BEN RICHMOND’S kitchenette looked like a newspaper had exploded all over it. Sheets of smudgy black-and-white type covered the chipped linoleum-topped table, while others lay littered on the ground. A few had even ended up on top of the refrigerator where he’d flung them in a fit of exasperation. Ben’s job search was going slowly, to put it mildly. The whole enterprise made him want to throw up his hands in defeat, crawl back into bed, and stay there for the next few decades.
“Accountant, actuary, advertising manager,” he read out loud from the classifieds between sips of coffee.
He sighed heavily. He had none of these skills and wasn’t even entirely sure what an actuary did. Probably, he shouldn’t have called his boss at Speedy’s Custom Siding a neurotic dickless wonder. That had gotten him fired but good, the latest in a long line of drive-by encounters with employment.
Ben couldn’t honestly say he regretted not working at Speedy’s anymore, with its sterile white walls and mud-colored carpet. He’d spent eight very long hours a day in a gray-walled cubicle, tethered to his desk by a headset, answering questions about vinyl siding. The company operated like an iron-fisted third grade classroom, everything strictly regimented. An actual bell rang to announce time for a fifteen-minute break, half an hour’s lunch, time to go home, time to breathe. Ben didn’t care much for regimentation, and he and the neurotic dickless wonder had clashed early and often. At least, he’d learned by now not to bring personal bric-a-brac to the office. When security had come to escort him from the building, all he’d had to take was himself.
He scanned further down the help-wanted column. “Data processing, doorman, elevator repair.”
The voice of Ben’s tenth-grade English teacher floated through his head: I realize you think you have better things to do than actually pay attention in class, Mr. Richmond, but one of these days you just might need something to fall back on and then you’re really going to wish you’d bothered to learn something about anything at all. How much did it suck that old Mrs. Greenawald had turned out to be right?
This wasn’t how his life was supposed to go: twenty-eight years old and jobless, totally broke, living in what had to be L.A.’s crappiest apartment. He was Ben Richmond, big-time jock, the great shortstop hope of Westland High School, voted most likely to take the big leagues by storm, drafted number one by the Cleveland Indians. He’d been blazing a path through the minors until one random Wednesday when his knee went one way and he went the other on a hot shot up the middle.
There had been surgeries and rehab and then more surgeries. In the end, the doctors had shaken their heads at him: nothing left to try. So much for his baseball career. Ben had cycled through the predictable anger and disappointment and then just seemed to get stuck on confusion. Three years later, he still had no clue what to do with himself now that he couldn’t play baseball.
Hotel manager, human resources assistant, lathe operator. He wondered if he’d be any good with a lathe.
“Kai—” he started to call out, because his boyfriend was always willing to offer a blunt assessment of his abilities.
He stopped with a pang. He kept forgetting that he’d lost more than his job when the neurotic dickless wonder had fired him.
It had been almost two years since Ben met Kai at the juice bar of his gym. He’d noticed him right away, slight and boyish, with spiky dark hair and a tattoo of a peony on his biceps. They both ordered the Fountain of Vigor and had gotten to talking. Ben asked what Kai did for a living, and it turned out he was a student at UCLA studying physical therapy. This gave Ben the perfect opening to confide the tragic tale of his untimely injury and sadly foreshortened baseball career. Kai made sympathetic eyes at him, leaning closer, the spark of interest in his expression a little sharper. Pro sports had not stopped being a babe magnet just because Ben had washed out at it.
He’d taken Kai to bed that afternoon, and they went out every night that week. By the end of the month, Ben was living with Kai for all intents and purposes. He would have given up his crappy apartment a long time ago if that hadn’t raised the specter of some big “what do we mean to each other” discussion. He liked being in relationships; he just hated having to talk about them. Now he had to wonder if things might have worked out differently if he’d gone ahead and gotten rid of the place, since that was how the getting-kicked-to-the-curb conversation had begun.
“So, you still have the lease on your apartment, right?” Kai said out of the blue at the breakfast table two days after the firing.
Looking back now, Ben couldn’t believe what an idiot he’d been. He honestly hadn’t guessed where that little gambit was leading.
“I think it’s time for you to move out,” Kai had said very firmly.
“I’ll get another job,” Ben had insisted, open-mouthed with shock.
“It’s not just that,” Kai told him. “Look, I know things have been a struggle for you the last few years, but I’m not doing you any favors letting you sandbag your way through life. This really is the best thing for both of us. You’ll see.”
“But- but-” he kept sputtering long after Kai had walked away.
That had been three weeks ago—three weeks of unemployment and no sex and bouncing off the walls in this crappy little apartment. He let out a heavy sigh and glanced longingly at his phone. He and Kai had talked once or twice since the breakup. It would have been more often if Ben had his way about it, but usually his calls went straight to voice mail.
He stared at the phone until he couldn’t fight the impulse anymore. Kai was still number one on speed dial, and he waited while the phone rang, expecting to leave yet another message.
He wasn’t at all prepared when Kai’s voice pulsed in his ear. “Hello, Ben.”
“Oh, um, hey,” he scrambled to say. “How’s it going?”
A heavy silence fell, and Ben scrounged around for something else to say. If he’d known Kai would pick up, he would have rehearsed a speech.
“Well, I guess I should probably—” Kai began.
Ben blurted out, “I’m looking for a job. In fact, I’m this close to a big opportunity. Things are really starting to come together.” He tried to sound positive, expansive, I’m the king of the world, the kind of attitude people paid good money to motivational speakers to inspire in them. Sadly, he suspected he just sounded shifty and desperate.
There was a pause. “That’s great, Ben. But you know this thing with us…. It wasn’t just because you lost your job.” Again, Ben could hear silently tacked on to the end of the sentence. “It hadn’t been working for a while. We just—we want different things.”
“That’s not true! We totally want the same things. Like, um… success and a house with accent walls to paint and,” he fumbled around, trying to come up with some more glamorous ambition, but finally settled for a weak, “and stuff.”
He took a big breath.
“Look, the holidays are coming up,” he continued, “and I was hoping—”
“Ben.” Kai adopted his please don’t say something that will just embarrass us both voice.
“It’s the season of forgiveness and, and… stuff. And I’m totally going to make it up to you. I have it all planned out and everything. So if you could just give me another chance.”
“I really don’t think—”
Ben jumped in quickly, heading off the no that was coming. “At least we could get together, you know, for like an early holiday thing. For old times’ sake.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Great!” Ben breathed out in relief. “That’s all I want. Just to see you.”
He hung up feeling more hopeful than he had since that ill-fated breakfast three weeks ago. This lasted until he went over the conversation in his head and realized he’d promised Kai some big olive branch of a gesture, something that was supposedly already in the works.
“Shit!” His voice echoed off the walls of his tiny kitchenette.
He put his hands up to his temples, pressing, as if that might jumpstart his brain. Against all odds, he had an actual flash of inspiration. He sat up straighter and snapped his fingers. “That ugly porcelain stuff he loves so much!”
Kai avidly collected nineteenth-century French something-something that Ben could never remember the name of. It was hideous as all hell if you asked him, with painted flowers and gaudy flourishes of gold. Kai was forever dragging him to musty antique shops in search of the stuff. Ben would stand around like a lump, arms tucked in carefully at his sides so he wouldn’t accidentally knock into anything, all the while thinking longingly of beer and television.
The last trip had been just a few days before Ben got fired. There had been a piece that made Kai’s eyes go big and bright with anticipation—a “compote,” the hoity-toity man who owned the store had informed them.
“It was so lovely,” Kai said regretfully once they’d gotten back in the car, “but I don’t feel like I have five hundred dollars to spend on it right now.”
Ben couldn’t imagine spending five hundred dollars on something like that ever—unless you were trying to win back the boyfriend who’d unceremoniously dumped you, in which case it was the best investment you could possibly make.
He hunkered down over the help wanted ads with more determination. About halfway down the third column, his gaze fastened on: Nude Male Models Wanted! Here at least was a skill set he possessed; he definitely knew how to be naked and a man.
“Cast a wider net,” Kai used to tell him before he’d given up hope that Ben might one day amount to something.
Ben took a moment to consider if it was beneath his dignity to cast his net quite this wide. But nope. No dignity left to speak of. He picked up the phone and dialed.
“Yeah?” a woman answered gruffly. It was the kind of voice that had been wrecked by cigarettes and sarcasm.
Just great, Ben thought.
“Um, hey, yeah, I’m calling about your ad for, uh—” He hesitated a moment and then blurted out the rest of the sentence in an unintelligible blur, “Nudemalemodels.”
“Size?” the woman asked in a bored monotone.
“About six foot two,” Ben answered.
The woman broke into a cough, or possibly a laugh. “Not that kind of size.”