NICK CONTE wrinkled his nose and tried to hold his breath against the choking fumes from the disinfectant he had just poured on the floor. He hadn’t expected to end his day by mopping the floor at half past midnight, but then there were a lot of things Nick hadn’t expected. Hollywood, for example, was not what he had expected at all. Contrary to what his mind had conjured up when he thought of the place, Hollywood was not and never had been a glamorous town. Even in its golden age, Hollywood was an industrial town where the stars merely worked; otherwise, they were in their firmament in Beverly Hills or Bel Air, or even the Hollywood Highlands. Though the town prospered as the movie industry grew, Hollywood never acquired the veneer of gentrification, and nowadays it was still little more than a slightly seedy tourist attraction filled with cheap souvenir shops, fast food joints, and gimmicky exhibits. The famous Hollywood Walk of Fame, which ran along Hollywood Boulevard between the garishly decorated Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine, was a gauntlet of bus tour touts and shop windows that displayed cheap suits and even cheaper lingerie of questionable taste.
It had also been unexpected that he could find an apartment in Los Angeles that didn’t have the added expense of needing a car to get around and was within walking distance of work. His ground floor apartment had only one window, and it opened onto a narrow alleyway, but it was cheaper than most places, and being in the back, it was quiet. Situated one street away from Hollywood Boulevard, Nick’s little apartment was in a large stick-style house that might have been the home of a wealthy landowner in another era when the only commerce in Hollywood was growing oranges. At one time, the owners would have passed pleasant afternoons on the deep, shady front porch, but those days were long gone. The grand old mansion had grown as shabby as the neighborhood around it, and eventually it had become a complex of tiny down-market apartments. The building was now home to people looking for a reinvented life, people with big dreams who might have withered had they stayed in their small hometowns, which were usually populated by even smaller minds, and Nick, although not necessarily fleeing from narrow-mindedness, was certainly among those with big dreams.
Tonight had been another night of a heat wave that had hit the LA basin at the beginning of the week, and in hopes of letting in the scant breeze from the alleyway, Nick opened his only window wide and left the door of his stuffy little apartment ajar. As usual, he began the evening by working on his writing. He sat at a small table in the space that was normally the dining area and resolutely typed away on his computer as the lives of others flowed past his open door. Snippets of conversations about job interviews, dinner plans, and even domestic arguments floated into his apartment as the other occupants of the house arrived home. He only half listened, but he heard enough to be reminded of his own solitary life, and he had to push that uncomfortable fact aside to focus on getting just another thousand words written. As he wrote, evening faded into night and quiet settled into the building until, around midnight, his door was knocked back on its hinges with a bang and a young man lurched into the apartment.
The intruder was around Nick’s age, had an unruly head of wavy brown hair, and held on for dear life to Nick’s floor lamp as he tried to talk. “H-hi, honey, I’m, I’m home. You sheen my keys? I don’t, don’t… no keys. I think I left them somewhere.”
“You got the wrong apartment, pal. Try down the hall,” Nick said irritably and got up to escort his unexpected visitor out.
“Whut, whut? Oh, wrong ap… apart… wrong place? S-sorry. A little con… confu-used. Hey, you’re cute. Ya got anything to drink, hun?”
Nick took the young man by the elbow. “Sorry, the bar’s closed. Now beat it.”
“Dean, hey Dean, where are you, man? Where’d you go? Deeeean!” a raucous voice from down the hall called, and from the sound of it, whoever he was, he’d had almost as much to drink as the guy dancing with the floor lamp in his living room.
“He’s in here,” Nick called back and reached for the stranger to propel him out the door, but to his horror, the stranger gave a little hiccup and vomited. Nick watched the pool of sick spread over his floor and felt nausea threatening to overcome him too. In disgust, he unceremoniously shoved the man out to join his equally drunk friend. Turning back to the mess, Nick grimaced and concluded that he wasn’t going to get any more writing done. Then, grumbling to himself, he went to get the mop and some disinfectant.
THE following day was another blazingly hot day in LA, and a sickly brown haze hanging over the city made it even more unpleasant. Nick’s unfortunate encounter with his neighbor down the hall put him off the idea of leaving his door open again. So, thinking that his apartment would be cooler after dark, he did not come home until well after sunset.
As Nick came down the stretch of sidewalk that ran in front of his apartment house, he saw a man sitting on the steps of the porch. In the gloom, he couldn’t work out who it might be and was startled when the seated figure suddenly jumped to his feet.
“Hi. You’re Nick, right?”
When Nick recognized that it was his boozy visitor from the previous night, he remained wary.
“Yeah, I’m Nick.”
“I’m Dean. I live next door to you.”
“Yeah, I figured that out last night.” Tossing the sarcastic comment over his shoulder, Nick hurried up the steps to avoid dealing with his troublesome neighbor, but Dean jumped in front of him and blocked his getaway.
Shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans, Dean hunched up his shoulders in a shrug. “About last night, I’m really sorry. It’s this heat. I really shouldn’t have had all that to drink in this heat.” Reaching down next to him, he picked up a six-pack of beer. “Look, I got you this. It’s kind of warm by now, but you could stick it in your refrigerator for later.”
Dean’s crooked smile and his abashed tilt of the head when he spoke made Nick forget some of his sourness, and although he wasn’t sure he should, he accepted the cans that were being waved at him. It was then that, even in the dim light of the porch lamp, Nick had to admit that his neighbor was pretty cute when he wasn’t drunk and puking on the living room floor.
“Have you been waiting here long?”
Dean shrugged. “I dunno, since a little before six o’clock, maybe. I noticed that you get home around six. And, well, I didn’t want to take the chance that you wouldn’t open the door if I came around.”
Nick laughed at the truth of it. “You might be right about that. Well, thanks for the beer,” he said and started for the door, but Dean showed no sign of moving out of the way. Instead he stood there shifting his weight from one foot to the other; he looked like a stray dog begging for your last bite of a sandwich. It was a little shuffle of a dance between the two of them until Nick caved in to the lost puppy look and waved Dean toward the front door. “Would you, um, like to come in for a cup of coffee or something?” he asked haltingly. Remembering last night’s mess, Nick was glad that the beer he was holding was too warm to offer to share with his spur of the moment guest. When Dean grinned from ear to ear and nodded enthusiastically, Nick wondered what he had gotten himself into.
Nick brought up the rear and sized up his neighbor from a pace or two behind as they walked down the hall. With some appreciation, Nick noted that Dean was built like a martial artist; the tank top he had on revealed a slim and muscular build with long sinewy arms. Nick guessed from the physique that the man in front of him was either a dancer or did stunt work in the movies. Each step that Dean took was a perfect articulation of arms, legs, and hips that had Nick watching so intently he nearly collided with Dean when they stopped in front of his door.
Once inside, Nick tossed his stuff on the sofa and set to work in his tiny kitchen to make the coffee. When Nick had taken the busboy’s job at the Café Landtmann, a local coffeehouse, he’d had no idea that coffee could be so heavenly different from the weak, sour brew served at his hometown breakfast stop. Within a year of starting the job, Nick learned enough about coffee to be a barista, and now he was an assistant manager at the café with a passion for his product.
It was now to the point where Nick was willing to make do with fewer brand-name groceries to feed his obsession with expensive small-batch specialty coffees, and the visible symbol of this indulgence was an ornate espresso maker that occupied what little counter space there was in his cramped kitchen. He’d bought the old-fashioned hand-pumped machine from one of the secondhand shops commonly found on Hollywood Boulevard and talked the guy who serviced the machines at the café into helping him restore it. Now polished until it gleamed, the Italian-designed brass and copper housing added much-needed warmth to the otherwise utilitarian kitchen.
“So what do you do?” Nick asked as the elaborately decorated machine clunked and hissed away to fill the coffee cups. Dean smiled with self-deprecation. “I’m a part-time actor or a part-time tour guide, depending on how you look at it.”
An actor, Nick thought, intrigued that his original guess about his neighbor had been entirely wrong. “You must be doing all right as an actor. I walk past those tour bus guys every day and I’ve never seen you.”
“I keep busy enough. I get work as an extra or as a walk-on mostly. I’ve seen you, though. You’re pretty hard to miss. Sorry, that makes me sound like a stalker, doesn’t it? So how about you? What do you do?”
It didn’t escape Nick’s notice that Dean had wandered his gaze over the length of his body before coming to rest on his face. The glance was not unwelcome, and Nick started to warm to his visitor even more. “I’m either a struggling writer or a very good barista. I work at the Café Landtmann. It’s across from the theater. ”
“The Landtmann. I’ll have to check it out the next time I want coffee. So you’re a writer. Looks and brains. Are you working on anything right now?” Dean said with the ghost of a flirty smile.
Looks and brains. Nick would normally groan at the tired pick-up line, but there was something about the way Dean’s eyes twinkled when he said it that made Nick feel warm all over.
“Yeah, I’m working on a screenplay.”
“That sounds exciting. So what’s it about?”
Nick sank down on the sofa and set a still-steaming cup in front of his guest. His whole face lit up as he spoke excitedly about his work. “Well, I have this great idea. I’ve been doing some research, and it looks like the industry likes to go after the younger segment of its demographics. So I figure there must be a lot of competition from other writers for those types of scripts. My idea is that I would come up with something for the older crowd, like middle-aged couples on a date night. So I’m doing a comedy that has lots of action, but with a love story thrown in. The leading man is going to be an older established actor with a reputation for pulling in the more mature female audience. I’m hoping I could pitch it as a new Stone Carter film.”
A big smile broke across Dean’s face. “Wow, you have it all figured out. I was right about you having both looks and brains.”
Nick felt the color rise in his cheeks when he realized that Dean might be teasing him a tiny bit for babbling on so excitedly about his project. “Well, I’ve had a lot of time to think.”
Dean leaned forward and moved closer to Nick. “I like a man who thinks,” he said quietly with a nod.
Nick stared into Dean’s dark eyes for a moment before he cleared his throat and sat up a little straighter to reclaim his personal space. “So anyway, that’s what I’m working on. As soon as I make a little money from it, I’m going to get a place in the country somewhere and work on a novel that I’ve always wanted to write. The entertainment industry isn’t really my kind of thing. I like things a little more low key.”
Picking up his cup of coffee, Dean settled back against the back of sofa again. “I can get with that. Sometimes I wonder why I keep doing this. I wonder how many years of my life I should spend waiting for that big break. But anyway, we were talking about you. Stone Carter hasn’t made a movie in years; you must have a grand plan to get him onto the big screen again.”
“Well, lately, a lot of these older guys have had their careers revived. Carter’s one of the ones who hasn’t done it yet, so maybe with the right script he’d want to ride the comeback wave too. My idea is that if I write something that’s him, something that he can’t resist, he’d want to make it as a comeback vehicle. That’s why I’ve been busting my ass to get the lead role just right.”
“That’s a real interesting idea. How do you figure on doing that, though?”
Nick sat back against the sofa cushions and crossed his arms behind his head. “Well, I’ve been a huge fan of his since I was a kid. I’ve seen every one of his movies. Over the past few years, I’ve studied his hits and his bombs. I think I know what works for him and what doesn’t.” Sitting up again, he fixed Dean with an earnest look. “What’s more important, I think I know what the public wants from him.”
Dean shook his head and held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m sorry I asked. I was right about you having brains, but I hope you’re not doing this all by yourself. ’Cause you'd still have your work cut out for you.”
The off–the-cuff comment left Nick crestfallen. “Well, I’m not exactly doing this by myself. I have a friend who reads over my stuff. Is it too crazy of an idea?”
“No, I don’t think it’s a crazy idea. I just meant that Stone Carter is not exactly Academy Award material these days, and making him look good is going to be a challenge.” Dean’s rather blunt assessment of Nick’s chances of succeeding made him feel a bit foolish until Dean spoke again. “Look, I’ve worked in some of Carter’s films. I can give you some color on him if you want.”
Nick scooted to the edge of his seat on the sofa. “You’ve been in a Stone Carter film? You know Stone Carter?”
“I barely knew what I was doing at the time, and they were only minor parts, but yeah, I know him.”
Dean’s modest declaration did not dampen Nick’s enthusiasm any, and, bouncing a little in his seat, he spoke with unabashed admiration. “That’s fantastic! You’re the first actor I’ve met since moving here who’s actually been in a movie. Which ones were you in?”
“I was the pool boy in Point of Contention. Before that I was his caddie in Tee for Two.”
“I loved Point of Contention. I think it’s one of the best comedies of the decade. I remember the pool boy in that one. So that was you! I had a huge fanboy crush on Stone Carter back then, but I remember thinking that you were pretty hot too. Not that you’re not hot now.” Mortified that he had just uttered those words, the color began to rise in his cheeks again.
“Yup, that was me. Dean Winship in tiny little letters whizzing by in that part of the movie no one ever stays to watch. My best work so far,” Dean said with a laugh that reminded Nick of the sound of softly ringing wind chimes on a lazy summer day.
Nick continued to stare at Dean with a goofy grin until Dean gestured toward the bookcase on the far wall. “Is that your family?”
Nick looked at what Dean was waving at and saw that he meant the framed picture on his bookshelf. In it was a boy, about fourteen; standing next to him was a slightly younger girl, and a man and a woman who were all standing in front of a row of trellised grapevines.
“Oh, yeah, that’s me, my sister, and my mom and dad. That’s my dad’s vineyard you see in the background.”
“Wow, your family makes wine?”
“No, nothing that glamorous. We just grow the grapes, but we grow high-quality biodynamic grapes. It’s very labor intensive.”
Dean got up and walked to the bookcase for a closer look at the photo. “You make a nice-looking family. Do you see them much?”
“Once or twice a year, maybe, usually in the winter when the growing season winds down. My sister might make an extra trip on her own. She’s a pastry chef so her schedule is a little more flexible.”
Dean nodded and took his seat again. “That’s good that they come to visit. So they’re okay with you being gay then. Oh, sorry, that was getting into your personal business. I guess I can’t help being curious when I hear about a nice family like yours,” Dean quickly said to correct himself.
“S’all right. I don’t mind. I came out to them the summer I came home from my freshman year of college. My mom and sister are completely cool with it. My dad too. The only problem between me and my family is that I didn’t want to stick around and be a grape grower,” Nick said, laughing a little at the incongruity of this sore point with his folks.
“I wish it was something that simple with my family. They’re not cool about my being gay at all. If they could erase the fact that I ever existed, they would,” Dean said quietly. Then with a bitter laugh, he muttered, “Maybe they already found a way.” With that he drained the last of his coffee and stood up.
“Hey, thanks for the coffee, it’s the best I’ve ever had. I’d better get out of here before I ruin your evening with my life story.”
“No problem. Anytime you want to talk,” Nick answered with a sympathetic smile.
Nick walked Dean to the door and watched as he went down the hall to his own apartment. Then for the rest of the evening, Nick thought more about Dean than about where the plot in his screenplay was going.
WITH his neighbor problem resolved, Nick thought it was safe again to leave his door ajar in the evening whenever he was at home. Every night Dean would stick his head in as he came home, and they would exchange a few words about their day, although sometimes they only gave each other a passing wave of the hand. They still had not gotten around to working on the screenplay together, but Nick really looked forward to their brief nightly visits. Once he caught himself feeling a flush of butterflies when he heard Dean’s voice from the entry hall as he spoke to one of the other inhabitants of the house.
Then around late summer, it seemed to Nick that Dean started to spend the night elsewhere, and a couple of weeks went by before he saw Dean again.
“Hi. How’s the writing going?”
Startling only for a moment, Nick felt a warm glow that went all the way to his toes when he saw that it was Dean standing at the open door. “Hey, stranger. Where have you been?” Nick said and rushed to the spot where Dean stood.
Dean stuck his hands in his pockets. “I’ve been busy,” he said and scuffed a toe on the floor in front of him in a coy gesture. Then he broke into a grin and told Nick, “I got the lead role in a TV pilot.”
Nick gave a whoop and wrapped Dean in a bear hug. “That’s great news! What’s the name of it? What’s it about? When will you know if they’ll go for a full series?”
Dean disentangled himself and laughed out loud. “One question at a time! All I can tell you is that it’s a drama and that Dan Spencer is the producer.”
“That’s just wonderful,” Nick said warmly and wrapped his arms around Dean again. This time, an electrifying sensation arced between their bodies, and they stood there on the brink of giving in to it until Dean cleared his throat and pulled away.
Nick tore his gaze away from Dean’s face and looked at the floor. “Wow,” was all he could think of to say.
“Wow,” Dean echoed and then mumbled, “Well, I’d better go and let you get back to writing.”
“Hey, you don’t have to go. Would you like to stay for some coffee?” Nick said quickly, leaving the words and stay for breakfast too unspoken. Dean seemed to hesitate, but to Nick’s delight, he cracked a slightly embarrassed smile and nodded.
AFTER Dean’s big announcement, Nick hardly ever saw him, but he was happy enough with whatever time he could catch with Dean because Dean was always happy when he came by. So it went until one evening in the late fall when the first of the Santa Ana winds started to blow and Nick shut his door against the fierce draft that came in through the front door of the building. To Nick’s disappointment, Dean’s visits had become more infrequent lately, and that night, he was left to work undisturbed until well after midnight when the sound of a scuffle in the hallway distracted him from his writing.
“You worthless piece of shit! You don’t fucking talk to me like that!” someone shouted.
Nick did not recognize the voice, but in case of further trouble, he continued to listen until there was a loud thump from the other side of his living room wall. When he dashed to the door to see if anyone was hurt, he caught a glimpse of a heavyset figure running out the front door, and when he glanced down, he discovered that it was Dean who had fallen. Nick reached down and pulled him to his feet when it became obvious that Dean was having trouble getting up.
“Oh my God, what happened? Are you all right?” Nick exclaimed when he saw an angry scrape on Dean’s cheek that was beginning to ooze red.
“I’m all right. I just lost my balance, that’s all.”
Nick could tell by Dean’s breath that he had been drinking, and by his bloodshot eyes, he guessed that Dean had started his drinking early in the day. Taking a firm hold on Dean’s arm, Nick guided him inside and plunked him down on the sofa before going to get some antiseptic and a bandage.
When he had finished covering the wound on Dean’s cheek, Nick couldn’t keep himself from saying what was on his mind. “Was that your boyfriend? Does he make a habit of this?”
“He’s not my boyfriend, not really. I should have handled him better today. He gets this way when he’s stressed. He didn’t want to come here tonight, but I just wanted to get a few things from my apartment. I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”
“If he touches you again, I’m calling the police,” Nick said solemnly.
“It’s nothing!” Dean protested with a drunken shake of his head. “I’m not even sure what happened. We both had a lot to drink today.”
Nick blew out an exasperated breath and dropped the matter when he realized that Dean was in no condition to have any kind of a sensible discussion.
“You could use some coffee, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, coffee is a good idea,” Dean answered with a rheumy-eyed look.
“The screenplay is coming along. We should get together soon to work on it,” Nick called from the kitchen, just to make conversation. When he heard nothing in reply, he hurried out to the living room to check on Dean and found him splayed out, half on the floor and half on the sofa, fast asleep.
Shaking his head ruefully, Nick slipped Dean’s shoes off and lifted his legs onto the sofa. When he went to tuck in Dean’s arms, a tingle of excitement shot through Nick, and he couldn’t help but caress Dean’s hand. He admired the long fingers and noticed how different they looked from his own broad, callused ones. With trembling fingers, Nick brushed away the shock of unruly hair that had fallen over Dean’s face, and what he saw underneath made his heart melt. Lying there dead to the world, Dean was almost a different person. He looked much younger, and instead of the actor, Nick saw a lost innocent. And for the first time, Nick could truly see how astonishingly handsome Dean was; high cheekbones perfectly complemented a sensual mouth, and in sleep, the young man’s slightly parted lips were a nearly irresistible invitation for exploration. It took all of Nick’s sense of what was right to keep himself from devouring Dean’s mouth right then, and in the end he pressed a chaste kiss to the sleeping man’s forehead and got up to get a blanket.
THE next morning, Nick was as excited as a kid on Christmas Day when he remembered that Dean was asleep in his living room. He looked forward to having breakfast together and even planned to break into his special stash of coffee beans for the occasion. Quietly, he made his way through the living room to get to the kitchen, but when he saw that the sofa was vacant, his excitement crumbled, and he was left with nothing but an empty feeling. He was even more disappointed that Dean hadn’t even left a note. Nick debated whether or not to go down the hall to check on his disappearing guest, but in the end he decided that if Dean had gotten up in the middle of the night and left without a word, it was probably out of embarrassment, so Nick thought it best to let the matter drop.
Later, as Nick walked to work, he thought of Dean with each tour bus and open-air jitney that he encountered on the route to the coffeehouse. When he arrived at work, he found that one of the other employees had already opened the doors for the day. The rich aroma of the house dark roast swirled around Nick as he threaded his way through the crowd of chairs and café tables that made up the seating area of the shop. The owner of Café Landtmann did his best to replicate the famous original in Vienna where Sigmund Freud used to hang out. The dark décor was not really to Nick’s liking, nor did he care for the rather stiff Viennese waiters’ outfits, but the tourists seemed to enjoy it.
“Goood morning,” someone sang out when Nick got as far as the pastry case. It was Lyle Murakami, a slight man in his twenties who, of late, had developed an ambition to become a J-pop musical success. Lyle’s boyish good looks were made complete by a floppy mop of hair that had been dyed “tea color,” a shade of brown that had become very popular in the Far East. At the moment his concentration was on arranging the display for some pastel-colored French macaroons. With a steady hand, he deftly stacked the fragile confections into an attractive multi-colored pyramid.
“Hey, Lyle. I didn’t expect you to be in so early. Didn’t you have a gig last night?”
“It was only a wedding in Japantown. Those things break up pretty early as gigs go.”
Nick looked at Lyle for a minute, his mouth compressed in an expression of disapproval. “You know, Lyle, I still can’t get used to your new look. I liked it better when you had that beach bum, surfer dude thing going. Now you look like you’re in a teenage boy band. It’s kind of disturbing.”
“Kawaii, cute, it’s what sells in Japanese pop music. The girls at the wedding parties love it. Jeez, what’s gotten into your shorts today?”
“Sorry, Lyle. I don’t know what I’m talking about, man. My neighbor’s got my head today.”
“Why? Did he puke on your floor again?”
Nick strolled over to the wall where their work aprons were hanging and took one off a peg. He slipped it over his head as he continued to talk. “He drinks too much, and I don’t like the way his boyfriend treats him.”
“That’s too bad. We all date an asshole every now and then, I guess.”
“It’s more than that. Last night they had a shoving match outside my door.”
“If you think there is some abuse going on, maybe you should let him know where he could get help.”
“I already told him that if it happened again I’d call the police. He said it was nothing. I didn’t actually see what happened. I don’t get it. Dean’s in great shape. I don’t know why he lets this guy push him around.”
“Well, it isn’t always about physical power. The fact that you’re watching out for him is a step in the right direction. It’s when the victim is isolated that it really gets dangerous. You surprise me, Nick. You’ve never wanted to get involved with anything.”
Lyle’s comment brought out Nick’s defensive side, but having already started the day on the wrong foot with his coworker, he held back his retort. Instead, he tried to sound casual about how much Dean was beginning to get under his skin. “I suppose I do tend to get wrapped up in myself. I always figured that it was a bad idea to go sticking my nose in other people’s business.” Then, sighing a little, Nick added, “Maybe it’s about time I change that.”
“Ooh, the iceman is thawing. This guy Dean must be hot.”
Nick snapped a hand towel at his cheeky coworker and growled good-naturedly, “Get to work, wise ass.”
Before Lyle could come back with a snappy reply, a tinkle of female voices floated toward the two men from the direction of the shop door. From their outfits, it would seem that the trio of young women who had just entered the shop had plans to join the throng of costumed people milling around in front Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on any given day. Dressed in girlish clouds of bows, pinafores, and knee-high socks, they were in full otaku cosplay. Nick watched in bemusement as Lyle straightened his apron and checked his hair before hurrying over to take their beverage orders.
Other than the unusually dressed group in the morning, the rest of the day was pretty ordinary. There was a steady flow of out-of-towners as well as locals who kept Nick and Lyle on their toes until closing time. It was only six o’clock, but the feeble autumn sun was casting its last shadows of the day when Nick started to walk home from the café. He hadn’t forgotten about Dean and decided to check on him, whether he was embarrassed about last night or not.
“DEAN, are you in there? It’s me, Nick.” Nick knocked again and stood staring at the unyielding door. Eventually, with some regret that he hadn’t tried knocking on Dean’s door first thing in the morning, Nick went back to his own place.
Nick struggled to commit to paper a scene that had been brewing in his head all day, but Dean continued to be on his mind, and it was not going well. It got even more difficult when his stomach started to remind him about the leftovers in his refrigerator. Since his muse refused to cooperate, Nick decided to listen to his stomach and went to microwave something for dinner.
He had just sat down in front of the TV with a plate of reheated Chinese food when, to his annoyance, there was a sharp rap on the door. With a grumble he set down his fork with an audible clang and got up.
“Dean! I was worried about you today. You left before I could check if you were all right.”
“Sorry about that. I didn’t want to trouble you any more than I already had. It seems like you’re always picking up after me when I get drunk,” Dean said with a hangdog look that left Nick weak at the knees. He looked so vulnerable that Nick wanted to bundle him up and keep him safe from the demons that seemed to haunt him.
“No, you were no trouble at all. What are neighbors for?”
“Thanks for saying that,” Dean said, brightening up again. “Well, I was thinking we might get together and go over that screenplay of yours. I hope you like pepperoni.”
A growl escaped from Nick’s stomach when he smelled the enticing aroma of melted cheese and spicy pepperoni rising from the box that Dean waved in front of his face. “You are an angel! I’m totally starving,” Nick said in a near moan.
He took the box from Dean and, stepping aside, motioned for him to come into the apartment. “I don’t have any beer to go with it though, sorry.”
Dean self-consciously brushed at the bandage on his cheek and answered. “Soda is fine. I’m cutting back on the booze, anyway.”
Nick nodded in approval and shoved aside the now unappetizing leftovers with the pizza box he had in his hands. Then retreating to the kitchen with the now cold Chinese food, he came back with two cans of soda. Digging in, they allowed themselves to enjoy the first few bites before anyone spoke.
“Sho, howsh the screenplay coming along?” Dean asked through a mouthful of pizza.
Nick wiped his hand on his jeans before he got up to retrieve a sheaf of papers from the old workhorse of a printer that sat on the kitchen table where Nick did all of his writing.
“I made pretty good progress since the last time I saw you. See what you think. I was hoping you could help fine-tune Carter’s character a little.”
Dean washed down his bite of pizza with a gulp of Coke and wiped his fingers on a nearby napkin before he picked up the stack of papers that Nick had brought over. While he sat back on the sofa to read, Nick chewed nervously on his food and watched for Dean’s reactions. He was relieved when Dean smiled in some spots and outright giggled in other spots.
“I like it so far. It’s hilarious. I just hope having Carter in it won’t ruin your story.”
“That’s why you’re here, to help me make this his star vehicle.”
Dean leaned back on the sofa and stared thoughtfully into the distance. “So you want your character to be more like the real Stone Carter? Well, he comes from a small-town background and still votes Republican. If I were to psychoanalyze him, I’d say he’s got self-esteem and control issues, but charming, very charming. He hates Vegas but loves Palm Springs, less glitz and more class, he says. He likes that old-school glamour.”
Nick sat at the edge of his seat and eagerly scribbled down Dean’s pointers in the margins of the pages.
“What about women? What does he find attractive in a woman?”
Dean snorted. “Please, Carter bats for our team.”
Nick blinked in surprise. “Really? Well, I guess he’s a pretty good actor after all. I haven’t heard any rumors at all about him being gay.”
“Honey, the closet is so crowded in this town, there isn’t even room in there for a second thought. We keep each other’s secrets very well,” Dean said in his best drag voice. Nick burst out laughing at Dean’s impression, and it didn’t take long for Dean to join in.
“Seriously, though,” Dean continued in a sober tone when their laughter faded, “homophobia runs deep in this town. Any actor who wants to be a big name has to stay deep in the closet.”
Horribly disappointed, Nick felt his stomach drop to the floor. “That can’t be true,” he protested. “There are plenty of out actors in Hollywood. What about Brokeback Mountain? Gay Days at Disney, how much more out can you get?” His voice became more distressed as he realized what this might mean for his growing feelings for Dean.
“You can play gay, but you can’t be gay. Out actors can be counted on one hand, and they’ll never get offered the lead, especially if it’s a romantic lead. They’re afraid Aunt Minnie in Omaha will clutch her pearls and call for a boycott against the gay agenda,” Dean said, and curled his fingers to sharpen the sarcasm with air quotes.
Seeming not to want to get any more upset over the subject, Dean reached for another slice of pizza. “Well, you’re a writer. It’s not something you have to worry about. Let’s get back to the script. Carter speaks a little French; maybe you should have your character say a few words in French. The thing to remember, though, is that he’s got a terrible short term memory, so keep the dialogue short and simple.” After taking a big bite of pizza, Dean continued, “He’s more of a doer than a thinker. As long as you don’t trouble his pretty little head with too much meaningful dialogue, you should be fine.”
“Sauce, you have sauce just there.” Nick pointed to a spot at the corner of Dean’s mouth.
Dean gave his face a swipe and quipped, “Geez, you can’t take me anywhere.”
“No, it’s still there. Here, let me.” Nick took the napkin from Dean’s hand and had all intentions of using it, but what happened next was as big a surprise to Nick as it was to Dean. Barely breathing, with his pulse quickening, Nick tentatively, then tenderly kissed the offending dab of sauce away.
When Nick pulled back, Dean was breathing fast and shallow, but he did not move a muscle. Swallowing hard, Nick leaned forward again and sealed his lips onto Dean’s mouth, capturing him in a warm, soft kiss. As warm and willing were the lips that returned Nick’s efforts. It lasted for far too short a time before Dean started to push away.
“It’s all right, isn’t it?” Nick asked softly while searching Dean’s face, looking for the answer he craved.
“Well, it’s not not all right,” Dean whispered. “I mean, it was wonderful. It’s just that things are kind of complicated right now.”
Nick brushed lightly at the bandage on Dean’s cheek. “Right. Your boyfriend. You deserve better. Why do you stay with him?”
“There’s a lot that goes on in this town, and I don’t want you to get hurt,” Dean said and moved to sit where he was out of Nick’s personal space.
“Right, the homophobia thing. I get it,” Nick said in a disappointed voice.
His heart broke for Dean when he saw the profound sadness on his face. “No, that’s not what I’m talking about.”
“If you’re afraid that boyfriend of yours is going to give me a beating, I can take care of myself. You can’t deny what we felt when we touched each other,” Nick said with quiet determination.
“There’s more than that. I can’t go into it now.” Dean had an expression that pleaded with Nick not to ask any more questions. Taking his seat next to Nick again, Dean took both of Nick’s hands in his. “Look, I like you a lot. Your friendship is the best thing I have going right now, and I really care about you. Let’s not mess up what we have, okay?” he told Nick.
Nick felt as if someone had kicked him in the chest. “Sure, Dean, if it’s what you want.”
“Thank you. I really need you to do this for me right now,” Dean said in a relieved voice. He gave Nick a tender kiss on the cheek and whispered, “Please wait for me. I just need some time to sort some things out.”
The next night, Dean disappeared again, leaving Nick on his own as he tried to incorporate what he had learned about Stone Carter into his screenplay. He would have liked to show Dean the changes, but since he had no way of contacting Dean, he had to make do with showing the new version of the screenplay to Lyle.