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.
The new year brought changes in Ben's life.
He had a new job, at least for a month. Kristian Anders was to assume the role of PIO on February 1. Until then, Ben took on the duties of that position while continuing to do most of his own work as well. He had to give some of the work he would normally have done to Phil Massini, who did it with ill grace – and his usual sloppiness. Ben refused to work out of Sharon's old office, saying it wasn't worth the trouble to relocate there for only a month.
Thus his days were busier than ever, and he often arrived home an hour or so later than usual, tired and hungry. Mr. Tibbs wasn't happy. Ben had tried putting a little extra food in the cat's bowl in the morning, but that didn't seem to be the problem. He'd arrive home to find Tibbs sitting regally beside the bowl, which always contained a little uneaten food. Obviously not hungry, the cat was apparently simply angry that the household staff was getting home later than usual.
Toby had called when he got back to Colby on the day after New Year's. He wished Ben a happy New Year and said he was eager to see him, to get caught up, as he put it. He mentioned that Bruce told him they'd had a very special evening on New Year's Eve, though he wasn't sure what that meant. Although he had a "pile of stuff" to do for school, he hoped they could get together soon. They decided to try for Friday night. Ben suggested Toby check with Bruce, but Toby said quickly that Bruce would probably be busy.
On Wednesday evening of that week the light was blinking on his answering machine when Ben arrived home. He had one call. He changed out of his office clothes, putting on his favorite sweats and some white socks, put cubes into an Old Fashioned glass, filled it with bourbon, and sat by the phone. He punched the play button on his answering machine.
"Benjamin, Clark here. I've just read Captiva and, honey, we've got to talk! Call me. And why aren't you home? This is when I always call. Kisses."
Ben chuckled. He'd never given Clark his cell phone number because he knew he'd get calls at work from his agent if he did.
He pushed Clark's number on his speed dial but got a recording. He must have been on his way from his office to his over-decorated and hideously expensive flat, part of the cost of which Ben was paying.
He left a message saying he'd be in for the rest of the evening.
He'd finished off Captivated on Captiva and sent it to Clark before Christmas. He hadn't started drafting a new novel yet. In fact, although he had the story line pretty well in mind, he hadn't decided yet where to set it. The locale had to be an island to stay with the pattern he'd set in the earlier novels. One of the Hawaiian Islands would be appealing to his readership, he thought, but he'd never been to Hawaii.
Later that evening, after he'd had supper and put the dishes in the machine, he took a mug of coffee to his favorite recliner. Mr. Tibbs deigned to jump into his lap and allow himself to be stroked. Without a story to work on, Ben relaxed with the cat and the coffee, allowing his mind to wander freely. His mood changed, however, when he realized that he'd be seeing Toby in two days, and he still had no idea how to deal with Bruce's announcement that Toby was "in love" with him.
Just then, the phone rang. His Caller ID told him it was Clark.
"Whatever you're selling, we don't want any," he said.
"Oh yes you do, Ben baby."
"Hello, Clark! How are you? How were your holidays?"
"You don't really want to know! The best thing that happened to me was that I got to read Captiva"
"Poor baby! You must have had a rotten Christmas."
"Oh, trust me, it was! He was too much a dom for me. I've still got – "
"Clark, spare me, please. You're okay, aren't you?"
There was a giggle from the other end. "Yes, thank you very much for asking, I'm fine, now. How are things out in the frozen tundra?"
"Any cute new guys in your life?"
"Maybe? Tell me all, girl. Dish!"
"It's too soon. Besides, he's only about 23."
"Oh, chicken! I didn't think you were into that."
"Hey, this kid's been around the block. And he's adorable."
"What's holding you back, then?"
"Come on, Clark. You know why. Oh, by the way, I had lunch with Trent before Christmas. I told him I forgave him. We're cool."
"You're a better man than I am, Charlie Brown. You forgave him?"
"Yes, and I am a better man than you are. Don't you forget it." Ben grinned.
"Why did you and I break up?" Clark asked.
"Beats me. Maybe because you're there and I'm here? So, you want to tell me why you're calling?"
"Can't I just call to wish you Happy New Year?"
"Yeah, you could. But you aren't."
Ben heard a theatrical sigh from the other end.
"Well, then, if you must know, I've read Captiva."
"So you said. And?"
"You bastard. You're going to make me say it."
"No, not if you don't want to. Goodbye, Clark."
"NO! Don't hang up!"
"Was there something you wanted to say to me?"
Ben heard Clark take a deep breath.
"This book is wonderful. It is so going to outsell all the others."
Ben chuckled. "Ya think?"
"I know! So here's what I've got in mind. When I send it to Gavin at Romance Ink I'm going to tell him he can't have it unless he sweetens the pot significantly."
"What if he refuses?"
"Come on, Ben. They've been peeing their pants waiting for this. And they don't know how saleable it is. When they see it, they'll try to be cool and offer you the same thing you've been getting. But they'll be willing to up the ante a whole fuckin' lot. Trust me."
"Clark, why should I stop trusting you now? Go for it!"
"There's my boy. Talented and smart. Not to mention sex on wheels. I'll be back in touch soon. Kisses."
* * *
During the years when he and Trent were living together, Ben had seldom masturbated. There'd been no need. After Trent's departure, things had changed and Ben had taken the matter in hand. At first he'd had Trent's face and/or body in mind, but he worked consciously to excise his former lover from his fantasies, and he'd eventually succeeded. From then on, the fantasies involved faceless men or sometimes celebrities.
Now, however, it was either Trent's face or Toby's that he saw as he relieved himself, almost always after he'd gone to bed at night or before he got up in the morning.
He worried about visualizing either of those faces as he beat off, telling himself that he wasn't going to expose himself to the pain Trent had inflicted on him by taking up with him again or by getting too close to anyone else. Yet his loneliness bore down upon him. Toby was invariably fun to be with, so why not enjoy his company?
The answer to that question was twofold. First, Bruce claimed that Toby was in love with him. Second, the kid was undeniably sexy. Could he be friends with Toby without leading him on or making him expect too much? He liked Toby, but he didn't want to hurt him. For that matter, could he be friends with Toby without taking him to bed? It would be so easy to take advantage of the guy. And again, he didn't want to become entangled. That could get messy.
On the other hand, his self-imposed monasticism was getting old.
* * *
Colby State University had been founded in 1906, which made it one of the newer state universities. But it was more than a half century older than Ohio's other CSU, Cleveland State University, which had been formed when the State of Ohio had taken over the campus and assets of the ailing Fenn College in Cleveland.
Mostly because of the common initials, there had been a healthy basketball rivalry between the two schools, and Cleveland State usually had a good basketball team.
The Friday evening that Ben and Toby had agreed to spend together was the first meeting of the two teams that season, and Toby wanted to go. Ben, who hadn't been to a basketball game since his own undergrad days, agreed to go along. The Colby State Sports Arena was packed, and the crowd was enthusiastic. The visiting Vikings were, as always, tough, but Colby State eked out a close win.
Ben enjoyed the game, though he couldn't help wishing basketball teams would wear the sexy short shorts he'd seen in his father's high school and college yearbooks. Then he thought of his own days as a basketball player and imagined himself and his teammates in those hot shorts.
"What now?" Toby asked.
They had walked because parking was nightmarish near the Arena on game nights.
"Nelly's?" Ben asked.
"If you want. I'd invite you to my place but I think Bruce has a date there this evening."
It was so cold and crisp that puffs of steam were emitted as Toby spoke. Ben had to resist the urge to put his arm around the shorter man, whose smiling face and sparkling dark eyes made him well nigh irresistible.
"In that case," Ben said, "let's go to my place. We'll have a drink and you can tell me about what you did over the holidays."
"Cool, if you don't mind."
They relaxed in front of the fireplace with their beers, shoes off, comfortable, and talked about what they'd been doing for the last two weeks. Ben studied his guest. He hoped he was doing it surreptitiously.
And, although Toby spoke enthusiastically about being with his cousin Jeremy and other family members, about what a great event Christmas was for the Taba family, although he looked, Ben decided, absolutely adorable, there was no sign that Toby had anything more than friendly feelings for his host.
"You told me you were with Chris and his family for Christmas. Did anything else happen during the holidays?"
"Well, you know I spent New Year's Eve with Bruce."
"Yeah, you've both told me about it."
"That's about it. No, wait. Something did happen that you need to know about."
"I got together with Trent. I told him I forgave him for what happened and apologized for holding a grudge for so long."
Ben had expected Toby to look pleased. Instead he looked concerned.
"Does that mean you two are gonna get back together?"
"No. I've told him that's not possible. But we've agreed that we still care about each other. So we're friends. Besides, he's got someone else in his life."
"They haven't made any commitments, but they're together a lot."
"So how do you feel now that you've cleared the air between yourself and Trent?"
Ben smiled at Toby and raised his beer bottle. "Much better, thanks to you. I'm sure I'd never have taken that step if you hadn't pushed me to do it."
"Pushed? I hope you don't think I was pushy."
"No, Tobe, I'm sorry. Let's say you urged me to do it. I saw that you were right. And I'm grateful."
That brought out Toby's brilliant smile. He raised his bottle to Ben and took a swallow.
"Maybe now you can get on with your life."
"Well, it's no secret you've been a hermit since you and Trent broke up. I know some of that had to do with your writing. But some of it was just because you were hurting so, wasn't it?"
"So if you and Trent are cool, you don't need to stay closed up in here all the time."
"Look, I understand what you're saying, but I'm not sure I could let myself in for the kind of hurt Trent gave me. Can you understand that?"
"Sure." He paused. "You're older than me, Ben. You've been around a while longer, so I shouldn't give you advice."
Ben grinned. "The difference in our ages has never stopped you before."
Toby looked embarrassed. "Well, if you don't mind. I was just gonna say that maybe you should risk it. You can't have love if you aren't open to it. Sure, some guy could stomp all over your heart. Again. But if you aren't willing to take that chance, you'll spend the rest of your life alone and unloved. And missing out on the joy of loving."
"How'd a kid like you get to be so smart?"
"Kid?" Toby looked hurt. "I'm younger than you, but I'm not really a kid. The university thinks I know enough to teach their undergrad students. I'll get my master's this spring. And I've had some experience with loving guys."
"Shit, Tobe, I'm sorry. I was just teasing. I should have said that you're a wise guy. No, that didn't come out right! You're insightful, you have wisdom I wouldn't have expected in someone your age."
Toby was laughing. "Dude, maybe you'd just better shut up. I'll take the compliment, even if it wasn't in quite the words I wish you'd chosen."
An embarrassed Ben smiled at his guest and then sighed.
"I see what you mean. And you're right. If you want love, you can't be a monk. It's just pretty scary. Besides, I'm over thirty. I'm a dull guy with a dull job. Nobody would be interested in me."
"You'll never know until you put yourself out there. And you are not dull. Besides, you seem to be forgetting how great you look. You've got movie star looks, Mr. Moss."
"Yeah, yeah, I've been told that before. That Walker dude. You know I've never even seen one of his movies."
"Well, he's hot and so are you. Believe it!"
Ben was able to change the subject, and the two talked until after 1:00.
"Toby, if Bruce has a date overnight, you could stay here. You're welcome to the spare room."
The younger man had a look that approximated pain on his face. "Thanks, Ben, I appreciate the offer. But I have my own bedroom, and it won't bother me – or Bruce – if they're in his room."
Ben couldn't help wondering how often the situations had been reversed, when Bruce was in his bedroom alone and Toby had an overnight guest. But he didn't feel he could ask.
So, they told each other how much they'd enjoyed their evening together. After Toby had his coat on, they hugged. It was a long hug. Then Toby said a quick goodbye and left.
Who had prolonged the hug? Ben wondered. It had seemed to be lengthy by mutual consent. But perhaps he was imagining that.
He saw that Mr. Tibbs had fresh water in his bowl and then went through his own bedtime routine. As he lay awake, thinking back over the evening, he had to admit that he hadn't detected the slightest sign that Toby's feelings for him went beyond those of friendship. If Toby was attracted to him (Bruce had said Toby loved him), why didn't he accept the offer to stay the night? Bruce had to be wrong.
But then Ben remembered back to when he had the flu and Toby had nursed him, spending time he probably couldn't afford to see that he took his medicines and had enough to eat. That was not the sort of thing you expected from anyone other than a very good friend. And that, at least, Toby certainly was. A very good friend. A friend Ben didn't feel he deserved. He'd accepted and enjoyed Toby's friendship without doing anything to reciprocate.
`Yes,' he thought as he drifted off to sleep, `Toby deserves better than he's gotten from me.'
* * *
A few days later he still hadn't started the next of the Witherspoon novels. He found himself sitting after supper staring at the fire in his fireplace. Musing. Remembering.
`What is it about short guys? Trent's not very tall, about the same height as Toby. And Les.'
When the Petersons had moved in around the corner the summer before Ben started to seventh grade, he and Les had become best friends almost instantly. Constantly together, they went through the rituals of puberty, comparing notes about hair growth, genital size, and, eventually, masturbation.
Over the next year or so, Ben grew taller. His cute redheaded friend didn't grow so much. Ben kept reassuring him he'd catch up. They could see that other boys in their class were having their growth spurts at different times. But Les never got taller than 5'7".
Because of his height, Ben went out for basketball. Les, always cheeky, sometimes pugnacious, became a wrestler.
One day in 9th grade the boys were in Les's bedroom after school, playing games on Les's computer. After a while, Les put down his control, turned to Ben and said, "Man, I've got a problem."
"What's wrong, dude?"
"You gotta promise you won't tell!"
"Hey, we're best buds, aren't we?"
"Right. But you've gotta promise."
Concerned about what Les's problem was, Ben said, "Okay, I swear."
The big revelation was that at wrestling practice, even at meets, Les kept getting boners.
"Seeing all those guys in their singlets with their stuff showing. And it's even worse when we're actually wrestling. Sometimes you have to grab a guy by the ass or the crotch. Sometimes you wind up with his package in your face, or yours in his. Geez, Ben, I even get hard watching two other guys going at it."
Ben snickered. "Goin' at it?"
"Hey, man, it's not funny! I'm serious here!"
Ben apologized. Then he pointed out that guys their age threw wood all the time and it wasn't anything to worry about.
"That's what I keep tellin' myself, but there's more, see."
"Yeah. When I'm jacking off – unless you and me are doin' it together – I think of some of the guys on the team. Sometimes I imagine we're having a circle jerk. Sometimes it's just me and one of the others."
Ben's hands were getting sweaty, and he had to clear his throat. "Do you ever think about doing something else?"
"Naw, you mean queer stuff? No way!" Then he paused. A sly grin came over his face. "Well, uh, yeah, sometimes."
And that was the day Ben and Les first experimented with oral sex. It went from there to other kinds of experimentation. By the time they were in tenth grade, they'd admitted to themselves that they were gay. They tried about everything they could think of. And loved it all. Ben learned that he was mostly a top, though once in a while he enjoyed having Les's dick inside him.
In high school Ben played on the basketball team until he graduated, though he never made first string. He wasn't quite tall enough or quite good enough. He usually got to play, however. The coach liked to put him in near the end of the game after some of the first stringers had fouled out or were close to fouling out.
Ben and Les never came out officially, but because they were constantly together, some of the school's more macho jocks called them faggots or fairies or queers, but the boys ignored the taunts. And there was never any violence.
At sixteen or seventeen, one can be intensely in love. Ben and Les were as much in love, they thought, as two people could be. They were planning to go to the same university so they could room together.
And then Les's father took a job in Denver. The Peterson family moved during the summer before the boys' senior year. Both Ben and Les were heartbroken. They spent many nights holding each other and crying. As the time for the move came closer, they swore they'd write each other, that they'd talk on the phone, that they'd find a way to get together.
Of course, as so often happens, it didn't work out that way. It's sometimes said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. In this case, it seemed to be more a matter of out of sight, out of mind. By the time Ben graduated, he and Les were exchanging letters about once a month. Les had made new friends in Denver and he wrote enthusiastically that winter about skiing and snowboarding and the cool guys he was doing that with. And he was the best wrestler in his weight class, so he had lots of friends on the wrestling team. No word about being gay or having a lover.
That was the first time Ben had been in love. It was the first time he'd experienced the pain of losing a lover.
`Odd that I'm thinking about Les after all these years.'
* * *
Clark called again a week or so later.
"Ben, do you know why you're lucky to have me as your agent?"
"I've often wondered. Because you're cute, maybe?"
He heard a snicker at the other end of the line. "That, too. But, no, you keep me on because I'm so damned good."
"Ouch! That's cold. You're so going to be sorry you said that after I tell you my news."
Ben laughed. "Okay, okay, greatest of all agents, what is your news?"
"Didn't I tell you Gavin would have a hardon after he'd read your new book?"
"Seems to me you said something to that effect."
"Baby, he practically came in his pants. They were trying to play it cool, but I've talked them into a significantly better deal on this book, though we haven't worked out all the details yet. And they want as much information as you can give them about the next one."
"The next one? Jesus, Clark, I don't have anything ready to give Romance Ink yet. What do they think I am, a fucking book factory?"
Clark giggled again. "Well, we all think Captiva is good, but good here means commercial. Faulkner you're not. So we'd all be happy if you'd just keep cranking them out."
"I should pretend to be wounded, but I have to admit you're right."
"So, how's the `real' book coming? What are you calling it? Oh yeah, This Petty Pace.
"It's coming slowly."
Ben explained about being acting PIO and that he'd soon be "breaking in" a new boss.
"How about your social life? By that I mean your sex life?"
"The social life's improving. The sex life is still non-existent."
"It's got to be your own fault, stud. Anybody as hot as you should be able to get laid anytime he wants. So what's this about improving your social life?"
"Oh, nothing, really. I've told you about my new friend. He's over here a lot, and we go to the movies or grab a beer once in a while."
"Oooh? The kid? Sounds interesting. Describe him."
"Imagine a beautiful Hawaiian diver about 5'9" with a sweet smile."
"And a little dick, I suppose."
"I can't say for sure, but he seems to have a nice package. And his butt's gorgeous."
"Why haven't you fucked him?"
"There you go again! We're just friends. I don't want to lose his friendship by trying to make a move on him. And you know I'm not ready for a serious relationship yet."
"Christ, Ben! If not now, when? Haven't you grieved over that Trent tramp long enough?"
"I thought I'd told you that Trent and I are cool."
"Then it's fucking well time for you to get yourself another guy, sweetheart."
"You know, Clark, you may be right."
"Of course I'm right. Never forget that. Now, stud, I've got to run. I'll email you the details about Romance Ink's offer as soon as they're firm."
"Thanks, Clark. I really do appreciate what you do for me."
"You'd better! Kisses."
As he put down the phone, Ben thought, "Maybe Clark is right. Maybe it is time to find another guy."
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