If one more person asked Nick what had happened to his leg, he was going to punch something.
“I sprained my ankle falling off a ladder,” he said to a guy he’d had physics with ten years ago.
“Sorry?” The guy leaned forward and cupped his ear. The loud music was getting on Nick’s nerves almost as much as the questions about his leg and his cane and his life in general.
“I sprained my ankle,” Nick shouted.
“Oh! Sorry to hear that.”
At least he seemed to believe it. Nick had come up with the sprained-ankle thing on the fly. It hadn’t occurred to him that people would want to know why he walked with a cane. In hindsight, it seemed kind of obvious that they would ask. They were all here to check one another out.
Someone else joined them. Nick remembered her name, which eased some of the awkwardness, but she seemed more interested in physics guy. Nick took the opportunity to scan the ballroom.
Familiar faces surrounded him, but not the one he was looking for. Nick hadn’t realized how weird this would be. He’d left Chicago immediately after graduation, and since he’d gotten back, he hadn’t seen anyone. A lot of people seemed to remember Nick, which didn’t surprise him. But they didn’t know him. They knew the person he’d been ten years ago—a person who would have told the fib about his leg and never thought twice. Nick knew he’d changed, but it was strange to see his classmates realize it for themselves, one after another.
His leg twinged, and Nick leaned more on his cane. It was going to be an uncomfortable night, physically—the only chairs were by the wall, and Nick wasn’t in enough pain to sit there by himself—and psychologically. He wished he could have come to Chicago for a simple vacation. Nick imagined going to a bar, meeting a cute guy who’d buy him a drink or vice versa, and then at the end of the night taking the man back to his hotel room. Uncomplicated, anonymous, easy.
Nick’s knee throbbed again. Like I could pick up a guy in a bar anyway.
He was here for a reason, he reminded himself. It wasn’t anonymous or easy, but it had to be done.
Some guys Nick had played lacrosse with joined the group. They seemed to accept the sprained-ankle story too. Nick fed them easy questions about wives and kids to keep the attention off himself. He relaxed a little.
Then trouble showed up.
“Nick!” Vivian Maddox, obviously tipsy, teetered over to his group on the arm of a handsome dark-haired man Nick didn’t recognize.
He did a double take. No, he did
recognize him. Jamie Blackburn. Nick’s heart started thumping at once, as if the sight of Jamie had thrown a switch. Just as quickly, guilt rushed through him. He’d wanted to be the one to find Jamie and approach him, not the other way around. But hell, would Nick even have been able to pick him out of a crowd?
Vivian shouted, “Nick Leblanc! Oh my God! What happened to your leg?”
“I…” His mind went blank. Vivian was looking at him, and so was Beth Starley and a big bald guy whose arm she’d latched on to. Most importantly, Jamie was watching him.
Then the words gushed out. “I broke my ankle. How are you?” Nick ignored Beth and the bald guy for a moment and directed his attention to Vivian’s companion. His mouth felt lined with cotton, but he managed to say, “Hi, Jamie.”
“Oh! So you did recognize me.” He turned to Vivian. “That means you
have to take a drink.”
Vivian groaned and protested and then realized her cup was empty. She left to find a fresh drink, and Nick glanced around to see that the others had dispersed as well. All of a sudden he was alone with Jamie Blackburn.
This is why you’re here, he reminded himself. But his heart was still beating fast, and he could feel his palm sweating against the head of his cane. Do it. Tell him.
They probably had only a few minutes before Vivian returned or someone else interrupted, and this was going to be difficult enough without an audience.
Before Nick could get his mouth to work, Jamie spoke. “You didn’t recognize me at first.” He smiled and swirled the dregs of his own drink. “I saw you look twice.”
Nick didn’t know what to say except what everybody kept saying. “You look great.”
In Jamie’s case great
might not be enough, Nick thought. Phenomenal,
maybe. The skinny, cringing teenager Nick remembered had turned into a smiling, sexy man. Jamie was part Chinese, which in school had only made him stand out in a way Jamie obviously hadn’t enjoyed; his very existence had made him self-conscious. But he looked utterly confident now. He even stood differently, like he was posing to show off the suit he was wearing. Though Jamie had been one of the smallest boys in their class at graduation, he was nearly Nick’s height now.
But he must have always had those lovely eyes, Nick thought—huge and brown and soft. And he must always have had such kissable lips. Why hadn’t Nick noticed? He caught himself scanning Jamie’s body as far as his narrow hips in well-fitting black pants—well-fitting enough to show off the shape and weight of his package.
Forcing his gaze upward, Nick found Jamie watching him thoughtfully. Nick wondered if he’d just gotten caught checking out his classmate’s junk. That was not why he was here.
“You look pretty good yourself,” Jamie said.
Nick hadn’t expected that. He wondered confusedly whether Jamie knew he was gay. It seemed unlikely. While he was still puzzling that out, Jamie went on. “It’s too bad you’re such an asshole.”
The bottom dropped out of Nick’s stomach. He wished he’d misheard, but he knew he hadn’t. Jamie spoke clearly over the music. His expression and his tone of voice were buoyant, as if he were telling Nick about a recent vacation.
“I wouldn’t be saying this except I’ve had one of these”—Jamie rattled the ice in his plastic cup—“but what the hell. A lot of people made fun of me, but you outed me. I haven’t forgotten.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes, which were proud and triumphant and oddly empty. “I was sort of hoping I’d show up here and find out you were, I don’t know, ugly and fat and had been divorced seven times. Are you divorced?”
Nick managed to shake his head, but Jamie didn’t give him time to speak.
“Too bad,” Jamie said. “Well.” He lifted his cup. Nick was sure Jamie was about to douse him with its contents. He braced himself. “You’re a jerk. That’s all I wanted to say.”
Jamie began to turn. Beyond his shoulder, Nick saw Beth and the bald guy. Jamie would join them again and Nick would lose his only opportunity. He had to do something.
“I know,” he blurted.
Jamie stopped and looked back. “What?”
Those eyes were killer. When they focused on Nick, he had a hard time remembering what he’d been talking about. “I know,” he said. “I’m an asshole.”
Jamie stared at him. Nick squeezed the head of his cane—for courage or to keep himself propped up, he wasn’t sure. This was much harder than he’d thought it would be, but he took a breath to go on and say the rest.
Then a woman’s voice yelled, “Okay, I’m back!” Vivian appeared at Jamie’s side with a new drink and a big smile. “You two get all caught up?”
To Nick’s dismay, Beth and the bald guy were a step behind Vivian. Even worse, the bald guy extracted himself from Beth’s grip, moved to Jamie’s other side, and put a possessive hand on Jamie’s tiny, perfect waist. The bald guy gave Nick a frowning once-over. He obviously didn’t like what he saw.
Nick didn’t give a shit. He just wanted the others to go away again.
Neither Nick nor Jamie had answered Vivian’s question. Vivian looked between them. “What happened? Uh-oh, are you guys not playing nice?”
“Sure we are.” Jamie recovered, smiling again. “Just catching up.”
His eyes met Nick’s briefly. Nick read confusion and something like worry.
“So who is this?” the bald guy asked, sounding bored.
“Nick Leblanc. This is Bruce.” Jamie hesitated. “My…date.”
He didn’t sound happy about it, and Nick’s heart lifted slightly. He repeated the word asshole to himself until the feeling went away. Jamie wasn’t available as far as Nick was concerned.
“So where’d you end up, Nick?” Vivian asked.
“I, um…I’m north of the city now.”
“I thought you’d show up here in a leather jacket and, I dunno”—Vivian gestured with her drink—“on a motorcycle or something. He was the rebel,” she added to Bruce.
Bruce lifted a skeptical eyebrow. “Really?”
She turned to Jamie. “I guess he cleans up pretty nice, huh?”
Nick braced himself for a retort. Jamie just said, “Not too bad.” He sipped his drink, glancing around the room. Nick was afraid Jamie and his date would drift away.
Vivian went on, “Remember how he broke poor Mr. Tanner’s heart when he decided not to go to MIT? All those fancy scholarships. Nick was a rebel and
a math whiz.”
He kind of wished she’d stop narrating his life to Bruce, especially since Bruce responded by lifting the other eyebrow. “Math whiz?”
“MIT offered him a full ride.” Vivian didn’t do a good job of hiding her bitterness. Nick had almost forgotten that she’d been in Mr. Tanner’s advanced calculus class too, one of six other students besides Nick. She might have been a spoiled rich girl, but the whole dippy blonde thing was an act; when it came to math, she’d been a ruthless competitor.
Bruce still looked skeptical. “Hard to tell that
too,” he muttered.
Nick guessed he hadn’t shown off any kind of intelligence by stammering over Jamie. “I don’t do math anymore,” he said. It wasn’t clear that anyone heard him.
“No, really,” Jamie said to Bruce. “‘Most gifted mathematician the school has ever seen.’ Wasn’t that the line at graduation?”
“Oh God, it was.” Vivian’s smile looked forced. “I’ve been waiting to hear your name come up for a TED talk or something. So you turned down MIT, but where did you end up?”
Nick’s mouth was dry. He was beginning to regret turning down a drink. “I didn’t go to college,” he said. There seemed like a good chance she’d give him the but you’re so smart
line, which would make Nick want to punch something almost as much as a conversation about his leg. To head it off, he continued, “I messed around for a few years, fixing cars and stuff. Then I joined the army.”
No one said anything. Jamie and Beth both looked too surprised to speak. Vivian’s face took on a look of thinly veiled glee. “Are you serious?” she asked.
Nick dragged his eyes back to Jamie, who was still watching him with that funny expression—a little worried, almost nervous. Nick wished again that they were alone.
“I guess that explains what straightened you out,” Beth piped up.
“I guess,” Nick said uncomfortably.
Vivian and Jamie exchanged a look. “The army
!” Vivian repeated, and she giggled. Jamie answered with a sly little smile that told Nick nothing.
“What do you do?” Nick asked Jamie.
“Oh, I’m a lawyer,” Jamie said breezily. “What are you doing now, post-army?”
Nick realized he wasn’t getting away from this conversation until the three of them—Bruce for some reason looked just as viciously fascinated with Nick’s wretched life as Vivian did—had picked him clean. “I work for my dad,” he answered.
His voice had dropped under the volume of the music. “I work for my dad. It’s a fishing store.” Nick told himself it was nothing to be ashamed of. An honest living. “I do whatever he needs.”
“You work in a fishing store?” Vivian crowed.
She was delighted. Nick didn’t have it in him to resent her for it. Vivian had always been competitive. Some people probably showed up at this kind of event just to see how low others had fallen. That must make Nick the night’s main attraction.
Nick ignored her. He looked to Jamie, expecting him to be as smug as Vivian and as condescending as Bruce, but his expression was thoughtful. Jamie asked, “So what really happened to your ankle?”
“What?” Nick tensed.
“It’s not in a cast,” Jamie said. Nick stared at him blankly until he added, “You said you broke it.”
Nick hadn’t even realized he’d messed up his cover story. He couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
Vivian looked down at Nick’s feet. “Oh, good point.” Then she too returned her attention to Nick’s face, awaiting an answer. Bruce looked skeptical and amused all at once.
Nick tried to imagine shouting the explanation over the booming music. He felt exhausted. He was holding himself up with a cane and willpower, and his willpower was gone. He couldn’t force himself to keep doing this for another second.
“Will you excuse me?” he said. “I see someone over there I need to say hi to.”
Before anyone could respond, he turned and limped away. He didn’t pretend to seek out his imaginary friend but cut a straight path to the ballroom doors.
It was five degrees cooler in the hall. Nick took his first deep breath in several minutes. For want of a better idea, he limped down the hall to the men’s room. It was deserted.
He leaned the cane against the counter and waved his hands under the automatic faucet. He leaned over to splash the cool water on his flushed cheeks. As soon as he closed his eyes, he saw Jamie’s face looking doubtful and maybe a little pitying and unbearably handsome.
What a nightmare.
The third degree he’d gotten had almost made him forget what Jamie had said, but now it came rushing back. All of it was true. None of it was more than he had coming. But it was still a shock to hear Jamie say it.
Nick looked in the mirror. I outed him. No wonder he hates me.
In their freshman year, Jamie had confessed that he had a huge crush on Nick. It had been brave, Nick realized later; it had also been pretty stupid. Nick had only a faint inkling that he was gay himself, and he would have been way too scared to admit it to anyone.
Not knowing what to do, Nick had told Jamie’s secret to his friends. Pretty soon, the whole school knew.
It would have been bad enough if that was all, but the other guys in Nick’s class had decided that Nick must be gay if Jamie liked him. Nick was far from prepared to expose himself to the kind of treatment that he’d just unleashed on Jamie. To prove how straight he was, Nick had spent the next few years joining in when people played pranks on Jamie or called him names or vandalized his locker.
He’d been an idiot. He was every bit as queer as Jamie, but he’d been a lot slower to figure it out, much less accept it. It was while Nick was in the army—and obliged to suppress his sexuality—that he’d begun to realize how miserable he’d made Jamie and how little Jamie had done to deserve it. At that point, the shame Nick had felt since graduation had turned from a slow, cold trickle into a raging torrent. Thinking about who he’d been in high school made him feel sick.
When the reunion popped up, Nick had recognized his chance to do something about it. But now he wasn’t sure there’d been any hope in the first place. He’d changed too much, and so had Jamie.
Nick blotted his face dry with a paper towel and gazed in the mirror. He asked himself if he had it in him to go back into the ballroom or if there was any point.
The bathroom door opened. Nick straightened and grabbed the paper towel off the counter. Automatically his right hand went for the cane. He saw the newcomer out of the corner of his eye, and his stomach flipped. He fumbled the head of his cane and almost knocked it over instead.
“I guess that was the wrong question to ask,” Jamie said.
Nick faced him. Though his heart slammed in his chest, he told himself that this was the best possible outcome. He’d wanted to get Jamie alone, and they were alone. “It’s okay,” he said.
“It’s really not.” Jamie leaned back against the door and said in a rush, “I’ve been hanging around people like Bruce and Vivian too long. Rude people. You have no idea how rude people can be in LA. It makes Chicago look like paradise. I’m so glad to be back here.” Jamie had to pause for breath, and then he said more slowly, “I’m sorry. This time I was the asshole.”
Nick shook his head. “I’m the one who needs to apologize. It’s the whole reason I’m here.”
“Here, like, at the reunion?” Jamie asked. When Nick nodded, Jamie’s eyes widened. “You came here to apologize? To who?”
Jamie leaned back against the door as if Nick had blown him over. “Are you serious?”
Just get it over with.
“I was jerky to a couple of other kids, but mostly you,” Nick said. “I know I can’t make it all go away with words, but there’s nothing else I can do.”
“Oh my God,” Jamie said. “You are
He’d built up too much momentum to stop now. “Everything you said was true. I was a dumb kid who didn’t understand anything that was happening, and I treated you horribly. If it makes a difference, I’m gay too.”
Jamie’s mouth opened. For a moment he didn’t seem to know what to say. “Textbook. The guy who called me a fag is a fag.”
“Yep.” Nick tossed his paper towel in the trash and faced Jamie. As best he could, he stood at attention and didn’t let himself flinch at Jamie’s shocked expression.
“I don’t need you to forgive me,” Nick said. “I wouldn’t expect you to. But I’m sorry, Jamie. I was a homophobe and a bully. I was wrong.”
Jamie stared at him. Nick didn’t need him to accept the apology, but if Jamie acknowledged what Nick had said, it would go a long way to relieving Nick of his burden. He thought how obnoxious it would be for some drunk bros from the party to barge into the restroom right now. Or worse, for Bruce to walk in.
When Jamie spoke, he sounded hesitant, a little more like the Jamie Nick had known in school. “I—look, I don’t think you’re a homophobe. Or, well, I guess you could be. I don’t know.” Jamie frowned at him. “I don’t know what
to think about this. You really came here to say that? That whole apology thing?”
“Yes.” And now that it was done, he felt like he’d run a marathon. He needed to sit down, and he needed to clear his head. Looking into Jamie’s eyes wasn’t making it any clearer.
Nick took a step forward, waiting for Jamie to move out of the way so that he could go. Maybe in the morning he’d know whether he’d accomplished what he wanted to do.
“Let me buy you a drink,” Jamie said.
“Not at the party.” Jamie sounded like he expected Nick to refuse. He touched Nick’s arm as if to keep him from walking away. “This place probably has a pretty swanky bar.”
“Probably.” He was distracted by the fact that Jamie was touching him. Nick was certain they’d never touched in their lives. For the second time that night, he asked himself if Jamie was coming on to him.
“What about that guy you were with?” Nick asked.
Jamie wrinkled his nose. “He was rude to you. And you should have heard what he said after you left.” Perhaps seeing Nick’s incredulous look, Jamie added, “I know I called you an asshole, but, I mean, Bruce doesn’t even know you.” He made another face. “That didn’t come out right.”
“It’s fine.” No, he definitely wasn’t coming on to me.
“You’ve got me all mixed up.” Jamie bit his lip and looked at the floor. “Bruce will be fine at the reunion. These are his people. They’re all assholes.” He glanced up at Nick and looked away swiftly. In a soft voice, he added, “You’re the only one who apologized.”
Nick believed that.
“It’s just a drink,” Jamie said. “I’d like to talk to you.”
Nick didn’t answer at once. He didn’t seem to be able to think clearly, standing this close to Jamie.
Then again, what was there to think about? A handsome man wanted to buy him a drink. That was all he’d wanted tonight anyway.
“Sure,” Nick said, and Jamie smiled in obvious relief.