Part I Making It

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

COULD have been my green eyes he was into… or maybe he had a thing for long hair. Lots of dudes did. But probably it was the song.

The cute blond waiter I’d talked myself out of asking for a date a couple of months ago was staring at me. Or like, studying me, more so. His dark gaze slid from my face, down over my shoulder, then along my arm to my fingertips, and he watched closely as I went to town on the neck of the guitar. His lips slowly curved into this sweet little smile at the sound of my music but not so much at me.

Uh-huh, I was pretty sure it was the tune that’d caught him.

It was always the tune.

 

 

AFTER my set, I stuck my Gibson in the stand and jammed it into the corner so nothing got dumped on her. I’d had to scrape dried caramel macchiato off my guitar one time too many. Not my idea of fun. On second thought, I pushed Sheila back a few more inches; you can’t be too careful of the good shit in your life, right? And yeah, so maybe she’s a guitar, not a cat, and therefore didn’t really deserve a name, but somewhere along the line she’d morphed from “my guitar” into “Sheila Gibson,” and, incidentally, the only female lover I’d ever have.

My so-called stage was actually just this low riser in the far corner of Coed Joe’s, a student-run café on the edge of the Dascomb Arts University campus; it was lodged snugly between a bunch of mismatched tables and the wall. Pretty tight quarters—but it was my stage—and I’m not screwing with you when I tell you I loved every second I spent on it. I stood there for a few more minutes, looking out over my coffee-guzzling, study-breaking audience of twentysomethings, who were pretty much all gazing up at me in obvious buzz-kill mode now that the little high school musician had ditched them in order to take his fifteen-minute, anything-but-more-coffee break. And at the same time, as I scanned the put-out expressions on the artsy college students’ faces, I was holding this inner debate as to whether or not I should go find that hottie waiter and see if he was up for grabbing a burger with me at closing time.

Why the debate? That’s a fair question. And I guess the best way to answer it would be to say “once bitten, twice shy.” I’d recently escaped from a rather questionable romantic relationship with a dude who just wouldn’t take no for an answer, and I wasn’t looking forward to a repeat performance of that shit, so to speak. Can you say “stalker”?

I caught a flash of rich auburn out of the corner of my eye the very second my pal, Mandy, came up behind me and grabbed me hard by the belt. Within a second she was boinging my long curls and then rubbing her knuckles on my stubbly beard; that girl never could keep her hands to herself. “Hey, Kai, what’re you up to after work? Get this: my friend Alana stole, say, eight kinds of schnapps from her parents’ liquor cabinet—took a little from each bottle, and she mixed ’em all together in an empty pickle jar—and we thought that we’d have a little ‘Schnapps Shots Shindig.’ I made the name up, sweetie… try saying that one ten times fast. Anyways, it’s on for tonight, in my basement, after work. You in?”

A server at Coed Joe’s, Mandy was, like me, a senior in high school, but she lived in the nearby and much less ritzy (just being honest) town of Barlow. She was also an accomplished classical pianist, having studied it since she was old enough to sit on a piano bench. Both of us were very practically, but more so parent-pleasingly, applying to be music education majors next year at Dascomb Arts University, which was just up the road here in my hometown of Hartwick, Massachusetts. So, yeah, we were both going for the college degree, while in a perfect world all we’d have to do was strut our musical stuff under the bright lights to make a living.

Hello, Kai… I asked you something. Are you in, or what?”

“Not so much for tonight, and besides, that funky schnapps blend in a pickle jar sounds like hours of barfing waiting to happen.” My parents weren’t the sniff-your-breath-when-you-come-home-late types, but boozing really wasn’t my number one vice, anyway. My favorite little depravity was chasing boys, which had gotten me into more than a little bit of trouble. Like the heavy-drama-dude-stalking-me kind of trouble. “I was thinking of trying to get next to that blond waiter, you know, the little dude with the big brown eyes.” Okay, so maybe I made a hissing sizzle sound because, yeah, the dude was caliente (that’s hot in Spanish). “What’s his name, anyhow?”

When I spun around to look at her face, there was definitely a look of pity mixed in with all Mandy’s freckles. “Good luck with that dude… ’cause you’re gonna need it, honey. His name is Jamie Arlotta. He went to my high school… graduated last year and now he’s a freshman at Dascomb Arts. And get this, back in high school everybody called him ‘Pretty Vacant,’ because, sure he’s got the pretty face of an angel, but there’s nothing else going on inside that boy. His head? Empty. His heart? We were all convinced that his chest cavity was hollow too. As a matter of fact, I think I heard an echoing sound when I bumped into him one time.”

“Are you saying he’s, like, lacking in brainpower or something?” The boy I had my eye on definitely did not send out the “shit for brains” vibe. And “dumb” was definitely a deal-breaker for me. I liked a hot dude as much as the next guy, but he had to have a decent head on his shoulders to flip my switch, got me?

“Who the hell knows? Didn’t you hear me, K? The guy, he’s hollow—vacant, see? You say hello to him, you get nothing in return. You ask him how he’s doing for tips? Nothing. Nobody here at work likes him either. He struts around the place with his nose in the air like he’s all that.”

“Well, he kind of is all that.” I mumbled that part beneath my breath. With a bit more volume, I asked, “You know if he’s one of my kind?”

“Gay? Yeah, I think so. At least he certainly seems to be, but as you can imagine, he’s not discussing his sexual preference with any of his lowly coworkers.” She pulled a red-tinted tube of ChapStick out of her apron pocket and smeared it around her lips in two well-practiced circular movements. “Looks like you got it bad for Pretty Vacant, Kai. But you haven’t met the guy behind the face yet; you’ll get over him after ten seconds in his surly presence.” Mandy spun around and headed for the coffee bar. “Gotta head, my drinks are up!”

As I watched her bounce over to the bar, I decided that I was, in fact, into this. In other words, I was up to the Pretty Vacant Challenge. Chances are, if a guy played that hard to get to begin with, he wouldn’t turn into Mr. Desperate in the near future, and he’d know how to keep his distance after our romp in the sack was done and I told him I felt like going solo, unlike what had gone down last spring in my disastrous hookup with then-college-junior Noah Griffin. I could sum up the soul of that relationship in two words: restraining order. No, my parents hadn’t ended up having to drag my ass downtown to the Hartwick PD to fill out the forms, but we’d had to threaten him with it. More than once. And that had sucked.

Then Jamie Arlotta was right there, super conveniently right in my path, lurking stealthily by the men’s room, wispy blond bangs completely covering up one of his eyes. And somehow, he looked super alluring, and all the while still managed to ward off everybody’s foolish attempts at conversation with an expression that clearly said, “I’m not even slightly interested in anything you could possibly come up with to say to me, so don’t bother.” Nonetheless, it was my break. Time for me to visit the little boy’s room, right?

Now, I wasn’t exactly freaking out over the prospect of approaching Jamie Arlotta, since I’d always had pretty decent luck with dudes in general. Something about dark hair, light eyes, a runner’s bod—and then there was the whole musician thing—well, none of that hurt my chances with dudes at all. And me being a couple of years younger than them hadn’t ever seemed to pose a major problem for any of my dates; I guess most of them had assumed I was legal. (And now that I’d turned eighteen years old, I was.) To go with my decent looks, I had what you might call a relatively positive self-image, so even if I wasn’t radiating confidence out of every pore, I definitely wasn’t one of those guys who was always trying to blend into the background. All in all, the combination of grunge band looks, reasonable ability to carry a tune, and no lack of confidence just worked for most guys.

Okay, so it drew ’em to me like bees to honey.

And ever since I’d turned sixteen and started working at Coed Joe’s, the vast majority of the dudes I’d been out with had been older than me, as in college students from DAU. Dudes who, I’d discovered through plenty of hands-on experience (don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining), were finally having the chance to experience the freedom in life to spread their wings wide in the sexuality department. Much more so, at least, than the one or two gay high school guys I knew who hadn’t dared to stick so much as a baby toe out of the closet. In fact, I’d met nine out of ten of my most recent boyfriends right here at the café, having caught their eyes while singing my ass off and strumming on Sheila.

What was I on the ledge about, then? That one was easy: the prospect of getting involved in something overly heavy again scared the living bejesus out of me. It had just been so frigging hard to get out last time, when all I’d been looking for with Noah, my spring fling from last year, had been to get my rocks off. But no, there had to be drama, and God knows, I suck with that. What could I say, though? I was a young and healthy male; Mother Nature—you know, in terms of the birds and the bees and that sweet honey—was pretty much always calling me, 24/7.

For that matter, she was calling my name right now.

So I made my grand entrance. “Yo, Jamie, right? I noticed you noticing me before, you know, when I was jamming.” I was going for charming, but I suspected I ended up sounding more or less stuck-up as all hell. I shrugged, not too worried about it. Whatever.

The slim blond shook his hair off his face and looked up at me with icy, dark eyes. And before he’d even opened up his pretty lips to speak, those frigid eyes thinned to narrow slits. “Don’t flatter yourself. I liked the song, that’s all.”

Slits wide enough for arrows to shoot through.

So, yeah, once again, it was the song. All the guys liked my music. “What song was it?”

Ang—shit, I don’t know! It’s not like I wrote it down or anything.”

“It was ‘In the arms of an angel,’ wasn’t it? So, you’re into Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Angel.’ Interesting….”

“I don’t have time for this right now.”

“Do you have time later, for a burger, maybe?” Okay, I was a realist. I could tell things had been heading rather steadily downhill with Jamie and me, starting from, say, word one. In fact, the short trip from bad to worse had taken me approximately four sentences. My bad, huh? And it was also clear as the ice encasing this dude’s heart where our little chat was heading. Because, judging from the way he was glaring at me with his head cocked, his one now visible eye all squinted up, and his jaw set rigidly, I’d say it was dang clear that pretty Jamie Arlotta had just about slammed the door on me.

He shifted his weight onto one hip, and he pointed at me, accusingly, like I’d just mooned his grandma. “One, I’m a vegetarian, so I’m too morally principled to have a ‘burger’ with you. And two, this is the big one, you are clearly a childish idiot, and I’m too uninterested to have a burger with you. So it looks like you’ll be eating alone.” Slam! Now the deed was done.

Don’t know just why, but I felt a flicker of desire as I watched him stride away. And with each step, Jamie’s fingers surged deeper and deeper into his soft-looking, light-blond waves until they finally reached the darker roots, almost like the guy was trying to massage away his own pent-up tension.

Call me wacked, but I liked what I saw. There is absolutely no accounting for taste, is there?

I called after him, “Since you forgot to ask, this so-called childish idiot’s name is Kai Manter. It was mad sweet to meet you, dude.” As I continued to take in the speedily retreating view of his fine form, I muttered under my breath, “And for the record, Mr. Arlotta, I’m a vegetarian too. I was talking about veggie burgers.”