Forgiven, Forgotten, Can Either Of Them Change?
I woke up an hour later with Dax comfortably nestled into me and using my chest as a pillow. There was a chill in the night air seeping in through the window, and I pulled a quilt around our nakedness. The skin on our sticky abdomens was crusty with his cum.
Stretching and untangling our limbs, I watched his eyes flutter open. He was smiling in a way that completely filled him up and it made my spirit sing in pleasure.
“Hey babe,” I said, wrapping my arm protectively around his shoulder. It had been a long time since I called him ‘babe’ and I loved the feeling of the endearment tripping off my tongue.
“Hey yourself,” he smiled, distractedly rubbed his fingers over my hip in a diamond pattern. It was not in any way a prelude to more sex, just something to do with his hands but it felt good.
“Where do you see this taking us?” I asked, my voice far more casual than I actually felt. It was a topic I dreaded because so much rode on his answer.
“That depends on you as much as me.” Dax’s sigh sounded as nervous as I felt. “I don’t want you for tonight- well not only for tonight.”
“Glad you amended that,” I chuckled, and he nudged me with his elbow.
“I have experience with trying to make long-distance relationships last,” he stated, “and it isn’t easy. But I love you. This isn’t just about sex for me. It’s about restarting what we once shared.”
I realized I was holding my breath and slowly let it out in relief. “I love you too, Dax,” I affirmed, pulling him closer and kissing his temple. Surprised at how effortlessly we had come back together, I almost wanted to cry in happiness. “Palo Alto is only about nine hours away. It will be difficult, and we won’t get to see each other a lot, but I know we can do this. With holidays and breaks and the occasional weekend, it isn’t like the end of the world.”
“It definitely can’t be worse than the past seven weeks,” he agreed with a grunt. “I never want to go through that again. It was agony wondering what I did to piss you off.”
“And me, thinking you were dumping me for Emily. I’m really sorry.” I pulled Dax into a long kiss. “So tell me,” I ventured, daring to stare into his chocolate eyes. “When did you decide you wanted me back?”
He burst into laughter. “Believe it or not, three months ago. The weekend we went to Cobbles with Grant, and the next day you kept me company while I was so hung over. I sat in my apartment listening to you talk about grad school and realized I had been pushing you away for far too long.”
“Oh god, that was the…” It was the day after I had accompanied a very drunk Dax home from the club, and he had made a pass at me as I tried to put him to bed, a pass I didn’t believe he was serious about at the time. “I think your subconscious knew before you did.” And I told him about that night in his bedroom when he’d begged me to stay with him.
“Well, that’s embarrassing.” Dax was lit up like a stoplight. “I always wondered how I made it safely home afterwards. Thanks.” He changed the subject. “So what should we do now besides get cleaned up?”
I looked at the alarm clock on my nightstand. “It’s not even nine yet. I’m hungry again, are you?”
“Sex has a way of doing that,” Dax reflected wryly, kissing my cheek. “And there are all sorts of leftovers in the fridge from the party.”
I didn’t need to be reminded twice. I brought out a warm, wet washcloth from the bathroom and Dax and I wiped ourselves off before dressing. I re-braided his hair, loving the texture against my fingers and nuzzling the nape of his neck.
“You better stop that or we’re going to starve,” he teased hoarsely.
“I wouldn’t care,” I rejoined, and he pulled my hair lightly before jumping to his feet.
We had to pass through the open family room on our way to the kitchen. Mom looked up, startled as we raced by. “We were wondering where you boys got yourselves to,” she mused from the couch, a playful smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
This earned her an ironic grin from Dad. “We didn’t think you’d left, Dax, since you normally say goodbye first, and I noticed your pick-up was still parked in front when I took the grad party sign off the mailbox.”
“We’ve been… uh… upstairs,” I innocently confirmed. Mom’s eyebrows nudged up to her hairline.
“We know,” Dad grumbled good-naturedly, eyes riveted on the magazine he read and flushing a little. “The two of you… um… ought to be aware that your bedroom is directly above us. The doors and windows are all open, and sound carries at night.”
Dax was in the middle of retrieving a plate of sandwiches and stacked storage containers of pasta and potato salads and fruit from the refrigerator, and at Dad’s words he jumped a foot, the tubs tilting precariously and almost spilling to the floor. I rushed to assist. Even from the back I could see a deep blush burning from his collar to the tops of his ears, but I thought his fluster was charming. Then I remembered in 3-D detail what we’d been doing upstairs with each other and turned crimson myself, much to my parents’ amusement.
Dax and I stared at each other, desire blazing deeply in our eyes. Taking our time with the turkey sandwiches and the various salads, we waited for our erections to go down, but the sexy light on Dax’s face didn’t help matters at all. Of course, I couldn’t resist a kiss or two when I’d pass behind him, and Mom watched us happily with a twinkle in her own eyes. I was thankful that the kitchen counter hid our bulging crotches from them. After we ate we put the food away and loaded dirty dishes into the dishwasher, and by then we were reasonably presentable enough to dash out of the room.
Dax was already upstairs like a shot, but I caught Mom’s mischievous, “Have fun.”
I heard Dad remonstrate. “Have fun? What kind of parental advice is that?” But she just laughed at him softly and shooed me off.
“You want to stay?” Michael caught up to me in the hall outside his door. “We have Mom’s permission.”
“Not exactly the mental picture I wanted,” I smirked, resting my forearms on his shoulders. “But yeah.”
Michael pulled me into an embrace as he backed me through the door into his bedroom. His lips were cool on mine, and I tasted mustard and pickle with a hint of onion. “So,” I said as we broke for air. “How did we get away with four months of having secret sex in this room in high school if what your parents said was true?”
Michael shrugged, murmuring, “Don’t know, don’t care because it isn’t worth worrying over. Now that we have the past finally settled for us, the present interests me far more.”
Us. How wonderful that there was suddenly an ‘us’ again, and I stepped in and slanted my mouth to him. His tongue explored mine gently and thoroughly in a kiss that was sensuous and tantalizingly slow, and I got lost in it. I felt like tonight was a glorious dream that I hoped to never awaken from.
Standing by the bed we quickly shed our clothes in careless tosses. I finished first and moved in behind him. Our bodies touched and I wrapped his naked warmth in my arms, kissing his shoulder blades. The cleft of his ass molded around my rigid cock, making me moan, and I dropped my forehead to rest against his spine. His dick filled and lengthened, and I reached around him to grasp his shaft and lightly pump it. He gasped, and I thrust against him.
Michael turned in my arms and reached down to finger the fringe around my manhood before he took it in his hand and stroked me. “You know what turns me on?” he whispered in a dark, gravelly voice, his searing gaze capturing mine. “Having the power to make Dax Stephenson hard.” He grasped me firmly.
Oh god. I gulped, and then we were falling passionately into the other’s arms to lock lips and run our hands over hot, clinging bodies. Cupping and tweaking, it was a sensation of calloused fingers over softer flesh. I was getting lightheaded with the inability to breathe, and Michael kept trying to pull me closer when our erections were already straining between our taut, nestled abs and his hip bones were grinding mine.
Groping wildly, we fell on the bed and I hastily pushed him on his back and switched directions. I straddled him in the kneeling position and pulled his knees up to open them and brace myself. His long, rigid dick was a feast I couldn’t take my eyes off of, and sparkling beads of precum covered the head. With a tentative lick to drink in his salty nectar, I opened my mouth to devour him to the root. Michael arched off the bed beneath me with a loud groan. Pulling pillows under his head to lift himself, he cradled my ass in his arms and brought me into his own mouth.
I rocked my hips back and forth as Michael’s lips nibbled at my cock and moaned when he sucked just on the tip like a straw. His tongue found the sensitive spot in the back and laved back and forth against it, and I shuddered in his embrace. Fingers curling around my ball sac, he pulled gently and palmed each one before opening his mouth wide to slide his lips down my shaft. My whole body seized, and I groaned around him.
I began to bob up and down on Michael’s penis, slurping and licking, and his ass danced on the sheets. The spongy knob at the end was a special treat, and I rolled it around in my mouth and sucked it hard. His precum was flowing against my tongue, and I swallowed the head into my throat, listening to his excited grunts that vibrated down my own cock. My tongue traced the long vein of his velvety length as my saliva flowed into his pubic hair and his sweat pooled in his navel.
It wasn’t long before I began to feel the outward edges of my orgasm entrapping me, and my knees suddenly went so weak I thought I would crumple. Michael felt my tremors and pressed against my hip to guide me to the bed, and we lay side by side, sucking and bobbing on each other’s poles. Hands sliding and squeezing, mouths working in concert, I could feel Michael tense up in preparation to shoot and knew I wouldn’t be far behind.
“Oh baby,” Michael mumbled hoarsely as his balls lifted high into his sac and he began to spurt, unloading with a tremendous groan. His passion exploded into my mouth as semen shot down my throat in salty-sweet volleys, and I sucked firmly at the tip to get every drop. The throb of his cries resonated from the head of my stiff cock to the base, and suddenly the vortex overtook me. I cried out, Michael’s erupting member muffling me, and jets of my essence coated his mouth. My groin writhed on the bed and I closed my eyes tightly, giving in to the bliss.
The next thing I knew Michael was grabbing me up in another soul-scorching kiss and we were sharing the taste of each other’s cum between us, our bodies cooling and rocking back from the edge. We breathed together in gasps, our heartbeats in counterpoint as our cocks began to soften.
I felt a deep surge of love and gratitude for him returning to my life. With my usual partners when love wasn’t part of the equation, sex had just been a function and the goal was simply orgasm. With Michael, knowing how much he’d always cared, refusing to give up, I fed on his love for me and used it to reciprocate back to him. Our physical coupling was a testament of it.
We climbed under the covers of his queen size bed to snuggle. Michael stared into my eyes with startling clarity. “I love you so damn much, Dax.”
“Love you too,” I avowed with a nod, tracing my thumb up his nose and across his eyebrow. “I don’t think I ever stopped loving you… not really. I struggled against it for so long until I had to give in.”
Michael laughed, a soft low tone. “After I stopped being so Captain Obvious with how crazy I was about you.” His face became serious. “We’ll make this work... my going to Stanford. It will take effort, but we can do it.”
“Yeah, we will,” I smiled and thought about our recent past. As much as I had cared for some of my boyfriends, what Michael and I shared was a million times stronger. He was my one true love, and I didn’t ever want to let him go.
A sudden pounding on the bedroom door made both of us jump and interrupted the tender moment. There was laughter in Mom’s voice as she called out, “Goodnight, boys.” Only slightly less teasing was Dad’s comment about keeping the noise down so they could sleep. Michael and I looked at each other and grinned.
I think my need to pee was what awakened me before dawn. The warmth of a blanketed cocoon flooded me, followed by the sinking realization that I wasn’t alone or in my own room. For a brief milli-second I was as afraid as could be, waking up naked in a strange man’s bed and wondering how I got there. But just as sudden, the evening before came to mind and I recalled reconciling with Michael and making love. I recognized the familiar surroundings from a distant, ethereally sweet memory of four years past, and my heart stilled to find myself cuddled into his side.
Michael. I gratefully drank in his scent and marveled at the way fate had brought us back together after all these years. He still loved me. He had never fallen out of love with me, and I felt my own affection for him wash over my nerves. My anxious attempts to hide my adoration had been pointless, but in a good way. I could hardly believe the miracle that guided us to this moment. There was a deep commitment between Michael and me that wouldn’t allow us to let go. And despite the impending changes in our lives, I was certain our bond would survive the coming months. Long distance, him in school at Stanford while I learned to work with hurting children; we would go the year and see where it led us.
I moved gingerly due to the soreness of my ass when I got up to use the bathroom and slipped back into bed without waking Michael. Staring at him in the near-darkness, my heart thudded against my ribcage and my breath caught at the sight of my handsome man. His auburn hair waved across his pillow and over his forehead in his repose, and his soft breaths made his nostrils flare gently. I had to fight the urge to kiss his pink lips.
The light bronze of his smooth skin and the delineation of his abdominals and pecs, the strength in his shoulders and arms hinted at good health and vibrancy. I traced the faint scar Isaac had given him on his chiseled jaw, and I could still see the strain our past six weeks had scored on his face as he slept. The grueling fatigue of finals and graduation, his preparations to move to Palo Alto and, especially, the distress in believing I had slept with Emily and didn’t love him. Silly boy!
Without intending anything past the joy of touching him, I stroked Michael’s bare chest, strumming his nipples. He stretched under me, smacking his lips as if waking up to a dry mouth. His eyes stayed lazily shut, but he grinned and reached down to pat my ass.
“Mmm, Dax,” he mumbled in a happy, sleepy voice. “Good, it wasn’t just a dream. You’re still here.”
“Still here,” I promised, pleased at his reaction. “How do you feel?”
“Exhausted,” he muttered. “It’s going to take more than a couple days to recover from finals. You?”
“It feels like someone shoved something large up my ass.” I paused as if thinking. “Oh wait, that was you.”
“You asked for it.” He chuckled. “What time is it?”
“It’s just after three,” I whispered back and nestled closer, kissing his neck lightly.
“Okay, thanks.” He stretched again, forcing himself to come to full consciousness. He stepped out of bed to empty his bladder and returned quickly, shivering slightly in the chill of the early morning. We melted back together like tired puppies, and he lazily kissed my forehead. “Love ya, Dax,” he murmured.
“I love you too.” I stroked his jaw and gave a brief notion to running my hand over another vital part of his anatomy, but I was as worn-out as Michael. Neither of us was more than half-hard anyway and the darkness was soothing. Another round of making love could wait for later.
Michael was absently playing with my hair and running his fingers through the tangles. We started to quietly talk about our misunderstanding and how difficult the last seven weeks had been for each of us.
“I am so sorry,” he apologized quietly, his hand lightly rubbing the sharply protruding angle of my pelvis. “Sorry that I never confided in what I’d seen at the bar and asked you point blank if you were bi instead of jumping to conclusions.”
I snorted. “Like, how long have you known me, Michael? When did you ever see me even look at another woman?”
“There’s a first time for everything,” he rejoined before muttering darkly, “Leave it to me to be such a fucking coward and then go and blame you.”
I wanted to make an offhand remark about his penchant for giving up too easily and not fighting for what was important, but he had a point, and anything I said would have just injured his pride. Rather, I changed the subject a little to something I hoped he would take in fun.
“So how would you rate Emily’s kiss?”
He laughed. “Hot enough, Dax, that it made a believer out of me that you could be bisexual.”
“Well, it didn’t do a thing for me, so you can rest your mind.” I tucked my head tighter under his chin. “If you had stuck around for another half a minute you would’ve seen the end of it where I just got up and walked away.”
He punched me lightly in the arm. “I’m no perv. You really couldn’t get it up for her, ehh? It’s nice to know that I’ll never have to worry about you running off with some woman.”
We were getting into what could be considered dangerous ground and I turned the subject about one more time. “I’m just sorry Emily got hurt, even though she was the one who started it. I’m probably the only person who has gotten to know her behind her shy personality.” I felt Michael begin to tense up. “Not that I plan on doing it again, lucky for us.”
He calmed down immediately. “Besides embarrassed, how is Emily?” His concern was genuine.
“I think she’s already recovered.” I ran my fingers over his shoulder soothingly. “Her friend, Carla, was really rough on her, so we also had to deal with that issue. It took a week or so to get over it. I hated hurting her, but…”
“It’s for the best,” he finished sincerely, and then looked slightly embarrassed at the strength of his words. “I should be sad for her, but since she sprang that on you without warning, I’m not.”
“Seeing as whom I ended up with,” I agreed, yawning and nudging him, “the biggest thing was whether it drove her further into her shell and if she stopped being my friend. But she’s fine.”
“That’s good.” Michael stared at me, grimacing, and guilt was written all over him. “Look Dax, I really fucked up here. Instead of talking to you, I have spent the last two months punishing you and treating you like shit. I never want to put that pain in your eyes again.”
“Forget it, Michael. It doesn’t matter.”
“But it does…” I shushed him with a finger across his lips. “Okay, if you say so.” His voice was a sleepy grunt. Already I could tell that he was going back under, and I yawned again, absently caressing his golden stubble. That was the last thing I remembered.
The next time I opened my eyes it was daylight. I was sprawled over Michael in a position familiar from years past, head on his chest, hand on his shoulder and my knee drawn up over his thighs. One of his arms was flung out in the opposite direction of me, the other wound underneath me to loosely grip my waist and his face was in my hair. It was a location I wouldn’t trade for anything, evidence of our love and ease together.
Michael awoke soon after me, and I could see the desire in his eyes even with the shades drawn. Naturally, my horny man couldn’t start the day without a blowjob. Struggling to keep the ardent moans down so we wouldn’t reveal our activity to Mom and Dad, we 69’d and came almost simultaneously in the other’s mouth. I could definitely get used to this.
Michael offered his shower with a wicked suggestion that we get clean together, but I knew what he had in mind and had to decline. As much as I would have liked spending the day in bed, I had a business transaction to get to. I had agreed to meet a San Diego State student at the city library at noon to sell him some of my counseling textbooks.
I came out of the bathroom wearing a towel around my hips to find Michael waggling his eyebrows at me. He’s incorrigible and slapped my ass playfully when he moved past me to take his own shower. I heard the water turn on as I was looking around the floor and furniture searching out my shorts, t-shirt and briefs.
My shirt had ended up on top of Michael’s dresser four feet from the bed, and as I snatched it up, a piece of paper underneath fluttered to the floor. Not giving it much thought, I retrieved the notepaper, my eyes casually running down some of the handwritten words before putting it back. My whole body went still as, curious, I read the letter addressed to me, obvious by the salutation. I examined it again. And again.
By the time you read this, I will have gone and already moved to Palo Alto. I decided to start my business classes early by registering for the summer term, and I have a new job I'm due to begin by the end of May. I’ve told my roommates to expect me there no later than midweek.
I know I should have told you I was going, particularly because we planned to leave tomorrow for Las Vegas and you were looking forward to the trip. In fact, your excitement over it is what makes me feel like such a prick. I couldn’t bear to see the joy in your eyes go out once I told you we would have to cancel. Forget even trying to come up with excuses why.
You must hate me, and I don’t blame you. I don’t deserve your forgiveness either, because I’m sneaking behind your back, and I know how much you hate that. Believe me when I say I am sorry.
You have been my best friend for what feels like forever and now we are adults and going in different directions. Don’t worry, this isn’t as grim as it sounds. But if you leave Santa Bella or for some reason I don’t come back, I wish you all the best in life. I will always be your brother and love you like one.
Take care of yourself,
My eyes were blurry with emotion by the time I finished. The packed boxes in his room made perfect sense now. He was going to walk out and leave town, not even bothering to fight for me. No Vegas vacation, no summer, not even wishing the other good luck. I understood that he was hurt by the whole Emily and hetero sex thing, but how could he even think of moving to Palo Alto without at least allowing me to explain myself? The quick trips up to the Bay Area to find a job and a place to live, his haste in giving up his apartment in Orange and the scoured state of this bedroom- he had planned it all, but it didn’t make me feel better. The letter was so… final.
I was sitting on the bed in total shock, still half-naked, when Michael wandered in after his shower. I flourished the paper in his direction. “What’s this,” I asked angrily.
He came to a standstill, eyes wide and guilt written all over his face before he drew himself up in an expression of self-defense and lifted his shoulders blandly. “Before you decide to beat me to a pulp, please listen to me.”
He stopped as if expecting me to jump in, and when I didn’t he continued. “I wish I could do more than apologize for my bad behavior. I’ve been so jacked up about that kiss for the last seven weeks, it’s all I’ve thought about.
“It was a knee-jerk reaction, Dax. Just know that as I look back on what happened, I can see it was so wrong of me to assume without coming to you. The night I saw you and Emily together...”
“But Michael, it’s more…” He put up his hand to quiet me, his look pleading for me to see it from his point of view- how ashamed he was of his weakness in light of the simple presumption. I took in a big breath to steady my nerves and slowly let it out.
He walked over, water still glistening on his bare skin and sat down at the other end of the mattress. I felt more than saw him shake his head in misery. “I drove around for hours that night, trying to tell myself that my eyes had played tricks on me. But I was feeling fucked up and getting into the head games. I was so angry it turned me into a dickwad.”
Michael gulped noisily and tears filled his eyes. “I didn’t have the balls to ask you. I couldn’t face staying local, watching you fall for Emily, kissing in front of me and planning for a life together. I was so in love with you, Dax, and for years I kept hoping we’d get back together. I had put my whole life on hold without any real expectation you’d ever reciprocate, and now my mind is running away with me that you’re bi and have been hiding it? Fuck, I wanted to die.”
“But to just leave like that, Michael, without even letting me say goodbye. Especially with the way I felt about you and how off we had been, why would you do that?” I really was trying not to blame him.
“Listen, I wasn’t walking out on either of us,” he urged plaintively. “We had nothing going on, and I had no idea you felt the same way about me. If I had, it would’ve made all the difference in the world.”
I was going to jump in, but he was right. He hadn’t known… wouldn’t have had a reason to. I had hid my feelings for him as skillfully as he kept his own a secret.
He wiped his eyes roughly. “Forget all the reasons why I retreat from confrontation; just know that thinking of you with Emily was like a knife in my gut. I couldn’t stand to watch the two of you turn into Couple of the Year. I had to get away from you. I registered for summer session at Stanford without letting you know, and I was going to leave. I guess that makes me a shit for not telling you. So I admit it- I’m a shit.”
My heart welled up in sympathy for him, unearned as it might be. I could fully identify with his hesitation over talking to me because I had a habit of not being forthcoming with information either. Michael had very good reasons, based on our history, not to tell me how much he cared. I scooted down the bed and took him in my arms.
“Let it go, Michael, it’s okay.” He cried into my shoulder for a minute or two until he calmed down.
Finally, he lifted his head with a tremulous breath, his eyes watery. “I love you. You know that, right?”
I nodded. “Always, Michael, and I love you back just as much.”
“Solid, Dax. Thanks for understanding.”
I grinned and ruffled his hair. “I won’t hold you to it.”
He gave me a mischievous grin. “You won't? So if I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?” It was an old Bellamy Brothers hit as well as a way-overused pick-up line, and I snapped him with my towel.
Michael and I finished dressing and went downstairs for breakfast, surprised to find Mom and Dad up already and sitting at the breakfast counter reading the paper and drinking coffee. They usually slept in on Sundays, but Dad had to get the keg from the party back to the liquor store. They greeted us with amused smiles.
“So the trip to Las Vegas is definitely out?” I leaned against the counter drinking a glass of apple juice.
“I canceled all the reservations. I wish we could still go, but I promised the landlord's son I'd be there by Friday.” He suddenly looked at me with new excitement. “Hey, maybe you could come up to San Francisco with me for a few days and fly home afterwards.”
“That would be fun,” I agreed thoughtfully. “But we would enjoy Vegas more. I wish Stanford wasn’t so far away. If only you hadn’t been rejected by UCLA.”
Dad’s head popped up from the business section of the paper. “Rejected? He wasn't... What made you think that, Dax?”
“Alright,” I reconsidered. “Maybe ‘rejected’ is too strong, but UCLA didn’t accept him.” I remembered what he said about Mom not taking the news well, wondering if his parents didn’t know. “Or… didn’t he tell…”
“Yes, they did,” Mom stated, her face scrunching up in consternation. “What are you talking about?”
“Michael! He’s going to Stanford because the UCLA business school…” Out in my peripheral vision I caught sight of him slumping against the sink, his face going a sickly green. “… rejected him.” My voice died away as suspicion clawed my insides.
“Michael said you agreed with him that it was a better…” Dad was giving me his most bewildered look.
There was dead silence in the kitchen as the truth sank into me, apparently, into everyone else at the same time. I whirled on him. “What did you do?” I said from between clenched teeth.
Michael stared at me in mute agony, his tawny eyes going misty again. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
In answer, I marched over and hauled Michael up by the elbow, dragging him out of the room. “Sorry, excuse us,” I told his folks, and the looks on their faces said that they knew Michael had put his foot in it again. They didn’t follow us.
We went across the way into the formal blue-patterned living room, not used much and therefore giving us privacy. I stared Michael down from the other end of the room, challenging him for an explanation. It came haltingly.
“Changing my mind on UCLA was part of the same gut reaction to what I saw at the bar,” he huffed desperately. “A lightning fast response to stress, the same as me deciding to move early to Palo Alto. I made it the exact same night without thinking rationally. I hated you being with Emily, and attending school in Los Angeles was way too close to home. I couldn’t face it.”
“You lied to me.” I closed my eyes, choking on the words. “You fucking lied to me.”
Michael stared at the carpet and nodded. “I know. You already have my reasons, and they probably don’t sound very credible. I’m sorry.”
I fumed. “Fuck, Michael. First you make decisions based on jacked up info without even giving me the option of explaining. Second, you lie about losing out on UCLA and decide to attend Stanford while I’m going out of my mind, feeling totally screwed because I’m in love with you and you’re moving almost five hundred miles away. And finally, you act like a whining bitch and plan to take off with just a ‘farewell and good luck’ note for me to find?”
“I really am sorry.” Michael all but cowered in front of me. “I just didn’t see any other options.”
“Sorry?” I scoffed, throwing my hands into the air in frustration. “Stop saying that… like it changes anything. What if last night I’d chosen to walk away when you acted … or I hadn’t gone upstairs in the first place?”
I left him no time to answer. “You would be on your way to Stanford all angry… still assuming that I’m with Emily... me reading your letter and wondering what I did to make you hate me… maybe so hurt I’d be unwilling to give you another chance, never getting to tell you how much I love you or knowing you feel the same for me.”
“That sounds so grim,” Michael protested before realizing he was actually stoking my fire. “Don’t you think at some point we would’ve figured it out?”
“When?” I asked sarcastically, shaking my head at the pessimistic visions assailing me. “You’ve hidden from me for weeks. Up until last summer, I managed to avoid you for most of the past four years. My internship, you in grad school, and after that the possibilities are endless. There was absolutely no guarantee, Michael, that both of us would end up back here in Santa Bella.”
His eyes darkened at my words and his whole body went stiff, proving to me that he already grasped this; in fact, he’d planned on it. Once Michael began to run, he would never stop until we were finally out of each other’s lives for good. The pain of that realization ripped through me.
“I don’t know what’s worse," I reasoned softly, more to myself than him. “To give it another shot like last night and lose you again or— it’s too hard. We might have been better off…”
“Don’t say that.” Michael looked horrified, as if the full weight of what he’d done to us began to finally sink in.
By now my dread was rising, and I was pacing back and forth watching him stare at me in panic, sweating like a man going to his execution. The last fifteen hours had all been a beautiful dream, but that was the extent of it. A dream, not reality, not in the sense of forever. I should’ve known better than to put faith in him.
“You could’ve told me. You should have said something.” My fear and where this was leading must have been all over my face.
“Please don’t…” Michael begged.
“Even last night… or upstairs a little while ago, if you had come to me and confessed what you did so I wouldn’t have to learn it from Mom and Dad. And you stand there wanting me to trust you with my feelings? Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“Dax, I can make it up… Please let me make it up to you.”
“No,” I interrupted, slashing at the air with my flat hand. “I can't do this. I won’t. The person I’m with, I need to be able to believe in and know he won’t lie and intentionally hurt me.”
We both recognized that I had come to a decision. I glared at him from ten feet away but his eyes refused to rise past my toes.
“Dax, I know you’re angry. I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but please don’t walk away.”
“Michael,” I said, feeling defeated. “I want to be able to count on you. I still love you, but I can’t help remembering what you said in bed this morning. About not causing me pain intentionally ever again.”
He watched me in teary, open-mouthed confusion, his entire countenance miserable and conscience-stricken. “Maybe it wasn’t on purpose, but it hurts just as much.” And I turned on my heel and slammed through the house and out the front door.
Dark days followed the graduation party. For one short instant in time I had my Dax back. In my arms, in my bed, the two of us talking about spending the rest of our lives together. Tired and angry from weeks of being ignored and punished because of my little misunderstanding, he had stormed into my bedroom after that festive Saturday evening to demand an explanation.
And in the midst of telling me he was still gay, he confessed that, of all things, he was in love with me. That was a shock, but I didn’t stop to process it because I had too much to do at the moment, like making love to him. After four lonely years, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. The night was a glorious feast of sex and watching the rapture flit across his face as we both finished together.
Making love through those short but wonderful hours was nearly ideal, but the true dedication came in our heartfelt discussions of what led us back to each other. We were determined to make the relationship work the best we could, what with Dax locked into a clinical mental health internship in Santa Bella and me attending grad school nine hours away. Positive that the next year would fly by quickly, Dax and I had even talked about him finding work as a therapist up north until I finished college.
People should be able to survive on love alone. If the way we cared about each other was the only thing that mattered, Dax and I would be the happiest of couples. But like I always do, I fucked up and drove him away. I have a nasty habit of doing that.
I admit it, I’m pathetic and irrational. Instead of using reason to work my way logically through situations, I look for the quick, easy, feel good solutions and go with the first impetuous thought that pops into my head. So before our reconciliation, before his confession when I realized Dax had fallen in love with me again, back to when I thought he had switched teams to sleep with Emily Bayard, I lied to him.
I lied about being accepted by the UCLA business school and enrolled at Stanford University so I could hide from him because I didn’t want to be witness to his bisexuality coming into play. To further complicate matters, I changed the plans I’d made with Dax for the summer. We were supposed to drive to Las Vegas for a vacation he’d been happily anticipating and spend the subsequent months in our hometown, but I decided to leave without notice to enroll in summer classes and report early for my new job in Palo Alto.
Why can’t I think my actions through ahead of time? Better yet, why can’t I stand up to conflict instead of running from it every time like the coward I am?
Dax forgave me for the letter I wrote, the one I put aside for him to find after my departure explaining all my dismal excuses for my spinelessness, and gave me a second chance. At first he was angry about me running out on him, but he understood my need to escape. My plans hadn’t taken our reunion into account; I never in my wildest fantasies saw that coming. But Dax’s integrity has a strict built-in code about lying, and this isn’t the first time he’s dumped me because of it, not that my deeds didn’t warrant it. When he found out about UCLA, he stormed out of my parents’ house, leaving me a quivering mess of tears, and I haven’t heard from him since.
As harsh as Dax’s response was, I have to admit I deserved it. We almost had it back again, close to figuring out what we wanted in our future, and my costly lie ruined it. When he found the letter, I should have been upfront and straightaway told him that my overreaction two months ago changed all my future plans. The truth is I’m… I’m…
The truth is that Dax is a far nobler person than I am, and he makes me feel like I’m not worthy of him. He could do so much better than me, and sometimes it frightens me that one day he’s going to wake up and figure it all out. I know what the mortals in Greek mythology must have experienced walking amongst the gods. I have had the opportunity to watch Dax come into his own over the past four years, and how do you top perfection? Why would you even try?
I can’t believe what a fuck-up I am and why I can’t learn from my mistakes. A step forward, five back, the truth always catches up with me so I’m on the losing end. I adore Dax and would do anything to spend the next hundred years of our lives together, but I can see his point. If our places were reversed, I don’t think I could live with the same lack of conviction as I’ve shown him. Dax should have someone he can trust with him, and I want to be that person, I really do. I just don’t know how to keep from second-guessing him and stop the stupid insecure mistakes that drive him away.
After Dax left, I spent the remainder of that Sunday trying to avoid my parents’ accusatory glances and packing up the rest of my bedroom. Yes, they’re angry too, especially Mom. She has known for years that Dax and I never truly fell out of love with each other, and she wants us both happy and settled. For a mother, she’s pretty cool about my sexuality. You hear the horror stories of parents kicking their kids out or resorting to other horrendous means of retribution, but mine are nothing like that.
Mom accepts the fact that I’m gay, Dax is gay and we belong with each other. While he tries to understand, Dad is less enthusiastic but he knows it isn’t a choice for me, it’s the way I’m wired so what do you do? They even let me make love to Dax in my bedroom last night without more than a teasing complaint. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be good parents if they let me get away with bullshit, and they hate deceit as much as Dax does. Of course, that doesn’t mean I went looking for a scolding, but it found me and I stood there and took it like a man.
I tried to contact Dax, but he wasn’t answering his cell phone. That’s typical for him; when he’s hurt or mad, he takes a long time to get it out of his system and come around. And this wasn’t a little disagreement this time; this was one huge, disastrous error on my part. I sent several long texts telling him how sorry I was and begging to be forgiven, but in all likelihood, he probably deleted them without a glance.
The best I could hope for right now, even if he didn’t respond, was to keep texting my apologies, ask for understanding and pray he didn’t block me. I was sorry, more than I could ever express, but it was like being sent back to square one. It took four years for Dax to forgive me the first time I betrayed him and this is almost on par with that. I didn’t know if I had the endurance to put in another four for this infraction. Not that I didn’t love him, but every bad situation has an expiration date.
Failing that, I managed to get hold of Grant Packard that night. We passed the shit back and forth awhile before I settled on the reason for my call. “Please,” I begged. “Keep an eye on Dax for me, would you, bud? You know how he gets sometimes.”
Yes, our friends all knew that when stressed out, Dax tended to ignore basic survival skills- like food and sleep.
“What’s going on with him?” His voice was amused bordering on curious. “He asked me about you before I left the party.”
“Really?” It was my turn to be puzzled, but I should’ve expected it. “What did he want?”
Grant told me how Dax had sidled up inquiring after my behavior and upset that I wasn’t talking to him, and he had sent my bro directly to the source.
“Thanks for that,” I said sincerely, knowing it led Dax upstairs to me. “You’re a good dude, Grant.”
“Did it help?”
I explained the night before. “We… uh… got some of our past straightened out. It turns out, Dax wanted to get back together as much as I did.” I wasn’t about to share the intimate details of man sex with him, but he got the big picture. I mentioned the disastrous argument that had driven Dax away. “I really fucked up this morning.”
“Harsh,” was Grant’s pronouncement, knowing Dax’s stance on honesty. “At least he knows how you feel now, but it seems neither of you were fully candid with each other. He gets a stick up his ass sometimes, but he’ll come around eventually. Give him some time.”
“Yeah, it seems that time is all I have left.” I couldn’t give in to his well-meant platitudes. “Please just check up on him. Take him out for a beer every once in awhile and make sure he gets a few meals and doesn’t starve.”
Grant chuckled. “Okay, Mom, I got it. Listen to him when he gets depressed and wants to talk and put in a good word for you. Keep him out of the clubs and bash the head in of any other gay man who comes within a hundred feet of your fair-haired boy. And don’t let him find out that I’m babysitting.”
I laughed back, happy I didn’t have to explain it to Grant. He’d had my back for four months, and that wasn’t likely to change. He was Dax’s friend too and fairly observant since he’d seen the love Dax reflected back before I did and tried to warn me. We were solid.
By the next day I was ready for the long drive to Palo Alto. My room was fairly well stripped, but Mom and Dad knew I’d probably return for holidays and the occasional weekend. For all intents, I was an adult now and needed to begin making my own way. I didn’t know where my path would take me. Depending on Dax I might even leave the area, because I sure as hell couldn’t bear to live here if we weren’t together. Still, I kept a few clothes in my closet and dresser, and I boxed up and set out of the way the rest of the gear I wouldn’t need up north.
It wasn’t lost on me that the same day I drove out of Santa Bella was the day that Dax and I were supposed to be leaving for Las Vegas. I think that hurt the worst. He’d never been on a real vacation, and I was looking forward to taking him there and showing him the sights and how much fun the city was. What better timing, with reigniting our desire for each other, to spend it together and I spoiled this for him too. On second thought, the chances of us making it out of the hotel room might be pretty slim, but four days of making love to Dax would’ve been like a dream. It was enough to make my cock twitch in faux anticipation. If only I wasn’t such an ass.
An old Lifehouse song was playing on one of the rock radio stations as I passed through Oakland. It’s a typical breakup song called Blind.
Some of the lyrics said, “I was young but I wasn't naïve. I watched helpless as you turned around to leave. And still I have the pain I have to carry a past so deep. That even you could not bury if you tried. After all this time I never thought we'd be here… When my love for you is blind but I couldn't make you see it… That I loved you more than you'll ever know when part of me died when I let you go.”
I swallowed hard listening to the dismal words, and I couldn’t stop the tears that filled my eyes. That was me, how I felt, pretty much the story of my entire adult life. I have loved Dax forever, and for the most part he was blind to it. But it was my stupidity that kept getting in the way and driving us apart. Heaven help me, but I could not find a way to fix it, not in a forever sense. And if I didn’t learn how, I was going to lose him permanently.
I sent Dax another text message once I arrived in the Bay area. Again apologizing and begging him not to give up on us, with a firm promise that I was going to show him I could change. It was time for me to grow up and demonstrate that I could be accountable and not make excuses or search out the easy answers. I had to use my brain and stop being so reckless. I had to prove to him that he was first in my life, and I’d do anything to win him back. It had happened before, and I was going to start believing in miracles.
It was hard, knowing that Michael left for Stanford the day after our quarrel. On the outside, I was good at hiding my feelings, but inside I was far from confident that I handled the situation well. I had turned into a self-righteous prick somewhere along the line, and my stomach churned in fear that my overly high demands might drive him away for good. What right did I have to insist on perfection when I was so far from the ideal myself? Didn’t that make me a hypocrite? Some part of me argued that I should hold him liable for lying to me, but a larger piece said I had overreacted. Most of all, I very much missed him and wanted to forgive what he’d done.
I could see where Michael was coming from logically. His impetuous nature was a sometimes-refreshing trait in his character that I could love about him, but it also caused a lot of problems. He was like a bull in a china closet, knocking about half-assed and tripping over his own feet. Actually, his changing universities and planning to move early to Palo Alto made perfect sense… for him. He had observed me going through two serious boyfriends since we broke up. Putting myself in his place and recognizing how well he hid his love for me, I could see how agonizingly painful it would be for him if I had been bi and took up with Emily.
I loved him deeply. I wanted him more than anyone I’ve ever loved. By day, I needed my man to stand by me so we could support and protect one another, and, by night, hold each other and make love. Shouldn’t that be enough for me to pity him his lack of judgment and show him mercy? His absence was a big hole in my life, and the most brutal wound was how short a time we had together before it fell apart again. Mere hours of fulfilling ecstasy! I mean, what were the chances that Michael would still love me after the past four years when all I’d done since then was push him away. Time and again, I’d stated that there was no tomorrow for us, yet he remained faithful and waited for me to absolve him of the guilt when he cheated and left me for Isaac.
My head kept trying to tell me this was the same as his first betrayal and that I had to draw the line. He’d been dishonest about UCLA and a lie is a lie. But deep inside I knew it wasn’t true. The first time was cheating with his ex and a choice he fully made going in, maybe under the compulsive wiles of the older boy. He knew what he was doing and his option should have been to walk away. As self-serving as the second mistake appeared, it was meant to protect himself. A lie of omission set in the widest possible aperture because I was unknowingly breaking his heart.
Michael began sending texts almost as soon as I walked out of Mom and Dad’s house, and for the first couple of days I read only enough to check the sender’s name before deleting them. What I did see was mostly identical in its wording- Michael humbling himself and admitting he lied without making excuses for it. That last was rather encouraging since he’s always given a logical reason for his errors- if he was even willing to own up to them in the first place. Maybe the fact that he didn’t run away from his responsibility meant he was finally growing up.
After the first week I began at least looking at his messages. To his great credit, he didn’t give up and sent at least one a day, often more. Aside from a humorous anecdote about his life in Palo Alto or wishing I could experience something with him, they were near enough the same in every case.
‘Luv and miss u. Think of u all the time. Hope u feel the same. Sorry 4 b-ing stupid. Plz don’t 4get me. Let me make it up. Prove 2 u that u can trust me.’
It hurt to read them, but I saw truth there. I saw his heart. It was reflected in me wanting him back and wishing we didn’t have this strain between us. I knew he was waiting for me to give him a sign that I forgave him, but I was exactly what Michael labeled me that wonderful night in his room- proud. I wasn’t ready to pardon him yet, but I couldn’t let go either. For some weird reason his texts felt like a lifeline between us that I didn’t dare cut.
I began my internship at the Santa Bella Counseling Center in early June, working under the supervision of both my former therapists, Zeke Carter and Blaine Tazlow. Intense! After four years of schooling, it was as if I was being thrown to the lions. I spent most of the early weeks taking notation from files and sitting in on treatment sessions when one of the licensed therapists introduced me as the newest intern. My eyes were open like never before to the complexities of how the brain computes risk and loss and deals with it, sometimes in unhealthy ways.
Blaine hadn’t forgotten that, against his advice, I discontinued my own therapy sessions months before and, ever the determined doctor, pinned me down within the first week there to check on my progress. I was in the middle of sorting through old charts of Zeke’s clients so maybe that sparked the concern.
“So Dax, how has life been treating you?”
“Good,” I told him, picking a stack of folders out of a file labeled PAA – PAD. “I managed to get through school in decent enough shape without losing my mind.”
“What’s left of it,” he teased, grinning. “But seriously, judging by your grades, you did more than just ‘get through’ SDSU. You aced it. Almost straight A’s with two majors? Congratulations!” I blushed and thanked him.
Zeke was walking by and heard my answer. “And on a more personal level?” he asked.
“A female friend tried to kiss me, and I found out I’m not into women at all.”
I threw it out there mostly in terms of a joke, and Zeke chuckled. “You aren’t the first gay man that’s happened to, Dax.”
I laughed with him. “No, but the fallout was interesting. Michael saw her kiss me and thought I was bisexual.”
“Oh?” Blaine raised his eyebrows, probably curious over why I’d voluntarily bring up someone he usually had to drag information out of me over. “What did he say to that?”
Zeke threw me a shrewd look and handed me another box of files. “Hmm, was the concern on Michael’s part out of friendship or does this mean something special?”
But even as I flushed a deep red, I ignored their nosiness and let them imagine what they wished.
Blaine and one of the female counselors headed up domestic violence classes three nights a week for offenders assigned by children’s services or the court system. As part of their sentencing terms, men and women met in single-gender groups to learn how not to engage their partners or children aggressively during times of anger or stress. Even though working with these adults was outside my sphere of young teens in crisis, I learned a lot of tips from the classes even as I assisted in running them.
Zeke’s newest idea was in organizing counseling within the school system to help teenagers deal with issues such as bullying, intolerance, parental abuse and family pressure. Through surveys given the previous year, he discovered that some of the middle and high school students had parents or siblings in the grip of cancer and other serious diseases as well as those disabled by catastrophic accidents, and many felt they had nowhere to turn. To that end, he planned on instituting group therapy sessions for the upcoming school year and wanted me to co-host them with him. He believed that my age would be a definite advantage in convincing the teenagers to open up.
As the days passed it was obvious that my former counselors were unobtrusively keeping watch over me on more than just the supervisorial front, and I learned to expect anything from Blaine and Zeke in the way of advice and sneaky questions.
“How’s Michael?” Blaine asked out of the blue one afternoon, curious and to the point as always. I guess I startled a little because his eyes studied me carefully.
I shrugged and tried to relax. “We thought we had something going after college graduation, but it didn’t work out.” It wasn’t quite the truth, but it was better than admitting how much I yearned for him. I was staying out of the bars and clubs, unwilling to seek anyone out because there was no comparison. At least I had rich fantasies of our last night to sustain me. “He’s up at Stanford.”
Blaine gave me a knowing glance and put two and two together. “Just remember if you need someone to confide in, I’m here.” I nodded my thanks, still determined to keep my own counsel. I think I was finally doing alright.
I didn’t see Emily very much during the early summer weeks. We texted each other frequently like good friends do, but she was taking two summer art classes just because drawing was something that had always interested her. At the end of July we happened to be scheduled at the rape hotline on the same shift, and I was feeling rather dejected. She invited me out for coffee afterwards and we went to Starbucks.
We talked about the peripherals first- her job, my job, her emerging artistic streak and how she was on the verge of moving away from home for the first time.
“That ought to be fun for you,” I smirked, setting my venti mocha frap down on the table. “No parents to check what time you arrive home at night… or to make sure you even do.”
“That will definitely be an advantage,” she stated, looking down at her jeans and blushing.
“Hmm, Emily. So does that mean there’s someone special in your life?”
“Maybe,” she answered, playing along. “Someone you know.” And Emily went on to tell me that she and Greg Packard, one of the twins, had been going out since my graduation party.
I congratulated her. “What’s going on with you?” she inquired.
I must have gotten a sad look on my face because she threw me a sympathetic glance. I wondered if I could talk to her about Michael, if maybe having an objective opinion about his lie and my reaction would help.
“Would you mind giving me some advice?” I asked softly.
“Sure.” She studied me for a few seconds. “Not that I’ll know how to help.”
I talked about Michael and how I was interested in him again after four years apart. She listened carefully, and after I finished five minutes later, I’d shared the nutshell version of my feelings for him. “If you were me,” I finished up, “how angry would you be over his changing colleges and lying about it?”
“Michael saw us together when I kissed you at Salvio’s and freaked out?” she asked, needing to get this fact straight first. I nodded.
“Damn!” She stared at me with a thoughtful look on her face. “That would be a huge shock for anyone, but especially for someone like him. I think I’d want to protect myself from getting hurt. You know, limit my exposure to being around you and a girlfriend and hope you came to your senses sooner or later. So even though the lie bothers me, I understand Michael’s fear.”
I sighed. “I was afraid you would say that. I’ve been thinking that maybe I was too hard on him.”
“Michael still should’ve told you the truth when he had the chance,” she stated, finishing her iced passion fruit tea. “I think that’s the toughest part to get over but I can’t be the one to tell you what to do.” She gave me a compassionate look. “You really do love him, don’t you?”
I nodded, staring out through the wide front windows into the dark, nearly empty parking lot. “I get the feeling I’m running out of time to make this right. I don’t want to lose him, but I don’t want to give up my values either.”
“Then I suggest you don’t keep Michael in suspense,” she advised. “If you feel there’s the slightest chance the two of you can work this out, tell him you’re trying to come to terms with what happened. Otherwise, he may give up.”
I smiled and leaned across the table to kiss her cheek. “You’re not bad for a girl,” I exclaimed. “But don’t let it go to your head.”
Except for rolling her eyes, she let the ‘girl’ disrespect pass without comment.
The summer went by slowly. With my work at the clinic and Michael’s desertion, our usual gang of the twins, the girls and I more or less fell apart. It had been Michael who kept us grounded anyway. There was some sort of local weather inversion that sent the heat index soaring, and not only were Grant and Greg busier than usual trying to keep people’s gardens and lawns alive, it was too hot in the evenings to do much. They were worn out at the end of the day, Emily was working and drawing her heart out, and Lauren’s job called for a lot of traveling out of town.
I was working crazy hours but falling in with the routine at the clinic and learning a lot from Blaine and Zeke. Sitting in on therapy sessions and even seeing a couple of patients on my own under their supervision, I was quickly becoming skilled at asking the right questions and identifying issues behind troubling behavior. For now, I was treating younger children and schooling their parents, seeing as they were considered easier to work with, but once I took my boards and received my license in ten months’ time, I would be counseling teens. The domestic violence classes and Zeke’s new in-school therapy planning kept me on the run. I loved what I was doing and knew I’d made the right choice in a career. I think I was being helped by my patients’ trust as much as I was giving back to them.
We counselors are not encouraged to analyze our own behaviors, but somewhere in the Bible is a quote about physicians healing themselves, and I liked the analogy. For too long I had indulged in hedonistic, self-destructive behavior, and I was determined to stop. It was harmful and hypocritical; how could I tell my future clients to refrain from their own self-inflicted tortures if I continued to flog myself for my mistakes? It was time to be more mature and get it through my head that slip-ups were a part of life, and perfection placed too big of burden on us all? This also meant I had to forgive others. The one sticking point was in wholly forgiving the person who meant the most to me, but I was trying my best to let go and follow Emily’s advice.
I missed Michael. God, I missed him. The brief interlude we’d shared at his parents’ house was like being given a glimpse of my heart’s desire, only to have it snatched away from me. But the worst was knowing I’d brought it upon myself. I kept remembering what Michael had said- about ruining our lives over such a small mistake, knowing I was doing it again. I asked myself at least once a day whether I was prepared to lose Michael forever due to my stupidity, and the answer was, simply, no.
Working towards forgiveness, I began to respond briefly to his stabs at contacting me. Every day when I awoke I’d check my cell phone for his latest text telling me he missed me too. It wasn’t much on my part, sometimes simply a smiley face, a quick ‘hi’ or thanking him, but at least it kept us in touch. I was afraid of Emily’s prophetic words coming true, that he would get tired of texting me in vain and give up. Certainly he was in a position to meet other gay men in Palo Alto- I mean, come on, it was near San Francisco, for god’s sake. As much as I wanted to rail against his weakness and Michael’s actions, I realized I could never flush our relationship.
It was the middle of August, and my friend, Lauren, was celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, and I’d driven to her house on the other side of Santa Bella. Although more than three years had passed since we first met, being there still conjured up memories. Happier peaceful times of love and laughter, different faces that seemed as if they were from a lifetime ago and now lost.
I parked my Toyota truck in front of her small two-story Mediterranean-style house and hopped out. It was noon; her party wasn’t due to begin for an hour, but I hoped to be of some help with last-minute food prep and setting up. An unfamiliar Dodge pick-up truck with Missouri license plates sat at the curb on the other side of the driveway, and I remembered how Lauren had mentioned that yet another cousin attending college in San Diego was moving in with her. I was eager to meet him. The older generation of Lauren’s family seemed to have taken the proverb about being fruitful and multiplying quite literally. There seemed to be no end to the supply of Appleby teenagers.
I had just given a short jab on Lauren’s chiming doorbell when I received a text message- from her, of all people. I didn’t even bother to read it, deciding we could handle the conversation in person now that I was here. The heavy, carved front door opened to…
“Brendan,” I gasped, almost reeling in shock.
There stood my former boyfriend in all of his beautiful glory. His once splendid sun-streaked hair was shorter and a dull hickory brown shade and his golden skin had a grayish cast that couldn’t be explained by being stuck indoors most of the day teaching. Silver basketball shorts and a black sleeveless tee did nothing to hide his muscles or the fact that he had lost weight, accentuating his six-foot-one height. He had a face that was care-worn and lightly lined in tension around the mouth and eyes, showing misery in every expression and adding half a decade to his twenty-four years. But nothing could dim the bright blue of his intriguing eyes.
“Dax,” he gulped back, his rich southern dialect breaking my name into two syllables as he usually did. His pretty lips turned up into a huge, sunny grin that wiped most of the sorrow off his face. “How are you? You look good.”
“I’m getting by.” My voice was curiously flat as I accepted his greeting. I couldn’t believe he was here in Santa Bella, and I would’ve given anything not to be standing right in front of him. I’d had no desire to see him for almost two years.
Despite that passage of time, I still painfully recalled how my boyfriend of fourteen months had accepted a student teaching position in his bigoted hometown and then ended our relationship to deny he was gay and marry some local girl his religious family approved of. I no longer loved him, but at the time, his loss had been like ripping my still-beating heart from my chest.
Confusion coursed through me; I hadn’t expected to see Brendan ever again, and my system was short circuiting at his sudden flesh and blood appearance. Compounding the problem was my mental state from general malaise and my missing Michael which had already sent my destabilized equilibrium into a crushing low. I was glad I was leaning against the doorframe or I might have pitched over.
“Cat got your tongue?” Brendan asked with a smirk and threw the door wide. He must have asked another question that I wasn’t paying attention to. “You might as well come on in and set a spell. Lauren went to the store for more cups and napkins for the party but she isn’t back yet.”
I shook my head, disquiet filling me. “No, I think it’s better if I come back later.” I turned to go.
“Don’t be silly.” Brendan was on the porch gently pulling me by my elbow to guide me inside. The grip of his fingers on my bare skin ached warm on warm. We stood a yard apart on the cool terra cotta tile of the foyer as he shut the door behind us.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said simply, his sky-hued eyes asking for understanding. “It saves me time trying to locate you later. We need to talk.”
I was suddenly wary... and a little afraid. “You said it all when you refused to come back.”
His evaluation of me was piercing and his voice was raw. “I see you’re still wearing the bracelet I gave you.” He touched my wrist, the one with the multi-hued leather strips twisted with wooden beads, a Christmas gift. “It gives away how you feel.”
“Stop, Brendan.” I grimaced. The brief contact was like an electric spark, and I recoiled from his fingers. “Keeping this only means I like it, not you. But if you want it back…” I began to dig my fingers under the rawhide.
“You don’t have to do that,” he protested in a hurt tone, and I shook him off when his hand reached out again to still my own. “I just want to explain…”
“About what?” I challenged. “Your marriage? Your wife? Believe me, we have nothing to discuss.”
Brendan stared down at his feet and softly asked, “Why are you so hostile, Dax?”
“I’m not hostile.” I watched the emotions play across his face and knew what he said about me was true, despite my denial. “I’m tired of getting fucked over by life and the way fate seems to have me by the balls.”
“Yeah, I know that feeling,” Brendan agreed, nodding somberly. He gestured towards Lauren’s black and tan living room. “Why don’t we at least get comfortable and sit down.” Under his hypnotic voice, it seemed as if I’d left my free will on the porch, and I followed him into the room.
He surveyed me quietly as I perched lightly on Lauren’s black leather sectional. “You still haven’t asked what I’m doing here.” He waited mere seconds to give me the chance to inquire and when I didn’t he continued.
“Lauren’s new roommate is my younger brother, Zachary. He’s out here to enroll at SDSU on a track scholarship, same as I was, only he’s the one in the family with the lightning feet and puts my feeble attempts at running to shame.”
He chuckled at his vain attempt to be humorous, maybe hoping to diminish the tension between us. “I don’t have to be back in town and prepare for school for another three weeks. So I volunteered to drive him to California.”
“Lucky me,” I replied scathingly. “If you think your reappearance makes a difference, think again.”
“Again, the hostility, Dax,” he pointed out, staring at me fixedly.
I shrugged. “You’re the one who left. You damn near ruined my life; at least it felt that way at the time. Then you show up here out of the blue as if an explanation matters. I think I’m entitled to be a little angry.”
Brendan pursed his lips in contemplation. “Fair enough,” he nodded, “but you need to understand why it all went down the way it did, and I would appreciate the courtesy of you listening.”
“That’s no secret,” I laughed hollowly. “You broke up with me when you decided you weren’t gay and got married. So how’s that working out for you?”
“It’s fucking peachy, thank you!” His eyes suddenly smoldered with a fury that contorted his face into a mask. “If you can call it that seeing how I’m separated from my wife. Not that I miss the bitch personally, but I have an fifteen month old son I’m forbidden to see because she found out I was fucking a man for a year before I moved back to Derrington. How did you so lovingly put it? Oh, that’s right, taking it up the ass.”
The silence between us was so profound I could hear the quiet tick-tock of the Betty Boop wall clock in Lauren’s upstairs den. In all the time we were together, I had never seen genial Brendan get so angry… or heard him swear like that. The vengeful, remorseless part of me wanted to scream ‘good’ at him for all he had suffered. The rest of me sat in shocked sadness, imagining how it would feel to have a child I wasn’t allowed to nurture and watch grow up.
I saw a trace of tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Brendan, honestly I am. That’s… fucked up.”
Since discovering I was gay, I had rarely given serious thought to having children of my own, especially considering the sexual abuse in my background. Not that I had any proclivities in that direction, but why tempt fate? But Brendan would have made an excellent father, and wishing him that kind of evil seemed too cruel.
Accepting my regret, Brendan inclined his head in a slight nod, letting the tears fall. “You were right all along about me, Dax,” he whispered glumly. “I am homosexual. I didn’t want to admit it… did everything I could think of to escape it, but nothing worked. The more I tried to fight how I felt about sex with men… with you… the worse it was. Leaving here was such a godawful mistake. I knew it immediately when I arrived home. I should’ve told the school board to stick it and just left. Our phone calls were all that kept me sane, but… I don’t know why I didn’t listen, Dax, when all you offered were solutions to help me get back to California… and back together.”
“Is that supposed to comfort me, knowing your regret after…?” I interrupted, my goodwill spreading thin.
“Please, Dax,” he begged, running his hand through his curly hair distractedly. “This isn’t easy to admit, so just listen.” I shut my mouth and made myself look through the large front window at grass browning in the bright sunshine, at a thin line of dust missed on the end table during cleaning, on anything but Brendan’s stricken face.
He continued. “Three weeks before I called you that last time, I forced myself to have sex with a girl I’d known since grade school, aiming to prove to myself that I could change. I didn’t love her; it was just a casual fling she wanted because she’s had a crush on me for years. Sarah’s parents and mine are friends going way back. Our fathers were deacons in our home church, and her mama was my first grade teacher. The sex between us was…” He shook his head as if to chase away a horrid thought. “Ugh! I wanted to vomit afterwards, it felt so wrong. But Sarah got pregnant that first time… maybe on purpose, I don’t know. I felt I had a responsibility to marry her.”
I made a dismissive gesture at his tale, determined not to feel sorry for him, and Brendan gave me a hard look. “I don’t care if you believe me, but every word is true. That’s why I broke it off with you when… She was a virgin before I came home and five months along when we wed, so I already had one count against me with her kin…
“It was never good between me and her,” he said in a low voice. “We weren’t compatible and never should’ve married. It was easy enough to ignore her before Jacob was born because Sarah was afraid we would hurt him, and I played along so we didn’t have to be intimate. But after his birth, she wanted to resume relations. I could barely stand to touch her and she wondered...”
I was stunned. Here were the answers to all the ‘why’ questions from two years ago that he hadn’t shared with me, answers that wouldn’t have brought us back together but might have comforted me when I believed it was partly my fault I lost him. His explanation wasn’t completely unexpected because I had known that he was gay better than he did. But there's a wide range there- for some guys, a hole is a hole, and you can call it being equal opportunity, desperation or hiding from the closet, it doesn’t really matter. I didn’t operate that way, as I had found out with Emily and I now suspected Brendan didn’t either. With forlorn finality, I thought of all that lost time between us when he had been hurting so badly. Both of us, actually.
Turning red, he gulped and stammered. “She would have to be blind not to see how much she… uh… disgusted me. Thinking about her, seeing her naked doesn’t make me hard… I have no desire for her. She wanted to know why. I made excuses about being too tired… or sick. I had migraines. She thought sucking me off was perverted, so I didn’t even have that. During the infrequent times we made love, it only worked because I forced myself to pretend I was with you, as ridiculous as it sounds.” He bowed his head and laughed in gloomy self-derision. “I got away with it for a long time.
“On the 4th of July, Sarah’s parents had their usual Independence Day party for family and friends. It’s a huge celebration where they invite half the town. We’d been fighting all day, and I got really wasted.” My head shot up in surprise, and Brendan grinned feebly. “I mean of all things, me nearly falling down drunk? But for what it’s worth, I was so intoxicated I almost wrecked the truck on the way home. If I’d caused an accident or got a DUI, there goes my teaching career, and of course, putting my wife and baby’s lives in danger. Sarah started yelling at me. We had a huge argument that lasted for hours, and when it was over she wanted make up sex.
“I-I couldn’t… couldn’t do it. The… uh… equipment didn’t want to… uh… play because Sarah doesn’t turn me on. I tried to blame the whiskey, but like I said this wasn’t the first time it happened. She was hysterical. And I was so damn gone, I just let loose. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I told her about you… and us. How I’d been living a lie since going home. I didn’t love her. I was a homosexual, and I loved you, Dax.”
I looked on in shock as Brendan began to cry again. “The next morning, Sarah made me move out. She needed time to decide what to do… if she should file for divorce.” His voice turned deep and bitter. “She hasn’t said anything about me, at least not yet. No, she’s calling it our little secret ‘til she can use it to her best advantage. She’s like that when she’s mad. In the meantime, she’s holding Jacob over my head. He’s my son, and I’m not allowed to even come near him. Problem is, if she takes this public, she’ll ruin me and she knows it. The judge deciding the divorce will give her full custody. So Sarah has me right where she wants me, and there’s not a damned thing I can do in my defense.”
I sat there wondering how a person could be so unfeeling towards the man she supposedly loved. The idea of making him dance to her discordant tune just to be able to see his own child was wrong. And yet again, it made me silently question what kind of delusion he ascribed to, thinking his returning to Missouri would magically work out for us.
By this time Brendan was stoically trying to staunch his tears with anger. “Damn, fucking prejudiced assholes.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I murmured. “I knew it was bad back there, but that is some messed-up woman you married. Surely you have civil rights as a father beyond local law. Did you talk to a lawyer? At the state level maybe- she can’t do that to you.”
“With the whole town against me?” His voice was rising. “Even my parents would probably take her side, and if I won, I’d still have to live near Derrington because of Sarah. My job, my reputation, the bashing? No, Dax.”
I couldn’t believe this was the same man who had blithely driven out of my life on that May morning with such confidence. “You can’t just give up, Brendan. Have you looked online for help? There are statutes that protect against that kind of bias- not only for custody, but also as a human being.”
“You don’t understand,” he finally shouted. “I love Jacob, but for now he isn’t the issue. That’s not why I’m here.”
I took a deep breath and finally summed up the courage to ask the big question. “What do you want from me?”
“I came back to Santa Bella to tell you that I made a gigantic mistake and I’m sorry for the way I hurt you… how I left you to deal with the heartache alone because I was too spitless to see the truth. I need you back and I’m willing to do anything to get you. If I lose visitation, that might even include moving here…”
“No,” I stated urgently. As much as I pitied him, I was appalled by his suggestion. “You can’t just dump me like that and then return expecting us to start over like it never happened.”
“But it’s different. I’ll look for work, and we can move in together. It will be better…”
“No!” I bounded to my feet, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. Incensed and pained by his suggestion, I fought my teeming emotions. “First of all, losing you nearly killed me. Second, what we had was the past. I have too much shit going on in my life. I don’t love you anymore and refuse to put myself through that risk again.”
Brendan also stood. “I don’t believe you,” he huffed.
“You better because it’s the truth,” I warned quietly. “It’s been over for a long time, Brendan. You walked out. You got married. Did you honestly think I was languishing for your return… waiting for you to come to your senses? I said I didn’t want to be friends, and you stopped calling.”
“Yeah, about that.” He scrubbed his wet face wildly. “Michael Capshaw…”
“I know Michael told you to stop contacting me,” I informed him to move the discussion along. “He did it for my sanity, so we’re good. Michael has my back.” Which, I realized with affection, was true.
“Come on,” Brendan entreated. “Two years isn’t forever. You must feel something for me that we can build on.”
“No, Brendan, I don’t, nor do I plan on rebuilding anything with you. Just leave me alone.”
I stared at his lanky grace now full of quiet desperation. His chest rose with each deep breath, cheeks reddened and skin flushing in a way I used to adore. Eyes glowing in hunger had been flattering once upon a time. Yes, his cock was noticeably tenting his shorts, but his desire was no longer something I welcomed. The differences between us, from being twenty and worshipping him as a prince to seeing his blatant self-promotion in the light of our past, were insurmountable. Two years ago he would’ve been a sight for sore eyes, but all I felt now was pain and defeat.
“I already have a boyfriend.” I grit my teeth in annoyance.
Boyfriend? Just like that I knew it to be the complete truth, no matter how angry Michael made me or how he had a tendency to overstep his authority. Michael would always, always watch out for me unless I pushed him past the point of no return, and I was as certain of that as I was of our abiding love for each other. The only snag between Michael and me getting back together was my pigheadedness, and I planned to rectify that by telling him all was forgiven and admit to being a jerk. Our love for each other was something too precious to ruin on petty bullshit.
“Michael loves me. And I love him.” It came as naturally as breathing.
“Ha, that’s not what I heard. I talked to Lauren,” he hinted with blazing eyes, as if I should know what he meant.
“I don’t care what you heard,” I avowed firmly, more than a little upset with Lauren for her disregard in discussing me with her cousin. It felt like a violation. “Whatever she told you, she has it wrong.”
“Then you haven’t been moping around since graduating in May?” His voice had dropped an octave, deep almost to the point of menacing. “Face it, he ditched you and went to Stanford.” Brendan took a step towards me.
“Leaving Santa Bella doesn’t mean anything.” I instinctively backed up, trying not to feel intimidated. I was astounded at the amount of information Brendan had accumulated on me from someone I’d only spoken to twice all summer. “Michael is in grad school. I let him go north to do what he needs just like I let you go back to Missouri.”
“More like kicked him out,” Brendan stated tightly as he made another move in my direction. “We both know how self-righteous you are. You have control issues, Dax. You can’t live with your lovers’ dishonesty.”
“Look who’s talking about dishonesty, you fucking hypocrite! Get over yourself!”
Brendan’s eyes narrowed. “Like he’s some noble knight on a white steed ready to swoop down to protect you?”
“What Michael is or isn’t and what we do is none of your damned business.” I disregarded his moralizing, but his stalking behavior was making me uneasy. Swallowing painfully, I shifted away. “I didn’t want you to leave Santa Bella either but you went anyway. What kind of partner would I be to deny him his future?”
“The question is, how deeply do you feel about him?” Brendan demanded, shaking his brown head at me. He took several steps forwards, and the movement felt aggressive. I tried to assert myself, but my body wasn’t obeying, and I retreated, beginning to tremble. He smiled at me sardonically, liking that I was getting nervous as if he was herding me in the exact direction he wanted. Hopping back, I almost tripped clumsily over my own feet.
“At least I know he’ll never ditch me like you did.”
Brendan ignored the barb. “Just admit it,” he continued. “You sound so sure of yourself, but it isn’t that simple and you know it. Capshaw isn’t here to save you.”
I was feeling more and more like quarry with every step backwards. “What are you doing, Brendan?”
“Reasserting my claim and showing you that you still love me.”
“Damn it, what is wrong with you? Stop saying that.”
Hating the way I was being crowded, I continued to move away from Brendan. I glanced quickly behind me and saw only blank wall, boxed in between the end of the sectional on my right and the gray stone fireplace to my left. The lone escape route was past him. Brendan was suddenly right in my face, leering at me and leaning on a hand planted next to my ear. With the other, he lightly tugged on a strand of my hair. His nearness was making me lightheaded.
“Kiss me and prove it, Dax,” he whispered, pushing me right up against the wall.
I flinched in shock. “No way in hell! I have nothing to prove.”
I looked to duck under his arm, but he blocked me with a quick palm to my chest and began to slowly glide his thumb over my sternum, the contact making me warm. Jesus, how did I get myself into these predicaments?
“Maybe not to me,” he laughed, “but to yourself, yes. You think you’re in love with Capshaw, but you’re wrong.”
“Brendan, for the last time, back off,” I warned resolutely through clenched teeth, standing tall and willing myself to sound like I meant it. His rigid cock was rammed into my crotch, but curiously, I was still soft. With triumph, I realized the importance of my non-response. There was no part of me that wanted him.
“Michael is my past, present and future,” I spat, “and we are in love with each other. As for your claims, I stopped thinking of you the day you got married. You can’t offer me one fucking thing to tempt me into changing my mind. Just go back to Missouri and leave me alone.”
He chuckled but a tinge of fear and loss swirled in his blue eyes, as if my words were finally getting through to him. I was mentally searching for another way to shake him off without physical harm when we both heard it. The front door in the foyer flew open, indicating the arrival of several people from the sound of their chattering voices, and our heads swiveled in that direction. Before Brendan had a chance to step back, Lauren ran into the living room, followed by Emily, Grant, Greg and a teenager who bore a striking resemblance to the man pinning me to the wall.
Lauren was like a dynamo. Infuriated, she charged in our direction and shouted, “Good god, Brendan, get off of Dax.”
Brendan leapt away from me at the exact same time and rage settled on me like a fine mist. I advanced on him and gave his shoulders a series of flat shoves, following his line of movement as I forced him backwards. “You’re an asshole,” I screamed. With the last hard push he flew back some three feet, landing like a crab on all fours and narrowly avoiding an end table. Turning pink, he otherwise tried to act nonchalant as he stood up. I realized he was playing it cool for his sibling’s sake, but I didn’t care.
“I’ve had enough of your bullshit, Brendan. Pretend all you want, but stay away from me. I told you I have a boyfriend. I. Don’t. Love. You.”
The room was dead silent for half a minute. Brother Zach was regarding the two of us with a knowing gleam in his eyes, Emily gasped, horrified, and the Packard twins looked like they wanted to disappear. I was just grateful for their timely arrival.
Brendan rose to his feet, and Lauren gave him a withering glare. “Why don’t you make yourself scarce until the party is over,” she addressed her cousin sternly. “Go hunt up some old college friends or something.”
He looked from me to her and back again. “Whatever,” he muttered as he snatched up his keys and stalked out.
Emily sidled up to me all concerned with Greg in tow. “Are you alright?” I was shaking but assured her I was fine. Humiliated was more like it, especially with the way it looked as if I couldn’t take care of myself. By now I just wanted to leave.
“Please don’t, Dax,” Lauren protested, halting me with a cooling hand on my bicep. She quickly explained how the cousins had driven up to the house right as she was finishing last-minute arrangements for her birthday. Brendan’s arrival was totally unexpected, and her text to me earlier, the one I’d neglected to read, had been one of warning. Lauren urged me to forget Brendan, who was obviously under a lot of stress due to his marriage issues, and enjoy the celebration. Once I knew he wouldn't return, I agreed to stay.
By the time another thirty minutes went by, the birthday fete was in full swing. The rest of the party guests trickled in, and I began to relax. Still a little spooked, I was enjoying a beer when Zach suddenly appeared in front of me. Taller and leaner than he older brother, he gave off a friendly vibe and put out his hand which I shook.
“So you’re Dax,” he smiled, studying me. “I wondered if I’d get the chance to meet the object of my brother’s adoration.”
I choked on my mouthful of brew, and he began pounding me on the back. Much to my surprise, I saw no sign of prejudice, no loathing or negative change in his behavior towards me. I didn’t want to acknowledge his suspicions, but I wasn’t going to lie either. “How did you find out?” I queried slowly, certain it wasn’t from Brendan’s lips.
“Uh… that’s an interesting story.”
Zach had clearly inherited the same blushing gene as his sibling, and his cheeks flamed a bright pink. He shrugged. “Brendan… he lived at home for the first two months after he moved back to Derrington. One time, I went to say goodnight on my way to bed. I heard him talking on his cell phone and… you know, moaning. At first I thought he was sick. He didn’t lock his door, and when I looked in, there he was, lying … uh… naked and… and touching himself. He had his eyes closed and was so… so… busy, he didn’t even see or hear me.”
I gulped, turning as red as the teen. “The stuff he was saying!” he added. “Like… you know… giving instructions and descriptions, and calling out your name. It's called sexting, right? I got out of there quick, but I heard him plain enough through the wall at… the end. I’d be pretty stupid not to know the score, but I thought to myself, what the hell is a ‘Dax’?” Zach flashed me a chagrined look and I snorted, causing him to break into giggles.
“A couple days later he left his cell phone downstairs so I checked it out. I found your name in the contact list and it had a picture of you. It’s a poor likeness and doesn’t do you justice, but you most definitely weren’t a girl.” He grinned at me. “Brendan caught me looking and when I asked who you were, he tried to deny what you meant to him but I could tell. I said you were cute, trying to open up the conversation with him… not… uh… not, that I…”
His voice died away, and I knew he was embarrassed over the admission and afraid of me misunderstanding. “It’s okay, Zach,” I comforted him quietly. “Everyone does it. But thanks.”
I watched him take a deep breath to calm himself before continuing. “I could tell you were real important to him and eventually I figured it out. He would never say it out loud. He was trying to hide his life in California and shield the two of you. It caused him to do stupid, crazy shit. Like with Sarah…”
He took another deep breath. “Then one Friday a couple months later, he didn’t show up at the house for dinner. Even after he moved out, Mom made him eat with us most nights. She tried to call him for an hour but he wouldn’t pick up so I went out to his place to see what’s what. He was drunk and staring at your picture, crying like his heart was broken.”
My eyes went through Zach like he wasn’t there. “The weekend he split up with me,” I said slowly, feeling as if I was slogging through mud. “He told me he didn’t care anymore and was getting married.
Zach reached up to scratch the back of his neck. “I don’t know nothing about what he told you, but he loves you… a lot. More than he ever did her. He’s been miserable ever since that weekend. The happiest I’ve seen him in two years was when he asked to bring me out to California for school. It was because he was coming to see you.
“What you two do is reckoned a sin where we come from, but it’s not any of my say-so. Live and let live. I just hate to see Brendan like this, knowing he set his hopes on something he can’t have.”
I looked deep into Zach’s blue eyes. He seemed to have a lot of common sense and a better head on his shoulders than his brother did at the moment. “I don’t want trouble with Brendan,” I stated matter-of-factly, “and I don’t like seeing him suffer. The truth is, he was everything I ever wanted in a lover, and I would’ve spent the rest of my life with him trying to make him happy. His leaving hurt me almost more than I could stand, and I had to work very hard to put him behind me for my own peace of mind.”
I could tell that Zach wanted to plead with me on Brendan’s behalf, but getting my side of the story after watching him nearly attack me was having an enlightening effect on his perspective. He nodded at me. “Meeting you… I don’t know why he ever came back to Derrington. He could’ve escaped all that. He gave up his whole life with you.”
The memories of the two of us flashed through my head and I had to stop thinking about them because they hurt. “I don’t understand either. I tried to reason with him, but he was adamant about going back to his hometown. All I was aware of was that he was gone and wouldn’t fight for me. He’s never once tried to contact me in all this time, never filled me in on the details about Sarah. Sure, Lauren said he was unhappy, and part of me was glad because of how much it killed me to lose him... I’m very sorry about Jacob, but he’s the one who was…”
“Irresponsible?” Zach offered with a determined gleam in his eye. “Yeah, he should’ve known better. She’s been out to get him since middle school, but he never looked at her twice. She told him she wouldn’t get pregnant.”
I sighed, considering how much had been ruined by her lie. “I feel bad for him, but I moved on which is the way it has to be. He doesn’t even know what he’s going to do about the mess with his wife and son. I’ve lived enough of my life in secret, and I won’t do it again. He’s a big boy who has to learn to accept that what we had is over.”
He shook his head with a smile of love for his big brother. “He’s strong-willed, Brendan is. He’s been in deep shit in recent weeks, but you’re right. He needs to fix it without dragging you into it. This isn’t your fault, Dax, so don’t blame yourself. He made his choice two years ago.”
Not accepting some of the responsibility was something I wasn’t sure I could easily do, but I clapped Zach on the shoulder in thanks. “Whatever he decides, I hope he finds his own way and can be at peace. He deserves that. Please tell him he needs a good civil rights attorney. He could probably find one to take his case for free. Just don’t let him give up on Jacob.”
He stuck out his hand again, which I shook. “I’ll be sure to push that information.” He grinned. “It’s too bad it worked out this way. You’re a cool guy, Dax. We could’ve been brothers-in-law… or something like that.”
He turned red, and we both laughed. I left the party soon afterwards and drove home to my quiet apartment. I felt badly for Brendan, but I wasn’t strong enough to involve myself with his heartache, no matter how lost he was. I knew I didn’t love him anymore, and there was no sense in pretending otherwise. I loved Michael, and he was my future. Maybe Brendan had been right about me needing him with me, but I had also been correct- I wasn’t going to selfishly bind Michael to my side. I had to think and plan, to find a way for us to be together that wasn’t clingy or forcing him to abandon his potential opportunities just for me. Mostly, I needed to work out how I was going to apologize for acting like such an ass and driving Michael away.
It was late on a Saturday evening in mid-August. I had been in Palo Alto for nearly three months and had recently taken finals in my summer business classes at Stanford, all boring but necessary for my degree. My IT job was going well, and except for one obsessive-compulsive roommate who didn’t get along well with anyone in the house, I led a peaceful, if distant, coexistence with the men I shared living quarters with.
The peninsula had turned out to be a big change from Santa Bella. Cool temperatures, especially in the evenings even in the midst of summer, made the beaches chilly and damp and little fun for surfing. Days of fog which had a way of seeping into my skin and reminded me of every creepy movie I’d ever watched. I’ve decided I don’t like cold and wet.
Considering we were talking about San Francisco, there was all kinds of entertainment but not a single person I cared for enough to share the fun. The people I was associated with were a snobby bunch, and I’d yet to make any friends that I wanted to hang with. True that school and work kept me very busy, but I usually enjoyed being involved and heading up activities with others. I swallowed hard, thinking of everyone I’d left behind and how they were most likely spending the summer at the cinema together, at the beach or playing baseball in the park.
I’d give my left arm to be part of that fun again, surrounded by Lauren, Greg, Grant, Dax and even Emily. How stupid of me to reject UCLA, even taking the whole bisexuality disaster out of the equation. I missed my hometown with its hot, dry summers. I was homesick for my family and friends in a way I’d never felt when I attended college at Humboldt.
I needed to be with Dax. At least he was responding to my text messages now, and I was trying to be patient, learning baby steps back to him. But sometimes it was so frustratingly slow.
It was around nine o’clock, and I was preparing to turn in early. My cell phone chimed with Grant Packard’s ring tone. Speak of the devil!
“Hey Grant, what’s up?” I was thrilled to hear from a friend.
“Do you know someone named Brendan?” he asked without preamble. “I guess he’d be more a friend of Dax’s, but he’s from somewhere in the South?”
My throat tightened. “Yeah, Brendan Appleby is Dax’s ex, but it’s a long, unpleasant story. They broke up… ah… a couple of years ago… before we ever met you and Greg.”
“Shit,” Grant exclaimed severely. “This is so jacked up.”
“What is?” He had my undivided attention now. “How do you know about Brendan?”
“We went over to Lauren’s for a party this afternoon and he showed up…”
“Brendan is back in town?” I interrupted. I couldn’t help it- my mind went over everything I knew about him and the thoughts brought me nothing but disquiet.
“Uh… yeah. Lauren’s birthday was today, and she was all set to introduce us to this kid. His name is Zach and he’s her cousin who is signed up for the fall semester at State. Brendan’s his older brother.”
“Okay.” So far I failed to see anything significantly wrong. If Brendan had accompanied Zach to California to get him moved in before school it was no big deal. “What happened?”
“Lauren apparently didn’t know Brendan’s plans,” Grant explained, beginning to sound anxious. “Two hours before the party, he’s all of a sudden on her doorstep. When Dax decided to drop by early, she knew somehow there would be trouble. Unfortunately, she had to make a last-minute trip to the market and had a really bad feeling about leaving them alone at the house, so she tried to warn him about Brendan. He didn’t get the message. Emily, Greg and I drove up just as Lauren arrived home in a panic. We… uh… walked in to find Brendan all over Dax.”
That couldn’t be right. After the emotional mess that ass had left for him to clean up, I didn’t see my bro wanting to have anything to do with him, not as friends, much less a relationship. Dax was too smart to be taken in by someone who had broken his heart. Unless he secretly still carried a torch for him, but Dax had professed to love me and I trusted him, even if we weren’t together. Dax wouldn’t play games like that. But Brendan?
“Dax was pissed, Michael, fucked up furious. Brendan had him backed into a wall- you know Dax isn’t a big guy, and then he just charged Brendan like he was going to punch him out and started yelling. Lauren told Brendan to get out. Dax was so freaked out he almost didn’t stay for the party, but she changed his mind.”
“Fuck it,” I groaned, wishing I was five hundred miles south. It hadn’t been until after the split and Dax was in the process of recovering that I realized how manipulative Brendan was. He only saw things in light of his own needs, and if he was around Dax there would be problems. “Did Lauren tell you about their history?”
“Not everything,” Grant admitted. “But Zach is a talkative kid, you know, really nice. He said Brendan and his wife are separated, with a child in Missouri. That sounds a little off- for a gay guy.”
“More than a little off. It’s the reason he and Dax ended it.” I gulped, remembering that terrible weekend and how destroyed Dax had been afterwards. I described how they had been together for over a year when Brendan finished up college here and his decision to depart Santa Bella for his backwoods hole of a home and very bigoted and fanatical family.
“He was earning his teaching credential, and no one there knew he was gay. Four months later he called Dax and told him they’d made a mistake. Brendan had become subtly convinced he was straight, didn’t care about Dax and couldn’t be with him, which was a load of crap. I saw them together at my sister’s wedding. They were totally head over heels in love with each other. Dax came apart when Brendan announced he was getting married.”
Grant whistled softly, sounding as if my explanation made total sense to him. “Damn, so that’s what Lauren must have meant when she told Emily she was so concerned about Dax’s emotional state. And then the fucker has the balls to just show up here and do that to him all over again? What an asshole!”
I was almost hyperventilating and tried to calm down. “Is Dax alright?”
Grant hesitated, and I steeled myself. “Lauren says that Brendan’s wife found out about Dax. You should’ve seen Zach’s face when he saw them together; it was priceless, but little brother seems cool with the fact that Brendan is gay. The wife is a bitch and won’t let him see his son. Lauren says that the prejudice is so bad back there, he could lose custody entirely. In which case, Brendan has nothing to tie him to Missouri except his job and…”
“What the fuck!” I now understood the full picture. Brendan back in Santa Bella to prey on Dax? If anyone could find a way to sweet-talk his way back into his good graces, it would be him. I easily recaptured the hopeless misery in Dax’s eyes that night he showed up drunk and hysterical at my parents because his boyfriend had left him for his future wife. More than any guy I knew, Dax needed someone in his life to ground him and, if he still cared at all for Brendan, I was doomed.
“Chill, dude,” Grant told me as if he could read my mind. “Dax wants nothing to do with him. In fact, when we showed up, he went off on Brendan. Dax was yelling about not loving him anymore and said he had a new boyfriend, and why was Brendan being such an ass. It sounds as if Dax had been trying to explain but he wasn’t listening.”
As if I didn’t need more bad news. “Dax has a new boyfriend?” I asked faintly, feeling sick. “Who is he?”
“I have no idea,” Grant said sheepishly. “Man, I am so sorry. I know I told you I’d keep an eye, but everyone has been going their own direction this summer, too busy to stay in touch. Dax’s work schedule sounds insane. The party was the first time I’ve seen him since mid-July. Whoever the guy is, Dax didn’t take him to Lauren's.”
I closed my eyes and groaned soundlessly. It was just my rotten luck that the minute I left town Dax would meet someone new to replace me with. I didn’t for a single minute believe he had been talking about me; forgiveness was low on his priority list, and karma didn’t treat me that well. Aside from Brendan, I knew Dax had at least one other long-term relationship in his past, so it wasn’t as if he would turn into a monk without me.
Suddenly, I was angry and feeling cheated because this time was different. This time Dax had claimed to love me back, compounded by his awareness that I felt the same about him. How could he have developed feelings for some stranger already? He wouldn’t do that to us, would he? How could he change his mind so fast?
Maybe it was just a defense strategy to get Brendan off his case, but based on Grant’s assessment, he was almost certain that Dax was speaking of a flesh-and-blood man. No matter what he’d promised me after we thrashed out our past in May, it looked like my tiny window of opportunity to get Dax back had snapped shut at last.
(To be continued...)