Chapter 30

Through all the turmoil of my life during this period, Duane, the online friend I'd made several months back, helped keep me on an even keel.

Duane was a different kind of guy from anybody else I'd met before. He seemed utterly incapable of having a conversation without injecting large amounts of goofy, stupid humor. It was kind of annoying. Beyond that, he was a Libertarian who didn't believe in global warming. As a scientist, that sort of ignorant defiance made me roll my eyes. And then there was the fact that he was a gay married man who hadn't been able to tell his wife the truth about himself. And that was causing him a good deal of pain, which he usually played off as if it didn't mean anything.

In short, he wasn't the type of guy I'd ordinarily open up to.

But in our IM chats and emails, it became apparent that there was some kind of chemistry between us.

For one thing, Duane had had his own experience of sexual abuse. He'd been sexually molested as a child by his brother.  Because of that, he understood as only a fellow victim can how emotionally compromised I felt as I tried to make my way through life. When I was feeling down and was tempted to clam up about things, he pushed me. Pretty hard, actually; much harder than Brian would ever be willing to push. I discovered as time went by that it was a good thing for me. Opening up and confiding in someone about the pervasiveness of my pain, and about the depth of my terror, was a relief I can't describe.

I'd never felt comfortable bringing the full range of my messed-up psyche into Brian's view. Something in me wanted Brian not to know how bad off I was, how pathetic I'd been all these years. I was ashamed to confide in him about the black cloud of shame that accompanied me everywhere I went. That cloud was growing steadily darker and more threatening because of Neal's constant low-grade terrorism, and because of my utter failure with Jonah. Things had deteriorated to the point that I was having more and more trouble with post-traumatic-stress-induced breaks with reality.

These had begun many years ago as a result of having been brutally raped--more than once--by a group of sadistic peers. It hadn't helped that my priest and my parents had blamed me for it. I'd never been entirely free of those flashbacks as the years went by, but the episodes had escalated in intensity and frequency as a result of my disastrous relationship with Neal. And now that he was back, hardly a day went by that some stimulus didn't freak me out and time-warp me back to that hell. I should have been in therapy, but I'd found that it never did much good. Mainly it cost money, and the results weren't anything to write home about.

Duane was as good for me as any session with a shrink, though. He understood. I could chat with him online when I was feeling freaked out, and he seemed to know just what to say...

More importantly, it was obvious that he cared.

Reading his words always felt like getting a hug from an old friend. Nobody else could comfort me quite the way he did when the day seemed almost unbearable. With his help and support I managed the strength to stay in the game and to hide the depth of my problems from the offline world.

Duane also helped me in my friendship with Brian. I told him about what Brian thought he wanted;  I told him about Brian's confused talk about having kids;  I told  about Brian's alcoholism. I told him about Brian joining AA, and I described how determined Brian seemed to prove to me that he could do this, and to prove to me that he wanted me. I shared with Duane how guilty I was beginning to feel that, after everything we'd been through, I was making Brian jump through those hoops. And beyond all that, I discovered I could tell Duane how hesitant I was let Brian get close enough to my heart to make a mark on it. I could tell him, as I couldn't possibly tell Brian, how hard I was working to resist the seductions of Brian's unrealistic desire to be my lover. And when Duane listened--and understood--the whole thing felt easier to manage. In a weird way, Duane's support was making it easier for me to be friends with Brian, easier for me to keep my love for him in the proper perspective.

It was inevitable, then, that things with Duane would get more complicated.
I began to realize that my feelings for him were more than they should have been.  I'd find myself chatting longer than I should have, unwilling to break the connection. I began to think about him during the day. He'd sent me pictures and I knew that he was an attractive man. At first, the fact that he was married made the whole relationship safe; although my feelings for him were getting strong, I wasn't about to make a move on a married man.

I didn't have to. 

One night we were chatting, having a great conversation, and out of the blue he wrote,  "I think we have something here."

I responded, "What do you mean?"

He said, "I think you know what I mean."

I did, but I didn't know what to say. When I didn't respond, he finally typed, "Are you feeling what I'm feeling?"

I hesitated for a long time. Of course I was feeling what he was feeling. But that wasn't anything I should have been feeling. And besides all that, this was the Internet, for the love of Pete. You don't get into relationships over the Internet.

I thought I owed him the truth, though. So I took a deep breath and typed, "Yes. I'm feeling what you're feeling. And it scares me."


* * * * * * * * *

Once I'd admitted that, things started happening faster than I could control. It was as if a dam had burst.

Duane was a force to be reckoned with when he wanted to be. He was set on taking things to the next level. He was desperately unhappy in his own sham of a marriage, and the connection he'd made with me was bringing him back to life.

During one online chat he said, "This is too limiting. I want to hear your voice. I'm giving you my cell number. I want you to call me."

"No way," I typed back.

I put him off successfully for the duration of that conversation, but as the days went by he kept pushing me to let him give me his phone number, and finally I gave in and let him.

I never called, though.

Not that I wasn't tempted. In fact, I was beyond tempted: I was tortured. I wanted more than I could admit to throw caution to the wind and start something up with this married man. But other forces inside pushed back against that desire: I'd just had an intimate relationship destroyed by a cheating partner; I couldn't be the guy who destroyed someone else's intimate relationship.

As a result of this internal war, a number of times during the coming week I ended up dialing his number and staring at it for hours without pressing "send," compelled enough to punch the numbers in, but unable to go through with it.

After several days of this nonsense, Duane said to me in a chat, "Why haven't you called me?"

"I can't," I said.

"Give me your number, then," he said. "I'll call you."

I tried to put him off, but he was relentless, so finally I broke down and gave him my cell phone number.

He called me the very next day. When I saw who it was, I wouldn't answer.

He kept calling, and kept calling, and kept calling. I avoided him for two whole weeks; I was too freaked to answer.

Finally, one evening, after an awful day that had begun with Neal leaving another dead cat on my front porch, my defenses wouldn't hold anymore. He called, and this time I answered.

It was incredible to hear his voice. It was an aphrodisiac, and it made the whole thing seem ten times more real.

It also scared the daylights out of me. He talked and talked and talked, for almost an hour. I  could barely say three words.


* * * * * * * * *


It got better.  Soon we were talking for an hour or more every day, and I found I had much more to say. The phone conversations brought an additional dimension to our relationship, and before I knew it I found myself falling hard for him.

It didn't hurt that Duane said all the right things at all the right times.  He talked a lot about how powerful his feelings were for me, and how empty and lifeless his relationship with his wife felt by contrast. He said over and over that if I had been his man, he'd never have cheated on me as Jonah had. I listened quietly to all that, never saying too much, but becoming increasingly open about my feelings for him. No promises were ever made, nothing was ever implied, neither of us ever said anything about a "relationship," but it seemed as though we were headed somewhere.

One evening, he said to me, "I can't do this with my wife anymore. I want to be with you. I can't keep lying to Naomi. I'm going to come out, and tell her I want a divorce."

I was shocked into silence. To be honest, it was clear all along we were heading here, but to hear him say it threw me. I hadn't expected it this soon. At the same time, I felt myself give in to a quiet feeling of relief. If he came out to his wife, it wasn't as though I was stealing him away from her; it'd would be more that case that finally he was being honest and admitting to her that the marriage had been based on an impossibility.

We talked for a while, processing things mentally as we went. It was new and exciting territory for both of us.

When I hung up, I was convinced a new road in my life had just opened up before me.

In the days that followed, we actually started dreaming about the future we might have together. He had kids and wanted to stay close to them, so I began looking at universities and community colleges in the area to see if any of them needed biology professors. And as we planned together, we talked more and more to each other about ourselves.

It's impossible to overstate how therapeutic this was for me. He kept pushing me to tell him more about myself, my inner fears, my deepest hopes regarding life and love. It struck me that Brian never did that. I think he was afraid to, but Duane wasn't, and it was good for me. He made me talk about everything, and in turn he shared depths of himself that drew me in ever further. I felt horribly guilty that all of this was going on behind his wife's back, but I was completely caught up in it. I kept telling myself that it wasn't really an affair since we were a zillion miles apart. We'd never had IM sex or phone sex, but it was clear the emotions were there; so was the lust.

Meanwhile, things continued to simmer between me and Brian. Things were good between us, and these developments felt like they could complicate that.

Brian had known for a long time that I chatted with Duane a lot and that we had a strong online relationship. In one phone conversation, I admitted to him that I'd been talking to Duane on the phone. I didn't say much more than that, though; in fact, the more strongly I began to feel about Duane, the less I talked to Brian about it, which probably confirmed his growing sense that something was going on. He hinted around from time to time, trying to get me to say more, but I couldn't. Finally one day, he asked me, "Are you in love with this guy?"

I swallowed hard. Id' been dreading this. At first, I'd dreaded it because I hadn't wanted to face what I was feeling for Duane; then when those feelings became impossible to deny, I dreaded telling Brian because of what it might do to our relationship. I'd just gotten him back in my life. I needed him. And although he'd stopped talking near as much about wanting to make a life with me, I'd picked up clues in the weeks that followed my breakup with Jonah that he hadn't given up. I didn't know how he'd react if I told him I was developing feelings for Duane.

All that was on my heart and mind as I sighed into the phone and told him, "Yeah. I think I am."

I waited so long for a response that I started to think that our phone connection had been broken. When I next heard his voice, it was the sound of him clearing his throat. Then he said, "Okay then. Uhh...I have to go. Talk to you later," and hung up.

It was clear I'd upset him. At the same time, it struck me that now we'd both be able to put his dangerous fantasy behind us, and that would be good for both of us. I wasn't really what he wanted or needed, and now he'd be able to focus on what his needs and wants for the future really were.


* * * * * * * * *


A couple of days went by before I got another phone call from Duane.

The first thing he said when I answered was, "You'll never guess who I got an email from."

I said, "Okay, I'll play your silly game. Who was it?"

"Are you sitting down?" he asked playfully.

I sat down.

"It was Brian," he continued.

I winced. "Oh, man, I'm sorry," I said.  "I hope..."

"It was fine, Sam," Duane interrupted. "It was a good email. Well, he threatened to hunt me down and kill me if I hurt you," he said, laughing,  "but aside from that it was pretty nice."

"I can't believe it," he said. "Why did he do that? Why did he email you?"

"Seems pretty clear to me," he replied. "He loves you, Sam, and he doesn't want to lose your friendship, even if you're with me."

"He never has to worry about that, and he should know it," I said.

"Yeah, but I guess he feels he's lost you to me."

"I'm not really what he wants," I said. "He didn't lose me to you," I said. "Anyway, he just thinks he wants me like that. He can't really; he's straight. When he's had a decent period of sobriety he'll realize it was just drinkin' thinkin'. "

"Well, maybe yes or maybe no, but I'll tell you, Sammy, I can see that there's a lot of love there."

The subject was eating at me too much to keep focusing on it, so we moved on. We talked about when and how he was going to come out to his wife; I talked about looking for work in his neck of the woods.

I loved talking to him; I loved thinking about the life we were planning together. And I loved that the basis of the relationship seemed so healthy. In that respect, Duane seemed very different from Jonah. There had always been something tentative and a little insecure about Jonah, and that doomed us. Well, that and the fact that I couldn't open up to him about the problems I was having. But Duane had demonstrated that he was more than capable of forcing me to talk when I needed to. He understood that I had demons; he related to some of them himself. And he made it clear that none of those demons would keep us apart.

It was the first time in my life I'd shared so much of my deepest thoughts and feelings in a relationship. Duane was bringing parts of me that had never seen the light of day into the sun for the first time. That didn't dispel the darkness of my shame over Jonah, and it didn't do much to ease my stress over Neal's ongoing craziness, but it made those things more bearable.

Brian called me the day after Duane told me about his email. I asked him about it right away.

He response was reserved and compact. "I see how it is," he said. "I want to be a part of your life, though. That means I need to get to know him."

"You never have to worry about that," I said. "You'll always be a part of my life."

"Whatever," he replied. "Let's talk about something else."

Over the next weeks, Brian seemed to be doing okay with these developments. We didn't talk about his feelings; he didn't pressure me with talk of the two of us being lovers. We talked about plans. Plans concerning his life, and plans concerning mine. He'd decided he wanted a different teaching position in the coming fall term, and he talked about his family. In our conversations he said enough about himself to satisfy me that he was doing okay, and as a result I felt free to talk with him about the externals of moving to Duane's city and finding work there. Thing seemed smooth and easy enough between us, and I was glad this whole new twist to my life hadn't derailed us.

Brian continued to email Duane from time to time and even began to chat with him some.  In a phone conversation Brian once said to me, "I like him. I wish I didn't, but I do." I laughed a little; it seemed like a healthy attitude. He admitted to me that he didn't think the thing with Duane was serious at first, but now that he could see it was, he just wanted to make sure he still had a place in my life. I assured him again that he did. It seemed as though things were going to be just fine between us.

Things weren't just fine with me, though, and that was beginning to give me serious misgivings about taking things with Duane any farther. I was beginning to have significant problems with the post-traumatic stress flashbacks. Neal had been stepping up his harassment by the day, and I was beginning to crack. With all the pressures, both positive and negative, I was not in a good place emotionally. And I began to waver on the matter of whether I'd ever be good relationship material. I suggested to Duane that he needed to brace himself for the possibility that I was just too damaged to go through with this.

As always, he knew how to respond. He kept telling me that he had my back, that he loved me, and that my problems wouldn't keep us from making a life together. Even in a worst-case scenario, he told me, we owed it to ourselves to give it a shot. If it didn't work, we'd at least know we both tried. He even went so far as to tell me, "Look Sam, even if you discover you just can't do the intimacy thing, no matter what happens, you'll still be my friend. So you don't have anything to lose by trying." He paused for a second, then added, "And no matter what happens, I'm still leaving Naomi."

I didn't know how to respond to any of that. My battered psyche felt utterly unsure about being with someone, regardless of how much I wanted it. I couldn't help thinking that it wasn't fair for me to saddle Duane with such a head case.

He kept pushing me hard to trust him. And when he kept driving that home, I began to concede that I needed to. I'd screwed up horribly by not trusting Jonah. I'd screwed up before that by not trusting Brian. I had to learn to trust the people I loved. I had to try to open up.

So I did. I steeled myself, gritted my teeth, and took the risk. I gave myself completely over to the idea of making a life with Duane. I opened myself wide to him. And in spite of how bad things were, I committed myself to a future with him. How could I not? He knew more about my screwy insides than I'd ever told anyone, and he still loved me, still wanted me. As time went on, I fell deeper and deeper.



* * * * * * * * *


That summer, Brian's sister, my former girlfriend Mary, was pregnant again, and life wasn't so good for her. She and her husband had separated in an ugly way, and the pregnancy was difficult. She'd been ordered to be on bed rest until the delivery.

Brian moved in with her to help her with her other kids and to take care of her.

He talked to me about it. "I feel like I'm being useful," he said. "That's a good thing. It's easier to stay sober there, too. It's's not so good for me to be by myself right now."

"Why not?" I asked.

After a brief silence, he said, more quietly this time, "It's not so good for me to be by myself right now."

I didn't press him for an explanation.

Two nights later, at one in the morning, the phone rang. The voice I heard on the other end made me sit up in fear.

"Sammy, I had to call my Sammy, I had to talk to you, it's bad, so bad...we need be t'gether and you, why you wan' hurt me like this?"

"Brian," I said calmly, trying to manage my fear. "Listen to me. How much have you had to drink?"

"Bottle, maybe, of vodka. Today anyway," he said. "But you don' care 'bout that, Sammy, I juz haveta make it stop, thass why I hadta; why you don' love me anymore?"

"Where are you?" I said.

"It don' matter now, cuz you don' love me, why you have to go an' choose him? Loved ya since we were kids, I'd a done sex, I'd a done anything, took care o'you, loved, you, cried for you, I cried for you and then you come an' pull me back, and now you throwin' me away again."

I repeated, loudly this time, "Where are you?" My whole body began to shake.

"Mary's," he slurred. "Ev-vybody's 'sleep, too quiet and I can't shake it, I had ta make it stop..."


He wasn't listening; he was on a roll. "He don' even know you, Sammy, never seen your face, how could you? Not like me, loved you since high school an' never stopped, how could you, Sammy, how could you?"

I tried to ignore the accusations as they slammed home; I had to focus on the emergency.

"Brian. Tell me how long you've been drinking. All day?"

God. I wondered how much. After a certain amount, it didn't matter what doctors did; you were done for. And beyond that, his blood sugar was probably in life-threatening disorder.

"All day," he said. "Yesterday. Couple days."

A shot of adrenaline surged through me. Oh, god, don't let it be too much, I thought. Don't let him die. Please, please, please don't let him die.

"Stay in the house," I ordered. "Try to stay awake. Let me get help."

"Nowhere else to go," he said. "Nobody else to go to. It was over with your man, done with Jonah. You and him at them vows, I wanted it to be me. Then he fucks all over town, you know I'd never a' done that, never Sammy. Then you're done with him, bye bye outta there; it was our chance. You'n me, we coulda been together. And'en you push me a way for a guy on the goddam phone, the goddam fuckin' Internet. Is Email Guy s'much better'n me?"

He began crying.

"Brian, I have to hang up. I have to call someone and get you some help. I'm calling Dave to come get you, okay?"

"Sammy," he kept moaning. "Sammy, Sammy, Sammy..."

I hung up, shaken to the core and on the verge of panic.

I called his brother.

"Dave, it's Sam."

"Sam, what in the world? What time is it? It''s after one."

"Dave, I just got a call from Brian. He's at Mary's and he's as drunk as I've ever heard him."

"Oh, shit," he said. "Okay. Uhh, lemme throw some clothes on and I'll go over there."

"Thanks," I said. "Please, Dave, please hurry, and please call me back."

"Okay, Sam, " he said. "Try not to worry."


I couldn't go to sleep after that. It was too late to talk to Duane; too late to talk to anybody.

I went into the living room and turned on the TV, trying to find something to distract me, but I was keyed up beyond all ability to focus on anything but Brian.

A couple of hours later, Dave called.

"What's going on?" I asked anxiously.

"He's home with me," Dave said. "When I got there he was passed out. I didn't know how much he'd had and I was scared, so I took him to the ER. He wasn't comatose, and he wasn't alcohol-poisoned. They got his blood sugar back under control, watched his vitals for a while, and then let me take him home. He's sleeping it off."

"Thank God," I said.

"Sam," Dave said tentatively, "He'd been doing so well; do you have any idea what happened?"

I couldn't go there with Dave. "I'm not sure, Dave," I said, which, technically speaking, was the truth. "I'll come up and see him when I can. He'll talk to me, probably."

"Yeah, I know," he said. "You two have always been so solid for each other. He's lucky to have a friend like you."

Yeah. Some luck. So lucky that I wouldn't even take him seriously. So lucky that I ignored what my plans with Duane were doing to him.

"I'll...let me see if I can make it up this weekend," I said.

"That would be great," he said. "And make him talk to you."

"Night, Dave," I said, "and thank you so much for calling me back."

"See you this weekend, maybe," he replied. "Good night."

I hung up, shuddering:

This was my fault.


As I sat there in the dark, what I'd been doing to him the past few weeks slammed into me with the force of a freight train. He'd been trying to tell me in every way possible that he wasn't deluding himself, that he genuinely loved me, that he was longing to make a life with me. And I'd discounted it. I'd refused to take him seriously. I'd convinced myself that it wasn't half as important as he'd talked himself into thinking it was. He'd offered me his heart, and I'd stepped on it. And why?

Because it scared me too much. Because if it were true...then what excuse was there for me not to have gone to him, not to have give myself to him? Not to stand by him as his man and help him beat back his demons, the way Duane was offering to help me beat back mine?

Instead, I ran from him in terror, headlong into a relationship with someone else. And expected him to cheer me on.

If I'd tried, I couldn't have come up with a better plan to drive him back to the bottle.

The rational part of my brain knew I didn't send Brian on a two-day bender. He had to take his own responsibility for that.

But there in the darkness, as I replayed his words, the drunken agony of them--the cry of rejection and abandonment--drove me to tears.

I cried on and off the rest of the night, but I didn't sleep.


* * * * * * * * *


The next day, I told Jonah what had happened, and that I needed to go back to my hometown and see Brian.

"You don't need to be taking Chris on that trip; you don't need any distractions from looking after Brian," he said. "Let Chris spend the weekend with me. We have some lost time to make up for."

I frowned. "It won't be any trouble?"

"I owe you so much," he said. "And I owe Chris for my negligence, too. It'll be good for us to re-connect."

"Thanks," I said.

So on Friday afternoon, I drove back to my hometown and headed straight to Dave's house.

Brian answered the door. "You didn't have to come," he said quietly, refusing to meet my eyes with his.

"Shut up," I said, holding my arms out to him.

He shook his head. "I don't deserve..."

"I said shut up, and get over here." Hesitantly, he moved into my arms. I pulled him hard against me and we hugged, wordlessly, there in the doorway, for what must have been three minutes. There in the silence and still of that embrace, we spoke paragraphs to each other without saying a word.

I was struggling to keep my composure, and I can tell he was too. Finally he said, "Let's not stand here makin' out. Come inside. Sit down. We'll talk."

When we'd both sat down on the sofa, he looked at me in agony, meeting my eyes with his for the first time since he'd opened the door. He said, "First of all, Sam, I'm so, so sorry for scaring you."

"I don't care about that," I said. "I'm just so glad you're okay. I know I haven't...I just feel so guilty for..."

"Don't go there," he said. "This was my doing. I didn't have to go nuts."

"But...see...I never really took you seriously about..."

"No," he said, "you didn't. But that was no excuse."

"But...about Duane," I said. "I was so insensitive. It's because I thought you didn't really mean it with me."

He stared into my eyes again, and said, quietly, "I did."

"I know that now," I said. "I'm sorry, Brian."

"You don't have anything to apologize for," he said. "I lost. I lost you to him. And it was too much to handle. But it wasn't any reason to go nuts, to throw away all I'd worked so hard at."

We sat there in silence for a while.

"I still need you in my life," he said. "I need you as a friend. Can you be my friend after all this?"

"Quit trying to make me mad," I said, frowning. "You shouldn't have to ask such a stupid question. I love you. I always will. I'll always be there for you."

He looked at me, frowning. "I don't remember what I said to you. I don't remember calling you. Dave told me you called in a panic. I don't remember anything from that night except an email from Duane. It was just a plain ol' email. Nothing important. But it just slammed into me then for some reason: He'd beaten me out."

He wiped a stray tear from his face. "It hurt too much; I said screw it and bought a case of vodka and started drinking. Musta been a couple of days. That's the last I remember until I woke up and found myself at Dave's."

"I'm just glad you didn' know, drink past the point of no return. I'd never...I'd never have forgiven myself," I said.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," he said.

"No," I said, my eyes brimming with tears. "I'm sorry I hurt you."

No one knew what to say next. Finally Brian spoke up: He was going to move into Dave's place for a while, and Dave's wife was going to go help out at Mary's while Brian got his head clear.

"Dave's wife'll do what my worthless ass shoulda been doing instead of feeling sorry for myself," he said.

"Would you please quit saying things like that?" I said. "You're not worthless."

"I know," he said, trying to smile. "And I want you to know I'm not going back to drinking. You need a sober best friend. And I have something worth staying sober for."

"You do? What?"

"You, Sam," he said. "I need you in my life. I told you once before that even if it's just as my best friend, I still need you."

He paused. "I need to do some things different this time, that's all."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Like first of all, when I get back to AA, I need to get over myself and get a sponsor instead of just showing up at meetings."

"Yeah, that's pretty crucial, I think," I replied.

"Also, I'm gonna stop trying to deal with all this shit all by myself," he said, adding, "You could probably afford to give that a try yourself."

"What do you mean?".

"Duane told me about some of the stuff you've been dealing with," he said. "You need to quit trying to be strong in front of me and let me be your best friend. I may be a drunk, but you said you wanted us to be in each other's lives, you wanted us to be honest with each other. How was hiding all that being honest with me? If you can't lean on me, what kind of friend can I be?"

I smiled guiltily. "You're right," I said. "Can you forgive me?"

"Only if you can forgive me," he grinned.

"Deal," I said.

We shook on it.

I spent the next day there, talking with him, spending quiet time with him, watching TV together, taking walks, talking about my life and his. Things began to get back on track very easily. It seemed we were headed in the right direction. And he actually seemed better off for having slipped. More resolute. More determined.

In the quiet peace of his presence, with neither of us asking for anything of the other except companionship, I allowed myself for the first time in months to relax a little with the fact that I was still in love with him. We had the worst timing in the world of any two people on the planet, I realized; and it was obvious that we weren't destined to be together as lovers, but we could definitely be the next best thing.

After I returned home, we resumed our every-day phone calls. He kept me updated on Mary's progress through her pregnancy. And he was faithful to a fault in telling me about choosing a sponsor and attending regular AA meetings. He'd returned to them with a vengeance, hitting a meeting a day, sometimes more than one a day. It was great to hear the life and vitality back in his voice.

I kept in regular touch with Duane about all this. "There's so much love between you, Sam," he said in one conversation. "I know that you're still in love with him."

"I told you that it doesn't matter," I scoffed. "That's not what's in the cards for us. It's too dangerous for both of us. Anyway, you know I love you. You know I'm planning to make a life with you."

"Yeah," he said. "But who says a person can only love one person? My point is I don't want either of you to feel I'm trying to stand between what the two of you have."

"And that would be what?" I said.

"That you're both in love with each other, and that if it weren't for me, you'd finally be together," he replied.

"What, you trying to get me to dump you for him?" I asked, irritated at his comments. Irritated mainly because I knew they were true.

"No," he said. "Not at all. I'm just saying it would be foolish not to hang on to that kind of love. He's going to need you. And you two should stop hiding from each other."

He was right, of course, and I loved him that much more for saying it. I promised myself that I'd take that advice.


* * * * * * * * *

Brian continued emailing with Duane. Sometimes one or the other of them would tell me about things they'd talked about. It was clear that the two of them were talking more about me and Duane than I'd been telling him about me and Duane. I felt a little ashamed of that, but after his drunken call to me, I saw that, after an initial reserve, I'd gone too far in the other direction: I'd talked too much about Duane to Brian. I realized I'd been twisting the knife.

I was glad they were connecting. Brian was doing his level best to come to terms with Duane. I could tell that he liked him, and that he appreciated what Duane had done for me. Every now and then I caught a note of pain in his voice, and at those times I'd realize again that he was still in love with me, and that he was still hurting. And always in response, my own love for him would flare up unreasonably, and I'd think about roads not taken and wonder about what-ifs.

But there really wasn't any point in that.

So, all things considered, we were all doing quite well.

Mary finally had her baby, and Brian got himself together enough to move back in. Things were going pretty well between us. We'd planned a road trip: Brian was coming to visit for an extended stay the last week in July, and he and Chris and I were going to travel down to where Duane lived. Then we'd return home and Brian would be staying through my birthday, which was toward the end of the first week in August. 

Unfortunately I had a really nasty gastrointestinal flareup before we could leave town. I'd had these for years from time to time; I had a chronic GI illness that caused problems at the worst times possible, it seemed. So instead of leaving town, the night Brian got here I spent the night in the hospital, cramping and bleeding. When he released me the next day, my doctor told me not even to think about a long trip.

Duane was disappointed, but only a few days later, his father had a heart attack and he had to leave the state to be with him: Our visit wouldn't have materialized anyway. So instead of a road trip to see Duane, it was just me, Chris, and Brian at home.

Jonah was a great support, regularly helping Brian out with Chris. Brian himself was always there for me, checking on my needs and taking great care of me as I recovered my strength. He also spent lots of time with Chris.

After our breakup, I'd given Jonah the upstairs of the house to use as his living quarters. The downstairs only had two bedrooms. Chris had one, and I had been sleeping in the other. I didn't have a real bed there, just a blow-up mattress on the floor. I'd offered to let Brian stay there and to take the couch, but he wouldn't hear of it. But Brian was a bigger man than I was, and he didn't fit on the couch.  So I knew we'd be sharing the mattress on this visit.

There were problems there, though.

It was certainly big enough to share, but I wasn't sleeping well with him there. There were a couple of reasons. Neal's harassment had been particularly intense lately, and the more he escalated, the more flashbacks I had, usually at night.  I'd end up curled up in a ball in the corner of the room for most of the night almost every night; I only felt reasonably safe when I had my back in a corner.

I didn't want Brian to know I was having these severe flashbacks. You'd think I'd have learned by now, but I just couldn't let him see how broken I was. But I knew there was no way I'd be able to hide the flashbacks from him when we were sleeping in the same bed. The first night, I tried not to leave the bed when I felt the walls close in. I was determined to master my anxiety and not to make a sound. It didn't really work, though. I had to get up and move into the corner.

On the second night, as we were lying next to each other, he noticed I was awake, and tried to touch my arm to see if I was okay. 

I nearly leaped out the window, and a severe flashback gripped me. 

Brian was scared, and clueless. He wasn't sure what was going on, and he was at a loss as to how to help me. He'd known that I had these episodes, but he hadn't really been around me while I was in the middle of one, not since that day in the gym back during high school, where I ran into the guys who had raped me.

From a distance inside myself, I could see he was panicking. I managed to say, "You didn't do it, I just...I'm like this right now."

"What can I do?" he asked. "Is it one of those flashbacks?"

"Yeah," I said, settling myself into my corner.

Gradually I recovered, and told him to go back to sleep. I told him I just needed to stay in the corner for a while, and that I'd be okay.

He walked over to me to comfort me, but I backed even more tightly into the corner. I saw the look of pain in his eyes as it registered that I was trying to get away from him.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I'll go back to bed."

"Don't be sorry," I managed to get out. "I told you it's not you, okay?"

Over the next couple of days, we enjoyed each other's company during the day, but the night always brought the flashbacks. I told him a little bit more about what was going on with Neal than I'd let him know before, but only a little. I didn't want him having to deal with my problems while he was working on his own.

Both he and I chatted with Duane toward the evenings. Brian told Duane exactly what was going on, and more or less spilled his guts to Duane about how helpless he felt, how deeply he cared for me, and how much he wanted to find ways to comfort me.

When the panic got pretty bad, I'd always call Duane. As always, he knew just what to say--just how to talk to me--to calm me down. He was also pretty direct in confronting me about Brian. "I know it's terrifying, Sam," he told me, "but someone who loves you with all his heart is right there next to you. Let him be there for you."

"I don't know how to do that," I told him.

"I don't know either," he said. "But I know enough to know that you shouldn't hold yourself away from him. I know you're afraid to put yourself in his arms. Literally and figuratively. You don't trust yourself with him."

"I can't trust myself with him," I said.

"Then don't trust yourself," Duane said. "Trust him."

I thought about that for the rest of the day. Could I do that? I knew it would make Brian feel much better if I could let him bet there for me. I wondered if I would feel much better.

With Duane's help, Brian came to figure out how to help me during the flashbacks. When I started freaking out at night, he wouldn't push. He'd let me go to my corner; then he'd wrap a blanket around me and lie on the floor next to me until I calmed down. He also came to recognize that Darwin, my cat, could provide him with some cues. He could tell when it was okay to approach because my cat would climb into my lap when I'd chilled out sufficiently. Over the period of his visit, he started calling Darwin the "Sammy-rometer." I swear that cat was so stupid he could get lost in the house, but he always knew how I was feeling.

Duane continued to tell me to let Brian love me, to trust him and to him help me heal. During our daily chats and phone calls, Duane kept bringing up a related theme and he wouldn't let it go.

It started with a phone conversation in which I was telling him how caring Brian was being, how much support he was giving, and how he'd learned to give me the space I needed to get past a panic episode.

Duane said, "He loves you so much. And I know you're still so much in love with him."

I was exasperated. He was always saying this. As far as I was concerned, it was a useless, pointless subject.

I sighed into the phone and replied, testily and with all the sarcasm I could muster, "Duane, why are you going there? What's the point of that kind of talk? Do you want me to make love with him? Is that what you want?"

Without even pausing, he said, "That would be fine with me."

Before I could say a word in response, he added, "You and I have something. But you have something with Brian, too. For a lot longer than you've felt anything for me. I'd be crazy not to accept that. It's a part of who you are, it's a part of the guy I care so much about."

"What are you trying to say?" I asked.

"I'm just saying there's so much love there, Sam," he replied. "And I'm saying you could really use that love to help you heal, and to help him heal. And I'm saying you should let him be there for you. And that if...well, you know, if...if something happened between the two of you, that would be fine with me. I'm not going anywhere."

I didn't know how to respond. I'd always been strictly monogamous. I always felt guilty if I even had feelings for someone else when I'm in a relationship, let alone actually making love to them. Beyond that, sex was a big step for me, especially given how unhinged I was over Neal.

Even if I hadn't been, this was Brian we were talking about. I couldn't uncross that line once I'd crossed it, and I knew it. My heart had in a real sense always belonged to him. I couldn't just turn over the key to him. It would be an irreversible move.

We let the subject go during that conversation, but it kept coming up. In fact, I found out he'd even talked to Brian about it, telling him that he'd understand if something physical happened between us during the visit.

Toward the middle of the week, his talk took on a new twist.

I was telling him how good Brian had become at helping through the flashbacks, when he said, "Look...I'm no shrink, but it seems pretty damn clear to me that Brian is always going to loom large in your mind and heart. You can't just un-love someone. You can't just un-want them. But it seems like you feel if you let yourself be loved by him, somehow that'll fuck up what we have, what we're going to have."

"Well, yeah," I said. "It would...wouldn't it?"

"No," he said. "What if when we all got together I did something to show you it wouldn't?"

"What?" I said.

"When you and I....when we get together...bring him into it."

I was utterly confused. "What?"

"I mean...let's all make love. All of us. Together. Then you'd see I was fine with it. Then you'd see I'm okay with you loving him and him loving you."

I was floored. I could think of nothing to say in response. In fact, I pretty much couldn't think at all.

I stood there with my mouth open, trying to figure out what to say, when he said, "Just think about it. Talk to Brian about it."

"Talk to Brian about it?" I repeated, horrified. "Are you insane?"

"Okay, I'll talk to him about it," he said, laughing. "Catch ya later, Sammy." And with those words, he hung up.

Two days went by. Brian and I and Chris had gone to the park with Jonah and had a great picnic lunch. After we ate, Jonah hauled Chris over to the jungle gym and left Brian and me to enjoy each other's company.

They'd hardly walked away before Brian winked at me and said, "Duane sure has some interesting ideas for the three of us, right?"

I was horrified. My cheeks began to feel like blast furnaces.

"You're blushing, Sammy," Brian laughed.

I couldn't look at him.

"I won't lie to you," he said, growing serious. "I don't really get what's going on with you two. I mean, it's obvious the two of you really click on some levels. He's good for you. And I like him for that," he said, adding, "though God knows I tried not to."

I summoned enough nerve to look at him and give him a weak smile.

"I know you been beatin' yourself up about Jonah, and about this thing with Duane, that he's a married man, all that," he said. "I also know you have some weird things in common and that you need him right now. And this idea?" He laughed. "It's nuts, of course," he said. "I gotta say, I don't much want Duane," he added, breaking into a laugh that I couldn't help but respond to by cracking up myself. Then he looked me straight in the eyes and said, "But...Sammy, I'd take damn near anything to be with you."

The look on his face when he said those words broke my heart.

"Brian," I said. "Don't do this to yourself. You know I...I couldn't go there."

"I know, Sammy," he said. "I know you too well to believe you could give me a piece of your heart once you've given it to someone else."

"You already have a piece of my heart," I said. "This would just...I think it would be awful for all of us. I couldn't..."

I paused, considering the weight of what I was about to say, then realized that, for both our sakes, I needed to admit it to him:

"I could never go just halfway with you, Brian."

He smiled sadly. "I know. It has to be the whole deal. All of you. I've always known it. It's one of the things that makes me love you."

We changed the subject. About that time, Jonah and Chris rejoined us.

Somehow, in the days that followed, that admission from me, that conversation between us, made things better. Brian brought the subject up a few more times in the next several days, not in a pressuring way, but to make it clear, without being explicit about it, that he'd have gone there. Gradually, though, we let the three-way idea slide. Beyond the conflict of emotions involved in loving two men intimately, the thought of having sex with two men at the same time stirred up all kinds of demons from my past, and I had no desire whatsoever to wrestle with them again. I could tell that Brian would have given it a try, though. It was just one more piece of evidence that really did love me, in every dimension possible. I began to realize, additionally, that he was just hoping that if he had a shot at being with me--even if it meant sharing me with someone else--that I'd come to my senses and let myself love him, and be loved by him.

He was probably right, and I knew it, and it scared the crap out of me.

Duane kept trying to reassure me that he wasn't going anywhere even if something happened with Brian. He finally told me that I would just have to see that he was still there after something happened, and when it did, he said, I'd see that he was in it for the long haul. 

Fat chance I'd ever let it get that far, I thought.

One night, though, I had a particularly nasty night of flashbacks that wouldn't taper off. I sat up, shaking in the corner, while Brian lay next to me, making sure I didn't get cold or otherwise need his help. Around dawn, he finally managed to lead me back to bed.

He tucked me in, rubbed my shoulders, and smiled at me. "Night, Sammy," he said, and then leaned in and kissed me.

There wasn't anything sexual about the kiss; it was almost like something you'd do with a little kid when you tucked them into bed. But I felt guilty nonetheless.

When I talked to Duane the next day, I was still nervous and jumpy about it. As I talked, it was plain as day that something was up.

"You wanna tell me what's going on now, or later?" he asked playfully.

"How about none of the above?" I asked, groaning.

"That's not one of the items you can put an 'x' by," he said, and kept badgering me gently.

Finally I said, "Okay. I had bad flashbacks last night and didn't get to bed until almost dawn, and Brian tucked me in and kissed me."

When he didn't reply, I said, "Well, aren't you gonna say it? Say something? Say anything?"

He chuckled into the phone a little.

"What?" I demanded.

"I'm still here," he said.

Like I said, all the right things at all the right times. I relaxed immediately.


* * * * * * * * *

It was my birthday.

We'd been out at the park with Chris, just enjoying the day, but Brian said he had plans for me, so late that afternoon, we all headed back. Jonah was in, and after we'd said hi, he told me, "Hey, Brian's made arrangements for me to watch Chris for a couple of hours. We're gonna go get unhealthy junk food at McDonald's." He looked over at Chris and said, "That okay with you, kid?"

Chris said, "All right! See you later, Dad! See you later, Brian! Let's go, Jonah!" He ran to the door.

"Hey, wait up, buddy," Jonah said. "I gotta grab my keys and my wallet from upstairs!"

"Well, hurry up," Chris said.

"Yeah, hurry up," Brian added with a grin.

When they'd left, he leered at me and said, "Alone at last, and on your birthday! Don'tcha want to model your birthday suit for me?"

I felt my face flush.

He saw it, laughed, and said, "I'm kidding, Sam."

I rolled my eyes, shook my head, grinned, and walked over to the phone to check messages. Somebody had left one while we'd been out.

I pressed "play." At first the recording was silent; then I began to hear a lazy, plaintive, slow-burn jazz piano lick emerge from the machine's speaker, and the next thing I knew, Duane's voice began to serenade me:

Spring this year has got me feeling
Like a horse that never left the post;
I lie in my room, staring up at the ceiling;
Spring can really hang you up the most...

I cracked up and melted all at the same time. "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" was my favorite of those old torch song standards, and Duane was always promising to sing me that song.

I was enchanted; he couldn't have come up with a better birthday greeting if he'd tried. Nobody had ever done anything quite like that for me before; I wasn't used to being "romanced" like that. I felt myself blush, and I was grinning from ear to ear. I sighed, and turned back toward Brian.

For just a second, his stricken eyes met mine, and I saw agony all over his face. As soon as he saw me looking, though, he tried to smile, and said, "Damn, he sings good."

A wave of sadness rolled through me. Would the day ever come that I didn't cause him pain?

He laughed, though, and put on his game face, clearly determined to make this day a celebration for me. As soon as I'd listened to all of Duane's voice mail, he said, "Go get a shower and put on something that makes you look really good; I'm taking you out to dinner!"


"No, for your next birthday," he deadpanned. "Of course, 'now.' Go get showered and dressed. I want you to open your presents before we go."

Okay, now I was intrigued. Presents?

I must have been wearing my thoughts on my face, because he looked at me and said, "Well, of course, dammit, it's your fuckin' birthday, like I'm not gettin' you presents? Now go take your damn shower before I haveta push you there and get in with you and wash you up myself."

I headed to the bathroom, grinning ear to ear. The momentary picture of Brian's devastated face from just a moment ago faded from my consciousness in the warm glow of his friendship.

I showered quickly and dressed almost as quickly, then came out into the living room. He'd set three wrapped boxes on the coffee table. One was almost as big as a golf bag; one was a small box about the size of my fist; and one was flat, like an eight-by-ten photo. "Okay," he said, "you have to open these, then I gotta go take a shower and get ready myself."

I sat down on the couch. "Open the big one first, it's the most important," he said. His face was impossible to read.

I tore into it, and just about fainted.

It was a couple of enormous--as in, baseball-bat-sized--vibrating dildos, one in day-glo yellow and the other in day-glo purple.

Brian was rolling on the floor with laughter. "Oh, man, Sammy," he said. "The look on your face is priceless," he gasped between belly-laughs.

"Shut up, smartass," I said, laughing myself. "What were you tryin' to do, give me a heart attack?"

"Well," he said, raising and eyebrow and smirking, "You haven't met Duane. You might...well, you never know. He might take some getting used to."

I took the dildos to my bedroom and threw them in the closet. "Let's move along, okay? How bad are the rest of these?"

He stroked his chin. "Hmmm....well, you'll just have to see." He ran out of the room and came back with my laptop.

"What's that for?" I asked as I sat back down.

"Open the flat one next," he said. "We'll need the laptop for it."

I tore off the wrapping paper. Inside was a printed certificate that listed a login name and password and read, "Good for one year at"

"What's Corbin Fisher?" I asked.

"Well, let's just find out," he said, grinning. "My cousin recommended this."

"Your gay cousin?"

"You make it sound like a bad word, Sammy. Shame, shame," he said. "Now type in the URL."

As soon as I saw where it took me, I groaned. "You've got to be kidding."

He took the laptop from me and entered in the login name and password.

He paged around until he came to a model named Lucas. He clicked on the link, and pretty soon we saw Lucas, in all his glory. "Impressive," he quipped. "I know you like blond guys, I mean, just a little, right?"

I reached over and slapped him upside his blond head. "Now, now, Sammy," he said. "No need to thank me; just wait until I go home before you do any exploring, okay?"

He was loving this; I had to admit I was too.

That left only the small box. I tore open the wrapper and saw that it was a watch.

A Marvin the Martian watch.

I love Marvin the Martian, and Brian knew it.

"That's awesome, Brian," I said, smiling. "You remembered."

"Who could forget your quirky fetish for Marvin?" he said. His face got serious for a minute. "I love you, Sammy. Never forget that. No matter what happens from here."

I swallowed hard and blinked several times. I took a deep breath and said, "I love you too, Brian. You know I do. I always will. Thanks for...for being so good to me."

"It's not hard," he said.

We went out for Italian, and had a great time. The weird thing was, it felt kind of like a date. What was even weirder was that I didn't feel guilty. What I felt was secure, and happy, and loved, and safe. At least for the evening.

It was the best birthday I'd had in a long time, the ongoing stress of Neal's antics notwithstanding.

Brian left the next week to start a new teaching job. Things motored along as they had been: Duane and I were talking for hours on end, either on the phone or via IM every day. Brian called every day as well, and we talked lots. Things kept getting better and better between us.

It was perfect. Well, as perfect as my life ever got. I was planning a life with Duane, and my friendship with Brian began to fill me with sunshine. It was everything I ever hoped it could be. 

I was happy, even with Neal looming everywhere I went.


* * * * * * * * *

I'd heard from a university in the metropolitan area where Duane lived. They had an opening in their biology department. I was feeling excited about the future and I was looking forward to visiting Duane's turf and scoping it out soon. In the meantime, though, I had to assume I'd still be here this fall. I was out buying a new desk for my office the next day when I got a call from Duane.

I wasn't able to answer in time to talk to him. I was surprised to see that it was him, though; we didn't ever talk on Saturdays.

I called him back. "What's up?" I asked.

He was withdrawn and tentative. Obviously shaken. "It's pretty bad," he said.

"What's bad? What happened?"

"Naomi and I got into a terrible fight," he said, "and she accused me of avoiding her. She was angry and sarcastic and hurt and she asked if I was depressed or gay, because those were the only two explanations she could come up with for the fact that we hadn't had sex in six months. I asked her if she wanted the truth, and when she did, I told her I was gay."

"Wow," I said. "How did she take it?"

"She went berserk," he said flatly. "I tried to take it back at first but she's not stupid."

"I'm sorry it got ugly,"  I said, "but at least it's out now."

He didn't answer immediately. When he finally spoke, his words seemed devoid of emotion and devoid of hope. "I just don't know what's going to happen," he said. "I have to go now," he added. "I'm at the park with my kids. I'll let you know what's up."

"Oh...okay," I said, shaken.

Over the next few weeks things settled down. Naomi wasn't thrilled, but they were talking things out, and she seemed to be moving toward accepting that Duane was gay. They were starting to make arrangements for separate housing.  All she asked was that they go to counseling and that he tell her the truth about his activities. 

So they went to counseling. 

But he didn't tell her the truth. 

About anything. 

Over the next couple of days I learned that he hadn't told her about me and seemed to have no plans to do so. He also didn't tell her about the hours he'd spent surfing the Net, the online friends, the online stories he'd written, the feelings of desperation and depression he'd had because he was married but still utterly alone. Above all, he didn't tell her that he wanted a divorce and was ready to make a new life with someone else. All he told her was that he had occasionally looked at gay porn and maybe read a few online gay stories.  Period. 

He stuck with that story over and over again, despite my urgings to the contrary.

I asked him about it. "Why aren't you telling her the truth? Isn't this what you wanted?"

"It is," he said. "I...I just don't want to hurt her. I really do love her, in my own way. It's not her fault I'm gay."

"It's not yours either," I said curtly.

"I...I know, Sam," he said. "Look, I'm sorry. This is really stressful. I just need time to handle it my own way."

"I know," I replied. "And I don't mean to get all snippy. It must be really hard. I didn't mean to pressure you. It's just that...well, in my experience, hiding and lying can backfire in a big way. In ways we can't always predict."

"Maybe," Duane said. "But you don't know Naomi. If I don't play this right, she might make things really hard for me. She has ways."

I didn't doubt it.

"Don't worry, Sam," he said. "We'll be together. I just have to get through this."

He went to California the next week; he'd been looking for another job, and a company that was seeking to establish a presence in his area was based in California. They flew him in for an interview.

We talked for hours that first night he was at the hotel. He was so happy.

"Things are working out, Sam," he said. "They like me, and it looks like I'm in. I'll be making so much more money than I am now, it's ridiculous."

"Wow," I said. "You're already making lots of money."

"Well, yeah," he answered, "but if we do this, I'll need more. I want to be in my kids' lives, and I want to support them; I don't want them to suffer any because of this. I mean, as little as they have to, anyway. And I don't want their standard of living to drop off. It means sustaining two households, actually."

"Well, Naomi works," I said.

"Of course. But it's taken two of us to get where we are. I'm not going to be the one who makes them go backward, financially."

I understood. I had some misgivings about his deceptions with his wife, though. We talked about it some more, but I couldn't get through to him.

A few more days went by. The university I'd been in contact with actually flew me down for an interview while he was in California. I thought it went well, and things looked promising. I went back home feeling optimistic.

The next day was Chris' birthday. Jonah and I threw him a party and invited a number of his friends. We were having a great time, when the phone rang.

I picked up. "Hello."

There was a brief silence, then a woman's voice said, "Who am I talking to?"

"Sam Passarello," I said. "Who am I talking to?"

"A woman who wants to know what you have to do with her husband," she answered icily.

The air in the room seemed to leave. My head felt light, and my stomach had gone queasy. I stared into the phone.

"Duane and I are having problems," she said. "I think he's lying to me. I looked at his cell phone bill. He had two thousand minutes' worth of conversation last month with someone at this number. I want to know what that's all about."

"I can't talk right now," I said. "I'm at my son's birthday party. Let me call you back."

"You'd better," she said in a menacing voice, and then the line went dead.

I made it through the birthday party, but I wasn't entirely there. When the party was over and the rest of the day had passed, I called Duane. He was still in California. He said, "I'm sorry. I...I'm so sorry for putting you through that, Sam."

I was angry. "Do you have any idea what it felt like to get that call out of the blue?" I asked.

"I know. It must have been awful. She called you before she even told me she knew out about the calls."

"I told you that lying could do something like this."

"I know," he said. "But I don't see that it changes anything."

"It changes everything," I said. "You said you were worried about how she might react if you didn't keep her in the dark. Well, this is it: your nightmare scenario."

"I can handle it," he said. "I've already started to. I told her I met you through a hotline for men troubled by gay feelings. I told her that you were my counselor. If she calls you back, you need to back me up on that."

"I can't, Duane," I said. "That would be a lie. And it would lead to bigger lies, more deception. There'd be no end to it. Can't you see this is no way out of it?"

"No, I can't," he said. "It's the only way out of it. But if you can't back me up, just don't answer the phone when you see it's her."

"I don't know," I said. "I'm not going to say anything without telling you, so maybe I won't call her back or answer her calls. But this is trouble, Duane. You need to face it. I don't understand why you won't tell her about us."

"I don't expect you to understand," he said testily. "You don't know her, you haven't lived with her. I'm asking you to trust me on this. If you can't, then we've got bigger troubles than Naomi."

I sighed. "Okay. I'm sorry. Do what you have to do, and as usual, I'll wait for the results."

The words were bitter; I couldn't help it.

"I'll take care of it, Sammy; I promise. I love you."

"I love you too," I said wearily. "I'll talk to you later."

I left the conversation stunned and reeling. How could things have gone so drastically wrong, and so quickly? And how could Duane be so clueless about how he should handle this?

I thought about calling Brian and cringed. I'd already put him through so much; but I needed my friend. So I picked up the phone.

Just hearing his voice comforted me. We talked for a while. He brought nothing but support and sympathy. He never blasted Duane, never told me what I had to do or shouldn't do. He just listened, and cared, right when I needed it most. My world, which had quickly gone to an even deeper level of hell than before, seemed a little less scary with the arms of his love and support around me. Even if it was over the phone.

The next day Duane called me from California, distraught. "It's terrible," he said. "She's told me I better cough up the name of the hotline I've been using, the phone number, and the website where I found it when I get home, or she's taking the kids and I'll never get to be in contact with them."

I was stunned. "Duane," I replied. "I'm so sorry. Do you see now what I was talking about?"

"Yeah, I do," he said coldly. "And quit talking to me like I'm some kinda kid. Do you think I didn't know something like this could happen? I'm not stupid, you know. There just wasn't any other way. The truth wasn't going to have put us in any better a place."

"You'll never know whether or not that's true now," I said.

"Look," he said urgently. "Is there anybody you're really good friends with, anybody who knows your situation that could call her up and pretend to be your boss at the hotline?"

I was in disbelief. Hadn't he learned yet what a train-wreck that kind of deception created?

"I...I can't do that, Duane," I said. "I can't involve someone else in such an incredible fraud. It violates everything I believe in."

We'd reached an impasse. He was too scared to tell the truth; I was too appalled to lie for him. "I'll work it out, Sam," he said finally. "We'll look back on this someday and realize it wasn't any big deal."

"I hope so," I said. "I love you."

"I love you too," he told me. "We'll get through this. Talk to you later."

In the following days, it got worse, not better. Naomi informed him that she'd installed a keystroke logger on his computer, and that from here on out she'd be monitoring all his phone calls and emails as well. On that account, it became difficult to have any contact with him. I talked to him for a few minutes a handful of times in the next week, and then there were several days of silence between us.

One evening the next week, after Chris had gone to bed, I checked my email and saw one from Drew, the guy whose online story about him and his best friend had helped re-establish my friendship with Brian. The subject line read "Important."

I clicked on it.

"Sam," it said, "I don't know how to tell you this. I feel awful about being dragged into this. But I got an email from Duane. He asked me to tell you that he can't be with you, that he couldn't find a way to work things out. He told me to tell you that he loves you and that he feels terrible, but he can't ever be in contact with you again."

I lost it.

I was grief-stricken and angry. And I felt humiliated, and ashamed of ever allowing myself to get caught up in this.

How stupid I'd been; how deranged. What kind of loser lets himself fall for someone over the Internet? What kind of man trusts his heart to a guy who's cheating on his wife? And Duane: what a low, cheap person her was to break up with me via a third party.

The gutlessness of it nauseated me, and beyond that, I was mortified that my friend Drew had been pulled into this sorry business. God, what he must think of me and this stupid, sleazy stuff, I thought.

Above all else, though, I felt abandoned.

I couldn't talk to anyone about it. I wrote Drew an email, saying, "Thank you for being my friend. You must think I'm complete trash for being in a relationship like this. And I'm sorry you got dragged into it."

He wrote back and said, "Don't talk like that about yourself. You're worth too much to think like that. If there's anything trashy about this, it's Duane. He's a lying jerk with no integrity at all, and he clearly doesn't think about anybody but himself."

It wasn't much comfort, but I appreciated his words.

I couldn't tell Brian for days, though. It was the most shameful thing that had ever happened to me. On top of that, I was mortified at how pathetic I'd been to get myself into this emotional situation to begin with. And all because I'd been scared by Brian and what he wanted.

I let that cold, bitter truth beat up on me: I ran into Duane's arms because I couldn't trust myself in Brian's.

I'd been utterly irrational. And in the process I'd hurt Brian.


And for what?

After a few days I got a final, curt email from Duane. It said, "I hope you don't feel used. We had a nice time, but now I know I really always wanted to be a husband and father all along. Have a good life."

All the support, all the romance. All the love and the promises that he wasn't going anywhere, "even if things didn't work out," as he'd put it. All of it: When all was said and done, it all boiled down to "We had a nice time. And, by the way, don't let the door hit your ass."

I was dirt under his feet.


Note to readers: We're getting closer to the end. As I mentioned before, I've finished Dan's story now. I'll be posting chapters regularly until the end, which will be Chapter 34. If you'd like to email me, my addres is

--Adam Phillips