Some nights in the hospital, Nolan dreams of running. Not running in a pack with the rest of the team during cross-country practice, not winning the ten thousand meters at State. In his dreams, it’s a hot summer day and he’s running in the neighborhood near his parents’ house. The streets are empty so he runs down the middle of the street, the only sounds his feet hitting the ground in a constant rhythm and the hiss of sprinklers in the distance. He feels the sweat down his back and the sun on the top of his head, warming his hair. The running is effortless, his chest up and his shoulders back, his legs working like a metronome, carrying him through the streets.
Nolan wakes up in the hospital bed, drenched with sweat. The machines are beeping and the early morning light in the room is dim. The pain in his abdomen is sharp when he tries to lift his head off of the thin pillow, so he squeezes the button in his hand and feels the relief when pain killers flood his system. He drifts back to sleep.
The accident happened on a Tuesday morning in late August. There was a Sonic Youth song on the radio and Nolan didn’t even notice when the other car blew through the light and t-boned his car. He took the full impact. The other driver walked away from the accident.
Nolan didn’t go to Oregon like he was supposed to that fall. Instead he was choppered to a trauma center in Philadelphia and spent September in the hospital having surgery, and then having surgery again in October to fix what they didn’t fix the first time. Then there were weeks of physical therapy, weeks of frustration. He spent a lot of dark afternoons crying in his childhood bedroom, sure that he’d never run again.
By the New Year, he could walk without stopping to hunch over in discomfort. He started classes at the local community college and went to the gym in the afternoons. He could run slowly for five minutes at a time, and then fifteen, getting faster as the days got lighter. Later that spring, he copied his PJ Harvey CD on to a tape and played it on his Walkman while he plodded up and down the hills near his parents’ house, trying not to think of what he would have been doing if the accident had never happened.
He was still depressed, the opportunity to run at Oregon gone and his hopes of the Olympic Trials dashed. Now he’d go to a regular college, study economics and management, work in an office. He’d join a local running group and train for marathons on the weekends. He’d do well in New York, maybe qualify for Boston. He’d touch the hem of his dream as it trailed by but never hold it.
Nolan started college as a transfer student at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania the next fall. The school had a good management program - Nolan’s uncle had gone there in the ‘70s - and a beautiful campus in a small town. There were a lot of fraternities, which worried his mom, but Nolan was ready to have a real college experience with parties and friends. He had spent the last year at home with his family, playing board games and eating ice cream, going to bed early because physical therapy made him too exhausted. He was ready for something more.
He entered college as a sophomore, thanks to his community college credits. He got assigned to a dorm room in the sober living house because all of the other sophomores had picked their housing at the end of last year and it was the only place available. It was a small three-story house on a side-street on campus near the alumni office and a cluster of freshman dorms. Nolan shared a room on the third floor with an international student named Oskar and their room reminded him of the attic at his grandparents house, with slanted ceilings and small windows that looked out over the gabled roof.
Their first few days on campus, Oskar and Nolan ate every meal together and helped each other find their classes on campus. They had missed the traditional orientation of freshman year so they only had each other. Oskar was quiet, but so was Nolan, and it was comfortable talking with him before bed and chatting about their classes over lunch. He didn’t tell Oskar about his lost year and Oskar didn’t ask, but he was sure that Oskar saw his scars when he changed at night.
The first week of September, Nolan was a walk-on for the cross-country team. Technically, they were all walk-ons because it was a D-III school and there were no athletic scholarships. Nolan showed up at the athletic center for tryouts that afternoon with a group of freshman, some who looked like they were in relatively good running shape and a few who seemed obviously out of place. Coach Vigneault welcomed them and told them that they’d practice with the team over the next week, and then he’d decide who would join the team and if any of them would have a chance to start at the meets that fall.
The team started running and Nolan took off with them, feeling nervous and hoping he could translate his nerves into energy. The team members who looked like juniors and seniors immediately took to the front of the pack as they headed north and left campus for the rolling hills beyond. By the time they looped west and then south on the asphalt roadway, Nolan had settled into the middle of the pack. He felt his nerves ebb away as he got into the rhythm of the run, chugging up and then cruising down the rolling hills.
They looped back north, taking over the sidewalk as they cut through town. A shorter guy with shaggy hair fell back to run beside Nolan and looked over at him, quirking an eyebrow up. Nolan was breathing hard, even though they were only five miles in and running at an easy pace. He remembered running at the front of a pack of guys like this during practice just a few years ago. He tried not to panic and hoped he’d get back there soon.
“You good, man?”
“Never better,” Nolan huffed, ignoring the dull ache in his lower abdomen.
“Stay with me, just a mile through campus and then we’re done,” the shorter guy said and picked up the pace a tick to stay with the upperclassmen.
Nolan kept stride beside him and felt the warm breeze ruffle his hair as they turned left and cruised through campus, crowded with students after class. The pack slowed to a trot in front of the athletic center, where Coach Vigneault waited with a large cooler of Gatorade and a stack of cups. He high-fived the upperclassmen as they got a drink and paused when Nolan and his running mate stepped up.
“Konecny?” Coach smiled.
“Yes sir,” the short guy panted.
“Looking good, work hard this summer?”
“Yes sir!” The short guy was beaming up at the coach.
Coach turned to Nolan and looked down at the tryouts sign-in sheet. “Patrick?”
Nolan gulped the rest of his Gatorade and wiped the back of his mouth with his arm. “That’s me.” He hoped the coach couldn’t tell how gassed he was.
The coach nodded. “Good run.”
The short guy leaned over to Nolan and stuck his hand out. “I’m Travis.”
Nolan took his hand. It was sweaty but Travis’s grip was strong. “Nolan.”
“Coach likes you. See you tomorrow?”
Nolan nodded and watched as Travis jogged away.
By the end of the week, Nolan fit right in with the cross-country team and it was no surprise that he made the team. He wasn’t promised any starts, but Nolan was satisfied. He loved the feeling of running in a group of guys in the late afternoon, arms and legs moving together, drifting like a school of fish and spreading out on the roads, drawing together to turn. He forgot about anything that was in his head and let go, surrendering to the repetitive sound of the team’s breath in and out, ragged and thick. For hours after, his panic was held back by the quiet calm of the run.
After practice, he sat at dinner with the team and ate quietly, happy to have Travis jostle his arm as he waved his hands. Travis was loudly telling a story that the team received with raucous laughter. Nolan zoned out a little, full of grilled cheese and comfortable with this new teammates already, like he never expected to be this soon in the year.
“Patty,” Travis elbowed him. “Are you coming?”
“Huh?” Nolan said, looking up to see the whole team looking at him expectantly.
“Wake up, man, I asked if you’re coming to the party later?”
“Uhh,” Nolan said, mentally smacking himself for zoning out and sounding so dumb.
Travis turned back to the team. “He’s coming.” Travis leaned back into Nolan. “We’re going to a party at G’s house.” G was a senior named Claude who was the captain of the cross-country team.
“Can I bring my roommate?” Nolan asked quietly. He was happy to have some new friends, but he didn’t want to leave Oskar behind. He was so nice to Nolan the first two weeks and he was pretty cool to hang out with too.
“Fine,” Travis sighed and then shot Nolan a conspiratorial smile. “Parties at G’s are epic.”
That night, Nolan and Oskar met Travis outside a large brown house on the edge of campus. “Boys!” Travis bellowed when he saw them. Travis ran up and embraced Nolan before turning to Oskar.
“Nice to-” Oskar started before Travis enveloped him in a bear hug.
“What’s your last name?” Travis demanded.
“Travis, rude,” Nolan muttered.
“He needs a nickname! Look,” Travis gestured to Oskar, who was standing frozen with a tentative smile on his face, “he’s smiling. He can’t be Oskar the Grouch.”
“His last name is Lindblom,” Nolan said reluctantly.
“Lindy! My boy!” Travis slapped Oskar on the back and started herding them toward the side door of the house. “Let’s go inside, I’m not nearly drunk enough for tonight yet.”
Oskar shot Nolan a scared look and Nolan shrugged back, following Travis through the door and down a set of rickety steps into a low-ceilinged basement.
Travis introduced Nolan to two older guys behind the bar in the crowded main room. “Hey guys, this is Patty. He’s a transfer and this is his roommate Lindy.” Travis turned to Nolan. “Rads and Jake play football in the fall and do field stuff with our team in the spring, so you’ll see them around more next semester.”
The large guys waved hi. Jake asked Travis, “Where’s Carter? Is your boy coming out this weekend?”
Nolan saw Travis’s expression falter for just a second before he smiled confidently. “He’s so busy with practice right now but he’ll be out at the end of October.”
Radko snorted and Jake elbowed him. “You’ll have jerked your dick clean off by then, Teeks,” Jake chirped, handing them cups of some mystery punch.
While Travis was squawking at Jake, Oskar leaned over to Nolan. “What’s in this?”
“Oskar!” A guy shouted from the far end of the room, running over to pick up Oskar and swinging him around. Oskar was laughing and smiling bigger than Nolan had seen him smile in the last two weeks. He was also sloshing mystery punch all over the already-sticky floor. When Oskar was back on the ground and had caught his breath, he introduced Nolan to Ivan, another international student.
Oskar and Ivan fell into immediate hushed conversation so Nolan turned back to Travis, who was leaning against the bar and doing his best to drink as much of his punch as fast as possible. Nolan took a sip from his own cup and sputtered. “Why does this burn going down?”
“That’s how you know it’s working,” Travis said distractedly. “Hey, did Lindy take off with that guy?”
Nolan looked around the bar area but neither Oskar nor Ivan were there. “I guess.”
“At least someone’s getting lucky tonight,” Travis grumbled.
“Ummm,” Nolan started, fading out into a mumble. “That Carter guy? Is he your-"
“Yeah, Carter goes to Lehigh now so.” Travis was looking around the room, avoiding Nolan’s gaze. “Drink that, let’s go dance.” He drained his cup and tipped Nolan’s cup toward his face, forcing Nolan to gulp down the rest of his drink.
Travis threaded through the people around the bar toward a dark room in the back of the basement where Nolan could hear thumping music. As soon as they entered, Nolan was hit with a wave of heat and the sweaty scent of the bodies moving together under a blacklight. He spotted G, shirtless and wearing a bandanna on his head, at the dj booth on the far end of the room.
G pointed at Travis and leaned into the mic to shout, “Now the party’s here!” The crowd roared and Song 2 started blaring out the speakers.
Travis pogoed into the crowd, turning back to Nolan. “This is my song! Come on!” Travis screamed over the music.
“I don’t know how to dance!” Nolan shouted from the doorway.
“It’s just jumping, come on!” Travis dragged him into the crowd.
Nolan laughed and followed Travis, the alcohol making him feel light-headed all of a sudden. They jumped up and down, knocking against the each other in rough rhythm with the song, shouting “woo hoo” with the crowd and making stupid faces at each other.
G put on a Weezer song and waded out into the crowd toward Travis and Nolan. He hugged them, smashing them together in his sweaty embrace. “Here rookie,” G shouted at Nolan, pushing an unlabeled bottle of clear liquid into his hand.
“What is this?” Nolan shouted at Travis.
“I don’t know, but you better drink it. G’s tripping his balls off and you don’t want to say no to him right now.” Travis grabbed the bottle and took a long drink before handing it back to Nolan.
“Ok,” Nolan said and took a swig, feeling the burn of the alcohol warm in his throat. Travis was smiling at him, his white shirt glowing under the black light, and Nolan felt the warmth spread all the way down to his toes.
They danced until they were too sweaty to go on, so Travis led them to the staircase up to the first floor. There were more people up here, people who weren’t drenched in sweat from dancing, and Travis and Nolan giggled as they scurried through them to the kitchen.
They took turns drinking water straight from the kitchen tap and, finally sated, leaned back against the counter, arms touching. “What is this house anyway?” Nolan asked.
“It used to be a fraternity house until ATO got kicked off campus for something a couple of years ago.” Travis said, wiping his arm across his sweaty face. “G and a couple of the guys convinced Student Life to let them have a themed house here instead.”
“What’s the theme?”
Travis snorted. “The environment. All they do is recycle a lot of beer cans.”
“Still, that’s cool,” Nolan said and looked at Travis, before they dissolved into giggles again.
Travis still had the unlabeled bottle in his hand and he took a swig before handing it to Nolan.
"Wanna play truth or dare?" Travis blurted out when Nolan drank and handed the bottle back. His eyes were a little glassy in the bright light of the kitchen.
"What is this, a sixth grade sleepover?
"No, man," Travis slapped Nolan on the shoulder. "It'll be fun, we'll just do truth."
Nolan looked sideways at Travis, who was smirking at him. "Ugh, fine," he moaned.
“Ok, I’ll go first. What’s your 5k PR?”
“Travis,” Nolan groaned.
Travis leaned into Nolan, pointing his finger where he drunkenly thought Nolan’s face should be. “You have to tell the truth!”
“14:12,” Nolan muttered, his chin tucked. When Travis leaned closer, Nolan repeated himself, louder, trying to convince himself that the flush on his cheeks was from the alcohol. “14:12.”
“Are you fucking kidding?” Travis shouted so loudly that conversation stopped for a moment in the other room. “What the fuck, Patty?”
Nolan shuffled his feet and sighed. “I was in an accident so...,” Nolan trailed off. He finally looked over at Travis, not sure if he’d see pity or anger on his face. Travis just looked astonished, and a little drunk.
“Holy shit man. I’m sorry for negging you during practice to get you to run faster. I won’t do that ever again.”
“Nah, it’s ok. I like it.” Nolan nodded and looked over at Travis smiling at him fondly.
“Ok, your turn to ask me.”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“Alright, here are some truths about me. I have a dog named Ralph. I’m a Pisces. I started running the steeple because no one else on my high school team was weird enough to try it. My cousin Bo plays in the NHL. I was born with eleven toes.”
“That’s not true!” Nolan laugh-shouted.
“No, but the rest is.” Travis bumped Nolan’s shoulder. “Next time we’ll do dares.”
Travis and Nolan left the party much later, after they drank more of G’s mystery alcohol and accidentally busted in on Oskar and Ivan kissing in an upstairs bathroom. Nolan had to practically drag Travis down the street with him - Nolan was taller and Travis was much drunker - while Travis babbled about how they were going to have a great year.
They stopped on the sidewalk in front of Nolan’s house. “Do you think you can get across the lawn to your dorm?” Nolan asked, prodding Travis in the side because he looked like he was falling asleep on his feet.
“Uh huh,” Travis slurred. He walked, steadier than Nolan expected, across the street. He stopped on the lawn on the other side. “Nolan?”
Nolan laughed. “Yes, Travis?”
“I love you man. I didn’t expect you but I’m really happy you’re here.”
“Goodnight Trav,” Nolan waved. He waited as Travis walked across the lawn to the entryway to his dorm and then Nolan went inside to pass out.
As the semester got fully underway, Nolan fell into a comfortable routine. Most mornings, he woke early to meet Travis out front for their morning run. They’d do a few miles while the campus was quiet and the sun was low in the sky, usually running in companionable silence. Nolan loved these runs most of all. Each day, Travis pushed him to run just a little farther than Nolan thought he was capable of, and Nolan started feeling in decent shape for the first time in more than a year.
When they got back to Nolan’s dorm after their run, Oskar would be up for his 8am class and would have coffee ready for them both in the communal kitchen on the first floor. Nolan would go to his 10am class then he’d meet Oskar for lunch. He’d nap or do homework until his late afternoon class, and then he would go to full team practice. After, he would get dinner with the team and hit the library with Travis to get some studying done. (Travis was no help in the studying department. He was a philosophy major and claimed that the time he spent chatting up friends in the library and napping in the study rooms was all part of his “philosophical process.”)
On the weekends, he and Travis would head out for a longer run on Saturday mornings, chatting about the drama Travis was having with his roommate or their classes. One Saturday morning in late September, Travis was complaining about his roommate as they ran back through town, dodging elderly couples out for their morning walk. Nolan finally asked, “How did you end up rooming with him anyway?”
Travis rolled his eyes. "I was supposed to room with Carter and it was going to be so great. Like, boyfriends living together? How awesome would that have been? But he applied to Lehigh and actually didn't tell me until he got accepted so I had to go to housing lottery by myself at the last minute and I got stuck with this guy."
"That's a little shitty," Nolan said cautiously. They had stopped outside the the diner and were stretching and cooling down before going in for breakfast.
"At least I didn't end up in the sober living house," Travis said, punching Nolan in the shoulder and heading inside.
"It's not that bad," Nolan said as they sat in a booth near the door. "Everyone there drinks anyway. The RA is this guy Taylor and he's a total stoner."
They ordered breakfast and drank coffee, chatting about their classes, until Travis set down his fork and pulled a serious face. "So, are you ever going to tell me about your accident?"
Nolan paused. "I thought you were too drunk to remember that," he mumbled.
"I only black out on tequila. C'mon Patty, you can trust me." Travis smiled softly at Nolan and Nolan melted, just a little bit.
"My car got t-boned at the end of last summer and I spent a few weeks in the hospital, surgery and all that." Nolan poked at his egg whites. "I only have one kidney now, and half a spleen."
"But you can still drink?"
"That's your liver, you dumbass."
"Whatever, one kidney boy." Travis threw his balled-up napkin at Nolan.
Nolan caught the napkin and set it down next to his plate. "I had a scholarship to run at college but I couldn't. I only started running again, like, really recently and I'm so slow. Plus I weigh like 20 pounds more than I did when I ran in high school, so…," Nolan trailed off, looking down at his plate again.
"But you're getting faster," Travis said.
"Yeah, it's just... I don't know. I know what it feels like to run really fast, like in my mind I know and I think I can make it happen, but my body's not connected that way anymore. Like I lost a limb or something." Nolan shrugged. "Does that make sense?"
"Totally, man," Travis smiled sadly.
"Can you," Nolan started, blushing, "can you not tell the guys on the team? It's embarrassing. I have these scars and I’m sort of self-conscious about the whole thing."
"No problem," Travis said, grabbing the check from the table and patting Nolan on the shoulder as he went up to pay it.
Nolan got a little more confident as he practiced with the team every day, doing strides down the flat stretch of asphalt behind the athletic center and hill repeats out by the quarry on the west side of campus. Still, Travis and the upperclassmen kicked his ass when they did speedwork. His core was weak and he didn't have the engine to push himself to the next gear at the end of the run when he needed it the most.
One warm afternoon in early October, the team was doing quarter-mile repeats on the track as prep for the invitational they'd host on campus later that week - the first meet that Nolan would maybe run in, if he could prove himself. Travis had stripped off his shirt, his chest and shoulders lean and tanned, skin shining lightly with sweat. Most of the team was shirtless too and Nolan felt himself blushing at the sight, self-conscious about the scars on his abdomen and the one curving around his side.
Coach V was holding the timer, shouting out their lap times, and G was writing them down on the clipboard. When Nolan dragged himself in for his last repeat, red-faced and out of breath, Coach shook his head and muttered, "Every interval the same. Gotta work on your pickup."
Nolan wiped his face with the hem of his shirt and frowned. G came over and slung his arm around his shoulder, then pulled away when he felt how sweaty Nolan was. "This fucking shirt is probably weighing you down," he guffawed.
Nolan saw Travis, hunched over on the infield, snap his head up. "Hey G, fuck off."
G smiled serenely. "I'm only teasing your girl here," he said, poking Nolan in the side. "You two can relax, this isn't Personal Best."
Travis pulled Nolan away from the track, huffing all the way. "'This isn't Personal Best' ," Travis said in a mocking voice. "What the fuck is he talking about."
"Trav, relax, he's the captain. He's just hazing me a little to motivate me."
"Yeah but the thing about the shirt."
"Travis, it's ok. I can take it," Nolan soothed. "Wanna grab dinner in about an hour?"
"Yeah, okay Patty." Travis stared at him.
"You'll tell me if you're not okay? Like if it hurts or if you're having a hard time at practice or whatever?"
Nolan bit back a smile and rolled his eyes. "Yes, I'll tell you."
"I don't know why I care, you ungrateful bitch." Travis smiled, bright and mean.
"Fuck you, see you in an hour?"
"Fuck you man," Travis called over his shoulder. "Don't be late!"
Coach V gave Nolan the nod to run in Saturday’s invitational on Thursday after practice. “This is an article of faith, because I think you can do better and I want to see you realize that too.”
Nolan nodded, throat tight.
“Don’t fuck it up, kid,” G reached out and ruffled Nolan’s hair after tossing Nolan his uniform.
Nolan went through the motions of the rest of his day and the next, unable to focus on anything anyone said to him. He was silent at dinner with the team on Friday night and could barely eat his pasta. All he could think about was the ball of fear sitting in his chest, right behind his sternum.
When the team left the dining hall, all headed to their respective dorms to get a good night of sleep before the meet, Travis walked next to Nolan, his head bent. “You going to be able to sleep tonight, Patty?”
Nolan laughed bitterly. “Probably not.”
They were quiet until they reached Travis’s dorm. “I’ll come pick you up in the morning, okay? Just like a regular Saturday morning.”
Nolan breathed out and closed his eyes, trying to will his anxiety away. “Thanks Trav.”
The next morning, Travis met Nolan in front of his dorm at 7:45 and they went to the dining hall for a quick breakfast. “Just some peanut butter toast and a coffee, can’t run on an empty stomach,” Travis said quietly, like he was trying to calm a spooked horse.
Nolan gulped down his food and went to the locker room to change and start his warm-up. The motions of preparing for a meet were familiar and he could do them without thinking but still, everything felt off. This team, this uniform, it all felt like a dream where everything was in the wrong place.
When they gathered near the starting line, Nolan caught Travis staring at him. Travis came over and put his hands on either side of Nolan’s face, shaking his head gently. “Just a Saturday run, a regular run, okay?”
“Yeah,” Nolan gasped, “just a Saturday.” He was sweating already and could feel his pulse racing.
“Stay away from those dicks from F&M and you’ll be fine. See you at the finish.” Travis shook Nolan by the shoulders and then joined the scrum at the starting line.
In a daze, Nolan walked to the starting line and waited for the gun to go off.
In his dreams, running was never like this. Not as panicky, or as hard.
At the first turn, Nolan was already wondering if he could stop, if he could peel off the course and disappear into the woods without anyone noticing. Instead, he forced air in through his nose and tried to relax his arms as the pack stretched out across the course.
He kept his eyes on the back of Travis’s head up ahead, but Travis was pulling away. Nolan fought to not get dropped. He was uncomfortable, never reaching any sort of rhythm, breathing ragged and harsh all the way to the last downhill slope toward the finish.
Nolan crossed the finish line and immediately bent forward at the waist, feeling his stomach turn and trying not to barf on his shoes in front of the crowd. He stood and looked to see how many people were finishing behind him, surprised to see more than half of the guys who started the race still behind him.
His vision was blurry and his abdomen ached as he wandered away from the crowd. Travis caught his arm and pulled him into a sweaty hug, laughing and clapping him on the back. The team was around them and all Nolan could focus on was Travis’s smile, the look in his eyes as he said, “Patty, I’m so proud of you, good job baby!”
G pulled them apart and slung his arm around Nolan, shaking him until Nolan couldn’t help but laugh. “20th place, I knew you had it in you kid.” Nolan couldn’t figure out what was funnier - that he was happy with a 20th place finish when he had once been the fastest high school runner in the state, or that he had finished that high at all. One junior, Sean, had finished in fifth place, and Travis took tenth. Nolan didn’t know how the team did against these teams the year before, but everyone was happy with a fourth place team finish.
Later that night, Nolan and Travis crawled out a window on the third floor of G’s house to lay on the slanted roof with Sean, Oskar, Ivan, and a sophomore named Shane that everyone called Ghost. Nolan was buzzed from shots of G’s celebratory mystery liquor and he watched the stars swirl in the sky above him. Sean passed a joint around and Nolan took a hit, passing the joint to Travis on his left.
“Coach looked so happy after the meet today,” Sean said into the night sky. “He’s already talking about Regionals and we never place.”
“Yeah, Patty, you’re a lock now when we go,” Travis said, looking over at Nolan and brushing their fingers together. Nolan had the sudden urge to take Travis’s hand and hold on tight, maybe to stop the spinning or because he wanted to feel Travis warm next to him.
Instead he pushed Travis away and scoffed, “Shut up, Trav.” The joint came back around and Nolan took it from Oskar, who was lying close to Ivan on Nolan’s right. Nolan took a big hit, holding his breath in and only letting the smoke out when he couldn’t hold it anymore. He wanted to get supremely high to see what happened, bleeding the night away with these guys like it didn’t matter that he had a paper to write and a lot of reading to do tomorrow. They could drift out into the night and join those voices he could hear below, laughing close and then fading out, across the green lawns of campus in the dark.
He thought for a fleeting moment about what the night after a big meet at Oregon would have been like, how he would never have been smoking pot and would have been hemmed in by a punishing training schedule. How he could have been one of the fastest college runners in the country, talked about as a phenom in Runner’s World. How maybe it would have been good to have his future set, but how maybe he wouldn’t have been happy.
They climbed back in through the window and raided the kitchen, eating all the snacks they could find before G found them and lovingly kicked them out. Oskar and Ivan retreated to Ivan’s dorm on the other side of campus and Travis walked Nolan home, babbling about their meet at Dickinson the next weekend and Bucknell the weekend after that.
“Trav,” Nolan interrupted, suddenly sleepy. “I’m going to bed. Wanna crash in Oskar’s bed?”
“Yeah man, hope you like snoring.” Travis followed him into the house and up to the third floor.
Nolan collapsed in his bed and rolled over to look at Travis across the room, past the desks and Nolan’s mountain of dirty running clothes. Nolan’s eyes grew heavy and, right before he drifted off, he heard Travis mumble, almost to himself, “Where did you come from, Patty? Fuck.”
Nolan competed in the next two meets but couldn’t break his time from the invitational. At least he wasn’t having panic attacks at the start line anymore. He tried not to be frustrated, especially since Coach V seemed happy with his consistency, but it killed him a little to see some other guy win first place every time when that always used to be him.
He tried hard to keep up when the team did speedwork or did tempo runs outside of town in the afternoons but it was like he had reached a plateau and couldn’t break through. He pushed down his frustration and went for long runs on Sundays with Travis. They kept up their early weekday runs too, sometimes joined by Sean or Ghost. He went to all of his classes and met with his professors during office hours to get feedback on his assignments. He spent long hours after practice with the team, fucking around in the back of the dining hall or on the lawn in front of the library until it got too cold and they had to go inside. Running was frustrating but there was more to life. He was happy.
The last Saturday in October, Jake and Rads had a Halloween party at their apartment located above a movie theater near the center of town. Nolan put on the Oregon singlet that his dad had given him when he started thinking about college in high school, a pair of old running shorts that were too short, a headband, and pulled-up striped socks for his Steve Prefontaine costume and headed over.
When he got there, the apartment was already crowded, with people spilling out into the hall. He pushed through the door and immediately saw Jake and Rads, dressed in their football uniforms, handing out jello shots. He took one and they directed him to the bathroom, where the bathtub was full of ice and cans of cheap beer. He grabbed two and pushed into the main room, loud with the sound of No Doubt on the stereo.
Nolan immediately spotted Travis on the far side of the room, standing on the windowsill and smoking a cigarette out the open window. Travis’s costume…well, Nolan didn’t exactly know who Travis was supposed to be. He was wearing a short black negligee over black fishnet stockings and high heels. He had a full face of makeup on, complete with bright red lipstick. Nolan’s mouth fell open and he stood staring until G came up and put a heavy hand on his shoulder. “You okay, Patrick?” G followed Nolan’s gaze over to Travis and shook his head. “He does this every year. Carter sure liked it, and now you too, huh?” G winked at him and moved into the crowd.
“Patty!” Travis yelled from his perch, waving him over.
“What are you wearing?” Nolan shrieked, holding a hand out so Travis could jump down from the windowsill.
“It’s Halloween,” Travis shouted in his ear, a lock of his hair getting caught in his glossy lips. Nolan wanted to brush it away, maybe trail his hand down Travis’s neck to his shoulder, tan and sculpted under the thin strap of his costume, but fidgeted with the tab on his beer can instead.
“Where’s Carter?” Nolan asked. “Isn’t he supposed to be here this weekend?”
“Fuck him!” Travis shouted and turned to the group of guys dressed in medical scrubs who were sitting on the couch behind him. One of them, a well-muscled guy with dark eyes, snaked an arm around Travis’s waist and pulled Travis back onto his lap. “This is-,” Travis leaned his head back on the guy’s shoulder, “what’s your name again?”
“Rob,” the guy said, flicking his eyes up at Nolan. “Who’s this?”
“This is Patty, he’s tall,” Travis said, turning to nuzzle at Rob’s neck.
Nolan felt a sick jolt in his stomach and turned away, torn between the sight of Travis’s legs in the fishnets and the douchey guy he was pressed up against. He quickly found Sean and Ghost in another room and hung out with them, drinking beer after beer in an effort to wash away the thought of Travis. On one run to the bathroom to grab another round, Nolan saw Travis grinding up against Rob to an Alanis Morissette song. At the sight of Rob’s hands all over Travis’s ass, Nolan grabbed a few extra jello shots and ducked back into the other room.
The party got busted up around 1 am, so everyone headed to the dining hall, where the college had late night snacks on weekends to discourage binge drinking. They piled around tables in the back of the dining hall, sharing nachos and chicken fingers. Nolan sat with the upperclassmen on the track team, G’s arm slung over the back of his chair. He snuck glances at a nearby table where Travis was sitting on Rob’s lap. Travis looked really drunk and, after making out for about twenty minutes, Travis and Rob left together, hands all over each other.
G leaned over to talk close to his ear. “Relax, Patrick, TK is a big boy. He’s fine.”
“What about Carter?”
G squinted at him. “It’s Carter you’re worried about?”
Nolan felt his cheeks go red. "He's really drunk, G."
G tilted his head toward the exit. “Go. You know you want to.”
Nolan left the dining hall and went across the street to the student union to use the campus phone in the lobby. He called Travis’s extension, thinking of hanging up with every ring. Finally, on the tenth ring, Travis picked up, out of breath. “Hello?”
“Trav, it’s Nolan, are you okay?”
“Fuck, Patty,” Travis sighed. “I thought you were- I’m fine, I gotta go.” It sounded like Travis fumbled with the receiver and dropped it, there was the sound of a man’s laughter low in the background, and then he hung up.
Nolan stared at the receiver in his hand and hung up. He suddenly felt very drunk. He slowly walked home, swerving to avoid groups of drunk people on the way. When he got to his house, Travis was sitting on the porch in a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. His eye makeup was smeared and he was shivering.
Nolan sat down next to Travis, bumping him with his shoulder.
"I fucked up, Patty," Travis started crying. "Carter didn't come and I hooked up with that guy and I'm so fucked up."
Nolan put his arm around Travis's shoulder and Travis leaned into him, tears coursing down his face.
"How could he just apply to another school and not tell me," Travis sobbed. “How could he fucking say I love you and then transfer, like it was nothing.”
"I know," Nolan said softly. "That's not fair to you."
“I’m so mad at him. I deserve better than this.”
“You do,” Nolan said, biting the inside of his cheek and trying to ignore the feelings welling up inside him.
"I have to break up with him tomorrow."
"Worry about that tomorrow. Wanna sleep in Oskar's bed?"
Travis nodded and wiped his face with his hands. He followed Nolan inside.
They went to the Centennial Conference championship two weeks later. Nolan jittered his leg the entire bus ride there and Travis had to elbow him to quit it. He was a ball of nerves until the gun sounded, and then a strange calm came over him. He wasn’t running much faster than usual, but suddenly running itself felt a little more effortless. He looked down and saw his arms and legs pumping, like parts in a machine, and he could separate himself from the effort making that happen. At the 7k marker, he took a deep breath and visualized digging deep in his core. He shifted into another gear, picking off 4 guys in the last quarter mile and crossing the finish line. For once this season, he didn’t feel like he was going to barf when he stopped racing.
It happened again at Regionals, Nolan running a negative split in a race for the first time since the accident. He cut five seconds off his time. They didn’t make the Division championship and their season was over, but Nolan was happy. The whole team was happy because they had their best team result in years, even if they weren’t moving on.
They celebrated with a party at G’s, one that spilled out into the backyard and ended with a bonfire. Travis drank so much that he puked in the woods behind the house and Nolan had to drag him home and put him to sleep in Oskar’s bed. Oskar and Ivan stumbled in much later and tried to make out in that bed, before realizing that Travis was passed out there. They rolled onto the floor and fell asleep there instead.
And then it was the reading period and finals. Nolan and his friends commandeered one of the study rooms on the top floor of the library and holed up in there for a week, eating pizzas that they snuck into the building and working on outlines when they weren’t writing papers in the computer lab in the library basement.
After his last exam, an essay test for his American Economic History class, Nolan was free to go home until the end of January. He wandered the already half-empty campus, hands in his pockets to protect against the December chill, and took in the calm quiet of the bright late afternoon sun. He packed some clothes in a suitcase in his dorm room and went out to his car, an ancient Saab 900 his father had given him before the start of the school year. As he drove out of town, he thought about Travis, and Oskar, and the team, everything he liked here, and couldn’t wait for the spring semester to start.
Travis called him on New Year’s Eve. Nolan was at home, playing cards with his family and eating pizza, when the phone rang. He answered it, expecting it to be his aunt calling to wish the family a Happy New Year.
“Patty? Is that you?”
“Trav?” Nolan was shocked. He didn’t remember giving Travis his home phone number.
“Hey, buddy.” Travis sounded a little tipsy and there was a lot of noise behind him.
“Hey,” Nolan stretched the phone cord and slipped into the laundry room so no one could overhear his conversation. “Happy holidays.”
“Yeah,” Travis said and then was quiet for a long moment. “I miss you, man.”
Nolan frowned. “I miss you, too. Have you been running?”
“On the treadmill a little. There’s a lot of snow up here. You?”
“Just a few miles around the neighborhood with my sister. She’s trying to get in shape for spring soccer.”
“That’s cool man. What day are you coming back to campus?”
“Okay cool, I’ll see you then?”
"Yeah,” Nolan said. “It was good to talk to you.”
“You too, Patty.”
Nolan hung up the phone and leaned against the wall next to the phone, trying to figure out why Travis called and how he felt about that. His sister Maddie kicked his foot when she walked by. “College girlfriend?” she teased.
“Shut up,” Nolan scoffed.
Nolan saw Travis when he was registering for spring semester classes in the college ballroom. Travis was standing at the philosophy department table and his face lit up when he saw Nolan.
Nolan finished filling out the form for his management classes and went over to Travis, feeling suddenly shy. Travis pulled him into a hug, tucking his face into the long hair on Nolan’s neck. “Hey Patty,” he said quietly.
“Hey,” Nolan said. “Wanna get lunch?”
As they exited the ballroom, a girl from the Student Activities Board handed them flyers for a dance in two weeks.
“The Snow Ball again? God, I wish they would change that name,” Travis scoffed.
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Patty, seriously?” Travis rolled his eyes. “It’s uhh...see, when two people love each other very much-”
Ghost came up behind them and put his arms around their shoulders. “It’s when you spit come into someone’s mouth.”
“Jesus, Ghost,” Nolan ducked away from him.
“Yeah Ghost, Patty’s innocent, you can't just say shit like that to him,” Travis smirked.
“I thought you already defiled him, Teeks,” Ghost said, darting away when Travis tried to shove him playfully.
“Boys, boys,” G caught up with them at the door to the dining hall. “We are all going to the Snow Ball.” He headed toward the frozen yogurt machine.
“Do we have to bring dates?” Nolan mumbled into his tray.
“You can be my date, Patty,” Travis said smiling, before he headed over to the sandwich bar.
“There will be girls there,” Ghost said, eyeing Nolan warily as they scooted along the hot entree line. “Unless that’s not your thing?”
Nolan shrugged. “Do I have to have a thing?”
“I mean, you’re 19, you probably should figure it out soon.”
“I’m just kind of like,” Nolan shrugged again, “whatever.”
"Does ‘whatever’ mean guys?”
“Are you really trying to get me to come out to you in the middle of the dining hall?”
“I’m not trying to do anything,” Ghost sighed. “Have you and Travis…”
“Have we what? We’re friends.”
“Ok, Nols,” Ghost said, grabbing a drink. “Maybe just think about it.”
“Think about what?” Nolan called out to him.
Ghost looked at the ceiling and turned away, laughing. “You idiots.”
“Hey, Patty,” Travis nudged him with his tray. “Let’s go sit. Want half a brownie?”
Nolan took the brownie from Travis and followed him to the table with their friends, trying not to think about about what Ghost had been getting at while Travis poked him and whispered jokes into his ear.
The team started working out at the gym and running on the indoor track until it was warm enough to use the track outside. And in early February, Nolan met up with the team and their dates at G’s house to pregame before the Snow Ball. Oskar was there with Ivan and they were both wearing tuxedos for some reason. Everyone else was wearing suits, although Nolan was carrying his tie.
“Patrick, put on your tie,” G bellowed from across the room when he entered. G took a hit from a gravity bong and let out a huge exhale of smoke.
Nolan held up the tie in his hand. “I don’t know how to!”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Patty,” Travis hustled over to him, shoving a cup of beer into Nolan’s hand and taking the tie from him. “Let me.” Travis stood close and turned up Nolan’s collar, gently smoothing the fabric of the tie against the back of Nolan’s neck, and then drew the ends down in front of Nolan’s chest. “You’re too tall,” he muttered, pulling Nolan down so he could tie the knot of the tie close to his neck. Travis stepped back and exhaled. “There you go.”
“Thanks Trav,” Nolan said, looking down at Travis and wondering why Travis's face was flushed red. That was usually Nolan’s thing.
“Okay boys,” G shouted to be heard over the group assembled at the house. “Team, come see me and then it’s time to go.” The team gathered around him while everyone else started putting on their coats and heading for the door. G leaned over a box on the floor behind him and handed out sterling silver flasks from it. Once each member of the team had one, he uncapped his and held it up. “This is a reward for a great cross-country season this past fall and let’s toast to a great track season this spring!” They all held up their flasks and cheered, and then tipped the flasks back. There was a communal sputtering.
“Christ G, not this again,” Sean moaned, making a face.
“I like G’s mystery liquor,” Jake said loudly.
“You would,” Rads elbowed him.
“Alright, let’s go!” G herded them out of the house and across campus to the student union.
They entered the ballroom, lights turned low and decked out with shiny silvery decorations, and fanned out. A large group of students was dancing in the center of the ballroom and Because the Night by 10,000 Maniacs was playing so loudly that Nolan could feel the beat in his head. Nolan and Travis sat at a table around the edge of the dance floor with a few of the guys and snuck sips from their flasks. Nolan was well on his way to buzzed when Travis leaned over and shouted in his ear, “Dare!”
“What?” Nolan shouted back.
Travis leaned closer, his lips against Nolan’s ear. “Our game of truth or dare. We never finished it. We have to do the dares.”
“Travis,” Nolan whined.
"Dare,” Travis stood up and held out his hand to Nolan. “I dare you to dance with me.”
Nolan could hear the quiet strains of U2’s All I Want Is You starting and he looked up at Travis, whose expression was a mix of hopeful and terrified. Nolan took his hand and let Travis lead him out to a space on the dance floor.
“I don’t know how to dance,” he muttered.
“It’s just swaying,” Travis said, guiding Nolan’s arms around his waist and twining his fingers behind Nolan’s neck.
Nolan looked down at Travis, who had looked so bold a moment ago but who was now biting his lip and staring at a spot in the middle of Nolan’s chest. Nolan pulled him closer so he could lean their foreheads together. Travis relaxed in his arms and tilted his head back to look up at Nolan. He smiled softly and closed his eyes, and started singing along with Bono.
You say you’ll give me
Eyes in the moon of blindness
A river in a time of dryness
A harbor in the tempest
But all the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you .
Travis had a nice voice and hearing him sing “all I want is you,” squeezing his eyes shut with the feeling of it, made Nolan’s knees weak. Nolan felt a wave of desire well up in him - desire to put his hand in Travis’s hair, desire to touch his lips to Travis’s neck. Travis put his head on Nolan’s shoulder and they swayed together, Nolan's heart racing, his face pressed into the top of Travis’s head, until the last notes of the song died away.
Nolan pulled back and looked at Travis, who looked as shell shocked as Nolan felt. Travis put his hands in the pockets of his pants and finally spoke. “Now you have to dare me.”
Nolan shook his head. “I can’t think of anything.”
“No?” Travis looked a little crushed at that, but Nolan didn’t know what to say. He wanted to rewind time, go back five minutes so he could focus on the way that Travis’s fingers had played in the hair at the nape of his neck while they danced, or the feeling of Travis’s back strong under his hands. He wanted to go back to that moment to see if he could figure out what the fuck he was doing, because right now he didn’t know.
“Okay Patty,” Travis said, finally breaking eye contact and heading back to the table.
Nolan stumbled out of the ballroom and into the bathroom, where he found Oskar and Ivan smoking a joint. “Nolan,” Oskar said, frowning, “you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Did you drink too much? You’re sweating,” Ivan said, taking Nolan’s arm.
Oskar came around his other side. “We were just going to get out of here. We can take you home.”
Nolan let himself be led through the student union, the help desk and mailroom closed up and dark. They went out into the cold and cut past the science building, skirting around the fountain that was turned off for the winter, and hurrying back to their dorm.
Nolan didn’t know who took off his jacket or his tie, but he woke up at 4am in his bed still dressed in his suit pants and his shirt. He stumbled to the bathroom to gulp down water and then went back to his room to strip down to his boxers and collapse back in bed. When he closed his eyes, all he could see was Travis, eyes burning as he looked up at Nolan on the dance floor, and Nolan didn’t know why he didn’t dare Travis to kiss him.
Nolan opened his eyes and saw Travis’s face close to his, and felt Travis’s hands cold on his face. Travis smelled like winter, like wood smoke and snow.
Nolan groaned as he sat up, head foggy. “Travis? What time is it?”
“Shh, Lindy’s sleeping,” Travis said quietly. “It’s 8:30.”
“Why are you here?” Nolan touched the shoulder of Travis’s forest green Carhartt sweatshirt, which was dusted with snowflakes. “Is it snowing?”
Travis grinned. “Yeah, it started last night and it’s still snowing. Come see.”
Nolan got up and pulled sweatpants over his boxers. He put on his coat and grabbed his hiking boots to follow Travis downstairs and out the front door.
The street in front of his house was unplowed, covered in what looked like a foot of snow, marred only by Travis’s footprints. The blanket of soft white stretched across the lawn, muffling any sound on the campus, even more empty than usual for a Sunday morning. Nolan pulled his coat around him and tucked his hands in his pockets. “How are you only wearing a sweatshirt, Trav? You must be freezing.”
“I’m from Massachusetts,” Travis said, leaping off the porch and into the snow on the lawn. He gathered up a handful of snow in a loose snowball and tossed it at Nolan.
Nolan hopped off the porch onto the lawn and he and Travis flung snow at each other until they were covered in snow and their hands were red with the cold.
“You sort of took off last night,” Travis said, brushing the snow off his shoulders.
“Yeah,” Nolan said.
“Oskar called me to let me know you were ok, but like. We’re okay, right?” Travis wasn’t looking at Nolan and that made Nolan’s stomach flop.
“Because like, you’re my best friend and I just want us to be cool.”
Nolan exhaled. Maybe he had made too much of last night, their dance together and how it had made him feel. He and Travis were friends. Friends cared about each other. Maybe they held each other close while they danced and that was normal. Maybe that was all there was to it.
“We’re cool,” Nolan said, and Travis smiled at him gratefully.
“You wanna get breakfast and hit the gym?”
“Yeah, but can we sleep for another hour or so first?”
Travis laughed. “Yeah, okay.”
“You wanna come up?”
“But Lindy’s in his bed.” Travis’s smile faltered, the open look in his eyes sliding shut.
“You can nap with me,” Nolan shrugged and headed inside. This was normal. Friends napped together.
“Patty…” Travis was standing on the lawn, staring at him.
“We’re cool, I told you. C’mon.” Nolan held the front door open for Travis, who came shuffling in after him.
They went back upstairs in the quiet house, closing the door to Nolan and Oskar’s room behind them, and took off their coats and boots. Nolan took off his sweatpants and got into bed, holding the blanket out for Travis to slide under next to him. Travis got in and turned his back to Nolan, who tucked the blanket around them both and nestled close, his face almost pressed into the back of Travis’s hair. “Wake me in an hour?”
“Yeah,” Travis said quietly, looking back over his shoulder at Nolan with an odd look on his face. “Sweet dreams.”
The snow melted and winter gave way to an early, raw spring. Nolan spent long afternoons in the gym with the team, working on his core strength to prep for outdoor track season. He and Travis ran in the mornings before class, donning hats and gloves to keep out the morning chill.
Their first meet, in early March the week before Spring Break, turned out to be a disaster. The team did okay, fielding decent times in the steeple thanks to Travis and in the 5,000 meters thanks to Sean and Ghost. But the 10,000 meters, toward the end of the day, was the nadir. Nolan was having a decent race, lost in the rhythm of the pack through twenty laps, when a few runners from F&M started to surge. He got jostled around the third turn and tried to pull forward out of traffic, feeling the familiar instinct to turn on the gas at the end of the race, but a tall runner from F&M named Kurtis clipped him with his spikes and sent him tumbling into the infield.
An angry roar went up from the sidelines where the team was watching and Coach V shouted at the meet ref about interference. Nolan waited, hunched over in the grass, and caught his breath while the race finished. Coach V got up in the ref’s face immediately, arguing for Kurtis to be disqualified. As soon as the track was clear of finishing runners, EMTs hustled across to the infield to look at Nolan’s leg, which was gashed and bleeding.
As the EMTs put pressure on Nolan’s leg and started to bandage it, he looked over where G and Travis were arguing with Kurtis on the track while Coach V continued arguing his case to the ref. When the ref finally signalled that Kurtis would not be disqualified, Kurtis shrugged and smirked in Nolan’s direction. Travis lost it, lunging at Kurtis to grab his singlet and shouting, “If you even look at him, I will fuck you up! I’ll do it any time!” In response, Kurtis punched Travis in the face, crumpling Travis to the track.
Nolan hobbled over to where the team was gathered around, trying to calm G down. “Those fuckers, they went after Patrick,” G was shouting. Sean was helping up Travis, who had a bright red welt around his eye.
“All of you assholes, on the bus,” Coach V yelled over the commotion. The anger seemed to go out of everyone and they drifted out away from the track. “You okay, Patrick?” Coach asked.
“Yeah, just a scratch. It’ll be fine.”
Coach patted his shoulder. “Good race, good fight for position. They won’t push you around next time.” Nolan wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be comforting. He had never been pushed on the track before but he was usually in the front.
The bus ride back to campus was quiet. Travis sat across the aisle from Nolan, staring out the window the entire way. When the got off the bus at the athletic center, Nolan took Travis’s arm and started walking him back to his house. He pulled an ice pack from the freezer downstairs and took them up to his room.
Oskar was on his bed doing homework and he started when they came in, leaning on each other. “What happened to you?”
“Track meet,” Travis said dryly.
“Shit,” Oskar said, putting his book down. “I’m going to get dinner. Do you guys need anything?”
They shook their heads and Travis sank to the floor when Oskar left. “How’s your leg?”
Nolan sat down next to him, stretching his injured leg out to the side. “Wanna tell me why you got into it with that guy?” He held the ice pack up to Travis’s face, ignoring the way that Travis winced when he applied the pressure.
“Not really,” Travis said.
“You shouldn’t have.”
“Well, I’m stupid so,” Travis shrugged, looking down at his hands.
Nolan pulled the ice pack away from Travis’s face and watched Travis’s eyes track up slowly to meet his. Nolan waited, staring back, until it seemed the moment stretched impossibly long, and then he leaned in to kiss Travis softly on the lips. Travis’s breath hitched and he leaned into Nolan’s kiss, sliding closer to Nolan and reaching up to gently touch his hair.
Nolan had kissed a few people in high school, girls who seemed less interesting after he kissed them and boys at camp who were trying to figure themselves out. But he didn’t remember it feeling like this. He couldn’t remember their touch on his cheek making his heart turn over in his chest and melt all the way down to his stomach. In this moment, with Travis’s lips moving soft and wet against his, he couldn’t remember anything at all.
They pulled apart and stared at each other, taking shallow breaths. “We’re okay, right Patty?” Travis whispered, and then Nolan remembered. Friends. Friends defended each other and maybe friends kissed after. He nodded and they slid apart, blushing.
Nolan met Sean at his car behind the dorm at the end of the next week. He was going to drive Sean home on his way to his parents’ house for Spring Break. They were putting their bags in the trunk when Travis jogged up.
“Hey Teeks,” Sean said. “I’m going to go to the bathroom inside. We’ll leave in a minute?” He shot Nolan a look and went inside.
Nolan frowned at him, then turned back to Travis. The bruise around his eye had faded to a sick yellow. Travis handed him a mixtape. “Here, I made you this. For the drive.”
Nolan looked at the tape and saw that Travis had written the song listing on the sleeve in his cramped handwriting. At the top, the title was simply “For Nolan.”
“I put that Pavement song that you like on there.”
“Did you put Wonderwall on here too?” Travis had been torturing Nolan with the Oasis song over the past few weeks, picking it out on his guitar and trying to play it at every opportunity.
“It’s on there. Twice,” Travis smiled.
“Thanks, Trav,” Nolan pulled him into a hug but drew away when he saw Sean come back out of the house.
“What are you doing for Spring Break?” Sean asked Travis.
“I’m going on a hiking trip with the outdoor club.”
“Cool, have fun man.”
“Bye guys,” Travis backed away, “see you next week.”
Nolan waved and got in the car with Sean. He started the engine and took the tape out of the case and popped it in the tape deck. “Travis made us a mixtape for the trip.”
Sean picked up the case and started reading the sleeve. “It says ‘For Nolan’.”
Nolan steered the car out onto the street and turned left toward the edge of campus. “Yeah, but like, it’s for the drive.”
“It’s for you, Nols,” Sean said. “Oh my god, Fast Car? He’s not trying to hide it anymore, is he?”
“Hide what?” Nolan said, signalling to turn onto the highway.
“God, he always does this. He falls head over heels in love with someone and makes them a fucking mixtape instead of just talking about his feelings.”
“What are you talking about?” Nolan asked, finding it hard to hear Range Life on the stereo over the rushing sound in his ears.
“Nolan, you have to know.”
Nolan shot Sean a panicked look.
“Please tell me you know, he told us like weeks ago.”
Nolan’s mouth was dry and he was having trouble focusing on the road. “I should stop for gas at the next rest stop,” he said, trying to calm the shaking in his voice.
“Want me to drive a bit?” Sean asked gently.
“Can you drive stick?”
Nolan and Sean leaned against on the hood of Nolan’s car in the driveway of Sean’s house in silence.
“You really didn’t know?” Sean asked quietly.
“A lot of people like Tracy Chapman,” Nolan mumbled, purposely not looking at Sean.
“You idiots.” Sean shook his head and picked up his bag. “He’s in love with you. And I think you like him too. Figure it out. See you next week.”
Nolan spent the first two days of Spring Break locked in his room, listening to his Nirvana albums on repeat. As long as he focused on the droning of Kurt Cobain’s voice, he could block out everything else.
On the third day, he finally emerged to go for a run in the afternoon. He took his walkman and started running until an hour slipped by, and then another, Travis’s mixtape playing again and again over his headphones. He pulled up, red faced and drenched with sweat, outside the back gates of his old high school. He could see his sister Maddie’s soccer team on the upper field and he jogged over to say hi to her. Practice was just breaking up for the afternoon.
“You finally left your room,” she said over her shoulder. She was gathering up the cones her team had been using for drills.
“Hi to you too,” Nolan panted.
He waited until she was done collecting the equipment and then walked slowly with her across the field, toward the house.
“What’s her name?” Maddie asked.
“The one that’s got you shut up in your room. What’s her name?”
Nolan swallowed hard. “Travis.”
Maddie nodded. “Wow.”
"Does he like you?”
“Do you like him?”
Nolan sighed. “Yeah.”
“Okay, so what am I missing here?”
“I kissed him once.”
“And?” Maddie was looking at him like he was out of his mind, which was sort of how he had felt since the car ride with Sean.
“And we said we wanted to stay friends.”
“So? Stay friends but like, be together. Why is this so complicated?”
“I don’t know,” Nolan said helplessly.
“Listen, I know a lot of stuff has happened to you in the past year but it doesn’t always have to be that way. You can make things happen, you know. You can take control of your own life.”
Nolan was quiet.
“This is where you’re supposed to ask me how I got so smart.”
Nolan put his arm around Maddie’s shoulders. “You’ve always been smart.”
“And you’ve always been stupid. Talk to him.” They were at the front door of the house. “And I’m proud of you. For...you know.” She waved her hand at him and went inside.
Nolan got back to campus at noon on Sunday. He found Travis in the laundry room off the kitchen in his house.
“Oh hey, Patty,” Travis said, shoving clothes into the washer. “My clothes are gross from camping and all the machines at my dorm are broken. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Travis,” Nolan said, standing in the doorway and holding on to the door frame so he wouldn’t fall over.
“It rained the entire week , I swear there’s mud everywhere .” Travis was still shoving clothes in the washer.
“Travis, I listened to the tape.”
“Yeah, that’s why I made it.” Travis stood up and looked at Nolan for the first time. “Are you okay? You look pale.”
“I really listened to the tape.”
“You…Sean told me that you...” Nolan couldn’t find the words.
“Nolan, what?” Travis took a step forward and touched Nolan’s shoulder.
“You love me,” Nolan said, exhaling the words in a rush and feeling like he was going to collapse.
Travis looked down and smiled, sad and soft. He stepped back from Nolan. “Yeah, but you don’t want-”
“You don’t know what I want,” Nolan interrupted.
Travis looked up at him, mouth set in a line, eyes challenging. “Then tell me.”
Nolan stared at him, biting his lip for a long moment, before taking Travis’s hand and pulling him through the kitchen to the stairs. They passed Nolan’s RA on the second landing, and he yelled “use a condom,” over his shoulder as they passed.
Nolan pushed open his door and pulled Travis into the room, shutting the door behind them. He put his hands on either side of Travis’s face, drawing him close. “This is me, telling you what I want,” Nolan whispered and pulled Travis into a kiss. Travis’s whole body relaxed against Nolan’s and he opened his mouth under Nolan's kiss.
Travis drew back to take a deep breath. "I can’t believe you finally...I can’t believe you’re finally here.”
“Yeah, it took me…” Nolan kissed him again and again, his fingers brushing across Travis’s flushed cheeks. “I’m here now, I’m here.”
Travis backed Nolan across the room until they tipped over onto the bed, giggling and holding on to each other. They kissed, long, deep kisses with their hands on each other’s faces, long hair falling into each other’s eyes. The afternoon stretched long and they stayed there, arms and legs wrapped around each other, and kissed each other to make up for all of their lost time.
Nolan wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere. He just wanted to feel Travis against him like this, the callouses on this fingers against the soft skin of Nolan’s neck, Travis’s leg hooked around his to pull him closer. Nolan was hard and breathless with the contact but he was patient. He was willing to spend this long afternoon drowning in Travis’s lips.
At 6:30, they were finally hungry enough that they went over to the student union to get something to eat. They held hands as they walked across campus, and they kept turning to smile at each other. Travis’s lips and cheeks were pink and his hair was rippling in the afternoon breeze. Nolan couldn’t believe how lucky he was that he hadn’t fucked up too badly on the way to this moment.
When they reached the student union, a cheer went up, and they turned to see the team lounging on the patio outside. G shouted, “Fucking finally!” and Jake let out a series of wolf whistles. Nolan felt himself blush but Travis pulled him into a sloppy kiss for the team’s benefit, and they all groaned and yelled at them to get a room.
They grabbed food and sat next to Sean, enjoying the team’s chatter around them about their week off. Sean leaned over to pat Nolan on the shoulder affectionately. G tilted his head toward Travis and said, just loud enough for the whole team to hear, “Don’t fuck him right before our next meet, Teeks, he has to run.” Travis put his head in his hands and Nolan felt his whole body go hot.
Later, in the dim early evening light of Nolan’s room, Nolan cuddled into Travis’s side. “About what G said,” Nolan started.
“Ignore him, he’s just messing with me,” Travis said into Nolan’s hair.
“I know, I just,” Nolan murmured into Travis’s neck. “I’ve never…”
“You’ve never bottomed?”
“Do furtive handjobs at camp count?”
“No,” Travis pulled back to look Nolan in the eye. “Patty,” he said softly, pulling him close for a kiss. “We’ll go slow,” Travis said, kissing down Nolan’s neck and sliding his hands down Nolan’s chest.
“You don’t mind?” Nolan said, tilting his head back so Travis could bite the soft skin at the base of his neck.
“God, no,” Travis said, pulling at the neckline of Nolan’s t-shirt to kiss over his collarbones. He looked up at Nolan and licked his lips, his expression dark in a way that made Nolan’s stomach turn to liquid heat. “Although I’m sort of fucked up that you’re just for me.”
Nolan’s breath caught and he pushed Travis back on the bed, rolling onto him to kiss him hard. Travis’s hands slid under the hem of Nolan’s shirt, ghosting up Nolan’s sides. Nolan sat up to pull the shirt over his head and drop it on the floor next to the bed.
“Patty,” Travis whispered, tracing his fingers over the scars on Nolan’s abdomen, “you’re gorgeous.” Nolan looked down at Travis, watching Travis’s fingers follow the scar around his side to his back, and leaned back down to kiss him.
“Hey, we’re back from New York!” Oskar said, barging into the room with Ivan. Oskar spotted Nolan and Travis and his eyes went wide. “Oh god, I’m so sorry! Ivan, go, go!” He pushed Ivan out of the room and quickly shut the behind them.
“Finally!” Ivan yelled through the closed door and then they retreated down the hall.
Nolan buried his face in Travis’s neck and rolled over next to him. “Guess everyone knew but us, huh?”
“Everyone but you,” Travis teased, brushing Nolan’s hair away from his face.
“Trav,” Nolan moaned later that night, “you make me…” He trailed off into a gasp at the feel of Travis’s mouth on his thighs. Nolan reached for Travis’s hand, tight on his hip.
Travis lifted his head, his eyes bright in the darkness of the room. “I make you what?” He smiled, devilish, and leaned down, keeping his eyes on the way Nolan was falling apart under his tongue.
“You,” Nolan gasped.
Travis hummed around him, squeezing Nolan’s hand tighter and feeling Nolan arch up under him, slow and soft, breath ragged in the quiet room.
“Don’t stop,” Nolan whispered, “need you.” He squeezed his eyes shut, overwhelmed with the feeling of Travis’s mouth and his hair tickling Nolan’s stomach, Travis’s hand trailing down to touch between his legs, just grazing against the soft skin. His thighs were shaking and he was losing track of the movement of Travis’s tongue all around him. He was breathing harder and harder and then he was coming, Travis held close to him, hands pressed together.
Nolan had watched Travis during practice, shirtless and wearing running shorts low on his hips, and had felt an urge to touch him, to explore the feel of his skin soft to his touch. But with Travis naked in his bed in the morning, Nolan felt something else wake inside him, something that couldn't be satisfied no matter how many times Travis held him close and let him rut against Travis’s flat stomach, no matter how many times Nolan came in Travis’s hand while Travis talked dirty in his ear. Nolan needed more, to consume Travis and be consumed by him, to feel Travis inside him.
After their next meet, a successful one at which Nolan took third in the 10,000 meters and Travis took second in the steeple despite almost wiping out in the water jump, the team headed to a party at G’s. Nolan and Travis stopped by Nolan’s apartment to shower and change first, but got waylaid when Nolan groped Travis’s ass on the way up the stairs to his room and used his big body to crowd Travis into the bathroom. Travis laughed, his wiry body pressed up against Nolan in the small shower stall, and kissed him under the water. “We’re supposed to go to the party.”
"We can be late,” Nolan said, taking Travis’s length in his hand. “There’s something I want to do first.” Nolan sank to his knees in front of Travis and looked up at him, his eyelashes wet under the water, and leaned forward to touch his tongue to Travis.
Travis held onto Nolan’s shoulder and let his head fall back. Nolan took him deeper into his mouth, using his tongue around the head on the upstroke like Travis showed him, and letting Travis hit the back of his throat on the downstroke. “God, you’re so good at this,” Travis whispered, looking down at Nolan and letting his hips move in time with Nolan’s hand, his mouth. “I can’t believe you.”
Nolan swallowed Travis down, the taste of him in his mouth when they wrapped each other in towels and kissed down the hall to Nolan’s room. “Now we’re really going to be late,” Nolan said into Travis’s neck.
“We can be late,” Travis whispered, moving Nolan toward the bed and pulling off his towel. He crawled up Nolan’s body, biting gently as he went, drawing hisses from Nolan, who moved underneath him, trying to find some friction against Travis’s damp skin. Travis sucked a mark into Nolan’s neck and asked, quietly, “Do you think you can take my fingers?”
Nolan gasped, pulling Travis down on him and finding his mouth, kissing him, deep and filthy. He reached out to the bedside table and fumbled in the top drawer for the small bottle of lube that he had bought earlier that week, eager for this moment.
Travis looked over at the lube in Nolan’s hand and laughed, biting his lip. “I guess that’s a yes,” Travis said, taking it from Nolan and sliding down Nolan’s body. Nolan’s legs fell apart and Travis settled between them, kissing around the base of Nolan’s cock and touching lower between his legs gently with one hand. “You’ll tell me if it’s too much?” he said, licking up Nolan’s cock and lapping at the slit. Nolan nodded, already breathless and desperately hard for Travis.
Travis kept his mouth on Nolan’s cock and let his fingers trace around Nolan’s rim. Nolan squirmed, legs opening wider. Travis slid down to look at him close and pressed the pad of his finger against the opening. “You’re so beautiful for me,” Travis marveled, reaching out to touch his tongue to the rim, tentatively, and Nolan gasped and put his hands over his face.
“Why does that feel so good,” Nolan moaned, “fuck Trav.”
“Do you want more?” Travis asked, turning his head to nip at Nolan’s thigh.
Nolan bit his lip and nodded, gasping again when Travis pressed the flat of his tongue against him and licked up to the base of his cock and down again, pressing against the opening with this tongue. The way Travis’s mouth was making Nolan wet made him feel filthy and desperate for Travis inside him.
Nolan heard Travis open the bottle and felt Travis’s mouth replaced by a finger, slick with lube, that Travis slowly slid inside Nolan. “Oh my god, look at you,” Travis whispered, pushing further into Nolan when he moaned Travis’s name. “I know I’m supposed to be going slow, but you look so fucking good.”
“Then give me more,” Nolan said, his face hot and his hands fisted in the sheets. “I want it.”
“Fuck,” Travis sighed and slid another finger in. He licked around his fingers, and Nolan felt himself relax around Travis, embarrassed at the sounds he was making when Travis moved his fingers in and out. Nolan looked down to see Travis take his cock back in his mouth and he let his head fall back on the pillow, closing his eyes to lose himself in the sensation. Just Travis’s mouth was enough to send him over the edge but now there was this heat, this delicious pressure building with Travis’s fingers buried deep inside him, and Nolan couldn’t stay still. He fucked himself down on Travis’s fingers and twisted his fingers in Travis’s hair, gasping out Travis’s name as he started to come and didn’t stop, kept coming, getting higher with every stroke of Travis’s tongue and his fingers inside him.
They arrived at G’s party, quite late, unable to hide what they had been doing. It showed on Nolan’s face - he knew he looked fucked out and relaxed - and on Travis’s, they way he bit his lip and blushed every time he looked at Nolan. They couldn’t stop touching each other, dancing close in the basement and kissing up against the cinder block wall, slow and knowing, blissed out but still wanting each other, never getting enough.
The last week of May, the last meet of the year, Nolan broke through. He had been feeling lighter during practice, finally surging to the front of the pack when they ran through town, and successfully challenging G to sprints at the end of the run. He stepped onto the track for the 10,000 meter race at the Centennial Conference meet feeling more confident than he had all year. He spotted Travis on the sideline looking nervous and then looked to see Kurtis from F&M glowering at him from down the start line. Nolan smiled and looked ahead to the track, all that space that he was ready to conquer.
The gun went off and Nolan pulled to the front of the pack, taking the inside lane with a decisive surge and settling in there for the next 24 laps. He pushed the pace when he felt movement behind him but he held the pack off, seamlessly accelerating to stretch out the space between himself and those trailing him. At the bell, Nolan smiled again, his head held high and his shoulders back. He was in the zone where his legs churned without effort and his mind was quiet, running in its purest form, like he hadn’t felt in over a year.
Nolan crossed the finish line and threw up his hands, turning to see Kurtis and the rest of the runners stumble across the finish line, dazed and gasping for breath. He could see his time on the scoreboard - 30:59, a new meet record. He jogged along the sideline, high-fiving Coach V and his teammates as he went, and stopped in front of Travis.
“Fucking beautiful,” Travis yelled when Nolan hugged him. Nolan laughed, swaying in Travis’s arms as Travis whispered in his ear, “You beauty, I love you.”
When the team teased Nolan and Travis about disappearing partway through the season-ending party, they simply smiled at each other. Nolan wouldn’t tell anyone about that night because it was special, just for them. He’d hold the memory of that night - the way Travis looked in the candlelight in his room, Galapagos by the Smashing Pumpkins playing softly on the stereo - close to his heart. In his most private moments, he’d think about how he and Travis had been together so many times over the years that followed, but that time was the best and nothing - not that drunken night on the Cape on New Year’s Eve 1999 when Nolan came four times or even their wedding night - could top the first time. He’d never forget the feeling of coming together with Travis, legs wrapped around his waist and hands intertwined, finally knowing what it was like to be complete with another person. He’d never tell anyone the way that Travis cried after or how Nolan watched him after he fell asleep, whispering that he had loved Travis since the first time they ran together, that they’d always be together.
Nolan and Travis stood on the library steps with their arms around each other, Travis’s hand tucked in the back pocket of Nolan’s jeans. They were surrounded by their friends. They looked out over the crowd seated on the lawn in front of the administration building and the graduates on the stage in their regalia. They were quiet until G’s name was called - “Claude Dari Giroux” - and then they joined in the roar that accompanied G’s strut across the stage to accept his diploma.
“I can’t believe G’s graduating,” Travis said sadly.
"It only took him six years,” Sean snorted.
"G's been here for six years?" Nolan asked, incredulous.
Travis turned to look at him. "You didn't notice that he's like 25?”
"I thought he was just really good at growing a beard,” Nolan laughed.
“At least he has us to carry on the tradition in the house, right guys?” Travis said to their friends around them. “You still want to live with me there?” Travis asked Nolan, looking a little shy all of a sudden, which Nolan thought was funny after what Travis had let him do to him that morning in the shower.
“Of course,” Nolan said, leaning down to kiss Travis. He pulled back and touched Travis’s upturned face. “I’m not going anywhere.”
New York, 2010
“Trav?” Nolan yelled from the bedroom where he was laying out his alumni singlet and his gear for tomorrow. “Have you seen my iPod?”
Travis appeared in the doorway. “This iPod?”
“Yes, thank you.” Nolan took it and put it in the pile.
Travis came up behind him and put his arms around Nolan’s waist. “I made you a playlist for the race tomorrow.”
“Trav,” Nolan turned to look at Travis fondly, “you didn’t have to.”
“I know,” Travis shrugged. “But it’s exactly three hours of music so that’ll take you right to the finish when you qualify for Boston.”
“If I qualify,” Nolan said quickly.
“When you qualify, I will be at the finish line with Maddie to see you do it.”
“If I qualify for Boston, you have to run a marathon with me next fall.”
“Deal,” Travis said, kissing Nolan sweetly on the lips. “Now go to bed, big day tomorrow.”
Nolan took Travis’s hands and pulled him toward the bed. “Come to bed with me?” Nolan kissed Travis’s neck and slid his fingers under the hem of Travis’s shirt.
“Well, if it will help you sleep,” Travis smiled and let Nolan pull him down on top of him on their bed.