Smile upon me...
I wanted to kill him. Not to punch his nose in, or to roll him in one of the puddles that lined the street. No, my thoughts were set to murder. As if the heavy rain hadn't made me wet enough, he had to run that red, flashy, snobby sports car of his right through the puddle right next to me. I was soaked to the bone! I don't really know what kind of guttural sound I made, but it was enough to make a woman hurrying past me speed up like a sprinter. As I looked up again, I was stunned with surprise. He had stopped. Just a hundred yards down the street, he had pulled over, and now he was jogging my way. Anger ran off me as I saw the remorse on his face, as he reached me, stopping just out of arm's reach.
"Listen, I'm so very, very sorry!" He was slightly out of breath, and I noticed that he didn't have a jacket on, and was shivering in the chilly rain. "I didn't see you, I'm so sorry..."
"Don't worry." I astonish myself! Half a minute ago, I would have flayed him alive. "It's not as if I was very dry to begin with."
"Come with me, I live just a little bit down the street, you can dry off there."
"Please, I insist!" His teeth were clattering, now. "Let me help you."
"You should get inside, too," I said. "Come on."
Smiling, he led the way, and I obediently followed. We passed his car, which I now recognised as a Ford Mustang; a beautiful car. It was meticulously well-kept; hardly a speck of dirt on the shining red hood. He fumbled with keys, his shuddering hands failing to find the keyhole. Chuckling, I grabbed his keychain, and unlocked the door.
"F-f-fo-fo-fourt-t-teenth f-f-floor-r-r," he stuttered, and I helped him get inside the elevator.
"What the hell made you decide to run down the street like that?" I asked, my voice perhaps a little more stern than I had meant it to be. "A surefire way to get yourself a chest cold."
"I j-j-just wanted t-to apologise... You g-g-got so w-wet..."
As we left the elevator and made our way down the hall, I began to feel the cold, as well. It was still far from winter, but the first frost nights wouldn't be much more than a couple of weeks away. I managed to open his door, though, and let us in. As it clicked shut behind my back, and I looked around, I immediately forgot about being cold. This place was, by far, the classiest apartment I'd ever seen. A short hallway led to a large living room, with a sort of den lowered into the floor; a nice, fluffy-looking, pillow-rich sofa and a huge TV, separated by a table that seemed to be made of ebony. On the far side of this den was a dining table, looking out through wide windows on the city, a view that seemed to stretch all the way to the Canal. Indeed, I thought I saw something blue far off, but it was impossible to tell. The right-side wall was occupied by a large bookshelf, and there were a couple of comfy-looking easy chairs, with another low ebony table in between. The left-side wall held doors, which were closed. My host pulled me towards one of these doors, which led to a large bedroom with a bed far too big for one. Opening a walk-in closet, he pulled out a couple of bath robes, tossing me one.
"Get out of those wet clothes, while I go and fire up the shower."
In a blink, he was gone, and I did as I'd been told, leaving my boxers on for modesty. The terry robe felt nice against my body, and took a lot of the cold away. I thought about my host for a second or two. This was clearly the home of a wealthy man, maybe I should sue him? Surely we could settle out of court, with a substantial amount of cash? No, I decided. After all, he did apologise. I chuckled at what a softie I was, when he returned, wearing the other robe.
"What's the fun?" he asked. "Nothing too embarrassing, I hope."
"No, I was just considering suing you for splashing me," I said, grinning at the sudden pallor of his face. "But I decided against it, since you did say you were sorry."
"Well, thank God for that! Or rather, thank you. I've got the shower ready, just go ahead and get soaked, while I toss your clothes in the tumbler-drier."
"Are you sure? You look a lot colder than I do. Shouldn't you go first?"
"No, I insist! Call it atonement, if you like." We both laughed at this. "Just don't spend all the hot water."
With that, he was gone again, and I found myself thinking of him as slightly hyperactive. Smiling at that thought, I made my way to the bathroom just as he exited it. Bowing slightly, he ushered me inside, and closed the door behind me. The tumbler was already full at work, as I slipped out of the robe and my boxers, and into the almost unbearably hot shower beam. Still, it felt heavenly! In just a few minutes, the chill was out of my bones, and I hurriedly lathered up, then rinsed it off. After towelling myself, I put on the robe, deciding to hang my still-wet boxers up to dry. The hallway smelled of coffee, and my host grinned as he watched me close my eyes, enjoying the fragrance. Before I could say anything, he had closed the bathroom door behind him. Following the scent trail, I found the kitchen, where a coffee machine was happily burbling away, turning a brown, stinky powder and some plain water into the Nectar of the Gods. Rummaging through the fridge and the cupboards; every guest's privilege, I found us a pair of mugs, and also some whole-rye bread. I made a half-dozen sandwiches, and put away the butter just as I heard the bathroom door open and close. He smiled at me as he saw the piles of sandwiches.
"I see you know your way around a kitchen."
"Around and inside," I answered. "Comes from living alone."
"Oh." His grin promptly vanished. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
"No, it's okay. No divorce or such, I just live alone."
"Haven't found the right one yet?"
"Precisely. Not that I've spent too much time looking." I reached out a hand. "I'm Chris, by the way."
"Oh!" He clasped his mouth, then grabbed my hand. "Hello, Chris-by-the-way, I'm Nathan, Nate for short. I can't believe I forgot to introduce myself."
"Nice to meet you, Nathan-Nate-for-short," I answered, and we both fell into a fit of laughter. Clearly, his sense of humour matched mine. "Hey, it's easy to forget things when you're freezing to death. Do we chow in the kitchen?"
"Nah, let's get down into the Pit."
I followed him into the living room and down the step-and-a-half that led to the Pit. The sofa turned out to be even more comfortable than it looked, and I sighed deeply as I leaned back. Nate flicked on the TV, searching through the channels until he found the news, and he set the volume low as we started talking.
"Are you in a hurry, Chris, or will you let me fix you dinner? See it as an apology."
"Well," I thought out loud, "I was supposed to take out Tessie tonight..."
"Oh." He looked disappointed. "Maybe some other time, then?"
"I suppose I could cancel, if I could borrow your phone," I said, still thinking out loud. "She could go out with Pete or Charlie instead. Or Irene. Maybe with some of the neighbourhood kids, it's not as if she's picky."
"What are you talking about?" Nate had a quizzical look on his face, and he rolled his eyes as if he'd got stuck with a raving lunatic. "Your girlfriend dates kids?"
"Girlfriend? Oh no, you've got it all wrong, Tessie is my neighbour's Golden Retriever. I'm taking her for walkies while her mommy's recovering from a broken hip."
"So Tessie's mommy's your girlfriend?" I wasn't sure why he was snooping, but I decided to play along.
"Yeah, she's a great lady. Charming and sweet. We get along great together."
"Won't she be disappointed when you don't show up?" His head was drooping, now, and he seemed a bit distressed. "I mean..."
"Nate, she's seventy-six. But I didn't lie, she really is sweet."
We whiled away a couple of hours in the Pit, not watching TV, but talking as if we'd known each other for years. I found out that he was twenty-five, two years younger than me, and that he was a senior partner in a software-producing company. I forgot its name as soon as he mentioned it. Apparently, I commented, looking around, they were doing quite well.
"You mean this? Well," he fidgeted, "I'm not into luxury, not really. I bought this apartment as it is, but I've been meaning to re-decorate it."
"Why don't you?"
"I kind of got used to it." He laughed. "It's remarkable how easy a man gets spoiled."
"I can guess. I could probably get used to living like this, as well."
"Really? How do you live, then?"
I told him about my work at one of the larger consulting companies, and how I'd got my hands on an airy three-roomer through them. The rent was fairly low, and it was in a nice neighbourhood, just a few blocks away from Nate's apartment. As I talked, I looked at Nate. He was shorter than me, just under 180 cm, but so slenderly built he seemed taller. His blue eyes were set in a small, curious-looking face, and surrounded by brown hair that seemed unkempt after his shower. Like I always do, I tried to see what kind of animal he was. This is a hobby I started early in life, when I had an uncle who looked just like an owl. Every person can be represented by an animal, not a totem or anything like that, but something that fits their looks and personality. Nate was, beyond any doubt, an otter. His quick movements, and his slightly nervous disposition, not to mention his looks; it all added up. I told him this, and he tilted his head.
"An otter?" he asked, suspiciously. "You think I'm an otter?"
"Yeah. I'm sure of it. Admit it, you just can't wait to lie on your back in the sea, rolled up in seaweed and munching on oysters."
"All right," he laughed, "I'm an otter! In fact, I love oysters. And swimming in the ocean's never wrong."
"See? I was right. I'm always right."
At seven, Nate got up and told me to stay in the sofa, while he got dinner started. I offered to help, but he wouldn't hear of it. So I sat back, idly flicking through more channels than I had ever seen, still not finding anything quite worth watching. Still, there was some football on Eurosport, so I left it running while I had a curious look around in his living room. True, it was furnished by someone with lots of money, but also lacking a lot of taste. It was flashy; everything screamed `look at me, I'm rich!', but it was also clear to me that Nate had done much to tone this down. The soft blue wallpaper clashed with the furniture, calming the room down somewhat. The decorations, too, were slightly subdued. I got up to look through his bookshelves. There were quite a few books on computers, of course, but to my surprise also a large number of novels, and some classic literature, as well.
"See anything you like?" I jumped a little. "Oops, didn't mean to scare you."
"Oh, it's okay. Interesting variety."
"What do you mean?" He looked puzzled.
"Well, just that it isn't what you'd expect from a bachelor. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Clarke, Strindberg, Saramago and Jack London, but no Stephen King, no Ray Chandler. No Mickey Spillane. No typical male books."
"I only buy books that I want to read, Chris. Those last three you mentioned, I don't read them."
"Me neither. Actually, I like your selection." He lit up as if I'd hit a switch. "A lot of readable stuff."
"You read much?" he asked, reaching over my shoulder to grab a book. His chest brushed against my back, and I felt myself jump again. Damn, what was with me? I didn't use to be so jumpy! "This one's my favourite. Call of the Wild."
"Mhm. I like it, too. Yeah, I read a lot. Mostly novels, but I like short stories, too. Especially romantic stories."
"Romantic, huh?" He grinned, and I couldn't help but smile along. "Bet you cry at movies, too."
"Got me!" I feigned a fatal hit to the heart. "I use a lot of tissues."
We talked about books and movies for a while, then he returned to his cooking, while I borrowed his phone. As it turned out, my poor conscience for Tessie was all in vain. Mrs Fielding, my neighbour, had her grandchildren visiting, so the dog was in no need of extra attention. Relaying the news to Nate, I got a smile in return, and a slap to my fingers as I tried to peek into his pots. Returning to the living room, I paused to admire the view. As it grew darker, the city came alive in a different way, as neon signs and streetlights lit it up from below, quite unlike the sun's gentle rays from above. Not that there'd been much of that lately, I chuckled to myself. From time to time, I could hear Nate fussing around in the kitchen, and I found it odd that we had opened up towards each other like we had. Normally, I was slow on making new friends; not really shy, but kind of introvert, watchful of my privacy. This day, though, it felt like I was visiting an old childhood friend, eager to catch up with news.
"Chris, would you help me set the table?"
I caught myself grinning as I went back into the kitchen, as if I couldn't wait to chat some more. Busy stirring some deliciously-smelling stew, Nate pointed me to the right cupboards, and in no time at all, I had the kitchen table laid out. I opened the fridge, looking for something to drink with the meal, and I found a bottle of white wine, of a brand I'd never seen before.
"That stew goes with red, doesn't it?" I asked, but he just laughed. "What's wrong?"
"Sorry, Chris, that's for cooking only. I hadn't really planned for wine."
"Oh, it's all right, I won't whine about it," I said, and he chuckled as he tasted his stew, smacking his lips. "What's in it?
"Chef's secret recipe. If you feel like wine, you could run down to the corner shop, but I don't think you'd want that, wearing just a terry robe."
"Heh. That would be interesting. Thanks for reminding me I'm standing here near-naked."
"Oh! I forgot the tumbler! Chris, would you...?" I nodded. "Thanks a million! This stuff would get spoiled if I left it now."
Nate's tumbler-drier made a menacing growl as I entered the bathroom, and I could swear it tried to advance on me. A tiny wisp of smoke curled its way towards the ceiling from behind the infernal machine, and there was an unmistakable smell of ozone to the air. Afraid to touch it, I grabbed the plastic toilet brush and eased the plug out of the insulated wall socket. With a last grumble and a deep sigh, the monster died, and I pried open the top hatch. Amazingly, our clothes seemed to have been burned, while at the same time, they were still soaked. Whatever had failed the machine, it had failed big time. My jeans had come apart at the seams, and my t-shirt was no longer recognisable. Both items seemed to have shrunk, as well. My socks had burn holes in them. Nate's clothes were similarly destroyed, but I hung them up on the clothesline above the bathtub anyway, to get them dry enough for the trash can. Strangely enough, I felt like just shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders. Normally, something like this would've had me cursing the tumbler's maternal ancestry, while disassembling it rather violently, but instead I felt kind of detached. As if something good outweighed the bad. Maybe it's because I'm making a new friend, I thought as I returned to the kitchen.
"Mmm, that smells heavenly."
"Beef stew with rice, an old recipe my mom taught me." Nate grinned as he put the bowls down on the table, and I decided not to spoil dinner by telling him of his tumbler's little adventure. "Clothes not dry yet?"
"Might need a few more minutes' hanging," I replied. "Why don't you go and change?"
"Nah, I don't want to make you feel underdressed." He tugged at the collar of my robe as I sat down. "Formal wear, eh?"
"If not formal, then at least comfortable."
"Is Coca-Cola all right with you?" he asked. "I don't drink alcohol myself, so apart from cooking wine, I never have any at home."
"No, that's fine. Might have a glass of wine to a good dinner, but it's far from necessary."
"Good. Right, then, let's chow away!"
We did. The stew wasn't very spicy, but rich of taste, and I let closed eyes and smacking lips tell the chef how much I loved it. Nate drank the praise, blushing a bit as I told him it was the best grub I'd had for months. It was no lie, either; living alone, I seldom bothered to do any extensive cooking, but made do with semimanufactures or frozen dinners.
"Well," Nate said, "I don't always cook either, but I can't stand that frozen crap. I'd rather go out for dinner."
"I do that, too, but it's not very fun eating out by yourself."
"What, Tessie and her mommy won't join you to paint the town red?" He chuckled at this, laughing even more as I pouted, grumbling something inaudible. "Seriously, Chris, when you're working for such a large company, there ought to be a lot of people..."
"Well, I'm not exactly sociable. And I just moved here a little over a year ago, I don't really know anyone."
"So you're not... you know... seeing someone?" I looked up just in time to see his eyes leave my face, but I did see the blush on his cheeks. "Someone special, I mean..."
I laid down my fork and wiped my lips with a napkin. Nate was staring at his plate now, his face flushed a deep red. Now this was something I hadn't expected! Suddenly, I felt a chill run down my spine. What the hell was I supposed to do? I liked Nate, and I did not want to lose him as a friend. But I had to let him down, the trick was to do it gently.
"Nate, are you hitting on me?"
Great. Subtle! Was that supposed to be gentle? Still blushing, he looked up again, meeting my gaze. I guess his fears had gone beyond mere rejection, because he actually smiled a little when he realised that I wasn't about to go hostile.
"Nate, it's okay, I'm cool with it. I'm an educated guy, so there's no hard feelings. But I'm also straight." I watched his shoulders sag and his eyes turn sad, and a wave of sympathy welled up in me. "I'm sorry, Nate. I'm sorry to let you down."
"Don't be." His usually clear voice was slightly broken, reflecting the pain he was feeling at that moment. "It's not your fault. I set my hopes too high. Not the first time."
"We can still be friends, right?" I asked. "I really like you, Nate, and I'd hate to push you away."
"Right." He swallowed, and I could see that he won his battle against his own tears. "I'd like to be your friend, Chris. I'd really like that. I'm so happy you don't mind me being..."
"Gay?" He nodded. "Why should I? All right, I was a bit surprised, but like I said, I don't mind at all. I'm cool."
"No, you're not." I gave him a quizzical look, and he grinned. "You're hot."
"Aw, come on!" It was my turn to blush. "Knock it off!"
"No, seriously! You're volcanic!"
"Are you gonna flirt with me all the time now?" I asked, overacting my mock-anger so much he couldn't help giggling, nodding eagerly. "All right, but if you start stalking my apartment door, or making obscene phone calls in the middle of the night, I'm afraid I'll have to notify the police."
"How about I call you early in the evening?"
"Oh, that's fine, but no later than half past ten, and not while I'm having guests."
We both laughed, and I felt tension lift like a hot air balloon. I wasn't lying; I really didn't mind that he was gay, or that he'd hit on me. In fact, I felt flattered. I'd had women calling me handsome, or cutish, but never hot, and definitely not volcanic. Deep inside, it felt good to be appreciated, and the fact that it was a man who appreciated me gave it extra spice. A tingly, exciting flavour that I'd never felt before. We finished our meal, and we kept on talking just like before, just like nothing had changed. As far as I was concerned, nothing had. I helped him clear the table, and dried the dishes as he cleaned them, and I kept silently hoping that we would be able to remain friends. That his attraction for me wouldn't tear us apart.
End of chapter 1. More will follow, but I'm a slow writer, so don't chew your thumbnails, okay? :)
Thoughts and comments would be much appreciated. My e-mail address is email@example.com