I thought that there might be a little fallout from my confrontation with Stacy's dad, but nothing came of it. Since my parents didn't travel in the same social circle as Stacy's parents there wasn't much chance of them running into each other, and Mr. Kurtz had too much pride for a `do you know what your son did to my daughter' phone call.
I spent the rest of the break wondering if Rich would call, and trying to decide how I was going to handle the situation with him when I got back. I had half-decided to find another place to live, but realized that as a freshman I wasn't going to get out of my housing contract too easily. I was resigned to suffering in silence for the rest of the year.
My brother and I continued to get along great. We spent time together hanging around the house, shopping, and we even went out partying together, which we had never done before. I had fun showing off my aggressive womanizing personality, and he had great fun being the more mature, tenderhearted brother who would sensitively assuage the feelings of the young ladies I tormented. He was in heaven, particularly because he was the only one who knew that there was no competition between us. He got two women to sleep with him (on two separate occasions) just to spite me. He told me that he was having a ball.
One night, towards the end of the break, he said, "One of my friends told me about a new place to check out. Let's get totally snazzed up and see what the place is like. It's not that far from `The Well,' so if we don't like it we can just head there."
Since he mentioned his favorite pick-up joint, I knew we would end up there anyway, but I said fine. It was a Thursday night, the best night of the week at `The Well,' which meant we would probably spend less than an hour at whatever this new place was. Around eight o'clock that night we were on our way.
It took us about forty-five minutes to drive to the bar, and it didn't seem like we were that close to any of his usual joints, but I didn't think much about it when we pulled up to a cool-looking disco called, `Aderezo.'
I laughed as we got out of the car and he tossed his keys to the valet.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
"I'm not totally sure, but I think `aderezo' is Spanish for `dressing.' It seems like a stupid name for a club."
He shrugged and didn't say anything. We stood in line for ten minutes, which was a good sign, since it was still before nine.
"This place must be pretty popular," I said. "I wonder why we haven't heard of it. It must be new."
"I don't think so," he said. "My friend told me it's been here for like ten years."
That didn't sound right to me, but I let it go. We got to the door, where a five-dollar cover charge surprised me, but since my brother was paying, I let that go, too.
The steady thumping we heard outside was the heavy bass beat of some good dance music. There was a large oval bar just inside the door, and the dance floor was through another set of doors beyond the bar. There was also a poolroom back behind the far side of the bar. I liked the place immediately, although it had a somewhat odd vibe to it.
We went up to the bar and ordered a couple of beers. A handsome bartender in a wifebeater t-shirt took our orders, all the while dancing to the music.
"Ooh, let me guess, twins?" he asked.
I took a better look around. The strange feeling I had that I hadn't paid much attention to was because there were no women in the place.
"This is a gay bar," I said to the bartender.
He looked surprised. "Well, no wonder all these cute men keep giving me their phone numbers. They really should have told me that when they hired me," he said, dancing away to get out beers.
I looked at my brother. "This is a gay bar," I repeated.
"Yeah, well, you've been such a good sport this whole vacation that I figured I owed you one."
"I've never been to a gay bar before," I said, just as the bartender returned, beers in hand.
"Honey, you need to tighten your jaw muscles. You look like you're trying to catch flies." He turned to my brother. "Is this how you decided to tell him you're gay?"
Dave smiled. "To tell you the truth, I'm straight, and he's gay. He just doesn't know it, yet."
The bartender threw back his head and laughed. Then he leaned over the bar, grabbed me by the ears and planted a wet kiss on my lips. "Welcome to my world," he shouted, dancing away again.
I wiped my lips, pretending to be disgusted. It was actually somewhat pleasant, and a little exciting. It was the first time a man kissed me. I kind of hoped he would insist on another kiss before serving me another beer. I blushed at the thought.
Dave was looking at me. "Are you okay? You look a little mad."
Nonplussed, I shook my head. "No, I'm fine. I just can't believe you brought me here," I said, smiling. "How did you find out about this place?"
"My friend Cheryl has a brother who's gay. I called him up and asked him where to tell my gay cousin to go while he was in town. He told me this place was the best."
"Very resourceful," I complimented him. "Now what?"
"Now we have fun and meet some people."
"You don't mind being here?" I asked. "You can head out to `The Well' if you want to," I added.
"No, this should be very educational for me. If we leave here early enough to hit `The Well' for last call, great. If not, no big deal. Besides, like I said, you've been a good sport this whole time. I'm happy to return the favor."
And evidently, he was. He spent the rest of the night offering to go talk to different guys for me. "How about him?" he'd say. "He's attractive, isn't he? Do you want to meet him?"
Most of the time I just smiled and shook my head. I really wasn't interested in meeting anyone in a bar, but I was getting a kick out of watching Dave check out guys for me. Finally, after an hour or so, I decided to test him. He had pointed out a very good-looking guy who seemed to be around twenty-five or so.
"Yeah," I said, "he's very attractive. I'd like to meet him."
"Hold on. I'll be right back."
And sure enough, he walked right up to the handsome stranger and shook his hand. I watched in the bar mirror as they struck up a conversation. I had to chuckle. He was apparently as good at meeting men as I was at meeting women. I was a little embarrassed at the thought of having my brother approach men on my behalf, but he was so intent on being helpful that I thought I should go along. Besides, it wasn't like I was ever going to see any of these people again.
Dave came back and sat down next to me. He took a sip of his beer and didn't say anything. He seemed mildly irritated, so I assumed the guy had told him to get lost, he wasn't interested in meeting someone who sent his straight brother to make introductions for him.
"Well?" I asked.
"He wanted to meet you earlier, when he saw you walking around. Then you came and sat next to me, so he assumed we were boyfriends. He's been watching us for a while and thought we looked really good together, so he gave up on you. Now, he'd like to meet you."
"So what's bugging you?"
"I don't know. Do I look like I might be gay? How could he think we're a couple? We're brothers, for Christ's sake, that's sick."
I had to laugh. "Dave, you're a handsome man in a gay bar, I would imagine that everyone in here thinks you're gay. Straight guys generally don't hang out in gay bars," I said, still laughing. I turned to the guy Dave had met, smiled at him and waved him over. He smiled back and gave me the `one sec' gesture. "What's his name?" I asked, nodding my head back in the direction Dave had come from.
"Chad," he said, apparently taking my words to heart because he lightened up immediately. "He seems really nice," he added, enthusiastically.
In another minute, Chad walked up to where we were sitting. "Hi," he said, smiling at me and sticking out his hand. "Chad."
"Hi, Chad," I returned, "I'm Rick. It's nice to meet you."
"I thought your brother told me your name was Rich."
"I was Rich all my life," I explained, "but he was straight. I just found out I was gay and became Rick. You know, new person, new name."
"Cool," he said. "You wanna dance?"
I practically fell off my stool. I was totally unprepared for that question. "I...I don't know," I stammered. "I've never...I mean, um..."
He smiled a dazzling smile and laughed. "C'mon," he said, "I promise not to bite...hard."
"Go on, for Christ's sake," Dave said. "You gonna be a barflower all night?"
`What the hell?' I thought, `When in Athens...' So I got up and accompanied Chad through a doorway to the dance floor. The music was pounding, there was smoke obscuring the floor, and there were no lights except for an occasional laser flashing green bolts across the room, and an intermittent giant strobe. The room itself was a tenebrous cave, with high ceilings and walls far and dark. There must have been almost a hundred men in that room, but you could comfortably dance without bumping into anyone. Or, if you didn't want to dance, you could do just about anything else you wanted, I noticed, as silhouetted figures in various poses eye-blinked through my vision as the strobe light flashed on every few minutes.
In an atmosphere permeated with the smell of musky sweat and sex, the cool air that fanned across the room from time to time only accentuated the heat that seemed to be rising, sauna-like, from all around. I had been mildly buzzed when I walked on to the dance floor; I felt completely intoxicated after five minutes.
Chad moved with an easy grace, only occasionally touching me, and leading me across the floor. The light from the bar appeared as a distant cave-mouth, disappearing at times when the smoke from the floor billowed up toward the ceiling. I felt awkward and stilted, but also disembodied as we seemed to move miles away from where we had come in. I was startled when I turned to the yawning blackness at my side and my hand brushed against a wall.
My partner, who had seemed to be dancing in his own world, smiled at me. "It's like dancing to the edge of the earth, isn't it?"
"Yes," I said, noticing that I didn't have to talk as loud as I expected, since we had danced out of the circle of music. Shadow shapes continued to move around us, but rising smoke and the black wall made it seem as if we were completely alone. I noticed my heart pounding, and heavy breathing, which could have been accounted for by the dancing, but something other than dancing brought the butterflies swarming to my gut. Chad, no longer dancing, merely swaying, still smiling, moved closer to me. I felt like I needed to gasp for breath, and I literally did so when he wrapped one arm around my waist and one around my neck, pulling our foreheads together.
"I don't think..." I started.
"Good," he interrupted, "don't think." His lips brushed mine, and in that electric moment and in that charged atmosphere I truly tasted another man for the first time in my life.
Tentative at first, I sensed his willingness to allow me to explore his lips and mouth and tongue with my own, and so I grew more eager and bolder. Everything else, the music, the flashing laser, the pulsing strobe, all telescoped into the distance as I gave myself over to the tingling vibrations rushing over and through me. When we pulled back for an instant, I saw in his glassy eyes the reflection of my own lust and hunger. He ripped his shirt over his head and then tore open the front of my shirt, the buttons arcing down to dance away on the unseen floor. Our bodies came together as if drawn magnet and steel, and the sensations of our chests sticking and sliding with sweat caused me to moan in rhythm to our kisses.
I experienced a delicious elation as uncontrollable urges and desires swept over me. I knew then, in that instant, feeling a passion with a total stranger that I had never experienced with a woman I loved, that I had crossed a barrier from which there was no return. It was as frightening as it was exhilarating. I also knew, with a lightening quick clarity, that I wasn't going to waste this energy on some tawdry, backroom, anonymous sex. Not for my first time, anyway, I thought with a laugh.
"What's funny?" Chad asked in a slightly peevish voice that reinforced my resolve.
"It just occurred to me that I never had any respect for a woman who slept with me after our first date," I lied. "I can't begin to think of what I would've thought of a woman who had sex with me after our first dance."
"You want this as much as I do," he breathed.
"I don't even let my mother tell me what I want, and she's known me for twenty years. After ten minutes, you absolutely don't qualify." I turned and left him standing there.
"Fucking cocktease!" he called after me.
I shook my head. If you had told me a few weeks earlier that I would be called that by a guy in a bar, I would have laughed in your face. Definitely a night of firsts, I thought. I was trying to put my shirt back together as I walked back into the bar, looking for Dave. I found him talking to two men by the poolroom.
"Hey, here he is," he said, as I approached. Then, noticing my shirt, "Jesus, what the hell happened to you?"
"Moths," I said.
"Moths?" he echoed.
"Yeah, really big fuckers. C'mon, let's get out of here."
"Hold on, let me introduce you to my friends."
"They're not your friends," I said, smiling at them. "But it's nice to meet you. Let's go." Not waiting to discuss the issue, I turned and headed for the door.
"All right, goddamn, wait up," he said to my back. "What the hell's the matter?"
"Nothing, Dave," I said, turning to face him. "I guess I wasn't quite ready for this. Or maybe I was too ready, I'm not sure. I just...I need some time to think, that's all."
"You got it," he said. "Let's get out of here."
It was still early, not even midnight. I took the measure of my brother Dave, my new friend, in that he drove straight home and didn't even ask if I would mind stopping somewhere else.
* * *
The next morning, my mother stopped by my room before going to work. She was not in the habit of waking me up, so I was a little surprised by the light tapping on my bedroom door at eight o'clock in the morning.
"Yeah," I mumbled, "what is it?"
"Good morning, sweetheart," she said, popping her head through the door. "I just wanted to let you know that a friend of yours called from Florida last night. I wouldn't have woken you, but he said it was important, and I wasn't sure if you would see the note. I left the phone number by the phone in the kitchen. See you tonight."
"Yeah, Mom, right, thanks. Have a good day." My heart started racing, but I convinced myself to settle down. Rich's definition of important probably involved more women than he could handle himself. I rolled over and went back to sleep.
Later that morning, I found the note and number. I figured he would probably be up by now; it was almost eleven.
He answered the phone on the first ring. "Jeff's Bed and Breakfast," he chirped. "You supply the bed, I'll bring the breakfast."
"You're awfully cheerful for someone nursing a hangover," I said.
"What hangover? I'm drunk."
"It's not even eleven in the morning and you're already drunk?" I asked, laughing.
"Not already, still," he said.
"You're still drunk from last night?"
"No, I'm still drunk from Tuesday. Where are you?"
"What do you mean? I'm home."
"I mean, why aren't you here? It's 72 and sunny, I'm lounging poolside, and I haven't been without a drink for a week. Get your ass down here."
"Now you invite me," I said. "We have to be back at school in a few days."
"Screw that. Let's extend the vacation."
"Sounds like fun in principle, but we should probably get you checked in as soon as possible."
"Checked in? You mean registered for school?"
"No, checked in to rehab, you drunken fool."
"This may be the first time the pot called the kettle long distance to tell him he's getting a tan."
I laughed. "My mom said you told her it was important when you called. I figured you fell off your lounge chair."
"You are positively psychic. I didn't have my medical alert tag, so I couldn't call anyone to tell them I had fallen and couldn't get up."
"You sound better now."
"Actually, I'm still on the ground next to the lounge chair. They've managed to fashion a Mai Tai intravenous, so I'm not in any pain. We're going to have to get one of these things for our room at school."
"Good thinking," I said, sarcastically. "Especially since we have so much trouble getting enough booze through our mouths."
"Hmm, you're probably right. This could be a little dangerous."
"So, when are you getting back?" I asked, trying to sound casual.
"I'm flying in Sunday night and heading back to school on Monday. When are you heading back?"
"My first class isn't until Wednesday, so I was just going to go back Tuesday night."
"Oh, man," he sounded disappointed, "come back Monday so we can get the term started off right." He hesitated. "Besides, I need to talk to you."
My heart jumped, but I kept my tone light. "No, you can't borrow my sharkskin suit."
"Damn," he said. "No, really, it's a little more important than that. Plus I owe you another apology."
"For what?" I asked
"For being a dick again before break."
"I hadn't noticed," I lied.
"That doesn't speak well for my personality. You're supposed to be able to tell when I'm acting like an ass and when I'm not."
"You'll have to work on that differentiation."
"Thanks a lot." Then, "Seriously, can you come back on Monday?"
"Yeah, sure, I guess so," I said. "I don't really have anything going on around here."
I heard what sounded like him slapping his forehead. "Jesus, that's right," he said. "How'd the deal with Stacy work out?"
"Like I said, I haven't got anything going on around here."
"Shit, I'm sorry. There I go getting carried away with my problems and forgetting about yours. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, thanks for asking."
A long pause, then, "So, I guess I'll talk to you on Monday, then."
"Sounds great. I'll talk to you then. Enjoy the rest of your vaykay, and try to sober up," I told him.
He forced a laugh, saying `okay, see ya,' and hung up.
I felt...elated. No...worried. No, both. He sounded like his old self, we were friends again (or still), and he had apologized (sort of) for being a jerk. But what the hell was so important that he wanted an extra day to talk to me? I tried to put down the paranoid stirrings that I felt. It was Friday; I had three days to wait to find out, so there was no point worrying about it the whole time. I resolved to have a relaxing weekend and show up Monday feeling refreshed.
My brother was leaving to go back to school that afternoon. He went out to school out east. Not far from Stacy, as I reflected on it. I wondered if that was intentional. No, it couldn't be; he started college two years before her. More irrational thought process, I thought. Get over it. I went to find him to see if he wanted to grab some lunch before he was on his way.
He was in his room, packing. "Hey, bro," he said as I walked in. "Good timing. Sit on this." He inclined his head toward the suitcase he was trying vainly to zip shut.
Instead I opened it up, took out some clothes, re-folded them, and re-arranged a few things. Then I closed it and zipped it up with no problem.
He scratched his head. "Must be a gay thing," he mumbled.
"I don't think spatial-organizational skills are related to sexuality," I told him, cuffing his head. "You want to grab some lunch before you hit the road?"
"No, thanks. I've got a good, empty-stomach coffee buzz going right now that I want to take advantage of for a few hours of hopped-up driving."
I laughed at that, but I knew he was serious. I shook my head at the thought of how different two brothers can be, somehow missing the irony of that thought. The idea of manic, caffeinated driving held no appeal for me; he thought it was fun. I left his room and went to get his going-back-to-school present.
"Here you go," I said, returning with a small box.
"It's your going-away-thanks-for-being-a-great-brother present. It's for the drive."
He opened the box and pulled out a soft, insulated chiller-bag that held a six pack of heavily caffeinated soda, a pack of smokes and a few cigars.
Perfect!" he beamed. "A travel kit."
"Figured you could use it. Have a good trip back, and I'll see you in the spring. Unless..."
"I kind of would like to make a road trip out to your school some weekend."
"That would be awesome," he said. "When do you think you could make it?"
"I'm not sure. I'll call you in a couple of weeks when I see how my classes are going to be."
"All right. I mean it, that would be great." He looked at me for a long moment, then threw his arms around me. "Good luck with school and with...everything else. Call me anytime you want to."
"Okay," I said. "Happy trails.'
"Same to you."
I walked him out to his car and stood in the driveway as he drove off. The odd wind was cold, but the sun was shining, enough to start melting the icicles on the gutters, and somewhere in the distance was the promise of spring. I held my face to the sun long after he had gone, then walked back into the house to make some lunch.
* * *
The weekend dragged by, as I knew it would. Sunday night came, and I was surprised when the phone rang and I heard my mom say, "Hello, Stacy...very nice, and how was yours? I was disappointed we didn't get a chance to see you at all...I hope before the spring. Hold on just a moment, I'll get him for you. Rich! Stacy's on the phone!"
"Thanks, Mom, I'll take it up here," I called down. "This is a surprise," I said into the phone. I heard the click from my mom hanging up her extension. "You're not back at school already, are you?"
"No, I still have another week left. I'm at Debbie's." Debbie was her best friend from high school. She and I had always barely tolerated one another. If Debbie knew about me, it was safe to assume that most of our friends from high school knew also.
"Did you tell her about m...us?"
"Who's `mus'?" she teased.
"Very funny. Did you tell her why you and I are no longer `us'?"
"Yes, I did."
"Oh," I said. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. Judging by the way my heart skipped a beat, I must have felt a little uncomfortable with it. I knew I was going to have to get used to it, though. I started to wonder how my old friends were going to react to me when they saw me.
"I told her how you weren't happy in our relationship, and how you weren't sure what you wanted, but you wanted to be alone for a while," Stacy said, interrupting my reverie.
"That's what you told her?" I asked.
"Yep, and she understood completely."
"Uh-huh. She said you were cheating on me."
"No, I meant her," I said, chuckling. "Thanks. How come..."
"I don't know," she said, "I just figured you needed a little adjustment period before you starting getting calls at school."
"You're probably right. I don't have a real high comfort level with this thing, yet. Oh, who am I kidding? I'm probably still in as much shock as you are. Well, maybe not that much, but still, I need time to figure out exactly how to handle this."
"It's going to take a little time, I'm sure," she said softly and empathetically. "I miss you and want to be friends with you," she added. "Do you think that's possible...I mean, eventually?"
"Absolutely, I do," I said, trying to sound convincing. How the hell was I supposed to know? But she wanted reassurance, and I owed her at least that much. "We were friends before we were lovers, and my friends are friends for life. Especially a friend like you."
"Thanks. I wanted to hear that, even if it's bullshit."
"You know me," I said, "bullshit is my first tongue." It wasn't the right thing to say, but she let it go.
"Call me when you get back to school, okay?" she said. "Have you decided what you're going to do about your, um, situation there?"
"No," I said truthfully, "I don't know what to do or how to handle it. Rich called me the other day and told me that he needs to talk to me, and I have these paranoid thoughts that he's going to tell me he knows about me and wants me to move."
"How did he sound when he called? Mad? Upset?"
"Nah, that's just it. I know I'm being paranoid because he sounded like his usual self, only, I don't know...kind of worried, maybe? It's weird, I can't really describe it."
"Maybe he wants to tell you that he's gay."
"Yeah, right, and maybe the Pope needs someone to go into the woods to clean up his shit for him."
She laughed. "You always were good at that," she said.
"Good at what?"
"The bizarre non sequitur. Stop being so analytical and just deal with it. Rich is the kind of guy that can handle this, I promise you. I'm an excellent judge of character. You know, you don't have to tell him everything at once, either. You can leave out the part about your feelings for him when you tell him why he's free to call me for a date now."
I smiled. She really was a good friend. She certainly wasn't bitter or resentful. Maybe we could stay friends, after all. "I'll tell you what," I said. "After I talk to Rich about this, I'll put in a good word for you."
"Hey, thanks. Very magnanimous of you. Seriously, though, things will work out for you. I know they will. You're a good person."
"Thank you," I said sincerely. "I can't tell you how much that means to me coming from you."
"Sure," she said. "Well, here comes Debbie. We're going to the bar. She's determined to help me get over you. She has it on good authority that the quickest way out of heartbreak hotel is to get right back on the horse again. Take care of yourself. I love you."
"I love you, too," I said. "And if you do decide to get back on the horse again, make sure he's wearing a saddle."
"Oh, you crude bastard. What did I ever see in you?"
"I'm pretty sure it was my sophisticated wit."
"That must have been it. Bye. Call me."
"Bye yourself. I will."
I hung up the phone feeling as happy as I had felt in a while. Between my brother and Stacy, I was already getting more support than I had any right to expect; even if Rich totally rejected me, I had the feeling that I would be just fine. I shut my door, unplugged my phone, and turned off my light. Tomorrow was already here.
* * *
In the morning I got up and had breakfast with my parents, telling them I was leaving that day. My father pretended to be angry.
"It's because of all the restrictions we place on you here, isn't it?" He looked at my mother. "He's rejecting our parenting style."
"None of my friends have to be home by dawn," I complained.
"I guess we can go back to having sex in whatever room in the house we want," said my mom.
"There goes my appetite," I said.
"Mine, too," said my father, earning a swipe to the back of the head. "Hey, no foreplay in front of the kid."
"I could leave now if you two would prefer," I offered.
"Nonsense," said my father. "Finish your coffee, at least."
"We do have travel mugs, dear," my mother said, sweetly.
"Haven't you guys heard of the empty nest syndrome? You're supposed to lament the fact that your chicks have flown the coop."
"We do," said my dad. "Just before you both got home your mother said to me, `Won't it be wonderful to have what's-their-names here.' And I agreed, completely."
"You sort-of agreed, honey. As I recall, you said, `who?'"
"Yes, but remember how happy I was when you reminded me that we had sons?"
"I'm writing all of this down to use as part of my defense at trial. No jury would convict me after hearing this conversation," I said.
"There you go selling yourself short again. I'm sure you could get convicted of just about anything."
"Thanks, Dad. You always did know how to boost my confidence."
Giving me his Ward Cleaver smile and ruffling my hair he said, "That's what your old man is for."
My mother got up to leave. She kissed me on the cheek and smiled at me. "Come home more often," she said. "Your father misses you...and so do I."
"I will," I promised.
"That's right," said my dad, also getting up to leave. "Just make sure you call first." He winked at me with a salacious grin, and made a pinching gesture toward my mother's ass.
I groaned. "Mom, have we still got that emesis pail?"
"Yes, dear. Your father keeps it by the computer for when he's checking his stock quotes," she said over her shoulder.
"Have fun you two," I called after them. "Keep up the hard work...this scholarship money won't last forever."
I heard them chuckling as they closed the door behind them. I snuck into the front room and watched surreptitiously as they walked arm-in-arm to their cars. They kissed and had a brief conversation, my father looking at his watch, saying something. They were making plans to meet for lunch, I knew. Their happiness made me wistful. I was happy for them at the same time wondering if I would ever have the experience of walking arms-entwined with someone I loved, getting a kiss, and making plans to meet. They seemed impossibly happy; I wondered if that kind of happiness would be possible for me.
I was never one to expect life to be fair, though, and I tended toward the happy disposition of considering all the things that were right in my life. Thoughts of those in this life that had real reasons for being pitied always quickly replaced whatever feelings of self-pity I had. I put being gay and having strong feelings for my best friend on a scale with living in abject poverty or only ever experiencing another human touch when being beaten by a foster parent, and decided that I was an incredibly fortunate individual. The speed bumps in my life were just that, they weren't train wrecks. Come what may, I'd be all right.
I finished my mental pep talk and went upstairs to finish packing. As I loaded up my car, I thought `I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be.' I stood listening to the snow melt off the gutters and wondered what I meant by that.