Walk With Me Excerpt

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Seth Cohen

Twenty-seven. That’s how old I was when we met. Well, it was how old I was when meeting meant something. No. It was how old I was when meeting meant something to me. Never mind. That’ll all become clear.

The point is that at that time in my life, I thought I was straight. Typically, when you say you thought you were straight until [insert-anything], the first question is, “How old were you when [insert-anything] happened?” with a chaser of “How could you not know you were gay before that?” It’s a fair question, because I think most gay people do know before they hit their late twenties. But for me, Eli Block was the first guy to ever hold my attention. Not the first to grab it, mind you, just the first to capture it and hold on. That said, women hadn’t ever held my attention for all that long either.

I had hormones just like everyone else, and looking back on it, my head had been turned by some men along the way, but women had caught my eye, too, so I’d just assumed that was typical, that it didn’t mean anything. Well, that’s what I would have assumed if I had ever stopped to analyze it, which I hadn’t. Romantic entanglements weren’t high on my priority list, which is to say they weren’t on the list at all. My whole focus until that point had been on school and temple life.

I’d had girlfriends—one in high school, one in college, one during the two years I’d spent in Israel as part of my rabbinic training—and though every one of those relationships had lasted for multiple years, none of them had ever been serious. At least not if serious is defined as a feeling that stays front and center in your head and in your chest, even when the subject of that feeling isn’t staring you in the face.

So I was a serious guy who had never seriously fallen for anyone. And then Eli ran up.

He was holding a skateboard.

His hair was too long.

His jeans were too fitted.

His shirt was nonexistent.

He was my boss’s son.

He was way too young.

And he was a he.

So I ignored the obvious. Well, I tried to ignore it. As it turned out, ignoring anything having to do with Eli Block was impossible. At least for me. But it took me a long time to understand exactly what my feelings for him meant and how rare they were, how important.

“Rabbi Block, I want to thank you again for giving me this opportunity,” I said as I reached out my hand. “I’m really excited to join the congregation and train under you.”

He shook my hand and patted my shoulder before leading me into the living room. “We’re colleagues now, Seth. You can call me Avi. And between learning at your father’s knee and graduating first in your class from HUC, I doubt you’ll need all that much training.”

Following in my father’s and older brother Jed’s footsteps, I had attended Hebrew Union College and become a rabbi. Although they both lived in California, the community was small enough that Avi knew my father pretty well, and he’d met my brother several times too, even though Jed had only been in the rabbinate for five years.

“Don’t forget his youth work,” the rabbi’s wife said as she approached. “The folks at Camp Ahava were miserable when you got too busy with rabbinical school to work for them.”

I dipped my head and felt my cheeks warm. “Hi, Mrs. Block. It’s good to see you again.”

“You can call me Meredith, Seth.” She kissed my cheek and then wiped off what I presumed was a smidge of lipstick. “Sit down.” She tilted her head toward the sofa.

I lowered myself onto the cushion, and Meredith sat next to me while Avi settled into the armchair across from us.

“How’s your mother?” Meredith asked.

“She’s doing well. She wanted me to tell you hello.”

“I’ll call her later,” she said with a sharp dip of her chin. “I’ll let her know you look good and tell her we’ll make sure you get settled in well.”

The phone call wasn’t necessary. Not because I was a grown man and hadn’t lived with my parents since I was eighteen, but because I talked to my mother almost every day. One year during finals, I had been too busy to return her calls for close to a week. When I finally called, she answered the phone with a pointed, “I’m dead.” I never went that long without making contact again. It wasn’t worth the guilt trip.

“Thanks, Mrs. Bl—” She arched one eyebrow, and I changed course midword. “Meredith.”

She patted my shoulder. “What do you have on deck for Seth’s first day?” she asked her husband.

“We’ll chat a little right now and then tomorrow we’ll—”

“Mom!”

Meredith stood and Avi turned toward the door.

“Mom!”

“In here, Eli,” Meredith said.

Loud, fast footsteps sounded along with, “What’s for dinner? I’m starv—”

The words stopped the instant Eli Block turned the corner. He came to a skidding halt. Literally. His shoes actually made a skidding sound on the wood floor. He was holding a skateboard in his right hand, and he slammed his left one against the wall, presumably to support himself.

His hair hung in his face, and I noticed it was brown, like mine. But where my hair was curly, his was straight. When he moved his left hand up to his forehead and pushed back the curtain of hair, I noticed another difference: his eyes were green, not like my boring brown, and they were huge. My breath caught for a moment, and I had to remind myself to breathe.

“Seth,” he panted, his voice surprisingly deep for a person who looked so very young. It wasn’t his height—he was maybe a couple of inches shorter than my own five foot ten—but he was trim with a hairless chest (which I could see because he wasn’t wearing a shirt) and skinny legs (which I could tell because his jeans were unreasonably tight), but most of all, it was his face: those big eyes, the rosy cheeks, the perfectly smooth ivory skin.

Beautiful. That was the thought that slammed into my head. It was so sudden and strong I couldn’t stop it from taking root. So I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat and darted my gaze around, wondering if Avi and Meredith could sense my inappropriately lustful thoughts about their son.

“Eli,” Meredith said, holding her arm out toward him. “You remember Seth Cohen from Camp Ahava, don’t you?”

Eli’s gaze was glued on me. Without looking up at his mother, he said, “Remember him?” He let go of his board, and it clunked on the ground. “I still dream about him.”

My jaw dropped and I felt all the blood drain from my face. I jerked my head toward Avi, expecting to see anger or shock but instead he had his PalmPilot out and he was tapping at the keys.

“Eli,” Meredith sighed. “Please don’t embarrass Seth. He just got here.”

“I’m not embarrassing him,” Eli said as he marched over to me. “Embarrassing would be talking about what kinds of dreams they are.”

I suddenly felt like I was choking on nothing. An odd sound left my body, and then I gasped for air.

“Eli!” Meredith snapped in warning. It was impressive, actually, how she could say his name and make it sound like so many different things.

“What, Mom?” He looked back over his shoulder at her but didn’t deviate from his path toward me. “I didn’t say they were dirty dreams.” He turned his head back around and locked his gaze with mine. “But they were.”

I started coughing. I mean, hack-up-a-lung coughing. My brain was swimming, trying to process everything going on, and I bent over, trying to catch my breath.

“I don’t… We didn’t…” I couldn’t get enough oxygen in my brain to complete a thought or say the words. I had a vague recollection of Eli Block as a kid in the summer camp where I used to work. But I hadn’t been there in five years and I didn’t recall any meaningful interactions with him, let alone any that could have led to dreams.

“Eli!” Avi snapped, finally looking up from his PalmPilot. “You can’t upset Seth this way. He’s here to work, not to deal with your childhood crush. You’re eighteen now. Start acting like an adult.” He looked at me. “Ignore him, Seth. He’s an only child, so we indulged him too much and now…” He shook his head and sighed. Then he bent his forearms over his knees and focused his attention on me. “Tomorrow we have a wedding where two members of the congregation are getting married. I’ll officiate and you can watch and meet some of the members. The bride is…”

It was impossible to concentrate on Avi’s words. For starters, I was confused about Eli’s shamelessly blunt comments and his parents’ nonchalant reaction. Also, he had finally reached me and seated himself right next to me on the couch. And by that I mean I was scooted all the way in the corner, wedged between the arm and him. He had one leg tucked underneath his backside with his thigh pressed to mine, and he was twisted so he was looking right at me. He was so close I could smell him—a little sweaty, but not in a way I found offensive. I put my hands on my lap to hide exactly how not offensive it was.

“I have pictures of you,” Eli said quietly. When I didn’t answer, he elaborated. “I took a bunch every chance I got, but they never came out right.”

“Eli, come help me in the kitchen,” Meredith said.

He ignored her and somehow managed to get even closer to me. “You’re even hotter now than you were then,” he said wistfully and then sighed loudly.

I must have looked petrified, because Avi frowned, threw his arm out, pointing toward the kitchen, and said, “Go!”

“But—”

“Eli Solomon Block, so help me, if you scare Seth off after the congregation spent the past year courting him and getting him to come here, you will live to regret it. Do I make myself clear?”

Eli muttered something unintelligible.

“Now go help your mother in the kitchen or take a shower or bang your head against the wall, but whatever you do, get away from Seth. You’re making him uncomfortable.”

“I’ll see you at dinner,” Eli said in what seemed to be an attempt at a seductive tone. It didn’t come across as sexy, but it was cute and sweet and funny that he tried, which in a lot of ways was the ultimate seduction. He put his hand on my knee, squeezed it, ran it up my thigh, and then…

“Eli!” Avi bellowed.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Eli said in a rush as he jumped to his feet. He moved his hands to his jeans button, stared at me, and licked his lips as he started to unfasten them.

I looked at Avi in a panic.

“Have you lost your ever-loving mind?” he yelled at his son. “Aside from how ridiculous you look and how uncomfortable you’re making Seth, I am sitting right here!”

Eli glared at him, then gave me a saucy grin and a wink before sauntering away, wagging his hips exaggeratedly.

Avi shook his head and let out a long breath when Eli left the room. I was still numb with shock or fear or both, so I couldn’t speak.

“I’m sorry about that, Seth,” Avi said. “You remember how it was at eighteen. Eli is all hormones right now, and along with decimating his common sense, it’s making his mother and me crazy. Apparently he took quite a shine to you at summer camp, which he has made sure to mention on an almost daily basis since I told him you’d be our new associate rabbi.”

“I didn’t… I don’t…” I took a deep breath and wiped my sweaty palms on my chinos. “I only vaguely remember him from back then.”

Avi shrugged. “Yes, well, you made an impression without knowing it. He was young and hormonal…” He shook his head. “I’m sensing a common theme here.” He rubbed his hands over his eyes. “Oh well, it could be worse. I suppose if my son is going to fixate on someone, I’d rather it be a man like you than some pierced, tattooed biker.” He paused and then looked at me appraisingly. “You don’t have any tattoos or piercings, do you?”

That was his concern? His son’s crush on a man didn’t bother him. His teenager’s shockingly overt sexual innuendos didn’t bother him. But tattoos or piercings got under his skin?

That last thought struck me as funny because those things do actually get under skin, so I laughed. Avi scrunched his eyebrows and looked at me suspiciously. I cleared my throat and wiped the smile from my face.

“No, sir. I don’t have any tattoos or piercings. And if I ever got on a motorcycle, my mother would surely appear out of thin air and make me regret the day I was born. After a twenty-two hour labor, with no drugs, during the summer, with the air conditioner at the hospital on the fritz and scratchy linens on the beds.”

Avi chuckled. “Good to know.”

“Does it—” I licked my lips. “Does it bother you?” I moved my eyes toward the direction where Eli had gone.

Avi squinted dangerously. “Does what bother me?” he asked. Before I could answer he added, “Every human being is made in the image of God and he makes no mistakes.” He paused. “Isn’t that right?”

I bobbed my head up and down. “Yes, of course. That’s not what I meant. It’s just Eli was really…he was really…”

Avi sighed. “Eli is eighteen. He thinks with the wrong head about ninety-nine percent of the time, but sexuality is part of any human being and I wouldn’t want my son to be without it. He’ll calm down in a few years.” He looked at me and gave me a chance to respond, but I had nothing to add. “Okay, let’s talk about tomorrow’s wedding before Eli comes back wearing nothing but a towel and then accidentally drops it.”

I hoped he didn’t notice me swallowing my tongue.

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