I hate Christmas. I really do. People hear that and they’re all “oh, you don’t really hate Christmas” or “you’re just depressed, take a Xanax” or something. Well, yeah, it depresses me, but I really, really hate it too. Hate everything about it: the crowds, the Muzak carols, the forced jollity, the fact that you can’t stop at the grocery store to pick up a fucking bottle of white wine without having to plow through three hundred people waiting to check out with carts piled high with too fucking much stuff. Americans eat too much the rest of the year; the holidays bring pigging out to a whole new level. The whole Norman-Rockwell-Currier-and-Ives crap. Peace on Earth, good will toward men. Fa-la-la-la-la. Hate it.
Except fruitcake. I do love fruitcake. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?
But the red and green? Come on, people—red and green is a horrible color combination. It’s like purple and yellow. Or blue and orange, although considering my current city of residence, that combination is okay. They’re Bears colors, and I do love me some football. And the Bears can be a pretty decent team, some years. But red and green? Yuck.
Admittedly, Christmastime in Chicago can be pretty. The city does a nice job of decorating downtown—a little heavy on the fairy lights, but that’s okay. But the crowds are still there, and drivers are even crazier than usual, and by mid-December we’d gotten a dumping of snow, which turns quickly into ugly gray-and-brown slush and ice. Considering that by the time I’d gotten to the physical therapy place I’d already been soaked by a city bus, slipped on some ice and wrenched my bad knee again, and stood in the cold for twenty minutes waiting for another bus—cold, wet, and miserable—it was amazing I wasn’t postal by the time I got to the RehabiliCare place on Michigan. I was close, though, and for a minute before going in, I stood on the sidewalk across from the skating rink in Millennium Park and thought about picking off the determinedly cheerful skaters one by one. I closed one eye and pointed my finger. Bang. Bang. Bang. “Insane Journalist Slays Forty Before Being Wrestled to the Ground. Film at Ten.” Not “Eleven,” though that’s how the joke is supposed to go. Because I was in the Midwest now. Central Standard Time. Everything an hour earlier—I guess because the farmers have to get up earlier? Except I’d been living here nearly a year and hadn’t seen a farm yet.
I was procrastinating. I really didn’t want to walk through that door, into more weeks of therapy and pain. Shit. I sucked it up and limped inside.
They were playing ’80s rock on the speakers, not Christmas carols, for which I was decidedly grateful. The place was done in soothing blue and cream, nothing cold, nothing harsh, and nothing red and/or green. The sole concession to the season was a blue-and-silver snowflake hanging on the wall behind the front desk.
A perky dark-haired girl smiled up at me. “Hi,” she chirped. “How can I help you?”
“I have an appointment for an evaluation,” I told her. “Brian McCarthy.”
She did something on the computer in front of her and said, “Oh, sure, here you are. Have a seat. Jerry will be with you in a minute.”
I limped over to the row of chairs by the window and sat down. There was a copy of Chicago Magazine on the table; I picked it up and flipped it open to an article about a salmonella scare in eggs. No big surprise, that. Too much unregulated food processing goes on in this country, and the FDA doesn’t have the time or resources to deal with it…. I recognized the train of thought that usually led me to taking on some damn story or other and shut it down quickly. I was here to teach, and that was it. I was done with investigative journalism, at least for the next year or two.
“Brian?” a voice said.
I glanced up and into a pair of chocolate-brown eyes fringed in the thickest, darkest lashes I’d ever seen on a guy. You don’t think of brown eyes as sparkling, but these were, reflecting the wide, white grin. “Hi. I’m Jerry Abruzzi.”
I took the hand held out to me and shook it. Nice grip; solid and strong, but despite the obvious muscle development in the arms, no muscular posturing, no tough-guy squeeze. Just solid. “Brian McCarthy.” I stood up, put too much weight on the knee, and winced.
His hand closed gently around my elbow. “Okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. I slipped on the way over and twisted it again.”
He made a face and said, “Crap. That sucks. Well, we’re not going to start with any actual therapy today. It’s just an eval so we can figure out where we need to go. So you’ll have a day or so for the knee to feel better before you start putting it to work. Come on, this way,” and he gently guided me toward one of the doors that stood open on the far side of the room.
The eval started out with the usual things: height, weight, medical history. He didn’t have a Chicago accent, no hard R’s or nasal N’s; it sounded more East Coast, maybe Bronx or Brooklyn. Made me wonder how he ended up here, but I didn’t ask, just answered his questions. He asked how I hurt the knee originally, and when I told him, he stopped making notes and stared at me blankly. “Seriously?” he asked. “You fell off a cliff?”
“Yep. You ever see that old movie Romancing the Stone? The one with Michael Douglas when he was young and….” I started to say “hot” but thought better of it. I was just going to substitute “athletic,” but Jerry laughed and finished the thought for me.
“Hot?” he supplied with another one of those white grins. God, he was pretty. His skin was a gorgeous honey tan, his hair a tumble of shiny black curls, and though lean, he was just as ripped as one might think a physical therapist should be. He didn’t set off my gaydar overtly, but the way he grinned when he said “hot” made me think I needed to adjust it.
“I sure did.”
I tried to remember my initial question, then got it. “Remember the scene where Kathleen Turner falls down a cliff in the jungle? Kinda like that.”
“Only without Michael Douglas following after and ending up with his face in your crotch,” Jerry said.
“I should be so lucky,” I said. “No, I got a bunch of torn ligaments in my knee instead.”
“So, was this also in Colombia, like in the movie?”
“Close enough. Venezuela.”
“What the hell were you doing in Venezuela?”
“Chasing a story.” I sighed. “I’m a journalist. Was a journalist. I’m a professor now. I teach at Columbia College.”
“‘Was’? Because of this?” Jerry touched my knee and I got a shiver, but not from pain. No; his fingers were warm and gentle and it had been a hella long time since anyone had touched me like that.
“Not exactly, though it’s connected. No, I wrote a book—”
He stepped back as though my words were poisonous. The smile slid from his face and he held up a hand. “Wait a minute. Brian McCarthy. Venezuela. You wrote Caged.”
From his expression, he wasn’t a fan. It was kind of refreshing; usually I got the squeeing “Oh my God, you wrote Caged!” kind of reaction. “Didn’t like it?” I said dryly. “I’ll give you a refund.”
“No—no, it was good. Really good. It’s just… it was a hard book to read.”
“It was hard to write. Just imagine how hard it was to live,” I retorted.
“I can’t,” he said. “That’s why it was so hard to read.” He hesitated, then asked, “So… you ever hear from that guy?”
“Zach? Sure. I was at his graduation from MIT two years ago. He’s in graduate school in California now, I think.”
“All better, huh?”
“Are you nuts? After what he went through? The guy’s totally fucked up. He’s got more scars inside than he does outside. But he’s functional, if sometimes a bit freaky. Helps that he’s a genius. People expect geniuses to be weird.”
It hurt talking about Zach. I’d been inside the guy’s head a long time, and it wasn’t a pretty place to be. And then there was the whole falling-in-love-with-your-subject thing.
“Anyway, I put three years into that book even after it was finished, what with the marketing crap, and between that and the knee, I decided a change of career was in order. Ran some workshops and stuff, and eventually Columbia made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“Then over Thanksgiving I took a bad step off a curb and fell, and so here I am.” I held out my arms.
The grin was back. “Here you are,” he said. “And here I am, ready to put my hands all over your body.”
“I should be so lucky,” I said again.
The grin turned into a full-fledged laugh. It was a great laugh, deep and rolling. “I should really watch that,” he said. “I could get into a lot of trouble, coming on to my patients.”
“Are you?” I didn’t think I would mind.
He blushed then, his honey-sweet cheeks turning a deep rose. It brought deeper color to his mouth too, and I realized it wasn’t that I wouldn’t mind. It was that I really, really hoped he was.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t had sex with anyone in a long time or anything. I’m only thirty-three, and though that’s kind of old for the kind of pickups I specialize in, I’m in really good shape (except for the knee) and look younger than I am. But I hadn’t felt any kind of connection to anyone in, what, five years or so? And even then… well, let’s just say it wasn’t really any kind of relationship. I don’t do relationships. But Zach was… well, Zach. Fucked up as he was, he was still a hard act to follow.
I guess my face showed something other than interest, because he looked away. “Sorry,” he said. “It was unprofessional. Okay, so, moving on,” and he went on to ask more questions. His hands, when he had me get up and do things like stand on my toes and heels and other preliminary physical things, were strong but impersonal, and when we were done, he had me sign off on his notes and said, “Okay, then, we’re done for today. Now we’ll go out and look at the schedule and see who’s available during the time you are.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I thought you would be my therapist.”
“No, I just did the eval. We assign therapists based on your schedule and theirs.”
“When do you have available?”
He blinked. “You want me to be your therapist?”
Again, a blink; this time it was slow and thoughtful, and when those lashes came up, he was looking straight at me. A warmth started low in my gut. “Well,” he said, “I have an hour from four to five on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“That works for me,” I said. “And what kind of time do you have today?”
“I’m off at five.”
I smiled. “It’s four forty. If I hang around, you wanna go for a beer?”
“I shouldn’t.” He bit his lip.
I slid off the padded exam table, careful not to jar my leg again, and crowded up against him, closing my hand around the hem of his green polo with RehabiliCare embroidered on the breast. “Or we could just skip the beer,” I murmured. He was just about my height, and my mouth was really close to his when I said it.
And when those lips whispered “fuck,” the movement brought them close enough to touch. I leaned forward just that extra little bit and kissed him, feeling his breath catch and his mouth soften, so that I could lick inside, my tongue curling around his and drawing him in.
He was warm, and the kiss felt intimate, and while sex is always easy, intimacy’s a lot harder to come by. It felt good. Real good.
Which made it a shock when he jerked back and stepped away, tugging his shirt out of my grip. “Jesus,” he said, “with that mouth you should only be labeled as dangerous.”
“Brooklyn,” I said, “right?”
“Yeah. Bensonhurst. It’s that obvious?”
“I grew up in Jersey—Livingston. Practically New York.” I cocked my head at him. “What’s wrong?”
“Too quick,” he said. “I don’t do hookups. If you want to do the beer, that’s okay, but I don’t do hookups.”
“You said that. But that’s too bad. I don’t do anything but.”
“Let’s see who we can set you up with for therapy, then,” he said, and his smile was tight and humorless. His face wasn’t made for that kind of expression.
“We’re set,” I said. “I got no problem with you as my therapist. Long as you don’t mind if I occasionally pop a woody.”
He laughed then, that rolling sound. “You wouldn’t be the first.”