The arcade is crowded for a weekday afternoon in April, when the kids ought to be in school and the adults at work. Yet there are plenty of both here; nearby a woman obviously on her lunch break lurches around on a DDR machine, her shoes clutched in her hands and a run developing in her stockings. It's almost one o'clock; she's going to be late getting back to wherever she's supposed to be, I think to myself.
"House," I say, leaning against a pillar and watching him weigh a wooden ball in his hand. "You do know that you're supposed to be in the clinic right now?"
House doesn't respond right away. With an exaggerated wind-up of his arm he sends the ball sailing up the ramp, and when it sinks into the 40-point hole he punches the air in triumph. "Yes!" he shouts. He looks at me. "You going to rat me out? Tell the principal? Because you're not supposed to be here either, and if I'm going down I'm taking you with me."
I smirk. "The principal likes me. Made me hall monitor and everything. I'll get off on good behavior." There are four balls left in House's skee-ball game, so I pick one up. He frowns but steps aside with a grunt, leaning on his cane to watch as I fling the ball too hard, missing all the holes completely. The ball vanishes into the gutter and House laughs.
"Lame," he says, picking up another ball and crowding me out of the way. He scores another 40 points. "I bet you get off on good behavior. I bet she does, too. That's what all those so-called board meetings are about."
"For the last time," I say, "I am not sleeping with Cuddy."
"Didn't say you were, but it's interesting that your mind went there." House gives me an appraising look before finishing his game and collecting the long trail of paper tickets he's earned. He counts them meticulously. "Ten more and I get a rubber snake."
I tuck my hands into my pockets. "Which, I'm sure, will find its way into Nurse Previn's locker." House merely grins – crookedly, with a flash of teeth - and puts another quarter into the game. I look around the arcade, taking in all the old-fashioned games amongst the new. "How'd you find this place, anyway? Keansburg's not exactly in the neighborhood."
House lobs three balls in quick succession – 40 points, 30 points, 40 points – and picks up another, tossing it from hand to hand. "Worked my Google-fu," he says. "Only place within fifty miles that's got Skee-Ball. It's a dying art form." He chucks the ball and scores 20 points, makes a face. "If I had the room I'd have one of these in my apartment."
"What's the differential for a forty-five year old man with an arcade game in his home?" I muse aloud. "Midlife crisis? Pathetic loser?"
"You might be Jewish, but you're a lousy comedian," says House. He finishes off the game and collects the tickets. "Let's go get my prize," he says giddily. "Then you can buy me a funnel cake."
I shake my head. "As soon as you get your snake, we're going back to the hospital. I still have work to do, and so do you."
House limps off toward the podium where a young man with terrible acne reigns supreme in front of a glass case filled with cheap toys. Above his head hang several dozen stuffed bears in colors not naturally found on bears. I stand aside and act as casual as a guy wearing a suit in an arcade can be while House peruses the offerings.
To my horror, he forgoes the coveted rubber snake and instead limps back to me with a hot pink bear in a tutu, thrusting it into my hands. "Happy birthday," he says.
I stare at the thing. "My birthday was in February."
House snorts. "Happy Arbor Day, then. Come on. It can be is funnel cake times, now," he says. I cringe internally at his grammar. He hobbles off. I scurry after him.
"House. House." I shove the bear at him. "Take this thing back. I'm not walking around with it!"
"You don't like my present?" House says petulantly. "I won it just for you!" He tickles the bear's ear. "It suits you, I feel. If you don't display it prominently in your office for all to see, I shall be terribly disappointed. Balcony, swan dive. The messy kind of disappointed."
But he's already gone, heading for a funnel cake vendor. With a sigh, I stuff the bear into my jacket pocket as best I can and pretend that I don't notice the single, fuzzy, pink ear sticking out.
House orders two funnel cakes and, naturally, leaves me to pay for them. I do it; truth be told I don't actually mind buying House food. I prefer it, in fact – at least this way I know he's eating something besides Cheetos, Red Bull and Vicodin. Funnel cakes aren't very nutritious, of course, but they're pretty damn tasty and by the time I get my own and bite into it, the bear drama is forgotten.
"Man," I say, through a mouth full of fried dough. "I haven't had one of these since I was a kid." There's no answer of course, because House is chowing down and there's no talking to him when he's eating. We meander through the rest of the arcade, past claw games and pinball machines; House folds his paper plate like a taco, enabling him to eat the funnel cake and walk with his cane at the same time. It's somehow graceful, if a little messy. From somewhere overhead, a tinny sound system tells us via Tom Waits that down the shore, everything's all right.
And that's when I see it.
"Oh." I stop, chunk of dough halfway to my mouth. "House, wait."
"What?" he says, turning around. He has powdered sugar on his chin, just in the cleft. It's going to drive me nuts later, but right now I'm distracted. "Wilson, what?"
I point. "It's a photo booth," I say. "An old-fashioned photo booth. You know, where you get a strip of pictures?" Moving closer, I inspect the machine. "Oh, it's even black-and-white!"
House snorts. "Big deal," he says. "They have one of those in the mall. Let's go, I want to get in another couple of games. They've got DDR, you know."
"You can't play DDR," I say absently, without looking away from the booth. It's exactly like the one at Funland in Rye, the one my brothers and I used to cram ourselves into. The pictures always turned out terrible; Owen was tallest and so the top of his head would get cut off, and Jake was shortest which meant all you'd ever see of him was his nose. Being in the middle meant I was in every photo, except that I'd have Jake's hair in my mouth and Owen's elbow in my ear, and inevitably the last photo would be of us trying to punch each other out.
Somewhere, I still have those pictures.
House is getting impatient. I can feel him fidgeting even though he's several feet away. "Not getting any younger over here," he says, thumping his cane for emphasis. I ignore him.
"I want to do it," I say. I dump the remainder of my funnel cake in a nearby trash can and dig around in my pockets for change. "How much is it? A dollar for six, okay…"
"Wilson." House sounds murderous. "You've got to be kidding me."
I shake my head. "Nope." I look at him. "Come in with me. It'll be fun."
At first, I think House is going to just turn around and walk away, leaving me there. I don't know why I've asked him to do this, and I don't really expect him to oblige. But he doesn't leave, which is surprising, though he also doesn't make a move toward the photo booth. He's looking at me, the way he does when he's trying to figure me out. I keep my expression blank, putting on my poker face. I know he hates that I can do that to him. I like that he hates that I can do that. I like keeping him on his toes.
"There's some heartwarming story behind this, isn't there?" he says. "Some special, secret Wilson history that takes place in a photo booth. Did you lose your virginity in one?"
I shake my head and look at him. "There are no pictures of us," I say. "Did you know that? Not even from any of my weddings. You always managed to disappear whenever the photographers came around."
House grunts. "They never get my good side."
"Maybe you don't have one." I smirk. "House, the camera won't steal your soul, I promise. There should be pictures of us. You and me. You don't stay friends with someone for twenty years without something to show for it. And criminal records don't count."
"I'm going in." I push aside the little curtain. "And as soon as I put the money in, you've got sixty seconds to make up your mind."
The inside of the booth is more cramped than I remember. I arrange myself on the little seat, leaving a hopeful amount of room beside me, and run a hand through my hair before feeding quarters into the slot.
Suddenly, things get a lot more cramped.
"Move over," says House, whacking me in the shin with his cane. "My bony ass can't compete with your Oakland booty."
With a grin I scoot over as much as I can, my right side pressed completely against the wall of the booth. House's left leg is sticking out through the curtain, either for comfort or to trip someone. "Better?"
"No." House scowls, and before I can tell him to smile the flash goes off. "Well, there's one for the ages."
"That one we can file under 'typical," I say. "Now, make an effort this time." I look toward the little lens and affect a charming (according to my mother) grin. Then I glance at House, who is making a Frankenstein face. "House!"
"Dammit, House!" I roll my eyes and glare at him. "Can you, just this once, be appropriate?"
House gives me a look, this time. "Can you, just this once, lighten up?" He nods at the camera and makes another face at me. It's hard not to laugh. "Come on, Wilson." He makes another, even weirder face, and this time I do laugh.
"Fine." I turn back to the camera and stick out my tongue. The flash goes off. "That one better not wind up taped to my office door."
"I was thinking more along the lines of the third floor ladies' room," says House. The camera snaps again and catches us leaning against each other, giggling and snorting. "Oops."
I shrug and wipe my eyes. "We've got one more," I say. "We'll make this one count." I sit up a little straighter and smile at the lens again. "Ready?"
When House doesn't answer, I look over at him. "House?"
Half a second before the flash goes off, House kisses me.
As kisses go it's not the best one I've ever had. House's mouth is sticky from the funnel cake, his stubble scratchy against my chin. It might come as a surprise to some people (thanks to House) but I've never actually kissed another man before, so at first I'm too dumbstruck to kiss back. And it's not even that it's another man so much as it is that it's House, kissing me, that's so shocking. He doesn't seem to notice or care, however. His eyes are closed and his lips move only slightly, the barest suggestion of a kiss but a kiss nonetheless.
It's unfamiliar, definitely. But not unpleasant. And it's been a long time since anyone's kissed me, so I give in, let my eyes fall shut and part my lips slightly.
Immediately, there's a tongue in my mouth. House's tongue. It's sweet and salty and warm and wet, not unlike kissing a woman except that it's not anything like kissing a woman. Women are soft and pliant and I always know what I'm doing with them. I'm flying blind here, trying to kiss back as best I can, moving my tongue against his and shivering a little at the dirty, slick slide of muscle. It's a sloppy kiss, a messy kiss, because House is forceful and I'm fumbling. It's an awkward kiss because we're stuffed into a photo booth that isn't meant for two men over six feet tall.
It is the best kiss I've ever had.
When he finally pulls away to breathe all I can do is stare at him. I'm not even sure I'm breathing. I feel light-headed, and when I lick my lips I taste powdered sugar and House.
"That'll be a good one," he says. His voice is low and a little rough, and I realize the kiss has affected him as much as it has me. I wonder if it's been on his mind for a while. I wonder if it was a spontaneous, let's-shock-Wilson act that got out of hand. I wonder if he's going to do it again. I wonder if I want him to do it again.
I should probably say something.
"You kissed me," I say, because I am Captain Obvious. House, to his credit, doesn't say anything. "Why did you… do that?"
He just shrugs and digs in his pocket. "I was gonna use these for more Skee-Ball." He holds out a little pile of quarters. "But maybe you'd want 'em for more pictures?" He lifts an eyebrow, expectantly.
I look at his hand, then look up at his face. There's still sugar on his chin. I smile and take the quarters from his palm, one by one, and feed them into the slot.
"Only," I say, leaning in, "if we make them count, too."