Charles awoke in that no-man’s land between “fine” and “hung over,” absent nausea or a pounding headache but still deeply aware he’d felt better. He threw off his duvet to go get some water, then hastily tugged it back up again. How could he have forgotten the heat was out?
Then all his other memories flooded back in, and he let his head fall back onto the pillow.
If only this had happened a couple of years ago, when he hadn’t fully IDed his straight-guy problem. Charles could have daydreamed about what it had been like to finally kiss Erik. Gotten off about a dozen times just on the memory of Erik’s tongue in his mouth. Luxuriated in arousal and hope for days, maybe even weeks, before the whole thing blew up in his face. Now he just had to lie here and feel like a failure.
Some New Year’s Resolution, he thought. You didn’t make it five seconds. That must be a record.
But Erik wasn’t like most of those guys. He wasn’t a manipulator or a user. He’d just been … drunk and needy, like Charles himself. Probably he was lying in his bed across town, completely horrified that he’d made out with another man.
Which was exactly what Charles should have expected, but the thought still depressed him. He and Erik had been friends – really friends, for all that they only talked at parties – and from now on, they’d just be awkward acquaintances. Those chess-game interludes were over.
The loss was more real than anything else about them had ever been.
Charles hugged the duvet to his chest, decided he refused to start 2013 like this, and rolled over to go back to sleep.
He awoke again to the sound of his phone – the generic ringtone, the one for numbers he hadn’t assigned. His fingers fumbled with his iPhone dock until he managed to answer. “Hello?”
“Charles. Hi. It’s Erik.”
“Oh.” Charles pushed himself upright, then tucked the duvet around him more snugly. The chill in his apartment was fierce. “Hi.”
“Did I wake you?”
“Kind of? But it’s –Christ, it’s nearly noon. Don’t worry about it.”
“No, no, it’s okay. Really. What’s up?” Then he cringed. What a thing to say to the guy you spent last night groping.
“Listen, I was headed to your neighborhood and I thought – maybe you could use a coffee. I know I could.”
Charles repeated, “Coffee.”
“The smaller places will be closed, but the chains should be open. I can deal with Starbucks if you can.”
He was in fact a Starbucks addict. “Yeah, that works. I – you want to meet at Columbus and 79th?”
“Sounds good. About an hour?”
“Okay,” Charles said, and only after he’d hung up did it fully hit him.
Erik had called. Erik wanted to do coffee. Erik was headed to his neighborhood, which he said like it was no big deal, but Erik lived in Brooklyn, which made the trek in on the subway – on a holiday – well, it would take most of the hour he’d allotted to get here. And what did that mean, “headed to your neighborhood”? What errand could Erik possibly have to run on the Upper West Side on New Year’s Day?
So Erik was coming here to see Charles. Only to see Charles.
He went for his phone again to get Raven.
It took her a few rings to answer, which gave Charles a chance to remember that his sister had drunk considerably more champagne last night than he had. When she finally picked up, there were various thumps and scrapes before he heard her voice: “I hate you.”
“… wait, what?”
“Erik called me just now, and he’s headed my way. We’re going for coffee.”
Some rustling suggested Raven had pushed herself to sit upright. “Okay, tell me what you think is going on here.”
Charles had been hoping she’d be the one who explained it all to him – not because he needed an explanation, but so he’d be able to hear it instead of having to be the one who said it. “Erik wants to pursue this, which is a terrible idea.”
“You think he’d just be using you like the others?”
“No. That’s the worst part.”
“Keep talking. Use small words. My head hurts.”
“It’s probably something with his divorce.” Charles wrapped the duvet around himself so he could bear the chilly stroll into his living room. Often the sunlight warmed this area more than the bedroom, but the day was overcast, and so he wound up just huddling on the huge white sofa. “I don’t know if he feels like he needs something new, as in totally new, or whether he’s just rejecting everything that went before or – I don’t know. But he’s straight, which means sooner or later, probably sooner, Erik’s going to freak out.”
Would it be the first time Charles moved Erik’s hand to his cock? The first time Charles took off his clothes before they got into bed together? After their next kiss?
“Are you sure he’s straight?” Raven said. “Maybe he was, you know, in denial.”
“I’m pretty sure.” Amazing how you could know that about a guy even after you’d had his tongue in your mouth.
“So what are you gonna do? Let him down easy, or be the one who does the using this time?”
He winced. “That was uncalled for.”
“Sorry.” A silence fell between them.
His relationship with Raven had been good when they were children. While their father was alive, they’d been so close that people expressed amazement that Raven was adopted; everyone said they should have been more than blood, more like twins.
Then grief came to their house, followed closely by Kurt Marko and his son, Cain. After that, it was as if any honest emotion in their lives had slowly been choked off, like vines withering without sunlight. Marko liked to feel powerful. That meant he liked to hurt and manipulate. Charles and Raven had been small children, unable to fight back. They were taught the sickest lesson of all – attention turned toward another is attention turned away from you. They’d learned to rat each other out for the smallest infractions, in the hope of having one night free from abuse.
Only once in all that time did Charles remember sticking up for Raven – the night in her early adolescence when Cain had told her she was going to have great tits, and Charles had turned to him and said that if Cain ever touched his sister, it would be the last thing he ever did. He’d meant it, too. Maybe Cain realized that, or maybe it had just been an empty taunt, because he never went near Raven.
She had never stuck up for Charles at all, so far as he knew.
The worst was that back then they always understood. Charles never resented Raven making him the scapegoat, or sneaking away when Marko was in a bad mood so her brother would bear the brunt instead. Nor had Raven been angry when Charles got his chance to do the exact same thing. That was the way life worked in their house.
But when Charles went away to university, and Raven was packed off to a boarding school the year after, their relationship fell apart. He thought it was as though neither of them knew how to live without an enemy. Their old habits of blaming each other, looking for faults in each other, didn’t vanish when Kurt Marko was no longer around to be their audience; instead, they intensified. Maybe they’d been attempting to justify their ruthlessness toward each other as children. Charles didn’t know why.
Several therapists had come up with explanations, none of which Charles found wholly convincing.
They were older now. Trying harder. Mum’s death had let them bond again, but the fact was, they just weren’t very good at being close. Last night they’d been able to say they loved each other – when they were drunk, and in a crowd, and it was easy. Mostly those words came hard to them. Hurtful words came easier, as they’d both just been reminded.
After the pause had gone on long enough to verge on the excruciating, Raven said, “Okay, so, you think Erik’s pursuing you because he’s not totally himself.”
“More or less sums it up.”
“But you still said you’d meet him for coffee.”
“He woke me up, and I wasn’t thinking clearly.” This was simultaneously true and a cop-out.
“Well, get out of it.”
“By now he’s probably on the train.”
“I meant, get out of the whole situation. When you guys get together, tell him, like, you met somebody recently, or something like that.”
Erik knew all about Charles’ utter lack of a love life, thanks to last night’s endless venting. Why couldn’t he ever keep his stupid mouth shut? “I’ll think of something.”
“But hey, look on the bright side,” Raven said. “Maybe he’s thinking the same thing, kind of. Maybe this is the let-you-down-easy talk.”
Some bright side. Still, Erik seemed fairly self-aware. It was possible. Now that Charles really considered it, he’d even say it was probable. “Well, it makes a change, anyway.”
“From getting used? Anything’s a good change. Trust me, I know.”
Charles sighed as he drew the duvet more tightly around him. The city outside seemed to be colorless, save for darker and lighter gray. “You have a problem with straight guys telling you they don’t want your body? Because, even speaking as your brother and a very, very gay man, that doesn’t seem like a problem you’d have.”
She didn’t laugh. “I’ve had my own issues, you know.” There was a pause, during which he said nothing because he could tell she was looking for words. “Let’s just say the number of people I’ve had sex with – okay. My number is not a small number.”
“Whose is, these days?”
“Charles.” Her voice was very quiet. “For a few years there, when we weren’t really in touch – I was kind of at loose ends. I acted out. You wouldn’t have to be Amish to be shocked by my number. You’d pretty much have to be a sex worker to not be shocked by my number.”
“You’re not the only one who tried to fill up the empty spaces.”
He felt a wave of love for her, as naked and protective as it had been in the early years. Maybe, if she had been there, she would have seen it in his face, he thought. Or he might have been able to hug her. But Charles said only, “Yeah, I get it.”
“If I’d been enjoying it at least, who cares, right?” Raven’s laugh rang hollow. “I guess I enjoyed some of it. What the hell. At least Henry knows I’ve sown my wild oats.”
“You’ve got a good man,” Charles said. “I wish I could say the same.”
“Speaking of my good man, he’s going to be back here in a few hours, so maybe the apartment should look a little less like squatters took it over a month ago.”
Raven’s relationship to neatness was both distant and hostile. He sighed. “I’ll let you go. But, Raven – ”
“Anytime. Except maybe next time when I’m hung over, try to have a crisis in the late afternoon. Or evening. Evenings are usually good.”
“I’ll schedule my crises better in future.”
Then he sat there holding his phone, staring out at the wintry sky, until he couldn’t put off the morning shower any longer. Yes, Charles was reduced to hoping that Erik would let him down gently, but he couldn’t help wanting to look his best.
“You look better than I feel,” Erik said, leaning over the table at Starbucks to buss Charles gently on the cheek.
“Better than I feel too,” Charles confessed. “Though the gingerbread latte is helping.”
“I’ll be right back.” With that Erik went to the counter to put in his own order.
Charles had come here a few minutes early and gotten his own drink, the better to avoid the whole let-me-pay thing if it were to arise, and to get around any awkwardness about a hug or kiss … or so he’d thought. Instead, now, he knew he was slightly flushed from the brief touch of Erik’s lips on his face.
Keep it together, he reminded himself. Just once try to act like an adult about this. Erik matters.
But when Erik came back and sat beside him – not across – Charles felt his resolve melt faster than the whipped cream on his coffee.
“I like the city on New Year’s Day,” Erik said between sips. He took his coffee black. “It’s quiet. And the mood is – ”
“Remorseful?” Charles suggested. “Penitent?”
Erik grinned. “I was going to say ‘thoughtful.’ Though I’m sure there are remorseful people nursing hangovers all across town.”
Interesting that Erik didn’t describe himself as remorseful. Deep within Charles, hope sparked, deceitful and strong.
“I love New York,” Erik continued. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But sometimes it’s so frantic you can’t hear yourself think. A day like today – you can walk along the streets and think.”
“Is that what you like to do?” Surely a little good-natured teasing was okay. “Meander and brood?”
Straight-faced, Erik replied, “We all need hobbies.”
Charles laughed despite himself. “Want to meander, then?”
“Well – ” Erik hesitated only for a moment. “Sure, let’s.”
They wandered through the Upper West Side, which was less clamorous than usual, talking easily about the minutiae they saw along the way. A few holiday decorations clung to store windows, but most of it had been cleared away now; the makeshift Christmas-tree farm in front of the grocery store had been packed up, leaving the sidewalk feeling strangely bare. Groggy people obviously feeling the effects of last night walked their dogs, which ambled along oblivious to their owners’ discomfort. Instead of carols or Johnny Mathis singing about New Year’s Eve, the radios in bodegas or on food carts again played their usual mix of rap, Middle Eastern pop and Taylor Swift.
“I always think I’m ready for the holidays to be over,” Charles said. “And then they end, and the world feels so … dingy.”
“It would help if they weren’t in midwinter.”
A question sprang to mind that Charles had never considered before. “Christmas is a summer holiday in the Southern hemisphere. I wonder what their traditions are – because snow and holly and all of that has to be totally foreign.”
“In Australia they have a Christmas barbecue on the beach.”
“Really,” Erik confirmed. “I dated a girl from Perth, back in college. She said they’d cook out and surf.”
“So their holidays end more cheerfully than this.”
Erik gave him a sidelong glance that made Charles suddenly, vividly remember their kisses last night. “Our holidays might end well yet.” Before Charles could stutter out a response, Erik pointed at a restaurant up the way. “Is that new?”
Charles had thought the cold air would be bracing. Snap him back into focus. But instead he matched his steps to Erik’s tempo, looked up at him so often he nearly walked into other pedestrians, and realized his shoulder was brushing against Erik’s arm far too much for it to be purely accidental – on his part or on Erik’s.
Tell him you’re focusing on your career right now and don’t want to get into anything. Tell him you’re moving to the family house in Westchester County. Tell him you only like sex when the guy takes a cold shower first and then lies still as though he were a dead body. Tell him you’ve become a Scientologist. Anything that might freak him out and make him leave. Just say it.
Instead he brushed against Erik again.
“Did you come into the city a lot, growing up?” Erik said as they waited for the walk signal at a corner.
“Not that often. More when I was little.” Charles added the detail he wouldn’t have shared with anyone else. “When my dad was alive, I mean. He’d drive us in on the weekends so we could go to the Natural History Museum and growl at the T. Rex. Or play with us in the park. After my stepfather showed up – not so much. Mom took the three of us to F.A.O. Schwartz once and Cain got thrown out. Can you imagine how bad a kid has to be to get tossed from F.A.O. Schwartz?”
“He sounds like a nightmare.”
“He was.” That was more than a joke, and they both knew it; Charles had shared some hard truths about Cain before. But the conversation was getting too heavy, surely. “Did you ever go there as a kid?”
“Sometimes. I went on my own. My parents couldn’t have afforded much there, but I liked to look. Not even to envy, really. Just to see the things they had.”
“Not to envy? Surely you had to want some of it.” Rather guiltily, Charles reflected that he’d been given most of that junk; Mom had tried buying them things as a substitute for showing them love. He’d even owned a life-sized stuffed gorilla. That thing was probably still moldering in the mansion’s attic.
Erik shook his head. “I didn’t let myself want it. It felt like – like going to the museum, I think. I no more expected to bring home any of those toys than you would have expected to bring home a Tyrannosaurus skeleton.”
“Yeah, we never got anything bigger than a stegosaurus.”
Charles kept from smiling just long enough for Erik to wonder if he wasn’t joking.
Their laughter had just tapered off when they circled back along Charles’ block. He pointed at his building. “Home base.”
“Oh, this is it? Nice.” Although Charles had told Erik about his place, Erik had never seen it before. “What floor?”
“Must be one hell of a view.”
Now Erik was angling for an invitation, which was Charles’ cue to come up with something to say, absolutely anything besides, Come on up and take a look.
He said, “Come on up and take a look.”
They both sounded so casual, and neither of them was fooling the other for an instant.
“Sorry about the heat,” Charles said as they rode the elevator upward. “It’s been out for two days.”
“I’d think a place this nice could get a repairman out even on a holiday.”
“There’s some furnace part they have to order or something. It should only take a couple more days, they swear. But for now it’s icy. Consider yourself warned.”
“I’m prepared,” Erik said, and oh, was everything Erik said from now on going to feel like a double entendre even if it wasn’t? Probably.
At least Charles had a better relationship with neatness than his sister did. He despised clutter and tossed it at the first opportunity – often too enthusiastically, ditching bills or Christmas cards along with the junk mail. So he didn’t have to worry about Erik seeing anything out of place. Everything in his house was pale wood and matte chrome and in a palette of pale cool colors that reminded him of the beach in winter.
Charles found it peaceful. Raven called it boring. But he never worried about that too much, because guests always did exactly what Erik did when they walked in the door.
“Wow. Wow. That’s – amazing.”
“Isn’t it?” Usually Charles didn’t like to glory in his physical possessions; it was tacky, and besides, he knew better than most how little happiness money could buy. The view was different, though. That felt like something he had chosen – no, something he had discovered. The broad glass wall of the main room looked out onto the park, which at this height looked less winter-barren, more silvered with frost. In the distance, the skyscrapers and spires of the East Side seemed to be carved from the soft gray clouds overhead, like the city itself was no more than a dream.
“You could stare at this all day,” Erik said, walking forward slowly, as if almost in a trance.
“Sometimes I do.” Too often, lately – but Charles could hardly concentrate on that right now. His pulse was heightened, his breaths shallow. It was as though every cell in his body responded to Erik’s presence. He was utterly aware of Erik, and of the door to his bedroom, only a few steps away.
The dizzying precipice of his view beckoned. Charles stepped forward to stand beside Erik just next to the window; the glass fogged slightly with their breaths. Silence filled the room, simultaneously oppressive and tantalizing. He had to lick his lips before he could speak again.
“Chrysler Building,” he said, pointing to the spire – the most ridiculous thing he could have pointed out to a native New Yorker, but he couldn’t stop himself. “And if you angle yourself just right, you can even see the lake.”
“Like – ” Charles tilted his body so that the soft shimmer of water was visible through distant trees. “Like this.”
Erik stood directly behind him. His chest brushed against Charles’ shoulders. Although Charles lifted one hand so that his finger could trace the skyscraper’s silhouette, he knew Erik wasn’t looking. He could hardly see it himself. His entire world had shrunk down to those few inches of contact along his back.
Then Erik’s hand closed around Charles’ arm.
Charles didn’t move away.
Erik nuzzled the side of Charles’ face, then brushed his lips just behind Charles’ ear.
All Raven’s warnings, all his own resolutions, everything he knew about how this had to end wasn’t enough to keep him from turning his face toward Erik’s.
At first the angle was strange, off-kilter, so they had to crane their necks to get their lips to meet. But Charles gave into it slowly, slowly, only another inch for each kiss, so that they were only gradually giving into the embrace. Erik’s hand tentatively slid around Charles’ back as Charles leaned into the kiss more fully. They opened their mouths before using their tongues, as if testing each other every moment, every step.
He drew Erik’s tongue between his lips and sucked softly; Erik responded by thrusting his tongue in a measured rhythm, mimicking sex. Charles imagined Erik pushing into him just like that – slick and strong, maddeningly slow – and knew Erik was imagining it too.
The champagne wasn’t muting this. Wasn’t causing it. He was unshielded, exposed, unexcused. Each touch flayed Charles raw. He couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t get enough.
Finally, when their lips parted long enough for Charles to gulp in a breath, Erik said, “I couldn’t sleep last night. All I could think about was you. This. Us.”
“Oh, God. Yes.” If Erik wanted to use him, he wanted to be used. He’d go down on his knees and suck Erik off, right here, right now, in front of the whole city. He’d get on all fours and let Erik fuck him senseless. So what if it all ended badly? At least he’d know what it was like to have Erik inside him. At least he’d have that just once.
One of Erik’s hands clutched him at the hipbone; the other curved around his head, holding Charles in place. “I want you.”
His knees nearly buckled. Charles looked up into Erik’s eyes, almost dazed with need – and it hit him. What would it feel like to never see Erik again?
He said, “Wait.”
“Wait.” Charles forced himself to pull back; Erik let go, though he looked both bewildered and understandably frustrated. “I – we ought to talk about this.”
“Ah, okay, sure.” Erik ran one hand through his hair. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No! No. That was all – that was amazing – and you’re – but Erik, you’re straight. You like women.”
“Yeah, but – ”
“So how do I even come into it?”
Erik shrugged. He actually shrugged. What the hell was that to go on?
“You’re confused,” Charles said. That was one of the euphemisms the straight guys offered up most often. Confused. It meant, not that into you.
“It’s a confusing situation. But I know you and I – we have something, don’t we? Or we could.”
It felt like being torn open. Charles stepped further back. His legs shook – all that adrenalin and arousal rushing through his body with nowhere to go – and he sank onto the white sofa, rather than fall. “Think about it, okay? Really think about it. You don’t want to have the kind of sex I want to have. You don’t want to do to me what you want me to do to you. Right?”
Erik stood there, staring hard at Charles, for a long silent moment. Then he crossed to Charles in two long steps and kneeled in front of him. “Okay.” He took a deep breath, then reached for Charles’ fly. “Okay.”
He couldn’t breathe or even think. Sensation kept crashing into him, wave after wave, stunning him over and over again: Erik’s hands fumbling with the button of his jeans, pushing down the elastic of his boxers. Erik’s fingers circling his swollen, sensitive cock. The shock of cold air against his groin; the greater shock of being warmed by Erik’s breath.
Erik opened his mouth slightly, hesitated, then slowly licked the head. Charles sucked in a sharp breath. Erik licked him again before dipping his head a little farther down, enough to kiss the tip. Then he opened his mouth wider and took Charles in.
“Oh, fuck.” Charles clutched at the back of the sofa, his arms spread wide, as he tilted his pelvis up into it. Erik swirled his tongue around Charles – the motion almost clumsy – but it was Erik’s mouth hot and wet around him, and that was all Charles needed.
Only then did Erik start to suck. Two pulses, three, and Charles already was near the point of writhing – but Erik tried to take Charles in deeper, and then he coughed and came close to gagging.
Not that deep, Charles was going to say when he looked down at Erik. Take it easy. But at that moment Erik looked up at him, his eyes searching for Charles’ even as his mouth was stretched wide and full. He saw how uncertain Erik was. Remembered that Erik had never done this before, had probably virtually never even thought about doing this before.
And he realized he’d pushed Erik into doing this before he was ready.
Charles framed Erik’s face with his hands as he gently eased him back. “Hey. It’s okay. All right? You don’t have to.”
“I can do it better.”
“No, no! That’s not it. No. You were – oh, Jesus, Erik. Don’t do this.”
“What?” Erik shoved back from the sofa, back up to his feet. He looked hurt … no, worse. Humiliated. “I don’t understand what you want!”
“You’re the one who doesn’t understand what you want. You just said so.”
“I’m not the one sending mixed signals here.”
Charles tucked himself back in. “I don’t want to pressure you into proving something to me, all right?”
Erik bit back whatever it was he’d been going to say; his mood ever so slightly gentled. But he still sounded miserable as he said, “Am I allowed to not know how I feel about this?” he said. “I never thought about having sex with a man before you. No, I don’t know what that means. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Can’t we find out what this is? Can’t I just once find out if I want something?”
What do I do? I don’t know what to do. Not for the first time, Charles felt the despair that came with knowing he still had no idea how to love someone.
After a few moments’ silence, Erik shook his head and started toward the door. They both still had their coats on.
Charles still didn’t know how to handle this – what to say or what to think. But he did the only thing he could think of. He rose from the sofa and got between Erik and the door. “Don’t go.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Erik didn’t move, but he didn’t speak either.
“Not like this,” Charles said. If he had to plead, he’d plead. He didn’t know what he’d do with another chance, or if another chance would do any good, but he wanted one. “Please, Erik. Please don’t go.”