Jackson woke to a warm body pressed against him. The disaster of the party, the horror of not knowing where he was, of not having his cane or Molly to guide him--it all felt like a sour pit in his stomach, a nightmare, and now he was safe and awake in his own bed. Had it happened? Or had he dreamed it? What about the kiss? That hot, fucking kiss that made Jackson’s morning wood throb and ache. He could still smell Dan, still taste the whisky on his tongue, still feel the stronger man’s hands gripping his ass.
And then there was the tender side, Dan carrying Jackson to bed, undressing him, not judging or stopping because of Jackson’s braces, and then curling up next to him in bed. Keeping him safe. That part felt the most dreamlike, and yet Jackson couldn’t deny someone was asleep beside him.
Despite the fact that his tongue felt like it was soldered to the roof of his mouth, or that his head was pounding out its own drumbeat, he smiled. Rolled over toward the form beside him. It seemed smaller than Jackson expected, so he reached a hand toward it, searching.
And found fur.
Jackson’s heart sank even as he heard Molly’s tail thump, thump, thump against the mattress as she realized he was awake. She shifted and a moment later he felt her warm wet tongue on his face, wishing him a happy and enthusiastic, “Good morning.”
“Mol--Molly. Molly! Stop. Stop it.” Jackson pushed her away, suddenly angry and disappointed with himself. Molly whined in complaint but she immediately obeyed.
Jackson lay there, his body yelling at him in a million ways for his attention, but all he could think about was how much of a helpless drunk he must have seemed to Dan. How could Dan possibly be attracted to the man who got lost in a utility room and couldn’t even make it back to his own bed without help? The kiss and every tender part of last night had to have been the fog of hope and drunkenness, and nothing more. Dan helped him because he was a nice guy.
Jackson hadn’t felt this low, this wrecked, since Benji left him.
“Just fucking go away already!” Jackson yelled at his persistent erection. Whacking off now would only make him more depressed.
Molly thought he was yelling at her, whined and jumped off the bed, the click click of her nails on the hardwood as she took off. He should get up to let her out, but that seemed like too much effort. His father would be so disappointed in him. The last Santoro left and he was an embarrassment. His estrangement from the Krewe his family founded finalized.
Jackson finally reached over to the nightstand for his phone. He always checked it in the morning out of habit. He was surprised when he felt a piece of Braille paper resting on top of his cell. It was the heavyweight paper used for embossing Braille letters with either a stylus or a typewriter, cut into a rectangle roughly the size of an index card. On it, it someone had embossed nine letters with an unnatural amount of space between each: V, O, E, C, I, M, A, E, L. At first, Jackson was bewildered, and he read it again to make sure the pounding in his head hadn’t caused him to misread it. But he got the same letters again. But then it hit Jackson, and he chuckled. The Braille code for the vowels “I” and “E” were mirror images of each other. Dan, whom Jackson presumed must have written the note, must have mistakenly inverted the two letters. What the note was meant to say was, “Voicemail.”
Jackson’s traitorous heart picked up with hope as he used the voice guidance on his phone to help navigate to his voice message box. He had three from his sister that he ignored and one from Dan.
“Hey, Jackson,” Dan’s voice began. “Hope you’re not too hungover. I left you a bottle of water and some aspirin on your nightstand. And I dropped your tux off at the cleaners, so you don’t have to worry about it. Anyway, I’m leaving you this message because if I’d tried to write all this in Braille it would have taken me hours.” Dan laughed nervously. “I just wanted to let you know I have a sudden deadline come up so I’ll be in the darkroom and photography lab all weekend. So you won’t see me for a few days at least.” Dan laughed again, and the normal relaxed confidence that Dan gave off had been replaced by this rambling, almost shy guy Jackson didn’t recognize. “Right. You don’t see me anyway. Uh, you know what I mean.” A long pause and Jackson thought maybe Dan had forgotten to hang up, but then he said, “Take care of yourself.”
Jackson may have listened to the message an obscene number of times. No mention of their kiss or anything suggesting the events of last night wasn’t a mere figment of Jackson’s drunk imagination. But why did Dan seem so self conscious? Jackson couldn’t decide what was worse: that the kiss hadn’t happened, or that Dan was avoiding Jackson because it had.
The house had never felt so empty, so lonely. Jackson had forced himself to stretch, shower, take his meds and eat a sandwich, but this all felt like the aftermath of Benji all over again except for the fact that he and Dan had never had a relationship to begin with. Dan was his roommate, one Jackson had a huge crush on, but that’s all it was. The fact that Dan had a life and Jackson didn’t shouldn’t make him feel so hollow, and yet he did.
He shuffled around the house, too stiff and lazy to wear his braces, finally crashing on the couch and flipping channels. Unfortunately on a Saturday afternoon the only shows being broadcast with audio description were police procedurals. Lyn had always helped him with the visuals he couldn’t see for shows that didn’t have that provided by the network, and it made him miss her even more. He almost called her more than once but remembered he’d ignored her voicemails. Besides, she was married now and deserved her own life, and Jackson had to prove that he didn’t need her or Dan to get by, right?
One minute Jackson was watching an episode of Law and Order in which a woman was suspected of beating her husband to death, and the next Jackson was startled awake by his default ringtone and the computerized female voice announcing an unfamiliar local number. That meant someone was calling him who wasn’t in his contacts. Jackson’s heart was pounding in his chest no matter how much he tried to will it to calm, that it wasn’t another break in, it was just his phone. Normally Jackson ignored calls from unfamiliar numbers, but since it was local, Jackson rushed to pick up. Maybe it was one of the schools he’d applied for a job at, calling to give him good news. It was a stretch, since it was a Saturday, but Jackson didn’t want to risk it.
“Jackson Santoro,” Jackson said in his his most professional-sounding tone.
“Jacky,” a familiar booming voice echoed over the line. “Good to see you survived last night. I heard you took the ‘make merry’ part of our krewe’s anthem a bit too hard.” Harold chuckled, the sound grating. Jackson wished he could punch him through the phone.
“It’s Jackson,” Jackson growled. But the truth was now he was worried. Did everyone in the krewe know he’d hooked up with a bartender and embarrassed himself? Suddenly Jackson’s blood ran cold. Dan had been very cozy last night with Harold . . . had he struck some kind of deal with the king of Cadmus? A high-paying gig in exchange for spying on Jackson? Jackson knew he was being paranoid, but why else would Harold be calling him? They weren’t exactly bosom buddies.
“Jacky--Jackson,” Harold said, clearing his throat. “I’m calling because we had our morning meeting and the higher level krewe members all decided that it’s time you were included in the court.”
Jackson’s head had never quite stopped hurting despite the aspirin and all the water he had been drinking and he was certain that his headache must be what caused him to mishear Harold. “Excuse me?”
“We’re inviting you to be one of the dukes,” Harold said, his tone a bit condescending, but then his tone almost always was.
Jackson was speechless. Being named a duke was one of the highest honors a male krewe member could have, the only higher one king. On the one hand, Jackson could never forget what happened during his initiation, but on the other, this was his legacy. The krewe had meant so much to his father and grandfather, and Jackson had always been a disappointment. Part of Jackson wanted to tell Harold to go fuck himself, but the rest inwardly squealed in delight. As the last one to carry the Santoro name, he should have had a place in the royal circle years ago.
“Jackson? Do you accept?”
Jackson swallowed. “Is this a trick to embarrass me in front of half of New Orleans?”
“Of course not. If we embarrass you during a parade we embarrass the Krewe of Cadmus.”
Jackson wasn’t entirely convinced, even if Harold had a point. If they did anything to make a fool out of Jackson on the most important float in the parade, on one of the most watched parade of the entire Mardi Gras season, it would tarnish Cadmus’ reputation. “I can’t stand for hours. I need to be somewhere I can be sure I won’t fall off the float. And Molly has to ride the float with me. No negotiation.” Jackson had decided after last night he was never going anywhere without Molly again so long as she was still working.
Harold hesitated, but then he said, “Of course. Whatever you need, it will be arranged.” Harold sounded as if he wasn’t keen on the whole deal but his hands were tied.
“I have your oath as a brother of Cadmus?” Jackson asked in Greek, using the formal language krewe members used in situations such as this.
Harold sighed but tried to turn it into a cough before replying, “I give you my word by the sacred goddess Harmonia.”
Jackson still wasn’t 100% sure this wasn’t some kind of trick, but he couldn’t help that “kid on Christmas morning” feeling in his stomach at the idea of finally being accepted into the krewe and taking his rightful place in Cadmus. “In that case, I accept.”
“Great. The tailor who’s making the costumes for all the royalty will be coming to my house Monday evening. I expect you to be there. In harmony, I wish you farewell,” Harold concluded in Greek, using the krewe’s formal goodbye, and then without waiting for Jackson to reply, he hung up.
Jackson stayed up late listening to an audiobook. He’d hoped he might hear Dan come home, but either Dan was uncharacteristically quiet or Jackson fell asleep before Dan ever returned. Jackson woke up disappointed, painfully hard, and lonely.
Jackson was lying in bed feeling sorry for himself and trying to will his erection away when his phone rang. Lyn’s ringtone, followed by the computerized voice announcing her name. It took a minute for Jackson to find his phone and answer it. “Yes?” Jackson said a little irritated.
“Jacky. I was worried about you! You never called me back yesterday.”
Jackson sighed. “I’m fine.”
“Are you still going to the doctor on Monday?”
“Lyn, how can I make an appointment over the weekend? I promise I’ll call tomorrow and take his first available. I should see him before the new semester anyway.”
Lyn didn’t seem sure what to say after that. She finally said, “How’s Dan? Is he taking care of you?”
That made Jackson bristle. “Dan isn’t my caregiver; he’s my roommate. And he has his own life. He said he’d be gone all weekend. Some photo project or something. I don’t know.”
“Kevin and I are going out on the lake. You could come.”
Jackson had to stifle a laugh. Being trapped with his brother-in-law for hours in a confined space had to be one of Jackson’s circles of hell. “I’m not third-wheeling you on your honeymoon. Besides. I’m fine.”
“Jacky, I’ve known you your whole life. I know when you’re not fine even if you try to act like you are. Did Dan hurt you?”
“Jesus, Lyn. No. I’m fine. Really.”
Lyn let out a sound suggesting she wasn’t buying it. “I can come over.”
As much as Jackson would have liked the company, Lyn deserved time with her husband, time away from acting like Jackson’s surrogate mother. And Jackson had to prove to her and himself that he could be independent, that Dan was just someone to help pay the insurance on the house, and nothing more. “No. Have fun with Kevin. I’ve got stuff to do. School starts next week so I should be finalizing the syllabus, etc., anyway.”
“I’m fine,” Jackson said with more effort, trying to convince himself as much as his sister. “I love you, Lyn. Have a good time. Take lots of pictures to show me later.” Jackson grinned.
“Ha ha, aren’t you the funny one. Love you, Jacky. Take care of yourself and don’t be too stubborn not to call me if you need me, OK?”
Jackson couldn’t seem to focus. He’d tried working on his preparations for the first day of class, tried dabbling with his book project, but he couldn’t seem to escape that loneliness that weighed on his shoulders. The feeling that he’d never have anything more than a few disastrous hookups and a lot of unsatisfied hardons to punctuate his life. While working on his computer, he kept wanting to facebook stalk Benji, the only man he’d ever had some semblance of a relationship with. But facebook wasn’t very screen reader friendly, and without his sister to describe all the pictures, he knew it was pointless. Besides, how pathetic was he to still occasionally follow the life of a man who had left Jackson behind years ago?
Lyn was right. He had to get out more, socialize. She was his only friend besides Dan if Jackson could even label Dan as such. On a day like today, when both were busy, he didn’t have anyone else to call or hang out with. It was pathetic, and worse, Jackson hated that he was living up to the stereotype of the blind shut-in.
So Jackson decided he needed to leave the house, and he had to do more than walk Molly to Audubon park. Most of the shops near campus he frequented were closed for Mardi Gras or because school was out for the winter break, or because it was Sunday, so he had to go somewhere else. He wasn’t in such an adventurous mood to try a new place, so instead he thought of heading to an old haunt from his graduate school days. It was in the Quarter, but it wasn’t like Jackson had anyone to come home to with Dan as buy as he was.
Jackson decided to splurge for an Uber, since he was still recovering from Friday and not in the mood for wandering around the Quarter. The car came to a stop and the drive indicated they’d arrived.
“This is Grind and Screw, right?” Jackson asked, wanting to be sure he was where he was supposed to be.
The drive chuckled. “Yeah. Is this place for real?”
Jackson didn’t respond and got out. He could just make out the bright orange of the building and the blur of rainbow colors he knew were the gay pride flags many of the LGBTQ-friendly business displayed in this area. Jackson couldn’t really see the sign above the door, but he knew from experience that it displayed the business name in pictures rather than words, almost like pubs did back in England. The first was an icon of an old-fashioned, hand coffee grinder and the second was of a corkscrew, representing the name but also informing everyone that this was a coffee shop and a bar. The sexual innuendo was an added bonus.
He and Molly entered and were assaulted by a familiar smell: old wood and coffee with just the hint of beer overlaid with a strong scent Jackson could only describe as male. If Nate, the owner, could somehow bottle that smell into a cologne, he’d make a mint. Jackson used Molly to help him find the counter. The building had been a pharmacy once upon a time, complete with a small lunch counter Camellia Grill style. The chairs were attached to the counter, at table height rather than bar height, and swung out almost like seats in a large lecture hall. They were tricky for Jackson to get in and out of, so he decided he’d put in his order and ask for directions to an empty table. He’d brought his laptop and full-sized refreshable braille display so he could get some work done without being a hermit.
“Holy shit. Jackson!” Nate cried out in his comforting Uptown accent, soft and slurring and distinctively New Orleans. “How long has it been? Two? Three years? We all thought you must have moved.” Nate found Jackson’s free hand and shook it heartily. “Hey, Mol. You’re looking as beautiful as ever, aren’t you, girl?”
“It’s good to see you, too, Nate.” Jackson was relieved that Nate wasn’t taking Sunday off. He loved this place and lived above it. He was from the baby boomer generation and had lived through the AIDS crisis, and had been a pivotal part of the LGBTQ community in New Orleans for decades. Jackson liked Nate, and he liked G & S because it wasn’t a loud partying club but rather a place for guys to meet, work, drink some coffee or cocktails, and actually talk and not just fuck. (Though plenty of that went on in the bathrooms.) Jackson didn’t feel comfortable in places that were so loud he lost his hearing as a way of orienting himself. And dancing was definitely not his thing.
“There’s an open table right behind you. Do a 180 and head straight and you’ll find it. Still like cafe au lait? Or you want something stronger?”
At home Jackson usually didn’t bother with milk in his coffee mostly out of laziness, but he loved a good cafe au lait or a latte. Since he’d just had the latter with Dan not long ago and he didn’t want to do anything that reminded him of the man, he decided to order something different. “Irish coffee. I’m not driving.”
Nate let out a booming laugh. “Still got your sense of humor, I see. All right. Take a seat and your coffee’ll be ready in a sec.”
Jackson found the familiar, comforting surroundings conducive to work, much as he had in grad school. The quiet jazz Nate pumped over the speakers and the surruss of men’s voices talking low surrounded him. Jackson might have been an introvert, but he still appreciated being around people.
The only downside was G & S reminded Jackson of Benji. They’d spent hundreds of hours sitting at a table just like this, working on their dissertations, discussing texts Benji had helped Jackson with, or just talking. Benji had a deep, silky voice that went straight to Jackson’s balls, and the way he talked during sex always made Jackson shiver and scream.
Although Jackson wasn’t sure what he missed more: Benji, or the idea of Benji. That loneliness surged again so powerfully Jackson debated leaving.
Suddenly Jackson felt Molly stiffen against his leg from where she lay beside him on the floor, and a moment later the scrape of a nearby chair and then the creak of it as someone heavy settled into it.
“This table is taken,” Jackson said since it apparently wasn’t already obvious.
The man shifted, sipped his drink, but otherwise didn’t say anything. All Jackson could tell of him was that he was white with dark hair.
“I’m not so blind I can’t tell you’re there,” Jackson said, getting irritated that the man wasn’t talking to him. Was he staring? Was he trying to be sexy but instead being creepy? Or did he somehow not realize that Jackson couldn’t see him? Usually the dog and the sunglasses gave him away, but maybe this guy wasn’t real quick on the uptake. “It’s rude not to talk to a blind person,” Jackson snapped.
The man chuckled low, so quiet that someone else may have missed it, and shifted again. The table creaked; Jackson could feel the slight dip in it as the man put his weight on it. Maybe he was leaning on his hands?
Jackson shut his laptop, getting nervous. Nothing could happen to him in the middle of the busy shop, not with Nate on watch, but echoes of the break in still haunted him. He found himself wishing Dan were with him, then quickly squelched those thoughts. He was nothing to Dan and the reverse had to be true, also. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” Jackson growled.
The man burst into laughter now. From the sound of it, he had a deep voice. “You always were sexy when you’re angry.”
Jackson’s stomach fell. A tinge of embarrassment that he hadn’t been able to recognize him sooner. “Benji?”
Benji clicked his tongue. “The one and only.”