Hometown Hearts by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2018 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
We went to La Cocina to eat, since it was around the corner. And the moment we walked in, a wave of nostalgia hit me at the scent of homemade tortilla chips and spicy meat. It smelled just as I remembered it all the way back from when I was a kid. The décor hadn’t changed much either, with the same high-backed red vinyl booths and laminated tables. Even the same brightly colored Mexican tile covered the floor.
Although it was lunchtime and the place was busy, the hostess seated us right away. Jay and I slid into opposite sides of one of the booths near the front window, and seconds later a busboy set a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa on the table between us and took our drink orders, which he was back with in less than a minute. The service here had always been quick, and clearly that hadn’t changed either.
Meanwhile, Jay and I shrugged out of our coats, and Jay took off his hat and set it on the seat next to him. Then we just kind of stared at one another, grinning, for several seconds.
“You look good,” Jay said. “I like the beard.”
I snorted at that. “Beard is so far from what this is,” I said, scraping a hand over it. “More like several days of being too lazy to shave.”
“Very hipster of you. But I still like it.”
“Yeah? Hmm. You look good, too. Real good.”
“Older. I found a couple of gray hairs recently.”
“Yeah, well, I probably have some, too. I’m not looking that closely, ’cause I’d rather not see them if they’re there. I’m not sure how we got to be thirty-somethings when it doesn’t seem like that long ago we were in high school.”
“Ha. Speak for yourself. High school feels like forever ago. Especially when I see them.” He nodded toward a table of teenagers on the other side of the restaurant, who were loud and giggling. They were probably on winter break and enjoying the heck out of being away from school.
“Look at ’em,” he said under his breath. “They’re babies.”
Yeah, they really kind of were. “Damn. There is something to be said for having a little age and maturity under our belts, isn’t there?”
“Oh yeah.” Jay’s gaze returned to mine, his deep blue eyes sparkling. “Besides, who would want to go back to all the angst and drama of teenage life? I’ll take the steady calm of thirty-three any day.”
Outwardly, I smiled, but inside I cringed, since the past week for me had been chock full of drama and angst. More than I’d probably ever experienced in high school. Still, I knew what Jay meant.
“Yeah, definitely wouldn’t want to go back to the days of acne. And no driver’s license,” I said.
“Or Miss Hartsell’s pop quizzes in freshman health class. Remember those?”
“Oh my God. They were so bad. ‘List the five steps to putting on a condom.’”
“And then she made us actually practice on vegetables. The boys and the girls,” Jay said, shaking his head.
“Yeah, until Holly… Damn, what was her last name?”
“Steinbeck? Steinberry?” Jay offered. “Something like that. She was only in school with us for that one year.”
“Right. Her dad went to the school board about it, remember? Saying the experience had traumatized her.”
Jay laughed. “I think it traumatized us all. After that, probably because she didn’t want to get fired, Miss Hartsell spent the rest of the semester on the safe topic of ‘the importance of staying hydrated.’”
“‘Your body depends on water to survive!’” we both said at the same time, as we quoted the teacher’s constant mantra.
“Wow, I hadn’t thought of any of that in ages,” I said.
“Yeah, well, for good reason. Some things are better left unremembered.” He dunked a chip into the salsa bowl. “The whole condoms on zucchini is something I would gladly never think of again.”
“And yet, you were the one to bring it up. Thanks for that.”
He laughed again. “Well, somebody’s gotta be the pot-stirrer. See, you’ve missed me, haven’t you?”
The question caught me off guard, even though I knew he said it in jest. Because the truth was, damn it, I had missed him.
“For what it’s worth, in spite of you having brought your extra-large, teenage shit-stirring spoon today…I actually have missed you.” I said the last probably more seriously than the situation warranted. But being with Jay for only a few minutes, after six years apart, felt more comfortable than…well, if I were being completely honest with myself, more comfortable than most of the time I’d spent with Shane over the past few years. Which begged the question, why hadn’t I noticed that?
“You okay?” Jay asked. “You kind of zoned out there for a second.”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
“Well, for the record, I’ve missed you, too. When I moved back here this past January, it was weird. Weird to live here as an adult. But even weirder to be in this town without you. Every time I’d turn a corner, I’d think, ‘That’s where Hunter and I rode our bikes when we were kids, or that’s where we used to run to get in shape for baseball season in high school until they ripped out the running trail and built ski condos there.’”
“That’s kind of how I felt last night driving into town, seeing the old elementary school where we first met had been torn down.”
“Yeah. Strange that the playground where we used to play kickball is now a bank parking lot.”
The waiter came to take our order then, interrupting our talking. But as soon as I’d ordered the green chili cheese enchilada plate—which I’d always loved here, but I might regret later, given how uncooperative my gut had been recently—and Jay ordered the carnitas tacos, our conversation picked right back up where we’d left off.
“You were living in Seattle last time I saw you. Doing graphic design. What brought you back here after all the time away?”
A shadow of pain passed over Jay’s face. “My grandpa died the end of December last year.”
The knot in my belly, which had eased a bit since I’d run into Jay, twisted back to life. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry, Jay. I didn’t know. What happened?”
Jay’s grandpa had always been full of life and energy, with an easy smile on his face. And he hadn’t been that old either, maybe in his mid-seventies.
“Cancer. He’d apparently known about it since last November, but by the time they found it, it had already spread and was terminal. There wasn’t really anything they could do that would give him much extra time, so he chose not to even try to fight it. He didn’t tell anyone, not even me, because he didn’t want to”—he made air quotes—“‘spoil anyone’s Christmas.’ He wanted to play Santa one last time at the holiday festival and do his usual thing at the tree farm. So, he did, and no one had any idea he was dying as he helped people cut down their Christmas trees and handed out candy and gifts to kids.”
Jay shook his head, grief clouding his eyes. “I’d come for a visit a few days before Christmas and noticed he wasn’t as spry as usual. He seemed tired. And thinner. He wasn’t eating much. When I asked him about it, he said it had been a particularly busy year and he’d catch up on his sleep and proper eating after the holidays. It bothered me, but I didn’t have any real reason to disbelieve him, so I took him at his word. And then, the day after Christmas, we were out in his woodworking shop, where he was showing me some of his newest projects he’d started, and he just…collapsed. At the hospital later is when I found out the truth. He only lived four more days after that.”
Acting purely on instinct, I reached across the table and rested a hand atop Jay’s. “I am so, so sorry. I can’t even imagine a world without your grandpa in it. He was always one of my favorite people. And I can only guess at how hard that must have been for you.”
It was meant to be a brief touch, offering comfort, but before I could pull my hand away, to my surprise, Jay turned his palm up and curled his fingers around mine. The contact felt completely natural in a weird way, but at the same time, I was acutely aware of how unusual it was. For a moment, I felt the urge to glance around the restaurant to see if anyone noticed. I was used to the occasional judging stare and seldom thought twice about it at this point in my life—Oh no, two men holding hands, God forbid! I just didn’t want Jay to have to deal with it unnecessarily. But he didn’t seem concerned, so I pushed down my urge to protect him.
“Thanks,” he said quietly. “I wish…” He sighed. “I wish he’d told me sooner so I hadn’t had to find out the way I did. So I could have come home earlier and spent more time with him. In the hospital, he said he’d intended to tell me before I went back to Seattle, he just didn’t get to it quickly enough. I think he figured he still had a few more weeks. But, I guess I take some comfort in knowing he died the same way he lived.”
“On his own terms?” Grandpa Fred, as he’d insisted I call him whenever I’d been at his house with Jay, had always marched to the beat of his own drum. He used to say, “I don’t give two hoots or a frog holler what anyone else thinks.”
Jay nodded. “He said he didn’t want to have people crying over him as he endured weeks of doctor visits and hospital stays, and he got his wish. He kept on living his life like he always had until he just couldn’t anymore, and then a few days later he was gone.”
“That sounds like him. No fuss, no muss.”
“Yeah, so totally him. He left me everything—the tree farm, the house, he’d even named me the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. I was surprised. I figured my mom would get most of it, in spite of them having a falling out a few years back, but he said no, he wanted me to have it all. And he’d been planning it for a while. It turned out he’d updated his will to that effect fifteen years ago, the year I graduated from high school.”
“And so you came back here to live.”
“I did. His attorney told me Grandpa would have understood if I wanted to sell it all, but I couldn’t do that, Hunter. I couldn’t…” His face scrunched. “I couldn’t imagine strangers living in his house or not taking care of his trees the way he liked or working in his woodshop. It felt wrong to even think about it. So, after I’d settled his urgent affairs, I went to Seattle, packed up my things, and here I am.”
The waiter brought our food, once again interrupting our conversation. This time I wished he’d had better timing because his arrival caused Jay and me to awkwardly let go of one another’s hands. I don’t know why, but I felt that loss of contact like a sharp pang in my heart. And the weirder thing was, I was pretty sure Jay felt the same way, given the quick flash of regret I saw in his eyes before he turned to thank the waiter.
It bothered me that I hadn’t known of his grandfather’s death. Surely my mom would have told me about something like that, but she’d never mentioned it, or the fact Jay was living here again. Maybe…I don’t know, maybe it had been so long since I’d been in touch with Jay, my mom assumed it wouldn’t be important to me. But it was, damn it. Just like Kevin and Maddy’s miscarriages were. Had I somehow given the impression I didn’t care about anyone here anymore? Last night, Kevin’s furious words that I had shut everyone out because I was too busy with my own life had shocked me, but I was starting to wonder if there was a grain of truth to it.
“Sorry, that’s probably way more than you wanted to know about me and my recent life,” Jay said, pouring the hot salsa from the chips onto his tacos.
I smiled, since I’d seen him do that very thing dozens of times over the years.
“You and the salsa. As if those things aren’t spicy enough already. It’s nice to know some things haven’t changed at all.”
He smiled, too, and shrugged. “I like ’em this way.”
“I know. And for the record, don’t apologize for telling me what’s been going on. You’ve dealt with more than your fair share of grief and change this past year. I’m sorry I didn’t know and wasn’t a better friend.”
“You have a life, Hunter. It’s okay.”
That sent a twinge of guilt through me since, apparently, my “life” had distanced me from the people I cared about.
“And speaking of…” Jay continued, “it’s your turn to talk. Tell me what’s going on with you. I tried to look you up on social media a few years back, when I still had a Facebook account, but I couldn’t find you aside from some professional law websites.”
“I’m not on social media, not personally anyway. Just have never really had time. Our firm has a Facebook page, but we have someone who handles it for us.”
“I run into Maddy every now and then and it sounds like law is treating you well. She says you have your own firm now. How’s it going? How’s life in general?”
“Things are…fine.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell him the truth. How did you tell your oldest friend you hadn’t seen in six years, who’d just finished sharing with you the huge loss in his life, that you were home for the holidays because you apparently didn’t have what it took to keep your partner sexually satisfied? It seemed pathetically shallow in comparison.
Jay’s brows drew together. “Um, you do remember I’ve known you since fourth grade, right?”
“Yeahhh,” I said, not following him.
“Which means…” He paused, as if giving me a chance to fill in the blank, but I couldn’t. He shook his head. “Which means I can still tell when you’re feeding me a line of bullshit. From the look on your face and the way you said that, things are clearly not fine.”
Damn. I’d forgotten Jay had always been able to tell when I was trying to pull one over on him. I used to tease him about being the human lie detector.
“Oh…shit,” I said slowly.
“I’m overstepping my bounds, aren’t I?” he said grimacing. “Sorry. You don’t have to respond to that. We haven’t seen each other in a long time and it’s not really my place anymore to—”
“Oh, shut up. It is, too, your place. We may not have seen each other in a while, but I still consider you my best friend. Even if I’ve been a crappy one lately.”
And I did, too, consider him my best friend. I couldn’t quite get past my amazement at how comfortable being with him was, even after so many years apart. Time may have passed, we might have grown older, lived different lives, but aside from my parents, Jay had always been the person I trusted most, the person with whom I’d been able to share everything. Well, almost everything.
A faint, surprised smile curved his lips. “You do? Think of us that way still?”
“Yes. And I’m sorry I haven’t kept in better touch.”
“It’s a two-way street. It’s not like I’ve been any better.”
“Yeah, well, I’m kind of feeling like I’ve been out of touch with a lot of people here I care about and I’m not very proud of that fact.” The knot in my gut gave a twinge. “And to answer your question honestly, things…have been better, but I’m doing okay.”
“Then why do you not look distinctly not okay as you’re saying those words?”
“Damn.” I huffed out a soft, half laugh. “How do you do that?”
He smiled, too, but his tone was apologetic. “I don’t know. I can just always tell with you.”
I shook my head, sobering. “All right, but I don’t want to scar you with too many intimate details—”
“For God’s sake, Hunter, you’re not going to scar me. Just talk.”
“Ugh. Fine. So, five years ago another attorney and I started a corporate law practice together. It’s grown into a fairly lucrative and well-respected firm with quite a few high-profile clients.”
“That sounds like a good thing.”
“It is. Was. The problem is, this other attorney and I also became involved personally and, for the past four years, we’ve been living together. As pathetic as it sounds, I had no idea anything was amiss in our relationship, but apparently it was. I found out last week he’s been f—, um, seeing somebody else. Which is bad enough in and of itself, but the man he’s been secretly screwing around with is the well-known sleazebag CEO of a major company, who also happens to be married. Since I know now I can’t trust him at all, not only do I not want to be in a personal relationship with him anymore, I sure as hell don’t want to be his business partner either. Which is going to be ugly to get out of. So…yeah. Not my best week ever. But compared to what’s been going on in your life, Jay—”
“What a fucking asshole,” Jay gritted out, cutting me off. His voice was so low only I could hear it. “I don’t even know this guy and I hate him.”
His reaction both surprised me and gave me little jolt of pleasure, to have him so angry on my behalf when he didn’t know jack shit about Shane.
“Yeah, me, too,” I murmured.
“I hope like hell you don’t think his lack of loyalty or scruples are in any way your fault? Because I know that look on your face.”
Damn it, how did he do that?
“I don’t. Not really. But—”
“No. There are no ‘buts,’ Hunter.”
“Well, he clearly wasn’t happy in our relationship, so I must not have been giving him something he needed.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“Actually, no,” I said, sighing. “That’s one of the shittier parts of this whole thing—he never said a word or indicated anything was wrong. It completely blindsided me.”
“Which is why it wasn’t about you. Decent people who are unhappy in a relationship say so. They put it on the table for discussion so the other partner knows and they can work things out together, one way or the other. When they act like everything’s normal and then sneak off behind your back…” A pained looked crossed his face. “Trust me, it’s not about you doing anything wrong. It’s about them making themselves feel good.”
I sensed hurt behind his words and got the feeling he was speaking from experience. I wondered who had hurt him?
“I’m overstepping again,” Jay said, shaking his head with an apologetic smile. “I should probably shut up now.”
“No, I want to hear what you’re thinking. Tell me. Maybe you can give me some perspective and point out something I can’t see. Because, like I said, everything seemed normal, until I got home and found them in— Well, in a position I wish I didn’t ever have to think about again.”
Jay’s eye grew wide. “Holy shit, he was doing it in your house?”
“I guess he thought I’d still be at work.”
“What a dirt bag! Why would a high-end attorney cheat in his own house rather than get a room? I mean, I assume he and the CEO had plenty of money. Why take the risk when it would be so easy for them to sneak off to a nice hotel?”
I hadn’t thought of that. And I didn’t know why I hadn’t. But now that Jay had said it, it had me wondering. Why would Shane and Kilgannon have gone to our apartment and even used our bed when, yeah, I would never have known if they’d gotten a room at a hotel for a few hours? He’d told me he was having dinner with a client. Those often ran long into the night and ended at a club somewhere for drinks. He could have come home at two or three in the morning and never triggered my suspicions in the least.
Which made me think again about how casually defensive Shane had been about the whole thing, as if it were perfectly normal and I was overreacting. My mom had said he’d probably acted that way because it validated his bad behavior. But Jay was right, why would Shane have taken the risk in the first place? He wasn’t dumb, not remotely. So…what did that mean? Had Shane wanted me to catch them? What would he have to gain by that?
God, the thought taunted me, but I couldn’t come up with a good answer beyond him just wanting to taunt me with his new man.
“I’m sorry,” Jay said again, looking genuinely contrite. “I really am a pot stirrer today.”
“No, it’s all stuff I hadn’t considered, so I appreciate the food for thought.”
“Look, it isn’t any of my business. I just… I can’t fathom how anyone could ever cheat on you. If I—” He frowned, then shook his head.
“If you what?”
“Nothing. It’s not important. It just pisses me off that he did this to you. I fucking hate users. But I really am going to close my mouth now. I think I’ve laid enough of my crap and opinions on you for one day.”
“I appreciate your opinions. I always have. And what you talked to me about earlier is not crap. What happened with your grandpa was huge and changed your life in a lot of fundamental ways.”
“It did,” he admitted. “But more and more I can see that it changed it for the better.”
“Well, I’m starting to think my recent shit show is also bringing about some changes for the better. Like, the fact I wouldn’t be here in Lodgepole right now otherwise, and I wouldn’t have run into you, literally-not-figuratively.”
Jay smiled again at that, and damn I’d forgotten just how beautiful his smile was.
“I’m unbelievably happy that you did almost plow me down out there,” he said. “Somehow, knowing you’re back in town, even if it’s for a little while, makes this place feel better.”
“This place as in La Cocina?”
“No, jerk, you know what I mean.”
I did. Because knowing he was here, too, made everything better for me as well, in a surprising way I’d never expected.
The conversation turned lighter after that, and we mostly reminisced over funny things that had happened to us growing up. Which meant that the timing was never quite right for the one question I very much wanted to ask him—if he had anyone special in his life right now. I kind of suspected he didn’t or he would have mentioned it. But I still wondered.
At some point later, after we’d probably long overstayed our welcome at the restaurant, we ended up back out on the sidewalk, where snow had begun to fall again. We walked around the corner and stopped next to my rental Jeep.
“This is me.”
“You headed home?” he asked.
“Almost. I need to run into the hardware store first.”
“Right, you had said that earlier. That’s actually where I was coming from when we bumped into each other. I’m parked right behind you.”
I checked out the black crew cab Toyota Tundra. “Nice. It looks brand new.”
“It is. Grandpa was still driving that same old truck he had when we were in school.”
“That old Ford? Holy crap, it was ancient when he had it back then.”
“Yeah, it was still running, miraculously, because he always took good care of his things, but not terribly practical anymore. So, I got rid of it and my SUV and bought this.”
“Well, it looks pretty.”
“I thought so. And useful.” He bit his lip, then said, “We should get together again while you’re here.”
“I’d love that.” Truth be told, I was already feeling unexplainably lonely and down at the thought of going our separate ways right now. But I needed to run my errand for Dad, and then go home and spend some time with my folks tonight. And I’m sure Jay had a life.
“Would tomorrow be too soon?” he asked. I smothered a chuckle at his eagerness. Hell, I felt the same way.
“I don’t have a single thing planned tomorrow beyond checking in with my assistant to see if anything urgent’s come up at work.”
“Okay, well, you wanna come over for dinner? Then maybe we can watch a movie or something? Although, be forewarned that my cooking skills haven’t really improved over the years.”
That smile. Argh.
And, okay, the little flutter in my belly that had nothing at all to do with the knot that had been there for days really needed to stop. Not that I preferred the knot…God knows I didn’t. But the flutter wasn’t good either and I needed to nip it in the bud. Right now.
Which didn’t in any way, though, stop me from saying, “Sure, that sounds good. Can I bring anything to, uh, help with the cooking skills?”
“A fire extinguisher?”
We both laughed, and, as we exchanged cell numbers, my heart was lighter, knowing that I’d be seeing Jay again soon.