Chapter 5:

September 14, 2015, 8:00 AM

Let's Make Love Bloom

Aside from a handful of cordial greetings, Stephen and I didn’t talk for the rest of the week. The rest of the group didn’t seem to notice anything and kept chatting and hanging with us as normal, so at least it seemed like he didn’t spill the beans to anyone. That did help to alleviate my worries a little, but aside from that I still had my big worry: how was Masashi going to do on his weekend date? I got my answer the following Monday.

Our college has a professionally-equipped gym free to use for all students. Making use of it had been Masashi’s idea. This had been our morning routine since freshmen year: exercise before breakfast, catch up over food in the nearest cafeteria, head off to class, and continue with our day. We met up just outside and soon were sweating side-by-side on the treadmills. Eager as I was to interrogate Masashi about how it had all gone down, I held my tongue. I figured that as long as we were exercising it might be best to focus on the task at hand. Not to mention all the noise; the people and the running machines all made talking just a bit more strenuous than need be. And besides, it was only polite to wait at least a little bit for him to broach the subject. Not that I would let him dodge it entirely, of course. Just, you know, a little patience goes a long way.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to wait long. After showering and changing in the gym’s locker rooms, we were out the door and on our way to the nearest cafeteria when Masashi brought it up himself.

“So I met Oscar yesterday,” he said, and as soon as I heard that my hand clamped down on his shoulder.

I said, “Tell me everything.”


“We met up at the mall around noon; you know, the one we always go to, the one with the movie theatre. Yeah, that one. I couldn’t believe it, but he actually understood the fun in window shopping. It was… sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. So we met up just outside and he was hot. I have to hand it to you, Sara, you know how to pick them. His style was nothing if not confident. I find him and he’s leaned up against one of those stone pillars, one leg propped up against it, and he’s got the polo and jeans and he’s just… he’s immediately sexy. And I know, I’m trying to be self-conscious here, I don’t want to objectify him or anything, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to pause and collect myself. Because damn.

“So I walk up to him, we shake hands, he looks me up and down, and he fixates on my boots. He sort of squints at them, whistles, and says to me, verbatim, ‘damn, I need me a fine pair like those. Mind helping me look for some?’ And he looks at me with this sweet grin, and I swear I could have fainted. I was definitely sweating at that point. I know because I had to hold myself back from dropping that cringey line, you know, ‘is it hot out here or is it you?’ I’m embarrassed that I ever thought to say that. And I mean it was hot out there, but… never mind.

“But yeah, I say ‘no problem’ and we head on in and make right for the nearest clothes shop and start checking out the boots. He tries on a bunch and we laugh at all the ones that definitely didn’t fit, especially this one really gaudy pair of cowboys boots, complete with those spinning bits on the back. Absolutely tasteless. But he actually does find this one pair he likes that actually look good on him, and he spent the rest of the day in them. So that was cool.

“And then we just talked a lot as we wandered around. Talked about school and hobbies and stuff. I learned a lot more about the present goings-on of the NFL, major teams and players and stuff like that, than I ever needed or wanted to know, and I definitely didn’t retain even a quarter of what he told me. Like now I know who Tom Brady is, and that he’s a different person from the guy in that Mad Max movie. And while I didn’t really need to know all this, the excitement in his voice when he talked about it… I don’t know, it was kind of infectious. I didn’t really care about football and still don’t, but I was happy to hear him talk about it, if that makes sense. Honestly, I kind of felt bad that I didn’t have anything I was so excited about to share with him. But he didn’t seem to mind. He was happy to talk about whatever. He even listened to me talk about that Jane Austen report I’m working on and asked some pointed questions that made me rethink some of it. Which was just incredible.

“And we also got into some, well… personal stuff that I probably shouldn’t talk about. Remember, I said I’d share everything within reason, right? And like, I just met him, I’m not about to betray his trust like that. Still, he did share some stuff, and it’s like… I don’t know, I guess I’m happy that he feels like he can confide in me, but also whoa man, slow down, buy me dinner first, you know? And he did buy me dinner, credit where it’s due. Insisted on it, actually. I wanted to split the bill, but he said no, ‘this one’s on me.’ And I couldn’t just let that slide, so I said I’d get the next one. Yeah, we’re going out again this weekend. What? Don’t look so surprised. Have I not made it obvious this whole time that I’m into this guy? Yeah, I think we’re going to keep going out. Like, it’s too soon to say anything definitive, but I think I can see us going steady.

“…And we didn’t do much physically other than hold hands. Yes, it was very cute. Oh, shut up.”


As much as I would like to say I had the biggest, dumbest grin plastered on my face throughout Masashi’s story, I just didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I paid as much attention as I could, teased him when I saw an opportunity, and we both got our laughs in. But still, try as I might to suppress them, the previous week’s worries still plagued my mind. And I think it must’ve shown on my face, because Masashi was able to pick up on it real easy.

“What’s wrong?” he asked once he was done with his story. By this time we had made it to the cafeteria and were chowing down on breakfast.

“What? Nothing,” I said. “Keep going.”

“You can’t fool me. Something’s bothering you. What is it?”

“I…” I sighed. “How could you tell?”

“It’s written all over your face,” he said with a grin. This guy, I swear. “Plus, you just seemed kind of out of it the whole time. Like you just asked me to keep going, and I’d already finished.”

“Oh.” Way to pay attention, Sara. Some friend you are. But then, he shouldn’t have all the fun, should he? “Honestly, it’s kind of disturbing how you can read me like that. Like we’re some old married couple or something.” Masashi blinked and raised his eyebrows at me, and as he did that I realized what I had just said, and I buried my face in my hands. “Oh God, they’re rubbing off on me. Now I’m doing it, too!”

“Rest in peace, my friend. I’ll carve the tombstone myself: Here lies Sara Caballero’s sexuality, murdered by Catholics.”

“And they didn’t ever realize they did it.”

“Hey, third-degree murder’s still murder.”

“True.” We chuckled a little and I picked at my food, but Masashi had to get one last word in.

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” he said. “But you know I’m here to listen if you need me.” This guy, I swear! If I wasn’t careful, he was going to make me choke up. See this is (one of many reasons) why we’ve stuck together for so long: when we’ve got no one else to turn to, we’re willing shoulders to cry on for each other. There was no one else in the world I would ever consider talking to about this stuff, but with him I could rest easy knowing my secrets were safe and that he could help me through it. He’s the one person I’m confident I’ll never have to lie to, much less feel the need to. Really, I’m blessed to have him.

“Thanks, man,” I said, and took a deep breath. Knowing that I could trust him, I then spilled the beans, told him all about my meeting on Tuesday with Stephen and how poorly it had ended. Reliving that experience made the guilt swell back up, and it must’ve been worse the second time around, because the next thing I knew, Masashi was using a napkin to wipe off a rogue tear that had streaked down my cheek.

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” he said. This time, he was the one squeezing my hand, and I welcomed that warm pressure.

“Hey, I’ve gone through worse doomed confessions,” I said, putting on a smile. And I had. God, that one month in junior year of high school had been an absolute nightmare. In comparison, I had gotten off light with Stephen. “But still. It hurts, man. It hurts.”

“I know,” he said, and he squeezed my hand just a little tighter. And that was enough for me.

“Thanks,” I said. Pulling back and taking a deep breath, I realized that I was actually feeling better. There is something to be said for not bottling stuff up and just letting it out. Whatever this thing was with Stephen still wasn’t over, but now that I had Masashi on my side (though really, he’d always been), I was able to think more calmly about it.

“So what now?” Masashi asked. “You been able to talk with him since it happened?”

“Not really. I’ve got a class with him soon, though. What do you think I should do?” In response, Masashi just shook his head.

“The question is, what do you want to do?” This guy, I swear! Why do you have to be so damn clever sometimes?

“I still want to be friends with him, I know that,” I said after giving it some thought. “Still want to work with him, if possible.” Because damn, could he draw some cute pixel girls. And yet I couldn’t help but picture Stephen’s shaking backside, and all the other backs I’d seen as past rejects walked away, hurt and sometimes angry. “But if my past experiences are anything to go by, that might be difficult.”

“It being hard is no reason not to try, right? As long as you really want it.”

“I guess sometimes, yeah. You’re right.” At the end of the day, Stephen was my friend, and what had happened in the library didn’t change that. As much as that rejection had hurt, losing him forever because of it would hurt worse, and so I had a responsibility, both to myself and to him, to do everything I could to make sure that didn’t happen. Of course, the same responsibility applied to him, too; I had to hope, then, that he felt the same way.

“And are you going to tell him the truth?” Masashi asked. Right; that was the one other important thing here, wasn’t it? “The real reason why you turned him down?”

“No,” I replied instinctually. “I can’t. I’m not ready for that. I’m sorry, I know that’s hypocritical of me. It’s just… I don’t know. It’s just too hard. Too hard to try.”

“How is it hypocritical?” Masashi asked with a squint of his eyes and a cock of his head.

“Well, I…” I felt hesitant to admit my own shortcomings and had to remind myself of who I was talking to. “Somehow, I found it easier to openly talk about, you know, asking around to find a date for you then to just say who I am. And that just doesn’t feel right. What business do I have telling people you’re gay if I can’t say I am?”

“Well, now, hang on there a minute. First, you don’t need to worry about me. We both agreed to this plan of yours, so we both agreed to put ourselves in each other’s hands, right? You haven’t violated that trust. Plus, it’s not like you’re broadcasting to the whole school ‘hey, this Masashi guy is one of those gays and here’s his address.’ It’s just people you trust, right?”

“I mean, yeah…”

“Exactly. All you did was what we both agreed to. And more to the point, like, we both agreed to this because we weren’t comfortable doing it ourselves, right? That hasn’t changed, you haven’t changed. I’m not going to hold that against you. And even then! Even if you ignore all that and decide you’re a hypocrite after all, well, who cares? Maybe you are. It doesn’t matter. As they say, to err is human. And humans have always been contradictory little creatures. So even if you are a hypocrite, that doesn’t make you a bad person. That just makes you all the more human, okay?”

This guy… I swear. If I hadn’t already calmed down, that speech of his might’ve driven me over the edge. As it was, though, I didn’t need to cry anymore. I’d had enough of that. Instead, I just reached across the table, grabbed his hand again, and smiled.

“Thanks,” I said. Sometimes, I really don’t know what I’d what I do without this guy. He was right, of course. I was under no obligation to tell anyone anything about myself I didn’t want them to know. My damn business is my own, and it’ll only become the business of others if and when I say so. I mean, I still felt a little bad about the whole thing, but like Masashi said, that was only natural. Only human. I—no, we’ve done much more messed-up stuff to be embarrassed about. This? This certainly wasn’t nothing, but right then, I figured I could live with it. “Love you, man.”

“Love you, too.”


And now the hard part. I decided to show up to class extra early that day so that if Stephen was there, I could get a chance to talk to him in private. A whole thirty minutes early, in fact. When I arrived, I found that I wasn’t the first but in fact the second: Romana was already at her seat, staring at the title screen of Halo. With no one yet around to play with, apparently she didn’t have much else to do.

“What’s up, girl?” she asked as I sat down. Today she had a pink hoodie on and up, and her braids were spilling out the front.

“Not much,” I said as I booted my computer up.

“Want to play?” I didn’t see any reason why not.

After Romana had inevitably and easily put me down a couple times, a few other students started to wander and join in. Stephen wasn’t among them. Time passed, more filed in, and eventually our whole group was there—everyone except, of course, him. Just five minutes before class was supposed to start and even the perpetually late TA had shown up, but still, no Stephen. Worried, endless nightmare scenarios ran through my mind—what if he hates me now and is avoiding me, et cetera. But, before I let my worries take over, I spoke up.

“Hey,” I said. “Anyone seen Stephen?” One by one, Romana, Miles, and Rue all said no. Joe, though, looked lost in thought.

“I thought I saw him earlier,” he said. “But he was far away, so I wasn’t sure.”


“I thought I saw him heading into the student center, but hell, I couldn’t tell you why.” The student center, strangely located not quite at the center of campus, housed all sorts of facilities—a food court, meeting rooms, auditoriums, the student government, some small shops, and the offices of some school services. Whatever Stephen wanted with any of that was anyone’s guess, but the more important point was that the student center was just about halfway across campus from class.

“And when was this?”

“I don’t know, about half an hour ago? Me and Rupert were at the bookstore and I just happened to glance over there before heading off to class. I mean, he could be on his way right now. Maybe.” As if on cue, we all looked back toward the door. Naturally, no one walked in. “You know, that reminds me. Dude’s been kind of out of it since last week. Anyone know why?” Everyone glanced at each other, but no one said anything. And then Joe’s gaze fell on me. “Sara? You know something?”

I don’t know what he saw written on my face—given my upbringing, I thought my poker face was pretty excellent—but whatever it was, it was enough to give me away. I was hesitant about saying anything because of course I was. I didn’t want to be the source of drama with my friends, I’ve got enough bull to deal with at home, thank you very much. But then again, maybe I wanted to be honest with them but struggled to admit it to myself. Maybe that conflict was what showed. Because I hide enough as it is, and maybe I don’t want to hide anything more from them than I have to. Was it my constantly hiding myself that had caused this pain in the first place? I’m not sure about that, but right then I knew: I didn’t have to make it worse.

“Yeah,” I finally said. I bit my lip as everyone turned their attention to me and took a deep breath. “So, long story short, last week he asked me out. And I turned him down.” There was a moment of silence as once again everyone stared me down; if this were a cartoon, I could totally see all their jaws dropping straight to the floor. Then:

“Holy shi—” Romana started, but was cut off when the TA at the front stood and clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. I was saved from immediate scrutiny by the start of class, but the frequent sidelong glances from Romana throughout were constant reminders that I was in for a grilling afterward.


When class was over, we didn’t even bother heading out to get lunch. Once the rest of the class had filed out, the rest of my group crowded around me, demanding answers before anything else. So I told them what I could, telling them everything that happened except, of course, the real reason I said no.

“And I feel bad about,” I said in closing. “I know I must’ve hurt him, and I hate that. And I wanted to try to make up with him today, but, well…” I gestured at his empty seat, which had since been filled by Rue.

“What about me?” Rue asked, oblivious. Then, apparently, he remembered where he was sitting. “Oh, right, right.”

“So yeah, that’s pretty much it.” I glanced around at everyone to gauge their reactions. Romana was hunched over forward, focused on me; Miles was squeezed in on the same chair next to her, looking uncomfortable; Joe’s head was resting in his chin, his upraised brows telling me he was at least a little surprised by everything he’d just taken in; and Rue was leaning back in his chair, relaxed, and in general didn’t seem bothered by all this.

“Well hot damn,” Joe said, finally breaking the silence. “Didn’t think the guy had it in him.”

“What, you knew he had a thing for me?” I asked, somewhat taken aback.

“What? No. I just thought he was the type to gaze longingly from a distance, you know?”

“I thought that, too,” Rue said.

“Same,” Romana added, and Miles just nodded. Part of me wanted to chide them for stereotyping our obvious nerd friend, but to be honest, I had thought the same, and I’m not exactly eager to expand my hypocrite résumé.

“Well, I gotta say, I feel bad for the guy,” Joe said as he sat back up straight. “I’ve gone through my own share of rejections, so I know it feels terrible, and if he was as nervous as you say he was, well, he’s probably just a complete wreck right now. I’m not saying either of you did anything wrong, it’s just, you know, it is what it is and you’ve gotta learn to live with it.”

“Right,” Rue piped up. “It’s good that you want to make up with him, but right now, maybe he just needs some space?”

“Exactly,” Joe said. “I say, for now, we all just let him be, let him come around in his own time. Unless anyone has any better ideas?” He glanced behind me at the girl who was grinning. “Romana?”

“No, I’m pretty useless here,” Romana said, shaking her head. “I’ve never been rejected, I only reject.”

“That tracks,” Miles said in a quiet voice, a remark which earned him a pinch on the cheek.

“And don’t you know it?” While the rest of the group chuckled and packed up to head off to lunch, I let out a little sigh of relief. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I was grateful that no one pressed the issue of why I rejected him. I guess they must trust me enough to know that I wouldn’t make such a decision lightly, and that did make me feel a little better.

The rest of the week passed without us hearing a peep from Stephen. That Sunday evening, still anxious about when I was going to be able to see him again and how I was going to make things up with him, I got a text from Masashi that put those worries far out of my mind:

“Tomorrow. After school. Let’s go spelunking.”