“Ben! Wait up a sec!”
Oh, shit, Ben thought to himself, trying to control his frown. It’s this dude again.
The Highland Ridge Apartment Complex was one of the nicest Ben had ever lived in. Not fancy, by any means; but clean, in a good area, close to Ben’s job, and affordably priced. Ben had moved in right before the onset of the previous winter, feeling that he’d needed a change in his life; up until then, he’d been living with his mother in a cramped 1-bedroom, his ‘room’ being the living room couch. But he’d had no other choice; his mother had been sick, and seeing as how Ben’s father had left them years ago, Ben was the only one who could care for her.
And he did.
He had loved his mother immensely, and when she’d passed a few days after Thanksgiving, he had been heartbroken.
He’d been fortunate enough to have a friend who turned him on to Highland Ridge. And not a moment too soon; his mother’s memory was all over the old apartment, and he’d been slowly going crazy staying there after her death.
But this new place was nice.
After being restricted to a fold-out couch for so long, Ben’s full apartment now almost seemed extravagant, in comparison. And he was getting his life back on track in other ways, too. He got a new job, working nights in a shipping warehouse. The hours had taken some getting used to, but the pay was excellent, and he liked his co-workers. He was also planning on enrolling in the community college come fall, so he could finish out the degree that had been put on hold when his mother got sick.
Everything was going great, except for one itty bitty problem: the guy who was walking up to him now, one of the complex’s residents, Armitage Hux.
It was around 8am, and Ben has just gotten off of work about a half-hour ago. Last night had been a busy one, and he was more than ready to hit the sack. He had stopped to check his mailbox down at the kiosk, and no sooner had he closed the box than he had heard the all-too-familiar voice call out to him.
So Ben stopped walking, feeling awkward as Hux rapidly approached him. This guy ... what the hell was up with him, anyway? Why did he always look so fucking excited to see Ben? After all, Ben had barely spoken 10 full sentences to him since the day he had moved in, and that was over 6 months ago! Hux had introduced himself, asked Ben some standard questions about himself, and that had been it; that had been their longest extended interaction.
And after all this time, Ben still didn’t know much about Hux himself. He’d managed to gather that he lived alone, he worked part of the time and the other half he was attending a Culinary Arts school in the nearby town. Otherwise, nothing.
Yet any time Ben was on his way to work, or stepped out to check his mailbox, there that guy was. Watching. Smiling. Waving.
Did ... did Hux LIKE him?
Was that what it was?
Ben already thought Hux was gay; he’d seen Hux’s apartment door way back when he’d first moved in, and the thing was covered top to bottom in rainbow stickers.
Which was fine, if Hux was like that. Ben didn’t give too much of a shit what other people’s preferences were; live and let live, was his philosophy. Ben himself had always identified as a bisexual man, so Hux’s (possible) feelings wouldn’t seem strange or foreign to him.
But ... Hux just wasn’t his type. He was too cheerful, too upbeat, too SOMETHING that Ben found himself rejecting. They could be friends, maybe ... but if Hux’s smiling and waving and perfectly-timed “coincidental” run-ins with Ben meant that he wanted something MORE, then, well —
“Oh ... hey.”
“You know, I don’t know how you do it.”
“Go to work all night. I couldn’t do that; I’d be way too tired.”
Ben shrugged uncomfortably. He was, in fact, very tired from his night, and wasn’t in the mood to stand there in the bright sun and make conversation with this red headed weirdo. Ben could almost swear he heard his bed calling for him, and it got louder with every second he stood there.
“Not so bad,” Ben answered, shifting so that he was starting to face away. “Not when you sleep all day, anyway.”
“At least your job keeps you healthy, huh? I mean, you’re really in shape. Probably from all the walking and lifting, right?”
“Um, yeah, I guess.”
He started to walk away, but Hux either wasn’t picking up on Ben’s closed-off body language ... OR he was just ignoring it. He followed after him, still talking.
“Do you work tonight, too?”
Ben shook his head. He was at his door now, and his tired fingers fumbled in his pocket for his key. “Nope. Off the next two nights, actually.”
Hux nodded. Ben managed to get his door unlocked, and was about to say Goodnight and (politely) shut the door, when Hux asked,
“Does that means you get to sleep all night, as well as all day, then?”
Ben had to stifle a sigh. Come on, man ... go away already.
“No. I’ll sleep until about 6 like I always do, then be up the rest of the night. It messes with my sleep schedule if I don’t.”
Hux nodded as if he’d thought as much, and then, sounding somewhat timid, “Um, do you like Irish food?”
“I ... uh ... I guess? I like corned beef and cabbage, does that count?”
Hux nodded, and then, “So my dad’s coming in from Ireland this weekend. I thought I’d try and surprise him and make a nice Irish meal for him. But the stuff I’m learning at school is more fancy, you know, and my dad likes simple, down to earth foods. So I though it would help if I had someone to practice on first. So um, if you have the time tonight, do you ... maybe want to come over, for dinner?”
Ben blinked, surprised. He hadn’t expected that. And while he didn’t exactly fancy the idea of spending time with this guy, the thought of a home-cooked meal sounded vastly more appealing to him than the canned soups, frozen dinners, and greasy fast food he’d been living on the past few weeks.
“Sure,” Ben agreed, and this time he couldn’t stop the small yawn that slipped out. “What time?”
“You said you got up at 6? How about, around 7, then?”
“Okay, I’ll be there.”
“You know which apartment is mine, right?”
Again, Ben nodded. And even if he hadn’t known ... Hux’s door certainly wasn’t hard to miss, not with all that rainbow paraphernalia covering it.
“Okay then. See you later, have a good sleep!;” and then Hux was off, walking quickly down the hall.
Even after so much time had passed, waking up was still a bit of a muddle for Ben.
In his mind, before he opened his eyes, he ran through the things he needed to do.
Gotta get mom her pills; need to make sure she takes the blue one with food. Should probably heat her up some soup. When is her next doctor appointment again? I hope I remembered to write it on the calendar this time. Oh later I need to —
Ben’s eyes suddenly snapped open, and he laid there for a few seconds with that all-too-familiar sense of disorientation. Then, bit by bit, it came back to him: he was in his new apartment. It was early evening, the sun shining into his room through the western windows. And his mom was —
Ben sat up and yawned, stretching his hands out over his head.
“Hungry,” he mumbled to himself, forcing himself up and to the kitchen. But just as he was opening the refrigerator door, it dawned on him:
Had he just dreamt this, or had he agreed to have dinner at Hux’s house tonight?
He sat at the kitchen table and thought about it hard, until he could replay the (real) conversation the two had had.
He glanced at the clock: 6:25. What time had he said he’d be there again? 7?
After some debate, Ben decided to take a shower before he went over. Not because he was trying to be fancy or anything, but because he always sweat in his sleep, and it would probably be gross going to someone’s place for dinner like that.
When he came out, he rubbed the towel over his head and stopped, as he often did, in front of his hall closet. Inside was a plethora of boxes of items that had belonged to his mother, several of which were loaded with bottle upon bottle of wine.
Maybe I should bring a bottle over to him ...
“You don’t need to bring him anything,” he answered his own thought out-loud. “It’s not like this is a fucking DATE, Ben. You’re just trying out some food that dude’s gonna be cooking for his dad. He basically invited you as a guinea pig, that’s all.”
He walked away from the closet and into his bedroom, to get dressed.
“This is for you,” Ben said, hoping he didn’t sound as awkward as he felt, as he handed the wine bottle to Hux.
It was about half an hour later, and Ben had finally made it to Hux’s apartment. He’d had a few moments of trouble finding Hux’s place; all of the rainbow stickers and such weren’t on Hux’s door anymore. But looking closely at where he thought it was, Ben could just barely make out the outline of where several stickers had been. So he’d knocked, and was relieved when Hux answered the door.
Hux led him into his living room (which was, as his door had been, cheerful and colorful) and had him sit, explaining the food still had a few minutes to go before everything was ready. Now Hux was looking at the wine with what seemed like awe.
“Ben ... this is really old, and super-fancy. A bottle like this has to be worth a small fortune.”
Ben just waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. Um, my mom, she was a collector of old and rare wines. Before she got sick, anyway. When she passed her collection went to me; I’ve literally got a closet stacked full. And I don’t drink, so it’s just going to waste sitting there.”
“You don’t drink? Why?”
Ben bit his lip. Because my dad was an alcoholic, he thought to himself. And I’d rather cut my throat then be anything like the man who walked out and left us broke and desperate and alone.
“Alcohol upsets my stomach. Always has,” he answered after a while, forcing a more ‘natural’ look on to his face.
“Will you be offended if I drink—?”
“Nope. I brought it for YOU, after all. Drink up.”
“Well what about you? I mean, you want a bottle of water, or tea, or a soda, something?”
“Soda is fine.”
Hux went back into the kitchen, and while he was in there, Ben thought of a question to change the subject.
“So what happened to your door?”, he asked, while Hux handed him the cold red can. “All the stickers, I mean.”
Hux sat beside him with a little sigh. He had a corkscrew in hand, and he set to work opening the wine.
“Oh, that,” Hux said, making a face. “Last week the landlord knocked on my door and asked me to take it all down. Said he’d had complaints from some people about how my decorations were ‘ruining the dignified integrity of the complex’, as he put it.”
He got the cork out, and was pouring the wine into a shiny glass.
“Are you serious?”, Ben asked, in disbelief. “Who the hell takes the time complain about a little color on someone else’s door??”
Hux shrugged. “People have time on their hands, I guess. It’s not a big deal.”
Hux took a sip of his wine, and his eyes went wide with delight. “Holy shit, this is fantastic! It’s so sweet!”
“Good; I’m glad you like it. And you’re a bigger man than me, Hux. Because I wouldn’t have just let the door thing go.”
“Mm. Hey you know what you should do? When it’s Christmas time again, and people start putting up wreaths and lights and stuff on THEIR doors, you should complain about that. It’s the exact same thing, after all. Hell, I’ll even go complain with you.”
Hux laughed a little at that. “I can see that being in the newspapers; ‘Gays Wage War On Respectable Christian Tenants’.”
He stood up and said “I think my final dish is about done. I’ll be right back,” and then he left Ben alone. Ben, was surprised. What did Hux mean by “gays”? Was he including Ben in that fantasy headline? Should Ben correct him when he came back in (and tell him that he was Bi, which was more information than he wanted Hux to know), or should he just let it go?
Before he could think of a good answer, Hux came back in, saying, “Everything’s ready now!”
Ben went into the kitchen, and was a bit surprised: he hadn’t expected to see so much food. There were only 3 dishes on the table, but almost each one was overflowing with its food.
Had Hux really made all of this ... for him?
“Okay, now, I’m going to give you one thing at a time, starting with what’s basically appetizers and working up to the main, then dessert, and I want you to give me your absolute honest opinion on everything you eat. Okay?”
Something about the way Hux had said that, so anxious, made Ben smile. He sat down and said, “Okay; lay it on me.”
The first dish that Hux put in front of Ben was a large blue bowl of what appeared to be mashed potatoes, with chives. Ben took the spoon and put some on his plate, then took a cautious bite. This was ... different. It was definitely potatoes, but the consistency was different, and the green ... Ben wasn’t sure it was chives after all.
“What is this called?”
“Ah. That’s called colcannon,” Hux told him, pronouncing the word carefully. “Basically mashed-up potatoes with lots of butter and pepper, mixed with some sautéed cabbage.”
“Really?”, Ben asked, lifting up a forkful to his face, to look at it closely. “That’s crazy, I can barely even tell that that’s
cabbage. Well this whole thing tastes great. It’s more solid than normal mashed potatoes, and it’s like, peppery. Not hot but peppery. I love that; I like when there’s a kick to my food.”
“Thanks,” Hux replied, smiling. “Some people put in kale instead of cabbage, or WITH the cabbage, but I’m not the biggest fan of kale. Plus all the added green makes it look more like a salad than potatoes, and I’m not really into salads, either.”
When Ben was done with that, Hux rotated dishes and set another mystery dish in front of him. This one was a platter of what looked like golden pancakes ... except they weren’t perfectly round like pancakes, and they had tiny flecks of green in them.
“This one is a favorite of my dad’s. It’s called ‘boxty’; basically pancakes but they’re made from potatoes, buttermilk, an egg and some green onions.”
Ben put two on his plate, and took a bite. Another smile; Hux clearly knew what he was doing in the kitchen.
“Shit, this is really good, too. When you said pancakes I thought they’d be sweet, but these are more savory and smooth. But you said ‘pancakes’; is this something that you’d make for breakfast?”
“It can be. But since it’s potatoes I think it works good anytime. When I was a kid me and dad would visit my grandma and she’d always make this for my dad, no matter what time it was.”
Then he snapped his fingers and stood up, going to his refrigerator. “Darn, I forgot ... I wanted you to try some jam on yours.”
“Jam? On a potato pancake?”
Hux nodded. “You don’t have to put it on, they taste good all alone, but grandma always put out a little jar of homemade jam. Makes them taste sweet but not too sweet.”
Ben reached over and took a tiny spoonful of the jam, carefully spreading it over one of his pancakes, before taking a cautious bite. Immediately his face lit up in a smile.
“God ... this must be what crack tastes like!”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. I made that jam myself, too, at school. Equal mix of fresh strawberries and blackberries, slowly simmered with sugar.”
“How long have you been going to Culinary school again? Because if you’re not the top of your class, I call Fraud.”
Hux smiled, and ... was he blushing? Did Ben’s comment actually make him blush? Surely not; it was warm in here, after all.
Ben took three more pancakes before he was done; he could easily have eaten the whole platter, but there was more food to come, and he needed to pace himself. Yet even as he thought that he also heaped another generous ladle of the colcannon on his plate. Mixed with the boxty, it was phenomenal.
“Okay,” Hux said, putting another dish in front of him. “This is more of a main dish.”
Ben looked; it was a pie or a cake of sorts, but it was square instead of round. There were holes poked along the top of the flaky brown crust, sending a tantalizing smell directly into Ben’s nose. Involuntarily, and despite how much food he’d already packed away, his mouth started to water.
“What is this?”
“Beef and Guinness pie,” Hux told him, cutting him a generous piece. “I don’t want you to worry with the not-drinking thing, though; there’s less than a cup in there, and the “alcohol” part of it turns into more of a robust sauce when it’s cooked. There’s also braised beef sirloin, mushrooms, peas, carrots, red potatoes, tomato paste, and worchestire sauce.
Ben took a bite, and his eyes widened.
“Jesus ... this is spectacular,” he proclaimed, cutting off an even bigger chunk with his fork. “But you’re sure there’s Guinness in this? I can’t taste it at all.”
“Yep. But like I said, when you cook it with the other stuff it ends of tasting more like a sauce than like beer. Plus it makes the whole thing thicker, if that makes sense.”
“Speaking of thicker ... you’re going to turn me fat, here,” Ben said, patting his stomach. “I feel like a pig but Hux, I’m about to ask you for another piece and I haven’t even finished this one yet.”
Hux laughed. “Help yourself to as much as you want,” he told him, leaning back in his chair. “In fact, if you don’t mind, I think I’m going to send a lot of this home with you. My fridge is already crammed; I don’t quite have the room for so much stuff.”
“No objections here,” Ben replied, now cutting his second piece. “But you’re not eating much at all.”
Hux shrugged. “It’s a chef’s thing, I guess. Making food kinda takes away your energy for eating it. I’ll probably get up at midnight or something and snack on this stuff.”
Here he paused and smiled, saying,
“You should save some room, by the way. Don’t forget dessert.”
Hux went to the oven, and, using mitts, pulled out what looked like a square white cake.
“This is Irish apple cake. Basically just apples, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, a splash of sherry, and eggs and sugar.”
He went to his fridge and pulled out a little sauce-serving dish, and put it in front of Ben. “This is a sweet-cream custard. You pour it over the cake like ... like you would ice cream, or frosting.”
Ben cut a piece of cake and poured the sauce as directed.
“Hux ... why?”
“Why would you do this to me? Why would you give me such delicious food? This is spoiling me! It’s bad enough every single thing you’ve given me, including this cake, hits like some powerful drug; but now I’ve gotta reconcile myself with having to go back home to all the sad boring crap I always eat.”
“Well ... well whenever you have time, you’re always welcome over here. Like I said my cooking isn’t always the best, but at school I’m always learning new things, and I’m always practicing and experimenting.”
Hux began clearing the table (after Ben insisted he couldn’t eat another bite), as well as packing up several to-go containers for him, as promised. Ben offered to help him, but Hux told him to “Sit there and digest; I don’t have liability insurance for people exploding from a full stomach.”
“So, do you want to be a chef, when you graduate from school?”
Hux nodded. “Yeah. I’ve got a long way to go, but one day I’d really love to have my own restaurant. I’d call it Sarah’s, after my mom.”
“Well, don’t ever give up on that, okay? I swear I’ll be your best customer.”
Was Hux blushing, from that?
Or was it just the lighting in here?
“Actually, you’d probably be my worst customer, because I’d never let my staff charge you for anything.”
Shit ... was BEN blushing, now?
Or was it just the lighting in here?
Hux found a grocery bag in a cabinet, and packed Ben’s containers together into it, to make it all easier for him to carry home.
“I just hope my dad is as big a fan of everything as you were.”
“Why the hell wouldn’t he be?”
Hux hesitated, then sat back down and said, “He’s a hard one to please. Um, you know he was never a fan of my, uh, my ‘lifestyle choices’, and when I told him I was going to culinary school, he had some words about that, too.”
“Yeah. Dad is one of those manly-man types, you know? He thinks men should be builders, landscapers, do construction, things like that. So he doesn’t really like my wanting to be a chef. But I thought maybe if I blow him away with my food, he might see that this is something worthwhile, too.”
Ben sat quietly for a few moments, taking that in. All of a sudden, a terribly strong longing for his mother washed over him. He had never realized before just how fortunate he had been, that he’d had a parent who loved and supported him no matter what. Coming out to her as bisexual was something he’d put off for a long time, but when he did, she couldn’t possibly have been any warmer, any more reassuring than she had been that day.
God, he missed her.
And for the first time, he realized how lonely he was without her. And Hux ... Hux seemed kind of lonely, too.
“You ... I feel kinda bad. You just fed me a lot of stuff; all of this together couldn’t have been very cheap.”
Hux waved his hand as if the matter wasn’t important, “Don’t even worry about it, Ben. All C.A. students get really big discounts on the stuff at Thrice market, which is where I got all of this.”
“That must be nice. Still ... um ... you know I’d try and return the favor and invite you to dinner at my place but I can’t cook worth a shit. I mean I can make grilled cheese and microwave some chicken noodle soup from a can but ...”
Hux chuckled at that and shook his head. “It’s okay, really. I’m just thankful I had someone to test my food on. Also ... I really enjoyed your company, Ben. I’ve wanted to ask you to hang out for months but you always seem tired or busy so I didn’t want to bother you. Can I ask you a question?”
“And you promise you won’t get offended?”
“Promise. What is it?”
“Well ... you know I’m gay. I mean you saw my door and I kinda just told you. So I know you know that. But with you, and again not to be offensive if I’m completely wrong, but you give off a vibe sometimes and I was just wondering if ... um, if —“
“Bisexual,” Ben confessed, with a small smile.
“Oh okay,” Hux said, letting out a small relieved sigh. “I knew it was something. Well, all I’m trying to say is I’m glad to meet someone who’s like me, somewhat. It makes me feel less alone here, as lame as that sounds.”
“I get that. But Hux, why would you want to hang out with me? I’m so boring.”
“No you’re not. You have a lot of interesting things to say. Do you remember when I first met you, and I asked if you needed help getting that chair of yours through the door?”
Ben tilted his head thoughtfully. Now that Hux mentioned it, he DID remember something like that. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought about it ‘til now, but it was understandable: the day Hux had introduced himself (and apparently helped Ben move a chair into his apartment) was a blurred one. Ben had been working all night, then afterwards went straight to his old apartment to move what few furniture items he was taking with him, alone. It was freezing that day, and Ben was already so exhausted that he could have been standing there chatting with Mickey Mouse and not have been aware of it.
“You had like a dozen boxes on the floor practically bursting at the seams with books. Literally crammed full. I asked if you really read all those and you said, ‘About half. I hope the day never comes when I get through all of them.’”
“I said that?”
Hux nodded. “You did. I thought that was super-interesting. Like I said, you’re an interesting person, Ben.”
Ben took that in silently. Hux ... was pretty interesting, himself. And it seemed he was much more observant than he let on.
“Um ... you know I’m off tomorrow night too. I don’t remember if I already told you that, but I am. I’m going to sleep during the day tomorrow, but when I wake up ... why don’t you come over and hang out? You’ve said before that you like hockey, right? Well, there’s a Timberwolves vs Blackhawks game on at 7:30. You can come over, we can talk, and I can make you that grilled cheese and soup.”
“Yeah. Why not?”
Hux smiled, and the strength of it practically lit up the entire room.
“Okay! I’d like that!”
Ben stood up and had to hold in a groan; he’d definitely over-eaten tonight. “What’s your favorite kind of soup?”
“Well if you’re making grilled cheese, you gotta go with tomato, right? It’s the rule.”
He hoisted his bag as Hux walked him to the door, and when they got there, Ben had a moment of hesitation. He wasn’t good with words, but he wanted some way to convey to Hux how much he’d enjoyed the evening. Some personal gesture. A handshake seemed way too formal and a hug seemed way too personal.
Eventually he settled for a warm pat on Hux’s arm.
“I’ll see you tomorrow night,” he said, to which this time, he was 1000% positive: Hux blushed.
Ben left Hux’s apartment with a smile on his face. He felt better than he had in a long time; whether from having a warm meal, or Hux’s warmer disposition.
Or maybe it was just being in the company of someone other than himself (or his mom) for the first time in months. Laughing. Joking around. Not shy like he was at work, or quiet and withdrawn like he was at home. Having an actual conversation.
As he got into his own apartment, he noticed the bunch of fresh, ripe tomatoes that a co-worker had given him, and an idea case to him: Hux said he liked tomato soup. Why not try and make him REAL tomato soup, instead of just opening a can?
He hurried to the closet and dug through his mother’s boxes, until he found her hand-written journal of recipes. Her tomato soup one was relatively simple for even a non-chef like himself, but he remembered it as being delicious nonetheless.
As he read over the ingredients, he began to speak out-loud, softly.
“So I think I’m doing better, mom. I still miss you, I miss you a lot, but I think I’m getting better. And — I think maybe I’ve made a new friend. His name is Hux. He lives on the next floor; he’s in school to be a chef, and —“