He smokes his third cigarette like he’s pulling petals off a daisy. On one lungful of smoke, he’s sure he’ll go inside, take a seat, say his name, confess his sins. On the next lungful, he’s dismissed the idea as a melodramatic, narcissistic overreaction to a rough few months.
It’s cold, too cold to be standing here in a flimsy sweater and dreading a decision he’s probably not going to make. His lower back is already throbbing, the pain dull and threatening to get worse. He considers the community center across the street, filling and emptying his lungs where he’s leaning against the driver's side door of his beaten-up Corolla.
The meeting’s not due to start for another few minutes, but people have been milling in for the last fifteen or so. He imagines them filling chipped cups with stale coffee and making non-confrontational small talk with each other about weather-related inconsequentialities.
He’s just sucking in his last drag to the tune of you’re a pathetic fucking loser, go home when some twenty-something kid marches up to the building, stops for the briefest of moments at the doorstep, then storms inside with a resolve Frank wishes he could feel.
He puts his cigarette out against his front tyre and digs his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. He closes his fist around his keys and fingers the little metal keychain container that holds his emergency pills. He’s come this far; he might as well.
One lungful of air carries him across the street, another into the building, a third gets him through a dark hallway and the fourth brings him into a dimly lit room where seven bodies are sitting in a circle of fold-out chairs.
A guy with fiery red hair greets him with a friendly smile. The chairs are identical and arranged in a perfect circle, but something about him makes Frank think he’s at the helm of this thing. “Hey,” he says. “Welcome. First time?”
Frank nods curtly and sinks down into the closest available chair. The kid Frank followed into the meeting is sitting at Frank’s right, biting the fingernails of one hand while his legs shake restlessly. If Frank wasn’t Xanaxed to his eyeballs, he’d probably be making a similar mess of himself. As it is, he’s slow and dopey and already regretting his decision to come inside.
“Two newcomers today, awesome. Welcome to tonight’s meeting everyone.” The red-haired guy sneaks a final sip of his coffee cup before tucking it behind one of his chair legs. He crosses his legs at the knees and folds his hands over the top one. “My name is Gerard and I’m an addict.”
A chorus of “Hi Gerard” swells around Frank’s ears. Gerard gives an answering smile, looking positively cheerful. “If everyone’s comfortable and adequately caffeinated, I’ll give a brief introduction to the group for those of us who are new, then we’ll move into announcements, sharing and we’ll close with a prayer.”
A murmur of consent hums through the room. Frank looks down at his torn cuticles, realizing with sudden, startling clarity what a ridiculous decision he’s made in coming here. He makes it a general rule to avoid social gatherings involving prayer of any sort.
“Narcotics Anonymous” Gerard begins, “is an international, volunteer-based, non-profit organisation that was founded in the Fifties by a group of people who felt their drug and alcohol use had become a problem and wanted to quit using. Although some of the program revolves around the concept of ‘God’—the program itself is ‘spiritual,’ not religious. God can be anything to you: a higher being, your family, music, this group—it’s whatever thing that is bigger than you that you want to anchor your hope in.
“We don’t ask what you used, or how much, or for how long, or what kind of fucked up mess you got yourself in because of it. We’re all here because we want to stop using and we don’t know how to do it on our own. No matter how difficult it gets in here, we keep coming back because recovery is worth it in the end.
“We ask that you’re clean when you come to meetings. Setbacks and relapse are a staple of any recovery process and not a single person here will judge you for it. But being high or drunk in this space is triggering to a lot of us, so we ask that you please wait until you’re clean before you come back. If you’re in a crisis or you’re worried you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else, there are pamphlets on that table over there with phone numbers.
“If it’s your first time here, pat yourself on the back. It takes a lot of guts to walk in here. This space can be a lot of different things for different people at different times. Sometimes it’s the hardest place to be, sometimes it’s the easiest. We recommend that you attend at least three meetings before you decide whether this program is or isn’t for you. If this is your first time here, promise yourself that you’ll come back for a second meeting. Give yourself a shot, no matter how overwhelming or scary it might feel to you right now. You deserve better than what you’ve been giving yourself and—”
Frank doesn’t know if Gerard’s eyes have been scanning the room while he spoke or if they’ve been trained on him and the other new guy, but Frank meets his eyes just in time for “—you’re not in this alone.”
Frank swallows thickly and looks back down at the smudge of blood drying against the nail of his left thumb. His hands are not shaking. His hands are not shaking. His hands are too numb and heavy and medicated to shake. He straightens up a little, raises his gaze to Gerard’s trashed red chucks, up his skinny jeans-clad legs and to where his hands are playing with a gold coin. There’s chipped black nail polish on his fingernails and a thick gold wedding band on his left ring finger.
“Alright,” Gerard says lightly, apparently moving on. “Toilets are through that door and help yourselves to tea and coffee. That’s all the housekeeping out of the way, on to announcements.”
Up his torso, across a ratty Pixies T-shirt and a black leather jacket. He can do this. He can look him in the eye.
Gerard motions theatrically to his right, where he’s flanked by a guy with an impressive head of curls and a shit-eating grin. “Hi I’m Ray, I’m an addict—” he pauses to receive the group’s greeting “—and today, I am 365 fucking days clean and sober.”
There’s a cheerful smattering of hoots and applause. Gerard hands over the small golden coin and Ray takes it reverently like he’s receiving the Eucharist. “Wow,” he says, turning it around in his big hands. “It sure doesn’t look like much when you consider all the heartache that went into earning it, huh?”
Ray straightens one arm out to reveal a cluster of angry red scars and faint pink lines scattered across the inside of his elbow and down his forearm. “I get my tattoos tomorrow,” he continues, running a hand idly over the track marks. “I have three job interviews next week. I’m getting my life back and I couldn’t have done it without you guys. I couldn’t have done it without my pain-in-the-motherfucking-ass sponsor. I also couldn’t have done this without my parole officer, but he’s still a dick, so let’s go easy on the credit there.”
“Ouch,” Gerard says with a fond smile, patting Ray’s back in an encouraging, manly sort of way. “You did it all on your own, buddy. Congratulations.”
“Killed it,” a scrawny blonde from across the circle calls, holding his hand up for an airborne high five. “And your sponsor sounds like a douche.”
“Thanks, Mikey,” Ray says, returning the high five at the same time as Gerard flips Mikey the bird. “Seriously though. Having this little thing in my hand means everything in the world to me. So. Thanks, everyone.”
“Thanks, Ray,” the group answers.
“Onto sharing,” Gerard declares, sneaking another quick sip of his coffee. “Would anyone like to remind us of the rules? Pete?”
“Sure,” the guy beside Ray says, looking out from iron straight black bangs that fall heavily into his lined eyes. “We don't go into gory details around substances, milligrams or paraphernalia. We don't interrupt each other, we don’t offer unsolicited advice and we don’t comment on anyone else’s sharing. If you want to talk about something that’s been said in here once you leave, talk about the words themselves and what they meant to you—not about the person who said them.”
There’s a long, spacious silence that follows Pete's piece, until the bearded guy to Frank’s left introduces himself as Bob, addict. All voices except Frank’s greet him in return and Frank realizes belatedly that he needs to at least appear to be drinking the Kool-Aid.
“I’ve been having nightmares about Afghanistan again,” Bob says slowly, gruffly, like the words are being ground out of him. “Emily lost her first front tooth on Monday. We tied a string around it and she screamed like she was being murdered.” He laughs mirthlessly, running his palms over his own face in a gesture that makes him look bone-weary. “She told me that mommy’s new ‘friend’ has been having sleepovers and making pancakes for breakfast. We haven’t even been separated for six fucking months and my wife is already introducing someone new to my kids.
“I just can’t get away from the war. As if the nightmares weren’t bad enough, the fucking flashbacks… they’re like the emotional impact of eighteen crash crashes every day. I can’t work, I can’t sleep, I can’t watch a movie, I can’t be there for my kids the way they deserve… No matter where I go, no matter what I fucking do, some part of me is still standing in a field of undetonated landmines, watching a little Pashtun girl with two missing front teeth put her foot in the wrong place.”
It’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Even the jumpy kid to Frank’s right has stopped moving. Frank’s lower back is screaming. Fuck these cheap plastic fold-out chairs.
“But I still haven’t fallen off the wagon,” Bob says, forcing a smile that doesn’t reach any other part of his face. He crosses his arms over his chest and shrugs almost-nonchalantly with one shoulder. “So at least there’s that. Uh. Thanks.”
There’s a chorus of “Thanks, Bob,” followed by another long silence.
It’s interrupted by Mikey, who introduces himself before launching in media res into, “So this girl,” as though he’s continuing a conversation he’s had with the group previously. “I’ve been thinking about God a lot, about a higher power, about the thing you’re supposed to hand your life over to in this program. I mean, I was at the intersection of Rock Bottom and DGAF when I met her. I’d lost my license, my job, my marriage, my house was being foreclosed on and I’d come out of 28 days in rehab to find that my rebound was fucking someone else.”
There’s a long moment where nothing’s said and Frank chances a glance at Mikey. He’s smiling to himself, the sort of smile that seems to come from deep within.
“And then this girl,” he continues, and Frank feels a swell of nausea at the stars in the kid’s eyes. He wonders when other people’s happiness became so unappetizing. “I’ve just fucked up everything that I could possibly fuck up in my life and this girl asks me to go to Disneyland with her on a ‘group hang,’ which is apparently some joke from a TV show that means it’s actually a date. I showed up in sweat pants. She was wearing red lipstick and a dress with polka dots. And I think, you know, maybe it isn’t ‘God’ for me. Maybe it’s this girl and all this faith she has in me. She thinks I can get better. She thinks I can be good. Everything in me wants to prove her right, you know? We went for a run by the river this morning and got donuts on the way home. It’s been a good day. I’m learning to hang on to those. Thanks.”
“Thanks, Mikey,” the chorus echoes and there’s barely a moment of silence before, “I’m Patrick and I’m an addict.”
Patrick looks about as twitchy as the new guy to Frank’s side, though he seems to be humming at a slightly lower frequency. His arms are folded over his chest and his hands clench and unclench on his biceps like he’s pinching himself. “They still can’t get my medications right,” he starts, then clears his throat. “One of the voices just screams all the time, this loud ugly thing that keeps telling me I should just die and get out of everyone’s way. I don’t want to end up in the psych ward again, but it’s getting so deafeningly loud that I don’t think I can take it for much longer. I keep trying and holding on and working the steps but I’m so exhausted and everything still fucking hurts all the time and I don’t know if it’s worth it anymore. I don’t even know if I want to use or die at this point, I just want the noise to end, I can’t fucking deal, I don’t—”
“Trick,” Pete interjects suddenly, pleadingly, leaning forwards to rest his elbows on his knees. “It’s fucking worth it. You’ve got to hold on, you’re so fucking important, you don’t even—”
Patrick’s eyes find Pete’s and there’s something soft and confused in his gaze. His fingers have stopped moving on his arms and his shoulders lower slowly as they look at each other.
“Pete,” Gerard says warningly. It’s no louder than anything else he’s said tonight, but there’s a note of absolute authority in it that makes Frank cower on Pete’s behalf. Pete closes his eyes, nods and slouches back in his chair like he knows he’s overstepped. He waves a hand in front of his face and mutters a rough, choked, “Sorry.”
Gerard stares at Pete for a few long moments, as though ensuring he’s been subdued, before nodding encouragingly at Patrick. Patrick shakes his head and starts pinching his biceps again. Pete’s looking at his hands. The kid next to Frank is jittery as fuck again. The pain’s spreading through the underside of Frank’s left thigh.
“Can I? I mean. Hi, I’m Brendon,” the other new kid blurts in one mouthful and his body language seems to explode with it. He’s flushed, restless, sweating through the armpits of his sweater. He sniffles and runs the back of his fingers under his nose. Frank fingers his emergency pills, has an absurd compulsion to hand them over to ease the kid’s shakes. “My test results for HIV came back positive this morning, so this is day fucking one. I never knew how much I wanted to live until they told me I was dying. So. Yeah. I’m Brendon and I’m a fucking addict. I don’t have anything else to say yet. Thanks. Really. Thank you for being here. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Brendon,” the circle answers. Brendon nods, sniffles and runs his hand under his nose again. Frank can’t tell if he’s wiping at tears or at the ghost of whatever he’s been putting up his nose.
“Anyone else?” Gerard says after the silence has stretched for longer than usual. Frank keeps his head down and prays he won’t be asked to speak. He’s itching for some pain relief and another sedative, itching to get out of his head and out of this room and out of this smothering sadness.
“Alright,” Gerard says, moving on with no fanfare. “I’d like to read a piece from the Basic Text and then we’ll say prayer.”
Gerard reads something; Frank can only focus on fractions of phrases. The pain in his lower back has spread down his legs, up his spine, into his head. Recovery begins with surrender. A day clean is a day won. We lose the fear of touching and being touched. Every piece of him is overwhelmed and heavy by the time they join hands and recite a prayer he knows by heart from a lifetime of movies and TV. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
He releases the two hands holding his as soon as the last words are out of their mouths. He hurries through the hallway, out the door, slams his car into first gear and speeds off so fast his tyres screech in the sleepy suburban street.
Whiskey, he thinks. Whiskey and Vicodin. Whiskey, Vicodin and a dreamless sleep.
“Hey, baby,” Donna says once she’s let Gerard into her house, leaning in to brush a kiss on his cheek before leading him into the kitchen. “Okay night? Lady B and I made lasagna with eggplant and carrots. Here, I packed some up for you.”
“Okay night,” Gerard confirms, accepting the two heavy canvas bags she hands over. He glances inside, at a jumble of old Tupperware containers she’s had since he was a kid. “Ma, this is enough to feed a village. How big do you think my freezer is?”
“Let me feed my son, will you?” She wraps a piece of parmesan in Saran wrap and drops it in the bag closest to her. “Where’s your brother?”
Gerard leans against her floral-patterned wall, bracing himself for her usual fussing. He’s tired, too tired, the kind he can feel deep in his bones. “He’s spending the night at Kristin’s.”
“Again?” Donna says crossly, leaning her hip against the kitchen counter and folding her arms over her chest. She fingers her mother’s golden cross pendant where it rests in the hollow of her throat. “I wish they would stay here sometimes. Honestly. He’s barely ever home anymore.”
“She has a cat, I don’t think she can leave it.”
“Not for one night? Nonsense.”
Gerard smiles, can’t help it. “He’s fine, Ma. He’s doing okay. Why don’t we get everyone together for a roast on Sunday?”
“I just worry, is all,” she says defensively, pursing her lips so the wrinkles around her mouth deepen. “He’s still my littlest one.”
“And your littlest one is having lots of gross noisy sex and sharing vanilla milkshakes with this girl he’s all sweet on. Give them some space, yeah?”
Donna frowns deeply and swats at him with a tea towel. “Shush, you. You’re both untouched maidens as far as I’m concerned.”
“Of course. I plucked my daughter from the Moon and brought her to Earth on a spaceship.”
“Smartass. That nasty cough of hers is back, by the way. I gave her some syrup and put her to bed early.”
“Yeah, it was flaring up again last night,” Gerard says, sighing at the memory of two small lungs coughing scratchily down the hall while he lay awake all night. She’d crawled into bed with him sometime after three a.m., damp and exhausted. “She’ll kick it soon enough.”
“I can take her to the doctor again tomorrow morning if you need me to. You look like you could use a sleep-in.” She cocks her head a little, one bleached blonde lock slipping out of her updo. “You okay, honey? Do you want to stay for a cup of coffee?”
“Just tired,” Gerard murmurs, offering her a grateful smile and fingering his car keys. He should get the kid home to her own bed. “Just one of those nights. I’ll get groceries for Sunday if you cook.”
“Alright,” she says, pulling him in for the sort of hug he never knows he needs until it’s wrapped around him like a vise. She kisses the side of his head and he can’t help but clutch her shoulder and pull her closer. “Make sure you get the right butter, I don’t want Mikey’s girlfriend to think I can’t make proper gravy.”
It’s sometime after midnight when Gerard fishes a small silver key out of his sock drawer and kneels in front of the dresser in the corner of his bedroom. He unlocks the bottom drawer, closes his eyes as he runs his hands reverently over its contents. Leather, rope, metal. Heavy, rough, smooth. He picks up 8 feet of rope and twines it around his hands, his wrists, his forearms. He slumps against the dresser drawers, hands straining against the unyielding hemp, forcing himself to breathe through the choking feeling in his throat. It’s been getting worse. He should swallow his pride and call Grant.
His phone lights up from where it’s lying face-up on the floor beside him. Three sharp chirps accompany the text – a message tone that means it can only be Pete or Ray.
It’s Pete. Can I come over?
Gerard twists his hands again, feeling the rope dig mercifully into his hands and wrists. He takes a deep, steadying breath, holding onto it for as long as he can. He squares his shoulders and lets the tension melt out of him on the exhale. He can keep it together if Pete needs him.
Frank’s worked himself into less of a frenzy by his second attempt. He’s just buzzed enough to take the edge off, feeling almost calm as he smokes his second cigarette outside the community center. He doesn’t want to pour coffee and make small talk inside, but he also doesn’t want to be caught loitering outside like some spineless chicken shit. He’s committed himself to one more meeting, to making the barest of social niceties and driving off at a respectable speed. He just wants to go inside, listen and leave.
“Nasty habit,” someone says behind him and he turns to see Ray coming up the driveway. He's shielding the flickering flame of a lighter with one hand as he sucks at a cigarette of his own. He smirks through the first puff of smoke. “Not that I’m one to talk.”
“Been trying to quit,” Frank says, picking at cuticles that have already been picked raw. It’s a lie; he smokes at least a pack a day and the mere thought of cutting down gives him heart palpitations.
“Don’t bother,” Ray says with a wink. “It makes you look devilishly handsome. And it means I don’t have to stand here by myself, so by all means keep at it.”
Frank can’t tell if he’s kidding, making some misguided pass at him or just trying to be friendly... but it puts him strangely at ease either way. Small talk. He used to know how to do this. “How’d your ink go the other day?”
Ray tucks his cigarette between his lips and pulls up his sleeves, showing Frank a pair of fresh, incredibly detailed sailor tattoos covering the crook of his elbows and his forearms. With the exception of a few raised bumps, Frank can’t see any evidence of the track marks beneath. The delicate linework makes Frank crave the bite of a tattoo needle on his own skin. “It was just the first sitting, I have to go back for another two to finish them off.”
“Sick,” Frank declares, curbing the urge to smooth his fingers over the tender skin. It’s always weird and invasive when people touch his own tattoos without asking, but he gets the appeal. “That must have killed.”
“I know, right?” Ray says proudly, yanking his sleeves back down. “Gee’s an artist, he drew them for me. Hurt like a motherfucker.”
“He’s really talented,” Frank says distractedly, thinking Gee. Gerard.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Ray says offhandedly as he spots Pete coming from the carpark. “Hey, dude.” Ray pulls him into a solid, tight hug and ruffles his hair once they part. “Not even gonna ask why you smell like bath salts. You good?”
“Real good.” Pete immediately smoothes his hair back into shape. “Mikeyway and I just went shopping for engagement rings. Check this out.”
“Don’t tell me he’s finally gonna make an honest woman out of you?” Ray quips, craning his neck to look at the jewelry on the screen of Pete’s iPhone. “Jesus, that’s huge.”
“Fuck off,” Pete growls, but there’s no bite to it. “I know. He wants her to have a huge shiny obnoxious princess thing. There’s no way he can afford it, but he’s looking at payment plans and shit.”
“Wow. Go Mikes.”
“I’m dibsing best man. I don’t care if I have to fight Gee for it, we are not having a bachelor party around a game of Dungeons and Dragons.”
Ray snorts, leering at Pete. “Pretty sure I know who’d win that fight.”
“Shush, I’ll bring backup,” Pete says coyly, as though they’re referencing an inside joke Frank isn’t privy to. He frowns at his phone, before tucking it back into the side pocket of his jeans. “Great, my phone fucking died again out of nowhere. I need a new one. Hey, you’re Frank, right?”
A surge of anxiety accompanies the realization that Frank’s been pulled into their conversation. “Uh. Yeah. Hey.”
“Cool,” Pete says. He gives Frank a smile that’s all teeth and enthusiasm. “Well done coming back. Hardest part, promise. You’re sitting with us."
"On Wednesdays we wear pink,” Ray calls over his shoulder as they head inside.
It becomes immediately apparent that Brendon has been drinking the Kool-Aid in great, enthusiastic gulps. He hasn’t missed a day of meetings since his first one, has a backpack full of NA texts and already has his eye on the prize of an anniversary coin commemorating twenty-five years in the program. He seems stubbornly determined, like it’s actually that easy for him. It’s petty, really fucking petty, but Frank is jealous and irritated in equal measures.
When it’s Ray’s turn to speak, he reflects on how his thinking has changed since hitting one year. “Someone told me your first year is physical,” he says, a few minutes into his sharing. “You focus everything you have on staying sober, getting straight and not fucking up. You’re not supposed to date or fuck around in your first year because you’re still vulnerable and it distracts you from your recovery, but… now that I’m going into my second year, I feel like I’m ready to be with someone again. Like I could focus on someone else without losing myself. So if anyone has a hot sister...”
The room laughs as Ray looks around with hope and amusement in his eyes. His gaze stops at a girl who introduced herself earlier as Ashlee, addict. “Ash? Your sister’s single, isn’t she?”
She resolutely shakes her head, but she’s laughing as she does. “In your dreams, Toro.”
He shrugs gleefully, then gives his thanks and Bob speaks up. It’s strange, the way the temperature changes in the room depending on who’s speaking, hope and tragedy in equal measures. Brendon is full of infuriating rainbows and recovery. Ashlee still can’t get pregnant after two years of trying and is devastated by the possibility that she’s made herself infertile from all the chemicals she’s ingested over the years. Patrick is anxious and miserable and leaves halfway through the meeting to throw up because his meds are wreaking havoc on his body. Pete talks about what how great he’s doing, but he’s a little too bright, a little too insistent, like he’s trying to convince himself more than anyone else. Ray’s cheerfully soliciting people for hot sisters. Bob’s barely sleeping and fighting what sounds like a losing battle for shared custody of his kids. Gerard doesn’t say anything, just moves into reading and then prayer.
They exchange hugs afterwards and Frank flinches in the arms of every person that touches him. He’s not high enough to be touched without it feeling like electricity in the way it startles him, like fire in the way it burns.
He doesn’t so much “stick around” after the meeting as “fail to leave.” He lingers on the front porch of the community center, sucking down cigarette after cigarette while people filter out of the building. Ray has half a smoke with him before Bob revs his Jeep Cherokee and threatens to leave him behind if he doesn’t get in. “Hold your fucking horses!” Ray calls over his shoulder. “Worst roommate ever, I swear. Hey, my band’s playing a basement show in Passaic on Saturday, you should come. And bring your hot, single, female friends.”
The flyer Ray hands him is a DIY copy machine job printed on what Frank assumes is scrap paper from someone’s office job. The front of the flyer suggests Ray plays in a metal band, the back suggests someone in the band works in accounting. Frank used to covertly print Pencey Prep flyers during his graveyard shifts at the hospital, back when he still had a job and a band.
“I have a family thing,” Frank says apologetically and hopefully convincingly. He wouldn’t actually go to a family thing if he had one, but his back can’t handle mosh pits anymore and his nervous system can’t really handle crowds unless he’s wasted.
Bob grumpily reminds Ray that “It’s a long walk home, motherfucker!” and Ray nudges Frank’s shoulder with his fist and says, “Maybe next time.”
There’s a petite brunette in an over-sized hoodie waiting for Mikey by a red Honda Civic in the parking lot. She wraps him in a big hug and nuzzles his cheek when they separate. The Girl, Frank assumes with a twinge of jealousy. Mikey spoke about her again tonight, about how even the worst things don’t seem so bad when she’s around. Frank can’t imagine anyone easing his aches like that. Jamia was making things ten times worse by the time they finally called it off.
Pete pats Frank’s back on the way out and says, “See you at the next one,” with a confidence Frank’s not sure is merited. Ashlee tells him to get out of the cold before he catches one of his own. She pulls a helmet over her hair and rides her bicycle down the street.
Frank doesn’t understand why he’s failed to leave until he grinds out his fourth cigarette and has to face the thought of what’s waiting for him at home.
The place is a pigsty. He hasn’t changed his sheets for over a month and there’s nothing but red onions and instant noodles in the pantry. He’s started eating from paper plates because he’s out of clean dishes. He thinks about having a few beers at the bar down the street from his place and swiping right on Tinder until he finds a warm body to share a bed with, just so he doesn’t have to go home.
It’s probably too cold to leave Sweet Pea on her own overnight though, so he resigns himself to having a quick scalding shower, swaddling himself in a polyester blanket and falling asleep sandwiched between his dog, his dirty sheets and a bottle of cheap whiskey. Sleep until he can’t anymore, waste an hour applying for jobs that won’t hire him, then spend the day binge-watching Battlestar Galactica until he can finally sleep again. Rinse, repeat.
“Oh, hey.” The door behind Frank rattles and Gerard looks at him with a curious frown while he locks up the front door. He shoulders the door hard until the lock clicks into place. “You’re still around?”
“Yeah. Just. Um.” Frank stutters, feeling strangely like he’s been busted smoking by a teacher. A teacher he would have dropped to his knees for in another life. “I was just about to go. Sorry.”
“It’s cool.” Gerard tucks the keys into his jacket and pulls up a pack of American Spirits. “I could use the company if you don’t mind staying for another few minutes.”
“I don’t mind,” Frank says as he lights another smoke. He’s going to give himself a throat infection at this rate. At least it would give him a legitimate excuse to spend the week in bed, not that he can realistically afford anymore medical bills.
“Cold as shit,” Gerard mutters once he’s tucked his lighter away. He wraps a hand around one elbow and clutches the top of his jacket closed with his other hand. He keeps his cigarette poised inches from his crooked mouth. “I fucking hate Jersey in the winter. Apparently, it’s gonna snow—”
“I’m not a junkie,” Frank blurts, apropos of nothing, before the thought’s even partially materialized in his own head. Fuck small talk apparently. “This isn’t… I don’t think I belong here.”
Gerard looks at him with a wary, if patient, look. “NA is for anyone who wants stop using drugs and alcohol. As long as that’s something that you identify with, this is a place where you belong.”
"You don't get it."
“I’m not a fucking junkie,” Frank repeats. It comes out harsher than intended, but he’s angry at the mere thought of even being considered one. “I don’t have a problem like Ray has a problem. Or Brendon. Or I don’t know…. Patrick.”
Gerard chews on his thumbnail for a few moments, seemingly deliberating. “No one is calling you a junkie,” he says finally, slowly like he’s speaking to a small child. “We all use different words to make sense of our own experiences, and you get to decide which words work for you. With regards to which problems you do or don’t have and how they might compare to someone else’s— this isn’t the Olympics of Suffering. If you’re having a hard time, you’re having a hard time.”
“I don’t. I’m not saying this right.”
“Then try again,” Gerard allows, not taking his eyes off Frank as he ashes his cigarette. Something about the way he carries himself, the way he commands attention in that room, the way he brought Pete to heel at Frank’s first meeting... something about him makes Frank think he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “Take your time.”
“I’m not like… I don’t use that much. And it’s all. Prescription. Not. Other stuff.”
Gerard scoffs. “You mean you’re not fresh out of prison, injecting crystal meth between your toes in a back alley behind a crack house with a dirty needle that you paid for with a handjob – so you’re not an addict?”
“No, I. That’s not. I’m not—”
“Tell me something. Why are you high right now?”
“I’m not…” Frank closes his mouth before more dumb shit can come out of it. He closes his fist around the keychain in the pocket of his jeans, pressing the blunt serrated edges of keys soothingly into his palm. He fingers the cylindrical pill case that hangs between his car and apartment keys. Gerard has him backed into a corner. There’s no point in lying. “I’m not that high.”
“Cop out. You were high as a kite at your first meeting and you’re high right now. Answer the question.”
Gerard looks expectantly at him and Frank cowers under the ferocity of his gaze. He wants to argue, but he knows it would be a lost cause. His fingers burn suddenly where the flame has met the filter. He flicks the butt away and shakes his hand. “Because I’m...”
There’s a word there that Frank is not going to say. Not now, possibly not ever.
“Because you can’t handle the alternative,” Gerard adds mercifully. “Do you need help?”
“Yes,” he breathes, and there it is, the first time he’s actually admitted to himself that this is getting heavier than he can carry on his own.
“Congratulations,” Gerard says kindly, dropping his cigarette and grinding it out with one of his ratty chucks. “You just cleared step one. Come on, I’ll take you out for a proper coffee.”
They take a seat in the very back of a dark little hipster coffee shop. The air is warm and thick with the smell of freshly roasted Fairtrade beans. The stereo plays something something soft and sweet that Frank half-remembers from somewhere else. There are flyers for local shows on the walls, bands Frank used to share bills with before everything went so fucking pear-shaped. Ray’s flyer is taped up beside a flyer for an upcoming poetry slam.
Within seconds of sitting down, he’s already shifting uncomfortably around in his too-soft armchair. It’s too low to the ground, angling his knees higher than his pelvis. He carefully arranges a pillow behind himself and cautiously stretches his legs out. His back won’t handle this for long, but he prays it holds out for just long enough.
Gerard watches him squirm without comment, brow furrowed like he’s reading too much into things.
“Bad back,” Frank volunteers by way of explanation. Gerard nods like he doesn’t quite believe him, like he thinks Frank’s just some anxious junkie itching for a fix. Frank reaches for his coffee, vowing to get through this without making a scene. “Um. So. How long have you been doing this?”
“NA?” Gerard asks, sounding surprised. He taps the inside of his wedding ring against his mug as he considers his answer. “I don’t know. Eight years, give or take. You lose count after a while.”
Frank wonders how one manages to lose count in a program that measures recovery in months and years and gold tokens, but it’s not his place to pry. “Eight years clean? Shit.”
“Something like that.” Gerard takes a careful sip of his coffee. He considers Frank as he swallows, his gaze sweeping over Frank’s mouth, his throat, the V of his shirt where the top of his chest piece is visible. He’s used to people looking at his ink—it’s the price you pay for being covered in it—but they’re usually more subtle about it than this. When Gerard’s gaze skates past his exposed forearms and reaches Frank’s shaking hands, Frank balls them quickly into fists. “It’s a work in progress.”
Frank nods and looks away and then it’s mercilessly quiet. He should say something, ask what kind of art Gerard does, if he’s a Jersey native, if he believes in UFOs, fucking anything. Instead he zones in on the burn at the base of his spine and shifts uneasily again. He needs to curl up in bed with painkillers and a heat pack. He needs a cigarette and a convincing excuse to get out of here.
Gerard clears his throat. After a while, he says, “You Catholic?”
“No.” Frank pulls the sleeve of his sweatshirt self-consciously back down over his Lady of Sorrows and past his wrist. “Not anymore. Born and raised, though.”
“Same. I was an altar boy, if you’ll believe that.”
“Must be nice,” Frank says, readjusting the pillow behind his back. “Believing in something.”
Gerard shrugs noncommittally. “Have you tried acupuncture?”
Acupuncture, reiki, pilates, hydrotherapy, fucking yoga. Everyone always has a helpful suggestion when they find out about his back. “It’s fine,” he says tersely. “It’s under control.”
“Then why are you talking to me right now?”
Frank frowns. “That has nothing to do with my back.”
“Alright,” Gerard says lightly, sounding infuriatingly unconvinced. He smiles politely. “My mistake.”
Frank almost gets up, almost grabs his things, almost slams his car into gear, and almost speeds blindly off at a dangerous speed. Almost tells Gerard to go fuck himself, almost swallows the handful of pills he’s got stashed in his satchel, almost throws in the towel and goes to stand in traffic because fuck this, fuck everything, fuck this. “I legitimately have a back problem. Six metal screws in my lumbar spine from an injury at work.”
“I wasn’t going to argue otherwise. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a... I mean, I was a nurse.” There’s a burning in Frank’s cheeks and something worse in his gut. His hands are shaking like leaves in a blizzard and he clenches them into the tightest fists he can make. “I lost my nursing license a month ago, so I’m not working at the moment.”
“How’d you lose your license?”
Frank presses his fists as firmly as he can into his thighs, stamping down the desire to turn those fists into punches. “Drug diversion.”
“Stealing meds from your patients, in layman’s terms. Stop that.” Gerard reaches into Frank’s lap and uncurls his fists, baring his palms and straightening out his rigid fingers. Sweat is glistening inside of his own palms, but Gerard’s hands are dry, sure and steady. “Tell me why you came to NA.”
Almost everything in Frank wants to lie or leave, but Gerard’s looking at him like he wouldn’t stand for either. He’s still holding Frank's shaking hands in his own when Frank says, “How much time have you got?”
Gerard smiles a little, the slightest twist of his crooked mouth. He’s close enough that Frank can smell him, cigarettes and coffee and stale cologne. His hands are sinewy and solid, warm. Flecks of paint are visible beneath his fingernails where the black polish has chipped. “They close at ten.”
He waits until Gerard has pulled out of the parking lot before he fishes the small metal pill box out of his satchel with violently shaking hands. He picks out a few Percocet and a random amount of Advil to deal with the shooting pains in his back, some Xanax and what might be Valium or Klonopin. It doesn’t fucking matter, he just needs the shakes to stop before they build into full-blown panic attack, before he throws up coffee and bile and ends up crying against his steering wheel like the pathetic little bitch he is. He puts his car into gear and hopes he can make it home before the fog descends in his brain.
“Hey, Linds,” Gerard says, flicking his thumbnail against the underside of his wedding ring. “Just calling to remind you that you’re beautiful and that B and I miss you. We’ll come see you after school on Thursday. Night.”
Gerard presses the button on his steering wheel to end the call. Music comes back to life on the stereo as he takes a left onto Joralemon Street. He glances at his rearview mirror. Bandit’s still out cold with her rainbow plush toy tucked under one arm. Her bangs are covering her eyes again. He’ll have to cut her hair in the morning.
He feels restless, more so than usual. He had two coffees with Frank and a third with Mikey in their mom’s kitchen when he picked up Bandit. He’s not going to sleep anytime soon, but he doesn’t think he’ll be able to focus enough to do anything productive. He needs to finish a commission for a client by next week, but the mere thought of putting paint to canvas is exhausting. He passes the drive-through liquor store on Union Avenue and feels a familiar reckless urge to drop in. It would be so easy...
It’s getting worse, he knows it is. He considers calling Grant or Otter, pictures his ex-sponsor on one shoulder and his drug dealer on the other… but neither would be a good idea in the long run.
He stays on course instead, until he’s pulling into the driveway of the two-storey suburban dream he and Lindsey bought right after Bandit was born. She insisted there was nothing rock and roll about being a suburban cliche and painted their white picket fence blue to match their windowsills. They drank cold iced tea in the backyard after that and he watched Bandit’s tiny hands curling against Lindsey’s breast while she nursed.
He can’t tell if it was rising anxiety, worsening pain or the first signs of withdrawal, but watching Frank get increasingly agitated throughout the night has him deeply unsettled. Frank raced shakily through the spinal injury he sustained while working at the emergency department of East Orange General, the band that dissolved when he couldn’t play for a year, the engagement that fizzled when all he wanted to do was sleep, the crippling anxiety that grew once he could finally get out of bed and back into the world, to the way everything fell apart all over again when he lost his nursing license. It tumbled out in a rush, like he’d been holding it in and the floodgates finally gave out. Gerard wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the first person Frank has spoken to about any of this.
He let Frank talk until his eyes got glassy and his jaw started clenching and unclenching like he was going to bite through his tongue. He turned the floodgates off before the village flooded, scribbled down Andy’s number on a napkin and slid it across the table. Just in case.
Frank’s shakes had built to near convulsions by the time Gerard walked him out to his car. He offered to drive him home, but Frank shook his head and insisted he’d be fine. Gerard hugged him, the sort of solid, crushing hug that seems to come so easily between people battling the same beasts in NA. Frank murmured “thank you” into his neck and wouldn’t look at him when they separated.
Gerard’s been dealing with addicts for over eight years and sponsoring for almost three. He’s been there for Ray’s two years of devastating relapses, there for Pete through a Best Buy parking lot and a week on suicide watch. He’s seen Mikey through years of denial and self-destruction. He sat with Brendon for over two hours after his third meeting, when he was finally clean enough to focus on something for longer than a minute. He’s been around addicts for so long that he’s good at it now, good at maintaining his boundaries and keeping just enough distance between himself and someone else’s misery to stay safe.
But sweat-drenched inked hands shaking against his own...
He’s been around addicts for almost a decade, he’s good at this. There’s no excuse for how rattled he is by this one.
It's cold inside the church, only a few degrees warmer than the blistering cold outside. There’s a chill in the air that’s threatening snow or heavy rain. He's seemingly alone in the building when he closes the door behind himself and he’s grateful for it. He pulls his beanie off his head and draws the cross with a hand that is both unsure and out of practice. Forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right shoulder. He closes his eyes and presses a kiss to the tips of his fingers. His nonna would've been proud to see this, her prodigal grandson returning at last.
He fingers the scarred wood of each pew as he slowly makes his way up the aisle, before stopping short in front of the altar. There's a twinge of pain in his lower back when he kneels before it, but he braces one hand on the floor and breathes through it. He can't remember the last time he was on his knees for anything, least of all for a god he can’t remember believing in. He closes his eyes and tries to surrender, to give up, to let go, to hand himself over to something bigger than himself. He takes a deep, steadying breath; he tries, wishes, forces, but nothing. He tries again; wants, begs, pleads into the void, but nothing. He’s almost sure there was something there when he was younger, there must have been…
He closes his eyes and folds his hands in front of his sternum, sitting back onto his heels. He doesn’t know if he’s doing it right, what it’s supposed to feel like if God’s around. “Hello,” he whispers absurdly. “I’m Frank. We used to talk—”
His lower back spasms violently and he folds forward to brace himself against the pain. There’s nothing there, nothing even remotely divine, nothing beyond the blinding pain in his pelvis and complete meaninglessness. “Please,” he breathes into the empty space, but still nothing. He gets himself off the floor with some difficulty and retreats back down the aisle. There are a dozen bibles stacked in a pew near the back. He picks one up, tries to open himself up to whatever's inside of it. I’m listening, he thinks as hard as he can. Please.
He opens the book and his finger falls blindly on 2 Timothy 4:7. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
It doesn’t mean jack shit, as expected. He pulls his beanie back on and steps back out into the cold.
Frank still isn’t sober by his third meeting, his eyes unfocused and his movements slower than they should be. He clumsily takes a seat between Ray and Mikey and looks so excruciatingly uncomfortable that Gerard physically hurts on his behalf. He knows he should take him aside, remind him of the rules and ask him to come back when he’s clean… but something tells him that if he asks Frank to leave now, he won’t ever come back.
He heads into the kitchen to pour him a cup of coffee instead, hoping a hit of caffeine will clean him up a little. He picks a bright green mug with Ninja Turtles printed on the sides and only fills it halfway. He doesn’t want him to burn himself if his hands are shaking again.
He listens to Brendon and Spencer talking animatedly beside him. “I mean, it’s not that Vegas is a soulless shitty place or anything,” Brendon is saying to his right. “It’s just, you know, inhumanely hot and in the middle of fucking nowhere and it’s seizure-inducingly bright and...”
“...it’s actually kind of a soulless shitty place?” Spencer suggests and Brendon laughs easily. Spencer does excellent work with his sponsees; Gerard can’t help but think he’d be a good fit for Brendon.
Ray and Mikey are talking to Frank when Gerard returns to the main room. Frank’s hands are curled into fists in his lap and he still looks a little zoned out, but he’s listening to whatever Ray’s saying with a faint smile on his lips. It’s one of Gerard’s favorite things about Ray, how effortlessly welcoming he is with newcomers, how he immediately treats them like they already belong.
Ray stops talking about the crazy lady who cut him off in traffic on the way here so Gerard can hand over the mug of coffee. “Oh,” Frank says, meeting his eyes with a strange, sweet expression that tugs at something in Gerard’s stomach. “You didn’t have to—”
“You looked like you might need one.”
Frank swallows and guiltily drops his eyes to his own lap. His right hand has curled tight around the bright green handle. “Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
Gerard feels a reckless urge to touch his hands again, to uncurl those fists, to make it better for him somehow. It’s a dangerous thought. He’s not in the business of saving anyone from themselves, least of all lost boys who can’t even admit that they have a problem.
He catches a strange look from his brother, a slightly raised eyebrow that means Mikey can see straight through him. “Let’s start,” he calls to the room, taking his seat across the circle from them. It’s a safe distance. He waits for Spencer and Brendon to take their seats and catches Frank take a slow sip of coffee out of the corner of his eye.
He’s been doing this for almost eight years. He’s good at this.
“Hi, everyone. I’m Gerard and I’m an addict.”
“That’s the last of ‘em,” Donna declares, stacking the final few dishes precariously beside the kitchen sink. She wipes her hands on a dish towel and readjusts the clip in her bleached blonde hair. It’s teased higher than usual and she’s wearing bright pink lipstick, all dolled up for Kristin’s first dinner with the family. “Honey, put some rubber gloves on. You’ll burn your hands.”
“It’s fine, Ma,” Gerard says dismissively, sinking his bare hands into the soothing, scalding soapy water. He almost closes his eyes and breathes and lets it hurt. Almost. Instead, he reaches for the scouring pad and the first dirty plate.
His mother gathers bowls from her fine china cupboard and collects dessert spoons from the drawer where she keeps her best silverware. Someone’s playing piano in the living room, a soft, sweet melody that Gerard recognizes from something Bandit watches on repeat while she draws.
“It’s nice having both my boys home for dinner again,” Donna says fondly, her voice softening the way it does when she speaks to Bandit. “I don’t see nearly enough of you two.”
Gerard rolls his eyes. “Mikey lives here and I’m here every other day. It’s not like we’re estranged.
“I’m just saying it’s nice. And it’s nice of him to finally bring Kristin to dinner. I really like her.”
“She’s great. Good for him.”
“Mm.” Donna clicks her tongue against her teeth, quiet for a few beats. “Honey, why don’t you bring someone to dinner next time?”
Gerard glances sideways at her as he runs the pad over the last of the cutlery. It’s not the first time they’ve had this conversation. “There’s no one to bring,” he says, scrubbing the spoon in his hand a little harder than strictly necessary. “I’d tell you if there was.”
“Why don’t you bring Pete?”
Gerard barely catches the soapy gravy boat before it slips out of his hands and onto the tiled floor. Fucking Mikey. “There’s nothing going on between me and Pete,” he says neutrally. If he gets defensive, she’ll draw conclusions that simply shouldn’t be drawn. “I’m his sponsor, that’s all.”
“Uh huh,” she says skeptically. She leans back against the counter, crossing her arms over her chest. Her nails are bright red where they rest against her leopard print clad bicep. “Your brother seems to think there’s more to it than that.”
His brother is going to get a very stern talking to. “My brother needs to mind his own business.”
“Baby, you know your dad and I don’t care that he’s a man. We just want you to be happy.”
Gerard squeezes his eyes shut and hopes he isn’t blushing as furiously as he thinks he is. “Oh my god, mom, stop. I’m not having the gay talk with you. Get me a dry dish towel. I’m not dating anyone, least of all Pete. Lay off.”
“I just worry about you, is all. You’re still my second littlest one.” There’s a smile in her voice and she nudges his arm. “Tell him he’s invited to the next family dinner, we’d love to meet him properly.”
“Your second littlest one is trying to do the dishes and does not need to be interrogated about romantic relationships that don’t exist. Get me a dish towel. Please.”
“Uh huh,” Donna sing-songs teasingly as footsteps enter the kitchen. “Mikey sweetie, help your brother put away the dishes. I’ll put out dessert.”
“Pete? Seriously?” Gerard mutters under his breath once she’s gone, glaring at Mikey as he hands over a dripping frying pan. “Mom just told me she and dad don’t care if I’m into dudes.”
“That’s nice to hear?” Mikey says cheerfully, thoroughly unflapped like the unflappable motherfucker he is. “Yay for tolerance.”
“Fuck tolerance. Did you tell them we’re dating?”
“Uh, yeah,” Mikey says, frowning as though he’s confused. Unflappable and unrepentant. “Because you are. So.”
“You’re kidding me, right? I am not dating Pete.”
“Of course you aren’t. He just spends the night at your place a few times a week and then he walks funny for the next few days after that.”
Gerard rolls his eyes and ducks his head so Mikey can return a salad bowl to its home in the cupboard. “We’re friends.”
“Oh, wow, I wish I had friends like that. Oh wait, I do. Her name is Kristin. Real good friend.”
“I’m serious, Mikey. Don’t talk to mom about him. She just told me to bring him to dinner.”
“Gee,” Mikey says, stopping what he’s doing to look at him earnestly. "He'd come if you invited him. He'd wear a nice shirt and bring mom flowers and talk to dad about the economy or some shit. Bandit loves him. He would fit here if you brought him."
Gerard sighs. Mikey doesn’t understand, there’s no point in arguing with him. “You know what? You’re on your own with the damn dishes. And make another pot of coffee.”
Gerard storms out of the kitchen as discreetly as he can and then stops dead in his tracks at the sight of her. Her dark hair is hanging between two bony shoulder blades, her pale hands poised over his grandmother’s piano keys, her body perched on the bench beside his daughter’s. She turns her head to the side, but her lips aren’t red, her arms aren’t tattooed and the spell’s immediately broken. She’s Mikey’s girlfriend again, not Gerard’s wife. Something bites hard in his chest, the way it always does when he forgets what’s missing for the slightest of moments.
“Daddy!” Bandit shrieks, bouncing on the bench when she spots him. “Kristin knows all the songs from Frozen!”
Kristin smiles up at him, startlingly beautiful but not right. “My nephew’s obsessed with the movie,” she says apologetically. “B and I may need to perform ‘Let it Go’ very loudly at some point tonight. There might be dancing.”
“Yeah, sure.” He fingers his wedding ring again, trying to ride out the loss crashing into him again out of nowhere. It’s getting so much worse; he should call Grant. “B, come have dessert before grandpa eats your share.”
He swipes right on Tinder. They share a bottle of wine and some stilted conversation before Vicki, 29, climbs into his lap, hikes up her skirt and pushes her underwear aside. She feels unexpectedly heavy on top of him and he winces every time she grinds down on him. He grips her hips and fucks her hard and fast instead, just wanting to get off and get her off of him. She moans into his mouth, like it’s good for her, and he can’t help but wish he’d fucked her from behind instead. She probably doesn’t get off, but Frank barely cares either way.
Once she finally gets off of him, and he can lean forwards to assess the damage, his lower spine is already an alarmingly throbbing mess. He squeezes his eyes shut against the pain, trying not to let panic swell alongside it. He has painkillers in the car. He just needs to get to them and things will be okay. He can feel her watching him as she ties up the condom. “Do you want some water?” she asks. “You don’t look too good.”
“Nah,” he says, doing his pants back up with unsteady hands. This was a bad idea, but at least they’re at her place so he doesn’t have to ask her to leave. “I should go.”
She looks disappointed. Hurt, maybe, and Frank knows he’s that asshole who was only interested in her until she put out. It makes him feel like a miserable fuck, but it doesn’t change anything. He can’t stand to be here any longer, just needs to get home, have a few benzos and drink himself comatose.
“I have a thing early in the morning,” he says flatly, convincing absolutely no one. He asks to use her bathroom before he leaves, turns on the tap and rummages quietly through her cabinets. Glittery eyeshadows, tanning lotions, antacids.... Vicodin. Bingo.
He lets Bandit stay up an hour past her bedtime to work her new jigsaw puzzle rendition of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. He let her choose a puzzle while he picked up paints and canvases at the art supplies store this morning, and she went straight past the age-appropriate puzzles, past the impressionist paintings and pretty landscapes and straight for the box sets with paintings from Picasso, Dali and van Gogh. He watched her quietly deliberate over a five hundred piece box depicting Gustav Klimt’s Mother and Child for the longest time, one hand pressing down on his broken heart so it wouldn’t bleed through his shirt. He nearly sagged with relief when she picked up The Scream instead, any thoughts of age appropriateness gone out of the window.
He watches her curious, little face as she works, her thick eyebrows furrowed in concentration as she tries to work out where each of the thousand pieces go. It’s way too complicated for her, and she keeps handing him pieces and saying, “Hold this until I say so.” He has thirty-two pieces in his hands by the time he finally calls bedtime. She’s out cold before he even gets halfway through her bedtime story.
He works through a twenty minute yoga nidra meditation on his iPhone once she’s asleep, spends twenty minutes ineffectually picturing light travelling through his toes, his ankles, his shins, his knees and his thighs. He makes a truly pathetic attempt at jerking off, but his head’s not into it. He turns on an audiobook and after ten minutes his mind is wandering towards thoughts he doesn’t want to be having, so he turns it off. It’s deafeningly quiet.
He considers calling Pete, but that’s never a good idea when he’s off his game. He’s Pete’s sponsor, not the other way around.
He types Grant’s name into the text message screen and their last correspondence appears in green and grey bubbles. It’s been almost seven months since Grant caned him until he sobbed and then cupped his face and tried to kiss him through the tears.
I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that, come back Grant’s first text read, sent minutes after Gerard stormed out of his apartment.
Gerard had been hyperventilating against his steering wheel, the hormones from their earlier play rapidly giving way to sheer, utter, blinding distress. His fingers shook as he pressed the keys. This is too messy for me, I don’t think we should see each other for a while
The reply was one hundred percent Grant, in control as though that control hadn’t just slipped, as though he hadn’t just fucked up that carefully cultivated trust between sponsor and sponsee. Up to you, love. I’m here if you change your mind.
He hasn’t seen Grant since and there seems to be an unspoken agreement that neither of them cross the river. Gerard gets the Belleville meeting, Grant gets the one in North Arlington. He almost types something, something like Things are getting bad. I need you to be my sponsor again right now. Instead he crushes candies and tries not to choke on the anxiety rising in his throat.
Dr. Hurley—Andy, he insists—is wearing skinny jeans, a Mastodon T-shirt and Doc Martens with a bright floral print. His office looks more like a tattoo parlor than a medical practice. There’s Johnny Cash on the stereo and a bowl of oranges on his desk. His inked hands are linked in his lap.
“So…” he starts ominously, swiveling his desk chair. “I had someone look at your X-Rays and MRIs. I don’t think you’re gonna like the answer.”
The anxiety is immediate, loud and startling like a foreshadowing of bad news. “Nerve damage? Are the disks degenerating?”
“Nope. Your scans are pretty clean. Disks, nerves, bones, soft tissue all look reasonably good, considering. There’s a slight loss of curve in the lower spine and some mild inflammation around L5, but that’s about all we can see. I can't comment on the state of the surrounding muscle tissue since you won't let me examine you...” Andy holds his hands up, palms out, in some infuriating parody of confusion. “...but I can draw a tentative conclusion from that evidence.”
Frank stands up and gathers his satchel, his parka, his gloves, his beanie. All the items he meticulously folded in his lap as he anxiously waited for Andy to see him. “Great,” he snaps. “So you think I’m making it all up because I’m a fucking junkie trying to score prescription painkillers. Get fucked. I don’t have time for this.”
Andy leans back in his chair, apparently unfazed by Frank’s sudden hostility. “You’re a nurse, Frank. You know what I just told you.”
“What, that I need to stretch and breathe and think happier thoughts? That I need to stop believing I’m in pain and that’ll magically end it? You think you’re the first doctor to tell me I need to do some fucking yoga?”
“I’m suggesting that your pain is caused—in part—by some legitimate, measurable and most likely manageable physical causes. And I’m not a shrink, but I’d say there’s undoubtedly a psychological element to how you’re experiencing that pain. I’d be willing to put money on that pain being primarily caused by weakness and tightness of the surrounding musculature from underuse, because you’re scared of re-injuring.”
“So you’re saying the pain is psychosomatic and that what I’m feeling isn’t real.”
“I’m not disputing that the pain feels real to you,” Andy says. “I’m saying things get stuck in injuries sometimes. Trauma. Fear. Grief. It’s why you won’t let me touch you.”
“Come on, Frank. Your pain levels clocking it at an 8 with the amount of dope you’re using and no significant nerve or disk damage? Both indicate the pain’s coming from your head, not your back. You’re a nurse, you can’t call bullshit on that.”
“Stop saying that! I told you I’m not a fucking nurse anymore.”
“No, you’re not,” Andy says with a patience that appears to be rapidly wearing thin. “But you were, which is why you understand what I’m saying to you. Look, get in touch with Gerard. There are other ways to deal with pain besides opiates and benzodiazepines. Especially if you’re—”
Frank immediately cuts him off, loud enough to startle himself. “I’m not a fucking junkie.”
Andy actually rolls his eyes in response. “Especially if you’re ‘a person experiencing a distressing dependency to self-prescribed pharmaceutical interventions’, whatever you want to call it. Look, I can give you antidepressants for the anxiety and write up a plan for safely tapering off what you’re currently using. If you think you have a problem.”
Frank holds Andy’s gaze until he can’t anymore. He’s been backed into yet another corner. He sits back down. “Yeah, okay.”
Getting clean as of tonight, thanks for your help. - Frank from NA
Awesome :) Let me know if you need anything over the next few days. I can bring chinese food and slasher flicks
I’m sure you have better things to do than babysitting addicts in withdrawal
Just paying it forward, people have done the same for me when I’ve been dopesick. My kid’s at school between 9-4, let me know
Gerard watches Bandit come out of the school gates with a few of her friends. She gives Phuong—her best friend forever and ever and ever as of last week—a big hug before running towards her father’s car. Sometimes in the right lighting, at the right angle, she looks so strikingly like her mother that it hits him like a defibrillator to the chest. There’s a glimpse of it now when she says, “Oh boy, what a day, let me tell you,” and it knocks the wind out of him. It’s a cruel and beautiful haunting.
She slaps her hands on her thighs and delves into a rant on the gendered use of playground spaces and today’s attempts at civil disobedience. He’s going to get another phone call from her teacher any day now, and he’ll tell her again to fuck off with all the politeness he can muster. His daughter stands up for what’s right and doesn’t let anyone push her or her friends around. She has her mother’s heart and her mother’s spine; he's not going to let small-minded primary school bureaucrats censor either.
“Sounds like you did the right thing,” he says once she’s gotten her immediate concerns off her chest. He’s parked in a five minute pick-up zone, but interrupting her never feels like an option. “Put your seatbelt on, okay? We’ll get some donuts and start on your homework before Uncle Pete comes over for dinner.”
She bounces excitedly in her seat. Pete’s a champion at putting on puppet shows and building forts out of sheets; she loves when he spends the night. “Can he tell me a poem instead of a bedtime story?”
“I bet he will if you ask him really nice.”
“I’m always really nice,” she says sweetly, though they both know it’s a lie. “Except when stupid boys steal my volleyball and I have to throw sand at them.”
“Wait, you threw sand at someone?”
“No,” she says, but she’s nodding cheekily as she does. Her mother’s daughter, through and through. “It was an accident.”
Gerard turns his face to conceal his laughter. He shouldn’t be encouraging her, no matter how proud he is that she can stand up for herself against arrogant six year old dickheads.
He checks his phone again before he drives off. Nothing yet.
He gathers everything he has on his kitchen table. Eighty-seven pills of various colors, about two gallons worth of booze and a few grams of weed. He rations some of his pills out for the next three days, three piles in large, medium and small. He puts half a bottle of whiskey by the first pile, a bottle of wine by the second and three bottles of beer by the third. On the fourth day, he thinks absurdly, God created the sun, the moon and the stars. On the fourth day, Frank Iero will likely be lying prostrate on his bathroom floor with the junkie shakes and the taste of vomit in his mouth.
He pours everything else into the toilet and flushes a dozen times. This is the first time he’s gotten rid of his stash before detoxing and it feels cleansing, ceremonial, important. It also feels like regret waiting to happen. He’s been in withdrawal before (though he’s never made it past 38 hours clean) and it’s always been ugly.
Sweet Pea watches him from the floor, her tail wagging the way it always does whenever he’s upright and within range of her container of kibbles.
“I’m not going to feed you again,” he admonishes. She rolls immediately onto her back to bare her belly. He kneels in front of her and gives it a good rub. His lower back aches from it, but he tries to focus on her instead. She laps eagerly at his hand when it retreats, her long tongue curling around his fingers. “You’re cute, but you’re not that cute.”
She makes a snuffling sound and looks up at him with pleading eyes. She licks her white mustache and kicks her hind legs a little.
“One dog treat,” he sighs in forfeit. “Maybe two. And then we’re going for a walk to burn it off, you little fattiepie.”
He intends to walk her around the block like he usually does, but once he’s got shoes and a coat on, he reaches for his car keys instead. He straps her into her car harness, puts on some Minor Threat and turns onto Belleville Avenue. She settles easily on her seat and keeps an eye on him the entire twenty minutes it takes to get to Eagle Rock Reservation.
She sprints eagerly into some shrubbery as soon as he lets her out of the car. He zips his hoodie up all the way and follows her into the woods. She runs excitedly around without rhyme or reason, but never further than a hundred yards or so from where he’s walking. It’s windy and cold, but it’s nice, the two of them walking together like this. It’s the closest he’s come to exercise since his doctor-mandated post-surgery rehabilitation. Dr. Andy was right, he hasn’t done a single one of his exercises or stretches since his last session with the physiotherapist.
He still dreams about what happens, and the dreams all start the same. It’s not his night to work, but they’re understaffed and he’s still paying off the ring he put on Jamia’s finger. He only has an hour left on the clock, which means he’s an hour and a half away from curling up beside her sleep-warm body, from sliding his hand beneath her shirt where he can feel her heart beat against her ribs and against his palm. He’s an hour and a half from going back to a love that’s so big it obscures everything else.
In his dreams, he gets the security guards when the messed up junkie storms into the ER, demanding morphine for some fictional ailment or other. He doesn’t walk into the waiting room, doesn’t ask the man to lower his voice and doesn’t insist that the man sit down until his name is called. His spine doesn’t slam against unyielding metal, there is no deafening noise and there is no pain so big and violent that it obscures everything that existed before it. Instead, an hour and a half after it never happened, he crawls into bed with the woman he’s going to marry and falls asleep with the thrum of her heartbeat against his palm.
They look like dreams, but always they feel like nightmares when he wakes up to an empty bedroom at four in the morning. Instead of what should have happened, he’d barely been able to move his legs when he’d woken up to Jamia’s beautiful, relieved face next to him in the ICU. The hand bearing her engagement ring had been clammy against his own, her palm against the back of his hand, where her name is still etched in black ink. She’d given him a look that promised things would be okay, no matter what. Hambone and Shaun had been asleep against each other in two chairs by the back wall. Tim had been nursing what Frank knew to be a disgusting cup of hospital coffee and had smirked when he said, “Still getting into fist fights, Iero? You’re getting a bit old for that shit, you know.” Frank and Jamia’s parents had gone to get lunch from the cafeteria.
Twenty minutes into their walk, Sweet Pea drops dramatically to the ground and pants heavily. She rolls lazily onto her back, her earlier bout of energy seemingly expended.
“Come on,” Frank calls encouragingly, patting the side of his thigh as he continues up the hill they’re climbing. “Here, girl.”
She takes a big snuffling breath and stays put. He clips her leash into her collar and tries to lead her onward. She takes another few steps before dropping back down to the forest floor. She rolls onto her back and kicks her hind legs. Stubborn little shit.
She buries her snout in his neck as they walk back to the car, her breath damp and stinky against his sweaty skin. She doesn’t feel as heavy as he'd expected, nowhere near as heavy as she'd felt when he’d just gotten out of surgery. He realizes he hasn’t picked her up since that first time, just like he hasn’t picked up a guitar or a camera or any number of things that used to matter before everything stopped mattering altogether.
He swipes right and ends up in bed with Nicki, 32, who has dark brown skin and soft, warm flannel sheets. She has thick thighs and a plump mouth. He wants to fuck her.
Except when they’re grinding in her bed and she’s gasping softly against his jaw, when he can feel her wet and warm through her cotton panties, when she’s whispering that she wants his dick inside of her—somehow, he can’t.
He’s nauseated, his head is pounding, his back screams no matter what position they work themselves into, he can’t stay more than half-hard, and he just can’t seem to push through it.
She ducks her head between his legs and sucks him encouragingly. Her dark hand braced on his belly looks beautiful next to his pale skin, and it makes him think that he would link their hands together if this was something more than a one night stand. That maybe he would ask her to stop what she’s doing and just come lie with him instead.
He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to push through the humiliation. “I’m sorry,” he mutters. “It’s not you, it’s—I’m really tired.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says, coming back up to kiss him. Her breath smells like whiskey and it’s the only reason he doesn’t twist away from her. “Can you fuck me with something else? I just really want something inside of me.”
“Yeah, of course,” he says. He stares at the ceiling while she rummages around in her nightstand. She hands him a ridiculous glittery pink thing and lies back on the bed, spreading her legs. She’s slick with arousal and the toy slides easily into her. Fuck, he wishes that could be him instead. He wishes he could leave right now and never see her again.
“Suck my clit.”
She buries her hands in his hair while he eats her out. He gets the hang of what he’s doing and presses experimentally on a button to the side of the device while he’s fucking her with it. Vibrations kick into life, buzzing against his chin and making her curse like a sailor. She pulls hard at his hair and breathes, “Harder.”
He complies, she falls apart and then he tosses the toy aside and sits up. He wipes at her wetness all over his chin and watches her stretching and enjoying the comedown. His back is fucking throbbing and it’s finally time for him to leave.
Pete sprawls out on his back like he always does, taking up way more space than necessary and getting his scent all over Gerard’s sheets. He’s flushed and spent, his brown skin glistening with sweat. They never really talk after these sessions; Pete hangs out until he comes back to himself and then either falls asleep for the night or heads home. Gerard sits up against the headboard, idly crushing candies and listening to Pete’s breath levelling out. It’s comforting.
“I bought you a book,” Pete murmurs into the silence, absentmindedly stroking his own damp belly. “Got twenty pages in and decided I couldn’t give it to you.”
“Give it to someone else,” Gerard mumbles, taking his reading glasses off to rub at his tired eyes. He’s exhausted, but he won’t be able to sleep until Pete’s asleep beside him first. “You know plenty of literate people.”
“I bought it for you.”
Gerard puts his glasses back on, barely able to focus on the red jelly beans and orange lozenges on his screen. Pete should be out cold already after the beating he just took. Instead, he crosses his wrists over his forehead and turns wide, alert, awake eyes to the ceiling.
Gerard’s gotten good at reading him over the last year, good at giving him the breathing room he needs to make sense of himself. For someone who’s constantly talking, writing and taking up space, Pete's strangely inarticulate about the things that actually matter to him.
“Talk to me,” Gerard offers, taking his glasses off and plugging his phone into the charger on his nightstand. He lies down beside him, one ear flat to the mattress. Pete’s carefully straightened hair is curling into damp, sweaty spirals around his temples. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t stop thinking about Patrick,” Pete whispers, pressing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. “He’s just hurting so much. I want to make it so quiet for him that he can hear a pin drop in there.”
Gerard sighs, unsurprised. He’s seen the way they look at each other, seen the trouble coming from miles away. He folds Pete’s arms back down across his chest, firmly enough to compress his lungs, hopefully enough to make him feel safe and held. “You know better than to think you can save him.”
“I want to try,” Pete laments and a stray tear slips from the corner of his right eye into his sideburn. He cries sometimes after they do this; he knows it doesn’t bother Gerard. This time though, he wrenches an arm loose to wipe forcefully at his eye.
“Hey,” Gerard says sternly, crawling on top of him to pin him down with his body weight. He gathers both of Pete’s wrists in one hand. “His number one priority right now is getting clean and getting better and staying alive. He needs someone safe to lean on and you can’t be that person for him if you have feelings for him. You know that.”
Pete strains a little against his hold, enough to test the restraint but not enough to fight it. “I know,” he sighs, relief evident in his face as he settles into his confinement. His lips part and he tilts his chin up a little, inching closer to Gerard’s mouth as though Gerard would ever kiss him. ”I just. Love fixes people, you know?”
Gerard bypasses his mouth to sink his teeth into the tender skin of his throat. Pete groans, his hips coming off the bed to meet Gerard’s as his entire body responds to the bite. Sometimes when they’re close like this, half-naked and flush against each other in the aftermath of a scene, Gerard wonders for the merest of moments what it would be like to actually fuck him. What it would be like to go beyond the occasional hands and mouths, to look him in the eye as he presses himself inside of him and closes the carefully maintained space between them. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. But love doesn't fix jack shit.”
“Don’t get all bible-versy on me,” Pete whispers, brushing his five o’clock shadow against Gerard’s cheek and trying to get more than Gerard will ever give him. “I’m being serious.”
“You’re being naive, is what you're being.”
“Ouch,” Pete grumbles, giving Gerard an unexpectedly hard shove and sitting up and away from him. “Let go of me.”
Gerard should reach for him, run a soothing hand over the inflamed skin of his shoulders to calm him, to pull him out of his head and back into his body. Instead he lies there, watching the welts blooming on Pete’s back and struggling to maintain his composure. Part of him wants to apologize, compromise, make things okay again, but it’s his responsibility to be firm with Pete when he needs it. There are roles, rules, boundaries. He’s there to support Pete to maintain his sobriety and to help him take care of himself.
“Right now, NA is a safe place where he can be vulnerable with a bunch of people who don’t demand anything from him. He’s not going to be able to do that if he’s emotionally involved with you. The boundaries are in place for his safety. And yours—you need to focus on your own sobriety.”
Pete scoffs, turning his head to look at him. “I’m naked in your bed after you beat the shit out of me with a flogger, and you’re lecturing me on boundaries?”
“Don’t be dramatic,” Gerard whispers, almost reaching for him. “I’m not in love with you, you’re not in love with me. I’m your sponsor and your friend, we’re emotionally involved within those parameters. It is what it is.”
Pete takes a few measured breaths, then his expression turns both unreadable and unsettling. “Don’t you ever wish it could be more?”
Gerard shakes his head, immediately unnerved. “I wouldn’t do this with you if I thought about you like that. And you don’t think of me like that either. You’re just upset.”
Pete turns away from him again and then there are a few long moments where Pete doesn’t speak and Gerard doesn’t understand. When Pete eventually lies back down, he presses his face hard against Gerard’s shoulder. “Can you stroke my hair?”
Gerard’s fingers slip into the black strands and he tugs hard enough to pull a hiss out of Pete. “Try to sleep,” he whispers, relieved by the shaky exhale that follows and the way Pete’s body seems to slacken with it. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”
“B, you’re gonna be late for school!” Gerard calls, checking the time on his phone for the third time in mere minutes. He readjusts her little purple backpack on his shoulder and gratefully takes the travel mug of coffee that Pete hands him. They didn’t get much sleep last night, he’ll need it to get through the morning. He glances up the staircase again. “What the hell is she doing up there?”
“Practicing for show and tell,” Pete says, resting a hip against the kitchen counter. He’s standing close, close enough to touch, but not so close that Bandit would think anything of it if she walked in on them. He’s wearing the sweater Gerard wore last night, must have accidentally picked it off the floor instead of his own in the morning’s scramble. “Give her a few more minutes.”
“Shit,” Gerard sighs, slouching tiredly against the cabinets behind him. “I forgot that was today.”
“Don’t worry about it. She and I had a practice run while you were painting last night.”
“Oh, good,” Gerard says gratefully. “Thanks for looking after her.”
“It’s my pleasure, I love the kid.”
“She’s easy to love.”
“The easiest,” Pete agrees with a strange smile, brushing the tips of his fingers against Gerard’s knuckles. He tilts his head, looking at Gerard in yet another way that Gerard can’t make sense of. “So, that new guy Frank is cute. Joe mentioned you guys had coffee at my work.”
“Is he? Yeah, a few nights ago, after a meeting.”
“Sure he is. Short, black hair, tattoos, moody....” Pete curls his fingers gently around Gerard’s in a loose grip. “Your type.”
Gerard frowns, glancing between their entwined hands and Pete’s face. He wonders suspiciously if this is another instance of Pete scribbling things between the lines in tiny writing. “You’re not my type,” he says cautiously. “Is that what—I mean.”
It surprises him, how quickly Pete jerks away. “You know, you can be a real dick sometimes.”
Gerard looks down at their suddenly separated hands, confused. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Why the fuck is it okay for Mikey and Kristin?”
“I mean, dating another person in NA is supposedly the sin to end all sins. And getting involved with anyone in the first year of recovery is just as bad, right? Well, Mikey’s been clean all of five months and he’s going to propose to her. I’ve been clean almost a year. Why is it okay for them?”
“It’s not—I’m not his sponsor, I have no input into his decision-making around his drug problem or his love life. I think she's a potentially dangerous distraction from his recovery, but he makes his own decisions.”
“Right,” Pete says, lowering his voice again. “But you’re vetoing my decision about Patrick. As my sponsor.”
“I’m not vetoing anything. And I wasn’t aware you’d made a decision.”
“I haven’t,” Pete says cryptically. “I’m just saying that if you wanted to veto it, you could. I would let you.”
“What are you playing at, Pete?”
“I’m not playing at anything,” Pete sighs, sounding thoroughly resigned as he reaches for his own keys. “Bandit! Come on!”
Gerard takes in the sudden change in temperature between them. He wants to reach for him again, his hand uncurling with the almost, but he doesn’t. “Do you want to come over again tonight?”
“No,” Pete says, gathering up his things, slipping on his jacket and looking anywhere but at Gerard. “I’ve got the early shift tomorrow morning.”
Frank feels completely disoriented when he wakes up. Sweet Pea’s been yapping for a while and he makes his way to his front door in an utterly confused haze. No one ever rings his doorbell. If the offending party wants to talk about Jesus or sell vacuum cleaners, Frank is going to be very impolite.
He doesn’t expect to see Gerard on the other side of the threshold. “Oh hey,” Frank mumbles, rubbing his eyes. Shit, he hasn’t showered or cleaned up the place or even aired out the apartment for days. “I totally forgot you were coming.”
“Oh.” Gerard’s smile falters a little. “Is this—um, a bad time?”
“No, it’s fine. Sweet Pea, inside.” He steps aside to let Gerard in and waits for the dog to follow. “Sorry, I’m just. Sick. I have no idea what day of the week it is.”
“Shakes?” Gerard crouches down to pat the dog, balancing a brown paper bag precariously on one knee. “Hello, cutie. Aren’t you an adorable little thing?”
Sweet Pea licks Gerard’s hand and predictably rolls onto her back like a beached whale, demanding more cuddles. Gerard complies generously, his sinewy hand rubbing her belly while she snorts and wiggles happily.
“Shakes, nightmares, cold sweats, sore all over, can’t keep anything down. I’m sure childbirth would be a dream after this.”
Gerard shakes his head, grinning up at him with bright, hazel eyes. Frank can’t help but appreciate the view. “I was there for the birth of my daughter, believe me this is a cakewalk in comparison.”
It’s a strange juxtaposition, Gerard the recovering drug addict in Frank’s apartment versus Gerard the upstanding citizen with a wife and kid at home. “Wouldn’t know,” Frank says. “I just feel like death might be kinder than this.”
“It’ll pass. How’s your back?”
And straight to Frank’s least favorite topic of conversation. “It’s fine,” he says in polite acknowledgement, before taking the food out of Gerard’s hands. “What’d you get?”
“Dumplings, fried rice and spring rolls. If you’re gonna throw up anyway, it might as well taste good coming back up.”
“That’s both thoughtful and disgusting,” Frank says, smiling despite himself. He takes the promisingly greasy paper bag into the kitchen and cracks open a window for ventilation. The pile of dishes in his sink has been smelling increasingly worse over the last few days.
As he’s surveying the debris, he has a sudden, startling moment of lucidity. Gerard is in his apartment to watch movies and eat Chinese food and most likely to talk about Frank’s feelings. Gerard, who’s an NA veteran, who calls a spade a spade and who doesn’t have time for Frank’s bullshit. Whose entire wardrobe apparently consists of impossibly tight skinny jeans and form-fitting leather jackets. Who’s also very, very married. Having him here in Frank’s space and misery feels like it’s hitting way too close to home.
“Why don’t you have a shower?” Gerard says suddenly and Frank realizes, with an inelegant and obvious start, that he’s leaning against the doorway of Frank’s kitchen. He gives an amused smile at Frank’s reaction. “Sorry. Put on some clean clothes and we can take the dog for a walk before we eat.”
Frank wants to regret every facet of this decision, wants to argue that he needs to lie down, that it’s too cold outside, that he’s too sick… but something about Gerard’s instructions feel oddly comforting. A shower makes sense; clean clothes would be nice, if he can find any. “Sure.”
He makes it through shampooing half of his hair before he gets so dizzy he needs to sit down. He turns the water off and hugs his calves, resting his forehead on his kneecaps while he draws a few steadying breaths. He is not going to throw up in the shower. He is not going to have a panic attack in the shower. He is not going to spontaneously combust, or whatever the fuck is threatening to happen, in the shower.
There’s water dripping from his hair and cooling on his skin, there’s a sick throb in his lower spine, there’s a rising sense of doom in his gut and all of these things combined make the thought of getting up and rinsing off and going back outside seem like a complete impossibility. He wants to crawl back into bed and sleep and hate everything, but there’s a Gerard in his apartment which means he has to pretend to be a functioning human being for at least a few hours. But the thought of getting off the floor, of making an effort, of trying to method act a version of himself that isn’t a complete piece of shit… No.
He’s going to apologize for everything, he’s going to ask Gerard to leave, and he’s going to sleep for another few days and then find another meeting where he’ll never have to see Gerard again. He doesn’t care if he has to drive to the other side of Newark for it. He’ll get sober—probably—he just can’t deal with having an audience just yet.
He gets off the floor and rinses off the shampoo. The last few clean clothes left in his closet (that aren’t neatly folded baby blue nurse’s scrubs) are a pair of torn jeans that almost slide off his ass, an old Pencey Prep T-shirt and a well-worn red cardigan with a tear in the shoulder. Two socks that don’t match. No underwear, because fuck, he hasn’t had clean underwear for a week by this point. He rubs some Voltaren gel on his lower back and goes back out to ruin everything.
But then Gerard’s kneeling by Frank’s modest vinyl collection and reading the back of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while it spins on the turntable. “I haven’t listened to this for years,” he says, sounding awed as he turns it around to look at the artwork on the front. “I used to get fucked up and listen to this for hours on repeat.”
“Not a bad record to be fucked up to,” Frank says, strangely disarmed by the warmth in Gerard’s smile as a voice growls Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town, waiting for someone or something to show you the way. Gerard has cleared enough clutter from the couch and coffee table to set up a greasy little picnic. “I thought you wanted to go for a walk.”
“Lunch first, I got impatient. Cool?”
“Uh, yeah. Cool.” Frank smoothes his too-long damp hair behind his ears and sits gingerly down beside him on the couch. Fuck not wearing underwear, this shit is going to chafe. Lunch smells delicious, as does the faint whiff he gets of Gerard’s cologne when he reaches for a spring roll. “You really didn’t have to do any of this.”
Gerard waves a hand dismissively and scoops some fried rice into a bowl he must have found in the sink and washed by hand. “Like I said, people have done the same for me countless times. You’ll do it for someone soon enough, don’t worry.”
Frank lets out a breath that seems to take most of his earlier nausea and unease with it, but does nothing for the confusing and inconvenient desire coiling in his gut. “Here’s hoping.”
“So, does this make you my sponsor or something?” Frank asks hours later, as they’re watching Sweet Pea sprint manically around the local dog park. Frank has napped on the couch for the majority of the day, waking up here and there to note that Gerard is watching weird reality TV or singing to himself while he cleans the kitchen.
Frank doesn't wake up properly until Gerard puts a mug of coffee in front of him and insists that they go for some fresh air. It's early afternoon by that point and his apartment looks like someone else’s apartment—all neat surfaces and piles of clean laundry and pleasant chemical smells. Gerard’s daughter called at some point to say she was going home with a friend from school. He’s not due to pick her up for another few hours, but neither of them seem to expect him to leave.
“Nah,” Gerard says offhandedly. “I can introduce you to some people I think might be a good fit for you, if you want. Otherwise, your best bet is to just go to meetings, see if there’s anyone you hit it off with.”
Oh. Frank tries not to look as embarrassed or disappointed or rejected as he feels. “Do you have one?” he asks, hopefully veering the conversation away from his own failure at human interaction.
“Nah. My last sponsor and I called it off about six months ago. These kinds of relationships can be intense; they need boundaries and trust in order to work. One of us developed feelings, it got.... messy.”
There’s a story there judging by the sudden interest Gerard takes in the horizon, but Frank doesn’t want to pry. It doesn’t seem that big of a stretch to get emotionally messed up over someone who’s there for you when everything else sucks. He can’t help but wonder, though, what “messy” entailed, considering Gerard has a wife.
“So how does one get to eight years clean?” Frank asks, eager to move the conversation away from whatever bruise he’s just poked. “Thrill me with the details, because thus far it’s sucking pretty hard.”
“Wouldn’t know,” Gerard says, running a hand sheepishly over the back of his neck. “I’ve been in the program for eight years, clean for four years at the most, but I’m only six months clean right now. Drugs are the bandaid I put on the bullet hole, not the bullet hole itself, you know? I don’t measure my recovery in days and months anymore, I measure it in how much I’m still bleeding.”
“Shit,” Frank mutters, perversely curious about what shot him in the first place. “How much are you still bleeding after eight years?”
Gerard chews his lips for a little while, considering. One hand slides over his sternum, the slightest bit of pressure rumpling his leather jacket. “Enough.”
“How do you… I mean, I’m sorry if this is too personal or something, but how do you manage having a family and dealing with this? I couldn’t stand anyone being around me when it got really bad, least of all someone who just kept believing in me, no matter how much I let her down.”
It’s absolutely too personal, that much is immediately apparent. Gerard fingers his wedding ring, the way all married people seem to do when they need somewhere to put their hands. Jamia had just started doing it with her engagement ring before she took it off. “I have a lot of support. Our families are amazing, I have great friends… my daughter understands that daddy gets sick sometimes and that he has to go to special meetings to stay healthy. She’s very flexible about where she has dinner and whose house she sleeps at, that sort of stuff. It takes a village to help an addict raise a kid, right?”
“And your wife is cool with it?”
Gerard reaches into his pocket to fish out another cigarette. It’s his fourth in the twenty minutes they’ve been sitting here. “The coolest.”
Sweet Pea flops down between them then, panting like she’s inches from death. Gerard reaches down to scratch her chin and she gives a weary sigh before flopping onto her back. “You’re lucky you have this one,” he says. “She’s gorgeous.”
“Yeah,” Frank agrees. He’s lucky he has her, because he doesn’t really have anyone else.
It starts with her scent, always does. Sweet and familiar, the way the back of her neck smelled against his nose in the morning, faded perfume and sleep and home. There’s relief like waking up from a bad dream, realizing that the city isn’t in ruins and the streets aren’t covered in blood and there are no monsters at his heels. For the merest of seconds, she’s almost there again.
It’s always here, in the liminal space between dreaming and waking, in the place between what was and what is, it’s always here that he remembers the parts of her he’s so scared he’ll forget. Here that sometimes he feels the slightest dip in the mattress, sees a shadow at the corner of his eye, feels her warmth spread like sunshine on his skin.
He wonders sometimes if he’s making it up, if he’s tricking himself into believing she’s there. But then he remembers something, the slightest detail he thought he’d forgotten about the freckles on her stomach in the shape of a diamond or the way she purposely sang the lyrics wrong to U2’s “She Moves in Mysterious Ways” (“Shamu, the mysterious whale”) or the time she covered a lopsided cake in whipped cream and pretended it was part of the original recipe. It’s in these moments, before he opens his eyes, before he admits to himself what happened and loses her all over again, in these moments, in the merest of seconds, that the pressure eases in his chest and he’s almost okay again.
Then the bullet tears through him again and he's awake and covered in sweat like fresh, warm blood. It’s here that his world stops making sense, where the things that broke can’t come back together again, where Raggedy Ann comes apart at the seams. He opens his eyes, sits up in bed, looks around their bedroom. Her clothes still take up three quarters of the closet. Her phone charger is still plugged into the socket by her nightstand. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, the last book she ever read, is still on her nightstand with a bookmark wedged into page seventy-eight. It’s nothing like the books he reads, nothing like the books he reads for Bandit, nothing like the endless books of poetry Pete brings him. It’s full of words that don’t fit anywhere else in his life.
He pats idly at his damp chest. There’s never blood, but it always feels like there should be.
His call goes straight voicemail, as always. Her phone’s been dead for almost four years, but he still pays for her phone plan, just to have some part of her to talk to. He was with her when she recorded her voicemail message, the morning after their wedding when they were lying sleepy and sated together on the futon in their old apartment. There’s an audible smile in her voice when she pronounces her new last name.
“Hi, you’ve called Lindsey Way. You know what to do after the beep.” He’d raised his hand for a high five and she’d laced their fingers together, brought his hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles. She’d grinned at him, coy and carefree and in love. “Now, do me again, please.”
From what Frank gathers, there are three regular NA meetings near where he lives. There’s the one at the community center in Belleville, a second in a church in Nutley, and a third in a VFW hall across the Passaic River in North Arlington.
He crosses the river and turns left off the Belleville Turnpike onto River Road. It’s the meeting that’s furthest from his apartment and he’s grateful for it. He’s decided to string some words together for sharing tonight and he wants the luxury of going back to his original meeting and pretending the words never happened, should they end up being the wrong ones.
He doesn’t expect to recognize anyone there, but Patrick catches his eye when he walks in and gives him a friendly wave. He looks better than the last time Frank saw him, slightly smoother around the edges. Less scared.
“Hey, man,” Frank says as he sits down in a vacant chair. He’s only met Patrick three times now, if sharing space and not talking constitutes “meeting,” but it’s enough to make the whole thing feel slightly less anonymous and slightly more intimidating.
There’s an enormous American flag hanging at the back of the room and Frank suddenly remembers playing a battle of the bands with Pencey Prep here back in the day. He and Hambone drained a bottle of Bacardi, Shaun crowd surfed head first into a wall, and Frank fingered a redheaded bass player in the park across the street. He was seventeen and the world was at his feet. How the mighty have fallen indeed.
“Oh, hello,” a tall, bald guy calls from the doorway of the kitchen. He sounds Irish or Scottish, Frank can never tell the two apart. “I was just about to make myself a cuppa, can I get you one?”
“Sure,” Frank says. He doesn’t actually want one, but it would occupy his hands. “If you don’t mind. Just coffee, no cream or sugar.”
“Coming right up,” the guy says. Frank pulls up his phone and checks for messages that aren’t there, emails that are all spam and a Tinder application that’s overflowing with potential one-night-stands. Anything to not talk to Patrick, or Brendon who eventually walks in, gives Patrick a big hug and has a conversation with him that makes it sound like they’re already friends outside of this thing.
“I’m Grant,” the guy says as he presses a drink into Frank’s hands. The mug is covered in cartoon bears and the coffee burns Frank’s tongue on the first sip. “First time?”
Frank shakes his head. “Fourth. Still a rookie.”
Grant laughs, but it’s not unkind. “You’ll still feel like a rookie five years from now, promise.”
“Thanks, that’s reassuring. How long’ve you...”
“Twenty-one years, eight months and… eleven days.”
Frank frowns at him, trying to gauge whether he’s serious. “Jesus. And you’re still coming here...?”
“Addiction’s a life sentence for some of us, I’m afraid. Sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”
“Oh,” Frank mutters embarrassedly, extending a clammy hand in a belated attempt at manners. “Um. Frank. Hi.”
Grant gives his hand a firm shake, then turns their joint hands around to look at the ink covering Frank’s. Grant’s thumb strokes over the word hopeless and Frank is acutely aware that he is sweating. “This is a fair bit of ink. Were you a sailor in a past life?”
Frank snorts awkwardly, pulling his sleeve up so Grant can look at the rest of his ink. “Nah, just a dumb, impulsive punk kid. I barely have any free space left.”
“Looks like you’ve done quite well with what you’ve got,” Grant says, letting go of Frank’s hand when another person walks through the door. Grant looks up with a curious expression. His eyebrows draw together, but his smile doesn’t falter. “Pete.”
“Oh,” Pete says. He’s holding two take-away cups of coffee and frowning like something’s wrong. “I thought Gabe was running tonight's meeting.”
“He had an unexpected personal commitment come up,” Grant says, straightening up his back in a way that looks almost confrontational. There’s clearly history there. “I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”
Pete holds Grant’s gaze for a moment longer, before he notices Patrick making grabby hands at what he’s holding. His demeanor softens noticeably as he hands Patrick the biggest of the two cardboard cups. “They were out of decaf, I got you a chai instead. Hey, B, Frank.”
Patrick murmurs gratitude around his first mouthful of chai, Frank gives a weird wave and Brendon gives Pete the same crushing hug he gave Patrick. Brendon's been in the program as long as Frank has, and they’re already treating him like he’s theirs. Frank feels out of place all over again.
“Let’s begin then,” Grant says, sounding strangely professional. “Take a seat, Pete.”
The meeting proceeds in the same format Frank’s used to. Announcements, rules, sharing, reading, prayer. Brendon talks about how the world looks different now that he’s clean. Clearly, the kool-aid has been working for him. He looks happy, genuinely happy, and the irritated/jealous scales tip in favor of the latter. Pete doesn't say a word.
“I told a friend I was scared I’d never make it to a one year anniversary coin,” Patrick says, looking infinitely calmer than the first night Frank saw him speak. “I mean, I see people with a year clean, five, twenty… and the most I’ve ever racked up is four months after two years in this program. He got me a coin that says ‘One day at a time, progress not perfection.’”
Patrick glances discreetly at Pete and there’s a tiny but unmistakable quirk of the latter’s lips. ”It’s nice to be believed in. I’ve been feeling so much better lately. The new meds I’m on are finally working out. The voices are still there, they’re still abusive and confusing and distracting for the most part, but I'm learning to focus on the things in my life that I actually want to hear instead. It actually feels like things might turn out okay for the first time in a while. Thanks, guys.”
"I'm Grant and I'm an addict."
Frank looks to his right in surprise. He's never seen Gerard share at any of the meetings he's attended, hadn’t even considered that the person chairing a meeting could partake in the sharing. Grant talks about the trip he’s planning to Glasgow next year, how he’s dreading going back to the street he grew up on, when so many of his childhood friends are dead or in prison. “We were all just partying back then,” he says, rubbing his jaw in obvious discomfort at the memory. “It was the Eighties, the music was loud, the girls were easy and the drugs were cheap. None of us knew that we were playing with fire, and that some of us wouldn’t make it through the year.”
He cracks his knuckles and looks around the room they’re in, the way most people seem to do when the words they’re saying hurt. “I caught Trainspotting on the telly the other day, and I couldn’t help but think about all the mates I’ve lost over the years to overdoses, AIDS, gunshots, the prison system, psych wards… I haven’t been to a meeting in a few months, but I’m very grateful to be here today. Thanks, everyone.”
Frank sucks in a deep breath, bites the bullet and says, “I’m Frank and I’m an addict.”
...and somehow the room doesn’t implode with it. The sky doesn’t fall down. He doesn’t feel any different about himself. The announcement is met with encouraging smiles and four people’s full attention. “I’ve always drunk a bit more than I should and, you know, smoked weed since I was old enough to get my hands on it. In high school, my friends and I would to go to punk shows and party all night, like it was going out of style. It was easy to keep it up through college, and we’d still hit the bottle pretty hard after-hours and get fucked up on weekends. I mean, it’s Jersey. Everyone fucking parties, none of us would have called it a problem. Then I had this really brutal back injury and everything just… shut down. It became this… thing. I was in the hospital for a while, then physical rehab and bedrest, then I had to take time off work to recover. I was in so much pain I couldn’t handle being sober for a fucking second.”
He looks around the room, relieved to have gotten some words out of the way and suddenly unsure if he can say any more. His eyes dart around the room, to the flag, the light fixtures, the linoleum covering the floor. “My fiancee left me,” he says, then immediately amends, “I mean, I made her leave.” He might as well tell the truth. “I was so exhausted and unhappy and I was in so much pain all the time that I couldn’t feel anything else. She just kept saying things would be okay, that they would get better, that she loved me, but I was so depressed and high that I couldn’t feel anything for her, either. I fucked someone in our bed while she was at work and didn’t even change the sheets. It’s probably the ugliest thing I’ve ever done to anyone in my entire life. I was so baked I don’t even remember her packing her things.”
He takes a long moment to just breathe and push down the sob that’s threatening to spill out of his mouth. The bodies in the room give him as much time and silence as it takes to pull himself together again. It’s a generosity he didn’t expect. “I couldn’t deal when I finally got back to work. Being on my feet for even an hour was brutal. I was a nurse and there were all these people I was meant to help, but I couldn’t feel anything for them either. The only thing that made any fucking sense was the pain: constant, everywhere, so fucking loud that it drowned out everything else in the world.
“Numbing it has become the single most important thing in my life, more important than my friends, relationships, work, family, anything. I got busted stealing meds from an old lady with a hip fracture, that's how low I stooped before I lost my nursing license. I’m quickly running out of savings and I’m going to lose my apartment if I don’t get a job soon. And still, all I want is to get high, fuck people I won’t remember in the morning and sleep through the day. I don’t know how to come back from this, if I even can. I don’t know how the fuck I’m going to get through twelve steps. Step two doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. Step eight and nine seem like an actual, complete impossibility. I’ve been more or less clean for six days and I want to tear my skin off, the pain is so bad.”
He rubs his face and breathes into his trembling hands. His thighs are shaking beneath his elbows. The back of his pelvis is throbbing. He could have stopped using months ago, in a heartbeat, in time to save his relationship, in time to save his band, his job, himself… if it wasn’t for his fucking back.
He takes a big, steadying breath, surprised at how relieved he feels. He feels bone-weary, exhausted, like he's emptied himself out. “But I guess… you know. I’m starting to understand that I’m not alone in this. That maybe there’s a way that it can get better. Somehow. Thank you.”
Grant gives him a knowing smile and the group thanks him for sharing. Pete gives him an air high five. Patrick picks a book out of his satchel and reads a piece with words that make Frank think less of Kool-Aid and more of hope. “Just for today I will be unafraid,” he reads twice. Just for today, Frank thinks. Progress, not perfection.
They all exchange hugs at the end of the meeting and surprisingly the physical contact doesn’t make his skin crawl. Pete squeezes his shoulder and whispers “Well done” into his ear as they hug. “You fucking killed it.”
Grant comes up to Frank as he’s rinsing his mug out after the meeting. “My number,” he says softly, holding up a folded piece of paper between his middle and index fingers. He gives Frank a long appraising look. “In case you need to talk to someone.”
Frank glances quickly around the kitchen; they’re alone. “Oh,” he murmurs, drying his hands on the side of his jeans and taking the scribbled note from Grant’s hand. “Uh, thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Pain management is a… personal interest of mine. We might be able to work together if you’re willing to try some alternative methods.”
“Alternative methods,” Frank repeats skeptically. “Like what?”
“We can work out specifics at a later point in the conversation. For now, that’s my number. In case you do need to talk to someone.”
Grant gives Frank’s shoulder a solid pat before leaving the room. Frank sighs deeply, bracing himself on the counter in front of him and straightening his legs out enough to pull slightly at the tension in his lower back. He thinks about what alternative pain management methods might mean, wondering if it’s more fucking yoga or if it could actually be something useful. He dares to hope for the latter. Just for today.
Snow’s just started falling on the other side of the window above the sink. A flurry of snowflakes descends peacefully over two immobile parka-clad bodies in the parking lot. One hand reaches for another and the two bodies stand there for long moments without moving. It would look like a photograph if the snow wasn’t falling over them.
Frank closes his eyes and draws in a shaky breath, trying to will himself by sheer force to feel anything but brutally, desperately alone.
When he glances back out of the window, Patrick’s gotten into his car and Pete’s walking towards his own.
It’s been a few days since the last time Pete spent the night, enough days to make Gerard feel the slightest bit itchy around the edges. The ball’s always in Pete’s court: Pete texts him in the mornings, Pete calls him after work, Pete drops by unannounced, lets himself in with a copy of Gerard’s house key, crawls naked into Gerard’s bed and asks for whatever it is he needs.
Every now and then Pete shuts down for a few days, won’t come to work or NA and won’t talk to anyone. It used to worry Gerard, before he understood the way Pete’s mood ebbs and flows without rhyme or reason. After his last overdose (“Accident,” Pete had insisted, to which Mikey had rebutted “Liar” and Gerard had stared at the floor) and the week he spent on suicide watch after, he hasn’t touched a single drop or milligram. Gerard knows without question that Pete would ask for help before it got to that point again, so he tries not to worry anymore.
Sometimes Gerard sends him photos of kittens or memes, just to remind him that he’s there. After a few days of radio silence, Pete will sneak into Gerard’s bed in the middle of the night, asking for the cane or the vampire gloves or the wooden spoon, asking Gerard to keep going until he safewords.
It’s been a few days since Pete spent the night and he’s been quieter than usual, so Gerard drops into Pete’s work to check on him.
The coffee shop-cum-performance space he works in has been in Joe’s family for almost ten years. They use beans from local coffee roasters and put on open mic nights, fundraisers and poetry readings. There’s a big shelf of vinyl records by the sound system, most of them unearthed from local thrift stores. The Starbucks eight doors down is slowly killing them, luring customers away with Frappucinos®, Evolution Fresh™ juices and non-confrontational easy listening on the sound system, but Joe won’t close as long as his numbers are in the black. The world needs good music and proper coffee, he insists.
Pete’s all business when Gerard and Bandit walk in, his movements focused and measured behind the bright orange espresso machine. Gerard watches him grind freshly roasted beans into the group handle, stamp the coffee down with just the right amount of pressure, before he fixes it to the group head and presses the shot button. He dips the steam wand into a small stainless milk jug and listens intently for just the right sounds to know when the milk has reached a perfect 150°F. He pours the milk into a takeaway cup with tiny, precise jerks of his wrist.
Making coffee is an art form to Pete. Part technical precision, part best intentions; one of the few things he’s proud of.
(“Customers can tell if you don’t care about the coffee you’re making,” Pete declared the first time he tried to teach Gerard how to use the espresso machine, back when this was still new and neither of them knew where to put their feet. Back when they would listen to Miles Davis all night and Gerard felt like he was on the verge of kissing Pete at any moment, back when he thought he still could. “Now, stop making coffee like you’re angry at it and put some fucking good vibes into your next attempt.”
Gerard raised an eyebrow at the blatant insubordination, amused. He took a small step closer, just enough to crowd him. “Excuse me?”
Pete squirmed visibly, predictably, and gave a bashful grin. “Whoops,” he said, half-joking, half… something else. “Stop making coffee like you’re angry at it and put some fucking good vibes into your next attempt, Sir?”)
“Have an awesome day, man,” Pete says jovially to the customer as he hands the drink over. The guy drops a coin into the tip jar and Pete calls out a thanks. It’s always strange to see Pete like this, customer service-focused with smiles that don’t falter and jokes that don’t fall flat. How at ease with himself he must seem to anyone that isn’t looking as closely as Gerard is.
“Uncle P!” Bandit shouts as soon as she spots him. She runs up to the counter, her unzipped parka slipping off one shoulder as she bounces towards him. “Surprise!”
“Hey, little dude,” Pete says cheerfully as he comes around the counter to meet her. He smiles at Gerard before squatting down to her height. He tugs gently at the pigtails on either side of her face. “I didn’t know you were coming to see me. This is a really nice surprise.”
“Daddy said I can have a hot chocolate and you can draw a squirrel on it.”
Pete grins, all teeth and so wide that it wrinkles the skin around his eyes. He glances up at Gerard and says, teasingly, “I thought Daddy had mixed feelings about giving you sugar after four pm.”
She tilts her head to the side and sighs impatiently. “He said you can draw a squirrel.”
“I can try,” Pete promises, kissing her forehead. “But it might look kind of funny, okay? I bet Daddy's way better at drawing squirrels than I am.”
“I draw a pretty mean squirrel,” Gerard admits humbly. “Drew a lot of them in art school.”
Pete snorts, reaching for coffee, hot chocolate, soy milk and paper cups. “Go see Uncle Joe in the back, okay? I bet he has some cookies for you, if you ask really nicely.”
Bandit doesn’t need to be asked twice. She and Joe have a “secret handshake” which seems to look completely different every time it’s performed and which Gerard suspects may be an improvisational sort of affair.
“You coming to the slam poetry night on Sunday?” Pete asks as he works. There’s something coy in his voice when he says, “I hear there’s going to be a bitching performance by an incredibly handsome up-and-coming poet from Chicago.”
Shit. “I’ve got dinner with the family, it’s Dad’s birthday.”
“Oh,” Pete says shortly, waving a hand self-consciously in front of his face. “No, of course. Mikey did mention that, said he’s bringing Kristin. Apparently your family’s being very welcoming to her.”
“Oh,” Gerard echoes, unsure of what kind of response that merits. “Yeah, she’s great.”
Pete's hands falter on the machine, the slightest stutter in his movements. There’s the slightest furrow in his brow, the slightest twist of his mouth. Gerard wonders what else Mikey has said to him about dinner at their parents’ place. If they’ve talked about Pete putting on a nice shirt, giving their mom flowers and talking about the economy with their dad.
“I’d come otherwise,” Gerard says, soft like an apology, and there it is again, this unfamiliar want to reach for him, pull him into his arms, soothe him. He doesn’t. “Scout’s honor.”
“How the fuck do you draw a squirrel?” Pete asks abruptly, frowning as he considers the paper cup in his hands. He taps the sharpie against his pursed lips. “I think I just made a blob.”
Gerard cranes his neck to look at it. “I think you made a sad cat with boobs.”
“Shut up, they’re paws.” He draws what is probably meant to be a hazelnut, but just looks like a second blob. Pete has talents in the plural, clearly this is not one of them.
“If you say so. Do you want to come over tonight after work?”
Pete quietly makes Gerard’s cup of coffee, his hands precise and methodical like always. “I’ve got a lot of stuff to do,” he says after a while.
That confirms it, Pete’s in another one of his moods. “Sure,” Gerard says easily. He’ll try to find a meme involving squirrels and breasts, might even make him one on Photoshop if it doesn’t already exist.
The coffee Pete hands him tastes too sweet, feels too hot. Pete has never burnt the milk before when he’s made Gerard coffee. He doesn’t want to point it out, so he just sips quietly as Pete wipes down the steam wand with one cloth and runs a second over the counter.
Another customer comes in and Pete greets her warmly. Gerard assumes she’s a regular, as money changes hands and Pete prepares her coffee without her ever specifying what she wants. They make charming small talk about something sports-related that Gerard has no context for and he waits for his daughter to come back out.
His first match is Greta, 27, who’s standing in a snowy field. Jack, 27, is a faceless torso in black and white. Hayley, 26, has bright pink hair and a nice smile. Tushar, 32, is wearing a full suit with a tie and diamond earrings. Travie, 33, has tattoos on his neck and throat, a fuzzy black beard and a grey beanie pulled over stretched ears.
Frank hesitates a little before he swipes right. It’s been a while since he last fucked a guy. The screen immediately displays that "It’s a Match!" He types Hey, what are you doing tonight?
Travie has a good ten inches on him, if not more, and he’s wide and solid in a way that makes Frank feel minuscule. He’s really mellow, like he’s tired or stoned. They meet in a parking lot and smoke two cigarettes each before ascertaining that neither of them object terribly to going back to Travie’s place.
The apartment smells sweet and earthy and it confirms Frank’s suspicion that Travie’s probably high. A French bulldog starts jumping at their legs as soon as Travie unlocks the front door. Travie bends down to give him a quick pat. “Hello boy,” he murmurs. “Who’s a good boy?”
There’s a herb grinder on the coffee table next to rolling papers and a plastic baggie full of green. It would be so easy, just a few hits, just enough to take the edge off...
Travie seems to have caught him looking. “Do you wanna burn one down? It’s good shit.”
Frank shakes his head before even letting himself process the offer, so fucking distracted that it’s making him itchy. He wants to lose himself in something, something heady and intoxicating, wants it hard enough to take him out of his own head, but not that. “Where’s your bedroom?” he asks instead, turning away from the drugs and towards the alternative.
Travie smirks a little, motioning graciously to his bedroom door. Frank starts undressing on his way there. “I like your style,” Travie says behind him, hot on his heels. “Shit. You look good enough to eat, fuck. What’re you into?”
Frank feels oddly embarrassed as he says it, fucking with his belt like he’s having a hard time undoing it. “Getting fucked. If you don’t mind.”
Travie laughs, sweet and amused. He drops a knee to the bed and starts on his own fly. “Yeah, no, I don’t think I’d mind that.”
There are wet, hungry kisses, mouths biting and licking and sucking, strong hands and warm skin. Travie’s dick is probably the biggest he’s ever seen in person, definitely the biggest he’s ever been in bed with. He supposes it’s proportional to his height, but it’s still intimidating. Frank strokes him slowly, rotating a loose fist around the slick head and reaching down to stroke his balls until he groans.
Travie takes his time fingering him, biting his lips and swallowing each of Frank’s wanton moans. His lips are soft, plump and delicious. Travie sucks his own lower lip between his teeth and looks down at where Frank’s cock is hard and heavy between them, resting on his inked belly.
“I’m gonna fuck the shit out of you,” Travie mutters, leaning down to lick at Frank’s mouth again. “Make you come like a motherfucker and fuck you through it.”
Frank generally doesn’t enjoy stimulation after he comes. Whenever Jamia fucked him with a strap-on, he wanted her out immediately after he came. He hasn’t slept with that many guys, but they’ve all politely pulled out if he’s come with them still inside of him. But the thought of taking it when he's spent and over-sensitized, feeling that almost-pain appeals strangely to him now. He nods, says, “Yeah, now.”
“Roll over,” Travie says, flipping him easily onto his stomach. There’s a rip of foil and Frank pulls two pillows beneath himself as Travie sheaths himself. The pillow beneath him smells intensely like Travie and it feels almost too intimate, but he needs something to press his face into, something to hold his weight and support his spine. Travie’s spent a long time stretching him, but he feels absurdly anxious now that he’s on all fours. Travie presses in, slowly but firmly and Frank lets out a hideous sound and seizes up. It makes it so much worse, but he can’t help it.
Travie goes completely still. “Hey,” he whispers. “You want me to—”
“It’s fine,” Frank says immediately through clenched teeth. “Just don’t move yet, don’t, please.”
It hurts like a motherfucker and he thinks pathetically that he deserves this, deserves to be hurt by someone who doesn’t give a shit about him in a room that smells like everything he’s running from. His eyes are wet and the pain’s radiating up his spine and through his pelvis. He wants to cry from how bad it is, but he asked for this, he sought this out, he wanted this.
“Breathe, baby,” Travie coos, running one hand gently over his side. He smoothes a palm across Frank’s shoulder, down his spine, across his—
“No,” Frank snaps, twisting onto his side and holding a pillow between them in self-defense. The panic is instant: blood, breath and heat imploding at once. “Don’t touch that.”
“Hey,” Travie says, frowning like he’s worried, reaching for Frank’s ankle. “Hey, whoa, hold up. I didn’t mean to—”
It was just a graze, a gentle touch, but his lower back is throbbing from it like an open wound. Psychosomatic, he reminds himself. Psychosomatic, you’re being crazy, scars don’t hurt like this, you’re not Harry fucking Potter, get the fuck over yourself.
“I said don’t touch me.” He gets off the bed and pulls his clothes back on. His ass is slick with lube and it’s already feeling uncomfortable. It’s already feeling like regret. “Sorry, this isn’t. I’m just gonna go.”
“Hey, no. Come on.” Absurdly, Travie’s still mostly hard, the condom shiny on his dick. “I feel like I just—did something you didn’t want me to do. You told me you wanted this, come back to bed.”
“And I just changed my fucking mind.”
“I didn’t mean ‘come back to bed so I can fuck you,’ I mean ‘come back to bed because you’re freaking out and I’m fucking freaking out and I wanna make this right.’ I won't touch your scar again, I'm sorry I did in the first place.”
The dog jumps at his legs on his way out and his hands are shaking so hard he can barely unlock his car door. He knows he shouldn’t drive right now, but it feels like this is going to get so much worse if he doesn’t get the fuck out of here right now.
It takes several deep breaths and a pathetic amount of crying before he can look at his bank statements and count the cash he keeps hidden in a battered copy of Catcher in the Rye. Between his half of the savings for the wedding and what little money he has left after selling her ring, he has enough money to keep his apartment for another four months. If he eats ramen, drinks water and stops smoking. He realizes belatedly that he should have sold his stash, rather than flushing it down the drain like a fucking idiot.
He needs a job, but he doesn’t know what he could get with a revoked nursing license. The mere thought of stepping into a hospital makes his heart race and his stomach clench. He’s hunched over his laptop on the wrong side of midnight, sizzling with anxiety when his phone gives a startling chirp. No one ever texts or calls him anymore, and his Tinder application doesn’t push notifications. He expects it to be an automated reminder from his dentist to get a regular check up, but instead it’s Gerard.
Better, thanks. How are you?
Good. Watching Honey Boo Boo. It’s the episode with the forklift foot.
Frank snorts, surprised. What the fuck?
Turn on TLC. You need to watch this RIGHT NOW.
Frank puts his laptop aside, turns on the TV and curls up with a blanket on the couch. He makes it through two deeply concerning minutes, before texting, Why the hell are you watching this?
Can’t sleep. What’re you up to?
It’s not even that late, but he knows he’s nowhere near ready to sleep either. Going to bed sober is turning out to be a fucking nightmare. Every thought he doesn’t want to have seems to be the very loudest when he lies down, his twisting guts and racing heart making sleep impossible. By the time he’s finally able to sleep most nights, the sun’s already rising and he passes out from sheer exhaustion. Looking for work. Trying to put my life back together. What happened with the forklift?
Frank jumps again when his phone rings, surprise shooting through him like a jolt of electricity. He’s never been good at talking on the phone, never knows which pauses are for listening and which are for responding. His mother is the only person that ever calls him anymore, and he barely picks up her calls at it is. His hands already feel clammy and nervous when they accept the call and bring the phone to his ear.
“I think it ran over her foot,” comes Gerard’s voice in a soft, sleepy, disarming murmur. Frank lets out a slow breath and pulls his blanket closer, trying to let go of his nerves. He wonders if Gerard is watching TV in the living room while his wife is asleep in bed, or if he’s lying beside her with the sound turned down low. “It’s why it’s a forklift foot.”
“That makes sense,” Frank whispers in return, although he’s not at risk of waking anyone but Sweet Pea, who is happily snoring at his feet. “You’re into the weirdest things.”
“Ehhh. You’re probably not wrong.” Gerard laughs sweetly. There’s a long pause then, which Frank realizes retrospectively was his cue to say something. Instead, Gerard says, “What are you into?”
“Um.” He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to think of something to say. Small talk, small talk, small talk. “I was really into music, before. I played guitar in a band. Comic books? I don’t know. Horror movies. Tattoos, obviously. I don’t know.”
“You should play me something from your band.”
Alarm bells go off in Frank’s mind, big flashing neon lights going ABORT ABORT ABORT. Pansy’s still locked in her case at the back of his closet, like she has been since the band broke up. “Maybe later,” he lies. “Don’t want to wake Sweet Pea.”
“Is that her snoring in the back?”
“No, I live next to a construction site.”
Gerard giggles, the sweetest high-pitched thing. “I’ve been to your place, you know. You should get her a little sleep apnea mask. Hey, change the channel to Fox News, you have to see this.”
Frank changes the channel, and listens to Gerard narrating Bill O’Reilly’s nonsense. When he drifts off to sleep a few hours later, Gerard’s still murmuring in his ear, Sweet Pea is warm and solid by his feet and the sun is nowhere near the horizon.
The next morning, he digs Pansy out of the closet and has a long, hard look at her. He handles the white guitar strap that’s now gray and frayed from use. He runs his fingers over the spot he’d drawn a heart around the letter J, where it would slide across his heart while he played.
It feels like lifetimes ago that he would catch Jamia’s eye from across a dark, sweaty, noisy venue, and for the merest of moments, it would feel like they were the only two people in the room. It feels like lifetimes ago that he’d empty himself out on a stage with his best friends and spend the rest of the night with them in a diner. It feels like lifetimes ago that he wasn’t some pathetic, lonely, unemployed, deadbeat, junkie loser falling to pieces in front of an open closet.
Pansy needs new strings and a polish. He needs to build up his guitar calluses again. Instead, he pushes her to the back of the closet and sits back on his heels and breathes into his cupped hands. He doesn’t get his car keys, doesn’t speed towards the nearest liquor store, doesn’t visit his grandmother in the nursing home for the sole purpose of scabbing pills. If he doesn’t leave the house, he decides, he won’t be able to do any damage.
He fishes Grant’s phone number out of his coat and texts, Does that offer of talking still stand? - Frank from NA
He puts Bandit to bed and tiptoes back down to the living room. Ray’s shooting things on his Playstation, the sound turned down low so the explosions sound faint. “She’s finally asleep,” Gerard whispers, despite her being upstairs and behind a closed door. “I thought she was gonna make me read the collected works of Roald Dahl in their entirety.”
“She has good taste at least,” Ray murmurs. He pauses the game and glances sideways at Gerard. His lower lip is tucked between his teeth. “Hey… I’ve been meaning to... I’m here if you need to talk about something. You know that, right?”
Gerard frowns, immediately uncomfortable. He doesn’t share much about himself and Ray never really asks; it's part of why they work so well together. They talk about Ray’s recovery, work, music, common interests; things that Gerard feels safe about. “What are you talking about?”
“Just something Pete said.”
Gerard reaches for his mug of coffee, despite it being lukewarm and stale at this point. Anything to break eye contact, busy his hands. “Come on,” he says neutrally. “You know I’m not talking about Pete with you.”
“Look...” Ray scratches the back of his neck, an anxious gesture that makes his curls bounce. “I was at the poetry reading thing. If there’s anything you want to talk about, I’m all ears.”
Fuck. “What did he read?”
“You wouldn’t have heard it before.”
Gerard doesn’t need to hear anymore. He’s heard enough of Pete’s poetry to know that whatever it was, it was beautifully written and completely revealing to anyone who knows anything about him. “I’m not talking about Pete with you. That’s final.”
“Sure, whatever you want. Just know I’m here.” Ray clears his throat and tosses him a controller. “Now, help me shoot some fucking zombies, I’m dying over here.”
Frank shows up at the address in Grant’s text message. It’s an old brick building, some sort of converted warehouse that undoubtedly holds flashy penthouse apartments with exposed brick walls and skylight windows. The sort of building that belongs in Brooklyn, not in a nondescript suburb in the outskirts of Newark.
He presses the button for Grant’s apartment and takes the elevator up after being buzzed in. Grant meets him at the door of the elevator, wearing sweatpants, a long sleeve sweater and a smile that makes Frank think Grant might be genuinely pleased to see him.
“Good evening,” he says softly, before leading Frank into his apartment. Exposed brick, check. Fancy furniture in metals, leather and furs, check. The book case in the corner is meticulously color coded. It looks like the inside of a magazine. “Would you like something to drink or would you like to get to it?”
“A beer would be nice,” Frank jokes nervously. He’s wearing the clothes Grant requested, sweat pants and a loose shirt and sweater. He feels completely out of place in the glamorous surroundings. “Um. No. Getting to it sounds great.”
“As the gentleman wishes.” Grant leads him deeper into his cavernous apartment, to the very last room where faint warm lights bloom into life. Grant shuts the door behind them and Frank stands in the middle of the unexpectedly warm room, letting his eyes get used to the low light. He curiously scans the walls, taking inventory of the various implements scattered around the room. Riding crops, paddles and canes all hang neatly from a rack in the corner. Leather harnesses, handcuffs, rope in a multitude of colors. A few things that make Frank think of medieval times. Several pieces of furniture Frank assumes serve very particular purposes. A very... sturdy-looking bed.
“You want to hurt me?” he asks, his traitorous hands belying the calm in his voice. He digs them deep into his pockets. “I mean, that’s what all this is, right?”
“I want to help you,” Grant corrects, rubbing his hands together in a way that makes Frank think he might be a bit unsure of himself too. “If you’ll let me.”
“How is hurting me going to help me?”
“Do a scene with me. We’ll see if we’re compatible, if this could work for you.”
Grant’s eyes are kind and gentle, entirely at odds with the neo-medieval torture chamber they find themselves in. “I’m not into having the shit kicked out of me. Consensually or otherwise.”
“I want you to practice mindfulness with me. No force required if you’re not into it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I sit with you while you work through your pain and whatever thoughts you’re having about it.”
“Okay…” Frank looks around the room again, eyes settling on a leather paddle with the word ‘slut’ cut out in the leather. Frank assumes it leaves slut-shaped marks on whatever skin it makes contact with. “I’m going to need a very specific breakdown of what you’re proposing.”
“You kneel for me, I blindfold you and tie your wrists and take you through some breathing exercises and some pain play. Counterirritant analgesia, if you will.”
Inflicting pain in one place to distract from pain in another. It’s not the worst idea he’s heard with regards to his back. “Say we try it… and I don’t like it.”
“Then you tell me to stop and I will,” Grant says firmly. “No questions asked. None.”
He doesn’t know Grant enough to trust him, but he finds himself nodding cautiously anyway. He’ll try something new, hope for something better. Just for today. “Don’t go anywhere near my lower back.”
“I won’t, thank you for telling me. Can you kneel if I get you a pillow? Can your back take it?”
“For a while. I’ll let you know when we have to stop.”
Grant smiles, clearly pleased. “Take off as much clothing as you’re comfortable with and kneel exactly where you’re standing.”
Frank hesitantly pulls off his shoes, his parka, his sweater and his T-shirt. He kneels carefully on the floor, lowering himself slowly and bracing himself on his hands as he gets into position. The usual anxiety about his back floods his mind and he tries not to tense up, tries to relax his muscles to ward off potential spasms.
Grant brings a pillow and wedges it between Frank’s ass and ankles. Frank’s immediately grateful for the pressure it takes off his lower limbs. Grant kneels in front of him and gently adjusts his position, lessening the curve of his lower back and straightening his spine. He brings Frank’s wrists together to wrap black silky rope snugly around them. “How is that?”
“Good,” Frank breathes. It’s so warm, so dark, so quiet, like the street outside is a million miles away, like they’re in a cocoon. He wonders idly if the room has been soundproofed. Grant’s hands are mercifully gentle, methodical and sure. He brings the blindfold to Frank’s eye level, silently seeking permission. Frank nods and lets him slip it over his eyes. The darkness is immediately comforting.
“We often use a traffic light system when we do this,” Grant says slowly, clearly, calmly. “Green means go, red means stop. Yellow means you’re uncomfortable or need some time or need something to change. I don’t want you to focus on any words, just colors. Let go of everything else. Okay?”
“Okay.” Frank takes a deep breath and strains a little against his restraints. The pressure and confinement are unexpectedly soothing. “Green.”
“Good boy,” Grant murmurs and Frank is taken aback by the warmth in his voice and the way his hands fold over Frank’s tied wrists. “Now, you’re going to breathe in and out slowly, deep into your chest. You can breathe as heavily as you need to, but you match your breath to mine. I want you to focus on breath and colors and let any thoughts that come into your mind pass through, especially if they relate to your back pain. Don’t force them down, don’t fight them, don’t engage at all. Just acknowledge them and let them pass by you like clouds. Okay?”
“Okay. I mean, green.” He listens for Grant’s breath and matches his rhythm. The breaths are slow, deep, loud in the silence between them. He tries his hardest to focus. His back immediately protests, the ache swelling sickly in the back of his pelvis. He tries to release the thought, to let it go, to return to breath and colors and Grant’s hands where they’re resting on over his own.
“I’m going to start off with some very mild pain,” Grant whispers once Frank’s settled into Grant’s breathing pattern. “Breathe through it.”
Grant’s warm palms smooth over Frank’s forearms, over the inside of his elbows, over his shoulders. His hands catch a little when they reach Frank’s neck and he realizes his skin’s already damp from the stifling heat of the room. His armpits are wet and he’s instinctively embarrassed and yellow and distracted. He wants to argue with the thought—Grant wouldn’t have made the room so hot and he wouldn’t be touching him if he was grossed out—but he tries to release the thought back into the wild. He brings his spine back into alignment and seeks out Grant’s breath again. Green and oxygen and touch. He can focus on this.
Except for how he can’t, for how all these unbidden things force themselves to the front of his mind. The stack of unopened mail on the kitchen counter that he’s too cowardly to open in case they’re bills he can’t afford to pay. The eight missed calls on his phone as he lay in bed the morning of his grandfather’s funeral six months ago, too high on pills to attend and too paralysed with anxiety to apologize to his mother. The way Jamia pushed him off herself the last time he tried to save their increasingly dysfunctional relationship with makeup sex and sweet whispered nothings that no longer meant anything to either of them. Sweet Pea whining under a table because he’d been blacked out in bed all day and she’d peed on the floor, how she’d cowered like he might punish her, as though she’d done something wrong.
“Breathe,” Grant whispers as a reminder and it’s only then that Frank registers how loudly and erratically he’s actually breathing. The shame, guilt, grief and self-hatred crash into him like an upset sea against a wall of cliffs. He can’t remember feeling any better than okay for so long and he is getting so tired. He shouldn’t be this battle worn at thirty-three, shouldn't be this close to waving white flags or throwing in towels on the very worst days.
“Breathe,” Grant says again, a little more firmly, and then he pinches the inside of Frank’s bicep. It’s not hard, or even all that startling, but it’s enough to reboot Frank’s focus. He draws his next breath as scheduled and lets it happen. Grant pinches the top of his shoulders, the curve of his armpit, the flesh on his lower arms. He peppers pinches all over the front of Frank’s torso. When the tips of his fingers tighten around Frank’s nipples, Frank slumps limply forwards and lets out a moan that’s all breath and sweet, blessed relief.
“Color,” Grant prompts in a as he runs the tips of his fingers soothingly over the skin he’s just worried. “Straighten up.”
“Green,” Frank mutters, doing as asked. It sounds like someone else’s voice when the plea for “More” leaves his mouth.
A sudden, unbidden shame shudders through him at how vulnerable and exposed he feels. Grant breathes deeply, loudly, and Frank zeroes back in on it. He lets go of the thought, pictures it detaching from his mind and floating past him like an ugly black cloud. He lets his yellow morph back into green, drinks in another slow breath and feels Grant fasten something to his left nipple. The bite of pain shoots through him and he tenses up all over. Grant takes another loud breath and Frank feels the second clamp close over his other nipple. He takes another breath and surrenders to oblivion when something sweet and throbbing takes the place of pain. A heavy chain settles on his sternum and then Grant pulls on it and things get even hazier. Grant requests a color and Frank slurs “green.”
The thoughts keep coming, some ugly, some random and some mercifully beautiful. Grant keeps touching him, pinching and pulling of the chain connecting his nipples. And then the pressure comes off his nipples and a near-blinding, beautiful almost-pain crashes into him before it fades to a dull hum. He slumps forward, his forehead meeting soft cotton and damp, warm skin just above it. Grant strokes his face, which is wet with what could be either sweat or tears.
Clouds pass slowly past him in the distance, all green and all harmless. Frank registers vaguely that he’s still kneeling, but he feels no connection to his spine. His body feels boiling hot and deliciously used and completely devoid of pain. Step three: surrendering to something bigger than oneself, something sane, something divine.
“We’re done,” Grant whispers against his temple. “I’m going to take the blindfold off.”
Frank shakes his head, swallowing against the dryness in his mouth. “Please,” he begs. He straightens up enough to brush his face against Grant’s stubbled jaw, parting his lips, begging for Grant’s mouth, desperate for more.
“So good.” Grant kisses the side of Frank’s head, just a whisper of pressure. “You went down so deep for me, but now you have to come back up. You can keep your eyes closed if you want, but I’m taking the blindfold off.”
Frank stays suspended in the bliss Grant has made for him, while Grant undoes the ties around his wrists. “Time to open your eyes,” he says after an indeterminate amount of time. “Come on.
Frank comes back to the world, blinking dopily and seeking out Grant’s eyes. Grant’s cheeks are flushed faint pink and his mouth is right there, and Frank would reach for him if the thought of moving his hands didn’t seem like a herculean task.
“I’d like you to spend the night in my guest room. I don’t think you should drive. Would that be okay?”
Frank wants to beg for Grant’s bedroom, for his closeness, his touch, his peace. But he lets that thought go, not ready to do anything but whatever Grant wants from him. Step three. Grant knows what to do.
Grant coaxes Frank's arms over his head and carefully pulls his T-shirt and sweater back over his torso. He eases the pillow out from between his ass and thighs and folds him forwards to stretch out his lower back. Frank presses his face into Grant’s thighs and lets him rub his sweaty shoulders. Every part of him that Grant touches feels... healed.
Grant has done something extraordinary to time; it’s moving slower than it ever has before. Somehow Frank’s curled up under heavy blankets and asleep before he even understands how he got there.
Why don’t you ever speak at NA? Frank asks, out of the blue, late one night after Gerard’s gone to bed.
Gerard tosses up his options. He types Because I don’t want to hear what I might say, but then deletes it immediately. Instead, he sends a non-committal Most days it helps just being there.
It’s not really an answer, but Frank doesn’t call him on it. Instead, he says Is Ray the only person you sponsor?
Ray and Pete. Dream team.
What happens in that sort of relationship?
Gerard scoffs, chewing his lips. He can’t exactly disclose anything without breaching their privacy and making Frank think he’s a fucking weirdo about how things work with him and Pete. It’s different for every person. What works with Pete doesn’t work with Ray, and vice versa. Why do you ask?
Just doing some research, trying to wrap my head around how this stuff works.
Gerard isn’t going to ask who he might have met to stimulate research, but it doesn’t stop him being curious. He checks the time; it’s late. He sends Still having trouble sleeping?
Same. Dawn of the Dead is on at midnight, wanna hang over the phone and watch it?
If you promise not to fall asleep and snore into my ear again :)
Just hang up on me if I do :)
Midnight’s still an hour away, but Gerard’s phone rings regardless. “Speaking of, Gee, I’m pretty sure your sleep apnea is worse than Sweet Pea’s.”
“I had a fucking cold!” Gerard tucks the phone between his pillow and his ear, and rubs his belly absentmindedly as he listens to Frank whip out medical jargon to argue his point. He thinks about Frank in powder blue nurse’s scrubs. He almost thinks about what Frank’s wearing right now.
The second time he walks into the dark room at the end of the hallway in Grant’s apartment, he’s ready for it. The room is at normal room temperature this time. “Say we did that again,” he says, sounding almost confident. He’s practiced this conversation in the car ride over. “Say I wanted to.”
“Say we did,” Grant repeats cautiously. He leans back against the footboard of the bed by the back wall, his arms wrapped loosely around his chest. It’s obvious by the way his body moves beneath his thin long-sleeve that there’s strength there, strength that could likely snap Frank in half if it wanted to. “Say you wanted to.”
“Say I did. What do you get out of this? What’s in it for you?”
“The satisfaction of knowing I’m helping someone in need of it. Step twelve, if you will.”
Frank looks around the room, taking inventory of the various implements and devices neatly organised on walls and shelves. “Is that all it is?”
Grant smirks, an arrogant, fearless thing. It does something unexpected to Frank’s lungs. “Are you asking if I get off on it?”
“Yes,” Frank breathes. “Don’t you?”
“I do get off on inflicting pain—with established consent and carefully negotiated parameters, I assure you—but that’s only one part of my practice. Pain and control can be incredibly therapeutic and restorative. It's part of how I look after the people that I sponsor in this program.”
“Okay, and how many people do you sponsor?”
“None, at the moment.”
Frank glances past him at the wide, sturdy bed with an ornate headboard that’s likely perfect for tying people up to. “Do you want to—I mean, do you want to fuck me?”
Grant smiles, as though the very suggestion is amusing. “No, darling. I don’t take advantage of people who are having a hard time and I don’t fuck my sponsees.”
“So this isn’t sexual to you?”
“Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. It depends on the context and the relationship I have with the person I play with. Either way, it’s always intimate.”
Frank approaches the rack of implements hanging neatly in the corner, runs his hands over metal, wood, leather and plastic. He picks up a bamboo cane and turns it around in his hands. It’s solid; Frank can’t even imagine what it would feel like against flesh. “Would you want to use this on me?”
“I would,” Grant says, shifting a little in a way that suggests the implement has some sort of significance to him. He takes it out of Frank’s hands and returns it to its place. “When you’re ready. First, I’d like you to earn this one.”
Grant takes a handle with thin leather straps dangling from it. They feel soft against Frank’s fingers, harmless. “And how do I earn it?”
“My friend William is a physiotherapist and coincidentally owes me a favour. I made an appointment for you on Thursday at noon. I’d like you to take proper care of yourself and I won’t touch you again until you do.”
“Okay...” Frank closes his fist around the leather straps, already imagining what they’d feel like against his skin. He’d take a fucking yoga class if it meant he could have more of the easy, beautiful silence that Grant made for him last time. He can handle physiotherapy in exchange for that. “So what’s tonight for?”
“Tonight we talk about what’s been going on in your life and see what we can do about making things better for you. Come on, I’ll make us a pot of tea.”
Frank hangs the whip-like thing back on the rack. He can do this.
Frank settles easily into a routine. He goes to the Belleville meeting on Mondays and Thursdays, the North Arlington meeting on Wednesdays and Sunday mornings and the meeting in Nutley on Saturday nights if he needs it. He wakes up at 9 am every morning, goes for a thirty minute walk with the dog, eats a sensible breakfast and applies for jobs. He’s overqualified for everything he applies for and the salaries are lower than what he’s used to, but it’s okay for now. Grant insists that there are ways of getting his nursing license restored in the future, if he can pass weekly drug tests and demonstrate regular attendance at NA meetings, but Frank immediately shuts him down. He’s nowhere near ready to even consider it.
Grant calls him once a day to check in and give him homework. One day, it’s making dinner for his parents, another it’s swimming five laps in the local pool. William gives him a spreadsheet with daily stretches and exercises and Grant supervises Frank’s adherence to the program. Frank earns the cuffs, the rope, the paddle and the ball gag. He’s inexplicably drawn to the bamboo cane, stares at it sometimes when Grant lets him into the dark room at the end of his hallway. He wants to be good enough to deserve it one day.
Gerard texts him every now and then, usually around midnight when they should both be asleep. Sometimes about the bizarre Japanese reality TV shows he downloads illegally, sometimes about weird shit his daughter says, most times because he wants company. Once he requests photos of Sweet Pea and then sends back elaborate memes featuring the little bastard as Gene Simmons and as Yoda.
Once, hours into mostly random correspondence, he writes Sometimes I’m worried I’ll feel like hell forever out of nowhere and Frank replies Me too. Gerard doesn’t say anything for the rest of the night. When Frank mentions having Bright Eyes' Letting Off the Happiness on vinyl, Gerard calls him immediately to insist that Frank play it in its entirety over the line. For 59 minutes, Frank lies in bed listening to the slow cadence of Gerard’s breath over the line. “Good night,” Gerard whispers sleepily after the last song and then there’s beeping when he’s gone.
Falling asleep sober isn’t hard anymore, when Gerard’s falling asleep with him.
It’s almost awkward when they meet up at meetings, like their minds know each other better than their bodies do, and their bodies don’t really understand how to be near each other. They shoot the shit with whoever else is near them, keeping a slight, but tangible distance from each other. Frank shares at every meeting, slowly making sense of the broken things. He never looks at Gerard while he’s sharing, but knowing he’s there makes it feel a little bit safer. Gerard never says a word.
“Dude, you should come on Saturday,” Ray calls from across the room as they’re packing up the room after a Thursday night meeting in Belleville. Clean up is usually Gerard’s gig, but tonight he tossed the keys to Ray and reminded him to turn off the lights in the hallway out the back. He seemed tired, distracted, a little off. “Bob and I are having a party.”
Frank is floored by three sudden realizations as he folds the last chair away. One, he actually wants to go. Two, Ray doesn’t appear to be inviting him out of pity or politeness. Three, in addition to being brothers in arms in rooms with plastic chairs and stale coffee, they might actually be... friends.
“It’ll be completely dry, don’t worry. Bring a date if you want. And her hot friend, if you wouldn't mind.”
Frank snorts out a laugh at Ray’s wink. “I’ll see what I can do,” he promises, though the only bachelorette he knows is a hundred years old and has sleep apnea.
He sits in his car for twenty minutes after pulling up to Ray and Bob’s street. He closes his eyes and runs his hands over his thighs, trying to focus on the feel of torn denim under his palms. The cacophony of nasty thoughts come into his mind as expected, the same shit that seems to be on a constant rotation in there: you’re a pathetic piece of shit, no one wants you there, everyone will see how anxious you are, no one wants you there, everyone will see your hands shaking, you won’t have anything to say to anyone, you don’t fit in there, people won’t talk to you, you’ll sit by yourself and feel like shit and then you’re just going to leave early anyway and feel humiliated and never be able to look any of them in the eye ever again. But he continues to bring his attention back to the rough texture against his palms. He breathes, focuses, centers himself. The thoughts can say what they want, but he doesn’t need to believe them. He sits there until he’s calm, a little lightheaded from his deep breaths, and then he gets out of the car.
He hasn’t been to a party since before he got clean. The last party he went to, he’d smoked a bowl with some girl he met on Tinder at her friend’s place in Irvington, swallowed something pink and something blue before blacking out and waking up in the staircase of his own apartment building the next morning. The last time he went to a party, it was to forget himself for as long as possible.
He feels acutely present as he walks up the driveway to Bob and Ray’s place. There are people he doesn’t know on the front porch, and he gives an awkward wave of acknowledgement before heading inside. He spots a few of the usual suspects in the inconveniently crowded living room: Mikey’s girlfriend talking to Bob while Mikey’s arm rests on her lower back, Spencer and Brendon in fits of giggles on the couch, Ray and a pretty blonde girl who’s smiling at him like he’s something special. Frank makes a quick beeline for the staircase before anyone notices him. There must be a bathroom or something up there, where he hide out for a few minutes until he collects himself again.
He makes his way blindly down the hallway and opens what he hopes is the bathroom door. Instead of the toilet, tiles, tub and sink he’s expecting, there are two bodies draped over each other and over a dresser. He hasn’t caught them kissing, but he’s obviously caught them doing something intimate or something they want to hide, judging by how quickly they spring apart. He mumbles a nonsensical apology and tries to shut the door behind him, but Pete doesn’t let him.
“Hey,” Pete whispers, one hand on Frank’s arm while he scans the hallway for other potential interrupters. “What, that. Um. He’s just upset.”
Frank tries not to flail under his touch, needing desperately to be somewhere else. “No, yeah. None of my business.”
Pete straightens his own rumpled T-shirt and glances anxiously over his shoulder into the bedroom he’s just left. “He’s had a rough day.”
“You don’t have to—I mean. It’s none of my business.”
“Thanks, Frank.” Pete’s cheeks are flushed pink and his lips are swollen. He must know what this looks like, how terrible their cover story actually is. "Bathroom’s through there.”
Patrick comes out of the bedroom, eyes averted from both of them. “I'm just gonna go."
"No, wait, hey," Pete says, sounding pained and reaching for his hand in a way that just further incriminates them. "Trick, hey, don't—"
Frank steals into the bathroom and locks the door. He twists the faucet until the stream of water is icy cold. He lets it cascade over the pulse point of his wrists and his shaking, sweating hands. It’s a trick that Grant has taught him to de-escalate his anxiety when it flares up; cooling down his blood is apparently meant to lower his heart rate. The discomfort of freezing cold water on his skin is enough to bring him back into himself. Counterirritant analgesia.
He practices his breaths again, the deep ones that Grant’s taught him to do when his mind starts going fuzzy. One two three in, one two three out. He stays until he’s calm again, maybe five or ten minutes, enough time that he can go downstairs, make his way into the kitchen, where his pulse immediately revs up again because Gerard. He’s fucking around on his phone in the corner of the room, against the fridge and out of people’s way. “Hey Gee,” Frank says. “Um. Any chance I could grab a soda?”
“No, shit, of course.” Gerard gets out of his way and Frank reaches blindly into the fridge to take the first bottle he can reach. It’s a glass bottle of ginger ale, which he can’t normally stand, but desperate times call for desperate men. “Did you just get here, or?”
“No, a while ago. I just. Crowds, you know.” He twists the cap unsuccessfully, his palm slipping on the aluminum. “Not a fan.”
Gerard reaches past him for the bottle opener and Frank has to close his eyes at the scent of him. He must have applied cologne right before he went out. It smells heady and strong and like Frank wants to nuzzle his throat. “They aren’t screw caps, let me.”
Frank brings the bottle to his lips as soon as it’s in his hands, taking a big swig as though there’s any liquid courage to be found inside of it. “Um. Smoke? Too many people still.”
“Fuck, yes,” Gerard says with a sigh that sounds relieved, like he isn’t partial to crowds either. Frank follows him outside and they take a seat on the ground against the wall of the house. Frank carefully arranges his legs to ease the pressure on his back. “Are you here with someone, or?”
“Nope,” Frank says. “I went through my entire Rolodex trying to find single women for Ray, but no dice.”
“Wouldn’t have mattered.” Gerard nudges Frank’s shoulder and motions towards Ray and the blonde girl from earlier. “Ash brought her sister.”
“No shit.” Frank grins. She’s cute. Judging by the dopey look on Ray’s face, Ray probably thinks she’s cute, too. “Go Ray.”
When he turns back to Gerard, the sight of him does something ridiculously dumb to the pit of Frank’s stomach. His red hair is in messy tangles, he needs a shave and there are dark shadows underneath his eyes, but fuck. “Um. Are you here with—”
“Nope,” Gerard says, chewing his bottom lip with a strange expression. “I’m happy you came. I’ve been wanting to hang out in person again.”
“Yeah,” Frank breathes. He needs a cigarette as a matter of urgency, needs somewhere safe to put his hands and something to occupy his mouth with. “Me, too. Um. Do you have a lighter?”
The initial awkwardness between them tapers off quickly, and then they’re shooting the shit like they do over text messages or late night phone calls, except it’s so much better in person. Here, he can see Gerard’s tiny cute teeth whenever Frank makes him giggle, see how Gerard bites his lips when he’s thinking, see him gesticulate with his hands while he’s talking. It’s nice. Easy.
They stay seated most of the night, smoking through their respective packs, neither of them making any moves to go back inside or get new drinks. People drop by to give Gerard hugs, borrow lighters and make small talk. Gerard introduces Frank to several other people, none of whose names Frank can remember to save his life. If he was wasted, he could probably be witty and charming and make a good impression. Instead, he’s awkward and just prays that conversations end sooner rather than later.
What Frank is fast realizing, is that he has to relearn all these things that came so easily to him when he was inebriated. Meeting people’s gazes without shaking all over seems to be the very hardest.
It’s cold, too cold to be sitting on concrete if he’s honest with himself, and he’s going to regret it profusely when his spine is stiff and useless in the morning, but… he’d rather sit out here with Gerard than go inside where a million people are occupying a space meant for ten. He’ll go to sleep with a heat pack and have a long bath in the morning. It’ll be worth it.
Mikey brings them both red plastic cups of soda and has a quick, guilty cigarette with them. “I’m trying to quit,” he tells Frank, wincing as he says it. “The lady hates it. So far it’s more painful than withdrawing from speed.”
“So whipped,” Gerard teases, but Mikey just grins and shrugs like he’s not going to argue. “Before you know it, she’ll have you off sugar and caffeine, too.”
“No, no, no.” Mikey wiggles his finger in protest, brow furrowed in utter seriousness. “No woman will ever get between me and my Starbucks.”
Gerard scoffs. “Don’t ever let Pete hear you say that.”
“I wouldn’t.” Mikey puts out his cigarette when it’s over and plucks Gerard’s out of his fingers to continue smoking. “Speaking of, where is he? I haven’t seen him since we got here.”
Gerard gives him an incredulous look in response to the theft, but Frank brings his own cigarette to Gerard’s mouth to subdue him. Gerard sucks in a drag and slumps back against the wall they’re sitting against. “I saw him upstairs earlier,” Frank says, then immediately regrets it. He doesn’t know who Pete was hiding Patrick from, but he doesn’t want to be in the middle of it either way. “A while ago. Earlier. When I got here.”
Mikey and Gerard exchange a long, charged look. Gerard shrugs after a while, says, “I’m sure he’s fine,” and Mikey nods, seemingly reluctantly. “Uh, Mikey’s my little brother,” Gerard tells Frank quietly. “I don’t know if I ever told you that.”
“No shit,” Frank says, looking between the two of them. It’s not immediately apparent, but there’s something about the nose, the eyebrows, the jaw, if he looks closely enough. The eyes. Frank licks his lips, trying to look away from Gerard’s. “Yeah, I see it.”
Gerard clears his throat and scratches his scalp, nodding. He takes a long sip of soda, looking around the yard. Frank picks anxiously at his cuticles and cannot, for the life of him, think of a single thing to say. Mikey glances between them with a strange, amused expression.
Frank’s immediately grateful when Ray sits down beside them. “Are you two still here?” he exclaims, nudging Frank and Gerard’s thighs. “There’s a whole party going on inside the house, you know.”
“Is there?” Gerard grins at him. “I wasn’t sure you’d even noticed, considering your preoccupation with the sweet young thing you’ve been talking to all night.”
Ray grins bashfully, running a hand through his curls and making them bounce around his face. “She’s so fucking cute, I swear. Way out of my league. I think she might give me her number, though, if I ask real nice.”
Mikey pats his back and leans in to stage whisper, “I think she might give you head in your bedroom, if you ask even nicer.”
“Mikey!” Gerard snaps, swatting his shoulder. “Don’t be gross.”
Ray laughs easily, but he’s a little pink around the ears. “I might have to ask even nicer, then.”
“Hey, can’t hurt.” Mikey gets himself off the ground and Ray gets up with him. “You two just going to sit out here?”
Frank doesn’t risk looking at Gerard. “We’ll be right in,” Gerard says noncommittally, to Frank’s relief. He doesn’t want to move from where he is, no matter how much strain it might be putting on his back, no matter how hot and confused he feels being this close to Gerard and not being able to do anything about it. “I’m just gonna have another smoke.”
“Suit yourself,” Mikey says. Before he goes inside, he calls, “Hey Gee? Maybe you should ask nicely, too.”
“Fuck off,” Gerard mutters, lighting another smoke. “Um. Sorry about that, my brother’s kind of a...”
“Don’t worry about it,” Frank says awkwardly, shifting around on the cold concrete. He should get up and walk around, do a few stretches. Instead, he stays frozen where he is. “So, uh, where’s your wife tonight?”
Gerard’s quiet then, for so long that Frank reasons that Gerard didn’t hear him. “Hey, Gee,” Pete says then, from where he’s suddenly towering over them. He spares Frank a look that feels… unpleasant. Frank isn’t going to say anything about whatever he saw upstairs, he hopes Pete understood as much. “I’m not feeling a hundred percent. I’m gonna head off.”
Gerard straightens up, looking immediately worried. He puts his cigarette out and gets off the ground. “I’ll come with you.”
“Nah,” Pete says, rubbing Gerard’s shoulder in a strangely intimate gesture. “I’m just gonna sleep it off. I’m fine, promise. Just a little off.”
“Alright,” Gerard concedes, pulling Pete into a tight hug. “I’ll catch a ride with someone else. Call me in the morning, okay?”
“Sure.” Pete glances back down at Frank, and Frank can't help but think again that Pete’s still unnerved by what happened upstairs. It’s none of his business, really isn’t. "You two have a good night."
"Feel better," Gerard calls to his retreating back, before bringing his attention back to Frank. "Sorry, what were we talking about before all of these interruptions?"
“How Jigglypuff is the Hufflepuff of Pokémon?” Frank suggests, grinning a little. “I can give you a ride home if you want. I don’t mind.”
Gerard seems to hesitate for the smallest moment, sucks his bottom lip into his mouth and clears his throat, then nods. “Yeah, thanks.”
“Oh, man,” Frank says enthusiastically, moving his beautiful, inked hands in gestures that feel exaggeratedly large. Gerard’s realizing that Frank talks with his whole body when he’s at ease, and it seems so incongruous with the strangely docile person he’s been seeing at meetings. “I swear, the first time I saw that movie, I had this like, life-changing experience, and I knew right away that I wanted to make monsters for movies. The special effects are fucking ridiculous.”
“And instead you chose nursing?” He’s leaning against the inside of the car door, his legs folded awkwardly in the tiny space inside Frank’s car where they’re still talking an hour after Frank pulled into Gerard’s driveway. The car’s still running, as though Frank is about to leave at any moment. "I guess there isn't necessarily that much difference between people and monsters.”
“Can't tell the two apart sometimes,” Frank says jokingly, though Gerard suspects he isn’t really joking. “I have so many horror stories from the hospital; I swear, people can be feral.”
“You’ll have to tell me over dinner one night.” He means for it to sound harmless, conversational, friendly, but it comes out like… something else. Frank must hear it, because he clears his throat and drums his fingers against the steering wheel and looks several kinds of awkward in response. “Um. I mean, whatever. Pizza or something. Ray and I do movie nights. And Mikey. Sometimes. Weekends and that.”
What the fuck is he even saying.
“Yeah, sure,” Frank says, not casually in the slightest. He looks at his speedometer, most likely checking the time. “Um. I should go. Early morning thing.”
Right. Shit. “I had fun,” he says cheerfully. Calm, calm, calm. End it on a platonic note, make jokes, reign it in. “You’re not terrible company.”
Frank scoffs, turning a nervous grin at him. “Fuck you, ‘not terrible company.’”
"Just saying, I've had worse."
“Sure...” Frank rubs his thumb against his steering wheel. "Um. You should go inside, I’m sure your wife is wondering where you are."
“Uh, yeah,” Gerard says, hand on the door handle as he considers correcting him. “Thanks for the ride. And for hanging out. I had... fun.”
“Me, too.” Frank’s smile fades, something else taking its place. Something warm, dangerous. Something that hints at decisions Gerard would regret in the morning.
Gerard unlocks his front door with uncoordinated, rushing hands and slips inside without looking back. He leans heavily against the door once it’s locked, taking a few necessary breaths deep into his lungs. He listens to Frank’s car backing out of the driveway. Frank’s been clean for all of two seconds; this is not happening. There are bulletholes and blood and boundaries; this is not happening.
There are keys still in his hand, and he could so easily get some booze to calm his nerves, finally take the edge off… Bandit’s sleeping at his mom’s and he could pick her up in the afternoon, say he had to finish a commission. No one would need to know.
He texts Pete instead. Hey, hope you’re okay. Call me in the morning.
He texts Grant before he loses his nerve. I'm about to fuck everything up, can we talk?
Gerard gets a noseful of familiar cologne as Grant brushes past him and into the hallway of his house the next night. He seems so much taller than Gerard remembers, wide and imposing and safe.
“Kid asleep?” Grant asks as he divests himself of his coat. He drops it into Gerard’s arms, although the coat rack is right there. Gerard takes a steadying breath and decides to pick his battles. “I was hoping to see the little nugget. I made her a present.”
“She’s spending the night at Jimmy and Chantal’s.” Gerard accepts what Grant hands him, a hand drawn comic book titled The Underwater Adventures of Lady B and the Squid Monkey. Gerard is always so immensely grateful to see how much love the world has for his daughter. “Grant, she’s six. This thing is going to give her nightmares.”
“Give her some credit,” Grant says nonchalantly as he makes his way into the house. “She’s her father’s daughter, after all.”
Gerard flicks through the volume as he follows him. It’s incredible work that must have taken him ages, full of mutant underwater creatures and stunning renditions of his daughter as a superhero. He wonders when Grant drew this, if it's been completed since Gerard texted him or whether he's been hanging on to it for months. “This is going to give me nightmares. Why does the monkey have tentacles for eyes? How is this appropriate for children?”
“Oh, shush,” Grant says as he settles on the couch. “Make me a cuppa, please. Darjeeling with honey and lemon if you have it. And I wouldn’t mind a bikkie.”
“Like I’d forget your poncy tea order.“
Grant holds his gaze for a few long moments, as though he’s testing the waters. “Watch your mouth, boy, or I’ll slap the sass right out of it.”
Gerard responds the way he always has to Grant’s authority, with an automatic lowering of his shoulders. He remembers his place in this dynamic, remembers how safe it used to make him feel. But there are stronger boundaries to uphold now; he can’t trust Grant like he used to, not after the line he crossed. He turns on the kettle Grant bought him years ago. “Need I remind you that such language is entirely inappropriate when directed at someone who isn’t your sub?”
“You’ve never taken issue with my language before.”
“Yes, I have, you just conveniently forget every time.”
“Early onset dementia, I’m afraid.”
“Early onset douchebag, more like,” Gerard puts the bowl of hobnobs and jaffa cakes down beside Grant’s cup of tea. It’s a pain in the ass getting to the little shop in Hillside that sells British biscuits, but it’s worth it every time for the pleased smile on Grant’s face. “Would the gentleman like anything else?”
“Darling,” Grant says fondly, patting the cushion beside himself as though Gerard’s a trained puppy. “Sit.”
Gerard settles on the next cushion down, at a safer distance, and brings his mug of coffee to his mouth. “Thanks for coming over. I appreciate it.”
“Anytime, love,” Grant says, bringing a knee up under himself and angling his body towards Gerard’s. He dips a hobnob in his cup of tea and eats it in one bite. Gerard doesn’t know if that’s a Scottish thing or a Grant thing. “Now, are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
Gerard takes a long moment to consider his words. “Nothing” would be a lie, “I don’t know” would be a cop out and “I don’t want to talk about it” would result in Grant calling him a coward and bullying him into finding the words. “I didn’t want to be alone,” he tries instead. “I’ve been feeling… off.”
“Off,” Grant repeats. He looks Gerard over, as though that would tell him anything. "How bad is it?"
"Not that bad. Not yet."
"Right. So what do you want from me?”
“I’m not the Red Cross, love. What do you want from me?”
Gerard swallows, still unsure of what to do with all the words in his mouth. “I just need a breather. Just a little… just a little help.”
“Do you want to talk it out? Do you want me to sit with you until the cravings pass? Do you want me to take you over my knee like a naughty schoolgirl? I need specifics.”
“Watch it,” Gerard hisses, feeling hot all over with embarrassment and… well. Things he won’t name. "You're not my Dom anymore."
The slightest smirk tugs at one corner of Grant's mouth, just enough for Gerard to know he isn't fooling either of them. "If you say so."
"I believe I did warn you about mouthing off.” Grant takes a slow sip of his tea, swallows and licks his lips. “Are you wearing pretty little silk panties for me?"
"Does intimidating people into submission make you feel good about yourself?"
"Does putting up the pretence of a fight make you feel better about eventually caving in?"
"You truly are a sadist."
"True," Grant admits. He reaches for Gerard’s hand and Gerard links their fingers together even though he shouldn’t and then he squeezes Grant’s fingers tightly because it’s been so long and he needs it so bad. "But I'm also your friend. You look like you could use a friend."
“You mean a beating.”
"Possibly." Grant pulls Gerard closer by their linked hands, flush against him. “If that’s what you want from me. Now, tell me what you want or I’ll have to improvise.”
Gerard rests his forehead against Grant’s. They know how to do this, he just needs to let go and let his body remember. He reaches down to undo the buttons of his fly. “Don’t fuck me,” he whispers. “Even if I ask for it."
"Darling," Grant admonishes gently, stroking Gerard’s cheek with a tenderness that makes Gerard wince and want to drop to his knees for him at the same time. "I never do. I know your limits."
Gerard explicitly doesn’t point out that he knew his limits back then and still chose to kiss him. Grant's fingers trace Gerard’s jawbone, his adam’s apple, his collarbones, then skate down his stomach and stop at the waistband of his jeans. “Safeword.”
“Still eggplant,” Gerard breathes, and Grant immediately pulls him across his lap, forces his face into the couch cushions and roughly yanks his jeans halfway down his thighs. He stops suddenly and Gerard squeezes his eyes shut, face flaming in humiliation as Grant strokes his strong fingers over the pink silk panties.
“Not your Dom anymore, huh?” Grant says huskily, running his fingers between the silk and Gerard’s flesh, over the unbruised and unmarred pale skin of his ass. “I hope you don’t plan on sitting down for the next few days.”
“I’ll stand,” Gerard breathes, shuddering as Grant raises goosebumps with his fingers.
Grant fists the hair at the back of his neck and pushes his face harder into the rough texture of his couch, limiting his air supply and already making him feel lightheaded. "Sorry, what was that?"
“I said I’ll stand."
“Didn’t quite hear you.”
“I'll stand. Sir.”
It’s strange, seeing Grant in his bed again after all this time, occupying the side of the bed that once was his. It was Lindsey’s first, then Grant’s, then Pete’s. Sometimes it’s Bandit’s, and it was Mikey’s when he would stay over before Kristin. Most nights it’s vacant. Most nights it's lonely.
“So, what’s been going on?” Grant asks softly, pulling the covers higher over Gerard’s naked shoulder. “Not that I didn’t enjoy our little scene.”
Gerard’s dopey, exhausted, coming down from endorphins, adrenaline and oxytocin. “I’m getting tired again,” he says, burying the side of his face into his pillow. Grant brushes a lock of hair out of his hooded, unfocused eyes and he lets them drift shut. "Tired of fighting it. Tired of hurting all the time."
“I see. I hear things are on the rocks between you and Pete.”
"Who told you that? We’re fine. He's been clean almost a year.”
"It's a small community, Gerard. Word travels. And I'm not talking about your sponsorship arrangements."
“We’re not dating,” Gerard sighs, irritated at the need to have this conversation over and over again. He tries to hold on to his headspace, focusing on the feeling of bruises blooming on his damp skin and how everything feels soft and calm and heavy and painless. “He and I are doing what you and I did.”
“And you and I did what we did until one of us developed feelings for the other, so… what’s to say that isn’t happening again with him?”
“I don’t have feelings for Pete.”
“And he doesn’t have feelings for you? There’s a reason he hates me, you know.”
“He doesn’t hate you.”
“Fine,” Grant says, sounding resigned. He clicks his tongue a few times before carefully saying, “I’ve been working with someone new for a couple of weeks now. I thought you should know.”
“Oh,” Gerard says, surprised. He hasn’t heard about Grant sponsoring anyone since they called it quits. It’s petty that he feels jealous; Grant was never his in that way and Gerard has no right to feel anything about him moving on with someone else. “Good for you. How’s it going?”
They are carefully chosen words on Gerard’s part, words that give Grant leeway to talk about his new sponsee while maintaining the illusion of anonymity. It’s a polite pretense they all keep up—as Grant pointed out, it’s a small community and chances are he’ll know who Grant’s referring to.
“Really well. He’s putting his life back together after a traumatic lower back injury and an accompanying emotional breakdown. We’re working on his physical health, on reconnecting him with his friends and family, on finding a new job, and on managing his mental health in better ways, now that he’s not using anymore. He’s making incredible progress already.”
Gerard takes a few slow, calming breaths. His headspace has dissolved into thin air at the realization of who’s been kneeling for Grant. “Is he subbing for you?”
“More or less. He can’t take much pain yet, but what he can take, he takes so beautifully and so bravely and he’s naturally submissive. He’s a pleasure to work with.”
An immediate chill goes through Gerard at the look on Grant’s face while he talks about him. He can’t help but feel a sudden, violent resentment towards them both. “Jesus, Grant. Are you sponsoring him or fucking him?”
Grant frowns. “What’s this? Are you jealous?”
“Answer the question.”
“Of course I’m not sleeping with him. Not that he’d mind, I don’t think. But you know how I feel about separating work from play.” There’s a moment there where the caning and the crying and the aborted kiss fill the empty room. “You were an aberration, of course. That was never planned.”
They haven’t talked about the last time, and Gerard isn’t going to let them. “We should get some sleep.”
"It's a small community, darling, word does travel. I heard the two of you have hit it off."
Gerard squeezes his eyes shut. “We should sleep,” he repeats. “I’m tired.”
"I see. Is he aware that you've taken a fancy to him?"
“I’m not talking to you about this. I want to sleep.”
Grant tucks the covers over his shoulder again, even though they haven’t moved since he did it earlier. "Then sleep."
He can’t sleep, of course, and Grant doesn’t appear to be sleeping either. The bed shifts not long after, and Gerard listens to Grant dress carefully, taking great care to be quiet. He hears him shuffle down the stairs. He hears him lock the door behind himself and realizes that Grant’s still carrying Gerard’s house key on his keychain.
The next morning there’s a note on his kitchen counter. Don’t worry, I won’t tell on you. I’m here if you need me. Tell B I said hello.
The first time Frank sees Gerard speak at NA, it’s like all the air gets sucked out of the room. He goes last, after Ray has talked about first dates, first kisses and raging butterflies, Mikey’s talked about moving in with his girlfriend, Frank has talked about his plans to make amends to the people he’s wronged, Brendon has talked about finally coming out of the closet to his religious parents, and Ryan, who’s attending his first meeting, has both confessed to being an addict and then changed his mind about it thrice it in the span of mere minutes. Frank expects Gerard to move into reading and then prayer, but instead he says, “I’m Gerard and I’m an addict.”
Frank’s head whips around so fast he almost strains his neck.
“I’ve been really struggling lately,” Gerard says, swallowing thickly. He rests his elbows on his thighs and doesn’t look at anyone else in the room. “More than usual. I keep driving past the liquor store on Union Avenue and almost pulling over. I don’t know how long I can keep my hands straight on the steering wheel anymore. I know it’s not true, but it feels like if I just had a few drinks and something to shut my brain off, just enough to take the edge off… then this pressure in my chest would ease up a little.”
He rubs his sternum again, the way he did when he told Frank about band aids and bulletholes when they took Sweet Pea to the park.
“I feel so far away from everyone in my life, like they can get to here and no further.” He holds a hand about eight inches from his chest. “It’s like it physically hurts if someone comes closer. I just can’t. I’m scared shitless and I wish I could, but. I just can’t.”
Ray shifts uneasily next to him and Gerard glances sideways at him. Frank’s seen Grant speak a dozen times, but maybe Ray’s never seen Gerard speak either. Gerard fingers his wedding ring. “She’ll have been dead for four years next month and some days it feels like just yesterday that she was still with me. And then some days I can’t even remember the sound of her voice. I wrote down all these things about her when she died, these little quirks of hers, these things she would do that I didn’t want to forget. I read that list sometimes and I can barely remember them anymore.”
Ray reaches across to rest a hand between Gerard’s shoulder blades. Gerard pulls in a hitching breath and closes his eyes. It’s a break from convention; no one ever touches someone while they’re sharing, no matter how upset they might be. With the exception of Pete’s interruption of Patrick at Frank’s first meeting and Ray's solicitation of hot sisters, the only interaction he has ever seen during sharing is the extension of a box of tissues if someone’s crying.
Gerard isn’t crying though, just sitting quietly with his eyes closed. “I’m not ready to move on,” he says gruffly, shaking his head. “I can’t. Not if it means losing more of her than I already have. That’s all I— Thanks.”
Silence stretches again after that, a heavy oppressive thing that no one seems to know how to break, until Brendon says, “I’ll do tonight’s reading.”
Ray smiles gratefully at him and Brendon reads some words that Frank recognizes, but can’t focus on. He can’t tear his eyes away from Gerard, from where he’s hunched over himself like he’s barely keeping it together. Frank can’t help but feel a bottomless sadness for him, for the wedding band that suddenly means something different to what Frank thought it did, for his daughter, for the bullet wound that keeps gaping.
Then after sadness comes anger, a sudden surge of something ugly that makes him want to slam Gerard against a wall and call him a liar. He hasn't even had the fucking decency to tell him in private. Frank doesn’t know what shows in his face, but Mikey’s worrying his bottom lip and looking at Frank like he’s doing something worth looking at. He gathers his satchel and jacket, needing to be anywhere but here. He's about to get up when Gerard meets his gaze and holds it. Frank doesn't understand what it means, but his satchel drops to the floor and his jacket stays draped over his lap and his legs don't move.
He's still pissed and confused and feeling vaguely humiliated when his alarm goes off the next morning. He's seeing Grant later, but getting out of bed before then seems too big of a task. He should walk the dog, do his stretches, cross exercises off on his spreadsheet, shower, shave, eat breakfast, apply for work. Instead he reaches for his laptop and watches episodes of Battlestar Galactica that he’s already seen a dozen times. He knows what it does to his back to lie down all day, but the alternative seems impossible.
His phone beeps sometime in the early afternoon and it makes him wince. He's not ready to talk confessions or apologies or whatever else Gerard would want to say to him. He grabs his phone from the nightstand and flops back against the mattress. He’ll read, and process, and probably won’t reply.
He's surprised to note it's a number he doesn't recognize. Hey it's Mikey, got ur number out of Gee's phone. U ok?
He's just not in a good place rn
I get it, I just don't get why he lied to me
Dont be thick
Frank doesn't have an answer for that, but another bubble appears from Mikey. He's messed up and ur still getting clean, scary combo
I wouldn't hurt him
I'd be more worried about the opposite
His phone rings suddenly with another number he doesn't recognize. Another person wanting to check on him, perhaps. He wonders how obvious he actually was last night. "Hi, this is Frank."
"Mr Iero," a woman's voice says on the other end. "I'm calling from the Passaic Sexual Health Clinic about a job you recently applied for with us. We were hoping you'd be able to come in for an interview on Friday morning."
Gerard blinks slowly, disoriented, feeling heavy and sluggish like he's coming out of a coma. The room's still dark - thank God for blackout curtains - but he can see the outline of a cheerful little face hovering over his own. He smiles despite himself, pulling her into his arms. “Peanut,” he murmurs as she worms her way under the covers. “Daddy’s sleeping.”
"Daddy was meant to pick her up from Jimmy and Chantal's four hours ago."
Gerard lifts his head off the pillow and blinks again, catching sight of Mikey in the doorway. His expression's blank, but there's the slightest line of tension between his brows. Mikey Way's version of worried. "Shoot," Gerard mutters, reaching blindly for his phone while Bandit growls like a bear and bites his ankle. "What time is it?"
"Just after six pm," Mikey says, uncharitably flicking the light switch on without warning. "What's going on?"
Gerard swallows back an expletive and sits up to wipe sleep out of his eyes. "Nothing," he mutters irritatedly, squinting against the blinding light of his iPhone screen. He has eleven missed calls. Shit. "I'm just tired."
"Right. I called you, like, five times. Chantal's been trying to get a hold of you since two thirty."
"I'm sorry, I slept through it." He catches an actual frown on Mikey's face and almost rolls his eyes. "I didn't take anything. I'm legitimately tired."
"Tired or depressed, Gee?"
"Hey, you?" Gerard lifts his duvet and grins at the little monster gnawing at his leg. He ruffles her hair and narrowly avoids having his pinkie bitten off. "Can you go draw for a little while? I need to talk to Uncle Mikes about grown-up stuff."
She sighs dramatically and rolls off the bed. “Don’t talk for too long,” she tells Mikey, briefly hugging his thigh. “You have to play Mario Kart with me before dinner.”
“Sure thing, B.” Mikey pulls the door almost-closed once she’s gone, then takes a seat at the foot of the bed. "What's going on, dude?"
Gerard slumps back against his pillows, pushing his hair off his face. He needs a shower. He needs a cigarette. He needs a fucking drink. "Nothing. Just. The usual, you know. It'll go away soon, it always does."
"It doesn’t always go away. Sometimes you slip and shit gets all shitty and you scare the living daylights out of all of us, including your six year old daughter. Get mom to make an appointment for you to talk to someone."
“I'm just gonna sleep it off."
Mikey sighs, taking off his glasses to rub at his eyes. "Gee, come on. You need to talk to someone about what’s going on with you. And with Pete."
"For fuck’s sake, Mikes. It's not like that—"
"That’s bullshit and you know it is. He hasn't been around, right?"
"He's been busy."
"Yeah. With Patrick."
Gerard suspected as much, but it still makes something ugly clench in his chest to hear the words spoken out loud. "That's his decision."
"But you think it's a shitty one."
"I think it's an unsafe one. For both of them."
"He's being careful. He wouldn't do anything to hurt Patrick."
Gerard sighs loudly. "You can be as careful as you fucking want, but getting romantically involved with someone in the first year of your recovery is a terrible idea. Getting involved with another addict is just courting disaster."
"That's not always true,” Mikey argues, raising his voice in response. “Getting involved with you saved him. Getting involved with Kristin saved me, and no matter how irresponsible you think I’m being with her, this is what works for me. When I have a hard day and think about using, all I have to do is look at her and the way she looks at me, like I’m important to her, and that craving disappears. Pete really fucking cares about you, you know? If you had just given him—"
"It's not like that between—"
"Bullshit," Mikey snaps, sounding furious now. "You do realize he’s my best friend, right? That he talks to me about shit? He’s been so fucking gone for you, for so long, and you’ve just been a complete dick to him in return. You have to stop pushing people away. You’re making yourself lonely.”
"Don't you want to be better than 'fine' for once? Ask Frank out to dinner. He’d say yes if you asked, I know he would."
"Stay out of this, Mikes. It’s more complicated than that."
“What the fuck does that even mean?” Mikey sighs, undeterred. "Ask him out to dinner. Just dinner. Walk him to his front door and kiss him good night if he's into it. Baby steps."
"Not what? Not ready? Not recovered enough? Not going to date ever again?"
"—not what he needs right now."
"You don't get to decide what other people need. He's a grown up."
"He’s vulnerable, the last thing he needs is to get involved with someone. Especially someone as fucked up as me."
Mikey presses the tips of his fingers against his eyelids, dislodging his glasses. "You said that to Pete, didn't you? About Patrick?"
"Yeah, I did."
"Well, you should've known better. He's never been good at taking orders outside of... you know. Dungeons or whatever."
"It wasn't an order."
"I'll never understand what the fuck you two do with each other. Look, I'm gonna make some coffee and order pizza. Have a shower and put on some clean clothes, you stink."
“Hey Pete, it’s me. I, uh, haven’t heard from you for a while. I left a few messages. Mikey says you’re doing okay, but… I’m here if you need me, okay? Call if you need me.”
He sits in silence afterwards, chewing on the words he can’t say and shouldn’t say and wishes weren’t swelling in his mouth and filling his throat and cutting off his air supply.
This is not how this is meant to go, this is not what their arrangement is about. Gerard is Pete’s sponsor, only that and not the other way around. And yet here he’s sitting with words that shouldn’t be in his mouth, but are.
Please call me back because I need you.
He opens another text message, reckless and risky and unplanned, and types in Frank’s name.
Movie night tomorrow? Probably something scary and vegetarian tacos
Frank stops in the middle of the supermarket aisle, hand frozen on his trolley. They watch movies over the phone sometimes, when neither of them can sleep, but watching them together in person seems like a whole other beast. He wonders if Gerard is a vegetarian, or if it’s a special dispensation made for Frank. He wonders if Gerard would let him crash if he’s too tired to drive home. That would awesome. Should I bring anything?
Dessert maybe? We’re not fancy, don’t stress
We. Plural. Oh, right.
They’re halfway through Silence of the Lambs when the doorbell rings. It’s a horribly unhelpful movie, full of quiet scenes and whispered dialogue and nowhere near enough noise to distract Frank from his own breathing or his erratic heartbeat. It’s nowhere near distracting enough to counteract his acute awareness that Gerard’s barely a few feet away from him.
Ray’s been weirdly quiet all night. Frank has a strange sense of being chaperoned on the most awkward non-date of his life.
There’s an immediate commotion when Gerard answers the door, an immediate rush of hushed voices and what sounds like outright sobbing. Pete walks blindly into the living room, his face flushed and wet with tears, and his fingers slip on his chest as he somehow fails to undo the buttons on his jacket. He’s taking big, gasping, wet breaths. “They took him to the hospital in an ambulance. My phone died. I don’t—”
He gives a start when he spots Frank and Ray, and turns like he’s making a run for it, before Gerard catches him with an arm on his elbow. “Hey, no, stay. Hey. Calm down.”
“My fucking phone died halfway through the call,” Pete says frantically, pulling it out his back pocket with violently shaking hands. It drops to the floor and he moves to grab it, but Gerard doesn’t let him. “I don’t know what happened.”
Ray grabs the phone and jogs upstairs, probably to get a phone charger, and Frank reaches to mute the TV. “We’ll figure it out.” Gerard is saying softly as he undoes Pete’s jacket with nimble fingers. “You’re just going to sit down and breathe and we’ll figure out what happened.”
“He OD’d, I know he did, he was—He was having a rough day and he hasn’t been sleeping and he was supposed to come over but he wasn’t feeling well—I should have known—Joe called a few hours after that and my fucking shitbrick of a fucking phone—”
“Hey,” Gerard says again, with that note of absolute authority that Gerard used with Pete at Frank’s first meeting. Pete’s still panting, but his body’s gone strangely slack at the command. “You’re going to sit down. And you’re going to breathe.”
Pete shakes his head, another wave of sobs spilling out of his mouth. He doubles over on himself, holding his stomach as he heaves for breath. “What if he OD’d? I can’t—fuck, I can’t—Gee—I can’t—what if he—what if I made him relapse—what if—”
Gerard tackles Pete to his knees and wraps a hand firmly around Pete’s throat. He squeezes, that much is apparent from the choked sound that escapes Pete’s mouth. Pete strangely doesn’t fight him, just yields under Gerard’s hand and lets him cut off his air supply. He coughs and takes gasping breaths when Gerard lets go, and then stiffens again when Gerard’s hand clenches once more. Gerard does it over and over again, until Pete’s breathing pattern has leveled out.
Frank can tell the exact moment that Pete breaks, like Gerard’s pressed pause on the speed metal song of his heart and thrust him into utter silence. His head drops suddenly back against Gerard’s shoulder like he’s just had his throat slit, face slack and mouth agape. His body leans heavily against Gerard’s. Nothing moves. The only evidence Frank has that Gerard hasn’t actually killed him is the silent stream of tears running from the corner of his eyes into his sideburns, the whimper that escapes his parted lips.
Gerard whispers something into his ear and Pete's hand comes up to squeeze Gerard's, where it's still wrapped around his throat.
Ray plugs the phone into a socket by the TV and watches the proceedings with a mildly concerned look on his face, but he’s not turning away or giving them privacy or intervening, so maybe this isn’t the first time he’s seen them do this. Like maybe this is a thing that they do. Like maybe Pete is yet another thing Gerard has lied to Frank about.
The phone gives a sound to indicate it’s turned on again. Ray looks at it for a while, his thumb moving in a way that indicates he’s reading messages. “He’s fine,” he says, running a hand through his curls in what looks like sheer relief. “He had a seizure from some sort of medication mix-up. He’s getting some IV fluids and they’re going to discharge him after that. He wasn’t high and he’s going to be completely fine.”
Pete folds forwards, crying again, but he's no longer hyperventilating. “Thank fuck. Oh my god. Thank fuck.”
Frank never heard him come in, but Mikey’s leaning against the wall with a set of keys in his hand. “I thought I’d find you here,” he says, tapping the tip of one key against the inside of his palm. “Joe said your phone cut out. That thing is an unreliable piece of shit; I’m taking you to get a new one.”
Pete sits back and rubs his face, seemingly pulling himself back together again. “Take me to the hospital first.”
“Car’s right outside,” Mikey says, reaching out a hand to help Pete off the floor. Mikey gives him a big hug once he’s vertical, kisses the side of his face and pats his back hard. “It’s gonna be okay, dude. Go wait in the car, I’ll get Kleenex or something.”
Ray hands Mikey Pete’s phone and Gerard hands over Pete’s jacket. Gerard says, “I’ll come with you,” but Mikey shakes his head sternly, presses a hand to Gerard's chest and says, “No, you won’t.”
“Gee,” Ray says into the silence that stretches once the door’s shut and the car’s driven off.
“I need a cigarette,” Gerard says, ducking out of the French doors without a jacket. Frank watches him light a cigarette with his back turned to them, and thinks about how cold it actually is out there. He still doesn’t understand what the fuck just happened with Pete, except that… Except that it’s another thing Gerard could have told him in any of their long, sleepy conversations over the phone—and yet, chose not to.
Frank glances at the screen again, at the melted tub of ice cream on the coffee table, at the heap of jigsaw puzzle pieces on the floor. “I’m just gonna… go,” he says. “He’s obviously… I mean. I should just go.”
Ray’s chewing his lips, considering him. “It’s complicated,” he says delicately. “He and Pete… they’re not together, or anything. It’s just a thing. A thing that’s… ending, whether Gee realizes that or not.”
“He lied to me.”
“Technically, he just didn’t tell you.”
Frank frowns at him, incredulous. “Semantics and bullshit.”
“Hey, Frank,” Ray calls after him. “There’s a reason he didn’t tell you.”
“Sure,” Frank allows with an angry shrug. He watches Gerard’s turned back on the back porch. “That reason is that he’s a coward.”
You didn’t have to leave, Gerard texts him sometime after Frank’s had a hot shower and gotten into bed. He’s awake, spooning a snoring Sweet Pea. She likes to sleep smack in the middle of the bed, and he never has the heart to move her once she’s asleep. She’s a hundred years old and needs all the sleep she can get.
When Frank doesn’t respond, Gerard texts, There’s a documentary on wildebeest if you want to watch it. I can call you?
Frank doesn’t give a fucking shit about wildebeest. Why didn’t you tell me about Pete?
Same reason you didn’t tell me about Grant?
How do you know about Grant?
It’s a small community, word travels
Sweet Pea gives a snorting whine when Frank pulls her closer.
Pete comes by unannounced sometime after midnight on a Thursday night, letting himself in with his copy of Gerard’s key. Gerard meets him in the hallway, relieved like he always is to see him after a period of radio silence. It’s been longer than usual, too long. He reaches for him out of pure instinct—already itching to give him what he needs and put him back together again.
Pete evades his grasp however, setting a distance between them that’s never been there before. “No, Gee,” he mutters, his voice barely a whisper. “Not this time.”
He’s standing in the middle of the hallway with both of his shoes and his jacket still on. Gerard wonders absurdly if he’s driven himself here or if there's a car waiting for him down the street, parked against the kerb with its engine still running.
“The book I was telling you about,” Pete says, handing over a thin volume of what looks like poetry. The cover reads Crush by Richard Siken and features a man wiping blood from his mouth.
“Thanks,” Gerard says, flicking idly through it. “I thought you weren’t going to give it to me after all.”
“Changed my mind." He hunches forwards and his hands dig deep into the pocket of his too-tight jeans. The heater’s been on all day, but he’s not undressing because he’s not staying. “Look...”
“Just spit it out.”
“We need to talk.”
The realization hits him like a shock to the system. It sucks the noise out of the room, deafening like the aftermath of a bomb going off. “You’re going with him, then?”
“I was always going to go with someone else,” Pete says, frowning like he’s surprised by Gerard’s reaction. "You made sure of that."
It’s harsh, but probably not untrue. “Yeah, okay.”
“I love you, Gee.” He says it softly, then leaves a pause after it, like something should go there. Like maybe he’s expecting Gerard to say something back. He shakes his head once it’s apparent that the silence won’t be interrupted. “But you and me… this isn’t working for me anymore.”
Pete leans in to kiss him, and for the first time, Gerard lets him. A sudden, unexpected, violent surge of emotions slam into him like a Molotov cocktail to the chest. Pete’s lips are soft and warm and it’s the first time Gerard’s wanted to reach for someone like this in the longest time. He wants to wrap his arms around Pete’s neck and pull him closer, pull him in, devour him, satiate the sudden hunger that’s raging through him. Wants to tackle him to the ground and fuck him on his hardwood floors until his knees bleed, until he’s lost command of language, until he’s a shuddering destroyed mess in Gerard’s arms. He wants to drop to his knees in front of him and beg him to stay. His fingers twitch and he almost does.
But Pete pulls away, and Gerard’s grateful for it. He leans his forehead against Gerard’s and exhales into the space between them.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Gerard whispers. “I just wasn’t ready.”
“I know you weren’t,” Pete says. “But you hurt me anyway, just like you hurt Grant.”
“Pete, I’m sorry.”
Pete shakes his head. “Just don’t hurt anyone else, okay? And stop hurting yourself.”
He’s crying again, and Gerard gets that they aren't funeral tears. They’re the tears you cry at your high school graduation, the tears that mean something is over and something else is about to start. He gets that this is the last time for them.
“Call Frank, okay?”
It’s not like that between us is on the tip of Gerard’s tongue, but he’s already lied enough to Pete. It’s like that, no matter how terrifying the thought is. It was like that with Pete, no matter how hard he tried to fight it. He nods, and Pete lets go of him. There’s a clink of metal against wood when he leaves his copy of Gerard’s house key on the dresser.
“Pete?” Gerard calls before Pete has the chance to slip out. “Make sure he takes good care of you.”
“I think that’s the point, Gee.” Pete gazes out of the door, to where a car is most likely parked out up the street with its engine still running. He smiles, warm and wide and for someone else. “I don’t think I need to be taken care of anymore.”
He’s still shuddering with aftershocks when he finally reaches for the book Pete gave him. He makes it through two pages before suspiciously googling the author. Of course the book’s inspired by the death of the author’s lover in 1991. Pete Wentz does not do subtle.
He flicks to page 20, the place where Pete originally decided he couldn’t give the book to Gerard. There are lines highlighted in yellow, like a worn college textbook.
You take her out into the rain and you fall in love with her
and she leaves you and you’re desolate.
You’re on your back in your undershirt, a broken man
on an ugly bedspread, staring at the water stains
on the ceiling.
you thought there would be
some logic, perhaps, something to pull it all together
but here we are in the weeds again,
here we are
in the bowels of the thing: your world doesn’t make sense.
You swallow a bottle of sleeping pills but they don’t work.
You go to work the next day pretending nothing happened.
Your co-workers ask
if everything’s okay and you tell them
you’re just tired.
And you’re trying to smile. And they’re trying to smile.
A man walks into a bar, you this time, and says:
Make it a double.
Then he reads page 29 and page 36 and page 41. The very last words on the very last page read We are all going forward. None of us are going back. Beside them, in Pete’s messy scrawl, is a handwritten it’s time, gee. xo pete.
He asks his friends to meet him at their usual diner across the Passaic River. It’s an old, grimy dive, but the food’s good and the jukebox plays the music their grandfathers played when they were kids. They’ve been coming since they were in high school, back when they were young and constantly hungover and in love with girls they’ve long since forgotten. It’s like going back in time when he walks inside, like nothing’s changed.
The hug Hambone gives him is awkward at best. “Shaun and Tim both had a thing,” he says apologetically, though Frank suspects it’s less of a “thing” and more of a residual hostility from when Frank dropped off the face of the earth, stopped taking their calls and quit the band without any explanation.
He knows Jamia tried to keep the peace between them for a while, heard her whispering excuses for him into the receiver before the phone stopped ringing altogether. “Shaun called again,” she’d whisper as she stroked his turned back in their bedroom, where their curtains were now permanently drawn. “They’re just worried about you.”
He’d stare at the orange bottles of pills on his nightstand and the guitar he couldn’t carry without blinding pain propped against the wall. He'd shrug her hand off his shoulder and pull his covers closer. “I don’t want to talk to anyone.”
She’d sigh, but understand, armed with a patience that would have been likely been endless if he hadn’t ended it by breaking her heart. “Get some sleep, babe. It’ll be better in the morning.”
They order coffee and greasy food and it takes a while, but he and Hambone find their way back to easy conversation. They talk about old times, mutual acquaintances, Tim’s newborn daughter, the graphic novel Shaun is pitching to Dark Horse Comics, the house Hambone’s helping his brother renovate in Glen Ridge. Frank asks about Jamia, and Hambone’s mouth twists in a way that suggests Frank won’t want to hear the answer. “You really fucked her over,” he says. “But that probably isn’t news to you.”
“No,” Frank sighs. “I know I fucked up a lot of things. I’m doing better now, though. I’m gonna ask her out to dinner or something, apologize to her, too.” He says it like he’s already apologized to Hambone, though he hasn’t really. He just doesn’t want to increase the awkwardness by spilling his guts when things are still weird between them. He hopes the implication is enough, for now. He hopes one day he can explain what happened, how the emptiness swelled in his chest like a black hole that sucked everything that had once mattered into oblivion. That he can use words like “depression” and "anxiety" and “addiction” and “I’m sorry.”
Hambone shakes his head firmly. “Nah, man. You should leave her alone for another few months. She’s not really over it yet.”
“So how’s your back?” Hambone asks in a carefully neutral tone. Frank knows they all thought he was overreacting by the end, that they lost their patience with him using his back as an excuse to miss practice or stand them up at social gatherings.
“Better,” Frank says, relieved that it’s not a lie. It has been feeling better. He’s been feeling better about it. Sometimes, when he’s on his knees on Grant’s floor, he doesn’t feel it at all. “I’m doing stuff to get over it. I think I just let it shut down my entire life, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. We all know.”
“Well, it’s better,” he says again, drumming his fingers anxiously on the rim of his coffee cup. “Um. Suburban Scum is playing at the Loop Lounge tonight. We could check them out if you want.”
Hambone looks surprised, giving a smile that immediately defuses the tension between them. “Yeah, that’d be awesome. They’re sick live. We can stay out of the mosh pit if you’re still, you know, dealing with your back. I mean, if you need to.”
Frank doesn’t expect the relief that surges through him, the way it spreads in his gut, the way pulls at his mouth. He hasn’t been to a show since before the accident. “Yeah, if you don’t mind.”
The Loop Lounge has been getting increasingly glossy over the years, punk and hardcore giving way to trance and pop on the stage and sound system, but it still feels like coming home. Frank goes to take a piss as soon as they get through the doors, running his wrists under cold water and breathing until the crowd outside seems less daunting. When he gets back to the floor, the opening band’s already started and Hambone hands him a beer. It’s open, and cold, and the conversation he should have about his newfound sobriety suddenly feels impossible.
“Frankie, hey.” Hambone nudges his arm after he’s stared at the bottle for what must be a few seconds too long. “You okay?”
“Yep,” Frank says, immediately downing a mouthful before he loses his nerve. He can have one beer without blowing it. Just one.
Except he can’t. They take turns buying rounds, sinking beers down faster than their livers can process. Things feel easy again, lighter, like the shit that happened no longer matters the way it did back then. “I’ll talk to Tim and Shaun,” Hambone shouts into Frank’s ear over the music, his breath sour with beer and smokes and shots of Fireball. “They’ll come around, okay? We’ll hang out.”
Hambone was right, the band is insane and the first song goes off like a bomb. The venue is packed full of sweaty, thrashing bodies. Then Hambone slips some guy a few bills and pushes two pills into Frank’s hands and two into his own mouth. Frank barely hesitates before his right hand moves from forehead to sternum, left shoulder to right shoulder. He puts the pills on his tongue like they’re sacramental bread, and then chases them down with a mouthful of cheap beer. It’s an old ritual.
At some point in the ensuing haze of colors, smoke and noise, a hand grips his shoulder and Frank instinctively leans into the touch. The body is warm and solid and Frank opens his eyes to see Dr. Andy’s face hovering inches above his own.
“Hey, man,” he shouts, turning alert eyes on Frank’s. “You good?”
“So good,” Frank answers, smiling a smile that radiates from the depths of his chest, where all the sunshine in the world is humming. He can’t stop dancing, touching, moving, can’t stop running his hands over things, people, jackets, cheeks, throats, skin. “Amazing.”
“What are you on?” Andy asks, holding Frank’s wrists still to keep his hands from roaming. Frank needs something against his palms again, something soft and warm and pliant, anything. “Coke? Pills?”
“I don’t know.”
Andy sighs. “You smoke, right? Come outside with me.”
Frank lets him take his hand and drag him through the crowd. He bumps into bodies, bodies bump into him, there are smells and sweat and he reaches for hands and stomachs as he brushes past people on the way out. He closes his eyes and lets himself be moved, until they come to an abrupt halt. Frank opens his eyes to see arms crossed over a slender chest, black nail polish, a wedding ring and a cigarette poised inches from a crooked mouth.
“Gee,” Frank says, sunshine shuddering through his bones at the sight of him. He can’t even remember what he’s been upset with him for. “You’re here.”
“Frank.” Gerard glances soberly at Andy, takes a drag of his cigarette and exhales smoke through his nostrils like a raging cartoon bull. “Can you please get him a glass of water?”
Andy leaves and Frank leans forward to fist the leather where Gerard’s jacket is unzipped. “Gee,” he whispers again, leaning in to feel his warmth. He presses his forehead to Gerard’s chin. “You’re here.”
“So are you,” Gerard says, his palm soft at the back of Frank’s head. “Are you here by yourself?”
“Hambone went home with that girl. You’re so beautiful.”
“So are you,” Gerard mutters. He pries Frank off of himself and angles his cigarette for Frank to take a drag. Frank fills his lungs with sweet, delicious nicotine and tips his head back to release the smoke above his head. His head spins something fierce and he slumps forward against Gerard again to stay upright. “Can I take you home?”
“Fuck yes,” Frank mutters, pressing his knee between Gerard’s legs and grinding up against him.“You can take me against the bathroom stall first if you want. I can be quiet.”
“Knock it off,” Gerard sighs, pushing at Frank enough to set some distance between them. “Where’s your jacket? It’s freezing.”
“It’s so warm. Can’t you feel it?”
“I can feel that you’re going to get pneumonia,” Gerard says, sliding his own jacket off his shoulders and onto Frank’s. Frank takes the opportunity to get close to him again, brushing his open mouth against the stubble on Gerard’s jaw. He tastes salty. Delicious. “I said knock it off.”
Another body comes up behind Frank and a glass of ice cold water is tipped into his mouth. He keeps his hands busy on Gerard’s chest until Gerard takes both of his wrists in his hands and fuck, that just makes it so much better because now he can strain against his hold and Gerard is so strong that he could hold Frank down while he fucked him and roughed him up and made him take it.
“Whoa.” Curly hair and a frowning face come into view. Frank leans into Gerard again and smiles up at Ray. He’s beautiful, too. “What happened to him?”
“He’s just fucked up,” Gerard says, taking a set of keys from Andy’s hands and pushing at Frank’s hip where Frank’s rubbing up against him. He’s hard, painfully hard, and he can’t wait to be on his back under Gerard, ankles over his shoulders while Gerard buries himself deep inside of him. “Get a ride home with Joe, yeah? I’ll drop your car off in the morning.”
"Sure. You want us to come with you?”
“Nah,” Gerard says, peeling himself and Frank off the wall. “It’s just a fifteen minute drive.”
Gerard links his fingers with Frank’s and pulls him through the club again. Frank doesn't touch anyone else on the way out.
Frank can’t stop moving the entire car ride home. Everything is so soft and warm and every single movement sets off millions of electric sparks that resonate in his head, his heart, his groin, his fingertips. He tries to touch Gerard at first, to kiss his neck and stroke the inside of his thigh and his fleshy stomach and to reach for his belt buckle, but Gerard eventually threatens to pull over and relegate him to the backseat if he doesn’t lay off.
He compromises by letting Frank fold his hand over Gerard’s, where it rests over the gear knob of Andy’s manual transmission. Frank slides his fingertips over the webbing between his fingers, under his palm, over the pulsepoint on his wrist. He wants to drop to his knees to lick his palm and swallow his fingers deep into his throat and gag himself on them, but he can be good until they get home.
Gerard pulls up into the driveway they sat in after Ray and Bob’s party. He gives Frank a stern look. “I need you to keep it together while I pay the babysitter, okay? Stay in the car.”
He waits for Frank’s nod of compliance before heading into the house. Time disappears for a little while until Gerard’s face is hovering over Frank’s again and his hands are undoing Frank’s seat belt. His lips are pink and beautiful and so close, but Gerard pulls back when Frank tries to close the distance between them. “Inside, come on.”
Gerard locks the door behind them and Frank slumps heavily against the closest wall, closing his eyes and soaking up the sunshine. He feels Gerard undo the laces of his chucks and Frank reaches down to run his hands through Gerard’s messy red locks. He pulls a little and Gerard curses under his breath. “Thought about this,” Frank murmurs.
“You thought about me taking your shoes off?” Gerard says incredulously, frowning up at him.
Frank shakes his head, biting his lip. He strokes the side of Gerard’s temple with his thumb. So beautiful. “Thought about you on your knees for me.”
“I’m not on my knees for you, I’m just on my knees.”
“Prettiest thing I’ve ever fucking seen. Hands down.”
“Great,” Gerard sighs, tossing Frank’s shoes aside and standing back up. “I’m not going to blow you in my hallway, just so that’s clear.”
“So, blow me somewhere else,” Frank says, pulling Gerard close by his belt and grinding up against him. Gerard hisses and braces himself against the wall, his brow furrowed as he looks down between them. “Let me sit on your face while I suck you, then bend me over and shove your dick in me and fuck me until it hurts.”
Gerard’s eyes snap back up to meet his. “Jesus. You are so fucked up right now.”
“So?” Frank smirks, reaching down between their legs. “Fuck, you’re hard. Big.”
Gerard immediately grips his wrist so hard it steals the breath from Frank’s lungs. “Don’t do that.”
“Why not? You want me to. I’ll make it so good for you, suck you slow and good and ride you until your eyes roll back into your head.”
“Fuck,” Gerard curses emphatically and that’s about all Frank can take. He manhandles him backwards and forces him flush against the opposite wall, pins him down with everything he’s got and kisses him.
Gerard tastes better than booze, better than pills, better than sunshine. He kisses back like he’s hungry for it, rubbing up against Frank and straining against him every place Frank’s pinning him down. Frank shifts his thigh a little and Gerard moans into his mouth and bucks up against him, mutters, “You’re gonna make me—” and then he shudders hard and whines against Frank’s jaw. “Oh fuck...”
Frank barely lets Gerard catch his breath before he’s undoing his own fly and leading Gerard’s hand into his briefs. Gerard doesn’t waste any time, just jerks him hard and fast with no frills until Frank’s coming into his hand and biting his neck so hard it will no doubt bruise. The orgasm detonates another million sparks all over his body and sends him reeling.
Gerard lets go of him immediately after and forcefully wipes his hand on his own jeans. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs, running the same hand through his damp red hair. He pushes Frank off of himself and steps further away from him. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Frank slumps against the wall again, running his palms over the wallpaper and trying to stay upright. "You should do it again. It was good.”
“It was assault. You're too out of it to consent to anything right now. That right there is never happening again.”
“Hey. Don’t—Come back here.”
“You taste like booze, do you know that? I’m a fucking addict too, what you did just now was not fucking fair to me.”
Frank looks at him until he comes back into focus. Sadness, anger, betrayal and some fucked up sort of hope course through him again. “You know what’s not fair to you? Still being married to someone who’s been dead four years.”
It’s only by how deep the silence gets after his words that he understands how loud they were.
“Good night, Frank,” Gerard says carefully, backing away. “Guest room’s through that door. Sleep it off.”
It takes a long time to separate the things that are real from the things that aren’t. He doesn’t so much sleep as lie awake dreaming, eyes open and head throbbing and shame rising in him alongside the sun. His brain keeps zapping with bursts of electricity; whatever he took has a nasty comedown. When he’s finally lucid enough to make sense of the night, the shame is so overwhelming he wants to turn his shaking hands into fists and slam them into his thighs until he hurts as much as he deserves to. The look on Gerard’s face when...
He’s heard noise throughout the morning, doors opening and footsteps on hardwood floors and phones ringing. He lies perfectly still, prostrate, mute, until there's less noise. When it finally sounds safe, he sneaks out of the room, tiptoes down the hallway. He tries to put his shoes on while still standing, but dizziness overcomes him and he slumps helplessly to the floor. The stabbing pain in his back is so violent he would scream if he wasn’t terrified of being heard.
It’s like all the work he’s done in the last few months has come completely undone. Like none of it mattered. He’s collapsed against a wall like some useless fucking junkie, thinking about white flags and throwing in towels. He can’t remember the last time he had a comedown this bad, can’t remember the last time he wanted more drugs this badly.
“Hey, Frank,” a kind, gentle voice says, and he feels some small mercy at the fact that it’s Mikey’s girlfriend and not Mikey. At least it’s not Gerard or his daughter. “Why don’t you come have breakfast?”
“No, I should go,” he argues, trying to get off the floor with one shoe barely on and the other in his hand. Kristin helps him stand, surprisingly strong for such a tiny person, and then pulls him in for a hug that he neither expects, nor deserves. She smells like flowers, sugar, girly things. She smells clean and Frank is so absurdly jealous that Mikey gets to have this, that it isn’t complicated for them. That she’s patient and kind and strong for him, that he’s going to offer her a ring, she’s going to say yes and things are going to work out for them. "Gerard won't want to see me."
“He went for a drive with Mikey. Stay for breakfast,” she insists once she pulls back and he’s steady. “Bandit and I made pancakes.”
He doesn’t want to be around anyone, just wants to curl up into a ball and die, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe shutting off and shutting down shouldn’t be his go-to coping strategy anymore. He follows her reluctantly into the open plan kitchen and living room. It’s full of art and light and books and toys, cluttered in a way that feels very Gerard. There’s a tiny human on the floor who only looks the tiniest bit like her father. Ray’s sitting on a bar stool by the kitchen counter, smiling at Frank in a way that doesn’t look angry or accusing or disappointed. “Hey, dude. How’re you feeling?”
“Like death warmed over,” Frank says, hugging himself tightly when another zap shoots through his brain. “I’m really sorry about last night.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Ray says kindly. “We’ve all been there. There’s a meeting in Nutley at eleven. I can drive you home after.”
“And you’re staying for breakfast,” Kristin insists again, handing Frank a steaming mug of coffee. She doesn’t really know him from a bar of soap, but Frank sees the kindness Mikey’s found in her, the potential that has to ease someone’s aches. “Or you’ll break Lady B’s heart, she made them from scratch.”
He bites down on a trembling lip and nods, trying to convey with thoughts alone the enormity of his gratitude for the mercy they’re showing him. “Yeah, if you don’t mind. Thanks.”
“Bandit,” Kristin says, kneeling beside the little girl on the floor. She’s sitting in the midst of an explosion of paper and crayons. “This is your daddy’s friend Frank, like I told you about.”
Frank gives a short, awkward wave. He used to be good with kids, when he wore scrubs and a stethoscope around his neck. He used to carry a few candies in his pocket for kids who’d broken their arms or whose mothers were being rushed into surgery.
“Sit here,” Bandit orders impatiently, pushing some drawings out of the way to make room for him. He puts his mug on the coffee table and braces himself on corner of it as he lowers himself down to the floor beside her. His lower back feels less like an open wound, the pain dulling to a deep ache. He’ll rub some Voltaren on it and lie in child’s pose when he gets home. He lets go of the thought and focuses instead on her tiny hands wrapped around the Sharpie, how her hands look like her father’s, the way she hums to herself as she’s drawing. “I’m making you a drawing, but it’s not finished yet. You can help me color if you stay inside the lines, but not yet.”
He brings his spine into alignment, takes a breath deep into his lungs and re-centers himself. “That’s an awesome drawing,” he says. “Is it a boat?”
“Don’t be silly.” She grins at him. “It’s a pirate ship for when the swan babies get out of the space ship.”
Frank can’t help but snort out a laugh. She’s Gerard’s daughter, all right.
Mikey plays Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers on the drive up to the State Line Lookout. Gerard drinks his second coffee of the day and doesn’t talk.
“Are you gonna tell me what happened?” Mikey says eventually, once they’re sitting on the cold, damp grass overlooking New York across the Hudson River. It’s windy enough to be uncomfortable, but he knows Mikey will sit with him for as long as he needs him to. “Come on, you’re worrying me.”
“I think I have feelings for him,” Gerard says, chewing the inside of his cheek as he watches a tiny boat make its way across the water below. He needs a cigarette, but he didn't bring any. Mikey’s just quit.
“I think you do, too.”
“I ran into him at the Loop Lounge last night. He was off his fucking face on pills. He wasn’t… himself, and I still fucked him. I mean, sort of, we only—”
Mikey holds up a hand in warning. “I don’t want or need details. Why are you so upset? Is it this ‘thou shalt not date another NA member’ stuff?”
“I don’t want to be someone he gets emotionally fucked up and dependent on while he’s vulnerable, or just a mistake he makes while he's getting clean. And, I mean, I can’t have that sort of thing around Bandit.”
“And there’s Lindsey.”
“Of course there’s Lindsey. There’s always Lindsey.” He looks down at his wedding ring, thinks about the Forever and then some engraved inside the band. “There’s Lindsey every single fucking minute of every day.”
“It’s been almost four years, Gee. She wouldn’t want you to be alone.”
“I know that. I just don’t know if I can be with anyone like that again.”
“Then be with someone in a different way, in whatever way makes sense between you and that person. You don’t have to rush into anything.”
Gerard nods solemnly. He knows Mikey’s right, but can’t he still can’t imagine laying himself bare like that again. For all of the boundaries and rules and the carefully maintained distance he put between himself and Pete, it still felt like another bullet to the chest when he walked away.
He takes the time and the breaths he needs to take before he digs into the pocket of his jacket and hands Mikey the ring. “Melt the gold,” he says. “Re-set the diamond in whatever you think she’d like.”
Mikey turns it around in his hands, then looks at his brother like he doesn’t understand. “You’re giving me Lindsey’s ring?”
“She loved you. She would have loved Kristin. I want you to have it.”
Mikey stares at him for a while, brows furrowed as he seemingly processes what Gerard’s giving him, and what he’s giving up. Gerard saw the ring he chose for Kristin on the screen of Pete’s iPhone months ago and knows he can’t afford it without getting himself in some serious debt. He knows what it will mean to Mikey when he’s on one knee in front of her and her eyes light up in surprise. “She’s great, Mikes. I’m happy you have her.”
Mikey closes his hand around the ring and wraps an arm tightly around his brother’s shoulders. “Thanks, Gee. So am I.”
Gerard leans against Mikey’s side and rests his head on his shoulder, feeling thoroughly exhausted. “I’m your best man, right?”
Mikey scoffs. “I think you’re gonna have to fight Pete for it,” he says apologetically. “Something about Dungeons and Dragons and you being a party pooper.”
“I can take him down in a fight.” He watches his brother put the ring away in his pocket. “On that note,” Gerard says abruptly. “I’ve lost feeling in my lower extremities and we should get some kebabs from that food truck on the way home.”
He walks Sweet Pea after Ray drops him off, then showers, shaves, does two loads of laundry, makes it through three commercials before he turns off his TV. He sits in fucking lotus pose against the wall in his living room, trying to do every single breathing technique Grant has taught him, but it barely makes a dent.
He caves before he thought he would, erases eight attempts before he finally settles on the right words. His thumb hovers over the send button for a few seconds before it presses down. Last night was so fucked up. I’m really sorry for what I said.
Don’t worry about it, it was true. I’m sorry I didn’t stop it when I should have.
I promise you didn’t assault me if that’s what you think. I didn’t want it to happen like that, but I DID want it to happen. I thought maybe you did too. Can we have coffee?
Not now. Maybe another time.
I’m not really in a place to do any of this right now. Sorry.
Frank shows up at Grant’s with only a ten minute warning. He’s been driving around aimlessly until the anxiety got so big that he ran a red light and nearly crashed into a railing swerving out of another car’s way. He called Grant from the side of the road, panting, and begged him for some time on his knees.
When Grant lets him in, it’s obvious that Frank has interrupted him in the middle of something. There are art supplies all over his kitchen table and his hands are covered in paint. “Come in,” he says calmly, standing aside. “I just need to wash up, go wait for me.”
Grant has turned the heating on, but the room isn’t warm yet. Frank takes off everything except his briefs and kneels on the floor. He’s getting good at this now, can spend a good thirty minutes on his knees when Grant asks it of him. Sometimes he whispers “yellow” and Grant stops what they’re doing to lower him into child’s pose and stroke his shoulders until the ache settles. Frank never thought his life would get to a place where he knew the names of multiple yoga poses.
He folds his hands in his lap and tilts his pelvis so his spine is aligned properly. He takes a steadying breath and lets the tension melt out of his shoulders, his neck, his arms. His jaw kept seizing up and grinding all night from whatever pills he took, and now the ache in his cheeks and temples is a painful reminder of exactly how much he fucked up. Grant makes him wait for much longer than it would take to clean paint off his hands, and by the time he the door quietly clicks shut, the noise in Frank’s head has gone from sirens blaring to indistinct background chatter.
Grant comes to stand in front of him, lifting Frank’s chin up to meet his eyes. Frank’s head lolls back automatically as he surrenders easily to Grant’s touch. He lets go, hands himself over, submits.
“What happened?” Grant says, softer and kinder than Frank deserves. He deserves to be slapped across the face, pushed to the floor and told what a pathetic piece of shit he is. “You’re upset.”
“I fucked up,” Frank confesses immediately, desperate for penance, punishment, absolution. “Pills and booze and mistakes.”
“Tell me,” Grant says. “You were doing well when I spoke to you in the morning. What happened with Hambone and your friends?”
“He’s the only one that showed up. It was good, I feel like we cleared the air. Then we went to see a band, he got me a beer and… then... well.”
“So you didn’t tell him you’re no longer drinking or using.”
Frank averts his eyes, straining against Grant’s hold as he tries to twist his face away from view. Grant holds him steady, the tips of his fingers digging into the flesh beneath his chin. “Stop that,” he says firmly, steadying Frank’s face. “The next time you see him, you’re going to ‘fess up. The people in your life can’t support you unless you’re honest with them.”
Frank sighs and nods as much as he can with Grant immobilizing his head. Grant is right, no matter how little Frank wants him to be. “Can you hurt me?”
Grant arches an eyebrow in what looks like surprise. “Hurt you?”
“I fucked up. I deserve whatever fucked up thing you want to punish me with. Give me your worst, I deserve it.”
“Darling,” Grant admonishes, dropping down to his knees in front of Frank. He takes Frank’s hands into his own. “When you’ve hurt yourself like this… you deserve compassion, not punishment. We’re going to play until you’re calm and then we’ll watch a movie until you fall asleep, okay? Do you want the flogger?”
Frank nods, leaning in to rest his forehead against Grant’s throat. The breath he draws in tastes like skin and cologne and peace. “Rope and gag and blindfold, too. Please.”
He wakes up in a cold sweat and reaches instinctively for his phone. There’s no message from Pete, nothing sent in the middle of the night without punctuation or capital letters.
Instead, there's Firefly marathon on Fox, if that's your thing from Frank.
It's from a few hours ago. Frank’s probably asleep by now, and Gerard probably wouldn't have called him anyway.
He calls Lindsey’s voicemail instead, needing to hear her voice, to slow the bleeding. An automated voice tells him it’s full. He needs to clear it out again.
He spends the next night at his parent’s place after family dinner. He doesn’t know what Mikey’s said to their mother, but she doesn’t push him about Pete or ask him about anyone else. Mikey sends Kristin off with goodbye kiss that lasts way longer than it reasonably should. Bandit walks in on them and screams about gouging her eyes out. Gerard can empathize.
He and Mikey watch cartoons with her until she falls asleep, and then when it’s quiet and they’re both slouched under blankets on opposite ends of the couch, eyelids drooping, Mikey asks “Something going on with you and Grant again?”
Gerard cringes, squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head. “Narcotics anonymous, my ass. Why does everyone constantly know everyone else’s business?”
“B showed me the comic Grant made her. I thought you guys didn’t talk anymore.”
Gerard shrugs nonchalantly. “We’re talking again.”
“Does that mean you’re also fucking again?”
“It’s not like that.”
“You’re a broken fucking record, you know that?”
A door clicks shut upstairs and then their mother comes down the stairs, wearing an old, zebra-patterned bathrobe. “Are you two still awake?” she says groggily, sounding unimpressed like only a mother can. “It’s past midnight. You’ll be exhausted tomorrow.”
Mikey rolls his eyes, explicitly not pointing out that they’re both in their thirties and can manage their own sleep cycles. “We’re about to crash, Ma. Promise.”
“Alright, babies.” She gets a glass of water and kisses the tops of their heads, like she already did earlier before she and their dad turned in for the night. “Whoever gets up first gets bagels from that bakery your dad likes. When's work, Mikey?”
“Late shift, I don’t have to leave ‘til noon.”
“Alright. Go to bed, both of you. Chop chop.”
“You’d think we were still thirteen,” Mikey laments once they retire to the basement that Gerard spent his teens hiding out in. Mikey’s things are all packed, neatly organised in labelled and color-coded cardboard boxes. Clearly, his better half has been coordinating the packing. “Most of my shit is packed, you’re gonna have to sleep in this.”
He throws over a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants that smell roughly clean. Gerard dresses and crawls under the covers. He huddles close to Mikey, seeking his body heat. “Why is it always so cold down here?”
“It’s underground? I don’t know.” Mikey bunches the pillow up under his head and gets comfortable. “You were better when you were with Grant, you know. We worried less about you.”
Gerard doesn’t respond, and Mikey doesn’t appear to expect him to. He dozes off instead, while Gerard lies awake for long moments, staring at the peeling paint on the ceiling. His phone beeps twice, then once more after a pause. All three are from Frank.
Haven’t seen you at NA for a while. You ok?
Even Sweet Pea’s been asking about you.
I miss talking to you.
“Who’s texting you this late?” Mikey grumbles, sucking in saliva and wiping at his mouth. “Ugh, gross. I need to know so I can shoot them. I’d just fallen asleep.”
“Is he asking you to make out behind the bleachers?”
“Something like that.”
“You should make out with him. Making out is nice...”
Mikey’s seemingly asleep again before he’s even finished what he was saying. Gerard writes Let’s have coffee. Then he deletes it, and he doesn’t write anything else, and he still can’t sleep for another few hours.
Grant keeps eye contact with him, more so than usual, as though he already suspects that something’s off. He holds Frank’s gaze for a long time, long enough for Frank to pull himself together and stop needing to look away. When he finally earns the blindfold, he squeezes his eyes shut and surrenders immediately to the darkness. Grant makes him wait after that, lets him settle into himself and move into the place in his head where everything else disappears. It’s hot. It’s quiet. He’s shackled to a St. Andrew’s cross, his back against the room and his sight obscured by a blindfold. They have all night. It should work. It has to work.
Grant’s hand landing gently between his shoulderblades startles him. “Focus,” Grant whispers, tracing each vertebrae in Frank’s upper back with his fingertips. When his fingers grip the hair at the base of Frank’s skull and pull, Frank squeezes his eyes at the pain and sucks in a deep breath. He knows this; he can focus on this. “Color.”
“Green,” Frank whispers on the exhale, although everything is already tinged with yellow. It doesn’t matter. He can’t deal with anything outside of this room right now. “Green.”
He hears the whoosh of leather cut through the air long before it makes contact with his skin. The second the tails snap against his upper back, shock and relief rush out of him in one strangled exhale.
The first few blows always feel like fire, like actual harm, like he might safeword at any second. He knows how to push through it now though, knows how to submit and surrender and let it take him to the beautiful place in his mind where the things that hurt the most stop hurting altogether.
Except it doesn’t take him anywhere this time. He counts thirty blows and the thirtieth still feel as jarring as the first one. He shifts in his restraints, trying to settle into it. The flogger stops then, abrupt and confusing. Frank sighs, irritated at the interruption. “Green,” he says immediately, anticipating the question.
He’s called “yellow” more times than he can count, if he needs to change positions, ask questions or if things get too intense. Grant always comes calmly to his side, one hand gentle as anything on the back of his neck, and asks him what needs to change. But he needs it too much right now to slow things down with coddling. “Green.”
He sighs when he feels Grant’s fingers, but it sounds angry this time, not relieved. “Frank.”
“I said green.”
The flogger hits him again, just once, but harder than last time and harder than he expects. He seizes up all over and sunset blooms behind his eyelids: yellow, orange and red. The next hit brings tears, sour and stinging in his eyes. A third, and he’d be throwing punches if his hands weren’t shackled.
Frank draws in a deep, fortifying breath, straightening up and uncurling his fists. “Green.”
The last blow feels like it splits his skin open. He slumps against the cross, screaming. It’s harder than Grant’s ever hit him. He hears the leather swish in the air again, like a threat, and finally whispers, “Red.”
Grant immediately unfastens the cuffs, and then breaks Frank’s fall when he slumps to the floor. Frank sinks forwards until his forehead rests against one leg of the cross, his body seizing up with panicked sobs. Grant keeps his firm arms around him, carrying him quietly through it. “I’m so sorry,” he whimpers after a while, the apology feeling so much bigger than what just happened. “I’m so sorry for always fucking everything up.”
Grant pulls him back from the cross, letting him slump back against Grant’s chest instead. “What have you fucked up?”
“My job, my band, my friends, my parents, Jamia, Gerard, Sweet Pea, you. All I do is hurt people.”
“You haven’t hurt me,” Grant says, wrapping a soothing hand around Frank’s throat. Frank lets out a breath that seems to melt everything in him. “And the only thing you can do about previous hurts is to apologize and make amends and be forgiven.”
“I don’t deserve it.”
“Everyone deserves to be forgiven, especially by themselves.”
Frank wraps his own hand around Grant’s, where it’s resting heavily against his windpipe. He’s stopped crying. He’s stopped panicking. He’s stopped fighting it. The thoughts of worthlessness and self-hatred and hurting himself fall to the wayside. The world rights itself again. “I’m sorry I lied to you about the colors.”
“It’s okay, love. You’re still learning your limits. Sometimes going to the edge of those limits can be cathartic.”
“You’re so good to me.”
"You're very easy to be good to."
Grant wipes tears off of his face and Frank tilts his head back, seeking out his eyes and mouth, desperate for it in a way he’s never been before. He surges up to kiss him, but Grant stops him with firm fingers on his mouth. His lips thin and he shakes his head.
“Fuck,” Frank groans, humiliation and shame crashing through him. He sits up and away, hugging his knees. He’s going to cry again, like the pathetic little bitch he is. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Grant says softly, pressing a lingering kiss between his reddened shoulderblades. “If that’s something you want, we can talk about it when you’re level-headed again.”
“Fuck, I shouldn't have done that. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be, trust me. And let go of whatever nonsense is going through your head right now. You haven’t fucked up anything with me.”
Frank turns his head to look at him again, and Grant’s face is so earnest that he can’t help but believe him. Grant’s seen him make a mess of himself so many times now, has listened to him talk for hours about his life, seen him repeatedly work himself into a snotty mess, seen him spill tomato soup on himself and yet he’s still here. “Can I spend the night? I mean. With you?”
Frank hopes he understands that Frank is asking for Grant’s bed, not the guest room. He won’t kiss him or touch him or do anything that hasn’t been thoroughly discussed and well thought out. He just wants to sleep next to him, and maybe spoon, and not feel alone anymore. Grant smiles. “Of course you can.”
Shame and humiliation uncoil and disappear, giving way to relief and peace. “Can I have my blanket now?”
“Of course. Sit on the bed.”
He puts his pants on and watches Grant get his blanket, the fuzzy red one that Grant keeps folded on a shelf in the corner. He has a Pavlovian response to it now, and feels immediately safer when it wraps around him.
“So,” Grant says once Frank’s pulled the blanket snugly around himself and leaned heavily against Grant’s side. “Gerard, huh? I was wondering when you were going to tell me.”
“Yeah,” Frank sighs, squeezing his eyes shut. Fuck, he was in the list of people Frank rattled off earlier. He wonders how much Grant knows. “I’ve royally fucked everything up by getting all these feelings for him.”
“You’re not the first person to get those.”
“No,” Frank sighs. “I’ve gathered that Pete was the first victim.”
“Second. I was first.”
Wait. What? “You?”
“I was his sponsor once upon a time.”
Several things fall into place. The look on Gerard’s face when he said things had gotten messy with his last sponsor. The look on Pete’s face when he saw Grant at Frank’s first meeting in North Arlington, two paper cups in his hand and an expression on his face that Frank now recognizes as pained, or possibly even jealous. “You’re the sponsor he broke up with because things got messy?”
“I’m afraid so. It’s terribly bad form, falling for one’s sponsee when it isn’t welcome or mutual.”
“Do you still see him?”
“I hadn’t for a while, but we’ve just resumed contact.”
Frank can’t help but wonder what ‘contact’ means, what relationship the two of them had, and whether it took place in this very room. He can’t help but think of Gerard on his knees for Grant, but there’s only sadness where he thought jealousy would go. “Oh. Do you still have feelings for him?”
“Unfortunately.” Grant smiles tightly. “It still isn’t mutual, I can assure you of that.”
“I’m sorry, that sucks.”
“Don’t worry about it. It is, however, from what I gather, mutual with you.”
“Yeah, about that… Has he said something about me?”
“He didn’t have to.”
Oh. Oh. “What about… I mean. You and me? Would you want to kiss me back if… we had a conversation about it when I’m level-headed?”
“Let’s talk about that later, okay?” Grant says, reaching for his hand and linking their fingers together, and Frank suspects he knows what his answer is going to be. “Your sobriety comes first. I don’t want you to make any decisions until you thoroughly consider their implications.”
He deliberates for ages about what to wear for his first day at work. Grant watches him from the doorway of Frank’s bedroom, a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and Sweet Pea capsized at his feet. “The green one,” he says eventually, once Frank has worked himself in a frenzy about which shirt to wear. “Then I think we’re going to set fire to the stripey red one.”
“Oh, fuck off,” Frank quips, motioning to Grant’s crazily patterned shirt. “You’re one to talk.”
Grant’s grin is blinding. “I’m a moderately successful artist, I can get away with it.”
Frank explicitly doesn’t reach for him or undo the buttons of his stupidly bright shirt or pull him into bed with him again. They haven’t done anything but sleep next to each other, but Grant sleeps with a possessive hand over Frank’s sternum and his lips pressed against the back of Frank’s neck. Frank wakes up first most mornings and explicitly doesn’t grind back against Grant’s morning wood. Mostly.
He’s too anxious to drive, so Grant makes him breakfast and drives him to the sexual health clinic. The only drugs they keep on premises are antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals. Frank explained in his job interview that he wouldn’t feel comfortable if they had anything else, and they were surprisingly cool with it. The clinic is an underfunded and understaffed service that offers low-cost sexual health services to people who can’t afford better. There are some tasks he won’t legally be able to do without a nursing license, but he knows he’s bringing more experience and expertise than they would otherwise get in exchange for the salary they’re offering. They’re so under-resourced that he’ll likely get to do much more than his job description currently details. It’s not where he thought his career would go, but all things considered, it’s looking like a good place to be.
It feels like Frank should lean in and peck his lips before he gets out of Grant’s car, but they still haven’t had The Conversation. Grant’s insisted he take a week to make up his mind. It feels like way too long, but making people wait seems to be Grant’s modus operandi.
“So what are you doing next Thursday?” Mikey asks lightly, before taking a bite of his slice of pepperoni pizza. “Mom said she’s watching B for a few days.”
Gerard sighs, dropping his slice onto his plate, appetite immediately gone. “Don’t, Mikes.”
Mikey rolls his eyes, like he was expecting it. “Jesus, Gee,” he mutters, speaking through a mouthful of pizza. ”You don’t need to get fucked up to get through it. You have a support system.”
Gerard shakes his head. He’s been having this conversation with himself for months, he can’t handle having it with Mikey, too. “I’m tired, Mikes. Exhausted. I just need a time out.”
“And shooting up is gonna help you somehow? B’s getting old enough to understand things. She’s not gonna forgive you if you die, too.”
“Leave B out of this. I don’t shoot up anymore, I haven’t since I met Lindsey.”
Mikey wipes his hands on a napkin, frowning. “Not really the point, is it? Didn't you say you were talking to Grant again?”
“Not anymore.” Gerard swallows hard. “He’s Frank’s sponsor. His… Dom.”
“Oh shit. Gee.”
He sighs, resigned. “Yeah, I know.”
It turns out to be a good motherfucking conversation.
Grant finally lets him come after what feels like hours of play and pain and sweet, beautiful torture. By then, Frank’s drenched in sweat, covered in bruises, his throat is hoarse and he’s dizzy with headspace and hormones. He licks Grant’s fingers clean of come, licks salt and sweat off of every inch of his palm, his fingers and the webbing between them. When Grant’s hand is soaking wet with Frank’s spit, he finally wraps it tight around his own throat and holds onto it with both of his own hands.
He sleeps like the dead.
It gets bad, then worse, and Gerard feels like he’s on the very brink of worst when he finally calls Grant. He hates that he’s still his last resort, that he still can't do this alone. He drops Bandit off at Jimmy and Chantal’s with a packed bag and promises of picking her up in the morning, but he’s so messed up he doesn't know if they're true. Grant lets him into his apartment and he marches immediately to the room at the very back. It’s cold and the lights are off - Grant clearly wasn’t expecting the night to go here. The thought of Frank in here makes him want to vomit, but he can’t deal with that now.
“Gerard...” Grant says, leaning against the doorway with his arms crossed over his chest. He looks less than amenable to what Gerard’s asking for. He looks stern, like Gerard's sponsor, like he knows better than to allow this. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“I can’t take anymore,” Gerard snaps, and he sounds almost as reckless and messed up as he feels. He wants to pull his shirt over his head, shuck his jeans, drop to his knees, crawl, beg, yield under Grant’s crop or paddle or cane. Fuck, he wants the cane. “It was either you or Otter. I can’t take anymore.”
“How flattered I am that you chose me over your drug dealer. Come back into the living room, I don’t want to have this conversation here.”
“I don’t want to have a conversation. I want this.”
“Tough shit, love. Living room.” He turns the lights off and heads back down the hallway. Gerard swallows down the crushing disappointment, but follows. Maybe he’ll give Gerard what he wants after the words are out of the way. Gerard sits on the couch while Grant putters around in the kitchen. Grant does this sometimes—or rather, used to do this—makes him wait until he steadies himself, until he releases whatever he’s been carrying around. Grant eventually puts down a steaming mug of something Gerard doesn’t want to drink. He sits down on the sofa opposite Gerard. “Explain to me what’s wrong.”
“I don’t have time for this and neither do you. What’s wrong?”
Grant sighs, looking exasperated. “You’re making it sound like some amorphous blob of things that can’t be untangled from one another. If you can’t name what’s wrong, you can’t fix it. First step.”
“Don’t twelve step me.”
“Don’t behave like a child.”
“Fine,” Gerard snaps, irritated like he always is when Grant calls him on his bullshit. “I feel… Tired. Guilty. Like if I don’t hold on to her, I’m going to really lose her. Every day it gets a little bit harder to remember.”
“You’ve already lost her,” Grant says, matter-of-factly in a way that twists everything in Gerard’s chest. “You have, don’t give me that face. For the purposes of your daily living, she is gone. Her death pulled things apart for you in ways that can never be put together the same. I get it. But you’ve been stuck in that grief for a very long time now.”
“I don’t know what I’m talking about? I think you’re forgetting that I know you very, very well.”
Gerard takes a sip of whatever hot beverage Grant put in front of him earlier. He's too out of it to register what he’s drinking. “Pete broke up with me.”
Grant nods solemnly. “I heard.”
“I think I was dating him.”
“Darling, you know you were dating him.”
It might be tea. “I think I really hurt him.”
Grant lets out a big, patient sigh. “You know you hurt him.”
“You’re very easy to love, Gerard. You’re kind and generous and you look after everyone around you. It’s why people fall all over themselves to be close to you. But you work so hard on being impermeable, as though willpower alone will be enough to keep you afloat. You’ve been in NA long enough to know that willpower doesn’t mean shit in the long run. You can keep white knuckling your sobriety for as long as you want, but it’s not going to stick until you deal with what happened and start moving on.”
“How the fuck do I move on when every direction hurts?”
“The only way out of any grief is through it. I don’t know if that’s a symbolic incense burning ceremony or writing her a long letter or, I don’t know, finally fucking someone else. I mean, you still haven’t, right?”
Gerard’s chest clenches at the mere thought of letting anyone in that deep. “Almost. Close to. In the beginning, with Pete. Just once.”
“Before he got too close and you got scared.”
Gerard swallows thickly. Everything with Pete looks different in hindsight, all of it painful when he revisits it. “Yeah. We did some... other stuff, but not that.”
If Grant’s surprised that Gerard let Pete get that close, he doesn’t let it show. “Then maybe that’s it. Let someone get too close to you, let someone into the parts of you that you’ve closed off.”
“That’s your solution? Have intercourse with someone and then my life will magically make sense again?”
“That summary is missing a bit of nuance, but sure. Stop letting people get caught in the barbed wire all around you and actually let someone in. Stop isolating yourself. Move forwards.”
“Okay.” Gerard has another sip of the unknown hot beverage and considers the possibility for the merest moment. He can’t think about it for too long or it’ll terrify him. “Would you?”
Grant arches an eyebrow, leaning back in his seat. He sounds confused. “Would I fuck you?”
Gerard shrugs in some petrified parody of nonchalance. “Yeah. Right now.”
Grant scratches the stubble under his chin, then takes a slow sip of tea like he's buying time.
"Please," Gerard adds, and Grant’s mouth twists in a slight wince at the plea. "Please, Sir."
Grant's eyes snap up to meet his own. It's a cheap shot, but he knows he has him.
“Come here,” Grant says, extending a hand towards him. Gerard goes anxiously but willingly, crawling across Grant's living room floor on all fours. He climbs into his lap and straddles him, knees on either side of his strong, thick thighs. He gets a hand around Grant’s neck, fingers gentle and unsure. He runs a thumb over the bone in his jaw, the rasp of stubble catching on the pads of his fingertips. Grant closes his eyes and Gerard leans in to nuzzle his nose, brush his lips against his mouth.
"Please fuck me," he begs, already reaching to undo Grant’s fly with his other hand. Grant's cock jumps beneath his fingers in response. He wants it. Gerard can do this.
“No,” Grant says abruptly, pulling away just as Gerard parts his lips to kiss him. He does his fly back up. “I’m sorry, love… I would, you know I would. But I can’t.”
“Why not? Because of Frank?”
“Partially. I’m afraid I’m still terribly fond of you, still. This wouldn’t be right for me.”
“Which is why you should fuck me,” Gerard argues, feeling almost hysterical with it now. He’s so tired of this, so exhausted at the distances he’s been keeping, so desperate to not feel so alone anymore. He’s restraining himself with everything he’s got. Being touched without prior negotiation is a hard limit for Grant, but Gerard has never been so close to disrespecting someone’s limits before. “I’ll let you.”
Grant cups his face and presses a kiss to his forehead. “Not quite the point, love. The first person you do that with after her should be someone special to you.”
“You are special to me.”
“Not in that way, unless something's changed.”
Gerard hates the hope in his eyes and how quickly it fades at Gerard’s answering silence. He feels things for Grant, complex grateful good hungry things, but he’s not sure what to name those things... yet.
Grant pushes Gerard off of himself and sits up and away. He rubs his hands together as he surveys his apartment. “I’m sure you can think of someone,” he says after a long while in a soft, strange voice. He runs one hand over his bald scalp, before turning back towards Gerard. “Spend the night, though. We need to talk.”
“Yeah,” Gerard says, reaching for his hand in a gesture that feels both confusing and right. “I’m ready to do that.”
Tim’s daughter looks just like her father, has the same button nose and the same dopey eyes. “She’s gassy like her dad, too,” Janey teases as she gently bounces the sleeping baby in her arms. “Farts like her old man after a block of cheese.”
“I’m lactose intolerant!” Tim grumbles from behind the drum kit. “Put her to bed, will you? I am having Man Time with my Man Friends in my Man Cave.”
“Way to make it sound queer,” Hambone points out, then immediately casts a guilty glance at Frank. “Um. I mean. Shit. Is that offensive?”
Frank snorts out a laugh, resting his chin on against the side of Pansy’s body, where she’s resting in his lap. “What the hell do I know if that’s offensive? I don’t speak for queers. Or Man Caves. I just take it up the ass.”
“For the record?” Neil calls into the room. “Super grossed out, over here. If anyone cares.”
“No one cares,” Shaun declares. “So when’s this new boyfriend coming to see us practice?”
Frank makes a few chord shapes and presses experimentally down on the strings, giving Pansy a quick strum. They’ve been at it for hours already, his barely-there guitar calluses swollen and throbbing by now. He hasn’t dared to play guitar while standing up yet, but his back is coping pretty well with sitting down. If only they could reboot Pencey Prep as an acoustic coffee shop quintet. He's not sure they're going to reboot the band at all, just that he wanted to sit them all down and disclose the gory details of what happened after the injury. Water under bridges, it seems. They've been playing all day like they never quit.
Grant isn’t due to come by for another hour, and although Shaun’s been playing it cool, Frank knows he’s dying to meet him. Shaun’s still trying to get a foot in the door at Dark Horse Comics, and Grant’s offered to put in a good word for him with Mike Mignola. Apparently dating a moderately successful artist has its perks for Frank’s social circle.
Frank checks his phone, idly flicking through the last few unanswered messages he’s sent to Gerard. “Give it another hour or so. Enough for this punk bitch to remember the fucking bass line and stop randomly veering into Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’.”
“Hey,” Hambone argues. “That’s a good fucking bass line.”
“It’s a great bass line, dude, but it’s not right for the song we’re playing.”
Frank regrets it before he’s even sent it, but he thinks he would have regretted not sending it more. I miss you.
Grant doesn’t tell him much, which Frank assumes is on account of some sort of ex-Sponsor/Sponsee privilege, but he understands that Gerard’s having a hard time and that Grant’s helping him out. Grant is less than forthcoming, Frank doesn’t have the balls to push, and Gerard still isn’t returning any of his texts. They’re both aware of each other’s feelings for Gerard, and Frank trusts that Grant wouldn’t do anything serious with Gerard without him there.
He doesn’t know if that means he’s relapsed or if he’s just avoiding Frank, or what the fuck is going on, so he ends up approaching Ray and Pete in the kitchen after a meeting. Gabe and Spencer have been taking turns facilitating in Gerard’s absence, and they’re fine, but they’re not Gerard and Frank gets a little more anxious with every meeting Gerard misses.
“Hey, um,” he starts awkwardly as he interrupts their conversation. “Have you guys seen Gee? He’s not.. answering my texts or calls. I’m getting really worried.”
He says it as casually as he can muster, but the look that passes between them suggests he’s missed the mark by a country mile. Pete sighs and shakes his head. “I’m not getting involved in this.”
“Pete, for fuck’s sake,” Ray admonishes. “He’s just working some stuff out.”
“Now there’s a fucking euphemism,” Pete rebuts impatiently. “He’s shutting down like he does every year around the anniversary of her death. He won’t answer anyone’s calls, don’t take it personally.”
“He’s been answering Grant’s.”
Pete looks surprised at the mention of his name. He turns to consult with Ray, who just shrugs like he already knew. “Oh, I’m definitely not getting involved in this,” Pete says, turning to leave until—
Frank turns to see what's stopped him in his tracks. Patrick’s holding a jacket in one hand and extending another to Pete. He's smiling, warm and gentle, and everything in Pete seems to soften at the attention. “Ready to go, babe?”
“Yeah, just a minute.” Pete slips on the jacket and does the buttons up. He pulls a beanie over his newly shorn hair. He tells Frank, “Just show up at his place if you want to talk to him. If you wait for him to come to you, you'll be waiting forever."
Frank nods. “I have an idea that I’d need your help for. I don’t know if. It might be stupid.”
Pete glances at Patrick, then Ray, then Frank. “Okay, let’s hear it.”
Gerard kneels down and lays a bouquet of white lilies on the damp grass by her tombstone. Morning dew clings like tears on the grass. “Hello, beautiful,” he says, closing his eyes and smiling when he feels her wrap all around him. “Four years today. Four years since... ”
Something constricts immediately in his chest and he lets out an ugly, choked breath. No, wrong, not what he wanted to say, not where he wanted to go. He fingers his wedding ring and squeezes his eyes shut and feels her, feels how she’s there beside him and how she never truly left.
“I’m always going to be so grateful that you’re mine. But. I mean. I have to tell you something. That messy thing with Grant from a while back… It’s getting messy again. And I’m… feeling things for Frank and I might just… I might see where that goes. I think you would’ve liked him. He has dark hair and he’s cute and short and moody and full of tattoos. My type, apparently. Just like you.”
He closes his eyes and listens and feels and tries to get an answer from her. There’s a gust of wind then, strangely warm and like a stroke across his cheek. He can’t help the smile that spreads in his face and deep within his chest. “I love you,” he says into the cold air when it passes. “I fucking love you.”
He also can’t help the deep, bottomless grief that follows. That tightness in his throat that doesn’t lessen, the nightmare he can’t wake up from, the hole she left in his chest that won’t stop bleeding. “I’m gonna stop chronically relapsing and I’m gonna take off my wedding ring someday. Soon. But not today. Today it’s just too hard and I miss you too much and it’s all too heavy.”
“B made you a drawing.” He digs up some of the dirt around her tomb stone and buries the drawing there. It’s a picture of her and Gerard surrounded by rainbows. Bandit thinks of her mother as a rainbow in the sky, is always beside herself when it rains on sunny days. ”I love you so much. But apparently we’re all going forwards and none of us are going back. Pete says it’s time.”
He leans against the wall of his back porch, smoking his third cigarette like he’s pulling petals off a daisy. On one inhale, he considers calling Grant, his brother, his parents, anyone. On the next, he salivates at the thought of the whiskey and pills and sweet oblivion stashed in his bedroom. He’s bought enough to make it through a three day bender, just enough to take the edge off, just enough to make it through the weekend. He’ll get straight again after that.
He pulls the last petal off to the tune of Just enough to make it through the night.
He’s just turning the lights off in the house when his doorbell goes off. Ray’s on the other side of the door with a big smile. “Sorry, dude,” he says, giving him a quick, tight hug as he brushes past him and into Gerard’s house. “We’re here on Frank’s orders.”
The next few hugs pass in a blur: Brendon, Bob, Spencer, Ashlee and Andy.
Patrick gives him an awkward nod and Gerard suspects they’re both relieved that Patrick's arms are occupied with a stack of pizza boxes. Pete’s right behind him with a tight-lipped smile. “We’ll sit with you until it passes,” he says, giving Gerard’s shoulder an unmistakably friendly pat. “However long it takes.”
Gerard watches Pete walk away and rest his hand on Patrick’s lower back like it belongs there. Grant’s hand on his side startles him. It’s pure muscle memory, the way his body immediately slackens when Grant’s arms wrap around him. “Where’s your stash, love?”
“Bedroom,” he breathes, tightening his grip on him in sheer relief. “Thank you.”
Mikey and his suspicious, arched eyebrow appear once Grant’s gone up the stairs to flush Gerard’s impending relapse down the drain. “Fuck off,” Gerard says immediately, before his brother has the chance to say more things that Gerard’s not ready to hear. “Where’s Frank?”
“He’s parked up the street, wanted to talk to you before coming inside. And hey, in case you still need this shit spelled out for you: he likes you. Don’t fuck it up.”
Gerard shuts the door behind him and half walks, half marches up the street, knees buckling, but legs determined. Frank gets out of his car, but doesn’t come towards him. “I can wait,” he calls once Gerard’s within earshot. “You’re dealing with… you know. I get it. You don’t want to be a distraction while I’m getting clean, I get it. But I can wait until you don’t feel that way anymore.”
It’s almost a movie kiss; the kind that starts slow and sweet and tentative, teeth clashing, noses knocking, goosebumps spreading, faces flushing, hands reaching and eyes closing. It’s the sort of kiss that Gerard feels deep in his chest, in his stomach and below the belt in the sweetest and most devastating of ways. It shocks his body like a shot of heroin, makes his heart race like a line of coke, it’s beautiful like MDMA and tastes like a long, slow sip of honey whiskey.
It burns in his chest like it’s cauterizing the bullet hole he’s been carrying around, like Frank’s hands might not come away wet with blood when they separate.
Gerard presses his forehead against Frank’s when they do. “We don’t go to the same meetings,” he whispers. “If you slip, you don’t go anywhere near my daughter until you’re clean again. You go slow with me, slower than you think. But you don’t have to wait.”
Frank cups his face and presses a soft, perfect kiss to Gerard’s temple. “Grant said he talked to you about...”
Gerard nods, exhaling shakily and clinging a little to Frank’s neck. “We can talk about all that later.”
They don’t kiss again when they reach the front door, merely stand next to each other connected at the hands, looking at each other and looking at each other and not looking away.
Grant’s leaning against the railing of the staircase when they eventually make it through the door. He glances down at their linked hands, then looks between them. “Nice to see you still have fine taste in whiskey,” he says. “Making me flush an eighteen year old bottle of Laphroaig down the drain is just cruel.”
Gerard snorts. Grant’s been clean and sober since before that whiskey was even bottled. “I’ll make you a poncey cup of tea with bows and ribbons and melted sugar. You’ll be fine.”
“Tell that to the generations of Morrisons currently rolling in their graves all over Scotland.”
“Oh, shut up. Stay the night, both of you.”
Grant waits for Frank to give a short nod before he says, “If that’s what you’d like.”
“That is what I’d like. I don’t want to… I mean. I’m not ready for... stuff. Not yet. But if you’re okay to sleep...”
Frank tightens his grip on Gerard’s hand, just a quick squeeze. “Anything you want, Gee.”
“Anything,” Grant repeats.
By the time the three of them make their way into the living room, the room is full of food and conversation and music.
Patrick is kneeling casually on the floor between Pete’s spread legs. It’s not an attempt at a proper pose—Gerard would correct the shit out of it, if anyone kneeled for him like that—but it’s obviously meaningful to them. There’s room for Patrick on either of the couches, but he seems content to be resting his head against the inside of Pete’s knee, with Pete’s hand resting possessively against the juncture of his collarbones. He’s singing softly along to Ray’s playing and Pete’s talking to Bob and Mikey, as though their interaction is no big deal.
Gerard’s surprised to see more who’s kneeling for whom, and even more surprised that it doesn’t hurt as bad as he thought it would. Maybe he doesn’t know Pete like he thought he did, or maybe this is what Pete meant when he said he didn’t need to be taken care of anymore. Pete doesn’t acknowledge Gerard when he takes a seat beside Bob. Instead, he reaches for a handful of chips and chases them down with a sip of soda, then checks the time on his phone. Gerard supposes it’s going to take a while for things to stop being weird between them.
“Guys, guys, guys!” Mikey calls as soon as everyone’s seated, waving his arms until the room falls quiet. He stands up and ceremoniously exclaims, “She said yes!”
The room erupts in applause and Mikey takes a modest bow, before motioning to his brother and his best friend. “You two, fight amongst yourselves for best man rights.”
They look at each other and Pete gives him a tight-lipped smile that’s hard to read, that lingers a little too long. Gerard knows he could take Pete down in a fight, but he’s done fighting him. “All yours,” he says graciously, hoping it sounds like a joke, but feels like an apology. “Please don’t kill anyone in the process.”
“Yes!” Pete calls victoriously. He holds his hand up, seeking an air high five from Mikey. “Skydiving, paintball and Tijuana, here we come!”
“Love your enthusiasm and how you're thinking outside of the box,” Mikey starts cheerfully, returning the gesture, “but there is not a chance in hell that any of those things are happening. Back to the drawing board with you.”
“Strippers, Mikey Way. Strippers?”
Mikey scrunches up his nose like a prude. “Kristin will kill me if I give her chlamydia.”
“How the fuck—how do you think STDs work?”
Grant is frowning at Pete and Mikey as he hands Gerard a plate with two slices of pizza. He’s already picked off all the mushrooms and slathered a thin layer of sour cream across the triangles.
Gerard is going to dig out the flannel pyjamas Grant used to keep in a drawer and he’s going to fall asleep with his head on Grant’s chest, one ear against the throb of his heartbeat and his fingers twined with Frank's. When he looks down at Frank’s hands now, open and dry and not shaking, he's almost surprised that there’s no blood on them.
He can do this. He can make it through the night, and probably past that, too.
“Let me in,” Frank whispers weeks later, his breath warm against Gerard’s parted lips. Frank is heavy on top of him, his hips flush between Gerard’s legs. Gerard has a pillow tucked under his ass and his legs are wrapped high around Frank’s torso, one knee tucked into Frank’s armpit. His head is in the vee of Grant’s legs, his wrists crossed in Grant’s strong hands where they rest over Gerard’s head. He’s pinned down, restrained, entirely at their mercy. Frank’s holding himself in one hand and trying to make this work. It should, Frank and Grant have both rimmed and sucked and fingered him so thoroughly he thought he might lose his mind, but now he’s tense all over and he’s gone flaccid and it just… doesn’t. “Relax.”
Gerard holds Frank’s gaze, wanting to apologize, to beg, to push him off, to pull him closer. He expected to feel a little messed up about this, but he didn’t know it would feel this invasive, this confusing, this overwhelming. He didn’t know he’d be this scared. “I’m trying,” he says, with barely enough breath in his lungs to get the words out. “I don’t know why I...”
He shakes his head, feeling something between embarrassed and guilty and rubbed raw. Frank seems to sense whatever it is that has settled between them and stops trying. He lets go of himself and braces his hand on the mattress beside Gerard’s head, pulling back to give Gerard a little more space. Grant doesn’t let go of him, just tightens his grip until Gerard can feel his own pulse throbbing in his wrists. Gerard gratefully squeezes his hand in return.
“We don’t have to,” Frank says, brushing his thumb against the side of Gerard’s mouth. “If you’re not ready, if this is too much, if this is—we don’t have to do this at all, not now, not ever, if this isn’t something you’re into, we can stop.”
“Shhh,” Grant says calmly, pressing a kiss to Frank’s temple to subdue him. “Give him a minute.”
Frank steals a kiss from him, wet and lingering, and Gerard will never tire of seeing the two of them together like this.
He turns his face until it’s pressed flush against Frank’s damp palm. He closes his eyes and bites the side of his hand, breathes in the scent of Frank’s skin, of musk and sweat and ass and lube. He wants this, no matter how scary it might be, how much it might hurt. He can take it. “I want you to. I want you.”
Frank buries his face in Gerard’s neck and gives Gerard’s soft cock a few encouraging strokes, before reaching lower to take himself in hand again. Gerard’s thighs are burning with it, but he wraps them higher on Frank’s back. “Do it,” he whispers.
Frank’s hips push slowly forwards and it doesn’t feel anything like what Gerard thought it would feel like. It doesn’t hurt, not even a little, not anywhere. It doesn’t hurt anywhere. Frank slides in smooth and slow and deep and he sucks in a hitching breath when he bottoms out. He mutters a curse against Gerard’s throat and holds dead still. “You okay?”
Gerard nods, no hesitation, and he turns his head to taste Frank’s lips again. His mouth is so warm, so wet, so hungry. He’s okay. “It’s okay,” he whispers, straining hard against Grant’s hands, needing to feel him, too. “You feel so fucking good, both of you. Move, fuck me, go.”
“Greedy little thing,” Grant says fondly, letting go of Gerard’s wrists so he can lie down beside him. Frank pushes into him again and he goes so easily. He pushes Gerard’s legs up, higher, folds him in half, pushes deep and pulls back and brushes against something in Gerard that steals his breath and spreads heat everywhere.
“Stay right there,” Gerard gasps, reaching down to grab Frank’s ass with one hand and cupping Grant's chin with the other to mash their lips together. “Oh god. Keep doing that.”
“As long as you want," Frank promises, pressing his face to the other side of Gerard's. "Anything you want.”
He knows rationally what Frank is bumping against, but it feels so much bigger than that. Like there’s a connection between that and his heart, like Frank is touching something in Gerard that no one has touched for so long, like he’s deeper inside Gerard than Gerard thought he would ever let anyone again. Grant’s fingers reach down to stroke his hardening cock and Gerard mewls in response, twisting in their arms.
He wants to say something, wants to find words for what’s happening, words for them to understand. But he can’t, and he doesn’t, and maybe it doesn’t need to be spoken after all.
He pulls them both down for kisses that taste salty like tears. Frank thrusts harder into him, Grant strokes him faster. Gerard’s hand slips in the sweat on Frank’s ass and then there’s scar tissue under his fingertips and Frank groans and fucks him and Gerard lets him in, and Grant’s holding him together when Gerard finally lets go.
They both sleep like the dead. The three of them were all dozing off by the time Gerard remembered to enforce the Way Household Mandatory Family Friendly Clothing Policy and forced them all to don enough clothing to not freak Bandit out if she were to walk in on them. Frank’s only wearing one of the sleeves of his shirt. Gerard’s wearing Frank’s sleep shirt inside-out and back-to-front and snoring softly with his mouth agape.
Grant sneaks out of bed as quietly as possible, makes his way down the hallway and down the staircase on tippy-toes. He keeps forgetting that the last step of the staircase doesn’t creak anymore, not since Frank lost his patience with it and forced Hambone to handyman it better.
He puts a heat pack into the microwave and surveys the mess they’ve made the night before while the glowing red digits count down four minutes. He made pizzas for dinner while Bandit, Gerard and Frank made up silly songs about runaway rabbits and magic power drills on Gerard’s blue acoustic guitar. There are four plates, four knives, four forks and four glasses in the sink. Gerard’s going to make them scrambled tofu for breakfast. Frank will take Bandit to school on his way to work, so Grant and Gerard can spend the morning in bed, fucking and talking and doing the trivia in the Star-Ledger when Frank calls on his lunch break.
The microwave beeps and Grant takes the heat pack out. He tosses it between his hands, trying to cool it down a little. He makes his way back upstairs, poking his head into Bandit’s room to check on her and the dog. Sweet Pea’s snoring loudly in the middle of the bed, a sleeping Bandit wrapped around her. Grant smiles at a particularly loud snuffle from the dog and shuts the door behind himself.
When he sneaks into the bedroom again, Gerard’s blinking at him with a dopey, perplexed expression. “Nggh?”
“Your shirt’s on all wrong, Mr. Way,” Grant whispers as he carefully positions the heat pack on Frank’s lower back. Frank mumbles contentedly in his sleep, reaching for Gerard. Gerard lets himself be pulled closer and grumbles at Grant until Grant is cuddled up close to him again.
“It’s back-to-front and inside-out,” Grant whispers, pressing a kiss to Gerard’s throat. “It’s also Frank’s.”
“Mggh.” Gerard links their fingers and presses Grant’s flat hand against his sternum. One of Frank’s hands finds its way over theirs. Sleep comes easy.
“We have a very special announcement today.”
Frank watches Gerard turn the coin around in his hand, yellow gold and black nail polish in steady, sober hands. There’s a faint tan line on his unadorned left ring finger and the slightest rope burn around his wrists. The crows feet around his eyes deepen with the sort of smile that turn Frank’s insides to utter mush. Grant’s sitting beside him, on the same side of the river, his strong hands a few hours away from picking up the bamboo cane Frank has finally earned.
He looks around the room. Mikey’s playing with his wedding ring, the way all married people seem to do when their hands are idle. The honeymoon period doesn’t seem to be wearing off; he and Kristin are still nauseatingly happy everytime Frank sees them. Ray’s beside Bob, like he has been since he picked Bob up after his last twenty-eight days in rehab. Bob still looks a decade older than he should. Frank knows Ray took a week off work to help him settle and that he’s been making sure someone’s with him at all times. Ashlee’s about to give birth any day now. Ray won’t put his phone down for a minute, in case Jessica calls to say her sister’s going into labor. Frank’s never seen anyone more excited about becoming an uncle. It’s sweet.
Patrick’s been wearing a thin leather band around his neck for the last few months. He tugs at it sometimes when he talks about difficult things at meetings, like the pressure on his throat helps him get the words out. Pete and Gerard shared a very indiscreet look the first time Patrick wore it to a meeting. Gerard shook his head incredulously and Pete shrugged nonchalantly, and then they were both grinning. The two of them have been hanging out again, going to poetry slams and art galleries and taking Bandit and Sweet Pea on road trips. Their inside jokes seem to all revolve around obscure memes that make no sense to anyone else.
Ryan’s been coming and going over the last year, attending three meetings in a row before disappearing for months. Spencer and Brendon took him out for coffee the last time he came back and he’s attended nearly every meeting since. He still hasn’t said his name and confessed his sins yet, but Frank knows it’s just a matter of time.
Frank draws in a deep breath, holds it for three seconds, lets it go. “Hi,” he says to the people who have collectively put him back together again over the last year. “My name is Frank and I’m an addict.”