| Chasing Happy |
A well-respected literary agent said no publisher would touch the book. She, personally, was angered by novel’s perspective. One reader took offense to the sexual content, another to the handful of salty language. The editor of one of the New Smyrna Beach Series novels panned the book altogether.
Ash rolled his pickup to a stop in front of Dad’s house, his body logging every one of the 2,138 asphalt miles between New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and Gilbert, Arizona. The last decade dissipated with the crackles of the engine, and he was twelve, sitting on the tiled roof in the middle of the night dishing truths to neighbor-girl Samma because he didn’t like dares. Still didn’t. Maybe that was why he was here.
His gaze flicked to the Taco Bell-inspired design of the house Samma grew up in—like the rest of the tract homes on the street. His lips tugged into a smile—the first since Florida. She’d escaped the house with its passel of siblings, he-who-must-be-obeyed father, and remote mother. Back then, she’d had three inches on him, and now she was a Nashville Star runner-up and a lucrative recording contract above him.
He focused on Dad’s house and his jaw clenched. The sixty-four ounce tea in his gullet pushed him out of the truck. He sucked hundred-degree September air into his lungs. Every pore of his body remembered the feel of empty heat on his skin as he walked through the streetlight halo and across the gravel yard. His feet halted on the cement slab, knuckles coming to rest on the door without knocking. Touching the house where he’d lived two summers of his boyhood. Touching his father’s life.
A puff of air scraped sun-dried Bougainvillea blooms across the step, their fuchsia hue oddly preserved in the porch light.
He fisted his hand and knocked against the metal door he and Samma had run in and out a dozen times a day.
Pain spiked from his knuckles, slicing away the ghostlike state where he stuffed Dad between visits and e-mails. All he had to do was keep his emotions packed away long enough to get a job. Should be easy. He’d been doing it for years.
Dad swung open the door so quickly Ash wondered if he’d been listening for his knock.
The lines in Dad’s face had dug deeper. The last of his dark red hair had gone white. Inexplicably, Ash felt a sense of loss. They’d never get those years back. But Ash hadn’t been the one who opted out. The question he’d asked everyone but his father ran through his head. Couldn’t Dad have sucked up his gayness for a few more years to keep from totally screwing up his children’s lives?
Ash had always insisted on hand shakes, but Dad threw an awkward arm around his ribs and squeezed. “Glad to see you, Ash.”
Over Dad’s shoulder, he spied a framed photo of the two of them flying a kite on the beach. His own face radiated cocky ten-year-old confidence in his kite-flying skill and in his Dad.
As Dad released him, he sidestepped the almost forgotten scent of Irish Spring and sweat, the scent of his boyhood, the scent of happy.
Dad led the way past mismatched furniture crowding the living room. The TV was now a flat screen 52-inch. The black vinyl couch he and Samma had camped out on in their wet suits in front of Scooby Doo had been replaced by an over-stuffed tan leather version, but the rest of the furniture he recognized. The dining room was still empty. Dad never did get the memo that gay men are interior decorators.
“Have you eaten? I’ve got pizza.”
“Sounds good, thanks.” Ash headed down the hall toward the bathroom, trying to pack away the sparks of memory, sweetness, and pain that flared at every familiar sight in the house. But there on the back of the tank sat a cereal bowl filled with his rock collection from the hikes he took with Dad and Samma—enshrined without a speck of dust.
A Domino’s Pizza box lay on the breakfast bar. Ash knew without lifting the lid that the pizza would be sausage and pineapple—his favorite when he was a kid. The knowledge jabbed under his ribs.
Dad nuked a couple slices of pizza on a paper plate and handed it to him. “Why’d you come?”
Ash stared through the back window as the desert breeze rippled the water in the pool. He met his father’s gaze. “I needed a change.”
“You could have moved anywhere. But you’re here. Maybe subconsciously you needed me as much as I need you.”
He felt the bitterness rise in his throat, but he’d punished Dad enough. “Maybe I do.” But the words tasted like sand on his tongue.
After Ash inhaled half a pizza, Dad looked up from the dishwasher. “We can haul in your stuff. I’ve got your room ready. You can stay as long as you like. Fine by me if you stay indefinitely.”
“I’ll leave the truck packed. Not staying long.”
The light died in Dad’s eyes.
Ash’s gut hurt. He gentled his words. “I’m twenty-four. I need to be on my own. We can—”
“I’m not naïve enough to think you moved out here to connect with me, but I hope you will. I’ll say it again. I’m sorry. I didn’t leave because I stopped loving you. I still love your mother. But I had to quit living a lie. Will you forgive me?”
It was one thing reading Dad’s plea in every fourth e-mail, but entirely different hearing the words. He cleared his throat. “I-I…. Can we just hang out, see what happens?”
Dad sighed like it came from his spleen and fanned out through the rest of his five-ten wrestler’s frame. “Sure.”
Ash rolled over in the twin bed until his shoulder thumped into something immobile. His eyes opened, and he stared at the pattern of the spackle on the wall, flat white paint. He was at Dad’s. His brain flicked awake, and he wanted to bury his head under the pillow and return to oblivion.
The bedside clock glowed nine-thirty-eight in red.
Sunlight came through the slits in the mini-blinds, casting stripes across the sheet.
He pulled on a pair of shorts and navigated his way into the kitchen. His hand halted mid-scratch on his chest.
A man sat reading the newspaper with his father in the breakfast nook. Coffee steamed from their cups.
They hadn’t gotten around to discussing the finer points of his father’s life in the couple of days he’d been here. Ash’s mind rewound to last night. Dad had gone out when he holed up in his room for the night with his Mac and a list of job search sites. Was the sandy-haired guy with the deep-set eyes Dad’s boyfriend?
Dad looked at him. “Ash, you’re up.” He gestured to the forty-ish guy in a polo and cargo shorts. “This is a longtime friend of mine, Brad Lincoln.”
“Linc.” The guy extended a stubby-fingered hand toward him. “Nice to meet Rusty’s boy.”
Ash crossed the kitchen, feeling conspicuous without a shirt, and shook Linc’s hand.
Firm handshake. Eye contact. The awkwardness notched down a couple decibels. Ash watched the faded blue eyes with his peripheral vision, but Linc didn’t check him out. The guy was straight or more than friends with Dad. “Good to meet you, too—Linc.” He felt himself thawing under the wattage of Linc’s smile.
Ash dumped Cheerios into a bowl and poured milk over them. He perched on a stool at the counter. All he had to do was wolf down a bowl of cereal and get out of there. He had zero desire to get involved in Dad’s life.
Dad took a drink of his coffee, pale and probably sweet, like he’d always drunk it. “I met Linc right after I moved out here. We worked on a charity fundraiser for Southwest Center for HIV and AIDS.”
Linc pushed the sports section of the paper away. “I forget sometimes that you had a life before Arizona. Kids. You’re lucky, Rusty.” He glanced at Ash. “I envy you and your kids.” His voice was wistful.
Dad dipped his head, then looked at Ash. His brows drew together. “Yeah, I’m lucky. All I have—all anybody has—is the future.”
It was up to him to forgive Dad. It had always been up to him. Maybe his sister was right. Maybe he had been a brat all these years.
Linc’s eyes registered the silent conversation going on between him and Dad over his mug. “Southwest Center for HIV and AIDS believes AIDS victims deserve medical care and the right to die with dignity.”
Dad said, “Since Linc won’t tell you, he contracted HIV ten years ago. He’s had AIDS for two.”
Ash’s stomach clenched with compassion. His gaze swept over the man’s gaunt face, downcast eyes. Linc was dying. Dying. He couldn’t wrap his head around what that must feel like.
Linc looked up, shrugged. “I moved here from Prescott. I didn’t want to embarrass my Mom in front of her bridge biddies, Dad with his macho law-enforcement clan. Small town. No secrets.”
Ash’s mind flashed to his own small town mortification when his father came out. If only Dad had been as considerate. He cast around for something to say and blurted out. “What do you do?”
“About the AIDS? Hope for a cure, take the meds I’m prescribed, cut back my activities.”
Ash shifted uncomfortably against the breakfast bar. “What about work?”
“I’m an insurance adjuster. I travel to sites to assess damage from micro bursts, fire, flooding.” Linc took a drink of his coffee. “For fun, I dress up as Lindy Loo, lip sync Tina Turner. A lot of laughs. You ought to come to a show.” He slid a card out of his wallet and handed it to Ash. “Thursday nights after nine.”
Ash nodded noncommittally, set the card beside his bowl. The invitation hit him like a swirling dust storm. Part of him wanted to go and part wanted to hunker down and ignore the hot wind of homosexuality like he’d always done.
Samma pulled her suitcase across the geometric design of the Phoenix Hyatt Regency lobby carpet as her cab puttered away. She kept her eyes down in the bustle of election night revelers, jetlag hanging on her like a too-heavy mink.
Storm wanted her to text him when she entered the lobby and meet him for dinner in the revolving restaurant atop the hotel. But she hadn’t seen him in three weeks. She wanted to watch him light up when she surprised him.
She followed the throng of people into the ballroom where election results played on giant screens. Applause rippled across the crowd as a woman in a business suit stepped away from the microphone.
Samma stopped near the stage and scanned the front of the room for Storm. As a freshman state senator and shoe-in for re-election, he had to be nearby.
There, by the potted palm, in a cluster of men, all decades older than Storm’s twenty-six, he held court. She could feel his intensity beating in her chest from twenty yards away. His Election Day hair cut likely cost a hundred dollars when she could have done it for free. His new-penny colored hair had been kinked and wiry when he wore it longer in high school, but now it was clipped too short to curl. His eyes were the same shade as his hair.
He was attractive without being handsome. She never thought about his looks. The voltage of his personality—not so much a glad-hander, but a man passionate about his causes—was the thing that attracted her. Even sitting beside him in a car, she felt the charge of excitement flutter under her ribs. She’d always felt that way. In high school he was the popular upper classman paying attention to her from one rung above. And that feeling hadn’t gone away when her career took off.
She moved toward him, close enough now to see the pristine whiteness of his laundry-starched shirt, the navy sheen to his gray suit picked up by his thin blue tie. She could tell he was biting down on the inside of his cheek, locking in words he wanted to argue.
There was something alluring about knowing the man behind the public person. Only she had that key. Storm didn’t open up to people. Ever. But he had to her. And she’d studied him, watched for nuances—changes of voice, when his eyes darted away. Sometimes it felt like she read his mind more than he volunteered the things inside.
His gaze connected with her. His eyes dilated, and annoyance flitted through his expression before he masked it.
She remembered too late that he didn’t like surprises.
His gaze darted over her person as though he were assessing her persimmon linen dress with the cap sleeves and counting the wrinkles. His lips flattened when his gaze dropped to her suitcase.
She faltered. Did he want her to break into his group or wait for him to extricate himself? She just wanted to get through this evening and crawl into bed.
Before she could make her tired brain decide what to do, he strode toward her. He grinned, making her almost question whether she’d read annoyance earlier, and kissed her cheek. “Just as well you met me down here. My race results are coming in so lopsided, I’m going to have to give my acceptance speech earlier than planned.”
He glanced at the suitcase, but didn’t offer to take it.
His phone chimed and he pulled it from his pocket and answered in one motion. A grin split his face and he shot a thumbs up at his posse huddled on the far side of the stage.
A woman in a red suit, white blouse, and navy scarf left the group and made her way toward the podium.
Storm’s hand closed around Samma’s as he thanked the caller and pocketed the phone. “Hillscomb conceded,” he said to Samma. His long legs covered the space between where they stood and the heavy blue curtains that made a make-shift back stage area.
She jogged to keep up, pulled along by Storm and the excitement of the moment.
The woman in red spoke into the microphone. “The Democrats may be ahead nationally, but in legislative district twenty-two, things are a little different.”
As applause erupted in the room Samma and Storm stepped behind a curtain that blocked them from the view of the room.
Storm’s eyes glommed onto Samma’s as the woman reiterated the Republican stance on immigration and the impact of Proposition 1070 on Arizona’s economy.
For a fraction of a second, Samma glimpsed fear in his eyes. She turned her palm up in his grasp and squeezed. “You’ll do great. You’ve been giving speeches since high school. It’s what you do best.”
The fear evaporated. At times like this she knew she loved him. He needed her. There was a scared kid in his bedrock, the one who was ashamed of his dad’s inability to hold a job, his family’s poverty. He never talked about his family, never took her home. She’d met his parents at his swearing-in, dressed in too-stiff clothes Storm must have picked out like he bought her dresses for his public appearances. She hadn’t worn the dress he’d bought for tonight—too revealing for a plane ride. Too revealing for anywhere, as far as she was concerned.
He had a whole philosophy on how she dressed when in public with him. He wanted her to fit in now, wear the types of dresses other political spouses wore. After they married in the Temple and she wore the garment, then her clothes would have to be more conservative. He was going after the non-Mormon vote with her cleavage. Well, tonight was her mini rebellion to Storm’s political aspirations.
His eyes sparkled now, as the politico sung his praises, warming up to the announcement of the concession.
Samma could already feel him pulling away from her into the crowd, not just physically as he walked into the congratulatory hand-shakes and slaps on the back. Something in him devoured applause, a man on his knees eating an entire chocolate cake off the floor like Happy, her folks’ Sharpei. She pushed the picture out of her head. This was the guy she was going to marry. The one Daddy had chosen.
And her choice.
He motioned for her to come to the podium with him. Bile rose in her throat. She hated being the center of attention. Storm knew she threw up before every concert. He was thinking about his career, how appearing with the Nashville Star runner-up would take his acceptance speech to the next level, get him extra press.
She pasted on her concert smile, her teeth clenched so tight they ached.
Storm took her hand, stepped away from the microphone and bent to her ear. “Your dad’s right, it’s time for us to get married. I’m proud of you. I want to show you off.”
“What?” The words passed through the porcelain grill of her smile. This was the worst place and time imaginable for his quasi-proposal.
He kissed her cheek, and the room lit with fireflies of flashes. The crowd roared.
Her stomach roiled.
“They love me. They love us. We’ll talk about it later.” He turned back to the mic, pulling her with him.
In the car on the way home, she laid her head back on the headrest of Storm’s Prius—nicest car he could own and still not look like he was being over-compensated by the taxpayers. Her head pounded. The muscles in her neck and shoulders had turned to granite hours ago.
She eyed Storm.
His leg jiggled like he’d downed too many espressos. He seemed somewhere else—not in the car. He pulled down the visor and eyed his face in the mirror, a hand running over his five o’clock shadow. She could almost hear the applause he had to be reliving in his head.
She closed her eyes, counting the minutes until she could sleep. Maybe a heating pad on her forehead or her neck and shoulders would help the pain.
Storm glanced at her as he slowed on the 202 exit ramp at Val Vista Road. “We’ll be seen together more often for a while, get engaged after Christmas, get married during summer recess.” He shot a grin at her.
Usually, his smile warmed her, lightened something heavy she always carried around in her chest. But not tonight. His joy seemed generated by his win, and not by her. All the years she’d pined after him in high school and while he was in college and as her career took off. She’d daydreamed about this moment. It was like some invisible part of her had already bonded with him. Why didn’t it feel special?
He looked at her, waiting for a response.
She rubbed her temples. “We can talk about this anytime. Tonight, let’s just focus on your career. This is your night.”
He set his hand on her thigh, as though he were claiming her. “Fine, but it’s going to happen, Samma. You can count on it.” His voice was mild, but something subtle, she wasn’t sure she liked, had changed.
He keyed the code into the gate box at the entrance to her apartment complex and pulled up beside the stairs that led to her apartment.
A battered pick-up, loaded with household goods had parked several apartments down. Raf, a journalist who lived in her building, and a guy she didn’t recognize pulled a mattress from the back end.
She set her hand on the door handle, more than ready to get home.
Storm scanned the parking lot for paparazzi, like he always did. He leaned toward her.
His kiss was hungry, awkward—different from the chaste version he’d always given her as though the entire bishopric were watching.
A car door slammed. But Storm must not have heard it.
A knock sounded on her window, and they sprung apart.
Her sister peered in at them, and Samma surreptitiously wiped Storm’s kiss on the back of her hand.
Chancely’s eyes were bloodshot, her hair mussed, and Samma knew before opening the door that she was drunk.
A puff of air pushed from Storm’s throat, sounding his displeasure. He said something under his breath like, “All the more reason to get the wedding over with.”
“Sorry. I better go.” She scooted out, grabbed her suitcase off the back seat. Maybe Storm would miss the fact that Chancely could barely walk. She didn’t want to listen to his recap of Chance’s behavior next time she saw him.
“Howdy to the freshman senator.” Chancely slurred.
Samma kneed the back door closed. “He’s not the freshman senator anymore. He just got re-elected tonight.”
“Yeah, I was celebrating.” Alcohol hadn’t dulled Chancely’s sarcasm.
Samma shot an apologetic glance at Storm’s stony expression. “’Night. Talk soon.” She swung the door, cutting off whatever he muttered, and hustled her sister up the stairs, luggage thumping against her thigh.
Samma rounded the corner and jostled the suitcase into position to ascend the next flight. Before she looked up, she plowed into the side of the blond guy with a twin mattress angling up the steps in front of him.
His arm whipped around behind her, his fingers pressing into her waist, steadying her.
“Sorry, I wasn’t watching where I was going.” Her gaze connected with soft eyes and two days’ stubble. Her skin tingled as though the fine hairs on her arms lifted and settled of their own accord.
Arrows of awareness shot from his fingers and the length of his arm stretched across her back.
His breath fanned her cheek.