ELI CALERO was grating cheese when he heard the front door open. He knew who it was. He’d given her a key to his house years ago, and the only time she ever rang the bell was when he tied a sock on the doorknob to let her know he was “entertaining.”
“Hi,” she called out from the living room. “I brought in your mail.”
“Where are you?”
Sandy entered moments later, studying the cover of the latest World Enquirer. “Hm. Betty White’s pregnant with a fetus cloned from a strand of Michael Jackson’s hair.” She rolled up the tabloid and swatted Eli over the head. “You should be ashamed of yourself, subscribing to this crap.”
“I am,” Eli replied. “I wish it came in a plain brown wrapper.” He started chopping green onions over the grated cheese.
Sandy sniffed, and then frowned. “What’s for dinner?” she asked, looking suspiciously at the covered pot simmering on the stove.
“My three-alarm chili.”
Sandy froze for a moment. She turned to Eli slowly. “Are you insane?”
“It’s winter. My mom always served chili in winter to warm us up.”
“It’s ninety degrees outside!”
Eli shrugged. Christmas was only three days away, but he had not decorated his home with so much as a potted poinsettia. He didn’t see the point. For him, the holiday season was about people bundling up in overcoats to spend more money than they should, gathering around fires to sip eggnog spiked with rum, and filling houses with the scent of fresh-baked spice cakes while frost kissed the windows. He’d grown up in Missouri. Living now in Pasadena, he missed the snow. “Chili in winter. That’s tradition.”
“Whatever.” Sandy tossed the magazine on the counter and started flipping through the envelopes in her hand. She was thirty-three, a slender, pretty, dark-haired woman dressed in black shorts, a white T-shirt, and sandals. “Hey. What’s this?”
“Sandy, you asked me to let you know when you’re being nosy. Well, here it is: You’re being nosy.”
“Thanks.” She held up the envelope that had caught her eye. “What’s this from the Committee for the Elites in Forest Lake, Missouri?”
Eli groaned, rolling his eyes. “Damn.”
“Ooh. I smell dirt.” Sandy slipped a thumbnail under the flap and started to open it.
Eli snatched the envelope from her. “It’s not ‘dirt’. It’s just an invitation to my stupid high school reunion.” He raised the lid on the trash can and tossed in the offending mail.
“I’m guessing you don’t plan to attend.”
“I skipped the ten-year reunion, so it’s a pretty safe bet that I’m skipping the twenty-year too. And the fucking thirty-, forty-, and—God help us all—fifty-year reunions.”
“Well, aren’t your pantyhose in a twist.” Sandy reached around him and delicately retrieved the invitation from the trash. “Come on. You have to be dying to see what everybody looks like twenty years down the line.”
“Yes, you are. I know you. I can see it in your eyes.” She ripped the envelope open and pulled out the neatly folded invitation.
“Opening other people’s mail is a federal crime, Sandy.”
“You tossed this, remember? It’s not mail now, it’s trash.” She started reading. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, you know. That cute little baby face makes you look twenty-seven instead of thirty-seven. You’re nice and slim. I’ll bet you don’t weigh an ounce more now than you did in high school.”
“I don’t. That’s part of the problem. I’m still a skinny nerd.”
“Oh, you are not.” Sandy continued reading. “Hey, this sounds like it will be fun. They’re having a dinner and dance the first day, and the second day, there’s a pool party.” She gave Eli an excited smile. “You have to go to this.”
Eli got plates and bowls from one of the cabinets and started setting the kitchen table.
“Eli, are you listening to me?”
“What in the world are you so afraid of?”
Eli sighed. “Sandy, high school was hell for me.”
“High school is hell for just about everybody—”
“Shit, don’t patronize me. I’m not talking about getting teased or worrying about pimples. The first guy I fell in love with, the one I was so crazy about… that was in high school.”
Sandy paused. She could see the sudden pain that opened in Eli’s tan face, the same pain that appeared every time he mentioned his first boyfriend. “You’ve never told me what that was all about.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Eli said curtly. He took the bowl of cheese and onions and slapped it down in the middle of the table. Then he yanked open a drawer and began snatching up silverware.
“Eli?” Sandy said patiently. “Honey?”
“If you’re still upset about this guy twenty damn years after the fact, it may be a good idea for you to talk about the whole thing. Either that or you’ll crack like that bowl you just put down.”
Eli turned, reaching for the bowl of cheese and onion. It had split neatly in two, the halves spread apart like some strange blossom. “Shit,” he muttered.
SANDY dished up a big helping of chili and placed it before Eli. “Would you prefer crackers or bread, good sir?”
Sandy knew her way around Eli’s kitchen as well as he did. She opened the pantry, pulled out a sleeve of saltines, and put it on the table. “What will sir have to drink? Iced tea? Sprite?”
“Gimme a double shot of bourbon.”
“Ah. Sir is building up his courage. Very wise.” She dashed bourbon into a glass over ice and handed it to Eli. Then she poured herself a glass of iced tea and sat down at the opposite side of the table with the spinach and tomato salad she had hastily assembled. “God bless,” she intoned with a brief nod.
They ate in silence for nearly ten minutes.
“Eli, you can start talking any time now,” Sandy said finally. “Tell me about Humphrey.”
Eli sighed. “Murphy, not Humphrey. Kevin Murphy, but everybody called him by his last name. He was hot as hell. He transferred from some private school to Forest Lake High in our sophomore year. Tall, lean, black-haired, and mean. That’s what I thought the first time I saw him. He walked around with this scowl, and everybody just knew he was bad to the core. God, how I wanted him. We were in the same gym class. He was a natural athlete, and the first time I saw him naked, I swear to you I almost fainted. He had long, thick muscle everywhere. And I do mean everywhere.”
Sandy wiggled in her chair. “Ooh. I get the picture. Thanks.”
“The coach wanted him for the basketball team. Girls crawled over each other trying to set themselves up on dates with him. He could’ve had just about anything or anybody he wanted, could have been a hot jock ladies’ man, but he kept to himself mostly. I didn’t even speak to him at first. I’d already made the mistake of hitting on a guy I liked at school, Garvin Mitchell. My mom always told me that life is about taking chances. I suspected Garvin might swing for my team, so I took a chance. Garvin turned out to be as straight as they come, and he was quick to put out the word about me. Kids I didn’t even know were calling me Queen Eli.”
“For the record, you’ve never struck me as particularly queenly.”
“It was a moniker that stuck until I graduated,” Eli went on. “In a way, I was glad to have it, because it got me Murphy.”
“How’d that happen?”
“He heard word that I was gay. He never so much as looked at me in school, but one Saturday night, a couple of months after he transferred in, he showed up at my house. I’ll never forget that. He had on blue jeans with a hole in the right knee and a black sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. His arms had a lot more muscle than mine. His hair was short on the sides but long in the back, hanging down his neck. He was carrying his textbook from World History. He told my mom we were going to study. She had no idea at the time that I was gay, so she didn’t think anything about going off to work and leaving us in the house alone.”
“Your mom had to work on a Saturday night?”
“Yes, Sandy,” Eli drawled, his voice heavily sardonic. “ER nurses sometimes work holidays too.”
“Right. I forgot that she worked at the hospital. Go on.”
“Once she was gone, we went up to my room. Of course, that World History book never even got cracked open. He asked if we could watch television, so I turned on this college football game. Murphy stretched out on my bed, shoes and all. I sat in the chair at my desk. We watched the game like that for about twenty minutes. I like football, but I couldn’t focus on the game because Murphy pulled up his sweatshirt, and he kept rubbing his hand over that rippled, slightly hairy stomach of his. Then, out of the blue, he asked me if I wanted to suck his dick.”
Smiling crookedly, Sandy shook her head. “Crude.”
“It was, but I jumped on that bed so fast it surprised the hell out of us both. I was so excited I started shaking as I unbuckled his jeans and pulled them down. I was a virgin, but I caught on quickly. Later, he told me it was his first time too, and that made what we did that night seem precious, special. Over the next few weeks, we fell into this routine. At school, we had nothing to do with each other. But every Saturday night, after Mom went to work, he’d come over and I’d blow him.”
“And you were satisfied with that?”
“God, yes! Sandy, you have to understand, I was a horny teenager. We both were. And Murphy was hot.”
“So you said. And I can get just as turned on by a hot guy as you can. But I drive a two-way street. Didn’t you want more from him?”
“Sure,” Eli admitted, “but I thought Murphy was straight and getting a blow job was as far as he’d go with a guy. Over time, our relationship changed. He started bringing over chips and sodas, and after the sex, we’d spend hours watching TV together. Sometimes, we’d have these long conversations where he’d ask all these questions about me, my parents, and how things changed for my family after my dad died. Then he started bringing me little gifts—CDs by artists that I liked, a baseball cap with the logo of my favorite football team, that kind of stuff. He’d put his head in my lap and tell me how fucked up his life was at home with his dad. One night, when I started to pull out his dick for the usual, he grabbed my hands and he kissed me for the first time.”
Eli closed his eyes, shivering as the memory washed over him. “Sweet Jesus, Sandy, how he kissed me. Soft at first, sort of hesitant and scared, but the kisses got harder and deeper, making me so weak I could have melted right through the bed. He held me as if he was drowning and my body was a life preserver. And it was only then that I realized he was falling in love with me.”
A dazed smile on her face, Sandy began fanning herself with her hands. “Oh… my… God….”
“‘Oh my God’ is right. That night, we took off all our clothes, and he screwed me for the first time. When that was over, another first: he blew me. After that, even though he kept up the same facade at school, I couldn’t just ignore him like I had before. Other kids caught me staring at him. As the year went on, our weekends together got more intense. He started letting me screw him. It got so I couldn’t hide how I felt about him. Just from my body language whenever he went by me in school, kids could tell there was something going on between us. Then rumors started going around about him.”
“What kind of rumors?”
Eli put a finger to his forehead, frowning thoughtfully. “Well, let’s see. Murphy had gorgeous females practically throwing their panties at him, but he had no girlfriend, and the school fag flashed like a neon sign every time he got near. What kind of rumors do you think they were?”
Sandy laughed, refusing to take offense. “And how did he-man Murphy react to that?”
“He hated it. He’d get pissed, especially when guys whispered behind his back. He got into so many fights, the principal threatened to expel him. Strangely enough, the more he fought and the angrier he got, the more he seemed to need me. He would sneak over two or three times a week and spend the night with me. He was so open, so… vulnerable when we were together, nothing like the badass he was in school. But to kill the rumors and calm things down, he started dating this girl.”