by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by aerie
Being back was like someone had lifted all my skin just far enough away from my body to slip a layer of black pepper beneath, then tugged it back on so tight that it was all I could do not to claw myself bloody to get out. The hotel ballroom’s doors were decorated with flashing lights and a hand-painted sign that read TIME MACHINE, but stepping inside was less like traveling twenty years back, and more like being pushed twenty years closer to my inevitable death. It was the worst paranoia of a pot high mixed with the uncomfortable disorientation of being just this side of browning-out drunk, only without the positive side effects of either condition, and I was hit with a wave of panic so fierce that I might have bolted right then and there if a pair of tiny hands hadn’t spun me around and slapped the left side of my chest.
I looked down as her fingers pulled away and saw my jacket wearing a cheerful HELLO MY NAME IS sticker with Ryan Seiler printed below in distinctly feminine calligraphy. “Look at you!” she cried, and wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug. It wasn’t until she pulled away that I could identify my assailant: Aileen Long (formerly Aileen Delgado), the ninety-eight pounds of terror that had sent out all the near-daily organizational emails over the past six months. “You haven’t changed a bit!”
I didn’t bother letting her know just yet the extent of her wrongness. “Well, you’ve just gotten prettier!” I smiled back, as though age hadn’t pulled her face taut, like she’d been hooked behind the ears and had it all just yanked backward. Just because I’m not interested in women doesn’t mean I can’t flatter with the best of them. Besides, you can’t hold a body responsible for what time makes happen to it. “How’ve you been?” Jesus, I could hear my old accent creeping back in with every syllable of small talk; I wanted to run and gargle with Glenlivet and say wicked and Hahvahd until it went away.
“Oh, I’ve been just fine! So glad you could come! We missed you at the last one of these.” She poked me square in the tie tack.
Looking as sheepish as insincerity would let me manage, I shrugged and smiled. “You know how it is. Work, work.”
“Mm,” she said, as though she didn’t — and, considering she’d married the Barton Long of Teller, Long, and Jenkins, she probably didn’t. “Well, it’s good to see you here, finally. Come in and mingle, there’s refreshments over there, and the bar’s just by the stage.”
She’d said the magic words. “Thanks, I’ll do that,” I said, patting her on the shoulder like a genuinely grateful person would before wandering off into the crowd. The dj, obviously having read several recent torture memos, had spun up that awful Savage Garden stand-with-you-on-a-mountain song, and it was only the promise of alcohol that led me closer to the speakers, instead of farther away from them. I got a scotch and soda from a bartender who didn’t look old enough to drink herself, and tucked away into a corner near a tall potted plant, scanning the crowd in as solitary a fashion as I could manage, waiting.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a heavy drinker; in fact, my last moderately serious boyfriend drank us both into a moderately serious car crash (which was how I’d known I had to get out), so I’m very conscious of my alcohol consumption. But damn it, some occasions just called for liquid courage. Like, say, hiding in the corner of a hotel ballroom in a city that hadn’t qualified as a ‘hometown’ for nearly two decades, waiting for the arrival — or the not arrival, and I honest-to-God didn’t know which would be worse — of a guy you’ve spent literally half your life mooning over in one way or another. My drink favoured the scotch side of the equation, and I made a note to drop a spare ten in the bar-top tip jar.
As it turned out, though, having been voted by our senior class as Most Likely To Be Remembered meant that, in fact, most people did remember me, including several I didn’t recognize until I saw their name tags, and several more I didn’t recognize even after that. I was pulled into one whirlwind nostalgia conversation after another, asking questions about their marriages and kids and jobs, sticking to my pre-prepared script: yes, still in Boston; yes, it’s very cold up there; yes, partner with a big civil liberties firm now; no, no wife or kids; yes, it’s true that the job takes away all your personal life; yes, I’m sure the right woman’s out there somewhere for me. Attorney Trick #34: Come prepared and make it look spontaneous. I was starting to wonder how many times I could have a variation on this same conversation, and estimated grimly that the permutations were infinite.
Trapped by endless reunions and inquiries, I couldn’t keep a good eye on the door, and as such, I couldn’t keep a visual on crowd control. Thus, it was after my fourth scotch and soda, and my four millionth summary of my sad bio, that I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around only to come, fully unprepared, face-to-face with Gabe Serrano.
Picture that description from Ghostbusters about what happens when you cross the streams, and you get an approximation of how I felt; time had indeed just stopped, and every molecule in my body felt pretty much on the verge of exploding. “Hi,” I said, feeling every ounce of product in my hair and every pound I’d put on since 1990 suddenly double in mass, leaving me a bloated, frosted, drunken corporate Yankee troll that just happened to be wearing my nametag. I didn’t know what to do next, so I fell back on instinct and stuck out my hand. “How long have you been here?”
“Couple hours,” he shrugged, and he took my hand in his, giving it a firm, friendly shake. So that’s how we were going to play it; all right, I could do that. “Aileen said you’d gotten here a little before me, but I didn’t see you until now.”
“Just catching up with folk,” I said, omitting the hiding-behind-plants portions of my evening activity.
“Seems to be the place for it.” Gabe smiled a little, and it was all I could do to keep from jumping his bones right there in the middle of the green-and-blue-decorated tables, just tackling him and riding him without preamble or further explanation. He’d gotten lean — he’d always been thin, but had turned from bones to trim muscle, a runner’s build — and had grown the kind of pencil moustache and goatee I knew from past experience took great effort to make look that casual. His hair was still oil-black throughout, with no hint of grey, though the corners of his hairline had started to push back from his widow’s peak. His face wore a ghost of the same handsome maniac grin that had helped charm him and me both into the student council president and vice-president positions, respectively; but it was tired now, and I could see thin lines creeping out from the corners of his eyes and his mouth, giving the impression of a lifetime spent smiling. We weren’t any of us as young as we’d once been, but Jesus, he wore his age well. The troll I imagined myself to be grew into a full-on ogre by comparison.
I took the last of my scotch and soda down in a single gulp. “Paul said you’d married Bonnie,” I offered, trying to give the conversation somewhere to go. Did I sound as awkward as I felt? I hoped like hell I didn’t.
He held up his bare left hand. “Didn’t take,” he said, and there wasn’t even so much as a tan line left to mark where a band might have been. “Do you want to get the hell out of here?”
“God, yes,” I said, and we moved in near-unison for the door.
Maybe I should back up a little.
Gabe had never been what you’d call my childhood best friend, not even by a long shot. In fact, the closest thing we’d had in common for a long time was our last names: Seiler sat just ahead of Serrano more often than not, so by a month into freshman year, we’d gotten used to having one another around. He was popular and I was popular, but we were popular in different circles; he could usually be found either with the auto shop kids he’d grown up with, or the varsity basketball team he’d rocketed into after his first tryout, while I was more comfortable with the football team and its satellite participants. We liked each other, sure, and would shoot the shit in class, and nod ‘hi’ to one another as we passed in the halls, but that was about it; we got on fine when we were around one another, but when we weren’t, we didn’t make any real effort to get around one another, if that makes sense.
Two things changed junior year that changed us, though. The first thing was that Gabe got with Bonnie, a sophomore on the drill team and thus affiliated with the cheerleaders, and thus he suddenly had reason to be at or near my usual hangout spots. The second thing was that during a particularly brutal summer scrimmage, I got my foot trapped under a lineman’s body and wrenched my knee, tearing my ACL and ending my football season for good. I healed up quick, but my high school sports career was over, and if I was going to impress college admissions boards, I was going to have to find something else.
That ‘something else’ came in the form of a flyer tacked outside the library. Passing period was just long enough for a dozen of us or so to congregate, and the alcove by the library doors was out of the flow of traffic, so we huddled around there, laughing and sharing whatever anecdotes we’d gathered and letting the boys throw possessive arms around their girlfriends. (As far as girlfriends went, I never had one, not even a beard — or a boyfriend, for that matter. I’d figured out I was gay real early on in my life, but based on the few nasty things my father had said before he’d left us, I’d also figured that was the same as signing up for a lifetime of celibacy; it took going to Massachusetts for college to disabuse me of this notion.) I leaned back against the wall, resting my still-sore leg, and my head tugged loose a green flyer that had been taped there, which I barely caught before it hit the floor.
“Student council elections?” I said, reading the top line of print aloud. “Didn’t we have those already?”
“Last May,” said Manny, a nice guy who’d actually taken my spot on the offensive line, “but Greg and Lily Wallace’s dad got transfered to Germany, so they’ve got blank seats.”
I’d missed the news about the Wallace twins’ departure, but a summer on crutches and in PT will do that to you. “So they’re just looking for ‘juinior class reps’?” I said, reading the rest of the flyer. It was hand-printed in bubble letters, and seasoned with a few awkward misspellings.
Sasha, Manny’s sophomore girlfriend, nodded. “You thinking of running, Ry? I’ll vote for you.”
I shrugged, considering an option that up until ninety seconds previous hadn’t even existed in my universe. “I … don’t know, maybe.”
“You should run as a team, though,” advised Manny. “‘Cause they’re looking for two, right? You should find somebody else and run together so you can combine your votes.” When I saw Manny again at the reunion, he told me he’d been working for the re-election campaign of some state representative or another. Some folk are just born politicians.
As ridiculous as the possibility was, it was becoming more plausible by the moment, so I made a split-second decision to ride the wave of inertia and see where it took me. “Well, okay, who wants to be my running mate?” I asked, half-joking, holding up the flyer face-first to my friends circled around me.
Before anyone could answer, though, the vice principal came through the hall, shooing us all toward our education with his big, meaty hands. I moved stiffly down to my pre-calc class, which was close, and shuffled in only a few seconds after the bell; the teachers were aware of my situation, though, so I didn’t get so much as a dirty look for my tardiness. I squeezed myself into my desk, letting my bum leg stick out into the aisle, and leaned back just in time to feel a tap on my shoulder. “I’ll do it,” said Gabe, keeping his voice low as the teacher messed around with the overhead projector.
I glanced back over my shoulder, trying to see as much as my awkward positioning would allow. “…You serious?”
“Yeah, I’m serious.” Gabe shrugged. “Might as well give it a shot, huh?”
It turned out Manny’s strategy was great. Those who liked one of us had to vote for both of us, which meant we won that October special election by a nearly hundred-vote margin — impressive, considering that our whole graduating class was only four hundred strong. In the grand scheme of the universe, it was a stupid victory, but after staring down the death of my football dreams — and I hadn’t been great, but I’d been good, and that had counted for something — it felt good to win.
Gabe and I took to it like ducks to water. The meetings were neither long nor frequent, and the whole business of student government wasn’t that complicated (especially at the junior representative level), but we picked it up and ran with it. We still saw one another mostly in class, but now we had reason to hang around after the last bell and to sit together at lunch, just the two of us first and everyone else who gathered around us a secondary concern. I’d never been much of a basketball guy, but I started coming to some of our school’s home games, and learned to cheer my lungs out. Sometimes I even gave him a ride home after meetings and games, even though he lived on the other side of the district from me, since I had my mom’s old ’78 Cutlass Supreme, which was a hunk of bolts but still better than nothing — which was what Gabe had, as far as wheels went.
The afternoon he asked me to be his vice-presidential running mate for our senior year was the same afternoon I figured out that I was in love. I said yes, drove home, snitched some of the vodka my older brother kept in the top cabinet, put REM’s Green album on repeat in my boom box, and drank myself to sleep. Looking back on it now, it was so pathetic it was almost cute, but at the time, it felt like the end of the world.
And thus, by way of these circumstances, all these years later, I found myself walking out of the hotel’s parking lot and down the bayfront, strolling together in the evening breeze with a guy I’d spent decades trying to get out of my head. I was drunker than I should have been, but not as drunk as I might have been, that weird middle ground where you know everything you want to do is stupid and you want to do it anyway. I followed his lead, matching his pace down the wide sidewalk, passing civilization on our left, the bay on the right.
After a few minutes’ travel, he sighed and sat down atop the steep seawall steps down to the water; I hesitated for a moment, wondering what kind of sea slime I was about to get on my good trousers, and sat anyway, just far enough from him that any touch between us wouldn’t be accidental. The occasional seagull screamed in the night air, dancing around on the ocean breeze that managed to keep the temperature bearable despite the fact that the Texas coast isn’t known for its balmy Julys. I loosened my tie, but Gabe didn’t look like he’d broken so much as a sweat, making me wonder at just how badly twenty years in Boston had declimatized me to the hot, humid summers of my childhood. Or maybe I’d just gotten old.
At long last, Gabe sighed, leaning forward on his knees. “So,” he said, “you’re a lawyer now.”
It was as good of a place to start as any. “That’s what I am.” The bayfront was as crowded as it usually was at ten on a summer Saturday night, with couples and kids all around us, everybody able to see us and nobody paying any attention: the art of hiding in plain sight. I rubbed my hand across the back of my mouth, exhaling as I did, and was a little embarrassed to smell back all the alcohol on my breath. I felt stupid for being so nervous, but some things you just couldn’t control. “You got kids?”
“Two.” Gabe looked out straight ahead at the water, watching the lights on the far edge of the bay as they twinkled and disappeared off the surface of the white-capped water. “Marisol’s twelve and Robby’s eight. They’re with Bonnie this weekend. You?”
“No, you had me pegged pretty good as a cocksucker,” I said, and felt instantly terrible when I saw his handsome features close in as he winced and turned away. “Sorry, I’ve … shit, I’ve had a lot to drink, you should just probably stop listening to anything I say.”
Gabe shook his head. “I deserved that one.”
“No,” I said, and I almost reached out my hand to place it on his shoulder, crossing that no-man’s-land between us, but I caught myself at the last moment. “You really didn’t. That’s part of why I’m here this weekend.” Running on liquid courage, I added, “I came because I heard you were coming. You think I wanted to see any of this place, ever again?”
“Yeah, me too,” he said, and he didn’t specify to which part he was agreeing, but I didn’t ask.
We sat there for another minute, listening to the mutterings of the passers-by and the rhythmic crashing of the surf as it rolled up over the short beach, smelling the salt and the seagull shit and the other damp night odors that roll in off the bay. Okay, so there were some things I missed: cool sea breezes on muggy evenings; the particular feel of shellcrete steps beneath my hands; being the guy who was most likely to be remembered, instead of one suit among many. I ran my fingers through my hair, which was neither thinning nor grey, not yet, but felt ragged in the salt air as I did.
It’s difficult, I’ve found, to explain the nuances of self-imposed exile. Homebodies who’ve never moved more than a hundred miles from of the town where they grew up, they never understand why anyone would want to go. Those who’ve left for external reasons — college, the job, marriage — understand the practicalities of relocation, but still talk about how someday they’ll retire and move back home. And of course everybody understands the flight from oppressive and/or traumatic circumstances, the backwater misfit fled home for the bright lights and open arms of the big city. But it’s hard to say, it wasn’t abusive, there was no initiating castrophe, I just had to get out — and the people it’s hardest to say it to are the ones who never left.
Plus, it all comes back to bite you in your ass when you’re sitting at the place from whence you ran away so that you could grow up, and you feel like you might as well have spent the last twenty years flipping burgers and playing video games for all the personal growth that went on there. It was at this point it occurred to me that just because I had barely changed didn’t mean Gabe hadn’t, and just because I felt like picking up exactly where I’d left off didn’t mean time hadn’t moved on without me. Jesus, I’m such an asshole.
“Why is this hard?” I asked, finally getting back enough courage to make my mouth make sounds. “…Oh, fuck, it’s not even hard for you, is it? You’re being fine and I’m being awkward. I’m so fucking sorry.” Christ, me, asshole.
Gabe barked out a little laugh, and despite my inebriated state, I knew that sound as one of relief. “Oh, thank God, I thought I was the one being weird and you were all smooth.” He linked his fingers together and pushed his arms out in front of him, palms-out, stretching his long, lean frame, and I watched out of the corner of my eye, chancing a laugh. “…Okay, cards on the table, both of us. I mean, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”
I shrugged. “We don’t talk to one another until our fortieth reunion.”
“My point exactly.” He took a deep breath and let it out through thin lips. “So, uh, you want to start?”
I wanted another drink. I wanted another twenty drinks. I wanted the sky just to open up and pour bourbon from the heavens until I could finally cough up the thoughts I’d been sitting on for so long. “I still want you,” I said, ripping off that band-aid all at once. “I wanted you back then and I still want you and I think about you a lot. You were the first guy I ever had a real, serious thing for, and you were the first one I kissed, and I was hoping that I’d see you and find out it’d all just been in my mind, except that you’re still here and I want you just as bad and if we go back up to my room right now, I’ll finish what I started.”
His handsome, dark eyes went a little wide as I talked, but not with surprise, not precisely. In the silence that followed between us, I found that I actually did feel a little better, the way you sometimes do when you’ve puked up your whole insides but at least you’re not sick to your stomach anymore. “Um,” he said, which didn’t qualify as even a partial confession, but I was willing to be patient. “…Really?”
“Swear to God,” I said, holding up my right hand swearing-in-the-witness style, looking him dead on so he could see I wasn’t pulling anything.
He blinked at me for a moment, and then let out a long whoosh of air, like he’d been holding it in for days, or maybe even years. “God, you haven’t changed a bit, have you?” he asked, but from the way he was laughing, I could tell it was meant to be a compliment.
“Me?” I took that hand and poked him in the shoulder, and he full-on pushed me back, playful but still hard enough to set my balance off. “You’re the one who still ducks any attempt to get a straight answer out of him. Remind me again why we both didn’t go to law school?”
“Nepotism,” he shrugged, and I knew it was true. Even before he’d finished college, what little grapevine still got to me back then had let me know, he’d been managing his uncle’s restaurant in Austin, saving up for the wedding and family that waited just on the other side of his degree. Maybe that life he’d been planning for hadn’t worked for him, but I’d left nine-tenths of the mistakes I’d made at twenty-two behind me too, so I was in no place to judge.
Feeling more than a little exposed, I covered by punching him lightly in the shoulder; violence, after all, is a cure for all awkwardness between men. “Anyway, no fair getting me started and not keeping up your end. Quid pro quo, as we like to say in lawyer land.”
He punched me back, then gave a little laugh that turned into a sigh. “…I want you to.”
“Wait, sorry, what?” The SUV that had demolished my Lexus and fractured my clavicle in five places had hit with less force.
Without looking at me, Gabe spoke, lowering his voice — not that anyone in the vicinity knew what we were talking about, or could have made heads or tails of his fragments of our conversation, but it was the principle of the thing: “It’s been eating at me all this time, thinking I told you no because I didn’t want you to, wondering if I was just too chickenshit to say yes–”
“Hold the phone.” I raised my hand practically in his face, cutting him off. “Why are we not up in my room right now?”
Gabe bit his lips together, furrowing his brows. “I thought we should talk about–”
I shook my head. “Talking later. Sex now.”
For a moment, I thought I might have come on too strong — Lord knows that was the defining failure of our high school relationship — but Gabe actually gave me that million-dollar smile and a nervous laugh, then stood, dusting off the backs of his pants. “I reserve the right to change my mind at any moment,” he said, with a smirk that was at least half bluster; I could see the way he balled his hands inside his pockets and how deep every breath moved his lungs.
“I’m not going to rape you,” I said, a little louder than I’d intended, and as I found my feet, I noticed I’d attracted a few curious stares. Laugh it off, like it’s a joke, it’s the only way to survive that type of accidental scrutiny. Without touching him — in fact, balling my hands in my own pockets, gripping my room keycard so hard it nearly cut into my fingers — I nodded back in the direction of the hotel. “I just … want to get there before you change your mind.”
Keeping a casual distance, Gabe started back, and I tagged along beside; it amazed me sometimes, the art of keeping cool despite your heart’s wanting to pound its way out from your ribcage. “I’ve had some time to think about this,” he pointed out, still with that nervous smile.
“We both have,” I said, and I pushed open the lobby door to let him inside.
Our school’s locker rooms were small and hard-walled enough that you could pretty much hear anyone in there, so I figured checking inside would be sort of a formality; I’d missed him in the rush after the game, I was sure, and he’d slipped off with the rest of the crowd, away to some celebration of their final match of the season. I’d have to catch him during first period Government to congratulate him, to let him know I’d been there the whole time, roaring loudest of all.
But there he was, alone on a bench, dressed in his jeans and red basketball team t-shirt, sitting with his head in his hands, his fingers threaded through his still-damp hair. “Hey,” I said, and he jumped nearly high enough to hit the ceiling. “Woah, sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No, hey, it’s–” Gabe shook his head, raking the heels of his hands across his eyes, looking as skittish as any teenage boy ever caught in a moment of emotion. “The rest of the team went down to the Whataburger, and I told them I’d … meet them there after I … changed my shirt,” he said, his excuse crumbling even as it came out of his mouth. “So, um, did you like the game?”
“Oh, it was great.” I waved a little silver-and-red pom-pom that some freshman from the drill team had tossed to me. “You sure … tossed the ball a lot.” Okay, so sue me for spending two years at high school basketball games without ever really learning how the sport is played. I had other things on my mind.
He laughed, and that seemed to dispel some of the heaviness from around him, but his eyes were still red. “Hey, listen, man, I’m sorry about–”
I raised my hands. “It’s cool. I get it.” I tucked the pom-pom into the pocket of my letter jacket, not knowing at the time that finding it there ten years later would set me off on a panic attack that wouldn’t subside until a paralegal friend let me steal two Valium from her. “I … kinda freaked out on my mom the other day. Went through this whole thing, told her I didn’t want to go to Tufts, said I could just stay here, take classes at A&M Kingsville, or something.”
That got a bigger smile out of him, a more honest one this time, and he folded his lean arms across his chest, leaning against the bank of lockers. “She tell you it’s too late to back out now?”
“I think her exact words may have been, ‘I will drag you by your ear all the way to Boston and leave you by the side of the road.'”
“I love your mom.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I love her too.”
He picked up his own letter jacket from where he’d left it inside his locker and slammed the short metal door shut, spinning the combination dial. “So … why’d you freak out?”
That was a little harder to quantify, and mostly ended up gesturing uselessly at the empty air. “I like this,” I finally concluded, waving my hands around in a way that I hope indicated the school, the city, and my whole life inside the both. “I mean, I don’t always like it, but … the devil you know, and all. And I’ve got a lot of good things here. Friends, student government, family.” I swallowed hard. “You.”
I’d expected him to play it off, or at the very least to change the subject, but Gabe just smiled at me as he tugged on his jacket, and I could feel my heart melt like chocolate left by a sunny window. “Hey, man, you too.” He scratched at his upper lip absently, brushing across the little pepper-sprinkle beginnings of a moustache that mostly succeeded in making him look like a kid who’d gone after the Oreos — but in a way that still made my shorts a little tight. “I mean, that’s some of the stuff I’m thinking too, I guess. …Looks easier when other people do it.”
“But, hey, you can come visit me in Boston,” I offered, stepping a little closer. “The guy I told you about, the friend of my uncle’s who’s renting me the room, he says it’ll be fine if I have people over, just so long as they don’t make a lot of noise.”
Gabe grinned and put a finger over his lips, and he stepped closer to meet me, tossing his bag over his shoulder. “I do quiet pretty well,” he shrugged, and he reached out to put an arm on my shoulder.
In the days, months, and years to come, I would play these next ninety seconds over in my head what seemed like a million times, each time wondering what went wrong, what I read wrong, how the signals got crossed so badly between the two of us. At the time, though, everything crystalized into that one moment of perfect clarity, standing in a painted cinderblock-and-cement room that smelled of gym socks and disinfectant, making plans not just to keep in touch but to make cross-continental journeys to be with one another after graduation, his hand on my arm, that smile on his face, and both of us staring down the end of the world as we knew it. In light of all the evidence, the only thing that made sense to me was to lean forward and kiss him.
It wasn’t just a gentle little peck, either, the type you get between awkward high school students cast as the title couple in Romeo and Juliet. I’d spent the lion’s share of my middle and high school careers playing football, and while I didn’t know anything about kissing, I knew a hell of a lot about full contact sports. Our lips met, and then our teeth met, and he was caught between me and the locker, my hands on his waist, my tongue inside his mouth. I was bigger than he was by a good forty pounds, and when I pressed our chests together and let my thighs fall to either side of his knee, I could feel him breathe. I wanted him so much, had wanted him for so long, and the thought that he might want me too was so heady that I couldn’t resist the opportunity; I slipped a hand down between us and cupped his junk, pressing up against him just the way I sometimes did when I jerked off, wanting him to know exactly how much I wanted this.
What hung me up for twenty years wasn’t how I did this. I got that part; really, considering the circumstances, it wasn’t a stretch, and the one then-boyfriend I’d ever told about it (my first, actually, who was also the guy who rented me that room) told that if he’d been in my shoes, he would’ve assumed the exact same thing. No, what really made what happened next such a shock was that I would have sworn to God, up and down and twice on Sundays, that Gabe kissed back.
It turned out the real end of the world came a lot quicker than I had anticipated, a month before I left town, on a Friday evening in April, as a pair of hands shoved me hard in my chest and I staggered back; a short locker bench hit the backs of my calves, and I tumbled ass-over-teakettle onto the cold concrete floor. My bad leg landed awkwardly beneath me, sending a surge of pain through my body that made my eyes well with tears, so bad that for a moment it took my attention completely from the catastrophe before me.
All I had to do to remind myself, though, was to look up, and see Gabe’s wide eyes staring down at me, dark with anger. “What the hell?” he shouted, dragging the back of his hand so hard across his mouth I thought he might have cut his lip. “What the hell, you fucking cocksucker?”
“Gabe, I–” I started, even though there wasn’t anything to say in my defense. And that was how he left me, sprawled on the ground, sick to my stomach and pained in my knee, unable to do or say anything that might keep him from going.
It occurred to me only years later, reading the stories about young gay men getting killed for hitting on the wrong guy at the wrong time, that I would have been well within my rights to be afraid for my life; it occured to me slightly sooner afterward that I had much to fear for my reputation, because a wrong word to the wrong person, and my social life as I knew it would have been over. But as neither scorn nor physical violence came to me in the days following, I knew that Gabe hadn’t told anyone. Truth be told, I hadn’t really expected him to. I might have fucked up and hurt him bad, but part of the reason I’d fallen so hard for him was that he wasn’t the kind of guy who did shit like that.
What I got instead, though, was the Cold War. If I entered a room where Gabe didn’t have to be, he left, and if he had to stay, it was as though I were the absent one. All our friends noticed, and when they asked me, I just told them it’d been a fight about some thing; I have no idea if they asked him, or what he said if they did. At the graduation ceremony, I saw him present Bonnie with a promise ring; the next day, I got on a plane to Massachusetts, making the trip he never would.
And for the next twenty years of my life, I would remember that calling me a cocksucker had been the last thing he’d said to me.
The room I’d gotten was modest but nice, with a tiny kitchen and a balcony overlooking the bay. I flipped on all the lights, reconsidered, and flipped all but one of them off again, while he walked over to the sliding glass doors, considering the view beyond them. “Can I get you a drink?” I asked, looking to the mini-bar with a thirsty eye, as though I hadn’t already had enough alcohol tonight to preserve my corpse for centuries after my death.
He shook his head; his hands were still in the pockets of his suitcoat. “I’m fine.” He didn’t turn, didn’t move, just watched the water.
Well, if he didn’t, I wasn’t, and so I compromised by filling a glass of water from the sink and swallowing its contents down. That finished, I left the glass in the sink and took off my coat and tie, folding them over the back of a chair. “So, uh … how do you want to do this?” I scratched at the back of my neck.
Gabe turned took look at me over his shoulder, and I could see a smile lift one side of his nervous mouth. “…I have no idea,” he confessed. He turned back, then sat down on the end of the bed. “Would you believe I’ve never done this before?”
“If you’ll believe I have.” I felt like how I imagined it would feel to be that proverbial dog that finally caught the car it was chasing: now what? Taking his lead, I plopped down next to him, just barely hitting enough of the bed with my backside to keep from sliding off and hitting the floor. My one thought was that I had to kiss this man, and quickly, before my general ineptitude ruined my miraculous second chance the way it had destroyed the first. I reached for his tie, hooked my second finger behind the loose knot, and slid it open. “Just … tell me if I do something you don’t like, all right?”
He nodded and swallowed, making his adam’s apple bob. “I…” He laughed a little, folding his hands in his lap. “I feel a little stupid.”
“Shh.” I put my fingertips across his lips. I wanted to tell him that I felt stupid too, that I was certain I would somehow be able to mess this up so badly that something would actually explode — but this wasn’t the time for that. One of us, at least, needed to look like he knew what the hell he was doing, and right now, it would be me or it would be no one. “You’re not stupid. You’re amazing.” I leaned forward, conscious all the while of the last time I’d tried this, and brushed his lips with mine.
We sat there for a moment, barely even making that single point of contact — then Gabe leaned forward that last fraction and we were kissing, finally kissing, both of us like we meant it and had walked into this with our eyes wide open. I placed my hand on the back of his neck, feeling his thick, dark hair brush against the backs of my fingertips; I didn’t hold hard — I’d said I’d respect his right to back out at any minute, and I meant it — but I wanted to keep just enough pressure to let him know that I wanted him there, that I wanted this to keep going. He opened his mouth against mine, just wide enough to capture my lower lip between both of his, and it took all that carefully crafted attorney self-control I’d cultivated to let him control the pace, the intensity, the direction of the kiss. I was frankly proud of myself.
After a moment, I pulled away from the kiss and pressed our foreheads together, grinning. “Ha,” I said, though it came out less as a triumphant cry and more as an exhausted puff of air, “you did kiss back.”
“Hell yeah, I kissed back,” he said softly, his eyes still shut.
“No, I mean–” I took a deep breath. “Back then.”
“Oh.” Gabe sighed, then put his hand on the back of my neck, taking my cues as far as body language went. “Jesus, Ryan, I was so scared, I didn’t even know why–”
“Shh,” I said, kissed him again. That issue still lay open between us, the proverbial elephant in the room, but some elephants, you could just ignore them and they’d behave themselves and not shit on too much before you got back to them. I took my free hand and undid the first two buttons of his shirt, then started kissing down his jaw to his throat, feeling his pulse trill beneath my lips. He smelled like sweat and dark soap, and I drew my tongue up the underside of his throat, memorizing his taste. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but it was still very likely that this night would be the last chance I ever got at him, and if this had to be it, I wanted to make sure I remembered.
With a quick slide that was surprisingly suave, I lowered myself off the end of the bed and came to rest between Gabe’s legs, kneeling before him. Trusting that he’d sound the alarm if anything went too wrong, I unfastened his belt and unbuttoned his trousers. In my admittedly limited experience having sex with mostly-straight men, I’d found that a blowjob was the best way to ease a guy into gay sex: giving one was a somewhat gender-unspecific act, he’d probably had one before, and it didn’t make him touch anyone’s junk. With all that in mind, I reached into Gabe’s pants and pulled out his erection.
Even considering I’d had so long to build up the phenomenon of Gabe’s cock in my imagination, reality surprisingly didn’t disappoint. He was short, uncut, and amazingly thick, which was exactly how I liked my men to be. He couldn’t have known at the time how right he’d been — I wasn’t just a cocksucker, I’d become a cocksucking expert. I’d learned how to love giving head, which made me exponentially better at it. Once, I’d managed to keep a whole room of men happy for four solid hours, one dick at a time. I’d never tried to suck the chrome off a trailer hitch before, but I imagined it’d be pretty successful if I ever gave it a go. My mother, bless her, had always said it was good to love what you did.
Gabe, of course, knew none of these credentials, but I thought it’d be good to let my work speak for itself. I took a deep breath through my nose, relaxed my throat, and slipped forward until his entire cock was inside my mouth, so far that my nose was actually pressed hard against his still-lean belly, tickled by his pubic hair. Positioned appropriately, I started to suck.
His hands went immediately for my hair — but everyone’s do, so at least I was prepared, and didn’t react to his tugging at my head. When you haven’t gotten head in a long time (and I didn’t know how long he and Bonnie had been split, but from the way his dick sprang to life in my mouth, I guessed it’d been a while), your first reaction to a sudden and intense blowjob is to make it stop, because it’s so damn overwhelming. I was determined to push him past that, though, and I held on until I felt his grip slacken a little. That’s when I knew I could really get underway.
I licked up and down his shaft, feeling with my lips the softness of his skin over the straining muscles beneath, tasting the salt of his skin and his precome. At least he wasn’t fooling about wanting this, I thought, as he lifted his hips to thrust into my mouth. I lay one of my forearms over his thighs to hold him down to the bed, shaking my head — he may have reserved permission for the judicious use of an admittedly unspecified safeword, but I was still the one taking charge here. With my free hand, I finished unfastening his belt and lay him back down on the bed, scooting him up the mattress toward the pillows while leaving his pants behind at the foot of the bed. I didn’t become an expert by just leaving my jaw open, after all. His legs freed, I took his balls in my hand and squeezed gently, pressing and releasing in the same rhythm I worked my mouth.
After a moment, he relaxed into the sensation and pressure, and I relaxed with him, until we found that key pace: not so slow that nothing happens, not so fast that it’s over without ever having time to really get good. I undid a few more buttons of his shirt, then pulled it open completely, exposing his bare chest. He looked so debauched stretched there in front of me, eyes shut, shirt completely open but jacket still on, pants and underwear pulled down around his thighs, that if I’d thought I could’ve gotten away with it, I would’ve taken a photograph right there and no doubt won some art contest with it: I’d call my entry Gabriel, Finally.
“Jesus, Ryan,” he breathed, and the sound of his voice startled me; he’d been so quiet, barely loud enough to let me know hadn’t stopped breathing. “Stop, stop, I’m–”
Of course I didn’t stop. I know, I’d promised he could call a halt to it, but I’d been doing this long enough to learn the difference between stop, I don’t like this and if you don’t stop right now I’m going to come in your mouth. Gabe’s plea was of the latter sort, and fortunately for us both, that was exactly the reaction I wanted. Instead of stopping, I doubled up on my pace, and reached behind his balls to the little patch of skin back there — the taint, I suppose, though I’ve never liked that term — to press with my fingertips. Some guys have a trigger there, and Gabe was one of them; he went off like a shot, coming hard and heavy into my mouth. He came so much and so fast that I nearly gagged, so at least that was like being a teenager again, and when he finally finished and collapsed back against the bed, I was still swallowing what had made it into my mouth and wiping my face on the sheets to take care of what hadn’t.
I’d showered earlier and left my towel on the floor at the side of the bed, so I picked it up and ran it over his soft cock, belly, and thighs. “That was definitely, definitely worth the wait,” I said, kissing his newly cleaned skin.
Gabe opened his mouth, as though to spout some witty comeback, but after a moment, he just smiled and let the air out of his lungs in a long woooo. He let one of his hands flop across his bare stomach, then pulled at the edge of my sleeve, tugging me close as though to kiss me. I balked, though, leaning back. “How about I go brush my teeth first?” I said, indicating the sink with my thumb. Being a blowjob expert also taught you quickly that straight men often don’t like to kiss someone — male or female — with sperm breath.
But Gabe shook his head and pulled me close again, this time wrapping his arms around my neck. “I know what I taste like,” he smiled, and it was the hottest thing he could possibly have said, so hot I very nearly came in my pants and ruined both the whole evening and my suit. He dug his hands into my hair and kissed me hard, sucking at my mouth and making me forget exactly which of us was supposed to be in charge here. I wound up bracing myself by straddling his waist, my still-clothed erection pushing against his stomach, and Gabe stroked my back as we kissed, pulling my shirt up from the waistband of my pants. It was the awkward fumblings of someone who wanted to reciprocate but didn’t quite know how, and I rolled off him onto my side, unfastening my pants as quick as I could get them away from me.
He turned on his own side, facing me, and watched intently without making an effort to touch me. Nothing short of his actually telling me to cut it out was going to head this one off at the pass, though, so I grabbed my own cock and started jerking it hard. It was a sensation like you get when you’ve been sleeping on your arm and suddenly you get the circulation back — not relief, precisely, but you know it’s getting there. I closed my eyes, preemptively bracing myself against what I feared would be the sight of Gabe’s getting bored and wandering off.
I’d barely gotten ten strokes in, however, when I felt a small brush against my chest, and I looked down to see Gabe’s hand unfastening the buttons of my shirt. “Hey,” he said, artificially casual, and when I didn’t tell him to stop, he didn’t. When he made it down to the last, he took one side of the material and pushed it away, giving him a better view of my business. “That okay?” he asked, letting the tips of his fingers linger against my stomach.
For a second there, I couldn’t quite manage words. “…Fine, no, it’s … really good.” I let my eyes fall shut again and leaned back against the pillows, moving now with a frantic, sweaty pace. I felt just like I had at eighteen, sweaty and scared and prone to frantic jerkoff sessions where I knew I shouldn’t be thinking of Gabe, and the shouldn’t only made it hotter. But now he was in front of me, with his hand on my bare belly, and that made me feel a different kind of eighteen, the kind that could and did get get off at the slightest provocation. After an embarrasingly short number of minutes — I mean, they could’ve been counted on my hand that wasn’t busy — I came and came hard, shooting all over my hand, Gabe’s hand, my stomach, and the sheets, and making loud moaning sounds I was sure the people in the next rooms heard. Well, I thought, as I came back down, fuck ’em; this was too good not to be appropriately appreciative.
I didn’t know what I was expecting next, but it wasn’t what I got: Gabe grabbed both sides of my face and kissed me, kissed me hard and long, and I was so dazed by my recent nostalgic orgasm that it was clear he was doing most of the work. We stayed like that for a minute, our mouths moving against one another, the pace softening from frantic to lazy as we both came to rest. Finally, I broke from the kiss and pressed our foreheads together, and Gabe let his arm drape across my waist. “…Fuck,” I said, breathing out, and the word turned in an airy laugh.
“Yeah,” said Gabe, sounding as winded as I did. “…So, how’s your mom been?”
I laughed again, this time louder, and rolled on my back, draping my clean arm across my eyes. “Oh, she’s good, you know. She’s … good. …How’s your job?”
“Pays the bills,” Gabe shrugged, and we both laughed at how nonchalant we sounded even here, debauched and post-orgasmic, both of us now like the kids we’d been. Maybe I’d never thought of Gabe as my best friend, but dammit, he’d been the one who could always make me laugh, the one whose lead I could always follow. He’d always seemed to understand me better than anyone else had, which was what had made the fallout in the locker room sting so much. Made a lot more sense to learn now, all these years later, that the problem had been he’d understood me too much, more than he’d been ready to, and sometimes that overload was even worse.
“So.” I cleared my throat and propped my head up on my hand. “You braved an entire class reunion just to see if I still wanted your ass?”
“I, ah.” Gabe took a deep breath, then kicked his way under the covers, a little self-conscious in his motions now; he pulled them all the way to his chin, adorably modest, then proceeded to bury the lower half of his face beneath them. He’d always seemed to me brave and shy at once, and it was nice to see some things hadn’t changed. A lot, in fact, hadn’t changed, and for everything that had, there seemed to be just as many things that had stayed the same. “I may have.”
“Well, good news on that front.” A shadow passed across my good mood, and I frowned. “…And now we’re going to go back to like it was before.”
Gabe sighed, looking away. “Ryan, please….”
“All right.” I held up my hands, letting the future stand undiscussed for the time being, and crawled beneath the covers with him, then extended my arm across beside me, allowing him pillow his head against my bicep. He turned off the light by the bed, then rolled over next to me, settling his body against mine. What I noticed right then was not how awkward it felt, but how perfectly natural we seemed like this, how well we fit. Would we have fit like this years ago, if he hadn’t pushed me away, if we’d both fallen down together and come to rest beside one another, if everything broken hadn’t had to break? Or was this something that only came with age, something that made it all worth the wait? “I just missed you,” I said into his hair, feeling lame even as I said it.
“I know.” Gabe held me tight for a moment, a weird sort of desperate hug. “…I’m sorry I went and got old on you.”
“You? What now? God,” I said, kissing his hair, “I wish I looked half as amazing as you do.” He lifted his head and looked at me — really looked — for a good long moment, seeing something I couldn’t quite understand, frowning at me like there was a big chunk of this I was too thick-headed to get. “…What?” I said, feeling halfway between a lab specimen and a slice of meat.
At last, he settled back against my body, shaking his head as he went. “Amazing,” he echoed with a sigh. “The sexy lawyer I was the world’s biggest asshole to, back after twenty years all hot and successful to tell me he never stopped wanting me and give me the best blowjob of my entire life, is calling me amazing?”
“I…” At something of a loss for words, I cleared my throat. “Well, when you put it that way….”
I could feel his lips curve into a smile against my skin, and his hand slipped lower down my waist, coming to rest just at the rise of my hip. “So, sexy lawyer,” he said, “how do you feel about making up for lost time?”
“Up for it,” I grinned, and rolled him over on top of me.
The next morning, I awoke to the sunlight’s beaming through curtains that never got shut, only to find that the bed was empty, coffee was made, and everything that Gabe had brought in with him was gone.
Dazed and shaky, and more than a little naked and sticky, I stood and went about the business of drawing the blinds so I didn’t get any complaints from the Saturday morning boating crowd. That done, I looked around the room, letting my eyes adjust to the sudden dimness. A sheet of hotel stationery lay by the coffeepot, and I hesitated to pick it up, readying myself for the big cliché of deep confessions, reasons we can’t be together, promises never to forget me, and everything else you’re supposed to find in a morning-after note.
Instead, there were six words waiting for me: Should have said yes, and below them, penned-in, scratched-out, and re-written, I’m sorry.
I stared at the paper a long time, then calmly placed it where he’d left it. I had a pair of pajama pants sitting at the top of my luggage, so I tugged them on and pulled on my dress shirt from the previous night; decent again, I poured myself a mug of black coffee and walked out onto the balcony.
The morning was still cool, though the cloudless blue sky already told of scorching temperatures ahead. I drank my coffee and watched the white triangular sails amble around the bay, lazy passengers on the wind.
He had a lot of things to be sorry for, but so did I, and there were enough what-ifs between us to fill volumes. And now, it didn’t matter what either of us should have done, because whatever that should had been, it had also been left for dead on a Friday evening more than half my life ago, and in its absence, what had happened had happened, and it had nothing to do with should. He’d pushed me away, and I’d gone to Boston, and now he had two kids and a job anchoring him here, while I had my career and freedom up north. No amount of regrets about the past changed the present, and no amount of sorry excused us from the real lives we’d made for ourselves. And now he was gone, back to his, and at 3:45 that afternoon, I’d be stepping on a plane back to mine.
I thought for a second that I might cry, but the sensation passed, and instead I wound up just staring off at the water, watching the sun burn golden across its surface. Maybe exile was only bearable if one stayed away forever, and never came home, not even on a weekend pass, to encounter the ruins of what had been left behind.
The girl who answered the door had a braid of wavy, dark hair that stretched down nearly to her knees, and I would have known those brown eyes in anyone’s face. “Hello?” she asked, scanning me with the unique pre-teen disdain for visitors who had not come to see her in particular.
“Hi, I’m Ryan,” I told her, though the blank look on her face told me this meant nothing to her. “I’m a friend of your dad’s, actually. Are you Marisol?”
She nodded and took a step back from the doorway, letting me have passage in if I wanted. “Dad’s upstairs.”
“Yeah, um.” I shrugged, lingering on the porch, still not wholly convinced this was a good idea — but when had I ever before let that stop me? “I didn’t call first, but … I guess this is sort of a surprise. I mean, if this is a bad time, I can come back later–”
“Daaad!” she bellowed with all the force of youthful lungs, loud enough to make the china in the glass-fronted cabinets shake, and now she stepped back with greater purpose, nodding me into the air-conditioned belly of the house, out of the midmorning heat.
I took her up on her offer, wiping sweat from the back of my neck, just in time to hear the last few footfalls down the stairs. “Solie, honey, don’t yell–”
Gabe stopped short in the middle of his living room, his eyes wide to see me there. He was barefoot and scruffy, and wore a ratty grey UT athletic shirt with faded jeans, and if I had thought it hard not to jump his bones when he was wearing a suit, oh, I’d had no idea. “Hi,” I said, giving a little wave.
Everything about his body language, from the slight part of his mouth to the stiffness in his shoulders, told me I’d fucked up, that I’d never learned to leave well enough alone, that I’d crossed a serious line that couldn’t be taken back, not ever — and then I saw the corner of his lips twitch, and knew that everything was going to be okay. “Marisol, this is my friend Ryan. We went to high school together. We met up again at the reunion last month.”
“Here, I’ve got these,” I said, reaching into my back pants pocket and pulling out four tickets. By now, the general commotion had attracted a younger boy, who peeked out at me from behind the kitchen door — Robby, no doubt, though he took more after his mother, down to her darker complexion and full lips. It was weird, meeting the kids of friends and seeing the people you knew echoed in them. “They’re a couple of VIP zoo passes. They’re … well, my firm has them, since our San Antonio office is one of the zoo sponsors. So I … thought I’d bring them by. They’re good anytime, I mean, if today’s not good. But if it is, we could go, maybe. Or you three could. If that’s better. Or not.”
The word ‘zoo’ seemed to have sparked something inside Robby’s head, and he lit up like a Christmas tree. “Can we?” he said, looking at his dad. “They’ve got a new reptile house!”
Gabe, bless him, looked about as steamrolled by all of this as anyone in his position would have, but recovered quickly enough. “What do you think, Solie? Up for the zoo?”
Marisol looked at me, then looked back at her father, making the face of indecision between wanting something and being unsure if she should be too cool for it. At long last, she shrugged, and even broke a smile. “Sure,” she said, heading for the stairs, “let me go get ready.” Her brother thundered up ahead of her, and just before she disappeared around the corner, she gave me one last appraising look, frowning as though she couldn’t quite put her finger on my being there just yet, but willing to go with it until she could.
Now left to just the two of us, Gabe stepped in close to me and lowered his voice. “What are you doing here?” he asked, not angry, just honestly curious.
“Like I said, we’ve got a San Antonio office.” I handed over the passes, and Gabe folded them into his wallet. “And when I got back last time, I found out they had some overload and needed a hand getting some major cases ready for trial. So I volunteered, and now I’m going to be coming back this way about one week out of every month.”
“One week a month,” Gabe echoed, his face still marked with lingering disbelief.
I’d run over in my mind everything I’d wanted to say, written hundreds of little speeches on the themes of we can’t change the past and not erasing but working with all the years that have passed between us and making up for lost time, but now, finally standing in his house, two feet away from him in the midst of our real lives, they all evaporated. Instead, I shrugged. “It’s something.”
“This,” said Gabe, gesturing between the two of us and I knew he didn’t mean the zoo trip today or my new work schedule in general or even our newly rediscovered status as old friends, “probably won’t work.”
I shook my head. “I don’t care.” I gave a quick listen to make sure the noises from his kids were still coming only from upstairs, then reached over and brushed the back of my fingers across his lips; he looked a little nervous, and his eyes darted toward the stairs, but he didn’t pull away, and that, too, was something. “If we’re friends, we’re friends. If we’re something else, well … that comes later. I’ll take you any way I can get you. I just….” I took a deep breath and cursed my perfect speeches for having deserted me. “I missed you, and now that I’ve had you back, don’t want to have you not be a part of my life anymore.”
He reached up and covered my hand with his own, holding it there and closing his eyes — but before he could speak, two pairs of feet thundered down the stairs, and we were four feet apart again in the presence of his kids, just friends again. The weirdest part was, I was okay with this; more than okay, hell, I was damn near giddy. I didn’t know what it all meant and I didn’t know how (or if) we were going to go about it, but something was better than nothing. I was back in a state I hated, making tentative steps toward an actual relationship where failure was probably inevitable and success meant never leaving the closet again, and I was on top of the fucking world. Sometimes life was weird like that; sometimes life was just what you made of it.
“So, reptiles!” I said to Robby, and, as though I had pushed a magic button, he proceeded to launch into an entire explanation about why reptiles were cooler than amphibians, one that made his sister roll her eyes, though I could see the shadow of an indulgent smile tug at her mouth as she pushed out the door to the garage. Robby followed along just at her heels, babbling all the while, and I followed too; as I passed through the doorway, I felt Gabe’s hand on the small of my back, leading me forward with his family into the bright new morning.