BATTERED AND BRUISED

I stood at the bathroom door watching him. I know he couldn't see me but I'm sure he could sense my presence. He was holding the needle in his hand and I could see the clear liquid from the vial slowly filling it and I flinched when he injected it into his thigh. It felt like I could actually feel the pin prick on my own skin. He rubbed at the spot and I had to stop myself doing the same. He threw the used needle into his gym bag and continued dressing and although I didn't want him to find me here, watching him, I couldn't move. My eyes moved over his body, taking in his muscular legs, his perfectly chiseled chest and his strong arms which, before he started using the steroids, used to hold me so tenderly. Now they rarely held me at all.

I wanted to storm into the bathroom and yell at him to stop using this shit but I knew I wouldn't. We'd had this argument before, too many times, and I always came off second best. He always had the right answers, that the advantages were outweighing the disadvantages, that his bad moods had nothing to do with the steroids, he was just busy with school, and the fact that we hadn't made love for nearly a month was due to nothing more than tiredness on his part. I wanted to believe all this but I didn't and he knew it as well. We tip-toed around each other, both too scared to say what we really wanted to, our relationship hanging by a tenuous thread, both of us waiting for the day when one wrong word or action would either tear us apart completely or bring us back to the days when spending an hour away from each other was unbearable.

I longed for those days, for the Ben I fell in love with the moment I saw him. I knew he was still in there somewhere, underneath this hard shell he had built around himself. I just didn't know if I had the strength to chip away at it bit by bit to get him back. I wanted to, and God knows I had tried, but it always ended up in a yelling match, slinging words at each other which neither of us meant, but couldn't stop coming out. We went round and round in circles, me letting my emotions take over, not being able to put a coherent sentence together, words coming out in a jumbled mess, trying to make myself understood, fighting back the tears which always started to flow. He always stood in stoney silence, waiting for my tirade to finish, seemingly unaffected by any of it, which was like a knife to my heart.

I wanted to hate him, to punish him somehow for this, but I couldn't, because I knew he still loved me and I knew that nothing, no matter how bad it was, that he could do would stop me loving him. He filled my every waking moment as he always had, except now those thoughts, which were once of love filled nights and dreams of a future together, were of the next heated confrontation, the next argument which would end with him storming out of the apartment, his words of 'you don't understand' ringing in my ears as the door slammed behind him, not knowing if or when he would return.

The sound of the zipper closing on his gym bag bought me back to reality and I moved quickly and silently to the kitchen and made a show of cleaning up as he walked out of the bathroom, stopping at the table for his keys before reaching the kitchen. His presence seem to fill the small space and I stopped what I was doing and looked at him, determined not to be the one to speak first as I usually was, asking where he was going, when would he be home, like some pathetic wife wanting to keep track of her husband twenty four hours a day.

The ticking of the clock was the only sound to be heard as we stood there like that for what seemed forever. It took every ounce of strength I possessed to hold his gaze, and when he averted his eyes I felt a small victory, however hollow, that I hadn't been the one to give in.

"I'm going to the gym."

"How long will you be?"

Shit. I didn't mean for those words to come out and I saw a flash of anger in his eyes at them.

"A couple of hours."

"Do you want me to get something for dinner?"

"No don't bother."

"You want to grab take out then?"

"Actually I won't be home for dinner."

"Oh."

The silence was deafening. I knew he was waiting for me to quiz him about where he was going and I knew that I would. I couldn't help it. I'm not sure if I do it to make him come up with some story which I make myself believe or for some masochistic reason.

"I'm meeting someone from school, we were just going to grab a drink but decided to make an evening of it instead."

"Will you come home?"

The words were out before I could stop them.

"I always come home Michael."

"I meant will you be late, should I wait up?"

I knew I didn't mean that and he did as well, but he let it pass.

"I'm not sure. I will ring you if I get a chance."

I knew he wouldn't. He had said that many times before. I had sat there so many evenings waiting for the phone to ring and it never did.

"I have to go."

"Ok."

He lent in and gave me a peck on the cheek, more like a brotherly kiss than one of a lover, and gave me a long look, almost daring me to say something else. When I held my silence he grabbed his bag and was gone, the sound of the door slamming behind him echoing in my ears.

I stood there, thinking of all the things I had wanted to challenge him about. Who was this friend, where were they going, why was I never invited like old times, why did he continue to hurt me like this.

Questions that I wanted answers to, but was too afraid to hear. Once again it was too late to ask them but I knew there would be a next time, lately there always was.

I knew I would wait up for him, no matter how late he was, that was something else I just

couldn't stop myself from doing. We would talk about our separate evenings in a civilized way then head off to the bed, which had seen so many hours of love and laughter, but was now the most lonely place in the world.

I woke with a start when I heard his key turn in the lock and glanced at the clock. 1am.

He closed the door quietly, assuming I would be asleep and I saw the surprise in his eyes when he saw me sitting there.

"You didn't have to wait up." He said, as he took off his jacket and walked further into the room.

"I was watching a movie."

His eyes darted to the blank TV screen, giving way to my lie.

I flicked the off button on the remote and stood up.

"I'm going to grab a drink….do you want one?"

"No thanks. I'm going to hit the shower."

"How was dinner?"

"Good."

"Where did you go?"

"A new club that's just opened."

"Did your friend enjoy it?"

The look in his eye told me he had noticed my emphasis on the word friend.

"Yes."

"What's his name?"

"Josh."

Finally a name. Was I happier now that I knew it. Probably not, but I needed to hear him say it. He said it matter of factly, as if it meant nothing to him and I wanted to think that it didn't but I wasn't sure.

The last month he had spent more time away from home than ever before, always having a good reason for late night meetings and having to go back to school for hours in the weekends to prepare for the coming weeks classes. The phone calls that were so important that he just had to go, without ever telling me why or where he was going.

It never used to be like that, but that was before steroids. That is how I think of our life. Before steroids and now. Before our life was perfect. Now it is myriad of unanswered questions and suspicions.

"Have I met him….you know at the school functions we used to go to?"

The look in his eye told me I should shut up but I couldn't.

"What's with all the questions Michael?"

"Just interested."

"He took over the English Lit department a couple of months ago. He's still finding his way around town."

"And you're helping him do that."

"He doesn't know many people here yet."

"Does he know about me?"

"What does that mean?"

The spark of anger in his eyes warned me that I was starting to push too far, but there was one question I needed the answer to and I was prepared to play this game of cat and mouse all night if I had to, just to get it.

"I mean does he know that you have a partner."

"Yes."

"He must think that I am very understanding then."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you spend more time away from home than you are here these days."

"You're exaggerating."

"I don't think so. We haven't spent a weekend together for weeks, if you're not busy with school you are just out somewhere."

"Michael it's late."

"You're damn right it's late. You walk in here at 1am after going out for dinner. The service must have been really slow."

"We got talking."

"Shame we can't do that sometimes."

"Michael….."

"Does he know you shoot yourself full of steroids, or hasn't that subject come up yet." "Michael we've had this discussion before."

"Or hasn't he got to see that side of you, does he only get to see the you that I used to know."

"What are you saying?"

"Are you sleeping with him?"

The words were finally out. They hung there, like particles of dust, swirling around in the silence of the room. I watched him, holding my breath, waiting for a answer, knowing I would know if he was lying, because I knew the Ben before the steroids was still in there somewhere, and if hearing the answer to that question would start the slow process of bringing him back I was prepared for it. The answer may not be what I wanted to hear, but I needed to hear it, no matter what the consequences.

"No."

I believed him. I could see by his eyes that it was my Ben who answered and for now that was all that mattered. There was still some part of him in there, it maybe buried deeply, the steroids having done their work, but it was there and I knew that I was going to keep fighting to get the rest of him back. It may leave me more battered and bruised than I already was but that was a risk I was prepared to take. I loved him too much not to.

The ringing of the phone woke me. I let the machine pick up, not yet ready to face the outside world.

I glanced at the bedside clock. 9am. The apartment was silent and I knew he would be at the gym for his Sunday workout. Nothing would change that ritual.

I turned over and buried myself under the blankets, hoping sleep might come again. It had been nearly 4 by the time I had finally dropped off. The night had ended with his declaration, both of us too exhausted to take it any further. He had headed off to the shower, without a backward glance and I headed off to bed, aware that the knowledge he was still faithful to me changed nothing. But it did give me hope and at the moment that was all I had to cling to.

I pretended to be asleep when he climbed into bed, keeping his distance as had become the norm. He was asleep within minutes, which was unusual. The steroids had affected more than just has waking hours. Sometimes I woke in the early hours and I could hear him pacing around the apartment, before he came back to bed and spent another hour tossing and turning until sleep finally overtook him.

Last night it was me that couldn't sleep. I could smell the soap from his freshly scrubbed skin. I watched as the moonlight threw shadows over his body where I could see beads of water on his back that he had missed drying still glistening on his skin. I reached out a tentative finger, tracing over them, watching as they melded together and disappeared.

When he turned over and flung an arm out, it landed me on, and I'm sure I stopped breathing for a moment, hoping it would stay there. The feel of any part of him touching me was almost too much to bear. I wanted to feel his body wrapped around me more than I wanted my next breath.

I must have dozed off to sleep with those thoughts on my mind and the slamming of the front door woke me from my dream filled sleep.

I could hear voices and then Ben's deep laugh, something that I hadn't heard for a long time, but I couldn't put a name to the other voice.

I jumped out of bed and threw on a t-shirt and jeans and walked into the living room. He stopped mid conversation when he saw me.

"Michael."

"Hi."

"I'm sorry….did we wake you?"

"It's okay…I should have been up anyway."

He gave me a tight smile then turned to the man standing next to him, and I knew exactly who he was before being told.

"Michael….this is Josh……Josh...Michael."

He stepped forward, reaching out to shake my hand, a warm smile on his face.

"Nice to meet you Michael. Ben has been a great help showing me around since I arrived in town."

"I'm sure he has." I managed to get out, wondering if he picked up on the sarcasm in my voice. A quick glance in Ben's direction told me that he had.

"Josh and I ran into each other at the gym. He's asked to me to a book reading in the village."

"We're going to my mother's for dinner tonight, or have you forgotten?"

The look of confusion on his face told me that he had.

"Ben….you should have said you had plans….we can make it another time."

"No it's fine. Michael, I'll be done in plenty of time to meet you at Debbie's.

Now, I'm just going to get changed. I won't be a minute. Make yourself at home Josh."

I watched him as he watched Ben, his eyes moving up and down my lover's body and I thought that although Ben had been honest in telling me he hadn't slept with him, Josh was obviously going to do what he could to change that situation as soon as possible.

He dragged his eyes away as Ben entered our bedroom and shut the door and turned back to me.

We stood there, sizing each other up. God, he was gorgeous. I guessed he would have been about 36 or 37. His neatly styled blond hair just reached his collar and his eyes were deep blue. I could tell he spent a lot of time working out and his clothes which were casual, but obviously expensive, showed off his body to perfection.

I knew by the way he was looking at me that he wondered what Ben saw in me. I was almost tempted to tell him that I used to wonder that as well, and when I used to voice those concerns to Ben he would spend hours telling me all the reasons why he loved me.

Now I didn't even know if he did.

"What do you do Michael….Ben has never said."

I bet he hasn't I though before answering him.

"I own a comic book store."

"We share a love of literature then."

My eyes narrowed as I looked at him, wondering if he was making fun of me, but there was nothing in his eyes to show that his comment was anything but honest. Why hadn't either of them invited me along to the book reading? He was either a very good actor or a genuinely nice guy and I hated him.

"Will you excuse me for a moment," I said, and walked towards our bedroom. I opened the door and Ben looked up at me, a guilty look on his face and I wondered why until I saw the needle in his hand.

"Afternoon fix?"

"Michael, don't start!"

"Why did you bring him here?"

"Thought you would like to meet him after all your questions last night."

"He wants to fuck you."

"I told you…"

"Yes, I know what you told me."

"So what's the problem then?"

"Have those fucking steroids finally made you lose it completely. You bring a guy here, to our home, who obviously wants nothing more than to get you into his bed, and you have to ask what the problem is?"

Then it hit me. "You didn't expect to find me here, did you? You thought I'd be gone by now."

"We're friends, there is nothing more to it than that."

"Yet."

He stood up and threw the used needle into his drawer and pulled on his jacket.

"I am not going to have this discussion now."

"Of course not. There is always a reason not to have any discussion isn't there, at least not with me."

"Leave it Michael. He'll hear us! We can talk when I get home."

"Will we? Maybe I won't be here when you get home."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"That perhaps I've had enough. You don't seem to need me in your life as long as you've got this."

I reached down and picked up the empty vial off the bed and threw at him.

"You'd better go. Your other friend is waiting for you."

He walked towards me and stood over me and I held my ground, my eyes for once not filled with tears but with anger. His eyes bore into me, and for a split second I was actually afraid of him, but I held his gaze, determined not to let him see any sign of fear.

The seconds ticked by, neither of us moving. He finally broke our eye contact and without a backward glance walked out of the room. I heard him saying something to Josh, followed by a laugh from both of them, before hearing the door shut, leaving me alone once again, wondering what the result of my little out burst would be.

I sat in the chair waiting as usual for him to come home. I had gone to my mother's for dinner alone, making up some flimsy excuse for Ben's absence. She'd accepted it. We had done a good job of hiding our problems from the outside world.

When the clock ticked over to midnight I made a decision.

I walked into our bedroom and hauled down a suitcase from the top of the wardrobe and laid it open on the bed.

I opened Ben's drawers and began throwing whatever my hand grabbed into the case. When I came across something other than clothing I lifted it out and found myself looking at a bag which held about 20 vials, all of them full.

I sank down onto the bed, staring at them, a multitude of thoughts running through my mind. I have no idea how long I sat there but eventually I stood and dropped them onto the bed and continued to fill the suitcase before zipping it up and carrying it to the living room.

I placed it close to the door so that there was no way he would miss seeing it.

I went back to the bedroom, picked up the bag of vials, flicked off the light and walked back to my chair to wait for him.

Finally I heard his key turning in the lock and he walked in. I could tell he had noticed the suitcase but had chosen to ignore it, as I knew he would.

He took off his jacket and walked to towards me, stopping a couple of feet away.

"I'm sorry I missed dinner. Time got away from me."

"How was the book reading?"

"Enjoyable."

"Good."

"Well…..it's late. I'm going to bed."

"You said we would talk."

"We will."

"When?"
"Tomorrow."

"Not good enough."

"Michael don't start this again. I said we'd talk and we will. Just not right now."

"Well it's now or never."

"What?"

"It's decision time."

"What are you talking about?"

"It's time for you to decide between me and this."

I stood and walked towards him, stopping right in front of him so he couldn't move.

I took a vial out of the bag and threw it in the air and we both watched as it floated down and landed on the carpet with a soft thud. I lifted my foot and bought it down and listened as it broke into a hundred pieces.

"Michael stop….let's sit down and talk about this!"

But I knew it was past talking. It was time for me to do what I should have done at the beginning.

I threw up another one and another, grinding them into the carpet as they landed.

As I reached into the bag for another his hand reached out and grabbed my wrist. His grip was strong and it hurt but I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of seeing that.

My eyes never left his face as I upended the bag and let the rest fall onto the floor, bouncing around as they hit each other, the breaking of the glass the only sound to be heard.

He looked down at them and back at me.

"What have you done!"

"What I should have done a long time ago. You can get more of this but there is only one of me."

He let go of my wrist, bent down and started picking up the unbroken ones from the jumbled pile while I continued to stomp on them.

I stood there screaming at him, weeks of frustration and anger coming out in my words, which made no sense to my ears. They were just words, bouncing around the room in the still of the night and they seemed to be having no effect on him whatsoever as he continued to sort through the mess on the floor.

I took a breath, my anger turning to rage, my voice getting louder and louder as more words tumbled out of my mouth.

Then I realized he had stopped moving and had stood up, facing me his hand raised and when it came in contact with my face I don't know who was the most surprised.

He hadn't hit me with full force, because if he had I knew I wouldn't still be standing. It wasn't even hard enough for me to see stars, or feel my head spin but I could taste blood on my lips and I bought my hand up and wiped it away.

"Oh God Michael….what have I done!"

I never blinked. "Get out."

"What?'

"I love you Ben, but I won't stay with a man who has hit me. You need to leave now."

I watched as a mixture of emotions crossed his face. I'm sure he didn't believe me and I knew if I didn't walk away he would use all his charms to get me to change my mind.

I took a step and he reached out and grabbed me. I looked down at his hand wrapped around my arm and then back at him.

"Michael please…. I will stop using it. We can work this out."

"You need help Ben. Just go."

I pulled away from him and walked towards our bedroom and closed the door. I leant against it, before sliding down to the floor, wrapping my arms around my knees, listening for any sounds from the other room.

I heard him moving round the room and then his footsteps approach the door and stop I held my breath wondering if he was going to force his way in.

"I love you Michael."

At those words the tears that had been building up from the time I told him to go finally fell. I heard him walk away and the front door open and close quietly and I buried my face in my hands.

My decision had been the right and only one I could have made, and I knew the moment he had raised his hand to me his downward spiral into the world of steroids had gone too far for us to get through this alone. But I couldn't help feel in some way I had abandoned him, that maybe there was something I could have done differently. How had we ever come to this. But if this is what it took for us to begin the journey back to what we once had I knew it was worth the pain and loneliness that was sure to follow. My love for him was still as deep as it was from the moment I had set eyes on him and I just had to hold onto the belief that he felt the same and that he thought we were worth fighting for.

I woke up to a watery sun shining into the room, with no idea what time it was. I was still fully clothed and vaguely remember waking up cold in the early hours and crawling into bed. I sat up gingerly, my eyes felt as if they were full of splinters and my head hurt with the slightest movement.

I padded to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. What greeted me was not a pleasant sight. My eyes were bloodshot and my mouth swollen. I bought my fingers up, touching it and winced, the memory of Ben's hand coming into contact with it flooded my mind and tears sprung into my eyes. I still couldn't believe he had hit me.

My Ben would never raise his hand to anyone, no matter what the provocation. I remembered the times I had listened to him talking passionately about his belief that violence solved nothing, that communication and understanding was what was needed.

The communication between us had broken down weeks ago when he first brought that shit into our home and Christ knows I had tried to be as understanding as I could, always there, waiting for him to open up and tell me his feelings and his fears, but it had been an exercise in futility. The more I tried to draw him out the deeper he withdrew into the world of steroids which filled him with mistrust and anger, until that moment last night when it had finally exploded. I suppose I'd known it would eventually. Every day that passed had brought us closer and closer to the breaking point but I still wasn't prepared for it when it did.

I gave myself a mental shake telling myself that I knew there was no point standing here thinking about the what ifs, and maybe's. It was done and now it was up to him to decide what direction his life was to take, to make the choice between the steroids and me, but I knew all of what had happened and what might happen in the future would be filling all my waking hours for a long time.

I turned on the tap, filling the sink with cold water and reached for the wash cloth, holding it over my face, hoping it would do something to bring down the puffiness around my mouth. I thought about having a shower but knew I just wanted to crawl back to bed and hide under the covers for the rest of the day.

The sound of loud hammering on the front door made me jump, and I stood rooted to the spot, wondering if he had come back trying to make me change my mind.

I walked quietly into the living room, hoping it would stop if whoever it was thought there was no one at home, but it continued, getting louder by the minute.

"Who is it?" I called out, hearing a slight tremor in my voice.

"It's me Mikey. Where the hell are you?"

Fuck. Brian. What the hell was he doing here on a Monday morning at….turning I looked at the clock…12.30! Then I remembered I was supposed to have lunch with him. He'd seen some new car he wanted to check out and wanted to show it off to me.

I walked over and unlocked the door, standing aside to let him pass. He didn't even look at me as he strode into the room, stopping inches away from the pile of broken vials which still lay strewn all over the floor.

"I went to the store to pick up you up and it's fucking closed. Not good business Mikey, haven't I taught you anything."

I closed the door and turned to face him.

"Sorry…..slept in."

He went to say something and then his eyes widened and I know he had noticed my swollen and bruised mouth.

"Jesus Mikey what the fuck happened to you. You and the professor have a long and rough night between the sheets."

I saw a glint in his eyes, knowing that he enjoyed a bit of rough stuff every now and then and I hoped that if that was what he thought it was he would let the matter drop.

I gave him what I hoped was a convincing smile, just wishing I could steer him out of the apartment before he noticed what was almost beneath his feet. Ben and I had done so well at hiding everything from the outside world, but I knew it was all going to come crumbling down around me if Brian found out.

I watched as he took a step towards me and I groaned inwardly when his foot hit one of the vials and he bent down picking it up and then looked back at me.

"Mikey….what the fuck is going on here! Where's Ben?"

"He's not here."

He walked towards me and stopped. He bought his hand up in what I knew was to be a comforting gesture but he must have seen me flinch and I saw his eyes turn black with rage as realization hit him.

"He did this…he fucking hit you….I'll fucking kill him!"

"He didn't mean to. It just happened." I said, knowing in my heart that was true. It had been a moment of madness.

He looked back at the vial he was still holding in his hand, turning it over and over and I could see questions forming in his mind.

"How long has this been going on?"

"Not long." I managed to stammer out.

I could see he was trying very hard to stay calm in the wake of what he was hearing but I knew the questions were going to be relentless until he found out everything.

"Not long. What the fuck does that mean…a week, a month, a year…. Tell me Mikey or I swear to God I will go and fucking find him and beat the living shit out of him until I know the fucking truth."

I knew that he would, and I didn't want that to happen so I did what I always have done, I told him the truth.

It was like a dam bursting, the weeks of misery, loneliness and suspicions flooded out of me, words tumbling over themselves as I tried to explain Ben's reasons for turning to the steroids, how I thought I could handle it myself until last night.

He stood there, taking it all in, saying nothing until I had no more words left in me and the tears fell as he wrapped his arms around me rocking me gently as I struggled to get control of my emotions.

He took my hand and led me over to the couch, sitting me down like a child.

"Do you want to come and stay with me….in case he comes back?"

"He won't come back."

"If he fucking knows what's good for him he will get the hell out of town and never fucking come back. You're better off without him."

"No I'm not."

"What! He fucking hit you and you're saying what…..that you would take him back?"

"Yes."

"Jesus fucking Christ Mikey…have you lost your fucking mind."

"He needs help, I couldn't give it to him but maybe someone else can."

"I can't believe I'm listening to this shit…he FUCKING HIT YOU!"

"And I told him to go and he did. To me that means he wants to get help. I might be wrong but I don't think so. I know him too well."

The look on Brian's face told me he didn't believe any of this and I knew there was nothing I could say that would convince him otherwise. He could only see my bruised mouth and my tears. He couldn't see what was in my heart and to me that was what mattered. To him the answer would be to find Ben and beat the crap out of him, and I know he would be doing it for me, but it wouldn't solve anything except maybe make him feel better, or maybe get himself badly hurt, as I wasn't any too sure he could take Ben. The underlying problem would still remain, festering away below the surface. I couldn't live like that and wasn't prepared to. Ben had to do what he needed and so did I, and I knew sitting around here feeling sorry for myself wasn't the answer.

"Brian, you hit me once, and we managed to work it out."

I saw the surprise in his eyes at my words and knew he was mulling over his response in his mind.

"That was different."

"Why?"

"Because I didn't mean it."

"Neither did Ben."

That shut him up for a moment. I could tell he wanted to argue, but something in my eyes must have got through to him and he held his silence.

"I want you to go now."

"But…."

"Please, I just need to be by myself for a while. I will be in touch, I promise."

I held his gaze and he shrugged, standing up and looking down at me.

"Whatever you want Mikey….but just remember two things. I am here for you, and if Ben does come back, tell him to watch his back."

I caught a look in his eyes which sent a chill down my spine, but I nodded and watched as he turned and walked across the room, dropping the vial he had been holding back onto the pile on the floor, and left closing the door behind him.

I sat there for a long time after Brian had left. He had reacted exactly as I'd expected, no surprises there, but in some ways it was a relief to have told someone. What I'd told him would stay between us. Brian was nothing if not loyal to his friends. I knew I wasn't going to be able to hide away and avoid the others for ever, especially my mother and that I was going to have to come up with some sort of explanation for Ben's continual absence. Considering what I had been hiding for the last month that wouldn't be difficult.

Eventually I moved myself. I headed to the kitchen grabbed a rubbish bag and went back to the living room and knelt down, carefully putting the broken vials into it. I found six that were still intact. I carried them back to the kitchen and broke them against the side of the sink, watching as the clear liquid drained out of them I threw them in with the others, tied the bag securely and dropped it into the trash can. I reached under the sink for a bucket and filled it with warm soapy water, snatched a cloth off the bench and went and begun to scrub at the stain on the carpet. It was actually hardly noticeable but I knew I would see it every time I walked past it. Finally satisfied it was gone and wishing that the last month could be washed away as easily, I went back to the kitchen tipping away the dirty water and refilling the bucket with fresh and started wiping down the surfaces in the kitchen before moving through the house cleaning everything within reach and by the time I had finished every muscle ached but I felt better.

I walked slowly to the bathroom and turned on the shower. When I stepped under it, the warm water stung my mouth for an instant but I stayed there until the water finally ran cold. I felt that it was in some way washing away all the hurt and pain of the last weeks. I dried myself quickly, tossing the clothes I had been wearing last night into the laundry hamper, ignoring the tiny spots of blood on my t-shirt and headed to the bedroom, to put on some clean ones.

I glanced at the clock and I couldn't believe it when I saw it was midnight. I couldn't stop yawning, the lack of sleep from last night finally catching up with me and I climbed into the still unmade bed. I turned on the alarm and pulled up the covers, moving around until I found a comfortable position and closed my eyes, hoping that my much needed sleep would come swiftly.

I didn't know what tomorrow or the days ahead would bring but I would get through them. Ben had always told me how strong I was, something that I had never truly believed until last night when I had told him to leave. I just hoped that strength was going to be enough to get me through this because I wanted him back more than anything else but it was going to be on my terms. That was something I was not open to negotiation on.

The alarm woke me at 7am and I jumped out of bed and headed to the shower. I had slept better than I had expected and was feeling as if I could face the coming day. As the water warmed me up my thoughts went to Ben. Was he alright, where had he spent the night, were his thoughts of me or where to get his next fix, had he gone to get the help he said he would. I knew these thoughts would fill my mind every minute of the day.

I turned off the water and dried myself, getting dressed quickly to stay warm. I wandered through the apartment, opening all the curtains, letting in some light. The silence was eerie.

The mornings before all of this happened used to be a rush, both of us running late because we didn't want to leave the comfort of our warm bed, snatching a few last minute kisses that sometimes turned into more, laughing as we jostled in the shower for the water. I never won, he used to just pick me up and move me so he could get all the hot water for himself, leaving me shivering until he relented and wrapped his arms around me, the warmth of his body with what was left of the hot water warming me instantly.

The ringing of the phone shattered the silence. All sorts of thoughts went through my mind as I picked it up.

"Hello."

"Did he come back!"

"No Brian."

"Good. You ok Mikey?"

"I'm fine."

"You want to come to Babylon tonight?"

"No thanks."

"You sure?"

"Yes. I have to go Brian I need to get the shop open."

"Alright. I'll talk to you later."

"Ok."

I hung up and knew that this was going to become a daily occurrence, Brian checking in on me. I knew he did it because he loved me, but if the unthinkable happened and Ben didn't come back, I was going to have to learn to stand on my own two feet.

I grabbed my coat and gloves and headed out the door and walked briskly to the store, thankful I had something to keep me occupied, at least during the daylight hours.

I had a steady stream of customers throughout the day, a lot of them moaning about the fact I hadn't been open the previous day.

By the time I locked the door at 5pm I was exhausted. I walked home slowly, the thought of the empty apartment as unwelcoming as the rain that had started to fall. I stopped off at the market and grabbed a few essentials and by the time I turned my key in the lock I was soaked and cold.

I flicked on the light and took the groceries to the kitchen before removing my coat walking back to hang it in the closest by the door, hoping it would dry out before morning. I caught a glimpse of something white on the floor and knew instantly that he had been here. My hand shook slightly as I picked it up, and I just stood there staring at my name on the envelope, wanting to rip it open but somehow to afraid to. Finally I made myself move. I dropped it onto the table and proceeded to the bedroom, getting out of my damp clothes. I reached under the pillow for my t-shirt but instead pulled out Ben's. I bought it up to my face inhaling his scent which still lingered on it. I put it on, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror and had to smile when I saw how silly I looked.

I hadn't found time to eat all day so made myself a sandwich, which was all I could face at the moment. I carried it into the living room and sat down at the table, my eyes continuously drawn to the envelope.

Finally unable to put the moment off any longer, I opened it carefully and took out a single piece of paper.

My darling Michael.

This is the hardest letter I have ever had to write. I know how much I have hurt you over the last weeks and there is nothing more that I want than to turn back the clock and erase every word and action which caused you so much pain.

I could say it wasn't me, it was the steroids talking, but that would just be an excuse. I was weak, I let them take over my life, destroying everything that I love, hurting you in ways that can never be forgiven.

You are my life Michael. The moment I saw you I fell in love with you. You accepted me, my HIV and the knowledge that a future was something that could never be promised. You loved me unconditionally, brought me moments of such joy that I never thought existed. You held me in the middle of the night when it all became too much, when the thoughts of not knowing how much time we would have together brought me to tears. You gave me a reason to wake up every morningto be grateful for each day, because those days would become memories which would be treasured and never be lost.

You once came to me and said you had made a mistake and wanted to start again and I told you it would take more than a kiss and you fought so hard to get me back, because you believed that we were meant to be together.

You were right to send me away. Never doubt that decision. I need help and I am going away to get it. The next time you see me it will be me who will be fighting to win back your trust and your love.

I love you brown eyes.

Ben

I sat there reading it over and over again, until tears blurred my eyes so that all the words ran together. I stood and walked to the bedroom and climbed into the bed, holding the letter to my chest and cried myself to sleep.

The days passed. I got used to being alone. I didn't like it but I accepted it. I spent weekdays working hard at the shop and even spent some evenings at Woody's, shooting some pool with the guys.

They all accepted my explanation for Ben's continual absence,that he was doing some relief teaching at another school. There was no reason why they shouldn't.

Brian nagged me to go to Babylon but I wasn't ready for that yet.

He still rang every day checking up on me, turning up some evenings with take-out. We never discussed Ben or what had happened.

I'd even learned to cook a few things. Not the culinary delights that Ben used to serve up, but good enough to keep me from starving to death and I was pleased with that little achievement.

The weekends were the worst, the hours seemed to drag by. There were only so many movies I could watch.

Walking home one Friday night I stopped off at the hardware store to grab a light bulb for the kitchen. It had blown a couple of days ago and I was sick of fumbling around in the dark in the mornings.

I wandered around the store, and somehow ended up in the paint department. When I walked out, I carried two pails of paint and half way home realized I had forgotten to buy the bulb.

The next morning I found some old clothes and started pulling and pushing the furniture away from the walls in our bedroom. I searched through the closet till I found some old sheets to cover the floor. I read and re-read all the instructions on the pails and got started. By the end of the first day there was more paint on me than on the walls and when I dropped into the spare bed that night exhausted I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew.

But the next morning I woke early and started again and slowly got into a rhythm and the paint ended up where it should have, on the walls.

It took 3 weekends, of me working from first light till it was too dark for me to see what I was doing, to get it finished.

Now standing in the door, I was amazed at the transformation. The walls were a deep rich brown. I had been worried they would turn out too dark, making the room look small but the result was perfect.

I went shopping for new linen for the bed, even remembering to take the paint swatch with me to make sure I got the exact match. I trudged from store to store, listening to the sales assistant's advice but sure that I would know when I found what I was looking for. Eventually I had did--the exact color to match the walls, with a thin gold thread running through it.

The lighting shop had been just as daunting but I came away with two gold bedside lamps, and the light bulb which had started this little endeavor of mine. The subtle light they emitted made the room look warm and inviting.

When it came to the curtains, I knew I would need help so I scoured the phone book until I found someone who would come and do what I wanted. Once again the choices were overwhelming but once I made my decision and when they were finally up the salesman congratulated me on my choice. I couldn't help but let a wide smile cross my face.

I knew it would never make the cover of 'House Beautiful' but I didn't care.

What had started out as something to fill my lonely weekends had ended up being much more. I had accomplished this alone, asking and needing no-one's help, and I felt an inordinate amount of pride in what I'd achieved.

I finally moved myself from admiring my handy work and headed to the shower. I'd found muscles I didn't know I even had over the last few weeks and they ached, but it was a good ache.

I had just pulled my t-shirt over my head when I heard a knock at the front door. I knew it would be Brian and I couldn't wait to show him what I had done. I expected him to scoff and tease me, asking if I had a new career in interior designing planned but I didn't care.

I opened the door, his name forming on my lips and a wide smile on my face.

You know that expression time stands still? Until that moment I'd never experienced it.

"Hello Michael."

The first thing I noticed about him were his eyes. They were clear and back to that brilliant blue that I loved. The second was that he had lost weight. It wasn't a lot, and no one else probably would have noticed, but I knew every curve and muscle of his body so well.

We stood there staring at each other.

He had a look of uncertainty on his face, almost as if he was afraid to say something in case it was the wrong thing and I might close the door on him.

I don't know what my face showed but my stomach had those so called butterflies bouncing around in it and my heart was beating so loudly that I surprised he couldn't hear it.

I knew I had to say something. He looked as if he was going to turn tail and run at any moment.

"Do you want to come in?" I finally managed to stammer out.

He walked in slowly, his eyes moving around the apartment seemingly committing everything to memory as if it all might disappear in a puff of smoke.

"Can I get you a drink?"

"No….thank you."

Christ, it was like we were two strangers, meeting for our first date instead of long time lovers. I had been waiting for this moment for so long and now that it was finally here I didn't know what to say and it would appear he was having the same problem.

"Michael…."

"How about…."

We both spoke at the same time. He smiled and I giggled and some of the tension between us seemed to disappear.

"I was going to say how about we sit down?"

I walked over to the couch and sat down, hoping he would follow. He seemed to hesitate for a moment then followed me, sitting in the chair I had spent so many hours sitting in waiting for him. I wonder if he saw the irony in this.

I wanted to get some sort of conversation going so I asked the first thing that popped into my head.

"How long have you been back?"

"Four days."

"Where are you staying?"

"On campus, luckily there was a spare room available."

"Are you back teaching?"
"No. Not until Monday."

I couldn't take my eyes off of him and I knew he was feeling slightly uncomfortable under my constant gaze.

I watched as he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope and handed it to me.

I looked at it, seeing the name of a substance abuse facility across the top of it. I looked back at him questionably.

"I want you to read it. Please."

I opened it and read it slowly. It stated that he had finished a 30 day recovery program for steroid abuse. It listed the date of every test and the result….clean…next to it.

I folded it and put it back in the envelope and handed it back to him. Our fingers touched in the exchange and I felt tiny electric shocks travel through my body from the contact.

I smiled at him and he smiled back and we both relaxed a bit more.

I wanted to say so many things but I could see he had something on his mind so held my silence for the moment.

"I was wondering if you would like to have dinner with me tomorrow night?"

That was the last thing I had expected to hear and the surprise must have shown on my face. I recovered quickly and nodded my head in acceptance.

The smile I received from him this time was the smile that I had been waiting to see for so long.

"Is seven okay?"

"Great."

We both stood and I followed him to the door. We both reached out to open it at the same time and once again our hands came in contact with each other and I felt a warm glow travel through my body.

"I'll see you tomorrow then," he said, stepping through the door. All I could manage was a smile as he turned and walked down the hallway.

I shut the door and leaned against it. We had taken the first step and I knew that was what was needed. Small steps.