The scent of Chinese food filled the kitchen as Lyn unpacked the sack of takeout. It was a Santoro family tradition on New Year’s Eve to make themselves sick with noodles and eggrolls while watching cheesy movies and getting very drunk.
“Get the beer,” Lyn said. “I’ll finish this.”
Jackson oriented himself in the direction of the fridge and took the few steps from the table to it. He pulled it open, squinting at the bright light that washed out his vision, and reached for where he expected to find the shelf he was looking for. He checked the label to confirm, then slid his fingers along the ledge until they bumped the six-pack. He confirmed he’d hit home, and when he felt the cold glass, he grabbed two between his fingers, rushing to support them with his other hand to be sure he didn’t drop them. The bottles clinked as he pulled them out, and Jackson couldn’t help smiling as he shut the fridge, thinking how long it had taken for his sister to trust him with glass.
“What are you smiling at?”
Jackson shrugged as he found his way to the counter on the other side of the fridge so he could open the beer. “Just how you would have wrapped me in bubblewrap when I was a kid if you could have.” Jackson set one of the beers down, twisted open the other, then switched so he could open the second.
Lyn didn’t make any sound Jackson could distinguish, but then she seemed to stop arranging the food, and he heard her approach. “Here,” she said, “beer,” and she handed him one, then took her own, almost as if part of her still didn’t quite trust he wouldn’t drop them. “If I could keep you from ever getting hurt, I would, Jacky,” Lyn said far too seriously.
Jackson frowned. Lyn had been far more than a sister to him; she’d practically raised him. “I’m OK,” he reassured her for the twentieth time.
Lyn sighed. “I worry about you.”
Jackson’s frown deepened. He’d expected to be depressed tonight without her, but she was here now, it was probably the last New Year’s Eve they’d spend together, now that she was married, and he didn’t want to ruin it with the cloud of the break-in and his lost opportunity at independence. “Cheers?” he asked hopefully, holding up his beer for her to meet it.
A tiny clink, and he felt his hand shift just a little. “Cheers,” Lyn said in that tone that told him she knew he was trying to change the subject. “You’re so handsome,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere. “Especially without your glasses.”
Jackson scoffed. He took a drink of beer, the cold bitter taste of it coating his tongue.
“You are,” Lyn insisted. “Maybe now that I’m not sleeping in the next room you can meet someone. There’s more to life than work.”
And some hot, straight guy would be totally cool with some guy fucking him on the other side of the wall. Besides, it wasn’t like he could go on Grindr and hook up with some stranger. Well, he could, but that was a great way to end up robbed, beaten, dead, or all three. Being blind meant he had to be far more cautious than a sighted person. But Jackson didn’t say any of that. “Give me a box of food and some chopsticks and let’s get out of here.”
Lyn audibly shivered. “I don’t know how you’re not a little creeped out. It’s fine during the day, but now that it’s night . . .”
“It was one broken window. A window in a door that should have been replaced years ago anyway. The new one is much safer and sturdier. Food. Now.”
“It makes the room so dark,” Lyn muttered, but he heard her tearing open and breaking apart some chopsticks.
“Which I like, because I can go without my sunglasses, even when it’s bright outside. Food. Need, now,” Jackson said, taking a few steps closer to her, stretching out his free hand until he found her, sliding a finger along her body, trying to find her armpit so he could tickle her.
“Stop--Jacky--stop!” she giggled, pulling away. “Oh, you are so dead. Just you wait until you’re not looking,” she said.
Jackson burst out laughing. It was a game they’d always played as kids, so he responded the way he always had, “But I’m always listening, and you can’t sneak up on me.” Then he thrust his hand forward again until he found her once more and yanked her close, holding her with one arm so she couldn’t escape. His beer was sloshing and probably threatening to spill, but he didn’t care. “Ha. Gotcha!”
“No fair,” she said, squirming, although it was all part of the game. She had never admitted it, but Jackson knew she’d let him catch her more than once when they’d played this as kids. Being a blind kid who moved slowly and unsteadily didn’t exactly make him number one at tag, and there was something about Lyn getting in on the game like that that had made him love her even more.
He finally released her, laughing. “Did I spill my beer everywhere? It smells like it and the bottle feels lighter.”
“Or maybe you just drank it all already, you lush,” Lyn teased. He felt her take the bottle from his hand. She moved away and a moment later, pressed it back into his palm. “Try to drink it this time,” she said. “Don’t move. I’m going to clean your shoe and the floor and I don’t want you to kick me in the head.”
“That was one time!” Jackson said, but he was laughing, and so was Lyn. And any seriousness had momentarily fled.
“Here, popcorn, extra butter, just like you like, you pig,” Lyn said with affection in her voice even if she was pretending to be annoyed, placing the huge bowl in his lap, making sure he had one hand on it before she let go. “The only reason you stay so slim and trim is because you and Molly walk everywhere.”
He laughed. He wasn’t fat, but he was far from a gym bunny. “Like you’re such a heifer. What, did the scale come up one ounce over 100 pounds?”
He heard her blow a raspberry. “Shut up. You know they say people gain at least 20 pounds after they get married? And if I get pregnant? Ugh.” He felt her fall onto the couch beside him, then reach into the bowl for some popcorn.
“I thought you wanted to have a baby. It was all you talked about after Kevin proposed.” His sister was no spring chicken, and her biological clock had been going off like crazy for the past five years. Before she’d met Kevin, she’d even asked Jackson if it would be crazy for her to try to be a single mother, since she’d been considering going the whole sperm-bank route.
“I do,” Lyn said on a sigh, and he wondered if she had her hand on her belly. “But I’m so old. Do you know how hard it is to get pregnant when you’re 40?” He felt her shiver.
He made sure that he had one hand on the bowl so it wouldn’t spill and snaked his other toward her until he found her arm, moving down it until he could nest his hand in hers. He gave it a squeeze. “You’ll do it. You can do anything you put your mind to, right?” he laughed. He was teasing a little, but it was something she’d always told him. Even when he was in grad school and struggling to keep up with his sighted classmates. It was a lot more challenging doing historical research when you couldn’t read the text directly yourself.
She sighed and squeezed his hand back. “So what do you want to watch next?”
“Jurassic Park,” Jackson said without hesitation.
“But it doesn’t have audio description.”
“I know, but it reminds me of when we were kids. Remember?”
Lyn laughed and snatched more popcorn; he could hear the kernels rustling softly as she dug around and the bowl shifted subtly in his lap, although he still supported it with one hand to prevent it from moving too much and spilling. “The theater didn’t have audio description back then, so we’d sit in the front row and you’d ask me to whisper everything happening on screen in your ear.”
“Hey, I was convinced if we sat in front I could see something. You told me how big the screen was.” He took some popcorn for himself. “You were so bad at describing the visuals for me, back then.” Jackson tried to hold in a smile. “I remember during the part where the lawyer gets eaten, you told me, ‘And the T-rex just ate the guy in the suit.’ Until I heard Richard Attenborough’s voice again, later, I thought he was the one who’d been eaten!”
Lyn scoffed and stole more popcorn. “Hey, you wasted so much time asking me to explain how big the different dinosaurs were, and what did I think they felt like or smelled like over and over because you were never satisfied. I didn’t even know what was happening at that point, other than some guy in a suit who was sitting on a toilet got eaten!”
Jackson laughed. “And I asked you why he was on the toilet, and you remember what you said?”
He could hear her sputter, like she was trying to contain her laughter. “When you gotta go, you gotta go!”
They both laughed together. “Man, that joke had me laughing for months.”
“Toilet humor and seven-year-old boys. Never underestimate it.” Lyn sighed as their laughter died down. “It took me three times before I got the full story to that movie, and it’s not exactly Citizen Kane.”
“Yeah, but the theater owner never charged me since he said I couldn’t ‘see the movie anyway.’” Jackson frowned subtly and took more popcorn. “I’m happy for you, Lyn. But I’m going to miss you.”
“It’s not like I’m moving to Guam. Roommate or not, I’ll be by to visit you all the time. And I’ll still take you grocery shopping.”
“I did fine on my own while you were gone. I used a store assistant, and I brought my label maker with me so I could label everything before I even got home. I love you, but I don’t need you. You’re married now. Focus on you and your husband for awhile. You deserve it.”
Lyn lifted the bowl off his lap and he heard her set it off to the side. Then she hugged him. “But maybe I still need you.” The only time they’d lived apart was the years Jackson lived at the school for the blind in Baton Rouge. “I’m going to miss you. And I worry about how isolated you are. You don’t have any friends.” As if sensing he was about to protest, she quickly added, “You have colleagues. You have me and Ms. Susan. And Molly, of course. But you don’t have anyone your own age, with similar interests to spend time with. It’s not healthy. A roommate may give you an excuse to socialize. Meet people who aren’t your students or other history professors.”
“Jesus, Lyn, you act like I’m in grade school and the teacher sent me home with a note that says, ‘Doesn’t play well with others.’”
“I’m just saying, don’t automatically dismiss Dan tomorrow. Give him a chance. Maybe you two will hit it off.”
Jackson let out a long suffering sigh. “Yes, maybe he’ll realize he’s not actually straight and fall deeply in love with me and we’ll get married and have a dozen babies together.”
Now it was Lyn’s turn to sigh. “Fine, Captain Sarcasm.” Jackson heard the TV click on, but then Lyn caught him by surprise, hugging him tight and rubbing the top of his head. He tried to squirm, but she was laughing. She kissed him on the temple, and Jackson knew that deep down Lyn loved him and only wanted him to be happy. And he wasn’t happy, not really.
“I’ll behave tomorrow, but I get to pick the movies for the rest of the night.”
The next morning, Jackson sat on the couch beside Lyn, fidgeting. “Do I look OK?”
Lyn laughed. “You look fine.”
“Are you sure?” He smoothed a hand over his shirt, then his hair. “Does my hair look all right?”
“It did until a few seconds ago when you messed it up,” Lyn said, and a moment later he felt her combing her fingers through it, fixing it for him.
Jackson flipped the top on his watch face and felt the time with his right fingers. “When was he supposed to be here?”
“Talk about a 180. You go from hating me for setting this up to acting like you’re waiting for a date.”
“I just want to make a good impression. And the sooner he gets here, the sooner he leaves. You bribed me with that new restaurant on the other side of town that I’ll never go to on my own because it’ll take me at least two buses to get there.” It wasn’t exactly a lie--the way to Jackson’s heart really was through his stomach most of the time, hence the pancakes yesterday. “So I’m just excited about that.”
“Uh huh,” Lyn said, both skepticism and teasing in her voice. “So that whole thing about wanting to do . . . what was it? ‘Very naughty things’ to Dan was just . . . what . . . a figure of speech?”
Jackson felt for Lyn’s arm, and once he had a good sense of where she was, he whacked her.
“Ow,” she said, but she was laughing.
A moment later, the doorbell rang and Jackson leapt up--and he wasn’t someone who could normally move very quickly under any circumstance, which only made Lyn laugh harder. “Shut up. Behave. Don’t embarrass me by making faces at him I can’t see. That’s not fair. And when we do the actual interview, I’m sitting by you and you’re going to whisper to me any facial expression he makes, especially if it’s directed at me. OK?”
Lyn didn’t say anything.
Jackson cocked his head, then he frowned. “You nodded just to spite me, didn’t you?”
He could almost hear the grin that must have spread on his sister’s face, because it did end up leaking into her voice. “Maybe.”
The doorbell rang again.
“Behave,” Jackson cautioned her again before he turned to face the direction of the front door, forcing himself to take deep breaths as he approached.
Even with his sunglasses, the contrast between the bright outdoor sun and the darker house made Jackson squint. But the intense scent of familiar cologne told Jackson what his sight couldn’t. This was definitely the man he’d met at the wedding, and who’d he’d spent the last week jacking off thinking about. Great, now all the blood had left his brain and gone straight to his dick. Jackson did his best to think of every unerotic thing he could, like physical therapy and uninspired, Wikipedia-cited freshmen history papers. “Dan?”
“Are . . . you . . . there?” Jackson’s speech started to fail him, adding to his embarrassment. He was proud of the fact that normally no one would guess he had CP based on the way he talked, not because he was embarrassed by his disease but because of all the hours of practice and work he’d put into smoothing out his stubborn mouth and tongue. That was one thing he owed his father for; apparently most speech therapists used a heavily visual methodology, and it had taken some doing to find one who could work with Jackson despite his blindness.
“Oh. Sorry. Just like me to nod at the blind guy.”
Jackson stepped aside and waved him in, carefully shutting the door, trusting that Dan would speak up if he was about to be squished in it. He blinked a few times, hoping to clear his vision, to let him get a sense of how tall Dan was. From the sound and direction of his voice, Jackson judged the man was several inches taller than him since things had been so bright at the wedding he hadn’t been able to see him then either. Though at 5’7”, it wasn’t difficult for Jackson to find someone taller than him. God, he desperately wanted to touch Dan, to get a sense for his height, the width of his shoulders, but blind or not, this guy was straight and probably wouldn’t appreciate Jackson’s hands roving all over him.
Dan cleared his throat. “Dan Oldendorf,” he said, and Jackson assumed he’d stuck a hand out for a shake.
Jackson offered his own hand, figuring Dan would meet him halfway. “Jackson Santoro.” Dan’s hand slipped into his, and they shook, completely platonic, Dan exuding power and authority and manliness in that brief contact, but it only made Jackson want to touch him more. “Uh, so I thought I could give you a tour of the house first, and then we could sit down and talk?” Damn, he was sweating, and nervous, and he was struggling to get his words out in an intelligible fashion. This wasn’t a date, especially since no one who smelled or sounded or felt as good as Dan did could want Jackson, even if he were gay. Which he wasn’t, Jackson had to remind himself, especially key parts of his anatomy.
“Sure,” Dan said, his voice relaxed and casual. If Dan noticed how flustered Jackson was, or how bad his speech, Dan didn’t give it away in his voice. Maybe Dan was clueless. Maybe Lyn hadn’t told him Jackson was gay. Jackson wasn’t exactly a twink prancing around in rainbow and glitter, but he was also far from the uber masculine stereotype. Jackson didn’t advertise his sexuality, but he didn’t hide it, either, and most people figured it out quickly enough. But Jackson had experienced enough straight men who thought gay meant a lisp and obsession with hair products.
“So, uh,” Jackson said, thinking quickly. “It’d work better if I took your arm?” Of course Jackson knew his own house and he did not need any help getting around it, but it was an excuse to move beyond Dan’s hand.
Dan didn’t say anything, then he laughed. “Sorry. I shrugged. Sure. What do I need to do?”
Jackson’s heart sped up. “Uh, just stand in front of me with your back to me and off to my right a little. Jackson tilted his head so he could listen for Dan to get into place.
“Let me see,” Jackson said. He could make out the blur of the man now, though it was sometimes difficult for Jackson to distinguish shapes against backgrounds if the contrast wasn’t strong. It was one reason he’d painted the walls a pale gray, because skin and clothing stood out against it more easily. Jackson stretched a hand toward the form he knew was Jackson, using his ears and nose to help him judge the distance that his eyes couldn’t tell him. His fingertips finally met the firm muscle of Dan’s back, he realized, as he slid his hand along it to get a better feel for where he was. Damn, the man was fit. Jackson wondered if he could get away with groping Dan’s ass and use his blindness as an excuse, but finally decided to move up and toward the right to where Dan’s arm should be. Jackson found his elbow, taking a second to feel up above it to a generous bicep, and below it, to a firm forearm. “Just bend your arm a little, yeah, like that. I’ll just hold on here,” Jackson said, again wanting to know if Dan’s ass felt half as good as his back and arm did, but holding back. “Just walk slowly and I’ll tell you where to go.”
“OK,” Dan said, sounding amused. He hadn’t complained at all when Jackson had been touching him. Hadn’t even flinched. But maybe he was just a chill guy. He was a high school art teacher or something, wasn’t he?
“All right, so this is the entryway, obviously.” Jackson was able to relax enough that he could remember how to talk properly, even if he sounded like he was trying a little too hard, almost like his words were stretched out. But maybe Dan wouldn’t notice. “Go ahead and move forward.” Jackson focused on counting his steps to keep himself oriented, and it meant he wasn’t thinking of how amazing it would be to slide his hand farther up Jackson’s arm to his shoulder. To his face. Would he be clean shaven or have some stubble? Dan seemed like he’d be a guy with stubble, at least on the weekends and holidays. Jackson loved the way a man’s face felt after a day or two of not shaving, that bristling, tingling feeling it gave him as he brushed his hands over an unshaved cheek. It made a shiver course through Jackson’s body that Dan felt through their connection.
“You OK? Am I doing this wrong?”
Jackson laughed. You’re not naked, he thought. “Uh, no, this is good. So we should be in the living room, right?”
Dan didn’t respond right away. “Couches. TV. Lamps. Looks about right.” The words could have been sarcastic, but instead they were said in that aloof, carefree way that Jackson was beginning to discern was Dan’s personality. He was probably the kind of guy everyone loved and gravitated toward, one of those people who just had “it,” that indescribable quality that made everyone want to be around him.
“OK,” Jackson said, using his tactile knowledge of the room to help him make sense of the blurs of color in front of him. “So unless she’s playing a trick on me, that should be my sister, Lyn, sitting on the main sofa over there.”
“I’m here,” Lyn said, and Jackson could hear the smile in her voice. “Carry on. Do you want some coffee or something, Dan?” Oh, that’s right. Lyn knew Dan, at least superficially, through Bethany, her best friend. That’s one reason she trusted him as a roommate for Jackson.
“Sure, if it’s no trouble.” And Jackson could feel Dan’s arm move. Maybe he’d shrugged.
Jackson heard the shift of the sofa and then footsteps as Lyn got up.
“If you follow her, that’s the kitchen. To the right.”
Dan’s arm moved a little and then he laughed again. “Sorry. Nodded again. This is going to take some getting used to.” His voice had a mellow tone to it, smooth and relaxed like aural chocolate.
“It’s OK. I’m pretty good at interpreting the pauses in conversation. Sometimes they can tell you more than the words themselves.”
Dan let out a sound like he found that interesting, and then he said, “OK, let’s check out the kitchen.”
A few steps later and Jackson reached out and felt the doorway when Dan paused. He was actually pretty good at leading; normally Jackson didn’t like to be led by anyone except Lyn. If he absolutely needed a sighted person’s help, he liked to be in front with them holding his arm and helping steer him in the right direction, because that way he was in charge. But that would have meant missing the chance to feel up Dan’s back and arm.
“So this is the kitchen. Stove, microwave, dishwasher, sink,” Jackson said, pointing vaguely in the direction of where everything was.
“You have a dishwasher! I’m ready to move in,” Dan said excitedly. “The only dishwasher I’ve had in years is myself.”
Lyn was making coffee; Jackson could just make out her form and hear the sound of the carafe being filled at the sink.
“I usually come in through the kitchen door, but it’s your choice which one you prefer,” Jackson said, realizing it was stupid to say. What did Dan care?
“OK,” Dan said in his nonchalant way. “Let’s turn around and you’ll show me the rest?”
Over the next few minutes, Jackson took Dan on a tour of the rest of the modest house--two bedrooms, an office, a bathroom, and a closet they used for the laundry--and introduced him to Molly. It turned out Dan was a huge dog lover but had never lived somewhere he could have one. In fact, he’d sunk down and was showering Molly with affection now.
“When we’re home, Molly’s pretty much off the clock, but when she’s wearing her harness, she’s working. So please don’t pet her or talk to her like that when she is. I need her to be focused,” Jackson said. He liked that they were getting along, but most people didn’t think of service dogs like they were doing a job, and he often had to explain just that to more than one eager stranger.
“Sure, of course,” Dan said. “This is a nice house, by the way. I can’t believe you even have a small yard. And a driveway.” Both fairly rare in the city.
Jackson smiled. “It was our parents’ house. Molly definitely appreciates the yard. It’s one of the only times she can really run around. As for the driveway, you’ll be welcome to it. With Lyn gone, I’m definitely not using it.”
There was a pause that Jackson couldn’t interpret. He knew Dan was looking at him, or at least facing him, but more than that he couldn’t be sure, and it made the nervousness that had subsided return. He was trying to figure out what to say when Lyn called out to let them know the coffee was ready.
Without prompting, Dan took Jackson’s hand and placed it on his elbow. “Back to the living room or the kitchen?”
With Jackson’s hand on Dan’s arm, and Dan’s hand on his, blood immediately rushed to Jackson’s dick and he wanted desperately to pull him closer. God, he prayed his erection wasn’t visible, and he shifted his weight, hoping that would hide it. He swallowed and forced himself to speak. How sex deprived was he that this man was turning him to jello? It was embarrassing, and if Lyn had witnessed it, she’d tease him about it for years.
Jackson cleared his throat. “Sorry. Uh, living room. Thanks.”
If Dan sensed Jackson’s unease, he didn’t let on in a way Jackson could tell, and he did a decent job of leading them back to the living room.
Once there, Jackson found the back of the couch and was forced to let go of Dan. “You can sit over there,” Jackson said, pointing in the vague direction of a recliner once he’d gotten himself oriented again. “Lyn?” He saw her form moving around, probably setting the drinks on one of the end tables. They didn’t have a coffee table since Jackson tended to bump into it or trip over it with his clumsy feet.
“To your left. Sit down and I’ll hand you a mug.”
Jackson felt along the top of the couch until he got a good idea of how far it was from him, then took a seat.
“I love this house. I know shotguns are iconic, but I’m a huge fan of the arts and crafts style. You’ve kept it up nicely, too. Did it flood?” Dan probably meant during Katrina.
“No. Thankfully we were close enough to the river the water didn’t make it inside,” Jackson responded.
“Do you want milk or sugar?” Lyn asked, and Jackson knew she was talking to Dan since she didn’t need to ask him.
“Both, please, thank you.” There was a pause. The pour of cream into a mug, the tinkle of a spoon stirring. Lyn’s footsteps. Though Jackson couldn’t see it, he assumed Lyn was offering Dan his coffee.
“So just so we make things clear, the rent is $600 a month plus utilities, and we’re only interested in a three-month lease at this time,” Jackson explained.
“Yes, Lyn explained this to me. Thank you,” he murmured, perhaps to Lyn.
“And it’s very important that if you move in you understand that your room you can do with what you’d like, but the common areas need to be kept clear and undisturbed.”
“Sure. I can handle that.”
Lyn returned to Jackson’s side and took his hand, placing the mug in it before sitting down beside him.
“And we’ll clear a shelf in the fridge and the bathroom, and one of the kitchen cabinets, but I need you to put anything of mine back if you move it. Otherwise it’ll take me forever to find anything.”
“OK,” Dan said. “I might be a big guy, but I don’t take up much space. My day job is at St. Ignatius, but I have a photography business on the side, and when I’m not doing either of those, I’m out taking pictures for myself.”
So they had the teacher thing in common, which Jackson already knew, but a photographer? So much for Lyn’s grand plan for the two of them being friends. From the way he talked about it, even in brief, it was obviously a huge part of his life, a part that Jackson could never appreciate. Maybe it was for the better. The more Jackson could focus on the reality instead of the fantasy, the easier it would be to live with the man.
“So you have no problem living with me?”
There was a pause, and then Dan spoke, seemingly surprised by the question. “It might take me a bit to get used to the blind thing, but yeah. More likely you’ll get sick of me first,” Dan admitted with shocking candor.
Lyn was being no help with body language and facial expressions, so Jackson had to forge on. Did Dan not know? Had she omitted that detail?
Jackson took a breath and prepared himself for hearing Dan turn down the room. “No. I mean because I’m gay.”
The silence in the room was thick for only a fraction of a second, although it felt much longer, but then Dan burst out laughing. “Yeah, I know.” Dan had to pause for a minute because he was laughing so hard. “Wow, Lyn wasn’t kidding when she said you could be really serious sometimes. Look,” Dan said, then let out a huff as if catching his English. “I’m just happy to have a room at all, especially one that’s furnished and within walking distance to the school. The fact that this place isn’t a dump is an added bonus. Just keep your business to yourself and I’ll keep mine and we’ll get along great.”
Despite how reassuring this all was, it unsettled Jackson a little how quiet Lyn was being. He wouldn’t even have been sure she was still there, since he had no peripheral vision, if it wasn’t for the fact that he could occasionally hear her shift or breathe.
Making sure he had a firm hold on his coffee, he sought her out with his other hand until he found her arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. He turned his head toward her, but he didn’t say anything.
“I’m fine,” she said in her voice that said she definitely was not fine. Then she cleared her throat. “Well, if Jackson has no objections, I don’t see why you couldn’t move in as early as tomorrow, Mr. Oldendorf. I have the lease prepared and ready to sign.”
“Oh my God, really? That would be amazing. I’ve been sleeping on the floor at my friend’s place, and his girlfriend’s been threatening to kick me out for days.”
“I guess it’s settled, then,” Jackson said a little more tightly than he’d intended.
“Sounds good to me,” Dan said, and a moment later Jackson heard him stand up.
Off to his side, he heard Lyn get to her feet, followed by the shuffling of papers and the click of a pen. “Do you need to read it first?”
Dan didn’t respond verbally, so Jackson guessed he had either nodded or shook his head.
“OK. I’ve marked where you should sign,” Lyn said, in professional mode.
Jackson sipped his coffee as he listened to the scrape of pen on paper as Dan signed everything.
“Great,” Lyn said. “You’re all set. We’ll have a set of keys for you tomorrow. Jackson, you want to show Mr. Oldendorf out?”
“That’s what my students call me. Just Dan is fine.”
Lyn didn’t say anything. Maybe she’d nodded. Without a word she took the coffee from Jackson’s hands, startling him. Something was off with her, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on what.
Jackson was surprised that when he stood up, Dan drew closer and offered his arm, placing Jackson’s hand on his elbow.
Jackson wanted to tell him he didn’t need his help, but then that would mean admitting he hadn’t needed it earlier. It’d have to come out at some point, but now wasn’t the time. “Call before you come by with your things, please,” Jackson said, trying to ignore the way his stomach clenched every time he felt the subtle flex of Dan’s muscles beneath his touch.
“I’m starting to think that should be your nickname.” They were almost at the front door, if he hadn’t been too distracted he’d miscounted.
“We’re at the door,” Dan said without addressing Jackson’s remark other than the faintest chuckle. “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” he added, and it was almost like they were ending an awkward first date, of which Jackson had had his share. At least Dan didn’t seem weirded out by the whole blindness thing, and his nonchalant attitude apparently carried over into Jackson’s sexuality, too.
“Yeah,” Jackson said. They were facing each other now, the way they may have if this were a date and they were at that moment when they each had to decide if they were going to take this to the next step or decide to leave well enough alone. Jackson had had a few casual sexual encounters in college, but mostly he’d preferred to actually get to know the guy before jumping into bed with him. Lyn had teased him that he was “such a girl” sometimes, but as much as he loved sex, he wanted more than that. Maybe because he was too antisocial. Maybe if he had friends he could talk to, he wouldn’t care if he sucked off some guy and then never heard from him again.
“So . . .” Dan said, and it was the first time his casual certainty dropped away. “I didn’t want to ask this in front of your sister, but . . . I don’t need to help you, right? I mean . . . shit.” A sound like Dan was rubbing the back of his head or something. Shuffling his feet. “I don’t want to sound like a dick, but you’re the only blind person I’ve ever met. And I’m not home much. I mean, I basically shower and sleep, occasionally eat, but other than that . . .”
Jackson chuckled. He felt like the tables had turned. “The only reason I’m taking on a roommate is to help cover the insurance payment. Post-Katrina, you need to sell a few organs to keep up.”
Dan laughed faintly, and it sounded like he was relaxing a little.
Jackson really wanted to reach over and touch Dan’s shoulder, slide down over his chest. Was it muscled too? What about his stomach? Dammit, he really had to stop thinking that way. Especially if he was going to be living with the guy. At least Dan would probably be out most of the time. “I can get around fine on my own,” Jackson said, deciding maybe it was a good time to own up. “I just figured it’d be easier for us not to run into each other if you led me during the tour.” OK, well, whoever said honesty is the best policy had never been a gay man in a straight world.
Dan’s full laugh burst out. “All right. Fair enough. See you tomorrow.” Jackson could almost hear Dan cringe. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. English is what it is. Short of a few choice slurs, it’s pretty hard to offend me.”
Dan suddenly took Jackson’s hand, and Jackson’s heart skipped a beat. No man had ever done this to him before. Yeah, he’d been attracted to plenty, but a simple innocent touch like this had never felt like every nerve in his body was straining for more. More of Dan. Especially since it felt less like Dan was manipulating Jackson’s hand for a goodbye handshake and more like the gentle touch of a lover, a thumb brushed along the top of his hand for only a second. It was probably all in Jackson’s head, but it took everything he had to simply go along with the shake instead of pulling Dan close.
The handshake ended, Dan withdrew, and a moment later came the sound of the locks clicking and the squeal of the hinge as he opened the door, all the outdoor smells of earlier fighting to steal away the lingering aroma of Dan’s cologne.
Jackson let out a ridiculous soft sigh that he was embarrassed about as soon as it left him, trying to cover it with a cough. He tilted his head to try and catch every sound of Dan’s retreating footsteps until he heard the man pause.
“And . . . I just waved to you.” A loud sigh.
Even though the sunlight washed out his vision, Jackson couldn’t help smiling. He waved. “See you tomorrow,” he very purposefully said, his smile growing a bit, especially when he heard Dan chuckle before he faded out of earshot.
Jackson felt the knobs three times to make sure he’d properly locked the front door, then he paused to listen. He could hear the sound of water running in the kitchen and the clink of ceramic as his sister cleaned up. He slid his fingertips along the wall as he walked to help him quickly find his way to the kitchen, his hand automatically moving over the door frame and down onto the cabinet until he was at her side.
“I’m fine,” Lyn said, and she sounded even less fine than before. The clatter of dishes in the sink got more purposeful like she was trying to make it clear to him she was busy.
Jackson leaned forward until he found the faucet and shut it off. “Something happened while I was giving Dan that tour.”
Lyn sighed and he saw a blur of color and the sound of her wiping her hands. “Do you still want to try that new restaurant? If we leave now, we may miss the rush.”
“It’s New Year’s Day. They’re probably closed,” Jackson reminded her. He stretched for her, finding her shoulder and resting his hand there. “What happened?”
Lyn pulled away, walked toward the region of the kitchen table, and Jackson heard her digging through her purse. The clatter of her compact, the jingle of her keys. “Kevin called.”
Lyn was Jackson’s only sibling, and she’d well established how vacant his social life was, so he had no idea if it was normal to loathe his brother-in-law as much as he did. He played nice--or at least he tried to--for Lyn’s sake, but there was something about Kevin that Jackson sensed. He couldn’t put his finger on it, and it was more than just how the man seemed to behave one way when he and Jackson were alone and totally different when Lyn was around. But he’d always treated Lyn well, and he made her happy, and if Lyn deserved anything, it was happiness and the chance for the family she’d been longing for.
Lyn finally stopped fiddling with her purse and turned to face him. “We got into a fight.”
Jackson crossed to her, held out his hand and was grateful when she took it so he didn’t have to try to find hers. “I’m sorry. Because you came home early?” Jackson had thought it strange that Kevin had stayed behind in Maui, but Lyn had explained that the last minute flight change was exorbitant and everything, including a round of golf at an expensive course, had already been paid for, so she’d insisted Kevin stay the remaining days. That had still struck Jackson as odd, but as the signed lease proved, Lyn had a way of getting what she wanted, and if she wanted a few days alone with her brother, well.
“That’s part of it,” Lyn said, squeezing his hand and then releasing it so she could sit down.
Jackson felt for the other chair, and once his fingers touched the back, he pulled it out, used his other hand to help orient himself with the seat, and also sat.
“He’s not coming home.” Lyn’s voice had that quality in it that told him she was trying not to let any emotion leak into it, and yet some was anyway.
“Did something happen?” Jackson slid his hand across the table, offering her the chance for support if she wanted it.
She draped her small hand on his. “Apparently some important oil guy was here on a visit and saw the last house he did--you know that one in the Garden District? And wants him to design a house for him in Houston and another for his ranch. It was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down. There’s a lot of potential money in Texas, and this could mean connections.”
Wait. “Are you going to have to move?” A flare of panic rose up. Not even Katrina could tear the two siblings away from New Orleans. They’d never even considered not coming back. And as much as he had been fighting for his independence as recently as a few hours ago, the thought of his sister moving 300 miles away made an explosion of loneliness bloom in his chest.
“What? I . . . I don’t think so. I don’t know.” She sighed. “But he’s going to be in Houston for a few days, maybe even a couple weeks. He said he’s not even coming home since he already has the Honolulu to Houston flight. He just won’t take the connection.”
It didn’t seem like a great start to a marriage if they hadn’t even finished their honeymoon and already were going to be apart. But Lyn was upset enough. In fact, Jackson sensed that a few days apart wasn’t the real reason Lyn was behaving the way she was. Jackson pulled his sunglasses off and set them on the table, then he tried his hardest to approximate eye contact for her. “Lyn?”
She squeezed his hand. “It’s just . . .” And he heard her voice waver, and a sniffle. “He knows my schedule. My schedule,” Lyn repeated with emphasis. Lyn had been trying to get pregnant practically since she met Kevin, but more seriously since they got engaged a year ago, and especially at her age, she’d explained (unnecessarily in Jackson’s opinion) about tracking her fertile periods and making sure those days didn’t go to waste.
“Oh,” Jackson said as it began to sank in. They’d be apart for those important days.
“He told me we’d just try again next month. But I can’t risk losing any chances. What if this was the month it finally happened?” Suddenly, and a little unexpectedly, Lyn burst into tears.
“Hey. Hey, come here,” Jackson said, waving her toward him and then patting his lap.
“Don’t be silly,” she said with a light chuckle, although he could still hear her tears.
“You need a hug and it’s easier this way.”
She sighed but she braced one hand on his shoulder and sat in his lap, letting him wrap his arms around her. “What would I do without you, Jacky?” she asked, leaning her head on his shoulder.
“Be sad,” he replied, the way he always had when he was little. “You already have the days off work since you weren’t supposed to be back from your honeymoon till next week, right?”
She sniffled. “Yeah?” she asked, clearly confused
“So go to Houston. Yeah, he’ll be working, but I’m sure he could spare a few minutes for his beautiful wife.” Jackson squeezed her tight. “Dan moves in tomorrow, and I have lesson plans to make and that manuscript that’s been mocking me for months, so I have plenty to occupy me. Plus, Ms. Susan already promised to feed me,” he said with some levity. “I’m sure Kevin didn’t mean to hurt you,” Jackson said even though he didn’t really mean it. But Lyn needed to hear it. “You know how we men are. We get set in our ways. Kevin’s been living on his own for more than twenty years. It’ll take him time to adjust. And who knows? Maybe in a couple weeks you’ll call me to tell me it finally happened and a little Lyn is on her way.” He shifted his hold on her to tickle her belly lightly.
“You really think so?” Lyn said, calmer and hopeful.
“Remember what your doctor said. Stress decreases the chance it’ll happen. So don’t think about it. Just finish your honeymoon. Do some shopping. Visit some of your traitor friends who never came back home after Katrina. And when you return, you and I can try that restaurant. Today we’ll veg and eat junk and relax.”
“You’re the best, Jacky,” Lyn said. “I want you to have what I have too, someday. Don’t you want that?”
A soft laugh escaped Jackson’s lips. “I’m pretty sure I can’t get pregnant, but I suppose I could try.”
“Stop it,” Lyn said, whacking him playfully. “You know what I mean. You don’t want to meet some stunningly handsome man who will sweep you off your feet? You don’t want to get married? You know, now that it’s finally legal?” That was another inside joke of theirs, since Jackson had been thoroughly convinced Louisiana would secede from the Union first.
Jackson sighed. Yes, he wanted that, but he’d long ago accepted it would never happen. He’d never even had a real relationship. God, he didn’t even have sex nowadays. How the hell was he supposed to meet Mr. Right?
“It’ll happen,” Lyn said, reassuring him the way he had her. “You have time. I found Kevin, didn’t I?” She kissed his cheek. “It’s a shame Dan isn’t gay. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought the way he was looking at you . . . but he’s kind of a strange guy. I’m probably misinterpreting it.”
That got Jackson’s attention. “I refuse to release you until you explain every one of these facial expressions you supposedly saw,” Jackson said with feigned intenseness, pretending to grip her tighter.
“Jackson!” she squealed. “Uncle! Let me book my flight and then I’ll spill.”