Chapter 7: Player
Friday was often a day which saw Kent’s and Nate’s schedules overlapping at the store. Today was one of those days. Kent watched Nate as the redhead walked past him. Nate’s eyes were tired and they seemed to lack the vital spark he always possessed.
‘He looks so sad.’ The thought came to Kent as he stepped behind the counter to help a customer. He rang up the woman’s purchases and Liz came to join Kent as the older lady exited the store with her treasures.
“Kent,” Liz looked worriedly at Nate as he shuffled around, “did something else happen?”
“No. I don’t know what’s going on with him,” Kent said, genuinely mystified.
Liz watched Nate until he disappeared deeper into the store, then she looked at Kent. “Maybe he heard about your date?”
Kent grimaced. “It’s not a date.” He squirmed. “Stanley and I are just going to hang out, get some Chinese food, and watch a movie.” He felt the redness of embarrassment in his face. “He feels bad I don't know many people here. He's just being nice, that's all.”
Liz smiled, and she held up her hands in mock surrender. “Okay, sorry.”
Nate reappeared, a stack of mis-shelved books in his arms. He carried them around the shelf, then he walked down the other side. They watched him sit heavily on the floor and begin to put books on the bottom shelf. Kent couldn’t remember him initiating a conversation today with anyone, and it was now early afternoon. It didn't seem as if Nate was avoiding either of them or customers – he just wasn’t his usual, gregarious self.
Liz sighed. “You know, he probably deserves whatever it is making him feel bad, but I still feel sorry for him.”
Kent responded with a nod. Liz moved away to price some newly delivered books, while Kent continued to watch him. Despite his lingering issues with Nate, Kent couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong.
‘Maybe I should ask.’ The young man considered. ‘He looks like he could use a friend.’ A long moment passed as he debated, then his eyes narrowed. ‘Well, he should have tried being a better friend to me when he had the chance.’
He knew he was acting petty, but couldn't quite help himself. With a stubborn set of his jaw, Kent turned his back on the wounded man on the floor.
Tad shook his head, frustrated and disheartened. “God, it’s so expensive.” He looked through pricing options for self-publishing what was essentially a huge comic book. He tried different formats, even black and white versions, but they were all what he considered to be prohibitively pricey.
Knowing that his time was limited did something to his drive. He dreamed of leaving something behind. He wanted to show his life in comics so that others could see that living as a gay man was just as valid as any other way to live.
Tad had a difficult time coming out. His family was relatively conservative, and thanks to a lack of exposure, they didn’t understand. When he was fourteen, he told his parents. Their response wasn’t an outright rejection, but rather avoidance. They didn’t talk about it, and Tad wasn’t allowed to date, or display any sign of his sexuality. Whereas before coming out, his talent with art was something they had celebrated, he became an embarrassment after.
Miranda railed against them for it. She moved out of the house at eighteen, enrolled in University, and then she invited Tad to live with her in the tiny apartment she rented near the campus of Humboldt State University. Tad was miserable at home in the quiet, condemning atmosphere. So he took the chance offered and moved. Tad was three years behind her and had just turned fifteen. Finally free, he could be himself. For that, he would eternally be thankful to Miranda.
His sister worked and studied hard. With her campus job combined with student loans, she provided for them both that first year. Then, once Tad was sixteen, he got a part-time job doing work as a busboy after school. Together, they squeaked by.
Miranda and Tad both slowly allowed contact with their parents to drop away until they hadn’t called or spoken for years. The last time Tad talked to either of them was a cringeworthy meeting in the supermarket a couple of years back when he had run into his father. The man had awkwardly shaken his hand, and then the two went on their separate ways. As for current happenings, so far as Tad knew they didn’t even realize that he had the tumor. He never told them and he didn't plan to do so. He also swore his sister to secrecy - they were not to be told.
Maybe if his parents had more exposure to gay people in various sorts of media, it would have been different for him growing up. Though it was too late for himself, perhaps he could help other families accept those they love - and more importantly, help young queer people accept themselves. Those were his goals with his work. There was nothing remarkable in the pages of his comic, there were only his depictions of life, living, loving, and examples of people just being people.
Kali circled in her bed, and she repositioned herself. She lay down and blinked at him. Tad looked over at her. “I wonder if anybody will buy a graphic novel of my life, monster?” Tad’s voice changed to sound like a game show announcer, and he motioned grandly at Kali. “Only $21.99, and you too can have two hundred pages of the mundane life of a gay man!”
He had tried to be funny and evoke some amusement in himself, but the emotion didn’t actually happen for him. Tad sat back in his chair, mulling over options and went back to the pricing plans on the computer.
Tad felt the pressure of the hourglass, silently running in the background. With narrowed, determined eyes he began to read through the process of formatting each sheet of his work for the publishing program online.
‘Even if nobody wants to buy it, I’m going to make it available.’ He nodded to himself. Now that he had decided, he sat back in the chair and tapped his chin in thought.
“Okay, kitty. What picture are we gonna pick for our book cover?”
Nate sat on his couch. He had his phone in hand, and he idly swiped through profile after profile on Grindr. 'You need to find something else. You need to find someone else.' He searched until he exhausted the local population of gay men on the app, and the distance of the guys viewed grew to over a hundred miles away.
He let his hand and the phone flop down on the cushion beside him. Nate took a breath and sat forward. He put his head in his hands and rubbed his face. His dissatisfaction wasn't due to the desirability of the guys on Grindr, that hadn't changed at all. Something was different but that difference lay completely with Nate.
The phone vibrated, and Nate looked down at it. "Tad." He picked it up to read the text.
'Hey. I get it if you wanna cut your losses - maybe hook up with a guy you know will be around a while. And I know we don't have any kind of commitment. But, life is too short for me to wonder. So, tell me to delete your number and I will. I wouldn't blame you.'
'Just like Christopher. He expects me to dump him, just like Chris did.' Nate knew that Tad had been able to feel his unsettled emotions after he revealed the tumor. Their dinner Wednesday night had been delicious, though Nate had barely tasted it. Tad had tried to draw him into conversation, and he avoided any further mention of his condition, but it was still there. It had still hung overhead like an anvil.
Nate's thumbs hovered, then he typed, 'I'm not interested in breaking a new guy in. You'll do, for now.' He sent the message.
Immediately, he saw Tad typing a response. 'You just like my bedroom skills.'
Nate laughed, though it had a pained undertone. 'Maybe.' He sent it, then he bit his lip. 'Can I come over tonight?'
'Yes. Only if you'll spend the whole night.'
Nate closed his eyes. "God, what am I doing? What am I doing?"
He knew no answers were coming.
Nate shook his head at himself as he replied. 'Deal.'
He got up, packed an overnight bag, then picked up his coat on the way out and left the apartment. Nate struggled because he was enslaved by his first real brush with love, and that was an emotion that he simply didn't know how to fight.
"It's fine, really." Sheila smiled at Markus. "It happens!" The beautiful blonde woman waved a hand dismissively and buttoned up her blouse.
Markus sat on the edge of the bed, the covers pulled over his legs and pelvis. At Markus's request, Shane had once again set his coworker up with Markus, and the two of them had gone on another date. This time Markus had invited Sheila back to his apartment. He was determined to prove to himself that he was a "real man" as his father liked to say.
"Really?" Markus had miserably failed to maintain an erection during their attempted coupling. The condom kept coming off of him, and despite how desperately he wanted it to work there was simply no way to make it happen.
"Yeah." Sheila sat next to him and patted his leg that was under the blanket.
"So, this has happened to you before? I mean, you've been with guys this has happened to?" There was a tiny bit of hope in Markus's voice and he watched her face for a reaction.
The flinch told him all he needed to know. "Well, no." She hurried to add, "But we know that it happens." She smiled. "Don't feel bad, okay?" Sheila leaned over and kissed his cheek. "I'm gonna go, but if you would like to go out again, maybe next week, then let me know."
"Sure." Markus nodded.
Sheila left his apartment. Markus silently stared forward into the bathroom adjoining the bedroom. After a few minutes he leaned down and fished his phone out of his pocket.
"Hey, Thomas?" Markus closed his eyes as he spoke and a defeated emotion warred against his need for companionship. "You wanna come over tonight?"
It was almost ten p.m., and Tad lay with Nate. Tad was curled around him, their naked bodies together, and both comfortably warm. The echoes of their coupling earlier in the evening were still remembered by Tad's body, and he tingled with a low-grade, constant release of endorphins and other hormones.
Nate breathed slowly, and Tad's arm, which was across his chest, moved along with Nate's lungs as he respired.
Tad leaned close and smelled the nape of his neck. Chill bumps rose on Nate's skin. Nate shifted and cringed with a giggle. "Tickles."
Tad smiled, his lips a fraction of an inch from Nate's body. The sensitive skin of his lips felt the tiny hairs on Nate's neck. "Sorry. I thought you were asleep."
"No." Nate paused, then he sighed. "It's hard to sleep." He spoke the words as if they were a confession.
Tad frowned. "I didn't tell you to give you a tough time." He shook his head once against his pillow. "I just thought you should know so you'd make a better choice than to get closer to me.”
Nate seemed to squeeze himself forward a little more, curling almost into a fetal position. "Ah. Yeah. Thanks for that."
Tad heard something in his tone, and he began to speak. Then Kali jumped up onto the bed.
"Mrrow!" She walked up Nate's body, and the redhead rolled on his back while the little black cat continued until she stood on his chest. She looked down at him, then headbutted his chin while she thrummed with a loud purr.
Tad was surprised. "What are you doing, monster?"
Nate smiled, and he stroked her with both of his hands. "She's cute." She kept demanding attention from him by rubbing her face against Nate's chin and cheeks. "It's so obvious that nobody loves on her."
Tad rolled his eyes. "Oh yes. Nobody loves on her, ever." He joined in petting the little kitty. "She's normally shy around strangers." He smiled with some bemusement at Nate and Kali. "But she really likes you."
"I like cats. So that works out all right." Nate scratched her affectionately.
Tad's hand slid along her sleek body, then he sighed. "One of my worries is what will happen to her." He shook his head. "My sister's fiance, David, he’s allergic to cats, so I can't give her to Miranda." Tad let his hand fall from the cat to rest on Nate's chest. "I'm pretty sure Chris will take her. But, if for some reason he doesn't," Tad cleared his throat, "ah, it'd just make me feel better knowing I had a backup plan. She deserves a safe place to be, and someone who will love her."
Nate was very quiet and silently petted Kali. In the darkness of the bedroom, Tad could only see his hands moving over her black body, while Nate's face was obscured in shadow. Nate audibly swallowed. "Yeah." The word was clipped, said quickly, in a breathy way.
Tad felt relief. That was one more worry he no longer had. "Good. Thank you."
Kali allowed them to touch her for only a few moments more, then she crawled off of Nate to disappear over the side of the bed - off to do whatever cats did at night.
Nate again rolled, and the men went back to their spooning. Tad ran his hand down to the top of Nate's carefully groomed pubic hair, then his hand slid up his slim middle, all the way to his neck.
Tad frowned. His fingers moved as he felt around. Then he sat up and rubbed his fingertips together. They were wet.
Tears had silently rolled down Nate's face, below his chin, to run down his neck, which Tad had just discovered.
"I'm sorry." Nate lay there, and he took a shaky breath. "It wasn't supposed to happen, you know?" His voice was thick with emotion. "I might have already gotten closer than I had planned."
Tad looked down at him in the near darkness of the room, and he set his jaw. "Nate." He shook his head. "You were supposed to be a-” Tad felt a stab of regret. "Fuck. I didn't want to hurt you. You were supposed to be a player, and I thought we could just have fun."
Nate laughed, and still faced away on his side. "Yeah, me too."
Tad threw his hands up and let them fall into his lap as Nate continued to lie still. "Well, what now?" He shook his head. "I definitely like being with you, Nate. I like it a lot. But, I don't want to cause any more pain than I already have. First Christopher, now you?" Tad pursed his lips. "Maybe you should stop seeing me." Though Tad despised the thought, he had to give Nate an out. "You know how this ends."
Nate's voice was small, wounded, yet strangely sure. "I know. And I don't want to stop."
"You don't…" Tad blinked, incredulous.
"No. I don't want to stop." Nate sat up and faced Tad. "Away or here, I'd still love you."
"Nate." Tad's voice carried his self-recrimination. "Shit, I'm sorry." He couldn't help but feel guilty that Nate had fallen in love with him.
"It's not your fault." Nate sighed heavily. "I knew things were bad when I couldn't cheat on you with a Grindr hook up."
Despite the heavy emotions in the room, Tad laughed. "Wow. I kept a player from playing?" He said the words and immediately felt something akin to relief that Nate was now emotionally tied to him. Yet, he hated himself for it too.
"Yeah. You did." Nate fumbled a little in the dark, but he got a hand up and on the back of Tad's neck. "Can we lay down? I want to feel you against me."
Tad wet his lips, unseen in the night. He nodded. "Yeah."
The men lay back down, and Tad was again wrapped around the mourning redhead as he continued to process the knowledge of Tad's condition.
After some time, Nate breathed the slow, steady rhythm of sleep. While, behind him, Tad lay awake.
He told himself that the revelation from Nate meant nothing. That Nate's feelings were his own, and that he was too damaged from his experience with Christopher to return them.
Yet, his brain was not quite under his full command. 'He loves me, and he's staying.' The thought moved like a breeze floating through the corridors of his mind.
As he let the realization settle, Tad couldn't help but shed silent tears of his own.
‘He loves me, and he’s staying.’
Christopher was off work. It was early Saturday morning and he stood in his bathroom. Water ran in his sink, and Chris knocked his razor in the stream of hot water. He carefully trimmed his neck and the crisp line of his beard reappeared as he worked.
He turned his head, carefully evaluating his job. He knew it wasn't perfect. He always was a bit off, and Tad used to shake his head and fix his slightly lopsided beard. Now he didn't have Tad. So he had to live with the beard the way it was - just a smidge off on one side.
He sighed, turned off the water and smeared some hair paste in his hands. Then he ran the slightly fragrant mixture through his thick, light-brown hair. It was the first time he had cared enough to use the stuff since the breakup. He wasn't doing it for anybody else, it was only for himself. 'I like how it smells.' He smiled as he raised his hands up to his nose. It was scented with sandalwood and citrus oil, and he'd never get tired of that.
Chris stepped back and looked at his furry chest, down to his white BVDs and his hairy legs. Earlier in the morning, as soon as he got up, he had put himself through his bodyweight routine. Christopher was in good condition. His work was active and kept him moving, and the exercises he did with his own body as the tool were enough to keep him strong and in decent shape.
He had plans for his day. He wanted more time to sit with his woodworking book. Though he'd have to find a new place to do the work. Miranda's garage was now off limits, since his breakup with her brother. So he needed to explore other options for actually getting the work done. He knew a few folks in the business, and he could probably make it happen. It'd just take reaching out.
Chris turned and started to walk to his dresser, but a knock on the door stopped him in his tracks.
Christopher frowned, then he walked over to peek out of the little peephole.
Tad's new guy stood there, his head down, and Chris could see streaks of tears on his face. 'Oh shit. Oh shit, did something happen? Is Tad okay?' Chris' mind immediately seized on the worst-case scenario and he quickly opened the door.
Nate stepped wordlessly inside and shut the door behind him.
"What?" Chris asked, his voice thick with dread and his nearly naked condition forgotten. "Is Tad…"
Nate crossed his arms over his chest, and he hunched forward. He shook his head. "Tad's okay." His face pointed down, and he breathed in and out of his mouth.
Christopher's relief was almost entirely complete. He exhaled and his shoulders relaxed as he shed tension he didn't know he had taken on. Now, he watched Nate as tears dripped off of his nose.
"Sorry." Nate wiped his face. "I just, I just don't have anybody else who will understand." He raised his eyes and noticed that Chris was only in his underwear. "Uh, sorry to barge in on you so early." His gaze lingered a moment, then he shook himself and looked back at the floor. "This morning, it just hit me hard on my way home. You know?"
Chris hesitated. He did know. Christopher knew exactly how Nate felt, and he ached for the man. He reached and put a hand on the redhead's shoulder. "Yeah." He gently shook Nate. "Hey, do you wanna get breakfast? We can talk." In truth, Chris could use someone to unpack his own issues with Tad and his feelings that swirled around his old lover.
Nate mutely nodded. Then he stepped into Chris, and his arms went around the surprised man.
Chris slowly let his arms circle Nate, and the redhead quietly cried against him. Christopher knew that Nate probably tried to be strong around Tad. Yet, the emotion was still there. It still needed out.
He silently cursed himself as he began to react to Nate. He pulled his hips back a little, but it didn't matter. He was more than a little above average below the waist, and his erection still pressed into Nate's pelvis. "Uh, sorry." Chris was deeply embarrassed by his errant member.
"It's fine. I don't even care right now," Nate said, and he still hung on. He squeezed Chris. "Thanks for letting me be here."
"Sure. I offered for a reason," Chris said, and then he sighed. "I know it's tough, man."
Nate was quiet. Then he sniffed, wiped his teary face and chuckled. "Man, that thing is not gonna quit is it?" He leaned back, and he looked down Chris' front. There was an obscene bulge and the elastic of his shorts actually pulled away a little as his erection nearly peeked out of the material.
"Well, not as long as I'm holding a guy!" Chris stepped back and covered himself with his hands. He smirked. "Looks like you're having a little problem too."
Nate looked at himself. His cock lay across the front of his jeans in a noticeable cylinder, smaller than Chris's but still there. He looked back up. "Well, you're almost naked." He grinned, the expression looked a little manic thanks to the tear tracks on his face. "What's your excuse?" Chris noticed that Nate didn't seem to have any sort of shame about it, unlike himself.
With a shake of his head the bearded man snorted with a laugh, then he walked to his dresser and began to dress. As he zipped up his jeans, he had to admit that he was looking forward to breakfast. The more he interacted with Nate, the more he liked the guy. The situation was weird, but Nate's presence was now one he welcomed in both his own and Tad's life.
'Okay. Your task is to keep things on track between them. Keep him in Tad's world. That's your job.' With those thoughts, he finished dressing, put on his boots, then he and Nate left the apartment to go find some food.
Stanley nervously scratched the patchy facial hair on his chin. It was early Saturday evening and he had just arrived. He sat in his car on the street in front of Kent’s place, and he sent a text. ‘I’m here.’ He sent it then felt a bit of panic. ‘No rush!’ He followed up quickly with another message and grimaced. “Jesus, don’t pressure the guy. Relax.”
A few minutes later, Kent walked down the path beside the apartment building. Stanley’s face went slack as he watched the young man approach. Kent wore a black t-shirt, with a red and black flannel shirt over it. His jeans showed off naturally thick legs, and the brown work boots on his feet suited him well. He carried a backpack slung over his shoulder and a green HSU ball cap was on his head.
Kent opened the passenger door of the car, and he slid into the seat. Kent held the backpack in his lap and smiled over at Stanley. "Hi, Stanley. Thanks for picking me up." He made a face. "Sorry, I should have my car back Monday."
"Hey, Kent!" Stanley waved a hand in dismissal. "And it's no problem. No trouble at all." He lived in Arcata, and he had driven to pick up Kent at his place in Eureka, a few miles south. They were headed back to Stanley's home to watch a movie and eat some takeout.
They started on the way, and Stanley forced himself to focus on the drive. He wanted to continue looking at Kent. He loved how the guy was put together. Something about a man who had a little more weight on him really got him going. Stanley was moderately attracted to his co-worker, Chris because he was big and muscular. But, his real tastes lay with men exactly like Kent.
"Uh," Kent fidgeted in his seat and he rubbed his hands on the bag in his lap, "I brought a change of clothes, in case we drink or something, and you can't drive me back." He added hurriedly, "I'd sleep on your couch, or whatever. I don't expect any…" Kent's jaw snapped shut as if he had said too much.
An unconscious grin appeared on Stanley's face while he drove. "It's fine if you want to spend the night, or I can stay sober and drive you home. We'll figure it out. No pressure."
Kent exhaled an audible breath of relief. "Okay." He relaxed into his seat. "I've been looking forward to this."
Stanley felt a bit of his insecurity return. "Well, it's just me, Chinese food and a DVD. Don't expect too awful much."
Kent looked at him. "That's plenty." He quickly faced forward again, and even from the corner of his eye, Stanley could see him flush red.
The rest of the ride was spent in companionable silence. Though many hopes were born in the heart of Stanley on the remainder of the drive.
Author's Note: Please let me know your thoughts about the chapter at the following email address link. Wayne Gray
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