He felt as though he had been shoved into empty space.
All the lofty ideas he had had about sticking to his guns and making a point had been tossed out with just one night’s temptations like a bad joke.
He stared sightlessly at the keys in his hand.
He needed answers and wanted to talk to someone, but he was afraid of what he might find out about himself. About who he really was.
He didn’t, however, need anyone to tell him that he was powerless in their relationship. It was something he simply needed to accept. That no matter how much he protested, all Holden had to do was snap his fingers and he would go running.
It was hurtful and confusing. And more so because when he had finally taken up some courage last spring and had asked Holden for a commitment, this wasn’t the future he had envision for them.
One in which when he thought of being with Holden, of kissing him like he had last night, in those secret places where it should have been just the two of them, he struggled with other images instead.
He could stand there and rationalize all he wanted about how he had taken control of his life last spring and had won out against all those other men. But all it did was leave him feeling empty-handed, reminding him of where he truly stood in their relationship―as desperate as he ever had been for Holden.
If he was happy with that then he needed to stop wasting everyone’s time and just go back home with Holden.
If he wasn’t… then he needed to… find courage.
God, he thought, dropping his head back to look at grey skies. Was this fair after everything he thought he had accomplished last year? What had all that been for? Just so that he could get here, in a worse and more confused place?
Finally hearing the chatter of his charges for the afternoon, he straightened from the side of Kay’s Land Rover. But seconds ticked by, and no one came of the noisy house.
“Ladies,” he called, when the brightly attired seven year olds finally emerged. “Let’s get a move on, please.”
The four little girls scurried forward in formation of twos, reminding him of the baby oysters from the Alice in Wonderland cartoon. All dressed up to be taken out on a shopping spree for marshmallows and other things to toss into a roaring bonfire, they offered each other tips on styling and admired each other’s winter clothing.
At the remarks of one of the girls, Deena making a face at her gloves, decided she didn’t like, or need them enough, and pulled them off in the slightly below freezing weather.
Bending to pick them up, he stopped her and crouched to put them back on. Just then Allison came to the front door.
Just past noon, he had spent the morning overseeing the preparations for the cookout tomorrow. The situation in his parents’ house was currently controlled chaos, thankfully being orchestrated by Davey and enough friends and neighbors that he could fulfill Deena’s wish that he take them shopping for tonight.
He had left Holden long before dawn, and despite everything he had just been through in his head, he didn’t have to think very hard to see him laying naked on the sheets where he had left him.
He had been here at Allison’s for over and hour, and Allison hadn’t brought it up.
“Sean?” she now called.
“Give it five more minutes, will you? Holden's on his way. He says he can come spend the afternoon and I’m going to have him join you guys instead.”
Straightening, he looked at her, posed in the doorway, baking apron on, cell phone held aloft.
She had clearly passed the point of discussing any of it with him.
Without waiting for a response, she turned went back inside and shut the door behind her.
Deena hopped in place. “Are you going to meet your fee-yan-say, Sean?” Then, apparently too excited to wait, she broke into loud, excited screeching.
Her friends, no clue what was happening, joined her.
He let them finish, seeing as they were outdoors anyway. Then, when they had settled down and were expectantly staring up at him, he said, “No, I’m afraid not.”
They blinked owlishly up at him.
“He’s gonna stay and bake with your mommy,” he explained to Deena. “We’ve got a lot of stuff to get done afternoon and it’ll be easier for him to just stay.”
The girls slumped their shoulders, then followed as he reached over and opened the back door to the Rover.
They began climbing in while he mentally scooted them along a little faster. Deena still looked dejected.
“Aside from all those marshmallows that aren’t gonna wait, sweetheart,” he told her, in the hopes of distracting all them. “We’re getting new decorations for grandma and grandpa’s house, lots more candy…and how about a new pigskin for touch football tomorrow?”
“Yay!” they cried.
“But we’re gonna meet him tonight, right?” Deena insisted, clicking in. “At the bonfire?”
“Yay!” they repeated. He checked their seat belts and firmly shut the door.
He wasn’t rushing his steps. But he wasted no time in getting in, clicking himself in, and reaching over to grab the passenger side seat as he quickly backed out of there.
Sean had ditched him for bonfire shopping. Kay tried to couch it in softer terms but he wasn’t confused about what had happened.
It didn’t bother him one bit.
Not after last night. He was going to be happy for the rest of his life after last night.
If Sean had wanted to make him go away he shouldn’t have kissed him like that last night. He shouldn’t have taken him in his arms the way he had, and he shouldn’t have made all those soft noises like he was so happy to be home―between his legs, thank you.
And driving over, everyone from the chipper receptionist at the front desk to random people he had driven by in town had smiled and honked and waved hello.
As far as he could tell he was here on the blessings of his sisters, presumably his parents, and definitely his best friend. Not to mention his best friend’s wife, and everyone else in the town who was rooting for them to get together and every couple of hours at that. Elliot had sent him the Twitter link.
His only regret was that he had once again missed saying hello to Sean’s niece, for whom he had brought a present. But no worries, he would see her tonight at the bonfire.
So, elbow deep in flour, he knew he was experiencing something brand new in his life. He was having a wonderful family vacation. Nothing on earth could take this away from him.
Kneading dough the way Allison had shown him, he licked cookie dough off the ladle Kay held up to his stuck out tongue, and resumed describing to them the luscious islands of Fiji.
The bonfire brought out most of the community. It was organized by the elementary school, and it had at first seemed to him not the wisest way in the world for kids to celebrate the Super Bowl.
But upon arriving and settling in and seeing how it all fit together, he was astounded that all elementary schools didn’t throw annual bonfires. As, as much as the adults were enjoying themselves, it was nothing compared to the ecstasy the kids were having, and their sharp screams and giggles made the whole thing seem like something out of a storybook.
They had picked a spot far enough from the ten foot flames not to alarm him yet close enough for them to feel the fire’s welcoming warmth. It was like sitting in a hot tub in the middle of Antarctica.
What he instantly and most appreciated about the night was the sound of the crackling fire and the way it illuminated everything in an amber glow: people, chairs, trucks, and beer coolers, all cast in a radius of jumping black shadows and yellow light. It was showing to him a community seemingly both contented and connected.
They unpacked their blankets and coolers, and extra bottles of mustard and ketchup―Allison assured him that the kids would need them when they got around to actually eating their food only to find out they had used all the condiments for spray paint.
So they set their area up for when the kids would come by, and after that, while Allison laid back and put her feet up on a cushion―Kay had already gone off somewhere―he went for a stroll around the field.
Almost immediately, avoiding kids racing around the perimeter, and taking in friends in groups and couples snuggling on chaises, he ran into people he now knew. He was greeted by people he had met in Baker’s, by a waiter he remembered from Greenbriar, the restaurant Kay and Allison had taken him to dinner, and even Rajiv, the assistant manager at the Inn where he was staying.
He hung out and chatted with some of them, taking unexpected pleasure in being able to respond, when a couple asked where he and Sean were thinking of buying a house in town, that he didn’t quite know yet.
He had no idea whether they would, but talking about it like that made him feel…normal.
He also ran into Josh, the young guy who had flagged him down in his car, who was sitting with someone he presumed from body language was his boyfriend. Josh waved excitedly, and he went over to say hi. He was introduced to his boyfriend, a shy African American boy who wanted desperately to meet Sean but was too embarrassed to go up to him, and promised a discount if he came into the art shop where Josh worked.
Noticing the number of minority and ethnically mixed families in Johnston, he had asked Kay what it had been like for her living as a minority in this type of community, when in most places in America it would spell trouble, or at least constant discomfort.
Taking a break from marshaling a handful of toddlers with some other moms―she apparently was thinking about becoming a preschool teacher, which he personally thought she had the perfect, even temperament for, she told him it hadn’t been a problem.
Surprised, and more than a little skeptical, he had listened to her tell him that it was in fact a great place to live. That beyond its cultural Midwestern friendliness―which he would readily admit to having experienced, something he didn’t get often in most other parts of the country “being from L.A.”―she thought the reason to be good municipal management.
He had laughed, but she had assured him that since the town spent money on things that everybody benefited from, nobody could go around blaming anyone else for their problems.
Turning a knowing smile on him, she said, “It’s a great place to raise a family.”
Hearing her words and their underlying subtext, he had waited for his usual innate rejection to follow.
That lack of reaction, suddenly finding himself standing there staring blankly at her, had caught him off guard.
After that he had gone in search of a quiet place to listen, instead, to the thing that was happening inside him.
He found himself sitting alone for a while, watching Deena and her friends race around screaming, giggling, and causing havoc at the tops of their lungs.
She and her friends had bought a whole lot of marshmallows, popcorn, and hot dogs on their shopping spree that afternoon, only half of which were being roasted. The other half were being used for missiles and face putty.
He had finally met her, introductions being made by Kay, and had been able to give her the gift he had bought her right after Sean had proposed to him.
She was an excitable little girl, sporting wavy brown hair cropped in an adorable page cut that swung wildly as she ran. And upon meeting her he could see why Sean was so enchanted by her. She was everything endearing about a fearless little girl―sweet, adventurous, and charming.
He was also thinking about her mixed-ethnicity features, the result of her mothers having sought out a Chinese donor. He was thinking helplessly that the way a lot of gay fathers were doing it nowadays was to both donate, so that neither of them knew which was the biological father.
Stopping his thoughts, he waited for a response, a screaming, running for the hills response, to having just used the words “biological father” in relation to himself.
Again, nothing happened.
Sean had arrived on the scene and was helping some of the kids, along with Kay and the other mothers, eat their hot dogs. He could see instantly why kids would need adult supervision on a night like this.
Deena alone was holding two hot dogs, one in each small hand and dripping with condiments, the left one being shoved at a steady pace into her mouth.
After a few bites Sean unobtrusively took it from her, then did the same for the little boy on his other side, stacking them in one hand, then taking napkins being produced by Kay and handing it to both of them. He was able to smoothly do the same for several of the kids, handing hot dogs to the ones who didn’t have any.
Taking the napkins gratefully, Deena caught her breath, wiping her face with the napkins, then looking up at Sean with such love and adoration that he simply melted at the sight.
“Thanks, Sean,” he could hear her whisper, exhausted from her own exertions.
“You’re welcome, baby,” Sean replied, and he realized he was going to have children with this man.
And that the thought…did not terrify him.
Not here, not among these people. It didn’t even sound crazy.
Last year, when Sean had pushed him to commit, he had felt that he and Sean were from much too different backgrounds. And it was chiefly because he had imagined scenarios like these.
But upon seeing it for himself he realized that it wasn’t an unknowable that made people real. It was basic human choice. His own community had all the resources in the world to be happy and supportive, yet they chose not to be. For them it was more fun to be immature and manipulative.
Earlier he had seen Sean’s parents, camped farther back from the fire lying side by side on a long chaise. After greeting them, he had stared way too long at their clasped hands, resting on Wil’s chest. He didn’t think, growing up, that he ever saw a single set of parents cuddled up like that. This was what Sean had come from.
Affection and love. With no strings attached.
Sean had tried to fit himself into his world and their precious, elitist world view, and had only ended up being a victim of it.
And watching Sean in this context―the handful of gay men, many other men who clearly had never contemplated the degree to which they were homosexual under the right circumstances, and not to mention the mothers, all adoring him―he finally understood what it must have taken for Sean to want a commitment from someone like him.
Now he thought he understood what Sean had meant that day when he had promised that he would take care of him.
However, he didn’t need an emotional bulwark. He was fine once he understood his terrain.
But this promise of a future…of family, and children and loved ones. That was a promise he would take from Sean and hold onto with both hands.
Allison was sitting on their blankets when he returned, seeming perfectly fine for having weathered a storm of kids coming through for bottles of condiments.
He took a seat next to her on the blanket. She had been him approach, her light blue eyes so like Sean’s, and yet so entirely different.
Wrapping his arms around his knees, he turned to her, and said, “Tell me about your coming out.”
She exhaled, as though having been waiting for the prompt, knowing where his interests ultimately lay.
She began to talk. She had been nineteen when it all went down, though it had started three years before when her parents had caught her with a girl from school.
“She was Hawaiian and her parents had just moved here, and I had never seen anything like her.” She quietly shook her head. “I don’t think I even really understood what it meant that I was a lesbian until I met her. One day, my parents caught us. And it was hell.”
“They weren’t okay with it?” he asked, surprised.
“Oh, hell no. Back then it was a fucking mess. You want to talk about a shit storm. Sean was just a baby at the time, only nine, and he was petrified. And so began the years of fighting between me and the folks.”
He glanced at where the mellow couple now sat, finding it hard to believe.
“After that I left for college. I came back home a year later officially out, and that was when it really exploded. They acted so poorly at the time. Like kids who didn’t want to accept that playtime was over.” She shook her head, but went on steadily. “By then Sean had turned twelve. And to say it affected him badly would be one hell of an understatement. He was constantly buckled down waiting for a barrage. At some point I decided I needed to talk to him about it.”
“What’d you say?” he asked softly.
She gave a hard shrug, accompanied by another shake of her head. The memories were obviously still upsetting to her. “I told him it was okay. He’d always been quiet as a kid anyway, just absorbing everything, and I just wanted to make sure he wouldn’t grow up fucked up about it.”
“Did you know he was gay?”
“I suspected it, but he had been so young we had never talked about it. But it was partly why I wanted to be tough, so he wouldn’t feel scared. But by then he just withdrew and there was no getting him to talk about it after that.”
He caught her eyes.
“Sound familiar?” she asked.
He lowered his eyes to the woven blanket.
“How does your story end?” he eventually asked her.
“Awesomely,” she said. “I wasn’t even here when it happened, Sean had to tell me about it when I came home for Christmas. So after I’d gone back to college that fall, my dad’s idiot brother, a raging alcoholic if you ever saw one, came visiting for Thanksgiving. My mom was still not dealing, but at that point my dad was leaning towards being sympathetic, trying getting some form of reconciliation between everyone in the family and the like.” She took a breath, surprisingly breaking into small breaths of laughter. “Well, here comes Uncle Dumbass, raging about, all I needed was a good stiff cock, that why the hell didn’t they send me to some state school where those boys would straighten me right the fuck out.”
His jaw dropped.
Allison, face flushed with laughter, bobbed her head. “Well, that did it for my mom. She’d always hated his guts anyway, so after she tried to bean him with her iron skillet, and missed, my dad hauled him back off to Chicago and that was the last anyone’s seen of him in the family. Not to mention, the last time either of them ever brought up the issue again.”
He blinked at her. “That was it? They just accepted you?”
She nodded, lips pressed tight, looking over to where her parents sat. “After that it was Allison, do whatever you want. Bring whomever you want home, this is our house, you are our daughter, no goddamned idiot is going to tell us how to live.” She laughed outright, then sighed. “Welcome to Iowa.”
He was speechless. “I never had to go through anything,” he reverently told her. “I’d just…bring boys home like I thought all the other kids were doing. You know, for homework in your room and all of that. The fact that they were boys didn’t seem to faze my parents at all. But then again,” he added, giving it some thought, “they were very self-absorbed. But I guess I never realized how much of a favor they were doing me.”
She shook her head in slow wonder. “You take the good with the bad, as my parents always say.”
He looked at her. “Was he happy?”
“As a child? Definitely. Ultimately he grew up in a very accepting home. He didn’t come out of the closet like I’d hoped he would, but I think we all realized early on that he was destined to play in the NFL, and at that point I think he made the decision for himself.” She sighed. “And then he grew older and just seemed to…move on, you know, in the way kids can. Then teenage years came and he just had a fantastic time. Between football and Davey, there was literally no space for anything else.”
Which brought up the thought he had had at the bar.
Looking carefully at her, not wanting to miss anything, he asked whether she thought Sean had been in love with Davey at some point.
“I mean, it is a powerful friendship. It must have been quite a source of comfort to him.”
“Oh, it was, but I don’t think it was sexual love. They were seven when they started becoming glued at the hip, and by the time puberty came along I think it was already too late for any other type of love to develop. As kids, you know, they never actually understood that they weren’t brothers. I mean they knew it, but they didn’t get it until they were much older. And God help you trying to separate them at the end of the day. You’d need a fire hose.”
He shook his head. “It’s so hard to think of him as raucous. At home he can barely move from the sofa. Except, of course,” he corrected, remembering, “once when he beat up an ex of mine.”
Allison looked at him in shock. “What?”
He smiled, feeling his face flame up in a blush. “Yeah. It was pretty hot. We talked progeny after that. Or he did and I pretended not to be excited.”
She laughed softly.
Then they fell silent.
“How’s he been treating you tonight?” she asked.
“Mostly avoiding me.”
After a moment he asked, “Just how familiar to you is this refusal to talk of his?”
“It’s entirely the same thing. He guarded his sexual orientation the same way he guarded his heart. And I know it came from a fear of losing the love of his parents as a kid. That’s a powerful thing for a kid to go through.” She turned and looked at him, almost apologetically. “He fears you the same way.”
After which she fell silent, staring into the yellow flame.
“You have a lot of power over him, Holden.”
His heart was thudding inside his chest. And his head was down.
“And because of that you hurt him profoundly.”
“I know,” he rasped. “I―”
“But as God is my witness, it was not your fault.”
He shook with the breath that came out of him, not realizing how deeply he had been carrying his own pain. “I thought I’d really fucked this up,” he said, the words coming before he could stop them. “I thought that―”
He stopped and let out another, longer breath. “Thanks,” he told her.
“You’re more than welcome.”
After a while he said, “What should I do?”
“Just keep loving him,” she said without skipping a beat. “He’s scared to death, and some walls come down easier than others. But don’t ever let him make you go away.”
Super Bowl Sunday dawned bright and warm.
But like with Paula’s party the year before, the day held very little interest to him.
He did find it especially ironic, though, that this time last year he’d thought the biggest problem in life was not being able to bring Holden home with him.
Well, here they were.
The day itself was proving to be an enormous success. Crowds of people he had never laid eyes on came in from out of town, Davey told him, to meet him and maybe say they got to play touch football with him.
In the midst of the preceding days’ drama he and Davey had managed to get everything done that would ensure the smooth running of the cookout. Aside from having rented additional chairs and tables for the deck, they had spent all day Saturday after he had brought the girls back from shopping organizing them and the rest of the neighborhood kids in decorating the house and taping up trash bags all over the place.
It meant the house was now an eyesore, so garish it didn’t bare discussing, Saints and Colts logos, the two teams playing in the Bowl, superseded wherever possible by Chargers logos.
But there was plenty of food and drink, the heat lamps were going, and there had been a local news crew shooting the first hour or so, while it was still early and no one had gotten too tipsy. It looked like everyone was having a blast.
His mom and dad were clearly proud of their effort, and as of this morning had banished them from doing any more work―they and the rest of the neighborhood parents could handle it from there―and had told them to go have fun.
They had also organized their traditional game of touch football for kids as well as adults, so he’d had the same thing in mind.
He’d always loved this version of the sport, in which he played defensive tackle, and a tap represented a tackle, and one rightly placed on one of the little kids could send them careening hysterically off course. And the kids on his team loved it because they got to score a lot of touchdowns.
Even then, the game only held his attention for the period before Holden arrived with his sisters.
Laden with trays from their baking marathon the day before, Holden was coming around the house with Kay and Allison, engaged, as usual in earnest conversation.
As they went up the deck Holden was greeted by his dad and he watched as Holden waited at the sliding doors, a smile and not a care in the world, while people gave them room to enter the kitchen.
Holden was wearing a leather jacket with a Chargers jersey, though thankfully, and perhaps knowingly on Holden’s part, not one of the ones with his name and number on it. This one just said “San Diego Football.” But thinking that that somehow made it more bearable was probably why it took him that much longer to register that Holden looked even cuter in a jersey that said “football.” He couldn’t think of anything more incongruent. And visually arresting.
He let out a breath.
So far gone from the game was he that he started when the ball suddenly flew across his face and hit one of his teammates on the head.
“Incomplete!” someone yelled, as he went and apologized, helping the guy up.
The guy looked surprised that he had missed catching the ball, though finding it more funny than anything else.
While the guy jogged back to position, and he stared one last time in the direction of the deck, Davey suddenly appeared and stood next to him.
“You know after that display you two put on last night Brokeback Mountain was the most rented movie in Johnston, right?” Davey said. “I mean it was damn near perfect. The shearling jackets and the firelight, not to mention the brooding and the whole thing?”
“It wasn’t what it looked like.”
“Uh huh,” Davey said, paying no attention the warning tones in his voice. He’d extracted his phone and was peering at it. He tapped on it. “You mean like this?”
He turned to look at the phone Davey was holding in front of him, and saw an admittedly stunning image of him and Holden sitting on the flatbed of one of the trucks.
The image captured them with their heads bent towards each other. It had been a difficult moment for him, but with the firelight and the possessive posture Holden took, one arm propped against his back and the other around his waist, it had made the whole thing look like a glowing dream.
And that, he supposed, was as perfect a description as he could ask of their relationship.
“Remember how I said I couldn’t picture you with a dude?” Davey pulled back the phone. “Well, now I got a picture of you with a dude. It’s on my Facebook page. And I’ve officially become an ally.”
“An ally to what?” he asked, knowing he should know better than to ask nonsense questions. He’d get nonsense answers.
“To the gay rights movement,” Davey said, still staring admiringly at his artwork. “I captioned it Love is Love. It’s one of the―”
“I fucking know what it is.”
“Well, there you go,” Davey said, pocketing the phone. Then Davey turned to him. “So, uh, you enjoying the, uh…”
He turned slowly to Davey.
Davey held his eyes for a moment. Then he discreetly made a circle with his thumb and fingers and brought them up just enough to pump an imaginary cock into his mouth. “I bet it's been good.”
Then Davey turned to him, apparently with genuine concern. “Also, I wanted to make sure that you give and take. I know you might be the type to be a little old school about it, but being able to give of yourself like that is considered the true sign of―”
He took Davey down.
“Get the fuck off me!” Davey yelled, laughing so hard they both went down. Arm locked around Davey’s head, he held him on the ground, ignoring the pummeling he was receiving on his back, and fed him some dirt. Davey crashed them both on their sides, locking his legs around him so that he was held stuck fast in the mud with him, and upon falling on their backs, the little kids yelled their approval and dog piled them.
They returned to the deck and sat down at one of the benches, Davey still wiping dirty snow from his face and brushing blades of grass from his hair.
Holden looked momentarily from him to Davey, his eyes lingering on their messed up states. Not seeming to know what to make of the situation, his eyes flew to Michelle who was chatting away at the table, and who started brushing Davey off the moment he sat down without stopping or looking at him.
Most of the guests were already laughing and pointing anyway, and added to it, Michelle’s lack of apprehension seemed to reassure Holden.
Still, as they sat down, Holden came over, leaning in close. “Sean, are you okay?” he asked softly.
Allison, seated across from them and slathering Dijon mustard on her burger, snorted softly.
Not looking at either of them, he mumbled to Holden that he was fine. Holden left, and Allison looked up.
They were at the table with at least eight other people, surrounded by a house and deck full of animated, chattering guests, all interacting at Super Bowl levels of excitement.
He thought he would be safe from her scrutiny, if not her looks. And she was giving him one now.
“Davey push one too many buttons?”
“Hm,” she said noncommittally. “Must be nice.”
He sat unmoving, waiting, knowing there was no walking out of this one.
“I wonder just how long you expect him to stick around before you get your act together.” Her voice was soft, her eyes steady on him. “And if you say you didn’t ask him to come and so he can leave any time he wants, I’ll let him know he can take you back to L.A. right now.”
He therefore kept his mouth shut.
“We’ve all met him now, Sean. We know how deep his feelings go for you. He spent the whole of yesterday helping us bake and prepare for today. And it’s not because it’s me he’s in love with.”
He started blushing. He couldn’t help it. Though not for the reasons Allison was probably thinking.
“We’ll talk later,” she quietly told him. “And if you can’t talk, you’re going to have to listen.”
He gave her a quick nod, taking the platter of ribs that Davey, one ear on the hushed conversation, slid him in sympathy. There weren’t that many left, but he halfheartedly picked a couple up.
He pushed the platter away, but then sat there watching as Holden came by and replenished the table’s supply, helping to serve the meats he and Davey had spent all morning prepping.
Everyone was smiling at him apparently unable to keep his eyes off his fiancé, while in reality his body had gone on high alert at the sight of Holden handling sizzling hot things.
Holden was doing it slowly and deliberately, and he, despite every damn thing going on between them, was monitoring the situation just as carefully.
Holden soon spied him doing it, and the next time he came by their table he stopped, leaned over and whispered, “My hero,” and kissed him on the neck. It produced the usual response from women, and he helplessly found himself looking at Allison.
“You might as well give up,” she languidly told him.
And she was right.
He didn’t have to be on the deck to see how much of a hit Holden had become in his hometown.
As thrilled as the town was to have him home, it was nothing compared to the prevailing notion people seemed to have that he had brought his fiancé home to meet them.
People came up to him and expressed their sentiments about his past season, they talked about their hopes for his taking his team to the Super Bowl next year, but most of all, and above all else, they told him about their good wishes for his personal happiness.
And he would have to be kidding himself not to see why.
Holden was alight from the inside out on the deck.
He had spent the entire afternoon since arriving working the grills and the fire pit his and the other dads from the neighborhood had put themselves in charge of, outfitted by his mother with oven mitts and tongs and an apron that said “Kiss the Chef.”
Whenever Holden would catch him watching he would smile at him with such pleasure that he seemed almost angelic. He could categorically say, that in the four years he had known him, Holden had never looked as happy. He looked absolutely contented. And because of it, he looked perfectly at home.
Whether it was because of Holden’s typical way of socializing with random people, or whether his hometown simply had that much goodwill toward him, his friends, family and well-wishers, and even his niece, had taken very much to Holden.
In that sense, whether or not Holden had intended it that way, his trip had been a success.
“Here you go, Sean!”
He looked over his shoulder to see Deena and some friends shoving barbecue sauce stained sheets of paper at him.
“Thanks, sweetheart," he said, taking them. He handed a bunch to Davey, who was compiling them, and looked through the ones from his own stack. They had been accumulated from a bunch from guests. The top prize was cash.
“Mom’ll have your balls in a sling when she finds out you're running ballots with seven year olds.”
“Nah,” he dismissed. “If we don’t get ‘em ready now they’ll be shark bait when they hit the bars at eighteen.”
Allison leveled a look on him. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that, and I swear to God if you get her a fake ID at eighteen I’ll castrate you.”
“And Holden’ll eat your intestines,” Davey told her in soft undertones. He wonderingly shook his head. “Sean’s got protection now.”
And at that moment he found Holden’s ballot, which he had been searching for. It was, just as he had suspected, gibberish.
“Holden,” he said, raising his voice towards the grills. “What’d I say about betting based on team colors?”
Davey quietly sprayed his beer. He looked over his shoulder at where Holden, a few feet to his right standing in front of the grills, was looking interestedly at them. “How can you tell?”
“I can tell.”
There was a pause as guests within hearing distance found it incredibly amusing, and Holden smiled, and appeared to give it some thought. Then he said, “You don’t think gold is a good choice?”
“Well, the seven year olds are about to outscore you, so no.”
Davey was silently choking beside him. Even Allison was trying not to have her burger go up her nose, as were the rest of their table.
He turned to Davey. “Stop fucking laughing,” he said in a low voice. “He doesn’t need encouragement.”
“Jay, you could have groupies of male football fans―one for every day of the week, yet you managed to go find the one guy in America who doesn’t follow football. Beautiful.”
Davey then leaned back, past his body. “Hey, Holden―”
“At your own peril, Jones.”
“Never mind,” Davey called, sitting forward again. Obviously he didn’t like the taste of dirty snow and grass.
“More hot dogs please, uncle Holden?”
For a fraction of a second he couldn’t move to the next ballot, his fingers too weak to pick up the next sheet. He withdrew his hand and helplessly, he turned a discrete look over his shoulder at where a barbecue sauce-covered Deena had shown up with an empty plate.
Kay, who had gone to stand with Holden and the dads, where she always preferred to be, carefully held the paper plate while Holden lined it with apple chicken sausages.
“We had fun at the bonfire, didn’t we?” Holden asked her.
“We sure did,” she replied wistfully. “Thanks again for my present, uncle Holden.”
“Aw,” Holden said. “You can do better than that.”
He put down the tongs and slowly bent over.
With a gratified smile, Deena turned and handed her plate to her mom. Then she threw her arms around Holden’s neck, squeezing him in that warm, unselfconscious way that only a child could.
He had witnessed the gift giving ceremony the night before at the bonfire. Kay had taken her to Holden and had told her that this was her “uncle Sean’s fiancé” whom they had been telling her about, and the person who had been using her smiley face bowl.
Holden, to his utter surprise, had been prepared in a way he would never have imagined. Holden had told her it was nice to meet her, and that her uncle talked a lot about her and how much he missed her. Then he had watched, stunned, as Holden had offered her something to replace the bowl.
Deena had opened the yellow gift-wrapped box to pull out a classic smiley face sitting on two sneakered feet. It had a Chargers logo on the side and jiggled when it was tapped. She had giggled herself nearly senseless, and Kay, standing behind her, had giving Holden a thumbs up.
Going up to Kay afterward, he had told her he’d take it for safekeeping from graham crackers and marshmallows and had stowed it in the truck’s glove compartment.
There he had given in to his weakened knees. And needing to get away for a while, he had stayed there, seated on the flatbed of the truck. It was there Holden had found him, and the moment Davey, and whomever else, had taken a picture of.
Now, Holden made happy, uncleish sounds, which he didn’t even know Holden was capable of, and straightened with a smile. Kay handed over the plate, Deena took it, and ducked quickly around them.
“Why does she call Sean by his first name and not uncle?” he heard Holden asking.
“I don’t think she’s ever heard anyone call him uncle,” Kay replied, softly burping her beer. “The first time she spent the day with him and Davey―don’t ask us what we were thinking―she spent the next two days calling him Jay. Her teachers get very confused.”
“When she drops the uncle,” his dad suddenly intoned from one of the grills. “Then you know you’re family.”
Deena, who had been halfway down to the steps of the deck, suddenly stopped and turned around in astonishment, having overheard her grandpa’s words. Apparently the thought had never independently occurred to her.
“Holden!” she cried in amazement.
“That’s right, pumpkin pie,” Holden responded.
She giggled deeply. “Strawberry pie,” she decided.
“All right, then, strawberry pie.”
She laughed and stomped off the deck, pleased to have picked out her first nickname.
His dad took off his oven mitt and picked up his beer. “Well, there you have it. Bottoms up, fellas, Kay.”
They all raised their beers, and Holden especially, took a long swig toward the future.
His dad fussed with the DVR while he sat back on the space reserved on the couch for him and Holden.
The living room was carpeted with bodies. A majority of their guests had left, as expected, for their own viewing parties around town, but that had left them with just enough people to find space for themselves on the floor and furniture. The little kids had been gathered in a circle in the middle of the floor, where they sat making a racket with their juices and Super Bowl toys.
Holden sat next to him, his knees propped against a leg rest and his hand clasped to his, while Davey sat on his other side holding onto Michelle’s legs. The rest of her body was somewhere behind him talking to some friends. Kay and Allison sat across the room, Kay lounging cozily in her lap.
And his mother sat on the love seat that was hers and his dad’s, pretending not to be watching him with Holden.
Everyone talked noisily over the blaring flatscreen, the game in full swing and coming fast to halftime. Hence his dad at the DVR.
“Dad,” he said. “Leave it alone. Nobody cares.”
The living room erupted with a “Nooo!” and someone yelled, “It’s the best part of the Super Bowl!” Everyone loudly agreed, while he shook his head. Seconds later the commentators called official half time and NBC’s onscreen graphics and sound cues exploded across the screen. Then his dad was hurrying away from the console… and his spot came on.
His image appeared on the screen, with him walking toward the camera in an ad he had recorded for a Parents Against Violence anti-bullying campaign. “Hi, I’m Sean Jackson of the San Diego Chargers,” he began, and the house went full tilt.
It was a drinking game, in which everyone cheered and drank each time his name was mentioned during the broadcast. And this was him mentioning his name, so supposed that was a jackpot.
Everyone’s beer went up, as did Holden’s beside him, and even the children sitting in the middle of the floor cheered and drank their juices.
The noise eventually died down, while Holden caressed the inside of his hand.
His heart started beating steadily, knowing the day, the week, his whole period of amnesty, was almost over.
But when the game was finally over―the Saints won, and New Orleans was about to have themselves an incredible week-long party―he missed one thing entirely.
Surprised because Holden had let go of his hand, he was about to get up when Davey suddenly yelled, “Grab him!”
He froze, realizing instantly what he had missed, that seconding cost him.
He was grabbed from all sides and dragged, bellowing death threats, out onto the patio off the balcony. Several of his friends held him down while he struggled to escape, the instant their bodies fleeing the spot his instinct bracing him for impact. Still he kept his head down and swallowed his inappropriate swear word as a tub of freezing beer splashed hard into his body.
It brought an even bigger ovation from their guests than his commercial had, with applause and cries of “MVP!”
“Congratulations, Sean,” some of them came up and told him, patting him on the shoulder. “You’re the real winner this year.”
Warm water followed after that, Davey doing him the “favor” of keeping him from freezing to death out there. Or getting the beer off him, which ever one. And he simply sat, his elbows on his knees, and waited for the nightmare to end. Davey put down the bucket, ruffled his wet hair, and said, “He’s all yours, Holden.”
Looking up from beneath his wet lashes, and having to ignore the sensation of warm trailing ice cold liquid over his balls, he peeked up to find, first his mom ushering everybody back inside because it had gotten so cold out―“Come through the garage when you’re ready to come inside, dear,”―then Holden, standing off to one side under the patio lights, holding an extra large bath towel.
He looked toward the sliding doors to suddenly see Deena struggling against the crush of traffic to get outside. She hurried over, clutching a smaller towel, and planted herself next to Holden.
Holden smiled down at her. “You made it.”
“I sure did,” she said proudly, then beamed across the patio at him. “Ready when you are, Sean!”
He stood slowly went over, then bent and remained still, allowing Deena to reach his head and scrub wildly at his beer-soaked head. Holden placed the towel over his back, running his hand lightly over him while she rubbed vigorously at his stomach, then as he straightened, his legs.
“Huh,” she said, breathing heavily, down to working his jeans up and down in an an effort to dry those as well. “There’s a lot of you.”
Then, clearly exhausted, she straightened and waved the towel over her head. “All done!” she declared, and took off running toward the sliding doors.
Holden smoothed the hair she hadn’t done much more than send spiking in all directions. “We should get you inside,” he said gently, a smile in his eyes. “I’m freezing just looking at you. Too bad it’s not a white T-shirt.”
He made himself look at Holden’s eyes, and perhaps because he was looking directly at him for the first time in a very long time, Holden's brows twitched for a second.
But freezing all over, all he was thinking that moment was how much he loved him. Which was the reason he leaned over and kissed him. Holden shudder slightly, whether from the cold or from the unexpected contact, he didn’t know.
But as they kissed, holding tightly to each other, he knew that it was time to face his feeling.
“He’s the prince you held out for since you were a boy, Sean,” Allison plainly told him. “That’s why it hurts to much.”
He stared at the floor, his lips tightening, telling himself he needed to hear it whether he liked it or not.
She was leaning against the door, her hands behind her. He was sitting on the bed. They were in the guest bedroom in his parents’ house and the guests, including Holden, were all gone.
“It was that last summer. The one before mom’s blowout at Thanksgiving. I found you in that old Chevy by the Parkers’, curled up in the front seat, remember?”
“I asked you if you liked boys and you couldn’t even answer. And that just broke my heart, knowing you used to be able to openly smile at boys―I’d seen it. But after that summer you put it all back inside you, which was why I was so surprised that you were telling Davey about the boys on the farm.”
He kept his eyes on the floor, feeling it all coming back.
“You spent your entire teens, your whole life, never talking about boys. No matter who they were you didn’t want to give them your heart. You had just holed up inside yourself waiting for your prince to come.”
“Holden isn’t anyone’s prince,” he said hoarsely.
“He’s yours,” she offered, shrugging. “Just because you were a kid wishing upon a star didn’t make it less real. And in your case it was probably more so because of what you had been through. But when he came, he came and hurt you, and did it in a way that denied everything you’d held onto. All he did throughout those years was reinforce your feelings of nonexistence.”
She paused, her eyes on him, even though his wouldn’t move from the floor.
“And I don’t think you knew how to reconcile that, and so you just came back home.”
She pulled free a hand, wiped her eyes. “My coming out had terrible repercussions on you, and I know mom and dad are sorry, and all these years later, we’re still sorry. You were just a kid and you didn’t deserve to go through any of that. None of us did. But you carried the brunt of it.”
She let out a short, hard breath.
“Everyone’s coming out process is different,” she told him. “And I think yours is still going on. Until you see that, there’ll be no moving forward for you. At least not with Holden.”
He got up pre-dawn and stood by the window, watching the light filter across the dark sky.
He had failed.
For the last year he had thought he had accomplished something. But in the end he had only been putting off a dead end. And for four years.
At the cookout when Allison had stared talking of the depth of Holden’s feelings for him, he had started those scenes, the images he had made a necessary habit of pushing back for four years. Recently it wasn’t the ones of Holden walking into his building, those men, and their hands, all over him. It was a new one much worse.
It was of Holden in a bedroom permeated by his warm sexual laughter, the one that only came out when they were fooling around in bed, and only for him. When Holden got into such a state it would wreck him, make him so hard he would literally stop thinking until he came.
Except that the man in the scene with Holden wasn’t him. He was the idiot whose number was flashing on the phone by the bedside, dumped and long forgotten. The fool still trying to communicate his love when he had been told, in no uncertain terms, to go away.
Everyone knew that the problem was with him, not with Holden.
Holden had spent the last year catering to his every need and had given him a relationship so beautiful, beyond anything he could have imagined when he had asked him for a commitment last March.
And yet for him it still wasn’t enough.
He had heard and accepted Holden’s apology and knew that even contemplating the kind of things Holden had put him through in the past was permanently out of Holden’s purvey.
And still it wasn’t enough.
It was how he knew Holden wasn’t the problem. He was the one that couldn’t move forward.
But at least he could take responsibility for himself. At least he could save them the cycles of heartache that was slated for them, and do the thing he should have done four years ago.
He needed to let Holden go.
He took a trembling breath, waiting for the calm that had accompanied the decision last February. It didn’t come.
Only his decision remained.
He turned from the window and got back into bed. He had come home and found his answers.
And if Holden was his prince then it was true what they said, that above all else you should be careful what you wished for.
They took Deena to Storytime Adventure and he saw that something had changed.
It was Monday night and the room was wall to wall with parents reposed with children in various seating choices, most of them on couches, like them, or on chairs with their children in their lap. Deena was sitting forward in Sean’s lap, eyes frozen ahead on the admittedly riveting marionette show, a retelling the folly-filled adventures from the original Pinocchio story.
Sean was sitting back on the couch, his hand absently rubbing her back, his other propped against his temple. He looked very far away.
He had tried to talk earlier, asking him how his talk on friendship to Deena’s class that morning had gone, and Sean had been inaccessible. But in a very different way. This was not the same man who had spent the last few days playing a game of cat and mouse with him.
Sean seemed…unconflicted. He seemed resolved.
When the night was over Sean first took Deena home, then him. As if to assure him that his attitude wasn’t a figment of his imagination, he drove him right to the front entrance of the hotel, no stress, no indication in his eyes or anywhere about his person that he was tempted one way or the other about anything.
He seemed immune to his very existence.
Staring after his truck departing from the parking lot, he was engulfed in a feeling of terror. And of familiarity.
It struck him after some moments that it was the same feeling from the night Sean made his announcement in the press, when he had seen Sean later on at his house. Sean had calmly told him that he was okay, that he could leave. That he could do without him.
It had been one of the worst things that had ever happened to him, a night of feeling as though he was being deprived of oxygen.
And after that unexpectedly serene kiss at the cookout, he should have suspecte something had happened.
He frantically pulled out his phone and with a trembling hand, called Allison.
“Hey, bud,” Davey said casually over the phone.
“I hear you got a problem.”
“You want to meet me at the Jacksons’ in fifteen?”
“Great. It’s gonna be fine,” Davey said soothingly. “Come prepared, I presume, to stay the night.”
Davey, standing opposite him in the shadows, glanced nonchalantly up.
“Got your condoms?”
“W-we don't use them.”
“Oh, right. Of course. So…lubrication?”
“I-I have some.”
“I-I don’t know how to give a massage.”
Davey brought his gaze down to him. His green eyes looked mildly surprised. “You’re Prince Charming. Get some game.”
“All right. Anything else you need?”
“I-I- I don't think so.”
“Okay, I think you’re all set.” Davey then stood there, his hands on his hips. “Hey, so I gotta ask. How big is Sean?”
He spaced, and looked blankly at him.
“I used to know when we were in our teens but anymore.”
He stared some more. Then he simply told him.
“Mother fucker,” Davey said softly. “He’s got half an inch on me.”
His tried to make his eyes go up to his task and still they wouldn’t. There wasn’t any need for him to be nervous.
Yes there was.
Davey placed a hand on his arm, his eyes searching. “You’re not nervous or anything, are you? It’s just like going to the gym.”
He quickly nodded, trying not to show his fear. “But a-are you sure I can’t just go through the front door?”
“Nah. He’ll sass ya.” Davey took a step back and looked up one last time, hands on his hips, so much like Sean. “Climb up there, get in, tell him you just want to cuddle. Tell him you’ll go at his own pace and that you don’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to. It’s worked on every girl living, and trust me, it’ll work on Sean.”
He finally looked up, making himself look at what he was about to do. The Jacksons’ was a two-story home and it wasn’t a small house.
But he was doing this for love, he resolutely told himself, and it was no different than renting a speedboat and going out on the Pacific.
“Okay,” he said in a small voice.
“Awesome.” Davey laced his hands, bending at the knees, and he took his shoulder and placed his foot firmly in the middle of Davey’s interlocked hands.
“Look at the size of your fucking feet,” Davey commented.
“Where do I grip?” he asked desperately.
“First ledge on your left. Right there. Found it?”
“You’re almost done.” As Davey slowly straightened, he was able to lift his foot to the lower window ledge. He clung on for dear life as Davey pulled away, dusting off his hands.
“Dude, you are all set. If you need to come back down this way, stay to the right. Sean knows how. Good luck to you, man.”
A soft knock woke him from his sleep.
It took him some moments in the darkness of the room, to try and figure out what it was. Then he thought a bird might be hitting itself against the window, and got up.
He took two steps over and pulled the aside blinds, and stood there staring for what seemed like eternity.
Holden was waving minutely at him, kneeling, as far as he could tell, on the slope of the garage roof.
On autopilot, he reached forward and released the latch on the window pane and the protector screen, sliding both to one side.
“Fuck me,” Holden gasped, hooking an arm around the window ledge.
He stepped back, astonished, more than a little concerned that in his forced cloistering he had started seeing things.
Holden climbed onto the ledge, sat back, and let out a breath. “Just like the gym, my ass.”
He stood back, waiting to see whether this was just a strange dream.
Holden was dressed in grey outdoors pants tucked into black hiking boots, and was wearing a black Northface ski jacket. He had on a black beanie, heavy duty winter gloves, and looked winded.
Not exactly the look he would have gone for were he having a dream in which Holden climbed up to his bedroom in the middle of the night.
As he watched, Holden stood, took off the hat and gave his head a shake. Then he tossed the hat. Taking hold of his zipper, he pulled open his jacket. That went on the floor as well.
“Holden, what are you doing?”
“What’s it look like I’m doing?”
He was almost speechless. “Holden, don’t you respect my privacy?” Then he realized, of course, who had just helped violate his privacy. “I’ll fucking kill that whore,” he whispered to himself, then looked again at Holden. “Why the hell won’t you give me room when I ask for it?”
“Sean, we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”
Holden had spoken gently, as if to a scared animal. And words he was perfectly familiar with.
“I know what it looks like, but…I’m serious.”
The tip of Holden’s tongue ran over his upper lip, then slowly across his bottom one.
“I…just want to cuddle.”
He couldn't believe Davey.
Holden was holding his eyes, his blue ones aglow in the dim room, and full of emotion.
Barefoot and now in an upsettingly flattering jersey, his eyelashes batted at him. Then he shoved his hand in his hair and pushed it off his forehead.
It was one last test.
It fate wanting to test whether he had been serious about the things he had thought about, resolved within himself. It was the natural course of things. The moment you found the right path adversity three things at you. Just to ask, are you sure. He just needed to make it through.
He gripped his hip and took a step back. “Holden, I’m not upset at you anymore,” he firmly told him. “And I don’t need you getting me upset. I’m fine now.”
Holden's eyes had sharpened. “Are you upset at me?” he asked softly.
He rolled back his lips, catching himself with he had nearly spilled. “Holden, we’re fine,” he said, but his voice was getting hoarser. It was getting harder to say anything.
And Holden wasn’t missing a thing. Slowly, he started coming toward him. “It’s fine, Sean,” he said in his gentle, obvious tones. “We’re just going to… be together. We’ll go at your own pace. We won’t do anything you don’t want to do.”
“Stop saying that nonsense.”
Holden had reached him, their breaths warming each other. Holden's arm cautiously went around his waist. “You can be upset at me if you like,” he whispered, his eyes on his downcast ones. “And as hard as you like.”
He tried to take a step back. “Holden. Please just go.”
But Holden’s arm around him only tightened, forcing him closer.
“Holden, I swear to God―”
“If you don’t want to talk, then let’s just lie down. I’ll hold you,” Holden said softly, pressing into him. “I’ll keep you safe.”
He couldn’t move, trembling so hard to keep a hold on himself. “Holden―”
“See?” Holden panted, his eyes somewhere on his lips. “All we’re doing is―”
He had Holden folded in half, arched off the carpeting, screaming in silent ecstasy at the patterns etched in the the ceiling. Holden was losing his fucking mind. On what he hoped was a fucking painful ride into the place he had always wanted to go. Into his head. Inside the mind he had taken and had turned into a useless, needful place where he was king of everything in sight. Where every breath, and every bad thought, or good thought, and anything in between, was his.
And where his body made everything feel good, and his smile, and his touch, and the things he considered afterthoughts were the monumental things on the horizon. He wanted him to see this place, and decide for himself whether he liked it, whether it was a pleasure to be this―
He had his fist tight around Holden’s cock and balls, squeezing him every time he felt them pulse, like Holden was going to come but he wouldn’t let him, instead letting his cock rub the right spot inside him and watched him cut off his screams because of where they were. He held his knee to his chest when his body wanted to arch off the floor, and fucked him hard and steady.
Holden twisted under from him, and he lowered himself so that he wouldn’t move, using his shoulder to leverage his knee. Holden’s hand gripped the back of his head, pinched and held him there.
He stared down at him. Holden’s eyes were squeezed shut and he was a fucking wreck, his hair and body glistening with sweet tension sweat, as if he had suddenly come up against the quarterback who was going to send him home to the minor leagues and he stopped moving out of pure malice to watch him stretch and twist and go taut under him, bucking to try to make him move.
“Sean, Sean!” he panted, slapping him on the back, over and over. “Move, goddamn it, please move,” he used his fingernails, then let out a soft whine. “Gimme that dick. I want it, I want it.”
He pressed he teeth into his ear. “You fucking― I’ll fucking―”
Holden shuddered right off the floor, and he pinched the tip of his cock, and that stifled scream, he was sure every man that ever fucked him, heard.
Holden’s orgasm went on, and on, wracking his body while his limbs slid all over him.
He spread his legs and pushed deeper into him, deeper still when he got no resistance whatsoever. He held him immobile, then fucked him hard, harder still when the body around him was weakening, opening up to him.
Feeling Holden’s arm go around him, his fingers going between his ass cheeks before coming to a rest around his waist, as if they were making love, he blew his load.
He woke up and sat on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands.
Holden was awake but silent behind him.
Holden’s elbows, under his knees, and all along the backs of his shoulders, his skin was starting to show reddish patches. In a few days they would turn purple.
“Sean,” he said, so softly, reaching to touch his back. “Please say something.”
“Like what?” he asked, turning to look at him. “That I’m a fucking freak? That I don’t have any low water marks where you’re concerned? Would that make you happy?”
“Why would you say that?” Holden said, looking genuinely baffled.
He turned away. His body had tensed. He was about to say things he would regret.
“You’ve gotten what you wanted, Holden. It’s time for you to leave.”
There was silence.
He turned to see Holden simply staring at him, his blue eyes dark against the white pillows.
He was naked and his pale skin was physically bruised among the sheets, and it should have made him seem vulnerable.
Instead it made him look dangerous.
“I haven’t been kicked out of anyone’s bed since I was fifteen,” Holden quietly said. “So believe me when I tell you that I’m going to have to pretend you didn’t just say that.”
Holden’s eyes were pinned on him. “And yes, I had sex before I met you.”
“Don’t you mean during?”
Holden became silent. Then he said, “Are you ready to talk?”
He was burning up.
“And don’t apologize to me,” Holden said, interrupting what he had been contemplating to say, if nothing else as a way out. “I don’t want to hear it.” He turned away. “I don’t care how angry you get, I’m not playing this game anymore.”
“It’s a fucking game to you?”
“Don’t push me, Sean. You know what I mean.”
“Why don’t you fucking tell me.”
“You’re trying to pick a fight, Sean. This time last year you said similar words to me, and they were the best thing you ever did for me. That was the moment I stopped playing games with us and faced responsibility for the―”
“That’s a fucking laugh, Holden.”
“And had to face responsibility for the way I had been treating you,” Holden repeated, sitting up, controlling his anger. “I’m only asking you to do the same thing. You need to―”
“Don’t, Holden. I’m done. Do you understand me? I’m fucking done.”
“With what, us?”
“Fine, then go.”
He flew to his feet, feeling as though he could shake the room to pieces. He snatched up his jeans and a T-shirt from wherever and yanked them on.
“And I’m not giving you your ring back, either,” Holden quietly told him.
“What the hell did I think I was doing with you!” he yelled, now dressed and standing by the door. “Why the fuck do I keep doing this to myself?”
Holden still looked away.
Opening the door, he was through it and had slammed it before remembering in whose house he was doing this.
Nevertheless thudding down the stairs, he strode into the kitchen and started to find his mother standing at the coffeemaker. She was quietly scooping coffee.
“Does Holden drink coffee?” she asked softly.
He stood frozen at the entrance, with no idea whether she had overheard them during the night or whether she had merely heard him shouting just now.
“I have no idea, mom,” he said, testily. Which wasn’t true at all. Holden drank more coffee in the morning than a normal person should.
He drank it with big spoons of honey and then didn’t drink anymore for the rest of the day, claiming it gave him a headache.
He’d told him that it was his damn sweet tooth giving him a headache and that he’d have to do something about breaking himself of that sugar habit of his at some point.
Holden had smiled coyly at him, slipping him one of those looks that wrecked his senses, and had told him that he’d break his sugar habit if he broke his.
Well, he was breaking his now.
“Why don’t you ask him when he comes down,” he told his mother, snatching a jacket from the hooks by the sliding doors. “I’m leaving.”
He pulled on a pair of thick boots and threw on the jacket. He was sliding the door open when she suddenly spoke.
“Does this make you feel better about yourself?”
He stopped and looked at her. “What?”
She wasn’t looking at him. “Is this what you do now, Sean?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper. “Pick fights with a person who’s been nothing but good to you?”
He wondered whether he was hearing things.
“This is a joke, right, mom?”
Her breaths coming from deep inside her, her frame had gone so tight that she was failing to finish making the coffee. She put down the scooper.
“Why don’t you go somewhere and do some thinking, Sean,” she said in a trembling voice. “Right now.”
He saw her condition. He pulled back from the door.
“Mom, I-I didn’t mean― I’m sorry I was―”
He left the house.
He stayed with Anne and drank some coffee.
She was crying.
Her tears were leaking from her eyes and she was wiping them over and over, in perfect silence. Wil was trying to make her stop moving, trying to hold her but she wasn’t letting him. Sean was long gone.
“You should talk to him, Anne. Don’t punish him like that, you need to talk to him,” Wil was saying repeatedly to her.
“You and your a man’s got the right to be upset. Your stupid male egos.”
“Well,” Wil insisted, placatingly. “We first had to acknowledge that he was upset.”
“For how long?” she snapped, then held up a hand. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Wil sighed, heavily. “Well, wonder where he gets it from.”
He sat, because she had told him to stay and finish his coffee.
Now she came over and held his head and planted a firm, deep kiss on his crown. She kissed him several more times.
Then she left. Wil came and patted his shoulder, before following her out.
He stood up, went over and placed his mug in the kitchen sink, and left through the front door.
“Oh, Anne is angry all right.”
Kay was leaning in the entrance to the hallway, arms folded, her eyes on him. Allison had taken Deena to school, then gone on to work. She’d told Kay to handle it. Because she might otherwise kill him.
And he sat in the living room, so distraught he felt as if he was going to be sick.
“Where’s Holden?” he asked desperately.
“You’re not allowed to see or talk to him until you get your shit together. Those are Anne’s orders.”
He looked up, staring at her.
“Yes,” she said earnestly. “She’s calling your bluff. She’s not kidding. And Holden is going to respect it.”
“I could just text him,” he whispered.
But he couldn’t. His hands were shaking because he knew―even though he had thought so before―that he had actually now reached a dead end.
Davey suddenly walked into the house. He hadn’t even heard him pull up. He came into the living room and stood there, hand on his hip, staring at him.
“You all right, Sean?”
He didn’t look at him.
Davey turned to Kay. “Anne is fucken pissed. I think I should take him until she cools down.”
Kay’s phone suddenly rang. She looked at it, then lowered it and gave them a tight-lipped look.
“Too late. Sean, you’re up.”
He tentatively entered the kitchen.
His mother was standing at the other end of the island, frozen, her face turned away but without the pretense of doing anything else. She was waiting for him.
When she still didn’t say anything, even after he had stood there for over two minutes, he circumspectly sat down.
“I cried when you came out. And it was because I knew I could no longer protect you. All my life I worried about you. Of course we knew you were gay, we just never discussed it. How could I, when I knew life was going to be so difficult for you and that you were going to be all alone.”
He blinked, not having expected anything like that.
“What?” he asked blankly.
“You were such a sweet little boy and I knew you were never going to find happiness among a bunch of men, cavorting around on television and in the magazines. So I taught you to cook― and to clean and do your finances, and make sure that even if you never found someone, you could at least be happy on your own. As long as you could at least take care of yourself,” she said unevenly, “I thought you would be okay.”
“Mom,” he said in shock. “Why are you saying things like that? Allison’s a lesbian and she came out and found someone when it was still crazy out there.”
She waved dismissively. “It’s different for girls.”
“Even when you told me you’d met someone I didn’t take it seriously. How could I? How could I. I didn’t even want to meet him. Until I saw him, and I saw how he treats you, like you were his…” She stopped, shaking her head. “So like a miracle you found someone, and he’s good to you and strong for you, and all you want to talk about are the things he did wrong. I am so mad at you I could smack you.”
“So what, he hurt you? Would you be the first man anything like that ever happened to? Yes, Allison told me all about it. Just count yourself lucky he didn’t do it after you got married. What would have happened if you got married, and three years in you found out he was sleeping around on you the entire time? Does the thought of that sound more painful than this?”
He pressed his lips.
“Answer me, Sean.”
“It does,” he said hoarsely.
“Then you should let it go.”
“Mom,” he whispered, feeling so small. “I- I’m so lost…”
“You’re fine,” she snapped, her breath shaking. “You’re just stubborn.” She pursed her lips. “Do you love him, Sean?”
“And are you sure of the way he feels about you?”
He quickly nodded.
“And does he deserve the kind of faith you have in yourself? Give yourself a straight answer, Sean.”
“He does,” he whispered.
“Then accept that you’ve been hurt, no matter how dirty it was, and let him apologize to you. This is only the beginning of the number of times you’re going to hurt each other in your lives. Don’t let it dictate your marriage.”
The words arrested him and he lifted his gaze.
“Yes, Sean, you’re getting married.” Her eyes were stormy. She didn’t seem to be getting less angry. “You’re going to be letting the whole world know you’re in it together. Don’t do it unless you mean it, and don’t waste his time if you’re not ready.”
“Mom,” he whispered, taking a shallow breath. “I―”
“Go outside. I’m still mad at you.”
He stood up.
“And if he doesn’t take you back, then you can―” she stalled, her eyes glinting with tears. “Then you can go back to L.A. and― sulk for all I care.”
He walked over to her and kissed her on her forehead. She waved toward the sliding door.
He went outside.
His forearm propped against the wall, his mind vibrating with frightening and liberating things, he pulled up his phone and tapped the messaging screen. With a shaking hand, he sent Holden a text.
I need you.
Holden immediately called back.
“How soon can you get here?” he whispered.
“I’ll be there in five.”
Sean was at one end of the kitchen when he walked in. He looked opposite of what he had been like that morning.
Whatever Anne had said must have hit home, because Sean looked absolutely run over. He was red-faced and stood with his hand gripping his jeans as though what remained at his hip was the last piece of strength he had in him. The false sense of control that had allowed him to maintain their barriers had clearly been trampled.
And Sean had shaved.
His beard was now back to the way it had always been, and he looked, or at least he wanted to make it look, like how he remembered him in L.A.
He hoped, remembering that morning at Paula’s, the last time they had talked about their future, that he could handle it with as much grace and dignity as Sean had.
“Holden, I’m so sorry but I’ve been in such a bad place.”
He breathed quietly, not wanting to disturb a hair of the moment.
“I’ve been so scared and so ashamed of the thoughts I’ve had for so long. They were ungrateful and didn’t belong in our relationship. And so I tried not to look at them. I didn’t respect them enough to want to face them or deal with them.” Sean kept trying to loosen his grip on his jeans. But with each word he seemed to only hold himself tighter. “So they got worse every day, until I didn’t know how to wake up in the morning and not have them be everything.”
“Why didn’t you just talk to me?” he asked. “Why did you want to do this alone?”
“Because I love you, and I’m ashamed of the way I feel.”
He was stumped. This conversation was unbelievable to him.
“Why would you feel ashamed of anything with me? You’ve seen me at my absolute worst. Why did you think I would've judged you?”
“All you’ve ever been is good to me. Even when you were leaving me you never tried to make me feel bad, or―”
“So, then why…?”
“Because I’ve been so ashamed of―”
Sean looked up at him.
“How dare you break up with me,” he said, shaking his head as he stared at him. “After everything we’ve been through? How fucking dare you?”
Sean looked taken aback, anxious. “S-sweetheart―”
“What, because I hurt you? So hurt me back. It’s what you want to do anyway, isn’t it? Or am I dreaming these bruises and the teeth marks on my ass? You know damn well what you want when you’re upset at me. You did it in my father’s house with guests outside, and now you’ve done it with your parents in the house.”
Sean was no longer looking at him, his head down, his face on fire.
“It’s why you woke up and went crazy on me this morning,” he said, enunciating every word. “Because you feel good doing me like a paid whore when you’re mad at me.”
“Don’t fucking baby me! I don’t want to hear it. I don’t have a single problem in life, except you Sean. Don’t ever do this to me again, you hear me? Grow some balls and get into this relationship, because we don’t have to do it any other way. That’s what your mom told me.”
Sean’s eyes flew to him, as he had expected.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “She told me we don’t have to go by anyone else’s book on marriage. We write our own. So no more miscommunicating over nothing. Next time we have a problem― w-we’re never to have a problem. This is it. How could you possibly have thought you could figure this out on your own?”
“I know, sweetheart,” Sean said quickly. “I know. Please, please. I just― I was so scared because―”
“Don’t be! I’m not leaving you! I can’t leave you! Oh my God, I’m about to lose my mind. I’ve just spent days out of the office I can’t afford just so you would look at me. Between you being the biggest prima donna I’ve ever met and me being so in love with you I don’t seem to want common sense, we’re fucked.”
Placing his hand on the counter, he leaned forward and continued. “Do you understand me? We’re one of those couples that’s fucked. I guarantee you even when we’ve ended up ruining each other’s lives, getting a bitter divorce and started dating other people, we’re still going to be fucking in motel rooms and ruining other people’s lives. We're going to be hating the day we met and didn’t have the common sense to just walk―”
He stopped talking because Sean, arms wrapped tight around his chest, had begun trembling. He looked as though―
Sean looked as though…
“Sean,” he said softly.
“That’s―” Sean put his head down, his jaw trembling. “That’s the most beautiful thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
It took him several seconds to accept what he had just heard. What the fuck?
Sean was shaking, and when he let out his breath it was very clear what was happening.
Seconds ticked by in which he simply stared in disbelief.
And then he was having to open his arms as Sean came to him, his head going into his shoulder and his body crushing him into the counter.
Astounded, he simply stared widely at the far wall.
Sean gripped his jersey, shaking in a struggle not to cry. He let out soft sounds, clawing at the small of his back. Reaching behind them, he put a hand on the counter to take his weight, and buried his other hand in his hair. Sean was holding him so close, it was hard for either of them to breathe. And he wouldn’t want it any other way.
Oh, my God, he thought in shocked disbelief. He's put us both through this hell when all he needed was a good cry.
Sean pressed his tighter, kept up with his struggle not to cry.
“I’m sorry I was such a coward.”
“You weren’t a coward.”
“I was so frightening to think of what it meant that I couldn’t let you go even when you rejected me over and over.”
“Well, did you think I kept coming back because I was immune to you?”
“I don’t want you to be immune to me,” Sean whispered brokenly.
Oh my God, he thought, beside himself with astonishment.
“I just want you to love me,” Sean added thickly.
“Of course I do,” he said, amazed, and so strangely even more in love.
“I’m sorry it took me this long to find the right words.”
He brushed back Sean's hair, looking into the face that wouldn’t leave him alone. It was very red now, and Sean finally looked at him from under wet lashes, and he nearly died, never having thought of what those eyes would look like wet and in need of love. His heart was about to give out. “You should never be ashamed who you are,” he told him. “You’re my Sean, and I’ll take you any way I can get you.”
“And you’re my sweetheart forever,” Sean responded, crushing his jersey into his back.
He started laughing. He couldn’t help it. “Oh my God,” he said, totally disbelieving. “You’re going to owe me till the day you die.”
The buzzing of his phone on the suite’s nightstand woke him, confusing him, because it was the middle of the day and he was in bed. Sleeping on top of someone.
He turned his face into the back of Sean’s head, which seemed to be serving as a pillow, and the rest of his body as a body pillow. Sean was lying on his stomach and he was lying fully on top of him, breathing in his nape hair.
It was such a deep sleep he was trying to wake out of that for long, long moments, he thought he was in his dad’s house. The morning before the cocktail party, and he was about to take Sean to go see his old elementary school. But that couldn’t be.
The phone kept on buzzing, and Sean stirred with a groan. He reached over, patting around above Sean's head until he touched it on the nightstand, and switched it off.
Then memories came back to him. Their location, the circumstances that had ended with them returning to his hotel suite. When the last few hours came back, he slid his arms around Sean’s body and held him.
Then something told him to look at the phone.
He groggily picked it up and brought it very close to his face. It was a text from Elliot. It said, “It's a week to Valentine’s Day. Hope you make it.”
He set the phone down and dropped his head to the back of Sean’s head, resting in complete bliss. Softly, he kissed over to Sean’s ear and whispered, “Hey.”
Sean started but didn't wake. “Uhn?”
“We made it.”
Part 10: For Sentimental Reasons