Howie had done nothing but cause even more trouble. After Kevin had sent the photo to the other man, Howie had immediately replied back with a single question mark. Unsure what to say, he left the message on read for the next hour while he continued to stare at the photo and pace his room. He wasn’t sure what was affecting him more, the photo itself, or Kristin’s response to it. How could she say that? Didn’t she understand what the slightest bit of hope would do to him. Was this some kind of cruel trick to get back at him for the way he’d ended things? As quick as the thought came he dismissed it. She was not a vindictive person, nor was she a liar. If she had felt the need to not only print, wrap and frame this photo for him, then she had to believe the words she had also written down.
While ignoring Howie, she’d also sent him a message telling him the boys were settled in for the evening and asking him if he’d opened the package. He also left her on read. He couldn’t bring himself to form words to reply to her. He continued to walk the perimeter of the room, back and forth, the frame clutched tightly in his hands. When had this room gotten so small? The usually spacious master bedroom felt cramped and cage like. But he wasn’t willing to venture back downstairs for more space.
Dinner had been strained to say the least. He was afraid that at any moment he would open his mouth and his feelings for the younger man would just come pouring out of him. He had never felt this unsettled, felt like he was spiraling before. He had been in love with the other man for so long, that being able to restrain his feelings was second nature. But right now, after seeing this photo and her message, every wall he’d built around his heart to protect himself was crumbling and he had no idea what to do. And to make it worse, the object of his desire and affection was now living in his house with him. How had he gotten himself into this situation? His palms were sweating and his heart had been beating rapidly since returning to his room.
He jumped when he heard his phone vibrate on the coffee table. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know who was calling, wasn’t even sure he would be able to make coherent conversation. Feeling like he had no other choice but to answer the phone he clicked the call button and settled into the chair.
“Hey D.” he said hoarsely, clearing his throat to attempt to sound normal.
“What’s going on?” the other man demanded immediately, not even faking pleasantries.
“What do you mean?” Kevin asked, confused.
“Don’t give me any of that shit Kev. What is going on? You send me a photo, one that would make anyone blush, and then you go completely silent on me for hours. What the hell man. Again I ask you, what is going on?” Howie said, a little impatiently.
Kevin signed deeply, but didn’t answer. The two men sat on the phone in silence for several moments. “Do you see it?” he finally asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“See what? The two of you making googly eyes at each other like you’re the only one’s left in the world? Of course I see it. I’ve been seeing it for years man.” Howies said softly.
Kevin sat up straighter in the chair, clutching the phone in his hand. If it were possible, his heart was beating even faster now. “Wh...what do you mean?” he managed to spit out.
“Kevin, what is going on. When was this photo taken?” Howie asked, his voice softening.
“He’s there? Now?” Howie asked, sounding surprised.
“Yeah, he got here a couple of weeks ago. It’s his story to tell so I haven’t pushed him to reach out. He’s got the kids here, there’s a lot of stuff going on with Lauren and he’s filed for divorce and emergency custody of the kids.” Kevin said quietly.
Howie whistled, low in his throat. It was a sound made often when he was surprised. “Well, I can honestly say I didn’t see that one coming.”
“No one did.” Kevin responded. “He just showed up here with the kids one morning. Took me completely by surprise. Of course I couldn’t turn him away, not when he needed me. He and the kids have pretty much moved in for the foreseeable future.”
“Jesus Kevin.” Howie said, “How’s he doing? How are you doing?”
Kevin shook his head, but then remembered Howie couldn’t see him. “We’re all doing the best we can, given the circumstances. I try to help out with the kids when I can. The boys just went back to Kristin’s this morning, but they enjoyed having two new friends to play with while they were here. They seemed to like spending time with Nick too.”
“Why did you send me the picture Kev?” Howie asked after a few moments of silence, both had been lost in their own thoughts.
“I wanted to see if you could see what I saw the moment I looked at it.”
“I think you’d have to be pretty blind not to Kev, but again, I know both of you. I know you think you’ve done a great job of hiding how you feel about him, but I’ve always been able to see through you. I know you love him. I also know he’s the reason you asked Kristin for the divorce.” he said gently.
Kevin was floored. He never knew that the other man had been able to figure out his secrets. Sure he knew that Howie had made little comments here and there, but nothing so bold that Kevin ever questioned that he knew his true feelings. “How?” he choked out, his eyes filling with tears again.
Howie sighed, “I guess it was the little things at first. You always seemed to take care of him more than the rest of us, that’s not to say you didn’t take care of us too, but with him, it was always just a little more. Then as he got older and I assume your feelings grew deeper it was the way you would look at him, or watch him as he moved. You always thought you were being sneaky, but I could tell. The year before you told us you were getting divorced, something changed in the way you acted around him. You just always looked like you were in pain, or broken, or something like that. It’s hard to explain, it was just a feeling I got when I would watch you.”
“Wow, I can’t believe I was being that obvious. I always tried so hard to be careful.” Kevin said sadly.
“I don’t think it was obvious to other people. I’ve always been a quiet observer, I’m always going to pick up on things other people don’t. It’s just who I am. I read body language. And in yours it was easy for me to decipher that you wanted him.”
Kevin closed his eyes and allowed a couple of tears to leak out. This was way too much information to take in all at once. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that Howie had known, for years, how he had felt. Years when he thought he was dying on the inside trying so hard to hold on to this secret so it wouldn’t destroy the group, his friendships or his marriage. And all this time, the younger man had been completely aware of Kevin’s inner turmoil.
“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Kevin asked softly.
“I did!” Howie insisted. “I asked you several times, in several different ways, what was going on with you and how I could help you. You always brushed me off. I figured when the time came and you were ready to discuss it that you would reach out to me. Seems like I was right.”
Kevin wasn’t sure what to say to that. He could remember a couple of instances where Howie had seemed to push him to talk, but none of them had given him the impression that Howie was more aware than he let on. Suddenly a thought crossed Kevin’s mind. “Wait, you said looking at each other. Are you saying you think Nick’s looking at me the same way?” He asked, suddenly terrified to hear Howie’s answer.
Howie was quiet for a long moment. So quiet in fact that Kevin pulled the phone away from his face to make sure they were still connected. Finally he spoke. “I don’t want to get your hopes up Kevin. I’ve never talked to him about it, so these are completely 100% my own observations, so you’ll have to do with it what you want. But in my opinion, yes, I believe he’s been looking at you in the same way for a very long time now.”
The words hung in the air. Kevin was convinced his heart had stopped beating. There was absolutely no way, no way in the world that Nick could ever feel the same way. It just wasn’t possible. “Kev?” Howie questioned.
“I’m still here. Just thinking.” Kevin mumbled.
“Look, don’t get caught up in your head about what’s right or wrong or what you think is going on. I think the answer you need is right in front of you. I am only looking at a picture of a picture. You’ve not only got the real photo in hand, but the real living and breathing man in your house. What do you see?” Howie said gently.
“I don’t know.” Kevin admitted. “I’ve spent so much time trying to hide my own feelings that I never went looking for his.”
“Maybe you should start.” Howie said gently. “You never know where that might get you.”
Shortly after that Howie had to run. A quick goodbye and a promise to call if anything else developed, Kevin was once again alone with the framed photo again. Maybe he needed a fresh perspective. He decided to put the frame back in the box and take a shower. Maybe if he tried to relax, to clear his mind, he would be able to think better. Be able to decide if there was something he should do, something to say about the photo, or about how much he’d loved the younger man for most of his life. He shook his head, there was no way he was doing that one.
His body and his mind were tired as he stood under the warm spray. The hot water helped to relax his fatigued muscles and he turned the water up a notch hotter, embracing the burn of the hot water on his skin. It was comforting to feel something, anything but this deep sense of confusion and dread. He alternated between being thankful that Krisitn had taken the photo and being pissed that she’d managed to awaken this part of him that he had always intended to keep closed. Sure he’d asked her for the divorce because he just couldn’t pretend with her anymore. Loving someone else so intently, and then trying to pretend to love her in the same way had gotten to be so difficult and so much that he lost himself in the process. For everyone’s sake, it couldn’t continue that way.
But he’d never intended for Nick to ever be made aware of how he felt. But now he was here, asleep down the hallway with his beautiful kids and those pouty lips and baby blue eyes that kept turning to him for love and guidance. All Kevin wanted to do was to take him into his arms and hide him away from the world. Protect him from each and every thing that would ever come against him. Hold him until his arms gave out. All of these dreams had always seemed so far out of reach that he barely let himself think about them, dream about them. And now, after a note from his ex-wife and a phone call from one of his oldest friends he felt like the earth was shifting beneath his feet and he had no idea what to do about it.
Back in his bedroom after his shower he picked up the photo again. He had the same feeling wash over him again. There was love in both of their eyes. Whether or not it was brotherly love from Nick’s side, he didn’t know. But he could see, clear as day, how much he loved Nick pouring from his own.
Why had she given him this picture? What was he supposed to do with this? Not just the photo but the implications behind it. He wondered if she should call her, but it was already late and he didn't really want her to know how much her little gift had sent him spiraling. His phone buzzed on his nightstand. Glancing over at it he saw another message from her pop up. Speaking of the devil he thought. It was after ten, he wondered quickly if something was the matter with one of the boys. Grabbing it up he opened the conversation.
Kristin: "Stop freaking out and over analyzing everything."
She knew him too well. They'd only been married more than a decade. You tended to learn a thing or two in that time about another person.
"Ha. I've barely done that."
Kristin: "You're lying and we both know it. I didn't give you the photo for you to spend all night freaking out about it."
"So why did you?" the question was sent before he could second guess himself. It was almost like his fingers were possessed.
Kristin: "Because when I saw the two of you that night, the easy way in which you laughed, smiled and moved together, I got jealous. But then, when I was going through the photos and I stumbled on this one, I just knew. I knew that he felt the same way you did and I knew that if you were ever going to have a chance at true happiness, that I had to let you know too. I love you Kevin. I always have and I always will. I have a sneaky suspicion that he mirrors those sentiments."
The tears came again. Not forcefully, but wetting the corners of his eyes all the same. How did he get so lucky? How did he manage to meet, love and have kids with this woman. A woman who he shattered with his own insecurities and desires and still, she was actively looking and trying to make sure he got the things she knew he wanted. He was truly blessed to have her in his life.
"I love you too. I have no idea what to do with this information."
Kristin: "I don't know that you have to do anything, at least not right away. Just observe, be more open and less closed off with him. Pay attention to how he acts around you. See if you can see or feel it too if you're not so focused on keeping your feelings hidden. Do whatever is going to make you happy. That's the best thing you can do."
Kevin knew she was right. But was it really that easy? Just let down his guard and pay attention to the way the younger man responded to him? How was he supposed to do that without jumping him at every given opportunity? He was curious, god the curiosity was killing him. He wondered what Nick was doing that very moment. He knew he'd been aloof earlier in the evening and knew the younger man had noticed. He hated that but at that time there was no possible way that he'd been able to carry on a conversation with the other man.
Maybe he could go check on him. Go ask him how the meeting with the lawyer went. That would be a pretty safe topic. He'd never pushed him to talk about the meetings before, but maybe this time it would give them something to talk about besides Hey, I love you.
The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced this was a great idea. He quickly got up for the chair before he could talk himself out of action. He opened the door quietly and poked his head out. He knew the kids were asleep and didn't want to risk waking them up. Nick's door was closed and he hesitated for a moment. Maybe this really wasn't a good idea his brain said tried to tell him, but he pushed that feeling down and walked down the hall. He knocked quietly on the door and fidgeted while he waited for Nick to answer.
It seemed like it took forever to hear some kind of noise from the other side of the door. He wondered if Nick was asleep. Finally after several moments he heard Nick call out and the door opened. There in front of him stood the angel of a man he'd been in love with for so long. His eyes drank him in, gazing at every feature. Were those tear tracks? Had he been crying? His hackles were immediately up. What had upset him? Nick was staring up at him, with a look that Kevin couldn't quite figure out.