A CHILL wind hit me as I got out of my mom’s car and gathered up the stuff I brought. October was just turning cold, and I wasn’t yet in the habit of wearing a jacket. I gently kicked the car door closed and hustled up the leaf-strewn walk, wanting to get inside as quickly as possible.
I had arrived early. Again.
But what else could I do? Our little writing critique group was the star highlight of my week, every week for the past two years, and it was always difficult to while away the two-and-a-half hours between school and the group’s scheduled start time. Even if I weren’t so damn nervous about showing my latest work to the other critiquers, anything I tried to write before the session would be crap. There just wasn’t enough time to truly get lost in my writing, which is how I always found the good stuff—and I definitely didn’t want to be late because I got distracted playing a video game, watching TV, or letting BookFace suck my soul out through my eyeballs.
And, yes, I know that’s an excuse. I really will start writing every day. Soon.
Anyway, I was nervous, like I said.
So there I stood on the front porch of Marguerite May’s house at six thirty-ish on a Thursday afternoon, juggling my laptop, a handful of its accessories, and the box of Krispy Kremes I had promised to bring. I hoped Marguerite would have good coffee. There was only a Starbucks en route from KK to here, and… yuck!
If your ears didn’t prick up when I said Marguerite May, I’m sorry for you. Seriously. She’s the published author in our group. Romance novels, and not just any kind: the dude/dude kind that are so explicit, I get embarrassed to critique them. No way would I be brave enough to actually write such things, even if some miracle granted me the words to evoke her tough, sweaty cowboys and their deliriously sensual lovemaking. Yee-haw.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve read ’em all. I buy them online, like, the second they’re released for sale. But I use a fake identity, cos I’d die if she knew I was such a big fanboi.
There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I didn’t want to lose credibility with the other critiquers. I wouldn’t want to agree with Marguerite about something and have others think my position was based on silly adulation. Second, Marguerite’s son went to my high school, a gigantic one that served most of our rural Tennessee county. I had seen how badly guys got mistreated if others thought they weren’t “straight enough.”
Whatever we said at critique was supposed to stay in the room—not least because Marguerite wasn’t out as a male/male author to her church and community—but I wasn’t going to risk my high school reputation to test it. I wasn’t ready to come out either as a gay guy or as a romance reader to anyone, not even during senior year. I was holding out for college, where I’ve heard things get a lot better.
I pressed Marguerite’s doorbell with an elbow, which of course caused the big-ass laptop to try to slip out from under my arm. A vision flashed through my mind of its ABS plastic shell meeting Marguerite May’s beautifully tiled porch, where its little logo would suddenly mean hundred pieces. I tried to catch it by squeezing my elbow against my side and doing a little dance to shift its weight back the other way.
It worked, after a fashion. The laptop—my mom’s, actually, which is another reason I couldn’t attempt to write stuff like Marguerite—was saved. I hadn’t backed it up in ages and had a bunch of my work stored on it, so it really was totally worth sacrificing the donuts….
If only I hadn’t opened the box earlier, to sneak just one on the way, it would have still been sealed and wouldn’t have popped open. That’s how my luck works. I just sighed and went to one knee, set the laptop aside, and began to clean up the escapees. They were still hot enough to leave sugar trails and splotches on the tile and the door frame.
The melty glaze trails looked like the aftermath of a dude/dude donut orgy.
And of course, as soon as that thought hit my brain, he opened the door.
I looked up to see Ryan standing there, looking back down at me. He didn’t seem at all amused by my predicament, which I guess was better than open derision. He simply stood there, with the usual, impassive expression on his face, like he was watching me to see if I’d do or say something interesting and it wasn’t happening soon enough.
My left hand was covered with sticky-sweet Krispy Kum, and I knelt two feet away from Ryan, with his slim hips at eye level.
Please understand. I say and write funny things all the time, but with a keyboard. Anything interesting that’s in my brain comes out through the fingers. Never the mouth.
So I merely stared up at him, at the most beautiful guy in the universe, speechless and blushing and feeling for all the world as if he’d caught me jerking off or peeping through his window. Or jerking off while peeping, more like. Boy, was my hand sticky.
“Heath. You’re early,” he finally said.
“Mmm-hmm.” I had to tear away from the invisible tractor beams that speared out of his pupils to transfix me. I looked down at the mess on my hand. “I’m sorry, I kind of dropped….”
“Yeah. Hang on. I’ll get a trash bag.” And he was gone.
Hiya, Ry. Bring me a hot donut cum-rag, willya? That would have been funny, right? He would have maybe laughed. The French call it esprit de l’escalier, “staircase wit,” when you realize what you should have said when you’re at the bottom of the staircase, as you’re leaving. Or after the hot guy just left.
“Well, where is he?” Marguerite’s voice resounded through the house.
I didn’t catch Ryan’s mumbled reply, but I sure heard her exasperated sigh when he finished.
Then he was back with the bag. Turned out that after the first flush of literary success, Marguerite May still shopped at Wallymarket like the rest of us mortals. I collected the ruined donuts with a sense of relief. If Ryan had been a few seconds later opening the door, I would have put the dirty ones back into the box in order to hide the evidence as quickly as possible, then thrown away the whole box.
I clutched the bag of waste in my sticky hand and let Ryan carry what was left of the donuts into his mom’s den. I knew where to find the kitchen trash can, so I got rid of the bag of dead donuts. Nectar of the gods, soon off to the landfill. Then I washed my hands extra-thoroughly because the feel of the drying sugar was really starting to get to me. Before I toweled them completely off, Ryan had glided through the kitchen, wet some paper towels in the island’s prep sink, and slipped away.
I went back to the front door to find him wiping away my mess.
“I got this,” he said, before I could say anything.
“Thanks,” I mumbled. I woulda felt like a heel to just forget about him and go on in to greet Marguerite, so I watched as he worked, which wasn’t really a hardship. When he finished and stood with the paper towels clumped in his hand, there was another awkward moment until I realized I was blocking the doorway. I stammered my thanks again, like a doofus, and stepped aside.
I followed him into the kitchen to get the laptop and junk from where I had dumped them, and went into the den to see his mother.
“HELLO, Heathcliff,” Marguerite said when I entered the room. Not Heath, like everyone else in the world, but my given name, Heathcliff. Which was funny, because I only knew Marguerite by her pseudonym. However, I did know from school that Ryan’s last name was Wagstaff, so I could imagine why a nom de plume was necessary for her. I mean, a male/male romance author named Wagstaff? Yikes.
“H-hi. I had a little accident on the porch—”
She waved it off. “I saw the half-empty box. None of us need the calories, anyway.”
Ugh. Glad Tippi hadn’t arrived in time to hear the thinnest woman in the room make that little crack. So what if we were a bit dumpy? We sit and write, for Chrissakes.
That’s what she was doing at the moment, too. Writing with an actual pen on paper. Answering fan mail, if you can believe it. Her press sold mostly e-books, but also paperback copies of her romances, which meant her work reached some fans who never used computers or e-mail. There really were folks who sent paper letters through the post to tell her how much they loved her work. And Marguerite liked to write her replies as the critique group filtered in, probably so we could see the stack of letters sitting on the desk.
I said thanks yet again, like she’d actually done something for me by not humiliating me over the donuts, then went to the coffee table to set up my laptop.
This room, like the rest I’d seen of Marguerite’s house, was decorated with modern furniture. Not the kind you see in galleries that scream modern—the stuff that’s so severe it’s unusable, like low, flat, thinly padded couches that tell your guests to get the fuck out—but a step back from that. Clean lines, sharp angles, yet comfortable. Made of rich woods, not chrome, and all in earth tones with red accents.
Electrical outlets were recessed in brass plates on the floor under the coffee table. I plugged in the laptop’s power cord and mouse, then turned it on. What a relief when it made the normal crunching and choking sounds as it came to life. In another five minutes or so, I’d be logged in and able to check whether everything really was as okay as it seemed. To pass the time, I asked Marguerite, “How’s the writing been this week? Got good lust in the dust to share with us?”
She smiled in only slightly pained indulgence. “We’re not to that part, yet. Lukas is still resolving his feelings over losing Clementine to dysentery, and the crooked sheriff is trying to run him off his ranch because he trades with the local Indians.”
“Don’t tell me. He falls in love with the sheriff. Or the guy the sheriff has blackmailed for, y’know, favors.”
“Nothing so obvious,” she sniffed. “Hank is the sheriff’s son, who will return from college back East. He’s supposed to visit Last Hope while his father arranges a management job in San Francisco for the new Southern Pacific Railroad.”
“Oh. Okay.” Yes, it felt like a slap. But I could guarantee, when the book was finished and I bought it from Novel Romance Press’s web site, I’d love it. Her well-researched history would bring to life amazing places I’d never seen and teach me things I never thought I’d care to know; her cowboys would make me ache for them, and the sex would make me squirm in good ways and teach me stuff I’d want to try on somebody, someday—please, God—and I’d cry for the guys in places, something I really liked to do as long as I could trust they would live happily ever after.
My little raygun and jetpack stories were so small and silly in comparison. I hoped my tales of Captain Jeff Standish and his encounters with the Magmoids of Kazan would find some measure of success one day. But before then, Marguerite’s ship would come in and there’d be a New York contract. And she would be gone from my critique group and my life forever. Ryan, too.
My laptop made its little noise of surprise that it had booted okay again, then displayed the finger dexterity test window: the one that requires you to press a silly bunch of keys before it will let you log in. Just a few more minutes before I could check that all was well with my Magmoids book.
The doorbell sounded. Ryan hollered, “I got it!”
A few moments later, he led another member of our group into the den. Nathan: also Westerns, but the old adventurey kind. Little sex and none of it between cowboys. Boring.
Nathan and Ryan always fled the room when we critiqued Marguerite’s sex scenes. Nathan would smoke out back or sit in the living room and chat with Ryan while the rest of us read and traded our opinions on the hot stuff.
We all said our hellos, then as Marguerite and Nathan segued into a friendly argument about the caliber of bullets used in a certain Colt revolver, I got back to my computer. They were deciding to let Wikipedia settle the matter when Word popped up with the text of Magmoids Versus the Arrow of Time.
My tortured wail interrupted their march to grab their own laptops. The file was up on the screen alright, but all those words I had sweated and struggled to write had turned to funny signs and symbols and hyphens. Twenty-five thousand words. Trashed!