Andrew J. Peters © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Brendan Thackeray-Prentiss was not interested in finding a boyfriend.
He reminded himself of this whenever he passed by an attractive young man on the Upper East Side streets, or when this or that friend took to social media to proclaim a change in their relationship status, or when he clicked through an especially earnest e-mail driving for donations to help gay couples maintain their legal status in the Deep South Bible Belt, and most of all when people asked him, “How is it possible the most eligible gay bachelor in New York City is still single?”
Brendan had made a vow, and it had received the endorsement of his therapist, Dr. Clotilde Trapp. He was taking time off from sex and dating in order to clear his head, and to renew, and to rise up from the ashes like a phoenix, if he wanted to be dramatic about it, which he truly had earned the right to be.
Thiago, a model and an erstwhile compulsory homosexual, had thoroughly shattered Brendan’s belief he knew anything about love. After three full months of practically living together—including traveling together to St. Barts for the most we-belong-together weekend ever experienced by two sexually attracted, socially, intellectually, politically and morally compatible people in the universe—the fantasy had dissolved to black and been unveiled as a waking terror when Brendan returned to his apartment one afternoon and walked in on Thiago and a fortysomething, obscenely nippled fashion publicist in the shower. Thiago’s only words— “You can join us if you want.”
Brendan was on a detox from the gays (and those who styled themselves as “gay-adjacent”) for at least thirty days. His hookup and dating media had been deactivated. His libido had been psychically stowed up in bubble wrap and locked away in storage. No flirting with the coffee shop barista when he purchased his daily macchiato. Eyes on his own business in the locker room at the tennis and racquet club. No “what-if” conversations with himself about a new guy in the neighborhood who kept the same schedule for picking up his groceries. Brendan was entirely committed to an asexual lifestyle, drawing on the same well of discipline that had seen him through his presummer purge of sugar, bread, and alcohol.
That was until he opened the tinkling bell door of The Golden Fleece Antiques and Curio Shop on Lexington Avenue, and a young man at the cashier’s desk looked up at him with the buoyancy of a hand-raised golden retriever.
“Hi!” the clerk said.
He had a preternaturally handsome face of Mediterranean origins and the vigorous, cherubic hair of a Mormon missionary. He wore a teal, graphic T-shirt, which augmented the stunning aquamarine color of his eyes. The T-shirt rode up his upper arms, which were well defined like an Olympic diver or a god of Mount Olympus for that matter. The shirt was emblazoned with a triple-scoop ice cream cone and a question: “Want a lick?”
Brendan’s mouth hung open. He couldn’t produce a word or even budge. Helpfully, the shop clerk didn’t act like he was a mentally impaired patient run free of his caretakers.
“Sorry to startle you. I guess I overdid it with the welcome. I haven’t had a customer all morning. Take a look around and don’t mind me. Or go ahead and mind me if you need any help.”
Brendan smiled, nodded, and took a stumbling step toward the nearest display of bric-a-brac.
The shop felt like a cage in which he’d been ensnared. Brendan tried to fix his attention on the chintz teacup sets and art deco tumblers, but his awareness of the clerk was too much. Was he supposed to pretend he wasn’t sharing the same space with the most deathly adorable creature he had ever seen in his entire life? Brendan’s heartbeat accelerated to the range of near cardiac arrest, and he was reasonably sure he was sweating through the armpits of his burgundy gingham shirt.
He drifted discreetly behind a shelf of African fetishes to consider his options. He could make a sprint for the door and fast-track down the street, never to step within ten blocks of the shop, praying to never run into the clerk again. The alternative was to have to face that otherworldly, beautiful man as a garbling, awestruck lunatic.
Brendan clamped down on his panic. He was twenty-eight years old, far removed from his scarring teenage years at boarding school, charting out routes through campus to avoid running into his torturous crush—Jacob Chandler, captain of the lacrosse team, who used to punch his shoulder and call him “Brendawg,” which sent him into a withering, red-faced fits of aphasia. Brendan now held his own with men. He had no reason to feel inferior. He kept his body in shape. He wasn’t too modest to acknowledge his WASPy good looks claimed attention at times. Gotham Magazine had named him the most eligible gay bachelor of 2018.
For all he knew, the clerk was one of those oblivious heterosexual types who didn’t notice when other men took an interest in them. It made no difference anyway. Brendan had sworn off sex and dating. Even if the clerk was amused or offended by his shrinking, girlish behavior, they were nothing but passing strangers.
A reasonable plan came together. Brendan would grab the first thing in reach, pay for it at the counter, and exit the store with the dignity of having conducted himself like a normal customer.
“Looking for anything in particular?”
Brendan seized up like a jailbird caught in searchlights. That friendly, innocent voice. A hint of a lazy, Upstate accent? A cool wash of awareness passed over Brendan. Was he really plotting schemes to rush out on a stranger whose shop he’d entered quite willfully? Brendan came around the shelf, holding it together for the moment.
“My grandmother’s birthday,” he said. “She collects cameos. I’ve been buying them for her since I was a kid.” Brendan tried something breezy. “I saw the name of your store and thought I might be in luck.”
The clerk set down a leather-bound book he’d been reading. “We’re Greek, but we don’t have any cameos that old. I mean, the store’s Greek. My uncle owns it. My great-uncle actually. I’m only half Greek. The other side’s Polish and German. But we do have some Victorian cameos in the cabinet.” He stood up from his chair and waved Brendan over to a glass-enclosed jewelry case.
Ornamental pins and pendants swam in Brendan’s vision. His gaze bobbed stubbornly up to the clerk on the other side of the cabinet. He was as adorable as a puppy. Barely out of college, Brendan guessed. Was he a cuddly puppy in bed? Christ. Brendan’s imagination had burst free from its hinges, and he couldn’t stop himself from stealing glances at the clerk. His pectorals filling out his T-shirt. The golden hairs on his anatomically perfect forearms. The flecks of sun on his long, broad nose. His supple, berry-brown lips. “Want a lick?” Yes, please. At the crook of the clerk’s neck, and his armpit, and his nipples, and every blessed place between his legs. A smoldering image blew up in Brendan’s mind’s eye. The clerk’s mouth opening wide to swathe his tongue around a triple-scoop ice cream cone.
“I’ll show you what we’ve got.”
Brendan buried his gaze in the floor while the clerk unlocked the cabinet. A blush seared his face. He felt like a pervert and never more happily so.
The clerk brought out a double cameo silver hair comb and two cameo brooches and set them neatly on the glass counter. Brendan awakened to the world of the antique shop. Grandmum’s birthday. Focus Brendan. He looked over the jewelry. A gold-framed brooch with a cherub carved on its oval plaque caught his eye. His grandmother had an extensive collection of ladies’ silhouettes. The cherub was special.
“I like that one too,” the clerk said, looking from the brooch to Brendan with a grin.
“It’s gorgeous,” Brendan said.
“Is your grandmother romantic?”
Brendan smirked. “I suppose. She’s been married three times.”
“It’s Eros. The god of love. That’s why I asked.”
Was there a defensive tone in the clerk’s voice? Had Brendan been too brusque? The thought of hurting his feelings shamed him. “It’s really exceptional,” he said.
“She’s lucky to have a grandson like you.”
Brendan shifted this way and that like a bashful boy.
“I mean, a lot of people, when their grandparents get old, they hardly pay any attention to them at all.” The clerk said it like he was sharing shocking news from an investigative report. So sweet and unpretentious. Brendan’s insides turned to goo.
He came back together. “Oh. My grandmother and I are very close. She practically raised me. I’m closer to her than my mother and father.”
Their glances met for a breath and then darted away.
“You know, you’re a really sweet guy,” the clerk said.
Brendan ventured a glance at him. “You barely know me.”
“I think you are. I mean, how many guys take off from work in the middle of the day to buy birthday presents for their grandmother?” The clerk tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans and rocked back on his heels. His face darkened, and he looked askance with a self-reproachful snigger. “I shouldn’t have said that. Probably made you uncomfortable. Never mind me. I’m always going on too much, talking to the customers.”
Brendan shook his head. “I don’t mind at all.”
“So what’ll it be? Is that the one?” he asked, giving Brendan a playful shrug of his blond eyebrows.
The clerk grinned. “I’ll get it wrapped up for you.”
Brendan followed him to the cashier counter, where he brought out tissue paper and cellophane tape. With the impending termination of their transaction, a sorrowful ache worked through Brendan. His glance pivoted around. It was only lust. In which he was not permitted to indulge. But what if the clerk was “the one” he was meant to be with? What if fate had conspired to introduce him to his soul mate while he’d marked off a blackout period in his dating life? He had to take these things into consideration.
He noticed the leather-bound journal on the counter. Lettres de Jean-Arthur Rimbaud. The clerk was reading love poems by the most notorious, iconic homosexual who had ever lived? This was encouraging.
“You like Rimbaud?” Brendan asked.
The clerk looked up from his wrapping. “Yeah. I thought I’d try to read his work in the original French this summer.”
“I minored in French literature,” Brendan blurted out.
This earned him a smile of gleaming, white teeth. “I was a classical studies major.”
“I minored in that too.” Brendan tried to explain without sounding pretentious or mentally unbalanced. “I was an English major, but I couldn’t really decide what I wanted to do. I ended up triple minoring in French lit, classical studies, and art history. With a certificate in dramaturgy.”
“That’s amazing. What do you do now?”
“Um, my family has a business. It’s not anything related to my degree.”
“What kind of business?”
This was always the hard part to broach with new acquaintances. Brendan usually made up something about the freight industry, which was reliably dull enough to scare away follow-up questions. It was terribly awkward to introduce himself as a trust-fund brat with a token job in his family’s multibillion-dollar, international shipping company. But Brendan felt horrible about lying to him.
“Have you heard of Thackeray Worldwide Enterprises?”
“No. What’s that?”
“It’s a company my great-great-grandfather founded. We ship things around the world.”
“Wow. That’s great. I mean, you must get to travel to a lot of interesting places.”
Brendan’s glance slid away. “Um, sometimes.”
The clerk laughed nervously. “I’m sorry. That was a really boneheaded thing to say. I don’t imagine you go traveling around the world with the packages.”
Brendan snorted mildly. “It’s not such a glamorous business. Nothing most people have any interest in knowing about.”
“Hey, my name’s Cal.” The clerk reached out his hand. “That’s short for Callisthenes. From the Greek side of the family. I guess that’s pretty obvs.”
Brendan shook his hand, firmly like a regular guy. “I’m Brendan.” The warm contact of their hands had his knees weakening. He couldn’t think of what to say next. He couldn’t even disentangle himself from the handshake.
“Nice to meet you, Brendan.”
“Nice to meet you too.” Brendan released the poor guy’s hand. Damn, was he far gone. Forgetting how to do a normal handshake? He truly had regressed to adolescence. He’d happily stand there all day just to bask in Cal’s aura. What was he to do when he finished paying? Brendan had to come up with something so he could see Cal again.
Cal finished taping the gift and brought out a shopping bag from beneath the counter. “Almost done here.” He added with a touch of self-recrimination, “Probably would have helped if I’d told you the price first.”
Brendan took out his leather wallet from the pocket of his chinos. “How much is it?”
“That one’s three-hundred fifty.”
Brendan scrounged out his credit card and handed it to him. “I see why you’re called the Golden Fleece.”
“Let the buyer beware,” Cal said with a smirk.
They smiled at each other while Cal held Brendan’s credit card. The last grains of sand were slipping through the hourglass. Brendan hoisted up some courage.
“Would you like to get together sometime?”
Cal grinned big. “What did you have in mind?”
Brendan shifted his weight. “I don’t know. This might be a stab in the dark, but I’m thinking you like ice cream.”
“I do.” Cal glanced down at his shirt. “That’s, like, uncanny you’d say that.”
“Have you been to Frozen Zachary’s?”
Brendan mugged woefully. “It’s only the best ice cream in Manhattan. If not the world. Right in the neighborhood here. Third Avenue and Seventy-Ninth.”
“I just moved to the city two weeks ago,” Cal said. “I’m still finding my way around.” He swiped Brendan’s credit card, and a receipt churned out from the machine.
“Where are you from originally?”
“Upstate,” Cal said. “Have you heard of Syracuse?”
Brendan nodded. “Sure.”
Cal handed him the receipt and a pen. “I’m just here for the summer, watching the shop while my uncle is visiting family in Greece.”
Brendan quickly signed the receipt. “Then you have to let me take you to Frozen Zachary’s. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime New York experience.”
“Once in a lifetime, huh? Then I guess I’d be crazy to refuse.”
Brendan lit up like a high-voltage light bulb. He had a date with the hottest and nicest guy in the world. They tapped each other’s numbers into their cell phones and made plans to meet at the ice cream parlor the following night.