Dan drove down Victoria Terrace, scowling at the row of boring, ticky-tacky houses. How did the rest of that old song go? And they all looked just the same
. But at least the houses in the lyrics were different colors—these were blank and beige. Their garages took up far too much of the facades for elegance, as if the designers had put more thought into sheltering automobiles than the humans who owned them. Dan had lived in this development for almost two months, and if he hadn’t rented a place on a corner lot, he would have had to check the house numbers to see which one was his.
He turned onto the ludicrously named Prince Albert Circle. That had
to be a joke on the part of some developer or street planner. It was a circle, more or less, but there was nothing princely about the street or the seven identical buildings that huddled around its borders. It was very late in November. The sparse, scrawny trees were bare of leaves, and the grass had gone dormant. He’d come home early because it was the day before Thanksgiving, but the weak afternoon sun filtering through a few clouds did little to brighten the scene. The entire block was so colorless it could have been a sepia-toned photo.
Except for a second-floor window on the unit directly across from his. A rainbow flag hung there, its cheerful colors shouting a welcome reminder that the entire world was not beige and brown.
Another flash of color near the same building distracted Dan. It was the bright blue of a sweatshirt. Someone was standing on the porch. Dan slowed his car to a crawl. Maybe it wasn’t him
. It could be the older man who lived next door. Condos 307A and 307B were attached, their front entrances side by side. They shared the small porch.
No, it was
that guy. The tall one who had moved in last week. The one with the broad shoulders and the rainbow flag in his window. He was bending over to pick something up, and—whoa!—he would henceforth be labeled as the guy with the sweet ass, broad shoulders, and rainbow flag.
The triply attractive neighbor straightened, looked around, and stared straight into Dan’s eyes.
Well, maybe not straight
into his eyes, because Dan was not getting a heterosexual vibe from the expression on that pleasant face. He realized he’d been caught staring, tapped the gas pedal, and turned in to the driveway of 301A.
He parked his car in the garage, but instead of using the door that led into the kitchen, he walked around the front of the building to check his mail. There was no package, and no note mixed in with the flyers and bills saying a parcel was being held for him at the post office. With a grunt of disappointment, he went inside, then tossed the mail on the kitchen counter.
Dan usually liked returning to his place after a busy workday, but tonight, all he saw was its deficiencies. He’d needed to find somewhere to live quickly when he’d been offered a job in this sterile area of a small Midwestern city. The condos were recent construction, but so poorly built that few people had been willing to buy them. The developers had been forced to turn the majority into rental units.
He noted the crack at the upper corner of the doorway between the kitchen and living room had widened and now nearly reached the ceiling. The landlord had assured him it was only a sign of the building settling, just as he promised the shuddering in the bathroom water pipes did not herald catastrophic flooding.
Dan doubted both, but the flaws bothered him mostly because they were reminders that he had no sense of belonging here. Like the building, he hadn’t finished settling in his new location. He hoped he’d eventually settle in more gracefully than the condo.
An off-key clang caught his attention. Even the doorbell didn’t work properly. He hurried to open the front door.
The owner of the rainbow flag stood there. He wore the blue sweatshirt Dan had noted earlier, old jeans, and ancient sneakers. His hair was a pleasant sandy shade, but he needed a haircut. He was younger than Dan had realized, and his smile revealed a crooked tooth. Somehow all this struck Dan as charming, and he smiled back.
“Are you Daniel Sobol? This was on my porch, and I wondered if it belonged to you.” His voice was a smooth baritone.
Dan looked at the label on the brown box almost entirely covered with packing tape. To him, the address looked like 301A Prince Albert Circle. But he could see how the house number could be mistaken for 307A. He laughed, suddenly feeling warm in spite of the chill air gusting into the hallway. “Yes, that’s my grandmother’s writing. She learned her numbers in Europe, old-style. Everyone says her ones look like sevens.” He held open the door. “Come on in. And let me take that.” He reached out for the box, then led the way to the living room. He set the package on the coffee table.
The man followed him in, looking around. He stood with his hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched a little, appearing not quite at his ease, but not uncomfortable either. His gaze assessed the room, then returned to Dan. He smiled. Maybe he liked what he saw?
“I was hoping to get this in time for the holiday.” Dan took his penknife out of his pocket, then opened the box.
The guy stepped forward, peering curiously at the contents. “Thanksgiving?”
“No.” Dan slipped off the blue-and-white cloth protecting one of the objects in the box. “When I told my grandmother I couldn’t find a menorah here, she sent this.” She’d remembered which one he’d liked best as a kid too. It looked like a row of people dancing, candles held in their upraised hands. The sight of it brought back memories. He could almost hear his sister complaining about her bad luck spinning a dreidel, and smell the latkes and brisket his father and grandmother always made on the eighth night. He could imagine his younger self, so excited when it was his turn to light a menorah, not least because it was the only time he was allowed near even a tiny open flame.
“Menorah?” The big guy was blinking at it. “I thought those were for Hanukkah. Is that how you say it?”
“Yes.” Close enough. Dan wasn’t about to repeat Uncle Aaron’s lectures on the proper pronunciation. Of course, Uncle Aaron would have also insisted on calling the menorah a chanukkiyah
. Dan could see his mother rolling her eyes as her brother lectured, and was surprised to find he missed even that staple of family gatherings.
“I thought that was on Christmas.”
Dan looked up at his neighbor. “It usually starts in December, and can be around Christmastime. But it’s early this year. This is the first night.” There were other goodies in the box—a dreidel, some chocolate coins, and a tin of cookies. He cracked the lid and grinned. Sugar cookies in the shape of the Star of David—excuse me, Uncle Aaron, Magen David
“First? How many nights are there?”
Either this guy was really bored, or he was looking for an excuse to talk to Dan. Which was fine, because Dan had wanted an excuse to talk to him from the day he’d moved in. “Eight, so the holiday will run into December. You light candles each night, starting with one and ending with eight.” Dan set down a box of candles. “If you’d like to stay for a glass of wine and some of these cookies, I’ll show you.”
“You’ll show me your candle?” That was a definite double entendre. The pale blue eyes lit with humor as the man shifted on his feet, his body language communicating assurance. His voice deepened as he added, “Sure, I’d love to see it.”
“It’s a deal.” Several parts of Dan’s body warred with one another. His head warned him he’d probably just promised more than he should to a total stranger. His throat wanted to close with anxiety. And his cock was doing its own thing. He hoped the way he was holding the cookie tin hid its enthusiasm.
He turned toward the kitchen, breathing deeply. When he was sure his voice wouldn’t rise a telltale octave, he said, “My name’s Dan, by the way.” Oops. The guy knew that. His name had been on the box.
But either his neighbor hadn’t paid attention to anything but the house number, or he was still thinking about metaphorical candles. “Good to meet you. I’m Christian Parsons. Call me Chris.”
No wonder the guy didn’t know anything about Hanukkah. Dan bit his lip to keep from saying anything, but Chris added with a chuckle, “I guess if you hadn’t already figured out I’m not Jewish, that would give it away.”
liked the way this guy smiled, using his eyes as well as his lips. “If you were, you’d be the first Jewish person I’ve met around here. It’s not like I’m observant. I don’t think I’d have felt the need to celebrate Hanukkah at all if there had been a menorah on display at the mall like back home. But I hated the idea of not being able to light one tonight.”
Chris nodded. “I get it. The first year I couldn’t go home for Christmas, I had to put up a tree. I never bothered before that.”
As Dan contemplated the sugar cookies he’d just set out on a plate, Chris added, “Holidays are like comfort food. Usually you want something more sophisticated, but there are times when you’d rather have mac and cheese or your mother’s meatloaf than a gourmet meal.”
Perhaps to prove to each other that they were semiresponsible adults, they agreed to have dinner before eating the cookies. Chris knew a place that turned out a decent pizza and suggested pepperoni. Dan side-eyed him for that, but Chris seemed unaware a Jewish guy might have issues with a food made with pork. Since Dan wasn’t nostalgic enough to worry about keeping kosher even on a holiday, he agreed. He even asked for extra cheese, because if he was going to break a dietary rule, he might as well go big. When the pizza arrived, they ate companionably, sitting on the couch and complaining about the deficiencies of the condos. Chris was new to town too. His company had transferred him, and a shortage of rental housing had landed him in this neighborhood, at least for the immediate future.
“And the street names are cringe-worthy.” Chris paused. “I snickered when I realized I was moving onto Prince Albert Circle. But a place on Agin Court might be better for morale. I’d feel inspired to win the Hundred Years’ War whenever I came home.”
“Ah, the residents of Agin Court. The few, the happy few—”
“—the band of brothers,” they finished together.
“More like unhappy few, if the residents’ meetings are any clue.” Dan glared at the doorway to the kitchen. He swore that crack grew every time he looked at it. “But do you think the developer asked someone for a bunch of posh English names, and a lit major with a sense of humor came up with these?”
Chris picked up another slice. “How else do you explain Mansfield Parkway and Court Darthur?”
After the pizza was gone, Dan placed the menorah in the front window, admiring the figures and their joyful parade.
Chris watched from the couch, sipping a glass of the red wine Dan had poured. “I thought menorahs were old-fashioned candelabra things. This one is…quirky.”
Dan laughed. “There are lots of designs. My cousin Tyler had one that looked like a baseball diamond, and my sister bought her husband one in the shape of a reindeer. You stick the candles in the antlers. It looks completely ridiculous, which I suppose is the point. His family is Christian, and she’s gotten into all kinds of crossover kitsch. She puts up what she calls a Hanukkah bush each year and decorates it with Stars of David.”
Chris leaned forward. “What’s the meaning behind the candles? Is it because winter is coming and the days are getting shorter?”
“No. At least I don’t think it has anything to do with that. It’s to commemorate the victory of the Maccabees.” Seeing Chris’s blank expression, Dan asked, “Did you ever see the Rugrats
Hanukkah show or one of the other kids’ holiday specials?”
“I wasn’t allowed to watch regular TV channels when I was little, only videos my parents had approved.” He must have the shock on Dan’s face, because he added, “They were okay with some Disney stuff. They just didn’t like things like Sesame Street
or Power Rangers
. My mom homeschooled me for a few years, so most of the kids I knew were from our church, and they didn’t get to see those shows either. I guess by the time I was old enough to watch what I wanted, I was too old for them.”
Reeling a little at the thought of a childhood without Nickelodeon
or Big Bird, Dan turned back to the window. “The holiday is based on a miracle that supposedly happened when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem.” He set the candles in the menorah. “Oil that should only have lasted one night, which wasn’t enough for the dedication ceremony, burned for eight days. So you start with one candle and add another each night until the last, when you have eight.”
“But there are nine slots, and you’ve set out two candles. What’s with the extra?”
“It’s the candle you use to light the others.” Dan backed up, then recited the Hebrew prayer his uncle had drilled into him two decades earlier.
“What’s that mean?” Dan had worried a guy named Christian might find the ceremony laughable or distastefully strange, but his guest seemed merely curious.
“Uh, blessed is the Lord of the universe, who lets us, uh, live to light these candles? Something like that. I hope. If I pronounced it correctly.” He struck the match, then held it to the shamash
. He hesitated. “Um, how old are you, Chris?”
Chris’s eyebrows rose. “Twenty-seven.”
Dan stepped back. “I’m twenty-eight. In my family, the youngest kid lights the candle the first night. Then the next oldest, and so on, going back to the youngest if you run out of kids.”
Chris stood, nothing in his expression indicating he found this odd. “And since we don’t have any kids…” He reached for the shamash, then looked over his shoulder. “Okay to do it just like this?”
“That’s fine.” Dan watched as the flame leaped from one wick to the other. He still wasn’t sure why this meant so much to him. Just a few months ago, he would have said being Jewish wasn’t a big part of his identity. It was an accident of birth, and the source of some of his family's favorite traditions. But after moving to a smaller city with a much smaller Jewish population, he’d felt different because of his background. That sense of alienation had evaporated, thanks to a stranger who’d listened, accepted, and was participating in one of those traditions.
“My grandmother taught me to put a menorah in the window. She says it lets the neighborhood know she’s proud to be Jewish.” He gazed out the window and across the street. “Kind of like your rainbow flag. It says, ‘This is who we are. Deal with it.’”
“Confession time. I put the flag up because I didn’t have any curtains and needed the privacy.” Chris laughed, and Dan enjoyed the sound. He liked men with voices deeper than his own light tenor.
“It still makes a statement.”
Chris stuffed his hands in his front pockets, looking uncomfortable for the first time since he’d arrived. “I was going to buy real curtains, but then a couple of the neighbors made remarks, so I couldn’t.”
Dan understood immediately. “Ah. Because they’d think you removed it because of their complaints. I get that. Bastards.”
“Oh, they didn’t say they wanted it down because it was a pride flag.” Chris rolled his eyes. “They said it was a bit too colorful
for the neighborhood.”
“The neighborhood is a bit too colorless for me, and the flag is the only thing I like seeing when I come home.” Dan’s glance was sly. “Unless its owner happens to be on his porch.”
Chris blushed. Dan decided he was moving too fast, so he stared at the candles. “I feel silly making such a fuss about Hanukkah. It’s not even a major holiday, you know. It’s more for kids than adults.”
“‘Childhood is not from birth to a certain age, and at that certain age the child is grown, and puts away childish things.’” Chris spoke dreamily, watching the flames, while Dan stared in surprise at his profile. “We need childhood, even once we’re grown. It’s ‘the kingdom where nobody dies.’ It’s where we’re safe.” He seemed to feel Dan’s gaze and turned, his fair skin flushing even more. “Um, that’s from a poem I just remembered.”
“It’s great.” Dan’s first impression of Chris had been he was a pleasant and sexy man, but not a complicated one. You expected guys who drove pickup trucks and looked like farmers to be simple and, if not straight, at least straightforward. But Chris had proved he could recognize a Shakespeare reference, and now he was quoting poetry. “‘The kingdom where nobody dies.’ We all need to hide there sometimes, don’t we, even when we know it’s an illusion? Otherwise life is just too hard.”
Chris surprised Dan again by taking a step forward, setting his big hand on the back of Dan’s neck, then tilting his head up for a kiss.
The sweetness of the wine and those sugar cookies overwhelmed him at first, and then faded into the taste of Chris himself, strong and male. Dan found himself backed against a wall, trapped by the bulk of the bigger man. Chris wasn’t much taller, but his shoulders were broader, and he had at least fifteen pounds of solid muscle on Dan. But Dan didn’t feel threatened. There was nothing coercive in the way Chris kissed him, nuzzled his neck, and ran gentle hands up and down his spine. Dan realized Chris deliberately left space between them, touching with his mouth and hands, but not crushing their bodies together. Those sweet, openmouthed kisses were a question, not a demand.