"Shea! Over here!" Aaron called to me as I came through the barrier. "I missed you, Baby!" he whispered, giving me a hug. He started to kiss me, but then pulled back. This was Indiana, after all. I imagine that gay PDA isn't all that common.
"I missed you, too," I said, meaning it.
"That jacket." He stood back and looked me over. "Why did you pull that thing out?"
"I don't know. Just felt like it." The old black leather jacket had been the last thing I put on before I left my parents' house that morning. Rich had driven me to the airport and he commented on it, too.
We went to pick up my bags.
"And what's that?" Aaron saw me reach for the guitar case as if came around the baggage carousel.
"My guitar. I thought it would be fun to fool around with it."
Aaron looked at me questioningly, but he let the moment pass. "Oh. All right." He took my other bag and we headed out to the parking lot. "Wait until you see the house!"
The house. Now it was for real.
Rising up out of mile after mile of flat, endless cornfields, Hastings is a typical Midwestern college town. Eastern Indiana University dominates it, with some light industry on the outskirts and a faded downtown area. Our house was on North Oak Street, a residential neighborhood a few miles from campus, not so close as to be crammed with students rentals, but not so far that I couldn't ride a bicycle or even walk to class if I were in the mood.
"Isn't this a great street?" said Aaron.
It looked pretty much like any street built up during the late 1940's; it was actually quite like the street my parents lived on in Lakewood, except the yards were larger and the houses perhaps better kept. I saw a lot of younger children playing and late model SUV's parked in the driveways.
"Seems like a lot of families here."
"Yes," Aaron agreed. "It's very safe. The real estate woman stressed that. And the neighbors seem really friendly."
"How do they feel about a couple of guys moving into their friendly little neighborhood?" I asked. It seemed a logical question.
Aaron frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I said. How friendly will they be when they realize we're a couple of queers? Did you mention that to the real estate lady? Or to the neighbors?"
"Of course not!" Aaron was annoyed. "That's none of their business!"
Aaron and I had never lived anywhere that wasn't urban and gay-heavy, or at least gay-friendly: Manhattan, Philadelphia, Boston. But now we were in a small town in the Bible Belt, the university notwithstanding. I don't think Aaron had any idea what that really meant.
"You'll be proud of me, Baby." Aaron pulled into a driveway. "I got most of the boxes unpacked."
"Miraculous!" I replied. "Are you sure it wasn't the Moving Fairy who did it?"
Aaron snorted. "I was the Moving Fairy this time! I hope your parents realize what a sacrifice I made letting you stay there an extra week!"
"My mother is saying a novena for your soul as we speak." And she might well have been; it was Sunday after all.
"So?" Aaron asked eagerly. "What do you think?"
The house was bigger than I'd imagined. It also badly needed a coat of paint. And the front yard was ragged, with the lawn overgrown in some spots and bare in others.
Aaron must have seen the disappointment in my face. "Come on, Shea! We'll have fun fixing it up!"
"Yeah." I tried to picture Aaron doing little fix-it jobs around the house. Nope. That wasn't happening. "Fun."
We got out of the car and I saw someone peeking through the window of the house next door. "Don't look now, but the neighbors are checking us out."
Aaron glanced over. "She stopped by to say hello. She seems nice. I think her name is Janis. Or Janet. Something like that."
"If this place is anything like my parents' street, I'm sure she'll be over shortly to get a good look at your visitor. Should I go over tomorrow with a bundt cake and introduce myself as Mrs. Blumenthal?"
"Don't be snarky!" He took out his keys and opened the side door. "Welcome home, Baby!"
I stood there. "Aren't you going to carry me over the threshold?"
"You're so funny!" Aaron gave me a quick kiss. "That's why I love you." He went inside.
"I knew there was a reason," I said. And then I followed him into our new home.
Aaron had unpacked the boxes, but the house was still in disorder. Most of the junk we'd moved from Boston was piled up in the smaller extra room -- the room that had been designated as my office/guest room. If I was ever going to use it, I'd have to clear it all out. But I noticed that the larger spare room had already been fitted out with Aaron's desk, computers, video equipment, and library. His home office was good-to-go.
The reality was that the house needed a lot of work and I wasn't capable of doing that work. We didn't have enough furniture to fill all the rooms. The place was screaming to be painted, outside and inside. The hardwood floors needed refinishing and the kitchen cabinets needed replacing. We had no air conditioning and the weather was getting hotter. And the yard needed major landscaping. I'm not a gardener; I can cut grass and water flowers, but I don't know what to plant where and I can't make grass grow where there is only bare ground. I can't take a saw and a hammer and a piece of wood and make bookshelves. We'd need to hire professionals to do those things.
Aaron didn't understand that. He hadn't lived in an actual house since he'd graduated from high school and moved out of his parents' place on Long Island. Even before that Aaron hadn't been the kind of kid who did chores around the house; growing up Lily and Sam treated him like a prince and he spent all his spare time working on his film projects. When I started living with them I was surprised that they didn't even own a lawn mower: every Saturday morning a truck pulled up and a couple of guys got out and did the grass, clipped the hedges, touched up the flowers, got their fee, and took off. When I told Lily that I could do that, she just frowned at me. "But that's what we pay Mr. Bautista and his son to do, sweetheart. Why don't you go and read your book?" And I was quite happy to go and read my book.
So I knew that Aaron had no clue what it would take to get the house in shape. And I wasn't about to take up the slack. That much I'd already decided.
I bought a card table and folding chair at K-Mart and set them up in the corner of the living room. Then I plugged in my laptop and stacked the material I was using for my John Rechy book on the floor. Bingo! Instant office.
"What about that room upstairs?" Aaron asked. "I thought that was going to be your office?"
"I'll get around to it."
And I would. Eventually. But I wasn't in any hurry if he wasn't.
Then there were the neighbors.
Jeanette (not Janis or Janet) Sanford watched me from her window for three whole days before her curiosity got the better of her. I was mowing the lawn (yes! what there was of it) on Wednesday afternoon. Aaron was upstairs on the phone with his agent, working out the details of his production deal. It was a hot and humid day for the beginning of June and I was wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and an old NYU tee shirt. I was getting quite a work out, actually. Pushing around the old lawn mower that had been left behind in the garage was the closest I'd come to real exercise since I got to Indiana; I had yet to venture on campus or into town to look for a gym. I was sweaty and flushed and extremely horny. Maybe by the time I finished the lawn and took a shower Aaron would be off the phone and ready to leave his office for an hour or so.
"Hello!" she called as I was struggling to turn the old lawn mower around to take it back to the garage.
"I'm Jeanette Sanford. I live next door." Which was obvious, since she'd just come out of the house next door. "Do you know if Professor Bloomberg is home?"
"Professor Blumenthal is upstairs, working on professor stuff. Is there something I can help you with?"
"Yes!" she said cheerily. "I wanted to invite him to a cookout we're having on Saturday. I thought it would be a good way for him to meet some of the neighbors."
A cookout with the neighbors. Aaron would hate that. "Sure, he'd love to come." I stood there and smiled.
"And you're invited, too, if you're still here," she added.
"I should be here," I said. "Since I live here."
"You live here?" Jeanette looked confused. "I thought you were just visiting. When Professor Bloomberg bought the house and moved in, it was just him."
"I was visiting my parents," I said, unsure why I was explaining anything to this woman. "I'm Shea, by the way. Shea Desmond. I'm a professor, too. In the English Department."
"Oh, I thought you were a student! You look so young!" Jeanette was looking me over, checking me out as surely as any guy at the gym. "I thought maybe you were just helping the professor out around the house. It needs so much work and everything."
"Yes, I've noticed how much work it needs."
"Professor Stinson and his wife weren't able to keep up with it in the end," she confided. "She wasn't well, you know."
"No, I didn't know." It was getting hotter and I was thirsty. "Well, it was nice talking to you."
"Don't forget about Saturday! If you could tell the professor to bring something simple? Chips and dips, maybe?"
"How about a big pitcher of margaritas?" I suggested. Because I knew that I'd need a lot of alcohol and I imagine Aaron would need some, too.
"Yes, that would be so nice," said Jeanette. "I'll let you get back to your gardening, Shane."
"Shea. And this is pretty much the limit of my gardening prowess. But if you could recommend someone who does landscaping. And painting. And other things to fix this place up, I'd appreciate it."
"Certainly!" she said brightly. "I'll get some names for you. Give my regards to the professor!"
She went back into the house and I put the mower away and then went inside.
Aaron was staring at his computer screen, clicking on things. "Damn it! That edit is screwed up! Hey, Baby. You look hot -- and I mean that in multiple ways."
"I'm sweating like a mule, but I finished the grass."
"Good. We don't want the neighbors coming over and drumming us off the street because our yard wasn't right. I've heard of things like that happening."
"Speaking of neighbors... that woman from next door finally made her move."
Aaron swiveled his chair around. "Made what kind of move?"
"She came over to talk to me. And to cruise me."
"Koo koo ka choo, Mrs. Robinson!" Aaron whistled. "Here's your chance, Shea: a lonely housewife in need of satisfaction!"
"I don't think she's lonely and I doubt if I could perform in a way that would satisfy her."
Aaron shrugged. "You never know. These small towns are all like Peyton Place, aren't they?" Aaron pulled me into his lap. "She knows a good thing when she sees it."
"That was New England, this is Indiana."
"A boytoy is a boytoy in any state of the union." I felt his lips against my shoulder. My neck.
"We're invited to a picnic on Saturday. We're supposed to bring chips and dips. And margaritas."
Aaron stopped in mid-nuzzle. "What the fuck?"
"It's Meet the Neighbors Day, Aar. We'll get to mingle with them, and North Oak Street will be introduced to us -- the two new fags in old Professor Stinson's house."
"Shit," said Aaron.
"Why the hell did you say yes?" Aaron demanded.
"Because we're living here and they're living here. You wanted a house in Straight Land and that's what we've got. It's pointless trying to ignore the neighbors -- and that includes going to their cookouts and buying Girl Scout cookies from their kids and gossiping over the back fence."
Aaron rubbed his temple. "There's no way to avoid this, is there?"
"If you don't want to be the guest of honor, then you go next door and tell Jeanette. Because she's expecting Professor Bloomberg and his 'visitor' at the picnic."
Aaron frowned. "Professor Bloomberg?"
"And my 'visitor'?"
"That's me. The visitor who mows the lawn. Shane."
Now Aaron laughed. "Come back, Shane!" He gave me a squeeze. "It's funny! Admit it!"
I sighed. "But we have to live with these people, Aar."
"No, we don't. They live on this street, but they don't impact our lives, Baby. If they don't like us, who gives a damn?"
Aaron had no idea what it was like to live in a neighborhood like this. To be surrounded by people who were curious about you. Who were watching you. Or who might be hostile if they knew who you really were -- or what you were. This wasn't New York. Or Boston. Or even Lakewood.
"So stop worrying." Aaron reached under my tee shirt. "This looks like it needs to be washed. Let me help you off with it."
For Aaron everything was back to normal. The problems we'd had in Boston had been erased. A new ball game. His job at EIU was giving him money, prestige, and a fancy new title. He was as happy as he'd ever been. So I must be happy, too. That was the way it worked, right?
He never asked me what I'd done while I was in Cleveland. He never even thought to ask. He trusted me. It was Aaron and Shea -- first, last, and always.
And I kept my mouth shut.
What else was there for me to do?