THE line of people snaked across the entire length of the lobby, curving around twice before ending at the security checkpoint. It was a typical scene at San Francisco International Airport, packed with travelers from all over the world trying to get in and out as quickly as possible. I watched dispassionately as a family of Filipinos gathered to say good-bye to some relative who was laden down with boxes of who-knows-what. There must have been at least ten people standing around the old man, crying and carrying on like he was going to his death, instead of a plane ride.
My dad jabbed me with his elbow and admonished, “Stop staring.”
I turned away, annoyed that he’d caught me doing my favorite thing: people watching. I’ve always enjoyed it—the artist in me picking apart every detail of a person or incident, keeping them tucked away in my brain somewhere for future reference.
“Are you sure you’ve got everything?” Dad asked, trying to pull my backpack away from me to check the contents. I yanked it back roughly, angered by this invasion of my privacy. I don’t know why I was surprised, but every time it happened, it pissed me off. “Stop it!” I glared, daring him to say anything. I hated it when he treated me like I was a fucking ten-year-old instead of someone who had just turned twenty-three. Everyone around was watching to see how my father would react, but they lost interest when he did nothing except look at me.
“I’ve got it under control, Dad,” I reiterated, in a whisper this time, putting my mouth close to his ear. “Stop freaking out!”
He didn’t look the least bit apologetic. He just stood there, all six foot four of him, arms akimbo and puffed out like a Thanksgiving turkey. “I just don’t want you forgetting anything.”
“Dad, I haven’t forgotten anything. Besides, I’m going to New York, not another country.”
“You’re getting in late, Sloan. You don’t want to have to stop at a store in the middle of the night.”
I sighed, exasperated by his concern, but I answered patiently. “It’ll be ten o’clock when I get there. I’m pretty sure that I’ll find a store if I need one.”
He grabbed me and gave me one of his bone-crushing hugs, practically squeezing the air out of my lungs. My head barely grazed his chin, and I felt like I was trapped in the arms of a polar bear, his size always a formidable thing. Although I was rapidly approaching his height, he bested me by at least one hundred and twenty pounds, making me feel even scrawnier than normal. I wondered again if I’d ever get to be as big as him. I’d been hearing how I was going to start to fill out ever since I was a kid, but all I did was get taller and taller, not wider.
“Now, you call me as soon as the plane lands, you understand?” he said, in a voice surprisingly gruff with emotion. I would have thought he’d be glad to get rid of me. Out of sight, out of mind, I assumed, but I guess you couldn’t take away the parenting gene.
“I promise, Dad. I’ll be okay.”
“This is it, Sloan.” He pulled away and looked at me with eyes that were uncharacteristically moist. “No more second chances, kid. The Big Apple will either make you a man or break you.”
I rolled my eyes internally, thinking it would take much more than New York City to make me the kind of man he was hoping for, but I opened my mouth and said, “It’s going to be fine, Dad. I wish you’d stop worrying.”
“Can’t help it, son. You’re my boy and I’ll always worry. That’s my job.”
One he was very good at, I might add. He’d taken worrying to a whole new dimension.
The line started moving a little faster, probably because they’d added another person, and I was fast approaching the area where we had to open up our bags, take off our shoes and jackets, and walk through the metal detector. I could feel my heart banging against my chest and my pulse beating like a conga in my head. I was terrified suddenly, sure that they’d find my stash and embarrass me and my father. I could see the headlines already: Joe Driscoll’s son stopped at the airport with two grams of Northern Lights.
Being a former San Francisco Giant had its advantages, but it wouldn’t save his son’s ass, if I were arrested. Dad had already used up all his favors in the last few years. The SFPD and I had become very well acquainted, and although they’d never formally arrested me, in deference to my father’s Hall of Fame status, they knew me on a first-name basis. They could make my life, and my father’s, a living hell, if they chose to.
This was the reason I was being exiled to New York City. Not because I’d been accepted at Pratt Institute. I could have gone to the San Francisco Art Institute for a lot less money. The reason was to get me away from here, from everything familiar, to give me a fresh start. It was Ken Fujiwara, Dad’s best friend from his baseball days, who had planted the seed in my father’s head. Ken had a son who lived in New York City, and this played right into Dad’s hands. They’d made arrangements for me to go and live with Cole without even asking me. As usual, my life had been mapped out, planned, signed, sealed, and delivered without my input or consent.
It was my turn at security, and the guards told Dad he’d have to go through the detectors as well, if he planned on staying with me until I boarded. I tried to dissuade him, but he was having none of it. He wanted to see me walk down the ramp and board that fucking plane to make sure I got my scrawny ass out of town. I took off my jacket and threw it on the moving belt, along with my backpack and my Nikes. I still had several layers of clothing on; an undershirt, a colored T-shirt, a light flannel in a faded blue color. The usual layered look I preferred, giving the illusion of a normal torso, when in reality, I had the build of a twelve-year-old.
“Hey, Joe.” The guard who was attending to me recognized my dad, which was good in a way. It distracted him and he waved me through. “This your kid?”
“Yeah, Sloan’s my oldest. He’s off to the Big Apple to become a famous graphic artist.”
“That’s pretty cool,” the guard replied, signaling me to pick up my bags and stuff. “Are you going with him?”
“No,” Dad answered, walking up to the metal detector, pausing to get the okay to pass through. He was waved on and he stopped to bullshit with the guard while I tied my shoes and gathered my belongings. “He’s off on his own.”
“Well, good luck to you, son,” the guard said, rewarding me with a huge smile. “You guys are free to go.”
Thank you, thank you. We walked away and headed toward the food court to kill a few more minutes. Dad bought me a latte, shaking his head in disapproval when I asked for an extra shot of espresso. I poured in at least three tablespoons of sugar and took a sip, sighing in relief that I’d made it through this far without any incidents. Now I just had to get rid of Dad and I’d be home free.
IN NEW YORK CITY, Cole Fujiwara was about to go off on a man who demanded nothing but respect from his children. But Cole wasn’t going to let that deter him from speaking his mind. He was still angry that his father had made plans with his best friend before consulting him, telling Cole after the fact that he was about to gain a roommate. Did he honestly think I’d be okay with this?
“Dad, would you please reconsider? I don’t want Sloan to come live here. I have enough problems of my own. I don’t need to take on anything else.”
“Why are you assuming he’ll be a problem?” Ken asked. “Joe has assured me that the kid has cleaned up his act and wants to make a fresh start.”
“And you believe him?”
“Why shouldn’t I? I’m surprised by your attitude, son. I didn’t think you were so heartless.”
“I’m not heartless, Father,” Cole protested. “I’m just being practical.”
“You used to play with this kid. You were best friends!”
“I haven’t seen Sloan since he was eight years old,” Cole countered. “I was eleven, for Christ’s sake—hardly his best friend!”
“Calm down, Cole. You’ll give yourself an asthma attack.”
“Dad, you know the timing of this sucks. I’m dealing with all my own shit.”
“I know,” Ken said, in a voice filled with sadness. “I thought that maybe you guys could help each other out.”
“Please tell me that he doesn’t know, or have you already primed him?” Cole spat out bitterly.
Ken sighed heavily into the phone. “I haven’t said a word to anyone, Cole. Not even Joe knows. You asked me not to discuss it, and I’ve respected your wishes.”
“Thank you. Eventually people will find out, but until they do, I want things to be normal.”
“Maybe Sloan can help you around the apartment. Do some of the chores?”
“Is that what the plan is? Make Sloan my seeing-eye roommate?”
“Cole, stop it.”
Cole swiped angry tears away. They were an automatic reaction to his father’s interference. Despair was warping the man’s judgment, his need to help so painfully obvious, but Cole had insisted on being independent. He had to learn how to cope with it, to become a disabled person and survive without anyone’s help. It was hard enough to deal with the reality that he was going blind, but he was determined to be self-sufficient and not become a burden to anyone. He’d been preparing for the inevitable for six months, learning to live alone and manage. Now, he was being thrown another curveball, expected to welcome Sloan with open arms when he had no idea who or what he was dealing with.
Each morning Cole woke up thinking this was all a nightmare that would go away. But sadly, it wasn’t going anywhere, and the shadows got worse every day. It was that day he was preparing for: the day he’d wake up and see nothing.
THE doors of the plane were shut; the engines revved and ready to go. I leaned back and plugged in my earphones, increasing the volume so that I could hear nothing but Queen blaring out Bohemian Rhapsody. I loved their music, even if it was considered old school by many of my peers. I loved their drama and their style, much to my father’s horror. One summer I even made the attempt to dress and talk like Freddie Mercury. It wasn’t that hard, since we had the same body type, not one ounce of fat anywhere. My little game was met with outraged disapproval, so that persona went back into the closet of my brain, along with all the other shocking thoughts that resided there.
The plane finally took off, almost in sync with Freddie’s falsetto blaring in my ears. I removed my earplugs and unfastened the seat belt when the captain turned off the sign. It was time to go to the rest room and take care of business.
The light in the tiny bathroom cast a yellowish shade on my normally pale face. I stared at the mirror, trying to see if I looked any different since my haircut, and my father’s attempts to make me look respectable. Everything appeared the same; my hair was still a boring brown, my eyes an unremarkable shade of gray. My mouth was a bit too full and too girly for Dad’s taste, but there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. I wondered how long it would take for my hair to grow out again. I hated the feel of the cold air against my neck, although my tattoo was now clearly visible, the Queen logo a testament to my devotion.
I started to strip, undoing the belt buckle and pushing down my jeans, past the scars on my thighs that showed in bright relief against the expanse of white skin. They were an angry hue of pink, which was normal for me and almost a non-issue. I stepped out of my pants and left them balled up in the corner. Next off were the tighty-whities and the sandwich bag with my stash. It had been held in its hiding place near my crotch, nestled nicely in between my boxers and the boring white underwear. I dumped the briefs into the wastebasket and pulled my jeans back up.
I opened the bag and inhaled the pungent aroma of the high-grade weed, wishing I had the guts to light up, but I knew that all kinds of hell would break loose if I did. So I popped a Xanax instead, knowing it was a poor substitute but certainly better than nothing.
I spent the rest of the flight in a hazy fog. Thanks to my age and the money in my pocket, I was able to buy a few drinks to add to my drug-induced high. That, plus the reassuring sound of Freddie serenading me, calmed me down. I passed on the food, shaking my head at the flight attendant, asking for more peanuts instead. I could hear my father admonishing me, telling me to eat and not skip meals or I’d stay scrawny, but I wasn’t buying into that plan anymore. No amount of food had ever worked to give me the kind of body I craved, so any time I was on my own, I ate whatever the fuck I wanted.
I knew I was in New York as soon as the cabbie pulled up to the curb and looked me over without leaving his seat. “You want a ride, buddy?”
He was an Indian, turbaned head and all, doing the whole head-shake thing and expecting me to haul my gear into the cab on my own. I hefted the duffel with all my worldly possessions and placed it in the open trunk. “Can I smoke in here?” I asked, as soon as we got going.
I pulled out a joint I’d rolled in the airport restroom and lit up, inhaling deeply, letting the smoke fill my lungs. The cabbie lifted an eyebrow as soon as he smelled the weed. “You want to share some of that?” he asked, hoping I’d say yes.
“Knock yourself out,” I replied, passing the joint through the opening in the glass.
He took a huge hit, nodding his head in appreciation. “Good stuff, buddy.”
“Yeah, it better be, for what it cost.”
“Where are we going?” he asked, finally realizing I hadn’t given him an address.
It was almost eleven by the time we stopped in front of Cole’s building, and after I handed over my money, I waited to see if Mohammed would help me with my bag. Stupid thought. The man just sat there and shook his head. “Good luck, buddy.”
I dragged my shit out of the cab and waited for the doorman to let me in. Apparently he’d gotten word of my arrival, and he actually helped me place my bag in the elevator and told me the apartment was on the tenth floor. When I got there, I stabbed at the doorbell for a good five minutes before I saw a light go on and heard footsteps coming toward the door. It was pulled open and a guy stood there, pissed off as all hell.
“Will you ease off the fucking bell already?”
“Hey, I didn’t know if you were asleep or what.”
“Well, I’m wide awake now.”
“Oh. Sorry about that. I’m looking for Cole Fujiwara.”
“You found him,” he replied warily. “Sloan?”
“The one and only.”
“Wow. You’ve grown. When’d you get so tall?”
And when the fuck did you get so hot?
“Probably when you lost all the weight,” I replied out loud, taking a really good look at him. He was nothing like I remembered. The fat kid with thick glasses who teased me and told me I threw like a girl was gone. In his place was a Johnny Depp look-alike with bone-straight black hair that fell over his forehead. The glasses were gone as well, probably replaced by contacts, but those dark blue eyes were the same, courtesy of his Irish mother, and a little disconcerting in his obviously Eurasian face.
“So, are we going to stand here all night?” I asked, needing to move away from this guy. I was doing the whole staring thing again, and I was afraid he’d say something.
“Oh, sorry. Come in,” Cole said, turning and walking down the hall. I picked up my bags and followed. The place was immaculate, nothing like I expected.
“Wow, you have a housekeeper?”
“Everything is just so neat.”
“I like order, and I’ll expect you to maintain this apartment the way I like it,” Cole said, pushing a lock of hair out of his eye. “You hungry?”
“Not really. Can I light up?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
“I don’t smoke. Do you mind?”
“Yeah, I mind! This is my place now, and I should be able to smoke whenever I feel like it.”
“It’s not your house!” Cole spat out. “It’s mine, and if you want to stay with me, you’ll follow my rules.”
“Rules,” I groaned. “I thought I’d just escaped from rules.”
“Look, Sloan. There are just a few things I need from you,” Cole said, changing the tone of his voice. “I really can’t be around cigarette smoke.”
I stared at him, taking a good look at his face now that we were in better light. The artist in me picked out each feature, lingering over his nose, which was straight and narrow, his ridiculously high cheekbones, and finally his mouth, which looked soft and tempting. He probably tasted great as well, since he was a nonsmoker. I tore my eyes away and said, “What about weed? That’s medicinal.”
Surprisingly, he said, “I’ll let you smoke weed, but only in your room with the door closed and the window open. Understood?”
“Well, it’s late,” Cole said softly. “Let me show you your room and then I’m going back to bed.”
I let him lead the way, giving me the perfect opportunity to check out his body. He was about five-eleven and beefier around the arms and shoulders than me. The rest of him was perfect. His broad back tapered into a slim waist, and his silk boxers clung to his rounded ass. His long legs were tanned, well shaped, and muscular. A sudden vision of those same legs wrapped around my hips stirred my imagination. My cock twitched, confirming the unexpected and powerful attraction.
“You still playing ball?” I asked, hoping my voice didn’t betray my feelings.
“No,” he replied, without turning around. “I gave it up.”
“I heard you were pretty good at it. In fact, my dad said you might be following in daddy’s footsteps.”
“Nah, no way,” Cole said, with a little hitch in his voice.
We stopped in front of a door, and he pushed it open and said, “This is your room. We share a bathroom, so don’t be a slob. I can’t be wiping up after you all day.”
“God, Cole. Have you always been this anal?”
“Yup,” he replied. “Deal with it.”
He spun around and opened a door on the other side of the hallway entering his room without even turning on the light. “See you in the morning,” he called out and disappeared.
I was a little taken aback by his sudden departure, but I shrugged it off and began to unpack. It had been a long fucking day and I was ready to unwind. I opened the window and noted that a fresh breeze came in easily. My room was facing in the right direction, which meant I could air it out after too many cigarettes. I’d be damned if Cole was going to tell me what I could or couldn’t smoke. Fuck that shit! This was my space now, and I’d do whatever the hell I wanted.