If you haven't read it yet, I encourage you to check out the short prelude to the story "When Love is Gone" in April's issue of ARDOR.
The club was quiet. Not in the sense of noise, for the beat of the latest dance tunes echoed through the club in a throbbing beat I could feel in my bones, but in the sense that it was early yet, and the echo was bereft of the usual din of people trying desperately to be heard over the noise. I watched for a while as the club slowly filled. A waiter, his shirt deeply open to show his chest, weaved through the burgeoning crowd, his denim cut-offs barely constraining what was clearly a significant endowment, drink tray held alternately by his shoulder and high over-head.
The waiter was hot and moved in a pulse with the dance beat, gliding and dancing and grinding as he held the tray and weaved through the crowd. His butt was nicely rounded and familiar, and I watched it with the barest hint of a smile as he slipped through the crowd, twisting every so often in a way that displayed his abs through the gap in his open shirt. A glass filled with bills reflected the effect his body was having on those watching as he took orders and made his way to the bar.
Shortly he returned in my direction with a short Stoli and a Diet Coke and winked. I smiled at him and held up my glass as I saluted him with a brief nod and downed the soda. I had been wrong. He only looked twenty something… he hadn’t aged a day. He chuckled slightly and then sidled past a couple of twinks, letting the bare skin of his chest rub against their skin tight shirts as he slid by. He’d probably end up in bed with one of those two tonight. I sighed. I had had my chance long ago and squandered it.
The waiter passed by again, slinking past the younger crowd to reach me and set down his tray momentarily. He deposited the Diet Coke on my table and cleared the empty glass, smiling as he gently grasped me along my bicep. I chuckled this time and he smiled again, hefted his little drink tray, and returned to his mingle amongst the chatting young queens. He had aged, if only slightly, around the eyes. The smile gave him more wrinkles, but it was as genuine as it had ever been.
They ignored me, of course, the rest of them, as they always had, even when I had been young enough to claim a place with them. I had always looked too old to be part of that set, too old, too big, too heavy, and so I never tried to fit in. I dressed in elaborately patterned silk shirts—higher quality and perhaps more subtle than those I had worn in my youth, but they never-the-less marked me as older, ignorable. The rest of my clothes faded into the darkness of the club, only the subtle teal pattern in the sheen of the silk drawing notice, and the occasional glint of my glasses in the flashing dance lights. My beard was full and trimmed, not the goatee of so long ago, my hair, or what was left of it, was cut short, the top shaved and glinting as though polished under the slight sheen of sweat covering it.
I took a quick swig of my vodka and then downed the whole glass. Even Stoli burned when it had been so long. I followed it with a gulp of Diet Coke and glanced around the club watching for the man I was here to meet. It didn’t take that long to spot him. I cursed silently and downed the soda in one long swallow.
I felt someone grasp my arm and whisper (it was a shout to be sure, but in here there was little difference), “You okay, hon?”
There was genuine concern in his voice, discernible even through the throbbing beat of the music. I shook my head very slightly. His grasp tightened on my arm for a moment and then he was gone. The boys had started to dance by the time he returned with a second vodka and a row of Diet Cokes. I tried to pay him, but he pushed my hand aside. “You need it, hon,” he said, smiled, and slid back into the crowd. I watched his butt bounce in that joyously seductive way as he slipped into the crowd and wondered why I had never pursued him. I drank another soda first, and then abandoned my table. No one would take it. Even after all this time, that table was mine.
The boys on the dance floor gyrated against each other, yet through their drunken revelry they still found time to glare at me as I reached the floor. How well I knew that look. But they said nothing and simply bounced wildly about, trusting on their skinny gym-toned bodies to do the attracting. I glanced over my shoulder, looking across to the man I had come to see. Our eyes locked for just a moment and I felt my body tingle all at once from head to toe. I didn’t acknowledge him. I closed my eyes and let the beat fill me as the gyrating, dancing queens around me glared. Then I began to dance.
Dancing is one of three things. Most people think it's just two. Either you were trained and looked good or you were not and you hoped being a hot twink boy with an eight-pack compensated. I had never been trained and certainly never had an eight-pack, nor a six-pack, leastwise not one that didn’t have layers of fat concealing it. But there was a third option: to let the music fill you and not care if you looked stupid. And if you did it right, the throbbing beat would fill and consume your movements, giving you a grace by virtue of being purely enraptured in the movement. And I let it fill me, my arms weaving to the beat, my body, big though it might be, flowing into the music until I spun around and my hips and legs and arms became a single entity that had merged with the flow of the music. The boys had backed up now, giving me space.
And so I danced. His eyes never left me. I didn’t need to look to know that. I danced until my legs began to remind me of my age and lack of recent practice. And I kept dancing past those limits until the end of the song, then I left the dance floor. The waiter was at my table, clearing the empty glasses. He’d brought some water, several small glasses in a precise line. He smiled at me again and winked. I took a deep breath and began draining water glasses. After the fourth glass I returned to my row of Diet Cokes and wondered how predictable I must have become for him to leave them for me even after all this time. There was a time once… but that had been so very long ago.
I stared into the glasses for a long time, waiting a few minutes and then draining another. Finally I reached the second vodka and downed it in one shot. I scrunched my eyes shut as the sting of alcohol burned my throat.
“Still?” the waiter asked.
I jumped a little and looked at him in time to see the nod to the other side of the hall. I didn’t answer, just gave an abbreviated nod.
“He’s a jerk,” he said, shouting over the music into my ear.
“I know,” I said.
“He’s always been a jerk.”
He patted my hand and disappeared once more into the crowd. I had intended the dancing to cheer me up. Perhaps I'd hoped to feel him look at me that way, the way he used to a long time ago. The nagging feeling in my gut was still there. Dancing only let me forget in the moment. That’s all it had ever done. As much as I loved the forgetting, I couldn’t function that way.
I looked around. The crowd had thinned out. Friday night, I could figure that. Everyone was pairing up to go home with someone. But he was still there, across the club at the bar, sitting alone. I shook my head and headed towards the bar. I tapped the waiter gently on the shoulder and gave him a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek, and slipped a fifty into the overflowing glass on his tray. He smiled and leaned forward on his tip-toes to scream over the music into my ear, “You should forget him, hon. You really should.” He patted me on my shoulder and then waded back into the throng of dancing youth.
He was right. I'd come here to meet him. I'd given him the opportunity. I glanced across the bar, shook my head, and headed out into the street. The bouncer gave me a look, but he didn’t offer the ubiquitous black light stamp. He knew. They all did. Did nothing ever change? I started walking to my car, but it didn’t take long for me to hear the pounding of steps behind me.
I turned around to look at him. The gods, if there were any, had been cruel. He had aged well. Too well. His clear blue eyes bored a hole into my soul and pierced it through. He licked his full lips and stepped up to me. I closed my eyes and looked away, but he reached up and turned my head towards him.
“Can’t you even look at me?” It almost sounded sweet. Bastard.
“You made that choice for me, Brian. You made it a long time ago.”
He slid his hand along the line of my beard up to my forehead. “You’re still beautiful,” he said.
I shook my head, glancing around at dilapidated streets, the burnt out street lights, and the disaffected youth leaning against brick walls. “We shouldn’t do this here,” I said.
“Where then? It’s too loud inside and you know it.”
I shook my head and nodded toward my car. It wasn’t far. I had arrived, as I always had, very early. I walked quickly and didn’t watch to see if he was following. I pulled the keys from my pocket before we reached the car and pressed the unlock button on the key fob. I considered for a moment leaving him here, but… I couldn’t do it. Old habits die hard. He slipped into the passenger seat and stared at me as I pressed the clutch and put the car into gear. His hand closed over mine on the gear shift and I could feel my heart flutter as that dreadful tingle spread through my body. How could he make me feel like a lost teenager again?
My foot hit the gas pedal and we were gone. I could feel his eyes on me, though he said nothing and simply watched, his hand wrapped around mine. I pressed down on the gas pedal and merged onto the highway, and still he said nothing.
I tried to concentrate on the road, the lights—anything really except the warmth of the hand touching mine and the piercing glare of a man I had once loved, that I still loved. Did love ever really die?
The minutes passed quietly. Finally he spoke. “I… I’m so sorry, Thommas.”
“You didn’t do anything. It’s fine,” I said. Curt. A platitude, nothing more.
“No. I did do something. And it’s not fine.”
I could feel those eyes on me, and I knew if I looked at them, I was done.
“I can’t fix it, Thommas,” he continued. “I really am sorry.”
It took all my reserves not to look over into those eyes. When I found the will to speak, I was terse, my voice clipped. “It's fine.” I pressed hard upon the gas and jerked the gear shift back, feeling the smooth round plastic of the handle and trying to ignore the watching eyes, the warmth of his hand. Tears were forming in the corner of my eye, I could feel it as the liquid gathered and reached the point where it could no longer just pool in the corner, but had to flow over and down my cheek. I cursed silently.
“You don’t have to try to be strong,” he said, his voice a blanket, holding me, smothering me. “It’s okay to be mad.”
I cursed aloud then, and found the most convenient and nearest exit off the highway. Fortunately we were still enough in the city that it wasn’t far to travel. I could sense the apprehension as he waited, palpable in the air. I knew the city well and it didn’t take long for us to reach a little used stretch where I could pull over and turn off the car. His breath was slow, shallow and soft, but I could feel the heat of it kissing against my cheek. He was still watching.
“I don’t need your permission to be mad, Brian,” I said as the dim lights of the dashboard faded. “I never needed it. And I’ve been mad at you almost since we met!”
“Look at me, Thommas,” he said.
“No.” That had always been the problem. I’d look at him and melt, drowning in those dreamy blue eyes.
“No.” I shook my head. “I can’t do that, Brian.
“Why not?” I didn’t have to look to sense the quizzical tilt of his head. He was still watching me.
“You know why. Dammit, Brian!” I turned to him, just glimpsing those blue portals into his soul and my stomach plummeted.
I couldn’t breathe. Dear God! Why did he have to still be this beautiful? I stroked the side of his cheek with my right hand and shook my head. “No, Bri. It’s never been okay.”
He took hold of my hand and kissed the back of my fingers, then he started to lean forward.
“No!” I said frantically, pulling my hand back to unlock the door, and pushing it open in the same motion as I stepped out of the car. I slammed the door shut behind me and walked toward the back of the car. He followed, stepping from the passenger side and closing the door.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said. “It’s what I dream of, but it was never what I wanted.”
“That’s bullshit,” he said, walking around me in a way that forced me to face him, “and you know it. You can’t tell me for a second that you don’t want me.”
I closed my eyes, screwing them shut and turning away from him. “Want you, need you, ache for you. Yes. I want you, Bri. Is that what you wanted to hear? The lovesick puppy admitting that he needs you, even after all this time?”
“You broke up with me, Brian. You did this. You made the decision. I wasn’t given the choice.”
“I was stupid, okay. I admit it.” His hands skimmed my shoulder, hesitant, but in a way that filled me unpleasantly wonderful feeling.
“I was the stupid one. I was crazy to think you would ever really want me when there were pretty boys out there for you.” Did I sound bitter? Good. I certainly felt that way.
“They were never like you.”
“I don’t expect they were.” There was the bitterness again. “But you had me. I was yours, Brian. Yours. Forever, if you wanted me.”
“I made a bad decision,” he said, pleading.
“Yes,” I said, “but you made it, and I moved on.”
“No, you didn’t,” he said, stepping away from the car to stand right up against me by the trunk. “You wanted to, I think, at least in the end. But you told me once that love, real love, never goes away. And it doesn’t. I know you feel it.”
I looked at him square in the face then. “I’m not in love with you enough to be that stupid.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
He stepped up to me so fast I couldn’t react—or maybe I didn’t want to—and then I was in heaven. His lips molded themselves to my mouth, his tongue warring against mine as he pressed against me. His hands slid beneath my shirt, his left up against my stomach, his right reaching behind to the small of my back, bare skin against skin. There’s something special in the chemistry of love, something perfect and binding and as his lips moved against mine and we inhaled each other, his touch lit my body aflame, tracing fire in lines along my back. Gods, had I really surrendered this? How could I have?
But of course I hadn’t. He had given it up and pushed it away, and I never had any choice in the matter. That thought brought me back to reality enough that I could bear to push him away.
“You bastard,” I said. “Why couldn’t you just let me be? I just want it to be over, to be able to get on with my life!” Which was bullshit, and he knew it.
“I need you.”
“You always need me, or at least need something from me. Haven’t you ever noticed that? How come you never come when I need you?”
“Because if I did, I could never stay away.”
I choked out a sob. “You made the choice to go, dammit! Why isn’t your precious Jordan helping you?”
That made him pause. He looked away, but he couldn’t hide the start of a tear in his eye, not from me. “He can’t.”
“No, Thommas. I need you.” He stood, arrow straight, fixing me in that blue-eyed stare. “That’s always been enough before.”
“Sure. I love you. You know damn well that never changes. But dammit, Brian. This has to stop. You can’t just come to me whenever you need a thousand bucks, or a new job, or someone to just ‘fix’ your relationship. As if coming and screwing around with me is really going to fix your relationship. At some point, you have to be your own person!”
“You can… I mean… really, it’s okay.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “You want me to take you someplace and fuck you and then everything will be fine and dandy and you can ask anything you want of me. But no matter how much I might miss the feel of you, of your kiss… dammit!” I closed my eyes and turned away. “No matter how much I want you, I have to let go. I have to, Bri. I need a life of my own. I need to know that my life is not ruled by the whim of you calling me on my cell. I need to know that you aren’t the only man worth having in the world, because no matter what spin you put on it this instant, you are never more than Mr. Right Now, not for me. You gave yourself to someone else, and I’ve tried to fix that as best I can, heaven help me, to make that work for you.”
“Sure. If that were true we wouldn’t still be meeting like this.”
“We haven’t been. I thought we were done. A long time ago I told you I was ending it, all of it.”
“Right. And if I dropped to my knees right now, you wouldn’t be right there.”
I shook my head, trying to clear that entirely pleasant and tempting thought from my brain. “No, you’re right. I would be. Because I’m hopeless.” I turned away from him. “I want to believe, really believe, that you know it’s wrong. That you know we were meant to be. That you can bring yourself to admit it and come back to me.”
I looked over my shoulder at him, tears streaming down my cheek. “I want you to remember that I love you. And that I…” I choked out a sob. “That you…. Dammit, Bri, you loved me once! I know you did.”
He walked up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist, rubbing his cheek into my shoulder blade. “I did, Thommas. I really did. And I never stopped either. But that life is gone for both of us, and you know it.”
I reached down to clutch the arms wrapped around my waist and looked up at the stars, the tears running freely. “Fine. So you have me now. None of this fucking crap. Just tell me what you need this time.”
“Do I have to always need something?”
“Yes, Bri. Yes, you really do.”
He kept holding me. I could feel his mouth moving against my shoulder forming unspoken words. Then the words came curt and final and tormenting. “I hate it when you’re right.”
He let me go, forcing me to let go of his hands. I didn’t want to. God, love makes us such slaves. I could hear him pacing behind me. He’d start to say something and stop, and then start and stop again. Finally, without really saying anything, he crumpled behind me into a sobbing hysterical mess.
I took a deep breath, inhaling deeply through my nose and letting it out through my mouth. I stared at the stars, knowing my life was about to get very complicated, and then I turned to Brian, the greatest love of my life, and knelt to pick him up and carry him back to the car. I had juggled him drunk often enough that it took very little to shift enough to be able to open the door and lay him, crying still, on the back seat. I closed the door and returned to the driver’s seat, and I drove.
We reached the cabin around dawn. The drive had favored us, for there was very little traffic. I stepped out of the car and fetched Brian out of the back seat, carrying him easily back into the world we had shared together—our sanctuary. I shut the door behind us and carried him up the stairs that led to the open balcony of the second floor. A large comfortable bed dominated the room, an oaken nightstand sitting next to it. The top was empty save for a black and white photo in a silver frame, Brian’s youthful face beaming over my shoulder, his face nuzzled against mine. I was very glad he was too out of it to notice. I set him on the bed and stripped him down to the boxers that he clearly still favored, and shucked my own clothes, letting them sit in a pile at the base of the bed. Then I crawled into bed with him and slept.