Money changes everything.
Those words were printed across the top of the ridiculous poster tacked to a wood-paneled wall inside the lobby of the century-old bank. At the bottom in an equally obnoxious script: Open a savings account today! There was a glossy photo of strangers pretending to be a family between the two phrases, betrayed by the forced expression of love on their faces. Their affection for one another was just as fake as the cheap backdrop of a city park behind them.
Actors, thought Adam. They’re no family.
The father was pretty, clean-shaven, and probably gay.
The mother looked lost. She was petite, Asian, and wearing way too much lipstick for a day out in the sun with her loved ones.
Maybe she stumbled onto the photo shoot by accident, the photographer thought she had the right look, and she landed the gig without even trying. Poor thing.
The child looked Middle Eastern and terribly unhappy, probably forced against his will to hold the melting rainbow-colored snow cone in his hand. His lips were stained with food coloring and his gaze aimed away from the camera, like a loud noise had occurred at the moment the photo was taken.
The three of them looked like hostages, begging to be rescued and taken home.
Adam moved away from the sun-faded poster, took a few steps to his left and pushed open the half-closed, dark wooden door to his mother’s new office.
Wow. I’m impressed. Dear old Mom’s moving up in the world.
Becca Parsh was sitting behind a computer in an outdated navy blue skirt suit, a broad-shouldered blazer with shiny gold buttons, a string of inherited pearls, and a new salmon-colored blouse that made her look like a politician’s dutiful wife. Her blond highlights were in desperate need of a touch-up and she was wearing too much blush and mascara.
As usual, she looked exhausted and overwhelmed.
“I come bearing salad,” Adam offered, raising the overstuffed, overpriced plastic container he held, like the lunch was a token of friendship.
His mother pointed to her earlobe and mouthed familiar words: I’m on the phone.
Adam nodded, placed the salad in the center of her already-cluttered desk, and started to leave. He moved backward in the same direction he’d entered, retreating toward the doorway and the lobby of the bank. It was a game left over from his childhood that they called Rewind. The object was to determine who could move in reverse the longest.
Adam always won. Becca usually fell.
Adam had one foot out the door when his mother held up an index finger and stopped him in his tracks. He gave her a look, hoping for more instructions. She pointed to the empty black leather and chrome chair on the opposite side of her desk. Adam took a seat.
“Sir, I’m sorry you’re upset,” his mother said into the illuminated earpiece. The stress the conversation was causing could be heard in her strained voice. Adam knew the tone well, as he often caused it. She was trying to be polite, but frustration was breaking through. She leaned back in her chair and rubbed her temples. “And I understand why. Really, I do. These are hard times for everyone.”
You’re telling me. At least you have a job, Mom.
Adam’s attention shifted. There were three helium-filled balloons trying to free themselves from the streams of pink and yellow ribbons they were secured to. They were drifting like shiny ghosts behind Becca’s head, caught in the gentle flow of warm air streaming out of the vent in the ceiling above them. One of the balloons offered Congratulations! The other was a maniacal happy face. The third was an odd choice: pictures of a baby’s bottle and a pacifier.
Mother, is there something I should know?
Adam grinned at the thought of his forty-year-old mother announcing she was pregnant. Sure, women her age had babies all the time. But if she did, Adam’s society-concerned grandmother would never recover from the shock and public humiliation. It was bad enough Becca never remarried, living the lonely life of a widow for all these years, but to commit the ultimate social sin of getting knocked up while unmarried?
That would throw the uptight old broad right over the edge.
Nana would literally die of embarrassment.
“I’ll look into the foreclosure,” his mother promised the caller. “You have my word, sir. If the bank made a mistake, I’ll make it my personal mission to find it. I really wish there was more I could do for you right now.”
Seconds later, she was off the phone. She let out a sigh that was way too heavy for a newly promoted loan officer. She whipped off the wireless headset and started rummaging through desk drawers, frustrated.
“Can I help?” Adam asked.
“I’m looking for a fork,” she said to the pile of papers on her desk.
Adam reached into a sweatshirt pocket and produced a black plastic fork, encased in a see-through wrapper. “For the lady,” he said, reaching across the desk.
“I don’t feel like a lady today.”
“But you got flowers,” he said, noticing the red vase of white carnations on the edge of the desk. “And balloons. Speaking of which…anything you want to tell me?”
“They’re from my promotion,” she said. “You know that. I texted you this morning.”
“I think I left my cell in Stacey’s car,” he explained. “Did your text mention anything about a baby shower?”
“What are you talking about?” she asked. Adam pointed. His mother turned to the reflective Mylar faces of the balloons behind her.
“I get the congratulations and the scary-looking happy face,” Adam said. “But the other balloon? Should I be concerned? I enjoy being an only child.”
Becca’s mood lightened. Her face relaxed. “They’re from Marge. She’s the senior teller. Emphasis on senior. It’s quite possible she thinks I got promoted and pregnant in the same week. She’s confused.”
“I want her to wait on me from now on.”
“You better hurry,” his mother said. “She’s about to retire. Next Tuesday, I think.”
Adam grinned, amused by his thoughts as he often was. “Maybe she’s the pregnant one.”
Becca popped open the plastic to-go container. “Thank you for the salad,” she said. “I’m starving.”
“I wanted to do more,” he said. “I know how long you’ve wanted this promotion.”
“This is perfect.” She took a bite.
“Once I find a job, I’ll take you to dinner. Somewhere worthy of a celebration.”
Becca swallowed and said, “That’s fine, but I’m paying. How’s Friday night? Bring Stacey. Bring Victor.”
“Fine. Have it your way. We’re college students. And we’re broke. We won’t argue.”
“You usually don’t when I foot the bill.”
“I have a question,” he said. “Who designs those obnoxious posters in the lobby? Your marketing team should be fired. Have you seen those things?”
Becca raised an eyebrow. “Should the bank hire you instead?”
“Only if they know what’s good for them,” he replied. “Let them know I graduate in June. My rates will triple then. I’m already in huge demand. They’re looking at a three-year wait, minimum. But since I completely support all forms of nepotism and I’m flat-ass broke and I blew my only chance at a decent internship, I’m willing to make an exception.”
“I’ll mention it to Marge,” Becca said. “She’s in charge of the…décor. I think she’s in charge of everything, actually. I don’t know what everyone will do when she’s gone.”
Adam stood up. He had homework to do and a boring history class to attend later. Then maybe cheap drinks and half-priced appetizers with Stacey and Victor, if they could scrounge up enough cash to hit their favorite happy hour spot.
Chicago is no place to be an unemployed college student. There’s so much the three of us want to do we can never afford.
Adam started to move backward.
His mother’s words stopped him. “Do you like the office?”
He nodded. “It’s twice the size of your old one,” he said. “But you need a secretary.”
“I have one. Her name is Mindy. She called in sick this morning. I think she puked while we were on the phone.”
Adam smiled again and met his mother’s eyes from across the room. “My advice?” he said. “Save the baby balloon for her.”
Becca grinned. “You’re probably right. She’s been obsessed with a guy she met on the L train a few weeks ago. I think it’s serious.”
“Sounds like it,” Adam agreed.
Becca’s tone changed. She was approaching a new topic of conversation with caution. “Speaking of which, any news?”
Adam appreciated his mother’s attempt to show some interest in his nonexistent love life. “Are we talking about subways? Or men?” he asked.
His mother shook the plastic fork at him, a gentle reprimand. “You’re too clever, Adam. You have a smart-ass comment for everything. Men don’t always like that. It doesn’t matter if they’re gay or straight.”
When did my mother become an expert on the dating do’s and don’ts of gay men? Is she writing an advice column on the side I don’t know about?
Adam folded his arms across his chest. He’d been working out more lately. He wondered if his mother could tell. Could anyone? Even Victor hadn’t mentioned it, and he noticed everything. “Perhaps I need to dumb myself down, then,” he said.
“You just need to meet someone who’s as intelligent as you,” Becca said. “And that won’t be easy. You need to get out more. Talk to people. Make yourself available. Or do the right thing and elope with Victor. You know I adore him.”
“But he doesn’t like me,” Adam said. “At least not like that. You know what I mean. We’re just friends. Besides, he’s too good for me. He needs someone…nicer.”
“You’re out of your mind,” she said. “The two of you are perfect for each other. Once you stop acting like an idiot and you show Victor the sweet boy I know you really are, everything will work.”
“Any particular reason why you’ve suddenly become determined to marry me off?”
She didn’t hesitate. “You’re lonely.”
Adam gave her a look of mock shock. “No, I’m not.”
“Don’t lie,” she said. “I’m your mother.”
“Don’t tell anyone.”
“That you’re lonely or that we’re related?”
He shrugged. “It depends on who’s asking.”
She poked at her salad with the tip of her fork. “I don’t like what college is doing to you. You’re more arrogant than anyone I know who’s twice your age. You haven’t earned it yet.”
“I think you’re right,” he said. “And twenty-two is too young to be this jaded.”
“Enjoy your youth,” she reminded him. “I’d kill to be twenty-two again.”
“What were you doing then?”
She looked into his eyes with fondness. “I was raising a sassy four-year-old.”
“Gee, I wonder whatever became of him,” Adam said.
“You might like him,” she said. “He’s gay and single. He thinks he knows it all and he’s too thin for his own good, but he’s definitely a catch.”
Adam shook his head. “No, thanks. He sounds like an asshole.”
Becca smiled. “An asshole wouldn’t bring lunch to his mother.”
“Yes, but clearly he’s forgotten a napkin and something to drink.”
Becca opened a bottom desk drawer and pulled out a purse. She fished out a few bills and placed them in the palm of her son’s outstretched hand. “There’s a vending machine down the hall,” she said. “Pretty please?”
“I know where the machine is. I’ve done this before,” he reminded her.
“While you’re at it, get something for yourself,” she said.
“Your promotion has made you generous,” he noted. “I can’t wait for Christmas this year.”
“This doesn’t mean I’m paying your cell phone bill again this month, so don’t ask.”
“Do you treat all your minions like this, Lady Loan Officer?” he asked.
“Only the ones who refuse to find a job,” she replied.
“Why bother?” he asked. “I thought you were marrying me off. I’m assuming he’s wealthy. My job will be to keep him happy and spend loads of money and organize charity events. Just like a Real Housewife.”
Becca let out a small laugh. “Don’t count on it,” she said.
“You expect me to play stupid for a guy with no cash? Next thing I know, you’ll be convincing me love makes the world go round and to go with my heart. What has this promotion done to you? Where is my mother? What have you done with her?”
“I’ll tell you everything I know for a cold pop and a napkin,” she said. “And hurry. There’s a gallon of vinaigrette on this salad and half of it’s on my face.”
“How classy we are,” he said, before leaving by walking backward out of the office and returning to the lobby.
Once he was out of his mother’s line of vision he turned face forward, ending the current one-player round of Rewind.
Another victory for me.
Adam passed by the obnoxious Money changes everything poster that had caught his attention just moments earlier. This time, he didn’t give it a second glance. Instead, he focused on his mission.
Sierra Mist for Mom. Diet Pepsi for me. I know the drill.
He stopped in front of the vending machine and aimed a dollar bill at the thin mouth. He caught a quick glimpse of his somewhat distorted reflection in the transparent plastic face of the machine.
Mom’s right. I’m too thin. I don’t want to be a jock or anything lame like that. That’s not my style. Never will be. I’m cool with being the nerdy college guy. But still, some tone and definition would be nice. Is that too much to ask for?
Adam’s gaze moved farther, past his own features and to the somewhat grimy black and white checkered floor behind him.
Seeing the square tiles triggered a childhood memory. His grandfather was there in the long hallway, standing by the silver drinking fountain like a protective bird. The old guy was wearing his favorite Irish tweed cap and black and yellow bowling shirt. He hadn’t shaved in a few days and looked like he needed a shot of whiskey.
Adam was six. Maybe seven. Together, they were waiting for his mother to close her teller window and join them for the all-too-important task of going shopping for school clothes. The errand had to be completed during her lunch hour. Since Mom’s car was in need of some expensive repairs, Grandpa offered to drive.
Adam had kept himself occupied by playing a solo game of hopscotch, jumping on alternating legs and feet from one square to the next. Each time, he landed with a catlike grace. He loved the echoing sound his rubber-soled blue and white sneakers created when they made contact with the marble floor. He was completely immersed in the activity until he heard his grandfather clear his dry throat and say with concern, “What’re you doing, Adam?”
I looked up at him. I remember that moment. The look on his face, in his eyes. Couldn’t he tell? Why did he have to ask? It was obvious.
“Boys don’t play hopscotch,” his grandfather explained, shaking his head with slight disapproval.
“But I’m good at it, Grandpa,” he replied. “So why shouldn’t I do it?”
They locked eyes, sharing a brief and silent conversation. Finally, Grandpa retreated. “I suppose you’re right. There’re a lot worse things you could do.”
I wondered if he knew then. Did he know in that very second his grandson was gay? That hopscotch was just the beginning?
Adam slid the first bill into the vending machine and pressed a button. The purchased soda slid down an internal tunnel and landed with a thud. He repeated the process.
He bent down and retrieved the two cans, welcoming the sting of the cold aluminum against his palms. He clutched the sodas tightly, heading back in the direction of his mother’s new domain.
As he walked, Adam felt temptation tickle the back of his neck. He struggled for a few seconds, resisting the sudden impulse.
Don’t do it. People will think you’re strange.
As he neared the end of the hallway, he broke into an impromptu game of hopscotch in clear view of the customer-filled lobby. The stares and smiles coming at him from all directions only urged him on. He reached the final black square and took a bow, despite the absence of applause.
“You’re the type of person people can’t ignore,” his best friend Stacey had told him after they’d known each other for only a week. They were sitting in what was now their favorite Irish pub, in a wooden booth soon to become their usual spot, toasting their new friendship by tossing back shots of watered-down tequila.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Adam said. “I’m the one who’s always overlooked. The last one picked for the team.”
Stacey shook her head. “No,” she said. “Seriously, you walk into a room—any room—and people stop and stare at you because you take their breath away.”
Adam smiled and laughed. “I never realized I was so attractive,” he replied, half-joking.
“You’re not,” she said, dead serious. “It’s not about that. Not at all. I think you were just born with it.”
“An irresistible charm?” he asked, still hoping for a compliment.
“Gravity,” she explained. “You pull people toward you, Adam. It’s very powerful and you don’t even realize it. I love to just stand there and watch it happen.”
He stared into her eyes. “Is it happening now?”
“No,” she said, refusing to look away. “It doesn’t really work on me. I think I’m immune to it. From what I can tell, it has the strongest effect on men.”
“What are you smoking, Stacey?” he said. “Men don’t notice me.”
“Bullshit,” said Stacey. “Maybe it’s you who’s not aware.”
In the bank lobby, Adam whizzed past the poster of the fake family and filled the open doorway of his mother’s office with his strong presence, like an actor making a grand entrance at the top of the second act.
“I’m back, by popular demand,” he announced, followed by: “Oh, sorry.”
They were no longer alone. There was a tall man standing in Becca’s office. Adam zeroed in on the back of the stranger’s head, on his thick, dark hair and sun-kissed neck.
The man had a physical response to Adam’s voice. It was evident in the way his shoulder blades tensed and the muscles in his back tightened. Like someone had surprised him with a touch, or a kiss.
Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre - Gay Romance, Suspense
Rating – R