Art by Max Smothers
Izzy and Leo
Leo hates being nervous but he’s nervous today as he waits for Izzy's car to come down the street. A month ago, they were making out on Izzy’s dorm bed. Leo tried to take note of everything, the hard mattress, how the bed squeaked when Izzy pulled Leo on his lap, and how red Izzy's hair looked sweaty and sticking to his flushed freckled cheeks. Leo liked how when he kissed Izzy, he’d smile and laugh. That night, Izzy got up to use the toilet. Leo was nervous then, too. It had been a while since the last time he was with Izzy. He thinks it’s silly now, but Leo honestly was worried that maybe he had forgotten how to hook up, the mechanics of it. Maybe this is why Izzy calls him “Type C”.
When Izzy came out of the bathroom, Leo was sitting on his bed biting at his nails. He watched Izzy unbutton and unzip his jeans. It felt slow, as he slid them off, and for some reason, Leo looked away, which made Izzy laugh. This time when Izzy kissed Leo, he laid him on the bed. Izzy kissed his neck and down his stomach. Leo looked at the ceiling and tried not to focus on how much he was sweating as Izzy went down on him. Leo played with Izzy's hair, twirling the strands around in his fingers, trying not to pull too hard. It was soft and fluffy, stuck to parts of Izzy’s forehead.
And that’s when it happened. This is the part that Leo wishes he couldn’t remember, because that’s when he closed his eyes and muttered, “God, I love you.”
Every time Leo thinks about it, he imagines hiding in a hoodie and setting himself on fire. Why is he so stupid and…awkward? The last thing he ever thought was that Izzy would want to say hi to him on his birthday after that, but here he is standing outside of his mom’s house,
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waiting for Izzy's car to pull into his driveway. Underneath, his scarf Leo is blushing and hoping that Izzy won’t bring it up. Or maybe he won’t show.
There’s laughter from inside the house and warm yellow lights. The sun is setting and the streetlights are starting to flicker on, moths flying around the lights. Leo stands up to go back inside. It’s freezing and he’s spending his 21st birthday barely even drinking and sitting outside. He brushes the snow off his shoulder and puts his hands in his pockets. Admittedly, he’s stalling a little bit, and luckily (or unfortunately) he does, because Izzy’s used sky blue Honda turns onto Leo’s street.
It speeds down the road going over the limit for any suburban neighborhood in the midwest. Izzy parks in front of the blue house with sad, deflated party balloons tied to the mailbox. Leo walks slowly down the porch steps. Izzy stumbles out of the car but manages to catch his balance, waving at Leo with a big goofy smile. He’s wearing Leo’s hoodie, which Leo left at Izzy’s dorm last time he visited him. He tried to leave in a hurry and forgot it. But Izzy has it zipped over a Simpsons pajama shirt and matching sweatpants. Leo tries not to think about how embarrassed he feels as his heart beats faster and he sweats underneath his coat. He runs over to Izzy, almost slipping on ice, but as he falls, Leo throws his arms around Izzy and hugs him. He buries his head in Izzy’s shoulder, remembering his Vanilla Berry shampoo and orange cologne. Izzy smells like mint gum, too – peppermint sticks, and hot cocoa. “Hey,” Izzy mumbles into the top of Leo’s head
Leo laughs into Izzy’s neck, pulling him closer. “Hey.” He finally let's go and Izzy sighs, pretending like he’s really out of breath.
“Happy Birthday, nerd.”
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Izzy ruffles Leo’s hair. He’s standing with one hand in his pocket, smacking on minty gum as it snows a bit more. Izzy’s always late, but after their last visit, Leo wasn’t sure that he would show up. And right now, he can tell that Izzy probably isn’t going to stay. Which is fine, he guesses. He feels lucky that Izzy showed up at all. And Izzy looks good tonight, even with his ginger hair unbrushed. And his new glasses suit him. Leo is just happy he didn’t screw up so badly that Izzy would miss his birthday.
“Oh,” Izzy says, taking his hand out of his pocket and gesturing for Leo to wait, “I almost forgot.” He goes to the back of the car and opens the trunk, “I got you a present. Nothing big, don’t worry.”
It takes him a minute but when he comes back he has a box carefully wrapped in newspaper. Izzy nudges Leo with his shoulder, “Go on, dork, open it.” Leo shakily unwraps the newspaper. It’s a tiny metal box of colored pencils with an airplane drawn on the label. He tries not to frown and smiles slightly.
“I bought this in New York.”
“You mean the New York airport?” Leo bites his lip and wraps the pencils back into their newspaper. “I’m not a dumbass ‘cause I dropped out of school.” That’s why Leo is back here at home, partially.
“How is that all going? With Ashley?”
Ashley is Leo’s mom. Leo laughs handing Izzy back the pencils. “I think she put extra tequila in the margaritas tonight but doesn’t try to change the subject. Seriously, dude, you bought my gift at the airport?” He tries not to get mad, not wanting to get upset in front of Izzy.
Izzy doesn't say anything for a while. He just stands there shivering, a little bit underdressed for the weather, before he says, “I didn’t know what to get you, honestly.”
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“You’re lucky I think you’re cute, Issac.” Leo grins, but he won’t look him in the eyes, especially after calling him ‘Isaac’ instead of ‘Izzy’. He turns away and walks back towards the house, snow crunching underneath his sneakers.
Izzy stands up straighter and smiles awkwardly. He enjoyed teasing Leo, but he didn’t want to piss him off. When they first started hanging out, Leo and Izzy went to pick up a pizza order from a small family-owned restaurant down the block. Izzy was struggling to get his car keys out of his jeans and hold the pizza. Leo reached into his front pocket for him and pulled out the keys. Izzy remembers how he put the box of pizza down on the dirty city sidewalk and pinned Leo up against his car. He kissed him. And when he saw Leo’s shocked, blushing, and confused face, Izzy laughed and said “Relax, man. It was just a joke.”
Leo thinks about that night too. He stayed over at Izzy’s place, who dropped Leo off at his building in the morning. Izzy looked cute watching Leo walk back to his dorm. Izzy was wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt, his red hair fiery in the sunlight. Leo laughs at that and how mad Izzy looks right now. He walks back to him, holding Izzy’s hand, slowly backing him against the car.
As much as he thinks Izzy’s an ass sometimes, Leo likes making him mad too. “It’s hard to stay mad at you when you look so hot tonight, Angelito.” Leo puts his hand on Izzy’s cheek and then pulls away.
Izzy missed talking to Leo, his Chilean accent, and how when Leo speaks Spanish, his voice gets soft and sweet like when they ate popsicles on Izzy’s fire escape one summer. Leo is small. Izzy can only think of Leo as “cute”, but hearing Leo call him Angelito was sexy for some reason. He notices that Leo bleached the ends of his hair. Neither of them says anything. Izzy sighs and rests his head against the side of the car, snow falling against his face and melting on
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his cheeks. Leo shakes his head. It’s cold but not so cold that he’s dying to go back inside to his birthday party. Leo is relaxed with Izzy, even after his awkward slip-up. His shoulders aren’t tense. He’s smiling and he feels warm, maybe a bit hyper.
Last year, Izzy and Leo were walking by Lake Michigan. Leo was wearing corduroy jeans and an old paint-stained sweatshirt that he now keeps hidden in the back of his closet. And it was early. Izzy has always been a morning person, which Leo hates. What’s so good about coffee when the caffeine rush ends at noon? Why eat a donut as the sun rises when you can sit on the roof and eat a whole box of them as the sun sets? What’s the point of yoga if you can’t take a nap on the floor right afterward? Leo’s convinced morning sex is bullshit. But that day he wanted to be with Izzy on his morning walk. He needed to talk to him.
Because of his long legs, Izzy tended to walk a little bit ahead of Leo. Leo sped up to him. He wasn’t sure how he hadn’t tripped over his flip-flops. “Izzy I’m moving back home,” Leo said finally. After that, things were…weird. Leo would still visit Izzy at the University of Michigan. He’d stay for the weekend and then drive four hours back to Evanston. Sometimes they’d meet halfway and eat gas station pizza in a parking lot, but it’s been awkward. Even now, when Leo looks at Izzy he isn't sure what to say and they trip over long pauses.
Izzy thinks Leo might still be confused about his sexuality. He hasn’t even thought too much about Leo’s quiet “I love you.” He moans a lot, so maybe he didn’t say that. It could’ve been anything – an "oh my god" that sounded strange. Or did Leo mean he loved this or the way Izzy’s tongue felt? The more he wonders about it, the more stupid each excuse sounds. But standing next to Leo against his car in the cold Chicago wind, Izzy remembers the first time they hooked up, how Leo watched Izzy put on his boxers to get coffee.
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Leo didn’t think that Izzy had caught him staring, but he did. And Izzy was scared that Leo might run out of the room screaming. But Leo stayed. He said to Izzy, “I’ve never done that before. I mean...with a guy.” Leo paused, feeling a bit awkward, but then asked, “Was I, um, you know...good?”
“That’s what you’re worried about?”
“Sorry, is that weird?”
Izzy sat back down on the edge of the bed, “No, dude. It’s not weird. Why didn’t you say something last night, we could’ve talked about it before--” He made bed creaking noises and Leo blushed, slapping his shoulder. “Alright, alright, jeez. I’ll stop.”
“I don’t know. I like you. I also like girls. I’ve been with girls before, but I’ve thought about guys a bit. You were different, though. You looked so cute in that button-down shirt you wore to Stevie’s party, remember?”
“I looked like a dork.”
“No way, you looked hot.”
“Fine.” Izzy smiles and laughs to himself. “Well, was I good last night? You seemed to be enjoying yourself, but my roommates might be a bit pissed off.”
“Shut up. And yeah, you were great.”
“You were great too.”
Leo looks up at Izzy. He bits his lip and then lets it go, a few snowflakes falling in his hair. Did he screw up? Or is it all in their heads? A few more moments of silence pass by, just the sound of snow and distant cars. Leo tries not to shiver and look up at the sky as it begins to get darker and darker early in the afternoon. He looks over at Izzy, distracting himself by trying to
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count the number of freckles on Izzy’s cheek. Izzy looks at him. Leo jumps, surprised, and looks away.
“Do you want to go inside? It’s warm and we can talk more in my room.” Leo scratches behind his ear, shyly. “You should probably wait out the storm, anyway.”
“That sounds fine, but aren’t you having a birthday party?”
“Whatever, everyone’s probably going to head home soon. Come on, it’ll be fun.” He waves at Izzy to follow him and he goes around the house to the back yard. There’s a large oak tree with wide branches that stretch out near Leo’s bedroom window. When he was in high school, Leo would sneak in and out of his mom’s house every night. He liked staying at his dad’s apartment in Lincoln Park more, but his dad worked too much to have him over more than once or twice a month. But Leo’s glad he came to his 21st birthday party – his mom probably bullied him into going. They stayed friends, even though they got a divorce when Leo was five.
Leo feels silly sneaking a boy into his bedroom now. He’s too old for this, but introducing Izzy to his family and a few high school friends wouldn’t be as easy as saying, “Hey everyone, this Izzy. He’s a friend from the University of Michigan.” What if he gets too nervous and sweaty? Would they be able to tell he’s hiding something? Or what if someone asks Izzy how they met and Izzy tells them it was a drag show? His half-sister, Melissa, would feel like there was something off. She always thought Leo was bi-curious and would pester him about his dating life. Leo feels queasy thinking about it as he reaches out his hand to help lift Izzy into the tree.
Izzy sits on the branch next to Leo. The sun has almost fully set and the sky is turning deep shades of indigo and blue. It’s quiet, not in a creepy horror movie way like Leo would
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think, nervously trying to unlock his bedroom window by making too much noise. But it’s a soft, suburban lull. Things are peaceful. Leo relaxes when he hears Izzy giggle behind him and he turns around to look at him. Izzy's red hair is a halo of curls and nighttime sky.
“Hurry up.” He smiles and tries to kick Leo with his foot, almost slipping and falling out of the tree
Leo rolls his eyes and unlatches the lock, lifting the window open. He climbs in first, then helps Izzy come into the window next. One of Leo’s hands is around his wrist and his other arm is wrapped around Izzy’s waist. Leo pulls Izzy into his chest, then places him gently on the floor. He hears Izzy’s soft sigh of relief. Leo lets him go, turns to shut the window, and locks it again. Leo takes off his coat and tosses in a pile of his dirty clothes. Izzy does the same, looking around Leo's bedroom. It’s warm like Leo said. He can hear Leo’s family and friends downstairs. They’re talking and laughing. He tries not to bother him that Leo didn’t want to introduce him to everyone. He understands or, at least, Izzy thinks he understands.
Leo’s room is covered wall-to-wall in band posters and sticky notes. His bed is messy from the morning. There are clothes on the floor and old takeout boxes, but the room is neater than Izzy thought it would be. Izzy takes a look at the bookcase – romance, which he side-eyes Leo about and Leo looks away as he gets a bit pink. And there are classics too. Some plays. Leo tries to distract himself, plucking lint off his jeans.
“Sorry,” he says, “I know it’s a little messy. I wasn’t sure if you were going to show up so I didn’t bother cleaning.” Is he talking too much? It feels like he’s talking too much. “I wouldn’t miss your birthday, man.”
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“Why would I?” Izzy asks, sitting on Leo’s bed and leaning back on his hands. His hair flops over his face again.
“You know…after what happened.”
Izzy laughs and shakes his head, “I don’t know. What happened, exactly?” He’s teasing Leo a little bit, but Izzy can’t help himself.
“The moan thing.” God this is so awkward. He couldn’t have phrased that any other way. “Fuck,” Leo mutters and sits next to Izzy. “When I said I loved you.”
There’s a pause. More laughter comes from downstairs and the clinking of glasses. Izzy shrugs and lies back on the bed. If things were different, maybe this would be easier. What if this was a romantic comedy like Pretty Woman? And Leo was Richard Grere and Izzy was Julia Roberts. They’re at her L.A. apartment. He’d apologize for saying, “I love you” while they were having sex on a piano. Vivan would take a moment to consider it. It would feel like an eternity, but she’d smile and say, “I love you too.” Then they’d kiss and the credits would roll. Of course, none of that’s real, this isn’t a heteronormative romantic comedy with perfectly timed lines and uncensored kisses.
Izzy sits up again. He scratches the back of his neck. “You don’t love me though, right?” It sounds stupid and he flops back over to groan in one of Leo’s pillows. Leo flinches a bit. He wasn’t expecting that. He reaches out to touch Izzy’s back, then pulls away. He tries again, slower this time, fingertips first, before gently placing his hand on Izzy’s shoulder. “No, but I really like you, Izzy.”
Izzy says, “I like you too.” The words are muffled into the pillow, but Leo can just barely make them out.
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It’s quiet again, but soon both of them can hear heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. “Shit,” Leo says, getting up and pacing around the room. Izzy watches him, but he doesn’t dare move. He sits up as quietly as possible and holds the pillow in his arms. Leo walks towards the door, leaning against it, and holds the doorknob. The footsteps get closer until they stop. Izzy can see the shadow of sneakers in the crack between Leo's flooring and the bottom of the bedroom door. Someone knocks a few times.
“Don’t come in!” Leo shouts, breathlessly, “I’m…”
Leo pauses. He can’t think of an excuse. He imagines whoever's on the other side of the door pushing it open anyway. They would see Izzy on his bed. Would they ask why he snuck a guy inside his room? What would happen if they started asking questions? Could Leo say that Izzy’s just a friend after telling him otherwise? He takes a deep breath as his brain races through excuse after excuse. He looks at Izzy and then shyly looks back down at the floor with his back pressed up against the door. He slowly lets go of the doorknob.
His dad clears his throat, “Okay, I just wanted to check on you. Are you feeling alright? I know your mom makes strong margaritas. You could use a pitcher to strip paint off a damn car.” “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m really tired, though, so I just started getting ready for bed. Is that okay?”
“Sure! Everyone’s about to leave anyway. I’ll tell them you said goodnight.” Leo hears his dad start to walk away. “Happy birthday, doofus.”
Leo waits for a little while before sighing in relief. He runs his finger through his hair and laughs a little bit at his overreacting. Izzy smiles at him reassuringly. Then, something in Leo makes him feel slightly guilty. Izzy had always told him how hard it was to come out of the
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closet, but that he wouldn’t change it for the whole world. He admired Izzy for being himself, even if it scared Leo when they would hold hands or kiss in public.
Sometimes, Leo wishes he could be proud too. But then he thinks about how happy his mom and dad looked when he took Sienna Rodriguez to the prom. Leo remembers how upset they were when he broke up with his last college girlfriend, Harley. He also knows what he put his family through when he dropped out of college and moved back home. And even though his friends and family say that they love him, Leo wonders if they still would or if things wouldn’t be the same.
“Izzy,” he says, “I’m sorry that I didn’t--” Leo stops and shrugs. “It’s not like I don’t want you to meet them, it’s just…complicated. And--”
“Don’t. You don’t have to apologize.” Izzy quickly stands up from the bed and walks over to Leo. “I get it.”
“Seriously, dude. I’m just happy that I got to come see you, really.”
His voice breaks a little bit. Leo smiles. Izzy has never sounded more Irish than right now, nervously tugging at his jeans.
“Are you sure?” Leo asks and then bites the inner part of his cheek
“One hundred percent. But I wish I got you a better present for your birthday,” Izzy sighs and shrugs. “I kind of feel like a dick.”
“It wasn’t so bad. Where’d you put it?”
Izzy points his thumb behind his shoulder. “On your desk, over there by your laptop.” He rocks back on his heels. “Also, um, I don’t like it when you call me Issac. It feels…I don’t know, a little wrong.”
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“Sure, mi vida.”
Leo relaxes. He lets go of the doorknob, locking it with a quick click. He wraps his arms around Izzy's waist and slides his hand into Izzy’s back pockets. Leo looks up at Izzy with a big smile. Izzy smiles back and says, “Happy Birthday,” before kissing him. Leo feels himself slowly being pushed up against his bedroom door. Izzy slips his tongue into his mouth with a small moan. Izzy traces Leo’s face with his fingers and then cups his chin with his hand. Leo puts his arms around Izzy’s neck. He sighs into the kiss, rubbing the inner part of Izzy’s thigh with his knee.
Max Smothers is a junior at Columbia College Chicago. Max is a Creative Writing major and a Fine Arts minor. They are a nonbinary, LGBTQ+ artist and fiction writer. Their focus has always been fiction, but Max loves to work mostly as a comic artist dealing with the conflicts and humor of sexuality, identity, and the chaos of life.