THE TRUTH about Vincent Fierro’s sexual orientation came to him as he lay underneath a client’s sink, unclogging onion skins from a busted garbage disposal in a two-bedroom condo on Aldine. I wonder, he mused, if maybe I’m gay.
The thought made him jerk his head back against the sink trap hard enough to give him a goose egg, and he swore under his breath as he tried to push the alarming idea away and focus on the job at hand. Though the job was tedious, it was uncomplicated, and no sooner had he dismissed the dark little thought it was back again.
It was stupid. Vince knew he wasn’t gay.
He blamed the onion fumes and his rumbling stomach, imagining them tangling with the knowledge he hadn’t had a date in a month and hadn’t been laid since Cara Paglia had taken him home to cheer him up after his last divorce, which had been in October. It had been too long since he’d given the old boy a ride, so long that answering a call for a gay married couple made him think for one idiot second this was his problem, why he had broken his mama’s heart with divorce number three. Maybe he was looking in the wrong pasture.
Vince rolled his eyes at himself and pulled out more onion goop. It was middle age. It was his sister-in-law the beautician at dinner the night before suggesting he let her start coloring and highlighting his hair now while the gray was barely noticeable. It was realizing a couple days a week at the gym and walking from Emilio’s to his brother’s house every other Sunday wasn’t enough to keep his three-year-old niece from asking if she could rest her head on his “nice squishy tummy” while they watched Tangled for the fiftieth time. It was finding out kids born the year he graduated high school were now legal to drink. It was his latest ex-wife leaving him for a twenty-eight-year-old.
It was not because he was gay. Because Vince wasn’t gay. You didn’t marry three women and sleep with how many others and then decide—with your head under a sink and your eyes stinging of onion—that since you were thirty-eight and single you must be gay. Sex with another man wasn’t some random idea to try on when you’d gone through everything else.
Of course the little devil in the back of his mind had to whisper, It isn’t exactly a random idea, now, is it, Vinnie?
Clearing his throat and mentally drop-kicking the devil back to the rock he lived under, Vince pulled the last of the onion muck out of the housing, wiped his hands on a towel, and aimed his flashlight at the naked unit. His brain was blissfully occupied now with assessing rings and seals, and he grimaced as he saw both the blade and the hopper would need to be replaced. Given the unit itself was almost old enough to drink, they’d be better off getting a new one. Pushing himself out from inside the cupboard, Vince adjusted his T-shirt and followed the sound of voices down the hall to give his clients the news. He stopped outside the closed door to the home office, however, caught up in the hushed tones of their conversation.
“—feel so stupid. Why do onion skins clog a sink? Isn’t that what a garbage disposal is for?”
“It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s old. Maybe the new ones can take it no problem. Don’t beat yourself up, sweetheart.”
“We don’t have the money for this, Kyle. Not with me laid off. God, but I wish—” The speaker broke off, and Vince thought he caught a muffled sigh.
“Shh. Hush. It’s going to be all right. You’re going to get another job. And if we don’t replace the disposal right away, then we’ll do without for a little while.”
“That’s all we’re doing, living without. And it’s all my fault—”
The first man was quite clearly near tears, but Kyle only got calmer and gentler the more upset his partner became. “It is not your fault. It’s the slimy subprime mortgagers and those assholes who made trading their shit a game who started this.”
“I should never have switched jobs. Never. If I’d stayed at First Union, I’d have seniority, and I’d still have a job.”
“Bill, stop. You’re making yourself crazy over a clogged sink.”
“That’s what I feel like! A clogged man.” The speaker choked back a sob before adding in an angry whisper, “I don’t know what the fuck you still see in me. I wouldn’t even blame you if you went off with some hot young thing with healthy self-esteem, a full head of hair, and a job.”
“If he had good health-insurance benefits and a low-mileage vehicle, I might be tempted.” On the other side of the door, Vince imagined Kyle lifting the other man’s chin and staring him in the face as he spoke. “Honey, I know this is rough. And I know damn well I’d be the same kind of wreck if it’d been me laid off for eighteen months. But you have to stop beating yourself up. You didn’t break the garbage disposal. It just broke. You didn’t make a bad move on your job. You got screwed. And I don’t care if you lose every hair on your head and gain twenty pounds. I love you, I married you, and you’re going to have to work a lot harder than this to get rid of me.”
No more sounds came from the room into the hallway except the occasional soft smack of lips parting and reuniting at a new angle. Vincent slipped quietly back to the kitchen, where he leaned on the wall next to the fridge and shut his eyes against the strange ache inside him.
That. He wanted that. Even as he reassured himself that was simply a healthy relationship he’d heard, not a magical gay relationship, he couldn’t stop the deeper, more aching whisper from rising inside him. I want a man to treat me like that.
Pushing the thought away in a panic, he headed back down the hallway, louder this time, clearing his throat and rapping smartly on the wood. The taller blond man opened it, moving to shield his partner from view as he blew his nose noisily into a tissue. “Finished already?”
Vince cleared his throat a second time. “Here’s the deal. It’s an old unit. I’m not gonna lie. A good chunk of the guts are dull or near to useless. The clog didn’t help much, but all it did was point out trouble that was already there.”
The man grimaced. “I see. So we need a new unit.”
“Well, that’s the thing.” Vince rubbed the back of his neck. “It’d be best, yeah. But if you wanted, you could limp this along a bit longer, if you were careful. I can jimmy the blade a bit, buy you time. It’d mean you’d be putting a lot of junk you’d normally send down the disposal into the trash instead until you replaced it. No onion skins. No potato peels or carrot shreds. But soggy cereal, pasta—anything that isn’t stringy or sticky or hard—would be okay in small batches and with a lot of water. Give it extra time to chop, ’cause it’ll need it. And in the meantime, you can save up for what you want. Do some research on how powerful you want it and then watch for a sale. I’ll leave some names for brands to watch for and ones to avoid. When you get what you want, give us a call, and we’ll install it.”
The blond man didn’t answer right away, meeting Vince’s gaze instead as he took it all in. A silent conversation seemed to follow.
Heard us, did you?
Yep. Just trying to help. Know what it’s like.
And you don’t mind that we’re gay, big burly Italian boy like you?
Vince shrugged and averted his eyes.
“Thank you,” the man said. “I believe we’ll take your advice and limp along until we can save up. That was very thoughtful of you to suggest such a plan.”
“Not a problem.” Vince jerked his head toward the kitchen. “I’ll clean up and do a quick job on the blade. You want to put a cake pan or something under it for tonight. It shouldn’t leak, but if it does, that means you start shopping right now.”
“I will,” the man promised.
Vince felt good about himself for helping people in a tight spot, trying not to think of all the crazy shit he kept trying to think of instead. He was doing really well all the way up until he was scribbling brand names on the back of a business card and the blond man came into the kitchen holding out an envelope. “I want you to have these. They’re vouchers for tickets to a theater I manage down on Broadway.”
Vince held up a hand in protest. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I do.” The man smiled. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am. I know you heard us talking about money. And I also know you haven’t so much as batted an eye at the fact that we’re gay men.”
“Well, we are in Lakeview,” Vince said, voice heavy with meaning, and hoped he didn’t have to finish the rest of that sentence.
“You’d be surprised.” He thrust the tickets at Vince again. “Please. They’re good anytime from now through the rest of the year. Consider them a token of my sincere appreciation. And stop by the office if you use them. I’ll make sure you get good seats and complimentary drinks for the night.”
Not knowing what else to do, Vince took the envelope with a gruff nod.
The man caught his hand and squeezed it gently. “I hope someday someone gives you the kind of lift you gave me and my husband tonight. And be sure of it, I’ll be using Parino Brothers Plumbing from now on.”
Vince escaped shortly after that, leaving his card and a bill and accepting a check and two enthusiastic handshakes before heading back to the van. The strange flush of emotions and potential self-discoveries went back to the shop with him, and they followed him home as well, lingering through his solitary meal, a soak in the tub, and all the way through two glasses of brandy.