One Life to Lose (A Queers of La Vista Novel)
This title is part of the Queers of La Vista universe.
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Cameron Rheingold is the kind of guy who takes a book to a bar. He’s a loner by nature, but he has to engage with the community to keep his movie theater business afloat. When two young men stay after a Cary Grant film showing to chat, Cameron thinks he might have made some new friends—but their interest is more than friendly.
Josh is charismatic, and every smile is a little bit seductive. Keith is sweet and kind, with a core of steel Cameron can sense even when Keith’s on his knees. Cameron is willing to be the couple’s kinky third, but that’s it. He refuses to risk complicating things with his growing devotion, even if being with Josh and Keith feels more right than anything else ever has.
When the three of them are attacked by the killer roaming La Vista, Cameron must decide what’s more important: pretending the assault never happened and he’s the same loner he used to be, or coming clean to Josh and Keith about how much he loves them, even if they can never return his feelings.
This book can be read on its own, or enjoyed as the fourth book in the Queers of La Vista series.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Three minutes until go time.
I relaxed the death grip I had on my index cards and took another look at the computer screen currently showing four of the theater’s security cameras. The lobby was almost cleared out and the theater was almost full. I felt dizzy.
I don’t experience anxiety as a jumpy heartbeat or damp palms. When I am most nervous, the color leeches out of the world, leaving me walking through a grainy black-and-white film. As a coping mechanism, it works well; I’m comfortable in that state, navigating the gray areas, finding a home between shadows and light.
One final breath. I double-checked that the booth was locked, accepted nods of support from my ticket taker and concessions staff, and made my way to the stage.
My earliest memory is standing on the stage between my parents on the night we opened the expanded concessions store, serving sandwiches and soups. I was four years old, holding my father’s hand, staring out at all the people. All I really remember is how high the stage felt and how loud the people were, but they told me later that I smiled and waved at the crowd. I can never be certain if my parents misremembered (projecting their general love of chaos on their young son), or if there was a time when my world did not drop into grayscale at the first moment of overwhelm.
I knew An Affair to Remember backward and forward. It was the obvious choice to start the Cary Grant Film Festival. I probably knew my speech even without the index cards. And it was short, so there shouldn’t have been a problem.
Then I tripped.
I tripped walking from the stairs to the microphone. Four steps. I’d carefully put the podium off to the side where I wouldn’t have to move it and it wouldn’t be in the way. Four steps from the point where I reached the stage to the point where I turned toward the crowd.
On the second step I tripped and my index cards flew everywhere.
People gasped, giggled, made other sounds of commiseration and nerves and gentle mockery, a distant, muted soundtrack to the white noise buzz of my brain registering that even if I could pick up all the index cards, I hadn’t numbered them.
It would be impossible to piece my speech back together.
I closed my eyes for a split second, wishing my dad were there to hold my hand. He’d squeeze it and say, What would Cary do, Cameron?
Cary would get off his knees and pick up the microphone. So I did.
A great many people. The first night of the film series hadn’t sold out, but it had come closer than any event I’d done in years. I tried to blur my vision so I wouldn’t recognize anyone.
“Hello. I seem to have had . . . technical difficulties with my teleprompter.”
Laughter. No one turns to Cam Rheingold when they need a joke, but I can do dry. At least a little.
“Welcome to the Cary Grant Film Festival. Each Saturday from now until mid-December we’ll show a film starring Cary Grant.” A few claps. I smiled, carefully not-looking at any of the faces. “Mr. Grant has been my absolute favorite actor since I was a child, and I’m so pleased to present to you Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember for our first film in the series.”
I’d had a whole mini lecture planned—about how the film was a remake of McCarey’s earlier Love Affair, and how most people agreed the latter was the better movie—but if I launched into it without my notes, I’d fumble. The sequence would be wrong, and I might potentially misstate my facts. I couldn’t take the risk.
“This is widely considered one of the greatest love stories of all time,” I said instead. “A story about how terrible timing is sometimes perfect timing, about the radical notion that two wealthy individuals might love one another so much they’d decide to work for a living, and of course, about the power and intensity and endurance of romantic love.”
More clapping this time. Perfect.
“Please enjoy An Affair to Remember. And do join me in the lobby after for refreshments. If I don’t see you then, I hope to see you next week, when we’ll be watching North by Northwest.” I bowed to the lights, caught a disturbingly distinct view of eyes and smiles and hairstyles, and quickly walked down the steps and out the long hallway to the doors while the intro started to play.
I pressed myself against the wall in the dark until the credits had finished and the picture really began. Then I escaped to my booth and watched it on the monitor instead of the big screen.
I’d promised myself I wouldn’t hide, but I had failed to factor in dropping my index cards. I needed the security of the booth, at least until the next particularly gruesome act of this event would begin.
Refreshments. Small talk. Perhaps I could redirect every conversation back to Mr. Grant. I’d certainly try.
* * * * * * *
I didn’t know why I’d noticed them. I hadn’t right away; they intruded into my awareness gradually, like a sound in the distance that you only realized you’d been listening to all along. Their voices mingled with the familiar voices of people I knew—Zane Jaffe, who had recently shaved half her head, leaving only the half that was purple. Anderson Philpott, with whom I sometimes discussed books at Club Fred’s. Obie Magoveny, who’d made the necktie I was wearing that night: a classy, subtle reel of film print. Countless voices I recognized, and others I did not.
First I saw them from the back, then their profiles as they stood beside each other, occasionally inclining their heads or brushing hands.
My system was on overdrive, and despite the grayscale, certain things were in sharp focus. Alisha’s laughter at something Ed said, followed by the laughter of the two young men standing with them. Ed caught my eye and smiled, gesturing me over.
It was simple to excuse myself, to approach, to ready my nerves for yet another handshake, another greeting.
“Cam, you’ve met Josh and Keith, right? They run QYP down in the Harbor District.”
I shook Josh’s hand while parsing QYP. “Is that the drop-in center?”
“So you’ve heard of us.” He smiled. Handsome, African American, with a certain twinkle in his eye that I, veteran of so many old movies, immediately found attractive. Not that I betrayed my reaction. I was used to seeing that kind of charm transmitted via a screen at a safe distance away. It didn’t occur to me to respond to it.
“I think I must have read an article in the paper.” I raised an eyebrow at Ed, who laughed.
“Guilty. I wrote two, actually, though the second one was online only.”
I reached for the other man’s hand. He looked far younger up close than he’d appeared from across the lobby. “I regret missing your open house. Sounds like it was interesting.”
“You missed Josh giving a depressing speech and correcting an audience member about misquoting Gandhi.” Hard to gauge his age. Blond, blue-eyed young men had a certain quality about them sometimes that made them seem frozen in time. They were often the same men who one day woke up having aged twenty years overnight.
In my line of work, you see people intermittently over a long period of time. You notice things like that.
“I can’t judge. I just had to remind a woman nearly three times my age that it was Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, not Cary Grant. Very awkward.”
Josh waved a hand in my direction, as if I’d proved some kind of point. “What’s the alternative, really? Let people wander around misquoting Gandhi and skewering film history?”
“It was a great speech, anyway,” Alisha said. “Ed’s still mad he didn’t record it.”
“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.”
“One of the kids took video,” Josh said. “Search YouTube.”
“You’re on YouTube?” I was utterly fascinated by YouTube. I’d been raised to believe that narrative belonged to experts, and I was entranced by the idea that people simply took it for themselves, molding their own stories however they wished.
“Only by accident.” Keith grinned at Josh, and their shared expression might as well have been a gesture for as tangible as it felt to me. It was only a smile between two men, but it seemed to me that they held hands in that smile, perhaps even kissed.
I shook my head, trying to clear it of unwelcome images.
“How’re you holding up?” Ed asked. “Is it as bad as you feared?”
“I started the night off by tripping over my feet and losing all my index cards. It’s improved since then.”
Keith cleared his throat, flushing pink, and reached into his little shoulder bag. “I, um, picked them up. At least, I think I got them all.” He produced my stack of cards and handed them over, but it took half a beat of silence for me to realize I actually had to stretch my arm out to take them.
I was so captivated by the color in his cheeks. Sometimes people as pale as Keith blushed blotchy, but he glowed, rosy and sweet.
“Thank you.” I didn’t mean to brush against his fingers, but it happened anyway. “I think I was attempting to forget that part of the show.”
“You did all right without them.”
“I hope so. I had all these notes about the film . . .” Now was not the time.
“Can I ask you—what was your favorite part?”
“My favorite part,” I repeated.
Alisha clapped. “Oh, good question.”
“I mean, if you don’t mind my asking,” Keith murmured.
“Oh no. Not at all. Hm.” I should have said something obvious, but for whatever reason, perhaps because I could see how blue his eyes were, I told him the truth. “Ah, it’s a two-part answer. The first is the scene when Nickie goes to visit his grandmother and looks around her empty villa. I like that they allow all that space for his grief, for his pain.”
“He touches her chair,” Josh said. “I cried.”
This time Keith reached out and physically took his hand.
“I hold out for my second favorite moment, which is when he hands over the stole to Terry and she knows that his grandmother is dead, without anyone using words or euphemisms, without any explanation. She just gets this . . . look on her face, this understanding.” I swallowed, trying to cover the intensity of my feelings. “That’s when I cry. Because she grieves, too.”
Alisha hugged me, hard, and her hugs were comforting, even though I didn’t find hugging comfortable. We must have spoken more, but I was distracted, thinking about grief and loss and the empty spaces left by people I’d loved.
I was hailed by a very old friend, and in the spirit of escape I made more excuses and went to say hello. The first words out of Hugh’s mouth were, “Your parents would be so proud of you, Cameron,” and I had to bite my tongue to keep the threads of my composure from unraveling.
The beautiful thing about having an old friend around in a moment like this was in the way he changed the subject to the film series, asking me when Penny Serenade would play, and promising to return for it.
Of course, the liability inherent in the presence of someone who remembered one as a fumbling, slightly besotted adolescent, is that when Hugh took my hand to say good night, I blushed.
“You should be very satisfied with tonight.” His eyes, amused behind his glasses, glinted. “You might even consider being outright pleased.”
“Next week is when we’ll know if it worked. And the week after.”
He gestured to the room, full of happy movie-goers and laughter. “It worked, Cameron. I’ll see you soon.”
I really had no idea how I made it through the rest of the evening. The reception in the lobby lasted only an hour and a half, and that was including the staff’s quick efforts at throwing everything away after, but it seemed like an epoch, or perhaps like the spinning of the earth; I could tell myself time passed, but my experience of it did not reflect that reality.
When I finally locked the theater and walked up the steps to my apartment in the building next door, I felt exhausted and somehow violated. Not in a cheap way. Not in a way that trespassed on other uses of the word. But I’d taken a movie I felt intimately connected to, engaged with, and opened it up to La Vista, inviting everyone inside. It might have been a slip in judgment, to begin with a film I loved as much as I loved An Affair to Remember. Next week would be North by Northwest, a film about which it was possible to have a sense of humor, though my favorite anecdote about the movie was that Eva Marie Saint had to re-dub a line to avoid mentioning “making” love, which wasn’t a story I planned to share with a crowd largely made up of people my late grandparents’ age.
I didn’t turn on the lights in my apartment. I toed off my shoes and walked in darkness. First to the bathroom to shower, lighting only a candle. Then to the bedroom. I didn’t have the energy to deal with shapes and colors, and my anxiety-infused silvers and grays had worn off, leaving me with oversaturated hues and too much definition.
Far easier to feel my way by touch and familiarity, to slide into my sheets, to trust myself to textiles and the peaceful traffic on Mooney, which never truly went quiet.
Into my pleasant darkness, their faces intruded, their eyes. Josh’s brown and twinkling. Keith’s blue and seeking. Why did I project so much on two men I hardly knew? I shouldn’t. I knew that. But I couldn’t seem to help myself.
I hoped they’d come back next week. If only so I could see them more clearly and reassure myself that any pull I’d felt toward them was entirely misguided.
A week. I had another week in which no one would expect me to leave the safety of my ticket booth. I inhaled and called upon the vague sense of God that thirteen years of Catholic school had not quite burned out of me. Thank you. I’ll try to need you a little less next week, but no promises.
God, if such a being existed, seemed inclined to treat my gratitude with calm benevolence. I’d long ago realized that my internal God was probably just a wish for the man I longed to be, who greeted the present moment with wonder and acceptance. Maybe I would someday learn how to do that. Until then I allowed myself the comfort of my prayers, infused my dark bedroom with as much peace as I could manage, and fell asleep.
I went to Club Fred’s at least once a week. The tradition—custom? habit?—stemmed from my parents, who used to mandate I go out for two hours each week to somewhere other people would be.
I’d argued that high school was enough mandated social interaction, but they’d told me that I didn’t have to interact, I just had to be, which was an opportunity not really allowed at St. Patrick’s. Certainly not being me, in any case.
By the time they died when I was twenty-four, I didn’t mind going out once a week. And I’d never have gone to Club Fred’s for any other reason. I occasionally met men there, but I actually preferred the understandable communications ascent of internet dating to the murky in-person variety. Emailing, texting, the awkward coffee date. It took me some time to work out how to present myself as a man interested in dating before hooking up, but now that I was comfortable asserting myself, I’d had a few decent (if brief) relationships resulting from my online forays.
Club Fred’s was about something else. Sometimes I talked to people, but most of the time I sat at the bar and read whatever book I currently favored on my Kindle app. I ordered exactly one drink, a Scotch on the rocks, and sometimes I barely spoke to anyone. Because social interaction wasn’t mandatory.
Except, on the Friday after my first somewhat disastrous attempt to introduce An Affair to Remember, I happened to hear a familiar laugh as I let Rebecca wash over me. Something about du Maurier got to me so deeply that I couldn’t even say I loved her books. From the minute I opened them until I put them down, I felt a slightly painful tightness in my chest, no matter how many times I’d read them before, and it was so . . . present. So real. I hardly had to pay any attention to Rebecca, I’d read it so many times; my eyes scanned the pages and the book played out in my mind as if it were a film. (Not the adaptations, which might be all right, but were nothing compared to how viscerally I became immersed in the book.)
There I sat, nursing my single drink, lost in Manderley, when I heard Josh’s laughter somewhere nearby.
There was something magnetic about each of them, or maybe it was about both of them together. I heard his laugh and immediately searched for him in the crowd, finding Keith’s fair hair first.
They touched each other so much. Not in such a way that it seemed to be an advertisement, a flashing neon sign of righteous couple-hood. The way the two of them touched wasn’t merely subtle, it was practically invisible. Josh might drag his knuckles across Keith’s jeans, at the side where his hand happened to hit, almost a subconscious I’m here. Keith might sit in a certain way so that their arms met for a second, a split second, probably so quick and gone that no one who wasn’t watching specifically for it would notice.
I watched. I’d watched in the lobby, but at Club Fred’s I watched with intention, to prove or disprove my theory about how frequently they touched. I tried not to be creepy about it—I hardly knew them, and they were clearly younger than I was, and clearly devoted to one another—but I wanted to understand how it worked, that kind of togetherness. I’d had the odd boyfriend here or there, but I’d never made it to moving-in status. I’d hardly made it past spend-the-night status, and that had been . . . rare.
And distantly past. My mind could not make it back to the new Mrs. de Winter, as alluring as she was in her determinedly unalluring way. I could, of course, go home. I’d left the theater in the care of my loyal staff, who didn’t expect me back in tonight. I enjoyed being alone in my apartment, listening to traffic, reading or browsing my usual online haunts for new films to lease. Not new in the sense of recent, of course. New in the sense of I haven’t shown them before.
But I didn’t want to go home. Josh laughed again, and I turned on my stool to see them more clearly than I could with a glance.
Laughing with Obie and Emerson, whom I at least knew. I could approach, say hello.
But why? Social interaction wasn’t mandatory, after all. And I’d already talked to Tom the bartender for a few minutes.
Still, I did want to say hello. I couldn’t figure out the reason I felt drawn to them, or what it meant, but I could now sense their presence in the room and I didn’t want to let go of that awareness.
What would Cary do?
Find an angle, of course. The way he did everything. I wasn’t Cary Grant, though; I was odd, slightly awkward Cameron Rheingold, who read at the bar and counted nontheater social interactions per week in single digits.
Of course, the entire point of the film series was for me to start reaching out more, cultivating the theater as the kind of community hub it had been when my parents ran it. That this wasn’t the theater seemed beside the point.
Social skills were social skills, and I could practice them wherever I liked.
I stood up, embracing the way my brain visually dimmed the rest of Club Fred’s until I could focus on the small group of men standing at a high table. I would say hello. If it was intolerably awkward, I’d then say good-bye. Having a reputation for being a little strange meant there wasn’t that far to fall in other people’s opinions, so I made my way over and braced myself for eye contact.
Keith saw me first. Keith, whose blue eyes had penetrated my protective grayscale. He smiled. That was it, nothing overwhelming. He smiled in greeting, or in welcome, and I smiled back without thinking.
“Cameron, hey,” Obie said. “You’ve met the QYP guys, right?”
Josh grinned, his all-out tooth-baring grin, and slightly inclined his head toward Keith’s. “Babe, we’re ‘the QYP guys.’ How cool is that?”
“It’s cool. Hi, Cameron. Nice to see you again.”
I shook hands all around and stood beside Obie’s entertainingly prickly boyfriend, Emerson. Where you would look at Josh and Keith and see an unassailable air of projected togetherness, you’d look at Obie and Emerson and wonder how two such different people even managed to have a conversation, let alone a relationship.
It was always so fascinating to study people. Obie and Emerson gave me a lot to watch.
“Did you see I wore the tie on Saturday?” I asked Obie. He was one of the people I hadn’t managed to say hello to for longer than a moment after An Affair to Remember.
“Of course I did! You looked great. Are you excited about this week’s movie?”
“You can’t go wrong with North by Northwest,” Josh said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
“It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen the crop duster scene,” Keith added. “You always think that this time he might, you know, not get out of that field.”
I blinked, a little impressed they knew the upcoming film. “Yes. I planned the film series hoping to seduce people with a few pictures they already know they like in the beginning.”
“And lock them in,” Obie agreed. “Sounds good.” He poked Emerson. “Shouldn’t we be seduced by Cam’s film festival?”
“We’re watching James on Saturday.” Emerson didn’t exactly look heartbroken. I enjoyed the idea that he’d prefer the company of an infant to being out in public. Having never been around children, I couldn’t say if I’d make the same choice, but maybe I would.
Of course, the movie theater didn’t feel like “public” to me. It was more like a large extension of my living room. Especially when I was showing Cary Grant.
“Will you tell me more about QYP?” I asked a few minutes later, after Obie and Emerson excused themselves to the dance floor. I’d hesitated—the role of third wheel is often more acutely tricky than that of fifth wheel—but neither Keith nor Josh seemed inclined to be irritated by my presence.
“Fair warning,” Josh said. “If you open that door, we might not be able to control ourselves.”
That strange bubbling sensation in my chest, which usually only arrived when I was flirting—or considering it—made no sense in the current context of Josh’s smile. He and I could not be flirting. And why did the bubbling intensify when Keith laughed?
“So true. Josh’s mom said we’re like people with a new baby except we have fewer pictures.”
“But not none.” Josh pulled out his phone and paged through before holding it out to me.
I obliged him by taking it. “That’s . . . a very nice kitchen.”
“It’s the kitchen at the center. We cook there as much as possible, since it’s way better than ours.”
“Oh.” I looked more closely. The long peninsula seemed like the perfect place to sit. I wondered if the rest of the room held up to the kitchen’s large scale. “I think someone said you’re down in the Harbor District?”
“At the edge of it, yeah, in one of the warehouses down there. You should really come by, Cameron.”
Keith nodded. “We’re open noon to nine, though we’re hoping to expand those hours at some point.”
“And get staff coverage.”
They smiled wryly at each other.
“Is it just the two of you at the moment?”
“Mostly.” Josh shifted his beer on the table, marring the damp ring it had made. “We have some volunteers, but we’re just not established yet. And we definitely aren’t in a position to hire anyone, which is what we’ll need to do eventually, as my chief financial officer keeps telling me.”
Keith elbowed Josh. “Don’t call me that unless you’re paying me like a CFO.”
“Partner, partner. My significantly more financially astute partner.”
“It’s not financial, anyway. But I know that you and I together can’t work twelve-hour days six days a week without burning out.”
“Do you actually take a day off?” I knew that routine. I’d done it after my parents died, running myself into the ground.
“Well, we don’t open to the public on Sundays,” Josh said. “I go to church. Keith goes to the center and does paperwork.”
Keith shot him a look. “Paperwork can be sacred. It’s a ritual, anyway. What about you, Cameron? Do you take days off from the theater?”
Both of them had said my name, and I liked the sound of it in their voices.
“I do.” I fought, with every fiber of my being, the flush that wanted to steal over my skin. So ridiculous. They were simply kind, and attentive, and absolutely not interested in me, no matter what my unusually overheated body seemed to think. “We’ve had the same Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday crew for years, so I can work shifts on those days without worrying about opening or closing, filling in where I’m needed.”
“So which day do you actually take off?” Keith had dimples—not wildly flashing dimples, just two little points that showed up with each smile and promptly disappeared again.
I needed to stop thinking about his dimples.
“Oh, whenever we have coverage. We changed over to the digital projector about five years ago, which makes it somewhat easier to staff.”
“Because newer equipment means less training?” Josh asked.
“I served as projectionist a lot before, since I’d grown up doing it and knew how to fix things if they stalled out in the middle of a picture. Or if the projector decided not to run. But the digital system is much less fussy, so we have a lot more folks who can run it.” Their eyes didn’t appear to be glazing over—yet—but I was still relieved when people suddenly crowded our table, eager to say hello.
Zane, Jaq, Jaq’s girlfriend Hannah. People I knew. Jaq and Zane were bickering as usual, and I scooted closer to Josh so they could all squeeze around the table.
“I’m just saying it’s too big a risk,” Jaq argued. “Philpott! Anderson Philpott, get your skinny ass over here!”
We made room for one more, and I smiled apologetically at Josh as I accidentally brushed against him.
“Hon, you can’t save people,” Hannah said. “Even canceling the Halloween event won’t save people.”
Zane, from Keith’s other side, leaned toward us. “Jaq’s on kind of a rampage, don’t mind her.”
“I’m not on a rampage, damn it. Philpott, back me up— Don’t you think the only thing that makes sense is to cancel the next Club Fred’s theme night, you know, since people keep getting murdered at them?”
“Technically they’re murdered after them.” Philpott nodded around at all of us, standing a little apart from our table. “And I assume unless Fredi closed the bar completely, the killer could still recruit a victim here.”
“Then why doesn’t she close the bar?”
“Oh my god,” Zane said. “We had this fight last time.”
“And someone fucking died.”
Hannah put a hand on Jaq’s arm. “Breathe, Jaq.”
“I’d close the bar if I owned it,” Josh said. “But I don’t think it would have any effect on what’s going on here. They, whoever they are, would still find someone to target, don’t you think?”
“So why would you close the bar?” Philpott asked, raising his eyebrows.
Zane added, “Close it for good, or just for that night?”
“Just for that night, since it’s already been promoted, though I guess I’d hate for Fredi to lose business on a Friday night. And I’d do it for my own peace of mind.” Josh gestured to the bar. “After Tom getting arrested, and information coming out that the victims were all here the night they died, Fredi looks older.”
Jaq nodded. “Like presidents at the end of their term, not the beginning. She looks grayer. Than she used to.”
“No doubt it’s taking a toll, but I’m not sure how even closing for the night would impact anything.” Philpott shrugged. “A serial killer doesn’t stop killing because their favorite hunting ground shuts down for a night. They simply hunt on a different night, or in a different place.”
“Plus,” Keith said, “someone needs to mention acceptance of risk. We’re sitting here now knowing that someone’s out there thinking about the next person they want to hurt.” He made a space-limited gesture at the table. “We’ve all knowingly accepted the risk, haven’t we?”
“Risk aware and consenting,” Philpott agreed. “I’m with Keith on this one. I think the only thing we can do is be vigilant and watch out for each other, and hopefully defeat this guy that way. It seems clear that people willingly accompany the killer at least part of the way, so the best thing is to work it from that angle.”
Jaq shook her head incredulously. “Are all of you nuts? If there’s a direct connection between theme nights and people dying, how can you sit here and say we keep having theme nights? I just— What else can we fucking do?”
I thought about something Ed had said to me the last time we talked about it. “But if they keep killing on theme nights, that might actually help catch the person. There are only so many people who come here, and most of them use credit cards.” Ed had told Fredi and Tom to pay attention to anyone using cash, though they said enough people did so they couldn’t remember them all. I decided not to share that with the group. Jaq might scream.
“That’s grim,” Josh murmured. Philpott nodded and seemed on the verge of speaking, then didn’t.
Jaq’s fingers drummed on the table. “So we’re bait. That’s the silver lining?”
“Well, we aren’t bait,” Hannah said. “You’re not going anywhere with anyone who isn’t me.”
“You know what I mean.”
We all knew what she meant. And for a moment we all looked around, thinking about that.
Josh shifted, slightly, not in a way that anyone would notice unless they were physically standing against him. I glanced down in time to watch him skim his fingers over Keith’s. “And on that note, we’re dancing. Anyone else?”
“You betcha.” Hannah finished off her wine. “C’mon, sugar.”
Jaq might have stayed longer, but Hannah tugged her, and she went. Josh and Keith waved good-bye, and I waved back.
“I’m dancing too,” Zane said. She eyed me, then Philpott. “Let me guess: that’s a no from both of you.”
“I don’t dance.” He grinned.
She rolled her eyes. “Cameron? Keep a girl company?”
“I’m about to head home.” Which was true. I mentally reminded my parents that they hadn’t mandated dancing, either. I’d been on the dance floor at Club Fred’s a few times, with various dates, but not generally if I could help it.
“I’ll have to dance alone, I guess! Bye, boys!” With a flip of her purple hair over the shaved part of her head, she was off.
“Are you really leaving?” Philpott asked. He wasn’t quite smirking. “Or can I ask you about your film festival?”
“Tell me you’re showing Notorious.”
“That’s how we’re closing out the series. You like Hitchcock?”
“I do like Hitchcock, but Notorious is my favorite Cary Grant. I think because his role could have been played by any leading man–type actor, but he brings it more depth than it had at the textual level.”
“I completely agree. You could plug in any man and Ingrid Bergman would still have sailed through the story. But the way he plays passionate and snubbed and aloof all at once is perfect.”
“I’ve never seen it on the big screen, so I can’t wait.” He drained his beer. “See you around, Cameron.”
He turned away and a young man I didn’t recognize sidled up to him. Both of them smiled, familiarly. I’d never seen Philpott with anyone, though I’d always assumed he was gay, or bi, or queer in that way people are now when they don’t define themselves. I sometimes wish I’d been slightly less certain so early on, that I’d embraced a wider idea of who I could be.
But perhaps I would have always ended up the way I ended up.
I walked out of Club Fred’s and shivered in the chill, though not exclusively because of it. Five people had died. I knew this only because I paid a very small amount of attention. You didn’t have to be that up on current events to know the basic facts, which were that on five separate occasions, over the last eight months, Club Fred’s held theme nights that ended in deaths.
Five people. I hadn’t known any of them, really, but I’d bought a young man a drink on his birthday only to discover weeks later that he’d been killed that night. I couldn’t grieve him; I hadn’t known him. But I stood on the sidewalk, flipping my collar up against the wind, and thought about that night, and that boy, who’d left by this exact door in the company of someone who had betrayed his trust so fundamentally that he had not survived it.
I went home, turning my mind to Saturday. North by Northwest would be fun, and this time I would not drop my index cards.
The second week of the film series went well. No index cards were dropped. I told the story of the journalist who’d originated the idea of the fake agent pursued across the country, and how he’d made ten thousand dollars when Hitchcock bought the story from him. I also encouraged the audience—again, filling most seats in the theater—to keep their eyes open for Hitch’s possible second appearance in the film. (The first was during the opening credits, when Hitch missed his bus.)
I settled in to socializing in the lobby after, without the world being quite as gray and black as it had been the previous week, which meant I was a little more raw, a little less protected by my pleasant celluloid shield.
Less prepared for Keith to touch my arm, casually, as I stood in front of an old White Christmas poster I superstitiously never took down. The two of them had approached, slowly, but I’d seen them coming. Still, the touch was a brief jolt to my system. I couldn’t feel his fingers through my suit coat, but for some reason I tried to, as if all I needed to do was make a wish and then I’d feel the phantom warmth of his hand.
“I loved the movie,” he said. “Not as much as An Affair to Remember, but more than Rear Window.”
I managed to smile. “Are you a Jimmy Stewart fan?”
“I am, a little.”
“He means a lot,” Josh added.
“Then I’m sure I’ll see you for The Philadelphia Story.”
Both of them smiled, satisfaction in stereo.
“You’ll see us for all the movies, Cameron,” Keith said. “But will you come down to QYP this week? We’d love to show you around.”
“Of course.” I forced myself to pause for a moment, to still all the twitching thought-stubs in my head (calculating how much longer people would linger, and if we’d run out of snacks, and if I should have petitioned for a temporary liquor license after all, since the array of juices looked so silly on their table). “Yes. I’d really like that.”
Keith’s eyes were still so blue. A dark and forgiving blue, with flecks of sky and sea.
“When will you be off? Or is that something you can predict at all?”
I had no idea. “Mondays are generally safe. Monday late morning?”
“Great.” He patted my arm once. “See you then.”
Josh grinned. “Looking forward to it. Good night.”
I said good night, and maybe I was searching for meaning in ridiculous things, or maybe there was some magic to the two of them, but opening the door seemed to pierce the surface tension of the room and soon everyone was saying good night and following Josh and Keith out into the cold.
A coincidence, or just that kind of timing. No magic to it at all. But I found myself associating them with the peace of an empty lobby, smiling to myself about visiting their center.
Merely the anticipation of going somewhere new, pursuing more conversations with new friends. Or so I told myself, sternly, with no room for anything else. Even as I pictured Keith’s eyes and recalled an echo of Josh’s laugh.
* * * * * * *
It began raining late Sunday night and continued through Monday. I pulled the Volvo to the curb in front of the last warehouse on the row, which had a rainbow-painted sign out front, dripping bits of color onto the sidewalk.
Queer Youth Project - Change the world.
Simple sentiment. Hard to argue with. Too bad about the sign, though. They’d certainly need to invest in one that resisted weather fluctuations.
I got out of my car and straightened my clothes as I walked, wishing I’d worn my longer topcoat. No awnings on this side of the Harbor District, no cover of any kind as I approached the large, horizontally sliding door—suitable for deliveries—which was open three feet wide.
The first thing I saw, before I was even inside, were the colors. More colors. Bright colors, but not garish, not offensive to the eye: blues, purples, and greens, in blocks two-thirds of the way up the high walls. From there to the ceiling they were a warmish gray tone. I slid in through the opening and stood there looking around, appreciating the scale of the place, and the clever way it had been arranged to maximize and contain specific areas. On the far side were little conversational nooks, groupings of chairs and couches, all serviceable, none seeming altogether luxurious or comfortable. A few long tables with folding chairs along the outside wall, and another area beside it with two round tables. Places to work, or perhaps study.
Josh sat at one of the round tables alongside a young man in a coat far too big for him. I couldn’t tell if he’d seen me, but he was clearly busy, so I side stepped to get out of the breezy doorway and continued a visual tour.
The kitchen dominated the left side of the room, large and open, and the peninsula I’d seen on Josh’s picture had stools, as was only sensible.
Beyond the kitchen, along the back wall, were a couple of thrift-store bookshelves, mostly empty, and a handful of brightly colored beanbag chairs. And a doorway, in which Keith suddenly appeared.
He smiled and waved, but didn’t speak until he’d crossed the wide expanse of the room. “Hey, I’m so glad you could come out in the rain.”
“I haven’t melted. Yet.”
“Were you worried that you’d turned into the Wicked Witch? Here, can I get you anything? We have a pot of coffee made relatively recently, and vast stores of hot chocolate and dehydrated hot cider.”
I followed him into the kitchen, where he poked around in cabinets until he found what he was looking for.
“Sorry, we keep shifting things around. Here.” He handed me a mug and gestured to the little basket with supplies, and the coffeepot.
“Thanks. It’s incredibly cold out there today. I thought the rain might warm things up, but this is clearly a cold front.” I tapped the pound bag of coffee. “Sobrantes? Your coffee budget must be high.”
He grinned. “We make one pot of Sobrantes a day, which is what we’d make in the apartment if we didn’t come straight here in the mornings. What you’re drinking is actually generic grocery-store brand with a tiny bit of cinnamon at the bottom of the carafe to liven it up a little. But see if it doesn’t taste better when you’re looking at a bag of Moon Bay Blend.”
I appreciated the notion and sipped my coffee, thinking about Los Sobrantes, the best roaster in La Vista. “I think you’re right. It certainly doesn’t taste cheap.”
“See? Now let me show you around a little.”
We turned to leave the kitchen when the sound of a chair scraping across the ground made both of us pause.
The young man at the table had stood up fast and was staring down at Josh, body rigid with anger.
“Hey,” Josh said sharply. He, too, pushed back from the table. But he didn’t stand. He stared up at the boy until the boy’s shoulders hunched, and he sank back into his seat.
“I hate it when this happens,” Keith murmured. “Intellectually I understand that they do this father-child dynamic in a way that works for both of them, but I find the fighting hard to take.” He glanced at me. “That’s Merin, our second-in-command. I’ll introduce you when they’re done with their current showdown.”
“Of course.” I turned, allowing him the opportunity to turn as well, so he wasn’t looking at the round table. “How did all this get started? I’m dying of curiosity.”
“It was all Josh’s idea. Though he’d say none of it would have happened without me.”
They’d met in college. I was surprised to discover that Keith was still in college, his final year before graduating with a BA in business administration. But even as surprised as I was, I could also see his youth in his cheeks, in his hands, constantly gesturing.
“You work around your class schedule?” I asked.
“Most of my professors have been great about it. I mean, I’m applying a lot of what my classmates have only ever read about, so a few of them will let me skip classes and turn in extra work, or attend classes and curtail some of the assignments for other things. I’m actually working with one of my professors right now on our bookkeeping as an independent study project, which is kind of amazing. I should be paying her, but she said she’s so delighted to have something real to think about, she should be paying me.” He shook his head. “Sorry, you were asking about how we got started. It was Josh’s crazy, amazing idea, but he pretty much introduced himself to me one minute, and the next minute told me that we were about to start a business together and was I prepared to be the brains of the outfit? I told him he better not be implying I wasn’t beautiful.” A smile tugged at the corners of his lips, and I watched, waiting that half beat until it won, fully taking over. “He’s so charming. It’s obnoxious.”
I made my voice dry. “I can see that.”
“Oh god, stop.” Now he blushed, and it was a lovely thing, watching Keith blush. I could appreciate the aesthetics without being personally invested. Who wouldn’t appreciate Keith standing before them in a blue plaid button-down, gripping his coffee and trying to hide his smile?
“How long ago was that? It seems like QYP happened incredibly fast.”
“Ha. Not from our perspective. We met three years ago. It took a year and a half to put together the full business plan and really work it all out, though we’ve had people interested in investing almost from the start. Josh likes to say rich white people can’t resist throwing money at him.”
I considered his . . . obnoxious charm, and agreed. “I’m completely impressed so far. What’s the vision for it?”
“We want to save the kids. All of them, but especially the queer kids.” His eyes flicked to the round table again. “Hopefully at some point we’ll have a good network of shelters, at least for the kids who are over eighteen. But the younger kids are a problem. Foster care isn’t a good solution, but everything else is illegal. Sorry. I’m mumbling to myself. We can’t anticipate all the needs our community will have, but even just getting started, we have a few people coming in to use the lockers, and more than a few requests for computer use, though we don’t have a good system for that yet.”
“And are people coming by?”
“Yeah, I know you can’t tell by today, but the rain’s killer. We get a good little group after the high school lets out, and throughout the day we have a little bit of traffic around meal times. It’s getting to be an issue with ages. We don’t demand ID, but we’re an under-twenty-five organization, for the safety of the younger kids. Food draws in everyone.” He gestured to the high windows, where rain kept pelting. “When it was sunny, we brought the food outside. That way we could offer it to whoever stopped by without compromising on our demographics. Harder now.”
“And presumably there’s higher demand for a place to get off the street.”
He held up his hand, seesawing it back and forth. “When we’re established, that might be the case. At the moment we don’t have too many people lingering. People who live on the streets often have their haunts and their usual places to go in bad weather. We haven’t made it into anyone’s regular rotation yet, and to be honest, that’s not our goal. We exist to catch a certain group of kids before they start living on the street.” Another glance over. I followed his gaze.
Josh was sitting closer, talking to the young man at the table, leaning in. Not too close, but before there had been an invisible barrier between them, and now there was none, only space. I could see how much the boy wanted Josh’s help, and how resistant he was to accepting it, mirrored on the other side by how much Josh was holding back because this wasn’t the type of young man you could hug to make everything better.
“I don’t know,” Keith murmured. “What do you do with a kid whose home life consists of putting their head down and hoping to scrape by safely until they turn eighteen? And then what do you do? Hand them off to a shelter? They’d make Merin go to a women’s shelter and—there’s no way.”
I studied them again, but Merin still read like an angry young man to me. “He’d pick the streets?”
Keith touched my arm, as he had the other night. “We don’t use gendered pronouns. But yes. He would choose the street over a women’s shelter, and even if we could somehow find a men’s shelter, I’m not at all sure that would be safe. The world is not set up for trans youth, Cameron.”
“I’m sorry.” It was the only thing I could think of to say, no matter how absurd.
“Let’s make lunch. Do you mind working? Sorry, that’s terrible, isn’t it? Inviting you down here and putting you to work.”
“I don’t mind in the least. I don’t need to be back at the theater until four, so by all means, put me to work. What are we making?”
“Sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly, and tuna. Nothing fancy.”
I took off my jacket and draped it over a stool, then rolled up my cuffs. “How can I help?”
Keith blushed, again, and lowered his head. “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I really like how you wear clothes. Um. God, that’s embarrassing. Anyway.”
Take it the wrong way? I had no idea how to take it. I had no idea what to say.
He cleared his throat. “Sorry. Um. Here, start on peanut butter. Let’s make a loaf of each type. The food’s mostly donated, and we bring the uneaten prepared food back up to the soup kitchen on Third and Water Street.”
I nodded, still trying to find my tongue. And trying not to look over at my fellow sandwich maker, blush lightly staining his cheeks.