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Baby, It's You

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    Everything is packed up, everyone is ready to roll on back to their separate lives, or even if they aren’t, that’s what’s going to happen. Sleep is impossible, but at least Sam finds he’s not the only one who thinks so.

 

    He doesn’t really know what his plan had been, when ‘sleep’ wasn’t it, but heading through the silent house, he spots Michael through a window.

 

    Out on the porch, he’s taken a radio out on the porch, that and a bottle of wine. Dancing, loose-limbed and surprisingly graceful, bottle in one hand. Sam eases the door open without being heard over the Shirelles, watching Michael from behind as he gestures to some imaginary partner, and the thing is, Sam’s seen Michael dance. In college, here, sober, stoned, drunk, he’s seen him dance in about every state you could see a man dance in and he’s always been a little stiff and a little awkward--

 

    No. Once, once he’d been surprisingly good, that was when they’d all… they’d all gotten that place together, late in their college years, and Sam had been painting with Michael and Alex, they’d been split up into rough groups trying to fix the place up, and he guesses they’d goaded Michael into dancing. He remembers the secret little war they’d had of trying to sneakily get paint on each other-- you could get points for the back if your target didn’t notice until seeing it on his shirt later, but mostly points were awarded if you got someone when he was on guard. Arms weren’t worth as much as the unprotected front, faces, that was… The three of them had been a mess , he doesn’t remember whose idea the game had been, just that they all had to wash paint out of their hair and the ratty old jeans and tee shirts they were wearing were never going to be the same. Not that paint-covered jeans weren’t sort of fashionable then, made you look artsy even if you weren’t, and the kind of girls he used to go for were very into artsy…

 

    He doesn’t remember whose idea it was. He remembers Michael getting the top of his bare foot with the roller, and he remembers getting the center of his back in retaliation, and he remembers Alex getting Michael’s cheek with the small brush he was using to get around the molding, and that all the others had asked them what the hell kind of a paint job this was that they got themselves as thoroughly as they got the walls, and how much they had laughed, and that Michael was doing broad swathes with the roller on his side and Alex had been going along the edges but he also went after Michael to get all the tiny spots filled in that Michael couldn’t see without his glasses…

 

    And he remembers that when Alex started singing and convinced Michael to dance, Sam had been surprised to see he did it well . And maybe it’s just that any audience of more than two people trips him up.

 

    Michael turns, with the end of the song, startles at seeing Sam.

 

    “Didn’t realize anyone else was up.”

 

    “Yeah. One of those nights you just can’t sleep.” Sam shrugs. “I thought I’d be up alone. But I don’t mind company…”

 

    “I don’t, no, yeah…” Michael shakes his head, stops a moment. Looks down at himself and then realizes he’s holding the wine bottle, passes it off.

 

    If it wasn’t so heavy, Sam might guess he was drunk. Not on this, though. He’s not even tipsy, on this. Sam takes a drink and passes it back. They gravitate to the porch steps together.

 

    “I don’t really know how to go back to my old life.” Michael says softly. “I barely knew how to live it before, now it seems like it should be someone else’s. Maybe that’s the kind of thought everyone has sometimes when it’s the middle of the night.”

 

    “Maybe.” Sam nods.

 

    “And feeling like a fraud. That’s just what everyone does when they hit thirty, isn’t it? And then you keep feeling like one until you hit forty, and I guess with luck we’ll find out when we get there what’s terrible about forty.”

 

    “Your lower back and your knees.” Sam reaches for the bottle again. “But we might stop feeling like frauds. At least, you might. I’m a professional liar.”

 

    “I am a fraud. That’s the difference. Everyone might feel like a fraud, I… But what else is there, you know?”

 

    “Look… you’re not a complete hack, if that’s got you down. You’re maybe half a hack, three quarters.”

 

    “It’s not that. It’s not important. I mean-- thanks. But it’s not…”

 

    “No, you can tell me.”

 

    Michael looks at him a long moment, before taking the bottle back and taking a swig. “I’ve never told… any of the others. I’ve never told… You know I’m not straight? Because I’ve never really, never actually told anybody.”

 

    Sam blinks. “Okay.”

 

    “Okay?”

 

    “Yeah, okay.” He holds his hand out for the bottle again, watches Michael’s grip on it loosen slowly. Watches him let out a hard breath. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

 

    “That Hollywood talking? Because a lot of places…”

 

    “That’s me talking. About us.” He punches Michael’s shoulder. “You never told anybody else?”

 

    “Sam, I didn’t even tell the only guy I ever-- No.”

 

    “He probably figured it out. Once you ‘ever’...”

 

    “Yeah. He probably figured a lot out… he was always good at that. I mean-- It’s not-- It isn’t important, that part, just… I’ve never said it out loud. And I wanted to. And I thought… why ruin what everyone remembers? Not that… not that I’m so memorable.”

 

    “You’re kidding.” And he elbows him for good measure. “Not memorable? You know all the really good stories I tell, from back in the day, you’re in. What about that time we drove out… It was you and me and Alex, we drove out...”

 

    “Ossineke.” Michael supplies.

 

    “Yeah. To look at the plaster dinosaurs? Whose idea was that?”

 

    “It was yours. You invited yourself into the car and said ‘you guys want to see the funniest tourist trap?’, and…”

 

    “And we fought over the front seat the whole drive.”

 

    “It was only three hours.” Michael laughs.

 

    “And we spent the whole day on those plaster dinosaurs and had to get a motel room anyway because we were too tired for a three hour drive.”

 

    “And you didn’t have a suitcase.”

 

    “You were planning on something else. You and Alex. You had suitcases. Where were you going?”

 

    “Nowhere. We’d pick a direction and drive sometimes. Sleep in the car or else maybe get a cheap room, come back. But who were we to say no to the funniest tourist trap?”

 

    “And you felt bad for me because I was going to be in the same clothes, no toothbrush, and I was going to spend the whole ride back in the backseat in yesterday’s sweaty clothes while you two took the front, fresh as a daisy.” Sam grins, gesturing broadly as if painting the scene. “Poor, unprepared Sam, who’s never been on a road trip! Poor Sam, who doesn’t have pajamas-- That was it! You didn’t feel sorry for me at all, I got one of the two beds to myself because I was the only one sleeping in his underwear!”

 

    “And neither of us was going to share with you if you didn’t have a toothbrush. How’s that bottle looking?”

 

    “Take another drink, sure. That was… that was a good weekend. It was always stuff like that. Running off on weekends. Or just going out. You and I went to that bar… usual place, but it was just the two of us first. The other guys showed up later, and you… you were putting the moves on this girl all night, that girl, long hair…”

 

    “They all had long hair. We all had long hair.” Michael snorts.

 

    “You were putting the moves on her all night and I mean, I was eyeing her too. And you… you dragged her over, you introduced her to me and that was it for you, but… That was the not-straight thing, huh?”

 

    Michael nods. “That was the not-straight thing.”

 

    “It was a great system for me.” Sam grins. It hadn’t been just the once, it had been… often enough. A couple different college bars they’d roll into on weekends, sometimes with the gang, or just the guys, or some of them anyway. Some nights it was the two of them alone, though the others might join them later or meet them at the next bar if they moved on looking for better prospects…

 

    How many times had Michael brought a girl over, passing off the transfer as his repeatedly making the ‘mistake’ of introducing her to Sam’s charms? And just sort of laughed and shook his head if she latched onto Sam instead, as if it couldn’t be helped. And how many times had Sam thought, poor Michael, he’s never going to learn, when he’d learned very well the most reliable way of passing himself off as straight without having to go home with a girl if he didn’t want to?

 

    He remembers that night in particular, or he thinks they’re thinking of the same night and the same girl. Michael hovering around her and talking, his hands flying, smile easy, and then leading her back to the table where Sam was sitting with their pitcher of beer, drifting off when she made her choice… Good-natured about it in a way a lot of guys wouldn’t be. And seeing him later, leaning against the jukebox, laughing and shaking his head at something Alex was saying to him. Alex dragging him to the dance floor against his protests, moving between the girls there, catching Sam’s eye and waving…

 

    He sighs, leaning his shoulder into Michael’s, feeling him start a little before relaxing into it.

 

    “After fame, you’re the best wingman I’ve ever had. You ever want me to return the favor, you fly out to LA, I know some guys.”

 

    “I’m not ready for that.” Michael says, voice tight.

 

    “Sure. No, I get it. I’m the only person you’ve told, you’re not ready… When you are, you can call me up.”

 

    He glances over to Michael, not quite turning his head, just watching out of the corner of his eye, the way his mouth and jaw works silently a long moment.

 

    “I’m just not ready for someone else.” Michael says at last, and there’s something almost strangled to it.

 

    “Offer’s open for any time.” He slings an arm around him, feels him shudder once and lean in even closer. “Didn’t know Mr. Only-Ever was a recent breakup.”

 

    “No. I’m just, I’m not, it isn’t…”

 

    “You’re not ready.”

 

    “Yeah.”

 

    “Serious, though?”

 

    “It wasn’t the kind of thing you could be serious about. I was anyway. It was… it was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter.”

 

    “Sure it does. You were serious. That matters.”

 

    Michael stifles a sob, scooting down to lay his head against Sam’s shoulder. “It was, it was a long time ago, I just… The past all gets dragged up and you think about everything, you think about everything… And you think about the things you didn’t do… You can’t know if you should have or not. But there are things I could have said. There are things I should have done and I was afraid to, but if… I was so afraid to. But there’s nothing I could have done to ruin things more, I… You think about everything, and all the things I was afraid of, none of them… You know?”

 

    “Yeah. The past all gets dragged up and you think about everything… but hey. You think about the good times, too, that’s something. Sometimes you forget to.”

 

    “I never did. Forget to. I never… I never moved past what we all had. I don’t know how anybody does. How people make friends after college. How people fill their lives. How it’s not just work and then you go home and you sit there, and you… I never figured out how to be a real adult. It’s all just feeling like a fraud. How long before that part stops and you just… grow up? Eat lunch with people from the office? Do small talk? I have… I have one friend I’ve made since college. One real friend, one friend I could call if I was in trouble, or who would help me move a sofa, one. How do you do it?”

 

    “You fake it.” Sam sighs. “Come out to LA. Sometime, and if you don’t want me playing matchmaker for the weekend, I won’t. But… Sometime. This trip’s too short, it’s too sad , to be all we get. And you spent half of it not even hanging with the old gang. And-- what? You didn’t even actually want to sleep with her, Chloe?”

 

    “Someone had to talk to her, she lost him too. And… I don’t know. I did and I didn’t. Or I didn’t want her to… to want to, with me. But I wanted to, if… I don’t know. I wanted-- I know how you remember Alex. How we all, I mean, how… How it was, with us, back then. I wanted to know how she… What it was like to… I don’t know. I wanted her to feel like she was a part of things, like she could share, like… she could tell me about-- things.”

 

    Sam inspects the wine bottle a moment by moonlight. Half the bottle, assuming Michael wound up drinking half the bottle, maybe he shouldn’t get behind the wheel, but Sam knows Michael, drunk, stoned, or sober. Half the bottle, that’s what, three glasses? Three and a half because Sam joined in late, and they aren’t through the whole thing yet?

 

    It’s an excuse, but Sam isn’t going to pick it apart. He’ll pretend Michael is drunk enough to tell him the truth. They’ve all had the chance to tell the truth except him, haven’t they? Michael, treading carefully, not leaning on anyone. Why wouldn’t he lean on them?

 

    Because remembering old times dragged his secret to the surface.

 

    Because it was something that happened back then, and he’s been denying that part of himself since college? But Chloe was safe to talk to, and Michael had a point, it would be a shitty thing to drag her out and ignore her completely when she was mourning too. He couldn’t lean on them because they all knew him then and he had something to hide that Chloe wouldn’t touch off?

 

    Maybe. That’s as much as he can come up with.

 

    They shouldn’t have let Michael go the weekend not leaning on them. But none of them knew how to mourn like this… sharp, surprising grief. Losing an elderly relative or knowing someone with the big C, but never this kind of shock to a loss. Except for Michael, who lost both his parents, no wonder Michael could hold himself together in a way that was foreign to the rest of them, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t have used holding together from the rest of them. It just meant he’d been around the block before.

 

    Well, Sam has tonight to make up for it, if he can. And they can get together and reminisce when it’s not so fresh.

 

    “I have pictures. If you want copies.” Michael breaks the quiet again. “Ossineke. The three of us. I have the old photos we took, I can send you copies.”

 

    “Yeah, I’d like that.”

 

    “I was looking at them, before I came. All the old photos, not just that weekend, but… all of them. If you need copies of anything-- I mean I could, it’s no trouble.”

 

    “Thanks. I’ve got some. I’ve got some of all of us, I’ve got… fixing up the house, Thanksgiving. No road trip photos, nothing else.”

 

    “Oh, send me copies of the house photos, I don’t-- Do you have the one where we’re--?”

 

    “Covered in paint?” Sam laughs. “I was just remembering-- I was just remembering, that was the three of us. I remember a lot of the three of us.”

 

    “Yeah. Send me those. Any of them, but-- That one.”

 

    The radio has been on, they never turned it off, just moved away from it and let it be background noise, songs he didn’t care about much, but then it’s the Drifters, and Michael chokes back another sob.

 

    “You and Mister Only-Ever have a song?” Sam asks, but he realizes immediately that’s wrong, this isn’t about that, it’s about Alex. Alex, crooning off-key, in some silly, theatrical attempt at goading Michael into sneaking off for a drink or a joint or just to relax. Not only one time, every time, and that was Michael’s thing. Alex would invite all of them off to blow off steam sometimes and he would get silly and sing and dance without self-consciousness with all of them, but ‘Up on the Roof’ was just Michael’s. Even when he literally invited Sam to go smoke on the roof, literally up to the roof, the song was only ever for Michael alone.

 

    “We had about fifty, but we didn’t get to… You don’t talk about it or you pretend it’s not… important .” Michael shrugs. “You pretend it doesn’t matter, none of it matters, because you don’t get to be in love with him.”

 

    Oh.

 

    Well, shit.

 

    “Michael… You should have said.” He squeezes him a little tighter.

 

    It wasn’t the kind of thing he could have asked himself to notice back then, when the idea that he might know anyone not-straight was so foreign. Were there looks between them sometimes? He remembers there being, sure, but Michael had this look he gave to all of them when he was in the right kind of mood and things were mellow and they were clicking. Michael had had a certain sort of adoration for everybody, even if it only came out every once in a while. Hell, sometimes he’d sling the most creative insults and he’d still have that kind of love-light in his eyes, it was the look he had for all of them and only for all of them. Same with Alex, he knew how to look at you like you were special, and he always knew who needed that look. He gave every single one of them that charming smile and that invitation to do something, any time you were down or alone, he didn’t let anyone else’s bad mood fester. In Sam’s memories, those looks they might have shared weren’t at all different from the looks they shared with everyone else.

 

    They set off on those weekends sometimes, but they never balked if someone else invited themselves along, as Sam did when he redirected them out to Ossineke. And they didn’t only do things together with each other, either, the whole group sometimes split into pairs and everyone had something they did with everyone.

 

    Michael had gone home with Alex, after his parents died. Every break until they had the house and spent a couple summers there, did Thanksgiving as a group instead of traveling home, and even then, Michael went with Alex when he did go home. Sam didn’t question it-- Alex would have done that for any of them, he couldn’t stand having any of them hurting if he could do something. Plus, he never had the impulse control to not just make the offer, honestly. Alex might have done anything if it struck him, it was the sort of thing that added to his charm, that had girls go for him, the wild side. But that his first impulses were always tied to others’ happiness, that was what earned him that special place in his friends’ memories. He was… fun, yeah, always, but he was good to them. Michael had needed that. Sam had always seen Michael needing that, back then… he just never saw how much Alex did.

 

    In the motel room in Ossineke, they hadn’t done anything suspicious, he never left the room and re-entered to find them moving away from each other fast. They were as happy to have him there as if he wasn’t cramping their style at all. It wasn’t Sam and Michael-and-Alex. But maybe they hadn’t done anything yet, maybe this was before they were Michael-and-Alex, which clearly they were, because if anything’s their song, it’s this.

 

    “You should have said.” He repeats, as Michael cries against his shoulder. Everything he’d held back since the funeral, how careful was he to show the ‘appropriate’ amount of grief? “Shit, you could have told me…”

 

    “I couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t tell anyone--” He hiccups. Throws his arms around Sam, glasses pressing into him.

 

    “Okay, well tell me now. Say it. Just… let it out, you’ve held onto it long enough.”

 

    “Everyone remembers the best of him and I couldn’t, I couldn’t ruin that for them… And I should have… If I wasn’t afraid, every time I picked up that phone, that he wouldn’t want the reminder of, of things we did, if I could have asked to talk longer, talk about something real , then I would have known . Because I always knew. Not that it would ever-- Not that it could be that bad, I was never that bad, but we… We saw this in each other. And it was such a lonely, hungry thing, to be sad and then to be nothing at all, but with him, it wasn’t always like that. Suddenly there was something . He knew how to break me out of that holding pattern, he knew how to make it so I could breathe, and all I wanted was to give that back, and I did, back then. We couldn’t talk about that, either, much. We didn’t know how. Back before therapy was in vogue. Does everyone have a therapist in LA? They do in New York. I could probably use one but somehow I always tell myself it’s not…”

 

    “Sure, sure. Everyone has a therapist in LA, not that it matters. The whole world’s your therapist in LA. But that’s New York and LA, not Ann Arbor, where… give it another decade or two and you might see people going to therapists. You okay?”

 

    “Yeah. I’m okay. I mean… I’m not good , Sam, but… I was never going to, you know. I only ever thought about it once in my life and based on my reaction to the thought, I'd say I’m pretty safe. No, I don’t… I don’t always like my life much, but I could never… I could never. I just always assumed neither of us could ever. He didn’t want people to think… and I understood that. The idea of people knowing, it’s like… it’s like being naked in public. And everybody staring. But the two of us, we weren’t like that. Because we were both naked. Metaphorically!”

 

    Sam clears his throat.

 

    “Okay, well, also not so metaphorically. Also that. It was… convenient. He liked girls. I mean I didn’t not like girls all right, but… but I liked him more. We shared things, that’s… that’s really all it was. We shared things. If neither of us found a date some weekend, we… we had each other. And sometimes I’d shoot myself in the foot bringing a girl over to you, so I’d have the excuse to be free if he was.”

 

    “You know there wasn’t a weekend a guy like Alex couldn’t have gotten some girl if he wanted to. Not if she was out there to be had by somebody. He could have swooped in and taken them off me, and we all know I was always better looking. You know if he wasn’t doing the same…”

 

    “We couldn’t admit to it.” Michael says softly, tired. Not lateness-of-the-hour tired, but a ten year old exhaustion. “And what good would saying something now do? Everyone remembers the best of him and that’s what they want, that’s what they need right now. I wasn’t the best of him. To make everyone grapple with that? To make his girlfriend grapple with that?”

 

    “Might help her move on without feeling too guilty about it, who knows?” Sam shrugs. And no wonder he had wanted her memories, someone who remembered him as a lover and not a friend, even if he couldn’t talk about him the same way...

 

    “I couldn’t bear it if anyone thought less of him because of me. You might not think it’s any reason to think less of a person, and maybe all our friends would understand that, if it was experimenting or if it was favors, but I can’t talk about it like it was just favors. Whatever I did or didn’t mean to him, he made such a world of difference to me, and I… Either they’ll see it as pathetic, me being so hung up on him all these years-- I mean, not that there weren’t women, but… but risking trying to find a man when it was never going to be like what I had before, I don’t know. There’s a lot to be afraid of. And nothing really compares to memory, does it?”

 

    “Sex does.”

 

    “Or they’ll… or they won’t like it. I don’t know. I mean, and his poor family, they… You know? I don’t fit into the life he had and the memories other people share and that’s… It is what it is.”

 

    “But you should get to say it.”

 

    “I loved him. Not ‘we all’, I . I loved him and I don’t know how to deal with it all now.”

 

    “You’ll figure it out.” Sam says, gently jostling at him. “I’ll send you the pictures, you send me some. And you’ll come out sometime and we’ll do something. I’ll show you the funniest tourist trap in LA.”

 

    “Sam? Thanks.”

 

    “Yeah, well.” He shakes his head. "What are friends for, huh?"

 

    They sit there a while yet, just sharing the night in peace. The two of them won't be the same as the three of them had been... but the two of them will be okay.