By Tim Mead
The usual disclaimers apply. Don't read this if for some legal reason you shouldn't. Remember the work is under copyright and thus belongs to me. No reposting without permission.
"Do you care for dessert?" the waiter asked.
Lance looked at Sophie.
"Perhaps. Let's see the menu."
"I can tell you the selections, madame," the waiter replied.
After listening to the long list of culinary temptations, Sophie said, "I think I'll just have the framboises and cappuccino."
"And you, sir?"
"I'd like some port. Anything you suggest."
The waiter smiled. "Very good, sir. I'll be back in a moment."
"Fag!" Sophie said.
"Surely you aren't speaking to me," Lance said, smiling.
Sophie gave him a pouting sort of smile and said, "Hardly. I meant the waiter."
"Well, he's very good at what he does."
"How would you know how good he is?" she asked.
Lance raised an eyebrow and grinned. "You'll pay for that later, my dear."
"I can hardly wait, cheri."
Ben hit Save, waited a second, and then shut down the computer. He raised his arms in the air and stretched. He'd returned to work on Tuesday, and it had been a busy week. He'd rescheduled the supper he was fixing for the guys across the street for two weeks from the original date, and this was the Friday evening in between. He was glad he'd postponed because, though he had no flu symptoms, he still hadn't gotten all his strength back. He knew he should go to the gym the next morning, but he wasn't sure he felt up to it.
Or was he merely rationalizing? He hadn't done any work on his real novel for well over a week. He had to make a trip to the supermarket the next morning, and he didn't want to take more time away from This Petty Pace, especially since the Captiva story was nearly finished. Gilbert, who'd been suddenly called back to New York on a business matter, leaving Sophie at the South Seas Resort, would be caught by paparazzi in a most embarrassing situation with the doorman of his building. In a fit of machismo, Gilbert had never insisted on a pre-nup before he and Sophie were married, a mistake for which he paid dearly. Sophie would demand a divorce and be granted a huge settlement. Thus Sophie was set for the rest of her life. Free to make Lance her full-time boyfriend . . . if she were of a mind to.
At any rate, Ben was happy that he could see his way to the end of the Captiva book. Now he could take a break from the commercial stuff and work on the novel that mattered to him.
He really wanted to immerse himself in writing during the upcoming weekend because things had been pretty bad at the office once Sharon's resignation had been announced. General sadness had followed the announcement that Sharon was leaving. Except for Phil Massini. There had been a common assumption that Ben would be taking her place. Except for Phil Massini.
Most of his co-workers were surprised and disappointed when they learned that Ben wasn't a candidate for Sharon's job. But not Phil Massini. Ben was in his cubicle on Thursday afternoon struggling to put something from the Utilities Department into Standard English when Massini appeared.
"Hi, Phil. What can I do for you?"
"I just wanted to hear it from you that you're not going after Sharon's job."
"You saved yourself some disappointment, I suppose."
"Well, it stands to reason the County Commission isn't going to have a faggot as PIO. I'm surprised they've kept you on here as long as they have. Did they know when they hired you that you're queer?"
"Yes, they knew. And it doesn't seem to bother anybody. Except you. When they hired you did they know you're an incompetent asshole?"
"Listen, faggot, when I'm PIO, I'll find a way to get rid of you."
Ben stood up. "You'll never be PIO. It takes some ability, some talent, and some personal charm to do that job. You don't have any of those, you stupid bastard. But if you were by some fluke to get the job, you'd have to be very fuckin' careful. Use my being gay as a reason to terminate me and you'll be slapped with a discrimination lawsuit that will make you and the county squeal." A vision of Massini being gang fucked by a squad of sheriff's deputies flashed across his mind, and he grinned.
"You think that's funny?" Massini said, balling his fists.
"I think you're pathetic. Now, hadn't you better get back to work, Mr. Massini? You're still on the county payroll, after all. I'm sure you have things to do."
Massini, obviously infuriated to be reminded that Ben was his boss, turned and walked heavily back to his own cubicle.
Thinking back over it Ben wondered if he'd been foolish to say what he did to Massini. It was all true, but he would still have to work with the bastard, would still be the bastard's immediate supervisor, after the new PIO was hired. Maybe if Massini didn't get the job, he'd quit. Maybe his buddy Bustamente would hire him to read water meters. Certainly no one in their office would be sorry to see him go.
He went to the kitchen where he took the last of the medicine the doctor had prescribed for his flu. Then he had a glass of milk and a couple of cookies. He put fresh water in Mr. Tibbs' bowl and returned to the bedroom, where he stripped off his clothes, brushed his teeth, and went to bed.
Although he was tired, his mind wouldn't shut down. He'd been so busy at work all week he hadn't gotten around to thinking about what Toby had said on Sunday evening: that he should forgive Trent, that he'd feel better if he did.
`What if I were writing about a character who'd held a grudge for two years? He'd come across as a pretty mean-spirited guy, wouldn't he? Am I mean spirited? If Trent's still apologizing after two years, he must really be sorry. And he must still care about me. Otherwise he'd have just told me to fuck off. Mentally if not in person.'
Mr. Tibbs jumped onto the bed and curled up near Ben's feet.
No answer from the cat.
`Uh oh! If I told Trent I'd forgiven him, would he want to get back together? How would I feel about that? I really did love him. Do I still love him? Is that what all the anger and hurt's been about?'
`At least if I forgave him, he'd quit pestering me with all those apologies.'
He woke early the next morning and got to the supermarket by 8:00. He liked to do that because the store wasn't crowded at that hour and he didn't have to stand in long lines to check out. The few other early shoppers were old folk who, Ben surmised, couldn't have slept in if they'd wanted to.
As he pushed his cart up and down the aisles, he thought ahead to the supper he was having for Bruce and Toby the next Friday. It was too soon to shop for that meal. Besides, he hadn't any idea what to fix them. Trent had been much the better cook. Perhaps it had been foolish to ask the guys from across the street for a meal. Maybe he should have taken them to a restaurant.
No, he'd offered to cook, and cook he would. But he'd do the shopping for that after work on Thursday, even though the store would be crowded.
Although he had the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday to work on his novel, Ben wasn't able to get as much done as he'd hoped. Concerns from his real life kept him distracted.
At the office his co-workers were tense. Sharon was her usual self, and for some reason Massini was maintaining a low profile. The others, however, seemed worried about what it would be like having a new boss. Some had privately confessed their fears that Massini might get the job. A couple had begged Ben to reconsider and submit his application.
"Ben, I just don't understand. You're good at the deputy job. Everyone in the office likes you. It's no secret that Sharon would support your application," Gwen Karlovski had said one afternoon on her way from Sharon's office back to her cubicle. "Are you letting a little stage fright keep you from doing what everyone thinks is best for the Public Information section?"
Ben had gone through the song and dance about not being a managerial type. He'd even brought up the business about what the citizenry of Colby County would think about having such a highly visible gay man in county government. Gwen was having none of it. A motherly fifty-something, she said, "This isn't the dark ages. What does your sexual orientation have to do with anything? If you were having lots of public affairs it would be a different thing. Sweetheart, we need you! If you don't apply for Sharon's job, you're letting the rest of us down!"
Unable to explain to her his real reasons for not wanting the job, Ben merely said, "Thanks, Gwen. I appreciate your feelings. I'll think about it some more. But don't expect too much, okay? I really don't want that job." Then he felt guilty for not telling her unequivocally that he wouldn't consider applying for Sharon's job.
It wasn't just problems of work which were nagging at him, however. His worries were augmented because he continued to be troubled by what Toby had said about his failure to forgive Trent.
>From the day he'd found Trent and the jock boy fucking in the bed he and Trent shared, Ben had ached. He would never forget the shock he'd felt when he saw his lover and the kid going at it. Ben, a writer who presumably had some command of English, had never been able to put into words how he'd felt that day. He'd never have considered sex with anyone else back then. He and Trent were together, and that was that. He felt lucky to have Trent. He looked forward to coming home each day because Trent was in his life.
And, of course, he could only wonder how often something like that had happened before. Trent always got home first. How many male chippies had he screwed in their bed? He felt as if he'd been foolish to love someone who could do that. Was he such a bad judge of character?
But he was besotted with Trent. Trent with his black hair, blue eyes, diminutive body, and endless charm. He'd been enamored with the little guy from the time they'd met. When Trent let it be known that he found Ben attractive (though many others had as well), Ben was bowled over. From their first night of sex, Ben was totally Trent's.
`Yeah, and I thought he was mine, too.'
Toby's words kept coming back to him. What kind of person would continue to despise Trent after two years? He had loved the guy, after all. Why not tell him he was forgiven so both of them could move on?
But what if Trent's repeated apologies meant that he didn't want to move on? Could it be that Trent still loved him, wanted them to get back together? `Could I deal with that?' Ben asked himself.
`I've been so lonely. I've shut out everybody else. I've focused on my writing and my job. I don't have any friends. I never go out. So my loneliness is my own fault. I hate living alone. God knows what I might have done if I didn't have Tibbs to look after. Okay, suppose Trent does want to get back together. It would be great not to live alone. And the sex. I've been giving myself hand jobs for two fucking years! A fist is no substitute for a hot ass, and my fingers up my own hole aren't like Trent's hot cock. Maybe Toby's right. Maybe I should call him.'
Ben did not call Trent that week, however. He was busy at work. At home in the evenings he was going through each chapter of Captivated on Captiva, editing, revising, polishing, smoothing. It might be trash, but it was going to be literate, stylish trash if he had anything to do with it. Finally, Wednesday evening he sent it off to Clark, his agent, who would read it. If Clark saw problems, he'd be in touch with Ben about them. If not, he'd send the book on to Romance Ink, the publisher. And another D. K. Witherspoon opus would be on the road to publication.
He was already thinking about his next novel. The main plot features were pretty firmly in mind, as were the three main characters. He just had to find an island for the setting. He'd always wanted to set one of his stories on Fire Island, but no one would believe any straight people visited there. Perhaps a return to the West Coast. He'd already done Coronado, which technically wasn't an island. What else was there? One of the Hawaiian Islands maybe? Perhaps Toby could help. But that would mean letting Toby in on his "dark secret," and he wasn't ready to do that.
* * *
It was the Friday before Thanksgiving, the evening Toby and Bruce were invited for their rescheduled supper. They arrived with a big potted hydrangea covered with grapefruit-sized blue blossoms.
"Guys, that's beautiful! What ever made you think of something like that?" Ben asked, taking the plant from Bruce. "I won't say anything insincere like `you shouldn't have' because I love it!"
He set the plant next to the fireplace in the living room while the two guests were putting their coats in the closet near the front door.
"Remember Brody Cox, the guy you met at Gridley's that night?" Bruce asked.
"Yeah." He looked at Toby and grinned. "A real studmuffin, huh? And he seemed like a nice guy."
"He is," they said simultaneously. Then all three laughed.
"I was saying yes to him being a studmuffin," Toby explained.
"And I was agreeing that he's a nice guy," Bruce said.
"So, what about him?"
"His family has flower shops here and in Higgins. I asked him after class today what he'd recommend as a "hostess" gift for a guy. He told me they'd just gotten the hydrangeas in and that they were really nice, a pleasant change from all the mums you see this time of year. So, I called my roomie here, and he zoomed over to Cox Floral and picked this up."
"You know if you keep it alive until spring, you can plant it outside," Toby said.
"I've never done any gardening. I'll probably kill it."
"In that case, I'll have to stop by occasionally and check on it. And I'll plant it when spring comes. Leave everything to me."
Toby was being Mr. Take-Charge again. Somehow, though, Ben didn't mind. Toby seemed so genuine that it was easy to accept his proffered help.
Given a choice of merlot or beer, both guests chose the wine.
"Good," Ben said. "We can stay with that right through the meal. I've made a spicy southwestern style casserole, so the red will complement it."
As they sat in the living room with jack cheese, corn chips and the wine, Ben asked Toby, "So, did you see the hunky Brody when you went to the shop?"
"No, but a guy I think must be his older brother was there. He said his name was Bob. Brody had gone to the Higgins store when he got out of class this afternoon."
"You know," Bruce said, grinning, "this is very interesting. I wonder if my student's ears are burning. I'm sure he'd be interested to know you two think he's hunky."
"Oh, shut up!" Toby said, making a face at Bruce. "He is definitely hunky, so let us fags perv a little."
Looking totally innocent, Bruce said, "I could go home if you two want to get it on."
Ben choked on some wine. When he got himself straightened up, he found that both of them were grinning at him.
"You'll have to forgive Bruce. He hasn't learned all the social niceties yet."
"Oh, man, that's cold!"
Ben felt comfortable being included in the banter of the two roomies, who were obviously good friends. As he went to the kitchen to check on the casserole and bring back the wine bottle, Ben felt a warmth in his groin as he thought of "getting it on" with Toby.
Later they were back in the living room with mugs of coffee.
"Kick off your shoes if you want, guys," Ben said.
"Oh, I ate so much I feel like I should unbutton the top button of my jeans," Bruce said.
"That's okay," Ben said, grinning.
"A figure of speech, Ben," Bruce retorted. "But that was great. I hope you'll give my domestic partner here the recipe for the casserole."
"Yeah, I'd like to have it. Maybe if I make it for him I can use it as a way to get into his jeans," Toby said, casting a sidelong glance at Bruce.
"You wish! But I'll tell you what, make the casserole and give it your best shot."
Turning to Ben, Toby said, "You see, Ben? Now you've got to give me the recipe."
"You'll get it, Tobe, with my best wishes."
They chatted about this and that for a while. Then Bruce asked Ben what he was doing for Thanksgiving.
"I'm always invited to my brother's for holidays. You remember Chris. You met him and his son, Hal, at the football game a while back. But I think I'll just stay here."
"Where do they live?"
"In Westerville, down near Columbus."
"But you aren't going?"
"I'll wait and spend Christmas with them, probably. It'll be nice just to have some time off from the office so I can work on my book. What about you guys?"
"Well, you know we both live in Indianapolis. We're driving back together. We're coming back on Saturday, though. We both need to use the weekend to study, catch up on paper grading, and that sort of stuff."
"Any girlfriends or boyfriends back in Indianapolis"
Bruce smiled and shook his head.
Toby said "Nope. Neither one of us even has any close high school friends back there, either. People tend to move on. Tomorrow, though, I'm driving to Kent to spend the weekend. I'm visiting a friend from my undergrad days. He's like Bruce, a TA in the English department at Kent State. And if I'm lucky we'll go to church Sunday morning."
"I didn't know you were a church goer, Toby," Ben said.
"Oh, he's not especially religious. Tell him why you want to go to church with Ed," Bruce said.
"The church he goes to has this adorable assistant priest, Father Max. He's about an inch shorter than me, with chestnut colored hair. And he's built like a gymnast. Hot, hot, hot."
"But didn't Ed say the priest had a partner?"
"Yeah, some guy in the English Department at Kent. I think his name's Mead."
"Timothy Mead?" Bruce asked.*
"Yeah, that's it."
"You never told me that. Mead's making quite a name for himself as a specialist in early twentieth century American fiction, you know, and I don't think he's hit thirty yet. I've read his book on dos Passos."
"Hey, guys," Ben said, smiling, "life doesn't exactly end at thirty. But tell me something, Toby, do you have a thing for short men?"
Toby waggled his eyebrows. "Nope. I like `em sexy, no matter what size they are. Tall guys like that Brody Cox really turn me on. Or you, for example." He chuckled. "Look, Bruce, he's blushing."
"Well, who could blame him? You're shameless, Taba!"
Thinking a change of subject was in order, Ben asked, "Bruce, all this talk about guys being turned on by other guys doesn't bother you?"
"Nope. My favorite cousin, Paul, is gay. In fact, when we were both thirteen or so we played around a little. Then I discovered girls. He discovered other boys. But I still love Paulie. Don't tell him, but I kind of like my room mate, too. It's all good."
Toby winked at Ben. "But he still won't let me get him into bed. Yet."
"Dream on, boy. I love ya, but it ain't gonna happen."
"And you're getting a PhD in English? Such language!"
Bruce grinned. "I just wanted to make sure I used words you'd understand."
A few minutes later, Bruce said, "I was walking past the Court House the other day. The new county office building is coming right along, isn't it?"
"Yep, they say it's on schedule and if we get a mild winter we'll be able to move in along about May."
"Will you get a new office once you've got all that extra space?"
"I'll have an office for the first time. It won't be large, but it will have a window and a door that closes. I've always been in a cubicle up until now."
"You could probably have an even bigger office if you'd go for it."
Ben knew what Toby meant. So, apparently, did Bruce.
"Toby says your boss is leaving and you're not applying for the job."
"That's right." He went on to explain what he'd already told Toby.
"Sounds reasonable. There's no point in pushing yourself up the ladder if you know you won't be happy when you get there. And I can understand liking a job that lets you work on your novel."
Giving Toby a mock frown, he said, "Thanks, Bruce. I'm glad somebody understands. My colleagues at work don't. And I'm not sure Toby does, either."
"Hey, Ben. Of course I understand. I just don't want you to regret your decision later. As you might if your new boss is a bastard."
"Well that's the X factor, isn't it? But at least I'll be in on the interviewing of the candidates."
Toby looked very boyish when he said that. `But then,' Ben reflected, `he is a boy. He can't be over 25.'
About 10:00 Toby asked, "Hey, guys, anyone interested in going to a bar?"
"With the wine we've had, none of us should be driving," Ben said.
Toby grinned. "Well, Nelly's is within walking distance."
"No way!" Bruce said.
"Homophobe!" Toby responded.
"Oh, it's not that Nelly's is a gay bar. You know I'm okay with that. It's Friday night and the students will all be hitting the bars. I don't particularly feel like making chit chat with people in my classes, whether they are straight or, in this case, gay."
"Count me out, too, Toby," Ben said. I'm known to be gay at work, and most people are cool with that. But I'm going to be acting PIO when Sharon leaves, and I don't think it would be a good idea for me to frequent Nelly's."
"Killjoys! Sure you won't reconsider?"
Both Bruce and Ben urged him to go ahead but said they wouldn't join him.
"Bruce, you don't have to leave because Toby's going to bar hop."
Bruce looked a little sheepish. "I haven't had a chance to do any pleasure reading lately, Ben, so I think I'll go check my emails and then curl up with a book for a while. Tomorrow it's back to studying and grading those fuckin' themes."
"Are they that bad?"
"Most of them. Brody's are good, and there are a few others, but by and large they're pretty bad."
"So, Bruce," Toby said with a smirk, "what are you going to be reading this evening? Faulkner? Fitzgerald? Thomas Wolfe?"
"No, you bastard. This is my escape reading."
"Then what is it?" Toby winked at Ben.
"It's a novel by D. K. Witherspoon."
"And who might that be?"
"She writes very interesting romances. They're true to the genre, but they seem almost as if the writer were parodying the form -- or herself."
"Do you know that Witherspoon is a woman?" Ben asked.
"Not really. But most romance writers are women, though they frequently use initials so their sex is disguised. Some of them want to give the impression that their books are written by men."
"I can understand why they use those outlandish pen names. Nobody would want to admit they wrote such trash," Toby commented.
"You should try one of Witherspoon's, Toby. They're different somehow. I'm not saying they're great literature. But there's something about them."
"Not me, bud. How about you, Ben, you ever read any of that trash?"
"Oh, I've looked at a few of them. But I don't read them."
*[This refers to a character in another story of mine, not to yours truly. --TM]
If you'd like to write me about this story, please do c/o firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to put the name of the story in the subject line so I'll know it isn't spam. Thanks. --Tim