CALEB MCDONNELL sat in the dark, looking at the glowing screen of his laptop. His back was pushed against the headboard, his fingers poised over the keys. Caleb was waiting for something, and it didn’t take long. The soft tone of an incoming message arriving sounded, and Caleb smiled.
kevin2010: hey! you’re out?
macalebhottie: yeah. done for the day, thankfully.
kevin2010: working late too much.
macalebhottie: need the money. how are u?
There was a long wait, and finally Caleb sent another message.
macalebhottie: sorry. know u hate to talk about it.
kevin2010: just, this is my escape, you know?
macalebhottie: it’s fine. I just get concerned.
kevin2010: appreciate it, but don’t bother. trust me, enough people worried here already. hey, you ask him out yet?
Caleb closed his eyes for a moment. He should never have told Kevin about that. His little useless crush. He’d never even met Nic. Of course, he’d never met Kevin either. Hardly mattered. He told Kevin everything.
macalebhottie: that’s not happening.
kevin2010: why not?
macalebhottie: because it’s not. just stop it.
kevin2010: like you stop telling me to take care of myself? you should ask him.
Caleb ran a hand through the dark copper-red of his tight curls. He sighed, letting the breath out, slow and long. “Sure, right,” he muttered. “Like I could ever really tell Nic.”
He glanced around the room. It was a studio apartment, and even now Caleb could feel the color in his cheeks. Even if he had the confidence to tell Nic, he could never invite him here. A crappy studio apartment? Besides, Nic was happy and far away in one of those Midwestern states. Caleb tried to pretend he didn’t know which one. That he didn’t know the city and the street. That he hadn’t used street view to look at the house. God, he was a stalker!
kevin2010: you mean won’t.
macalebhottie: same difference.
kevin2010: you had confidence once. what happened?
macalebhottie: what do u mean?
kevin2010: macalebHOTTIE. It took confidence. You had it once. what happened?
macalebhottie: we’ve been chatting for months. u know what happened.
kevin2010: no. because every time I ask, you do this. before everything started happening, I was a psych major. I might be tempted to call what you’re doing deflection.
Caleb groaned. Why was Kevin always so frustrating?
macalebhottie: so I let myself believe I was hot once. convinced others, even.
kevin2010: seen pictures. weren’t imagining.
macalebhottie: those were just beach pics.
kevin2010: you were wearing a speedo. you didn’t look embarrassed to me. you looked good. If I didn’t have Scottie, I mighta been interested.
Caleb looked away from the screen. His stomach did that thing, the one that made him all uncomfortable. Butterflies, gurgles, who cared what they were called. All Caleb cared about was that it felt crappy. Because he was jealous. Jealous that Kevin had someone. Jealous that a twenty-year-old who was barely even out was engaged to a great guy. Jealous because, at thirty, he was alone and living in a crappy studio, while Kevin was….
It was unworthy. It was a very human reaction, jealousy, but that didn’t help Caleb. He still felt like a miserable shit. Kevin had enough to deal with.
macalebhottie: Scottie’s a lucky guy.
kevin2010: I’m the lucky one. he’s been home every weekend to spend time with me. he should be at school, but he comes anyway.
macalebhottie: glad he’s there for u. I’d visit u know, if u would let me.
kevin2010: no. you can’t afford that, and you know it.
macalebhottie: still would do it.
kevin2010: I know. :)
macalebhottie: so I can?
kevin2010: no. chill, cal. you have enough to deal with there. besides, if you’re here, you won’t be chatting up this guy. I can tell you like him.
kevin2010: you won’t tell me his name, so I can’t look him up.
macalebhottie: like u would.
kevin2010: I bet you did. I bet you know everything about him.
macalebhottie: stop it!
kevin2010: gotta go anyway. it’s really late here.
Of course it was. Caleb struggled with Nic for the same reason. It was so hard to talk at all. Time zones never worked out quite right. He glanced at the clock. It was really late where Kevin was. Unfortunately, Kevin was right. It would cost a fortune for Caleb to visit, and it was a fortune he didn’t have.
macalebhottie: all right. ttyl.
Caleb set his computer aside and stripped the rest of the way down. He’d dropped the uniform as soon as he’d gotten in, but he still needed to shower; he smelled like grease and fast food. The only good thing about these studios was the hot water, which was plentiful and practically steaming. Well, that and the super cheap price tag. It was the only thing that let him live alone.
Luxuriating in the shower was a familiar thing. He allowed himself that, to feel the hot water massaging his aching muscles. He’d never thought it before actually doing the job, but it was grueling work, standing hour after hour making sandwiches. The air got thick with grease and his curls got slick and heavy and dark with the grime. There was function in luxuriating in that shower, and it wasn’t just the time he took to find his release.
He emerged from the shower clean, and he dropped the dirty clothes and the towel he’d used to cover his bed before he showered into a bag that stank with sweat and grease. He felt clean. He looked at the bag, glad for the extra uniform shirts being full time—or what passed for full time in fast food—meant. He wouldn’t have to do laundry tonight.
Caleb dressed in a loose set of flannel sleep pants and sat at the table by the window looking out on the city streets. The endless beeping and honking and dull roar of the city came through the half-frosted window. He’d always been told you learned to tune it out, but Caleb never had. He groaned and looked at the tiny shelves that were all the pantry he had. Ramen noodles and stale bread. The bread at least he could use for French toast in the morning. There was nothing to snack on. He’d never dreamed his fitness would be determined by the fact that he could barely afford to eat.
It would be another hour before Nic was online. Would he follow Kevin’s advice? He needed to think, and that was always easiest for him when writing. Caleb grabbed the laptop and started to type on his blog.
I know I was lucky. I ran to the city as soon as I could. I was sixteen. I managed to make my way out of the hole I’d dug for myself. I managed to get off the street. In a lot of ways, I’m light years ahead of where I was—selling myself on the street for a place to sleep and a meal. I could have ended up sick. I could have been beaten more than I was. But I pulled myself out, and I’m proud of that. My best friend Kevin… he’s great. For a long time he was afraid that he’d end up like I did. But he was braver than me. He never ran. And sure it hasn’t been easy, but he has someone. Maybe I could have too, if I hadn’t been so afraid.
He’s been telling me I need to try more. I don’t know if he’s right. There’s a guy I like, I mean, it’s not Kevin. It’d be easy to think that. He’s cute. Too young, but cute.
There’s another guy. Someone I met online. But just like Kevin, he’s so far away. It’s not crazy to be realistic. I know nothing can happen with him. If I’m lucky, I’ll find someone at the store. Or maybe at a club, if I can ever pull together the money to go again. If I ever trust myself to be in that environment, knowing what it used to mean to me. After all these years, I still feel dirty.
But it won’t be him. And I won’t apologize for being sad about that. I should be sad about that.
Caleb set the post to private—he didn’t need anyone else reading that—then pushed the computer away. Nic would be on soon. But right now, after writing that admission, Caleb wasn’t at all sure he could even bring himself to talk to Nic.
Caleb stood and looked down through the glass onto the street. He watched the people walking with their hands stuffed tight in their pockets. Not looking at anyone. There was a reason he was spending time online. People in the city didn’t even talk to each other. How was he supposed to find someone here? He knew how his friends did it. Anonymous hookups that sometimes led to something. Online dating sites. Meeting a stranger and fucking and hoping something like a relationship might emerge after. It wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted more. Maybe he didn’t deserve it after giving himself up on the streets for so long. Maybe he really was worthless.
Silently, Caleb shook his head. He wasn’t that hopeless. Not yet.