Jensen reached out and gripped his best friend Les’s hand to stop the motion of the knife. “Holy shit, you don’t chop like that unless you know what you’re doing! Look around you. Carrot debris is flying everywhere. Next thing you know, you’ll slice off the tip of your finger, and you’ll bleed all over the place. Do you want me to show you how it’s done? Slow, steady, controlled. That’s the only way to do it properly.”
Les released the knife. He smiled and said, “I’d rather have you do it yourself.” Les stepped back, snagged his glass of wine off the counter, and retreated to a seat at the kitchen table. “You’re the expert cook here. I’m the flunky you guilted into helping.”
“Yeah, I figured as much. It’s a good thing you’re such a nice guy, and I do like to cook. Sit there and keep me company. You’re much better at that.”
Les shook his head. “Apparently, I’m not always nice.” He reached up and swept a hand slowly over the buzzed brown hair on his head. “Cy thinks I’m a bastard from hell. I think those were his exact words while he was throwing me out. He yelled, ‘Get out of my face! You’re like a fucking bastard from hell. I don’t ever want to see you again!’”
Jensen couldn’t stop himself from chuckling softly while he sliced the carrots into thin matchsticks and then diced them into smaller chunks to prep them for his famous fall chowder.
“Do you think it’s funny? He still has a shitload of my stuff. I was going all in for this relationship. If you’re going to take the dive, I say why not make it a cannonball? I don’t know what to do about my stuff. It’s like he’s holding my lucky troll hostage.”
Les and Cy teetered on the edge of breakup for months. It started only weeks after they moved in together. When Les found out that Cy was secretly reading his email and checking up on friends to make sure his boyfriend wasn’t screwing anybody on the side, that was the final straw. Les fought back, and Cy threw him out.
Jensen asked, “Do you have a lucky troll? Seriously? That is so like you. Do you still have a key to his place?”
Les nodded and sipped the wine. “Yeah, I do, both of those, but I can’t just stroll in and start picking shit up. What if he has a knife? You know, a blade like that one in your hand. It’s fucking sharp. I’ve never seen him as angry as he was that night.”
“Do you really think the guy you’ve been sleeping with for almost a year will suddenly turn into a homicidal maniac? He had plenty of opportunities to stab you in your sleep if that was his goal.”
“Okay, yeah, you’re probably right. It’s just that I’m still royally pissed at him. I do want my shit back, but I don’t know if I can stand to see his face.” Les held a fist to his chest. “I put a lot of emotion into this. It’s going to hurt for a while. I think I’m past the denial and the bargaining and all of that shit, but I’ve still gotta grieve.”
“You’re going to be fine, and you’re better off. We both know that.”
Les rubbed his chin. “Damn, I forgot. My favorite wrestling singlet is stuck in a drawer in his bedroom. You know that one. You’ve wrestled me in it before.”
Jensen dumped the carrots into the pot and stuck his Grandma’s heirloom wooden spoon into the liquid stirring it around. At least two hours remained before the chowder would be ready, but that allowed for a nice chunk of time in front of the TV. Jensen originally planned it as solo time. Sundays were usually that, but then Les called with an S.O.S. Jensen couldn’t ignore his best friend. Les needed TLC from a friend who still cared.
Jensen said, “You and your pervy wrestling obsession. Yeah, I’ve got the singlet you made me buy, too. It was used only once when I pinned you to the mat in like ten seconds flat.”
Jensen dated Les three times after they first met in a downtown gay bar. They wrestled once and fucked once, all on the same night after the second date. It was the peak of a dating relationship that didn’t work. Once they both got over the anger of breaking up, they realized they functioned well as best friends.
As he realized the benefits of close friendship, Jensen decided that romantic relationships were too much of a hassle. They were too unpredictable. They always ended a few weeks after they started anyway. He thought most who buckled down for the long haul were merely gluttons for punishment. Jensen stuck the concept of a relationship on a shelf in the back of his mind. It was the same place he stored the idea of cleaning the basement and his thoughts about trying to patch the bare spots where grass didn’t grow in the backyard.
Les protested. “It’s not an obsession. It’s a fetish. Those are two different things. Not that you would know, Mr. Plain Vanilla who fucks once in a blue moon.”
Jensen shook his head, swigged his wine and said, “Maybe he was right about calling you a bastard. You don’t need to go attacking my personal life. I forgive you for it. You’re pissed at Cy. Let’s take this to the living room.”
The two friends sat in their usual configuration on the sofa. Jensen pushed his slim, lanky body back against the arm. The couch was part of a set of overstuffed furniture inherited from Jensen’s grandparents and passed down via his mom. Les relaxed with his head resting on his buddy’s belly, and he wedged his shoulders up against Jensen’s waist. Les rolled his head back and looked up.
Jensen stared down with a smile and a sparkle in his warm, dark brown eyes. He crossed his arms over Les’s chest and couldn’t resist gripping the muscular pecs. Les was a competitive wrestler in high school, and he kept his body in great shape. He tried to convince Jensen to join him four times a week in the gym, but he failed. Jensen knew that he could be stronger and in better shape, but a slim body successfully hid a lot of fitness sins.
Les looked at the hands on his chest and growled. “Hey! Don’t grope it unless you wanna own it!”
“You still wish I would, don’t you?”
“There could be worse fates. That’s for sure. You’d be nothing like Hurricane Cy. I might even get breakfast in bed out of you.”
Jensen pointed the remote at the TV. “Yeah, we tried that. We saw how well it worked. We had three dates, and then we were ready to kill each other. We made it to my usual tolerance level. I’m good friend material but not date material. It’s important to know myself.”
“Some boy is going to be a lucky little shit when he convinces you otherwise. He’s out there, bud. He’ll show up and wear you down and convince you to stay the course. He’ll be a whole lot better than a man like Cy, too. Mark my words.” Les reached up and ran two fingers along the short whiskers on Jensen’s jawline. “How often do you shave this?”
“I trim it every day. Now, which episode are we on?”
Les asked, “Are we watching Queenie again?” It was their nickname for Behind the Crown, one of the hottest cable shows in the country. Saturdays were the usual day for Les and Jensen’s weekly dinner and TV binge. It was Sunday, and they had an unexpected opportunity to tuck in a few more episodes. Queen was one of three different shows they watched together.
“Yeah, let’s go with it. I’m kind of in the mood for sex and gore. I’d rather watch this today than celebrity chefs stabbing each other in the back.”
Les pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Season 3, episode 6. I kept a note after we watched last night. I think that stupid Lord with the swimming pool blue eyes was on his way to the executioner’s beheading block, wasn’t he?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. Let me pull it up on the TV. I hope someone rescues him. He’s pretty damn hot.”
“Seriously? He’s got to be what, 62? I bet they’ve filled in the wrinkles on his face.”
Jensen sighed as he found his way to season 3. “He’s not a day over 50. I can Google it and prove it to you. Anyway, what’s wrong with an older guy? They’ve already calmed down and aren’t all flaky and shit. If I ever find one to take me past my six-week record, he’ll probably be older.”
Les asked, “Flaky and shit? You weren’t talking about the current company, were you?.”
“Of course not.”
Two hours of palace intrigue, and three executions of jealous lovers later, Jensen stuck his nose in the air, sniffed, and said, “I think the chowder’s almost ready.” He stood and said, “Don’t worry about getting up. I’ll go out to the kitchen and bring our bowls back. I want to see the next episode.”
“You just want to see Lars bang the hapless knight. That’s what’s on your mind.”
“Is there a problem with that?”
While Jensen paused the TV show and retreated to the kitchen, Les climbed off the sofa and stepped up to the living room window. He called toward the kitchen. “I love your neighborhood. I’m jealous. Sometimes I feel like I live in a cell block in my apartment. Maybe I should think about buying something. You lucked out when you found this house. All of your gay neighbors hold on to their property here and never sell. It’s like a private club on this street.”
Jensen called back. “There’s a rental a couple of streets over. It’s an upper. The house isn’t so bad.”
Les peered out the window toward the home next door. He spotted a man helping an older woman out of a car. The woman could walk, but she looked extremely fragile. The man was slightly stocky with short-cropped hair similar to Les’s own. He called to the kitchen again, “Do you have a new neighbor? I don’t think I’ve seen this guy before.”
“I don’t think so.”
Les continued to watch. While the woman laboriously climbed the concrete steps up from street level, the man pulled a small suitcase out of the trunk of the car. Unaware that Jensen left the kitchen, Les jumped when he heard the voice over his shoulder. “No, that’s Alec. He’s been there since I moved in three years ago. He’s an asshole.”
“He looks like a bulldog, in a good way. I’d say hi to him, and is that his mom?”
Jensen shrugged. “I don’t know. We don’t talk. Not since the garden incident.”
Les said, “She’s got cancer.”
“She’s got cancer. I know it when I see it.” Les worked as a lab tech at an acclaimed cancer center in the city. He’d seen hundreds of patients stop in to give blood. “Look at the thin hair, and you can see the lines on her face and the spider-like fingers from here. Why do you call him an asshole? Maybe you should have some sympathy for the guy.”
Jensen sighed. “That is fucking awful if you’re right, and if that’s his mom, but I’d just moved in here when he came over and chewed my ass out for no good reason.”
Les turned away from the window. “What? I don’t think I’ve heard this story.”
“I moved in during the summer, and the people before me shoved flowers in the ground along the front of the porch to try and make the place look better. By the time I moved in they were dead and crunchy. Nobody watered them. Alec came over and chewed me out for it. He told me my place was an eyesore on one of the best streets in the city.”
Les laughed. “That’s why you’ve got nothing but grass out front. You’re being petty.”
Jensen gritted his teeth. “I keep the grass tidy so it looks fine. I don’t have time to fiddle with flowers, and I won’t let the neighborhood ass tell me what to do with my place. Go sit back down, and I’ll bring out a bowl for you.”
“I’ll follow you first, Mr. Grumpy. I need another glass of wine.”
“Grab the bottle. We’ll have it with us and not have to get up again.”
As Jensen ladled chowder into his favorite bowls, porcelain antiques that once belonged to his great-great-grandmother, Les said, “It still kills me how you use the best dishes for hanging out with a friend. When I grew up, my mom served everything on plastic or paper unless it was graduation or somebody was getting married.”
“Why the hell have it if you never use it?”
“‘’Cause you might break it.”
“It’s eventually going to crumble to dust on its own. Nothing lasts forever. Pretty dishes have a lifespan longer than most things, including couples.”
Les took one of the bowls in his hands. “It’s kind of hot.”
“There are little wood trays in the pantry. You know where they are. Don’t act so fucking helpless.”
“Says the petty guy who keeps an ugly front yard to make a stupid point.”
Jensen felt a growl start to rise in his throat, but he suppressed it. Instead, he said, “If you think it should look better, then maybe you should plant flowers yourself. It’s about perfect timing now for mums. They were stacked all around the entrance to the grocery store Friday night.”
Les ignored the comment. He tucked the bottle of wine under his arm and carried a tray with soup and silverware to the living room. He sat toward one end of the couch waiting for Jensen’s return.
“You’re not going to lay on me while you eat. I’m not going to feed you.”
Les took his first bite of the chowder and smiled. “Damn, I wish I could make something half this good in the kitchen. Cy bitched at me about that, too. It wasn’t like he was a gourmet, but he wanted me to wait on him. Half the time I did wait on him for all sorts of other things. It might sound stupid, but I kind of miss that.”
“I see. You liked to serve him, but staying out of the kitchen gave you that one little island of defiance. The enemy laid siege, but you held your ground.”
“Fuck, sometimes you’re too damned smart, J.”
“Why do you think they have me talk to all of those little kids? Inside, they aren’t a lot different from adults. They only need to build a little more scaffolding in their heads, so they’ve got somewhere to hang and store the screams of pain and shrieks of happiness.” Jensen sipped the first spoonful of the chowder. “And damn, you’re right, this turned out good.”
Les thought about his buddy comforting middle school kids as a school counselor. He thought about the boys and girls looking up into his friend’s expressive dark eyes with little faces filled with fear. When Jensen wasn’t cranky about the local garden grinch, he was the most caring person Les knew. He’d bet that most of the kids left Jensen’s office with a happier expression on their face.
Jensen said, “And Alec won an award last year for the most attractive yard in the neighborhood. I watched Cindi, my neighbor on the other side, traipse over and congratulate him. I couldn’t do it, though. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
“Wound up so tight. You know you can overwind a clock. You seem to pay a lot of attention to someone you dislike so much. Just sayin’.”
Jensen didn’t want to admit it, but he did watch Alec more than his other neighbors. He thought the man looked hot. A strong, broad chest stretched the sweatshirts he often wore in the fall, but the attraction stopped there. They didn’t have many conversations, but when they did, Alec was a bundle of critical comments and complaints wrapped up in a bow of scorn. At least that’s the way Jensen saw it.
Before the words came out of his mouth, Jensen knew it wasn’t the whole truth, but he said, “I’m always fascinated by people, both good and bad. That’s why I do the work I do.”
Les asked, “How about unpausing the TV so we can see fake people do awful things to each other? I can count on them to be even worse than Cy.”
Jensen laughed and hit the button on the remote control. As the show came back to life, he said, “Aw, shit, I didn’t even think about it. Do you want bread or crackers with this? My mom says you should never serve soup alone.”
Les held up a hand. “No, I’m good. Bread’s not a friend to the waistline.”
“You don’t have much to worry about there.”
“And you don’t have to worry at all. I think you’ll be one of those skinny old guys in the home when you’re 86. I’m jealous.”
Jensen glanced at the TV often enough to keep an eye on what happened, but he continued the conversation on the side, too. He often talked with Les over top of the show. Once in a while, they decided to re-run parts of an episode because they got so caught up in the talk that they missed crucial scenes.
“So how long before you go out hunting for Cy’s replacement?”
“I don’t know. I’m starting to think that maybe you’re on the right track abstaining from dates, but I’d feel like a monk if I didn’t at least go out to the bars and keep my eyes open. Not that the bars are the greatest place to look. I just think the online sites are a little nuts, and a fragile flower like me isn’t looking for a one-time hookup.”
Jensen coughed and worked hard to avoid spitting the chowder out on the coffee table. He grabbed a napkin off his wood tray and wiped at his mouth. “Don’t worry. I’m not choking over the hookup comment, but fragile flower…no.”
“I’m not made of stone. Cy hurt my feelings.”
“He’s the one you shouldn’t have let do that. He’s a loser. Take control. Get back out there and find a guy who deserves your heart. Do as I say, not as I do. That’s my advice.”
Les asked, “Why don’t you join me? That’s a genuine question. You never know. That perfect guy might be out there waiting for you. You’re a catch, J.”
“Maybe so, but dating feels so damned complicated. I have a hard enough time keeping myself happy. Trying to keep somebody else happy and keep the house clean enough for company every single day sounds like too much. Then I’d have to spend money for extra nights out for dinner and movies. How is it worth all that? It would be even worse right now in the fall when I’ve got a ton of catch-up work on case files.”
“Think about it. That’s all I’m saying.”
Two hours later, Les headed home for the evening. Jensen hugged him at the kitchen door, and he turned the dishwasher on as he heard Les back out of the driveway.
After wiping down the kitchen counters one last time, Jensen turned toward the living room. It was dark out or at least dim. The glow from the street light down near the corner meant that blackness never really descended on Jensen’s house. He carried a broom and dustpan to the living room to sweep up any errant crumbs from the chowder dinner and the fresh-baked cookies for dessert.
Before taking on the chore, Jensen peered out the living room window once more glancing at Alec’s house and remembering the scene from earlier in the evening. He didn’t think he’d ever seen older people visiting Alec. In fact, he rarely saw anyone but Alec enter the house next door. If Les was right about the cancer, it was a sad situation that he wouldn’t wish on even the worst of his enemies.
Jensen turned away from the window. He swept the floor and sat on the sofa. With the TV turned off and a single lamp switched on next to the chair on the opposite wall of the living room, the silence in the house was deafening. Jensen returned the sweeping tools to the pantry and the kitchen and climbed up the staircase to his bedroom.
At moments when he felt acutely alone, Jensen’s retreats to his bedroom always chased the sensations away. He never felt alone in his own room. One end of the dresser held small framed photos of family and friends. Three large, framed pictures of Jensen with family and friends on exotic vacations hung on one wall. Lastly, he brought his laptop computer to bed.
Upon firing up the computer, there was almost always at least one or two private messages from loved ones, and he could read through updates on social media. Jensen’s older sister, Sara, also single, greeted him with a good morning message every day and said goodnight as well. She said, “This way I know whether I need to call and check up on my little brother or vice versa. I’d hate for either of us to end up lying dead on the living room floor for days with nobody finding us.”
Jensen knew that a number of others would miss him, too. There was Les, the secretaries at work, and he saw Cindi next door at least three times a week. Still, Sara’s messages were welcome.
Jensen reflected on the fact that dating wasn’t all stress and strain. One of the very best things about having a boyfriend as an adult was having someone to share the bed. Jensen experienced enough short-term relationships to understand the value of seeing and touching another man first thing in the morning.
As he settled into bed with the laptop, Jensen noticed a message from Les in addition to a good night from Sara. Les wrote:
“Been thinking about your neighbor. You should take a casserole over or a lasagna. Cancer’s an awful thing. Maybe you could patch a few things up.”
Jensen started to type back, “But he’s such an…” Les was typing at the same time and finished up first. Jensen grumbled, “Damned data entry fingers,” as he read:
“And don’t give me shit about him insulting your front yard. He’s human. Be the good guy, J.”