“Joel,” I say, prepared to apologize, but his body begins trembling with little sobs and I no longer know what to say. I wrap my arms tighter around him and press my cheek against his temple. “Hey,” I whisper, rubbing my hand over the buzzed hair next to his mohawk. I plant a kiss against his head and let him hold me.
Joel shakes his head, and I ask him what’s wrong. He just shakes it again, and then he takes me to the bed and sits down with his arms still around me. I stand in front of him, and he holds me close. His cheek presses against my stomach and his body shakes with barely audible sobs that have tears spilling over my cheeks and dripping onto his back.
“Hey,” I say again, rubbing my hand over his broad shoulders. “Come on, stop that. You’re going to mess up my makeup.”
Joel chuckles against my stomach, and I smile and lift a hand to wipe my eyes.
He takes a deep, shuddering breath and stands up to take my face in his hands. He holds my teary-eyed gaze for a moment before giving me a soft kiss. “Thank you,” he whispers.
I want to tell him it’s just a toy, that there’s nothing to thank me for. But I know it meant more to him than that, so instead of saying anything, I dry his tears. And when his thumbs wipe over my cheeks, I let him dry mine too.
“DON’T ANSWER IT,” Joel groans the morning after his birthday party, but I wiggle away from the warmth of his body to grab my ringing phone off the nightstand.
My dad chuckles into the line. “Morning, sleepyhead.”
I collapse back against my mattress and groan. “What time is it?”
“Almost noon. Late night clubbing?”
An amused chuckle answers him. “Dad, what do you know about clubbing?”
“What do you think I’ve been doing with all my time since you moved out?”
I laugh hard, waking Joel back up. He turns his face toward me and mumbles, “Who is it?”
“Is that a boy?” my dad asks.
“My gay friend, Dad,” I quickly answer, emphasizing the last word for Joel’s benefit. “We had a sleepover last night after a birthday party.”
“Gay friend?” my dad asks.
“Gay friend?” Joel mouths.
“Oh, yeah. Whose birthday was it?”
“My friend Joel’s,” I answer, and Joel’s eyebrow lifts.
“A boy friend?”
“Yeah, a boy, space, friend,” I say, rolling away from Joel so that I’m facing the edge of the bed. He brushes my hair away from my neck, and then his warm breath is on my neck and I’m struggling to listen to my dad.
“—just wanted to see when you’re coming home for Easter,” he says, and Joel’s satin tongue curls behind the tender lobe of my ear. My eyes flutter closed, and I bite my lip between my teeth. “Dee?” my dad says, and I roll out of bed, padding out of Joel’s reach.
“Yeah. I’m coming home the Wednesday before Easter,” I say, watching Joel stretch out on my bed. His arms lift over his head, pulling his stomach muscles tight. When he catches me staring, he winks at me, and I spin toward the wall.
“I was thinking chicken cacciatore over garganelli pasta this year. Think we can figure out how to make it?”
The first Easter after my mom left, my dad attempted to cook Easter dinner, but the ham was burnt, the mashed potatoes were runny, and the green-bean casserole was charred to a crisp. We were both sitting at the table staring at our food, thinking of my mom, when he abruptly stood up and dragged me to the kitchen.
“Alright, we’re going to make a linguini ala pomodoro caprese,” he said, and at eleven years old, I had no idea he was just making shit up. We ended up boiling a bunch of miscellaneous pasta, cutting up fresh tomatoes and peppers, and mixing everything with a store-bought tomato sauce. My dad and I ate every last bit, swearing it was the best meal we had ever eaten, and in truth, it was. It was also the best Easter I’d ever had.
Every year since, we’ve attempted to make something especially complicated, and even on the years we’ve failed miserably, we’ve laughed our asses off and have eaten the scraps.
I smile at my lavender wall. “Yeah, I think we can manage. That sounds amazing.”
I wrap up the conversation with my dad and turn back toward Joel, glaring at him. I point a finger at his smirking face and say, “You are evil.”
“And gay apparently,” he says, and I can’t help laughing. “Are you really leaving next Wednesday?” he asks, suddenly more serious.
“Yeah. Heading home for Easter.” I walk back to the edge of the bed and smirk at him. “Why, are you going to miss me?”
“Nope,” he teases, tugging me back onto the covers, “I plan on being tired of you by then.”
For the next few days, he makes it his mission to spend so much time with me that we’re sick of each other by the time I have to leave. He sleeps at my apartment, he cooks me breakfast, we spend evenings on the couch watching movies. I watch him play guitar, he complains while I struggle over homework, and we spend more time in my bed than anywhere else in my apartment. Even the shower is no longer a safe zone, which is why we’re late to auditions on Saturday. By the time we get to Mayhem, the first guitarist is about to start without us and Rowan scolds me with her eyes but encourages me with her smile.
“If I can’t stay in bed,” Adam gripes, tripping Joel as Joel walks to his seat, “neither can you.”