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|“I thought virtual reality was over,” Nick said, taking a bite of his grilled chicken sandwich, causing a distracting bunching of his delicious upper arm muscles inside his thin rugby shirt. He sounded bored, but Ari shook his head enthusiastically.
“No. The fad is over,” he said, brushing back a strand of his very long, slightly wavy auburn hair. His biceps bounced inside his dress shirt, too—fair, Teutonic Ari and dark, Mediterranean Nick had been competing at the gym since they’d first been assigned each other roommates at Stanford two years before, and even though Nick had had a head start from high school Ari had blossomed as though putting on muscle was as easy as eating or breathing. He’d had to donate two collections of his beloved broadcloth button-downs, and the latest round was starting to look tight across the chest, too, tugging a little at the buttons under Ari’s tie when he took a deep breath.
I sighed, watching them. Nick and Ari seemed to know I kind of lusted after both of them, and I think they were amused and flattered, but they hadn’t made themselves any more available. I was just they guy who took their dinner order at Riverview Diner every day for the past three years. Had they wondered why I stayed here for so long, taking five late shifts a week in addition to my full-time course load? (Granted I was taking journalism, so it wasn’t anything like their loads, but still.) Had they even noticed that I’d started working out too, in emulation of my idols? I wasn’t sure, even though I’d been wearing the tightest shirts I could get away with at work. I had spent more time than I cared to remember imagining being either of them just so I could look at the other one all the time—they were inseparable, of course—and I’d imagined so many other things.
I was hovering in my usual spot, the wait station behind the booth they always sat in, out of their line of sight because of the fake palm fronds. It was close to 1 a.m., and I knew with a little resignation I’d have to write their check soon—they were nearly done, but Nick was dawdling over his food. They always came in around midnight, a slow time for the diner, and so I’d fallen into this habit of sort of idly hanging out and listening to them, catching the occasional glance of Nick’s bright green eyes or the back of Ari’s broad, bulging shoulders, partly hidden by his thick mane that fell half-way down his back. After they left I would tell myself I was being an idiot, but the more I told myself to get a grip the more I ended up doing so literally in the empty storeroom in the back after they’d headed back to campus.
“Now that it’s not sci-fi movie of the week stuff, they’ve been able to really get on with making it work,” Ari was saying. I knew he was a double major in physics and comp sci, so this was right up his street. Nick was nodding as he ate, but he was a biology major. He just wasn’t excited.
“The team they’ve put me on is perfecting the consciousness upload,” he went on. “The problem with VR was always coordinating your body and the VR experience. This takes the body out of the equation.”
“Wait,” Nick said, setting down his sandwich. “Are you telling me that you can upload a mind?” he asked incredulously. “That’s gotta be impossible.”
“Why?” Ari said, toying with him.
“Well, for one thing, you’d need a computer so powerful that—”
“—It would take the entirety of the $500 million anonymous donation we received two years ago,” finished Ari.
“And once you’re inside?” Nick said, still half-skeptically.
“You can be anyone, do anything,” Ari said. “Anything within the reach of programming.”
“Wow,” I whispered. Did I see Nick glance at me just for a second through the palm fronds—a flash of green, the flash of his smile? Quickly I turned away and busied myself getting their check ready, still listening as Ari went on, “Come on over to the lab on Saturday night, and I’ll give you a demonstration.”
“When?” said Nick, finally swallowing the last of his sandwich.
“Um, let’s do it at midnight,” Ari said. “That way it’ll be just us. I’ll meet you at the back door to Havemeyer Hall.” I heard the scratching of Ari writing something down, and I assumed it was a reminder note for Nick.
“O.K., but you better not be blowing smoke up my ass,” Nick was saying as I brought the check around.
“Anything else, guys?” I said breezily.
“Just you,” Nick said wickedly. Lately they’d taken to teasing me. I didn’t mind, except that it boned me up more, and because (as I knew) their primary purpose was to help alleviate sexual tension my workouts had been getting longer and more furious. I felt a big upper body workout coming on tonight, as soon as I finished my lower body workout in the storeroom.
I grinned at them, but said, “Sorry guys, I’m not on the menu,” and set down their check. I collected up their dishes and bused them back to the kitchen, and when I came back to the counter they were already by the door, shouldering into the coats from the coat rack, and there was a stack of bills by on the table under the check. They always tipped well, especially for college guys. I glanced over at them, waiting to watch them leave. Nick always wore jeans and Ari wore slacks, and I’d gone back and forth over which fashion showed off their beautiful muscle butts better. Nick was whispering in Ari’s ear. Ari looked surprised, but then he grinned, and suddenly they were kissing, a real, heart-pounding lip-lock, and I came in my jeans without even noticing. They pulled apart slightly and then, looked straight at me with big grins, completely stopping my heart by the way, and then turned and sauntered out.
I had never even known for sure whether they were dating or even dug each other, though they hugged and touched each other constantly with easy familiarity, but now I thought I knew. Actually I was wrong. I found out much later that they really hadn’t been lovers at all, but they were enjoying teasing me so much—especially Nick—that they staged the kiss just for my benefit. That kiss must have been as amazing for them as it was for me two watch, though because (as I also found out later) it was followed by many more, once they’d gotten back to their apartment, and by other things as well. They’d held back from getting involved with each other for so long, each afraid of ruining the friendship, that they hadn’t realized they were already in love, and they made love as naturally as if it was something they had been meant for.
Meanwhile they were gone and I sudden realized the warm, wet predicament in my jeans. Quickly I laced on a server’s apron, which I usually didn’t bother with, before Amy, the cook, came out front and noticed the big dark spot on my crotch. That taken care of for the moment I went to the booth to collect the check and the money. As I was sorting through the bills walking over to the register I noticed a folded paper slipped in among them. It said “Mikey” on the outside—the name on my badge, which was a joke by the manager, who had a slightly sadistic sense of humor. I’d never been called Mikey in my life, in fact I had always hated it, but in that moment I accepted it into my heart and, just for that moment, that space between heartbeats, I never wanted to be called Mike or Michael or anything but Mikey ever again.
I unfolded the note, my fingers shaking a little. I realized it must have been what Ari had scribbled as I was coming around.
The handwriting was deep black, strong and masculine. It said, “You’re invited, too.”
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