Bittersweet

by Steve Berman

The boys ordered the greatest hot drink ever meant for a glass: Vietnamese coffee. The base of ivory condensed milk. The top of so–brown–it’s–black chicory coffee. The boys marveled at the dichotomy. Only one coffee shop in Philly offered their favorite.Posters and flyers covered nearly every wall.The latest single from the Red Caps, a remix of "Hungry Like the Wolf," way overplayed, hung in the air.

Dault watched Jerrod tip his glass, the lip pale from steam. Doughy and pale, Jerrod didn’t like to break margins. He must have been the first kid to color within the lines. The sort that regretted spooning peanut butter first from the jar.

"Would you date a gingerbread man?" Dault asked. The distraction afforded him the chance to plunge a spoon into his own glass and stir.

"Being diabetic. . ." Jerrod’s forehead creased, making him doubly serious. "I have you anyways."

Dault drank for several seconds to earn a murky mustache. Anything to make his boyfriend grin. It worked. "Someone made a cartoon of the fairy tale. Posted it on YouTube." He wiped his lips clean with the back of his hand.

"That the one with a wolf?"

"Was a fox, not a wolf. Drink your coffee. Would you rather date a wolf or a gingerbread man?" Dault had often wondered what kissing a wolf would be like. Wolves kiss first and ask permission later. Or maybe never even ask permission.

"Are you dumping me so I can date make–believe people?"

Dault didn’t dare hesitate to answer. Jerrod had a list of worries, more than any other guy he’d ever dated. Foot falling off had to be at the top, but the way he would dare Dault to break up with him suggested Getting dumped was high on the list.Jerrod’s hazel eyes flickering on the table top, as if he were suddenly consulting that list, made Dault regret the joke. "No," he said carefully, "just curious."

Jerrod nodded and smiled. "I think a wolf would snore. Well, maybe I’d date the wolf from the little pigs story. The one who goes after Riding Hood’s too straight. And didn’t the gingerbread kid run away?"

"Yeah, the whole ‘Run, run, as fast as you can!’ bit. But I think he’d hitchhike these days. Maybe be all skater on a biscotti."

Jerrod’s crutches began to slide down the wall, tearing at band flyers printed on jam–red paper. Dault caught them before they clattered. He’d trip over them, like he had when they first met in Mr. Corlen’s seventh period History class. Jerrod had looked so guilty that Dault knew he’d say yes when asked out on a date.

"Why’d he run away?" Jerrod finally took a sip. Dault knew he’d never drink the entire glass. He worried about his blood sugar.

"A pair of dykes made him. They wanted a kid —"

"They couldn’t adopt?" asked Jerrod.

"I was adopted."

"Liar. You look like your mom."

"She was adopted too. We came as a package."

"I wish I wasn’t related to my folks."

Dault knew that any moment Jerrod would spiral down into some serious moping; his boyfriend’s home life was the Unmentionable Topic to be avoided at all costs. But lately, Jerrod had been dropping hints,little mal mots. That a bad divorce didn’t prevent bad genes.

"I’ll adopt you." Dault reached out and ruffled Jerrod’s thin blond hair.

Jerrod tried to duck out of the way. "You just want to make me forget about tomorrow."

The flight to Indianapolis with his father. Surgery the very next day. If all went well there’d be weeks of physical therapy. If things went bad, there’d be a lot of therapy.Losing a foot meant all sorts of therapy.Dault told himself not to envision Jerrod trapped in a wheelchair.

"I want to see you walk off the plane."

"Hobble. I’ll still have the crutches." Jerrod pushed the glass away from him. "I don’t want to go."

"I don’t want you to go either." But Dault did. He wanted a whole Jerrod, not a partial. He didn’t know if he could be with an amputee. That would make him an awful person — I mean, only the worst guyin the world would dump his disabled boyfriend, right?

They had slept together a few times, and it had been awkward. Awkward sex because of blood flow and neuropathy; Jerrod couldn’t really get hard. So Dault had to lay back and let Jerrod do things to him.It felt selfish and he found himself making tiny jokes to keep from being anxious.

Afterwards had been just as awkward. Dault would drift off and then suddenly wake, terrified he had kicked Jerrod’s bad foot. He would feel his muscles cramp against the task of remaining still for hours while Jerrod’s feverish body made the bed feellike an oven.

"Perhaps I can run away," Jerrod said.

"As fast as you can?"

Jerrod nodded. "They really need to change the album. Has it been the same song?" He reached for his crutches. Dault noticed how the others in the coffee shop stared at Jerrod as he struggled to his feet. The protective boot looked enormous,like something an astronaut would wear.

"How did it end for the gingerbread boy?"

"You want another lie?" Dault asked.

"Sure."

"Happily ever after. Met a very handsome fritter and they ran off together."

"Just desserts?"

"I should smack you for that."

"A kiss instead." Dault wished he didn’t have to ask.