Chapter One

 

 

NICKY HAUSER’S life fell apart on a Tuesday.

Monday had been a good day. The restaurant was closed, so he and Tom took BART into San Francisco to celebrate Nicky’s twenty-ninth birthday, which had occurred a few days earlier. They visited the modern art museum to see the Paul Klee exhibit, had dinner at a really nice place—a dinner Tom didn’t have to cook and Nicky didn’t have to serve—and then went dancing until they were both sweaty and exhausted. By the time they returned home to Livermore, it was very late. But they’d been making out at the club and in the empty train car on the way home, and they were barely inside the house before they were ripping their clothes off. Tom bent Nicky over the back of the couch and fucked him hard enough to send the heavy piece of furniture scooting several feet across the carpet. Then they collapsed into bed with Nicky spooning Tom’s smaller frame. It was a wonderful day. It was like old times, when they’d first started seeing each other, before Tom had opened Phoenix Grille.

But the next day was Tuesday. Tom woke up first, as always. He swatted Nicky on the rump. “Gotta get ready for work.”

Nicky replied with a wordless grumble. He wasn’t a morning person, and he refused to open his eyes.

Tom bopped him again. “You look like a trauma victim.”

“Thanks.” Nicky felt like one too. His ass was sore from the previous night and someone was throwing boulders inside his skull.

“Tell you what. I’ll call Simon and see if he’ll work your lunch shift. You can get your beauty sleep and come in for dinner.”

Nicky looked blearily up at him. “Really?”

“Sure. Consider it an extra birthday gift, babe.” Tom patted him again—more gently this time—and headed for the bathroom.

There were benefits to sleeping with your boss, Nicky thought. Later in the day he’d understand there were downsides as well. But for now he lolled in contented obliviousness, listening to the patter of the shower. He stroked his cock lazily as he imagined the water rolling down Tom’s lean frame. He considered getting up and joining him, maybe licking some of that water off his skin, but the mattress was so comfy and the blankets and pillows were arranged just right, and he ended up staying where he was.

When Tom reentered the bedroom, his short hair still damp, Nicky leered at him. “You sure you don’t want to join me?” He patted the vacant space on the bed.

Tom didn’t turn around from the dresser, where he was rummaging for underwear. “Can’t. Gotta make sure the deliveries went well this morning and then get things set up for lunch. Last week that asshole delivered some real crap instead of decent salmon, and Polly signed for it anyway.”

Nicky remembered that incident very well. Tom had thrown a tantrum, Polly screamed and threatened to quit, and the rest of the staff watched as if the whole event were being staged for their entertainment. As was often the case, Nicky had stepped in to soothe tempers. Polly and Tom had apologized to each other, and everyone went back to work. Later, during the lull between lunch and dinner, Nicky had dragged Tom into the office and given him a blowjob to reward him for calming down.

Now, Nicky yawned. “’Kay.” He watched as Tom dressed, and he was only a little disappointed when there was no good-bye kiss. Tom’s mind was probably already at the restaurant, as usual.

Not too long after the front door clicked shut, Nicky fell back asleep. He dreamed of fish that had gotten lost in the waterways and ended up in his shower cubicle, where they attempted to spawn.

“Ew,” he said out loud when he woke up. Slimy salmon spawn in his shower. So after he stretched, pissed, and threw on a pair of old shorts, he took a sponge and bottle of his homemade scrubbing solution and wiped all the imaginary fish goo away. Then he squeegeed the glass door and nodded in satisfaction. Much better.

He still had a couple of hours before Tom would be expecting him at the Phoenix. Nicky passed the time as he often did: cleaning. He pushed the couch back into place with a grin and gathered the remnants of the clothing he and Tom had worn the night before. He decided Tom’s shirt could be salvaged if he could find replacement buttons, but his own was ripped beyond his repair skills and ended up in the trash. He stuffed the rest of the clothes into the hamper. He dusted the living room, careful not to knock over any of the glass knickknacks Tom had collected—even though breaking them was a little tempting because they were all pretty cheap and ugly.

Next he vacuumed. He’d been trying for almost two years to persuade Tom to rip up the carpet and install wood instead. Carpeting was a trap for dust and dirt, and bamboo flooring in a dark stain would look so much more interesting and elegant. But the house belonged to Tom, the home reno decisions were all his, and he’d vetoed Nicky’s suggestion.

Finally, Nicky made himself a sandwich, washed the dishes he’d dirtied, and wiped down the granite counters. Tom wouldn’t care if he left the house a mess—probably would barely even notice. When Nicky had moved in, the place had resembled a toxic waste dump. Tom was always fastidious about his workspaces but didn’t have an interest in keeping the home front spick-and-span. Which was fine with Nicky, who enjoyed cleaning. It relaxed him, made him feel as if he’d accomplished something.

Nicky hung the dish towel neatly on its hook and glanced at the clock. Lunch rush was well over. The restaurant staff would be straightening up and clocking out while Tom retreated to his office to pore over bills and other paperwork. He wouldn’t be expecting Nicky or the rest of the dinner crew for another two hours.

With a wicked little smile, Nicky decided Tom needed a surprise. He took a quick shower—again squeegeeing the glass afterward, because water stains were a bitch to deal with. He pulled on his second-sexiest pair of underwear, the sexiest pair having seen action the day before. He slithered into a pair of black trousers. Black pants and white shirt were Tom’s rules for the waitstaff, but Nicky always managed to find tight trousers that showed off his strong legs and muscular ass, and Tom hadn’t once complained. The crisp white button-down set off Nicky’s golden tan nicely. He carefully gelled his hair. Yes, he was a little vain, but he liked looking good for his guy. Didn’t hurt with the tips either. Besides, being pretty was one of the few things he was really good at.

Naturally, Tom had taken the good car, his beloved vintage Mustang, which left Nicky with the barely functional and seriously hideous old Fiesta. The Mustang got to live in the luxury of the garage, but the Fiesta was consigned to the curb, where it accumulated pollen, cat prints, and bird shit. At least it started after only three tries.

The sky was a soft dove gray, a reminder that fall had finally arrived. Soon the busy season for the restaurant would hit full force as people booked holiday parties or took their out-of-town relatives to dinner. Tom was especially frazzled in November and December, and he and Nicky never seemed to find much time together. Needless to say, a vacation for two somewhere warm and mai tai–scented was out of the question.

The Phoenix was in the middle of a two-story shopping mall with furniture stores on the top floor and restaurants below. Each of the eateries specialized in food from a different part of Asia—China, Thailand, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Japan, Korea. Tom’s place served fusion food, recipes inherited from his Vietnamese grandmother and French father but freshened up with a California twist. He got good reviews and usually had a full house, but as he liked to remind Nicky, that didn’t mean he was rich. The restaurant business was a tough one.

Nicky parked the Fiesta near the edge of the parking lot, alongside the cluster of dumpsters. He glanced at the nearby bank and considered jogging over to get some cash but decided it could wait. Instead, he went around the back of the building, where the Phoenix’s service door was propped open with a brick. That was careless of someone but handy nonetheless. Now Nicky wouldn’t have to knock to get inside; he could sneak up on Tom, who was no doubt groaning over his paperwork.

Smiling to himself, Nicky slipped inside. He nearly stumbled over a couple of big cardboard boxes that should have already been emptied, broken down, and taken outside. Maybe Simon hadn’t been able to cover his lunch shift after all. Well, Nicky could clean up later, when he was done with Tom. Someone had left the radio on, and it was blaring that horrible eighties crap Tom loved to listen to. Tiffany, for fuck’s sake.

Nicky unbuttoned his shirt halfway and rubbed the heel of his palm against his groin, knowing Tom would glance up from his papers and see the bulge. It would be a nice surprise. Nicky had never attacked him at work before. Smiling to himself, he opened the door to Tom’s little office.

Simon was bent over the desk, Tom buried balls-deep in his skinny ass.

Everyone froze. Nicky’s hand still gripped the doorknob. He could see all the details very clearly: The sheen of sweat on Tom’s face, the little sprinkles of gray in his short dark hair. Simon’s black trousers and skanky red thong puddled around his ankles. The bottle of lube toppled on a pile of papers, dripping. The empty condom wrapper beside it.

Without a word, Nicky shut the door.

He walked back through the kitchen and out the back door into the parking lot. He felt very strange, as if he weren’t connected to his body. His legs moved of their own accord, or maybe a puppeteer somewhere was pulling the strings. A swarm of wasps buzzed inside his brain, blocking his thoughts.

He let himself into the Fiesta, sat down, closed the door. And he just… did nothing.

He had no idea how long he was there—minutes? hours?—when someone parked next to him, startling him out of his numbness. It was Becca, one of the dinner-shift waitresses, her hair pulled back in a tight blonde ponytail. She gave him a little wave.

Still feeling like a sleepwalker, he emerged from his car.

“Driveway moment?” Becca asked as they walked toward the building.

“Huh?”

“You looked really into whatever you were listening to.”

“Oh. Uh, I was just thinking.”

“I always recommend avoiding that.” She winked at him. She was actually one of the smartest people he’d met, as well as one of the most goal-directed. She had a Life Plan, capital letters and all. She was currently working her way through a master’s degree in something Nicky didn’t understand, her ultimate goal to get a doctorate and take over the world.

Most of the other employees had already arrived, and the kitchen was hopping with activity. Tom glanced away from the prep cook he was berating and gave Nicky a startled look, but Nicky ignored him, instead following Becca to the shelf where the clean black aprons were kept. After they each tied one around their waist, Becca clucked her tongue and caught his arm before he walked into the front of the house. “Forgot to finish getting dressed today, kiddo,” she said.

He blinked at her in confusion, so she shook her head fondly and buttoned up his shirt. “Are you okay, Nicky? You look a little out of it.”

“I… I’m fine.”

“Wild night yesterday?”

He attempted a small smile. “Yeah.”

“I have ibuprofen in my purse if you need it.”

“Thanks, Bec. I’ll be all right.”

The evening’s first customers arrived almost as soon as the doors were unlocked. Nicky tried to be his usual friendly self, but every word felt strained. He really wasn’t that great a waiter to begin with; he wasn’t especially graceful or quick on his feet, and although he enjoyed a little patter with the people he served, he would never have the professional polish of Becca or Scott or Vinh. Even that little shit Simon was a better waiter—although, mercifully, he seemed to have the night off. Nicky had been working as a Pepsi delivery guy when he and Tom met, and he had only landed this job by default.

By seven o’clock, the house was full. Nicky bumped into Scott in the kitchen, causing Scott to drop a plate of ginger-cilantro tilapia. “Watch it, fuckhead!” Scott spat.

Then Nicky got the side dishes mixed up at a four-top, forgot the rice for a solo diner, and nearly had to be tackled for drink refills by a couple with two little kids. “Sorry, sorry,” he kept saying. Customers and staff alike glared, and his tips were crap.

A table of five white-haired ladies finally did him in. They wore pastel pantsuits and jangling charm bracelets and looked as if they’d just come from a garden club meeting. They peered at the menus forever, asking him a zillion questions he tried to answer patiently. They needed to know the ingredients in everything, didn’t want anything too spicy, demanded all the sauces on the side. One of them sent her food back twice for alterations. They ate hardly anything at all and wanted all their leftovers to go. And then they asked for five separate checks and told him to split the cost of the bottle of wine between the three ladies who’d shared it.

“Excuse me,” said the tiny woman with the orange-framed glasses. She had a shrill voice, and she waved her check in the air. “You got this wrong. You put the charge for the wine on my bill and I didn’t have any. It’s supposed to go on hers.” She pointed at the plump woman next to her.

“I’m sorry. Just let me get the food for these other—”

“I’m tired of waiting. Fix it now.”

“I just need to—”

“The service has been terrible all night.” She and her four cohorts all glared at him. “I’d like to speak to the manager. At once.”

“I’m sorry. We’re just really busy. Let me—”

“Now!”

She said it so sharply that he jerked backward—directly into Arturo the busboy. Plates and glasses crashed to the floor, and Arturo yelled something blasphemous in Spanish. Nicky almost slipped on the spilled food and liquid; when he grabbed at a chair back for balance, he grasped the shoulder of a large man instead. “Hey!” barked the man.

Nicky fled. He darted around the tables, past a roomful of wide eyes and gaping mouths. He ignored Becca, who called at him from near the kitchen, and burst out the front door into the cool evening. He almost collided with two couples as he ran down the sidewalk and then came within a hair’s breadth of getting run over by an SUV in the parking lot. The driver honked long and loud.

The Fiesta felt more like a trap than a safe haven, but Nicky sat in its dark interior anyway, waiting for his breathing to calm. Only when he was sure he could make it home safely did he start the engine.

 

 

DEEP IN his heart, Nicky had hoped Tom would close the Phoenix early—or maybe just leave the place in someone else’s hands—and come home to talk. But Tom didn’t. Nicky sat alone on the couch until well after midnight. He still wore his waiter’s uniform and the black apron, and his empty stomach rumbled unhappily. The room was dark, shadows blanketing the shelves full of cookbooks and knickknacks, and the autumn chill that permeated the room reminded him it was probably time to turn on the furnace.

Finally the garage door rattled open, then closed. Nicky heard keys jangle as Tom threw them on the kitchen counter. The water dispenser on the fridge whooshed for a moment. Nicky knew exactly how Tom looked as he leaned against the counter and drank. He’d have dark circles under his eyes and his shoulders would be bowed with exhaustion. His skin would smell of sweat, cooking oil, and spices.

Usually Nicky and Tom came home together. Sometimes Nicky would drop to his knees in the kitchen and give his lover a blowjob. More often they’d walk into the living room together, kick off their shoes, and collapse on the couch with their legs entwined. They’d give each other foot rubs until they were both groaning with pleasure.

Tonight, Nicky just sat. He squinted when the overhead lights came on. Tom walked into the room silently and collapsed beside him. For ten minutes, they were silent.

Finally, Tom sighed loudly. “I’m sorry you found us like that,” he said quietly.

Nicky winced at the us and said nothing.

“It was only… I was feeling kind of stressed and Simon…. It didn’t mean anything, Nicky. It wasn’t anything special, not like we have.”

Nicky had been feeling detached all night, but now reality slammed into him with the force of a blow. He grunted as the realization hit him with perfect clarity: this wasn’t the first time Tom had fucked around.

“Like we had,” Nicky said.

“Oh, c’mon. I’m sorry, okay? I was just fooling around.”

Nicky had always known that he was second to the Phoenix in Tom’s affections, but he’d been willing to accept that. And maybe at some level he’d been aware that his lover cheated on him—and not just with Simon. There were the clandestine glances at work, the sly comments. Even before Tom had opened his own restaurant, when he’d been the chef at a place in Berkeley, there had been the unexpectedly late nights, the nights he came home smelling of someone else’s cologne. But Nicky had refused to become distrustful. Tom loved him. He said so.

Nicky shook his head. His chest felt hollow, scooped out like one of Tom’s gutted fish, and the bright light made his eyes prickle. “I haven’t even kissed another man, Tom. Not since we met.”

“But this wasn’t fucking important, Nick!”

“It was to me.”

Nicky stood. His legs had cramped from sitting immobile for so long, but he didn’t pay attention to the discomfort. He limped into the spare bedroom, opened the closet, and pulled out the big suitcase. He’d used it only once, on a vacation he and Tom had taken to Hawaii before Tom opened the Phoenix. Nicky dragged the bag into the master bedroom and began filling it with his clothing. When it was stuffed nearly full, he threw in a bag of toiletries, then zipped the suitcase closed. He had to wheel it through the living room to get to the front door.

Tom was still slumped on the couch. “Nicky….”

“I’ll be back later for the rest of my stuff.” He didn’t really own that much, actually. Most of the things in the house were Tom’s.

“Where are you going, Nick? This is your home.”

“It’s your home. My name’s not on the mortgage.”

“But you live here.”

“Not anymore.”

Tom didn’t follow him as Nicky walked out into the night, his suitcase noisy on the sidewalk.

And that was how, on one bad Tuesday, Nicky Hauser lost his job, his home, his boyfriend, and his hope.