It had been over six weeks since David had broken the news to Jennifer (week had gone by since he'd last talked to Keith) and David thought back on all the countless fantasies he'd had before all of this: fantasies that liberating himself from his engagement with Jennifer would usher him into a new world of courage and hope. That after venturing one toe out of the closet, the rest of him would come bursting out, chomping at the bit for a chance at freedom and truth. That it would give him a new chance at living… maybe even a chance at love.
The reality had been a lot bleaker.
"Mr. Thompson—," he said to the man sitting before him.
"Please, call me Gil," the man insisted, wrestling with a tiny girl swallowed in brown curls that was giddily writhing on his lap.
"And call me Jackie," the woman agreed. "Just think 'Jack and Jill'." She said it with a glee that suggested she said it a lot.
David nodded. "OK… Gil," he said. "Um, are you familiar with the purpose of a pre-need?"
"I am," he said, turning to his wife. "We are. It's something I wanted to get in order before my trip."
"Your… trip?" David asked.
"Gil is a microbiologist," Jackie explained, "with a focus in psychrophilic bacteria, or bacteria that thrive in extreme cold."
"Right," Gil continued. "I'll be taking a trip to the Antarctic for two months to explore the affects of global warming on these microbes."
"Is that… dangerous?" David inquired.
"Everything should be okay," Gil answered cautiously. "Antarctic research isn't nearly the death romp it used to be. But, I just want to be… careful."
He and his wife gave each other somber looks.
"Of course," David said. Gil placed the wriggling toddler on the floor and she toddled off to look at a fake plant several feet away. David watched the little girl in quiet amazement.
"She's adorable," he said.
"Thanks," Gil replied, watching her too. The little girl yanked the plant down, and it almost toppled on top of her.
"No Katy," Jackie said, jumping up and grabbing it.
"Sorry about that," Gil said.
"She's fine," David assured him, "How old is she, if you don't mind my asking."
"Seventeen months," he answered. "She's getting to the age where she's getting into everything."
"I love that age," David replied wistfully. "So full of wonder and curiosity."
"Ah," Gil says with a cluck. "You have some little ones?"
The question caught David by surprise, before he realized that it was an easy conclusion to draw.
"Um, no. No children of my own. Just a sister. A younger sister. Much younger than me. I remember when she was that age."
"Oh," Gil says, still smiling. "Yeah, Katy's the light of our life. Blew our whole perspective on everything wide open. For the better."
"Yeah," David said. He stared off a bit. "I always wanted kids." The words were out of his mouth before he realized it. There must have been a trace of sadness in his voice.
"It'll happen," Gil replied reassuringly. "You're young still. You just have to be patient." David turned and noticed the pity in the other man's eyes. "Jackie and I thought we had it all figured out. Graduate at 22, get married at 23, have kids at 27." He looked down at his wife who was quietly playing with Katy on the floor. He leaned in and whispered. "Took us three years."
David didn't respond.
"Your turn's coming."
David looked back at his clipboard. "Full name starting with your last."
David was vacuuming the chapel when his cell phone rang. He looked at the caller ID.
It was Keith.
He hit ignore and resumed vacuuming.
David left work and set out in his car. He didn't have any particular destination in mind, but he wanted to be alone—alone with just himself and his thoughts in a way that only a long drive could afford. He had a lot of thinking to do (or maybe non-thinking to do) and the only thing he was sure of was that, recently, he had been his own best company.
Which made it even more amazing when he found himself pulling up in front of Jennifer's townhouse and then knocking on her door.
He wasn't even sure that she would answer.
"Hi," he said when she did.
"Hi," she replied. Her face was blank, but not angry, and that had to mean something.
"Can I come in?"
With some hesitation, she opened the door. He walked in and then presumed to sit down on the couch. She didn't.
"What are you watching?" he asked without looking back at her.
"Trading Spaces," she answered.
Moments passed as he cheerlessly pretended to watch the show. Then started to cough uncontrollably.
She rushed to get him a glass of water and set it down in front of him, which he drank heartily. Then, he resumed watching the show as if nothing had happened.
After several minutes of quiet agony he glanced up at her. She was staring at him as if he were a bow-tie wearing giraffe that has miraculously materialized in her living room.
"Aren't you going to sit down?" David asked.
She didn't answer for a long while. Finally this:
"What do you want David?"
She said it with no malice or hurt. Certainly a lot of curiosity.
He stood up and drew closer. "Do you still love me?"
She turned away; she couldn't meet his eyes. "That's not fair David."
He drew even closer. Too close. "Because I think I'm still in love with you."
She looked back at him with some disgust. "You think?"
"I am," he asserted. "I want us to get back together."
She shook her head. "David. You're gay."
"Or maybe not," he shrugged. "Maybe I'm bi or something but I… I want to get back with you." She looked down into her fidgety hands. "Please, look at me," he pleaded. She did. "I want to marry you."
She greeted his eyes with a steely glare and David awaited her reply with an anxiety that approached terror.
"I'm not going to marry you."
David sank. "How can you just say that?"
"A lot easier than you think," she replied.
And even though she made total sense, there was something in him – desperate and wanting and manic – goading him to lower depths. "Jennifer," he said and took her hands. She pulled them back. "Please don't say that so casually. You didn't even think about it."
She started backing away. "You should leave now," she said.
"Jennifer, just list—"
"Leave, David!" she yelled. He took a hard breath, and then left.
After a sleepless night that ends to soon, the ritual of getting ready can seem like unmitigated torture.
David was finding the sheer pageantry of getting dressed to be exhausting: putting on a T-shirt and then his boxers, ironing his shirt, tying his tie, putting on his suit, and then his socks—not to mention mentally orchestrating an ensemble that was both somber and welcoming—were all just short of excruciating. Even though, at the moment, he was still only at the point of brushing his teeth, the prospect of it all seemed cruel and daunting.
He heard his phone vibrating. He'd unwittingly left it in the bathroom the night before after going to bed at an uncharacteristically early hour (8:00). With sudsy hands, he picked up his cell, only to learn he had five missed calls. He brushed with his right hand and dialed with his left.
"You have reached the voicemail of—"
He pressed one.
"To hear your mess—"
He pressed one.
"First message. Received Thursday, August 3 at 8:07 PM... 'Where are you? Anyway, Mrs. Pope called said she wasn't pleased with the seating arrangement at the graveside service. If you could—'"
He pressed four.
"Message saved. Next message. Received Thursday, August 3 at 8:12 PM… 'This is Mary with Portland Wholesale Suppliers. The tracking number on your shipment of Buddha statues is 1Z96—'"
He pressed four.
"Message saved. Next message. Received Thursday, August 3 at 8:32 PM… 'Mr. Fisher, this is Burt's Vinyl Siding, and if you are interested in remodeling your home—'"
"Your message has been deleted. Next message. Received Thursday, August 3 at 9:46 PM… David, this is Curtis."
"Weave me awone," David muttered in between scrubs.
"Your message has been deleted. Next message. Received Thursday, August 3 at 11:24 PM…Hey David."
It was Keith.
"Um… I'm pretty sure you've been ignoring my calls. There's no way you miss somebody that many times."
David pressed eight, then spit out the last of his mouth wash and rinsed his face. He put the phone on speaker, before sitting down on the lid of the toilet. Then he took a deep breath and pressed eight again.
"I don't need to tell you that we ended on a bad note, and I think we both said some things we regret. And to be honest, last week I was ready to just let you go. But I don't want you to confuse me with the other people in your life. I'm not waiting for you to change or wanting you to be something you're not." There was a pause. "Call me David."
David stared at the phone with quiet reverence. Then, he walked out of the bathroom, climbed back into bed and pulled the covers over his head.
David and Ruth sat on the couch in the TV room watching re-runs Star Trek: Voyager, a program neither one of them particularly liked. Watching a show he had no investment in had the odd consequence of lulling David into an almost catatonic state—a mental rest of the profoundest kind. He couldn't, however, speak for his mother's motivations in continuing to watch. He looked on as she passively followed the images dancing on the television screen in front of her.
She'd had her hair cut recently. She looked… only slightly different than she always did. She was so plain and conservative that sometimes he wondered why she even bothered getting her hair done at all. A part of him regarded his mother with complete confusion: she could be nagging and naïve and shrill, sure. But, other times, David was sure he had gotten all his best qualities from his mother: his compassion, his restraint, his sense of duty. Out of everyone, his mother was his family. His mother made this place seem like more than a place to park corpses.
During a commercial for Bud Light, she piped up out of nowhere.
"I'm glad you're back attending services with me David," she said.
He nodded, and then turned his attention back to the television, while pulling a leg under him on the couch. She offered him popcorn from the largely ignored bowl that was resting on her lap. He declined.
"You seem so sad lately," she said. "Are you OK?"
The question seemed so innocent; being "OK" seemed like a peculiarity of childhood.
"I'm fine, Mom," he answered. He placed a hand on hers. "Don't worry about me."
She chuckled. "I don't know how not to." She paused. "Are you sad because you and Jennifer didn't work out?"
David didn't answer for a long time. He wished that were the answer. That would be simple, something his mother could understand.
"Mom," he said.
She turned to him. "Yes dear?"
"If you could marry Dad over again… would you?"
"What kind of question is that?" she said with a small laugh.
"I just... I just wanna know."
Ruth smiled and placed a hand on David's. "Does this have anything to do with Jennifer?" she asked.
David shrugged. "I dunno."
Ruth sighed. "Dear, I would marry your father again. He's given me a lot: my home, my life… he's the father of my children."
"Do you love him?"
"Sure, dear," she said. She patted his hand, before turning her attention back to the television. But she had a question too. "Did you love Jennifer?"
David waited a beat. "I thought I did."
"But not enough" Ruth added.
Not enough? The phrase caught him off guard.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean… how much does it take to love someone?"
David had never thought of love in quantitative terms before. "I mean, if you love someone a lot—really love them—that should be enough. Right?"
"I think you never really know until it's over. If a relationship ends when one of you takes your last breath, then it was enough. If it doesn't… then it wasn't."
David thought on that a moment. "But there must be some way to know beforehand. Before you commit."
"I would imagine so," Ruth said reflectively. "Love is very close to… truth. If something is true, if your love is true, your relationship is honest—then, your love should be enough. It'll keep being enough, because it'll be real."
The words landed on David's ears with breathtaking gravity.
Impulsively, he stood up. He lifted his jacket off of a nearby chair.
"And where are you going?" Ruth asked.
David hesitated. "I… wish I could tell you."
Ruth shrugged. "I don't know what that means David. Are you going to see Jennifer?"
She just sighed, pressing her lips into a frustrated line. "I can't imagine why you can't tell me." She turned back to the TV. "Well, my children certainly like to keep me confused, that's for sure. I only wish I could stop caring. Maybe one day I will."
David watched his mother.
"Mom," he said. She turned to him. "Thank you. For caring."
Her previous scowl was replaced with the hints of a smile. She reached out for him and he took her hand. "You're welcome, darling," she said.
With that he left.
Keith was lying in bed watching the movie Bullitt when he heard a knock on the door. He crept out to the living room in his tank top and boxers, careful not to make a sound. Peering out of the peephole, he was shocked to find David standing there.
He stepped away from the door a moment, contemplating what to do.
"I know you're in there," David called through the door. "I saw the peephole get dark." There was a pause. "Besides, I already left a note on your truck."
Keith opened the door.
"Can I come in?" David asked.
Silently, Keith motioned David to enter. Once inside, the two men stared at each other.
"I'm here to apologize," David said at last. Keith didn't respond. He almost didn't recognize the person standing in front of him. Far from neat and poised, David was folded into himself, dressed in sweats, and fidgety. And yet somehow, he looked emboldened and determined and vulnerable all at the same time. "I… I lied to you."
"I know," Keith said.
"I'm not out of the closet," David continued. As he spoke, he seemed to measure every word against Keith's reaction. When there was none, he wearily moved on. "I'm not out to anyone. Except my ex-fiancée. And Sean. And you."
Keith continued in silence, reactionless and absently scratching at his arm.
"The truth is... I do hate being gay sometimes. Most of the time, really. But not all the time. Not when I'm with you. I love… being with you. And I like the thought of us being together. And I like that when I'm with you I see a future that's more than being scared and alone. But… I still care about what other people think. I hate being stared at in stores. I hate being grouped in with people that don't seem like me. I hate being different." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "And then I hate myself for caring about all that." He stopped, and a visible sadness came over him. "I know that must seem pathetic… to you. You walk around with such confidence, like you never even…" He stopped, unable to continue.
Keith stepped forward, softening. "I don't have it all figured out either, David." Keith said. "None of this is easy… for anybody." He tucked his finger under David chin and pulled his face towards his. "But you have got to stop hating yourself. Or you're never gonna let anyone else love you."
David's bottom lip was trembling, and he looked up the ceiling, willing the water that was gathering in his eyes to return from whence they'd come. He cleared his throat and turned back to Keith, fighting to regain composure. After a labored minute he spoke. "I don't expect you to want to, um, be with me—"
Keith drew closer, placing a finger over David's mouth. Then he replaced his finger with his lips. David's breath caught, and he gently pulled back and placed both hands on Keith's face, staring into his eyes with quiet wonder and longing. He leaned in again, and let himself feel what just moments ago he was too ashamed to even wish for. For the first time in a long time, he felt simply good; his heart soared and his worries were soothed by the heat of Keith's lips against his own.
Keith was beautiful when he slept. Like some dark, chiseled, paragon of a man. His chocolate skin that glistened in the morning light was pulled taut over muscles that perked up effortlessly with the slightest move.
David battled between the sparkling reality of the man that lied next to him in bed and the bleak image of inadequacy he had of himself. And yet, there Keith was, lying there, as real as life and death. The thought of him… them, actually being together made David giddy, and hopeful, and satisfied…
If he allowed his mind to drift into the future…
But he didn't. He stopped there. One day at a time. One morning at a time.
One minute at a time.
Keith rolled over, his eyes blinking, and smiled when his eyes met David's.
"You were watching me sleep?"
"Yep," David said, shamelessly.
"You know that voyeurism is a crime in all 50 states, right?"
"Then lock me up… officer," David said.
Keith smiled at that.
"I should," he said. He sat up some. "Thanks, for…"
He didn't finish. He didn't have to.
"I want us to be together," David said, almost pleading.
"We are together," Keith said.
"I know," David said. He fell back against his pillow, looking up at the ceiling. That wasn't exactly what he'd meant. Words escaped him.
"Are you hungry?" Keith asked.
David turned to him. "I keep… going over it in my mind and can't see how… how you can be with me if I'm not out and you are and—"
Keith dropped his head, exasperated, and rubbed one eye with is free hand. David stopped talking. Keith turned back to him. "Let me worry about loving you," he said. "You worry about…" He reached under the covers and came back up with a pair of white, cotton briefs. "Don't ever come back to my bed with these tighty-whities on. Ever."
A bright smile came across David's face. "OK," he said.
They stared at each other a minute, before Keith sighed heavily. "Well, if you're not hungry, I am." He threw his feet over the edge of the bed, but David grabbed his arm.
"Don't leave me… not yet," he pleaded. "I'm not done staring at your… sexy face."
David could see Keith mentally wrestling with his stomach for a moment before – climbing over the covers – he got on all fours and loomed over David. David looked up coyly from under the comforter at the larger man; he could feel the heat from Keith's massive body enveloping his own. Keith swooped down and planted David with a firm, manly, body-numbing kiss.
The verdict was in: breakfast would have to wait.
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