The Barbecue

When they arrived back at the house, it was empty. "I wonder where your aunt is."

Hopping onto the counter, Oz picked up a piece of paper. "She's at the grocery store."

"How did you know that?" Oz held up the paper. "She left a note?"

Oz shook his head. "The grocery list. There are certain things about my family. Or maybe just Moll. She always forgets one thing, usually the most important thing. Like the time she made a big spaghetti dinner -- homemade sauce, garlic bread, grated fresh parmesan -- for my grandfather's birthday but forgot to cook the pasta. Or the time she went to Disneyland and forgot a hat, sunburning a nice stripe down the center of her scalp." He examined the list more carefully. "Damn. She had fresh tortellini and those olive rolls on the list, too."

Shyly, Xander moved to stand in front of Oz. "So we're alone?" Oz nodded. "So is it okay if I do this?" Taking a deep breath, he lifted one hand to Oz's face, gently pulling Oz's face to his.

"Yeah, it's okay." Oz's hands moved up, one hand -- still holding the shopping list -- stroking the back of Xander's head, the other tracing a pattern on his face.

"Okay, you guys, knock that off for five minutes and help me get the rest of the groceries in and put away."

At the sound of Molly's voice, an extremely embarrassed Xander pulled away from Oz's lips. But Oz wrapped his legs around Xander's waist, holding him in place and keeping his hand on the back of Xander's head. "Did you get any ice cream?"

She smiled. "Of course. It's in one of the bags in the car. How else do you think I was going to trick you into helping unload?" She frowned at Oz's hand, its fingers still stroking Xander's hair. Xander followed her eyes nervously, breathing a sigh of relief when he realized what the problem was. "So that's where I left the list. Oh, well. You guys will just have to live without whatever I forgot." She turned to the basement door. "And when you're done with that, you can help me move stuff back down here. It's dry now, so it's time to move everything that was put in the spare rooms back downstairs. And then you can spend the night indoors and away from the furballs."


The barbecue was in a standard backyard. Grill at one end, table loaded with food nearby, three kegs of beer in plastic garbage cans loaded with ice near the food, a plastic tub filled with bottles of beer, soft drinks, and ice next to the beer. Lawn chairs were scattered around the yard. Cement steps led up to the back of the house from the yard, and Xander and Oz sat down there.

"Oz! How've you been?" A man with Buddy Holly-style glasses and a brand of beer that Xander had never seen before was the first to greet them.

"Hey, Jake. Not bad. This is my friend Xander. We went to school together." Oz glanced around the yard. "Oh, hey, is Mark here? I heard his band just released their second record. I wanted to talk to him about that whole record deal thing."

Jake shook his head. "Not yet. But I know Alison was just asking Moll about you, so I'm thinking that he must be on his way if she's already here. Probably trying to find a parking space."

It continued like this for some time. People recognized Oz from years past, and so there was a steady flow of people stopping by to catch up. Finally, Oz got up to wander around the yard himself. Xander just watched the conversations, feeling slightly jealous that Oz had people to talk to, feeling more than slightly lost because of his lack of knowledge about the relationships between the people there. So he sat on the steps, not even listening to the music playing but instead thinking about everything Oz had told him earlier. Of all the things to find out about the quiet musician, the fact that he had made mistakes of a magnitude even Xander himself had yet to achieve had been very low on the list of possible discoveries. The knowledge made him feel closer to Oz.

"Are you okay?"

Xander looked up from his feet to see Oz's aunt standing in front of him. "Yeah." He folded his arms and rested them on his knees. "Just feeling kind of weird because I don't know anyone. Is it really okay that I'm here?"

She sat down on the step next to him. "You wouldn't be here if it wasn't okay." There was a loud cry of greeting from the kitchen. "Oh, Dave is here! I've got to go say hi." She stood and paused at the door. "Xander? I don't mean just at this party, okay?" Before he could answer, she had entered the house and shut the door behind her.

"Hey, want something to drink? A beer?" A slightly unstable man stood in front of Xander.

"Oh, no, that's okay."

"Come on, you need to drink something! It's too hot out here. You're going to get dehydrated."

"No, really, I'm --"

"Hey, Lane, stepped on any hot coals lately?" Oz interrupted Xander's protest.

The drunk man didn't notice the rudeness. "Oz! Buddy! How's it going?"

"Just fine." Oz handed a can of Sprite to Xander before settling on the step beside him. "Is that okay? The Coke was still a bit warm."

Lane was clearly happy at Oz's actions. "Cool. You have a beverage. I'll let you know when the turkey's ready, okay?" And he meandered away.

Xander stared at the can in his hand. "Xan? Is that okay?"

"Yeah." Xander sighed. "It's just weird. All this drinking, but everyone's just mellow, not chugging away trying to get as wasted as possible as quickly as possible. And that guy -- When he came over to talk to me, I thought he was going to do the extreme peer pressure thing and get me to drink even though I really don't want to."

Oz shook his head. "That's not going to happen here. These people are past that. Some of them have stopped drinking. Some because they have drinking problems, some because they've just decided that they don't like what happens to them when they drink. Some of them drink but not in certain situations. Plus if one person doesn't drink, there's more for those that do. And these are adults who have to face work tomorrow -- work to pay their mortgage, not their clothing budget -- so their attitudes about alcohol are different than a college kid who has the luxury of sleeping through classes." He paused, taking in the conflicting emotions flickering across Xander's face. Softly, he asked, "It's not just about being around people drinking, is it?"

Xander shook his head. "No, it's not." He sighed again, this time picking up Oz's hand, twining their fingers together.

"If you feel too weird, we can leave."

"No, it's okay. It just takes getting used to being around drunk people who are acting normally. Who aren't fighting, you know?"

Oz nodded. "I'll be back in a bit. Want anything while I'm up?" Xander shook his head. Gently, Oz pressed his lips to the back of Xander's hand before releasing it and entering the house behind them.

He sat for several more minutes, just watching the people around him. Then someone sat down on the step beside him. "Is it okay if I sit here for a minute?"

The owner of the voice was a tall, beefy man holding a bottle of water in one hand and a loaded plate of food in the other. Xander nodded. "Sure."

The man paid little attention to Xander, instead concentrating on his food. Pasta salad, fruit salad, baked beans -- basic, classic barbecue food. He quickly cleaned his plate and sighed. "Okay, I feel human now."

"You mean you were questioning that?"

"Yeah, for a minute there." He turned to Xander, realizing that they hadn't met. "I'm Frank. Who do you know here?"

Xander felt slightly uncomfortable. "Uh, I'm here with a friend from school. He's visiting a relative." No need to go into any detail.

Frank nodded. "So you know about as many people here as me. I hate not knowing anyone at these things. But there's always at least a couple of people I know, so things are usually easier." He paused. "So you're visiting from out of town?" Xander nodded. There was something about this guy that made him feel a little less uneasy about being there despite the fact that he didn't know anyone. "If you get a chance, don't miss Archie McPhee's. They have things no one really needs like boxing nuns and Elvis impersonator playing cards."

They continued chatting about nothing in particular for several minutes -- music, movies, the problems Frank was sure to have with the house he had just bought. The more they talked, the more Xander felt welcome in the crowd of strangers. Then they were approached by a short, slight man. "Honey, are you ready to go?"

Frank stood, kissing the newcomer. "Yeah. I've got a meeting at 7:30 tomorrow morning." He turned back to Xander. "Oh, by the way, this is Mike. Mike, this is Xander. He's here with a friend of his from school. It was nice to meet you."

"Here with a friend from school? Oh, you must be Molly's nephew's friend! Can you tell them goodbye for us? I tried to track her down, but I can't find her." Xander nodded. "If you're in town for our housewarming, please stop by. Molly will have the details once we get a date decided."

He watched Frank and Mike leave, arm in arm. He would have never suspected that Frank was gay if he hadn't seen him kiss his boyfriend. The realization hit him. He had just had a lengthy conversation about nothing in particular with a gay man. A gay man who displayed none of the stereotypical signs of homosexuality.

And now that he was forcing himself to think about it, he had to admit that was one of his big fears. That he would be marked with the words "GAY MAN" stamped across his forehead for all to see for eternity, even if the only other male he would ever touch romantically was Oz and even if all of the touching they were to do was in the past. And that there would be a ready-made space for him to fill in all aspects of his life based on that one thing. But as he took in the scenes unfolding around him, he realized just how wrong that was. At the grill was a man who was almost flamboyantly effeminate, the stereotypical picture of a gay man -- right next to a woman who was very clearly his wife. Two average-looking men -- guys that Xander would have expected to see at Hooters, leering at waitresses -- were sitting wrapped in each others' arms, talking to a man and woman who were both flirting with men and women alike.

"So are you bored out of your mind yet?" Oz sat down on the step next to him.

"Nah. I'm people-watching. Oh, do the names Mike and Frank mean anything to you?" Oz nodded. "They said to tell you and Moll goodbye and that they were going to have a housewarming soon."

"Really? They bought a house? Cool. I know Mike has been talking about that for a while. I'm glad they were finally able to do it."

"So how long have they, um..."

"Been together?" Xander nodded. Oz shrugged. "A few years before I met them. So at least, oh, seven years. They're going to get married some day. They even have the rings. I think the big holdup at this point is that Frank hasn't told his family that he's gay, and Mike doesn't like that fact. He doesn't want to have to hide."

"Oh." He contemplated the information. "But, wait. If Mike doesn't want to hide, why are they still together?"

"He loves Frank. He's in it for the long haul. He just wants to have both families there when they stand in front of their friends and pledge to stay together forever. So he's willing to wait until Frank's ready. No pressure to do something that he feels uncomfortable doing." He stretched. "And part of it may be that Frank is close to his family. At least, he doesn't hate them. Mike can't stand his father or most of the rest of his family. So Mike has no problem doing something that upsets them, but Frank has a much harder time not living up to his family's expectations. And Mike wants to fit into that togetherness, so he doesn't push things."

Without thinking, Xander picked up Oz's hand again. Then he dropped it. "Xander? Are you okay?"

Now he draped his arm over Oz's shoulders, pulling the small body to his own larger frame. Oz leaned his head on Xander's shoulder, and Xander rested his head on Oz's. "Yeah. Just thinking some things through."