Saturday, May 16
What if we do?
This question lives in my head whenever I think about him.
I feel like I’ve been lost for a long time, like a box with its shipping label torn off en route. But I think someone’s finally found me.
He’s cut through the box’s heavy duct-tape seal and cracked it open.
There’s light and air.
Good-morning texts and sleepovers.
And Spanish and kisses.
Right before I entered the train station Mario texted me a photo of him in the dentist’s chair. He’s wearing a white T-shirt with denim overalls, one strap hanging loose, like the Puerto Rican Super Mario reboot this world deserves. His olive skin is smooth because he apparently doesn’t grow any body hair, which bums him out sometimes because he thinks he would look great with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s beard. His dark hair is curly, and that bright office light is really catching the glow in his hazel eyes. His tongue is hanging out from the corner of his lips, and even when he’s being silly, it makes me want to kiss him, like that first time when we were working together on our creative writing homework.
And the fifty other times since then.
I self-consciously swipe through to the photo I sent him in response. I usually take a dozen selfies before I feel one is Mario-worthy since he’s clearly out of my league, but I had to be quick when my train was pulling up. I angled the phone above me, making sure the T-shirt he made me was visible. For his high school graduation, Mario’s parents gave him a T-shirt printer because he wanted to add some flavor to his clothes. Last week he surprised me with The Wicked Wizard War shirts that have the same lettering from the cover Samantha created for me to use on Wattpad. The T-shirt was such a thoughtful gift. It even has me judging myself and my photos a lot less than I normally would.
Mario and I met at the beginning of freshman year in our creative writing class, and at first, I was sure he’d turn out to be a Very Serious Fiction Writer or an amazing slam poet. Neither. Mario is a screenwriter who’s been writing scripts since he was eleven years old, often getting in trouble in middle school for formatting his homework assignments like a TV episode.
He was the first person after my ex, Arthur, I zeroed in on. I would notice when he wouldn’t come to class, I’d admire how he pulls off overalls, and I really liked the turtlenecks he wore during winter. And he was confident about his work in a way that I couldn’t wrap my head around—always proud but also never cocky.
At the time, there were still too many what-ifs in my head about Arthur for me to even try to get close to him.
Now the what-ifs are about Mario.
What if we become official boyfriends instead of just friends who kiss and hang out?
I’m headed to Central Park to catch up with my best friend Dylan and his girlfriend Samantha. It’s my first time seeing them in person since the holidays, since they didn’t come home from school for spring break. We were supposed to have a games night yesterday, but Dylan claims he was feeling extremely jet-lagged, even though there’s only a one-hour difference between Chicago and New York. I let it go, because Dylan has always been dramatic that way.
I spend the rest of the train ride jotting down ideas in my pocket-sized notebook for an upcoming chapter of my fantasy novel, The Wicked Wizard War. I finished drafting the book ages ago, but it became clear that my story was all over the place. Too many exciting moments were being reserved for sequels that may never happen, and all the characters inspired by my friends and ex-boyfriends needed to be more fully developed and accessible to people outside my circle.
My forever mood: Writing is hard.
Mario once asked me if there’s anything I’ve ever wanted to do besides writing. Writing is the only thing I’m good at. Even if some other dream did call out to me, I don’t know what I would do without all the love my friends and strangers have shown my wicked wizards. Arthur used to talk about the characters like they were mutual friends. And Dylan loves the world so much he’s been fantasizing about a real-life drag bar where all the drag queens are dressed as different fantasy races like elves and trolls, which is a thing I’ve never remotely expressed interest in.
I love connecting with people over words.
And I’m really loving connecting with Mario over words in both English and Spanish.
He’s another white-passing Puerto Rican like me, but his parents actually raised him bilingual, unlike mine. He incorporated a lot of Spanish into his film script and said he hoped that no studio would force him to translate it for people; he wanted others to put in the work that his parents had to do themselves growing up. It really inspired me to do the damn work myself—and I practically screamed “Sí, por favor!” when he offered to be my personal teacher.
I’m pretty pumped to see him.
Today’s hangout with Dylan and Samantha is going to be a bit of a juggling act since Mario will also be joining us. He’s not my boyfriend, but he’s also more than a friend. Things get really tricky in that space. Like when I wake up thinking about him and want to say good morning just because, but that can sometimes feel too intimate. Or when I’m wondering what’s the best way to introduce him to my friends even though they know the gist of our relationship. Or even how words like “relationship” can feel too strong, sort of unearned when you compare them with actual relationships.
I don’t know. That’s a problem for One-Hour-in-the-Future Ben.
But I have to get Mario’s beautiful face out of my head, because I’m about to miss my train stop. I jump out of my seat and cross to the platform right as the doors are closing. I’ve got to make sure I’m not late. I’m putting those days behind me. In our creative writing class, Mrs. García would call this “character growth.”
I leave the station and walk down to the Central Park West entrance on Seventy-Second. It doesn’t take me long to spot Dylan and Samantha. They’re on a park bench, playing that game where you have to stare into each other’s eyes and slap the other person’s hands before they can retract them.
Samantha slaps Dylan’s hands. “Gotcha! Four-one. You suck.”
“Hey,” I say as I walk around the bench. “Can I get in on this?”
Dylan smiles. “There’s always room for you in our bed.”
“I didn’t say anything about your bed, I—”
Dylan shushes me as he stands and pulls me into a hug, patting the top of my head. “Missed you, buddy.”
“Missed you, too. Exhausted by you already.”
Dylan’s hair has grown to the point where he’s finally been able to master that man bun he’s been working on, which looks really great on him—and if you ask him, he’s the only person pulling it off. He’s rocking a new Kool Koffee shirt and blue jeans. “There’s a cute little café in the park. Get ready to drink all the espresso shots, my little coffee bean. Coffee Ben? Ben Bean?”
“I vote none of the above,” Samantha says. Her blue-green eyes wow me as much today as when I first met her behind that counter at Kool Koffee. Her dark hair is braided into a Pinterest-ready crown that I should include in my book. She’s wearing a navy shirt tucked into white shorts, and she’s got a silver key hanging from her neck. “Hi, Ben,” she says as she pulls me into a hug.
I’m relieved Dylan hasn’t converted her into someone who aggressively nicknames me.
“Welcome back, guys.”
Samantha’s eyes widen at my shirt. “Oh my Greek goddesses, I love it!”
Dylan grins when he notices. “Those wicked wizards are going to wizard so hard one day.”
There’ve been a lot of changes since Dylan read the book last summer, pre-college, but his support never really died down. Every now and again I’ll get a text from him asking what’s up with Duke Dill, the character I based on him. Dylan has been cheering me on to get a literary agent already, but I’ve become a bit of a perfectionist lately.
I don’t want to let anyone down.
This love is the kind of pressure that gets to me.
“I want a shirt too,” Samantha says, feeling my sleeve. “Did you make that?”
“Mario did,” I say.
“Super Mario!” Dylan says. “I hope he’s not tired of people calling him that because you know I have to do it.”
“He actually loves it.”
It’s the kind of thing I would find annoying after some time, but not Mario. The closest I’ve seen him to getting upset was when our classmate Spikey gave Mario some harsh critiques on his script, but Mario ultimately shrugged it off because Spikey was just out for blood after Mrs. García called his Civil War short story “historically impossible” and everyone laughed.
“So when is Super Mario popping out of a sewer pipe?” Dylan asks.
“Soonish. He’s coming from the dentist. You’re stuck with me until then.”
“Fantastic,” Samantha says as she loops her arm with mine and we begin our stroll through Central Park. “So things are going well with him?”
“I think so?” I feel a little stupid talking about Mario with Samantha and Dylan. There’s no confusion about their relationship. Whereas Mario and I are more like a question mark paired with an exclamation point—there’s uncertainty and excitement.
“We need to figure out your couple name,” Dylan says. “I think ‘Bario’ has a nice ring to it, though ‘Men’ is chef’s-kiss perfection. Because you’re both dudes and—”
“How was dinner?” I interrupt, turning to Samantha.
“Good save,” she says. “It was fun. Thanks for asking. I think we bounced back from Christmas.”
Samantha’s parents really love Dylan, but when the O’Malleys found out during the winter break that their daughter was sharing a room with him in Chicago, shit hit the fan.
“Dylan was on his best . . . well, better than usual behavior,” Samantha says. “I’m sorry again we had to cancel on the escape room.”
“Don’t worry about it. We have all summer.”
Dylan wraps his arms around my shoulders. “Big Ben, we know the escape room is your big ploy to get locked in a room with me for an hour. You don’t need excuses, okay?”
“Dude, your girlfriend is right here.”
“Oh, please, get him off me for an hour,” she says.
Dylan winks. “See, the missus is cool with it.”
I stop at a pretzel cart because all I’ve eaten this morning was a bite of a toasted bagel with jelly that Ma made for me on my way out of the apartment. In true Ben Alejo fashion, I dropped it on the subway tracks while taking that selfie for Mario, and a rat ran off with it; if I gave a single damn about TikTok I probably could’ve gone viral.
“Do you guys want one?” I ask.
“I filled up on fruit,” Samantha says. “Dylan had leftover duck for breakfast.”
“Shhh,” Dylan says. “There are ducks in the park.”
“Do you think the ducks are going to attack?”
“A good old fashioned quack attack, yes.”
Samantha shakes her head. “Why do I . . . why do I anything with you?”
“Because the D Machine is too irresistible.”
“Gross, man,” I say.
“Oh, that just stands for the Dylan Machine. I call my friend downstairs the—”
Samantha claps her hand over his mouth. A true hero of our times.
“D—uh, Dylan, do you want coffee?”
Dylan looks around. “From where?”
I gesture at the pretzel cart.
“Very cute, Ben. You know I’m not drinking that bastard coffee.” Dylan turns to the vendor. “I mean no offense to you, good sir, and great offense to the clowns who loaded your fine cart with that mess.”
The vendor stares at Dylan as if he’s speaking another language.
“You’re hyper enough anyway,” I say.
“We pregamed with a Dream & Bean double espresso.”
“Duck and coffee for breakfast. Figures.”
“Stop acting like this is day one of knowing me.”
It’s definitely not day one. We’ve been best friends since elementary school, though ever since Dylan left for college, the distance has had an impact on us.
“You better not have a caffeine crash before lunch with Patrick,” Samantha says.
“Patrick,” Dylan says and spits on the ground. “Get better best friends, babe. Do you see Ben going on and on and on and on and on and on about how he’s swimming with dolphins and hugging monkeys?”
“I’m not doing those things,” I say.
“Neither is Patrick,” Samantha says with a side-eye. “Patrick took a gap year to travel with his cousin.”
A gap year sounds great. Gap years sound even better.
“Join us for lunch, Ben. You’ll see how extra this guy is.”
“Are you really calling someone extra, D?”
“That should give you a sense of how extra-extra this guy is!”
“I can’t. I have work in a couple hours.”
“Tell your boss that royalty is in town.”
“You know I can’t.”
My boss is my father. Pa got promoted to manager at Duane Reade during the holiday season. He hired me in April to work the cash registers and help out with stocking the shelves. Beginning work right before finals only made classes harder, but I didn’t get a ton of sympathy from my parents, who worked full-time during college.
“You’ll meet Patrick some other time,” Samantha says. “He’s home for the next two months. Maybe we can all do an escape room together.”
“You’re not locking me in a room with Patrick for an hour,” Dylan says.
“Even more incentive for you to solve the puzzles sooner.” Samantha playfully elbows me. “We can totally invite Mario too.”
“Maybe.” My phone buzzes. “Speaking of Super Mario.” I read his text, saying that he’s walking over now. “He’s on the way. Should we camp out here so we’re easier to find?”
Dylan stares into the distance and points at the Belvedere Castle terrace. That spot always feels like it was plucked out of a fantasy novel and dropped into Central Park. “Tell your boy we’ll be there.”
“He’s not my boy.”
It’s funny, the last time Dylan and I were at Belvedere was shortly after I met Arthur at the post office. We hadn’t gotten each other’s names before a flash mob separated us, but I couldn’t stop thinking about him, so Samantha did some Nancy Drew-ing using some details from my conversation with Arthur to figure out the best way to find him. She discovered a meetup for Yale students happening at the Belvedere Castle, and since Arthur had mentioned wanting to go to school there, I gave it a shot. Dylan decided we needed pretentious codenames to attend the event, and he chose Digby Whitaker for himself, which I only still remember because I gave that name to a scholar in TWWW.
I came here looking for one boy two years ago, and now I’m asking another to find me here.
Without even looking, Dylan’s hand finds Samantha’s and they go upstairs together.
Holding hands is a simple act, I get it, but it’s really nice to see a couple two years in who still like each other—love each other. I’ve never personally experienced that. It gives me hope that someone will feel the same way about me.
We climb up the terrace and stop in our tracks. Normally it’s pretty chill up here, just people posing with the park in the background. But today there’s a wedding happening. It’s intimate, only a dozen casually dressed people and a band playing a soft instrumental version of “Marry You” by Bruno Mars. I’m about to drag Dylan and Samantha away so we don’t photobomb the event when the bride begins marching out.
I’m frozen in my tracks.
I think I know the bride . . .
Back when I met Arthur at the post office, that flash mob was actually a proposal for the teller who was helping me send my first ex, Hudson, a box of his things. It was too pricey, and this woman wasn’t sympathetic to me. But she’s glowing now with a black silk wrap around the shoulders of her simple white dress, smiling with a big lip ring.
First Belvedere Castle and now this woman. It’s like the universe is flashing Arthur Seuss’s name in Broadway neon lights.
I haven’t spoken to Arthur in months, but I have to tell him.
I record a quick video of the bride walking toward the groom on my phone. Dylan and Samantha snuggle together as they watch. I open my chat with Arthur—the last text I got from him was on my birthday, April 7. I didn’t respond because, well . . . yeah. I didn’t have it in me then because everything was going so well for him with his new boyfriend, and I wasn’t trying to pretend my birthday was a happy one. I should’ve said something, though, because now I feel weird saying anything.
It’s like we don’t know each other anymore.
I go on Instagram, where I’ve had his profile muted for my own sanity. It hurt too much to go online and find pictures of Happy Arthur and Happy Mikey being Happy Arthur-and-Mikey. I needed to create some space for myself; life was stressful enough with school and feeling cramped at home and lonely without Dylan or a boyfriend of my own.
Going to Arthur’s profile is like ripping off a Band-Aid.
His blue eyes are piercing as ever in his circular profile picture. The most recent pictures on his feed include one of a box in his dorm room, then a Stacey Abrams quote (“No matter where we end up, we’ve grown from where we began.”), a throwback of young Arthur with his mom, and Arthur and Mikey holding up a Playbill in their college’s theater—which sends blood rushing into my head. Then my chest tightens when I see a selfie of Arthur holding up the postcard of Central Park that I gave him when we said goodbye two summers ago; written on the back is a sexual scene between our The Wicked Wizard War characters, Ben-Jamin and King Arturo, for his eyes only.
Why is he taking a picture with that?
I read the post:
Arthur Seuss’s upcoming tour stop—New York City! May 17
He’s coming back.
He used a postcard from our past to announce his future.
There’s a lot of love in the comments from Mikey and his best friend Jessie and his former colleague Namrata. I’m the only asshole in New York who hasn’t shown any excitement. I feel weird liking it now. Though what if this is the best first step to reconnecting? Knowing our luck, we’re bound to bump into each other at some point. The only time New York kept us apart was when I was here and he wasn’t.
I like the post. And even though I’m standing still, my heart is racing like I’m running.
Before I can leave a comment, Dylan snatches my phone. “Love is happening, Ben!”
“We can’t even hear them—”
“Feel the love, Ben, feel the love.”
“I actually saw this proposal happen.”
“Really?” Samantha asks.
“The day I met Arthur. Remember that flash mob I told you about? It was all for these two.”
During the chaos of that moment, I left. My breakup with Hudson was really fresh and even though I had a fun debate about the universe with Arthur, I wasn’t expecting anything to come out of that. Not once did I think I was going to fall in love with the boy wearing a hot dog tie.
“That’s some luck stumbling into their wedding,” Samantha says.
More like the universe at work.
“They’re so young,” I say. “What are they, early twenties?”
“Engaged for two summers,” Samantha whispers, like she’s trying to hear the vows. “Must be real.”
“My parents got married young,” Dylan says. “That all worked out.”
“Your mother hates your father,” Samantha says.
“She hates that he chews with his mouth open, never replaces the toilet paper roll, lies about his taxes, and wakes her up in the middle of the night to talk about his dreams before he forgets them. But she doesn’t hate him.”
I know his parents—there’s a little hate going on there.
I can’t believe I’m witnessing the Post Office Woman’s wedding. When they exchange their first kiss as married people, we cheer for them like they’re old friends, even though she was really rude to me. I never thought this would be the first wedding I’d attend. Maybe I can use this in a story one day.
Then, suddenly everything goes dark as hands cover my eyes, and a familiar voice says, “Guess who, Ben Hugo Alejo.”
“Someone very super,” I say.
Mario removes his hands. “Don’t you forget it.”
I spin and take him in. This is one of those days where I’m kind of breathless at how effortlessly beautiful he is. He’s not just photogenic, he’s beautiful IRL too. His hazel eyes are so pretty, even if they didn’t instantly catch my attention like Arthur’s blue eyes. But the closer Mario and I have gotten the past month, the more they strike me. Some attractions take more time to grow and aren’t any less great because of it.
“The Mario to Ben’s Luigi,” Dylan says.
“The Duke Dill to Ben’s Ben-Jamin,” Mario says, going straight in for a hug like he and Dylan already know each other. We’ve talked about how our Puerto Rican parents have raised us to be very affectionate, even with strangers, something we’re trying to be more mindful about out of respect for other people’s personal boundaries. Though these two seem magnetized to each other. Mario turns to Samantha. “And you, world renowned book cover designer.”
Samantha smiles. “That’s me.”
Dylan stares. “Thank God you’re not blushing. But also, my love, how dare you? Look at this beautiful man. Blush for him! Don’t let this beauty go unblushed for.”
Mario turns to me. “He’s everything you described him to be.”
“I have a way with words.”
“Indeed you do.”
How can he make three words ignite me?
I want to be so close to him right now. The kind of close that’s not allowed in a public park. Now all I can think about is how I didn’t even get a kiss from Mario when he arrived. Or a hug. It’s this little reminder that we’re not boyfriends where that stuff feels a lot more automatic. I want to be with someone who can’t keep his lips off me or whose hand always finds mine as if they were never supposed to be apart. But with Mario I can’t always tell if he even wants to be kissing me and holding my hand. Sometimes he points out cute guys on the street like he’s encouraging me to go for it. Like it wouldn’t bother him. I would totally be uncomfortable if he flirted with someone else in front of me.
Then there are the times where the energy shifts between us. These moments where we can forget that we don’t need to be boyfriends to enjoy each other.
“What’s up with the wedding?” Mario asks. “Friends of yours?”
“A friend of Ben’s,” Dylan says.
“Long story,” I say.
“Tell me later?”
“Tell you later.”
“Estupendo.” Mario claps. “I brought presents. But none for the bride and groom.” He reaches into his backpack and pulls out two The Wicked Wizard War shirts.
Samantha’s jaw drops. “You’re the best!” She puts the shirt on over her own.
“I had to get you one so you don’t sue me.” Mario turns to Dylan. “And I didn’t want you to think I wasn’t thinking of you.” He winks, but it’s kind of awkward. It’s more like he has something in his eye. And somehow it charms me even more than a perfect wink.
Dylan puts on his shirt. “Oh my God, I’m blushing. Look!” His cheeks are red as he breaks into a laugh. “Mario, there’s something really incredible about someone who looks like you making clothes when you should be naked every day.”
“Now you’re trying to make me blush!” Mario says.
“Oh boy,” Samantha says. “I think we’ve lost them, Ben.”
Mario pulls out his phone. “I got to get a picture of you three in your shirts.”
“Only if you’re in it with us,” Dylan says.
“Yes!” Samantha says.
“You got it,” Mario says.
I wrap my arm around his side as Dylan and Samantha cuddle up with us. I really like holding him, and even after he takes the selfie, I hang onto Mario for a little bit longer. We all look at the picture together and the sunlight is working in everyone’s favor like the world’s most generous filter.
Everyone looks so happy, and I hope this is the first of many documented memories this summer. And maybe the more I share my world with him, the more he’ll want to be part of mine and let me into his.
This is every relationship. You start with nothing and maybe end with everything.