SOMETIMES, just sometimes, Theo forgot he was single.
He’d struggle from his spot in the parking lot and into the apartment building, juggling bags as he pushed the elevator button, wishing he had an extra pair of hands. Burdened with too ambitious a load of brown-bagged groceries, he’d finally arrive at his own front door, only to figure out too late that he couldn’t reach his keys.
Sometimes he would bring work home, balancing his briefcase, laptop, and bag of takeout precariously on an office file box, and face exactly the same predicament. For years he had bruised his nose, pressing it against the buzzer until Ben opened the door for him. It was worth his gentle mocking and slow eye roll of resigned amusement to get a little help.
Tonight was one of those forgetful times. It was the first occasion for a while—weeks, maybe—that he’d felt the sudden clutch of regret and surprise, still sharp, still poignant, that made his heart race for a while when Ben failed to open the door.
Instead of carrying his load into the kitchen, where he could at least leave it on the counter, Theo dumped it onto the too-narrow hallway table. It stood below a huge ornately framed mirror, which had been a bitch to get shipped from Milan, Ben’s hometown. When a few files slipped out of his overloaded file box, covering the floor with red-inked invoices and tax-deductible receipts, Theo cursed.
Bracing himself by leaning heavily on the walnut table, he sighed, then stared at his reflection. Backlit by August evening Seattle sunshine, he looked all of his forty-two years. The dimples that Ben used to trace with his fingertips, encouraging him in his sexy Italian accent to “smile, tesoro, smile,” seemed etched a little deeper into his cheeks. The skin below his dark gray eyes appeared bruised, and while the rest of his face was only slightly lined, the glint of silver at his temples looked less refined against his light brown hair and more… well, old.
Wondering just when he’d turned into a gaunter version of his father, Theo gathered up his paperwork before dumping it on the desk in his study. He wandered into the kitchen, searched the freezer for something marginally interesting to eat, and began his usual evening ritual.
First, food. He put a meal for one in the microwave and hoped for the best, trying not to dwell on how dinner used to mean walking through the kitchen doorway into an invisible wall of garlic, basil, and effusive Italian culinary cursing.
Next, a quick shower before changing into his pajamas. It used to drive Ben crazy when he’d change immediately after returning from work. Ben always said that in Italy the fun truly began the moment work was finished. He would follow Theo to the bedroom, saying, “The day is only half over, tesoro. Why are you ready for bed? We have places to go and people to see.”
Sometimes he did genuinely forget that they were heading out, but there was fun in a little deliberate provocation too, in driving Ben slowly crazy until he’d snap. Theo thought a brief loss of temper had been so worth the sudden shove against a wall, strong hands tugging at his hair, as Ben explained, in his beautiful, husky Italian accent, just how annoying Theo was.
Then he’d catch Theo’s smile and slowly smile back, punctuating his grumbling with kisses before pulling away, shaking his head until Theo provoked him all over again.
Theo pulled up his pajama pants and tried to think about something else—anything—while walking down the hall to collect his laptop. He ate his dinner in the living room, cruising news websites as he half listened to the TV. After cleaning up, he spent a little time shuffling his paperwork back into order before concentrating for another solid hour on ratio analysis at his desk.
The work could have waited until morning. He could have left it to one of the assistants to wrestle into shape before passing it on to one of the accountants. But that would mean a long evening stretching out with nothing but watching TV alone, or listening to music while he tried to concentrate on a magazine or novel.
He reasoned that columns of figures were more tolerable than the tight clench of regret that familiar music could wrap around his ribs. Yes, plowing through paperwork was so much better, on balance, than recalling Ben’s huge grin as he looked back over his shoulder—tan and gorgeous—after finding the perfect spot to listen to an outdoor concert.
Getting ahead on the next day’s work was more bearable than pretending to read while trying not to stare at the pictures and ornaments that decorated the walls, souvenirs of their myriad vacations together. He’d rather tally figures or make notes for the next day’s meeting than think about Antigua, Milan, or that terrible time in Provence.
Tucked up in his too-big bed by ten, apartment tidy, clothes ready for the morning, Theo finally did something purely for his own pleasure. Pulling his laptop toward him, he logged into his guilty secret—a local political debate forum—and looked for people who were wrong. When a newbie started making ridiculous, unsupported, left-wing statements, Theo cracked a smile that left him looking at least a decade younger.
New members arrived in a blaze of righteousness on the Internet forum regularly enough for Theo to predict the eventual outcome. Sometimes they would use the message board as a platform from which to lecture. Sometimes their one-sided commentary was amusing; oftentimes it proved incredibly annoying, especially when inserted into conversations among longstanding members. Most times, though, newbies came, ranted for an evening, then were never heard from again.
Theo’s first comments on the forum, posted almost a year before, had been met with the same initial indifference that tonight’s newest member received. The debate about oil pricing continued, much like the course of a wide river. While the main thrust of dialog surged ahead relentlessly, smaller discussions on points of related interest formed shallow pools along the riverbank. Theo watched the newbie shout, flail, and then start to drown in the depths of the main discussion. Sighing, he waded in to offer a virtual lifeline back to calmer waters.
Sending a quick message welcoming Morgan, the forum’s newest member, along with some links to prior discussions, Theo advised him to sit back and read for a while.
Theo lost a few hours in the company of strangers that he had come to think of as his invisible friends. When he yawned hard enough to make his jaw crack, he added his good-nights to the social thread before starting to log out.
The ping of an incoming private message caught his attention.
Clicking idly, ready for sleep, Theo noticed that the newbie had followed at least a few of the links he had sent earlier that explained how to personalize forum settings. Under a brand-new Che Guevara avatar, his message read:
MORGAN: These people are fucking idiots.
Snorting softly, Theo shook his head and began to close the laptop just as another message arrived.
After logging out and shutting his laptop down, Theo pulled up his bedsheets and stared at the ceiling for a while. So many people came and went from the forum, but it had been a constant in his life for nearly a year. He’d shown his own ass enough times in the early days when he was still reeling with shock and anger—often drunk—to excuse a newbie’s rudeness. He’d lost hours pursuing online arguments as a way of expressing his impotent devastation, and thinking back, he’d been allowed a lot of leeway by some of the more established members.
Theo hadn’t forgotten that sometime random and backhanded kindness. It cost him nothing to extend the same tough love of “sit back and shut up, fool” to someone else.
That was the beauty—and the hidden cost—of Internet relationships, he guessed. Bonds of electronic friendship could be transitory, fragile, and Theo could never be entirely sure what someone’s backstory might be. Maybe this new guy, with his strident social-reform voice, worked in the nonprofit sector. Maybe he was a frustrated old hippie. Either way, he would learn to accept the give and take of message-board conversations, or he would be ignored.
Theo fingered the fabric of Ben’s pajamas under the pillow on his side of the bed. With thumb and forefinger rubbing together in slow circles, soft cotton between them, he drifted off to dreams of slow dancing with Ben.
THE next morning found Theo waiting for the gym to open, thinking yet again that a full membership was wasted on him. He did exactly the same thing every single time. He arrived in his sports gear and started running—pounding, pushing, panting—until he was ready to drop.
When he first joined, the instructors used to come and talk, so he started wearing earbuds. He’d had zero interest in talking about mixing up his routine. He only ran to tire himself out. Lately, he’d taken to leaving the earbuds in his bag, and now smiled when people said hello. That was progress, he guessed.
When a dark-haired guy he half recognized started jogging next to him that morning, Theo nodded in greeting. After a few miles of running in time to the awful gym music, Theo realized that he’d missed part of a conversation directed his way.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Slowing the treadmill, Theo slicked back his sweat-darkened hair and paid closer attention.
“It was nothing important. I just wanted to move on to the weights and could do with someone to spot me.” The other guy slowed, then stopped running and stepped off his treadmill, stretching out his quads as he looked up at Theo with a warm, open smile. “It’s no big deal if you’re in a hurry,” he added.
Theo hesitated for a moment. Watching the ripple of disappointment on the other man’s face, quickly masked with a smile, snapped Theo back into the present.
“Okay. Just give me a few.”
The other man nodded and walked over to the weights, selecting a bar and a set of weight clamps as Theo slowed and stretched. When Theo approached, he turned to face him, hand outstretched.
“I’m Peter. I’ve seen you here often, but never using the weights.”
Theo wiped his own hand on his T-shirt, then shook Peter’s, appreciating his firm, quick grip and release. He’d been slightly concerned that Peter’s request might be a pick-up attempt. It had happened before. The whole point of these early morning runs was to tire his body physically. He’d woken up hard again, and instead of taking matters into his own hands, he ran. It wasn’t that he was averse to jerking off, but he had come to understand that doing so to get to sleep, then dreaming of Ben all night was so much better than doing the same thing in the morning and facing the whole day alone. Something about starting the day with a lonely orgasm just set his mood too low.
Theo smiled for a second as he considered explaining his jerk-off policy to this stranger, then realized that this was reality, not his Internet message board, where normal social rules didn’t seem to apply.
“I’m Theo.” He watched Peter pull on some gloves. “I usually just run. I guess I kind of waste my membership.”
“Hey, it’s cool. But if you ever want to work on different muscle groups, just ask.” Peter turned toward the mirrors and flexed a little. He looked good—very good, to be honest. Theo cast his eyes between their reflections and wondered what Peter thought of his own physique. Theo was taller by at least two or three inches—he was six foot two in his stocking feet—and his body was lean under a wide pair of shoulders. Peter looked stockier, but he carried it well, all around his shoulders and chest.
He spotted Peter while he worked through his routine, then accepted his good-natured offer of help and lifted for a while as Peter slipped weights on and off his bar, figuring out his optimal weight. Peter apologized when sweat from his forehead dripped onto Theo, then reached out to swipe it away.
It was the work of a moment. A quick touch, that was all, but Theo lost count of his reps.
Time to get to work. He smiled, excusing himself due to an early meeting, ignoring Peter’s sudden look of worry—he really had very blue eyes—then showered quickly and changed into his suit. As he drove to the office, he had to keep unclenching his hands from the steering wheel. Theo told himself it was okay. It really was. It was only 8 a.m., and already he’d spoken to another human being—someone that he didn’t even line-manage.
This was progress.
He backed into his office, dumping the file box on the floor by his desk, then slumped for a moment into his comfortable leather chair. When his personal assistant, Maggie, came in a few minutes later with his coffee, he was in the same position. Smiling at her greeting, noting her slightly raised brow at his clear desk and blank computer screen, Theo quickly reassured her.
“I’m fine. I was just thinking about the board meeting.” Taking in Maggie’s skeptical look, and the way she pursed her lips, he continued, “I’m fine. Really. I just did a little extra at the gym, that’s all.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Maggie perched on his side of the desk, her hazel eyes fixed on his.
Sighing, Theo shut his eyes and told his PA—the tiny red-haired woman who had fended off all the well-meaning visitors, then turned down all the invitations to dinners and dances and whatnot he’d received marked “plus one” over the last year—all about his morning.
“I talked to a man at the gym. He was friendly. We worked out. He touched me. I left.”
Her small, freckled hand reached out and smoothed his tie, wrestled the knot back to perfect center, then reached a little farther and held his hand.
“I panicked. He was about my age, I guess, very fit, well spoken, and pleasant. He was probably straight.” Theo drew in a breath, then huffed it back out. “I think I liked him.” When he looked up, Maggie was only slightly blurry, so he blinked a few times.
Maggie smiled but maintained her silence, which was just one of the reasons Theo employed her. She was the keeper of his secrets, listener to his long stretches of silence. The poor woman had had a baptism of fire, starting work just a month or so before he lost Ben. She squeezed his hand before listing his meetings for the rest of the day.
Business as usual.
MUCH later that afternoon, Theo slumped back in his seat as Maggie watched from the office doorway. At his tight-lipped, white-faced nod, she pulled the door closed behind her and sat opposite him, waiting for Theo to share the outcome of the board meeting. When he finally spoke, his usually calm, measured voice was a dull monotone.
“A third, Maggie.” He shook his head as she gasped, hand quickly pressed over her mouth. “A third of all positions have to be eliminated from each department within the next four weeks.”
Theo turned his chair, then stood and walked over to the window, watching as employees—colleagues, friends—left to start the commute home to their partners and families. Most had mortgage payments or rent due, and probably had credit card bills to pay too; some still had student loans to service. All were completely unsuspecting.
Theo shook his head. He was so fucking disgusted that he could barely begin to explain to Maggie how poor management decisions much further up the chain of command had led to a wholesale loss of business. There was little point in dwelling on the politics, whether global or corporate. Maggie understood well enough that the economy was in bad shape.
Theo’s department dealt with accounts, a core service offered by their company. To cut his staff was shortsighted in the extreme. He’d had to fire people before, but that was back in the early days. These people were like family now. Theo wondered if he should have seen this coming, but guessed that he’d been a little distracted for the past year.
“How will we manage over audit season?” Maggie raised a valid question, one that had whipped around Theo’s head since that afternoon’s meeting. His snort of laughter wasn’t a happy sound, and he bit his lip and tried to rein in his anxiety about managing the human cost of this completely shitty situation.
“Interns. Lots more interns. That’s the suggestion from the top. Recruit double the interns over the busy periods, then reallocate work to the lower-grade staff.” Theo thought it was madness, short-term thinking at its fucking worst. There were sure to be errors. He felt frustration wash over him, certain that clients would be billed the same, even if the bulk of the work was done by unqualified student interns. It was unprofessional, unethical even, and would result in losing more business if it became common knowledge.
Theo knew he was between a rock and a hard place. He could complain, or resist the cost cutting that would almost certainly lead to more job losses. For the first time since his own idealistic student days, he considered the human cost of business.
Fuck, he sounded like that newbie on the forum.
Running a hand through his thick hair, tugging it a little, he shook his head to clear it. This wasn’t a time for childlike wishing that life would be fair. Life wasn’t fair; it never had been. He, of all people, understood that all too well.
They left the office late, both glad to be the last to vacate their floor, certain that their faces would have given them away if the cubicles they passed had been occupied. Theo drove Maggie home and sat outside her neat white-painted house discussing the best way to move forward.
“There isn’t a best way, Theo. There just isn’t.” Sighing, Maggie clutched her purse and unfastened her seatbelt before turning back to him. “Please don’t forget to eat, and try to get some sleep. The rest of this week isn’t going to be easy.” She squeezed his fingers, then stepped out of the car, scooping up her youngest daughter as she toddled down the driveway toward her. Maggie’s husband watched from the front door, looking concerned as he studied his wife’s face. He held the door wide open for her, then nodded a farewell to Theo.
Waving good-bye, Theo headed home. How he came to park in the small lot behind the gym he had absolutely no idea. Maybe his subconscious was telling him to tire himself out with a longer run than he had managed that morning. Maybe he was hoping to get distracted from the unavoidable decisions he had to make by a pair of bright blue eyes, and a smile that was warm and welcoming. Perhaps having someone to talk to, someone to share his load with who didn’t work in his field, was what he needed right then.
Sitting in the lot for a moment longer, he recalled Maggie’s well-meaning words, “Don’t forget to eat.”
Theo rested his head on the steering wheel.
How many times had Ben said the same words in Italian when Theo had been knee-deep in learning the corporate ropes, right out of grad school? He’d squint at Theo when he staggered home late, needing help to get in the front door, then feed him his dinner—bite by delicious bite—as he grumbled over tax laws.
Theo drove home alone.
Later, after making the first difficult sweep through the staff files, picking out the most likely to lose their positions, he sat in bed, completely exhausted, with a bowl of cereal he absolutely did not want to eat. Logging on to the forum for five minutes’ distraction from real life, he stumbled into what read like a civil war.
The newbie had been busy.
It had taken Morgan only twenty-four hours to split the membership. Maybe he’d been staging reconnaissance for a while, unnoticed. For all Theo knew, Morgan could have been trolling the day before, looking for logical fallacies and other weaknesses in the members’ arguments. There was no fucking way he could have divided the membership so quickly and neatly without being keenly intellectual. Theo laughed to himself, then looked around the bedroom guiltily, feeling ridiculous. After sitting up straighter and pulling the laptop closer, he shoveled down his slightly soggy Cheerios while clicking links.
Oh, yes. Morgan was very clever.
He’d taken apart the main forum players’ arguments by tracking back their own comments. Theo guessed that everyone contradicted themselves from time to time, but it was casually amusing to see other people’s dirty washing hanging out in public. Besides, the points Morgan had made the prior evening hadn’t been wrong, just naïve, perhaps.
The way he’d taken the discussions apart today was the work of an evil genius.
Theo couldn’t resist. After a completely shitty day, he felt like sticking one to The Man. Joining a discussion on free trade, he supported Morgan’s argument, something he would never have done without the dose of corporate reality he’d had that afternoon, and then sat back, waiting for his virtual spanking. He moved from topic to topic—from the economy to the new tax code to a local politician caught with his pants down—playing the devil’s advocate.
Theo sat in his bed, pink cheeked, wide awake, and smiling.
As the evening passed, his in-box was flooded with messages asking if he’d suffered a stroke or if his account had been hacked. Snorting to himself, he let loose on a thread about shareholder responsibility, then went to the kitchen and fought with the coffeemaker that he’d never managed to master, preferring to leave domestic shit to Ben. Sliding back into bed with some microwave popcorn and strong coffee, Theo settled down for some more fun.
When he saw a private message from the newbie, he grinned.
MORGAN: Thanks for playing.
They chatted back and forth for the next few hours via the forum’s messaging service, never sharing more than a sentence or two, but always poking fun at each other’s posts. The more Theo read, the more impressed he was.
What he’d taken for Morgan’s idealism just the day before, he now saw through a more focused lens. The responsibility for firing colleagues weighed so heavily on Theo’s shoulders that when he considered the senior partners’ bonuses and the company jet, it all seemed morally bankrupt. It felt good to see Morgan running amok on the forum with opinions that challenged the status quo. And it felt even better to run with him for a few hours, virtually flipping the bird.
When he finally signed off, promising his few forum friends that normal service would resume the next evening, he saw another private message pop up.
MORGAN: Missing you already.
Shutting the laptop down quickly, Theo stared at the ceiling, fingers heading for Ben’s pillow. Sighing, turning stubbornly away, he whispered, “Mi manchi già,” just like Ben had when Theo left each morning. I miss you already.
Sleep took a while to come. Then, when he woke before his alarm, face buried in Ben’s pillow, the day ahead seemed far too much like hard work.
EARBUDS were no defense against Peter.
Theo ran, attempting to keep focused, trying not to let anything or anyone distract him. Peter ran beside Theo, keeping pace easily, upping his speed or incline when Theo did, slowing to the same gentle jog for the last half mile, smiling the whole time. He pointed at his own ears, indicating that Theo should remove his earbuds as he wiped down his treadmill, then resumed their conversation from the previous day.
Peter herded Theo over to the mirrored weights area and selected some of the smaller free weights.
“So many people don’t realize that working on their back and shoulders will improve their running performance.” He demonstrated a technique, then passed the weights to Theo. “No, keep your elbows tucked in. Yes, like that. Better.” He walked around Theo, tapping at his shoulders when they rose too high, nudging his elbow when he overcompensated for the weight instead of letting his muscles take the strain.
When he rested both palms lightly on Theo’s shoulders toward the end of a set of harder reps, Theo’s face in the mirror reflected his discomfort—panic?—at the physical contact. Instead of moving away, Peter stepped closer. Theo watched in the mirror as Peter’s lips thinned, pressed together tightly for a moment, leaving his face suddenly looking more mature. They were definitely close in age. Only Peter’s smiles made him seem more youthful.
Standing perfectly still, Theo watched as Peter’s reflection carefully placed his palms against Theo’s elbows. Even though he saw it happen, he still jumped a little at the contact, then closed his eyes. Peter’s voice sounded very close to his ear. “Anyone watching will think we’re discussing form, but you do need to open your eyes.” Theo shook his head. “Okay. So, is it me touching you that freaks you out, or is it just being touched by men in general?”
Theo shook his head again. He didn’t need his eyes open to know that Peter was smiling when he next spoke.
“I’m going to go with my instincts, Theo. I think it’s me, and that’s cool. But it would be good to have someone to work out with.”
Opening his eyes, Theo shook his head for the third time before replying. “It’s not you, and it’s not ‘men’.” He rolled his eyes and tried to smile, looking vaguely crazy instead. “I like men.” Peter barked out a laugh, and then Theo finally, genuinely smiled. “I mean—” he started.
“I know what you meant to say. I noticed that you don’t spend much time checking out the gym bunnies.” He winked, taking the free weights from Theo. “But it’s cool. We’re cool. Just spot me from time to time, okay?”
“I can do that.” Theo watched the easy bend and flex of Peter’s defined arms. He was in great shape, not too built, but solid. As Peter finished his second set, Theo took a breath, then reached out, pressing down lightly on the other man’s shoulders, reminding Peter to keep his form.
In the mirror, Peter smiled at him. Open, warm, interested—definitely interested—but patient.
Theo tried to smile in return.
Later, at work, Maggie spread out staff files across one of the larger conference room tables. She powered up her laptop and started reading out the number of years of service, severance pay amounts, and associated criteria that the company used to decide layoffs.
Twenty files remained after the first cut.
Next, they worked on their own plan. Maggie recalled who had babies at home, who had a disabled spouse, who had issues with depression.
Theo paged through a file. “This is a fucking nightmare. It’s the opposite of a scientific process. How do we know that Mitch doesn’t have extra financial commitments? How do we know that getting canned won’t be the end of the world to him?” He slammed the file back onto the table, sending sheets of paper flying.
“We don’t. You don’t. You can’t know. But that’s why they pay you the big bucks.” She smiled sadly at her boss. “You just have to make the decision. You’ve already taken as many factors into account as you can, probably more than any other manager here has.”
It didn’t matter that Maggie was right. It was still a burden that Theo found almost too heavy to carry. Much as he found those same staff files almost too heavy as he carried them up to his apartment that night. He was weighed down, awkward and clumsy as he fumbled for his keys.
Theo leaned his nose against the buzzer just a split second before he remembered.
There was no one at home to answer.