NATE HAD pressed the buzzer for apartment 4D several thousand times in his life, but it felt different now. He took a deep breath and pressed it with his thumb, waiting for the telltale static squawk of the ancient intercom system. Eventually Mama Lulu called out, “Hello?”
“Come on up, mi hijo.”
When the buzzer sounded, Nate pushed through the door and went up the stairs, the same way he had nearly every day from when he was six until he was eighteen. By the time he got to the fourth floor, he was out of breath, a little out of shape after being lazy all winter. He dutifully knocked on the door. Luisa Ruiz—Mama Lulu to everyone—answered, her round body resplendent in a floral dress, waving her arms to welcome him into the apartment.
It was chaos inside, but then, it always was. Even though all of the Ruiz children had fled the nest, here were two more. Nate recognized them as Lourdes’s kids, Lulu’s grandchildren. Mia was not quite two, toddling around in a frothy pink princess dress complete with a little plastic tiara. The baby—Nate couldn’t remember the baby’s name and hated himself a little for it—wore a onesie covered with footballs, and was having a grand old time in his bouncy chair on the kitchen table. The baby also sucked on a blue pacifier. No gender ambiguity for these kids.
“Uncle Nate,” Mia said, opening her arms to give him a hug.
He knelt to hug her back. “Hi, sweetie.”
“I’m babysitting,” Lulu explained.
“Ah.” Nate stood back up and patted Mia’s head.
“What brings you here, Nate?” said Lulu. “No, wait, sit at the table.”
This was part of the ritual too. Nate would come in and sit at the kitchen table, and within moments some sort of food would appear before him. Mama Lulu was never happier than when she was feeding people. This time it was a bowl of paella, yellow rice with bits of chicken and chorizo and maybe some kind of fish in it. Nate’s mouth watered, so he took a forkful. It was salty and savory and delicious.
Mia toddled over and climbed onto one of the other chairs. When she sat, the table came up to her nose, but this didn’t seem to bother her.
“Now,” said Lulu, plunking down a glass of lemonade in front of Nate, “talk to me. It’s bad news, yes?”
Nate sighed. Just being inside the Ruiz home made him feel many times better, so much so that he almost didn’t want to bring up his reason for visiting in the first place. But he’d come here seeking comfort, so he said, “I was in the neighborhood. Mom’s in the hospital.”
“Oh, Nate. What happened?”
He rubbed his forehead. “The cancer’s back.”
Mama Lulu’s face fell.
“I’m not sure how I feel about it,” Nate said.
Mama Lulu rubbed the back of Nate’s hand. He loved that he didn’t have to explain. Lulu already knew that Nate’s mother, Rebecca, was cold and stoic, that she and Nate weren’t very close, that her working so many hours when Nate had been a boy had driven Nate into the Ruiz home to begin with. The cherry on top was that Rebecca was devoutly Catholic and Nate’s homosexuality had never quite sat well with her.
Of course, the Ruiz family was Catholic too, but matriarch Lulu was everything Rebecca was not: she was warm and welcoming and loved her children fiercely and without condition. When her son, Carlos, Nate’s best friend since first grade, had come out, she’d given him a hug and carried on with her day. And Nate had never felt unwelcome here. Even though he wasn’t blood related, he had been a part of the family since his elementary school days.
Nate’s mother was currently in the hospital being treated for breast cancer that the doctors had apparently not completely excised the first time. Now it had spread to other parts of her system. Of course she hadn’t told Nate about it, not at first. Only when she started coughing up blood did she decide it might be a good idea to call her son and ask him to take her to the hospital.
He put his fork down. Mama Lulu stroked his head.
“I don’t want bad things to happen to her or anything,” Nate said, “but we’re so distant these days that, I don’t know. I think I should be sadder than I am?”
“You feel how you feel, mi hijo.”
“Yeah. Well, anyway. The prognosis is not good. The doctors are saying she may not last the summer.” He shook his head, more frustrated than sad. “Her doctor won’t say it, but I get the feeling this might have been more treatable if she’d gone to see him sooner. She has insurance now. I don’t understand why she would wait so long. The oncologist told me she must have felt unwell for months while the cancer progressed. Months!”
Mama Lulu smiled sadly at Nate and stroked his hair some more. “Maybe she thought it was just the flu. Maybe she did not want to admit to herself that the cancer was back.”
Nate swallowed and picked up his fork again. He ate a piece of chorizo. In many ways, he was grateful to his mother, who had always kept a roof over their heads even if it meant working two jobs, who had helped pay for his college, who bought him new clothes every year. But Lulu Ruiz continued to show Nate every day that there was a lot more to being a mother than paying for stuff.
Rebecca had once come to Ruiz family functions. The big Puerto Rican family certainly knew how to throw a party. Often Rebecca would arrive quietly and then sit on the edge, awkwardly eating and not talking to anyone. Around the time Nate turned sixteen, she’d started begging off, and once Nate left home, she stopped going entirely.
Bottom line was that Rebecca may have been Nate’s mother, but he’d long felt that the Ruizes were his real family.
“She has a few months left,” Nate said. “Then I’ll have to say good-bye.”
“That’s never easy.”
“Abuela!” little Mia said.
“You want some arroz con pollo?”
Mia screwed up her face in confusion. Nate guessed that Lulu’s Spanish dishes were not in her diet or vocabulary yet.
“How about some animal crackers?” Lulu offered.
Mia nodded enthusiastically. Lulu got up to fetch the box from the counter. She offered Mia her high chair, which Mia adamantly refused. So Lulu put some animal crackers on a plastic plate and then placed it in front of Mia. Mia had to reach above her head to pick them off the plate, but she sat there, crunching happily.
As Mama Lulu walked around the table and settled back in her chair, she asked, “Have you talked to Carlos about this?”
“Ah, well. I haven’t really talked to Carlos much at all since he moved in with Aiden.”
Lulu made a disapproving guttural noise and pushed back from the table. “Why is that?” she asked, her voice wary.
“I may have let it be known that I don’t really like Aiden and I thought Carlos was making a mistake, and now Carlos hardly talks to me. You must know that.”
She nodded. “He hasn’t said as much, just that you had an argument. You really told him you thought moving in with Aiden was a mistake?”
That hung in the air. Nate supposed he didn’t need to explain why. Lulu had always been extraordinarily intuitive.
“I worry about him,” Lulu said. “Carlos loves Aiden, I know that, and Aiden seems like a decent man, but I just don’t….” She shook her head. “There’s nothing wrong with him.”
“No. There isn’t.” Well, except that Aiden was the man Carlos went to bed with each night, not Nate. And Nate just got a bad vibe off him, but Nate was so crazy with jealousy that he didn’t trust his instincts. Carlos had never really shown bad judgment with men in the past—his exes were mostly good guys with whom things just hadn’t worked out, or that was how it seemed before Nate’s heart decided he and Carlos should be together. So Nate should have trusted Carlos’s judgment, but something about Aiden…. “I’ve never been able to put a finger on why I don’t like him, but I don’t. Besides the obvious reason. I don’t know. And probably I’m saying too much.”
“It’s all right, Nate. I appreciate your honesty.”
He ate a few more forkfuls of rice and watched Mia carefully chew on her animal crackers. The baby—was his name Jorge, maybe?—had fallen asleep in the bouncy chair and looked serene, his little pacifier bobbing occasionally as he sucked on it in his sleep.
“It’s funny,” Lulu said. “I always thought you and Carlos would end up together.”
It hurt Nate to hear that, like a punch in the stomach. It was a recent thing, wanting Carlos, and it had sprung on Nate quite suddenly two summers ago when they were both single for the first time in a while and Nate started thinking, Maybe…. Carlos had been his best friend forever, his family, and they cared about each other deeply. Nate had always thought Carlos objectively attractive—he had that tall, dark, and handsome thing going for him, for one thing, and he was in good shape and a little obsessed with proper grooming. He wore too much cologne, but Nate had come to miss the cloud of it that always surrounded Carlos.
One day, though, Nate and Carlos had been tossing a ball back and forth in Central Park and Nate had noticed how much Carlos’s brown eyes sparkled, how neat his eyebrows were, how plush his lips looked; he’d seen musculature he hadn’t noticed before, strength, physique. He noticed that Carlos actually had quite a nice ass, that the swishy way Carlos walked was kind of seductive, that Carlos’s husky voice could sometimes make Nate hard even if he was talking about unsexy things like baseball or work.
Of course, within weeks of Nate discovering all of these things, Carlos had discovered Aiden.
“I thought we would end up together too,” Nate said.
He realized suddenly he’d spoken out loud and put a hand to his mouth.
Mama Lulu stared at him.
“I’m so sorry,” said Nate. “That was an inappropriate thing to say to his mother. I swear, I’ve never even made a move on him.”
Then Lulu laughed. “Oh, Nate. No. It’s all right. Carlos loves Aiden, but something nags at me when I see them together. I don’t know what. Aiden may be a good man, but I do not think he’s the right one for Carlos. But Carlos will not be dissuaded. I made my peace with it. If this is what Carlos wants and Aiden makes him happy, who am I to stand in the way?”
“And arguing with him just makes him more stubborn.”
Lulu balked but then nodded slowly. “Yes, he is that way. These are matters of the heart, though.”
Still, Nate hadn’t been able to shake the idea that this was his fault somehow. Instead of talking about his feelings like a mature adult, he’d lost hope and let Aiden claim Carlos. Then he’d acted like such a pill about it that Carlos had stopped talking to him. He worried that being an ass about Aiden had spurred on Carlos’s stubborn streak, and even though Carlos himself had been having second thoughts about moving in with Aiden, Nate agreeing it was a bad idea had seemed to inspire Carlos to do it anyway.
“It’s too late now,” Nate said. “They have happy domestic bliss and I have nothing.”
Lulu sighed. She put some more animal crackers on the plate in front of Mia. Then she said, “So dramatic, mi hijo. You have plenty. You are just having a rough year. No matter what your relationship with your mother, it can’t be easy seeing her sick. And I know you care about Carlos, so stop picking fights and make up with him.”
Nate nodded. “No, I should. I will.”
“You boys have been such good friends for so long. I do think you could make each other happy, but this is the way life has dealt the cards. It is hard for me to talk about since you’re both my boys.” She tilted her head. “I would not give up hope just yet. But there are other fish, Nate. I know there is a man out there who will make you very happy.”
“And if you need anything, you obviously know where to find me. We’ll get you through this, okay?”
“Yeah.” Nate couldn’t tell if she meant his mother’s illness or his feelings for Carlos. Picking Door Number Two, he said, “I mean, you know, I care about him, but he’s made his decision.”
Lulu frowned. “It seems that way.”
“So I’m dating. I’m moving on.” Although that was an exaggeration. He’d been on a lot of first dates in the past year, but none of the guys measured up.
“Good. Eat your rice, mi hijo.”
CARLOS WAS tired of having the same fight. He mentally prepared himself for the inevitable “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” conversation that would stretch on and on because lately Aiden was so noncommittal about everything. They could go out or they could eat leftovers, Aiden didn’t care. He’d eat sushi or pizza. He’d go get a drink if Carlos wanted, but he didn’t care if they went here or there.
Carlos figured he’d start with an easy question. He walked into the living room, where Aiden was lounging on the couch in just his underwear, flipping through the TV channels.
“You want to go to Mason and Patrick’s wedding with me?” Carlos asked.
Aiden shrugged. Of course. “We’ve been together almost two years and I’m still just a plus one?”
“Actually, you were explicitly invited.” Carlos flipped over the invitation envelope and showed it to Aiden. It was addressed to Carlos Ruiz and Aiden Smith.
“It’s not until August, but the RSVP date is about a month away, so we should probably let them know.”
Was Aiden even paying attention? “I just figured, you know, I’d ask without assuming, since these are really more my friends than yours and you don’t love weddings.”
Aiden finally turned to face Carlos where he stood at the arm of the sofa. “Are all the Hipsters going?”
Carlos interpreted that to mean Is Nate going? “I haven’t asked, but I assume so.”
All right. One item off the list. Carlos put the invitation on the little table behind the couch. Next up, that afternoon. “Don’t know if you remember, but Rainbow League sign-ups are today.” Carlos and Nate had joined the Rainbow League together, back when they’d still been the sort of best friends who talked daily, and they played for the same team. He’d met Aiden through the league, in fact; they’d been together since they first made eyes at each other two years before.
“Oh, yeah! I almost forgot.” Aiden sat up. “And Will finally finished setting up the damn website, so we can register online this year.”
“I thought it might be fun to head into the city. Drop by the park. Ty and Josh are in charge of sign-ups again this year.”
Aiden tilted his head as if he were considering that. “I suppose if we went, it would be easier for you to switch teams in person.”
“Wait, what? Switch teams?”
Aiden crossed his arms over his chest. “Don’t you think it would be more fun if we both played for the Queens?” He spoke in a patronizing tone, as if he had just asked if it would be better for Carlos to avoid spicy food if it was upsetting his stomach.
“Okay, first of all, we never talked about that. Second of all, why would I switch? Your team already has a good player in my position. Actually, all of the outfielders on the Queens are pretty good. And third, you don’t think it would be weird if we played for the same team? Couldn’t that get awkward?”
“For who? We’d spend more time together.”
Carlos pressed his lips together to keep from pointing out that they already spent almost all of their time together outside of their respective jobs, to the point where Carlos hardly ever saw his friends anymore. “Aiden. I wouldn’t make you leave your team. These are my friends and I want to continue to play alongside them. I’m sure it’s the same for you and the Queens.”
Aiden looked a little angry now. “Sure.”
“Let me have this. I’ve played with the Hipsters for five seasons, you know? And I mean, just because we consolidated living spaces doesn’t mean we have to consolidate our whole lives, does it?”
But even after that little speech, Carlos worried that the real issue here was Nate. Carlos didn’t know why, but his best friend and his boyfriend hated each other. Aiden thought Nate was jealous, but Nate wasn’t into Carlos in that way. But then Nate kept saying he didn’t like or trust Aiden, but not for any specific reason. He and Carlos had gotten into it last summer because Nate felt ignored while Carlos spent all of his spare time with Aiden. That had some logic to it, since Carlos really had been neglecting their friendship. Carlos had promised to try harder, and he had, but then he’d also finally relented to Aiden’s increasingly frequent pleas to move in together, and now here they were in Aiden’s Brooklyn apartment that they hardly ever left.
Carlos wanted to scream.
He loved Aiden, he did, but he couldn’t figure out how to maintain his freedom without pissing off or hurting Aiden, and he didn’t remember Aiden being quite so needy before they moved in together.
Aiden was glaring at him now.
“We can have separate social lives sometimes,” Carlos said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. Besides, I invite you along to all of the Hipsters’ events, don’t I? You don’t even want to come half the time.”
Although he usually came anyway. Probably to keep an eye on Nate. As if leaving Carlos alone would be all the invitation Nate needed to make a move. Which, please. It wasn’t like Nate hadn’t had an opportunity in the nearly thirty years they’d been friends.
“Fine,” Aiden said, though he didn’t sound pleased.
Was this weird tension between them just relationship growing pains or the sign of a bigger problem? They’d only been living together about six months, and at first, Carlos had been happy, but lately it was just tension and arguments—and fine, pretty hot sex—but none of the joy Carlos had felt when they first got together. Aiden was too noncommittal or too irritable most of the time. And Carlos missed his friends, especially Nate, but he stayed away for fear of rocking the boat.
That was a problem, wasn’t it?
Carlos groaned. “Just come with me to the park, okay? We’ll chat with whoever’s there, maybe get a drink at Barnstorm after. What do you say?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want to do.”
Carlos dug his nails into his palms rather than shout or throw himself out the window. He said, “Yeah. That’s what I’d like to do.”
Aiden stood. “I’ll get dressed, then.”
Six months ago, Carlos would have made a sexy joke about how Aiden could go to Manhattan in the altogether and turn a few heads, if only Carlos wouldn’t get jealous, or something like that. But he wasn’t feeling like he wanted to joke just then.
From the bedroom, Aiden called, “Is Nate gonna be there?”
“I don’t know, but I doubt it.”
This was not going as well as he’d hoped, basically. And Carlos had no idea how to fix it.