Cory sat on the couch while Shawn nervously darted about, trying to get his unexpected guest situated. He hung Cory's wet things by the radiator to dry. He babbled something about beverages and disappeared in the kitchen. He returned shortly after with a six pack and and a stack of red solo cups. He set them on the coffee table with an air of triumph.
Cory smiled. "I don't need a cup for my beer. And I certainly don't need six cups."
"Yeah, of course," Shawn smiled, embarrassed. To hide his embarrassment, he opened one of the beers and started drinking from it like he'd just been rescued from the desert. Then he stopped himself, dribbling a little. "I don't actually drink like that. Sorry. I'm really freaked out that you're here. I mean, it's great, I'm glad to see you, but...well, I wasn't expecting it..." He trailed off and took another sip to stop himself from saying any more. He sat down on the floor across from the couch.
There was awkward silence. Cory cracked open a beer can. They both sat there as the silence continued, sipping their beers, staring at each other. Then Shawn gave in and asked, "So what brings you to Denver?"
"You." It was the truth and it had fallen over Cory's lips before he'd realized it. He amended it quickly, though. "Topanga left me for another guy. I couldn't be there anymore. I needed to see you."
"Aw, Cor." Shawn was no longer looking at him, instead looking down intently at his beer. Cory quickly realized that Shawn was avoiding eye contact.
"Did you know?!"
Shawn looked up apologetically, tried to talk, then looked down again. "I'd hoped she'd come to her senses."
"It was going on that long ago?"
"I couldn't be the one to tell you," Shawn said, "And I couldn't stay there knowing that it was going on. And knowing that eventually you'd find out and how much that would break you. Or even worse, that you wouldn't find out. I couldn't stand to see any of it happen. I honestly felt like it would kill me."
Silence once again while Cory took in this new knowledge. On the one hand, this satisfied his curiosity on a question that had been eating at him since the day Shawn left. On the other hand, the whole thing made him depressed all over again.
He drank his beer and took in his surroundings in an attempt to distract himself. Shawn was still a slob. There were clothes and books and papers and empty containers everywhere. But it was actually a nice little place. Small but cozy. The furniture was shabby but comfortable. There were pictures on the walls, and a small desk set up facing the front window. There was a laptop still open on it and Cory realized that Shawn must have been working there when Cory had pulled into the driveway.
"I'm sorry I sprung this on you. Sorry I interrupted your night."
Shawn smirked. "You didn't interrupt much."
"Do you live here alone?" The thought had just occurred to him.
Shawn placed his empty can on the floor and cracked open another. "I do as of last week. We signed a lease on this place, moved in together, and then two months later, she moves out. Shawn Hunter will exorcise your house of anyone who ever means anything to you. I'm more effective than the Orkin man."
They sipped their beers in silence. So much silence. There had never been so much silence between them. Then Shawn did something Cory didn't expect. He stood up, came around the coffee table and plopped himself down next to him. He put his arm over Cory's shoulders.
Cory leaned into his best friend and began to cry.
Cory talked for what felt like hours, telling Shawn everything that had happened. About Topanga announcing one day that she was leaving to be with another man, her boss at the firm. How this guy challenged her in a way Cory never had, intellectually stimulated her (Shawn snorted at that), and made her want to be a better person and do amazing things. Reach her potential, she said. How Cory didn't inspire any of that in her. He told him how Topanga had explained that they'd married too young, before they'd ever had a chance to explore the world and figure out who they really were. He told him how for months he'd known something was up but was afraid of confronting her and finding out it was true. How now he felt so foolish finding out that it had been going on far longer than that. How he couldn't blame Topanga-it was clear now they were too young and they'd both made the mistake-but that he hated her all the same. How she'd left him to go live in this guy's fancy place on the Upper West Side. How he still hadn't had the heart to tell his family. How he'd quit his job and moped for weeks in the empty apartment, letting the bills pile up and then sending them all to her. How she'd paid them without a word. How much he hated her. How much he hated himself.
When Cory had exhausted himself and needed a break, Shawn told him the story of what had happened since he'd left the apartment that night. How a friend from the restaurant had invited him to come tend bar at a new place he was opening up in Denver. How Shawn had been a natural at bar tending and was now managing the other barkeeps and waitstaff. How he'd fallen in love with Denver and decided he was never leaving. How he'd joined a writers work group and had a poetry chapbook about to be published. How he'd started taking classes again to finish his long-abandoned degree. How he was thinking about going into business with the friend who owned the bar. How he'd even been considering asking the girl he'd moved in with to marry him, though he'd since decided it was lucky to have ended before he made that mistake. And how he still found himself lonely so many nights, despite all he'd accomplished.
"But it sounds like you've got lots of friends here," Cory said after Shawn told him this last bit.
Shawn kissed his friend's forehead, a little bit drunk. "Nobody is like you, Cor."
Then Shawn got up to stretch and take a leak. Cory remained slumped on the couch, watching him, then waiting for him to return.
While he was gone, Cory thought about how Shawn was always taller than him when they were kids. It contributed to Cory's belief that Shawn was always one step ahead of him, that little bit more cool and sophisticated. Then one summer Cory shot up, eye to eye with his friend and then later he became a bit taller, broader, stronger than his friend. And their relationship dynamics had seemed to shift a little with it. Shawn was still mouthy and a bossy instigator at times, but Cory could hold more sway. Once he'd gotten Topanga and become the expert on a good relationship, Shawn receded more. Cory steered the course of both of their lives. Shawn was just along for the ride. Something was different now, though.
Shawn used to hide-in too-big clothes, layers and layers, and under that ridiculous head of hair. Cory supposed he'd been trying to appear bigger than he was, or protect himself, maybe, in what little way he could. He'd always just been a scrawny, vulnerable kid underneath, though. Anyone who knew him at all could see it. So it was surprising to see him now, hair shorn close and wearing clothes that fit-a simple pair of jeans and a t-shirt that did nothing to camouflage his small frame. He was just as skinny as he'd ever been but somehow he looked stronger and more sturdy. He owned himself and who he was, Cory realized, no longer pretending to be something else.
That genuine confidence was something Shawn had always been lacking. He'd had fake confidence in spades since childhood, but the real thing was something very different, and surprisingly impressive to see in action. Cory bet Shawn had been having an even easier time with women than before, giving off this new vibe. "I'd fuck him," he found himself thinking in jest.
Cory was suddenly self-conscious about his own body, the bit of weight he'd put on over the last year. His "angry eating" as Shawn used to call it. It had never bothered him when Shawn teased him about that failing but it had irked when Topanga tried to do the same. "Stop angry eating," she would say and it felt like a judgement against his character, not like Shawn's affectionate teasing. Without either around to call him on it he'd been angry eating for months and he loathed himself. He felt pudgy and slow and useless.
Then Shawn returned from the bathroom and instead of sitting opposite him again, sat beside him and wedged himself under Cory's arm, wrapping his own arms around his friend's torso. "I didn't say this before but you look great," Shawn said. "Being single again agrees with you."
"Thanks." Although he didn't believe him, Cory felt slightly better. "You're doing well for yourself, Shawnie."
Shawn rested his head against his friend's stomach and sighed. "I missed you."
"I missed you too. It never felt right without you there. Not one day. I hated thinking you were out there somewhere, mad at me."
"You know why I couldn't stay there, right? I couldn't take it. That she would do that to you. I couldn't watch her do it and I couldn't stand the idea that you were going to forgive her when you found out."
"If she'd wanted to try and work it out, I would have. I never even got a chance to try..."
"I'm glad you didn't. You deserve better than that. You're better than her. You were always too good for all of us, Cor."
And then Cory felt overcome with exhaustion. It had been a long day, a long couple of months, a long couple of years. "I'm tired," he said.
"Of course you are." Shawn didn't ask if Cory was planning to stay the night, instead he hopped to his feet and proceeded to get the bed ready for him. This preparation consisted of removing a bunch of books and papers and clothes that covered the bed and then fluffing up the pillows. "You need more blankets?" he asked. Cory shook his head.
"Good," Shawn laughed, "'cause I don't have any. Amy kinda cleaned me out."
Cory followed Shawn into the bathroom where he handed him a towel and explained the quirks of the wonky old faucets. Cory thanked him and Shawn brushed it off, heading out into the living room. In the bathroom, Cory stripped off his jeans and sweater and washed his face with an almost-empty bottle of soap he found in the shower, returning to his old habit of avoiding his reflection in the mirror. He noted that there were still two toothbrushes in the glass on the sink. He called out to Shawn asking him which toothbrush was his.
"The red one. Go ahead and use hers if you want. She only used it a couple of times before she left."
Cory picked up the red one and used that. For some reason, using Shawn's toothbrush didn't gross him out the way he might have expected it to. It was preferable, anyway, to using Shawn's ex-girlfriend's toothbrush. He figured Shawn's mouth germs couldn't be that much different from his own.
When he emerged from the bathroom, Shawn was laying on the couch in boxers, a coat draped over himself in lieu of a blanket.
Cory crossed his arms. "Get in here. You're not sleeping out there like that."
"You sure? I'm fine."
"Just get in here."
Cory couldn't get over how nice it felt to have someone in the bed with him again, the immense comfort of a warm body that smelled familiar. And the great thing was, Shawn didn't smell like Topanga. He smelled like Shawn. He smelled like Cory's childhood. He smelled like home. Cory inhaled deeply and burrowed closer to his friend. Shawn responded by putting an arm around him. That too was comforting. Cory drifted off to sleep quickly in this warm, safe state, feeling like he'd crawled back into the womb.
Shawn remained awake for a long time that night, unwilling to shift away from Cory or stop looking at him in the moonlight and close his eyes. His mind was racing with thoughts and worries and feelings. He wanted to write about this moment right now, get it all down as he was experiencing it so he'd never forget it and maybe even understand it all a little better. But he stayed where he was. His notebook pages wouldn't get filled that night.
There were so many different things he was feeling. Regret for having left his friend and for running away. Guilt for not contacting him in all that time, leaving him to deal with it all alone. Anger at Topanga. Anger at himself. Anger at God for letting shitty things happen to good people. Fear that Cory was going to leave in the morning. Joy that he was here now. Absolute giddiness to be back with his best friend. Sadness at seeing bright, beautiful Cory so broken and lost. Shawn knew something about feeling like that and felt like it was his job to lead his friend out of this forest, but he wasn't sure how to do it. He stayed up late into the night trying to think of what he should say and do. At last, though, he drifted off, his arm still around his Cory, as if to prevent anyone else from snatching him away.
Shawn had always had a hard time waking up, emerging from sleep a little bit at a time, dragging himself out of a drunk-like stupor only over the course of several minutes. So he was not entirely aware that he wasn't still sleeping when a tongue slipped into his mouth, hot and wet and insistent. Shawn kissed back eagerly, enjoying this dream. Hands were roughing up the hair on his chest and he grew hard and smiled around the lips of whoever was attached to his mouth. He began grinding against the body that was pressing against him and with this movement seemed to wake himself more, becoming more aware that this was actually happening. Slowly, he opened his eyes. As he realized who was on top of him, he stiffened and sat back. "Cory," he choked over the tongue in his mouth.
Cory shrieked in surprise and jumped off of him. Shawn thought, absurdly, that there should have been a laugh track right then. He'd always watched way too much TV and it had infiltrated his brain with thoughts like this.
There was almost the full mattress between them as they both sat staring at each other.
"I forgot you were here," Shawn said, eyes wide.
Cory looked away then and bowed his head. "I'm so fucked up right now, Shawnie, I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," Shawn was quick to reassure him, crawling back toward him again, "Cor, it's okay."
"I just needed to feel...I needed to feel like..."
Shawn wrapped his arms around Cory and pulled him so that they were sitting side by side. Then Shawn kissed him in a way that was less lustful and more reassuring. Then he kissed his cheek, his brow, the top of his head. "It's okay," he said, "It's always been okay."
"No, it's fucked up," Cory moaned.
But Shawn shook his head and held him tighter. "I feel closer to you than I've ever felt to anyone in the world. I love you. And I don't care if you're not a girl and I don't expect you to suddenly be my boyfriend. You're Cory and I'm Shawn and I don't think there's a category out there that's ever fit us."
"I missed you so much," Cory whispered.
Shawn kissed him again, then, and everything was okay. Cory kissed him back, forcefully, and then threw him down on his back. They wrestled for a few moments, like they were ten again, Shawn trying to push Cory off but Cory holding him down tight.
"You're scrawny little trailer trash," Cory laughed, "You can't overpower me. I come from a nice house. I never missed a meal."
Shawn laughed back and struggled harder. He managed to free one leg and started tickling Cory with his toes. Cory released Shawn, scrunching up to protect himself. Shawn then flipped him onto his back. He straddled Cory's waist and pinned down his arms, then stayed just like that, enjoying his moment of power.
"Wily!" Cory laughed, "Cunning! Scrappy! Deceitful!"
"You can take the boy out of the trailer park but you can't take the trailer park out of the boy."
Cory grinned. Shawn leaned down and kissed him again, slow this time. Cory could have easily overpowered him at that point, broken free from his hold, but he didn't. He relaxed.
When Shawn had taken all the kiss he wanted, he sat back. He was still sitting on top of Cory, but he had released his grip from Cory's wrists.
"I'm so fucking happy to see you." He tousled Cory's curls. "You and your stupid hair."
Cory smiled. He had circles under his eyes he didn't use to have and his face was a little puffy and covered in stubble, but Shawn thought it gave a little rugged, world-weary maturity. He'd finally had to deal with some difficult things in his life and he'd made it through. Shawn thought he looked like a champion.
"Shawnie," Cory whispered hesitantly, "How much do you want to help a fellow out?"
"I will do whatever I can to help," Shawn said sincerely.
Cory bit his lip and cocked his head, indicating for Shawn to look down. Shawn did so and it took him a second but then he realized what Cory was asking and a grin crept over his face.
"I see. I see. Well, I think that could be arranged. It's not like I've never done it before."
"Oh, Cor. While you were off practicing to join the Future Married Couples of America, I had quite a bit of time to explore the whole buffet of options available to me at John Adams High. Shawn Hunter is a man of equal opportunity pleasure."
"No shit?" Cory whispered. "I knew there were sexy things going on I didn't know about!"
Shawn smirked, gave him one more quick kiss as if to shut him up and then scooted off Cory and onto his knees. He paused a moment to build up some suspense on the part of Cory but also to savor the moment a bit for himself. It wasn't like he'd never fantasized about what this might be like. He was pleased to find that this all felt perfectly natural, as if it was obvious that they would get here at some point. And it did, suddenly, seem incredibly obvious. This was always meant to happen.
Shawn took Cory's dick into his mouth, enjoying its hot, thick weight. He inhaled the scent of Cory, heightened with sweat and heat. He rolled it around a bit in his mouth, being gentle with his teeth and then tightened around it. Cory gasped and Shawn began to pull up and down, running his tongue along the length of Cory's dick and tasted his friend's jumping pulse through his flesh. He cupped Cory's balls with his hand and pulled his dick tighter and faster with his mouth, up and down and up and down. It was a quick job, but it was sweet.
"Oh, sweet mother of Feeny!" Cory gasped as he came.
Shawn burst out laughing, spewing cum all over. He rolled onto his back, laughing and choking. He could hardly breathe.
Cory was still immobilized with pleasure, his chest heavy and his body limp.
Shawn rolled onto his stomach and wiped his face with the sheet, still coughing and laughing. "Sorry about that finish," he said, "I'm usually better at sticking the landing but, then, I usually don't hear my old teacher's name taken in vain while I'm doing it."
Cory was still lying limp and breathing hard. "You're better than Topanga."
Shawn grinned and shook his head. He grabbed a discarded t-shirt from the floor and began mopping the cum off Cory's belly. "No offense, Cor, but she was always a priss. Besides, with this mouth? It's like I was engineered in a laboratory to give good head."
"Holy crap," Cory whispered, "Holy crap."
Shawn tossed the t-shirt back onto the floor and wiped his hands on his boxers. "I love you, Stupid."
He pushed Cory bodily to one side of the bed and laid down. "I'm going to sleep, though, now. Goodnight."
Cory did not go back to sleep. When he eventually got it together again, he slipped out of bed and headed to the bathroom where he cleaned himself up. Then, needing something to occupy himself with, he cleaned Shawn's bathroom. And once that was done, he tidied up the living room and tackled the kitchen. How Shawn could stand to live in such chaos Cory would never understand. He was like a rat building up a nest around him everywhere he went.
The sun had been up for about an hour by the time he finished with the kitchen. He began inspecting the pantry and the fridge, looking for breakfast materials. There were, of course, nothing of the sort. Condiments. Beer. Expired orange juice. The egg compartment of the fridge was stocked with film canisters. The butter compartment was nothing but ketchup and soy sauce packets. For some reason, there were socks in the crisper. Shawn may have gotten better at taking care of himself, but he still wasn't exactly good at it.
Cory frowned and put on a pot of coffee. At least there was that.
While the coffee was brewing, he slipped back into the bedroom to try and pick up that room a bit as well. Shawn had always been a heavy sleeper and Cory knew there was little danger of waking him, save firing up a vacuum, which he was pretty sure Shawn didn't own. Shawn was sprawled out, covering as much of the bed as he could manage, mouth wide open, snoring. Cory could help but smile a little, looking at him. How many mornings of his life had he come across the same scene?
Gingerly, he began making a pile of discarded clothing. The pile ended up being as tall as the bed and Cory grunted as he shifted it so that it was out of the pathway to the door. The rest of the mess was the same as elsewhere in the house: books, papers, notebooks, and more papers. He stacked each carefully and was feeling pretty accomplished when he spied a whole other pile of papers on the other side of the bed. He bent down to scoop them up and froze when he saw his name. Multiple times. Gathering the topmost layer of papers off the pile, he sat on the edge of the bed, shoving Shawn's leg out of the way to make room.
They were letters. Letters Shawn had written to Cory and either never finished or never sent. They were full of scratch-outs and apologies and long, long explanations for everything. Thirty different versions of the same basic letter, dates covering the past year and a half. Cory read them for a long time before he couldn't take any more. There was such a great sense of longing and loneliness in them. It made him want to take Shawn in his arms like a child. He turned to look at Shawn then and laughed at himself. This "child" he wanted to take into his arms was nearly as big as Cory was, sprawled out like an abandoned marionette, and drooling, his face smashed very unattractively against a pillow and a rolled-up sweater.
Cory set the letters back onto the pile and kicked it all under the bed. Then he leaned over and poked Shawn in the ribs. Shawn snorted but didn't wake up. Cory grabbed one of Shawn's big toes and yanked it. Shawn snorted again and jerked his foot back. He rolled over and continued snoring.
"Come on, you," Cory chided, slapping him upside the head gently, "get up!"
Shawn swore and swatted at him. "Is there coffee?"
"Who gets you coffee when I'm not here?"
"Get coffee." Shawn pulled the pillow over his head and held it tight, ending the brief conversation.
Cory grumbled but retrieved a cup of coffee from the kitchen and returned. "Lucky I did the dishes," he said, sitting back down on the bed, "there were no clean cups."
Ever so slowly, Shawn emerged from beneath the pillow. He eyed the coffee blearily and then sat up to accept it. He took a sip and Cory swore he could see color returning to his face. Shawn took another life-affirming sip and then scowled at Cory. "You did my dishes?"
"Well, you didn't have a lot. I was going to make you breakfast but I thought I should ask before I made you a film and ketchup omelet."
Shawn raised an eyebrow and continued sipping his coffee. He seemed to be operating with the movements of a ninety-year-old man. Cory, in the meantime, grabbed the balled-up sweater from the bed and tossed it in the laundry pile. Shawn nodded toward the pile of clothes. "I got some laundry there if you wanna do it for me."
"We need to hire a maid."
"We need to hire a maid," Shawn repeated.
"I can't live like this."
Shawn knit his brows and ran a hand through his now-short hair, making it stand on end. He set down the coffee mug on the nightstand. "What are we talking about?"
Cory started to talk, then stopped himself. He started again, stopped again. He stood up and made hand gestures as if to talk but still didn't. Shawn was leaning forward intently and started making his own little hand gestures, as if this might encourage Cory's words to actually come out.
Cory sighed and sat back down. "My life is not working out the way I planned it."
Shawn snorted. "Yeah, no shit." Then he quickly recomposed his face into something more serious. "Sorry, Cor. Sorry."
Cory ignored him and continued. "Everything I thought I wanted, thought I was doing right, has gone out the window. And I don't want to go back there."
"So what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. But I'd like to try doing it with you."
Shawn put on his best casanova face. "Is this a proposal, Mr. Matthews?"
"I'm asking you for a place to stay, Shawn. Do you know how hard that is?"
"Yeah. I do." Shawn made a face and retrieved his coffee mug. He took a gulp and then gestured at the surrounding walls. "It's not much, but it's all yours."
"Yeah. But if you're under my roof, you gotta play by my rules, eat the food I put on the table..."
"You don't have any food."
"I don't have any rules either," Shawn said in an impression of his cheesy 13-year-old self. "It's permanent adolescence here, Cory."
"Maybe that's what I need right now."
Shawn sipped his coffee and leaned back against the headboard. He seemed to be thinking something through and Cory watched him anxiously to see what he was going to say. His bony shoulders looked relaxed, though, which Cory found reassuring. Had Shawn ever been so at ease in all the time he'd known him? He really seemed to have become comfortable in his own skin during these two years apart.
"You don't think you'll feel," Shawn said at last, "like you're moving backwards?"
Cory thought about that for a bit. "I don't know. Maybe. But I also feel like I need to go back a little bit. To some place solid where I know I have something to stand on while I start again. I want to do it over and get it right this time. I don't know, Shawnie, does that make any sense?"
"I think so. But what is it you're going to need me to do for you?"
"Just be my friend. Be my Shawn. Like you've always been."
"I'm not the most reliable person."
"You're a reliable friend, though. Look at us, two years of no contact and I knew, I knew that when everything went to hell, you would be there for me. All I had to do was find you. And being here with you? This is the first time I've felt remotely normal in months."
"I'm glad you came," Shawn said, his voice breaking a little, betraying his emotions, and he quickly gulped his coffee to cover it up.
Cory crawled up the mattress and sat down beside him. He rested his head on Shawn's shoulder.
"So, you want me to go back there with you," Shawn asked. "to get your stuff? I can get my shifts covered. Just need to call a few guys. I got a class, too, but I can skip a day if I need to."
Cory shook his head. "I don't want any of it. I want to leave all of it back there. I want to start fresh."
"Good. Then we can get you some clothes that don't make you look forty."
"Oh, I don't know."
"No, Cor. If you're gonna get back on the dating scene, you've gotta up your game a little."
"Like you're some expert."
"I am an expert. Don't pretend like getting girls wasn't the only thing I was ever good at."
"You were good at other things."
"God, imagine! You're going to get to see what it's like to sleep with another woman. With other women. Multiple other women." Shawn was grinning with a far-off look on his face, as if imaging the possibilities. "You have no idea how good this is gonna be for you."
"I don't know if I'm ready for that."
"You will be."
"Well, first I still owe you."
"For what?" Shawn turned to look at him and Cory gave him a funny look. After a second, Shawn got what he was talking about and waved it away. "Ah, that was on the house."
"I don't like charity, Shawn."
"That wasn't charity. That was not charity."
"Yeah, well, either way, I want to pay you back."
Shawn shrugged. "Pay me back whenever you feel like it. I'll keep your tab open. I know you're good for it."
Cory laughed. "All right, fine. You wanna show me a good place to get some breakfast around here, or you just gonna let your old pal starve to death?"
Shawn took him to a little diner in the neighborhood and Cory was surprised that everyone seemed to know Shawn there. He greeted folks without any sense of his old reserve and chatted easily. Then they ordered up a massive spread and spent the next several hours planning Cory's new life.
The first step, they agreed, before any school applications or printing of resumes, was for Cory to call his family and tell them what had happened. When they got back to the house, Shawn gave Cory the phone and made himself scarce. Cory stared at the phone in his hand, breathing deeply for several minutes until he was ready to make the call.
No one picked up at first since they wouldn't have recognized the number or the area code. But when he went to the machine, his mom answered right away. Cory could picture her in the kitchen, leaning against the table with the cord wrapped around her hand, the way she always did while talking. After some strained, awkward small talk, Cory finally broke down and told her everything.
To Cory's embarrassment, Amy seemed more concerned and saddened than surprised, confirming his suspicion that everybody had sort of thought something like this was coming. Although she asked if there was any chance of a reconciliation, she didn't push when Cory told her there was not. When he told her he'd decided to leave New York and not come back to Philadelphia, that he was starting over someplace completely new, she was supportive.
"But where are you now?" She asked, "I need to know that you're going to be all right."
"I'm going to be fine," Cory said, "I'm with Shawn." And in that moment, he knew it to be true.