MARK isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary the night that his life changes completely.
“Hey, Miller, hurry up! We’re gonna miss happy hour,” says Murphy, leaning against the opening to Mark’s cubicle.
“Okay, okay, just give me one… more… sec.” Mark types faster, finishing the last paragraph in the document he’s preparing for Mr. Cantor, one of the law firm’s partners, who is very particular about his briefs. He always requests Mark from the pool of paralegals to whip his final rendition into shape.
“And it’s done!” he announces, hitting the send button and twirling around in his chair to grin at Murphy. “We’re outta here.”
“All right! Open mic night, here we come!” crows Murphy.
Mark grabs his guitar from the corner of his cubicle, and they head out of the building and down the steep hill to BART. Their destination tonight is a small club in Berkeley.
“What are you gonna do tonight? One of yours?” asks Murphy as they jog down the steps into the station.
“Probably. Maybe do that cover of ‘Time Is Running Out’.”
“Awesome. Dude, I’m glad you’re doing this tonight. It’s been too long.”
Mark smiles and shrugs. Murphy is always ragging on him to get out and play more.
“Come on, you know I’m right. You’re so freaking talented with playing all these instruments, and your singing, my God. And you compose your own music! Hello? It drives me crazy that me and my cat are, like, the only ones in San Francisco that know you exist.”
“Well, that isn’t strictly true. My landlady knows I exist.”
“And another thing….”
Mark rolls his eyes. Once Murphy gets on a roll about the ways to improve his life, there’s no stopping him. He looks down the platform to watch for the train.
Murphy persists. “Speaking of no one knowing you exist, when is the last time you got laid?”
“Please. Can we not go there again?”
“But dude, I don’t understand. You’re like everyone’s guy to bring home to Mama. You’re like this freaking puppy dog that everyone drools over and shit. You’re like every girl’s perfect husband material and every guy’s gay fantasy. I just don’t understand why you’re not getting any.”
“Stop worrying about it. I’m fine.”
Mark wouldn’t mind “getting some,” as Murphy likes to say. But he just can’t bring himself to make the effort. He’s not really a one-night stand or casual sex kind of a guy, although he did some of that when he first moved to San Francisco from Baxley, Georgia. He had just broken up with his college girlfriend, Francine, having finally come to terms with the fact that he was gay. Being in San Francisco as a newly out gay man was like being a kid in a candy store. It was fun and eye-opening, but gradually it got old. At heart, Mark is a one-man kind of a guy.
He hasn’t admitted this to Murphy, but he has all but given up on the idea of true love by now. He hadn’t expected it to be so hard to find someone to settle down with, but the one man with whom he’d had a serious relationship since moving here got posted overseas after they’d been together for six months, and after a while, it got too hard to keep it going by phone and mail. He wasn’t surprised when Ken let him know he was seeing someone else. Since then, well, Mark is good at sublimation. He plays his guitar a lot.
“I just can’t make the effort,” he says to Murphy as they board the train.
“Bullshit. If you’d stop being such a homebody and go out more. I mean, people hit on you all the time.”
“Oh jeez.” Murphy shakes his head.
Mark wouldn’t say that he’s unhappy with his life. He likes his job okay; he’s got good friends. But he might say, if asked, that he’s waiting. Ever since he was little and growing up in small-town Baxley, he’s had this strange sense that there is more to come, like life is one day going to happen for real, and this is just the dress rehearsal.
Mark is musing on this as Murphy pushes open the door to the bar. So far, what he’s been waiting for hasn’t shown up, and he doesn’t even need Murphy’s nagging to know that continuing to live his life as he has been isn’t going to lead to the fairy tale ending with the prince and the kingdom.
What was that definition of insanity again? Oh yeah, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. He supposes this is why he’s sitting next to Murphy in this bar right now, getting ready to perform in front of strangers rather than safely at home cooking a meal and composing another song.
As he settles back on his stool and takes a swig of his beer, looking around idly, Mark sees a guy, tall and dark, walking through the door with a group of exotically dressed friends. His skin starts tingling for some reason as he watches him walk by, watches him throw back his head and laugh a big, joyful laugh at something somebody says. He likes the look of him, with his eyeliner and hip clothes. He looks brave.
Mark doesn’t even realize he’s staring until the guy looks over and their eyes meet and the guy raises an eyebrow at him. Whoa. He looks down in embarrassment. When he looks up again, the guy is still looking at him and—What? Did he just wink at me? Shoot. Stop staring at him. What a fool. Mark feels himself blush and looks away as the guy just smiles. Murphy’s saying something, asking some question, and he turns to him and puts his back to the guy, trying to recover from his embarrassment.
“Bryan! Where have you been? Are you going to sing tonight?” Mark hears dimly as he tries to concentrate on Murphy’s rambling rants about work. Looking at Murphy and nodding vaguely, he keeps hearing excited chatter and bursts of laughter from the corner of the bar where the guy and his friends have settled.
Feeling distinctly uncool, he fingers his beer bottle and regrets letting Murphy talk him into signing up for open mic night. Although he knows he’s a good musician and that audiences always respond well to his intimate style, he doesn’t look forward to being up there in front of that guy and his fabulous friends.
A few beers and one nerve-filled trip to the men’s room later, Mark hears his name being called. “Oh well, here goes nothing,” he murmurs as Murphy claps him heartily on the shoulder. He picks up his guitar and makes his way to the small stage at the front of the room. He turns around to face the crowd and steps up to the mic. People are drinking, talking, and laughing as he speaks.
“Uh hi. My name is Mark Miller and I’m gonna play a few songs tonight. This first is ‘Time Is Running Out’ by Muse.”
Adjusting his guitar, he sees the guy staring fixedly at him as his friends drink and talk around him. He’s dimly aware of Murphy catcalling. Bodies, heat, dark, and light tickle his senses for a moment and then disappear as he starts to sing, banging out a syncopated rhythm on his guitar. As the last line dies away, he becomes aware again of his surroundings and the burst of applause and catcalls (Murphy’s again). He smiles shyly and dares to look over to the fabulous corner. The guy is looking straight at him, smiling widely. He nods and raises his glass in a salute when he sees Mark looking his way.
Mark’s face warms, and he moves over to the piano to launch into his second song, an original number called “Horizon.” The noise level in the bar gradually quiets down as people start to listen, and he ends the song to a rapt silence that is the best kind of high he ever experiences: having an audience wrapped up in his voice and his music. As he thanks the crowd, picks up his guitar, and exits the stage to applause, he thinks he hears a loud “Woohoo!” from the corner. He’s feeling self-conscious again and doesn’t look that way as he rejoins Murphy, who’s stomping his feet and whistling his approval.
A minute later, as Mark takes a sip of the fresh beer Murphy had waiting for him, he feels a hand on his shoulder. He looks up into a pair of intensely interested, kohl-rimmed eyes. It’s the guy. Man, his eyes…. Are they blue or grey? I’ve never seen that color before. He’s also never had someone look at him with so much focus, like he’s the only person on the planet. Mark blushes and then shakes himself as he realizes that the guy is talking to him.
“Oh my God, how did you get to be so good?” His voice is lively and he’s grinning like he just won the lottery or something. Sparkly, is what Mark is thinking, and he really likes it for some reason, even though he considers himself the furthest from sparkly there is.
“I loved that arrangement of ‘Time Is Running Out’. So many people don’t even know about Muse, it’s crazy! I’m Bryan, by the way.”
Mark knows he’s staring again but he honestly has never seen anyone quite this beautiful this close up. He smiles back, feeling like a giddy fool, body tingling.
“Uh, hi. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it. I’m Mark, uh, but I guess you already know that.” Great, Mark, just great. Stop babbling.
“How did you get that song to work out with just an acoustic guitar? That’s some brilliance right there, man.”
He flushes and feels uncomfortably warm right now under the intensity of Bryan’s gaze.
“Thanks. I had a good time working that one out. Uh—are you going to sing?”
“Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me. I think I’m coming up next, so I better go check. Well, take it easy, Mark. Maybe I’ll see you later on.” Bryan pats his shoulder again and lets his hand linger a bit before he squeezes quickly, lets go, and winks.
“Um yeah. You too… Bryan,” Mark says a little dazedly, as Bryan smiles easily and saunters back to his friends.
Murphy whistles and leans in to whisper. “Just so you know, that is what someone hitting on you looks like. Capiche?”
Mark laughs and shakes his head in an automatic denial. No one who looked like that ever hit on him before. Murphy starts to splutter when he shushes him. Bryan has just been called up to the stage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, up next is Bryan Roberts.” A small storm of whistles, foot stamping, and applause issues from Bryan’s friends in the corner, along with much of the rest of the audience, as he stands and strides up to the stage with a guy who is carrying some sheet music.
“Hi everyone, good to see you.” Bryan smiles confidently and seems quite at ease up on the stage. “Here to accompany me on the piano tonight is the great Sean Stewart. I love the song I’m about to sing. ‘God Bless the Child’.”
Bryan stands tall, shoulders relaxed and chest broad, lifts the mic to his mouth, and begins to sing. The entire bar pauses, and the silence becomes electric as all eyes turn to the stage.
Mark holds his breath as Bryan’s voice takes him up, down, and sideways, becoming in turns tender, rough, jazzy, and beseeching. He can’t tear his eyes away from Bryan, who is simply standing there singing, but singing with such fearless conviction that it feels like he’s reaching right inside and pulling at Mark’s soul. Wow, Murphy mouths to him, his eyes bugging out. Mark nods slowly, his eyes never leaving Bryan’s face.
After a hair-raising wail up into the higher register, Bryan closes his eyes and drops his voice low and soft, almost caressing, and then lets the notes die away. He stands still with his eyes closed for a moment as the entire bar erupts in a pandemonium of applause and cheering. He appears to shake himself awake, opens his eyes, and acknowledges his audience with a smile that’s as sweet as it is blinding.
Mark slowly shakes his head in disbelief and then sees Bryan look over to his section of the bar. Without thinking, he breaks into a huge grin and raises his arms over his head, his hands clasped in a champion’s salute. Bryan starts laughing so hard he doubles over a bit, and Mark laughs, too, while Murphy raises his eyebrows and a few of Bryan’s friends crane their necks around to investigate.
He sits back on his stool, his face flushed. Mark is normally a pretty chill guy, so such a display is downright out of character for him. But right now he doesn’t care. Something about this night is causing him to feel a bit reckless.
“Not too subtle, Miller,” Murphy cracks, but he’s smiling. “I have high hopes for you, boy. I’m glad I made you do open mic tonight. You can thank me any time but especially later after you get some.” Mark snorts and turns his attention back to the stage, where Bryan is introducing his next song.
When Bryan ends his set, the place goes nuts. Bryan simply stands there, looking pleased but humble, almost vulnerable, as he thanks the crowd. Some people are wiping away tears, and most are on their feet, shouting and clapping.
Mark feels his own eyes prickling and the hair on the back of his neck standing on end as he claps until his hands feel raw. He knows he’s witnessed something extraordinary. He also knows that Bryan is way out of his league, so he’s not even sure why the guy was showing interest in him. Every instinct is telling him to leave, go home, chalk this up as an interesting night and let it go at that. He watches as Bryan’s friends crowd around him, hugging, congratulating, waving their hands wildly.
He hesitates, reaching toward his jacket, when Bryan suddenly looks up and straight at him. Their eyes lock for a moment, and Bryan tilts his head toward an exit hallway, raising his eyebrows questioningly. Mark nods, his heart beginning to pound and his mouth dry. He gathers his jacket and guitar and throws money on the bar, saying in response to Murphy’s questioning look, “I think I may have just gotten propositioned.”
Trying to look casual—which is hard to do in the wake of Murphy’s earsplitting “Woohoo, Hallelujah!”—he saunters to the back corner of the bar, where a hallway leads to the bathrooms and to an exit door. He feels kind of silly and conspicuous just loitering around, so he goes into the men’s room to take advantage of the facilities and try to pull himself together. After relieving himself (bliss after all of the beer that he doesn’t normally drink), he washes his hands and eyes himself in the mirror, muttering, “Okay, Miller, you got this. No problem.” He takes a deep breath and turns to the door.
All his pumped up bravado disappears along with the strength in his knees when he opens the door and comes face to face with Bryan, who is lounging against the wall, arms folded across his broad chest, his amazing eyes staring straight at him. They are slightly narrowed now, and he looks like a sexy panther waiting to pounce.
“Hey,” says Bryan, softly.
“Oh. Hi there,” Mark croaks, then clears his throat.
Bryan gazes down at him for a few seconds, a small smile curving his lips, and then reaches out and takes his wrist, drawing him down the hallway toward the exit door. Mark puts up no resistance, clutching his guitar case in the other hand and stumbling slightly to keep up with Bryan’s long strides.
Bryan pushes open the door, looks from side to side, and pulls Mark outside with him. As soon as the door shuts, he feels Bryan’s large, warm hands on either side of his face and tilts his head up expectantly. Bryan smells so good he wants to bury his nose in his chest. He’s gazing down into Mark’s face like he’s searching for something. Mark stands shakily, his hand still clutching his guitar, his heart feeling like it’s trying to beat its way out of his chest. He’s flushed and warm and trying mightily to meet Bryan’s piercing gaze.
“You are adorable,” Bryan says, smiling, then sighs suddenly and brings his gorgeous mouth down on his. Oh my God. It feels large, warm, and delicious, and like nothing Mark has ever tasted before. A shock of desire shoots straight to his groin, and he drops his guitar case with a clunk. He opens his mouth under Bryan’s, grabbing his arms to stay upright. He gasps as Bryan turns him, continuing to kiss him slow and wet, crowds him up against the wall of the building, and pushes his thigh between his legs. Mark feels like he might pass out from sheer pleasure.
Both of them are beginning to moan and gasp for breath when Bryan suddenly places his palms on the wall on either side of him and pulls away, panting, head bowed.
“Shit,” Bryan says hoarsely, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have started this. I have a boyfriend. Damn. Fuck. Hell. I never do this. You… you’re….”
Bryan exhales loudly and with a sound of frustration pushes away from the wall, breathing hard, no longer looking at him.
Mark feels like he just got run over by a truck. His breath comes in gasps, his body literally aches, and he’s shaking a little. He stares at Bryan, who’s so gorgeous right now, breathing raggedly with his mouth wet and sort of bruised-looking, dark hair hanging in his eyes, that it’s all he can do not to grab him. But as a stricken and slightly embarrassed expression crosses Bryan’s face, Mark has a weird urge to reassure him. He tries to collect himself enough to speak.
“Hey man.” Mark clears his throat, which feels surprisingly tight. “It’s okay. I mean, can’t say I’m not disappointed, but I understand. You’re taken. We kinda got carried away in the moment but… you’re taken.” He isn’t even surprised. This is so the story of his life.
Bryan finally looks up and smiles wryly. “Yeah, I’m taken all right. A lot of good it does when he’s been away on a trip for, like, forever.” He stops and shakes his head. “Oh, forget that.”
Bryan stares at him again, almost like he wants to memorize him. He says slowly, “Mark Miller, you are something else. I—ugh, forget that too.” He looks flustered. “Let’s just say I’m glad we met.”
Mark smiles and sticks out his hand, still seeking to reassure. “I’m glad we met too, Bryan Roberts. You are amazing… uh, as a singer.” Which sounds lame to him when Bryan’s amazingness is so much more than just his singing.
Bryan takes his hand in his, stares down at it for a second, and then seems to regain his composure. He throws his head back and laughs. “God! How much more perfect can you be? I ravage you, take it all back, and you’re like this cool dude with manners and shit? Look, could we get together maybe for coffee? To… to talk music? I really loved your arrangements, and I’d like to throw some ideas around with someone who’s a real musician.”
He can’t understand why Bryan seems a bit hesitant about this, like he’s uncertain what Mark will say. His pessimistic side was already resigned to this being some fleeting encounter that would seem pretty unreal in the morning: Mark Miller meets glittery god who takes him outside and kisses him. Yeah, right. He’s beyond surprised and very happy when Bryan says he wants to see him again.
“Sure, man. That would be awesome.”