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The Rest of Your Life

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The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the First: Never Been a Boy like You

(go real far)

Eric Chavez and Eric Munson first meet when they’re five years old.

Eric Chavez is playing catch with his dad at the Rancho Penasquitos T-ball field near his family’s house. He’s a tough little kid, powering across the shorn March grass in his red Velcro-strapped Keds, his Mexican-black hair neatly trimmed by his mother in the garage every two weeks, and when grown-ups see him for the first time, the thing that strikes them are those fiercely bright eyes of his, breaking the trend of his easy-going cheerfulness.

He chases down the pop flies his dad flings to him and Cesar Chavez calls, “Two hands, short guy, two hands,” and Eric claps his right hand to his glove, squeezing the ball securely through the leather.

Eric Munson is on his way to a soccer team party at the green-painted picnic tables under the trees, the rusted metal barbecue pits and the nodding pastel balloons tied to the branches.

This Eric is a natural athlete too, but with him it’s form and strength where with Eric Chavez it’s reflexes and coordination. Eric Munson is perfectly proportioned with broad shoulders and he’ll be the tallest in his class every year until high school. He runs faster than any other kid his age, and has been the best player on all his teams, even if it is just T-ball and his miniaturized soccer team on their shrunken field. He’s got a mess of brown hair and an unrepentantly boyish smile that makes everybody who sees it love him a little bit.

He’s walking across the field towards the picnic tables, his hand folded up in his father’s, and Eric’s kicking a pine cone along in front of him, seeing how many kicks he can get without breaking stride. Steve Munson tugs his hand, and Eric looks up, squinting into the late-afternoon sun.

His dad points over to the kid dashing around snagging grounders and flinging bullets back to his own father. “He looks pretty good, huh,” Steve says to his son. “You might want to play with him next year.”

Eric studies the other boy, chewing on his lip. Steve lets go of his hand to palm his head, ruffling his hair. “You wanna go say hi?”

Eric takes a moment, and the black-haired boy does a neat tumbling move to cut off a jogged liner, and that seals the deal. Eric’s face splits with his sunlight grin and he nods, skimming from under his father’s hand and running over to the other boy, Steve left standing there with his arm still out, once again startled by the quickness of his child.

He chuckles, shakes his head and walks over to the man who’d been playing with the black-haired boy. The two kids are inspecting each other, Eric Munson taller but Eric Chavez has got the baseball, so they’re probably even.

Steve offers his hand to the other man. “Hi. Steve Munson.”

The man smiles engagingly. “Cesar Chavez,” he answers, lightly accented, taking the proffered hand.

Steve blinks. “Really?”

Cesar’s smile turns into a grin. “Really. A lot to live up to, I know.” The dads share their first laugh.

Their sons, meanwhile, are still taking stock of each other. Eventually, Eric Munson points at the baseball in the other boy’s hand. “I play too.”

Eric Chavez pulls the ball back, tucking it into his glove jealously and scowling at this kid. “Not as good as me,” he says, and his dad, who’s got a dad’s sixth sense, calls over distractedly, “Be nice, Eric!”

Eric flushes ashamedly, kicks at the ground, but the other Eric is grinning again. “Hey, you’re Eric? I’m Eric!” jabbing a thumb at his own chest.

Eric Chavez looks up and this other kid is so excited, hopping around foot to foot. “Yeah?” little Chavvy asks, the corners of his mouth ticking with a smile.

“Yeah!” Munce replies, beaming. “We’re the same.”

And Eric Munson holds out his hand, says, “Lemme see, okay,” and Eric Chavez, figuring he can trust another kid named Eric, digs the baseball out of his glove, sets it down in Eric Munson’s palm, and Eric Munson flaps his hand, “Go real far, yeah, I’ll show you.”

Eric Munson’s grin is enough for Eric Chavez, and he turns his back, runs on a dead straight line halfway into the outfield, way farther than he bets this kid can throw, before spinning back around and holding up his glove to show ready.

Eric Munson curls his hand the right way around the ball, fingers across the stitches and his tongue poking his cheek out, and when he throws the ball, his arm whips past his ear, snapping wind, and the baseball fires into the clear blue air, whirring and the arched red stitches blurred. Eric Chavez backs up one step, two, his eyes tracking, and catches the throw, his favorite sound, that leather-leather smack.

Eric Chavez laughs in surprise, and he’s about to run back over, hollering, “hey you are good, really cool,” but their dads are shaking hands, in farewell this time, and Steve is walking over to his son, and then Eric Munson is waving across the distance and yelling something Eric Chavez can’t hear, and they’re walking away, towards the balloons nestled in the trees.

That’s how it starts.

*

(retaliation)

They get to be friends three years later.

Their Little League teams are playing each other, and the Erics are both pitching. They’re the best players on their respective teams, each coached by his father. It’s a sure excellent southern California day, April and the major league season is brand-new, every team’s got the same shot.

In the second inning, Eric Chavez wings a pitch that drills Eric Munson in the back, Munce twisting around and feeling the ball thump between his shoulder blades. He scowls at the little pitcher, Chavvy’s hat brim tugged down low over his eyes, a floppy tail of his shirt hanging out over his hip.

They know each other, growing up in the same neighborhood and haunting the same parks. They both kind of remember meeting a few years before, the whap of Munce’s throw into Chavvy’s glove, Chavvy handing Munce the baseball so carefully. But there are a bunch of kids on the block, roving gangs of four-foot delinquents trawling at dusk through the leafed residential streets. The two Erics have never really had much of an opportunity to run around together.

With the bruise darkening on his back, Munce faces Chavvy the next inning and without hesitation plunks him in the helmet. The hollow clocking sound of the ball hitting plastic, and Eric Chavez ducks but not too much, taking one for the team because you gotta get on base.

Eric Chavez shakes his head loosely, looks up to nod gravely at Eric Munson, Munce mirroring it back at him, both of them understanding that justice has been served.

Steve Munson, on the sideline, hollers at his son, “Eric!” He catches Cesar’s eyes on the other side of the diamond and gets a nod of approval from the other man.

Munce looks over, surprised, and his dad trots out, raising his hand to the sixteen year old volunteer umpire to call time, his face fixed authoritatively, you’re-in-big-trouble-mister. Eric Chavez is kicking the dirt around first base idly, pulling off his helmet to check for a dent.

His dad stands with his hands locked on his hips, slanting a stern look down at his son. “Did you hit him on purpose?”

Munce blinks, looks down at the ball snugged in his glove. He shrugs, not understanding. “Well . . . yeah.”

Steve’s expression hardens, and he closes his hand on the boy’s shoulder, propelling him towards first, determined to make an example. “Say you’re sorry.”

Munce freezes, tries to wriggle away. “What? No, dad, c’mon! He hit me, it’s retal-retalee . . . retaleration!” he protests, stumbling over his feet, flinging his glove through the air in consternation.

Steve shakes his head, tight-jawed. “We don’t play that way, Eric.”

The crowds of parents and sticky-faced toddler brothers and sisters are all watching, clucking their tongues and discussing this with civilized concern.

Eric Chavez, seeing them coming, double-takes, unsure what’s going on. His helmet is cradled in his hands, and he shifts his weight uncomfortably, ‘cause it looks like he might have somehow gotten himself into trouble without being aware of it.

The pair stops in front of him, and Steve gives Eric a little push on his shoulder. “Go on.”

Munce gives him a desperately pleading look, but it’s no good, his dad is set. Munce scowls, scuffs the ground with his foot and mutters, eyes down, “Sorry I hit you.”

Chavvy squints. “Why?” he asks in bewilderment.

Munce glowers at his father petulantly. “’Cause he made me,” he answers.

“Eric!”

But Chavvy’s shaking his head, confused. “I hit you first,” he points out, rolling his helmet from hand to hand. “You gotta protect.”

Munce nods emphatically, gesticulating wildly with his hands. “I know!” he exclaims, his eyes big and exaggerated. “Like Roger Clemens!”

Chavvy nods back, grinning. “Like Randy Jones.”

Munce busts out a grin of his own. “Like Mike Whitman,” now testing the other boy, getting more esoteric.

Chavvy rolls his eyes, using his helmet as a pointer, poking at Munce’s chest. “As if Mike Whitman’s got good enough control to hit anybody on purpose.”

Munson beams, shoots his dad an i-told-you-so look.

Steve just watches them, befuddled, then clears his throat. “Okay . . . uh, let’s just play, all right, boys?” He pats his son on the shoulder distractedly, and guides him back to the mound.

After the game, Munce goes over to where the other team is gathered in a loose circle, sucking on the skinny straws of CapriSuns, eating orange wedges and Kudos granola bars, and thomps Chavvy on the back.

Chavvy turns, an orange wedge filling his mouth, his smile the pebbled citrus-bright peel. His eyes gleam as he sees Munce, though, and Munce grins at him. “You wanna come over to my house sometime?” he asks, the sun going down at the edge of the park, seeping through all pink and softly gold.

Chavvy nods happily, spits out the orange peel. “Yeah! And also you can come to mine. I got a Nintendo,” he brags.

Munce’s eyes widen appealingly. “Oh, so cool.” His mom calls his name, and Munce waves at her before turning back. “’Kay, I’ll see you later, then.” He extends his hand and Chavvy slaps it cleanly, and then Munce runs towards his family’s car, Chavvy turning back to his teammates with his hair stuck to his forehead and brown dirt on his hands, beginning to feel the dragged tiredness sink into his shoulders and his back, worn out and too young to recognize that this is a perfect day.

And they become best friends.

*

(brothers of heart)

They grow up together and they grow up well.

They grow up with Chiquita banana stickers on their foreheads and gummi worms hanging out of their mouths. Living room floors and the front lawn, the park, the shore, the sidewalk, making up handshakes and secret languages, though by the time they’re ten, they don’t even really need to talk, they can tell everything with a look. They’re spies and they’re superheroes and they’re rock stars. They’re jumping on the bed and having cereal fights, Cheerios like little flying saucers in the air.

Eric Chavez’s older brother Chris, once Munce becomes a regular sight around their house, calls out “Eric!” one day and hears two answering yells. He comes in and squints at the two of them sitting among a mess of baseball cards on the living room floor, peering up at him with Kool-Aid smearing cherry-red around their mouths, and pronounces, “One of you is gonna need a nickname.”

The Erics grin at each other. Nicknames are cool; big leaguers have nicknames. They don’t so much mind calling each other by variations on their last names—big leaguers do that too—but nicknames would be even better.

They quiz through the possibilities. Munson’s middle name is Walter, that’s no good, he hates that name. Munce runs faster, he could be ‘Wheels’ or ‘Flash,’ but Chavvy nixes that because he’s sure that someday he’ll be faster than his friend, and it’s not like you can take back a nickname once it’s been bestowed. Chavvy can hit a baseball farther, but all the good slugger nicknames have been taken.

Eventually Chris, lying on the couch reading a Sports Illustrated with his legs hanging over the arm, absently following the discussion, lifts his head and says with big-brother-finality, “You can’t choose a nickname, dude, it has to just happen.”

So they stop trying, and they’re Munce and Chavvy again, except for sometimes when Chavvy is ‘Ricky,’ an old family name, but by the time they’re nine he forbids his best friend from calling him that, ‘cause it’s a little kid’s name. Munce forgets sometimes, but usually only when he’s got no other choice.

Their families get along, they have barbecues all throughout the summer and go to Disneyland together, Eric Munson, who is addicted to Space Mountain, stunned to learn that there’s another Disneyland on the other side of the country, even bigger, better, a Disneyworld that’s not surrounded by strip malls and highways like the one in Anaheim.

Eric Munson makes Chavvy swear that they’ll both do whatever and incessantly pester whomever it takes until they get to go to that dream in Orlando. Chavvy agrees willingly enough, because Munson is the brains of their operation, he always knows what to do.

Steve and Cesar become co-coaches of their sons’ Little League team the next year, remaining so until the boys are thirteen, and the two Erics proceed to terrorize the rest of the league. That first year, they go undefeated, take home matching trophies, except somehow they get mixed up in the car, so on the shelf above Munce’s bed is the trophy with Eric Chavez’s name on it, and on Chavvy’s dresser his trophy has got Eric Munson’s name. They’ve each thought a million times about switching back, but they always forget.

They learn to curse together, they learn to spit good together (it’s all in the teeth, surprisingly). They fire ballplayers’ names at each other, and respond with career batting average, ERA, wins-losses, who-played-second-for-Philly-in-1968 (Cookie Rojas, Eric, too easy). They know their game by heart; they know each other by heart.

They’re taught not to be arrogant, but around each other, they are, because what does it matter if they’re both gonna be cocky? They do crazy stuff on jungle gyms and see every part of their hometown whistling past on their bikes. They wrestle on the carpet in the Saturday-morning sunlight, and know each other’s weaknesses. Chavvy’s ticklish in his sides and Munson in the soles of his feet and the backs of his knees, and neither of them can stand to have his ears flicked.

Their families are both expressive, outgoing, affectionate. The boys are taught to laugh and to cry, to hug and smack exuberant kisses on cheeks and foreheads. They never have to doubt each other, because they hold nothing back.

They go to different elementary schools, and meet at the two-trunked elm tree in Poway Community Park at three-thirty every weekday, unless one of them gets held after for something, but that doesn’t happen too often, they’re good kids. They’re looking forward to being in the same middle school together, and for now they play baseball every afternoon, until it gets too dark to see the stitches and they’ve got to be home for dinner, most of the time showing up at the same house together, though they trade off which of their houses that’ll be.

They see the San Diego Padres play at Jack Murphy Stadium as much as possible, striking deals with their parents, rooms clean, trash taken out, dishwashing for a week, chores in exchange for bleacher seats. Chavvy’s favorite is Tony Gwynn, though Munce rags him for it being the obvious choice. Chavvy doesn’t care, ‘cause have you seen Gwynn’s swing? Thing a’ beauty. Munce likes this new kid Benito Santiago, and also Garry Templeton, because shortstops are the best.

Their rooms are plastered with posters and pennants, the grinning friar with the baseball bat, shrines of autographed baseballs, caught foul balls, and the genuine Graig Nettles Louisville Slugger that got flung into the crowd, both of them scampering down the section’s concrete stairs, skidding on their knees and digging under the seats to recover it. The bat belongs to both of them, and they have joint custody.

They’re both convinced, until they’re about eleven years old, that the last two words of the Star-Spangled Banner are “Play ball!” because they only ever hear it at ballgames, with their caps held over their hearts.

Four months after they were both hit by pitch and cemented their friendship, they’re at the beach, wandering far off from their families’ busy cluster of beach towels and coolers, and Munce picks up a jagged triangle of a seashell, turning it over and over, sand stuck to his tanned legs, thin raspy grains.

He takes Chavez’s hand in his and carefully slices open his new best friend’s palm, just a little cut and Chavvy grimaces through it wordlessly like an Indian. He gives the shell to Chavvy and Chavvy draws an identical shallow red line across the fortune on Munce’s hand. They press their palms together, and look at each other somberly.

“Major league baseball,” Chavvy promises, his voice solemn and prayerful.

Munce nods. “Major league baseball,” he echoes. Blood brothers are better than regular brothers—brothers of heart, brothers of soul. They have this vow to live up to now, but they’re good enough, they’ve always been good enough.

They wade into the ocean and wash the blood off their hands.

*

(sick day)

Eric isn’t at the park after school one day, so Chavvy rides his bike over to his friend’s house, baseball cap stuffed in his back jeans pocket and glove fit over a handlebar. They’re ten years old.

Nobody answers his knock, so he goes ‘round the back and climbs up on the windowsill to get the key hidden on top of the doorframe, a wedge of tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth, flicking his head to get the hair out of his eyes. He lets himself in and calls through the quiet house, “Eric?”

There’s a raspy noise from down the hall, and Eric toes off his sneakers, raining dried flakes of mud onto the rug, carefully lining his shoes up against the wall and thumping sock-footed to his friend’s room.

Eric Munson’s in bed, his brown hair dark and shiny, matted by fever-sweat. His face is flushed and his eyes glossy. He’s got his knees pulled up under the covers and a comic book spread out on his folded legs, the skinny white stem of a Tootsie Roll Pop sticking out and his mouth stained purple. He blinks at his friend as Chavvy stumbles in.

“Aw, Munny, you’re sick!” Chavvy complains, kicking his foot on the carpet.

Eric nods, coughs. He scrubs his forearm across his nose and reaches for the Kleenex on his bedside table. “My ma says it’s twen’y-four hour bug,” he tells his friend, his voice clogged.

Chavvy goes over to flop down on the bed, Eric’s feet twitching under the covers, poking his friend’s side. Chavvy rolls his head, absently rubbing his face against the blankets. Munce leans forward over his knees, peering down at the other boy with bleary eyes, sniffling, chewing the center of the Tootsie Roll Pop.

“So you can’t come play, huh,” Eric says morosely. The other Eric shakes his head, nestling his chin on his knees and yawning.

Eric Chavez sighs melodramatically, kicking his legs off the end of the bed, drumming his heels. He fingers Munce’s discarded comic book, thumbing through it. The waffled weave of the blanket marks out a light grid on his face. Munce, bored, pokes him repeatedly in the forehead to see Chavvy flinch out of the way.

Eventually, Chavvy tosses the comic away and scowls at his friend. “What’m I supposed to do if you’re gonna be sick?”

Eric grins, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly. “I didn’t have to go to school today either,” he boasts nasally.

That lights up Chavvy’s eyes, levering up on his elbows. “Hey!” he exclaims excitedly. “Get me sick! I got a test tomorrow that I’m gonna flunk for sure.”

Munce nods agreeably, seeing nothing at all wrong with that idea. “’Kay,” he replies, scooting over and pulling up the blankets. “Come in here, there’s more germs.”

Chavvy crawls up and settles in beside his friend. They draw the covers over their heads so the germs won’t escape and Munce’s skinny arm reaches out to dig under his bed, retrieving his red Spiderman flashlight. For awhile, it’s just muffled giggles and brief scuffling fights over possession of the light, looking from the outside like some many-limbed creature popping elbows and ducking heads.

Inside their blanket-cave, the cone of light bounces crazily, skewing across their faces. Chavvy tries to make shadow puppets with his hands, but he’s lousy at it, Munce booing him down. They talk for awhile, play the batting average game, but Munce is sick and his eyes are fuzzy, lids swollen and he keeps yawning until he falls asleep against Chavvy, nosing his shoulder and breathing wetly through his mouth.

Chavvy pats him abstractly on the head, Munce’s hair softened by sweat and lankly trailing through Chavvy’s fingers. He wraps his hand up in his friend’s thin T-shirt and tugs him closer, knocking their hips together, figuring he’s got a better chance of getting sick if Eric’s nudged up against him like that.

Chavvy practices whistling for awhile and messes around with the flashlight, tracing letters across the blanketed roof, Eric’s body beating heat and comfortable at his side.

Eventually he falls asleep himself, and that’s how Dora Munson finds them when she gets back from the grocery store, pulling back the covers expecting to find her dozing son and instead finding her son and his best friend with their arms flung at twined angles, their foreheads tucked together and both of them as sick as dogs.

*

(sometimes you brawl)

First time they get into a fistfight is when they’re twelve years old.

Eric Munson pedals over to his friend’s house one Saturday afternoon, and it’s quiet, no cars in the driveway, abandoned. They were supposed to go buy new batting gloves today, they’ve been saving their allowances for two months.

He wanders around the overgrown yard, confused, and hears Chavvy’s voice hailing him softly from the high branches of their climbing tree.

Munce goes over, peers up into the green. Chavvy, hidden in the leaves, swinging his leg, waves at him.

“What’re you doing up there?” Munce asks, his hands on the alligator-skin bark.

Chavvy shrugs and doesn’t answer, looking away.

Munce climbs up the ladder of branches, straddles the same thick limb Chavvy’s chosen, one leg dangling to either side. He tips his head to the side, studies his friend. Chavvy’s biting his lip, furrows across his brow.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Munce asks, picking bits of bark off and flicking them to fall to the ground.

Chavvy looks at him, anger and humiliation warring across his face. “Stupid Michael Jarrett,” he says, his voice wavering and on the edge of tears.

Michael Jarrett is two years older than them, the closest thing they’ve got to a real bully. Munson’s face hardens automatically, nudging his foot at Chavvy’s sneaker. “What’d he do?”

Chavvy sniffs, pulling his forearm across his nose, and shrugs ashamedly. “Pushed me down,” he admits. “Nothing, really. Called me some names.”

Munce taps his fingers on the branch. There are leaves brushing his forehead, his cheek. “That’s not so bad.”

Nodding disconsolately, Chavvy gnaws on his lip some more, then says, the words coming fast like a confession, “It was just that I couldn’t do nothing, you know? I couldn’t punch him, ‘cause . . . ‘cause I don’t know how to punch.” He flushes darkly, embarrassed, and looks down.

“My dad says punching is bad,” Munce tells him, trying to make him feel better.

“Yeah, but I should still know how to do it!” Chavvy answers, frustrated, his hands balled up into fists. “Sometimes . . . like, sometimes you brawl. We should know how.”

Munce thinks about that, nods in agreement. “’Kay. Let’s do it, then.”

Chavvy looks up at him, not understanding, but Munson’s already swinging down out of the tree, catching his hands and letting gravity carry him swiftly. Chavvy follows him down, and they stand in the ankle-deep grass, regarding each other.

Munce waves his hand invitingly. “Hit me,” he says to Chavez, and braces himself.

Chavvy lifts his eyebrows. “Really?”

Munson nods, this is a pretty good idea, this is something they need to know. “Yeah. And then I’ll hit you. And we’ll learn how.”

Chavvy raises his fists, but then drops them, feeling dumb. “But I don’t want to hit you. I want to hit Michael Jarrett.”

“Pretend I’m him,” Munce offers helpfully.

Chavvy snorts a laugh. “Get taller.”

Grinning, Munce rises on his tiptoes. Chavvy rolls his eyes, and Munce falls back on his heels, saying honestly, “Go ’head and hit me, Eric.”

Chavvy twists his mouth, still skeptical, but shrugs. He sets his feet, narrows his eyes in his best imitation of a mean glare, and lets fly a drifting loop of a roundhouse punch that smacks against Munson’s cheek, not that hard because Chavvy pulled it back at the last second.

“Ow!”

Chavvy’s eyes widen, hurrying to flutter his hands about Munson’s face, Munce’s eyes wrenched shut and his palm pressed to his stinging cheek. “That hurt, man!”

Chavvy steps back, points at him frantically. “You made me, Munce! You told me to do it!”

Munce straightens his shoulders, straightens up, shaking his head sharply to clear it. “My turn.”

Chavez swallows, suddenly nervous. “’Kay,” he says, and barely has time to set himself before Munce right-hooks him in the jaw, a shock of pain, but not as bad as Chavez feared. He cries out a little bit, but quickly realizes that he can deal with this, it’s nothing, and grins at his friend.

“Cool!” Chavvy exclaims, and punches Munson in the mouth.

The fight is fast and graceless, awkward coltish arms and legs flying, testing their fists on each other’s faces and ribs, blood in Chavez’s mouth, Munce’s left eye squeezed shut. They end up scrabbling on the grass, rolling around and growling, coated in dirt, grass stains on their elbows and chins, finally breaking apart and lying on their backs beside each other, panting.

Chavez tips his head to the side, catches Munson out of the corner of his eye. He smiles, spits out blood.

“Now we know how to fight,” Chavvy says happily.

Munce, rubbing his aching jaw, nods, blades of grass in his hair. “Yep,” he says, tired from the fake beating.

Chavvy squints at the sky, spearing his arm up. “That cloud looks kind of like a monkey,” he says, and Munce shifts closer to see where he’s pointing, feeling the adrenaline skim off and the bruises rise on his body.

*

(still life)

Eric Chavez’s living room floor, and the world coming to end outside.

They’re fourteen years old.

It’s a tropical storm wreaking up the coast, Mexican rains and pitchfork lightning and thunder like a sonic boom, ker-WHAP. The windows are barely holding up against it, rattling in their frames.

The Nintendo keeps breaking, they’ll stick a game cartridge in and the TV will flick to gray, bad-reception bars of white scrolling up.

“Blow on it,” Munce instructs, watching the thrash of the storm on the glass, the slender branches of the trees pulled as if by ropes, the leaves standing up like a shocked comic book character’s hair.

Chavez pulls the cartridge out and blows across the top of it, puffing out dust. Then he bends down and blows into the opening of the Nintendo too, pops the cartridge back in, and turns the machine on. The screen goes gray again, and he smacks the Nintendo, clattering the plastic and the old green circuits.

“Stupid thing. It’s busted.”

Munson isn’t really paying attention. He crawls over the window and gets up on his knees, hands on the sill, peering out and the wind, the destruction, one thin pane of glass away from him. There are silver shadows on his face, funhouse leaf-shapes on his arms.

“It’s getting pretty bad out there,” Munson says, a measure of big-storm excitement in his voice.

Chavvy joins him, leaning on his elbows, chin in his hands. The house is sealed up, but he can sense the humidity outside, the flap of the hurricane wind, the streetlights looking slightly canted, dominoes.

“Never seen it rain like this,” Chavez says.

Munson looks over at him. Chavez is wearing his old Mickey Mantle T-shirt, a row of moth-bit holes across his shoulder. His eyes are tracking and they look powder-gray from this angle, the guttering light from the rain.

“Dare you to go outside,” Munson says, nudging their elbows together.

Chavvy smiles a bit. “Darers go first,” he replies automatically.

“Chickens go second,” Munce fires back, and Chavez rolls his eyes, sits back on his heels.

A shard of lightning cracks, and Munson’s counting in his head, one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, and the thunderclap falls hugely, both of them jumping.

Munson grins and pulls off his shoes and socks. Chavez quickly follows suit, and they pad to the front hallway.

Chavez opens the door, and there’s a howl down on the street, a backlash of rain splattering on the stop sign at the corner, bending it at a shallow angle. “We’re gonna get soaked,” he comments.

Munson claps him on the shoulder, his palm warm on Chavez’s skin through the dime-sized holes. “Well, man, there’s a point when you’re as wet as you can get,” Munson says philosophically. “So you might as well just stop fighting it.”

Chavez grins, and shoves him out the door. Munce latches onto his friend’s arm, pulling him into the rain with him.

They stand in the yard, bare feet on the drenched grass, and Munson lifts his face to the sky. Looking up into the rain is like traveling through time, the sheer lines of the drops streaking down. He looks over and Chavez has got his head back with his eyes screwed shut, mouth open, his tongue out.

They’re saturated completely within seconds, boxers clinging to them under their pants, shirts painted on. Munson shakes his head and water flies out in rays. Chavez suddenly breaks, sprints across the yard and goes into a second-base slide, water-planing for twenty feet. Munce laughs and chases after him.

Messing around, the sky black and apocalyptic above them, and there’s mud on Eric Munson’s face, forest green blades of grass on his hands. The clouds shudder, spit out a white icepick of lightning, and a breath, two breaths later, the thunder slams again.

“It’s getting closer!” Eric Chavez yells over the clash. “It’s almost here!”

A cold tail of fear curls in Munson’s stomach, and he looks back at the house, glowing and safe. The sky’s going to fall on them, they’re going to drown with their eyes open.

Chavez tackles him when he’s distracted and afraid, sitting on his chest and smearing handfuls of wet grass on his face. Munson struggles, writhing around with his slippery arms and legs and no grip, and Eric Chavez is laughing, rain streaming out of his hair, around his eyes and mouth, dripping off his chin and lost in the rest of it. The ground’s soft and slick under Munson’s back, and there’s a broken-glass scream from somewhere nearby, the dense flat air and the ocean smell in the clouds.

“Eric, hey, man, hey,” Munson says senselessly, wanting to say something important if the world’s going to end here and now, with them rolled-out in the yard, bucketed by water and Munson fighting to get his eyes clear.

Chavvy grabs his wrists and presses them to the ground over Munson’s head, still grinning and playing around, and that’s when the lightning cracks and the thunder roars at the same instant, and they’re in the heart of the storm.

Chavez jerks his head up and to the side, freezes with the neon catching him out. It’s a perfect moment, Munson on the ground staring up at Eric Chavez’s face in profile, tilted up, all pale neck and black hair, a young-wolf burn of alertness in the angle of his jaw, the tension of his arms holding Munson down, on the edge of everything, rain skiing off the tip of his nose, his charred eyes motionlessly scanning across the sky as the worst of the storm rails down on them.

It’s a photograph, lightning flash, still life. And then Chavvy looks back down at him, just a rain-soaked boy again, his eyes big and his mouth rounded, and his lips say, ‘wow,’ but Eric Munson can’t hear it.

(end part one)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Second: Meantimes

(stay the same)

Things start to Get Weird when they’re fifteen years old.

Munson gets taller at a steadily rapid pace, reaching his full height a couple months before his sixteenth birthday, all arms and legs. Chavez’s growth spurt comes late, so his best friend’s got a half a foot on him for most of that summer. Munce takes advantage of it by constantly throwing his arm around Chavez’s neck and pinning Chavez’s head high against his chest, razzing and knuckling his hair until Chavvy kicks his legs out from under him and escapes.

Eric Chavez is having strange dreams. He dreams a lot about rain and a lot about baseball, same as he always has, but there’s started to be a point, every couple of nights, when his dreams will get abstract and heated.

It’s not much that does it. It’s the image of hands, shaded depressions between knuckles, the traced curves of fortune lines and the delicate webs of skin separating fingers. And the bumps of a spine outlined against a white T-shirt, small cups of ashy gray. And the long movement of forearm muscles and the sweep at the nape of a neck, an uneven fringe of hair rustling on a shirt collar. And a wife-beater pulled tight over a hard stomach. And an unspecific warmth near him, close enough to touch.

No faces and no names, only occasionally distinct enough for Eric’s unconscious mind to be aware that these pictures are almost unilaterally masculine, but he doesn’t really remember that when he wakes up, trembling and drenched in sweat and more often than not achingly hard.

It’s hot that summer, in the high nineties every day and not slacking off much once the sun goes down. They ride their bikes everywhere, racing each other down the shallow hills, and play basketball shirtless in the park where they first met each other, trash-talking and slapping hands on bare chests to spin off and break for the hoop. They sit on the curb in front of the 7-Eleven, wearing the scabs on their knees with war-wound pride, passing nuclear-green bottles of Gatorade back and forth, the wind drying the perspiration on their bodies. Neither of them has gotten a haircut since school ended, Chavvy’s growing faster and curling a bit at the ends, Munson’s just getting thicker and wilder, because it’s summer and they’ve got no reason to look clean-cut, not until September.

They still sleep in the same bed, when they’re over at Chavez’s house on the weekends, the fold-out couch in the living room, because that way they can stay up real late watching movies, falling asleep with the Indiana Jones theme stuck in their heads, and the night when they watched ‘Arachnophobia’ and then Eric’s two brothers snuck in while they were asleep and put a huge black rubber spider, eight legs bristling and shiny red glass eyes, on the mattress between their two pillows, the whole house awakened by Chavez’s crystal-shattering screeches at six in the morning.

The fold-out is pulled out of the red-and-orange plaid couch, and they know the spots where the springs jab through the thin padding, the weak place in the mattress forming a dip that Munson’s always rolling into during the night. They’re up till two or three in the morning, Friday, Saturday nights, talking low in the dark room, long after they’ve turned off the television and settled in, until finally they nod off. Chavez sleeps like a rock on his stomach, his face half-smothered in the pillow, and Munson is restless and tossing, flinging his arms around and kicking the sheets, mumbling in his sleep so regularly that it doesn’t even wake Chavvy up anymore.

In the morning, they stir slowly, whoever wakes first lying there impatiently for maybe five minutes, shifting minutely to hear the old springs squeak, before nudging the other awake. And they switch off on whose turn it is to get breakfast, one of them stumbling up and shaking off the covers, padding to the kitchen and pouring bowls of cereal, and they eat sitting cross-legged on the bed, knees knocking, watching cartoons with half-lidded eyes and figuring out what they’re gonna do that day.

None of this seems strange to them; it’s the way it’s always been.

When Munson’s sleeping over, Chavez doesn’t dream, or at least not that he remembers.

Things are Getting Weird, though. It’s subtle. You’d have to be one of the two of them to be able to even notice it, because it’s very unobtrusive. Just occasionally these pauses in the conversation that weren’t there before, this strange . . . awareness of each other.

Sometimes they’ll be hanging out, just like normal, watching television on the couch, and Chavez will pull a leg up, folding it under himself and Munson will suddenly be terribly cognizant of Chavez’s knee against his own leg, a circle of heat, almost wanting to shift away because it feels like it should be awkward, but it’s never been awkward before, so what the fuck.

Or when they’ll be in the bleachers at the Jack Murph and Chavez will find himself watching Munson’s mouth, his lips pursed around the straw of his Coke, and it’ll be like Chavez is transfixed, unable to look away, until the wooden crack of a base hit startles him out of it.

They get into dumb fights sometimes. They hold grudges for a week or two, sullenly, until they forget what they’re supposed to be mad about or a new video game comes out and they have to pool their resources to see if they can afford it.

Right after a fight happens, and one of them storms out pissed off and shouting obscenities over his shoulder, trying to get the last word, sometimes Chavez thinks about hitting Munson, for real this time, pushing him up against a wall. Chavez runs his tongue across his teeth and imagines how it’d feel when Munson hits him back.

But Munson’s gotten taller than Chavez. He doesn’t want to find out if Munson’s stronger too, or tougher, or anything like that. Still. Sometimes he thinks about that.

There’s a breathless hesitation between them, like they’re held on the edge of something, over a cliff or the highway overpass or the river where the rapids get bad. Something.

They ignore it, best they can, and go about their life. They’re fifteen years old and scowl whenever anyone calls them ‘boys.’

They’ve finished their cereal one Sunday morning, the empty bowls with shallow lakes of sugary milk pushed under the fold-out, arguing about the manager of the San Diego Padres and his recent decisions on pitching match-ups late in the game.

“Man, how can you say you want White in there against left-handed hitters?” Chavez asks exasperatedly, his hair ragging crazily, a sleep crease on his cheek. “It’s gotta be Rodriguez, I mean, obviously.”

Munce makes a scornful noise. “Not obviously. Rodriguez’s given up more dingers than anybody in the ‘pen. And White’s slider, dude, it’s so nasty to lefties, the way it tails in. ’specially with men on, he’s gonna strike out, like, half the guys he faces.”

Chavez jabs his elbow lightly into Munson’s side, needling him. “Yeah, but the second White puts anyone on himself, he totally folds.”

Munson pushes him back, both of them in their sweats and T-shirts, Munson wearing socks because he’s got a thing about his feet being cold at night. “You fold,” he retorts intelligently, the best argument to fall back on. “Like a lawn chair.”

Chavez makes a mock outraged sound, and loops a lazy right hook at his friend, spurring a tussled wrestling match across the bed, rolling over the sheets and crumpled pillows, the tired springs of the fold-out squealing, high-pitched.

Eventually, Munson fights his way on top, making the most of his longer reach and the heavy width of his chest. If Chavez hikes up his knee, if he throws an elbow or drives his head up into Munson’s face, he could get free, but this isn’t a real fight. This is just for fun. It’s sorta good to have the options, though.

Munson is holding him down by his shoulders, his knees pressed into Chavez’s sides, and god knows what Munson’s gonna do next, so Chavez gasps, “’Kay, truce, truce, fuckin’ truce.”

Munson hoots in victory and his body loses its tension, molding down onto Chavvy, taking a moment to get his wind back

Munson’s head is tucked into Chavez’s neck, his hair prickly on the underside of Chavvy’s jaw. Munce is still snickering and strange thoughts are wicking like a broken film strip across Chavez’s mind. He sees Munson spitting angrily on the sidewalk and kicking Chavez’s bike over because they’ve gotten into another stupid fight. He sees Munson the way he looked asleep just a little while ago, his mouth open and his forehead clear. He sees Munson, his silhouette punched out against the faded screen of the sky, Munson standing on the jumping-off rock at the beach, flexing and posing, grinning and calling out Chavvy’s name.

Chavvy shivers slightly, inhaling the specific scent of his best friend that he never realized he had memorized. Munce’s lips are moving against his throat, saying something, but there’s nothing but white noise in Chavez’s ears, huge rush of tidal static. Sweat breaks out in the small of Chavez’s back, the back of his neck, and his skin fevers quickly as he amazingly, mortifyingly, feels himself go suddenly hard.

And so does Munson.

Munson falls silent, stills, his breath falling curiously, and Chavvy is hotter than he’s ever been in his life, imagining sparks and bonfires. Munson is motionless for an epic spell of time, considering, and then he slowly draws his hand from Chavez’s side to Chavez’s stomach, flattening his palm, and Munce’s fingers are strong and warm.

Chavez panics, heaves up and throws Munson off. He rolls away and sits up, drawing his legs to his chest, his face bright red.

There’s a long moment when neither of them say anything, and all Chavez can hear is the whistling rasp of his own breath, feeling horrified and caught.

“Hey,” Munce says hesitantly, his hand fluttering over Chavez’s curved back like a crippled bird. “Hey, it happens, Chavvy, don’t freak out, okay.”

Chavez shakes his head tightly, not turning around to face him. So fucking stupid, so sick, how could that happen? “Shut the fuck up, Munson,” he snaps, his voice wavering. “And . . . and get out.”

There’s no answer, and Chavez presses his forehead to his knees, wanting to punch him, no doubt now, wanting to pop his knuckles and feel Munson’s skin break on his fist. Chavez half-screams, “Get the fuck out of here!”

And Munson goes, still in his sleep clothes, forgetting his shoes and running away in his socks, which turns out to be a good thing, because he shuffles back a couple hours later, red-faced with downcast eyes, round holes in the fabric over his heels, the soles of his feet filthy, and by then Chavez has calmed down enough to let him back in, let him stay to play Nintendo and not talk for about two hours until it’s far enough behind them that they can start laughing and insulting each other again, and he doesn’t even have to tell Munson not to say a fucking thing, ‘cause Munce doesn’t even try to.

*

(chance)

Eric Munson’s asleep. It’s a school night, and it’s also two in the morning, so being asleep makes sense.

They’re sixteen years old.

He’s dreaming, in frantic vivid colors, with the sound shattered and in fragments. He’s dreaming about surfing, the muscles in his arms twitching unconsciously as he strokes through the shrink-wrapped waves, salt water in his mouth and drying in his hair. The seagulls are dive-bombing him, going for his eyes. Their beaks open and they screech at him, terrible closed-throat sound of metal squealing on metal.

He snaps awake.

He lays there for a moment tense and confused, and then the rusty squeal happens again, and he rolls over on his back, sees Chavez’s face in the window, pale and ghostly. Chavez is popping the screen out with the screwdriver they keep under the bush for that purpose, pushing the window farther open and flattening his hands on the sill, moving like a gymnast as he hikes himself up and into the room, landing cat-soft.

Munson rubs his eyes with his fists, yawning into the crook of his elbow. Chavez comes to sit on the edge of the bed, pushes at Munson’s shoulder with his hand.

“Hey Munce,” he says low, grinning nervously and starting to joggle his leg spastically, his knee dancing.

“Hey man,” Munson replies, his voice blurred, everything fuzzy at the edges.

Chavvy is jittery, darting his eyes around. He punches Munson a few times on his bare shoulder, before Munce makes an irritated noise and bats his hand away.

“What’re you doing here?” Munson asks, curious not angry, and still dragged deep by the ocean from his dream.

Chavez’s manic smile falters a bit, then resurfaces brighter and stranger than ever. His eyes are wide and terribly dry, like he’s panicked. “I . . . I think I went all the way with Laurie tonight.”

Munson blinks, his world going slow for a moment. Chavez has been semi-dating Laurie for the better part of a month. She’s got light blonde hair and thin watery green eyes, is on the swimming team and loves Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kurt Vonnegut. When Chavez tells her about how he and Munson are gonna play in the big leagues someday, she nods and looks away, and Munce knows she doesn’t believe it.

Munson doesn’t like Laurie, and he’s never bothered to hide that fact from his best friend. As Chavez himself is fond of claiming brashly, “Bros before hos, dude.” Chavez doesn’t seem to care, doesn’t put the three of them in the same room very often.

Munson pushes up on an elbow. “You think?”

Chavez brays out a wild little laugh, sounding a bit hysterical. He rubs his palms fast up and down his jeans. “I did. I did go all the way with her.”

Munce knows what’s expected of him, the congratulations and the tell-me-everything details, but he’s tired. And now his stomach hurts a little bit, a sick throb like when he’s run past his breath, heaving in air.

He nods, watching the shadows move over Chavez’s shoulders, looking for evidence of it, just had sex for the first time, it’s got to show up somewhere. But Chavvy looks the same as ever, spiky-haired and his cheekbones in high relief, his eyes bird-dark.

“Cool. Good for you.” Munson lies back down, searching the cracks in the ceiling.

This weird space between them, held on by the skin of their teeth, the broken parts, waiting for something.

Chavez peers down at him, his gaze still tense, skittering over Munson’s face, the smooth plane of his friend’s chest visible above the thin sheet. Then Chavez’s mouth goes tight, flashes of white in his eyes. “And?” he says shortly.

Munson narrows his eyes. “The fuck do you want me to say?”

Chavez’s lip curls up meanly. “Some best friend you are,” he spits out.

Kind of wanting to hit him, Munce balls up his hands into fists under the sheet. “Your best friend is fucking tired, Eric,” he answers. “It’s two o’clock in the goddamn morning. Us virgins need our sleep.” He sneers it, feeling cruel, cut loose, and rolls over onto his side, facing the wall. “So get fucking lost, how ‘bout?”

The sheet draws across his shoulder, running a clean slant across his back. There’s a long long time that’s soundless and awful. There should be a chance, there should be something.

Munson hears Chavez catch his breath and Munson holds himself perfectly still, his heartbeat stuttering in his chest. He feels Chavez shift on the bed, feels the warmth of Chavez’s hand hovering a millimeter above his body for a moment, and Munson exhales shakily as Chavez’s hand alights on the bare skin of his back, his fingertips patterned into the notches of Munson’s spine.

If he rolls over, Chavez’s hand will be on his chest. If he rolls over, he’ll see Chavez’s jet-black eyes and one of them will have to explain this.

“Munce . . .” Chavvy whispers hoarsely, hissing, and Munson squeezes his eyes shut, feeling nothing but Chavez’s hand resting so soft on his back.

Munson sees everything, their lives one instead of two.

“Don’t,” Munson hears himself saying, something small breaking in his throat.

Chavez’s hand jerks away, snatched quick like a gasp, one of his nails scoring a shallow white line on Munson’s skin. Chavez is up off the bed and Munson watches his shadow moving fluidly on the wall, sweet and fast and out the window in one clean motion, and Munson listens to the sound of his best friend sprinting across the lawn, listens to the struggle of his own heart, and if he’s cold now, it’s only because the window is still open.

*

(no fall baseball)

Chavez goes crazy in November. He’s still sixteen, at least for another month, and Munson is already seventeen, that brief time of every year when Munce can lord the hardly-even-counts difference in their ages over him.

Everything, just everything goes wrong at the same time, one long heart-wrenching nightmare of a week.

Junior year is harder than it should be. Harder than school’s ever been before. He’s got nothing like an attention span and gets held after school three days in a row because he keeps falling asleep in Western Civ and trig.

Everyone’s talking about college, taking the SATs, going on trips to the East Coast, up and down the coast to all the UCs, and Eric Chavez isn’t thinking about it. Because he’s going to be drafted, he’s going to be a big leaguer, but it’s November and it’s difficult to remember that. Everybody’s making plans and drawing their lives out on white paper, and he’s still playing a kid’s game and imagining that this could count as being grown up.

His car, his beloved yellow Volvo four-door, is on its last legs, swiftly approaching the point where the cost of repair will be more than the value of the car itself. The car’s older than he is, but that doesn’t make it easier, every morning wilder and wilder with frustration, cursing the coughing engine and slamming his hand on the wheel.

His parents are fighting, fighting bad, for the first time that he can remember, and family dinners are silent, wicked with tension. Eric doesn’t know the source of the problem between his good-natured father and his kind wise mother, but it’s sent shockwaves through the house, made them all anxious and scared.

He asks his dad, one evening with the football game going on in the background, what’s so wrong, but Cesar won’t look at him, feigns perfect ignorance as he tells his son, “Nothing’s wrong, shortstuff, me and your mom are fine.” But Eric hears their bedroom door snick closed and then the voices rising through the walls, lying in bed listening to it and staring at the ceiling, and he hears his father stalking down the hallway a few bad hours later, sees the blanket and mashed pillow on the living room couch in the morning. Eric Chavez knows at least as many kids with divorced parents as otherwise, and his chest is tight all the time.

He looks at the pinched faces of his brothers and sister and feels this immense inchoate love in his throat, wants to take them away and take that fear from their eyes, protect them because he’s supposed to be the strong one, and there’s nothing he can do.

Laurie, his first real girlfriend, breaks up with him with a quiet kind of cruelty he would not have thought her capable of, shredding him, because he’s not good enough and he should have known that, he should have seen this coming. She never even looks at him anymore, laughing with her friends on the quad and throwing her hair back, and he wasn’t in love with her or anything like that, but he might have been, if she’d have only given him the chance.

He’s angry with Eric Munson almost all the time, and never for any good reason. Chavez doesn’t know what’s going on with him, but he knows it’s not right, the way he watches Munson and wants to pin him against something, the way he doesn’t sleep at night and stares at Munson’s hands on the steering wheel with sick fascination. He knows it’s not right.

Mainly, though, more than anything else, Major League Baseball had gone on strike that August, and completely demolished his heart. He and Munson had steadfastly turned a blind eye that summer, as the labor talks disintegrated and the strike loomed nearer and nearer. Never happen, they said, reassuring themselves, taking their certainty from each other’s eyes. No way. It’ll get worked out, it’ll be fine. It was beyond comprehension.

There’d been no World Series and neither Eric has recovered, but Eric Chavez took it especially hard. There’s this gaping empty spot in his mind, an interruption of a hundred years of steady figures and statistics. The San Diego Padres were twenty-three games under .500 when the games stopped, but who knows, who knows.

No fall baseball and no solid ground for Chavvy to stand on. He’s never had to get through a winter without spring waiting for him, and he’s not sure if he’s got it in him.

It’s all this and then it’s also all this trivial shit, nothing going his way.

The rare late-autumn rains are sneaking through southern California and Chavez hates the rain, can’t stand it. He wants it to be warm, wants it to be clear and good weather for surfing, knowing he’s spoiled by the year-round perfection of the sky but not caring. He wants his goddamn summer back.

He loses stuff that’s very important to him, old newspaper clippings tucked behind the money in his wallet, the Marvin the Martian keychain that his grandpa gave him for his ninth birthday, his lucky watch with the red band and the silver face, he fucking loves that watch. He doesn’t know how it happens, he turns his back and stuff disappears. He looks everywhere, under car seats and in the crack between the couch and the wall, but never finds any of it.

He’s running late, all the time, on edge and he can’t get his life together, he can’t make anything hold still long enough to get a good grip.

He wakes up each day feeling worn to the bone, exhausted, a wretched stun of insomnia breaking up his nights, restless sleep and bad dreams. He’s getting skinnier, no appetite, and sometimes his hands shake so hard it spurs into his body and he feels like he’s coming to pieces.

Munce is careful around him, keeping his voice gentle and inoffensive, trying to cheer Chavez up with mild jokes and silly faces from the shotgun seat, but not enough to piss Chavvy off, temper running short and hot. He lets Chavez be mad at him when Chavez wants to be, lets Chavez shove him away and steal the gum out of his backpack and never says anything, because there’s more going wrong than just the wrong between them.

Munson knows that this string of bad luck, this long awful day, will fade away eventually, maybe when the rain blows off, maybe when they camp out in the desert for New Year’s, maybe when the baseball team starts practicing again. All a friend can do is wait it out, make sure he knows where to stand to break Chavez’s fall.

And then Jesse DiMartino, a sweet shy boy in their class who everybody likes, who went to the same summer daycamp as Chavez when they were kids, always giving Chavez two of the four Oreos in his lunch, unheard of seven year old generosity, Jesse DiMartino dies in a horrific car wreck on a Thursday night, and that’s pretty much all Chavvy can take.

The announcement comes over the P.A. as they’re playing desktop football in homeroom, their teacher slouched down in his chair with his eyes closed, almost snoring. Munce is ahead five field goals to none and they’re not talking, Chavez’s mouth taut and ready to bite his head off if he gloats even a little bit.

The grave voice that breaks the hushed rumble of conversation is rustling with static, and it’s not fair and it’s a thing that’ll break your heart, and there’s a collective inhalation, and Munson can’t do anything but watch as his friend collapses.

It’s Chavez’s eyes first, this slow crumble, shock and anger and despair, and then his face, his tense mouth falling slack, his eyebrows bending down and the muscle in his jaw going weak. And Munson watches as it sinks down, dropping Chavez’s shoulders into defeated slumps, rolling inward, caving around his chest. Chavez’s hands on the desktop go limp, and his whole body sags forward, his eyes flickering closed.

“Ricky?” Munson whispers, reaching out but not touching him. He hasn’t called Chavez that in probably four years, and didn’t expect to say it now, but there it is, hanging in the air between them.

Chavez’s lips press together, forming a hair-thin line, and his eyes open, Munson shifting back in surprise, because Chavez’s eyes are blazing.

“Jesse? Did . . . did he just say that Jesse . . . he’s . . .” Chavvy trails off. A girl in the corner of the room is crying quietly, everyone else sitting back, stunned and drained.

“I’m sorry, man,” Munce says stupidly, can’t think of anything else. Chavez stares at him, but Munson doesn’t think he’s seeing anything.

Suddenly Chavez bolts up, his chair screeching back on the tile floor, the whole room starting, snapping their heads around, big round eyes staring, some glimmering, some glassy with unexpected grief. Chavez half-runs out of the room, slamming into an empty desk near the door and crashing it onto its side. When he hits the hallway, he starts to sprint, the slap of his footfalls echoing.

Munson’s up without even thinking, almost out the door before he remembers himself and wrenches back around, catching his teacher’s shell-shocked eyes and gesturing foolishly out the door, inarticulate and stammering, “I gotta . . . he’s, he can’t . . . I’m sorry, but I have to-”

His teacher holds up a hand, sorrow making him look very old, cutting him off. “Go.”

Before he does, Munce rights the fallen desk, and notices that his hands are shaking.

He dashes down the hall, bursts out the double doors into the gray morning. The school-day world, as always, is eerily still and silent, and he looks around frantically, catching a glimpse of Chavez’s favorite red jacket, winking into the trees that border the western side of campus.

Munson takes off after him, finding his right stride quickly, this he knows how to do, this he’s good at. His legs like pistons and his breath coming short and rapid, Munce dashes across the grass and pounds over the asphalt, his eyes fixed on the postage stamp of red wrecking through the woods.

“Chavvy!” he yells wildly, but his friend doesn’t even pause, so Munson finds an extra pennant-race rush of speed, leaping over a fallen tree trunk split open by a charred lightning-struck gash.

Munson chases him down. Munson’s still faster.

He crashes into Chavez’s back, arms flinging around Chavez’s chest, and comes to a skidding halt, nearly going headlong onto the ground. Chavez strains against his hold, his chest rising and falling too fast, trying to break free, and Chavez is weeping, crying so hard.

“Let me go!” Chavez screams, almost pulling free before Munson fists his hands in his shirt and hauls him back into a fierce embrace. Munson’s panting, gasping for air, and he shakes his head roughly, his neck popping.

Chavez whirls to face him, his shirt ripping in Munson’s grip, and batters Munson’s chest with his fists, the blows landing like rain, insensate. “Let go of me, you motherfucker!”

Munce keeps shaking his head, crying himself now. He’s so scared, he’s never seen his friend like this. “No, no,” he manages, his breath hot in his lungs, searing. He holds Chavvy as tight as he can, saying into Chavez’s shoulder, “Please don’t run away anymore, please stay here.”

Chavez breaks, falls to his knees, dragging Munson down with him. Chavez’s arms come around Munson, still crying like he can wash himself clean this way, scalding wetness on Munson’s neck and the collar of his shirt.

Munson’s out of his mind, running frantic hands up and down Chavez’s back and through his hair, trying to calm him down, feeling futile and whispering into his ear, “No, hey, it’s okay, look, I got you, it’s okay, please, man, breathe, all right, okay, just breathe.”

Munson needs to fix this, because everything’s gone wrong for Chavez and it’s Munson’s job to make it right again. Their chests, flush together, rise and fall in rhythm, and they’re both trembling so bad.

Munson burrows his face against Chavez’s neck, murmuring “shh, shh,” the sound of it like the wind stripping through the trees, and, because he can’t think of anything else to do, he presses his lips to the pulse in Chavez’s throat, then the soft flesh on the underside of his jaw, then his cheek, still boy-smooth, and Chavvy is falling apart in his arms, hyperventilating, so Munson covers Chavez’s mouth with his own and thinks disjointedly, ‘breathe for him.’

Chavez gasps against his lips, jerks away, but a microsecond later, he’s back, kissing Munson with everything in him, wrapping his arms even tighter and locking their bodies together.

Munson kisses him back, blind or insane or something along those lines, not quite registering you’re kissing your best friend, not registering you’re kissing your best friend with tongue, and not registering this is the best thing you’ve ever felt.

He tastes tears on his tongue, not sure whose they are. He tastes orange juice and maple syrup, and feels Chavez’s hands slide up under his T-shirt, Chavez’s palms skating across the skin of his back and Munson moans into his best friend’s mouth.

He pushes Chavez’s red jacket off his shoulders, and sweeps his hands through Chavez’s hair, positioning his head at a good angle, sinking against him and Chavez is sucking on his tongue. Munson’s mind is spinning, astonished, the surface of his skin tingling and alight. Munson can’t help it, can’t stand it, and his hips thrust forward, their belt buckles clinking, a groan vibrating between them, and that’s across some line because they suddenly break apart.

His equilibrium shot, Munce sways drunkenly, then falls, his back thumping onto the soft ground and Chavez slumping forward, face against Munson’s chest, snuffling and still crying a little bit and trying to find his wind again.

Munson heaves in great ragged blasts of air and stares in wonderment up into the trees, the gray sky in shards and glittering silver stars fuzzing his vision. Chavez is very warm on top of him, their legs tangled together.

“Chavvy,” he says without realizing he’s speaking aloud. “Chavvy, Jesus.”

Chavez wipes his face dry on Munson’s shirt, leans up to kiss him again, savagely, life-or-death, and there are tears in Munson’s eyes again, terrified because he knows he can save Chavez, but he’s not sure if he can save them both.

“Munce, no, don’t worry,” Chavez mumbles, licking his neck and nosing against his ear. “It was gonna happen anyway, I’ve been waiting, so don’t worry, don’t worry.”

Munson hugs him tightly, more strength in his arms than ever before, his face in Chavez’s hair and Chavez’s hand rubbing slow figure-eights on his stomach, and Munson watches the weak sunlight filter through the clouds and if they go crazy, at least they’ll go together.

*

(the light under his eyes)

So it becomes this thing. This weird side-note to their life, something forgotten and remembered at inconvenient moments, like a twenty dollar bill in the back pocket of a pair of jeans that hardly ever get worn. An indrawn breath in the backs of their minds. They’ll go about all the normal stuff, school, baseball in the park, the beach, family dinners, but then these strange . . . interludes. Hallucinations.

And Munson will find himself in Chavvy’s dying car, pulled halfway across the seat with the gearshift jabbing painfully into his leg, his hand wrenched in Chavez’s shirt, and Chavez’s mouth streaking slow and wet across his neck.

Or he’ll be pressed against the wall in the stall of a school bathroom, and Chavez’s leg hiked up so that his knee is propped on the wall and tucked against Munson’s hip, bodies tight together, Chavez’s hand on his face and Chavez’s tongue in his mouth.

Moments out of time. Dreamlike, yeah, surreal.

And it’s always there, this constant thought, a buzzing fearful drone that rises to near hysteria when Chavez steps close to Munson or tips his head to the side and runs the tip of his tongue across his lips thoughtlessly, Munson frantic with it: is he gonna kiss me again? Not even trusting himself, the second question: am I gonna kiss him again?

Color to his day.

They don’t talk about it, not since the morning after Jesse DiMartino died, and they didn’t really talk about it then. Everything’s the same, except all this disastrous stuff Munson knows about his best friend now, stuff he never expected to know, never thought he wanted to know.

They just make out, nothing more than that, kid stuff, because eventually Munce will get embarrassed and push Chavvy away, blushing violently and trying to play it off like wrestling, sneak attacks, a bad joke. Or Chavez will pull back suddenly, his face red for a totally different reason, and immediately make some space between the two of them, his eyes resolutely focused forward and his knees pressed together, hands twisted, breathing with deep intent for a couple of minutes before he meets Munson’s gaze again.

It’s too hot, you know, it’s too much.

Then one night, three in the morning rolls around and they’re watching old Cheers reruns on Channel Two, and Chavez’s hand is all at once on Munson’s leg, palming his kneecap. Munce goes tense, his own hand contracting in the couch cushion, and Chavez’s hand slides up, a soft shifting cloth sound. Munson turns his head and Chavvy is there to catch Munce’s mouth with his own, and it’s happening again.

Soon enough, Munson is half-reclined on the couch, paranoid and listening for the creak of the floorboards upstairs warning that someone’s coming down, and Munson is dumb with confusion and not even token-resisting, because it still feels so fucking good. He likes the strength in Chavvy’s back under his hands, the hardness of his arms, the shuddery little pushes against Munson’s body and the swiftly-familiar heat of his best friend.

Munson can’t figure it out, but he fucking loves Eric’s body, maybe because he loves everything about him, but this never even occurred to him, honestly, never did.

And Chavez’s hand is gripped warmly on his thigh, and Munson bites Chavez’s lip, feels Chavez groan and feels Chavez’s hand move all the way up.

Munson inhales sharply, stealing the air out of Chavez’s lungs, because they’ve never done that before, gone that far, not that serious, just messing around. And Munson is going to push him away in a second, regain his sanity and then inform Chavvy firmly that that’s not cool, that’s more than Munson wants, but Chavvy’s hand, curious and finding its way by instinct, wraps carefully around him through the material of his sweatpants and starts to move, slow. So slow.

That changes things.

After, Munson’s panting and already half-asleep, because it’s been awhile since that’s happened with a second person involved, and Chavez kisses him softly on the mouth, leaves him on the couch alone, pads up to his bedroom, not extending the fold-out, not coming down for breakfast in the morning. Munce wakes up disoriented in Chavez’s living room but with Chavez not there, and bikes home through the December sunrise with his socks in his pockets and untied shoelaces, sick with shame.

He takes a shower and gets dressed, and borrows his dad’s pick-up, driving around aimlessly all day long, breaking the law at every available opportunity and trying to think his way out of this.

He comes to a decision out by the old mission, or thinks he does, anyway. It’s an issue of being tough, he tells himself. It’s not being a punk. He watches the sun begin its fall into the ocean, as slow as ice melting, and thinks that they talk about everything, they’ve always talked about everything

Munson drives back to Rancho Penasquitos, parks in front of Chavez’s house and hollers a greeting to Cesar as he comes in through the back, Eric’s father hailing back. Munce thumps up the stairs and bangs through Chavez’s bedroom door, asking without pausing because that’s the only way he’s going to get it out:

“Are you gay?”

Chavvy, sitting at his desk with a messy carpet of papers spread out before him (midterms are coming, Munson realizes, Munce hasn’t even being paying attention), snaps his head up, startled. Then his face sets itself and he says, menacingly low, “You wanna close the motherfucking door, Munson?”

Munce flushes, grins apologetically and pulls the door shut. “Sorry. But, are you?”

Chavez throws down his pen and leans back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. He scowls, his eyes dark and hard. “No. Are you?”

Munson shakes his head emphatically. “No.”

They stare each other down for a moment, then Munson sighs, the side of his mouth crooking up. “All right, at least one of us is definitely lying. And I think it’s you.”

Chavvy snorts. “‘Cause you’re so fucking reluctant all the time.”

Munce’s eyes widen, his mouth already open, because he is reluctant, he doesn’t know what the fuck is going on, he’s so messed up, but then he remembers that Chavvy doesn’t know any of that, because Munson has never said a word about it. He’s just thought about it so much that it feels as if he has.

Munson goes over to sit on the bed, Chavez spinning his chair to keep facing him. Munce pulls his hands through his hair and stares down at his feet as he says, “Just seems like . . . like you’re not . . . surprised by this. Like it’s not weird for you.”

He waves his hand vaguely between the two of them to indicate ‘this,’ this latest bizarre twist to their friendship.

He sneaks a look and Chavez’s eyebrows are raised, his expression carefully blank. “This is weird for you?”

Munson starts to nod, then stops, turns it into a shrug. That’s not what they’re talking about right now; it’s important to stay on topic.

Chavez exhales noisily, scratching at the wood of his desk with his thumbnail. He glowers down at his hand like he’s angry with it, and says haltingly, “I . . . I’m not gay. You know I like girls. I just . . . sometimes, I . . . like guys too. Occasionally. Not that often. Maybe, like, ten percent of the time.” He pauses, clears his throat as if to say more, but then shuts his mouth, his ears dull red with embarrassment.

“So, it’s not just me,” Munson says, mostly to himself, but Chavvy catches it and slants him a caustic grin.

“Sorry to kill your ego, man.” Chavvy chews on his lower lip for a moment, hesitant. “What about you?”

Munce keeps his eyes studiously away, moving his shoulders uncomfortably. “I . . . don’t really know.”

It’s true, because Munson, really, Munson doesn’t have the first fucking clue what’s going on in his head these days. It’s not just that he’s never wanted another guy before, it’s that sometimes he doesn’t even want Chavvy, when it gets too strange and too hot, when he wishes they were just best friends again and had never started fucking everything up.

But now also there are days when all Munson cares about are the forgotten sleepwalking make-out sessions with Chavez, times when all he can see are the lean choreographic bodies of the teenaged skateboarders down by the pier, the wide shoulders of the college boys who surf at the same beach he does, the scruffy unfinished grins of his teammates at Mt. Carmel, now that he knows what it’s like to kiss another guy, knows how it’s different but the same, sometimes it’s all Munson can think about. Like homosexuality is contagious, like when Chavez decided to be gay, Munce had no choice but to go along with him.

Chavvy starts to say something, stops, then starts again, eyes trained on the carpet. “Well, do you . . . wanna stop?” His voice picks up, gets professional and efficient, but he’s still not looking up. “Because I think I probably could. Stop. If you wanted. It wouldn’t be such a big deal.”

And Munce hears himself saying without even thinking, “No,” doesn’t realize it’s true until it’s out of his mouth, and Chavez is looking at him in mild shock. But it is true, he doesn’t want to stop. He doesn’t want to lose this, not this soon, it’s only been a month, he hasn’t gotten enough of his best friend yet.

He continues quietly, “I don’t want to stop. I . . . like it. It’s weird, ‘cause it’s you. But . . . you’ve always been weird.”

Chavez lifts his head then, grins at him, and something small and important gives way in Munson’s chest.

“So . . . we’re still good?” Chavez asks, some of the room’s withheld tension draining off.

Munce nods. “Still good.”

Chavvy cocks an eyebrow. “You’re not gonna freak out like you did this morning?”

Munson narrows his eyes. “How would you know? You weren’t even there this morning.”

Chavez laughs. “Yeah, but you freaked out, didn’t you? Don’t play like you didn’t, dude.”

Munson shrugs noncommittally, looking away in innocence, mainly just to hear Chavez laugh again. He brings his eyes back to see Chavez rubbing a hand across his mouth, considering, inspecting him closely.

“You’re not gonna freak out again?” Chavez repeats, something under his words.

Eyeing him suspiciously, Munson answers cautiously, his tone dropping a notch or two, “Depends on what happens.”

And Chavez, sitting nonchalantly with his legs sprawling open, pierces Munce with a steady black gaze, asks, “What if I suck your dick?”

Munson, all of a sudden, can’t breathe to save his life. He stares at his friend, can’t believe Eric really just said that, that that really just happened. Munce tries to swallow, but his throat’s closed off, his mouth dry. He makes an unintelligible growling sound that was supposed to be actual words and ended up all consonants, choked out.

Munce forces a swallow down, tries again, unable to summon his voice to be more than a rasp, “Um . . . ah, yeah. You . . . you could try that. Sure.”

Eric grins again, way too good-looking for anybody’s good, and a predatory glint to his smile. He stands, his chair rolling back and bumping the desk, and locks the door, hesitates before hitting the light switch, the room crashing into darkness.

Now they can’t see each other clearly, barely at all, but Munce watches Chavvy’s undefined form coming to him, sees the young-bright spark of his best friend’s eyes, and Chavez gets down on his knees before him.

“Jesus,” Munson manages, his eyes gaping, disbelieving. He wonders if Chavez is going to want the same from him. He wonders if he’ll be able to. But he doesn’t have to worry about that yet, not for another couple of minutes at least. He lifts a hand, so nervous he’s shaking, and touches his fingertips to Chavez’s temple before pulling back quickly like he’s been burned.

Chavez puts his hands on Munson’s knees, tapping contemplatively on the curved ridge of bone, and Munson’s eyes are adjusting, picking out the angle of Chavez’s jaw and the hook of his ear. There’s a horizontal stripe of light from under the bedroom door, reflected in the mirror over the dresser and thrown back onto Chavez’s face, just under his eyes. Munson leans down and kisses him fiercely, holding Chavez’s head in his hands.

Chavez lets Munson do what he wants, his hands already on Munson’s belt, fingers worming in between leather and skin. Munce is dizzy when he breaks away, and Chavez is pulling open his belt, whispering, “Don’t freak out, Munce, it’s gonna be good.”

Chavez flattens a hand to Munson’s chest and pushes him to lie flat, and Chavez moves forward on his knees, breathing fast and shallow, licking his lips. Munson rests his forearm across his eyes and wonders for a moment if they’ve figured this out yet.

*

(broken)

They go camping out in the desert for New Year’s a couple weeks later (the eighth consecutive year, their favorite tradition, though everyone thinks they’re crazy, it’s fucking freezing in the desert this time of year), and fall asleep sticky with bruised mouths in the same sleeping bag.

Then Munson, still the most restless sleeper on the face of the planet and awkwardly constrained by the tight confines, jacks his elbow into Chavez’s face unconsciously and breaks his nose.

Munce drives them out of the desert to the hospital, not doing a very good job holding back his laughter, because Chavez has got his head tilted back and a T-shirt-swaddled icepack on the bridge of his nose, swearing at him extravagantly in a hilariously high-pitched nasal whine.

Chavez gets his revenge, though, because the shirt he used to stop the blood flow is one of Munson’s best.

Before his nose gets broken, though, before his eyes are ringed like a raccoon’s with matching shiners, before he wishes pestilence and plague down on Eric Munson on the way to the hospital, Eric Chavez remembers lying in the sleeping bag, gauzily drunk and staring up at their little tent’s zippered moon roof. Munce is wound close to him, arm across Chavez’s stomach, face pressed to Chavez’s shoulder, almost snoring, humid exhalations. Munson keeps shifting, trying to kick his legs, trying to squirm closer, then farther away, making little discontented noises about his restricted range of motion.

Chavez is staring up at the patch of oily sky, thinking about this three-hours-old year, thinking about how unpredictable his life has become.

Munson stirs, jerks, and pushes his face harder against Chavvy’s shoulder, mumbling, “’ric?”

Chavez smiles, angling a look down at his friend. Munson’s eyes are closed, a hair-thin line across his forehead. “Yeah babe,” he whispers, and Munson sighs.

“Eric,” Munce says again, just making sure, and then falls all the way back asleep.

Eric Chavez is in the middle of nowhere, his life uncertain and complicated as only a seventeen year old boy’s can be, but he’s okay, for now, he’s got all he could have wished for himself.

They get along better now. Chavez isn’t thinking about hitting Munson so much anymore. They’ve come up with better ways to spend their time. Most of the comfort and ease has returned to their everyday dealings, because stuff’s been settled, at least a little bit, at least theoretically, which is good enough for both of them.

When classes start again in January, they’re Eric and Eric again, Eric times two, Eric-squared, popular and winning and waiting for the baseball season to start. None of their classmates, their other friends, notice that anything has changed, because the two of them have always been basically indivisible. On the rare occasions when they’re not together, people look at them quizzically, ask them if they’ve gotten haircuts or are wearing new shirts, because they don’t look right.

They both date girls, because they both still like girls. They never came to an agreement about this, it just sort of worked out. Their . . . whatever (which is how Eric Chavez has taken to thinking about it in a rather stunning display of conscious avoidance) is something different, something separate, and it can’t be touched by the sweet pacific girls who laugh at their jokes and never find it odd that every date is a double date.

They get really good at their whatever, though. Spare moments, free afternoons, cutting class, they refine each other and practice the causes of incoherence. A dirty-minded competition to see who can give a better blowjob, possibly the most fun of all the games they’ve ever played. A week of the buttoning their shirts all the way up to the neck, hiding the marks.

The first time they actually fuck (because it’s a point of pride that they never do anything halfway), it takes them three tries to get it right and Chavez starts to cry in the middle when it’s finally happening. Munson stops, stricken, and Chavvy shakes his head, his lips pressed into a thread and tears running sideways out his eyes, wet on his ears.

“It’s okay, Munce,” he tells his friend, short of breath, and Munson leans down, Chavez’s leg slipping off his shoulder and falling into the bend of Munson’s braced arm. Munce licks at Chavez’s face, the warm rough of his tongue on the tender skin under Chavez’s eyes, the fragile shield of his bottom eyelids. Munce starts to move again, and Chavvy pushes up, fitting them together. He wraps a hand around Munson’s bicep and Munson kisses his closed eyes, touches their foreheads.

They avoid each other for a week after that, neither of them really knowing why.

And when Chavez finally comes to find him, in Munson’s bedroom with his parents out of town for the weekend, they face each other and Chavez holds him by the wrists, looking older than he should, brilliantly aware. Munson feels Chavez’s thumbs, light on the tendon ridges, and frees himself to unbutton his shirt. The window blinds cast a shadow cage on his chest and Chavvy’s hands key around Munson’s hips. Munce swallows, turns around in Chavez’s hold, pulling one of Chavez’s hands around to his stomach and tilting a bit, his back against Chavez’s chest, Chavvy inhaling sharply.

By the time Munce’s face is wrenched in the mattress, and Chavez’s mouth is moving damply across his shoulder blades and the back of his neck, by the time Chavez has got one arm curled airlessly around Munson’s chest and the other following the line of Munson’s, his hand on Munson’s fist, by the time they’re even again, all Munson can think is, ‘oh,’ simple and amazed.

It’s okay, Munson’s decided, because it’s Eric. Eric Chavez has always made a perfect and unquestioned kind of sense to him.

Having come to terms with it to each other, if to no one else and maybe not even in their own minds, it becomes a foregone conclusion. Eric Munson doesn’t shy away; Eric Chavez doesn’t try to stop when it gets too heavy.

The screen is permanently off Munce’s bedroom window. They don’t sleep on the fold-out anymore, because yeah, probably Chavez’s family would think that was kind of strange, at this point. They spread out a decoy sleeping bag on Chavvy’s floor, denting a pillow to give the impression that it’s been slept upon, and keep the door locked.

It’s bizarrely normal. It fits into their life effortlessly. It makes Eric Chavez wonder why it took them so fucking long to get on with it.

It makes him wonder how long this could possibly last.

*

(solve for x)

One night in June, in the middle of finals, they get out and drive south for a long time. They’re running on fumes, their eyes red and gritty, and they haven’t gotten more than a couple hours sleep at any one time in two weeks.

When they find a turnoff and a view of the desert all the way to the smeary opiate lights of Tijuana, Chavez is crawling into the back before the car’s even all the way stopped, clocking Munson on the chin with his knee as he clambers between the seats. Seventeen years old and just shy of six gangly feet tall, but Eric Chavez is always forgetting and tunneling himself all legs and shoulders into places where he shouldn’t fit.

Munson unbuckles his seat belt and peers over his shoulder, rubbing his chin. Chavez is making himself comfortable, kicking chem and calc textbooks to the floor, stuffing a stray baseball cap on the wedge of shelf under the back windshield. Chavez’s shoes are in the front seat because he wears shoes as seldom as possible, and his hair is poking up everywhere, his eyes swollen and tired.

“Well, come on, what’re you waiting for?” Chavez asks, pushing at Munson’s arm with his socked foot.

Munson half-grins. “The backseat, dude? That’s kinda cliché.”

Chavez leans forward, bites Munson’s shirt sleeve and pulls it out, looking like a sweet rabid puppy of some kind, his teeth sharp. “Not a cliché,” he answers with his teeth still clenched together, certain sounds lost. “Is a classic.”

Smirking, flattening his hand on a stick-out curve of hair over Chavez’s temple, Munson says, “I like your euphemisms.”

Chavez releases his bite. “Big words, bro, you sure you didn’t study too much?”

Munson pops the car door open, because he can’t fold himself and wriggle between car seats with the same awkward grace of Chavez, and the heat rolls in. “Do me a favor? Don’t call me bro while we’re being all euphemistic in the backseat.”

He steps out, and closes the door on Chavez’s laughter.

Munson takes a moment, out where the air is high and as thin as a dime, gravel crunching beneath his shoes and his hands on the roof of the car. There are those gnarled desert trees, with gray knuckles on the branches and prickly needle bursts. It’s baseball-warm and quiet, nature things creaking all around him. He looks up for the Big Dipper, his summer constellation, and Chavez’s foot thumps beckoningly on the window from inside.

Munson grins, and climbs into the backseat.

Chavez’s mitt is wedged in the space between the seat and the door, and Munson would make some little comment about why is it that everything Chavez owns ends up getting left in Munson’s car, but Chavez is scrambling on top of him and happily pushing up Munson’s shirt and Munson can feel the leather on his back, so he shuts up and kisses his best friend.

They shift around each other and get jeans unbuttoned, boxers scrunched out of the way, hands squeaking around, and Chavez’s foot keep banging on the door. Munson thinks about clichés and that maybe there’s a reason that this is a cliché, because it’s awesome. Chavez pushes his hips down against him and Munson groans, clonking his head on the window and Chavez is licking his chest, fingers scratching and rubbing on Munson’s stomach.

Munson’s sleep-deprived and calculus formulas are swirling in his mind. He’s thinking about differential equations and he’s seeing graphs in his mind, the x-axis, the y-axis shooting up, a blur of geometric shapes and numbers and Chavez is hard, grinding against him and making little surprised noises in the back of his throat, his breath hot on Munson’s throat.

Munson thinks about how strange it is that gay sex has become such a big part of his life so quickly. You’d think a huge crisis in sexuality would at least have been kind of gradual. But it’s not a crisis, and he’s not really gay. He doesn’t feel gay. He doesn’t feel anything except this, this backseat cliché and Eric doing that thing with his hand again, that swipe of his thumb, and Munson keens back, not even registering when Chavez’s foot hits the door again and kicks it open.

He might have blacked out for a little bit, but that probably was more about all the late-nights he’s been pulling to force conceptual mathematics and the European Reformation into his brain. He swims back down and there’s a wet spot on his hip and Chavez is slumped on top of him with his feet hanging out the door.

Munson kisses Chavez’s head, feeling altogether excellent, peaceful and floaty and exhausted, not minding the way Chavez’s chin is digging into his sternum, or the sweat beading on his forehead and soaking into his collar, not minding the knot on the back of his head or the ache in his bent neck.

Chavez mumbles something incoherent and then starts chewing toothlessly on Munson’s collarbone. He’s got quite the oral fixation happening recently, but it’s not like Munson’s complaining. He moves his hands across Chavez’s back, hot bare skin because his shirt is on the floor with their textbooks, and pats Chavez’s hair.

They’re like that for awhile and Munson never wants to move. This, it’s perfect.

Chavez eventually groans and pushes himself up, though, looking in bemusement at the open car door. He leans out to pull it closed and then settles himself back against it, one leg bent on the seat and the other on the floor, his foot crumpling up the pages of his chem text. Munson sits up himself and winds an arm around Chavez’s crooked leg, fiddling with the seam of his jeans. Chavez is looking at him all shadow-eyed and wet-mouthed, sweat sheened on his skin and his jeans still unbuttoned.

“Study breaks rock.”

Munson smiles. “That they do.” He kisses Chavez’s knee, feeling kinda like a tool, but Chavez looks absurdly pleased with it, biting back a stupid grin.

Chavez, poster-child for short attention spans, pulls the baseball cap from under the back windshield and messes around with it, snapping open the back and then pressing it closed again, over and over. He keeps looking at Munson, a strange joyful expression on his face.

Munson gets self-conscious, flicking at Chavez’s jeans. “What?” he asks uncomfortably. “With the, the . . . staring?”

Chavez shrugs, doesn’t look away. He tugs the hat onto his head, which should look stupid considering his bare chest and everything, but really, definitely, does not. Munson licks his lips and he can’t see Chavez’s eyes anymore, they’re hidden.

“Freak,” he mutters, and Chavez grins then, looks so happy it makes something hurt in Munson’s chest.

“You have no idea, man,” Chavez says, and whatever it is that makes Chavez smile like that, Munson doesn’t know and doesn’t care, because it’s just like it should be.

Munson leans forward, hugging Chavez’s knee to his chest, and turns the brim of the cap around backwards so that he can kiss him, his hand on Chavez’s chest and sliding down over his ribs and Eric Chavez laughs against his lips, like he’s got a secret or at least he thinks he does, and Munson wants to write things on the steam-fogged car windows, write reversed hieroglyphic letters that can be read from the outside, all sorts of stupid stuff and all the things that’ll never get said out loud, drive around like that through the summer and go with Chavez to Mexico and fuck in the backseat and never do anything for the rest of his life except this.

(end part two)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Third: Good at One Thing

(star of the show)

In high school, Eric Munson is insanely good, and Eric Chavez is somehow even better.

Junior year, Munce hits .517 with seven home runs and 45 runs batted in. He sees everything, he hits everything. The pitchers are starting to get really good, especially in their division, the baseball factory of southern California that produces more major leaguers than any other region in the country.

But Munson can hit the change, and he can hit the curve, and he can hit the first charming sliders he’s ever seen, and he can rack the shit out of the one kid from San Dimas who throws in triple-digits. He can read the stitches like highway signs.

The harder they throw, the better he likes it, because the harder they throw, the farther the ball goes.

That same year, Eric Chavez hits .537 with nine home runs and 35 RBIs. He’d have more ribbies, but he bats lead-off, and instead of knocking more guys in, he steals fifty bases. (The high school baseball regular season, by the way, is 26 games, which means Chavvy blows Rickey Henderson’s steals-per-game ratio out of the fucking water.)

Munson is still faster in a straight footrace, but Chavez has got pure baserunning instinct, his hands twitching as he takes his lead, looking for the break in the pitcher’s motion, the scratch of dirt under his spikes and the first baseman’s shadow on his back. Anyway, Munson’s a catcher, and catchers aren’t supposed to run.

Senior year, the year they win everything, the pitching gets even better, but Munce still bats .432 with 10 home runs, 34 RBIs, and 18 steals even on his catcher’s legs, which are toughening up nicely, his knees hardly even hurting anymore.

And Chavez, nothing making him play harder than the drive to beat out his best friend, goes .458 with 11 home runs, 24 RBIs, and 34 steals. The team’s ace graduated the year before, so he tries pitching, too, ending the season with a 6-2 record and a Gibson-like 1.11 ERA (they don’t lower the mound because of him, but then, it’s not like anybody like him would ever come along again).

Baseball America names the Mt. Carmel High School Sundevils the best high school team in the country, senior year, and the two boys named Eric are the best players they’ve got. By far.

By the time they’re done, Eric Chavez will set a California state record for hits in a high school career. The league, the California Interscholastic Federation-San Diego Section Division I, will be at his mercy as he sets records for single-season hits with 63, single-season steals with 50, ties the mark for runs scored with 49, and fully shatters the record for career steals with 115.

Mt. Carmel will move Billy Beane’s name down a slot in half a dozen places in their record books, and all the lifers at the school will be able to do is whistle low in astonishment and shake their heads, because it’s a damn good baseball school, but this kid is something else.

Eric Chavez is better, as good as the two of them are, Eric Chavez is just a little bit more.

By the last month of their senior season, their whatever has been going on for a year and a half.

Eric Munson comes to a realization, sometime in the middle of the season-ending nine-game win streak that propels them into the division championship. They’re at practice one afternoon, Munce is catching for one of their pitchers and Chavvy is supposed to be taking BP, but is really just slowly going through his warm-up cuts, his bat slashing centrifugally, grinning and flirting through the chain-link with some girls in the bleachers.

The pitching coach steps up on the mound to chat with his pitcher, molding the boy’s arm, miming the motion of the overhand curve, and Munson drops to his knees to wait the conference out, his mask pushed up on his head, absently watching his best friend.

Chavvy’s got such a pretty swing. Munson’s is short and powerful, a rough kind of poetry in it, but Chavvy, man, when he’s swinging lazily and without thought, is all languid and easy, an arc traced in the air.

Chavez twists his torso with each swing, snapping his hips open, and his hands are white-chalked on the wrapped handle. He smiles at the girls, that hero smile of his, and Munce thinks about Chavez’s undying affection for blondes, how good his dark head looks against straw-colored hair.

Munce looks down at his hands, his swelled catcher’s mitt, the dirty stripes of tape around his fingers. He’s got scars on his forearms, etched on his knuckles, the regular scars of a guy who’s played hard in everything he’s done his whole life. He hears Chavez’s high laugh from the fence, and it occurs to Munson that they’re both funny, both kind, both good-looking, both smart enough to get by. They’re both excellent baseball players and they both have a tendency to draw other people to them, lit from the inside.

They’re both the same, but Eric Chavez is, not always but sometimes, when the moment strikes right, when the light’s good, almost painfully flawless.

Sometimes, Eric Chavez is perfect, and Munson, who’s never doubted that he’s worth his best friend’s affection, worth all that Chavez has given him, is all at once blown away by the understanding that nothing this good could ever be his to keep.

*

(don’t say what’s gonna happen)

It’s the night before the draft and they go to the park. They’re eighteen years old.

Neither of them is expecting to sleep, not tonight, not until they know which team they’ll play for.

They’ve signed letters of intent to attend the University of Southern California, each of them offered an everything-and-girls-too scholarship to play baseball with the Trojans, but they’ve got this vow. They’re two of the best high school players in the nation, and scouts still look at high school players.

If they get drafted in the first round, they’ll play. They’ve got a bottom line for signing bonuses enforced upon them by history and their new agents, but it’s almost another promise, that if they go in the first round, whatever the bonuses offered, they’ll play. If they go in the second round, things might be different, college might look like the better choice.

But they’re not planning on being drafted in the second round.

They play basketball in the humid night, the scraped pulls of their breath and their hands quickly smudged and dirty. They talk about graduation, the magnificent end of their last high school season, and a little bit about college, being roommates at USC, but that’s a probably-not-gonna-happen line of conversation, not really worth their time. It’s baseball, you know, just like it’s always been.

“Where do you . . . think you’ll go?” Chavvy asks, his breath coming short, as he fades backwards with the ball, switches hands and his eyes flick from the hoop to his friend. The steady slap of the basketball on the asphalt echoes hollowly around the deserted park, and Munson shrugs.

“Dunno.”

Chavez dekes to his right, his hand on Munson’s shoulder for an instant trying to push off and go the other way, but Munson braces his feet and follows him over, so Chavvy falls back again. “You . . . wanna . . . hazard a guess . . . maybe?” Chavez entreats, weaving the ball between his legs, eyebrows hiked up.

Munson shakes his head, his hair flopping across his forehead, sweat stinging in his eyes. “Nah. Bad . . . luck.”

Chavez mugs at him, mooning his eyes and flagging a smile. “Punk.”

Munce swipes for the ball, his fingertips brushing the pebbled surface before Chavez moves it away, dribbling protectively close to his body. “What . . . about you . . . dude?” Munson says back.

Chavez hesitates, his arm moving as if to palm the ball, and Munson straightens up, thinking Chavvy will take a moment to answer that, but then Chavez breaks, rolling his shoulder off Munson’s chest and striding undefended to the basket, jumping to lay up a neat two points and dropping back down gracefully. Chavez tosses his head back and grins dazzlingly at his friend, hands on his hips and his shirt soaked with sweat. The ball bounces away onto the grass, waiting for someone to come get it.

“Bad luck, Munce.”

Munson is about to scoff a laugh and crack some sideways retort, but then Chavez lifts his chin and the metallic light rakes across his face, dropping his eyes to black and the skin of his throat is gleaming. Munson’s gaze skims helplessly down Eric’s body, the hint of tapered muscle in his chest and stomach through the damp shirt, his hip shot out cockily and his strong hands resting easily.

“C’mere,” Munce says. Chavez tips his head to the side. Munson takes a step towards him, then two, touching the tip of his tongue to his bottom lip unconsciously, and a familiar sneaky smile creeps onto Chavez’s face.

“You want something from me, Eric?” Chavez asks casually, like he doesn’t see anything, like this is new.

Munson nods, his eyes too big for his face, and closes the space between them. Chavez’s steady glint of a smile falters slightly, something darker in his expression, and Munce feels a little stab of triumph at that. He wraps a hand in Chavez’s shirt, slipping and fixing a good grip, and drags him off the court, a bit out of control, or out of his mind, or out of time, or something, definitely out of something.

They get into the singed darkness of the trees and Munson flashes back to that first time, the woods at the western edge of Mt. Carmel High School, chasing Chavez down.

Munson pushes Chavez up against a tree and kisses him, not wasting any time, swiftly turning the kiss filthy and crowding their bodies together, Chavez’s hips in his hands. He pulls back long enough to strip Chavez’s shirt up and over his head, causing Chavez to catch his wrists, breathing out unsteadily, “Whoa . . . what’ve you . . . ah, got in mind there, bud?”

Munson laughs airlessly, nibbling little bites at Chavez’s collarbone and throat. “You’re all sweaty,” he explains.

Chavez gets under Munson’s shirt, his hands moving effortlessly over the damp skin. “Not the only one,” he replies, his breath beginning to brake and stutter.

With Chavez’s shirt tied up around his arm, Munson raises his other hand to cup Chavez’s jaw and kiss him again, his thumb tucked under Chavez’s chin.

For awhile, they just make out, hands moving innocently enough through each other’s hair and over shoulders, backs, occasionally tracing a palm across a stomach, but then Munce, his mouth working on Chavez’s ear, takes advantage of his position to whisper with his voice ragged, “We’re going to the Show.”

Chavez shivers, and Munson feels him smile against his throat. “Going to the Show, man,” Munce says again, skidding his hand down Chavez’s slick chest, under the waistband of his athletic shorts. Chavez catches his breath, hums low and rumbling, pushing his hips up into Munson’s hand, his face pressed against Munson’s neck.

Munson grins wickedly, curves his free hand around the base of Chavez’s skull, Chavez’s forgotten T-shirt dangling between them over Chavez’s shoulder, and Munson gets his fingers in Chavez’s wet hair, draws his face up and kisses him hard.

They’re eighteen years old and most of the way in love with each other, and the major league draft is tomorrow and they’re going to the Show.

*

(ten and sixty-two)

Draft Day breaks open hot and dry. The ocean is scorched and out in the badlands at the edge of the city nothing moves, not the pounded rock sand or the desert creatures, everything still, unblinking.

Eric Chavez hasn’t slept a wink, and his mother Ruby comes down at five-thirty to find him sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor with his copy of the Baseball Almanac spread open in front of him, his chin propped on his hand and a bite mark on his neck that Ruby does not notice in any sort of conscious way.

“Eric,” she says, surprised to find him there.

He looks up at her, his eyes bloodshot and dizzyingly bright. He flashes his most charming grin. “Morning, Ma.”

“What’re you doing on the floor, honey?” she asks worriedly, going over to the refrigerator to pour him a glass of orange juice.

He pulls his legs up, folding them against his chest and hugging himself into an anxious ball. “It’s too hot everywhere else,” he explains unhelpfully, and she lets it slide because it’s Draft Day.

She sets his juice on the floor next to him and tousles his hair, worsening its spears and whorls. He gnaws his lower lip, patters his fingers on the linoleum. His whole body is vibrating, wrecked with energy, and all he can do is sit on the floor and wish this day was already over.

Eric’s little brother Casey, the fifteen year old baby of the family, is the next one up, all huge dark eyes and skinny hands, shuffling and snapping his fingers in rhythm, his mouth a beatbox, jamming into Chavvy until the older boy grins and throws him into a headlock.

Then Chris, fully grown and come home for this most crucial day, slippers in yawning and inarticulate, his eyes almost all the way closed, slouching on his elbow across the table with his thick hair mashed on one side, only smiling sleepily when Chavez asks with a roll of his eyes if maybe he’d like to go back to bed until the draft starts.

Their sister Brandy, of whom they are fiercely, dangerously protective, pads downstairs with her Mt. Carmel High School sweatshirt hood pulled up over her head, making her look small and even younger than she is, blinking out with her pretty fresh-scrubbed face. She blearily leans into Chavvy’s shoulder as he sits at the table, waiting until he lazily winds an arm around her waist, then says, “’Kay, I’m ready, let’s go eat.”

They go to Denny’s, wearing flipflops and pajama pants. It’s the first time Chris has been home in awhile, and the four of them are talking in a secret language and making obscure references that no one else in the world would understand, and they’re snickering, kicking each other under the table, threatening to pour syrup in each other’s hair.

Back at the house, both their parents have taken the day off work and are setting things up for the family driving down from Los Angeles. Eric gets a giant hug from his father, unexpectedly blinking back tears against his dad’s shoulder, and then is deposited on the living room couch, the first soda of many pressed into his hand, his brothers and sister scrunching in next to him.

Eric thinks, suddenly and with inexpressible force, that he and Munson should be together today, this day, because they’ve always had better luck as two than as one. His hands itch for the telephone, for the handlebars of his bike, but he pushes it down. They decided it would be better to hear separately. Their two families have claim on this day, priority.

The draft starts late. The league office has some sort of issue with their teleconference set-up, and Eric Chavez’s nails are dug into the heels of his hands, leaving little crescent-moon dents behind.

The first time the phone rings, it’s one of Ruby’s coworkers eagerly jumping the gun and asking where he’d gone. Eric Chavez’s heart is in his throat, his head stuffed with broken prayers and swear words and flashed images of the life that got him to this point. He rubs his thumb unconsciously across the threaded scar on his palm, tasting salt water in his mouth.

The second time the phone rings, Eric picks it up himself, every pair of eyes in the room wide and watching him, Chavvy onstage, under the microscope, atomized, and he turns his back to his family, stares out the window at his familiar childhood street, makes his voice strong and answers, “This is Eric Chavez.”

A brisk, roughly congratulatory man says to him, “Eric, this is Billy Beane. I’m the assistant general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and we’ve just taken you as the number tenth pick overall.”

Chavez closes his eyes, his shoulders falling slack, and breathes out, “Thank you.”

The Oakland A’s. The Oakland A’s.

They say a bit more to each other, nothing memorable, and then Eric hangs up the phone, spins back to the crowd with his face alight, beaming, and he calls out joyfully, “Oakland!”

They wash over him, hands slapping and arms pulling him into hugs and everybody whooping, hooting, Casey and Brandy jumping up and down on the couch cushions, Chris scooping Eric off his feet in a rib-crushing embrace, and his mother crying, his father’s arm around her shoulders holding her close, and a suspicious glimmer in Cesar’s eyes.

At Eric Munson’s house, the phone has not rung.

Munce is sitting on the carpet, leaning back against the couch. His sister Shelly, home from her college in Nebraska, occasionally reaches down to pet him on the head reassuringly, but as each minute passes and the phone stays quiet, Eric gets more and more irritated with her, wants to slap away her hand, jerk out of her reach.

He’s staring unseeingly at the television and the radio is rustling, tuned to the sports station that will be reporting the draft picks as they are announced. Eric Munson’s mouth is cotton-dry and his thoughts are stretched and torn, unfinished.

It’s eleven o’clock in the morning. The first round is done. And Eric clings desperately to the second round, a hot tense feeling in his chest, because he thought he was good enough to go in the first, the first for sure, and if that’s not true, then maybe he’s not good enough to be drafted at all.

The man on the radio, the guy who does the after-game show sometimes for the Pads, tells them happily, “And the tenth pick in the first round is a local boy, ladies and gentleman, Eric Chavez of Rancho Penasquitos and Mt. Carmel High School, selected by the Oakland Athletics.”

Eric Munson’s eyes quickly film with tears, his heart strangled. “Aw, Eric,” he whispers too low for anybody else to hear, his lips barely moving.

Dora and Steve watch him carefully, and they see a momentary grin of sheer happiness break across their son’s face, before the curtain falls down again. He turns to look at them, his eyes shining and his expression blank.

“Listen,” he begins, but the word cracks down the middle and he stops, clears his throat harshly, before continuing, “I’m gonna . . . I gotta, I’m just. I’m gonna head out for a bit. This is killing me.”

Steve lifts his eyebrows, exchanges a concerned look with his wife. “Are you sure?”

Eric nods, his head feeling loose on his neck. “Yeah.” He stands, whipping his hands through his hair.

Dora hedges carefully, “Do you want to call Eric first, baby?”

Eric’s jaw tenses. He shakes his head tightly, not looking at anybody, and takes off.

He goes surfing.

He picks up their buddy Steve Scogin, who takes one look at his face and doesn’t say shit to him about the draft, Munson pathetically grateful for it. Their boards rattle together in the back of Steve Munson’s truck, both windows open, wind-tunneling, and Munce pushes himself into the ocean, over and over again, swimming down and feeling the weight of the water on his shoulders, the pressure in his head. He strokes out and glides back in, quiet under the waves, quiet on top of the waves, and he lies on his back on his board, floating, staring up at the hard blue sky, and this is the worst day of his life.

He gets home and his father is trying to smile but his eyes are shrouded, telling his son that he’d been drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the second round, the sixty-second pick overall.

Eric Munson nods, taking this like a man, a dense pain in his chest, and goes to his room, brushing past Steve’s hesitantly reaching hand. He locks the door and falls into his bed, his body flushed with heat and thinking on a dumb loop, ‘Sixty-two. Sixty-two. Sixty-two,’ waiting for the words to stop making sense.

Eric Chavez, his back sore from being slapped, his form crushed by hugs, his ear aching from all the phone calls he’d taken, is going insane.

Everyone wants to talk to him, reporters and radio talk show hosts and the Oakland A’s PR staff, twice-removed family he’s never met whose lucky Spanish wishes have to be translated by his father, middle-aged friends of his parents and his high school teammates and the entire rest of the world.

He talks to their Mt. Carmel coach, who sounds unnervingly close to being emotional, and their favorite teacher, Mrs. Lamphiere-Tamayoshi, who teaches English and coaches gymnastics and responds to Chavvy’s still-incredulous explanation—“I’m gonna be an Athletic, Mrs. L-T”—by informing him laughingly, “‘Athletic’ is not a noun, Eric.” He talks to everyone who wants a piece of him, knocked askew by it all.

The party at the Chavez house has calmed, spread out through the wide rooms, and every time he steps through a doorway, the kitchen, the living room, the front porch, everyone turns and grins at him, tells him congratulations again and Chavez is feeling disconnected, thrown off, wandering through this, because it’s a dream, it’s got to be, it can’t be real.

And he hasn’t heard from Munson.

That’s the main thing. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to him, maybe the best too, but he can’t get a grip on it, because Munson isn’t there to explain it to him. That the reality of his life should rest in his best friend’s eyes might have bothered Chavvy, but not today. Today he just needs to see his friend’s face, needs Munce to scrub a hand through Chavvy’s hair and smile that careless rolled-eyes smile of his, needs Munson, plain and simple.

But Munce wasn’t home when he first called, unsettled and weirdly irritated to learn that Eric had run off surfing with Scogin, like this was just any other day. And when he called back, a couple hours later, after the draft was over, Dora told him gently that Eric wasn’t ready to talk yet.

And Chavvy felt a whine in his throat, but it’s me, Dora, he’ll talk to me, though of course that isn’t true.

Munson was drafted in the second round and maybe that changes a lot of things, maybe changes everything.

Chavez can feel Munson’s broken heart across the space that separates them, pain as real as if it was his own, a shattered rib cage, splinters of bone in his lungs.

How could this have happened? How could Chavez be number ten and Munson number sixty-two? They’ve always been one and two, two and one, they’re the same.

Chavez smiles and laughs with his uncles, gets plastered with kisses from his aunts, plays cards with his grandfather and video games with his sister, he eats a tasteless dinner, balancing the plate on his knees because they ran out of space at the dining room table.

He wants to see his best friend.

But he knows well enough how Munson’s got to be feeling right now, or at least he imagines he does. If Chavez hadn’t been picked in the first round, maybe he would have run away too, gone out to the beach or the old mission or the tree with the rotted trunk forming a cool dry cave that’d been his hiding place when he was a kid. Maybe he wouldn’t want to talk to anybody either.

But, no, he’d still want to see Munson, he’s pretty sure of that. Squeeze into the tree and sit with their shoulders pressed together, fighting for space, their knees clocking and legs twisted. Even if he hadn’t been drafted at all, he’d still want Munce around.

Eric Chavez, the tenth pick overall in the 1996 Major League Baseball amateur draft, is blindly confident of this.

He’s just about ready to leap out of his skin, or leap on his bike, or steal Chris’s car, buzzing with agitation, when the phone rings, Chavez not even registering the high peal of it anymore, until Ruby pokes her head into the living room and says gently, “It’s Eric, mi’jo.”

Chavez is off the couch like there are springs under his feet, darting across the room. He holds his hand out for the phone, then thinks better of it, drawing back. “I’ll pick up the extension,” he says, his face tense and eager, pounding up the stairs and taking the cordless into his bedroom, clicking the lock shut behind him.

He clambers gracelessly onto the bed, sitting back against the headboard and looking down at the phone in his hand for a long moment before he hits the button and says, “Eric?”

He hears Munce breathing quietly on his end, realizes absently that he can tell the fall of Munson’s breath apart from anyone else’s.

“Hi,” Munson answers, and neither of them say anything for awhile. Chavez picks at a loose thread on his jeans, pushes his toes against the blankets, crumpling the bedding out of form. He doesn’t like it when Munson isn’t talking; it makes him nervous.

Finally, Munce blows out a staticky bristle of air against the receiver, and says with his voice hoarse and bleeding sincerity, “Congratulations, man.”

Chavvy lifts his hand, covering his face, pressing the heel of his hand into his eye socket. “Thanks,” he says by rote.

“I’m . . . I’m really proud of you,” Munce tells him, the words cracking, catching, shot down.

Chavez’s throat is choked, and he wants to protest that, something. “No, Munce,” he tries to say, but Munson cuts him off.

“I am,” he says, a fierce edge to it. “So fucking proud of you. You shoulda . . . you shoulda gone higher. Better than tenth.”

And that, Christ, that just breaks Chavez’s heart, slams him to pieces. “Eric!” he cries. “You . . . fucking shut up, man. I don’t . . . I mean, you don’t . . . Look, if you wanna. Talk. Or whatever.”

Frustrated, Chavez wrenches a hand in his hair, pulling hard, wishing he could talk good, wishing he knew how to do this.

Munson just breathes for a long time, then answers almost inaudibly, “Yeah. Yeah. I know. It’s just . . . today kind of sucked, you know?”

Chavez nods, his eyes hot, lets Munce continue.

“I was . . . sitting there. Waiting for the phone. And Shelly kept messing with my hair, and I wanted to tell her to quit it, but I couldn’t, because she was just trying to help, and, and . . . And it was eleven o’clock and we hadn’t heard shit. Then the radio . . . the first round picks . . .”

He trails off for good this time, and Chavez croaks out his name again, feeling useless.

Munson finds his wind again, unsteady. “I wanted to come get you,” he says softly. “When I heard you’d gone at tenth, I wanted to go to your house and . . . and, like, kidnap you or something.” He laughs a bit desolately. “Take you away. And never . . . never find out if I got drafted in the second round and never have to worry about if the A’s can afford what you’re worth and just . . . not be here anymore. I . . . I really didn’t like being here, today.”

“You could have,” Chavez whispers, certain of it, anything to take that awful tone out of his best friend’s voice. “I would have gone with you.”

And that’s too much, that’s way more than either of them can take, because Munson makes a snapped-wood sound halfway between a sob and a moan, and starts to cry.

“Aw, hell, man,” he barely manages. “I know you would have, I know. I just . . . I couldn’t, it was too much, and I was so . . . so proud of you, swear to god I was.”

That sets Chavvy off, bending his legs against his chest and burying his face in his knees, cradling the phone against his ear and tears leaking out the corners of his eyes, burning high on his cheeks, the first time he’s cried since the night Munson moved in him for the first time.

“Dude,” he attempts, but it doesn’t work, his tongue not working right and his throat clenched shut. He coughs, rubbing his eyes on his knees, starchy denim scuffing against the skin of his eyelids. “It’s not fair, babe,” Chavvy says. “It’s not right. They’re just fucking stupid, they don’t know anything, you’re better than all those guys, shoulda gone first round, good as any of them, I promise.”

That just makes Munson cry harder, feeling like such a punk, but beyond caring, at this point, beyond pretty much everything.

It takes them awhile, but eventually they settle, start breathing cleanly again, sniffing and clearing their throats, both of them glad this conversation isn’t happening in person, because neither of them wants the other to see or be seen, red eyes swollen and clogged noses, shaking weakly as the last of it drains away.

Chavez lowers himself to lie on the bed, curled up on his side, twilight pressing his room into sharp geometric shadows, dust-colored and slivered.

“So what are you gonna do?” he asks, his vocal cords feeling shredded. “Sign with the Braves or go to USC?”

That’s really the question, isn’t it? That’s the heart of the thing. Chavvy isn’t aware that he’s holding his breath until his chest starts to hurt, because maybe everything depends on this.

Munce takes his time, his breath evening out, becoming slow and considering.

“I don’t know,” he says, quiet enough to be a confession. “I . . . really, I just have no fucking idea, Chavvy.”

Chavez nods, his eyes sheering over again and he swipes his arm across them angrily, brushing the tears away because they’re done with that now.

“Munce,” he begins hesitantly, his hand tied up in the sheets. “Can I . . . can I come over tonight? See you?”

Feeling in some vague part of himself that if he can’t have his hands on Munson tonight, he won’t be okay, he won’t make it through.

But Munson doesn’t even take that long of a pause, this time, sighing and saying, “No, man. Not tonight.”

Chavez turns his face into the bed, screwing his eyes shut. “’Kay,” he whispers.

Munson makes a raspy sound, explains, “It’s just been a really long day, Eric.”

Chavvy nods sightlessly, the smooth cool sheet on his cheek. “No, I know. It’s cool. I’ll . . . I’ll see you tomorrow, though, right?”

“Of course.” Munson pauses. “We’ll figure it out tomorrow, okay?”

His best friend nods again, tasting linen in the corner of his mouth. “Tomorrow.”

Chavvy listens to Munce draw in a slow breath, Chavvy’s chest aching and his head on fire, and his eyes fly open as Munson spills out recklessly, almost mumbling, “I love you, man, go to sleep,” and then clatters the phone down, the dial tone sudden and slicing through like a low moan.

*

(hold me down)

Eric Munson decides to go to college.

The next day, Eric Chavez decides to go to college, too.

Munson has already turned down the final offer from the Atlanta Braves (he wanted first round money, got just short of it, and found that he no longer cared that much), and there’s no going back for him. He’ll be a Trojan and win the College World Series, it’s his new goal, his new plan. He’ll go in the first round in 1999. He’ll still get there, it’ll just take a little longer.

Cesar, Ruby, and Eric Chavez’s agent are still negotiating with the Oakland Athletics. The A’s are small-market, they have no money, and everyone keeps telling Eric that he can’t sign for less than he’s worth. The signing bonus offered by the team inches closer to what it should be, and as crazy as it is for Cesar and Ruby to know that their second son is going to be very rich, it’s even more crazy to think that they might have to turn down being very rich for three more years. Billy Beane is now intricately involved, seeing as how he’s got a historic understanding of what it’s like being a high school superstar, a Mt. Carmel alumnus, and a nationally-recognized athlete at seventeen years old.

But Chavvy’s tired of listening to it, tired of thinking about it. Now that he’s this close, getting to the majors seems harder than ever.

Eric Chavez could sign a piece of paper and be an instant millionaire, but he’s spending all his time with Munce, they’re more inseparable this summer than they’ve ever been before, and maybe if he stops lying to himself, Eric Chavez will understand that it’s more than pride that keeps him from accepting the A’s offer.

They’ll be college boys together. They’ll have a blast.

But Munson is kind of mad at him, at least as far as their whatever goes. Munce won’t say why, which makes Chavvy think it’s probably pretty obvious, but for the life of him, he can’t figure out what he’s done.

Munce holds him down more, these days, and sometimes there are bruises on Chavez’s wrists, he’s got to wear long sleeves in the hundred-degree heat to hide them. Sometimes Chavez looks up in time to Munson’s eyes flaring violently, sometimes Munson’s hand in his hair pulls too hard. Sometimes Munson bites him sharply enough to draw blood.

It’s not to say anything about Chavez that he sort of . . . likes all this. Wrenches his arms in Munson’s hold so that Munce will tighten his grip. Kisses Munson deeply when Munson’s eyes are black. Tastes the blood on Munce’s lips and is overtaken by his desire.

Eric Chavez, nearing the edge of his eighteen year old August, isn’t really expecting much to make sense. The fact that he wants Munson these days more than he ever has, wants him with frantic, inexplicable force no matter what Munson does to him, power over him like gravity, like an undertow, is very low on his list of things about which to be concerned.

For Munson’s own part, he can’t explain it any better than his best friend. He feels beyond himself, out of control. It’s that they’re both full-grown now and Munson is officially taller, stronger, and it seems like a shame not to take advantage of that. It’s that Chavez twists closer to him and pants, “Faster,” wants him to go harder, go deeper, take more away, and Eric Munson has never been able to refuse him anything.

All summer long, they’re closing in on the last of something, this seems clear. Whether they end up at USC together or whether Chavez signs with the A’s, this midway part of their life will be over.

They move into their University of Southern California dorm, and they’re not really talking to each other. They haven’t been talking to each other, not since the night before, when Chavvy kissed Munson behind the bus station and told him in a hitching whisper that he was going to college, not going to sign.

Chavez felt Munson’s shock, the tensing of his body under Chavvy’s hands, what the fuck do you mean you’re not going to sign, but Munce just turned his head and nipped at Chavvy’s ear and didn’t say anything about it.

Hasn’t said much since, as a matter of fact.

They pack up their rooms together that morning, a busy silence of clothes shoved into suitcases and books crashing off shelves, moving around each other and only ever saying stuff like, “Is this your T-shirt or mine?” and “Can you fit the Graig Nettles bat in your duffel, or should I take it?”

And they drive north in Munson’s shiny new graduation-present truck, Chavez’s elbow out the window and his eyes trained on the landscape. Munson pops in road trip tape #6 but doesn’t sing along like he normally does. He keeps cheating looks over at his friend, the one-quarter view of his face, Chavvy’s ear, cheek, the corner of his mouth.

It’s not that they don’t have stuff to talk about.

They stop to get ice cream just over the Los Angeles County line, before going out to the campus, and park in a turnout by the railroad tracks, sitting on the hood of the car, the metal engine-hot and thrumming slightly. Their feet on the bumper, knees pulled up, they train-watch, messily eating their ice cream.

Munson feels like hell, today, jagged and off his game, and Chavez isn’t doing much better.

Munce’s eyes are unfocused, spacing out like sixth-period Culture Studies, when Chavez bracelets his hand loosely around Munson’s wrist and raises Munson’s hand to his mouth, licking the dripped ice cream from between Munson’s knuckles and cleaning him off. Munson watches him, Chavez’s tongue lapping calmly over his skin, the warmth of Chavez’s breath, and Munson suddenly feels like crying.

“Don’t do this because of me,” Munce says, but there’s a train going past, huge unhinged clatter of wheels and clacking boxcars, so Chavez doesn’t hear him, bites the tip of Munson’s thumb and hops off the car, moving away with his shoulders held proudly and his head up.

They go out to USC.

They’ve got a room with six other guys, all athletes, four sets of dark-wood bunk beds tucked into each corner of the rectangular room.

They stand in the doorway, their first round of luggage at their feet and weighted on their backs, taking the place in, and all Chavez says is, “Dibs on the top.”

Their roommates aren’t around yet, not for another day or two at least, all of them coming in from farther away than two hours south, so Munson and Chavez unpack in one corner of the room, Scotch-taping Polaroids and Kodak prints to the front face of their bunk, shimmying on their stomachs under the desks and beds looking for outlets, emerging with gray dust in their hair, sneezing.

Still not talking, they go out for food, eating roadside Mexican at a patio table and watching girls, and wander around the campus until the sun goes down. They’re both tired—gonna make an early night of it.

It’s weird, to be together and not be talking. It’s never been like this before. But Chavez doesn’t want to be anywhere that Munson isn’t, not right now.

They keep an eye on each other, sideways, blurred perspectives, can’t be caught staring. They trade nervous glances, follow the path of a hand, the stretch of a back, the kick of a leg skittering a crushed soda can across the asphalt.

They get back to their empty room and Chavez vanishes briefly to call his folks from the payphone down the hall. It’s a short conversation, a rundown of their room and the campus, a quick slurred question, “Did you hear anything new from the team?” that Chavvy feels guilty for even asking.

He doesn’t want to go to college. He wants to play pro ball. He doesn’t want to stop seeing his best friend every day. He doesn’t want anything this central to the course of his life to be decided by Eric Munson.

Back in their room, Munce has put a Red Hot Chili Peppers CD on, turned the volume up loud, and set himself up in the stick-backed chair by the window, winging a tennis ball against the wall and catching it smoothly, whistling along with the music and gazing out at the quad.

Chavvy doesn’t say anything to him, digs out his tattered copy of Ty Cobb’s biography and climbs into the top bunk. The thump of the tennis ball against the cinderblock wall is in perfect time with the drum beat of the music, picking up for the faster tempo songs, slowing for Anthony Kiedis to get romantic.

They spend their first night as college men like that, speechless, until midnight runs up on them and Munce kills the music, changes into his pajamas in the center of the room, aware of Chavez’s eyes slanting down on him from over the pages of his book, and Munson falls into the bottom bunk. He’s so tired, every muscle aches.

There’s movement above him, and a second later Chavez’s shirt floats down. Another rustle and Chavez’s jeans follow, his belt still looped, the buckle the first thing to hit the floor. Then it’s quiet again.

Munson stares up at the skinny wooden cross-beams on the underside of the upper bunk, the squeak of the mattress, the nearly imperceptible shifts with Chavez’s every breath. Munce thinks about a year spent down here, watching Chavez’s mattress breathe.

“You think I should sign.”

Munson starts, Chavez’s voice for the first time in hours, and Chavez isn’t asking anything, just stating a dry bookkeeper’s fact.

Munce fiddles with the drawstring tie of his pajama pants, answers honestly, “You should do what you think is right.”

Chavez exhales. “I don’t know what’s right, Munce, that’s why I’m asking you.”

He lifts his eyebrows, gives the underside of Chavez’s mattress a dubious look. “Because I know what’s right better than you do?”

Chavez mumbles, close to inaudible, “Yeah.”

Munson pulls a hand across his face. He’s got a headache, it’s getting pretty bad now. “I’m sorry, dude, but I can’t decide this for you.”

Chavvy is quickly angry. “I’m not asking you to decide it for me, I’m asking you to give me your fucking opinion.” He doesn’t wait for it, though, continuing, “I mean, if I play for what they’re offering now, how long’s it gonna take for them to realize I’m worth more? I was first round, how many other first round picks are gonna get shorted on signing bonuses like this?”

“What I wouldn’t give to have your problems for a day,” Munson mutters, and he meant for it to be under his breath, meant for it to not be heard, but it’s pin-drop quiet in their room, and the rectangle echoes more than he expected.

There’s a pause, and then Chavez’s head pokes down from the top bunk, hanging upside-down with his hands curled around the wood, the curves of his bare shoulders visible. Munce, surprised, blinks up at him. Chavez gives him an idly concerned look.

“Are you being weird about the draft?”

Munson rolls his eyes, shakes his head. “No.”

Chavvy, his face reddening slowly as the blood drains down, squints at him. “I think you are.”

Munce meets his upside-down eyes, saying firmly, “I think I’d know.”

Chavez takes a moment, then presses on earnestly, “Munce, you know you shoulda been taken higher-”

The burst of anger that rings through catches him off-guard, comes out of nowhere, and Munce says, “God! Yes, Chavez, I know, okay, I fucking know. We don’t have to keep reaffirming it.”

Chavez doesn’t catch the true harshness below the words, taking one hand off the bunk and pointing down at Munson in accusation. “See, you’re being weird.”

Munce glares at him. “I’m being annoyed.”

Chavvy considers that, shrugs, his position making it awkward. “Well, you being annoyed with me is kinda weird.”

Munson sneers. “Not as weird as you think.”

Chavez’s face tightens briefly, halfway wounded. His hair is hanging in ragged clumps of black, begging a hand to smooth it back, fight gravity. Chavvy says, keeping his voice mild, “Ouch, dude.”

Munce smiles slightly against his will. He reaches up and fingers the ends of Chavez’s hair, tells him, “You’re gonna fall and crack your head open if you keep hanging off like that.”

Chavvy’s face lights up. “You want me to come down there?”

Munson drops his hand. “No.”

The look on Chavez’s face isn’t halfway this time, and Munce bites his own tongue, tries to take it back. “I mean, yeah. Sure. Come on down.”

Chavez’s head disappears. “No, that’s okay.” He settles himself back down in the top bunk, wriggling around trying to get comfortable.

There’s a long moment in which neither of them says anything, and eventually Munce gets fed up and kicks Chavez’s mattress. “Now who’s being weird?”

Chavvy’s reply is muffled, spoken into his pillow. “Well, it’s my turn. And quit kicking.”

Munson sighs with put-upon irritation, and hoists himself out of bed, climbing into the top bunk. He crawls over Chavez, Chavez squirming to avoid his knees, and sits back against the wall, his legs bent over Chavez’s stomach. He rests his hand on Chavez’s arm, the dented crook of his elbow, looking down at him, Chavez lying there with the pillow bunched up under his head, all worried eyes and pointed chin.

“I don’t think you should play for less than you’re worth,” Munson tells him, his fingers tapping on Chavvy’s heroin veins.

Chavez pushes up on an elbow, meeting Munson’s eyes solemnly. “What about the strike?”

Munce blinks, confused. “What about the strike?”

Chavez flips his hand through the air. “Like, those signs we saw at the Jack Murph, a couple of weeks before the games stopped, those kids. ‘We’ll play for free.’ Remember?”

Munson nods, shading his gaze down, seeing where Chavez is going with this. “Yeah, I remember.”

Chavvy falls back, staring up at the ceiling. “I feel like . . .” he begins painfully. “Like asking for even one dollar more . . . I just want to play baseball, man.”

Nodding, Munson trails his fingers up the pale untouched skin on the underside of Chavez’s forearm, unobstructed. “But you know how it works, dude. You gotta make sure they know you. Know how good you are. Or else you’ll be tearing it up and making the league minimum and they’ll call you a fool.”

Chavvy sighs and nods unhappily, pulling the pillow out from under his head and covering his face with it. Munce’s hand moves off his arm onto his chest, walking his fingers across Chavez’s ribs, tracing his thumb down the line of Chavez’s sternum. Under his palm, Chavez’s stomach is warm, the sparse trail of hair below his belly button soft.

“I would play for free,” Chavez says inarticulately into the pillow.

Munson takes the pillow away. “I know you would, man.”

Chavez reaches up, sliding his hand around the back of Munson’s neck, but doesn’t pull him down. “And I’d stay here with you, too,” he whispers, his eyes darting, terrified, and all Munce has to do is ask.

Munson stares at him, slowly shakes his head. Chavvy swallows and his eyelids flicker crazily, and Munson kisses him hard, so that Chavez will close his eyes, so that Munce won’t have to see him anymore.

*

(a splitter with no break)

It turns out not to matter.

Two nights later, two days before classes start (draft rules being such that if Eric Chavez attends even one class at USC, he will be ineligible until ’99), they’re at their new favorite diner and Chavez’s pager goes off, vibrating against his hip and making him jump.

“Popular guy,” Munce comments like he always does, and Chavez flashes a preoccupied smile, borrows handful of change for the payphone.

Munce waits in their booth, pushing a fry around, writing words on the plate in ketchup. He’s not hungry, has rarely been hungry recently. He yawns hugely, suddenly, surprising himself, shaking his head briskly. He’s so fucking worn out all the time. His back hurts and his head throbs almost constantly. He’d almost think he was getting sick, if he ever got sick.

He wishes they could have gotten a booth by the window, because all he’s got to look at is Chavez’s empty seat across from him, the ravaged remains of Chavez’s food.

Chavez comes back, slides in. He keeps his eyes down, and Munson kicks his shoe.

When Chavvy looks up, Munce lifts his eyebrows with exaggerated expectancy, and Chavez grins shakily.

“So . . . yeah. Can you drive me back to San Diego tonight?” Chavez asks, unconsciously flinching as the words leave his mouth.

Munson regards him, Chavez’s hand drumming on the table, Chavez’s knee juddering against Munson’s. “What’s going on, Eric?”

Chavez tries out that grin again, doesn’t have much more success with it. “My mom . . . she said . . . They offered, the A’s, they offered what we were . . . I might sign, pretty soon. It’s . . . getting close.”

“Oh.” Munce sits back. God, he’s never been this tired. He shrugs, makes a grin of his own. “Awesome, dude. We’ll leave whenever you want.”

Chavez studies him carefully, searching, and Munson meets his eyes evenly.

Chavez looks down. “’Kay,” he says softly, and pushes his plate away. “I’m ready to go, then.”

Not twenty-four hours later, Eric Chavez signs with the Oakland Athletics, and Eric Munson goes back to the University of Southern California alone.

(end part three)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Fourth: Temporary Life

(unconcealed weapons)

Munson does well in college. He made the right decision, there’s no doubt about it.

A week after Chavez reports to the A’s instructional league in Phoenix, Munson finds out he’s got Hepatitis A, which seems incredibly appropriate, all things considered. It’s a kind of terrible disease, like the worst of every flu he’s ever had, dragging him down all the time, making him hurt, making everything harder for him, but he can deal.

He’s having a good time. His roommates are chill and the guys on the team seem stand-up all the way. There are a lot of parties and a lot of girls with slender sculpted legs and keyed turquoise eyes, and he’s entranced by the casual attitude of academic life, the way the professors don’t take roll or know his name, the way he can slip himself between the cracks without any effort at all.

Eric Chavez, in Phoenix, is scared to death but won’t admit it.

He’s been playing quietly, keeping his head down, trying to be as grown-up as he can. He does his job and tries not to draw any undue attention, but it doesn’t work, and three days in, his penitentiary-faced coach calls him into the office and tells him flatly that the other players think he’s a punk.

They’ve read his caution as arrogance, the casual flash of his play at short as that of a cocky motherfucker. Chavez is the Oakland A’s million-dollar bonus baby, a risk taken by a team that can’t afford to believe in risk, and everybody’s already questioning whether he’s worth it.

Eric is stunned, bleakly humiliated. He protests the charge of arrogance, an eighteen year old kid at the beginning of something huge, and he can’t say it out loud, but he’s not cocky, he’s fucking terrified, and there’s a big goddamn difference.

His coach acts like he believes Chavvy, gruffly sends him back out onto the field. But now it’s even worse, his eyes rabbitting around trying to figure out which of his new teammates think that about him, think he’s a punk.

He’s not a punk. He gave up everything for this, can’t they see that?

He talks to Munson on the phone, but Munce is always in the middle of something, on his way out the door, only half paying attention, humming vague responses that don’t match up to what Chavez said to him. The best conversation they’ve had since Munce left him at his parents’ house in San Diego is the one that starts with Munson telling him, after getting back from the health clinic chockfull of information about his illness, “Dude, I might have given you the hep. So, watch out for that.”

But Chavez doesn’t get sick.

He does all right in Phoenix, brief-run league though it is, all raw prospects young enough to still fight brutally and without morals for their futures. They’re mismatched and playing a lot of dirty baseball, unnecessary brushbacks and cruel spikes-up slides into second to bust up the double play.

He gets lonely. His teammates still don’t like him. There’s so much time out here, there’s so much space. He’s living in a fucking motel, and he’s totally unnerved when he walks into a gas station convenience store one night and sees a man with a cowboy’s holster tucked full of a greasy anachronistic Colt .45.

Eric cowers behind the chips rack, expecting the holdup to begin any minute now, but the cowboy just pays for his six-pack and ambles out, cool as cool. When Chavvy asks the counter clerk, what the fuck, the rat-faced kid leers at him, tells him it’s legal to carry a firearm in Arizona as long as it’s not concealed.

That doesn’t make Eric Chavez feel better about his situation.

Phoenix, quickly developed, is still quite clearly only a decade or two removed from main street duels, wagon trains dying of thirst, incomplete and savage. Chavvy, who’s never lived anywhere except San Diego, is so lost out here, it’s awful.

But instrux doesn’t last forever, and he goes home in November, a couple of weeks before his nineteenth birthday.

He’s a rich man, now, a teenaged millionaire, and he buys stuff because he can, because he’s never been able to before. A new car for Chris, and one for each of his parents, who won’t accept a house from him yet. He sends Brandy to prom; he sends Casey to Florida. He buys himself a car too, flashing silver like a coin rolling down the sidewalk, thinking giddily about the miles between Rancho Penasquitos and Los Angeles.

His first month back, he spends probably half the time up at USC with Munson, getting to know the place like he would have if he’d never signed. They don’t get a chance to fuck around, really, because of those six roommates (Chavez’s top bunk is still empty, waiting for him to come back), and for the first week or two Chavez almost forgets that he’s really pretty much obsessed with his best friend, feels like they’re fourteen years old again and nothing’s gotten weird yet.

Munce’s new friends get to know him, get to expect him, and then one night after a string of power hours, both of them astonishingly drunk, they get into a fight on the back street, the shortcut.

It’s hard to remember, the next day, but it’s something about Chavvy playing big shot and picking up tabs and smirking at everything like he’s better than all this, and Munson’s hands are in tight fists at his sides and Chavez keeps thinking about the uneven plane of the concrete under his feet, thinking that he’ll have to be careful not to trip and fall when Munson hits him, and Chavez’s throat hurts, and he can’t get anything straight, and Munson yells at him, “Why don’t you just go home, you don’t fucking belong here!”

So Eric goes, and they don’t talk for awhile after that, the longest they’ve ever not talked.

Everybody thinks he’s a punk, motherfucking everybody, and he wonders if he should start believing them.

He misses Munson, a lot. It was bad in Phoenix; it’s worse now. In Phoenix he had somewhere to go every day, a job even if it wasn’t a real job, working towards the place where he’s going, but now he’s just waiting for spring training to start, killing time.

Munson’s got a whole life at USC, a sarcastic dark-eyed sorta-girlfriend, a crowd of guys who think he’s awesome, a team that Chavez isn’t a part of, the first time that’s been the case since they were eight years old.

Chavvy knows it’ll get better, come March, come spring training, once his world comes into focus again, it’s just this dead time, this in-between time, this fucking temporary life, making it so hard, that’s all.

Christ, he misses his friend.

And then at eight in the morning on New Year’s Eve, Eric Chavez is awakened by a finger steadily flicking his forehead, his eyes scrunching against it and then coming open slowly, sees Munson sitting on the edge of his bed, grinning down at him.

For a second, Chavez thinks he’s dreaming, then Munce flicks him again and Chavvy yanks his head, hooks an arm around Munson’s waist and buries his face in Munson’s side, all soft cotton and warm.

“Loser,” he muffles into Munce’s body, impossibly grateful, and feels the spur of Munson’s laugh.

Munce palms his head, twisting his fingers in Chavez’s hair and pulling him away so Munce can see his face.

“You need to get ready, man,” Munson tells him, fingertips tiptoeing across Chavez’s face, over his forehead, down his nose. “We’re leaving, like, ten minutes ago.”

Chavvy grins helplessly, Munce’s thumb at the corner of his mouth. “Where are we going?”

Munson gives him an exasperated look. “It’s New Year’s Eve, dude, where do you think we’re going?”

Chavez’s mouth drops open a fraction, and he blinks fast, his throat moving as he swallows. Munce’s smile softens, tracing his knuckles across Chavvy’s cheekbone before getting up to unearth clean-smelling clothes and toss them to his friend.

They go back to the desert. They talk like nothing’s happened, about USC and Phoenix and San Diego. They catch each other up on family gossip, no way is Munce’s cousin Jessica pregnant again, that’s like the fourth time in three years. Chavvy teases Munson about still not being able to figure out the tent and Munce calls the tent’s mother dirty names like he always does, and they sit on the ground, drinking whiskey from plastic cups in their big winter coats, a wool cap pulled down over Chavez’s ears, Munson wearing his beggar gloves with the fingers cut off.

Chavez keeps shifting closer to him, breath falling in thick clouds from his mouth and nose. He’s furnace-hot on the inside from the whiskey, the exposed skin on his face feeling stiff and iced. He gets close enough to lean his shoulder against Munson’s when he’s laughing, their feet scuffling.

He’s so happy.

Munce knocks him a refill, then raps his cup lightly with the bottle. “Resolutions, Ricky,” he says, probably drunker than he’s letting on, holding his liquor much more respectably after his first semester of college life.

Chavez is pretty drunk himself, though, so he tilts into Munson and rests his face against Munson’s scratchy coat, his mouth pressed down and his nose peeking over Munson’s shoulder. He thinks for awhile, watching Munson watching the falling stars.

He lifts his head, propping his chin on Munce’s shoulder instead, answers with the fog of his breath breaking on Munson’s face, “Triple-A by the end of the summer,” he promises, sees Munson’s lips curve up slightly. “Learn how to play third base.” He pauses, snakes an arm around Munson’s back. “Did I tell you they want me to play third?”

Munce nods, still looking up at the sky. “Only about six times.”

Chavez grins. Munson’s so funny. He leans forward, brushing his lips across Munce’s ear, Munce twitching, and then pulls back again. Munson smells like whiskey and lime, but they’re not using limes, so that’s kind of weird. Chavvy’s hand finds its way around Munson’s hip, fits itself neatly into Munson’s coat pocket, his arm a chain to hold them together.

“Anything else?” Munce asks, his hand on Chavez’s leg (when did that get there? Chavez wonders blurrily), fingers playing the seam of his jeans like a piano.

Chavez leans forward again, kissing Munson’s neck, the wind-color high on his cheek. He presses his cold nose to Munson’s face and Munce doesn’t even flinch.

“Not fuck things up with you,” Chavez whispers, closing his eyes and wishing they could cut their hands open again, wishing they could add another vow.

Munce turns his head then, finally, and his hand on Chavez’s leg moves up to grip the collar of his coat. He nods carefully. “That’s a good one,” he says, then kisses Chavez, and Munson tastes, unsurprisingly, like everything flammable in the world

Eric Chavez is three months away from his first spring training, but they don’t talk about that. There’s a baseball season coming for the two of them that will see them truly separate for the first time, the longest time, a baseball season that won’t be easy and won’t be the same, but they don’t talk about that either.

They’re drunk—they make promises. They crawl into one sleeping bag and do everything as slow as possible, stars falling unnoticed in the sky above them, and there’s a new distance between them that they won’t recognize until they wake up wrapped around each other with the year’s first light streaming down around them.

*

(shadow valley)

Minor league baseball is hard.

Visalia’s in the middle of the Central Valley fields, the middle of nowhere, the wasteland. Devastatingly flat all the way until the horizon runs into the faraway mountains, swallowed up by the endless rows of crops. It’s hotter than the desert in the depth of the summer, the desolate landscape baking and chipping off like bits of char.

The Visalia Oaks ballpark, Recreation Field with its ridiculous 1,700 seating capacity, has had most of the green paint scraped off the wooden benches, and Chavez learns real quick not to casually lean on the metal rail at three o’clock in the afternoon, after one day when he sears a diagonal line on the soft unprepared flesh of the underside of his forearm. Three weeks later, he can still see the burn, and he wears it proudly, hopes that it will scar.

Class A, man.

He’s good, he’s hitting over .300, three months into the season. He’s already got fans, he knows them by their first names and they linger around the clubhouse door, give him gifts of oranges. He gets pretty good at signing his name, practicing his autographs in the back of the team bus after everyone else is asleep so they won’t catch him and start ragging on him.

His family makes it out to a couple of games a month, and one night at dinner, Chavez hears his voice break as he says, “I spend my whole life in buses and motel rooms,” and he was trying to make a joke of it.

Ruby’s worried about him, her little boy alone in the wide valley, and the first thing she does when she comes out to Visalia to see his new place is clean it for him.

He’s sleeping on the couch in his small two-bedroom apartment. He’s rooming with two teammates and one of their fiancées, and he gives up his room willingly when the couple moves in, because this is just a step, this isn’t permanent. He lives out of a suitcase.

Eric Chavez is lying on the couch, watching the moon move across the sky in the same path as a lazy fly ball. Eric Chavez is doing push-ups on the living room floor at three in the morning. Eric Chavez is sitting two feet away from the television, the volume turned down to murmur so as not to wake up anybody else, his eyes roaring with static, his face jiggered with light.

Eric Chavez is not sleeping that much these days.

He grows a goatee, mainly so he’ll stop getting carded trying to buy liquor. He thinks about Eric Munson all the fucking time.

They talk on the phone. California’s a bigger place than Eric Chavez realized. They’re in the same state but he could drive his big silver car for hours and still be a half a day away from his best friend.

At nineteen years old, he’s an infant in his clubhouse, and he’s having trouble making friends. Kevin Gregg, his first roommate, is a good guy, quiet and shy, and Chavvy’s feeling pretty quiet and shy too, pretty much the opposite of how he’s spent his life, so they get along.

But the rest of the team, farther along than him, grown men with wives and children and burgeoning cases of alcoholism, he’s got nothing in common with them except the game. He’s easily dismissed, because he’s just a fucking kid, number ten draft pick or not, he’s nothing anybody cares about, not yet.

His life is no longer strange or unpredictable. It’s clear where he’s going, the path he’ll take. Suddenly everything is simple, laid out. All he has to do is play baseball every day and soon he’ll be in the bigs. All he has to do is play.

No excuse for him to feel this lost. No excuse for the voice in the back of his mind that’s screaming, louder every day, ‘no, fucking no, I take it back, take me back, I didn’t mean it, get me the fuck out of here.’

Eric Munson is having an excellent time at USC. Everybody likes him, he’s got packs of friends and there are an incredible amount of girls who find baseball players and catchers in particular to be just the hottest. Every night there’s a party, and he gets used to waking up in odd places without a shirt on. L.A. is the place to be, half of Mt. Carmel’s graduating class ended up within an hour’s drive, and Munson learns the faithless sprawl of the city, dreams about the curves of Mulholland Drive.

He has a straight-out-the-gate star-making year for the Trojans, and baseball’s still a game to him. He hits .336 his freshman year and leads the team in home runs. He’s gotten good behind the plate, better than he’s ever been before. His throws to second are clotheslines, difficult blocks are becoming instinct. He tastes the slippery vinyl of his mask’s padding against his lips, his hair pressed in flat stripes from the straps, and when he’s off the field, his left hand feels too light, not weighed down by his mitt.

He goes everywhere with the team, sparkling deluxe buses and jet planes, all over the country and Hawaii, too, gold beaches and mid-ocean blue water. He goes to Japan and they cheer for him like he’s a native son. In June, the Sporting News names him the National Freshman of the Year and he is selected for the USA National Team, he’s gonna go to Italy this summer and the hotel the team stays in will be three times as old as anything in his country and he’ll want to chisel off pieces of stone to take home with him, but he won’t.

He misses Chavez, sure, natural, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on. It’s hard to remember that he’s got a best friend out in the Central Valley, scrapping and still breaking into tears when an error of his loses the game for his team.

Munce isn’t really good on the phone, he’s not used to just chattering about random stuff for hours on end. As far as anything important goes, they’re a million miles away from each other.

When Chavez asks him to meet in Modesto early in August, an off-day between San Jose and Fresno for the Oaks, Munson hmmms and tries to gracefully weasel out of it, but when Chavez has to ask a second time, he sounds like he’s about to cry, and Munce quickly agrees, already figuring how to break the date he’s got for that weekend.

Munson drives up to Modesto through the pale yellow fields, and somewhere in the back of his mind he thinks that he shouldn’t sleep with Chavez, should put their whatever on hold, maybe for good, because that’s surely the smart thing to do, maybe even the right thing, who knows?

But then Chavez opens the motel room door, looking drawn and weary, his arms braced with new muscle but the lines of his face narrow, thinned, and just the sight of him makes something break down inside Munson, a lump in his throat and a shredded pain in his heart, and he kisses Chavez before Chavez has a chance to kiss him, before he even gets all the way into the room.

Munson’s a fucking idiot. He forgot, between everything else that has been going on, he forgot that the two of them are not good if they’re not together. Somehow, he forgot.

After they fuck themselves out, boxers back on to restore their modesty, Munce takes in the well-traveled duffel bag tossed into a corner, Chavez’s glove on the dresser, the water stains spreading like cancer on the wall, the door ill-fit into its frame, long splinters broken off by the chain-lock where it was once kicked in.

This motel room is the kind of place where truckers buy crystal meth from bikers, adulterous couples meet at two in the afternoon with the shades tightly drawn, bounty hunters crash in with shotguns and black sunglasses.

For a college boy, it’s almost unbearably cool, secretive and forbidden, tints of danger.

“So what’s it like?” he asks Chavez. Chavez’s fingers are curled against Munson’s side, just below his rib cage, and that’s the only way the two of them are touching.

Shallow lines appear on Chavez’s forehead, looking at his friend in incomprehension. “What?”

Munce flits his hand through the air, encompassing everything. “Pro ball.”

Chavez’s hand pulls away from Munson’s side, scratching nervously at his own stomach as he moves his shoulders. “It’s . . . different. It’s cool,” he hurries to assure. “I mean, it’s great. It’s, like, real. You know? But it’s also . . .”

“Real?” Munson suggests.

Chavez nods, his face clearing. Good to know that he doesn’t always have to finish every sentence. “Yeah. I gotta take everything so seriously, now. Which kind of sucks.”

“But it’s worth it,” Munson says, not even making it into a question. “You’ll be in the majors so soon, man, the way you’re going.”

Chavvy sighs. “I guess.”

Munce pushes up on an elbow, looking down at his friend, Chavvy lying there dark and sad, the mouth-burned places on his chest, the scratch of Munce’s five o’clock shadow on Chavvy’s face and throat, the new width in Chavez’s shoulders, the tense power of his arms. For the life of him, Eric Munson cannot figure out how he ever thought he was ready to end this.

“You sound, like, less than thrilled.”

Chavez half-smiles. The sheets, spotted in the light, glow whitely with the room as dim as it is now, pallid reflections on Chavez’s skin. “I’m just wiped out, you know? And I keep . . . I keep thinking about . . . well. Stupid stuff.”

Munson watches the dust in the air swarm over the two of them, new specks with every movement, and thinks about flocks of birds flying in insane, swirling patterns in the hours before a big storm hits, driven crazy by the weather.

“But you’re playing pro ball,” Munson tells Chavez pedantically, maybe Chavez forgot.

Chavvy slides closer to him, humming lightly and head-butting Munson’s shoulder. “Pro ball’s not everything, man.”

Munce twines his arm under Chavez’s neck, reaching down Chavez’s back, Chavez all twisted around and idly gnawing on Munson’s shoulder. The air conditioner’s broken, or maybe was never installed, either way it’s flat-land hot in their dark little cube of a room, and there are thin scrims of sweat between Chavez’s shoulder blades, under his chin, at the small of his back.

“Don’t talk crazy, dude,” Munson says, only joking a little bit. “What’s more important than pro ball?”

Chavez stops moving, his mouth open on the knob of Munson’s shoulder. He lifts his head, sighs, “Well,” and rests a hand on Munson’s collarbone, tells him quietly, “I’m in love with you. You know that, right?”

Munson blinks, dust in his eyes, and shakes his head without thinking. Chavez knows better than to say something like that, it’s not fair. Even if they haven’t seen each other in months, that’s still no reason to say something like that. And that quiet tone in his voice, like it’s obvious, like Chavvy thinks that this is how it is for both of them and they just weren’t saying it out loud.

It’s not like that. Munson’s pretty sure.

“You are not. You’re just being dumb.”

Chavez screws his knuckles against Munson’s arm, kisses him on the line of his jaw. “Nah, it’s true. I’ve been in love with you since we were probably fifteen years old. It’s possible that I’ll never be in love with anyone else ever again. So.”

Munson sits up, knocking Chavez off him. He’s still shaking his head, he doesn’t believe this, no way. Chavez is perfect, doesn’t he know that? Chavez is a year away from the big leagues, and nothing’s as important as that.

“You can’t be in love with me. You love me like I love you, like a brother,” he explains, his hand closing anxiously in the sheets.

Chavez scoffs, looking hurt and scared and not much like himself at all. “Yeah, brothers who fuck.”

Munce pushes his fist into the mattress, digging in. “Shut up. We’re gonna be major league ballplayers, you’re not allowed to be in love with me.”

Chavvy sits up too, his eyebrows pulled down, glaring blackly at his friend. “Not allowed?” he echoes. “Not allowed by who? You? Because just try and stop me, man, I fucking dare you.”

Munce is about to lash back, but then the absurdity of the argument strikes him, and he breathes out an unsteady laugh, pulls a hand across his face. If they’re gonna fuck up, they’re not gonna do it like this.

He slips his hand around Chavez’s arm, rolls his eyes and says, “C’mere.”

He sits back against the headboard and tugs Chavez to him again, Chavez briefly tense but then acquiescing, folding against his friend. Munson pushes a hand through Chavez’s hair, exhaling.

“All right, go ahead and be in love with me,” he says, smoothing the hair behind Chavez’s ear with intricate attention. “Your funeral. But, I mean . . . it’s not like we live five minutes away from each other anymore.”

Chavez nods, his unshaven cheek rasping on Munson’s chest. Munce continues, “And pretty soon we’ll both be in the majors and not playing for the same team and, and . . . and it’ll have to be even more of a secret.”

Chavez turns his head, his chin on Munson’s sternum. His eyes are sleepily hooded and very dark, his hair casting charcoal-colored shadows on his forehead and temples. “We’ve been keeping it a secret for three years now. Why can’t we just . . .” he trails off, and Munson sardonically finishes for him:

“Keep it a secret for another twenty years? That doesn’t seem like the most realistic of plans, man.”

Chavez scowls at him, his hand on Munson’s hip, fisted in the material of Munce’s shorts. “Wasn’t gonna say that,” he argues. “I was gonna say, like, if people are gonna be dumb, then we’ll just have to be smart. If we could sneak it past our parents, how hard can it be to sneak it past major league baseball?”

Munce hikes his eyebrows and angles Chavez a dubious look, swiping the back of his arm across his forehead. It’s so hot in here, he can barely breathe. He shakes his head. “Even if we could keep it a secret, what, we’re just not gonna see each other for six months of the year? You really think you’d be able to handle that?”

Chavez’s eyes narrow. “Maybe you wouldn’t be able to handle it,” he huffs.

Munson rolls his eyes again and flips Chavez onto his back, pinning his shoulders down and leaning over him.

“Look,” he says, brooking no argument. “You gotta not be everything’s-gonna-work-out about this, man. You gotta see it right, okay. You think this past year’s been hard, not seeing each other hardly ever, wait until it’s only a couple of games a season. And what if I end up on the East Coast? Or in the National League? It’s . . . it’ll be impossible, dude.”

Chavez’s mouth pulls tense, jet colors streaking through his eyes. “Are you getting rid of me?”

Munce blows out an irritated breath, not even remembering that maybe that’s why he came to Modesto, and drops his head down to nose against Eric’s throat. “No, goddamn it,” he murmurs, tasting sweat and soap. “I’m asking you to think about this. Seriously. Not little-Ricky-Chavez-says-it’s-gonna-be-fine, but honestly, think about it, all the stuff that’ll be between us. And figure out whether you really think we could . . . hold on. How bad it’d be if we couldn’t.”

Chavez’s face is shuttered, his eyes unreadable. “We’d be fine,” he whispers.

Munson sighs impatiently, glaring at him and thumping Chavvy’s shoulder. “You didn’t even fucking think about it!”

Chavez pushes him hard, shoving him off. He sits up and tears his hands through his hair, short-tempered and inarticulate. “I’ve never needed to think about it,” he answers. “Maybe we’d only see each other a couple times a season and maybe we’d fuck around on our own time with other people, but fuck, man . . . we could do it.”

Munson swings his legs out, his feet on the floor and his elbows on his knees. The room is rustling, the heat wracking on the window glass, and Munce thinks about a tile floor, checkerboard cool and hands leeched of their color by the chill.

“Hard as it’s gonna be to make it in the bigs, and to have this happening on top of it . . . just seems like we’d be asking to get hurt.”

There’s a long moment, then Chavez says tonelessly, “You are getting rid of me.”

Munce twists around, catching Chavez’s eyes angrily. “I’m not fucking getting rid of you! Jesus. I’m just saying, don’t think this is gonna be easy.”

Chavez crawls over to him on his hands and knees, sitting on the edge of the bed and their legs press together from knee to hip, shoulders bumping. He leans into Munson, too warm and his good weight resting briefly against his friend. “I don’t think it’s gonna be easy,” he says. “I just think we could do it.”

Munson looks at him, lifts his hand and touches his fingers to Chavez’s ear, his cheekbone, the slant of his nose. Chavez rumbles and turns his face into Munson’s palm. Munson cards his fingers into Chavez’s hair, bending his hand around, and taps his thumb thoughtfully on Chavez’s jaw. He thinks that some things are never gonna change.

“I guess I’m probably in love with you too,” Munson admits reluctantly, because really, how could he not be? It still might be a lie, but it’s a good one, at least. It’s a lie he’s willing to believe. His other hand is drifting on Chavez’s back, his forearm a solid bar of heat across the small of Chavez’s back.

Chavez nods, his eyes paling slightly, patting him on the knee. “Of course you are, Munce.”

Munson lowers his head down onto Chavez’s shoulder, laughing gently with little hooks of air blowing across Chavez’s skin. “We’re both really, really dumb.”

Chavez chuckles, his body thrumming slightly, and kisses Munson on the forehead, warmly held together, for now, at least, for now.

Two months later, it ends for the first time.

*

(dive boy dive)

The minor league season is over in September, and Eric Chavez goes home to San Diego.

He rides back with Jeff DaVanon, a teammate of his who grew up on the east side of town, and they make the six-hour trip in four and a half, pulling into Rancho Penasquitos at three in the morning.

Eric shakes DaVanon’s hand, and thanks him for the ride. They probably won’t be teammates again, because Chavvy is looking to start next season at Double-A Huntsville (the Deep fucking South), and DaVanon’s got a year or two more of scuffling before he’ll go that far.

Chavez is so tired. He got sick of baseball about a week after seeing Munson in Modesto, though the two events were unrelated. It’s just such a long season. Not twenty-six games, but one hundred and fifty-four. Not three months, but six. Every part of Eric Chavez’s body hurts; all he wants to do is sleep.

Casey comes out the front door, grinning in his wide cockeyed way and careening into his big brother’s arms on the stone walk, Eric’s dog Cheech snapping at his heels. Chavvy hugs him tight, Casey punching him on the back exuberantly, the younger boy having stayed up waiting for his brother to come home, burning through a Costco-sized box of Pixie Stix and now kited, sugar-high to his eyeballs.

“Ricky Ricky Ricky, dude!” Casey yells, and Chavez laughs, sets him back down on his feet. Cheech bounds around them ecstatically, barking and pawing up Chavez’s back, big pink tongue lapping at Chavez’s shirt.

“Shh, bro, working neighborhood, remember?” Chavez tells him with an affectionate smile, the street cool and restful.

Casey pokes at Chavez’s still-novel goatee, and bounces over to get his bags, hunching under the weight of the big duffel, staggering towards the house.

Eric stands in the front yard for a little while, flexing his shoulders against the stiffness of the car ride, craning back to see the stars. Cheech circles him, rubbing against his legs and giving him a devotedly joyful dog-grin. He thinks, ‘home,’ and is so happy he could cry.

He’s not going to think about his career or baseball in those terms, not until the spring. He’s going to remove it from his physical life, be a fan again, and see the world like everybody else does.

Chavez rents a two-bedroom house in Manhattan Beach, draped on the edge of a cliff. It’s twenty minutes from USC, and he can watch the dolphins leaping in shiny gray arcs like machinery in the ocean from every room that faces west.

Munson basically moves in, four or five nights a week in Manhattan Beach, and they sleep on the living room floor like little kids who couldn’t make it to midnight on New Year’s Eve. They sleep on the couch on long Sundays, the Padres at one o’clock, an East Coast game at four, and then the Dodgers or the Angels at seven, half-waking groggily to roll their heads on each other’s shoulders and protest in cottony voices, “no, I’m up, who’s winning?” They sleep on Chavez’s big new mattress, which he never bothered to set up the box spring for, so that when Munce rolls off the edge, he just rolls right onto the floor and doesn’t even wake up, not until he gets cold an hour or two later and fumbles his way back, still asleep, knotting himself around Chavez’s warm body.

Eric Chavez gets to know Munson’s schedule, knows when Munson has time to come over in the middle of the day between classes and wake him up by pulling his hair, knows when Munson will be around to the watch the Simpsons and go out for beers afterwards. He meets Munson on campus and they play pick-up basketball, they mess around with Aerobes on the quad. They get back to Manhattan Beach and fuck until they fall asleep. Munson’s parents start calling Eric Chavez’s number before they call Munson’s dorm.

Chavez tackles his best friend onto the couch and kisses him with crumpling magazines under Munson’s back. They go out to Dodger Stadium and Chavez buys a big foam finger for the purposes of whapping Munson upside the head, and Munson gets him a white and blue pennant that says Chavez Ravine on it, which immediately gets hammered into the place of honor on the wall above Chavez’s mattress.

It’s amazing. Eric Chavez hasn’t touched a baseball in three weeks, and he can’t remember anything as good as this.

Steve Scogin, their second-best friend from high school, is at nearby Long Beach State and hangs out a lot too, surfing with Munson and whipping perfect football spirals down the length of the shore to Chavez, both of them barefoot and sprinting past the tanned families, the intricate moated castles made of sand.

Chavvy leaves the door unlocked, more out of principle than anything else, because he’s so safe all the time, he can’t imagine anything changing that, and that’s how Scogin walks in on them one afternoon a few days before the World Series starts.

He doesn’t see much. He doesn’t really see anything. Chavez and Munson are in the kitchen, trying to make brownies from scratch because store-bought mixes are for geeks, and the whole thing is generally a fiasco from the start.

Chavez has got sugar in his hair and there’s flour all over the counter, handprinted, finger-written to read, ‘Eric C = dork,’ and the answering ‘Eric M = dork-lover,’ both of them giggling and yelping, jumping away from the blistering corners of the stove. The stereo’s on loud, pushing a good beat through the house, a rattled flood of words that they can’t keep up with.

Munce brushes the back of his hand across his face without thinking and leaves a smear of chocolate batter, dark like war paint on his cheek, and Chavez is laughing as he backs Munson up against the refrigerator, his hands in fists on Munson’s stomach, their knees bumping. He noses in, hiccupping with laughter, feeling the music pulse in his head and Munson’s body rumbling, hitching breaths and high loose tricks of laughter coming from him too.

Chavez closes his eyes, grinning, and swipes his tongue on Munson’s cheek, chocolate in his mouth and Scogin’s shocked voice from the doorway, above the bass and the rhythm, “What the fuck?”

Munce shoves Chavez away so hard, Chavez trips over one of the chairs and goes sprawling on his back on the stony tile floor.

He feels something crack like a twig in his elbow where it hits the floor, a killing pain that radiates out, and he hears Munson saying frantically, “We were just messing around, Steve, it’s nothing, nothing.”

Chavez shuts his eyes, the jarred pain like an explosion, and he can’t breathe.

“What the fuck do you mean, it’s nothing!” Scogin shouts, and Chavez, without opening his eyes, knows how he looks, an expression of dumb surprise, his blue eyes round, jerking his hands through his hair the way he does when he’s upset, making his helix blonde curls stick up crazily.

Chavez sits up, his bent arm clutched to his chest, still blind and his head down, clenching his teeth so hard his jaw aches, and he hears himself whispering, “Nothing, Steve.”

He forces his eyes open, forces his head up. “Just messing around, dude,” looking at just Scogin, like it’s just the two of them and Munce is somewhere else, somewhere far away, his dorm room at USC or his parents’ house down south or the bottom of the fucking ocean.

Scogin gives him a baffled look of disbelief. “Then why are you on the floor, Eric, you fucking liar,” Scogin asks him, his hands closed in fists. Steve’s angry and stunned and their second-best friend, and Chavvy can only shake his head, sugar dusting like snow onto his face.

“We were just being dumb,” Chavez tells him numbly, having to speak stupidly loud to be heard over the pulse of the music. “Because it’s nothing.” His arm hurts so bad. He can taste sugar in his mouth, he can taste chocolate. He feels like he might be about to burst into tears.

Scogin stares at him for a moment longer, burning, and then yanks his head in a tight refusal. “Whatever. Just . . . fucking whatever,” he says, more confused than anything else, and walks out, the song ending just as the door bangs shut behind him.

Eric, on the floor, studies the pattern of the tile intently, pushing his thumb around the linked octagon shapes. There’s a spoon under the table.

“Chavvy,” Munson attempts hoarsely, and Chavez can see his feet, his favorite pair of Rainbow flip-flops, his hairy legs with streaks of white, flour and sugar.

“Get the fuck out of here,” Chavez tells him for the second time in their life, his voice slivered and strong. He looks up then, his eyes black, and his lungs feel crushed, Munce staring down at him with mute remorse, but it’s too late.

There’s a moment when Chaves hates him, as much as he’s ever hated anyone, and in that moment his upper lip sneers and he says, “Don’t come back.”

He won’t let himself look away until Munson makes a choked noise and leaves as quickly as he can, and Chavez is alone, shaking on the kitchen floor.

*

(black-and-white movie)

Before the sun goes down that day, Eric Munson has left nine messages on Chavez’s voicemail, all of them saying pretty much the same thing, skirting an apology, telling Chavez not to be dumb, call me back, please, dude, don’t be a punk, call me back.

Chavez goes down to the liquor store on the corner and buys a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, feeling very film-noir about the whole thing as he drinks himself into a stupor on the deck overlooking the cliff, passing out on the wooden planks, tacky with salt and fire.

He stays that way for about a week, Munson’s messages crowded on his phone unheard, sleeping for as much as he can and being drunk for the rest of the time.

Munce wakes him up, a week later, Chavez having left the front door unlocked again, though he’s not safe anymore. He’s out on the deck and it’s still dark, the seabirds splashing white against the sky, the moon bending on the ocean.

Munson is smoothing the hair back from his forehead, over and over again, murmuring his name. Chavez smiles, still mostly unconscious, and turns his face into Munson’s hand. He swims upward, his mind coming into focus, and when he remembers, his eyes flick open and he pushes away off the deck, splinters in the palm of his hand. He pulls himself into a sitting position and Munson is on his knees, new lines on his face.

“I told you not to come back,” he rasps, his mouth fuzzy and his vocal chords scoured.

Munce looks like he wants to reach out again, but he holds himself back. “You really expected me to stay away?” he asks, his eyes sorrowful.

“Yeah,” Chavvy answers, glaring at him, and then his stomach rears up, his face blanching, and he barely gets out, “Fuck,” as he scrambles for the edge of the deck, thrusting his head between the rails and vomiting into the brush, lying on his stomach with his hands clutching the wood.

He feels Munson’s hand on his back, and wrenches away, banging his neck against the rail. “Don’t . . . don’t fucking touch me,” and then he’s throwing up again, his eyes wet and acid in his throat. Munson’s hand is gone, and Chavez keeps vomiting until it’s just wracking dry heaves, empty inside.

He slowly pulls himself back, coughing weakly and crying a little bit. Munce is crouched in front of him, holding out a glass of water. Chavez wants to knock it out of his hand, broken glass on the deck, but all he can taste is rotted and disgusting, so he grudgingly takes it and washes out his mouth, spitting water over the side, until his mouth is clean, his throat burning.

Munson’s sitting cross-legged, watching him with a disorienting scared look on his face, looking uncertain and guilty. “You okay?”

Chavez snarls and hurls the empty glass into the black. Even without his legs into the throw, it’s still a long time before they hear the shatter.

“I want you gone.”

Munson hardens his face, shakes his head. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Chavez moves to stand, go into the house and lock his best friend out, let him break a window if he wants to stick around, but Munson grabs his wrist before he can rise, Munson’s eyes bright, saying desperately, “Look, what the fuck was I supposed to do? I panicked, okay? I just . . . when I heard him, it was, like . . . instinct.”

Chavez rips his hand out of Munce’s grip. “Oh, thanks a fucking bunch, Munson, good to know that you pushing me away is an instinct,” he says with tearing sarcasm.

Munson sweeps his hands violently through his hair, scraping his nails on his scalp. His control starts to go, shuddering. “Goddamn it, it wasn’t . . . I didn’t . . . I, I’m sorry.”

“You should be, motherfucker,” Chavvy says, the wind off the ocean raising goosebumps on the skin of his arms, creeping around his stomach.

Munson’s eyes get thin and bitterly angry. “Classy, Chavez, really, way to accept an apology.”

“Shut the fuck up, dude, you don’t get to be an asshole right now.”

Munce blows out a breath, looking out towards the water, the silver-black pull of the tide. He doesn’t want to be four feet away from Chavez anymore. He doesn’t want to be out here on this fucking deck.

Eric Munson knows that this doesn’t mean anything, no matter what he says or what he does, this isn’t gonna make anything different. If he convinces Chavvy to take him back, and Steve or anybody walks in on them again, he’ll push Eric away just as hard, just as fast. Munson does not doubt this, and he won’t fight it. He can’t fix this for them, because it’s not really broken, this is just the way it is.

Munce speaks slow and careful, measuring out each word and hiding the parts that are lies, “Look, I’m trying . . . I’m trying . . . to tell you that I was an idiot. And I got no excuse, all right? But, fuck, man. I don’t . . . I don’t know how to deal with this. I’ve never known how to deal with this.”

Chavvy rubs his hand quickly across his face. His hollow stomach is still uneasy, that nauseated dizzy feeling in his head and his sinuses clogged. He doesn’t look at his best friend, tells him low, “Yeah, well, maybe I’m tired of waiting for you to figure it out.”

Munson stares at him, shakes his head automatically, his chest tight. “You don’t mean that.”

The rails are digging into Chavvy’s back, and he wants to be angrier than he is. If he could be angrier, he wouldn’t be so fucking miserable. He makes his voice hard and sharp, “You know what, I do. I do mean it. It’s no tougher for you than it is for me, and I’ve made my fucking peace.”

Munson’s eyes flare, and he retorts, “The hell you have. How many people have you told about you and me? Your parents? Chris and Casey? Your teammates?”

Chavez rolls his eyes impatiently, coughs out a humorless laugh. “Oh, that’s such bullshit, man. The second I breathed word fucking one to anybody, you would have cut me off so quick, don’t even pretend like you wouldn’t have. You would have acted like you don’t even know me.”

Munson goes still, staring at him, and Munce is surprised by the deep fall in his chest to hear Eric say that to him. He shakes his head slowly, wrapping his arms around his stomach, elbows in his hands, and says, “I . . . no, I wouldn’t. I never would. Act like I don’t . . . dude, I don’t know how to breathe without you. How’m I supposed to act like I don’t know you?”

“Did a pretty fucking good job of it with Steve,” Chavez says, feeling mean and trying not to see too far into his friend.

Munce flinches, and snaps in response, “Well, excuse me for not being ready to pin a rainbow flag on my chest and then go back out with my fucking team.”

Chavez shakes his head, his heart beating out of its rhythm. “Don’t bring baseball into this. Baseball’s got nothing to do with it.”

Munson’s eyes widen, and he half-shouts in frustration, “Baseball’s got everything to do with it! If we weren’t ballplayers, it wouldn’t matter!”

Chavvy matches him, staying on the same level, the same side, “It shouldn’t matter anyway, jackass!”

Munce feels the dim salt spray on his face, matting his hair. It’s cold, what passes for cold in the Los Angeles autumn, and velvet black beyond the reach of the hanging orange deck lights. He finds himself wondering if this was bound to happen, if this was the place they’ve been moving towards their whole life. When he pulls a hand across his face, it’s the exact same as wiping away tears, though he’s not crying.

“But it does,” Munson tells him. “Yeah, perfect world, it wouldn’t matter, but it’s far from a perfect world, I don’t know if you’ve noticed.”

“Believe me, man, that’s been made clear,” Chavez says, blinking fast against the wind.

Getting so tired of this, slamming his head against the wall, doing his best and not getting anywhere, Munson glares at him and asks, “Dude, what do you want? I told you I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you away, that was a dick thing to do. Since turning back time isn’t really an option, can we just forget about it and move the fuck on, already?”

The orange light on his face, Chavez takes a long long time, picking the splinters out of the palm of his hand, before answering with his voice soft, “No.”

Munson blinks. “What?” He must have heard wrong. Or misinterpreted. Something.

Chavvy swallows, grimaces at the taste. He wonders if he’s gonna throw up again. He feels like he might, though there’s nothing left to go. He presses his thumb against his eye, until it hurts so bad he can’t stand it.

Chavez says without looking at Munson, “I . . . I think you were right. In Modesto. This is gonna be . . . it’s already too hard.”

Munson stares at him in disbelief. Yeah, he fucked up, he did something stupid, but he’s done a million stupid things, and Chavez has never gotten rid of him, never even tried to. They forgive each other, forgive each other everything, because they’re best friends and that’s what best friends do.

“You’re . . . quitting? Just like that?”

Chavez moves his head carefully, mouthing ‘no.’ He takes his hand down from his eyes, figuring he owes it to Munson to at least look at him, at least that. “Not just like that. I can’t . . . I’m not asking you to take out a fucking ad about it, and I get that you freaked out when Steve came in, but. I think me still being in love with you would be a really bad idea right now.”

“What are you talking about?” Munson asks helplessly, a vertigo sense of tailspin unraveling in his stomach. “You’re . . . not, anymore?”

Chavez shrugs, drops his eyes, because that look on Munson’s face, that look . . . “Not as much as I was,” he whispers. “And less every day.”

If that’s a lie, Chavez doesn’t want to know about it. If it’s a lie, it’s something that should be true.

“Jesus, Eric,” Munson manages, feeling struck dumb, struck down.

Chavez rushes ahead, looking for something to hold on to. He threads an arm between the rails, stretches to clench his hand around the skinny square strut, feeling the give of the wood under his strong fingers. He tries to sound like he doesn’t care, and mostly succeeds:

“Look, you’re the one who’s always been fucked up about this. So, here’s your way out, dude. Take it while you can.”

“Fuck you!” Munson cries out, suddenly furious. “I never asked for a way out!”

Chavez flaps his free hand through the air, exhausted and maybe still a little bit drunk, still sick, still off his game. “Well, whatever. You’re getting one. So am I.”

Hands in fists, Munson feels the power in his chest and shoulders, the soar of blood pounding in his head. Yeah, better to be angry, definitely better. “You fucker, you can’t just . . . that’s, it’s . . . that’s not fair, man!” and he breaks a little bit, falls back on a kid’s argument, something that holds no water.

Chavez makes a sound like a moan, clutching the rail so tight he keeps waiting for it to snap. “Just . . . go back to school, all right?” he says, a near-plea. “Maybe not seeing each other for awhile would be a good thing. Healthy. Or whatever.”

Munce forces his body to relax, because he’s not going to hit Chavez, not tonight. He focuses on breathing, oxygen in, carbon dioxide out, full-lunged inhales. He asks, feeling weightless, “You don’t want to see me anymore? Like, not even as friends?”

Chavvy shakes his head, staring off at the strip of white beach, the edges frayed. “No. Not right now.”

Munson swallows hard, and he thinks, ‘you’ve never been able to stay away from me, why do you want to start now.’

He asks, cringing at the plaintive nature of it, “But . . . someday, you will again, right?”

Chavvy sighs, the angle of his shoulders resigned. “I guess.”

Munson scans Chavez’s face, and Chavez looks the same as he always does, just solemn and afraid, his drunk eyes puffy, his lower lip chewed almost raw. There’s something spiked and thick stuck in Munson’s throat, and he whispers, “Eric . . .”

Chavez’s face warps, a slam of pain, and he covers up his face with his hands, begging, “Oh, Christ, please, Munce, get out of here, please.”

So Munson goes, knowing all the while that if he’d stayed, even just a minute longer, even just a second or two, Chavvy would have lost his strength and his ability to break them apart. Munson knows, as he drives back to USC and does his very best not to aim his headlights over the guardrail, that if he’d just refused to leave one more time, Chavez would have stopped wishing him gone.

The sun is coming up over Receda and Eric Munson is laughing himself to hysterical tears on the southern California highway, laughing so hard it sounds like a scream.

(end part four)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Fifth: Alone So Far

(sucker punch)

So they’re done.

They’re done and they’re both still young enough to think that done once is done forever.

Eric Munson goes back to school, throws himself headlong into his classes, wishing for the season to start and fill his life again. He fucks around for awhile, sleeping with just about every girl who’ll have him, but then he gets VD, goes on antibiotics and off women. His buddies slap him on the back and tell him it’s a rite of passage, congratulations, dude, your first sexually transmitted disease, but Munce just feels unclean, dirty and numb.

He doesn’t watch the World Series.

He wakes up in the middle of the night a lot, and can’t fall back asleep for hours. It’s not nightmares or anything like that, it’s just a shock like cold water on his face. He doesn’t really dream, these days.

Steve Scogin knocks on his door one night, shuffling in with his eyes down, and mutters an apology for reacting the way he did in Manhattan Beach, his hands jammed in his pockets as Munce sits on his bed and watches him impassively.

“Whatever . . . whatever’s going on, you guys are my best friends,” Steve tells him, his eyebrows clenched together and the words coming reluctantly.

“There’s nothing going on,” Munson answers, realizes with a jolt that that’s true, that’s actually true, for the first time in three years, maybe even longer than that. Chavez has been in love with him since they were fifteen, didn’t he say that? Is it possible that Munson’s been in love with Chavez for that long too, and never knew it? If he can’t say for sure how long he’s loved Eric, how can he say for sure he ever loved him at all?

Scogin kicks at the floor, scowling. “Whatever. You wouldn’t tell me even if there was.”

Munce cracks his neck, working out the stiffness. “Yeah,” he says to the ceiling.

“So, look,” Scogin says. “Let’s just . . . let’s get army about it.”

Munson squints at him, not getting it. Scogin grins. “Don’t ask, don’t tell, bro.”

Munce grins back, and they go surfing.

Later that night, when they’re drunk on Mexican beer with seawater crystallizing in their ears, Munson sucker-punches Scogin in the back of the head while the other man is waiting for their order at the bar.

Scogin cries out in pain and falls into the bar, crashing glasses and bottles everywhere, the crush of people jerking backwards. He whips around and Munson is already shoving an asshole-looking guy with a crewcut, shouting in outrage, “What the fuck, why’d you hit my friend, motherfucker!”

They narrowly escape getting killed. Scogin takes Munson back to dorms, treating him like a hero, grinning with red teeth, and Munson winces every time he smiles, his face bruised and his lip split. Scogin hands him shot after shot of tequila, tells everybody they see, “Eric, man, he totally didn’t even hesitate, got right after this dude who was, like, twice as big as him at least.”

Eric rubs his dislocated knuckles under the table. Punching Scogin in the head hurt him at least as much as it hurt Steve.

At the end of the night, Scogin fits a hand on Munson’s shoulder and says, “You’re a really good guy, man, I don’t want to get into bar fights with nobody else.”

Munson nods obligatorily and shows a gruesome smile, the cut on his lip opening again and blood inching down his chin.

Eric Chavez, for his part, doesn’t remember much of anything until he wakes up halfway through November with his television and stereo stolen, a litter of broken bottles and torn strips of cotton on the floor around his bed, finger-bruises on his throat.

This doesn’t frighten him as much as it probably should. He goes to the free clinic to get tested for everything, absently disappointed to find out he’s still clean, and buys a new stereo and television, top-of-the-line. He wonders, briefly, if the guy who fucked him raw and strangled him before stealing his shit might come back at some point, but can’t really get properly worked up about it.

He stays in Manhattan Beach, and gives serious consideration to becoming an alcoholic, as the situation seems to warrant, like, a Mickey Mantle kind of alcoholism, a Ruthian degree of it, ruin himself heroically the way a Yankee would, but if he keeps getting that fucked up, he’ll be dead by some anonymous West Hollywood trick long before his liver gives in, and he thinks about his family finding their good son with his face mutilated and his poor ten-percent-gay body curled naked and bloody on the kitchen floor, and cuts his fake ID up with an X-acto knife, throws the pieces off the deck into the wind. He never gets carded anymore, but it’s symbolic or dramatic or something like that, razor nicks on the tips of his fingers.

He watches a lot of bad TV and finds himself crying at random moments during the day, not feeling any worse than he normally does, just all of a sudden weeping at the kitchen table, on the couch, once getting dressed, pulling a shirt out of his closet, and hit with a crying jag so intense he fell to his knees on the closet floor and stayed like that for almost a half an hour, his coolest blue Lacoste totally soaked by the end of it.

He feels disconnected, disembodied, and decides that’s probably a good thing.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, his dad calls.

“Hey, there, shortstuff,” Cesar says cheerfully. “How’s a boy?”

Eric sinks into the couch, pulling his legs up against his chest. “Good, Dad,” he says, proud of his voice for staying even.

But his father’s not so easily fooled, pausing and then asking, “You sure, Eric?”

Chavvy swallows, presses a fist against his eye. “Yeah man. Just . . . tired. Maybe I’m getting sick or something.”

“You’ve been sick about four times in your whole life,” Cesar reminds him, but seems content to let it go, continuing, “Well, we’re looking forward to seeing you for dinner on Thursday.”

Chavez involuntarily gags at the thought of all that food, and his family’s undiminished faith in him, but agrees, “Me too.”

“I tell ya, your mom’s going nuts. All her recipes are for six, and now she’s got ten. She’s been trying to use Casey’s big calculator to figure it out, but that thing, I can’t get it to make two plus two-”

“Ten?” Chavez interrupts him, his head throbbing. “Who else is coming besides us?”

His dad pauses again. “The Munsons, Eric. I told you that, when we talked last week.”

Chavez doesn’t remember last week. But he knows he’s not ready to see his best friend, not yet.

“Aw, Jesus, are you serious?” he says, a shade of desperation at the edge of it. The heel of his hand is against his temple, pushing hard, but it’s not helping.

The tone of worry is back in Cesar’s voice, stronger now. “Of course I’m serious. What’s the problem?”

“I . . . I don’t think I can make it, Dad,” Eric whispers, the roof of his mouth tasting metallic and sour.

“Eric?” and now his dad sounds almost scared.

“It’s . . . it’s nothing,” he chokes out, praying to every god there is that he won’t start to cry, not now. “I just . . . I won’t. Be there. Okay?”

“No, it’s not okay,” Cesar says, confused. “What’s going on?”

Fingers against one eye, thumb against the other, holding it back with his hands, Chavez tells him, “Me . . . me and Munson . . . Eric . . . we’re not really . . . getting along so good right now.”

“Why not? What happened?”

Eric shakes his head, digging his chin into his knees. “It’s dumb. It doesn’t matter. We’re not talking. Or seeing each other. Or anything. So I can’t be there.”

Cesar takes a long moment, piecing his way through that, and then says firmly, “No.”

“Dad?”

“No, I’m sorry, but you’re coming home for Thanksgiving. And you’ll see him, and work this out.” There’s no potential for debate in the way Cesar says it, but he doesn’t know anything.

“It’s not that simple,” Chavez tries to tell him, his back beginning to strain from the tension of staying balled up.

“Yes it is,” his dad answers unilaterally. “He’s your brother, and you’ll figure it out together.”

Eric makes a little falling noise, thoughtlessly refuting, “My brothers’ names are Chris and Casey.”

Cesar barely lets him finish, his voice sharpening curtly, “Their names are Chris, Casey, and Eric. He’s my fourth son. He’s your third brother. And I never want to hear you say different again, do you understand me?”

Chavvy swallows hard, amazed that he’s still not crying. “Yes.” He’s so fucked up, he can’t stand it. He tries to draw in a cleansing breath, but his chest is all cramped, nothing works right. “You don’t know how it is with me and him, though. It’s not . . . it’s not easy, this time. You . . . you don’t know.”

Horrifyingly, Eric feels himself on the verge of confessing everything, just pouring it out so that it won’t be inside him anymore: I love him dad and I’ve always loved him and he pushed me down and I don’t know what to do without him I can’t live like this.

And then, apocalypse.

Chavvy bites down on the side of his fist, keeps it down.

Cesar sighs, and says to him calm and sad and wise like dads are wise, “I know you’d die for him. And him for you. That’s enough for me. It should be enough for you, too. There . . . there are brothers you’re born with and brothers you find, Eric. If you’re lucky, you get to have both. And to lose either . . . that’s a terrible thing. A heartbreaking thing.”

That’s it. That’s, yeah, that’s it. Eric starts to cry, trying to keep it quiet, hidden from his father, snuffling against his knees and wiping his eyes on his arm, but probably his dad sees right through him over the phone lines, his way-too-smart dad.

Cesar doesn’t say anything about it, though, whether he knows or not, just tells him gently, “You come home and you fix it with him, short guy. And it’ll be good again.”

Chavez covers the receiver with his hand, sobs, and then takes his hand away, says as steadily as possible, “’Kay, Dad, I’ll see you then, I’ll see you soon, bye,” and quickly hits the button to hang up, crying so hard and doing his best not to think of the true answer to his father, the only right answer, because it’ll never be good, not ever again.

He’s nineteen years old and stubbornly attached to his heartbreak, living in a world of extremes, and nothing anyone says will convince Eric Chavez that he’ll ever stop hurting this badly.

*

(come home and see me sometime)

Thanksgiving, what a cruel fucking joke.

Chavvy goes home resentfully, his face scrubbed clean and his hair combed. He’s got an awful clawing sensation of dread, way down deep in his stomach, like the moment he first sees Munson, one of them will just die on the spot, and the other will be left to explain it to their families, and then go through their stuff after the funeral, and realize that their life isn’t something that can be divided from itself.

Munce’s big red truck is already parked on the street, and Chavez has a sniggering juvenile-delinquent moment when he thinks about keying it, or crunching the back fender, or getting the bat out of his trunk and taking the side mirror to the opposite field.

He parks behind the truck and trails his hand along it as he walks to the house, watching his funhouse reflection bend in the shiny contours.

Inside, his mom fusses over him and Chris screws up his hair, saying, “Who you tryin’ to kid, you’re no grown-up.” He hugs Brandy, lifts her off the ground and spins her, her legs flying out like propellers, one sandal winging into the wall. He gets a proud clapped-back embrace from Steve Munson and a smudge of lipstick on his cheek from Dora, and gives Shelly the necklace he got for her in San Francisco, silver and copper thinly braided.

Cesar’s in the living room, watching football with Casey, who thwacks Eric with a couch cushion in greeting. Cesar stands, and as he hugs his father, Chavvy realizes that he’s taller than the older man, for the first time.

Cesar pulls back and inspects him, testing Chavez’s arms. Chavvy makes a smile, and Cesar’s eyes soften.

“He’s in the backyard,” Cesar tells him, and Chavez blinks fast, nods.

He steps out the sliding door, pushing it closed behind him. It’s getting cold, a pulled chill in the air. It’s the space between sunset and nightfall, the light gone but the sky bruised lavender, the stars invisible behind the veil.

Eric Munson is sitting on the low branch of the fort tree, the planks of their never-completed tree house above his head, water-swollen and turning green, the nails pushed out and leaving small scarred indentations behind. Munson’s legs are swinging loosely above the mulched brown of the dirt, and he’s drinking Dr. Pepper out of a glass bottle, bought in Mexico with Spanish on the label because it’s a special occasion.

Eric Chavez looks down, stuffing his hands in his pockets. His throat is thick, and he shivers unexpectedly, his shoulders twitching.

“Hey.”

Chavez pulls his eyes up. It’s getting dark quickly; soon they’ll just be shadows. Munce is watching him from the tree, rolling the bottle between his palms. Chavez goes over, hikes himself up onto the branch. He takes the Dr. Pepper from Munson and finishes it off, Munson’s eyes on the movement of his throat.

“Hi.”

They sit there silently for awhile, the pale yellow-green matchlight of the last fireflies of the year switching on and off over the grass. Chavez tocks the empty bottle against his knee, and Munson asks, “How’re you doing?”

Chavez glances at him, but Munce isn’t letting anything show. Chavvy breathes out, rubs his eyes. He’s so fucking tired of lying, so he admits, “Pretty awful, man.”

“Yeah,” Munson says, sounding sad. They’re quiet again.

“Look,” Chavez says, and then stops. He picks at the tree bark, scratching his nails, his starfish hand pallid against the branch. He wants there to be something in between never wanting to see Munson again and never wanting to let go of him. He’s sure there’s got to be something, a middle ground, if he can only find it.

“You can take it back,” Munce tells him suddenly. Munson’s hands are on his own legs, fingers pattering nervously. “Any time you want, we can go back to the way it was.”

Chavez lets the bottle trip off his knee, rolling across the grass. He cracks his knuckles, squinting at the warm house, foggily skewed through the glass. “The way it was before the World Series or the way it was when . . . when we were kids?”

Munson sighs, and takes his time. “It’s weird, you know?” he says introspectively, not looking at Chavez. “I figured . . . figured I’d miss being friends with you the most. Like, just hanging out and stuff. But it turns out . . . in real life . . . all I can think about is sleeping with you again. Which is pretty fucking warped, I guess.”

Chavez shrugs, his face pleasurably warm, and thinks that he probably shouldn’t feel so excited to hear that. “It’s not warped. I can understand. What with me being all freakishly hot and everything.”

Munce smiles against his will, snatches a look at his friend. Chavez has got his head angled to the side, his eyes down, and there’s the shape of a perfect leaf on his forehead, like a charcoal sketch. Munce swallows, drags his gaze away.

Chavez works his way through it. It’s close to full dark now, and he can hear the safe sounds of the house, the rise of laughter, one family.

“I miss you,” he confesses. Munson’s head jerks, the whites of his eyes like marble. “I mean, you fucked me up pretty bad. Or . . . I guess I fucked myself up. Something. But it feels like . . . like I made a mistake, even though I, I’m pretty sure I didn’t. I’m pretty sure it was the right thing to do, but it still feels . . . stupid.”

Chavez exhales noisily, pulls his hands through his hair. “I don’t know, man,” he sighs. “I don’t think I want you back, not right now. And you don’t want to be friends if we’re not fucking, so-”

“No,” Munson cuts him off, reaching out and touching three fingers to Chavez’s forearm, his pinkie curled back, like taking his pulse, but the wrong spot for it. “I didn’t say that. Don’t make stuff up. I want you. Any way I can get you.”

Chavvy looks at him with his eyes huge, and Munson’s face is hidden, just the flat wet color of his eyes, dimly made out. Munce shrugs, the hard tips of his fingers scraping on Chavez’s arm. “If you just want to be friends, then I’ll thank God for that.” He pulls away, mumbling too low for Chavez to hear, “Still more than I deserve.”

Chavez just stares at him for a second, then launches himself at his best friend, flinging his arms around Munson’s neck and slamming his forehead on Munson’s cheek. Munce oofs a surprised noise and tries to get his arms around Chavvy, but he loses his balance, tumbles out of the tree, both of them thumping to the soft ground, Munson’s wind gone.

He gasps in air, his chest hollow, and Chavez pulls him up, awkwardly positioned and hugging him tight enough that Munson fears death for a moment, neon bursts on the backs of his eyelids.

“You’re so cool,” Chavez babbles into his shoulder. “Swear to God, you’re the coolest motherfucker, you’re the best.”

Munson smiles, Chavez’s hair in his eyes, and feels his breath return, his heartbeat evening out and his mother’s voice calling out the window, “Boys! Dinner!”

They go in, sit next to each other at the long table, kicking at each other’s shoes, stealing pieces of cornbread off each other’s plate. They listen to Casey rambling enthusiastically about homecoming, waving a fork around perilously, and they watch Chris and Shelly trade barbed flirts the way they’ve been doing for about a decade now. Cesar smiles benevolently at the chattering group, and Dora beams to see them all together again, her eyes candle-lit. They talk over each other and trail off into giggles, surreptitiously feeding bits of turkey to Cheech, who nuzzles against their legs and slobbers on Munson’s hand adoringly.

When the time comes to go around the table and say what they’re thankful for, Chavez’s hand on the back of Munson’s neck squeezes warmly as Eric grins at his family and says, “Everything. I’m thankful for everything.”

*

(x-marks-the-spot)

They go back to being best friends.

Munson doesn’t come out to Manhattan Beach as much as he did before, and more and more often he makes sure that someone else will be there too, Steve Scogin with his tamped suspicions, some of Munce’s USC friends or their old buddies from Mt. Carmel.

He’s not quite comfortable, alone with Chavez out on the cliff, Chavez who still turns golden sometimes, flashes silver. Munce isn’t sure if he trusts himself to keep his hands off the other man, in those moments when Chavez is strange and perfect.

For the first time since they got their driver’s licenses and convinced their dads to stop coming along with them, it’s not just the two of them in the desert for New Year’s, but five cars full of kids, a shantytown of tents, a bonfire rung with coyote howls.

Munson gets mindlessly drunk way early on, and watches Chavez shyly kissing a blonde girl on the other side of the fire, tipping her chin up and his hand on her drawn-up knees. There’s concentration in Chavez’s face, his eyebrows pulled together, his cheeks hollowed, and Munce wonders if that’s what Chavez looks like when he’s kissing him.

Munson burns his hand, that night, reaching over the fire to hand the marshmallow stick off to someone who likes the burnt ones, and it’s too cold to even feel it. He thinks that a scar shouldn’t count if getting it didn’t hurt. He’s in an unsteady morbid frame of mind, these days, but he tries not to dwell on it too much.

It gets kind of easier, as 1998 picks up speed. Munson starts having a lot to do, getting ready for the season. There are team workouts and strength training and endless rounds of batting practice, until his shoulders throb bone-deep and his legs shake from overexertion as he lies in bed at night, too strung up to get to sleep.

He talks on the phone with Chavez, though his best friend is still just a half hour away even at rush hour. Sometimes, when Chavez invites him over to watch movies or hang out on the beach or something, Munson begs off, claiming something for the team when he’s actually got nothing planned. Chavvy believes him every time, though, so it doesn’t seem to matter.

It’s weird. It’s like a dream.

Munson thinks he’s doing all right. He feels all right. He goes to class, reads books about the Civil War and William Jennings Bryan, the cross of gold and the drought years of reform. He practices with his team, grins and laughs and hazes the freshmen. He goes out with a girl named Rebecca, cheats on her a couple of times and then admits it while penitently hammered one night, earning a ring-cut black eye and a new ex-girlfriend for his honesty. He surfs, he whips a firetruck red Frisbee to his buddy across the green.

He’s not in pain, he’s not sad. Everything seems to be going along the way it’s supposed to.

There’s an echo sometimes. A train whistle hollowing in his mind.

The night before Eric Chavez goes to Phoenix for spring training, they’re standing on the deck drinking a toast to Dixie, and Munson thinks about kissing him, if only to say good-bye, but decides not to.

Munce starts out sleeping on the couch in the living room, because that’s what best friends who aren’t fucking do, but around four in the morning, he creeps down the hall, his socks shuffling statically, and cautiously pushes the door open with his foot.

Chavvy is on his stomach, one arm bent over his head, his hand twined in his own hair, and the other thrown out across the mattress. Munson stands there silently, the calm flow of Chavez’s back, the speed-bumps of his shoulder blades, buckled notches of his spine, the tangle of sheets around his legs. The window with its slender wooden cross separating the panes makes an X-marks-the-spot in faded shadow gray at the slope just above the waistband of Eric’s boxers.

Something’s changing in Eric Munson. Something’s falling down.

Munson pulls his shirt off, lets it puddle to the floor by his feet. He moves soundlessly across the room, kneels beside the mattress. Carefully, as slowly as possible, he eases himself onto the mattress, lying down next to his friend. He sinks in and is scared to breathe. He turns his head and Chavez’s face is a half a foot away, all coaly eyelashes dusting high on his cheekbones, peaceful mouth, unlined forehead.

Munce picks up Chavez’s hand, places it gently on his own chest.

Chavvy sighs in his sleep, his closed eyelids flickering, and curls his hand slightly, his thumb itching at Munson’s heart. Munce stares up at the ceiling for a long time, spiderwebs like woven cotton, and he doesn’t remember when he falls asleep, but he knows that he wakes up alone.

*

(sunk down)

Munson decides to get over it. He’s really got no other choice, but even if he did, getting over it is definitely the way to go.

Chavez is gone, he’s gone to Alabama, and Munson’s got baseball to fill up his days, falls asleep at night running stats in his head, the pitch signs and the flutter of his hand over his chest protector when there’s a runner on second.

He’s playing as well as he ever has before, better even than when he was in high school, because the pitching’s very good now, and he can still hit everything. His arm’s strong, he makes the throw across the diamond from his knees. He can read the ball off the bat perfectly, knowing when he has time to fling his mask off and get to his feet, learning the different sounds of contact, clipped bunts, chunked weak-hit grounders on the infield, cracked liners, the high pure thwack of a ball headed over the outfield fence.

He never lost his love for the game, but now he’s rediscovered some rare strand of it, something from when he was a kid, maybe five years old, long before anything, when he felt like he’d stumbled upon the greatest thing in the world, baseball, baseball, back when baseball was what he wanted most, all he needed.

He’s gone all the way back.

He’s not in denial, though. He spends too much time trapped in his own fucking head to not be aware of what’s happening to him. He makes sure to think it out, force it into clarity:

You’re in love with him and he’s not in love with you anymore. It took you too long to realize and now it’s too late. You fucked up. He’s still your best friend. You can’t go to Alabama and beg him to take you back. You’re going to get over it, because this isn’t something that lasts forever.

Eric Munson goes to class. He goes to the ballpark. He goes to the beach. He calls Chavez once, maybe twice a week, and waits for Chavez to call him back. They talk about dumb stuff and there are occasional anticipatory pauses during which Munson cannot help but wonder if Chavez is going to say, “and hey, listen, everything sucks without you, let’s try again.”

Munson’s pretty sure that once he stops waiting for Chavez to say that, then it’ll be behind him, he’ll be good again.

He thinks, ‘major league baseball,’ and he doesn’t want to see Eric Chavez in an Oakland A’s uniform, because he already knows it will be impossible to stay away once that happens.

And he keeps thinking, kinda plaintively, a futile push at the base of his skull, ‘but I’m not even gay.’ How can this be happening to him when he’s not even gay?

Munson tries to figure it out, he narrows his eyes and looks at other guys with determination, almost scowling, I will find you attractive, you will make me want to fuck you. This has to make sense or else he’s gonna go crazy, and if he could just see something in guys, someone other than Eric Chavez, it would make sense.

The guys playing soccer on the green, the ones that the girls watch unabashedly with their teeth lightly bit into their lower lips, the boys pulling up their T-shirts to swipe at their faces, their stomachs revealed and drawn taut, cupped belly buttons and maybe the slant of a hip if their board shorts are tugged down. The smart-looking guys who hang out at the coffeeshop in the student union, with cool shoes and complicated hair and bottle-green eyes. The boys in the art department who are almost too pretty for the name, cameo faces and long eyelashes, splatters of paint on their shirts, Walkman headphones around their necks. Munson trains his eyes on them and tries to force that hot slow-moving sensation to unroll low in his stomach, tries to make his mouth go dry and his hands start to shake. But it never really works.

Every time he imagines pressing his mouth to another guy’s, or pushing his hands up under a shirt onto a hard flat chest, he just feels kind of sick and wrong, like how thinking about touching his brother would feel. But he doesn’t have any brothers. Not real ones. So he closes his eyes and lets the random guy turn back into Eric Chavez, just so he’ll stop feeling like he’s about to throw up, and Chavez is always smiling at him, hooking a hand in his collar and snickering against his neck.

Eric Chavez is on the back of his eyelids and in every one of his memories and he’s not gay, but he is in love, really, terribly, impossibly in love. And he’s going crazy.

In Los Angeles, building up to the summer with nothing but postcard days, the nights getting shorter and household pets are going missing like before a big earthquake hits, and Eric Munson thinks about waking up on an island, waking up sunk down with small fish wriggling in his hair.

He walks around and he’s proud because no one can tell what’s going on, he’s gotten so good at this. He’s been taken to pieces and left ashamed, blank, so fucking alone, but no one can see it, and that’s really all that matters.

He can do this. He’s tough and he’s dealt with worse, though he can’t remember when exactly, but he’s sure he must have, at some point, he’s sure this can’t be as bad as it’s ever been.

Eric Munson hears his best friend in his head, telling him to stay, holding him down and fitting them together, and the rest of his life isn’t looking much like something he wants to be a part of.

(end part five)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Sixth: The Church of Baseball

(caught stealing)

Munson comes down the hall from the showers, scrubbing his head with his towel, and hears his phone ringing behind his room door. Munce swears, juggling his armful of shower stuff and shouldering into the room, tossing everything down and slinging the damp towel around his neck, hustling to get the phone before it stops ringing.

“Hello!” he half-yells, triumphant to have picked up in time.

There’s a pause. “Um . . . hi?”

Munce smiles, getting the worst of the wet off and flopping back onto his bed in his boxers and T-shirt. He’s as tired as fuck, but awake for this. “Dude, hey,” he says.

Chavez is in a motel outside Greenville, bored and lonely and drinking steadily, his roommate gone for the night in search of someone soft and wet and elusive. Chavvy’s on his third beer, wandering around his small room whipping a bat around, narrowly missing the lamp and busted television set.

They’re twenty years old. Eric Chavez is so deep in the South he’s starting to say y’all and fixin’, and in a couple of months, Eric Munson will be playing in the College World Series in Omaha.

Enough time has passed. Since what happened in Manhattan Beach, since Thanksgiving. Months are behind them now. Stuff gets dull, gets easier to deal with. With most of the country between them, nothing seems quite as incurable as when they were a twenty-minute drive apart. With no real chance to get each other into trouble, they’ve managed to stay clean. Eric Munson, well on his way to being over it, doesn’t hear train whistles in his head anymore, and Eric Chavez doesn’t wake up crying anymore.

It’s easier to be best friends when they don’t have to see each other every day.

“How’s it going?”

“Good. Where are you?” Munson asks.

Chavez curls his lip, drops the bat to sit down heavily on the bed. “Fucking South Carolina.” He rubs his hand over his face, reaches to get the beer off the nightstand.

“You finally got there, huh?” Munce smirks, because Chavvy had left a disgruntled message on his machine the day before, from the side of a desolate road, his muzzled long-distance voice cracking, “Our bus is broken down in the middle of nowhere. Stay in school, Munce. Minor league baseball sucks. Stay in school.”

“Yeah, fucking finally.”

“Having a good time?” Munce inquires mildly, the corners of his mouth twitching, because he knows that tone in his best friend’s voice.

Chavez snorts, lies back on the bed. “Yeah man, gangsta life,” he answers sarcastically.

Munson twists his shoulders on the bed, loosening his muscles as best he can. “The A’s have been all over the papers down here,” he tells Chavez. “Talking about Beane taking over and everything. He’s pretty fucking young to be a general manager, dude, you worried?”

“I don’t know, man, it’s weird,” Chavvy says. “There are these guys, like, the old baseball guys, you know? Who’ve been around for decades, the assistant manager here and the grounds crew chief at the stadium and the scouts and everything, and they say Billy Beane’s got something owed him. Owed him from, like, God.”

Munce lifts his eyebrows, propping one leg against the wall, feeling the stretch in his hamstring and calf. “From God?”

Chavez nods, his cheek brushing against the receiver. “Yeah. ‘Cause Beane was supposed to be so good, when he was playing, remember? But then it got, like, taken away. His talent.”

Munson yawns. He really needs to get more sleep. “It wasn’t his talent that went, it was his fucking head. He just couldn’t deal.”

“Yeah, well, whatever it was,” Chavvy says. “God gave him baseball and then God took it away, so now God’s got to get him back.”

Munce pulls his leg back down, bending it against his chest, clasping his free hand around his shin. “What the hell, man?” he laughs. “That’s pretty fucking out there.”

Chavez breathes out an answering laugh, tapping a finger on the bottleneck of his beer. “I know. But these guys, man, you oughta see ‘em, they can say stuff like that and have you just totally believing it. They say it’s not fair, what God did to Billy Beane, and now he’s got the whole world coming to him. They say he’s gonna change the game.”

Plucking at the hem of his shirt, Munce digests that, then asks, “You buy that?”

Chavvy shrugs, takes a pull. His motel room has gotten dark so quickly, the sun ratcheting down over the beat land. He can barely make out his glove on the dresser, the faded sheen of dust on the television screen. “I don’t know if I do or not. It’s fucking strange, though. I never played for no team that had a philosophy before.”

“A philosophy?” Munce repeats skeptically.

Chavez nods, finishing off his beer and lofting the bottle towards the small trashcan across the room. The bottle sparks a cartwheel, catching the end of the day’s light, and clonks off the wall a foot to the right of the mark, rolling away under the dresser.

Chavez scowls at the mellow cat’s-eye shine in the darkness, and answers, “Yeah. They don’t . . . they don’t play ball the regular way down here. They don’t teach the same stuff. You should see some of the guys I’ve seen in the system, they don’t look like any ballplayer you’ve ever seen before. Pitchers with a cross-body motion and no velocity. Catchers who can’t run or dig a slider out of the dirt. Guys who got signed ‘cause they work the count.” He widens his eyes to emphasize it, though he knows Munson can’t see it. “That’s it, Munce. They walk a lot, and they’re in Triple-A. It’s fucking ridiculous.”

“You walk a lot,” Munson reminds him, smiling slightly.

Chavvy scoffs, thinks about getting another beer. “Yeah, but I also knock the ball out of the park thirty times a season.”

Munce grins. “Cocky punk.”

Chavez grins too, the snap of his teeth white in the shadows of the room. “Jealous.”

“Of course I’m jealous,” Munson says, rolling his eyes. “You got a philosophical team and a GM who’s blessed or whatever, and I’ve got . . . class at eight in the morning three days a week.”

“’s good for you, Eric,” Chavez says, slipping a hand under his shirt to scratch lazily at his stomach.

“I really don’t think it is. I’m, like, half-asleep all the time.” Munson tips his head way back on the bed, looking upside down out the window. The scratch of the branches is constant, rasping like fingernails.

Chavez decides hell with it, gets up to get another beer from the bathroom sink, crunched down in melting ice. He wedges the phone between his head and his shoulder, cracking the cap off on his belt buckle, saying teasingly, “The college party scene a little too much for you, there, babe?”

Munce exhales shortly. “God, I wish.” He plays his fingers across the Lego action figures on the low shelf the trails the wall next to his bed. “Between school and everything I gotta do for the team, I barely have the energy to, like, get back to my room before I fall down.”

Chavez settles back on the bed, punching a pillow into shape behind him. He sucks at the mouth of the bottle, licking off the liquid at the top. “You’ve been falling down, Munson?” he asks, still with a tinge of humor in his voice but an undercurrent, vague concern. His three previous beers are beginning to buzz around the surface of his mind, hiking his mood up several notches. He rubs his hand slowly low on his stomach, his eyes at half-mast.

Munson picks up one of the Lego guys, ticks his little plastic feet in a dance across the shelf. “I’ve just been real tired. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got mono. Or maybe the hep is coming back again.”

Chavvy chuffs a laugh. “And maybe you’re just a lightweight.”

“Maybe,” Munce sighs, then yawns again, not bothering to shift the phone away.

Chavez’s voice is getting slower, carefully slurred at the edges, and Munce can read the occasional pauses, the long swallows, knows that Chavvy’s got a plan for tonight that involves not remembering it in the morning. Munson feels a brief flash of anger, that Chavez, who’s already living a dream, also has the time and energy to get wasted, because that was supposed to be at least one advantage college life had on pro ball.

But Munson can see his best friend, in some murky motel room in the South, sprawled bonelessly across the bed, his eyes swollen and hazy, the unconscious gestures of his hand cutting lethargically through the air, the way Chavvy always chews on his lower lip when he’s drunk, pulling it through his teeth and running the tip of his tongue across it. Munce shifts uncomfortably, rubbing a hand nervously on his thigh.

“Listen, man,” Chavez says, holding up the bottle into the thin square of moonlight slashing high through the room, tilting it back and forth to see the gleam. “It’s not supposed to be easy, you know? It wouldn’t be worth much if it were easy, huh.”

His eyes drift closed, resting the bottle against his stomach for a moment before he leans down to place it on the floor, and he continues, his voice getting rough and sleepy, “And you’re tough, you’re good.”

Chavvy eases open his belt buckle, humming deep in his throat, so quiet he can only barely hear it, and Munson’s just got a sense of it. “You’re good, Munce,” he breathes out.

California seems very far away. Everything seems very far away, except for Munson’s best-loved voice in his ear.

Munson’s chest hitches. “What . . . what’re you doing, Eric?” he asks hoarsely.

Chavez makes a rumbling sound. “Nothing,” he insists, thumbing open the buttons of his jeans fly. “Why? What’re you doing?”

Munce passes a hand glacially down his chest, his fingertips tagging on the waistband of his boxers, sliding inside. “Nothing.”

Chavez opens his eyes, following the nets and highway maps in the ceiling cracks, the arthritic shadows of branches across the plaster. “Munce,” he whispers in that old way, that specific hiss of his coarse voice, and Munson swallows, shuts his eyes.

“Fuck.”

They aren’t supposed to do this anymore. They’re supposed to be done. It’s very important to Eric Munson that they be done.

“You’re such a jerk,” Munson mumbles, flooded with heat and wishing for a breeze, something cool. His hand is working now, his heart staggering.

Chavvy laughs, low and taut. “Yeah, you like it.” He arches his back a little bit, thinking about Munson’s goofy grin and the wickered color in his eyes, the flared span of his hands and sloped valley between his shoulder blades. “Ah, you fucking love it, Munson.”

Eric Munson, breathing fast, is really in no position to disagree.

*

(you must be on guard against wickedness at all times)

Eric Chavez finds God a couple of weeks later.

Huntsville is obsessively hot, the streets dripping, the gauze of heat shimmer around every corner. Everybody speaks with an accent, some so thick Chavvy has to stand there uncomprehending, asking helplessly, “I’m sorry, what?” six or seven times, the southerner giving him exasperated looks, squinting at him like he might be a little slow.

He runs the air conditioner in his apartment all day long, and the erratic drone keeps him up at night, the stale re-circulated vent-smell of every breath and his throat feeling grated. He’s living with another guy from California, Tom Bennett, and they buy remote controlled cars, race them around the stadium’s parking lot.

He’s tearing up Double-A, the Southern League Player of the Month in May with a .365 average, six home runs and 32 RBI in 27 games. With the sweat soaking his jersey and cigarette smoke in his eyes, he finds the sweet spot over and over again, his swing clean and switching like a blade through the humid air.

But he’s pretty fucking lonely.

A bunch of the Latino players on his team, upon learning that he doesn’t speak Spanish despite his name and looks, start to call him ‘gringo,’ and Chavez knows that he should just laugh it off, knows that’s probably how it’s meant to be taken, but it’s tougher to do every time he hears it, his teeth gritted, a strained smile on his face.

He and Bennett get along pretty well, but they don’t talk much. Between living together and playing together, they run out of things to say to each other sometime around the fourth or the fifth inning, settling into a semi-comfortable silence until they retreat to their separate bedrooms in their relentlessly chilled apartment.

He sleeps with a few of the drawling Southern girls who charm smiles from their seats over the dugout, and they’re eager and well-versed, wrapping their endless legs around his waist, guiding his hands to lift their hips, straddling his body and leaning down to rain their wheat-bleached hair across his face. He makes them breakfast in the morning and then doesn’t call, but they don’t seem to mind, winking at him when he takes his cuts in the warm-up circle, cheering and clapping when he snags a hard liner over the bag at third base.

It doesn’t do much to help. He thinks maybe if he slept with a guy, indulged his ten percent, found someone substantial and strong to brace against, someone he wouldn’t have to be afraid of hurting, but it’s Alabama, and if he smiles at the wrong guy in Alabama, he might not wake up the next morning.

He gets tired of sex, kind of tired of everything. Jerking off with Munson on the phone was the most satisfying thing that’s happened to him in months, which is more than a little pathetic, and anyway, after it was over, Chavvy’s hand sticky in his shorts, his chest jackrabbiting, Munson told him emotionlessly, “That wasn’t fair, dude,” and then hung up, so it’s not like Chavez can call back and try it again.

He’s bored and restless and starting to hate everything.

His manager, Jeffrey Leonard, the same hard-featured man who called him into his office during Chavez’s time at the instructional league in Phoenix and told him he was a punk, must see this in Chavez, a terrible thought in its own right, to be transparent, to be so obvious, because he starts talking to Eric quietly about faith and revelation. About meaning.

“Baseball’s not everything, kid,” Leonard tells him one day after Chavez bounces into an inning-ending double play and spits curses in the dugout like it’s a tragedy. Chavvy looks at him blankly, thinking he must be kidding, but Leonard doesn’t crack a smile.

Chavez shakes his head, shrugs it off. Maybe baseball’s not everything, but it’s all he’s got.

A couple days later, after Chavez knocks the shit out of an 0-2 pitch to win the game, they’re manically celebrating in the clubhouse, and Leonard sidles up beside him, a moment of rare quiet, asks him, “What do you believe in, Chavez?”

Chavvy lifts his drink in the air, shouts too loud, “Fuckin’ hanging sliders!” and all his teammates laugh, but Leonard just tightens his mouth, looking disappointed.

On the bus to Nashville, Chavez is hunched over the seat’s fold-down tray, his head aching from trying to read the pitcher scouting reports in the sallow light, a frustrated grimace on his face. Leonard sways down the aisle, takes the seat next to him.

“Listen, son,” the manager begins, and Chavez looks up at him in surprise. “You’ve got to have something in your life besides the game.”

Chavez furrows his brow, massages his temple. His hand is cramped around a pen, and he loosens his grip, rubs his thumb hard into his palm. “I know,” he answers, thinking for a moment, ‘I’ve got Eric,’ before he remembers and shoves that down in his mind.

Leonard taps two fingers on the little plastic tray, like calling for a squeeze play. “What about faith, Chavez? What about belief?”

Chavez still doesn’t understand. “I . . . believe we’re gonna win the league this season?” he tries, and Leonard glowers at him for a moment before his face gets empathetic again.

“You’re a young kid. You’re a long way from home. I know how it gets, boy like you in the minors. I know how you can feel lost.”

Chavez stares down at his hands, thinking that he should protest that, but he doesn’t.

Leonard pats his shoulder. “Why don’t you start coming to the meetings we have in my office on Sundays. I think you’ll do well with it.”

Leonard, in addition to being a minor league manager, is also an ordained minister, which Chavez knew but never thought about in any real way before. Now he shrugs, embarrassed for some reason. “I’ll . . . think about it, skip.”

That’s good enough, Leonard rapping him lightly on the arm and saying, “Good boy,” before rising and going back to his seat.

Chavvy looks at the scouting report in front of him, mutters to himself, “That was weird,” and decides not to think about it anymore.

He’s got nothing against Christians or Christianity or anything. He was baptized, mainly because his grandparents insisted that he would be, but it’s never been a part of his life. Religion. Redemption. Any of that stuff. He’s not sure if they let ten-percent-gay people into heaven, anyway.

But the next Sunday, back in Huntsville, he finds himself walking to the ballpark early, and Leonard smiles approvingly at him as he takes a seat in the back, feeling out of place, and he keeps thinking they’re gonna throw him out, gonna recognize him for what he is and not want him around anymore. He wouldn’t exactly blame them, if they did.

Nobody says anything, though, nobody even looks at him with suspicion, and he sits back there, thinking absurdly that he got away with it, he’s so slick, they couldn’t tell anything. He tries to pay attention, the recited verses, Leonard’s halfway sermon about mercy and temptation, drowsy and bored again, a kid in church for the first time with his shoulders slumped and his eyes half-closed, and his mind wanders.

He thinks about the day’s game, runs the lineup in his head. He thinks about what he’s gonna get his mom for her birthday, and worries if Cheech will recognize him when he comes home at the end of the season, having never spent this long away from his dog. The words drift over him and nothing sticks, and he starts to think about Eric Munson, as pretty much always happens when he lets his thoughts go where they want.

He’s trying to figure out how long he should give Munson to get over it before calling him back, thinking maybe he can call tonight, maybe Munce has already forgiven him, and Leonard’s graveled voice breaks through, shaft of light:

“‘And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee.’”

Chavez blinks, opens his eyes all the way. Everything is for a moment very still inside of him, and he can breathe deep without pain, and he can see a world in which he is not forsaken, and in that moment Eric Chavez starts to listen.

It’s a strange day. He doesn’t feel changed, walking out of Leonard’s office with archaic words rolling around in his head. He certainly doesn’t feel saved.

Chavez walks home, and he takes the long way. It’s brilliantly hot, like every day, but he barely feels it. He’s pretty confused, a miniature copy of the New Testament with a pebbled orange cover in his back pocket, the gild-edged pages shining in the light.

He wonders if they’ll baptize him again, make him reborn. He wonders if he really wants this kind of salvation.

He wants to call Eric Munson very badly. He’s thinking that he doesn’t want to be forgiven, because his sins are the best part of him.

It’s the Deep South. The napkins in diners have Bible quotations on them. Crucifixes spark around the necks of everyone he meets. His teammates cross themselves before stepping to the plate, something that might have more to do with luck than faith, but really, what’s the difference?

Eric Chavez, at twenty years old, is only half what he should be. He’s not allowed to be gay or a .230 hitter. He’s not in love with his best friend, not anymore, not really, and there’s a world, there’s something waiting for him.

Baseball should be enough, but you know what, it’s not.

And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

*

(see the curve)

When he tells Munson that he’s thinking of becoming devout, Munson pauses for a long moment, and then says hopefully, “You’re kidding, right?”

Chavez is on the center patio of his apartment complex, bare feet scorched by the sun-stroked concrete, pacing around. He’s been spending a lot of time outside, these days, in the heat, clinging to his body like arms.

“No. Totally serious, dude,” he answers. He’s spastically nervous, because he doesn’t think he’s smart enough to explain this. He’s not really sure he understands it himself, the glow inside his chest, the clean prayers that he’s trying to find a place for within him.

He’s been going to Leonard’s chapel meetings every week. He reads his little New Testament, on the bus, in his apartment, sitting on park benches, squinting to make out the words, trying to make sense of it.

It’s mainly, what if there is someone looking out for him? What if he doesn’t have to be afraid anymore?

Eric Munson’s in Omaha. The College World Series is just getting started, out in the heartland, and Munson wants to talk about that, not about God. He wants Chavvy to congratulate him on being named the Most Valuable Player in the NCAA East Regional, where he went 10 for 18 with two home runs and eight batted in. The College World Series, this is as big a thing as has ever happened to him, and Chavez hasn’t even asked what the field is like.

He’s in the hotel hallway, because he never talks on the phone with Chavez when other people are around, never knows what they might end up saying to each other. He’s sitting with his back against the wall, joggling his knee to stay in motion.

“You’re gonna be a Christian?” he asks, and the word tastes bad in his mouth.

Chavez nods, steps on the grass to spare his feet. “Yeah. A, you know, a real one. Be all . . . one with God. And stuff.” He scowls at the ground, hearing how dumb that sounds.

Munce laughs, rattling over the phone lines. “Okay, quit fucking around. You’re freaking me out.”

Chavez lowers himself to sit cross-legged on the grass, his hand over his eyes. “Munce, for reals,” he whispers.

Munson takes an even longer pause, staring at the door in front of him, the fake-brass numbers pinned down by tiny nails. “You’re serious,” he says, a bit amazed.

“I am, man.”

“But, what . . . I mean, you’re . . . and, you know . . . what the fuck, Chavvy?” he settles on, feeling inexplicable anger in his throat.

Chavez bends over his knees, his forehead brushed by the blades of grass. He really needs Munson to be okay with this. Not think he’s a freak, or scared or weak or gullible, or anything else. There’s this steady light in him now, and he needs Munson to understand that.

“I’ve been, you know, going to these chapel meetings that we have? Like, um, my manager, he’s a minister too, and he’s been sorta . . . teaching me stuff. Showing me about, like, Jesus and everything.”

Munson, never one for thinking before he speaks, says aghast, “Some fucking redneck down there got you mixed up in that shit, and you fell for it?”

“Hey!” Chavvy jerks up, his eyes narrowing against the thick sunlight. “Watch your fucking mouth, man. And it’s not some redneck, it’s Jeff Leonard, you know him.”

“I don’t care who it is,” Munce snaps. “I’m not about to let my best friend get brainwashed-”

Chavez hangs up on him.

Munson stares at the phone in his hand, the green light of the open connection. He swears and calls Chavez back, so mad his hands are shaking.

“Excuse me,” he says when Chavez picks up just before the voicemail clicks on. “I was fucking talking.”

“I’m not gonna listen to you be an asshole,” Chavez says, his voice trembling slightly. He’s tearing clumps of grass up with his free hand, feeling destructive, a cold hard pressure in his head. “This is . . . this is important to me. And what the fuck is the matter with you? This isn’t, like, me joining the fucking KKK or something.”

“I don’t think the KKK would have you, Chavez,” Munson sneers, but Chavez doesn’t hear that.

“I haven’t been brainwashed, you son of a bitch,” he says, realizing abstractly that he’s frighteningly close to true rage. “I went to some meetings, I heard some stuff, it’s good fucking stuff, Munson, and maybe it’s something I need.”

“Something you need?” Munson repeats incredulously, thinking, ‘you need the game, you need me, that’s all you should fucking need.’

Munson doesn’t know why it’s feeling like this, really, all smothered and pushed for denial, because it’s not like he’s got a problem with religion, not as an abstract concept, not as a concrete reality. And he’s got his friends who yawn through Sunday afternoons because they were up in collared shirts and perfect ties at nine in the morning. He’s got teammates holding crosses to their lips and bowing their heads, their backs to home plate and their eyes shut. And fuck Christianity too, because the sophomore utility infielder wears a skullcap under his baseball hat, attached to his short hair with bobby pins. There’s true belief all around him.

He’s got all this stuff, and it’s never been an issue, but not Eric Chavez. Eric Chavez falls in headfirst and doesn’t look before he crosses the street and never does anything except to the full extent of his heart, all his power, and a guy like that, a religion like this, it’s a terrible idea, just fucking awful.

“Yes goddamn it!” Chavvy shouts, crackling with static. “What’s so goddamn hard about this?”

Though he’s in the hotel hallway and that’s hardly a secure location, Munson, baffled by how quickly this got out of hand, rips the ace out of his sleeve. “You know what Christians think about people like you.”

Chavez’s hand wrenches in the grass, soil under his nails and the muscles of his arm as tight as guitar strings. “People like me?” he grates out, daring Munson.

Munce blows out a harsh breath, lowers his voice. “Fine, people like us, fine, fuck you, whatever. You know what they think, I’m sure you’ve read all about it. Are you gonna start telling me I’m going to hell for sucking your dick, Eric?”

“Oh, fuck you. That’s not all of them. Not even most. You, you just, talk about fucking prejudiced,” Chavvy says, but it sounds weak to his ears and he can’t argue this, because the whole point of faith is that there’s no explanation for it.

“No, I’m really curious, man,” Munce says, barely even hearing him, feeling heedless and cruel. “I’ll bet you can quote me chapter and verse about what Jesus fucking Christ thinks about faggots like us.”

Eric Chavez is thinking about mercy and forgiveness. He’s thinking about tolerance, about brotherhood, about love, love in all its forms, love for God, love for man, on the cross and in the valley of the shadow, holes in his hands and feet, blood in his eyes, his ribs showing through the gash in his side, sight to the blind and a home for the lost, one light that can be seen from everywhere in the world.

He’s thinking about the taste of the skin in the hand-fitted dent of Eric Munson’s hip, and he’s thinking that Jesus Christ would understand.

“Please don’t say that,” Chavez tells him, strangled and the sun on his back, heating the nape of his neck. “Please, man, I don’t want you to hate me because of this.”

Munson closes his eyes. He leans his head back against the stucky wall, bits of white flaking into his hair. “I just . . . I don’t understand,” he says, feeling exhausted, wrung out.

“I know you don’t. I wouldn’t, either, if it was you instead of me. It’s . . . it’s a hard thing to understand. It’s like . . .” Chavez sighs, combing his hand fast through his hair in frustration. “It’s like how, you know how, sometimes, you can sorta tell what pitch is coming? And not ‘cause of scouting reports or ‘cause he threw it in the same count earlier, but, like, you just get a feeling. A sense. You think, he’s gonna throw the curve, and you got no reason to think that, but you’re sure of it. You’re absolutely positive, and you could hit it with your eyes closed, you know it so well. Okay?”

Munce shakes his head, but answers, “Yeah. Sure.”

Chavez continues, struggling, “It’s like that, except . . . all the time. You know what’s coming, so you don’t have to worry. Or be scared. Or nothing.” He pauses, listens to Munson breathing skeptically. “And we’re not going to hell, Munson.”

Munce makes a small sound, giving up, though he wants to tell Chavez that sometimes you can believe with all your heart that the curve is coming, and that’s when they throw something straight and fast and eye-high.

“I know, man,” he says quietly. “And . . . okay. It’ll . . . it might take me kind of awhile to . . . get used to it. Because I don’t usually think of you and God, like, together in the same sentence.” He waits until Chavvy breathes out a shivering laugh, then says, “But I’ll deal. Just don’t . . . don’t start, like, quoting the Bible at me, all right? Because I love you and everything, but I might have to kill you.”

Now Chavez laughs for real, his hand over his face. “No worries. I can barely remember any of it, anyway.” He’s not sure if he’s really explained it all that well, if he’s made it clear, but he guesses he did as good as can be expected.

He wipes his grass-stained hand on his jeans, and says, “’Kay, tell me about Omaha.”

Munson lets out a painful breath, and smiles tiredly, the hand of God between them, keeping them close.

*

(world series moment)

In Omaha, they say Eric Munson is the best hitter in college baseball, and down on the field the players warm up and nudge each other, nod towards certain men in the stands, men sitting alone with their white sleeves rolled up to the elbow, notebooks in their hands and eyes squinted behind sunglasses.

The players talk like spies out of the corners of their mouth, they say, “Yankees,” and they say, “Dodgers,” and they say, “Cubs,” worried that it’ll be jinxed if they say it too loud, like the scouts will just poof and vanish and leave their notebooks in the empty seats, surprised pen gashes across the paper. The scouts come early and go down to the rail by the bullpen area to watch the pitchers, standing behind the little kids waving autograph books and clean baseballs. They scowl and make everybody nervous.

Munson keeps his head down and tries not to think about them. He’s the best hitter in college baseball and everybody knows his name. His best friend has been saved, hiding from tornadoes and lightning storms in Alabama, and Munson isn’t thinking about Eric Chavez, not really, not much, because Chavez broke a promise, something Munson thought couldn’t be questioned, something in their blood. He wonders about the space in one heart, the capacity for true faith, and he thinks that baseball came first.

The Trojans win the College World Series.

Eric Munson believes this is supposed to happen, because fifty years ago USC won its first national baseball championship, and there’s something about the stars aligning and the moon half-full like a saucer of milk the night before, a bunch of uncertain signs in the sky that can be interpreted any way he wants them to be. It’s supposed to happen because they don’t have God on their side, they’ve got baseball, and that’s better.

They play Arizona State in the championship game and by the third inning, the wheels have come off. It’s been a long tournament, a long season, and the pitchers are worn down to nubs. The ball won’t stay in the infield, won’t stay low or small or playable, magnetically attracted to the gaps between left and center, the column of free grass down along the line.

The final score is 21-14. A football score. There’s a weak-hit squib to short to end it, and then Eric Munson is in his pitcher’s arms and they’re falling, a slam of infielders on his back and his chest protector gets all skewed and pulled up so that he’s got a strap in his mouth, red lines on his face. He’s leaving bruises on everybody, because he’s got hard plastic on his legs and he keeps kicking, howling and his mouth coated with dust. It’s dark at the bottom of the dogpile, trickles of light as they shift and roll off each other, all of them screaming and laughing. Munson’s got someone’s knee in his hand and someone’s chest up against his mouth, ribs pressing on his chin, someone’s elbow gouging into the small of his back, and that might hurt if he could feel it, but he can’t, because they’re the best in the country, they’ve won the World Series.

He thinks, for a second there, just a second that’s quick and comes with the burn of tears in his eyes, he thinks that history doesn’t mean much and neither does faith and neither does love. That the only reason he can’t let Eric Chavez go and the one thing they’ll still have in common once they start hating each other (as they’re bound to), is this moment. This World Series moment.

Back at the hotel, he tries to call Chavez, a bunch of times as he keeps getting drunker and drunker on high light champagne. He wants to tell Chavez about this realization of his, because it’s important, it’s very important, and they tell each other everything. But Chavez never picks up, and Munson is left with his World Series moment and the unsteady belief that this is the kind of thing that can keep a man safe no matter what happens next.

(end part six)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Seventh: Meant to Be

(the famous eric chavez)

Eric Chavez meets a girl. He also goes to the Show.

These two things happen on the same day, which is probably why he ends up marrying her.

Edmonton, Canada, where he plays for the Triple-A Trappers, is like a dream that’s neither good nor bad, halfway between wet dream and nightmare, the kind of place that will bore you awake. It’s just flat, oil-field tundra, closed off at the corners.

He missed his flight from Alabama, having arrived at the airport without his birth certificate, and he leaves all his stuff behind in Huntsville, he’s got the shirt on his back and one bag that’s got more baseball gear in it than clothes, and this is how he’ll get through the rest of the season.

He’s in Canada for less than two months, he stays hot and on the 7th of September, 1998, after the big league rosters expand, Eric Chavez gets a plane ticket to San Francisco.

He calls Eric Munson from the stadium parking lot, walking on crazy zig-zagging paths around the cars, not content to stay still. Munson doesn’t pick up, and Chavez hollers into his voicemail, “Eric, you little punk, where the fuck are you, I’ve been called up, I’m going to the Show and you’re not there! Call me back, motherfucker!”

He ends the call and he can barely get his phone back into his pocket, he’s shaking that hard. He goes to the first church he sees, and kneels down, thanks God. He can’t stop grinning for the life of him.

Munson doesn’t call him back, that night. He gets Chavez’s message and they haven’t talked in better than a month. Munson feels sick and happy and he doesn’t know what to say, he doesn’t think he knows the words for this. He leaves his cell phone at home and drives up the coast to Santa Marita with Everclear and Sublime playing loud. He swims in the ocean, out as far as he can go, and sleeps on the beach, dreams about Fenway Park.

When he gets back to Los Angeles the next day, he pulls into the student parking lot and all around him are kids, returning for the fall term, half-grown with new haircuts and stiff unbroken-in jeans, different kinds of uncertain and a fucking encyclopedia of fear. There are school notebooks in the small backseat of Munson’s truck, textbooks and a stuffed Trojan with a yellow mustache and gray felt helmet on the shotgun seat, a red and gold USC bumper sticker on the back. In his glove compartment is the ring he got for winning the College World Series.

Munson sits with his hands on the wheel for a long time, static sounds and the muffled chatter of the university through his windows. His best friend got there first, which Munson knew would happen. Munson thinks that he’s gonna have to start practicing with wooden bats, pretty soon. Maybe Chavez will send him extras. Yeah.

In Edmonton, Chavez gets back to his apartment and paces around, packs in feverish bursts of energy, waiting for his phone to ring. He eventually calls his parents, needing to talk to somebody, at least, someone who’ll be there.

Ruby cries over the phone and then Cesar cries too, though he tries to play it off as a coughing fit, but Eric sees right through him, beaming in his empty apartment, and they say how proud they are, they can hardly get it out, but they’re so proud of him.

He calls the Munsons, too, and Steve crows joyfully, says, “I knew you would, I knew it,” over and over again, and Chavez doesn’t ask him where his son is, swallows it back from the tip of his tongue.

He flies out to California the next day, skying in over the San Francisco Bay, where the islands and the bridges are laid out like a map, the climbed rake of the skyscrapers at the tip of the peninsula, and he looks for Oakland out the window, the ring of the stadium.

He’s there within the hour, straight out from the airport, and his legs are weak as he walks into the mostly empty clubhouse, his eyes gaping and astonished. He meets Art Howe, the A’s manager, and is told that he probably won’t play that night, but Chavez doesn’t care, he just wants to be here, the clubhouse with its clean patterned carpet and arcade machine, the open fresh-painted lockers and the bleached baseballs that roll around chaotically, as white as sheets.

He’s got a locker. There’s a green jersey there with his name in bright yellow on the back.

Eric Chavez has to sit down for awhile.

And then the reporters crowd in, seven of them in a rustling knot around him, and they tell him that Baseball America has named him the Minor League Player of the Year, and he keeps waiting to wake up in Canada.

Before the A’s take the field against the Orioles, the announcer tells the fans about the kid in the dugout, the Minor League Player of the Year and Oakland’s future, and Eric gets pushed up the steps, each step like coming up from underwater, and when the sun hits his eyes, the small crowd claps politely and he tips his cap, a rainbow hooking in the sky over his head.

He does end up playing that night, incredibly. He’s just sitting on the bench for seven innings, unable to really follow the game, giddy and terrified, his stomach roiling, his baffled mind, when Howe tells him to get loose, he’ll be pinch-hitting to lead off the A’s half of the eighth.

Cesar Chavez is sitting with Steve Munson in the Munsons’ living room, and when they see Eric swinging nervously in the on-deck circle as the pitcher takes his warm-up, Cesar pulls a wavering hand across his eyes, and Steve says quietly, “Would you look at that.”

The two men catch each other’s eyes, and it’s the kind of strange moment that you’d think would be remembered, in tense intricate detail, forever. A moment where you see the light through the window blinds in a ladder on the carpet, and the chipped corner of the coffee table from when one of the boys chucked a roller skate at the other and missed, and the framed pictures on top of the television set and the empty VHS boxes around the VCR on the floor. A moment where all of this is clear and still and will not be forgotten.

But Steve and Cesar just grin at each other, and the specifics of the room and the moment slide away like marbles on ice, and later, the only thing either of them will remember about the day they first saw Eric Chavez in a major league uniform is that Steve was there, Cesar was there, they saw it together.

Eric Chavez takes his first major league at-bat. Everything is so much bigger, the pitcher a mile away, the outfield wall in another country. His hands around the bat look telescoped. He can’t imagine ever getting used to this.

He strikes out on a 2-2 fastball, and as he walks back to the dugout, his first really coherent thought of the day sheers into his brain, ‘the stitches were over the top, that was the two-seam,’ and he’ll know it when he sees it next.

The day’s a blur. Mark McGwire breaks Roger Maris’s record and they see it happen in the clubhouse, McGwire’s big arms thrown up, the ball vanishing into the wild red St. Louis crowd, his son waiting for him at home plate. It’s historic, and Eric Chavez would have remembered this day anyway, even if he were still in Edmonton, even if he’d never signed and was going to USC with Munson and never making it to class. Because he knows all the important dates of his game, all the records and the famous spring-summer-autumn days, and even if he hadn’t made his debut today, he’d still never forget September 8th. It’s, like, intentional, but that’s not the right word. Preordained. Destined.

Eric’s having trouble getting his bearings, trouble clearing his vision. Nothing stops moving until he gets to his hotel, his head full of arched pastel colors and spun red stitches, and everything looks blessed, looks meant to be.

In the hotel lobby, he runs into Paula Bott.

She’s a reporter with the Union-Tribune, and she’s been following him and Munson around since they were in high school, writing a series of articles about their friendship and their upward strive towards the big leagues.

It was weird at first, and for a while both Erics kind of wanted to back out of the agreement, too much at stake and too much to be found out about them, but they played it off boldly, because press attention, that’s always been due them.

Paula’s familiar enough, but there’s a girl with her, Paula’s baby daughter on her hip, a girl with shiny hair the color of cedar and big brown eyes. Chavvy comes over and Paula gives him a kiss on the cheek, a huge smile, and tells him, “You did it.”

Chavez grins back, his eyes flitting back to the girl with Paula, the fine lines of her face, the way she looks at him from under her eyelashes and then darts her eyes away, blushing.

“Oh, this is my niece, this is Amber. Amber Tarpy,” Paula says off-hand, and the girl, Amber, smiles at him shyly, says “hello” so quietly Eric has to read her lips.

“Pleased to meet you,” he answers, wishing she wasn’t holding the infant so they could shake hands. She’s got nice hands, pale slender fingers and a sterling silver ring on her thumb.

She lifts her face, gives him her best look, all sweet wide eyes and a color of surprise on her cheeks. Chavez realizes he’s staring, and quickly excuses himself, moving to the elevators and only turning back once to see Amber Tarpy flipping her hair, a flash of her shoulders.

He keeps thinking about the girl, in the elevator and in the hallway and in his room and in the shower, he can’t shake her. She’s not even blonde, but she’s got those eyes, like all things made honest.

Then Eric Munson calls.

Chavez is just coming out of the bathroom, his boxers on and sticking to his hips in splotchy wet patches, and his jeans on the bed start to vibrate. He thinks, right away, ‘Munce,’ and goes for his phone so quick he trips over his bag, rug burn on his knees and scrabbling to the bed, pulling the covers halfway to the floor and not questioning his eagerness, his near-panic as he sorts the phone out from his pants, snaps it open and says breathlessly, “Hey.”

“The famous Eric Chavez,” Munson answers, a sharp little grin in his voice.

Chavvy lets his shoulders fall, his spine relaxing, rolling over onto his back. His soaked hair bleeds into the mattress like ink, and his eyes are closed. He’s almost overcome with relief, though he doesn’t know why.

“Dude,” he begins, but he doesn’t have the first clue what to say, there’s so much. “Aw, Jesus, Eric, I, I can’t . . .”

“Chavvy?” Munce says, rough at the edges. “I . . . I saw you on TV.”

“Did you?” Chavez manages. There’s something wrong in his chest, this heat that shouldn’t be there, like Alabama in August, crowding him out.

“Yeah man. You looked good, you looked real good, dude.”

Chavez’s hand is over his eyes, two fingertips against his temples, and he can feel the pound of his mind, the beats counting time. “It’s . . . Munson, it’s amazing,” he breathes out. He’s thinking, ‘major league baseball, major league baseball,’ over and over again.

“It’s the best day of your life,” Munson tells him plainly, and Chavez isn’t sure if that’s true, but he knows it should be.

“Where are you?” he asks suddenly. “Are you . . . can you come up? Get away for a day or two?”

Munce takes a long moment. “Nah, man,” he replies finally. “I . . . you know, classes just got started, I can’t . . . there’s no way.” He sounds a bit choked, pulled back.

Chavez is doing the math in his head, Los Angeles three hundred and fifty miles away, he could make it in four hours if he doesn’t get pulled over on I-5, he could be there by midnight. Be back for infield practice.

Eric Chavez, right this moment, is going to rent a car and fly down through the valley. He’s going to whisk through L.A. with the city lights like daggers in his bloodstream, silver bullets and shooting stars. He’s going to find his best friend and fit his hands around Munson’s arms, press him down to the closest wall. He’s going to kiss him, so hard Munson’s head will thunk back against the wall hollowly, and then Munson will recover and give as good as he gets, and Chavez’s mouth will be bitten and tender, his throat sore. They’ll lose buttons and belts tearing their clothes off, and Chavez will draw blood on Munson’s stomach, ebony strands of his hair tied around Munson’s fingers. He’s going to get down on his knees. He’s going to jackknife Munson over the back of the couch, his hand on the nape of Munson’s neck and his tongue in Munson’s ear. They’re gonna be all night with it, and when Munson passes into stunned, exhausted sleep, Eric Chavez will stagger out to his rented car and drive north with a clean faded-bruise dawn slinking into the empty shotgun side.

He’s a major league ballplayer. He can do anything.

Oh, but then, oh. It crashes in, it’s a ten-car wreck. They’re not doing that anymore. They haven’t been doing that for almost a year now. He’s got his first dream now, he doesn’t need that.

He forces the white flash of Amber Tarpy’s shoulders back into his mind. He squeezes his eyes shut so tightly he sees wormholes.

“It’s just . . . it’s amazing, man,” Chavez says again, and the air-conditioner chill crawls across his bare chest, his skin drawing taut and rashes of goosebumps, a plague, a curse.

Munson breathes out against the receiver. “I know, Eric,” he answers, though he doesn’t, he doesn’t have the slightest idea.

“It happened, Munson. I’m here.”

Chavez hears the click of Munson swallowing, hears Munson telling him, “It’s where you’re meant to be.”

They talk until Eric Chavez falls asleep, about McGwire and Maris and eventually Mantle too, because you can’t really talk about one without talking about the other, and Rickey Henderson and the ugly concrete stadium in Oakland that might just be the most beautiful place in the world, until Chavez nods off in the middle of telling Munson about the two-seam fastball that he swung through, and Eric Munson listens to his friend’s slow deep breathing for a long time, Eric Chavez’s body drying on a hotel bed in San Francisco, shivering a bit on top of the covers, and it doesn’t matter what Munson says to him then, because he’s asleep and he’ll never know.

*

(four sheets to the wind in arlington)

Eric Chavez falls in love with Amber Tarpy so quickly he doesn’t even remember when it happened, the first time he realized.

They talk on the phone every night and he plays major league baseball every day. She’s got this hitch in her laugh when it’s a true laugh, a breath-pause like a piece of hair being tucked behind an ear, and Eric makes it his singular goal to spur it out of her.

When she says his name, it’s careful, like she’s afraid of breaking it. She’s shy and never uses profanity, and he starts to talk clean too, just because. She makes him smile all the time and she keeps up with him when he teases her, never letting him get the upper hand.

He tells her about his old girlfriends and about his family, his dog, about how all he’s ever wanted to do is play baseball. She knows a lot about the game, more than he gives her credit for, and when they’re watching the same broadcast, her in San Diego and him in Oakland, he’s always surprised to hear her murmur unthinkingly, “Throw the slider,” and then seeing the pitcher throw it like he was listening in.

She tells him about her three broken hearts, fourteen, seventeen, and nineteen years old, and when he promises he won’t be her fourth, he’s only half-joking.

There are moments, in the short small hours of the morning when they’ve been on the phone all night long, when he’s red-eyed and beat with weariness, easily at peace, and he thinks that he could even tell her about Munson, that she would understand. It feels wrong, to talk about his ex-girlfriends like they actually meant something, and meanwhile Amber knows next to nothing about the most important person in his life.

She knows they’re best friends, of course, knows they’ve known each other as long as they’ve known anyone not related to them, and a week in, she can recite Munson’s stats when Chavez starts to go off again, talking about how Munson won the College World Series for USC, about how he’s the best player on the best team, about how he’s gonna be the number one pick in ’99, number one without a doubt.

Chavez can hear her rolling her eyes affectionately when he’s talking about Munson, listening to all the stuff she’s heard before without complaint because she’s in the process of falling in love with him, and he gets a gnawing unease in his stomach, guilty and hating that he’s supposed to be ashamed of it.

But in the daytime, on the field, when he can think straight again, he knows that she would break up with him in a second, if she ever found out. Good boyfriends don’t fuck their best friends, even if they’re not doing that anymore, the distinction would be lost, and he will have broken her heart anyway.

He’s trying, very very hard, not to break her heart.

Then he goes to Texas.

It’s his first road trip with the A’s and he’s uncomfortable in the dress-code slacks and jacket he’s got to wear, wanting the heaviness of jeans on his legs, a T-shirt hole venting air over his back.

He can’t keep still on the plane, striding up and down the length of the aisle and trying to bug someone into keeping him occupied. Jason Giambi and Matt Stairs eventually pass a new rule, rookies are not allowed out of their seats, though Chavez is the only one they enforce it for.

Chavez jitters as quietly as possible for the rest of the flight, drumming his hands on his knees, flipping the tray table up and down.

Eric Munson is flying out to see him play in Arlington. Chavez should probably not be this excited.

They haven’t seen each other in six months, not since Eric Chavez woke up his last morning in Manhattan Beach with his face against Munson’s shoulder, his arm skewed over Munson’s chest and his hand inside Munson’s boxers, curled innocently around Munson’s hip.

He doesn’t call it running away, slipping out before Munson woke up. He had a plane to catch. And Munson shouldn’t have been in his bed, anyway.

They haven’t seen each other. A lot of stuff has happened, and all of it has happened over the phone.

Chavez is taking ground balls at third before batting practice, the fans filtering in slowly, clutching programs and beers and cardboard trays of food. The new Ballpark at Arlington is pretty as a picture, a twixt of modern and classic and the grass is so green it’s almost gold. He thinks, ‘sky blue, green light, glove down,’ and then he sees Munson, sitting in the stands over the dugout.

Chavez doesn’t even hesitate. He runs over, a struck grounder skipping behind his heels, the infield coach Ron Washington yelling his name and Chavvy barely even hears it. He calls, “Munce!” and sees Munson grin, rise to his feet. Chavez hits the fence hands-first and vaults into the stands, throwing his arms around his friend, his glove still on and flapping on Munson’s back.

Munson hugs him tight, smiling against his neck, and his eyes are closed, the sun and the field fighting through, reverse photograph.

Chavvy’s wild, ecstatic, banging him on the shoulder hard enough to hurt. Munce pulls back to see his face and Chavez doesn’t look the same, whitened by Canada and a slender gold chain around his neck, disappearing into his jersey. Chavez is still handsome and still young and the press of him against Munson’s chest hurts more than his shoulder.

Munce lets him go, shuffling back a step. Any possibility that he might not still be totally fucking helpless as far as Eric Chavez is concerned is wiped out in an instant.

“Look at you, man, big leaguer, look at this,” Munson says, playing it off like he always does.

“Dude, it’s, like, so good to see you,” Chavvy grins. “I missed the fuck out of you.”

Munce almost hugs him again, just to get that close again, where he can smell the skin of Chavez’s neck, feel the scratch of Chavez’s chin on his face, the brim of Chavez’s cap knocking into his forehead. But then Ron comes over and says ironically, “Pardon me, fellas, but one of you has got a ballgame to play, if you can be torn away.”

Chavvy hauls Munson down the steps to the rail, his hand pressure-cuffed around Munson’s arm. “Wash, this is Eric Munson, he’s my best friend.”

Washington gives him a long look, his well-lined face and his mouth tilted slightly, close to a smile. “There’s two of you? God help us.”

Chavvy beams, hooks an arm around Munson’s neck and tells him, “So, okay, you’re gonna watch the game, and I’m gonna, you know, play the game, and then we’ll go out. Gonna tear the place down tonight, man, no doubt about it.”

Munce’s throat closes up, and he makes a thin-lipped smile, nods, and Chavez hops back onto the field, jogging back to the diamond and taking his position again. Munson watches him down there, his best friend on a major league field, and Chavez turns to wave at him, distracted and getting a late break on a shot to the hole, but he makes the play with all easy skill that Munson knows by heart.

Munson takes his seat again. His chest aches like he’s been held underwater. He wants to be out there so bad, but for the life of him he can’t say whether it’s the field or the third baseman he wants the most.

The A’s lose the game, mired firmly in the cellar of the division, but Eric Chavez couldn’t care less. He bounces around the dugout, steals Rickey Henderson’s cap and spills Gatorade on Ben Grieve’s spikes, but Grieve doesn’t get too mad, because he’s the front-runner for the Rookie of the Year and pretty soon he’ll be able to afford all the new shoes he wants.

Chavez’s head isn’t in the game, thinking about Texas bars and the sun-warm stretch of Munson’s back under his hand when they embraced, but he makes every play and goes 2-for-4 with dust on the front of his jersey from diving back to first eight times, because he’s already a threat to steal.

Munson meets him at the clubhouse door, skulking around and feeling like a groupie, but Chavez keeps his arm around Munson’s back all the way across the parking lot to Munson’s rented car, talking a mile a minute and rubbing his fingers on Munson’s side.

Munson’s mouth is dry, and he’s so ready to start drinking, it’s not even funny.

He’s drunk, they’re both drunk, a couple of hours later, and they’re back at the hotel where Munson’s staying, stumbling and giggling down the hallway, Munce dropping the keycard about six times, laminated and slipping through his fingers.

Chavez body-checks him into the wall affectionately, so Munce trips him, and Chavez is lying there on his back on the swirly maroon rug, laughing so hard tears are sneaking out of his eyes. Munson feels something tighten low in his stomach, and he holds out his hand, Chavez latching onto his forearm and allowing himself to be pulled up.

Munson’s so plastered, he can barely walk, but he figures out the room door and pushes them both inside, and he’s breathing hard, his sense of balance gone and his feet betraying him. He’s overheated, liquid inside, and they’re still getting mixed up together, their hands and arms in knots, Chavez’s head rattling off his back, Chavez hiccupping and panting with laughter, sounding the same as when he’s lying strewn on the bed, bucking and whipping around, biting his lip.

Munson feels something snap, and he shoves Chavez up against the wall, kissing his open mouth.

For a moment, it’s messy and one-sided, and Munson’s good intentions dart inside him, his heart shattered and terrified, and he desperately licks at the inside of Chavez’s mouth, stroking his hands hard and graceless across Chavez’s stomach, until Chavez moans rustily, starts to kiss him back, and Munce could weep, he’s so grateful.

It’s just like he remembers, a year later, just like it was. The way Chavez wraps his arms around him with all his strength, and Munson can feel his ribs creak in protest. The way Chavez arches up against him when he nips his earlobe, sucks a hickey onto his neck. The way Chavez breathes out his name unevenly when they draw back for air, and his eyes are as big as pennies and flint glazed clean, obsidian.

Munson rips Chavez’s shirt down the middle, the plastic patter of buttons raining on the carpet, and angles down to scald his mouth on Chavez’s chest, gnashing his teeth and tonguing Chavez’s collarbone, the chain-link of his sternum, and Chavez’s hands are on the back of his head, pressing him closer, Chavez’s head thrown back against the wall.

Eric Munson falls to his knees, his thumbs digging below Chavez’s ribs, and he mumbles thoughtlessly into the board of Chavez’s stomach, heat on the backs of his eyelids, “Gonna fuck you so hard, gonna fuck you till you scream,” and Chavez shudders, the muscles burring under Munson’s tongue.

And Eric Chavez, Eric Chavez is as drunk as he’s ever been, the harsh chafe of the wall on his shoulder blades and Munson’s filthy mouth moving wetly, Munson’s hands clumsily tugging at his belt, Chavez’s mind spiraling, swooping, and he’s so hard, already, he’s so hard, because it’s Eric Munson on his knees, talking dirty and gnawing on the fabric of his road-trip slacks, pressing his face against the fly and mouthing him through the thin wool, making these little gasped groans and his hair soft and thick and longer than it was the last time Chavez buried his hands in it.

Then Eric Chavez’s cell phone rings in his back pocket, and it’s ten o’clock in California and Amber Tarpy is calling him like she always does.

His eyes fly open, and he pushes Munson off him before he can even think about it.

Munson, shocked and on his back on the floor, doesn’t miss the irony.

‘How fucking perfect,’ he thinks, and Chavez is staring down at him, his eyes enormous, the damp trail down his chest glistening. Chavez’s hand is on his back pocket, where the phone is still buzzing, screeching, but he doesn’t pull it out, doesn’t answer it, and after a while it stops.

They’re still, Chavez against the wall and Munson on the floor, and the only sound is the ragged pull of air.

“Wh-wuh-wuh—” Chavez stammers, his tongue not working right, sounding dumb and useless. He stops, drags in a long shaking breath, and tries again, “Munson, you . . . we, we’re not . . . doing that. Anymore.”

Munce sits up, his head swan-diving, the rollercoaster flip of his stomach. He’s just, God, he’s stupid drunk, he wants to pull Chavez down and kiss him again, hold him down when Chavez tries to get free, because Munson’s still bigger and maybe not that much stronger, but he wants this more, he’ll hold him down, break him up.

“Why not?” he asks instead, curling his hands into fists and bracing his knuckles on the carpet, his restraint shredded, barely hanging on.

Chavez shakes his head, still looking black-eyed stunned and so turned on he’s afraid to move. “You—you know why not.”

Munce’s mouth twists angrily. “Fuck that. Fuck what happened a year ago, it . . . it happened a year ago, it doesn’t count.” He’s aware that he’s not making much sense, his mind sluggish and grief-stricken, but he pushes on. “It won’t hurt nobody, you know it won’t hurt anybody.”

He wants to crawl over to him, his arms around Chavez’s legs, just touch him again, and he’s so pathetic, he never thought it’d get this bad. He sniffs hard, swiping a fierce hand across his face, his eyes on fire.

“It’s because of that religion shit, isn’t it?” Munson says, not hiding his contempt. “You’re too Christian to fuck me anymore.”

Chavez jerks his head, wobbling on his feet. Munson wishes he’d put his shirt back on, he’s not thinking clearly with Chavez standing there naked to the waist, the small cross sweet and cool high on his chest.

“No,” Chavez answers, sounding sad, disappointed. “Fuck you. No.”

Munson tries to pull in a breath, but it comes as if through wet cotton. There are a couple other reasons, a couple other possibilities. They’re all very hard to even think about.

“You think you’re better than me,” Munson says, and he doesn’t think he’d be able to recognize himself if he could see this scene from outside his own body, this doesn’t feel like him at all. “Big fuckin’ leaguer now, right? I’m just some punk college kid you knew once and you’re. You’re the fuckin’ golden boy.”

“You can just shut the fuck up with that shit, right fucking now,” Chavez snaps, and his hands are shaking, his chest moving fast like he’s panicked. “You don’t believe that, you know it’s not. That’s not fucking true, and you goddamn well know it.”

“Then what?” Munce asks, hating how his voice cracks.

Chavez makes a terrible sound, a moan and a sob and he slips down the wall, sitting on the floor, his hand over his face. “Munce, I . . . I got a girlfriend.”

Munson blinks. Somehow, he’d never even considered that. “For real?”

Chavez nods, looking beaten up, at the end of his rope. “Yeah, man.”

Munce just stares at him for a moment, then snaps his head back and forth briskly. “So what?” he challenges, and he’s grasping at everything in reach, the worst arguments and the lamest rationale, anything. “You’ve had girlfriends before. So’ve I. This . . . it’s never been a problem before.”

Chavez rests his chin on his knees, and Munson thinks for a moment that he’s about to cry. “It’s a problem this time, Munce,” he whispers.

Light is dawning in Munson’s alcohol-clouded head, and he asks bleakly, “That was her, wasn’t it? On the phone.”

Chavez moves his head slightly, a restricted nod. “We talk every night,” and Munce isn’t expecting for that to hurt. “She’s the journalist lady’s niece. Paula, you know? Her name’s Amber Tarpy, she’s so cool, man—”

“Shut up,” Munce interrupts him, his head starting to pound. “Don’t . . . don’t tell me her name,” but he’s too late for that, and he ends up just feeling like more of an idiot.

He lowers his head into his hands, scrubbing his hands fast across his face, the calluses on his palms rasping the fresh skin. He isn’t aware he’s speaking out loud until he hears Chavez inhale sharply with surprise:

“I want you so bad.”

Munson cringes, flushing with humiliation, but lifts his head, because he’s drunk and doesn’t care, honestly, can’t care. Chavez is staring at him, his face cleaned out and a little bit scared. Munson digs a hand into his hair, tells him with his voice rising and falling and splintering, “I want you all the time. All year, it’s been like this, and I, I can’t stand it, man. I know it was my fault and I guess you got this girl now so you probably don’t even care, but . . .” he sobs once, dryly, into the crook of his elbow.

“I’m still so fucking in love with you, Eric, it’s gonna kill me, I swear to God it is.”

Munson’s face is against his arm, and on some level he knows he’s gonna regret this in the morning, but right now Eric Munson doesn’t believe that this night will ever end, it’s just going to be horrible and drunken and Chavez will never put his shirt back on, the path of Munson’s tongue will never fade from his skin.

He hears the cuff of Chavez moving, the rustle of his pants on the carpet, so he’s expecting it when Chavez’s hand touches his head, brushes at his hair, but Munson still hisses and snatches himself away.

“Munce,” Chavez whispers, going to touch him again, and Munson pulls away again.

“You should go,” Munson says, toneless. “I . . . I’m drunk. I’m sorry. You should go.”

“No, man,” Chavvy says pleadingly. “Don’t make me leave.”

Munson shakes his head, his eyes screwed shut. “It . . . doesn’t mean anything. I’m used to it. And it’s . . . it’s not usually this hard. Just . . . seeing you. And seeing you play. And then we almost . . . I mean, getting to . . . it’s not usually this hard.”

He swallows thickly, says again, “Go away, dude, seriously, get out of here.”

He’s wrenched up into a ball, and Chavez can feel his heart breaking, over and over again, and each time he can’t believe there’s anything left, each time he’s wrong. He knee-walks closer, flattens his hand on Munson’s shoulder, and when Munson winces again, Chavez doesn’t give up, slides his arm around Munson’s back, Munson vibrating under him, making small noises of protest.

Chavez whispers into his ear, Munson’s hair tickling his nose, “C’mon, babe, c’mon,” folding his hand under Munson’s arm and drawing him up.

Munson rises slowly, his legs feeling boneless, and Chavez guides him carefully to the bed, lays him down.

Chavez tugs off Munson’s shoes, pulling the covers over him. Munson rolls onto his side, his back to his friend, and Chavez can hear him trying to catch his breath, his shoulders rigid and his face turned into the pillow.

Chavez, one knee on the bed, gazes down at him miserably, and he wants to sink in behind him, smooth the tension out of Munson’s back and sleep with his hand on Munson’s chest, his forehead on the nape of Munson’s neck.

He bends down, kisses Munson’s throat, under his jaw, and Munson flinches away. Chavez stands, picks his shirt up off the floor and walks out.

His shirt’s ruined, hanging open and making him look like a kid on spring break, and Eric Chavez watches Arlington through the taxi cab window, the breeze skittering across his chest, and he thinks that he’s finally got everything he’s ever wanted.

*

(wicked mind)

Eric Chavez gets back to his Arlington hotel room and Ben Grieve is sleeping like a big snoring rock in the other bed, one arm over the side of the bed and his knuckles brushing the floor.

He rummages in his suitcase, his old red jacket and the secret pocket just inside the right sleeve, the cocaine-smuggling pocket, where he’s got an unmarked prescription bottle that rattles softly and knocks white pill chalk onto his palm. He swallows the tablets dry, and pulls the covers over his head.

He wakes up hungover, gritty-eyed guilty and the worst person in the world. He didn’t brush his teeth the night before and he can still taste Munson, or imagines he can, at any rate.

Chavez goes into the bathroom with his cell phone and sends flowers to Amber Tarpy’s parents’ house, watching himself in the fluorescent mirror. His hands are numb, his head still painkilled and drunk as he dictates the note over the phone to the guy at the florist shop, he’s got to repeat it four times before he can stop slurring and stuttering enough to make it clear.

‘Waiting to spend the rest of my life with you. Love, Eric.’

They go out to the yard and he doesn’t say much of anything.

Munson’s in love with him, a year after they stopped, that shouldn’t change anything. He’s got a girl, the best girl, with her hitched laugh and her remembered dark eyes. Maybe if they were still seventeen, if he was still in the minors, if he still lived in Manhattan Beach. Maybe it would matter then, but it doesn’t matter now. Everything’s different now.

Munson balled up around himself on the floor, Munson on his knees, Munson’s hands ripping open his shirt like it was woven out of wax. Chavez thinks about Superman, phone booths, a red Spiderman flashlight in a sick bed. He hopes Amber will like her flowers, that sometime soon she will tell him she loves him.

He gets back to California and wakes up one morning in an empty apartment that he doesn’t recognize, on the gray carpet of a hallway with his shirt half-unbuttoned and his driver’s license stuck to his stomach. He throws up in the unfamiliar kitchen sink and his legs give out in the stairwell as he’s trying to get away, mortified and trembling.

He remembers this. Bruises on his neck, somebody else’s fingerprints on his body, a new television and a state-of-the-art stereo with speakers so crisp and clean every song sounds like a hymn. He’s not even sure if he fucked anyone, if he got fucked, he doesn’t stick around long enough to find out. All he’s got to go on is the sick hateful sense of déjà vu, the stairwell cold and shiny pasty beige.

He sends Amber Tarpy three mix tapes and a postcard from Seattle, Pike’s Place Market and piles of silver-shining salmon, and his brambly scrawl on the back: ‘I like fish. I love you. In the contest between you and fish, you win. Love, Eric.’

He’s pretty sure this is what’s known as trying too hard.

Amber Tarpy thinks he’s so sweet. She tells him that, but she doesn’t tell him she loves him.

He calls Munson, after nearly a week of being paralyzed, hands tied behind his back and his shoulders dislocated, and Munson sounds so uncomfortable, so embarrassed, and Chavez wants to tell him, no man, don’t feel bad, please don’t be sorry, but he doesn’t because Munson’s in a ball on a hotel room floor in Arlington and Chavez is so far gone he can’t even see straight.

“Look, let’s . . . let’s not talk for awhile, okay?” Munson says awkwardly. “I got . . . you know, shit to deal with. To get over.”

“Don’t get over it,” Chavez says without thinking, his mind dim and his connection to the world thready.

Munson is quiet, then asks, “What?”

Chavez bites on the heel of his hand, crescent smile. “Um,” he answers dumbly, muffled.

“Are you . . . I mean, are we gonna . . . has anything changed?” Munce says with a dangerous slit to his voice.

Chavez thinks he might do better blind. Deaf. Mute. Stop fucking everything up. “No,” he whispers.

“Then fuck you,” Munce tells him, and hangs up.

The season ends with the Oakland Athletics in last place. They talk about rebuilding. They talk about young talent and in the implied background of that is Eric Chavez’s name. They talk about next year and no one really doubts that Billy Beane will find a way.

He goes home to San Diego for four days before he’s got to report back to the instructional league in Phoenix, and Amber Tarpy gives him the flu, but won’t sleep with him and won’t tell him that she loves him. He doesn’t go to USC. He drives around without destination a lot, gets lost near the Mexican border and sees the decaying metal hulks of decade-old car crashes on the side of the road.

He gets a blowjob from a stranger in the backroom of a bar down on Sunset, and fucks a girl up against an alley’s brick wall in a light clouded rain. He’s not even drunk for the first, he just wanted to get his hands into the guy’s uncut hair, get his back up against a wall and feel heat on him.

Chavez doesn’t understand this. That he can fuck randomly and anonymously but he can’t fuck Eric Munson or Amber Tarpy. That half of this is his fault and the other half isn’t, no way to tell which is which.

He goes to Phoenix, dogged across time changes by Amber Tarpy’s flu, watery-eyed, hacking and spitting in the dust. It’s been a long year, the longest year he can remember, through Alabama and Edmonton and Oakland, and when he feels something rubber-band snap in his back after taking a hard cut, he thinks for a moment, ‘perfect excuse,’ before wiping that out of his mind.

His back tightens up and he has to leave the game. He doesn’t sleep that night, because he doesn’t want to take his pain pills again, he’s been doing that too much recently. It’s too late to call Amber and Munce still doesn’t want to talk to him.

Chavez takes a long walk, gingerly stepping off curbs so as not to jar his injury. He walks on the side of the highway, the loose sand at the shoulder, the hard-as-concrete tack scattered with withered desert blooms, nervy skittish animals that explode out of the dark places, scrambling over his feet and baring their pinprick teeth at him.

He thinks about the scars on Munson’s arms, the rock-cut stitch on his back, how they turn pink in the cold. He thinks of when Eric Munson was a warm lanky boy, sleeping in his socks, jostling into him as they played video games on the carpet. He thinks of splash-wrestling in the YMCA pool, and racing each other to the shore with windmilling arms, how they used to punch their bodies into the waves and try to beat the ocean into submission.

He’s requested to wear the number three on his uniform next year, because Bip Roberts is retiring. Munce wears three at USC, it’s lucky for them both. They’re just fucking worlds apart right now, that’s all. Eric Chavez is two inches better at baseball, if that, and it’s a distance like distances in space, something that can’t ever be really comprehended.

He thinks about Amber Tarpy and the care she takes with his name. Amber Tarpy who doesn’t think he’s weak or hypocritical for believing in God, Amber Tarpy who hasn’t been trying and failing to be better than him at everything since she was five years old, Amber Tarpy who’s never seen him cry and never told him to hit her. Amber Tarpy who knows only the best parts, blind to the evil in him.

Chavez is not doing right by either of them, and he’s not a good man anymore, not close.

The next day, he calls Billy Beane and asks to quit the fall league. Beane’s not happy, Eric can tell, probably the latest in a long line to think he’s a punk, but the general manager lets him go.

Eric Chavez comes home to California, and there’s a herniated disk in his spine. He’s ordered to rest, rehabilitate, and it’s something that can be healed but not cured, never goes away forever, he’ll play through it for the rest of his career.

Amber Tarpy flutters her hands over him and lets him lie down in her childhood bed, his dirty sneakers over the side. The comforter’s pale blue and the pillowcases are yellow-striped. It smells clean like fabric softener and Eric turns his face into a pillow, breathing deep, and Amber puts her hand on his side, blows on the back of his neck and says into his ear, “Half-hour till my parents get back.”

She curls up against his back, and she’s soft too, like her new-sheets bed, fresh like the bright wallpaper and the sunlight refracting through the Windex. Chavez rolls over and kisses her, his fingers on her cheek. She giggles against his mouth and he says over and over again, “I love you, I love you.”

He kicks off his shoes and sneaks a hand up under her shirt, so soft, it’s incredible. He can see the frayed stuffed dog on her dresser, missing a button eye and all the stuffing hugged into the arms and legs. He can see the photographs taped around the edges of her mirror, the Pike’s Place Market postcard stuck in the frame. He thinks about high school, girls with white blonde hair and boyband posters.

He slows, settling back with his head on her shoulder. He moves his hand curiously on her stomach, feathery little spurs, nervous skin. She touches his hair uncertainly, touches his back under the collar of his shirt. “Eric?” she asks softly.

“I love you,” he says without looking at her. It’s all he can think to say. He slips his hand out of her shirt, closes his eyes very tightly. He can hear her heartbeat, metronoming, unconcerned.

Amber Tarpy, breathing warmly on his forehead, answers, “I love you too,” and then laughs lightly, laughs high and without a hitch.

Eric Chavez, having failed to have sex with his girlfriend when he had the chance, eats dinner with her parents, polite charming boy who doesn’t fuck strangers in back alleys, and then kisses her good-night, drives to Los Angeles.

He finds Eric Munson’s small off-campus house after stopping at three gas stations and a Safeway to ask for directions, the address smudged on a scrap of paper like a stone-rubbing.

He knocks on the door but no one answers, so he sits down on the front porch and waits. He could just call, figure out where Munson is, when he’ll be back, if they can meet up, but he doesn’t.

He watches the silent residential street, the dusky rust color of the sky past midnight because there’s no such thing as full dark in L.A., and he doesn’t really know what he’s doing there.

Munson’s truck pulls into the driveway and the headlights wink off, but Munce doesn’t get out for a long time. Chavez squints, tries to figure out if Munson’s got someone in the cab with him, but the streetlight glare makes the windshield opaque and he can’t see anything.

Munson gets out alone, and stops in front of the truck, a short length between the two of them. Chavez makes a little half-hearted wave, his vocal chords not seeming to work right.

“What’s going on, man?” Munson breaks the pause, sounding reined in and cautious like the words are landmines.

Chavez’s mouth opens, but nothing comes out. He shrugs helplessly, wringing his hands into knots between his knees. Munson looks at him warily, then sighs and comes over to sit next to him on the step.

Munson keeps his eyes straight ahead on the street, waits patiently. Chavez doesn’t know where to start, doesn’t know the beginning or the middle or the end.

“I couldn’t sleep with Amber,” he says, looking surprised at the sound of his own voice.

Munson twitches, sidles him a glance out of the corner of his eye. Chavez stares down at his complicated hands. “I mean, I guess I didn’t really . . . try very hard. I stopped before anything really happened. So maybe I would have been able to. But I . . . I didn’t.”

Chavez waits for Munson to ask him why not, but Munson seems content to just sit there and not look at him, his eyes on the satellites of the streetlamps, the brown-green of the autumn trees.

“You shouldn’t have said that stuff in Arlington,” Chavez says, a weird frantic edge to it.

Munson nods with an impassive expression on his face. “I know.” He lifts his shoulders, and Chavez sees the tendon in his neck flexing and relaxing, realizes that Munson’s only staying this calm because he’s using everything in him. “I was drunk. It was stupid.”

“It was true, though, wasn’t it?” Chavez asks hesitantly, and Munce pauses for an instant, the time it takes a traffic signal to change from yellow to red, and then nods jerkily.

Chavez blows out a hard breath, covers his face with his hands. “See, that’s the problem, Munson, you asshole,” he mumbles against his palms. “You said that stuff and now I can’t stop thinking about it and I can’t sleep with my girlfriend and everything is getting so fucked up, man. They’re gonna find me in an alley somewhere and it’s gonna be all your fault.”

Munson places a hand on his back gently, but then takes it away a second later. “An alley?” he repeats, idly confused.

“Dead in a fucking alley, Munce, because you waited until now to drop this shit on me,” Chavez says with a bad mix of anger and sadness. He wants Munson’s hand on his back again.

“I’m sorry, dude, but it . . . it took me awhile to figure it out. And then even longer to figure out that it wasn’t going to go away,” Munson tries to explain, stalling and cutting up his tone into off-kilter patterns.

Chavez lifts his head, glares at his friend. “You know what I think? I think this is you wanting something you can’t have. You never made any big fucking proclamations before it ended, but now that I don’t want you anymore, apparently I’m your fucking holy grail.”

Munson shakes his head immediately, because he’s all for re-writing history, but there are some things that are gonna remain untouched. “No. It’s not like that. Maybe, yeah, okay, maybe it took you getting rid of me to make me realize what I had, but that doesn’t make it any less real. I don’t want you because I can’t have you. I want you in spite of that.”

Chavez chokes off a moan in his throat, buries his face in his folded arms. “Will you please for Christ’s sake quit saying shit like that,” he begs.

Munson’s mouth ticks, a blink of a smile, but Chavez misses it. Munce draws in a deep breath, looks at Chavez all bent over his knees with his head in his arms, the graying streaks of gold in his hair, fading highlights, the back of his neck and the shell-whorls of his ears.

Munson exhales, puts his hand on the back of Chavez’s head and pets him down to the first bump of his spine, Chavez’s hair rough and unwashed, running into smooth tight skin. Chavez murmurs like he wants to pull away, but he doesn’t, tilting unconsciously towards Munson’s body.

“Dude, if this is really fucking you up that much, maybe that should tell you something,” Munson says hypothetically. “I mean, my own ego aside, it usually takes kind of a lot to make you go off the rails.”

Chavez doesn’t raise his head, asking into the cave of his body, “What should it tell me, Eric? What . . . what’s wrong with me?”

Munson’s hand stops, his fingers on the nape of Chavez’s neck and his thumb in Chavez’s hair. “There’s nothing wrong with you, man. You’re just . . . I got you all confused, and now you don’t know what to do.”

Chavez moves his head slightly, almost nodding, and then he’s quiet for a long time. Munson takes his hand away, pushes his thumb against the protruding lump at the heel, the bone-spur.

Chavez sits up, pulling the back of his hand across his nose. “Munson,” he says, the corners of his eyes turned down so that he looks guilty and fearful. “Do you . . . do you think it’s possible to be in love with two people at the same time?”

Munson stares at him. Munson’s having trouble swallowing, some dense obstruction in his throat like breathing through honey. Chavez looks so scared, so sad, and Munce knows the answer to that.

But he lifts one shoulder, says as easily as he can manage, “I don’t know, man, you tell me.”

Chavez’s face collapses, and he nods, nods quickly and he’s proud because he’s not crying, but that’s the end of the good, everything else is just a fucking disaster.

“What am I gonna do, Munce?” Chavvy asks, wide-eyed and desperate, and Munson grabs him, hauls him in. Chavez’s face gets pressed against Munson’s chest, Munson’s arms around his shoulders.

Chavez snakes his arms around Munson’s waist and Munson tells him, “Any way I can get you. Any way. Just . . . tell me what you want, dude.”

Chavez breathes against his chest for awhile, Munson hard all over, muscle and bone, Munson’s chin on the top of his head, and Munson’s warm, blood-warm, something known by heart.

He pulls away, out of Munson’s arms, and sits up. Their knees are together, and Munson keeps a hand cupped around his elbow. Chavez wipes his fingers across his face, and says, “I want you to fuck me. As soon as possible.”

Munce is frozen, and in that moment Chavez is sure that he’s going to say no, it’s not right and not fair, and it won’t help, all of which is true, but then a brutal haze flags through his eyes, and Munson’s hand on his elbow clenches, crushing the tendons painfully against the calciate, and Munson rasps, “Inside.”

Chavez yanks himself up and his legs are asleep, but Munson’s got a hand strong on his back, fingers clawing at his shirt, and Chavez stumbles across the porch. Munson reaches around him to fumble sweaty-palmed for the doorknob, and Chavez wants to make some joke about that, leaving the house unlocked, jesus man don’t you learn from our mistakes, but Munce is already biting at his shoulder and neck, wet branding swipe of his tongue across Chavez’s ear, and Chavez is lost to it.

Barely through the door, in the unlit front hallway, and it’s Arlington, the sequel, kissing sharp with teeth and the taste of copper, Eric Chavez against the wall. But they’re not wasting any time, and Munson flips him easily, chipped paint in Chavez’s mouth and the light-switch jabbing into his chest. He shifts over to where there’s nothing but wall and Munson is pressed against his back, grinding and swearing hotly into Chavez’s ear, and Chavez thinks in fragments, ‘with abandon, I know, like this, just like this.’

Chavez braces his hands on the wall and pants, “Yeah, man, yeah,” and his shirt is pulled all the way up, bandaged under his arms, and Munson is licking his shoulder blades, Munson is kissing the little knobs of his spine with something mistaken for tenderness, Munson’s mouth is open in the dip at the small of his back, where Chavez’s first true injury makes his perfect swing unbearably painful, and Chavez needs Munson to stop messing around, rise to his feet and fuck him through the wall.

He reaches back, finds the thatch of Munson’s hair and pulls impatiently. Munson growls and stings him with his teeth, but skims his way back up, his hands around Chavez’s waist and working at his belt. Chavez presses his face into his bicep, his mouth moving mindlessly, chewing dragged bruises into his skin.

Munson winds a hand in Chavez’s hair and pulls his head up and back, kissing him at this weird cramped angle, and Chavez feels Munson’s hands sliding down and around, wants to say please but won’t, and it’s caught on his mind, it’s stuck: ‘abandon abandon abandon.’

When it’s over and he’s a gasping mess on the floor, Munson staggers to his feet and goes down the hall swaying like he’s on a bus, a minor league road trip, catching his balance with a hand against the wall. Eric Chavez stares woozily up at the ceiling, and Munson comes back with a damp washcloth, kneeling beside him and cleaning his face first, the steel-wool cotton over Chavez’s mouth and eyes, then his body, putting Chavez’s clothes back in order for him. Munson pats him on the chest and keeps cutting his gaze away.

Chavez touches Munson’s face, pulling him down and angling up to meet him, kissing him close-mouthed like an old movie, a church kiss. Munson lies down next to him and they don’t touch.

“You’re not gonna break up with her, are you,” Munce says flatly.

Chavez squints his eyes shut, shakes his head.

“And you’re gonna keep coming back here and we’re gonna keep doing this.” Munson’s got no inflection, no hint of accusation or anger, and Chavez kind of wishes Eric would just go ahead and hit him, it would be easier to deal with.

“Tell me it’s wrong, Munson,” Chavez says, scratching at the carpet, lint under his nails. “Tell me you won’t let me do this.”

But Munson won’t say that. His mouth is a taut line and his eyes are shining as he blinks fast at the ceiling.

Chavez wants to touch him very badly, but he stays on his side of the line. He’s post-sex relaxed, tingling and flushed, and it’s only his mind that’s sick now, tired mind, wicked mind.

“I wish one of you would just disappear,” Eric Chavez says hollowly.

Eric Munson closes his eyes. “That’s funny,” he replies, praying for weakness and strength in the same breath. “I keep thinking the same thing about you and me.”

(end part seven)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Eighth: Off the Map

(taught you how to lie)

In Palm Springs, it’s lush and green-bright even in November, and Eric Chavez and Amber Tarpy play golf, swim in the electric-blue pool, watch the sun fall into the ocean from their hotel balcony, and on the third day, Eric gets down on his knees like a good boy, lays his head in her lap and asks her to marry him.

His stomach’s a wreck and his heart’s not much better, but he’s pretty sure this is what he wants. He’s got to make a choice, stake a claim, this is clear, and he can’t imagine the world in which he and Eric Munson would be able to survive each other.

It’s been three weeks since they started sleeping together again, Chavez wearing out his tires on the memorized drive to Munson’s Los Angeles house, and there’s something cruel and glass-scarred between them now. It’s not enough for Chavez to have gone crazy and heartless, it’s not enough for Munson to be reduced to a whore, an afterthought, the one who Chavez leaves behind before the sun comes up. There’s a lot more damage for them to do to each other, and it’s their new game, baseball’s replacement, who will end up the more hurt.

They don’t talk all that much and they spend most of their time in bed, and Chavez thinks of it like an addiction, get your fix and get on with your day. There are moments when he loves Eric Munson so much he almost can’t take it, but then Munson takes his mouth away and whispers meanly, “I can taste her on you,” and Chavez pulls his hair too hard, snarling and twisting his fingers between Munson’s lips so that he’ll shut the fuck up.

He can’t stay away. And Munson never denies him. When they fall asleep, they forget to be mad at each other, vine-armed and their legs tangled, heavy dead-weight heads and calmly beating hearts. Like little boys unselfconsciously knitted together in the backseat of a car, a long road trip, mouths open and faces unlined. Like two young men not ashamed of each other, enough faith to get through this.

When Chavez slips away before dawn, he kisses Munson on the forehead or the chin or the shoulder, but Munson never wakes up for that.

They’re no good for each other. Maybe they never have been, maybe this was all just a bad idea that they’ve been unable to shake loose, and it’s been four years. Sometimes Eric Chavez, at his most selfish, curses Jesse DiMartino for dying, pushing them over the edge. That fucking ghost is responsible for all of this, and he hopes Jesse’s in hell, though if ever there was a soul in heaven, it’s Jesse DiMartino.

He prays, he asks for guidance. He’s just a perfect Christian now, a sinner and bound for nothing clean, nothing easy. Nothing cool. Thinking all the time about temptation and the breakdown of love in his heart. His knees hurt. He uses every name for God that he’s ever been taught, and hears nothing in response. He starts looking for signs, or mysterious ways, but all he finds is a bad moon and another night in Los Angeles.

He can put gold on Amber Tarpy’s finger and she’ll be his. Eric Munson might be in love with him, but they can’t tell anyone and can barely tell each other and he can never have any part of Munson that matters, no real hold, nothing on paper, nothing down in the record. They swapped their imperfect hearts like baseball cards, and that only made it worse.

He’s got the ring in his sock. The diamond is knifing into the skin of his ankle, but there’s no blood yet, or at least not that he can feel.

Amber Tarpy laughs, and Eric is unimaginably thankful to hear her breath hitch, and she tells him, “Yes, of course, yes.”

His face splits in a grin and he fishes the ring out of his sock, slides it onto her finger. He holds her hand in his for a moment, staring down at it. He thinks, ‘this is the hand of the woman I’m going to marry.’ Pretty thin-fingered girl’s hand, the diamond brilliant and kaleidoscoping in the light.

For awhile, he feels like he did the right thing. The only thing.

He crawls out of their Palm Springs hotel room bed at four in the morning, carefully sliding his new fiancée out of his arms, and she hums in her sleep, doesn’t stir. He’s gotten very good at this.

He sits in the hallway in sweatpants and nothing else, and calls Eric Munson.

The cell phone on Munson’s dresser rings seven times, then goes to voicemail. There’s a click of a pause, and then it starts ringing again. The cycle is repeated five times, and Eric Munson is waking up slowly, surfacing into irritation. The ringing is briefly a part of his dream, something about apple-red fire alarms in a school hallway, hiding under his third-grade desk with his hands laced together on the back of his neck, practicing for an earthquake.

Then he wakes up all the way, jolts into a half-sitting position and he’s close enough to the edge of the bed that he falls off, landing in a bleary, pissed-off pile of sheets and pillows.

He gets over to his dresser and doesn’t even bother looking at the display before he answers it and says, “You son of a bitch, Chavvy, did you lose your fucking watch?”

Munce is about to continue in that vein, more creative and colorful curses polished in his ever-clearing mind, but then Chavez says fast, rushing it out, “We’re getting married.”

Munce blinks. “We are?” He’s pretty sure that’s illegal in this state.

Chavez hyena-laughs, slashing off abruptly with a harsh inhale. “Me and Amber, dude. I . . . I asked her, and she said yes.”

Munson’s head suddenly empties, and he collapses back. His legs are still tied up in the sheets, he can’t get free. He thinks, ‘huh, this must be shock.’ It’s cold and itchy on his skin, like dry ice, and his stomach aches.

“Y-you, ah . . .” he stops, clears his throat. “Don’t fuck with me, Eric.”

But no, no matter how bad things have gotten between them, Chavez wouldn’t lie, not about that. Eric Munson knows that, but he can still have that two-second interval in which he can foolishly believe that it’s just Chavez being an asshole, fucking around, cutting deep, it’s not real.

Two seconds.

“No . . . no,” Chavez says, sounding ripped to the core. “It’s true, man. I . . . gave her a ring. I got down on my knees. I did everything right.”

The stuff Munson wishes with all his heart he was brave enough to say out loud:

You’re too young to get married.

Fuck your ten percent, you like guys more than you like girls.

You’ve only known her for two months.

You’re supposed to be in love with me.

But they’re best friends. This Munson has to forcefully remind himself of, before and after everything else, they’re just best friends, and Munson is amazed to find himself saying sincerely, “Congratulations.”

“Munce,” Chavez breathes out, but Munson interrupts him before he can say anything more.

“Because you love her, right? You really do, she’s not just, you know, a hobby?”

“Yes I love her,” Chavez snaps. “She’s not a fucking hobby.”

Munson lets his eyes shut. He feels the prediction of a headache, the tension in his sinuses, the high-altitude anesthetized drift of his tangible mind. “Then congratulations,” he whispers.

Chavez listens to Munson not saying anything for awhile, then spills out, a shade off panicked, “I had to, Munson. I love her, I had to do it. It doesn’t mean I don’t . . . it’s not that you’re . . . I love her, and I could do this for her.”

It’s unspoken in the corners of that, couldn’t do this for you, Munson, nothing like a promise.

“You just,” Munson begins, rolling his head back and forth on the carpet trying to get it to even out. “You, really, you need to stop talking now. Don’t tell me why.”

Chavez falls quiet, and Munson wishes he was still asleep, dreaming about earthquake drills.

“I want you to meet her, Eric,” Chavez eventually says hoarsely. Munson’s eyes snap open and glare widely at the ceiling. “I don’t want to marry anybody that you don’t think is okay.”

“Jesus Christ,” Munson manages. “How the fuck am I supposed to give an unbiased opinion of your fucking girlfriend?”

Chavez shrugs, his shoulder bumping the phone against his chin and riffing static. “You’ll know if she’s good for me. You always know what’s good for me.”

There’s a spike of steely pain in Munson’s stomach, and his voice is strangled as he says, “I . . . I have to go. I’m sorry, I can’t . . . I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

“Munson!” Chavez cries. “C’mon, man.”

Munce shakes his head, and his vision is netting, splitting into laced veins. “Just . . . call me in a couple of days, okay? Before midnight, preferably. Give me a little bit of time.”

“’Kay,” Chavez says, sounding small. “I . . . I love you, all right?”

Munson hangs up, his hands shaking, and his arms, and his legs, his whole body, chattering, unloosed, and it’s a long time before he can convince himself that Eric Chavez isn’t trying to drive him insane just so that he’ll have some company.

*

(i don’t want any part of your good side)

To his profound and eternal surprise, crazy fucking world man, Eric Munson finds himself actually liking Amber Tarpy.

The three of them go out to dinner, halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles, and Munce is fully prepared to loathe her on sight, which he almost does, but then she slants him a rolled-eyes smile as Chavez is trying to be a big shot with the host, exasperated and affectionate, practically like looking in a mirror.

Munson and Amber are exchanging Eric stories before their drinks arrive, that time Eric threw his glove to try and knock the ball off the roof and his glove got stuck too, so naturally he took off his shoe and threw that up there to keep all the other junk company, that time Eric sang a little song on my parents’ answering machine because he thought it was my private line, and Chavez, nervous and betrayed, scowls at them, but laughs when they do.

Munson can see what Chavez sees in her. She’s pretty and small and nothing like a guy. Chavvy acts like a dork, drumming his spoon and fork on her arm, and she bats him away, smiling. She makes off-hand time-release jokes where thirty seconds later Munson suddenly realizes, hey, that was pretty fucking funny. She’s got those eyes. Munson can picture little brown-eyed kids, girls with hair like spilled black paint, boys born with the ability to guard the line against doubles.

After they drop her off, and Chavez is driving Munson back to USC, Chavez keeps glancing anxiously at him, until Munce says evenly, “She’s a good kid.”

Chavez, his hands white-knuckled on the wheel, sags back in his seat slightly. “Yeah?”

Munson nods, looking at Chavez’s hands. On the back of the left one, in the delta of flat skin between the index finger’s tendon and the bone of the thumb, there’s a reminder written in blue letters: ‘3 days.’ Munson wants to ask what that means, but he doesn’t.

“She’s real sweet. Funny. Nice.” He shrugs, feeling wiped out. “She’s the kind of girl you marry.”

The highway lights scroll by, and Chavez says, his eyes on the road, “Thanks for coming out tonight. Means a lot.”

Munson doesn’t answer. They go another few miles, drinking the highway down under the wheels.

When the silence is broken, Munson thinks for a moment that Chavez turned on the radio while he wasn’t paying attention, and then realizes that that’s him talking, coming from far away like an echo:

“Are you gonna do this right?”

Chavez jumps, startled, and his hands strangle tighter around the wheel, squeaking on the leather. “Do what right?”

Munson pushes his fingers into the car door, twiddling with the handle, his thumb sliding on the waxed metal. “Getting married. Are you gonna stop fucking around?”

Chavez’s gaze is fixed on the dashed white line, and he says defensively, “I don’t fuck around that much.”

Munson snorts. He’s never brought it up before, but he knows that he’s not the only one Chavez fucks on the side, he’s just the most important. He smells other men on his best friend sometimes, different shades of lipstick on the insides of his wrists, nail scratches at the small of his back.

He’s pretty sure Chavez is still just running away from something, trying to prove that neither Munson nor Amber Tarpy really mean that much to him, but he doesn’t think it’s working.

“It’s not like fucking around just a little is okay, dude,” he tells him, feeling like this should be someone else’s job, to remind Chavez of the basics of this, though he’s the best friend, it’s definitely his ups. “If you’re gonna do this, you should do it all the way.”

“Says the guy who’s never had a long-term relationship,” Chavez says bitterly.

Munson looks at him angrily. “I had one once, motherfucker,” he answers, and Chavez at least has the good grace to flush at that.

They’re quiet again, another ten miles behind them. Then Chavez says gingerly, “If . . . if I don’t fuck around with anybody else . . . are we . . . I mean, this still doesn’t. Count. Right?”

Munson folds his fingers around the door handle. He stares out at the nighted desert. He thinks about a lifetime of being a secret, being ashamed. He thinks about an eloquent ring on Chavez’s left hand, Eric Chavez all grown up and Eric Munson still nineteen years old and hopelessly in love with his best friend.

“It’s going to have to end sometime,” Munson says, not really believing it.

Eric Chavez reaches across the console, touches his hand to Munson’s leg, his elbow, his shoulder. “But not yet, right?” he whispers.

Munson looks for another world out in the wasteland, the place where he would be able to get away from this. He thinks about a tropical storm in San Diego and wet ground under his back, Chavez holding his hands down above his head.

“Not yet,” Munson answers. He’s feeling so weak and stupid that he could just fucking cry.

“Look,” Chavez says, and then stops, rubs his eyes. He’s leaning his arm on the steering wheel hard, and Munce keeps waiting for the car to veer under the pressure. “You just. You don’t understand. You don’t know what it’s like. I’m—I’m trying to have a real life.”

Munson looks at him with hurt surprise. “And what the fuck am I doing? Rehearsing a play?”

The line of Chavez’s jaw pulls, clenching his teeth and the car picks up a few miles per hour. Chavez still thinks he can outrun fucking anything. “I’m trying to be a fucking adult, Munson.”

“I’m two months older than you!” Munson shouts, and then feels stupid, to be the first one to raise his voice, to show his hand like that.

“You’re a kid and you’re living a fucking dream. You’ve never even had a real job,” Chavez says with his mouth all twisted up.

Munson stares at him in shock, everything’s coming out now, isn’t it, jesus. He isn’t ready for this. He wants some time to prepare, something. He wants to say, wait hang on, time out, gimme a minute. “You. You’ve never had one either. You call getting paid to play baseball a fucking job?”

“It’s more of a job than college ball, and you know it. You, it’s. Just a game for you.”

Munson shakes his head quickly, something cracking in his neck. His hands are in fists on his knees. “I’m not in Little League, Eric, for fuck’s sake. I’m on the best college team in the country.”

Chavez sneers. “Yeah, and the fucking Devil Rays could beat you without even playing their outfield.”

“Dude, fuck you and fuck the Devil Rays, they could not. We’re.” Munson jerks his head to the side, almost hitting the window. “I shouldn’t have to defend my team to you. And if this is what you’re gonna be like after one motherfucking month in the bigs, I don’t think I wanna know you once you become a star,” Munson says, and it’s weird because it’s still not even a question, that Eric Chavez will be a star, that Munson will be left behind, again and again, not even a question.

“Well, fucking keep it up, man, and you won’t have to know me.” Chavez hasn’t looked over at him in a long time, the road in his eyes, all black and tar-hot.

Munson doesn’t answer for a moment, squeezing his hands compulsively, nails biting into his palm. He breathes carefully and tries to get himself under control.

“You’re being an asshole. You’re not like this. You even. You said in Arlington that it wasn’t like this, and. You can’t take it back.”

He chances a look and Chavez is stiffly held, the muscles in his arms strung and his ears colored the way they get when he’s seriously pissed off. Munson pushes his fist hard against his leg and says with his voice tense, “Listen, get married, keep fucking around with me, I don’t fucking care. But don’t be like this. Don’t use her as an excuse to, to. To say this. You wanna end things with me, grow some fucking balls and do it yourself, don’t try to, don’t-”

Munson cuts himself off, because he’s not really sure what point he’s trying to make. It was important and on the tip of his tongue and now it’s gone, he can’t remember what it was, just that it was very important. He puts his hands up over his eyes, pressing the heels down. He wishes they’d never started talking. Wishes none of this had ever happened.

“My life isn’t a motherfucking game, man. You more than anyone should know how hard it is to get a good draft.”

Eric Chavez laughs, so far from his real laugh it almost hurts to hear it. “Dude, the only thing I ever had to do to get a good draft was show up and play better than you did. Which, trust me, was not some giant fucking accomplishment. When you get to the majors, you’ll see, you’ll fucking learn where you really fall. Oh, but excuse the fuck out of me. Shoulda said if you get to the majors.”

Munson doesn’t say anything for a very long time. He just. He can’t. He takes his hands down and looks at them for awhile, same hands as always, same scars, everything. He can feel Chavez watching him, but he doesn’t look back.

Munson swallows, and says quietly, “Pull the car over.”

Chavez’s hands wrench on the wheel. He tries to laugh it off, but it doesn’t work. “What?”

Munson shakes his head, still staring down, his calm motionless profile against the black of the window. “Pull over.”

Chavez’s mouth opens, then shuts with a click. He presses down, makes the car go faster. “Don’t be a fucking drama queen. I’m not leaving you on the side of the road, all right? So just knock it off.”

“Eric.” Munson ticks his fingers out, folds them back in again. “Please, would you please let me out.”

It’s the please that does it, without a doubt. Because Munson should be swearing and screaming and pounding his hands on the dash, but he’s not. He’s got his perfect company manners, even now, he’s such a good guy.

And Eric Chavez drifts the car over onto the shoulder, and watches his best friend step out. Munson stands there with his back to the highway, his hands in his pockets. The wind is hard and pulls Munson’s collar up against his neck. His shoulders are fallen; he looks. Frail. Tired.

Chavez shouts even though all the doors and windows are closed and there’s no way Munson can hear it:

“Fine, fuck you, get fucking killed!” and takes off, saying over and over again to himself, “stupid motherfucker, fucking stupid fuck, you’re gonna get killed out there, you stupid motherfucker,” and it’s probably five miles before he realizes he’s crying.

It’s another two miles before he whips the wheel and throws the car into a wide U-turn with the wheels screeching on the pavement and Chavez can’t see a thing, not a goddamn thing.

It’s cold on the side of the highway and Munson remembers sadly that his coat is in the backseat of Chavez’s car. He’s trying his best not to think about anything, though, and not hear anything in his head.

The headlights come at him and he squints his eyes almost all the way shut. He’s shivering pretty badly now, feeling like everything inside him is trying to break free. When he hears the car that passed roughly turning behind him, he knows it’s Chavez come back to save him from the desert, and Munson bites down on the inside of his cheek, fists his hands in his pockets.

Chavez pulls up behind him and falls out of the car. Munson keeps walking, in the broad wash of the headlights, and it’s so dark out here, the headlights are almost tangible, something you could pick up and take home with you.

“Munce,” Chavez yells, but not nearly loud enough, and runs to him. He gets his hands on Munson’s back and Munson jerks away, hard enough to pull Chavez off balance, drag him to his knees, which is where he should be, really, a moment like this, headlights in the desert on the side of the highway. The gravel tears through his pants, draws blood on his knees and that hurts a lot, but it’s the off-season so he doesn’t have to worry about it.

Chavez holds onto the hem of Munson’s shirt, ripping it out of his belt. His face is tilted up and he’s never felt like this before, like he’s about to die, a last chance like this.

“I didn’t mean it,” he says desperately, and Munson’s shirt is pulled taut in his hands, Munson still straining away from him. “None of that is true, Munce, I promise it’s not. We’re the same, you know that. I know that too, swear to god I do. Please, I didn’t mean it, I’m so fucking sorry, please man.”

Munson bows his head. He takes his hands out of his pockets and forces his fists open. He turns and looks down at Eric Chavez on his knees, face all clean with tears and his eyes huge and bloodshot. Chavez believes every word of it, Munson knows, everything he said in the car and everything he’s saying now. Faith in contradictions and Eric Chavez can make this kind of sense.

“I’m sorry,” Chavez whispers, his hands in Munson’s belt now, clinging to him. “I. I’m just really fucking scared, man. I can’t do anything right, and. Please. I don’t know what to do. You gotta tell me.”

Munson shakes his head. His throat is tight and he wants to put his hands on Chavez’s shoulders, wants to keep him down. “I’m tired of figuring things out for you. It’s. Not my fucking job to make sure you’re doing the right thing.”

Chavez’s hands pull down and Munson’s legs give out and he falls too. So they’re there together on the side of the road, and this is one of those moments in a life.

Chavez gets his arms around Munson, gets his face pressed against Munson’s neck. “You’re the right thing, okay. You’ve always been. Just. Don’t leave me alone right now, all right?”

Munson gives up. He’s got no other choice. He wraps his arms around his best friend and holds onto him, pushes his hands into Chavez’s hair and hides his eyes. Eric Munson forgives him, again, some more, and says “shh,” and makes up words, and Eric Chavez is under his hands strong and clutching so tight Munson will have bruises on his back, the shape of spread fingers.

It’s a moment in a life, spot-lit and frozen and they won’t be able to forget it, no matter how hard they try.

It’s a few days later when it occurs to Eric Munson that, for all the high drama and brilliance of that moment on the side of the highway, it didn’t change a motherfucking thing.

*

(bet your life)

They go to Las Vegas a few weeks later, after Eric Chavez finally turns twenty-one. Munson brings his girlfriend Jennifer, an All-America volleyball player, mainly just to show Chavez that he’s got a life outside of waiting for Chavez to drive to Los Angeles. They lose a bunch of money in the slot machines and then win it all back betting on the number three on the roulette wheel, Chavez crowing and flicking red-white chips at Munson across the green felt.

They stay in a suite, two bedrooms and a big sprawled living room with a bank of windows overlooking the Strip, because Eric Chavez is still rich and only gonna get richer.

Way past midnight, when he can’t sleep, Eric Munson stands at the window and stares at the epileptic neon until his eyes blur, and he’s not surprised when Chavez steps behind him, runs his fingers down Munson’s back and turns him around to kiss him, both of them tasting like women and black vodka. One girlfriend and one fiancée sleep easily behind the walls, and Eric Chavez sucks Munson off with his hands spread out on the glass, fog sinking away from his fingers.

They don’t look each other in the eye the next morning, and when they separate at LAX, Jennifer tells him happily, “You and Eric are so cute together,” and for an instant Munson is terrified that he’s going to hit her.

And pretty soon after that, Eric Chavez goes to Washington D.C. and meets the president. It’s a whole thing about being an All-Star both on and off the field, a bunch of young major leaguers making some kind of promise to be good examples and role models, community-minded, responsible public citizen and all that. Eric Chavez isn’t really paying attention. And when he calls Munson, he doesn’t say much about the fabled silver-haired charm of Bill Clinton or the press of history on the East Coast, he just says astounded like a kid, “it’s snowing, Munce, it’s beautiful.”

Chavez has never seen snow before. It turns out there are actually a number of things that Eric Munson has done that Eric Chavez hasn’t, like sled down a hill on a piece of cardboard and his face getting all cut by ice chips, and go to Europe, and watch the sun come up from the roof of a hotel in Tokyo, and lie back on a beach during a meteor shower with his eyes half-closed and the sky falling down on him. Eric Chavez has taken the field in a major league baseball game, though. It’s this incredible ace up his sleeve. It trumps everything.

Munson gets a strange foreboding sense sometimes, like an hourglass turned over in his mind, time running out. The baseball season is veering towards them like its brakes have been cut. Eric Chavez will be the youngest starter in an Oakland A’s uniform since Rickey Henderson, campaigning for Rookie of the Year, and the 1999 amateur draft is six months away.

Nothing is ever gonna be the same and Munson can’t figure out why that scares him so much. Because it’s not like things are good now. Munson, he never lied, it’s true that he used to think that if he just had Eric Chavez, any way, then that would be enough and he’d be grateful. He never imagined something like this, the way it is between them now.

He pushes Chavez onto his stomach and slides his hand into Chavez’s hair, which Chavez is growing longer because Amber Tarpy thinks he’ll look good like that. Munson bares his teeth and presses Chavez’s face down. Thinks about how Chavez can’t breathe, gets jealous of the mattress for having Chavez’s teeth and mouth, and presses down harder, the base of Chavez’s skull and the cup of Munson’s palm, Chavez’s back arched.

Munson licks all the way down Chavez’s spine, and he forgets if this is Los Angeles or San Diego, whose bed, whose window open for the breeze, whose hands ragged in the sheets and whose hair in whose mouth.

Whose life they’re ruining right now.

*

(graffiti)

In late February, a few days before spring training starts, they’re asleep in Munson’s bed at three o’clock in the afternoon. Chavez has to be back for dinner with Amber after she gets out of class, but they had a few hours, and now they’re sleeping them off.

Chavez’s face is against Munson’s side, snuffling into his ribs, and Munson has got one arm stretched down Chavez’s back, hand splayed, the other tossed out like litter, grasping weakly at the air. There’s a patch of sunlight, but it’s on the other side of the room.

A car backfires on the street, a violent dream, once is a backfire, twice is gunshots, and Eric Chavez stirs.

He wakes up and he’s happy.

He’s all the time now, as guilty as a Catholic, wanting Amber Tarpy when he’s in Los Angeles, dying for Eric Munson when he’s with his fiancée. He finds pretty strangers to scour their hands through his hair and press him back against brick walls, he’s numb and manic and in agony, and he doesn’t know what any of this means. He wants the season to start so that there will be something other than this, something with clearly defined rules and a certainty about who wins and loses. He can’t give either of them up, he’s scared to death of trying.

There’s something like panic and exhilaration, this fine fucking line splintered in his mind. Where nothing is a pure emotion because everything is caught up with everything else. Amber Tarpy’s eyes and Eric Munson’s hands. The soft place under Amber Tarpy’s belly button, and the forced press of Eric Munson’s ribs against his mouth. The way Eric Munson’s voice sometimes gets high and reedy like a girl’s when he’s about to come, and the way, when Amber Tarpy is shocked into laughing hard, she sounds like a teenaged boy.

There’s history and there’s the future, the ring on Amber Tarpy’s finger, Munson’s USC baseball card in Chavez’s wallet. His whole life and he can’t tell his fear from his devotion, can’t tell anything for sure.

But now it’s the middle of the afternoon and he wakes up in Eric Munson’s bed and he’s happy. Nothing else to make it complicated or less than it is, just. Happy.

He grabs hold of it, all his strength, and tries to hang on. It’s been so long. He’s still half-asleep and he thinks, ‘I fell in love with my best friend, I’m so lucky.’ He kisses Munson’s side, the bend of his ribcage. Munson’s hand skeets on his back, sliding a bit and then coming to a stop, another good place.

Eric Chavez is feeling invincible, optimistic for the first time in months, the first time since that moment on the side of the highway when everything fell apart and nothing got solved. Maybe even for the first time since Palm Springs, when he was so sure he was doing the right thing and wouldn’t have to feel like this anymore.

He wants to do something stupid and romantic, all the things he’s never been allowed. He stretches carefully over Munson, not wanting to disturb him, and gets the pen off the nightstand.

He moves slowly, Munson murmuring and rocking once, twice, settling down again. He knows how Munson’s breathing quickens when he’s waking up, and Munson is deep deep in a dream right now, his eyelids twitching.

Chavez tugs down the side of Munson’s boxers, just far enough to reveal a triangle of pale hip, hairless just to the edge of where everything gets interesting. The pen cap between his lips, Eric Chavez gently writes his name is small capital letters on Eric Munson’s skin, upside down so that Munson will be able to read it when he looks down.

He blows lightly to dry the ink, and Munson’s mouth curves up in a drowsy smile. He pulls the waistband of Munson’s boxers back up, hiding it away, and lies back down, for this moment at peace, for this moment in the only place he wants to be.

He leaves before Munce wakes up, and it takes Munson four days of scrubbing with industrial lava soap and not fucking his girlfriend before he can get Eric Chavez’s name off his body, and by that time Chavez is already in Arizona.

(end part eight)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

Part the Ninth: Get Where You’re Going

(the new kid)

From the start, Eric Munson does not like Barry Zito.

They meet at the first USC team meeting at the end of the winter of Munce’s junior year, a little while after he gets back from Las Vegas, just a general kind of check-up to make sure everyone’s staying on track and to introduce the freshmen and transfer players.

Munson walks in, his face badly sunburned from falling asleep on the beach a couple of days ago, and there’s a tall brown-haired kid talking fast to a clutch of the infielders. Munce gets slapped on the back, greeted with hugs and hair-rustles, and during his third orbit of the room, he edges into the group around the unfamiliar guy. The second baseman is the only one who pays him any mind, grinning and clocking him on the shoulder; the others are busy snickering at a joke the new kid’s telling.

Munson waits for a break, waits for the new kid to notice him and introduce himself, but he’s too wrapped up in his own joke, and Munson stands there, feeling dumb, until the coach calls them all together.

When the coach clasps a hand on the back of the new kid’s neck and puffs his chest out importantly, Munce sneers inside his head, looking for someone to roll his eyes at, but everyone else is well-behaved and paying attention. His coach says, “And this is Barry Zito, as I guess most of you already know,” and Munson wonders where he was when the fucking Barry Zito memo went out.

And what the fuck kind of name is Barry Zito, anyway?

It turns out that USC is Zito’s third college in as many years, and that he started at UC Santa Barbara and kept getting better, polished like silverware. He was drafted in ’96 too, in the 59th round of the free agent draft by the Seattle Mariners, but chose school instead. Munson likes to think about Zito being fifty-seven rounds behind him—it puts things in perspective.

Zito blushes prettily through his introduction, but Munson’s fairly sure it’s an act. From the way Zito tips his chin up and brushes his hair back with the side of his hand, the way his eyes dart calculatingly across each of their faces, the way Zito doesn’t slouch to hide his height, the way Zito’s big left hand with the strange birthmark across his wrist twists slowly in the air as it hangs at his side, his fingers in a four-seam grip, Munson can tell that Zito’s ego is at least twice the size of his talent, Zito thinks he’s hot shit and at twenty years old, it’s not like he’s got anything to back that up.

Eric Munson takes an immediate dislike to him, which is something that’s never really happened to him before. He’s always giving people second chances, third chances, forty-sixth chances, he always thinks the best of everyone even after he’s been given a surplus of evidence to the contrary, but this kid just fucking grates, right off the bat.

But Munson’s the catcher and Zito’s the star pitcher and that means he can’t say anything about it.

Baseball America puts Eric Munson on the cover of their College Preview issue, and Collegiate Baseball names him the Preseason National Player of the Year, so it’s not like he’s really got to worry about Barry Zito or Eric Chavez or anybody, all he’s got to do is play his game, and soon enough, man, soon enough.

He handles Zito efficiently, professionally, figuring that not all the pitchers he’s gonna catch are gonna be swell guys, he’s probably just gotten lucky so far.

Zito’s so fucking in love with his own curveball, it’s sickening. Munce calls for first ball heat and Zito shakes him off, looking for two fingers and nothing else. Munson gets quickly and fantastically annoyed, because it’s not as if Zito has anything like pinpoint control of the break, and goddamn it, you set them up with strikes, set them down with balls, and the curve is the fucking out pitch.

And he’s the catcher, he’s the one who calls the goddamn game.

He holds it back though, holds it in, because Zito, the other guys just adore Zito. He’s immediately one of the most popular guys on the team, he’s there at every party, shoved in the back of every car on its way to the diner or the bar at the outskirts that doesn’t card.

Munson doesn’t understand it. Zito gets drunk and talks about the flow of positive energy, deep space travel, and his older sister’s band, and you’d think the guys would recognize a fucking nutjob when they see one, but they just nod along intelligently, ask to see pictures and whistle exaggeratedly, “Dude, she’s totally kind of hot,” making Zito screech and cover his ears, all the while a proud little grin on his face.

And then one day in March, they’re playing Washington State, up in the great northwest where the first game is snowed out, and in the opener of the double-header the next day, Munson signals for a curve, and even from behind the plate, he can see Zito’s jaw clench, even though he called for Zito’s precious little hook, what the fuck does he want.

Munce sighs, expecting the shake-off, so fucking tired of this shit, but Zito surprises him by nodding, and getting set, hands to his waist, breathing out and in a perfect profile before he starts his slow kicked delivery.

And throws a motherfucking fastball.

Munson, though he’s not as infatuated with Zito’s curve as the rest of the world apparently is, is nonetheless still fooled by it from time to time, and he waits too long for the straight pitch to break, his mitt pinned to the wrong place, and the pitch bullets at him, aimed dead-on for his cup, drills into the heel of his throwing hand, a shard of pain jagging up his arm.

Munson curses, shaking his glove off and glaring murderously out at the mound, where Zito is standing with a hand on his hip, looking impatient. Munce cradles his right hand against his chest, flexing his fingers. It hurts in the cold air, a deep ache.

The trainer comes out, pressing his fingers curiously all around the blackening mark just above Munson’s wrist. Munce lets him inspect it for a moment, then says, “I’m fine, lemme play, I’m good.”

He’s not, though. His hand gets stiffer, swelling at the heel. Zito doesn’t even come over in the dugout to say he’s sorry, just pulls his maroon warm-up jacket on backwards so that his arms are covered but his shoulders and back aren’t, and spits sunflower seeds at everybody who walks in front of him.

Munce kind of wants to go over there and punch him in the face, but after another inning, he can’t even make enough a fist to hold a bat, much less knock Zito’s teeth down his throat.

They take him to the hospital and the X-rays show a tiny fracture at the place where his wrist ends.

The son of a bitch broke his hand.

Munce is told that he’s got four weeks in a cast to look forward to, and he wishes he and Chavez were talking, because Chavvy would listen to him spew profanity without taking offense, Chavvy would understand the fine gray area of frustration and anger and pain that Munson will be living within for the next month. But they’re not talking, Chavez too busy with spring training to return Munson’s calls or write him an email or anything.

Which is probably a good thing, considering how they left off, considering that Munson still hasn’t learned anything. It’s all about time and distance.

They get back to USC and Munson’s got to be careful all the time now, not jog his hand against anything or roll over on it in the night, and he can’t play, can’t even toss a ball around like he’d be able to if Zito had broken his other hand.

Zito still doesn’t say he’s sorry. Even just from the perspective a teammate, not a friend, he should have, because having their best hitter out of the line-up for a month isn’t gonna help them get back to Omaha. But Zito’s wholly occupied by his own little world like always, and Munson’s backup never gets mad when Zito shakes off everything except the deuce, so probably Zito’s pretty happy with the whole situation, the little fucker.

They lose bad to UCLA, the fourth day Munson’s on the bench, and Munce is in an blackly awful mood.

He meets with the trainers after the game, gets saddled with a bunch of strength-training exercises to keep himself in shape during the month he’s suddenly got off, and stalks back down to the emptied locker room, picking up his glove off the bench so he can sidearm it hard into the wall, but he can’t even do that right, his stupid left arm and his glove slicing off path, barely brushing the concrete.

And Zito’s fucking laughing, leaning in the doorway. Munson snaps his eyes over when he hears the low rumble, Zito dressed in his street clothes and tilted on his shoulder and grinning sharply at him.

“For someone who bats left-handed, you’re not very coordinated from that side, are ya, Munce?” Zito says with a smirk, shaking his head back to get his hair out of his eyes.

Munson’s good hand tightens into a fist, his teeth gritting together. He won’t be, like, entirely surprised if he ends up killing Zito sometime soon.

“Fuck off.”

Zito widens his eyes exaggeratedly, looking like a parody of himself. “Kiss your boyfriend with that mouth?”

Munson freezes, suddenly flung into fear so bright it knocks him down, makes him mute and motionless. He stares at Zito, desperately trying to figure out if that was a joke, a casual suck-my-dick-bitch comeback that he’s trained himself to not even flinch at.

Or maybe Zito knows. But how could Zito know? He’s from San Diego too, maybe he saw something way back then, heard something. No, Zito went to University High, the other side of town, there’s no way. Munson and Chavez aren’t even talking. And they never were boyfriends, nothing like it, and, and.

Munce swallows hard, and Zito is studying him carefully, quiet realization sneaking into his expression, and Zito’s grin resurfaces briefly, bigger this time, psychotic.

“I think I hit a nerve,” Zito murmurs, and pushes his shoulder off the wall, his hands in his pockets, just fucking sauntering over, and Munson’s still frozen, can’t move.

Zito gets close, a hair taller than Munson but it’s good enough. Munson sees the slant of Zito’s hair across his forehead, the scar on his jaw that’s no bigger than the dent of a thumbnail, the pieces of gold in his eyes and the tuck of Zito’s collar around his neck, the hippie necklace he wears, and Munson wants to get away from here so badly it’s enough to make him scream.

And Zito’s hands are out of his pockets, on Munson’s shoulders, and Munce knows exactly what’s going to happen and doesn’t do a thing to stop it, which is how he ends up kissing Barry Zito in the deserted locker room with his shoulder blades digging hard on the chilled metal and his one hand in Zito’s hair, his cast against the small of Zito’s back.

It’s the first time he’s kissed someone bigger than he is. It’s the first time he’s kissed a guy who’s not Eric Chavez.

He lets Zito open his mouth, Zito’s hand twisted in the vee of Munson’s jersey, the back of his hand on the bare skin high on Munson’s chest, and Munson kisses him fiercely, fast and hard and not just a little bit panicked. Zito tastes like Bazooka Joe and Gatorade, and he knows what he’s doing.

Munson touches Zito’s face with the palm of his left hand, feeling the scruff, and Zito breathes out into his mouth, licking at Munson’s lips and tugging Munson’s jersey out of his pants.

Zito brushes a hand across Munson’s stomach, mapping, and it feels stunningly good, warm and perfect, and Munce, bolting with fear, shoves him off.

Zito stumbles backwards, surprised and confused and a dark heady look in his eyes, and before he can say what the fuck, Munson blurts out, “You threw that pitch on purpose.”

Zito’s eyes slit dangerously. He looks debauched, huge dilated pupils and swollen mouth. “What?” he says with his voice grated.

Munson waves his cast around, frantic, willing his anger to return, begging for it. “I called for a curve and you threw a fastball.” It’s coming, oh thank god, he’s starting to hate Zito again.

Zito takes a step towards him, but stops when Munson yanks himself backwards, bangs into the locker behind him. “I missed the sign.”

Eric tries out a glare. “You missed shit. You were fucking with me like you always do, and you broke my fucking hand!”

Zito stares at him blankly, the black in his eyes shrinking even as Munson watches, almost hypnotized by it. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Zito asks, and Munson sees that his hands are trembling.

Munce shakes his head so hard something in his neck cracks like a pencil. “You did it on purpose.”

Zito whips a hand through his hair, sneers, “You’re a total jackass, you know that?” and then walks out, his back tense with anger and his legs stiff as wooden pegs.

Munson waits until he hears the outer door clang shut, echoing through the concrete tunnel, and slides down the locker easily, folding into himself on the floor and thinking, ‘fuck fuck fuck what the fuck his fault definitely his fault but what the fuck,’ and he’s suddenly unbearably glad that he and Chavez are not speaking to each other right now.

To get through the season, they never mention it again. Munson never even looks at Zito unless he absolutely has to. They’re the most businesslike battery in college baseball for the rest of that season, their focus on nothing but the game, and they’re brilliant together.

And when Zito is selected by the Oakland A’s in the first round of the June draft, Munson decides that that’s really just fucking perfect, thinking sickly that Chavez and Zito deserve each other.

*

(4,189 hits and he’ll kill you if you look at him wrong)

Before the draft, though, before he gets his cast taken off, he rides up with Ruby and Cesar and a caravan of other family and friends, to see Eric Chavez play in his first season opener as the starting third baseman for the Oakland Athletics.

He sits in the backseat with Amber Tarpy and they play Travel Scrabble (he’s convinced she’s making up words. ‘Ibex’? As if), and punch-buggy and the license plate game. Sometimes he looks up to see a horizontal bookmark of Ruby’s face smiling at them in the rearview mirror, her two adopted children.

There’s a gray sky over Oakland, a fine rain. Ruby’s eyes tear as Eric Chavez’s name is announced, and Amber Tarpy is filming the whole game on the video camera, wiping the lens clean with her shirt sleeve until the rain lifts. Eric Munson keeps his casted arm under an extra windbreaker, making sure it doesn’t get wet, and when he claps for his best friend, it’s careful and muted.

Roger Clemens is pitching for the World Champion New York Yankees, and when he throws high and tight to Chavez three pitches into his first at-bat, Eric Munson lets a laugh break free and all of Chavez’s family and friends give him dirty looks. Eric Munson thinks, ‘retaleration,’ and a little boy on first base who understood baseball retribution.

They don’t stick around long after the game, talking to Chavez for a little while over the rail, occasionally interrupted by kids looking for autographs, anybody in an A’s uniform, it’s all the same. Chavez has got exhaustion scrawled all over his face, and he kisses Amber good-bye, shakes Munson’s hand without looking him in the eye, and disappears into the clubhouse.

A couple of weeks later, back in L.A., Munson’s cast comes off and his game comes back at full-tilt. There’s a little more than a month until the draft, and every baseball publication in the country is listing him as the best college prospect in the country, first round for sure, most likely in the top five.

Eric Munson doesn’t like to think about it, because when he was eighteen he was certain he’d go first round too, but sometimes the thought skitters across his mind: ‘top five is better than number ten.’

With Chavez in Oakland, it’s easier to think straight. Just like always when Munson doesn’t have to see his best friend on a regular basis, there’s space in his lungs for oxygen again. And he can just play, top of his game and better every day, and the 2nd of June is circled so many times on his calendar that the ink seeps through into October.

He gets a call from the Detroit Tigers on the first day of June, and the scouting director tells him, unofficially, that they’ll be taking him with their first pick. Munson mumbles through his thank yous and he’s sick to his stomach. They want him as a first baseman and he’s not sure he still knows how to stand up straight on a baseball field, he’s always in his crouch or on his knees, the diamond low in his eyes and pale tan lines caged on his face from his mask.

He’s never been to Detroit before. He’s never set foot in Michigan, he’s never even changed planes there.

But it doesn’t matter, and he thinks about Ty Cobb, Jack Morris, Gehringer and Kaline, Mickey Cochrane, Slug Heilmann with his short right-handed swing in black-and-white photographs, chopping into the spit and the stopball and sending the knuckler into the street. He sees the chalk-white home uniforms and the archaic illuminated manuscript D, blue and orange and a jungle cat of dusky orange and sleek black stripes.

That night, he has a bad dream, a shipwreck, something, bats and baseballs like corks in the ocean, empty-puppet uniform jerseys drifting among the seaweed. He’s wearing his catcher’s gear and he’s sinking, dragged down. He sees Eric Chavez on the suffocating way to the bottom, his eyes rolled up white and his hair floating limply, his arms above his head. He opens his mouth to scream and the water pours into his lungs, and Ty Cobb is laughing at him from the sea floor, bubbles exploding upwards. Cobb is polishing his knifed spikes and his face is the picture from that famous medical book, what’s it called, he can’t remember, the book that defines Cobb as a sociopathic personality. Murderously insane eyes.

Eric Munson wakes up damp with sweat, his throat swollen and sore, his heart trying to escape its fittings and burst out of his chest. It’s too early, still, but he calls Eric Chavez.

“Dude,” Chavez says, sounding more awake than Munson is. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“Detroit called me last night,” Munson tells him, his breath short.

Chavez pauses. “The whole city?”

Munson makes a strangled laugh. “No, the Tigers, idiot. They . . . they said they’re gonna take me with their first selection.”

There’s another pause, and Munce wants to scream at him, quit taking so long jesus fucking christ. But Chavez is working the team order over in his head, and finally he breathes out, “That’s . . . fuck, Munce, they’ve got third pick.”

Munson nods. It’s just starting to get light outside, the soft dust color of sunrise. “I know.”

“Top five,” Chavez says wonderingly. “I knew you would, but . . . but you are.” Chavez laughs, a strangely pure laugh, ringing. “Dude, I’m so pumped up for you, it’s ridiculous.”

Munce smiles a little bit. He’s suddenly very glad that there are three hundred and fifty miles between him and his best friend. That he can breathe freely now, and that Chavez can say that to him and mean it, because they’ve gotten so fucked up and he doesn’t want that to touch this day, he wants this day to be what it should have been when they were eighteen years old, perfect, just perfect.

“Yeah?”

Chavez rings out another laugh, and Munson tries to think back to the last time he heard his friend laugh like that. “Yeah, man, I couldn’t get to sleep at all, it feels like ’96 again. Except, well, you know, not as much. But close.”

There’s slow burn in Munson’s chest, Chavez kept up by nerves on his behalf, Munson didn’t know they were still that close, sympathy pains, but he should have known better, he should have known.

“Have you ever been to Detroit, Eric?” Munce asks.

“No. We’re going in a few weeks, though, the road trip at the end of the month.”

Munson pulls the covers up over his head, burrowing away with his cell phone and Eric Chavez’s voice. “It’s pretty far, huh.”

He thinks about when they were ten years old and convinced that they would both play for the San Diego Padres, the same field, the same uniforms. He thinks about the ten years of their life when they were teammates every season.

“It’s not so far,” Chavez replies gently. “It’s still the American League.”

“How . . . how many games a year?” Munson says, and thinks that he should clarify that, but Chavez knows what he means.

“Nine.”

“Jesus, that’s it?” Munson says before he can think better of it.

There’s a brief shuffle, Eric Chavez shrugging his shoulders helplessly. “Inter-league, man, it takes up three weeks. And you spend about two months just in your division, so.”

“Well,” Munce says, and then stops, takes a moment and starts again. “I guess I should start getting ready. There’s a bunch of people coming over.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Chavez hesitates himself, then says, “Call me after you know for sure, okay?”

Munce presses his face into the pillow, breathing deep. He likes it under here, where’s it’s dark and warm and Chavez is being nice to him again. “’Kay. Have a good game, dude.”

“I will,” Chavez answers, and Munson can hear him smiling.

And it happens just like it’s supposed to happen, after Josh Hamilton goes to the Devil Rays and Josh Beckett goes to the Marlins, Eric Munson goes to the Detroit Tigers, the number third pick and everyone nodding wisely, this kid is gonna do something, this kid is gonna go all the way.

His dad’s got the video camera rolling and Munson’s small cruddy college-boy house is stuffed with people, friends and teammates and family and Amber Tarpy’s aunt with her reporter’s notebook away for once, just waiting to hear like everybody else, talking with Eric’s aunt Gloria and telling Dora Munson in a low honest voice, “he’s the best college player in the country, the best I’ve seen in awhile.”

Munson gets the call and shouts out the news and they clash around him, his father whooping and his sister crying and every face broken open in a huge grin, and there’s a moment when Eric Munson is glad that he didn’t go first-round in ’96, because that wouldn’t have been as good as this, nothing could be as good as this.

The calls start to pour in and he paces up and down in the hallway, talking to people he’s forgotten he knew, and he feels a weird sense of déjà vu, not realizing for about a half an hour that he’s remembering someone else’s experience, he’s remembering Eric Chavez telling him about this part of it, the flood of calls and the whole world wanting to hear his voice.

Nostalgic for his best friend’s life, and Eric Munson goes out to sit on the front steps. It’s widely bright, a beautiful day, perfect day, and he puts on his black sunglasses. He thinks ‘major league baseball,’ and the shell cuts into his palm.

He calls Chavez but Chavez doesn’t pick up. It’s almost time for batting practice in Oakland, Chavvy’s probably already on the field. Munson looks out from his front porch, a silly grin on his face, his eyes wet behind his shades. It’s so pretty out here he almost can’t believe it’s real.

His phone hums in his hand and he doesn’t need to look to see who it is.

“Dude!” Chavez yells exuberantly, shattered over the line, and there’s a stumble in Munson’s chest, there’s a pain that feels so good and a strain of true joy that makes him want to cry.

“Dude,” he whispers, barely forcing that one word out.

“I am so fucking proud of you,” and Chavez’s voice cracks, far away in a big league clubhouse, and three years behind him, Munson can see the future. “My teammates think I’m crazy but they’re all fuckers and they don’t know shit.” There’s a hollow echo of boos and whistles in the background, and Chavez saying above it, “We did it,” and then Chavez saying over and over again, “We did it, we did it,” and Munce thinks the scar on Chavez’s palm must be aching too.

“Thanks, bro,” Munson says, finding his strength because he needs all of it now.

“I’ve actually . . . I can’t really talk. Which fucking sucks. But we’ve got to go out,” Chavez says apologetically.

Munson nods. “No, yeah. I figured.”

“So proud of you,” Chavez says again, like it’s all he’s got in him.

Munson pushes his fingers under his sunglasses, swiping at his leaking eyes. “I love you, man,” he says suddenly, and it doesn’t sound like it’s sounded since Arlington, it sounds old and familiar, like when they were just brothers and nothing more.

There’s an instant of pinning shock, a cold-water splash of realization that this is the better kind of love, this is the best kind of love and the only one they ever should have wished for, but then Chavez tells him, rumbling and deep, “I know you do, I love you too, I love you like crazy,” with his teammates howling in the background, and Chavez has taken it the wrong way, taken it in the Arlington way, and Eric Munson decides he doesn’t really care, anything to hear Eric Chavez say that to him, make him believe it.

Munson coughs his throat clear, says unevenly, “Go play baseball.”

And Eric Chavez laughs that same good pre-dawn laugh, and Eric Chavez is still laughing when Eric Munson turns his phone off, and it’s all he hears for the rest of that perfect day.

(end part nine)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Tenth: Seeing the Future

(life-raft)

It’s a fast season. It happens so quickly neither Eric will really remember it very well, years later. Bits and pieces, of course, shards, but the big picture escapes them pretty easily.

There’s the afternoon when Eric Chavez hits his first major league home run, when he’s sprinting around the bases and he sees the ball thump against the fence and bounce back onto the field, and he runs even faster, until Ron Washington holds up his arms and shouts, “You got a home run!” and he’s able to slow to a jog. It’s still a burned home run trot, and his teammates tease him, “hey, rook, who says you’ll ever hit another one out, shoulda made that last.”

And there’s the day Eric Munson, wearing his West Michigan Whitecaps uniform, dirt-filthy after a game, is handed his first paycheck, in the clubhouse, and he stares at it incredulously, because maybe somewhere, even after everything and being twenty-one years old and his signing bonus and his best friend being a Rookie of the Year candidate, despite all of this, it would appear that there was a very persuasive part of him that was convinced that this whole thing, this getting-paid-to-play-baseball thing, was just a fucking myth.

There’s a motel room on the outskirts of Detroit when the Oakland A’s are in town playing the Tigers and the Whitecaps have the day off, carpet burns on Eric Munson’s shoulder blades and Eric Chavez’s knees, and Chavez gets back to the team hotel after curfew with his shirt buttoned up wrong and metallic shower water sticking in his hair, being fined and told sharply, “pussy can wait, kid, the team comes first.”

There’s Amber Tarpy, traveling with Chavez sometimes when they’re just playing within the division, and there are still strangers on the East Coast, in the cities of the Central Division, and it’s okay because Chavez only cheats on her when he’s out of town (except for sometimes when they’re home if he’s particularly tired or drunk). She begins to look scared some of the time, wounded in the trace of her features, her eyes jittering across Chavez’s face, but he doesn’t think she can tell anything. There’s nothing really for her to see—none of this means anything.

There’s the next part of their life, coming up from behind, gaining on them.

Eric Munson is batting his weight in Class A, but not much more than that. He still has a slugging percentage of over .500, but the game is all at once hard for him, for the first time in his life.

There’s this split second hesitation in his swing, his ankles turning in and his left shoulder dropping. He sees all the same stuff, the pitcher’s arm and the blur of white and the undiagnosed synapse firing ‘go’ in his brain with clear perfect timing, just like always, but there’s a break between his mind and his hands, his feet, his hips, and he’s slow, he’s just behind. And because the ability to hit, truly hit with eyes and strength and all that’s in a man, can’t be taught, he doesn’t know how to fix it. It’s always just been there for him, he’s never had to look for it.

He’s pretty sure it’s just nerves, but he fucking hates it. He wants his talent to come back, he badly needs it. He wants to ask Chavez how it was so easy for him, sliding into Visalia from Mt. Carmel like it was the same league, but he’s embarrassed, he doesn’t want to admit this is happening.

Michigan is strange. It’s flat and hard and he can see the horizon at the edge of the land, which freaks him out. He misses mountains and hills, rises and falls. The sun sets over not-the-ocean, and he never really gets used to that.

He makes friends on his team. They’re good guys, kids from the Midwest and the Dominican Republic, and he’s never had to try to make people like him. They all seem to know him ahead of time, like they got a press kit about him before he showed up or something. He is, quite possibly, the most famous college-drafted minor leaguer in the country, but he never really thinks much about that.

He’s half-giddy with excitement and fear, and he thinks about California a lot, stupid trivial stuff like the red and yellow street signs in his neighborhood, wild ragged edges of the parks, huge stereos bungee-corded in the open backseats of convertibles and blaring loud across the town, 7-Elevens not Quik-Stops, Safeways not Lucky's. He tacks road maps up on the walls of his rented apartment, traces the routes the team bus takes around the Midwest, draws a line from San Diego to Oakland, from Oakland to Detroit.

The A’s play well, a young team and getting younger by the day as the midseason call-ups make their appearances, and they’re in the race in September, the skin of their teeth at the very edges of it, but still. They finish in second place with their absurd twenty-five million dollar payroll, and now even the greenest rookies are talking about Billy Beane like they’d lie down in traffic for him.

Eric Chavez doesn’t win the Rookie of the Year, doesn’t even really come close despite the campaigning done on his part by the A’s marketing people. There’s this kid named Beltran flying under the wire in Kansas City, and most of the veterans don’t have his kind of numbers by the end of the year. Chavez hits under .250, but he plays a good third base, his potential all at once huge and unfathomed, and at twenty-one years old, he’s still better than most people will ever be.

They don’t see each other much, and the time flies.

After the minor league season is over, Munson crashes at Chavez’s place in Oakland for a week, but nothing happens because Amber has moved in by that time. He sleeps on the couch with the television spastically muted, and in the mornings Chavez makes breakfast for all three of them before he’s got to go to the ballpark.

When Munson wakes up one night to find Chavez sitting on the floor, back against the couch and his head tipped back to almost touch Munson’s stomach, Munce mumbles and clumsily reaches for him, his fingers snagging in the tangles of Chavez’s hair. Chavez turns, on his knees to lean over him and whisper, “Thin walls, dude, too thin,” kissing Munson on the chin and the shoulder and the chest before passing his hand down over Munson’s eyes, chanting, “Go to sleep, go to sleep,” and Munson falls back down, never waking up far enough to wonder what Chavez was doing on the floor if he wasn’t going to take advantage of him.

Chavez goes to Anaheim and Munson stays another day in the apartment with Amber Tarpy. He thought it’d be weird, just the two of them without Chavez to fill the silences, but it’s actually not. His growing affection for Amber continues to spook him, but by the time he leaves to go back to San Diego, they’re honestly friends, the two of them, and he starts calling to tell her about some old movie on TV that he knows she would want to watch, to tell her that he saw a toddler on the street with a mohawk and a Ramones T-shirt, appealing to her totally out-of-character taste for old school punk rock.

Soon enough, the season’s over and it’s November again and Chavez is getting married.

It’s a small church down in Santa Barbara by the beach, and everyone looks uncomfortable in their shiny dress shoes, they should be barefoot but that would be too hippie. The church is picket-fence white, and they can smell the ocean, fresh and beating on the sand. There are lavender flowers, pink rose petals in the aisle. The light shafts in through the louvered windows, sculpted and tinted blue, clouded by dust, and the gold of the altar casts a mellow gleam.

It’s beautiful, really, it’s like a painting.

Munson feels out of place and guilty in the little church, watched and judged and condemned, but he knows that’s a stupid way to think. He stands next to Eric Chavez at the front, he’s the best man. Chavez looks good in his tuxedo, clean-shaven for the first time in more than a year, he looks unfairly handsome, astonishingly young.

Chavez smiles at the rows of people sitting in the ache-backed pews, his neck flushed under the tight collar of his bowtie. His hair is painstakingly combed and sheened like a new vinyl record, black plastic, and Munson wants to smooth a hand down the back of Chavez’s head, see if it’ll squeak under his palm.

The minister asks them all to rise for a short prayer, and Munce stares at the ground, fiddles with the ring in his jacket pocket. It’s a simple gold band, nothing fancy, and he wants to slit a little hole in the bottom of his pocket, let the ring slip out and clink to some convenient drain in the floor, sparkling and dancing into the sewers.

In the brief interval before Amber Tarpy emerges from the big doors at the back and walks down the aisle, the minister is talking about love, devotion, faithfulness, and Eric Munson barely suppresses his caustic smirk. Eric Chavez wouldn’t know faithfulness if it stole third base on him.

Chavez nudges his arm, leans back to whisper, sounding utterly baffled, “How the fuck did this happen, man?” and Munson stares at him in shock, but Chavez just cuts a grin like it doesn’t mean anything, and then the big doors swing open and the bonded light sweeps in, and Amber Tarpy steps evenly out of the white, begins the long walk towards Eric Chavez and his best friend.

They have the reception down the shore a bit, in the ballroom of a sprawling rough-jointed hotel from the silent movie era, blue and gray and tossed like a group of shoeboxes on their sides, the wide circle of a dance floor in the middle bordered by draped tables, bursts of flowers and long white tapers.

Munson watches Chavez moving around the room, Amber’s hand hooked through his elbow, and they look perfect together. Munson can see their tenth anniversary, their twentieth, fiftieth, bent and white-haired and still in love with each other. He’s got a clear vision of what Eric Chavez will look like as an old man, and he wonders if he’ll still be around to see it, confirm it.

Everyone dances and Chavez wipes the corners of Amber Tarpy’s eyes with the sleeve of his tuxedo pulled over his hand. She beams up at him and Munson is happy for her, he knows what she’s got.

Munson drinks gin and tonics, then seven-and-sevens, then Jack and Cokes, cut-crystal tumblers and the candlelight like wave-sparks on the glass. Munson’s eyes unfocus and he’s got to force them into clarity, the world blurring and reforming. He thinks that this was a great wedding, really, just a perfect wedding, little church and big shoebox ballroom. He starts giggling at that, and Steve Scogin comes over and tells him he’s plastered, Steve’s eyes as worried as Steve’s eyes ever get.

Munson decides that Steve Scogin will be his new best friend, and he’s about to inform the other man of this, but Scogin’s already pulling him out of his chair and Munson’s head is whirling, and he clings to Scogin’s shoulder like a life-raft, way far off aware that he’s not going to want to remember this in the morning.

At the entrance to the hotel lobby, Eric Chavez catches up to them and ducks under Munson’s arm, saying, “I got him, Steve, I’ll put him to bed.”

Scogin lifts his eyebrows. “You sure, man? It’s your party.”

Chavez nods, patting Munson on the chest. Munson rolls his head on Chavez’s shoulder, breathing in the powder-smell and champagne on Chavez’s neck. “They can spare me for a coupla minutes. Been a long time since I got the experience of drunk Munce.”

Munson whinnies a crazy laugh, clacking the words together in his brain like pinballs over and over again: ‘drunk munce drunk munce drunk munce.’ He nods sagely, his teeth on the tough cotton of Chavez’s jacket. He’s a very drunk Munce, there’s no doubt about it.

Scogin slaps Chavez on the back and says congratulations and good luck, and then he’s gone so quickly Munson is sure he just vanished into the air, peering in confusion for the Steve-shaped puff of smoke left in his wake.

Chavez keeps an arm low around Munson’s waist, walking him step-by-step to the elevators.

“Jesus, Munson, did you see anything that you didn’t drink tonight?” Chavez mutters as Munson staggers and would have fallen if Chavez hadn’t been there to set him upright again.

A bunch of clever comments come to mind, I didn’t drink the ocean, I didn’t drink your mom, but then they’re in the elevator, and it seems like a better idea to swipe his tongue across Chavez’s throat.

Chavez jerks, pulling away a little bit. His hand on Munson’s back clenches, his fist gouging hard like a stone. Munson lifts his head, grins at him.

“Not yet, Chavvy, right?” he says unsteadily.

Chavez doesn’t answer, his mouth thinning and his eyes mad. Munson wants to put his hand on Chavez’s face, tell him not to be mad, it was a beautiful wedding, he did everything right.

Chavez half-carries him down the hall, most of the floor taken up by the wedding party. Munson keeps scrabbling his hands on Chavez’s chest and back, nosing into his shoulder, and Chavez hisses at him, slaps his hands away, but Munson forgets and a second later he’s right back to it.

Chavez gets him in the room and dumps him down on the bed. Munson laughs again, pitched drunk laugh, and Chavez’s nails are picking at the hard tiny knots of his shoelaces.

Munson sits halfway up, reaches out and strokes his hand through Chavez’s hair like he wanted to do earlier, and it’s not plastic, after all, it’s coming unglued and falling in stiff shiny pieces into Chavez’s face. He palms Chavez’s cheek and Chavez has his bowtie undone and his first couple of buttons open. His face is gently tinged from the champagne and the candles, and he looks up as Munson touches his lips with his thumb.

“You looked good today, did I tell you?” Munce asks, Chavez coming into and out of focus, like an eye test, which is better, one or two, two or three? Chavez narrows his gaze, looking suspicious.

Munson pushes his thumb at the seam of Chavez’s lips, trying to get him to open. “You did, man, you always look so good. It drives me nuts.” He smiles. He’s so glad they can be nice to each other again, not like last winter when it was all mean and sadistic.

“Munson,” Chavez says raggedly, but Munson cuts him off, dropping his hand to Chavez’s shoulder and trying to pull him down.

“You know I didn’t want to be gay, not even just a little bit, but you were too good,” Munce tells him happily, wondering why Chavez isn’t smiling back at him, why Chavez isn’t leaning down.

“Shut up, dude, seriously,” Chavez tells him with a tight edge to it, and Munson’s hurt, but then he remembers, his messy grin resurfacing.

“Oh, you got married, I know. I was there. It was, like . . . twenty minutes ago, at least, I didn’t forget. But it’s okay.” He sits all the way up, his hands on Chavez’s chest and Chavez sighs, closes his eyes and lets Munson lay him out on the bed.

Munson nuzzles against Chavez’s throat, fingers working up under Chavez’s shirt, the crisp fabric and the dim-shined mother of pearl buttons. Chavez smells like his special occasion cologne, and there’s the sour chemical tang of it in Munson’s mouth.

He thinks that he was saying something, just a minute ago, he was making some point. He veers without direction through his mind, chewing on Chavez’s collar and finger-painting on his stomach.

“Um, it’s like . . . because it’s you and me, you know? An’ you can be married and I can be a Tiger and it won’t matter, because we’re still good. Right? Rightrightright?”

Munson attacks Chavez’s belt, and his head is that tea-cup ride at Disneyland, he can’t keep anything straight.

Chavez’s hands suddenly bolt around his, chaining, and Munce lifts his head to blink in drunken bewilderment. Chavez is looking up at him with his eyes intensely dark, almost a scowl but for the weak resigned shape of his mouth.

“I thought I could choose, but I couldn’t,” Chavez tells him, the pressure of his hands close to painful. “I need you both and I’m sick of feeling bad about that.” He looks like he’s going to say more, but then he shuts his mouth and just lies there passively, releasing his grip.

Munson doesn’t really understand, so he nods agreeably, spreading his hands out on Chavez’s hips. “Awesome. I’m gonna blow you now, okay?”

Chavez lets out a deeply-held breath, and stretches his arms up over his head, closing his eyes and craning back. “Go for it,” he whispers, his fingers tangled loosely together and his smooth face and the contrast of his sheer white tuxedo shirt and the tan of his skin.

Munson lifts a hand, drawing his knuckles down Chavez’s neck, bending to follow the path with his mouth, and this is the way it’s got to be, this is as good as it gets.

*

(end it quick)

Eric Chavez’s marriage lasts four months. To the fucking day.

They’re living in Oakland that off-season because Chavez has fallen in love with the place and convinced Amber to feel the same, though she still shivers and hugs herself when they’re waiting in line for the movies and it’s colder than it ever gets in southern California, still stares up at the spray-paint rain like she’s never seen it before.

Six days before Christmas, Chavez is out with some of the other year-round guys from his team and somehow ends up in the bathroom necking with a design student from the Art Institute across the bay.

It doesn’t go too far, because his teammates are nosy as fuck and will probably come looking for him in a second. There’s something else, some other reason why this is a bad idea, why there’s a scratchy hot feeling in the bottom of his stomach, but Chavez can’t quite get his mind around it. Something about purple flowers and Eric Munson standing in church light. Something complicated.

Either way, he pushes the design student away and smiles at him, clever-fingered kid with green eyes and a traced mouth. “Gotta go, man,” Chavez tells him, and the design student nods, not looking too disappointed, so Chavez pulls their hips together and kisses him hard one last time, so that he’ll know what he’s missing.

When he gets home, Amber is curled in a ball in the middle of their bed, and he showers, scouring himself raw until the soap burns, slides in beside her and tries to straighten her out, pulling at her arms and legs and peppering kisses on her shoulders and back. She wakes up and when she turns to face him, he can see that her eyes are swollen and laced with snaps of red.

“What’s wrong, love?” he asks, sincerely concerned and already making his plans for revenge against whoever it is that made his girl cry.

She presses her lips together, and touches his neck. There’s a mark there, he knows, but he’s got it all worked out, he’s got a good cover story, he tripped, you see, on the street, and banged his neck on a newspaper box on the way down. It’s not the greatest lie in the history of the world, a little too battered wife for his tastes, but after a night of drinking, it’s the best he can do and she loves him, she’ll believe him.

His mouth is open to explain, but she just pushes him onto his back and fits herself against him, hiding her face in his chest and holding him tight. Eric Chavez smiles because he won’t have to lie tonight, and wraps his arms around her, falling asleep like a rock thrown into the ocean.

Their first real big fight is a week later, when he tells her he’s going home to San Diego, going to the desert with Eric Munson for New Year’s like they always do. It doesn’t particularly surprise him that she doesn’t trust him all the way anymore, but it pisses him off, because he’s not going down to play free single guy with his best friend like she thinks.

He tells her over and over again, “we do this every year, we’ve always done it, ask anybody,” but she just keeps shaking her head and her mouth gets smaller and smaller until it almost disappears.

Chavez hasn’t seen Munson since the wedding. It’s a separate compartment in his mind, their whatever that has incredibly made it through more than a half a decade. It’s not in the same place as the design students or the pretty flighty girls who sort of recognize him and are so easy, so warm and soft under his hands. Their whatever doesn’t count, it never has, and Chavez genuinely believes he’s got a claim on righteous indignation when Amber’s flash-wooden eyes accuse him blankly of going to San Diego to cheat on her.

Eventually, Amber lets her head drop, her hair slashing across her face, and she says softly, “Just go, Eric. Fuck who you want,” and it’s the first time Chavez has ever heard her swear. He stands there idiotically for a moment, shocked and playing it over in his head, confirming, yes, she did just say that, it wasn’t a hallucination, it was real.

But it’s been a week of fighting and Eric wants to be in the desert so badly, so he jams some clothes into a bag and takes off without saying good-bye.

When Eric Munson gets a phone call two hours later from a sobbing Amber, the first thing he thinks is, ‘Eric you stupid fuck.’ She’s by turns hysterically accusing him of luring her husband into whorehouses and begging him to tell her that nothing will happen.

By the time he gets her calmed down and not hyperventilating, even making her laugh a little bit by saying, “see, didn’t I tell you that you should have married me, didn’t I say?” he’s pieced out the situation, as well as he can, and he’s so fucking mad at Chavez it takes his breath away.

He hates that he’s got to lie, that because Chavez doesn’t think it counts, he’s not supposed to either, but Chavez is already a hundred miles south of Oakland and not turning back, so Munson says to Chavez’s wife, “I promise you, he’s not coming down here to sleep with other women. You think I’d be a part of that? C’mon, kid, you know I adore you.”

Amber Tarpy, Amber Chavez, sniffs hard. “But you’re his best friend.”

Munson’s not certain what her argument is, but he recognizes it, because the two of them being best friends is pretty much his own excuse for everything.

He crosses his fingers, says, “That’s why I’m not gonna let him do anything to mess this up with you.”

Eric Munson convinces her, smooth-talker, and she sounds good by the end of it, even apologizing for accusing him, which makes Munson feels like he’s gonna throw up.

He doesn’t bring it up to Eric Chavez until they’re in the desert. Chavez rolls in aching from the drive and spit-mad at his wife, cursing under his breath and roughly hugging Munson before going into the kitchen to fill up the cooler.

Chavez blares the music in the car on the way out. He’s developing a taste for rap, which Munson supposes he should have seen coming. It’s a pretty clear message that he doesn’t want to talk, though, so Munce sips a Coke and keeps watch out the window for mushroom clouds and crashing spaceships and stuff.

They set up the tent, and before the sun goes down, Munson says, “You said you weren’t gonna fuck around anymore.”

Chavez is tearing pages out of the 1989 San Diego Metro Area phonebook that they always bring with them, skinnier every year, feeding strips to the small fire and folding paper airplanes. “I’m not,” he answers, his eyes on the fire.

“She called me, you asshole.”

Chavez pushes his fingers across the thin crumply paper, but the ink’s too old to leave stains. “Can I just say now that the two of you being friends really weirds me out?”

Munson jabs at the fire with a stick, short-tempered. “No, because that’s got nothing to do with anything. She says you come home and she can tell you slept with someone else. She says it’s happened more than once. You, you . . .” He’s having trouble articulating it because it’s so fucking obvious.

“You haven’t been married for two months yet, Eric, what the fuck.”

Chavez pulls at the Velcro cuffing his sleeve, ripping it open compulsively. “I don’t think you’re really in any position to give me marital advice, Munson, all right? If you think I’m such a bad guy, why the hell did you come out here with me?”

Munce shakes his head. “I don’t think you’re a bad guy. I think you’re incredibly stupid and fucked up, but that’s nothing new.”

Chavez coughs out a dry laugh, tugs his hood up, hiding his face with the stub of his nose sticking out. “You really want me to stop fucking around on her, Munce?” he asks, and there’s something beneath that, undertoned, what that would mean.

Munson keeps his eyes on the fire, poking it to watch the crackle, the finger-snaps. The smoke’s blue from the color of the paper, wispy because the desert twigs are so insubstantial, dusting at the touch. He doesn’t answer, and Chavez scoots a bit closer to him, sliding his hand up Munson’s leg.

Munson keeps thinking, ‘it’s going to have to end sometime.’ He can see the future, he can see the naked girders and scaffolding of the new stadium they’re building in Detroit, and the potential for the Oakland Athletics to win everything, not someday, not far-flung and simply wished for, something concrete, next year, maybe, the year after, close enough to taste it in the air.

He can see Amber breaking down little by little, day by day, and Eric Chavez never learning anything, innocent in his own mind because he loves her so much, it absolves him of everything. Munson can see a lot of stuff, but he can’t see the place where his life will start making sense again.

Eric Chavez comes back from San Diego, falls to his knees, and begs Amber’s forgiveness. He tells her that he’s a fuck up but he’s trying to be better, that he’s not a good person but she can fix him, that he did mess around, before Christmas, she was right because she knows him so well, he fucked up but he only ever wants to come home to her.

She cries, then he cries, and he never promises that it won’t happen again, because it’s not that kind of an apology.

And a month later, of course, it happens again.

It’s a girl, this time, at least, which makes it better in some awkward place in Chavez’s mind where he’s still only ten-percent gay. She comes up to him in Tower Records and says, “You’re that guy,” with a bleached-teeth smile and two hands full of sparkly rings.

Chavez, after one season as a starter, still isn’t used to getting recognized in public, and he answers, “I’m pretty sure I’m not,” but that just makes the girl laugh, her contacts tinted violet. They talk about East Coast/West Coast rap and Charles Bukowski, they get coffee and then ice cream, and they end up fucking in the backseat of Chavez’s car on the sixth floor of the parking garage, blocked off by concrete pylons and the voices of little kids echoing through the dark windows.

It’s not until he drops her off in front of the big old Colonial house that she directs him to, and he sees the two BMWs in the driveway, one with a bumper sticker reading, ‘My child is an honor student at West Jefferson High School,’ that Eric Chavez realizes he just fucked a teenager.

He skids down the street, and erases her phone number from his cell in a panic, and it shouldn’t bug him that much because he’s only twenty-two himself, but he’s been playing at adult for a long time now, and getting arrested for statutory rape would probably not do much for his career.

He worries about the cops and doesn’t worry about Amber, who finds the scratch marks on his back that night and doesn’t speak to him for five days.

He doesn’t ask her to take him back again, he just waits her out.

They continue on like that through the fake northern California winter and the early spring, and Eric Chavez can’t seem to stop. He fucks around drunk, he fucks around sober. He fucks strangers and he fucks his best friend when Munson comes to visit, when they go to San Diego for Amber’s mom’s birthday.

It’s not all the time, but it’s often enough to make him the worst husband ever. He doesn’t get caught every time it happens, just enough to make Amber start to hate him in a slow skin-stripping way, all turned back and dismayed eyes.

Chavez thinks that he just never really had a chance to do this, fuck around like a college kid, between being obsessed with Eric Munson in high school and so fucking alone in the minors that sex lost all its appeal. He thinks that everyone needs this, to show them how good it is to come home to the same person every night, to want only them. If Amber would just be patient, just wait until he gets it out of his system, then he’ll be able to love just her, he’ll be the man she deserves.

It always surprises him, how easy it is. He never consciously goes out looking for someone, but they always seem to catch his eye. In a spectacularly pathetic rationalization, he feels like it would be rude not to smile back at them, rude not to lean into them when they touch a hand to his arm, and, eventually, rude not to fuck them when they wrap their legs around his waist. It would just be bad manners.

Anyway. Amber doesn’t wait for him to get it out of his system, probably because she’s a lot smarter than he is.

She comes down to Phoenix with him for spring training and for the first week it’s wonderful, it’s like when they were first getting to know each other and talking about Mel Brooks movies all night long on the phone, before Chavez went to Arlington and got all fucked up again.

Then Eric Munson, on his road trip to Florida for the start of his second season in the minors, Double-A Jacksonville, stops off in Arizona to see the couple. The three of them go out to dinner, Munson and Amber teasing Chavez in perfect tandem, as has become their special talent whenever together.

Back at the hotel, Amber kisses Munson on the cheek and Chavez on the lips and goes to sleep early, worn out by ten o’clock, but when she wakes up at three in the morning and Eric’s still not there, she goes looking for him.

Munson got the room next to theirs, a connecting door and they forgot to lock it because they’re not too bright. Amber nudges it open expecting to find the boys stone-drunk and deliriously catching up, maybe watching a movie or talking about the prospects in Detroit’s system.

But her eyes adjust to the darkness and the two men are asleep under a single sheet, the blanket and comforters all wrecked at the foot of the bed, pillows crushed up and lying on the floor. The sheet’s pulled down low across both their hips, low enough that Amber can tell they’re not wearing anything, and she sees Chavez’s red cotton boxers draped on the headboard. Munson’s got an arm tossed over Chavez’s back, his hand dangling limply off the side of her husband’s body. Chavez’s head is turned to the side and he’s smiling, lank hair dripping across his eye.

Amber Tarpy steps back, closes the door very quietly. She packs her things, methodical and checking under the bed to make sure she hasn’t forgotten anything, opening every cabinet in the bathroom. She leaves her wedding ring on the bedside table and doesn’t even write him a note.

She’s on the first flight she can book out of Sky Harbor, chasing night, and she doesn’t start crying until the cab pulls up at her parents’ house in San Diego. There are things you can forgive—there are things you can’t.

The alarm on Chavez’s cell phone is set to go off at four in the morning so he can get back before Amber wakes up. He pulls on his boxers and gathers the rest of his clothes into a bundle, sidesteps into his hotel room, walking on the balls of his feet with the bundle clutched to his stomach.

The bed is empty, though, neatly made up, and Chavez is confused for a long time before he sees Amber’s ring flashing on the bedside table.

He drops his clothes on the floor, picks up his wife’s ring, and goes back into Munson’s room. He sits cross-legged on the bed and pokes Munson until he shifts and sneezes and wakes up.

Chavez is playing with the ring, fiddling it to make the moonlight spark off the diamond, tinkering it against his own gold band. Munson pushes up on his hand.

“Dude?” he says, fuzz-mouthed. “Shouldn’t you be . . . what time is it?”

Chavez walks Amber’s ring across his knuckles, his cool poker chip trick. “I think she left me.”

Munson’s mind unfogs at that, a curtain thrown open. He sits all the way up. He’s still naked and he pulls the sheet up protectively without thinking about it. Chavez might have snorted at that, but it seems inappropriate. Chavez’s eyebrows are pulled down, focusing intently on the ring.

“What?” Munson says in disbelief. “What’re you—when?”

Chavez shrugs. “Just now. Or . . . since we fell asleep. How long ago was that?” He bites his lip, shakes his head. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. She’s gone. Her stuff’s gone. She . . . left this.”

He flicks his thumb and the ring goes cartwheeling through the air like a quarter. Chavez catches it easily in the palm of his hand. He’s feeling okay. He wouldn’t have thought that he’d feel this okay.

“She must have seen,” Munson says, figuring this out. “She must have come looking . . . goddamn it, I told you we shouldn’t while she was right next door!”

Munson’s panicking, there’s no question. What the fuck were they thinking, they were just watching some dumb movie on cable and Chavez had rolled into him, grinning and his hand crawling on Munson’s stomach, his mouth open on Munson’s neck. What the fuck was he thinking when he heard ‘oh bad fucking idea’ in his head and ignored it, turning to meet Chavez’s mouth with his and unbuttoning Chavez’s jeans, tugging down his boxers. He only protested because he knew he should, and then Chavez’s hand slid down under his waistband and Munson decided it probably wasn’t that crucial, not with Chavez’s fingers tight and dry and knowing what to do better than anyone else ever has, with five years of practice behind him.

Stupid fucks, the both of them, reckless because it would be months before they would get another chance and Munson wanted it, he wanted it bad enough to not care, like he could keep Chavez pressing hot against him and craning back to offer his throat, for all the time he’d be flattened and tired in the southeast, like he could pack it up in his suitcase and throw it in the backseat.

And no way was it worth it, because Munson doesn’t want to be responsible for this, and he thinks ludicrously, ‘home-wrecker, home-wrecker.’

Chavez places the ring down on the bedside table, just like the one where he found it, and skates his fingers down Munson’s chest. “Calm down. It’s okay. I’m . . . it’s not so bad.”

Munson hits his hand away. “Your wife just fucking left you, Eric!”

Chavez gets angry in a wash. “Thanks for the newsflash,” he jeers. “Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming.”

Munson gapes at him. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Munson, I’m a terrible husband!” Chavez yells, not caring that it’s four in the morning and the walls are cardboard-and-air. He understands a lot, all at once, he’s seeing the truth of it. “I’ve been a terrible husband from day fucking one, did you not get that? She never should have married me, she should have left a year ago, she never should have looked at me in the first place. I went in there just now still tasting like you, I . . . I didn’t even th-think twice about it.”

And Chavez’s voice just splits down the middle, right at the end of it. He suddenly sees Amber in the lobby of that Oakland hotel with the journalist’s baby on her hip, smiling at him shyly and making her eyes go big so he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about her.

He hides his face with his hands, whispering, “oh god,” his shoulders trembling violently and he’ll be crying in a second or two, he knows it for sure.

He thought she’d wait for him to get over it. Maybe it would have happened soon, he thinks maybe he was close.

He makes his fingers into claws and digs at his eyes, forcing the tears, thinking that the sooner he starts crying, the sooner he’ll stop, be washed clean. Munson’s hands circle his forearms but Munson doesn’t pull Chavez’s arms down or haul Chavez to him, just holds on.

Chavez can’t make himself cry, his eyes only water from the pain of being clawed at, and the effort exhausts him. He lets Munson unfold him on the bed, Munson twisting close and smoothing his hands across Chavez’s head and shoulders and back, and Munson’s breath is damp and hot on Chavez’s neck, Munce saying his name over and over again, saying, “don’t worry, be all right, stay here and it’ll be fine,” until Eric Chavez falls asleep, his hands in loose fists against Eric Munson’s chest.

*

(fallback)

A four-month marriage shouldn’t happen to anybody but celebrities, and Chavez is oddly proud, not that he fucked up, but that he fucked up on a cosmic scale. At least he didn’t do it half-assed.

Munson is in Florida and Amber is in San Diego and their apartment in Oakland doesn’t feel bigger or emptier or anything like that. It’s the same as it ever was, it keeps its dimensions.

His parents are shocked, and Ruby calls him every night for a month to make sure he’s okay. Eric fell down, a little bit, especially that week and a half in Arizona after she left him but before the season started. He doesn't remember sleeping. Doesn't really remember anything, just occasionally seeing amnesiac flashes of his own face in the bathroom mirror, the lights off and shadows laked all over the glass. But he’s better now.

He packs up Amber’s stuff and ships it down to her. He writes her an eighteen-page letter (longhand to show he means it) that doesn’t say much of anything, and she writes him an email that consists of four lines and basically wishes him well in his life of sin.

Chavez wants to tell her that he’s sorry, and that she should have waited for him to get over it, and that he’s not gay and could she please not tell anybody that she thinks he is, and that he still loves her, but she doesn’t return his calls.

There’s this thing about being numb. Or disconnected. Or something. A place he’s been before, a quiet stricken series of days and nights that he knows pretty well. Eric Chavez keeps thinking about déjà vu, going around in circles, and he wonders how long it’s going to last this time. He’s having terrible dreams.

The team’s better this year, a lot better. They start slow but it doesn’t last, and Eric Chavez is becoming an elite player. Eric Munson is in Jacksonville, and the fight they have happens over the phone.

They’re talking about a bunch of stuff and Eric Munson is reticent, like he’s not paying attention or he wants to say something but won’t. Eric Chavez gets fed up with him, eventually, and tensely asks, “The fuck is with you tonight?”

“Nothing,” Munson answers blithely.

“You’re gonna start lying to me now?”

“Oh, what, you’re the only one that’s allowed to lie around here?” Munson, in the kitchen in his rented apartment, opens cabinets and glares at the contents, clapping them shut again.

“When the fuck have I ever lied to you?” Chavez asks, pacing around his own apartment.

Munson snorts a cynical laugh, but he doesn’t call him on it. “Whatever. It’s nothing.”

“Goddamn it, Munce . . .” Chavez kicks his mitt into the wall.

“Amber keeps calling me,” Munson says, then grimaces, picking at the counter tile with his nails.

“What . . . why?” Chavez answers after a moment.

Munson shrugs. “I guess trying to figure out how I could be friends with such a total fuckwad.”

“What the hell, man, you’re mad at me too?” Chavez collapses on the couch, rubbing his temple hard. “You’re taking her side?”

“As if you even have a side. You never did right by her, dude, you told me that yourself. You were always fucking around.”

Chavez’s eyes widen. “Oh, please be fucking kidding me.”

Munson shakes his head, punches the wall, quick sharp jabs. “I’m not. She’s my friend too, and you treated her like shit. You fucked anything that moved.”

“One of the people I fucked was you, asshole! Where the fuck do you get off?” Chavez’s hand flexes on his skull, testing the weak places. His eyes are shut so tight it’s painful.

“It wasn’t my responsibility to keep your marriage together,” Munson tells him.

“Yeah, well, it’s not your responsibility to get all judgmental, either. And I think you sucking me off at the fucking wedding reception pretty much rules you out for the morality title, so get the fuck down off the pedestal, why don’t you.”

Eric Munson slams down the phone onto the counter, gunshot plastic crunch, and Chavez cries out in pain, snatching the receiver away from his ear and then screaming, “You fucking asshole, what the fuck!”

Munson stares at the phone on the counter. He didn’t mean to do that. He picks it up again. “Eric?”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Munson, you nearly busted my ear.” Chavez presses his palm to his ear, hearing the tidal rush of blood.

“You never should have married her,” Munson says, and he still wants to hit something, he wishes the two of them were on the same side of the country. “You knew you weren’t gonna stop sleeping with me and sleeping with half the population of the fucking state, so you never should have gotten married.”

Chavez exhales. “You think I don’t know that?” His ear still hurts, a dim echoing ring.

“Then why did you?”

Chavez slumps back. “Because I loved her. I thought . . . I thought that was how it worked. That you fall in love with somebody, and then you get married, and then everything’s cool.”

“You fell in love with me,” Munson says before he can think better about it. He pulls the phone away, knocks himself on the forehead with his fist. “I mean, uh. You know that. It obviously doesn’t . . . work like that all the time. Um. Maybe you should have . . . figured that out. From how it is between you and me.”

“You and me is, like, a totally different thing, though. It’s never gonna be normal the way Amber and me are normal. Were normal. Whatever.” Chavez scowls, pushing the coffee table with his feet, scraping the floor.

“The fuck does being normal have to do with anything? Since when do you care how other people do things?”

Chavez’s socked heels slide across the top of the coffee table. He can’t get any friction, cotton on the waxy lacquer. Munson sounds pretty angry at him. “Look, I thought I had a chance to be happy,” Chavez says, trying to explain and getting the knotted-stomach feeling that he’s not doing it very well.

“Oh,” Munson answers, sounding dull, because he’s got to say something, and that’s all he can come up with. Munson kicks the wall and hits a stud, his eyes watering and he’s pretty sure he just broke his toe. He hops around, loses his balance, and falls with a heavy thump. “Ow.”

“Munce?”

“Um . . . I fell down. But also you’re an idiot.” He pulls off his shoe, pokes at the injured toe. It moves; it’s not broken. Just hurts like a bitch.

“I’m an idiot?” Chavez repeats. Munson’s making little pained sounds, and cursing under his breath again, like they both do when they’re upset. Chavez tries to remember when they learned that, who taught it to them.

“You’re such a fucking idiot.” Munson pressure-wraps his toe with his hand, his legs bent and butterflied. “You think just loving someone’s enough, that’s all you have to put into it. And fuck staying faithful or acting like their feelings are more important than your dick.”

Chavez thinks, ‘fucking christ that hurts,’ and he closes his eyes. “I’m not like that. I just. I fucked up. But I tried, I did try.”

“Bullshit you tried. I would have stepped back, you know I would have, if you’d asked me to. The only reason we even started fucking again was because I got drunk in Texas, and I was willing to let that go and not mention it again, but no, no. You needed your motherfucking fallback.”

There’s a small cracked noise that comes from Eric Chavez, and he mumbles, “I, ah. I’m sorry, I have to go. I have to go. I didn’t . . . look, just goodbye, okay, bye.”

Eric Munson turns off his phone and shoves it under the couch, then he lies on his back on the floor and watches the headlights from the interstate smear across the ceiling for a long time.

*

(first time i was in love with you)

They don’t talk for two months.

Eric Munson does worse in Jacksonville than he did in A-ball. He controls what he can, he gets better at picking at first, and it’s the same as catching in a lot of ways. But he remembers being taught that the best first basemen are left-handed, the ease of snagging throws off the line, he keeps thinking about it when he feels the pull in his shoulder reaching across his body. Thinks about it when a ball skips past, when he can’t get to it. Thinks about it even though it’s the worst possible thing to think about.

Sometimes they let him catch and he handles his pitchers like a veteran, feeling canny and wise and hoping in the back of his mind that if he’s good enough, they’ll take him off the field and put him back behind the plate where he belongs. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to be one of those catchers who’re around for their minds, not their bats. Hitting has always been the best part of his game, what he’s most proud of in the world, though he knows he shouldn’t be.

It’s a round bat and a round ball, it’s the hardest thing to do in sports, and he can’t get it back, no matter what he tries, days in the cages and trying a heavier stick, tape around his hands and pine tar until he can toss his batting gloves at the wall and they’ll stick. Nothing works. He misses aluminum, he hears ‘ping’ when it’s quiet and feels the buzz in his wrists and palms all the time, but that’s not really it.

He thinks about college and then high school and pretty soon he’s dreaming of being twelve years old, the sun going down and Eric Chavez pitching to him in the park, yelling, okay, hey, the curve, hit this, just try! Ten years later and he can’t hit anything. It’s like losing an arm.

He tapes a picture of the two of them up in his locker. It’s old, it’s them in the parking lot of Mt. Carmel, sitting on the hood of some green car that doesn’t belong to them. Chavez’s arm is around Munson’s shoulders and they’re grinning at the camera, legs dangling in front of the license plate. Munson’s got one hand behind Chavez’s head, giving him bunny-ears.

He doesn’t remember the particular day or even if it was junior or senior year, but he remembers how Chavez’s hair was flat and crinkly on the heel of his hand.

One of his teammates, another sometimes-catcher, Brandon Inge who was with him in West Michigan too, moving through the system on a parallel, comes over one day and squints at the photo.

“Who’s that?” he asks.

Munson is sitting on a stool tying his cleats. He answers with his head down, “That’s my best friend.”

Inge leans in, studying the picture. “That’s . . . dude, that’s Eric Chavez.”

Munson looks up, surprised. He wasn’t aware that people have started recognizing Chavez, knowing him by face and statistics. He shrugs it off. “Yeah, I know.”

Inge shows him a crooked grin. “You’re Eric Chavez’s best friend?”

Munson has a brief vision of the rest of his life, when the only thing he’ll ever be known for is being Eric Chavez’s best friend.

But he just nods, and Inge slaps him on the back, says, “Cool,” before wandering off to bug the pitchers.

That night, Eric Munson calls his best friend.

Chavez is in New York City. He’s in the corner store down the street from the hotel, buying a bunch of junk for the guys waiting upstairs, but when he sees Munson’s number on the display, he leaves everything on the check-out counter and walks out.

“So, listen,” Munson says. “It occurs to me that I was pretty much the worst friend in the history of the world, the last time we talked.”

Chavez laughs a little bit, walking slowly down the street. He can’t go off too far or he’ll get lost. “You weren’t so bad.”

“Dude, I think I called you six different kinds of asshole and also nearly made you deaf.”

Chavez smiles, stops on the street corner to watch the traffic signals blur in the mid-summer humidity. He thinks he probably looks very beat-poet romantic right now, in the yellow fall of the streetlight. All he needs is some rain. Maybe a cigarette. Maybe both, hey.

“I guess you probably had a right.” Chavez paces in a little circle, darkness and then into the light again. “I know I was pretty fucked up. With you and her both.”

Munson sits at the kitchen table, props his legs up on a stray chair. “And you’re not fucked up anymore?”

“Well, no. There’s just no one to catch me at it, now.” He means it as a joke, Munson can tell, but Munson still wants to see him, make sure.

“Look,” Munson says. “I’m saying I’m sorry, all right? You definitely didn’t need to hear that shit from me right after you . . . well, you know. I’m supposed to be your best friend.”

“You are,” Chavez tells him, and starts walking again, under the neon and the brick.

Munson traces the grain of the table with his thumb, eyes thinned in concentration. “Next time we see each other . . . I mean, I don’t know, man. Is this . . . still a good idea, do you think?”

“It was never a good idea, Munce. And I. It’s not like I can promise you that I won’t fuck off someday and be an idiot again.”

“Why is that, dude?” Munson asks, probably should have asked it years ago. “Why do you do this shit?”

Chavez watches a bunch of cars slip by, and there’s a pack of teenagers across the street in tank tops and baggy jeans, cawing with laughter and passing forties back and forth, arguing for possession. Chavez thinks about the life baseball kept from him, the normal world.

“I don’t . . . I used to be better. The first time I was in love with you, it was good enough, all I needed,” Chavez says, doing his very best.

Munson’s face gets pinched. “So, it’s my fault, you being this way? Because I fucked up the first time?”

“I didn’t say that,” Chavez protests, and he doesn’t want to fight tonight, it’s been two months and too long. “I just, it was like, I was so, like, wrecked after that. I couldn’t. It meant too much, and I hated that, I never wanted to, you know, risk that happening again. Never wanted to depend on just one person, as much as I depended on you. It’s dangerous, you know?”

Munson shakes his head, then remembers Chavez can’t see it. “I didn’t know. You never said.”

Chavez counts streetlights, all the way down to the World Trade Center rising like matchsticks at the end of the island. “Well, Jesus, Munce, I couldn’t say something like that to you, not back then. I was just a fucking kid. It was . . . it was safer to just end it.”

“It didn’t work, though,” Munson answers, grimacing. “Ending it. We’re still. You still think it’s too dangerous?”

“It’s different now. It’s . . . complicated.” Chavez blows out a breath. “Fuck. Why are we talking about this? I hate talking about this.”

Munson nods, smiling a little bit. At least they agree on something. “I know. I just . . . I wanted to know if. I kind of need to know if we’re gonna still be . . . doing that, next time we see each other.”

“Can’t just play it by ear, can ya, Munson.”

“Hey man, I’m just trying to plan my off-season.”

Chavez grins, but it fades off his face quickly. He takes a blind turn and he can’t see the Twin Towers anymore. “Seriously, Munce, I’m just. I don’t want stuff to be like it was before I got married.”

“Christ, neither do I,” Munson says with his eyes going wide, thinking about pushing Chavez’s face into the bed and trying to figure out which of them he was trying to hurt.

“But I don’t. I don’t know how to make it better,” Chavez says.

“Eric,” Munson starts, and then stops, swallowing a few times. He’s not sure how they could have grown up side by side like they did and still have all this between them. “You just. Stuff was like that because, because of Amber. And she’s. Well. Not around anymore.”

Chavez finds a crushed-up soda can on the sidewalk and kicks it along in front of him. “It wasn’t just her. I think maybe she was the, um. Excuse we used?”

Munson digs his thumbnail into the tip of his index finger. His head hurts, a dark slitted pain in his sinuses. “She wasn’t a fucking figment, dude. You got married. That, you know, actually happened, it wasn’t a dream or something. You were cheating on your wife, like, a lot, so let’s not blame her, ‘kay?”

Eric Chavez shakes his head, his face all twisted up. “I’m not blaming her. I’m not blaming you or her or anybody, just me, all right? I know it’s my fault, this time. We’re even, so don’t worry.”

“Oh god, would you . . .” Munson scrapes a hand over his face, breathing out hard. “Please stop keeping track of shit like that, please. We don’t have to be fucking even, Eric, jesus.”

“Shut up for a minute and listen to me, will you?” Chavez says, fingertips against his eye and his head starting to ache. “I. It wasn’t Amber. I mean, okay, she was a part of it, fine. But also. You weren’t what I wanted. Not really. If you were, I never would have gotten married.”

Munson closes his eyes. “Yeah, okay. Fine.” His voice is this tiny choked-off thing, cracking pretty badly.

“No, shut up, Munce, be quiet for once in your life.” Chavez drags his hand through his hair. “I’m not. I couldn’t deal with you. A year ago, I just couldn’t, man. I was so fucking in love with you but I didn’t want to be, didn’t want that at all, and I was just. I was crazy, that’s all.” He falls silent.

Munson doesn’t talk either, rubbing his temples and keeping his head down. Eventually Chavez sighs, and tells him hesitantly, “The only thing I know is that I can’t lose you. Okay?”

Munson breathes out. “You won’t. You couldn’t.”

Something loosens in Chavez’s chest, but he still shakes his head, because he needs to do this right, he needs to get something right, at least once. “You gotta stop being my best friend for a second and understand. If we keep this up, I’ll. I won’t be what you need, I really don’t think I will. I don’t wanna be all selfish and say that just because I want you, you should take me. Because I’ll tell you stuff I don’t really mean, and I’ll fuck up again, and you’ll stop wanting me around, after awhile. And that’ll be . . . pretty terrible for me.”

Chavez squints, not liking the sound of that. Not really liking the sound of any of this. He runs the back of his hand along the dirty wall, roughed-stone, scratching white marks on his knuckles.

Munson worries a long varnished splinter from the tabletop. This fucking place is falling apart. “So, that’s a no, then?” he asks carefully.

Chavez crosses against the light, a blast of a car horn. The city’s loud and everything’s got soot on it. There’s a difference between rebuilding and retooling. He’s thinking that you don’t throw something away entirely, not if it was perfect once, not if there was a good gloveman up the middle or a switch-hitting catcher or a pitcher in the ‘pen with a slider like a fucking punishment. You take the best parts first, you try to fix it.

“Let’s just.” Chavez cuts himself off, and wonders if he’s heading west, if he’ll hit the river soon. “Let’s try something different. Let’s. Not be in love with each other anymore. Let’s just be best friends who fuck around sometimes.”

Snapping the splinter into little pieces, trying to make them all the same length, Munson says, “Isn’t that, like, the definition of being in love?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. But it’s never really done us any good, has it? Being in love. It just seems to fuck everything up. So we should, you know. Stop.”

Munson closes one eye like a sniper, fucking up his depth perception. “I don’t think it’s that easy, man.”

Chavez grins. “Not for mere mortals, maybe. But we’re ballplayers. And therefore tough.”

Munson thinks, ‘say shit like that and you expect me not to love you?’

“Anyway,” Chavez continues. “Best friends is the important part.”

“Yeah.”

“And the fucking around is nice too.”

Munson smiles. “Yeah.”

“Best of both worlds, Munson.”

“If you say so, dude.”

Chavez pauses, scuffing his shoe on the sidewalk to hear the rasp. “You’ll tell me if you’re not okay?”

Munson puts his head down on the table, tacky on his face. “Don’t I always?”

Chavez nods, and looks around seriously for the first time in awhile. Who the fuck designed this city, it looks like a nightmare. “Eric . . . I think I’m lost.”

Munson smiles, and he gets up, goes over to his computer to find a New York City map online and make sure Eric Chavez gets back to where he’s supposed to be.

(end part ten)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Eleventh: Left Coast

(go west, young man)

In 2000, these kids show up.

Tim Hudson’s in his second year and was a veteran two days after hitting the bigs. Some guys just have it, the hazing doesn’t really take (they don’t really want to see Huddy in a Hooters outfit, anyway, because that’s the kind of thing that might scar for life), and nobody gives Hudson much shit, because they all know, right off the bat, that the tough little righty from Alabama is gonna be the best pitcher in the game someday.

It was probably, what, the second or third week after Huddy first got called up, in Hayward last year, and they were out at a bar, getting to know each other in a roundabout sort of way. Chavez bought the first couple of rounds and Hudson kicked his ass on the pinball machine, and they were fair and well buzzed, getting along great.

Chavez went up to the bar for the next set and inadvertently cut in front of a brick-headed man with a squashed nose and brutal eyes, snapping and looking for a fight. Chavez tried to extract himself gracefully, but the guy wasn’t having it, shoving Eric and spilling his drinks, and the guy called him a “cocksucking spic,” which was at least as funny as it was offensive, seeing as how it was pretty much true.

Then suddenly Tim Hudson was there, not stepping between them, not trying to break anything up, just standing shoulder to shoulder with Chavez, all balls-out hardness and knuckled fists, cold-eyed. Hudson looked at the brick-headed guy with utter contempt, and asked, laced with violence and a burr of eager adrenaline, “You wanna roll, motherfucker?”

The brick-headed guy was way bigger, thick through the shoulders and neck, but Tim Hudson, short and stone-muscled, stared him right the fuck down, no doubt in anyone’s mind who would emerge the victor in a brawl, and Chavez saw an astonished sprint of fear in the other man’s eyes, before he sneered and turned away like he didn’t care, moving quickly across the bar, away from the two of them.

Huddy clapped Chavez on the shoulder and drawled, “Takin’ you like a day to get those drinks, boy.”

Chavez knew, right then, though they were still mostly strangers to each other, that he’d found someone who would always have his back, always stand up with him, and he grinned foolishly, recognizing a friend for life when he saw one.

But these kids, man. (Chavez realizes that calling them ‘kids’ is a little off, because he’s got all of five months on Zito and Mulder’s actually older than him by four, but Chavez is two years in now and secure enough to be jaded.)

The tall one, Mulder, is way too cool. He comes up first, in April, and acts like he’s been here for years too, but he can’t quite pull it off. He’s cocky, even after he goes 1-5 in his first half-season, he walks around with his head up. Mulder’s got nasty stuff, there’s no doubt about it, but his command is shit half the time, they only ever see snatches of what he’s gonna be, that first year.

But nothing ever seems to cause doubt in him. He could be 0-15 and still be grinning that arrogant fucking grin of his, undimmed. It’s kind of annoying, but kind of reassuring, too.

Mulder’s almost irritatingly good-looking, symmetrically handsome like Disney animated heroes are handsome, and Chavvy isn’t exactly making a move for him, but he certainly never steps away when Mulder comes up to him in the clubhouse without a shirt on, his army-short hair bristling wetly.

The other lefty, Zito, well, Chavez is pretty sure Zito’s more crazy than sane, but it works for him. Zito comes up in July, after all of a season and a half in the minors, and proceeds to pitch his way to a 2.72 ERA in his first fourteen games in the bigs, and starts Game 2 in New York City in the division series.

Chavez knew about Zito before, of course, Munson’s former battery mate, narrowing his eyes at Zito when they first met and saying, “You broke my best friend’s hand,” seeing Zito grin and answer knowingly, “You must be the other Eric.” Zito’s from San Diego too, and Chavvy knew a million guys like him back home, spacey and born in the wrong decade, fifty years too late.

But Zito’s also got a hard strand of confidence and solemnity to him, disciplined like a big leaguer’s got to be, secretly more cocky than Mark Mulder, just not showing it as much.

It’s only when they’re off the field that Chavez can see glints of the life that Zito would be living if he couldn’t pitch the way he can, the life where Zito scratches out a just more than minimum-wage living, clerking at a copy shop or a photo developer’s, smokes pot on his lunch break with his buddies from high school and maybe claims himself as a Buddhist, just to be contrary, watches a lot of movies and loves his pet dog, reads intricate books about the philosophy of mathematics and East Asia history, exists lazy and content and is happy with his life, every day of it.

But Zito can pitch the way he can, exceeds every prejudice and expectation.

Chavez isn’t sure if he trusts them. He likes them well enough, Zito with that occasionally unhinged grin that makes him look totally deranged, Mulder with his best-there’s-ever-been style in everything he does, but they both came up through the system pretty fucking quick, twenty-two years old and suddenly thrust into a contending team’s starting rotation.

But when he looks at Mulder and Zito and Hudson, snickering and circling like sharks around each other, Chavez thinks he understands what everybody means when they say, “the future of this team.”

Mulder and Zito are the lefty conspiracy, all prank calls and practical jokes, though Hudson’s not adverse to being dragged along for the ride, and it was Chavez who got Zito into a wedding dress for the plane ride to Chicago, so he doesn’t really have a leg to stand on when the two pitchers make him their favorite target for the rest of the season.

Chavvy doesn’t really mind. They’re cool, and they both seem to like him a whole lot, though Zito, a maudlin and sentimental drunk, is the only one who says it out loud, slurring proclamations of his love for Chavez four days after they were first introduced.

Mulder just lets Chavez hang off his shoulders ecstatically when they rip off a win in the bottom of the ninth, when they take the division and go star-eyed to their first postseason. He lets Chavez cry in the clubhouse after they lose to the Yankees in the first round, and doesn’t make fun of him, just brings him a dry towel and a can of Dr. Pepper. And he asks Chavez during spring training in ’01 if he wants to maybe take a look at places when they get back to the East Bay, be roommates like college boys and leave the front door unlocked all the time.

Chavez agrees to live with Mulder without a second thought, not thinking too much about the broad line of Mulder’s shoulders or the stripped-smooth path of his bare chest.

They find a good house out in Lafayette, the base of the Mount Diablo range, with an empty pool (pre-requisite) scored with black scars from the neighborhood kids who’ve been using it as a skate bowl, a meandering sprawl of rooms, beige carpets and white plaster walls.

Eric and Mark are the ones who sign the lease, but by the time they celebrate Zito’s twenty-third birthday in May, Frank Menechino and Adam Piatt have moved in, too, along with Ramon Hernandez and his wife, but they’re looking for a place of their own, because, though Maria is the awesomest chick in the county, it’s not really a Cleaver atmosphere.

Sometime in June, Chavez falls for Mulder, but only a little bit.

Adam and Frankie are lazy motherfuckers, never up before they absolutely have to be, so Mulder and Chavez are usually alone for breakfast, sometimes eating standing up in the kitchen, sometimes off their knees in living room, sometimes driving into town and hitting up Denny’s.

It probably starts then, slow-moving mornings, Mulder yawning and bending at the waist to peer into the refrigerator, the frozen white light on his face, the uncharacteristically elegant length of his neck, his arm braced on the side of the fridge, saying, “So yeah, we get out there by six o’clock or so—you drank all the orange juice, didn’t you, you fucker—and we’ll be able to get in at least nine holes before dark.”

It’s not that Mulder’s any more attractive in the mornings, certainly not more attractive than when he’s ambushing the others with a Super Soaker on the pool deck wearing a pair of MSU athletic shorts and nothing else, not more attractive than when he’s sitting on the floor at three in the morning playing video games with his impossibly long legs in a V, so tired he’s half-asleep and canting to one side, rubbing his eyes with the side of his fist like a little boy, not more attractive than when he’s hurling sliders into the dirt for a swinging third strike.

It’s just that the mornings when they rummage for breakfast together, there’s something easier and stiller about Mark Mulder, like he’s not constantly aware of looking good, like he’s not trying to live up to everybody’s expectations. He seems more real to Chavez in the morning, less like a dream Chavez is having.

He’s trying to figure out if it would be an astonishingly bad idea to sleep with one of his teammates.

He’s not entirely sure that Mulder would even be into it, all the shit Mulder talks about girls and all the nights Chavez has come home to find Mulder’s door locked and a pair of women’s shoes in the front hall, fresh candy-apple red in the tangle of dirty sneakers, Chavvy’s mind singing idiotically, ‘one of these things is not like the others.’

But he thinks, maybe. Maybe Mulder doesn’t even realize it himself, but, yeah, maybe. Mulder does spend an awful lot of time on his hair.

And also the way Mulder watches a little too closely when Hudson’s starting, leaning on the rail, and Chavez can tell that his eyes don’t move to follow the path of the ball after it leaves Huddy’s hand, Mulder’s not watching to see the split break or the sinker bite off at the knees, he’s really just watching Tim, doing what Tim does best.

The way, after Mulder pitches a beautiful eight innings of three-hit shutout ball, Zito shoulders into him in the dugout, takes Mulder’s left hand and holds it out so Zito can rub his own left arm and hand up and down, siphoning off the luck, the skill, and Mulder stands there cooperatively, a small smile on his face, letting Zito take what he can get from Mulder’s touched left arm.

The way Chavez tests him sometimes, sliding his hand from Mulder’s shoulder down his arm before letting go, standing a bit too close, sitting next to Mulder in the deck chairs and letting his eyes go where they want to go, just briefly, smooth chest, flat stomach, long legs, looking back up to see the vague surprise on Mulder’s face, and Mulder gives him a suspicious look, licking his lips uncertainly and looking away, blinking fast in confusion.

Yeah, maybe.

Anyway, it’s not such a big deal. If it happens, it happens. Mark Mulder never lets himself be talked into anything, so Chavez might have to catch him by surprise or off-guard or while he’s drunk or asleep or something equally amoral. Eric Chavez, generally, doesn’t have the attention span to plan grand seductions, he usually just grins and gets down on his knees.

There might come a night when Chavez and Mulder are both really tired, barely able to stay upright and shoulders chocked against each other on the couch. There might come a day when they’re sun-drunk on the pool deck and when Chavez rolls over and opens his mouth on Mulder’s side, Mulder won’t pull away. There might be a hallway or a driveway or a hotel stairwell.

If it happens, it happens. In the meantime, they’ll be friends and it’ll get complicated like that, which is the better form of complication.

Munson is up with the Tigers that summer, but he’s not starting, only rarely coming in late in a game. He’s riding the bench, watching his team lose and watching the out-of-town scoreboard, spending too much time thinking about Oakland.

The whole best-friends-who-fuck-around-sometimes-but-aren’t-in-love thing is working out pretty well. It’s not like before, when Chavez was gleefully securing the weights to his marriage’s ankles and trying to find the deepest trench in the ocean. There was a measure of urgency and self-destruction to it before, like they had to get everything out of each other in the short intervals they would have together, hypercompetitive and not content to settle for a draw, because there’s no such thing as a tie game in baseball.

And now, lots of the time, they can just hang out and nothing even has to happen. It’s the first time it’s been like this in years. They talk on the phone a lot, depending on where their teams are and if there’s a day game tomorrow, and Eric Munson is beginning to think this was a very good decision to make.

You can’t just quit. You have to scale back, scale down. You don’t just give up heroin, you’ve got to switch to methadone and then prescription painkillers and maybe cigarettes and speed for awhile before going back to Percoset and Tylenol by the handful, and not wake up for two months and then someday, someday you’ll be truly clean again.

There’s this woman named Shanda. She’s much prettier than any other girl Eric Munson has ever gone out with, and he’s star-struck a lot of the time, he can’t quite get his mind to settle around it.

She makes him think crazy things, with her long straight hair and mischievous eyes. He’s not having the best of seasons, because here he is in the majors, but he shouldn’t be because he still can’t hit, and his back hurts from being on the bench all the time. It’s nothing he ever considered, that he might be in the bigs and not play, not even deserve to play, and when he’s at the ballpark, there’s a phantom pain all through him.

But then Shanda smiles at him when he comes out of the clubhouse door, and swings her hand in his as they walk down the street, and there’s something happening in his heart that hasn’t happened since he was nineteen years old.

Munson believes that until his game comes back, he’ll only be half what he should be, and he doesn’t want to fall in love if he’s only half. It’s not the way it should happen, it’ll be tainted forever if it happens now.

He does what he can to prevent it, but every day she gets a bit further into him. Every day, she makes him forget that this is a terrible idea.

Eric Munson is petrified.

So he goes out to California for the All-Star break. He calls Chavez ahead of time and his friend sounds distracted, half-covering the mouthpiece with his hand to yell something about circuit breakers, to yell, “Mark, you little cocksucker, get back here!” and Munce gets kind of weird and awkward, but he covers it well, and Chavvy says he’ll meet him at the airport.

Chavez shows up late, Munson wandering around thumbing through paperback books and magazines in the little newsstand kiosk, drinking three paper cups of coffee and checking his watch every thirty seconds.

When Chavez tumbles into the baggage claim area, though, his head whipping as he scans across the crowd, an unintentional grin seeps onto Munson’s face. Chavvy lights up like an arcade game when he spots Munce, jogging over and kamikaze-crashing into his arms, Munson staggering backwards. Chavez pounds his back, tousles his hair and keeps saying, “look at you, look at this guy right here.”

Munson, with Chavez’s chin scratching on his throat, forgets to be mad at him.

They ride out to the Lafayette house, Munce blinking dazedly at the unmarked blue California sky after all these months in Michigan, and Chavez chatters on at a hundred miles an hour, about how cool it’ll be when the A’s go to Detroit next month, about his brother Chris’s new job, about a bunch of stuff but mainly, almost entirely, about his teammates.

He tells stories about Mulder and Hudson that make no sense, beaming expectantly until Munson makes a small laugh to get him to stop. He talks about Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, talks about the pool at the Lafayette house and the time when the postgame buffet table collapsed just as Jermaine Dye was picking up a chip, JD standing there with the most perfect look of shock on his face you’ve ever seen, his hand still hovering over the suddenly empty space.

Munson gets pretty tired of listening, pretty quickly, but then Chavez says, “And oh hey, Zito, too, you know him.”

Munson says, “ahhhmgraklked,” then clears his throat, his face hot. He tries again, speaking carefully, “Sure. Spent a year with the freak.”

Chavez laughs, zipping the car in and out of traffic impatiently. “Yeah, he’s quite the freak. But a really good guy, too.”

Munson studies him out of the corner of his eye. He doesn’t remember Zito being a really good guy. Of course, all their USC teammates probably would, but as far as Eric Munson’s concerned, Zito’s just a sadistic fifteen year old trying to pass as a major league ballplayer.

Chavez catches Munson’s skeptical look, and cocks an eyebrow. “What?”

Munson shrugs. “Well . . . you know he’s gay, right?” He winces, feeling stupid, because maybe he doesn’t actually want Chavez knowing that, just that Zito can’t be trusted, but he should have used a different example.

Chavez blanches, shakes his head automatically. “He’s definitely not. He’s fucking this chick who plays soccer for Cal.”

Munson shrugs again, giving his friend a sardonic look, because since when did sleeping with women rule out sleeping with guys? “Okay, so not entirely gay. But at least some.”

Chavez gives him a sharp interrogatory look. “How would you know?”

He flushes. He doesn’t like to think about that day in the empty USC locker room. He prefers to think of himself as straight with Eric Chavez tendencies. It’s easier that way. And he never told Chavvy that there was another guy, even if it was just for a baffling ill-conceived couple of minutes.

Munson curls his toes inside his shoes, thumbing the button on the glove compartment to occupy his hands. The sunlight’s so strong everything looks faded, exsanguinated. “Heard some stories, at USC.”

The lines clear off Chavez’s face, because that’s a simple thing to dismiss. “You got played, bro. Zito’s a fucking arrow, trust me.”

Munson decides not to press it, because what good can it do? Better for Chavez to think his ace lefty is straight.

Out at the Lafayette house, things get pretty fucking bad.

Most of Chavez’s team is there, it seems, and Munson’s disconcerted. Not even in high school did so many of the players hang out together. This group of guys, hollering to be heard and bouncing crumpled paper balls made of beer bottle labels off each other’s heads, they spend most of their time together anyway, but here they are, spilling out the cracks of the house, cartwheeling into the pool.

“Is it always like this?” Munson asks Chavez, and Chavez gives him an uncomprehending look.

“Like what?” he asks guilelessly, answering Munson’s question.

Munson gets introduced around, shown off like a new toy, Chavez slinging an arm around his neck and saying proudly, “This is my boy from way back, he’s gonna tear us up in another year or two.” Munce just grins bashfully, stays close to his friend.

For awhile, Munson gets a glimpse of what it might be like on a contending team, a team that loves playing together, loves each other, though the whole scene is vaguely . . . incestuous.

Chavez and Munson are out on the pool deck, drinking at the patio table, and across the yard, Zito is trying to hop onto Tim Hudson’s back for a piggyback ride, buckling the righty’s knees and sending them both tumbling to the grass. Zito drunk-laughs with his head on Huddy’s chest, Hudson smacking him and yelling, “Get off’a me, fuckin’ heavy motherfucker!”

Munson leans over to say into Chavez’s ear, “Nah, not gay at all,” and Chavez socks him on the arm, kind of hard.

Munson rubs at the bruise as it shades under his shirt sleeve, and when Zito picks himself up off the grass and stumbles towards the garage door, Munson quickly rises and follows. Chavez is talking with Ramon; he doesn’t notice Munson go.

In the dusty garage, Zito is digging in the second refrigerator, looking for something in particular. He probably knows where the guys who live here hide the good beer; Zito’s the kind of guy who always knows stuff like that.

Munson makes sure the door is closed behind him, wishes for a towel to stuff in the crack at the bottom, make absolutely sure nothing will be heard, and says, “Hey.”

Zito jerks in surprise, looks over his shoulder. A slow grin makes its way across his face. “Eric Munson, as I live and breathe,” he says, and Munson isn’t sure if he’s being mocked or not.

“How’s it going?” he asks, staying on safe ground.

Zito straightens, two slick green bottles in his hands. “Pretty damn good, dude,” he answers, and Munson wonders just how drunk the motherfucker is.

Maybe Zito’s mellowed since college. Maybe Munson had him wrong all along, and everybody else who are so fucking enraptured by him are the smart ones. But Munson still doesn’t want any memories of Zito, nor of his own broken hand or that moment that must have been weakness, no other name for it.

Munson pushes his tongue against the roof of his mouth, forces himself to say, “Listen, don’t fuck with Chavvy, okay?”

Zito looks at him blankly for a moment, and then familiar angry lines appear on his face. “What?”

Munson waves his hand indistinctly, stammering and hating this conversation so much. He misses Shanda, suddenly, with a desperation that makes him feel winded. “I don’t know if you still. Do that. Or whatever. But don’t try it with Chavez. ’Cause he’s not like that. Just, like, fair warning, if you try anything, he’ll kick your ass. So don’t.”

Zito bends down to set the beers on the concrete, the clink loud enough to let Munson know that he did it with some force, and crosses his arms over his chest. The pitcher meets his eyes again and Munson is a little bit scared, but not much.

“First off, who ever said I wanted to fuck him?” Zito asks, rhetorically with the corners of his mouth pulled tight. “Second off, if I do want to fuck him, that’s between me and him and it’s got shit to do with you, dude.”

“He’s not gay!” Munson cries, too loud, really, even with the door shut, but he wants to make sure Zito knows that, make sure it’s perfectly clear.

Zito smirks. “Yeah, and neither are you, right?” he taunts. “Hell, while we’re at it, neither am I. Although, I tell ya something, Munce . . .” He pauses, takes a long moment before grinning sharkily. “You’re not acting so much like Concerned Best Friend as you are Jealous Lover.”

Munson squeezes his hands into fists, knuckles cracking and his nails bloodying his palm. He counts his breaths and doesn’t hit Zito in the face, using all his power, his teeth clenched and the enamel squealing. He shoves it down, shoves it away.

Zito, upon realizing Munson’s not gonna take a swing at him, actually looks kind of disappointed.

Munson exhales, proud of himself, and says, “Just stay away from him. We both know you’ll do shit a person doesn’t want you to do-”

“Oh, do we?” Zito cuts him off, his voice dripping sarcasm, eyes daring Munson to deny that Zito had been kissed back, no matter who’d started it, Zito wasn’t making out with himself that day in the locker room.

Munson reddens deeply, but shakes it off, staying on track. “Don’t fuck with him. Find somebody else.”

Zito times it perfectly, smiling sweetly as he says, “Fuck you, Munson,” and he picks up his beers, going out through the door Munson isn’t standing in front of, leaving Eric standing there, pretty sure he’s only made things worse.

He goes back out to the party and Eric Chavez has lost his shirt. Chavvy is on the diving board, up there with Mark Mulder, wrestling and trying to knock each other into the water.

Munson stands in the cornered shadows by the garage, unnoticed, his feet on the soft wet grass, and he watches Chavez and Mulder grapple, bouncing up and down on the board, snickering and everybody else catcalling, hooting. Mulder’s arm is looped around Chavez’s neck and Chavez’s head pinned on Mulder’s bare chest, Chavez’s mouth open, laughing, his teeth white against Mulder’s tan.

Munson, forgotten, watches as Chavez hooks a foot around the back of Mulder’s leg and they both overbalance, falling with a huge splash in a rat’s nest of arms and legs, flailed hands coming free to grab at nothing, and as the two men sink down together, Munson gets a sinking feeling that his assumptions are a million miles from the truth.

It shouldn’t matter. Eric Chavez is free to do what he wants. He can fuck his starting rotation, suck them off when they win, let whoever’s ERA is lowest bend him over the edge of the bed. And what-the-fuck-ever. Chavez isn’t the one almost in love with his girlfriend. Chavez isn’t cheating on anybody, not this time.

It’s nothing new—Chavez has been like this for years, and it doesn’t really make a difference whether or not Munson is responsible for it. Chavez is just a slut, at the end of the day, he can’t turn anybody down. It’s never bugged Munce before, or at least not this much.

But these guys, these fucking pitchers who are Cy Young candidates at twenty-three years old, these arrogant fuckers with their charm and their handsome faces, Munson can’t stand the thought of Chavez fucking around with them. Because Mulder and Zito are perfect in the exact same way Chavez is, they would fit together without a seam.

Later, after most everybody who doesn’t live there and didn’t pass out has gone home, Munson follows Chavez back to his room, sees the sleeping bag laid out on the floor like they’re teenagers again, fooling everybody.

The door is closed, the curtains drawn and the bedside lamp casting triangles of yellow light, flecks of dust in the columns. Chavez moves around easily, his hair half-dried, sticking to his temples and eking trails down his neck. He peels off his shirt and flops on the bed, reaching over to take the alarm clock in his hands, setting it for the morning.

Munson is near the door, the sleeping bag an island between him and the bed, and he fiddles with his buttons, shifting his weight from foot to foot. He can’t take his eyes off Chavez shirtless on the bed, half-lying on his side, propped up on his elbow so that one side of his body is stretched taut and the other is in a shallow curve.

He thinks that he’s been doing better, he’s been moving on. He’s got a stop-traffic beautiful girlfriend and people are jealous of him again, because even just sitting on the bench is closer than most ever get. He needs to get his game back, and until that happens he shouldn’t let things get complicated again. Munson thinks about Shanda smiling at him, and how to hit a really good curve, and he doesn’t need this anymore, there’s not enough space in him for all this at once, but he’s five-beers-buzzed and Eric Chavez is shirtless on the bed.

“Um, are we . . .” Munce starts, then stops. Chavez looks up, looking happy and tired, an instinctive smile crawling at his face. Munson pulls his eyes away, thinks about Zito asleep on the couch and Mulder, two doors down.

“Munce?”

Munson looks at him again. Chavvy has sat up, rubbing at his shin with his other heel, his eyebrows raised expectantly.

Try again. “Are we. Are we gonna . . . you know.” hating the fact that he has to ask.

Chavez grins, briefly, tips his head to the side and leans back on his elbows, his legs over the side of the bed and his knees apart, posed like a fucking daydream. “I could be convinced.”

Munson locks the door, skids on the slippery material of the sleeping bag and crawls on top of his best friend, lying between Chavez’s legs with their chests together. Chavez’s arms are around Munson’s back, gathering handfuls of his shirt and pulling it over his head, caught around Munson’s upper arms. Chavez shifts uncomfortably; Munson’s belt buckle is digging into his hip, so they get rid of that too, and Munce kisses him, pushes Chavez’s mouth open and weaves his fingers in Chavez’s chlorinated hair.

Munson would be guilty, he would be feeling like hell, but Chavez is good and hot beneath him, Chavez knows him better than anyone has ever known another person, and it’s easy to chase away the thought of Shanda’s gray eyes, her little-girl laugh.

Chavez rolls them over so he’s on top, biting at Munson’s mouth and finding all the right spots. Chavvy reaches out, one eye open, to root around in the bedside table drawer, and Munson licks his shoulder and collarbone, his hand on the small of Chavez’s back, holding them flush.

Munce wants to taste the skin over Chavez’s spine, suck on the knob of his hip, leave teethmarks on Chavez’s stomach. He wants Chavez’s hands all over him, slick and fingerprinting him like a crime scene. He wants to swallow Chavez’s cry when he comes and collapse on top of him. He wants one of them to be fucked senseless.

Munson wants his best friend, tonight, and the Oakland A’s can go fuck themselves.

*

(the happiest place on earth)

And Eric Chavez brings him a bowl of cereal in the morning and Munson feels thirteen years old again on the fold-out couch.

And he goes back to Detroit and takes his seat on the bench. The Tigers keeping losing and Eric Munson will be in Trip-A Toledo again in the spring, because he’s not ready yet, he hasn’t fixed anything. This is taking longer than it should, and it’s leaving scars.

And Munson kneels in the middle of the dirty city and asks Shanda to marry him, giving up the good fight and letting his heart go where it wants. And she says yes, drops to her knees to put her arms around his neck and kiss him, ruining her skirt and not caring, because she does love him, inexplicably, loves him for real.

And planes fly into buildings, fall out of the sky, and the world goes kind of crazy.

And the summer ends a month early, everything else is just playing out the schedule.

And the A’s lose in the first round again, and Chavez breaks down on the phone with Munson, drives home to San Diego that night and they fuck on the couch while Munson’s fiancée is asleep in the bedroom.

And major league baseball is played in November for the first time ever.

And they go to Disneyworld and Eric Munson gets married.

Eric Chavez is the best man. He teases Munce relentlessly for getting married at an amusement park, but he actually understands, remembers Eric Munson nine years old and making him swear they’d get here, someday.

It’s an overcast autumn day in Orlando, the life melted out of the place, the created world, cartoon people walking around with frightening plastic smiles. The ceremony takes place in New Orleans Square, and it’s not so bad there, under the trees dripping Spanish moss, the pretty Victorian false-fronts, white-painted gazebos and wrought-iron fences lining the small cobbled streets. Over the trees, the Haunted Mansion rises gothically gray and brown, circled by animatronic bats.

It’s all very fake and very lovely, and Chavez grins like a jerk with his suit jacket weighing down on his shoulders in the thick still air. Munson keeps glancing at him, and Chavez winks at him, makes his eyes go wide, blows him a joking kiss. Munce glares at him briefly, but when he looks back at Shanda, his eyes get soft again.

Eric Chavez dances with his best friend’s new wife and steps on her toes, but she just laughs, lets him spin her and dip her extravagantly, until Munson comes over and cuts in. Chavez sits on a wooden bench in the shade and watches them dance.

They don’t get a chance to talk, the swirl of family and friends and the fallen leaves red and orange around their ankles. Chavez doesn’t think this is going to change anything, because he was married once too, but he’s not sure. Munson is already different, twenty-minutes-married and white cake frosting on his face. He looks like a man, honestly, a real grown-up.

Chavez is flying back early the next morning, and Munson gets up to see him off. Munson knocks on his room door, yawning and still in his pajama pants and worn T-shirt, his shoes on with no socks, untied laces lagging. Chavez waves a package of freeze-dried coffee at him but Munson shakes his head, he’s still planning on going back to sleep.

They don’t talk then either, though it’s the perfect opportunity. But Munson’s most of the way asleep, slumped in the chair, and Chavez is on his third cup of stale coffee, too wired to be coherent.

But in the elevator, Chavez is jittering and he asks, “So, Munce, so, um, what, you know, what about—” and Munson suddenly crowds him against the rail, kisses him slow and deep, bed-warm and lazy, his hand on Chavez’s neck and the zing of cold from his new wedding ring.

Munson pulls back, looking either tired or sad, and tells him carefully, “You’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, man, I hope you know that.”

Chavez nods, his mouth slightly open, and tilts in to press his lips to Munson’s again. Munson sighs into his mouth, tips his head to the side to get a better angle, worrying abstractly what Shanda will think if she kisses him and tastes coffee.

Eric Chavez gets in a cab, and Eric Munson goes back upstairs to lie down next to his wife.

*

(defensive replacement)

Back in Oakland, Chavez gives Greg Myers the pair of Mickey Mouse ears he got for him and Myers is way too excited about that, wearing them all afternoon and night while hanging out at Chavez’s place, until someone snatches them off his head and throws them up into the tree.

Chavez thinks that they probably shouldn’t bother keeping a house over the winter next year. It’s too quiet, and hardly anybody else is staying year-round in the Bay Area, so nothing interesting ever happens. Their parties suck.

And even when people do come around, seeing his teammates fools Chavez into thinking that they’ve got a game to play later, but then he remembers it’s the off-season and gets depressed again.

It’s just Mulder and him in Lafayette that off-season, and they get in dumb arguments and are constantly pissed off at each other, holding grudges and exacting petty little revenges.
Mulder went home to Chicago for Thanksgiving, and he gets back on a red-eye flight a few days into December, the airport shuttle dropping him off at the front door at two in the morning.

Chavez is still up, watching Game 6 of the 1975 World Series on ESPN Classic, feeling itchy and restless. He’s in the kitchen when the front door opens, and he hears Mulder coming down the hall, the scraped sound of his bag trailing behind him.

Chavez looks over to see Mulder tipping his shoulder wearily against the jamb, blinking at him. Eric takes a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and when he shuts the door, the room goes dim, pasted white walls and dun-colored shadows in the hallway from the television.

“Welcome home, man,” he says, leaning against the counter and fingering the sport-top of the bottle, popping it up and down. He doesn’t remember if they were fighting before Chavez left for Orlando, but decides to go ahead and turn the other cheek regardless, because there’s no one else to talk to.

Mulder nods, says in the middle of a yawn, “You too.” His hair is tufting out on one side, bristling over his ear. The collar of his shirt is open one or two buttons too far, making his neck look unnaturally long.

Mulder lets his head tilt to rest on the jamb, his eyes closed. “Your boy got married,” he says.

Chavez nods, but Mulder’s still got his eyes shut, so he answers, “Yeah.” He keeps looking at the high triangle of Mulder’s chest revealed by his open shirt, the cutted thumb-dents at the base of his throat.

Chavez thinks that this off-season has been pretty goddamn boring, dismissing the past two days in Orlando as insignificant. He thinks, ‘fuck it.’

Chavez swallows, takes a long drink of chilled water, and walks over to where Mulder is standing blind.

Chavez isn’t entirely sure what he’s doing, but he’s had enough of living in the same house as Mulder and playing all summer on the same team with him and pretending the undercurrent between them doesn’t exist. In Chavez’s mind, for a moment, he sees Eric Munson with his arms around Shanda, under the mossy trees, moving lyrically, but then he pushes that out.

He gets to Mulder, close enough to see the photo negative of an ash smear on his face a half an inch away from his ear, and he’s silent, Mulder’s eyes haven’t opened.

Eric Chavez leans in and licks Mulder’s chest. He drags the flat of his tongue up Mulder’s sternum and feels Mulder hitch a quick breath. The moment for Mulder to shove him away and punch him goes past swiftly, and Chavez smiles inside his mind, ‘i fucking knew it.’

There’s a sweat-skin taste, and it could be anyone. He curls his tongue around Mulder’s collarbone and Mulder’s head is back, giving him full access. Mulder’s hand comes up to Chavez’s arm, just holding there, above Chavez’s elbow and his fingers are long enough that they circle all the way around and overlap his thumb.

Chavez presses his open mouth higher, on Mulder’s throat, and he shifts forward so that their bodies run together. Mulder’s not too skinny like he was when he first showed up, filled out, but Chavez can still feel the bones of his hips, his ribs, clocked knees. Chavez has both hands tied up in Mulder’s shirt, fists against his stomach, anxiously yanking him closer.

Mulder swallows and his Adam’s apple kicks under Chavez’s tongue. Mulder says his name scratchily, and Chavez more feels it than hears it. He’s going to kiss Mulder in a second, in just a second he’s gonna see how far this goes.

He lifts his head and Mulder has an unfamiliar look on his face, flushed and heavy-eyed. He’s been digging his teeth hard into his lower lip; Chavez can still see the thin pierced line in the flesh. Mulder stares down at him like he’s never seen him before, breathing reedily and his chest bumping Chavez’s.

Then Mulder’s face clears, famous smirk edging at the corners of his mouth, and he runs the tip of his tongue thoughtfully across his lips, moving his leg in between Chavez’s, pushing up just enough.

“Well I’ll be goddamned, Chavvy,” he says, almost drawling like he thinks he’s Tim Hudson or something. “You’re not just a little bit fucked up, are you?”

Chavez wants to bare his teeth, maybe bite him or something, so tense his skin feels like it’s about to shred off, and since when did casual sex get so fucking complicated? What’s wrong with just wanting to get his dick sucked, wanting to get his hands on the places where Mulder is as tight as a drum-skin, wanting all that height and length twisted around him? Why does everything have to be a fucking therapy session, why can’t he just sleep with the best-looking asshole in the state and then have done with it?

Chavez scorns, his face contorted, and presses up, angling for Mulder’s mouth, but Mulder just ducks back, turning so that Chavez hits his cheek, sanded by his five o’clock shadow.

Chavez makes an inarticulate sound of frustration and irritation, his eyes half-closed, and he locks a hand behind Mulder’s neck, tries to pull him down, but Mulder resists, muscles strict and immovable. Mulder’s thigh is still between his own, rubbing almost absentmindedly, as if Mulder has forgotten it’s there. The smirk is out in full-force now, and it’s just Mulder’s eyes that are smoked and snapping with jerks of black through the blue.

“For fuck’s sake, man,” Chavez mumbles impatiently, his fingers hasped in the waist of Mulder’s jeans, working against him and wanting to fuck someone so badly he’s almost cross-eyed. “Can we get on with it already?”

Mulder pauses, considering that, then shakes his head slowly, slipping his leg out from between Chavez’s, leaning back against the doorframe and not touching Chavez anywhere except the backs of Chavez’s fingers on the skin under the top of his jeans.

“Not that I’m not flattered,” Mulder says, smug and looking like he could have anyone in the world and why would he ever pick Eric Chavez?

Chavez, stunned with anger, rips his hands away from Mulder’s body, steps back. “Fuck you,” he says venomously, a tremor in his voice. “You fucking cocktease, you think I need this shit?”

Mulder crosses his arms over his chest casually, lifts an eyebrow. “Guess not,” he answers. “At least, not from me.”

Chavez flinches, but it’s not like that, he’s pretty sure. He wanted Mulder anyway, before he went to Orlando, this isn’t new.

Mulder scuffs his knuckles along the line of his jaw, studying him, and says, “You should get some sleep, babe.”

Chavez’s head snags to the side, and he whispers without thinking, “Don’t call me that.”

Mulder sighs. “Fine. Eric. Get some sleep.” And Mulder walks out, hauling his bag off the floor and onto his shoulder, and Chavez sleepwalks to the living room, falls down on the couch and thinks about what a fucking idiot he is for awhile.

*

(faith in our hearts)

And then the Oakland Athletics stop losing.

It’s August of 2002 and the Players’ Association is talking about another strike. For the second time in his life, Eric Chavez refuses to believe in the possibility, and spends a week of earnestly drunk nights cornering his teammates one by one, getting them all to swear that if the union strikes, they won’t, insisting again and again, “we’ll still play, promise me we’ll still play.”

Most of them think he’s a fucking nutcase, nodding along to humor him, but Chavvy guesses it does the trick, because right about then is when the streak begins.

The first couple games, the Blue Jays and White Sox at home, they don’t even think about it. You can’t predict something like this. They’re playing good, picking up speed and closing in on the stretch, that’s pretty much all that matters.

There’s a huge summer moon, the color of amber and sitting low in the sky, a perfect half-circle like a cereal bowl, and they grin, nudge each other, get fresh beers. They’re not paying attention, distracted by things in the sky, so there’s no way to know when exactly, but sometime in there, everything falls into place.

Hudson’s a bulldog and Mulder’s a pin-up and David Justice tracks across left field like his feet aren’t touching the ground. Cory Lidle is not a number four starter, and Aaron Harang isn’t a number five, it’s just this goddamn rotation, man, where else are you gonna put them? Ramon Hernandez is all grit and accent behind the plate, the toughest catcher you’ve ever seen and that magic Venezuelan swing that’s all of a sudden finding the sweet spot every time. Jermaine Dye and Terrence Long dance over each other in the spaces between right and center, and Miguel Tejada is in the dugout laughing and clapping his chalked hands, fingers stiffly held out. John Mabry and Adam Piatt are everybody’s favorite, they’re so fucking chill. Ray Durham is cooler than everybody else put together, Eric Byrnes has got ADD and isn’t allowed any sugar past the fifth inning, Mark Ellis and Scott Hatteberg are unofficial brothers, and nobody misses Giambi that much anymore.

In their totally incongruent ’pen, they’ve got a deeply religious submariner from Mississippi, and a screwballer who was born with two club feet, limps out to the mound and just shuts the fuckers down. They’ve got Bam-Bam Jeff Tam and Biblical Micah Bowie. They’ve got Billy Koch and his goat-scruff hurling aspirin tablets in the ninth, topping out at better than a hundred miles an hour.

Barry Zito, who looks like a fucking joke with his hair still blonde at the tips and his Peter Pan socks, half the time acting the part too, is suddenly, bafflingly, untouchable. He stumbles upon a current of luck or karma or skill or whatever you want to call it, depthless and astonishing, and it picks him up, carries him along like wings. Zito isn’t surprised, because this is where he’s always expected himself to be, but everyone else is. Guys like Barry Zito are not this good. Nobody is this good.

Eric Chavez thought that he’d seen everything there is to be seen on a baseball field, but he’s never seen anything like Zito’s curve, hooking like a wish all through the heart of that summer.

They’ve got Art Howe’s majestic chin in the dugout and Billy Beane tearing up the clubhouse, screaming curses at their weaknesses and loving them all violently like sons, though nobody ever talks about that. They’ve got a team of teenagers, fucking Little Leaguers, they’ve got life in the box and poetry against the outfield wall and they turn two on balls that were roped for doubles.

They stop losing. They go on the road, they sweep four games at Cleveland, Lidle one-hitting the Indians in the last game of the set to make it nine straight, and then they roll into the Motor City for three against the Tigers. They sweep there too, and Chavez calls Munson in Toledo, tells him, “We got lucky, man, if you were playing with the big club, the streak would be done for sure.”

Munce laughs, tells him to go kick the holy hell out of the Royals.

They do.

In Kansas City, it starts to get pretty spooky. It’s twelve games in a row, at this point, and they’ve been slowly moving up in SportsCenter’s priority, until the night when the show opens with the question: “Will the Oakland A’s ever lose?”

Yeah, doesn’t seem like it, not right now, not ever again.

Nobody ever pays much attention to the A’s, no matter how good they are. Their fan base bleeds green and gold, but rarely do forty thousand of them appear anywhere together. They’re a freak California team, and maybe they’ve got the deepest starting pitching since Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz in the early 1990s, maybe they’ve got an insane general manager who never seems to make a bad deal, maybe they’re impossibly clutch, postseason-bound for the third straight year, but nobody has ever known their names.

Now they’re touched. Now they’re beyond failure.

Chavez can see it in their eyes. In his own eyes, looking back at him and gleaming with unscarred surprise from the clubhouse mirror.

And they come home having won fifteen games in a row, greeted by October crowds in their late-August ballpark that only a mother could love, kids with mohawked hair, half green and half yellow, facepaint, homemade banners, plain white T-shirts with block-lettered slogans in thick Magic Marker.

There are reports of children being born in the East Bay and named after the players. Jason Zito Bradley of Walnut Creek. Miguel Tejada Dominguez of Alameda.

There are stories about sports bars crushed full every night, department stores that tune their speakers to the A’s broadcast when the game starts, Bill King’s wise old man’s voice giving the play-by-play through the cool perfume aisles, the new clothes hanging empty on the racks.

The elephant is everywhere, and people talk about Connie Mack, Lefty Grove, Rube Waddell, they go way back through Kansas City to Philadelphia and end up where they started, with Hudson and Mulder and Zito, with Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada, with Billy Beane and maybe this is what God owes him.

When two people in A’s gear are walking towards each other on the sidewalk, they grin and slap high-five as they pass. When the A’s play during the day, half the town takes the afternoon off. When the last out is recorded (Chavez doesn’t believe this is really happening until he sees film of it on the local news), people get out of their cars and hug strangers in the middle of the street, car doors hanging open and everybody laughing like crazy.

Middle school kids double-knot their sneakers, and help their kindergarten brothers and sisters make Xs with their Velcro straps, because double-knots and Velcro Xs are the difference in the umpire’s eyes when a shadow-cut inside fastball is called for the third strike. Their parents dig old ticket stubs out of musty shoeboxes on the top shelf of the closets, the 1989 season before the bridge collapsed, and he’s a good-looking man that Dennis Eckersley, ’74, ’73, ’72, an East Bay dynasty in screaming yellow jerseys, the Mustache Gang and Catfish Hunter (that’s goddamn right), tucking the stub in their wallets and touching it occasionally as the day wears on.

There are men and women who wear their Athletics T-shirts under their business suits every day, a girl suspended from her high school in San Leandro for refusing to take off her cap in class, protesting fervently, “But it’s good luck.”

Everything is coming down to luck. Everything’s a blur. Eric Chavez wanders around in a punch-drunk haze, protected from on high. Crosswalk signals change to green as he approaches the curb, elevator doors ping open without him pushing the button. He finds three crumpled twenty dollar bills on the street over the course of a week, and every penny on every sidewalk is lucky-heads-up. He looks at his watch when they’re out after a game, and it’s 11:11, wish-making on street corners and apartment stairwells. The bass beat from his Walkman falls into rhythm with his stride as he walks down the street. Everything is thrown open for him, everything is in tune.

He starts flipping a quarter one day in the clubhouse, idly killing time, picking heads or tails and skying the coin on a narrow parabola, and he guesses right thirty-three times in a row, then stops because he starts to get totally freaked out.

His days fall into pattern, he does everything the exact same. Eggbeater omelet for breakfast, one cup of coffee with two sugars and no cream, eaten in the same chair at the kitchen table, using the same fork. Watch ESPN, no matter what’s on, until it’s time to go to the ballpark. Take the same route, come to a full stop at every stop sign, and park in the same place in the players’ lot, easy enough to do because his teammates are all doing the same thing. Play exactly five hands of cards with the infielders, then two games on the arcade machine with Hudson and no one else. Drink a bottle of water before infield practice, another before batting practice. Sit on the dugout bench and tighten the laces of his glove whether they need it or not. Knock rhythmically through the intricate handshakes, a different one for every player, and don’t miss a step. Let Miggy ruffle his hair for luck, and take the field.

Everything the exact same. And every game is another win.

When the team’s together, they crackle, they burn. The twenty-five of them, for these three impossible weeks, are inchoate and unmatched, every prayer answered, well-loved by God or fate or baseball, something, and they stick close to each other, travel in each other’s pockets. They can’t explain how it feels to anyone else, and they don’t need to explain it to each other.

And then, seventeen games in, they start performing miracles.

Tejada wins the eighteenth with a walk-off home run, and he bounds into their arms at home plate, hollering at the top of his lungs in Spanish. That night, back at Mulder and Chavez’s house, Mark Ellis falls asleep on the kitchen floor and wakes everybody up at four in the morning, his dream voice high and breaking gleefully, prophetic, yelling, “Run, Scotty, run.”

Miggy wins the nineteenth too, a game-winning base hit in the bottom of the ninth, a jerky little hop in his stride as he sees the ball shoot up the middle, pinwheeling his arm triumphantly and crowing. They dash out of the dugout and tackle him on the fair side of the first base line, the flood of noise from the crowd blinding.

That night, there’s Zito, standing in the middle of the street, brilliantly drunk and calling out fearlessly, “Fuck you, you son of a bitch, I’ve got faith in my heart!”

And Mulder answers from the curb, stuttering with laughter, “What’ve you got, kid?” Zito, again, like the only way he’ll be brought down is if the sky comes down with him:

“I’ve got faith in my motherfucking heart!”

So that when they blow an eleven-run lead the next night, their bid for an unthinkable twenty wins without one loss, when the Royals tie it up and the Coliseum is cemetery-quiet, Chavez finds a seat next to Zito on the bench and asks him quietly, “What have we got?”

And Zito’s hand on his back, Zito telling him, “Faith in our hearts, Eric.”

Chavez goes 2-for-5 that night, with three RBIs, and after the Royals knot it at eleven in the top of the ninth, every last shred of luck having at last been smuggled into the visitor’s dugout, he runs down into the clubhouse, his mind ablaze, and calls Eric Munson.

“Chavvy, what the fuck,” Munson picks up, pacing around his own team’s clubhouse in Toledo where they’re watching the A’s, along with every other team in organized ball not involved in a game of their own, for once everyone watching the Oakland Athletics, unable to believe this. “You’re playing, for fuck’s sake.”

Chavez shakes his head, his legs trembling. “I’m not up this inning,” he says unevenly. “Munce, I’m . . . I’m going fucking crazy, man, I can’t take it.”

Munson pushes a hand through his hair, staring at the television screen, the Kansas City closer cutting through his warm-up pitches. “Settle down, dude,” he advises, his own voice not entirely steady.

“I can’t fucking settle down, Munson!” Chavez shouts, jumping from foot to foot.

There’s a clatter as Scott Hatteberg dashes through the clubhouse, the short way between the batting cages and the dugout, clutching an unfamiliar dark wood bat. Chavez eyes the first baseman as he sprints past—Hatteberg isn’t supposed to play tonight.

Chavez shakes his head again, his eyes feeling hot and white, says, “We blew the lead, did you see, eleven to nothing in the third, and now it’s tied, how can we win this, there’s no fucking way.”

“Hey!” Munce says sharply, quick and inarguable authority. “You listen to me, you guys have been fucking blessed, Eric. I’ve been watching, I’ve never seen anything like it. Right now, right now, man, tonight, it’s. God. There’s never been a team that could beat you tonight, okay? Not ever, I promise. And certainly not the motherfucking Royals.”

Chavez breathes deep, closes his eyes. “You believe that?”

Munce watches Jermaine Dye fly out for the first out, watches Scott Hatteberg in the on-deck circle, tapping the donut off his bat, fixing his helmet, walking to the plate. “All my heart, babe,” Munson says, and Chavez’s strength leaves him briefly, falling back against the wall. “Get back up there,” Munce tells him. “Go see your boys.”

Chavez nods, still frantic, and he’s moving quick for the tunnel, stammering, “Thanks, dude, love you, talk to you later,” and then he’s gone, tossing his cell phone onto the table and disappearing into the concrete again.

Scott Hatteberg, with his perfect knowledge of the strike-zone and his better-every-day picks at first base, is pinch-hitting in the bottom of the ninth. Scott Hatteberg, whose career was supposed to be over when he left Boston, Scott Hatteberg, one of Billy Beane’s chosen, knocks the head of his bat on the plate and feels the caffeine whirring in his blood, feels the ceaseless chants of the fifty-five thousand pressing heavily on his shoulders. He sets his feet and cocks his hips slightly open, squints out at Jason Grimsley, thinking ‘sinkerball pitcher,’ thinking ‘don’t sit on the break,’ thinking ‘lay off the first pitch,’ thinking ‘just one more, good enough.’

The air’s neon and Chavez trips up against the rail, his teammates parting to make room for him, wedging him in, and Chavez’s eyes are huge, rapt, trying to find a prayer that applies.

Hatteberg swings at the second pitch, high heat, and crushes it. The string of players at the rail jolt at the crack, Chavez’s hands caught up in two others, and they cry out as one, tracing the path of the ball through the clean night air.

When the ball disappears over the wall in right-center, Hatteberg lifts his arm into the air, his mouth open and his eyes wide, and they explode out of the dugout, stumbling over each other, arms around each other’s necks, falling off balance. Chavez leaps onto Mulder’s back, nearly toppling him to the ground, and Huddy is clinging to Zito like a spider monkey.

Chavez loses his capacity for rational thought, and there’s nothing but white light in his eyes, bad reception in his ears. His life is transparent in that moment, with the old broken pieces swept out of his heart, he’s brand-new now, struck down.

And here, in the light and the static, their faces, his team, he’d say brothers but that doesn’t even come close, because baseball is thicker than blood. Elbows and shoulders and white-green-gold everywhere, jammed together at the plate, an obstructed view and someone’s chin dug into Chavez’s shoulder. There’s just enough time for all of them to turn back into little boys, the smell of oranges cut into fourths and grass stains and sunlit wet cement, and then their hands are reaching out, and Scott Hatteberg is rounding third and flying home.

(end part eleven)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

Part the Twelfth: Perfect Life

(michigan seems like a dream to me now)

In the winter after 2002, Munson is living in Detroit, because he’ll be a starter next season and he might as well get used to it.

It’s the coldest place on earth. Eric Munson is absolutely sure. Poor southern California boy, thin skin and hair that’s never been frosted with ice while waiting for the bus. His jeans are stained with salt and snow, the cuffs wet-frayed, and his favorite sneakers have been curled with white too, thumping around in the dryer during the news.

He shivers from the memory of it even in his apartment, and pulls Shanda onto his lap when she walks in front of the couch, straight-jacketing his arms around her and mumbling into her shoulder, “I’m cold, I’m freezing, how come you’re so warm?” and she laughs, rubbing circles on his back and not making too much fun of him when he wears his blue-striped beanie inside all day long.

He’s not going to the desert this New Year’s. Shanda’s folks live in Cincinnati, and they’ll be there for the holidays. He calls Chavez to let him know and Chavez doesn’t believe him for awhile.

“Fuck off, you are too coming with me,” Chavez says.

Munson sighs. “Dude, Cincinnati. Family stuff.”

“But you can’t mess with tradition, man, it’s terrible fucking luck.”

Munson looks at their little tree, sparkly and silver and red, bent reflections in the round ornaments, presents stacked under the shedding pine needles, neatly wrapped in the Sunday comics and shiny paper with pictures of Snoopy in a Santa’s hat marching across it. “Got other stuff going on, now, though.”

“I went out there with you right after getting married,” Chavez reminds him, crossing the line from persuasively endearing into just plain whining.

Munson snorts. “Yeah, and how’d that work out for you?”

“Whatever. It’s the best tradition in the world, but if you wanna go to stupid Cincinnati and leave me hanging, go right the fuck ahead,” Chavez answers, only a little bit mean but on his way to more.

It’s a pretty good strategy, because Chavez getting Munson angry is usually the first step to Chavez getting what he wants. But Munson’s not falling for it.

“Oh, knock it off,” Munson tells him wearily. “Or I won’t tell you about how I bought you a plane ticket to come out here the first week of January.”

Eric Chavez pauses. Then he yelps, all former discontent vanished. “Dude! Really?”

Munson nods, and smiles at Shanda as she comes up and presses a mug of coffee into his hand, sits down next to him on the couch. “Yeah, really. You get your ass on a plane and all the wonders of eastern Michigan await you.”

He sets the mug on the coffee table to slip an arm around Shanda’s shoulders and she curves into him.

“All right!” Chavez statics excitedly. “I’m totally there. Reunion in Detroit. No doubt. It’s gonna be awesome, you and me, just wait and-”

“Say hi to Shanda, bro,” Munson says quickly. He holds the phone to her ear and she rolls her eyes at him.

Munson can just barely hear Chavez saying to his wife, “Oh, um. Hi. Hi, Shanda.”

“Hi, Eric,” she says back, and Chavez stutters out some unintelligible stuff, Shanda hmm’ing in vague acknowledgement before she hands the phone back to Munson, whispering, “Thought you said he was good with girls.”

Munson shrugs, tells his friend, “Okay, I’ll get you the specifics pretty soon, see you then.”

“Rock and fucking roll, dude,” Chavez answers, voice bright and eager.

Eric Munson hits the button to end the call, and Shanda winds a leg over his knees, kisses him on the cheek. “That’s a nice thing you’re doing. It’ll be good to see him again.”

“He thinks if we’re not together on New Year’s, we’ll both end up in the Mexican Leagues or something for tempting fate,” Munson says absently, not really listening to her.

“What’s fate got to do with it?” Shanda asks.

Munson twists a bit of her hair around his finger. Their little tree is backed up against the window and there’s a streetlight out there that makes a gilded halo around the head of the snowman that grins around a corncob-pipe at the top. The snowman’s been on top of every Christmas tree of Eric Munson’s life; he nearly had to mortgage his soul to Shelly to convince his sister to let him claim it. Munson’s mouth crooks up a bit, looking at the old snowman with his familiar crepe-paper face.

“Fate’s got everything to do with everything,” Munson tells her.

She laughs lightly, leans her head back against his arm. “Ballplayers,” she says, her face happily exasperated.

They go to Cincinnati and Shanda’s parents are in bed by nine o’clock on New Year’s Eve, leaving Eric and her to watch the countdown on the muted living room television, kissing like you’re supposed to and Eric Munson thinking, ‘every year better than the last,’ champagne-high and certain that he’s just figured out the trick behind a perfect life.

And Eric Chavez comes to Detroit, and after dinner with Shanda near the hotel where Chavez is staying (because he travels in style now, apparently, and anyway the Munsons’ couch is all of four and a half feet long), she sends the two men off, winking and stage-whispering to Chavez, “Try and keep him out of jail, please.”

Chavez doesn’t make any promises, and he’s got an arm around Munson’s neck before Shanda is half a block away and they’re still in her rearview mirror, weaving down the sidewalk. Chavez waits until they get around the corner before licking Munson’s ear, but he does it casually and lets Munson smack his head away without a fight.

“So what do you say, dude,” Chavez says. “You have a good New Year’s without me?”

Munson shifts under Chavez’s arm, his ear tingling and bitten by the wind from the wet stripe laid across by Chavez’s tongue. “Sure.” Chavez’s hold tightens to a half-headlock, and Munson amends, “I mean, of course it sucked. You know. Definitely missed freezing my ass off with you in the middle of Death Valley.”

Chavez smiles nostalgically. “Yeah, it’s a good time. Next year, no excuses, okay?” His arm is still around Munson’s shoulders, his hand fiddling with Munson’s shirt.

“Deal,” Munson says, and thinks about a year from now.

“So, yeah,” Chavez says, finally letting his arm fall off, just bumping into his friend occasionally as they walk. “Things seem to be going pretty all right, for you.” He jerks his head back the way they came, making it clear he’s talking about Munson’s marriage.

“Yeah.”

Chavez glances at him, Munson’s profile against the shop windows, his unfocused after-image reflection following him step for step and looking like a particularly well-defined shadow. Chavez taps their elbows together. “C’mon, dude, you stuck it out for better than a year now, huh?”

Munson wants to tell him that no one’s keeping score, but he just lifts his shoulders.

Chavez figures Munson doesn’t want to talk about it, but that’s never really stopped him before. He pushes his fingers back and forth across his chin, still kind of entranced by his own ability to grow facial hair, and says, “Probably it’s easy for you, because you’re not such a fuck-up.”

Munson looks at him sharply, but Chavez isn’t paying attention, his eyes taking in Detroit and the dirty-tissue snow slushed into the curbs, the white hanging off the sick-looking branches of the city trees.

“I mean, I guess if you don’t fuck around on a girl, she’s not so much gonna leave you in the middle of the night.”

Munson stops. It takes Chavez a moment to realize and turn back to face him. Munson’s got his hands jammed into his coat pockets, and his head is down. He’s looking for quartz pieces in the sidewalk, and he asks, “What are you trying to do, Chavvy?”

Chavez tips his head to the side. “What do you mean?”

Munson raises his eyes and he looks pissed off, his harmless, well-liked-by-kids-and-old-people face made tough like he always wanted to be when they were little.

“You don’t think we’re gonna end up back at your hotel room at some point tonight?”

Chavez shrugs, looking away blamelessly. There’s something tightening in his chest, below his heart, caged into his lungs. “Maybe.”

He did plan on it, he’s been thinking about it all night, getting Munce back and the door deadbolted and chained behind them. Munson looks good, fresh and strong and warm in his soft layers, though Chavez has seen him shivering and blowing on his hands all night. Eric Chavez keeps picturing what it’ll be like when he gets Munson stripped down to just his plain white undershirt, all that wool and cotton littering the floor, and he thinks that he’ll leave Munson in that last slender T-shirt for awhile, until Munson’s clawing for skin on skin and Chavez’s mouth is dry from the fabric.

Munson scoffs a laugh. “I’d put my money on it,” he says caustically, clenching his fists in his coat pockets.

Chavez moves to him. There’s no streetlight and this isn’t California and no one knows Eric Munson yet, so they’re safe. He touches Munson’s chest, trips his hand up and snakes under his collar, his fingers cold for a moment on Munson’s shoulder and then gone again.

“Okay, so what?” Chavez asks low. “We did the last time we saw each other. And it’s. It’s been awhile, man.”

The last time, the last time was . . . when? Before the playoffs. Before the streak. Christ, not since July. When the A’s were in Cleveland and Munson came up from Toledo. The last time they saw each other, and some farm road outside town, dead-ended and the summer picking up strength in the weight of the trees. Chavez and Munson in the backseat of Munson’s not-nearly-big-enough car, a cliché again, a classic, slamming knees on the door and the windows fogged like a movie. Too hot outside to take a breath and both of them drenched with sweat, sliding effortlessly against each other and Eric Munson saying, “This car’s gonna smell like you forever,” and Eric Chavez laughing, squeaking his elbows on the vinyl, his hands looking for purchase on Munson’s hips and his shoulders and his neck, slicking off every time.

Chavez is trying to think if anything’s changed. July in Ohio and January in Detroit, and it might as well be two different planets. They lost in the first round again; maybe Munson thinks he’s cursed now like everybody is saying. But Munson’s not even gone through his rookie year yet, the fuck can he say about losing in October?

Munson rubs his hand fast over his eyes. “Look, I know. Obviously I didn’t get you to leave California for Michigan in fucking January and not expect that we’d, um, you know, the stuff we do sometimes.” Munson gives himself a mental flick on the forehead. It’s been eight fucking years and he can still barely say it out loud.

He continues, looking to get angry again, “But would you mind not praising me for my devotion to my wife while we’re doing it?”

Chavez’s eyes get a little bit bigger, and he steps back. “Dude, that wasn’t . . . I wasn’t meaning to . . . I was just talking, man, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Munson sighs, staring off over Chavez’s shoulder. “I know you didn’t. I know you think it doesn’t count.”

“Well, it doesn’t,” Chavez says, confused. He thought they’d settled this.

Munson’s getting pretty fucking tired of Eric Chavez playing dumb with him. But they haven’t started drinking yet and he’s not brave enough to soberly ask if Chavez really thinks they’re not in love with each other anymore. If Chavez really thinks this is the kind of thing that ends.

Munson wishes for about a tanker truck of liquor, without it he’s such a coward he can barely look his best friend in the face. “Fine. It doesn’t count.”

Chavez eyes him distrustfully. Munson’s twisting his hands in his pockets, Chavez can see the turns of his wrists, the face of his watch against his pulse. “You said you’d tell me if you weren’t okay.”

Munson shakes his head. “I will. I mean, I am. Okay. I’m fine. I just don’t want to think about Shanda when I’m thinking about you.”

“Sure. No problem.” Chavez whips his hand around in the air. “Not thinking about her anymore.” Munson’s still not looking at him. Eric Chavez roughs his hands up and down his arms. “It’s cold in Detroit.”

Munson, recognizing an overt change of subject when he hears one, does him one better: “What’d you end up doing for New Year’s, anyway?”

Chavez smiles. “I went out to John Muir. Or, you know, past it. Stinson Beach, remember?”

Munson nods. Stinson Beach is over the Golden Gate Bridge and just beyond the frame of Redwoods National Park at John Muir Woods, where the only scent in the air is the trees that will outlive everyone, beats out even the ocean.

The first time they went out there, the two of them, not too long into Chavez’s first season with the A’s, they had to ask directions at a twenty-four hour Safeway, one in the morning and the slapping echo of their sneakers on the linoleum, the two cashiers mostly asleep and Chavez buying a mess of candy, his backpack loose on his shoulders and Munson could hear the one cashier saying to the other as they walked out, “These fucking high school kids.”

“Yeah, the fireworks, there were boats out past the bridge,” Chavez says. “You could kind of see the ones from on the bay, but it was over the hill, you know? But the fireworks over the ocean, they were even better, I swear. It was, like, an aircraft carrier or something. Huge. Not too far offshore. I could hear the people laughing sometimes when it got quiet.”

Munson can see it perfectly. “Who’d you go with?” he asks.

They’re walking again, and it’s cold enough to snow. Munson isn’t used to it yet, he keeps thinking that each snowfall will be the last. Chavez shrugs. “Nobody.”

Munson glances at him with impatience, suspicion. Eric Chavez never does anything alone. “It’s not like you have to lie to me, man.”

Chavez looks at him blankly. “I’m not.”

When Chavez is lying, he can’t keep his hands still, it’s his dead giveaway and Munson never told him, because even before their whatever, they still played poker together sometimes and Munson liked winning.

But right now Chavez’s hands are in his pockets, because it’s a Midwest winter and Chavez didn’t think to bring gloves. Which doesn’t mean he’s not lying. Munson sees Mark Mulder with sand in his hair, Barry Zito barefoot with his pants rolled up to the knee, kicking through the surf. It’s a pretty-boy team and Eric Chavez certainly has something to do with that.

“Look, do what you want, dude, I was just fucking wondering,” Munson says, and he thinks that maybe it’s not cold enough to snow, maybe there will just be more of that ice rain, the kind where if it hits skin you start to bleed, thin and red on your face, your hands.

Chavez stops walking again. It’s taking them fucking forever to get to wherever it is they’re going, all this stopping and starting. “What the fuck, man? I’m not allowed to watch fireworks alone?”

Christ, but he’s tired of this. He wants to kick a parking meter or something, but he’d feel stupid, so he just answers, “You’re allowed to, I just seriously doubt that you did.”

Chavez’s eyebrows pull together. “You got something you want to say, Munson?” and Chavez’s voice is dangerously flat.

Munson shakes his head, but his mouth doesn’t agree and he hears himself asking, “Did you ever fuck Mark Mulder?”

Chavez’s face clears and he looks comically surprised for a moment. He wonders if Munson knows, but how could he ever know? Nothing even really happened. He’s briefly caught between guilt and anger and his stupid little-boy tendency to confess everything and beg forgiveness, and none of those are a very good choice, so Chavez just picks anger and runs with it.

“Can’t believe you’d ask me that,” he answers with his eyes sharp and sparking, because there’s some kind of gray area where they’re not supposed to talk about other guys. Especially since Chavez is pretty sure he’s the only one of the two of them who ever actually does anything with other guys. But it’s weird, they don’t talk about that, they never have.

Munson’s hands are balled up in the pockets of his coat, and Chavez didn’t answer his question and Munson’s not gonna let him get away with that. “Why not?” he says tightly. “’Cause you did?”

Chavvy wants to push him, see him ricochet off the wall and maybe hit his head and that hard-boiled cracking sound. It’s really fucking cold out here, he doesn’t want to take his hands out of his pockets.

“’Cause you’re a fucking asshole! And ‘cause it’s none of your fucking business!”

Munson sneers, thinking about Eric Chavez sitting on his bed and touching his hand to Munson’s back when they were sixteen years old and nothing important had happened. “You used to keep me updated on who you fucked whether I wanted to know or not, motherfucker.”

Chavez turns away from him, not wanting to see his face anymore. He tracks his eyes over the street, trying to breathe and maybe not punch his best friend, and Munson can see the wiry muscles in his forearms tensing and relaxing as his fists tighten, then release, bulging against the denim of his jeans. How the fuck can he make a fist inside his jeans pocket, it seems impossible.

“No, all right?” Chavez answers, back to confession now like he’s so good at, and his voice is brittle. “I never fucked him. Not for lack of trying, but he . . .he didn’t want shit to do with me.”

Munce is a little thrown, an unthinkable thing in his mind, somebody turning down his perfect best friend. “Really?” he asks without thinking.

Chavez glares at him. “Fuck you, Munce. If I was gonna lie, I’d tell you he blows me every hour on the fucking hour.”

Because Munson’s never been the kind of guy who thinks before he speaks, running his fucking mouth and wrecking everything, he isn’t too surprised to find himself asking recklessly, “What about Zito?” thinking about his cast at the small of Zito’s back and holding them together, thinking about Zito’s Bazooka Joe and Gatorade taste in Eric Chavez’s mouth.

Chavez’s eyes flash. This is so far beyond cool. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near this conversation. They don’t talk about guys, they never have, goddamn it. “I’m gonna hit you in a second, Munson, I swear to God I am.”

Munson thinks that sounds just fine, and he steps forward. “Just fucking try it,” he says, and he’s ready, adrenaline burring and he thinks crazily that it’s been nine years since they last fought, wonders if Chavez still leads with the right, or maybe not, maybe he’s taken to feinting, dancing, maybe they won’t be so evenly matched this time. Munson tastes metal in the back of his throat, the smell of iron and cigarette smoke in the air and the fog of his breath pouring out.

But Chavez doesn’t take a swing at him, not yet. “What about Brandon Inge?” Chavvy mimics brutally. “What about Halter? What about Dmitri Young, bitch?”

“Fuck off,” Munson says, his temples feeling vised, the bones of his skull about to give under the pressure, and it’s not the same, not the same at all. He’s only been with the Tigers a season and barely even played, and Chavez has already spent a lifetime with his team.

Chavez widens his eyes dramatically, and he’s so mad, this is so unfair. “Well, what the fuck, Munce? We’re allowed to talk about my teammates but not yours?”

“My teammates don’t look like yours do!” Munson cries furiously, forgetting that he’s got better arguments than that one. “My teammates didn’t just step out of a fucking jeans commercial!”

Chavvy stares at him in disbelief, then chafes a hard cold laugh. “This insecure act of yours is totally fucking played, man, so just get over yourself, for Christ’s sake.”

Munson’s face is warped and he definitely wants to get into a fight now, beat this out of them both. “Hey man, I’d just like to know, all right? If you’re gonna be fucking around with me, I think I got a right to know whose seconds I’m picking up.”

He watches, frozen in place and hysterical, as something murderous slams across Chavez’s face, before Chavvy’s eyes pull closed and he hauls himself under control with all the strength in his body, and the visible effort of it, the sheer force of will that keeps Chavez from hitting him in that moment, stuns Munson, throws him down.

Chavez thinks about the months between now and the backseat of Eric Munson’s car outside Cleveland. He thinks very quickly about blood and mouth-shaped bruises and how much it would hurt to punch someone with the weather this cold.

He tells Munson with all his anger raked into each word, “Not Zito. Not Zito, not Hudson, not Scott Hatteberg, not Tejada, not Mark Ellis, and not Art fucking Howe!”

And for a second they’re motionless, on the edge of beating the shit out of each other, then Munson’s lips quirk involuntarily, his expression twisting halfway between revulsion and amusement, and his hands drop to his sides, the tension shrinking out of him.

“Dude, Howe? Ew,” he says dryly.

Eric stares at him for a moment, and Munson sees the smile coming from way far off, sees Chavez fighting against it and trying to hang on to his rage, but it’s no good, and his face breaks open, grinning and then laughing, and Munson’s laughing too, so hard he can’t breathe.

Chavez stumbles over to him and slings an arm around his back, banging his forehead on Munson’s shoulder and howling with it. Munson crumples under his weight, sitting hard on the curb, and Chavez follows him down, arms around each other’s necks and shoes in the gutter, laughing until they’re crying, holding each other up.

After a long time, they settle, the laughs tapering off, leaving Chavez with a bad case of the hiccups and Munson with a woozy unbalanced feeling carbonating in his head. Chavez is leaning against him, tucked under Munson’s arm, his body jerking with every hiccup.

Eventually Chavvy sighs, resting his head briefly on Munson’s chest, the push of Munson’s collarbone in the depression of Chavez’s temple, and then he pulls away. Chavez blows out a breath, his face red-splotched, and scrubs his hands through his hair.

“Okay, so, pretty much, stop being a dick,” Chavez says, pinning Munson down with a knowing glance, Munson coloring ashamedly. “I’m not sleeping with my teammates.” He shrugs. “They’re not really mentally stable enough to sleep with.” He elbows Munson in the side, edging a grin. “Not that you’re any better, understand, but I guess I know your version of crazy pretty well by now.”

Munson nods, beating out a rhythm on Chavez’s arm. “I’d hope so.” He pauses. “And, sorry. About that.”

Chavez likes the fold of Munson against him, and his shoes are getting soaked from the melting snow pushed against the curb. He sighs. “And I’m sorry about the other thing.”

Munson slants a look at him. “What other thing?”

Chavez gestures abstractly with his hand, his knuckles chapped. “You know. Didn’t mean to make you feel bad. About this. ‘Cause of Shanda.”

Munson exhales. “It’s cool.” He takes his hand off Chavez’s arm, but stays tilted against him.

Chavez looks carefully, but he can’t see anything in Munson’s face, just sleepy and his eyes bloodshot from laughing so hard.

“If you told me to stop, I would,” he says, and then wants to chase that away as easily as he could the cloud of his breath.

Munson bends into himself, rolls his forehead on the nape of Chavez’s neck. He doesn’t answer.

Chavez raps his fingers without rhythm on Munson’s knee. Munson’s nose is against the side of his neck and it’s icecube cold, but he doesn’t move.

“You still want to come back to my hotel room with me?”

Munson’s breath pauses for a moment, and then there’s a slight movement, just a tuck on the back of his neck, but Chavez can recognize it as a nod. Chavez reaches back and puts his hand on Munson’s head, red frost-bit ears, shaggy hair. He curls his fingers and Munson hums, sits up straight.

He looks at Chavez, looking resigned and all the miles between Detroit and Oakland in his eyes. “You’re like a bad habit,” Munson tells him, smiling just enough that Chavez takes it for what it means.

Chavez smiles back. “Everybody’s gotta have one, man.”

Sighing, Munson pulls his eyes away and answers, “Guess so.”

Chavez stands, offers Munson his hand. By the time they’re down to T-shirts and struggling with belt buckles, it’s snowing again.

*

(you say you’re looking for something to believe in)

Eric Chavez, back home in California, is not as dumb as he makes himself out to be.

He’s got an eye for the strike zone that gets better every year, and sliders don’t fool him, and no one steals third anymore, but he still plays behind the bag when there’s a runner on, just in case, you know. It’s the only kind of knowledge he’s ever needed.

He’s stupid-cocky-proud about not having gone to college, because in ten years he’ll be set for life and fuck if he never learned how to solve a differential equation, since when does that ever come in handy.

But he knows some stuff.

Eric Munson is married and happy, and has never really been gay, just in love. Eric Chavez tricked him at some point, pulled off the greatest prank in the history of the world, somehow convincing Munson that they felt the same way about each other, but these days Chavez is kinda thinking that maybe it was just him, because what seventeen year old turns down a blowjob even if it’s from his best friend, and what best friend could let the person he cared for the most be in love alone? It was just cruel charm and Eric Chavez, talking and wheedling and arguing his way into Munson’s heart.

Just chipping away until Munson got tired of fighting and gave in to him, gave him what he wanted. What he doesn’t want anymore.

It’s all Chavez’s fault, he knows that too. They pretend it was Munson who fucked up the first time, pushing him away when Steve Scogin walked in on them, but that’s pretty transparently bullshit. Another convenient lie they share. Eric Chavez wouldn’t take him back and wouldn’t forgive him, and that’s worse than what Munson did, worse by far.

He knows that now.

He also knows that Munson would leave his wife for him if he asked. But Eric Chavez won’t ask. Not directly, anyway. Not with words.

He knows it’s a fucking cop-out, waiting for Munson to tell him to stop, because Munson will never tell him to stop. Munson can’t say no to him, he never could. Eric Chavez likes power and he likes being in control, but they’re best friends and he shouldn’t be thinking about it in those terms. If he really loved Eric Munson, he’d just leave him alone.

But Eric Chavez, not that dumb and not that nice, is also not that strong.

Chavez gets away with being this fucked up, because he’s not supposed to be smart enough to fix it.

Anyway. In Oakland, February is the same as March is the same as April. Before the summer heat sinks claws in, the spring is monochromatic and unchanging. Every day is bayside pretty and flashing with disinterest, and everything looks shaped out of wax.

Eric Chavez is killing time until the baseball season starts again, and he can’t really believe they didn’t get out of the first round last year. They were blessed. They were supposed to go the distance. Maybe he should have seen it coming. The Twins, after all, ended the streak. So, it was only right.

Mark Mulder doesn’t have much to say to him much anymore. He’s moved down to Scottsdale for the off-season, and Chavez teases him because that’s where Mulder’s mom lives now, but Mulder just tells him to shut the fuck up and starts talking about college football.

It’s not, like, weird between them or anything. They’re both just pretty tired. They’ve each lost interest in messing with the other’s head, which maybe means they’re maturing or something. But Chavez knows they’ll still live together next year, find another place in the hills, and they’ll still argue petulantly about whether to play Halo or Grand Theft Auto, and spit Gatorade at each other in the kitchen, and do rock-paper-scissors to decide who’ll pay for the cable each month, so maybe they’re not so adult after all.

Long winter-spring days and quiet breakfasts at noon, and Mulder doesn’t return his calls all the time, or Chavez doesn’t pick up when he sees Mulder’s name on the display, but it’s not a problem. Chavez has pretty much given up on Mulder. Mulder was never really worth all that Chavez made him out to be, anyway. They’re friends, and once the season starts they’ll have stuff to talk about again, so he’s not too worried.

Chavez does lonely really well. He drives around without destination, and he listens to music out on the balcony of his little one-bedroom apartment with the blue walls, and he rotates between five different bars, because he doesn’t want to be that guy who’s got nothing better to do than go to the same place every night. He wanders around a lot, he gets lost for the satisfaction of finding his way back.

Chavez gets into conversations with the insane homeless people down in Jack London Square, the ones who sleep in doorways and on park benches, and spend their days talking about the Messiah with their backs to the water.

Every day, he waits for Eric Munson to call him and say, “look, this is fucking stupid, let’s just be done, okay?” It’s coming, any day now, Chavez is sure of it. They fought on a sidewalk in Detroit and then fucked in a hotel room and Eric Chavez remembers gold in his mouth, Eric Munson’s hand on his face and his wedding ring clinking against Chavez’s teeth.

It all seems inevitable, at this point. Chavez knows he should be ready for this, but he’s not, he’s still so fucking scared. He doesn’t understand how he could be running away for so long and still be in the same place.

He starts going to early-morning services when he finds himself awake at five in the morning for no particular reason. He stays away from his regular Sunday church during the week, for the same reason that he doesn’t go to the same bar two nights in a row. He goes to Anglican churches, Presbyterian churches, Baptist churches, Mormon churches (only once, though, because Mormons are fucking crazy), anywhere with a cross above the door and pews inside.

He’s safe in there, you know. Watched over, protected, all that stuff. He thinks about crossroads a lot and the weight of twenty pieces of silver. The off-season’s always been strange and unwanted, out of place, one thing over and the next not begun yet. He feels like something’s gonna happen, pretty soon.

Having come to religion comparatively late in his life, Eric Chavez doesn’t understand how all these sects can be considered so different from each other. The words are the same, the stories, the lessons. The faces of the ministers and the shuffle of the yawning congregation getting to their feet for a prayer. There’s always a grandma-looking old woman at the back of the church who smiles kindly at him when he comes in. There’s always a little kid sleeping scrunched against one of his parent’s sides, mouth open and cheeks scrubbed pink. The certainty of God is constant wherever he finds himself.

One morning, he goes to a Catholic church, and it’s still dark when he goes in, the dawn kaleidescoping in through the stained glass as the sermon lulls over the sparse devout. He kneels and takes Communion, the wafer dissolving like air on his tongue, and he watches everybody else, moves his hand over his chest the way they do.

And when he goes into the little confessional booth, webbed wooden screen and the smell of velvet dust all around him, he honestly doesn’t know where to begin.

He knows well enough from the movies to say, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” but that’s as far as his patchwork faith can take him.

“I, uh, I’m not a Catholic. So I . . . don’t know how to do this.”

The man, the shadow-profile behind the screen, nods and says, “Well, why don’t you start with why you’re here?”

Chavez moves his tongue over his teeth, counting. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Something rustles as the priest shifts. “So why aren’t you watching infomercials?”

He smiles a little bit. “Look, can I. I can say stuff to you, right? Even though I’m not a Catholic, that’s cool?”

“Of course.”

Chavez pushes his fingers into his T-shirt, pulls out the skinny chain. He bounces the cross in his palm, and the old light through the web of the screen makes linked gray diamonds across his hand and arm.

“I think I might be in love with my best friend again.”

And it’s the first time he’s ever said it out loud to someone who’s not Eric Munson.

Even tone, unsurprised, the priest’s heard worse. “Again?”

Chavez nods, watching the cross trip across the shell-cut scar. “When we were kids, we were, you know, like, together. Not really, but as much as we could be. Then we . . . weren’t anymore. And then we fell back in love, but it wasn’t any good, that time, we just kept fucking each other up.” He pauses. “Um. Sorry. I guess I shouldn’t swear.”

The priest chuckles low. “You say it however you want to say it, son.”

Chavez rubs his thumb on the cross, imprinting the shape of it in his skin. “Anyway. It was really bad, the second time. Because I . . . I got married, but we . . . didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. And then I got divorced, and said that we should just sleep together but not be in love with each other. And I thought that was working pretty well, except my best friend got married too, and now, I, I. I don’t know. I got no right, and I should just let it go, but I can’t.”

“And you think this means you’ve fallen back in love?”

“I didn’t mean to,” Chavez says, gold winking and dust in the light. “It was an accident.”

“How do you feel, having a relationship with someone who’s married? Especially after being married yourself, knowing it from both sides?”

“I feel like I’m going to hell,” Chavez whispers.

The priest pauses. “You’re sure you’re not a Catholic?”

Chavez surprises himself by laughing, jarring in the tiny room. He can almost hear the priest smiling, and Chavez wants to see his face, because he sounds like a good man, and maybe there’s a shortage of good men in Eric Chavez’s life right now.

“You feel that way about it, but that’s not a good enough reason for you to end it?” the priest asks gently.

Chavez puts his hands over his eyes, but only for a second. “I’m not . . . I’m not a very good person, Father. I know how wrong this is, maybe even worse than when I was the one who was married, and I’m the one who’ll have to say it’s over, but. I think about never getting to touch him again and it just fucking terrifies me.”

The priest is silent for a shade longer than he should have been, and then he says, sounding like Chavez might have managed to surprise him after all, “Your best friend’s a man?”

Chavez winces, because he knows what Christians think about people like him. “Oh, um. Yeah. I . . . should have told you that earlier. He’s. Yeah, a, uh, a guy. Yeah. Sorry.”

The priest sighs. “I guess that complicates things.”

Chavez waits for him to go on and say all the stuff he’s supposed to say, the affirmations that Eric Chavez is damned, the catholic nature of this weakness and the cities turned to salt and ash, but the priest just falls quiet, and Chavez thinks maybe he’s been selling the men of faith short.

“Yeah. I mean, if he was a girl, I woulda married him about fifteen times by now. Or, well, just the one time, I guess. ‘Cause it would have lasted.”

“So the only reason you haven’t been able to make this work is because it’s a homosexual relationship?”

Chavez winces again. He hates that word. It still sounds like a disease to him. “There’s other stuff too.”

“Like what?”

Chavez scratches at his knee. His back is starting to hurt from being strictly propped against the box’s tight walls. “Well, we, we’re not . . . what we do, for a living, it’s not really . . . we’ve never been able to tell anybody. Or be, you know, out like that. Like regular gay people are allowed to be. And we never will be, either. What we do . . . it’s more important than what we mean to each other.”

“And he feels the same?”

“Sure.” But Chavez stops, in his head, and considers that for a moment. Munson would give up his marriage, he’s fairly sure of that, his potential to be happy like everybody else is happy, and how much different is that from giving up baseball?

But even if Munson could give up baseball, Chavez is pretty sure he, himself, couldn’t.

“Well.” The priest sounds resigned. “You know what you’re doing is wrong. You know that ending it is the proper thing, if only for the sake of your friend’s marriage, and for your own peace of mind. I think you came here looking for an alleviation of your guilt, and if you want me to forgive you, I will, but that won’t fix anything. It’s not me you need to absolve you.”

Chavez closes his eyes. His throat feels too tight. “Yes,” he whispers.

“Yes, what?” the priest asks, confused.

“Forgive me. Please.”

The priest hesitates, the shadow of his head shaking, moving over Chavez’s face. Chavez clenches his hands into fists and he doesn’t know why he came in here, he doesn’t have this kind of elaborate belief.

The priest exhales, and says, half-reluctantly with his hand moving in the shape of a cross through the wooden screen, “In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti. You are forgiven, my son.”

Eric Chavez waits for a long time, but no, that doesn’t make him feel better.

*

(unmatched shoe on the sidewalk)

See, the difference between them, the really important difference that’s not the separation between ten and sixty-two and not the distance between Oakland and Detroit, not Eric Chavez being perfect or Eric Munson being happy, not the difference between being ten-percent gay and being gay for just one other person, the most important difference between them is that Eric Chavez has been in love with Eric Munson three times, and Eric Munson has been in love with Eric Chavez only once.

It’s important. It might not seem it, but it is. Eric Munson is all about longevity, and the force of credibility that comes from years of experience. There was a point, sometime, maybe before Arlington, when it occurred to him that he’s in love with Chavez because he’s always been in love with Chavez. He wondered, at the time, if that shouldn’t be a red flag, warning sign, danger alarm, but then he forgot about it because Eric Chavez agreed to sleep with him again, which kind of took priority in his mind.

And anyway, it doesn’t really matter why you’re in love with a person. The means don’t have anything to do with the ends.

Eric Munson is nervous and excited all the time now, because he’s going to be a rookie in another month, he’s going to be a major league baseball player, for real, not on the bench and not holding the lease on his apartment in Toledo. It did take him longer than he thought it would, and it was harder than he’d ever dreamed, but he’s almost there now, and he’s sure that once he sees his name on the Opening Day roster, he’ll recover the power and the talent that abandoned him in West Michigan, and Jacksonville, and Toledo.

He just needs to get to the major leagues, get there for good, and he’ll live up to it. He’s sure.

The approaching season distracts him. It’s easy not to think about Eric Chavez all that often, because he’s got other stuff to worry about. And he loves his wife. She’s wonderful. But that really doesn’t have anything to do with anything.

The phone rings at three in the morning and Eric Munson doesn’t wake up. He’s used to this, phone calls and visits in the thick of the night, the dull of the morning. No point in being annoyed by it, after he’s had all this practice.

Shanda reaches over him, soft weight on his chest, and mumbles with her chin on his arm, “’lo?” Eric Munson stirs, pulls her closer instinctively. She says into the phone, “Just a minute, Eric,” and Eric Munson wakes up. She tucks the phone against his ear and kisses his shoulder, rolling over and falling back asleep so quick she won’t remember a moment of it in the morning.

Munson, his eyes still glued shut and his voice sleep-muffled, says, “Dude?”

Eric Chavez is on the roof of some apartment building in San Francisco, which is a bad idea because he’s also really really drunk.

“Munce,” he answers and his eyes are shut too, his feet swinging off the edge of the building. He went to a party, a friend of a friend and their apartment is many stories below him, and he’s not exactly sure what he’s doing on the roof. He can see both bridges, but only the very tips of the Golden Gate, peeking out over the hills, the Presidio, the gray-brown stones and the musket-holes in the walls of the fort.

“What’s up, man?” Munson asks, rubbing a hand over his face and he’s still more asleep than awake.

“I’m very drunk,” Chavez says carefully, because he hates it when he slurs, he sounds dumb.

Munson groans, talking real low to keep from waking Shanda back up. “Drunk-dialing, Chavvy? I thought we had a rule about that.”

Chavez thinks about that for a long time. They’ve got a lot of rules. They don’t follow most of them, but whatever. It’s cold up here, the wind’s pretty bad. The clouds are moving across the city so fast, pulled aside like a curtain. “Um. There’s, a um. This roof? That I’m on? It’s San Francisco. I can see . . . a lot of stuff.”

He swings his legs some more, his heels kicking against the side of the building. He watches his feet swinging and one of his shoelaces is untied. He gets really worried about that, that his shoe will fall off and he’ll never be able to find it and he’ll have to go home with only one shoe and everybody will think he’s crazy and what kind of a person can’t even keep track of their shoes, shoes are easy, always right there at the ends of your legs.

“Stay away from the edge,” Munson tells him, yawning.

Chavez snickers, his mouth feeling too-slick and coated and a burn of liquor in the back of his throat. “Too late, dude.”

Munson shifts closer to the end of the bed, away from Shanda. “If you fall, I’m gonna make so much fun of you at your funeral, I swear.”

Chavez grins, little rubber thumps of his heels on the concrete. “So sweet, Munson, what a sweet guy.”

“How come you called, man? Is this just random, because if it is, please let’s do it in the morning.”

Chavez is following each street with his eyes, lined with sentinel streetlights and converging into the blocky mess of downtown. He thinks about gold, houses falling down the hills.

“I wanted to tell you something. It was . . . important.” He squints. He’s trying to remember.

Munson sighs. “Dude-”

Chavez scrapes up a handful of gravel and siphons it out over the edge. “No, it was really important.”

“If it’s so important, you’ll still remember it in the morning.”

The gravel gone, clicky tumbling onto the sidewalk fifteen floors south, Chavez brushes his hand off on his pants and looks down at it. There are a bunch of small red indentations in his palm, corners and punctures, peppered with pieces of grit.

“But if I’m not drunk. I’ll never tell you.”

That wakes Munson up a little bit more. He glances at Shanda, sleeping gently with her hair over her face, and reluctantly slips out of bed, going into the living room. He sits down on the couch and it’s drafty enough that he wishes he’d brought a blanket out with him.

“You don’t have to get drunk to tell me stuff, Eric,” he says, but that’s not true.

Chavez’s face does a weird half-collapsing thing, and the TransAmerica Building makes him think of Egypt, or maybe Las Vegas.

“So, listen.”

Munson waits, but when Chavez doesn’t say anything else, he prods with a tinge of impatience, “Three in the morning in Michigan, Chavez.”

“I’m on this roof.”

Munson blows out a breath. “We’ve covered that already.”

“It’s important,” Chavez insists, because it is, this roof, with the wind the way it is, and the city, this city. It’s so beautiful he thinks he’s crying a little bit, which is kind of strange.

“I, um. If I . . . Let’s say, like, that I had . . . a thing. Where I wanted you around. All the time.”

Munson’s eyes get a bit bigger. “What are you talking about?”

“I keep going to churches,” Chavez tells him pointlessly.

“Eric, what are you talking about?” Munson asks, demanding and starting to get panicked like he’s pretty sure he shouldn’t be.

Chavez blinks fast and yeah, he’s crying, he can feel the tear and taste it when it hits his mouth. It’s the wind, it’s this city. There are things he can say to Eric Munson that will keep Munson from leaving him alone, he knows that for sure. It doesn’t necessarily have to be true, it’s just got to sound good.

“If I said. If I said, ruin your life. For me. If I said, no one gets to have you but me. Because, um. Third time. It’s important, because it’s the third time.”

He pushes a hand through his hair and almost loses his balance, gripping the edge of the roof and the fly of his mind, the dizziness in his stomach and his chest. “I just, I don’t. I don’t want you to be in Detroit anymore.”

Eric Munson closes his eyes and he doesn’t know why he’s always closing his eyes when Eric Chavez is trying to fuck him over, it never helps. “I’m gonna . . . it’s my rookie year, man. Where else could I be?”

“Here. Right here. With me. It’s a . . . it’s a good roof. Munson. It’s a really good roof, I can see everything.”

“You’re drunk. You’re drunk and this isn’t fair,” Munson tells him, fingers against his eye. Get angry, get numb. “You know how fucking unfair this is.”

Chavez shakes his head and the city’s built of lights and he’s got tears in his eyes. “No, see. That’s right. You’re right. You’re not supposed to say yes. I’m supposed to ask, and. You’re not supposed to say yes. And then I. I get mad at you and say it’s over. So we don’t have to worry about it, anymore.”

“What,” Munson says, but he doesn’t know what he wants to ask. Stupid fucking Eric Chavez thinks he can just sit on a roof in San Francisco and do this. Detroit’s too far and Munson’s trying to be a good man.

“So it’s over?” he finally manages, and that isn’t what he should have said, because that makes it too easy for Chavez, when all he’s got to do is say yes.

Chavez breaks, shivers, and his shoe falls off. “Oh,” he says in an odd echo-tone, watching his shoe flip down and bounce on the sidewalk. His foot is immediately cold, and he curls his toes, tucks it against the back of his leg. His balance is worse, now.

“None of this happened like I thought it would,” Chavez tells him, spreading out cold and the yawn of gravity looming around him. “I wasn’t in love with you anymore. I wasn’t, I’m not. Except. Ah. Maybe a little.”

Eric Munson hits himself on the head a couple of times, fist to skull, thunk thunk, and this is the kind of thing that always happens at three in the morning, isn’t it, with half a continent between them and no one keeping watch to make sure Eric Chavez doesn’t go too close to the edge.

“It’s the third time,” Eric Chavez says, sounding amazed. “I never should have even once, but I did it three times.”

“It’s just once, Ricky,” Munson whispers, but Chavez isn’t listening.

“So, you see. See, see, Munce, see. I’m supposed to say it’s over. But. No. Because I . . . want you here. And I lost my shoe, just now.” He wiggles his toes against the back of his knee. “The priest said I shouldn’t. It’s not right, yeah. But, um. If you don’t mind. Or even if you do. Because I’m no good, and. I’m gonna just go ahead and keep being bad for you, if that’s okay.”

Munson sags back into the couch and his hand is still over his face. “It’s okay.” Not the kind of thing that ends. Best friends, best friends don’t know how to say goodbye.

Chavez smiles, his cheeks wet and his nose stuffed up. “Munce, you’re gonna have to say no to me, someday.”

“Yeah.” He takes his hand down and his arms are scrawled with goosebumps, the bend of his elbow and it’s probably not colder in here than it is on the unfamiliar roof in San Francisco where he can see Eric Chavez as a cardboard cut-out against the skyline with the buildings lifting him up like hands. “But not tonight.”

Chavez looks out and the bridges and the bay, the triangles and more important the diamonds, and the gnarled cords of the streets, a steep place, a clearing, somewhere flat and somewhere cold and the wind hard enough to blow the tears off his face.

“I think I love it here, Munson,” Chavez says. “This place. I’m gonna fall off this roof in a second, but. It’s still so beautiful.”

And the difference between them is that Chavez has been in love three times and Munson only once. The difference between them is that Eric Chavez thinks something beautiful is worth the fall, but Eric Munson is the one who knows it for sure.

(end part twelve)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Thirteenth: Deconstruction

(parasites)

Eric Chavez starts attending a church group. Not at that Catholic church, because he doesn’t want to see that priest, who knows way too much about him and there’s a reason they’ve got screens in the confessionals.

It’s at his regular church, where they know only the parts of him that he lets show. They like him a lot, over there. He helps with their charities and gets the team involved and buys twenty tickets for the kids in the congregation a dozen times a season.

It’s mainly that he hates Tuesday nights. There’s nothing good on television, it’s always long and slow and makes him think about stuff he doesn’t want to be thinking about. So he sees the blue Xeroxed flier on the church bulletin board, Bible study at 8 o’clock every Tuesday night, and figures he could probably do with some of that.

They read different parts of the Scripture and talking about meaning and interpretation and how it applies to modern life, and he’s bored a lot of the time, but he plays it off all right. It’s a kind of reassuring drone to be in the midst of, verses like torn bits of paper, the phone number of a girl picked up in a bar, scraps that are easy to lose on the walk home, the subway, when his jeans go through the wash.

But it lulls him, and he’s often able to sleep Tuesday nights after he gets back. Not always, but often. More than before.

Chavez isn’t exactly happy with himself, these days. Sadly, he actually remembered the telephone call from the rooftop in the morning, he knows what he said. So fucking stupid. He showed his hand, showed everything.

He’s honestly not sure what the fuck he even wanted, saying that shit to Munson, who’s embarrassed now, embarrassed for both of them and this awful parasitic thing that they have become.

Anyway. Church group, Bible study, and Phoenix is less than a month away. Phoenix is less than a month away and a young woman comes in one Tuesday night, smiles at the group and finds a seat in the circle near the door.

She’s got blonde hair. Pale pale white-gold, unbleached, and when she leans forward over her Bible, it makes a waterfall in front of her face. Eric Chavez plays it cool and lets his eyes casually trawl over to her again and again, until she finally notices, and blushes pleasurably, looks away. She’s lovely.

He catches her on the sidewalk after the group disperses, his hand on her elbow and when he says, “I wanted to introduce myself, are you new to the church?” she ducks her head down, smiles at the sidewalk and says, “I know who you are.”

He grins, and she meets his gaze, blue-eyed, pilot lights, match flame. “I’m Alex,” she says, and when he asks her if she wants to go get some coffee, the words are barely out of his mouth before she’s nodding, and blushing again, and grinning herself.

They’ve got less than a month, and they don’t sleep together until the sixth date, because they’re responsible like that. Chavez was worried that maybe she was a better Christian than him, as far as pre-marital whatevers go, but she twines around him like ivy and the crosses around their necks clink against each other in passing.

When they’re at the airport, Eric Chavez about to get on a plane for Arizona, he thinks he might have a girlfriend again, but he’s not sure. He asks Alex, and she rolls her eyes at him.

“Yes, you have a girlfriend, Eric. But don’t worry. She’s the understanding type.” Then she kisses him goodbye and he cups his hand around the back of her head, his nose against her cheek and the good rose-powder scent of her skin.

When he’s through security, he turns back and she’s still there, and he feels a sudden blast of hatred for terrorism and hijacked airplanes, for no other reason than that his pretty girlfriend isn’t allowed to wave at his plane from the terminal window anymore, and when he gets back to California, she won’t be able to meet him at the gate and he won’t be able to touch her again until baggage claim.

But he goes to Phoenix, grinning at nothing until Hudson cuffs him on the shoulder and says, “Knock it off, you’re freakin’ me out.”

Back to baseball and maybe he’s trying not to fall in love with Alex, because he’s been in love with two people at the same time before and it was basically the worst thing that’s ever happened to him.

He gets bold and manipulative on the phone to Eric Munson, just to reaffirm that he’s only in love with one person, and he coaches Munson through it, Munson in his spring training motel room in Florida. He says, “Shirt first, dude, T-shirt or buttons?” And Munson breathes unevenly and says, “T-shirt.”

“Pull it up, then. Don’t take it off, just. Pull it up.” And he can hear the rustle as Munson obeys. Chavez says, “Your hand, and . . . get your fingers wet. Your palm,” and there’s a sucking sound, and Munson doesn’t even ask him what this is supposed to mean anymore.

Chavez says, “Good,” when Munson starts to make fast breathy noises, and he finds all sorts of dirty words that turn his face red, desperately not thinking about his mom and what she would think, stuff he wasn’t really aware he knew. He can let his voice drop to a husky range, and he can draw filthy pictures over the phone lines, but really all he needs to do is hiss “Munce,” and he knows that his best friend will groan and that will be enough for him, too.

He calls Alex after, jeans still undone and he hasn’t even washed his hand yet. He’s on the phone with her longer than he was with Munson, but it’s not the same thing. She tells him, “Listen, you know what, I think I really like you.”

And Eric Chavez smiles, smiles hugely until his face aches, and for the first time in a decade, Eric Munson isn’t the last thing he thinks of before he falls asleep.

Eric Munson isn’t having the same luck.

If Eric Chavez isn’t as dumb as he makes himself out to be, Eric Munson isn’t nearly as well-adjusted as he seems. It’s weird, because he’s very close to being a totally functional individual, and the only difference between that Eric Munson and this one is that this Eric Munson’s best friend decided to be sorta gay when they were seventeen years old.

Being gay is hard, even if it’s only just the one person that he wants to be gay with. Munson’s spent a good deal of his life trying not to think about it. Mostly it’s easy. When Eric Chavez isn’t actually in the room, it’s easy to be the regular straight guy he would have been if Jesse DiMartino hadn’t died.

And he’s married now and maybe they’re gonna try to have a baby pretty soon, when he gets back to Detroit, and having phone sex with his best friend makes him feel pretty fucking juvenile. Like he hasn’t learned anything. To everyone in the world besides the two of them, Eric Munson’s life appears settled, everything in order, everything the way it’s supposed to be.

In Munson’s head, though, is the sound of Chavez’s voice, and the flip of his hair from under the back of his cap, and the slits of his eyes against the sun, and the landmark scar on his chest, the barely-there slant of his nose from when Eric Munson broke it. In Munson’s head, Chavez is half undressed, shirt hanging open and off his shoulders, and his belt unbuckled but still threaded through the loops, and Chavez has got his head cocked to one side and a certain mischievous smile on his face, an expression of his that hasn’t changed since they were eight years old, reading clearly, ‘Let’s get into trouble, man.’

But anyway. The team is taking up most of his attention, or so he imagines. He’s twenty-five, and several years older than most of the others, these terrified clean-faced children, twenty, twenty-one, and he’s kind of worried about their chances. The pre-season predictions, almost without exception, have the Detroit Tigers finishing dead last in the division, if not the league, if not the majors as a whole.

But stranger things have happened than a team like this surprising the hell out of everyone and making a run at the title. Like, for instance, Eric Chavez and Eric Munson still being in love with each other.

Fuck.

Baseball. And his beautiful wife waiting for him to get back to Detroit and start a family with her. Which is what he wants. Beautiful wife. Family. Detroit (okay, Detroit is a stretch, but he’s gotten used to it, maybe it’s starting to grow on him). Eric Chavez in the sides of photographs, half out of the frame, and only rarely, because grown-up best friends don’t see that much of each other. Especially not best friends who are major league ballplayers.

Eric Munson wants to know what’s so fucking special about Eric Chavez. It’s been more than eight years. They were just best friends for eight years, too. Their whatever is outpacing their friendship. The old version of their friendship, when they wrestled in the middle of a hurricane and slept on a fold-out couch and didn’t wake up in compromising positions. The good version.

He thinks about Eric Chavez saying, “Ruin your life.” It makes him feel cold and wild with adrenaline. The idea of it. The vision where he could leave this crummy Florida motel room and fly all night to Arizona, find the hotel and push open Eric Chavez’s room door. He won’t call ahead. He’ll just show up. Maybe Chavez will be asleep and Munson will crawl into bed and kiss him until he wakes up. Maybe Chavez will be miserably awake because he can’t sleep for missing his best friend. But they’ll be in the same room again and Eric Munson will say, “I’ve been in love with you since before I can remember. I’ll be in love with you forever.” And Eric Chavez will grin, and pull him down, and tell him everything.

And Munson’s life will be destroyed, and he won’t care.

Naturally, he tries to get rid of thoughts like that as soon as fucking possible. Because it’s not true. That they could make it, be something real. That it would all work out and Eric Chavez would stop trying to kill him with possibility and uncertainty, and Eric Munson would get over being a little bit gay and just be in love, and they’d be enough for each other and their parents would be proud of them and smile to see them together.

When Munson really thinks about it, when he’s in the quiet space of a drunk that comes between a buzz and a blackout, when there’s a lunar eclipse or a bad storm, when he’s so tired from the day’s workout that he can’t cut off the thought before it’s fully formed, he can see the truth of it.

It’s got nothing to do with baseball, and it’s got nothing to do with them being gay. Those are convenient excuses and they mean fucking nothing. Their whatever will never have a real name put to it, they’ll never be proud to be what they are, and it’s not because they’re ballplayers.

It’s because they share a heart. It’s because they know each other too well. It’s because falling in love with your best friend is the worst idea in the world. It doesn’t get better than being best friends. It shouldn’t get better. They wanted too much, they tried too hard. They were happy like they were and they fucked it up, and the end of their history will be nothing more than what they deserve.

*

(fundamentals)

Eric Munson’s first full year in the big leagues, the Detroit Tigers lose 119 games.

It’s . . . unbelievable. Horrific.

All summer, they’re the whipping boys of the American League, except for the couple of weeks of interleague when the National League gets in on the fun. Half the country, it seems, is actively rooting for them to supplant the 1962 Mets as the worst team in the history of the game. They get booed in their home park, they get heckled mercilessly on the road. They are safe nowhere.

Their infield is astonishingly young, unformed, matched only by their pitching staff, which will boast the first twenty game loser in twenty years (one Jeremy Bonderman late-September flare of future-brilliance short of two twenty game losers), and Maroth’s actually not that bad.

None of the team is really that bad, they’re just young and in the crucible. They’ll come out of this stronger than they went in, they’ll have to, there’s no other way to take it.

In all the ways Eric Munson ever imagined his rookie year going, this possibility never even occurred to him.

He can’t find it and he can’t get any better. They’re trying to make him into a third baseman now and he’s never been that before, he’s so lost on the corner. He’s been a catcher ever since they stopped playing with tees, still a catcher at heart when he stood at first base and his fingers twitched with pitch signs.

Eric Chavez was a shortstop and that’s a clean transition, but this, this is impossible. It’s his whole life that he’s got to unlearn, a whole new life to force into instinct.

He hits .240 his rookie year and the worst part about playing for the worst team in the majors is that the Tigers are the only team he belongs with. He keeps thinking about all the people who are seeing this, this immolation, this fucking holocaust of a season.

His family, who keep telling him they’re proud, but who could really be proud of a .240-hitting, fucking amateur third baseman? His old teammates, decades of them, who are shaking their heads and wondering what the fuck happened to him. Barry Zito with his fucking Cy Young and his brilliant October stats. Ex-girlfriends who are laughing and saying he deserves it. Anyone who’s ever been jealous of him, back when he was good.

Munson wishes he could play with his face hidden. A paper bag, a Zorro mask, his old catcher’s gear, something. He’s as ashamed of this as Eric Chavez is of being in love with him.

And Eric Chavez. Out of everyone in the world that Munson wishes was not watching this, Eric Chavez is at the top of the list.

But of course Eric Chavez is following Munson’s progress closer than he’s following his own. They talk on the phone, but usually not for very long because Munson doesn’t have much of an attention span these days for anything other than extra batting practice, extra work at third, extra time studying pitchers. All Munson wants to do these days is go to the field, any field, a Little League field if he’s got to, and try to find his game again.

Eric Chavez is careful and hesitant, ducking around bad topics like Munson’s errors in the field and the way Munson’s dropping his left shoulder chasing the off-the-plate split. But it’s in the background of their every conversation, even if Munson’s the only one that ever hears it, the fact that for every game the Tigers win, they lose three.

For every game they win, they lose three. It’s just ungodly.

The Tigers first go to Oakland three weeks into the season, and Eric Munson has already forgotten that this is the realization of their dream, the two of them on the same field, major league ballplayers and all their wishes come true.

He knows all about tunnel vision now and about not lifting your head for fear of what you’ll see. He knows all kinds of stuff that he never wanted to learn.

Munson takes the field at the Coliseum, the stands unpopulated because they don’t open the gates until it’s the A’s turn for infield warm-ups. He fields backhand, to his right, to his left, back to the grass. He judges the good hop and this is all still conscious for him, he’s got to think and remember before he can make the play, and he thinks about how catching, blocking, sliding to his knees behind the plate, all that is in his muscle memory, carved on his DNA.

Chavez crashes into his back while he’s not paying attention. Munson, startled, whips his elbow back and slams his best friend hard in the chest, knocking him down.

“You fucking jerk, it’s me!” Chavez yells from the ground, pressing a hand to his chest and scowling in pain. “Fucking ouch, man!”

Munson can see a scattering of the A’s in their dugout, over the line and across all the foul territory in this park, watching them and laughing. But they must know who he is, because none of them are charging out to get their boy’s back or anything. Munson wonders if he’s gonna get brushed back today anyway, because Zito’s there and definitely laughing more at Munson than at Chavez.

“Sorry,” Munson says, and offers Chavez his hand. Chavez knocks it away, pushing himself to his feet and immediately hugging Munson very tightly. Chavez is all about mixed signals, apparently.

Munson thinks with clear intention, ‘here I am, hugging my best friend on a major league baseball field.’ It doesn’t feel any different than all the other times he’s hugged Eric, all the other baseball fields.

Chavez pulls back but keeps his hands on Munson’s arms. “How’re you doing?”

Munson makes a sarcastic little smile. “We’re 1-16.”

Chavez drops his hands, shrugs uncomfortably. “It’s only April.”

“Yeah.” Munson looks down, kicks at the dirt. Chavez reaches up and fiddles with the sleeve of Munson’s jersey.

“Look at you,” Chavez says, a small upward bend in his mouth.

“I try not to,” Munson answers, feeling short-tempered and cynical under this perfect California sky. The maybe-smile or whatever it was fades off Chavez’s face.

“You’ll be around, tonight? After the game?” Chavez asks. Munson sighs, nods. Chavez narrows his eyes a bit, but just claps him on the arm. “’Kay. Have a good game, then. Well. Not too good. Well. Um.”

And Chavez looks pathetically torn, wanting to wish Munson well but not the Tigers, but then, wanting the Tigers to win because it would make Munson happy, but then, wait. It’s confusing.

Munson hits him lightly on the shoulder, the boy-way of saying thanks. “I know. You too.”

Chavez is smiling, relieved, but shaking his head. “I’m not playing today. I’m having a, sorta, a back thing. But it’s fine. By tomorrow, better’n new.”

Munson smiles back, because it is good to see Chavez, even though Chavez is at the start of his fifth season and Munson’s just a fucking rookie.

The A’s beat the Tigers and Detroit is 1-17. Eric Munson goes 0-for-4 and he won’t be in the line-up tomorrow, he already knows, because the pitching is as good as it’s ever going to get, and he can’t hit anything.

He waits around in the players’ parking lot, over by the fence that runs along the eastern side. There are railroad tracks and a polluted sewer-creak through the fence, and Eric Munson would train-watch if there were any trains going by.

He watches the A’s trickle slowly out of the clubhouse door, in packs and pairs, still looking too close, having too much fun. None of them recognize him, except for when Mulder and Zito emerge, arguing swift and carelessly about something and Zito’s eyes find him, loitering by the fence. Zito smirks and elbows Mulder, who looks over and maybe scowls at him but Munson can’t really tell. Munson looks at the ground for awhile until he’s sure they’re gone.

Eric Chavez is one of the last ones out, and the only one to come out alone. He comes for Munson and Munson hooks his fingers in the chain-link, pulls a little bit. He looks over towards the Oakland hills, and he only knows that Chavez has reached him when he sees Chavez’s shadow on his arm.

“Dude,” Chavez says, and Munson’s still not quite ready to look at him. Chavez touches his hand on the chain-link. “Dude?”

Munson watches Chavez’s fingers on the back of his hand, his knuckles and the flare of his tendons. He clears his throat, lets his hand fall so that Chavez’s will too.

“So. Yeah. What’re we doing?” Munson asks, staring determinedly at Chavez’s ear. He keeps thinking about Eric Chavez wanting him to ruin his life. Keeps thinking about how maybe his life is ruined now anyway, maybe 1-17 is wreckage defined and he doesn’t even have his best friend to get him through it.

Chavez wants to get his hand on Munson’s face and force him to look him in the eye, but Munson is skittish and maybe five seconds away from bolting.

“Well . . . whatever you want, man. Get some dinner. Go hang out with the guys.”

Munson shakes his head without thinking. He wants to stay as far away from the house in Alamo, the new house with Mark Mulder’s traces on everything, as possible. He doesn’t want to be in the same state as the house in Alamo, not tonight.

It’s not like he’s got a better idea, though. Maybe he wants to drive around aimlessly, but he can’t really suggest that to Chavez. Or, he can, and Eric would say yes, and they’d get in his car and maybe Chavez would even let him drive, maybe Chavez would keep quiet if he asked, and they could just roll.

But he won’t ask.

“I don’t know,” Munson says with a small shrug, for lack of anything else. “I’m kinda tired.”

He sneaks a look in time to see lines pull across Chavez’s forehead, and then a second later the visible effort to clear them away. “If we went back to my house, we could just chill and play videogames and stuff.”

“I don’t want to go back to your house, Chavez.”

Chavez’s eyebrows pull down. “Are you pissed off or something?”

Munson scowls. He doesn’t know why there’s all this obligation just because they’re in the same city again. Like they’ve got to be joined at the hip. “Look, whatever, man. Maybe I just don’t want to spend my night with the fucking enemy.”

Chavez’s face goes briefly struck, hurt. “I’m the enemy now?”

Munson looks at him in surprise. He didn’t mean that. Chavez should have known that he didn’t mean that. “Not you. Just, you know . . . them.” He waves his hand back towards the Coliseum, the ring of flags around the outside and the tall Oakland Athletics banner spilling down the gray concrete.

Chavez pushes a hand through his hair. “They’re my friends, dude.” And to anyone else in the world, he would have said that they were, in fact, his best friends, but Munson won’t take that right.

“Fine. But they’re not mine,” Munson answers, and he’s sounding jagged and more than a little bit mean.

Chavez wishes he could just knock Munson upside the head and get him acting normal again. Maybe if this were a movie, that kinda shit always works in movies. Or a comic book. Chavez shakes his head, what kind of random stuff is that to be thinking.

“Why are you being like this?” he asks.

Munson cracks his thumb against his palm. “What am I being like?” he says with a sarcastic drag to his voice.

“Like a fucking punk,” Chavez answers, thinking that this is good, because they’re talking about it. He can still call Munson on stuff, sure. Look how fucking grown-up they are.

“Well, excuse the fuck out of me,” Munson says, his mouth warping. “Didn’t mean to bring you fucking down.”

Chavez fucking hates it when Munson sounds like this. It doesn’t happen very often, which is a lucky thing, because it makes Chavez’s throat feel tight, makes him feel like there’s nothing he can do.

He swallows and tries not to get angry, though clearly that’s where Munson wants him, angry, blind and mean same as he is. “Look,” he attempts gently. “I know this isn’t going like you thought it would. I know how hard it is.”

Munson hits the fence with the side of his hand, branging the metal and it’s surprisingly loud. Chavez jumps but Munson barely even hears it.

“No,” Munson answers, and his voice is starting to go, get ragged and unsteady. “Fuck you, you do not know how hard this is. You have no fucking clue, and I’m not gonna let you stand there and say you do, you son of a bitch. You son of a bitch.” Munson says it a couple of more times, like slamming a car door over and over again to make sure it sticks.

“You have never been sixteen games under .500 in your fucking life, Eric. Never once have you played for three weeks and only won one motherfucking game. Not even when you came up in ’98 and they were already in last place, you were still closer to good than this fucking team will ever be. You can take your three postseason appearances and your division titles and your fucking compassion and just go fuck yourself. You have no idea.”

“Okay!” Chavez shouts, cutting him off. “Okay, fine, I’m fucking sorry, all right! Jesus. I’m just trying to help, for fuck’s sake.”

“You’re failing. Miserably,” Munson tells him cruelly, and not caring, because the Detroit Tigers have only won one game and he’s allowed to be cruel right now. It’s kinda nice. Freeing. In an agonizing sort of way.

Chavez’s expression tightens. “I’m not gonna feel bad because my team’s got a winning record. You can yell at me all you want, I’m still gonna be proud of it.”

“Well, fucking bully for you, man,” Eric Munson sneers, and he’s thinking that it must be nice to have something to be proud of.

Chavez goes to take his arm, but Munson pulls back and Chavez is left hanging, feeling stupid. “It . . . you’ll get better, Munce. The team. Sometimes it takes time. Most of the time, probably.”

“Not like you’d know anything about it,” and Munson is searching desperately for some line to cross, either to push them both over the edge or get them started on their way back. Something past this, either way, because this is unbearable.

Kinda wanting to hit the fence himself, feel the metallic rattle on his knuckles, Chavez makes his eyes thin and suspicious. He’s just trying to figure out how baseball could hurt his best friend this much. Trying to figure out what else could be wrong. “Is this about what I said when I was on that roof?”

Munson scoffs and looks at him incredulously. “Christ, Chavvy, not everything that goes wrong in my life has to do with you being an asshole.”

“Never figure that from how much you whine about it,” Chavez mutters, but it’s automatic and makes no real sense, because Munson doesn’t whine about it, he just lies back and does what Chavez tells him to. So Chavez doesn’t even bother trying to defend himself when Munson punches him hard on the arm, just sighs a little moan and closes his hand around the point of impact. There’s a lot of stuff that he knows he deserves.

“You’re just . . . you really want to take this out on me?” Chavez says, rubbing his arm. “I mean, you can, ‘cause, whatever, that’s what I’m here for. Whatever you need, and all. But. You know you’re not really mad at me.”

Munson’s face is all twisted up, and sure, that’s kind of true, but if he’s got an excuse to be mad at Eric Chavez guilt-free, then he really feels like he should take advantage of it. He wants to punch Chavez again. Maybe in the chest, thinking about the thump of his elbow making contact on the field. Chavez on the ground.

“Thanks a bunch, but don’t do me any favors, okay? I don’t need your permission to be mad at you.” Munson pulls a hand through his hair, and doesn’t think before he says, “Fuck, but I’m sick of you being so fucking superior all the time. You’ve been doing it since we were eighteen years old.”

“The fuck I have!” Chavez cries. “I never-”

“Oh, fuck you, you never,” Munson breaks in, thinking about the highway between San Diego and Los Angeles and Eric Chavez telling him, “you’ll fucking learn where you really fall.” Where you really fall, on a small tight loop in his mind, everything is flashing and he can’t keep up with it. All this stuff coming down around him, and maybe it’s just his turn to do the damage.

“It’s all over your face, it always is. You got your first place team and your pretty little life and you got me on the side because that’s the only place you want me.”

Eric Chavez touches his hand to his chest, hollow pain like he’s being struck hard, abstractly surprised to feel his heartbeat still going on under his palm. This sounds like something that been in the works for years now, pushing closer to the surface, but that’s fucking impossible, he would have seen it coming. It’s not true, it can’t be.

“But you . . . you got your, your. Your whole life, man. You too. Your good life, perfect life. This, it’s, you know, it’s just your game that’s not good right now. You got everything else.”

“None of it means anything if I don’t have my game,” and that’s another thing Munson didn’t expect to say, his anger suddenly cracking so hard he almost hears it. He falls on his shoulder against the fence, and steeples his fingers over his eyes. He focuses for a little while on holding himself together. He really doesn’t want to cry right now, not in this fucking parking lot, under this fucking sky.

“It’s been gone for so long, now, Eric, I can’t, I don’t.” Munson stops, and takes a deep breath. “I can’t hit. I can’t see anything. I thought it’d get better once I came up. I was sure. But it’s worse. It’s . . . so bad, man. It makes me hate you. For what you got. I don’t even wanna watch you play anymore.” He whispers it, astonished.

Chavez reaches out and takes Munson’s hand down, tugging at his wrist until he relents and lets it drop. Munson’s eyes stay shut, and Chavez replaces Munson’s hand with his own, his fingers light atop Munson’s eyelids, shimmering at the touch.

“You can hate me. That’s okay. You can blame it on me, I don’t mind.”

Munson shakes his head, sounds a low moan. “Only half of this is your fault,” he says and Chavez’s hand is cool on his face, restful.

Chavez half-smiles, feeling stupid and slow, like pieces of him have been removed and hammered out of form and then shoved back in place, uneven angles and awkward points. “Only half? Woulda thought at least three-quarters.”

Munson shivers, and then he grabs Chavez’s hand and pulls it down. His eyes are wide open and so bright it’s terrifying.

“Chavvy,” Munson says, his voice breaking. “Please help me. Eric. Please.”

Chavez stares at him for a long time. Then he looks away, watches the fuzz of car headlights behind the highway overpass on the far side of the stadium, the split second before the car crests the rise, when all he can see is the haze of light on the false horizon.

He turns back, and Munson’s eyes are still huge and scared. Chavez swallows past something thick in his throat, and he nods, thinking that they can do this, the two of them, they can fix anything.

“C’mon,” he whispers, and picks up Munson’s bag off the asphalt, hiking it over his shoulder. Munson smiles shakily, humiliated and relieved, and Chavez takes him across the bay to the batting cages stuck next to the highway in Redwood City, where Chavvy slips the security guy a hundred dollar bill to let them in and let them hit the floods.

He pitches to Munson all night long, under the cold neon lights, until Chavez’s arm is rubbery, numb with fatigue that will be a deep wrecking throb the next day, the next three days, gritting through it, not admitting it to anyone because they’ll just yell at him and call him a dumb motherfucker, which he probably is.

And Munson swings quick and he swings slow, he swings inside-out, at high pitches and low pitches and Chavez’s best attempt at a slider, his surprisingly good curveball, and they dissect his swing, his grip, his eye. Chavez tries to explain the inarticulate secrets of his own success, says over and over again, “see the ball into the bat, Munce, just like fielding, watch it hit.”

Chavez’s hands on Munson’s hips, pulling them sharply around, and Chavez’s hands covering Munson’s ears, forcing his head to stay in on the pitch, and Chavez kneeling at Munson’s feet, hands closed around Munson’s ankles, fixing his stance.

And Chavez behind Munson, arms wrapped around his body, their hands overlapped on the bat handle, Chavez breathing into Munson’s neck and blowing Munson’s hair out of his face, slowly swiveling them through the motion, Chavez’s knees chocked into the hollows at the backs of Munson’s, bodies pressed tight and Chavez doing his very best to ignore this, ignore everything.

They don’t talk about anything but baseball, at the batting cages that night. They don’t talk about their life or being in love or what either of them is owed by the other, because they’re getting their priorities straight.

There will be time for all the rest of it later, maybe nothing all that real because they said too much to each other today, they admitted stuff they should have kept hidden. Right now, baseball comes first. Eric Chavez remembers for the first time in a long time that baseball, really, baseball has always come first, no matter how they tried to change that.

They’re there all night, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong.

*

(slow down)

They get halfway there and then they turn back. They start to tell the truth and they end up not saying anything. There’s something very important happening between the two of them, the space of time and the distance between Detroit and Oakland, but they’re committed to not recognizing it.

After everything that’s gone wrong and all the bad they’ve done in each other’s names, Eric Munson goes back to his wife and Eric Chavez goes back to his girlfriend and it’s hard to say how much longer they’ll be able to hang on through this.

The Tigers keep losing, the A’s keep winning. They’re twenty-five years old and nothing’s the same.

Munson calls him just before the break and they talk about their families and rock concerts and old television shows and stuff that happened in the eighties. They try not to let it show. It’s a normal conversation like normal best friends must have, but when Munson hangs up the phone, he feels sick and there’s a moment there when he never wants to hear Eric Chavez’s voice again.

A few weeks later, Shanda tells him, “You don’t talk about Eric that much anymore,” and Munson just nods, eats cornflakes so that he won’t have to answer.

Chavez introduces Alex to his parents. She sleeps over almost every night when he’s in town, and they’re looking at apartments downtown. Mulder calls him a punk and pushes him in the pool when he says he’s thinking about moving out, but that doesn’t make Eric change his mind.

It’s the summer, it’s another season.

Sometime in August, it occurs to Eric Munson that this is the worst he’s going to feel for a long time, maybe forever. No matter what happens next year, it can’t hurt more than this. He’s suddenly a bit easier, because this is as bad as it’s going to get and he’s still getting up every morning.

He calls Eric Chavez, leaves a message that’s kinda apologetic and kinda impatient and kinda complicated. He talks for too long and keeps waiting for the beep to cut him off. At the end, he says, “So anyway, I’m being weird and introspective. I think you should call me.”

He checks his phone constantly, but Chavez doesn’t call back.

It’s not like they had a fight. It’s not like Eric Chavez shouldn’t be able to tell how deep this goes. He’ll never understand, he’s the blessed one, but he should at least be aware that Munson’s life is getting away from him.

But Eric Chavez is falling in love again. This is all very familiar. He’s got the same old tight feeling in his stomach, the fuck-it-up, fuck-it-up-for-good urge when he catches a stranger’s eyes in a bar, but he’s learning to look away.

It’s different, because Alex is sweet and funny and has him totally figured out. She brings him warm brown sugar and cinnamon Pop-Tarts in mornings and she drives around with a Chupa Chup in her mouth, and he leans over at stoplights and pulls the skinny plastic stick out, kisses her all candy-sweet and sticky. She tells him he’s good and he’s about ready to believe it.

He only wants to see her every day, and if he does, he’s okay. Even if he doesn’t, he’s still pretty okay, because she’s on the backs of his eyelids and the front of his mind and when he thinks about Eric Munson, when he hears Eric Munson’s message and erases it without a second thought or anything resembling guilt, when he thinks about Eric Munson, his best friend is hazy, sepia-toned, almost like something from the past. Which is maybe true, or on its way to being true, or something.

Chavez figures that the key to everything, all of this, is not just to burn your bridges but to make sure they’re ash when you walk away. You leave stuff behind, that’s fine. That’s how it’s supposed to be. He’s mature and his life is falling into place. He’s a day or two away from being normal again, and sane, and clean.

Munson’s tinged picture in his mind like a memory, Munson’s recorded voice from his phone, Munson in a SportsCenter highlight but only about once a month, and Chavez’s chest hurts with this slow faded pressure that he can almost get to enjoy.

He’s thinking about leaving people behind. He’s thinking about moving on.

Eric Munson is still waiting for him to call, but he’s given up expecting it. He thinks about all the stuff that’s happened, how it keeps ending and starting again and he can’t figure out why they can’t just stay away. He wonders, after all this, if they’re any different, any better off. He’s got Shanda and she loves him and he loves her, and Eric Chavez still has precedence. Professional baseball fucked everything up, but Eric Munson’s pretty sure it would have happened anyway.

He sees them at seventeen, broken noses in the desert, and eighteen on the basketball court the night before the draft.

Have they changed? Would he be able to tell if they had?

Munson hears someone say that the time you should leave is when you can’t remember why you came. He won’t sleep tonight, thinking about that.

*

(side-note)

In October of 2003, Eric Munson goes on a road trip. The terrible season is finally over, and the Oakland Athletics have burned their way into the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, but Chavez and Munson haven’t spoken since before the All-Star break.

Chavez forgot Munson’s birthday. Or remembered and didn’t call. Something.

Everything feels very old and very tired, and most of this is nothing more than a memory. There’s an empty spot inside them both and maybe there wouldn’t be if none of this had ever started.

Munce starts in San Diego, visiting his parents, loops down into Mexico and comes back in Arizona, heads north up through the desert. He calls Shanda every day, when he’s getting gas, when he can’t sleep in southwestern motel rooms. She’s working and couldn’t come with him, so he buys her stupid tacky souvenirs from roadside stands and takes a lot of pictures.

He’s certain that he has no actual destination, except for Detroit again eventually, but when he finds himself driving over the Sierra Nevada Mountains just south of San Jose, he sighs and takes the exit for Oakland. The Red Sox are in town and the A’s have already won Game One.

Eric pulls into the driveway of the Alamo house, wedging a spot to park in between the sleek lines of the ballplayers’ cars, their ‘toys,’ the first rewards of their signing bonuses.

He steps out, thin-eyed and tired. It’s already warm in the East Bay, not yet ten in the morning and the branches of the trees heavy with the day, sagging and the leaves green like melted crayons.

There’s shape in the doorway of the house, a long body filling the space, and Munson waits for his eyes to adjust, color and shading slowly filling in. It’s Mark Mulder, one hip shot out against the frame, barefoot and watching him without expression.

Munson’s still kind of nervous around Mulder, though it’s not like they’re often in the same room. The simple fact of Mark Mulder’s existence irritates the fuck out of Eric Munson.

Mulder’s always giving him looks, which Munson can handle just fine, but he’s also always giving Chavez looks, deeply considering looks with his lazy half-closed blue eyes, slow drawn-out slips of Mulder’s arm around Chavez’s shoulders. And Munson remembers Chavez’s teeth against Mulder’s stomach, wobbling on the diving board, the chlorine explosion as they fell together.

Even though Chavez has assured him that despite his best attempts, Mulder never took him up on anything more than a friendship, Munce still can’t quite get past it. One day, maybe, someday Mark Mulder will have his blinders removed and see what’s being offered him, and it’s not like Chavez will turn him down.

In most things, Mulder’s as good as a man can get, and Munson doesn’t like to think about all the time Chavez and Mulder spend together, their years right down the hall from each other in all these identical ranch-style houses, the way Chavez falls in love quickly, in the blink of an eye, and nothing’s quite as attractive as a good slider.

Munson has not really been kept up to date on the course of Chavez’s life, recently.

He stops on the front path and hesitantly lifts a hand. Mulder tips his chin up slightly.

“Hello, Munson,” he says casually.

“Hello, Mulder,” Munson replies, jamming his hands in his pockets, digging his thumbs against the seams. He looks for a crutch or something, but there’s nothing. Mulder’s got a broken hip, but Munson’s not sure if it’s the hip tilted against the doorjamb or the other. Fuck if Mulder looks hurt. Fuck if Mark Mulder doesn’t look better hurt than just about everyone else looks healthy.

Mulder hooks an eyebrow. “What’re you doing here, man?”

Munson blinks, and entertains a brief paranoid fantasy of Chavez telling all his housemates to not let him in.

“I’m . . . looking for Chavez.”

Now it’s Mulder’s turn to pause. His motherfucker eyes temper, get a bit pitying. “He doesn’t live here anymore, Munce,” Mulder tells him quietly.

Munson just stares at him for a long moment, not understanding that. Eric woulda told him, he woulda said something.

Munson bites the inside of his cheek hard enough to taste blood, snaps out of it. “What?” he asks dumbly.

Mulder nods, leaning a shoulder against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest. “He got a place downtown with his girlfriend two months ago. Didn’t he tell you?”

His face hot, Munson pulls his eyes away, shrugging uncomfortably. “’Course he did, yeah. Yeah. Guess I forgot.”

Mulder’s eyebrow ticks again, but he doesn’t call Munson on it. He jerks his head towards the inside. “Well, c’mon. I got the address somewhere.”

Munson follows him in, head down and shoulders drawn up. Mulder only limps a little bit, so slightly that Munson wouldn’t have noticed if he wasn’t looking for it.

The Alamo house is the same as the Lafayette house, the Walnut Creek house, any of the places Chavez has ever lived. There are white stucco walls and piles of shoes in the front hallway. It’s still sparsely furnished, everything rented, a rat’s nest of black and gray wires around the big screen in the living room, connecting the DVD player and the Xbox and the Playstation 2 and the Tivo and god knows what else.

The kitchen’s barren, a clatter of dirty dishes in the sink and a rank of empty liquor bottles on the high shelf over the refrigerator. Mulder goes digging in a drawer filled with ragged scraps of paper, most of them phone numbers scammed off girls in bars. Munson shifts from foot to foot, scratches at the inside of his pocket. His cheek hurts where he bit it, and he feels pretty stupid.

A kinda familiar voice suddenly rings down the hall, getting closer. “Mulder! Your goddamn shower’s broken again!”

Munson starts, his hands coming half out of his pockets, and he whips his head around, feeling so on edge he’s about to fall right off.

Barry Zito walks in without a shirt on, a pair of blue-striped pajama pants slung low on his hips, his hair a soft just-awoken wreck. He stops short, seeing Munson standing there and stealing glances out of the corner of his eye.

“Oh. Munson,” Zito says with a flat lack of welcome, and his eyes zip over to Mulder for a half-instant. Then a well-known stupid grin breaks on his face. “Munce! How’s it going, dude?” He holds out his hand for Munson to slap, claps him on the arm, playing the old-teammate-reunion card to its fullest, as if the two of them ever even halfway liked each other.

Munson shrugs. “Pretty good. How . . . how’re you doing?” he answers hesitantly, and he’s stammering a little bit, awfully nervous, trying to keep his eyes above Zito’s neck. That day in the USC locker room seems very long ago, like maybe it happened to two other guys. He tries to remember what it was like when all he wanted to do was hit Zito in the face, and it’s a hollow space inside him, a gap.

Zito bobs his head. “Good as ever.”

“He’s looking for Chavvy,” Mulder interjects over his shoulder, up to his wrists in torn bits of paper.

Zito looks confused. “Chavvy doesn’t live here anymore.”

Mulder snorts. “Yes, thank you.”

Munson’s eyes switch between the two of them, certain things becoming clear to him and certain fears being laid to rest. And at the same time he wants to sneer, curl his lip up and spit on the kitchen floor. This is all so fucking predictable, they couldn’t even go for the surprise twist ending.

Zito goes to rummage in a cabinet, pushing boxes of cereal around, and Munson sees the finger-shaped bruises on his lower back, three on each side. Inches between each purpled mark—big hands.

“Hey.”

Munson flicks his attention back, his face coloring darkly, aware that he’s been caught staring, and Mulder’s looking at him coldly, be-fucking-careful-man. Munce swallows hard, but Mulder just holds out the piece of paper with Chavez’s address scribbled on it, and Munson takes it, stuffing it in his pocket.

“Right, well . . .” Munson trails off, clears his throat. Mulder’s gone to sit at the table, flapping open the paper and Munson can’t see his face. One of Mulder’s legs is propped up on a chair, resting like a bridge. He doesn’t look injured at all. “See ya later.”

Zito toasts him with a dripping spoon, grinning his axe-murderer grin. “Later, Munce.”

Just before he leaves, knowing he shouldn’t, Munson asks as if with someone else’s voice, “Hey, deuce, are you . . . are you living here now?”

The paper obscuring Mulder rustles minutely. Zito’s face is closed off, but he smiles easily enough. “Nah. Mulder just decided I was too drunk to drive last night.”

From behind the sports section: “I didn’t write the fucking law, Z.”

Munson thinks, ‘yeah well fuck it,’ and says “bye,” but they’re not paying attention to him anymore. They’re two wins away from the league championship series. They’ve got more important things to worry about. There are reasons this kind of shit stays secret, anyway.

Munson goes back through the frat-boy house and into the struck heat of the morning. He drives down out of the hills and he’s heading for Chavez’s new place, this girlfriend-shared place, but instead he finds himself in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, sitting there for a long time with both hands on the wheel, watching people go in and come out with Slurpees and lidded cups of coffee.

He goes inside to get a book of paper matches, earns a scowl from the clerk for not buying anything, and out in the little parking lot, he drops to his catcher’s crouch on the blistered asphalt, lighting the scrap of paper and holding it until the flames lick at his fingers.

He drops the ashed remains of Chavez’s address and grounds it to powder under his shoe, and then he gets back in his car and drives west over the bridge, cursing steadily and wiping his eyes with the side of his hand, the world long-since sunk underwater by the time he gets to the ocean.

(end part thirteen)

*

Chapter Text

The Rest of Your Life
By Candle Beck

 

Part the Fourteenth: Down to the End

(stand up)

Three weeks after Munson gets back to Detroit, Eric Chavez calls to invite him to his wedding.

Munson says, “Fuck you,” and hangs up.

Ten seconds later the phone rings again, insistently. Munson ignores it, staring at the page of his magazine where all the letters have smeared into complicated hieroglyphics, and the machine clicks on, their friendly out-going message making the apartment sound happy for a moment, and then Eric Chavez’s pissed-off voice: “You know, I coulda been best friends with like seven million people, but I chose you, goddamn it, so don’t make me go back in time and change that, you little bitch. Pick up or I’ma keep calling until your wife comes home and then I’ll talk to her, how’dja like that, Eric, punk, little punk hiding from your best friend, you under the bed yet, Munce, you in the closet, oh what am I saying, of course you are, come out and answer the phone, motherfucker, pick up, pick up, pickuppickuppickuppickup-”

Munson snatches it up. “You fucking cocksucker, what the hell is the matter with you?”

“Aw, Munson, I thought you liked me being a cocksucker,” Chavez says snidely.

“Hanging up now. Unplugging the phone too,” Munson replies tersely, and the phone’s halfway back down when Chavez’s voice catches him:

“Okay, I’m sorry, c’mon, man!”

Munson stops, and looks at the phone in his hand for a long time, long enough for Chavez to say, “Eric?” in a quiet muffled way that Munson can barely hear and that makes it impossible for him to hang up again.

“What.”

Chavez sighs loudly into the receiver. “I’m not allowed to invite you to my wedding now?”

“When you haven’t talked to me in fucking months and didn’t even tell me you were seeing somebody? No, you’re not allowed to invite you to your goddamn wedding.”

Munson pushes his knuckles into his forehead, and he’s pretty fucking angry.

“Look, it was . . . it’s complicated,” Chavez tells him with a feign of apology in his tone, but really he’s just trying to get himself off the hook, and yeah, Munson knows what that sounds like, really really well.

“Shit’s always complicated with you, isn’t it, man? Never do anything the easy way, god no,” Munson says, and he can see Chavez with perfect sight, that new haircut of his that Munson saw watching him in the playoffs, grown out enough to half-cover his ears and brush his collar. For four years now, Eric Munson has seen his friend more often on television than in person.

“Look, if you’re just gonna be an asshole, and not even let me explain, then what-the-fuck-ever, dude. I don’t gotta listen to it.”

“You moved out,” Munson says suddenly, surprised to hear his voice falter, almost crack. He presses his fist against his throat, working out the thickness. “You moved out and you didn’t even tell me. I gotta find out from Mark fucking Mulder?”

Chavez makes an indistinguishable noise, then says woodenly, “He said you stopped by.” Chavez is quiet for a moment and Munson’s whole body aches to hang up again and not hear any more. “I wanted to tell you. I wanted to call, and tell you about Alex and everything, but I kept . . . not, and then it was like all this time had passed and it woulda just been weird.”

“As opposed to waiting until there’s a wedding to invite me to? Oh yeah, this is much less weird.” Munson pauses. “Just to, um, clarify. Alex is a girl, right? ‘Cause I know there’s that new mayor guy out there with the super-tolerance-and-equality or whatever, but just ‘cause it might be legal for you to marry guys soon doesn’t mean you necessarily should-”

Chavez cuts him off with a quick little laugh. “No. She’s a girl. Definitely a girl. Got all the parts and everything.”

Munson smiles, but it doesn’t last. “Anyway. You’re the worst best friend ever.”

Chavez sighs again. “I know.”

“I mean, what the fuck, man? I thought you weren’t supposed to get married until I approved of the chick.”

“Yeah, because it was such a smashing success last time.” Chavez sounds tired, and Munson thinks nobody does guilt and remorse quite like his best friend.

“Look, if one of us is gonna get bitter and sarcastic, I think I got the right, okay?”

“I’m not bitter. I’m just . . . I want you to be there.”

Munson doesn’t say anything for awhile. He’s looking across the room at the small framed pictures on the mantle, too far away to make out the faces, but he knows well enough what’s there. His family, Shanda’s family. Their wedding, and Eric Chavez’s hand on his shoulder. California and the ocean, bare feet in the surf. His little niece holding a puppy and grinning in the purest expression of delight he’s ever seen.

“Why?” Munson asks.

“You. You want me to give you a reason?” and Chavez sounds like he just can’t believe that.

Munson closes his eyes. “Yes. Goddamn it. Yes. A reason. You don’t care enough to let me know that your life’s totally changed again, but now, you, you just. You call and you expect me to be all fucking psyched and on your side and. Give me a reason why.”

He waits and he can feel his heartbeat, dashing away in his ears. His hand is tight in a fist on his leg, and he can feel his pulse there, too, he can feel it everywhere.

“I. You’re. It wouldn’t . . . it wouldn’t be real if you weren’t there.”

Munson wishes he hadn’t asked. He breathes out, and asks hoarsely, “When is it?”

Chavez blows out a breath of his own, sounding relieved as he says, “December. In Hawaii. On my birthday.”

Munson thinks tropical thoughts, tries to hit the appropriate level of flippant and cool. “You’re getting married on your birthday? That’s pretty lame, man.”

“Says the guy who got married at Disneyworld. Anyway. I figure, I’ll be able to remember anniversaries, right?”

Munson snorts, doesn’t think before he says it: “Oh, so you’re planning on actually making it to an anniversary this time?”

Chavez inhales sharply, a little hurt gasp, and no one does wounded like Eric Chavez, either.

“Fuck you so hard for that, dude,” Chavez tells him, right back to angry again.

Munson sneers, because he can be that way too. “Promise?” he answers, all kinds of cruel and feeling cut loose.

Chavez is the one who hangs up, this time.

Munson hits the off button and throws the phone into the couch with enough force that it bounces onto the ground, turning on again and droning the dial tone at him. He puts his hands over his face and reminds himself to breathe, and doesn’t move until the phone starts beeping impatiently and he goes to put it back on the charger before it drives him crazy.

The plane ticket arrives in the mail a couple of days later. There’s no note, no nothing, and only one ticket in the envelope. Munson starts figuring out how to explain to Shanda that she’s not going to be coming with him, and thinks that at least the son of a bitch booked him first class.

*

(chain-link)

The sky over Molokai is densely overcast, the tips of the volcanoes poking up through the cloud cover as Eric Munson’s plane sails down. He’s been imagining blue skies and unimaginable green, a Hollywood movie kind of island paradise, but it’s December and it looks like he could reach up and touch the clouds, they hang so low.

Chavez doesn’t meet him at the airport, but then, Munson certainly didn’t expect him to. He takes a cab to the hotel and it’s plenty green, after all, Irish green or outfield green or something like that, everything flush because apparently they don’t really have winter in Hawaii anymore than they do in San Diego.

It’s close to seventy degrees outside and as humid as Florida in the spring. Everybody hurries around the streets, eyeing the sky anxiously. The air smells like sulfur and asphalt, the moisture so thick his throat feels slick.

At the hotel, Munson is anxious and desperately trying to catch sight of Chavez before Chavez catches sight of him. He wants the upper hand and maybe a minute or two to duck behind a pillar and prepare himself and stop being such a fucking punk, jesus.

He does spot Chavez first, but it’s the wrong Chavez. Cesar’s at the concierge counter, animatedly discussing some brochures with a uniformed man. Cesar looks older than he did the last time Munson saw him, deeper lines on his forehead and at the corners of his eyes, but he’s still talking with his hands and still making the concierge grin back at him.

Munson taps him on the shoulder and can’t hold back a grin of his own when Cesar turns, widens his eyes, and immediately grabs him in a joyful hug.

“Eric!” Cesar pulls back, beaming, and rattles Munson. “You forget how to use a phone, or what? Forgetting all about your old friends now that you’re a big famous baseball player?”

Munson shrugs, ducking his head down bashfully. Cesar always makes him feel like a little kid again, more even than his own father, but it’s in a good way. It’s the safe kind of feeling like a kid, like when you hear your dad come home from work and go thumping down the stairs to meet him, like when you’re eating cereal on a Saturday morning with your socked feet swinging and porcupining hair and he asks you if you want to go see the Padres play that night.

“Sorry. Been kinda busy, I guess.” Munson takes a look around the lobby, his overnight bag still on his shoulder, the strap digging in.

“So how’re you doing, kid, how’s your life?” Cesar asks, brightly curious and it’s not so strange, this day and age, to have two fathers, it’s not anything like unheard of.

‘Well, I’m still in love with your son and yeah, that pretty much sucks.’ For one panicked moment, he’s not sure if he said that out loud or not, but Cesar’s face stays curious and clean of shock, so Munson bites his tongue and answers, “Good. Mostly good. Is everybody here?”

Cesar bobs his head in affirmation, grinning broadly again. “We’ve taken the place over. They love us here.” He pauses, his smile dimming almost imperceptibly. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be coming. Eric, he hasn’t . . . well, I mean, he just didn’t mention-”

Munson swallows, interrupts him, “Yeah, it was kinda . . . happened pretty quick.”

Cesar raises his eyebrows. “And where’s Shanda?” he asks, peering around Munson as if his wife might be hiding back there or something.

Munson cuts his eyes away, flushing. “She couldn’t make it. Work stuff.”

“Oh.”

He looks up to see Cesar regarding him skeptically, but before the older man can ask anything, Eric Chavez comes careening around the corner and stumbles into his father’s back.

“Dad! You have to help me get Mom and Brandy away from the pool, there are these lifeguards-”

He stops abruptly as he catches sight of Munson, his eyes getting big and the laughing expression sinking off his face. Chavez’s lips say ‘Munce,’ but Munson can’t even hear the hiss of it.

Chavez is wearing the faded gray Mt. Carmel High School T-shirt that Munson knows very well, the one that used to be a little too big and now fits him perfectly, with the rip in the sleeve that Munson knows even better, Chavez against a chain-link fence and Munson’s hands on him making him jerk and catch his sleeve on a rusty twist of metal, the soft tearing sound and nothing that Munson should remember quite so well.

Chavez has got the corner of a twenty dollar bill sticking up from his jeans pocket and a new gonna-get-married haircut that makes him look older than he usually does. He looks rested, and happy a moment ago, but now just weird and uncertain.

“You . . . you came,” Chavez says, and Munson sees Cesar’s eyes dart back and forth between them questioningly.

Munson makes a smile. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Chavez’s face falls into a brief glower, and his hand is on his father’s shoulder, half-turning to say painstakingly, “Dad, could you. Give us a minute?”

Cesar nods, looking somehow knowing and confused at the same time, and claps each of them on the arm, squeezing Munson’s affectionately, before heading out to the pool.

They stand there looking at each other for a long moment, until the concierge subtly clears his throat, and Chavez jerks his head to the side, walking away and trusting that Munson will follow.

So he does. He pushes through the revolving door and thinks about getting stuck in the glass triangular wedge and the oxygen running out, but the door flips him outside without a hitch and Chavez is standing there with his hands in his pockets, head tilted up to scan across the sky.

Munson stands next to him and mirrors his pose, waits for Chavez to start talking. Munson’s hands in his pockets want to fly out and do some damage, do something. Chavez stays silent and Munson has never been one to tolerate an awkward pause.

“So. Hawaii, huh?”

Chavez nods, still looking up at the sky, the same worried look on his face that all the natives have. “It’s supposed to rain. Later. But it’ll clear by tomorrow.”

The wedding’s tomorrow. Munson thinks of how the sky will look once it’s been scrubbed clean by the rain. But he’s pretty sure Chavez didn’t come out here to talk to him about the weather.

“What’s going on, Eric?”

Chavez glances at him out of the corner of his eye, quick flash of his eyelashes and then nothing. “I, um.” He kicks at the ground, watches taxi cabs pull up to the stand, another man in a maroon uniform with gold buttons opening the door for the guests, half-bowing as they smile their thanks, his shoes shiny black mirrors.

“I’m glad you came.”

Munson blinks. He didn’t expect that. “Yeah?”

Chavez nods emphatically. “Yeah man. I meant what I said. When we talked before. I meant it.”

Munson lets his shoulders curve in a bit, protected. “I didn’t mean what I said.”

Chavez sighs. “I know you didn’t.”

Munson watches Chavez’s profile, new short hair like right before Labor Day when they were kids, right before school started, because picture day always happened in the first week. Munson wants to touch Chavez’s neck, his arm where his shirt is ripped.

“Listen, we’ve got to talk about this-” Munson begins, and Chavez throws him a look of utter terror, so undiluted that it almost knocks Munson down, kills the words in his throat. It doesn’t matter anyway, because right then a pretty blonde woman comes out of the hotel and joins them with a sweet laugh and an arm winding around Chavez’s waist.

Eric Chavez jumps when she touches him, but she doesn’t notice because she’s smiling at Munson and saying, “You’re much better-looking than your pictures.”

Munson’s mouth is open but no sounds are coming out, staring at this pretty girl with her neon-blue eyes and kind mouth. He pulls himself together and stammers, “Thank you?”

She lets go of Chavez to go and kiss Munson on the cheek, and Munson can see Chavez’s hand on her back, his fingers closing possessively in her shirt. Munson smiles down at her, a sweet kid, the kind of girl Eric Chavez does not deserve, and she says, “I’m Alex.”

Which he pretty much figured out, but whatever.

Chavez snaps out of it, grinning and sliding his hand around his girlfriend’s hip. “Yeah, she’s Alex. He’s Munson. Um. Eric. Eric Munson.”

Alex rolls her eyes at him, but if there’s one thing Munson knows as well as he knows anything, it’s what a person looks like when they’re heart-struck crazy for Eric Chavez, and that’s what Alex is without a doubt.

And Chavez is smiling as he looks down at her, and the other thing Munson knows pretty goddamn well is what Eric Chavez looks like when he’s so in love he can’t think straight.

Blood rushes to Munson’s head and he puts his hand on a fake-marble pillar to steady himself. He closes his eyes until the stars fade and hears himself saying, “God, it’s good to meet you.”

He opens his eyes and Alex is smiling at him and Chavez’s eyes are big and pleading and fearful. “You too,” Alex says happily. “The mysterious best friend, at last.”

Munson grins. “The mysterious fiancée.” Chavez shoots him a warning glance, but Munson ignores it.

Alex laughs, a fine clear laugh and Chavez’s fingers drumming nervously on her hip. “I’m so glad you could make it. It wouldn’t have been the same without you, Eric would have been a total wreck.” Chavez makes an embarrassed sound of protest, blushing and flicking his eyes to Munson’s and away again, and Alex elbows him lightly in the side. “It’s true, you would have been.”

Munson doesn’t take his eyes off Chavez’s face, tells Alex, “He’s the best friend a guy could have.” Chavez stares back at him, and Munson tightens his jaw, smiles easily at Alex.

Chavez clears his throat, says with an uneasy strum in his voice that Munson wonders if Alex can recognize, “Babe, could you go ask my mom what time we have to leave for the dinner?”

Alex kisses him, smiles at Munson and touches his arm, and then disappears through the revolving door, leaving the two of them alone again.

“You call her babe,” Munson says and then immediately regrets it.

Chavez winces. “Guess I do, yeah.” They don’t say anything and it gets pretty fucking uncomfortable. Chavez pulls at the hem of his T-shirt and scowls at the ground. “So, there’s, like, the rehearsal dinner tonight? Which you should be at. If you want.”

The humidity is on Munson’s shoulders, gathering in the small of his back and the crooks of his elbows. “We still have to talk.”

“We are talking.”

“Goddamn it-”

Chavez cuts his hand through the air, a short abbreviated burst of anger that he covers as well as he can. “Not here. Not here, not fucking now.”

Munson rolls his head back and he can feel the air heavy like fingertips on his eyelids, honestly, it’s amazing. “Well, we’re off to a real good start.”

Chavez glares at him. “Don’t you dare ruin this for me, Munson.”

Munson laughs, harsh and broken-off. “Since when have I been able to ruin anything of yours?”

Chavez doesn’t answer, turns on his heel and stalks inside, and Munson stays outside for awhile, thinking of Alex’s soft kiss on his cheek and Eric Chavez twisting against a chain-link fence.

*

(never had a leg to stand on)

It’s gonna be a family wedding, for which Munson is absurdly grateful, not having to see any of the Oakland Athletics milling in the hallways and raiding the mints from the housekeeping carts, none of the pitchers who fucking own him or the infielders who know Eric Chavez’s double-play move like clockwork.

Munson is surprised at how good it is to hang out with Eric’s brothers and sister again, Casey who’s finally as tall as his wiry arms and legs promised when they were kids, Chris who greets him with a headlock and a noogie, Brandy who’s turned out so pretty Munson has to blush and trip over his words and remind himself that he most definitely should not be thinking such thoughts about his best friend’s little sister.

Ruby’s thrilled to see him and tells him stories about his mom, because she talks to Dora more often than Munson does. Cesar rounds them up, Chris and Casey and both Erics, and introduces them to the priest who will be officiating, saying proudly, “And these are my boys.”

Munson is back with his other family, the door that was always open to him, and it would be a perfect kind of homecoming if Eric Chavez and Alex weren’t there every time he turned around.

Alex’s family is there too, her overjoyed parents and shy high-school-aged sister who’s got a pretty blatant crush on Casey Chavez, and her older brother Jake who spends the evening scowling at Eric Chavez as if he’d like to beat the crap out of him. Eric Munson likes the way Jake thinks.

Chris’s wife is there, and Munson misses Shanda badly when he sees them snickering together, sees Chris lean over to press a kiss on her forehead. Munson’s the only other one who’s not a blood relation, but it doesn’t bother him. Brothers of heart, matching scars on their palms, and their life is still more one than two, even after everything that’s happened. Munson belongs here, it’s a terrible thing, but he belongs here with this second family of his.

They head out for the rehearsal dinner, just a short hop skip and jump down to the shore, a nice restaurant and not too far from where the big white tent is already set up and waiting like a ghost, chains of pale Christmas lights strung up along the angles.

Munson wants to make some joke about maybe getting married on the beach again isn’t the best of ideas, considering what happened last time, but he’s not actually fucked up to say that out loud with Cesar and Ruby there, not yet.

And Eric Chavez is wearing a crisp white shirt and a black jacket, the only thing missing is the bowtie and a flower sprig woven through a lapel button, and Eric Munson, putting down shots of whiskey with Jake and Casey, trying not to get drunk and not doing a very good job at it, keeps seeing his best friend all shiny and pressed, keeps forgetting whether Chavez is married yet.

Munson’s having trouble. Everything he tries to do seems nearly impossible. He keeps thinking, ‘but we already did this, it already happened.’ Not much makes sense.

Out the big bay windows, it hasn’t started to rain yet, but the beach is all in dented shadow and they can see the white caps on the waves, the lightning flashes way off, above the clouds. Nobody goes outside for too long, quick cigarettes smoked with a hand pressed to the door, arms held out to test the weather, and the wind is bad, racketing around and making a wreck of everything.

They eat dinner but it doesn’t taste like much to Munson, sawdust maybe, line-chalk. Some toasts are made but he’s not paying attention. He’s watching Eric Chavez and Alex, the flit of their hands, the silver look in both their eyes. Black hair and blonde hair, the contrast and the way they fit, handsome young man and beautiful young woman, and they could be out of a fairy tale.

Eric Munson watches and he wishes he could be drunker than he is, because he got through this once before by the grace of alcohol. But nothing’s the same now. None of his old tricks are gonna work.

He waits for the fog to come over his eyes and it never does, so he catches Chavez’s elbow when he comes to the bar and whispers in his ear, “Come talk to me for a minute,” and walks away, not at all sure that Chavez will follow.

Munson goes to a tiny back hallway with a service elevator and big metal carts filled with wrapped pastries. The walls are gray and the exit sign above the back door makes red shadows everywhere. He waits for Eric Chavez and fiddles with everything in reach.

Chavez slips in like he made sure no one was looking, and the pneumatic door hushes shut behind him. He stops, a yard or two between them and Chavez is all black and white in the dim light, his formal clothes and glassy tired eyes.

“I never said congratulations,” Munson says, leaning on his shoulder against the wall, feeling the brace of it and thinking about hotel rooms, airports, duffel bags under the bed and plastic cups of water on the bedside table.

Chavez shows Munson his teeth in a strange expression that’s like a sneer and a smile all at once. “Didn’t expect you to.”

Munson moves towards him and Chavez flinches back. The red falls on his face, a hollow sort of glow around his cheekbones and tinting the collar of his shirt a dingy pink. The light is behind Munson and he lifts his hand to see the cut-out of it on Chavez’s chest.

“I’m not gonna watch you get married again after tomorrow. This is the last time.”

Chavez tilts his chin up and it’s eerie as fuck, because the exit sign light catches in his eyes and Christ, Christ.

“I’m not gonna get married after this, so you don’t have to worry about it.”

Chavez’s lip pulls up again and there are his teeth, and Munson reaches out, takes Chavez’s hand. He links their fingers, and Chavez doesn’t pull away but doesn’t fold his fingers down around Munson’s hand either. Munson presses his wedding ring hard into the webbing between Chavez’s fingers, wanting to make a cold burn there, a scar that will last.

Chavez is looking at him suspiciously and scared, his hand tense and unmoving in Munson’s, and Munson says, “You’ll say that every single time, you don’t think I know you better than that?” and then he kisses Chavez.

He kisses Chavez and pushes him back against the wall and Chavez is kissing him back, which is a good thing, a brilliant thing, but it’s all teeth and harder than it should be. Chavez tastes like champagne and lemon, carbonated and too clean. Munson bites Chavez’s lower lip to hear him gasp, and shakes his hand free to slide it down and hook under Chavez’s knee, drawing his leg up and pressing their bodies together. He holds Chavez’s leg bent against his side and places his other hand on the side of Chavez’s face, his fingers in claws and the fragile skin of Chavez’s temple under Munson’s nails.

Munson breaks away from Chavez’s mouth and drops his head to Chavez’s neck, Chavez craning back and arching his body into Munson’s, one hand on Munson’s shoulder and the other flat on his chest.

Munson says, mumbling and a spiraling fall in his mind, “You love her, you love her more than you love me.”

Chavez’s hand wrenches in his shirt. “Shut the fuck up, Munson, don’t say that.” He pulls Munson up to kiss him again, and Munson says it right into Chavez’s mouth, this time:

“You don’t want this, you only want her because you love her and you’re such a jerk, I hate you so much, man, I hate you,” and he kisses Chavez deeply, pushing against him and his hand spread out on the outside of Chavez’s knee, feeling the scrape of the fabric and the warmth under his palm.

“Shut up, quit saying that,” Chavez begs him, holding tight and his arm around Munson’s neck, and for some reason Munson is terribly aware of the strict flexed tendon in Chavez’s elbow drawing a line of heat on the skin between Munson’s collar and his hair.

“It’s true,” Munson says, and licks Chavez’s ear, slides his hand down to Chavez’s stomach, grinding against him and Chavez starting to moan quietly. “You’ll get married and fuck her and you’ll be thinking of me and I’ll hate you, hate you forever because you’ve done this to me, you don’t even know what you’ve done.”

Chavez shakes his head, unable to keep from moving against Munson, an old rhythm and one they’ve perfected. He bangs his face against Munson’s neck, hides his eyes and tries to pull him even closer. “You love me. You’ve always loved me.”

Munson kisses him as hard as he can, and when he’s got Chavez finally, at last, where he wants him, he bites down on Chavez’s lip, feels the skin break and tastes blood, and Chavez yanks backwards in shocked pain, and Munson tells him in an awful whisper, “Yeah I love you, but only because you never gave me any other choice.”

Chavez stares at him, red on his lips and dotting onto the clean cotton-white shirt, and Munson is not prepared for how beautiful Eric Chavez looks with blood on his face.

Then something important collapses in Chavez’s eyes, his face lashing black and enraged, and he shoves Munson off him, only to a moment later twist his hand in Munson’s collar and punch him in the face.

Munson falls into the pastry cart, slamming his head on the metal corner and the resounding clatter is huge in his ears. Now he can’t tell if the blood in his mouth is Chavez’s or his own, and he’s numb, which is good, very good, the best he could have hoped.

He clenches his hands on the cart, frozen tight edges on the veins at the undersides of his wrists, and he starts to shake. The cart rattles and he lets it go, forces himself to look back at Chavez, who’s standing there breathing rapidly and looking so completely stunned that he might never move again.

Munson licks the corner of his lip, which is starting to swell and the rusted nauseating taste of copper in the back of his throat, and Chavez half-reaches out, his hand faltering, wanting to press his fingers to Munson’s face and clean away the blood.

Munson’s chest caves in and he sobs, but just once, batting away Chavez’s hand and barely managing to say, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” before he spins and runs out the back door, runs out into the weather, onto the sand.

Chavez stands there alone for a moment, staring with total incomprehension at his left hand and the struck red marks appearing on the knuckles, because he just punched Eric Munson in the face, and he’s pretty sure he didn’t mean to.

He wipes the back of his arm across his mouth and takes off after his best friend.

Munson is already a good stretch down the shore, running fast with sand kicking back behind him. The tail of his shirt is flagging from under his jacket, pulled free of his belt by Chavez’s hands. There’s lightning over the ocean and a roar in his ears, a static-blood rush.

Chavez is chasing after him but he’ll never catch Munson, Munson’s always been faster. The sand gives no purchase under his feet, and he thinks about what they must look like, two men in expensive clothes with blood on their mouths, running down the beach and the storm getting closer every second.

The wind is very bad, burning in Munson’s eyes, and he stumbles, trips, his hands flying out as he crashes into the sand. Chavez sees him fall and thinks ‘good,’ because that’s the only way he could ever catch up.

Munson lies there and doesn’t even try to get up. He screws his face into the sand and it snuffles into his nose, paints his tongue and makes him cough, grates harshly down his throat. He can hear the beat of the waves and that’s it. His mouth hurts and he never wants it to stop hurting; it will be a good reminder.

Eric Munson is thinking, ‘this is as far as i go.’

Chavez gets to him and skids to his knees, not particularly caring about ironed pants or the bits of shell that slash through to his skin. He puts his hands on Munson’s back, on Munson’s head, Munson’s hair slicked down from the spray and drying carefully, the color getting lighter as Chavez watches.

Munson moans and tries to push away, but Chavez rolls him over, won’t let him stand up. Munson keeps his eyes shut tightly and Chavez strokes his hands on Munson’s face, brushing away the worst of the sand, cautious over Munson’s eyelids, and Chavez is whispering, “I didn’t mean it, you know I didn’t mean it, I’d never do that on purpose.”

There are grains of sand stuck to the blood at the corner of Munson’s lip, stuck to the wet places under his eyes.

Munson tears himself away, sitting up and half-turning his back on Chavez, saying like it’s got to be ripped out of him, “I can’t do this with you anymore.”

Eric Chavez goes still, staring at him. The wind blows Munson’s collar up, plastered on his jaw, and Munson has got one leg pulled up so he can rest his face against it and not look at his best friend.

“What?” Chavez asks helplessly.

Munson shakes his head, and maybe he’ll never open his eyes again, that sounds okay. “I can’t, I won’t. I’m . . . I’m telling you to stop.”

It’s strange. It’s . . . Chavez can hear it happen. The thing that snaps inside him when Munson says that. He can hear it.

A moment later he thinks it must have just been a lightning crack, though he doesn’t remember seeing the flash, but he was kind of preoccupied and it must have been lightning, because there’s no way he could really have heard his heart break.

Chavez leans forward and fits his hands on Munson’s shoulders, cups his neck. He’s shaking his head furiously and keeping Munson from pulling away again. “No, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have hit you, I’m really fucking sorry, man.”

Munson wraps his hand around Chavez’s forearm, pressing his fingers hard through the sleeve of his coat and shirt. “That’s not why,” he says, his voice torn up by the sand, crunching between his teeth. “I can take a fucking punch, you’re the one who taught me how to take a punch. Hit me again, I don’t fucking care. I’m just . . . it’s killing me, man. I’m so ready to be over this.”

Chavez’s hands clench, balling up in Munson’s jacket, and his knees are starting to ache, the dig of the sand and the wind flattening on his back. He’s thinking about nine years, twenty-one years, he’s thinking that he’s never done anything for as long as he’s been in love with Eric Munson.

“No, okay?” Chavez says. His fingers slide on Munson’s neck, damp and sticking with salt. “Don’t be stupid. This, it’s. It’s no big deal, we’re okay. I swear, Munce, we’re okay, you’re not leaving me because we’re fine.”

Munson tilts his head back and laughs, his throat burning and Chavez’s hand caught on the back of his neck. “How the fuck can I leave you, man? We aren’t even . . . it’s barely even real enough to actually end.”

“So don’t end it. Don’t.” Munson can feel Chavez’s panicky grip on his neck, and he pushes at Chavez’s arm, makes him let go. He doesn’t look over.

“You don’t even know why you want me anymore. This is just a fucking habit.”

Chavez’s eyes widen, feeling wet even though he’s not crying. “No, that’s, that’s not how it is. I. I didn’t mean to fall in love with you again but I did, okay. And it’s for real. Swear to god, it’s for real this time.”

Munson covers up his eyes, shaking his head. There’s sand on the heels of his hands and he can feel it rasping on the skin of his face.

“It’s never been for real. Not since we were nineteen years old. You’ve only ever been in love with me when I was your only option.”

Chavez’s hand crawls up Munson’s arm again. He can’t stay back, and Munson lets him because it’s the last time and maybe Munson wants something to remember too. Chavez’s voice is breaking pretty badly, at this point.

“I was in love with you when I got married, what the fuck are you talking about? I definitely had another option then.” Chavez holds onto Munson’s elbow and wishes Munson would look at him.

Munson watches the ocean, feeling Chavez’s heartbeat in the palm of his hand, through the layers of coat and shirt, something so unlikely it’s probably not even possible. “Yeah, but you never took it. And, like, excuse me if you’re still not aware of this, but your marriage was a fucking exercise in self-destruction to begin with.”

“That. That’s not true,” Chavez manages to say, and lets Munson’s arm go.

Munson sighs, barely able to swallow past the thickness in his throat. He thinks about being in shock, how it can kill you. He’s not sure if he’s still numb.

“It really is, dude. Your life was falling apart and you figured, hey, get married, that’ll solve everything. But how else was it gonna end other than the way it did? You should have seen that shit coming a fucking decade ago.” Munson twists his hand in the sand, scoring his knuckles so that people will think he was in a fistfight.

“You didn’t see it coming either.”

“I didn’t care!” Munson stops, and takes a deep breath. His blood feels hyperactive, skimming through his veins. “I knew what I was doing. Knew what you were doing. I knew that you fucking around with me while you were married meant you weren’t gonna be married that long. I just. I didn’t care.”

Chavez wings his hand through the air and spits to the side, sand and blood. Spitting out blood makes him feel tough, invincible, something, and he says sharply, “Okay, but you’ve been married and fucking around with me for the past two years now, and it doesn’t seem to have fucked up your life.”

Munson laughs without humor. “Oh no, my life isn’t fucked up at all. God, I’m a fucking textbook of not being fucked up. You fucking idiot.”

Chavez blinks at him, Chavez with his fucking dark eyes and the doubt in there that Munson stopped seeing five years ago. “But you. You never said.”

“I said it a million times, you never heard. I, I did everything to try and tell you.” Munson pauses, and clears his throat carefully. He knows he sounds like he’s about to break down, which is far from the truth, he’s pretty sure. “Eric, I’m . . . I’ve been so lost for so long now. And I tried to tell you, I swear to God I did.”

His lip curled up, Chavez shakes his head quickly, lines on his face. “What, calling me the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, that was you trying to tell me? Calling me a fucking bad habit?”

Munson shrugs, feeling his suit jacket shift over his shoulders. The ocean’s cutting back on itself, over and over again. “You know I’m no good at . . . saying stuff. You used to be able to, like, get me. Even if I was making no sense, you could still understand.”

“This isn’t like when we made up our own secret language, dude. You can’t just be all fucked up and not tell me and expect me to figure it out.”

“You should have figured it out,” Munson whispers.

“Fuck you,” Chavez says bitterly. “I’m so fucking tired of you playing martyr.”

“Playing what?” Munson repeats in disbelief, thinking, ‘this fucking shit again.’

“No, seriously. Being all betrayed and injured and shit and acting all self-righteous. Letting me be an asshole because it gives you something to be better than me at. But there’s always been two of us, goddamn it.”

Chavez tears his hand through the sand, loses grains down his shirt sleeve. There is a scatter of it on his cufflinks, cool ivory and gold posts. Chavez keeps forgetting that he’s as rich as he is, and soon he’ll sign a new contract and it’ll be forever.

He continues, “Just because I’m a bigger fuck-up than you, that doesn’t mean that everything is my fault. All you ever had to do was say, I’m done. That’s all you ever had to say and you didn’t, so don’t fucking pretend that I’m the only one who’s done wrong here.”

Munson feels sick, and wonders if he’s about to throw up. That would be pretty perfect. He glances over at Chavez and Chavez is staring at him, the side of Munson’s face. Chavez’s expression is taut and fierce, but his eyes are so scared Munson wants to shield him with his body.

“You keep coming back,” Munson tells him. “You won’t leave me alone.”

“I don’t know how,” Chavez says, and he’s breathless because fuck, that’s true, he never learned that trick, nobody told him.

“You’re going to be twenty-six years old tomorrow, Chavez.”

Chavez glares at him, swipes his arm across his nose. “I know how fucking old I am.”

“So you should have learned by now,” Munson says, exhausted with his shoulders and head weighted. “Twenty-six years old and you’ve been making the same mistake since you were sixteen.”

Chavez jerks his head to the side, something pulling hard in his neck like when you sleep wrong, a crick, a strain. “Don’t just. You can’t say you knew any better than me. You never stopped it either.”

Munson lowers his eyes. The beach is wet and cold beneath his hands. “You called me from a roof and it was like you’d jump if I said no,” he whispers.

Chavez stares at him, mouth slightly open. “I never-”

Munson cuts him off, steel-metal ocean and the salt in the air. “Everything you’ve ever said to me has been, please don’t leave me alone, Munce. You say nothing’s real if I’m not there. You know what you do to me. You know that I can’t turn you down.”

“You’re turning me down now.”

Munson nods, and every part of him hurts. “That’s right.”

Chavez presses his hands tight against his legs, his heart flagging like a candle. “You motherfucker. You fucking. You can’t just do this, man, it’s not right.”

Munson shivers, briefly, spurring through him and he can taste blood and sand and liquor, he’s not crying but he probably should be. Everything’s echoing and Chavez’s presence beside him is very important, warm and steadying, but he won’t lean into him.

“It should have ended years ago,” Munson says, and he’s not sure if that was a pained inhalation on the part of Eric Chavez, because it sounds the same as everything around else. “We were so stupid, I was . . . jesus, I was so fucking stupid. Just waiting around for you to show up and fuck me again. Pretending it meant something.”

Chavez’s hand latches onto his neck again, drawn back like a magnet, and his fingers tighten. Munson can feel the railed bones cracking against the knobs of his spine. “It does mean something, don’t just start lying now,” Chavez insists, holding himself back and squeezing Munson’s neck. “It means everything, I love you, that means everything.”

Munson jerks, his hands up and knocking Chavez’s arm, breaking the hold. He lifts his head and his eyes are all white-light.

“Yeah yeah yeah. For fucking years you’ve been telling me how it doesn’t count, but now you love me, oh you love me so much. You love me, you love Amber, you love Alex. You love everybody. You’ve spent years being fucking miserable because you can’t decide who you love the best, so I’m just gonna make the choice a little easier for you, all right?”

“You think this’ll make it easier?” Chavez cries, hollowed in the wind. “You think I’ll be able to stop wanting you if I don’t have you?”

Munson closes his hands into fists and half-buries them in the sand. The wind sails past and the humidity was blown off awhile ago. Munson keeps watch on the water as if he expects it to change.

He says, “You’ve never had me. Not since we were nineteen years old. I fucked up and you got rid of me and that was the last time, that was our last chance. You never really wanted me after that, not the way we were.”

Chavez shakes his head so hard his neck pops. “I did, I just . . . I couldn’t. Everything was different. There was Amber, and the team . . . how the fuck could you expect it to be like it was when we were nineteen?”

“I didn’t. I knew better than that. But I never thought it’d be like this.”

They don’t say anything for awhile. Eric Chavez fidgets miserably next to him, and they watch the ocean, the skewer-flash of the lightning.

“You never told me,” Chavez says, talking by rote and almost repeating himself. He’s pleading his case, reaffirming his best arguments, and he’s not looking at Munson. “You just . . . you let me do it all even when I'm telling you it's wrong.”

“I don’t need you to tell me that it’s fucking wrong,” Munson snaps. “And please quit trying to blame your need to fuck me up on my inability to tell you no.”

Chavez swallows. Munson’s lip is swollen and Chavez wants to run his tongue over it, and it suddenly hits him that he’ll never do that again, and his chest aches deeply.

“I’m not trying to fuck you up.”

“Fucking tell that to my wife, man.” Munson thinks, ‘fuck, my wife,’ thinks about Shanda, who let him lie to her about why she couldn’t come to Hawaii, let him come here alone and kissed him before he left. Shanda will be the only one waiting for him, and this is the way it should have always been, and he’s suddenly terrified that she won’t be good enough.

He thinks about a son, a daughter, unfocused in his mind’s eye, half him and half her and Eric Chavez’s dark eyes impossibly set in a small face.

He pushes that away.

Munson exhales, a long breath that empties his chest. “I can’t be your excuse anymore.”

“My what?” Eric Chavez asks incredulously.

Munson snags his hand in the space between them, clipping Chavez’s shoulder and thinking that it would be very easy to curl his fingers around Chavez’s arm, it would be very easy to push Chavez’s jacket off his shoulders and lean over to press his mouth to Chavez’s skin through the white fabric. Take it all back.

“Your excuse for being fucked up.” And Munson watches his friend carefully, watches the refusal pull across Chavez’s mouth and the muscles of his neck held stiffly.

“Nice fucking ego, man,” Chavez sneers, wondering if he just puts a hand on Munson, anywhere, his face, his shoulder, his wrist, if they touch just once, maybe this will all fall apart again and they can forget about it. “Who says I need you to be fucked up?”

“I saw it happen,” Munson says. He’s not really drunk at all. All that whiskey, the second-hand champagne and his mind is so clear. His face throbs, low on his jaw and the corner of his mouth. “You didn’t used to be like this. You used to be okay and then you weren’t anymore, and I. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t stop it, even though I know, I, I know . . . You blame me for everything going wrong, and you keep me around just ‘cause, like, the devil you fucking know, right?”

Chavez doesn’t say anything. He stares out and he doesn’t want to be on this fucking beach anymore.

Munson sighs. “Look, I get it, all right? It’s easy. To say all the stuff that gets ruined, it’s just ‘cause of what . . . what we are. Were. It’s easy, but it’s not true.”

Lowering his head onto his knees, Chavez rolls his forehead back and forth, still denying it. “How can you say that, man? I didn’t . . . I’m not using you as a reason for why I screw everything up.”

“Not anymore, you’re not.”

Falling quiet for a moment, Chavez tries to fight his way through this, looking for something to brace against. He sees Eric Munson’s collar against his throat, particular bits of Munson’s hair slanting on a diagonal, the shallow pink scraping on his face, the sand in his eyelashes. Munson’s a mess. Chavez wants to clean him up, put him back together again. If Chavez is the one who ruined it, then it’s only fair that he be given a chance to fix it.

“We can. Listen. We can try again. Okay? I’ll. I’ll go tell Alex, I’ll tell her everything, anything you want me to say. I’ll tell my parents and my brothers and everybody.”

Munson stares at him in shock. Chavez touches his face, and Munson doesn’t pull away, searching frantically for any of the million things that Chavez does when he’s lying. Chavez forces himself to swallow, brushing his fingertips on Munson’s cheek, he feels gravity give way and he says it anyway:

“I’ll quit, Eric. Swear to god I will. I’ll come to Detroit and we can do it for real. I won’t . . . I’ll n-never play again.”

Eric Chavez, for a moment, sees a life in his future that makes no sense to him. It breaks like ice in his chest. What the fuck will he do if Munson says yes?

But Munson is already shaking his head, mouthing ‘no’ over and over again. His hands are wrung between his knees. “Don’t ever say that again,” he says softly.

“Munce . . .” Chavez tries, shifting closer. He can feel Munson warm in the idle chill of the wind. Hawaii in December doesn’t feel like much of anything.

Munson’s still shaking his head. “I, all right,” he says haltingly. “I just spent a full season getting my heart broken every single day. And I, I was thinking, a little while ago, that the only thing worse than that would be if I wasn’t . . . if I’d never made it. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I think it is.”

He might have said more, but he ends up just saying nothing. Chavez shivers, goosebumps creeping up his arms. His eyes hurt bad enough that he keeps waiting for the slow hot crawl of blood down his face.

“Can’t we just-” Chavez starts, and Munson cuts him off, closing his eyes like he’s in pain too.

“No.”

“You don’t even know what I was gonna say.”

Munson’s face is angled down, all profile and hair falling across his forehead. “It doesn’t matter. We can’t. We can’t be in love and be married. We can’t fuck around and not be in love. It doesn’t work. You know that.”

“It’d be different,” Chavez whispers.

Munson makes a scoffing noise, scrubbing a hand across his face. “It’s never different. Please, okay, please for my sake understand that. Because I’m, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep saying it’s over.”

Chavez doesn’t answer, his eyes far far off, searching for boats, or Japan. All those little islands out there in the Pacific, stuff that maybe never even got discovered. Beaches without footprints. Trees with the bark still on.

Munson watches him for awhile, and then that makes it kinda hard to breathe, so he stops. He looks at the sand and says dully, “I mean, just because we were in love doesn’t mean being in love was a good idea.”

“I know.” Chavez draws in a long slow breath, scratches at the cuff of his pants. “So I guess you’re not in love with me anymore.”

Munson wonders how much honesty this deserves. This, the truest thing that’s ever happened to him and finished now, or close to finished, close enough to taste it in the air, and it seems like it calls for all the truth left in him, but he can’t really tell.

“I can’t,” Munson begins, and it hurts to talk, the sand in his throat, something else, too, something best left unexamined. “I can’t just stop being in love with you. If I could, believe me, I would have done it seven years ago. But I’m not gonna let you do this to me anymore. I’m not gonna do this to you anymore. My whole life used to be you, but it’s not anymore. I got Shanda, you’ve got Alex, and it’s never gonna be like it was. We can’t keep fucking around and expect to wake up some morning and be nineteen years old again and have another shot.”

Chavez pulls his legs up and lowers his forehead onto his knees. “I don’t understand,” he whispers, and Munson has to tilt closer to hear him. “I’m in love with you. You’re in love with me. I don’t understand why that’s not good enough.”

Munson reaches out, and touches his hand to Chavez’s face. He taps his wedding ring three times against Chavez’s cheekbone and doesn’t say anything.

Chavez is shaking, flickering in the wind and the inconstant light. “I can’t believe we came this far and you’re just gonna end it,” he says with his voice all choked.

Munson takes his hand away, makes a bad smile. “I can’t believe we came this far at all,” he admits. “I’ve never even told anybody.”

Chavez presses his mouth against his knee and winces at the sting of his bitten lip. “I told a priest once.”

Raising his eyebrows, Munson wishes Chavez would lift his face, let Munson see him. “You told a priest you were sleeping with a guy? Is that even allowed?”

For a moment, Eric Munson trying to make him smile or laugh, dumb jokes and goofy faces, it’s terribly clear to Chavez why he fell in love with his best friend in the first place, but that’s only a moment.

Chavez keeps his face against his knees, his back rising and falling in the way that means he’s measuring out each breath, because this is as bad as it will ever feel, right here, right now, and if he keeps breathing, eventually it will get better.

Munson sees it all and wants to curl up around him, be good cover, safe passage, but he can’t anymore, and Munson breathes out painfully.

“We weren’t going anywhere, man. We’ve never been going anywhere, not together.”

“That’s not true.” Chavez looks up then, his face warped in a scowl, because he doesn’t want to just go down without a fight and leave this to be redrawn, re-imagined as fits convenience and conscience. “Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve been together. You’ve been my best friend for almost twenty years. Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve done with you somewhere nearby. And it’s gonna be like that forever, whether you keep fucking me or not.”

Munson runs a hand through his gritty hair. “What are we supposed to do, Eric?” he asks roughly. “Be married and have kids and live two thousand miles away from each other and keep sleeping together on the rare occasions when we’re in the same city? Phone sex and dirty emails like fucking kids? Until we get caught or get our picture taken and everything gets ruined anyway? I mean, fuck. That’s how you want your life to be?”

“I want to be in love with you.” Chavez bites the inside of his lip. He doesn’t take his eyes off Munson’s. “All I’ve ever wanted is to just be in love with you.”

Munson’s mouth twists but he doesn’t cry. It’s unexpected, but neither of them is crying. Neither of them will be the first to break down, and so neither of them does.

“That’s not really true, but whatever.” Chavez opens his mouth to protest that, eyebrows pulling together, but Munson holds up a hand to cut him off. “It doesn’t matter. I’m tired of being fucked up. Tired of being ashamed. Tired of trying to hurt you. I’m, really. I’m so tired of all of this.”

Eric Chavez looks away, his throat moving up and down, his eyelids fluttering. “I never meant. I never meant for it to be like this.”

Wanting to rest his hand on Chavez’s back, his neck, his head, somewhere, Munson says quietly, “It’s not all your fault. I know you’re real big with the guilt and all, but you’re right. There’s always been two of us.”

“Not anymore,” Chavez answers, a bitter taste on his tongue.

Munson does touch him then, winds a hand in Chavez’s collar and tugs enough for the shirt to rasp on Chavez’s neck, cut off his air but just a little bit.

“What do you think I’m doing here?” he asks, curious and kinda impatient. “You think I’m saying we’re not gonna be friends anymore? That I’m not gonna be around, not gonna let you call me at three in the morning, not gonna tell you when you’re being dumb? Because that’s, like, my most favorite thing to do, I think you know.”

Chavez’s mouth twitches slightly, and Munson smiles kinda sadly. “I don’t have any idea how to not be your best friend,” he tells Chavez. “I’m not gonna fuck around with you anymore and maybe someday I won’t be in love with you either, but there’s always gonna be two of us, man.”

Chavez sniffs, wipes his nose on his sleeve. He likes Munson’s hand pulling the collar of his shirt tight, likes feeling his Adam’s apple meet resistance and push past it. “If I . . . if I wasn’t getting married tomorrow-”

“No.” Munson jerks his collar, snapping Chavez’s head back so that Munson can meet his eyes. “You’re getting married tomorrow. You love her.”

“I love you!” Chavez cries, too loudly and yeah, there’s lightning, there’s thunder, there’s a natural disaster and they’re not afraid of storms but they probably should be.

Munson hauls him closer, wraps his arm around Chavez’s shoulder and burrows his face in Chavez’s shoulder. “I know, I know,” he murmurs, his lips on Chavez’s ear and Chavez trembling. “I love you too, you’re my best friend, I love you.”

He moves back because Chavez’s hand is tripping up his chest and Munson doesn’t want to feel Chavez’s fingers on his jaw, doesn’t want to fall down again when he’s only barely gotten to his feet.

“But if we keep doing this, we’ll end up hating each other for real and. I can’t. I’m not gonna live without you. We end it now, we get everything back. I promise.”

Chavez is shaking his head, his eyes squeezed shut and he doesn’t want to hear this. Munson’s hand is caught around his and pressing both down to Munson’s chest so that Chavez can’t move, can’t pull Munson into a kiss and make him forget. Munson clasps his hand hard enough that Chavez’s knuckles crack, and he rests his forehead against the side of Chavez’s head, breathing out.

“You’re a better man than you ever gave yourself credit for,” Munson tells him, everything moving very slowly and the world coming to an end one more time above them. “You don’t need me to fuck everything up for you anymore. You, you got the rest of your life, you don’t need me.”

Chavez makes a fractured sound and turns his head too quickly for Munson to pull away, kisses him, presses their lips together and Munson lets him, his hand burying into Chavez’s hair, licking into Chavez’s mouth and the heat of it, the thing he knows best.

When they break away, Chavez hides his face in Munson’s shoulder and Munson can hear him whispering, “I’m sorry,” over and over again, and Munson smooths his hair, makes unintelligible comfort sounds, because it’s nothing to apologize for, really, the way they’ve been, what they’ve known, it’s nothing to regret.

Chavez breathes him in, this strange hard moment, and Eric Chavez would think of all the time it took them to get here, and he would ask what the fuck he’s supposed to do without him, how he’s supposed to wake up tomorrow with the knowledge that he’ll never again get to feel his best friend all around him and laughing into his arm and teeth against his throat, hot skittering breath on his stomach, he would try and figure this out, but it’s too much for him and it’s enough, right now, it’s enough to have Munson’s arm around his shoulders and Munson’s hand running over his hair.

Munson kisses him on the forehead, and draws him up, smiling at him and brushing the heel of his hand across the tender skin under Chavez’s eyes. Chavez blinks, stunned and quiet, and in Munson’s mind Eric Chavez is five years old, putting the baseball in his hand and running away across the grass, farther than he thought Munson could throw.

Chavez coughs weakly, feeling broke open and a field of calendar days before him, just waiting, the rest of his life. Munson doesn’t take his arm from around Chavez’s shoulders, still strong enough to lean against, and Chavez asks hoarsely, “What happens now, man?”

Munson shakes his head. Eric Chavez is against him, Eric Chavez is safe. It’s all he’s ever wanted, really.

“Now we start over.”

They stay on the beach together, looking at each other in amazement, and it finally starts to rain.

THE END

 

 

(epilogue: sleep outside in tents upon this unfamiliar land)

Chavez didn’t really have to talk Alex into letting him go out to the desert for New Year’s with Munson. He told her, “We’ve been doing it since we were kids, babe, just me and him,” and she understood that, because she understands everything.

They drive out with a stash of Otter Pops in the cooler in the backseat, Chavez’s mouth smeared purple and Munson’s green. Munson makes Chavez change the CD before they even get past the park. Chavez watches the skinny shadows of the streetlights roll over Munson’s hands and face, Munson lit from behind with his knee up on the dash.

Temperatures drop in the desert and Chavez’s hands are totally numb by the time they’re done putting up the tent. Munson wanders off to look at the cactuses and stuff, and Chavez tries to call Alex or his parents, pacing around with clean brown dust on his shoes, but he can’t get a signal.

They play catch over the hammered sand until the sun goes down, and they’re alone for five miles in every direction. They talk about next season.

Munson’s shoulder is nestled against his own as they eat take-out deli sandwiches for dinner, and Chavez feels him jump when the first coyote howl rips out of the canyon like an air raid siren. Chavez presses back a bit, thinking about equal and opposite reactions, and murmurs, “Got your back, dude,” and Munce relaxes, the coyotes looking for blood and not finding it.

They’re sitting Indian-style on the ground as the year turns, a small guttering fire before them. Munson feeds it pieces of the phonebook, until all that’s left is just the flapping posterboard cover, every page finally gone after two decades of being cold and happy in Death Valley, and he tries the snapped-off knuckles of Joshua tree branches instead, and the flames cough and gnash, angry little flags of orange and yellow.

Chavez watches the gleam of Munson’s wedding ring, caught like a firefly against the dull shine of the bottle glass, and he looks down to see his own ring, silver and frozen, the slight, never-thought-twice weight of it on his hand.

“It’s crazy, Munce, huh,” he says, tracing across the carved-smoke landscape.

Munson doesn’t ask what he’s talking about, just nods and takes a drink. “Yep.”

Chavez’s mouth crooks, and he sneezes, pulls his legs up against his chest, rubbing his hand briskly up and down his shins, friction, warmth. He rolls his head back, the salt stars and every year more than he remembers.

He sneaks a look out of the corner of his eye, and Munson’s got his head back too, UFO-searching, his neck exposed and pale in the night, sandpaper shaded by stubble under his jaw.

And Eric Munson turns, his gaze falling down out of the sky and finding Eric Chavez’s, and Munson smiles at him, smiles at him like he’s been doing for twenty years, like he’ll do forever, Eric Munson smiles at his best friend, all white teeth and calm eyes, and it’s seven minutes past midnight in the desert, and they’re all grown up.

THE END (for real this time)

 

September-November 2004

thanks, y’all.