And I Won’t Leave You Falling
Because majoring in two degrees meant a larger subject-load, I had run through the spring term of my junior year at SDSU cramming college courses right and left. I wanted to graduate on time without the luxury of succumbing to a ‘super-senior’ semester which meant planning carefully. I had advanced at an astounding pace but it was one I couldn’t keep up. Signing up for ten units of summer classes and bleeding myself into a state of total fatigue, I was on track to graduate the following spring.
There were days I dragged myself out of my apartment by my ears and gulped coffee all morning to keep myself awake. At night I thought I’d go crazy if I couldn’t take something to simply keep my eyes open so I could read another textbook chapter, and Starbucks didn’t have it. I’d kicked my drug habit to the curb long ago, but there were times I was tempted to just give in to the buzz I knew I could easily buy.
School, work, eat and sleep was a monotonous grind. I’d drop into bed and fall unconscious before my head even hit the pillow. I tried to recuperate on weekends, but being assistant manager at the gas station meant I worked the shift when an employee flaked out and nobody else was available. The area around Santa Bella had plenty of hot weather entertainment to tempt a minimum-wage worker to call in ‘sick’ on a sunny day. I was proud of what I was accomplishing but grateful that the start of the fall term signaled I could take on a more sensible, less debilitating class load.
Worried about my over-packed schedule, Mom and Dad did whatever they could to help. Inviting me to meals so I wouldn’t have to cook or buy junk food, volunteering to pick up my groceries when they shopped, and I even came home from work one Saturday to find Mom ready to clean my apartment for me. I thanked her and gave her a kiss but declined. No need for her to be checking out my small but easily visible gay porn collection in the bedroom.
They were nevertheless pleased with me and what I was doing with my future. Actually, they had a lot of be relieved about with all ‘us kids’ because there wasn’t a rotten apple in the bunch. Jana was using her career as a music educator to teach voice and piano lessons so she could stay home with her son while her husband, David, was employed by a San Diego hospital as an X-ray technologist. Nathan was a fine boy who noticed everything, and we all spoiled him rotten. Sister Linnie was engaged and in law school, Michael was majoring in internet tech, and I was going to be the family almost-shrink. We kidded each other that we should find a way to go into business together.
Since Nathan’s birth, I’d noticed a lot of positive changes in Michael; he was lighthearted and more laid back and had shed his stumbling puppy adoration. If his love life was improving and he’d found someone else to invest his time in, someone he wasn’t ready to introduce to us, more power to him. I was just happy to slide back into the casual friendship we’d enjoyed so long ago before sex entered the picture. Maybe it was maturity, maybe it was giving myself a well-deserved break, and maybe it was the change in Michael’s behavior. I let go, took a breath and staggered out from beneath the anxiety over what we used to mean to each other.
In early August, Linnie married in a large ceremony at a ritzy hotel-spa by the bay in San Diego. Like two years prior, Michael and I served as groomsman; unlike then, neither of us was attached so it made sense to hang together at the rehearsal dinner and reception. It felt as if we were returning home after a long journey, a reconnect of sorts, where we simultaneously decided that life was too short to fill it with drama.
Linnie’s new husband, Vince Packard, had two younger brothers in the wedding party, twins named Greg and Grant who were a year older than Michael and me. The Saturday afternoon nuptials ended up with the four of us sitting around in shirtsleeves, most of our tux pieces discarded, sharing bottles of Roederer Estate champagne in an otherwise empty corner of the reception hall.
“You’re brothers?” Grant had asked in surprise once everyone’s tongues were loosened up by the bubbly, noting that I didn’t look anything like the three Capshaw siblings.
“Sort-of brother,” Michael corrected, glancing at me without further explanation. When he stayed silent, I realized he was waiting for my permission to clarify. Acting vague invited questions, so I spared little detail and hoped it was enough. I was growing tired of people’s overly-enthusiastic condolences once they learned about my past.
“Well, that’s shitty,” Greg announced at the finish, blowing smoke from his cigarette. Fortunately, nothing more was said about my history. It turned out he and his brother were cool that way.
“So Dax is the cute one, and I’m the smart one,” Michael quipped, grinning sloppily in my direction. Measured by swallows, he was probably a good half-bottle of champagne ahead of me.
I stared at him in irony. “The smart one?” I prodded, raising an eyebrow. “What’s your GPA, Michael?”
He had just taken a large gulp straight from his bottle of Brut and started coughing, turning red. With three pair eyes daring him to prove his comment, he backtracked. “Okay, Dax is the cute one and the smart one.”
I indicated the embarrassed redhead. “Michael’s the one with the big mouth who doesn’t know how to think on his feet so he keeps himself busy trying to extract one from the other.”
There was no sting in my words, and when everyone laughed, Michael blushed and grinned. It was in teasing fun, not seeking to hurt feelings. He retaliated by sticking his tongue out at me, and we were good. Grant, Greg, Michael and I soon became fast friends. We all got drunk, talked shit and whooped it up like kids. Which, of course, we weren’t very far from, but it was a welcomed change from the past.
I was in the Capshaws’ backyard on a hot afternoon the following Saturday helping Dad replace the seven-foot fence separating them from their neighbors in the back and I was famished. I’d rushed through breakfast to arrive by nine, and four hours later we were still trying to dig rotting fence posts out of the mostly clay soil. Michael was scheduled to join us as soon as he finished taking a test at his school.
“I come bearing gifts,” I heard him call from inside the house, and then Michael was stepping through the patio door onto the cement. “I picked up burritos from Chipotle.”
Dad who was shoveling dirt drove the blade into the pile. I was hunched over the wide post hole inspecting the concrete support and stood up with a groan. I could feel the sunburn on my bare shoulders, and the sweat trickling down spine made my back itch. My eyesight blackened for a moment in dizziness so I didn’t see Michael’s eyes take on a momentary glaze of longing before he remembered himself.
“Thanks, Michael,” Dad said appreciatively. He turned to me. “Dax, why don’t we take a break and eat while the food is hot?”
I was only too glad to comply. We went inside to wash our hands. Returning to the family room, Michael was getting beer from the refrigerator and setting out the food.
“You saved me,” I grinned at him, twisting a cap on the Sam Adams Summer Ale in my hand. “I thought I was going to keel over.”
He reached over and picked a sliver of redwood out of my hair. I swayed a little, and Michael grabbed my arm, concerned. “Are you alright?”
“I’m just hungry, and it’s hot out,” I offered. “I’ll be fine once I eat.” I sniffed in anticipation, the scent of spicy chicken, black beans and salsa greeting my nose.
Michael led me over to the bar. “Sit down before you fall down.” He passed me a cardboard dish. “Dax, you need to take better care of yourself.”
I shrugged but I knew he was right. I had a high metabolism which kept my weight even, but if I skimped on meals it showed on my frame within a day or two. Michael was constantly fussing over me and saying I was too skinny.
Dad joined us and we talked about Linnie’s wedding and little Nathan while we ate. After the meal, Michael changed into work clothes, and by the time Mom returned from her Open House we had half the new fence built. She invited me to stay for dinner, and Michael volunteered to spend the night so he could help us finish the next day. Despite the dirty, hard work that tired us out and gave us sunburns and splinters, the two of us had a pleasant time.
Becoming friends with the Packards, both natural athletes, led me into getting more involved in sports and reevaluating my views of jocks who I generally despised as a group. During an in-depth conversation on the subject, Michael told them that we were gay. With my permission of course— he didn’t say a word about me anymore without checking with me first which I was grateful for and touched by his thoughtfulness.
Greg chuckled and lifted his shoulders to show they were cool with it. “We’re all human beings who bleed red, right?”
Grant bluntly mentioned that he and his brother were two of the typical students I probably would have avoided in high school for their elitist attitude. They were sprinters on their track team and played basketball and hung with others similar to Lamont Shores.
“Not that we hated gays exclusively,” he added solemnly with a sheepish smile. “But you know how it is when you’re immature and think you’re important. Maintaining an image is everything. You treat every single person who isn’t in your clique badly.”
“Most people, even dipshits like us, eventually grow up,” Greg chuckled. Michael and I looked at each other and grinned in agreement.
That was how I finally perfected my terrible swimming skills and learned to surf. We also began playing baseball and flag football, depending on the season, when we could get a group of friends together. I had the privilege of introducing Lauren, Emily, her friend, Carla, Grant and Greg to Michael and each other, and we all became close. It made my life even busier, but it was a nice busy.
The one place I was stagnating was therapy. By now, Zeke Carter had been my go-to man for nearly four years, but at some point I began to think of him as no more than just a body filling space. I trusted him, but as he made clear, he was primarily an adolescent therapist and didn’t keep most clients beyond age nineteen. By mutual consent, we came to the conclusion I would be better off switching to a new counselor. I soon began sessions with an adult therapist named Blaine Tazlow who was six-foot-five, a little on the heavy side and just happened to be gay.
Blaine read through my extensive file the night before our first meeting, and he didn’t waste any time. My anger, fears and frustrations from childhood were dealt with in short order, and it was clear that Zeke had done his job as well as possible in that aspect. I’d managed to put a lot of the shit my parents dumped on me into perspective, even the sexual stuff.
Next up was my high school affair with Michael Capshaw, and when I abruptly tensed up and began to respond in ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers without detailed explanation, Blaine realized we’d stumbled upon the crux of my problems. I was still very hung up on the demise of my relationship and how I felt about Michael in general. He got to the point and asked me to explain.
“The notes are all in the chart,” I growled.
“Some of those notes go back three years,” Blaine replied slowly, not letting me drop my gaze. “I want to hear it told from a more adult point of view. Tell me what you’ve learned.”
So I got tricked into discussing Michael anyway. I laid it all out like an open book; how alienated I’d been as a teen, how he’d been the only boy who wanted to be my friend and what the Capshaws taught me about families. He had made me feel special, then alternately both loved and devastated me as our sexual relationship waxed and waned.
Blaine flatly told me that I was the only one who could possibly know the truth about myself but he had suggestions on how to cope with my issues. He was the type of guy who felt that one of the goals in life was to test boundaries. Safe experimentation was not wrong if it assisted in your quest for self-discovery as long as no one got hurt in the process. Unlike Zeke, he didn’t believe a lot of the psycho-babble out there for the reading on sexual repression, but he was certain that I wouldn’t be completely content with myself until I trusted someone enough to love again. I owed it to myself to find out. And that was a totally personal journey I would have to embark on alone.
“Your biggest challenge is that you’re afraid to commit,” Blaine stated. “Life isn’t a given, Dax. You will make mistakes. You can’t let the issues of your past control you. Own up to how you feel, but make sure it’s what you feel. Sooner or later, you have to make a decision.”
I was facing another dilemma that came out of left field, and I had no idea how to handle it. My good friend, Emily, the girl I had met in the choir at Seaview who I hung around with? I was almost positive she was in love with me. I had never shared anything of myself except a little bit of teasing, a few opinions and a smattering of my history. Since my sexuality at the community college had been a closely guarded secret, she didn’t know I was gay. I loved her as a friend, but I didn’t love her in that way.
She was too shy to bring up her feelings or overtly hit on me, and I felt terrible letting her believe that she might have a chance. She had some of her own self-esteem challenges from childhood, such as being raised in a home where she could never measure up to a perfect older sister. Every time we got together and I saw the yearning on her face, I felt like I was leading her on.
I soon came up with a surprisingly easy idea. As part of my schooling I was to acquire volunteer hours in some capacity at a clinic or hotline. I had chosen the Rape Crisis Center because of my own past, and I was surprised and pleased to find that Emily worked there too. The staff trained me to man the phones when a molested teenage boy would call in for help or needed a friendly ear, but sometimes I counseled young men who had been raped. I was surprised to find out how prevalent it was in the gay community and how few assaults were reported, especially among my age-group. So I figured if the subject ever came up, my help at the center would be a nice way to segue into some honesty for a change.
The subject came to a head in October.
I had just left a training meeting at the Rape Hotline building, and I bumped into Emily who was picking up her schedule for the next two weeks. She looked good as always with her straight auburn hair tied in its traditional ponytail and her round, green eyes twinkling. “Hey, are you busy right now?” she asked me pleasantly. “I thought we could pick up some lunch and go over to the Seaview campus to eat.”
“I have a class late this afternoon,” I answered with a grin. “But I’m free until three o’clock. Lunch sounds good.”
Because she was still a student at the community college and had current parking stickers on her car, it was decided to leave my truck in the Center’s employee lot. We picked up sandwiches at a local deli before heading to school. A little breezy, it was a delightful day, sunny and not too warm for October. I let Emily lead the way past our usual picnic table to a secluded spot up the hill under a patch of flaming red and gold liquidambar trees near the foreign language lab, and she spread a blanket in the grass while I divided the food between us. We were away from the queues of jean-clad students who preferred the Student Union patios, and I wondered if she was looking for privacy.
We made small-talk while we ate where I mostly entertained her with tales about my senior year at State and how interesting my classes in my chosen field were becoming. I was bursting with excitement to graduate in seven months’ time and start my year-long internship at the Counseling Center. Zeke and Blaine, my former and current therapists, had agreed to take me on and teach me the ropes as I put my schooling to the test.
For her part, Emily mentioned that between college, work and family life she had resigned herself to being a half-semester behind which was why she was still at Seaview. I told her she had plenty of time to work in extra classes if she felt so strongly about completing her degree in two years. She was looking at a career in computer systems but wasn’t sure where to continue school after getting her general education courses out of the way. She’d recently been promoted at her job in retail with better pay and full benefits, and I congratulated her.
There was something different about Emily that I couldn’t put my finger on. Oh, I could still cheer her up with gentle teasing. But she was paying more attention to my words and weighed them with a gravity that was curious. Maybe it was the rigors of work and college since midterms were coming up, or it could even be due to her growing maturity which in many ways outstripped mine.
We had been discussing the upcoming holidays. I loved the buildup to Christmas while Emily said it was just another occasion for her parents to compare her superior, overachieving sister to her slacking self. Emily was certainly no slacker, but they didn’t see it. I was about to suggest there might be a counselor at the college to give her ideas on how to talk to them.
“I’d like to meet your family,” Emily stated, smiling sweetly. “The Capshaws sound nice.”
I sensed an undercurrent to her request as she shifted a bit to sit closer to me and leaned her head against my shoulder. The display of affection wasn’t exactly new. She had been working up to it for a couple of months and it was touching and sweet yet scary. She wasn’t the kind of girl to act coy simply for the sake of flirtation and I could see that her attraction to me was as strong as ever. Meeting the family also signified something important, and I could just imagine the chaos that would break out if I took Emily home. It was a sharp reminder to be truthful, but my mouth went dry at the thought of what that would entail. Honesty about my past, and nothing but.
“Uh… sure, maybe we could do that some time.”
I didn’t move and let her continue to lean into me. I knew I was sending signals that were best left alone. But she felt good nestled up against me, my body craving the warmth of a human form which I hadn’t had in a long time. Decorum said I should let her bring up the subject of how she felt about me, but her reserve probably hoped I’d figure it out on my own. The wistfulness in her eyes made me sad. Just tell the truth, the voice in my head taunted shrilly, and I looked down at Emily to find her pretty face tilted upwards, her eyes locking into mine. She, being one of my only true friends, was too noble for this bullshit, and I was too worn out to keep up the charade.
“What’s wrong, Dax?” she asked. “You look so tense.”
I had only eaten a quarter of my turkey sub but my appetite fled and I had no choice but to look away from her scrutiny. I swallowed hard.
“Dax?” Emily questioned, and I held up a shaking hand, silently asking for time.
I dropped the rest of my sandwich on the wrapper. Glancing down at my lap, I sighed heavily and steeled myself. I could get through this- I just had to put one word in front of the other and form complete, coherent sentences. Whatever the consequences, nothing could be worse than this hell I was going through, knowing I was leading Emily on.
“I have a question for you,” I began in a tight voice, “and then, depending on your answer, I have something to tell you.”
She nodded. Her smile froze and she went still, the issue sitting between us like a deepening ravine. I wanted to run. It should be so easy to just spit it out but it wasn’t, and I could see anxiety welling in her eyes. That was almost worse.
A single burgundy-colored gum leaf detached itself from the branch, and I watched its descent as it floated on the breeze to land on the blanket. I felt myself wishing I could be like that leaf in the wind, unimportant and without a care.
“You like me, don’t you. I mean, like-like, as in, you have a crush on me.”
Her nervousness instantly split into several different emotions. I think she was initially relieved that her love for me was out in the open, given wings without her having to say a word. But she still dreaded my answer, and so the smile that peeked out was tentative and tinged with fear.
“I love you, Dax,” she said sincerely, gazing down into her lap as her cheeks turned pink. “I’ve been in love with you since I met you.”
“Okay,” I choked, and I immediately realized I had misspoken. Her smile widened, and I could tell she thought I returned her feelings. “No, I mean…”
I took a deep breath. “Emily, I don’t know how to say this because you’re going to think I’m the biggest asshole in the world.”
“I would never think that of you,” she objected. The dreamy look was gone from her eyes and I could tell she was about to follow her statement up with more protests, so I put a finger over her lips to quiet her. I sighed.
“Last year when I first told you about Michael and me fighting,” I said haltingly, “it was much more serious than I let on. It’s true that it was over a friend of his, Isaac, whom I didn’t like at all.” I checked with Emily to see if she was listening, and she nodded slightly in encouragement.
“But the biggest reason I don’t get along with Michael anymore is because I’m gay, and he is my ex-boyfriend. He cheated on me in high school and we broke up.”
“Oh,” she said simply. Emily continued to stare at me for another thirty seconds, her mind digesting my explanation. Then she seemed to cave inwardly when it broke through. This time her blush covered her whole face.
“You’re gay?” she whispered, and I saw her eyes fill with tears as she sat up straighter.
“I’m sorry, Emily,” I gulped, truly shamed by the pain I’d caused her. “I’ve known for awhile that you like me, and I should have told you months ago. I was afraid of hurting your feelings, but then I realized that this was worse. I’ve been an ass, and I’m sorry.”
“I knew it was too good to be true,” she mumbled. “My friend, Carla, tried to warn me, and I didn’t believe her. She knows somebody who graduated with you.”
I didn’t know what else to say other than more apologies and the usual platitudes about staying friends and not wanting her to feel badly, that kind of thing. By the time we finished our lunch she seemed to have recovered and was smiling again. We made a date to go see a film together.
I wasn’t sure why having to shut Emily down made me feel like such a jerk. I’d had plenty of occasions in the past where some guy I slept with wanted to date me and see if we could develop a relationship, and I’d have to tell him no because I didn’t do commitment. Maybe it was Emily being the first female to ever approach me and claiming to be in love with me. She was such a sweetheart and kind and needy. It was somehow different with girls, and because she was a friend and I didn’t want to fuck up our friendship, I had to be doubly careful with her feelings.
“How did your moving go?”
The question came from my counselor, Blaine Tazlow and was part of my weekly therapy session. I had recently decided I could afford a nicer apartment, one that didn’t look as if it had been built cheap in the ‘70s and hastily remodeled two decades later, so I’d moved across town. My new place had a second bedroom that I used for studying with an extra bed for guests, a large master bath containing a tub and oversized shower and a sizeable kitchen with well-running appliances. Best of all, the complex featured a club area for hosting parties, a workout room and a swimming pool. Not that I expected to have time to use the perks.
“Good,” I acknowledged, gazing around the familiar but shabby office with its restful blue walls covered with framed college degrees and two soothing landscapes of meadow, woods and sky. There was a desk that had seen better days and a tatty tan and blue loveseat and chair.
Blaine raised his eyebrows at me and I had to smile, knowing he hated letting me get away with one-word answers, even when he asked questions that were satisfied by them.
“Dad, a couple friends and some of my co-workers helped me,” I amended in what I hoped was reassurance. “I don’t own a lot of stuff and most of it was already boxed up, so moving was very simple.”
Life, as they say, moved on with startling regularity. A beautiful early autumn in Santa Bella turned into a cold, wet November, but I barely noticed the weather. My days had become overly full with senior year classes towards my co-degrees in mental health counseling and marriage and family therapy supplemented by my hotline work at the Rape Crisis Center and my assistant manager position at the gas station. I felt good. I was content, which was a rare surprise, but it was resoundingly true on every level.
Blaine interrupted my reverie to ask how my friendship was going with Michael. I could have said fine but again, he wanted details. Sometimes I just didn’t want to provide them, even if it was in my best interests to try.
“Good enough that we hang out regularly.” I turned brown eyes on the man. “He’s as busy as I am in school, but we make time for each other. I visit him in Orange or he comes down to hang with me. We’re supposed to get together over the weekend with friends at our brother-in-law’s to watch college football.”
Hanging at Linnie and Vince’s apartment to drink beer with Michael, Greg and Grant and cheer our favorite sports teams was one of my favorite pastimes. Linnie didn’t appear to mind the excess of testosterone, and I think it appealed to her motherly side that Michael and I were bonding to her husband’s brothers. Like we were one big happy family.
“Are you two working through the past? What about his crush on you?”
“Michael knows more about me than anyone else,” I laughed. “We get pissed at each other on occasion, but as long as he doesn’t purposely irritate me, sticks to the boundaries and isn’t falling all over me in puppy-dog infatuation, I’m good.”
“So you call the shots?” he asked, arching his eyebrow. “You make the rules?”
“Not all the time.” His insinuation that our friendship was unequal annoyed me, even though it was a little true. Outside, the sky was dark and rain slashed against the narrow window, matching my mood. “I didn’t like the submissive person he morphed into when he was so needy he let me walk all over him. It reminded me too much of Isaac.”
“And what about now? Do you think he loves you?”
“He’s never been good at covering up how he feels, but nothing he says or does acts like he has a crush on me. I hope for his sake that he has a boyfriend stashed up at Chapman he isn’t ready to bring forward yet.”
But on second thought, I didn’t think this was true. Michael never brought up the name of any other man in my presence or introduced a boyfriend to the family. He never stepped away to take quiet telephone calls or text messages when we were together and always had time available to spend with me. That didn’t sound like someone with a boyfriend, but it didn’t seem to bother him any. So maybe we were in the same boat with nobody special in our lives. For me it was typical, for him, poignant that one of us couldn’t be happy.
“You still didn’t answer the question about your side of the equation.” Blaine was good. I could never slip one past him. He sat there, tapping his desk with a pen. “Do you have any feelings at all for Michael now? Aside from the friendship?”
I shrugged, earning me a pitying look from him. “Dax, if you can’t be honest with yourself how can you be honest with anyone?”
“Maybe I simply don’t know,” I answered evasively. This was getting so old. “It’s the best that we’ve gotten along since we were in high school, and I want to keep it that way. It doesn’t have to go anywhere else.”
I left therapy feeling depressed and hating the self-introspection and invasion of privacy. I was so tempted to quit. At least Blaine had stopped asking how I felt about my other exes. In a way I hoped would forestall any future curiosity on the topic, I’d explained that I no longer thought about their place in my past, let alone loved them. Not even Brendan, and with the choice he’d made to exclude me, I was done missing him.
It sometimes felt awkward being a single in a world surrounded by couples on campus, but there was a freedom in not having to worry about learning someone’s likes and dislikes, being always available and dealing with hurt feelings and disparate opinions, no matter how damn abandoned I felt without a partner. Or so I told myself. I made believe I could handle alone for the long haul. Love was not in the cards for me; it had always been difficult to sustain for more than a few months without my boyfriend taking a hike or, in most cases, just leaving me twisting in the wind. Give me a decade or so and I probably wouldn’t even remember their names.
Blaine knew I wasn’t seeing anyone and was extremely picky about making friends. I had the sports group, of course, who were all important in my life, a miracle in itself seeing as how extending trust was so difficult for me. Quietly feeling my way outwards, a poke, a nod, a quick conversation that turned into something with slightly more direction, and I was finding a new acquaintance. For the most part, acquaintances were how they remained because it took a lot of faith to elevate them to the strata of friendship.
Once bitten, twice shy. The only exception was Michael.
Ah, Michael! If there was one person that I would stake my life on, it was him. So long since he had voiced anything close to devotion, I knew he no longer loved me, but his place in my life gave me gentle pleasure and a sense of belonging. For some weird reason, despite the crossed stars of our past, our friendship had a staying power that defied logic. If I had a problem, all I had to do was pick up the phone, knowing he’d be there for me, and vice versa. Maybe it was because we were brothers under the skin, even though I sometimes hated it when he called me ‘bro’, but hey! It was a small concession to make, and I’d shake my head and quietly sigh, realizing there was nothing I could say to stop his only term of endearment for me.
The end-of-year holidays rolled around to their daze of food and celebration.
For the past four years I had gone to the Capshaws a day or two before Thanksgiving in order to avoid Michael, but seeing as how we were getting along, I didn’t think it was necessary anymore. So when Mom called me the middle of November and asked me what my plans were, I asked if she minded me coming over on Thanksgiving Day.
“Dax,” she scolded in an amused voice. “Mind? Of course we don’t mind. When are you going to realize you are a family member who is just as important to us as the other three? Please, yes, we’d love to see you on Thanksgiving Day.”
Michael answered the door when I rang the doorbell—naturally—and was both astonished and pleased to find me on the porch that Thursday afternoon. I’d brought what was becoming a signature dish for me, sweet potatoes baked with maple syrup and pecans, and he looked at it in chagrin.
“For heaven’s sake, let him in, Michael,” Dad exclaimed as we stared at each other through the screen door. “And Dax, how many times do I have to tell you that you can walk right in. You don’t have to ring the bell like you’re a guest.”
I had an enjoyable day with the family, part of it beginning to fully learn what being an adopted Capshaw meant. Michael and I joked and chatted. It was the best turkey day holiday I’d had since graduating from high school.
Late Christmas afternoon. The delicious ham dinner Mom worked so hard on was quickly devoured and our gifts under the tree opened. Jana and David had taken Nathan, my six-month-old nephew, home because he was miserable due to teething. Linnie and her husband, Vince, followed shortly thereafter to spend some time with his family. It left Mom and Dad, Dax and me to mellow out in the post-holiday quiet. Where I stared at Dax’s ripped frame, dreaming and fantasizing when he wasn’t looking. Admiring him was all I had left.
Casting my mind back through our entwined pasts, I suddenly realized how quickly the time had flown by. Here were the two of us, in our early twenties, still dealing with our history like an unwelcome guest. Being eighteen and that long-ago night when Dax had come darting into my bedroom, scared to death over the thunderstorm, and flinging himself in bed with me to become a part of my destiny. I had to admit it was definitely for the better; he had enriched me in many delightful and unexpected ways. We had come full circle- friends, lovers, enemies and back to good friends. It was a companionship I would not trade for all the wealth of the world. We were like orbiting planets, racing the sun.
I still passionately yearned for him, not that he knew. My friend Yohji had taught me well. I was on constant alert at all times when Dax was nearby. He stirred such lust in me, springing out of nowhere, and the last thing I wanted was to give away how much I needed him. Often times I couldn’t look directly at him because I was afraid he’d see the desire emblazoned in my eyes. I fought myself constantly so I wouldn’t drop to my knees and beg him yet again to take me back, willing him to say yes so we’d never be separated. But to ask was to be rejected and undo all the breeziness I’d fought to create, and my psyche couldn’t handle another hit. He’d get angry, tell me to back off and never trust me again.
The long-ago sweet memories of making love to him were what now sustained me, and I was in the throes of hopeless, unrequited love for my best friend. I had to restrain myself from touching him when he was near. I carefully watched my body language around him, and heaven help me if I caught the barest whiff of his Diesel-infused scent; it made me instantly hard. At least I’d gotten smarter and had the benefit of age in helping me choose not to fuck up our friendship in any way possible. Not unless/until Dax gave me a sign that he wanted the same, and that wasn’t going to happen, not in an eon of forevers!
There was little in Dax’s exquisite face to remind me of the shy, scrawny nerd he’d been in high school. He was beautiful but not feminine. He was stretching out his earlobes a little with gauges and his hair was getting long, flowing midway down his back. His new look made him even hotter. Dax had absolutely no idea of his impact on other people. Entering a room, he drew glances from almost everyone, either lighting up in desire or narrowing in jealousy, but the energy he gave off was endearingly shy, imaginatively strong and kind. He was absolute perfection, and I couldn’t partake.
So I enjoyed our friendship and spent as much time with him as possible. Movie marathons- we both favored suspense movies but neither of us were much into the horror genre that was simply too campy and unbelievable. Along with the twins, we met up with neighbors and friends to watch sports on television or play football and baseball games down at the high school fields; his bad hand-eye coordination made him a liability, but Dax was good-natured about it, and he could play on my team any time.
It gave me a chance to meet some of his new pals like Lauren, Emily and Carla. We both enjoyed the latest MMORPG video game but soon tired of the first-person shooter variety. Grabbing a fast food meal as we headed out to the beach for a day of sun and surfing where I could ogle his luscious half-naked body or meeting at the local bar for few beers and boozy men-talk, even studying together at the library. There was always something to do, some way to be with him.
Time was running short. We had five months left until college graduation, and all bets were off after that. Dax would go on to his year-long internship in counseling and then seek employment as a therapist, possibly even moving away from Santa Bella. I had applied for several MBA programs, arguing plaintively with myself over whether it was less painful to cut ties with Dax now by going out of the area to school or put off the inevitable and study locally.
On an early February weekend, Dax was restless and wanted to do something different. I was never a club-crawler, but he’d spent countless hours in his dissolute youth drinking, dancing the night away and looking for the come-hither eyes of a potential lover. Uncomfortable with the vision of Dax inserted into this tableau, I nevertheless agreed to accompany him to his favorite gay dance club, Cobbles. We even enlisted our by-marriage, sort of brother-in-law, Grant, to come with us, straight as an arrow as he might be. Dax and I had never hidden the fact that we were gay from him or his brother, Greg, but Grant was the more adventuresome of the twins. He was a little curious about the lifestyle and volunteered to be our designated driver.
It was Friday night, a crowded evening despite the chilly drizzle outside. The club was warm as only packed bodies can make it, filled with the smell of cigarette smoke and sweat, mingling with the less pervasive scent of sex. Grant was all wide eyes at the male couples flirting, dancing and kissing, the electro beat thumping almost into the pain level of decibels, as we settled into a table in the back. Dax left us to cut through the crowds to the bar to give our drink orders to a cute tender behind it.
I watched Dax longingly, his ass sashaying across the carpeted floor in skintight gray denim jeans hung so low on his slim hips it was a marvel they didn’t fall down. He was certainly commando underneath because there was no room inside them between fabric and his body. My dick was getting rigid and I know my mouth had dropped open, but so fixed was my gaze on Dax, I started when Grant spoke.
“You’re in love with him, aren’t you?” he asked in a quiet tone, drawing in a mouthful of smoke from his cigarette.
I turned to his sympathetic regard and shrugged helplessly. “Fucked up, huh, Grant,” I said, staring into his sympathetic eyes and hoping desperately that my feelings weren’t as obvious to Dax. “We went out in high school but I messed up, and I’ve been in love with him ever since. He won’t give me another chance, but at least we can be friends.”
Grant nodded, blowing a cloud of white into the already murky atmosphere. “That’s rough. So, it’s been what- about four years? It’s a long time to hide a secret.”
I smiled grimly, my heart twisting painfully in my chest. “The details of that sad story are better off left alone, but I take full responsibility for everything I did to him.”
“Is there any chance, you know, that he feels the same way?” Grant seemed to be embarrassed, not that I was in love with another man but only because his curiosity had gotten the best of him.
“No, none,” I replied firmly, observing Dax returning to the table, balancing two beers and a shot glass in his hands. “He’s made it abundantly clear in the past it will never happen.”
“I’d call that a tragedy because I think the two of you would be good for each other. But I won’t say anything to Dax, sealed lips and all." He made the pantomime of locking his mouth.
“I appreciate that, thanks. If he found out… uh, let’s agree he wouldn’t be happy.” I shuddered. “He only wants to be friends. I’m lucky he’s willing to hang with me at all.”
“Understood.” Grant’s face was still sad but he winked at me in conspiracy, a wink that didn’t go unnoticed by Dax who was suddenly by our sides. He grinned at us as we made careful grabs for the beers.
“Are you two hitting on each other?” he asked, astonished, his head swiveling so fast it made his hair swing.
Grant and I stared back and forth and burst into laughter. It cleared the air, allowing us all to enjoy the evening for the most part. For the next three hours Grant fended off invitations to dance with good-natured charm as the regulars tried to pick up a fresh body, and we took the initiative to tease and snicker at him. Being good hosts and with no desire to leave him defenseless, Dax and I also refused dance offers.
I sipped my way through two beers, but Dax ordered three more shots as the night progressed, and I enjoyed the sight of him unwinding into the early stages of inebriation. He was cuter than ever when he loosened up, relaxed and making easy quips with a wide, sloppy grin on his face. He even giggled. In my fantasies I saw him indulging in so much whiskey he got plastered and invited me into bed with him, and then I decided it wasn’t worth the long-term risk. No matter how it was initiated, he’d find a way to blame me.
At some point while we were engrossed in the comfortable rhythm of conversation, the sound of hearty laughter and effusive greetings in a high tenor voice reached our ears. We looked around for the target, but Dax was already grinning and sprinting out of his chair. A very tall, scrawny, Latin man in his late twenties with straight waist-long black hair, shining dark eyes and a smooth face stood ten feet away. He noticed the motion and gasped, throwing his arms wide. “Dax, sweet boy, baby! You’re back!”
At least I thought it was a man. Okay, I was being facetious, but it had been a dizzying night. The newcomer was a very gregarious femme wearing a lavender t-shirt that rode up on his slender waist and displayed a well-muscled torso, shoulders and arms. His small ass and toned thighs were tightly clad in a pair of clingy, purple girls’ dance pants adorned by pink suspenders. Colorful glittery makeup accented his face, his ears were pierced with both gold studs and large hoops and his right wrist was encircled by at least ten bangles of various thicknesses and materials. With a sinuous leap he was by Dax’s side.
“Tomas,” Dax cried enthusiastically, grinning and jumping into his embrace to hug him solidly.
The femme gave him a kiss on both cheeks and held him back to check him out thoroughly. “You are looking great, baby. No more drugs, right?”
“I’m good, Tomas, really.” Dax blushed under the scrutiny. “How’s life?”
Tomas pouted. “Everything’s the same except the lovers, honey.” I watched his eyes light up. “Speaking of which, when am I going to get a turn at your delicious ass?” His hand reached to fondle said ass, and my vision misted red at the blatant familiarity.
Still in the other man’s arms, Dax dramatically lowered his eyes while batting his lashes in a teasing manner. “I’ve told you before. You’re beautiful but just not my type.”
Tomas mock-sighed tragically, and for the first time he noticed Grant and me. “Oh my, friends of Dax.” He put one hand on his hip, the other to his mouth and looked us both up and down as if he was stripping us with his eyes. “Aren’t you two the sweetest! Definite that I’d be happy with one of you in my bed. Or both, if that’s the way you lean.”
Grant turned white and then beet red as Dax cracked up, bending over to hold on to the back of the chair and stay upright. “Oh my god,” he gasped out in nearly helpless mirth, hysterical tears popping into his eyes. I made a weak attempt at laughing back, nervous because the man meant every word and our friend looked like he wanted to crawl under the table.
Dax indicated Grant and wiped his face. “Sorry, but he’s straight, Tomas.”
It was the dark Latino’s turn to erupt into fits of giggles, and it felt as if everyone in the club was staring at us. But when Grant recovered quickly and caught the joke, I hooted too, finally seeing the hilarity in the zany offer.
Tomas joined us at the table for awhile and we exchanged names. Dax explained that the he was a buyer for a store called Gerard’s in San Diego’s prominently gay Hillcrest district. He paid for drinks for us, and I allowed him to buy me a beer while Dax got another shot for himself. Despite his unorthodox appearance, Tomas was good for conversation and a lot of fun.
A half hour later, he planted a lingering kiss on Dax’s mouth and stood up. “Gotta mingle,” Tomas announced, flinging his head to indicate the club crowd. “Don’t want to make anyone jealous.” He looked at Grant and me. “If you ever change your minds, my dears, let me know.” And with that, he was gone.
Grant cleared his throat noisily and looked up at the ceiling, obviously embarrassed by the sight of Tomas kissing Dax which, to be honest, had been hot even if it did fan my jealousy a bit. Dax blinked woozily, skin lightly gleaming with sweat and a blush, and he shook his head.
“Too much to drink I think,” he slurred.
I laughed out loud. “You think? Maybe you should try mixing the Jack with soda or something.”
He stared at me in shock. “That would ruin the taste of fine whiskey.” His protest was good-natured.
“You did this to yourself,” I pointed out, “so don’t complain tomorrow when you can barely move.”
It was decided that we should leave. Grant already had his car keys in hand. “Remind me to never let you drive, Dax.”
“What, don’t you like ditches?” Dax stood up, a little unsteady on his feet as he led us out of the club and we followed.
Grant grabbed my arm and smirked. “Maybe you’d get farther with Dax if you dressed more like Tomas.”
I gaped and turned to find him grinning wickedly. For a hetero guy, he had a startlingly offbeat sense of humor. “Nah, I’m good,” I answered in a chuckle. “Besides, pink clashes with my hair color.”
I’d left my car at Dax’s place so that’s where Grant dropped us off. I liked his new apartment which was only five miles down the road from my parents’ house. His was a corner unit on the bottom floor with a nice floorplan and visitor parking close by. Dax had previously explained how moving in now rather than after graduation worked better for him because he would be starting his counseling internship by the second week of June and would have little time for relocation. I was happy that he trusted me enough to even give me an address.
Dax was clearly intoxicated by the time we arrived, and his safety dictated that I see to it that he made it inside. I took him by the arm and hauled him along the sidewalk to his unit. He was stumbling as he made his way, weaving drunkenly, loudly humming some old rock classics in an unfamiliar off-key way. I kept shushing him; it was nearly midnight, and I didn’t think his neighbors would appreciate his noisy singing.
“Here you go, Dax,” I said as we stood in front of his door. He made several stabs to retrieve his house key from his overly tight jeans, but he didn’t quite have the dexterity to loop his fingers into the pocket.
“Hold on, I’ll get it,” I finally offered. I carefully reached in to fish the hard piece of metal out, and with the way he twisted in my grasp, it was nearly impossible not to graze his cock through the fabric. To my astonishment, I could feel his erection growing.
“Mmm, Michael…” I looked up at Dax to find him staring at me, his eyes wild and needy. He licked his lips. I could almost see what he was thinking in those deep brown pools. They mirrored my own desire, but oh no, we certainly were not going there. Dax was bombed and to take advantage of him invited catastrophe.
“Hey, bro, let’s get you inside,” I suggested in my most laid-back voice, slinging his arm over my shoulder. He turned to melt into me, and suddenly I was holding Dax up in an embrace and trying to fit his key into the lock. Luckily I felt the levered edge catch on the very first attempt to unlatch the door, and within seconds I pushed it open. I flipped a switch on the wall, and the ceiling light came on in the entry. I practically had to drag him inside, and he was doing little to help other than sliding one foot ahead of the other.
By this time Dax was whining in my arms and nestling into my neck, trying to kiss me. His waking cock was swelling between his thighs and nudging me. “Need you, Michael,” he whimpered. Oh God, it was difficult to ignore what he was suggesting when I wanted him just as badly. I begged whatever amused god was listening to keep Dax blissfully unaware of my own rapidly thickening cock pressing against his.
The images of the great sex we had shared in a better life were making me hard as iron, and the memories roiled within, no matter how valiantly I tried to block them. Once upon a time Dax had no greater desire than to please me in bed, the giver of the best blowjobs ever, a sweet man-child with phenomenal skills. He would stare innocently up into my face with such intense love and my hard dick between his warm, wet lips. I shivered as lust swirled around my core.
My body was reaching out to him and desire swept through me. I longed to plant my cock in that tight ass of his. I would search for his sweet spot to tap it again and again making him cry out and beg for release. In my head I could hear the moans that drove me crazy with passion, and I’d give anything to have back the enraptured expression on his face when he would cum between our hot, sweaty torsos. But this was a pleasure I would never again be allowed to savor because I had carelessly thrown it away.
I sternly turned my thoughts off, resisting him. “Let’s get you into bed so you can sleep it off.”
Lifting him up higher in my arms, I guided him in reverse through his hall into his bedroom. It was decorated in black and pale green and was nearly filled by a black wrought-iron king-sized bed. I paced him to the side and swept back the sheets and comforter. I gently pushed him so he could sit down and Dax sprawled backwards, his eyes slitted.
I leaned over him and drew his tight shimmery shirt over his head. He caught my hand in his as we tangled in the thin black cloth, pulling and causing me to kneel beside him on the mattress so I wouldn’t fall by his side. He kept yanking at me until he got my head close enough to snag an arm around my neck. I could see he was intent on kissing me. Oh shit, if he only knew how much I wanted the same thing.
I shifted my weight and ducked away from him. “Not tonight, bro. Bedtime.”
He grabbed hold of my hip, and it was all I could do to keep my balance. My cock was so hard it would probably have zipper indentations in it. It was like he had made up his mind to have me and there was no changing it. The need in him made his eyes sparkle dangerously.
“Come ’ere,” Dax beckoned, a smile playing across his full lips and making his delicate features dazzling. “Want you here, sexy man.” He absently patted the green cotton sheet next to him.
“No, I think what you want is a good night’s sleep.” I finally wrestled the shirt from him and folded it on the nightstand before pulling off his Vans and low socks. His jeans, bulging tightly over his stiff cock, came next, and I peeled them down trim hips and long legs, revealing him in his splendor. Four years had added sinew and muscle to his gorgeously naked body, and his pectorals and abdominals were delineated and tanned. His nipples had hardened into russet nubs, and he was still completely hairless except for a thin trail of pale hair from navel to crotch.
His cut, seven inch cock strained in a rosy arch out of his soft, dark-blonde pubic hair, the mushroom head flaring above the thick shaft and weeping precum all over his lower stomach. Swallowing hard, I forced my hungry eyes away from his groin and grabbed his legs to swing him around and under the covers.
“Please stay,” Dax moaned, stretching towards me from between the sheets, his toned shoulders making his bed look like dessert. His eyes were soft and beseeching. It was true that I could’ve taken him up on his offer and made the claim of my own intoxication, but it was a dangerous road to travel if Dax questioned my reason later. With anyone but him I would’ve gotten away with it, and it was all I could do to refuse him.
I walked into the bathroom, retrieving ibuprofen and a cup of water which I handed to Dax. “Take this,” I told him. “You’ll feel better in the morning.” He obeyed me, his eyes never leaving my face, and I stroked his cheek when I took the cup back. “Go to sleep, Dax. Call me tomorrow.”
His eyes were already closing when I left the room. I put his keys on the kitchen counter where he couldn’t miss them and let myself out, locking up behind me. Climbing into the driver’s seat of my car, I took several labored breaths and scrubbed my face with my hands as I sat, silent, for several minutes, my forehead against the steering wheel.
I didn’t have a clue how I managed to dodge the bullet, but some fortitude kept me from messing up. Dax was safely in bed, and I’d kept my own welling desire in check. He would never know how close I came to giving into his pleas, to giving him the sex with me he wanted. It was exactly what I had wanted too. But not when he was too inebriated to remember me in the morning, not when he would curse me for taking advantage.
I texted Dax late the next morning, and the message I received back was grumpy but not particularly angry or self-conscious. Apparently he didn’t remember me putting him to bed, for which I was grateful. Even though I hadn’t succumbed to his wishes, I was afraid he’d be mortified enough to shun me for just being there. But in the end, all he had was a mean hangover and didn’t want to go to Mom and Dad’s to watch college basketball like we planned. As uneasy as his expected reaction made me, I could not turn down the opportunity to spend time with him. I volunteered to go over and keep him company and was surprised when he agreed.
“The Jack Daniels will get you every time,” I jibed when he opened his door to me at eleven o’clock and narrowed his eyes, groaning, as direct sunlight sliced across his vision.
“Shut up,” he groused, “or you can go home.” I walked in, smirking at his discomfort, and took a seat on his couch. He slouched in the armchair, his head lolling back against the upright cushion, eyes closed.
“Well, I hate to say it, but I told you…” I couldn’t resist teasing him because he’d opened himself up to it.
“Shut up, Michael!” I heard the smile in his voice, despite his headache pain. “If you ‘hate to say it’, don’t.”
I laughed and looked around. The furniture I had missed last night in the dark was sueded leather, mid-priced but well-made, in a deep forest green. A rectangular coffee table in blonde oak and two matching end tables with drawers completed the ensemble. Through the wide opening to the kitchen I could see an oaken oval table and corresponding ladder-back chairs.
Dax had good taste, decidedly male, but a discerning style. It was clear that he had slowly replaced the old, mismatched furniture he’d moved in with from our parents’ house after high school. I plainly recalled from the night before what his bed looked like with him in it, and my breath caught in longing appreciation for the man across from me. Then I visualized both of us naked there, and the image made my cock go rigid in seconds. Fuck, shit and holy hell!
“So what do you do to get rid of your hangovers?” I asked curiously, adjusting the way I sat to compensate for my growing hard-on. I was thankful that his eyes were closed and his living room was lit dimly by closed blinds. “You’re supposed to drink lots of water and take vitamin C and ibuprofen.”
“I did that when I got up,” he moaned, throwing his arm across his face. “Fuck, Michael, why didn’t you stop me after the third shot?”
I choked back a laugh and shifted somewhat on the couch. “Since when do you listen to me? The Dax I know hates to be told ‘no’. Blame your friend, Tomas. He bought you the last one.”
His reply was a grunt and a thrown green pillow aimed at my head. I caught it in midair.
“I’m starting to get responses to my submissions for grad school,” I announced brightly, changing the subject to distract Dax out of his misery. “I applied to business programs at ten colleges, but four are my true goal.”
“Which ones?” Dax was at least listening. “Are any here in California?”
“Two of them,” I answered. “UCLA and Stanford both have good curricula, but Stanford is the best. The other two are Cornell and the University of Texas at Austin. They have two to three year programs and will allow me to put the hours of my current job towards the necessary work experience.”
He fell silent. At first I thought he was dozing off, but then he lifted his head to look into my eyes and speak quietly. “UCLA would be good, you know? It’s close enough to home that we could hang together. Maybe not as much as now; you’ll be mega-busy with classes, and I’ll have my internship to keep me occupied, but at least you wouldn’t be in Texas or New York.”
I could scarcely believe my ears. It sounded as if Dax wanted me to stay close. For a chance of him… of us, damn it, I would do anything. “Yeah, UCLA,” I agreed softly. “I haven’t heard from them yet, but…”
Dax sat up straighter and the hangover pain diminished in his eyes. I could almost see his mind working. “Can you believe we’re actually going to graduate from college in May?” His face became animated and he sounded incredulously happy. “It’s almost unbelievable! Me of all people, with a college degree!”
I shook my head at his humility and stared at him, surprised by the doubt in his voice. “You have no idea how smart you are, do you,” I stated with warm approval, leaning forward with elbows on my knees, to ensure he recognized the praise. “You work so damned hard all the time, Dax, and never give up. Maybe from where you came from, it seems like a miracle, but it’s all due to your own effort. You put the students at most colleges to shame. I mean, shit, you’re going after a co-major, you manage the gas station on weekends as well as work there part-time the rest of the week and you man the phone lines at the Rape Crisis Center. You’re like Superman, but you walk through life like it’s nothing special.”
Dax sat there watching me as if my affirmation was the last thing he expected me to voice. “Thanks, Michael,” he said, the expression on his blushing face joyful but discomfited. “Hearing you say that means a lot to me.” Deep emotion passed through his eyes and then he quickly looked away. I caught a sudden shimmer of tears dotting his lashes, and I looked down so I wouldn’t embarrass him more.
There were a few moments of complete silence, and then Dax rubbed his eyes with his fists and jumped forward on the chair to rest his forearms on his knees. “We should do something special to celebrate, just you and me. Go on a trip… a vacation after we’re done with school. We could call it an incentive for passing finals.”
I instantly caught on to his enthusiasm. “That’s a great idea. Where do you want to go?”
“Vegas!” He didn’t even have to ponder it. “I’ve never been there.”
“You’re shitting me,” I scoffed. “Never?”
He shook his head. “Do you honestly think my mother would’ve taken me on a vacation when I was little? No way! And now I’m lucky if I get more than a few days off from work. But it would be fun, us cruising the strip, drinking and gambling at a casino. Think of the damage we could do together.”
“Hell yeah,” I agreed. “That would be perfect, make it a four-day weekend.” The excitement building between us, I was genuinely surprised that Dax wanted a holiday with me. If last night was any kind of example of Dax’s behavior when drunk, I could just imagine the possibilities of us alone in a hotel room together. Not that I’d get him drunk on purpose, but who knew what passion might spark! What happens in Vegas…
My cock, which had softened earlier, began to rise again. Oh God, no. I shifted on the couch again to conceal my erection, but thankfully he didn’t seem to notice my discomfort. I tried to act laid-back.
“My internship at the counseling center starts the first week of June,” Dax continued happily. “I’m sure I could schedule time off from work in late May.”
“That’s a great time to visit Vegas,” I agreed. My jeans were just too tight and I fought to adjust them quietly, keeping a blush off my face. “The temperature is warm but not scorching. There are so many of things to see and do. Shows, buffets, the slots and all those lights.”
Dax’s hangover forgotten, we spent the rest of the day eagerly planning our trip. I could not believe my unexpected luck. He was inviting me to spend undivided time with him, and I decided to make the best of it. To be together, just the two of us. Maybe, just maybe…
It was weird. I’d been to Cobbles with Michael and Grant the night before, and I remembered most of it. Sitting and drinking shots which I now regretted, refusing to dance with strangers and leave Grant alone and Tomas’ arriving to join us at the table for teasing and conversation. I just didn’t remember going home.
I’d awakened naked in my own bed. I slept nude, so no big surprise there. What was unusual were my clothes folded on my nightstand which was not my habit. Did I invite someone home with me? My ass didn’t hurt as if I’d been fucked, and my bed didn’t look like I’d shared it. I was sure Michael wouldn’t have just let me go off with someone he didn’t know. He was a good friend with a definite protective streak, especially when I couldn’t handle myself. So what happened in the wee hours of the morning?
Michael’s teasing might provide a clue, but he didn’t admit to putting me to bed, and I was too embarrassed to ask. I watched him look around, and it seemed as if he’d never seen my apartment before. Damn, I hated not being able to remember, but that’s what drinking too much Jack did to me. I should know better.
Sitting in my living room, listening to Michael’s praises about how bright I was and how diligently I worked, I watched his face. He was totally sincere, his hazel eyes glowing as he gestured with his beautiful hands. Yes, he had beautiful hands, and it was remarkable how I’d barely noticed them before. Medium-sized but proportioned to his body with long fingers and trimmed, straight nails. I guess I wasn’t aware of many things; how he always had my back and accompanied me to places like Cobbles even when he really didn’t want to. He didn’t even seem to mind my grouchiness to give up his Saturday and nurse me through a hangover.
Come to think of it, it wasn’t just his hands; Michael was stunning all over. His thick auburn hair was in waves that brushed the collar of his t-shirt and framed his rugged face with its high cheekbones and straight, aquiline nose. No facial hair other than light golden stubble on his chin, a high forehead and pouty lips made for kissing. Tanned skin was radiant with good health, and his shoulders were broad and nicely muscled as his strong upper body narrowed into a slim waist and the cutest ass on the planet. I had added five inches in height since my junior year of high school to a current, and probably permanent, five-foot-eleven, and he was still three or four inches taller than me. One hundred seventy pounds, I’d guess, of good-looking man.
With a jolt that was almost physical I realized the Michael I’d known all my adult life was an enigma. A loyal, caring, handsome enigma whose friendship had never wavered, not even when I did everything possible to push him away. Not a stranger because we intimately knew everything about each other, but different in that I hadn’t really looked at him in almost four years. We had indulged in this back and forth dance of love and hatred, at times almost stopping the music and walking off the floor, only to feel the pull that kept us moving in a rough rhythm. Through his betrayal of me and my rescuing Michael from Isaac’s abuse, being with my exes, that post-Christmas clash of verbal slings and arrows and my drug use; somewhere in the mess we’d made of our deep affection for each other, there remained a very strong core of camaraderie.
My eyes drank him in and I struggled with an epiphany. The Michael sitting across from me, the man who gave me space when I demanded it, set aside time to allow me to get my head together and provided strength when I was too weary to go on- this man was the love of my life. The person I’d searched for without finding because I was too blind to see him in front of me. He had nobly stood back, working to create an environment in which I could heal from my issues without his needs getting in the way. He’d declared his love until my anger and self-righteous pride had almost driven him away, telling him over and over that it was too late, how he’d wasted all opportunities, that we could never be intimate again.
And now? As we talked about the trip to Vegas, I surreptitiously studied him. I saw the friend who had saved me from Lamont Shores’ bullying and the brother who had convinced his parents to open their home to me when my mother died, but I no longer saw the lover. The Michael who had idolized me to distraction and wanted me was gone. I had fallen in love with him again, and just as truculent and transient as ever, fate dealt me a raw hand by withdrawing his love from me. We were just what I demanded— friends.
I felt selfish and foolish, and I ached with wanting him. My ego warned me how ridiculous I’d look if I had to resort to begging for his love, especially after the way I’d refused him for so many years. I was a joke in my own sight who urgently wanted to turn back the clock. ‘Never say never’ echoed hollowly in my ears. Why the hell had I told him to shut up? Why didn’t I just ask for more time to decide? I had run out of time.
The way I looked at the situation now, I only had two options. One was our Las Vegas vacation where we'd be continuously together for four days. Maybe he could be persuaded to give me another chance. The second was dependent on him being accepted by UCLA, and to my joy, he liked the idea. At least he’d still be in southern Cali and I’d see him regularly. I could find ways to share my feelings without burdening him with embarrassing declarations of love. Possibly, he’d learn to feel the same for me again.
There was a Muse song I liked from their 2003 album, Absolution. It talked about hopeless, devoted love for a person who might never know your feelings and went:
Hopelessly, I'll love you endlessly
Hopelessly, I'll give you everything
But I won't give you up.
I won't let you down
And I won't leave you falling
If the moment ever comes
But I didn’t want to be the singer. I loved him, and I wanted him to see it. I could admit it now, but I was afraid of fucking this up. I was in love with Michael, and he didn’t love me back.
We continued to get together in friendship almost every weekend. So far, he’d heard from three of the four MBA programs he wanted, UCLA being the exception. Except for Cornell, which had been a long shot in the first place, he had been accepted by the other two, UT-Austin and Stanford. We were both sweating the UCLA decision; I was coming to really enjoy spending time with him, and if the Los Angeles university turned him down, our weekends of watching television, going out drinking and hanging out at the beach and playing sports would abruptly end. If Michael had to study for his Masters elsewhere, how would he ever know how much I cared about him?
I don’t know how I did it, but over the next four weeks I agonized over Michael without letting him know. I spent every moment I could with him, hoping to see something in his golden eyes that demonstrated he still loved me. Sometimes he seemed jumpy, and I’d chastise myself for being too obvious and pull back. Let a few days go by before I called or texted him, followed by casual conversation and literally holding my breath. I didn’t want to need him, didn’t want to be the whiny bitch who couldn’t stand to be alone. I’d had boyfriends dump me, but it was never like this. I craved him with every millimeter of my body but I had to keep my distance. My yearning, I saved for my own counsel.
It was the third week of March, and Emily texted me one evening at work. She would be turning twenty-one in two days and, unsurprisingly, she wanted to go to a bar to celebrate. She named the place, a small, intimate place near Seaview, and asked if I’d join her and a few close friends.
Emily and I had stayed friends since that uncomfortable autumn afternoon when she told me she loved me, and we gradually went back to normal. I apologized again to her, she told me she was sorry too, and that was that, as they say.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to be around a bunch of people I didn’t know, and I was just about to text her back and plead off when she sent a second message practically begging me to go with her. For some reason she believed I didn’t drink much, if at all, and she wanted me to be her designated driver if her best friend, Carla, or her boyfriend overindulged. Reluctantly, I agreed.
I arrived at the bar, Salvio’s, which had a reputation for good microbrews and an awesome Happy Hour finger food menu, at seven o’clock. The group numbered ten besides the birthday girl, and they were drinking and yelling mixed dialogues above the noise. A mediocre band played in the corner, and only one or two couples were on the dance floor.
Carla Gambini, Emily’s best friend, gave me a peculiar stare when I made my way across the room to their tables. I smiled at her, and she seemed to relax a bit, but her fixed scrutiny made me jumpy. She was cuddled into her boyfriend, a man I only knew as Streeter.
Emily gave me a wide smile when she saw me. “Hi Dax,” she screamed in excitement, and then announced my arrival to the others. “Hey, Dax is here.”
I saw a beer glass in front of her with an inch of golden brew in it that smelled a little like apples. Except for her louder than usual voice which was explained by the crushing loud conversations around us, she didn’t act intoxicated. She pushed out the chair next to her and invited me to sit down. Her face was glowing with happiness. I ordered an AleSmith Li’l Devil, a small label beer from San Diego, and took the seat.
Ninety minutes later, I was having a great time. Most of Emily’s companions were smart and well-spoken. They had a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at themselves, and there were a couple of pranksters in the mix that didn’t draw too much unwanted attention to our party. As each glass of liquor was consumed, the decibel level rose, and the more intimate the drinking mates became. Streeter cut himself off after two slowly-nursed beers which was good because he told me that he was being held accountable for getting Emily home safe.
My cell phone rang; I don’t know how I heard it in all the clamor around me, but I did. It was Michael’s ring tone.
“Hello,” I yelled in greeting trying to clear my head. I’d had several glasses of beer myself.
“Dax?” I could barely hear him. “Where are you?”
I stood up and went outside where I could listen to myself think. I explained about Emily’s party.
“What bar are you at? You know, just for reference.”
I asked if he knew Salvio’s, and he told me he’d been there a couple of times. After I passed on the information, he quickly said he had things to do so we rang off. I went back inside.
Emily was taking advantage of being twenty-one and, from the evidence in front of her, the gang had decided to ensure it would be a night to remember… if she was able to. She was a gregarious drunk, a flirty drunk who watched me make my barely buzzed way towards her. Emily grabbed at my hand and enthusiastically pulled me to the dance floor. I let her entice me up there. It seemed harmless enough.
Emily was wearing skin-tight jeans and a plain baby-blue t-shirt. This not being Cobbles or any of the clubs I normally frequented, I was dressed in looser clothing than I usually wore going out. When we got to the floor she turned in my arms and tried to grind into me. Let me just say, it was erotic but it wasn’t enjoyable. Friction is friction, but here I was, a gay guy dancing with a straight girl who was a friend and knew I was gay, and I didn’t like it.
I succeeded in pulling away from her hips and moved around in front of her. She pouted at me a little, but then she just decided to have fun, and we finished the dance. I took her hand and led her back to the table.
I sat down in my chair first. I know I did. I wasn’t watching Emily because three of the couples from the party got up to run to the dance floor, and one of the men, a baby-faced blonde, caught my eye. Emily bumped into my knee, and the next thing I knew, she was straddling my lap. That caught my attention, and when I hastily glanced at her, she cupped the sides of my head and brought my mouth down to kiss her.
She pushed up with her toes as our lips bumped, and this was no hesitant gesture. Her mouth was open, and her tongue was already swirling inside my mouth, hot and needy. Her small hand slid from my face around my neck, and she was holding on to me desperately as she sucked at my tongue. Her mouth was soft and pliable, and I’ll admit it, I was kissing her back… for maybe a count of fifteen seconds. It was the amount of time for the knowledge that I was being kissed by a girl to zoom from my lips to my semi-inebriated brain and back down into action.
Even though her lips were sliding over mine and her tongue was dancing with my own, I felt no arousal. If I’d ever questioned my homosexuality, this was the proof I needed that I did not love women. My dick didn’t even twitch this time. There was laughter and cheering off to our right, and someone yelled, “way to go, Emily,” as I very discreetly but purposefully guided her back down on my lap. I would have pushed her off, but the last thing I wanted to do was humiliate her. One thing at a time.
“I knew you weren’t gay,” Emily whispered, her green eyes shining in joy.
I shook my head and smiled, afraid of scaring her or setting her off into hysterics. “Uh, Em, kissing you doesn’t mean anything, okay?” I lifted her off me and placed her on the seat next to me. Leaning over, I said so quietly that only she could hear, “I need you to believe me, but we’ll talk about it later. You’ve had too much beer for now.”
For a moment I thought she was going to cry, but then she shook her head and gave me a weak smile. I darted glances at her, and she acted resigned, but I did ask her twice if she was angry or upset, and she assured me she wasn't. I stayed another ten minutes, and after Streeter finally promised me that he would personally take her home, I left.
I didn’t know how to feel except set up. Emily was a calm, timid, level-headed girl most of the time. Add several glasses of beer, and she turned into a temptress going after what she wanted. I didn’t blame her, but her efforts were wasted on me. The person I cared about was up in Orange, and even if she had gotten a rise out of me, it would have been disloyal to Michael. I went home and didn’t beat myself up over it. I would give it several days before talking seriously to Emily.
For days I had been expecting a reply to my application to UCLA’s Anderson School of Business, and the delay was driving me out of my mind. Foremost in my thoughts was the eagerness in which Dax had expressed his desire for me to attend school nearby, and there was nothing I wanted more. Sometimes I allowed myself to dream of the two of us coupled again, enjoying life not in time restrained by weekends but in sharing love freely and living together, the way we used to when we were eighteen. Attending UCLA, going to Las Vegas, there seemed to be a definite plan at work to push Dax and me together. But first up was to be accepted at the college.
It was the second Saturday of March. I had been with friends all day and arrived back at my apartment around two p.m. I checked my mail and when I saw the envelope with the UCLA logo, I didn’t even wait to get into my apartment to rip it open. Accepted! I had been accepted. I jumped in the air in wild glee, hooting and cheering so loudly my upstairs neighbor came to her balcony to discover the commotion, and when it was plain that I was rejoicing in good news, she waved at me and walked back inside.
It was time to celebrate. I had to tell Dax. I opened my cell phone to contact him and stopped. No, this called for a delivery in person. I locked up my apartment and climbed in my car for the hour-long trip to Santa Bella. My parents would be excited for me too.
Arriving at home, one thing led to another. My sister and her son, Nathan, were at my folks, and I played with the baby for a short while, babysitting so to speak, so Jana and Mom could pop down to the nearby mall for some shopping. Then my parents wanted to take me out to dinner to commemorate the occasion. I tried to reach Dax to join us, but his phone was turned off. By the time I pulled away from my parents’ to drive to Dax’s place it was after 8:15. I promised Mom I would return to spend the night rather than attempt driving home. I was pretty sure that, with the amount of celebratory drinking we’d do, I would be in no shape to go anywhere. Maybe I’d purposely get so drunk I’d end up sleeping over at Dax’s, even if it was on his couch.
It was quite dark when I pulled my Nissan into Dax’s apartment complex and parked in the visitor’s lot. The engine died in a coughing rumble. I was eager to talk to Dax about the program acceptance, and I hurried to his building. Every unit in the complex had basically the same layout, give or take a bedroom or two, with the front room opening onto a small patio or deck through a sliding glass door.
Dax’s place was dark. I was so disappointed he wasn’t home but I wasn’t willing to give in to defeat. I placed another call to his number, and this time he answered. His voice was faint, surrounded by loud conversation, and I knew he was at a club or bar. When I asked, he explained his friend Emily’s birthday party. Hmm, I thought. Maybe I could surprise him by showing up.
He gave me the name of the bar, Salvio’s, and I recalled the location. Ten minutes later I parked my Nissan outside and was making my way towards the front door. Noise and dim light spilled out over the sidewalk, and I strolled inside.
It took me a few seconds to adjust the change in lighting, but my eyes followed the din of raucous cheering and laughter to the far side of the room where a bunch of people my age were sitting around a couple of tables. Right in front of me, directly in my line of sight was a man sitting on a chair with a woman in his lap, facing him. They were kissing.
I recognized the man, and the sight stopped me in my tracks. Stunned, I froze, my mouth hanging open in alarm. Dax was with a woman… locked in a passionate embrace.
The kiss eventually ended and Dax gazed into her eyes, talking quietly and smiling at her.
Staring for untold seconds, all of a sudden I gasped explosively and realized I had been holding my breath. My gut clenched as something close to agony crushed my insides, and I felt cold sweat sweep down my spine. Like an unwitting voyeur, I couldn’t tear my eyes away, even as those same eyes tried to mislead me into the belief it was all a lie and I wasn’t seeing what was in front of my own face. This could not be.
The woman was tiny, slender and auburn-haired, and I recognized her as Dax’s friend, Emily. He was being gentle with her, like he cared about her, and suddenly I couldn’t stand to watch them anymore. I had no idea what was going on, but all I could think of was that Dax was supposed to be gay, and he wasn’t acting gay. Oh my God! Dax… wasn’t gay.
But of course he was. We’d been together intimately for four months, and he’d been with other men since then. Connor and Brendan. Dimly, I remembered that comment he made about options that Christmas over a year ago when we went to that other bar. Was this what he meant? Dax had to be gay… unless he was bi.
That was the only explanation, and I wanted to gag. Surely, this was some sort of nasty joke, and yet I knew it wasn’t. Dax was with Emily… sexually. I wasn’t positive how I figured it out, but I felt as if I’d lost the man I adored. I had lost Dax. It was like a sick parody of that weekend Brendan dumped him, leaving him for a girl. My mind screamed in silence, begging him to look up and see me, terrified that he would. I turned on my toes and marched towards the door I’d just entered. I began to run once I crashed through it. My stomach spasmed again, and this time I knew I was going to be violently sick. Lurching into some bushes, I vomited.
I had to get out of there, and I staggered to my car to return home. I couldn’t bear to think about Dax falling in love with Emily. He wasn’t supposed to be with her. He was mine. We were destined to be together forever. He had always been mine, even when I cheated and hurt him. Dax loved me, as surely as I adored him. No, this was impossible. This was wrong. Dax was gay, thoroughly gay, so how could he betray me and sleep with Emily?
And then another thought hit me. How could I stay in Santa Bella and watch the man I’d loved for over five years get involved with a woman? Their happiness would be like death to me. I had to escape from here. The acceptance to UCLA meant nothing anymore. I knew without a doubt I would not be attending school in Los Angeles.
(To be continued...)