Authors: Heidi Cullinan
Walter couldn’t figure out what to do, so he kept talking. “I noticed those bars earlier. You’re vegan?”
Kelly paused. “No. Well—sort of.” He had red cheeks now too. This could be a drinking game. “I’m allergic to a lot of things, including egg and dairy. I eat meat, though not a lot because my mom is vegetarian, and we don’t eat much of it. Vegan products are easier for the most part, except I have to watch out for almonds. I get crazy bad hives even from a hint of them. If anything’s made on the same equipment as almonds, I’m in trouble.”
Sweet Christ, the guy was a hot mess. “What’s the AC for? What allergies?”
“Dust mite, mold and ragweed. And down, though the air conditioner doesn’t help with that, obviously. I’m allergic to cats and dogs too, but that shouldn’t be a problem here.” He darted a glance at Walter’s futon. “I—um, I have to encase your mattress, but I’ll buy the cover. We’ll have to wash bedding on hot once a week. Sorry. It’s a huge pain.”
Walter thought of his wonderful down comforter back at the apartment and sighed. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Kelly broke off a piece of the meal bar and twirled it in his fingers a moment. “Sorry if I seem thrown. It was a weird afternoon, and I was hoping to just come back and crash. I wasn’t expecting…this.”
“I can imagine.” Walter tilted his head, curious. “Why, what happened at orientation? Besides, I’m sure, some overeager fag-hag wannabe latching on to you?” When Kelly glanced up at him, surprised, Walter almost laughed. “That was a lucky guess, but I’m sorry to hear I was accurate.”
Kelly was crumbling the piece of bar onto the desk, watching it fall. “My orientation leader kind of outed me to our group. I never really came out to her, either, she just—” He stopped, then shoved his sleeve down over his wrist. “She told everyone, and I don’t know why, but it really bugged me.”
“Probably because she made it about her, not you, and she made you everybody’s focus, and you don’t look like somebody who appreciates that much.”
He expected at least a sad smile, but Kelly was still mangling his bar. “I only started coming out recently. I never did in high school because my hometown is so small. It didn’t feel right. I told myself it wasn’t long until college, that I could wait.” He grimaced and pushed his sleeve back up, revealing a thin rainbow band. “I guess it shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s…I don’t know.”
Jesus. Usually Walter was pretty tolerant about the stupid GSA, but he wanted to beat them a little right now. “It is a big deal. You waited forever for this moment, and then some dingbat craps all over it. You have a right to be pissed.”
Kelly’s shoulders slumped forward. “I guess.”
Walter scooted forward on his futon. “Look, I can buzz out of here for tonight, give you your space. I’m sorry about the futon—can I get the cover in town? I’ll go grab it tonight.”
“No—no, it’s fine. You don’t have to go. Actually…” Kelly’s face blossomed into a slow, shy smile. “Actually, it’s nice to have a roommate. I was bummed about having to live alone.”
In that case, I’ll stay.” Walter pushed to his feet, grinning. “I need some dinner. You hungry? We could head over to Moe’s for burritos and a couple beers.”
“Oh—I’m not old enough to drink.”
Walter laughed, grabbed Kelly’s hand and pulled him to his feet too. “Come on, roomie. Let’s blow this overgrown locker room, and I’ll give you your
Kelly should have told Walter no, he didn’t want to go out. He should have said he’d be fine in the room and let Walter go by himself. He didn’t, because he had a feeling wherever Walter went, interesting things would soon follow.
Also, given the bellows of the jocks in the hallway, he wasn’t yet convinced it was safe to stay there alone.
They went first to get bedding covers via Walter’s car, which he’d been able to park in one of the upperclassmen lots north of the union. Kelly would have been impressed enough with having his own vehicle, but to be that close to campus reminded him Walter was in an entirely different league. Not that there had been any flirting, outside of what Kelly figured was standard for Walter. Still, it all gave Kelly way too much of a thrill, because even though this meant nothing, being escorted to the mall by a hot upperclassman who was also gay and had flirted with him even reflexively was as close as Kelly had come to…well, anything.
Kelly stuffed his hands in his pockets as Walter unlocked a sleek, electric-blue Mazda3. “Great car.”
“Yeah, it’s okay. Hate the hatchback.” Walter winced and tossed an apologetic smile at Kelly that still managed to look incredibly sexy. “Sorry. I think that was the most entitled, suburban rich-kid thing I’ve said all week.”
“Are you from Chicago?” Most people in his orientation group seemed to be.
“Yes indeedy. Northbrook, born and raised.” He put the car into gear and began to maneuver it out of the lot. “Parents divorced a few years back, and now my dad lives in some loft downtown where he boinks secretaries—so 1980—but ‘home’ is still my mom’s place back on Wade Street. And yeah, my family has money. Nothing fancy, enough to plunk me here, pay for my sister’s exotic horse to have a better room than I do, plus the whole Dad-midlife-crisis thing. My mom actually has a job now, but it’s part-time, some weird from-home sales gig she does between living off alimony. Just another happy, fucked-up, north Chicago family.” He glanced across the seat at Kelly. “What about you? I can already tell you aren’t from Chicago.”
He could? “How?”
That little half smile did such incredibly dangerous things to Kelly’s insides. “You aren’t cynical enough. You don’t even have that money-up-my-ass sense of paranoid entitlement that seems to be the other way we go. You, my dear roomie, are almost fresh-faced and apple-cheeked. So spill. From whence do you hail?”
Kelly was almost embarrassed to say now. “Windom, Minnesota. It’s very small, in the southwest. Not a suburb of anything.”
He wasn’t sure what to make of the way Walter smiled, kind of mocking but not really. “Is it an Andy Griffith kind of joint? Dad taking you fishing on weekends, you played ball in the park and your family had church picnics on the back lot?”
The church picnics were in the basement, but yes, the rest was dead-on, though Kelly didn’t want to admit it. “It’s a nice place.”
“But not nice enough that you could come out comfortably?”
Kelly pressed his hands over his pant legs. “I don’t like making waves, and I don’t like too much attention.” That felt like a lie, as he remembered all the plays and leadership seminars he’d done. He curled his fingers over his jeans. “It’s not wrong to have wanted to come out in my own way.”
“No, it’s not.” Walter drove through the neighborhood surrounding Hope to get to the main road. “It does suck that who you want to fuck is something that would be considered a big deal. That something that mundane could have ruined your high school experience. I don’t know how you lived with that.”
“You were out in high school?”
“Hell yes. I was out in seventh fucking grade, had my first boyfriend in eighth. Well, I say boyfriend, but mostly we were blowing each other in the locker room when we could get away with it. We liked saying we were boyfriends. Felt cool. Got over that by high school, though.” He laughed. “Shit, I guess Todd was my last steady. That’s hilarious. I should find him on Facebook and give him shit.”
There was so much to unpack in Walter’s casual reply that Kelly’s head was spinning. Out in
? Boyfriend in eighth?
Blowing each other
in the locker room
No boyfriend since then? No
? He glanced at Walter and wrote that off immediately. No. No way Walter hadn’t been with anyone since eighth grade. No. Way.
Walter caught him looking and lifted an eyebrow. “What?”
“You can’t have not had a boyfriend since eighth grade.”
“Not a one, and proud of it.”
“But there’s no way! You—” Kelly cut himself off, unable to say,
had to have had sex.
Walter seemed to hear it anyway. He grinned that sly grin, and as usual it made Kelly’s belly turn over and whine. “I’ve been with guys, yes. Many. But we don’t date. That’s awfully cute, Red, that you think fucking a guy comes with dating him.”
Kelly frowned at the nickname, felt his face heat and went redder. “But why wouldn’t you want to date someone? Why are you
“What the hell do I do on a date that I don’t do any other time? Talk? Hell, you and I are talking right now. Go out to eat? That’s on the agenda too. Doesn’t mean we’re sleeping together, not necessarily. Sometimes sex happens with people I hang out with, sometimes it just happens. It’s like a game. It’s fun. Why would I want to fuck it up with some heterosexual mating dance?”
Kelly didn’t know what to say to that, except that he
want to fuck it up with some heterosexual mating dance. He wanted a goddamn gay Disney movie, and no, that wasn’t an oxymoron. He didn’t think a relationship would fuck up sex. He believed it would make it better.
He also believed saying that would get him laughed at and mocked for being from a small town again, so he kept quiet.
Walter glanced at him after a few minutes. “So what do your parents do? Are they still together?”
“Yes. My dad’s a vice president at Windom Savings Bank, and my mom’s an insurance adjuster. My sister, Lisa, is in ninth grade.”
“Bank, and a local one. He doing okay? That whole financial thing didn’t wipe them out?”
“They’re hanging in there. There have been tough times before, since they have a lot of farmers as clients.” He felt the money thing hanging in the air, so he decided to address it. “We aren’t rich. We have money, but mostly that’s because my family is very careful. They’d saved for my college since forever, but Hope was more expensive than we planned for. I just hope I can help pay for my sister’s round when it’s her turn.”
“Sounds like you guys have a perfect, happy family.” Walter winced. “Yeah, sorry, asshole alert. I’m jealous, is all. We’ve all done our time in therapy at my place. The car and the toys and the pricey school, all of it’s my dad’s way of trying to buy me back. I’d trade it all in to live in a trailer park and have a family that sat down to dinner without turning into an episode of
.” He paused, then added, “Maybe not a trailer.”
That made Kelly laugh. “We fight too. But yes, I guess we’re kind of sickeningly happy. Some of it comes from both Lisa and I having health issues. My allergies used to be a lot worse, and the same with my asthma. Lisa has type I diabetes.”
“Jesus, really? That would do it, everyone rallying around the sick kids. Still, I’ve known plenty of families with issues, health and otherwise, that tear each other apart. Give yourselves credit for simply being awesome, huh?”
Kelly smiled and ducked his head, but he felt good, not awkward for once, and he carried that feeling all the way into the parking lot of the shopping center.
“This isn’t the only shopping area in Danby, but it’s the best one-stop joint,” Walter told him as they exited the car. “You can get food over there at Dominick’s, random shit at Target, and there’s even a liquor store on the end. Though don’t go to that one until you’re legal, because they card and they’re good at spotting fakes.”
“I don’t have a fake ID,” Kelly pointed out.
Walter waved this away. “I’ll get you one. Don’t protest, Red. Everybody has one here. Everybody has one everywhere, because what idiots thought they’d send legal adults off to be independent but hold off the one thing they actually want to do? So. Can we get this cover thing at Target?”
Kelly wanted to get back to the ID, because he did
want it, but he only sighed and nodded. “Yes. They have everything we need. Their dust-mite covers aren’t as fancy as the ones online, and they make a little bit of noise when you move, but they’re cheap and they work. It’s mostly a nonpermeable fabric with a good seal.”
Walter locked the car as they headed toward the store. “What happens if we leave the cover off, use down comforters and don’t scald our sheets?”
“At first, nothing. Eventually though I swell up, especially my sinuses, and if it’s bad enough, I won’t be able to breathe.”
Walter shuddered. “Good to know. Do you have inhalers and EpiPens and all that stuff? Should I know where they are?”
“I have those, yes, always in my pockets, but I take my meds and I know when I’m getting sick. I used to try and not make a fuss about things, especially the food, but I’ve had enough reactions to know I’ve got to. It’s part of why I have the meal bars. My mom buys them in bulk because we have to make sure we have ones without almonds.”
“That sounds like it really sucks.”
“You have no idea. The almonds are the worst. I eat a lot of vegan stuff because they exclude milk and dairy, but almonds they love. Vegans put them in everything.”
Walter shook his head.
should be in off-campus housing. How are you going to eat in the cafeteria?”
Kelly stopped walking and frowned. “They said they have allergen menus.”
Walter put a hand on Kelly’s shoulder. “Oh, Red. I keep forgetting how green you are. Let’s just say, keep your EpiPen handy, eh, and maybe a meal bar in your pocket.”