Excerpt from So Into You
The city of Bathsheba was nestled between two lush mountains which both stunned Alfred and filled him with pride. There was just something about watching the snow cover them during the winter then, as if by magic, seeing them bloom green in the summer. Every turn of season, those high peaks took his breath away, and he’d stopped trying to figure out why years prior.
But with its beauty came the outside world, barreling into the medium-sized town, making it feel from time to time that it would burst at the seams. In the summertime, Bathsheba was always crawling with tourists who spent their every moment hiking up these beautiful slopes. In the wintertime came the skiers, the snowboarders and the photographers. Even with its precarious location, Bathsheba was booming with a lavish economy with its fair share of ups and downs.
The sun stood prominently in the sky, warming Alfred Leung to the very core. He couldn’t help a surge of happiness that he even hummed along with Taemin, who blared into his ears through his headset.
It was the kind of day that not even visiting his mother or going to work could ruin for him. Not even finding his boyfriend, the man he’d seriously been thinking of asking for his hand in marriage, balls-deep in another man could tarnish it. Alfred parked across the street from his mother’s house, fed the meter and glanced both ways before jogging across the road. The security guard didn’t give him any hassle about I.D. since Alfred was there on a regular basis.
“You are a sucker for punishment, aren’t you?” the guard asked. “That woman would have given me a stroke by now.”
Alfred bumped fists with him. “Yeah. But what can I do? She’s my mother and no matter how crazy she makes me…well…she’s my mother.”
The guard laughed and Alfred stepped into the elevator. All the way up, Alfred wondered the same thing the guard had asked him. His mother wasn’t easy to get along with on the best of days, but when he came out, she hadn’t thrown him off the balcony. Sure, she’d been disappointed and had needed some time to come to grips with the possibility of never having a grandchild, but she’d come around. That was something—that was a light in an otherwise dark tunnel. The elevator pinged and the doors parted. Before stepping out, he took a few cleansing breaths then hurried along the corridor to her apartment. He didn’t bother knocking since he had a key. Alfred let himself into the unit.
“Cheu-fahng!” Mei-Ling replied in a distracted-sounding voice.
Alfred removed his shoes, set them to the side on the mat and made his way into the kitchen, where his mother was busy stirring a large pot. “Hi, Mom. What’re you cooking?”
“Not sure yet. Somethin’ missing.”
He peered into the pot and noticed it was soup—at least he thought it was soup. She glanced at him and he kissed her head. “How are you, Mom?” Alfred spoke in English because he wanted to force her to use the language. Even if she did reply in Cantonese, at least she would be hearing English.
“Good—what you look like so?”
She wiggled her wrist at him then dumped some pepper into her pot and stirred.
“Bo and I broke up.”
Mei-Ling tilted her head and gazed at him. “Him broke you or you broke him?”
Alfred didn’t bother correcting her grammar or perception of what he’d just said. He explained it all to her. She merely dropped the spoon on the counter and darted around him to a cupboard.
“You fix,” Mei-Ling said simply.
Alfred stood before her and shook his head. He couldn’t believe what she was asking him to do. Any other mom would be running to grab a frying pan from the kitchen to beat his ex into oblivion, but not his mother. She wanted him to stay with the lying, cheating, sorry excuse of a man because he was wealthy and had a good name—and he was Chinese.
“Sorry, Mama,” Alfred said in Cantonese, his voice shaking. “I’m your son. You’re supposed to want better for me.”
“I do want better for you,” she replied. “Bo is wealthy, come from good family, has education—you can’t do better than him.”
Her broken English annoyed him. Mei-Ling had been in the country long enough to be able to speak properly, but she refused to even try. “He slept with someone else, Mama.”
“Your father sleep with others. I stay with him.”
Excerpt from Faded Into You
The gym was empty first thing in the morning, and that was precisely how Ravinder Raja liked it. He hated having guys stare at him when he worked out, some even whistling. The distraction drove him nuts, even with the music on. He got there just after six and was one of only two people there. After spending an hour running on the treadmill and half an hour on weights, he used thirty minutes in the sauna. A quick shower later, he got dressed in his suit and went to the office. Working PR for a small firm gave him little wiggle room to go back home for a proper shower and shave.
His day melted by and when it ended, all he wanted to do was go to sleep. From one media appearance that went sideways to a bunch of files that got corrupted—he just couldn’t deal. But he had plans with Lana, so he couldn’t flake. He walked into his condo and found Lana sitting in the middle of his bed reading her Kindle.
“Good evening, lover,” she teased. “I didn’t make dinner because we’re going out. I’m craving Bessie’s.”
Ravinder kissed her nose before setting his laptop and gym bags on the floor then flopping on the bed beside her. “I could use a juicy burger myself.”
“You would not believe the day I’ve had.” Ravinder sighed. “Went to do an interview down at the station. They broadsided me with my boss’ criminal history…”
“Say what, now?”
“Oh, yeah.” Ravinder sat up. “Apparently, Dossier was up on charges of possession when he was nineteen, but it went ‘poof’! The reporter wanted me to tell the public how that happened.”
“I was mortified and pissed off. I could not believe Dossier wouldn’t have told me that.”
Lana set her e-reader down. “So, how’d you handle it?”
“Avoidance. Just told them he was a child then, and that whole deal is something he’s moved on from, so I would not be going into it.”
Ravinder rose and walked over to his dresser to remove his necklace and watch. “Hardly. Then I went back to the office and tore a strip off his ass. I wanted to make sure there was nothing else that would fucking jump out at me.”
“What’d he say?”
“Said there was nothing else. I don’t know, Lana. I can’t stay at that company. It’s a good job and it pays well, but I can’t keep working for a man who expects me to bring business to him then hides things he knows the media will find that could hurt said business.”
“You think he’s lying about something else?”
Ravinder turned and rested his hands akimbo. He rolled his shoulders and sighed. “Yes. No. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, I hate working with someone I can’t trust and who refuses to trust me.”
While Lana went back to her book, he took a shower, washed his hair, then shaved. He got dressed in a simple pair of black slacks and a dark blue dress shirt then looked at himself in the mirror before walking out to show Lana. She approved with two thumbs up and a grin.
By the time they made it out on the streets again, it was dark outside. They stopped by Bessie’s for a burger and fries then proceeded to wander the shopping malls until they were closed. Ravinder didn’t really need anything but he wound up with a couple of new pairs of boxers and a shirt. After which, they made a detour out of Bathsheba for ice cream. By the time they got to the nightclub, Fun, the long line outside told them they’d gotten there late.
“Hey! Ravinder!” the bouncer called.
“Did you sleep with him?” Lana whispered.
“Feng told me you were coming.” The man shook Ravinder’s hand. “Come on in.”
Ravinder exchanged looks with Lana but didn’t complain. It was better than standing in that line for only God knew how long. He thanked the bouncer and escorted Lana inside. But the club wasn’t as much fun as the name suggested. The DJ was horrendous, playing songs that caused the dance floor to have just your typical twinks trying to shake their asses. After about an hour, Lana pulled in close to speak in his ear.
“We should go,” she said.
He agreed and led her outside. Since she wore heels, he left her by the doors to get the car. When he returned, Lana was trying to get away from some guy who was way too close. Ravinder frowned.
“The lady said no,” he said, pushing his body between Lana and the drunken fool.
“You were in a gay club, so you’re obviously not her boyfriend,” the guy slurred. “Get to walking, Ghandi.”
When the man reached around Ravinder, trying to grab Lana’s arm, Ravinder reeled back and punched him square in the face. He then stood over the man and glared down at him. “That’s where you’re wrong. Unlike Ghandi, I will fuck you up.”
Lana pulled his arm and Ravinder reluctantly walked away without kicking the fool in the ribs.
“What are parents teaching their kids these days?” Ravinder muttered. “Why are men such colossal assholes?”
“Don’t say men—you, Feng and Darius have been nothing but awesome to me,” Lana said. “But there’s always that one asshat who ruins it for everyone.”
“Amen to that.”
Ravinder took Lana home. He ensured she got into her building then waited until she texted him before he drove off. Lana and Feng were the closest he had to family and he always wanted to make sure they were safe. By the time he arrived home, it was just about one in the morning and, without checking Facebook or the company’s Google Ads numbers, he climbed right into bed. The next day was going to be a long-assed one. It should be something he was looking forward to—more wedding plans with Feng—but he just didn’t feel excited.
* * * *
Ravinder pulled the collar of his coat together and zipped it up. He then wrapped his thick infinity scarf around his neck and pulled his hat on. After sliding his hands into his gloves, he grabbed his keys. With a quick glance in the mirror, he locked the door to his condo then jogged down the hall to the elevator.
The building was all new to him. It was so new that sometimes at night, if he wasn’t paying attention, Ravinder would drive by the place and stop in front of his old apartment. In those moments, all he could do was shake his head, whisper a small prayer of thanks to anyone listening and make a U-turn to his actual home. Never in a million years had he thought he’d be able to buy a condo in his twenties in such a wonderful building, but after he’d graduated and worked for a year, he was able to save up enough for the down payment. He still had a mortgage on it, but the lovely one-bedroom condo was all his.
Humming, he let himself into the underground garage and headed straight for his car. Sure, it wasn’t a 1969 Ferrari Dino like he’d always dreamed of, but the new-to-him Acura RLX suited him just perfectly. He’d bought it from a man whose marriage had failed and he’d had to sell the vehicle and give his wife half of everything. Ravinder had felt bad for him but that was life—right? Even as he slipped into the leather seat and closed the door, Ravinder wondered again what had happened to their marriage. He was curious as to how people could go from loving each other enough to merge all their worldly belongs, to taking the wedding plunge, to fighting each other tooth and nail for things.
Speeding through the north side of Bathsheba and crossing the center of the town pulled heavily on Ravinder’s heart. His car’s previous owner’s dilemma was swiftly shoved to the back of his mind and his own worries jumped to the forefront. Ravinder inhaled deeply and eased his foot off the gas a little once he hit the suburbs. He checked his mirrors and switched lanes to pass a tour bus. They were heading toward the mountains, which didn’t surprise him. Winters brought out the thrill seekers, the skiers and the crazies. Usually, his best friend, Alfred, would be in the midst of it all, snapping pictures of fools who chose to jump off the snow-covered mountain with snowboards strapped to their feet. But Ravinder had a boys’ evening planned with the busy photographer-slash-dancer.
He chuckled, swung a left then a quick right before pulling into the quiet cul-de-sac Alfred lived on with his fiancé Darius Stark. As best man for Alfred at the wedding, Ravinder had duties. From picking out the location, to deciding between a band and a DJ, the wine, the flowers, the lighting—who knew so much went into a wedding? It wasn’t even a large wedding!
Darius’ car was nowhere to be seen but Alfred’s was parked to one side of the driveway. Ravinder stopped behind the black Camry and turned off his car. For a second, he merely sat there, gripping the wheel and pressing his lips into a thin line.
It wasn’t like he was jealous of Alfred—far from it. Alfred had been through hell, especially with his mother. But Ravinder kept feeling alone and left out. Shaking it off, Ravinder eased from the front seat, slammed the door and darted up the steps. He let himself into the large foyer and set his shoes on a leather mat by the door so the snow didn’t get all over the beautiful hardwood floor.
“Feng!” he called Alfred by his native name. “You here?”
“In the office!” Alfred replied.
Taking some time, he removed his coat, hung it up then entered the office in time for Alfred to get off the phone. He waited for Alfred to scribble something on a notepad before walking around to hug him tightly.
“So,” Alfred said, extending a bottle of water to him.
Ravinder accepted it. It was still cold, so he assumed it was taken from the mini fridge Darius had insisted on during the massive renovation to make the house their perfect forever home.
“You said you had news.”
“Let’s talk about the venues first,” Ravinder said. “We had it narrowed down to three the last time. What does Darius think?”
Alfred smiled. “He is leaving it all up to me. Apparently, he just wants to show up on the big day.”
Ravinder swallowed a lump in his throat. He had thought he could do this, but apparently he was dead wrong. Still, he nodded and drank half the contents of the water bottle. “Well, I like the Euphoria Mansion the best,” Ravinder continued. “It was built back in the eighteen hundreds and who wouldn’t want to descend those stairs to the man they loved?”
“That is true.” Alfred peered at his laptop before closing it and rolling his chair around to sit before Ravinder. “There’s something here. What’re you not telling me?”
“I got a job offer. It pays more—much, much more.”
“That’s great!” Alfred cheered. “That’s what you’ve always wanted. So why don’t you look happy?”
“It’s in India.”
Alfred arched an eyebrow. “India. As in Bollywood sunsets India?”
“You knew I was applying abroad. Besides, in India I can finally do some research on my birth parents.”
“I’m proud of you. But I’m going to miss you.”
“I haven’t accepted.”
“I’m waiting to hear back from my potential boss if he can wait until after your wedding for me to arrive. I don’t want to leave before then. And even if I do go, the contract is only for two years.”
Alfred took a breath and nodded. “Okay. We’ll get through this.”
Ravinder smiled and hugged him. “I’ve been feeling a little strange lately,” he admitted. “Life just seems…I don’t know…like I’m swimming under water and there’s no way to get out.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Feng, you have your wedding to think about,” Ravinder said. “You have a fiancé who thinks the sun rises and sets in you—hell, even your mother is behaving. The last thing you need is me dropping my bullshit on your doorstep.”
“Your bull— Rav, you are never a bother to me, you know that, right?”
“You never know with people. I want to give you and Darius time to be a couple, to do couple things. Anyway, let’s get some of this planning out of the way.”
“I’m fine,” Ravinder said. He even managed a smile. “Once I’m in some nice sunshine with a freezing cold soda in my hand, I’ll be right as rain. You’ll see.”
Alfred didn’t look convinced but he rose and grabbed a small book. When he sat again, he opened it and pulled a pen from the spine. “So, Jackson agreed to be one of the groomsmen.”
“Kent is Darius’ best man, so all that has been settled. We have fittings next Tuesday because you set those up for me so I didn’t have to—thank you.”
Ravinder grinned. “My pleasure.”
“For the cake, we have tastings on Saturday before Jackson’s dance contest. So, since you’re coming to that, I was thinking what better way to celebrate or cheer him up than with tasting cake then going out for a burger?”
“Good man! You said burger.”
Alfred laughed. “Your belly is going to get you in trouble.”
“Um, you and Lana should make up your minds—it’s either my cock or my stomach.”
Ravinder made a face, causing Alfred to laugh harder.
It took another few hours to decide on the wine before breaking for dinner at their favorite burger joint then stopping for milkshakes. It was their thing to do when life was getting a little too real for them. By the time they got home, Darius was back and joined them to have a glass of wine. After a while, they still hadn’t decided which to serve at the wedding, and Ravinder started feeling as if he was wearing out his welcome. Between Alfred’s and Darius’ stolen kisses and making eyes at each other across the table, and their gently touching each other’s hands, Ravinder could barely breathe. He hugged them and climbed back into his car.
Yes, after the wedding, he really needed to get the hell out of Dodge. Love didn’t seem as if it was in the cards for him and he had to accept that. Away from Darius’ and Alfred’s adoration for each other, he’d be able to heal and come to terms with what was raving inside him.
Early the next morning, he got the phone call he’d been waiting for. The deal was he could take three weeks’ vacation to attend Alfred’s wedding, but they needed him as soon as he could manage it. The company had gone through a terrible hack and they were rebuilding. He sympathized with that and the honest truth was, Ravinder needed to get away.
“So, you’re going to leave now?” Lana Jeffries asked, beating some eggs in a large bowl.
“Yeah. I kinda have to,” Ravinder said, reading the email the company had sent him with his revised offer. “All that’s really left to do is for Alfred and Darius to decide on wine. Everything else is ready. I’m going to have to do my fitting earlier than the others but I don’t see a problem—unless I gain a hundred pounds in India.”
Lana sighed. “You know I’ll be over there all the time, right?”
“You’d better,” Ravinder said.
In the last year, he’d gotten so close to Lana. The two had met their final year in the Communications Studies program at university. He always wondered why the fates hadn’t allowed them to meet sooner. In reality, the reason was simple—Lana was a transfer into his program.
“And I’ll take great care of this place,” Lana said.
In fact, she was doing Ravinder a favor. He had a thing about strangers in his home and he didn’t want to sell it, so Lana had volunteered to move in and pay the mortgage in the form of rent and deal with any utilities. That, in itself, was an awesome deal.
“So, I’ll pay all the bills until you’re supposed to move in, since you can’t just break your lease at the other place,” Ravinder explained. “Then, when you move in, you can take over.”
She nodded. “I’m glad to be doing this. I’ll be able to save for my own place. If all stays on track, it will be in this building—can you believe the views?”
Ravinder grinned. He’d like that.
The two got through breakfast then went out to buy a few things Ravinder would need to take with him to India. He’d gotten permission to ship things he would want and the company would have a representative carry them over to the house the company had rented for him to stay in while he was in the country. They did just that—sending over two large boxes of new clothes, including suits and jeans as well as shirts, ties and knick-knacks.
Lana kissed him on the cheek and headed into her office, and he was left to his own devices. His first stop was to find Alfred. His best friend wasn’t home so, sitting on the hood of his car, he called him.
“Hey!” Alfred greeted. “What’s up?”
“Got some news about that job.”
“I leave next week—but I’ll be back for three weeks for your wedding.”
Alfred was silent for a second. “Oh, okay. As long as you’re back for the big day, man. This is your dream job.”
“Can we have a night together before I leave?” Ravinder asked. “Just you and me, like old times?”
“You don’t even have to ask that, Rav. You know that.”
“Seriously, are you okay? I know I’ve been kind of preoccupied with starting the studio and planning the wedding. I haven’t really been there for you through all of this.”
Ravinder smiled and shook his head. “Nah, man. Life’s a bitch sometimes and more often than not it gets in the way of other things.”
“That’s true, but still. When I was going through it, you were always there for me.”
Rubbing his eyes, Ravinder let himself into his car. “That’s not how it works. Gimme a call when you have some free time and we’ll plan something. I’m about to drive, so we’ll talk later.”
“Call me later.”
He hung up and, for a silent breath, he just sat in Alfred’s driveway meditating on how much things had changed between them. He was being childish, he knew that. But Ravinder still felt alone and sad. Sure, he didn’t need a man to define him, but Ravinder still craved that companionship. Going to India wouldn’t be any easier on him since he wasn’t at all clear on the real status of the LGBTQQ2A population in the country. Sure, he’d heard the news and the rumors, but until he was there, there was no telling what was what.
Pulling himself together, Ravinder headed back into the middle of town to stop at the passport office.