“Engaged?” Jackson asked, even though he was certain he hadn’t misheard.
“Yes,” Dan replied, his tone sad.
Jackson didn’t immediately say anything else. He pushed past Dan and walked toward the kitchen table. He felt for a chair, and when he was certain he found one, sat down, relieved to be off his feet. He could smell the Chinese strongly, so he carefully reached out to see if he could find the bag or at least one of the cartons. It didn’t take him long before his fingers brushed along one of the containers that happened to have a pair of chopsticks resting on top of it. Jackson opened the box and brought it to his nose. By scent alone he couldn’t determine what it was, but it didn’t matter. He dug in with the chopsticks, barely even tasting the food.
After a few minutes, Jackson heard the fridge open, the clink of glass bottles, the hiss of air as they were opened, the subtle bubbling of the carbonation and the scent of beer as Dan grew closer. “Beer,” Dan said. “On your right. I’ll hand it to you.”
Jackson wanted to refuse, but he could stand a drink, and the salty food was making him thirsty anyway. He stretched out his right hand until Dan placed the cold bottle into it. Then Jackson took a long swallow. Dan hadn’t even sat down when Jackson asked, “You doing one of those ‘no sex before marriage’ things? Why don’t you live with your fiancee?”
The screech of the chair on the floor, its groan as Dan sat, the fumbling of paper boxes, the creak as Dan opened a few, the snap of chopsticks being broken in half. A kind of squishing noise that Jackson suspected was Dan digging through the food with his chopsticks. “I was living with her. She has a place in the Quarter. But she decided we needed a break. It’s why I had to find a new place to live on such short notice.”
Jackson thought for a moment, his head tilted so he could better hear even the subtlest of movement from Dan. He found it amusing how both Benji and Dan seemed to be finding themselves front and center in Jackson’s life and both had engagements on the rocks. “You were fucking around?”
“Or did she not know you like men and caught you sucking some guy off?” Jackson licked some sauce off the edge of his chopsticks, then stuck them in his mouth and sucked the rest off. If Dan was at all attracted to him, he’d give in. Regardless, Jackson would have fun torturing him.
“Shut up,” Dan said, anger suddenly in his voice.
“Who was it? Her brother? Her best friend? The UPS man?”
“Shut up!” Dan shouted, slamming a hand on the table, the loud noise making Jackson jump.
Jackson’s own fury made him want to keep goading Dan, but Dan’s behavior scared him. Jackson hadn’t been able to fight off Benji, and Dan was a much bigger man. With Molly outside, Jackson realized he would be totally at Dan’s mercy.
Dan was silent. His breathing calmed after a few minutes. His chair creaked and shifted, but not like he stood up. “If your father were alive, would he accept you as you are? Blind, CP, gay, all of it?”
Jackson was thrown by the sudden change in topic. “My father always made sure I had the best education and healthcare he could give me.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Jackson suddenly felt very naked, and not just because all he was wearing was the damp towel. “I killed my mother, and a blind cripple isn’t exactly a father’s dream.” Jackson shoved his hand through his hair. It was drying unbrushed and would be a mess of tangles. Sometimes he hated his thick hair and thought of shaving it off, but it was also one of his best features, so he dealt with it.
“Killed your mother?”
“She went into labor too early. There were complications. She died, I didn’t. I’m sure my father always wished the reverse had been true.”
“Jackson--” Dan said, his voice soft and tender. Maybe pitying, but Jackson liked to think Dan didn’t see him like that, even after the revelations of today.
“So to answer your question, my dad probably wouldn’t have cared that I was gay except to be disappointed I wouldn’t produce a dozen new Santoros to carry on the family legacy.” Jackson downed the rest of his beer in one long chug, coughing a little at the end. HIs anger had faded to depression and self-pity. “Why the fuck do you care?”
“I'm sorry I upset you.”
“Upset me? I came home expecting to get laid. Instead . . .” Jackson shook his head. It didn’t feel worth the effort to argue. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
Jackson could hear Dan’s uneasy breathing, the clank of his chopsticks against his plate. Maybe he was eating, but Jackson suspected Dan was fidgeting. This topic obviously made him uncomfortable, but it was his own fucking fault for coming onto Jackson only to tell him, “oops, sorry, no can do because I’m marrying some chick!”
“You know what? Forget it. I’m going to my room.” Jackson pushed against the table to help him get to his feet. The muscles around his knees were tight and he wasn’t looking forward to walking, even if it wasn’t far.
Dan grabbed Jackson’s wrist, startling him. “Wait.”
Jackson wanted to pull away but he loved the way Dan’s hand felt on his arm.
Dan let go, but he seemed reluctant to break the contact. “Her name’s Wendy. She’s an architect specializing in renovation of historic properties. We met at an exhibition at the CAC--Contemporary Arts Center--not long after I moved to New Orleans. We hit it off. Became friends. One thing led to another.” Dan sighed. “I shrugged.”
Somehow hearing more about Dan’s fiancee, instead of making Jackson feel better, only made the hollowing out of his heart more complete. Dan and Wendy shared something that Dan and Jackson never could--a love for visual art. Would Dan choose Jackson if he could see clearer? Even a few days ago Jackson would have said that his blindness didn’t matter to Dan, but now he wasn’t so sure. He didn’t want to talk about this anymore. He didn’t want to be around Dan when it hurt so fucking much, when his body craved Dan’s touch. “I hope you and Wendy are very happy,” Jackson said despondently.
“Jackson--” Dan tried to reach for Jackson again, but he pulled away.
“Please don’t touch me.” Touch was what connected Jackson to his world, and if Dan didn’t touch him, maybe he could pretend there had never been an attraction at all.
Jackson lay in his bed, absently petting Molly, who he’d allowed to sleep with him again. Maybe she’d be the only one to ever sleep beside him, until she died and he got a new dog, anyway. He didn’t want to think about that. His thoughts were slurred since he’d taken triple his usual muscle relaxant dose, partially because he was so tight and partially because . . . fuck it. He wanted to sleep tonight, deep, not to dream, to wake up and maybe not remember this afternoon.
He still had his earpiece in since he’d been listening to music, but now he called up the virtual assistant. “Call Lyn,” Jackson said. After confirming it was going to call the correct number, it dialed and started to ring.
It rang so long Jackson figured his sister wasn’t going to answer. He didn’t even know what time it was, if it was late or early. But finally, Lyn picked up. “Jacky! I was starting to think I wasn’t going to hear from you.”
“Did you know?” Jackson asked. His tongue was being stubborn and his normally mild (thanks to a lifetime of speech therapy) speech impediment came out strongly.
“Know what? Jacky, are you OK?”
“Dan’s engag--gage--” Jackson groaned in frustration because “engaged” seemed to be too difficult to say. “Dan’s getting married.”
Lyn was silent for a moment. “No. Bethany never mentioned that. Oh. I’m so sorry, Jacky.”
Jackson’s throat closed up. He was a fucking grown man and yet he wished his big sister was here to hold him and tell him that he wasn’t going to be alone forever. “To a woman.”
“Oh. Oh, Jacky. There are plenty of gay men in New Orleans. You’ll find someone.”
Jackson had so much he wanted to say, but the drugs and depression were making it almost impossible to say more than a word or two, so he just grunted.
“Do you want me to evict Dan? Because I will.” Lyn had probably put some sort of clause in the contract to make it easier to evict Dan if it came down to it. And if not, she’d still find a way. But Jackson didn’t want his big sister coming to his rescue. He didn’t want anyone fucking rescuing him anymore. He was tired of feeling weak and incompetent. Besides, it would hurt to live with Dan knowing they could never be more than friends, but it would hurt more to lose him completely.
“You’re a beautiful, smart, capable man and someday someone will appreciate you for all that you are.”
“And all that I’m not?” Jackson mumbled. He closed his eyes and drifted a bit. His sister may have said more but he didn’t hear it. “Falling asleep.”
“We’ll talk later, then. Sleep well. Love you, Jacky.”
“Love you too,” Jackson murmured.
Jackson awoke slowly from a deep sleep. He was lying on his stomach, his arms beside him, and Molly was insistently licking his hand and whining. Jackson groaned but otherwise didn’t move. He activated the virtual assistant on his phone with his voice and then asked, “What time is it?”
“It is 7:31 AM,” the assistant replied.
Another groan. “Mol, you’re smart enough you should be able to let yourself out. Or go ask Dan, since he seems to love women so much.”
Molly whined more insistently.
Jackson sighed and pushed against the mattress to help himself roll onto his back. If it hadn’t been for Molly, he probably would have laid in bed all day feeling sorry for himself. But just because no one wanted him didn’t mean Molly deserved to suffer for it. She worked so hard for him every single day, the least he could do was drag his depressed butt out of bed and let her out. Of course, that was easier said than done.
It took Jackson a good ten minutes to pry himself up. His brain and body felt heavy from the extra dose of muscle relaxants the night before, but he wasn’t tight, and the walk across the living room to the back door gave him no trouble, even though he hadn’t bothered to put his braces on.
Jackson opened the door and a cool, crisp breeze hit his skin and made him shiver. It wasn’t cold, but the temperature had dropped a bit overnight and the smell of winter filled his nostrils. It would be good for him to get out of the house on a nice morning like this. Take Molly to the park and sit in the sun for awhile. To him, the backyard looked like a blur of faded greens and browns, the lawn and the foliage blending together into a collage of color, with a hint of the early morning blue sky.
When Jackson was very young, he’d always been surprised to learn that others, like his sister and father, didn’t see the world the same as he did. That objects had details you could see and not just feel. But he’d never wished to be see better. But now Jackson looked at the world and sometimes found himself wondering how Dan saw it, would recall his descriptions of people or landscapes through his photographer’s lens. And after last night, it made a pang form in Jackson’s stomach so intense he had to close his eyes. Because seeing nothing was less painful than seeing too little for Dan to want him.
Jackson was debating about making some coffee when he heard Dan’s voice off to his right, but muffled, like he was talking behind a door. It sounded like it was coming from his bedroom. Jackson took a few steps down the hall that led to the office and the master, and Dan’s voice got more distinct. He seemed to be agitated. At first, Jackson thought he was talking to himself, but then the pauses made Jackson realize he must be speaking on the phone.
“It doesn’t matter what I want. My family--” Dan sighed loudly. He paused, probably listening to what the person on the other line had to say. Jackson took a few steps closer, wishing that they still used landlines and he could pick up the receiver in another room and listen in to the entire conversation. Jackson overheard a lot more than most people gave him credit for, usually without trying, but in this case he was curious to know if Dan was talking about last night, perhaps with a friend or family member. Other than revealing his history as a cook, or his photography, Dan had always been a bit cagey about his family or where he came from. From his accent--which Jackson noticed he tried to hide as much as possible, though it still slipped through from time to time--Dan was undoubtedly not from New Orleans proper, but probably somewhere down in the Bayou. Jackson hadn’t pressured him, figuring that with time Dan would open up, but after the rejection of last night Jackson decided Dan didn’t deserve the privacy Jackson would have once given him.
“You act like I can just forget what happened,” Dan said, exasperated. It sounded like he was pacing. Was Dan talking about last night? Jackson eased forward a little more. Maybe if he got close enough, and the person on the other line was talking loudly enough, Jackson could hear. Dan wouldn’t expect Jackson to be eavesdropping since his room was on the other side of the house. “Don’t talk about him. You have no idea what he’d want!” Dan sounded upset. Jackson had never heard Dan be like this. Was he defending Jackson? Or was he talking about some other man he prefered? Maybe a sighted fellow photographer. Maybe his pushing Jackson away had nothing to do with his fealty to Wendy.
Jackson carefully approached where he knew the door was, doing his best to be quiet. He stretched his hand out until his fingers brushed the wood, giving him a sense of how close it was. Then he carefully laid his ear against it, hoping to hear more. But through the thick wood he couldn’t hear much better, and the person on the other line, or what they were saying to Dan, remained a mystery.
“I can’t risk it,” Dan said after a long pause, sounding anguished. After another break, Dan said, “I am happy,” although it wasn’t very convincing. The ice around Jackson’s heart chipped away a little. He didn’t fully know what Dan was talking about, but he recognized that feeling. The convincing yourself and those around you that you were happy when the reality was you were merely satisfied, and that you had this deep longing in your heart you were certain would never be quenched.
Jackson had never been in the closet, so he didn’t really know that that was like, but it sounded as if Dan was. Maybe his aloof persona was just that--a mask hiding who he really was. Maybe Jackson had caught glimmers of it and it scared Dan, so he’d pulled away. Maybe there was still hope for the two of them.
“I didn't call you for a lecture,” Dan snapped, breaking the long silence. “I’m marrying Wendy. And I’m not interested in Jackson!”