, like upping the ante, like shenanigans. Zeke loves shenanigans. After the fifth or sixth time, someone could have said something. Maybe since it was Tammy and nothing she did made sense and everything she did was crazy, no one said anything or even noticed.
Tammy might be consciously orchestrating all this. It was inconsequential if everyone else didn't notice, or even care. It could all be in good fun. Tammy's original intent was probably malicious, because it always was with her. But if it was all silly, a little bit of drunk fun, then it's okay, even if it was originally Tammy's weird idea.
Zeke wonders if it could have been anyone else kissing through Tammy's orchestration. He and Jimmy Jr might be unlucky, that Tammy was fixated on them. Like they were at the wrong place at the wrong time?
They couldn't blame Tammy completely though, because they kept doing it. They could have said no. If they said no, Tammy might have moved on to someone else. But they said yes and they kept saying yes. And it wasn't for fame or clout or popularity (since the only person who cared was Tammy) so they must have been doing it for some other reason.
Zeke didn't think it was a big deal at first. He already kissed Jimmy Jr on the cheek—not often, but sometimes. It was all a joke. Everything was a joke. Life was a joke. But in a good way. Jokes are fun and life is fun and spending time with Jimmy Jr is fun.
Plus no one else made a big deal out of it because they don't want to be homophobic and Zeke and Jimmy Jr never withhold that much affection from each other anyway so there really is nothing remarkable about them kissing. Tammy is the homophobic jerk.
He also didn't want them kissing to become a Bad Thing. Best friends didn't kiss. unless it was a dare, so it was okay, for now. But they were on thin ice. It's probably not normal but probably not that weird. There might be a Tammy at every school doing weird shenanigans to best friends. He can't imagine every school has a Tammy as bad as their Tammy. But they probably have something similar.
It wasn't that he cared about being normal or not. He cared about Jimmy Jr and he cared about being Jimmy Jr's best friend. Which is the only reason it concerned Zeke.
The other thing that was the real worry which came up whenever Zeke was honest with himself was that sometimes, he wanted to kiss Jimmy Jr for real, not for a dare.
Best friends are supposed to want to kiss each other for real.
Because sometimes, Zeke wanted to kiss Jimmy Jr, at the oddest, most random times—when they are wrestling, after movie night, after walking back home from school, when Jimmy Jr says something funny, when Jimmy Jr says something stupid, after Jimmy Jr makes up a new dance move, after Jimmy Jr compliments one of Zeke's ideas, observations, or strength.
He was getting away from normal best friend territory. But he could ignore it. It didn't have to be a bad thing. It didn't have to matter.
And Zeke was going to ignore it because Jimmy Jr would never want to kiss him unless he was drunk and it was a dark party and Tammy was taunting him. This is the only way Zeke can have this.
He could never disrespect Jimmy Jr's boundaries.
They never had real boundaries. It wasn't a problem before. When they were kids, they didn't even know what boundaries were or how to set them. In some ways, it's so difficult to figure out what are the good boundaries because they don't have boundaries like other people so there's no examples to go off of. They don't have normal boundaries. Some guy friends would never kiss each other on the cheek unless they were fancy or European or old or a movie star. Wrestling also created hazy boundaries that might differ from “other” or “normal” people.
They told each other everything, because they were Best Friends. Closer than most best friends. They spent every waking moment with each other. They spent some sleeping moments with each other too, like when they have a sleepover, or when they dream about each other. Jimmy Jr. stayed over at Zeke's when J-Ju's dad and mom tried to get back together and it didn't go well. Zeke stayed over at Jimmy Jr.'s house when his dad wanted to home renovations to impress his step mom (Zeke's dad messed everything up and they had to call a professional, which extended Zeke's stay even further, which was completely fine with the boys.) When they dreamt about each other, they informed the other the next day, and it was always fun to see what their dream selves were doing together.
So, they don't have normal boundaries. But it works for them. At least Zeke hopes. If Jimmy Jr couldn't put up with his constant wrestling and lack of impulse control then he would have left already, for a normal friend.
But Zeke doesn't want to take that for granted. He never wants to take Jimmy Jr for granted.
So he doesn't want to mess up their friendship by doing some weird kissing thing when it's not a dare. He could work through this. He was just confused right now.
(Jimmy Jr, loving Jimmy Jr, that Jimmy Jr is his best friend, are what he knows most certainly in his life. But he is not above mild self-delusion.)
((Someone help him.))
At a dark hour in the early morning, they came back from Davy Russo's party, where the same old stuff happens and it's not necessarily boring because it's something to do. And whenever Zeke and Jimmy Jr were together, they always had fun. The setting for the night was irrelevant.
Zeke woke up next to Jimmy Jr in his bed that wasn't quite big enough for the two of them. He spent time watching Jimmy Jr's peaceful face. He also leaned over to check the trash can—nothing in there. Jimmy Jr must not have as much to drink last night as his slurring and wobbling gait suggested.
Leaning over Jimmy Jr to check the trash caused Jimmy Jr to stir awake.
“Mnnng,” Jimmy Jr grumbled.
“Good morning, J-Ju!” Zeke declared.
Jimmy Jr pressed his face more firmly into the pillow. “Aaaahhhh, Zeke, no!”
Zeke jostled him and Jimmy Jr protested more.
“Are you okay, Jimmy Jr? Drink some water.”
“I'm going back to sleep, Zeke.”
Zeke settled back into bed and listened as Jimmy Jr's breathing calmed and turned into quiet hazy snoring.
At two in the afternoon, Jimmy Jr groaned, much more open and awake than a few hours ago. Zeke laid in bed next to him. He occupied himself with Jimmy Jr's old Nintendo DS, which he looked up from as Jimmy Jr. stumbled to the bathroom.
Zeke took his turn in the bathroom next and they padded into the kitchen. The twins watched TV in the living room and screamed with excitement when they saw Jimmy Jr. Jimmy Jr. batted his little brothers away, but they clung desperately to his torso, even has Jimmy Jr tried to wade through them to the kitchen table. Zeke patted them on the head, ruffled their hair, and called them rascals. Jimmy Jr sat down at the table, and the twins sat down next to him. Jimmy Jr stared at the swooping wood grains silently as the twins talked about TikTok.
“Eggs?” Zeke asked.
Jimmy Jr. grunted.
“Yes!” Andy said.
“Me too!” Ollie said.
Zeke undercooked the eggs a little bit, but Jimmy Jr (and the twins) didn't seemed to mind.
“Where were you last night?” Andy asked.
“We missed you,” Ollie said.
Jimmy Jr glared.
“We went to a party, Lil Pestos,” Zeke said.
“Wow! How was it?”
“Was Ninja there?”
“No,” Jimmy Jr snapped.
Zeke told them who all were there, even though it was mostly people the twins, still a few years from high school, didn't know. Zeke was not above humoring them even if he did not understand why they wanted to know. He let the guest list information flow freely. He however, did not mention alcohol or what all everyone was doing, though. That was unnecessary.
The twins got bored (finally, and thankfully) and retreated to the living room to watch TikToks. Jimmy Jr's fork lay askew, forgotten, and the streaks of eggs on the plate developed a dry crust.
Zeke watched Jimmy Jr look out the window. The bright afternoon played out, like some boring artsy movie that Zeke would hate.
Jimmy Jr blinked and sighed.
It was now or never, to talk about this.
Zeke coughed said, “whoa, boy, that was a crazy night!”
“Shh!” Jimmy Jr looked frantically at the living room.
“We can hear you!” Andy said.
“But we're not listening,” Ollie said.
Jimmy Jr rolled his eyes and groaned.
“You okay, J-Ju?” Zeke asked in a rough whisper.
Jimmy Jr turned to him, eyes still dull and tired, but he smiled. “Yeah. Tired. It was crazy, though. I hope Gus Gomez's arm is okay.”
Zeke tried to assess Jimmy Jr. Did he not remember? Was the that drunk? “And...our thing, too.”
Jimmy Jr's mouth twitched into an uneasy smile. “Oh yeah. That was crazy. Tammy is so weird.”
“Yeah. Are you okay with it?”
Jimmy Jr's shoulders twitched like he was about to shrug and then was too tired. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” Zeke felt Jimmy Jr. pulling away and it made Zeke want to latch on tighter. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Jimmy Jr stood up and the chair creaked against the floor. Zeke tried not to wince.
“Not really,” Jimmy Jr said.
“Are you sure—“
“I'm just tired.” Jimmy Jr looked over this shoulder. “I think I'm going to go back to bed.”
Zeke stood up and nodded vigorously. “Okay, I'll head out. See you tomorrow?”
He loved Jimmy Jr but he would have to trust him as well. Trust him that Jimmy Jr was capable of making his own decisions and he had to be responsible for himself. Zeke never thought he was the worrier. He and Jimmy Jr were just about dancing and wrestling and having fun. Neither of them were the worrier. Zeke had more investment in trying to make sure everything was okay since he had more to hide. Maybe that's why Jimmy Jr didn't care about this. It was such a non issue because he was being honest.
Maybe Zeke should come clean.
It wasn't like Zeke to be shy. So after Jenny Testa's party, he made sure to cut to the chase. He took a deep breath and blurted, “Jimmy Jr, we kissed last night.”
“Yea,” Jimmy Jr said.
Zeke waited. He hoped for some more opinions, some analysis. But Jimmy Jr seemed content with a one word answer.
“Are you okay with it?” Zeke prompted.
Jimmy Jr didn't seem at all moved by Zeke's seriousness, or his impassioned question. “I am if you are,” he said, lying flat on the floor, staring at the ceiling.
Zeke let out a breath. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Jimmy Jr said, heavy with something almost like derision, like he wanted to ask if Zeke was done needed to be humored now.
So it wasn't as easy to come clean. It was easy for Jimmy Jr to be okay with it because he didn't know the whole story.
What would he even say? “Jimmy Jr, I like you and I want to kiss you all the time.”
That sounds like something normal Zeke would say, right? Jimmy Jr would not even skip a beat.
But he just couldn't.
So he tried to make up for it by asking if Jimmy Jr was okay with their drunk kisses. Checking in on his best friend was a good plan, in general about everything, and he wanted to stick with it.
But Jimmy Jr seemed so bored and noncommittal. Zeke didn't want to make things to be awkward where they weren't before. He was a grateful guy, he liked to count his blessings. He didn't want to go looking for trouble where there wasn't any to be had. If it was nothing then he didn't want to make it something. So he started asking less and less. Jimmy Jr needed to be responsible for his own actions, and Zeke needed to get over his obligation. Or honor it in a different way. It's just, this was his best friend. He didn't want anything to come between them.
But at the end of the day, Jimmy Jr said he was okay with it and Zeke trusted what he said. He didn't think Jimmy Jr lie. If he secretly wasn't okay with it, how was Zeke supposed to figure that out? If Jimmy Jr wasn't okay with it then he just wouldn't do it.
Clearly Zeke was the only one who was worked up about it. He was just trying to be responsible.
When did Zeke become the responsible one?
When it came to Jimmy Jr, Zeke would be anything—the responsible one, the protector, the mature one. He wanted to protect Jimmy Jr. He wanted to protect them, their friendship.
It was easy to ignore his crush most of the time. But it was harder when everyone else looked at Jimmy Jr, with what can only be barely disguised naked want (or Zeke was just projecting. But probably not). It didn't feel good to be jealous and overprotective. As Jimmy Jr's best friend, he is supposed to want everyone to see how awesome Jimmy Jr is. But he also wanted everyone to know, acknowledge and respect, that Zeke is Jimmy Jr's number-one best friend and no one else can be that.
Like at Omar's pool party, Tammy, being the reliable nuisance she always was, purposefully made Jimmy Jr keep getting in and out of the pool to get drinks or snacks or the ball flew out of the pool, Jimmy Jr, can you please get it, I left my phone over there but I need to check Snapchat, Jimmy Jr can you—
And it was ridiculous. It was the worst. Because every time Jimmy Jr got out of the pool, hands set on the concrete, pulling himself up, back and arm muscles ripping, his body glistened in the afternoon sun as rivulets clung and dragged down his body, splashing all around like liquid fireworks.
It was really too much. This was not okay. Tammy was the worst.
Zeke was slightly torn between really wanting to stare at Jimmy Jr's naked chest. Even though he could do it anytime he wanted really—Zeke took his shirt off all the time to wrestle—this time was just different with everyone staring at Jimmy Jr. He wanted to snap, “what are you looking at?” but then they would ask the same thing of him and he didn't think his explanation of “he's my best friend” would make sense to other people in this situation.
No, he did not think they would understand that line of reasoning at all.
So he watched silently along with the rest of the party Jimmy Jr flaunting his beautiful face and body all around.
Great. This was just great.
They played beach volleyball in the pool. Zeke rotated out because he was much better at sports when it doesn't involve aiming projectiles at other people—so not volleyball.
He got out of the pool and towels off and laid down on a pool chair. He dug his sunglasses out of he and Jimmy Jr's pool bag.
“Dude, what is your problem?”
Zeke spaced out a long time ago so he did not expecting to see Todd, when he he blinked and looked up. Todd sat down in the poolchair next to him, under an umbrella, with a pretty-colored drink in a skinny class cup, with ice and a tiny cute umbrella in it. He sipped through his metal straw.
“Hey, T-Bird, what's up?”
“First of all, don't call me that. Second of all, why do you look so sad? This is a party. Don't be sad, Zeke.”
“I'm not sad, T-Swizzle. I'm having a great time.” Zeke sighed.
“First of all, yes, second, don't call me that, third. Come on.”
Zeke looked at him warily.
Todd arched an eyebrow. “You...are...okay? You don't expect me to believe that, right? You look like you've just been banned from ever petting a cat again.”
“I do not look like that,” Zeke said, shocked that he was a little happy to have Todd to talk to. He expected to just mope around the party until Jimmy Jr was ready to leave.
...Okay, he was a little sad.
“And,” Zeke added before Todd could open his mouth again. “I don't like cats, anyway. You can't trust them. They know too much.”
“Whatever. The point is you look really sad. And I think I can help.”
Zeke tried to read Todd, his intentions, what he wanted. But Todd was better at that than Zeke was, probably better at that than most people. Todd could tear people down and shake people up. At least that's what Zeke heard the debate team used him for.
Zeke sighed again.
“So are you going to tell me?” Todd asked again.
“Everyone is looking at Jimmy Junior and admiring how cut he is—which is great and he is my beautiful boy.” Zeke took a breath like he was going to continue but had no idea how to continue.
“Oh, honey, don't even,” Todd cut in with a shake of his head and a loud somehow extremely judgmental and bored slurp of the drink. “Everybody at this party is staring at you.”
Zeke snorted. “What are you talking about, boy?”
“Every girl is trying to flirt with you, but you are too sad to notice, or make moves. Get your head in the game, Zeke!”
Zeke's mouth twitched. It's not that he wasn't interesting in girls ever. But they weren't Jimmy Jr. Zeke glanced around the party trying to figure out who Todd was talking about. Everyone seemed otherwise engaged.
“So?” Todd demands.
Todd's energy was always at an eleven, which, so was Zeke's, but this was different. Zeke's energy was a spark or a burst, but Todd's energy was a million needles, sharp jabs, judgmental slaps in the face. Like a livewire.
“So what?” Zeke asks.
“What is your problem?”
Todd sighed and took another sip. He jabbed the drink in Zeke's direction.
Zeke looked at him.
“Have some, it's good.”
Zeke sighed. He wasn't allowed to have snacks and too much sugar. Beer was so many empty useless calories and that was not good for wrestling. And whatever Todd handed him looked ridiculous. But a little fun. He takes the glass anyway and drinks directly instead of from the straw.
He smacked hhis lips. “That's good,” he said, surprise brightening his voice.
“Well, yeah, I'm drinking it, aren't I?”
Todd slurped some more.
Todd and Zeke sat in the pool chairs. Laughter ripped out of Zeke's throat, breaking through the wall of anger and bitterness he didn't even know he was hiding behind. Zeke was never close to Todd before but he thinks he could invite Todd to sit with him and Jimmy Jr at lunch sometime.
Jimmy Jr's feet slapped against the pavement, and water droplets leapt off his body. He sludged towards them and his movements were violent and Zeke, who was dry, if not a little sticky, by now, jerked at the feel of the cold droplets.
“Hey, Jimmy Jr,” Zeke said, watching him hunch over their gym bag and dig around for his towel. He checked his phone while he toweled himself off.
Zeke let himself stare at Jimmy Jr for a moment then he suddenly remembered Todd was there. Todd was sipping his drink, with intense hawk-like observation. Zeke was embarrassed but he didn't know why.
Todd gave him a look and Zeke didn't know what to read into it so he just waved and said “Bye!” and left with Jimmy Jr.
Todd was around a lot more after that. Zeke liked it though. Adding some sarcasm to Zeke's and Jimmy Jr's usual fare of very earnest and very genuine outlook (mixed in with some stupidity) was a nice change. He didn't think Jimmy Jr was as sold on Todd as Zeke was. But it was also nice to hang out with Todd when Jimmy Jr disappeared on his girl benders.
Which to be fair was not a totally kind or realistic way to describe them, but Zeke was a little sad and jealous about it, a little bitter. Now, though he hoped that hanging out with Todd would help him move past that so he could be a more supportive and positive friend to Jimmy Jr, like he deserved. And Zeke knew he could be that. Eventually. Not this second.
As Zeke suspected, keeping the secret was not easy. It bothered him a lot. The secret, the lie, that he liked Jimmy Jr and Jimmy Jr didn't know, that ate at him and made him feel like their friendship was in a precarious balance.
It wasn't something he meant to hide.
It wasn't something he even thought about. It wasn't something he was “trying” to realize or figure out. He didn't realize it would even be a problem. Why would it? Why would it complicate things if friends kiss at a party? Why would sexuality matter between friends?
Zeke didn't know but he was scared that it did mater, some how, for some reason.
Zeke wasn't trying to lie by not talking about his sexuality. He just doesn't really think about it much. He knew girls were attractive, because everyone, especially Jimmy Jr. seemed to think so, so very passionately. He also knew boys were attractive. They just were. He doesn't need convincing to know that. Their walks, their jaws, their eyes, their voices. Their hands, and the slope of their shoulders. It was all attractive.
Zeke recently discovered that he also wanted to kiss Jimmy Jr. But it's also not anyone's business except his. Maybe Jimmy Jr's business, at most. But he doesn't know whether is ready to say anything. They never hide anything from each other. He didn't know why he wanted to hide this. Afraid of rejection? Maybe. But they were Jimmy Jr and Zeke. They would get through anything together. They could figure anything out. And it probably wouldn't be a big deal. Unless the deal was Jimmy Jr was only kissing him at parties because they were two straight dudes and it was a funny joke to Tammy but everyone else was bored right now.
Yeah. Why did Jimmy Jr want to kiss him at parties? Did he actually not care at all? If he didn't care either way why didn't he just stop?
Zeke told his stepmom Cheryl. He really had nothing to hide from her. And she was very supportive. She hugged him and told him she would always love him. His dad isn't super on board, but Zeke doesn't really care that much. It's none of his dad's business anyway.
He didn't know what it meant to want to kiss Jimmy Jr. He didn't know what dating Jimmy Jr would be like. Probably what they were doing now but with more kissing.
It didn't matter, anyway. Jimmy Jr. probably didn't want them to be a thing, since he was straight.
They talked about it amongst themselves—Zeke asks if Jimmy Jr was okay with it and Jimmy Jr says yes—but no one else cared. Other people never brought up the kisses afterwards, not anymore. It was old news, by now, anyway. “Jimmy Jr. and Zeke are going to kiss at a party.” Yeah, whatever. It wasn't weird anymore. It wasn't weird to see two friends kissing especially since Jimmy Jr and Zeke do it every party. And it's not weird that it's kind of gay. People don't want to be homophobic. That's gross. It's so commonplace it's like it didn't happen. He doesn't think, if they stopped, that people would be like, “wow guess that party was lame since Jimmy Jr and Zeke didn't kiss.” That would be crazy.
When he realizes he doesn't want Jimmy Jr kissing anyone else but him it complicated things. Having fleeting thoughts of kissing Jimmy Jr was different than constantly pining for him. But he can't let himself think about that, because that is not what best friends do. He can't want to for real. He can't want them to be together, romantically, for real.
Adding Todd to the mix meant that Zeke was always on the cusp of an emotional crisis but then the edge eased off when he spend time with Todd. All these crazy revelations happened around the same time but Todd also became a constant in his life and that was nice. It was a nice distraction. He genuinely liked Todd, not just for his protective-against-feelings powers. And Todd seemed to like him, too, which was nice. He hadn't really thought about it before, that maybe he wasn't as confident or secure as he originally thought. Because now with Todd, he felt more confident that other people than Jimmy Jr actually liked him. It was a good feeling.
Jimmy Jr was always late coming back from Theater. It was his last class on Blue Days, and Zeke usually waited around for him outside the theater, pacing under the tall atrium, leaning against the rough indoor-brick wall, stretching some stiff muscles.
Jimmy Jr liked to stay for extra practice. Sometimes he stayed for a few minutes and sometimes he texted Zeke to go on home without him. There was one time Jimmy Jr forgot to text him for half an hour. Zeke usually didn't mind waiting. He could force himself to do homework or he could do a mini work out like pushups or situps or something.
He just wasn't sure which it would be today.
He texted Jimmy Jr a clock emoji with a question mark.
Normally he waited alone. Students in other after school clubs never came up to him to chat. The theater was also out of the way from a lot of the other after school extracurriculars. Except for the gym. The theater was right across from the gym. Sometimes he didn't even arrive to the theater until after the basketball team was already inside warming up. And he was never there late enough to see them leave.
So Todd ambling toward him leaned against the dark brick came as a surprise.
“What's up?” he asked.
“I wanted to see what you were up to this weekend.”
“Nothing special, what about you?”
Todd leaned against the wall with Zeke. He propped his foot on the wall, knee askew, as if he was going to swim to the other side of the corridor.
“Larry is having a thing at his house this weekend. I was wondering if you wanted to come with me.”
“Oh, really? Sounds cool!” Zeke said. “Jimmy Jr would probably love to go!”
Todd frowned. “Uh... it's at Larry's house so not that many people can come.”
“Oh. So I shouldn't invite Jimmy Jr then?”
Todd looked up at the ceiling and sighed. “You are making me feel like such an asshole.”
“I'm sorry, dude.”
“No, like.” Todd stared into Zeke's eyes for a moment. “You guys really never do anything apart, huh?”
“Nope,” Zeke said, even though that wasn't entirely true.
“Well, if you will have more fun you can bring him. But I'm inviting you.”
“No one else,” Todd said.
“No on else,” Zeke agreed. Something strange stormed around in Todd's eyes, like algae floating in water.
“I'll see you there?” Zeke said.
“Yeah. See you. It'll be fun.”
“Hell yea!” Zeke said. Excitement surged in him like people sprinting from the starting line after the whistle blew. He felt an explosion of happiness that Todd invited him. Todd wanted him there. Todd wanted to hang out with him at a party.
“C'mere,” Zeke said, putting Todd in an extra light headlock and wrapping himself around Todd as much as he could with his arms. Todd was a big guy, too, not at all slender and lithe like Jimmy Jr. Todd was buff and strong. Zeke really wanted to wrestle him. He really wanted to wrestle Jimmy Jr all the time, but Todd felt so different.
“Ahh, Zeke!” Todd protested, his grip iron and strong around Zeke's biceps. His fingers dug into Zeke's skin, and pleasure and joy and a little spark grew from the divots, like Todd nurtured something from nothing. Like Zeke had something he wanted.
“Zeke what are you doing?”
Zeke froze. He pressed his palm into Todd's back, signaling, I'm done, we're good, love you bro, and Todd held onto Zeke's forearm lightly, still partially enveloped by Zeke.
Panic flickered along where he and Todd touched and he didn't know why he felt so red in the face, like he was caught in the act—caught in what act?
“Hey, J-Ju, you done?”
“Yeah, let's go home.”
“Todd invited us to Larry's party this weekend, do you want to go?”
“Larry? Why?” Jimmy Jr asked when Todd said “I invited Zeke.”
Todd patted Zeke's arms. They disentangled.
“I'll see you this weekend?” Todd asked.
“Yeah, see ya,” Zeke said. “Bye.”
Todd walked out of the atrium. Some theater kids walked out of the double doors. They waved and Jimmy Jr and Zeke.
“You're going?” Jimmy Jr asked when they walked into the vibrant outside air. The smell of the fields, asphalt, sun, and car exhaust, swirled around them.
“It will be fun.”
“Larry has never invited us to anything before.”
“Todd invited us.”
“Todd invited you.”
“Yeah, and I'm inviting you.”
Jimmy Jr looked into the distance. Zeke looked forward too. The still air compressed it, as if it was a painting, eerily silent. It looked on the precipice of changing into something, but never fulfilled the potential.
Zeke kicked at the ground, at a tiny piece of gravel that escaped from his friends. The sole of his shoe scraped against the asphalt, and missed the shard.
“I mean I'll go if you go.”
“Yeah. Only if you want to.”
“But you want to?”
“Todd invited me. So yeah.”
Zeke smiled at Jimmy Jr. Jimmy Jr looked pensive. Zeke elbowed him hard. Wind escaped the tiny oh Jimmy Jr made with his lips.
“C'mere, J-Ju,” Zeke said, wrapping his arms around Jimmy Jr's shoulders.
Jimmy Jr laughed against him. The vibrations of his chest left Zeke breathless.
“Zeke!” Jimmy Jr chided, and Zeke's heart curled up, shining bright and proud in his chest.
Zeke wasn't entirely sure how Tammy found out about the party. Both he and Jimmy Jr were not very good at secrets. But that is how Tammy and a bunch of her friends also ended up at Larry's house.
Larry, Wagstaff Debate's policy ace, and who continued to bear the title when he went to high school, did not invite so many people to his bonfire. He was not happy about the bigger turnout. It was just supposed to be invited the Wagstaff and high school debate teams.
Todd invited Zeke. So Zeke invited Jimmy Jr and Tammy found out about it so the party grew to a lot more than Larry was expecting.
So Larry was kind of mad at Todd.
“It's fine, relax,” Todd said, and Larry just grimaced and refused to acknowledge Zeke.
Todd rolled his eyes. “Oh because you are such a goodie-goodie rule follower?”
“Shut up, Todd,” Larry grumbled.
Zeke did not like to be the reason friends fought. It stressed him out.
“I'm sorry, Lar-bear. Do you want us to leave?”
Larry cringed. “Ah—well. It's fine. My mom said as long as I know all the kids, it's okay, I guess. Just—don't do anything crazy?”
But Tammy was here so Zeke did not want to make any promises.
Zeke smiled nervously. Larry winced back.
Todd clapped. “Okay, great talk, guys! Let's get this party started!”
When Tammy suggested skinny dipping, Zeke knew that probably did not fall within the realms of Larry's request of not doing anything crazy or Todd's direction to start the party. But he agreed, because Zeke was just happy to get away from the tense atmosphere. He was relieved to leave Larry munching on his smores in a very angry fashion, though the marshmallow on his cheek gave him a cute chipmunk like appearance which reduced the impact of his anger. The nagging guilt remained, mixing in the mucous of his stomach, and sinking into his system, traveling around with the oxygen in his body, from the unfamiliar smells of the house of a schoolmate who is practically a stranger.
At least if he was skinnydipping with Tammy it would be far away from the house—far away from Larry, and hopefully it would not be annoying.
“Wanna come?” Zeke asked.
Todd jolted. He looked at Zeke with wide eyes. “No, sis, I'm good.”
“Alright, be back in a bit,” Zeke said. He toes off his shoes next to Todd's bench and then whipped off his shirt and dumped it in a pile on his shoes.
“There's giardia in there,” Zack, the research machine from Wagstaff, who no longer bore his title in high school, grumbled.
“Dude, shut up they are going to be naked with girls in there,” Nickolas Mendoza, one of Zack's friends from quizbowl/academic team gasped.
“Yeah, Giardia intestinalis, Giardia lamblia, and Giardia duodenalis,” Anthony, one of Todd's new debate friends rattled off.
“Ew, stop talking about school,” Jocelyn said.
“Wooo! Let's go!” Tammy shrieked.
“Shhh, the neighbors are sleeping!” Larry hissed.
“Shut up,” Tammy said.
So, yeah, Zeke thought it was better if they were loud and annoying very far away from the house and the neighbors.
They descended down the hill into darkness, and acted wilder and stupider. Someone's hands feathered across Zeke's shoulders, dragged down his his biceps and back. It was probably Tammy. He shuddered. He turned around to glare at her. He lost his footing and tumbled into Jimmy Jr., who always had a higher center of gravity than Zeke. Jimmy Jr. squawked. They took several hurtling steps until they righted themselves.
“Watch it,” Tammy squealed.
“Are you okay?” Jocelyn asked.
Together, they made an amorphous blob in the darkness, two heads at different heights, telltale side ponytails lost in the silhouette.
Whatever. It was probably the ghosts—or whatever happened to people after they died.
The wooden boards grunted as they pattered across the dock. Tammy shrieked and splashed into the water.
Zeke jolted. Tammy's shrieks were unpredictable and startling every time.
He wondered how deep this was. He didn't want to canon ball into the bank.
“Are you ready, Zeke?” Jimmy Jr. asked.
“Sure, bud. Let's go.”
The cold electrocuted Zeke's body. His stiffened his muscles, back, legs, and biceps taut. The cold permeated, waking him up. He thought he could even see better.
Jimmy Jr splashed him and Zeke laughed, and swallowed some lake water. He hoped whatever Todd's debate friends said about the lake wasn't true. He didn't know what any of that was but it sounded not good.
He splashed Jimmy Jr. back.
“Wow, this is so fun,” Tammy said.
Saying something was fun over and over didn't make it fun, but this time, Tammy might have been onto something.
“You know what would make this even more fun?” one of the guy's from Tammy's class said.
Zeke should have paid more attention to what that academic team guy said. Tammy and Jocelyn started making out with their partners in the lake. He was afraid to find Jimmy Jr. He was afraid to find Jimmy Jr with someone. He swam until he could stand. The tiny soft and pointy stones pricked him the same. Pain zinged up his leg like the weight in a strength-testing carnival game. Vegetation flung themselves across his feet and mud surged between between his toes. He wiped his feet on the grass and trekked up the hill.
He waved shyly at the rest of the party as he reached the campfire. He never felt self conscious about being in his underwear—almost never in his life. But for some reason with Todd and Larry and all their smart friends—he felt frozen up, silly, like a stuffed animal they grew out of but kept around for nostalgia. His skin felt sticky and cold. Heat from the fire slapped him. He welcomed it.
“Hey,” Todd said.
“Sup,” he said.
“Do you need a towel or something?” Todd asked.
“Naw, it's okay, I'll just dry by the fire, scootch,” Zeke said.
“Oh, no way, you aren't sitting next to me with that lake water,” Todd said. “Come with me.”
“What?” Larry asked. “Todd—”
Todd folded his hand in half, beckoning Zeke. “Bring your shorts.”
Zeke dipped down, snagged his shorts and shoes, and trotted behind Todd.
Todd opened a skinny white door, with tall white piping separating the panes.
“You're going to drip no matter what, just hurry.”
Todd turned on the lights in the bathroom. Zeke put his shoes outside the bathroom and put his shirt next to the sink. Todd opened a closet and pulled out a fluffy luxurious cream colored towel and shoved it at Zeke.
“Isn't this Larry's house?” Zeke held the
“Oh, shut up, I just sleep over a lot.”
“I didn't say nothing. It's good to know your best friend's house.”
Todd smiled wanly.
“So I'll be back at the campfire. Just come back when you're done.”
“Sure thing. Thanks, Tiddle-Toddle.”
After his shower, Zeke ambled back to the campfire.
“Thanks, Toodles,” he said to Todd. Then he remembered it wasn't Todd's house. He turned to Larry. “Thanks, Larry-Barry.”
Larry smiled thinly and Todd patted the bench next to him. Zeke sat down.
“Nice of you to get us towels,” Zeke said.
“Not us, just you,” Todd said. “And I have to do Larry's laundry this week—which makes no sense, and I don't know what your mom is going to say about a little black boy coming to do your laundry.”
Todd wasn't little, really. He was pretty buff, from cheerleading. But Zeke understood what he was trying to say, he thought.
“Isn't that racist?” Zeke asked.
“No,” Larry said, and Todd said, “yes.”
“Don't make this a thing,” Larry said.
“I will make it a thing,” Todd said over him, while Larry was still talking.
“You were trying to kiss up to—“ Larry said and Todd yelled and Larry said “shut up, the neighbors.”
“You shut up,” Todd hissed.
Larry blew a raspberry at him.
“Anyway, I exploited Todd's kindness, for housework,” Larry said.
Zeke's eyes bounced between them like pingpong balls. He blinked the dizziness away.
Todd nudged him with his shoulder and leaned in.
“You both are going to get giardia,” Anthony said.
“Awww,” Tammy said, walking up while Todd said, “he's clean now!”
“That is not how giardia works,” Anthony said.
“Why does Zeke get a towel?” Jimmy Jr asked.
“That's just how it is,” Todd said.
Tammy snorted and flung her wet hair. “I'm going home, I'm cold and set and bored. There isn't even enough alcohol here.”
“Okay, Tammy, bye, see you later,” Larry said, pointing up the hill and waving.
“Aww he's so nice,” Jocelyn said, at the same time Tammy said, “wow he is so rude, ugh.”
“Oh wait,” Jocelyn said.
Zeke watched them waddle up the hill to the driveway. Jimmy Jr stood in front of him.
“Jimmy Jr, are you coming?”
“Yeah, one sec, Zeke needs to get his stuff.”
Todd looked at Zeke and Zeke looked down.
“Zeke, are you ready to go?”
“I want to stay.”
“You can go if you want. Todd can give me a ride.'
“Oh—oh I mean I can stay too.”
Zeke turned back to Todd with a grin but Todd was on his phone.
Zeke felt his face fall. He nudged Todd.
“Whatcha lookin at?” he grinned.
“Calm down, Nosy O'Donnell.”
Zeke wanted to stay and talk and have fun but it wasn't fun with Todd like this.
“Come on, Jimmy Jr, let's get you home.”
“I thought you wanted to stay?”
“You'll freeze to death or get garden fresh.”
Todd snorted and Anthony said, “literally every word in that sentence was wrong.”
“Thanks for inviting us,” Zeke said.
No one replied for a moment. Zeke remembered technically he was the only one invited.
“See ya'll later,” Zeke said, ready to escape as soon as possible.
Todd finally looked up. Zeke didn't know what was in his eyes, what was behind the neutral expression. He grinned, he hoped roguishly, and followed J-Ju to his car.
He hung out with Todd and Jimmy Jr, and Todd continued to shut down at random times, and Jimmy Jr would shut down the other times. Zeke wished he knew why. He wanted Todd to be happy. He liked his new friend.
He of course wanted Jimmy Jr to be happy. He always wanted that.
He wanted to be happy but he couldn't be happy without the other two. He pushed that thought away.
Todd was busy with cheerleading season, with state championships coming up. It was weird to miss hanging out with a friend. He was so used to being with Jimmy Jr all the time.
Things were less tense when Todd was busy with cheerleading and Jimmy Jr and Zeke were back to their dynamic duo. Todd texted a lot more than Zeke. Zeke and Jimmy Jr didn't need to text because they were always together. At first Zeke didn't really know what to do with Todd's texts. There were so many and they were about such random things, disjointed, sometimes about things ad people Zeke didn't know.
Sometimes he just replied “what?” and Todd wouldn't say anything. Zeke didn't know which thing to respond to.
After that, Todd sent slightly less texts, though he would still send an avalanche or two occasionally, when he was feeling particularly chatty or gossipy. Sometimes he only sent emojis, which Zeke felt extra competent at replying to, because he could chose some at random and sent them back, and he didn't' have to feel like he wasn't being enough for Todd.
But Todd still talked to him so hopefully he wasn't doing a bad job.
Jimmy Jr of course noticed his new texting habit.
“Who are you texting?” Jimmy Jr asked with narrowed eyes.
“Todd,” Zeke said.
“What is he saying?”
And sometimes Zeke would read the text. Sometimes there as too many to read. Especially if he sent emojis, Zeke said the emojis out loud. Sometimes he said nothing if he didn't know what Todd was talking about.
Jimmy Jr always looked extremely displeased at all of these answers.
The cheerleading team won state. Todd invited Zeke to a party at his teammate's house. Zeke stared open-mouthed at the sprawling mansion, soaring into the sky, and spread across the large lawn.
Rich people, right?
Bass-boosted beats thumped throughout the house. He looked around at the sea of faces. He didn't recognize any of them. The whole county was probably here. He and Jimmy Jr squeezed through the crowd.
Zeke felt a hand on his shoulderblade. He turned around. Todd smiled at him.
“Hey,” Zeke said.
“Glad you could come.”
“Me, too. There's a lot of people here!”
Todd shrugged. His smile barely hung onto his lips, like it was about to fall off the side of a building. “Caitlynn knows a lot of people.”
“You want something to drink?”
Zeke was about to say no when Jimmy Jr said, “sure!”
Todd stared blankly for a moment. Then he turned around. They followed him into the kitchen.
“Help yourself,” Zeke said.
Jimmy Jr looked in awe at all the bottles arranged in a row. “What is all this stuff?”
“Caitlynn is high maintenance,” Todd said.
Jimmy Jr's shocked expression did not let up.
“You can just have a beer, if that would be easier?”
“No, I want this!” Jimmy Jr said, pointing at a dark bottle with a flourish.
Todd's mouth twitched. “Very cool choice. What do you want it mixed with?”
“I don't know, what am I supposed to do it with?”
“Coke, I guess.” Todd bent over and grabbed a coke from the cooler. He tossed it at Jimmy Jr. Jimmy Jr picked a red cup up from the side of the lineup and poured himself a drink.
“Mmmm!” Jimmy Jr said.
Zeke couldn't decide whether Todd was bored or amused. “You like it?” Todd asked.
“Yes! So yum!”
“Good.” Todd brushed against Zeke's shoulder.
Zeke looked at him. Todd smiled.
“Do you want something to drink?”
Zeke shook his head.
A dance circle formed outside on the balcony. Jimmy Jr rushed to the open door and into the cool night air.
“You going out there?” Zeke asked, nodding that way.
“Nah, I'm done performing for a bit, you know? Just want to chill.”
“I guess you'll be standing behind Jimmy Jr all night then?”
Zeke didn't know why that bugged him so much. He shrugged. “Or we could hang out.”
Todd looked pleased. He took Zeke's hand. Something warm pooled in Zeke's belly. The ghost of Jimmy Jr's presence hung around his brain, electric and cold. Whatever was in Todd's eyes, the heat, the want—Zeke could see it all if he let himself. All those things, things he couldn't have, hid behind a gate. The closer he tried to walk towards the gate, the farther the gate floated back, out of his reach.
He glanced at Jimmy Jr, wriggling and shaking next to strangers in the dance circle. This was no Wagstaff party. Tammy was no where to be seen. She was the only one who instigated their kisses. There was nothing for him to hope for, this time. (Not that he was allowed to want that anyway.)
He let Todd drag him into the next room, and into various conversations. He let Todd introduce him to all his cheerleading friends, all his friends from other schools. He let Todd bump their shoulders together, brush their knuckles against each others. He let Todd take his hand and spin himself around and shimmy around him. He let the circle laugh in delight and clap. He was embarrassed but not in a bad way. More in the way that he was the center of attention for dancing with Todd.
He was having fun—he thought so anyway. He didn't want to think about the nagging empty space hovering behind his shoulder—the phantom space that should be filled with all the big sweaty bodies around everywhere but somehow he always felt a cold spot. He always felt
Todd led him to a couch tucked in the corner of a dark room in the back. Even though the party was going on in the next room, being in open and empty space made the party feel like it was in a different world.
Todd flopped onto the couch with a big sigh.
“Here I come,” Zeke said, and plummeted onto the couch beside him.
Todd turned. The couch dipped between them.
“Having fun?” Todd asked.
“Yes,” Zeke said.
Todd pressed his fingers into Zeke's forearm. Zeke jumped.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I'm great.”
“Okay. You'd tell me if you were bored or not having fun or whatever?”
“Don't you worry about anything. I'm doing great.”
“Okay. I like hanging out with you. You're not terrible.”
“I like hanging out with you too, T.”
Todd shifted on the couch. He hit his knee against Zeke's.
“Sorry,” Todd said.
Zeke listened for the bass thumping. Different songs were playing upstairs and downstairs. He could hear the conflicting rhythms faintly. His heart clutched. He wondered if Jimmy Jr was still outside.
“Is something on your mind?”
“How long have you known Jimmy Jr for?”
“Since elementary school.”
“You guys met in school?”
“Yeah. Best friends every since.”
“Do you all hook up?”
Zeke jerked back. “What? No. Who told you that?”
“Relax, I'm not trying to pry or something. It's just that don't you all kiss at parties sometimes or whatever?”
“Were you waiting for that to happen?”
“No.” Zeke hoped his voice sounded even. Normal. Not like he was lying. How did he even sound normally? “I think it's just Tammy's weird thing.”
“Oh so it's just like two straight guys kissing because homophobia is so funny,” Todd said.
His bitterness cut through Zeke. It was justified. Anxiety prickled in Zeke's throat.
“It's not like that.”
“Then what's it like?”
Zeke wanted to give an answer. Maybe not the answer, but something. “It's not homophobia. I didn't think anyone cared or even remembered that we did that.”
“Was it weird?”
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe since it was such a spectale or whatever.”
“I didn't want it to be a spectacle.”
“You went along with it.”
“Why are you bringing this up right now?” Zeke didn't know where Jimmy Jr was but he didn't even care in this moment. He just wanted to be away from this conversation.
Zeke stiffened under Todd's hand on his shoulder. If there was anymore light maybe Zeke would have seen something in Todd's eyes. But it was dark. And he could just tell himself that Todd took his hand away for no reason. “Look, I'm sorry, okay?” Todd said. “I didn't mean to be combative or something. I just—“
“Just what?” Zeke asked. He cringed. “Sorry. Take your time. I didn't mean to interrupt.”
“It's fine. I just... I just wanted to know if you even like guys, or if you only kissed Jimmy Jr because Tammy told you to.”
Zeke wanted to be there for Todd and be his friend. But this was not what he signed up for.
“I don't know.”
Todd leaned back. “Are you—“ The words were tense barbs in the air. “Are you like being dense on purpose or—“
“No, Todd, I respect you and I respect this space and conversation that we are having.”
“Oh my god.”
“You are crazy. I just want to know if you would ever kiss me.”
Zeke looked across the cough at him, feeling hollow. Maybe it was okay to want for once—to be wanted back for once.
He thought of kissing Todd's lips, thought of feeling his smart sarcastic tongue against his.
But he just couldn't.
He almost wanted to do it. He hated that he felt guilty. Todd was strong and funny and—
Not perfect for Zeke like he was sure Jimmy Jr was for him. And that's why it wasn't fair. He couldn't do that to Todd.
The coldness he felt of Jimmy Jr's presence over his shoulder—now he felt it everywhere, now that Todd retreated too.
“Todd, I'm sorry.”
“It's fine. I'm sorry, too. Are we cool?”
“Yeah, we're cool.”
“'Kay.” Todd stood up. “I'm going to get some air.”
Zeke watched him get ready to leave.
“You're a great guy, Zeke.”
Zeke's tongue dried. “Thank you.”
“I don't usually read signals wrong,” Todd said.
Zeke rustled his fingers tucked into fists.
“You shouldn't string people along.”
“And like. I don't want to make assumptions. But—sometimes waiting for people doesn't work.”
Zeke felt a rockslide in his chest. It rumbled into his stomach.
“So.” Todd fluttered his fingers by his sides. “Yeah. Don't let people string you along. And don't string yourself along.”
“I'll see you around.”
He watched Todd disappear into the party.
He hated himself.
He squeezed the throw pillows. He wanted to punch them but he felt scared to, in such a nice house. He floundered for something that would make himself feel better—make Todd feel better. Make any of this okay.
Maybe he could do it. Kiss Todd once. As long as Todd knew his intentions and agreed to it. He didn't want to date Todd. But he shouldn't assume Todd even wanted that either. Maybe it would be fun.
He didn't feel like it could be fun.
He didn't want to force himself. Todd didn't need someone to force themselves to want to kiss him. He was plenty attractive enough to get anyone he wanted—someone without reservations.
He wanted to go home.
He called Jimmy Jr. It went to voicemail. Zeke tapped a text telling Jimmy Jr he was ready to go. His skin prickled in anticipation of brushing past sweaty bodies to find Jimmy Jr. He steeled himself and pushed into the crowd.
He saw flashes of Todd in every plane of broad shoulder, puff of curly black hair, jut of strong jaw. He scanned the crowd for Jimmy Jr. The shadows painted everyone with the same features, half-lit faces blending in together.
New groups of people Zeke hadn't seen before filled the balcony. He followed the trail of people who said they saw Jimmy Jr into the basement.
The red disco lights crawled along the walls and ceilings like spiders. He saw Jimmy Jr near the back wall, bending and slinking around in his most sensual fashion. Zeke crossed the room.
“Hey, can we go?”
“I want to stay.”
“Okay. Can someone give you a ride then?”
“Whoa, Zeke. What's going on. Are you okay?”
“It's nothing. I'll see you later.”
“Hold on, hold on, I'm coming.”
Zeke skirted along the wall and climbed the stairs, feeling each flex and curl of his thigh. He felt the press of the floor against his shoes and the several inches he rose with each step. He took the ascent as slow as possible.
“Okay, I'm here,” Jimmy Jr said, panting right behind Zeke's shoulder. Zeke opened the front door and they waded through the tepid night.
Zeke wasn't careful with a lot of things. Careful didn't cross his mind, used to just jumping in headfirst because he felt like it, because he wanted to. He didn't care about consequences before they happened. But driving at night with Jimmy Jr limp in the seat, head lolled, barely held against the headrest, made Zeke slow down, caution overtaking him like a ghost. He held his muscles taut as he tried to control the death machine that rolled through the night. Sometimes Jimmy Jr's head snapped down into the shoulder of the seat. Zeke jumped every time. He imagined holding his car by its shirt collar (if it was a person), threatening it to do the right thing.
His stomach and back tensed. His shirt barely scraped the backrest. Zeke couldn't see Jimmy Jr's alert eyes, but he felt them on him intermittently throughout the car ride. They were usually silent. Jimmy Jr was usually too tired. But now Zeke pulled Jimmy Jr from the party early—mid-arc, energy still sparking and sizzling off him.
Double the loss twisted Zeke's insides, a death grip on his lungs. He wasn't going to lead Todd on. He shouldn't lead himself on to think that Todd could replace Jimmy Jr. He should get over Jimmy Jr fair and square.
He didn't know how.
He turned off the car and yanked out the key. He could hear the grooves and divots clink against the inside of the car. He pushed open the door through his legs out and pulled himself up. The outside air, a little muggy, settled on his cheeks and nose.
“Get up.” He slammed the door shut. He put his hands in his pockets.
He looked back over his shoulder. He glared at the dark windows and the lifeless car. He stalked to the passenger side and flung open the door.
“Uhhhhh I'm tired.”
“Go to bed upstairs then.”
“Let's go, come on.”
The streetlamp glittered in Jimmy Jr's eyes. His jaw slackened, an almost imperceptible space jammed its way between his lips. The upturn of his eyebrows, the childlike confusion—hurt without wariness, confusion mixed with hope—looked out of place in the car, in the night, after this party.
Zeke stared at Jimmy Jr's building. He tapped his toe behind him.
Zeke fixed his gaze on the brick as Jimmy Jr rustled out of the car and slammed the door.
“Got your key?” Zeke asked.
“Yeah,” Jimmy Jr said after a beat, like understanding crept slowly, like a stalking jaguar, into his brain, foiling his childlike apprehension from before. Fear, even. Fear the popsicles would run out. Fear that someone would take the color chair he liked. Fear that
is this really how childlike Jimmy Jr saw their relationship?
“Alright. See ya.” Zeke bumped his hip into the front of the car as he tried to make his way around to the drivers side. “Shit.”
Zeke imagined Jimmy Jr's incredulous gaze. He imagined Jimmy Jr choking on his own confusion. He didn't know what was going on now. He never did.
“Aren't I what?” Zeke returned Jimmy Jr's genuine question like he hurled a plate onto the sidewalk.
Jimmy Jr planted his feet, stubborn and heavy. “Aren't you going to come up with me?”
“Why do I have to?”
“That's what we always do.”
“Well things are different now.”
“They just are.”
Jimmy Jr. spluttered. “Zeke—are you okay? I—
“I cannot do this right now.”
“Why are you being like this?”
“I literally just said I can't do this right now.”
“I'm worried about you, Zeke.”
“Okay, fine. Leave. Don't take your anger out on me. I'm just trying to help.”
The door handle clicked as Zeke pulled it open.
Zeke knew Jimmy Jr watched him turn on the car on drive down the street. Like he was calling his bluff, seeing if he was going to come back.
He wasn't going to come back. He was never going to come back.
Jimmy Jr texted him the next day as if nothing happened. Part of Zeke couldn't believe that Jimmy Jr had the nerve. On the other hand, it was the easiest path. Maybe Jimmy Jr thought something was off about last night, a fluke. He wanted things to get back to normal without much fall out. But Jimmy Jr didn't know the fallout that had been going on for far too long. Jimmy Jr would never understand why Zeke couldn't go back to normal.
Committing to this route was incredibly awkward. But it was the right thing to do. It was the only thing he could do. Zeke stopped walking with Jimmy Jr to school. They sat right next to each other in every class. It was awful. They didn't talk or share notes or jokes or whisper. The teachers didn't call them out once. Some of them seemed surprised, or even thrown off, at their silence. Mr. Jesensky even asked them if everything was okay. Mr. Jesensky was cool and all but he didn't need to know anything about this. It was too much. Too stupid. Even Jimmy Jr didn't really know what was going on.
Lunch was surprisingly the least awkward. He could just avoid the lunchroom altogether. He didn't want to sit with Tammy and hear her gossip horrendously about what was happening or act like nothing was happening at all. He wished he could sit with Todd but obviously that was out of the question, too. He kind of wanted to sit with Gene but he felt self-conscious, like everyone would know something had happened. Probably everyone did know, so he should just do whatever he wanted.
Making up with Todd was a lot easier than expected.
Todd passed by Zeke in the hallway. Zeke aimed for an empty classroom to eat lunch in.
“Hey, Zeke,” Todd said.
Zeke wondered if he imagined so many mixed messages loaded into those two words.
“Hi,” Zeke said. “What's up?”
“Nothing much. Long time no see.”
“Are you mad at me?” Todd asked.
“No! I thought you were mad at me.”
“I was hurt. And annoyed. But not mad at you, jeez. Who do you think I am, some egotistical drama queen? Actually don't answer that.”
A laugh bubbled out of Zeke's throat. It felt nice, fizzy, like soda. He hiccuped.
“So.. we're good?”
“Yes. I'm sorry.”
“It's fine, Zeke. You want to sit with us?”
Todd smiled, and patted him on the back. “Alright, big guy.”
Zeke followed Todd into the lunchroom, feeling small, and guilty.
He wished he could be happy with just this.
Zeke wasn't sure how long it would take to get over Jimmy Jr. He was beginning to think that this plan was not the best plan. He thought space from Jimmy Jr would help. He didn't think ignoring the problem was going to solve it but that was maybe what this whole plan was about. And he didn't want to have to be miserable for a whole year or four years or something if that was really how long it would take to get over Jimmy Jr. Plus they were going to have to finish high school together. He didn't want the rest of high school to be a drag. He wanted to treasure these memories. He wanted to treasure the time he had with Jimmy Jr. Maybe he went about this all wrong. Maybe he should have included Jimmy Jr in on this plan, got his input. Usually their schemes were best concocted together. Maybe it wasn't such a horrible thing to have a crush on your best friend. It couldn't' be worse than fighting with your best friend.
He didn't want them to never be friends ever again over something so stupid. He thought they were going to be friends forever. This seemed like such a stupid sad reason to break up. Friend break up. He didn't want to be the reason they weren't friends anymore.
He texted Jimmy Jr, “can we walk to school together tomorrow?”
He knew Jimmy Jr wouldn't just happily reply “sure!” He wondered what Jimmy Jr thought was wrong. There was no way he could have told him before but that's why he was telling him now. Finally. Ugh.
He waited for Jimmy Jr at his house until he was ten minutes tardy. He ran to school.
He said hi to Jimmy Jr every class they sat next to each other in. He whispered stuff to him. Usually they both got in trouble but now it was only Zeke. Because Jimmy Jr refused to say anything to him. Sometimes he didn't even look at him. Sometimes Jimmy Jr looked at Zeke like he shattered the most precious thing in the world.
Zeke probably did. But he was going to make it right.
He waited for Jimmy Jr outside the theatre. He knew this would not fail.
Sure enough, Jimmy Jr walked out with some girls, laughing loudly and wildly gesticulating.
When Jimmy Jr caught sight of Zeke he looked like he bumped into an invisible glass wall.
“Hey,” Zeke said.
“See you later, Jimmy Jr,” the girls said.
Zeke waited until they walked out of the atrium. He wasn't sure how many more people were in the theatre, but he couldn't wait any longer.
“Hey,” Zeke tried again.
Jimmy Jr glanced at him up and down then at the wall behind him. “What do you want, Zeke.”
“I was hoping we could talk.”
Jimmy Jr snorted. “Well, we can't. So, can you leave me alone, Zeke? Stalker much?”
Zeke told himself Jimmy Jr was justified in feeling all of these things. He was a jerk to Jimmy Jr this whole time. It still hurt though. Zeke wanted to fix things between them, now. He wanted to make it right. “Please.”
“No! You made it super duper clear that you didn't want to talk to me, possibly ever again.”
“I'm sorry, Jimmy Jr. I wanted to tell you stuff, but I didn't know how to tell you.”
“It shouldn't be that hard.” Zeke's last word was barely out of his mouth before Jimmy Jr's crashed over his. “Best friends are supposed to tell each other everything. Or at least I thought we were best friends.”
“We are. And I want to tell you now.”
“I'm still mad at you, Zeke.”
“I know. I'm sorry.”
“I can't just be your second choice when you are bored with Todd,” Jimmy Jr continued like he hadn't heard Zeke.
Uneasiness splashed in Zeke's stomach, pungent and alkaline, like bleach. “What does Todd have to do with this?”
“Things have been horrible ever since you went off with Todd at that party.”
Zeke seized at another one of his lowest moments being brought up while he was trying to apologize for the other lowest moment. “Wait, what?” he sputtered. If Jimmy Jr was punishing him for his actions... then he chose the best way to do it. The worst way. The absolute worst way.
“Forget it,” Jimmy Jr snapped, “I'm not going to listen to your problems while you're having fun with Todd.”
Zeke shook his head and waited, hoping Jimmy Jr would keep going.
Zeke was right, and Jimmy Jr continued. “Oh, it's just so great how you can just leave me in the dust like this,” Jimmy Jr singsonged, volume escalating slowly. “Leave me. For Todd. Like, what did I do to deserve this? Why is Todd so much better than me?”
“Todd is not better than you—okay look.” Zeke slapped his forehead. This was getting so off track. “I really don't know why you are bringing Todd into this. So I am just going to circle back to the thing that I didn't know how to tell you.”
“I still want to circle back to Todd and why you dumped me for him.”
Zeke tried not to let his words fail him now—now when he needed them most. Jimmy Jr was just saying that because they sometimes used romantic relationship lingo to describe their friendship—in the past. When they were still friends. Which Zeke was now trying to get back to that. “Jimmy Jr. I would never dump you. What are you talking about? I love you.”
“You literally just did.”
“Because I liked you too much.”
“That doesn't make any sense. If you like me then we should spend more time together.'
“I liked you too much and I was trying to get over you.”
“Why do you want to get over me? Did I do something wrong?”
“No. I just needed to get over you because you don't like me back.”
For the first time in the conversation, Jimmy Jr was finally slowing down. The train hurtling towards Zeke, possibly intent on killing him or at least flattening him, screeched abruptly to a halt. Jimmy Jr's face was soft in confusion, lost like he was given a map of a random city he had never seen before. “What? What do you mean?”
“That's what I was trying to tell you. I have a crush on you and I didn't want to tell you because I didn't want to make things awkward between us. But then I ruined our friendship because I was stupid. So I am sorry. I want to be friends again. I don't want this to change how we are.”
“Yeah.” Thoughts flooded through Jimmy Jr's eyes. His mouth hovered open like he didn't know what to express first. “I missed you, Zeke. I love you.”
“Do you forgive me? Please, Jimmy Jr.”
Jimmy Jr came towards him and Zeke met him half way. Zeke reached out his arms questioningly. Jimmy Jr fell into them limply. Zeke hugged him tight.
“Yeah, yeah, but...um.” Jimmy Jr muttered against Zeke's shoulder.
Zeke thought absently, how similar hope and fear looked.
“I... I what, Jimmy Jr?”
“You... you like me? Like. Like-like?”
Part of his brain was catching on, zipping around, and jumping to conclusions at the same time, while part of his brain was short-circuiting, and another part was in denial—scared, that this couldn't really be happening, not to someone like him. Never to him. Zeke wanted to rush in. He wanted to rush in and kiss Jimmy Jr. He wanted to twirl him around and throw him up in the air and wrestle him to the ground.
“Jimmy Jr, you beautiful idiot, I like you. I love you so much, Jimmy Jr.”
Jimmy Jr laughed with a huff, a little too hard, like he was going crazy. But Zeke felt a little crazy, too, so he got where he was coming from.
“I thought you would never want me back,” Jimmy Jr said, and clutched him so tight. Zeke sunk into it further, melting into him more than he ever thought was possible.
“I do want you, Jimmy Jr,” Zeke said. “I have always wanted you.”
Jimmy Jr eyes sparkled with incredulity. “I can't believe this, Zeke,” he gasped, in a daze.
“Believe it, J-Ju!”
Jimmy Jr pressed his chest against Zeke, and leaned down, hooking his chin over Zeke's shoulder. “We are so dumb!” Jimmy Jr groans. “We wasted so much time!”
Zeke patted him on the back. “We are,” he said, “but I love it about us.”
Jimmy Jr leaned back, holding Zeke at arm's length. “But can I kiss you now?” he asked.
Zeke nodded seriously and puffed out his chest like he was giving a royal proclamation. “Yes, Jimmy Jr, you can.”
Jimmy Jr whooped and Zeke whooped too. Jimmy Jr held Zeke's cheeks between his palms and brought their mouths together. Zeke couldn't stop giggling and Jimmy Jr's hands were kind of sweaty and ticklish and pushed his cheeks too much to be comfortable.
Zeke curled his fingers around Jimmy Jr's wrist to still him. Zeke broke them apart for a moment. Jimmy Jr had been taller than him for most of his childhood, and he still was tall as a teenager. But Zeke shot up too, and was much bulkier, and had wrestler's strength. He uses his strength carefully now, with precision and control, angling their faces carefully and pressing his lips gently against Jimmy Jr's. He measures the pressure and alternates speeds and sets a rhythm.
When they break Jimmy Jr looks at him like he invented a new dance move he loved—which, yeah.
“Why haven't you ever done that before?”
Zeke smirks. “I didn't know you wanted me to.”
“Okay, can you do that again?”
Zeke laughs and leans in again. “Hell yea.”
“Okay, they kissed, why does that matter they do that all the time?” Tammy snapped, nasally and Valley-girl.
“But they are dating now! That is totally cute!” Jocelyn said.
“Okay, well, whatever, without me this never would have happened, I orchestrated this, it's all thanks to me, as usual, I am the best, you're welcome,” Tammy said in one breath, a long high pitched whine.
“Oh, wow, really?” Jocelyn said. “That's so cool! You're like if cupid was hot and real!”
Zeke sighed. He doesn't feel like fighting her on it. “Why did you do that Tammy?”
“What? Be awesome, perfect, and amazing? I can't help it.”
“Make us kiss at all those parties.”
Tammy wrinkled her nose at him. “I don't know, I was bored and you guys do whatever I say, which is fun.”
Jimmy Jr nodded, with an appreciative expression, like any of that made any sense at all. Zeke snorted and shook his head. “Tammy, a simple girl with simple interests.”
Tammy looked way too excited so that meant she did not understand what Zeke meant at all. “Yes,” she yell-sang, “the simp queen, WOOO!!!”
“Jesus Christ, she is a fucking train wreck,” Todd mumbled as he passed by.
“What?” Tammy screamed.
Todd nodded at Zeke. He offered his fist. Zeke bumped it.
“Congratulations,” Todd said.
Todd grinned. “Now get out of my sight, you two are disgusting.”
Jimmy Jr kissed Zeke on the cheek. “Thank you!”