THERE was just no way.
“You won’t know unless you try.”
I turned to look at my ex-wife, who was still my best friend in the world. “Are you kidding? It’s hopeless.”
“It’s actually kind of cute.”
“Oh God,” I groaned and buried my face in my folded arms.
We were having lunch on a Sunday at a bistro she liked that I, of course, had never heard of. But to say that she knew things about fine dining or even “chic” dining that I did not was the understatement of the century. She was more chateaubriand, and I was steak and potatoes.
“Sweetie, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
“I think there’s a code or something.”
“Thou shalt not covet your ex-students.”
She laughed. “I think you made that one up.”
“Oh God, it even sounds disgusting.”
“It does not.”
“Like you would know.”
“Don’t be an ass just because you’re having a crisis.”
I groaned louder.
“You said you had him in class fourteen years ago? Is that right?”
“I bet he doesn’t even know who Duran Duran is.”
She started laughing. “So that makes him, what, thirty-two now? Thirty-three?”
“Or a Rubik’s Cube.”
The laughing got harder. “Even thirty-two is perfectly respectable for a man of forty-five.”
“You’re so ridiculous.”
“That’s a thirteen-year age difference, Mel. I could be his father.”
She was lost in a fit of giggles.
She just shook her head, wiping at her eyes. Christ, it wasn’t that funny.
“Jared is closer to his age than mine.”
“True.” She shivered slightly in the crisp November air.
It made more sense for the man I had a very immature crush on to date my twenty-seven-year-old son. I was too old for him.
“But your son isn’t gay, and Sean is, and so are you, my darling.”
I lifted up my head, raked my fingers through my thick dirty-blond hair, and looked at her. “Do you mean to not help?”
“Love,” she chuckled, “twenty-eight years ago me and my best friend got drunk off our asses, and because he was hot—still is, I might add—I jumped his bones when I had the chance and got knocked up just like the nuns said I would.”
“Thank you for the recap.” I grunted, leaning back, looking at her.
Her hand went to my knee. “And lo and behold, nine months later you did the right thing and made an honest woman of me because you loved me and fell madly in love with your kid the second you saw him.”
“He was cute.” I sighed in memory.
“He looked like an undercooked slab of meatloaf.”
“But true,” she added brightly. “And that cute little blob grew up to be a wonderful young man.”
“Who will make an excellent wildlife biologist very soon.” I smiled at her.
She made a noise that was not nice.
“Oh c’mon, Mel, everyone takes a semester off when they’re getting their doctorate,” I defended my wayward kid. “It’s a lot of studying to do all in one shot.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “Whatever. We’re not discussing Jare; we’re discussing you.”
“Let’s not.” I exhaled sharply, picking up my menu. “What’re we eating?”
She snatched the leather-bound piece from my hands, which should have been my first clue that I was out of my depth in the “bistro,” and smacked me with it.
“Owww,” I complained loudly.
She banged it back down on the table. “I want to talk about Sean.”
“I don’t. I’m not ready anyway.”
“No-no-no, you will not hide behind your dead relationship with Duncan anymore. It’s been over a year and a half, Nate. It’s time to dive back in.”
“I have,” I assured her. “I’ve been on some dates.”
“Who have you slept with?”
“How is that your business?”
“Nate, you need to get laid.”
“Ohmygod, could you speak up, please,” I said sarcastically. “The people one street over didn’t hear you.”
She tried not to smile.
“Jesus, woman,” I scolded her.
“It’s time to get back on the horse.”
“Or back in the saddle, which is it?”
I dropped my voice an octave. “Listen to me—”
“Oh no, you did not just try and use your teacher voice on me.”
I rolled my eyes at her.
“How dare you.”
“Can we just—”
“You didn’t love him anyway.”
Again with the same argument—she was like a broken record. “I did.”
“You cared for him, but you didn’t love him. Someday, I hope, you’ll understand the difference.”
“There isn’t anything to get,” I argued. “Caring for someone, being in love with them, it’s the same thing. You’re arguing semantics.”
“You’re so stubborn.”
“And you’re in denial.”
I shook my head. “I don’t see the difference.”
“I know, and that’s the problem.”
“Being in love the way you’re talking about is nothing but trouble.”
“Spoken like a man who’s never been head over heels in love.”
“Thank God. Have you read Romeo and Juliet?”
“I cared for Duncan deeply.”
She gave me a look.
“Listen, what does it matter what it was called? I was invested in the man’s happiness. How is that not love?”
“I hate it when you do that!”
“You’re equating love and caring again, and we both know that love is more than caring, so therefore they cannot mean the same thing.”
“I love you, I love Jare, hell, I even love Ben. I know what—”
“I’m not talking about loving me because I’m your best friend and the mother of your child, and I’m not talking about loving your kid because you’re his father or the love you feel for your friends. I’m talking about romance.”
“Fine. I had a romance with Duncan Stiel that unfortunately came to an end.”
She huffed out a sharp breath.
“You don’t like that description either?”
“Listen, one of these days, you are going to fall madly in love with someone, and I pray to God I’m there to see it so I can point at you and yell ‘ah-hah’ at the top of my lungs.”
“That’s very mature.”
“Whatever,” she said dismissively. “All I know is it’s time for you to start dating again with a chance of it getting serious, and the handsome young doctor would be someone nice to start back up with.”
“I’ve been on dates since Duncan,” I said again.
“But you haven’t gotten laid. That’s the part that’s missing.”
“How do you know?”
Her eyes lit up. “You got laid? When? Who was it?”
I was not about to discuss my sex life with her. “What are you, living vicariously through me?”
She gave me a dismissive wave. “Instead of talking someone to death, have sex instead.”
“You want me to be a manwhore?”
“I want you to begin a new physical relationship with another man.”
But that wasn’t just something I could jump into, at least not long term. One night stands were another area all together. “There has to be a deeper connection than dinner and a movie,” I told her.
“Like caring,” I corrected her. “Like things in common, goals.”
She rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry, who’s the romantic here?”
“I saw him coming out of a bathhouse, did I tell you?”
“Duncan. God. Try and follow the conversation.”
“Why do I care about Duncan Stiel anymore?”
“Because he was coming out of a bathhouse!” I was indignant.
“I hardly cared about him while you two were together. What makes you think I give a crap about him now?”
“You are completely missing the point.”
Her sigh was long and exasperated. “And what were you doing there?”
“Now who’s not keeping up?”
“Oh, you mean at the bathhouse.”
She widened her eyes and gave me the exasperated waggle of her head.
“I wasn’t at a bathhouse; I was across the street buying porn.”
“Are you sure?”
“That I was buying porn?”
The snort of laughter was not ladylike at all.
She made a rolling motion with her hand for me to go on.
“I can promise you, I no longer frequent bathhouses.” I smiled at her. “They’re gross.”
“You’re a prude,” she pronounced.
“I don’t want to catch a disease.”
“That’s what condoms are for.”
I squinted at her. “Who are you?”
“That’s it. I saw him there, my ex at a bathhouse.”
“Oooh, was he carrying his badge and his gun? Was it a bust?”
“No, it wasn’t a bust; you’re completely missing the point.”
“I’m not.” She cleared her throat. “I get it, and I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. It’s just, you know, he can’t move in with me, he can’t be seen in public even holding my hand, but he can apparently fuck hundreds of nameless, faceless guys in bathhouses and clubs with impunity.”
“In all fairness,” she said softly, “you knew the man was in the closet when you started up with him. He was very up-front and honest.”
“Please don’t remind of the huge-ass hypocrite I am.”
“That’s not what I meant to do. It’s just that if he can’t be in a loving, committed, grown-up relationship with another man since he’s in the closet because of work, he still has needs. What are his options, really, besides screwing in bathhouses and clubs? You have to think about it logically.”
“True, it’s just that when I saw him leaving with that boy a couple weeks ago, I thought about how old I was, you know?”
“Ohmygod, Nate, you’re not old!”
“But I’m older than the guy he was with, and I was so way up on my moral high horse at that moment, and now look at me in the same boat, lusting after some twink who probably bottoms like a—”
“Not a twink at all,” she championed Sean Cooper, the man in question. “I met him, you’ll remember.”
This was why she was badgering me; she had been with me when I ducked down the produce aisle a week ago, running around like an idiot because I had seen him first.
“And I think the man’s a top, actually.”
I put my head back at the futility of the situation. The young man who had made me tongue-tied in English 101 all those years ago was, in my opinion, absolute perfection.
Sean Cooper was six feet two inches of heaven. He ran, he swam—had been, in fact, on the water polo team when he was in college—and was in possession of the most beautifully carved physique I had ever seen. The lines of him defeated me, but more than that was his kindness.
He remembered everything anyone ever said, as evidenced when he caught me and Melissa in the wine aisle fifteen minutes after I had sought to evade him.
“Doctor Qells.” He had smiled, and the light-blue eyes had glowed warmly.
“Sean.” I sighed because the jig was up and I was caught.
“Still hunting for the perfect merlot?”
Fifteen years I hadn’t seen him, but he could still recall a small, insignificant detail from me fooling around in class with my students. It was heady stuff. The man was thoughtful and funny and sarcastic and smart. He was, he told me, an attending at the county hospital, having just moved back to Chicago from the West Coast, from California. He was going into pediatrics—he wanted kids. And that brought up a whole laundry list of other concerns, because I was forty-five and….
“Forget it.” I shook my head. “It’s useless anyway. If I wanted to ask him out, I should have done it right then, when he was looking at me and…. But now what am I going to do, call him up out of the blue, ask to take him out? Really?”
“Why not? All he can say is no.”
“You know, why do women not get the whole horror of asking someone out on a date only to be shot down? Why? If I live to be a thousand, I will never get the whole quick shrug thing like it’s nothing. It is physically painful to be told no. Do you get that at all?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She lifted her hand to wave at her husband, who was coming up the sidewalk to meet us for lunch.
“Don’t tell Ben,” I muttered before he got there.
“Don’t tell Ben what?” the man in question said as he leaned over, kissed his wife’s cheek, and then came around the table as I stood up.
He hugged me tight and was back taking a seat beside his wife seconds later. He looked at me expectantly.
“What?” I asked.
“I don’t know. How the hell should I know? You’re the one who said ‘Don’t tell Ben.’”
“How did you even hear that?”
“I’ve got good ears.”
The man had bat ears, apparently.
“Just never mind.”
“Are you guys having an affair?”
I squinted at him, and he burst into laughter.
“Sorry, that was stupid.”
“Hey,” Melissa Qells Ortiz scolded her husband. “I could be having an affair.”
“Not with a gay man.” He snickered, turning to look up at the waitress hovering over our table. “Ice tea, and we’ll be ready to order when you get back. Thank you, dear.”
And the waitress puddled into goo under his big warm brown eyes and sexy smile. Melissa and I were silent as he turned back to us.
“I dunno.” I shrugged. “Are you done flirting with our waitress?”
Melissa lifted one golden eyebrow.
“Oh c’mon, I get to take a goddess home, why would I want anything else?”
“Nice save,” I grumbled as his wife, my ex-wife, leaned forward and kissed his cheek. They were a great couple. I was glad when we divorced, when Jared was ten, that she had then found the love of her life. She was a great stepmother to Ben’s three kids, and they adored her. Ben was a wonderful stepfather to Jared, and they got along well. Not as well as he and I, but I was kind of secretly happy about that.
My son had grown up understanding that his father was gay. He recognized that this was the reason we were getting a divorce. When Melissa and I had sat him down at ten, he was too young to understand the specifics, but he knew I loved men. It had never been a secret. I was thrilled when she remarried, and because I was, Jared was. I had worried as he got older that perhaps he would turn away from me and toward his stepfather, as they had the love of women in common. But as it turned out, a lifetime of love and devotion actually counted for something. My kid, rowdy and rude at eleven, rebellious and full of angst at thirteen, even apathetic and snarling at sixteen and undecided about what he was going to do with his life at eighteen, still never lost the ability to laugh at himself or love his parents. Even now, at twenty-seven, the first thing I got when I met him at the airport was a big hug followed by a sloppy kiss on the cheek. And at home, on the couch, he would still stretch out, put his head in my lap, and fall asleep. It turned out that who I slept with didn’t matter in the least. When he was a teenager, I had been called a douche, but my sexual orientation had nothing to do with that, only my rules. I was his father, and him believing I was antiquated and unfair was the only factor in our arguments. Our shouting matches never included what I did in my bedroom.
When my ex had walked out of my life a year and a half ago, the first thing my son did was whoop for joy over the phone. Just like everyone else, he had not liked Duncan Stiel. The second thing he did was suggest I find someone new. But I doubted he would want that someone in his father’s bed to be just a little bit older than him.
“So what are you going to do?”
I came out of my thoughts to find both Melissa and Ben staring at me. They really did make a nice couple, her with her mane of blonde hair pulled up into a french twist, diamond studs in her ears, classic and elegant and radiant. Ben was tall and dark and handsome, dashing in his dark charcoal-gray suit and black turtleneck. They were a matching set. Me in my jeans with a Henley over a long-sleeve T-shirt and hiking boots, I definitely looked out of place.
“I’m going to go buy a bottle of wine, drown myself, and try and think of something interesting to say about Shakespeare tomorrow.”
“Seriously.” Ben squinted at both of us. “What are we talking about?”
“Nate has a little crush.”
“Really? Finally.” He sighed. “Enough with moping around over Duncan Stiel already.”
“I haven’t been—”
“Yes, you have,” they both said at the same time.
“Oh jinx.” Melissa laughed, and her husband rolled his eyes at her.
“You guys wear me out.”
Ben smiled. “How many girls, would you say, fall in love with you every quarter?”
“And they have no idea you’re gay, do they?”
It took me a minute. “What are you talking about?”
“The girls all go nuts for you because you look the same now as you did when I met you at twenty-eight. And while once you were a struggling grad student working three jobs to support himself, help pay child support, and actually eat on occasion, now you’re a tenured professor with a doctorate in English literature—”
“And I’m still poor,” I cut him off.
“I actually kind of like your loft in Lincoln Park,” Melissa assured me. “It’s much less fussy than my house that I have to have a maid to clean.”
“Excuse me?” Ben asked her, sounding just slightly put out.
“She didn’t mean it,” I chimed in, kicking her under the table.
“Owww, you shit,” Ben grumbled, which sent Melissa into peals of laughter.
I couldn’t help laughing when she did; her laughter was infectious, just like my kid’s.
“I just meant to say—” Melissa chuckled, blowing her nose on a napkin. “—that your loft is warm and homey and I love it.”
“It is nice,” Ben grumped as the waitress returned to take our order.
When she left us with bread, I sat there in the chilly November air and wondered what my life would look like to a thirty-two-year-old man.
“You’re a catch, Qells.”
I turned back to look at Ben.
“You are. You have great friends, and I don’t just mean us. Your kid loves you—hell, my kids love you—you have a really nice home, a wonderful job, and hair that any man would die to have. You’re in possibly the best shape of your life, and your interests are so varied I can’t even keep up with you. I had no idea you could change the oil filter on your own car.”
“This is not something to put on your résumé,” I assured him.
“Yes, but I can’t do it,” he told me. “I can’t do crap with my own car, and I’m the CEO of my own company, for crissakes.”
“You have people to do it for you.”
“Yes, but the point is that you can go to the ballet with me or a baseball game or a concert and wherever is fine. You’re like the Swiss army knife friend; you have an attachment for everything.”
I did a slow pan to Melissa. “Did that sound filthy, or was it just me?”
“Oh no, that was filthy,” she assured me, her eyebrows lifting as she surveyed her husband.
“Wait.” He thought about it. “I just meant—”
“Thanks, buddy.” I smiled, reaching out to pat his shoulder.
“Just call Sean,” Melissa ordered me. “Don’t let the whole thing squick you—”
“Squick? I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with this word.”
“You know, freak you out, weird you out, gross you out—squick?”
“How old are you again?”
She smacked me really heard, and when I looked at Ben for help, he just shook his head.
“No hitting,” he told his wife.
She swatted him next.
“What the hell?”
“Oh, I know.” She brightened. “Why don’t you just call Jare and ask him how the kids ask each other out these days?”
“Oh God. Kids.”
“You know what I meant.”
Great idea. Call my son and ask him for advice with asking out a younger man. That was brilliant.
“It couldn’t hurt.”