“I’m sure they’d let you join in,” Maggie told us, waving toward the game.
Gus’s smile split wide in that rare, unrepentant way as he turned toward her. “I think we’ll just start with a drink.”
She patted his arm gently. “Oh, you’re Pete’s godson all right, Gussy. Let’s get you two some of my world-famous blue punch!”
She went on ahead, and as we followed, Gus cast a conspiratorial look my way that warned the drink would be terrible, but after our strained drive over, even that was enough to send heat down through my body, all the way to my toes. “World-infamous,” he whispered.
“Hey, do you know what kind of stone this path is made of?” I whispered back.
He shook his head in disbelief. “Just so you know, asking that question is the one thing I can never forgive you for.”
We’d stopped walking on the path, in a nook formed by lush foliage, out of view of both the beanbag toss and the deck.
“Gus,” I said. “Is everything okay?”
For a moment, his gaze was intense. He blinked and the expression vanished, a careful indifference replacing it. “Yeah, it’s nothing.”
“But there is an ‘it,’” I said.
Gus shook his head. “No. There’s no ‘it’ except the blue punch, and there will be a lot of that. Try to pace yourself.”
He started toward the deck again, leaving me to follow. When we reached it, Maggie already had two full-to-the-brim cups ready for us. I took a sip and did my best not to cough. “What’s in this?”
“Vodka,” Maggie said airily, ticking the ingredients off on her fingers. “Coconut rum. Blue curaçao. Tequila. Pineapple juice. A splash of regular rum. Do you like it?”
“It’s great,” I said. It smelled like an open bottle of nail polish remover.
“Gussy?” she asked.
“Wonderful,” he answered.
“Better than last year, isn’t it?” Pete said, abandoning her post at the grill to join us.
“At least more likely to strip the paint from a car if spilled,” Gus said.
Pete guffawed and smacked his arm. “You hear that, Mags? I told you this stuff could power a jet.”
Maggie smiled, unbothered by their teasing, and the light caught Gus’s face just right to reveal his secret dimple and lighten his eyes to a golden amber. Those eyes cut to me and his mild smile rose. He didn’t look like a different person. He looked more at ease, more sure, like all this time I’d only ever come face-to-face with his shadow.
Standing there in that moment, I felt like I’d stumbled on something hidden and sacred, more intimate even than what had passed between us at his house. Like Gus had pulled back the curtains in the window of a house I’d been admiring, whose insides I’d been dreaming about but even so, underestimated.
I liked seeing Gus like this, with the people he knew would always love him.
We’d just had sex like the world was burning down around us, but if I ever got to kiss Gus again, I wanted it to be this version of him. The one who didn’t feel so weighted down by the world around him that he had to lean just to stay upright.
“… Maybe that first weekend in August?” Pete was saying. She, Maggie, and Gus were all looking right at me, awaiting an answer whose question I hadn’t heard.
“Works for me,” Gus said. “January?” He still seemed relaxed, happy. I weighed my options: agree to something without having any concept of what that something was, admit that I hadn’t been listening, or fish for more information with some (possibly damning) questions.
“What … what time?” I said, hoping I’d chosen the right option. And a question that made any sense.
“On weeknights, we usually do seven, but given that it’s a weekend, we could do whatever time we like. Evening might still be best—this is a beach town, after all, and people might read, but they do it on their bellies in the sand.”
“I think this could just be so interesting,” Maggie said, clapping her hands together softly. “What you two do seems—externally—to be so different, but I imagine the internal mechanics are still very similar. It’s like labradorite and—”
“Bless you,” Gus said.
“No, Gussy, I wasn’t sneezing,” Maggie offered helpfully. “Labradorite is a stone—just beautiful—”
“It really is,” Pete agreed. “Looks like something from outer space. If I were to make a sci-fi movie, I’d have the whole world made out of labradorite.”
“Speaking of,” Gus said. His eyes flicked toward mine and I knew he’d found a way to divert the conversation from rocks. “Have any of you seen Contact with Jodie Foster? That’s a batshit fucking movie.”
“Everett,” Pete said. “Language!”
Maggie chortled behind her hand. Her nails were painted a creamy off-white speckled with light blue stars. Today, Pete’s were painted dark red. I wondered if manicures were something Maggie had gotten her into, a bit of her wife that had rubbed off on her over the years. I always liked that thought, the way two people really did seem to grow into one. Or at least two overlapping parts, trees with tangled roots.
“Back to the event,” Pete said, turning to me again. “Maybe seven would be good, so we’re not cutting into too much beach time.”
“Sounds great,” I said. “Would you mind emailing me all the details to confirm? I can double-check my calendar when I get home.”
“I don’t know about details. All you really need to know is what time to show up! Maggie and I will come up with some good questions,” Pete said.
My hesitancy must’ve shown, because Gus leaned in a bit. “I’ll email you.”
“Gus Everett, I’ve seen even less proof that you have email than I’ve seen that you own a bathing suit,” I said.
He shrugged, his eyebrows flicking upward.
“Well, I’m glad I’m not the only one,” Pete said. “You can only send so many unanswered dog videos before you start wondering if the addressee is trying to tell you something with his silence!”
Gus hooked an arm around Pete’s neck. “I’ve told you. I don’t check my email. That doesn’t mean I’m incapable of sending one when asked. In person. For a good reason.”
“Dog videos are a good reason for just about anything,” Maggie mused.
“What do we need with those, with your own dogs running around?” Gus asked.
“Speaking of Labradors,” Maggie said. “What I was saying about labradorite …”
Gus looked at me, grinning. As it turned out, he was entirely right. We should have, at all costs, avoided the topic of rocks. I lost track of the conversation fairly quickly as she moved from one stone to the next, spurred by interesting tidbits of information that reminded her of other interesting tidbits. After a while, even Pete’s (mostly adoring) gaze seemed to glaze over.
“Oh, good!” she said, a bit indiscreetly, as someone else came around the side of the house. “I’d better greet the guests.”
“If you want to go say hi,” Gus told Maggie, “don’t let us stop you!”