Stud didn’t talk on the drive to the hotel. In his better moods he’ll prattle on despite Earth’s inattention or feigned disinterest, but tonight he’d focused on the moon’s glow in the sky. He’s never much cared for stargazing; it makes him feel far tinier than he’d prefer, even more insignificant than he’s often been made to feel throughout his life. Although she’d been harsh sometimes, his mom’s tough love had been one of the only things Stud could rely on in a world of people who didn’t pay him mind.
It’s probably why he avoided speaking with her; all their interactions seemed to deteriorate to him taking her words as insults demanding he be better, which to Stud translated to having to become someone he simply can’t be. It isn’t like he doesn’t want to settle into a stable, reliable relationship, it’s just that the very word itself seems fraught with disappointment. Settle. Why should he have to settle for anything? He’s been adamant that he never choose anything less than the best for himself, but lately and despite years of being so insistent on that end, Stud has felt more and more that he’s wedging himself into a corner. Dumped into scalding water and boiled before he knew what was happening.
Have you ever loved someone so much that you do things that hurt yourself just to keep him?
He can’t help glancing at Earth in the elevator. He’s scrolling on his phone like he can’t be bothered to engage Stud in even a moment’s dialogue. Stud had asked if their friendship would be damaged by this, and Earth promised there was no reason for that to be the case. So why does it feel like the harder Stud tries to keep Earth’s affection, the further Earth pulls away? Sam claimed that Earth only views Stud as a friend, but at the point they’re at, Stud almost doesn’t believe even that to be true. Every conversation is stuck through with barbs aimed at Stud’s heart, his being a pin-cushion for Earth to prod at like it’s nothing, and Earth doesn’t seem to care in the least.
Stud doesn’t realise he’s stopped outside the elevator until Earth pauses in his steps to look back at him.
“What’re you waiting for?” he asks. His usual around Stud, Earth looks as unamused as ever.
“Are we friends?” Earth blinks then, evidently taken by surprise at Stud’s question, but he just scoffs as he turns around to continue walking. “Earth!”
“Ever since we started talking again it’s been you ordering me around and I’ve let it slide because I owed you, especially after you helped when Mom — ” He takes a breath. “But it’s also cuz we’re supposed to be friends and I wanted to do right by you this time around, like you used to do for me.”
“Nothing is as it used to be, Stud.”
“You don’t need to tell me that. Everything you gave me, all this time, all the understanding and defending me to the others; it’s gone. You’re as judgmental and mean as anyone else yet I’m the one you come to ‘to vent.’ I can’t keep up.”
“What else do you want from me?”
“I don’t want anything except a fraction of what we used to have!”
“And I already told you we can’t go back to that!” Earth says loudly.
Stud looks at the floor. “I’ve tried to be better because I want you so much; I… I wanted you to see that I’m — I am trying, Earth. I’ve always slept around and done whatever because you’ve had P’Sam but that doesn’t make sense anymore. You being with him doesn’t make sense anymore.”
“What’re you saying? Do you really think I’ll leave him for you?”
“That’s not what I’m asking,” Stud insists. “I know you don’t see me as more than a fuck-buddy; you’ve made that clear. But you should at least recognise that he’s not good for you either.”
“Who is, then?” Stud blinks at the ceiling for a moment to avoid Earth seeing his teary eyes. “You know what, let’s call it for today.”
“He invited me to his office,” Stud says. “This morning.” Earth pauses beside him, their shoulders not quite brushing, and he takes a step back to fix Stud with a wordless glare. “Nothing happened. He just… wanted to tell me that he’s glad it’s me you’re screwing instead of a stranger. He’s trying to control you, Earth, by thinking he can manipulate me. He sort of got his wish. He was right.”
“About what?” Earth demands, voice hard.
“About you not giving a shit about me,” Stud says. “Using this as revenge on him.”
“How many times do I have to say that isn’t — ”
“I know,” Stud interjects. “He’s deluded; it doesn’t matter. I’m just letting you know that he isn’t as on-board with this open relationship deal as he wants you to think. But even if that last part wasn’t true, the first is. You don’t care about my feelings.”
“What feelings?” Earth says, exasperated.
“I was drunk that first night but not that drunk. I told you I still like you, Earth. And I know you remember it.” Stud pauses and laughs under his breath. “I ended it with Ta ages ago for being naive and thinking sex with someone will make them care for you, but here I’ve been acting just like him.”
“What are you even talking about?”
“From the sex to everything else, I hoped you’d see that I love you enough to put up with whatever you feel like giving me, even if it’s insults, until the day you’d love me back.” Earth is staring at Stud with a tight jaw, like he’s not even breathing. “I’m a fucking idiot for thinking I’d have a chance, right? After you’ve told me countless times I mean nothing to you?”
“I never said you’re nothing — ”
“You know, since we reconciled months ago you’ve smiled at me maybe three times?” Stud says. He’s crying and his voice has cracked embarrassingly, but he’s sort of over caring. “I get what I did was shitty, Earth, I do. But if you weren’t ready to be my friend again, you could’ve just left after Mom’s funeral. Instead of sticking around just to complain about my presence and insult me when I breathe.”
Earth glares at the wall, tense and unmoving.
“I went to you that night because you’re the only person I actually thought loved me too. Valued me at all. It doesn’t feel that way anymore; you — you don’t even see me when you look at me. It’s like I’m a stranger to you.” Stud looks at the carpet and swallows hard. “You’re using my love for you against me and I can’t let you do it anymore.”
He returns to the elevator, his fingers hovering over the button to bring it up. He can’t look at Earth as he says, “Figure out your shit with P’Sam. I… I won’t get involved again.” He walks inside, his focus on a spot of carpet, and just misses the way Earth’s eyes find Stud’s face before the doors close.
Stud didn’t tell the girls what happened at the hotel. Boyo might understand, but he doesn’t totally trust Boom not to say he’s gotten what he deserves. Nearly everyone marks Stud down as a homewrecker and he just isn’t in any mindset to take more of that tonight. It’s not that he believes them when they say so, but it still hurts. At least this time, all he’s done is try to be what he thought Earth needed, from a friend to anything else he might need, but all that’s gotten Stud is an ache that has yet to fade. Six years and counting. Restless, he turns onto his side with a spare pillow pulled close to his chest.
He can’t quite believe that he’s begged for Earth’s touch so many times these past few days considering it’s normally been him that tells his partners to fuck off when he can’t be bothered. It’s pathetic, is what it is. As painfully aware of that fact as Stud is, it’s difficult to keep in mind when nearly every part of him is willing to take the bare minimum where Earth is concerned. He likely won’t sleep tonight because all he’ll be able to think about is how he’s supposed to be in bed with Earth. Or in the shower, or on the couch; and how the hell could he be expected to sleep when the only thing he can hear in his head is the sound Earth makes when Stud bites at his neck? He’d always whack Stud’s arm, claiming that he doesn’t want any marks left, but the way his other hand would tighten in Stud’s hair told a different story.
Stud’s just intoxicated by him, and it’s a complete nightmare because the truth is, it isn’t the same for Earth. Stud doesn’t mean anything to him as more than a friend, if that, and he has to admit that he’s been fooling himself. Earth probably went back to P’Sam when Stud left and fucked him instead. Why wouldn’t he? While Stud is basically a hooker that Earth calls when he needs a lay, P’Sam continues to hold the coveted title of boyfriend, the man Earth returns home to despite everything else. Stud’s never been seen as anything more than a whore who isn’t taken seriously. Whatever. Until Earth knows or accepts that P’Sam is an asshole, none of them are getting anywhere. He’d do well to just ignore them both.
Stud doesn’t answer an initial knock at his bedroom door, but a second round elicits a, “What do you want?” that more resembles a grunt than anything intelligible.
“Stud,” Boyo says through the door, “come downstairs.”
“Open the door, Stud.”
“I’m sleeping; fuck off.”
There’s no response, which Stud takes to mean that she did as he ordered. Even so, a tiny part of him is disappointed that she gave up so easily and left him alone when he’s so clearly unhappy. He knows that isn’t fair, to become annoyed when someone doesn’t perform a task they weren’t even aware of or after being pushed away, but he’s in a wallowing mood right now, not a sensible one.
The door opens and the light that floods in from the hall stings Stud’s eyes. He jolts over onto his stomach to avoid the glow and says, “What the fuck, Yo? I said I’m sleeping.”
Stud pauses for a second before sitting up to look at Earth. “What’re you doing here?” he demands. He’s at least able to summon annoyance in the face of the man with whom he’s hopelessly infatuated, so that’s a good sign.
“Boyo said you wouldn’t want to see me.” Stud does love her very much. He’ll have to apologise for being snappy. “Told me to go home, actually.” Maybe buy her a new pencil skirt too.
“Well, she was right. You can see yourself out.”
“Stud, I came to talk. Isn’t that what you want?”
“It doesn’t matter what I want with you, it hasn’t for a long time,” Stud mutters. “And, for the record, I told you everything I needed to earlier. There’s nothing left to say.”
“There is for me.” Earth glances from the wall back to Stud before closing the door to give them privacy.
“I’m not sleeping with you here; I signed a contract — ”
“I’m not here for — ” Earth takes a slow breath to keep himself calm. “You’ve never cared about sex. For as long as I’ve known you. You sleep with anyone and separate the feelings accordingly; I didn’t think — I didn’t know I needed to handle this with kid gloves.”
“So it’s my fault for not being an emotionless sex robot?”
“No,” Earth says, sounding frustrated. “It’s mine for getting involved with you in the first place when I knew how you felt. I remember that night too and what you said, about liking me still.”
“So why have you made me feel crazy for feeling — ?”
“I didn’t want to deal with it, and I was wrong for that. I thought doing this would mean you get what you want and I… I get what I want. But neither of us are getting what we want, as it turns out.”
“All I wanted was you,” Stud dares to say, and Earth closes his eyes. “I know you hate hearing it because it isn’t me and never will be me for you but if this is ending I don’t lose anything by telling you. I just wanted you, any way you’d have me.”
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“That’s why you’re with P’Sam, I get it.”
“No, I mean your wanting me,” Earth says. “You’re — right, Stud. I’m not nice to you.” Earth stops. “You… say I’m the only one who was ever there for you, but up until what happened with P’Sam you’d been that for me. The person who made me feel important fucked my boyfriend, and still I was barely alive without you.”
“Earth, I didn’t — ”
“I’ve spent every day for so long trying to ignore it and that’s how I know all of this, what we’ve been doing, is a mistake. Every time you ask to hold me a little longer or — remember my coffee order after two years of not needing to know it; everything you do reminds me that I’m lying.”
“P’Sam knows about this, you said it yourself.”
“That isn’t what I mean! I — I cut you out to make more room for P’Sam and it wasn’t enough. Then I agreed to be your friend again while promising myself that I’m over it and it still isn’t enough. So I’m mean to you and treat you like shit, because I don’t know how else to be when the only alternative is saying the truth — which is that the constant in my life is you. Whether you’re there or not. It’s you. And it’s infuriating.”
“Why’re you saying all this?” Stud interrupts.
“I don’t get this. I don’t get you, Earth. You insult me, then you’re saying you’re doing it because you care too much. Should I thank you?”
“I just want you to understand. P’Sam wasn’t right, what he told you today. Apparently he and everyone else in this damn country is convinced I’m doing this with you to get back at one or both of you but nobody seems to listen when I say I wanted to; I wanted you.”
“What happened to ‘I was just in the right place at the right time’?” Stud asks quietly.
“Stud, you — you aren’t just a body to me. If you were, I’d sleep with someone else. P’Sam offered this open-relationship, and I… He asked if it was because of you and I didn’t say no. He said all that shit to you today because he knows — he knows — ”
“What? That it’s been me and you, all along?”
Earth shakes his head slowly. “You know as well as I do that P’Sam is the perfect option, Stud. With him, I’d only have to work twice as hard for respect others like us won’t ever get.”
“You mean others like me. Gays who don’t have rich men for husbands and who don’t care how having lots of sex makes us look.”
“Isn’t it the truth?”
“You really do sound like my mom, you know that? Be like Earth, find someone good and mature like his doctor; be like him so that when the neighbours asks why I ‘chose to be gay,’ we can at least say I married up. Why do I have anything more to prove than a straight guy? They have just as many partners as we do but get none of the flack.”
“And, what? You get P’Sam, and I get to want you on my own because you choosing me would mean having to give up your golden ticket? Is that right?”
There’s a pause, then Earth says, “I didn’t come here to fight.”
“That’s a first these days,” Stud retorts. He takes a breath and shakes his head. “I’m bowing out, Earth. Bew let her love drain her to nothing and nearly died for it; I’m not making the same mistake.”
“Our story isn’t theirs, Stud — ”
“Looks awfully similar to me. I fell in love with someone whose attention I’m so desperate to keep I try to be everything to him, and he doesn’t even see it. Or doesn’t care.” Stud rolls over and clutches his pillow back to his stomach. “No boxes to carry out this time. Just go.”
Earth does go after a moment’s hesitation, even though Stud wants to jump up and grab him to stay. He’s crying before Earth has even reached the stairs but he can’t find it in himself to care just now.
Less than two minutes pass and then the bed dips with the familiar weight of Stud’s best girlfriends joining him. Boyo pulls him against her, cradling his head against her chest as he cries, and Boom’s hand settles on his arm to gently squeeze.
“Stud, I’m sorry,” she murmurs.
For years he’d let himself believe that Earth is his person, in friendship or otherwise, but whose fingers are pushing his hair off his forehead, whose arms are keeping him from collapsing? Not Earth’s. Hasn’t been Earth for a long time now.
“I didn’t mean to,” he says through a clogged throat, not completely sure what he means.
“I know, babe,” Boyo says quietly. “You’re okay.”
The man he loves isn’t brave enough to be with him. He doesn’t think anything will be okay any time soon. But he’s got Boyo, and Boom. He’ll stop pretending that the only one on his side was ever Earth; the illusion is worthless and just walked out that door.
Stud tightens his hold on Boyo’s waist and tries to breathe.