A searing, repeated sound made its way through Montgomery's sleeping mind. His first thought was of sirens; then his hand fumbled for the alarm clock, sweeping it off the bedside table. But the sound continued. It wasn't quite regular enough for an automated device. There was something distinctly human about the inconsistent, tiny breaks between the bursts of noise.
Doorbell, his brain finally provided, and he stuck out his feet from under the blanket, toes curling against the cold as he got up, eyes still half shut.
Ralph was leaning against the doorbell, quite literally. He stumbled and fell into Montgomery's arms when the door opened.
“It's official,” he said, looking up at Montgomery with teary, bloodshot eyes. “I've been dumped.”
All Montgomery could think to reply was, “At this hour?”
“Yes. No. We had a fight earlier tonight. Another fight. And I went out with some guys, and then I thought... I thought, this is stupid, we can't fight all the time... and I went to see her.”
“Now? Was her mom there?”
“She was so angry,” Ralph said, not specifying whether he meant Doris or her mother. He groaned. “I don't feel so good.”
Montgomery juggled door and intoxicated friend and managed to shut the former and gently steer Ralph towards the bathroom. Instead of throwing up, Ralph simply sat down on the floor, leaning his forehead against the cold toilet tank, and sighed.
“I didn't want to go home. My girls... they need to think that I'm...”
“Not drunk as a skunk and high as a kite?”
Ralph groaned in reply, and Montgomery went to fetch a glass of water. He got Ralph to drink the whole thing, slowly, and then led him over to the bed, putting the waste bin right under it in case of emergencies.
“Try to sleep if you can,” he said. “We'll fix it in the morning.”
Montgomery ended up being the one who actually talked to Doris first, mainly because Ralph, after three tries, still couldn't prevent Mrs. Finsecker from hanging up on him.
Montgomery waited an extra twenty minutes before calling, so she wouldn't make the connection, which seemed to work, judging by the way her irritated tones softened when she heard his voice.
Doris wasn't quite as mollified. She mostly just sounded tired.
“Do you want to talk to him?” Montgomery asked.
“I'm not sure there's anything more to say. I can't do this anymore. I love him, but I can't watch him destroy himself.”
“You shouldn't have been put in the middle like this.”
He glanced at Ralph – hungover, with sweaty hair, waxen skin, and shivering hands. Even so, the familiar tenderness and desire shot up like a spear through Montgomery's body.
From that first kiss Doris and Ralph had shared in his apartment, he'd always been on the sideline, looking in. Under the circumstances, it was terribly selfish of him to be grateful for Ralph's presence in his apartment, but he couldn't help himself.
“I don't mind,” he said.
There was a pause, then Doris said, “Okay. Just make sure to take care of yourself. And put Ralph on. We need to end it on better terms.”
Ralph's expression when he took the phone was one of grim resolve, like a man going to his execution. His usual garrulousness all but gone, he gave only single-syllable answers, and Doris's side of the conversation was inaudible. Whatever was said, it didn't seem to change anything. Ralph still looked as stony when he gave the phone back.
“Thanks,” he said. “I'll be out of your hair now.”
Montgomery swallowed. “Stay for breakfast? If you can stomach it.”
After a beat, one corner of Ralph's mouth quirked up, just a smidgen. “I'll give it a try.”
It became an irregularly reoccurring event after that, Ralph turning up in Montgomery's apartment out of the blue. Because he was drunk and didn't want to go home, because he was bored and needed something to do, because he'd just thought of an amazing spin on the latest impro exercise and he needed to try it out on someone.
If the hour was less ungodly, Doris would sometimes be there too, and it was almost as if nothing had changed. Except there would be a glint of caution in Doris's eyes, like she expected Ralph to go off the rails at any minute, He in turn would rein himself in, shave off the wildest excesses in his personality – if not actually sober, then at least doing his best to act it.
But on the late night visits, Montgomery was treated to the full picture, and he could see why Doris called it quits. At times it was like watching someone go down the highway at 150, on the wrong side of the road.
And yet, in its warped, weird way, it was a blessing. Even before the night Ralph caught him in a warm hug and declared:
“You're better than I deserve.”
“Damn right,” Montgomery said, trying to keep them both upright.
Ralph leaned close, which seemed to be just for the scaffolding – until he caught Montgomery's lips in a kiss.
Stunned, Montgomery lost his grip, which sent both of them careening into the wall.
“Ow,” Ralph said. “Wow. Knocking me off my feet, sunshine.”
He leaned in for another kiss, and Montgomery squirmed away as far as he could without dropping Ralph entirely. “You're drunk.”
“No, I'm stoned. And a little drunk. But mostly stoned. And that's not the point. The point is... you're the best boyfriend I could ever have.”
“You don't even want a boyfriend. You like chicks, remember?”
“What's that got to do with it? I like lots of people. I like you.”
Montgomery put a hand up against Ralph's chest to prevent him from coming any closer, trying to ignore the way his heart was making somersaults. “I'm sure that makes a lot of sense to you right now, but believe me, when you've sobered up, things will look very different.”
“I'll still like you when I'm sober.”
“Not like this.”
Ralph pondered that, then nodded, and pointed an unsteady finger towards Montgomery. “I'll kiss you when I'm sober. You'll see.”
“Okay,” Montgomery agreed, wanting desperately for that to be the truth, but knowing in the depth of his soul that it wasn't.
When Montgomery left for school the next morning, Ralph was still asleep. Maybe it was selfish not to wake him up. It was absolutely cowardice, trying to avoid the inevitable awkward conversation. Even the packet of poptarts Montgomery left on the kitchen counter wasn't really any sort of compensation.
Ralph didn't show up in class until second period, which was rehearsals, and there was no time to talk. Third period was cancelled so the class could be sized for caps and gowns, and Montgomery was in the middle of trying his on when Ralph came up to him and kissed him straight on the mouth.
He was gone as quickly as he'd shown up, lost in the pack of rowdy students. It wasn't until twenty minutes later that Montgomery caught up with him in the corridor, looking flustered yet pretty pleased with himself.
“I told you I would.”
“I didn't think you meant it.”
Ralph shoved his hands down his pockets, doing a little jig with his feet. “Listen, I'm not gonna lie. This is... kind of new to me. But I want to give it a shot. I may have been stoned last night, but I wasn't wrong.”
“You mean you're attracted to me?”
“Well, that hairstyle's not doing you any favors. But... yeah.”
He had a tiny, shy smile on his face, entirely different from his usual cocky expression. Montgomery hesitated, but only for a second, and then leaned forward, catching Ralph's lips with his own.
They were so soft, and responsive, and the scratch of stubble surrounding them only enhanced the sensation. Further down the corridor, there was a wolf-whistle, which made Montgomery flinch, because while he was out and proud, Ralph was not, and this wasn't really a fair way of... but Ralph didn't pull back. On the contrary, he deepened the kiss and wrapped a hand on Montgomery’s hip.
When they finally broke off the kiss, Ralph grinned. “Am I your first?”
“No, no, don't take it the wrong way. You're a great kisser. Can't wait to see what's next.”
“Bite me, Garci.”
“That's an idea. I'll save it for tonight.”
Montgomery shook his head and turned on his heel – mostly to hide the grin that was all over his face too.
Of course Montgomery had to tell Doris right away – anything else would have seemed like deception. It didn't seem right to talk about it at lunch, or worse, in class. She deserved some privacy to have any reaction she wanted. So at the end of the school day, he offered to walk her home, and waited until the street was half empty before he said:
“I kissed Ralph.”
Doris halted her steps, forcing him to do the same. “You did?”
“He kissed me too. And... we'd like to keep doing that. If that's okay.”
“Wait, are you asking my blessing?”
“Well, he was yours first.”
Doris blinked, then stepped in and hugged Montgomery close. “You are the sweetest guy alive. And I'm glad you told me, but you don't need my permission. I don't have dibs on Ralph, I broke up with him.”
“I know that. It's just... you're my best friend.”
“You're mine too. And I love you just as much as I love him. That's the only reason I'm asking you this.” Her blue eyes bore into his, gentle but imploring. “Do you know what you're getting into?”
He thought of all the times Ralph had passed out in his apartment, and replied, “Yeah. I want to do it anyway.”
“Then I bless this union. Or whatever.” She hugged him again, then started walking. “Come on. It's too cold to be standing around.”
Most of the time, it was wonderful. Not just having a boyfriend, which was more exhilarating than he had dreamed of, but having Ralph Garci for a boyfriend – with his restless energy and wicked tongue and that deep streak of loyalty and passion that he tried to keep hidden but couldn't. The sex was great, but beyond that, there were mundane things like sitting at a café, talking about nothing and everything, or taking a walk together, or going to see Ralph's sisters. Montgomery was still officially Ralph's “friend” to them, as to most people outside the theater world, but just being around each other was a joy.
Professionally, things were looking up, too. There were few things as beautiful as watching Ralph perform on a night when he was in the flow and caught the audience, riding on their laughter as he nailed every punchline.
Or when Montgomery got his first professional acting job and Ralph beamed with pride, bringing him Danish pastries with lit sparklers in them, which was really too much celebration for three measly lines in a hospital series.
“It'll be Hamlet next, mark my words,” Ralph said, giving him a deep kiss. “I'll play Yorick. We can have a steamy makeout session on stage.”
“That might get an audience,” Montgomery agreed.
Obviously, Hamlet wasn't next – but he did get a role at Playwrights Horizon in the winter, and Ralph was right there in the front row, clapping his hands off. Sure, Montgomery was still flipping burgers a lot of the time, and Ralph mixed drinks between gigs, but it was a lot better than their high school teachers had warned them.
But then there were the other days. When the gigs didn't come, or the audience wasn't so kind. When Ralph got so high he could barely speak, or sat around the apartment shaking, or disappeared until early morning.
Eventually, Montgomery had to admit that both the work trouble and the money trouble were minor compared to not knowing whether his boyfriend would survive the next year.
“Can't you please cut that shit out?” he asked at one point, seeing Ralph pop another couple of pills he'd bought from God knew where, using vodka to swallow them down.
Ralph grimaced. “Oh, don't give me that. This isn't any worse than that stuff your witch-doctor gave you.”
“And I wish I'd never let you buy any of them. That's what got you into all this.”
“Sorry to disappoint, sunshine,” Ralph said, patting his hair, “but that all started well before you got involved. I've a long and proud history of deviant behavior.”
“This isn't funny. It's going too far. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“Oh, God, you sound like Doris. What, are you going to bail on me too?”
The question was flippant, but the fear shone through in his eyes, and Montgomery deflated.
“No,” he said. “No, of course not.”
He tried to cope, to find that right level of argumentation that would persuade Ralph to stop, instead of breaking apart entirely – because when they were good, they were just so good.
But he sat in a club, watching Ralph stumble through a routine that managed to keep the audience entertained only by virtue of being so often performed that he could have done it in his sleep, which he practically did.
Doris was sitting at the same table, watching Montgomery watch Ralph.
“Do you remember that joke he used to tell?” she asked. “About how every kid in South Bronx wants to be an ex-junkie?”
“Not so funny anymore, is it?”
Montgomery blinked furiously. “There's got to be some place... someone who could help...”
“I've got a list,” she said. “I'll give it to you. Or I could come with, if you want. Maybe it'd help, if we're two.”
He shook his head. “No. Thanks, but no. He'd just feel cornered, that way.”
Trouble was, there wasn't really any way not to corner Ralph. Montgomery tried to think of a way, made up plans and scrapped them again, but in the end, the two of them merely went on a walk one Sunday afternoon, and only Montgomery knew that they had a very specific destination.
He stopped on the street, looking up at the arched doorways. “This is Daytop,” he said. “It's a really good rehab center. Has a great reputation. I want you to come in with me and talk to them.”
Ralph scowled. “What is this, an intervention?”
“Yes,” Montgomery said, struggling to keep his voice level. “This has gone far enough, and I can't help you on my own.”
“Fuck you, MacNeil. Fuck you! You can't just bring me here like a dog to the vet. I've got a right to make my own decisions.”
“Well, you're making shitty ones!” So much for the level voice. “And whether you like it or not, your decisions affect me too.”
“Oh, well, play the martyr. I'm such a burden, aren't I? You and Doris, sobbing with each other over me like a pair of old grannies. Face it, if you had any real options, you'd have hightailed out of here a long time ago. I'm the best you can get, so I guess you have to try and clean me up for the front parlor.”
“I love you, you dick!” Montgomery roared, the pounding in his ears making very little difference between love and hate at that moment.
“Yeah?” Ralph bit back. “And what am I supposed to do with that?”
Montgomery stared at him for a second, then turned on his heel and walked away.
It took an hour for Montgomery's head to cool down enough for him to go back to the apartment. Ralph wasn't there when he did. Nor later in the evening, but he had a gig that night, so it made sense. Half past midnight, Montgomery went to bed.
He woke up from a key in the door and the heavy sounds of feet. The alarm clock showed 4:16, and he rolled over on his side with the face against the wall, pretending to be asleep when Ralph clumsily lay down next to him.
In the morning, Ralph was still asleep, and didn't wake up when Montgomery climbed over him to get out. Worry overtaking anger for a moment, Montgomery stopped and checked his pulse, but it was steady and even, despite his clammy skin and rancid breath. Not dying, just hungover.
There was an hour and a half left before work, enough to get breakfast – or to pack a sports bag full of clothes and find a motel, which was what Montgomery did. He left a note on the kitchen counter: “I can't take any more of this. You can keep the apartment, but I'm out. I'm sorry.” He contemplated leaving out the last words. What good would it do either of them if he was sorry or not, especially while leaving in a cowardly way like this? But he left them in. After all, it was the truth.
By the time he had checked in, he had to hurry off to the diner, and it wasn't until the evening that he managed to get Doris on the phone.
“Well, I left,” he said.
“I know. Ralph's been ringing off the hook here. Even Mom took pity on him.”
He squeezed the receiver tight. “Do you think I'm being a dick?”
“I'd be a right hypocrite if I did. Hey, have you got a place to stay? Ralph said you left him the apartment.”
“I'm at a motel in Brooklyn. It's fine.”
“You know, I’m moving in with Lisa Monroe next month, but her old roommate already left, so if you want some place more homelike than a motel...”
“Yeah. Thanks. What's her number?”
Lisa's apartment was tiny, but there was a fully furnished spare bedroom with its own balcony, while all of Lisa's belongings were concentrated to the living-room.
“Are you sure you don't want this for yourself?” Montgomery asked, standing on the balcony looking at the view – which, granted, was a backyard.
“Like I can afford to live alone. Nah. You're good for rent, right? Do you have a job?”
“I've got three more weeks at Playwrights Horizon. After that, it's back to the diner, but yeah, I should still be able to cover rent.”
“Oh, you're actually acting?” There was no resentment in her voice, just sheer surprise. “Good for you!”
“I take it you're not?”
“No, I work at a boutique in Brooklyn Heights.” She sounded as proud as if she'd announced that she was starring in this year's Oscar favorite.
“Do you miss it? Acting?”
“Not really,” she said with a shrug. “This is a good job. Steady income, too.”
He recalled that she had transferred to drama pretty late and never seemed that into it. Dancing had been her first love, and judging by the classroom gossip, she hadn't been very dedicated to that, either. Settling down with a regular job might actually be the best choice for her.
As the days went by, he tried to find some sign of dissatisfaction in her, but there didn't seem to be any. She was an easy-going roommate, content to sit around and talk for a while after work, maybe going down to the discotheque once or twice a week.
It was simple, and pleasant, and utterly alien to Montgomery's experience. He could no more give up acting than he could stop breathing. The desire to stand on stage, to throw himself into the life of yet another character, was burning in his blood.
And so was Ralph. Montgomery forced himself to not call the apartment, or go to any of the gigs, or even send for the rest of his stuff. The only way he could stop himself from running back to make sure Ralph was all right, was to lock that entire part of his life away and keep himself busy with everything else. Work. Dishes. Reading. Looking for another apartment to stay in once Doris was ready to move into Lisa's.
One evening, there was a note on his bed: “Doris called. Ralph's at rehab.”
Montgomery picked up the note, stared at it, and felt the air return to his lungs.
Going to see a residential patient at a drug rehab facility wasn't as easy as just showing up, but soon enough, Montgomery found himself in a sunny atrium, sweaty hands shoved down his pockets, watching nervously as he saw Ralph for the first time in two weeks.
Ralph looked nervous too, and, honestly, not that good, but he gave Montgomery a quivering smile. “Hey.”
They stopped six feet away from each other, neither one reaching out for the other, but both with the muscles kept tense, like two prey animals dropped in the same cage.
Ralph raised one shoulder. “Well, I made it here. Like you wanted.”
“I'm so happy you did,” Montgomery said, swallowing hard.
“I'm sorry for all the things I said. I didn't mean them.”
“I know. I shouldn't have cornered you like that.”
“No, it was a good thing you did. Granted, moving out of your own apartment like that was a bit over-dramatic...”
Montgomery gave a breathy laugh, tears filling his eyes. “It worked, didn't it?”
Ralph closed the distance between them, spreading his arms, and Montgomery stepped into the embrace. Both of them were crying now, and Ralph wiped away Montgomery's tears with the back of his hand.
“I'll be okay,” he said. “We'll be okay. I love you, and I'm not going to let anyone ruin that. Least of all me.”
“I love you too,” Montgomery said, and the words had barely left his lips when Ralph kissed him.
There were windows all around the atrium, where anyone passing by could see, but then, Montgomery reflected, when had Ralph Garci ever given a damn about decorum?
In August, Marsha MacNeil was in New York as part of a nation-wide tour of The Crucible, and Montgomery was given two tickets that, after a phone call, he managed to turn into three.
“I wasn't about to leave you out of it,” he told Doris. “I know how much you love the play.”
“It's just got such good parts for women!” she said. “I would love to play Abigail some day.”
“Ooh, the villain,” Ralph teased. “I could see you doing that.”
But once they were all in the theater, watching the play, Montgomery could see that Ralph was as taken with it as the two of them. And no wonder. Even he forgot that the Elizabeth on stage was just his mom, an actress, and started thinking of her as just the innocently accused farmer's wife.
Afterward, he ushered them backstage to meet his mother: “Mom, this is Ralph and Doris. Guys, meet my mom.”
“Mrs. MacNeil, that was amazing,” said Doris.
Ralph filled in with, “Great performance.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. So, you're friends from school, is that it?”
“Actually,” Montgomery said, heart beating fast as he took Ralph's hand, “Ralph is my boyfriend.”
“And Doris is the chaperone,” Ralph filled in. If he caught the chill from Marsha's gaze, he didn't let it show.
“Maid of honor, if you please,” Doris teased back.
“Best friend,” Montgomery said. “And maid of honor sounds good too.”
Marsha watched Montgomery, brow furrowed in a way that made her stern 17th century outfit look even sterner. “So you're sticking with that choice?”
Montgomery squeezed Ralph's hand harder. “Through thick and thin.”