Smile Upon Me...
The clock had ticked its slow way past ten, and I had just turned off the TV after watching the late night news. Following my normal habits, I was undressing, getting ready for a shower as the phone rang. After a brief debate whether to pick it up or not, I answered with a neutral hello.
"Nate, hi! What's up? Why are you calling this late?"
"I got your e-mail." I immediately knew something was wrong, because his voice sounded so flat, miles from his ordinary chirpy self. "I take it you read the biography?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, I never meant to pry..."
"Oh, don't be. It's not as if I keep any secrets, I just don't like talking about it."
"I can understand that. It must hurt..."
"No, Chris, it doesn't hurt. I'm just so... I don't know... I used to be mad, I guess I'm just disappointed these days."
"Well, I can understand that, too. So, what's wrong, Nate? You sound awfully low."
"No, I'm fine, really. I just wanted to say thanks for inviting me to lunch. That really cheered me up."
"So you have been low? Guess what? So have I."
"You, Chris? Why?"
"After our little chat about love and dating, I started thinking. I guess I didn't like the conclusions I made."
"That I'm messing up my own love-life. That I act as if I want to be single for the rest of my life. I wasn't too happy with the me I saw when I thought about it."
"I've been thinking something like that, too. Listen, Chris, can I come over for a little while? I realise it sounds weird, but I really need to talk to someone."
"Sure, come on."
"Really? It's not too late?"
"No, I've got a video conference at ten tomorrow, I don't need to be in before then."
"Great. Thanks, Chris, I really appreciate it."
We hung up, and I hurried to take my shower. I'd just finished getting dressed when the door bell rang. Nate looked like something the cat would hesitate to even approach the front door with. His eyes were reddened, and it looked as if he'd been crying. I let him in without much more than a greeting, took his jacket and asked him to sit down in the living room. He turned down my offer for coffee, but accepted a bottle of 7-Up. The smile that thanked me for it was a shy one, far from the extrovert self-confidence I had seen before. It worried me; I had liked the out-going Nate, but now he seemed almost afraid of me. I sat down beside him, fingered the remote control for a while, but decided to leave the TV off. He started to say something, but then fell silent again, and I realised it was up to me to break the ice.
"Nate, come on, talk to me. What's wrong?"
"Me. I'm wrong."
"What do you mean?"
"You know, Chris, I can't really believe how I've opened up with you. The way we've been talking the last couple of days, the way I've been talking, I'm normally not like that. But I felt so safe with you, like I could tell you anything and you'd listen. Listen, but not judge."
"And that's true. That's why I want you to talk to me, now."
"I'm trying to. It's just... difficult." He avoided my eyes. "It's nothing earth-shattering, really, I haven't been hiding anything from you. It's just so difficult to talk about it."
"Try. Please. If I can, I want to help."
"I know." He smiled, warmer, more sincere this time. "I told you about how I wanted to find someone to love, right? Well, I started thinking when I got home, and I realised that I was just making excuses."
"You said something like that yesterday."
"Yes. I said I wouldn't wait for Mr Right, that I would settle with anybody who'd love me. Well, I was lying. Not just to you, but to myself, as well. I thought back to the few longer relationships I've had, and how I broke them up. As if I never thought anyone would be good enough for me."
"What do you mean, Nate?" He sounded so depressed it nearly brought tears to my eyes. What had happened to hurt him so? "Tell me!"
"All right." A smile played on his lips, but disappeared just as quickly. "I've been together with three men in my life. The first was a guy I knew in high school. I'm not sure we ever really loved each other, but we had a lot of fun together."
"What was his name?"
"Keith. We still talk a bit every time we meet. We grew apart once we went to different colleges, but he wanted to try and get an apartment together, so we could be with each other."
"And you turned it down."
"Yes. I guess I wasn't ready for that. He was disappointed, but we still parted as friends. Then I met this guy at work, Lance. My business partner had hired him to work with hardware solutions, and we soon got pretty involved. Very involved. But again, as he started talking about moving together, I turned a cold shoulder. He stood me against the wall, in the end. Said I had to choose, all the way or no way."
"So you dropped him."
"Yes. It didn't go well. He quit work and moved out of town, and I've never seen him again. I was pretty devastated after that. I really had loved him."
"So why throw him out?" My choice of words made him wince. "I mean, it's obvious he loved you, too."
"I don't know, Chris." He shook his head. "I don't know why I did it. I felt like I couldn't share. Like I couldn't give him what he needed."
"Really?" I sensed that he was lying, somehow. Maybe because he wouldn't meet my eyes. He sighed as I continued. "That's not it, is it?"
"Tell me, Nate. Like you said, I won't judge."
"I was newly rich. Hot-shot kid in the hot-shot business. Shares punching a hole in the ceiling, articles and interviews in every business magazine. They all knew about my sexuality, so the questions kept returning to whether or not I had a boyfriend. So, I tried to picture it, the next big article, with pictures of him and me. A plain-looking tech, making a tenth of my wages, dressing boringly. They'd have a ball, I thought. Beauty and the Dullard. So when he wanted to make it official, I chickened out. Too scared, too busy caring about what others would think." Nate was crying now, leaning against my shoulder. I put my arm around him, trying my best to comfort him. "About a week after he'd left, I realised he wasn't coming back, and I completely lost it. I cried for days, kicking myself for being such an arse. I promised myself that I wouldn't fall in love again, that I'd never let myself get hurt like that, or hurt someone like that."
"Can I have another drink, Chris? I'm getting thirsty, talking and crying like this." He wiped at his tears, his smile a little more genuine this time as I headed for the kitchen, returning with two more bottles. He all but drained his in one gulp, then fidgeted a bit before he took a deep breath, finding his voice again. "But, I didn't stop seeing guys. A couple of brief flirts, one-nighters and such. Always telling myself it was nothing serious. Always telling me it was good sex, but nothing more."
Nate got up from the couch, almost taking my arm off at the shoulder. He paced around the room for a minute or two, his tears flowing again. Finally, he calmed down enough to continue. He made for my easy chair, but I patted the couch next to me, and he gratefully sat down, leaning into me once more. The look of pain in his eyes was so strong I felt my heart melt for him. I hugged him, and he let out a soft sigh, returning the hug. I held him quietly for a while, before he had gathered himself enough to continue his story. He tried to back away, but I kept holding him. His voice was almost a whisper.
"Well, I suppose you can guess what happened next." I nodded. "His name was Jens, and he had looks to die for. Blue eyes, long, blond viking hair, sculpted body. I met him at a club, and we danced a couple of times before he bought me a drink. I wanted to pay for myself, but he would hear nothing of the kind. So I relented, and we sat down in the back, talking. His grandparents had fled from Denmark during the war, bringing their young daughter, his mother. She got married late in life, and when he was born, he was like a blessing to his family, raised with love in abundance. He came out to them at a young age, but to his surprise, they accepted him completely, loving him no less for being gay. So, twenty years old, he'd moved over here to go to college, and I was the first guy to catch his eyes at the clubs."
"So, what happened?" I asked, as Nate paused to finish off his drink, then seemed hesitant to go on. "You fell in love?"
"No, we didn't. We became friends. I showed him around town. I've still got a hilarious picture of the two of us, on top of Sears Tower, back when it was still the tallest building in the world. There was a gust of wind, and his hair blew right up into my face. The photographer shot the picture just as I sneezed, while he's still grinning into the camera. Took him three washes to clean out his hair." We both chuckled, him at the memory, me at the thought. "I'll show it to you some time. No, it took us a couple of weeks to fall in love, but then we fell all the harder. He was great, not just in bed, but he was so kind, so caring that he completely blew me away."
"So, what happened?"
"We spent months together. He moved into my apartment, and we became an item. He even brought his parents home to meet me, and we clicked just like that." He snapped his fingers, then shrugged. "By the end of that time, his mother called me son, and I felt so happy I could scream."
"And you still broke up?" I went to get us more to drink, since Nate's voice was getting grating again. "I don't get it."
"When his parents left, I began to get anxious. Somehow, things seemed too perfect. I got a bit paranoid, just waiting for something bad to happen. My mind kept wandering to Lance, and how I'd lost him, so I decided I had to work on our relationship. And I did. I worked to destroy it." He stopped, tears flowing again. His eyes begged me to hold him again, so I wrapped my arms around him. "I made plans, I kept us active. Movies, clubs, expensive dinners, everything. If we went shopping, I made sure to buy him anything he looked at, or at least offer to. I tried so hard to keep him happy, that I failed to see how miserable it made him. In the end, he snapped, and told me off. The first time he ever got angry with me, and I got devastated. He said I was smothering him. We had a blasting row that night, and it ended with him moving back to his dorm. I sat in my bed that night, unable to sleep, unable to cry. So, when the morning came, I did the worst possible thing."
"You bought him a car."
"I..." Nate leaned back, staring at me while his jaw dropped. I couldn't suppress a soft chuckle, and before long, the angry glare I got died away, and he started laughing, too. Minutes passed, and soon we were howling with laughter. "H-how the hell did you know?"
"It's just the thing you would do. I don't know how I know, but I do know. Just the thing."
"When I gave him the key, he almost jammed it up my..."
"Yes, yes! Spare me the details!"
"...nose, Chris. Up my nose. Literally." His laughter abated, but the pained look didn't quite make it back. "I got furious. We had another row, and I just couldn't understand why he wouldn't let me show him my love. In the end, I walked away, telling him to keep the car."
"No, he returned it to the dealer. I got the money back the day after, not that I cared. We made up a couple of weeks later, but the love was gone by then."
"So you stayed single." I yawned, then glanced at the watch. Half past one. "How long...?"
"Ten months, almost to the day. I never even thought about dating until..."
"Until you tried to drench me?"
"Yes." He lowered his gaze. "Call me love-starved if you will, but I liked you from the start. The thought never even entered my mind that you could be straight. I'm just glad you didn't throw me off the balcony."
"I would've used a knife, Nate. I won't go out there again. I'll admire the view from behind the windows, where it's safe."
"Heh. Thanks for listening, Chris. I really appreciate it." He hugged me quickly, then got to his feet. "I've kept you up half the night, I really should be going."
"Not like this. Nate, you're still shaking like a leaf, you can't drive!"
"Well, I'll walk, then. It's just a couple of blocks."
"In the middle of the night? That's asking for trouble." He grabbed his jacket, but I took it back. "I'll dig out a spare bed."
"I can't ask that of you..."
"No, but I can offer it. Sit!" Obediently, he sat down on the armrest of the couch, watching me as I dug out sheets and a spare bed cover. I had a foldaway bed that... "Erh... I just remembered something, Nate. My cousin nicked the spare bed when she helped me move in here, and she hasn't returned it."
"No prob. I can sleep on the couch."
"It's a two-seater, Nate. You'll never get out of it alive."
"We could share bed again." He winked at me. "I managed to keep my hands away last time."
"Yes, you did, and I'm ever grateful." He laughed. "All right, I'll trust you again."
"Even after you know how I treated my other boyfriends?"
"Yes, even after that." I ignored his Freudian slip. "I think I proved my point when I pulled you out of that snob store."
"Oh my god!" Suddenly, he got pale like a ghost. "I tried to do it again!"
"Look, it's no big deal..."
"It is to me! Chris, I'm so sorry! So damn sorry..." He started crying again. "It's like I never learn!"
"C'mon!" I pulled him to his feet. "Let's get something to eat."
"Yes, now. You'll feel better, trust me." I handed him his jacket. "There's a round-the-clock McDonald's a short walk away."
"You're crazy." He shook his head, but came with me, anyway. "Completely loopy."
"Stopped you crying, didn't I?"
"So you did! He wiped his eyes on his shirt collar, leaving two large, wet stains. "All right, it's my turn to trust you."
It was a five minute walk to the burger place, but we didn't talk much during that time. I was a bit concerned about roaming the street at that hour, but all we saw were passing cars. I sat him down at a table, then went to pick up a tray loaded with hamburgers, fries and sodas. Again, he shook his head, grinning, but once he'd started eating, he finished his food off quickly, stealing half of my fries before he was full. I was slower, but not much, and it wasn't long until we were back home again. I'd been right; Nate's mood had improved, to my own delight. I had hated to see him so down. The happy smiled I'd seen so much of during the last two days was back, and it was genuine. His eyes smiled, too, and it warmed my heart. During his story, I had been on the verge of tears at times. Not from pity; Nate had made mistakes, and it was only natural that he regretted them. No, my distress had come from watching his pain, seeing him hurt had made me hurt, as well. It was a feeling I couldn't really describe, but the more I thought about it, the more agitated I became. I let Nate shower first, while I went into the kitchen to drink some orange juice and gather up my mind. I had touched upon these thoughts before; ever since I met Nate, there was something about him that made me feel good, just by being near him. Made me feel safe, in a situation where most men would run like hell. So why didn't I feel any threat against my masculinity? Against my manliness? Then, my thought had been that Nate was so harmless, that he just couldn't do anything to harm me. But I wasn't so sure anymore. He came out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist, and I made myself ready for the night, finishing with a shower. The hot water against my body was invigorating, loosening up the knots of tension I had in me. But still, I couldn't stop my mind, as it spun on in a direction I didn't really feel comfortable with. The word love appeared, persisting as I tried to shoo it away. Did I love Nate? The simple answer would be yes. He was like the brother I never had; never in my life had I befriended someone so quickly. But at the same time, I had a feeling saying that's not it. Part of it, but not it. I tried a different angle; did I feel attracted to him? Reluctantly, I had to say I did. Maybe not sexually, but... in some way, I wanted to get closer to him. The problem was simple; we were both men. If he had been a woman, I would've gone for him in an instant. No sooner had I thought that, before that thought seemed horribly wrong. That was definitely not it. I had met women with both looks and charm to match Nate's, yet I never kept to them. Never got serious. Then something Nate had said the day before popped into mind. What if I had been gay? Would I go for him then? This time, the answer was crystal clear; I would. Without hesitating, I would. The only problem now was, that I wasn't gay. How could I love him, if I weren't gay? Then again, if I did love him, I had to be gay, right? Had I always been, or had I changed, somehow? Was it even possible, to live a whole life without knowing your true sexuality? The water turned from tepid to freezing, so I stepped out, drying myself off and stepping into my briefs again. I felt that I had reached a crossroads, that I was forced to make a choice that would change my life forever. All the way or no way. With Nate or without him. Both the roads seemed made for easy walking, albeit a bit bumpy. I tried to ransack my heart, and my mind, tried to come up with a solution that would save me from this choice, but I found none. I was at the crossroads, and I had to turn. Going back was not an option, neither was changing my mind later on. This was it. Gritting my teeth, steeling myself before something that could very well turn foul, I felt the bathroom. My bedroom lights were off, but with the help of the street light, I made my way to the bed. Nate had crept in underneath the bed cover, and curled up like a sleeping puppy dog. He looked so peaceful that I almost changed my mind. But I had passed the crossroads, and I knew I couldn't go back. As gently as I could, I shook his shoulder, feeling him stir. He yawned, but his eyes were clear as they met mine.
"Nate, I'm sorry to wake you up, but we have got to talk."
End of chapter five. Next week, I'm going back to school, taking a literature course. I've got one week to read Homer's Odyssey. Tough going, and possibly hampering to creativity. I'll not make any promises about the next chapter, except this; I will finish this story. As usual, thoughts and comments are more than welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. Big hugs to everyone who's written or left reviews, it really does a lot of help.