As I picked up the last box, a photograph fluttered to the ground. Two preteen boys with their arms wrapped around each other smiled at the camera. They rocked mullets and sleeveless t-shirts, their mischievous grins bright for all to see. When I flipped it over, I immediately recognized the chicken scratch scribbled on the back—My best friend.
Mason. We were closer than brothers, permanently joined at the hip, as my mother would say. Where there was one, you’d find the other. Memories flooded my mind. Sleepovers and camping. Basketball and music. Skinny dipping. First kisses.
Somewhere along the way, an invisible wedge had been driven between us. Whether it was by teenage angst or stupidity, I couldn’t remember. As time went by, he gained his circle of friends, and I did mine. Neither included the other. He was the jock, and I was the nerd. He was also my first love.
The later years of high school passed in a blur, and we both left for college in separate places, moving on with our lives. In the picture, we were laughing and happy. I didn’t think I’d been that happy since. Especially now.
I glanced around the empty room. It wasn’t easy when a loved one passed away. Often, the living were left to clean up many years’ worth of possessions and memories. My childhood home was full of them. Mischeviousness and silliness. Laughter and love. Anger and grief.
My father passed away when I was only a baby, leaving a single mother to raise a rowdy boy who’d rather get into trouble than help around the house. But she did it. She was my strongest supporter and confidant. Sorrow washed over me. Nobody would ever fill her shoes.
When I came out to her at only twelve, she hugged me and said, “Okay, then.” When I confessed my love for Mason, she took my hand and told me life would be full of happiness and heartache. But it was how we handled it that mattered.
I shoved the box into my trunk, slamming the lid, and stared at the photograph still in my hand. Maybe that wedge wasn’t so invisible after all. Maybe I was the one to drive it there.
Back at the hotel, I lay the picture on the nightstand against the lamp and waited for the lawyer’s call to schedule the closing tomorrow. I dreaded it. It would make everything real, but it needed to be done.
One of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make was whether to sell the home I grew up in. How did you make those kinds of memories anywhere else? But my life was in the city. I had a job, a condo, and friends. Well, more like acquaintances. We’d sometimes hit a bar for drinks after work, but I’d never had the desire to form any other kind of relationship with them. I glanced at the picture. Other than my mom, there’d been no one I was closer to than Mason. My best friend.
Would he recognize me now? Contacts replaced glasses, dress shirts and suits replaced t-shirts and ripped jeans, a pompadour replaced the mullet. I chuckled at the memory. At one point, we’d thought we were the next up-and-coming eighties rock band. Neither of us had a lick of musical talent.
My stomach rumbled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten since I got here. I folded the picture and placed it in my wallet. The hotel had a restaurant where I could grab dinner and a drink. The bar only had one other patron, so I took a seat on the other end.
“What can I get you?” The perky blonde bartender laid a napkin down in front of me.
“Gin and tonic, please. And can I get a menu?”
“Sure thing. I’ll be right back with your drink.”
I pulled the picture out of my wallet. What was Mason up to now? Did he still live here? Or had he moved away as I did? Would he even want to see me now? Had he moved on? I couldn’t help the feeling I needed to reach out to him, to make things right between us again. My best friend.
Before long, a cheeseburger and fries appeared in front of me, pulling me out of my reverie.
“Excuse me, can I get an amber ale, please?” Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a man sitting down beside me.
“Sure!” the bartender responded.
I placed the picture face down on the bar and continued eating. Melancholy threatened to wash over me, and I dropped my fork onto the plate. I’d cried enough already.
“Hey, are you okay?” the gruff voice beside me asked.
When I glanced up, shock tore through me. His sandy blonde hair was pulled up in a bun on top of his head. Laughlines gathered around his lips, and I’d recognize those blue eyes anywhere. “Mason?”
He studied my face for a moment. “Oliver? Is that you?”
I nodded, too tongue-tied to respond.
“Holy shit, man!” He reached over and grabbed me, pulling me into his warm embrace.
It felt like home.
“I didn’t think I was going to see you. I thought you’d be long gone by now, back to the city.”
I pulled back. His words confused me. Had he been looking for me? “No, I had a few things left of mom’s to pack up.”
He took my hand in his. “Yeah, I’m so sorry. I couldn’t get here in time for the funeral. She was like a mother to me, too. I know you miss her.”
My mom always treated Mason like a second son. She never hesitated to spoil him as she did me or dole out an equal punishment when we got into trouble. “She loved you, you know. Always said she had two boys, not one.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, and she didn’t mind giving me a swat or two when I deserved it.” He took a sip of his drink. “So, tell me what you’ve been up to. I knew you moved to the city. What’s been happening with you?”
I told him about my job as a curator with the natural science museum in the city, and he told me he taught physical education at our old high school. He’d also landed the head football coach position. It didn’t surprise me. He’d always loved kids, and while I had my nose stuck in a book, he tossed a football around, always eager to help the little ones in the neighborhood learn how to play.
“Last call. Can I get you guys anything else?”
I looked at my watch. We’d talked and laughed for hours. It was like we’d always stayed in touch. Never stopped being friends. “Oh, man. I’d better get to bed. I’ve got an early day tomorrow.”
“Uh, yeah, me too.” He fidgeted in his seat. “Are you going to be in town for a while? I’d like to catch up some more.”
The hopeful look on his face had me readily agreeing. “I’d like that. I’ve got a meeting at nine. Maybe we could meet for lunch.”
“That sounds good. What’s your number? That way, if something comes up, we can get in touch with the other.”
As I reached for my phone, I knocked the photo onto the floor. Mason bent down and picked it up. A huge grin spread across his face. “I remember this. It was our rock band faze.” He flipped it over. “My best friend,” he whispered and lifted his sad eyes. “I remember when I wrote that.”
We spoke at the same time. I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry, Mason. I should never have…”
“Yes, you should have.” My eyes shot to his. Remorse filled his voice “I’m the one who should apologize for the way I acted. You were my best friend. I thought I knew everything about you, but the moment you confided in me, I bolted like a frightened rabbit. Truth is, you made me realize something about myself I wasn’t willing to accept at the time. Being around you was too painful, so I distanced myself from you.”
I let out a humorless scoff. “Couldn’t be seen with the gay kid, right? It might rub off on you.” I turned and threw money on the bar, unbridled anger bubbling to the surface. “Don’t worry. Gay’s not contagious, even from a kiss.”
He grabbed my arm, preventing me from leaving. “No, that’s not it at all. I realized I was gay too. I realized I liked you and wanted more but was just too scared to accept the truth.”
Shock hit me like a train. Mason was gay?
He chuckled. “Don’t look so surprised. It took me a lot of soul-searching years to finally accept I liked guys, not girls. I dated, did what society expected of me, what my parents expected of me. You know how they were.” While I had a loving and accepting mother, Mason didn’t with either parent. More than once, his father told us we spent too much time together, and what would people think? But we didn’t care. All we knew was we wanted to be together.
“When pops passed away while I was in college, I decided I was tired of living how everyone expected me to. I wanted to live the way I was born to live. So, I went a little crazy.” A blush stained his cheeks and he laughed. I couldn’t help but smile. At that moment, he reminded me of the thirteen-year-old boy I fell in love with.
“Anyway, I wanted to reach out to you. I’d picked up the phone many times to call your mom and ask her for your number, but I was afraid she was as angry with me as I was with myself.” He still gripped the photo in one hand and my arm with the other.
“She would have understood.”
His sad voice almost brought tears to my eyes. “I know. It’s too late now, and I hate that. More than you know.”
We stared at each other until the bartender interrupted us. “Sorry, guys. I’ve got to close up.”
He handed me the picture. “I have a lot more to tell you. Promise me you’ll meet me for lunch.”
“Of course I will.”
“Good night, Oliver.”
“Night.” I watched him leave, unsure what to think about his revelation.
The next morning, I rushed to the attorney’s office. As I opened the door, I ran into a large body. When I looked up, Mason stared down at me. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to sign the papers for the closing. Why are you here?”
He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh, well see…”
“Ah, Mr. St. James and Mr. Wilson. Perfect timing. Will you both come to my office? I think we can get this done fairly quickly. I have everything ready.” Mr. Warford, the attorney handling the closing, ushered us into a room with a large table. Stacks of papers sat on each side.
Mason looked everywhere but at me. What was going on?
“We rarely have the seller and the buyer in the same room, but it’s my understanding you two know each other, so I thought it would be easier on everyone to do this together.” He started sifting through the papers in front of him.
I stared at Mason. “You’re buying my house?” For the second time since we’d reconnected, he surprised me.
“I was going to tell you at lunch. When I saw your old house was for sale, I couldn’t let just anyone have it. I wanted to keep it. I have good memories there too.” A flash of something I didn’t want to name went through his eyes.
“Excellent! Let’s get this done.” Mr. Warford handed me a piece of paper, explaining what it was. I signed where he said and passed it to Mason. We continued until all the documents were signed and initialed. He handed me a check and the keys to Mason.
“Congratulations, Mr. Wilson, on your new home.”
We walked out of the office. I didn’t know what to say. What could I say? Everything over the last two days had left me off-kilter.
“You’re not going to have lunch with me, are you?” Sadness drifted off Mason in waves. I could hardly bear it. After all these years, he still touched a part deep in my soul, the piece missing for over ten years.
“I-I need time to process all this.”
“It’s okay. Call me if you want to talk.”
I watched him walk away and felt that familiar tug I used to feel when he was around. The one where an invisible string tethered us together and pulled taut when we were apart. The one I thought had broken the day he finally stopped talking to me. It hurt.
When I made it back to the hotel, my mind swirled with everything that had happened the last couple of days. I don’t know which shocked me more: Mason being gay or him buying my house. Did either matter? My best friend.
I pulled out the picture from my wallet and stared at the two smiling faces. We weren’t boys anymore, but could we still be friends? Could we be more? Was that love I’d seen in his eyes earlier today? Love for me?
We’d forgotten to give each other our numbers last night, distracted by the picture. I quickly ruffled through the papers from the closing and found his contact information. My heart raced as I dialed his number.
“Hello?” His gruff voice sent a tingle down my spine.
“Mason, it’s Oliver. Would you like to have dinner tonight?”
He paused, and I wondered if I’d misread his interest. When he responded, my heart fluttered for an entirely different reason. “I’d love to, more than you know. You’re my best friend.”
One year later…
We laughed as we rushed up the steps, dodging a mud puddle. The umbrella was useless to cover two men at the same time. He tried to keep it hovered over me, but we both ended up soaked. I pushed open the door, and we dashed inside as a crack of thunder shook the house.
“Whoa! That was close.”
I chuckled at his long locks lying plastered to his head. His man bun had come undone a long time ago. “Whose idea was it to have a picnic at the park when the meteorologist said there was a chance of thunderstorms?”
He wrapped his arms around me from behind and rubbed his scruffy chin on my neck. “Well, you enjoyed it anyway, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did. Any time we get a few hours away is worth soaked underwear.”
His laughter rang through the house. New furniture filled every room now—not the stuff I knew growing up. This was just ours—things we picked out together when he asked me to move in. We’d painted and repaired what needed fixing until the house almost felt brand new.
The one thing neither of us had to compromise on was the pictures lining the mantle and walls. Pictures of my mom, me growing up, him growing up, and us together—new and old. And in the center of the mantle sat the picture of the two of us with our arms wrapped around each other, smiling at the camera with shit-eating grins, mullet hair, and ripped jeans. The top of the frame said it all—My best friend.