ONCE, when I was on a trip to New York City, I stopped to watch a group of hip-hop dancers who were performing in the street. I was fascinated by the brash colors and thumping beat of the music, and the tricks and flips they performed with apparent ease. Although I stood back in the crowd—there were two or three people in front of me—I couldn’t help but be both impressed and intimidated as one of the dancers walked right up to the person in the front row, throwing his arms wide out to his sides and pushed his chest almost right up to the other man’s, shouting, “Boom!” Right in his face!
The sheer gall of the dancer made me smile, even as my stomach flipped at the idea of such confrontation. Much to my surprise, the other man, not the dancer, just laughed and made some funny noise in the back of his mouth, like he was rolling his Rs, and the dancer seemed to take this as encouragement to perform a backflip from standing, to the raucous approval of the assembled crowd.
Chris made me feel like that. Intimidated, and a little impressed. He was the same as that dancer in so many ways: loud, colorful, swirling into my life with a loud “Boom!” and disappearing just as quickly. Like those hip-hop dancers, though, I was left with the simmering feeling that I’d experienced something completely new, and I was irrevocably changed for it.
SEPTEMBER on the Northeast coast was a colorful affair. In private, I still say “colourful” (with the added “u”) as a way of reminding myself never to succumb to the Americanisms that plague my day-to-day life. Despite the months that had melted into years since I had left my native Scotland, I liked to maintain a grip on my heritage and a certain amount of decorum when it came to correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. It may sound dull, but I assure you, I am not. I just appreciate the correct use of the English language.
I was sixteen, actually, when we left Edinburgh for New Hampshire. Sixteen years in Scotland, sixteen in America. The summer of my thirty-second year on this planet had made me feel itchy, like it was time to move again. Time to go somewhere new, do something different or find a new path for myself, maybe.
It was unlikely, though, the chance of moving. My career was settled, and I was starting to be appreciated for my knowledge and expertise in my field. I was invited to events and conferences and lectures to talk about my research into the work of Rudyard Kipling and his impact on colonial society. I sometimes repeated these lectures to glassy-eyed third-year college students, although I doubted many of them appreciated what I was trying to impart to them. None of them ever submitted my suggested essays, anyway.
The routine settled around me without me even really noticing; my apartment—my flat, and my cat, and my car, and my work all had their allocated slots, and I was happy, so was there any point in changing anything? I was lonely, though. The cat did something to ease the heartache of coming home to an empty flat, but he wasn’t anything more than a tuna-stealing companion. And wasn’t that just a lie.
On the love front, I was painfully bereft. And had been for longer than I would have ever, ever admitted. When we’d moved to America—Mum, Dad, me, and Jillian—I’d just completed my Highers, the qualification sat at age sixteen in Scotland that permits a child of that age to leave the education system if they so wish. I was essentially stuck in no-man’s-land, unable to do anything in the States without a high school education but having already finished my schooling according to my home country.
Since Jilly would also be going to the local high school, I agreed to go on the pretense of being there as her moral support. In fact, Jilly was more than capable of taking care of herself and quickly took advantage of her years at gymnastics club back at home and insinuated herself into the cheerleading squad. The other children at the school seemed to go through phases of either mocking my accent or revering me for it.
In a world where fitting in was everything, coming out simply wasn’t a possibility.
College was supposed to be my saving grace, a place where I could stand proud as a gay man and embrace love, life, and another man without fear of repercussions. The truth was something slightly different. Although there was an LGB society on campus (they had yet to add the T) it was headed by a frankly terrifying lesbian and the only men there seemed to be flamboyantly gay, and they scared me even more than the overtly macho men that surrounded me in my dorm.
I kept promising myself, Next year will be different. Next year you’ll find someone. But I never did. Jillian blamed it on me not getting out enough. So did my friends. The sad fact of the matter was, I’d labeled myself unlovable, a static, stoic bachelor, and myself and Flea, my scruffy cat, were doing quite well on our own, thank you very much.
And then? Boom.
“FOR next week,” I called out over the sound of people grabbing bags and shoving hastily scrawled notes into them, “please read The Man Who Would Be King for me! We are leaving poetry behind for the time being.”
My response was a general muttering, which I took to be acceptance. The required reading list for my course was adequately prepared well in advance to give my students ample time to become familiar with the material, but it was always worth reminding them.
It was my last class of the day; a serendipitous glitch in the college’s lecture programming system meant that by 2:00 p.m. on a Friday, I was finished for the week and could start my weekend early. Not that I ever did. My position allowed me to demand a nice office, and after three years they finally granted it to me. I was young to hold such a prestigious position but not above abusing it.
The only downfall was the long trek across campus in between the Literature building, where I worked, and the History building, where my office was located. I could have moved into the Literature building, naturally, if I were to give up my nice office. So the walk was good exercise.
I kept the room decorated in a style Jillian referred to as “grumpy old man”, and it suited me down to the ground. One wall was dominated by a large bookcase, which I filled, delightedly, with secondhand books and copies of volumes I kept in my personal library at home. I had a lovely wingback leather chair kept behind an antique desk I’d found at a flea market and a long, comfortable sofa I rarely used except to nap on sometimes when I’d been at the campus from dusk ’til dawn.
After dumping my briefcase and notes on an increasingly perilous pile of stuff on the corner of my desk, I settled back to start reading through the e-mails that had accumulated in my absence. They were filled with the usual rubbish: students pleading for extensions due to the death of their granny/ dog/ second cousin in Peru, an invitation from my mother to Sunday lunch, messages to the whole faculty asking for our cooperation in the “Clean Up The Campus” campaign, and one from my friend Adam with the question:
The Boat or The Bird?
I laughed and sent an e-mail back: The Boat, for sure.
There was a pub that we liked just off campus called the Ship where they served good beer and better food. On campus there was a bigger bar that the students drank in too, called the Two Magpies. We’d nicknamed the bars in an attempt to hide from our students where we’d be drinking on any particular night. Unfortunately, someone overheard one of our conversations, and now the nicknames had entered the general student consciousness.
I worked solidly for a few hours, making progress through the pile of work on my desk, and looked up at the clock in surprise when Adam knocked on my door at five.
“Hey,” he said, sticking his head around the door. “You ready to head out?”
“Yeah, nearly. Come in a minute.” I gestured him inside.
Adam flopped down on the couch, making himself at home while I saved everything and packed up all I’d need for the weekend.
“This place is a dump,” Adam opined.
“It is not a dump. It is organized chaos,” I corrected him.
Adam snorted with laughter under his breath. He wasn’t a lecturer, Adam. He worked in the campus theater as a working technician. From the bright lights of Broadway to the dusty spotlights of the college auditorium, his career had taken a bit of a downturn, but he’d wanted to move his young family out of the city and into the suburbs. I liked his laidback, easygoing nature, characterized by a lolloping gait caused by his six-foot frame.
“Come on, beer’s waiting,” he huffed as I finally stuffed the last of my papers into my briefcase.
“That’s what he said.”
“Adam, don’t be crude.”
He knew about my sexuality and occasionally made fun of me for it, not in a cruel way, just the way friends do. He asked me once if I found him attractive. I said no, I didn’t go in for redheads.
My ancient, rusting Buick was something else that often caught the sharp end of his witty tongue. It was a remnant of my own college days, and I liked the familiarity of the heap of junk, even if it did cost me more to keep running than it was worth. I drove over to the Ship with the windows down, pretending to us all that there was warmth left in the air when in reality, autumn was creeping in fast.
I HAD been persuaded, against all my better judgments, to stay at the Ship far longer than I had originally intended. Once we were past the point where I could reasonably drive home, it was actually embarrassingly easy to keep me there, teetering on a barstool as we debated the perils of American “football.”
“Now rugby,” I said, slapping an emphatic hand down on the bar. “There’s a real man’s sport. None of this namby-pamby padding you Yanks all wear.”
“Your accent comes out when you’re drunk, you know that?” Adam said.
“Aye,” I agreed. “That it does.”
“Aye,” he parroted.
A light hand tapped me on the shoulder. I whirled around too quickly; the world blurred before my eyes before fixing on a young blond man.
“Can I help you?” I asked him, trying to suppress the Scottish aggression in my voice.
“Sorry,” he said, a slow, easy smirk spreading across his face. “Thought you were Gerard Butler there for a minute.”
“Butler!” I yelled. “Bloody Gerard bloody Butler is the bane of my bloody existence!” My wild gesticulating had caused me to spill some of my pint down my shirt, a fact I was made aware of as the amber liquid seeped through to my skin. “And he’s about ten years older than me!”
“Sorry about this,” Adam said, leaning over me, slurring his words. “He gets rowdy when he’s drunk.”
“I can see that,” the boy said. He hopped up onto the barstool next to mine and gestured to the barmaid. “Do you have a name?”
“My name,” I said, pulling myself up to my full (seated) height, “is Robert Andrew McKinnon. The second. Who the hell are you?”
“Chris. Christopher Jacob Ford. The only. I like your accent.”
Adam collapsed into giggles, and I took his hand to shake. His brightly colored, vividly tattooed hand.
“Ah, everyone likes my bloody accent,” I sighed into my pint glass.
“He says ‘bloody’ a lot when he’s drunk,” Adam helpfully supplied. “Hey, are you gay? Robert is, and he hasn’t gotten laid in ages.”
“Adam!” I exclaimed and shoved his shoulder. He fell off the barstool.
I didn’t apologize—he deserved it—but I did buy another round of drinks while he loped off to the bathroom. To the loo. To the bloody loo.
“So,” I said to Christopher Jacob Ford, emboldened by my display of brute masculine force, “are you gay?”
He smirked at me in a way I should have interpreted as “yes.” In a way, once upon a time, I would have interpreted it as “yes.”
“If you wanna know,” he said, pushing a neat white card across the bar to me, “call me.”
I lifted the card to my face. It had ten numbers and the characters C.J.F. (1) printed on it in neat handwriting. I tucked it into my wallet for later.
I WOKE up the following morning with a ball of fluff on my head and another one forming between my teeth. On trying to move I discovered two things: the ball of fluff on my head was Flea, who indignantly dug his claws into my scalp as I tried to dislodge him, and the ball of fluff between my teeth was certain impending death.
Hangovers enhanced my sense of melodrama.
I crawled out of bed, where I’d sprawled to sleep, facedown, wearing one sock and my shirt and tie. Nothing else. Walking to the bathroom (I refused to crawl, even though that was clearly the better option), I tried to use the power of positive thinking to will myself back into consciousness. It didn’t work, but the steaming-hot shower, painkillers, two glasses of water, and committing an act of self-love all went most of the way toward fixing it.
Just after I’d finished shaving and dressing in my favorite blue jeans and plaid shirt, the intercom buzzed. I didn’t have time to comb my hair before answering it, which annoyed me greatly.
“Haven’t you done enough already?” I barked at Adam as his grainy, grey face appeared on the little screen.
“Thought you might like to join me and the family for breakfast,” he said with a jovial smile. I huffed and buzzed him in.
“I do have other friends, you know,” I said as he let himself in through the front door I’d apparently forgotten to lock the night before.
“I know you do,” he countered. “But by my reckoning, you’ll be like a bear with a sore head this morning, and a good breakfast will go miles toward fixing it.”
I mumbled and grumbled and pulled on shoes, combed my hair, and found a nice sweater vest to go over my shirt.
“Are the kids coming?” I asked.
“They’re already in the car. As is Marley. Waiting for you.”
“All right, all right,” I muttered, taking the hint. Glanced in my wallet and winced at its contents, or lack thereof. Frowned at the little dog-eared card that had been tucked in behind my driver’s license. Left the house as Adam smacked me around the back of the head to hurry me along.
Marley is Marlene, Adam’s equally tall, exceptionally beautiful wife whom he got pregnant while she was dancing in Romeo and Juliet and convinced her to give up the high-pressured, super-slim world of ballet for motherhood in the suburbs. Two children later and I think they’re the happiest couple I’d ever met.
“I’m seeing Chloe later,” I said as I climbed into the backseat of the car, between Tia and Charlotte at their request.
“Good, you don’t see her enough,” Marley said as she leaned through the gap between the front seats to give me a kiss.
The first time I went out with Adam’s family, I felt like a third wheel, intruding on personal family time that I had no right to intrude on. That soon passed, though. Marley was too warm and loving for me not to warm to her, and other friends joined us often enough.
As we settled into our table at the diner, I pulled my wallet out again, determinedly looking for that bloody card. While inspecting it further, Adam began to laugh.
“I’m glad you hung on to that,” he said, still chortling.
“What is it?”
“Some guy gave you his number.”
It came back to me in flashing, still images: a young blond man, pushing Adam off his barstool, tattoos. “If you wanna know, call me.”
“Oh crap,” I muttered, dropping my head to the table, making the girls laugh.
“Let me see,” Marley said. I passed her the paper without lifting my head. Her fingertips threaded through my hair and gently massaged my neck. “What does C.J.F. brackets one mean?”
“It means,” I said, summoning the shards of my dignity and sitting up again, “Christopher something-beginning-with-J Ford, or Frost, or… no, I think it was Ford, the first.”
“And only,” Adam helpfully supplied.
“Yes. The first and only.”
“Are you going to call him?”
“No!” I exclaimed. “Absolutely not. He thought I was Gerard Butler.”
Marley winced in sympathy. She knew Butler was older than me and that I hated the comparison. Especially when people said, “Oh, I thought you would have been about the same age….”
“Butler is rather dashing, though, Robert. You should start taking it as a compliment. All the girls like him.”
“Yes, well, I’m not particularly interested in having all of the girls liking me.”
Tia looked up from where she’d been stirring her orange juice with a straw. “Uncle Robert, why don’t you want all the girls liking you?”
“New topic of conversation!” Marley said loudly and enthusiastically, clapping her hands and smiling brightly. Adam leaned over and whispered something in Tia’s ear, making her frown, then violently start stirring her juice again. I suspected he’d told her the truth.
The waitress came shortly after that and took our orders.
THAT evening I settled down with an Indian takeaway meal and tried not to think of Chris and his number and the paper that was burning a hole through my wallet into my ass cheek. Arse cheek. Eventually, as I was cleaning up the kitchen, I removed the slip of paper from my wallet and stuck it to the fridge with a magnet shaped like a tomato. I stared at it for long moments, wondering what the hell I was going to do with it.
I CLOSED my eyes and dialed his number blind, letting the beeps tell me that I was pressing the right numbers. I gritted my teeth as it rang. Felt like I was going to throw up.
I cleared my throat. “Hello, um, Chris? This is Robert.”
“Mm. Robert. Robert, Robert… oh! Gerard Butler.”
This was a bad idea. “Yeah.”
“Hey! I was hoping you would call.”
“Oh. Well, I did. How are you?”
“Good, man, I’m good.” The sound of him rummaging around. It sounded like he was still in bed. It was nearly two in the afternoon! I was calling from my lunch break! “What are you doing?”
“I’m actually just on my lunch break.”
“Cool. Wanna meet for a beer later?” My heart leaped.
“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.”
“Awesome. Well, I’ve got your number now. I’ll text you when I move.”
“Okay. I’ll speak to you later, Chris.”
Then he hung up. I stared at my phone for long moments, in complete shock. I had a date. On a Tuesday night. I slammed my laptop shut and raced across campus to try and find Adam.
THERE was no time after my last class of the day to go back to the apartment and change, so I was forced to go out still dressed in my suit (although I did take off my tie and leave it in the car, with my jacket. It was an attempt at casualness at which I fear I failed.)
I had received a text from Chris saying that he’d gone to a coffee shop; I was relieved it wasn’t another bar after our last encounter. I parked just a few doors up and compulsively wiped my hands on my thighs a few times, trying to dispel the nerves that were gnawing at my stomach. I hadn’t been on a date in… too long.
Chris stood as soon as I walked through the door and waved me over.
“I was starting to worry you were going to stand me up,” he said, teasing.
“Oh, no, I would never do that,” I said. “I got caught up at the office. I’m sorry.”
“No worries,” he said, flashing me his boyish grin and settling back into his deep leather chair.
I bought him a refill and me a decaf in an effort to calm my nerves. The hot liquid scalded my tongue as I sipped at it, forcing me to hide my grimace of pain.
“Where do you work?” Chris asked as I sat back in my chair. I carefully returned my cup to its saucer.
“I’m a professor, actually, at the university.”
“Oh yeah?” He sounded interested. “What do you teach?”
“Colonial literature, with a particular emphasis on Kipling. Please tell me you’re not a student.”
Chris laughed easily. “I’m not a student, Rob.”
“Robert,” I corrected automatically, then cringed. “Sorry.”
“I had an uncle called Robert,” Chris said, waving off my apology. “He was a pervert and an alcoholic. Rob sounds… younger.”
“I don’t generally let people use that as a nickname.”
“I’d gathered that.”
“I suppose I could make an exception for you.”
I was treated to another smile. To see it again, the concession on my name was nothing.
“And you?” I asked. Sipped still-scalding coffee. “What do you do?”
“I’m a percussionist,” he said.
Chris frowned, rolled his eyes, and threw his hands up in the air. “No, not a drummer, a percussionist.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized.
“It’s fine. Well, to be fair, I do own a drum kit. But I also work freelance for orchestras and symphonies and all that shit too.”
“Wow,” I said, impressed. “How long have you been doing that?”
“Drumming? Since I was eight. I started on everything else when I realized how much money there was to be made doing all of the highbrow shit as well. I’m in a band,” he added, bragging, but it suited him. “Yeah. That’s how we ended up here. We’ve been on tour for about a year and a half.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Florida, originally,” he said, leaning forward to collect his mug from the table and stretching the thin white T-shirt he was wearing tight over his back. “Moved about some when I was a kid, ended up in Tallahassee, where I met the guys. We played out the South over a period of a few months, then decided to get on the road.”
“Where have you been?” I asked. “Sorry—I don’t mean to bombard you with questions, I’m just interested.”
“Nah, I don’t mind,” he said, smiling again. “I’m an arrogant little shit, I like talking about myself. We hit most major cities on the East Coast on our way up here. Atlanta, DC, Baltimore, New York… then Boston, and here I am.”
“Boston isn’t nearly as impressive as where you’ve been before,” I said, trying to phrase the next question not like a question at all.
“Ah, John’s sentimental,” Chris said. “Our strings man. He grew up here and wanted to come back, play some gigs, catch up with people he used to know. We’ll be here for a few months yet.”
“Can I ask you something?” Chris asked, and I nodded. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-two,” I said.
“Oh. That’s not so bad.”
“You’re going to destroy me if you say you thought I was older.” I could feel a telltale flush creeping up the side of my neck.
“No, not exactly,” he lied. “Just… you’re really cute, Rob, you know that?”
“No I’m not,” I mumbled, flushing even more.
“Ah, maybe you just need someone to tell you it more often.”
I nodded and fiddled with my coffee cup. “Why?” I blurted out.
More blushing. “Why me?”
He laughed—not at me, it wasn’t malicious, but almost as if he was mocking my naïveté. “You’re interesting,” he started, leaning forward on his elbows. “I’ve got to admit, I think the accent is very sexy. You’re… strong-looking. Composed. I like that.”
No one had ever pulled me apart like that before, highlighting what I was sure were my faults and turning them into compliments.
“And it doesn’t bother you that I’m… older?”
“What, by nine years? No, it’s nothing.”
“Sure. Look, Rob, I like you, but I’m guessing you have a problem with me, and that’s cool, I promise.”
“No, no.” I scrambled for some kind of control over the conversation. Did I ever have it in the first place? “I do, I mean, I like you too, but I just… I don’t know how…. Oh, shit.”
Chris’s frowning softened. A smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth. “You’re really not very good at this, are you?”
I lowered my hands from my face. “I’m really not.”
“I’d like to see you again.”
“I’d like to see you too. Would you like to come out to dinner with me on Friday night?”
He smiled again and scratched behind his ear, exposing a long line of colorful tattoos up his inner arm and sneaking under the edge of his T-shirt. “Sure. Sounds good.”
“Excellent.” I smiled and let out a long, relieved breath. “I’ll call you when I’ve made reservations.”
“Do people still make reservations?” he asked. “I thought they only did that in the movies.”
It took a moment, but I realized he was teasing. “Fuck off,” I told him, surprising myself. “You need reservations to go to nice restaurants. I’m not going to take you to Wendy’s.”
“Fuck off,” he said right back, laughing too. “I’ve been to nice restaurants before. Do I need to dress up?”
“No,” I said, desperately trying to think of a nice place to take him. “Just be yourself.”
“My usual self won’t get served in fancy places,” he said.
“We’ll be fine.” I stood, stretched, and smiled. “It’s been good seeing you again, Chris.”
He stood too. “You too. I’ll speak to you soon.”
It was too early for kisses, or even a brief hug, and the low table was between us, making it hard to lean over, anyway. A handshake was too formal. In the end I smiled again and left, the knot in my stomach starting to make its presence known once more.