"I wonder if Jaime's feeling okay now."
Thomas had his head turned to the window as though he expected Jaime to walk past it in a couple of minutes. He and Daniel were in a café, empty cups on one side of the table and homework papers in the other. Doubtfully picking up his cup, he pulled on the straw and got nothing but wet specks in his mouth and a rasping sound.
"You're bored, aren't you?" Daniel commented. His words were a statement and he glanced out the window and then back at his notebook. "Do you want to go take a break for a bit?"
"No," Thomas sighed. "I'd want to come back here and then we'd have to buy something else to stay." After a pause he added, "And also, I'm not just asking about Jaime just because I'm bored."
"Right." Daniel's pen clicked shut as its owner pushed the cap down with his thumb. He looked down at the papers on the table and held down a loose sheet that was about to blow away. "How far are you with the project?" He put his pen down on the loose paper.
"Pretty far in. We're basically done." Thomas shrugged a little dissatisfiedly. "Technically we should practice the speaking part of the presentation, but it looks like we'll just be practicing that individually."
The brown haired boy folded a worksheet in half and put it inside his bag. "And you?"
"Getting along…. Speaking of getting along, how are you with Kate?"
Thomas shrugged. "We're friendly. More than that I don't know."
"You want to date her?"
"Of course! You call that a question?"
It was Daniel's turn to shrug. He felt like he was Jaime. "Seems like most of the boys at our school want to date a girl, not this girl."
"Well, I want to date Kate."
Thomas' voice could not be described as firm, but it was far from uncertain, far from being a whim. His words should have been a bit funny because of the rhyming at the end, but the way that Thomas had meant those words kept Daniel from grinning. But still he couldn't quite understand how Thomas could be so focused on Kate and Kate alone. Was it something about Kate or something about Thomas that made this possible?
He wanted to ask but wasn't sure how.
Then Daniel suddenly remembered something that he had once glanced by on an advice column. Some man had written to ask if he should leave his current girlfriend and try to get back together with his high school sweetheart who had suddenly shown up back in his life. The advice columnist had replied, firmly, that the 'sweetheart' had come back just to use him and that he wasn't really in love with her; he was in love with the feeling that he had gotten when he had been with her.
Both their cell-phones buzzed at the same time, notifying their respective owners of a new text. Thomas was faster and broke the news to Daniel before the other boy had even found his phone in the depths of his bag.
"Jaime's better and he's coming," he said, as his thumbs rapidly typed out a text reply. "I'm telling him that we're here."
Daniel nodded as he found his own phone and read the text that Jaime had sent both of them.
just got up. migraine's gone. where u at?
Jaime would be here within fifteen minutes at the earliest. Daniel felt a slight rush to ask his question to Thomas before the other boy got here. For reasons that he couldn't quite explain, but which had something to do with not wanting to be perceived as a sap by the sardonic rocker-haired boy, he didn't want Jaime to be around and know that he was curious about these types of emotionally-controlled situations.
"So, uh, about Kate. How… do you feel when you're with her?" he asked, glancing at Thomas and looking away and out the window inadvertently.
"It's nice, I suppose. Not like the world exploding or anything – we're not even dating yet, after all. I get sort of nervous cuz I don't know her all that well, but it's not a bad feeling." Thomas smiled, feeling a little embarrassed. "Why you ask?"
"Oh, it was just…" Daniel scratched the back of his head like he had seen the actors in the movies do when they didn't know exactly why they had done something.
"I once heard somewhere that some guys, when they think about someone they like," he said, "they want to sort of shrink them, pick them up, and put them on a shelf." Daniel mimed the picking-up with the crooked index finger and thumb of one hand and put an imaginary miniature of a person on his other hand which he had held out flat palm up. "Like one of those china doll ornament figurines, you know, to be nice to look at."
"I don't think of Kate that way!" exclaimed Thomas predictably. His face was lit up in shock. "Where'd you here that? Jaime?"
"No, not Jaime," Daniel quickly said, feeling somewhat like he was defending his friend from getting subtly insulted. "I don't know where I heard it. On TV or something, I think. So, anyways, that's not the way you feel, then?"
"I don't think anybody should feel that way about anyone," said Thomas emphatically, shaking his head as he spoke for added stress. "It's… not right."
"I didn't ask you if it was right – I was just saying," Daniel wanted to say, but didn't.
Thomas' last statement rather annoyed him, although he wasn't sure why. It wasn't like Thomas was forcing his beliefs on him or pressing him to think a certain way, but just the way that he had said it with his flat quiet voice sounded like he was stating an unchangeable fact, and that was irritating.
Daniel thought about how Jaime would react to the same china doll figurine scenario. Knowing Jaime, he would either say passionately, "I completely agree with that. That's absolutely true," or scoff "What a load of bull. I don't believe that," or just "Mhm. Okay." to show that he had heard but didn't particularly care, or some other answer that would just smack of whatever he felt in his tone as well as in his words. Jaime's responses could be infuriating, and quite often they were when Daniel found himself caring too much about what the other boy thought, but it was also blatantly clear that it was an opinion, however strong it was, and that was comforting.
"Well, I suppose it's objectifying, but I don't think it was meant jerkishly when I heard it," he appeased. "It was just sort of matter-of-fact."
"That's even worse," Thomas groaned, but his voice was weak.
The bell on the café door clanged and they both looked to the door expectantly, but it was simply a man whom they didn't know and they looked away, not quite disappointed but feeling more bored than they had before.
"You think Jaime would think of girls that way?" Daniel suddenly asked, a little disbelievingly. He was getting that slightly defensive feeling again. He didn't personally think that thinking of girls as figurines was a particularly disrespectful or demeaning way of thinking, but he knew that Thomas didn't think that way and he was anxious not to leave Jaime in a bad light.
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. But it sounds like the sort of thing that he might joke about."
Daniel shrugged and decided to drop the subject. If he wanted to know what Jaime thought, he could just ask Jaime himself. He picked up his empty cup in the same gesture that he had made with the imaginary figurine and slid himself down the bench so he could throw it away. Thomas similarly put away his papers to get ready to leave.
They were both standing outside the café, flanking the entrance with their bags on their shoulders, when Jaime arrived. He still looked worn from his migraine, but he was ruffling his still damp hair from his morning shower and he looked at least slightly fresher than he had the last night.
"Hey," he said, grinning.
The three walked off down the street to find a new place for them to stay.
Jaime didn't have that much homework left, so he was procrastinating more than ever now that he didn't need to work as hard. He was supporting his head with his hand, elbows on the table of the new coffee shop that the three had decided to use. He rubbed his chin.
"Aww, I forgot to shave," he fussed, his hand covering the bottom half of his face.
"It's not noticeable," Thomas said when Jaime had put his hand down. Daniel looked as well, curious but not wanting to seem so. It could have just been because of the yellow lightning of the coffee shop, but he couldn't tell if Jaime was showing one way or the other.
"How often do you shave?"
"Every few days. I actually don't have to shave that often, but my hair's so dark, it's pretty noticeable, so I just do. It's been two days or so. You really can't see it?" he asked, jutting out his chin. Thomas shook his head. Jaime put his hand up to his chin again. "I can feel it, though."
Then he put his hand down on the table and grinned.
"Have you seen the freshman boys at our school? I mean, I know that they only just started having to shave and it's new for them and all, but you'd think that they'd be a bit more diligent about it. They're practically growing mustaches." He grinned wider. "It's cute, in a way, how they're so oblivious, but you'd think that someone would at least tell them."
"Tell them to shave, you mean? Why don't you?"
Jaime shook his head, still smiling.
"Nah. I just see them skittle around in the hallways. But some of them look ridiculous!" he exclaimed, putting his hands palm up and laughing a little bit. "Like I said, I think it's sort of cute and I don't have the heart to tell them to change what they're doing, or rather, not doing."
"Well, you know, once you start shaving, it's like, for forever, so maybe the boys you saw were the ones who haven't started yet," put in Daniel reasonably. "I know I put it off for as long as I could. The freshmen may just be unconscious of how their faces are. For us it's more noticeable because we grow out thicker now that we've been shaving for a while."
"Yeah, for us it's sort of impossible not to notice after a little bit. But them! They still have this peach fuzz!" Jaime ran his finger over his upper lip and then looked back down at his homework. He laughed to himself down at his notebook, sounding unexpectedly delighted.
Daniel felt his own chin. He had shaved yesterday so his face was still smooth enough. His father, he knew, shaved everyday out of habit, but he himself was still young enough that he didn't need to be quite as diligent. He wondered if he had been one of those freshman boys who neglected to shave when he had been a few years younger. Back then, he'd only shaved when his father had told him to and had been largely oblivious to everything.
He got out his phone and checked the time. It was the awkward hour or so before dinnertime, and in a little while, he would have to go to his father's restaurant to help serve the customers at the six o'clock rush hour.
When he looked up from his phone, Jaime was looking at him. "You have to go?"
"Not right now, but in a bit."
Jaime let out a breath and checked his watch. "I think I'm going to stop doing homework," he said. "Tell you what; I'll help you and your dad at the restaurant."
"Are we stopping homework for today?" asked Thomas, catching on to their conversation and holding his pencil midair in an indefinite position.
Jaime looked at Daniel and shrugged. "I guess so," he said, turning back to Thomas. "I don't suppose you'll be coming with us?" He got up and touched Daniel on the shoulder as he scooted past him. "I'm going to stop by my house before I get to your dad's place."
"Well," said Daniel, a little uncertainly but definitely welcoming Jaime's surprise offer. "My dad will be glad to have you, but… you sure you want to come? It's sort of boring, what I do."
"Sure. Why not?" Jaime spoke casually, but he was thinking hard.
If he helped out at the McCormack restaurant, he could use that as an excuse to borrow Daniel for the night and possibly take the other boy to the place in the park. Jaime was not at all sure if he was ready or if he even truly wanted to share his private place with anybody else, but whether he was or not, he wanted to have the option and the choice and open himself up to the idea.
Daniel looked to Thomas. "You gonna go to your house for dinner?"
"Yeah. I didn't eat dinner with my family yesterday night, and I probably should tonight."
"Alright, then." Jaime jerked his head to the clear door of the coffee shop and out into the darkening streets.
The three had parted for their own ways and as Jaime walked home, he wondered what he should do. It was good to keep the place in the park for himself, but he had not frequented it so often that the novelty of the place had worn out when he was there alone. The place, as humble and crude as it was, was meant to be shared.
He reached his apartment. Perhaps because he had now spent two nights outside the house, he now had a consciousness that even going home was a choice. It was a comforting feeling that helped him lose the sense of anxiety that he previously had.
He unlocked the front door and stepped into the house with an empty mind. As he took his shoes off at the doorway, he listened. It was quiet, just like it had been that morning when he had snuck in guiltily to wash up. Either his dad and sister were in their rooms and pretending not to be, or they were both out at work in the factory and nightclub respectively. Jaime got to his room and threw his bag to the side. Even if being in the house didn't make him feel as uneasy as he used to, he still intended to get out in the minimal amount of time.
Passing the kitchen on his way out, he remembered how his sister had asked him, without really asking, to stay for dinner.
Another minute later, Jaime was back on the streets and heading for the sushi restaurant. In the empty house that he had left, there was a note on the kitchen table. Written in careful handwriting, it read, I might be back late.
When he arrived at the sushi restaurant, Daniel was wiping tables and Daniel's father was at the outside counter. There were only a few people in the restaurant; the dinner rush-hour wouldn't start until another half hour. Daniel's father, recognizing him, smiled and waved as Daniel stopped what he was doing and approached him with a smile on his face and a cleaning rag in his hand.
"You sure you want to stay and help?" he asked again. He wanted Jaime to stay with him and keep him company, but didn't want him to think that this was an obligation. "Like I said, it's pretty boring stuff and you can go whenever you want."
"I'm already here, aren't I?" Jaime shrugged. "Might as well stay. I'll probably just bum around and distract you from your work, but I can do simple stuff like wiping tables."
Daniel got him another rag and the two boys wiped tables side by side.
It was rather mundane work no matter how it was looked. It didn't require any thought; just rotor movement. The restaurant was fairly quiet. Jaime and Daniel worked on the same tables together, doing half each. The mood wasn't awkward, and Jaime would never have said anything about it even if it had been, but he did feel that he ought to say something, and he wanted to, so he did.
"So, uh, this is what you do every week, eh?" he said, not looking up.
"Yeah," Daniel laughed. "So glamorous, right? Are you regretting coming to help yet?"
"No no, it's fine." Jaime shook his head while still looking down and his bangs draped around his face. He stopped wiping. "Better than I expected. When do you get off?"
"Depends. Nine-ish, maybe. Ten if it runs late. But since you're here, dad will probably let us off early. But why?"
"Just asking." Jaime switched to a new table and started wiping that one. When Daniel moved on with him, he spoke again. "Thomas ever done this with you?"
"Nah. You hadn't either, really, before tonight. What made you want to?"
"Just did." Jaime shot him a smile. "Saturday night. Nothing better to do."
Daniel thought of what Thomas might be doing at this time. He probably wouldn't have anything special to do either, just watching a movie or playing computer games or daydreaming about Kate, doing nothing that required cognitive thinking. Wiping tables didn't require cognitive thinking either, but the task seemed both more significant and less important now that Jaime was here with him.
"Uhm, I was talking with Thomas earlier," Daniel said, thinking of the conversation he had had with Thomas in the café. He was more curious about how Jaime's response would differ from either his or Thomas' then he was about the actual opinion. "And I was talking about how I heard about how some guys think of the people they like. You know, like-like."
Jaime laughed, as he always did when the subject involved emotions. "Okay. So, how do they think?"
"Well, that they sort of want to pick them up and put them up on a shelf like a figurine." Daniel mimed the motions of the scenario but didn't say anything more, knowing that Jaime would tell him his thoughts without further prompting. He didn't feel the sense of slight embarrassment and caution that he had felt with Thomas; he knew that Jaime didn't live by any conscious set of morals himself to judge him by.
"That makes sense." Jaime paused and then nodded at the air in a way that suggested that he was contemplating his own words or was rethinking the scenario. "Yeah, I think I know the feeling."
"What? Really?" By his own surprise, Daniel realized that when he had previously thought of how Jaime might react, all his presumed responses had been from the point of view of a person who had never experienced the feeling himself. He had never thought that Jaime would include himself in the 'some guys' category that he had referred to in such a detached sense. But more than that, there was a more pressing question. "About who?"
"Haven't you ever wanted to, just, pocket someone?" Jaime smiled. He wasn't embarrassed about what he felt, but he felt embarrassed talking about it. "I know it sounds really possessive, but it's really not. It's just… a thing."
Daniel wasn't about to let up. "I thought you said that you've never liked anyone!"
"Yeah. I haven't."
"Then who'd you feel that way about?"
"Look, it's nothing special." Jaime would have been nonchalant about the whole matter but the urgency in Daniel's voice was starting to alarm him slightly. He jerked his head to cue them both to move to the next table. "It's not serious at all. It's just like…" Jaime looked out the window, squinted at nothing in particular, and vaguely waved his hand. "… like when I go to buy something and the counter guy smiles at me, or when I pass by a street performer who's really into it, or something like that. It's only with strangers; with people I don't really know. It's not like I'd do it even if I actually could."
"But…" Daniel wasn't sure what to think or how to respond. The other boy was clearly not lying, but nothing was clear either. "What exactly do you…feel, or, or mean, or whatever about the picking-up or pocketing thing, though? I'm getting told two different things, here."
"You're thinking it's a romance," Jaime said, smiling at his use of the word 'romance' in such a way that would have looked condescending if he had meant it harshly. "It's not a romance. For me it's something different," he said, repeating what Daniel already knew.
The black-haired boy looked up to nowhere and tried to find the words to match what he felt. The college-student guy in the eye-sore polo shirt on the night-shift at 7-Eleven who had beamed at him when he had poked his head in the store to simply ask for directions. That one time when he had gone for a random walk through unfamiliar alleys and the streets had rung with the music of a saxophone player who only put down his cap after passersby had started tossing change to him.
He had always thought, 'That's fuckin' weird,' when he heard old grandmas cooing that they could eat up their grandchildren because they were just so cute, but he figured that this feeling was his version of the same thing.
'It's not a strong attraction, but it's a type of attraction, maybe a connection,' he thought. 'I don't want the person; I want what they represent to me in those snapshot moments. Yes, that's it, they're symbols, incarnations, of the qualities that I like and admire."
But he didn't say any of this out loud. Instead he said, "Art. It's like art. Art collectors who really appreciate art don't buy art because they just want to own a certain work or to show-off to visitors. They get art because it makes them feel good to see it, to look at it. It's the same thing."
The dinner rush-hour had now started, and although no prolonged periods of work were required, the tables to wipe came in short, quick bursts that made serious conversation impossible. Jaime snatched bites of food and glanced at the wall-clock whenever he could.
As the flow of diners began to decrease, Jaime elbowed Daniel. "It's eight-thirtyish now. D'you want to ask your dad to see if we can go?"
"Sure," Daniel said over his shoulder as he went through the kitchen flap to where the sushi restaurateur was. Jaime watched him go, still wondering if he should take him to the place in the park or not. When the other boy came back through the flap, with a wide grin and his dad's permission to go, he had made his decision.
Twenty minutes later, they were in the park.
"I've never really been here at night," Daniel said, looking around everywhere through the dimly lit park as though he was seeing it for the first time. In a way, the sense was true: the park looked different at night when moths were flying around the lamps that lit the grass grey.
"Looks different, doesn't it? But I'm used to it cuz I come here a lot." Jaime's hands were playing with the bottom seams of his shirt. He barely had to look in front of him to know where he was going. "For night-walks, I mean."
"Good place to just chill," Daniel agreed.
'Well, I wouldn't know about 'just chill,' Jaime thought. ''Chill' denotes something too much like 'carefree' to accurately describe me.'
But he said, "Mhm. Yeah, it is," and kept his thoughts to himself.
"Come on." Jaime started going off the path into the brush. This would be simply a casual visit, he told himself, and felt less insecure. "There's this place that I found that I want to show ya."
Walking through the spindly trees, their steps crackling with dry leaves, they got to the enclosed place in the park.
"So." Jaime stepped a little further into the middle and turned around with his arms spread. "What'dya think?"
"Whoa." Daniel voice was mostly breath, blending in with the wind. "This is great! How'd you find this place?"
Jaime put on a small smile. "I saw this little white rabbit and followed it." He had seen a wild rabbit once when he had come to the park, he remembered. It had been mostly dark brown except for its white tail and he had followed it into the woods until he felt that he would lose the path if he went any further. That had been almost five months ago. But it wasn't the rabbit who had led him to this place.
"Really? A wild rabbit?"
Jaime shrugged and nodded.
"Like The Matrix!" said Daniel, spinning around and smiling.
"Like Alice in Wonderland," Jaime shot back. "The Tim Burton version." He lowered himself down and laid on the cold ground, hands under his head, eyes closed, and wondered seriously what he should do next. He spoke for lack of knowing what to do. "I come here to think, figure things out and stuff. Sometimes it works." Jaime sat up, propped by his arms from behind and his legs crossed in front, and opened his eyes. "And sometimes it doesn't."
"Still." Daniel was sitting next to him in a similar fashion with his legs stretched out straight. "Good place to just be, you know?"
The nearest lamp was still meters away behind the trees. The city smog never allowed the moon or the stars to shine significantly enough to be noticed if not directly looked at. Daniel looked the same now as he did in daylight when he was directly looked at, just less bright and more accessible; maybe it was the atmosphere or the background that was making Jaime want to lean over, grab his face, and kiss him.
'It's so very curious,' Jaime thought, still calmly eyeing Daniel. He felt very relaxed. 'I'm not in love with him but I feel like could live with him for the rest of my life. I could marry him and not feel miserable. He's my friend, and I think of him as such, so why do I feel like I want to fucking make out with him under me? The one thing that the hustler wouldn't give me, I want from him, of all people,' he mused. 'But it's not even a very strong want. It just is. So very strange.'
Jaime didn't do anything except look, and after a moment more of staring at his intriguing friend, looked away to the direction of the lamp where a couple slivers of light were shining past the trees, trying to figure what he was supposed to do now. There was nothing more to say.
Next to him, Daniel was quietly observing his own feelings. Whether it was just because of the dim lighting, or the sharp shadows cast by what light there was, he thought that Jaime looked different and was trying to discern why or how it had happened.
'Everything's sharper. Jaime always looked angled before because his facial structure is just cut that way, but now it looks positively sharp-edged. From the side, with his head turned just like that, his five o'clock shadow makes his jawline look so sharp.' Daniel thought about reaching out and running his hand along that jaw and feeling the edge of bone under his fingers to see how firm it was. From where he was, it looked like a line, fragile and hard at the same time. He felt his own jaw.
"What do you suppose girls feel about stubble?" Daniel suddenly said, laughing a little at himself for being bold enough to break the quiet.
Jaime barely turned his head. "What do you mean?"
"Like, if they like guys with stubble or not. Kissing a guy with stubble would be sort of scratchy, wouldn't it?" Daniel looked at Jaime's jaw again.
Leaning forward and putting his elbow on his crossed-legs and his head in his hands, Jaime considered it. His chin was covered from view. "Yeah, it'd be scratchy, but I'm guessing that it depends on the person. But I wouldn't know," he said quietly, thinking again of how he hadn't been able to kiss the hustler.
It was an anticlimactic reply and Daniel felt slightly disappointed. The actual opinion that girls had about stubble was less important to him than Jaime's response and now that Jaime had responded so reasonably and lifelessly, all the curiosity had gone out of him. He let out a breath and looked to the ground.
"Yeah, probably just depends."
Daniel was thankful that they were in a park. He was unused to Jaime being like this. The silence of the immobile indoors would have made the Jaime's silence hard to stand, but outside with the crispy leaves and the crunchy gravel of distant strangers' footsteps and the crickets, it was okay.
Jaime listened to the same forest sounds that the other boy was hearing. He was feeling disappointed as well.
"What did I think was even going to happen?" he thought rather bitterly. "That the world was going to fucking explode? Daniel doesn't even know what this place means. And we're not even doing anything. I shouldn't have brought him here."
He got up in stiff movements and nodded for his clueless friend to get up as well. Daniel looked around the clearing one last time before following Jaime's path out into the regular path. Jaime started walking Daniel back to the main street.
Right before they parted, Jaime cleared his throat and elbowed Daniel slightly without looking. "Uhm, you know that place in the park that I just showed you? Well, that's like, my place, so I'd appreciate it if you didn't, you know." He nodded and glanced at the other boy up through his bangs and then back down.
"Oh, yeah, sure. Thanks for showing me it, though, like, it was pretty cool," Daniel said awkwardly. "Yeah, so… See you tomorrow, then."
Shaking his head in farewell, Jaime turned his back and went down the street in his direction.
Daniel watched him go, wondering what the hell had happened.