Chapter 4:

September 8, 2015, 1:00 PM

Let's Make Love Bloom


“Already?!” It’s a good thing Masashi wasn’t drinking his milkshake this time when I dropped my latest bomb, else he would’ve spilled it all everywhere again and we might’ve found ourselves stuck in our own groundhog day. We had met up for lunch after class at our usual cheap and empty chain restaurant, and this time I had made a concentrated effort to wait for a more opportune moment to tell him the big news. “How?!”Bookmark here

“A magician never reveals her secrets,” I said with a wink.Bookmark here

“Jesus, Sara, we’re only a few weeks in! I’ve barely made friends with a couple girls in my class! How… never mind.” He sighed as he rubbed his temple. It was rare to see Masashi so exasperated. It was kind of cute. “So? You gonna tell me about him?”Bookmark here

“Right! So…” I then went ahead and recounted the previous evening’s events. Masashi, apparently feeling brave, sipped at his in-tact milkshake as I spoke, and apparently nothing I said was all that startling, because I managed to get through my story without him spilling or spitting out a single drop.Bookmark here

“So he’s a bit of a disaster,” Masashi said once I was done, concisely summarizing my exact assessment. “But then, aren’t we all?”Bookmark here

“True.”Bookmark here

Masashi took one last deep sip from his milkshake as he appeared to mull it over. Of course, he was under no obligation to agree to anything, and I wouldn’t blame him for saying no, but—Bookmark here

“Alright,” he said, looking up from his milkshake. “Give me his number.”Bookmark here

“Okay.” Though that was all I said, internally I was pumping my fists in excitement. My (minimal) work had paid off, and I might’ve just helped my best friend find a happiness he had once thought beyond him. Things were looking up.Bookmark here

“Say, you mind giving him a call first?” Masashi asked. “Ask when it’d be okay for me to call him?”Bookmark here

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t even need to ask why. He’s too nervous to be the first to reach out—in his shoes, I know I’d be, too. “One minute.” I slid out of the booth and stepped outside to dial Oscar. The parking lot was nasty, as always, and mostly empty, save for three cars, one of which was Masashi’s (parents’). My eyes wandered over the half-faded white paint of the parking spots as the phone rang. The parking blocks, too, were all chipped and broken, and I’m sure I spotted at least three potholes. And God, all the litter. But before I had a chance to wonder how this place had managed to stay open for so long, Oscar answered.Bookmark here

“Hey, good to hear back from you,” he said. “So…?” Right to the point, again. Just fine with me.Bookmark here

“Well, I gave him your number. He was wondering when would be a good time to call you.”Bookmark here

“Oh sure, yeah. I’ve got a class about to start up, but after that… uh, say seven? Got nothing going on then.” The background noise from his end—the indistinct chatter of too many mouths—told me he probably was, in fact, in class.Bookmark here

“Alright, seven. I’ll tell him.”Bookmark here

“Cool. Thanks, Sara.”Bookmark here

“No prob.” That done, I hung up and smiled to myself, feeling proud. Things were definitely looking up.Bookmark here

“Seven,” I told Masashi once I was back inside and sat across from him.Bookmark here

“Got it,” he said with a nod. As he absentmindedly sipped at what was left of his milkshake, I noticed that his leg was shaking. Well, I didn’t see it, it being under the table and all, but I did feel it—the tables weren’t exactly nailed down in this place.Bookmark here

“Hey, you okay?” I asked, reaching out a hand and grasping one of his. Just after, the shaking subsided.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Just nervous. Like I didn’t expect this to happen this fast.”Bookmark here

“Well hey, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”Bookmark here

“No, no, I do.” He squeezed my hand back. “One way or another I’ve got to rip this bandage off, and this is the best chance I’ve ever had. For myself, more than anything. Thanks, but I got this.”Bookmark here

“You sure?”Bookmark here

“I’m sure.” We locked gazes, and that was enough for me. Far be it from me to assume I know everything about him, but from everything I knew, I was pretty sure that this was the scariest thing he had every done in his life. And yet, that furrowed, firm gaze of his (an unusually powerful one, I might add), told me all I needed to know. He was determined to go through with this, no matter what. And damn was I proud of him.Bookmark here

“Alright, but if gets to be too much, you just let me know and I’ll be right there to bail you out.”Bookmark here

“How? You don’t even have a license.” That bit of innocent teasing didn’t bother me. He was smiling, and so was I.Bookmark here

“You don’t need a license just to drive, you just need one to not get thrown in jail if you get pulled over. I’ll nab the station wagon and speed over there as fast as I can.”Bookmark here

“Speeding? When you can barely even change gears? Oh, you’re definitely going to jail, then.”Bookmark here

“You know it.” Giving his hand one last squeeze, I pulled back into my seat and turned my attention to the remainder of my fries. They had gone cold, but it was all good. As I munched on them, Masashi spoke back up.Bookmark here

“Well, I’m sorry to say that I don’t yet have any good news to give back to you, because again, holy crap, Sara.” It was an odd mix, Masashi sounding both apologetic and genuinely impressed with my luck. Though of course, he didn’t know it was luck. Bookmark here

“Ah, it’s fine,” I said with a shrug. “Take your time.” And I meant it. After seeing how nervous he got at the news that he had landed a date so soon, I realized that that would probably be me, too, once he came through. So honestly, let him take his time. I need to psyche myself up first. But in the meantime, just this alone could make for some good fun.Bookmark here

“But if you end up going out with this guy,” I said, grinning, “you’re going to tell me everything, right?”Bookmark here

“Within reason, sure.”Bookmark here

We wrapped up lunch with just a little more light banter, silly smiles on our faces the whole time, and as Masashi drove us back to campus, it occurred to me that I really did need to hurry up and get my license.Bookmark here

#Bookmark here

With how restrictive my home life had been growing up, I never had much opportunity to do things my folks deemed “unnecessary” or “inappropriate” for their daughter, and for some buck-wild reason one of those things was getting my driver’s license. Don’t ask me to explain why. The one time I tried to press Padre about it, all he gave me was a non-committal response and a dirty look. But now that I’m spending days on my own on campus, with fewer leashes around me I should theoretically be able to get that taken care of my own. Should be easy: Google a few study guides, get Masashi to show me the ropes in an empty parking lot somewhere (presumably the Steak ‘n Shakes’), and then sneak off to the DMV on a school day between or after classes and take the test. Boom, easy. And I know I need to do this sooner rather than later. If I’m going to strike out on my own after I graduate, I’ll need to be able to (legally) drive as far away as I can, if necessary.Bookmark here

Damn shame I keep letting it fall by the wayside.Bookmark here

I’m sorry, I just can’t help it. I keep getting caught up in my own business. And by my own business, I mean, to put it generously, that I’ve been committing myself to an extracurricular activity that will have no bearing on my academic performance but at least allows me to hone my programming skills.Bookmark here

And by that, I mean I’m making a video game.Bookmark here

Aside from pursuing and consuming whatever gay media I can, this is my one (very recent) hobby that consumes all my non-school, non-family time. Over the years, Masashi and I played a lot—a lot—of games together, and as tends to happen when a person plays a lot of games, I started daydreaming about making my own. Of course, due to limited computer access back home, those dreams weren’t able to be much more than dreams, so you can imagine my elation when I discovered that the college library’s computers were free for students to use. Given my aspirations, going for a computer science major was a no-brainer. (At home, I justified it as being useful for office work. Which, that was true. So that was an easy pill for them to swallow.) But then, discovering that I was able to work on computers outside of home, whenever I wanted? A godsend. Maybe there was a crusty old (somehow white) guy up there looking out for me after all.Bookmark here

Over the past year, I dabbled in and realized my inadequacies in all areas of game design: art, sound, writing, all of that I’m terrible at. The only thing I’ve managed to pick up is the coding side of things, and that’s probably only because I’m spending extra time studying the subject anyway as a part of my classes. Having figured out my one strength, I settled on building a simple engine for a basic pixel-art action platformer, and over the past half-ish year I’ve been slowly plugging away at that when I can. The matter of testing the thing, though, was a little tricky. Again, I’m bad at art, and as it turned out, being bad at art means being bad at all art, including pixel art. You’d think that’d be easier, but no, all my little pixel creations turn out as incomprehensible blobs. So, for testing purposes, I resorted to implementing stock assets that I downloaded (read: stole) from resources (read: other games) online. But I was at a point in development where stock assets weren’t quite going to do it anymore. The engine was stable and able to implement at least the basic features I was looking to implement, and on paper I’d been sketching out ideas for levels and extra mechanics. And while I worked on those, I figured it was high time to get some original assets in there.Bookmark here

Enter Stephen.Bookmark here

Meeting him this school year had been a stroke of luck. On top of being a DC shill, the dude was actually a practiced pixel artist. Second day of class, he happened to show me some of the stuff he’d worked on, and right then and there I asked him to help me out with my thing. And thankfully, he agreed immediately. And when they heard what we were talking about, everyone else in our group volunteered to help out, too, but aside from Romana offering to compose a few tracks, I turned them all down. This was my project, and I wanted to do as much of it as I could on my own. It’s not that I was allergic to help—I was accepting Stephen and Romana’s aid to make up for my shortcomings, after all, and hell, I’ve got my whole thing going on with Masashi, which is nothing but two pals helping each other out. It’s just, for once, I want to be able to make something that is fully my own, something that only I’m in full control of. (Insofar as that is possible with collaborative art, of course.)Bookmark here

Today, Stephen and I were meeting up after lunch in the library to go over what he’d been working on. The most challenging part of that meeting was (or rather, should have been) just finding a computer to sit down at; for whatever reason, the computer room is always packed, and if you can’t find an open computer, you’re hovering around, waiting for someone to log off so you can hurry and hop in their seat before someone else claims it. That hover game can get intense, especially during the weekdays and during exam season, but lucky for me I managed to find an open computer without too much hassle. Having arrived just a little earlier than we planned for, I plugged in my USB drive and pulled up the build I’d been working on just to make sure everything was working properly and to be better prepared to talk about it with Stephen. In the current build, I was able to move a (stolen copyrighted) character left and right along a simple white-and-gray grid, with different shadings to denote solid terrain and open air. Movement was feeling okay, if a little floaty, except for the jump, which was feeling a little sudden. Probably needs a couple extra frames of wind-up. Maybe—Bookmark here

But before I could think of implementing any fixes like that, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up and to my left and found Stephen’s skinny frame, his bony fingers giving a little wave.Bookmark here

“Hey man,” I said. “You good?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, I’m good,” he said. Pulling up a chair beside me, he pulled his laptop out from his backpack and unfolded it on the desk in front of us. With his computer almost overlapping with the desktop monitor, the space was admittedly a little cramped, but as the other computers around us were already occupied, we didn’t have much choice.Bookmark here

“So this is what I’ve got so far,” I said, showing him the build. “It’s a little clunky, but it’s a start.”Bookmark here

“Cool,” he said, and for a minute I let him play around with it. “You know, the jump’s a little sudden.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, I was thinking that, too.”Bookmark here

“The sprites I got’ll only sub in for what’s there. If you want to drag it out a bit, I might need to draw an extra frame.”Bookmark here

“I mean, if you can, that’d be awesome. What’ve you got?”Bookmark here

“Check this out.” Stephen opened some image files on his laptop, and I saw things of beauty. Gorgeous pixelated renditions of pastel-haired girls, rendered in a style both reminiscent of and just beyond the complexity of similar artwork from the sixteen-bit era.Bookmark here

“Hot damn, man,” I said, making no effort to show my excitement. I’m sure at that moment I must’ve looked like an adrenaline junkie about to hit a roller coaster’s big drop. “This is incredible.”Bookmark here

“I know it is,” he said with a smirk. “I’m still working on some basic environment assets, but for now I figured this would get you the most excited.”Bookmark here

“Damn straight! Dude, you’re the best!”Bookmark here

“Yeah, no problem. I’ll shoot these over to your email, let’s see about actually putting them in.”Bookmark here

“Sweet.” And so we spent a good chuck of time doing just that, though for exactly how long I couldn’t tell you. Once all was said and done, I was having the time of my life just moving our cute pastel pixels girls around that greyscale environment, and honestly I could’ve spent hours doing just that and I would’ve been perfectly content. That feeling you get when something you’ve been working hard on finally comes together right before you… man, there’s nothing like it.Bookmark here

We got into a bit of a technical discussion after that about what we were working on next. As of then, all we had were movement animations in place, so we still needed to figure out what we needed for attack animations, which meant me toying around and figuring out exactly how I wanted attacks to work; there was also the jump to consider and all the environment stuff we needed. Once we figured out exactly what each of us were going to focus on for a while (I would focus on the mechanical stuff and he would work on a straightforward very green field environment to base the first area on), we started got ready to head out for the day. Unfortunately, Stephen still had something he wanted to talk about.Bookmark here

“Say,” he said as I was logging off the computer. “So what was all that about yesterday? With you trying to hook up a friend of yours?” Alarm bells weren’t yet going off in my head, so for at least the moment I was happy to answer.Bookmark here

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I don’t think you’ve met Masashi, but he’s pretty much been my best friend forever and, well, I promised him I’d help get him a date, so I did.” I wouldn’t realize until later that I had instinctually neglected to mention that that promise went both ways.Bookmark here

“And how’d it go?”Bookmark here

“Well, last I heard, they called each other last night and agreed to meet up on Sunday, so we’ll see how it goes.” Shame that I’d be trapped in church while Masashi was out having a gay old time, but that’s just how the chips fell.Bookmark here

“Oh, cool.” Stephen just nodded, and even though he was facing forward, I could tell that he was stealing glances at me, his gaze darting toward me and away like he wanted to look at me but for whatever reason couldn’t make himself. “Sorry if that sounded weird. It just, you know, it got me thinking. Are you, um… are you seeing anyone?”Bookmark here

I froze.Bookmark here

Oh no. Oh dear, oh heavens, oh no.Bookmark here

I knew exactly where that was going and I did not like it one bit. I knew that because I’d been asked that question so many times before, and the follow-up question was almost always the same. I’ve had to turn down every guy who’s ever asked me out for obvious reasons, and boy have there been a lot of them, and every time the exchange always ended with the both of us feeling hurt. The guys always felt hurt for, again, obvious reasons, but then there was me. I always felt hurt, too, partly because I didn’t like having to hurt people who I knew and maybe cared about, but mostly because of the guilt that festered afterward. Because every time, when asked why, I could never make myself tell the truth. And this time would be no different.Bookmark here

“I’m not,” I said, and if Stephen were a bit more perceptive he might’ve noticed that my voice had gone much softer and wondered why, maybe even reconsidered saying what he was about to say. But alas.Bookmark here

“Oh! So, uh…” he hesitated, and my mental pleas for him to back off of course never reached him. He was too excited to do that. “So, um, if you’re free, if you don’t mind, uh, if you’re free this weekend, would you, uh, would you want to go out with me?”Bookmark here

And there it was. God dammit, Stephen. And he was sweating and shaking, too. It had taken all his courage to ask—this was going to hurt even more than normal.Bookmark here

God dammit, Stephen.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry,” I said, and then took a deep breath. The one good thing about having to reject so many guys was that at this point, I was practiced at the art of the let-down speech. That’s a terrible skill to have. Making sure to enunciate my words slowly and trying not to let too much emotion seep through, I said, “I’m not interested in you as a potential romantic partner. I like having you as a friend and would love to keep working with you, but dates and romance are off the table. …Sorry.”Bookmark here

“Oh.” Stephen turned away and his shaking got a little worse, like he was trying and failing to hold back sobs. It was a good thing he turned away; if I saw him crying, that just might break me. “Do you mind if I ask why? Is it me? Am I—?”Bookmark here

“No, no, no, it’s not you. It’s…” And here’s the kicker. Internally, some part of me thought, knew, I could do better. Hell, I already had yesterday. It would be so easy to tell him the truth. Hadn’t I already told myself to trust my friends? I can tell him, I know I can.Bookmark here

And yet…Bookmark here

“I’m just not interested in love right now. I want to focus on my education and career.” Liar. Liar. Filthy damn liar. Why was I cool with telling everyone I was trying to get my gay guy friend a date, but when it comes to myself I still can’t say anything? Why can’t I ever tell anyone the truth, even when I know they’ll probably be fine with it?Bookmark here

Why am I so afraid?Bookmark here

“I understand,” Stephen said, then stood, still facing away from me. “I think I need some time to myself. I’ll see you in class.”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” was all I could say. As he walked away I added one last thing, spoken under my breath so that he didn’t have a chance in hell of hearing it:Bookmark here

“I’m so sorry.”Bookmark here

#Bookmark here

I don’t remember what I had for dinner that night. I don’t remember if I talked to my parents or what about; hell, I don’t even remember doing my homework, even though I know I must have done it, because I turned it in completed the next day. All I remember was curling up under my sheets preoccupied with worry. Between working on my game, attending classes, doing schoolwork, pretending to be Catholic at home, and that disastrous meeting with Stephen, I had plenty to keep me busy (and worried) until I met up with Masashi again to learn about his big date. And until that happened, I was going to be nothing but anxious. Because if just one relationship in the group I thought I trusted could turn that scary that fast, who’s to say that his thing was going to go any better? It seemed too late to ask him to call it off; after all, I was worrying over basically nothing, right? But still, I worried. Worried that I might’ve made some big mistakes. Worried that I might’ve hurt people, and might yet hurt others still.Bookmark here

That night, I don’t think I slept.Bookmark here

-june-
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