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"You know I'm gay?"
"Uh huh, the neighbors all know. I make a point of chatting with people when I'm out and about the neighborhood. They told me you had a partner until a couple of years ago but that he moved out and you've been alone ever since. They also said you didn't used to be such a loner."
"Damn! I've never made any secret about being gay, but I didn't know my life was known to everybody."
"Hey, that's the way people are. They're curious about the folks next door or down the block. And, face it, most of them are out in their yards in the nice weather and they talk over back fences. It's only natural to compare notes."
"Yeah, I suppose it is."
The spaghetti obviously didn't come out of a jar. Far from it. Ben was reminded of meals he'd had in good Italian restaurants. The salad was delicious, too. Obviously Toby liked to cook and was pretty good at it. Ben thought of Trent, too, who was an excellent cook.
Ben studied the younger man across the table from him. Since Trent left, he'd not had a date, had closed himself off from others, protecting himself. In that time he'd had no sex except with his hand. Toby, about 5'9", had a square face, brown eyes and black hair, which he wore short on the sides and long enough to part (on the left) on top. His Polynesian heritage was evident in his features. His broad shoulders Ben had noticed earlier, as well as his narrow hips and his eminently fuckable butt. Ben pushed all those thoughts aside, however. He wasn't interested, not even casually.
Besides, Toby was probably straight. If he'd been gay he would have said so when Ben came out to him. Ben was doing well enough on his own, and he wasn't about to open up to anyone who could hurt him as Trent had. Nevertheless, he realized he was enjoying the food, the company, the whole experience. Then it occurred to him that having a couple of straight friends wouldn't end his world. They couldn't hurt him, and if his being gay didn't upset Toby, then it probably wouldn't upset Bruce either.
After the main course, Toby put out apples and a brick of white cheddar to have with their coffee.
"So, Ben, do you enjoy your job?"
"It's okay," Ben said, though he sounded as if he didn't mean it.
"You said you were an English major?"
"Creative writing, actually."
"Do you get any chance to use that?"
"Not at work. I write some press releases and brochures and work on web pages, but that's not what I imagined myself doing."
"So you don't really have any outlet for your creative instincts?"
Ben busied himself cutting a slice of apple and then a piece of cheese. How much was he willing to tell the relative stranger sitting across the table? Certainly not about the romances. But there was no harm in Toby's knowing about his unsuccessful efforts to publish his real novel.
"Yeah, I write fiction at home."
"Cool! What kind of fiction?"
"I've written a novel. And I'm working on another."
"Is the completed one published?"
"Not yet. Probably never." Ben knew what the next question was going to be.
"What's it about?"
"It's about a gay guy."
Toby's face brightened. "A love story?"
"Not really. He has a bunch of relationships, but none of them works out. My agent says the book's too depressing."
"Oh, you've got an agent?"
Ben decided maybe he'd said too much, so he merely nodded.
"Look, Ben, if you think I'm being nosy, I'm sorry. I'm just trying to get to know a guy who's going to become a friend. Or at least I hope he is."
"No, you're not being nosy. My agent and I had a brief affair before I met Trent, my former partner."
Toby had the tact to change the subject, and the two chatted about generalities for a while. Then Ben stood up and carried his plate and coffee mug to the kitchen counter.
"Toby, I'm really in your debt for finding Tibbs. I thought I'd lost him for good. I still wish you'd let me do something for you."
"Ben, you have! I've enjoyed getting to know you better. I apologize if you thought I was quizzing you."
"Not at all. And dinner was delicious. You make great spaghetti. Thanks for having me over."
"You know, Bruce is sorry he couldn't be here this evening. If he had been, we'd probably have had cheesecake. He likes to cook, too, and cheesecake is something of a specialty with him. Maybe you can come back soon when he can be here and the three of us can visit."
"Uh, that'd be nice." Ben didn't want to get drawn into regular get-togethers with these guys. There was too much chance he might like them. He already found Toby easy to be with. He shook hands with his host.
"Thanks again, Toby. It's been a nice evening. But I need to get over there and do some writing before I fold up." He planned to work awhile on Captiva before going to bed.
"You're welcome, Ben. It's been great getting to know you. And thanks for the beer. Bruce and I like Heinie."
Ben chuckled. "Was that a double entendre?"
Toby looked puzzled for a moment and then laughed. "Oh, well, each of us in his own way, I guess."
Back home, Ben spent some time making Mr. Tibbs feel like the king of the castle. With Tibbs curled up on his lap he thought of Toby's remark about liking Heinie. He felt a familiar need in his nether regions. He thought of himself plowing that tight little butt, and then, as his cock grew harder, he imagined himself with his legs over the broad shoulders of the sexy Hawaiian boy.
He sat much longer than he planned, Tibbs on his lap, purring. Perhaps it was the effect of a good meal with wine, but he was tired and becoming drowsy. He ran his hand over the cat's head and down his back. Tibbs, eyes shut, twitched his tail and purred louder.
"Okay, sire, I think I'll check the email and go to bed. Sophie and Lance will have to wait." Mr. Tibbs blinked a couple of times, jumped off his lap, and stalked majestically toward the bedroom.
`You'd think he understood what I just said,' Ben marveled.
He brushed his teeth, stripped to his briefs, and brought the pc back from Standby. He had an email from Trent. He sighed. `Why doesn't he just give up? Surely by now he knows there's no fucking hope.' Instead of deleting the message, he decided to read it.
Thanks for not deleting this. Yeah, I know you. You delete most of my emails. But if you had deleted this one, you wouldn't be reading it, right?
I've said this every way I know how and have repeated myself endlessly for nearly two years. But, come on, guy! You're too sweet, too generous to hold a grudge forever. I'm sorry! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa! I made a huge fucking mistake. And Breck was the only time. Honest to God. You and I had such a good thing going, and I'm sooo sorry I fucked it up.
Please, call me? Send me an email? Better yet, let me buy you dinner somewhere? I miss you, Benjamin Moss.
I don't know how to grovel any more than that. And you know what? I really wish more than anything we could get back together. But if not, couldn't we at least be friends? I've read "Sanibel" and I'm looking forward to the new one. Any luck getting the gay novel published? Are you working on another?
I'd like to know how Chris and his family are doing. Are there any cute boys in the house across the street? What's going on in your life? Even if you've got a new guy, I'd like to know somebody's making you happy.
Come on, sweetie, you aren't going to freeze me out forever, are you?
I love you! Please believe that!
`Wow!" Ben thought. `Wish I hadn't read that. How can he sound so desperate after two years?'
He shut down the computer and climbed into bed where he lay awake thinking about his evening with Toby and about Trent's continued importuning. He felt a soft thump as Mr. Tibbs jumped onto the foot of the bed. And then he drifted off to sleep.
Work at the office dragged on as usual, Ben continuing to marvel at how poorly supposedly educated people wrote. He wasn't talking about creative imagination, either; he was talking about grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax. He realized that he was doing something that was badly needed just to maintain Colby County's image. But he didn't enjoy it.
On Wednesday, his boss, Sharon stopped by his cubicle.
"Ben, we need to talk, but I just realized how little privacy you have here. Come into my office, okay?" She smiled at him.
"Am I in trouble?"
"Of course not!"
He followed her through the maze of cubicles in the Public Information section and into her office.
"Close the door, please."
"You sure I'm not in trouble?" he asked grinning at her.
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Ben, sit down. Want some coffee?"
She took an empty mug from next to the coffee brewer and poured coffee into it. "You take it black, right?"
"That's the kind of thing that makes you a great boss, Sharon."
"Suck-up!" she said, grinning. She took a mug from her desk, poured coffee into it and sat at her desk. She sighed. "Ben, they say all the cute guys are either married or gay. I think you illustrate that point perfectly."
"Sharon, are you coming on to me?"
"Well, I would if it would do me any good."
"And you know it won't, though I'm flattered."
She took a sip of coffee and then cleared her throat. She was a very attractive woman of about 40 with a great body, blond hair that was obviously maintained by an excellent hairdresser, and brown eyes. Besides that, Ben liked her. He'd listened to her problems when she and her husband had been divorced a year earlier. And he'd decided that Dave Dunovich was a jerk. Fortunately there had been no kids, and Dave had left town for a job in Washington State. It was only a matter of time until some lucky guy snapped up Sharon.
He took a sip of coffee and then asked, "So, boss lady, if I'm not in trouble, why am I here?"
"We've always worked well together, haven't we, Ben?"
"Cut that out!" she said, grinning at him. "Seriously, it's been a good working relationship?"
"If you're determined to get me to say nice things about you, then yes, it's been a great relationship. Frankly, I couldn't ask for a better boss. I could mention others around this building I'd be happy to see frying in hell, but, as I said, I've never had any complaints about you." He took another sip of coffee and raised an eyebrow. "Except maybe for the size of my cubicle."
"What if you could move out of that cubicle?"
"Are you sure you aren't about to fire me?"
"Would you just shut up and let me talk?" Her tone and facial expression made it clear she wasn't angry with him.
"Sorry, boss," he said, lowering his eyes to his lap.
"Can the acting, Moss. Look at me."
When he looked her in the eye, she continued, "I'd like to see you in this office."
"What's up? Have you been promoted? How come I haven't heard anything about this?"
"No, I haven't been promoted. And what I'm about to tell you has to stay just between us, okay?"
"If that's what you want, of course."
"I've been offered a job in Cuyahoga County."
"That snake pit? I mean, of course it would mean more money and prestige, and it would look good on your c.v., but do you really want that? Besides, how would we get along here without you? Who would take your place?"
"Ignoring everything derogatory you said about the county where I was born and grew up, I think we'd have an excellent person to take my place."
"You're not serious!"
"I'm very definitely serious. I can't think of anybody in the department who could do this job as well as you. And why bring in an outsider when we've got someone with your abilities right here?"
"But I'm not, that is, I don't . . . "
"Oh, I know. You don't like the spotlight. But you could get over that. You're smart. You're more than capable. The problem is, you don't suffer fools gladly. You'd just have to learn to smile more and bite your tongue once in a while. And I know you can do that."
"No, Sharon, no way! I like my quiet life, my desk job. I don't want to spend time sucking up to people, being photographed, dealing with the media. I don't want to have to work with Tony Bustamente and other section heads. I've always been grateful that you were here to do that. You can't leave!"
"Thanks, Ben. I appreciate what you've just said. Or the flattering part of it. But think of this. The third-ranking person in this section is Phil Massini. He's a protégé of Bustamente's. If you aren't interested in the job, I can see Tony pushing Phil as a candidate."
"Exactly. I don't think you'd want Massini as your boss, would you?"
"Again, this doesn't leave this office, right?"
"Well, Massini's a total incompetent. I'd fire him if I could, but things being what they are, I'd need more than incompetence to level against him to get rid of him. So there's my dilemma. What am I supposed to do?"
Ben set down his coffee. "You could just stay here."
Sharon smiled. "Why should I make all the sacrifices? I have a while before I have to give the people in Cleveland my decision. Promise me you'll think about it?"
"I'll probably have nightmares about Massini's being my boss."
"You know, Ben, you'd be great with the public if you'd just put yourself out to smile when you don't mean it once in a while. Look at you. A Paul Walker look-alike, you're great looking, articulate. You're tough when you need to be. The cameras would love you."
"Dammit, woman, you'd say anything to get what you want, wouldn't you?"
She smiled. "It goes with the job. But I meant everything I just said. You wanna marry me and come to Cleveland?"
"I'd almost prefer that to staying here and working for Massini – or being the PIO."
"Well, gee, fella, thanks for the compliment." Laughing, she waved her hand to signify that the interview was over. "Just promise me you'll think about it."
"Okay, Sharon, I'll think about it. I really hate it that you're leaving."
That evening on the way home Ben stopped by the Pet Palace to pick up a collar and name tag for Mr. Tibbs. When he asked about collars for cats, the clerk showed him one that looked like a diamond choker. "No," Ben said, "that's a little femme for Tibbs." The clerk, a 40-something guy, gave him an understanding smile. Ben chose a black leather collar.
"This model has a clever little elastic gusset to protect pussy from being choked if the collar should snag on something."
"I see it's also got a bell on it."
"Well, yes, it does, but you can remove that if you want."
The clerk then embossed Tibbs' name, plus Ben's address and phone number on a small metal plate which he attached to the collar.
"Honey, be sure to come back if you need anything else," the clerk said as Ben left.
He expected Tibbs to be furious about the new accoutrement. When Ben put it on him, the cat shook his head rapidly, like a dog that had just come out of a pond. Then he began to dig at it with his rear paws. That made the bell begin to tinkle. Ben picked him up and began to stroke him.
"Sorry, guy, but this is necessary after that little disappearing act you did. Tell you what, though, let's lose the bell."
He put Tibbs down and went to the garage, where he got a pair of pliers. When he removed the collar, Tibbs ran out of the room. Ben removed the bell and threw it away. A search for Tibbs was fruitless. He was probably under a bed, but Ben decided to bide his time. Eventually the cat would show up, and Ben would put the collar back on him.
Later that evening Tibbs jumped into his lap while he was at the computer. Suspecting this might happen, Ben had the collar lying on the desk. He grabbed it and re-collared the cat – who immediately began scratching at it.
"Like I said, the collar stays. I don't want you to get lost again. But if I have anything to do with it, the door won't be left standing open again."
Tibbs jumped to the floor and stalked out of the room, not looking back.
Ben worked evenings, as usual, at the computer, plugging away on Captivated on Captiva.
It was only when he was doing routine things like fixing his supper, running the vacuum, or shaving that he worried about Sharon's prospective departure. She'd put him in a quandary. He most definitely didn't want to be the county's public information officer. On the other hand, the idea of having Phil Massini for a boss was enough to make him plead with Sharon to take him to Cleveland when she went. If only she'd change her mind and stay!
He was also bothered by Trent's most recent email. Was he being a complete asshole? After this amount of time, could he at least forgive Trent for the incident with the jock boy? That didn't mean he and Trent would become lovers again. Or it didn't have to. But they could at least be on a more comfortable footing. Should they have dinner as Trent had suggested? Something inside told him that was the decent thing to do, but his clenched fists when he thought of it seemed to be vetoing the idea.
Ben had gotten so much work done evenings that week on Captiva that, after going to the gym and then doing some grocery shopping on Saturday morning, he figured he'd spend the weekend working on the novel he was thinking of calling This Petty Pace. The gym and shopping had taken up most of the morning, since he'd allowed himself to sleep in until 9:00. It was the weekend, after all, and he didn't have to go to the salt mines. After a mug of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, he settled in at the computer. Tibbs spent a while on his lap but apparently didn't like the constant motion of Ben's fingers on the keyboard, so he jumped into Ben's favorite reading chair instead.
Things went along so well with Lance, Sophie, and Gilbert that Ben was startled when the doorbell rang. He looked at the clock in the lower right corner of the computer screen. It was 7:00. His stomach confirmed the hour. He realized he was hungry. Making sure to save what he'd written so far, he went to the door, which he opened to find a smiling Toby, who was wearing jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie that he'd zipped up. The day had started cloudy, but it had cleared off and turned colder.
"Hey, Toby. What's up?"
"Hi Ben. Bruce and I are gonna go hit the gym. But later on we're going to a bar we like over in Higgins. And you're coming with us."
"Gee, Toby, I don't think so. This is the weekend, and that's when I work on my novel, you know."
"Aw, come on! You've probably worked on it all day. You gotta get out and breathe once in a while, man. Bruce wants to get to know you better. Why not do it over a few beers?"
"I don't want to horn in on your evening."
"Ben, we're just good friends who are going out to relax and have some beer."
"And you don't have dates tonight?"
"Only with you, if you'll let us."
Bruce was in a car at the curb. He rolled down the window and leaned across the passenger seat. "Come on, Ben. We don't bite. We'd like your company."
Toby grinned. "And I promise we'll shower after the gym."
`What could it hurt to spend a couple of hours with two nice guys, especially when one of them's as hunky as Toby?' Ben asked himself.
"Yeah, we'll explain later. I'm glad you're coming. We'll pick you up about ten, okay?"
Ben was sure he hadn't said he'd go, but he nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. Thanks."
Toby smiled angelically. "Cool. Later, man." He trotted down the sidewalk and jumped into the car with Bruce.
Since he was going out in a few hours, Ben didn't have his usual wine that evening. He fixed a bowl of salad, cut up some cooked chicken breast on top, and had that for his dinner.
Then he went back to work on the novel for a while. Or he went back to the computer and tried to work on the novel. He found it difficult to concentrate. It seemed his quiet, steady world was changing. He was being tempted out of his rut. Sharon wanted him to take over her job with the county. Sharon knew he was gay, but he wondered if she'd thought of that when she urged him to apply for her job. The occupant of that position was before the public eye. Surely his being gay would be a tremendous drawback for someone in that position. Ben shuddered at the idea of being the gay poster boy for the county government. But working for Phil Massini? That thought almost made him physically sick.
These cute guys from across the street seemed determined to make him their friend, though he couldn't for the life of him figure out why. On top of all that he was even tempted to relent and tell Trent he'd forgiven him. And he wasn't sure what had brought on that change, either.
Finally, unable to concentrate, he shut down the computer and stripped off his clothes. He'd showered at the gym, but he decided he'd do that again. Standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror he looked at his stubble. Since Trent had left, Ben had made a point of not shaving on weekends. He wore his hair short, longer than a crew cut, but not much. And he didn't comb it carefully. He simply smoothed it down with his hands after he showered. He thought he looked rather butch with his short, messy dark blond hair and the "designer stubble." He'd often wondered what they'd say if he showed up at the office on a Monday morning with a weekend's growth of beard.
He pulled on a teal Case Western sweatshirt and some fairly new jeans. As he dressed he wondered about the guys across the street. They knew he was gay. Did that mean they were, as well? How many straight guys would go out of their way to make a friend of a gay man ten years older than they were?
Why were they going to a bar in Higgins? He'd never spent much time there. It just seemed like a country town that was becoming more and more a suburb of Colby.
He was ready, waiting on the sofa, with Mr. Tibbs on his lap at 9:45. `Christ,' he thought, `you'd think I was a kid on his first date. Why am I nervous? It really has been a long time since I've gone out in the evening. And with relative strangers? What was I thinking when I let them talk me into this?'
The cat looked up – without blinking – and said "Yeow."
Ben chuckled. "Well, thanks a lot for your input, Tibbs."
At 10:00 sharp Bruce and Toby pulled up out front in Bruce's eight-year-old Civic. `It looks pretty dilapidated,' Ben thought. Then he chuckled. He'd had a professor who'd told them they should know the etymology of words if they wanted to use them effectively in their prose or poetry or whatever. Ben remembered the prof using "dilapidated" as an example.
"It doesn't just mean run down. It means a building so old and neglected the stones are falling out of the walls. If you'll keep that in mind, ladies and gentlemen, you'll use the word to more effect."
No stones were falling out of the old Civic, but it had clearly seen better days. Ben wondered if he should have offered to drive, but his Taurus wasn't that much nicer than Bruce's car. Besides, he had been more or less shanghaied into making this outing to some anonymous bar in Higgins. He wasn't given the opportunity to volunteer his car for the excursion.
When he'd gotten into the back seat and greetings had been exchanged, he asked, "So, guys, why are we going to Higgins? Aren't there bars enough in Colby?"
"Yeah," Bruce said from the driver's seat. "But I think you'll agree that Gridley's in Higgins is a neat place."
"Besides," Toby put in from his position in shotgun, "we don't usually run into our students there. Any bar we go to near campus is likely to have people from our classes. That's not entirely bad, but we feel a little more relaxed if we can drink and talk and not be watched by people who are gonna be in a lab or a class with one of us the next day."
"That makes sense," Ben said. "Come to think of it, there's less chance that I'd run into any of my co-workers in Higgins, too."
"Cool!" Toby said. "We'll be able to shoot the shit and have a beer or two without worrying about our `public,' right?"
"Right!" Ben agreed.
"Fuckin' right," Bruce added.
If you'd like to write me about this story, please do c/o firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to put the name of the story in the subject line so I'll know it isn't spam. Thanks. --Tim