Jackson’s opthamologist had recently changed locations, and this was Jackson’s first time going there. In a way it was better: instead of having to take a rideshare or bus to the CBD and navigate an elevator and twisting hallways, the new office was a standalone building Uptown, near the levee not too far from the zoo. It meant he could walk to St. Charles, take the streetcar a few miles, then walk the rest of the way. But it also meant Jackson needed to rely on the receptionist’s instructions, and Molly, to guide him not only to the destination but also once he arrived.
The building was new, or at least newly remodeled; Jackson could smell it as soon as he entered. Fresh paint and wood without the usual New Orleans’ hint of age and decay. Jackson paused once he entered, recalling the directions he’d been given. The building had two stories, but his doctor was on the first. Straight ahead from the front doors, through a set of glass ones and he’d be there. The waiting room would be on his right and the reception desk on his left. Simple.
Jackson commanded Molly forward, letting her pull guide him as his mind wandered. He’d left without encountering Dan, and as much as Jackson had tried, he couldn’t help hearing Dan’s voice echoing, “I’m not interested in Jackson!”
Molly’s signal that they’d arrived at the doors, which Jackson felt through the harness, yanked him out of his thoughts. All he could see was brightness, with blobs of color here and there. He stretched out a hand until his fingers hit the glass, then slid sideways until he the edge where the two doors met. He let his index finger trace that ledge while the rest of his fingers splayed out, searching for the handle. He found it and pulled, relieved it was the kind that stayed open a few minutes, giving him and Molly plenty of time to enter.
“Jackson! Over here. On your left,” Amanda, the receptionist called out.
Even though he remembered her directions, it was still helpful to follow her voice, which gave him and Molly a more precise destination.
“You found the place OK?” Amanda asked once Jackson had reached the desk.
Jackson instinctively ran his left hand over the surface of the counter, feeling its edges to give himself a better sense of how big it was. “Yes. Your directions were perfect. Thank you.”
“You’re lucky someone canceled last minute. Dr. Navarro has been swamped lately. No changes in your insurance or anything since you saw him last?”
“No.” Jackson’s hand wandered over a slight ridge that led to something flat that sounded like plastic under his fingernails, then the scratch as they shifted onto paper. The sign-in clipboard, which Jackson had always thought silly considering that Dr. Navarro primarily treated patients that were legally blind. Formalities, he supposed.
“Great. I’ll sign you in and you can have a seat. It’s pretty full but if you turn around and walk straight there’s an open seat on your left. The first one in that row along the wall. There’s a small table next to it, which will be in front of it from the direction you’re heading.”
Jackson thanked her and told Molly to help him find the seat, commanding her forward once they’d turned around. When Molly paused, Jackson stretched his left hand out and felt the wall, then leaned down a little. Just as Amanda had described, the table was there, covered in magazines and maybe pamphlets. Molly nudged him toward the open chair, and once Jackson had confirmed by feel that the chair was there and empty, he sat down, relieved to be off his feet for a little while. Molly lay down under the chair behind his legs, and they both set about waiting.
Jackson hadn’t been waiting too long when he heard the glass doors open, or at least that’s what he assumed. The sound was too far away for it to be the door to the exam rooms, add the commotion of several people’s footsteps and Jackson knew it meant more patients had arrived. A woman started talking to Amanda, and a little girl cried, “Mama! That man has his doggie with him! I’m going to go pet her!”
The mother started to protest but the rapid footsteps of the little girl took off and suddenly she crashed into Jackson.
“Ow,” he said reflexively, more because he was sure she’d probably been injured more than he in the collision.
“I’m so sorry,” the girl’s mother said. “Her depth perception isn’t good.”
“Are you OK?” Jackson asked the girl, and to the mother, he said, “It’s all right.”
“I thought you couldn’t bring pets to the doctor,” the little girl said. “Can I pet her?”
“Monique,” the mother chastised.
“She’s not a pet. She’s my seeing eye dog. She helps me get around.”
“Ms. de Leon, could I get your insurance card again?” Amanda called from the front desk.
Someone nearby sighed, and Jackson assumed it was Monique’s mother. “Behave,” she said in a low but urgent voice. “Leave the man alone.” Then the sound of her clothes shifting and her footsteps as she took off toward the front desk. A moment later, she let out a sigh loud enough Jackson could hear it even at the distance and said, “I left it in the car. Monique! You stay there. Mama’ll be right back. Understand?”
“Yes,” Monique called dutifully, clearly distracted. Then to Jackson, she asked, “Does your doggie have a name?”
“Her name is Molly. And you can pet the top of her head lightly.”
The girl let out a pleased sound and there was a loud thumping noise. Maybe she’d gotten down on her knees. Then the smooth sound of skin against fur as she pet Molly, and Molly’s pleased panting in response. “Are you blind?”
Monique didn’t say anything right away. She seemed to pet Molly more intensely and then she asked, “Is it scary?”
“Do you think it is?”
Monique let out a breath and shifted with a thump. “Maybe. My mama and maw maw talk when I’m supposed’ta be sleeping. They say I’m gonna be blind if the doctor can’t make me better. Blind means I can’t see, right?”
Jackson pushed his fingers through his hair. He could understand Monique’s mother wanting to shelter her, but denial would only hurt the girl in the end. Still, it wasn’t Jackson’s place to get involved. Dr. Navarro or one of his partners, whoever the girl was seeing, would definitely educate Ms. de Leon. Though in some ways it was better if Monique lost her sight young. She wouldn’t remember seeing, and it was easier to learn Braille as a kid then as an adult. “I can see a little,” Jackson said. But not enough, apparently, he thought, and that pain in his heart flared up again. It would be better if Dan didn’t want Jackson because he preferred women, not because Jackson was blind.
“Colors and some shapes, if they’re big enough.”
“Can you see me?”
Jackson faced the source of her voice, looking down toward the floor. He had the vague sense of where she was, but she must have had a medium skin tone because it seemed to blend with the wood of the chairs and the brown of the carpeting; she was mostly a tiny blob of pink, which must have been her shirt. “Not really.”
Monique seemed to consider this. “I can see you because of my glasses. They’re pink!”
Jackson chuckled. She was cute. He wondered if his sister’s pregnancy would hold and in a few months he’d have a little niece or nephew. “How old are you?”
“Four and a half!!” Monique announced proudly.
Jackson adjusted his bag in his lap, opened it, and felt around until he found his keys. He pulled them out and fiddled with them until he’d removed one of his keychains, then slipped the keys back in his bag and shut it. “Do you know what Braille is?”
Jackson held the keychain in a way so it would be easy for her to feel. “Put your fingers here,” he said, helping her guide her index and middle on top of the first cell. “Do you feel those bumps?”
Monique giggled as she ran her fingers over them several times; Jackson could tell by the way the keychain bobbled from her movement. “Yep. What is it?”
“I can’t see printed letters so this is how I read. The bumps represent different letters or numbers. Can you feel how they aren’t all the same?”
Monique played with it some more. “What does it say?”
“Hope,” Jackson replied. Lyn had made it and given it to him when he was only a little older than Monique was and their father had first sent him off to the school for the blind in Baton Rouge. He’d carried it around with him ever since. “Here. You can have it.”
“Yep. You can practice with it. You should practice touching stuff all the time. Using your fingers instead of your eyes. If the doctor can’t make you better, it’ll help you when you’re older.”
“You sure I can keep it?”
“I’m sure.” Talking to Monique reminded him of Lyn, of the family she hoped to have that would become part of his life. Maybe what happened with Dan was a sign that he wasn’t meant to have anything more than random hookups. Monique needed that symbol of hope more than he did. How lucky had he been to have a sister who always supported him even when his father was cold and distant? He wasn’t giving up his hope, just settling into the reality of his life, however heavy that made his heart.
Jackson had been led into the room not long before by a nurse, and had spent the waiting time exploring the room to give himself a better idea of its layout. He’d left Molly near the door and taken out his cane so he could get a better sense for the size of the room and the distance between the walls and furniture. A long set of cabinets lined the wall with the door, with a sink in the center. In the middle of the room was the exam chair, then straight ahead from it and slightly to the right were a couple of regular chairs. Then beside those was a small desk with a machine that Jackson knew from experience was for taking high resolution retinal photos. Then on the perpendicular wall were some posters. One was probably an eye chart although Jackson couldn’t tell. He was still exploring when he heard the door open. He turned to face it and saw the shift in light and the silhouette of a figure enter.
“Jackson. How are you? How is Molly?” Dr. Navarro said. He took Jackson’s right hand and shook it.
“I’m here,” Jackson said a bit wearily, but he smiled. “Enjoying my time off before the semester starts.”
“Why don’t you have a seat in the exam chair and I’ll take a look.”
Jackson turned to face where he remembered the chair was and took the few steps until his cane brushed it. Then a few careful steps closer, using a hand to make sure he’d found it, settling himself into it with some effort. He pulled his feet onto the footplate with his hands one by one, then folded his cane and slipped it back into his bag.
“I’m just going to take a look first, and then we’ll see if I want to dilate your left eye. Take off your glasses? I’ve dimmed the lights.”
Jackson obeyed and stared straight ahead.
“Cover your left eye. Follow the light.” Dr. Navarro moved the penlight around and Jackson did his best to follow its movements. “You see that OK?”
“What about now?” Dr. Navarro either covered the light or turned it off; Jackson couldn’t be sure.
“The light’s gone.”
“Good, good. OK. Cover your right eye. Follow the light.”
Jackson wasn’t totally blind in his left eye. He could see light and dark, but that was about it.
“Great. Perfect. You can uncover your eye. You just here for a check up?”
Jackson sighed and shook his head. “I fell a few days ago. I don’t know if I hit my head or not, but Lyn insisted I come see you.”
Jackson could hear Dr. Navarro moving around, the clicking of tools as he fiddled with them. He let out a noise that said he was listening as Jackson spoke. “Any vision issues since then? Any pain?”
“Good. That’s good. And your vision hasn’t changed since I saw you last, at least from what you can tell?”
“OK. To be thorough I’m going to want to dilate your left eye. You want to do it or should I?”
Jackson had plenty of experience putting in drops in both eyes, even his left which pointed inward and down toward his nose. “I’ll do it.” His right eye was naturally dilated since the nerves that enervated the muscles that regulated his pupil had been damaged a few years ago as a complication of one of his eye surgeries. Jackson held out his hand for the dropper, and when Dr. Navarro gave it to him, Jackson tilted his head back, then used his right index finger to push his left eye more toward the center. Holding it in place with his finger, he used his left to squeeze two drops into it. He could feel that he’d hit home, so he released his finger and allowed himself to blink, still keeping his head back, for a few seconds more to make sure that when he leaned forward the medicine wouldn’t go sliding back out of his eye.
“I should have you teach clinics to my low-sighted patients on how to do that,” Dr. Navarro teased.
Jackson offered back the dropper. “Been doing it by myself several times a day for twenty years. You get into the rhythm.”
“OK, let me take a quick look. I know the light bothers you, but try not to blink. Then, depending what I see, we’ll take some pictures and go from there.”
Dr. Navarro’s exam had been thorough, and that always made Jackson nervous. It meant he’d seen something bad, but Dr. Navarro never let on until the end, because he always wanted to be sure before he gave any bad news.
Jackson was sitting in one of the regular chairs, his glasses back on for now, Molly sitting beside him at his command so he could pet her to try to assuage his anxiety. It didn’t matter how frequently he’d been in this exact same position; it was nerve wracking every time.
Dr. Navarro cleared his throat. “The good news is your left eye looks good. You still see light fine and your retina looks fantastic, all things considered.” Then the doctor took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “The bad news is I saw some edema in your right retina.” That meant fluid was building up between the back of Jackson’s eye and his retina, which could cause it to detach, which meant the cells that received visual input and the nerves that sent those signals to the brain would be separated, affecting his sight.
Jackson’s stomach fell, and he felt his heart pick up although he did his best to remain outwardly calm. Please don’t say I need surgery. Please don’t say I need surgery. If Jackson took off at the start of the semester, he worried he’d lose his classes until the summer, or even the fall. And if he waited, the edema could get worse and he could completely lose his sight in his good eye. “How bad is it?”
“Fortunately, we caught it early.”
Jackson let out a breath and spoke up before the doctor could continue. “Is this because I fell?”
“I don’t think so. With a fall I would have expected more tearing damage than edema, and we probably would have seen a problem in both eyes, not just one. This is just the sequelae of being an adult with retinopathy of prematurity.” Jackson’s traumatic, early birth had contributed not only to his CP, but also his blindness, and both were the “gifts” that kept on giving even 30-plus years later.
“So what’s your treatment plan?” Jackson was proud of himself that his voice didn’t betray how anxious he was.
“I think we can try steroids for now and hope that brings the swelling down. You’ve had some pretty good success with them in the past. You’re not having any visual issues, right? No spotting, no loss of visual field?” Dr. Navarro had already thoroughly tested Jackson, but he apparently wanted confirmation.
“No. If I hadn’t fallen I may not have come in until the summer.” Jackson’s stomach fell as he realized that if he hadn’t gotten drunk and lost, he may not have been symptomatic until it was too late.
“Relax, take a deep breath. If I was really concerned about your vision, I would tell you, all right?”
Jackson chuckled nervously and forced himself to breathe. Maybe he wasn’t concealing his feelings as well as he’d thought. Some body language that betrayed him, perhaps.
“I want to do some steroid injections before we leave, and I’d like you to use your steroid eyedrops four times a day for the next two weeks. See if we can nip this in the bud.”
Jackson groaned. The injections were uncomfortable, but they were better than surgery. He had to lie on a table, they put this contraption in his eye to keep it open, put some numbing drops in it, injected some topical anesthetic, and then they injected the steroid in his eye and also between his eyelid and his eyeball toward the back. He was sore for days after. “OK. Sure. Whatever we need to do. I may not see much, but I’d like to keep it that way.”
“Me too. All right, let’s head over to the injection room and get this done.”
Before Jackson left, Dr. Navarro had explained he was recruiting for a study to explore whether using a drug normally used for treating a type of eye cancer could control retinal separation and damage in patients like him as an alternative to steroids and surgeries. Dr. Navarro mentioned that some patients in similar studies (albeit not with retinopathy of prematurity) had even seen their sight improve. Dr. Navarro warned Jackson that even if that happened to him he would still be legally blind, but Jackson didn’t care. His entire life the doctors had only ever been able to preserve the sight he had, never improve it. If Jackson could--even with high magnification--actually see some of Dan’s art, would that bring them closer?
Jackson had opted for a rideshare home and had tried to read the Braille packet about the study Dr. Navarro had given him, but he found it hard to concentrate. With his luck, he wouldn’t be accepted, and even if he was, the drug might not work for him, or might not work nearly as well as it had for others. Plus, his eye had started hurting now that the locals were wearing off, and all he wanted to do was go home, take some pain meds, cover his eyes, and rest.
They’d been driving for awhile, so Jackson estimated they were probably almost home when his phone rang. A local, but unfamiliar number. Not the same as the one Harold had called him from the other day. Jackson’s heart soared with the thought that it could be one of the jobs he’d applied for calling him in for a last-minute interview. It wasn’t unheard of for schools to reach out for teachers a few days before (or even after) the semester started due to professors suddenly dropping out at the last minute.
“Dr. Santoro,” Jackson answered in his most professional-sounding voice.
“You sound sexy when you say it like that.” Benji.
Jackson may have growled. “Why did you give me your card if you still had my number?”
A pause. “I have a lot of men’s numbers, and I give everyone my card. Besides, it’s fun fucking with you. Though not nearly as fun as fucking you.” Despite everything, Benji’s voice, so deep and silky, especially when he was teasing Jackson like this, sent a jolt straight to Jackson’s balls. He’d always been a sucker for a deep voice, ever since high school when he’d first realized he was gay.
“Wait. I’ll behave. Just hear me out, OK?”
Jackson sighed but he didn’t hang up.
“Some friends and I are going to lunch and I thought you might want to join.”
“What’s the catch?”
“No catch. Was going through my contacts and saw your number and thought even if you don’t want me to fuck you you might still want to eat with me.”
“And maybe you’ll convince me to change my mind?”
“Maybe,” Benji said coyly.
Benji always had been a manipulative son of a bitch, but maybe his friends weren’t pricks. It’d be nice for Jackson to meet new people who weren’t his colleagues. And it’d be good for him to get out of his own head for awhile, not to mention avoiding Dan for a few hours. “Fine. Where should I meet you?”
The restaurant was in a converted house near the levee in the Riverbend area. The place was bright and busy, from the sound of it, and Jackson was relieved he’d called ahead to get info on the layout. He hadn’t trusted Benji to meet him or guide him, and he preferred relying on his internal sense of direction, plus Molly, anyway.
Benji and his friends clearly had more elevated taste than Jackson did. They’d picked a hip bistro that was highly rated on Yelp but seemed pricey. Jackson knew from his sister that the app listed how expensive a place was, but that info didn’t get read by the screenreading software, so he had to rely on intuition, especially since he couldn’t read their menu online because it was an image and not text. It was frustrating, but nothing he wasn’t used to. Tech had improved so much since was a kid, giving him the kind of independence he’d never imagined, so he wasn’t one to complain.
“Dr. Santoro?” a young woman asked nearby.
Jackson had been standing beside the door, trying to get his bearings despite the loud atmosphere. He turned his head toward the source of the voice. “Yes?”
“Your party is already seated. Can I take you to the table?”
It was probably not hard to miss the blind guy with the dog among the other patrons, Jackson supposed. “Yes, please. My dog will follow you.”
Jackson let Molly pull him along, his instructions for her to follow the hostess. He preferred her over some random woman who probably had never led a blind person before in her life. There were a lot of twists and turns along the way as Molly guided him around chairs and people, doing her best to maintain a straight line while keeping him from running into anything or anyone. Jackson overheard more than one complaint as the hostess asked people to make room, and these were usually followed by hushed apologies as people saw who she was asking them to make room for. From what she’d told him on the phone, the place was small and the tables were tightly packed, and it seemed like Benji had chosen one toward the back of the restaurant, because it took awhile to get there.
“Here we are. There’s an open seat right here.”
Jackson scanned around him but all he could see were blobs of nonsensical colors, skin tones and shirts and tableclothes all merging together into a confusion of color. “Where’s ‘here’?” Jackson asked.
“Oh. Sorry. On your right. We don’t have braille menus, I’m sorry.”
Jackson wasn’t surprised. Most small establishments didn’t. “That’s fine. Just leave a regular menu on the table. I’ll figure it out.” Jackson smiled, then commanded Molly to help him find the open seat. He heard what must have been the hostess shuffling menus, then he felt Molly nudge him and when he stretched out his left hand, he found the chair.
“Wow, when you said he was blind, we didn’t think you meant that blind,” a man said in a voice that Jackson would have described as “sparkly.” The kind of voice some gay men had that lent credence to the stereotype that all gay men were flaming. Lilting and high and condescending.
Jackson felt the top of the chair, the back, the seat, his fingers sliding over every ridge to ensure he knew exactly where he was going to be sitting. He didn’t trust Benji. Once he was confident he wouldn’t be sitting on top of anything or anyone, and that the chair was actually there, he sat. Molly took her place under him, her head resting near his foot so he didn’t lose the sense of where she was. “Benji?”
Jackson could almost feel Benji grinning at him. “I see you made it,” he said in that silky, relaxed voice of his. The sound suggested he was right beside Jackson, to his immediate right. “This is Maurice, and this is Goldy.”
Jackson assumed that Maurice was directly across from him and Goldy was across from Benji. He’d cursorily felt the edge of the table and got the sense that the layout was a rectangular table with two chairs on each opposite side, rather than a square table with chairs on each side. “Nice to meet you,” Jackson said, offering his hand over the table.
“Pleasure,” the same voice who’d spoken earlier, said, taking his hand. From the angle, Jackson guessed that was Maurice, sitting directly across from him.
Next, someone else took his hand, only this time it was less of a shake and more of a few fingers gripping the ends of Jackson’s, daintily. “My name is Au,” the man said, pronouncing his name like the letter “O.” His voice wasn’t high like Maurice’s, but it had that same condescending lilt to it. “It’s spelled like the chemical symbol for gold, hence the nickname. That you know I hate,” Au practically hissed, his voice directed at a slightly different angle, so Jackson suspected it was meant for Benji, not him. “Au Nguyen. And this asshole next to me is Maurice Celestin.” The way Au pronounced his friend’s name, he likely was fluent in French. Jackson concluded that Maurice was probably creole and Au was Vietnamese. Of course, without them saying, Jackson couldn’t be 100% sure.
“Jackson Santoro,” Jackson said. “Although I’m sure you already know that.” Jackson felt around on top of the table until he found a piece of stiff paper. “The menu?” Jackson asked.
“Do you need us to read it to you?” Maurice asked in a voice that sounded like that was the last thing he wanted to do.
“I can manage,” Jackson said. He pulled out his phone and navigated to one of his print reader apps. All he need to do was take a picture of something and it would read the text and also sometimes identify the object, like if it was a bottle, for example. It was clunky and not nearly as good as the expensive reader he used for work, but having a tool like that in his pocket meant he didn’t need anyone to help him in situations like this. Jackson listened to the menu through his earpiece while his other picked up that the three had resumed their conversation. Sounded like gossip, but it was difficult for Jackson to concentrate on the menu and them at the same time.
Jackson was still figuring out the menu when the waiter came by to take their drink orders.
“Four waters, one sparkling for him,” Benji said, although Jackson wasn’t sure who the “him” referred to, “and a pitcher of Sangria.” Unsurprisigly, he hadn’t asked what anyone wanted, just taken the liberty of ordering anyway.
“So how are things going to work now that you and Ethan have called it quits? You know he’s like this with Kevin,” Maurice said. Jackson guessed he’d crossed his fingers to indicate that Kevin and Ethan were close. Ethan was Benji’s ex-fiance. Jackson had no idea who Kevin was.
“Kevin’s a professional, and he hasn’t fired me yet,” Benji said in almost a bored voice. So was Kevin Benji’s boss? Jackson actually had no idea what Benji was doing for a living right now. Whatever it was, he was making more than Jackson’s pittance of a salary if he could afford a fancy place like this for a workday lunch.
They either didn’t hear or chose to ignore Jackson, because the conversation continued. “You don’t think it’s convenient that Kevin canceled on us again?” Maurice again.
“He’s busy. Lots of entertaining for the Mardi Gras season. People want their rooms redecorated. Or maybe he’s found a fuckbuddy on the side. I don’t care as long as we still get these things comped.” Benji.
“Bullshit,” Au said. “You only invited Jackson so you could write him off as a client and this a work lunch. Joke’s on Kevin since Jackson couldn’t tell the difference between a brocade and a chintz.”
Why didn’t it surprise Jackson that Benji was using him? “Y’all work together?”
Maurice laughed, almost a giggle. “Yes, sweetheart,” he said as if Jackson were stupid.
Before Jackson could respond, the waiter returned. “Three still waters and one sparkling. And Sangria. For everyone?”
“Yes,” Benji once again answered for the group. Jackson didn’t really want to drink, but he didn’t feel like getting shat on for it, so he figured he’d either ignore his wine or just sip it.
Jackson heard the pouring of liquid. He slid his right hand along the table until he touched his glass, giving him a sense of where it was. There were two, and they both felt identical. Tall tumblers that were cool to the touch, sweating a bit. Neither one clinked when he nudged it, so neither had ice, giving him no indication without smelling them which was which. Frustrating.
A thunk as something heavy and probably glass was set on the table. Maybe the pitcher of sangria. Then the waiter asked if they were ready, and Benji replied that they were and started rattling off several of the small plates, indicating they’d share. If Jackson didn’t have to worry about paying then he didn’t really care what they got. He was seriously regretting coming. His eye hurt despite the meds he’d taken, and Maurice and Au were never going to be his friends. They sounded cultured and chic, the kind of gay men that were fastidious about their clothes and hair. Jackson was anything but, partially because he couldn’t see those things, though he suspected he’d be the same even if he were sighted.
“You work for an interior decorator?” Jackson asked Benji, as he started putting all the pieces together.
“Interior designer,” Maurice corrected. “One of the best firms in the city. We handle anyone who’s anyone in New Orleans.”
Jackson wasn’t impressed. “You spent eight years getting your PhD so you could become a cliche?” Jackson whispered to Benji.
“You think we’re cliches?” Maurice asked angrily, clearly overhearing.
Benji said nothing except, “It’s good money, I don’t have to deal with a bunch of stuffed-shirt breeders all day, and I like the company.” Jackson heard the clink of glasses. Had they toasted? Did he mean he liked the companionship of Maurice and Au, et al, or did he mean he liked the actual company he worked for? Jackson guessed the former, but he couldn’t be sure.
Yes, Jackson did think Maurice was a stereotype. He was what too many people expected to see when they thought of gay men. It didn’t matter that there were plenty of guys, like Jackson, who were just “people” who happened to like men.
“Jackson’s not used to being around our kind,” Benji said as if to explain Jackson’s behavior. “He’s very homophobic.”
“What?” Jackson was indignant. “I haven’t seen you in years. Don’t act as if you know me.”
Benji just laughed as if Jackson was amusing.
Jackson heard what sounded like the pitcher of sangria being lifted, the pouring of liquid, and then it was replaced. It sounded closer to him and Benji than before, but it was so loud in this restaurant, he couldn’t be sure.
“You’re so cute when you’re angry,” Benji said, reaching up to touch Jackson’s face.
Jackson shirked away, but Benji took his hand and held it on the table, chuckling low as if Jackson’s fight was entertaining. “Thank you for the invitation, but I’m leaving.” Jackson pulled his hand away--or rather, he tried--but Benji just jerked Jackson’s arm closer to him. “Stop it.”
“Benji,” Au said in warning.
Benji shushed him. He forced Jackson’s hand so it stretched out, and with his opposite fingers he traced Jackson’s. “Always liked your hands. They’re so delicate. Almost feminine. Yet clearly a man’s.” Jackson’s fingers were so sensitive to touch that he shivered when Benji brushed along them, even though he wasn’t interested in anything Benji might want from him.
Benji chuckled low again. He pulled Jackson’s right arm up and kissed his wrist, then licked it. Just a tease. It made Jackson melt, physically, but he tried to concentrate on the fact that Benji was an asshole who’d tried to rape him. Yet his body didn’t care.
“Benji . . .” Jackson was pulling, trying to take his arm out of Benji’s hold; as soon as Benji gave him any chance, he’d be free.
“You don’t want me, fine,” Benji said, suddenly letting go.
Jackson’s arm was thrown by the shift. He hit something. Hard. The sound of heavy glass lifting off the table onto one edge. A spray of liquid. Then the sound of it splashing and glugging and suddenly Jackson was wet. “Shit!” Jackson said. He heard the clink as the pitcher hit the table. Liquid dripping off the tablecloth onto the floor. Molly shaking as if she’d gotten wet, too. Jackson was soaked, the scent of wine and fruit wafting up. The sangria. He’d knocked the pitcher over. And by the sound of barely muffled laughter from Benji and . . . maybe Maurice? It sounded like Benji had done this all on purpose.
“Let me help you,” Benji said, levity in his voice as if he were smiling or still laughing. Jackson felt him dab a napkin right on Jackson’s crotch. “You could come back to my place, get out of these wet clothes . . .”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Jackson spat, shoving Benji away. He heard the waiter rush over, all apologies, but Jackson didn’t care. “Don’t ever call me again. Molly?” Jackson used the table to help him stand up. He was completely drenched in wine, and he suspected the entire restaurant was staring at him. He wanted to be furious, but he felt idiotic and wrecked because he never should have come. He shouldn’t have trusted Benji. This was his own stupid fault. Everything bad that happened was always his own fucking fault.