FIRST BLUSH

Eli’s a math geek and still a virgin. He’s nervous but sure some day the right guy will come along. Greg is a physics professor who is instantly attracted to Eli and would like to show him the way. Can Greg be gentle enough to coax Eli into all the pleasures a great relationship has to offer?

PREVIEW

(Point of View: Eli)

The thirty-piece band was playing the first song I recognized since I got here: It Had To Be You. It was Memorial Day, and I was standing in the corner at a 400-guest wedding. It was definitely the most grandiose event I’d ever attended. I decided I didn’t like grandiose events. Which I guess makes sense because I’m more comfortable with my nose buried in a textbook than at a party. I would have stayed in my back yard reviewing math proofs and getting ready for next fall if I could have.

But an 18-year-old distant cousin of mine was getting married, and my father decreed that I had to come, so I here I was. I was wishing for a simple picnic and fireworks in the gorgeous holiday sunshine instead of getting lost in the throng of the well dressed.

A brunette in a fancy, low-cut red dress stepped in front of me. I recognized her immediately.

“Hi,” she said and smiled a mega-watt smile. “You’re obviously one of Joe and Marsha’s sons, but I’m not positive which one. “

“Eli,” I said.

At the same time she said, “Eli?”

I nodded.

“I thought so.”

It was easy to see how she could be unsure. I had three younger brothers, and we were all very close in age. We all had the same fair coloring with flaming red hair and a smattering of freckles.

“I’m Dawn,” she said, touching her chest.

“I know,” I said. “You look exactly the same.”

I hadn’t seen her in about nine years. She was ten years older than me, which would make her 32.

“You don’t. Look at you, all grown up. The last time I saw you, you were like a shy colt. Those amazing, piercing baby blues are exactly the same though.”

I felt a slight blush run to the top of my cheeks at the compliment.

“Thanks,” I said.

She came and stood beside me, so we were shoulder to shoulder.

“Happy Memorial Day,” she said with a good dose of sarcasm as she looked out at the crowd.

I tried not to roll my eyes.

“You know what would make this shindig even better?” she asked.

“What?”

“Three hundred and twenty-five less people.”

I smiled. I’d always liked her.

“I heard you graduated from college.”

She lived on the East Coast; I lived on the West Coast. But her mom and my mom kept up with each other. Still, it surprised me she knew.

“Yeah, last year.”

“And you majored in math, something specific, ah, data analytics or something.”

The way she said data analytics I could tell she had no idea what that meant.

“Yup.”

She was an artist. I tried to remember what she did for a minute. Scarfs? “You still making those batik scarfs?” Whatever the hell batik was.

“Yeah,” she said. She turned to me, and her face let up. “A chain of gift shops associated with international museums picked them up, so I’m really busy with orders.”

“That’s great.”

“Mmn-hmn.”

We were silent for a minute watching the people dance, drink, and cavort.

“Gay?” she asked.

WHAT?

“Excuse me?” Heat flooded my cheeks. My ears tingled the blood rushed there so fast. Damn. The top of my ears were probably beet red.

“I didn’t mean to step all in your business. If you don’t want to talk about it or anything, that’s okay.”

“Um, ah.”

“I was just curious, you know, if you had a boyfriend.”

I blushed harder. I gulped. “Kah.”

“Never mind.”

Jeez. No one had ever asked me that. But I didn’t want to be in the closet or anything.

“Um, yeah, I am. What, do you have super gaydar or something?”

“Pretty much. And it can run in families. Of course there are the other two.”

“What? Who?”

She looked at me like I was nuts. Her expression said, ‘How could you not know?’ But she didn’t answer me.

“Anyway,” I said. “Yes, I’m gay. No, I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“Well,” she said. “I don’t have a boyfriend right now either.”

The bride and groom danced by leading a long conga line. The bride had on a plastic tiara that read ‘bride’, the groom had on a hat that read ‘groom’. The bridesmaid had on a hat that said ‘Memorial’, and the best man had on a hat that said ‘Day’.

“Oh dear,” Dawn said.

When the conga line passed Dawn said, “I have someone who you have to meet.” She grabbed my bicep and pulled me across the dance floor. I thought perhaps she meant another cousin or something until we were almost to the big French doors. A shaft of light highlighted a very handsome man standing in profile to us.

I started to pull back as I tensed into full alert. My heart sped up. Dawn tightened her grip on my arm.

“Hey, Greg,” Dawn called.

He turned to face us and I thought, when novelists write ‘they saw each other across a crowded room and he felt an instant attraction’, this is what they’re talking about.

Then we were next to him. Dawn was speaking, and I had to work to concentrate.

“…Is a math genius specializing in data analytics. Greg is the Dean of Astrophysics.”

Still holding my arm, she put her other hand on Greg’s arm and pulled us both so we stood closer together.

“Oh, I see somebody I have to talk to. Bye.” She scurried off. I looked at her retreating back. What?

Greg stuck his hand out. “Greg Stricklane.”

I reached out to shake it, on automatic reaction. “Eli Karkowski.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I said.

“Data analytics,” he said.

I nodded.

“How do you apply it?”

That’s what people ask when they mean, ‘What the fuck would you use that for?’ or ‘Where could you possible use that?’ or ‘I have no idea what that is?’ I stifled an inner sigh.

Maybe he saw my expression because he said, “Noooo, I mean do you apply it?”

I launched into a huge speech about applications of mathematical neural networks in medicine, ecological planning, and population control. I stopped myself after about three sentences. A tiny blush started across the bridge of my nose. Oh God, how embarrassing.

“Sorry. That’s really boring unless you’re a total math geek.”

“I am a math geek. Physics is largely math.”

“Hmm,” I said. “Well, applying data analytics to astrophysics,” I said. “This is pretty new, we can take photos of stars and galaxies, run them through the new proofs and equations, make 3-D extrapolations, and use them for more complex mapping, rocket building, and things like to tell professors where they should be looking for new stars.”

Greg leaned forward until his lips were very close to my ear. “You know intelligence is a huge turn-on.”

I blushed from my hairline to my collar.

“Nice.” He chuckled. “So is a delicious blush.”

Holy shit. Dawn didn’t introduce me to Greg because he was a science geek. She introduced me to him because he was gay! I guess my gaydar didn’t work as well as hers.

“Ahhhh… well, I can send you some links if you’d like.”

“Yes. I like.”

Hard to miss that one.

“Um… ahh….” I blushed harder. Damn fair coloring.

“It’s getting stuffy in here,” Greg said. “Would you like to go outside and walk in the gardens?”

I put my finger under my collar. It was suddenly too tight. I pulled at the neck of my shirt more but it suddenly was closing in on my adam’s apple with a chokehold. I couldn’t speak. I nodded.

He walked out the glass doors, and I followed. The flowers were in riotous bloom, and the colors and sweet smells provided a welcome distraction from my nerves. Greg led me into a hedge maze, and the relative privacy both terrified and excited me.

A brief burst of fireworks exploded across the river. We stopped to admire the red, white, and blue spider-shape sparkles.

“It’s usually one of my favorite holidays,” Greg said.

“But not today?” I asked.

He stared at me intensely. “No. Today it is absolutely my favorite holiday.”

My face got hot, and I looked down and pushed dirt around with my toe.

“I could stand to walk around a little more,” I said.

We walked in a comfortable silence. I felt like I should say something, but I didn’t want to ruin how good it felt walking beside him. I kept taking surreptitious glances at him. My hopes soared so high. His dapper grey suit looked like it cost more than my car, and I wondered if it would feel silky. I longed to touch it. My fingers clenched and unclenched slightly.

It was weird how comfortable I felt around him, because I’m usually not only shy, but a little cautious around new people. Instead I felt sort of the way I would with someone I’ve known for a long time and was really comfortable with, if you added a dose of hoooo-boy excitement into the comfort mix.

Like riding in the world’s most luxurious airplane. And standing in an open doorway with a parachute.

“So, my friend,” he said with a smile and a great deal of humor in his voice. “Would you like to come see my collection of etchings?”

Even I recognized that for the over-the-top pick-up line it was meant to be, and we both burst out laughing. Then I held my breath. I waited for my brain to catch up and be able to form an appropriately witty answer.

I thought, ‘Oh no, please don’t blush again.’ But I did. I couldn’t find any words to say how much I wanted him.

He brushed a finger against the back of my hand ever so lightly. “Too soon?”

I shook my head. Then I nodded my head. Then I nodded my head more vigorously.

I wiped my palms on my pants. “Actually,” I said when I could find my voice, “Art appreciation is a turn-on.”

He smiled at me. God, he had a great smile.

“Come on, my car’s this way.”

I followed him out to a big side parking lot and was almost to his car when I blinked myself out of stupor. “Wait a sec, I have to go back inside and tell my family I’m leaving.”

“Okay. I’ll wait here.”

I ran in, found one of my brothers, and in the vaguest terms possible told him I had a ride, and he should tell Dad. I ran back out to Greg. I was almost panting when I got back out. That got another superstar smile from him.

Jeez Eli, eager much?

“Ready?” he asked.

Oh yeah. Like for about five years.

He held the door open for me. I couldn’t decide if that was weird or the kindest, most romantic gesture I’d ever seen. I opted for the latter and gave him a tentative smile.

I didn’t know what kind of car it was, but I sank into the luxury of the seats and stared at the dials, which reminded me of the console of a plane or a space ship—although I’d never seen one.

Greg rocketed us down the wide tree-lined road with a finesse that was a 180 from how I drove. He handled the curves like a pro, and I wondered if his proficiency extended to other things.

That thought made me think where we were going literally and figuratively. I could hardly just blurt out that I was a virgin, never even been kissed. Wasn’t it supposed to be painful the first time? That’s only for girls, right? What if I was no good at it? What if this was my one chance to experience what it was like with a guy, and I messed it up?

My heart pulsed a pulverizing fast rhythm as it galloped away from me trying to burst out of my chest. I clenched my jaw, then my fists, then my eyes, then the rest of my face. I probably looked like I was sucking on a sour lemon. All of my skin flushed hot, surely turning me a hue slightly darker than tomato red.

I told myself to breathe, but I couldn’t.

I heard the car screech as it swerved. Greg cut across three lines and abruptly pulled over.

“What, what?” he asked.

I couldn’t open my eyes. I couldn’t face him. The space in the car closed in around me. I turned an even darker shade. I’d bite off my arm before I’d tell him I was a virgin.

“Eli, what’s going on?”

Um. Heart palpitations, sweaty palms, trouble breathing.

“Eli, answer me, what’s going on?”

I couldn’t speak.

Greg grabbed my chin firmly and turned my face to him.

“Eli, open your eyes.”

I did and I could feel them frantically darting around the car. Like my eyes were wild horses desperately trying to escape.

“Eli, look at me.”

I shook my head ever so slightly.

“Eli.” His voice was firm. Calm. I looked at him. “I want to know, right now, what you’re thinking and feeling that has you looking like you’re about to stroke out.”

I didn’t answer.

“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. We don’t have to go to my place. We can go to a fancy restaurant, or for a walk in the park, or to a bar. I can take you back to the wedding.”

The pressure around my heart released but the air also got colder. “I don’t want to go back to the wedding, or anywhere else,” I said. “I want to go to your place.”