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An Honest Life

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John Cooper has known he was gay since forty-five minutes after he turned sixteen, when his best friend Andy Meacham rode his bike over at midnight to sneak John out of the house.  They’d gone to the baseball diamond behind the high school and thrown a ball back and forth—the glove, which still smelled like new leather, was Andy’s birthday gift to him—until their arms were sore and their throats were raw with the damp night air.  They’d sat together on the dewy grass, side by side, and looked up at the stars.

 

John always knew Andy wasn’t quite the same as everyone else.  He wore his jeans tighter than the other boys, wore shirts that clung to his chest the way a girl’s might, and had even managed to get his ear pierced.  (John hadn’t been part of that venture, but he’d heard about it in lurid detail—the sewing needle sterilized with a lighter, the ice to numb the lobe, the slice of a new potato held behind the ear to make sure Candace Vernon didn’t pierce his neck, too.)  John’s dad didn’t approve of Andy’s look or Andy’s music or Andy’s hair, but John pretty much thought his old man was full of shit, so he didn’t care about that.

 

“Dude,” Andy laughed.  “You can’t find the Big Dipper?”

 

“Sure I can,” John had shrugged, trying not to look at Andy too close.  Secretly, he’d always thought Andy was kind of pretty—slender and compelling.  John was stocky, bordering on fat, and he’d learned to hit balls out of the park because he was a crap base runner.  Andy fucking stole bases.

 

“Point to it,” Andy had said, and John did, knowing he was full of shit, but also knowing that Andy couldn’t exactly see where he was pointing.  It was dark, after all, and the angle was always off for something as far away as the stars.

 

But then Andy had wrapped himself around John’s back, his chin on John’s shoulder, his breath gusting across John’s ear as he sighted down the hand pointing at a mass of bright pin-pricks in a blanket of nothing.  John’s hand was shaking, and he wanted to drop it, but he knew Andy would call him on not knowing where the goddamn Big Dipper was.

 

“That’s Orion.”  Andy laughed, and his lips brushed John’s ear.  John shuddered and turned, intending to play it off by rubbing his ear and teasing Andy for slobbering on him (though there hadn’t actually been any saliva).  But Andy ruined his plan again by not moving back, by staying right where he was, staring not at Orion but at John.

 

Andy’s carrot red hair, long and hanging around his pale, freckled face, was washed out in the starlight, but John could picture the exact shade.  He also knew there was a freckle on Andy’s bottom lip, near the left corner, and that sometimes, when they were talking, it was the only thing John could focus on.  He could see the rise and fall of Andy’s shoulders, could hear when his breathing picked up, and right as Andy leaned forward, John knew what was going to happen.

 

He knew, and he wanted it—and knowing he wanted it scared him to death.

 

He scrambled backward, away from Andy, ignoring the hurt look on his friend’s face.  “I—I gotta go,” he stammered.  “If Dad wakes up and figures out I’m gone, he’ll kill me.”  He had barely gotten his hasty explanation out of his mouth before he turned tail and ran.

 

It wasn’t until he got home that he remembered he’d left the baseball glove that Andy had given him there on the field.  He was too scared to ask for it back.

 

Three weeks later, when Andy landed in the hospital courtesy of two of the biggest bullies in school, John came home in time to hear his dad say, “Serves the little faggot right.  Cocksucker needs to learn his place.”

 

Since then, John kept his head down and tried very hard not to think about what almost happened on the baseball diamond that night.  And for eighteen years, he succeeded.

 

***

 

When he was thirty-three and a half (not that he counted half-years, but Laurie did, and he thought it was kind of cute despite himself, just like everything Laurie did), his dad had been in prison for thirteen years.  He’d been hanging around with this cute nurse he’d met when he had to get stitches in his left arm from getting nicked with a stray bullet, and she was nice, and he liked her, and they got along like a house on fire.  She was starting to make noises about settling down, and having a family had always sounded like something John should do when he was grown up.

 

And if thirty-three and a half wasn’t grown up, he should do some re-evaluating.

 

The night he took Laurie out to dinner with a ring in his pocket, he thought about the night on the baseball diamond.  He thought about Andy almost kissing him and about how much he’d wanted it.  He wondered if he was doing the right thing, or if he was lying to himself and to Laurie.

 

But John’s years on the force had brought him in contact with plenty of gay men, and what he knew of gay men was that they cruised the bushes in Barnsdall Park and had risky, anonymous sex in public restrooms and glittery clubs, or else they were soft-spoken, well-dressed, gym-sleek and too skinny to lift more than a shopping bag, and got harassed by idiot rednecks.  John wasn’t interested in risky, anonymous sex, shopping, or glittery clubs, and anybody who harassed him got their ass kicked and their wrists cuffed for free.

 

He figured the thing with Andy had just been a phase, one of those confused, hormonal moments all teenage boys deal with at some time or another.  He wanted stability, a family, and someone in his bed who knew him inside and out.

 

That night he did the whole cheesy down-on-one-knee thing in the Cheesecake Factory and held out a black velvet box with a diamond ring inside and ended up with an armful of happy, tearful Laurie.

 

Seven months later, they were married, and John told himself that the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach was just butterflies.

 

***

 

He isn’t sure when things started falling apart with Laurie.  It wasn’t the fact that she saw him more at the hospital than she did at home, especially since he promised her he’d start taking fewer risks.  It wasn’t that he did some awful damage to his spine when some idiot ran a red light and T-boned the black-and-white he was riding shotgun in.  It wasn’t even that Evan, one of the nurses who worked with Laurie, took to flirting his—very fine—ass off with John whenever he came in to see Laurie or to get a couple of stitches or beg a Vicodin or two.

 

All he knows for sure is that it was sometime before the day Laurie sat down on the couch and made him sit in the recliner across the living room from her.  She looked like she’d been crying, and all John wanted was to get up and hold her, but she wouldn’t let him come near her.

 

“John,” she’d said in a voice that was the bravest thing he’d ever heard, even though he could hear tears and sleeplessness and fear in that one simple word, his name.  “Do you… do you want me?”

 

He didn’t know what had precipitated that question.  Sure, he didn’t try to rip off her clothes every time he saw her—or any time, really—but was it such a crime that he liked spending time with her, talking to her, enjoying her company, without a burning need to screw her?  He kind of thought that made him a gentleman.

 

“What are you talking about, Laur?  I love you.”

 

“No, I—I know you love me, John.”  She sniffled, and he ached to hold her, but she held up her hand, keeping him in his chair, a whole room away from her.  “You’re… I don’t doubt that for a second.  But do you want me?”  She looked up at him then, and her eyes were red and leaking tears, and John would have torn out his heart and handed it to her if it would make him want to kiss her the way he’d wanted to kiss Andy Meacham on the baseball diamond.  He would fucking swallow his service weapon if it would make his eyes track the curves of her hips the way he couldn’t help watching Evan’s ass.

 

“I don’t… I don’t know, Laur.”

 

“Yeah.”  She sniffed, wiping her nose on the back of her wrist.  “I kind of figured that.”  She straightened her spine, flattening her palms against her knees, and looked like she was steeling herself for a fight.  “How would you feel about going to counseling with me?”

 

She had braced for a fight, but he loved her, so he just nodded.

 

Eight months later, they were divorced, and John had a new label for himself that scared him shitless.  He was a forty-year-old divorced gay cop who had never kissed another man in his life.  He was washed up before he ever started.

 

***

 

The gay bar was an experiment.  It wasn’t glittery, it didn’t play techno-pop at ear-splitting volumes, and while he knew hook-ups sometimes happened in the restroom, he could just sit at the bar and drink his beer, and no one would bother him.  He liked to tell himself it was because he looked foreboding, but somewhere in his head he knew it was because he was forty years old, stocky, and had a cop’s haircut and a cop’s attitude.

 

Sometimes he told himself he was stupid for going there—he wasn’t going to take anyone home, and he usually didn’t speak to anyone—but somehow it felt honest, admitting to these patrons in this bar that he belonged with them.  Admitting to himself that he belonged here.

 

And it wasn’t that he never got offers, but, well, he hadn’t married Laurie for no reason, after all.  He liked the stability of a relationship, and one-night stands scared him.  Plus, these guys in here looking for hook-ups?  They wanted someone who knew what he was doing.  And John… John didn’t have the first fucking clue.

 

So when a cute Latino guy who introduced himself as Cesar bought him a round of shots, sat down beside him, and couldn’t be pried off with sarcasm or a crowbar, John let himself be picked up.  It ended with a blowjob on Cesar’s couch—one that Cesar wouldn’t let him reciprocate—and an evaluating stare and an offer to “talk about it, if you want.”

 

That was the last time his friendship with Cesar had gone there, but Cesar wasn’t deterred.

 

“You need a fairy godfather,” he’d told John one night over a decimated six-pack, and John had laid his head down on the table and tried not to snort his beer out his nose.

 

“No, I’m serious!” Cesar had exclaimed, throwing a bottle cap at him.  It bounced off John’s head and clattered to the floor.  “You’re never going to find a boyfriend for yourself.  Someone needs to find one for you.”

 

“First of all,” John had growled, pointing at Cesar in a way that was meant to be threatening but apparently failed, “who says I even want a boyfriend?”  Cesar snorted and rolled his eyes, and John railroaded right over his protests.  “Second of all, if I want one, I’ll get him myself.”

 

Cesar laughed uproariously and faked wiping tears from his eyes.  John hoped he was faking it, anyway.  “Oh, papi, you just keep telling yourself that.”

 

John had ordered him to get out.  Cesar had just laughed and opened another beer.

 

***

 

John Cooper is forty-three years old.  He’s known he was gay since forty-five minutes past his sixteenth birthday, he was married for five years to a woman he still loves, he has a friend whose benefits don’t extend past the occasional handjob when they’re both drunk and lonely, and he has a job that he loves more than anything in the world and a bad back that threatens to take it away from him at any moment.

 

Most days, he’s happy.  Other days, at least he knows who he is.