Violet's Present, page 1
THE funeral was a small one. Aunt Violet—really, Great-great-aunt Violet—had long since outlived her husband, her only daughter, and most of her friends. Her more distant relatives lived too far away to do more than send flowers. She had spent the past few years confined to Pleasant Valley Nursing Home, waiting patiently for her body to catch up with her mind’s wish to move on. Matt had said his goodbyes to Aunt Violet months earlier, when he’d visited her in the home, and he hadn’t really intended to fly back to Nebraska for the service. But his mother had been tearful on the phone, and when Matt realized that she needed someone to stand at her side, he'd booked the next flight to Omaha. The airfare took a good chunk out of his savings, but it was worth it when he stood at the graveside, his mother’s hand clutching his, her teary eyes looking at him gratefully.
After the funeral, he took her out to dinner at Olive Garden, which wouldn’t have been his choice, but she adored the place. She liked to gobble the breadsticks and salad and then bring most of her entrée home, where it would last her for at least another two meals. Matt, however, simply picked at his grilled chicken and wished he were already back in Oakland.
“You look tired, Matty.”
“But it’s only two hours earlier in California.” Her blue eyes were as sharp as ever. “What’s wrong? You’re not upset about Aunt Violet, are you? She had a good life, and it was her time.”
“I know, Mom.” He took a sip of his iced tea and wished for something stronger.
“It’s that Brandon, isn’t it?” She always called him that Brandon, her lips pursed disapprovingly. She had never even met him but had long ago concluded that he wasn’t good enough for her son.
“I told you. Brandon and I broke up four months ago.” Four months, one week, and two days, but who’s counting?
“But you haven’t moved on. Come on, Matty. You’re twenty-seven years old, you’re very handsome, and you have a good job. There are plenty of other fish in the sea, and most of them are lots better than that Brandon. But you can’t expect them to just hop into your net. When was the last time you went out somewhere?”
He supposed there were worse fates in the world than to be stuck at a chain restaurant in Omaha, discussing his sex life with his mother, but he couldn’t think of any just then. “I’m not a hermit, Mom. Vanessa and I went for drinks after work on Friday.”
“Unless you’re switching teams, that’s not what I’m talking about and you know it.”
Some of Matt’s gay friends envied his family’s acceptance of his sexual orientation and wouldn’t believe him when he said there were downsides. Like when he came home the summer after his freshman year in college and outed himself to his mother, and then three days later she and his Aunt Violet tried to set him up with Aunt Violet’s gardener. Carl was a nice guy, but huge, hairy, and prone to leather and tattoos. So not Matt’s type.
“I just want you to be happy, Matty,” his mother said, interrupting his brief and unpleasant reverie.
“I am happy, Mom. Really. Just tired, is all.”
She made a face that said she didn’t believe a word, but then the waiter arrived with the dessert menu and she changed the subject, instead involving him in a debate as to whether she should order the tiramisu or the mousse cake.
He drove them back to her one-bedroom condo in his rented Ford and walked her to the door, carrying her bag of leftovers.
“Are you sure you won’t stay with me, dear? A hotel is so expensive,” she said. “I can sleep on the couch and—”
“It’s fine, Mom. Really.” He wasn’t going to be responsible for her waking up with a sore back, and the couch was too short for his long legs. “Besides, I have an early flight home and I don’t want to wake you.”
“You could stay another day or two,” she suggested.
“Gotta get back to work.” Not that the world would stop spinning if he missed a few more days—he was an animator, mostly hack work for commercials, but he hoped to someday get a job with one of the studios. He liked his job, and Omaha hadn’t felt like home in a long time. Besides, Brandon was back in California, and maybe this time— No, he reminded himself sternly. That was over.
Matt bent down and kissed his mother’s cheek. “’Night, Mom. I’ll call you when I land in Oakland.”
She nodded and unlocked the door. He was halfway to the parking lot when she called after him. “Matt! Matty!”
“What?” he called back, pausing on the sidewalk.
“I forgot! I have something for you.”
With a sigh and a fervent hope that she didn’t intend to give him yet another web address for gay online dating, he trudged back to the door. Her condo was tiny, affordable on her teacher’s salary while freeing up money for the Caribbean cruises she looked forward to every December and July. As always, she had books everywhere: overflowing shelves, piled precariously on tables, scattered across chairs, and in stacks on the floor. Matt smiled at the disorder and felt camaraderie in this particular trait he'd inherited from her. He’d lost two roommates over his literary addictions but decided he liked his books better than them anyway. His mother dug through a closet until she produced a white plastic grocery bag containing something that looked like a large book. “Aunt Violet gave me this several months ago, right after your last visit. She really took a turn for the worse after that.”
She reached up to pat his cheek. “Don’t be. You visited her, and she knew you thought about her.” She set the bag on the kitchen counter; the plastic made little crackling sounds when she smoothed it with her palms. “Now, you know Aunt Violet never had much money, and she spent all her savings on her care during the last years.”
“I wasn’t expecting an inheritance.”
“I know, dear. She had a few pieces of jewelry for me, and your Uncle Bob got all her furniture when she moved to the home.”
Matt tried to picture Aunt Violet’s furniture in his modern apartment: ancient wooden farmhouse pieces marooned in all that chrome and glass. He smiled. “Did Uncle Bob get those hideous dishes too?” Aunt Violet used to serve him cheese sandwiches on those dishes—always with the crusts cut off, as his younger self had preferred—and her special butter cookies with the jam in the middle.
“Uncle Bob said he likes the dishes,” his mother said with a chuckle. “He always has had terrible taste. But Aunt Violet had something for you too.” She patted the bag.
Matt carefully removed the book from its wrapping and then grunted slightly in surprise as he recognized it. “Her photo album!”
“She remembered how much you used to enjoy it when you were a boy.”
When Matt was little, he and his mother would spend long afternoons at Aunt Violet’s house. He was much too young to realize it at the time, but his mother was there to receive consolation over her deteriorating marriage. Matt would bring along his toys and coloring books, but eventually those interests would be exhausted, and as the women continued to talk over endless cups of tea, he often ended up leafing through the thick leather volume that held Aunt Violet’s photos. Even when he grew older, a sullen teen wishing he was spending the day with friends instead of old people, he’d end up putting his science-fiction novels aside and perusing the black and white images.
Now his mother’s face looked drawn and tired. “If you don’t want it, let me keep it. It’d be a shame just to throw all those pictures away.”
For a moment he considered setting the album aside. But his fingers were already stroking the soft black leather, and he shook his head. “No, that’s okay, Mom. I want it. It was nice of her to think of me.”
His mother pulled him down for a kiss on his cheek and a ruffle of h
There didn’t seem to be any purpose in pointing out that he was, in fact, a man. So he simply slipped the book back into the bag, gave his mother a one-armed hug, and headed out to the car.
THE Holiday Inn Express was indistinguishable from hundreds of similar hotels anywhere in the country, but it was close to the airport and not too expensive. The girl at the front desk was relentlessly perky, even when Matt dragged himself through the lobby with a six-pack of Heineken, the photo album, and a scowl. “Have a good night, sir!” she chirped, and he managed a forced smile in her direction.
When he got to his room, he plopped the beer onto the dresser and the plastic bag onto the little desk, then kicked off his shoes and peeled off his jacket, shirt, and socks. Yes, the room was nicely air-conditioned, but it was still in the upper nineties outside, and his years in the Bay Area had robbed him of his tolerance for heat and humidity. He felt sticky and stinky and generally out of sorts; he considered taking a shower, but the beer was calling him, nice and cold. He pulled a bottle from the cardboard carrier and used the opener on his keychain to pop the top. His first swallows tasted bitter and sweet at once, the coolness soothing him from the inside out.
He could check his e-mail, he thought. He should check his e-mail. But he put his iPhone on the nightstand without bothering to unlock it, because he knew there would be no texts or e-mails from Brandon—and nothing else really mattered. “Damn it!” he said out loud. He was the one who'd dumped Brandon, after catching him fucking around once too often. Brandon was all about the thrill of the moment, while Matt had been daydreaming about settling down, being… a family. So why was Matt still mooning around like a lovesick teenager, hoping Brandon would come chasing after him?
The remote control was close at hand, and Matt clicked through all the channels, finding nothing worth watching. He drained his bottle and started on a fresh one, considering putting on some shorts and heading to the fitness center. But no, he didn’t feel like working out either, even though his muscles were restless and twitchy.
It was probably inevitable that his gaze eventually fell on the plastic bag. He walked the few steps to the desk, plopped into one of the green chairs, and pulled out the photo album. The cover was plain, worn from decades of handling. He sniffed at it, half expecting to catch a whiff of Aunt Violet’s coffee cake—cinnamon and butter—but all he smelled was leather and dust. He wiped his hands on his jeans before opening to the first page.
It had been a long time since he’d seen these pictures, but they were still familiar. Bony people standing defiantly in front of farmhouses and jalopies, daring the world to make them flinch. Children in uncomfortable-looking clothing squinting up at the camera. Women in hats behind tables full of food, men in suits even when they were sitting in armchairs in their own living rooms, teenagers who seemed oddly old for their age. And men in uniform, of course. Quite a few of those.
He could still recite the intricate ties between himself and these people. Aunt Violet used to enjoy explaining the connections, telling him little stories, and sharing gossip that had a longer life than the long-dead relatives. He knew if he leafed through the book far enough the pictures would be in color, albeit faded, and he’d find baby photos of his mother and her brother, school pictures, even a few pictures of himself. If his aunt had ever possessed a wedding photo of Matt’s parents, she’d removed it from the album before he ever saw it, and that was fine.
But Matt didn’t skip ahead to those prom and Little League snapshots near the end. Instead, he paused where he always used to, on a page crowded with small, square photos of people in brush cuts and white shirts. The bottom photo, the one on the right, showed a young man in an army uniform. His hair looked very dark in the picture, maybe even black, but his eyes were startlingly light. He had sharp cheekbones; a square jaw; the hint of a curve to his nose, as if he’d broken it once. His lips were full and seemed to be the sort that curved into a smile only rarely—certainly not in the photo, but Matt had the idea that the man’s smile had been radiant when it did appear.
His name was Joseph. He had been a cousin of Aunt Violet’s, which Matt supposed meant he was a very distant cousin to Matt, as well. He was nineteen and newly drafted when the photo was taken in 1942. He died two years later on a Normandy beach. At the time this photo was taken, he couldn’t have known what his fate would be—didn’t all nineteen-year-olds think themselves invincible?—yet Matt had always thought he could see the shadow of death in those pale eyes. And for some reason, the gaze in this one photo had always seemed focused directly on Matt himself, as if Joseph were looking at him across the decades, as if Joseph were trying to communicate something important.
Matt had spent many hours staring at that photo when he was a boy, and its power hadn’t dimmed. Sitting in his bland hotel room now, still wearing his suit trousers and with a bottle of beer sweating near at hand, he felt the same sorrow he always had: that he’d never had a chance to meet the man who had died forty years before he was born.
He slammed the book shut and drained the beer, setting the empty bottle back on the table with a clatter. He decided maybe some time on a treadmill wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
THE hotel bed was more comfortable than Matt had expected, and there were certainly plenty of pillows, but he never slept well in new places. He tossed and turned for a long time, knowing he’d feel like shit by the time his flight arrived in Oakland late the following evening. Finally, he turned to the one method he was sure would knock him out. Feeling slightly guilty—Aunt Violet so recently in the ground—he reached under the waistband of his boxers and began to stroke his soft cock. The feel of his own hand was depressingly familiar; he hadn’t tried for even a quick hookup since Brandon. Not because he wasn’t horny—God, definitely not that—but because he knew those kind of fucks would be empty and unfulfilling, like eating Jell-O when you really wanted prime rib. So he’d been beating off more regularly than since he was a teenager, and if it was Brandon’s handsome face and wiry body he pictured while he spanked the monkey, well, nobody had to know.
Brandon had medium-brown hair artfully gelled and spiked, brown puppy-dog eyes with a hint of green edging the irises, thin lips that twisted easily into both grins and sneers. Tonight, though, it wasn’t his ex-boyfriend’s face that came to Matt unbidden as his cock slowly hardened. Instead he was seeing short black bristles and irises like glaciers; a slightly pouty lower lip that begged to be sucked on and nibbled; smooth skin gone tan from a summer working on a farm.
It was pervy to be jacking off while thinking of a long-dead relative, Matt told himself. But his cock didn’t care; it was fully erect now, warm and solid under his hand. He thought about retrieving the miniscule bottle of hand lotion from the bathroom but then decided he didn’t need it. A droplet or two of moisture had already leaked from the tip of his cock, slicking the heated skin a little.
Joseph probably wasn’t very tall—Matt had inherited his height from his father’s side of the family—but his photo hinted at sturdy muscles. Not Bowflex muscles, not abs sculpted by a hundred daily crunches, but honest strength earned from hauling hay and wrestling machinery, from digging fence-post holes and lugging sacks of grain. Hard muscles, smooth skin, the whispery brush of buzz-cut hair against Matt’s neck, against his chest and belly. Joseph’s teeth wouldn’t be orthodontically perfect, but they would flash white against his tan skin, and he’d nibble cleverly at Matt’s nipples before he used those soft lips to suck the little sting of pain away.
Joseph would smell of sunshine and earth, of dust from the fields. He would make tiny sounds as he worked Matt’s body, little whimpers and moans of happiness as he discovered what he could do to another man, the power he could wield with one swipe of his tongue.
Joseph’s hands would be hard, his calluses scraping as he stroked Matt’s arms and hips. Matt would splay his legs wantonly as Joseph finally stopped teasing and licked at Matt’
As soon as the first spurts of come hit Joseph’s palate, his body would jerk and writhe, and he’d climax in tandem with Matt, leaving them both sweaty and spent. He would slither his way back up Matt’s body, and heedless of the mess, they would spoon together, Joseph in Matt’s arms and Matt’s nose buried in the soft bristles of his hair; their breaths would become slower and smoother as they both fell asleep.
Matt lay slightly breathless in his rented bed. He wiped his hand on one of the extra pillows and slipped into sleep, alone.
MATT usually dreamed in vivid color—he was, after all, an artist—but he couldn’t remember any dreams this detailed. He could see the scratches in the Formica tabletop in front of him, the dust motes that danced in the sunlight that poured through the diner’s front windows. He smelled the smoke rising from the cigarettes held by men in overalls, men who were bent over newspapers or seated in small groups, chatting about weather or crop prices or war. He tasted the coffee from his plain white cup. It was strong and bitter, and he burned his tongue.
“Made up your mind yet?” asked the waitress.
He looked down at the printed cardboard in his hands. “Um, ham and eggs, please.” According to the menu, that would set him back fifty cents.
“How do you want the eggs?”
“Toast please.” He finally looked up at her, and then couldn’t stifle a gasp. She was probably in her midtwenties, although it was hard to tell with her hair gathered into a bun and tired circles under her eyes. But he recognized her, even if the last time he’d seen that face it was creased with wrinkles, the firm jawline gone soft with age. “Aunt Violet?” he squeaked.
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