Malcolm Elliott stared at the contents of his mother’s refrigerator. Or lack of contents, to be more accurate. His mom, Kim, lived alone. Surely, she needed more nutrients than could be gotten from cottage cheese, celery, baby carrots and bottled water. Knowing the pantry would be similarly bare, he worried his bottom lip between his teeth.
“Mom,” he said, “you need to tell Jack and me when you’re running low on food.”
“I’m not running low, silly.” Kim flashed a smile when Malcolm glanced her way. “My doctor said my cholesterol was on the high side at my last appointment, so I cut back on junk food.”
Malcolm watched her for a beat, unnerved by her ability to lie with a straight face. He doubted his mom’s cholesterol levels were off. She’d eaten well for years and, at fifty-seven, was more active than women half her age. The half marathons she ran several times a year were a testament to her discipline.
Diet and lack of exercise weren’t a problem. Kim’s wallet was, though, because it was just as empty as the refrigerator.
“Good thing all the stuff I picked up is healthy.” Malcolm stepped back so the refrigerator door swung shut and turned to the counter where he’d set several bags of groceries. Kim moved to Malcolm’s side and reached for one of the bags.
“I love you for doing this for me, Malcolm, but I wish you wouldn’t. I’m capable of shopping for myself. Not to mention you came all the way out here on your birthday!”
Malcolm’s tension ratcheted up several more degrees. “I don’t mind. I like seeing you on my birthday. I like grocery shopping, too.”
His mom had always hated grocery shopping, but these days, she avoided it for very sobering reasons. Not that Kim or her sons spoke about those reasons. That she’d been laid off and never told anyone. Burned through her entire savings before Malcolm had accidentally found her out. And that even with the part-time job she’d found at a local college, she was so broke her sons had to support her.
Malcolm and Jackson bought her groceries. They filled her gas tank and paid her utility bills, as well as tackling the endless list of small repair jobs that needed doing around the old house. Malcolm didn’t mind doing any of those things. He loved his mother and would do anything for her. He just wished he knew how the hell to help her get out of the financial hole she’d dug for herself, short of handing over the bigger part of his paychecks. He really, really wished he had a way to call her out on her epic levels of denial. Malcolm knew he needed to draw a line in the sand with his mom, but he simply couldn’t seem to get there. He couldn’t bear the idea of shaming her.
Malcolm shook himself. “I gassed up your car,” he said. “That should tide you over until Jack comes out next weekend. Unless you go driving up to Maine to see your boyfriend.”
His mother gave a delicate snort. She’d started an online relationship with a man named Scott who lived in Kennebunkport, Maine. From her descriptions, things with Scott were progressing, but they hadn’t yet arranged to meet in person.
“You know me better than that,” she said. “If Scott wants to meet, it’s on him to come to New York. I’m still a bit old-fashioned when it comes to dating IRL.”
Malcolm stopped, two boxes of spaghetti in one hand and a jar of pasta sauce in the other. “IRL, huh?”
“I know how to use Urban Dictionary too, sweetheart.” Kim tossed her honey-blonde hair at him and they shared a laugh. Her expression turned fretful when Malcolm set the boxes and jar of sauce on the counter. “Why didn’t you buy fresh tomatoes and herbs for sauce?”
“The Roma tomatoes looked a bit old,” Malcolm replied. He hadn’t looked at tomatoes, Roma or otherwise. Produce prices were higher this time of year and fresh pasta and tomatoes hadn’t fit into his grocery budget. At least not at a high-end market like Clark’s, the nearby supermarket his mother favored. He’d been tempted to visit the discount market down the road from Clark’s, but Kim disdained the place and he knew she’d spurn the food if she found out that was where Malcolm had bought it.
You’re just as bad as your mom, a voice in Malcolm’s head whispered, acting like nothing is wrong instead of dealing with the mess in your life.
“I grabbed some thyme,” he said. “You can pop some of that into the jarred sauce and dress it up. There’s a chicken and some potatoes, too, and you can use the thyme there.”
“A whole chicken?”
“Yes. A smaller one. Roast it for Jack when he comes out to visit.”
Malcolm turned toward the refrigerator with several containers of yogurt. His mother would let go of the topic if he didn’t engage. He had bigger fish to fry and they were wilder than fresh produce and jarred sauce. He waited until everything was put away before he went for broke.
“Do you have your tax documents ready?” Without looking at Kim, Malcolm headed out of the kitchen and for his father’s old office, a tiny space located off the family room. “Jack and I are sending ours in this week and I can get yours ready, too.”
“Goodness, I haven’t even thought about taxes yet.”
Malcolm halted mid-step and counted backward from five before he turned around. “Mom, Tax Day is a month from now.”
Kim rolled her eyes. “I know that. I’ve been filing taxes for longer than you’ve been alive, honey, and the date has always been the same.”
“Yeah, hah. Well, let’s do it now while I’m here and can help.”
“I appreciate that, but we both know you’ve got plans tonight and it’s almost four o’clock.” Kim cocked her head. “I have plans, too. My friends and I are taking Rose out for dinner, then over to a paint and sip place in Elm Park.” She grinned. “I’ve never painted under the influence before. It sounds fun.”
Malcolm’s stomach knotted. Paint and sip parties typically started at over forty dollars a head, money his mom didn’t have. Not to mention dinner and a birthday gift for Rose. “Sounds fun. You, um, have a designated driver, right?”
“Of course. Rose’s husband organized a shuttle to get us there and home. You worry too much, Malcolm. Watch out you don’t go making yourself old before your time.”
Right or wrong, Malcolm had worried about his mom since his parents’ divorce, especially after he found out she’d lost her job. Kim had no family apart from Malcolm and Jackson. As the oldest son, Malcolm felt an obligation to support and protect his mother, even if it meant his own inconvenience. Was that more than a little dysfunctional? Maybe. Unfortunately for Malcolm, he didn’t know any other way to be.
“What time do you need to get back to the city?” Kim asked him now.
“Soon.” He felt just like a little boy as Kim stepped forward and looped her elbow through his. Any hope he’d held of talking about tax documents died. “I’m meeting the guys at Under around seven.”
“Is this the monthly party you’ve told me about?” Kim led Malcolm away from the office with measured steps. She’d never been to the speakeasy in Morningside Heights co-owned by two of Malcolm’s friends, but she delighted in his descriptions.
“No, those happen on the third Thursday of the month, barring holidays.” Malcolm hoped his smile looked natural because God knew it didn’t feel like it. Coming out here would leave him drained for days. “We’re just getting together to hang out. I’m not sure why, but we’ve never needed an excuse.”
Kim’s bright brown eyes sparkled. “Well, I’m glad. You deserve to relax, honey. You’ve been working so hard on that fundraiser.”
“Busy comes with the job. And everyone helps out, Carter included.” Malcolm worked with Carter Hamilton at Corporate Equality Campaign, an organization dedicated to ensuring the rights of LGBTQIA employees in the corporate workplace. Carter and his partner also happened to be two of Malcolm’s dearest friends. “He and Ri came up with a lead on a restaurant we may hire since the original caterer canceled, actually. I’m meeting with the chef later this week.”
“That’s great! Maybe Carter and Riley can come up with a lead on a nice girl for you, too. Or boy!” Kim threw in when Malcolm made a noise of protest. “Whatever works for you.”
“I meet people, Mom,” Malcolm murmured as they walked back into the kitchen, though guilt flared in his gut at the lie.
Of course, Malcolm met people in his day-to-day life. As Social Coordinator for Corporate Equality Campaign, meeting people was a big part of his job. Interfacing with other humans wasn’t the kind of ‘meet’ his mom was talking about, however. Kim wanted Malcolm with someone, paired up like everyone else in his life, and that wasn’t happening, no matter how many people he met.
Malcolm hadn’t been on a date in almost a year, a fact that didn’t bother him in the least. He just wished he knew how to explain that to his mom and how his own weird wiring was the cause.
In truth, Malcolm was still coming to terms with the words he’d found to describe his identity. They’d come to him by chance, really, during a conversation with Carter after that fateful last date, an evening that had held all the right components but gone nowhere, like every date Malcolm’d had in recent memory.
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ he’d said while Carter had paid for their lunch at a hot dog cart near the office.
Carter had frowned. ‘What makes you think anything is wrong with you at all?’
‘Well, for starters, I think it’s clear I’m a complete failure at dating.’
‘Do you think that because Tessa’s the one who asked you out?’
‘No, that doesn’t bother me.’ Malcolm had bitten into a dog and chewed for a moment. ‘It didn’t occur to me to ask her out at all, now that you say that.’
‘Maybe you weren’t interested in her,’ Carter had replied.
‘Maybe.’ Malcolm had sighed. ‘Tessa’s cool and I like hanging out with her and Kyle after yoga class. We had a nice time on the date, too. We saw a movie and grabbed a drink afterward, then I walked her home. But when she kissed me goodnight, it was like…nothing. Just blank. And I know I’m supposed to feel fireworks. Or something?’
Carter had smiled. ‘I don’t know about fireworks, babe. That kind of thing doesn’t happen as often as people like to think. Kisses should feel nice though, if you’re attracted to a person.’ He’d chewed for a moment and his gaze had lost focus before it sharpened again. ‘Are you attracted to Tessa, Mal? Sexually, I mean.’
Dread had filtered through Malcolm. No one had ever asked him such a thing straight out. Malcolm had never considered it, either. And now that he was…well. Malcolm wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be feeling around the women he dated. And that didn’t seem right.
Now and then, something passed over Malcolm when he looked at another person. A frisson of energy that made his skin heat and his heart pound a little faster. That energy felt good. Those moments were rare, though, and Malcolm knew from the way other people spoke that such feelings should be his norm and not his exception. Even odder, the feelings only happened around people he knew well.
He’d known that energy sometimes around Bethany, a high school girlfriend, and regularly around Liz, a young woman he’d dated during college. Malcolm had cared about Liz and she’d cared for him, too. He’d seen it clearly in her eyes and felt it in her touch. Liz had also loved having intercourse and they’d had sex often. While Malcolm had enjoyed getting off very much, making Liz happy had far outweighed any real urge of his own.
He’d been drawn to Liz, almost pulled, like iron to a magnet. Unfortunately, Malcolm felt a similar pull around Carter, which only added to his confusion. Because that meant Malcolm could be bisexual, right? Except he didn’t think that fit either. Malcolm had kissed a guy once during college. The guy was handsome, all dark eyes and a wicked smile, and they’d been out dancing. They’d both been loose on a lot of drinks when the guy had leaned in and laid one on Malcolm. Malcolm had kissed him back, but there’d been nothing deep about it. Just the mechanics of mouths sliding together. There’d been nothing deep with Tessa, either, only a weird, blank disinterest that unsettled Malcolm enough to make him want to stop.
‘Mal?’ Carter had prompted, his voice gentle.
‘I’m not attracted to Tessa. Or anyone, really.’ Malcolm had pursed his lips, his lunch turning leaden in his belly. That might not have been entirely true, but he couldn’t tell his friend that. ‘That’s weird, right?’
‘I don’t think so. Or not in the way I believe you mean, at least.’ Carter had folded up the wax paper that had been wrapped around the hotdog and tossed it in a trash can as they passed. ‘Have you ever considered that you could be ace?’
Something in Malcolm had clicked in that moment, like a key sliding home in a lock. He’d started researching asexuality and talking with Carter about the things he’d learned, and the more Malcolm had talked, the more things he’d recognized about himself.
He rarely checked people out. Flirting was a language he neither spoke nor understood. Outside of his family and friends, he’d never been much into being touched, Liz being a notable exception. While being with Liz had been satisfying for Malcolm, he suspected the flashes of energy—the pull—he sometimes experienced around Carter meant something, too.
Malcolm wasn’t interested in changing anything about himself—he didn’t see why he should. And that set him apart from the people around him. They didn’t just like having sex—they actively wanted it, while Malcolm thought about it very seldom if at all. Understanding as much through the lens of asexuality soothed him in ways he hadn’t known he’d needed. And while he was still learning where he fell on the ace spectrum, he did belong there, somewhere.
Unfortunately, Malcolm had yet to figure out how to talk to anyone except Carter about his journey.
Kim beamed at him now. “If you fold up that bike of yours and put it in my trunk, I’ll give you a ride to the ferry terminal.”
“You don’t have to do that, Mom.”
“I want to. Plus, we can make a stop at the café on Bay Street.”
“The café that sells used books?”
“That’s the one!” Kim gave Malcolm’s arm a squeeze. “I’ve been dying to find a new book series to start. The café also makes the best smoothies and I swear I’ve had the worst craving all week.”
More money you can’t afford to spend.
Malcolm didn’t give voice to the thought. He couldn’t bear the idea of hurting his mom, no matter how frustrating these visits became.