“Why did you pick me?” Jon asked.
Gabe Henson looked up from his phone, in the middle of sucking down his chocolate Protein Powerhouse smoothie. “Pick you for what?” Gabe asked.
“Don’t play dumb, dude, I know you. Your last scene. You picked me. Why?”
“Seemed fitting. You got me into it, might as well be the one to get me out.”
It being gay porn. Jon had been modeling for Mean Green Boys for almost four years now. About three years ago, he’d met Gabe at the same gym they’d just worked out in and introduced Gabe to the studio’s owner Chet Green. The whole thing had worked out well for both of them. Despite the occasional troll on his Twitter account for “Boomer Black”, Jon had a blast as a porn star. He loved the attention, loved the sex, and he loved getting both in a safe environment.
He kind of hated that his best friend was leaving the industry, but he got it too. Gabe had been in it for money and safe sex, and now that he had a long-term boyfriend and his money-sink of a mother was finally on the wagon, he could retire “Tony Ryder” from porn.
Jon had no impulse to quit anytime soon. He had no reason to. No family who gave a shit what he did with his life. His other best friend Henry was his biggest fan, and that wasn’t creepy at all, even though Henry was thirty-three years older than Jon. Henry had told Jon everything he knew about sex, so it was like getting praise from his favorite teacher.
A favorite teacher slowly dying from cancer.
He pushed those depressing thoughts away. Later. Not now.
Filming Gabe’s final scene yesterday had been bittersweet. It wasn’t as if they’d never see each other again. They still met at the gym once a week, sent silly texts and sometimes cried on each other’s shoulders (metaphorically, mostly). Their friendship wasn’t over.
He hoped Gabe didn’t fade away and become someone he used to know. Jon didn’t make friends easily, and he worked hard to keep the few he had.
“What?” Gabe asked.
Jon blinked. “What what?”
“You looked morose for a second. Was the fuck that bad?”
“Oh no, that was amazing, as always.” Gabe was a born top and he did it well. “Just thinking we got to be friends because of Mean Green, and now we don’t have that in common anymore. And you’ve got Tristan to take up your time.”
“Tristan and I have been together for a year now, and you and me still have time to hang. Leaving the business won’t change that. Forget it, pal, you’re stuck with me.”
Jon grinned, a small knot of worry loosening in his gut. He’d needed to hear that. He didn’t deal well with change anymore. Stability kept him on track. Focused.
“Good, because despite your personality, I really like you,” Jon said.
Gabe choked on his smoothie. “Thanks so much.”
“So did you and Tristan do anything fun for his birthday last week?”
“Went dancing at Big Dick’s because it’s his favorite thing.”
“Well, he is making up for lost time.”
Gabe’s boyfriend of roughly one year, Tristan Lavalle, had been gay bashed four years ago, and it had left him brain damaged. Unable to form new memories. He’d lived his life in thirty-minute intervals, writing it all down in notebooks, and being cared for in an assisted living center full of old people. Jon had known something was up last fall when Gabe started making goo-goo eyes at his text messages, and Jon had finally wormed the relationship out of his friend.
Around the same time, Tristan had agreed to take part in a clinical trial to test a drug that might help his memory improve. And it had. Jon wasn’t clear on the details. Tristan would probably never regain his total memory, and he had trouble remembering acquaintances, but he knew Gabe, Gabe’s dads and his best friend Noel’s boyfriend. So that was something. Everything else, the incredibly patient Gabe helped him play by ear.
“Did your dads ambush him?” Jon asked.
“Yes, they did.” Gabe brought up photos on his phone. “They brought back the cowboy theme since Tristan loves the old west. The go-go boys wore toy guns and belts over their thongs. Hats, of course. My dads set up this game with the boys each wearing a strap-on, and then gave everyone a chance to try and toss a small cowboy hat and actually have it land on the tip of the dildo. Anyone who did got a free lap dance.”
Jon leaned in, enjoying the slide show of hot man flesh on display on Gabe’s phone. The last one was of Tristan in a chair, surrounded by other club patrons, beet-red while a hot guy in a thong gave him a personal lap dance in front of everyone.
“Holy shit,” Jon said. “Was that a birthday freebie, or did he actually make a hat stay?”
Gabe smiled with so much love and pride it made Jon hate him a little. “He made a hat stay, so he got two dances. One from Seth and one from Jake. Tristan was so horny when we finally got home…”
“And?” Jon loved hearing the gory details of other peoples’ sex lives. It let him live vicariously. Gabe had found a good relationship and someone to love who genuinely loved him back. Relationships always started like that.
And then the honeymoon’s over, and you can’t remember when it changed, only that suddenly you’re fat and stupid and can’t do anything right.
Except that wouldn’t happen with Gabe and Tristan. Gabe was a good guy. The real deal. For years he’d lived with and taken care of his alcoholic mother, only for her to berate him and throw things at his head. She was finally, mercifully sober and in a healthy relationship of her own, but that was Gabe.
A real-life superhero.
“Please don’t tease unless you’re at least going to tell me how many times you nailed him,” Jon said.
Gabe smirked. “Twice.”
“At home. There might have been another quickie in the upstairs office at the club.”
“Another? When was the first?”
“So are we establishing a new tradition? Birthday quickies at the club? Kinky.”
“Tristan is a spitfire when he wants to be. It never stops amazing me how much he’s changed in the last year. He’s like a whole new person.”
Jon’s heart gave an unhappy kick. “Well, if he’s the one and you’re permanently whipped, make sure you do everything you can to keep him.”
“Trust me, I do. We both do.” Gabe dabbed the water ring left behind by his smoothie cup. “You know, it’s okay to try dating again, Jon. It’s been four years.”
He tensed. Gabe brought up dating every few months, and it was Jon’s least favorite topic. “I know it’s okay, thanks. I’m fine.”
“I know you know. It’s just sometimes, when I talk about Tristan, you get this look on your face.”
“Don’t slug me for this, but…kind of wistful? Like you miss it.”
“Sure I do,” Jon deadpanned. “I miss being told I’m fat. I miss being called stupid for forgetting one thing on the grocery list.”
Gabe held up a staying hand. “Okay, I’m sorry.”
Jon wasn’t done, though. “I miss being yelled at because I left a dirty dish in the sink. I miss—”
“Stop.” Gabe grabbed his wrist, brown eyes somehow both sad and angry. “Rick was an abusive prick who didn’t deserve your trust or love, but not every guy is going to be him.”
“Thank you, Dr. Henson.”
“I’m serious. Having sex for money will never replace the affection of a real relationship.”
Jon yanked his hand free. “I liked you better when you were single.”
“You liked your own life better when I was single and filming for the same reason. Safe, regular sex, no attachments.”
He needed out of this conversation, like now, so he didn’t mind his phone giving a squawk.
Text from Henry: Call me when you’re not busy.
The perfect excuse to end Gabe’s lecture.
“Henry needs me,” Jon said.
“I should head out anyway. Take care.”
“Yeah.” Jon was being rude and he no longer cared. Getting a boyfriend didn’t give Gabe the right to judge him.
Henry answered on the first ring. “Hey, baby. How was the workout?” He sounded weird. Stressed.
“It was a workout. What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”
“Nothing I can’t handle, don’t fret. Can you come over? I need to talk to you about something and ask a favor.”
“I can come over right now. Need me to bring anything?”
“Just an open mind.”
Jon had no idea what that meant, and it set some butterflies loose in his stomach. Henry could be dramatic, but he was also dying a slow, undeniable death. He’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer last year and beaten it back, only for cancer to reappear in January in his liver and bile ducts. Cue surgery and a blast of chemo, but the shit still recurred in July. Nothing was touching it this time. All the chemo seemed to do was keep it from getting worse, and that would only work for so long.
“You got it, H. Be there in ten.”
Just in case, Jon swung by a state store for a bottle of Henry’s favorite bourbon. Jon drank very rarely now—too many calories to justify—but that didn’t mean Henry couldn’t indulge if he needed to. God only knew what this talk and favor were about.
Henry’s apartment was only a few minutes’ drive from the gym, so he was knocking on his first best friend’s door before he could get too stressed about whatever this was. Henry yanked it open with a familiar flourish, dressed down in a floral bathrobe that belonged in the eighties, an unlit cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth.
Two years ago, a random stranger never would have believed Henry’s age. He’d barely had any wrinkles, had healthy skin, a killer body, only a touch of silver in his brown hair. After over a year of fighting cancer and having chemicals pumped into him, he seemed twenty years older than his actual fifty-seven. His hair was pure gray, and his skin sagged in places from all of the weight he’d lost. The change hurt Jon’s heart every time he visited the man.
“Hey, baby,” Henry said. “Looking gorgeous and fit as ever.”
Jon shrugged off the familiar compliment. “Hey back.” He kissed Henry’s cheek on his way in, then handed over the paper bag. “Brought you a present.”
“You are too sweet to me. Come. Sit.”
The two-bedroom apartment had a bohemian chic décor mixed with seventies kitsch that always reminded Jon of the movie Moulin Rouge, minus the giant elephant head bedroom. He plunked down on the scarlet sofa, nervous now that the conversation was at hand.
Henry settled in the patchwork armchair across from him. “I have a dead son.”
Jon stared. “You have a Datsun?”
“A dead son. I found out yesterday.”
“That you have a son?”
“That he’s dead.”
Still not making sense. “When did you find out you have a son?”
“I…” Jon shook his head hard, hoping the big damn bombshell Henry had dropped on him would stop reverberating in his brain so the words could settle. “Okay. Um, does she know he’s dead?”
“No. She told me she doesn’t want to know who he became or where he lives. She gave him up and let him go, she says.” Henry’s expression had shifted from bewildered to angry and back to confused. The poor guy.
“The mother never told you she was pregnant?”
“I had no idea.” Henry sank back into his chair. “I told you I grew up in the Mennonite church. Real religious, real strict. Me and Julianna, we were sweethearts from an early age, and we both had the same kind of rebellious streak. When we were sixteen, we started having sex. A few months later, she was sent to live with her aunt’s family in upstate New York, and I was publicly shamed for my actions. I always figured she was sent away so her family wouldn’t have to face the same embarrassment.”
Jon got it. “She was sent away because she was pregnant.”
“Bingo. You always were a quick one. I’ve thought about her sometimes, over the years. About two weeks ago, it dawns on me I should reach out. Maybe try to make amends with the past since I don’t have too much future left. So I tracked her down on Facebook of all places.”
The miracles of modern technology.
“I sent her a message telling her how sorry I was for her being sent away. She told me she had a baby who was adopted by a family with the last name Gregory. She never held him. Said only her aunt knew where the boy ended up. Anyway, long story short, yesterday morning I got in touch with a lady named Ruth Gregory. She’s one of four kids adopted by her dead folks. Says she had one brother named Jerome, same age as my kid would be. Says around sixteen he started asking about his real parents, but his adopted parents refused to say anything other than they came from this area. Says he was a real bull-headed character and he left home. No one heard from him again.”
The story was both intriguing and horrifying—to end up with people so uptight that they’d refuse an adopted child’s need to know where he came from. Jon knew his roots, and they could stay firmly planted far away from him, thank you very much.
“So where did Jerome go?” Jon asked. “How do you know he’s dead?”
“Ruth scanned and sent over a picture of him.” Henry’s laptop was open on the coffee table. He spun it around for Jon.
A pair of teenagers, a boy and girl, smiled at whoever was taking the photo. A beach lay behind them, and the corner of a beach chair lurked in the back of the picture. The boy resembled Henry a bit in the shape of his face and the high cheekbones.
“At least you have that,” Jon said.
“Yeah.” Henry let out a long, slow breath. “Anyway, I did some googling. Awful lot of Jerome Gregory’s out there, but I tracked down one who’d lived in Mechanicsburg.”
That was only a couple of miles outside the city.
“Found an article in the Patriot-News archives for a Jerome Gregory from fifteen years ago. Said he was twenty-six, which fits.”
Jon was scared to ask. “Did the article say how he died?”
“What?” Okay, that had been a little high-pitched, but damn. “Are you serious, or are you sitting there making shit up because you’re bored?”
Henry shook his head. “Serious as cancer, my friend.”
“Did they catch who did it? Or why?” Jon asked. Suddenly their lives had become part of an episode of Cold Case.
“Not that I saw. Article said he was in deep debt with the wrong people, which pisses me off, knowing he was so close all these years. I could’ve helped my kid.” Genuine grief made Henry’s face crumple. He didn’t cry. He sat there in misery for a few beats. “But it’s not all shitty news.”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
A flash of joy made it through Henry’s grief. “Article said he was survived by his wife Greta and their seven-year-old son.”
It took Jon a moment to see the connection. “Holy shit. Really?”
“I have a grandson out there. Maybe still in the area.”
“Maybe? Have you tracked them down yet?”
“No. No White Pages listings for a Greta Gregory, which is an unfortunate name for a young lady to be stuck with, but that’s beside the point. The only lead I’ve got is the article also said Jerome worked at the Galaxy Diner, which is where he met Greta. It was like this half-police piece, half-obituary thing. Couldn’t even find a proper obit on Jerome.”
“The Galaxy Diner just off of 15?” Jon asked. “I ate there a few times.” All with Rick, who had picked apart every food choice he made. He hadn’t been back since.
“I think so. I’ve seen the place.”
“You think someone who still works there might remember Jerome or his wife.”
“It’s what I’m hoping. Shit, my grandson would be about your age.”
Fifteen and seven. Jon had two years on him. “Pretty close. So why haven’t you called the diner yet?”
In the six years Jon had known him, he’d seen Henry scared a handful of times, mostly to do with his declining health. Today he saw a new kind of terror blossom from inside of Henry. The kind that made him want to hug his dearest friend until whatever was so frightening went away.
“I don’t want to do this over the phone,” Henry admitted. “Feels like something I should do in person, you know?”
“Sure.” He saw the unasked question. Thanks to his age, failing eyesight and poor general health, Henry had sold his car and given up driving a few months ago. “Want me to take you?”
“Tell me when.” He filmed regularly enough that he was only waiting tables part-time, usually as an on-call, fill-in kind of thing. He enjoyed the freedom to do what he wanted, when he wanted, and also be available for Henry. Sure, Henry had other friends, but Henry was the father figure Jon had lost and regained when his family told him to leave.
“Is today too soon?” Henry asked.
“Of course not. No sense in putting this off.” Jon was still processing everything Henry had dumped on him, and he imaged Henry was having an even harder time wrapping his head around it all. Finding out he had a grandson and daughter-in-law out there somewhere. Family he never knew existed.
Total mind fuck.
“I don’t know what to wear,” Henry said.
“I got this. Don’t worry.”
Jon raided Henry’s overly stuffed wardrobe and pulled out clean khaki slacks and a neatly pressed dark blue button-up. He didn’t have a lot of toned-down choices, since Henry preferred jeans and brightly colored T-shirts with a lot of profanity on them. Somehow, Jon doubted that showing up wearing a shirt that said “Fuck me, I’m horny” would endear him to the in-laws.
He also made Henry shave and wet-comb his hair. The Albert Einstein look wasn’t good for first impressions.
It wasn’t until they were in Jon’s car that he second-guessed his own wardrobe—bright blue sweatpants and a muscle tee. Henry hadn’t commented so Jon didn’t worry about it too much. He frequently got Twitter comments that Boomer looked too straight to be gay, occasionally accusing him of gay-for-pay.
Blocking the idiots was easier than engaging.
The Galaxy Diner was on the other side of the river. Jon loved that bridge and the views it gave of the city and City Island. With each passing mile, Henry’s nerves increased. It started with tapping his knee. Then he tapped the window. The dashboard. He was practically playing the piano all over the car, and Jon didn’t know what to say to calm him down.
Jon would never say it, but he was nervous as all hell too. Henry had no biological family left that would give him the time of day. The chance to meet a grandson, especially during the last few months of his life, was a miracle too wonderful to take for granted.
Please let this kid be open-minded.
A homophobic grandkid who slammed the door in their faces would break Henry’s heart.
The diner was a great throwback to the old train-car style diners, set back from the highway next to a strip mall, its neon sign visible from a quarter-mile away. For the middle of the afternoon the parking lot was three-quarters full, which said something about the food. Jon used to love a good diner meal, but goddamn the grease and calories and bad memories.
Coffee and fryer oil assaulted his nose the moment they walked in the front doors of the diner. Chrome and red as far as the eye could see. A bakery case teased him with dozens of different sugary goodies. Rick had tormented him during one of their dates by taking ages to choose a dessert, and then eating it in front of Jon after having shamed him into ordering a Caesar salad, no dressing.
Familiar fifties rock streamed from speakers hidden someplace out of sight. The place was somehow both unique and just like every other throwback diner out there.
A hefty woman of Mediterranean descent approached with a broad smile. “Two?”
“We were actually hoping to talk to the owners,” Jon said.
“I own this with my husband,” the woman said. Her thick accent was more Greek than Italian, if Jon had to guess. “Is there a problem?”
“No, nothing like that. Have you owned the diner a long time?”
“About a year. Before that it belonged to my brother. Why?”
“Did you know Greta Gregory and her son?”
The woman frowned, then waved them to the side, away from the front doors. “Greta was my niece. She passed away ten years ago.”
“And her son?”
This time she gave Jon and Henry the stink eye. “Why you want to know about Isaac?”
Isaac. Finally, Henry’s grandson had a name.
“He’s my grandson,” Henry said.
Henry briefly outlined what he knew about his connection to Jerome, and the great-aunt’s expression got fiery.
“That good-for-nothing Jerome,” she spat. “Brought only misery to Greta and her boy.” She glared at Jon. “Are you his uncle?”
For a second Jon thought she was asking if he was Henry’s uncle. Except she meant Isaac’s uncle. “No, I’m not Henry’s son.”
“He is,” Jon said, in the same moment Henry said, “I am.”
They glanced at each other.
“I’m sorry, we’re doing this wrong,” Henry said. “My name is Henry Pearson, and this is a good friend of mine, Jon Buchanan. I know this is unexpected, but yesterday I found out that I had a son and he died before I ever knew he existed.”
Her glare didn’t soften. “Jerome isn’t spoken of. He ruined his wife and son.”
“What do you mean? Is Isaac still alive?”
Jon grimaced and braced for a coma story, or something equally appalling.
“Please,” Henry said, putting a little more anger into his tone. “He’s my flesh and blood. What’s wrong with him?”
The great-aunt’s anger downshifted into grief. “Because of his bastard father’s temper and fists, the boy cannot hear.”