Luke got him the job.
Luke always gets him jobs. Once, five summers ago, when Chris had to pay for a trip to Greece in his senior year, Luke referred him to a guy named Pedro who painted houses for a living.
A squat little man with beady dark eyes, Pedro subjected Chris to six weeks of intensive verbal abuse on top of a fifteen minute lunch break; he kept Chris on a straight eight-hour work schedule and often, whenever Chris dripped paint on the floor, hit him on the shoulder with the handle of his paintbrush and called him cabron.
Every day before going to work, Chris always had it in his mind to quit, but the pay was too good to pass up so he stuck around until he was fired after he took his shirt off and wrapped it around his face because he couldn’t stand the smell.
With Luke, regardless of the calamitous working conditions involved, you could always guarantee that the jobs he offered you would pay very well. Maybe it wouldn’t cover the therapy you required after but it was enough to sustain you for a couple of weeks until you found another job, and it rid you of any guilt or self-loathing you felt when your contract was over.
Chris jumped at the chance this time, because other than being unemployed, it wasn’t every day he got to be administrative assistant.
It was only a temp job but money was money; he had to pay the rent. And Chris knew he couldn’t subsist entirely on junk food and beer if he planned to live past twenty five. He saw this opportunity as his foray into adulthood, his first real job in the adult world after brief stints in the food-processing industry and a stilted career as a radio announcer.
So he shaved, got rid of most of what Luke often called his “jungle hair”, and bought a couple of suits on Luke’s company card.
What he saw in the bathroom mirror in the aftermath made him pause and tilt his head to the side, assessing his newly shaven appearance with an appreciative eye. Luke wasn’t kidding. Shaving worked wonders and bolstered your morale.
Chris wasn’t a vain person but he had to admit: he looked pretty damn good in a suit.
The job seemed easy at first.
All Chris had to do was transfer calls, schedule appointments, fax documents, sort out junk mail, type memos and make sure all the typographical errors were combed out before lunch, but the great thing was he didn’t have to do everything on the same day and he had a forty minute lunch that allowed him to flirt with Giselle from Accounting when he felt like it.
Not that he was interested. He mostly dated guys, and the odd girl if she was cute enough.
It wasn’t as easy as he’d initially believed, sure, but Chris thought he could do it for a couple of months without wanting to put his head in the copier machine repeatedly.
He was lulled into a false sense of security the first week he was welcomed into the sparkling marble-floored halls of H & Co, a management consulting firm occupying the tenth and eleventh floors of West Fordham Tower on Brown Street.
He made friends easily and fell into the daily grind of corporate life, trudging groggily into the shower at seven in the morning where he gargled and shaved with one eye open, and then taking the train downtown forty minutes later, joining the horde of cynical briefcase-touting grunts all grumbling about another shitty day at the workplace and plans to quit before the end of the month.
It was, in a weird way, kind of nice.
Until his boss returned from his trip to Sao Paulo, anyway.
Luke, who always gave you advice whether you wanted it or not, said there were only two surefire ways that Chris could fuck this up: 1) if he engaged in romantic/sexual relations with someone from the office and 2) if he stole, borrowed, or used office supplies for any activity that was completely non-work related.
“So try to behave,” he said on Chris’ first day before giving him a stern look to punctuate his point.
That advice pretty much went out the window as soon as Chris stepped into the lift on his second week of work, armed with a bagel he’d stolen off the pastry trolley and a cup of steaming coffee.
The lift was empty save for another guy he hadn’t seen before: soft slightly ginger hair, an odd splotchy tan, leather-brown shoes, smart bespoke suit which meant he was several rungs higher up on the corporate ladder. He kept scratching his neck insistently, loosening his collar and rubbing his jaw.
Chris watched him for a minute before clearing his throat. “Allergies?” he said.
The guy turned to him and blinked. “I don’t know,” he said; he had a kind gentle voice. Chris thought it was kind of soothing. “It just started itching this morning on my way to work.”
“Have you taken a good look at it?” Chris asked.
The guy’s eyes narrowed speculatively. “No,” he said after a moment, tilting his head slightly to the right. “I don’t believe I have.”
Chris shrugged. “Benadryl’s your best bet, mate,” he said and eyed the redness spreading across the guy’s throat. He winced as he peered into the stiff collar. Definitely allergies. “Does it feel rough?”
He got a shrug in response. “Benadryl,” Chris repeated, nodding knowingly. “Trust me.”
The guy lowered his hand from his neck. “Right,” he said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
Chris stepped out on his floor and turned in time to see the guy’s lips twitch slowly into a tiny smile. Then the chrome doors hissed shut and the moment was broken.
Sipping his coffee, Chris walked to his cubicle with a spring in his step.
Just another day at work, he thought, biting into his bagel. It needed more cream.
He was called that morning into the office of one of the firm’s senior partners whose name Chris might’ve heard casually thrown around in the lounge on account of how awfully familiar it sounded.
Thomas Hiddleston. It sounded like an expensive brand of socks.
Word was Hiddleston was a difficult man to please and once fired a guy who got him a decaf instead of the half-caf he had asked for. He’d just been back from a six day vacation in Brazil where his spending, it was said, most likely contributed to the country’s GDP.
The guy was made of money, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, well-versed in five languages including Latin. At least according to Giselle.
Chris resented him already; nobody was that perfect and didn’t have anything to hide. It just wasn’t possible.
Carol led him to Hiddleston’s office, squeezing his arm and winking. Her hips swayed hypnotically. “You’ll be reporting to him now,” she said.
With a red taloned finger, Carol pointed to the end of the hall with all the gloom one might reserve for delivering a death sentence. “Mr. Hiddleston’s quite the powerhouse; try not to get intimidated, Chris.” Then she left Chris to fend for himself like a deer caught in headlights, high heels clicking away.
Chris gulped. He smoothed the front of his shirt and pushed back his hair. The glass door squeaked under his palm when he pushed it open; he held his breath.
Seated behind the immense cherry wood desk, to Chris’ complete astonishment, was the guy from this morning, the first two buttons of his dress shirt undone, red silk tie in a heap next to his coffee mug. And he was rubbing Benadryl all over his neck, tipping his head back as he daubed the stuff under his chin.
He blinked when Chris walked in.
“Benadryl,” said Chris, feeling awkward.
“Yes,” said the guy -- Hiddleston -- gaping. “You’re the new --”
Chris paused. He hated euphemisms. “Yes,” he said. “Sir. Yes, sir.”
Hiddleston gestured to one of the leather seats. He cocked his head to one side, lifting his chin a little. “Sit.”
Chris sat. He watched as Hiddleston wiped his hand on a blue silk handkerchief to his right and then peered into a dossier in his lap. Tilting his seat back, Hiddleston began flipping through the pages, the tip of a pen casually pressed to the corner of his mouth, and Chris watched, oddly transfixed, as his tongue curled around the ivory lid.
It was a little distracting to see him with his shirt loose at the throat too, two buttons undone, the slender curve of his neck exposed like in the old days when women showed a bit of ankle and men went completely riotous afterwards.
Chris felt a little bit like that, the riotous man spluttering in a mixture of outrage and a faint twinge of inexplicable lust. He wanted to kill himself.
“Says here you have no corporate experience prior to this one?” Hiddleston said after a moment.
Chris jerked up from his seat in surprise. “It says that?”
“No, I just came to that conclusion after reading your file,” said Hiddleston. He sipped his coffee.
Chris wished he could fling himself out the window.
There was a pregnant pause during which Chris swore he could hear his heart hammering in his chest. Behind Hiddleston’s leather seat, was a sweeping view of the business district, the sky so immensely blue Chris suddenly understood why people often killed for an office like this one.
It was relaxing in its own way, and gave you a sense of perspective: everyone else was a worthless peon if you had a view like this.
Hiddleston tossed the dossier aside, the sudden movement making Chris jump in surprise.
“All right, Christopher,” he said, folding his hands together, “Everything seems to be in order. You’re not a wanted felon and your background checks out. You will be working for me until my secretary returns in January. I called you here so I could meet you, and now that we’ve met…” He trailed off, pressing his lips together, eyeing Chris from head to foot. “Is that a skinny tie?”
Chris touched his tie self-consciously. He was told at the store that it was stylish; he bought three ties for sixty dollars. They were on sale. Chris liked bargains.
Hiddleston, however, did not look like he appreciated them. In fact, frown lines began appearing around his mouth and eyes. If there were an award giving body for people who could frown the hardest, he would’ve won gold, silver, and bronze.
“Don’t wear a skinny tie to work,” Hiddleston said with a pained sigh. “You look like you’re choking. The width of the tie has to match the width of your suit jacket’s lapels. It’s all about proportion. Look at you, you look ridiculous. Come here.”
Chris blinked at him. “Come here,” Hiddleston repeated with urgency, raising both his eyebrows.
Chris went around the desk and stood awkwardly in front of him, leaping back a step when Hiddleston, without warning, slithered up from his seat. And then his fined-boned fingers were at Chris’ throat, undoing the knot of his tie and tugging it free from his collar.
Hiddleston stood so close Chris could almost breathe the fresh coffee smell of his breath; his skin smelled a little like mint candy. Maybe that was what rich people smelled like, Chris thought.
He swallowed, wondering vaguely if this counted as office harassment. Even if it were, he didn’t think he’d mind. At all.
With a gentle pull, Hiddleston undid Chris’ tie, dropping it with a flourish on his desk. Then he reached inside one of his cavernous drawers and pulled out a turquoise twill tie of his own which he held up to Chris’ face with a slightly raised eyebrow.
“I assume you know what to do with this,” he said as if speaking to a very slow child or an idiot.
Chris opened his mouth then closed it quickly after realizing he had nothing to say. He snagged the tie in a fist, flushing in embarrassment and shame and annoyance.
Hiddleston waved him away in dismissal and Chris was tempted for a minute to shake him violently by the shoulders or gag him with the stupid turquoise tie. It was what he hated about these types of people, the overblown sense of self and entitlement. He ought to be put in his place, Chris thought. Someone should teach him a lesson.
“Christopher,” Hiddleston called out just when Chris was about to reach for the door handle. “You left your tie.”
Chris grabbed it from the desk with a forced smile. “Right,” he said. “Thanks.”
“And oh, thank you for the suggestion,” Hiddleston continued, making Chris freeze up for a second. “The Benadryl. It worked,” he said.
Chris kept his back facing Hiddleston, hand outstretched midair, aimed for the door. “Sure,” he said. “Sir,” he added, just in case he was reprimanded.
Then he left as calmly as he could, picking up his pace as soon as Hiddleston’s office was out of sight; then he started sprinting to the men’s room, and eyeing the twill tie as if it had suddenly grown fangs and was about to attack him, tossed it in the sink.
Chris asked Giselle all she knew about the bastard over lunch; it only seemed practical. Giselle knew everything there was to know about everyone including the elusive security guard on the night shift nobody has ever seen.
“Why are you so pissed at him?” she laughed, waving a plastic fork in his face as she ate her chickpea salad. “He may be a little stern but he’s actually a very generous guy; very few people know that.”
“Very few people including you?” said Chris, frowning down at his hotdog.
“Well,” Giselle said. “I happen to work in Accounting.” She tapped her cheek with a finger. “He can be a bit of a slave driver, I’ll admit, but he makes up for it with the fat Christmas bonus.”
“What, so he owns the company?”
Giselle nodded. “Forty percent of it. You don’t know?”
“He looks like he should be in diapers.”
Giselle shot him a look. “Okay, fine,” Chris conceded, “All I’m saying is, he looks kind of young to have that much power over all of us.”
“It’s his grandfather’s company,” Giselle explained, sounding amused. “Part of it belongs to him. The other sixty percent belongs to his dad.”
“Wow,” Chris said.
“Yeah, wow,” Giselle agreed. “Did he give you a hard time earlier?”
Chris thought about Hiddleston’s neck, and his fingers, and his minty clean smell. Then he thought about the tie which had nearly choked him when he tried putting it on. He shrugged. “Not really,” he lied. “He just seemed liked kind of an ass.”
“Well,” Giselle said, holding up her hands and turning to face him. “It’s his thing, you know? He does this with all of his secretaries.”
“All?” said Chris. “Just how many has he had?”
“He’s a nice guy,” Giselle insisted, slapping him on the arm chidingly. “It’s an initiation rite. He wants to make sure you’re cut out for the job.”
“Why was I not briefed for this?” Chris said, gaping at her. “And what does that mean: he wants to make sure? What is he expecting me to be able to withstand? Excruciating physical torture?”
Giselle tilted her head. “Your brother didn’t tell you?”
“He tells me nothing,” Chris said. They were going to have words later, Chris thought. Words.
Giselle’s pleased smile did not help the situation any. “You’ll be fine,” she assured him. “I think he’ll like you. I mean, everyone likes you, Chris.”
Everyone, it seemed, except Hiddleston.
Giselle eyed Chris’ tie and made a thoughtful face. “Nice tie by the way,” she said, rubbing the fabric between her fingers.
Chris grimaced. “Thanks,” he said and tugged at it self-consciously.
He had to return the tie eventually and he did, ten minutes after he clocked out, waiting like an impatient dog outside Hiddleston’s office and pacing the floor until he was sure he’d worn a rut in the carpet. He was sweating profusely. This was not good.
Chris rolled his eyes at himself and decided to just get it over with. He knocked twice, waited for a beat, and was rewarded by the sudden heave of the door pushing open.
“Christopher,” Hiddleston said. He looked ready to leave, clutching his phone in one hand and a leather briefcase in the other.
“Mr. Hiddleston,” said Chris. “I just came to return your tie; thank you.”
Hiddleston nodded, glancing at Chris’ hand with a light sniff. “You can keep it if you like.”
“I’d really rather not,” Chris muttered, rolling his eyes.
“What was that?” said Hiddleston.
Before Chris could respond, Hiddleston turned his wrist over to check the time. His watched glinted as it caught the light. Probably cost the GNP of a small nation, Chris thought.
“I need to be at the Hyatt in twenty minutes. Walk with me.” Hiddleston made a beckoning gesture, and like the idiot that he was, Chris scrambled after him, holding the elevator door open before it shuddered shut in front of them.
Ensconced in an enclosed space with the one person he’d developed a strange and immense sudden dislike for, Chris began sweating again.
“Were you on your way home?” Hiddleston asked, texting furiously before pocketing his phone.
Chris shrugged. “Yeah, kind of. It’s five thirty, and my brother’s expecting me for dinner at around seven, so. Sir.”
“Oh, your brother. How’s he doing these days?”
“He’s…well,” said Chris. Words, Chris reminded himself; they were going to have a talk.
“That’s good to hear,” Hiddleston said, pressing his lips together. Chris stared at his shoes and felt Hiddleston’s unblinking stare penetrate the side of his face.
“Sir,” interjected Chris after a long bout of eerie silence. “I really appreciate the tie but I think you should have it.”
He was waved into silence. “You should call me Tom.”
“What,” said Chris. “Tom?”
“We’re off work now. Just call me Tom. We’re practically the same age, anyway, aren’t we?” Tom shrugged, as if he didn’t have a seven figure net worth to his name.
Chris blinked at him, dumbstruck. Was this part of the initiation rite Giselle had mentioned earlier, he wondered. Finally, the elevator doors opened, saving Chris from potential embarrassment and mockery.
“After you,” Tom said, extending his arm.
Chris gritted his teeth and tried his best to smile. “No, no,” he said, “After you, Tom.”
Uttering the name alone felt like swallowing sawdust and nails.
Chris tried to get used to it.
Dinner with Luke and his family went well.
That was to be expected; Luke’s wife, Margaret, was a terrific cook and she never, as a rule, talked about work over dinner. It was too stressful, she claimed, so she talked about other things instead that put a lesser strain on your mental faculties, like the kids, for example, or menial gossip, the weather, gardening.
She always put leftover food in tupperwares that she made Chris bring home, afterwards. It wasn’t after the kids were put to bed that Chris grabbed Luke by the arm and hauled him to the kitchen.
“Dude,” he hissed. “I thought you said this job was a career opportunity!”
Luke shrugged his arm off and finished his beer. “It is! What are you complaining about?”
“My boss came back from vacation with weird allergies,” Chris said. “Which are probably sexual in nature. And he lent me his tie!”
“Hiddleston’s a good guy,” Luke snorted. “You have nothing to worry about. Which tie?”
Chris rolled his eyes. “A good guy? Are you sure? He’s…” He threw his arms up in exasperation; there wasn’t even a word for what Hiddleston was. Jesus. “Doesn’t that seem a little weird to you? He lent me his tie.”
“Chris,” said Luke, “Chris, seriously. You’re overreacting. He’s probably just sick of seeing your skinny ties. They make you look like you’re starring in a porno, for god’s sake.”
“You said they looked nice!” Chris accused.
“Well, I already got you to shave,” Luke said, shrugging. “And you were feeling so good about yourself, I didn’t want to have to ‘rain on your parade’ so to speak.”
“Oh my god,” Chris muttered, scrubbing a hand through his face.
“Here,” Luke said, shoving an armful of tupperware at him. “Marge wants you to have some meatloaf. Eat it before the end of the week; it’ll go bad after then.”
Chris sighed. “She makes good meatloaf,” he agreed, tucking a tupperware under his arm.
Luke waggled a finger in his face. “Don’t let my wife’s cooking go to waste now,” he smiled.
Chris didn’t smile back. “I’ll try not to,” he said.
“Chris,” said Giselle nicely with a put-upon sigh the next day. “You need more friends.” She squinted at her monitor and pushed her glasses up her nose.
“Terry from IT owes me money; I’m not talking to him until he pays me back,” Chris told her. He shredded a packet of sugar and dunked its contents into his coffee, stirring it before taking a perfunctory sip. Too hot; he left it alone to cool. “He said to call him Tom. Tom. He said to call him Tom. What was that all about?”
Giselle clacked away at her computer. “He was probably just being nice; maybe it means he likes you.”
“Maybe,” said Chris, though an hour later that didn’t seem to be the case.
Tom called him into his office and waved a stack of folders in his face. “Photocopy these,” he said, dropping back into his seat and crossing his ankles on his desk. He wore brown argyle socks and started texting as soon Chris collected the stack, laughing at some private joke and shaking his head. “I need twenty five copies before...” he checked his watch. “Ten thirty.”
“That’s in ten minutes,” Chris said.
There were ten folders with at least twenty pages in them and the rickety copier only printed fifty pages per minute. The walk to the copying room alone already took five minutes and even if Chris sprinted it would be damn near impossible to make it in time unless he was suddenly gifted with superhuman speed.
“Make it happen,” Tom said, not even bothering to look at him.
Chris, already feeling harassed so early in the morning, turned on his heel and went. Post haste.
After that, Tom sent him on a barrage of unending coffee runs. Either his coffee needed a little more syrup or he’d decided, while Chris was weaving through cabs and trying not to get run over, that he wanted a soy latte after all with one of those cheery little leaves on the surface.
Chris was tempted for a moment to spit in his drink but he wasn’t that petty and he knew he’d only feel bad afterwards.
The only thing that kept him from wanting to tear out his hair was the thought of those crisp dollar bills sliding out of the ATM machine come payday. He was doing it for the money.
Money couldn’t buy you happiness, but it paid the rent and put food in your belly, Chris thought. And sometimes you had to do sordid things for it like take off your clothes or sell your liver, but it all worked out in the end. You had a roof on your head and so on.
By five in the afternoon, Chris was too tired to even complain to Giselle, who kept making sympathetic faces at him whenever he saw her in the hall by the potted plant.
He was on his way out, hefting his satchel on one shoulder and turning off his monitor when he saw Tom standing outside in the otherwise empty hall, texting, mouth furrowed, tapping his phone with nimble fingers.
For someone who did nothing but order people around all day and sit in soft comfortable chairs, Tom looked exhausted, brows knit in concentration, a frown hanging off his face.
Chris was about to wait until Tom was gone but just as he was about to duck under the desk and hide, Tom spotted him and waved him over with a cordial nod.
What a strange guy, Chris thought. Just over an hour ago, Tom was spitting coffee into the bin, demanding Chris take his drink back to the shop for the sixth time.
Chris ambled over with as much indifference as he could muster.
They walked to the elevator together in a silence that expressed unrequited distrust and Chris was seized by the sudden realization that Tom could’ve been waiting for him all this time, like a predator, like a snake, skulking in the shadows and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. It was a terrifying thought.
“So,” Tom said, shoving his hands inside his pockets; he didn’t have a briefcase today. “Plans for the night Christopher?”
Wow, okay, Chris thought. Back off, man. Half of his face twitched as he thought about what to say without coming off hostile. He remembered it was a Friday night which meant he had to sound cool and pimping. Pimping?
“I’m going out drinking with my friends,” he said, blinking at himself. Obviously, he hadn’t thought that one through.
“Oh, really?” said Tom, eyes lighting up. Chris fervently hoped he wasn’t going to invite himself because not only would that be incredibly awkward to his nonexistent friends, it’d also be incredibly rude.
“I’m going out for drinks myself,” confided Tom with a smile that looked odd on his normally placid face. “Maybe I could give you a ride. Where did you say you were going?”
“I’d really rather --” said Chris, but was interrupted when the wall he was leaning against slid open without preamble. He nearly toppled over but caught himself just in time, shooting Tom an embarrassed smile as he righted himself and smoothed out his shirt.
Elevators. Right, he thought.
Tom’s eyes narrowed in concern. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Chris, lifting a hand. “I’m fine. Sir. Mr. Hiddleston.”
“Tom,” Tom corrected him.
“Tom,” said Chris with a jerky nod. “Right.” He smiled again. “I’m fine.” He held up his thumbs.
Parked across the street, rich and gleaming, with the touch-me-not appearance often reserved for the elite, Tom’s Bentley shone under the streetlight like the wings of a beetle.
Chris felt his jaw nearly drop off its hinges.
The driver -- a man in uniform, with a hat and gloves, like Chris thought only existed in movies – tipped his hat at them as they approached.
“Good evening, Mr. Hiddleston,” said the driver with a smile, folding his newspaper under one arm. “Who’s your friend?”
“Oh,” said Tom, startled, as if only remembering Chris’ presence. “He’s my temp until Edith returns from maternity leave.” He smiled distractedly.
“Doesn’t seem like your type,” said the driver with a toothy grin, casting Chris an appraising look.
Chris wasn’t sure what to make of it but one thing he knew for certain was: he better proceed with caution.
The interior of the Bentley was perfumed and clothed in rich brown leather. Chris asked to be dropped off in front of Big Dice, the only club he knew off the top of his head whose clientele comprised not of minors trickling in from the local high schools but of the mid-twenty corporate grunt set of which Chris now was a part.
As soon as Tom’s Bentley was out of sight, Chris quickly flagged down a cab, too lazy to take the train and too exhausted to muster the strength to walk all the way to the station.
He tripped face-first into bed as soon as he got back to his apartment, ready to sleep with all his clothes on until his phone started vibrating in his pocket. He shifted around and fished it out with an annoyed grunt, pressing it to his ear as he toed off his shoes.
It was Luke. “Hey, are you free tonight? My babysitter has chicken pox apparently and Marge and I are going out to watch a mo--”
Chris hung up before he could continue.
Eventually, Chris got used to the head-splitting headache that was now his life at the firm.
Tom continued to be a consistent pain in his side, but Chris learned to work around it by paying close attention and taking down notes.
For example, every Tuesdays and Thursdays, Tom always seemed to be in the mood for English Breakfast Tea; the rest of the week he either wanted an espresso or a caramel macchiato loaded with extra shots. He never finished a drink, turned his cup counter clockwise twice before he drank from it, read only the front page of the morning paper usually at nine forty five when he clocked in, and possessed an unnatural love for pudding.
Two weeks ago, Chris went on a goddamn pudding run because Tom suddenly had a craving for treacle sponge pudding. And only one store made treacle sponge pudding that had the flavor and consistency that Tom enjoyed: Carl Marletti.
The store was halfway across the city, an hour away by bus, twenty five minutes by train. Chris took the bus because he figured he needed a solid hour to himself to reflect on his life and choices.
Any time spent away from Tom and the firm, he savored like sugar to a starving man.
It was why he often looked forward to the weekend. No work, no Tom, no coffee runs, and he didn’t have to listen to Tom complain about the stock market on the drive to wherever he felt like going for lunch.
Two days of blessed peace. It was divine.
Working for Tom, Chris realized after a month, was mind-numbing work. He lost sleep, and as a result was tired and cranky often. He spent more time at the office than at home.
But, like a light headache, the job was manageable. Annoying, sure, but manageable. Sometimes, Tom left Chris alone on the odd day he went out for golf or lunched at the country club, and that two hour reprieve every other time made things bearable, affording Chris a shred of sanity.
Chris was on his way back to the office after having picked up Tom’s dry-cleaning when his phone rang in his pocket. Tom. Of course. He let it ring a few more times before picking it up.
“Where are you?” Tom said.
“I went to pick up your dry-cleaning.” Chris ducked into the lobby and flashed his ID card at the security guard.
There was a pause and then a shuffling noise. “Meet me in the lobby,” said Tom. “Now.”
“I am in the lobby,” Chris said. He scanned the wave of people flitting in opposing directions and zeroed in on the approaching figure whose hair of indeterminate color stood in curly tuffs around his head. Jackpot. Chris smiled a little until he remembered he was supposed to be hating Tom.
Tom slid his phone into his back pocket, checked his watch, and eyed Chris with a sniff. “What is that?” He gestured vaguely to the plastic bag of clothes slung over Chris’ arm.
“Your suits,” Chris said. “You said I should go pick them up; and I did.”
“Right,” Tom said and strode brusquely to the door, signaling for Chris to follow. “We’re going on a field trip.”
“Now?” said Chris.
“Now,” Tom said, shooting him a look.
They took the Bentley to the suburbs, to the kind of neighborhood real estate ads often described as loaded with charm.
This was the place people often aspired to live in, Chris thought, where the lawns were a massive expanse of neatly trimmed hedges and the crime rate was below five percent. This was why people at the firm put in so much overtime: so that they could live in the lap of luxury in a neighborhood untouched by economical pitfalls.
The Bentley entered the wrought-iron gates of a manse so enormous, it could’ve probably fit Chris’ entire neighborhood and their extended family if permitted. It looked stately and handsome in the noon sunshine, four stories of marble towering above the trees.
In the courtyard stood a large five-foot granite statue of an angel blowing a trumpet out of which sprang water that fed a bubbling fountain.
Chris followed Tom inside the foyer, shoes sinking into the plush carpeting. A crystal chandelier hung from the frescoed ceiling. Chris kept his hands to himself in case he broke anything he couldn’t pay back.
Tom told him to wait in the hall with stern instructions to stay put before disappearing into one of the many doors. He emerged forty minutes later, looking constipated more so than usual, rubbing his jaw in a way Chris recognized: something he hadn’t anticipated had come up and displeased him.
Chris picked himself up from his heap on the floor, smoothing out his the wrinkles from his pants.
“You okay?” Chris asked. “Mr. Hiddleston?”
Tom walked back to the car. “I need a drink,” he said, sliding inside with a deeper frown.
Tom wasn’t kidding when he said he needed a drink.
They didn’t drive back to the office, but to one of those high end bars Chris often suspected was financed by the Russian mob.
Everyone in it spoke with an accent and wore a tailor-made suit, from the bouncers flanking the frosted glass doors, to the barkeep with the funny mustache and scar running down his left cheek. Admission was members only. Chris was nearly left out on the street until Tom returned for him and tipped the bouncers. Generously.
Tom blended in perfectly in his expensive Berluti loafers and his Jean Dunand watch, flagging down a waiter to order a scotch on the rocks.
“And for your companion, monsieur?”
“He’ll have a malt,” said Tom right before Chris said, “I’ll have a mojito, thanks.”
They shared a look. “He’ll have a mojito,” Tom said, and Frenchy Frencherton bowed and finally left them alone, sauntering back to the bar where he belonged.
“Thanks.” Chris dropped in one of the leather seats surrounding the grooved table Tom had chosen. He dumped Tom’s plastic bag of clothes in one of the chairs, giving the place an appreciative whistle.
Tom snorted and shook his head.
“What?” Chris said.
Tom continued to watch him. “Nothing,” he said and took his phone out. Tom stared at it for a moment before turning it off.
“You have an appointment with the guys from TFP,” Chris reminded him. “In an hour. Why’d you turn your phone off? Sir.”
Tom shrugged. “Because I felt like it.” He rubbed at his temples. “Stop calling me sir, we’re off the clock now.”
“Not really. My shift ends at five,” said Chris.
“Christopher.” Tom clenched his fist on the table, unclenched it again, sighing. “I’m tired; don’t try my patience.”
That shut him up. “What happened in there?” Chris asked once he found the courage. He was more concerned than curious, figuring that whatever it was, Tom could handle it. Chris had seen Tom fire people last week without so much as batting an eye; he didn’t have feelings. He was a robot, Chris knew.
“Family meeting,” Tom said with a humorless laugh. “Trust me, Christopher, you wouldn’t want to know.”
“Try me,” Chris said, startling himself with his own candor. Tom blinked at him, tilting his head, but said nothing and simply smiled, snatching his drink from the tray as soon as the waiter arrived with it. He fingered his drink before licking a drop off his finger, wiping his hand on one of the paper napkins provided and staring wistfully into space.
He looked a little sad, Chris thought, and was sure he was going crazy when the sudden unbidden urge to pat Tom on the shoulder overcame him in waves. He wasn’t supposed to feel sympathetic towards the same man who tormented him eight hours a day. Loathing suited Tom just fine, but not… Not pity.
Chris sipped his mojito to distract himself from strange thoughts.
Tom lifted his glass in Chris’ direction. “Cheers,” he said without any real… cheer. “To… I don’t know.”
Chris sipped some more and tipped his glass forward with a clink. “Cheers,” he said, and almost reached over and touched Tom’s hand.
The day continued to grow progressively stranger when, two and a half hours later, as Chris hauled a staggeringly drunk Tom into the street, the Bentley was nowhere to be found and storm clouds began rolling across the sky.
Chris didn’t know where else to bring Tom who kept pawing at his face and moaning about his father’s lack of parenting skills, so he took a cab to his apartment where he deposited Tom in an unruly heap on the crumby bed.
Tom fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillows and Chris watched him for awhile before pulling off his shoes.
He undid Tom’s tie, slid off his jacket, and was about to go for his pants before he realized how that would border on inappropriate, and he didn’t want to get fired before his contract ended, so he left them alone and put the coffee pot on in the kitchen, sending Giselle a text, asking her if she knew Emmy from the front desk.
And if she did know Emma, to forward calls for Tom to Chris’ phone so he could reschedule his appointments.
By six fifteen, Tom still hadn’t woken so Chris showered, watched some TV, and was about to nod off when he heard a clatter in the bedroom. He sprang to his feet and was immediately greeted by the sight of Tom throwing up over the shag carpet, making a grotesque face. “Ugh,” he said, clutching his head. “I think I need a basin.”
Chris herded him into the bathroom before he could do any more damage to the floor and then left him to mop up the mess, a terrible idea, it turned out, because Tom fell asleep again when Chris returned for him, slumped against the wall, mouth open, shirt wet and crusty with vomit.
Chris shook him awake with sprays of water from the shower handle.
“Oh good, I thought you’d died,” he said, and Tom laughed, surprising him, as Chris dragged him to his feet and propped him under the shower nozzle which spurted scalding hot water intermittently and nearly singed off Chris’ skin. But Tom seemed to enjoy it anyway, tilting up his face and moaning under the gush.
After a few minutes, when Chris deemed Tom awake enough, he turned the shower off and tossed his last clean towel at him. “I’ll have clothes ready for you in the bedroom,” he said, shutting the door behind him, shaking off the memory of Tom’s wet skin gliding across his own.
Chris didn’t have anything that would fit Tom except a musty shirt from his collegiate days with a picture of a shrimp in the front. He found a pair of running pants that looked more brown than black from its many trips to the wash and folded them on the bed along with the shirt. Then he left, made coffee, heated the leftover beef stew Margaret made him take home over the weekend and sat at the kitchen table, twiddling his thumbs.
Showered and changed, hair an electric dripping tangle around his head, Tom clumped into the kitchen, feet shoved in a pair of worn out moccasins Chris had left for him in the bedroom.
“Where on earth am I?” he asked, blinking blearily.
“My secret lair.” Chris bowed with exaggerated pomp and pushed a bowl of stew Tom’s way. “Eat; it’ll make you feel better.”
Tom rubbed his nose and pulled out a seat. “It smells in here.”
Chris chose to ignore that. “Coffee?” He raised a chipped mug.
“Yes, please,” Tom said, spooning food into his mouth and making an appreciative noise. “This is quite good. What’s in it?”
“Orphan meat,” Chris said, handing Tom his cup. Tom breathed it in, like he always did before drinking coffee, turning his cup counter clockwise and then pausing, glancing up at Chris. “Did you put sugar in this?”
“Yep,” Chris said. “Yes, I mean. Sir.”
Tom smiled. “We’re not at work anymore, Christopher.”
“Only my mother calls me that anymore. Christopher.” Chris shuddered and shook his head. “It’s Chris. I mean, if you want me to call you Tom, then you might as well call me Chris.”
He didn’t know why he was suddenly saying all these things though he had a sneaking suspicion it was the stew.
“Chris,” Tom said, nodding. He slurped his coffee and hummed. “I like it. Sounds nice. Chris.”
It was weird, Chris thought, to hear Tom say his name with such relish. Even weirder still was the fact that he now sat across from Chris, wearing Chris’ shirt, eating Chris’ food, his face a patchy red under the murky light of the kitchen. He looked younger than he was, and thin, and it made Chris want to touch him, any part of him, just to see if he would disappear like an apparition, just to see if he were real.
“You missed three of your appointments today,” Chris told him, diverting his attention to his own steaming mug of coffee. “And your sister called and said she wanted to talk to you about the will. I told her you were going to see her for lunch tomorrow. At Club Regis. You always have lunch there so I thought--”
“Ugh,” Tom said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “No, I mean, go on. Anything else?”
Chris shook his head.
Tom nodded, like he was processing all of this.
“You’re a funny drunk,” Chris said, mostly to lighten the mood.
Tom leaned against his fist. “I don’t usually drink to drown my sorrows. And I am man of many sorrows, just so you know.”
“That’s kind of sad,” Chris said.
Tom licked his spoon clean before pointing it at Chris like a sword. “I have a therapist on call and yet he seems to be unable to fix any of my problems. Why do you think that is, Chris?”
Chris shrugged. Rich people and their rich people problems, he thought. It never seemed to end. “You know what you should do?” he said after a minute.
“Tell me,” said Tom, leaning closer.
“Have a nice fat greasy burger.” Chris jabbed a finger in Tom’s face. “Just sink your teeth into one of those heartstoppers and grab a beer or two, sit back, relax, enjoy your beef. People will let you down all the time, mate. But food will never ever let you down.”
Tom laughed, tipping back his head. His eyes closed and his shoulders shook and it was strangely endearing to watch, the way his mouth opened as he collected himself.
Tom’s laughter subsided and he wiped his face of tears, pursing his lips together. “I should promote you or something; you’re very entertaining.”
“Thanks,” Chris said, not without a hint of sarcasm.
“No, I mean it,” Tom said, and there it was: the open earnest face Chris recognized from when they’d met for the first time in the lift when Tom was having allergies. He had to blink to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.
Chris drained his coffee and set it in the sink. “I’m just temp,” he said, changing the subject before it went to a whole other territory. He grabbed his phone from the counter, wiping his palms across his shirt. “You want me to call you a cab?”
Tom waved a hand. “I’ll call my driver,” he said.
There was no more small talk after that.
Tom didn’t treat him any differently come Monday morning though he did greet Chris with the faintest of smiles before he excused himself to pick up a phone call.
Chris didn’t see him again until the next day, hunched over his desk, stubble dotting his face as he reviewed a file with slitted eyes; he looked worse for wear, like he hadn’t slept in days, and barely even spared Chris a glance when Chris pushed a cup of coffee his way and his requisite jam-filled pastry in a box.
Chris, knowing it was none of his business, didn’t press him for details though he waited with bated breath for Tom to call him into his office. But Tom never did, not even to complain about the soy latte.
Chris asked Giselle about it the next day.
“He seems kind of …” He trailed off, hoping Giselle would catch up.
Giselle tugged at his sleeve, eyeing the empty hall warily. “His dad’s dying,” she whispered, lowering her head to his. “And the will, I heard, is a mess. Tom and his dad aren’t on the best of terms so he’s a little worried he’ll end up with nothing.”
“Sounds complicated,” said Chris with a wince.
“Rich people. What do you expect?” Giselle said, and that was all the explanation Chris needed.
“How do I look?” Tom asked, turning.
He wore a stylish three-button suit that hugged all the right corners lovingly. Black jacket, black pants and vest. Black, black, black, even his shoes. “I was thinking I’d wear this to the funeral. What do you think? Silver or black?” He held up two pairs of silk neckties.
“Your dad’s not dead yet,” said Chris, pointing to the silver tie. He was honestly about to get cross-eyed from the lack of color.
Tom began putting on the black tie in the mirror, despite Chris’ suggestion. “He will be soon,” he said, “And when he is, I have to be prepared.”
Chris widened his eyes. “Wow, that’s kind of harsh.”
“Well, he is a harsh man. He’ll get what he deserves,” murmured Tom, tugging fruitlessly at the knot at his throat; he gave up on the fourth try and threw it aside.
“Are you sure you’re all right? I thought you said you were going to the Opera? Why do you have to be dressed in black?”
Tom turned to look at Chris, one perfect eyebrow lifted. “I’m this close to having a nervous breakdown. Yesterday I contemplated putting whole carton of milk in my coffee.”
“Obviously cause for alarm right there,” Chris said, trying not to laugh. He checked his watch. It was almost six. Unpaid overtime again, he thought.
“You have somewhere else to be?” Tom asked him, twirling his tie between his fingers.
Chris looked at him, properly, for what seemed like first time since they met, Tom in his freshly pressed suit, with his gently curling hair, the soft line of his mouth, the sharp curves of his cheekbones.
Chris would’ve been home by now, sprawled across his couch, watching television and eating Chinese takeout if Tom hadn’t called him into his office, wanting his honest opinion on his choice of attire for the night.
Chris shrugged and pocketed both his hands. “Nope,” he said, feeling like he’d missed something important. “I’m relatively free, I think. Why?”
“Have you ever been to the Opera?”
Chris narrowed his eyes. He had a feeling they were going there. “Don’t you have a date?”
“I can cancel.”
Chris weighed his options. It didn’t take much consideration but then he wanted to be sure he was making the right choice; he didn’t want to overstep his boundaries. “No,” he said, finally, knowing he was going to hate himself for it eventually. “I don’t think I have.”
Tom snapped his fingers. “Excellent. You can come with me then. Might teach you a thing or two. You, Christopher, look like you need the culture.”
“Culture,” Chris repeated with a snort.
“Yeah, culture.” Tom looked confused. “Did I say something--”
“Let’s just go to the Opera,” Chris said, grabbing Tom’s silver tie off his desk and tossing it at him in a ball.
Despite everything, Chris liked his job at H & Co.
He liked getting dressed up for it every morning, putting on a tie and taking the train to work. The suit commanded certain respect from his peers, and the pay was nice too, even for a temping job; it allowed him little luxuries every now and then, like dinner with friends on a nice evening, and running water.
What Chris didn’t anticipate was what his job entailed: running around the city fetching things for Tom, and now, it seemed, he was Tom’s Plus One to the Opera too.
The Passion of Boule de Suif was playing at the theater, and Chris enjoyed only about a minute of it, right before things became fast-moving and took a turn for the ridiculous. He stopped pretending he could follow the story and dropped the program in his lap.
Tom was right: maybe he didn’t have any culture and lacked the sophistication required to enjoy the Opera. He glanced at Tom shortly after the first act. He seemed to be really enjoying himself, smiling like a little kid and giggling.
Chris was about to duck out after a string flimsy excuses but he thought another act wouldn’t hurt, and it wasn’t like he had anywhere else to be. Besides, if he concentrated hard enough, he could drown out the grating singing. He woke right before it was time for the intermission, stifling a yawn as he unwound himself from his seat. He followed Tom up the sloping marble steps that led to the lobby where a crowd of people had gathered around standing and talking.
Tom, coat folded over his arm, leaned against the wall, his cheeks flushed in excitement. Chris felt himself blushing for some reason and dug the toe of his shoe into the carpet.
It felt like a date.
“Do you still have the heart to stick around for the second act?” Tom asked, voice taking on a teasing lilt.
Chris laughed sheepishly. He dipped his head. “Well, I don’t really mind,” he said, even though he was tired and wanted to sleep.
They stood there, watching rain collect on the glass windows, until it was time to head back inside for the next act. An usher glanced at them uncertainly as the last handful of people was herded back inside.
Chris, who felt like being spontaneous and daring and stupid, blurted out the only thing he could think of to improve the evening.
“Do you want to go out for that fat greasy burger I was telling you about?”
Tom’s curious smile shouldn’t have made his stomach do somersaults but it did. Fucking god, it did.
The air was cool when they stepped out into the street, slipping back into the Bentley and shaking rain off their shoulders. Chris gave the driver -- a new one this time, not anyone he recognized -- directions to Pepper’s Corner, the only burger place in the city opened until midnight.
Their burgers were named after heavy metal bands whose posters were plastered all over the walls.
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to get mugged,” Chris promised Tom, lifting the umbrella over their heads as they crossed the street. “The staff is really nice.”
They were the only people there at ten thirty, and Chris seated them in the back, in his favourite spot, which afforded them a view of the street outside. Rain sliced through the headlights of passing cars. Chris remembered he’d brought a date here once but she didn’t seem to enjoy it as much as she said it ‘creeped her out’.
Tom raised an eyebrow at the menu. “This is going to give me heartburn,” he said.
“He’ll have the Judas Priest,” Chris told the waiter, a guy in his early twenties with electric red hair. He didn’t speak French but he had a nose ring and Chris thought that was exotic enough.
Their food arrived after fifteen minutes, piping hot. Judas Priest was about as fancy as you could get in a place like this: bacon and bleu cheese dressing, slices of apples, chopped walnuts, dried cranberries. Perfect for Tom, Chris thought.
Chris ordered his usual Iron Maiden: cherry peppers, avocado, chipotle mayo between slices of fat beef.
Tom swallowed audibly, tucking his table napkin into his collar. He looked nervous, pushing his sleeves up to his elbows like he was getting ready for a fistfight.
“Eat with your hands,” Chris instructed him. “Or you won’t get the full experience. Your hands.” He confiscated Tom’s silverware. “You’ll love this, trust me.”
Tom looked like he doubted it but he grabbed a handful of his burger anyway and took an experimental bite. His eyes closed after the first swallow, and he made a breathy noise that went straight to Chris’… he’d rather not think about it.
“Oh my god,” Tom said, cheeks stuffed with bread and beef. “What is this, this is heavenly!”
Chris laughed and felt his chest balloon a little. “What did I tell you?”
“Oh my god,” Tom said again, taking a sizeable bite, dripping bleu cheese down his wrist. “This is absolutely amazing. I should really get you a corner office or something.”
“We can talk about that later,” Chris said, nibbling on a fry. He dunked half of it into the glob of cheese on Tom’s plate and bit.
Tom did the same, snatching a fry of his plate and dipping it into Chris’ ketchup.
They continued sitting there afterwards, sipping beer after beer, waiting for the rain to peter out, talking about the security guard on the night shift people doubted actually existed.
“Has anyone even seen the guy?” Chris said. “Giselle swears she’s spoken to him a couple of times, but I don’t know.”
Tom laughed. “Well, I’d hate for him not to exist; he’s on my payroll after all. I better check with Accounting.”
Loose and relaxed, dress shirt undone, Tom seemed like an entirely different person, like someone Chris wouldn’t mind kicking back with every afternoon after work. This Tom wasn’t irritating, or an ass, and kept reaching out to tug at Chris’ wrist whenever he stressed a point.
“And he said, he said: don't you remember? We both fell through a window during a barbecue party and are now paralyzed for the rest of our lives.” Tom tipped his head back, laughing at his own unfunny joke, eyes closed. His signature move.
Finally, the rain ebbed, and they were both ready to leave. Tom left the place a hefty tip after they split the bill and walked back to the Bentley. Later, Tom dropped Chris off at his apartment, keeping the window rolled down as Chris leaned over the car and patted the roof gently.
Chris felt like he was one of those movies, where the guy leans over the car and offers a kiss goodbye. In Chris’ life, however, no such kisses were exchanged. He led a pretty nondescript life and he didn’t think Tom would appreciate a kiss from him anyway, not that Chris thought about kissing him. Because he didn’t.
“See you on Monday,” Tom said, and he sounded so genuinely sincere Chris wanted to do something drastic for a second, like shake his hand or hug him or ask him if he wanted to come up to the apartment for coffee. But he did none of those things and just stood there, awkward, at the curb, one hand in his pocket, his throat clogged with unsaid words.
“See you,” Chris said, not a second after Tom rolled the window back up. He watched the Bentley disappear out of sight, rounding the bend, and kicked a signpost as soon as he realized the familiar churn in his stomach that followed an abrupt realization: he liked Tom. He liked him a lot.
Chris chose not to dwell on the irony of it all and made himself coffee in his poorly-lit kitchen.
Nothing changed in the ensuing days though Chris was tempted, a couple of times, to put his hand in the shredder. He wasn’t supposed to like Tom as a human being.
Bosses were there to be feared and loathed. Occasionally, you spat in their coffee and keyed their expensive car when they were giving you trouble, but you didn’t, under any circumstance, start waiting around for them to clock in, like some sort of expectant pet meandering by the doorway, scanning the halls with a jiggling leg.
Chris knew he had to put a stop to it so he focused on Tom’s bad points: his inability to make up his mind about his coffee, his annoying little laugh, his freakishly long fingers, and his soothing bedroom voice that sounded pornographic on the intercom.
It was easier said than done, apparently, because even his bad habits, like never finishing one goddamn cup of coffee, seemed, to Chris, kind of cute. Chris, who knew he was done for, hoped for a miracle.
He didn’t have to wait very long though, it turned out, because a few days later after news of Hiddleston Senior’s health beginning to improve, Tom showed signs of getting back into the usual swing of things as well: asking Chris to pick up a thumb drive he had left in his office in the topmost right-hand drawer of his desk.
He wanted Chris to bring it to him, to his place, a lavish three bedroom condo with tasteful minimalist furniture and sparkling light fixtures that could blind anyone staring at them for too long.
Tom had a guy over in his kitchen when Chris arrived to drop off the thumb drive.
“Who was that?” Chris asked. The guy was almost as tall as Chris, tanned and lean, wearing white work out pants and a sleeveless black shirt that instantly made him look suspicious. Tom showed him to the door, looking equally suspicious in shorts and the shirt Chris had lent him before that he’d never returned, damp around the chest with sweat.
“He’s my yoga instructor,” Tom said, closing the door behind him.
“He makes house calls?”
Tom held out his palm for the thumb drive. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
Chris shrugged. “Aren’t you?”
“I own forty percent of the company, I think I’m allowed to keep my own hours, don’t you think?”
“Oh, definitely,” Chris said. He handed the thumb drive over and peered over the formica counter, at the unfinished breakfast for two on the kitchen table: pulpy orange juice, half-eaten bowls of granola with fruit. The healthy stuff.
Typical, Chris thought.
“Why are you looking at me like that? He’s my yoga instructor,” Tom repeated with a bemused look. He gave Chris a light shove towards the door. “And even if he were more than that,” he said, pausing for effect, “I highly doubt it’s any of your business. Now, go. I’ll be in at lunch. And don’t forget to reschedule my meeting with the people from Oceanic.”
Tom shut the door in Chris’ face before he could get a word in.
“She seems angry,” Terry said, one arm hanging off the side of Chris’ cubicle.
Chris saved his spreadsheet before peering over the partition. “Who is she?”
Terry lifted his coffee to his lips. “Emma,” he said, watching as a blonde in a strapless black dress and lethal looking high heels strode through the hall, face calm with conviction. She wore sunglasses even though she was indoors.
Chris had opinions about people like that but he reserved judgment this time and waited until she was out of sight before swiveling around to glance at Terry, who had one hand inside his pocket as he sipped his coffee.
“What?” Terry said. “Aren’t you Mr. H’s secretary or something? You honestly don’t know what his sister looks like?”
Chris shrugged. “I only reschedule and book his appointments,” he said, which was true enough. Sometimes, he accompanied Tom to those appointments, like the time Tom went to a masseuse and Chris fell asleep waiting for him in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs in the hall that seemed to be outfitted for people below four feet. They went for Korean Barbeque afterwards before heading back to the office in time for clock out.
“Well,” Terry said, sniffing. “You’re gonna learn soon enough that the drama never ends here. Especially now that Hiddleston Senior’s about to kick the bucket? Man, it’ll only get worse.” He leaned over to one side, tipping his head into the next cubicle. “What’s up, Maurice? You got those flash games I sent you last night?”
Chris shook his head.
Tom didn’t summon him to his office all day which Chris counted as a warning sign. He didn’t like the sudden hush that fell over the entire tenth floor after Emma’s appearance. Terry wasn’t kidding about the drama part; even Giselle seemed solemn when Chris passed Accounting, shaking her head slowly as she recounted how she’d seen Emma slap Tom in the face earlier.
Emma left shortly after she had arrived, and it wasn’t until half an hour later that the bustle resumed.
At four thirty, Chris went over to Tom’s office on the pretense of getting him to sign one of the memo’s he’d typed. He hated having nothing to do; it made him feel inefficient and lazy. He wondered where the feeling came from when he used to hate working for Tom with a zealous passion; he wondered when it was that he started getting used to being summoned at will.
Maybe he was finally losing it, Chris thought, and he was close to setting fire to the building.
Chris knocked twice before entering, and Tom looked up just as Chris raised the memo to eye-level. “Need you to sign this,” he said, not missing the elegantly-shaped decanter of scotch and the near-empty glass of it on the desk.
“Are you--” Chris said.
“I’m fine.” Tom handed him back the memo before leaning his forehead against his folded hands.
Tom brought out the scotch, so obviously he wasn’t fine. Chris lingered for a second and sat himself down in the leather seat across from Tom.
“You want to talk about it?”
Tom shook his head brusquely. “No.”
“Do you maybe want a burger like last--”
Tom poured himself another drink. Chris felt helpless and because of that, slightly frustrated.
“Would you like some?” Tom asked, peering up at him above the decanter.
Chris put the memo under a glass paperweight. “I’m not a scotch man.” Then he stared at Tom’s ears, which were pink for some reason, and looked a little wet. His hair was slightly flat on one side like he’d slept on it too.
Tom winced as he sampled a swallow. “Suit yourself,” he said. “This is very good scotch.”
“I’m more of a mojito kind of guy,” Chris told him.
That actually earned him a small smile. Tom put down his glass and leaned against his seat, stretching his arms and sighing luxuriously. He crossed his legs, blinking introspectively at Chris. “I never gave you the shirt back, have I?”
Chris wondered where this was all coming from but decided to go along with it anyway. Tom was drunk and he probably wouldn’t remember half of it the next day. “You can keep it. I don’t really want it back, or need it back. Doesn’t fit me anymore, anyway, so.”
“I’ll have it washed along with the pants and you’ll have it back by the end of the week.” Tom poured more scotch into his glass. “It has a picture of a shrimp on it,” he said as an afterthought.
Chris laughed softly. “I know,” he said. “It’s why I have it in the first place. It’s cool.”
“You like shrimp?”
“They’re not bad.” Chris shrugged noncommittally. He didn’t really have a formed opinion.
“Yeah.” Tom nodded. “I like them deep fried and dipped in Thai sauce. Let’s go to Yoko’s.”
“What?” Chris said.
Yoko’s turned out to be an Asian restaurant thirty minutes away from the office, where it was tough to make reservations if the queue of irate people milled outside were any indication.
Its menu comprised entirely of shrimp: bacon-wrapped shrimp, shrimp and sweet corn curry, smoky shrimp and grits, black pepper shrimp, even shrimp salad, which was this five inch-high monstrosity of shrimp topped with peas and spinach, covered in chile dressing.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” Tom said once they were seated.
Chris looked down from staring at the aquarium -- on the ceiling – where Koi exhausted themselves swimming around in dizzying circles. “Yeah, sure.”
Their food arrived: shrimp steamed in pepper with white wine and orange for Tom, and chilled shrimp fettuccine for Chris who poked at his food with the tines of his fork. Despite his misgivings, the food was great, and Chris was doubly relieved when their drinks didn’t come with an array of shrimp hanging off the side of the glass.
Tom ordered red wine for himself which he appeared to be consuming alarmingly like water in between bites of food.
“Should you be drinking?”
Chris remembered the last time Tom had drunk like this, and how it took a cup of corn starch and a warm bucket of water to clean Tom’s vomit completely off Chris’ bedroom floor. The smell didn’t leave the room, not until Chris vacuumed the spot and sprayed half a can of air freshener.
Tom raised his glass in salute. “This is good wine,” he said, thumbing the label which read Silex in gold lettering, and underneath: Dagueneau Blanc Fume de Pouilly. “I’d hate for it to go to waste,” he continued in a slurring drawl. “Did you know, Christopher that this bottle of wine was barrel fermented and aged in the famous Dagueneau cigar barrels? Do you know what a cigar barrel is? No, of course you don’t, but that doesn’t make you less of a person, does it? You should drink. We should both drink. It’d be a crime not to. Cheers!”
It was that rationale that kept Tom going, and before long he was drunk, cheek pressed to the starchy table cloth, eyes drifting shut. His blood had probably reached flammable levels because when Chris leaned over and sniffed, Tom reeked of alcohol.
He hauled Tom back to the Bentley, arms slid under Tom’s armpits, and Dan -- the new driver, tall, middle-ageish, wiry brown mustache and a perpetually dubious scowl -- helped Chris drag Tom into the lift afterwards, up to his room where the two of them swung Tom unceremoniously into the king-sized bed on the count of three.
Tom slept right through it, snoring, rolling onto his side and rubbing his face into the pillows.
Dan planted his hands on his hips. “He’s all yours, boy.”
Chris nodded. “Thanks, mate. I really appreciate the help.”
Dan left, presumably to do Dan things, though not before stealing an apple from the breakfast bowl on his way out.
Chris wondered if he were getting paid enough for this, slipping Tom’s shoes off, then unwinding his tie with great care. He unhooked Tom’s belt, and was about to shrug Tom’s arm off the sleeve of his jacket when he felt Tom’s other arm curl around his back.
Chris stiffened. “Hey.” He didn’t want to jostle Tom so he let his tie drop in a pile on the floor and was careful when he shifted him around on the bed. “I’m not trying anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m just--” He stopped as soon as he felt Tom squeeze his waist.
“I know,” Tom whispered breathily, eyes still shut. Then he cracked an eye open and smiled. “You smell really good. Has anyone ever told you that?”
Not really, Chris thought. No one had ever come up to him to compliment him on his scent.
“Probably this new cologne that I’m wearing,” Chris said, shrugging, feeling oddly embarrassed. “It’s my brother’s anyway and I don’t usually wear col--”
“Mm, I always thought you smelled good,” said Tom.
There wasn’t any real response to that so Chris edged away from him, teetering on the edge of the bed, leaning his weight on his palm. It was one thing to see Tom drunk, bent over his own vomit, but it was quite another to see him so uninhibited, batting his eyes at Chris like he was openly flirting. His dress shirt was open at the collar, baring the smooth line of his throat.
Chris looked away the moment he realized he was staring, but he looked again and touched the edge of Tom’s sleeve.
“Chris,” Tom said, “Christopher.”
And there must’ve been something in the way he said it, in the inflection, or the tone, the way his eyes closed at the end of it or the way his mouth moved to form the name because Chris found himself inclining his head, tipping his face forward to receive Tom’s warm booze-scented kiss.
It wasn’t the best kiss in the world, with Tom heavily liquored up and squirming a little underneath him, but it wasn’t terrible, either, Tom’s mouth lifting gently to Chris’s own, opening to extend his tongue.
His hand came up and cupped the back of Chris’ head, his fingers twisting cautiously into Chris’ hair, and then as suddenly as it gripped the side of Chris’ neck, Tom’s hand drifted limply back to his side and he was asleep. Snoring.
Chris sighed. He should’ve known something was bound to fuck up. He felt a strange wave of tenderness come over him, watching Tom sleep, and then shook himself out his funk and got up to close the blinds.
Tom had a great view of the city fifty stories below. Chris wondered how a person Tom’s age could have this much money and still seem unhappy.
Money never seemed to solve anything when you had it; the only thing it did was complicate your life.
Chris went to the kitchen and looked for something to drink.
He fell asleep on the couch, a Men’s Health magazine spread open over of his face, his shoe missing after having rolled off under the coffee table.
When he jerked awake a few hours later, it was still dark out, the room unchanged, asleep, just like Tom was when Chris went to check up on him.
Chris knew he should probably leave, considering what just happened -- he kissed his boss for fuck’s sake, breaking Luke’s number one stipulation --, but he couldn’t bear the thought of Tom staggering around in the dark, throwing up all over himself. Or something equally pitiful.
It was kind of pathetic, Chris knew, this whole state of affairs; torn between his sense of self-preservation and loyalty to his boss, and he couldn’t even decide which was the lesser of two evils. He decided to sleep it off after locating his left shoe, figuring everything would make sense in the morning as it often did.
When he woke again, some bleary hour later, a woman wearing yellow rubber gloves and clutching a mop was staring down at him. “Are you Mr. Hiddleston’s hooker?”
“What?” Chris scrambled off the couch, scrubbing sleep from his eyes. “His hooker? What?”
She gave him a baleful sniff. “I’m his secretary,” Chris said, aghast. She was about five feet in height, plump, in her late forties, grayish hair pulled in a tight bun from her wrinkled prune-like face. She left Chris after announcing breakfast would be ready in half an hour.
Chris checked his phone. 6:45. Good, he thought. He looked up when heard someone coming in: it was Tom, freshly showered, in a black silk bathrobe, hair artfully combed back. His face looked flushed. In his left hand was a rolled up copy of the New York Times.
“You’re still here?”
Chris shrugged. He felt and probably looked like shit. His hair was starting to smell and his clothes felt tight.
“Did I make a fool of myself last night?” Tom asked, stopping about ten feet away from Chris, grip tight around the newspaper like he planned to use it as a weapon. Chris felt like they were outlaws in a western movie, appraising each other from a distance, waiting for the perfect moment to draw their guns.
He shrugged and tried not to remember the slick wetness of Tom’s mouth. “Not more so than usual,” he said, sitting himself down on the arm of the couch. “You passed out before Dan and I could bring you here.”
Chris wondered if Tom remembered they’d kissed. He hoped not. He really truly hoped not. “Yeah,” he said. “You slept like a baby. With a nasal problem.”
Tom didn’t laugh. Something inscrutable flashed across his face but disappeared too quickly for Chris to put a name to.
“Do you want to stay for breakfast?”
Chris really had to go. When he said this, Tom nodded in understanding, unfurling his newspaper and marching towards the general direction of the kitchen. He had papery bedroom slippers on. Chris thought that was sweet for some reason.
“Sorry,” Chris said.
Tom had his housekeeper show him to the door. “I’ll see you at work.”
“All right,” Chris said. “See you.”
He took a cab home.
The problem was Tom was all Chris could think about.
It felt like a switch had been turned on in Chris’ head, and suddenly, Tom was all he saw: the way his fingers coiled around a cup of coffee, the stubborn tuft of hair at the back of his head that Chris used to think was hilarious but now just seemed ridiculously endearing, the way he laughed over the simplest things, crinkling his entire his face.
And they had to kiss, and Chris had to remember every single vivid second of it, from the way Tom’s breath felt across his face to the scrape of his fingernails down Chris’ neck.
Embellished with an eye for detail, the memory took shape, became powerful; it haunted Chris’ days and nights and consequently, he lost sleep over it. Chris intended to kill it. With his bare hands if he could help it.
“Man,” Terry said one day. “You look like you haven’t gotten laid in six months. We should go out. Meet some hotties. What d’you say, bro?”
“I’m not your bro,” Chris said, but he went anyway, thinking it’d be good for him.
Turned out, it was just what he needed.
He didn’t meet some hotties but he did get properly drunk for the first time in months, which was, in its own way, kind of enjoyable.
Chris dropped his phone under the table, trying to pick up a call before closing time. It was Tom. Of course it was Tom. Who else would be calling him at midnight when he was off work? Chris hit cancel every time his phone started vibrating. It was a Friday night and if Tom expected him to answer to his every beck and call like a trained dog, he was going to have to pay Chris a little extra.
“Who was that?” Terry asked.
“No one,” Chris said; he felt like an asshole.
He got home around two in the morning, dragging himself by trial and error and stumbling into bed, crawling under the covers. Half an hour later, his phone went off again and it was still Tom so Chris figured it must be something important. He tapped answer on the fifth ring.
“Why haven’t you been picking up my calls? I need you here at the office. Now.”
Chris rolled his eyes. “Do you even know what time it is?” Neither did Chris obviously but that wasn’t the point.
“That wasn’t a request, Christopher. That was an order. Fifteen minutes.” Tom hung up.
Perfect, Chris thought. He washed his face in the kitchen sink, threw some fresh clothes on -- jeans and a button-down t-shirt -- then took a cab to the office because it was faster and he didn’t really feel like commuting. He fell asleep on the drive, and half an hour later found himself in the lobby, shaking his phone back to life because its battery kept petering out.
Tom stared at his shirt. “What are you wearing?”
“It’s Saturday. I’m supposed to be on my day off.”
Tom couldn’t quite argue with that.
“My father doesn’t have very long,” he explained on the drive to the hospital. He was in a cobalt blue suit, but he’d tugged his tie free sometime before Chris arrived. “He wants all three of us there. My brother and sister and myself. I assume it’s so he could announce something terribly dramatic. He does that a lot.”
“You mean feign death?” Chris asked.
Tom smiled at the cruel joke. They were escorted to a private room by a nurse in green scrubs, but she held up her hand at Chris to stop him from following Tom inside. “Family only sir,” she said. “You’ll have to wait outside.”
So Chris did, and in the mean time, got two coffees from the vending machine at the end of the hall.
Tom reappeared about twenty minutes later, face dour, fists clenched at his sides and he marched, unseeing, to the men’s room where even the sinks, Chris learned later, and even walls sparkled like hotel floors.
Chris shut the door behind him. He put the cups on the sink and waited until Tom was done pacing.
“He’s dead,” Tom said, but he didn’t stop moving. He kept touching his neck. Chris wondered if the allergies had come back. “The bastard is dead.”
“He’s your dad, but you act like you hate him,” Chris said.
“I do. I do hate him.” Tom looked up. His eyes looked a little red though Chris thought that could’ve just been the ambient lighting. Then it him: Tom was crying. It was easy to miss because he didn’t sniff or catch his breath or contort his face; the tears wouldn’t fall, but they were there, gathering momentum in his eyes, waiting for the right moment.
Tom pawed at his face, looking horrified when his fingers came away damp.
“Do you know what I find ironic?” he said, scrubbing his hair with his fingernails.
“What?” said Chris. He stepped closer and touched Tom’s arm, squeezed.
“The first time in my life I feel remotely affectionate about my father is when he’s dead.” Tom laughed at himself and shook his head.
Chris, who was never truly great at consoling people when they needed it, enveloped him in a loose hug. He felt Tom’s breath against his neck and folded his arm around Tom’s waist tighter, closing his eyes.
They were nearly the same height but Tom slid against him perfectly, slumping against his chest, shoulders collapsing.
Chris was used to hugging people, mostly girls, shorter than he was, shifting them around to find that perfect groove, feeling always like an inelegant giant, always too big, always unsure where to put his hands, worried he was gripping them too hard or not enough, but Tom. Tom was able to fit against him without maneuvering.
“I didn’t know you had tear ducts,” Chris whispered against Tom’s temple.
Tom let out a sniffling laugh. “You aren’t the only one,” he said, and when Chris’ neck felt wet afterwards, he didn’t complain. He rubbed Tom’s back, sliding his hand under Tom’s jacket to feel the indentations of his spine through his dress shirt.
They stood hugging for about a minute until Tom pulled away, widening his eyes, face mottled red as he attempted to compose himself. He looked like he needed a drink, and fifteen hours of sleep. His hands were still folded over Chris’ biceps though which meant their faces were only inches apart.
Tom pressed his nose to Chris’ collar. “You smell like alcohol.”
“Kind of went out with the guys,” Chris explained, “Friday night.” He shrugged, helpless of the fact. But Tom kissed him anyway, turning in Chris’ embrace, walking him backwards against the wall, one hand curled into his shirt.
The kiss was better than the last one, hands down, longer, more urgent, Tom’s tongue swiping Chris’ own as he pressed himself bodily against Chris.
Chris dragged Tom forward by the hips as Tom deepened the kiss with intermittent strokes of his tongue, his hands twined in Chris’ hair to tip his head forward.
Chris felt Tom blink against him and then clench his eyes shut.
Tom felt good between Chris’ knees, his body warm and solid and real, and he kept making these appreciative noises that made Chris wish they were somewhere else. Tom shivered in his arms, leaning back every now and then to rub Chris’ jaw with his thumbs before swooping down again. Chris liked that, how Tom kissed like he was enjoying himself, like he really wanted nothing else but to be kissing Chris.
Chris kept one hand in Tom’s hair, twirling the soft peaky tufts between his fingers, brushing his fingers over Tom’s ear and smiling drunkenly as Tom shivered, angling his head away.
And then Tom’s phone started vibrating in his jacket pocket and he had to break off for air. Tom frowned at the screen, but kept his other hand draped over Chris’ shoulder, Chris’ knees keeping him trapped in place as Tom stood between them.
Tom gave Chris a nervous glance. “I have to pick this up,” he said.
Chris licked his lips before thumping his head against the wall gently. “Yeah,” he breathed, flushing, wondering how long before Tom’s taste disappeared completely from his tongue. “I know.”
Tom excused himself and left.
The funeral was that weekend.
Chris wasn’t there because it was a private affair, apparently, though a hushed silence swept the office come Monday morning.
Everyone was in shock, said Giselle. Hiddleston Senior was kind of a prick, and a lot of people hated him because he liked to fire people for no good reason, but no one was expecting the old coot to kick the bucket so soon.
“Cancer always has a way of sneaking up on you,” Terry said, smoothing out the purple cancer ribbon on his lapel. The rest of the day went somewhat like that, people talking below breath about Tom’s dad and how, even though he was a bit of a hard-ass, he was a real terrific boss.
Chris went to check up on Tom because he wanted to offer him his condolences, but mostly because they hadn’t exchanged a word since that kiss in the men’s room.
Chris knocked on the door, pushed it open. “Hey,” he said.
Tom was standing by the window, hands pocketed, and turned after a second, staring at Chris like he didn’t recognize him.
“Chris,” he said, “Christopher.” He pointed to a heap of folders next to his cooling coffee. “I need you to photocopy these. I want them on my desk before lunch.”
“Sure,” Chris said. “Anything else?”
Tom looked at him for a moment and shook his head. And Chris knew that that meant Tom had made up his mind about something; he knew because he wasn’t stupid.
“All right,” Chris said.
So they were back to that.
Truthfully, Chris wasn’t all that torn up about it. He was glad it was over before it really began.
Luke was right about one thing: never shit where you eat.
Chris liked Tom, but he probably wasn’t worth losing his job, and even if he were worth more than that, Chris would never really know as they never got past first base. Chris wasn’t even sure if people still called it that.
Chris only had eight weeks left before his contract ended; he figured he could do it without sustaining lasting injury.
And then the annual H & Co Halloween Party happened, and Chris found himself, inevitably, because he lacked imagination, Luke said, dressed like a cowboy, complete with the hat and the obnoxious belt buckle that took at least ten minutes to put on. Denim jacket, rugged jeans, as Chris didn’t feel like wearing leather chaps even for the novelty of it, and a red button up shirt.
Luke, who went dressed as Han Solo, called him Marlboro Man. “Hey, Marlboro Man,” he said, slapping Chris on the back. “You behave yourself. I don’t want seeing you hitting on any of the interns, all right? You’ve got what, six weeks left? Do not get drunk and do something stupid.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Chris rolled his eyes. He hated it when Luke treated him like he didn’t know any better. If there was anyone Luke needed to keep an eye on it was Liam, their younger brother, who went around chasing girls and nearly got one impregnated last summer, all before he hit sixteen.
The party was boring, but Chris could see why almost everybody showed up in full costume. It wasn’t every day people got dressed up for work; this was their one chance in the year to show off and, if permitted, get laid before Christmas.
The open bar helped.
Chris was on his way back from the men’s room, dunking a paper towel into the bin, when he saw Tom at the balcony, alone, dressed in a swarthy robe and floppy sandals, glass of scotch held aloft in one hand. He looked deep in thought.
Chris walked up to him because he was apparently in possession of a masochistic streak. “Howdy,” he said, hooking his thumbs into his belt loops. “You look like a prepubescent Jesus.”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “I’m Julius Caesar, not Jesus.” But he smiled anyway which was always a good sign. “And what are you supposed to be? A cowboy?”
Chris lowered his hat. “Yes, sir.”
“No leather chaps?”
Chris leaned back against the balcony, shrugging. “Not really my thing.”
“I’m sure you could pull off the look,” Tom teased.
It was the nicest he’d ever been to Chris since his father’s funeral and Chris smiled, feeling that familiar kick of tenderness bloom inside him. Usually, Tom sent Chris on his way after he’d delivered the morning paper or the coffee or whatever odd trinket Tom had asked Chris to procure. But now this. An actual conversation.
It was probably the scotch, Chris suspected. He craned his neck at the view half a mile below. If he fell, Chris thought, he’d die right away in a hideous splatter.
“Did you bring a date?” Tom asked all of a sudden. It took Chris by surprise he snapped his head up and blinked.
“Nope,” he said, not sure why that was important. He waited until he was sure his face wouldn’t break. “You?”
Tom shook his head no.
Chris sighed in relief.
“I should probably head back,” Tom said, arranging his curls under his gold laurel leaf crown. He nodded at Chris and shuffled off, and Chris padded after him, jogging to keep up, slowing down to fall into step with him.
The hallway was quiet, empty, the walls decorated gaudily with streamers and sneering paper skeletons. Chris never really got Halloween.
He reached out and touched Tom’s arm.
Tom glanced up at him, biting his lip slowly. “Yes?” he said.
Chris shoved him up against the wall and kissed him.
That was probably the stupidest thing he could do in that situation, Chris knew, but it seemed to work out anyhow because after some time, Tom began to kiss back, lurching up against him to wind his arms around Chris’ neck.
He tasted like scotch, but Tom felt so good in Chris’ arms, responsive and seeking, the gentle pressure of his tongue making Chris moan and deepen the kiss, that Chris couldn’t find the heart to complain.
He slid a hand up Tom’s thigh, swallowing Tom’s sharp inhale. “Fuck,” said Tom, rubbing up against him. “Chris.” His head hit the wall as his eyes closed.
They heard people coming in from the end of the hall, and the two of them leapt from each other quickly, as if burnt. And then Tom grabbed Chris by the wrist and dragged him, giddy, into a nearby storeroom cluttered with mops and a shelf of cleaning oils.
It was a tight fit.
Chris peered through the door crack. It was Giselle dressed up as a witch in a billowing black cape and a black pointy hat. Next to her was Terry, in a blond wig, red paint slathered on his white shirt. He wore a nameplate on his right breast pocket.
Giselle and Terry were holding hands, swinging them together wildly as they ambled to the balcony, Giselle toting her high heeled shoes over her shoulder, complaining about her feet, laughing at something Terry whispered to her as they bumped into each other deliberately.
Chris shut the door to give them privacy. “I think they’re gone,” he said, even though they probably weren’t.
“Are you sure?”
Chris fought off a smile, crossing his arms. “Yeah,” he said, shrugging.
Tom sipped his scotch, then stepped forward so that they stood toe to toe, and Chris knew.
It was on.
“Hang on a minute,” said Tom a little later, tilting his head to the side. “Let me finish my drink.” He drained his scotch in one swallow, grimacing, belching softly, shaking his head so vigorously his crown twisted askew.
Chris propped it back on, flattening his curls.
“Okay, now I’m ready,” Tom said, swatting at Chris’ hand. Then Tom set his glass down on the top shelf and took Chris’ face in his hands without warning. Then he kissed him long and lazy and hard then lazy again, pulling back a few times to lick Chris’ bottom lip.
Chris sighed, gliding his fingers up Tom’s ribs.
How Chris could go from hating Tom to liking him a little to giving him a blowjob in a store room, Chris didn’t know, but there was nowhere else he’d rather be, wedged between Tom’s knees, bobbing his head as he tried to fit as much of Tom’s cock as he could in his mouth.
Tom slithered up against him, hips loose under his hand as Tom thrust intermittently, watching the slow slide of Chris’ tongue over the head with heated eyes.
Chris swirled the tip of his tongue and Tom came abruptly, hips twitching, hissing out a breath as Chris slid off him with a noisy pop.
“Thank god you’re wearing a dress,” Chris said, and spat in a corner, wiping his mouth against his sleeve.
“Robe, not a dress,” Tom corrected him and hitched Chris up by the collar, licking the whorls of his ear so that Chris felt himself shiver down to his feet.
“My turn,” Tom said, and then tugged at Chris’ zipper; then there was a thump as he got into position, a low hum as he took out Chris’ cock, and then a soft clatter as Chris knocked a mop over with his arm when Tom curled his tongue out and touched it to the tip.
Chris groaned and held onto the top shelf for dear life.
The night proved to be one of the best nights of Chris’ life because it never seemed to end.
An hour later they were at Tom’s condo, shedding their costumes at the foyer, Chris kicking off his shoes as Tom plucked off his cowboy hat and replaced his crown with it, throwing back his head.
“How does it look on me?”
Ridiculous of course but Chris felt oddly fond of him for a moment, Tom’s eyes half-lidded as he rubbed a thumb across Chris’ lips and smiled. They kissed some more as they stumbled blindly into the bedroom, Tom pulling Chris’ shirt from his jeans and undoing his belt buckle. He stroked Chris through his underwear until Chris was fully erect, thrusting against his palm and begging him to go faster.
“You’re clean right?” Tom said, pulling away. He licked his lips, and Chris, feeling feverish, nodded his head before slipping his hand up the small of Tom’s back and holding him close.
Tom’s shiver did not go unnoticed.
“Yeah, of course,” Chris said. He hadn’t had sex in about half a year and the last time he did have sex, Chris had to finish himself off after the guy made a beeline to the bathroom.
Chris worried a little about his performance in the sack -- he was rough and out of practice, he thought -- when Tom was finally completely naked, slinking up the mahogany work desk and folding his leg over Chris’ hip to reel him in. He pushed the tube of lube in Chris’ hand, squeezing, and Chris swallowed and hoped he didn’t come prematurely in his underwear because Tom spreading his legs like that was possibly one of the hottest things he’d ever seen in his life.
“Do it,” Tom said.
At Tom’s nod, Chris uncapped the lid. He slathered what he thought was a decent amount of lube between his fingers before dipping his hand between Tom’s knees.
Tom leaned back on his palms, craning his neck to watch Chris work him open, legs splayed wide and raised. He squirmed at the first finger, and the second one only made him stiffen uncomfortably.
But Chris crooked his fingers inward until he struck gold and Tom’s breath hitched audibly, cock twitching as Chris continued rubbing in circles. “That feel good?” he asked, even though he knew full well what the answer was.
Tom nodded and shifted again as Chris withdrew. And then Chris was pushing inside him, sweaty hands up Tom’s thighs as Tom dug his heels in with a pained grunt. They waited a breath before Chris started moving again, angling his thrusts and working himself in slowly, deeper each time.
Tom sighed and moaned as he clutched the edge of the desk with damp palms, cock a rigid angry curve against his belly.
Chris looked up from the tangle of hair in his face. “Feel good?”
“Fuck yeah,” Tom said, breath stilted. “Do it harder.”
Chris did, watching his cock disappear inside the tight clutch of Tom’s greedy hole.
Tom was a kinky little bastard, and shameless about it too, not exactly smiling or smirking, but eyeing Chris lazily as Chris fucked into him in broad thorough strokes, curling one hand around Tom’s ankle to lift it over his shoulder, the other pressed high up over Tom’s knee to keep him spread open, in position.
Tom seemed to be enjoying himself, mouth opening and closing in soundless moans. It was nice, Chris thought, to see him lose control like this, break character. He plunged in, burying himself to the root, lingering for a moment pressed snug against that tight heat, watching the way Tom’s eyes closed as he waited for Chris to move, his chest heave in irregular breaths. It was exquisite.
Chris, who had always wanted to try having sex bracing someone against the wall, maneuvered Tom around and hooked Tom’s legs around his hips. “Hold on,” he said, and Tom did, locking his ankles and clamping down on Chris.
Chris nearly fell over on his way to the glass wall that overlooked the entire city and Tom laughed at him for his trouble, rolling his hips and squirming as Chris propped him against the wall.
“Is this some sort of sordid secret fantasy of yours?” Tom asked as Chris rocked into him slowly.
“Don’t pretend it isn’t yours too,” Chris said.
“Not even close,” Tom said, just as his back squeaked noisily against the glass and he let out a throaty moan. Then he started jerking himself off in time to Chris’ thrusts, and then he came, hard, clenching around Chris’ cock as he pumped himself dry.
Chris followed soon after. Tom bent his knees, dragging him almost painfully all the way inside, and Chris came with a loud shout, in hot spurts, thrusting erratically to ride out his orgasm. It took him a couple of seconds to come down from his high, and when he pulled out gently, Tom moaned deep in his throat, glancing down his thighs as Chris let him back on his feet, hands crawling up his sides, his ribs.
Chris had come inside him, no warning, and Chris worried for a second Tom was going to tell him off. Chris slumped against him, pressing his forehead against the wall behind Tom, basking in the afterglow, the warm path of Tom’s hands on his back.
Tom surged up against him, kissing him, trailing his fingers up Chris’ neck.
Chris closed his eyes. He opened them and said, “Hi.”
Tom, who smelled like expensive cologne and sex and sweat, tilted his head to one side. “Hi,” he said.
Chris woke up sometime around lunch, feeling tired and pleasantly achy, and hungry as fuck. Sex always gave him an appetite but it wasn’t until the morning after that the hunger hit him like a ton of bricks; he wanted a steak or at least a bleeding cheeseburger with all the works.
He’d forgotten he spent the night at Tom’s place when he bolted upright and blinked around the room. He should’ve known this wasn’t his crummy apartment; the sheets were too soft, the bed too wide, and the pillows smelled clean and minty.
Tom had just finished his shower and was coming in through the door when Chris picked up a discarded shirt from the wreckage on the carpet. He glanced up. Tom’s hips were swathed in fluffy dark blue towel.
Chris stared for a moment, at his narrow waist and his long lean body, and he thought: I had that writhing under me last night, and blushed. He blushed harder when Tom’s bath towel dropped in a sodden heap on the floor as Tom leaned over the dresser to root for something in the shelf. He turned around as soon as he’d found what he wanted and Chris saw with a start that it was. Fucking lube.
Oh god, Chris thought, sucking in a breath. He felt all the blood pool directly to his cock. This shouldn’t even be happening, he thought. They’d just done the dirty deed last night and --
Tom was ambling towards him, and he had a strange look on his face, sort of soft where slats of light between the blinds hit it, like a half-smile Chris had to strain to make out. And then before Chris could protest, not that he ever wanted to, Tom was sliding into his lap and pushing Chris on his back and like a marionette, helpless and weak against Tom’s advances, Chris flopped down, sinking against the sheets with a sigh.
He wondered if Tom would fire him or demote him or send him on his way to walk the walk of shame after this whole thing was over. So much sex should be physically impossible, but Chris wanted it, and was hard for it, bucking into Tom’s slippery fist as Tom coated Chris’cock with lube, stroking him until he keened.
Tom was still a little loose from last night, and he rocked his hips in agonizingly slow pulls. He gasped and whined and closed his eyes whenever Chris thrust, moaning like something that should be outlawed. Chris held onto Tom’s hips, steadying his movements, pistoning in feebly as he felt himself teeter over the edge.
It was always these rich types, Chris knew, that always had an insatiable appetite for sex. It was the public school, probably; they never got over it.
“Are you close?” Tom asked, lifting an eyelid open, bouncing in Chris’ lap.
Chris slicked his palm with spit before wrapping it around Tom’s cock. “You’re such a fiend,” Chris told him, moving his hand in a loose fist until Tom’s cock was hard and wet and Tom smiled, working himself even deeper on Chris’ cock. He took his sweet time, curving his back, twining his fingers over Chris’ fist and tugging in measured strokes.
Tom tilted his hips. “I’m no more a fiend than you,” he said during some point, and just before Chris came he thought: actually, that was kind of true.
Chris spent a lot of time at Tom’s condo after that.
It just happened all of a sudden, without warning, right after that first morning Tom’s housekeeper, who appeared and disappeared at random intervals and eyed Chris like she thought he was going to make off with the candelabras, made him the best bacon and eggs in the world.
Chris sat there that morning, thinking, life couldn’t get better than this, scooping bite after bite of food into his mouth, listening to the faint rustle of Tom’s newspaper unfurling as he checked the business section.
“Enjoying your food?” he’d ask from time to time, not even looking up once. Or, “Would you like more sugar in your coffee, Chris?”
Chris would feel embarrassed but utterly pleased, or maybe he was embarrassed because he wasutterly pleased, and his answer would always be yes. Yes, please, thank you. And Tom would smile a little before quickly averting his eyes and clearing his throat.
And when Chris felt Tom’s foot pressing up against his under the breakfast table, that was nice too, that was good, and later before he left for his apartment, feeling gritty in the clothes he’d worn the night before, socks rolled into balls in the pockets of his jacket, skin smelling like an odd combination of Tom’s cologne and his sweat and his come, that was even better. He grinned his head off on the cab drive home.
Bracing his arms against the wall under hot sprays of water, Chris smiled to himself and pumped his fist.
He fucking loved this job.
And it didn’t stop there.
What started out as the best night and morning after of Chris life turned out to be an extended period of unpaid overtime, and Chris liked it because it made him feel good, in an illicit sort of way, going out for coffee runs midday and then tipping into bed with Tom at night, undoing his tie, shrugging him free of his jacket, unbuttoning his starched stiff dress shirt until he was finally unloosened from his suit, pale and shivering and folding those impossibly long limbs around Chris, with no plans of letting Chris go until it was dawn again and they were both too exhausted to move, much less roll out of bed for clean up.
Chris liked it; he liked it a lot.
He liked the elaborate ruses Tom would come up with just to get him to stay after hours, he liked the abrupt almost impersonal kisses in the morning, tasting of burnt coffee and mints, the no-nonsense approach of it all, the way Tom locked the door to his office and closed the blinds and walked him backwards against the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the rushing city below and splayed his hand -- the same hand he often used to tap the corner of his mouth when he was thinking, and sign checks with and beckon interns over -- across Chris’ belt buckle before curling it over the front of Chris’ pants, kneading.
“Don’t make a sound now,” he’d purr into Chris ear, making Chris jerk up against the glass as his fly was pulled down.
And then Tom would lick his ear, and Chris would think, in a vague, disconnected sort of way as his head floated high up in the clouds, what the hell is even happening, and then he would cease all thought altogether as Tom’s expert little mouth wrapped around the head of his cock and swallowed sweetly.
Tom always got that look on his face right before Chris would come, hips twitching underneath Tom’s palm keeping him in place, that serene expectant smile, his eyelids lowered, his mouth curved open to catch tiny spurts of Chris’ come with his tongue, that Chris thought was kind of wonderful and hot. Wonderfully hot.
It made him want to kiss Tom again and again, except for the come in his mouth part. But sometime Chris did, anyway, pulling him shudderingly close until their faces were squashed together.
And everything was all well and good at least until Chris got come on Tom’s hair or his expensive tailor-made suit or said the wrong thing (“You’re a randy little bastard, aren’t you?”) in the heat of the moment, trying to be sexy, and then Tom got annoyed at him, and the day would be ruined, and Chris was treated to the cold shoulder until the next morning when all sins were absolved in the wake of new ones to commit.
Chris tried not to think of the consequences because he had only about a month left in his contract and really, when he thought about it, how else could he possibly fuck up?
He’d already slept with his boss more times than he could count; there wasn’t anything else left to do but let it happen again and again.
Stopping now would be awkward and might even piss Tom off. And Chris didn’t want that.
What he wanted was late nights at the office, Tom sliding up against him in the empty lift and tugging him forward by his tie, smirking as Chris tipped forward into the kiss, hooking his arm around Tom’s waist.
And it was hard to think anyway, with Tom climbing over him every night, pressing him to the bed and rubbing up against him so deliciously Chris went pliant quickly afterwards, boneless as he fell asleep thinking about the next day when they got to do it all over again.
Luke dragged him aside in the middle of his end-of-the-month barbecue to inquire about the expensive watch Chris suddenly started wearing.
It was Tom’s watch, actually, a Luminor 1950 that Chris had picked up -- by accident, mistaking it for his sixty dollar one -- from the dresser as he was putting his clothes back on.
Chris was going to give it back the next day but then Tom waved him off and said he should keep it for awhile as he was getting a new one soon, anyway.
Besides, Tom said, it suited Chris better. “It makes him look suave,” he’d said, pointing to his phone which he had dropped on the floor sometime last night so that Chris could hand it over.
Chris, who always had trouble saying no to people, especially people in positions of power, put up no protest though he took the watch off as soon as he clocked out; it only seemed fitting as he stopped worrying about the time then.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice,” Luke said, raising an eyebrow. “I know whose watch that is.”
Chris shrugged, feigning indifference. He thought it complemented his jeans so he wore the watch to the barbecue. He shouldn’t have; that was an idiot move.
“Are you fucking my boss?” said Luke.
Chris choked on his beer. “What?”
“I asked you a simple question. Are you fucking my boss?”
“Luke,” Chris said, sighing and shaking his head. He held out his hands. “It’s just a watch. Stop making conjectures.”
Luke laughed. He started counting off his fingers. “You work late nights, you’ve stopped coming to dinner every Friday, and you smell different.”
“Like you’ve fallen into a vat of sleazy cologne.”
Chris actually laughed. “I’m not sleeping with Tom,” he said, rolling his eyes. Even if it were true, Luke was being ridiculous.
Luke cocked his head to the side. “Tom?”
“I paid for your education, Christopher,” Luke said, crossing his arms. “The least you could do is not stick your dirty dick in the one guy signing my paycheck.”
“Luke,” Chris said but Luke held up a hand and continued without pause, “Fuck, his dad just died, Christopher. Do you know how devastating that is? No, of course you don’t, you’ve never lost a parent before. Fuck Terrence from Accounting, I don’t care. You’re going to get us both fired if you don’t stop what you’re doing.”
Chris snorted at him. “Dirty? Really? And his name is Terry.” Ridiculous, Chris thought.
“Short for Terrence. Look, I like my dental plan,” Luke said. “My teeth are my number one asset. If I lose this job, I lose my house, I lose my car, I lose my dental plan. Do you get where I’m going?”
“You really like your teeth?”
Luke frowned at him. “He’s your boss,” he said in a quieter voice. “Do you honestly see this working out?”
“Actually,” Chris said, and then stopped short. He didn’t. He never really thought about it before. Fuck.
Luke patted him on the shoulder, as if he could read Chris’ thoughts. “Fix this,” he said. “And stop accepting expensive gifts or he’ll think you’re easily bought.”
“I’m not,” Chris told Luke. He wasn’t.
“I know.” Luke smiled in sympathy, squeezing his shoulder. “You’re just, I guess, very gullible.”
Sometimes, Chris hated that Luke knew him very well.
“I want to know,” Chris said slowly after Tom returned to bed, towel-drying his hair. “What we’re doing exactly.”
Tom blinked at him, narrowing his eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.”
Chris sighed and grabbed the towel from him, pulling Tom between his legs to pat his head dry. Tom had nice shoulders, freckled in places Chris loved running his tongue over. Tom loved it when Chris did that before Chris fucked him, tracing the path of his spine with his mouth before parting his lean thighs.
“What are we doing?” Chris said again. He didn’t want to sound clingy or needy but Luke’s voice kept echoing in the back of his head, persistent and annoying, ever since their conversation a week ago. He tried to drown it out countless times, but it just wouldn’t go away, and was made louder by the silence that followed each time Tom left to shower or check his e-mail after they had sex.
“What do you mean?” said Tom.
Chris set the towel aside, touching his finger to the bumps of Tom’s spine. “You know what I mean.”
“I really don’t,” Tom said after a pause.
Chris sighed again and nodded, pressing his forehead to Tom’s shoulder. He breathed in Tom’s fresh clean scent, his cool aftershave and citrusy soap.
Chris didn’t want to lose this when he’d already fallen into the routine, when it was easy, so easy, to just turn up at Tom’s condo on a Friday night and crawl into bed with him, like slipping into old clothes. Three more weeks, he thought. It felt like a death sentence.
Chris squeezed Tom in pulses, shivering as the coolness of Tom’s skin bit his. “Forget it,” he said. He was probably being stupid anyway.
Tom tipped his head back to kiss him on the jaw. “All right,” he said.
“By the way,” Chris said, as Tom inclined his head to reach the corner of Chris’ mouth. “Your mother wants to see you for lunch tomorrow so I rescheduled your dentist’s appointment.”
Tom smiled before patting him on the cheek. “Good boy,” he said, and if there were a trace of mockery in that, Chris thought it best if he just ignored it.
He was going to have to get used to being Tom’s dirty little secret.
Chris felt cheap, like a whore, but he couldn’t stop having sex with Tom. He didn’t think he could stop even if he wanted to, and the problem was: he didn’t want to.
So he waited until he got sick of it, until the sheen of newness dulled and he could finally move on and get with his life.
He knew it would happen eventually.
It was why none of his relationships lasted: he got bored real quick and felt burdened by commitment. It was also why their arrangement worked so well in the beginning: all Chris had to do was show up at Tom’s condo, work a little overtime, and then Tom would smile at him, that smile reserved for Chris when all the paperwork was put away, and Chris would know: it was pretty much imminent after that. Sex.
But then Chris started wanting other things too, little things, that, despite their size could change their non-relationship significantly. It only takes so little to kill a man, Chris knew. He wanted to stay for lunch.
“You can’t. I’m going out,” Tom told him. “Meeting friends at Club Regis.”
Always the same answer. Chris was usually out of his hair before ten.
“No you aren’t,” Chris said, just to see if Tom could be persuaded. “I know your schedule.”
Tom smiled indulgently and combed his hair in the dressing mirror, straightening out his curls which Chris was a little disappointed to see go.
“Clearly,” Tom said, “Not as well as you might think.” And that was the end of that.
It only made sense that Chris wanted what he could never have.
He called Luke about it because Luke, even if he were weird about advice, always listened to what you had to say before he doled out judgment.
“It must be nice to have a job with so much downtime,” Luke said over the phone after Chris was done talking. He sighed, and Chris could almost see him, sitting in the living room as his dogs swarmed his legs and the kids circled the couch, running.
Chris heard yelling in the background and the sounds of a scuffle and Luke scolding his kids, telling them stop fighting.
“Welcome to the real world, brother dearest,” said Luke, afterwards when the clamor died down. “Where bad things happen to good people and hard work is often never rewarded. People are going to let you down, all the fucking time, Chris, and if you have plans of living past twenty five with your sanity intact, that's the first thing you should learn.”
“And, listen,” Luke continued after a noisy shuffle. “Your contract’s ending relatively soon anyway. So, that being said, you have nothing to worry about.”
Chris sighed, rubbing a spot between his eyes. “You know,” he said, “Someday you’ll find love and then everything will be different.”
“I’m married,” Luke reminded him.
“Yeah, well,” Chris said. “How’s that working out for you?”
Luke laughed, long and unforgiving. Laughter always sounded longer on the phone. “Shut up,” he said when he was done.” And come over here, will you? The kids miss you. Marge is making beef pot pie. Your favorite.”
“Fine,” Chris acquiesced, thinking he needed a change of plans anyway. And he loved Marge’s cooking. “I’ll get in the shower, be there by noon.”
“Yeah, and rid yourself off that awful dirty hooker smell, all right?” said Luke.
“Hey,” Chris said, laughing.
But it felt good and he felt better. And the shower definitely improved his mood.
Three weeks into December, when Chris lay in the darkness that usually followed an orgasm, he turned his head and touched Tom on the shoulder. “You doing anything this Christmas?”
Tom rolled onto his side, leaning against his hand. His eyelashes were lowered like they usually where when he flirted. Chris loved that about him, how his face was expressive in private, like he was sharing this precious secret with him and no one else.
Chris often wondered if Tom had other guys, or girls on his payroll. He worried about things like that. He found that he worried a lot these days.
“Mm,” Tom said, “Any particularly reason you’re asking me?” He leaned forward for a kiss which Chris returned halfheartedly, one hand on Tom’s chest as a buffer.
“If you’re not,” Chris said, throat weakening, “Maybe you can come up to my brother’s this weekend. We have this family dinner thing every year and I don’t know,” Chris shrugged, too embarrassed to continue.
“Chris,” Tom said.
Chris raised his head. “What?”
“I can’t make promises,” Tom told him kindly, touching his face like Chris was a kid that needed soothing. “We’re not, we aren’t--”
“Yeah,” Chris said, nodding, laughing at himself. He felt like an idiot. Of course. “We’re not,” he said. Together, he finished in his head. He understood perfectly why this was never going to work. He stood up to put on his shirt.
Tom, who had the gall to look hurt, watched him, hands folded in his naked lap. “Where are you going?”
“Need to take the kids out to the park or something while Luke’s out shopping for presents.” Chris tugged his shirt over his head and was surprised when Tom handed him his pants, leaning up to kiss him fully on the mouth. He could still taste himself on Tom’s tongue and wondered if Tom often got sentimental about things like that.
Tom pulled away, nodding, and for a time Chris almost wanted to stay forever. Tom swallowed and rested his hands on Chris’ biceps, peering into his eyes with those wide baby blues. Straight to the heart, Chris thought with a pang in his chest.
“I’ll be there,” Tom said, sliding off the bed and standing to his full height. “I mean, I’ll try. But no one else can know about us, does your brother--”
“Kind of.” Chris shook out his pants and his wallet fell out of the back pocket so he picked it up from the floor. “The watch you lent me. He thought--” Chris wanted to hit himself for being so damn articulate.
Tom nodded again. “I’ll call,” he promised. “But you, of all people, know how erratic my schedule’s like, so really, I don’t know if I’ll be able to go. But I want to. I do.”
“It’s fine,” Chris said, pretending it wasn’t a big deal. “Don’t worry about it.”
Tom let him go after a squeeze. “I’ll see you at work,” he said, kissing Chris one final time, loud and close-mouthed and, of all things, lingering. Chris didn’t think it was appropriate because it always made his chest do funny things, dangerous things, like flutter about like the wings of a caged hummingbird.
He buttoned up his pants, fastened his belt. “See you,” he said, and turned his back.
On his way out, he grabbed an apple from the bowl in the kitchen.
Two days later, when Tom was a no-show for dinner, Chris wasn’t really all that surprised or broken up about it. In a way, he’d anticipated the worse. He’d shown up, told Luke Tom might make a sudden appearance so he better not start telling his profane nativity story over dinner which involved Jewish bankers, and Luke slapped him on the arm and shook his head, rolling his eyes at Chris and said, “It’s my house; I get to do what I want.”
Afterwards, when the kids were put to bed and Liam had stepped outside to take a phone call from his girlfriend, Luke pushed a cup of eggnog into Chris’ hand and slung an arm around his shoulder in a friendly pat.
Luke lifted his own cup into the air, a wry salute. “Merry Christmas,” he said, smiling sadly in that knowing way characteristic of older brothers.
Chris tugged the reindeer hat off his head and leaned against the wall. He peered into the darkness outside the living room window but all he could see were blankets of snow on the neighbor’s lawns and gleaming street lights twinkling with the stars.
“Sure,” he said, licking his lips. “Cheers.”
“We’re going to miss you,” Giselle said, a week later. “Really, Chris. You were awesome.”
“Take care, man,” said Terry. “Don’t forget to text.”
“You too,” Chris said, pointing to the two of them. “Take care of each other.”
“Oh, we will,” Giselle promised, grinning at Terry who grinned back. They bumped their shoulders together.
What a couple, Chris thought.
He wanted to be happy for them, he really did, but he felt a strange heaviness in his stomach, knowing he probably wasn’t going to see them anymore, knowing, too, that come Monday morning he’d have no reason to get up at six thirty and shave.
This is it, he thought, packing up his stuff.
It was over.
He didn’t really have much to bring along with him: a ceramic mug with the H & Co logo on it, a paperweight in the shape of a silver turtle that he’d bought for himself a few months ago, a small box of paperclips and a dog-eared paperback novel he never got to finish in his six months at the firm. His contract ended today, on the thirtieth, and now he was leaving which meant he was out of Tom’s life for good.
He caught Tom on his way to the lobby, finishing up a call and pocketing his phone. He looked up, startled, and stared at the box under Chris’ arm.
“I’d forgotten you were leaving today,” he said, like he hadn’t known, days before, that Edith was coming back. She’d shown up a day early with pictures of her newborn baby, a healthy pudgy pink little thing with downy brown hair. Chris was even handed a photo.
“No words of wisdom?” Chris asked, raising his eyes. He wanted to hear it though he wasn’t sure what it was exactly. Were they over even though they were never officially together? Was Tom going to beg for him to stay?
“My plane leaves in an hour,” Tom said, as if that were excuse enough.
“St. Tropez, right?”
Tom nodded, pressing his lips together. He looked lost under the stark lighting, eyes wide, in his best pinstriped suit. But lost or not, he offered Chris no words of comfort, or anything to buoy Chris through the torturous wait of expecting something resembling closure.
Chris turned on his heel.
“Have fun,” he told Tom and then exited the lobby.
“Chris!” Tom called out.
Chris stopped, turned, waited for a beat. Nothing. “What?” he said.
Tom smiled at him, his business smile, his it-was-nice-knowing-you-smile. Chris had learn a few things during his brief tenure as Tom’s secretary, and frankly, that was a goodbye-we’re-probably-never-seeing-each-other-again smile if he ever saw one. He knew that look.
“Good luck,” Tom told him.
“Thanks,” Chris said. “You too.”
He meant it.
Then he left for good before things took a turn for the dramatic and flagged a cab home. Chris’ shoulders slumped, and he sighed the second he slid into the gummy backseat, unclipping his tie and freeing his throat, finally, after twenty four long weeks. He turned off his phone and ran a hand through his hair.
It was over.
It was done.
Life went on the way it often did.
Chris went job hunting in the first two weeks of the new year, penciling ads for real estate agents and telemarketers, going in for job interviews and beginning that whole cycle of waiting for call backs and eating junk food in front of the TV while he waited.
He gave up before the month was over and started growing out his hair again.
“I should just work at McDonalds,” Chris said when he went over Luke’s for breakfast. “But even those jobs are competitive these days.”
Luke rolled his eyes, jabbing a fork in Chris’ direction.”You’re not eighteen anymore; you can’t work at McDonald’s. And I didn’t pay for your education just so you could waste it flipping burgers for minimum wage. If you want to ruin your life, at least wait until I’m dead.”
Luke was right though, he needed to aim a little higher. Truthfully, he couldn’t summon the energy to do anything these days as he was still reeling from the fact that Tom hadn’t even bothered to call him just to see how he was doing, even if it were just to check if Chris were still alive.
Chris spent an entire week waiting for his phone to ring, wanting to drop Tom a visit, but he kept picturing Tom in his kitchen, sidling up to some hot Brazilian model, laughing in happiness because Chris was out of his life for good. So Chris didn’t text him either, or call him, and one day, in a fit of immaturity, deleted Tom’s number from his list of contacts.
He regretted that. A lot. But it was therapeutic in its own way.
It made him feel less pathetic, finger poised over the send button before deleting his text.
Every now and then Chris wondered how Tom was doing and was tempted, a lot of the time, to swing by the office for the hell of it.
But he never did. Chris was too much of a coward to do that; he was too much of a coward to do anything, really.
And then some time in February, Tom showed up at his doorstep, with a bouquet of tulips and a box of Betty’s Handmade Piedmont Hazelnut Pralines right before Chris was getting ready to shower for a job interview.
Chris blinked, did a double take, opened his mouth.
Tom wore a button down white shirt and beige slacks that went up to his knees, and he looked oddly tan in places though if Chris peeked far enough into the V of his shirt, he could see misplaced pale splotches of skin.
“Really, you shouldn’t have bothered,” Chris said with a raised eyebrow, taking both the box and flowers, tucking them under one arm. He should’ve remembered to put on a shirt before answering the door. “I’m not a flowers and chocolate kind of guy, but uh, thanks.”
“You should put those in a vase,” Tom said.
“I don’t own a vase,” Chris told him. He didn’t let Tom in.
“I went to a palm reader last night after my father’s will was finalized,” Tom said, and Chris, who was still hurt about everything because he got stupidly sensitive and sentimental and was, like Luke said, gullible to a fault, listened inattentively and tried his best not to make faces. “And she said the strangest thing: that I needed to reclaim something of mine that I had lost otherwise I’d lose it forever. Of course, I thought she meant my grandfather’s company but then. Then I thought of you.”
Chris crossed his arms. “A palm reader? Really?” He wasn’t that stupid.
“You’re no longer my employee,” Tom explained. “Which I suppose means we can go out now. I know that that’s what you want.” He laughed a little, as if he thought this were funny.
“And you waited a month to tell me this?”
“I needed time to think.” Tom looked embarrassed and hurt, and Chris thought: good for him. He should feel embarrassed and hurt.
“It’s not that easy,” Tom said gently. “Do you know how much I’m worth?”
Chris shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t care about money.”
“It isn’t about money. I have a company to run,” Tom said. “I have to think about everybody too. Not just myself. If word gets out that I’m fucking my secretary…”
Chris interrupted him with a loud sigh. “Fine, I get it. What do you want then?” He massaged the headache he could already feel forming between his eyes. “Why are you here?”
“Why do you think?”
Chris knew, but he couldn’t do it all over again if it meant a repeat of the last time. All they did was have sex and while that was good for awhile, Chris often felt it lacked something. And that absence of something made him feel empty afterwards, once the fog of sex disappeared and he was sent on his way home, to contemplate the night before.
“I have a job interview in an hour,” Chris said, because really, what else was there to say. He was tired of playing games. And if he didn’t leave soon, he was going to be late to the goddamn interview.
“I can wait,” Tom said.
Chris made a pain face at him. “I don’t know what time I’ll even get back, Tom.”
“I can wait,” Tom assured him.
Chris thought: fine, suit yourself, and left him in the kitchen and went for a shower. He dressed quickly, smoothing his hair back from his face with hair gel. He needed to get it cut or Luke might start calling it ‘jungle hair’ again, he thought.
Chris put on his tie and deeming himself ready, grabbed his wallet from the dresser.
“Good luck,” Tom said to him, standing in the doorway, one hand lifted.
Chris, feeling oddly out of center, nodded. “Thanks.”
He waved awkwardly and left.
When he got back that afternoon, Tom was still there, drinking coffee from a chipped mug and leafing through a backdated magazine. He looked up at the rattle of keys by the door. “How’d it go?”
“Swimmingly,” Chris said. He loosened his tie and threw himself on the opposite end of the couch, closing his eyes.
“Well, I hope it works out,” Tom said after a beat.
Chris laughed. “Yeah, me too.” He eyed the vase of flowers on the coffee table. “Where’d you get the vase?”
“Cupboard in the kitchen,” Tom answered, folding his magazine and tossing it aside. He looked expectant, turning his body towards Chris, eyes searching his face.
What now, Chris thought with sudden trepidation. He should’ve kicked Tom out when he had the chance. Chris didn’t know what to do with him.
Chris raised his head, blinking.
“I don’t know,” continued Tom in a low voice. “I’m just.” He clenched his fists. “I’m sorry. I know I was cruel to you, and in a strange way, I expected you to hate me, and I wanted you to hate me but you didn’t; you stayed. I was supposed to fire you after a week but I couldn’t do it. You were too… I liked you too much. And I was stupid and I was unkind to you, and I missed you when I went on holiday, when you weren’t there to bring me coffee in the morning. God knows I love Edith to death, but she isn’t you. And I waited for you to call but you didn’t, so I got angry, so I didn’t you call, either. And I’m sorry. Okay? I’m sorry.”
And he looked really sad about it too, steepling his fingers in front of his face and closing his eyes, trying to catch his breath.
Chris touched his arm. He couldn’t believe it. Tom had broken his heart and here he was, doing the comforting. The universe had upended. He rubbed Tom’s arm, the way he knew Tom liked.
“Come here,” Chris said, and squeezed him to his chest, burying his face in Tom’s curls. He smelled the same: minty and clean. Chris breathed in the scent to commit it to memory. God, he thought, shivering. Luke was right. He was so fucking gullible.
“You can’t just barge in here and expect me to forgive you,” Chris told him, because this was true; flowers and candy weren’t his thing. He needed something real and concrete, no empty promises. “I’m not that easy.”
Except it turned out that he was, because before long Chris was tipping his head forward and Tom was lifting his mouth to his, and then they were kissing, gently at first and firmly before Tom turned in Chris’ arms and slid his hands up Chris’ jaw. He pulled back, he was always the first to pull back, but this time, it was to look into Chris’ face.
“Your hair is longer now,” Tom said, voice soft and full of wonder.
Chris shrugged, shaking his hair loose from its ponytail like a dog. “Yep,” he said, laughing a little. “Luke calls it my jungle hair. You like it?”
Tom tipped back his head, sniffing out a laugh and then smiling. He looked gorgeous when he did that, Chris thought; he wondered how he survived a month and a half without it, the sound of Tom’s laughter.
“Jungle hair?” Tom repeated incredulously.
Chris nodded and pulled him in for a hug. He never wanted to let Tom go; he hoped this lasted. Chris didn’t believe in the concept of forever but he didn’t want this to end, the kissing, the hugging, Tom’s breath fanning his cheek, whatever this was between them, it was good and Chris didn’t want it taken away again.
“Hey,” he said after second, peering down. His chin touched the slope of Tom’s nose.
“I’m starving,” Chris said. “And I haven’t had lunch. You wannna get a Judas Priest burger or something?”
Tom twirled a finger around the strands of Chris’ new long hair. His face looked soft when he smiled and he reached up and tugged at the coil of hair behind Chris’ ear, making Chris shiver.
“I’d love that,” Tom said. “But I’m not your boss anymore so I won’t be paying for you.” He jabbed Chris in the chest.
Chris grinned and kissed him again, once, twice, swiping his tongue across Tom’s bottom lip. Forever, he thought. “I’m paying,” he promised earnestly. “I just got this new job and the starting pay is through the roof!”
Two months later, Tom showed up at Chris’ place again, in a tartan cap and white leather gloves. His golf attire, Chris knew. He looked tired and tanned.
“I’m not playing golf with you,” Chris told him, remembering how that had turned out the last time. He didn’t want to play caddy under the stifling heat; he didn’t want to nearly pass out again.
Tom invited himself in like he always did, charmingly obnoxious about it like he always was, hanging his cap behind the hook on the door, on top of Chris’ leather jacket.
“Who says I’m here about golf?” he said. “It’s six at night. Who plays golf at six at night?”
“Country club?” Chris guessed, giving Tom’s clothes one last look before heading back to the kitchen to fix dinner.
Tom sighed, waving a hand and rolling his eyes. “I honestly don’t know why I even go there anymore. I hate everyone; they smell like rapidly approaching death and tobacco. Do you have anything to eat? I’m famished.”
Chris laughed as he handed Tom a beer from the fridge. “Well, you’re in luck. I just happen to be making dinner before you arrived.”
“Oh? What are we having?”
“Actually, I’m just heating stuff. Marge’s beef pot pie.” Chris took an experimental sniff of the tupperware, declared the pie was still good, and loaded it into the microwave, pressing the necessary buttons.
“Mmm,” Tom said, coming up behind Chris. He squeezed Chris’ waist, tucked his chin into Chris’ shoulder and rocked them a little, warm and firm against Chris’ back. “Marge’s beef pot pie is my absolute favourite,” he said, curling against Chris’ neck like a cat.
Chris stroked the back of Tom’s hands before turning. “Mine too,” he said, as his mouth caught Tom’s mouth, smiling. “They’re the best.”
The sound of Tom’s laugh felt good.