Jess wasn’t going to give in first, not this time. That’s what he told himself over and over again. Why should he always be the one to knuckle under and apologize for what wasn’t even his fault? He won’t. He just fucking won’t.
Ten minutes to noon, Jess found himself parked at his usual spot by the lamppost, waiting for Dean to come out on his lunch break.
And of course, Dean decided today was the day he was going to skip lunch and work right through the half hour without a break.
Jess sighed, ran a hand through his black wavy hair and turned around to leave. Only to find himself unable to take a single step. Cursing himself, cursing Dean, and even Dillon for convincing him to take a break from work, he stepped into the store.
Dean was busy re-labeling the Indian and Chinese aisles. He didn’t even look up but it was obvious he could sense Jess was there. The tall boy sat crouched on one knee on the floor, looking down at his clipboard with deadly concentration, pretending he was still completely alone.
Jess walked slowly, carefully, glad the store was nearly empty this time of the day. He was barely a yard away from Dean when he stopped, shifting from one foot to the next.
“Alright, I was an ass.” Jess managed to mumble.
Dean paused, just for a second, then continued working as if he didn’t hear anything.
“And I’m sorry for that.”
“You’ve been saying that a lot.”
But Dean still wouldn’t look up.
“But I’m not sorry for the job offer I made you.”
Dean twitched a little at that but gave no reaction otherwise. Jess waited for a few seconds, then exhaled loudly. “I have something for you.”
“I don’t want it.”
Jess bit his lip, gulping down the howls of frustration lodged in his throat. He pulled a blue file out from behind his leather jacket, he’d had it tucked in his belt, and now he held it out at nose level with the crouching boy. Right in his face.
Dean flinched away. “What is this?”
“It’s the business plan Dillon has been putting together for you these past few days. With pretty close to accurate figures and everything about how the business splits up three-way, landscaping projections included.”
Dean’s eyes went wide as he looked up into Jess’ face at last. He looked down at the file within his reach but didn’t reach for it still. And when he didn’t say a word, Jess carried on. He was nervous and desperate, worried that Dean was going to misread his intentions again.
“Just to be clear, I don’t do charity and I don’t pay for sex. I plan to, sometime in the future, but this is definitely not it…”
“You plan to pay for sex?”
“What?” Jess squinted. “No! I mean, like, charity stuff. Jeez!”
Dean waited a whole three seconds before cracking a soft smile which he quickly tucked away and stood up. He still wouldn’t take the file, not even to look at all the numbers Dillon and Jess had toiled over all damn night.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
Jess huffed, remembering the inane argument from last night. “Look, Dillon and I had talked about it in passing last year, about the shit-loads of money in corporate landscaping we could be making if we just had the manpower and some basic know-how to do it. But nothing came out of it until I talked to you and realized how good you are at this stuff.”
“I don’t know all that much.”
“Stop short-selling yourself, Dean, you know enough! And damn it, why aren’t you just happy you’re being offered an opportunity of a lifetime here, man?”
Dean grimaced and swallowed visibly, then looked away for a second as if to compose himself. When he turned back towards Jess, he was still his old, stubborn, distrusting self. “Look, even if I believed you, which I don’t, I still can’t do this. My mom and my sister need me here.”
“It’s not like you’ll be gone to the other end of the world, Dean. You’ll just be one state away, that’s like… a three-hour bus ride tops. You can come back every weekend if you want. I’ll drive you if you want.”
Dean kept shaking his head fervently. “But, Jess…”
Jess couldn’t be stopped anymore. He closed the distance until he could grab Dean’s arms just above the elbows and unintentionally attempt to shake him.
“It’ll be perfect, Dean! You can stay with me, I got a loft with an extra bedroom and a great view of the docks. Uh, kind of. You don’t have to pay any rent and I can give you a ride to work so you can save loads on the commute too.”
“Okay fine, you can pay rent. Happy?”
Dean was still frowning as he pulled away from Jess’ hands.
“And remember you said you have all these ideas for landscaping that your boss keeps shooting down? You can do your own thing with this new thing, man. It’ll be yours! All yours!”
Dean started to wheeze. Jess realized his voice had gotten louder and louder with every word and a couple of patrons of the store had started to stare. Dean saw it too, and flushed red with what was quite possibly mortification. He grabbed his jacket, donning it over his goofy green apron and stepped out of the store. For once the manager did not stop him, and Jess hastily followed him down the street.
“Dean, stop! Don‘t you dare walk away from me again.”
But when still Dean wouldn’t respond, Jess couldn’t help the loudness of his words that followed next.
“What’d I say that’s so damn wrong?”
Dean suddenly stopped and screamed back. “NOTHING, okay? Nothing’s wrong. It’s all right, in fact, it’s…”
Jess waited with bated breath.
Dean’s face crumpled as he crossed his arms to hug himself and looked away. ”It’s perfect,” he murmured miserably.
All Jess wanted to do was grab the boy and squeeze him to his chest hard until neither of them could breathe. He wanted to kiss that misery clean off his boy’s gorgeous face and he wanted to protect him from whatever it was that was giving him so much pain. And he wanted to do it right here, in broad daylight and clear sight of everyone around.
A couple of cars honked at them until they realized Dean had halted right in the middle of daytime traffic. Startled, Dean quickly moved back up to the pavement and ducked into a narrow back alley where no one could spot him. Except Jess, of course, who followed until they both found some semblance of privacy.
“Dean, talk to me, man.”
Dean gulped and scanned his surroundings blankly.
“My mom’s not going to like this…”
“What, you trying to have a life of your own for once?”
“Is that all? Is that why you’re turning me down?”
Dean glared at him. “It’s one of my reasons, yeah.”
Something didn’t seem right. Jess narrowed his eyes and took another stab in the dark. “Or are you worried she’d find out you’re gay?”
Dean huffed. “Jess…”
“Just tell her we’re friends. It’s a stretch given our history in this town, sure, but if lying is what you need to do, then do it. I don’t mind.”
Dean sighed and looked away. A teenager passing by the little alley glanced sideways at them. She looked him up and down and flashed an ‘are you crazy to be seen like that in public?’ look. Dean scowled back at her but reached behind himself to get rid of the apron. He rolled it up in one hand and turned to face Jess.
“Look, I just don’t think it’s a good idea to leave them alone so soon…”
“It’s been over six months.”
“You’ve got an answer for everything today, don’t you?”
“I’m not letting you chicken out of this one, Dean. Give me a good reason and I’ll back off, I promise.”
Dean shook his head and started to walk back to the store. But Jess wasn’t having any of that. He ran up to block him off, standing right in Dean’s path. In his face.
“You’re just being a sissy little wimp again, aren’t you? You’re afraid everyone will find out you’re queer?”
Dean exhaled irritatedly and flung his hands up in the air. “This is why I can’t come with you, Jess. Because of your stupid temper and your caustic tongue and the fact that you seem to get off on hurting me.”
Jess stopped short. “I don’t…”
“Why do we always end up arguing and misunderstanding each other, Jess? You were right to ask me that last night. Why can’t we seem to have a normal conversation like everyone else? Why don’t you get me? And why don’t I get you?”
“E-everyone argues, all the damn time. That’s all me and Rory ever did – fight. But that does not mean I didn’t…”
The words froze on Jess’ tongue as his brain caught up with the implications. He stopped. Dean waited.
But Jess didn’t complete that sentence.
Seconds ticked away in silence, as Dean still waited. His eyes seeking, searching - they tended to do that a lot - but for what, who knew. Finally he seemed to give up, and Dean abruptly laughed, cynical and curt, the expression on his face dismal and dark with something Jess could only describe as… pain.
“Look, Jesse. What we had these last three weeks… it was great.” Dean’s eyes teared up. “It was… intense, and hot, but let’s face it – it wasn’t enough. Intense and hot won’t last us forever.”
No, you don’t mean that… Jess didn’t realize he didn’t actually manage to say the words out loud.
Naturally, Dean continued. “You don’t wanna be stuck in a situation where we’re business partners who can’t even stand the sight of each other. And I… I can’t afford to take too many risks at this point. I got debts to pay, man. I have to take care of my family.”
Jess Mariano was no optimist. But he sure had a mean streak of stubbornness. And so far he’d held on stubbornly to his belief that he could change Dean’s mind, that he could convince Dean to come to New York with him. Fact he’d held on to it so hard, he’d refused to look at the alternative at all.
Until now, when it hit him suddenly, like a ton of bricks crashing down on him out of nowhere: Dean was breaking up with him.
A second later, he felt a curious burn behind his own eyes and was horrified to realize what it was. Jess looked away suddenly, using the reprieve to collect himself.
“What about you, Dean…” he whispered. “Who takes care of you?”
His question was met with absolute silence behind him. Jess gathered his guts and turned back to face the boy who’d come to mean so much to him, even though he couldn’t still bring himself to admit that.
Least of all to Dean.
Dean stood looking down at the tips of his shoes, his hands buried in his jacket, the rolled up apron still tucked in the crook of his left arm. When he looked up, Jess felt his heart shatter to pieces inside his chest.
“Today’s Friday. You’re leaving Sunday, right?”
Jess swallowed hard, and merely nodded. He didn’t break eye contact with the other boy, as If daring him. To what, he wasn’t quiet sure yet.
Dean heaved a giant sigh. “I wish you hadn’t brought this up at all, Jesse.”
“Let’s just… let’s just forget all of this and… make the most of the time we’ve got left, alright? What do you say?”
He looked… hopeful, Jess thought, sardonically.
It’s ironic how you could hope for something so desperately and yet dread it at the same time as well. It’s really not as rare an occurrence as one might think.
Jess looked down at the blue file still clutched in his right hand. Poor Dillon, he’d canceled a date last night to finish this before morning, because Jess had asked him to.
He cleared his throat threatening to clog up. “I don’t think I can do that.”
“I’ll… see you when I see you.”
And that was it. Jess flung the file towards the nearest trash can without looking at it again, put his hands in his pockets and walked away. He kept walking, even as he felt Dean’s eyes boring into his back, suppressing the urge to break into a run, until he’d turned the corner. And that’s when he took a moment to turn around.
He turned just in time to see Dean walking away in the opposite direction.
Those were the last words Jess Mariano ever said to Dean Forester, that summer of 2006.
Dean did not sleepwalk that night. Jess went out anyway, just to be sure. He drove to a friend’s party somewhere in Hartford, and stayed there till five in the morning.
He didn’t show up on Saturday night either, even though this time Jess stayed in, staring at the same word in the same sentence on the same page of the stupid Kissinger book all night.
At three in the morning, Jess couldn’t stop himself.
He got into his sneakers and ran all the way to the other side of the town, and stood under Dean’s window until dawn broke. He didn’t dare climb that tree or enter that room. A part of him was glad the lights were out and that Dean seemed to be sleeping peacefully. Another part was bitter and disgruntled that he could still sleep without a care while Jess stayed up restless and miserable all night, tears streaming down his face because for once, he was letting them.
His head felt light, his heart heavy and sinking to the very bottom of the gaping hole of his stomach. His eyes were swollen and his body protested being held upright when all it wanted to do was curl up like fetus in a dark little corner and never see the light of day. He felt like he was stuck in a horrible nightmare he couldn’t escape. Jess was the sleepwalker tonight, except he was wide awake and utterly miserable while he was at it.
Sunday morning rolled in, and Jess packed up all his stuff and threw it in the back of his beloved Buick. He turned back to his uncle Luke, who stood with his hands in his pockets and a forlorn look on his face, waiting to hug his nephew one last time before he left. Jess welcomed the stronghold of his uncle’s embrace, and let his deadweight rest against the older man for a second, just a second. Then he broke away and with one last parting smile, they said their (manly) goodbyes.
Jess got into the driver’s seat and adjusted his mirrors, hoping to catch a glimpse of a tall, lanky twenty year old somewhere… sneaking behind a lamppost maybe, hesitating to wave goodbye.
He didn’t see anyone.
Three hours later, he was back in Queens. Back to his old life.
It was as if the summer break had never happened.