August faded into September. The school year had started, and a breakdown wasn't an option.
The trick was going to be managing that.
I had to keep going. I had to claw my way out of the deep hole Duane had thrown me into. I had to manage the careful balancing act between love and friendship that marked my relationship with Brian. I had to keep my sanity in the face of Neal's constant low-grade terror tactics. I had to get through the nightly flashbacks that resulted. And I had to prepare a semester's worth of lectures and labs on top of all that.
Everything considered, it's safe to say I wasn't in good shape that fall.
I didn't want anyone to know just how bad it was, especially Brian. He was working so hard on his sobriety; he'd gotten back into meaningful work; and he was doing his part to help rebuild our friendship. I didn't need to saddle him with another thing to worry about.
Fortunately, in the previous month I'd made another online friend, one who became a source of sanity for me when things threatened to spin off into emotional chaos.
My efriend Zach stepped up to the plate and helped me through this dark period. He was about my age, and like several of my online friends, he'd written an online story that was loosely based on his own relationship with his college roommate. Zach had had a pretty miserable past himself, and something of a history of post-traumatic breaks with reality, so he knew intimately what I was going through. Our rapport grew quickly, because I didn't have to tie myself in knots explaining what I was going through; he'd been there.
I'd started chatting with Zach around the time I'd made a number of my other online friends. We'd kept in touch fairly regularly and I'd talked to him about the things that were going on in my life. I hadn't gone into gory details, but he'd known about my plans with Duane. In the wake of the "Dear John" email Duane had sent Drew to forward to me, we'd chatted a little.
Drew himself wasn't available to chat with often. He had an impossibly busy life and just didn't spend that much time hanging out on IM. So it was a lifesaver that Zach was there for me in the aftermath of Duane. I don't know if I'd have survived without his support. In one IM conversation he told me, "Anytime I'm online, you can talk to me. Doesn't matter how late; I'm part vampire, you know." I sent a "grin" smiley at him in response, and he added, "So I'm on a lot. I don't care what kind of shape you're in; I'll be there for you." I held him to that, and that held me together. I'd come home at the end of a workday, having fended off my stress over Neal's assaults; I'd spend time with Chris; I'd send him off to bed; and then I'd fall apart. Chatting with Zach helped put me back together enough to get a few hours of sleep. Then the next morning I'd get up by sheer force of will, put on my emotional armor, and go about my job with such determination that nobody at work had a clue that I was holding it together by the barest of margins.
Neal was ever-present. He keyed my car again. He left more dead animals on my doorstep. He left threatening notes. He made hangup calls. It was constant; he was everywhere. And the police were useless. He'd disappear for a week or two and then he'd show up again. The erratic nature of his tactics couldn't have been more perfectly calculated to keep me off-balance.
And as hard as I tried, it became impossible to hide my condition from Brian. I'd let down too many barriers in re-establishing our friendship for him not to suspect what kind of shape I was in. I could practically feel his worry coming through the phone during our conversations.
"Please talk to me, Sam," he said to me in a phone session where I'd been particularly closed. "I know you're heartbroken about Duane, but it seems like there's something else. Is that asshole Neal getting to you that much?"
"He can't hurt me," I said. "He isn't even doing anything the police could arrest him for."
"Well, okay, then what is it?"
"I'll be fine," I said wearily. I was determined not to go there. "Let's talk about you. How's the job?"
He sighed and let it drop, reluctantly moving on to a discussion of his life.
That was typical of the way I was--or wasn't--handling things with Brian.
In response to my unwillingness to open up, he took to coming down almost every weekend. He'd leave immediately after his last class on Friday and stay until lunch on Sunday. Part of me appreciated the support; when did a visit from Brian ever fail to bring me a small slice of joy? On the other hand, it was wearing him out: I was scaring him, and beyond that, the drive was eight hours each way.
I wanted to protest; I wanted to tell him that what he was doing was ridiculous and over-the-top. But to be honest, I needed him. I felt as though I was standing over a huge chasm on a narrow bridge made of ice; the ice was melting and all I could do on my own was think cold thoughts. I wasn't going to make it alone, but that didn't keep me from being ambivalent about being so dependent on Brian.
One weekend I hadn't heard from him earlier in the week and assumed that he wasn't coming. Brian was always regular about calling ahead of time and letting me know if he'd be driving down. That Friday had been particularly bad, though, and I was relieved that he wasn't going to be visiting.
It started before my first class. Neal called me at my office and did his typical breathing-into-the-phone routine. Although that drill usually sent me into panic mode, this time something in me snapped. I felt a cold fury swell up inside me, and I said quietly into the phone, "You know what, Neal? Fuck you. Go get a life." I can count on one hand the number of times I've said the f-word in my life, but I'd had it with him.
There was a momentary pause. Then he spoke in a voice so full of evil it made my skin crawl: "I lost my life. You took it away from me with your faggot seductions. But I have it back now. Do you know how I got it back?"
He waited for a response from me; I thought to myself, surely he wasn't expecting me to ask.
"I'll tell you how I got it back," he said finally. "I got it back by dedicating it to you. Count on this: I'm never leaving. I'll always be here. You and me, together forever."
Then he laughed the most wicked, sadistic laugh I'd ever heard, and hung up.
The fury inside shattered into a million pieces, and was replaced by waves of fear and despair.
It was all I could do to get through the day. I conducted my classes in a haze; I went through the motions of interacting with my son after work. I wasn't up to cooking, and Jonah was out on a date, so Chris and I had pizza delivered. Chris chattered happily; I listened, smiled, and nodded, and even held up my end of the conversation, although it felt as though I was listening to someone else talk. My real self seemed to be floating in a gray, impenetrable cloud.
We'd just about finished eating when I heard a car door slam outside. Chris heard it too.
He ran to the door and looked, then giggled and yelled, "It's Brian! It's Brian, daddy! You didn't tell me he was coming!" With that, he ran out of the house, to jump into Brian's arms, no doubt. Those two had become inseparable.
Meanwhile, I felt as though I'd been slugged in the stomach. He hadn't told me he was coming; what the hell was he doing here? It was going to be a struggle to keep it together this weekend, and with him here, there was no chance I'd be able to hide my fragile state.
Brian walked in with Chris holding his hand. He said, sheepishly. "I know I didn't call."
"No, you didn't," I said. It sounded harsh, though, so I smiled a little to soften the words.
"I hope it's okay," he said, tentatively.
"Course it's okay," Chris said.
"Well, there you have it," I said. "Or at least, I don't have any plans you're disrupting. I just wasn't expecting you. Why did...I mean, what changed your mind?"
"Well," he began, "I..." His face appeared to be guarding his emotions. "I guess...well, do I need a reason?"
"Of course not," I said. "It's just that...well, it's always good when you call ahead of time."
"I promise not to get in your way. Just do whatever you need to do. I'll just hang out and cook for you guys."
Chris said, "No way, Brian; you burn water."
Out of the mouths of babes.
After we'd recovered from rolling on the floor with laughter, Brian said, "Seriously, just go on about your stuff like I wasn't even here. I'll stay outta your way. We can do some stuff, but mostly just do your thing. I just...I just like to be around you, okay?"
The innocent, longing quality of his facial expression melted my heart. I smiled and said, "I like being around you too. But maybe I'll take you up on just letting you hang out. I'm not...I'm not really up to entertaining anybody, okay?"
He frowned. "When did I ever need you to entertain me?"
"Never," I said. "I'm just saying."
"I'll just keep Chris company this weekend," he said.
"I know he'd hate that," I said.
"Dad," Chris moaned. "Are you trying to make him leave?"
"I ain't goin' anywhere, buddy," Brian told him. "You're stuck with me till Sunday."
While Chris was up, things went okay. After I'd put him to bed, though, Brian and I sat down on the couch to watch some TV, and right away, Brian put an arm over my shoulders and pulled me to him, saying, "Tell me how you're doing, Sammy."
I tightened up and resisted his pull. I didn't do it on purpose; it's just that I was so on guard in all phases of my life, I couldn't afford to let anybody near me. And any kind of touch from men--even Brian--always got me jittery.
He took his arm away as if my shoulders were burning him. The wounded expression on his face broke my heart.
I made myself lean into him again, and tilted my head until it was resting on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just jumpy."
"And I'm not Duane," he said sadly.
I had a major attack of guilt. How could I let Brian befriend me, how could I use him like that, when I knew--finally--that he was in love with me? What excuse did I have now to keep us apart? I fell into full confessional mode.
"Brian, it's not that at all," I said. "I'm just so messed up by so many things. But I know how you're feeling. I'm so, so sorry...I just...You've been so good to me, and I know you're thinking if Duane's gone, why am I still pushing you away, why won't I let you make love to me, why won't..."
"You don't know what I'm feeling," he said forefully. "Well...not all of it, anyway," he added, more gently.
"I love you," he continued. "I've loved you for years. And yeah, it hasn't escaped my notice that you're alone now. And so am I. And we don't need to be. Because I know you still love me."
He drummed his fingers on the end table. "But...but Sammy, I'm not going to pressure you. I want to be with you so bad...but I know you're messed up right now. I just want to be your friend. I don't wanna get sex off you, not if you're not ready. You have nothing to apologize for."
Tears came to my eyes. "I...you deserve someone better, someone who's not so broken and ruined," I said. "What could you possibly think you'll get from me besides a huge collection of issues?"
He scowled at me and said, "Stop talking like that." He stood up and walked toward the window. He stood there, looking out, as he had on so many occasions when the conversation between us became tense. Then he turned back toward me, his eyes softened and looked into mine, and he said, "This is a no-pressure weekend. This is not about what I want from you. This is about you this weekend. Let me be your friend, Sammy, let me do what friends do. Let me be here for you. You need support and help and space to heal. Just let me be here and give you that this weekend. This weekend and whenever I can show up. No strings, and no pressure."
"I don't want you to keep having to spend sixteen hours total on the road to deal with my dysfunctional crap all the time," I said.
"And I don't want you making those kinds of decisions for me, okay?" he replied. "Please let me decide what's best for me."
He took hold of my hands and pulled me to a stand, then took me in his arms. I was too tired to resist.
"Is it a deal?" he whispered.
"Okay," I said, as I lay my head on his shoulder. "For this weekend."
He let me go and looked at me. "I meant what I said, Sam," he said. "I'm not here to get in your way. Just let me hang out. No pressure, and if you need anything, I'm here to help."
"I...I guess that would be good," I said. After a couple of moments I added, "I'm just...I'm gonna go check email and stuff."
"That's fine," he replied. "I'll just watch TV."
I brought my laptop in and sat next to him as I worked. I finished a couple of sets of class notes, checked my email, then, on a whim, decided to fire up Yahoo Messenger.
I shuddered when I saw Duane's name on my Friends list.
I highlighted it and deleted it.
I noticed that Drew was online. He saw me too, because he texted, "Hey, Sammy...how's it going?"
"OK," I typed back.
"Are you keeping it together?"
"Yeah," I told him.
"You're better off without him," he typed.
"I know you're right," I said. "It's just that Brian's here."
"Even better," he wrote, adding a "winking" smiley.
"I don't think so," I replied. "He didn't tell me he was coming and surprised me by showing up."
There was a pause for a few seconds, then he typed, "I don't get it. It's Brian, right? Why would that be a bad thing?"
I thought for a moment, wondering how I could tell him what I was feeling without sounding like a total loser.
Finally I typed, "He's been so sweet. Always being here."
"Yeah, that sounds really awful," he typed back, adding the wink again.
"I know, it sounds ungrateful. I'm not. He always takes care of things around the house, he plays with Chris, and gives me space."
"Tell me again why it's bad that he's here, then?" Drew quipped, then added, "No, wait. You didn't tell me a first time so I guess you can't tell me again."
"I'm ashamed," I typed. "I'm ashamed that I'm so far gone I need him that much."
I started and deleted the next line about five times before I finally pressed send:
"And I can't pretend I don't love him and don't want him anymore. But I can't admit it either."
Immediately he asked, "Why not?"
"I don't know," I said. "But I won't figure it out in this IM session."
"Okay," Drew typed. "Sorry if I pushed."
"No, it's fine," I said. "But let's talk about something I can see a little better. Like how things are going with you and Matt. You done being an idiot?" Drew was having his own difficulties, making a pretty easy situation concerning his relationship with his best friend much more complicated than it needed to be. I always found it easy to sort out other people's problems; my own didn't seem quite as clear-cut. He chatted with me about his situation for a while; then he had to sign off.
I sighed and returned to my emotional turmoil over Brian. I was totally ashamed that I needed him so much. I was fighting the love I had for him, and at the same time I felt guilty that I wasn't offering myself to him. I was now beyond convinced that not only was he capable of loving me and desiring me, he was actually there, and in a big way. What kind of selfish person was I to accept the support he was giving me and not to let him love me the way he was wanting to?
It wasn't as though I didn't crave it myself on some level. But I felt that I was so badly damaged, he didn't deserve to be saddled with all that. And I was still afraid that if I gave myself to him and it didn't work out, I'd finally lose the last vestige of sanity I had.
Things were slipping, though. I didn't know how much longer I'd be able to maintain. I loved him. My body practically ached for him. Beyond that, I needed him.
And still, I didn't dare admit it.
It was high school all over again, only ten times worse, and I persisted in my stubborn determination not to let Brian know just how messed-up my head actually was.
* * * * * * * * *
Brian had stripped down to his boxers for the evening, and as I was IMing with Drew, I noticed that the legs of Brian's boxers weren't leaving much to the imagination. I had moved into the kitchen and taken my laptop with me, setting it down on the table as I cleaned up from dinner; with Brian's arrival that little chore had gotten set aside. After I unloaded the dishwasher I sat down at the table and fired up Yahoo Messenger again. Zach was online and I began chatting with him. We'd talked awhile before I finally told him about Brian showing up, and when I did, his reaction was similar to Drew's, but he was even more direct:
"This is perfect," he said. "You need somebody to be there, Sam, and this is the love of your life. What's wrong with admitting it?"
I didn't know that I wanted to get into it, so I told him I needed to see what Brian was up to and that I'd chat with him later.
I walked back into the living room, and Brian was asleep on the couch, and apparently he must have been having a great dream: His dick had poked out of the fly of his boxers, and it was fully hard.
I'd seen him naked before, but never like that. I stood there, mesmerized, unable to turn away from him.
He was so beautiful. Even after all these years. His face, for all the hard living he'd done, was breathtaking. Innocent. Pure. His chest made me want to grab him and pull him against me.
And down below...
Well, down below was doing things to me down below.
He was huge. And it was beautiful.
He was breathing deeply, occasionally almost moaning on exhale.
My breathing got ragged as I tried to pry myself away from my spot on the floor. I took a step away and stumbled into the end table, knocking over an empty coffee cup that was resting on it. My eyes never left his dick, though.
The noise caused Brian to wake up. He opened his eyes and looked around briefly, as if he was trying to make out where he was.
He noticed his hardon sticking out of his shorts, and as he covered himself back up, he looked up at me.
I flinched and backed away from him, as if he'd tried to slug me. My face must have been a mask of fear.
When he saw me flinch, his own face fell, and he stood up. He stared into my eyes for a minute, and said, "I...I'll just get my jeans on; probably Ajax needs a walk."
Neither of us spoke as he dressed, called Ajax, and walked out the door with him.
I was confused, and scared, and stressed...
And determined to fight it all.
I went back to my computer and began IMing Zach again, telling him what had just happened.
"Sam, I don't know what he was dreaming about," he typed. "But you're the one who's been on his mind and heart. You know you love him and you want him. You know he loves and wants you. Just go for it, for God's sake."
I kept trying to tell him why I couldn't, but he wouldn't let it go. I knew he meant well, but all I could tell him in reply was, "Brian deserves better."
The longer I chatted with Zach, the more stressed I got. I kept playing back the image of Brian asleep on the couch, over and over in my head. I began to think about making love to him, and I began trying to resist thinking about making love to him. Thoughts about being raped by Neal began to tumble into the mix, along with thoughts about being raped back in middle school, along with mental pictures of the young jock screwing Jonah on his desk. Then the whole sad episode with Duane began to swirl around in the mix, and then my head began replaying the morning's phone call from Neal. The more I thought about wanting Brian, the more all those other images crowded in. And as they began to crowd out the coherent space in my head, I continued IMing with Zach, to maintain a small piece of sanity in the storm of images and feelings that was threatening to carry me away. It was getting harder to breathe, the room seemed to grow darker, and the mental images from the past seemed to get more vivid.
About fifteen minutes later, Brian came back in with Ajax. I was sitting on the couch, IMing with Zach. As he walked through the door our eyes met.
His face...it was so full of love, and so full of longing, I felt a flash of pain in my gut, and I completely lost it.
Suddely I wasn't "there" anymore; I broke completely with reality.
The experience was similar to how people describe a bad LSD trip: images and sounds, jumbled replays of words and scenes, memories colliding with present sensations, positive and negative emotions wrapping around each other and losing distinctiveness. I felt love and terror and revulsion and lust and stress and joy directed at no one and everyone. Brian and Jonah and Bryan and Neal and the rapists from when I was in middle school all flashed in and out of my consciousness, and I began to shiver.
I was dimly aware of my present, but staying in the "now" was like trying to walk through a snowstorm. I was vaguely aware of Brian saying, "Sam...what's wrong? Are you okay? Can you hear me?" I nodded, but found it too confusing to talk complete sentences. As I looked at his face, it would morph into Neal's and then into Jonah's. And occasionally I'd be jolted by the image of him lying on the couch, asleep and hard.
I stood there shivering, feeling completely glazed-over and shell-shocked, unable to think clearly and unable to stop the onslaught of mental images and sounds. It was the worst flashback I'd ever had. It was also the first one where past and present were thrown together in a horrifying mishmash that shook me to the core. And I couldn't even communicate what was happening to me.
Brian finally went to my bedroom, grabbed a blanket, and came back and wrapped it around me. I watched, absently, as he picked up the laptop. The IM dialogue box with Zach was still open. Brian looked at it, then looked over at me, and asked "does this guy know what's going on?"
From another planet, I heard myself say, "Zach. He's been there himself, he knows."
Out of what must have been sheer desperation, Brian began chatting with Zach.
I have no real memory of most of that time period; but after a couple of hours, the world gradually stopped swirling, the past slowly began separating from the present and finally began receding, and I began to recover a sense of reality.
I looked over at Brian; he had fallen asleep next to me on the couch. The IM dialog with Zach was still open.
I picked up the laptop.
"I'm OK," I typed.
There was a pause.
In reply, Zach typed "Sam?"
"Yeah," I typed. "It's going away. Brian is asleep."
"I know. I just told him to stay there. Keep you comfortable. I told him it would pass."
"Thank you," I typed.
"I told you, whenever you need me. I've been there."
"I know you have," I said. "Thank you for taking care of Brian."
"Now why don't you let him take care of you," he wrote.
* * * * * * * * *
I was exhausted. My clarity had returned, but the events of the last few hours were fuzzy; most things are after a bad flashback.
Brian eventually woke up. He looked at me. I smiled and said, "I'm okay."
"Thank God," he said. "Flashback?"
"Yeah," I said. "Worst one ever."
We didn't talk much after that. He pulled me to a stand, put an arm over my shoulder, and led me off to bed.
I didn't have the strength to resist.
He undressed me gently, lovingly. Stripped me down to my boxers, and whispered, "Lie down and rest."
"I won't be able to sleep, I can't after these," I said as I lay down.
He crawled in bed next to me. "Doesn't matter," he said. "Just rest."
Then he did something I'll remember as long as I live.
He snuggled up against me, skin to skin, and held me.
The noise in my head got quiet. The silence inside was almost unnerving.
And for the first time in years when a man held me...
No flashbacks. No flinching. No panic.
Only calm. Only quiet. Only peace.
So I let him hold me.
I didn't resist.
I finally stopped fighting him. I finally stopped fighting my feelings for him.
He just held me. Just kept his arms around me. For the rest of the night.
And everything clicked into place.
It was the best night of my life.
Note to readers: As I've mentioned
before, I've finished Sam's story. There are three remaining chapters
after this one. They'll be coming fairly quickly. If you'd like to get
in touch with me, you can email me at email@example.com.