On Belay, Pt. 1

Disclaimer: If you don't like to read about sex between men, you have come to a very strange choice of web pages. You should leave. If this isn't legal in your state, vote until it is. But observe the law, I suppose.

Otherwise, enjoy. Part 2 is on the way.

The darkest day of my life was my 37th birthday.

Which didn't make any sense, on the face of it.

20 years ago, I was living in the park in San Francisco, panhandling for travel money, and routinely shaving my head to get rid of lice. 10 years ago I'd checked into rehab on the state's dime, after blacking out and wrecking a van that belonged to a guy who'd been unwise enough to give me a job.

At 37, I hadn't had a drink in a decade. I had a good job as a white paper writer for Microsoft. I was married, and our son was just entering kindergarten. We lived in a nice home in the North Seattle suburbs. I drove an older Mercedes. My life was stable. I'd arrived.

Staring at the candles burning on the cake my wife had made, listening to my little boy gleefully tell me to make a wish, I only wanted to cry. I realized I'd fucked my life up completely, and probably theirs too.

I thought I was fixing my life, at the time. So much happened so fast, once I quit drinking and doing crank and whatever else was handy. I went to rehab, went to a recovery group regularly, enrolled in college, got a job waiting tables, met a girl bartender there, started dating her.

I told her my whole story, even the part where I got high and swung both ways once in a while. She wanted to fix me. She had that much love in her heart. I wanted to be fixed. She was my best friend. The sex wasn't great, but that was alright. She wasn't really very into sex, especially after Jacob arrived, and I thought that it was just part of living sober. I had no idea what normal was. Maybe that was normal. If so, I thought, normal was worth it. I loved that the fear was over, and the chaos, and the self-hatred that went with walking up baffled and terrified day after day, sick and spiraling. And I loved Jacob, loved every minute of fatherhood, even those nights when he screamed as I walked him across the apartment floor through the wee hours.

I could have gone on like that for ever, if not for Evan. Evan is my rock climbing partner. After I got sober, I went on a mad spree of exploration of all the things I'd missed because I never felt well enough. I learned to ski, kickbox, make sushi, sail boats, anything they offered a class on at my college, I took. I joined a gym. I went to REI and took a rock climbing class and loved it so much I joined a club four years ago. I went on trips all over the Cascades near Seattle, climbing crags and sleeping in tents. I loved it, loved it all. Jenn never came. She was sweet, domestic and shy, and not very adventurous or athletic. But she encouraged me to explore all my interests. Jenn is so supportive.

Then I met Evan, climbing in a gym in Ballard. We met on a rock climbing site, looking for partners to belay with through the winter, training for the summer season. He was immediately likable. He was 32, wore short dreadlocks, had a big native whale design tattooed on one calf, and was impossibly laid back. He reminded me of the guys I'd hung around with in San Francisco, mellow hippie types who followed Phish and sold mushrooms. Except Evan, like me, had outgrown most of that. He was working as a bicycle courier while working on his PhD in literature. As a result, he was in fantastic shape.

What troubled me was that I noticed. I noticed right away, the minute he shook my hand at the counter of the gym as we introduced ourselves. I noticed he had eyes the color of river water when the sun shines through it. I noticed his high cheekbones and gold skin. I noticed the muscles in his arms when we shook hands, the tattoo, the long shadows that flickered down his calves when he walked ahead of me into the gym. I was taken aback to find myself wondering how I looked. As we chatted and got acquainted and sized each other up for skill, I was having a whole second conversation with myself in the privacy of my mind.

I had been with men during those crazy years. It had all been part of the party. Anything goes. I liked it. I'd been in three ways with girls and their men, and with just men, and with two girls. But all high. I'd never been in love, that I knew of. I loved Jenn just fine, but I'd never had the feelings you hear about in songs. I never understood why people shot each other over love, why people got so wrapped around the axle when a partner cheated. If Jenn cheated, I don't know that I would have really cared. Not that she would. She's not like that.

Sober, I was aware that once in a while I found a man attractive. It didn't bother me. After where I'd been, that was hardly shocking. I figured I was a latent bisexual and that was fine with me. I didn't plan to act on it. That part of my life was over. You make choices. I'd made mine. Responsible choices. It wasn't hard to say no to myself on the attractions I felt. No harder than it was to say no to booze, every time the thought crossed my mind.

But the level to which I found Evan attractive put me off balance. I'd never wondered how I looked before. I was glad I was in good shape, wondered if the new silver at my temples made me look old, and growled at myself for it.

We started out bouldering, climbing the low, overhanging walls without ropes, over mats. I could climb a V2 reasonably well, and the odd V3. He was a little better, conquering V3 routes easily, and grinning as he bounced off the mats on the V4 routes. People gathered to watch him work his way like a slow, upside-down crab across the underside of a ledge until he slapped the V-shaped notch of orange tape at the end of the route and worked his way down an easy route back to the mats.

"That was rad," said one skinny girl in a Prana tank top.

"Thanks," said Evan. "I nearly greased off if about 10 times. I don't even think I could do it again."

We roped up, and he belayed me up a 10.2 route. The thing I love about climbing is that I forget everything else when I do it. When you are 30 feet above the canvas and only touching the wall on two surfaces the size of dimes while your toe tries to get purchase on a hold the size of a pigeon's beak, all you hear is the sound of your breath. But this time, I was wondering how my ass looked. It's a wonder I didn't fall off. But I was motivated to look good, and I topped out.

"Take!" I called.

"Got you!" he called back, and I rappelled back down, breathless and triumphant.

I knew he could have smoked the route with little effort, but he was completely delighted with my success. The more I climbed with him, the more I liked his easy self-confidence and generosity, and his boyish enthusiasm about whatever was before him. I could tell he was well liked at the gym, too. The desk people chatted him up and he introduced me to a couple other guys he climbed with the summer prior.

As we wrapped it up, I told him I'd had a great time.

"Yeah, you too," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder. "You want to make it regular? We should train like hell, dude, and then we should hit Index this summer, what do you think? And climb all the cracks. And then we should hit Peshastin. You ever climb the pinnacles? I love the pinnacles. And then, hey! We could go to Utah! Do you ever get any time off? I take summer quarter off."

"Summer quarter?" He told me about his academic life, and I got so fascinated talking about his studies at the University of Washington that we were still standing there when the desk guys got ready to lock up.

"You want to get a beer?" said Evan.

"I don't drink, but I'll get a coffee," I said.

"You don't drink?" he said. And that started a 20-minute conversation in the parking lot that ended up with us both laughing and agreeing to meet in five minutes at an Irish Bar on Fremont Street.

I noticed he drove a Volvo station wagon with band and political bumper stickers all over it. I almost felt bad about my establishment Mercedes, and missed my old Nissan with the Fugazi stickers. At least I had an Obama/Biden sticker on. I wasn't all that establishment.

We nearly shut the Owl down, talking about our lives and school. He noticed my ring, and I told him the whole story, panhandling as a runaway teen and the madness that followed, the short trips to jail for drunk driving and selling weed, the crash, the rehab, Jenn, little Jacob. I half thought the story would put him off, but he was charmingly impressed with how I'd turned my life around.

He then said something that turned my blood cold.

"I sort of did the same stuff as a kid, not quite that hard core, but some. And I hitchhiked around the country a lot. When I was 20 I went to college and got my bachelors in English. Then I got in a relationship. It lasted until three years ago. He left. I kind of spun out for a while, there."

"He?" My heart kicked in my chest. I was baffled by it. What was it doing? Why should it matter?

"Yeah. He. I'm gay," said Evan, slightly coloring and not looking at me.

"That's cool," I said. "But it must make it harder to find anyone else. Smaller pool to fish in."

Evan darted a relieved glance at me.

"Well, I guess it will be. I haven't been looking. I took it pretty hard. I'm just starting to feel normal again. We were together 10 years."

I listened to him talk about it, about how the man, ten years older than he, had taught him rock climbing, among other things, how they'd bought a house together and how they'd had to go to court to split it all up when the man left for another. I was suddenly teetering on the edge of a cliff. All I had to do was say I'd been with men before, too. That's all it would take to put it in play. That's all it would take to jeopardize everything I had. I stayed silent. I'm an addict. I like risk. Part of me still craves chaos. But in 10 years, I'd gotten good at ignoring that part of me. I ignored it then. I kept my mouth shut.

We agreed to meet the next week, and after that, we hung out a lot. He had a cool apartment in the U District, a studio with lots of plants and souvenirs from his travels in Central America. He came out and met Jenn and Jacob, and Jacob loved him and demanded all his attention. Jenn liked him too, and fed him gumbo. Jenn is a good cook. I never told Jenn he was gay. She wouldn't have thought less of him. But I kept it to myself.

We climbed all that summer, and talked about everything except his personal life. He never brought it up, and I was afraid to ask. I couldn't go there, I could not, but I was horrified at the thought he'd find another man. I would belay him up a crack near North Bend, watching him shirtless and dreadlocked in the sun, and think that no harm would come of the fact I thought he was beautiful.

Then we went to Utah. We planned the trip for late September, when the days would be tolerably hot. We loaded up his Volvo with bikes on the roof rack for some slick rock riding and took off down the highway. I felt freer than I ever felt before in my life, singing along with Dave Matthews with the window rolled down and his shaggy black mutt of a retriever stomping his paws in my lap trying to stick his nose out into the wind.

We arrived in Moab, Utah the next evening and learned form a bartender where we could find free camping up the Colorado River. We pitched my REI half dome tent in the dark in the soft, warm sand, listening to bats squeak over the rustle of tamarisk trees. We made a little campfire for the glow of it and sat as he sipped a Corona and I drank a Red Bull.

We raved up the campsite, raved up the scenery we'd seen, raved up the drive and the cool, funky town of Moab, the food we'd gotten at the Brew Pub we'd hit.

"That's what I love about you," he said. "You are easily pleased. It makes you really fun to hang with."

"That was the first thing I loved about you," I said. We were suddenly on slightly new turf. "I'm half the climber you are, but you acted like I was Sharma."

"You're a great climber," he said. "Don't sell yourself short. But you sure have been great to hang with this summer. I'm glad I signed up to find a climbing partner that day."

"Me, too." I said.

"I was really afraid it was going to put you off when I told you I was gay," he said. "I almost didn't tell you. But then it becomes a secret, and I never really want that to be a secret."

And I went ahead and said it.

"Back when I was drinking and partying, I'd been with guys," I said. "So I was hardly appalled."

"You were?" There was a pitch to his voice that I could tell was involuntary. Muscles in my midsection started to cramp. My hands shook a little.

"Yeah. It was all part of that party scene, in San Francisco. I got tested and I came up negative, thank God, but I certainly don't have a problem with it. I don't regret it. I'm not ashamed of it. The only thing I regret was when I let myself get used in ways I didn't want to be used. It happened a couple times, older guys, I was a kid. But for the most part, I was just exploring. I had a good time. No one got hurt."

"God. I had no idea."

"Well, I would have mentioned it, but I didn't want to introduce that element to our friendship."

I just had. That went unspoken.

"You were afraid I'd hit on you?"

"No. I was afraid I'd hit on you."

"And that wouldn't do. You are happy now."

"I have a family. I have a hard-won integrity. I didn't want to risk any of that."

"Should we be having this conversation?" he asked, with a short laugh. "We're getting ready to crawl into a tent in a minute."

"You're right," I said. "I love our friendship. I don't want to fuck it up. I kept thinking you'd find another guy and then it would be safe to mention it."

"Yeah, well, I haven't really been looking," he said. We were silent a long while. I was occurring to me that I might have already fucked it up.

"I think I can restrain myself, though," I said lightly, at last. "So don't worry about the tent."

"I believe I can, too," he said. "Although how you can keep your mitts off a hunk like me is beyond understanding."

We broke into laughter, maybe laughed too hard. And I lay awake and listened to him lie awake in silence until sometime just before dawn. We had two more nights to get through, and we'd be back home and safely in separate beds.

In the morning light, Utah was fantastic. It was the most colorful place I'd ever been. In the searing light of the Utah sun, it was possible to ignore the conversation of the previous night. Not easy, but possible. We climbed all day until the sun sank, then headed to Moab for dinner, stopping at a brightly painted hostel outside town for showers.

The tension returned at dinner. I found we weren't making eye contact. We rode in silence back to the campsite. I got out of the car.

"Well, we need to talk," I said.

"That's a fact," he said. "Let's take Hamlet to the river."

His dog splashed and ran as we walked along the edge of the Colorado.

"I should not have opened that door last night," I said. "The truth is, I think it brought us to a place where we need to acknowledge we have feelings for each other. Am I wrong?"

Yeah, I was scared. It was like going above my hardware on a 10.1 climb. A fall would hurt. But he caught me. We talked slowly, the way men do when they are trying to find words for feelings.

"No. You are not wrong. You are, in fact, the reason I am not looking for another man right now. I can't bring myself to do it. I can't see past you. It's insane. I like Jenn. I would never break up your home. I know you could never do it, either. Part of the reason I'm in love with you is your integrity. I know you can't do this. I know. But it's killing me."

My face was burning. I felt a little sick.

"I can't. I can't. But I've never felt like this for anyone. Not Jenn, not anyone. I didn't even know I could. But if I do something to make myself hate myself, I'm likely to drink. And that could kill me."

We stopped walking, and I felt the silence grow around us, like the moment before lightning strikes. I felt him next to me, the warm bulk of his compact body. And I turned. And he turned. We were so close, too close. We were caught in each other's magnetic field.

I remember the soft squeak of bats and the rush of the river as his arms came around me and his lips came to mine. I pushed away thoughts of anything outside his arms and kissed him back. At first it was soft, gentle. I felt the muscles of his hard back through his thin shirt under my hands, moving, and we stepped in closer to each other. Part of my mind was screaming that I was train wrecking everything, everything, my family, my home, my little boy's life, my sobriety even, maybe, but it was already happening.

I ran my hand up his back into the rope-like tangle of his dreadlocks, now shoulder length, cupped his beautiful face in my hands. We pulled apart and he gazed at me in wonder, and I gazed back.

There was nothing to say, so we returned to the kiss, and now I felt his tongue. That makes me instantly crazy. Our breath grew loud and I felt him harden against me. I was hard as stone. His hands cupped my ass and pulled me against him, that hard ridge. I pulled his head against my mouth, moaned against his tongue, felt his chest rising and falling against mine. We tore apart again.

"Oh, my God, Mickey, what do we do?" he said, and tipped his head back and stared at the sky. "Oh fuck, I want you. I want you so much." He jumped when my hand went to that hard ridge, long and thick in his cargo shorts. I rubbed the length of it, just once, slid my hand down, cupped his balls, the soft bulk of them.

"I don't know," I said. "I want you, too. I've wanted you a long time."

"Wait, wait, wait, we got to think about this," he said and took my arm and nearly yanked me around till I was standing beside him. "Come on, walk with me. Walk. We've got to think."

I stumbled along in the dark beside him, the trail a thin white thread in the moonlight. I didn't want to think, because thinking wasn't going to take me anywhere I wanted to go. All I wanted was to go back to that tent, get naked with him, and try this thing. I could see him in my mind with nothing on but that hemp necklace with the single bead in the center, that thin line of hair down his chest.

But I know what happens when I do what feels good now and ignore the next day.

"Mickey, are you even gay?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said. "I think we've established I'm not terribly straight. I don't know."

"Well, what's it like between you and Jenn?"

"Shit. Boring. Not exciting. I've never felt with her what I just felt with you. I've never felt for her what I feel for you. I've never felt that for anyone."

He nodded, frowning at the ground.

"Have you ever been in love?"

"No. I've had crushes here and there."

"On men?"

"Yes. This one drug dealer had a kind of vampire-like charm. I was fascinated with him for a while when I was 20. He was beautiful, long black hair, pale face. Black eyes. Flamboyant."


I thought.

"No, not really," I said. "Not that I can think of."

"Have you ever been turned on by a woman?"

"Sure. I've had sex with them. They're alright." I shrugged. "It's like jacking off, I guess."

"When you fantasize, is it a guy you think of?"

"It's always been guys," I said. "Lately it's always been you."

"You're gay."

"I guess you're right," I said. I was stunned. How could I have never realized such a fundamental thing about myself? Of course I was gay! I thought those fantasies were just fun because they were kinky, a little exotic. I thought because I could do it with a woman, I was only a non-practicing bisexual. "What the fuck have I done? Poor Jenn! My kid! I can't be gay! Even if I am, how can I just lay that on them? Hi, sweetie, sorry, guess I overlooked a detail about myself when we got married! Oh, I had a great time on my trip, hon, you'll never believe what happened!"

"I don't want you to drink over this," said Evan. "I know you told me it's guilt that makes you want to drink. And despair. That's why you have to avoid either one."

"Looks like I better learn to live with one or the other." I felt tears come and looked away. I didn't fool Evan, though. He stopped walking.

"Oh, Mickey, come here," he said, and hauled me into his arms. He was a little taller than I, and my face rested on his shoulder. I gave in and broke down, crying onto his chest. He wrapped me in his arms and I felt the ropes of his dreads against my face. "It's okay, babe, it's alright," he said. "You didn't know. That's fair. That's not your fault. You didn't know."

"But I can't ruin my kid's home just because I decided it was okay to fall in love with someone besides Jenn," I said through my tears. "It doesn't make any difference it was a guy. I can't do that to Jacob. My god, he starts kindergarten next week. He's so excited. I can't wreck his home."

He began to rock me gently.

"Look, babe, we just had our first kiss," he said. "It's not like we have to make any decisions, okay? It was just a kiss."

"Evan, that's a nice try, but we just told each other we're in love with each other," I said. "It's a little more serious than that."

"You really are in love with me?" he said so hesitantly it broke my heart.

"Yes. Oh yes," I said. "God, Evan, I wish I'd met you ten years ago. You're perfect. You are the perfect human being. You are funny, and honest, and we like all the same stuff. We have the same values. You're educated, beautiful, my God, you are beautiful, I could watch you climb with your shirt off every day for the rest of my life. I don't ever want to be anywhere but where you are. I sit there at Microsoft fighting myself for every word I type, trying not to think of you. Its pathetic."

"If it wasn't for you, I'd have finished my dissertation by now," he said. "I'm not interested in anything but you."

I backed out of his arms.

"We should go back," I said. "We're out of trail." The trail disappeared into the brush just ahead.

He turned and took my hand, and the mere feel of it, holding mine, was more erotic than any contact I'd ever had with Jenn. We slowly walked back, holding hands like a couple, and I wondered what it meant.

"Love dies, you know," said Evan. "Maybe if we wait long enough, it will die of its own accord. What if you threw your family over and moved into my studio and three years later you decided it had all been a mistake and I wasn't who you thought I was?"

"What if I never know?" I said. "That will be it, till the end of my life, wondering if I threw away my one chance at a real love. Looking at my kid, wondering if his happiness had been worth it. Wondering if he could have been happy anyway. Wondering if I'd had the right to seek happiness and not known it."

"We need to think about it," said Evan. "I would never want you to regret coming to me. I want you to come to me with no reservations, if that time ever comes."

"Do you fantasize about me, then?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," he said with that laugh that lets you know it's an understatement. "Yep. Every night. I've jacked off thinking of you more than you'd believe."

"What do you fantasize I do?"

"I think of your legs around my waist. I think of you screaming my name as you get off. I think of your cock in my mouth." I scorched. He shoved me lightly with his shoulder. "I think of breakfast with you. I think of you telling me you love me. I think of you topping me, think of how good you would feel to have you inside me, think of you getting off that way. What do you think of?"

"All of that. More. I imagine you under me, looking up at me. Your eyes are so beautiful. Did you know that? I imagine how tight you would be. I imagine swallowing for you. How your whole body would shake, as I did that for you. I imagine sleeping curled up with you. I imagine your nose on the back of my neck, feeling you breathe."

He groaned. The tent came into view. We walked into camp, and stopped, still holding hands. I bent to the fire ring, picked up my matches, lit the fire and then turned and lit the lantern hanging from the nearby tree.

"Well, how do you propose we get through the night?" I said. He folded his arms, golden in the lamplight, eyes reflecting the orange flame. Then he turned, leaned into the tent, and re-emerged dragging both our sleeping bags. He dropped one on each side the fire and folded his arms again.

"I can't go to your house and say Hi to Jenn and play horsie with Jacob knowing I've made you come," he said.

Later, zipped into our bags, we gazed at each other past the flames.

"What do you think you'll do?" he said.

"I don't know," I said. "I'm going to call my sponsor. That's an older AA member. Sort of a mentor. You call them when you're stuck or freaking out. Mine's name is Marcel. He's black. He lived on the streets for years. Nothing shocks him. I picked him for my sponsor because he used to trick when he was a junkie. I'll ask his advice."

"We have to go home tomorrow, you know."

"I know. I'm not strong enough to make it another night."

"Are you going to jack off tonight?" he suddenly asked, smiling.

"Yeah. After you go to sleep." i said.

"How bad would it be if I watched?" he said.

It would be bad. But not as bad as anything else I'd come very close to doing that day. It would be like being 13 again, jacking off with friends behind the bleachers. I unzipped the bag. He propped his head up on a hand, lion-like dreads spilling down one muscular arm, fascination in his ocean-colored eyes.

I slid my shorts off. I was already hard.

"Your shirt, too," he said, lifting his chin. I laughed and tugged it off and lay naked in the firelight.

"Holy shit," he said. "Your better than I imagined, even. You're hung, too!"

He always did see me in a better light than I saw myself. It wasn't that big. I measured it once. Who hasn't? It's about 7 inches. It probably was a little bigger right then, though. I took it in my hand and began to stroke it, the way I had a million times, thinking of him. His eyes on me felt like a touch.

"That is a staggeringly gorgeous sight," he said with feeling.

"Tell me what you'd do if you could," I said.

"I'd suck on that," he said. "I'd lick that spot right under the head. I'd take it down my throat. I'd squeeze your balls and stroke that spot right behind them. I'd start slow and I'd go faster and faster. I'd get it wet and stroke it with my hand, too. I'd listen to you to learn what made you feel best and do more of that. When you came I'd swallow it all. Then I'd kiss you, if you like that. Or I'd just hold you and tell you I love you and tell you how beautiful and amazing and brave I think you are. How your lust for life makes me more excited about living mine."

"I'm going to..."

He came up onto his arm. "Yeah, baby, let me see, God, that's beautiful, you are so fucking hot."

I came hard, gasping, jetting across my chest. "Oh, fuck," I said. "God that was amazing." I grabbed my shirt and wiped myself off and tossed it away. "Let me watch you."

He tore his eyes from my cock and looked into my eyes for a moment.

"Alright," he said and unzipped his bag. I watched him strip his cargo shorts off and pull off his Prana tank. His body was the most beautiful body I've ever seen on a man, golden and rippling, hard and well-muscled, perfectly proportioned. The hair on his body was darker than his golden dreadlocked head. There was a tapering vee of hair on his chest that trailed to his body. His cock was thick, long, heavy. He looked me in the eye and began to touch it. It was unbearably erotic. God, I wanted to touch it.

"Evan, you have no idea," I said. "You are the most beautiful thing God ever made."

He smiled, looked a little breathless, his aqua eyes excited and a little shy. "You like that?" he said.

"The only way I could possibly like it more is if I was sucking it," I said.

"I'd like that, too," he said. "I'd tell you how good you made me feel. I'd tell you how great you looked with my cock in your mouth."

"I'd give you the blow job of your life," I said. "I'd touch your whole body. I'd grab your ass and pull you all the way in, until my nose was in your pubic hair."

He gasped and leaned his head back.

"Do you bottom?" he said.

"I do both," I said. "I'd bottom for you, if you wanted. I'd wrap my legs around your waist and feel that big cock slide all the way in and tighten it up so you could feel me grab you. I'd look into those sea-colored eyes of yours and tell you that you looked like a God, fucking me. I'd tell you you were the most amazing, beautiful lover any man every had, and that I was so lucky to have the opportunity to know you and hold you and kiss you and feel you inside me that I'd never ask another thing of life but that."

He did look like a pagan god in the firelight, perfect in form, stroking his cock, and I could tell he was close.

"You want me to come?" he asked.

"God, baby, come for me, let me see," I said. He threw his head back and his body bucked and he shot, hard, all the way to the his necklace. Incredibly, he opened his eyes and looked into my mine, half focused, as he finished. "Mickey," he said. "Oh, Mickey."

A few minutes later he sponged himself off with his shirt, too.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you," I said. I reached my arm as far toward him as I could. He reached out, too, and our fingers barely touched.