CATCHING sunbeams is a pastime best kept hidden. He lies on the side of a mountain, closing one eye, squinting the other and stretching his arms out straight so he can feel the heat of the sun. The softness thrills the senses as warmth floods through his fingers and surrounds his hands. When it spreads out wide he can quickly close them up tight, snatching the light as the sun beats down. Then it feels as if he’s catching sunbeams in the sky.
Jesse would lie perfectly still on those days where the sun would shine its brilliant gold, the ground made up of russet brown, burnt and coarse. The winter chill would be present all year round, because inside him the cold was sometimes hard to bear.
He came here, to his secret place, once in a while to remember the stinging pain that catches you and makes you feel at least half-alive. The coldness continues, but then the memories would comfort him through those hard times, and it was easier to live with the nothing he had.
One time he had something, but like those sunbeams that can so easily slip through your fingers, he never caught it long enough to grab on tight. Harder to miss the things you hold dear, easier to lose them if you don’t hold on tight. For Jesse, he could have caught it all if he had half a mind to. Jesse never gave way to catching anything, just continued to take what he could, when he could grasp it.
He remembered the first day he saw him, where the summer swirl of the lazy winds would dance the dust plume down the road and fine grit would fly up to greet it. He sat and watched, quietly waited for just a glimpse of him at first, but eventually found so much more down that road in the end.
He was left to wonder what could have been. The sad fact was that if he had it all to play over again, it would all remain the same, nothing changed. Years down the road, he’d still be squinting up at the sky alone. Hindsight was only a wonderful thing when you learned something from it, to move on, but that didn’t help him now, because he had lost the future he could have had. Given another chance, his past and future would remain the same because he was as stubborn as a mule, through and through. So, he was destined to think of the one thing that had given him purpose, and be grateful he was able to have that much. To know that Johnny gave him that feeling of being whole.
He never really knew that feeling until Johnny was dead. Lying down, looking up, the wisps of grass beneath him, remembering the strong body that would touch every angle, crevice, mole and freckle, and every deep feeling he owned too. Johnny’s mouth nipping and sucking every inch of him. He craved his touch more and more as the years went on. Truth be told, in the deep recesses of his mind, he craved a man’s touch to resemble just a little of what he had with Johnny. To feel hard muscle beneath him. Jesse never really knew what Johnny had gone through when he left him. He switched that side of himself off. He was ashamed, turning his back on what they had. He may as well have joined the homophobic club himself. Jesse denied everything eventually, just as Johnny knew he would; he had said as much.
Everything was good with them when Jesse got his way and Johnny didn’t question their relationship. Jesse was firmly in the gay closet with no release date because of his ex-wife. Johnny wanted more, but Jesse couldn’t risk losing his daughter. They had a tug of war the last six months before Johnny died. He pulled and Johnny tugged, but eventually Jesse won the fight, or so he thought at the time, and pulled far enough away that he was running in the other direction, until the rope eventually broke. Now, with Johnny gone, he had no idea why he resisted for so long, because living without him was no life at all.
Jesse was married at eighteen because he and his girlfriend Jill got careless one night. The marriage lasted thirteen years. He found himself being a father and ranch hand with no other aspirations in life but to work and provide for his daughter. He’d heard of a job going with good pay in Eden, North Dakota, about an hour away from where he lived with his wife and little girl Emma before the break-up. He felt he’d let her down; the look on her face when he moved out of the house said it all. Work was hard to find, especially having to consider paying child support. He reached Eden early, prepared to impress the ranch owner by showing him just how hard he could work. It was a place he’d never been to before. He was nervous and hungry and saw a sign that said Johnny’s Diner.
On paper, he divorced his wife due to irreconcilable differences. That’s what he told himself anyway, but he knew it was more than that. He’d had a tough upbringing; his father was a violent man, a bigot, and drank a lot. Not much love came his way from him, but his mother made up for it, soothing him with words of love and hope when the beatings stopped. Not much they could do but wait for the bastard to die, which thankfully he did one day when Jesse was fourteen.
He never thought about what he truly wanted out of life or who he was. That was a pit too deep and best left covered over. That first day, sitting down in the virtually empty diner ordering breakfast, it had seemed like every other day to him, but just in another town. He needed to get the job but was worried he would fuck it up if he wasn’t careful, as he never was very good with words.
He thought about those early days, when they first met. However, thinking never got him anywhere because there was no real change in his life. Just the humdrum existence that he was used to, waiting for something, maybe death. In his lonely existence he was real careful to hold on to those times he remembered. He never had a picture of Johnny. Something he couldn’t explain and whipped himself for over and over. He had Johnny safely locked away in the deepest part of himself, but sometimes he just wished he could have had a picture of that smile, those eyes that were full of some kind of hope, maybe a knowing kind.
“Here you go, one breakfast special.”
He expected to see the waitress who took the order, but the voice was deeper. What he felt when he looked up was the switch turned on in his brain, feeling that something missing fall into place. He couldn’t help but stare at the guy who put the plate of food down in front of him.
“You want some ketchup? Your bottle’s empty.” He reached across the table, grabbed hold of it, smiled, and went to fill it up, leaving Jesse to his mixed-up thoughts.
The guy came back and put the bottle back on the table, his sparkling blue eyes conveying a friendly openness. “There you go.”
“You new here? Haven’t seen you around before.”
“Lookin’ for work… live in Rock Springs.”
“Oh, what kind of work?”
The guy just stood there staring, making Jesse feel peculiar. He wanted to say something to break the mood. “Looks good.” Jesse eyed the food, which he didn’t feel he could eat, let alone keep down with the guy just standing there like something to tempt his very soul if he gave into it.
“Yes it does.”
Jesse snapped his head up immediately at that remark. The guy’s eyes were on him, not the food. He should have been angry, reacted, said something, but their time was cut short by another customer asking for more coffee.
The guy looked over his shoulder. “Be there in a minute, Bob. Sally seems to have taken another one of her breaks.”
The guy looked back at Jesse and smiled again. “Name’s Johnny. I own the place and do the cooking. And you are?”
“Jesse.” His throat felt dry, and he was in need of a cigarette.
“Well, Jesse, enjoy your food.” He turned to leave and then stopped, looking at him. “You should come back tomorrow.”
“I’ll have another special waiting, just for you.”
“What?” he asked, puzzled.
“Peach cobbler on Tuesdays. I’ll save you a bowl to celebrate you getting a job.”
With that he left Jesse to his breakfast, which he chewed and swallowed as if there were knives stuck in his throat. He got the job, but didn’t go back to the diner. Every time he thought about it, he struggled with feelings deep within him. By week two, and living at the ranch, his nails were all but gnawed to the quick trying to avoid Johnny’s peach-fucking-cobbler diner.
Sunday was normally the day he spent with his daughter, but not that Sunday. She was at her cousin’s christening. He had nothing to do and found himself driving into Eden. A mixture of need to drive past the diner and wanting to see a closed sign on the door, but it said open.
He walked in, the place was busier than before, but a table in the back corner was empty. People stared at him as he walked past, and he felt the urge to back up and run in the other direction. He wanted to be unnoticed, he felt more comfortable that way, and as he sat down, he didn’t know what he was doing there anyway. He fiddled with the menu, trying to work out his escape plan, when a gush of air swirled around his head as the back door opened.
“Shit, help a guy out, someone.”
Johnny was carrying two boxes, one on top of the other, his foot struggling to keep the door open. Jesse jumped up and held the door for him as a waitress rushed over and took the top box away.
”Thank you, Sally.”
“No problem,” she cooed, her blonde hair flowing as she walked into the kitchen with the box.
Johnny straightened his stance and turned his head to look at Jesse. His eyes widened in recognition. “It’s you.”
Jesse let go of the door, and quickly backed away. “Yeah, remember me, huh?”
“Hell, how could I forget you? You turned down my famous peach cobbler.”
Jesse bit down on his bottom lip, not knowing what to say to that.
“You want some now?”
“It’s not Tuesday.”
Johnny laughed out loud, his eyes glistening, bewitching Jesse with the sheer brightness of them. His long black hair was something Jesse wanted to feel between his fingers.
“No… it’s not Tuesday, but I bet I can find you some if you’re willing to wait a while.”
“Okay.” Jesse’s heart was thumping so hard in his chest, he thought he was going to pass out.
“In the meantime, why don’t you have the daytime special, cobbler for dessert?”
Jesse nodded, and would find out eventually that Johnny went into the kitchen and made a peach cobbler from scratch, just for him, even though it wasn’t Tuesday.
Instead of avoiding Johnny’s diner, he found that he couldn’t wait to get to the place. For four more weeks he would sit at his usual table, at the back, eating his food, and trying to catch glimpses of Johnny every chance he got. He pretended to read the paper, drink his coffee, but his mind was on something else. He was going crazy, never having feelings like this in his life, or maybe, never allowing them to rise to the surface. When Johnny looked his way and smiled, his heart would draw heat from every part of his body, because it felt on fire.
One day, he walked in and sat down. It was quiet, only a couple of people paying up. He’d meant to go in that morning, but the ranch had been busy, and he couldn’t get away. Not having a fix of Johnny in his day was now unthinkable. However, at four o’clock and the place dead, he felt foolish as he sat down. Sally came over, looked to be in her twenties, with a chest the size of two large melons.
“Missed you this mornin’, Jesse.”
“Yeah, doesn’t seem right when I don’t get to see your handsome face in the mornin’.”
She smiled like a Cheshire cat. “Oh, you are a shy one, aren’t you?”
“Guess.” He was beginning to think what a mistake it was busting a gut to get to the diner that day with Sally hitting on him as she was prone to do.
Johnny came out of the kitchen and stopped suddenly when he saw him, a glimmer of a smile playing on his lips before he looked around the diner and frowned a little. “Sally, your lucky day, girl. I’m shutting up early. I have to be someplace.”
She turned and looked at her boss. “Really?”
“Yep, off you go.” Johnny walked over to the front door and turned the sign around to closed and then locked it.