Triptychs – Chapter 20
Have I mentioned – lately – that all the relationships in my life are complicated, just hilariously, fucked-up complicated?
And the thing is, it’s me; I just KNOW it’s me, it’s some sort of talent I’ve got, it’s a talent that follows me around, wherever I go . . . and the truth is, it IS hilarious; I mean, I sometimes just break up, laughing, when I think about the serial messes I get myself into; I just can’t help it. You know?
So I guess, on the basis of my record-to-date, that getting kind-of, sort-of, maybe sideways-involved with my Work Study co-worker – my closeted, innocent, very, very Catholic co-worker – well.
Yeah. I’ve done worse. I guess . . .
Still. This, coming on top of getting spectacularly dumped-on by my quasi-crush, quasi-boyfriend Erik . . . (and no, he hadn’t called; and there was still the Exit Interview to THAT to look forward to . . . ) – and all of that, in turn, coming on top of my lifelong, hopeless, being-in-love-with-Cole . . . Which accidentally led me to Erik, in the first place –
You have to admit. It IS hilarious, it’s wicked, fucking hilarious, and I definitely have a talent. I so totally do. Look up ‘complicated’, in the dictionary; you’ll see my clueless, smiling, dumb-ass face.
Things between me and Noah . . . started developing, fast; started taking on a whole momentum, a whole shape, out of nowhere, that left me feeling a little breathless, sometimes. And conflicted. And, yeah, maybe a little scared, too.
Not that it wasn’t fun, at the same time. It was.
I mean, there’d been a little tension, a little pleasant tension, between Noah and me, ever since that time he touched me, on the loading dock . . . and we’d both known it was there.
Now, all of a sudden – there was a lot more of that tension in the air. A lot more.
Sometimes it was a kind of accidental tension, coming out of nowhere.
There was the time, for instance, when we were working together on the second floor of the bookstore, after Thanksgiving . . . pulling textbooks from shelves, piling them onto the flatbed dolly, so we could take them downstairs to the loading dock, and box them up to be shipped back . . .
Yeah. It was the Circle of Life, for a college bookstore. In my head, I could just see Corbin starring in the Broadway Musical version of the whole thing; breaking into a rapturous song and dance number about SKUs, and packing lists, and shipping cartons . . .
All of which got me a skeptical, raised eyebrow from Noah, when I told him about it.
“C’mon,” I went, laughing at his expression. “Can’t you just see it? Corbin dancing around the stage, with big rolls of shrinkwrap - ? You KNOW how he feels about shrinkwrap, and packing lists – ”
“You are seriously warped,” went Noah; which made me smile even bigger.
“Maybe. But if they can do three whole versions of ‘High School Musical’, I don’t see why they can’t do at least one ‘College Bookstore Musical’ . . . ”
And while I was saying that, I stood, up, and stretched my poor, cramped back for a second, arms over my head . . . and then, because it was a little stuffy on the second floor, I pulled off my outer long-sleeve t-shirt.
And of course, my layers stuck together; my inner t-shirt rode up my chest with my outer shirt, way up to my armpits, leaving my upper body essentially bare, throat to lower waist, until I pulled my shirt down again –
And when I smoothed it down and glanced at Noah, his expression was priceless. Eyes big; mouth slightly open. Looking at me.
“What - ?” I went, first; then – “Oh,” as I figured it out. I felt myself beginning to grin, big, just delighted at the joke of it all. “Sorry.”
His face disappeared behind the bill of his cap, as he looked down; of course. “Don’t be,” came his voice, kind of muffled. “I’m not.” And I grinned even wider, and tried not to laugh . . .
Mostly, though, when the tension spiked between us – there was nothing accidental about it. Far from it.
We started playing The Touching Game.
You know how it works; you’re with someone, and you’re talking or something, and you just, casually brush them on the shoulder, maybe a quick touch on the arm, or his cheek . . . skin to skin is the best; you can really get to someone, skin-to-skin. It’s a game older than written history, and it’s fun as all hell.
So, we started doing The Touching Game, Noah and me; when we could, where we could get away with it . . .
Okay. So, I’d started it, awhile back.
It didn’t go like I thought it would.
“Hey,” from me; sitting down next to Noah at one of the outdoor tables, by the University Union, setting my lunchbox in front of me. It was a gray day, getting colder, and we were both bundled up. “How’s your morning been going - ?”
And I just quickly, lightly touched the back of his hand, with my fingers. Well, I brushed the back of his hand, actually; and of course, that made me grin.
“Okay,” he went; looking
down, blushing. Carefully not moving his hand, at all.
“Okay . . . how about you - ?”
“Shi – uh, I mean, not so hot,” I went, cheerfully, as I pulled out my sandwich, and started to unwrap it. “BART had another delay, I almost missed my Communications class – ”
I mean, there are rules to The Touching Game; you know?
They aren’t exactly written down, but there are rules; and every other time I’ve played, every other time I’ve flirted with a boy, we’ve both known what we were doing. A touch here, a brush of the shoulder there . . . usually while looking into the other boy’s eyes, looking for his reaction, grinning at his reaction; it’s a fun, fun game, and a kind of an ironic, wink-wink, we-both-know-what’s-happening sort of game.
What I didn’t get . . . was that Noah’d never played, before. He didn’t know the rules, he didn’t get the irony.
And that made The Touching Game . . . really kind of hot; with him.
“ . . . stay in that stupid train car for twenty minutes, without moving, I swear. And this woman next to me had some MacDonald’s fries, in a bag; can you imagine, fries at eight in the morning - ?”
An arched eyebrow from Noah, translating to ‘No’.
“You have no idea how rancid they smelled . . . ” I finished laying out my sandwich, and finally noticed what was missing, on the table. “Oh . . . I didn’t bring any water, today. What do you want to drink - ?” I started to stand up; meaning to go to the machine, inside the Union –
“No, that’s okay; it’s my turn.” And Noah was up, and moving behind my chair –
And the cool-warm fingers of his right hand brushed me, on my neck. Well, kind of under my ear, under my chin, on the right side, at first; and they lingered there, a second, then around to the back of my neck, and they massaged me there, just for a couple of beats, just a handful of seconds . . .
And then the view of him, from the rear, as he walked to the Union building; and it was a nice view, I’d really been appreciating it more and more, the last few weeks –
And I was boned; almost instantly. I was hard as anything; and the thing is, I knew it wasn’t because he’d touched me, like that; it was because he MEANT it. He so totally did; I knew he was hard, too.
‘Fuck,’ I thought to myself, admiringly, ruefully, as he disappeared through the Union’s door. ‘Fuck me, he’s beginning to get to me . . . ’
And then, not for the first time; ‘What the fuck am I doing - ?’
Yeah. I didn’t know what I was doing; no agenda, no calculation, no pain, no drama . . . all I knew was, I liked Noah. I liked spending time with him.
Okay. Maybe I liked the way things were developing, between us . . . the physical things. The touching; the tension.
Maybe I liked the way he looked at me. The way he obviously, well – wanted me; he made that clear enough, and it was making my heart beat faster, when we were together . . .
Maybe it was more than just that.
Noah LIKED me, for who I was; or in spite of who I was, I didn’t know. But he liked me, and it was real, and he showed it.
And, fuck-me, that was scary. I’d spent almost my whole life focused on Cole; to the exclusion of everybody else. Well, except for the Erik-thing, which was really recent, and kind of unreal, anyway . . .
No. I’d spent my whole life focused on Cole, trying to stay otherwise-unattached, free, nobody else depending on me for their happiness . . .
* * *
Scary or not, smart or not, stupid or not, that tension between Noah and me kept building. And it really had only one direction, one way it was going to get resolved; and we both knew it.
It finally happened, the first week of December.
“So . . . are you doing anything for Christmas break?” I went. “I mean, are you going away, or something - ?” Trying to sound casual, and probably not pulling it off.
The two of us, in the loading dock; yeah, we were still boxing up textbooks to be sent back. That Circle Of Life thing, again; cue up the sentimental strings, and bring out the Dancing Packing Lists, while the flatbed dollies start rolling around, soulfully. Maybe with cute little bookstore-creatures, I don’t know, staplers, or something, looking on from the sides . . . I still say, Corbin could turn it into a Broadway hit.
“No,” from Noah; his head carefully down, not looking at me. “Not really.”
Silence, then, for a stretch.
See, you have to understand – the first week of December was the last week of regular school. The week after that was finals week, and after that was a long, long stretch of Christmas break, or winter vacation; it was part of the thing about the quarter system.
It would be a long time, apart; us not seeing each other.
I finished piling up my books – yeah, after spending half the quarter tearing apart book-bricks of shrinkwrapped books, now we were building up entirely new book-bricks, to go into the cardboard crates to get shipped god-knew-where –
Anyway. I finished piling up my current brick, and sat back for a second, to catch my breath.
“All set?” from Noah.
“Whenever you are.”
There’s a trick to wrapping up blocks of textbook, in plastic wrap. The trick is, to keep all the books together, stable, while you take the roll of sheet plastic in your hands, and wrap it up.
The particular group of books I had was a square of three books on a side, four books high; and these were big, heavy books, some kind of biology textbook. How would you keep a group of books like that all pressed together, while you wrapped them up - ?
Noah came on over and sat down, very carefully, on the text-book-square; and he brought his feet up, holding his legs with his arms, giving me room to start running the plastic wrap around the books.
“Cool. Just hold still – ”
Buttpower (TM). It never fails.
Noah held still, looking like a little boy perched on a toadstool, or something; I started the plastic wrap running – this stuff was pretty much like the everyday kitchen wrap, it’s light, but if you get enough layers around the books, they hold really solid –
And when I made my last circle, my last plastic-wrap layer, I sliced the sheet off the roll with my boxcutter; and then, before Noah could move, I carefully, quickly, deliberately pulled on the shoelace of his left shoe, untying it. Then I did the same thing to his right shoe.
I grinned at him, as I taped the plastic wrap into place. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.”
An ironic look from him, as he stayed sitting on my book-brick, and tied his shoes, one after another.
“C’mon; give me a hand?” I asked. Between us, we got the block of books lifted, up and into a cardboard crate, with a huge ‘thunk’ . . .
And so it went.
I still didn’t say the obvious thing.
Another book-brick constructed; this time I was the one sitting on the book-square, awkwardly, while Noah pulled the plastic sheeting tight around it.
This one was awkward because they were wider books, but thinner; so the base was four books, put edge-to-edge in a square, then six books high on top of that –
I could barely keep my balance on the books; and Noah was real close to me, as he wrapped the plastic around the books, his face down, pretty much crotch-and-butt level, in front of me, to the side, in back of me, then in front of me again, breathing heavy as he hauled the roll of plastic around . . . and I braced myself, for a joke, or a touch, or something, but we both stayed quiet . . .
The loading dock doors were open, as usual; the day was warm, for December, almost more like early fall, with golden light from the almost-setting sun just illuminating everything, throwing deep shadows. In the light, Noah’s eyes were almost translucent-blue, as he concentrated on what he was doing.
We were coming up on a long time apart, and the tension between us was thick.
We’d been playing games with each other, for weeks now; but everything was unspoken, everything was based on a touch here, a look there, an expression caught out of the corner of the eye – and that was all. Feelings, from being together; yeah; growing feelings, but nothing further, nothing spoken, between us.
And we both knew, it was my place to say something. If anything was going to be said.
Partly, because I had the excuse; I had the painful-breakup-thing with Erik to fall back on, it was SO the perfect excuse for not being ready, not going any farther, getting in any deeper with Noah . . . and wasn’t THAT just as ironic as all fuck? Erik, my beard, my crutch, my excuse for not dating for my whole adolescent life, while I loved Cole in secret . . . Erik could be my beard again, now, too. Is life hilarious, or what?
But that was only part of it. And we both knew it.
The thing is, we both knew, Noah really liked me; a lot. It was so obvious, now, from the looks, the touches, remembering back to the early days of the quarter . . . he really liked me, from the beginning; back when I was utterly clueless.
And that was scary, to me. Deeply scary. Fuck, I think it would be scary for anybody.
And Noah, somehow, innocent Catholic boy or not – Noah knew he had to hold back; he just couldn’t say anything, not right now, he had to wait for me to make a move. If I wanted to . . .
Did I want to?
“Okay,” he went; kneeling back on his heels, straightening his back. He cut off the plastic, and then finished taping the tracking list to the book-brick, sealing the plastic wrap shut with tape at the same time. He gave me a look, which translated to, ‘ready to lift it up?’, so I got up, on the other side of the brick.
“One,” I said, “two . . . three,” and we hoisted the brick over the side of the cardboard crate, and dumped it next to the one I’d just done.
Back to the flatbed dolly. Back to the next book-brick; more mummified books, Books In Bondage, to be shipped back to whatever netherworld warehouse that textbooks go to, when they’re waiting to be reshipped somewhere, excavated and unwrapped and then resold to some poor starving student at yet another huge profit . . .
More quiet tension, as I assembled my next brick.
Did I want to make that move - ?
I didn’t know. I just, didn’t know.
But in the end, as I kneeled there, piling up thick, heavy copies of ‘Physics for Practical Application, Revised Edition’ – in the end, it came to me; I’d really miss him, if we didn’t get together over the break. I’d miss him, a lot; his quiet, ironic looks, the nearness of him, the calm of him. The smooth lines of his face, as he looked out the loading dock doors. I’d miss being around him.
I’d miss him.
Maybe, I could spend some time with Noah, a little time, anyway, without being too toxic to him.
Maybe, sometimes, you just have to say, ‘What the fuck’. You know?
I felt myself start to grin, as I thought it. And the grin just got wider, and wider, as I thunked textbook after textbook onto the square brick I was building.
And yeah, my heartbeat started ramping up, as I thought about it . . . and, true to from, I could feel my dick starting to kind of swell. Have I mentioned lately, I’m kind of perverse - ?
“Okay, I’m ready,” I went, cheerfully.
So Noah dutifully got up, came over, and positioned himself on my book-brick of ‘Physics for Practical Application, Revised Edition’, his cute little butt – yeah, I was admitting it to myself, more often, now – his cute little butt, and his feet, holding down the block of books –
“I was thinking,” I started, as I picked up my plastic-wrap roll. “You want to do something, over Christmas break?” I glanced up at him, briefly, grinning, then back down again. “Something like – oh, I don’t know. Dinner? Going to a movie?” I tried not to laugh. “Making out, some - ?” I deliberately started running the plastic wrap around the book-brick; from his front, to his side, his back . . .
I thought I heard a kind of squeak; and he shifted, on the little pile of textbooks.
“Hold still!” He froze, as I finished running the plastic around his other side, then his front; then I paused, as I looked up at him, grinning. Him, still absurdly-perched on the square of textbooks, hugging his knees; flushing brighter red than I’d ever seen on anybody, even Jeremy, and that’s saying a lot.
“Uhhh . . . yeah,” he said, at last. Looking down, but that couldn’t hide his face from me, not at this angle. “Sure. I’d like that . . . ” And he started to shift, a little –
“Hold still!” from me, again; and I ran the plastic wrap around the book-brick again, slow, making sure it was tight, still grinning to myself –
And then I deliberately angled up, with the plastic wrap; layering it, justly lightly, quickly, up over Noah’s running shoes, then up, around him one more time, trapping his knees, and his hands . . . not tight enough to hold him, just gently, really –
“What - ?” from Noah; in a kind of gasp.
“Shhhh . . . ” from me; and I couldn’t help it, I knew I was grinning big, like an idiot, but I didn’t care . . .
And I put down the plastic roll, and I slowly moved in closer to him, face to face, and closer still, grinning . . . and his eyes were big, at first, then they were kind of slitted, and his head was tilting just a little, to one side . . . and I could feel his breath, the warm of his breath, and it was all SUCH a rush –
And I ran into the bill of his fucking baseball cap with my forehead.
“Pffffttt – !” I spluttered, laughing; and I knocked it up and aside with my head – and then we were kissing.
The warmth of his lips, on mine; the softness.
The delicacy of the touch; a first-kiss kind of delicacy, a tentative kind of delicacy . . . and it was all more shocking, more electric, than anything else I could remember. Any other kiss I could remember.
And it just went on, Noah’s cap ridiculously-tilted, his lips moving against mine, me feeling his lips with mine, between mine – so soft, and so shocking, at the same time