I wasn’t sure exactly what it was about that Easter Sunday, but I felt blissfully at peace with myself. Something about the combination of beautiful weather, the morning service, the promise of a family brunch, and the familiar scent of white lilies in colorful foil-wrapped pots – which it was my job to pick out from behind the altar every year, when my family bought them from the church. I had one in purple foil in the crook of my arm when Marc, as he was so good at doing, intercepted me on my way back up the aisle.
“Hey, man,” I said cheerfully.
“Hey!” he grinned. “You’re looking tons better. You good?”
“What’s that mean?”
“You were all… I thought you were sick. Whatever. You doing anything for spring break?”
“Nah. Why, you going down the shore?”
“Heck yeah.” Marc shoved his hands in his pockets and followed me out of the sanctuary. “Last spring break ever, man! My g-ma’s letting me use the shore house again. Figure we’ll have at least a modest party.”
“Who else is coming?” I shifted the lilies in my arm as we made our way out to the parking lot.
“Nick and Ty. Couple girls they’re inviting. I asked Janina – sounds like she’s waiting to see if you’re going, first.” Marc looked reticent about this, shoulders bunched.
I snorted. “I’m seriously the last person you asked? Damn, dude. I mean, I’ll go. You wanna carpool? My car gets better mileage.”
“Aw, yeah, sure. I’ll throw you something for gas.”
“So, what – four guys, three girls?”
“Oh, geez,” Marc laughed. “Are you the odd one out? I can try to score someone for you. Unless you know someone you wanna bring…”
“No,” I said quickly. Maybe too quickly. I leaned to one side casually, trying to extricate the image of Levi in swim trunks from my head. “Nah. It’s fine, really. I’m used to being a third wheel. Seventh wheel. As long as you guys aren’t all just sitting around making out, right?”
“Ch’okay, dude. I’m heading up Thursday to get the place ready. Cool with that?”
Marc was about to split off when my mom came trotting over from beside the car where my dad and Dan were already waiting. “Asher, let me take that,” she said. I handed her the lilies while she turned on my friend. “Hello, Marc! It’s nice to see you again. Happy Easter.”
“Hey, thanks, Missus P. You too,” he smiled.
As pleasant as this was, I had a sudden sense of foreboding – which my mom almost immediately confirmed. “You know, I hope it wasn’t any trouble putting Ash up on your couch the other day. I would have gotten his sleeping bag out of storage if I’d known he was staying over,” she told him.
Mark stared blankly back at her. “He w – ow! Aw, no sweat. Honest. It’s not a problem.”
The fact that Marc had been trained to fib on command when you stepped on the back of his foot had forever made him invaluable to every close friend of his. My mom didn’t seem to have noticed. “Ash, are you coming?” she asked.
“Just a sec, Mom,” I smiled back.
As soon as she was gone, Marc rounded on me.
“Where did you really go?” he asked, almost incredulous.
“Doesn’t matter,” I muttered.
“It totally matters. You haven’t pulled the ‘staying at Marc’s place when you’re not really’ thing in a while. What was it last time… Was that when you got blackout drunk at Caden’s place?”
“I’ll – fuck, Marc, I’ll tell you later. I gotta go.”
“Dang, cussin’ on church property, too? Jesus is watching, dammit.”
I snorted and shouldered him on my way to the car. But I’d fucked myself here; Marc didn’t forget things that I said I’d tell him later.
Fuck. Now what?
“Spring break is now? Oh, yeah… It’s after Easter, huh.”
Tuesday morning brought me back to the Tannery. Levi had gotten some order of metal bits for his gear and was sorting pieces into a tool cabinet with innumerable small drawers in his work room. This part of the shop was fascinating to me; it reminded me of the woodshop room in high school, except that there was a shutter in the back that went out to the little parking lot between buildings where Levi’s car was. Three work tables stood against the walls for drafting, leatherworking, and woodworking respectively – each with more pits and scratches than the last – and the rest was taken up by pegboards full of tools and shelves and rolls of material. With how strong the scent of leather was here, it was no wonder it had incorporated so deeply into Levi’s distinct aroma.
“Which beach? Ocean City?” he was asking.
“Stone Harbor,” I replied. “Marc’s grandmom has a place down in Cape May. He uses it all the time.”
“Lucky bastard,” Levi snorted. “You’re not asking me for permission, are you?”
“Well… I thought…”
He smiled and shut the last drawer, pausing to break down the box he’d emptied. “You ask my permission to come and to put your hands on yourself when we’re together. I’m happy you’re telling me about the trip, but that collar doesn’t give me dominion over where you go or who casino şirketleri you see.”
I put a hand to the collar almost by instinct, pulse thumping beneath the leather. At Levi’s insistence, it stayed with me now, though I only put it on in the car before I came in today. “So that’s not part of your control?”
“No,” he replied. “I will never interfere with anything that’s important to you. I’d only like input if you plan to fuck someone else.”
“I – what? Levi, I’m not gonna… why would I -“
“Relax. I’m just saying I’m not very strict about that,” he said casually. “Though… I’d prefer to be present.”
“Why are you okay with that?” I asked, exasperated. Something squirmed in my stomach. “Wait… have you been…”
Levi looked at me at once, startled by my expression. “No,” he said calmly. “I don’t sleep with others when I have a submissive in my collar; not unless it’s something we both agreed to. Are you worried I’ve been unfaithful?”
I chewed my lip and turned to pacing the shop. “I mean… we weren’t together. You couldn’t really cheat on me,” I said finally.
“Well… maybe not officially,” he said. “But I was interested in you.”
I scoffed with a smile. “Not while I was gone.”
“So do you think I slept with someone during that time?”
“No…” But something twinged at my neck at the thought. “… Did you?”
Levi paused, then exhaled slowly. “No,” he said after a beat. “I didn’t have any interest in another partner. My trainer offered me his pup’s services, but we didn’t do anything physical.”
I blinked. “His what?”
“Pup. One of his submissives. He offered to let me use him. It wouldn’t have been the first time, but I decided against it. I wasn’t in a good place.”
“Do Doms just… let people borrow their subs like that?”
“Some. I don’t,” he told me. “And I wouldn’t consider it unless it was something you wanted.”
I couldn’t think of any instance where I’d be okay with letting another guy use me, with or without Levi there. “Hey – why’s his submissive called a pup, anyway?”
“Oh.” Levi waved nonchalantly. “Remember me telling you some people take the dog thing further? My trainer tends to like boys who dress and act like his dogs. It’s called pup play.”
“Seriously?” I laughed. “What, do they wear dog costumes?”
“Not quite. And don’t laugh at stuff people do in their personal time.”
“Ah, gee – sorry. Yeah.”
“Anyway, it’s more like…” He paused, contemplating. “Here, come see.”
Levi led me to the far corner of the shop, where some of his more specialized works were displayed. Harnesses on a clothing rack like t-shirts, shelves of sculpted masks, intricate and strangely-shaped cuffs and collars that I couldn’t quite work out how to wear – every section labeled “Ask for Assistance”. From the top, he lifted down an odd mask on a stand. “Like this,” he said.
Initially, the thing looked a lot like a dog’s head with pointed ears made out of brown and black leather, patterned like a German shepherd, and I wasn’t sure if you could actually wear it until I saw the eyeholes and the zipper along the back. It was surprisingly weighty and solid, but flexible. The word ‘gimp’ immediately came out of some weird recess of my memory – I thought I’d seen something like that in a movie once. I was more disturbingly fascinated than turned on or scared, though.
“People just wear stuff like this for fun?” I frowned.
“Sure,” he said. “It’s a popular form of play. It doesn’t usually come with a whole costume… Usually just this and a harness, sometimes a bodysuit.”
“Shit. I mean, it’s cool, but I don’t think it’s my thing.” I peered at the mask and turned it over in my hands. “How can you breathe in this?”
“Here.” Levi held the ‘muzzle’ and pulled open a hinged lower jaw I hadn’t noticed, leather held in place with a silver rivet. “You normally want access to the mouth. Plus pups usually wear these for extended periods, so they have to be comfortable. Ventilation prevents heat exhaustion.”
“It’s not my thing, but people like it. You should see what they do for tails.”
I was about to ask, but the sound of the bell chiming over the front door made my blood run cold. First thought: Holy fuck, hide, no one can see me in here.
But I didn’t recognize the two young women who had just walked in. Levi didn’t look surprised, although he didn’t seem to know them either. They only glanced over at him for a second when he gave a quick wave. “Hey. Lemme know if you guys need anything, all right?”
The girls’ sudden appearance had me flustered. “Do you… need to help them?” I asked in an undertone.
“Nah. My client base usually appreciates being left alone. They’ll speak up.” He took the dog mask from me and slipped it back onto its stand. “Anyway, it’s just another facet of a broad and complex lifestyle,” he went on. “You’ll discover for yourself what aspects and play styles you enjoy. That’s half the fun.”
“It honestly seems like too much casino firmaları for me to learn,” I half-smiled. “I mean… Look at all this. Like – what’s this thing?”
A piece similar to the patterned cylinder from before sat a few shelves down from the dog mask, but without anything sculpted into the leather. At its base, a large ring hung in a way that reminded me of my own collar. This thing was fastened in the back, as well – though it apparently needed two buckles to do so.
“Posture collar,” said Levi.
“This is a collar? No way. It’s too big.”
“Well, it’s not one you’d wear every day. It’s supposed to fit from the base of your neck to your jaw so you can’t tilt your head.”
I traced the curved rim of the collar, then realized my mouth was open and promptly shut it. “Seems like a really specific purpose, though,” I said.
Levi shrugged. “A lot of this stuff is like that. It’s highly specialized equipment, but it’s more a matter of how you use it, on its own and in conjunction with other things.”
“So… does that mean you have a piece of equipment that can do everything you monologued at me about?” I grinned.
Levi’s smile spread in return. “At least one method for each. You should see what I’m putting together for…” He trailed off, tapping his bottom lip. “Well, you’ll see that later.”
I scowled. “You’re seriously gonna tease me with that?”
Levi seemed happy to keep me in the dark about whatever it was, but the idea of him designing something for me… whatever its purpose… made my heart flutter.
“Excuse me… Do you have this design in other colors?”
The girls had actually come over to get Levi’s assistance. I was surprised – I didn’t think I’d have been brave enough to ask an employee for help in a place like this, but they both seemed rather delighted, the one with short hair holding out a shiny black collar with a heart-shaped ring.
“I think,” he said at once. “I might have sold it. Let’s check. One sec, Ash.”
Levi patted my shoulder and led his customers back over to the other wall. As I turned to examine more of his stock, I thought I heard the other girl say, very quietly: “That guy’s collar is so pretty, did you see, Miss?”
I felt the blood rush to my cheeks.
Despite being in college for four years, I hadn’t been to many parties. Large gatherings tended to make a wallflower out of me unless I got enough alcohol in my system. But six other people wasn’t bad, and I’d be in a familiar place; Marc had been bringing me to his grandmom’s shore house for years, and she’d been (somehow) trusting enough to let two college boys use it for weekends at a time as long as we left no trace of foul play.
The house was, and always will be, my standard for Jersey shore houses – at the end of the road, twenty steps from the little wooden walk down to the beach, porch lined with reeds and garden full of gathered seashells. The beach motif carried inside, from the wicker chairs with conch-patterned cushions, to the table lamp with a large seahorse as the base, to the starfish-shaped soap bar in a little scallop dish in the upstairs bathroom… Which remained the same size as I’d always remembered, as if no one wanted to actually use it and ruin the aesthetic. My mom would have called the place tacky. I wasn’t sure I’d ever want to live here. But it was a house for visits, and that was fine.
Marc and I arrived Thursday night to make sure the place was ready for college kids to use it, finagle sleeping arrangements, and stock the fridge. The house had four bedrooms, but only five total beds.
“Janina’s gonna need a bed to herself,” I was saying, while Marc stocked the fridge door with beer. “If you want, you and I can just take the two beds in the room your cousins use…”
“Nah,” he said. “Put Janina and one of the girls in there. You and me are gonna take my g-ma’s bed, I’d feel weird letting other people sleep in it.”
I laughed and sat up on the counter. “Dude… we haven’t shared a bed since, what, middle school?”
“Oh, fuck, don’t start sounding excited about it,” he snorted. “I know all you wanna do is spoon me, you faggot.”
I felt the word flicker in the insides of my elbows somehow. “Marc -“
“Yeah, you’re right. I’m the big spoon.”
“Marc! Can you fucking not?”
He looked up, blinking in surprise. “What? Come the fuck on, I don’t actually wanna-“
“No – just stop talking like that, will you?”
“Just…” I sighed and combed my hair back with my hands. “Okay – like – shit, I don’t even remember what we were…”
Marc frowned and closed the fridge before folding up the empty Yuengling case in his hands. “Since when are you that sensitive? Geez, man. It was a fucking joke. Lighten up. I’m gonna go throw this in recycling.”
I didn’t watch Marc leave the kitchen. I just sat there chewing my lip, feeling, for the first time in my life, suddenly alienated from my best friend.
Janina was the first to arrive the güvenilir casino next morning, and I was grateful for her to be there to help ease the unseen awkwardness between me and Marc, even if he didn’t notice it. We met her out on the porch and she made a dash for us as soon as she got out of the car, abandoning her beach bag on the sidewalk. I got the life choked out of me before she cleared her throat nervously and hugged Marc in a much more reserved manner. She was wearing a white sundress over her bathing suit and didn’t take it off until everyone else got there about an hour later – Nick, Ty, super-thin Erica and hourglass-shaped Madelyn, who I didn’t know well. Nick and Ty were Marc’s friends more than mine, but we got along okay, and Janina was friends with Erica, so the event wasn’t likely to be uncomfortable. I just had to avoid getting anywhere near the subject of what he’d said, of… me.
Course, that was kind of hard because of my company. Nick and Ty were obviously dating these chicks, and I knew Marc was definitely using the weekend to try to flirt with Janina, whose cute one-piece bathing suit was being picked apart by Erica and Madelyn in bikinis. The whole time we were down on the beach, mostly fucking around and avoiding the still-frigid water, I caught myself desperately wishing Levi was there.
As the sun set, Marc and I dragged the firepit from behind the house and stuck it in the sand, and we sat out on towels with all the beer we could fit in our cooler. Pretty much everyone was drinking except Janina, and I paced myself to make sure she wouldn’t be the only one who wasn’t trashed, which she seemed appreciative of.
But I was reminded of the emptiness in me seeing Madelyn and Erica snuggling up to the other guys. A moment’s weakness conjured an image of me sitting here with Levi holding me against his side, a warm hand teasing the bare skin under my short-sleeve jacket, and no one caring if I put mine in his lap…
Not happening. Not now, maybe not ever. Not with these people.
I felt a little weird about that. I’d only finally come to terms with my feelings a week or so ago, and I longed for Levi like I was making up for lost time. Was I obsessing over him, though? Was it normal to? I’d never felt like this with anyone. Just thinking about him like this made me feel so good, and hurt so much at the same time. Even with Janina sitting so close to me, giggling brightly at Marc’s chatter, I felt miles away from everyone, miles from the heat of the firepit between our towels. Seeing a moment where no one was looking at me, I pulled my phone out of my jacket pocket and found my texts with Levi.
I could just send him a message or two, right? Just to let him know I was… thinking about him. I chewed my lip and tapped something out quickly.
Hey. What are you up t
I looked a split second before a beer can nearly hit me in the face, and in my hurry to catch it, juggled and dropped my phone in the sand. “Fuck!”
“Oh, shit!” Marc burst out laughing and leaned on his knees.
“Oh, no – Marc, that’s not funny!” Janina frowned.
“It’s fine – I’ve got a case,” I muttered, plucking it out of the sand and shaking it off. My conversation was still open, and I saw that I’d accidentally sent my message.
“Who you talkin’ to?” Nick asked.
“No one.” I shoved the phone in my pocket and popped open the can Marc threw at me – which gushed foam over my hand. “For fuck – goddammit!”
Marc promptly lost his shit and hugged himself. Everyone but Janina joined him. “You’re always picking on him!” she complained.
“Janina, it’s fine – it’s just beer. I’m good.” I sipped the excess off the rim of the can and knocked half of it back in one go. “I can just rinse off.”
“Yeah… Come on, Ash doesn’t care,” Ty said dismissively. “Marc’s just fucking with him.”
Over her protests, Marc pressed me again. “For real, who are you texting? If you had a girl, you should have invited her.”
“I’m not talking to a girl – it’s none of your business, dude. It’s nothing.”
“Come the fuck on. Is it nothing or is it none of my business?”
“Ooh… he said it’s not a girl,” Erica mock-gasped. Madelyn giggled and drained her drink.
The back of my neck felt cold. “What the fuck does that mean?”
“What do you think?”
“Aw, no, now that’s not funny,” Marc snorted. “Just ’cause my boy can’t fucking score doesn’t mean he’s a fag.”
I felt something snap like a glowstick in me, pouring chilly adrenaline down my arms as four other people laughed at this. “Marc, what the fuck?”
“What?” He held up his hands in surprise, still snickering. “Man, I just said you’re not a faggot. I know you’ve got no game, but it’s not like I think you’re over there hitting up dudes.”
I could barely hear the giggles from around me. “So if you snagged my phone and saw I was texting a guy, then it’d be okay to call me a faggot? Is that it?”
Marc laughed again, but it was weaker this time. “I mean… Depends. Are you sucking dicks or what?”
“Marc!” Janina scrambled up and looked about to go shove him, but I got there first, ears ringing and jaw clenched. Marc’s arms flew up to protect his face. I swept up and decked him in the gut instead.