By Tim Mead
The usual disclaimers apply. Don't read this if for some legal reason you shouldn't. Remember the work is under copyright and thus belongs to me. No reposting without permission.
Caught off guard, Ben exclaimed, "You're still with the bastard?"
"It's not `still.' I wouldn't have anything to do with him for a year after you caught us," Trent replied, slowly moving his head from side to side.
"I'm not sure I want to hear this."
Trent looked miserable. "I suppose not. I knew I shouldn't have told you. But I thought maybe you were getting around to forgiving me for what I did, so I wanted to be up front with you."
No longer hungry, Ben put down his fork. After taking a swallow of wine, he said "We've come this far. Maybe you'd better tell me the whole story."
"No, but I asked. So go ahead."
"Well, the first thing you need to know is that I met Breck at the hospital. His roommate had an emergency appendectomy. It was Breck who brought him to the ER and stayed with him until he was admitted. Then he came back every day. My gaydar was pinging every time I saw him. But I didn't get the same reaction when I saw his roommate. One day I asked if they were more than just roommates. He said that they were just good friends. But then he grinned and asked me if I wanted to fuck."
"Cocky son of a bitch!"
"A persistent son of a bitch at any rate. He'd catch me in the hallway outside his friend's room, and we'd talk. Or he'd show up in the cafeteria. He knew my full name, which he probably got from my name tag. So he simply looked me up in the phone book. Then he began calling me at home during the day when you were at work. He told me he'd fallen in love with me. Even when I explained I was in a committed relationship and was really and truly in love with you, he kept calling."
"I only saw him briefly from behind." Ben shook his head as if trying to clear the memory. "I take it he's cute."
Trent grimaced. "There's that word again. Let's say he's my height, blond, blue eyes, and works out. He's not a gym rat, but he's got bulges and curves and depressions in all the right places. So, to make a long and shameful story short, he kept calling, pleading with me to see him on my break or after work. He begged me to meet him at the all-night McD's by the campus when I'd get off my shift at 5:00 AM. He kept saying he really loved me and that if I couldn't love him he'd drop out of school and go away."
"Finally, that afternoon he showed up at my door in tears. He hugged me and pleaded with me. He said if we could be together just that one time, he'd not bother me any more. I tried to get him to promise he wouldn't drop out of school."
Trent was twisting the starched white napkin.
"Well, and this is no excuse, he was a really hot guy, and he had been swearing for weeks that he loved me. And I thought maybe if I gave in he'd go away and let me alone."
Ben was about to say something about rationalizations, but he didn't.
"I wish this had never happened, Ben, honest to God! But I let him kiss me. And it went on from there. And then you came home."
"Gentlemen, is there anything wrong with the food?" a solicitous Simon asked.
They assured him there wasn't. "Would you like a sweet? Oh, dear, I meant would you like dessert?"
"Why don't you take the plates and let us finish the wine?" Ben said.
"Certainly, Mr. Moss."
Trent gulped what was left in his glass before allowing Simon to refill it.
"If I'd let you explain all this at the time, do you think that would have made things any better?"
"No, explaining wouldn't have. But I wanted you to know how guilty I felt. I didn't have any strong feelings for Breck. He was an adorable puppydog. I felt sorry for him. And, of course, tremendously flattered by his interest in me."
"Had I ever given you any reason to think I didn't love you or find you sexy?"
"God, Ben. Maybe we shouldn't have done this."
"I'm sorry, Trent. I shouldn't grill you about him. I've just always been so hurt by what you did. I thought you'd gotten bored with me, that I wasn't what you needed."
"Oh, sweetheart, no way!"
"Yet you took him back?"
"A year later, remember! I tried to apologize to you, tried over and over. I wanted to explain, to tell you I knew I'd done something really bad, to beg you to forgive me. But you wouldn't have anything to do with me."
Trent gave Ben a wry smile.
"The irony is that while I was sending you a barrage of emails and phone calls, Breck was doing the same thing to me. Finally, after a year, after I'd moved to Sylvania, I had to come back to Colby to pick up some records at the hospital. I was depressed, lonely. So I decided to stop into Nelly's for a beer. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the place wasn't crowded. Guess who walked in while I was there?"
Trent nodded. "None other. He got a beer and sat down at my table. I was surprised to see him at Nelly's, but he said he'd come out after that day you caught us. Then his roommate said he didn't want to be friends with a fag and moved out. He said his jock friends had pretty well distanced themselves from him but he hadn't made any gay friends yet. I really felt sorry for him. And I was still feeling pretty sorry for myself. I had a great new job and a cool apartment in Sylvania, but I didn't have any friends either. Breck and I sat there and talked all afternoon. When I had to leave to get back to go to work, he asked if he could see me again. He seemed almost desperate."
"I can just hear him."
"Well, one thing led to another. And now, as I said earlier, we're together a lot. He's still in school and has an apartment here. But he spends several nights a week with me. He's really sweet in a clingy kind of way. And the sex is great. But I'm not in love with him. I'm just afraid if I tell him that he'll be miserable and I'll be alone."
Moved despite himself, Ben said, "Jesus, man, that's quite a story."
On the sidewalk in front of the restaurant as they waited for the valets to bring their cars, the two men hugged.
"I wish I had some advice for you, Trent. But this is something you have to figure out for yourself."
A tearful Trent said, "Thanks, Benjy. I'm just so happy you're talking to me again. I was such a fool."
"Well, maybe I was, too. I'm sorry I shut you out for so long."
Putting on a brave face, Trent said, "Look, I know things can never go back to the way they were, but are we at least friends now?"
Ben hugged the smaller man again. "Yeah, we're friends. I promise I'll answer your emails. Or you can call me. Let me know how things work out with what's his name, okay?"
Trent shook his head. "His name is Breck."
"Yeah, right," Ben said, grinning, as he handed the valet a bill and got into his car.
* * *
He talked on the phone with Trent a couple of times between their meal at Adrian's and the holidays. Trent and Breck were still together.
"He's so needy, Benjy. And, like I told you, no complaints about the sex. He's a hot guy. I just don't know how to tell him I don't want us to be long-term partners."
"Didn't you say he's still in school?"
"Yeah, he graduates this spring."
"And what's he going to do then?"
"Grad school, most likely. He wants to be a sports trainer, you know, the kind of guy who helps the jocks get taped up or take their whirlpool baths or whatever they do."
"Sounds like a fun life for a gay boy. But my point is, if he left the area for his grad work, that would be a good way to cool down the relationship."
"I should encourage him to go to grad school somewhere far away? Good idea! Thanks."
"What are you doing for the holidays?"
"I'm going to my brother's for Christmas and then right back here. I'm working half days between Christmas and New Year's. And then I take over as acting PIO on January 2. I expect to get a lot of writing done, too. What about you?"
"Breck's going home for the entire university holiday break. I'll be here for Christmas because I'm working. I've got some time off between the holidays. I'll do an overnight with my folks, but maybe you and I could have lunch or something that week?"
"Yeah, email me when your schedule's firm and maybe we can set something up."
"Great! I'm so glad we're friends again."
"Friends, but that's all, Trent. You understand?"
"Yeah, I understand. Merry Christmas."
Ben and Trent were unable to coordinate their schedules, so they hadn't seen each other since that Sunday at Adrian's. That was just as well from Ben's perspective since he really did not want to start up that relationship all over again. They had talked on the phone, however, and agreed to get together at some unspecified time in the future.
* * *
On Friday of the weekend before Christmas there'd been a farewell party for Sharon at the office. Ben stayed until the very end, wanting to do his share of the cleanup. He and Sharon had had a tearful farewell. She'd said if he ever wanted a job in Cuyahoga County to call her.
The Saturday night before Christmas Paul Rader, the County Administrator, threw a farewell cocktail party for Sharon at his home. Members of the County Commission and department heads were invited. Ben was invited by virtue of his being acting PIO until Kris Anders arrived to take up the new job at the beginning of February. It was a splashy affair, but Ben didn't enjoy it much. He kept being accosted by spouses of both sexes wanting to know who he was and why he was there. When they found out he wasn't anyone important they drifted away. Except for one drunken woman who signaled pretty blatantly that she might be interested in getting to know him better. He got rid of her by telling her he was gay. Finally, after he'd stayed what he thought was a decent amount of time, he gave Sharon a hug and once more wished her luck. Then he found Paul and his wife and thanked them before driving through the cold Northern Ohio December night to Mr. Tibbs and his otherwise empty house.
* * *
Toby emailed him a couple of times from Indianapolis. Uncharacteristically, he didn't have much to say, but he ended both emails with the hope that Ben wasn't working all his waking moments.
* * *
On New Year's Eve morning Ben was up early to go to the gym. Just as he turned into his driveway, he saw Bruce's car pulling into the drive across the street. He hadn't seen Bruce or Toby since before Christmas, so he thought he'd say hello. He drove the car into the garage and then walked across the street. Bruce was coming to meet him.
As they shook hands, Ben asked, "What are you doing back here? Didn't you want to stay with your family for New Year's?"
Bruce shook his head. "I've had plenty of time with my family. Now it's time to pay the piper. I've got a shitload of work to get done before the new term starts. Did you have a good Christmas?"
"Yeah, it was family time. I was with my brother you remember him? and his family. I've been working half days this week and writing when I get home."
"What are you doing to celebrate the New Year?"
"Well, look, it's terrible to spend New Year's Eve alone. I know by this evening I'll be ready for a break. Why don't you come over about ten or so and we'll see 2006 in together?"
Ben's first reaction was to refuse politely, but on thinking of it, he'd never had much chance to talk with Bruce alone. And it might be better to be with Bruce than to sit at home thinking about other New Year's Eves.
"I'd like that. What can I bring?"
Bruce gave a rueful grin. "I've got beer, gin, bourbon, and red wine. If you want champagne, maybe you could bring it? I think I can scrounge up some snacks to go with whatever we drink."
"Leave it to me!"
Ben managed to work most of the day, forgetting to have lunch. About 4:00 he realized he was hungry. Marcia, his sister in law, had given him a couple of frozen casseroles to bring home, and both were still in the freezer. He pulled one out, ran it through the defrost cycle in the microwave, and then put it in the oven to heat slowly. He went back to his home office, shut down the computer, and returned to the kitchen, where he poured himself a glass of wine. Then he remembered to put a bottle of champagne into the fridge to chill.
He took his wine and sat in his favorite recliner. It was getting dark outside. He didn't switch on the television, didn't even bother to turn on a light. Not for the first time since the weeks right after Trent left, the house seemed empty. As empty as his life. The end of the year was a time for taking stock. Ben realized that he didn't have much in his inventory. He could lose himself in his writing, keep himself occupied all day at his job. Perhaps it was the lunch he'd had with Trent that caused him to feel as if his life was pointless.
`Well,' he told himself, `all life is pointless.'
`Not so,' that other voice answered. `You didn't think it was pointless when you were a kid growing up. At least not until you came out and lost most of your friends. You didn't think it was pointless when Trent was still here, in this house.'
`Oh, don't mention him. Look what he did to me!'
`What, precisely, did he do to you?'
`It's not so much that he betrayed me. What really hurts is the thought that I wasn't enough for him, or he wouldn't have gotten it on with that kid, with Breck.'
`Come on! You don't really believe that. You're just feeling sorry for yourself. Trent explained why he did what he did. If he'd had mercy sex with Breck once and sent him on his way before you got there, you'd have been none the wiser and probably cuddled on the sofa with Trent tonight. It was just coincidence that you happened to come home early.'
`Yeah, and if I hadn't arrived when I did, who knows how many times they'd have had sex together?'
`Trent said it was only the one time and he had no intention of doing it again. Sort of like that old play, Tea and Sympathy.'
"Years from now, when you think of this and you will please be kind." Ben was startled when he realized he'd just said that out loud. Then he chuckled. He couldn't blame Trent for being who he is, always warmhearted, understanding, sympathetic. Maybe he should have given him the benefit of the doubt. Should have listened to his explanation back then . . .
He started. `What's that buzzing?' He realized he'd drifted off to sleep. The timer on the oven was doing its thing, reminding him that the casserole was ready.
He got up and swallowed the last of the wine, making a face because it was tepid. Then he went to the kitchen, fed Mr. Tibbs, took the casserole from the oven, and served up his own dinner.
Afterward, he went back to the computer, where he was able to work for a while on notes for his next romance. It was Saturday, normally a day for his more serious work, but he didn't think he could get into the proper mindset for This Petty Pace. Besides, his mood was pretty desolate, too desolate, since this novel, he was determined, wouldn't be quite so somber as the first one.
As he ate he realized that he missed Toby, whose smiling face and always positive attitude seemed to keep him feeling good.
`Careful, Moss. You don't want to become attached to anyone. If you forget that and let down your guard, you'll be kicked in the nads again.'
At ten o'clock he shut down his computer, went to the kitchen, where he grabbed the champagne from the fridge as well as some pate he'd picked up a few days ago on a whim, and went out the front door, locking it behind him.
`For a guy who doesn't want any connections with anyone,' that voice said, `how do you explain keeping decent champagne and pate in the house?'
"Ah, shut up!"
As he crossed the street, he wondered if he should have dressed up a little. Still wearing the jeans and flannel shirt he'd had on all day, he'd shrugged on his leather jacket since it was pretty cold outside. He rang Bruce's doorbell, a little uncomfortable that Toby wouldn't be there to keep the conversation flowing.
He needn't have worried on either count.
Bruce, wearing a Colby State sweatshirt and jeans, white socks, no shoes, smiled as he took Ben's coat. "I'm glad you didn't dress up. I've been working all day and didn't surface in time to change."
"Me, too. Or should I say `me neither'?"
Bruce snickered at the word quibble, thanked him for the champagne and pate, and put the wine in the fridge.
"I'm ready for a drink. As I told you this morning, I've got wine, beer, gin and bourbon. What's your pleasure?"
Ben had bourbon/rocks and Bruce had gin and tonic. They sat in the living room with their drinks, the pate, a wedge of Jarlsberg, and crackers.
After some exploratory chit chat, the conversation turned to their mutual interest in writers and books, Bruce replenishing the crackers and their drinks as needed.
When Toby was around, Bruce seemed reserved. He listened to the conversation, occasionally commenting and always responding to direct questions. Without the gregarious Toby a different Bruce emerged: highly intelligent, confident, articulate, charming. The two men lost track of the time as they talked. Ben found himself caught up in exchanging ideas, preferences, enthusiasms, and tastes with the younger man. He found himself thinking at one point, `too bad he's straight. He'd make some guy a great catch.' But he forced himself back to what Bruce was saying about Mead's book on dos Passos.
Their glasses were empty again. As he stood to go to the kitchen, Bruce looked at his watch.
"Shit, Ben, we've missed it!"
"The ball dropping and every damn thing. It's twenty minutes after midnight."
In a fine mood from the conversation with this attractive younger guy and closer to being drunk than he'd been in years, Ben said, "Well, happy damn New Year, Bruce!"
Bruce laughed. `Happy damn New Year to you, Ben. Can I have a hug?"
Ben opened his arms and the two hugged briefly.
"Shall I open the champagne now? Bruce asked.
"You know, if you don't mind, I'd just as soon have one more bourbon. Then I'd better go."
"What's your rush? You don't have to get up early tomorrow, do you?"
"Not if I remember to close my bedroom door so Mr. Tibbs can't get in."
"Good, then just let me refill your glass. Then I need to take a whiz. How about you?"
"No, I'm good, thanks. I've not been drinking all that tonic water like you have."
Remembering an earlier conversation, Ben was tempted to get Bruce talking again about his enjoyment of the "Witherspoon" books. He decided not to, however, because he feared he might give away the true identity of D. L. Witherspoon. Thus he introduced a new topic.
"Did you see Toby at all while you were both at home?"
Bruce had just taken a swallow of his drink. As he set the glass down, he said, "Mm hmm. We met at a mall about equidistant between our homes, had lunch, compared Christmas notes, and people watched for a while. He called here this afternoon, by the way. Said to say `happy New Year' to you. He was glad you and I wouldn't be alone and he was sorry he wouldn't be here to share the occasion with us."
"Sounds like Toby. Sweet guy. What was he going to do tonight?"
"There's this cousin, Jeremy. They've always been close. I think they were going to a party at a friend's house."
"When will he be back here?"
Bruce gave him a look he didn't understand. "Monday, about noon, probably."
"It'll be good to have Toby back."
"You don't have a clue, do you?"
Bruce looked intently at Ben. "He'll kill me if he finds out I've told you. But I think you ought to know. I'd hate to see my bud get hurt."
"Come on, Bruce! Told me what?"
"Ben, Tobe's got it bad. I'm pretty sure he's in love with you."
"I'm perfectly serious."
"I didn't have any idea."
"Well, man, you tend to be pretty wrapped up in yourself most of the time. You go to work, come home and write until bedtime, go to bed, and get up the next morning and do it all over again. It looks to me as if you haven't even been open to the possibility of letting someone into your life."
"Do you know why?"
"I can understand your focusing on your writing. I'm sure if you get your novel published you might want to ease up a bit. Don't be mad at Toby, but he told me about your unhappy experience with your former partner. And it's understandable that you'd be very cautious about getting into another relationship. But it's been, what, two years? Isn't it time you began to open up to life again?"
"And by opening up, you mean getting together with Toby?"
Bruce ran a hand through his hair and then smiled. "Not necessarily. But you could do a lot worse. Tobe's a great guy. He's sweet and caring. He is pretty much what he appears to be. I'm not saying he's shallow far from it. He understands people. And he's so sensitive he never wants to see anybody hurt. I don't think I've ever seen him really angry with anybody. Sure, he gets pissed off once in a while like we all do, but he's able to see the other side of issues so well that he just doesn't get mad at people unless they're total shits, that is."
"But you think he has feelings for me?"
"Yes. He's never said it in so many words, but I know him pretty well. He's suffering in silence."
"I can understand why he'd be reluctant to say anything to me since I've been so reclusive. What I don't understand is what he likes about me."
"Don't get me wrong here, but even a confirmed straight like me can see that you're a great-looking guy. But Toby would want a lot more than that in a, uh, boyfriend. And this evening I've had a wonderful time getting to know you. I'm beginning to see behind the frosty faηade. Besides," he grinned, "if you read those romances I'm addicted to, you'd know that `le coeur a ses raisons. . . ."
"Que la raison ne connait point,"* Ben finished the line, smiling at the irony. He'd quoted that line in one of his early Witherspoon novels.
Bruce smiled back and nodded his head when Ben capped his line. Then he continued, "But, Ben, please remember two things."
"You promised not to tell Toby what I've revealed to you this evening."
"Yes, and I'll keep my promise. But I'm really worried about how to act around Toby now."
"Why don't you try to spend more time with him? Maybe you could suggest going to a movie or a concert or something. Even if you two never become more than friends, you couldn't have a better friend than the little guy. And it would do you good to get out more. Maybe it would even help you as a writer. You've got to know the world to write about it."
Ben stared at the wall for perhaps a full minute.
"Okay, maybe you're right." He wasn't sure Bruce was right, but there was never any harm in allowing the possibility. "But you said there were two things I should remember. What's the other one?"
Bruce's face showed his seriousness as he said, "If you hurt Toby, so help me, I'll come after you."
"I hear you. And I admire you for being such a good friend to Toby."
A few minutes later Ben thanked Bruce, they said goodnight, and he crossed the street with more of a buzz on than he'd had in years. When he let himself into his house, he sought out Mr. Tibbs, picked him up, and stroked him for a while. Then he checked to see that there was plenty of water in the cat's bowl.
He stripped off his clothes, did his bathroom business, and got into bed, where he instantly fell into a deep sleep.
Ben was awakened by a hungry cat. He'd forgotten to close his bedroom door after all.
"Wha? Oh, Tibbs, wha time is't?"
A glance at the bedside clock showed it was nearly 10:00 AM. Ben rarely slept late, and this was the latest he'd slept in a long time. Yet he didn't want to get out of the warm bed.
"Must needs," he said. "Come on, your majesty. Sorry you're getting a late breakfast." He walked naked into the kitchen, put feed in the proper bowl, rinsed out the can and left it to drain in the sink. He turned up the thermostat, used the bathroom and, shivering, went back to bed.
He did not, however, go back to sleep. His mind was too busy with Bruce's revelation of earlier that morning. `It can't be true. Granted, Toby's been very friendly. But love me? Not possible. How could he? I've certainly not given him any sort of opening. Have I?' He worried that he was damaged goods, that after the breakup with Trent he'd never be able to give himself wholly to another lover.
Mr. Tibbs came in, licking his chops. He hopped onto the bed and began to preen himself. The furnace running quietly in the background was beginning to warm up the house. Apparently satisfied with his grooming, Tibbs curled into a ball and closed his eyes.
Ben lay there, eyes shut to keep out the light, hoping sleep would return.
Toby was unquestionably a nice guy. Ben felt good when he was around. And he did have a hot little body. But there was the age difference. Toby was just a kid, not more than 23 or 24. Why would he want to be with a guy 8 or 9 years older?
He rolled over onto his side, his back to the window. Once he was settled, Mr. Tibbs moved over to snuggle against his back.
Ben wondered what he was supposed to do with the knowledge Bruce had shared with him, wondered how he could be around Toby and pretend he didn't know what Bruce had said.
*Pascal: "The heart has its reasons which reason doesn't understand."
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