When Eli was seventeen, he took a chance and kissed his best friend under the mistletoe. Turner turned right around and fell into the arms of the first girl he could find, and Eli lost everything. Coach Harp, his father, didn’t want a gay son, his best friend had rejected him, and life at school became a living hell. When he turned eighteen, Eli left Juniper, Oregon and headed to California to start a new life. Now, some ten years later — having lost his job, right before Christmas — Eli is returning home to visit his father and to try and make peace with those he left behind.
Turner has never really forgiven himself for what he did to Eli. Even back then he knew he was interested in boys as well as girls, but he wasn’t ready to let anyone know the truth, and so … he turned his back on his best friend. Now he’s the assistant coach at Juniper High, helping Coach Harp after his surgery. The two of them have become close friends, especially after Turner’s own father’s death, and Coach has actually been understanding of Turner’s sexuality, even when he was dating another man.
With Eli coming home for the holidays, all three men have a second chance to make things right. For Coach Harp, he has a chance to apologize for the cruel words he said when he all but kicked his son out and Eli has a chance to make peace with his father. For Eli and Turner, it’s a second chance at their first kiss, and a second chance at happiness.
We’re not given too much information on Eli’s childhood, just enough to infer how difficult it was for an un-athletic kid to be the son of the high school track coach. It doesn’t seem as though Eli ever put much effort into trying to be what his father wanted. He merely went through the motions when his father tried to get him invested into various sports until his father finally gave up. The fact that Eli calls his father “Coach” rather than dad or father says something about the distance and lack of emotional bonding betwen them, which is only highlighted during an argument where Coach all but blames Eli’s homosexuality on the way his mother fusses over him.
As an adult, Eli is thin-skinned, reactionary, and stubborn. He’s also a bit of a brat. He picks fights with his father, makes grand gestures to spite a man at the hardware store — a man who will probably never even notice Eli’s efforts, since he’s unlikely to drive past his house — and sulks over the way his parents have come to rely on other people after their son left. Even if that other person is Turner. Eli came home more out of necessity than desire, having lost his job and being on the verge of losing his apartment, and I wonder if, had his life been going well, he would have bothered coming home at all.
Turner went to college and was pursuing his own path in life when his father died. He chose to come home to care for his mother and sister, and his sister’s children, giving up on his own education. Coach Harp pulled a few strings to help him finish his schooling and get him a job, and ever since he’s been closer to Coach. When Turner started dating another man, Coach Harp, while he may not have approved, didn’t shame Turner, and was there when Turner needed him. That’s not to say it was all a bed of roses between them, as the ghost of Eli — and how Coach treated Eli — still lingers between them.
Turner has, more or less, given up on his dreams in order to take care of his family. He protests he doesn’t mind, but it’s often in his thoughts how he was forced to come back, and he does wonder what life would have been like if he hadn’t. Seeing Eli again only makes those thoughts even more pointed, and bring out some passive-agressive momements directed at Eli that come off as a bit more pointed and bitter than they needed to be.
What’s between Eli and Turner is complex, as Eli can’t help but be aware that Turner is, in a way, his replacement. Coach has been more accepting of Turner than he was of Eli, and Coach has been relying on Turner in a way he might otherwise have relied on his son. Much of the uncertainty, the hurt, and even the difficulties of finding acceptance and forgiveness are swept aside as Eli decides to focus, instead, on the idea that he may have a second chance at Turner, even if that second chance lasts only as long as a holiday romance.
And that’s part of my own uncertainty with this book. There are a lot of issues that are brought up and talked about, but never resolved. Eli and his father never actually have a real moment, it’s just understood that Coach is okay with it and Eli’s over it. Eli and Turner fall easily back into their friendship, but Turner … Turner’s a bit of a dick about it. He gets jealous when his ex, Cam, is flirting with Eli — even though Eli doesn’t know, at that point that the two men dated. Turner had all day to tell Eli about it but, just, never got around to it. But Turner’s more than fine with flirting with his ex-girlfriend while out with Eli, deliberately, to make Eli jealous.
It’s a pleasant enough story, but I didn’t feel like Turner was actually ready for a relationship, and Eli never really dealt with the idea that the high school best friend he’d fallen in love with wasn’t the same person as the man standing in front of him. It felt like both of them were falling in love with the idealized memory rather than the man today. It just felt, to me, like the story the author was writing and the story I was reading were two different versions. The writing was good, and so was the pace; I just didn’t find the romance to be all that healthy.