Your Mileage May Vary
*This excerpt is subject to change before publication. Available May 1, 2019, only on Patreon.
It all starts when Nuke finds the porn.
He gets home from the grocery store with his bags of junk food to find Lee’s stupid beamer parked in his driveway. Lee’s inside already, courtesy of his key, so Nuke takes a moment to stare longingly at the car. The BMW is a lease, courtesy of Lee’s law firm, and say what you want about the terrible hours and stress, the perks of partnership at a big, splashy firm are outrageous. There’s leather interior. Heated seats. Cup holders that’ll fit anything. It’s a sedan, but that’s because Lee’s been an old man since he was in diapers and chose something “responsible.” Still, sedan or not, it’s an improvement on Nuke’s car, a busted-up Nissan that’s ten years old with a rear bumper held on by baling twine. Actually, the beamer’s an improvement on Nuke’s house, too.
Nuke’s house has a dripping sink and yellowing ceilings and if you put a ball on the floor anywhere in the living room, it’ll roll toward the center, which Lee is constantly offering to threaten the landlord about, using lots of legal terms that Nuke doesn’t bother to ask for definitions to.
Nuke figures…meh. He rents. Most of the shit he owns isn’t even worth fifty bucks—possibly including the Nissan—and he has insurance anyway. It’s not really worth digging up Mr. Flannigan’s number. The dude is a million years old and he deserves to spend the last of his retirement in peace, doing whatever he does in his time off. Gumming plums on the porch yelling at kids, probably. He’s kind of a dick.
Nuke parks along the street and huddles in his coat before hauling himself across the slush-damp yard, almost slipping a few times before he catches himself with a wild wave of his arms. He’s really not sure where all this wet weather has come from; it’s fucking September.
He walks through the unlocked door to find the television blaring the pre-game and two cold beers dripping condensation onto coasters, because Lee is a coaster guy, despite knowing that Nuke’s coffee table is a cast off that he literally grabbed from beside a dumpster during Move-Out Day on campus last year. Lee always rolls his eyes when Nuke gets up early on Move-Out Day, because Lee is the sort of dope who prides himself on having “standards” and not liking “other people’s disgusting hygiene on his furniture” but Nuke knows better. Freshmen leaving the dorms and graduating seniors are lazy as fuck when summer hits, and they’ll abandon a ton of decent shit in their parking lots rather than haul it back to Mom and Dad’s. It’s not so hard to only pick up things lacking suspicious stains.
Nothing in Nuke’s place matches, but it’s cozy and no one has to feel bad if you spill shit, which is why they have football night at Nuke’s place exclusively these days. If you spill shit in Lee’s fancy condo in LoDo, there’s hell to pay, which is completely antithetical to the nature of football night in the first place.
Nuke toes his shoes off, noticing Lee’s scarf and un-pilled wool coat and man purse—Lee calls it a satchel, but it’s a man purse, despite being made of buttery brown leather and bearing a cross-chest strap—draped over one of the chairs. Lee’s laptop rests on the tabletop, closed.
“Where are you?” Nuke yells. “You’re parked in my driveway, you bastard!”
There’s a distant yell, which Nuke knows with a smirk is coming from the upstairs bathroom, the one in Nuke’s bedroom. Lee will only ever go in that one. It’s the only one that Nuke bothers to clean because it’s the only one he actually uses, and it’s also the only one that’s routinely stocked with toilet paper.
Nuke goes to the bottom of the stairs and yells upward. “Did you order the pizza?”
There’s another yell, unintelligible, and Nuke waves the whole conversation off. He’ll check Lee’s laptop to see if there’s a confirmation order or something so he doesn’t accidentally order twice.
He grabs his beer on the way back to the dining room and takes a few healthy swallows, the foamy hops pleasant on his tongue. It’s Lee’s turn to buy the beer—it usually is, if Lee gets his way—which means they’re drinking good stuff instead of Bud Light. He opens the lid to Lee’s laptop and then types in Lee’s password—GtB92&MrClutch19, a reference to two generations of Colorado Avalanche Captains. It’s the same password he uses for his HBO Go account, which Nuke has been leeching off for years now, which is why Nuke has it memorized.
When he’s given access, he pulls up the minimized Chrome window to look through the browser tabs in case any of them belong to the local pizza joint they use. There are a million of the damn things open, though, each tab so tiny that there isn’t even a single icon or letter to hint at what they might be. Nuke takes another long swallow of beer, silently curses Lee’s hoarding tendencies for the millionth time, and starts clicking through them.
The log-in screen for his credit union.
The Avs’ 2018-2019 schedule.
A Reddit thread about the Broncos’ piss-poor coaching decisions so far this season. Over the years, Lee has become the asshole who likes to decimate idiots with logic in his spare time on Reddit. Nuke takes a moment to feel proud of him for growing as a human being. Plus he would much prefer that Lee aim his complaining toward internet trolls rather than making Nuke listen to it.
Something called Case Law, which Nuke clicks off of as fast as possible because anything having to do with Lee’s job gives him the hives.
A GQ quiz about which kind of necktie defines you. Everything about it is so Lee that Nuke wants to die. Nuke closes that one with a violent click of his index finger because Lee really should be trying to minimize his more psychotic tendencies, not indulging them. “You’re welcome,” Nuke yells.
Another distant yell, followed by the sound of running water.
He clicks on the next tab, where a black screen is loading a video in a player. Nuke squints at the thumbnails in the margins suggesting other videos, and then his eyebrows shoot up, because it’s porn. It’s…he found Lee’s porn.
For a long three seconds, Nuke’s brain stops.
Lee. And porn.
Then, as the screen grab loads and he sees a paused image of a naked chick on her knees, his brain stops all over again.
Everything about this is wrong.
Nuke remembers the Christmas party from their sophomore year, when Madeline Hoffman, a senior sister from Kappa Kappa Gamma, the blonde that every guy wanted to fuck, walked up to Lee in a red Lycra dress and four inch heels and smiled with her full pink lips and batted her mascaraed eyelashes and said, “We should see a movie on Saturday night, Lee,” and he’d looked at her, smiled back, and said, “That’s a nice offer, thank you, but I have plans to hang out with Nuke on Saturday night. I’m sorry. Maybe some other time.”
It was kind of a telling moment.
Almost from the day they’d met, he’d wondered if Lee was gay. That’d seemed confirmed when Lee came out after college, but now he’s not sure it’s as simple as that. In more than a decade of friendship, he’s never seen Lee with a guy. No boyfriends, no pickups, no flirtations. He’s never even busted Lee overtly checking someone out. Lee doesn’t talk about sex, either. Back in the frat, he used to get up and leave—no drama or anything, just a quiet excuse me followed by his shadow slipping from the room—when the guys would get crude about it.
Nuke’s gone through phases with various explanations: sometimes he’s thought that Lee is so uptight that he’s never worked up the nerve to try something with anyone; other times he’s been sure that Lee’s simply disinterested in sex to the point where he’s never bothered; a few times, in his more outlandish imaginings, Nuke’s wondered if Lee’s somehow discreet to the point of being a sex ninja. Maybe he’s been sleeping with everything that moves for years and he’s so good at hiding it that no one’s noticed. But in that case, why come out at all? Nuke couldn’t begin to guess.
It’s not like Lee couldn’t get laid if he wanted. He’s a good-looking guy, strong and iron-jawed with careful blue eyes, and despite his more superficial and annoying traits, he’s an intelligent and decent human being. Nuke might’ve even thought, once or twice, very briefly, about—well. That’s neither here nor there. Anyway, Lee’s shown virtually no interest in sex or relationships, and Nuke wasn’t about to be the asshole who pushed. He put Lee’s sex life—imaginary or otherwise—in a box in his head that’s been gathering dust ever since.
That box is wide fucking open right now.
As the video finally buffers the last bit, Nuke’s eye catches on the name of the site: Fetlife. Which is the kink porn site. Nuke was in a frat. He knows more about sex than he ever wanted to know, and one of the things he knows is that Fetlife is where people go to get filthy.
In the general sense he approves—people should get down how they like. He’s a non-judgy guy, for the most part. He can’t remember the last time he cleaned his toilet. If he’s going to look down his nose at people, it’ll be a really fucking short drop, that’s all. Maybe even more of an uphill slope, if he’s honest.
He likes porn considerably—again, frat—but he’s more of a fucking and blow jobs advocate. He let a guy tie him up once, but it didn’t do anything for him, so he hasn’t done it since then.
He’s lazy, that’s all.
Kinky shit’s not his thing, that’s all.
His hand moves of its own volition to the touchpad. He taps the button. The video starts.
The woman is naked and big-haired, kneeling on a concrete floor that makes Nuke’s knees ache at the thought of it. The man with her is attractive, though—muscled and tattooed, buck-ass naked and cupping his soft dick all protectively like it’s a fragile chicken’s egg or something, and Nuke takes a moment to wonder why the hell Lee is watching a hetero blow job video when suddenly the dude turns on the woman and starts pissing.
“Whoa,” Nuke says, his eyes going painfully wide.
He had not seen that one coming.
The guy pisses all over her tits first, and then around on her neck and up onto her—ugh, her face even—and then she’s opening her mouth and it’s like God and everybody all conspired at once to fuck him over, because Lee walks in and catches Nuke looking at his porn just as Nuke says, “Oh, gross.”
They met because of a fistfight in a pizza bar’s parking lot.
Nuke had pledged the frat because he liked the idea of having guys to watch sports with and he had five older brothers, so he already spoke fluent dude-bro. Lee was a Legacy and he’d pledged because he didn’t want to get shit from his dad, who was perennially on alert that his son might’ve violated the Code of Masculine Honor and Dignity and Accomplishment that only a family as loaded and old-school as the Hapsburgs lived by.
By that time, even Nuke knew who the Hapsburgs were. Half the frat’s business school students were sucking up to Lee on a regular basis in the hopes of making friends and getting internships.
After the fight in the parking lot ended, another one seemed on the verge of breaking out, which kept most of the crowd engaged, but Nuke came back into the restaurant with his blood lust satisfied. He’d never been prone to much of it, and he was hungry.
Inside, he found the place nearly emptied out. The restaurant was roughly a block from campus, and 95% of their customers were students; accordingly, everyone was outside yelling fight!
Everyone but for a lone patron sitting at a table paging through a fat textbook.
A patron Nuke vaguely recognized upon second glance. He was one of the other guys in the frat, the only one left that Nuke hadn’t gotten to know, the one everyone kept shaking their heads and making sympathetic noises about. It was coming back to Nuke now—this guy was the one whose father called three times a week and chewed him out for any number of things. Nuke had seen him after one of those phone calls, white-cheeked and somehow disjointed, like the smallest movement might make him fall into a hundred fractured pieces, drinking a glass of red wine on the back stoop. Nuke had taken one look at those broad shoulders and high cheekbones and weary blue eyes and he’d thought both he’s pretty fucking hot and also if I say the wrong thing to him right now, he might die.
Nuke might’ve stopped to introduce himself formally that day on the stoop—it was one of the few times he’d seen the guy when he wasn’t in a rush to go somewhere or knee-deep in books or looking on the verge of a breakdown at every interruption. But the guy had never looked up, only sat there looking like he wanted to move to Antarctica to avoid the rest of humanity, so Nuke had kept walking.
But now they were three months into the school year and Nuke was living with a guy whose name he didn’t know and it was getting ridiculous, so he went to the booth and sprawled out across from him.
The guy stared at him like he’d dropped trou in the Louvre, as if he was one to talk, wearing a fucking Rolex and Italian leather oxfords in a pizza joint. He thought again that the guy was attractive, though it was mostly in a lay flat to dry sort of way, where you felt like you had to be super careful to avoid making wrinkles. He gave off a general air of being expensive. He’d definitely smell good, though.
“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” Nuke asked.
“What’s a girl like you—”
“I heard you. I don’t know why you said it.”
“I was being clever. Because it’s something you usually say when a girl looks out of place and—”
“I get it. It’s just weird.” The guy fiddled with the page to his textbook, then lifted his eyebrows pointedly. “Why are you sitting in my booth?”
“Your booth, huh?”
“I got here first. Ergo, it’s mine.”
“It’s the restaurant’s, technically. You’re borrowing.”
“I have money invested in lunch. I’m renting.”
“Renting isn’t owning.”
“Renters have rights,” the guy pointed out. He slid his book around on the table, thumbing at the cover. His body began to vibrate—he was tapping his foot under the table, fast and jiggly. “If you don’t mind, I’m trying to study.”
“I can tell.”
The guy’s eyes, currently red-rimmed with exhaustion, began to sharpen. He had pre-law written all over him. Nuke wished he could see more of the textbook. Constitutional law or something, he’d bet fifty bucks. “So?”
“Please don’t make me be rude. I need to get this done.”
“Why didn’t you come watch the fight?”
The guy glanced toward the window, a hint of displeasure appearing before flickering out. “Because it’s Neanderthal.”
“It’s demeaning to everyone involved.”
“Yep. It’s great.” Nuke let out a lusty groan, 85% winding the guy up, 15% legitimate enjoyment. If two morons wanted to break their own faces open over a girl (a girl who’d had the brains to take off with her friends before the first punch even landed, no less), who the hell was he to complain? It was fun to watch as long as it didn’t get too out of hand.
The winding up had apparently worked, though, because the guy was letting go now, ticking off his complaints on his fingers as he went. “It violates the precepts of a civilized society, it encourages others to flaunt the law, it could result in a serious injury, and it puts unwarranted strain on the medical system, resources that should be used for legitimate purposes and more vulnerable populations.”
“Wow,” Nuke managed. “How the hell did a stick get that far up there?”
The guy turned faintly pink and his irritability vanished. “Sorry. I’m…tired.”
A waitress appeared with a large pizza on a tray, steaming hot and brimming with enough pepperoni to be obscene, and Nuke sure wasn’t going anywhere now.
The guy’s mouth tightened, and he waited in edged silence for the waitress to leave before saying, “Could you please go? I need to focus.”
“Blow it off,” Nuke suggested.
“Oh, right. I’ll just blow off my judicial review paper.”
Nuke silently awarded himself fifty imaginary bucks for winning the bet about whether the dude was pre-law. “You should consider it, at least. That sounds boring.”
The guy frowned. “Are you serious?”
“How did you get into college with that attitude?”
“I’m failing out of college with this attitude,” Nuke corrected. “Can I have some of this pizza?”
“It’s not mine. I don’t eat pizza. I’m having bluefin tuna for dinner.”
“Yes. It’s a specialty at the restaurant where I’m eating tonight. With Dean Gould. It’s an interview. For an internship. We’re having dinner. It’s all arranged.”
“That sounds very pleasant,” Nuke lied.
“And even if I wasn’t…I don’t. Eat this.”
Something about the phrasing made Nuke’s eyebrows skyrocket. “Ever?”
“Are you seriously saying you’ve never had pizza?”
“We don’t eat pizza.”
His snobby, rich family didn’t eat pizza, he no doubt meant, and if that wasn’t the most fucked up thing Nuke had heard, he wasn’t sure what was.
“Well, you eat pizza now,” Nuke said, and slid a piece onto a plate, shoving it over to him. “Because I can’t be the only one eating when everyone else gets back or they’ll make me pay for it.”
The guy stared at his plate as if it were a snake about to strike.
“I’m Nuke,” Nuke said through a full mouth.
“Lee Hapsburg III,” Lee said absently, still captivated by the pizza. “Don’t get comfortable. They’ll come back and then they’ll get angry you stole their seat. You can’t stay.”
“Sure I can. See me here, sitting? I’m squatting. Don’t squatters have rights, too?”
“It’s Reggie’s seat.”
Nuke continued expansively, “Free country and all. Losers weepers. That sort of thing. I’m bigger than Reggie.”
“You wouldn’t fight him over a booth in a pizza parlor.” But Lee’s gaze darted toward the parking lot again and the violence that still had the crowd yelling. He clearly thought Nuke was low enough to do exactly that.
“Maybe I would.” He wouldn’t; that was the stupidest thing ever. “Eat some damn pizza, kid.”
“You’re a bad influence. Pizza is a cheap, messy food.” Lee’s fingers crept up to the edge of the plate but no further. “I should make you leave.”
“Nah. I’m not going to make you do drugs or anything. I’m a mediocre influence at best.”
Lee snorted, but his lips turned up at the corners all the same. “Still, I think even mediocre influences are probably off-limits.”
“Right. You’re a hausfrau. I forgot. Maybe instead of seeing people as influences, you should see them as potential friends. Just a suggestion.”
Lee snorted again, more sourly. “I’m a Hapsburg. Hapsburgs don’t have friends. We have connections. And mediocre connections are a waste of time and energy.” He paused. “No offense.”
“I don’t care,” Nuke said, because the day he cared about the good opinion of Old Man Hapsburg was the day he killed himself anyway. Rich people and their fucking priorities, Jesus. “I can make myself scarce when the old man comes around if you want. I don’t want to make shit harder for you or anything. I’m just going to make you eat pizza once in a while.”
Nuke nudged the plate closer to Lee. “I think I want to paint you.”
Nuke grinned. “I think I’ll paint you getting eaten by a slice of pepperoni pizza. I’ll call it Eat the Rich.”
“That sounds somewhat obvious. No offense.”
“Don’t worry about it.” It was softer criticism than Nuke often got from his instructors, and besides, watching Lee try his damnedest to avoid looking at the food killed any sting that might’ve remained.
“Are you really a painter?”
“A painter who lives in a frat and is failing out of his BFA program.”
“That’s me. It’s not going to hurt you to have a few bites,” Nuke said, nudging the pan again. “But don’t eat so much that you can’t run, because we can’t dine and ditch if you’re in a food-coma.”
“We can’t dine and ditch because it’s stealing,” Lee said, but his tone, for all his school-marmish edges, lacked the proper sternness. He was eying the pizza.
“I was joking. Mediocre, not bad, remember? All the fun, none of the consequences. Stick with me, kid. You like football?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you not know?” Nuke took a bite of his own slice. Hot and cheesy and spicy, and the perfect amount of grease. “Fuck, that’s good.” The words came out garbled around his mouthful.
“I’ve never watched football. I don’t know the rules. Lacrosse was the sport at my school. And polo.”
“You had polo in high school? Fuck, no wonder you’re a mess.” Nuke decided it was time to stop screwing around, and slid a piece of pizza directly onto Lee’s plate. He licked his fingers clean of while he watched Lee stare at the cheesy goodness. “Boarding school, I bet.”
“Of course. It develops a young man’s character.”
Jesus. The guy had never had a chance. Duke said, “You should come to football night.”
“I’ll be in the library.”
“I didn’t tell you what night it was.”
“I’m always in the library.”
Nuke suddenly realized how incongruous it was that Lee was here in the pizza parlor at all. “Why are you here now?”
“A study group. As if anyone smart enough to be pre-law shouldn’t know that a pizza hall is no place to get proper work done.” Lee’s fingers crept up on the plate again. Like a predator slowly stalking his prey on the savannah. Like he thought the pizza might get away. It made Nuke unexpectedly sad, pinched him shut and stung him, deep inside. He thought, look at this lonely, pathetic creature who isn’t allowed to have any decent food.
“Your dad won’t know if you take one night off,” he said.
“He will when he gets my grades.”
“Lee. It’s three hours. It’s shorter than an opera.” Nuke was guessing. He didn’t know anything about opera, but it certainly seemed like it would be interminable.
“He’ll know,” Lee said, a hint of bleakness in his tone, something that made Nuke hurt in that small, pinched part of his chest again. “I can’t—I don’t…there are rules.”
“Rules are made to be broken.”
“That’s not how it works in my family,” Lee said.
“It’s just pizza,” Nuke said gently. “It’s okay.”
Lee finally moved, reaching out with a tentative hand, like he thought Nuke might rip the plate out of reach at the last second. And then pizza made its way to Lee’s mouth, and chewed with a furrowed brow for all of two seconds before his eyes closed and he sighed, low and throaty and happy.
“Nice, huh?” Nuke asked, weirdly captivated.
Lee opened his eyes, a mixture of guilt and pleasure written all over his face. Being a Hapsburg, he probably thought pizza was a gateway drug to meth or something. Also being a Hapsburg, he finished chewing and politely wiped his mouth on a napkin before he sighed, “I don’t know why you’re doing this.”
Nuke wasn’t entirely sure why either. But here was a kid who’d gone without pizza his whole life, and Nuke was in a position to help. “Charity,” he decided. “Everyone needs junk food.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’re in my booth,” he said.
“Squatter’s rights,” Nuke reminded him.
“Why are you—”
“Does it matter?” Nuke asked impatiently. “You either want me to go or you don’t.”
Lee studied him. His gaze dropped to the pizza. Then he looked at Nuke again, something flinching in his gaze.
“I won’t get you in trouble,” Nuke promised. He didn’t mean to say it. It just came out. “No matter how mediocre I get. I’m fun, not trouble.”
Lee didn’t answer, but he took another bite of pizza, and that was as good as agreement. Nuke’s tension unraveled. There. Finally. He took a bite of his own slice.
After they’d gotten started on their second helpings, Lee asked, “Do you really want to paint me?”
“Sure. Are you surprised?”
“Not really. I’m classically handsome,” Lee said without ego, like you might say that a fresco was from 1840 or something. Like it was an uninteresting fact that brought him no pride.
“True. But I don’t want your face. I want your watch. Specifically, I want your Rolex spattered with tomato sauce.”
“Oh,” Lee had said, surprised. Maybe flattered. “That sounds obvious too.”
“I told you I was failing out. But the heart wants what the heart wants.”
Nuke smiled and Lee smiled back, and then they were best friends.
“Oh, gross,” Nuke says.
And then he sees Lee out of the corner of his eye and says, “Oh, shit.”
And then Lee is gone, leaving his laptop behind, the front door open in his wake. The distant purr of the Beamer’s engine starts, all before Nuke has time to turn and catch his arm, to stop him and explain, and then he’s alone in his dining room with a different video of a different woman getting pissed on, the raucous football game a caustic counterpoint to the emptiness in the room.
Lee doesn’t answer his phone when Nuke calls. Not the first call, not the third, not the tenth.
Sitting in front of the television, oblivious to the score, Nuke says, “Oh, fuck.”
*Excerpt by Sidney Bell, copyright 2019