Melissa heard a car coming up the drive. She hopped up from the bench near Erik’s front door, barely able to restrain her eagerness. Malcolm’s ancient Volkswagen rounded the bend and pulled into the forecourt. She ran around the car as he got out, pouncing on him, pinning him in a hug.
“Hey,” he complained, “it’s only been a week or so since I saw you in the city.”
“Well, I missed you.”
He smiled warmly, hugging her back. “I missed you too.” Looking around, he asked, “So how big is this place? It was, like, a five-minute drive up the entry road.”
“Well, it is fucking huge, but really, it’s only a couple of minutes from the road to here.”
“Sure, sugarbums, maybe in your new gee wiz roadster, it’s a couple of minutes, but for us mere mortals…”
“Like there’s ever been anything ‘mere’ about you.”
He laughed, “Too true.”
“So, do you want to come in?”
“Ha! I gotta see this Bat Cave you told me about first.”
She grinned, “Okay, but let me tell Erik you’re here.”
Malcolm mimed a cringe, “The brooding laird of the manor, himself?”
In wide-eyed mock fearfulness, Melissa replied, “Ay, the very one. Perhap he will whip us both, for his amusement.”
She turned, laughing, and hurried toward the front door, as Malcolm called out behind her, “That’s your kink, but he better be as cute as you said he was. Otherwise, it was a long drive out here for nothing.”
As Melissa was reaching for the screen door, Erik opened it to step out. He gave her a quick kiss, then called out to Malcolm, “Welcome.”
“Hey there,” Malcolm answered back, only slightly chagrinned that Erik must have heard him. Turning to Melissa, Malcolm added, “So, okay, yeah, the drive was worth it.”
Melissa snorted, then told Erik, “Malcolm said he’d like to see the garage before coming in. That okay?”
“Sure, let’s show him around.”
Melissa gave Erik a quick kiss back and hurried across the forecourt, leaving Erik and Malcolm to shrug at each other and follow her enthusiastic lead. She was barefoot and wearing jeans, with a supportive sheer camisole and an unbuttoned cotton camp shirt. She had carefully tucked the shirt tight enough into her jeans to cover her nipples, at least as long as she didn’t lean over. Getting dressed, she had wanted to look like a normal grad student, while also staying within Erik’s requirements. “After all,” she told herself, in defense of being barefoot, “he never told me I had to wear high heels all the time, even if they’re the only goddamn shoes in my closet.” In her bare feet, she was only slightly taller than Malcolm, which made her feel better than towering over him in a pair of six-inch heels.
As Malcolm and Erik walked up to join her, she flipped open a fake stone hiding a keypad and punched in her code. The rustic-looking wood retaining wall to her left split open, swinging inwards to reveal the dark maw of the underground garage. Inside, overhead lights flickered on, revealing nearly a dozen cars.
Malcolm grinned wide, “This is so whacked!” Then he walked in, looking all around in wonder. “Cool,” he said, pointing to the beat-up jeep parked next to the Aston Martin that Melissa drove. “You’ve got an old Defender.”
“Yep, it’s the ninety-inch wheelbase model, 1985.”
“I can’t believe Land Rover stopped making those.”
“It’s a pity,” Erik agreed.
Melissa walked over to stand possessively near the Aston Martin. Malcolm noticed her and waved a hand dismissively, “Yeah, yeah, James Bond fan-girl.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. He laughed, then said more appreciatively, “I’m so jealous you get to drive a V-12, and it’s such a gorgeous car. I gotta admit, I’d ask to take it out for a spin, cept around here I’d get pulled over for DWB.”
Erik looked at him, not understanding the acronym. Melissa rolled her eyes at Malcolm’s joke as he explained, “Driving While Black. DWB.”
Erik smiled, then nodded, “Yep, this is a pretty white bread burb, but Melissa told me you grew up in the burbs too.”
Malcolm laughed, “Maybe, but sure as hell not like these burbs.” He walked slowly down the line of cars, pausing in front of an older-looking sports coupe. “I feel like I ought to recognize it.”
Erik said, “It’s a Jensen SP FF, a lot like their Interceptor, but it’s all-wheel drive.”
“Oh my God, you gotta be shitting me. Aren’t these things, like, really rare?”
Erik laughed, “Well, the insurance company only lets me drive it a few times a year. On the other hand, it’s in original condition – by that I mean it’s sort of beat-up – plus there’s not a big collector demand for these oddball British sports coupes, so the car isn’t all that outrageously priced, even though there’s only about a half dozen left.”
Malcolm walked slowly around the car, carefully inspecting it. He said, “This is so cool.”
Melissa watched with bemused frustration. “So, how come I never knew you were a car nut?”
“Come on, like it’s even remotely cool for a gay guy to be this into cars? I offered to change the oil and brake pads on a boyfriend’s car one time, and he never let me live it down.”
“Wow, I didn’t know.”
“Well, I guess it’s not really that bad from most guys, but that particular old boyfriend was a total dick – an enormous, glorious, ‘fill your ass full’ dick, but still… a dick.”
Melissa shook her head in exasperation. Erik watched the interplay, fascinated by his first chance to see Melissa with her best friend.
Pulling himself reluctantly away from the cars, Malcolm looked around the garage. After a moment, he got a puzzled look on his face, then said to Erik, “So, what you’re missing is a big-assed turntable, you know, so you can spin the cars around to get them in and out easier.”
Melissa saw a sheepish look creep across Erik’s face. She laughed, “Alright, fess up. I know that look.”
“Ah, well, I had a rotary pit and the electrical wiring put in when we were pouring the concrete for the floor, but then, well, actually putting in a rotary table seemed like overkill.”
Malcolm said incredulously, “Overkill? You’ve got a goddamned Bat Cave. I mean, own it! After all, what’s an evil villain’s lair without all of the cool toys?”
Erik chuckled, “That’s a point. Maybe I should finish it off.”
Melissa buried her face in her hands, “Letting you two get together was such a bad idea.”
Malcolm innocently protested, “Hey, I haven’t even flirted with him, let alone offered to suck him off.”
Melissa’s eyes shot daggers at Malcolm as she said sternly, “You promised!”
Erik asked, “What? I mean, if Malcolm’s interested in a three…”
“No!” Melissa shouted. “He’s… he’s like one of my brothers. That’s just… disgusting.”
Malcolm replied, “Well, if you don’t want to be part of it, then your gorgeous man hunk and I could sneak off for a quickie.”
Melissa raised her hand in a fist, taking a step toward Malcolm. Erik reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. Turning to Malcolm, he said, “You do know that she has an Irish temper, right? Plus, she’s spent the last few weeks learning how to kill a man in ten seconds, from a Green Beret.”
“Three seconds,” Melissa corrected Erik.
Malcolm put up his hands, signaling defeat.
Melissa wagged a warning finger at Malcolm.
He promised, “Okay, okay, I’ll be on my best behavior.”
“Yeah,” she grumbled, “like that means anything.”
They wandered around the garage awhile longer, Erik showing Malcolm his tool cabinets and work benches. Melissa stood back, watching them, fascinated to see a subtle rivalry playing back and forth. Malcolm was being more outrageous and provocative than usual. Erik was being deliberately casual, but in a way that was slightly condescending. Melissa was puzzled. It reminded her of high school days. Then it suddenly hit her that both men felt they had a claim on her affections. They were acting out an ages-old chest-beating ritual.
She was musing over what she could do to defuse their tension when the two men started walking over toward the double doors leading to Erik’s wood shop and display room. She hurried to catch up with them.
In the shop, Malcolm immediately walked over to the table that Erik was making. He knelt down, sighting along the table’s surfaces, as he lovingly brushed his hand across its top and edges.
“This is beautiful,” he told Erik, all trace of irony gone from his tone. “The university has a great shop, but I don’t have the time for this, and I can’t do this level of work anyway.”
“Having the right tools is a big cheat. But, in truth, I hardly have the time for it either. That table has been ‘almost finished’ for over a year. Having all the tools and toys is great, but I wind up working so hard to pay for everything… I rob myself of the time to enjoy what I have.”
“Shit man, you could retire right now.”
Erik laughed sadly. “Got a mortgage to pay. Plus, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I’m not good with boredom.”
“A little bit driven, huh?”
“Yep. Of course, I suppose you just ‘wandered’ into an Ivy League grad school, based purely on your good looks, right?”
“You noticed?” Malcolm primped for a moment, then answered more seriously, “Guilty as charged. Sure, I’m driven too,” he gestured at the shop and garage, “just haven’t been as successful.”
“My guess is you have different priorities. I never finished my Bachelor degree. You’re going for a Ph.D. Plus, I’ve got nearly a decade on you.”
Melissa said, “I didn’t know you never finished your degree.”
Erik smiled ruefully, “I’m embarrassed about it. I got involved in the whole turnaround thing as a summer job in college, then never went back to school.”
Melissa snorted, “Yeah, got to watch out for those summer jobs. Who knows what’ll happen?”
Erik reached out to take her hand, “If it brought you to me, it can’t be all bad.”
Malcolm turned his head away, “Eww… yucky, mushy stuff.”
Melissa returned Erik’s gaze as her heart suddenly beat much faster. Then Malcolm exploded, shouting, “Oh my God!”
Erik and Melissa both looked around quickly at Malcolm, who was pointing at the display cases in the front room. Malcolm demanded, “Are those for real?”
Erik laughed, relaxing from his sudden startle. “Absolutely.”
“Oh my God, I thought LucasFilm didn’t let any of that stuff out.”
“A couple of years ago, they did a charity auction through Christies. I couldn’t afford to bid on any of the really sought-after stuff, but I did manage to pick up a few things.”
As Erik was talking, Malcolm had started walking toward the front room, as though dazed. Erik turned to Melissa with a questioning expression. She shook her head slowly, whispering, “I had no idea.”
They followed Malcolm until he stopped in front of the display cases. He asked, “That’s Queen Amidala’s dress from the Senate scene, right? The one where she says, “So this is how democracy dies… with thunderous applause.”
Erik nodded, “Yes, but I think the line begins, ‘So this is how liberty dies.’ Of the pieces in my collection, that costume is my favorite.”
“That’s right. I remember the costumes better that the script.”
Melissa stood with them as they talked, staring at the purple velvet cloak in the glass cabinet, stunned that the two most important men in her life were both such Star Wars fans.
For nearly an hour, she waited patiently as the two of them went through Erik’s collection. At each cabinet, Erik would open the doors, handing small props out to Malcolm as they both obsessed over every detail. After awhile, Melissa wandered off to look at the cabinets on the other side of the room that displayed Erik’s boyhood memorabilia. Her frustration with their geeky excitement was tempered by her gratitude that any sense of rivalry between the men had vanished in their enthusiastic bonding over a common passion.
* * *
After the tour was finished and they had eaten a long-delayed lunch, Melissa walked Malcolm back to his car. He was uncharacteristically quiet. When they reached his car, he took her hands in his. “This guy, sweetcakes, you know he’s a keeper, right?” He had a worried expression.
“Just because you’re both Star Wars nerds?”
Instead of his typically humorous response, Malcolm shook his head. “No. Because he’s good people, and he’s good for you.”
She nodded, suddenly not trusting herself to speak without breaking into tears.
He added, “Um, look, I know when you’re in that mode of ‘Melissa is going out partying,’ you can be… insanely bold. And hey, that’s wonderful – even if the day after can be a little rough. The thing is, you are way, way past ‘the day after,’ and things are fucking awesome. What scares me now is your other bad habit. You, ah… you can get stuck in this place where you overthink things. I mean, it’s like you start making up reasons to get worried.”
She nodded in agreement, biting back tears.
“So please… don’t go there. This is a really good thing. You’re happy. He’s an awesome guy. Keep it simple. Right? Cause you deserve this.” His voice began to crack, “You’re my best friend, and you deserve it so goddamn much, it hurts.”
She hugged him tightly, tears streaming down her face, despite her best efforts.