CLAY STEVENS walked down Broadway with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his jacket. It was chilly for September. Still, he didn’t mind. This city was where he loved to be no matter what the weather. Very different from where he grew up, New York had a buzz to it like no other city in the world. Clay felt safe among the other eight point three million people who lived here. He walked everywhere he went and knew Manhattan like the back of his hand. The people here often displayed a rough exterior, causing them to appear indifferent to outsiders, but that was not always the case. They were simply hardworking individuals who looked after their own and embraced the diversity of culture in their city, which made them great. Their general acceptance of these differences made it easy for anyone to blend in and feel secure, further aiding the populace to band together over one common aspect: they were New Yorkers.
Kelly O’Leary was one such New Yorker with a hard exterior but a heart of gold. Clay had frequented Kelly’s bar over the last several months and knew the man was dying to ask questions, yet he hadn’t. He hovered by Clay’s end of the bar, waiting with baited breath to deliver some sort of psychotherapist’s wisdom. All bartenders were schooled in psychology, Clay deduced. Clay needed guidance and direction, but he just wasn’t up to discussing the problems yet.
He walked down 9th Avenue toward O’Leary’s Irish Pub staring at the pavement in front of his feet. The problems in his life were what lead him to the bar in the first place. He sighed. What was he going to do with his life? The months went by like days without sunshine and threatened to continue in an endless loop of mundane tasks. Even Clay’s trip to O’Leary’s had become routine, once a week like clockwork.
The bell on the top corner of the front door tinkled as Clay entered. Kelly looked up. Clay’s sullen eyes caught Kelly’s, and the kind man gave a slight nod—the unspoken understanding that Clay wanted “the usual.” The bartender hurriedly finished wiping off the glass in his hand and pulled Clay a Guinness.
From listening to conversations around him, Clay found out that Kelly had owned this bar for decades. The man also liked people—generally. There were many customers who drowned their sorrows by walking in, drinking for hours, and then stumbling home without a word. Then there were those who just wanted someone to listen. What better person to talk to than a bartender, and an overly verbose one at that? You can spill your guts for the cost of a beer, and who knows, he may even give you the advice you need. Kelly seemed to take pride in being whatever the patron needed at the time. Clay respected that.
Clay came here to silently brood, sipping his Guinness for an hour and reflecting on his sorrows. Kelly respectfully remained observant, taking three months to so much as ask Clay his name. Every so often he would ask a random question and test whether tonight would be the night that Clay might have something to share.
“Cold night for September, isn’t it? Fall is really on its way in. I may have to turn the heat on soon.” Kelly said, nonchalantly pouring a whiskey for someone else.
Clay suppressed a smirk. Here I was just thinking it was about time for another random conversation probe.
Kelly continued, “Not that I mind. I kinda like the cold. Gives you a chance to snuggle up to someone in the night.”
Clay shifted in his seat. He noticed Kelly’s attentive eyeballing. He was sure to get a comment.
“Intuition tells me you’re here every week ’cause your ‘someone’ ain’t sleepin’ at home anymore.”
Damn psychology degree! Clay lifted his sad, blue eyes from the foam on his stout. He hesitated but nodded in confirmation.
Kelly tugged at his beard. “Kinda figured it was something like that. Guys like you, coming in week after week alone, usually got some nasty breakup that’s bothering them. Sorry to hear about that, pal.”
“Me too,” Clay whispered.
The door tinkled again, and Kelly’s attention was thankfully diverted. Clay glanced in said savior’s direction. In a flurry of shivers and hastened steps came one of the hottest young men Clay had ever seen. His muscular build, dark skin, and silky, shoulder-length black hair framing his round face made him into the perfect Mediterranean wet dream. Clay’s pulse quickened as he pretended not to notice.
“Sorry I’m late tonight, Mr. O’Leary. The A train was shut down unexpectedly, and I had to find a different route to get here. I wasn’t coming from home and got a little lost,” the young man said.
Clay mused and sipped his drink. He’s obviously one of the staff. Funny how I never noticed him before. Well, maybe he works different shifts.
As he lingered by the bar rubbing his bare arms, his eyes fell on Clay sitting next to where he stood. Their eyes met. Quickly, the young man averted his eyes and looked back to his boss. “I, um, I will not let it happen again, sir. I, uh….” He fumbled with his words. Clay wasn’t sure what to make of that. Do I make him nervous?
“Taran.” Kelly looked the youth in the eyes. “It’s all right. Just another reason for you to get a cell phone.”
“I, yes… I should.” Clay was stealing one more glance at Taran at the very same time the young man stole a glance at him.
Taran stepped back a few steps nervously and said to Kelly, “I will look into it tomorrow for sure.”
Kelly nodded. “Okay, go punch your timecard and get to work. Not many customers tonight, but I still need the supply closet cleaned out.”
“I, uh, yes sir.” He hurried off.
Clay looked back into his drink and swirled his beer around to catch the foam collecting on the sides of the glass.
Kelly chuckled. “That boy! God love him,” Kelly commented to Clay. “I’m not sure if he has a screw loose, or if he’s just so damn naïve it’s almost endearing. He could probably be late every night, and I would find myself saying, ‘Oh, that’s okay, Taran’.” He shook his head and dried off another glass.
“His name’s Taran? That’s different,” Clay muttered, playing reruns in his mind of the look in Taran’s eyes and the sound of his voice. He pretended not to notice Kelly’s double take and arched eyebrow. Damn! I’m breaking my vow of silence. He’s bound to notice.
Kelly cleared his throat. “Yes. Taran Lorenz.” Kelly watched Clay as he needlessly dusted a bottle of cognac and bogusly cleaned the counter.
Clay tried to ignore Kelly’s obvious anticipation for his next comment. He took a sip of his drink and ran his fingers over his short, graying brown hair. Clay was a bundle of nerves for some reason and didn’t know how to act. It had to be his voice! Oh gawd. He still felt his pulse racing. Clay bowed his head slightly and scanned the bar out of the corner of his eye. Movement by the kitchen door brought his attention rapidly back to Kelly. He straightened up. “Can I get a refill, Kelly?” Clay cleared his throat. The bartender smirked. Clay was apparently not as good at being covert as he thought. Shit!
“You got it,” Kelly answered. He was so obviously trying not to laugh. He took Clay’s pint glass and held it under the nozzle of the tap. Clay could practically see steam coming out of his ears as he was formulating his question. “So, Clay, your door swings to the left, then, does it?”
That was not the question he was expecting to hear. “Excuse me?”
“You know? To the left? You’re gay, right? Your nasty breakup was with a guy?” Kelly sounded more blunt than he probably intended it to be and made Clay feel defensive.
“Um, yeah, I am, but how did you….”
Kelly tilted his head and motioned toward Taran who was taking an order from a table near the big-screen TV. His back was to the two of them. “The way you looked at him, there was no way you could be straight.”
Clay looked down trying to hide his reddening cheeks. “I just… he was… his voice was….” Clay stuttered.
“Ha, ha, ha, man! I never thought a gay guy would have the same nervous reaction as a teenage girl from seeing a young stud like Taran. Wow! I guess it makes sense though—if you’re into guys.” Kelly could not contain his mirth. He was smiling stupidly, and his lips would not relax as though he thought the whole thing hysterical.
Kelly’s snickering gave Clay the nerve to push past his fluttering stomach. “Hey! Don’t you think you’re being rude? I’m gay. So? New York City is full of homosexuals. It’s not like I’m the only one.”
Kelly’s facial expression changed rapidly. “Clay, I’m sorry, man. Really. I just never thought about it like that before. I don’t know any gay men. Honest. I don’t find it funny. I find it… cute.” Kelly bit his lip. “And I did not just use the word cute in a sentence.”
Clay shrugged, overlooking Kelly’s embarrassment. “It’s okay. I’m not really bothered. I just… It caught me off guard.” Looking up into his brown eyes. “I never saw him before, but….” His voice made my knees go weak and my groin ache—all things I’m thinking but not about tell you.
Kelly suppressed a smirk. “You haven’t seen him? He’s been working here about as long as you’ve been coming in. He showed up looking for a job, and I couldn’t say no. Kid’s just real nice.” Kelly smiled. “Kid. I say that, but his driver’s license says he’s twenty-seven. He seems younger, though, by the way he asks questions, like he hasn’t experienced much of life yet. Makes me think he’s a lot younger, but I have no way to prove it. I’m not about to question the legitimacy of his ID. He’s probably in the country illegally, if you ask me.”
“Then why did you hire him?” Clay asked, extremely curious about the waiter with the silky black hair, which was now pulled back into a ponytail. Knowing he was a mystery even to Kelly made Taran that much more appealing to Clay.
“Like I said, I think I’d agree to anything he asked. He’s just got this thing about him. If you ever get up the nerve to talk to him, you’ll see what I mean.”
Clay blushed again. “It’s hard to imagine I’m at a loss for words. I’m normally quite verbose.”
“You?” Kelly asked incredulously. “You’ve barely said three words in over six months.”
Clay smiled. “Yes, me. I was talkative before Javier left. Then… I don’t know. I haven’t felt much like talking. I haven’t felt much like anything.”
“Well, something tells me Taran is just what fate ordered. Especially the way he stares at you every chance he gets,” Kelly added in hushed tones.
“Stares? What? I thought you said you didn’t know any gay men?”
“I don’t really know him. And I never see him ogle anyone but you.” Kelly shrugged. “He’s hit on a couple times a week by both men and women, but he never leaves with anyone. I only now put two and two together and figured out he’s probably gay. Who knows? I could be wrong.”
“A body like that, I’m not surprised he gets hit on,” Clay commented, much to Kelly’s unease. “But he never leaves with anyone?” He had to ask again. “And you say he watches me?”
“Yep. Don’t sound shocked. You’re a great looking guy—and I did not hear myself just say that.”
“Your accent is interesting too,” Kelly added, “It’s not terse like many New Yorkers I know. Where’re you from?”
“Originally, Double Springs, Alabama, but I’ve been in New York for seventeen years. I guess I haven’t lost all my Southern twang.” He drew out the short A sound on purpose.
Kelly laughed. “Your sound is far from a ‘twang’. It’s just smoother than most, that’s all. Very appealing. Shit, I just need to stop talking all together. People’ll think I’m gay!”
“Ha, ha, ha! I believe you’re safe.” Clay was definitely glad he came out tonight. This was the most he’d laughed in ages. He took a deep breath and made a list of all the things he knew about the exotic-looking waiter who apparently stared at him all the time. “So, his name is Taran.” Clay stuck out his index finger. “He’s probably new in the country with some fake ID.” Out came his middle finger for number two. “He may or may not be younger than twenty-seven. And he has a thing about him.” Four fingers out, he gestured for a fifth with an open palm. “Anything else I should know?”
“Nope. Not that I can think of.”
“When does he work?”
He scratched his chin. “Every Thursday, four until closing. Same time as you seem to be in here. Maybe he’s your stalker.”
Clay chanced looking over at Taran who picked up a tray and then almost dropped it when he caught Clay looking in his direction. When he hurried off, Clay smiled wide. “If he’s my stalker, he can obsessively follow my every move—morning, noon, and night.” He made a face. “Ooh, did I just say that? God, I sound pathetic. Stalker’s aren’t supposed to be a good thing.”
“No, you just sound tired of being alone.” Kelly set a shot glass on the bar and filled it with some cognac. “Here, on the house. It’ll burn the nervousness right out of you.”
“Thanks,” he said as he tilted back the whiskey. “Woo.” Clay let the fire in his gut escape. “You’re right. That stuff is strong.” He rose to his feet and headed toward the door. “I guess I’ll see you next Thursday.”
“You’re not gonna say anything to him?” Kelly looked surprised.
“No. I’ve been alone for eight months. I need to work myself up to asking a guy out. I am way out of practice! Good night.”
Just as he turned to go, Clay caught Taran’s eyes as he re-entered the dining room from the back. Gazes locked for a moment, and Clay gave Taran his not-so-subtle seductive grin. He hadn’t used it on anyone for years, yet it had the same devastating results as Clay remembered. Poor Taran tripped and stumbled into a table where he knocked a customer’s drink over. Luckily it spilled in the opposite direction, so the patron was not drenched. As Taran scrambled to wipe it down and apologize for his clumsiness, Clay got a nice shot of his posterior. Whew, what a fine ass too!
Clay closed the door before his jeans got any tighter.
ALL the way home, Clay could not forget those eyes. The darkest brown he’d ever seen with a slight tinge of gray around the edge. And the way Taran tripped when he gave him the smile. Clay skipped a step. His heart felt as light as a dandelion puff floating on an Alabama breeze. How could he not have seen this boy for the last several months? How could Taran watch him and Clay not know?
“Because I’ve been sulking, that’s how!” Clay chastised himself. “Javi left me and I never thought anyone would be interested again.”
Even with no traffic, he paused at the street corner waiting for the pedestrian light to change. When the sign told him to walk, he did.
“But now what do I do?” he asked the night.
THE cold air hurried him along until he was safe inside his warm apartment on W. 72nd Street. New York had been his home for a long time. He felt safe there, safe in the same apartment for the last eleven years. Yet when Javier left, Clay didn’t like coming home. The air seemed to die when the love of his life walked out. Javier’s mere presence always filled a room with joy. He was the life of every party and made Clay feel like a million dollars every time their eyes met.
Clay shrugged off his coat and tossed his keys on the small table inside the doorway. The keys knocked over a picture. Clay picked it up and stared at the memory caught on film. Greece. He and Javier had spent two weeks there the year before last. He studied the image of himself locked in a hug with Javier as someone took their picture in front of an overlook.
A tear streaked down his cheek.
He wiped it away fervently and took the picture, along with several others from the table, into the other room and deposited them into an empty box. He wanted to move on just like Javier had, but he never found the motivation. “I guess Taran’s my motivation,” Clay whispered. “Good bye, Javi.” He gave one more look at the image of the man who had shared his bed for nine—no, make that ten—years. He placed it in the box and confessed, “It’s time for me to let go.”