Love and Other Hot Beverages
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After a rough breakup, Todd Addison wants time alone to grieve. While still dreaming of winning back his ex’s love, he moves across the country and finds work with a construction company. The last thing he needs is the cute office boy developing a crush on him, especially since he’s back in the closet.
Sebastián Nye can’t help feeling sorry for the obviously brokenhearted Todd. Though rebuffed repeatedly, Sebby chisels away at Todd’s resistance, determined to help him forget—a task potentially beyond anyone’s capabilities. He never meant to fall for the poor guy, but he does. Hard.
Desperate to hold on to Todd, Sebby hatches a sneaky plot guaranteed to end Todd's heartbreak—if Todd doesn't bail and ruin everything. Just when things can’t get more complicated, Todd’s ex wants him back. And Sebby’s abusive ex is just waiting to catch Sebby alone. Todd and Sebby must decide what’s worth fighting for, what’s worth sacrifice, and what’s worth compromise, or their relationship will begin and end with a broken heart.
Winner of the 30th Annual Lambda Literary Award for Gay Romance!
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Chapter One: Office Boy
The office boy smiled at Todd. “That coffee’s shit.”
Hard hat under one arm, Todd stared at the coffeepot in front of him. He waited impatiently for the drip to stop, conscious of several teammates waiting their turns. They jostled one another as they laughed and joked. The men with their hard hats seemed to take up more space than necessary in the confines of the mobile office. Todd itched to get his coffee and get out into the fresh air.
“You look like someone who would appreciate good coffee,” the boy continued, and Todd knew a fishing query when he heard one. What the boy meant was, You’re gay, aren’t you? Because everyone knew that gays liked gay coffee. Todd tried to remember the boy’s name. They all called him office boy.
“I like shit,” Todd said with a feral grin. “Keeps me awake. Keeps me from falling off buildings.” Todd was not interested in having his cover blown. Passing for straight among a gang of construction workers was easy enough if you watched yourself, and that meant not watching any cute office boys. He reached for a cup, but the boy handed him one first, his tanned fingers brushing against Todd’s.
He’s shorter than I am. Not many guys were. The one who had broken his heart had been four inches taller than Todd.
“I know a good place to get real, honest, quality coffee, not the sludge they keep here,” the boy continued. Apparently, Todd’s feral grin was not scary enough or het enough. “I don’t mean like Starbucks—a local coffeehouse. It’s real nice, lo prometo.”
“I’m allergic to coffeehouses,” Todd said. “Step inside one and I’ll need hospitalization.”
It was in a coffeehouse that his heart had been broken.
The cozy New York coffeehouse had seemed innocuous enough. And then there had been one Vivian Oscar Stanton-Owens, a young man of only eighteen who had so adorably crushed on Todd. Todd should have known better—he had known better—but, flattered by the attention, had thought, Give the kid a thrill, and then had fallen for him like an idiot. There in that cozy coffeehouse, Todd had lost his heart and had it handed back to him like so much old coffee grounds.
Todd poured, staring at the brown liquid and not allowing his eyes to flick toward the boy even for a split second, definitely not noticing his dark-sienna hair and how it curled against the back of his neck.
“I’ll bring you some good coffee tomorrow,” the boy offered. “I only buy fair-trade beans. I grind them fresh each time. And I use spring water and a French press.”
That’s all I need, another kid with a crush. “I prefer this shit.” Todd threw the coffee back like a slug of whiskey, scalding his entire mouth and throat so that he was unlikely to taste anything for days. Adjusting his goggles over his eyeglasses, he turned and exited the mobile office with a manly, het swagger. He forced his mind away from the lingering impression of alluring deep-brown eyes.
* * * * * * *
Atop the Gimondi Brothers’ scaffolding, Todd indulged his favorite fantasy. Looking out over the ground below, he imagined a slight figure in bright colors picking his way across the lot, shading his eyes with his hand, squinting up at the crew. In Todd’s mind the light gathered around this figure, haloing the white-blond hair, and Todd imagined how his heart would seize up, how he would trip over himself getting to the ground. He would fling his hard hat aside, run to the figure and halt, perhaps an arm’s-length away, noting the look of mingled hope and apprehension on his—on Vivian’s face.
Todd would have to swallow hard. “You’re here . . . You came all the way to Denver?” Viv would nod and smile, and Todd would clasp Viv to himself, and the hell with all construction workers and all heterosexuals and all the world, because Todd would kiss Vivian in full view against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
* * * * * * *
Some mornings later, the crew gathered around a hole while the foreman decided what to do. They stood, a study in casualness, arms crossed or hands on hips. How many laborers does it take to look at a hole? Todd wondered. He dragged his eyes from the dirt to gaze at the mountains. He was still a flatlander, easily mesmerized.
“Good morning, men.”
Todd turned to see that the office boy had approached on silent cat feet. A chorus of unintelligible monosyllables answered.
As he unscrewed the lid of a thermos, the boy piped up: “Payroll’s done early, so pick up your checks at lunch if you want.” Cheers sounded. Gus, a grizzled man next to Todd, clapped the boy on the back, causing him to spill whatever he was pouring into the lid-slash-cup. The boy held the dripping cup away from himself, letting the liquid dribble onto the dirt. The aroma of good coffee reached Todd.
“Oh, sorry, Sebby,” Gus said.
Sebby. That’s his name. What kind of name is that?
“It’s okay. Here . . . hold this?” Sebby offered the thermos and cup to Todd.
Annoyed, Todd accepted them. Sebby pulled a bandanna from his pocket, then took hold of Todd’s wrist and wiped the cup. Sebby’s fingers pressed firmly on his skin. Todd ground his teeth, not wanting to pull away and get coffee-splashed. After wiping every possible microbe of coffee from the outside of the cup, Sebby let go, fingers stroking Todd’s wrist in a familiar manner as they slid off. “Try it.”
“You letting him try your private stash? How come he rates?” Gus laughed.
“You’re welcome to try it too, Gus,” Sebby offered.
It did smell tempting. “Give it a go, Gus. Good coffee gives me the runs.” Todd pushed the coffee at Gus, turned, and stalked off. He imagined he could feel Sebby’s eyes on him and found himself trying to remember which jeans he’d donned that morning. He had to fight to keep from touching himself to check.
* * * * * * *
“Yeah! Paid early! Office boy does it again! Hand me that three-quarters,” Dean, one of the pipe fitters, said.
“He actually does the payroll?” Todd asked, passing him the requested tool.
“Yeah. Whatcha think he does?” Dean grunted with the effort of tightening the bolt, lying in an awkward position, his arm extended to reach into a tight spot.
“I thought he just handed out the checks.”
“Naw. He’s an accountant or some shit.”
An accountant. If that was true, then Sebby had to be older than Todd had first thought. If he had an associate’s degree, he’d have to be around twenty. “How long has he worked here?”
Dean shrugged. “He was here when I got here, and I been here off and on for two years. Another year and I’ll make journeyman.”
Around twenty-two, then.
* * * * * * *
The lunch siren sounded, and the crew swarmed down to the ground. Some men headed to the local diner, while others ate in their cars or near the scaffolding or sprawled on the ground. Todd sat in his rusty old pickup with the windows rolled down. Since the Vivian incident, he’d been living with his older brother, Lloyd, and his sister-in-law had packed a lunch for him. He unwrapped it and opened a book: The Inimitable Jeeves. There was nothing better than a Wodehouse book when one needed cheering. The breeze ruffled his sweat-damp hair as he chuckled at the exploits of Bertie Wooster.
A shadow fell across his book. Todd glanced up.
“Coffee?” Sebby asked. He leaned his forearms on the open window so that his hands were inside Todd’s pickup. One hand held a styrofoam cup.
Todd’s smile emptied itself. “I told you I’m allergic to the good stuff.”
“I know. I brought you the bad stuff.” Sebby wiggled the cup a little, and Todd took it.
“Oh . . . well . . . thanks.” He sniffed it and grimaced. The earlier whiff of Sebby’s quality beverage made the office shit smell even worse.
“You like to read,” Sebby observed.
Todd nodded. “And you’re blocking my light.”
“What is it you’re reading?”
“A spy novel. W.E.B. Griffin.” Todd knew W.E.B. Griffin to be a manly, het writer because his brother read him. Todd took a gulp of coffee and couldn’t help making a face.
“You take it black, don’t you? I’ve never seen you put anything in it.”
“It tastes more gawdawful than usual. But I like it that way,” Todd hastened to add.
Sebby leaned in, and Todd leaned away. “You don’t like that coffee,” Sebby said in a conspiratorial tone. “Taste mine. I won’t tell.”
Hello, innuendo. The corners of Todd’s mouth twitched, and he forced himself to frown. The boy’s voice was as smooth and sweet as café au lait.
Todd wondered if Sebby tasted like his good coffee.
“What kind of name is ‘Sebby’?” He put as much scorn into his tone as he could muster.
“Sebastián. My momma was Mexican. But my dad thinks ‘Sebby’ is easier to say.”
“Sebastián,” Todd repeated, and his tongue went numb. It was a beautiful name, and Todd wanted to say so. Instead, he drank his coffee.
“What kind of name is ‘Todd’?” Sebby shifted, turning to the side and tilting his head back. Sunlight fell on his face, and Todd saw that his brown irises were sparked with tiny gold flecks.
“It’s, ah, I don’t know. It means ‘fox.’”
“Fox on the run.” Sebby flashed Todd a smile before turning and walking away. Todd spent the rest of his lunch wondering what that remark might mean.
Chapter Two: Love Is Gross
“Uncle Todd? Why don’t you like girls?”
The voice drifted down out of the semidarkness, and Todd gazed up at the slats of the bunk above him. The youngest of Lloyd’s three sons had been kind enough to evict his stuffed animals from his bottom bunk in order to accommodate his unfortunate uncle, and these after-dark heart-to-hearts were becoming habitual. “I like girls fine. My best friend is a girl.”
“Yeah, that girl that was here with you.” Holly, Todd’s best chum since they had both fallen in love with the same guy in ninth grade, had accompanied Todd and provided moral support on the road trip from New York to Denver. Quitting a job and running away was bad enough, but if not for Holly, he didn’t know what he might have done.
“But you don’t date girls. You date boys. Maybe if you dated girls, you wouldn’t have got your heart broken.”
Todd chuckled. “Ryan, I assure you that men who like women get their hearts broken just as often. It’s a part of life, and rather unavoidable.”
“Well, I’m not gonna get mine broken. I’m never gonna be in love. Love is gross.”
“An elegant philosophy and one that I cannot condemn.”
* * * * * * *
Todd crouched alone, goggles atop his hard hat on his head, pretending to wipe dirt from his eyes. On a construction site, no one saw this as either suspicious or unusual. Unfortunately, Todd’s hands were grimy, and he was quite handily accomplishing the supposed cause of his pretended activity.
The gentle voice made him glance up. Of course it would be Sebby standing over him, offering a cup and an expression of detached concern. Todd grabbed the cup and gulped. A rich and aromatic liquid went down his throat before his sense of smell alerted him. “Motherfuck,” he sputtered.
“I sneaked the good stuff on you, yeah. You gonna knock me down?”
Todd shook his head and went back to wiping his eyes.
“There’s an eyewash in the office.”
“No . . . thanks . . .” He gulped the coffee again and grimaced. Swinging the cup in an arc, he threw the rest of it out, painting a parabola on the ground in front of him.
Sebby tsked. “What is it with you and the coffee? Was your last boyfriend Juan Valdez?”
Todd raised his head and glared at him.
Sebby tsked again. “You’re a mess. Come on into the office, Todd. That’s an order.” He turned and walked off. After a moment, Todd got to his feet, his knees creaking like a ninety-year-old’s. He hurried to catch up with Sebby, who paced across the site.
“Fox on the run,” Sebby said.
“You’re on the run from a love affair gone bad.”
A consternated Todd had no reply.
“You don’t have to talk about it. It’s just, um, you’re pretty pitiful, you know.”
Pretty pitiful, Todd thought, privately enjoying the alliteration.
They reached the mobile office, and in they went, the screen door banging behind them, and they were alone.
“Clean up.” Sebby pointed at the sink. “I’ll get the eyewash.”
Todd set aside his hard hat, goggles, and eyeglasses. He tore off a fistful of paper towels and wetted them in the sink. The cold water refreshed him as he buried his face in the wet towels and wiped away the grime.
“Lean back over the counter.”
Todd jumped. He hadn’t heard him approach. “What?” He began finger-combing his hair. I have helmet hair. Sweaty helmet hair. And that makes my hair look a dark, icky blond, and why do I care what I look like? He gave his hair a final fluff. “What?” he repeated.
Sebby tossed a cloth towel to Todd, raised a plastic bottle, and shook it. “Eyewash. Lean back over the counter.”
Todd reached for the eyewash. “I’ll do it myself.”
Sebby held the eyewash out of reach. “You can’t. Lean back.”
“How do you mean?” Discomposed, Todd did not know how he could lean backward over the narrow counter.
“On your side. We’ll get this eye, then the other. The wash needs to be able to run out, and you don’t want it all over you. Move over.” Todd did so. Sebby washed his hands, snatched the towel from Todd, and demonstrated the correct position, leaning half over the counter, pillowing his head on the folded towel. “See? Now you.”
Todd did as instructed. Sebby rested a cool hand on Todd’s brow, smoothing back his hair. Todd shivered and closed his eyes.
“Hello, Toddfox, eyewash requires eyes to be open?”
Todd opened his eyes. Sebby’s face was very close. Deep-brown eyes looked into Todd’s blue ones. “How old are you?” Todd asked.
Sebby straightened. “Twenty-five.”
“I know; I should staple my driver’s license to my forehead. And you’re twenty-three until September twenty-second, and your middle name is Marvin. Now, ready?” Pressing gently on Todd’s head, he bent over him again and brought the plastic bottle close. “Open wide.” Having said this, he thumbed Todd’s eyelid and released the eyewash. Todd flinched, but the wash flowed soothingly into and out of his eye.
Sebby released him, and Todd blinked. “You snooped in the office records,” Todd accused.
“I am the office. Please turn over.”
Bemused, Todd shifted to his other side. The angle was different, and Sebby pressed up against Todd’s back to again smooth his hair away and direct the flow of the eyewash. Todd lay there, all awkwardness. How long had it been since anyone had touched him with affection? You’re exaggerating. Ryan hugs you. Donna is always taking your arm or ruffling your hair. Jesus, even Lloyd’s been known to do the macho shoulder squeeze.
“You’re done. Better?”
Todd wiped his face with the towel and straightened, blinked myopically. “I believe so. Thank you.”
“Your eyes are red.”
“Coffee. Will you please try my coffee? I’ve been making it for you every day, and you keep turning me down and dumping it in the dirt. And it’s expensive stuff, and I labor over it.”
“I tried it,” Todd protested, adjusting his eyeglasses, followed by his goggles. “It didn’t suit me.”
Todd hesitated. He couldn’t remember why he had declined in the first place. “Very well. In my weakened state, I cannot refuse.”
Chapter Three: Days Since Last Accident
Something caught Todd’s eye, pulling his gaze from the mountains. Far below, he spied Sebby emerging from the mobile office, and his heart gave an unfamiliar little skip-hop. It was break time. Some of the men preferred to rest where they were, others headed for the ground. Todd took his time descending from the partially completed building.
“Hey, French Press,” he said in greeting as he reached the ground.
Sebby grinned, and a tiny crease with a perfect pinprick appeared in the middle of his left cheek. He has a dimple! Todd stared as Sebby poured from a thermos and pressed the cup into Todd’s hands.
“Well? Are you going to drink?”
“Er—yeah.” Todd inhaled the rich aroma, sipped, and swallowed. What could he say to keep that smile on Sebby’s face? His wits failed him. All he could think about was reaching out to touch that small indentation. “Mmm.”
The grin grew; the dimple deepened. “That’s all you’ve got to say.”
Todd sipped again. “Mmmmm,” he elaborated.
Elegant eyebrows went up.
Todd considered. “Ah . . . thank you?”
* * * * * * *
Looking down from the scaffolding and scanning the site for the small figure of Sebby and his thermos at break time became habit to Todd.
“What is it with office boy always bringing you coffee?” Dean wanted to know. They were all taking a breather, sitting in a loose group high above the ground.
Todd shrugged. Sometimes the best answer was no answer at all.
“Office boy wants to suck his cock!” said one of the journeymen. There was general laughter. Todd was accustomed to this sort of talk. It was a mystery to him, but straight men seemed to find nothing more hilarious than homoerotic humor.
“He’ll just have to get in line. Behind all you homos,” Todd said. There were shouts and more laughter demonstrating that Todd had scored a point.
Todd gazed at the mountains, seeing instead Sebastián’s face and that smile. What would it be like to kiss it, the dimple? It was so small, would his lips even feel it? He imagined poking his tongue into it; that could work.
If Sebby was smiling when Todd kissed him.
* * * * * * *
“Hey, Zorro,” Sebby said as Todd reached the ground.
“Zorro?” Todd considered slashing a Z in the air, decided against it.
“Zorro is Spanish for fox.” Sebby poured a cup from his thermos and handed it to Todd. Their hands brushed.
“I didn’t know that.” Todd felt inordinately pleased by the nickname. “In French it’s renard.”
“You speak French?”
“Mais oui.” The memory pricked his heart like thumbtacks. He and Vivian had nattered on in French almost as much as they had in English. He watched while Sebby offered coffee to the others. They stood or sat in groups, drinking coffee or smoking. Todd kept a decent distance between himself and Sebby, who showed no inclination to close the gap.
* * * * * * *
“Fuck! Fucking shit, oh fuuuck!”
Curses could be heard minute by minute from anyone on the crew, but something in the tone of this one made Todd turn toward the yell. He spotted Rob, a welder about Todd’s age, holding his arm up and staring at it as if staring would stop the bleeding. Drawing a hissing breath, Todd hurried to his side.
“Shit! Fucking fuck, I caught myself on a sharp!” Blood soaked the side of Rob’s shirt and pattered on the planks.
A gray curtain dipped over Todd’s eyes, and he had to avert his eyes. “Ah . . . you need to get to the office. There’s first aid shit in there. Come on.” Todd swallowed, took hold of Rob’s good arm, and pulled, breathing through his mouth to minimize the coppery smell. Todd towed him toward the office, giving thanks that at least they were on the ground level. The earth swayed a little. Think about something, think about anything: coffee. He imagined the aroma of good, strong coffee, and the ground righted itself. They made it to the office.
Sebby applied first aid with the casual skill of someone who has seen dozens of similar injuries. “It’s not as bad as it looks, Mr. Clumsy. But you do need stitches. Todd, drive him to the hospital?”
Todd lifted his head from his knees. “Me?”
“I can’t leave the office. See, he’s patched up, no more blood, this’ll hold him for a while.” Sebby erased the number twenty-three from the board, which read: Days since last accident.
Todd tried to gather his wits. “I— All, all right.”
Sebby peered at him. “You don’t look so good. I’ll get someone else. Can’t risk you fainting behind the wheel.” He pulled out a cell phone, dialed, and spoke briefly. “Gus’ll be here in a sec. He’s an old-timer, so he’s seen plenty of worse stuff. Hey, don’t worry, Robbie.” Sebby patted Rob, who appeared petrified. “A few stitches and you’ll be fine. Todd, though, I don’t know. I think he’s traumatized. He’ll need weeks of therapy to recover.”
“Oh, thank you so much.” Todd dropped his head back to his knees.
Rob laughed, a shaky, forced laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
Head down, Todd’s thoughts strayed to Vivian. Viv had once hurt his arm and needed a blood transfusion, and he had looked so pale and ethereal in the hospital. The realization left him shaken that now no one was likely to call him if Vivian were hurt; no one would even think to call him. No one thought of him at all.
* * * * * * *
Gus left with Rob in tow, and Sebby presented Todd with a cup of coffee. “No smelling salts, but maybe this’ll work just as well.”
Todd accepted the cup but kept his head down. “That was humiliating.”
“Ohhh, very. You’ll need even more weeks of therapy to get over the humiliation.” He commenced rubbing Todd’s bent-over back, up and down. It was soothing and somehow familiar. “Seriously, Zorro, don’t worry about it. I’ve seen burly construction workers drop at the sight of blood, and you at least walked him to the office.” He continued to rub Todd’s back.
Todd closed his eyes. It was all he could do to keep from wrapping his arms around Sebastián and pressing his face against him. Jesus God, just to hold someone, just to be held. Instead he wrapped his hands around the coffee cup. “I’m a tower of strength, I am.”
Chapter Four: Get Laid And Get Out
Up in the unfinished structure, Todd crouched over a stripped screw, trying to get it loose. A twinge in his shoulder made him wince.
“Office boy wants you.”
Startled, Todd looked up at Dean. It was several seconds before he realized the words were not a sexual reference. “Ah . . . did he say why?”
“Paperwork or something. Here, I’ll get that. We got a special head for it.”
Todd stood and stretched, working the kinks out of his shoulder. “You going back down?”
Todd was nervous at the thought of being alone again with Sebastián. “Anybody else going down?” He caught Gus looking at him. “You going down, Gus?”
“You need help with your paperwork?” Gus said. “ABCs giving you trouble?”
“No, it’s . . . Office boy scares me.” Todd tried to laugh it off.
The lines of Gus’s face settled into a frown. “I’ll go with you.”
They reached the ground, and Gus began to lecture. “You have no call to be rude to Sebby, Addison. He’s a good kid. The guys may joke about him, but they like him. He’s kind of a mascot. You treat him good or I’ll know the reason why.”
Todd swallowed hard. “No, sir. I didn’t mean—”
“There’s nothing wrong with gays. They’re good at what they do.” Gus left him at the mobile office, turned, and headed back across the site.
They’re good at what they do? Todd snorted, knocked on the door, and entered.
Sebby, seated at his desk, looked up from the computer. “Zorro!”
“You wanted me?” Todd said and then bit his tongue. Jesus, more unintended innuendo.
“Yes,” Sebby said in a businesslike tone. “Have a seat.”
Todd did so. He threw one arm over the back of the chair and crossed his ankle over the opposite knee.
“I’m worried about you, Todd.” Sebby put his fist under his chin and regarded Todd with professional concern.
“I apologize. I’d no intention of causing you worry. I assure you I’ve suffered no permanent damage from my fainting spell the other day. As long as no one bleeds in my vicinity in the near future, I shall make a full recovery.” Todd hid his nerves behind a confident smile. His instincts told him he was about to be propositioned.
“Coffee? I just made it.” The familiar thermos stood on the corner of his desk, and Sebby poured two cups. “I’m worried about where you’ll get good coffee from if something should happen to me. You can’t or won’t make your own, and you have this life-threatening coffeehouse allergy.”
“Is something going to happen to you? I’d just have to go back to the office shit.”
“No más.” Sebby shook his head. “I feel responsible for your coffee needs.”
“What do you propose, then?”
“You need to learn to make good coffee yourself. Come over to my place and I’ll teach you to French press.”
More innuendo. Todd opened his mouth and shut it again. It’s too soon, I’ve just met him, and I’m not ready to move on . . . “Okay.”
Sebby looked like he’d missed the last step of a staircase. “Okay? Really?”
“I thought you’d say no.”
“Evidently, you were wrong.”
“It took you so long to say yes to my coffee. I thought you’d play harder to get.”
Todd gave Sebby a severe look over the rims of his glasses. “Sebastián, is this why you had Dean fetch me from all the way up there on what will someday be known as the ninth floor?”
“Look, um . . .” Sebby turned away and shuffled some papers on the corner of his desk. “If I’m making you uncomfortable, I’m, um, I didn’t mean to. It’s not like sexual harassment; I mean, technically, we don’t even work together. So, you know, if you don’t want me hitting on you, nothing will happen if you turn me down. You’ll still get a paycheck and whatever.”
Todd put a shocked and hurt look on his face. “Are you hitting on me?”
Sebby regarded Todd over his shoulder.
In a wounded tone, Todd said, “I thought you were going to teach me this French press out of altruistic concern for my coffee needs.”
Sebby laughed, an unself-conscious burst of sound. “I don’t usually invite guys over.”
“I can see that you are unskilled in the art of flirting.”
“I mean, I usually get them to invite me somewhere. But you’re different, Zorro. You are stiff-necked.” He stepped behind Todd and placed his hands on Todd’s neck. His thumbs on either side of Todd’s spine pressed firmly upward.
Todd stiffened at the familiarity of it. How many times had he massaged Vivian’s neck when he’d been ill? This is what it feels like from the other side.
“You’re tight,” Sebby said. He kneaded Todd’s neck and shoulders. Todd found himself relaxing into Sebby’s hands, until the sound of feet mounting the steps of the mobile office made him tense up, and Sebby moved away.
* * * * * * *
Todd was surprised to learn that Sebastián owned a small house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Sebby provided him with detailed directions for finding his place.
“And here’s my number, so just call me if you get lost. Maybe I should come and pick you up? That would be easier. Or you could just follow me home.” Sebby batted his lids and smiled, and God, that dimple. Politely finishing dinner before nabbing him would take self-control that Todd was not sure he had.
“I want to look my best for this coffee instruction, not arrive covered in dust and perspiration. I’ll go home and shower and change first.”
Sebby slid his hand down the length of the inside of Todd’s arm before lacing his fingers with Todd’s. He tugged, and Todd looked down at him, and Sebby looked up at Todd. Todd’s breath caught, and he leaned closer.
Sebby said, “If you decide not to show, that’s okay. I’ll understand.”
Todd blinked. “Why would I do that?”
“You best know the answer.” And Sebby let him go.
* * * * * * *
Todd went home to shower and change. He pulled into the driveway of his brother’s suburban four-bedroom home. Wiping his palms on his jeans, he made his way to the kitchen. He’d been living with his brother’s family for a couple of months now and had rarely missed an evening meal. Donna, his sister in law, stood at the stove. Lloyd was bent over, rummaging in the refrigerator.
“I won’t be here for dinner tonight. I’m going to a friend’s.”
Lloyd straightened. Donna looked up from whatever she was stirring. “Oh, you have a friend?” She sounded thrilled.
“Yeah, just someone from work, ah . . .” What was he doing? This was family and they accepted him. “It’s a . . . ah, a date.”
“That’s great!” Donna said.
“You’re dating someone from work?” Lloyd’s forehead broke into furrows. He closed the refrigerator and tossed a bag of carrots on the counter. “You sure that’s such a good idea?”
“Considering whether or not something is a good idea has never stopped me from doing anything. Having said that, I will further say that I believe it to be an excellent idea.”
Donna turned off the burner, moved the pan, and came forward, still clutching her spatula. “Why wouldn’t it be a good idea?”
Lloyd ripped open the carrot bag. “Sooner or later he’ll get outed. If he’s gonna be seeing someone on a regular basis that works where he works.”
“Is it going to be regular?” Donna asked.
“I apologize, but the hard drive on my crystal ball was downed by a vicious virus,” Todd said. “As soon as prognosticative capabilities are restored, I’ll let you know the exact duration and intensity of this particular affiliation.”
They blinked at him.
“I mean, dear people, I do not know! How can I know if it’s going to be regular?”
Lloyd shook his head and commenced chopping carrots. “It better not be. Just get laid and get out.”
The idea of treating Sebby in such a manner filled Todd with self-loathing. “That’s not how I roll.”
“‘That’s not how I roll’?” Lloyd guffawed. “Where are you getting this?”
“Look, I gotta get ready. Any other advice you’d like to offer? Of the useful variety?”
“Don’t go empty-handed.” Donna pointed her spatula at Todd. “Bring something.”
Chapter Five: Cat at a Mouse Hole
The house numbers ticked by till he came to the right one, but instead of turning in, Todd drove past the house and around the next corner and parked at the curb. He couldn’t stop thinking of Vivian, and that was hardly conducive to a successful first date. Todd gave himself a shake and sat straight up. I might as well go home. He said it was all right if I didn’t show.
Reaching to put the truck in drive, it occurred to him that Sebby had known Todd would feel this way. Todd drummed his fingers on the wheel. He thought of Sebby’s hair and how it curled at the back of the neck. He recalled Sebby taking his hand and looking up at him. He remembered Sebby’s smile and how he had almost kissed him.
Todd put the pickup into gear and drove around the block.
* * * * * * *
Sebby opened his door before Todd reached it, beaming like a flood lamp. “Toddfox! Come in, come in! Mi casa es tu casa.” He held the door and stepped aside. “You look nice.”
“Ah, thanks.” He followed Sebby through the house to the kitchen. “Mmm. Smells wonderful. Oh, here, I brought this.” Respecting Donna’s advice, Todd had stopped and bought a baguette.
“Thank you!” Sebby laid the baguette on the counter. “I want to show you my home.”
Chattering, he took Todd’s hand and led him through the house, which was filled with collectables and glassware of all colors and descriptions. The word eclectic came to mind, though the place was neat as any pin Todd had ever poked himself with. It was a quick tour, and Sebby didn’t even linger in the bedroom but instead drew Todd through the rest of the house and back to the kitchen.
“You like my place?” Sebby tilted his head to the side. The bright lighting in the kitchen picked out the gold in his eyes.
Todd squeezed Sebby’s hand. “It’s perfect. Charming. As are you. Did you know there are gold flecks in your eyes?”
Said eyes widened. “No?”
“Has no one ever told you? I noticed it in the sunlight, but it’s evident here as well, where your eyes catch the light. It’s like . . . It reminds me of . . .” Todd hesitated. “Have you ever taken a tour of a gold mine?”
“Of course. In these parts? Who hasn’t?”
“You’ve seen those souvenirs they sell? The little vials of gold flakes suspended in solution?”
“My eyes are like little vials swimming with tiny gold flakes?” Sebby’s smile broadened, and the dimple appeared. Todd’s stomach tightened.
He raised his free hand to touch the indentation, which disappeared as Sebby’s expression sobered. Todd’s fingers brushed Sebby’s face where the dimple had been.
Sebby took a breath. “You want to kiss me. I wish you would.”
Todd stroked the side of Sebby’s face, smoothed his hair behind his ear, and brought his fingers to Sebby’s lips. “I hardly dare. You’re too sweet; you’ll disintegrate, leaving nothing but a sticky spot on the floor.”
Sebby laughed, and Todd moved, pressing his lips to the dimple, but Sebby’s face had already smoothed out again. Todd was both irked and charmed; it was a tricky thing. Kissing was apparently serious business to Sebby. “Smile for me.”
Sebby smiled uncertainly, not enough to bring out the dimple. Todd felt like a cat at a mouse hole ready to pounce at a glimpse of prey. “Um . . . bigger . . .”
“Bigger?” Sebby’s eyes went wide and baffled; his face fell into a frown.
“Smile bigger? I like your smile. I . . . love your smile.”
Understanding dawned. Todd caught the dimple this time, kissed it, poked his tongue into it, and Sebby squirmed. Todd’s hand went to the back of Sebby’s neck to hold him still, and he moved to kiss Sebby’s mouth gently, as though disintegration were a real danger.
All too soon Sebby pulled away. “First things first: you must have coffee. I’m sure you need it. Can you go even one hour without?”
Todd endeavored to catch his breath. “I’m able to go long periods of time without many things. It’s merely that I don’t like to.”
Sebby tittered. “Come here, I’ll show you my French press.”
“Whyyy does that sound so suggestive?” With his eyes following the swing of Sebby’s hips, Todd allowed himself to be towed to one end of the galley-style kitchen where an old-fashioned coffee mill stood with a bag of beans.
“It’s best to grind only the amount you need for the moment.” Sebby scooped beans into the mill. “Turn the crank,” he instructed and, placing Todd’s hand on the knob of the crank, guided his hand in wide circles as the crank turned in a plane parallel to the floor.
Todd closed his eyes and inhaled the fragrance, feeling Sebby’s hand on his, Sebby’s arm against his.
“Now, open the drawer.” Todd opened his eyes as well as the drawer of the mill, wherein rested the fruits of their labor. “And that goes in here.” Sebby spooned the grounds into a small glass pitcher with bright-red trim. “Now the water.” He added hot water from a tea kettle. “And we let it steep.” He placed the lid on the pitcher. A long stick with a knob on the end projected straight up from the top of the lid.
Todd cleared his throat. “For how long?”
“Two or three minutes for extraction of the essential oils. I know you like yours strong, so we’ll wait three minutes.”
Sebby turned away to set a timer. He bent his head, and his hair fell away from the back of his neck. Without stopping to think, Todd placed a kiss there, to the creamy-brown skin where his spine emerged from his collar. Sebby trembled and pressed back against him, and Todd’s arm went around Sebby to pull him even closer. He nuzzled into Sebby’s dark curls, breathing in his scent, like spicy coffee, as if he’d bathed in it, and perhaps he had. He kissed his neck and his hair and murmured his name, Sebastián, and then the timer sounded, and Sebby moved away and slapped it off.
“Now we . . . Now the French press.” Sebby took Todd’s hand again and guided it to the lid of the pitcher, to the stick with the knob. He closed his hand over Todd’s. “This is . . . the plunger or the piston. You must push it all the way down, slowly and smoothly, all in one motion, and the rod must remain straight up, or the coffee is ruined.” He put pressure on Todd’s hand and, slowly and smoothly, together they depressed the piston.
It was a long time before they had either coffee or dinner.
* * * * * * *
With morning light glowing red through his eyelids, Todd half awoke, steeped in drowsy tranquility, and eased closer to the warm body next to his, nuzzling the soft hair. His eyes fluttered open. The hair in front of his eyes was dark brown, and he recoiled. The brown head lifted, and Sebastián’s face appeared. Time and memory unwound like thread from a spinning spool. Todd drew a swift, deep breath.
“Todd? Something wrong?”
“No . . . a dream . . . falling. I was . . . woke up suddenly.” Todd ripped a hand through his hair.
Sebby eyed him. “It’s disorienting, waking up in a strange place. You don’t remember where you are . . . who you’re with . . .”
“Sebastián. See? I remember.” Todd lay back and threw an arm over his eyes.
“Shh, Todd, for a moment you thought I was him. It’s all right. It’s natural.It doesn’t hurt my feelings.” A hand brushed his arm where it lay across his eyes, a tentative touch. Todd didn’t move, and the hand commenced to stroke his arm. “Now, if you refuse to drink my coffee, that will hurt my feelings; if you grab your clothes and take off in your truck, that will hurt my feelings, but it won’t hurt my feelings if you need to cry a little.”
Todd fisted his eyes. “Sebby . . . oh, Sebby, I’m sorry. I am not a fun date.”
“Toddfox, how can you say that? You just need coffee. Wake up and remember how much fun you were.” Sebby’s fingers moved down Todd’s arm to his chest and traced idle patterns. “Guess what I’m writing.”
“Ah . . . what?” Todd dropped his fists and moved to sit up.
Sebby pushed him down. “Don’t look! Guess what I’m writing.” His finger continued moving on Todd’s chest.
“You’re writing something?” He tucked his chin and tried to see.
“No! Cover your eyes again.” Sebby reached and put his other hand over Todd’s eyes. “You’re supposed to try and feel what I’m writing.”
Todd put his hands over Sebby’s hand. “Ah . . . is it my name?”
“Score one for Todd. Erase erase erase.” He rubbed his hand briskly over Todd’s chest. “Now, guess again.” He resumed writing.
“It . . . has an O . . . ‘Fox’?”
“Good! Erase erase erase.”
“You’re making this too easy.”
“Always wanting a challenge, no?” Sebby’s finger moved quickly.
“I didn’t get it. Do it again,” Todd demanded, and Sebby complied. “It has an F . . . You’re not doing the same word again, trying to trick me?” Sebby’s finger moved, and Todd, concentrating, began to laugh. “‘Fuck’?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” Sebby’s hand swooped south, Todd yelped, and that was the end of that game, though the beginning of the next.
* * * * * * *
After a late breakfast, Todd took his leave, needing to process and regroup. He felt as if he’d cheated on Vivian and felt guilty for mistaking Sebby for Vivian. No reasonable list of facts could assuage Todd’s guilt—that Vivian had ended their relationship, that Sebby understood and didn’t seem to take it personally. It seemed to him that he had hurt two people.
How did I get myself into this? I was going to be anonymous, I was going to keep away from cute boys, I was going to work and sleep and be with family, and grieve, and that was all. Todd pulled into the next convenient parking lot and dialed his best friend and confidante, Holly.
“Todd-o! Why don’t you call more? Geeze, I’ve been worried. You’ve called me like once since I drove down there with you.”
“Holly, sorry, ah . . . everything’s fine. I saw that you called. I should’ve returned your calls. I’ve been in a fiendish funk. I didn’t want to speak with anyone who . . . who knew Viv.” Todd scrubbed his hand over his forehead.
“That makes no sense. Someone who knows Viv knows what you feel like. And, I don’t know, life has to go on, even if it isn’t going on the way you want it to.”
“I know, you’re right, and . . . I sort of met someone. I had a date. Last night.” He winced, anticipating a squeal of delight, but Holly answered in cautious tones.
“Ohhh, Todd. Are you ready for that?”
Todd sagged with relief. He hadn’t realized how stressed he was by people telling him he needed to get over it and get back out there. “I don’t know. I thought it went well, but then— Now I’ve had second thoughts. I feel guilty.”
“You can’t help how you feel, but what do you have to feel guilty for?”
Todd tangled his hand in his overly long hair. “When I woke up this morning, I was with him, and I reached for him, and it wasn’t Vivian, and it was like a nightmare.”
There was a pause. “You slept with someone on the first date?”
“Will you listen? It’s not as though I just met him. We’ve spent time together at work, and then he invited me over, and, yeah, I slept with him. Don’t lecture me. And now I feel guilty.” Todd sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t be with anyone. It’s hardly fair to Sebby—that’s his name, Sebby—if I’m in love with someone else. And what if Viv changes his mind? What then?”
There was a longish silence. “He’s not going to change his mind.”
“I know that, I know that. But what if he did?”
“If he did, then . . . he’d be being capricious, and you shouldn’t get back with him, because he’d just dump you again. Is that what’s stopping you, just that you feel like you should wait around for Vivian? Because that’s messed up.”
“I’m not, no. I didn’t mean that—I don’t know what I mean. Jesus, I don’t know anything.”
“Okay, okay, um, forget that for now,” Holly said. “What’s he like? What’d you say his name is? And is he— I mean, how old is he?”
“Twenty-five. Sebby. He works in the office where I work, and he’s little; Holly, he’s shorter than I am.” He paused. “Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever been with anyone shorter than I am?”
“That’s because he’d have to be a hobbit, and they’re scarce in the New World.” She laughed.
“Har, har. Yeah, and he’s cute. He has this dark-brown hair that curls a little and big brown eyes, and when he smiles? A dimple appears. At work, he kept bringing me coffee and trying to get me to talk to him, and, in point of fact, I wasn’t nice, but he was persistent, and he’s patient and adorable, and he was understanding and sweet and not even upset this morning when I leapt out of bed with fright at the sight of him.”
Holly’s voice became the one reserved for cooing at puppies. “Awww, Tooodd.”
“You like him!”
“Well . . . yes . . . I . . . Did I neglect to mention that?”
“You did neglect, and it’s kinda an important point.” Holly reverted to a brisk tone. “Sebby sounds nice, and I don’t think you should, you know . . . miss out on a possible opportunity, when it’s someone you like.”
“Perhaps I’m uninterested in such opportunities.”
“Nooo, I think you’re scared. That’s what I think. But it’s supposed to be a little scary and weird and uncomfortable and exciting; it always is, don’t you think?”
Todd thought this over, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “So . . . I should see him again.”
“If you want to. Do you want to?”
“What if I’m bad for him? What if I’m . . . just bad for people in general?”
“Todd, holy crap. Having one relationship not work out doesn’t mean you’re bad for people in general. Good grief.” She growled.
“I’m afraid of hurting him; he’s the sweetest thing. He doesn’t deserve someone who will fuck up his world. I th—”
“You’re allowed to seek happiness, Todd-o,” Holly interrupted, and he could hear the frown in her voice.
“Constitutionally I am guaranteed that right; yes. That’s not the point.”
“Well, to me it is.”
“I should call him. Or text him. Or something.”
There was silence on the other end for several seconds at this swift turnabout. “Um. Okay.”
“I left rather abruptly. I’m afraid I may have worried him.” Todd fretted and chewed his tongue.
“Okay . . .”
“I just, I like him.”
“Okay . . .”
“I’m going to text him. Ah . . . thanks, hon, I’ll call you later?”
“Stick a needle in my eye. Bye. Thanks. Bye.”
Todd screwed up his face and considered what to text. Everything sounded stupid. He decided to call instead. His hand felt slippery. He forced himself to loosen his grip on his phone.
Todd ungritted his teeth. “Hello, French Press; it’s I, Todd.”
There was a pause. “Todd? Not Todd Addison. He’s busy all day helping his brother with the yardwork.”
“Ah, but he’s a speedy worker and has finished already and would like to take you out this afternoon if you’ve not already made plans.”
“Get over here and we’ll talk about it.”
“I, well, I wanted to, ah, make my reservation with you, so to speak. I’ll go home and change first, freshen up, then I’ll come fetch you, shall I?”
“No. Get over here now.”
“I think you want to. Am I wrong?”
Todd gave up. “No, you’re not. Very well. I’ll be there.”
Chapter Six: Slasher Sectary
“You were gone almost the whole weekend!”
This accusation proceeded in injured tones from the mouth of an angry eleven-year-old. Ryan had come bounding out of the house almost the second Todd’s pickup pulled into the driveway. He leaned against the driver’s side door as if intent on preventing Todd from exiting the vehicle.
“I’m here now,” Todd pointed out. “Do you want to do something? Go to a movie?”
“It’s too late for a movie!”
“Too late for a matinee, but we can catch the evening showing.”
“There’s nothing I want to see, anyway.”
“Let’s do something else, then. Bowling? I’ll even spring for chili dogs.”
Ryan ducked his head and scuffed his foot in the gravel.
Todd continued to wheedle. “Nachos, for good measure. You cannot say no to nachos. I know this and you know this, so you may as well announce your surrender now.”
“Mom probably won’t let me,” Ryan mumbled.
“Leave it to me. Your mother has a soft spot where I’m concerned, and I guarantee you that fifteen minutes after I get in the door, you and I will be on our way.”
As predicted, Donna relented. Kenneth asked to come with them. Todd deferred to Ryan, not wanting to ruin an uncle-nephew outing by adding an additional nephew, but Ryan was delighted that his older brother wanted to come. Christopher protested at being left behind, and so the four of them piled into Todd’s pickup.
* * * * * * *
The conventional wisdom of dating dictated that he hold off on calling, so Todd compromised by texting instead.
French Press! It is I, Todd.
A minute or two later the response came: Is this the Todd who made beautiful love to me a few hours ago?
Todd grinned. How many Todds do you know?
Too many to count. I guess you’ll go back to being all awkward tomorrow.
No. What? Am I awkward? No. I will not be awkward. Yes, I probably will be awkward.
Don’t worry. I won’t out u.
Todd hadn’t thought about it. I’m not worried about that.
It’s OK. We can fuck in the office and no one will know.
Todd stammered to himself. That is a rather disturbing mental image.
Not what I was going for. LOL. Todd imagined the sweet, ingenuous sound of Sebby’s laughter. It’s so easy to unnerve u.
I beg your pardon? I have nerves of steel. LOL.
OK if I bring lunch for u sometime? If u don’t want to I understand.
Coffee and now lunch. People will talk.
They’ll say I have a crush. Just frown at me and no one will think bad of u.
“Sebby,” Todd said, aloud. He almost decided to call after all. It isn’t that it’s bad. I don’t think that. You don’t think I think that?
When can I see u again?
You’ll see me tomorrow.
Not what I meant. Don’t be mean.
You will see me tomorrow, and we can make plans then.
Ur going to make me wait allll night? Ur mean.
Todd gave up and texted the first thing that came into his head. Very well, after work tomorrow, would you like to go bowling?
There was a pause before the response came. I don’t think so?
Okay, not bowling. Would you care to take in a movie?
The response took longer, but Todd could almost hear the enthusiasm. There’s an old theater downtown that shows classic films and I’d love for u to take me. They’re showing Texas chainsaw massacre. Another text followed: The original not the horrid remake.
Todd pursed his lips, consternated. Sweet Sebby is a slasher sectary?
Slasher secretary? What’s that? Chainsaw is a classic film, it’s exciting and also existential. Todd had begun a reply when the next text came: Oh I forgot ur squeamish. It’s OK, I’ll go with friends. U and me can find something romantic. U like romantic?
No, a sectary: it means a zealot, a devotee, a fanatic.
LOL. U like words. Y r u in construction?
Construction guys can’t like words?
U know your way around a site, but u don’t belong there. Ur a word sectary. So y r u there?
Todd was not ready to have this conversation. It’s temporary. I am in limbo, as it were.
Bc of what happened. Your love affair.
Todd chose his words carefully. Because I don’t know what I ought to do. He immediately followed with another text: *what I want to do.
Sebby replied, I know what I want to do and who I want to do it to.
“To whom I want to do it,” Todd said, and winced. He and Vivian had been in the habit of correcting one another’s grammar. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. A thousand times good night! he texted. He was mixing his plays, and Viv might have called him on it, but Sebby did not.
His last action before going to bed was to stare at Vivian’s name on his cell phone, or rather his pet name, Vivid. He realized he should delete it. He decided he would. First thing the next day.
Chapter Seven: Paperwork
“How was the big date?” Dean asked.
Todd’s smile was genuine. “Pretty goddamn awesome.”
“Sweet! So she was hot? Did you get some?”
Uncomfortable with this line of questioning, Todd just smirked. Let Dean draw his own conclusions.
* * * * * * *
Some days later, it was particularly warm, and Todd removed his hat in order to wipe his forearm across his brow. He was tired and grubby, and a dip in a pool might have been preferable to lunch, were he given the choice.
“Hat on till you’re out of the hard hat area, Addison,” Gus ordered. Todd replaced his hat until he was across the site and in his truck.
“¡Oye, Zorro!” Sebby leaned into the open window of Todd’s truck. “Too hot for coffee?”
“Never too hot for coffee.” Todd accepted the proffered cup. “This is a . . .” He looked into the oversized cup and back up at Sebby. “Iced coffee? You’re amazing, French Press.” He gulped the cold beverage, and it was close to the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
“These are Thai spring rolls. You eat them cold.”
Todd felt a nudge and opened his eyes to see a plastic container being shoved at him.
“There’s peanut sauce for dipping. So . . . you know. Let me know if you like them.” Sebby rapped his knuckles on the door and turned to go.
“Sebastián? Won’t you join me?”
Sebby turned back, glanced around. “Are you sure?” Todd nodded. Sebby smiled and then bopped around to the other side of the truck and climbed in, slamming the door and bouncing a little. “This is the first time I’ve been in your truck.”
“Hopefully not the last.” Todd ripped the cover from the container. “Did you make these?”
“Of course. They’re refreshing on a hot day.” Sebby took the container from Todd and parceled out spring rolls. “We have to share the dip.” He slid toward Todd along the old truck’s bench seat.
Todd was conscious of Sebby’s body so near and his dimple, just within kissing distance. Sebby was neat and clean and made Todd more aware of his own sweaty state. “You may not want to sit so close. It’s a hot day and . . . I’m hot.”
Sebby rolled his eyes. “I knooow what you’re trying to say. No, I’m not used to sweaty construction workers at all, no.” He edged a bit closer.
Todd’s nerves were doing the Lindy Hop. To distract himself, he dunked a spring roll and took a huge bite. It was refrigerator-cold and his eyes widened. “Mmm.”
“No double-dipping,” Sebby said.
Todd felt a hand on his thigh, just resting there, and suddenly he could think of nothing except the fact that there was a hand on his thigh. He stuffed the rest of the spring roll into his mouth.
“Tell me about him.” Sebby’s hand moved up Todd’s thigh.
Todd inhaled a bit of spring roll and was seized by a coughing fit. He tried to suppress it, which made it worse, so he gave into it, coughing, wheezing, eyes watering. Sebby eyed him. A swig of coffee and Todd caught his breath. In a strangled voice, he said, “I don’t want to talk about him, I’m trying to forget about him.”
“And doing such an epic job of it. You never talk about him, and it isn’t natural. Sometimes you have to talk to forget. Like emptying the garbage.” His hand inched up Todd’s thigh.
“I don’t . . . It’s not . . . Discussing one’s former paramours with one’s current paramour is a faux pas I don’t intend to make.” He moved his leg away a bit, but Sebby’s hand followed, moving ever-so-slightly inward.
“Is that what I am? Your paramour?”
“Yes! My—my paramour. Sebby, don’t.”
Sebby’s hand curved toward Todd’s inner thigh. “Tell me one thing about him, just one thing.”
“Ah, God,” Todd remarked under his breath. Then aloud: “He was eighteen . . . is eighteen.”
Sebby’s hand stopped. “Ahhh.”
“Ahhh, what?” Todd said, irritated.
“The young ones. They break your heart and teach you humility.” He raised a spring roll, took a bite, and chewed meditatively.
Todd shifted, unsure if he wanted Sebby’s hand to continue its progress. “I don’t think the age thing was the whole thing, but are you saying you had . . . did you have a younger love?”
“Who hasn’t? We all do it when we’re young, and we all fall for them when we’re older. I had many older lovers and broke all their hearts. I didn’t mean to, but I did.”
“We . . . we who? Homosexuals? I never did. I’ve never broken anyone’s heart.”
Sebby laughed. “Oh, Toddfox, you’re so naïve. I don’t know about straight people, maybe they do the same thing. But tell me, Todd-who-has-never-broken-a-heart: when you were young, did you never date someone older than you?”
“Of course . . . often. But they were all casual affairs. I never got close to anyone until Viv—” Todd made an annoyed sound in his throat. He hadn’t meant ever to mention Viv’s name to Sebby, ever.
Sebby patted Todd’s leg. “They were casual to you; you told yourself they were casual so you had no guilt when you left them.”
It was like looking at one of those optical illusions where a stack of three-dimensional cubes abruptly seemed to be sunken in instead of sticking out. He tried to swallow a glob of half-chewed spring roll.
Sebby regarded him with concern. “Ay, now you’re thinking you must hunt them down and apologize. I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty. Don’t you see? What goes around comes around. You did it to others, and now it was done to you. The universe, fate, no?”
Todd stared straight ahead through the windshield, seeing nothing. For once Sebby had read him wrong. The thought uppermost in Todd’s mind was not the wrong he might have done to others, but that perhaps Todd had meant no more to Vivian than the men from Todd’s youth had meant to Todd.
“Now you’re sad. I’m sorry.” Sebby petted Todd’s shoulder and peered into his face.
Unblinking, Todd shook his head. “I think you’re wrong. Viv . . . Viv loved me. We’d planned to marry . . .”
“We had rings and everything.” Todd gave Sebby a twisted, wry smile. “I still have them—both of them. He gave me mine back, but I kept his.”
Sebby’s eyes were huge and pained. “I’m sorry, Todd.”
“I mean that I don’t think it was the way you paint it.” He hunched his shoulders in a painful shrug and turned away. “Maybe it was. I don’t know anything anymore.”
“I’m sure I’m wrong. ¡Dios mío! I shouldn’t talk so sassy and rude. Shh . . .” Sebby squeezed Todd’s leg. Todd leaned against the door to keep himself from leaning into Sebby. “I’m going back to the office, and there’s still this paperwork you’ve never completed. I’m going to get it out. You finish lunch and then come straight to the office. ¿Entiendes?” There followed a gentle stream of Spanish, and Todd was lulled in spite of himself. “Okay? You’ll come into the office. Okay?” Sebby’s grip tightened.
Todd nodded. “I will, yes. I’ll be there in a few.” He tried to smile, but his face would not respond. “I’m all right. I promise I’m not going to sit and weep. I’ll finish eating and I’ll trot on over there.”
“Good.” Sebby moved away and was out the door all in one smooth motion, and the loss of physical contact was like a blow. Todd watched him walk away, and it was strange, it was so strange, to want someone so much who was not Vivian.
* * * * * * *
Todd entered the mobile office, his stomach full of spring rolls, his head full of nagging voices. The window air conditioning unit hummed, and a chill settled on his skin. A boilermaker stood hunched over Sebby’s desk, grimacing while Sebby pointed with a pen. Sebby looked up. “Those forms are on the table, Todd.” He gestured. “Leonard, do you want privacy? Should I tell Todd to come back?”
“No, it’s not a big deal.”
Todd seated himself at the table, setting aside his hard hat and goggles, and bent his head over the forms. Nearby were two pens and two sharpened pencils. Emergency Notification. Todd listed his brother first and his mother second. Physician. Todd hadn’t tried to find one since he’d moved. He left it blank. His pen tapped, and he listened with half an ear to Leonard and Sebby.
“I’m short right now. Can’t you take out less now and even it up at the end of the year?”
“No, we have to take out the court-ordered amount. I’m sorry, Lenny.”
Todd glanced over to see Sebby patting Leonard’s hand, and hid a smile behind his papers. The way Sebby mothered the men on the crew was endearing.
Eventually Leonard agreed that Sebby was doing his best. Sebby followed him to the door and shut it behind him before returning to stand behind Todd and slide his arms around him, leaning his cheek on Todd’s head.
Todd put a hand on Sebby’s forearm where it rested on his chest. “I gotta finish these papers.”
“I’ll just stand here while you do that.” He squeezed Todd. “I don’t want to go out tonight.”
“I want us to stay in. So we can talk. You can’t talk at a movie. Or snuggle.” He nuzzled Todd’s hair, and Todd was comforted, but he couldn’t help thinking that it probably smelled like the inside of a helmet. “Come straight to my place. Do you like baths?”
Confused at the change of subject, Todd stammered. “Do I what?”
“Some manly men refuse to take baths; it must always be a shower. But you may have noticed my beautiful claw-foot tub, and you can soak in it, and I have fizzy bath balls.”
“You drop them in the water and they go foosh and they make you tingle all over.” He ran his fingers up and down Todd’s chest. Todd fidgeted and bit his lip.
“You’re telling me I smell bad.”
Sebby nuzzled again into Todd’s hair and then his neck, and spoke with his lips just below Todd’s ear. “I’m telling you I want you to come straight to my place, not go home first. And have a nice, relaxing bath, and I’ll even join you, if that’s okay.”
“Oh, that would most definitely be okay.”
* * * * * * *
The afternoon crawled by, but the day was over at last. Just to remove his hat and feel the breeze ruffling his damp hair was bliss. Todd climbed into his truck and cranked the air, aiming all the vents at his face. Leaning back and closing his eyes, he pulled his shirt up to let air pass over his itchy skin, feeling achy and so grimy and slimy that he was considering the possibility of heading home for a pre-bath shower, when a knock on his door startled him. There stood Sebby with a knowing smile. Todd opened the door, and Sebby shoved a handful of folded papers at him.
“You forgot to take your copies. Do you forget things you’re supposed to do, Todd?”
Todd accepted the papers. “Ah. N-o . . .”
“Good. Then drive slow so I can have a few minutes to get things ready.” He rapped his knuckles on the door and walked away, and Todd watched him go, noting the roll of his hips and the bounce of his hair at the back of his neck. I’ve got it bad. The thought scared him a little.
Importantly, Love and Other Hot Beverages includes a frank discussion of emotional abuse in LGBTQ relationships, and the fallout of either leaving them or staying in them.
Loft tracks the winding course of true love in this incisively told romance.