by Yokomeshi (ヨコメシ)
It was, Ashley reflected, a mistake to come to work late this morning, as usually he would already be at his desk, drinking his coffee, and answering his email, instead of being cornered in the break room by a hysterical Michael waving half a toasted bagel in one hand.
“David from accounting told me that Felipe was talking about getting engaged soon. Oh, Ashley, why didn’t you ever tell me that Felipe was serious about his girlfriend?” Michael cried, getting bits of sesame seed all over both their shirts.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ashley muttered to himself, pressing Michael’s hand into a plate in an effort to avoid getting more crumbs on his clothes, “maybe it’s because apparently everyone but you figured it out on their own?”
“And I thought you weren’t completely disillusioned with your crush, but evidently,” Ashley said with a hint of sarcasm, stirring more sugar into his coffee and taking a judicious sip, “we were both wrong.”
Which was when Wei popped her head in through the doorway and grinned at Ashley and Michael, who despondently grumbled around a mouthful of bagel. “Felipe troubles early in the morning?” She tried to keep a straight face as she made herself peach tea, and failed rather spectacularly.
Michael’s head lifted up off the table and he made a loud snorting noise. “Don’t say his name in my presence,” he demanded, glaring. The regality of the proclamation was a little diminished by the bits of cream cheese he sprayed out with each word. “The man is dead to me.”
“For the half an hour before our morning meeting, maybe,” Ashley said, and, ignoring Wei’s giggles, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
By lunchtime Felipe was no longer dead, and Ashley had a headache. They were opening a new wind farm in New York within the year, and as always were already behind schedule, but all Michael wanted to talk about was Felipe’s tie, which he described as “lavender with a touch of cream.”
“I’ll ‘cream’ you if you don’t get back to work,” Ashley told him, desperate to get Michael to stop doodling caricatures of what he could only assume was Felipe’s girlfriend being hung on the blades of a windmill and back to their project outline. “And you better not be drawing on my spreadsheets.”
Michael sketched in another motion line next to the stick figure’s dangling legs, and then sighed rather dramatically, looking up at Ashley with a slightly pleading expression. Ashley determinedly didn’t meet Michael’s gaze. “He looked as gorgeous as ever this morning too,” Michael mumbled, morose, and flopped over like a dead fish on the table. “Julie doesn’t deserve him and his designer suits and lavender ties and the way he crosses his legs just so and–”
“You’ve never met Julie,” Ashley pointed out. Obstinately, he flipped over the hangman sketch and shoved the spreadsheet in Michael’s face, prodding the bottom line to draw Michael’s attention. “And now we need to think about a beautiful town located near a limestone ledge that’s going to produce 80 megawatts of power.”
Michael, with his chin on the table, started drawing frowning faces along the margins of the spreadsheet. “I bet Felipe’s smile could produce 80 megawatts of power.”
“And if he were located in Alabama, New York, that would actually be of interest to me.”
“I’m in pain, Ashley. My heart has been broken. I’ve been deeply wounded–!” Michael clutched at his chest, managing to bump his elbow into his pen holder, spilling ballpoints and pencils all over the floor.
“I’m sorry,” Ashley replied, “I couldn’t hear you. I think you must have said, ‘Yes, it’s time for us to work on our PowerPoint.'”
“I hope the man you love gets married to Miss California.”
“It’s a good thing for both of us, then, that I don’t have anyone,” Ashley said, blithe as he shuffled their papers and tapped Michael on the head with his own pen, not unkindly.
But it was probably wrong to say that Michael loved Felipe, Ashley mused as he idly surveyed Michael’s ill-fated attempts to summarize a 400-page environmental impact report into three short, snappy bullet points. True, since coming to work for Aurora Wind three years ago, Michael had instantly fixated on Aurora’s chief development officer, a thirty-four-year-old man named Felipe, who had the smile of a twelve-year-old, the enthusiasm of a college frat boy downing his first beer of the night, and the temperament of a saint. Almost everyone knew about it and, while it was not universally approved of, it had become a kind of joke passed around the company. Felipe himself was blissfully unaware of anything afoot, despite how he was always being seated next to Michael at company outings, or the fact that his secretary would send Michael tiny bouquets and chocolates for Valentine’s under Felipe’s name. To the rest of the company, it was all good fun, like a mascot of sorts, always good for a laugh. It was only Ashley who was uncomfortably and intimately aware of every detail of the infatuation.
Ashley had only been at Aurora for half a year when Michael had been hired. They were only a year apart– Ashley was older– and their desks were right next to each other, and Ashley, who had been brought up with warm, Southern hospitality, had promptly taken Michael out to lunch his first day at work, to ‘reach out to the new kid’, he had said. To which Michael had responded, over spicy and sweet panang curry, “Is your name really Ashley?”, and Ashley had said, warily, yes, that it was, and it was a family name, and had been surprised that Michael said no more on the subject, instead drilling Ashley about his home in Georgia, his grandmother who could drink all the men of the family under the table, his elusive accent.
And so, perhaps inevitably and despite their divergent personalities, they had become friends– Michael, who was spastic, and forgetful, but imaginative and full of charm, and Ashley, who worried and planned and was unfailingly methodical and thus appeared always older than his thirty-two years. They were almost never seen apart during breaks and meals, it was Ashley’s number that was programmed as one in Michael’s speed dial, and last year, quite memorably, the end-of-the-year slideshow featured a picture of Michael fairly drooling on Ashley’s suit during a morning meeting.
So it was Ashley who first found out that Michael, though attracted to both sexes, dated almost exclusively men, and it was Ashley who had to hear out Michael’s first pangs of heartache over Felipe. Ashley had waved it off first– it was almost a rite of initiation to crush on Felipe– but when the thing lasted all the way through Michael’s second year and developed a reputation of its own through their department, it was Ashley who bore daily postmortems of Felipe’s outfits, expressions, and greetings; Ashley, who tried almost desperately to interest Michael in every new hire to get Michael to chase after greener pastures; Ashley, who went bar-crawling with Michael when Julie first entered the picture.
And it was wrong to say that Ashley had no one in his life. He did. He had someone he loved intensely– a thirty-one year old business man at a wind energy company who worked at the desk next to him, who never made fun of Ashley’s name, who liked to doodle in the margins of his legal pad and had only ever admitted to Ashley that he cried at chick flicks, who would turn red whenever a certain CDO patted him on the shoulder and told him he did a good job.
Ashley did have someone in his life.
Ashley had Michael.
On Friday, after Ashley and Michael’s (completed and somehow coherent) PowerPoint on the new wind farm in New York, Felipe stood up, brushed off eraser shavings from his pants, and cleared his throat. He flashed them all a bright smile, with a lot of teeth, saying, “Barty’s is having a special happy hour for all of you in the new initiatives department. I’d like all of you to be there, because I have an announcement to make.”
“Oh my god, you’re laying all of us off,” Nathan moaned from the other side of the conference table. Everyone laughed.
“What, are you serious? You think I’d take you to a bar to lay you off?” Felipe joked, sitting back down amidst the sound of everyone entering the event on their BlackBerries.
“At least it’d go down easier with a beer,” Nathan shot back. “It’s how I’d like to be fired, anyway.”
“It’s going to be a happy announcement!” Felipe insisted, shooing them all out of the board room. “Happy! No lay-offs!”
Ashley, though, had his own suspicions. Felipe was wearing his nice blue shirt and black slacks, and instead of his usual bright yellow, red, and blue Friday tie, which he wore in honor of the Colombian flag (or so he said), he had on a rather stylish narrow black one. Instead of Friday casual, Felipe was pulling a Friday “hip and serious”. Ashley rather suspected that Michael would take whatever announcement Felipe made almost as badly as if Felipe had laid off the entire department, and he rather suspected, above all, that they would finally meet Julie.
Wei was in a gossipy mood when they got back to their desks. Crouching by Ashley’s chair, her arms folded with childish ease on Ashley’s desk, she said, “So I’ve heard some rumors about an engagement.”
Ashley groaned. “Please don’t spread them to Michael, or else we’ll be catching him by the ankle while he dangles off the balcony, and I’m not in the mood for it today.”
She laughed, but there was a little frown in the edges of her mouth when she leaned in close, conspiratorially, and said, “Isn’t it good news for you, though?”
“What, Michael in a suicidal state of depression?”
“No.” She pinned him with a critical, serious look, and, glancing around to make sure Michael was still in the bathroom, whispered, “I mean, that you’ll finally get a chance at him.”
Ashley turned pale instead of red, like he always did when he was so embarrassed he wanted to die. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said hastily, pretending to shove her away. “This is an office, not a Spanish soap,” and she giggled at him, blew him a kiss, and went back to her desk in IT.
“What was that all about?” Michael said suspiciously, watching Wei’s retreating back.
“Nothing,” Ashley said curtly, then, with a softer, lower voice, asked, “Hey, you have any idea what Felipe’s announcement is going to be about?”
Michael shook his head, falling into his chair rather dramatically and, like always, almost toppling it over as he propped a knee up against the edge of his table. “Not at all,” he said, but with dreamy cheerfulness. “He did look good today, didn’t he? That shirt always emphasizes his shoulders and back so nicely.”
Ashley sighed in mock despair. “What are we ever going to do with you,” he said, and Michael threw a pen at his head.
It had been a long, hard week, and everyone was happily deep into their second drink when Felipe rapped at the counter, hard, with his knuckles, and stood up. The entire bar went instantly silent, and Felipe looked around, taking measure of his audience, before saying, “Uh, well,” and turning beet red, which made him look approximately seven years old and very sweet.
“Go on, spit it out,” someone called at him, and a little round of chuckles swept through the bar as the department, finally convinced whatever announcement was coming had nothing to do with their job security, relaxed.
“So some of you might know that, uh, I’ve been sort of– well, not really sort of, I have been seeing someone,” Felipe explained. Beside Ashley, Michael uttered a little groan into his beer glass. “Her name’s Julie, and she’s here today– Julie? You’re not still in the bathroom, are you?”
A tall, slim woman with light brown hair appeared suddenly by Felipe’s side, her fair complexion a little pinked in the face as Felipe held her by the waist. He pecked her lightly on the cheek, causing the iced tea she was holding in one hand to sway, and the department gave out a collected gasp of delight. She was, Ashley realized, dismayed, very pretty, with ramrod straight posture and thin narrow shoulders, and she was wearing a loose, silk blouse the color of lavender, tinged with a hint of cream.
“Nice to meet you,” she said in a surprisingly low voice, waving her glass at the bar, and turning slightly pinker. “Felipe’s terrible– he was threatening to introduce me when I was in the bathroom so I couldn’t object to all the lies he’s going to tell about me.”
“I haven’t even said anything yet,” Felipe said, indignant, and turning to the rest of the audience, “She always jumps to conclusions, it’s really annoying.”
“Oh my god, they’re going to get married,” Nathan hissed on the other side of Ashley, squinting at the couple next to the bar counter as if they were doing something far more extraordinary than just standing and talking.
“What?” Michael blurted out, almost spilling his beer on Ashley’s sleeve. “That’s not true– that couldn’t possibly–”
But Ashley saw now, with a sinking sense of doom, that Julie’s hand holding the iced tea glass was, indeed, adorn with something sparkling and silver. Michael saw it in that moment too, and stuck his face into his beer glass, which still didn’t prevent him from hearing Felipe’s next words. “Well, all of you know that I’ve always treated Aurora as my extended family. We’ve learned and grown and matured with each other, and you guys have always been there for me, be it pie-in-the-face birthday surprises or our recent partnership with Neo Vento.” Felipe beamed at everyone, then at Julie, who grinned in return and rubbed his back. “Which is why I think it’s only fitting for you guys to know that Julie and I were just engaged last week.”
Stunned silence dominated the room until Susan, one of the more senior employees, slammed her beer down on the table and gasped, “But we’ve just met her today, how can we give you our approval?”
A great burst of laughter exploded from everyone else, Julie included, and Felipe turned, if possible, a deeper shade of red. “Hey,” he called back, “who do you think you are, my mother?”
And then someone called out, “To Felipe and Julie!” and someone responded with “To Mr. and Mrs. Serrano!” to great cries of merriment and clinking of glasses, and whatever Felipe said was lost in a great roar of congratulations.
By the time it had died down, Michael had managed to work his way through his third beer, his chin lolling heavily on his propped hand. Ashley surveyed him apprehensively. Michael mumbled something incoherent, and Ashley sat down on the stool next to him to get closer. “What?” he asked when Michael mumbled again, drinking down the last of his third beer and burying his head in his arms.
Michael’s voice was indistinct as he repeated, “I said, I wish she looked like a hag and wasn’t so obviously in love with him.” There was an acid sulkiness to his words, and Ashley was at a loss as to how to reply.
“Oh,” Ashley said. Michael grunted. This apparently the end of Michael’s contribution to the conversation, Michael waved his beer glass blindly at the bartender, who, casting a look at Ashley for confirmation, filled it up without another word. “Well,” Ashley hesitated, mulling over his words, “at least Felipe has good taste.”
“You’re saying that’s the reason why Felipe didn’t choose me,” Michael snapped, his face suddenly appear from his folded arms, eyes blaring and hair rather comically on end from where it had smashed against his forearms. It was a habit of Ashley’s to smooth it down before meetings, and he put a hand on Michael’s forehead now, brushing lightly at his bangs.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ashley said, voice firm and quiet.”I’d never imply anything of the sort.” Then, as if to temper the sweetness and his own embarrassment, Ashley flicked a finger at Michael’s forehead. Michael winced, rubbing at his forehead as he took a sip of his beer in a depressed, disconsolate way, and went back promptly to sulking in silence. A minute or maybe five passed, and, finally uncomfortable, Ashley asked, “So, what are you going to do now?”
Michael looked up blearily from where he was contemplating the ridges of his beer glass and then, unexpectedly, gave Ashley a wild, striking smile. “I’m going to get utterly, fantastically drunk,” he declared, and before Ashley could object, “and you’re going to get drunk with me.”
“Michael,” Ashley protested, aghast, “I might have things to do tomorrow,” but Michael nodded his head vigorously, not listening, and exclaimed, “Yes, obviously– taking care of our hangovers!”
Ashley frowned. He would say no, he really would. He even opened his mouth to form the words, but that was when Michael, grinning, slapped a hand to Ashley’s back. “You’re the only true friend I have,” he said, with a half-drunkard’s unquestionable zeal, and he leaned in close enough so that Ashley could smell Michael’s cologne, the underlying stir of Michael’s sweat, the faint pulse of beer. Michael put his head on Ashley’s shoulder, closing his eyes, and the refusal died, unspoken.
The thing was, Ashley mused, reaching for his own drink as he felt Michael’s throat work around a mouthful of beer, Felipe had Michael, even if he didn’t know it, and Felipe and Julie had each other, but it was Michael who had Ashley, not the other way around.
It was Ashley who belonged to Michael, not the other way around.
They hit three bars before Michael was drunk enough to forget why they were even drinking. Which, Ashley figured, pretty much made the evening an unqualified success.
“Look,” Ashley said, depositing Michael on the living room couch after driving them, maybe a little illegally, to his apartment, “we’re really not twenty year olds anymore. You’re going to feel terrible tomorrow, and I’m going to tell you I told you so.”
“Sweet Ashley,” Michael sang out, waving Ashley over. “Sweet, sweet Ashley. How about some water? I’m thirsty all of a sudden.”
“I’m not your servant, you moron!” Ashley yelled over his shoulder as he disappeared into the kitchen to search for a cup.
When he returned, Michael had stretched out comfortably on the couch, his legs crossed at the ankles over the armrests, hand over his eyes blocking the light. Ashley shook the cup of water so that the glass tinkled, and Michael turned his head to smile at him, face unguarded and blurry with alcohol. “I want you to feed it to me,” he whined, which made Ashley purse his lips disapprovingly, but he complied all the same. When Michael had had enough, Ashley put the glass on the side table and turned to get up, but without warning, Michael pulled Ashley down by the arm until their noses were almost touching.
It wasn’t the first time they had been that close; when Michael had first found out about Julie and they had both gotten terribly smashed drinking whiskey in Michael’s cramped and messy apartment, Ashley had discovered that Michael had the discomfiting habit, while drunk, of scooting closer and closer to the other person during a conversation, so that by the end of it, merely looking at Michael had made Ashley’s eyes cross. And Michael was always a physically affectionate person. Ashley himself was never hesitant about touch, but this time was different. Michael’s breath was hot on Ashley’s face as he giggled, his chest rising and falling under Ashley’s palm, where Ashley had tried to slap a hand to keep himself from actually falling on Michael. Ashley was almost draped over Michael’s torso, and he had never realized, until now, that Michael had long, well-filled eyelashes. Michael blinked up at Ashley.
“Michael,” Ashley breathed, and he felt rather then saw Michael’s mouth move, saying, “You know, actually, you’re pretty hot. I’ve never noticed.”
“Always been eclipsed by Felipe,” Ashley joked, trying to pull away, but Michael’s grip was iron on his elbow and gave no way. “Hard to see the moon when the sun is out, etcetera.”
“Too complicated. I’m drunk,” Michael said lightly, and then, with a sudden contemplative air, but still smiling, he confided, “Did you know that Felipe’s getting married?”
“I know. I was there, remember?” Ashley whispered. His hands were sweating, and Michael’s heart thudded against his palm, the rhythm rapid with intoxication. “It’ll be okay though.”
“Yeah,” Michael whispered back, nodding. Their noses rubbed against each other, almost ticklish. Michael wrinkled his, as if to repeat the contact, giggling again. “You’re not getting married though,” he finished, and shifted his face while he leaned up so that their lips met.
It was not, actually, the best kiss of Ashley’s life. In fact it was pretty unimpressive. Michael tasted of beer, and when he tried to deepen the kiss, it became sloppy, too much lip and not enough mouth. Ashley jerked his head to pull away, but Michael grabbed the front of Ashley’s shirt, twisting it in a fist to keep him close, tightening Ashley’s collar and almost choking him. Ashley made a low sound of surprise and tried to say, “Hold on a minute,” and, as if to keep Ashley from getting away, Michael grabbed onto the front of Ashley’s belt, hooking his fingers around the buckle.
They stopped for a minute, out of breath. Michael relaxed his grip on Ashley’s shirt, enough to let Ashley get gasps of fresh air, but even still, he was choked up when Michael started running his hand down, closer to the crotch of Ashley’s pants.
“You’re hard,” Michael muttered, a little wickedly, and licked his lips.
“Michael, please, let go,” Ashley pleaded, trying to wrench Michael’s hands off, but with a shake of his head, Michael undid Ashley’s belt, shoving his hand into Ashley’s boxers and groping until Ashley jolted in surprise, letting out a small, shocked moan. Michael swallowed it in another kiss.
The whole thing was messy and, despite Michael’s clumsy hand, over surprisingly quickly. The first few strokes were chafing rather than arousing, and it wasn’t until Michael, satisfied that Ashley wouldn’t escape, unzipped Ashley’s pants that Ashley actually started bucking his hips into Michael’s touch, his protests faltering as Michael ran his fingers up and down Ashley’s length before gripping hard. Michael was no-nonsense: fast, firm pumps in a relentlessly even pace, practiced and aggressive while his kisses, all lip and no tongue, were light, almost shy, and in between them he watched Ashley’s face closely, as if waiting for a sign. Michael was still reclining on the couch, and Ashley bent over him, but as Ashley neared the end, Michael had arched his back in an effort to press his mouth harder against Ashley’s, who found it harder and harder to keep from biting his lower lip in frustration and pleasure, and Ashley had all but collapsed on top of Michael, pressing into Michael’s hand, his heaving, over-warm chest.
“Ashley–” Michael whispered urgently, brushing his thumb over the tip of Ashley’s cock, “Ashley, is it– are you coming yet?” and maybe it was the power of suggestion, but Ashley felt himself tightening, about to explode. He called out hoarsely, body almost thrashing. Michael put a hand on Ashley’s shoulder to steady him for the final strokes, and somehow it culminated with Michael and Ashley tumbling off the couch and onto the floor, Ashley coming all over Michael’s shirt and hand, Michael being the one draped all over Ashley, both of their breaths coming in harsh, uneven panting as their chests pressed against each other.
“Damn,” Ashley moaned, covering his face with both hands. “You’re actually– pretty good at that.”
“I know,” Michael said, rather lazily, and settled down as if for the long haul, his cheek on Ashley’s collarbone and his clean hand curled next to Ashley’s neck like a child’s.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Ashley warned him. “We’re not– are you really drunk?”
There was an awkward pause. Ashley steeled himself for the worst. Already he felt like a fool, his underwear and pants pushed down so that part of his ass was rubbing against the carpet as he peered between his fingers at the top of Michael’s head. He began to apologize– for what, he wasn’t quite sure, and it miffed him to think that somehow he should be at fault for Michael rather forcibly jerking him off on his own couch–but Michael interrupted him. “You know what else I’m good at?” he said, his voice a low rumble against Ashley, comfortable, and not unlike a cat purring for attention.
“What?” Ashley asked, wary.
Michael didn’t say anything. His head still resting against Ashley’s collarbone, he rearranged himself so that he could slip a knee between Ashley’s legs, and then he simply peeled one of Ashley’s hands off his face and took two of Ashley’s fingers into his mouth, sucking them in hard and deep.
In the end it was Ashley who sucked Michael off in the living room. He had responded to Michael’s unsubtle teasing by shoving Michael against the couch and kissing him hard, not hard enough to bruise but enough to make both their mouths tingle for minutes afterwards, and with their legs entangled, Michael almost sitting in Ashley’s lap, it was difficult for Ashley not to notice Michael’s hard-on pressing insistently against Ashley’s stomach. “I, uh, it can wait,” Michael said, magnanimously, trying to direct Ashley’s attention away from it. So Ashley hoisted him up on the couch and promptly blew him without another word, Michael’s hands clutching desperately at Ashley’s hair as if to force him down and force him away in the same motion, his moans shocked and sweet when he came unexpectedly in Ashley’s mouth, mid-stroke.
He apologized for it by leaving a flurry of kisses on Ashley’s face, even kissing him on the mouth, not recoiling at his own taste. They made their way to the bedroom still kissing, leaving a trail of clothing like footprints, and Ashley came back from a hurried search for condoms and lube to find Michael completely naked on his bed, face flushed, skin almost golden from the faint light of the bedside lamp.
“I haven’t done this for a while,” Ashley said, his voice thick, unable to meet Michael’s eye. He sat down on the bed next to Michael, hands shaking as he brushed his fingers over Michael’s bare shoulder. “Are you sure? We don’t have to. I mean, we can–” and Michael kissed his elbow, his bicep, his nose, and pushed Ashley down onto the sheets.
They made love like a dream, like Ashley had never imagined, even when he did imagine having sex with Michael, which to be honest was not often. Michael was still drunk, and moved with less than grace, but made up for it by laughing often, by betraying a shy sensitivity to his own pleasure while he rode Ashley fiercely, with unaffected frenzy. Ashley, who was not drunk at all, found himself wondering what had kept them from this for so long; it was obviously so natural that it felt like their bodies had been having sex for years without their knowledge.
And afterward he thought, even if he touched Michael with an almost reverent tenderness as Michael came, sobbing, even if he said I love you one too many times, even if he kissed Michael like he was kissing something precious, something he had desired for too long, it would be okay. Everything would be okay, Ashley thought while he watched Michael, passed out beside him and snoring. Michael had wanted it, and he had wanted it too, and their bodies knew it better than they did, and “Maybe,” Ashley whispered against the curve of Michael’s back as he closed his eyes and slid into unconsciousness, “maybe this means you want me too.”
When Ashley woke up, it was already Saturday, and noon. Michael was gone, along with Ashley’s underwear, which Ashley, picking up the trail of clothes they had left behind, assumed Michael had worn home by accident instead of his own.
He texted Michael to tell him that he expected it back laundered and pressed, and waited, all day, for the response that never came.
The last time Ashley had gotten drunk with Michael, over whiskey and the first mention of Julie, Ashley had woken up at Michael’s house to find them both half naked, under a comforter, sleeping spread-eagled on the kitchen floor. Neither of them remembered how they ended up that way, but, as if it were all perfectly normal, Ashley had sat up, stretched and made them both eggs in a basket, which Michael complained that he was too hungover to eat. He nevertheless finished his portion off with sickening gusto, and they spent the rest of the day watching the home shopping channel together in sedate, silent companionship.
Ashley had rather thought Saturday would go something like that, and so waking up to Michael’s absence was disappointing, but ultimately not worrisome. All the same, as Saturday night dragged on into Sunday morning, Ashley found that he couldn’t sleep, and was instead spending the night staring at his cell phone, wondering if he should give Michael a call. He was paralyzed with indecision. Was Michael’s silence a sign that he would rather pretend the whole thing didn’t happen? This would be understandable, even though simply considering the possibility made Ashley queasy. Michael had been terribly drunk or had at least acted that way, and Ashley supposed, if he thought hard about the evening instead of just unhealthily reliving it over and over again, he had taken advantage of Michael, who was eager and easy and heartbroken over Felipe.
And if Michael did want to pretend the whole thing didn’t happen, what should Ashley do? Should he confront him? He didn’t know how he would act around Michael on Monday: whether he should be cool and aloof, whether Michael would be cool and aloof, if he could take being merely friendly while he could still taste the way Michael would nip along his lip, lightly brush Ashley’s tongue with his–
Ashley turned over, suddenly hard, and ashamed of himself for it. He fell fitfully asleep, dreaming of nothing.
He spent Sunday exercising and needlessly cleaning the house. In the evening, his cell phone rang while he was vacuuming, and he answered it with hair-trigger quickness, not bothering to check who was calling.
It was his mother.
After they finished talking and she hung up, Ashley sat on the couch, the phone held loosely in his hand, and he said, out loud, to no one in particular, “All right then. Okay,” and then set his phone to silent.
“I have a plan to win back Felipe,” Michael announced.
“You can’t win him back if you never had him in the first place,” Ashley pointed out, pouring more cream in his coffee and flipping to the business section of the Houston Chronicle.
“Shut up, Ashley.”
It was Tuesday morning, and they were having their usual pre-meeting coffee and daily update on The Curious Case of Michael’s Undying Infatuation with Felipe Which Was Now Reaching Serious Levels of Unhealthy Creepiness. Michael had barged into the break room a few minutes earlier in search of Ashley, and was now happily explaining the stroke of genius that had occurred to him overnight. “I’m going to woo him,” Michael said excitedly, tapping the table rapidly with his fingers and grinning at Ashley like a lunatic.
“How old-fashioned,” Ashley murmured, flipping another page, not taking in a word of what he was reading.
“I have flowers!” Michael produced a bouquet of wilting pink asters and waved them under Ashley’s nose, so that a few crushed petals fell despondently into Ashley’s coffee. “And a card. It says ‘Asters mean love. Please take good care of mine.'” He beamed, expectant.
Ashley sighed and picked out the petals from his cup. “Do you know,” he said, with a detached, rhetorical air, “I can’t think of any flowers that don’t mean love.”
“Don’t carnations mean rejection?” Teddy called from the coffee dispensers.
“I’ll be sure to pass that along to Felipe,” Ashley said with a little chuckle, which made Michael pout and get up abruptly, slamming the door behind him, much to Teddy’s amusement.
Ashley was not trying to be mean-spirited to Michael, but he would be lying if he said that the entire proceedings made him happy. On Monday Michael had slapped down a small plastic bag with Ashley’s underwear neatly folded inside and said, “No wonder the waistband was so loose on me,” with a wicked grin. Ashley’s heart had stopped, and he held his breath, waiting, but nothing else was said, no mention at all of what had happened, and finally, staring up at Michael’s face, Ashley had to exhale or else he knew he was going to suffocate or scream. He loathed to bring it up himself, because anything he said, he knew, would immediately become too emotionally honest, too needy. He’d end up spilling his guts and ruining it all, three years’ worth of friendship, and really, was it so bad, just forgetting the whole deal without ever bringing it up again?
So here they were, Tuesday morning, with a bouquet of flowers for Felipe that no one heard anything more about until the afternoon, when Sarah told Nathan who told Samuel who told Wei who told Ashley that Felipe had been overheard asking Julie if she had left him some flowers as a joke, and Michael, who had perked up at the mention of Felipe’s name, fairly glowed with pride.
“I can totally see how making him think Julie is leaving him strange gifts is conducive to winning him over to you,” Ashley said sarcastically as they walked towards the garage at the end of the day.
“This is all part of my genius. You’ll see,” Michael chirruped, and even thudded Ashley on the back, whistling while he unlocked his car doors.
On Wednesday, Felipe nearly sat on the pan of brownies Michael had baked the night before and snuck onto Felipe’s office chair. On Thursday, it was bright pink heart-shaped balloons, enough to fill Felipe’s office, which was embarrassing because Michael had forgotten that the head of Neo Vento was visiting, and the assistant CDO, Allison, had to explain that it was their company policy to brighten their working spaces, all the while writing a furious memo on her BlackBerry to Michael that he, under no circumstance, was to be left in Felipe’s office unattended, or else she’ll conveniently transfer him to their nonexistent offices in Siberia, naked.
“I guess that means I’ll have to forgo changing Felipe’s wallpaper and go straight to slipping him anonymous love letters under his door,” Michael mused while he and Ashley waited in line for hamburgers at the nearby What-A-Burger.
“I’m sorry to hear that your brilliant plans have been laid to waste, but really, how were you planning on getting the login password to Felipe’s computer anyway?”
“I’d think you’d be a little more sympathetic about this, Ashley. Shouldn’t you, as my wingman, be helping me think of some truly brilliant ideas to win Felipe over?”
Unable to stop himself, Ashley snapped at him, “Are you an idiot, or do you just take me for one?”
He regretted it instantly when he saw the expression on Michael’s face as he turned around. It was the blank look of someone innocent being accused of some heinous, inconceivable crime, and Ashley felt his stomach sink to his feet when Michael, knitting his eyebrows, said very quietly and in a very hurt voice, “Why would I be taking you for an idiot?”
“It’s like– ” Ashley said, but, finding no words, simply waved his hand around in a helplessly all-encompassing gesture and finished with, “I feel like you take me for granted.”
“I would never take you for granted,” Michael answered, very serious. “Where am I taking you for granted?” and Ashley clapped him on the shoulder and quickly changed the subject.
Was it, in the end, all a sex-crazed fantasy Ashley had had on his own? Had he imagined the whole thing? But Ashley had the underwear to prove it, didn’t he? And he had hardly been as drunk that night as Michael; why should it be his memory that was suspect? As he took unenthusiastic bites of his burger and listened to Michael rave about the difficult PR contacts in New York, Ashley tried to put his own feelings in order. Clearly, he thought, Michael was not ready to give up Felipe, and he was, however intentionally, keeping Ashley at a distance. They had not moved on from friendship, they had not moved on from anything. And, Ashley admitted, though it hurt his dignity to do so, he would rather this than Michael hating him, being distant, becoming a stranger.
He would rather this than nothing at all, and he would bear it cheerfully.
But on Friday night, after a whole day of listening to Michael read his love letters to Felipe out loud so that Ashley could correct his grammar, Ashley worked himself into a bad mood anyway, moping and drinking beer alone in his apartment. He was well on the way to being thoroughly pissed and pissed off, when Michael showed up with a bag full of take-out Chinese and a copy of 17 Again.
“What are you doing here?” Ashley demanded, which was not at all the question he wanted to ask, but was what came out instead of Who the hell do you think you are?, or Do you know how much I want to bash your head in right now?, and most importantly, Do you even remember anything that happened last Friday night, or is this all just some big joke to you?
“I thought you might like some company,” Michael said, his expression opaque, somewhere muddled between smiling and grave. “You were in a bad mood all day.”
“And whose fault is that, do you think?” Ashley glared at Michael, but Michael shrugged, as if he truly didn’t know, and Ashley, unable to think of anything else to do, let him in.
They watched 17 Again with a box of Kleenex for Michael. Ashley himself wasn’t completely dry-eyed when they got to the divorce court scene, but he was nowhere close to the wreck Michael was by the end of the film. When the cast credits started rolling, Ashley realized that Michael was blowing his nose furtively into a Kleenex, and he frowned. Normally this would be when Ashley would pat Michael on the head and pull him close to his chest and make fun of how easily Michael was moved by Hollywood manipulation, but as he reached out for Michael, Ashley had a vivid flashback to the way Michael had held Ashley by the shoulder as he jerked him off last week, and he swallowed hard instead, his hand falling back to his lap.
“I bet no one will ever love me enough to throw a basketball game for me,” Michael declared suddenly, in between sniffles, throwing the crumpled Kleenex ball into the nearby wastebasket and missing.
His statement caught Ashley off guard, startling him into answering honestly, and Ashley said, “Don’t be stupid. I love you.” At this, Michael turned, eyes bright and red, mouth open, and Ashley hastily added, “I mean, I care for you, so I’m sure you’ll find someone. Not every guy is Felipe.”
It was a lame cover-up, and Ashley expected Michael to see right through him, but instead Michael’s face fell, his bottom lip trembling a little as he emitted a tiny, “Oh,” so against his own better judgment Ashley had to kiss him, because he didn’t want Michael to feel miserable because of a movie starring Zac Efron.
This time when they fucked, Ashley took it slow, so he could remember every detail. He spread Michael out on his bed, spread his legs open just as carefully, and Michael let him explore his entire body with his tongue: the sharp rises of the ridges of Michael’s neck, the way Michael’s nipples would respond to even the slightest touch, the dip in Michael’s spine that curved in imperceptible inches into his ass. He committed every single mark and line to memory, thoroughly and almost tortuously slow, so that Michael was heaving against the sheets by the time Ashley got to actually rimming him. And that was good, too; Michael made noises so far removed from speech that Ashley had to smile, and when Ashley withdrew, Michael seemed to struggling with a Herculean effort not to come right that instant, rubbing himself into the sheets.
“Wait,” Ashley murmured, getting a choked cry of frustration from Michael as he wrapped a tight fist around Michael’s cock. “Just a little bit longer– wait for me–” and Michael did.
This time, they fucked with Michael on all fours, Ashley with his hand on the small of Michael’s back, soothing him as they rocked back and forth, and Michael said he was going to die, that this was unbearable, that he needed Ashley to let him come, please, please, and a lot of other embarrassing things that Ashley took in greedily, but when he did let Michael come, Michael’s ass tightened on Ashley’s so hard Ashley wanted to tell Michael that no, he was the one who was going to die, burn up, maybe, to embers and dust.
This time, Ashley left a mark. A love bite, just where the top line of a shirt collar might start, just dark enough so that he could see it the next morning, and make sure. He brushed Michael’s hair away from his face, and kissed Michael on the ridge of his ear, and said nothing at all. He didn’t know what to say.
It went on like that, for a while. During the week, Michael came up with more outrageous ideas to win Felipe over: a trail of Reese’s cups leading to Michael’s office, bad love poems stapled to Felipe’s door, paying a window-wiper to leave a heart-shaped foam trail on Felipe’s windows, which unfortunately had dripped into an incomprehensible scummy mess by the time Felipe saw it. Ashley would grin and bear it, and once he even found himself trying to lure Felipe into the break room, where Michael had built a small statue of Felipe out of Dixie cups, coffee stirrers, and sugar packets, under the pretense of having a problem with the new New York wind farm. It was not so funny when, for a week after Michael went a little too far, Felipe thought that he was being the unconscious target of some malicious practical joke, but for the most part, Michael’s antics were good for laughs.
On Friday night, though, Michael would show up at Ashley’s door with food and a movie, and then they would fuck. Sweetly, sometimes, like they were getting to know each other, like an older couple taking it slow and gentle. Other times, wild and rough and unexpectedly brutal, when Michael would beg for it and come so hard he would black out afterwards. Ashley felt ashamed those times, because he never meant for the bruises, the bite marks, the way Michael would wince, touching a wrist or sitting down, but he was never able to say no. Especially not when Michael was naked on the couch, mouth stretched wide with begging, stumbling over Ashley’s name in his need to be touched.
And afterwards Ashley would always hold Michael to his chest, and he would wait until he was sure Michael was asleep, and he would mouth things, like I will treat you better than Felipe ever could, or No one will ever care for you like I will, or I would never let anything ever hurt you, or sometimes, simply, over and over again, I love you. In the morning by the sharp slanting light of his balcony, Ashley would watch Michael eating the scrambled eggs he made and humming happily along with a McDonald’s TV ad, and he would wonder what it was that made it easier for him to say those things to Michael’s slumbering back. If it was merely a coward’s way out, to love a person the way he loved Michael. If he only wanted Michael because he knew Michael didn’t love him that way back.
And Michael would smile, mouth full of toast, and say, “What?” and check the shirt he was wearing—Ashley’s–for ketchup stains, and it would all fall in place. Because Ashley loved him, because if it was Michael, it was all okay. It was pathetic, but love, Ashley knew, was not always about being noble. Sometimes it was about getting on your knees and crawling, about scrabbling for a crumb or kicking a man while he was down. And so often it was about taking what you can get.
One Sunday Michael said, “I want to go to the beach for Labor Day,” so Ashley packed potato salad, turkey sandwiches, a cooler full of beer, and a blanket, and they drove down for the day. Ashley, who had fair skin and a head of ashy blond hair, spent the day trying to hide under the shade with a book, but Michael was finally fed up with playing water polo with seven-year-olds by early afternoon and sprung a surprise sunblock attack on Ashley.
“I can hear you laughing,” Ashley grumbled. Michael’s hands soothed the lotion studiously over Ashley’s back, and he leaned into the touch, blunting the edge of his complaint. “It’s not my fault you have better genes.”
“What? How? My mother’s almost paler than you are, and anyway, my father’s never told me I inherited some secret Japanese ninja power of avoiding sunburn from him.” After a minute, he said through a smile Ashley could hear, “You have freckles on your shoulders already.”
“Fine, you’re just lucky then.”
“Mmm, very lucky,” Michael said, and pressed his lips against the back of Ashley’s neck, the touch cool and dry. It was Galveston in late summer, and the sun was still heavy like a punch in the face, but Ashley felt the words go through his body like a shiver, like the instant freeze of metal left outside in the snow. It was that more than anything that made him drag Michael down on top of him, on top of the towel, spread his knees so that Michael lay between them. Michael, surprised, his hands still sticky with sunblock, made a noise of protest which fed straight into a moan when Ashley shifted them so that their crotches were flush against each other. Lightly, playfully at first, then harder, then desperate, Ashley rubbed their cocks against each other through the slick, almost plasticky fabric of their swimming trunks, until Michael was fisting the sand above Ashley’s head like it could keep him from getting swept away by a tide and he was begging for Ashley to put a hand on him. Ashley just shook his head, both hands on Michael’s hips and pulling him close, rubbing him harder, ignoring the sand that rubbed him raw on his back, the noises Michael made that was sure to draw attention, and when they came together, perfectly, Michael arched his back so that he gave into one final, brutal thrust, and then collapsed, panting, nuzzling into Ashley’s temple.
“Now I’m all sticky,” Michael muttered, his fingers flexing experimentally through Ashley’s hair, sandy and clumsy and the most wonderful thing in the world.
“That’s what the water is for,” Ashley pointed out lazily, and when they were in the water, chest deep and their bodies almost loosened by after-sex glow, Michael kissed him, tasting of salt, and gratitude, and happiness.
Ashley drove them home. Michael fell asleep almost immediately, listening to NPR’s evening classical musical program. After a while Ashley realized that he wasn’t driving home at all; he was just driving and driving, as if nothing in the world mattered except this car, Michael asleep, both of them smelling of water and sun, separate and alone and together.
The other shoe came in the form of tickets to a ballet in New York, for an opening show.
“I don’t think Julie shouldn’t be a good dancer,” Michael griped for the fifth time that morning. “I just wish she’d be the first ballerina somewhere far, far away from Felipe. Or even better, if she was unemployed. But a fabulous dancer, of course.”
“Yes,” Ashley said mildly, half his mind still stuck on a memo he had to write for Accounting, “because that sounds exactly like the kind of woman Felipe would want to marry. A hobo dancer.”
Michael sighed, sinking his head into his arms, and said with a dreamy smile, “He has such good taste, doesn’t he?”
“In women and men,” Nathan, who had been eavesdropping, interjected in a stage whisper, and Michael flipped him off.
Felipe and Julie’s family were going out of their way to put on a reception after the show, and Felipe of course had given tickets to everyone in his department. “I know that it’s kind of expensive to fly to New York just for the weekend,” Felipe apologized. “But really, I’d love for all of you to be there. It’ll be a department-wide vacation anyway, so you might as well take advantage of the free entertainment.” Dress is pretty old-fashioned and formal, he added, and then, as if he had just been asking them all for an enormous favor instead of inviting them all on field trip, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
When they got back to their desks, Michael suddenly yelped, standing up so quickly his chair fell with a clatter to the ground. Half the office stood up too, to see what had happened, only to hear Michael cry across the cubicle barrier, “Ashley–! I don’t have a tuxedo!”
“Do we have to talk about this right now?” Ashley yelled back, torn between amusement and exasperation.
“Of course we do! In fact we need to go get one right now! What if I look shabby standing next to Julie?”
“You’ll always look shabby standing next to Julie. You’re missing that girlish figure,” Wei said, grinning.
“Wei! You traitor! I thought you were on my side!”
Allison burst in, almost breaking the door of its hinges, her face red. “Ashley! Tell Michael to shut up! I’m on a conference call to Portugal!” She slammed the door after her, and everyone, after a moment of stunned silence, laughed.
“You must really like him,” Wei emailed Ashley a minute later from across the office. “Or else I have no idea how you deal with him. :)”
In the end Ashley convinced Michael to wait until after work, where they went to a formal men’s clothing shop an hour away from downtown, in a strip mall neither of them had ever visited. Michael submitted with almost peevish impatience to a fitting, and Ashley, turning over price tags and rifling through the bowties, frowned. “Michael, you could just rent one when we’re in New York,” he said, scrutinizing an eyewateringly expensive shirt as if it had personally offended him. “It’s just one evening. I doubt you’re ever going to wear a tuxedo again.”
“Where’d you get yours, then?” Michael asked, cocking his head to one side and getting scolded by the man currently measuring his neck.
Ashley thought for a minute, then shrugged. “Wedding, I think. Some time three or four years ago.”
“Think it’ll still fit around that waist of yours?” Michael joked.
“You’re one to talk, glutton.”
“I am not! And anyway,” Michael said, very smug, “I work it all off when I’m with you.” This was usually when Ashley would kiss him, to get him to stop smiling, maybe put a hand up Michael’s shirt, start stroking along his ribs, where he was sensitive, but they were in public and in company. Frustrated, Ashley gave Michael an unconvincing laugh, and turned away. “Ashley?” Michael called out. His fitting over, he had wandered over to the jackets, examining the silk facings with childish curiosity.
A young couple entered the store, and their attendant excused himself. “I just have to get them their tuxes for their wedding,” he said before walking towards them. Ashley, who had been watching them from the cufflink shelf as they circled, arm in arm, around the shop, suddenly felt Michael at his elbow, and thought to himself that in a way, they were mirroring the other couple across the room, even if the other couple wasn’t aware of it.They both stood there in silence for a while, before Michael cleared his throat.
“I keep waiting, you know, for someone that I’d love enough to want to get married to.”
“How are you going to get around the fact that it’s not legal in Texas?” Ashley murmured, watching the bride-to-be laugh, placing her hand on her fiance’s arm, a ring just barely catching the light. “Or do you plan on driving somewhere else?”
“Oh, not actually get married.” Michael fingered the satiny surface of an untied bowtie, his voice absent and thoughtful. “Just, you know. Being serious with someone to the point of being married. Maybe even getting rings.” Michael blushed. A thrill ran through Ashley, almost physically lifting his feet off the ground, but then Michael, in a more normal voice, added, “But so far, no luck.”
“None,” Michael echoed. He flung the bowtie away from him, morose. “All my relationships so far– just kidding around. Even this thing with Felipe–”
“All your relationships?” Ashley bit out. Michael looked up, taken aback by Ashley’s vehemence. Ashley pressed on. “I just want to be clear. You feel you haven’t yet been in a single relationship with anyone that was serious.”
“Ashley, what’s going on?”
He didn’t know what to say, so instead Ashley turned around and took in Michael, all of Michael. The tousled dark hair, a confused expression on his face that was almost hurt, and how strange, Ashley contemplated, that Michael was the one who looked hurt, when it was really Ashley who was being wronged. Or was he being wronged? Had he ever really thought that Michael was taking him seriously? The store attendant was coming back, and Michael was still waiting for Ashley to say something. A cold haze had settled in on top of the initial anger. It made Ashley feel numb, like he was watching someone else in his place acting out this ridiculous drama. And still, Ashley wanted to kiss Michael, to make a scene, to make the attendant and the almost-married couple and Michael know that they were together, to know that they were a couple, to acknowledge–
“I have to go,” he finally said.
“Ashley, you’re being really weird today,” Michael protested, grabbing Ashley by the elbow. Ashley shook him off. “Ashley! What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Ashley said, and, like an afterthought, patted Michael on the shoulder. His hand lingered there for a minute, then he withdrew. “Nothing, I just have to go.”
By the time Ashley drove home, he realized that he had abandoned Michael in the menswear shop. They had driven to the strip mall together, and now Michael was stuck, with a loving new couple and an expensive new tux.
He had a cell phone, Ashley reasoned. He could call someone up.
Ashley, he told himself firmly, you have to stop caring.
By dinner time, it was no longer anger. The numbness had spread, made worse by the fact that he kept seeing Michael everywhere in his apartment. He wasn’t doing anything so melodramatic as clearing away all of Michael’s belongings. He told himself that it wasn’t a breakup he was looking for. How could it be, when in Michael’s eyes, they were never together? But there was Michael’s toothbrush, Michael’s face wash – an extra bottle of which he left at Ashley’s because he was very particular about certain parts of his morning routine – Michael’s Special K cherry coke soda in the fridge. Ashley kept finding them, like little emotional obstacles he kept stubbing his toe on and tripping over.
He made himself some pasta and sat down to watch the news. His phone kept ringing on the table. It was Michael, who called in ten minute intervals for half an hour before giving up. When the ringing stopped, Ashley felt himself waiting for them, angry that Michael wasn’t trying harder, angry that he only warranted half an hour.
“Oh god,” he said out loud, rubbing his face with the heels of his palms. “James Ashley Harper, what the hell do you want?”
He didn’t know what he wanted anymore. He wanted Michael, and he didn’t want all of Michael’s problems. That would be cheating, and he didn’t want that. He wanted a serious relationship, but he couldn’t have one with Michael if Michael didn’t want one. He wanted Michael, but he wanted Michael to want him. Which was always the problem with love.
But he knew above all else that he didn’t want to spend another night staring at his cell phone, waiting, feeling used and stupid and gullible. And that, at least, was something he could do something about.
It was a week away from “the New York field trip,” as Wei kept referring to it. Ashley helped Jenny plan out the hotels, and as always, they put him in the same room as Michael. He didn’t say anything, although he could sense in the silence that Jenny was waiting for some kind of response. All through the week he and Michael had been on the outs, which was not uncommon in and of itself. But Ashley had pointedly avoided Michael’s attempts to patch up, mostly because Michael seemed, still, to have no idea what it is that he did wrong.
“You two are worse than high schoolers,” Nathan hissed one afternoon after Michael, frustrated with Ashley’s refusal to accept his present of a crate of sweet tea in gallons, stalked out of the break room with a stormy expression on his face, almost running Nathan over in the process.
“Just make up already,” Teddy added, pushing a cup of coffee at Ashley while trying, and failing, to make puppy dog eyes.
“Why,” Ashley fumed, “is everyone always telling me to take care of Michael? Why can’t it ever be Michael’s fault?”
As they walked back to their desks, Wei bumped her elbow into Ashley’s side, leaned in close, and whispered, “I’m on your side, Ashley. I don’t think you owe Michael anything.”
Which is when Michael, coming back from the bathroom, spotted them and shouted unhappily, “So you’ll talk to Wei but not to me, is that it?”
It was very much like a field trip when the day actually came. Felipe had gone up to New York early to be with Julie, so it was Jenny who herded them all in her car, made them verify that their luggage was all there and they had all their confirmation numbers written out ahead of time (“Because remember that time when Thomas accidentally registered his last name as his first name?”) before driving away. Michael tried to switch seats with Susan, to get the seat next to Ashley, but Susan held firm, thanks to Ashley bribing her with his neck pillow ahead of time, and they lifted off without a hitch.
“You know I love you both a lot,” Susan said sleepily, draping her blanket around her body. “But this is really getting tiresome.”
“How do you think I feel?” Ashley muttered back.
Somewhere else in the plane, even through the drone of the engines and the gentle hum of conversation, Ashley could still pick out the sound of Michael snoring.
The plane landed in New York at three, which left them enough time to check in to the hotel and get an early dinner before they had to get ready for the ballet. “Why didn’t we do dinner and then dressing up?” Nathan said as they crowded into a pizza place and hollered for beer.
“Michael’d get tomato sauce on his bowtie,” Wei joked. Michael threw a napkin at her, and Ashley pointedly said nothing.
Ashley waited in the hotel lobby reading a New York Times until he thought Michael was done changing, but he hadn’t known that Michael was going to visit Susan and Wei, helping them into their dresses and holding sections of their hair for them, and so when he keyed into the room, Michael was just coming out of the shower. He caught the barest glimpse of Michael’s naked body, the towel in his hands, the steam curling out of the bathroom gold with the bathroom light, before he hurriedly shut the door again, but he still heard Michael’s eager, “Ashley?” when he made for the elevators. “You look like you’ve just seen an auditor,” Teddy joked, letting Ashley into his room, and Nathan growled, “Are you dressed yet? What are you, a girl? We’re going to be late.”
They were almost late anyway, because Susan couldn’t get her hair to curl correctly, and Nathan lost a cufflink in his suitcase and threatened to thread a pencil through the holes instead. Teddy, horrified, ended up sewing the cuffs together for him, and of course instantly pricked his thumb, almost bleeding all over the shirt.
“You guys are such jokers,” Ashley said fondly, helping Nathan straighten his bowtie.
“Yes, Miss Ashley, aren’t we just,” Nathan snapped back acidly, in a terribly butchered Southern accent, making Wei laugh.
“Ashley,” Michael said, hooking his chin against Ashley’s shoulder so he could speak quietly into Ashley’s ear, “I need to talk to you. Can we–”
But it was time to go, and Ashley was in a separate car, crushed into the backseat with Susan’s hair and Nathan’s bad temper. At the theater, Ashley stood awkwardly at the end of the row of seats until the others had filed in so that he was sure to sit staggered away from Michael, but a mix up meant that Michael ended up in the seat right in front of Ashley. “Ashley,” he started again, twisting the program in his hands, his voice pleading in the semi-dark, “I think I figured it out, Wei talked to me on the plane and–” but the lights started to dim, the orchestra to warm up in a cacophonous jangle of strings and brass, and Teddy hissed, “Shut up, you Philistines,” because he was the kind of person who liked to watch even TV commercials with rapt attention.
The ballet was a reinterpretation of Carmen, which had always been one of Ashley’s favorite operas, but this time, he didn’t pay attention at all to the stage. He was taken by the silhouette of Michael’s neck, the way the tiny hairs on the skin seemed to draw the light towards them, the strange illumination in red and gold of Michael’s cheek when he turned occasionally to follow the dancers. Michael was so close, for the first time in at least three weeks, and Ashley smelled Michael’s cologne more strongly than ever. It seemed unbelievably nostalgic to him, especially when, midway through the third act, Michael fell fast asleep. Ashley knew that rhythm of head-bobbing, the slow slope of the shoulders that twitched a little, and it reminded him of all those nights spent on his own couch, his arm around Michael as they watched Bridget Jones for the third time or guffawed indelicately at Steve Carrell.
“Ashley?” Jenny whispered, her hand on his wrist to get his attention, “are you okay? It’s the intermission in a few minutes.”
“I’m fine,” Ashley said, watching as a violent drum solo roused Michael from his sleep with a jolt. “Just a little tired, that’s all. Long flight.”
Julie’s father had set up the reception in an unused banquet room in the theater. He was a cheerful, wiry older man who liked to make very sweeping gestures while he spoke. When Julie finally appeared, the heavy stage make-up still caked to her face and a glowing Felipe at her arm, he greeted her with such enthusiasm Ashley thought it was as if he hadn’t seen her in years.
Julie gave a neat speech thanking them for coming, and pleaded leave to go talk to some reporters, so Felipe opened up the food and the bar, and asked them to make themselves comfortable. There were members of Julie’s family, other dancers who had worked with Julie in other companies, and some of her friends, along with what Ashley could only assume to be young students of Julie’s, who later were revealed to be distant cousins as well. “It’s a pity that all male ballet dancers are gay,” Susan sighed over a champagne flute, gazing at a Russian who was carrying on a flustered conversation with Nathan.
“What makes you say that?” Ashley asked.
“Haven’t you ever seen Billy Elliot?” Susan asked before finishing off her drink and gesturing for another one.
Ashley shook his head and, instead of answering, wandered toward the bar, where he had spotted Felipe sitting alone, drinking champagne and grinning at the crowd. “You look awfully proud of yourself,” Ashley said as he slid onto the stool next to Felipe, and Felipe nodded.
“I can’t get over the fact that I’m going to get married to her.”
“She’s something. Have you guys set a date yet?”
Felipe laughed. “She wants to have it in the summer, so maybe two years from now? We haven’t really talked about it yet.” Felipe gestured another waiter over and replaced both their flutes with full ones. “Cheers,” he said. They both downed them, wincing afterwards. “Shouldn’t try that with champagne,” Felipe managed through a cough, and Ashley, choking on the last of the carbonation, laughed as he pounded Felipe on the back.
“Suffer a little for your happiness,” Ashley said. The waiter automatically changed their cups for full ones, and Ashley, who had just finished his fourth, thought for a minute his glass had filled automatically. He let the stem roll in between his palms, examining it carefully, and in the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Michael, chatting pleasantly enough with Julie. Seen through the golden haze of champagne, it was like watching something filmed in the 1920s. “You’re such a lucky man, Felipe,” Ashley sighed.
“Sounds like you haven’t been as lucky as I have.”
Ashley groaned. “You can’t even imagine.”
“You want to tell me about it? You don’t have to,” Felipe added hastily. “I know I’m your boss and everything, but just man-to-man right now.”
It felt ironic, talking to Felipe about Michael, however obliquely, and Ashley smiled to himself. “There’s this– person,” he began awkwardly. Felipe nodded, leaning back against the bar and sipping from his champagne flute, and Ashley continued, “I’ve known them for a while now, and we’ve definitely gone past the point of just being friends, so I thought that we had something.”
“But you didn’t?”
“Well, I– I still think we do. But maybe I was the only one who thought that way.”
Felipe hummed around the edge of his champagne flute, then, very seriously, like a father who was about to have an uncomfortable discussion with his son, sat up and placed a heavy hand on Ashley’s shoulder. Ashley turned to look Felipe in the face, and Felipe smiled his disconcertingly young smile, and said, “Listen to me, Ashley.”
“When I proposed to Julie, you know what she said to me? She said, ‘Felipe Serrano, you never even told me you loved me!’ And I said, ‘Julie, I’ve told you so many times, what are you talking about?’ And she said, ‘Well, whenever you said it, I didn’t believe you. In here. In my heart.'” Felipe thumped a fist against his chest. Ashley watched this, amused, and realized that Felipe was actually more than a little drunk.
“So you’re telling me… actually what are you telling me?”
“I’m telling you, Ashley Harper,” Felipe said, shaking Ashley’s shoulder lightly, “that you have to prove to them that you love them. So that they believe you.”
“And that’s it? Happily ever after?”
“Or close enough,” Felipe said and winked. He left, patting Ashley on the knee as he did so, to pick Julie up by the waist and whirl her around in the middle of the reception room. Ashley watched the two of them with a funny sense of fondness and loneliness. He thought about what Felipe had said, and drank with absentminded efficiency while he did so, the same waiter who had been summoned by Felipe at the start of their conversation surreptitiously reappearing to keep Ashley’s glass full.
He was well into getting drunk himself when a familiar voice spoke up from the side. “I saw you were talking to Felipe,” Michael said, his voice close to neutral, carefully balancing himself on the other side of Ashley, like he was trying to avoid sitting on Felipe’s ghost.
“We talked about you, actually,” Ashley said, gesturing at Michael with his champagne flute. “I’m sorry you couldn’t have been there.”
“I watched you.” Michael’s voice was abnormally high as he said this, but Ashley, unsure of what to make of it, didn’t remark on it. “You guys looked like you were having a good time.”
“He touched your knee at one point.”
“Oh for god’s sake,” Ashley snapped, picking up his empty champagne flute and slamming its thin glass foot against the bar. “I was telling him that I was pissed off because you don’t seem to understand that I’m in love with you.”
It was less than a month since their last real conversation, but already Ashley had forgotten what Michael looked like up close, how all his careful ministrations still couldn’t hide the fact that he was thirty-one, but how he would turn down his cupid’s bow of a mouth at the corners whenever he was upset or surprised. Ashley hadn’t even seen the suit that Michael had ended up buying, and seeing him now, his tie unraveled in a ribbon around his neck, it was more than Ashley could bear not to touch him, to verify that it really was Michael and not just some alcohol-created hallucination. Michael, stunned by Ashley’s outburst, averted his eyes and went back to tilting his champagne flute back and forth, each time ever closer to tipping the liquid over. Ashley pulled it away from his hands roughly to get Michael to look at him.
“Hey,” he said, and couldn’t go on.
Michael blinked at him, one corner of his mouth trying to twitch into a smile, and failing. “Hey yourself,” he said, licking his lips like he was thirsty, despite the fact that he, too, had obviously been drinking.
“You know what this is about, don’t you?”
There was a long silence, and Ashley wondered what he would say if Michael denied it and claimed obliviousness. Could he trust himself to explain? But Michael nodded this time, blinking more rapidly. “Yeah. I-it’s about the sex, isn’t it?”
“No, Michael, it’s not–” Ashley pressed at his temples, squeezing his eyes shut and wishing that his head would stop pounding, but at the same time glad he wasn’t completely and totally sober for this moment. He was a coward after all, he thought, smiling to himself ruefully. Lifting his head, he cupped Michael’s face with both of his hands, bringing their noses almost close enough to touch. This is when I would kiss him, Ashley thought, and Michael, thinking the same thing, started to close his eyes. “Michael,” Ashley murmured, insistent, and Michael’s eyes snapped open. “This is about the fact that I’m in love with you, Michael, and you keep avoiding it.”
“I’m not trying to avoid it,” Michael whispered. When he spoke, Ashley could feel Michael’s breath, hot and anxious, on his thumbs, and for a minute Ashley had to close his eyes, to control himself, so that he could hear Michael saying, “I just. I thought that I’d lose you as a friend if I started admitting to myself that you– that you love me.”
“Michael, I can’t keep doing this,” Ashley said, and hated himself for letting his voice break and letting Michael hear it. Michael leaned into Ashley’s palm, tender, cat-like, and Ashley took one of them away, stroking the knuckles of his other hand down Michael’s cheek, trying to commit that, too, to memory. “I’m thirty-two. I can’t keep waiting for someone who’s too scared of anything but friendship.”
Michael said, “I know,” a little too loudly, and then, abashed, tried to kiss one of Ashley’s knuckles as he withdrew his hand.
“Michael, listen to me. Do you remember when you were getting fitted for your tux, and that other couple came in? And you said you wanted to love someone enough to get married to them?” Ashley pulled Michael’s hands to his chest, cupping them together, almost crushing them against his own. He could feel Michael’s heart throbbing through the pads of his thumbs, and it quickened his pulse, so that he rushed on, saying, “I want to marry you, Michael. I’ve wanted to, for a very long time. I’ve wanted to do a lot of things for you. Care for you, love you, having sex with you is only a small part of it. Hell, I’d even throw a fucking basketball game for you, if I played,” Ashley said, and Michael gave him a small, scared smile.
“And I can’t do any of that, any–” Ashley, pretending to clear his throat, took several deep breaths to try to keep himself from trembling. “I can’t do any of that if we’re just friends, okay? And if you want to be just friends, that’s fine. I mean, it’s not fine, I’d hate it, but I can’t keep fucking you and watching you sleep and then going to the office next day and listen to you–”
“You don’t understand,” Michael said fiercely, trying to rip his hands away. Ashley caught fast, and Michael gave up. “I fuck up every relationship I have. And we’ve been friends for four years.”
“And we can keep being friends. But I have to know where I stand with you,” Ashley shot back. Michael fell silent and sullenly kept his eyes trained on Ashley’s face, his hands still. Ashley sighed, bringing Michael’s captive hands to his chest and nursing them there for a while, making up his mind. “Look, you have to make a decision. We can’t keep carrying on like this.”
“Because you’re breaking my heart, Michael,” Ashley bit out. “It hurts when I sleep with you and you wake up talking about how to get with Felipe. It hurts when you pretend that what we have isn’t serious. It hurts when you try to pretend at work that I’m not dying to kiss you all the time, or that you don’t know it.”
Michael lowered his head and watched, instead, as Ashley threaded his fingers through Michael’s, slowly, deliberately. When Ashley spoke again, his voice was gentle. “Michael,” he said, and touched their foreheads together, taking in the scent of Michael’s cologne, his sweat, the champagne. “I’m going to go back to my room, take a shower, and then lie in bed and read a book. I’ll be awake for a long time, maybe even all night. If you love me even just a little bit, if you’re even just a little into what we have, come back to the room tonight.” Hardening his tone, Ashley gripped Michael’s hands harder with his fingers. He closed his eyes so he didn’t have to see Michael’s face as he said, “But if you just want to be friends, you have to make up your mind and stick with it.”
He waited for Michael to say something. Nothing came. Michael took in several deep breaths, and for a minute, he squeezed Ashley’s hand hard, so hard that his arm shook with the force it took to keep his fingers gripped that tightly, and Ashley found himself hoping for something, anything, to make the suspense unnecessary. Finally, Michael let out his breath in a silent draining exhale and whispered, “It’s my room too, you know.”
Ashley’s heart sank, and he untangled his hands from Michael’s, unwilling to look up and meet Michael’s gaze. “It’s just for one night,” Ashley said bitterly, the back of his hand streaked with the white indent of Michael’s fingers. “I think you owe me that much.”
Ashley kept his word. He took a shower, put on pajama pants, and sank into the bed with a beat-up copy of an early novel by Hollinghurst, the one that wasn’t The Swimming Pool Library. He didn’t read a word of it. Each footstep outside his door seemed to take an eternity to pass by. It was 11:30 when he first looked at the clock, and he willed himself to flip through the entire book, taking in nothing, before he looked at the clock again. Two in the morning, he thought. He’d give Michael time. Michael was like that, childish and indecisive and prone to being sulky. He’d come around.
At 4:15 AM, Ashley gave in. He turned the light off and stared, morose, his eyes still swimming with the glare of the lamp, at the empty, neatly made twin-sized bed across the bedside table. Tomorrow morning, he thought, he’d find Michael. Breakfast, maybe, over coffee. He’ll tell him that he didn’t mean anything he said. He had been drunk, he had been crazy. It was a joke. Michael would believe him, because Michael didn’t want to believe anything else. They’d go back to being friends. He could have that last crumb, at least; the crumb that would starve him to death.
At eight in the morning, the sun slammed against Ashley’s eyes, and he finally had to wake up. He tried to shift his body around, but a weight was settled heavily across his left side. Curious, and still sleepy, he turned, almost smashing his head into Michael’s face.
“Michael?” he breathed, terrified that anything louder would make the man evaporate.
“Shhh,” Michael mumbled, pressing his hand closer to Ashley’s stomach and nuzzling into Ashley’s neck. “‘m still sleepy. Didn’t come back ’til 6.” He cracked one eye open balefully at Ashley. “Liar,” he accused, and closed it. “You said you’d stay up.”
Instead of answering, Ashley kissed him. It tasted stale, and sleepy, and on the wrong edge of consciousness, but it was the best kiss of Ashley’s life.
Aurora Wind Energy, its wind farms, and its Portuguese partner are all modeled off the Houston-based wind energy company Horizon Wind and its mothership EDP Renewables. Aurora’s CDO, Felipe, is based off a colleague of mine as well. To both of these real life entities, I apologize profusely.
And an immensely grateful thanks to everlet for letting me take such liberties with her beautiful artwork. It’s the shadows and shading of the picture that I liked the best, and I hope, at least just a little, I’ve done justice to how much feeling and personality is in that picture.