Hi everybody!

First off, if you’re still reading this story, I apologize for the huge gaps in posting. My life has become blocked up with real life stuff lately and has prevented me from doing anything productive online. I’m very sorry to anyone who has been following this story and who has waited for a new installement. I really don’t know what else to say.

Second, I’d like to thank my beta’s for going over this. They know who they are. ;) Thank you to those who have sent me emails asking where the new chapters is or who have dropped me a line over the past few months. I do appreciate it, so thank you.

If you’re so inclined, check out my site: Sweetheart Stories. Earlier chapters of MSR are there in HTML format, as well as a collection of my JC/Lance stories.

Again, thanks for reading. And double thanks if you’ve been paitient enough with me.

Disclaimer: This is not true. You must be of age to read this story (18 or 21 depending on where you live). If it’s illegal to do so, then don’t. I don’t know any of the guys from *NSYNC or their sexualities blahblahblah fishcakes. I’m writing this for my own fun and not for profit. Please don’t sue me. You’ll get nothing, I swear!

As always, feedback is welcomed at blissful_confusion@yahoo.com. Thanks!

My Surprise Romance
Chapter 56 | Part 2
A Few Small Repairs

©2003 Gabriella

The hardest part about leaving Mississippi was leaving Lance behind. He had taken me to the airport that morning and during the ride, we both remained silent. Silence was odd for us. Normally, we could talk about anything and everything without pretension, and that was the beauty of our relationship—besides the sex, of course.

But we didn’t want to talk about when we’d get to see each other next or how we’d say goodbye, because neither of us wanted to do that. We would have rather lived our days and weeks wrapped up in each other’s company, while the world passed us by in a blur. I knew it sounded hokey, but with Lance, I was really happy and that wasn’t something I was used to throughout my life.

Unfortunately, it was completely unrealistic to think that I could just stay with Lance and forget about school. Even though I loved hanging out with him, I loved painting just as much. Painting and being creative made me feel good about myself but the last thing I wanted to do was attend my classes. I didn’t want to paint for grades—I wanted to paint for myself. Perhaps, I had rebelled a bit when I met Lance, because he had filled the void that I had previously filled with my artwork.

Or maybe I was overanalyzing everything. Maybe I had just gotten used to the physical benefits of our relationship and wound up overlooking the emotional parts.

I thought about these things as Lance drove me to the airport. Looking over at him, I noticed he was wearing black aviator style sunglasses that were propped on the bridge of his nose, as well as a black hooded sweatshirt and plain blue jeans. I thought Lance looked sneaky and suspicious, but if anyone could make sneaky and suspicious look good, he could.

When we finally arrived at the airport. Lance found a parking space on the lower level and then cut off the engine. He stared at his hands, which were wrapped around the steering wheel, before looking over at me and removing his sunglasses. Placing them in his lap, I noticed that his normally sparkly green eyes were now filled with sadness.

“So,” Lance finally said, his tone of voice matching the look in his eyes. He fiddled with the sunglasses in his lap before speaking again. “We’re here. And we have to get you on a plane, Stephen.”

He spoke the words as though we’d never be seeing each other again and this bummed me out, since I didn’t want to remember this depressing stuff between us. As Lance thought over his next words, I took that as an opportunity to lean over and grasp his face between my hands. Resting my forehead against his, I stared into his eyes for a few seconds, before impulsively kissing him.

I noticed that his lips were soft, although his bottom lip was slightly chapped and as we kissed, I realized that I had this terrible habit of biting at it. Maybe the chapping was my fault. Lance never complained though, so I never stopped doing it.

I felt the warmth of his breath, brushing against my skin as we parted. Staring at me, I noticed a glimmer of a smile cross over Lance’s face. Slipping his hand into mine, I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing: there was no way we could say goodbye like this inside the airport. But that deserted parking lot was perfect, as most of the city was probably attending church at that very moment.

“You need to catch your plane, Stephen,” Lance whispered, leaning in and brushing his lips against my own.

“Plane, schmane,” I said teasingly before diving in for another kiss. Despite the stick shift panel between us, Lance managed to shift his body closer to mine. I slid my hand up his chest, allowing me to feel the beating of his heart. And when I nuzzled my lips against his earlobe, I breathed in his scent—it was a mixture of soap and cologne and well, Lance. There was no other way to describe it.

Curling my hand around his neck, I brought his face closer to mine, drawing my lips over his adam’s apple. I memorized every second, every tiny detail, not wanting to forget what this felt like. Nothing could be as good as when Lance and I were together. And neither of us wanted it to end.


As I boarded my flight to New York, I turned around before walking into the terminal, only to see Lance watching me from his place in the crowd. He was still wearing his dark sunglasses, which I thought drew more attention to him. Discreetly, I waved at him and watched as he did the same, before boarding the plane, alone.

I knew I’d be seeing him in a few weeks, but we knew the wait was going to take its toll on us. As I took my seat and said a few prayers so I’d make it home without passing out, I kept telling myself that I’d see Lance in a few weeks.

A few long weeks.


I managed to make it home in one piece, although my poor nerves were frayed and shot to hell. The back of my t-shirt was soaked with sweat, as though I had just run a marathon. But the most important thing was that I was finally back home. Sure, I felt fine, but perhaps it was just the two vodkas on ice that were talking. Alcohol was the only thing that calmed my nerves down during a plane ride, which I’m sure was bad for my liver, but it prevented my heart from going into overdrive, which was good.

As the cab whisked through Sunday afternoon’s post-church traffic, the realization of going back to college hit me like a brick. I would have to attend classes and do homework and live my life according to a schedule. There would be buying art supplies at the last minute and pulling manic, coffee-soaked all nighters. If anything, these scenarios depressed me more than leaving Lance behind. I knew there was a ton of homework, projects and tests waiting for me and at that moment, I seriously considered dropping out of school. I just couldn’t take the overload of work.

That bright idea was quickly replaced a voice in my head, which screamed: ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid. You’re fucking insane, you moron.’

Apparently my own brain enjoyed taunting me. I let out a loud groan and buried my face in my hands, mumbling, “You stupid asshole” under my breath. When I straightened myself up, I noticed that the cab driver was watching me in his review mirror, shaking his head as though I was some kind of insane lunatic. Muttering something unintelligible under his breath, the cab driver succeeded in making me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. Great. Just what I needed.

The end of the ride couldn’t come fast enough and soon, I found myself counting down the seconds until the cab pulled up in front of my apartment complex. Hastily, I paid the driver and gave him a small tip, before getting out of the cab and waiting for him to remove my suitcases from the trunk. After he placed them on the curb, he scurried back into the car and drove off, leaving me standing there like a deserted man that no one wanted to associate with.

The hike to my apartment seemed to take forever and a day, especially with my suitcases in tow. All I wanted to do was order a pizza and crash on the futon while watching hours of mindless television before I went back to school. I desperately needed some peace and quiet.

Halfway up the staircase, I checked my wristwatch and noted that it was five past one. Before I left, Lance mentioned that he’d give me a call at exactly three p.m., just to make sure that I had gotten home in one piece. I don’t know what he was planning to do if I hadn’t, but the idea that Lance worried about me from so far away, caused me to smile. As I lugged my suitcases behind me and made it onto my floor, I realized that I couldn’t wait to talk to him, even though we had just left each other.

‘But first—’ I thought happily, as I pulled my key from my jacket, ‘—peace and quiet.’

However, peace and quiet were the last things I was about to encounter. While fiddling with my locks, I heard a strange ‘thump-thump-thump’ sound coming from behind the door. My eyebrows dipped as I flung the door open and shrieked out loud, just as a girl would do, except that I wasn’t a girl. I was a guy, which in my opinion, made my shriek sound ten million times worse, especially since I don’t have a high pitched voice.

There, standing on top of my worktable, was Cynthia, clad in nothing but a leopard print bra and a pair of low riding red velvet pants. Her sparkly bass guitar was slung over one shoulder and she was plucking at its strings rapidly, playing the same four or five notes over and over in a continuous loop. Sitting on my futon with his legs spread apart, was JC. He was staring at my cousin rapturously, and I’m not sure if it was because of her playing or because of the bra she chose to wear. I chose the latter.

‘At least he’s wearing pants,’ I thought with relief, while JC and Cynthia ignored the fact that I had just walked through the front door.

Dropping a suitcase, I gingerly touched my left temple. The pounding in my head had already started when I left the airport and the ‘thump-thump-thump’ of Cynthia’s bass only succeeded in making my headache worse.

I sucked in a shallow breath and dropped the other suitcase. It was time to say something.

“What the hell is going on?” I screamed loud enough to gain the attention of my cousin and her boyfriend. “Cynthia Peterson! Get down from my work table right this second!”

Stopping in mid-note caused a screech of feedback to reverberate throughout the room. Nervously glancing over her shoulder, I noticed the startled look on Cynthia’s face. Her violet eyes were wide as she carefully jumped off my work table and swiftly took off her bass guitar, leaning it precisely against the edge of the table so it wouldn’t fall over. She then walked over to the small amplifier that sat on the floor, pulled the plug and cleared her throat before turning back towards me.

“Stevie!” Cynthia said as she walked up to me. “Uh...you’re home.”

“Uh huh,” I said gruffly, kicking the door closed and crossing my arms over my chest. “Didn’t you expect me to come home? Or did you think I was going to waste the rest of my life away in Mississippi with Lance?”

As Cynthia remained silent, I surveyed my apartment. It looked as though a bomb had hit. There were empty Chinese take out containers and beer bottles lying on the endtables. Crumpled pieces of notebook paper were strewn all over the place. A pile of Cynthia’s clothing was next to my stereo and a inside-out shirt hung from my easel. An open bag of lollipops lay on the floor, its contents scattered as though someone had accidentally kicked the bag. Candy was everywhere—under my coffee table, under the futon, everywhere.

I had never been a neat freak, but the current state of my apartment was completely unacceptable—they had been one hair away from trashing it and I’d be a fool to clean up after Cynthia and JC. But I had this feeling that I’d do it anyway—knowing Cynthia, she’d give me some kind of lecture about how unfair it was for women to clean or some other nonsense and I’d fall for it, hook, line and sinker. I was such a pushover and she knew it.

“Well, uh...” She looked down at her chest and blushed, realizing her half state of undress. “Why don’t I...” Cynthia began slowly backing away, her eyes nervously darting back and forth. “Let me put on a shirt, okay? And then I’ll explain everything.” And with that, she hightailed it out of the room.

Which left JC and me alone. Uncomfortably, we looked at each other and nodded. What does one say in a situation like this? ‘So, does Cynthia always play the guitar half naked or is this a first time thing?’ just didn’t seem like a good conversation piece.

“Uh, hey,” JC said weakly as he stood up and brushed his hands against the front of his jeans. “How was the plane ride, Stephen? How’s Lance doing?”

“Fine,” I said evenly as JC walked towards the center of the room, before examining the ceiling as not to make eye contact with me. “Everything was good—I was a little nervous on the plane ride, of course. And Lance is fine.”

“That’s good.” JC shoved his hands in his pockets and glanced at me briefly, before looking back at the ceiling. The relationship between JC and I was odd—I was glad that Cynthia was dating him, because he was pretty decent compared to the other assholes she’s gone out with. But we always seemed to be a little uncomfortable when left alone in each other’s company. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because I knew he was sleeping with Cynthia and likewise. We each knew what the other couple was doing in private, which caused images to fill out minds and disgust us to no extent. It was something that I had grown accustomed to and any sudden changes, would have immediately freaked me out.

“Stephen?” JC looked at me oddly, as I fiddled with a tube a paint on my work table. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I answered, my voice unwavering in tone as I turned the tube over in my hands. “How have you and Cynthia been?”

“We’ve been good,” JC answered seriously. “You know, we’ve just, uh, been hanging out and stuff.” If I were paying more attention, I would have noticed that JC seemed more than just a little uncomfortable—he was downright nervous, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and running his fingers through his short, brown hair. I chose to ignore his odd behavior though, chalking it up to the fact that neither of us knew what to say. I presumed he had spent his impromptu vacation with Cynthia, the same way I spent mine with Lance: mainly, spending lots of time in bed with intervals of drinking and eating, and then hopping back between my sheets. Ugh.

“That’s good,” I said blankly, trying to get rid of the image in my head. I looked out the window and tried to catch my breath. “I mean...thanks for watching my apartment for me.”

“You’re, uh, welcome,” JC said. “Although Cynthia and I thought you’d be pissed at us.”

“For what?” I asked, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“For, uh, you know—” He paused and made an odd face. “—Your bed.”

“Yeah, well, thanks for defaming it,” I scowled, the sarcasm slipping away as it was replaced by good old fashioned repulsion. “JC, I wouldn’t have sex with Lance in your bed.” JC looked a tad grossed out when I mentioned this, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he looked towards my bedroom, as though he were silently begging Cynthia to come back and save him.

“Well, uh...” JC stammered. “You see, Cynthia and I—”

And on cue, my cousin chose that moment to saunter into the room, slinging an arm around JC’s shoulder. She had thrown on an old t-shirt of mine, with the words, “I hate people,” printed across the chest in bold white type.

“Nice shirt, Stevie,” she said, grabbing onto the hem and fanning it out, so she could read the words upside down. “’I hate people’. That’s a very friendly slogan, you know.”

“Oh shut up,” I snapped. My temper was fading fast. “Cynthia, you and JC wrecked my apartment, did stuff—” I shuddered openly at the image. “—in my bed and the only thing you can talk about is some t-shirt I bought when I was in tenth grade. This is insane.” I held a hand to my forehead. My brain felt like it was going to pop out at any minute. “I want this place cleaned up before you and JC leave.” Cynthia pouted, before suddenly throwing her shoulders back and stretching her painted red lips into a big grin.

“Stevie!” Cynthia exclaimed as she walked towards me, arms outstretched. “Enough yelling about the mess! Let’s forget about it! I’m just glad you made it home safely. I was sooo worried, because I know how much you hate flying.” I stared at my cousin in disbelief as she flung her arms around me and squeezed my body tightly as though she were a python attacking its prey. I felt her press her lips firmly against my cheek, surely leaving behind a big red lip print. “I’m so glad you’re home.”

“You’re kissing up,” I said flatly, not responding to Cynthia’s warm welcome. I rolled my eyes and took a step backwards, dragging my cousin along with me. “I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.”

Disgusted, Cynthia pulled away and flashed a look of disdain in my direction, before giving me another sweet smile. “Stevie, I was just trying to be nice.” Rounding her violet eyes naively, Cynthia turned into the picture of innocence. She batted her eyelashes at me, but I just crossed my arms over my chest in response. “I just missed my favorite cousin so much!”

“Yeah yeah. Now I’m your favorite?” I shook my head and decided to switch the subject. The last thing I wanted to do was fight, no matter how perturbed I was. “How are you two?” I asked JC and Cynthia, observing as they stood side-by-side with slightly nervous expressions on their faces. It was as though they had done something wrong. “Everything okay?” It took them a few seconds to respond and my emotional antenna should have immediately gone up—it didn’t.

“Everything’s fine,” Cynthia said smoothly, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “JC and I have been nothing but perfect law abiding citizens, Stevie.” She narrowed her eyes coyly. “And how about you and Lancey? Did you two play kiss and make up? Or should I say ‘suck and make up?’”

I flinched at her choice of words. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” I muttered, my face coloring slightly. “You were raised by truckers, Cynthia.”

“Awww, how sweet,” she cooed sarcastically, pinching my cheek. “You did! You two did have hot sex! That’s so sweet! I’m so happy to see my favorite homosexual couple return to their perfect selves again!”

“Oh shut up.”

“Noted and denied,” Cynthia said gleefully, clapping her hands together as she rocked back and forth on the soles of her bare feet. Shooting her a look that screamed, ‘drop dead’, I pushed past my cousin and began making my way to the bathroom. ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ I thought, longing to take a nice hot shower, before changing the sheets on my bed so I could wait for Lance’s phone call. After that, I would get back to real life, but at the moment, I just wanted to relax.

“Look at how red you are! Must have been one hell of a make up session, you two—” Cynthia’s voice came to an abrupt halt, growing quieter in tone as I brushed her off. I’ve never really ignored my cousin before, but her remarks were really pissing me off. “Stevie? Where are you going?” Turning around, I saw that JC and Cynthia were staring at me in wide-eyed shock.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I said slowly, measuring my words so I didn’t suddenly explode with rage. “And while I’m taking my shower, I want you two to please clean up the living room back to it’s original state—the way I left it. You two are welcome to stay for the rest of the night, but I’d really like my privacy back as soon as possible.”

I heard Cynthia and JC frantically whispering in back of me as I walked towards my bedroom. I dismissed it. I figured that they were panicking about having to clean up my apartment, which at the time, I thought they were totally overreacting. Boy was I wrong. If only I knew what Cynthia and JC were really panicking about.

When I walked into my room, I was taken by complete surprise. The state of my bedroom wasn’t as bad as the living room. In fact, it looked as though no one had even slept in my bed, let alone defamed it. Sure, the sheets were rumpled a bit and there were even a few empty diet coke cans on the nightstand, but I could deal with this.

I began to search my dresser drawers for a clean t-shirt and boxers, when a photograph of an attractive half naked man lying on the floor caught my attention. Leaning over, I felt my stomach drop when I saw the stack of adult magazines sitting next to my bed.

“I’m going to kill them both,” I muttered through gritted teeth, picking up the magazines and counting the issues, before realizing that one was missing. I picked up the comforter and looked underneath the bed, but found nothing but dust bunnies, my slippers and a few issues of teenie magazines that I had bought for a...joke.

(Okay, so I had bought them when the physical separation between Lance and I had gotten too great. I had passed a magazine stand after school one day and saw my boyfriend’s face staring back at me from the cover of Teen Scene or whatever the hell the magazine was called. There had been another issue offering the promise of a ‘oversized, kissable foldout of Lance!’, and let me tell you, that foldout was bigger than my boyfriends head and neck combined. It’s kissablity left a lot to be desired as well, since I had never gotten a paper cut on my lip when kissing the real Lance.)

Blushing furiously, I hid the magazines in a bottom dresser drawer, underneath a pile of neatly folded boxer shorts. ‘How dare they go through my belongings,’ I thought, imagining how Cynthia and JC had probably mocked my choice in ‘reading’ material.

Desperately trying to shrug off my embarrassment, I flopped onto the bed only to notice a ball of crumpled paper sitting on the nightstand, next to the lamp. Curiously, I picked it up and smoothed the paper flat across my thighs. At first glance, I thought it was a form for financial aid or something of that nature. It was only when I examined it up close, that I realized what it was:

“Cynthia Peterson,” I read silently. “Pregnancy test appointment.”

I read the line over and over again, not wanting to believe what I was seeing. Cynthia? Pregnant?

I nearly fainted on the spot.


A few minutes later, I was in the shower; standing under the spray and staring off into space, I couldn’t believe there was a possibility that my cousin was pregnant. A smart person would have marched into the living room and confronted both Cynthia and JC, since I assumed he was the one who got her knocked up.

I wasn’t mad—to tell the truth, I was more shocked than anything else. The water from the shower head hit me directly in the eyes, and I didn’t care. I was in shock. Cynthia? Pregnant? The thought terrified me. I thought about my cousin as a mother and nearly had a stroke. It wasn’t as though I thought she’d be a bad mother, just an irresponsible one.

‘Still,’ I thought, ‘people can change.’

As I stood underneath the hot spray of water, I heard the bathroom door creak open quietly. I listened to the sound of someone’s footsteps squeaking against the cheap peel-n-stick tiles that covered the floorboards. It was as though someone wanted to be invisible, pretending that they weren’t slowly creeping into the room, even though their outline was perfectly visible through the shower curtain. It wasn’t as though I was standing behind a brick wall.

I thought it was Cynthia, and forgetting about my nudity, I pulled back the curtain and found that I was very, very wrong.

“AHHH!” JC screamed when he saw me, standing in the shower, dripping wet and completely void of clothing.

“AHHH!” I slammed the curtain closed faster than I could have ever imagined. “JC?! What the hell are you doing in here? I’m naked! I’m taking a shower for God’s sake! And I’m taken!” I added humorously, hoping to lighten the mood just a bit.

“Oh, don’t flatter yourself,” JC snapped, although his voice was still shaking from the shock of seeing me in my birthday suit. “I just came in here to get Cynthia’s pregnancy test out of the gar...Oops.”

I closed my eyes and counted to five. “JC?” I asked quietly, as I grabbed for a bar of soap. “Could you send Cynthia in here? I’d like to talk to her.”

“Eeep.” I listened to the sound of the floorboards squeaking as JC walked out of the bathroom and into the hallway, where I presumed Cynthia was waiting for him. As I lathered up the soap against the absorbent material of the washcloth, I heard my cousin scream, which was soon by the sound of her slapping JC.

“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” She shrieked hysterically and I could imagine Cynthia beating up JC in my mind as though I saw it with my own two eyes. “I ask you to do one thing for me and you screw it up!”

“I saw your cousin naked!” JC hollered back. “It shocked me, okay? His nudity threw me off balance!”

“What? Off balance? What kind of shit is that? Oh, don’t tell me you found Stephen hot or something—you’re not gay, are you? Or bi? I bet you’re bi,” Cynthia railed on, much to the amusement of our neighbors, who by now, probably had their ears pressed against the walls and were listening to every word with unprecedented happiness. “I should have known it! No man enjoys wearing sparkly clothing as much as you do!”

“Cynthia, I am NOT gay. And I’m NOT bisexual, either. Just get in there and tell Stephen that you’re not pregnant!” JC thundered, his voice filling the narrow hallway like a sonic boom, only to be followed up with a creepy period of complete silence, save for the sound of the water from my shower.

I let out a sigh of relief, unaware that I had been even holding in my breath. Cynthia wasn’t pregnant. There would be no little Cynthia/JC hybrids running around my apartment anytime in the near future. The thought momentarily soothed me, but not before it was replaced by a great feeling of sadness. Sure, a pregnant Cynthia might have made a great horror story, but I felt bad for thinking she’d make a horrible, irresponsible mother. I had seen her protect and care for Natalie as though they were sisters. Stepping forward, I rinsed my face under the water, as though I was trying to rinse off my guilt—it didn’t work. I still felt terrible.

Seconds later, I heard the bathroom door squeak open, followed by a set of footsteps. The door closed as did the toilet seat.

“So,” I began, breaking the uncomfortable silence, as I ran the washcloth over my chest. “What’s this news I hear?”

There was no response. I thought that Cynthia had perhaps walked out of the bathroom, but that was before I heard the sound of my cousin gasping for air. She was crying softly, trying her best to stifle the sobs and hiccups that were escaping her throat.

“I...I thought I was pregnant,” Cynthia finally answered, her voice barely rising above a whisper. I heard as the toilet paper roll spun around and she blew her nose. “I’m not, but I thought I was because I was late. And the only reason JC came into the bathroom was because I left the pregnancy test in the garbage and I didn’t want you to find it.”

I stepped under the water and rinsed the soapy lather off my body. My head was still aching, but the throbbing had lessened slightly. I reached for the bottle of shampoo and flipped open the cap, before speaking again.

“Then why was there a note from a doctor’s office on my nightstand? If you had a test, that I’m assuming you bought at a drugstore, then why did I find a piece of crumpled up paper on the nightstand?” I asked as I pouring some of the shampoo into my hand.

“Because the test came out inconclusive,” she answered flatly. “And I had to see a gynecologist for an official blood test. And it came out negative.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just began washing my hair. I worked the shampoo into a later when Cynthia suddenly snapped:

“I just bet you’re just gloating now, right Stephen?”

‘Uh oh,’ I thought as I quickly massaged my scalp with my fingertips. ‘Full name.’ I was in trouble.

“I’m not gloating.” I stepped under the shower to rinse off my hair and the soapy water pooled around my feet. “Why would you think that, Cynth?”

“Because you think I’m irresponsible,” Cynthia shot back, sounding as though she wanted to bust through that shower curtain and strangle me. I could tell that she was in one of her terribly foul moods and whenever Cynthia got like that, all she wants to do is fight. “I mean, you lectured me about the state of your apartment from the second you set foot in this place. And most of the time you treat me like a five year old.”

“Cynthia,” I said wearily as I grabbed for some conditioner. “You sound irresponsible when you complain like that. Just stop it, okay? I’ve had a long flight home. I’m tired and I’m cranky and if I weren’t naked and soaking wet and covered in soap and shampoo and conditioner, I’d get out of here and give you a big hug. I’m sorry that you thought you were in trouble and I wish I was here for you. I wasn’t and I’m sorry, okay?”

There. I had said my peace. I really wasn’t mad at Cynthia—after I had found her pregnancy test appointment slip, I had been more worried than angry—except for the mess that she and JC had made in my apartment. That was a total lack of respect on their part and it bothered me, since I just wanted to get my life organized again.

It took Cynthia a few seconds to respond to my statement. “Thanks,” she finally said, sounding a little dumbfounded. I guess she had expected me to lash out at her; I’m not sure. There are moments when I wonder what’s going through my cousin’s mind.

“No problem.” Shutting off the water, I shook out my hair, causing droplets of water to rain against the vinyl shower curtain. A blast of cool air rushed to meet my damp skin and I shivered, but not before wishing Lance was there to warm me up.

I poked my head from behind the curtain and looked at my cousin, who was still sitting on the closed toilet seat. She was resting her chin on her hands, eyes unfocused as she stared off into space. I noticed that Cynthia looked awfully sad and it pained my heart to see her like that, because normally, she wasn’t a dour person. That was my role in the family, not hers.

“Could you hand my my towel?” I asked softly. Looking over at me with the clouded expression of someone who was lost in her own world, Cynthia reached over and passed me a towel.


“You’re welcome,” she said in a monotonous voice, before returning to her previous pose. I stared at Cynthia, wondering if she was going to leave while I dried myself off. When she didn’t budge, I just shrugged and disappeared behind the shower curtain to wipe myself off. When I was dry, I wrapped the towel around my waist and slid the curtain open.

“Hey,” she said, watching as I stepped out of the tub.

“Hey yourself,” I said back, wiping the steam off the mirror with my hand. “What are you still hanging around here for?”

Cynthia shrugged. “Don’t know. I guess I kinda missed you, Stevie.”

I almost let out a big sigh of relief. Stevie. Things were slightly back to normal.

“Really? Well, I missed you too, Cynthia.” I grabbed for a comb, and as I ran it through my tangled, messy hair, I noted that I desperately needed a haircut—if my hair got any longer, I’d resemble a sheepdog.

She looked a little surprised at my admission. “Thanks, Stevie,” Cynthia said, sounding a bit more perky than before. “I’m sorry I snapped. I’m just a little...emotional right now.” I watched as she ripped some more toilet paper off the roll and then dabbed at the corner of her eyes. “I don’t know. I really didn’t want to have a baby, but I kinda did. It just felt like this huge let down when the test came back negative. And I’m still not sure how I feel about it.” She looked up at me with tear-filled violet eyes. “I just don’t know.”

I paused for a second, before squatting down and wrapping my arms loosely around Cynthia. She did the same and we hugged for a seconds, before pulling back. It wasn’t the greatest hug in the world, but I wanted her to know that I was there for her.

“You want to talk about it?” I asked as I opened the the door to the medicine cabinet and removed a can of shaving cream. I looked over at Cynthia, only to find her examining her cuticles.

“Not really.”


There was an awkward silence between us while I squirted shaving cream into my hand. A few seconds later, Cynthia broke the silence by tapping her neatly polished fingernails on the edge of the sink to get my attention.

“So, Stevie—how was your visit with Lance?”

“It was fine,” I answered quickly as I smeared the white foam on my face. “You know, we made up, hung out—stuff like that.” I looked at myself in the mirror and thought of the sex. Thankfully, the shaving cream camouflaged my blush.

“Uh huh,” Cynthia said knowingly. “’Stuff like that.’ You make it sound so innocent, Stevie. You and Lance wouldn’t know innocent if it bit you in the ass—but you two probably did that too.”

I groaned. “You’re so vulgar, Cynth.” She smiled brightly.

“I know. Kinda proud of it too.”

She stood up, ready to leave me alone to my own devices, when Lance’s CMA offer suddenly popped into my mind. I winced at the thought of asking her to attend with me, but I had to do it. I really wanted to go, not for the awards, but to be back in the company of my boyfriend.

“Hey Cynth?” I called out, picking up my razor off the edge of the sink. I looked at the blade and found that it was clogged with short hairs that were not mine. Apparently, Cynthia had used it for her legs. With a groan, I turned on the faucet and ran it clean under the tap.

“Yes?” She turned towards me with a inquisitive look on her face.

“Before you leave, I have to ask you something.”


“What are you doing on October 14th?”

“October 14th? I don’t know. Stevie, I don’t even know what I’m planning to do tomorrow.” She narrowed her eyes at me, bracing herself for some kind of massive question. “Why do you ask?”

“Well.” I shaved a clean path down the side of my face. “Lance asked me if I wanted to attend these Country Music Awards with him—”

“Awww, how sweet.” Cynthia’s smiled genuinely. “You mean he’s gonna take you as his date? That’s pretty bold of him. What kind of lie is he going to come up with?”

Grimacing, I shaved another clean path down my cheek, before setting the razor on the edge of the sink.

“See...this is where you come in Cynthia. Lance can’t take me as his date. You know that and I know that. So instead, he’s taking that girl he manages, Meredith?”

“Uh-huh.” Cynthia leaned against the door and nodded cooly, almost as though she knew what I was about to ask of her. “Go on.”

“But Lance got extra tickets from the producers, because he’s presenting—”

“That’s nice.”

“—And Lance offered me one of the extra tickets. He wants me to go—”

“What a great boyfriend.”

“And he wants you to go as my date.”

Cynthia arched a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Stevie—I’m your cousin.” She said these words as though I were clueless to the fact. “Isn’t that kinda gross? I mean, we’re related. And it’s not even like you can kiss me goodnight,” she snickered.

“Ew.” I wrinkled my nose in disgust. “Cynthia, you know it wouldn’t be like that. I’m just asking you to accompany me as a ‘date’.” I made air quotes. “Nothing more and nothing less.” When she still looked unimpressed, I rushed on. “I know you hate country music, but I really want to go. I think it would be really fun to attend an awards show.”

“Yeah,” Cynthia nodded, slowly catching on to the idea. “It would. And I could get all glammed up and—” She stopped in mid-sentence, eyes suddenly gleaming as though I had offered her a million dollars. “Stevie...do you really want to go?”

I sighed in exasperation. “Of course I do. You know I do. That’s why I asked.” A feeling of trepidation suddenly washed over me. “Why? What kind of diabolical plan are you coming up with?”

“I can make a deal with you,” she said, looking at her fingernails before flashing me another maniacal grin. “You tell Lance I’ll go with you on one condition.” I managed to hold back a groan.


“You call Lance.” Cynthia moved closer towards me, so that we were practically nose-to-nose. “And tell him that I want him to buy me a new dress. And some shoes.” She paused, tapping a fingertip against her lip, as though she were in deep thought, but really, I knew she wasn’t. Cynthia was a schemer. That was her forte. “And I want him to hook me up with one of those makeover people. You know, hair, makeup...stuff like that.”

“Cynthia!” I exclaimed after I had picked my jaw off the floor. “I can’t ask Lance that!”

“Well then,” Cynthia scoffed, flipping her hair over her shoulder before placing her hand on the doorknob. “I can’t go then. Sorry.” Just as she was about to open the door, I lunged forward and grabbed her shoulder.

“Fine! Lance is going to call me at three o’clock.” I sighed dejectedly, knowing when I had been beaten down. Besides, I wanted to go to Nashville too much to argue with Cynthia. “I’ll ask him then.”

“Oh Stevie!” she exclaimed happily, rushing over and throwing her arms around my neck. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” She placed a quick kiss on my newly shaved cheek. “You’re the best cousin ever! And I hate country music, but...but...I’m just so excited! Really! An awards show!”

“Yeah, yeah,” I grumbled as Cynthia untangled her arms from my neck and stepped towards the door. “Best cousin ever. Sure. Got it. Now get out of here. I have to get dressed.” She nodded happily.

“Thanks, Stevie!” Opening the bathroom door, she found JC standing there, his arms crossed over his chest and a scowl on his face.

“What are you so happy about?” he snapped as Cynthia practically floated out of the bathroom, a dreamy look in her eyes. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed as JC peeked into the bathroom and let out a sigh of relief when he saw the towel wrapped around my waist. I rolled my eyes as I picked up my shaver. What was JC’s problem with me being naked? It wasn’t as though we had different parts or anything. What a prude.

Grabbing his arm, Cynthia dragged JC off towards the living room, their voices fading out: “Come on, I’ll tell you while we’re cleaning up. I’m gonna look like a model, JC! Hey, why haven’t you ever taken me to an awards show?”

Still standing in front of the bathroom sink, I shook my head and laughed a little. Things were slowly getting back to normal, and I didn’t mind it one bit.


Three p.m. The phone rang as soon as the minute hand hit the twelve. Leaning over, I picked up the telephone receiver. If it was Lance on the other end, I’d be impressed by his promptness.


“Hello, is this Stephen Peterson?” The voice on the other end was high pitched and almost girlish in tone. ‘It certainly wasn’t Lance,’ I thought, trying my best to hold back a dejected sigh.


“Is your refrigerator running?”

What? Who is this?”

“Ha! Gotcha, Stephen!”

“Lance!” The look of displeasure on my face turned to one of amusement, and I flopped onto my bed, knowing my boyfriend made it a point to call me promptly.

“Hey,” he said, still laughing at my slight confusion. “It’s so easy to tease you. You’re such a good straight man, you know.”

“Nice choice of words,” I teased, fingering the twisted phone cord as I tried to stop grinning so much. We weren’t even a minute into the phone call, and already the muscles in my cheeks hurt.

“Yeah, well...so how are you?” His voice grew a little softer. “How was the flight?”

“It was okay. I’m still nervous on those things though. I mean, you’re up in the air with nothing underneath? No thanks. And I didn’t even have you there to comfort me.”

“I’m sorry.” Lance said apologetically, before clearing his throat. “I was with you in spirit though. Really. I kept thinking about you, and how long it would take for the plane to land back in New York and I kept my fingers crossed the entire time.”

“The entire time? Didn’t your fingers cramp?”

I closed my eyes when I heard Lance’s laugh. I don’t think anyone in the world knew how I felt at that moment. I missed him a lot. Even though we had just seen each other a few hours ago, the distance between us felt tremendous. I wanted Lance to be there with me. I wanted him to be sitting on that bed across from me and talking face-to-face. I wanted to be able to look into his eyes and see the expression in them change from happy to sad to whatever he was feeling in the moment. And it was slowly killing me, because I couldn’t see that.

“Nah,” Lance said slyly. “I’m good with my fingers, Stephen. You should know that.”

Why did he have to go and say something like that? I swallowed thickly, trying to keep my hands on my stomach or on my phone—anywhere, but allowing them go where they wanted to go.

“Well, yeah, I know that. So, uh, how are you, Lance? You know, since I last saw you?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I got back home, took a nice, long shower...” I could practically hear his eyebrow raise. “...Thought of you while I was in there.”

“Thanks for sharing.”

“Well, it’s hard not to think of you. Speaking of hard—”

I cut him off—I had to—he would kill me dead if he went on any longer. “So, I talked to Cynthia about the awards.”

“Oh?” He sounded disappointed at my interruption. “And what did she say?”

I sighed. “Lance, you’re never going to believe this.”

“Try me.”

“Cynthia said she’d go only if you’d buy her a dress. And some shoes. And hook her up with some kind of stylist.” I groaned. “That’s the only way she’ll go. She wants to look like a model.”

“That’s it?” Lance sounded surprised, as though he expected something else. “That’s all she wants? An exchange? No problem, I can do that. In fact...I wonder if I could make some kind of beauty date for Cynthia and Meredith together. Maybe they can be friends or something.”

“A beauty date?” I said in disbelief. “Lance, what are you—living in the 1950’s? Maybe we should just have a weenie roast after the big football game!”

“Mmm, weenie roast,” Lance murmured into the phone. “I like how you think, Stephen.”


“Takes one to know one.”

I burst out laughing because I was so giddy. I couldn’t explain it, but it felt as though my heart was about to burst from happiness. Just talking to Lance and knowing that we weren’t mad at each other made me incredibly happy, and how lame and tacky it sounded, but I couldn’t help myself. After thinking that I’d never find myself someone to love, I did, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“So, Cynthia will go,” Lance said after my laughter died down. “That’s great, Stephen, cause it means you’ll be with me at my first solo appearance.” He cleared his throat a little. “And I’m a little nervous about the whole thing. I mean, I know I’m just presenting an award, but I’m gonna be surrounded by people that I’ve idolized since I was a kid. Do you know how that makes me feel?”

“Like puking?” I said teasingly.

“Yeah,” Lance admitted. “It makes me really nervous. What if I make a huge jackass out of myself up there? With my luck, I’ll fall flat on my face when I walk across the stage on live television.”

“Stop that,” I scolded. “You’re not. You’re gonna do great, Lance. I promise.”

I heard him take a deep breath. “Yeah? You think?”

“Yeah. I have faith and confidence in you. So stop berating yourself, Lance.” There was a slight pause in our conversation. For a second, I thought he had hung up, but when I heard him catch his breath, I knew he was still there—he just wasn’t saying anything.

“Thanks, Stephen,” Lance finally spoke up. “That was really nice.”

And truthful.”

“Awww,” Lance said bashfully. “Stop it. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you just wanted to get into my pants.” We giggled at that one.

“Then I guess I should stop making my intentions so clear,” I said when my laughter had died down. “Because I like getting into your pants.”

“Oh? Then I wish you were here, Stephen.”

“I know. I wish you were here with me too—or I was there with you. Either way,” I nodded even though Lance couldn’t see. “I’m already counting down the days until we’ll see each other again.”

“You too, huh?”

“Yup. I don’t think it can come soon enough,” Lance answered wistfully. “I mean, I’ll call you every day and...leave messages on your answering machine, but it’s just not the same.”

“I know.”

“You should get a cell phone.”

“Pardon me?” I did a double take. I have an unnatural dislike for technology. I’m not sure why, but I have a feeling it’s rooted in the fact I’m a painter. I can barely turn on a computer without screaming and I hate the fact that automated machines have taken the place of real people. And now Lance was telling me to get a cell phone.

“A cell phone,” Lance repeated. “Then I could call you during the day. Between classes.”

“Hmmmm,” I said, pretending to think it over, when I really knew I’d get a cell phone over my dead body. “Maybe. I’ll think about it.”

“Good.” I could hear Lance grinning. “And Stephen, I hate to do this, but I promised I’d call Justin back at three thirty.”

I looked at the clock, surprised to see that a half hour had flown by. Didn’t I just pick the telephone up a few seconds ago? And didn’t Lance just tease me about my refrigerator?

“So Justin is more important than me?” I said with a chuckle. “Thanks a lot. Now I know where I stand in your list of priorities.”

“Oh you know it’s not like that,” Lance snapped back, good naturedly. “But I’ll call you back later tonight. Do you know when Cynthia and JC are leaving?”

“I think after six. I heard JC’s flight leaves a little after seven,” I told Lance, moving around the items that sat on my nightstand. “And I think Cynthia said something about going back home. I’m not too sure what she’s doing. I don’t even think she knows what she’s doing.”

Lance laughed and then lowered his voice. “Well, maybe when they’re gone...I’ll, uh...call before bedtime?” He whispered huskily, causing shivers to course down my spine.

“I’d like that,” I said happily, settling backwards onto the pillows as I closed my eyes. “I’d like that a lot.”

“Good.” He sighed. “Well, I guess this is where I say, ‘I’ll talk to you, later, Stephen.’ But not goodbye.”

“Not goodbye,” I said firmly, forcing myself to smile. I thought of him calling later that night and my smile grew genuine. “I’ll talk to you later, Lance.”

“I’ll talk to you later, Stephen. Love you.”

“Love you too.”



If there was one thing I was not looking forward to, it was school. I knew that the amount of homework piling up would either drive me insane or into an early grave, and I found both of those options rather unappealing. During my drive to the University the next morning, I silently cursed the college I chose to attend—one that forced its students to take courses in history and science and other subjects I could give a rat’s ass about.

As if I weren’t stressed out enough, I had forgotten about the horrible parking situation as well. Monday mornings were notorious for its lack of good parking spaces that were close to the lecture halls. I had forgotten that extremely rude people would have murdered you for a good parking spot. After spending so much time with Lance, I had apparently turned naive and silly. I needed to become cynical again.

After driving around in circles for fifteen minutes, I finally gave up and found a parking space ten thousand miles away from the humanities building. As I got out of my car, I suddenly wished that I did some kind of exercise, because if the homework wouldn’t kill me, then the long walk surely would.

I had started smoking again and before I got out of my car, I lit a cigarette, shielding the flame of the match with a cupped hand. It was an old, unpleasant habit that sneaked up on me when I had least suspected it. I had jumped in my car and began the drive to school, only to find myself absentmindedly driving to the gas station a block away from my apartment instead. Without thinking, I plunked down enough money for two packs of smokes, as well as a cup of too-strong, boiling hot coffee in a styrofoam cup.

As I trudged up the hill, I tried not think of all the catch-up I’d have to play in my classes, as well as the sound of footsteps that were gradually getting closer and closer. If I felt less frazzled, I would have turned around and looked at the person behind me, but instead, I kept on walking, alternating between taking slow drags off my cigarette and sips of my hot coffee, which tasted like crap.

“Hey! Wait up!”

I continued my walk, thinking about Lance’s phone call from the night before. A silly grin stretched on my lips, while my cheeks turned a bright shade of red as his words swirled through my mind.

“Hey!” The person behind me screamed, the sound of their footsteps slapping against the gravel. “I said, ‘Wait up!’ Stephen!”

Hearing my name forced me to turn around and acknowledge the person who was calling me. I watched as Marianne ran towards me, trying to catch up. My smile faded abruptly. For some reason, I kept thinking of that morning she had visited my apartment and saw Lance standing behind me, half-naked. If it weren’t for her, Lance and I would have never fought and I wouldn’t have been so behind in my classes.

To be perfectly honest, I knew I was entirely to blame for the mess I was in, but it’s always easier to put the blame on someone else. Always. It made me feel less guilty that way.

“Where the hell have you been?” Marianne demanded when she finally reached my side. “My God, do you know how much schoolwork you’ve missed?”

Damnit, didn’t Marianne know I was trying not to think about that—Oh wait, maybe she didn’t.

“Well...kinda, yeah,” I said meekly, taking a final drag off my smoke, before tossing it off to the side. I needed another cigarette. And fast. I shoved my free hand deep into the pocket of my new, elegant looking coat—a coat Lance had given me the morning I left Mississippi:

“I’m not gonna wear this,” he said, carefully folding its sleeves. “It’s seventy degrees in the winter and only a fool would wear something wool lined down here. It’s yours. I want you to have it. It’ll keep you warm.” Lance’s voice was firm as he forced the jacket into what little remaining space I had left in my suitcase, before slamming the top down and sitting on it.

I smiled at the memory. It had been a sweet gesture on his part and if it were up to me, I would have preferred to lose myself completely in that moment, but Marianne’s curiosity filled voice dragged me kicking and screaming to the present.

“What is going on with you? And where have you been?” Marianne repeated as we trudged towards the humanities building, randomly kicking multicolored leaves that were scattered across the gravel. “You were in school one day and then you left class and never came back. Professor Bell keeps asking me where you are, and all I can say is, ‘I don’t know.’ I feel like a moron.”

She grumbled something unintelligible under her breath and then looked at me, as I took another drag off my cigarette. “I’ve been calling and calling your apartment. I called one day and some guy named Josh picked up the phone.” She narrowed her eyes as I flicked ashes onto the ground. “Is that your boyfriend?”

I blushed at her directness. In some ways, Marianne reminded me of Cynthia: they both played the bitchy, nosy card well. The only difference was that Cynthia was family and Marianne wasn’t.

“No,” I shot back, trying not to show how perturbed I was growing with Marianne’s third degree routine. “He’s not my boyfriend. He’s my cousin’s, you know, Cynthia?”

“Oh. Her.” Marianne said shortly, tucking her hair behind her ears and scowling. “How has she been since I last saw her?”

“You mean when you tripped her at our opening last spring?” I asked, watching as Marianne rolled her eyes. “And then she landed on that poor freshman’s design project and got a black eye and nearly broke her nose?”

That ‘incident’ was a sore spot in our friendship and I’m sure with the way things were going, it wouldn’t be the last. Last year, Cynthia had been looking for colleges to attend and she decided to visit my university. Of course, she developed a massive crush on another painting major named Sebastian. Marianne liked Sebastian herself, but he wound up liking Cynthia right back. Long story short, Marianne got jealous and tripped my cousin when she came to our art opening in the spring.

They never really liked each other. Not even a little bit.

“Well, I can’t help it if she was wearing those slutty shoes of hers,” Marianne muttered, kicking at a stray stone that seemed to come out of nowhere. She looked up, apparently feeling the heat of my death glare and shrugged. “What?”

I just shook my head. Women. That’s exactly why I didn’t date them.

“So what did I miss?” I changed the subject and took a sip of my coffee. I didn’t want to fight with Marianne on my first day back. “How many all-nighters am I gonna have to pull to catch up with the rest of the class?”

“Quite a bit.” Marianne made a clucking noise with her tongue. “Stephen, you’ve never missed so much school. What’s going on?” She stopped in the middle of her tracks to stare at me suspiciously. “Are you sick? Dying? Is that why your cousin came to visit you? To check up on you? Was he taking care of you?”

Marianne’s words caused me to blush. I thought about Lance giving me a check up and I made a mental note to perhaps play a game of ‘doctor/patient,’ the next time we saw each other.

“No, Mari...” As I trudged towards the humanities building, I tried to catch my breath while smoking and drinking in intervals. “You don’t understand. There’s been so much to do since my mom died.” I felt guilty using my mother as an excuse; under ordinary circumstances I would have never used her death as a cover, but now I had to. I couldn’t say I had flown to Mississippi so Lance and I could reconcile. I couldn’t ‘out’ him so thoughtlessly like that.

Suddenly, I wished that Lance was normal. I wanted him to be someone that I met at school or while ordering coffee. It would have made my life so much easier if he wasn’t a celebrity.

I looked over at Marianne, who was walking quietly besides me. She seemed to be deep in thought, and almost pensive in expression. I wondered what was going through her mind, and when she looked up at me and opened her mouth, I found out.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice soft. “It’s just—this is our last year, Stephen. And I’ve been so used to having you around, and I know we’re not the greatest of friends outside of classes, but—” She bit the tip of her tongue thoughtfully. “—I worry about you. I’ve known you too long. I just don’t want you getting into trouble.”

I smiled at her concern. “Thanks,” I answered. “I really appreciate that, Mari.” She grinned bashfully, busying herself by adjusting the straps of her backpack before looking up and pointing at the Humanities building up ahead.

“We’ve finally made it,” she laughed as we quickened our pace, and headed towards the steep staircase leading inside. “Finally. I never thought we were gonna get here.”

“Yeah. Finally.” I muttered under my breath as Marianne and I jogged up the steps together, while I flicked my cigarette butt onto the grass and tightened my fingers around my styrofoam coffee cup. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t muster up the same enthusiasm that she had. After all, she wasn’t the one who would be living the entire week on pot after pot of coffee—I was.

‘Lance,’ I thought wistfully as Marianne and I headed towards our first class of the day. ‘Come save me. Please?’


Later that night, I was in the middle of making a third pot of coffee when the phone rang. Rubbing my sleep heavy eyes, I staggered into the kitchen.

‘I have got to get a cordless phone,’ I thought as I picked up the receiver and placed it next to my ear. My arms and legs felt like lead and I resisted the urge to slump onto the floor. “Hello?”


It was Lance. I looked at the clock and groaned inwardly at the time: two a.m. As much as I wanted to smile at the sound of my boyfriend’s voice, the muscles in my face refused to cooperate.

“Hey,” I said, pressing my palm against the wall in a desperate attempt to refrain from crashing onto the floor and falling fast asleep. I was trying my damnest to pull an all-nighter on nothing but coffee and determination and so far, it wasn’t working.

“Hey?” Lance repeated teasingly. “Is that any way to greet your boyfriend? Whatever happened to, ‘Hey sugar lips?’”

“Ha,” I snapped, examining the plaster residue that was stuck under my fingernails. “Very funny, Lance. Very funny.” There was an uncomfortable silence on his end.

“Stephen...are you, uh, okay?”

I sighed. The sigh wound up sounding much more dramatic than I wanted it to be, but I couldn’t help it. The drama queen that lurked inside my soul begged to come through. I had four chapters to read in my science book, two more to read for my history course, and two huge paintings to finish by next week for my first semester senior critique.

“I’m...not okay,” I said, measuring out my words. “I have so much homework to do, Lance. So much...if you saw how much I had to do, I think your head would spin.”

“Uh oh.” He sounded genuinely worried. “That’s not good. Are you going to be able to finish it? Are you in trouble with any of your teachers?”

“Well...” I was torn between telling Lance the truth or sugarcoating it. I decided on the latter—he didn’t need to know every grisly detail about my education. “I did get an extension on my art projects and a paper for my history class. And my science professor is allowing me to take a make up exam for my Natural Science course—a few small repairs, that’s all.” I heard as Lance let out a whoosh of air, as though he had been holding his breath in anticipation of my news.

“Well, that’s good. So, any bad news?” I bit my tongue. Lance didn’t need to know everything, right? He didn’t need to know how I was in danger of losing my scholarship because my GPA had dropped to a 2.3. And he didn’t need to know that I was seriously behind in my sculpture class. And he certainly didn’t have to know that I had to have all my artwork from the past three years, matted and mounted and ready to present at next week’s critique.

Lance didn’t need to know any of those things because they didn’t concern him at all. I felt slightly horrible about keeping these things from him, but not horriblehorrible, because I knew if I told him, he’d just go into overdrive worrying about me. I knew Lance had his own set of priorities to worry about. He didn’t need my issues weighing on his shoulders as well.

“Not really,” I lied, crossing my fingers behind my back as I disregarded all the theorizing I had just done in my mind. “Everything is going pretty good here. How about you?”

“Oh, everything is good here too. We’re back, practicing for the tour and stuff,” Lance said. “Wade’s been bossing us around like usual. Pain in the ass.”

I laughed despite myself. “That bad, huh?”

“Uh huh,” Lance agreed and his voice sounded weary. “It’s like torture, Stephen. I mean, it’s fun and I love it. I’m just tired and cranky and I wish you were here to give me a massage.” His voice perked up at the end of the sentence, but I could only roll my eyes in response. Give Lance a massage? After I had been chiseling away bits of plaster over the past three hours? Did he know how sore my fingers were? He had to be joking. He better have been.

Although I had to admit, a massage did sound nice. I could have certainly gone for one.

“Anyway, I can’t talk for long, Stephen” Lance said apologetically, his voice breaking into my thoughts. “I’m really sorry, it’s just that I have to be up early and I’m exhausted. I just want to go to sleep.”

“It’s okay.” I swallowed thickly. The phone was my only link to Lance and that bothered me. I couldn’t see his face and he couldn’t see mine. Our communication depended on the sound of our voices. Despite my cranky disposition, I just wanted a hug and a kiss good night from Lance, and I couldn’t get that over the phone. “Well talk tomorrow, maybe?”

I could hear Lance grin. “Tomorrow,” he agreed. “I’ll call you after the show, okay?”


“Stephen. I love you.”

“I love you too.”




Hanging up the telephone, my legs gave way and I slumped to the floor with a thud. I looked around the room. My half-finished sculpture sat on the dining room table, while a blank canvas was propped on the ledge of my well-worn easel, waiting to be filled with color. Looking over to the right, I saw my newspaper bag, its flap opened and the textbooks poking out as though they wanted to be freed and studied. That was the part of my homework I was least looking forward to—who wanted to study science and history? I didn’t want to—I never wanted to. All I wanted to do was paint.

I rubbed my sleepy eyes and for a second, I considered blowing off my homework and entertained the idea of going to bed. I knew I couldn’t, but the idea tempted me. My bed. Warm. Cozy. Nice soft pillows where I could rest my head and sleep.

As I closed my eyes, I listened to the overwhelming silence and suddenly, felt my heart drop a little. JC and Cynthia had left yesterday evening and my apartment had become strangely quiet since their departure. And while the peace and quiet was nice, I desperately wanted some kind of company, some noise—anything or anyone that would keep me awake and alert and less lonely than I felt at that moment.

I thought about my situation for a few more minutes, before realizing that what I wanted the most was Lance. I wanted him to sit there and watch me paint and crack jokes about stupid things. I wanted to be able to look over at the futon, and find him there, dozing off and curled up. I wanted him here with me. I just wanted his reassurance that everything would work out in the end. At that moment, I was so unhappy and alone and overwhelmed by my problems, I could have curled up into a fetal position and cried myself to sleep.

I just wanted everything to work out, to fix itself and to be done with. I just wanted to be happy again.


We’re Much Closer Now

I was standing in front of the entire senior faction of the art department, nervously smoothing out the wrinkles in my shirt. Numerous paintings from my past three years rested on metal easels that were lined up behind me. I had gotten them professionally matted and framed and while it had costed me a pretty penny to have it all done, it had been worth it—they looked wonderful. And at that moment, standing before my artwork, I felt like a real painter. It felt good.

Critiques are something that every art student despises with a burning passion. The process is foreign to non-art students, but mention the ‘c’ word to anyone involved in the art department, and they’ll run away shrieking like a madperson. Perhaps they had a bad experience or maybe they had been ripped to shreds in front of their peers. Or maybe they had been unable to answer some stupid question about shadows and light. The trauma varied from person to person. I had my first brush with a mock critique process last year and the ordeal of standing in front of my class, shaking like a leaf and stuttering out answers, while my professors lobbed questions at me was something I did not care to repeat. And that was just a practice run. Imagine how it would be this time, for real.

I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. We all had to. Critiques were the norm of any senior art student.

Surprisingly enough, I was calmer than my counterparts, who were sitting before me in uncomfortable, hardbacked chairs. As I waited for the round of questions to begin, I fingered the silver chain that lay around my neck and bit my lip to keep from grinning too broadly. After all, I was in the middle of a critique. I shouldn’t have been this happy—I should have been alert and on my toes, ready to answer any question that was lobbed at me.

But I was happy—well, sort of. I had finished the majority of my back-piled homework, taken that make up exam in my science class and written the essay for my history course. Not to mention I had finally chiseled a sculpture out of that hunk of plaster that had been hanging over my head for the past few weeks. My fingers ached just thinking about all the chiseling and sanding I had done. The final two paintings were now sitting in back of me, and while they weren’t up to my usual standards, I liked how they turned out.

I blamed my good mood on Lance. That morning, I had been woken up by the Federal Express man, who had found it necessary to lean on my doorbell until my eardrums bled. Groggy and clad in nothing but my boxer shorts, I flung the door open, only to see the Fed Ex man looking positively horrified by my appearance. I wanted to snit, ‘Haven’t you lived on nothing but espresso for a week?’, but I didn’t. Instead, I just yanked the package from his hands, signed the electronic clipboard and then slammed the door in his face.

Despite my morning crankiness, I smiled as my eyes roamed over Lance’s address, which was printed in the upper left hand corner of the package. My heart began to beat faster. I started tearing the brown paper wrapping off the box, as I was filled with equal amounts of curiosity and excitement. My fingers couldn’t open the box fast enough and I nearly dropped it in my haste. I slid my short nails along the tape, cutting it open and finally, I opened the box, only to find another smaller box hidden underneath a flurry of packing peanuts.

When that was open, I found a handwritten note hiding underneath a layer of tissue paper: “Stephen, Good luck. I know you’re going to do great today. Love you, Lance.” A sparkle caught my eye and the note slipped from my fingers, as I noticed the simple silver necklace that lay nestled inside the box.

I had no idea why Lance would send me a necklace, but his simple gesture brought tears to my eyes. Even though he was miles away and on tour, Lance had still taken the time out to send me a good luck gift.

And now I was standing in front of my class and describing the intricate details and techniques of each painting that I had finished over the past three years. I smiled as I spoke, clear and concise and watched as my professors gave me approving looks and smiles. I felt wonderful and for the first time in my life, I felt completely self-assured.

It felt good knowing that Lance had faith in me, even miles and miles away. It made me feel special. I couldn’t help but think I had the best boyfriend in the world. And he was mine. All mine.


“So,” Lance began as I took a seat on the futon, while cradling the phone base in my lap. “Did you like my gift?”

“I loved it,” I said, my voice filled with happiness as I fingered the silver chain that lay around my neck. I had touched it so many times, I was surprised that the finish hadn’t worn off. “Thank you, Lance. That was such a nice thing to wake up to this morning.”

“Well, I couldn’t be there to, you know, give you a good morning kiss and I wanted to surprise you, Stephen,” Lance laughed. “I’m just full of surprises, you know.”

“You certainly are.”

“How did your critique go?” Lance suddenly asked and the sound of his voice changed from elated to worried in a blink of an eye. “I thought about you all morning. I know you mentioned that your critique was scheduled at 11 am, so I crossed my fingers and kept them that way for the next half hour.”

I snickered at the image in my head. “You didn’t.”

“I did too!” Lance said indignantly, before laughing to ease the tone. “You can ask the other guys—they were mocking me out the entire time. They said they were going to take me to the hospital to have my fingers surgically separated.” I giggled at the thought of Lance being rushed to the hospital because his fingers had melded together from keeping them overcrossed.

“Now that’s devotion,” I said, impressed, before shifting back to the original topic. “My critique went pretty well. I think. It’s hard to read the faces of the teachers, ‘cause they’re taking notes while I’m speaking, but I think it went okay. They looked pleased. And I usually stutter when I’m nervous. But this time?”


“I didn’t stutter at all.” I paused. “Well, maybe just a little at the beginning, but not like I normally do,” I fingered the hem of my shirt as I thought back to that morning, where I had turned into ‘Self-Assured Stephen.’ “I couldn’t believe it. Even Marianne noticed.”

“It was the necklace,” Lance joked. “You’re wearing a magical necklace that stopped you from stuttering, Stephen. That’s why I sent it to you.”

“Uh huh. Sure.”

Our laughter mingled and I could feel myself glowing from our conversation. I could always count on Lance to make me feel giddy. Of course, there would be certain things that would cause my stomach to tie in knots whenever I thought about Lance, such as England, but I’d shove that out of my mind as fast as humanly possible. It was easier that way. I spoke to Professor Bell about the England offer the other day and he told me I had about two months to decide. The two month ultimatum filled me with only slight relief, because I knew two months would roll around in the blink of an eye. Still, it gave me time to weigh the pros (a great boost for a career in the arts) and the cons (Lance, Lance, Lance).

I entertained the idea of asking Lance for his opinion, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was better to talk about this opportunity when we were face-to-face. I could show him the brochures and the forms and explain the whole magical offer in detail. Maybe Lance would understand and maybe he wouldn’t. But I didn’t want to talk about it now. Not when Lance and I were finally at peace.

“So,” Lance said after our laughter quieted. “Did you ask your teachers about taking time off for the awards?”

“Well...” I trailed off. “I have good news. The day of the CMA’s? All students have the day off so the faculty can hold staff meetings.”

“Wow, really?” Lance said, sounding pleasantly surprised. “Are you pulling my leg?”

I held back a smile at the thoughts in my mind. “I’d be doing more than pulling your leg,” I said coyly. “You know that.”

“Mmmm,” he murmured, and I imagined what I’d do to Lance when we’d finally see each other again. Our separation had filled me with lust and since the pressure of my critique was off my shoulders, I was free to think about sex. “I’d like that, Stephen,” Lance said slowly, before returning to the subject and ruining my mood all at once. “But what about the day before the CMA’s? I really wanted you to get out here a day ahead.”

Holding back a sigh, I thought about my school schedule. “I have classes in the morning,” I said. “I get out of them at 11:20—”

11:20?” Lance whined. “Shoot. I was hoping you’d get to Nashville by eleven. I thought that maybe you and Cynthia could have lunch with Meredith and I. It would be nice for those of us who don’t know each other, to meet. Uh...” He cleared his throat. “And I’d really like you to meet Mer, Stephen.”

“Oh?” I raised my eyebrows. “She’s an important friend, huh? Lance?”


“Does Meredith know?” I placed as much emphasis as I could on that last word, but Lance already knew what I was hinting at.

“Well, uh...” He coughed nervously. “Not really.”

“Oh. So, she doesn’t know that I’m your boyfriend—”

“—Or that I like guys, Stephen. I know you’re bringing Cynthia as your—” He snorted in jest. “Date.”

I rolled my eyes and resisted the urge to gag. “God, that’s so wrong. Cynthia as my girlfriend—and you know what the funny part is? Even if I was straight, she still wouldn’t be my type. She’s too much of a loud mouth. I hate loud mouthed girls,” I said bitterly, briefly thinking of Marianne as I spoke.

(I knew it was wrong to mentally slam my best friend at school, but I couldn’t help doing it. I still felt a twinge of animosity towards her—not a lot, but just enough for me to scowl at the thought of her name. I’m sure it wouldn’t last long though.)

“Uh huh,” Lance paused thoughtfully, before continuing: “I’d hope you’d have better taste in women if you were straight. Not that Cynthia’s, you know, not cute or anything, because she is,” he added quickly, his voice filling with sudden panic. It was as though Lance feared trash talking my cousin—perhaps he thought Cynthia had super telepathic powers that switched on whenever someone talked about her. “She’s really pretty and...and, uh—”

“Lance, Lance,” I interrupted soothingly. “You don’t have to make excuses about Cynth, because I know exactly what you mean. And I won’t tell her anything we said. Don’t worry.”

“Oh good,” He sounded relieved. “I didn’t want to offend her—or you.”

Even though our relationship was better than ever, I guess the ghosts of our previous fights lurked in the back of his mind. Neither of us wanted to revisit that unpleasantness again and hopefully we never would, but it was always there, hiding.

“So you’re sure you can’t get the day before the awards off?” Lance asked anxiously, returning to the original subject at hand. “Because I’d really like all of us to get together a day ahead of time, Stephen. Can’t you try to get out of your classes? Please? Pretty please?”

I sighed and ran a hand through my shaggy hair. He could be so persistent at times. There were times when his persistence could be endearing, but at that moment, Lance was verging on the annoying. “Well, I’ll try,” I said hesitantly. “I can’t promise anything, Lance. I mean, I missed a lot of classes already and I’m just really afraid of screwing up my grades or flunking a big test or something bad.”

“I understand,” Lance said after a prolonged amount of silence. I could imagine him sitting there, tapping his fingertips on his kneecap, his face twisted into an expression of slight displeasure. “It’s just that I want to see you again. I guess I’m just a little selfish at times. It’s almost like I keep forgetting that you have school and your own life to attend to.” I heard him swallow thickly. “I miss you, Stephen.”

“I know.” I wished Lance hadn’t said that. “You know, I wish we could go back to summertime. It almost seemed so much easier.”

“Almost,” Lance emphasized. “But it’s not summer anymore. And you have school and there’s no way I’m sticking trivial stuff like lunch in front of your classes. If you can’t make it a day ahead of time, then so be it. But there’s no way you’re going to flunk because I miss you.”

My eyebrows shot up in surprise as the tone of Lance’s voice changed from lonely to authoritative. “Whoa. Stern, aren’t we?”

“Well, I worry. I can’t help it,” Lance said, his voice sounding less harsh. “And I know how talented you are and I’d hate for you to ruin your goals because of me. And I don’t want you to fail, Stephen. I’d hate if I were the cause of that, because I’m not worth it. Our relationship isn’t worth it. And I know how stupid that sounds, but I just want you to find a balance, Stephen. That’s all.”

Silence followed his words and I couldn’t help but feel touched. I had always known that Lance cared, but this moment just seemed to reinforce that. I remained speechless for the next few seconds, trying to take in the weight of his words.



“You still there?”

“Uh huh.” I nodded and fell backwards on my bed. I closed my eyes. There were times when the distance between Lance and I felt huge, as though we could fit the Grand Canyon between us and I felt it now. For the first time, I truly doubted that we could handle this long distance relationship. Fear washed over me and I took a few deep breaths to calm my shaky nerves. Lance was right—I did need to find a balance, but was it worth losing the person I loved?

“Stephen, I miss you. I wish we weren’t so far apart,” Lance said suddenly, almost as though he could read my mind. “But we are.”

“I know.”

We fell silent again and I could make out the distinct sound of Chris and Joey talking and laughing in the background. Judging from the happiness prevalent in their voices, I knew that the conversation between Lance and I would end soon. We liked to talk in private; that made it seem as though we were one-on-one.

“Stephen?” Lance sounded disappointed. “I hate to do this...”

“Yeah, yeah,.” I knew what he was about to say. We went through this a million times before, but it never failed to frustrate me. I never wanted to say goodbye. If it were up to me, I’d want to spend almost every minute with Lance—I didn’t think I was clingy. At least, I hoped I wasn’t. I just saw myself as a fool who was madly in love with someone who I hoped loved me as much in return.

“I’ll call you later, okay?” Lance said, lowering his voice and I knew that Chris and Joey were probably sitting near him. “Later tonight.”

“Okay,” I nodded. “I’ll talk to you later, Lance. Love you.”

“Love you too. Bye, Stephen.”

“Bye, Lance.”

And before he could hang up, I could hear Chris mimicking our goodbyes in the background, his voice high-pitched as he mocked us: “I love you sooo much, Stephen! Now kiss me, you big stud!”

“Oh shut up.” I heard Lance snap as I rested the receiver back on the phone. I chuckled to myself, thinking that Chris never failed to make me smile. I was glad Lance had such great friends. At that moment, I wished I had some great friends myself.

Sighing under my breath, I lay on my bed and folded my hands over my stomach, training my eyes on the ceiling above me.

Nashville couldn’t come soon enough.


If there was one thing I learned in the next few weeks of flying solo, it was that separation from your significant other didn’t kill you. The thought depressed me a little, but as I woke up every morning, I found that I wasn’t dying without Lance waking up next to me. It wasn’t as though he were my life support or IV drip. He was just my boyfriend. That’s all.

I did miss him though. Every phone call and message left on my answering machine reminded me of that. But the time apart also reminded me to get a grip on reality and to pay attention to the people around me. After all, no one likes a lovesick moron, I thought as picked up the receiver and began dialing a phone number I knew by heart. I listened to the steady ringing on the other end and soon grew impatient.

‘Pick up, pick up,’ I thought with a scowl. ‘Just pick up already.’

They picked up.


“Natalie?” I asked almost feverently. “Is that you?”

“Stephen?” My little sister’s voice came through the line loud and clear. She sounded happy, but the cynic in me couldn’t help but wonder if she was just hiding something. I had done that before just so people around me wouldn’t become depressed with my presence. “Is that you? Geez, I thought you forgot about me.”

A pang of guilt twisted my stomach into a tight knot of guilt. “Um...nope,” I lied nervously, while thinking, ‘I did. Oh God, forgive me for putting my sex life before my sister. Please. I’m not that bad of a guy.’ “There’s no way I couldn’t forget about you, Nat. How have you been up in Wisconsin?”

“Good.” She sighed. “It’s really weird though, getting used to the different classes and teachers and stuff.” Natalie paused and I imagined her sitting at the kitchen table, her tongue pressed against the top of her teeth as she thought about what she was going to say next. “And it’s really hard to make new friends when you’re the new kid—”

“Oh Nat,” I sighed under my breath. I didn’t want to think of my sister having trouble fitting in. The thought caused my stomach to knot up even tighter. I’d have an ulcer by the end of our phone call, I knew it.

“—but,” Natalie continued sweetly, interrupting the pity party that I was throwing in my brain. “—there’s a boy—”

I groaned out loud and resisted the urge to cradle my head in my hands and start sobbing. I just couldn’t help the thoughts that flew through my mind: Natalie was going to grow up into Cynthia, dating stupid guys who would break her heart and she’d wind up being in a rock band before freaking out over a faulty pregnancy test when she was twenty years old. I just knew it.

“—and he’s shown me around the school, Stephen,” Natalie giggled. “And then there’s a bunch of girls who invited me to eat lunch with them. I’m at the kinda cool table, but that’s okay, ‘cause the girls who sit at the really cool table are mean. They were making fun of this one kid, calling him gay and saying that he was a big geek for being gay and I stuck up for him and told them to shut up, cause that’s what you are, Stephen—you know, gay. I mean, I didn’t tell them that you were, but I know you’re not a big geek just because you’re gay.”

“Oh, thanks a lot.”

“Oh I didn’t mean it that way, Stephen. Actually, you’re pretty cool—for my brother, at least. But, yeah, I stuck up for that poor kid. He looked so sad when those girls were teasing him.”

The stuff my little sister was telling me shocked me. “Really?” I asked, feeling proud of Natalie from miles away.

“Yeah, you’re cool, Stephen,” Natalie said, absentmindedly, as though she were splitting her concentration between the phone and something else. “I mean, what other guy takes their little sister to an *NSYNC concert and—”

“No, no,” I interrupted. “I mean, you stuck up for some kid because other kids were teasing him for being gay?”

“Uh huh,” she emphasized, sounding pretty darn proud of herself. “It was just so mean and I hate people like that. And besides, Lance is gay too and he’s not a geek. Even if Cynthia said he dresses like a blind guy picked out his clothing. He’s cute.”

I laughed at my sister’s words, although I knew Cynthia was right: sometimes Lance did look as though a blind man picked out his clothes.

“Yup, he sure is, Natalie,” I answered, chuckling under my breath and thinking of my boyfriend. “He’s very cute.”

“Yeah, Lance is, but he’s not like Joey—Joey is hot.”

I rolled my eyes. “Okay, Natalie. Whatever you say,” I teased her, although a melancholy feeling settled in my heart. Hearing Natalie’s voice made me miss her an awful lot—even more than I had before our phone call. Suddenly, I realized that I no immediately family living near me—no parents or cousins. No one.

I felt very alone at that moment. But if Natalie felt the same way, she sure wasn’t showing it—

“Stephen! Joey is hot—all the girls think so. Is there any chance that you could, like, hook me up with him?”

‘Hook her up?’ I just shook my head and pushed my feelings of loneliness off to the side. Cynthia was having a great amount of influence on my little sister’s personality. I wanted to condone it but I didn’t, because I knew for the most part that it was probably harmless. Or at least I hoped it was.

“I’ll see what I can do, Nat,” I said, rolling my eyes again. “I’ll talk to Lance and see what strings he can pull, although I’m pretty sure Joey’s taken.”

“Oh really? Darn. That’s okay, I guess—at least I have Billy.”


“Yeah, that’s the guy who was showing me around the school. He’s cute, Stephen. He’s got big brown eyes and blonde hair that’s spiked like Lance’s.” She sighed in the way that only a love struck girl could sigh. It took me a second to realize that was how I sighed whenever I talked about Lance—how embarrassing.

Still, Natalie didn’t know what I was thinking and she continued to rail on about Billy: “And he’s sooo nice, Stephen. He walked me home the other day and then called me up last night and asked if I wanted to walk to school with him tomorrow. And of course, I said yes.”

A lump formed in my throat as I listened to my little sister talk about her new life. I didn’t want to admit it, but she was growing up—fast. Before I’d know it, she’d be graduating from middle school and getting her drivers license. There would be high school graduation and college decisions, not to mention heartbreaks and disappointments. And she didn’t even have a mother.

Suddenly, I missed Natalie more than ever, and despite my fear of flying, I wanted to book the first flight out to Wisconsin so I could hold her in my arms and never let go.

“Stephen? Are you listening to me?”

Natalie’s voice brought me back to reality. I had these moments before, where I’d disappear into my own world and block out the people who were talking to me. “Yeah, Nat—I’m here.”

“I wasn’t asking if you were there, Stephen,” Natalie said, her young voice sounding bored and full of impatience. “I asked if you were listening to me. I asked how things were going for you in New York.”

“Oh, everything is fine,” I said, not exactly lying, but not telling the truth either. I certainly wasn’t going to tell Natalie about all my problems with homework and the doubts about my relationship with Lance. There were just some things you kept close to your heart.

“Good,” Natalie said firmly and I could imagine her nodding her head in approval, her blonde curls bouncing around her face. “Because I love it here, Stephen. I mean, I miss you...and mom.” She paused and sucked in a deep breath. “Especially mom.”

‘Why did she have to go and say that?’ I thought. “Me too, Natalie. I miss her too. I miss her a lot.”

“But I’m okay here,” she continued on, her voice soft as though she were trying to keep her emotions in check. “Really. I am.”

It took me a moment to compose myself, as I blinked back tears. I never understood why it was so hard for me to control my emotions—I was a man, and therefore, I should have acted like one. None of this wussy, girlie crying stuff. Natalie was acting more mature than I felt at the moment and she was the one who was forced to pack up her life and move away from everyone she knew and the house she grew up in.

But then maybe Natalie was hiding things from me, just as I was doing to her. There were always things you wanted to hide from people you loved. You didn’t want them to worry about you, because in your own unique way, you healed yourself, even if you sought out the help of others. Or at least I hoped you did.

I knew I’d never change. I had always been overemotional and maybe that was good. Maybe it prevented me from becoming bitter and mean and cold inside. Maybe that’s why I had fallen so deeply in love with Lance—my emotions had gotten in the way of rational thought...

I needed to stop thinking and get back to the conversation at hand.

“Well,” I finally began after a prolonged silence. “—that’s good, Nat.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and blinked back my tears. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I am, Stephen. And what about you? Are you happy?”

It took me a moment to answer, because while I wanted to speak the truth from my heart, I knew I couldn’t do that for the sake of my sister. My life had been a series of highs and lows lately and like Lance had pointed out, I needed a balance. No, scratch that—I wanted a balance.

Finally, I answered:

“Yeah. I am.”

And even though my voice didn’t sound very convincing to my ears, I knew happiness was lurking somewhere inside of me. I knew it was. I just had to find it.


A few days later, Marianne and I decided to head off-campus for lunch. I wound up driving around town for close to a half hour, until we decided to frequent the same five-minutes-away-from-campus diner that we always ate lunch at.

Pulling into the diner, I sighed at the amount of gas I had wasted. I could have used that money for another tube of paint, I thought unhappily. But like everything else that bothered me, I just pushed it out of my mind, parked the car and with Marianne in tow, we headed towards the diner.

I’m used to the looks we get from the employees everytime we walk inside. I’m sure they think we’re a couple and honestly, I don’t blame them. I know I would think the same thing about Marianne and I. Physically, we compliment each other: I’m tall and she’s short. If you look close enough, you can see the dried paint under our fingernails and know that we’re both art students. Even though I’m gay, I can admit that Marianne and I would make a decent looking couple.

However, it’s her personality that can drive me up the wall. I’ve learned how to accept her when she’s acting insecure and jealous because of another girl (the Cynthia incident springs to mind) or when she switches into flirty mode, because I’ve spent the last three years with her and I know these things. Despite all her various facades though, Marianne is a great girl and a good friend.

We were seated in our usual booth, right next to the big plate glass window that overlooked the parking lot. Marianne took a menu from the napkin holder, but I didn’t. I ordered the same thing each and everytime I went into that place— chicken fingers and french fries—it wasn’t because I was boring, it’s because I was consistent. At least that’s what I tell Marianne everytime she teases me.

After placing our orders, Marianne and I sat there, looking at anything but each other. It was one of those weird moments of silence that every friendship has. I’m sure it stemmed from the fact that I had become (in the last few weeks) a habitual class skipper. Not to mention that everytime someone asked me about my personal life, I snapped. I wasn’t a good liar, so in most cases, I just kept my mouth shut and answered questions with by shrugging my shoulders.

I blamed Lance for my weird behavior. It was all his fault.

I took a sip of my freshly poured coffee, just to do something with my hands. Every second of silence caused me to grow more nervous. As I lifted the cup to my lips, I noticed that Marianne was intently watching me and much to my surprise, she was staring at...my mouth?

“What?” I asked her, slowly placing the cup back on its saucer. “What’s wrong?” I reached up and stroked around my mouth, only to find that I needed a shave. I had been too lazy to do it that morning and besides, I didn’t need to look that good for anyone—I had a boyfriend.

“Nothing,” Marianne answered immediately, and I thought her voice came out a little too high and a little too fast. “I was just thinking.”


“Yeah.” Marianne nodded her head as though she were moving in slow motion. She stirred her Diet Coke with a straw, causing the ice cubes to clink against the glass. Her eyes were unfocused and she kept switching her gaze from my mouth to somewhere in back of me. I turned around to see if something was distracting her, but all I saw was cheap, seventies era wood paneling behind me.

“So Stephen,” Marianne began, dipping her straw in and out of her glass as she spoke. “Have you gotten all caught up on your homework?”

“Yup.” I nodded confidently, watching as Mari’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “I had to. If I didn’t, I would have gotten screwed over at the critique. Besides, I’ve done super cramming before, Marianne, so don’t act surprised.”

She blinked in astonishment. “Well, I know that, Stephen. It’s just...you missed so many classes.”

“Yeah and...” I hesitated to tell her that I was going to miss another day of classes. I had caved in and decided to fly out to Nashville a day early. ‘It will be worth it,’ I told myself over and over. ‘You’ll see Lance. You’ll have a good time. You’ll see Lance.’

“And what?” Marianne stopped playing with the straw and raised an eyebrow.

“I’m going to miss a class next week.”

“WHAT!?” Marianne had yelled so loudly, she caused the other people in the restaurant to look at us. I’m sure they thought we were having some kind of lovers spat, but I didn’t care. “Another day off? Stephen, what is going on?”

I cringed at the anger and shock in her voice. “Well...there’s some stuff I have to tend back to in...in...Wisconsin,” I lied, hiding my fingers under the table and quickly crossing them. “I have to go there for a day. I mean, it’s not like I’m missing another art class, right? It’s just science and history and who needs that?” I tried to sound more convincing than I felt inside. I knew it was wrong, I just didn’t need Marianne to reiterate how wrong it was.

“Well...” She gave a disapproving shake of her head. “I guess. I’d rather you miss a crappy class than another art class. It’s so hard to catch up when you miss one of those.”

“Yeah.” I slumped a little in my seat. She had bought my excuse. And although I knew Marianne wasn’t any kind of person who had authority, I was sure my slouched posture was a sign of defeat and that my lying was as clear as the window we sat next to. I thought she would have said something else about skipping class, a slight lecture or something—but she didn’t. Instead, Marianne switched the topic so quickly and abruptly, she not only took me by complete surprise, but also managed to shock the hell out me:

“Stephen, do you have a job?”

My jaw dropped open. When did we start talking about work?

“Erm, no,” I answered uncomfortably. Luckily, our waitress arrived with our food at that moment and I hoped that would change the subject. After all, food always makes people forget things.

Not Marianne though.

“Do you want a job?” she asked, while gingerly picking up her turkey sandwich, so that the shredded lettuce wouldn’t fall out.

I nearly choked on my coffee as soon as I heard the words leave her mouth. A job? Marianne was offering me a job?

It wasn’t as though I thought getting a job was a horrible idea—I liked the idea a lot. If I hadn’t been using the money from my mother’s death and the selling of our house, I would be living from paycheck to paycheck, just like everyone else in my age bracket. And besides, I had been thinking about getting a job—nothing big, just something small enough to supply me with extra cash for frivolous purchases. I never wanted to be one of those brats who had everything handed to them on a silver platter. I hated people like that. And besides, using the post-death money made me feel uncomfortable.

But I could barely keep up with my schoolwork. And of course, there was Lance. Two things to juggle was enough—did I really want to add a third?

However, I wasn’t going to let Marianne know I was thinking all of this. I just looked at her cooly and narrowed my eyes. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because,” Marianne said, between a mouth of turkey and mayo and tomato, “You know where I work? The candy store?”

“Uh huh.” I dragged a french fry though the pool of ketchup on my plate, before popping it into my mouth. “You’re like, lead candy girl, right? Your dad got you the job.”

I watched as Marianne’s body stiffened at the mention of nepotism, but if it bothered her, she didn’t acknowledge it. “Head of the candy deliveries,” she corrected sounding strict as she tossed her head back in pride. “And my brother works there too. He actually makes the candy. You know, pouring it into the molds and popping it out. Stuff like that. The other guy that worked with him quit the other day.”

“Quit?” I asked drolly, dipping a chicken finger in the little glass cup of blue cheese the restaurants always give you, even though it’s never enough. “Telling me someone quit isn’t a big sell, Marianne.”

“Oh, I know,” she sighed, reaching over to steal a fry off my plate. I pretended not to notice. “But this guy quit because he was moving to Philadelphia.” Marianne shrugged her narrow shoulders, before picking up her glass of Diet Coke. “Now we’re a person short, which is bad because we’re moving into holiday territory, Stephen. Dad asked me to hunt around and see if anyone needed a job and well—” She batted her eyelashes at me, doing it in the way that only a straight-girl-asking-a-gay-guy can do. Cynthia does it all the time when she asks me for a favor.

I finished off the sentence for her: “—you decided to ask me.” She nodded and pursed her lips around the straw. Suddenly, Marianne looked very young and innocent, widening her eyes and smiling at me. Good Lord, she was turning into Cynthia right before me.

“Well,” I began slowly, tapping my fingers on the table. “I’ll think it over. I mean...it’s not like I can just say ‘yes’, Marianne. There’s a lot going on in my life that I’d have to balance out before I could commit to anything.” I thought about Lance for a second and took a sip of my coffee. Getting a job might have been the key to getting my mind off him and I’d be meeting new people. Social situations weren’t exactly my strong point though, so the ‘meeting new people’ part might be more painful than fun.

It was tempting though, but still, I didn’t want to box myself into a commitment that I’d regret later down the line. So I just gave Marianne a calm smile, and took another sip of my coffee before answering.

“I’ll think about it—I’m leaning towards ‘yes,’ but I have to think about it. Okay? How about if I tell you when I get back from Wisconsin?”

With a grin, Marianne nodded happily before we both focused on our lunches. Our conversation soon turned to the critiques and we gossiped about who bombed and who did well, but there was still something odd about the look in Marianne’s eyes I just couldn’t put my finger on. It was as though she had been plotting and plotting and finally, her efforts had paid off. But maybe I was hallucinating.

‘Maybe,’ I thought I as began to eat the food that sat in front of me, ‘I just had to eat my lunch.’

::end of chapter 56-2::

As always, feedback is greatly appreciated: blissful_confusion@yahoo.com. I should have Chapter 57 posted on my site at the end of May. Thanks for reading!