The Air That I Breathe
I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of Salvio’s. Finally aware that I was crying when my nose began to run, I didn’t care except to roughly wipe at the tears so I could at least keep my wits about me. I felt as if Dax had been making a fool out of me, and anger churned in my gut.
What the hell was I going to do? If only I could get the memory of Emily on Dax’s lap out of my mind! But like the specter of a recurring nightmare, it refused to leave, burning me from the inside out.
I knew returning home right away would be a dead giveaway to my parents that something was wrong. I don’t have the legendary ‘thick skin’ and my facial expressions have always gotten me in trouble in the past. They would be suspicious of my red eyes if nothing else.
Saving face and diverting questions, I decided to kill some time by quietly scouting out familiar haunts from younger years. I started my Nissan and peeled out of the lot, eager to get away from the bar. It was as if it was on autopilot, endlessly moving me with no real destination in mind, awash in resentment.
I was in a complete mind-fuck. Everything about my ex-lover screamed that he was totally gay, but he was a fraud. Why would a gay man be kissing a woman and enjoying it unless he was bisexual? And if so, how long had he known? Was Emily his first? I thought he was probably too shy to be with a girl when he was with me, but who knows. This might even be the true reason behind his split with Brendan.
The lack of answers swirled around inside my head until it ached, and it didn’t even matter that I wasn’t making any sense. All I cared about was that Dax found women appealing, and the bleak mental picture of him in bed with Emily made me want to hurl again. She wasn’t allowed to touch him. Dax was mine.
Close on eleven o’clock, I stopped at a local mom-and-pop mini-mart and bought a twelve-pack of Heineken. As I finished making my purchase, my cell phone chimed with a familiar tune, the Avenged Sevenfold ringtone I’d assigned to Dax. What, had Emily fallen asleep? Or maybe he took her home. I let the voice-mail get it. There was nothing that asshole could say that I wanted to hear. If he needed to speak to someone, she could be his confidante. The two of them probably had lots to discuss.
I arrived home with my beer and, much to my chagrin, my parents were still up. I tried to sneak in through the front door without being detected, not that I'd get in trouble for buying alcohol, but they surely would've questioned my need for so much of it. But no such luck.
“So, what did Dax say to you about the acceptance letter?” Mom called out after her fond greeting from the family room. Unfortunately, there was nothing wrong with her hearing. On the other hand, they at least didn’t join me in the foyer.
I paused, frozen, on the curved staircase and tried to make my voice sound as normal as possible. “He's excited for me, Mom." I considered that soon I was going to have to tell them that I had changed my mind about UCLA but that was best saved for tomorrow, just like in Annie, that musical about the stupid redheaded orphan girl and Daddy Warbucks. I couldn't handle the grilling right now. I set the beer on the steps, put on my happy face and went in for my bedtime hugs and kisses. Thank god for the dim lighting of the family room.
With my parents’ wishes for me to have a good night ringing in my ears, I climbed the stairs. Yeah, it was going to be a good night for someone, Dax and Emily in particular, but definitely not for me. The gut-wrenching visions flew at me, compounded by my vivid imagination. Dax, how and when did you learn to be such a fucking impostor?
I didn't even try to go to bed straightaway and felt my bitterness closing in over me. If I was smart, I would've answered Dax's call, told him what I'd witnessed at the bar and demanded an explanation. But there was a cowardly part inside that didn't want to have the truth forced on me or hear the word 'bisexual' come out of his mouth or listen to details about his love of women. Besides, even asking would bring up all sorts of inquiries about my interest. I had finally achieved a balanced friendship with Dax where he didn't assume I was hiding feelings for him, and why make problems for myself?
I awoke the next morning with a raging hangover and braced myself for the unsettling meeting with my parents. Sticking to the line that Dax and I had discussed my UCLA acceptance in depth, I mentioned that I’d had a change of heart. Stanford had a better MBA program and I was looking forward to the challenge.
My parents were shocked into silence for almost a minute. Mom sighed sadly. “I had hoped you would stay in the general area. L.A. was the perfect choice. You’re going so far away.”
“I was at Humboldt for my first two years of undergraduate school,” I pointed out suavely, “and it was much further away than Palo Alto. It isn’t like I’ll be near the Oregon border this time.”
“I think you’ve made a wise decision,” my father congratulated me. “Stanford has exceptional standards. Not only will you get a quality education, but finding employment afterwards will be easier than you can imagine.”
“The five semesters will go by fast,” I promised my mother.
“What does Dax think about this?” she wanted to know.
“Does it matter?” I shot back, irritated. I'd prepared for the question but it still made me uncomfortable. Why was she always first to jump on the Dax bandwagon? Or did she know of my feelings for him? Looking carefully at her appraisal, I could read her hopes for me like a book. Yeah, she knew how much I still loved him.
“Sorry, Mom.” I paused and hung my head, angry at myself for snapping at her. “Dax isn’t happy, but the subject is not open for discussion.” I claimed that we had talked about the change and it was a sore point, asking them to keep quiet about the university around him. They agreed, but I could feel Mom’s eyes on me, regarding me cautiously.
Moments later I was in the cool peace and quiet of my bedroom, dialing Dax’s number on my cell. I was too spineless or too dispirited, take your pick, to confront him personally. Hopefully he would believe I was in my apartment in Orange. Having been untruthful with my parents, it was far easier to fib to him.
“Hey, Michael,” Dax greeted me, sounding calm and friendly. “How’s life?” I heard no sound of voices in the background so at least I wasn’t competing for his attention with Emily.
I told him I was well, keeping myself steady and focused, although listening to his smooth baritone instantly cast my emotions into turmoil. “What’s going on with you?” I hung on to his every word.
He didn’t miss a beat. “Nothing worth talking about, working and school like you are.”
I sighed, keeping my tone neutral while I listened for dishonesty. “I have bad news.” In quick sentences I described how UCLA had ‘rejected’ my business school application, and I had no choice but to attend another college. “I will be moving to the San Francisco area in time to start school next term.”
“I didn’t expect that,” he said quietly. Dax actually sounded distressed. “I was really counting on you living in L.A. I mean, Stanford has a stellar reputation and is like west coast Ivy League. Aren’t they supposed to be the top-ranked business program in the nation?”
“I guess so,” I hedged, already looking for ways to end the call quickly.
“So why would UCLA turn you down when you were already accepted by such a prestigious school? It doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t have to,” I explained shortly, my anger beginning to rise at his simplistic reasoning. “There could be any number of reasons. That’s the way of it, and nothing either of us can do will change it.” I paused to take a deep breath and clamp down on my irritation. “The only difference is the distance.”
“How are Mom and Dad handling the news?” Dax knew that my mother liked having her children nearby.
“Well, that’s another thing,” I lied glibly. “Mom’s pretty torn up about Stanford, so it’s best not to bring it up.” There, I was now protected on both ends from Dax and the folks comparing stories.
“No problem,” he agreed. “The last thing I want to do is hurt her feelings.”
I sighed, staring out my window into my back yard where new spring grass was just beginning to push its way up through the soil. I liked Santa Bella and truly didn’t want to leave my hometown, but even less did I want to spend my free time here in full view of the two of them snuggling and kissing. My imagination was almost enough to making me feel like puking again.
Now that I’d shared my change in plans, it was time to get off the phone. I had details to work out. “I called to also tell you that I’m going to be very busy over the next two months. I’m letting go of my apartment in May, and there won’t be much time to see each other very much.”
I mentioned packing and cleaning as two chores, and Dax, as expected, immediately volunteered to help. “No, that isn’t necessary,” I said hastily. The whole point of this exercise was to avoid Dax, and by extension, Emily. “I have college friends up here who are closer…” The roundabout details seemed to satisfy him, although I detected a note of hurt in his voice.
“At least you’ll be in California,” he mused, trying to be cheerful. “San Francisco isn’t the end of the world and for only what- two years? Besides, we’re going to Vegas next month, and we will have part of the summer together.”
I made non-committal grunts and didn’t convey my new plans. There was no sense in tipping my hand at this point and causing problems. By the time he realized I had no intention of spending the summer in Santa Bella, I’d be gone. He’d have Emily to console him. He probably wouldn’t even miss me.
I ended the cell call on that note and continued to stare out the window. How was I going to live without Dax?
Reflecting back, I had given up so much allowing him the time and space he demanded. First of all, my chance to have committed relationships with other men, even though I hadn’t been the least bit interested. I rarely agreed to even casual sex because it felt disloyal to the man I really craved. I turned down almost every possible lover because I never stopped hoping that Dax would relent and come back to me. I counted on his eventually forgiving me of my disloyalty, and I wanted to be ready for the day he fell in love with me again. Four years was a long time to wait but until now, he’d been worth it. It was such a foolish dream!
Rage seeped into my veins again and threatened to overwhelm me into throwing something breakable against my wall. Wasted time, a shattered life, partially destroyed by myself, but, I finally realized, not just me. Dax had felt betrayed when I spent two hours with Isaac? How was I supposed to feel after all this time, now aware of his betrayal? Asshole! Fucking hypocrite!
In the following weeks I didn’t have time to mope or uselessly rage; there were too many details to attend to. I began by mailing the formal letter of acceptance to Stanford and refusing the other colleges. My hours were a whirlwind of activity as I prepared to leave southern California. Seven weeks- I could get through until the middle of May, I told myself.
I took some time off, and I flew up to the San Francisco peninsula to look into renting an apartment. The lease on a one bedroom, one bath unit was a lofty $1800 a month, far more than I could afford. I resorted to grabbing some of those tear-off student ads on campus. I made a bunch of telephone calls and, despite it being the end of the spring semester, or maybe because of it, eventually lucked out. A graduating senior was giving up his rented room in a furnished condo shared by three other men, and the rent and utilities were split four ways. Best of all, the lease was secured, meaning I could live there through both years of my program.
The only items I’d have to supply were my own bedroom furniture and personal linens. My Nissan was so small I’d have to rent a U-haul, and the outlay wasn’t worth it. My old stuff was all second-hand from Goodwill anyways. Taking it north didn’t make sense. Maybe I could clear out a lot of junk I no longer needed and buy a futon and a garage sale dresser once I arrived.
As for employment, I immediately put out feelers, and there again I was blessed. Within ten days, my references as a part-time internet tech in Orange County helped pave the way to a new twenty-hour-a-week position in the same capacity near Stanford. I mean, would I be living in the middle of the fucking Silicon Valley or what? The hours were fluid and could be modified around classes once I started graduate school, and they counted towards my Master’s degree. I met some of my co-workers, and they were nice.
I couldn’t spend all my time preparing to relocate, of course. The days was passing quickly and exit projects and finals were nearly upon me. Graduation was looming in a month. My grades had always been excellent; never was there any question about passing. I had too many irons in the fire, so to speak, and I allowed myself to ease up a bit. I think staying busy kept my despair at bay and prevented that losing-my-mind panic.
My friend, Yohji Hasegawa, was a lifeboat through all the drama. “You have the worse luck, Michael,” he said one day as we crossed the lawn by the English buildings on our way off-campus. I’d already told him about Dax. “So he has no idea how you feel?”
I sent him a scathing glare. “No, because you advised me not to share my feelings, remember?”
He made this clownish, befuddled face. “Oh yeah, I did say that, guilty as charged. So now it’s too late, hmm. Maybe you shouldn’t have listened so well.”
I smacked at his arm. “Thanks, dipshit. Do you have any new advice, o Master Yoda?”
“Well, because I screwed up, you no longer owe me thousands of dollars in lieu of therapy.” We stopped at the top of the slope, and I couldn’t tell whether he was taking it seriously or not until he added, “So did you even mention the girl to him? The least you could do is play it off a little and ask how she is.”
“I don’t know her well enough to ask.” My voice was pleading. “I suppose I could try hinting...”
“Well,” Yohji admitted, “That would present a problem. You need to ignore your inner wimp.”
“Easier said than done,” I replied, scowling at the smile on his face.
“Okay, Michael, repeat after me: ‘How is Emily?’ Really, it’s an easy question.”
“And he replies with, ‘and why do you want to know’?” I protested.
“Ask or don’t ask,” he said, “but in some way, her name will have to come up in the conversation.”
“Everything I can think of is too specific or so general he won’t know I’m talking about her.”
He rolled his eyes. “Oh shit, dude, you do want to find out if he’s in love with her, don’t you?”
“And how do I do that without making it obvious that I care?” I snapped, mostly irritated at myself.
He reached into his pocket, pulling out a tattered pack of gum. He offered me a piece which I declined. “Michael, seriously? You still suck at relationships.”
“You’re the teacher, Yohji, so I blame you.” As much as I tried to come off as comic, this definitely wasn’t funny. “However I handle it, I need the answer the first time out because I won’t have the courage to say it again.”
By this time Yohji was exasperated with me. “You need to be direct to get your point across, so let’s go over this again. ‘Hey, I saw you at the bar and Emily was in your lap.’ Jesus!”
My eyes went wide, and he chuckled. “Just ask him to tell you the truth.”
“That’s not hinting, Yohji,” I gulped hard, horrified at the idea of Dax’s angry reaction before realizing that Yohji was being a tease. “If I were to… he’d kill me.”
“Then tell him what you saw and stop putting it off.” All laughter on his part was forgotten. “It’s not like you were trying to spy on him. You wanted to share good news.”
“Which I have now lied about because I told him that UCLA turned me down…”
Yohji regarded me with empathy. “Not only are you a coward and a pessimist but f you don’t face this head-on, you’re going to lose Dax.”
I shook my head. “It’s too late,” I groaned. “I’ve already lost him.”
“Yes, just what I expected. You always look at the worst possible outcome. No wonder you suck.”
I couldn’t grasp what was going on with Michael. Ever since he received the rejection letter from UCLA he had been acting like a different person. He explained the school dilemma to me, although I still was at a loss to understand why an academically superior university like Stanford would eagerly accept him and the other college had not. But as he said, there was nothing to be done about it.
Michael was short-tempered with me, closed-off and sullen, like I’d angered him in some way. I attributed it to his feeling bad over the negative response. Having to leave southern Cali for school, I expected his separation from the family to be difficult, but he’d done it before when he attended Humboldt for two years. He threw himself into getting through the last month of college and finding employment and a place to live in Palo Alto with surprising zeal. I didn’t quite understand the haste since he had three months before the first term began, but then he wasn’t open to sharing with me much.
At the same time, I probably didn’t focus a great deal on the peculiarities of Michael’s rejection from UCLA because I was trying to cope with other issues. Emily, for instance.
Being around each other was pretty damned awkward at first for us. She was mortified for coming on to me at the bar and kissing me. She hadn’t even recalled the dance and the kiss until the next day when Carla’s disdainful scolding clued her in about the fool she’d made of herself at Salvio’s. Two days later came a late-night cell phone conversation and Emily crying in shame while I did my best to calm her. No real harm had been done, and I wasn’t ready to be nearly so harsh, so I was angry with Carla for hurting Emily’s feelings.
Of course, she apologized profusely. She was scared half to death that I was going to reject her as a friend because Emily knew somebody who knew someone else, and the same thing ruined a friendship. I sat down with her and told her from start to finish about that night. I reminded that she’d had a lot to drink on her birthday and it addled her judgment. Just as long as she never tried to trap me into such a situation again, I said I was willing to pretend it never happened.
Once I knew Michael wouldn’t be attending UCLA, I tried to make myself available to him, knowing the move out of his apartment would take a lot of time in the midst of finishing school. I volunteered to help pack and clean, but he said it would be easier to rely on his college buddies. It bothered me that he didn’t want my assistance, and I told myself that maybe he didn’t want to impose on me. But when he stopped responding to my messages and calls and rarely contacted me on his own, I had to face the fact that he was avoiding me entirely.
I was very hurt by his evasion; Michael and I had grown so close over the past year that we spent at least one day of almost every weekend together. So how come all of a sudden he didn't have any time to share with me? I tried many times to invite him out, especially if I’d heard he was coming down to Santa Bella to see his parents, but he resisted all efforts, even when I gave him the choice of entertainment.
He didn’t want to see a movie. He didn’t want to watch a game on the television or go out with our group of friends to play baseball. The club scene had become boring and unfulflling without friends to hang with, and the only ones I would have trusted to be around me besides Michael were Grant and Greg Packard, and they were both straight.
I thought about it long and hard to finally determine that he must be pulling away because his move to San Francisco was so hard he didn’t want to drag the departure out. Michael had to be just as upset as me by the separation, and this was his way of coping with it. My method was totally different- to be with each other as much as possible before he drove off for Stanford in August. But he wasn’t me, and of course, I had an ulterior motive.
I couldn't stop fixating on him and the strange twists of fate that had kept me tied to Michael for the past four years. I couldn’t eat or sleep, leading to daydreams and difficulty paying attention in class. At night when I finally passed out, it was to images of Michael: kissing him, holding him, fucking him, the dream-orgasms bringing me into full consciousness, moaning, aching and hard as stone. For the past six months, I had stubbornly refrained from picking up anyone for sex, and now I found myself jacking off to fantasies of Michael once, sometimes twice, a day. Even worse was waking up in the morning to find my abdomen and sheets stiff with dried cum and realizing with horror that I’d had a wet dream, something I hadn’t experienced since I was in my teens.
I was feeling a little frantic over Michael’s program in Palo Alto. Shit! Why couldn’t it be UCLA? I counted so much on him going to school in Los Angeles so I could have the closeness to slowly share my feelings, and now the extra time had been taken away from me. Instead of two years, I had three months. Three months! Soon to be divided by hours and miles, I felt it was important for him to know of my affection before his departure. But with the way he kept his distance, this seemed less and less likely as time went by. It got to the point where it was all I could do to keep from throwing myself in his arms and begging him to listen to me.
Still, there was the rest of the summer, and I decided on a desperate gamble. If by the time August rolled around and Michael was still unaware that I loved him, I was going to tell him. Just straight out say it. If he rebuffed me, he would be moving north anyway and I wouldn’t have to face him daily to live through the torture of endless pity and sarcastic rebukes. At least he would know. However, on the off chance it re-fired a spark between us; we would find a way of making the relationship work for us. I honestly had nothing to lose.
My last semester at State was the most difficult ever, fighting to excel in classes designed to demonstrate that I could put everything I’d learned about therapy into practice. In labs, I viewed televised fake-counseling sessions where I had to turn in meticulous notes and list questions I would have asked the client. We had guest speakers from mental health facilities who handed out fifty page syllabi on some of the emotional disorders we might come across in session; they expected us to read them in two days and return with documentation. We attached ourselves to licensed therapists and social workers, following them around to learn about their daily jobs and getting quizzed afterwards. I visited hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. I did assignments during meals and while I worked at the gas station. I read textbooks until I passed out at night. It was painstakingly detailed and exhausting.
My therapist, Blaine, was relentless. I couldn’t get anything past him. Since Michael was such a big part of my past, he wanted to dig in to find out what was going on in the here and now. He decided it was me that had done something stupid to drive him away. No matter how much I explained that Michael and I had been good and this abandonment, if you will, had come out of left field, he kept dwelling on my deficiencies. I decided that Blaine had to be a sick man to want to torture me like this.
I was getting tired of the pitch. Michael was the first person to love me, not as an obligation but by choice. When he cheated on me with Isaac it had taken me this long to heal from the deception. The inability to move past it was the basis of all my failed relationships since our breakup. Blah, blah, blah, yeah, tell me something I don’t know.
“When you tried to form attachments to new boyfriends,” he told me, “you didn’t fully cope with your feelings for the old. Compounded by your self-esteem issues, your belief in yourself is being unfairly tested. This was especially true with Brendan. First of all, many people unwittingly think plowing into a new relationship to get over the baggage left by an old lover is the right thing to do. Rebound is normal but not necessarily wise.”
Just as Brendan had refused to fight for me against his homophobic family in Missouri, I had refused to fight to keep him in Santa Bella or trust in myself to be sufficiently worthy of him. And now, even though Michael and I weren’t lovers, I guess I was doing it again. Blaine said I was stronger than I realized but my fear kept me in check, making me afraid of the answers I might get if I pinned Michael to the spot. Maybe I was leaning on Michael because he was safe and I was tired of being alone. Was I in love with the real man or the allure I’d built up in my head?
I glared at him, avoiding a direct answer. I’m all for counseling that helps, but Blaine’s insistence on recounting the sins of my past until I wanted to puke was not making a lick of sense. I was done with the invasive questions, talking and always talking about my emotions. It felt like just so much bullshit. I was well aware of what living in my head was like, because I used to do it a lot when I was younger, and how I felt about Michael was real. How I felt about losing Michael after falling in love with him again was excruciatingly real.
Inspecting my life with the help of a trained professional had done wonders for me, but at that moment I could see my need for such self-introspection diminishing. And frankly, even though I was training to go into this field which should have made me more tolerant, all of it just felt like bindings that were tying me down. I was twenty-two, and it was time to live my life on my own without Blaine’s dissection. So I finished the meeting as quickly as possible and canceled all my future therapy sessions. I would try doing this on my own for awhile, and if I didn’t succeed I could always go back in.
April turned into May and Michael had been steering clear of me for over a month. Every time I found out he was in Santa Bella, I grabbed some of his attention to assist in sorting through his clutter or storing his belongings in his parents’ garage. Much to my dismay, being near him only emphasized how sideways our friendship had become when he resisted my company and acted as if he hated spending time with me. Michael changed the subject when I brought up ideas for what we could do over the summer and never talked of finding seasonal employment or visiting our usual haunts. Discussing our trip to Las Vegas seemed to depress him. Yes, I might have my counseling internship starting in June, but it was only forty hours a week. There was plenty of unscheduled time for playing sports with the guys, surfing at the beach or grabbing a quick beer. But Michael didn’t behave like he wanted me in his life anymore, and I began to feel very afraid.
What had I done to drive him away?
In the midst of all this emotional turbulence classes ended, the last term projects turned in and it was time for final exams. I don’t know how, but I passed them all with flying colors despite my distractions. I was thirtieth in my class, an honors student. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, hoping that part of Michael’s preoccupation was due to his own worry about testing. I could scarcely wait for the celebration and our planned vacation.
Over those last weeks, my phone conversations and text messages to Dax dwindled sharply, although he tried to keep in contact with me. I excused myself by saying I was overwhelmed by exams, my focus stretched with preparing for Stanford, and too busy to spend time together as usual. I could tell that Dax was wounded by my sudden withdrawal from him, but I felt no pity or even a need to explain other than to rationalize and play loose with the truth. I let him continue to mistakenly think we would have the summer in Santa Bella together. I listlessly tried to pay attention to him drone on about our late- May vacation to Las Vegas.
Every time we spoke I gave him an out to discuss Emily by asking what was going on in his life, but like the coward I am, I never brought up her name. I received the same answer back; he was fine but extremely tired, busy with last-minute schoolwork and prepping for exams too. I knew he put a lot of extra stress on himself because he had very high standards about his grades, but I didn’t let myself feel any empathy for him. That, I saved for myself.
By the early May, I calmed down enough to separate delusion from reality. Talking to Yohji had helped a lot. Okay, the man of my dreams was bi and wanted to pursue a woman. So what! However much I wanted to make Dax the villain, having no current claims on him meant this wasn’t an issue of personal betrayal, and he wasn’t in the wrong. Maybe common courtesy and our friendship should have dictated his mentioning it, but he didn’t love me. I could see Dax rationalizing how it didn’t affect me directly, and my ignoring him probably was a big part of the problem. I just wanted to be angry at him, and I automatically dismissed any excuse that gave him an out.
I only had three weeks left to grit my teeth through before I could escape and put Dax and Emily out of my head. It was devastating, the way I’d found out, but big deal. I had to face facts and get over it. Living in Palo Alto for two years would give them ample time to figure out if they wanted a future together and, depending on their plans, provide me the choice to either return to Santa Bella or weakly find another place to call home. It was painful to think of leaving the San Diego area permanently, but it was a concession I’d willingly make to avoid them.
I had previously given notice on my apartment in Orange, and in the midst of finals began to pack so I could vacate the place the day I left school. College friends divided up the furniture I no longer had use for, but I saved out a few treasured pieces to store, putting aside what I’d need in Palo Alto. Cleaning off the top of my dresser, I came across the tri-fold framed photos of Dax and me from Jana’s wedding almost three years before and stared in glum fascination. There Dax was in his blonde glory, the black and gray tux so flattering on him, making him look like an Adonis. I sighed sadly, torn between taking the pictures north with me or boxing them up for storage. In the end, I couldn’t leave them behind. In spite of the silence between us, Dax was still everything to me.
I made a few visits home to my parents’ to store the boxes in their garage and go through my bedroom and clean it, searching for anything I’d want to take to college with me. I couldn’t avoid Dax when I was there. Someone always let him know I was around, and it was as if he was a homing pigeon, dropping everything to race over to see me, an eager look on his face. This would’ve been the right time to man up and drop discreet inquiries about him and Emily, but Yohji was right. I’m a wimp.
“Only a couple more weeks of this exhausting grind,” Dax said during one of my rare trips south. I had brought down several large plastic bins of dishes, cookware and knickknacks to save, and we were studying the rafters along the wide back wall of the garage to judge the best fit with the least inconvenience for Mom and Dad. Now I glanced at him sharply. He was getting thin again and did look fatigued... and pensive. “I can’t wait ‘til graduation when I won’t have to crack another textbook again for a long time. I don’t think my body can stand much more.”
I stared at his beautiful, animated face and ached for what should’ve been. The light in his eyes was impossible to read, but he watched me carefully whenever we were together. Sometimes it made me nervous, and I asked myself if he was looking to unburden his soul. No amount of courage would allow me to discuss his orientation or what I’d seen. Instead I made placating noises about finals and school, remarking on the grad party Mom and Dad were throwing for us the weekend following our college completion.
By some manner of serendipity, the commencement exercises for Dax and me didn’t conflict. I was scheduled, along with the other Chapman students getting business degrees, for five o’clock on the third Friday in May, and Dax’s Health and Human Services Department graduation was at 10:30 the following morning in San Diego. My parents were hosting a party honoring both of us that same afternoon at home, with several of my Chapman fellow-grads invited as well as friends of Dax’s. I knew Emily would probably be there and I despaired of the festivities with the two of them fawning all over each other.
“And then, it’s off to Vega,” he whooped, weariness forgotten. He jumped around like a little kid. “Four days of cards and slot machines, stuffing ourselves at the buffets and kicking back with no responsibilities and no worries. Just fun in the desert.” We planned to leave early on the Monday after graduation. The closer the trip, the more enthusiastic and electrified Dax became. Almost every sentence on the subject began with ‘I can’t wait until we…’ It almost made me feel awful for screwing him over.
For my ceremony Mom, Dad, both of my sisters and their husbands, and Dax came up to Orange. It was a cool, foggy evening, and they arrived in a pack to cheer me on. Huddled in jackets, they sat in the bleachers on the 30-yard line of the football field, and I actually could hear Dax’s loud yell above the crowd when my name was called. I don’t know why picking up my Bachelor’s degree didn’t mean more to me; maybe it was because I still faced two more years of university so this was a small accolade along the way. I was restless and numb more than anything else, both excited for and dreading the upcoming change in my life. I had to make an effort to pay attention to the speeches from the administrators, guest speakers and noted students. After the typically boring program, I stood at the edge of the stadium and searched the throng of people for my family.
I was about to unzip my black robe when Dax came barreling into me full steam to clasp me in an embrace that nearly knocked me off my feet. I grabbed my tasseled cap to keep it from tumbling off the back of my head. He surprised me with his intensity, a warm light shining out of his brown eyes. “Solid, Michael,” he congratulated me heartily, jerking my body around in a circling huggy-dance of happiness. “You down, me to go.”
I let loose and accepted his best wishes in the spirit they were meant, allowing real affection and our bond to wash through me as I beamed. “Thanks, man.” I punched him in the shoulder. “But you’re the one with the brains.” Dax had achieved nearly straight A’s and was going to graduate summa cum laude, complete with his 3.91 GPA and an honors cord.
Dax colored slightly with the compliment and muttered a self-conscious “thanks”, but he acted like he was floating on air. He looked like a dream with his blushing cheeks, his tight ass and long legs encased in blue denim and smelling like soap and fresh air. His blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and tied with a leather string, and he appeared delighted and vibrant. I drank him in, creating a visual that would have to stay with me for a long time.
“Just think,” he whispered, still leaning in close into me. “We did it- college graduates! In three more days we leave for our trip to Las Vegas.”
I groaned inwardly, pushing back against his shoulders to disengage while my brain went into overload, but he didn’t seem to notice my reluctance. “Fantastic,” I agreed in a misleadingly bright voice. “Stephenson and Capshaw together on the Strip? Dangerous!”
My parents and sisters saved me by walking up at that moment, all with warm hugs, words of praise and posing us in pictures. They made plans to go out to dinner, and I let them pull me gamely along, hardly noticing the destination or the excited conversational chatter.
“What’s wrong, Michael?” It was Dax, looking at me with concern and taking in my too-quiet demeanor. He rested his cheek on his hand as we sat across from each other at a faux-teak table of a Polynesian restaurant several miles down the freeway from the school. Pleated red paper lanterns swayed above and a server was setting mai tais before us as Dax threw me a disturbed look. Mom and the girls were in the bathroom cleaning up the baby, and Dad was talking politics with our brothers-in-law down a ways from us.
“Huh?” I came up for air, my head swimming with all the last-minute plans that went into relocating. Yes, the check for my cleaning deposit from my turned-over apartment was in the glove box of my Nissan, and the last remnants of my gear, a sleeping bag, a backpack of clothes and my grooming supplies, were in the trunk. I had turned off the utilities, with repayment to be credited to my bank account, and the keys to my new place near Stanford were safely in my bedroom in Santa Bella. Everything was on schedule for my departure.
Dax shook his head, and I saw the pain in his deep eyes. “For the past month you have been so aloof, you are nearly impossible to get a read on. Have I done anything to annoy you? If so, please know it was completely unintentional, but at least level with me so I don’t do it again.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. Here it was, the chance to ask Dax about Emily in a neutral setting that would prevent him from making wild accusations or exploding in anger. And yet… yet, staring at his anxious, open face I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t ask about his bisexuality. “It’s nothing,” I ended up lamely. “I’m not angry at you or anyone, just tired. Finals, and moving out of my apartment; you understand, don’t you?”
He nodded after a short pause, but his eyes were still wary. He didn’t believe me, but then my whole life lately had become such a lie, why would he?
The next morning was Dax’s turn to be recognized, and this time I was the one sitting in the bleachers with my family. Surprisingly, I didn’t see Emily and wasn’t at all sorry for her absence. I breathed a sigh of relief, figuring I should count my blessings and let the resentment leach out of me. I was able to find Dax sitting in his row on the stadium grass as he joked with the students next to him. He looked relaxed and was so handsome in his academic regalia, full-on black with a citron green tassel and honors cord to denote his HHS co-degrees in counseling and summa cum laude status.
I experienced such joy and pride for him, true emotions that had nothing to do with the breach in our friendship and the bewildering days of the past seven weeks. As far as I was concerned, the man was a damned genius; how else to explain how someone from his background had beaten the odds to earn two degrees. Staring down at him as he shook hands with an administrator to accept his diplomas, my eyes filled with tears.
I felt a hand snake over to grab mine, and I looked at my mother in surprise next to me as she squeezed. “I don’t know what’s going on, but you and Dax have to settle this between you,” she sadly urged, so quiet only I could hear. “I know you love each other, and it’s killing both of you to be apart. Promise me that you’ll say something to him soon. You might not get another chance.”
I nodded, knowing how much the back and forth of our relationship hurt Mom. She’d never condemned us for falling in love with each other in high school and knew I still adored him. I wondered what else she was aware of on Dax’s behalf, but my attention was pulled away by the noise from the field as the ceremony continued.
At the close of the festivities we met Dax near the fence, and I gulped as I walked up to him. His face glowed in exhilaration, brown eyes snapping in delight, and the blackness of his gown accented his slender build and height. I looked at his mortarboard with his degrees and the year of graduation embroidered across the top of the flat black, square cap in light green and the stiff edges flossed in green designs. It set off the pale color of his braid that hung down between his shoulder blades.
I timidly grabbed his hand to shake, and he quickly pulled me into a tremendous hug. More subdued than the night before, it seemed as if both of us were a little awkward standing there amongst the groups of strangers with our arms around each other. I looked deliberately into his eyes and saw troubled confusion. I wasn’t sure what the source was, but Dax was plainly distressed by some matter, and it stabbed my heart that I couldn’t be honest and just talk to him. Then almost shyly, he kissed my cheek before squeezing my bicep.
A kiss! What did that mean? A nod to our brotherhood, an apology… goodbye? He blushed as if realizing what he’d done and his lips moved soundlessly with quick regret.
Embarrassed, I cleared my throat without a word, stepping back so Mom and Dad could move in for congratulations and photos. They were so proud of him, as they should be, and this was his day. Dax was like another son to them.
By mid-afternoon, my parents’ house was filled wall-to-wall and the gathering for us was in full swing. There was a keg of beer and catered food, hits blaring from the sound system and X-box games in the family room. Family, neighbors and a few old high school pals milled about. Although many of my university friends were in the midst of heading back to whatever hometown they came from, most of the invitees showed up. I was more than happy to introduce them to Greg, Grant, Dax and his friend, Lauren.
No big surprise that Dax looked stunning. He wore a short-sleeve cotton knit shirt that made him look poured into it, and the green and tan design played up his coloring. I liked watching his hair catch the sunlight. His light brown shorts hung low on his hips, emphasizing both his toned torso and the length and shape of his golden legs with their light dusting of pale fur. Mostly, I guess it was his cute smile and the way his eyes crinkled in contentment and glee, and I could tell he was so relieved to be done with school. He was way too lean, his cheeks hollowed out, and I felt a tad responsible because when he’s under a lot of pressure he didn’t take the best care of himself. Not that finals weren’t stressful, but the way I’d ignored him for seven weeks surely didn’t help.
Yohji shook Dax’s hand and said hello with an amused leer before turning away. He stared at me keenly, and I followed him into the house for more beer. Out of earshot of all but me he instantly pronounced Dax ‘hot’, pretending to fan his face and adding, “I’m not gay, but I can see the attraction from your standpoint.”
I sighed. “And from Emily’s.”
Yohji, arched his eyebrow and gave me a distinct glare of disappointment. “And still you play the wimp card! Isn’t there some sort of quote about keeping your mouth shut and watching the love of your life walk out the door? That’s you, Michael, and you don’t have very much time left to work this out.”
“Well, there goes Dax,” I tried to joke, although the agony constricting my heart was so hard it physically hurt. “Into Emily’s arms because I refused to stand up for myself. I don’t deserve him.”
Yohji took a swig of beer. “Probably not, at least with the way you give up so easily. Gods usually don’t deign to mix with mortals, but I could always say something,” he offered.
“Don’t you dare.” I was horrified. “Let me handle it my way.”
“Okay, but your way is going to lose the boy.”
A few of Dax’s co-graduates joined us and the conversation ended. Dax got his group together to be presented to everyone, and for the next sixty minutes I sat back and enjoyed myself as I watched Dax relax into the bash and turn on his shy charm. He had developed a witty sense of humor in the past year and had us in stitches as he related funny stories about State, leading to lively good-humored comparison between the two colleges. I nearly forgot the little problem that separated us.
That ‘little problem’ walked in an hour and a half late, excusing herself with unavoidable delays by her family. She immediately made her way to Dax and gave him a tight hug. Dax smiled warmly at Emily in return, pleased as he made introductions. If they weren’t as effusive as they might have been with their affection I could chalk it up to his deceit or her bashfulness. My Asian pal gave Dax and Emily a resolute look, but I mouthed for him not to interfere, knowing it would hurt more than help.
I decided I was out of there. While I couldn’t escape the party without causing a scene, I managed to steer clear of Dax and isolate myself with my own colleagues on the far side of the patio where I didn’t have to watch them. He held court inside with the Packard twins, Emily, Lauren and his school group. Thereafter, I noticed a few dejected, quizzical stares he threw in my direction, probably wondering why I was evading him. But it wasn’t like anyone blocked him from coming out and talking to me. He simply chose to stay inside- with her.
Later, I walked into the kitchen to grab another sandwich and spear seconds of fruit on my plate with a handful of tortilla chips. Dax’s back was to me, and I stared with sorrow at this sexy man I had loved my entire adult life and wished for a different final outcome in our twisted worlds. He was explaining his upcoming therapy internship, and Emily sat next to him, her eyes glued to his face. Then I shifted to take in the people surrounding him, and Grant caught my tortured gaze. The hunger that gnawed at me must have been clearly apparent, and he shot a baffled look at me.
I acknowledged the glance, but my eyes were mostly for Dax and I had to look away in case anyone else saw me. That wouldn’t do. I went to pass through the glass patio door into the back yard, and Grant followed me. “You look like someone shot your dog,” he stated in complete sympathy.
“Dax,” I replied bitterly. “Same old thing but… complications have cropped up.”
“He didn’t find out, did he?” Grant took a gulp of his beer, studying me.
I stared at the ground in misery. “No, but it’s fucked up.”
“So talk to him,” he urged. “I’ve been watching Dax, and he looks like he’s just as messed up as you are.”
I shook my head, thinking he couldn’t be serious. Dax had the world by the tail- ready to begin his counseling career and move into a bright future with a girlfriend, of all things. “Thanks for the suggestion, but I can’t.”
He inclined his head at me, and it was strangely comforting. “If you need to get it off your chest, Michael...”
“Thanks,” I said again. It was like feeling a bit of my soul die. I knew what I must do. Dax would take it hard when he found out I had fled from Santa Bella and him, and I cringed. But if he wanted Emily, I was not going to stand in his way or make the choice difficult for him. Walking away from Dax would be a crushing blow to every hope and dream I’d ever harbored for us. But I would go on and somehow find a way to deal with it.
It was The Weekend. On Friday I drove up to Orange with Mom and Dad and watched Michael cross the stage with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business, feeling so satisfied for him I could burst. He hugged me like in the old days, as if the real Michael was back, and I couldn’t stop dancing him around the grass, thrilled by his accomplishment. He looked lighthearted and happy for a change. I whispered in his ear to remind him that we were doing this as a team. He, in turn, spoke of my own achievement, and I optimistically believed we were going to be alright.
But the shutters came down again when we went out to eat. I could tell that he was holding something back, and when I asked what, he passed it off onto the strain of finals and feeling tired. It bit into my heart that he wouldn’t share the reason for his discontent with me, especially since I felt I was to blame for his withdrawal. If it weren’t for the fact that he had steered clear of me for most of the previous month, I would swear that he had learned my secret and knew I was in love with him again. But how could he with so much distance between us?
On Saturday morning I exited from San Diego State with degrees in both marriage and family therapy and mental health counseling. In the midst of the wild cacophony of excitement, it occurred to me that my time of exams and textbooks was finally over. My life as an adult employed in the field I’d studied for the past four years was about to begin, and I was taking my final step into adulthood. Hooray for me!
Mom commented over my black cap with its embroidered designs and captions, sewn in by the girlfriend of one of my fellow-class members. My neck was piled high in leis- pink and white carnations from my parents, a single yellow hilo from Emily and white and green twisted orchids from Lauren. I felt fantastic, free and ready to take on the world. You know, like the closing minutes of a sappy love story when the hero realizes how lucky he is. Only in my case, without the love interest.
As I waited for my family to join me after the ceremony, I couldn’t help but notice the kissing couples of all ages scattered around the field. That should’ve been Michael and me in an intimate embrace, lost to everyone on the outside as we made out and held each other passionately in mutual love and admiration. I fought tearing up, digging my nails into the palms of my hands to divert my thoughts, and I grinned when Michael reached in for a handshake.
There was no emotional distance that was going to keep me from enfolding him into my arms; the revelry of the day gave me a perfect excuse as if I needed one. He seemed more hesitant this time around, pulling away as if he didn’t want to get overly close. I felt fragile and unwanted as too late hummed through my head; Michael had been mine, but I spurned his love and would probably never get it back. A chill went through me, seeing myself alone for the rest of my life, and without even meaning to, I ghosted a light kiss over his cheek.
Oh shit! Now he was going to realize what I’d been hiding for the past three months, and I turned red and mumbled a ‘sorry’, trying not to freak out. But he swallowed nervously and stepped back as if it implied nothing. No expression on his face, no teasing or anger, just letting Mom and Dad move in for their own hugs. I fought down the tears again, knowing that if I were asked I could claim I was crying because I was happy. Yeah, right! All I felt was rejection.
At Mom and Dad’s, Michael switched back to his old self and was friendly again, teasing and joking with our mixed college buddies. My senses swam over the vacillation as I tried to pinpoint the circumstances that were causing the mood swings. Nothing shouted at me, not even the fact that Michael seemed to be carefully monitoring how much beer he drank. The varying groups of students from Chapman and State got along with some congenial competition between the two schools. Grant and Greg Packard and Lauren Appleby blended well into the high spirits, and I loved watching Michael at ease, grinning, and his eyes lit up in excitement.
And then all of a sudden he faded. Emily Bayard arrived to be introduced around, and he disappeared into the back yard with a scowl. It couldn’t be Emily, could it? I thought he was friends with her. We had been hanging around together since the previous fall, going to the beach, meeting at the cinema and playing baseball at the park. We held flag football games and mini-golf contests. Michael had never given any sign of disliking her, nor did he have a reason to. Emily was a nice girl.
So okay, three of my college buddies are huge World of Warcraft fans, as are Grant and Greg, and they all began a game inside with my crew sitting around to watch, offer suggestions and cheer them on. Before I knew it, the party had split into two sets- my friends and Michael’s. I almost went out in the back yard to ask why he was ignoring me, but his face was inscrutable. I didn’t want to be the person to challenge him and start a quarrel in front of people after Mom and Dad had set up such a lovely fete for us.
It was beginning to feel like high-maintenance drama to me with Michael deciding to act like a queen, and it made me angry because I was fairly sure this had nothing to do with any wrongdoing on my part. I watched Grant Packard stand up and speak quietly to him when he came into the kitchen for more food. Michael’s glance flicked to me and that was it! If he wanted to be a bitch, he was going to tell me why. I made a mental note to talk to Grant when the party ended. If it got me nowhere, I was determined to find out what the hell was running through Michael’s head. After the guests were gone I would drag the problem out into the open.
Then I realized the huge risk I faced. Unless I wanted to argue with Michael and fuck up everything on the eve of our Las Vegas trip I should leave well enough alone, at least for now. But how could I? A vacation with him remote and mad at me, oh, that would be fun! There was no way we’d be able to enjoy time together with him so stand-offish. No way to convince him that I was in love with him. What was the sense of even going?
I tried to stop fretting and enjoy myself for the next hour. Soon, the only people left were the twins, Lauren and a few neighbors I barely knew. Michael was nowhere to be seen downstairs, and a quick check of the driveway told me he hadn’t left the premises. So what, he just disappeared up to his room? These people were as much his friends as mine.
Lauren took her leave, and in trepidation I approached Grant. “Do you know what Michael’s problem is?”
“Problem?” He got a wary gleam in his eye, like he wanted to be anywhere except talking to me.
I felt myself flush and wiped my damp hands against my shorts. I tried to stuff down my anxiety. “Come on, Grant, you must have noticed how jacked up it's been for us. We used to be best friends. Now he won’t even talk to me.”
Indecision painted Grant’s features. “Are you sure it’s all him? Did you two fight?”
I scrunched up my face in concentration. “Don’t think so. He’s been acting weird for the past two months but we were cool before that. Or so I thought.”
Grant stared at me for a few seconds and then seemed to make up his mind. “Whatever is screwed up in his head, he might discuss it with you. Try to talk to him.”
I nodded, still bewildered by the cryptic information, but thanking him anyway. I hoped he was right.
It was nearly 6:30 when the last guest departed, and I helped Mom and Dad clean up and put food away. Forty-five minutes later I sauntered upstairs to Michael’s bedroom. I could hear him moving around inside. I knocked on the door, and then all went still. “Michael?”
Nothing, total silence, not a peep, as if he was hoping to convince me that I misheard him.
“Hey, Michael,” I called. “Let me in.”
I waited soundlessly while I fumed, fully aware that he wanted me to leave. But I’d had enough of this bullshit. After a few minutes I hurried down the hall to my old room and let myself in quietly. I could tell from the light patterns playing across the floor that he’d neglected to shut the door to the adjoining bath. The thickness of the carpet softened my tread, and presently I leaned into the doorframe of his bedroom, watching Michael as he lay in stillness on his bed, staring sullenly at the ceiling.
Chin-length hair the color of flame surrounded his head like a lion’s mane on the pillow as my man stretched out and listened for the sounds of my presence outside his door yet unaware of my closer proximity. My breath hitched at his sculpted good looks, his tanned arms resting under his head, his shirt riding up and falling away to reveal carved abs and the auburn fringe of his pits. He wore khaki shorts and his naked ankles crossed casually, but the ease wasn’t real. He looked miserable, as if he was resigned to whatever life threw at him.
A quick glance took in the clean, nearly empty space and two stacks of filled boxes under the window and one half-empty one by his desk. I couldn’t tell if he was coming or going. Except that I’d seen his room a couple of weeks before, he might have been settling in slowly from his two years at Chapman. But this didn’t look like he was planning to wait until August to leave for college; it looked as if he was vacating the room permanently. I got the impression that he was running out on me and everyone else he cared about here in Santa Bella.
“You’re packing a lot of clothes just to go to Vegas for a few days,” I grumbled. Anger and anxiety boiled up inside me. Two large rolling suitcases filled with clothing and other items stood near the door.
Michael jumped and came up into a sitting position, his golden eyes wide. “It’s isn’t polite to just walk in without being invited.”
“I knocked,” I retorted, watching his face grimace as I took a swaggering step closer. “You didn’t answer. It also isn’t polite to pretend you aren’t here. Besides, you left the bathroom door open.”
I swept my hand to indicate the emptiness. “What the hell does all this mean?”
He set his face stubbornly and looked away. I marched to his side of the room and folded my arms across my chest. “I want to know why you’re avoiding me, and I’m not leaving until I find out.”
He flinched but offered little explanation. “It’s too late to discuss it. My life isn’t your business anymore.”
Like hell it wasn’t! We were friends and brothers, supposed to be going on vacation in two days. But the pathetic avowal saddened as well as incensed me, and I realize my intimidation had made things worse. I sighed. Kicking off my flip-flops, I took a passive seat at the end of his bed and drew up my knees to wrap my arms around them.
“Michael,” I said in a gentler voice. “I’m just trying to understand it… why all of a sudden you’re my worst enemy … because, you know? I’m not coming up with anything concrete here. Have I been a dick and didn’t know it? You won’t talk to me. You ignore me. And then this weekend… you’re up, you’re down… you act like I… please, just tell me what’s wrong.”
Michael looked at me forlornly. I could not believe the depth of anguish in his eyes. A frightened tremor went through me at the way he was wrestling with the decision to share or not and barely holding on to his self-control. His voice was deadly calm when he finally spoke.
“You and Emily.”
I don’t know what made me say it aloud. Maybe it was the tension in the room. Or because Dax looked so subdued and scared, like he actually had no fucking clue what had come between us.
“Me and Emily?” Dax uttered, glancing at me in disbelief. The orange light through the open window radiated from the setting sun, throwing shadows of his profile against the wall. “As in Emily Bayard? What about me and Emily?”
Was this some kind of pretense or… or did he seriously not know what I what I was talking about? It couldn’t be the alcohol; Dax was far more sober than I expected. I was the one who had maybe knocked back one or two more than was prudent and felt a little unbalanced.
I might as well spill it. I had already thrown the hint out there like a bone for a dog and couldn’t retreat now. Finding out like this was better than never knowing, but it was a struggle to keep the blatant accusations at bay.
“I need you to tell me right now what she means to you, Dax,” I muttered fiercely.
“Me and Emily…” Dax repeated softly as if puzzled, “We’re friends, Michael.” He was trying but failing to make a connection between all of us. “We hang when we can, and I still see her every week when we work the hotline. Why?”
Friends! Hanging out and the rape crisis center definitely didn’t sound like every day. Not anything like dating or sleeping together. I looked at Dax and his curiosity and open countenance told me he wasn’t lying. I started breathing again, feeling younger and lighter than I had in weeks. He wasn’t with Emily. A careful smile spread over my face. Dax wasn’t with Emily!
I could at once see from his dubious expression that it was my turn to clarify, and I quailed inside. “I thought you were… you know, fucking her,” I stammered.
Dax broke into loud snorts of laughter like this was the funniest thing in the world. I felt so dense that my face turned cherry red. I did not appreciate being made the butt of a bad joke.
“This shouldn’t come as a shock to you of all people,” Dax retorted breathlessly when he calmed enough to speak. “But I’m gay, remember? I’m attracted to men and always have been. What have you been smoking?”
Every single emotion that could possibly be dredged up from the past six weeks must have flashed across my face, from loathing to unbearable misery to fear of losing him and just imagining Dax with Emily, because he quieted immediately.
“Shit, you’re serious,” he gasped.
I gulped, knowing I was in too deep to back out. “Last month,” I blurted out, “when I found out about UCLA I drove down from Orange. Mom and Dad took me out to dinner, but I came to see you. You weren’t home so I called on your cell, and you said you were at Salvio’s with friends.”
Confusion was all over his face. Whatever hints I was tossing his way weren’t enough to make Dax remember that night. I didn’t think he was pretending, so I went on. “I went to the bar to talk to you. She… she was on your lap. Emily, I mean. I thought… um… that you’d… um…”
“Salvio’s,” he repeated, looking even more puzzled. “Emily had her twenty-first birthday party there in March.”
“She kissed you,” I exclaimed, beginning to wonder if I’d misjudged the events of that night.
His mouth dropped open, and he looked suddenly stricken. “Shit, you saw that?”
Was he admitting it? I lifted my hand to stop him from proceeding. “Hold on and back up.”
Dawning flooded Dax’s face and he sighed. “Last fall, Emily admitted that she’s had a crush on me for two years. I told you that I wasn’t out at Seaview, remember?”
Nodding, I let the growing weightlessness inside me quiet my jangling nerves, fascinated by the story so far. Dax bit his lip anxiously, as if my understanding was as important to him as me.
“When I found out Emily liked me, I had to tell her I was gay. She said we were good. Then she invited me to her birthday, and she got pretty blitzed. She started hitting on me. Before I even knew what was going on she was on my lap with her tongue down my throat. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings but I couldn’t just…”
He gasped and looked straight at me. “That must have been why you... Fuck, why didn’t you say something, Michael?”
I shrugged weakly, ashamed of the truth. “If you were hooking up with Emily who was I to interfere.” He narrowed his eyes, and I knew I wasn’t fooling him. My temper flared.
“Okay, it made me furious, alright? I thought you were bi, and it messed me up. Even with our history, wasn’t I worth enough for you to share something that important with? The more I focused on… on… the two of you together, the angrier I got until I started imagining all kinds of sordid justifications. Why it had to be such a secret and that you had never told me you were bi and how far back it went.”
“Well, I’m still as gay as ever,” he mused, shaking his head and grinning. “And all this time… You know I would never do that.”
Considering our background, I wasn’t so sure. “Look Dax, you don’t have a great track record with keeping me up-to-date on your life. I knew I should ask about her, but I was afraid of the answer.”
“You thought I would lie to you?” he asked, incredulous.
I shrugged, feeling grim, almost sick. “Probably more afraid of the truth, but… maybe. Like you making excuses, but my imagination kicked in which was just as bad.”
“You didn’t trust me.” His voice was tight.
“No,” I agreed. All of a sudden I couldn’t for the life of me determine what had passed through my head to make me avoid this exchange, but it was no longer just about him and Emily. It was our entire damned history since high school. “No, I didn’t. It seems to be the common thread that binds us together.”
“At the risk of bringing up old wounds,” Dax countered in a dark, forbidding voice, “you were the first to break the faith between us.” He stared directly at me.
In one transparent moment, I knew what he meant, and fear froze my heart. Damn it, not this saga again! But if we were going to deal with the past that should be dead and buried by now, we were going to settle it for good.
“Fuck it, Dax,” I groaned tiredly. “I get it, After all this time, I really do. It’s time to stop pointing fingers. Just tell me how long, a stated time period, weeks… months… years… until it’s over and done between us. How long will I have to suffer before it’s enough for you?”
“Suffer?” he asked with a touch of sarcasm. “What do you know about suffering?”
In shock, I shoved my back away from my head board and sat up straight. “I suffer for it far more than you realize,” I stated emphatically.
The light was waning, and we glared at each other in the dusk. How could Dax believe, even though it was my fault, that cheating with Isaac hadn’t cost me almost as much as him? It felt like we were standing on a high cliff, jump or fall, no going back no matter the cost. This was where I had to make my stand; even if he never loved me again, our friendship was too precious to chance. Thinking of all the times I wanted to plead for Dax’s forgiveness, I took a deep breath.
“I have spent the past four years letting guilt eat me alive,” I hissed savagely, “knowing I deserved every minute of it for betraying you. I’ve apologized so many times I lost count. Even now I don’t know how to convince you that I’m truly sorry. What else can I do to earn your trust back when you won’t give me a chance to prove it?”
“I don’t know, Michael. What you did to me… to us… is a difficult thing to come back from.”
“But not impossible,” I pointed out. “You have to make the choice to forgive me or even decide if you want to believe me. I can’t do it for you. In the end it all boils down to me hurting your pride. You are a proud man, Dax Stephenson. You are also an unforgiving asshole.”
His face broke into a sheepish grin. “I have my moments.”
I refused to be sidetracked by his self-mockery. “Look, except for the first six months when I had my head up my ass, I have never denied fucking us up. I am entirely to blame. Me! The two hours I was with Isaac that afternoon turned out to be the longest, most horrible two hours of my life. I admit I was immature and naïve, but I was only eighteen. Eighteen, Dax, a stupid kid! Compared to our lifetimes, it’s just a small blip. Are you going to let us ruin the rest of our lives over something I was too young and short-sighted to know at the time would cause so much damage?”
Dax didn’t reply at first other than giving me a quick startled glance and I waited as defeat settled over me. My words seemed to have no effect on him, my mea culpa meaning squat, so let him go his own way and sit in judgment. He’d never allow either of us to forget my indiscretion, never even attempt to understand. It killed me like a shot in the heart to be finally giving up on a future with him, even if it was barely hanging on by the fingernails.
I glowered at him in disgust. “Whatever, Dax, if you want to be a total prick, go ahead.”
He snickered, and I wanted to punch him. Unbending in a leisurely grace, Dax rose to his knees on the bed. “The rest of our lives,” he reiterated in a low, hypnotic voice. “Our lifetimes? What does that mean exactly?”
He’d caught me off-guard with the change in topic. I took in his feral grin with surprise, noting the elegant way he stretched out on all fours, staring intently at me when he languidly moved towards me. “What was the real reason my being with Emily upset you so?”
My mouth went dry and I couldn’t answer. Unsettled by what seemed like a game, I stared at Dax in the near dark. He had the oddest expression on his face, hope mixed with fear, and my skin tightened over my stomach.
“I don’t understand,” I breathed as the nightlight in the bath switched on by timer. I was now able to make out Dax’s form in the pale glow, my scrutiny completely on him. I quivered as, mesmerized, I watched him slinking up the bed in a cat-like fashion toward me.
“How did you feel, Michael?” he whispered.
I still wasn’t sure of his meaning so I tried again. “The same as you probably did when Brendan left you.”
“And?” he coaxed. His eyes looked almost black.
“Honestly?” I challenged, anxiety washing over me. “Just thinking of you with Emily made me sick.”
Dax stopped crawling to rest on his heels in the shaft of light glimmering from the bath. Even in its weakness, I saw him suddenly light up, as if every word, no matter how difficult for me, had an entirely different effect on him. “But why would it matter? Aside from me jumping the barrier and switching to… um… women, what would be the difference?” His lips twitched in a smile. “To you personally, I mean.”
Dax’s questions bewildered me but sent my heart humming. I was so not planning to go there, but it was as if he had laid a foolproof trap to make me admit my crushing desire for him, and lying was not an option. Something was at play that I didn’t comprehend, and I hoped I wasn’t making the biggest mistake of my life.
“I couldn’t face losing you,” I mumbled softly. I sighed and my face felt hot, and I knew I was blushing. “After all we’ve been through, I was afraid you were falling in love with her. It was terrible. I felt as if I was watching all I ever wanted going down the drain.”
Dax scooted forward on his knees another ten inches right up to me. He reached out and touched me, resting his hand on my wrist, and I shuddered in dreadful surprise at the comfort the gesture bestowed. “I’m not in love with Emily,” he said very quietly. “I’m not interested in any woman that way.”
It was like magic. Dax’s long fingers stroked my skin and soft words explained away the harshness of our fight. I recognized what sounded like need, twin to my own. “Then who are you interested in?” I forced myself to say.
Dax tilted his head and the gauge in his ear glittered in the dim light. “Funny how karma works, Michael. Life comes back around to… um, kick you in the ass at the most bizarre times. It’s almost cruel in a way… the uncertainty, but I… um, think I fell back in love…”
He didn’t even have to finish the sentence. The words fell back in love rang like the sweetest poetry ever in my ears, and that was all it took. My heart broke open in the sheer immenseness of what he was trying to say. With a joyful cry, I launched myself off the mattress into Dax and almost knocked him flat on his back. His arms encircled my waist, steadying himself as I fell on my knees before him. His eyes were aflame with lust and love.
“Say this is real, Dax,” I groaned in what felt very much like desperation, staring into those blazing irises as shivers rolled through me.
In answer, Dax slammed his mouth into mine, lips mashing, teeth striking and noses bumping in our haste. He clasped me to him tightly, and we kissed hard and deep, opening to each other. He tasted citrusy like the fresh fruit from the party, and I felt like I was drowning in him. Only one principle could get through my overcharged brain, and it was that I was holding Dax and he held me and we wanted each other. In other words, heaven.
Mere seconds later, we had to separate for air. “Fuckin’-A,” Dax whispered hoarsely, smiling like he was going to devour me. We gasped to quickly resume the kiss. Heart pounding, breathing hard, I shifted my jaw and his soft lips settled on mine, his slick tongue seeking my own and exploring every molecule. It was better than any kiss I’d shared- ever. I moaned and let him suck at my mouth greedily as I pushed back into his in a delicious tango. His fingers brushed up through my hair and held me still. I stretched out my hands against his warmth, my need transferring into tight caresses that palmed his upper back and shoulders roughly.
Blood rushing to my groin had caused my dick to go from flaccid to total marble so quickly it throbbed, and I shifted my hips inside my constricting shorts to ease the discomfort. I drew Dax closer into a possessive hug as if to make him part of me, and we knelt together, our bodies flush from thigh to chest. His rigid erection stabbed into my own, and I grunted at the cloth friction between us. We ground our cocks together as a burst of desire shot through me at lightning speed, and Dax whimpered into my mouth.
He momentarily leaned away and removed his shirt in a one-handed tug, flinging it aside to reveal the nicely defined pectorals of his hairless chest and golden deltoids and biceps. He had the most amazing obliques I’d ever seen on a thin man, with the definitive V-cut at his hips dipping into the low waistline of his brown shorts. I stared at him in silent appreciation and, with a groan, softly cupped his cheek and let my fingers explore the shell of his ear. He moaned back, pressing his face against my hand, greedy for my touch.
My shirt soon vanished under his deft fingers as he urgently fumbled with the buttons and shoved it down my arms. I almost came undone when his heated gaze traversed the length of my body and he seductively licked his lips, eyes fever bright. Closing my arms around Dax’s waist, my mouth kissed its way down his face and across the chin, pecking at his ear and down the smooth neck to his collar bones. I nibbled the tender area where his neck and shoulder met, sucking blood to the surface in a fierce love bite. My hands trailed the planes of his chest and tweaked his flat, russet nipples, and he arched and cried out against me.
“Missed you, Michael,” Dax husked, writhing wantonly into my hands. “I want you so much.”
“Not yet,” I laughed softly, leaning down to tongue and teeth his buds into pebbly, oversensitive peaks.
“I’m having fun with you.” Lick.
“We have all night.” Bite.
“Be patient.” I sucked his left nip into my mouth.
“Goddamn, you’re evil.” He shuddered in my embrace with a stifled cry, proving his desperation by forcefully driving his hard, thick cock into mine, and making me gasp. I felt the same edginess, but I fought myself to hold back. It had taken me far too long to regain the right to touch Dax’s body, and I wanted to make it last.
Impatiently fumbling with my belt buckle, Dax managed to slide it past the leather loop and work it out of the prong. His whole body was trembling in carnal expectation. I moaned when I felt the button and zip of my shorts give way to his precision. The heaviness of my belt and wallet dropped them like a rock, and my boxers quickly followed suit. The evening air felt good to my bare skin; his fingers kneaded the globes of my ass to pull me harder into him, and the rough weave of his shorts tortured my nakedness.
I hastened to unfasten his cargoes and equalize our state of undress, beginning to feel myself caught up in his passion. I was so hard and aching, and the heat between us was nearly unbearable. He knocked my hand away and took over disrobing himself along with some purposeful fondling on the side. Nearly ripping the fasteners off with a harsh pfffft of the zipper, he shoved his own shorts and bikini briefs off his thighs. His hips twisted willfully as he ran his hot hand up my length, and he had me curling in around it and gasping.
Looking down between our bodies, I bit my bottom lip at the sight of his hardened flesh beside my own inside his fist. Oh my god! His rosy, roughly seven curvy inches stood next to my straighter, slightly longer plum-colored member being enjoyably handled by an expert, and his silky blonde pubes paled against my own springy auburn bush. I could smell the scent of his cologne- he wore Diesel if he wore anything- mixed with the manly musk pouring off him, and it was heady. I flattened myself against him for full body contact. He let go of me, and our erections, slippery with precum, slid together between our abdomens. We both moaned in abandon.
I took the advantage and shoved Dax backwards on the bed, pinning his shoulders with my own, the restraining clothing kicked off our feet. Hovering inches above him, I gazed down at him lovingly and wiped wayward blonde strands off his forehead. I hardly dared to breathe and gazed at him fondly, my perfect boy's piercing eyes shining in joy. Completely naked save a beaded leather bracelet on his wrist, that hand reached up to tweak one of my nipples as his smile turned predatory.
I squirmed in anticipation, wrapping myself in his presence, and took Dax in another brutal, dominant kiss that reddened both of our lips but did nothing to quench our desire for each other. We lay panting, tongues entwined, hands hastily sliding around to grope bare skin. I worked my way down the supple defines of his muscled chest and lean torso, contouring each indentation with practiced touches, pinching and flicking each nipple until they were swollen and pink.
Aroused nearly past endurance and desperate for physical contact, Dax’s pelvis rocked upwards and found only air with no satisfaction above him. His hips repeated the frantic jerking movements, and he groaned. His long, hardened dick slapped at his belly, dripping a pool of precum, and the need he expressed was for us both.
“Please, Michael,” he whined again, his head thrashing on the pillows. He reached urgently to stroke his rigid manhood, slicking fingers through the copious beads of fluid that welled from the slit, and he began to pump in frenzied haste. I quickly pulled his sticky hand away, ensnaring it inside my own by his side.
“No touching,” I scolded firmly.
Dax tried to laugh through his groans and struggled against me, his hair working its way out of the braid. “Do you know how long it’s been?” he begged darkly. “Don’t just lie there. Suck me, fuck me or let me suck you. You’re like an itch I can’t scratch and making me wait is cruelty beyond belief.”
As if flipping a switch, Dax’s words kicked my hunger for him into high gear. “So masterful,” I taunted wickedly into his ear, nipping at the lobe. “I want you on your back. Let me get you opened up.”
His eyes went huge and black, his breathing hitched and I could feel him eagerly vibrating beneath me. “Don’t care as long as it’s now,” he affirmed in a throaty moan. “Need you inside me… filling me… waited for far too long… please Michael!” He pulled his trapped hand away to fondle my ass lovingly.
My eyes glazed with my own want. “Okay, Dax, but I need lube. I don’t want to hurt you.”
Dax nodded. I twisted to retrieve the tube of K-Y out of my unpacked nightstand drawer, hesitating over the foil squares underneath. A single subconscious thought popped into my head. The last time Dax and I had tried to make love, it was an argument over a condom that had changed the course of our lives. I fought back the memory; it was the distant past, and this was our new road.
Like déjà vu, Dax seemed to be reading my mind. “You should get one, Michael.”
I turned to him in uncertainty. “Do we really need one? I’m clean, Dax. I haven’t been with…”
He averted his gaze, unable to look at me, and his voice came out in a low whisper of shame. “But I have… with lots of men. It’s for your protection, not mine.” He seemed almost weighed down by dread.
Dax looked absolutely crushed as if he expected me to reject him and send him packing. I suddenly felt cold, not for myself, but for this man who had such a strong need to connect but remained so empty inside. I had long ago guessed the truth, and I leaned down and kissed his eyelid.
“The past isn’t important, Dax. I don’t care about anyone else.” I kissed his other eyelid and then his nose. “It’s you I want, have always wanted, and nothing will change that. If you’re that worried, I’ll use the condom.”
With a tremulous nod, Dax moved to the top of the mattress and settled himself on pillows. “Please hurry,” he begged me tersely.
With Dax spread out on the bed like a willing sacrifice, my eyes scanned his entire body as if to memorize it, and I quickly crawled back over to him. Bringing his knees up close to his armpits, he exposed his winking pink asshole to me. I slicked up my fingers with lube and gently inserted one up to the middle knuckle inside his hole, and he didn’t so much as twitch when I began moving it in and out. I added a second scissoring digit to stretch him open, and Dax was begging again. “Please, Michael.” At that point I shook my head at his stubbornness but gave in, sheathing myself with the condom and spreading the lube all over.
I knelt between his thighs to position myself. Lifting his legs to my shoulders, I lined up the tip of my erection against him. “This is probably going to hurt,” I warned, my own desire nearly getting the best of me. I was caught up in the sensation of his nearness and the heat of his portal above my pulsing cock. “Don’t want to…”
“It’s okay,” he grit out. “I need it rough. Please just fuck me. Fuck me.”
Tentatively, I inched forward to work the thick head of my cock inside just until it breached the guardian rings and stopped to let him adjust to the pain and fullness. His eyes were closed and he breathed deeply, a grimace chasing across his face. Leaning into his strong thighs, I thought he was the most beautiful sight I had ever laid eyes on. I stared down at the juncture where my cock fed into his rosebud and nearly came right then. Oh my god, I was inside my Dax, preparing to make love to him.
But he was having none of my hesitant lingering. Stretching his arms out, he grasped me with strong hands and sharply hauled me forward until he was fully impaled on me. I felt his ball sac brush against my pubes, and his cock immediately went half-flaccid. He let forth with a painful grunt. “Dax…” I protested.
He whimpered and tried to laugh at the same time. “I’m exorcising demons.” His voice came out strangled yet strangely victorious, and he took a deep breath, fighting tears. “Whoa. That was a little harsher than I thought it would be.”
Concerned by his need to obliterate his past, I asked, “Are you alright?” He nodded fiercely.
“Tell me when to move,” I said, thinking it would take awhile for him to adjust. I was content to wait, although my own need to thrust was almost overwhelming. I could feel my cock throbbing inside him.
“I’m okay,” he insisted, clenching his teeth. “I need you, Michael. Go ahead.”
Still unsure if I was hurting Dax and nearly overcome by the intensity of his love for me, I nevertheless began pumping into him cautiously, lengthening my stroke each time and guardedly watching his face. Now that I was inside, he seemed to relax completely, hips rolling up to meet mine. His hands rested lightly on me, and I allowed him to set the pace. His own dick began to plump back up, and I saw a small satisfied smile come to his lips as he lay there with eyes closed, a few tears dotting his lashes.
I switched to long, powerful lunges, and the elastic warmth of his channel enveloped my cock and sucked me in. Almost instantly, I could feel the need to cum, and I moaned in delight and tried to hold back the building urgency. Stretching Dax, filling him, I pulled his legs off my shoulders, and he wrapped them around my waist. Dax rocked in a gentle rhythm in response, and I quivered with every thrust. I was bottoming out in him before withdrawing up to the head of my cock, driving back in again and again.
“Damn, Michael…” he moaned, drawing me in deeply with his toned thighs and calves. “I missed this.”
“I missed you,” I amended as pleasure enfolded me. Quaking all over, I bent over Dax and braced my hands on his chest. I dragged my fingernails lazily over his erect nipples, and his entire torso jumped with a rash of goose bumps. Staring into his eyes I could see the wonder there, like we were fulfilling a sacrament. I gasped in awe at the miracle of providence and the crossing of the stars that had allowed us to reconnect. Dax was mine again, and I knew he loved me. It was all that mattered.
“Harder,” Dax whimpered, digging his heels sharply into my butt cheeks to pull me closer. “Faster!”
I knew exactly what he needed and gave it to him. Short, feverish stabs as I shifted my stance to graze his prostate repeatedly, and he undulated wildly beneath me with half-lidded, shameless eyes. “Oh fuuuck,” he cried out. My body tingled as I began to pound him hard, and his fingers gripped my waist like a vice.
“So tight inside…” I groaned in sweetly remembered bliss, joyfully relearning his body as I plunged into his moist, fiery channel. “So hot and soft, babe.”
In our near-delirious states, every drive of my cock into Dax was filled with love for him. It had been a long time since I’d sought pleasure from another man, and that Dax was that man was perfection unbound. A thin film of sweat coating our bodies created warm slippage between us and dampened his hair spread upon the pillows. He looked like a wanton angel. I repositioned myself to rest my forearms on the bed and curled my fingers under his armpits to hold him. We shared a long, heartfelt kiss. His engorged cock pulsed with our heartbeats and leaked precum between our bellies, and he rose to me in pleasure.
“Feels damn good,” Dax panted, “being with you.” He groped for his climax, his breath ragged.
My own orgasm was building fast, and I could feel the muscles tightening in my thighs and abdomen. I was in the zone, experiencing the wild frenzy to finish. Our sweat dripped freely and I savored the taste of Dax’s on his chest, neck and shoulders. My breath came in long, drawn out wheezes, and my hips pumped frantically into his ass.
Suddenly, my body tensed, I lost my rhythm, and my sac was pulling up around my testicles, preparing to release. “Gonna cum, Dax,” I groaned, digging my fingers deeply into his shoulder muscles. “Oh, fuck yeah! Goddamn, babe!”
Grasping Dax’s cock and pumping it wildly, I stared into his face until I felt my torso clench, signaling the end. Suddenly I convulsed violently and my balls drew up sharply as boiling semen raced through my cock to shoot into the condom in almost painful ejaculations. My pelvis was pivoting out of my control, and I called out his name as my body went rigid.
My eruption tripped him, and he let out a long, low, wordless moan of ecstasy as he came, body arching sharply and ligaments locked. Transfixed, his face glowed with satisfaction even as he struggled to catch his breath. His pulsing cock spurted strings of white, luminous sperm across his abs and chest. I felt the unyielding constriction as the muscles around his anus went spastic and began to tighten and release, milking my tool until I was done.
I collapsed limply on top of him, both of us shimmering in sweat and heat. I don’t know how much time passed because in Dax’s embrace it didn’t matter. Muscles jumped as, sated, we slowly filtered back into reality. “God, Michael,” he said wearily and started to grin as he played with my hair.
“Yeah, pretty amazing,” I agreed, chuckling. Unfortunately, I was rapidly softening, and my cock fell out of Dax with a mild ‘plop’. Rolling off him, I tied the condom off and disposed of it in the trash.
“I love you,” he said, his brown eyes sparkling in contentment. “This is like some kind of dream. Like there’s nowhere else I want to be but here.”
It brought to mind a song I’d hear on the radio every so often, a classic oldie by The Hollies, and I whisper-sang it to him:
“Making love with you has left me peaceful, warm and tired. What more can I ask, there’s nothing left to be desired. Peace came upon me and it leaves me weak. So sleep, silent angel, go to sleep. Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you...”
Dax brushed my hair back from me face lovingly as he shook his head. “Wrong,” he said with a smile. “Always, all I need is to love you.” He leaned over and brushed my cheek with his lips.
“I love you back, Dax,” I vowed, and I put all of my heart into the words.
He gathered me into his arms and we kissed each other languorously until we fell asleep soon after. Even as I was dropping off, I heard Dax humming the tune to the song under his breath.
(To be continued...)