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That Lesson Alone

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“If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That is the lesson, and that lesson alone will save you a lot of grief.” – Oprah Winfrey

*

Eventually Patrick had to go home and face the music.

He might have been an only child, but he had a very large extended family, almost all of whom were close. Some of them didn’t ask—but most of them asked. And most of them made assumptions.

One was that Patrick had had no idea he was gay until he met some guy named David, who rocked his world and changed everything. The other was that Patrick knew all along and hid it from them out of some combination of internalized homophobia and fear of external prejudice. This was the binary. No one seemed to leave room for a third option, something in between, where it was possible to kind of guess you were gay, but feel confused, and never feel like you had an opportunity to try.

Meeting people was hard. Going out and trying to make that happen was a lot of effort. Something else would come up—work and theater and baseball games and family; making time to do a thing like explore his sexuality when he wasn’t even sure it needed exploring was just another item on a to-do list that grew ever longer.

He’d gone with what was in front of him, what was easy. His friends had all settled down that way, his cousins—not with a magical romance, but with all the pieces falling into place, without an epic quest to make them fit. Patrick wasn’t an idealist. He knew life wasn’t like the movies, but for the people around him, finding someone hadn’t seemed like something they’d had to struggle with, and Patrick didn’t want a struggle.

Was that really so unusual? Was it so hard to believe that the reason he had never kissed a boy before was because the opportunity had simply never presented itself?

Was this not a thing that other people felt—that sometimes it didn’t happen for you, and you didn’t know how to make it happen, and when you thought about making it happen, it seemed too overwhelming for that moment in your life? Was it not overwhelming for everybody else? Was everybody else making some desperate and monumental effort to meet everyone they could to find the perfect kiss, the perfect sex, the perfect gender, the perfect date, the perfect person? If they were, they were hiding it from him, because somehow, they were managing to climb mountains and do ballet and get their taxes done around what seemed to him a large undertaking.

Was there some key moment at which he should have kissed a boy, just because he thought it might be nice to try it?

*

In high school, Patrick had been kind of horny all the time, and because he’d been horny in proximity to Rachel, he’d assumed it had been because of her. She was smart, nice, and pretty, and Patrick knew how high school was supposed to go. Make good grades, have friends, play a sport, get a weekend job, get a girlfriend, maybe try sex, maybe try drinking, get into a good university. Then you got a real job and got married and bought a house and had a mortgage. You had kids and you wore Dockers.

Patrick did all the things he was supposed to do in high school, except he also wrote music and did theater. “It’s okay you’re arty,” said Brandon, the pitcher on the baseball team. Patrick had told Rachel Brandon had said that. “I like that you’re arty,” she’d said, and snuggled closer to him.

“Yeah, I’m Michelangelo,” he’d told her.

Sex with Rachel hadn’t been that great, but he’d been in high school, so it had felt like the best thing ever. How was it supposed to be? Another person was touching his dick, and he was getting to touch the secret parts of girls; it was exciting because it was forbidden, and it was sex. It didn’t feel like what you read about in books, but then there were other books that said sex wasn’t like that at all. Patrick read a lot of books. He was kind of a nerd.

“I like that you’re kind of a nerd,” Rachel said.

“Yeah, I’m Isaac Newton,” Patrick said, and Rachel kissed him.

Guys are a lot gayer in locker rooms than lots of them will admit. They look at each other’s dicks and compare them; they talk about them and slap each other’s asses. Patrick thought all of this was normal, and that if he got horny around guys sometimes that was normal too, because he was a teenager; people said he was supposed to be horny all the time. He didn’t imagine anyone when he jacked off. He didn’t have to; he was touching his dick. It was enough to make him come.

Things had changed after high school. Patrick had gone to university five hours away while Rachel went to college near home, and long distance was hard. “I feel like you don’t miss me as much as I miss you,” Rachel had said over the phone.

I don’t, Patrick had realized and didn’t say, because that was cruel, but it was true. He’d taken a lot of business courses and was still trying to play ball and do theater on top of that. The university had a local radio station; he’d started helping there; he wanted to host. It was a lot, a whole lot, and he’d found himself barely thinking of Rachel at all. The breakup was for the best, he thought—she could have been the love of his life, but as it turned out she was just a high-school thing.

For a while he hadn’t had a girlfriend and hadn’t even thought about it much, until his friends had started to tease him. “Perpetually single,” Andrew called him. “The best wingman,” said Hutch. “He’ll never take your girl home.” At first Patrick laughed it off, but eventually he began to wonder why he didn’t have a girlfriend. His friends did. Sometimes ones who didn’t went out to bars to try to find them; Patrick went with them, but he didn’t really understand how they met girls there. It didn’t seem to happen to him.

He didn’t really think about being gay. It just didn’t really occur to him, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t encountered it before. They discussed LGBT issues in his theater classes. There were gay rights groups on campus. He had a friend from the radio, Taryn, who was a lesbian. She talked about being a lesbian a lot. He liked to listen to her; she was interesting and really different from anyone else he’d ever met.

Mom and Dad were Christian. They used to go to church all the time, the three of them, but in high school, Patrick had been so busy, and then there were months at a time when none of them would go. They went for holidays. No one ever talked about being gay. “Love is sacred.” The Bible said something about that. Taryn said she was in love with her girlfriend Della. Patrick thought that could be sacred too.

Ben Henrique, an excellent actor with whom Patrick had done a lot of theater, had come out to the whole cast one night right before a university performance of Midsummer. Everyone later said they kind of knew already. Patrick hadn’t, but when he heard people saying that, he thought maybe he kind of had. Like, it hadn’t changed his opinion of Ben at all.

Patrick kind of thought about how it must be for Ben, how terrifying it must be, how difficult. Like, how did you find guys, if you were gay, because how would you know? Maybe you just knew, if you were gay, who else was gay. Not like there were definite signs or anything, but if you were gay you probably grew attuned to subtle signs. Maybe that was how so many people in the cast said they had known. But Patrick hadn’t known. People didn’t use the term gaydar anymore. Maybe it was homophobic.

But Ben was good-looking. Patrick didn’t have a problem with admitting it. He’d even thought about it some—like, did Ben have sex? Well, of course he had sex. Most of the guys Patrick knew were having sex; it shouldn’t be different just because you were gay. But it was probably harder for Ben to find people to have sex with, and then when he did—like, what did you do? Did gay guys have anal sex as often as men and women had regular sex? But that was kind of homophobic, to think of it as “regular sex.” Ben could have regular sex, sure. But was anal sex regular sex for guys? Did they do it regularly? Did it hurt?

Like. Did you have to get ready for anal sex? Did you have to clean yourself out? Was that gross? Patrick actually thought masturbating was about as great as regular sex. Vaginal intercourse, not regular sex. Masturbating could be better. Was that normal? Guys said that was normal. He and Rachel had never done anal. He’d never thought about it. Should he have thought about it? Was that normal?

The guys who talked about doing anal with girls didn’t seem like very respectful guys. They talked about it like colonizing every part of a girl’s body, and Patrick thought it was gross. Those kinds of guys were gross, not anal sex. He was sure anal sex was very nice for some people. Maybe it wasn’t all anal sex. Maybe gay guys did other things. Things like just—touching each other. He didn’t see how that was that different than being with a girl. Maybe it wasn’t.

When Patrick went to bars with his friends, he didn’t ever see anyone that appealed to him, but it wasn’t like he was being picky. The girls just always seemed busy or distracted or like they were maybe there with someone, and the few that looked alone eventually got chatted up by other people while Patrick was working up the nerve. Sometimes Patrick didn’t even notice them, because his friends weren’t always there just to pick up girls. Usually a few of them were there just having a beer, either because they weren’t up for it that night or they were already with someone. Patrick usually passed most the night talking and having fun with them before realizing he could have spent that time picking up a girl.

A year passed, and he began to think something might be wrong.

He started making the effort, a real effort—he hadn’t been actually trying before, he realized, but now he tried. He tried to talk to girls at bars, even the ones who looked like they might not be actively trying to get picked up. It wasn’t easy. They blew him off or it was awkward, or they were with someone, and Patrick wondered whether maybe he was unattractive. Maybe the reason he wasn’t going out with girls was he was physically repellant in some way. Maybe it was his personality. He teased a lot. Maybe too much. “You’re a really jokester,” Rachel used to say.

“Yeah, I’m Ellen DeGeneres,” Patrick used to say.

He wrote a lot of songs during that time.

Eventually, he got better at it, talking to girls. They weren’t always there with someone. They didn’t always blow him off—but somehow, he still couldn’t imagine taking one of them home. Even though it had been so long since he’d had sex—should he want it more? Was something wrong with his dick? He’d talk to a pretty girl; she’d be smart and nice, but to him it felt like—there was nothing underneath.

Not that the girls were shallow. The encounter felt shallow, the purpose behind it shallow. What was the point, really? Take them to the dorm and sleep with them, and then what? They didn’t share interests, really. They weren’t super into him. He wasn’t super into them. How did you get past the point where it was awkward, and you didn’t really know if you liked each other to how it had been with Rachel?

Patrick guessed he just needed to find a girl he could click with. It was supposed to click. “Nothing clicks,” he started saying, when people talked about how single he was.

One night, a girl named Anna took Patrick back to her apartment. They had sex on her couch, and it was just as awful as high school sex except it was Anna, whom he didn’t really know, instead of Rachel. Rachel knew what had happened on the field trip to the zoo in the sixth grade. She knew what music he liked; she knew he thought pickles were funny; she knew he liked to be good at everything and that it was a problem for him when he was not. She would have known why he was so upset that this night had not gone perfectly according to plan, and poor Anna. She had no idea.

Patrick managed to leave Anna’s apartment without embarrassing himself—or Anna; at least, he hoped so. He didn’t want her to feel badly, or think that he felt badly, and he thought they parted on friendly enough terms, though she didn’t give him her number, and he didn’t give her his. Afterward, he went to the dorm, showered, then got in the old truck that used to belong to his dad and drove five and a half hours to see Rachel.

He didn’t call. He should have called, because he didn’t actually know which dorm was hers, and by the time he got there, it was three in the morning, and he didn’t want to wake her up. His parents were half an hour away, and he didn’t want to see them. He didn’t want to have to explain why he needed to see Rachel so badly. Instead, he slept in the truck and called her at seven in the morning. They got breakfast and talked until eleven.

She remembered the pickles. She remembered his mom’s nicknames for him. She knew what movies he liked, and he knew why she didn’t like dogs, and that she loved cathedrals, and that her relationship with her mother wasn’t that great. He knew everything about her, and she knew everything about him, and maybe this was why he hadn’t gotten a girlfriend, because his heart had really belonged to Rachel all along. Realizing it was a relief. Being with her was a relief, like an old baseball glove, a favorite song, a worn t-shirt. This was love. A relief.

They didn’t start going out again that day, but they did three weeks later when he came back to see her again. Whenever it felt like an effort to call her or go see her or have her visit, he remembered that she was the one, because look at what had happened when he hadn’t been with her. He’d slept with one other girl and then freaked out; Rachel was obviously it. And by then, Rachel was busier at school too—dancing, studying photography. They didn’t have a lot of time for each other, but that was okay.

Patrick’s degree was in business administration, which he liked well enough. The major included classes on accounting and finances, and he liked that sort of thing—spreadsheets and stats, the way everything always worked out the way you planned if you did it right. Business admin also had the people side of things, human resources and management, which Patrick liked as well. He was an extrovert. He would have withered inside, majoring in accounting. Business admin was a good degree; it played to his strengths while giving him good prospects for the future. Subconsciously, he’d had this whole plan—get the degree, get a steady job, and then he’d have enough money to be comfortable, get a house, get married. He could do whatever he wanted on the side.

When he graduated, he realized it was a stupid plan.

Why spend your life doing what you really wanted on the side? If you wanted it, why not go after it? So after school, instead of applying to work in sales as he had always assumed he would, he applied to work at the radio station closest to his parents’ town, which was still two hours away. The only thing available was a part-time job in licensing, but he knew his way around the law enough that he could do it well, and it was a foot in the door. He started painting houses on the side. He had a lot of student loans to pay off.

“You’d said you were going to move in with me,” Rachel said.

“I can’t, with this job,” Patrick said.

“Why not?”

“It’s a four-hour commute!”

“It’s a part-time job,” Rachel said.

“It’s important to me.”

“Am I important to you?”

“Come on, Rachel,” Patrick said. “You could move down there. We could get an apartment—”

“I have a life right here!”

Sometimes conversations with Rachel were so frustrating that Patrick thought he could do something terrible like yell at her, even though he never did. He got more frustrated with her than he ever remembered being with anyone else, but maybe he got so emotional about it because he loved her. Right. He was frustrated because he loved her. “Well,” he said, his voice low and tight. “This is my life. This is what I need.”

It had seemed so important at the time, such a big choice, the radio station instead of sales, a part-time job instead of real money, renting rooms and tiny apartments and eating cheap noodles and having boxes for furniture, instead of the life he had once imagined, wherein all his debts were paid in under five years. Cedar Lake instead of Pinewood, where his parents lived. He could still get the job and the wife and the house and the kids later. Right now, this was what Patrick wanted, what he needed, and he and Rachel only remained broken up for four months that time.

When those four months were over, she drove down to see him without calling, just as he had done to her when they were in school, and she’d knocked on his door while he was in the middle of dinner—eating pasta from a pan, watching television on a set that was sitting on a milk crate. He was splitting the rent with a guy named Quanto, who was never there, and it had been raining. Rachel had stood at the door of his apartment in a puddle, looking like a drowned fawn. Every part of his heart had ached to take care of her. He’d gotten her dry and given her his clothes, which were far too big, and then they’d had sex.

It was comfortable; she was comfortable; she knew how to touch his dick, and he knew how not to touch her clit. Afterwards they huddled under a blanket and watched an old movie, and maybe this was what adult life was supposed to be—not mortgages and marriage but doing things that made you feel good with someone you liked. It felt almost like being a kid. Who needed an entertainment center?

Rachel didn’t move in with him. They did long distance again, but it was a shorter distance now, and Patrick had less to distract him than in university. Meeting people was harder; finding extracurricular activities was harder. The station had less and less work for him, but Patrick picked up licensing for a few business owners as well.

“You could move back to Pinewood,” Rachel pointed out.

“There are more businesses in Cedar Lake,” Patrick said.

“But wasn’t the station why you were here?” she wanted to know. “They’re hardly giving you any hours.”

“I like licensing,” Patrick said.

“But why?”

He shrugged, somewhat uncomfortable. He hadn’t really thought about it. He didn’t like to think about it, because it brought up too many questions about what he was doing with his life that he couldn’t answer. He couldn’t answer why this felt right. It felt right to him. “You’re helping someone with a business, usually a new business. You’re helping them.”

“Helping them,” Rachel said unhappily.

“You’re helping them start something new,” Patrick clarified. “I like the idea of—people have new ideas, you know? I think I could get into patents.”

“Patents.”

“Why are you saying ‘patents’ that way?”

“Because you told me you wanted to do radio!”

“Why are you getting so upset?” Patrick demanded, upset now too.

“Do you think you’re maybe just . . . avoiding Pinewood?”

“Why would I be avoiding Pinewood?”

“Because you’re avoiding me!”

“Why would I avoid you?” Patrick asked, exasperated, because she always got like this. He didn’t understand. “I love you!”

“You don’t act like you do!”

It made Patrick angry. He was not someone who felt anger very often, except with her. “Taking you out on your anniversary—that wasn’t acting like I love you? Buying you that necklace—that wasn’t acting like I love you? Singing you that—that song?” Patrick felt his throat go tight. “It wasn’t because I love you?”

“Our anniversary,” Rachel whispered.

“What?” Patrick knew he had just snapped, and he didn’t like it.

Our anniversary,” Rachel said. “You took us out for our anniversary, not my anniversary.”

“I misspoke!”

“Sometimes, when you touch me . . .” Rachel swallowed hard. “I don’t think you really want me.”

“Of course, I want you,” Patrick said. “Who else could I possibly want?”

“That’s not—that’s not a good reason to want me,” Rachel said, her eyes bright.

“That’s not what I meant. Rachel.” Patrick’s shoulders sagged. “I—you know I tried. With other girls. Before. You know I—you know it didn’t work for me, because I don’t want anyone but you. I’ve never wanted anyone but you.”

Rachel nodded, but she was crying. “Okay.”

“Can I—can I touch you now? Can I show you—what I feel?”

Rachel nodded again, and he went to her, wrapping his arms around her, trying to show her how much she meant. He was twenty-two, and he’d never been with anyone else but that once, and that one time had felt so wrong. He’d never felt this way about anyone else. He’d never felt familiar and comfortable, like it was easy, and that was how you were supposed to feel, right? Love wasn’t supposed to be difficult.

Five months later, Rachel broke up with him.

“I’m interested in someone else,” she said.

“Who?” Patrick had demanded, but of course it was someone he didn’t know, someone Rachel knew from college. “But that means you’ve known him almost a year,” he said, when she explained it to him.

“I’ve known him two years,” Rachel said.

“But that means—have you been interested in him this whole time?”

“I didn’t let myself think about it,” Rachel said. “I was with you.”

“And suddenly you just decide—you want to be with him?”

“It wasn’t sudden.”

“Great,” Patrick said. “So you’ve been wanting to break up with me this whole time.”

“You know that’s not what I said.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying . . .” Rachel tucked her hair behind her ear, like she did when she was saying something she didn’t want to. “I think we’ve been together so long because we know each other so well,” Rachel said. “I care about you, and you care about me, but is it really based on us? Or is it based on memories of us?”

“I thought it was based on us,” Patrick croaked.

“I thought so too,” Rachel said, “but have you noticed we—everything we do, it’s like a habit. We’re not even excited to see each other.”

“I’m excited to see you.”

“But are you, really? When I see Blake, it’s—it’s exciting every time. I can’t wait to find out what he thinks, to tell him things that happened. It always feels new, even though I’ve known him for a while. Do you know what I mean?”

“No,” Patrick said, then saw Rachel’s sad smile. “No, I mean—I mean, I feel that when I’m with you.”

“Do you?” Rachel asked.

Patrick didn’t know. He didn’t know. They broke up, and he was devastated, but he felt devastated because—he wasn’t even sure he was sad about it. He went home to Pinewood and cried in his mother’s arms, and he didn’t know if he was crying about Rachel. He was crying because he didn’t know what he was doing; he wasn’t getting that many hours at the station; he hated sharing his apartment with Quanto; he didn’t know if he wanted to work in licensing; he didn’t know if he wanted Rachel; he didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t want the things a guy his age was supposed to want; he wasn’t doing the things a guy his age was supposed to do. Maybe something was wrong with him.

“It’s hard,” Mom said, stroking his hair. “You loved Rachel so much.”

Maybe he was gay, he thought, six months later.

For the first few weeks after Rachel left him, Patrick was just trying to get a handle on his life. Work at the radio dried up, and he started applying for other jobs and looking for other places to live. He was dealing with kind of a lot. The woman who’d been his girlfriend practically since high school had just left him; no wonder he didn’t really think about getting a new, different girlfriend. Weeks turned into months. He got a job in human resources at the regional municipality, but he didn’t move to a new apartment. He was still in a lot of debt.

Patrick didn’t have that many friends in Cedar Lake, which he didn’t really understand. He had been living there over a year, and he was pretty social. He’d found a bar that had open mic nights; he played his guitar, talked to the performers. Made friends with some people there, all of whom were either in their forties, consistently stoned, or married, or all three; he felt like a third wheel.

Cedar Lake had a curling club; Patrick was bad at curling, but he did it anyway. Life had no flavor without risk, right, and the social climate of curling was strangely similar to Cedar Lake’s music scene, although no one was consistently stoned. Except for maybe Jason. They didn’t hang out with Jason. Patrick wasn’t close to anybody, though. Maybe everyone had decided not to hang out with him, the way they didn’t hang out with Jason. He didn’t know.

Patrick volunteered at a fair-housing organization, doing their books. Everything there was always so busy, meeting people was difficult. At work, most people were a lot older than him. He made friends with them anyway. The sixty-year-old lady who lived next door loved tea almost as much as he did and disliked Quanto even more. Sometimes Patrick felt closer to her than anyone else in his life. Her name was Patti. Patti Bloom.

Patrick’s friends from university were all far away and were gradually falling out of touch. He maintained some long-distance friendships with a few guys from high school, and his cousins, of course, but Brandon seemed to have gone kind of off the rails. He’d turned into some kind of racist bigot, and he lived in Pinewood; who was there to be racist and bigoted against? But he was anyway; Patrick didn’t know what the hell had happened.

Not having friends he regularly spent time with was strange. Not having Rachel was strange, and Patrick thought about that year in college when his friends had teased him about being single. Now he didn’t even have enough friends to tease him about it, but he should be doing something. He should be dating. He felt like he didn’t have enough time. Dating took so much time.

That was stupid. Meeting someone, falling in love—eventually getting married, spending your life with someone—that was a central part of existence. Wasn’t it? You couldn’t just say, “Oh, I didn’t have time for that,” but when Patrick thought about it, the idea of dating made him feel kind of ill. It made his hands sweat. He didn’t know why.

Maybe his mother had been right—he’d cried when Rachel broke up with him because he’d loved her. Well, duh, Patrick. Don’t be such a dang dunce. Of course he’d been crying because he was in love with her. Of course he’d felt confused and upset about all those other issues, because Rachel was a central part of his existence; he’d lost her, and it had made his life feel like he was falling apart because he’d loved her.

Feeling nauseous at the idea of dating another woman was just further evidence he missed her. This was how missing her manifested itself. He just needed to—move on. Get past it. Until the idea of dating didn’t make him feel sick, and then he would try it. Like a normal person. Like normal people did. He just had to keep busy until he got over her. Busier. Do more things.

He auditioned for a part in Cedar Lake Theater’s Leaving Home and got a big role. The director was the first openly gay man Patrick ever remembered meeting. Openly gay as in flamboyantly gay; Patrick had known Ben Henrique at university. Ben hadn’t been out to everybody. Just the entire cast of Midsummer. “I wanted to do Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” Emile said, “but this town is too fucking conservative.”

Patrick went home and looked up Fortune and Men’s Eyes. It was apparently about gay men in prison.

Emile was fifty, married to a librarian named Larry, and seemed to be living his best life in that Waiting for Guffman kind of way. Brandon would have been a dick to him, but Patrick thought it was nice that Emile was so open about it. Patrick was playing a character named Ben in Leaving Home. Patrick thought about Ben Henrique a lot, for some reason.

Patrick asked Emile to coffee so they could discuss some questions he had about the part, but once they sat down, the only thing Patrick could think was, how did you know you were gay? Eventually, Patrick got through his questions—his actual questions, about the part—but even as he asked them, he realized they were not his actual questions at all. His actual question, the one he had stopped himself from asking, was one he didn’t understand why he would need to ask.

An obvious explanation presented itself, but it wasn’t true, because Patrick wasn’t gay. Even if he was, Emile was married, and he was in his fifties, and he was not an attractive man—balding and small, with sagging skin and thin lips. The idea that Patrick had asked Emile to coffee because Emile was gay bothered Patrick all day. Maybe he was just curious about it.

Patrick wondered what Ben was doing.

Patrick remembered thinking about how it must be hard for Ben to find someone, since he was gay. Patrick wondered if it had been hard for Emile to find Larry. Was it so very different from Patrick himself? He couldn’t find someone, and he was straight. To find someone, he’d have to date; to find dates, he’d have to—he didn’t know. Sign up on some kind of dating app? Maybe he should do that. Was that what Ben Henrique was doing? Were there dating apps for gay people?

Out of curiosity, Patrick checked. There were dating apps for gay people. In fact, most of the dating apps for straight people were also for gay people. You could say you were interested in both. Some people were interested in both. Taryn’s girlfriend, Della, had been interested in both. Patrick wondered what that was like. It was easier, surely. You had more options. But maybe it was more confusing.

Maybe Patrick wanted to date after all, because thinking about it was making him kind of hard. And he was on the internet anyway, so maybe he should look up porn. He didn’t usually do that. It kind of bored him, and anyway, it wasn’t really something he needed; he responded really well to touch. His own touch was usually enough, even though he wanted it to be someone else. But maybe he should look something up anyway? Maybe it would make him feel inspired to date, and he should be dating. That was the normal thing to do.

Patrick didn’t look up porn. He looked up Fortune and Men’s Eyes again, the play about gay men in prison. He wondered whether Emile was going to direct it, whether Patrick could be in it. Then Patrick put his hand on himself, slowly beginning to jack himself off.

Fuck.

Oh fuck.

The play sounded terrible. It sounded unhappy. It sounded like stereotypes about gay sex being about violence and dominance, and Patrick knew from university rallies and musicals that gay relationships could be loving. And they didn’t even have to be about AIDS; Emile was happy! And then Patrick was getting off to Rent and A Chorus Line, and he thought of Ben, maybe Ben in A Chorus Line, or maybe—Ben, right here, touching him. A man kissing him, a man putting his hand on his dick, a man’s dick brushing his.

Patrick came harder than he ever remembered coming.

Did this make him gay?

Patrick couldn’t ever remember being attracted to a guy before, and he tried to think of men, just to be sure. Lamar, one of his fellow actors in the play. Reggie, a guy he knew from curling. Quanto, his roommate. Brandon, his childhood friend; Andrew and Hutch, his best friends from college; Ben. Had he been attracted to Ben? Patrick didn’t remember being attracted to Ben. Wouldn’t he have noticed, if he had been attracted to Ben? He’d just come, thinking of Ben, except in the end he hadn’t really been thinking of Ben specifically, just a guy, a cock; did that make you gay?

Patrick had always found Jude Law’s incredibly good looks kind of distracting. Did that count?

Patrick started reading about homosexuality—on the internet, but he also went to the library and got books about it. He watched gay porn. He jacked off and thought about guys and thought that he might be into it. How did you know?

Sometimes, when you touch me, I don’t think you really want me, Rachel had said, and what if what he had felt with her had not been attraction? What if it worked with her because she knew how to touch him, because they’d been touching each other for so long? Is it really based on us? Or is it based on memories of us? she’d asked. He’d always gotten off better in her hand than inside of her body, and what if it was because his own body really just remembered being a teenager? Everything we do, it’s like a habit, she’d said, but Patrick hadn’t heard that sex could be a habit. That wasn’t a thing. You didn’t orgasm out of habit.

Could you?

Leaving Home opened. It went pretty well, and Patrick asked Emile for coffee again. This time, Patrick finally asked the question he really wanted to ask.

“How did I know I was gay?” Emile asked, laughing. “My dear, you had better ask when I didn’t know!”

Patrick gritted his teeth. “When didn’t you know?”

“Maybe when I was five or six?”

Patrick looked down at his tea. It wasn’t the answer he wanted, but it was an answer. Maybe he was just—confused. Maybe he really did miss Rachel.

“Why do you ask?” Emile wanted to know.

Every instinct in Patrick told him to lie, and he was good at giving up. He was really good at giving up; he was a perfectionist, and when things didn’t go his way, he couldn’t stand it. He got frustrated; he walked away. Rachel said it was his fatal flaw, but all three times, she was the one who had walked away from him—hadn’t she? Making himself look at Emile, Patrick said, “I thought I might be.” His hands tightened to fists on the table.

“Well,” Emile said, lifting his chin. “Not every young thing is as enlightened as I. For some, I’m told, it takes time.”

“I’ve had a lot of time.”

“Larry says he didn’t know until he was seventeen.”

“I’m twenty-three,” Patrick gritted out.

“Oh, dear.” Emile sipped his coffee. “Well, here’s an easy test—have you ever been attracted to a man?”

“I don’t know,” Patrick said, feeling miserable.

“Trust me, you’d know.” Emile had more coffee.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been attracted to a girl! Patrick wanted to yell at him, but of course he’d been attracted to girls. He’d been with Rachel for almost five years of his life, and he’d slept with that girl Anna. Why would he do that if he wasn’t attracted to them? Was he really the kind of person who would lie? Was he lying to himself—this whole time? But he wasn’t trying to lie to himself. He had masturbated, thinking of men! Shouldn’t that be enough?

“I just—think about guys sometimes,” Patrick said in a rush. “And I wanted to know if . . .”

“Everyone thinks about guys sometimes,” Emile said comfortingly, patting his hand. “I can’t tell you what you feel. I do know, if you feel it, you feel it, and if you don’t, you don’t.”

“So, I don’t,” Patrick said, trying to understand.

Emile just shrugged. “You’d know.”

*

“People are stupid about attraction,” David told him, so many years later, when Patrick told him about getting coffee with Emile.

“Yeah, but I was really unclear about it at the time,” Patrick said, kissing a line down David’s chest. Patrick was sort of done talking about the past; he didn’t like it. They were in bed together; they had better things to do.

“No,” David said. “He was dumb.”

“Don’t be hard on Emile,” Patrick said, smiling against David’s stomach.

“You went to him for guidance,” David said. “You needed Oprah, and he was Doctor Phil.”

“What’s wrong with Doctor Phil?”

“Everything’s wrong with Doctor Phil. Doctor Phil is not the point. He should have told you it’s different for everyone. He should have told you that what you feel—anything you feel—it’s okay.”

David’s hand carded through Patrick’s hair, and Patrick had been planning to go down on him, but David talked like this rarely enough that Patrick moved back up, putting his ear on David’s heart. He loved that sound, the steady thump thump thump of him. “It didn’t feel not okay,” Patrick said softly. “I just—didn’t know what I felt.”

“He should have told you that was okay too. That that was normal.” David’s hand kept moving in his hair.

Closing his eyes, Patrick imagined he could feel the rings, heavy gold against his scalp. “If I could have met you then, I wouldn’t have been confused.”

The hand paused. “If you had met me then,” David said softly, but then he didn’t finish.

Patrick knew. He knew it all. Drugs, eating disorders, casual sex and alcoholism, thousand-dollar manicures, abuse. Too much abuse that David never thought of as abuse. I just had bad luck, David sometimes said, but Patrick knew. “I would have loved you,” Patrick said, coming up to kiss David’s mouth. “I would have fallen in love with you. Nothing could ever stop me.”

“Tranqs could stop you,” David whispered, but he let Patrick kiss him, and now Patrick had that to file away as well; what sort of tranquilizers? He knew David had taken anxiety meds for a long time, but they had been good for him, he’d finally admitted; he wouldn’t call them tranqs unless he meant something bad, but that was over now. It was over.

“I found you,” Patrick said, kissing him. “I found you.”

“You were Lassie,” David said.

“Um. What?”

“I was Timmy in a well, and you were Lassie.”

“Right,” Patrick agreed. “I was Lassie. But I was Timmy too.”

“This metaphor is weird.”

“It’s yours,” Patrick said, kissing him.

“Yes.” David tugged Patrick’s hips. “Mine.”

*

After Leaving Home, Patrick signed up for a dating app called Bumpkin, mostly because he was kind of terrified that Rachel or Brandon or his mom or anyone else he knew would find him on Tinder or OkCupid. Bumpkin was smaller and kept it much more local, although you actually couldn’t put sexual preferences into it. It seemed kind of backwards that way. It was a rural app.

Maybe he should do OkCupid and try putting guys on there? But that would be even worse if anyone saw, because then people would think he was gay, and he didn’t even know if he was. He just sort of wanted to try it. He was bi-curious, which was something he’d heard in the nineties and never heard now. And it wasn’t that he minded people thinking he was gay, except what if Mom and Dad found out and they thought—what if they thought—Patrick didn’t know what they thought. He stayed on Bumpkin and went on a date with a girl named Sarah.

He and Sarah went on three dates. She was nice—pretty, he guessed, but he had trouble talking to her. They weren’t really on the same wavelength. She was really into things like design and modern art; she cared a lot about aesthetic and color palettes; she was pretentious about things like fashion and décor. She said she knew celebrities. When he jerked off, he couldn’t come to the thought of her.

Then he went on another date with a girl named Becky. “I don’t like small men,” she told him, and that was the end of that. Patrick had never really thought of himself as all that small.

He wondered again whether he was unattractive. He couldn’t tell. He had kind of a round face. Rachel used to tell him he was hot. Rachel’s brother Derek used to tell him he looked like an inoffensive potato.

The next day he got on Facebook. He hadn’t gotten on there in a long time, and he had a lot of messages. Patrick didn’t bother to look at them, typing Ben Henrique’s name into the field to message him, because Patrick thought he had him friended. He was pretty sure he had him friended. He had a lot of people from university friended—yes, he had him friended.

Patrick wrote that he was doing community theater in Cedar Lake, that it reminded him of Midsummer, that it made him wonder how Ben was doing. Then that was done, and Patrick had to wait for a reply. He looked at his other messages. Jacquelyn had messaged him.

Jacquelyn: It was nice to see you at Hutch’s wedding! How have you been?

Patrick replied, because he’d always liked Jacquelyn. She was buxom and round-faced with a knock-out head of red-hair and perfect freckles; everyone had always thought she was so hot. She was going out with Andre, last Patrick heard.

Jacquelyn replied later that day, but Ben replied the next day. Patrick kept the two conversations going, small-talk with Ben that Patrick later admitted to himself was an excuse to find out where Ben was living, chit-chat with Jacquelyn, catching up. She was no longer seeing Andre, which was too bad. Andre was a good guy. Maybe Patrick should message him too. Ben was still in St. Catharines, and Patrick messaged him back:

Patrick: I’m headed down there next weekend. Do you want to grab coffee?

It was a lie. Patrick didn’t know why he’d done it.

Jacquelyn: When will you be in St. Catharines again?

Patrick told Jacquelyn he didn’t know.

Jacquelyn: I never told you this before
Jacquelyn: You’re the hottest man alive when you sing

Ben: Yeah sure why not

Patrick slammed his laptop closed. He didn’t know what to do with that. He didn’t know what to do with any of that.

He didn’t know why he’d lied to Ben. He didn’t know what to say to Jacquelyn.

Thanks, you know, I snuck in the back to turn heat up when I did gigs so people would get hot

Thanks, you know, you’re pretty hot yourself

Thanks, you know, I’m going to St. Catharines to see a gay boy, do you want to hook up while I’m there?

Patrick opened his laptop. He messaged Ben about where to meet for coffee. He didn’t message Jacquelyn.

*

The only way Patrick knew how to flirt was tease. He’d done it a lot at university, with those girls in bars, and yet the only girl he’d ever taken home was Anna.

“Pulling pig-tails,” Andrew had told him once, when he’d witnessed Patrick’s attempts at seduction.

“I’m not going to pull anything else,” Patrick had said. He was very respectful of women. He didn’t like the idea of trying to touch them without their consent.

“You’re not going to pull at all, with that kind of attitude,” Andrew had said, downing a shot and walking straight up to a girl Patrick hadn’t even noticed at the bar. How did Andrew do that? Just—sense them, like that? Did he have a special radar?

Patrick drove three hours to St. Catharines for coffee with Ben, and Patrick teased him almost the entire time they were at the coffeehouse. He didn’t mean to. It just happened.

“You were always very popular,” Ben said at one point.

“Um, thanks?” The comment made Patrick feel a little hot, as though he was blushing. “I hope you don’t mean I was Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls.

“Patrick,” Ben said. “Lindsay Lohan was the nice girl. You were the nicest guy I knew. Everyone thought you were the nicest. And the most talented.”

“I paid them,” Patrick said. “I did a drug hustle on the side; you never knew.”

“Drugs?” said Ben, sounding confused.

“I’m—I was kidding.”

“Oh.” Ben laughed, a little awkwardly. “You were also the funniest.”

“Yeah. Five dollars to laugh at my jokes. Ten to tell people I’m hilarious. And when I was out of cash, I’d just get everyone drunk.”

“I thought—I guess I just thought—you didn’t really pay attention to me.”

Patrick’s pulse began to quicken. “You thought I ignored you?”

“I just—I didn’t know you noticed me.”

Patrick’s pulse kicked up another notch. “I noticed you,” he said, his voice too tight.

Ben had silky brown hair, a narrow face, slender build. He was taller than Patrick. He was cute. Like, really cute. When Patrick admitted that now, it didn’t feel objective; he felt it in his gut—Ben was cute. Was Patrick’s dick going to notice? Was that how it worked? Patrick wasn’t getting hard or anything, but his heart was practically slamming against his chest, and a warm feeling was pooling in his gut. He thought maybe he could get hard, if he wanted to.

“I’m probably going to be coming down to St Catharines on the weekends—I’m thinking about taking a course on business licensing,” Patrick said, even though he hadn’t thought about it until he said it. “Do you want to—hang out? Again?”

“Sure,” said Ben. “Hey, are you going to be in town tonight? My boyfriend is in a show.”

“Oh.” Patrick tried not to let his face change, but he swallowed hard. “I-I didn’t know—I didn’t know you had a boyfriend.”

Ben frowned at him. “Um—Patrick. I came out to the entire cast on opening night. I thought—I guess I thought you’d remember.”

“Of course I remember,” Patrick said. “That . . . wasn’t what I meant. I just . . . didn’t know you were seeing someone. Right now.” They’d been having coffee for an hour, catching up, and Ben hadn’t even mentioned it.

“Oh, well—it’s kind of . . .” Ben shrugged. “We just started seeing each other recently. Are you still seeing Rachel?”

“No.”

“Oh. Sorry, man. I thought—I guess I thought you two were—you were going to get married, the real deal. Like Andrew and Joanie.”

“No.” Patrick dredged up a smile. “You know—I’m not even sure Andrew and Joanie were Andrew and Joanie. Andrew’s dating Sylvia now.”

“Sylvia? Sylvie Canton?”

Patrick faked another smile. “I actually have to get back to Cedar Lake tonight, so I can’t see the show. Excuse me—I have to use the restroom.”

This was stupid, Patrick told himself in the restroom, which he didn’t really need to use. He washed his face, scrubbing it hard. It was so stupid. He hadn’t needed to drive all this way. He could have just said over the phone, “Look, I’m curious about how gay people know they’re gay, and I don’t have anyone else to talk to about it except for a fifty-year-old queer who told me it’s not confusing,” except some small, stupid part of himself had secretly hoped that seeing Ben would answer the question. That Patrick would see him and want to sleep with him so badly that all of it would be solved.

An even smaller part of himself had thought that if he saw Ben and wanted to sleep with him, they could do it that night. They could get a motel room and—and—and Patrick didn’t know. Patrick could kiss him. Touch Ben’s dick. Touch his chest. Something gay, something really gay, so then he would know; he would know better than he did just jacking off and thinking about it, because that didn’t feel real. Gay porn didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. Nothing had ever felt real in his life except Rachel.

Patrick came back and faked his way through coffee with Ben. Acting like he didn’t want to throw up was far easier than he thought it would be, almost disturbingly easy. He joked around even more. He pretended it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Nothing was serious, really. Life was a stage. Some Shakespeare thing.

When Patrick got in his busted-up truck to drive back to Cedar Lake, he drove all the way past it to Pinewood, to Mom and Dad.

“Oh, honey,” Mom said, her whole face breaking open when she saw him. Patrick hadn’t been aware that he looked that bad, but apparently, she saw something on his face, because she was immediately reaching up to pull him into her arms, stroking the back of his neck. “Honey, what happened? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Patrick said. “Nothing.”

“You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to,” Dad said the next morning. “Just know we’re here for you. We’re here.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Patrick said.

*

Twelve years later, Patrick could tell that story and almost laugh. It was kind of funny, really.

“I don’t think it’s funny,” David breathed.

They were standing in the stockroom at the store. Patrick arched back in David’s arms to look at his face. “Come on,” he said. “It’s a little funny. I drove three hundred kilometers just because Ben was the only gay man my age I knew.”

“What if Ben hadn’t been seeing somebody? You could have ended up with him.”

“No, I couldn’t have.”

“You could have,” David insisted, in his very David way. He tugged on Patrick’s hips, pulling him closer even though they were already lined up right against each other. “You didn’t know you were mine, yet. You could have ended up with anyone.”

“No, I couldn’t have.”

“How do you know?”

“He didn’t laugh at my jokes.”

David began to smile, the sideways one, the one he tried to hide but couldn’t because it became too big, the best of David’s smiles. “Well, okay. Maybe not with Ben.”

“Maybe not with anyone.” Patrick tugged David’s hips, much harder than David had tugged his; it jerked David’s body and made him squeak, just a little. Fuck, Patrick loved to do that to him. “No one but you, David.” Patrick kissed him. “Well,” he said, breaking away, “and Jude Law.”

David smoothed his hands over Patrick’s shoulders, down his back, down to the curve of his ass. “Jude Law can’t have you,” David said, squeezing.

“Aw. Would you fight him for me?”

“Mm, no.” David shook his head. “Jude Law wouldn’t laugh at your jokes either.”

“You don’t know.”

“I do. He has a very specific sense of humor.”

Patrick kissed him just to wipe the smirk off his face. “You’re such a tease,” he said against his mouth. “You’ve never met Jude Law.”

“But if I did,” said David, “I’d ensure he wouldn’t find you funny. At all. You’re mine. You belong to me.”

“Yeah,” Patrick agreed. “You think I’m hilarious.”

“Mm-hm.” Smiling, David kissed him again.