I never knew what to think when he woke up like that. He never wanted to acknowledge the writhing or screaming in his sleep, or his sweat-soaked sheets. He just mumbled ‘nightmare’, but I know he never went back to sleep. I could always see him, sitting on his bed, leaning against the wall, watching me sleep across the room. Or try to sleep. I never got back to dreamland either.
And at first, that was it. The next day we pretended like it never happened. Then, once, he took the day off work because I had given up pretending to sleep and we stayed up playing crazy eights and drinking Fresca. Too tired to work, he called in sick. I didn’t have the luxury. He followed me to the book store and camped out in the back with the latest Writer’s Digest, his journal and a stack of Archie comics. After that, he never went to work following the dream. He’d take a day, then two, then three, then the rest of the week, and always, he’d sit in the stuffed chair in the reading area at the store, drink coffee, read, write and occasionally dust a shelf or two if the mood struck. Last month, it happened on a Monday, and he’d been a wreck for two days. I’d even taken a day that time, afraid to leave him alone, though I couldn’t tell you why.
The next time it happened, I don’t quite know what woke me. Unlike most times, he didn’t make much noise. He was running, though, his blanket kicked mostly to the floor, and a dark puddle stained the sheets. Not sweat this time. I padded over to wake him, and the quality of the scream he emitted at my touch was horrific. I’d never believed a scream could curdle blood until that moment.
He shot upright, drenched, his green eyes wild, and for a count of ten, he saw nothing in the real world.
I sat on the edge of the bed. It shuddered under his shaking. “Hey.”
Gentle, I told myself; soft, careful. He scared me when he got like this.
His eyes focused. “You.” The word came out more a croak than anything else.
He touched my chest and I stiffened. I know I did, but he didn’t seem to notice. The next thing I knew he crumpled against me.
“Hey?” I said again, because what else does one say in such a situation? I knew he was crying. I don’t know if he knew, exactly. That was the first time I’d seen a grown man cry. Men don’t cry where I grew up. I would never have done so in front of my brothers or father.
I don’t know how long we sat there, him drenched in his own sweat and piss and tears, but I couldn’t rush him. Eventually, the shaking turned to shivering. Our apartment didn’t have the best heating in the city. I tried to pull the comforter up around his shoulders, but the movement seemed to bring him back from wherever he’d been.
“Oh.” Realization set in. “Oh, God.” He wouldn’t look at me as he pulled away and turned from me so had a view only of the top of his head, with its brown hair sleep-mussed and his shoulders curled around into a ball. He very carefully would not touch me now.
“Ryan.” I touched his bare shoulder, but he flinched away. We both slept in boxers and I could tell from his reaction all the bare skin made him uncomfortable.
“Don’t.” He wanted me to move. He wanted space. He wanted to pretend the smell wasn’t overwhelming and obvious, that it was just a bad dream like any other.
I stood. He didn’t, but he shivered violently so I tossed the comforter over his shoulders and crossed the room to the bathroom. Because it was the only place I could shut the door and give him privacy, I went inside and used the toilet, then turned on the hot water in the tub. It always took a minute to run the cold down the drain before the heat kicked in. The downside of a third floor view was slow hot water. When it finally did run hot, I pulled the tab on the tap and the shower sprang to life with a loud, air-in-the-pipes groan. I pulled the curtain closed, opened the door and tilted my head. Ryan had stripped his bed already, and the washer was filling slowly with water in the kitchen.
“Leave that,” I said.
He looked at the floor.
“Go get warm. I’ll do that.”
He looked miserable, embarrassed, like he wanted to cry again, which I imagined he might, once safely behind a closed, locked door. Or did I project that because in his shoes, I most likely would? But then, I’ve always done my crying behind closed, locked doors.
Once the door shut and the lock snicked into place, I breathed. I had been unaware, up to then, that I hadn’t been. I found my jeans, slung over the back of the wooden chair beside my bed, and pulled them on. They were the slightly too tight ones, so I left the top button open, but covered it with my shirt.
Ryan was an odd mix of a man. I was pretty sure he’d been scared straight at some distant point in his past. I was equally sure he would come to realize, one day, that he wasn’t really. Again, I might have been projecting. I might have been wishfully thinking. I’d stopped trying to figure it out years ago.
Twisting the washer dial to cold, I added the soap, well aware he usually forgot that step, and stuffed in his sheets. Spraying with air freshener would have been far too obvious, so I settled for brewing a pot of hazelnut coffee. He liked it best, and it was aromatic. I would open a window later, once the sun came up. I glanced at the clock. Three eighteen.
It had spun round well past four when he finally emerged. I poured steamed milk into his mug and he leaned on the counter and watched as I scooped foam on top and sprinkled it with chocolate. We might not be able to heat the place properly, but I’d be damned if I would live without a decent espresso machine. He took the drink and for a while sipped in silence.
“Are you going to be extra nice all day?”
I left him in the kitchen and sat at one end of the couch, cross-legged, my back against the high arm. I said nothing, knowing it best to let him work these things out of his system.
“I don’t want this to become a big thing.” He felt more comfortable standing behind me, so I stared out the windows over our beds rather than turning to look at him. “O.K.?”
“Just a dream,” I agreed mildly. I closed my eyes, drew my cup close to my face so the steam could heat my cold nose, so I could breathe the scent of hazelnuts and chocolate, so I could imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like if he actually let me help him for a change.
The springs on the couch groaned. The cushions shifted, raising me up about an inch as he settled at the opposite end. I hadn’t heard him move across the floor at all. Amazing that a person so large, so able to fill a room, could move so quietly. It was incredible that he could look so frighteningly vulnerable just by sitting tightly against the arm of an old couch.
I measured the space between us with my eyes. I did that a lot. Two feet. Air could be so solid sometimes. “Are you ever going to tell me what you dream about?” I ventured this every third or fourth time. I always got the same answer. I waited for him to tell me he didn’t remember.
Very occasionally, Ryan can surprise me. I have spent the past five or so years studying him, so the occasions come fewer and further between all the time. This time, he made me sit up a little straighter.
“Me.” Not quite sure what else to say, I waited, acutely aware that my hands gripped my mug tight enough to squeeze the blood out of my fingertips and knuckles, leaving them white against the dark ceramic. What to say to a man whose dreams of me left him screaming and pissing himself. Not exactly the wet dream I had hoped for. “Care to elaborate?”
He put his cup down on a stack of Men’s Health, and the solid air between us got pushed aside as he moved a little closer, then a lot closer. In a peculiar defensive move I’ve owned since childhood, I raised my knees and slouched until I could peer over them, like peeking out of a fort in the snow, waiting to get nailed.
“I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,” he began, and I wondered what way that could be, but I held my tongue. I fiercely wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. He and I went back far enough. A virtual stranger when he’d moved in here, he’d helped me through a long and horridly painful convalescence without ever asking for anything in return. The least I could do was hold my sarcasm in check for two minutes.
“It’s the night you got…” he was staring at the hole in the knee of my jeans. In fact, he picked at one of the frayed cuffs, and I pulled my leg away, making him aware of that very not straight action. He blushed and slumped back against the lumpy pillows.
“The night I got the shit kicked out of me,” I supplied.
“I should have stopped it.”
“You didn’t know.”
“It was my job to know.”
“You hated that job.” He nodded agreement. “Because you worked in a gay bar.” He looked at me, then shrugged that shrug that people shrug when they agree with you but are too embarrassed or ashamed to agree out loud. “Which is why you never went into the bathrooms.” For far too long, neither of us spoke, but eventually, someone had to break the silence. “Look, I never blamed you, OK?”
“Then you’re the only one.”
“Aren’t I the one that counts?” With an effort, I lowered my legs.
He nodded, but I could see he only humoured me. A hundred things I could have said about his sexuality, about why he took the job in the first place, about why a guy like him never went into the bathrooms in a gay bar crossed my mind. In the past five years, I’d had thousands of opportunities to say them. I hadn’t done so. I didn’t now. That I thought them made me feel bad enough. Guilt does funny things. “Tell me about the dreams.”
I stared at him. Forget it? Was he kidding? “Do you honestly think,” I began, angry now, though it amazed me I could keep my voice calm. He looked at me at last, which shot the comment I was about to make out the window. I bit my lip and changed tack. “Do you honestly think,” I said again, a little more gently, “that anything you could confess to me would be something I hadn’t already heard or thought of?”
“You don’t know,” he said. He had on his miserable face again, and it unnerved me because he only ever wore it when he thought I wasn’t looking. I was always looking, though. He just hadn’t figured that out yet.
And he would have too, if the washer hadn’t picked that exact moment to self-destruct all over the cracked linoleum of the kitchen floor.
There’s never a right moment for true confessions, never a convenient time for appliance floods, and there is never a good day to stop kidding yourself about being in love with your roommate. And when that roommate is straight, or wants desperately to believe, for whatever reason, that he’s straight, there is never, ever going to be a time to tell him how you feel. The best you can hope for on a day when all these things come to a head at once, is that there is someone you can call to repair the appliance. Sadly, there’s no help for a heart with a slow bleed.
I hung up the phone and tossed it on the couch to find standing there in his grey slacks and tube socks and nothing else. Honestly. It was getting harder to ignore. He had no clue that a person is only human. I turned my back and pulled the covers up over my bed. “Are you going to work?”
In a one room apartment, even one as big as ours, there was no room for messy beds or unrequited sexual yearnings.
“I thought I’d tag along with you.”
I nodded. I wanted him close, and I wanted to get away. “The repair guy can’t make it until tonight anyway. I’m going to clean up.” Escape to the bathroom was my only option. Once inside with the door closed and locked, I turned the radio up. Loud. There was no need to advertise his affect on me. I tried not to reflect on how much of my stunted emotional life I spent behind a locked bathroom door.
I was just turning on the water to clean up the sticky residue of my pathetic love life when he knocked on the door. There’s nothing like a guilty start when you’re the only one there to see it.
“What?” That was definitely more irritated than it needed to be.
“We’re going to be late.” We? He didn’t even work there. I realized I was irritated because I was coming to the end of my rope. I had the sudden urge to fling the door open and point. This is what you do to me, you see? But he jiggled the handle and the urge fled. Instead, I tried to scramble into the tub and pull the curtain closed. Big mistake. Even after five years, I could forget. My left knee buckled. Knees generally do not stand up to encounters with combat boots. Mine had never held my full weight after that night. I felt the fall coming, and there was nothing I could do. Half in and half out of the tub, I had nothing to grab onto but the curtain, which was unequal to the task of holding up a hundred and fifty odd pounds headed for the floor–the very hard tile floor.
Thankfully, even naked bodies do not fall quietly. “Fuck.” That was quiet. Ryan pounding on the door was not. “Fuck.” I couldn’t move. If I moved, my knee screamed, my right shoulder just wouldn’t lift my right arm, my head threatened to fall off, and my left wrist refused to push me off the cold hard tiles. I was vaguely aware that it hurt quite a bit.
“What?” Things were swimming around my head. I must have hit it on something.
“Are you ok?”
Does ‘help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’, mean anything to you? All I said out loud was “No.”
“I’m coming in.” I couldn’t even reach a towel to cover myself. Fuck. So I lay back and waited while he wrestled with the door handle. There was a loud cracking sound, and the door opened abruptly. I almost had to laugh because he still didn’t have a shirt on. The first thing he did was throw a towel over me. He really wasn’t a bad guy. He knelt beside me, and it occurred to me that this was where we had started. Me lying on a bathroom floor bleeding, and him administering first aid. Thank god he knew first aid.
“I’m going to lift your head a bit.”
I nodded. I was having a hard time looking at him. I settled for gazing at the freckles sprinkled across his chest as he gently worked his fingers through my hair.
“Pretty ugly crack.” He placed my head back very carefully and moved on to my wrist. He tried to hide the blood on his fingers, but I kind of knew it would be there. “Broken.” I could have told him that. He didn’t touch the knee. He looked, but didn’t touch. That was a bad sign. I already knew my shoulder was dislocated. Only I could do this much damage to myself slipping in the tub.
“OK.” He waited, which I knew from experience meant he wanted me to look at him. I did.
“I have to call an ambulance.”
I nodded again, and things swam a little more. His gaze moved from mine to where the towel lay across me. “Do you want…” He swallowed. “Do you want me to…” I couldn’t make him say it, so I just nodded.
He left. I prayed for death. Or at least the oblivion of passing out. He came back with a warm, damp cloth and a pair of shorts from my drawer. Very carefully, because my neck and shoulders were beginning to kink up from lying on the cold tiles, I turned my face away from him and rested my cheek on the claw of the tub. That was probably about the time I went into shock, because I really don’t remember much after that.
Nothing about my condition was life threatening. Unless you consider humiliation life threatening. Soon enough, maybe too soon for my fragile ego, I was back home, splinted and bandaged and wrapped in quilts on the couch. I regretted now that we’d never bothered with a tv, that I’d never taught Ryan how to make a decent café latte, but mostly. I regretted my lack of medical insurance. Independent business owners have to buy their own medical insurance. I was a notorious procrastinator, and the first time I’d been laid up had bled me dry. Five years had not given me much chance to replenish my savings, and insurance companies want a lot of money to insure gay men who suffering from chronic pain due to the risky behaviour of being who they are.
I was poking despondently at the thick stack of folded papers on the coffee table when Ryan came home from work. He handed me a latte in a paper cup and a grin.
“How’s my invalid?” I sincerely liked being called his anything, so I could overlook him calling me an invalid.
“Bored?” He pushed the stack of medical bills out of my reach.
“You have no idea.”
“Well, I brought you something.” He handed me a package, suspiciously book shaped. I made a face at him as he sat on the coffee table. “Open it.”
“Ryan, I own a book store.”
“I know.” He had that look that meant he’d done something sneaky and was quite proud of himself. I imagined opening it to find the Zen of Self Love, or something. He had that kind of sense of humour. Well, it was my own fault. I opened it.
When I was ten or eleven years old, I read To Kill A Mockingbird. I’ve read many books since then. Thousands, probably. I’ve never found one I loved more. I could think of nothing to say as I gazed at the hardcover copy in my hands. He shifted.
“It’s not the first edition, or anything,” he pointed out, opening the volume. His finger touched the title page. “But it’s signed.”
I could have kissed him.
“Oh,” he pulled something from his back pocket. “Paperback. Thought you might want a working day copy.” He held it out, but I was too overwhelmed to take it. “You know, so you can read it.”
“Yeah, I get it.”
“What ‘s wrong?” He was frowning at me, suddenly too vulnerable; afraid he’d done something wrong.
“Nothing.” I closed the book and placed it in my lap. There was nothing wrong. Everything was right. He was right. Everything he did was right. Everything except stay inside that bubble of space I couldn’t break. “I want to know,” I said at last.
He shook his head in confusion. “Know what?”
“The dream.” His face went very still. I pushed myself up straighter, trying not to wince. Things still hurt, but my head was clear. I was very careful about pain killers. I’d rather be in pain than on drugs. “I want to know what it is about me that scares you so much.”
“What makes you think I’m scared?” His tone was angry. Angry was his default when things got too touchy.
I pressed on. I had nothing left to lose. He’d have to be an idiot not to know after the bathroom incident how I felt. I knew he was no idiot.
“I’m here when you wake up. I see the look in your eyes.” I pulled my shirt up, baring my chest and the white puckered patches of skin that dotted my abdomen. “I know fear.”
Ryan does not touch people. He never has, as long as I’ve known him, touched anyone but me, and then, only when I need something like a fresh bandage, or CPR. The one time he fell into my arms, he hadn’t really been aware of doing it. Now he reached across the infinite space of a foot and touched the scar on my abdomen that we both knew was the deepest; the one that penetrated skin and muscle and slipped between ribs into the organs below. That had been the one that nearly killed me. He heaved a breath into his lungs, as though just touching the scar that had collapsed mine might have the same effect on him.
“It’s not you I’m afraid of,” he admitted at last.
“What then?” I was mesmerized by his fingers skimming over my skin from scar to scar as though he’d never laid eyes on them before. As though he hadn’t changed the dressings on them, rubbed ointment into them. I couldn’t stop the shudder and he pulled his hand away.
“In the dream, I never get to you in time. No matter how hard I try, I never make it.”
I met his eyes, green and luminescent. It is eerie to know that in the universe of a person’s dreams, you are dead; that you die there, over and over, maybe every night. It is worse when that person is the person you would actually be willing to die for. It left me with very little to say. Nothing, in fact. He stood up, but instead of walking away, which was what I expected, he perched on the narrow edge of couch beside me. Not only did I have nothing to say, I was finding it extremely hard to breathe, suddenly.
“I thought,” he paused, and I waited. “When I heard the crash, when you fell,” The phone rang. “Shit.” He looked over as it rang a second time, picked it up and pressed talk. I made a noise and even I don’t know what it meant, but he just pressed the button again and tossed the phone back on the table. “There’s something about me you should know.”
“OK.” I wanted it to sound encouraging, but his proximity was messing with my ability to be coherent.
“If you weren’t a guy,”
“What?” he was confused by my sudden anger.
“Just don’t, OK? I am a guy, so there’s no point in saying anything else.”
I very desperately wanted him to move, to get up, to put the wall of space back between us. “Maybe you should go for a walk or something.” My way of telling him it is what I would do right now, were I able.
“Fine.” He stood and looked down at me. “All I was going to say was that if you weren’t a guy, the dream would make more sense. The way I feel would make more sense.”
“It makes perfect sense to me,” I spat the words at him, and he looked genuinely surprised.
“Yeah, but you’re a–,” I don’t know what my face looked like. I know those words, especially the one he clamped his teeth over to keep it from escaping, were like the knives of strangers all over again.
“Just get out.”
“I didn’t mean–”
I threw the book at him. The precious book he bought because he loved me and didn’t know how else to show it, I threw at him. Maybe that was like the knives for him, because he turned abruptly and left. The heavy door sliding closed was, perhaps, the most final sound I’d heard in a long time.
By ten o’clock, when he didn’t come home, I started calling everyone we knew. No one had seen him. By midnight, I was hungry. The kitchen might as well have been ten miles away as ten feet. I had to call someone, so I called Jason. I’ve known Jason my whole life. When I was fourteen and he was sixteen, he’d graphically demonstrated the difference to me between us and them, and I don’t mean guys and girls. We hadn’t slept together since, and he was the one person in the world I knew I could trust.
“Do you know what time it is?” He was trying to sound groggy, so I knew he had someone with him.
“Jay, I need you,”
“I think I screwed up.”
There was a heavy sigh over the line, and in the background someone whispered something that sounded like ‘just hang up’.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
The phone clicked and I hung up, checking the light to see if, in the ten seconds I had been on the phone to Jason, he had called. He hadn’t.
The apartment where we live is odd. The floors are worn, the plaster, under the nice clean paint I’d applied, is cracked, the beds are rickety under their Egyptian cotton and down comforters. The kitchen is state of the art. Both Ryan and I love to cook. When Jason arrived, he tossed a bag of what smelled like Chinese takeout on the coffee table.
“Did you call his sister?” he asked, after a quick glance around told him I was still alone in the apartment. Of course. That was where he would go.
He was unrolling the top of the paper bag as he spoke. “Well, why don’t you?”
I looked at my watch. “It’s almost one in the morning.” His sister would not appreciate a call at one o’clock in the morning. She would never appreciate a call from me.
“OK.” For a moment, he left the bag alone to look at me. “Tell me what happened.”
“I threw a book at him.”
“He walked out because you threw a book at him?”
“He walked out because I told him to.”
Jason nodded first then shook his head. “You screwed up.” He went back to the bag and talked into it. “I thought you were in love with him.” He waited out my shock, calmly placing small cardboard boxes on the table.
“Who told you that?” I asked.
“You did.” He spared me a quick glance. “Everything you do. He might not be able to see, but for those in the know,” he made a face. “It’s pretty obvious.”
“So what do I do now?”
“And say what?”
“Look, it seems to me you have two options. You can go on the way you have been, pining and mooning and being miserable, or you can tell him.” He shrugged, handed me a set of chopsticks and a box of noodles. “If you ask me, there’s a reason he’s still here, and it ain’t the cheap rent or the fancy kitchen.”
“I used to think that too, but,”
“He said something.”
“Something that made you throw a book at him.” He paused to bite into a chicken ball and chew.
I held my food and watched him, waiting for him to continue.
“Do you know what people do when they care?” he asked. It was not really a question he wanted an answer to. “They piss each other off. They say things they don’t mean. You have to cut him some slack. You have a frame of reference for this sort of thing. He doesn’t”
“He’s lived with me for five years. It’s not like there’s a secret vocab.”
“You don’t get it, do you? It is not within his range of experience. He has no words to tell another man that he loves him, true or not. He just doesn’t know how.”
“That’s bullshit.” I slammed the box and chopsticks down on the table.
“Not to him its not, Petey.”
What could I say? He had a point.
They say into every life, a little rain must fall. No one ever, in my presence, made any mention of the snow, the sleet and the hail. The next morning, when I called Ryan’s sister, her voice, when it came on the line, was ice.
“He doesn’t want to talk to you, Peter.” Only she ever called me Peter.
“Come on, Luce. Just put him on. He always has the option of hanging up on me.”
She didn’t give him the option. She did it for him. From across the room, Jason gave me a sympathetic look. I placed the phone carefully on the coffee table to ensure I didn’t chuck it at the wall. Jason picked it up, punched redial and handed it to me.
“Talk to him.”
“I can hardly force him to come to the phone from here.” I could hear it ringing from where I held it against my chest. Jason has these finely constructed eyebrows that move independently of anything else on his face. He raised one now, even as I heard Lucy’s irritated voice crackle from the receiver.
“Look, Luce, just put him on.” Silence. “Please.”
“I’m sorry.” She almost sounded sorry, too. Her voice had softened. “He said to tell you he is sending Barry to pick up his stuff this afternoon.”
Before that moment, I had never had that feeling people associate with the bottom falling out of their world. I never wanted to have it again. In fact, I didn’t want to be having it now.
“Lucy, cut me some slack here.”
“What do you want Peter? He isn’t like you.” She was turning ugly again. Her voice hadn’t changed. It was still soft, still sympathetic, but the words were pure hate. It was the worst kind because she didn’t recognise it for what it was. “He’s just a normal guy, Peter. Just because he lived with you doesn’t make him like you.” The past tense did not slip past my notice.
Distantly, I heard Ryan’s voice. “Lucy.” There was a shuffling sound, a pause, and his voice came clearly over the line.
I didn’t say anything. I was still a little bit in shock.
“Pete, ignore her. She doesn’t pay any attention to the shit that comes out of her mouth. Neither should you.”
I hung up.
“What?” Jason was watching me. “What did he say?”
“Just forget it.” I turned my face to couch and stared at the ugly floral pattern until Jason let himself out to go to work.
After that, I worked hard to get my feet back under me. I couldn’t sit around the empty apartment looking at his bed or the dusty shelves that had held his books. I threw out all the Men’s Health he’d left lying around, and tucked his favourite mug to the back of the cupboard. But five years don’t just go away over night.
Jason helped. He brought a lot of take out food, which spurred me to at least figure out how to navigate the kitchen with a cane. He stayed over a lot of nights. Those nights, I slept on the couch so he could use my bed. He didn’t say anything about it being ridiculous not to use the perfectly good empty one across the room. Slowly Sports Illustrated took over the living room table. Boxes of Chinese and Thai take out stayed in the fridge. Beer took the place of tomato juice, and one morning, as I stood in the bathroom staring at a face that looked too old to be mine, I noticed that the slot that used to hold Ryan’s green toothbrush held a purple one instead. I poked my head out the bathroom door to look at Jason, asleep still, in my bed.
What was I putting my life on hold for? Knowing he wouldn’t say no, I went over and crawled in beside him.
“What are you doing?”
As I slid my hands down his torso, I smiled. “What do you think I’m doing?”
“This is a bad idea, Pete.”
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he would say no. But even as I thought that, he kissed me, wrapped his arms around me, and I stopped thinking at all for quite a while.
“You know what this is, don’t you?” he asked after. He was sitting in my bed, the sheets covering just enough of him to be appealing, his back against the wall. I was in the kitchen steaming milk.
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
“You think you’re some sort of prize?” I asked. I wanted him to shut up. I didn’t want to talk about what it was or wasn’t.
Hot milk foamed over the top of the container and scalded my fingers. I yelped and nearly dropped it. He watched and said nothing as I poured and scooped and grated. The result was two mugs heaped with foamed milk and chocolate shavings and whipped cream. He shifted, like he might get up, but I waved him back. I’d bought new mugs. Ones with handles big enough I could carry two in one hand and still use the cane. Bringing them to the bed, I sat down and dropped the cane on the floor. He took one of the mugs with a smile.
“You’re the prize.”
“Now you’re just being charming.”
“One of my many flaws, I know.”
We sipped coffee for a while.
“Let’s not talk about what this is, OK, Jay?” I said finally.
He shrugged. “Or what it isn’t?”
He had a way of asking questions that just did not require answers.
I have a tendency to wonder why my life happens the way it does. Jason has always given the advice that it is better not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Maybe he just didn’t want me to examine too closely his reasons for being with me. If he even had any reasons other than because it was easy. That was Jason, though. Easy. Not just indiscriminate, which he was, but easy in that I’d known him since toddler hood. We’d gone through everything together, from trucks in the sandbox to awkward adolescent sex, to aids scares for both of us. We knew what we were getting into. I’d spent the last few years on someone who had no interest in what I had to offer. I rapidly approached something looking like middle-age, and had no interest in sneaking up on it in the dark, all alone.
Jason was a good companion. Sure, he ate too much take out and slept on my side of the bed, but those are little things compared to being steadfastly straight. He moved in officially about a week later, subletting his apartment for a week at a time at first, then by the month, and then six months at a go. The only thing he didn’t put into storage was his tv. He couldn’t live without his sports, and I had to relegate my reading to Ryan’s bed with the heavy curtain drawn to block out the blue flickering light of the set. He didn’t care that I was indifferent to sports, and eventually, I stopped comparing him to Ryan and learned to love his little idiosyncrasies. Which is different from saying I learned to love him. But we both knew that. We never had to talk about it. I think I always knew the day he brought it up would be the day we called it quits. Surprisingly, it took three years.
We were out on the balcony, celebrating my thirtieth birthday. It was a warm July night, with very little breeze, so the candles on the table were hardly guttering. He had really taken his time with this one, covering the patio table with white linen, getting take out from my favourite restaurant, and he had jazz playing softly on the stereo inside.
“This is nice.” I smiled at him. He had grown a goatee which I wasn’t sure I liked. It hid his face too much, made it hard to read his expression.
“Glad you liked it.”
The food was done. We were lingering over wine, enjoying the view, awkwardly not looking at the giant elephant sitting on the balcony railing.
Two days ago I had seen him eating lunch in a posh hotel restaurant with his assistant, Jeremy. Jeremy was everything Jason never looked for in a guy. He wore thick glasses, he was skinny, and his clothes were less than high fashion. He was extremely good at keeping Jason on schedule, he excelled at getting him to eat right, and he never, ever opened the dark room door when Jason was developing photos. Naturally, because that is the way my life works, Jason was head over heels, and Jeremy was, at that moment, a giant elephant sitting on my balcony railing on my birthday demanding to be ignored just a little longer.
“We should go inside,” I said after a while.
Jason nodded. No one moved.
“Jay.” Slowly, his head swung around to look at me. “We’ve known each other a long time.” Again, he nodded, but it was fainter this time. “I’m not an idiot.” He smiled a little, which was encouraging. It was not worth reflecting that I was breaking up, with me, for him, on my own birthday. That was just what Jason was like. I looked at my watch. “It’s still early.” I hefted my cane. “I’d go dancing with you, but we both know I’m not up for it. Maybe you should call him.”
At least he was nice enough not to ask who I was referring to. “You should be mad.”
“It is what one usually feels at a time like this, yes.”
I smiled. “But, you’re you. I’m me.” I shrugged. “This is no great surprise.” I used the cane and the edge of the table to push myself to my feet, a little more drunk than I thought, and Jason reached over to steady me.
“I thought,” he said quietly, “this would work. I kind of wanted it to.”
“If you thought for even a minute that we were the real deal, you would have given up your lease and had a yard sale.”
“True.” I loved the way he didn’t argue in the way I love root canals. For a moment, I wished I was the type of person who was capable of blind rage. I wanted to be the type who refused to admit I’d seen this coming from the moment before I’d crawled into bed with him that first time. I wanted to be the guy who got stupidly drunk, screwed him into tomorrow and kicked his ass and his tv to the curb.
“Just do me a favour, OK?” I said instead. He waited expectantly. “Don’t move out on my birthday.”
It’s possible the kiss he gave me then held more feeling than any other in the past three years. It is likely that was the one and only time our sex could be called love making. It is probable I cried a little bit. But it was my party.
When he was home after that, which wasn’t often, he slept on the couch. He didn’t actually move out until the end of August, when they got the keys to their new place. In the meantime, he sifted through his U-Store-It and got rid of most of his stuff. If Jeremy couldn’t dress himself with any degree of style, the same could not be said of their apartment. He was wasted as a photographer’s assistant. Jason left me his tv. I unplugged it and pushed it against the wall. I saw the top of my living room table for the first time in years, which only made me realize how ugly it was, and I made Jason clean out the fridge before he left for good.
On Labour Day weekend three things happened. My place officially became a bachelor pad. More significantly, My mother called, and, most important of all, Lucy came to see me. Becoming single doesn’t really need to be elaborated on. My mother’s phone call was significant. She wanted to tell me my father had a heart attack.
“Should I come home?” I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to tell me.
“Do you want to see him before he dies?” It wasn’t meant to be cruel. My mother doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She just doesn’t think before she speaks.
“More to the point, Mom, does he want to see me?”
“Your brothers have been asking about you.” But they hadn’t bothered to call. And it didn’t answer the question.
“So no, then.”
“Please come home, Petey.”
So he was dying. “I’ll come home for you.” There was a little huff of a sigh. “I’ll catch a flight as soon as I can get away.” Another huff. She was probably nodding her head.
“Your brother Doug will pick you up at the airport. Just let me know when.”
I was packing when Lucy knocked on my door. I was preoccupied with stuffing clothes in a bag, and didn’t really pay any attention as I pulled the door open. When I saw who was standing there, I made a mental note to talk to the landlord about a peephole.
“What do you want?” I suppose I deserved the angry look I got. I hadn’t exactly invited her in, but I hadn’t closed the door in her face, either. I was elsewhere at the moment. Specifically, back north where my father, whom I hadn’t spoken to in ten years, lay dying in a hospital bed.
“I need your help.” She was good at getting to the point.
“It will have to wait until I get back.”
Peripherally, I noticed that she was looking around the place. “What’s going on?”
“I have a thing.” I didn’t feel the need to go into details.
“Gone, Luce. What do you want?” I stopped packing to look at her. The quicker I could get her out of my apartment, the happier I would be.
“Oh.” She looked for a moment like she had lost her train of thought. Then she looked at me, and I noticed how tired she seemed. “I can’t find him.”
“Who?” I couldn’t ignore the little stab of fear, though. There was only one person she would come to about.
“I sort of hoped he would be here.”
“Well, he’s not. I haven’t seen him in months.” I went back to packing.
“I’ve called everyone. No one has seen him.”
“Well, Luce, how long has he been gone?”
“Since Friday morning.”
“Lucy, for god’s sake! It’s Monday!”
“I know.” She sank onto the couch, clearly miserable.
“Three days, Lucy?” She shrugged. “Have you called the police? Have you talked to your folks?”
She shook her head. “They wouldn’t want to know.”
“What? They wouldn’t want to know their son is missing?”
“You don’t understand.”
“No.” Fuck. I looked at my watch. “No, Lucy, I don’t.” I had a plane to catch in four hours. I limped to the kitchen and pulled out the coffee maker. “Tell me what happened.”
“He’s been having these dreams.” Sometimes life has a funny way of coming around and biting you in the ass. “All I could figure out is that you’re in them. I got that from the screaming. He wouldn’t tell me anything else.”
I nodded. “I know about the dreams.”
“So Thursday was a really bad one. He went out Friday, said he was going for a walk. I didn’t think anything of it until I noticed he hadn’t slept in his bed Friday night.”
“Then I started calling people. His research assistant said h’d been going to a place called Stripes to do research, but she didn’t know where it was, and I couldn’t find it in the book.”
I was already half way out the door. “You wouldn’t. It’s a gay bar. They don’t usually advertise.”
She was still sitting confusedly on the couch. “But he’s not–”
I stopped and turned to face her. “Lucy, go home.”
“Maybe I should come.”
That was the last thing I wanted. “Go home. Get some sleep. I’ll call you.”
I had a pretty good idea how to find Ryan. If he had been frequenting Stripes, the scene of my infamously lost knife fight, Marty, the owner would know. In fact, Marty would likely know where I could find him. I stepped out into the street to hail a cab.
Yellow cabs only get you from point A the point B if you are dreading arrival. If you are in a hurry, if you really need to be some place, you get the new guy or the guy who drives like your grandfather. Your deaf, blind really short grandfather. I hopped out a block away, paid the driver exactly what his efforts were worth and jogged the last few thousand yards.
“Marty!” I was barely in the door, but I knew it was him behind the bar. He has distinctive red curls and he’s about six three.
“I wondered when you’d show up. I’ve been calling all weekend.”
“I had my phone off. Don’t need any more well wishers.”
“So he’s all moved out, then?”
“Not here about him, Marty.” This received a solemn nod.
“Figured as much.”
“Tell me you know where I can find him.” I was less surprised than relieved when he jerked a thumb at the stairs that lead to his apartment above the bar. “First tell me what happened.”
“He got plastered.” Not a surprise. “Some guy hit on him.” That made me smile. I was not the only one who though he was hot, then. “It seemed fine at first. They danced; there was the usual groping and lip lock that goes on around here.” That was a surprise, and one that hurt more than it should have after all this time. “Then he went off the deep end.” Marty shrugged and leaned on the bar. “I thought I’d let him cool off here rather than in the tank. Something’s up with him, Pete.”
“No doubt.” I hesitated.
“Go on up.”
I made it to the landing before my nerves got the better of me. I hadn’t seen him in almost four months. Hearing that he’d been making out on the dance floor with a strange man left me slightly queasy. I was not stupid enough to fool myself into thinking the feeling was anything other than jealousy. I’d lived with him for five years, and apart from him for four, and I was still as much in love with him as I had been the day I set eyes on him in this very bar almost a decade ago. I am pathetic.
The last few stairs I climbed more slowly, breathing for the first time since Lucy had told me he was missing. He was no longer missing. That did not mean I was going to be able to reach him. I knocked softly on the door before I went in.
He was sitting at the kitchen table, the sun playing with the highlights in his hair and warming his face. He was too pale. He had a smoke in his hand. When had he started smoking? He looked like he hadn’t slept much in the four months since I’d last seen him.
“I figured Marty would call you eventually.”
“Marty didn’t call.” I sat down across from him. His hand on the table was boney, and his clothes were too big. He’d lost a lot of bulk. He was sick. I knew the signs well enough. I was suddenly scared for him, angry with him, protective, and a dozen other things I couldn’t identify. The emotions formed a gooey mass somewhere in the channels between my major organs. It made it difficult to talk, but I tried anyway. “Lucy came to see me. She was worried about you when you didn’t go home.” I was proud of the way my voice didn’t gum up. I studied his face closer, and told myself I wasn’t looking for lesions. His gaze slid from the view out the window to my face.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. There was slyness in his voice I didn’t remember.
“No you don’t.”
“You’re trying to figure out what’s wrong with me.” I should have known better. “It’s not what you think.”
“Then what is it?”
He leaned across the table towards me. “If it was, would you still love me?” The anger he’d always carried, that usually lay beneath the surface, was simmering in his eyes now. It was ugly the way he’d let it define him. It reminded me too much of home. I firmly told myself he was still my Ryan. Without thinking, I touched his cheek. He pulled away, stood, glared. His fists were clenched hard at his sides. He could still fill the room with his presence, only now it felt like being locked in with a gaunt and terrified caged animal.
“Ryan,” emotion did get in the way this time, because of course I still loved him.
He backed up again even though I hadn’t done anything more than stand. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I wondered, for maybe the millionth time, what had done this to him. He stared at me as the silence stretched out.
“Let me help,” I said at last, because I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t think of any way to explain that I wanted to fix whatever it was that kept him from being happy. He was wary. He really was a wild, hurt thing and I was desperate not to scare him away.
“I have to go back home for a few days,” I said. Trust my father to finally kick off just when I had this to deal with. Maybe the fact that I was considering staying only confirmed everything the old man ever thought about me being selfish and ungrateful. Or maybe it had more to do with the fact that Ryan had actually risked debilitating nightmares to accept me into his life, and my father had never even leant me the car keys. I looked around Marty’s dingy apartment. “Come with me.”
“Why?” His eyes were narrow and suspicious now. What did he think I was proposing?
I put on my best benign face, used my calmest voice. “You need to get away.”
“Why not?” I reached around for my cane and took a few halting steps toward him. “It might help you clear your head.”
“My head is fine.” Maybe, but his hands were shaking and he was gnawing at his bottom lip. He couldn’t back away any more. He was up against the kitchen counter with his arms wrapped around himself and his elbows sticking out, bony and awkward. I moved closer, and this time, though his nostrils flared, he didn’t seem inclined to bite.
“You’re not fine.”
“You don’t know me any more, Pete.”
I wanted to touch him, but I knew he probably wouldn’t let me. He had a point. This was only a dim shadow of the man I loved, but I was willing to take the chance he was still in there somewhere.
“Just come with me.” It occurred to me that he’d mentioned once how much he hated flying. “It’s a nice drive,” I lied. It wouldn’t be, with my leg, but this was Ryan.
“Your family will be there.” He looked at the floor, then up at me. “Your Dad.” So he remembered me telling him about my father. Perfect“No, Rye, my Dad won’t be there.”
“Oh.” His brow furrowed and I wondered if he could see “the bastard’s dying” written across my forehead. “Sorry.”
I shrugged it off. At this moment, my father was the least of my worries. “You don’t have to go anywhere near my family. We’ll get a hotel room.”
Panic does something to a person’s face. It makes it soft, distorts the lines of it, makes it look as though the person wearing the face would be easy to crush.
“Or we’ll get two,” I amended hastily. “Two rooms. On different floors, whatever you want. Just say you’ll come.” My gut twisted at the thought of him saying no. I couldn’t say how long I would be gone, and I was afraid if I left him alone, even for another day, I would loose him forever.
“Ryan.” I moved as close as I dared.
“What if I’m not…”
I waited. Sometimes, it’s best not to interrupt.
“Who,” he had to take a deep breath, like those five words had been almost more than he could manage. “Who you think? Or what you think?”
I almost smiled. It was like a part of him was stunted at twelve years old, needing reassurance that he was loveable, worth the effort.
“You saved my life, Rye. And I don’t just mean the CPR. You saved me from being bitter and angry and dried up.” I wanted to kiss him. I noticed he wasn’t leaning on the counter any more. His arms, in fact, his body, had loosened up a fraction. “Come with me. Please.”
He nodded. A tiny inclination of his chin, but it was in his eyes. There was still something there that I could hold onto.
The drive was, indeed hell. A nice little Honda sedan with air and a cd player promised to deliver us in comfort. Of course, the air was broken, the cd player skipped, and there was not nearly enough leg room. And I’d forgotten what it was like to drive. I don’t consider myself a high strung individual, but not everyone is made for navigating the off ramps and collector lanes of big city traffic. Within twenty minutes, I was deferring to Ryan’s’ superior navigational skills.
“You’ll have to take exit 448, which is coming up, so you should probably change lanes.” I flicked on the right turn signal and waited. “Pete, change lanes.”
“I know.” I was grinding my words out through clenched teeth. “Just…”
“Pete, you’re going to miss the exit.”
“OK,” you know what? Just,” he made what I’m sure was supposed to be a calming gesture. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take the next exit.” I missed that one too. “OK.” He leaned back in his seat and folded the map. “Whenever you feel like, it, Pete, jump on an off ramp.” When I did, he leaned forward again, and watched the busy road in front of us. It was only seconds before he made a satisfied noise.
“Right there, Pete. See the big brown and yellow sign? Turn in there.”
Praise be to the god of coffee, whoever that is, and his penchant for a coffee shop on every corner. I pulled into the indicated parking lot, turned off the engine and sank back into my seat with a groan. My fingers ached from gripping the wheel.
“How were you planning on getting home without me?” he asked. His nonchalant tone made me smile.
“A yellow cab and a plane ticket.”
He laughed. It was the first genuine thing I’d heard out of him since Marty’s kitchen two days ago, and the stress of driving melted away. “Well, you’ve got me now, so mover over.”
I didn’t argue. We got out of the car and Ryan went inside the building. A few minutes later, he was back. He handed me the map, a very large paper cup of bad coffee and a box of what I have always supposed are meant to be donut holes.
We switched seats, and he had us back on the highway and out of the city in less than ten minutes. I smoothed a napkin over my folded map and sipped my coffee. It wasn’t actually that bad.
As he drove, I watched the scenery slide past. Tall buildings gave way to factories, factories to suburbs, suburbs to farms. An hour outside the teeming metropolis, I found myself counting herds of black and white cows, and wondering what was holding up the ancient barns that were meant to shelter them.
“So your Dad must be in pretty bad shape,” he ventured. We hadn’t been talking. There was too much neither of us was willing to talk about, but compared to everything else hanging in the air between us, my father seemed like pretty neutral territory.
“So my Mom says.”
“Don’t miss the chance to make things right with him, Pete.” So much for neutral territory.
“Thanks for the advice.”
“I’m just saying.”
I guess my relationship with my father is a touchy subject after all. Maybe that stems from the basic fact that there is no relationship. We lapsed into silence again. I shouldn’t have snapped at him. He was only trying to help.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” I asked after too much time had passed.
“What do you mean?” I watched his knuckles on the steering wheel whiten by increments. “What makes you think anything happened?”
“Four months ago, I saw you and you were fine. Now, you look.” I hesitated, because I was pretty sure telling him he looked like shit was not very sympathetic, but my sympathy meter was off lately. “You just don’t look so hot.”
“And you would know,” he said quietly. A little breath of air escaped at the tail end of those words.
I glanced over trying to figure out how he meant that. Was he being snide? Was that a dig because I hadn’t been there when he needed me? “What makes you think I was fine four months ago?”
It’s hard to describe accurately, but something happens to me when I am confronted with the reality of being a gay man in the world as it is. Normally, I can shut out the world as it is and pretend it is the world as I would like it to be. Alone in my apartment with Ryan, or even with Jason, who tends to carry a lot more of the world with him, I can still pretend. Even when people ask me why I walk with a cane at my age, I can say it’s because I am an idiot, and I slipped in my bathtub. They don’t have to know I only slipped because some asshole who hated me without even knowing me jumped on it in his combat boots while his friends pinned me to a bathroom floor, or that it happened in a bar where ‘people like me’ are supposed to be safe. The thing is, the world isn’t safe, and I hate to be reminded of that fact. It makes me nervous and irritable and less likely to say the right thing.
I looked over at Ryan, his white knuckles, his haggard features, and hollow eyes. There aren’t many things that come to the mind of ‘people like me’ when a friend who looked fine four months ago suddenly doesn’t look fine at all. “So if you weren’t fine four months ago, what was wrong?” I asked. It was better to know. I kept telling myself that. It was better to know.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
He clamped his jaw shut and the conversation ended.
It takes roughly six hours to drive from my apartment to my home town. Six hours is a long time to actively not talk to a person. In fact, I don’t even think it’s possible. After a while, you just forget that you’re not talking and say something random.
“I want to know if you’re sick.” Ok, so it wasn’t random, and it was more blurted out than asked calmly. But I wanted to know. It is always better to know. I pushed my head back against the head rest and squeezed my eyes shut. He didn’t say anything, and I pulled my one leg up to hide behind. I couldn’t bend the other one that much any more.
“Put your knee down.” His voice was quiet, soft like I remembered it being, not that sly angry tone of the past few days. I slid my foot off the seat. “I’m not sick.” After a moment he said my name, and I looked at him. “I am not sick.”
All the fight went out of me. I knew he would flinch, but I reached over and touched my knuckles against his cheek anyway. He didn’t act like the touch burned him, exactly, he just shifted his head away.
I nodded. “OK.” I knew. I could wait for the rest.
He looked over at me and smiled a little. “OK.”
The last two hours slid by with the landscape. We were content now not to speak. I had to admit, I may have rushed things, asking him to come along. We were fragile. I’m not really sure what I thought it would be like. It’s not like we’d been in the best place when he’d moved out. I wanted things to go back to the way they were, but we were both different people now, and he was right, I really didn’t know him anymore.
We pulled up under another gold and brown drive thru open 24hrs sign and Ryan turned off the engine. We were just outside of town.
“Stretch your legs?” I nodded and we got out of the car. He matched my pace as I limped painfully across the lot to the door of the building. I let him hold it open. Once inside, I had to lean on the little half wall across from the counter to take the pressure off my knee while he stepped up to get our coffee. I could hear him order.
“Large black and a large double cream, please.” There is something to be said about a person who knows how you like your coffee. And it’s something big if he remembers after four years. He paid, turned and handed me my cup. He was very careful that our fingers didn’t touch. That said something too, and the mixed messages were addling my brain.
“So?” He ran a finger around the top of his lid.
As I watched it circle, it brought back a hundred tiny memories of him tugging at the frayed cuffs of my jeans, flipping his fork over and over at the dinner table, a thousand other compulsive, repetitive motions he didn’t notice in his day to day but that told me precisely what he was thinking. Then I knew, because he rounded his shoulders and looked at the floor, that he was feeling crowded. I pushed away from the wall and set my cane firmly ahead of me toward the door and the outside. I swallowed my frustration and told myself to stop wishing for something that was never going to happen. He popped the tab open on his drink and sipped at it as he watched the rubber tip of my cane thump past.
“You’ll drop me at the hotel, I guess?”
It was never, ever going to happen.
“If that’s what you want.”
I pushed my way out the door, not waiting for him this time, and trying not to be disappointed.
“I’ll come with you.” He said in an abrupt, hitched voice that made me stop half way out the door.
“I’ll come to the hospital. Or whatever.”
“You don’t have to.”
I knew he had no desire to see my family. He’d dealt with them once, when I was released form the hospital and they tried to insist I get a nurse rather than let a perfect stranger move in with me. They didn’t know he’d been at the hospital every day or that he sat in waiting rooms when I went into surgery, and greeted me when I came out of recovery. They had no idea how many trips up and down hospital corridors he’d made, pushing my chair from physio to group, to the lounge and back again. It never occurred to them that someone sat by my bed every night while I hovered, and it hadn’t been them. I know he came at first because he felt guilty. I like to think that wasn’t why he stayed.
“I know I don’t have to.” He swallowed some coffee, opened the car door and looked across the roof at me. “You should have someone there.”
“Thanks.” He shrugged and smiled carefully before ducking into the car. I should have reamed myself for thinking never was a pretty damn negative word. I should have firmly held to that negative word. I should have stopped thinking altogether. But love is deaf, blind and stupid, and most of all, it thinks too much.
A town like this never really changes much. Houses grow up here and there, storefronts change, and big box stores move in around the periphery, but essentially, they never really change. In fact, it still looked like the mining town it had started out as, and I wasn’t nervous about driving here. I knew these streets like the back of my hand.
When I was growing up, about one in fifty parents didn’t work for The Company. My father was an Environmental Engineer. The Company hired expensive lawyers to deal with Environmental Engineers. My mother stayed home to look after me and my two brothers, one older, one younger.
David, the older, like every kid in town, played hockey. By the time he was five, he had secured his place on the team. He was the enforcer, and he perfected the role, on and off the ice. People didn’t mess with my brother Dave.
My younger brother, Doug, had asthma. He couldn’t play hockey, but he was smart, and funny. Everyone loved Doug. He made them laugh, and people like to laugh.
You would think with brothers like that I would have it made, one to deflect the barbs of the other kids, and one to protect me from the ones that couldn’t be deflected. Instead, I became the butt of Doug’s jokes and the object of Dave’s scorn, and my father did a fair job of ignoring my existence. My mother was too busy bussing them between hockey practices and games and drama rehearsals to notice any of it. If I hadn’t had Jason, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it out.
And here I was going back in for the first time since I’d left for university. Ryan sat calmly beside me in the passenger seat and watched curiously out the window. He had ripped the tab off the lid of his cup and was twirling it over his knuckles.
“You alright?” I asked because it was easier to calm his nerves than mine, but he just shrugged a little and smiled a little and made a non-committal noise. “I’m going to the house first.”
I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I hoped I wouldn’t have to go there at all, and felt guilty for hoping it because I knew my father wasn’t going home from there.
Ryan looked over at me and nodded. “That makes sense,” he said.
I could see out the corner of my eye that he studied me for a long time after I turned back to the road, but he didn’t say anything.
I pulled into the drive ten minutes later. The place looked deserted, except for the inside front door being open. Someone must be in there. I switched off the car and sat with the keys in my hand. Ryan was looking at me. I could feel his detached waiting like a heaviness settling in the air around us.
“You don’t have to come in.”
“I’ll wait on the porch,” he agreed, and it was almost too quick. I had been wrong about the calmness. He was just better at hiding his nerves than I was. He always had been.
I nodded. “OK.” And I got out of the car, because that was the next step.
The door of the house opened as I did, and Doug stood there, waiting for me to limp up the walk and steps. He eyed Ryan, but said nothing until I was pressing past him inside.
“I thought you were flying.”
“Changed my mind.” He didn’t have to know Ryan wouldn’t fly anywhere for anything.
“Well it took you long enough.”
The door banged shut as we went inside, leaving Ryan to sit on the top step and wait. He didn’t seem to mind in the least.
“So this is the roommate?” he put a funny inflection on the last word, and I glared at him. “He doesn’t look so good.”
“Insomnia,” I muttered.
“Don’t start, Doug.” I was tired, my knee hurt and I was in no mood for his remarks. “How’s Dad?”
“Holding on for now.”
I sighed. No one wanted to say the words. I pinned Doug with a look, and he bit his bottom lip. “How is Dad, Doug?”
There. Flat, blunt, completely harmless.
“How long?” He shrugged. “Well,” I found a pen and paper by the phone in the hall where they always had been, and wrote down the name of the hotel, the room number, and my cell number. I handed it to him. “I’m going to check in. Call me if anything changes.”
“Aren’t you going down there?”
“Maybe later. I’m tired and I want a shower.”
“Mom’s expecting you.”
“Mom will wait.”
“Of course she will.” Doug put a hand on my arm as I tried to go past. “Pete, no one is expecting you will fall at his feet. Just do this for Mom. She never did anything to hurt you.”
“She never did anything to help, either.” I pulled my arm free. It made me furious that anyone thought I was the one who should be doing the supplicating. “I’ll be at the hotel.”
“With your boyfriend?” this time, there was outright hostility. I turned back to him, because I couldn’t let it go this time.
“If you say word one about Ryan, Doug, I swear I will beat you stupid.”
“You have a bum leg,” he pointed out meanly.
I lifted my cane. “I also have a cane.” I didn’t wait for anything else. “Come on.” I shot the command at Ryan as I thumped past him.
I took the stairs as fast as I could manage, ignoring the shooting pain, and hobbled to the car. Ryan followed placidly, but when he got in, he banged the door unnecessarily hard, and sat with his arms folded across his chest.
“You could have set him straight.”
I stared at him for a minute, not sure what he was talking about.
“About us, you could have set him straight.”
“Fuck.” I started the engine and pulled out of the drive and didn’t say anything else until we got to the hotel. I didn’t trust myself not to lash out at him. He didn’t mean it, he was just protecting himself. I wanted to scream at him.
He was thirty years old. It was time he took a good look at himself and faced what he was. We were letting ourselves into the room by the time I was finally calm enough to talk.
“Why is it so hard for you?” I asked.
“Why is what so hard?”
There is an expression Ryan has. It has nothing to do with his worn out state of the moment, he’s always had it. It is a sort of bland look but it’s too brittle around the edges. It is a look that could be chipped away at if one had the patience or the balls to try. It is a look that says there is something worth getting at underneath, if a person was brave enough. It is a look that tries to deny it is anything at all. It is that look that tells me I’m right, that I’m not wasting my time. That was the look he levelled at me now.
“Aren’t you exhausted? God, Ryan, it is so much more work to lie all the time. Especially if it’s yourself you’re lying to.”
He closed his eyes, because we were in one room and there was no where else for him to go. “Please don’t.”
I sighed and tossed my shaving kit on the bed to root around in my bag for clean clothes that didn’t smell like rental car.
“I’m going to take a shower.” I risked a look at him. He had curled in on himself. “Then I’m going to call the hospital.” I watched him and he nodded, but he didn’t look at me. I retreated into the bathroom, closed and locked the door.
I was well under the spray when he knocked and told me he was going down to the bar. I tried not to think what a bad idea that might be and instead said nothing. I could feel him on the other side, waiting. When the feeling went away, I breathed again, I washed and stood under the hot spray and tried not to think at all.
“Mom? Hi.” I cringed. I had that sappy sweet tone in my voice that is the hallmark of insincerity. If she noticed, she didn’t let on.
“Peter.” She just sounded relieved. I heard a man’s voice in the background, probably Dave’s and then she was talking again. “Are you alright, Pete? Doug said you were a little on edge.”
No shit. “I’m fine Mom. It was a long drive. You know how I hate driving.”
“He said you brought your – somebody.” There was a pause when I didn’t say anything. “Is Jason with you?”
“No, Mom. Jason and I are no longer together. I told you that.”
“So there’s someone new?” she managed to sound disappointed.
“Oh.” I’m sure it was less perky than I imagined. “Well, are you coming down to the hospital?”
“Do you think it can wait until morning? Really, I’m exhausted.” That was not a lie. She made a small sound in her throat. I was sitting on the bed, leaning against the back board, and my good leg bent up, my knee looming in front of my face. My other leg twitched, like it wanted to join the first. I rubbed the knee and waited for her to say something.
“If you’re too tired to see your father, Son, I’m sure he will understand.” Mothers have a way. I think there must be a manual on guilt.
“Tell him I will see him first thing.”
“I will.” Her voice coming down the line had grown stiff. I could imagine her round little body, straight backed and drawn up to its full five feet three inches. I knew her pale blue eyes would be blank. She was the master of the blank, dead stare. It was eerie in person, twice as bad over the phone. “Good bye, Peter.”
“Bye Mom.” I was just hanging up the phone when Ryan let himself in the room. He stood by the door as it swung shut and watched me expectantly. I gazed in his general direction, my gaze falling somewhere around his knees. Finally, he spoke.
“So.” I managed to make it up to his face. His cheeks were bit flushed, but he looked better than he had in days. He pulled something out from behind his back. It was a brown paper bag.
“This place has the best mushroom caps.” I nodded and he came over to sit on the bed beside me. I could smell the liquor he had been drinking, but he wasn’t acting drunk. Just happier. He opened the bag and the smell that wafted out made my mouth water. He pulled a Styrofoam container out and pushed at my knee until I lowered it, then he plopped the container on my lap and handed me the plastic fork.
“Eat. You’ll feel better.” I nodded.
He was right, and it was easy to let him fall back into the roll of caregiver. He was good at it, I wasn’t. He watched as I forked the caps into the dip and into my mouth. He had something he wanted to say, I could tell, but he was waiting until I was finished eating. It was important enough that he thought I might stop. That alone curbed my apatite enough that I couldn’t finish. When it was obvious I was slowing down, he spoke.
“You want to know what happened four months ago?”
My fork hung in the air. I could see I was still holding it, but everything went a little tingly, a little numb. I said before, Ryan can sometimes surprise me. I lowered my hand so as not to look like a complete fool, and nodded.
I blinked at him a few times. “Sex. With?”
He shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter.” He got up and paced across the room. He had his room key in his hands and he was pulling the long wooden key chain through his fingers over and over. “What matters, is I wanted it to be someone else. You were right,” he turned and strode back to the bed, kneeling with one knee on the edge so he was looming over me, and rushing on without giving me a chance to speak. “It’s too hard to lie all the time, but I don’t know any other way.”
I pulled my leg up again, and not to hide my face this time. He was too close. His knee was pressed against my hip, and I could smell him through the liquor. He was radiating that vulnerable fear that had thrown him into my arms that night so long ago, but I couldn’t trust myself to touch him. I couldn’t reach out to him, and I couldn’t get away. Where would I go? I had to swallow the sticky ball of emotion in my throat before I could speak, and still all that came out was his name, barely recognizable.
The phone rang. I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t miss the shuttering of his eyes as I reached for it. He was about to get up, but couldn’t let this go. I clamped a hand over his wrist and he settled back on the mattress beside me.
“Pete,” it was Dave. “You’d best get down here.”
“What’s going on?”
“What do you think, dumbass. Get down here.” He hung up.
“Nice.” Ryan waited for me to hang up.
“You have to go.” I nodded. We didn’t move for a lot of heartbeats. Finally, he gently twisted free of my grip. “Go, Pete.”
He didn’t get up like I expected, but raised a hand like he might touch my face. It hung there between us, awkwardly, until I finally pushed it back down into his lap. I didn’t let it go, and he didn’t pull it away.
“Is it too much to say I need you there with me?”
“Don’t want to walk into the lion’s den alone?” He smiled faintly. “It’s not too much.”
“They won’t be nice to you.”
“Pete, all my life the only person I ever cared about who was nice to me was you. What do I care what a bunch of strangers think?”
A brave speech, but he did care. His entire way of existing in the world proved that he cared an awful lot.
“You shouldn’t go alone.” He pulled his hand free and stood, handing me my cane, taking the food garbage and helping me up. “Come on.”
Doug met us at the front door of the hospital. He frowned at Ryan, and tilted his head at me by way of greeting.
“He hasn’t been awake much, but he is now. You might be able to talk to him if you hurry.”
We rode the elevator to the fifth floor in silence. Doug stood leaning against one wall, Ryan stood, slightly closer to me than to the other wall. I was grateful for that. He stayed close as Doug led us down the hall. We didn’t touch, but a casual observer would not think he was anything other than what I wanted him to be. When I glanced over, his face was set in an expression I couldn’t quite place.
“Here.” Doug held open a door and waved us in. Mom and David looked up from where they were sitting; Mom in a straight-backed chair beside the bed, David perched on the edge, his foot on the lowered rail.
“It’s about time you got here,” he muttered at me, trying to keep his voice low, and failing. It’s hard to yell at someone in a stage whisper. I had come in the door far enough to let Doug slip through and past me. I didn’t move any closer.
It was hard to reconcile the slack face of my father as he lay there with the stern, unforgiving visage of the man I hated. I would like to say that I felt moved, there at the end of his life, to forgive him. I didn’t. I don’t know what that says about me. I do know what the others thought. Mom stood and motioned me forward, her face blank.
“Peter, come and say hello, at least.”
I wanted to turn around and leave. There was nothing for me here. I shuffled closer to the bed and Dad’s face turned at the sound.
“Doug?” his voice was scratchy, barely audible. His hand reached out, and all I noticed were the yellow nicotine stains, the blue veins and drooping skin. They all looked at me.
“No, Dad.” I moved closer, but I didn’t touch him. “It’s Peter.” His hand fell back to the bed and he stopped trying to find the source of the voice. He’d always been nearsighted, and I wondered if he could see anything at all anymore.
“Where is my Dougie?”
“Here, Dad.” Doug pressed past me and took the old man’s hand. “I’m here.”
“David?” his other wrinkled hand came up, and Dave took it.
Something that might have been a smile passed over my father’s face. His eyes turned to me, but they didn’t focus. “My boys.” He stared through me with those faded blue eyes that didn’t see, had never seen me, and slowly let out a breath. It was the last act of a dying man, determined to the very last breath, to believe he didn’t have a son who was gay. I turned and left.
If Ryan hadn’t been with me, I would have gotten lost in the hospital. He guided me to the front door, opened it, and put me in the passenger seat of the car. I sat while he went around to the driver’s side and got in.
“So much for the lion’s den,” I muttered. I was desperate not to let him see how much I was hurting.
He covered my hand, lying in my lap with his. It was so unlike him, it made me look up.
“He was just a toothless old man, Pete.”
Maybe so, but I felt like I had lying on the bathroom floor of the bar, and he knew that. “I want to go home.”
He nodded and put the car in drive. He didn’t say anything about how pathetic I sounded, he just drove. I flexed my fingers. They still felt warm from his touch. We got to the hotel, and he brought me upstairs, sat me on the bed while he gathered our things and stuffed it all into bags without thought as to what belonged to whom. We went down, he checked us out and we were back in the car and driving away within half an hour.
We drove into the night and I know he must have been brutally tired, but he didn’t say a word. He didn’t suggest I should have stayed for the funeral, and he didn’t ask if I was ok. When he finally stopped, two hours away from the town I would never see again, he couldn’t even get out of the car.
“Come on,” I pulled at him until he reluctantly groaned to his feet, and I steered him around to the other side and shoved him back in.
“I don’t trust your driving,” he informed me. His eyes were bright with the effort of staying awake.
“I know.” I smiled at his dopy expression. “I’m not going far.” I pointed and he gazed across the road to a motel with a green neon sign.
“That place looks like a dump.”
“But it has beds.”
“Mmmm. Beds.” His lips twitched and I took it for a smile, though it was hard to tell.
When I went to the office to check in, I was surprised to find out they had only one room available, with a double bed, and no cots. Of course. Every roadside motel in the middle of nowhere is booked solid on a weekday night. Who hadn’t anticipated that? I went back and told Ryan and he shrugged.
“Don’t care. I want to be horizontal.”
“OK.” I took the room.
We didn’t bring anything in. We just stumbled inside, locked the door on the world and I fell across the bed to stared up at the ceiling. He stood looking down at me, and for once, I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Kicking off his shoes, he sat on the edge of the bed. He pulled in a heavy breath and let it out again, then settled on his back beside me.
The thing about Ryan is, no matter how well I think I know him, he can always surprise me.
“Come here.” He lifted his arm, creating a warm haven between it and his body. I shifted over and settled my head on his shoulder. He wrapped me up and pressed his cheek against the top of my head.
“I want to come home, too, Pete.”
“You what?” I strained around to see him, but his eyes were closed, and he looked like he was already asleep. I settled my head back in place and smiled into the dark. He was home. We both were, at last, in some dingy roadside motel that, to this day, I don’t know the name of, but he was there, he wanted to be there, on the same side of the locked door as me, and that was all that mattered.