“You’ll thank me for this,” Raven said.
“I don’t know about that.” Charles had been planning on spending a very quiet New Year’s Eve in his apartment, wrapped in a quilt and watching “Hellboy” movies. Even though Raven had successfully convinced him to change into a nice shirt and slacks before she dragged him out the door, he still longed for his pajamas.
But his sister continued smiling, satisfied with her triumph, as the taxi struggled through traffic to inch its way uptown. “You always have a good time at Emma’s, and you know it.”
Emma Frost was more Raven’s friend than Charles’ – he found her a bit chilly, no pun intended – but she knew an endless assortment of fascinating people, most of whom he only got to socialize with at Emma’s bashes: Angel, the stripper who was working on her doctorate in women’s studies – Sean, an actor who somehow made a living only doing voiceover work – and Erik. Of course Erik. Charles found himself smiling a little just at the thought of Erik Lehnsherr’s face.
Being reminded of his crush was at least as much pain as pleasure. These days, though, if Charles could get pleasure along with the pain, that was about as much as he could hope for.
Raven didn’t stop gloating until the taxi was nearly at its destination. That was when her usual last-minute dithering took over. “Should we stop and get wine?”
“We never have before. Emma’s particular about what she serves. Oh – excuse me, right here at the corner – on the left. Thanks.”
“I just feel like we should have brought something. A gift. Showing up empty-handed feels weird. Maybe it’s a kind of Christmas hangover, you know?”
“Hardly even seems like Christmas happened,” Charles said as he swiped his debit card. Raven had spent the holiday with her boyfriend, Henry, which meant he’d spent the day alone in the multiplex on 42nd Street, buying tickets for movie after movie. But he’d enjoyed some of the movies, so he looked at it as a sign of progress.
She gave him a look. Was it concern or disdain? Usually it was the former, but if he’d gotten Raven into a mood, it could be the latter.
But she said only, “You always liked New Year’s best, anyway.”
He did. Charles’ generally-optimistic spirit reveled in fresh starts and new beginnings. Somehow he’d never gotten himself together enough to throw his own party, but he was the guy who usually showed up at everybody else’s bash with enough silly glitter hats for everyone. This year he was empty-handed, which seemed fitting, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t get into the spirit. After all, 2013 had to be better than 2012. Didn’t it?
As they got out of the cab, he ventured, “Made any resolutions yet?”
“I’m going to stop taking taxis everywhere,” Raven said. “There’s a perfectly good subway system, and I should use it.” Charles glanced back the way they’d come, where their taxi’s red taillights were still visible, and earned himself an elbow in the ribs. “In 2013, I mean. For the next three and a half hours, all bets are off. Now, what about you?”
Charles turned his coat collar up against the chill and considered. “No more moping,” he said quietly, aware that Raven would be trying very hard to hide her reaction. “It’s been four months. Time to move forward.”
“Good,” she said, nodding too fast. “I mean, yeah.”
She really was only thinking about him. Raven was the one who’d dealt with the messiness at the end, who’d seen it in more detail than Charles ever had. How was it that she could cope so well when he was still only barely managing?
He couldn’t think about that. So he tried to come up with a few more resolutions. “I’ll get up early enough to make coffee at home instead of buying something off the cart every day.”
“Fasir will miss you.”
“I’ll still get coffee from Fasir sometimes, I’m sure. Just once in a while I might make my own. Occasionally. You know?”
Raven glanced sidelong at him. “That’s not a resolution.”
“True. Okay.” Charles clapped his hands together, the sound softened by the fingerless gloves he wore. “I’ve got an important one. No more straight men.”
“I’m not dating any more straight men. Or sleeping with them. Or making out with them.”
“If they’re sleeping with you, how are they straight?”
Charles pointed at her. “Ah-hah! You see the contradiction! The problem is, plenty of straight men don’t.”
She looked more amused than confused. “Is this seriously a problem you have? Come on.”
“I seem to have a talent for attracting guys like that. And unfortunately, I find straight men really sexy,” Charles admitted. He hadn’t been in the habit of confiding in his sister about his love life, but they’d become closer this year. She was no prude, so he might as well confess. “So a couple times a year, I wind up with a heterosexual guy for a night or two, and then it goes straight to hell.”
“But – if they’re with you, if they like you – they have to be bisexual at least, right?”
“So I used to think. Now, though? I’ve seen the truth.” His steps quickened, partly because they were almost to Emma’s building, partly out of temper.
“I don’t get it.”
Charles couldn’t yet bring himself to explain to his younger sister. Maybe if he got drunk at this party he could say what he really meant: There are straight men who’ll go to bed with a gay man, but the sex is only on their terms. They’ll let you suck their cock, but they’ll never, ever open their mouths for you. They’ll fuck you senseless, but they’ll never, ever open their legs for you. You get a few sloppy kisses and a hand job and a speech a few days later about how they don’t want to give you the wrong idea. They’ll go to bed with a gay man because, to them, I don’t even really exist as a person; I’m just a tongue, a pair of hands, an ass. I’m only a set of actions. A source of sensation. Something that will suffice if a woman isn’t around. They’re not bisexual, because to be bisexual they’d have to actually want me, not just something I can do for them.
He suspected these guys didn’t treat the women in their lives much better, but that was no consolation.
In the past, he’d asked himself why he went after these guys who were only destined to break his heart. Now, Charles suspected, that was exactly why he’d gone after them. The idea of being with someone who might stick around long enough to really matter – and then leave – well, it was scary as hell. But anything had to beat constant rejection, didn’t it?
“No more straight men,” Charles repeated as he began scrolling through the apartment directory for Emma’s name. “No more futility. No more pointless hoping and heartbreak. In 2013, I never want to hear the words ‘exception,’ ‘experimenting’ or ‘phase.’ If, God forbid, I hear ‘bicurious’ even once, I may take a hostage.”
Raven had started laughing, and even he began to smile. It felt good to vent. Better to actually make the change.
He concluded, “From now on, I hereby resolve to lead the kind of love life that might actually lead to something real. No more straight men, ever.”
Erik was at the party.
Amazing, Charles thought, the way your brain could focus so absolutely on the one person in the room who most interested you. Emma’s enormous apartment was packed with partygoers, frothy with champagne, filled with chatter and laughter and Duke Ellington tunes – but from the moment he caught a glimpse of Erik, and Erik grinned back, it was as though everything else in the room fell away.
And wasn’t Erik working his way through the din to reach Charles?
That wasn’t so odd, Charles reminded himself as he tossed his coat into Emma’s study. He and Erik always had the best chats at these parties. Erik always said they should get a coffee or hang out, because they were better friends than two people ought to be after only meeting at parties over five years’ time. But Erik had also invited Charles to dinner with him and his wife, Magda … which was why Charles had always dodged the friendship.
Straight men were attractive. And for Charles, Erik was basically the ultimate straight man. That kind of crush couldn’t be paired with a friendship; the result could only be awkwardness and unspoken pain and grinding jealousy of the woman in Erik’s life.
Erik’s single now, though, Charles thought as Erik approached. He and Magda divorced sometime this summer, so he’s available.
And still straight. Get over it.
“There you are.” Erik held his arm out for the customary straight-man’s “one-handed hug,” which Charles allowed himself to enjoy. “Good to see you again.”
“You too. You’re looking great.” Last year at this time, Magda had been talking about leaving, and Erik had looked positively haggard as he confessed his woes to Charles out on the balcony. Now he was smiling, at ease, his body perfectly outlined by the black turtleneck sweater he wore. “Is it rude to say divorce agrees with you?”
Then he caught a glimpse of Magda chatting away in the far corner.
“Oh. Sorry. Awkward.” Charles knew he was blushing as red as Raven’s cocktail dress.
“Huh?” Erik glanced in the direction Charles had been looking. “Oh, no, no. We’re divorced, but we’re getting along. I mean, there’s still tension, but it’s … okay. We might even wind up friends again eventually. Magda and I simply had no business being married to each other. That’s all.”
“That’s almost disturbingly mature of you.” Now Charles could laugh, from relief if nothing else. “You didn’t have to split custody of your mutual friends?”
“No. Though I’d have been sure to get custody of you.” Erik grinned. “Glad you made it tonight.”
Something about the way Erik said that last made Charles realize that Erik had heard – well, everything, probably. Now that he thought of it, he noticed others glancing his way. They all seemed pleased to see him out and about for a change, but the attention was more intimidating than welcoming.
Erik must have seen his gaze darting around the room, because he took one step backward. “Am I monopolizing you?”
It wasn’t as though there was anyone else here he really wanted to see. “Please, monopolize away.”
During the past few years, Charles had created a pattern for all interactions with Erik Lehnsherr at Emma’s (or, occasionally, Raven’s) parties.
First, greet Erik happily and get far too excited about the fact that Erik appeared glad to see him too.
Second, talk to other people at the party. Genuinely enjoy their company most of the time, but be very, very aware of Erik’s presence across the room. Steal the occasional glance at that lean, powerful body. Try not to be obvious.
Third, finally start talking to Erik in a group.
Fourth, disengage from the entire party so the two of them could really talk, sometimes for an hour or more, on Emma’s balcony or in the home office where she made party guests stash their coats. Spill his guts. Listen to Erik spill his guts in return. Or sometimes just have fun and make each other laugh. Once, even playing chess on a set they found in the home office, at least until Emma found them and asked if they were deliberately being antisocial.
Fifth, part ways as the evening wound down. Promise to email, to call, to get together for coffee or come by the house for dinner sometime, and know that promise would never be kept.
Sixth, go home to suffer the exquisite torment of unrequited passion. And/or masturbate to the fantasy of having Erik in his bed. Usually And.
Tonight they’d skipped directly to step four.
At 10 p.m. –
“Magda brought a date?” Charles whispered, trying to peer over Erik’s shoulder to the corner of the room where his ex now stood.
“Will you stop that? She’ll see you!” But Erik looked more embarrassed than horrified. “I don’t know if he’s a date or not. She came with a couple of her friends I know, and this guy I’ve never seen before.”
“Maybe he’s dating one of the others.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. It’s strange.”
“Are you jealous?” Charles hated the idea of Erik pining after Magda; he was one of the good guys, one of the people you hoped would get to be happy.
“No, that’s not it.”
Charles gave Erik a look.
“Truly,” Erik insisted. “The situation makes me feel awkward, that’s all.”
“… and …”
“And – disrespected, I guess.”
“Is she rubbing it in your face?”
“No. If he’s her date, they’re being discreet.” Erik sighed. “You’re telling me to let it go, aren’t you?”
“You want you two to be friends again, right? Then you have to take pride out of it. I mean, unless she does something really outrageous, but this isn’t that bad, is it?”
“I don’t even know that it’s anything. You’re right.” After a moment, Erik nodded, as though Charles had said something else, and repeated, “You’re right.”
Charles hadn’t gotten to be the wise one for quite a while now. He’d missed it.
At 11 p.m. –
“So, what happened to that guy?” Erik said through bared teeth, as he struggled with the latest champagne cork.
“Which guy?” When had he seen Erik last? The Fourth of July barbeque on Sean’s rooftop – the one that broke all the fire codes – that had to be it. “Oh, him. Didn’t last the month.”
“You were excited about him, I thought.”
Of course I was. He was the latest straight guy I was going to convert. “You know how it is. When you’re – infatuated, you’re not even connecting to the person yet. Just your idea of what they might be. Then reality comes crashing in. Do you need help with that?”
“I’ve got it,” Erik insisted, prying at the bottle. “Nobody since then?”
“Not since then.”
“We’ll just have to hope your love life picks up in 2013. And mine, too.”
Just then the cork popped, and people cheered, and Charles laughed as he dodged the flume of champagne foam.
Just before 12 p.m. –
Despite the chill, they stood on Emma’s balcony, which was high enough to provide a sliver-view of the mayhem in Times Square. The ball glittered in the near distance, still preparing to drop. Erik had found a blanket to wrap around his shoulders as he sat on the step, while Charles simply hugged himself tightly. It was worth the cold, because at least they had this place to themselves.
For months he’d avoided talking to anyone besides Raven about this, and now, with Erik, it all came out.
“Sometimes I’m angry at myself for letting the relationship disintegrate that badly.” Charles leaned against the balcony rail. “Sometimes I’m angry at Mum for – never mind what for.”
“For the alcohol abuse,” Erik said very quietly. “For your stepfather, and your stepbrother.”
Charles sighed, and some of the tension drained away. He hadn’t known how badly he needed someone to say it, because he no longer felt like he had the right to say it himself.
And God, how much about his life had he confessed to Erik? It was unbelievable to think they’d shared so much already; even more astonishing was the fact that Erik had apparently remembered it all.
He said only, “Raven lived through it too. But Raven was able to make it up with Mum, in the end. She visited her in rehab; I never could. Then when Mum got sick, Raven was there – and neither of us knew it was that serious, nobody did until the last couple of days, but still. Still. She was my mother, and I didn’t even get to the hospital until she was unconscious. Never even told her goodbye. So I feel like a shit. And I expect to feel like a shit about it for the rest of my life.”
Erik shook his head. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I left my mother to die in hospital. How is that not wrong?”
“You didn’t leave her. You got there too late. That could have happened to anyone, regardless of their relationship. What you wanted was closure, for both of you, but be honest – would it have happened? Ever?”
Charles shrugged. “I didn’t give it much chance to happen.”
“Neither did your mother, apparently.”
How dare you, how dare you say that about her, she’s dead – but Charles’ anger trailed away like their foggy breath in the cool night. In his own blunt way, Erik was reminding him that it took two people to have a bad relationship; Mum had contributed her half.
Yet, still: “Raven got there.”
“She had a different relationship. Different experiences. And she’s her own person. You can’t measure yourself by her.” Erik rose to his feet, blanket over his shoulders like a cape. His voice was quiet and grave. “You went through a lot. It’s not wrong for you to be angry. I wish you’d come to better terms with her, for your sake anyway, but you have to stop blaming yourself.”
Charles very much didn’t want to get choked up about this, so he tried to defuse the moment. “What, because I don’t look good when I’m brooding?”
“Because you miss your mother hurting you, so you’re hurting yourself to fill the gap.”
For a moment Charles could hardly breathe. It was true – so true it felt as if it vibrated within him, down to the bone.
Then Erik smiled a little. “And you always look good.”
“You.” Charles shook his head, rueful. “You get to me. You know that, right?”
Erik cocked his head, and Charles wondered if he’d just said too much. But to hell with it. He’d just been given a difficult truth; he could give back that much truth in return.
Besides, his skin was now cold enough to feel as though it wasn’t entirely his own, and Erik’s cheeks and nose were reddening. “We’re fucking freezing out here,” Charles said, nudging Erik. “Let’s get back in the party, okay?”
“Not just yet.” Erik pointed over Charles’ shoulder, to the Times Square glitter beyond. “Don’t you want to see it live for once?”
“Is it midnight already?”
Charles grabbed his phone out of his pocket; sure enough, it was 11:58 – no, 11:59. “I’ve been venting to you forever. Oh, my God.”
“I vented to you too, remember?”
“I don’t mind. You know that.”
“All right, then.”
So they’d be out here alone at midnight. Lovely thought – but Charles realized that Erik’s motivation was certainly avoiding Magda at the hour. They might be getting along fairly well now, but a social situation that demanded kissing would have to be awkward for a newly divorced pair. Well, Charles didn’t mind providing an escape.
From within the apartment, they heard people start chanting: “Ten! Nine! Eight!”
“Should’ve brought silly hats,” Charles said.
Erik laughed. “Like the tiaras last year?”
“You looked fetching in a tiara.” Charles might or might not have kept that photo on his phone.
“So did you.”
Screams and shouting from within the party – and Charles realized neither he nor Erik had actually watched the ball drop for themselves. They’d only been looking at each other.
“The world didn’t end in 2012 after all,” Charles said. It was all he could think of to say.
“No, it didn’t.” Erik leaned a little closer. “Happy New Year, Charles.”
“—I – Happy New Year.”
Erik kissed him.
For the first moment, Charles assumed that Erik was just – humoring him. Demonstrating he wasn’t homophobic, being warm to someone who’d had a rough time, confident that Charles wouldn’t read more into it. Something like that.
But Erik’s mouth pressed more firmly against his, and then their lips parted slightly, and oh, the world was turning upside down –
The balcony door burst open, and they broke apart as they were each tackled by about three people at once, all demanding New Year’s hugs. Charles found himself with Raven’s arms around his waist and Armando’s around his neck, and everyone was laughing, and it would have been delightful if the newcomers hadn’t just interrupted … what?
A kiss. Definitely a kiss. But had it been a kiss kiss?
His eyes met Erik’s, just as Erik was towed inside to receive another smooch, this one from Emma herself. That one glimpse was enough to make Charles feel as though he’d just been struck by lightning.
“It’s all going to be better next year,” Raven promised. She smelled strongly of champagne, and somehow she’d got glitter in her hair. “I swear. You’ll see.”
He hugged his sister tightly. “I love you.”
“Love you too.”
Within a few minutes, the immediate post-midnight hubbub had worn off, and the party began to split in two. Those who were either weary or paying $25 an hour to a babysitter began to depart; those who remained began taking the party to new levels of frenzy, not to mention inebriation. Charles had never intended to stay, but Erik didn’t seem to be leaving, which meant he couldn’t go. Not now. Not until –
--until what? Until you let him be the next straight guy who uses you?
No. Erik wouldn’t do that to him. Charles felt sure of very little these days, but he felt sure of that.
Probably Erik was just a little drunk, and the holidays had made him sentimental. Plus, his ex-wife was here, quite possibly with the new man in her life; Erik might have wanted to a little ego boost. Charles’ crush had to be pretty obvious. So Erik allowed himself to bask in feeling attractive again. Natural enough. No big deal. Besides, it was midnight on New Year’s Eve. Why not a kiss?
Their eyes met across the room again, and Charles felt it – that physical pull of desire, down in his solar plexus, dizzying him like the champagne.
And he knew, beyond any doubt, Erik felt it too.
Let it go, let it go, if you pursue him it’s just going to get messy – and besides, didn’t you just make a Resolution not to do this kind of thing?
Well. New Year’s Eve didn’t count.
Charles gulped more champagne from a plastic cup, then weaved through the crowd toward Erik, who was at least pretending to listen to Alex and Angel. When he reached their little circle, he said nothing, didn’t even join them, but hooked two of his fingers around Erik’s wrist – a light touch, nothing much if Erik wasn’t interested. Nothing that would creep him out or make him angry, just a suggestion he could easily ignore.
But Erik straightened, turned into the touch and let Charles draw him away.
Heart pounding, Charles tried to think of what to do next. His first impulse was to lead Erik back to the balcony, but someone had raised the blinds, and he could see that the space was now occupied by Raven; she had her cellphone cradled to her ear and was no doubt having exchanging teary avowals of love with Henry, who wouldn’t come back from Illinois until tomorrow night. That was going to take at least an hour.
By now, though, the people leaving right after midnight had gone. So nobody much would be entering the home office where Emma kept the coats, not for a while.
Charles led them inside, dropping his hand away from Erik’s wrist only to open the door. He didn’t bother snapping on the light. Someone had jarred Emma’s computer earlier, awakening it from sleep back into screensaver mode. Soft white arcs of light danced across the screen, shedding just enough light to see Erik’s face as he shut the door behind them.
Then he took hold of Erik’s collar with both fists and dragged him down for a kiss.
Their lips met hard and ragged, almost desperate from the first touch. Erik’s hands found his shoulders, then his waist, then shoved him against the wall. The framed pictures on the wall thudded, and Charles heard the silvery slip of coats falling over each other to the floor. But nothing was worth paying attention to except Erik’s touch.
With a brush of his tongue, Charles got Erik’s mouth open, so the next kiss would be wet and sloppy. Erik groaned into it, a sound that set Charles ablaze. He tugged Erik closer, until Erik was leaning against him; Erik’s fingers tangled in Charles’ hair, and their kisses went on and on and on.
Charles wanted to do so much more than this. He wanted to hook his fingers in Erik’s belt loops. Grind against him so Erik could feel how hard he’d made Charles already, and maybe Charles could feel whether Erik was hard too. Take Erik’s hand and press it against his erection, a silent plea for Erik to unzip his pants and turn this from making out into foreplay.
But Erik was straight. A little drunk. And just because he was open to this right now didn’t mean he wanted anything more.
I wish, Charles thought as Erik’s lips found his throat. Oh, how I wish.
Maybe – maybe Erik wasn’t totally straight? He could hope. Charles whispered, “Ever do this before? Kiss another man?”
“Uh-uh,” Erik panted against Charles’ skin. “First time.”
Well, so much for that. But the end of that brief whisper of hope seemed to fuel Charles’ arousal. Right here, right now: This was all of Erik he was ever going to get. He intended to make the most of it.
Charles hugged Erik tighter, pressing their bodies closer together. They kissed again, and he made it slow, tantalizing – the kind of kiss he always thought of as liquid sex. “Being bad tonight?”
“Then let’s be very bad.”
Then Erik raked his teeth along Charles’ skin just where his neck met his shoulder, and Charles thought he might just have to push Erik down to the floor and find out exactly how far this could go –
--but then the door swung open, bathing them in unwelcome light.
Raven stood there, phone still in one hand. Within a second’s time she’d gone from startled to amused to vaguely pissed off. To Charles she said, “I can’t leave you alone for an hour.”
Erik hadn’t even pulled back at first, and his arms remained around Charles – but only for a moment. As the noise of the party crowd flooded back in, he stepped back, sharply breaking the contact between them.
Of course. He was embarrassed to have been caught kissing another man. Ashamed.
Charles knew exactly what it felt like to have someone be ashamed of him
“We should go,” Charles said. He turned away and started sifting through the coats for his own, and Raven’s cape.
“I – ” Erik hesitated, running one hand through his disheveled hair. “You’re headed out? Now?”
“Yes. Definitely. We’re going.” Charles found the cape and tossed it toward Raven, who by now was glaring at Erik. That did the trick; Erik slipped out of the room, becoming part of the celebration yet again.
Even though Charles had made it impossible for Erik to do anything else, he still hated him a little for it.
They said their goodbyes to Emma quickly. Charles deliberately didn’t look for Erik, who didn’t make any move to say his own farewell.
Once Emma’s door had closed behind them, Raven said, “Erik hit on you?”
“I can’t believe that guy! He saw you were – drunk, and vulnerable, and not yourself – ”
“Raven, seriously. Let it go. You know, New Year’s Eve, champagne … things get out of hand. He’s an okay guy. It won’t happen again.”
“That’s right,” she said, putting her hand through the crook of his elbow. “New Year’s Resolutions are now in effect. Next time you kiss a guy, it’s going to be someone who can love you.”
Their kisses flickered through Charles’ brain, over and over – like film being rewound, except it wasn’t just the sight of Erik that he remembered, but his taste, his touch, the exhilaration of shared desire. For a few stolen minutes, Charles had been able to pretend that his dream had come true.
And the dream wasn’t about “a straight man.” It was about Erik. Only Erik. And it felt like Charles wouldn’t be able to dream about anyone else for a very long time.
You did it to yourself, you know.
Charles sighed as the elevator lowered them back down to earth. “No more straight men,” he said. “Not ever. Not ever again.”